Leading a Team as a PM

I love building software and seeing as I’ve thus far decided to be a generalist in my career that has usually meant that I’m a PM for a team of specialists.  Managing projects should never really be easy; if you find yourself coasting that likely means you are being far too conservative.  If you are struggling, Robbie Abed recently published a great essay on Project Management that hit upon many of the same things I’ve learned thus far in my career, especially the two philosophies he lives by as a PM:

  1. My #1 job is to make everyone’s life around me easier.
  2. My #2 job is to make everyone else around me look good.

I could not agree more with these philosophies, especially #1.  I believe in being fully transparent with my teams, but at the same time I strive to do whatever is possible to let those in my team avoid the distractions and focus on the work they are best at.  I shield them, baby them, spoil them.  Need help with writing that script?  Sure, send it my way.  Need me to waste an hour debugging some slow running query?  Here you go, this join is causing us some problems.  Need a quick wireframe for that page?  Just give me a few minutes.  It’s one way for me to not drift too far from the details of the project, but it also earns a lot of respect from those I work with who can focus on other stuff that only they can deliver.

I can also think of a few people I’ve worked with that at first I didn’t really see eye to eye with.  Robbie writes:

There is no such thing as a difficult person on a project. It’s just someone who you don’t understand why they act the way they do. Understand their motives. Understand why they are being difficult. Understand how you can make their lives easier. Understand what makes them happy. Ask how you can help them. If you make their life easier, you will become best friends with them and they will give you everything you need in a timely fashion.

On a personal level, I naturally enjoy making people happy.  As a PM, I enjoy my team being as effective as possible.  Usually these go hand in hand.  Finding what motivates someone can take a little time, but it is totally worth the effort.  One team member always enjoyed the free food I’d bring back from the common area, another liked the detailed specs I’d write, many appreciated the hours I’d spend answering questions even though they knew I was super busy.  Empathy and compassion will go a long way towards earning the respect of one’s team and more often than not delivering solid products.

A San Francisco Soda Tax for a Healthier City

A San Francisco soda tax of 2 pennies per ounce is on the ballot in November 2014.  This could be the first such tax in the country to pass and would be a great step towards making SF a healthier city.  The reactions that I’ve read thus far to this tax have surprised me and motivated me to clearly explain the details of tax and why it is worth supporting.  Read on to get accurate information based on facts, not emotions or press releases from soda industry funded “activists”.

What are the details of the San Francisco soda tax?

The 2 cent tax would add about 40 cents to the cost of a 20oz bottle of soda.  It will not be applied like a sales tax (which is added to the product cost at the cash register), but instead it will be charged directly to the beverage manufacturer (and one would assume manufacturers will pass the tax onto consumers by raising their prices).  It will apply to soda, energy drinks, and other sugar sweetened beverages with more than 25 calories; diet sodas and naturally sweetened beverages like juice would not be included.

Come on, another tax?

This is a little different than most taxes in that the primary purpose is not to raise revenue but instead to influence consumer behavior.  The goal is to help consumers make healthier choices, similar to the cigarette taxes that have very effectively reduced the number of Americans that smoke.  This tax is expected to raise about $30 million and by law the revenue must be used to fund active recreation and nutrition programs in San Francisco public schools, parks, and recreation centers; food access initiatives, drinking fountain and water bottle filling stations; and dental health services.  In other words, the revenue from this tax will go right back to the SF residents that are statistically most likely to be at risk for obesity to help educate them to make better decisions.

Doesn’t this tax unfairly burden SF’s poorest residents?

Unfortunately, lower-income residents are already unfairly burdened with obesity and other health issues.  These same residents also consume more sugared beverages.  Unlike a traditional regressive sales tax, which taxes everyday items that consumers of all income levels have no choice but to buy, there is an easy way to avoid the impact of this tax.  Those that are financially burdened by the San Francisco soda tax can drink fewer sugared beverages, instead choosing other (healthier) options that will quench their thirst and not have the additional tax applied.  In the long run, by avoiding sugared beverages, these residents will have saved money and given themselves a better chance to living a healthy life.

I’m an adult, can’t I make my own decisions about what I do to my body?

I hear you and I agree for the most part.  However, there are many kids out there that drink soda every day without knowing or understanding the long term effects this will have.  In most cases, it is these same children that are not making purchasing decisions.  So, if you are an adult and choose to drink soda and would be paying more for it, think about the children who will be  drinking healthier beverages because they can’t afford the tax or because they learned how to make healthier decisions based on tax funded nutrition education programs.  A few cents tax on your soda is a small tax to pay if it can save children from a lifetime of obesity related health issues.

But will this solve the obesity problem?

