Tech for Good

Drones. Most people I meet get scared about the future when talking about drones. Others get excited about quick home delivery of purchased items, remote any-angle selfies, etc. They get excited about the self-centered convenience new technology may bring them.

Very few realize the genuinly good technology can do for man and womankind. It isnt their first thought, unfortunately. 

I met this amazing co-founder of a startup in the Drone space the other day. The passion was undefiable. Passion to help people. 

As a kid the thought had planted itself to help change the world for the better. Fortunate enough to have a family who could afford investing in education of their children in an otherwise developing area: a great journey started within law. Political law to be exact. As the idea and drive were to improve the circumstances for less fortunate through political change.

The fall of this beautiful vision reflected on the CEO’s face as the story was further told about how that dream was slowly but surely crushed by the selfishness of politics in our era.

So how can you change the world without politics? The search lead to technology. Nothing has changed the world as technology has. So tech it was. The answer.

The company is a startup in Silicon Valley. It builds drones for good purposes – such as brining medicine to hazardous or remote areas. Safely.

The CEO’s passion stayed with me. For weeks. I know that feeling. I have worked on many good projects. It helps you breathe lighter, stand up straighter, and it makes you love what you do. 

The CEO was outstanding. 

A few summary thoughts:

  • Why fear technology when it has helped the world become a better place for so many decades?
  • We need more good startups!
  • Oh and did I happen to mention that the CEO and co-founder was a woman, born and raised in Latin America? (No, I intentionally did not). Just sayin she “outstanded” quite a few other CEOs I’ve met in my days. I want to see many more like her! #diversityiskeytoabetterworld

A Speech to my Past Self

I am speaking to a high school class of girls next week. It is kind of daunting. Why? I have spoken to audiences of 100s of people before. I have given key notes. I have been in media and I have lots to say to these  young ladies. So why the clinch? 

I think it is so important what and how you say things to young adults. You never know what sentens will follow them through life and shape them.

I think I aldo identify with these kids. Lost in options, with ambitions, confused, smart, new, and brilliant. And then the world is still unknown to them. Still without shape. What should I share with them? What will help them and not be tainted of my generation’s limitations? What will be the best for them forward?

I was there. That was me. What would I have liked someone to tell me? Back then…

I have a hunch this will be one of my toughest speeches ever. The speech of encouragement and promise and opportunity – to my younger self – but when knowing better…

The Intern

I recently took on an intern. He apparently found me through a video interview I did some time ago on product management, and then followed up via LinkedIn. A very bright young man with a promising combination of intelligent, street smart, and communicative. During our phone call he showed authentic enthusiasm to learn and learn from “the best” (referring to my current employer). There was an honest interest to help the human kind by learning the big data space. But was he the right candidate to be able to take on an internship in the very diverse, dynamic, challenging, high-performing, witty and super-focused product team at my current company? I didn’t even know if or how it would be possible at the time to take on an intern in the product team.

But something told me that this candidate would be worth the time spent. Something really seemed different from the usual applicants from well-known colleges out there. No arrogance or attitude with intention to try to boast. And yet this young man had already launched two companies already before / during college. His super positive attitude was so refreshing. The curiosity combined with his reasoning capabilities, in the end convinced me. He wanted to learn. I decided I wanted to give him a chance.

And I am glad to say It is probably the most exciting thing I have done in a while. It has forced me so many times to reflect on why I do things and how I do them and how I can do them even more effectively. It has also allowed me to learn more about what others try to accomplish in meetings (on the other side of the table with a product manager) than ever before, as when I start explaining and sharing with my intern, the other attendees do too. It has been amazing and at times an eye opener to how much I take for granted. How much processing in microseconds in my head that is going on all the time, in pretty much every meeting.

I have asked my intern to summarize his reflections on product management and I am very much looking forward reading his takeaways, which I plan to share here in a near future!

But for the moment I just want to say how grateful I am to having this experience, and recommend it to senior staff anywhere, to take the time to host interns. Nothing brings more energy to the table and additional new thinking. It is fun, energizing, and educational. For all involved. And it is one of the best ways to recruit young new professionals long-term.

Also, of course, the company I am currently working at is pretty good with interns too, so I guess I have to take to account that it is a great place to host internships.

