Riding the Subway

When I lived in NYC, I started suddenly seeing Tumblrs about people (mostly men) taking up too much space on the subway. Here’s one as an example.

Many of these cases show trains with plenty of space. While it’s still an expression of privilege, it has fewer practical implications if there are plenty of open seats on the train.

Unfortunately, in Boston, I frequently see this when the train is packed (even with people still waiting on the platform). In those cases an empty seat is one less person who gets on the train. Or it’s one more person crammed into the packed standing area, when there’s a seat available. For some reason, people here are too polite to sit down and force the person to make room. I assume some of the men taking up too much space don’t realize they are doing so.

I often see women look at the seat, evaluate if they think the man will move, and then walk and stand at the other side of the car – leaving that one open. Once one person has deemed it “un-sittable” no one else seems to either.

So, I’ve been sitting in all of those seats. Even when I don’t really want to sit. I don’t say anything – I just reclaim the space to make it obvious the train is full. I’ll happily offer the seat to someone elderly or pregnant after I’ve reclaimed it.

Today was one of those days. I was on a crowded train. There was a man taking up about 1.5 seats worth of space. I watched a woman walk up, look like she was going to sit down, and when he didn’t adjust to make space – walk to the back of the car to get another seat.

So I did my usual. I sat down.

The man didn’t move, or make any adjustments to provide me with more space. Instead, he left his elbow on my thigh for the entire ride. The subway is crowded – often your arm will touch another arm, your leg another leg. This wasn’t that. He left his elbow on my thigh.

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything – or figure out what to say – so I just sat there for four more stops until I got to work. This is the first time my strategy has backfired, and I’ve been doing it for about a year. I’m going to keep doing it, but I sure hope that doesn’t happen again.

“But you don’t look like…”

When I announced I was going to HBS last Spring, one of the common reactions was, “wow, the old boy’s club?” or “so.. you’re trying to find a place more sexist than tech?” I think this was particularly prevalent because of an article that came out at the time.

Transitioning to HBS was anything but easy. I was an introvert in a very social environment, and I was technical in a place where many things are high level. Many things were extremely hard for me. But at least one thing was finally easy, and that was my gender. The HBS classroom is 42% women.

Since I’m sure someone will ask: HBS has things to fix on this front, but it feels light-years ahead of tech. There was one thing in particular that stood out.

When I talk with people in technology, it’s frequently assumed that I don’t belong. People ask me “are you a recruiter?” with alarming frequency. People will ask me if I’m at a technical event because my boyfriend is. It’s not uncommon for someone to say “but you don’t look like an engineer” or give me the look that says exactly the same thing. I haven’t been mistaken for a janitor, but nearly half of black and Latina women in science have.

It was a delight that this didn’t ever happen at HBS. At HBS, a common first question is “what section are you in?” – assuming you are a student. No one ever asks me “are you a partner?”

People don’t assume what job you did before, either. You cannot, and do not, look “like a consultant” or “like a banker” or “like an engineer.” Instead, they’ll ask “what do you do?”

This was a delight, and it should not have been. It’s basic courtesy to not assume you know someone’s job based on how they look. Just as someone does not look like a banker or a consultant, they also do not look like an engineer or a recruiter.

There is nothing wrong with being a recruiter. There is something very wrong with assuming someone is a recruiter just because they’re 5’4” and have long brown hair. If you stop and think for even one minute, it’s absurd to presume to know someone’s job based on their appearance.

People try to play this down and say “it’s a compliment!”
It seems like not that big of a deal.

At points in my writings about technology, I have worried about being “too sensitive.” At points, I have wondered if micro-aggressions really matter. I have wondered if it was like this everywhere, and there was no specific problem.

But I have now been elsewhere, and this is not a compliment. It is a big deal. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s rude.

These small insinuations and questions betray huge assumptions. That the only women working in technology are non-technical. That there aren’t women in technology at all.

Each time you’re asked these small questions, you’re forced to be an ambassador: correcting the assumption, proving we belong, proving you know what you’re talking about. You no longer get to speak for yourself because you have to speak for the group.

