Keep accountability & agency in-house
When should a business contract for work rather than building it in-house? The common wisdom is to contract when it’s not a core competency, and build in-house when it’s the core competency. For example, a shoe store should use square and stripe for payments rather than building its own payments technology. This is good wisdom, but we can do even better.
In addition to building core-competencies in-house, the best companies also keep accountability for the entire product experience in-house. Accountability means that the company both feels responsible for fixing bad experiences and has the agency to actually fix them.
A classic example of doing this well is Patagonia’s ironclad guarantee. Bring a torn or worn piece of Patagonia gear into any store and they will repair or replace it as needed. Contrast this with most electronics companies who contract out with authorized repair centers and 3rd party warranty plans. While warranties may seem distinct from the core product, the warranty is the product because when things go wrong, they don’t go wrong with the warranty, they go wrong with the product.
Wait, you might say, what about so many iPhone users who have a warranty from their carrier, not from Apple? Isn’t that an example of contracting out a warranty that works well in practice? Yes, and this is an interesting wrinkle. Your phone manufacturer and your carrier both have a vested interest in you having a wonderful experience with your warranty claim because having a working phone is a part of providing a great phone experience. And so in this case, the carrier will have both accountability and agency.
Where this breaks down is contracting out with a company whose only job is insurance. Example in point: Assurant & Google Pixel. When something goes wrong, Assurant doesn’t have much of an incentive to make things right, and even though Google might want to make things right, they don’t have the agency to do so because it’s been contracted out.
Notes on finding a new job
I recently spent a month looking for a new job before deciding to join Lyft. Here’s what I learned.
What to do before you get started
Write a “How to be a great X” document, where X is your job function. In my case, this meant collecting all of my notes about being a great product manager and organizing it into a bunch of topics that were relevant. After sketching an outline I then filled in the details. This was super helpful because when a topic came up during an interview, I already had a condensed 30 second blurb prepared and fresh in my mind.
Read The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired about performance-based hiring. It is the playbook used by many companies and once you know the playbook it becomes much easier to interview.
Create an organizational system that lets you keep track of your interviewing like you might track sales pitches. I used Trello with lists for each stage and a card for each company (see this example). I kept all of my notes about that company inside the card. I can’t stress how important this was to stay on top of everything.
Finding companies to interview at
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, that’s no problem. Write down a few different types of things you might be looking for, and start taking coffee chats and phone interviews at companies with roles that fit those things. I did this with engineering and product roles, and very quickly realized I wanted to go back to product versus engineering.
Tell everyone you can that you’re looking for something new. It’s amazing how many interesting companies other people know about.
How to learn about companies
Ask questions in your phone chat, there’s no substitution for hearing about a company from someone who works there.
Only do an all-day interview if you’re pretty sure you want to work there. You can have 10 initial phone chats in the time it takes to do a single all-day interview. If you’re not sure, ask for more chats with the hiring manager or team members, or do more research. You can claim that you’re just looking and aren’t really actively interviewing.
Reach out to employees and ex-employees and ask them to get coffee. Ask them how they feel about the company. In one case an ex-employee revealed to me major cultural issues that I missed during the interviews.
How to choose between offers
This one is hard, but important. Go somewhere where you can learn (and do) a lot rather than where you can maximize your income. I’m bad at this. It’s so easy to look at the compensation today, when really the point is to plan for the compensation in your next job.
Prepare for a conversation by writing down your acceptable curve of salary + equity tradeoff. This makes it really easy to negotiate.
After an offer was given and before I negotiated salary I asked to meet more people. Companies let me talk to future coworkers, founders, and even their VCs. This was super useful.
Preparing for day 1
People say that the first few weeks on the job are critical, but that advice doesn’t tell you how to use that time successfully. The First 90 Days is a great overview to how you should be structuring the start of any new job. It frames this as a learning experience with a sense of urgency.