For inspiration to any other product manager out there pondering taking on an intern, here is how I set up the internship in our product management team. There were just guidelines, that we in an agile way are taking a journey through – together. I have tried to generalize the high level plan so that it might be more reusable for you too:

EVERY WEEK:

  • Spend as much time as you can spare being a coach for your intern, i.e. discussing meetings, reflections and tips about product management – interactions with engineering, sales, marketing, customers, partners, training, etc.
  • Book one tag-along day with one of your peers, to provide the intern perspective – enable the intern to get approach options and perspective (every PM has their style)
  • Have the intern document any important observations or insight for discussion end of week, and for their own future reflection
  • Re-plan the week, beginning and end of, based on where the intern is at in his or her project
  • Remind yourself to focus on the learning experience more than things you would expect of your peers and regular employees

WEEK ZERO (INTRO)

  • Getting organized
  • Meeting people
  • Discuss in-depth different interest areas and possible problem areas (high level)
  • Define a product area of interest

WEEK ONE (DISCOVERY)

  • Define a problem / customer pain within the selected product area to solve (and why)
  • Define who are your stakeholders in solving this problem and who can help you with research

WEEK TWO (RESEARCH)

  • Research the problem area
  • Define the target customers of the solution
  • Study competitive and industry approaches
  • Create the “elevator pitch” of your project so you can start selling it and gain resource investments and help
  • Choose a method or delivery vehicle
  • Start defining scope and deliverables

WEEK THREE (PLAN & RESOURCE)

  • Narrow down scope and deliverables
  • Define clear metrics
  • Start design to flush out more requirements and technical limitations quickly
  • Start customer interviews to validate pitch, prototype, value of end solution and to prove or disprove your assumptions
  • Interview and present to stakeholders
  • Create a project plan
  • Establish a project team – assigned resources

WEEK FOUR (PROTOTYPE & EVANGELIZE)

  • Prototype
  • Harden scope, plan, and metrics
  • Create a test plan for your deliverables
  • Network/evangelize to get more ideas and input

WEEK FIVE (IMPLEMENT & REASSESS)

  • Usually by now you have run into some challenges, widen your question space again, re-evaluate, re-define
  • Prioritize short-term goals vs long-term, and learn how / why certain requirements should be tended to first
  • Identify and learn about dependencies to optimize project planning and risk mitigation
  • Implement full speed

WEEK SIX (INTEGRATE)

  • Focus on how it will tie into the rest of infrastructure and org
  • Focus on partners

WEEK SEVEN (TEST & DOCUMENT)

  • Implement full speed
  • Start alpha testing
  • Create a marketing and training plans (internal/external)
  • Do rev 1 of your final report

WEEK EIGHT (DELIVER)

  • Finish implementation
  • Start beta testing
  • Create final draft of documentation and report – include reviewers
  • Outline the project presentation
  • Finish / execute communication plans
  • Finalize maintenance and scale plans (if given further investments)

WEEK NINE (STRETCH OR MARGIN)

  • Margin week in case things slip
  • Otherwise implement, test, document and deliver stretch goals
  • Modify report and presentation accordingly

WEEK TEN (PREPARE THE FUTURE)

  • Tend to any emergency issues and obstacles (there are always some)
  • Create future roadmap – learn how to prioritize for the future
  • Finalize the presentation and report

WEEK ELEVEN (FINISH)

  • Present
  • Hand over the project

Waiting for a Rainy Europe

I might have said it before but I love traveling. In writing moment I am sitting in the Global First Lounge at SFO and casually observing people in transit. It intrigues my mind to ponder for a few moments where they come from, where they are going, and what made them who they are. 

Sometimes I make an effort interacting, but most often I prefer my own observation bubble where I can see the world as a moving piece of art and drama.

I am trying to categorize and extract patterns. The brain relies on reinforcing stereotypes, so am not trying to fight it.

Everyone here are keeping busy in their own ways. 

The suit people are reading magazines, or they are on their phones, or their computers. Almost always with a glass of wine to keep them company – no matter time of day. Perhaps they live in their own global time zone? Perhaps the wine gives them warmth in anotherwise cold and shallow environment?

Then we have the polo and jeans males. Yes only males as women in here dress travel-fancy or all-in-comfy. Often the polo males are multi-tasking: watching the TV stream, and their phone, and being on a phone call, and eating. Busy body language, never at ease. A bit ego-pushy mixed with hyper-alert. Do they ever sleep? Do they ever smile an uncalculated smile? Are they actually happy or just high on adrenaline?

The couple in the corner is very composed, low voice conversation with a lot of pause. Companions traveling in style? Either way a couple is a rarity here this time of day. Mostly this room hosts business men, traveling alone. But I like the refreshing existance of the couple. The lady is drinking Champagne.

Of the twenty or so individuals I see, there is only me and one other woman traveling alone. This is the usual ratio give or take a few. I wish there were more of us, but you can only change the world by setting example and by changing yourself. So for the time being I choose to enjoy being unique. 