It is exhausting to have to deal with this over and over: striking the right balance of being polite, while explaining the asker has been impolite. Trying to save the next person from the same experience. Trying to change the perception, one person at a time. Even when only one person in an event with fifty asks the question – you know that someone else is thinking the same thing. It reminds you that you’re constantly being judged in a way you didn’t sign up for, and that others see you as not “belonging.”

All because of stupid questions. Rather than having women deal with this, we should all learn:

1) Don’t be presumptuous. If you want to know what someone does, say “what do you do?”
2) For extra credit, follow up with Paul Ford’s handy primer on being polite.

At HBS my opinion still had connotations: “technical” and “startup” and “blunt” – but that’s because those things are me, and they are the things I choose to represent.

I hope that someday women in technology are granted the same relief that I had this year. I hope that some day I comment and the first things people think are “consumer product management” and “artistic process” and even “MBA.” That people will judge those categories instead of my gender.

Until then the “old boy’s club” will feel more inclusive. Watching what questions we ask will be a start.

The Coaching Fellowship

Last fall I had an interesting opportunity: to participate in The Coaching Fellowship. I wasn’t 100% sure what coaching was when I started. The program has a handy chart, but everyone’s experience is different.

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The fellowship makes eight hours of coaching available to women 25-35 at a highly reduced rate. The goal is to give women the tools to succeed early in their careers and accelerate their impact. Applications have re-opened (open until June 12th!) and I wanted to take the time to share my experience as an example.

It started with an email exchange from my mom in early June, and a little over a month later I got the news: I was accepted!

Shortly thereafter, I started working with my coach, Lindsay Jean Thomson. Lindsay was a great match for me – many of her other clients are entrepreneurs in San Francisco. She has her own new startup: Women Catalysts. In addition to coaching, she’s spent time as a yoga instructor. She’s always taking interesting trips, and she was often traveling when we talked. She’s squarely in the age bracket where should could be a participant in the program! We have a lot in common.

At first I was a little envious. Lindsay seemed so secure in her work. She’s patient, she knows what she wants to do, and she does it. She reminded me of all my favorite lifestyle bloggers. But there was no real reason to be jealous: Lindsay was completely present and ready to help me figure out how I could be more effective.

The first session was my favorite. As a Product Manager, I love to define the system and figure out what’s going on. We needed to find a baseline to see what I needed to work on, and why. We went through a few key exercises, and I found all of them valuable.

I won’t go through the exercises in detail (that ruins the fun!) but to give you an idea:

1) We assessed the different “areas” of my life and how satisfied I was with each (work, friends, home, etc). We even used numerical metrics to make sure we had a firm baseline to compare to.
2) We figured out some of the persistent things that hold me back, and ways I negatively impact myself. These were the areas we wanted to tackle in the other sessions.
3) We did some visualization exercises to explore where I see my future.

One of the things I loved about the program was having homework. Having Lindsay assign the homework, and require a verbal confirmation from me, gave me more accountability. It can be easy to push personal improvement tasks to the side when you’re busy, and the homework made things more official for me.

At the beginning, Lindsay was active in defining my homework. We started with a very uncomfortable exercise in crafting a life purpose statement. As we spent more time together, Lindsay would ask me what I thought the best assignment would be and help me refine it. We’d figure out ways to apply lessons in my life. She always sent me notes after the call to reiterate the assignments.

In each subsequent session, we’d review the homework and find ways to push it further or tweak it. We maintained focus on a few key areas throughout the program. Some of them were about amplifying my strengths, and others were about fixing problem areas. I slowly got better.

The lowest point of the experience was right after my coaching ended. I’d subconsciously expected a neat bow: “and then I got my life goal of X!” or “and suddenly I felt Y!”

Instead, we just… ended. I’d put in the hours with Lindsay, I’d put in the homework, shouldn’t something magic happen? There was never a lightning bolt moment. At the time, I was sad. Almost a year later, I’m glad there wasn’t.

