Some good news – Carbios and plastic

Plastic is an ever present in most of our lives. Sadly, the result is the presence of billions of tons of plastic wasted all over the planet – from the Arctic to the Mariana Trench. We don’t yet know the second and third order effects of all this waste – for example, what are the effects of plastic entering our food chain via animals and fish?

While such impact is hard to discern measure, it is highly likely not positive.

But, plastic is also an invaluable fixture in our daily lives. So, eliminating plastic is a near impossibility. And, even if we will hopefully make strides toward (significantly?) reducing plastic use over time, we also need to find a way to recycle plastic. This has proved to be really difficult in the past and researchers have been attacking the problem in earnest over the past two decades.

And, we have some good news along those lines – scientists in France have created a mutant bacterial enzyme that has managed to successfully break down 90% of PET bottles (think: soft drink bottles) and then use them create new-food grade plastic bottles. Their paper was published on the journal Nature recently – see here.

Carbios, the company that these scientists, founded is leading the charge here toward possibly enabling industrial scale recycling in 4-5 years. While that is most certainly 4-5 years later than I’d like, the fact that it is a possibility thanks to this breakthrough is very heartening.

(H/T: The Guardian for sharing this)

Can’t Help Falling in Love by Kina Grannis

We finally got to watching Crazy Rich Asians last weekend – we loved it. In the week that has passed, we’ve probably listened to this rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kina Grannis a hundred times.

Such an incredible cover – it is performed by her in the movie as well.

Thank you, Kina.

PS: There’s also a neat story about a Chinese version of Coldplay’s song “Yellow” in that movie and what it meant to the directory.

The frontlines

During a deeply unsettling time, many humans are on the frontlines making it possible for us to stay safe in our homes.

They are ensuring essentials like food are getting transported around the world, keeping grocery stores running, ensuring essential businesses stay open, fighting fire/emergencies, and, of course, treating the sick and wounded in hospitals.

Many of these folks are doing this while also facing real worries about not meeting ends meet.

While we can never repay the many who are sacrificing their health and wellness on the frontlines, there are two things we can do.

First, continue to stay at home so we ensure their struggles are not in vain.

And, second, do the small things that might help them. Tip generously, order some extra takeout from our favorite restaurant, say a heartfelt thank you during our grocery run, donate – each small steps adds a bit of gratitude and love into the system.

And, it all adds up.

All steps are purposeful

“The drama of being human is great and complicated. The pathless path is pockmarked with pain and suffering. But seen from the vantage point that all steps are purposeful, all of it seems worthwhile – a glorious, life-giving retort to those who would question our worthiness and lovability.”| Jerry Colonna in Reboot

Over the past few weeks, I’ve sprinkled a passage once a week from Jerry Colonna’s lovely book, Reboot. Thanks to my current snail’s pace of reading, I finally finished the book. The central thesis of the book is that better humans make better leaders.

As you might imagine, that resonates deeply.

And then there’s the fact that there are so many beautiful passages (like the one above) that struck a chord as I read them. So, more of these to come.

Thank you for a lovely book, Jerry.

A kiss and a stern word to help with pain

Right from when our first kid was a few months old, we started a tradition wherein any fall or accident would be followed by –

a) an acknowledge of the “ouwie”
b) a kiss at the place where it is hurting the most
c) a stern word or two to the offending piece of furniture or floor to be careful

Three and a half years in and thanks to enthusiastic adoption by our second, these three steps follow every accident. a) calms the kids down, b) somehow helps them feel better, and c) is generally the source of much joy.

Aside from being a fun tradition, it has helped me appreciate the deep connection between physical and mental pain as well as the resulting profound power of placebos.

It also makes me think of pain I experience. How much of that would be solved by these 3 steps?

Perhaps more than I’d like to admit.

5 minutes to appreciate one relationship

Aspirational habit/Periodic reminder to self: Find 5 minutes to appreciate one relationship – either a cross-functional partner/teammate at work or a friend outside of work.

3 added notes on this practice –

1. If we’re appreciating a work colleague, consider letting their manager know. Doing this with specific feedback about what we appreciate is the icing on the cake.

2. It helps to appreciate strong relationships while we are in them (this is very hard to do given our propensity to take them for granted!). Aside from being good for our happiness, it increases the likelihood we’ll keep that relationship strong and, thus, reduces the chance we’ll regret not sharing appreciation when we don’t have it anymore. :-)

3. Appreciating others instantly spreads joy and peace of mind. Doing so without any expectation of being appreciated gives us peace of mind and joy.

Viktor Frankl on success and happiness

“Again and again, I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

And it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.

Then you will live to see that in the long-run, in the long-run, I say(!), success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”

I remember hearing this for the first time nearly a decade ago. It is a note I’ve thought of from time to time over the years.