Be the Compass for Your Team

Growing up (in Sweden), we had team-based orienteering on the gym class schedule (note: this was way before Google Maps). This cumbersome activity was a frequent item on the agenda during every out-door season (which by the way was calendar based rather than weather based – yeah, gym class was hard). We learned how to read maps and use both nature and a compass to get a sense of direction. We ran in “unknown terrain” of the woods (i.e. a small forest next to the school campus). Every year, in the same forest. I can’t count how many bruises, cuts, and mud-soaked, smelly gym clothes I had to endure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Senior years we had learned enough about the forest to know ahead of time approximately where the controls were placed. And of course this enabled us to optimize our strategy. Our teams divided and conquered by sending out scouts to each control separately, and then copying the stamp pattern across all our stamp cards. I’m still not sure it was cheating, as we had advanced our skills. I.e. we had learned the basics the first years, evolved to develop a distributed system over the following years, and optimized for quickest time to results to achieve the goal. Additionally we gained the bonus of hanging out out-of-sight from the goal line and discussing “much more important things” (like boys, fashion, or random emergencies in teenage lives – i.e. creating social networks) than running around in a forest.

Fast forward 10s of years. I’ve realized only a few people (these days) here in the Valley can actually read a (real) map, use a compass, and survive 72 hours in the woods (without phone or without asking “the internet”). I kind of feel proud of my high-school acquired survival skills, in comparison. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of what those gym classes taught me:

  • Don’t lose hope or sense of direction, just because you’ve gotten a bit lost from your original, known path
  • Don’t fret about tiny falls or bumps on the way, instead keep on moving towards the target
  • Be attentive, listen, and look for signs to get hints about what would be a misleading shortcut vs. the best way forward. It’s not always what seems to be the easiest path that leads you to your goal.
  • Stop frequently and course direct along the way.
  • Account for misinformation from your team, but don’t put blame – you’ll be the one making the mistake next time.
  • Struggle through rough patches – as a team!
  • Have clear milestones to enable measuring achievement along the way – to see progress, but also keep team spirit up
  • The minute you realize you are off track, backtrack to the most recent known place and re-plan from there – re-assess information you acquired that took you on the wrong path!
  • Plan a path, and create optional paths A, B, and C, in case of the unknown.
  • Be open to creatively come up with plan D, in case you need to, along the way.
  • Pick people on your team with different skills, to assure success.
  • Try to be the compass for your team when the rest of the team feels lost.
  • Don’t be scared of unknown terrain – with the right tools and a team that communicates, you’ll get through.

Perhaps not all of this wisdom is purely derived from orienteering, but the metaphor helps inspire me at times and to get some perspective on project planning and execution, team management, and utilization of skills to reach a goal.

On a side note, I probably owe my old high-school gym-teacher a proper thank you for the tedious effort of motivating 20-or-so grumpy and freezing teenagers to run in a wet forest, for no obvious immediate reward. In the hindsight I do appreciate some of the endurance practiced and the inspiration to ponder decades later.

What if there is no Roadmap?

If you ever have noticed a dip in motivation in your team this blog post might give you inspiration to try a new way of approaching change and also an idea on a new experiment to try.

THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE TEAMS

No team performs well if the team spirit is low. We all know this. A team loosing its spunk might happen for a number of reasons, but I’ve found in my experience, whenever entering teams in distress or when observing the spirit dip, that the most common roots are:

  1. They feel like they are not being heard
  2. They do not agree with (or rather understand the reason to) decisions made
  3. There is a gap between what the management communicates and what the team is seeing
  4. The team does not feel respected as rational adults, the communication is perceived as “filtered” and not direct or honest

Basically the team for various reasons feels robbed of their ability to help make and help execute on the right decisions. They do not longer feel empowered to influence and contribute, and hence have lost feeling engaged!

I’ve heard and read various ways proposed of “fixing the team spirit”. Having sports coaches present on team spirit, doing team events, etc etc. But never before had I heard this problem and solution been so clearly and interestingly challenged by “systems thinking” as at a keynote at QCon London in 2014 by Emma Langman. In short these were my takeaways:

  • One employee can be a bad performer, but a whole team performing poorly is a sign of that the system is wrong
  • The system can be anything from the management team, the product direction, priorities, or processes
  • The goal of any system should really be to enable the team to successfully execute and make progress
  • The moment you no longer see progress of an entire team, you should immediately reevaluate the system instead of the team 
  • To achieve change in a team, you need a shift in the system, and above all, as a leaders, you need to recognize that you are part of the system

REAL WORLD EXPERIMENT

After this keynote I felt really inspired, so I went home to my own team to try out an experiment I came up with. Long story short, our team was just exiting a phase of firehose post-launch stress, and the team funk started to show. This is somewhat normal after any big delivery. We were a few months post GA, and suddenly there was this negative outlook, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a lot of whining. The team was not in good spirits.