It’s never too early to ask for feedback from your manager and teammates. If your manager doesn’t seem to be giving you critical feedback, ask how she or he imagines your next month should go. Most companies have structured time for feedback only every 6 or 12 months, which is terrible for helping you improve quickly. Feedback should be immediate and and frequent.
The challenge with framing bike shares as reducing congestion
Lisbon is launching an electric bike share to help cyclists tackle the hills. The city’s transportation agency, Emel, hopes this will reduce congestion, and therefore give everyone a better experience. However, this is encountering resistance. From The Guardian:
Change isn’t easy for everyone to swallow. Nuno Sardinha, a project manager at Emel, describes the firm as “the most hated company in Lisbon”.
Blaming the negative feelings on “change” misses the point. In many cities around the world, driving is a worse experience today than it was ten years ago. This is for a variety of reasons, but the reality is that driving isn’t going to get better without some people choosing not to drive.
Why might someone decide to stop driving? Broadly, there are two factors. Either the alternative gets better or driving gets worse. Both are happening, but it seems like the bigger factor is driving getting worse and worse.
When someone makes a change because the previous option got worse they will be unhappy about it. This is happening in cities around the world, and it’s one of the reasons why people protest new bike lanes and the removal of parking. Anything that might hurt the driving experience further is clearly bad.
Much of this is exacerbated when someone makes the argument that cycling will reduce congestion. From a driver’s point of view, congestion got worse, not better. Far better to sell cycling as an opportunity to take quick local trips where walking would otherwise be too far or too hard. Focus on the new benefits, rather than on reducing the old pain.
Healthcare for homes
I recently discovered Super, which is basically healthcare for homes so that if the dishwasher breaks they’ll pay for the repair or replacement. Interesting that they even use the same vocabulary, like “Co-pay”, “Pre-existing conditions”, and “Coverage Limits”.
The really interesting move here is selling this directly to real estate agents so that they can offer it as a package on top of the home. Their yearly plans are less than $1000, and if the house is going for $500,000, that’s a pretty cheap “one more thing” to include with the home.
And Super could be more than just repairs. Home Gallery Project could be a great addon, as could other services like tenant sourcing and management.
Principal contradiction applied to product management
China adopts the Marxist idea of a principal contradiction that needs to be resolved for society to move forward, or else it will lead to chaos and revolution. Through the years this contradiction has evolved from “the people versus imperialism” to “unbalanced and inadequate development versus the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”.
This principal contradiction can also be used to evaluate product development goals that are at odds with each other. Building one product feature actively hurts another feature.
For Google, the principal contradiction is finding another cash cow versus protecting the one they already have. A decade ago it used to be monetizing search versus hurting usage, but that seems resolved now.
For Apple, it’s creating something that attracts fanatics versus serving a billion users, not all of whom can be a fanatic. For Twitter, it’s saving what’s good versus making something better.
Resolving this contradiction is critical to allow the company to move on.
Toolkit for startups
I’ve found many amazing tools over the past 9 months that any new project should consider using.
Firebase - Great for prototyping because it’s so easy to change data on the fly and has a simple json structure. Plus, functions let you write bits of server code without needing a server.
Fullstory - Shows you screen recordings of each user visiting your site. I’ve found and fixed so many bugs this way.
Github - The private repositories are cheap these days.
Sendgrid - Great for sending emails
Twilio - Great for sending sms
Trello - Great for organization
React - Finally, building reusable components for the web works like I expect
Material Design - Use this to be good enough at design
If you know of others, please let me know!
Space continues to boggle my mind
To get people to notice, you’re often looking for that one thing that boggles the mind. And sometimes, nature does that for you on a cosmic scale. Matt Strassler has one such example:
Visualize that if you can: objects a few dozen miles (kilometers) across, a few miles (kilometers) apart, each with the mass of the Sun or greater, orbiting each other 100 times each second.
All I can say is, wow.
Long drives and longer conversations
I love taking an hour or more drive with someone. It’s a wonderful opportunity to catch up or get to know somebody from scratch. It’s free from distractions, with just enough happening out the window to be interesting. It’s a form of intentionally taking time for a discussion.