Coaching didn’t give me one moment, but it did give me a suite of tools that I’m still using. If I’d had that moment, I might have closed that chapter and moved on. Instead, I keep going through the process. I’m more aware of myself and my habits. I’m now better at catching the things Lindsay and I discussed. I’ll catch myself saying “just give them an A,” and I pause to ask myself if I’m devaluing intangible skills. I’m better at holding myself accountable for prioritizing personal changes.

The Coaching Fellowship is not a magic bullet. You might not end up with a visionary moment at the end, but you will emerge with the tools you need to keep going. In my mind, that’s more valuable.

Interested in applying? The Application is open here.

pm@olin: Capstone (Class 11)

This week was our last week of PM at Olin! For me, this was the most fun class we did. First, It was the most challenging pedagogically for everyone involved. It also nicely tied together what we’d covered. Added bonus: It also gave me a whole new lens to think about my HBS education through.

As always, I couldn’t have done this alone. In particular, Professor Eisenmann was a driving force behind the class. He wrote the case, helped me learn how to teach it from his teaching plans, came to class and observed, and gave feedback and explanation of cases live for my class. A huge thanks to him for helping pull together what I think was an excellent conclusion to our class!

Goals:
1. Cement everything we’d covered so far in the course.
2. See how Product works in a company that has legacy and other complications (instead of the project examples we used).
3. Use a classic business case study instead of small exercises and projects.

Required Reading:
1. Product Development at OPOWER  (Eisenmann and Go)

Materials:
1. The Case
2. Case Discussion Plan
3. Board Plan
4. Whiteboards, markers, associated props

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Exercises:

The Case – 90 minutes

The typical HBS classroom case discussion takes about 80 minutes. I don’t have the ninja-skills that HBS faculty have (but I do have the luxury of a 2.5 hour class) so we went a bit over.

I can’t share the specifics of our discussion. One key point of the cases is people don’t want the answers floating around. If you buy a copy of the case and want to chat with me about it, just let me know. If you’re an HBS student, you can request a copy for free from the library (also due to Prof. Eisenmann).

We spent about 45 minutes fleshing out the specifics of the problem. That was listing and evaluating all the options available to OPOWER and the Product Manager. Prof Eisenmann said in a more experienced classroom, we could have cut that to 30-35 minutes.

Then we talked more about some background and general facets. How did OPOWER get into this situation? How does the PM role and the organizational structure play into the dilemma? What is the best software development process? Did this one work? Is this broadly applicable to other projects?

On the whole, I was happy with how the conversation with. There were a few students who I wanted to get more involved (I did do a cold call!) and I wish I’d been more proactive about that during the conversation.

Because we only had ten students, it was easy for everyone to participate. I didn’t have to use a hand-call method, everyone just jumped into the conversation naturally.

I also felt like my leading of the discussion felt apart more as time went on. At the beginning I was pretty clear on what I wanted to cover and how to get it on the board. As we got to the final sections I was afraid it felt more like “box checking” than a genuine elucidation of knowledge. If I did it again, it would be stronger.

The Postmortem of the Case – 15 minutes

After we wrapped the case, Professor Eisenmann shared what OPOWER decided. He also made some comments on the discussion.

The students, in typical Olin-fashion, asked how they could have been better. That resulted in unplanned live debrief about the discussion. We covered how it went compared to an MBA conversation, and how I could have led the conversation more effectively.

I found this part of class rewarding. First – it’s rare to get feedback on your teaching from another experienced educator. That was a treat in itself. Secondly – it was nice to get a bit more insight into the style that goes into teaching a case. I spend a lot of time in the classroom observing what my faculty do, but it was nice to go through the process myself and see what happened.

I did draw from things my faculty do: for instance, Jan Rivkin uses colored chalk to annotate pros/cons. I tried to do the same with my markers. I also tried to ask more questions and restate less, because that sometimes frustrates me in class. After having done the postmortem, I have a lot more respect for why the faculty restate and how it moves the discussion along. I’d do so more in the future.

From the student side: Wow. I was impressed with how well they handled a case study. They evoked similar ideas to an HBS classroom. The discussion went well, in part because everyone had experience in the field and participation went back and forth a lot. Our Babson student was able to give a more business-oriented perspective, helping the discussion.