Of course not, it’s only a small step in the right direction!  But sugar sweetened beverages are one of the largest contributors to obesity and one of the easiest things to cut out from a diet.  This tax will play a role in raising awareness to how big of a deal obesity is in this country and how small changes in habits can have a tremendously positive effect on health.  The programs funded from this tax will be used to teach people how to embrace an overall healthy diet (not just about healthy beverage choices).

Obesity?  Is that really a problem?

Yes!  It is a FACT that obesity rates have grown significantly in the last few decades.  It is also a FACT that obesity is directly related to increased health problems and money spent on health care.  In fact, the medical costs for someone who is obese averaged $1,428 higher than those of someone normal weight in 2008.  That adds up to about $147 billion spent to treat obesity in a single year.

Center for Disease Control chart showing a sharp rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period.  A San Francisco soda tax can help reduce obesity.

Rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period

Is soda really that unhealthy for you?

I could bore you with lots of medical studies telling you that your body doesn’t process sugary beverages the same way it does food, and that drinking sugary sodas for just two weeks contributes to the development of diabetes and heart disease.  Or I could just show you this chart and let common sense be your guide.

Infographic showing that a 20 oz. bottle of soda contains 22 sugar packets.  Support cutting sugar through the San Francisco soda tax.

I encourage you to support a healthier city and vote in support of the San Francisco soda tax.  Two cents an ounce is a small price to pay to help reduce obesity.

Sources:  http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Apple needs to eat its own dog food more

I am an owner of an  embarrassing number of very expensive Apple products.  I’ve also been a big fan of the massive changes iOS 7 brought to hundreds of million mobile devices this past fall.  However, as a vocal supporter of everything Apple gets right, I am beginning to question more and more if the people designing and building some of their products/apps actually use them in the real world.  In other words, Apple needs to eat its own dog food.

The most striking example of this is the Reminders app.  I use this on an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook Air running Mavericks, and via iCloud.com.  Each version of this app has noticeable bugs and questionable design issues.  Let’s be honest, this app is designed to do only one very basic thing:  let a user record something they wish to be reminded of.  This is not rocket science now, is it?

I build software for a living and I understand quite well the challenges many teams face in the prioritization of features and fixing bugs.  However, for a company with more than a hundred billion dollars of cash, there is no excuse for the number of issues with this app.  I’m not talking about the design of the new icon or flat vs. skeuomorphic design, just basic things like being able to see what one is typing while they type it, trust that their data won’t mysteriosly vanish, and avoid duplicating data.  I find it hard to believe that the team responsible for these apps actually uses them, because if they did I’m sure they would be much improved.
iOS 7 multi-task view that crashes multiple times a week for me

iOS 7 multi-task view that crashes multiple times a week for me

This is just one example of many others I can think of that show a complete lack of empathy for many owners of Apple products.  I could also have written about the terrible lag for the keyboard on my older iPad 3, the sorry state of iTunes Match playlists on iOS, or the poor memory handling on my iPhone 5s that results in springboard crashes.  I’d have to guess that most working at Apple headquarters have the latest devices and  access to unreleased versions of iOS months before the general public can.  As a result, they are likely unaware just how painful these issues can be to millions of their customers.  It’s been over four months since iOS 7 has been released and Apple still has not released a substantial update addressing its many common bugs.  I’d expect a 4+ month release cycle from car manufacturers, not a company like Apple.

So what am I asking from Apple?

They need to show more empathy for their users.  Publicly acknowledge issues and let the public know they are working hard to fix them.  Release fixes more often like app store apps, not bundling them up into a massive release.  Finally, they need to reduce some of the secrecy around new products or updates so that real users can work out the kinks before being released to the general public.

The Internet Still Amazes Me

It’s been a while since I last wrote, yet I’ve had three random encounters with my blog in the past few months.  Each has left me a little weirded out (random people are reading my writing?), but mostly just excited that someone else has taken interest in my perspective despite no attempt to publicize my writing or even write regularly.

First, a woman emailed me asking if there was ever an end to the sciatica pain I started experiencing in the summer of 2011 and wrote about here.  In short, there is hope for it to lesson, although more than 2 years after I wrote that I am still experiencing pain.  Oddly, running my first ever marathon is what reduced the pain for me most (still can’t explain that one).  Then, someone asked if I would sell them a print of the Zakim Bridge photo that I took in Boston a few years back.  I was flattered, and ended up sending the photo in exchange for them making a small donation to the charity of their choice.  I still think that is one of the coolest photos I’ve seen of that bridge, and it looks pretty great printed on Zakim and Golden Gate Bridge printed on canvascanvas above our bed.  Today, I exchanged a few tweets with a developer here in San Francisco that is struggling with the same thing I have been:  Is it better to specialize or generalize?  I’ve decided to not go for a dev or design bootcamp and instead continue looking for a product manager or technical project manager position in an industry I’m passionate about.  I enjoy all the elements of building products (whether it’s design, leading others, getting into the details, planning, or executing) too much to focus on just one area.  I know that when I do find the right role for me (and I am crushing it there) I will share some good laughs with my boss about any hesitation they had in hiring me.