I was reminded of it today. And, I was reminded of the fact that it is the sort of reminder that always seems perfectly timed.

Attempting to build products remotely during a pandemic

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far –

If it isn’t evident from the title of this note, I’d like to make sure we start by acknowledging one thing – there is no playbook. Every one of us is figuring this out and this post is all about the process of “becoming” and not the “being.”

With that out of the way, I thought I’d start with the “why.” There are a lot of great articles out on the internet offering opinions on how long the unusual situation we find ourselves in will continue. I am not going to add my opinions to the mix. What is clear, however, is that we all likely have at least a few weeks of this ahead of us.

And, as this has been a sea change for many of us, I thought I’d share the best tips I’ve heard from others while also sharing what I’ve been observing and learning from my experiences over the past 5 weeks. Here are my 3 notes to self –

1) Take care of and be kind to yourself. I frequently think of the in-flight announcement that reminds parents to put their own oxygen masks before doing so for their children. The idea at the heart of it is – it is hard to take of others if you don’t take care of yourself.

This has been easy for me to observe – on days I’ve been frazzled and unsettled, I’ve checked in less with the team and thus been a less empathetic person.

So, how can we take better care of ourselves? Here are the 3 areas I think about –

a) Physical: 3 of the most popular tips I’ve heard from folks on our extended team – 1) Start the day with a workout, 2) Build in time for preparing and eating meals, and 3) Set clear boundaries to the workday to enable yourself to disconnect and rest.

While I think these are great, I’ll also share that these haven’t worked for me. In our case, we have been attempting to work while also filling in as pre-school teachers for our 3.5 year old and 2 year old. So, my variant of these have been – 1) Get out for a long walk/jog outdoor with the kids when you’re with them, 2) Order good home-style food if possible so you don’t have to worry about meals, and 3) Alternate early starts with days where you sleep in.

B) Mental/Emotional: This one is tougher. In my case, sleep has been the biggest needle mover of my mental/emotional health. The second has been finding the time to reflect and synthesize what I’m learning.

This is uniquely personal and I hope you’re carving out the time to take care of your mental health. For some, this means regular video calls with co-workers and friends. For others, it may involve therapy or for certain others – time spent writing. :-)

Regardless of how we’re wired, it helps to be kind to ourselves as we figure out how to be effective and productive. We need to begin by meeting ourselves where we are. Mental/emotional progress often looks something like this.

No alt text provided for this image

c) Environmental: 2 popular tips I’ve heard – 1) Wear your work clothes during the work day, 2) Have a designated working station – invest in a standing desk if necessary.

Again, my version of this is – 1) Do whatever it takes to get work done – after some testing with work clothes, I’ve settled into a comfortable shorts and t-shirt routine as it makes much easier to clean up after the kids, 2) Make sure both you and your partner split time between your more ergonomic set up and your dining table. :-)

2) Demonstrate care to your team both by checking in and by minimizing any churn. My favorite check in learning – Ask everyone on the call to share their 1-5 rating by simply raising their hands. Check in with folks who are a 3 and below.”

I’ve also heard lots of great tips on more frequent check ins, fun activities, and hangouts with the team. I can’t speak to this myself as I’ve maintained our pre-remote once or twice a week (depending on the project) stand up meeting schedule. I have a reduced meeting window at this time and get most of my time outside of normal work hours. So, adding meetings hasn’t been an option. And, that has admittedly been frustrating as I’ve not been able to do anywhere as much for the teams I work with as I’d like.

That said, while check ins and compassion are great and important, I believe the best way we can demonstrate care is by minimizing churn. These are difficult times in most companies – there are legitimate concerns about customers defaulting, meeting payroll, layoffs, and such. In companies where cash isn’t as much a concern, there probably are plenty of discussions about whether existing roadmaps need to be changed or thrown out of the window to better meet the needs of users and customers.

These kinds of situations can be very challenging if the team feels unsure about product direction – it helps to have some certainties. These situations can also be frustrating for us as the emotions involved in the moment can result in some unhelpful and incomplete short term thinking.

In such situations, there are 3 things we can do to ensure we’re responding vs. reacting –

a) Make sure we’re requesting our leaders to communicate their priorities. Understanding their current thought process can help us better understand how we should adapt.

b) Communicate what we’re hearing and learning with the cross-functional team leads (and the team) so they are in the know. In challenging times where most things feel outside our control, we tend to operate with lower levels of trust. And, since the amount of communication required is inversely proportional to trust, we need to communicate a lot more.

b) Make sure we are applying problem finding fundamentals more than ever on any new “urgent” project we’re being asked to explore. When times get busy, the fundamentals of putting together a rock solid problem statement (who is it for?, is there a real need?, what is the business value?), laying out the assumptions for the question – “what would it take for this to work?,” validating them with data where possible, and outlining the success metrics matter more than ever. As a friend once said, it is okay to build incrementally – it is just not okay to think incrementally.