The students picked up on a lot of best practices. They took strong opinions, they spoke concisely, and they built on each others comments. There was a lot of genuine listening in the room. I honestly thought the quality of conversation was higher than some of the early conversation in our section.

(It definitely helps that they’ve been together all semester, have a smaller group, and are in a lower pressure situation – but was still impressive!)

Class Wrap – 30 minutes

We finished with a general class wrap. I was exhausted after teaching the case, so this part of class was pretty amusing.

We went back through some of the learning goals in the beginning (we covered many of them). We also chatted a bit about Olin and if I’d teach the seminar again. I hope the students benefit from having taken the class and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next!

(I’m taking it as a good sign: of all the students that enrolled and started at the beginning: no one dropped the class, and everyone attended enough seminars to get credit).

Selected Notes/Changes:
1. I’d spend more time prepping the second part of the lesson. I thought it would flow more naturally from the first.
2. I’d move to a classroom that has the moving-chalkboards the way HBS does. I felt like moving to the side of my room really changed the dynamic of the conversation.
3. I’d spend more time balancing the voices in the conversation.

pm@olin: Most Likely to Succeed (Class 10)

Class 10 was originally intended to be a recap of everything we covered before our capstone next week, as well as some “special topics” to delve deeper into a few areas.

A few hours before class started, a student forwarded me an email with the text “ :( “ added. Olin was having a screening of the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed” specifically for the students.

The documentary is about the current state and future of education in our country, and specifically followed High Tech High in San Diego. Following the film, Richard Miller (Olin’s President) and Tony Wager (Harvard Innovation Fellow) were going to take questions.

This is why Olin is a special place. The President of the college stayed at work until 9pm, on a Wednesday, to talk to students about the future of education. If I’d been a student rather than the teacher, I would’ve skipped class, no questions. You go to Olin for those opportunities.

So, I sent an email to my class with a poll about what we should do. There was a wide consensus that we should go to the film, and tie the other content into next week’s class. So that’s what we did and will do.

The film wasn’t directly related to be PM at all.

That said, I think it still make sense. A lot of being a PM is rolling with what doesn’t cost very much, and helps make the team happy. You don’t always get the most done by optimizing.

For me this week, it was letting the class take a one-time opportunity to see a film.

For a PM, It’s figuring out how to find a little extra time for the easter egg. It’s doing the extra work to get a cool side project into the product. It’s helping someone else learn a new skill. It’s the thank you cards or the day off after shipping.

pm@olin: Presentations (Class 9)

Goals

  1. Understand what makes a presentation compelling.
  2. Practice storytelling techniques.
  3. Have frameworks to consider presentations in.
  4. Understand the range of presentation types.

Optional Reading

  1. TED Talks
  2. Onlyness at TEDxHouston: Resonate (Nilofer Merchant)
  3. slide:ology (Duarte)
  4. Presentation Zen (Reynolds)
  5. Leadership Presence  (Lubar, Halpern)

Materials
Talks
Whiteboard and markers
Paper/pen

Exercises

Watch a talk – 20 Minutes

I opened the class by having us watch a talk. In this case, I picked Nilofer Merchant’s talk from TEDxHouston on Onlyness. I picked this because: I’m familiar with it, I liked it, I could pull out a lot of specific good things, and I guessed my students hadn’t seen it.

For the first 20 minutes we watched the talk together and individually took notes on what stood out to us. Some of the questions I prompted with: “What was particularly effective?” “What surprised you the most?” “How is this similar/different to your favorite talk?”

Discussion Presentations & Frameworks- 40 minutes

After the video concluded, I prompted with more questions to see what students took away form the presentation.

I asked students about their favorite moments (how do you get rid of the staplers?!) and things that were stood out while they were watching (chasing a butt around).

We started to group things on the board for what we thought was particularly effective. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but four major ones:

1) Good content. The message was important and also authentic.
2) Left us wondering, felt relatable (the staplers. what do you do with them?)
3) Related personally to the audience (positive jokes about Texans for a presentation in Texas).
4) A little bit of humor.