This all brings me back to how much the internet still amazes me to this day.  It makes it so easy to connect with random strangers around a shared idea, struggle, or photo by just putting a few words up on a blog or writing a 140 character Tweet.  The transparency that more and more companies are now embracing (see the Buffer “open salary formula“) is  becoming the standard way that young and innovative companies are doing business.  I love it – sharing what you have learned or struggled with in order to help others is a beautiful thing.

Letting Unimportant Tasks Go: Declaring Job Bankruptcy

Injured Piggy Bank WIth CrutchesI’ve had an interesting couple of years; today I just left my 4th job in 18 months after working at the same company for the first seven years of my career.  Most of this was unplanned; one was a failed startup, and two were related to an unexpected move from Boston to San Francisco.  Leaving each job always comes with a certain amount of sadness when leaving behind co-workers you enjoyed working with and not being able to see your product vision to its conclusion.  However, each departure has also brought this wonderful feeling of being able to let things go that I never seemed to find time to do.  You know what I’m talking about; I’m sure you’ve been putting off replying to that pesky email that’s sat in your inbox for months just like I did.  This is work that I know is not important, yet I’m never quite able to let it go until I finally have no choice.

The relief one feels by letting go should not be underestimated.  In fact, it’s a shame that one cannot enjoy this relief without having to leave a job.  I think that twice a year taking an honest look at everything on my plate and assessing the items that truly can be forgotten will allow me to recharge and focus on important items.  In effect, I’m going to declare bankruptcy and get a fresh start.  Getting the mental weight of these items today makes me feel like a million bucks right now; I am super excited to start my new job next week with a clean slate.

photo by: kenteegardin

Why create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?

The concept of creating a Minimum Viable Product (aka MVP) before investing in a full featured product has been frequently written about in the past few years.  What is a MVP you ask?  Everybody seems to have to have their own definition or analogy, but one of the best I’ve seen lately that helps explain this concept to anybody (even someone not experienced in technology or building products) was created by Anders Ramsay here.  He writes:

The Hudson Bay Company, which sold provisions and gear to fur-trappers in northern Canada, encouraged their weather-beaten customers to conduct a “Hudson Bay Start.”  This meant that, after they’d finished picking up their gear and provisions from the northern Canada store, they’d make a couple hours trek into the woods, set up camp, and then just stay there for a few days.  Now, why would they do that?  Hey, they ain’t gonna be doin’ no fur-trappin’ that close to town.  No, what they were doing was conducting an MVP.

The gear and provisions they had brought with them represented their best prediction of what they’d need over a period of several weeks in the Northern Territories. Simply camping out in the woods for a few days quickly revealed any major flaws in this prediction.  The cost of making this discovery at that point was low, just a couple hours trek into town. Making the same discovery out in the middle of nowhere might be costly indeed.

So which part of this is the MVP?  The process of selecting gear at the supply shop?  The camping out in the woods to see if they had the right gear?  The discoveries they made by doing this?

The answer is…all of the above.

Making decisions on the best way to create an MVP is difficult.  But thinking about it in terms of what am I testing (what gear do I need to worry about), how do I test it (deciding to hike only a few hours out of town), and what have I learned (did I have all the gear I needed) is a great analogy to keep in mind that can make framing discussions a little easier.

The power of asking – a key life skill

A great life skill:  sometimes you just have to say “No”.

Life skill:  saying "no"

Boldly saying “No” in Tiananmen Square

Mark Suster wrote a great post today titled The One Word That Shouldn’t Exist in an Entrepreneur’s Vocabulary that is definitely worth reading.  Regardless of whether you are an entrepreneur or not, this is a great life skill that can be learned (even if it is a little awkward at first).  He describes how his Mom “was never afraid of the word ‘no’ even to the point of embarrassing me” and that “arguing is cultural – you grow up with it or you don’t”.  I definitely grew up with this thanks to my Mom, I kind of wish I could keep track of all of the random rewards I’ve received over the years for just asking.

“You don’t ask, you don’t get.”


Is it better to specialize or generalize?

I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately about where I see myself in the next five years.  In almost all aspects of my life (work, school, recreation) I seem to come back to the realization that I’m really good at many things, but not truly great at any one thing.  Taking sports as an example, I’m better than average at tennis, baseball, soccer, running, skiing, biking, etc., but I’m far from being truly exceptional in any of those.  Or in my career, I have experience in a number of specialized areas such as web development and UX design, but my best skill is probably connecting and leading those with the specialized skills to deliver successful projects.  I’m now at a cross road where I’m trying to figure out if I want to pick a skill and specialize in it, or if I want to continue to generalize.XKCD Cartoon

Nora Dunn, a writer at Wisebread.com created a great pros/cons list, especially the cons of each such as:

  • You have less job security if your area of specialty becomes obsolete.
  • If you are too specialized, the company can’t use you for other tasks or jobs, thus decreasing your overall flexibility as an employee.
  • Less focused job searches are more difficult to endure.
  • Employers might not know how best to place you in their organization if your skills are too spread out. They may not view you as reliable or tenacious enough with any one job or skill set to be worth hiring.

