The Cult of Busy

Dina Kaplin hits the nail on the head:

Busy can become a way of life. We’re seduced by all the incoming - the emails and text messages that make us feel wanted and important - stimulating our dopamine, as research shows, but in an exhausting, ultimately empty way. Busy has a dangerous allure. If your normal is busy, it’s tough to sit quietly with your thoughts or to really feel what you’re feeling. What if, instead, everything became a choice - how we spend time, who we respond to and how much or little we write? What if we recognized the difference between accomplishing our goals for the day and responding to other people’s requests? What if we learned to say no - a lot?

One of the things that bugs me most about this so-called “Cult of Busy” is that it is a built-in excuse for inaction. Why didn’t we find an obvious bug before launch? Why didn’t we mentor someone on our team? Why haven’t we filled that open position we all know we need? All of the answers to these questions can easily be: we were too busy. If something is a priority, it will get done, regardless of our state of busy.

In other words: when someone says they didn’t do something because they were busy, I hear “it isn’t a priority.” Sometimes that’s ok, but let’s at least call it what it is.

Imagine asking “How are you?” to one of the most successful people you know or, say, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg or Warren Buffet. I’ve never heard anyone at that level respond, “busy.” By most people’s definition they are, constantly making high-level strategic decisions with a large impact.

Most of the people in my personal life have no idea what I do for a living. They think I just work “in computers.” Therefore, my default answer to “how’s work?” is more often than not: “busy.” I’m selling myself and my amazing company short when I use this generic default answer. Busy should be implied. How is my work? The answer: it’s great. We’re growing, doing amazing work, breaking new ground and building a fantastic company culture of results. That sounds way more fun than just “busy.”

A Free and Open Internet

President Obama:

An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.

I find it hard to believe that anyone disagrees with this.

So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies.

Politics aside, the Internet should not be controlled by a few companies imposing their will on the people. Here’s hoping the President’s efforts continue and this is ultimately implemented in policy.

Paternity Leave: The Rewards and the Remaining Stigma

Claire Cain Miller, in this Sunday’s New York Times, writing about paternity leave, and the associated stigma:

Social scientists who study families and work say that men like Mr. Bedrick, who take an early hands-on role in their children’s lives, are likely to be more involved for years to come and that their children will be healthier. Even their wives could benefit, as women whose husbands take paternity leave have increased career earnings and have a decreased chance of depression in the nine months after childbirth. But researchers also have a more ominous message.

Sounds like everyone wins, so why is this not more prevalent a practice in all companies?

Taking time off for family obligations, including paternity leave, could have long-term negative effects on a man’s career - like lower pay or being passed over for promotions.

It’s true, but it shouldn’t be. There are plenty of companies out there that support people who choose to have families. As society evolves, here’s hoping these companies become the norm, not the exception.

The Job of Leadership

Another good one from Ev Williams, on Inside Medium:

The job of leadership is to foster alignment and enthusiasm toward the right goal.

Alignment: A collection of good people does not make a good team if they’re not pushing in the same direction. Constant communication and adjustment is needed.

Enthusiasm: You’re doing something hard and against the odds. The only way to do this type of thing is to have a (realistic) positive attitude and inspire confidence.

The right goal: Where are we going? Is it big enough, but accomplishable? Is it still correct based on current data? How do we know if we’re making progress? These are questions you must constantly ask.

Why People Leave

The First Round Review, in an interview with Carly Guthrie, an HR and operations veteran:

People do better work when they have lives of their own. “That’s not always a popular opinion, but I’ve seen how true it is over and over again,” says Guthrie. “It’s not just people with kids or spouses. Everybody has a community outside of the office. So few employers respect that – if you make it a point to, that will bind your employees closer to you.”

Some companies are beginning to take these best practices a step further and mandate one or two weeks of vacation time without access to company email or tools. That’s right, literally turn their email off for the duration of their vacation.

This whole article is a great summary of the reasons people leave a company and tips for preventing these common reasons. However, while benefits and work-from-home policies are important, this bit about confidence in leadership is especially accurate:

There’s a persistent trope in the HR world that the main reason people leave is because they don’t get along with their manager. Despite its prevalence in the corporate zeitgeist, “That’s actually pretty rare,” says Guthrie. Generally, almost everyone gets a sense of mismatched chemistry during the hiring process. If someone leaves because of their boss, that’s a failure in the company’s hiring process – an employee didn’t get enough exposure to their boss during the process, or alternatively, if there’s a history of subordinates leaving, their boss was the bad hire in the first place.

