Companies Staying Relevant

In his 2002 talk on Improving Our Ability to Improve, Engelbart describes how many companies naturally gravitate to investing in making their existing products more attractive for their customers, but would benefit significantly more if they also incubate value the market doesn't understand yet.

Oxymoron: "Market Intelligence." [...] The "market" assumes the dimensions of faceless, impersonal deity, punishing economically inefficient solutions and rewarding the economically fit. We believe in the wisdom of the market and belief that it represents a collective intelligence that surpasses the understanding of us poor mortal players in the market's great plan.

[...] In any case, it is quite clear that whatever it is that the market "knows," its knowledge is fundamentally conservative in that it only values what is available today. Markets are, in particular, notoriously poor judges of value for things that are not currently being bought and sold. In other words, markets do a bad job at assessing the value of innovation when that innovation is so new that it will actually rearrange the structure of the markets.

Companies have this blindspot when they rely solely on market validation or data science, and build product without recognizing that this info is inherently biased towards what people already understand. They chase the short-term value of building a better commodity and cementing their existing position, because they dislike being in the ambiguous position of investing resources in a product that might never ship or see a payoff. Additionally, companies with market leading positions sometimes have unsubstantiated confidence that it'd be too costly to uproot them and switch to a competitor. This can be a trap, because whereas the disruptor is able to move fast to close gaps, the larger incumbent's delayed reaction risks them not having enough time to catch up because they have many more dependencies to resolve. I remember a quote paired with the Ballmer-era Microsoft, where they'd captured significant consumer attention but didn't invest much beyond status quo: "Icebergs melt too, it's just that they take really really long."

Jun 14 2021

Embracing Nuance

There's a gradient of ideas lost when we take extreme sides in discourse. The people we stereotype in our heads are more like us than we think. All it takes is having a conversation; maybe we resist it to avoid finding that our neighbors are quite likable, just like Sahil Lavingia did:

I had assumed that Provo was happy being Provo — white, male, and Mormon-dominated. I hadn’t thought to consider that they wanted change just like I did.

They were envious of San Francisco’s racial diversity (while I complained about how much further we had to go). They lauded the focus on women in the workforce (while I talked about how sexist the tech industry was). They spoke ill of their reliance on cars and the negative effects on the environment, while I spoke ill of San Francisco’s public transportation.

Also:

I visited San Francisco last Christmas, and I tried advocating for conservative politics at bars. There is a stigma that certain ideas aren’t taken seriously in San Francisco anymore. I didn’t see that. Just like conservatives embraced me and my ideas, liberals gave me the same grace.

I now believe that both sides are composed of mostly open-minded people that aren’t represented in the NYTimes nor on Fox News nor in the latest viral political Tweet. They’re at home and at school and at work trying to make ends meet. They don’t care about that level of exposure. They are working privately to solve those problems. Maybe you’re one of them! If so, hi!

Oct 8 2020

Task-Satisfaction Balance

The term Work-Life Balance suggests a tradeoff between time spent on work and on life, with one borrowing from the other and a balance providing the silver bullet of happiness and contentedness. This is at least a little bit misleading, because while the tasks at work and home are different, how we feel at any moment in time is harder to compartmentalize to a certain part of the day.

What I've found more effective to strive for is better Task-Satisfaction Balance. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, it is much more likely because of the type of tasks you're doing, rather than because of the number of hours you're putting in. At work, doing the types of work you really enjoy are likely to help you do the work faster, whereas that which you find less enthusing or fulfilling consumes all time you have available. The is also true at home. To stop walking the path to burnout, I've found myself needing to catch myself spinning my wheels on mundane tasks and pivot fast.

Jun 23 2020

Being Senior

Companies recognize the emotional appeal inflated titles have on our egos, and far too often have no difficulty presenting prefixes like "Staff" or "Principal" as part of our negotiation, even if the expectations and compensation are no different than less senior roles at the company. It serves as a good reminder that seniority is gained not simply by tenure or checking a few boxes, but by changing how we approach our work:

Labor vs. Influence

When you start your career, a majority of your work product is a function of your own labor. As you grow, while this is still important, your own output is secondary to your ability to work with and influence others, because this allows you to multiply the amount of work produced relative to that which you can produce yourself.

Deliverable vs. Outcome

In the earliest stages of your career, you often take on work that has well defined parameters (scope, timeline and end-state), and your success comes from delivering this as expected and on time. As you advance, there are fewer boundaries set, but more for you to solidify. Next in your career, by knowing just the outcome, you know to define the pieces of the puzzle on a seemingly blank canvas. And finally, you’re defining outcomes rather than being handed them, and because this is more ambiguous to everyone apart from you, you need to set up others to succeed, just like you were in the beginning.

May 24 2020

Feature Completeness

A remarkably simple heuristic from the WhatsApp team to decide if your feature is ready to launch yet:

... design and build features which are obviously useful. If the feature needs explanation, it’s not ready.

Apr 26 2020

Performance = Values

I’ve found this guidance from a past manager to be durable to this day, and I often relay it to people who need to contextualize their own performance reviews:

Your performance review with increasing seniority is less a reflection of skill level, but more a reflection of whether your values align with the organization you are within. Take a bad performance review not as a measure of your aptitude, but as a decision point: whether to shift your values to align with the same organization or move to an organization that aligns better with your own.

Apr 25 2020

Plays for Product

Jon Lax's speaker notes from a presentation last year is something I'm able to finally parse and apply in my work. Lots of wisdom, that allow to me be slightly less sloppy while framing how we arrive at desired outcomes, digest large and ambiguous scope into meaningful short-term impact, and perhaps most importantly, push back to try to deliver enough value to have people use the product even after the novelty wears off.

Here's a tidbit about showing more intention in our answers:

“It depends” is a terrible answer. But it feels good to say because we exist in an industry that values rapid iteration and changing its mind. It depends preserves option value.

Think about hearing “It depends” as an answer to questions, what you would take away?

Q: Captain, how do you fly your plane? A: It depends

Q: Dr. how will you perform today’s surgery? A: It depends

Q: Do you love me? A: It depends

There are two problems with answering a question with “It depends”.

First, it implies you have no conviction that you know how to do what you are great at. It means that you haven’t detected any discernible pattern that repeatedly delivers a successful outcome.

Second it isn’t true. There are a whole set of things you do, instinctively; to solve problems, write, design, research behavior, collect and analyze data. You just haven’t codified it by identifying the consistent patterns that exist.

Sep 21 2017