What’s even better is when this type of casual discussion is ritualized. A phone call on the way to work, walking the dog together in the morning, and making dinner together are a few good ways. Rather than dulling the relationship, these rituals make the connection stronger.
In a way, this is the point of recurring meetings at work. It seems to work pretty well for one-on-ones, not quite as well for larger groups.
Investing in a known space
I recently finished reading The Millionaire Next Door. Super interesting overall and still relevant 20 years later. One topic, in particular, stands out. The authors found that wealth builders tended to invest in stocks related to their job. For example, doctors investing in drug companies.
This is a nice way of reusing specialized knowledge. However, because technology companies move so quickly, publicly traded firms tend to be in the mature stage. It’s possible that the equivalent strategy in the tech industry might be angel investing.
Getting a standing desk, getting older
I spent Friday alternatively putting together a Jarvis standing desk and cursing myself for not buying one earlier.
After moving into the wework my back started hurting. This must be a sign of getting older, because when I previously used a sitting desk my back didn’t hurt. At Google, I used a standing desk and loved it. At home, I converted a set of dressers into a makeshift standing desk. And now my back is happy again at the wework.
A commitment to learning
School is a generally accepted thing to do for the first 18 years of life. But then what? After leaving high school, or college, or grad school there is no longer an expectation of learning and a structure to encourage it.
How much of a 30 year old’s week should be spent learning? How about a 50 year old? Zero feels like the wrong answer, but I suspect for many people that’s exactly how much time they spent actively learning like they did growing up.
Running wasn’t really a thing 50 years ago. From Vox:
The men profiled — the piece only featured men — said they ran in the morning because police became suspicious if they ran at night. The biggest theme was self-consciousness: The Tribune cited neighbors who “only see folly in the sight of a grown man running.”
And yet now there are as many Americans running as there are kids in America.
We lack the structure for this to happen to education overnight, but it’s starting. Moocs like Coursera are one piece of the process, but they mostly ignore the social pressure that makes a college student drag herself to class even after a long night spent partying. A curriculum can also be hard to find. There is an abundance of online ways to improve your Mandarin, but which is the right thing to do right now?
I’d like to see most people spend four 3-hour dedicated learning blocks every week. Two can be during the workday learning how to better do the job, and the other two can be after work on any topic. This is more than most people’s exercise commitment, but I argue that it’s far more important.
A few radicals go a long way towards recognizing characters
Learning to read Chinese characters is a good example of an extremely steep initial learning curve that gets easier over time. When faced with this kind of learning curve, I try to find a way to see the progress I’m making, because otherwise it’s easy to get demotivated.
In this case, learning some of the components (radicals) that make up characters is a good way to start, because then even if I don’t know a character I can at least point out the radicals inside the character that I do know. It also helps with looking the character up in a dictionary, or describing it to a friend.
Wildfires in Napa, effects felt in SF
The past few days have been very smoky here as wildfires destroy homes and kill people 50 miles away. Even though 50 miles feels far, I’ve also seen the impact of the fires as friends and friends of friends are evacuated. It’s a good reminder of how the city is an integrated part of the surrounding area rather than simply an island. The health of the entire region matters.
Consistency of experience
Imagine if every time you went to get a haircut your stylist did things differently. One time they washed your hair, another time they didn’t, a third time they swapped scissors for an electric razor with no explanation. Even if your haircuts were equally good, the inconsistent experience would feel uncomfortable.
Really this is about setting and then keeping expectations. By following the same process for every haircut a stylist sets and then meets expectations.
This applies to software too. One classic example is the profile photo. Does tapping a photo always do the same thing? It probably should, but at Google, we often broke this consistency accidentally, especially across apps. Getting this right was one of the small details that helped bring consistency to our experience.
How to follow people and not be distracted by the web
One thing left out of Subscribing to people rather than papers is how I actually read the stuff these people write. This might seem like a small detail, but it impacts how much time I spend reading and how I find new people to follow.