SIDENOTE// By the way, on my comment that post-launch funk is normal, a little side note to ponder: stress is handled well in our bodies by adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is meant to give you a boost, i.e. keep us alert and ready for any danger, for a short time. It also often makes us feel confidence. When the “threat” (i.e. in this modern-world scenario: meeting the deadline) goes away, the stress subsides. The body intelligently tunes back its stress hormone levels. While adrenaline makes you feel good on the up-rise, cortisol makes you feel anxious, negative, sad, etc on the down-turn. Most people feel a funk when stress leaves our bodies. Perhaps better explained here.
My tip for people like myself who sometimes forget we are biological beings that need time for decompression is to always be kind to yourselves and listen to your body over your brain. For long-term health. //END-SIDENOTE

So back to the experiment…

I asked myself what was the system that I needed to change to help the team feel positive again? Well, following the recipe of the keynote, I first had to recognize how I was part of the system. My role is part of the system because I represent the external demand, i.e. customer requirements and priorities. My role decides the roadmap which means I affect the direction and in what order to do what. So what if I could remove that demand, what would happen? What if there was no roadmap?

Let me introduce what I did: introducing the concept and process of a Focus Sprint:

  • Bring the team together in a room.
    • Team means in this context the cross-functional team. Dev, QA, Docs, Product, Support, Management tools, CCE, Field – i.e. everyone touching the product in a tech way.
  • Set the stage: “What if there is no roadmap? What would you choose to work on? In other words, what keeps you awake at night (regarding the product)?”
  • Go around the room and let people express freely their concerns and improvement wishes
    • As a product manager you can learn a lot. Listen!
    • Important: include yourself – you are part of the team!
  • When everyone has expressed their wishes and concerns, identify the “top three” themes. Go around the room and let people vote on one of these themes.
  • The theme with most votes gets selected for the sprint
  • Under the selected theme, have each and one of the members sign up for a task they want to complete within the sprint
    • Including yourself!
  • Have the whole team focus on that theme and those tasks for the entire time.

This break in the fire-hose every-day work made wonders! The focus sprint did not only deliver results better than anyone expected, and fixed some of the at the time bigger concerns of the team (so that they could “sleep better at night”). It also had the team focused and joined in a mission that help bring the team spirit back and get closer together. The funk flew out the window, and people started to be creative and innovative – together – again!

I strongly recommend focus sprints as a regular practice, at least a couple of times a year. The challenge on you as a product manager is to facilitate the timing of it and put the roadmap on hold. And to full-heartedly participate! A strong leader dares to change the system and change the assumed approach to success.

When to Change Jobs?

On occasion I get time to meet with old friends or take walks outside the office with former or current coworkers. It is wonderful to get a chance to talk about life, current events, reflect on topics in a respectful and trusted form. In a recent interaction with a friend of mine the question of when to change jobs was discussed. Here are a few thoughts and pointers based on that discussion and a few of my own experiences.

New-job Mis-fit
In the beginning of a new job everything usually feels exciting. Coworkers are curious and approachable. People should be eager to show you the ropes and have intro-meetings to get you up to speed. In some situations you need to actively seek these interactions, in other situations people seek this with you. The idea is to stay open minded and a “rookie” as long as possible, it will enable you to learn the most. Sooner or later you will exit the honeymoon phase and instead enter the phase of expectations not being met, conflicts, and people actually starting to show their real selves. This is common group psychology and normal. However, if you find yourself 6+ months into a job and still not seeing the end of the conflict phase. Perhaps you should start evaluating month by month if you honestly can’t seem to find a way to get through to people and start the really productive collaboration phase. In some cases the culture you meet in a new work place isn’t a fit for you and you need to start evaluating your options.

  1. Have you exhausted all the tools in your tool box to get ramped up as needed and to reach people?
  2. Is it an option to discuss how to reach collaboration phase with your team perhaps with your manager or someone else you trust in the organization?
  3. Have you discussed the matter with your mentor (see previous blog posts on mentorship)?
  4. Is it just the growth with the new job that feels frustrating? Do you need to acquire new skills or ways to interact with new types of people?
  5. Have you lowered your guard and admitted your weaknesses in front of other people? Sometimes that is all it takes to start a trust foundation and rebuild relationships – even in the work place. Heart to heart discussions could help solving conflicts.
  6. Have you read any books on conflict resolution, the art of listening, group psychology? Sometimes a little self-education is the best way forward.