At this point, one student pointed out that all of the elements we’d pointed out were related very closely to storytelling and the skills required to be a good storyteller. I’ve frequently thought of presenter as storyteller, but it was nice to organically reach the conclusion. An interesting piece was that the only bit my students viewed as a “negative” they felt had been shoved in for sake of a storyline. In that case, they valued authenticity over storyline.

I used that as a chance to introduce the “PRES” framework that is taught by the Ariel group – about leadership presence The acronym stands for Present, Reaching Out, Expressive, and Self Knowing.

In contrast, I pointed out that a historically common framework was “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, and tell them what you said” – a talk version of the five paragraph essay. They laughed at me, but I did think it was important to point out that a story isn’t the right way to share absolutely everything. Sometimes you are conveying facts.

Story Telling Practice – 45 minutes

After this, we practiced telling stories. The students broke into pairs, and told a short story to their partner.

Then we went through a few iterations: tell your story without using words (act it out), tell your story using as much voice modulation as possible (both cadence and volume) and tell your story with a specific audience in mind.

The stories definitely got better as we went through the iterations. Some students (rightly) pointed out that telling the same story over and over may have helped more than the specific tools. That said, I think it was worthwhile practice.

Presentation Work – 15 minutes

This section is short because we abandoned it fairly quickly. I had each student bring a topic they were interested in presenting on, and then tried to teach my process for developing a talk.

I had them expand their idea to see if there was anything else in the space that was more interesting. Because many of the presentations had to be on a specific topic, this didn’t work as well as it does for me when I’m creating a new talk.

We did some expansion, and then students started working on expanding their primary point. As questions came up, we abandoned working in favor of me showing a wide array of talks.

Sharing Talks – 30 minutes

We concluded with a walkthrough of some of my talks. I showed my Olin Senior Capstone project, some of the “pitch decks” we created for Startup Lockdown, and some presentations I’d done at Microsoft (no confidential info).

Honestly, this was probably the most interesting and useful part of the class.

Most of the students had never seen a PowerPoint that primarily consisted of bullet points and text (how?!) and assumed that everyone was making beautiful slides for their internal work status reports. Not so.

Even with the pitch decks (crafted by a former VC and former consultant) they were horrified. I have great respect for the people who made the decks, and I trust that they’re the right form for the situation! I don’t know how to make them, but I wish I did. My students struggled to believe another way of presenting was possible.

This exercise was one of the first times I felt like I’d *significantly challenged* the way students thought about a topic. The feeling in the room was much more visceral. It’s unfortunate that I just learned this now, because I wish I would have been more controversial, sooner.

Selected Changes / Notes

1. I forgot to take photos of the whiteboards. I think that means I’m getting more comfortable and this is becoming more routine, but it sure makes it hard to write things up after.
2. One way of teaching is to figure out what the “sacred cows” are and challenge those. It seems to open up more emotion and discussion.

pm@olin: Metrics (Class 8)

This one is a bit of a tough one to write, because I didn’t write the class! Adam Sigel came in to do the lesson on Metrics. He’s a Product Manager at InsightSquared, a Boston-area company that provides tools for Business Analytics. I’m incredibly glad Adam taught this lesson because I spend less time with metrics than most PMs. I learned a lot too. A huge thanks to Adam for coming!!!

Goals

  1. Understand how to pick the right metrics for your project.
  2. Understand how to track metrics and some of the tools that are available.
  3. Understand how to apply metrics back to your Product in order to learn and make a better version.
  4. Understand how metrics fit in with the other parts of your product process.

Optional Reading

  1. Measuring What Matters (Yoskovitz)
  2. SMART Framework  (Wikipedia)
  3. AARRR – Pirate Metrics (McClure)
  4. More than Metrics talks at #ProductSF and Beyond the Code (second is a longer, expanded version of the first (Chisa).
  5. Blameless Postmortems (Allspaw)

Materials
Whiteboard and markers
Paper/pen
Software to demo

Exercises

This class was more of a full-group style than usual. In many of my lessons, I split the students into groups to do projects. For this class we remained together, seminar or discussion style and worked through the issues together. It was a nice variation from the usual!