I think great companies realize the need for both.  Without specialists, a company can never separate itself from the competition with truly amazing or unique products/services.  If a company could only exist with one or another, there is no doubt that a company of specialists would become more successful.  But, with too few generalists, a company risks a few things.  First, their vision and focus might become too narrow if everyone is an expert in specific types of trees, but nobody knows how to navigate the forest.  Second, the role of a successful generalist is in many ways that of a “Connector” (as outlined in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell).  They understand enough about the problem at hand, the skills of the specialists in the company, and they understand possible solutions for the problem enough to be able to connect the right people to bring about the best solution. The toughest problem with being a generalist is trying to measure your impact and convince others of the value you bring to the table.  I know that I would be a tremendous asset to many teams.  It warms my heart to hear former developers I led say things like “When you were there was some fun while developing apps…. Day by day that fun deteriorated… “.  My struggle remains convincing someone that hasn’t worked beside me before have confidence that I would be the best decision they could make.

What makes Boston such a special city?

An iced over Charles River that thousands of Boston Marathon runners likely spent many hours running next to

An iced over Charles River that thousands of Boston Marathon runners likely spent many hours training near

Over the past few years I’ve had many discussions and given lots of thought to specific reasons why I love Boston so much.  It’s hard to quantify what makes me love a city so much despite the cold winters, bad drivers, and unfriendly people (compared to other regions of the US).  Despite all of this, it is a city that so many people furiously defend as the only place they ever want to live.  So what is it that makes Boston so special?

Many great cities have a core competency or passion that is usually a source for jobs, government policies, and overall spirit.  Boston’s is health care and education; it is the home to many of the world’s best hospitals and colleges.  When you contrast that to what other cities revolve around (Technology/entrepreneurship in SF or Wall Street in NY), health care and eduction both center around helping others above all else.  As a result, Boston attracts and retains people that want to share their knowledge with others and treat those who are unhealthy.  It attracts the best of the best for education and medicine, along with thousands of people in supporting roles.  It is this focus on two of the most humanistic industries that I believe is what makes Bostonians so special, even if they won’t say hello when you walk by them.

It is also this spirit of caring for others that is coming through in how Boston has so far responded to the horrific tragedy yesterday at the Marathon.  The typical Bostonian might not come off as the most friendly person, but deep down Boston is a city that truly cares.  I really wish I could be there with my friends and family now, but I know next time I step foot in Boston the spirit of the city will only be stronger than I left it.

What Google Reader, Simcity, and the MotoActv Fitness watch tell us

My friend Sam Kornstein wrote a great blog post recently titled “A Few Thoughts to Add on Google Reader” about Google Reader getting shut down in July, which sparked a few realizations I’ve had recently about similar services or products. Sample Simcity City In today’s world, our personal lives are becoming more and more dependent on large tech companies focused more on the bottom line than anything else.

I was not a Google Reader user myself, but I am certainly dependent on many products from Google and other tech companies, most of which I don’t pay anything for (Gmail being the most notable).  A product I use quite frequently is my my Motorola Motactv GPS running watch.  Unlike my old Garmin, all of the software to view the data is on their website.  The problem is that after I purchased the watch, Google bought Motorola and support for the product has stopped.  It’s only a matter of time I’m sure before the website goes down and my physical (and paid for product) device suddenly stops working as intended.

A second product I’ve questions is a new version of the class Simcity, put out by Electronic Arts recently which amazingly sold $1 million copies almost immediately.  Only problem is that the game requires one to be connected to their servers to play (and to make a huge mess, they didn’t have enough servers at the launch of the game).  EA claims it is to enhance the game by allowing users to compete against others, critics claim it is to prevent copyright infringements.  Either way, is it fair that a game like Simcity can’t be played “offline”?  If I pay $60 to purchase the game, how long is EA responsible for keeping the servers up and running so that I can continue to play it?  A year?  2 years?  10 years?

As more and more data and services become dependent on the cloud, it will be interesting to see how problems like this get resolved.  I have no doubts that in the long run consumers will be better off, but I’m sure there will be lots of bumps on the way.  In the Google Reader example, the great news is that just like I wrote in my post on Apple dropping Google Maps, I’m sure there are many startups that will jump in shortly and deliver a product far better than the rather stale Google Reader product was.