My current process is to have a very limited Feedly that contains only the publications of the people I follow. I read this daily, and it usually takes less than 15 minutes. When I find a new person to follow, I give them a trial run by adding them to my Feedly, and I am ruthless about unfollowing people when they’re not a good fit.
This process works, but it’s clunky. I have to actively ignore Feedly’s discovery section because it’s a black hole of content. Feedly’s app is not great, especially with poor connectivity. And sometimes the formatting of a blog gets lost in the translation to RSS. Even worse, some publications only publish a snippet of their content in their RSS feed, and make you click through to the website to get everything.
I want a reader for people who are concerned by how much of a distraction their phone is but want to follow and discover interesting people. Here’s how I think it should work:
Has a target maximum time per day for reading. Helps the user prune content when they go over time because of too much content.
Supports any publication that can be viewed by a link.
Shows original websites in a browser view for correct formatting and to avoid the dreaded snippet-only problem
Has intentional discovery. When the reading time is much lower than the daily target, insert discovery stories into the feed, clearly marked. The user can then choose to add that author if they want.
Makes it easy to annotate and save snippets.
Search that works over the existing content and the annotations
I haven’t yet found any app that comes close. If you know of something, please point me to it.
What pet healthcare can tell us about human healthcare
It’s easy to blame subsidies and insurance providers for making healthcare expensive. Another possibility is that people simply prefer to spend on healthcare versus other needs. But how to isolate the impact of this possibility? From Vox:
Economists cannot strip Americans of their health coverage for the sake of a research paper. But what economists Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, and Atul Gupta were able to do is look at another group that has a health care system but low rates of insurance: pets.
Most American pets don’t have health insurance, which means that their owners foot the entire bill. Even so, spending on pet care has grown really quickly over the past two decades. In fact, it has gone up even more than health care spending.
Granted, this is growing from a far smaller base. Even assuming that all pet expenses go toward cats & dogs, Americans still only spend $350 per year per pet total, with some smaller portion of that as healthcare. Compare this to almost $10,000 per person on healthcare, and there’s clearly a ways to go before these are directly comparable. However, the growth appears to be from people spending more on pets (up 130% since 2000), rather than having more pets ( up 30% since 2000).
Bike share bikes getting destroyed?
I was in a Lyft talking about the bike shares and my driver said he had heard they were all getting destroyed in the east bay. All I could find was this article from August that talks about a few stations that had flat tires, and a bike that was found in a lake.
3 acts of vandalism that affected maybe 20 bikes tops seems small compared to the 7,000 bikes in the system. And yet it’s interesting that this both got news coverage and was enough of an image to stick in my driver’s (and my) head.
Also, check out this article about a Chinese bike share that lost 90% of its bikes. Wow!
Electric bike shares
Maybe it’s because I live in San Francisco, but every time I hear about a new electric bike I wish that bike shares used them. This time it’s the Copenhagen Wheel, which actually seems better as a retrofit because everything is contained within the back wheel.
A great part about these electric bikes is that they act just like a normal bike, except way easier to pedal. And the docks for these bikes seem like an elegant way to handle charging, no cord to forget to plug in.
The zero marginal cost model of an unlimited subscription is certainly enticing because it makes it that much easier to grab a bike for a trip that might not feel worth the cost of a Lyft.
Job Portraits helps startups stand out from the crowd to hire to right people.
Startups don’t (usually) have the name recognition that large companies do. Someone who is a good fit to work for Google might have Google on their radar simply because they use Google products.
One way for startups to stand out is to emphasize what’s unique about each. When I was researching Remix I stumbled upon a great article that highlighted each team member and the technical challenges that Remix faced. Job Portraits is behind this article, and they do this for many startups. They are a fantastic way to learn more about what it’s like to work at these companies and what types of problems they solve. I recommend following their medium feed for anyone looking for a startup job.
Upwork the teacher
Upwork has an interesting library of content that tells employers just enough about a topic to make it easier to hire someone to do the work. For example, see this article on collaborative filtering. Such an interesting way to help people figure out who they need to hire to get their project accomplished.