There is, however, one big reason employees may leave on account of their manager: Loss of confidence – in them or the company. “Let’s say you’ve had a couple of pivots and you just don’t believe in the company or concept anymore. You lose confidence in the marketability or leadership,” says Guthrie. A company’s leadership needs to be aware of these potential undercurrents in their organization, and should deal with them head on. Otherwise, your best and brightest will be on the lookout for opportunities to jump ship.

Spot on.

Repurposing the Titanic

Justin Williams, on what he’s learned from Glassboard:

Building products with a bootstrapped mentality is completely different than a startup mentality. When bootstrapped, every decision you make affects the bottom line, and that is a bottom line you care about from day one. Trying to convert a platform that wasn’t designed with that in mind proved to be too great of a challenge for me as the sole proprietor of Glassboard. Rather than focusing on improving the core Glassboard product, I spent most of my time trying to cut costs where possible to curb our losses.

#define CTO

Greg Brockman, CTO at Stripe, on his role and focus:

Around last summer, to keep up with the needs of our engineering team, I started doing 1:1s with everyone. I would stack them all on a Tuesday, and be completely burned out by the end of the day. By the time I was recharged and productive again, it’d be next Tuesday, and it’d be time to do it all over again.

Through this time, I knew I was faced with a choice: the technical route or the people route. I’ve never found anything I loved more than writing code, but at the same time I knew we had a responsibility as an organization to support the amazing people we’d hired.

This entire piece is fantastic, and it is an incredibly accurate portrayal of how many engineers-turned-leaders evolve throughout their careers.

Why the Company's Success Should be Your Focus

Ev Williams, in an internal memo to Medium employees:

This is a startup. That’s a bit of a loaded word these days - and a confusing one. What I mean is simply this: Our business is not sustainable yet. We are not simply trying to grow something or optimize something, we’re trying to jump-start an engine of growth and goodness from scratch.

Our success is not guaranteed. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely. As cliche as it sounds, we really are all in this together. There is no room for ego battles, infighting, or putting one’s own interests ahead of the group’s. In fact:

Your interests are the group’s.

Extremely well said. This attitude shows up in the great work the company puts out. And, here’s one of my favorite parts:

Don’t focus on your status, role, or rank. Humans are wired to compare themselves to those around them. But where you are on the “holarchy” is not a reflection of contribution, and everyone knows that. Be defined by how much you help, not your title.

It’s not about you, it’s about the team.

The Minimum Vacation Policy

Cameron Moll:

When I hired my first full-time employee two years ago, we immediately began an unlimited vacation policy. In addition to the 12 days per year that we observe for national holidays, each of us was free to take off as much time as desired, so long as the work that needed to get done got done.

What I’ve turned my attention to recently is a “minimum vacation policy” for lack of a better phrase. In lieu of unlimited vacation, and in contrast to traditional vacation policies which focus on maximum days off, I’m intrigued by idea of requiring employees to expend a minimum number of vacation days each year to ensure their working (and personal) health remains strong.

Vacation policies are surprisingly difficult to design. I’ve long been a fan of the so-called “unlimited vacation” policy, but have also seen many issues with it in practice. Some, although very few, people take advantage and take entirely too much time off in relation to their workload. This is easily fixed with a conversation, as typically the person’s actions were not intentional and certainly not a result of malice.

The larger issue I’ve seen is the same as Moll: the best people and top performers in the company do not take nearly enough time off. They do fantastic work, but they work too much. They enjoy contributing at a high-level and see vacation time as a weakness of sorts. (I don’t agree.) You’ll often hear them say “I just don’t like being away from the office” or “I’ll take some time off after X.”

We’ve tried strongly encouraging vacations, and even tried flat out forcing someone to leave for a few weeks after a big project or milestone. Every time they come back refreshed and better than when they left.