Introduction – 15 minutes

Since Adam was new to the class, he took some time to explain his background:

  • Previous roles in PM / before PM
  • Why he transitioned into PM
  • The structure and responsibilities of his current PM team
  • The differences between his roles at Aereo and InsightSquared

I think it’s always valuable to know where your teacher is coming from. I try to be very up front about my background/strengths weaknesses, but I did want the class to be exposed to other perspectives.

I particularly liked that Adam was coming from a non-technical background. For technical PMs, early in your career it’s easy to miss what non-technical PMs are bringing that you can’t.

Picking Metrics – 40 minutes

Adam then transitioned into how to pick metrics. He did this by helping the students work through examples.

We started with a student’s, Ryan’s, current project. I won’t share what his project is, but we worked through how he’d measure acquisition and what other things he cares about users doing.

Then, we worked through some other examples using popular companies. In particular, we talked about Snapchat Discover. We discussed what metrics Snapchat might have been trying to optimize for when they made the feature. Then we talked about how they’d measure success of the feature.

It’s a little hard to explicitly go through everything we mentioned for this piece, so I’ll recommend the two articles in the “resources” section as possible frameworks for looking at metrics. In general, I like the “SMART” framework (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, timely). I don’t often go through the entire framework, I just think “what do I want to know?” and “how can I measure that so I know if it’s changing?”

One of the things we particularly wanted to highlight was the idea that you should be picking a metric with a point of view. Metrics aren’t about measuring random data – it’s about having a hypothesis and testing it, or having something that you specifically want to learn.

Use of Metrics (and Funnels) – 40 minutes

To talk through use of metrics, Adam also showed us what he uses for his own projects. Since he works at InsightSquared, he uses their tools for measuring success.

He introduced the concept of a funnel, which we hadn’t previously covered in class, and how you want to measure different things at different parts of the funnel. Again, I’m not going to show the specifics. A comparable explanation is Dave McClure’s talk on the AARRR metrics.

He also talked about which specific numbers matter to him right now, why those are the numbers that matter, and what he does to impact them.

AMA – 30 minutes

We concluded with a bunch of time to just ask Adam questions about his experiences as a PM. This covered a bunch of different topics we’d already discussed, and some new areas.

Post Mortems – 30 minutes

Towards the end I also took the time to explain the post-mortem process that we didn’t get to in “building” or “feedback.”

We discussed where postmortems come from (engineering failures), and the Swiss cheese theory of things going wrong. I liked this section because it isn’t just applicable to software – you can go through the same process to consider a hardware failure.

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This is slide is accessible from this talk by Noah Sussman. I think it’s originally from John’s talk on the same topic as the article in materials. I’ve always found it to be a very clear explanation of how things go wrong.

After explaining the basic concept, I shared a framework I like to use for Product postmortems. My framework is to do them post-launch, and then analyze how the project went:

  1. The PM should create a detailed, factual timeline of how everything went – circulated to the attendees to add to. The important part is that this is about facts.
  2. During the meeting, everyone should walk through the timeline and add anything that’s missing, and note patterns.
  3. The group can then come up with a list of “things we did well” and “things we can improve upon next time.”

This provides learning from the project that will make future projects with the same team go more smoothly. One downside of teaching this process in schools is that students often work with different people the next time around – there isn’t the project consistency that you get at work.

Selected Changes / Notes

  1. I should’ve taken better notes while Adam was talking. I learned things, but two weeks after the fact it’s hard for me to be sure I’ve documented this as well as some of the other lessons.
  2. I liked having the more seminar-discussion style participation. With a class of 10 it isn’t too hard to get everyone talking.
  3. I also learned some of the students didn’t know about this blog, which is a pretty big “whoops” given I document everything here. HI STUDENTS!

pm@olin: Feedback (Class 7)

For this workshop, I focused on the idea of doing personal level feedback rather than Product Critique. My rational was that this is (a) harder and (b) a good foundation to build from in terms of other feedback. If I were doing it again, I would try to include both.