If all of the above have been properly evaluated and vetted, and the situation still feels exhausting, draining, non-motivating, and without no hope or end, then perhaps the job you thought you signed up for actually wasn’t a fit – be it the job or the work place and culture. In some rare cases a new job just isn’t the right job, and you can choose to quit. To quit a new job quickly, once, is ok on your resume. People with experience understand that mistakes of this sort happen. However, it is easy to spot a serial quitter if too many jobs have been signed up for, but not stuck out more than 6 months. Then it turns into a reflection of if you have problems with team collaboration or people skills in general. So 1) be careful to interview any new work place just as much as they interview you, to avoid the new-job quitting scenario and 2) try to grow as a person and stick a job out longer than 6 months, unless it is directly hostile of course, if you already have done a few quick-hire-quits. And last, if you find yourself being a serial-quitter, then it is time to perhaps re-evaluate your interview style, your career choice, your skill levels, or your evaluation process of potential employers.

Drowning or Sailing
I’ve forgotten who told me, but I’m pretty sure it was one of my mentors who shared the logic about drowning on the job. The point being that if you feel like you are “drowning on the job” not able to cope with tasks or overwhelmed by the ramp up required, it is both good and bad. If you are feeling this way a total of five days a week, you can be sure you bit off more than you can chew. If you feel this way four days a week in the beginning of a new job, it is a good sign. The first part of the learning curve is the steepest. However, if you feel like you are drowning on the job four to five days a week even after a year, you are probably on a path of burning yourself out, so time to ask for help or to pull out and admit defeat. If you feel stressed to the limit and can hardly step out of bed in the morning, I would sincerely recommend either external or internal coaching, depending on who you trust and what kind of mentors, managers, and coaching you would need help from.

Two to three days of drowning per week is a good motivation rate still. However, if you only feel like you are drowning a total of one day a week, then it is time to look for your next challenge, if you really want to accelerate your career and learning or growth. You grow the most the two to three first years in a job or a workplace. You can continue to grow if you take on new assignments or more responsibility, but after a while it truly starts feeling like you’ve done and seen it all. If that is your current state, it is time to shake the ground a bit. Not necessarily change work place, but definitely job role, team, technology (area of expertise) or take an evening class on some new topic (e.g. learn how to dance tango?). You need to stimulate your brain, or else you slowly but surely will get bored. Bored is bad. In most cases bored people turn either bitter, and start creating negativity around them, and thereby start hurting the team more than helping it. Or they become unproductive restless souls int he office, wasting other people’s time. So, one-day a week drowning is a good sign, in my opinion, to start looking. No haste, but start looking.

Bad Boss or Hostile Workplace
Obviously if there is any sign of harassment, hostility, or other type of violence going on, you need to prioritize your safety and well-being above all. If you can’t get the legal help and protection you need, you need to get out of there. There will be other jobs, but there is only one of you. It is their loss to lose you, your dedication, and your unique talents. There is no reason to stay and suffer under bad circumstances or incompetent management.

Lack of Growth Path
Another reason to start looking for other options is if you see no growth path. Have you tried all roles that you are interested in? If not, plan out to learn the skills to get there. Have you considered a side-move? Explore other teams in the organization. Is there a promotion within reach in the next 2-3 years? Is there a reasonable manager to help you get to your goals? Are there classes that could be offer on the side? Plan and execute for your own growth, if you still like the company and culture.

Sometimes the role you are aiming for gets assigned to someone else. In that case you could evaluate how long it would take for that person to move, or for the company to grow to need another person in that role. Is that person someone you can study and learn from for a while or not? Does another team has the need (faster) for such a role? Evaluate your options. There are always options!

Other Reasons
Of course the above reasons are not the only ones to motivate change of jobs. There are many life events who will lead to evaluations. Also, unpredictable events such as acquisitions, bankruptcy, market crashing and reorganizations. Further, I haven’t touched on the topic of compensation and salary etc. More of that in another blog perhaps.

Maybe you at some point have a change of heart of what you want to do with your life? Don’t be afraid to evaluate such a step if you think it will make you a more fulfilled individual. I have friends who switched from high tech to yoga teacher or to jewelry designer. There are many paths for a rich career and personal growth path, so don’t settle for “just fine” or worse “boring”. Get the most out of your path. Why not start your own company if everything else fails?

There are pretty much no bad experiences. You either win or you learn. I think the only thing that holds us back from our fullest potentials is our fears. Question for you when in doubt: why do you choose to let your fears rule your life? Aren’t you in charge? Don’t you want to experience more?

Hope you enjoyed this post. Feel free to post questions below if you have any.