Familial

I recently had to take our two year old to the Emergency Room. She was having breathing difficulties due to a viral infection. I had many reflections from the experience and I’m guessing a few will trickle down as part of “Parenting Saturdays” (the unofficial name of this series :-)) in the coming weeks. But, one concept I was struck by was familial responsibility.

But, before I go there, a quick public service announcement. One of our biggest lessons from the incident was to waste no time when children have breathing difficulties. Children move from “normal” to unconscious with surprising speed. Our nurse explained that delays tend to have serious consequences. We were lucky we didn’t have to deal with that.

Now, back to notes on familial responsibility. As part of her breathing difficulties combined with the strong retching reflex that kids have, she projectile vomited her day’s food in 4 spurts. 3 of them were when I was carrying her.

But, as we didn’t have a change of clothes or time, I just went with it for the next 3 hours.

Somewhat disgusting details aside, this is no big deal of course. Most parents/people will go through a lot worse for their kids/family.

That precise thought gave me pause.

Isn’t it amazing how much we’re willing to compromise, sacrifice, and endure for someone we consider family?

Why doesn’t more of that extend to the many human beings we encounter over the course of our lives?

And, perhaps more importantly, what if it did?

The HQ3 fiasco

I’ve shared a lot of nuggets from Jeff Bezos over the years on this blog. His notes on the importance of being open to changing your mind, on strategic patience and tactical impatience, on using long form memos for business decisions, to name just a few, have all had a big impact on how I think and operate.

As someone who admires much of his thought process and approach to things, I found Amazon’s and Bezos’ approach to their second (and now apparently third) HQ deeply disappointing.

NYU Professor Scott Galloway outlined the many issues with this fiasco in his weekly note today. 2 excerpts –

Amazon’s HQ2 search was not a contest but a con. Amazon will soon have 3 HQs. And guess what? The Bezos family owns homes in all 3 cities. And, you’ll never believe it, the new HQs (if you can call them that) will be within a bike ride, or quick Uber, from Bezos’s homes in DC and NYC. The middle finger on Amazon’s other hand came into full view when they announced they were awarding their HQ to not one, but two cities. So, really, the search, and hyped media topic, should have been called “Two More Offices.” Only that’s not compelling and doesn’t sell. Would that story have become a news obsession for the last 14 months, garnering Amazon hundreds of millions in unearned media?

We are not only witnessing the 1% pull further away from the 99% in our hunger games economy, but certain metros begin to pull away from the rest. Of more than 400 metros in the US, five account for over 20% of the growth. And, you guessed it, two of those five are DC and NYC. This is not Amazon’s problem, but this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Locating HQ2 in Detroit would have been transformative.

Scott Galloway’s conclusion is withering in its assessment of this move that displayed canny PR and negotiation and a disappointing display of capitalism taken to its extreme all at once.

I keep going back to a note from Seth Godin on capitalism – capitalism exists to maximize civilization and not the other way around.

This was a classic case of the other way around.

Written selling

Most non-sales job descriptions underemphasize the amount of selling required as part of our jobs. And, of all the selling we do, the ability to do “written selling” is, ironically, under-sold.

Written selling is all the writing we do on a daily basis – via long form documents, emails, and messaging conversations – to persuade others on the merits of whatever it is we’re selling.

We could be selling belief in a vision in a long form doc, the fact that we’re on top of the crisis-of-the-day in an email exchange, and that the task at hand is the best use of our teammate’s time over a message exchange.

When we picture selling, we picture the verbal version. But, in today’s workplace, our ability to write persuasively is a high leverage skill.

Lessons on change from making yoghurt

Our family is from a part of India where plain yoghurt is a key part of the diet. Yoghurt is a great counter to the heat and, thus, a staple. So, I grew up a big yoghurt fan and that continues to this day.

As a result, I “make” yoghurt 2-3 times a week. I put make in quotes because it makes itself. But, there’s still a lightweight process involved. And, that requires me to heat the milk till it almost boils over, allow it to cool down a bit, pour a bit of existing yoghurt, and leave it to do its thing over the next day or so.

This process turns out to be very instructive in driving change in ourselves –
1. It helps to face the heat and be under a bit of pressure that pushes us to recognize the importance of change (too much heat causes other spillover effects).

2. Next, we must give ourselves a bit of time to partially recover from the period of intensity and use that time to reflect on the kind of change we’d like to drive.

3. Then, it helps to find a role model for that change – either a person who embodies the behavior or a book or a course that teaches us the way – and spend mental time with that role model.

4. Finally, give it time.

Lots to learn from yoghurt, we have.

Bad manager

In a conversation with a leader of an organization recently, I learnt that her list of the three most impactful people in her life features a bad manager – the worst manager she’s ever had.

She said the experience was so bad that she still woke up from bed many years later determined to create the opposite experience for anyone who worked for her. She is known for her ability to lead and manage people now – so, the experience clearly worked out in the long run. :-)

But, it speaks to the interesting thing about bad experiences. Understanding them always involves holding two truths together. On the one hand, it is natural to work to avoid the ones that are avoidable. On the other hand, their presence can both be instructive and provide the sort of perspective that helps us appreciate good experiences.