For this class, a huge thanks goes to Alicia Morga who took the time to share some resources and exercises that she uses when teaching this subject. She’s spent a ton of time working on this, and I actually took one of her prototype classes on giving feedback. Her work formed the core of the this class, and I made some adjustments for Olin. Anything that went wrong is purely my fault :)

Goals
1. Learn some frameworks for personal interaction and feedback.
2. Learn how to give and receive feedback in a team setting.

Optional Reading
(again, thanks to Alicia Morga).

  1. Five Levels of Communication (Francisco)
  2. Emotional Intelligence:  Why it can matter more than IQ (Goleman)
  3. Influence without Authority (Bradford and Cohen)
  4. Emotions Revealed (Ekman)
  5. Difficult Conversations (Stone)
  6. Thanks for the Feedback (Stone)
  7. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen (Faber and Mazlich) – technically a parenting book with good communication advice.
  8. What We Say Matters (Lasater and Lasater)

 

Materials
Whiteboard and markers
Paper/pen

Ground Rules

This is the first class that I set unique Ground Rules for. Given that feedback is a charged topic, at the beginning I went through these rules. I also gave anyone who wasn’t feeling open to receiving feedback the option to leave the classroom (no penalty). No one took me up on it.

1. Be 100% Present. This means no side conversations, no technology, no leaving the room when we aren’t having a break.
2. Take the most respectful possible interpretation. This means not jumping to conclusions about what someone else says, or their situation. We’re all here to help each other
3. No discussing outside. While it’s totally open to discuss the frameworks and tools we used (or use them!) no one should discuss personal stories outside of the room.

Exercises – 2.5 hours

We covered four exercises in the classroom. I tried to write down the baseline length of time the exercise took – but between each exercise we reflected and talked about what we learn, so each took a bit longer.

House Drawing & Lecture – 30+ Minutes

For the first exercise, I and each student draw a house. Then, I had the group give them feedback on the house. The idea was to get an idea of where people started in a very low pressure situation.

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I used this to introduce a few different frameworks:

Complimentary vs. Constructive – The first few pieces of house feedback were all what we often call “positive feedback” – “I like the house, I like the tree you included” etc.

I took this as an opportunity to introduce new language. Positive/negative gives an unfair perception of one type of feedback being good and the other bad. In reality, both types are valuable. I also shared the notion that the best time to give complimentary feedback is when the action is happening to reinforce the behavior

Then we got some constructive feedback involved. This allowed me to share:

Don’t use the “shit sandwich” – compliment/criticism/compliment – this makes things seem disingenuous. As mentioned above, it’s better to give feedback at the time it’s relevant.

Feedback should be specific – Many of the pieces of feedback were also too general. We talked about how to give specific, constructive feedback that would be actionable.

When to Give Feedback – 20 Minutes

The house exercise naturally transitioned us into some questions around “when to give feedback?” This allowed us to cover some of the reasons people are reluctant to give feedback (fear of jeopardizing the relationship in particular).

The answer here is “Ask First” – the key tenant here is to ask first and get buy in before giving feedback. There’s nothing wrong with being honest and saying “can I give you some feedback?”

This also led to the question of “well, can I say no if someone wants to give me feedback?”

We talked about some reasons why people reluctant receive feedback. One big one is that people often have the mental mis-model that if they get feedback, they need to change. A better mental model to work with is that if you get feedback, that’s just more information that you can use as you like. Feedback is a gift.

We talked about how accepting feedback can be a good way to build a relationship, and you can choose to disregard the feedback if you want to. We also discussed the five levels of communication and taking things deeper or back up a level depending on the comfort of both parties involved.

http://www.newcommglobal.com/upload/Five%20Levels%20of%20Communication%20-%20Francisco%282%29.pdf

Personal Stories – 20+ Minutes

We then applied the lecture exercise using another short framework – the students got into pairs, shared a personal story, and then gave feedback on the story using our new frameworks. Then each pair flipped and tried it the other way. This was a low pressure way to help internalize the new frameworks.

Giving Feedback to Someone else – 40+ minutes

We then took this up a notch. Each student came up with a scenario in which they’d like to give feedback to someone else.