There is also an interesting psychology with limited vacation time: If someone feels like they are going to “lose” the time by not taking it, they seem to be more willing to take that time off even when they don’t think they need the time for fear of leaving something on the table. (You’ve probably heard people saying in December: “I need to take Friday off or I’ll lose the time.”) With the unlimited vacation policy, there isn’t a lingering “expiration” of this time so it becomes forgotten and ignored.

I like the idea of a Minimum Vacation Policy. It certainly could be an interesting way to solve some of the common issues with vacation time. I’ll be curious to see how it works out for Cameron.

The Internet's Original Sin

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.

The Mediocrity Magnet

Creating special work is difficult. Special work requires extra drive, effort and fortitude. But there is an unseen force inside every one of us that drives us away from greatness, away from something exceptional and away from special work. I like to call this invisible force “The Mediocrity Magnet.” This magnet is constantly pulling on us as we try and create something new. It is pulling us away from the exceptional, and back towards our normal default of comfortable decisions, stagnant innovation and the desire to fit in with those around us.

Creating exceptional software is especially hard. Design, engineering and product leadership all have to be working at a consistently high level. The Magnet may be invisible, but it isn’t hard to see. It can start with simple corner-cutting like, “we’ll figure out a better way to do this in v2,” or “this is super hacky, but it works” or more commonly “let’s just use what those guys did and that should be fine.” Fine. It sounds like a reasonable goal, and sometimes it may be. But exceptional software is created by resisting this force, and not settling for “fine” or good enough.

The main goal of a product lead, especially in software, is to be a constant force against the Magnet. When immersed in a text editor or Photoshop, developers and designers can easily get lost in the mix of the nitty-gritty details of a product. The details are incredibly important. But product leadership needs to rise above the details and understand what is truly great and what simply meets expectations. A product lead needs to constantly rebel against the pull towards normal to keep everyone working towards something great.

How do we fight this Magnet of Mediocrity? How do we keep ourselves from settling for “fine” as we make decisions about a product’s future? The answer is to constantly ask questions.

How can this be better?

What are we not thinking of?

What can we strip away to get to the core of the problem, while surprising and delighting our customers?

And, most importantly:

What about this product is special?

Special is not doing things the way everyone else has done them. Special is not accepting the norm. Special is taking the long route, but hopefully the one that is most rewarding in the end. If we’re constantly asking ourselves and our teams “what is special” about what we’re doing, we can fight the Mediocrity Magnet that pulls us all away from our real goal: special work.

Why Good Storytelling Helps You Design Great Products

Braden Kowitz, from Google Ventures:

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint – showing where each element belongs on the plan. Each screen shows how the product might look in a different situation, but the screens are not connected in any way. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it. So when teams critique designs as blueprints, it severely limits their ability to reason through the interactivity of the product.

The best product designers practice story-centered design. They begin by crafting stories that show how customers interact with a product, and only after they’ve accomplished that do they design screens as a way to tell that story of interaction.

The New Boss

Blake Griffin, writing in Derek Jeter’s new venture, The Players’ Tribune:

Ballmer wants to win no matter the cost. Donald Sterling didn’t care if we won – at least if it meant he had to spend money. It wasn’t just about spending money on players. For years, our training staff wanted to buy this sophisticated computer software that would let them scan our bodies and keep track of our progress throughout the season. Sterling wouldn’t sign off on it.

When I walked into the training facility for the first time this summer, the entire vibe was different. People were smiling. From the security people to the game operations staff to the office staff, everybody seemed happy to be there. For the first time ever, they were on permanent contracts. Under Sterling, all the staff were on temporary contracts. Top to bottom, everybody just appreciates being appreciated now.

When I walked into the trainer’s room, the staff was going crazy. They showed me the new body scanning software. Ballmer signed off on it Day 1.

First, The Players’ Tribune is a fantastic site. They are about 4 articles in, and already it is must read for any sports fan. The site is extremely well done, well designed and carefully edited.

Second, Steve Ballmer is going to be a fantastic NBA owner. Clearly he understands how to make everyone feel respected, whether they are the star player or a security guard.

To Siri, With Love

Lovely piece in this Sunday’s New York Times:

For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.