No alt text provided for this image

There is no dearth of meaningless projects that sound good but do nothing. As custodians of customer and user problems, it is on us to make sure we’re being rigorous in our thinking. And, the best time to catch ourselves from working on a meaningless project is before any work begins.

It is also a good time to remind ourselves of the cost curve of a typical project. If a meaningless project was costly before the lockdown, it is significantly more costly now.

No alt text provided for this image

3) Obsess about the 2 things that matter. Start and end every day and week with a clear list of the two things that matter. As you make your way through the day, ensure this list stays updated.

Given the extraordinary circumstances in which we’re operating, on some days, this list might involve duties outside of work. All we can do is focus on what we control and do our best with what we have.

This is one of those ideas that is frustratingly simple to understand while being incredibly hard to do. Consistent execution on this idea always ends up being game changing – for us, the team, and the users of our products.


My biggest struggles: As I shared above, writing is my form of therapy and I’m writing this on the back of a week where many things felt like they were going sideways.

In this case, I didn’t do a good job defining the 2 things that matter consistently enough. When I did do it, I found myself unwilling to make clear trade-offs and/or communicate my priorities clearly – leading to at least one unsavory situation. And, to top it all, I did a really poor job setting boundaries over the previous weekend and week.

Ergo these 3 notes to self. I’m hoping to do better next week. And, I hope they help you in your journey too.

(Added note: Making it through the work week – especially the last day or two that seemed to stretch forever – was thanks to some amazing cross functional partners. Thank you for your patience and understanding.)

A life sidebar: As I’ve been processing the events of the last few weeks, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that we’re facing multiple crises all at once – a pandemic, a financial crisis, and various others depending on where you live and what you are going through.

In my attempts to make sense of what is going on, I think there are 2 seemingly contradictory truths to internalize –

1. Everyone around us is hurting from this epidemic. They may be hurting in different ways and to different degrees – but, they’re hurting nevertheless. While it is tempting to compare our pain versus theirs – cut by age of kids, marital status, introversion/extraversion, etc., – the truth is that these are all just marginal differences in the big scheme of things.

2. The real chasm this epidemic exacerbates is that between the haves and the have nots. If we have a) savings in the bank to see us through the next 6 months and/or b) a steady paycheck (likely from a job that can be done remotely), we are firmly in the have category.

This isn’t to trivialize any pain we’re going through. Our problems – even if they are first world problems – are still problems and it is impossible to serve others if we don’t take care of ourselves. And, the only way to make progress is meet ourselves where are, create the space to patiently respond, learn to be kind to ourselves and others… while also continuing to maintain that combination of physical distance and social connection.

Once we do that, however, it is on us to ask the question – what can we do to help those whose needs are far greater than ours?

It is perfectly okay if we aren’t there yet. But, in the spirit of reminders, this is one for when we are ready.

For a leader by John O Donohue

May you have the grace and wisdom to act kindly, learning to distinguish between what is personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.

May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service.

May you work on yourself, building up and refining the ways of your mind.

May those who work for you know you see and respect them.

May you learn to cultivate the art of presence in order to engage with those who meet you.

When someone fails or disappoints you, may the graciousness with which you engage be their stairway to renewal and refinement.

May you treasure the gifts of the mind through reading and creative thinking so that you continue as a servant of the frontier

Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old, and you never become a functionary.

For a leader

May you know the wisdom of deep listening, the healing of wholesome words, the encouragement of the appreciative gaze, the decorum of held dignity, the springtime edge of the bleak question.

May you have a mind that loves frontiers so that you can evoke the bright fields that lie beyond the view of the regular eye.

May you have good friends to mirror your blind spots.

May leadership be for you a true adventure of growth.

This poem touched many a chord.

Range, comparisons, and falling behind

I read David Epstein’s Range a few weeks before the lock down (so, a lifetime ago) and was mulling the biggest lessons I took away from the book. They were –

a) Breadth of experiences are both key and undervalued. So, take the time to choose where you’d like to focus.

b) Lean into what your experiences have given you. And, also remember to lean into the experiences you are presented with. The dots only connect backward.

c) There is no such thing as “falling behind.” Comparisons are useless too. You are on your own unique path – one that will be defined by the range of skills you develop.

In our day-to-day, it is easy to get caught up in random rat races.

But, as David Epstein reminds us, there is no such race.

And, we probably don’t need a book to remind us – but, we are also not rats.