Perhaps the best way to approach tough situations lies in embracing this contradiction. Do your best to ensure good outcomes – but, don’t beat yourself up if they don’t turn out as you’d expected. If you take the time to reflect and learn from the pain, it more than pays off in the long run.

Learning systems

Our ability to be continuous learners is directly proportional to the quality of learning systems we put in place in our lives.

Our learning is proportional to our ability to synthesize i) our own experiences, ii) conversations with people, and iii) information from books and courses. And, good learning systems enable us to do all 3 of these. For example, a learning system to improve on our communication skills might look something like this –

1. Get a great book on communication or sign up for an online course. Then, spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day reading the books / listening to the course – followed by 5 minutes of synthesis.

2. Practice every morning on our drive or walk.

3. Ask to spend time on a regular cadence with the best communicators we know discussing communication.

4. At the end of every work day,  write down a 1-2 line reflection on how we communicated before we shut our laptop. Do it again on the weekend and revisit our learning system for the week.

5. Teach what we are learning every week or every month to anyone who will listen or read. Our dog, baby, roommate, or mom, are all viable candidates for this. :-)

Each of these mini-systems, on their own, will accelerate our learning. But, piece them all together and learning compounds very quickly.

The beauty about taking the effort to set up a learning system is that we can replace communication with graphic design tomorrow. With a few tweaks, a good system will adapt to aiding our efforts to work on skills that involve other people too.

If we care about improving our ability to learn, consider building a system, we must.

What does a product manager do?

A quick note for the new subscribers: I just started doing a bi-weekly series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). As I write to learn, you’ll notice posts on the topics I spend most of my time thinking about on weekends. Thus, it is technology/product management on Sundays and parenting on Saturdays. :)

We kicked this series off with an attempt at answering the the most common question about problem management – “What is the day in the life of?” In doing so, we looked at the 4 core skills of an individual contributor Product Manager – problem finding, problem solving, selling, and building effective teams.

Today, we’ll tackle the other common question – “What does a product manager actually do?” As with the last post, this is focused on the individual contributor Product Manager vs. a manager/leader of product managers. We’ll build up to the latter later in the series.

So, what does a product manager do?: A product manager brings a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build a product that is valuable, usable, feasible.

This definition builds on Marty Cagan’s articulation of product management by explicitly calling out the role of the product manager in bringing a team together. I’m aware that there is definition out there that explains what the product manager does by describing a person who spends time at the intersection of technology, design, and user experience. While there are many problems with that definition, the most important is that it is output focused vs. outcome focused. The outcome that matters is a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.

Inevitably, this discussion on what a product manager does takes us back to the 4 core skills of a product manager. Each of the 4 contributes to our definition –

1. Bringing together a team of cross functional stakeholders effectively requires us to build effective teams.

2. Building a product that is valuable requires problem finding and selling.

3. And, solving for usability and feasibility requires plenty of problem solving supported by selling.

Who are these cross functional stakeholders?: The typical list of functions a product manager works with is proportional to the size of the company and is dependent on the type of product. In smaller companies, multiple members of the team likely wear more than one hat. And, B2B products, for example, tend to have more cross functional involvement due to the concerted go-to-market efforts required. All that said, a list of the stakeholders who combine to become the product team would look something like this –

product-team

I have a long list of cross functional stakeholders listed in the “value” part because that is most challenging part of product management. Getting the “value” part right means finding that ever elusive product-market fit.

At this point, it is important to understand why a lot of the writing around product management tends to focus on the process of building products that are usable and feasible. That is a function of the fact that a large number of product managers are working on established products that have already found product-market fit – i.e., the survivors.

In such situations, building effective teams and problem solving through usability and feasibility issues tend to be the skills in demand. Established products do still go through the process of problem definition – every new feature still needs a problem statement and hypothesis. But, it is much easier to do this when you’re building on a successful product.

If, however, you’re tasked to build something new for an existing audience or target a new audience altogether, problem definition becomes the single most important skill (the ability to sell comes second). If you’re not building something that is of value to customers/users and that fits within the company’s strategic vision, the most beautifully designed/engineered product is useless.

What exactly is good problem definition?: Since I’ve spent a lot of time in both posts on the importance of good problem definition, I’d like to do a quick outline of what “good” looks like (detailed version to follow in another post). The two key steps in defining a problem well are generating a good problem statement and hypothesis.

Problem statement – Good problem statements clearly articulate i) the audience, ii) their unsolved need, and iii) the importance of meeting that need.

Hypothesis – A good hypothesis is a proposal for meeting the audience’s need articulated in the problem statement that can be validated/tested through experimentation or analysis of existing data. A hypothesis generally takes the form of a collection of assumptions that can be tested.

Getting the problem statement and hypothesis right are the first and most important steps of the product creation process.