Start-ups versus Big Companies

Julie Zhuo, on Medium:

[Start-ups] need people who:

operate with good intuition. There’s simply not enough time, money, or people at a start-up to invest in a bunch of research or data-gathering. Good product and people intuitions are what lead to successful outcomes in the arena of high-risk plays.

are well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades. It’s more important to have something be functional and done quickly than it is to be done in the most scalable and robust way. That’s why people who can jump into any number of problems and Mcgyver it are so highly valued at start-ups. Practicality matters; specialists and sticklers for perfection need not apply.

are proactive and don’t mind ambiguity. If you’re looking for someone to give you mentorship, training, or a structured environment in which to learn and grow, working at a start-up is going to be frustrating because those are not going to be priorities for the company.

possess a healthy dose of optimism. You have to believe what you’re doing is valuable in order for it to actually be valuable. If you don’t feel that optimism but find yourself attracted to the idea of a start-up for other reasons fortune or fame or freedom there are other, more certain routes to achieve those goals.

Spot on. All of these also apply for building a start-up team within an established company.

Also, “big” companies aren’t all that bad. There are trade-offs for sure, but no company is completely perfect or terrible, regardless of size.

HBO is finally going to let you watch its shows without cable

Starting next year, you’ll finally be able to watch HBO on the web without a cable subscription. In a dream come true for cord cutters, HBO CEO Richard Plepler has confirmed the company plans to launch a “standalone, over-the-top” HBO Go subscription offering at some point in 2015.

This is fantastic news. Once the live sports issues are tackled (I’m looking at you NFL, take a lesson from baseball) we may see some true innovation in this space. Imagine a world where you get to choose what you want to consume, and put your money behind that choice. Sign me up.

How to become internet famous for $68

Kevin Ashton, writing on Medium:

His eyes fume from his Twitter profile: he is Hollywood-handsome with high cheekbones and dirty blond, collar-length hair. Next to his name is one of social media’s most prized possessions, Twitter’s blue “verified account” checkmark. Beneath it are numbers to make many in the online world jealous: Santiago Swallow has tens of thousands of followers. The tweets Swallow sends them are cryptic nuggets of wisdom that unroll like scrolls from digital fortune cookies: “Before you lose weight, find hope,” says one.

Sounds amazing.

There’s just one thing about Santiago Swallow that you won’t easily find online: I made him up.

This is a fantastic story about how easily someone can be created out of thin air, and made “influential”; online. We shouldn’t be so quick to believe everything we read online.

Faith in eventually

Jason Fried, on Signal v. Noise:

There are designs that are close, but not there yet. There are obvious conflicts that will need to be resolved. There are lingering things that confound you, confuse you, or upset you, but you know that eventually they’ll work themselves out. Eventually you’ll find the right way to do something you’ve been struggling with.

It’s hard to live with something that isn’t quite right yet – especially when it’s your job to get it right. It’s important to know when to say “it’s fine for now, but it won’t be fine for later.” Because moving forward is critical to getting somewhere. And, eventually, you’ll figure it all out. It’ll all work out in the end.

A great reminder.

The Magazine is shutting down

Marco Arment, on The Magazine shutting down:

I thought making a high-quality app was the hard part that was keeping iPad magazines from being more successful, but the app turned out to be the easiest and least important part of the business.

Ello and the Minimum Desirable Product

Ed Cumming, writing for The Guardian:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ello’s emergence has been how little time it has taken for people to be rude about it. If you can’t be an early adopter, be an early denigrator. Criticisms emerged about how private it really was and bugs in the system. The founders admitted to being surprised by the level of interest and were at pains to explain it was still in beta-testing and far from the finished product.

We’ve been chatting about this at the office for a few days, and there is an interesting consensus building: First, it is clear that a lot of people are clamoring for replacements of Facebook and Twitter. Second, it is clear that the expectations of what most of the attempting start-ups call a Minimum Viable Product is really not viable at all. In fact, in Ello’s case, it falls far flat of public expectations.

What the public seems to define as an acceptable starting point, the Minimum Desirable Product, is much more than has been attempted so far. If we’re going to get the next wave of social networking upstarts, the bar is set far above the basics of messaging and friends lists.

And really, if you launch a social networking platform without a native mobile (especially iPhone) experience, you’re just too far behind to even consider.

Ello shows us that these upstart social attempts are far from perfect, but here’s hoping these startups keep trying and eventually we can break away from two monster social networks and have more great options to choose from.