Conclusion and a preview: This post was focused on defining what an IC Product Manager does – bringing a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build a product that is valuable, usable, feasible. As we explored this, we touched on cross functional stakeholders and problem definition. Understanding how to craft a good problem statement and hypothesis helps explain why product creation is less about “minimum viable products” and more about “riskiest assumption tests” – an idea we’ll spend time on in future posts.

At this point, it is also worth taking a step back and asking why we didn’t begin this series with this post. Why not start with what product managers do and then follow it up with the skills required for the job? I think that flow gets to what is generally broken about hiring and PM hiring is no exception. Most hiring focuses on past experiences over skills and, thus, inadvertently prioritizes intercept over slope. There’s an opportunity in there for all of us – for those who are looking to hire great teammates and for those who are seeking to move into product management.

More to come on all of this.

Frontal assaults

When we picture wars through history, we often picture two armies clashing against each other – i.e. a frontal assault. Frontal assaults rely on raw power and lose effectiveness over time because of their predictability. I remember seeing a stat that said <5% of all wars fought involved frontal assaults.

That makes sense. Force and raw power tend to be most effective when used sparingly.

You see this all the time in interactions between parents and children. Parents who employ the frontal assault strategy may win a few battles – but, inevitably, lose the war. The dominant strategy when faced with war tends to be tact (to look for ways to avoid it if possible) and surprise.

I’ve written about my struggles with tact from time to time here. I tend to impulsively fight fire with fire – a really bad strategy in any confrontation. Luckily, parenting a 2 year old has provided a great training ground to improve my skills.

As with most things in life, making the change is not about shutting down that rush of blood when my lymbic brain senses an imminent confrontation. Instead, it is channeling that rush of blood to work on a tactful response/creating a surprising distraction.

This is no different from the principle of separating reaction from response. But, then again, principles are easier said than done. And, making them second nature requires plenty of tactical experimentation.

Here’s to that.

Sharpies and predictions

The 37 signals/Basecamp team once shared a post about using thick sharpies when sketching early designs. The beauty about sharpies is that they force you to focus on the core elements of what you are trying to build. That’s because you can’t obsess about the details the same way you can with thinner markers.

I find a similar approach to be useful when attempting to make long term predictions or sizing markets. Complex models look good and seem more accurate – but they often end up focusing us on details that don’t matter. Since the point of long term predictions is getting a sense of magnitude, there typically are a handful of drivers that actually move the needle.

So, the fewer the variables and simpler the assumptions, the better the prediction generally is.

Or, put differently, if you’re not able to share your model on a whiteboard using sharpies, there’s likely work to be done.

Life lessons from the 30 year reunion

Deborah Copaken, a writer at the Atlantic, shared a beautiful note about lessons she learnt at her 30 year reunion.

I think the magic of this note is that it inadvertently touches on many contradictions – money matters but it can’t be the main thing, love isn’t everything but it helps a lot, diversity is important even if supporting it means going against yourself, and an appreciate of life often requires an acceptance of death.

In doing so, it reminds us of the importance of making peace with the many opposing forces that come together to make this life.

Here are a few notes from her that resonated deeply.


Every classmate who became a teacher or doctor seemed happy with the choice of career.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but in an online survey of our class just prior to the reunion, those of us with more of it self-reported a higher level of happiness than those with less.

Our strongest desire, in that same pre-reunion class survey—over more sex and more money—was to get more sleep.

Many of our class’s shyest freshmen have now become our alumni class leaders, helping to organize this reunion and others.

Nearly all the alumni said they were embarrassed by their younger selves, particularly by how judgmental they used to be.

No matter what my classmates grew up to be—a congressman, like Jim Himes; a Tony Award–winning director, like Diane Paulus; an astronaut, like Stephanie Wilson—at the end of the day, most of our conversations at the various parties and panel discussions throughout the weekend centered on a desire for love, comfort, intellectual stimulation, decent leaders, a sustainable environment, friendship, and stability.

Those of us who’d experienced the trauma of near death—or who are still facing it—seemed the most elated to be at reunion. “We’re still here!” I said to my friend, who used to run a health company and had a part of the side of his face removed when his cancer, out of nowhere, went haywire. We were giggling, giddy as toddlers, practically bouncing on our toes, unable to stop hugging each other and smiling as we recounted the gruesome particulars of our near misses.

I can hold both of these truths—diversity is good; the roots of diversity in the admissions process were prejudiced against my own people—and not only still be able to function but also to see that sometimes good results can come from less-than-good intentions.


Powerful – thank you for sharing Deborah.

PS: To everyone who came here from Seth’s blog post yesterday, welcome! One of the wonderful side effects of writing here for the last ten years is getting to know you and hearing from you on your reflections. The hope is that you find that often elusive mix of content that has you smiling and nodding occasionally, shaking your head in disagreement every once a while, and enabling you to reflect more often than not. I hope you find that.

Please don’t hesitate to write in by replying to this email (if you subscribed via email)/via rohan at rohanrajiv.com. Hearing from you is always a highlight.