Everyone paired up in pairs of Student A/ Student B.

Student A described the person they wanted to give feedback to to Student B.
Student A pretended to be THEIR PERSON.
Student B pretended to be Student A and gave feedback.
Student A responded as though they were their person.

This was a way to remove some emotion from the experience and see how someone else would provide feedback. Additionally, it provided some empathy for how the other student might feel while receiving feedback.

Johari Windows – 30+ minutes

We concluded with Johari windows. Students paired up with another student that they knew well. Then they did the classic Johari window exercise – picking five adjectives to describe themselves, and five to describe their partner. They created personal windows using the four traditional categories: “open, blind spot, private, and unknown.”

Giving Feedback – X minutes

If we’d had more time, I wanted the students to actually practice giving feedback in a genuine situation. The issue was that we ran out of time, and also that most students didn’t feel a need to give feedback to people in the room.

Selected Changes / Notes

1. Today was an interesting class. The feedback that I got from the students was that these exercises were less immediately helpful than some of the ones we’d done on other days. My gut feeling is that it’s because the other ones (i.e. launching and specs) were concrete skills students hadn’t seen before – this is a bit more nebulous. I also didn’t feel like many of these were helpful right when I did them, but I think it helps in the long run. I’m curious to see how students feel in a couple weeks/months.
2. I think partially that these students were also relatively aware of these concepts, even if they hadn’t formally learned them. Olin has a pretty strong feedback culture, so people tend to learn by doing – even if they don’t know the words.
3. I wish we’d had more actual conflict so we could do feedback in the classroom. If we had a class project, that would have been a good opportunity to include it.
4. I also wish I’d included more on the practical side of Product critique. I might work that in later in the class.

pm@olin: Launching (Class 6)

One of the most influential moments of my college career was visiting final presentations for 2.00b, Toy Design, at MIT. At the end of the semester, all of the projects looked professionally polished (take a look!) This was a long shot from where most of my projects ended up – for example the hardware and circuits in my Principles of Engineering Class.

I wanted to take part of the workplace “launch” skills back into the classroom, to give students an idea before that actually started launching.

Goals
1. Understand the different types of “launches”
2. Understand how the technical side of launching varies for a company that makes software, hardware, or a service.
3. Understand all the other pieces of “launching” outside of the technical.

Optional Reading
1. Shipping is a feature (Steven Sinofsky)
2. Product Hunt Manual (Kiki Shirr)
3. Why most Product Launches Fail (Joan Schneider and Julie Hall)

Materials
Whiteboard and markers
Laptops or pen/paper for students

Guest – 30 – 45 minutes
This is the first week we had a guest in my class! Tom Rudick joined us to talk about the some of the differences between Product Management and Engineering. In particular he included calendar examples for both to tie to the week before. His talk didn’t specifically tie to the class material. We also walked through a few sample technical interview questions.

Exercises

We approached this class in a similar manner to the way we approached the Specs class. After we had a short conversation on each topic, the student worked on their own idea for a bit.

Types of Companies – 20 minutes

I started by breaking the idea down into three major areas – Hardware, Software, and Services. There’s probably a better way to do this, but I wanted to separate some of the differences I see in technical launch risks.

Software: Considering everything you need to ship the product. This could include: Functional End to End Testing, Nonfuctional Testing, Device support, Browser support, internationalization (i18n), accessibility (a11y) and security concerns. We also talked about scalability and releasing a feature incrementally to your user base. I showed a sample “shipping checklist” of what you should look at as a PM before you’re shipping. Unfortunately we spent the most time in this area because this is the area that I know best.

Hardware: In this area I wanted students to consider manufacturing concerns. Are you hand making the first few units yourself? How do you pick a factory? US/International? Do you visit the factory? How do you weigh shipping costs? How do you handle distribution?

Services: I mostly threw this in because I wanted to showcase a couple different MVP techniques. It’s easier to example the Wizard of Oz and the Concierge model using a Service.

You could definitely break this up differently. I just wanted to point out that the “technical” side of your launch plan will likely depending on the type of business you build. Many of the students pointed out that they wanted to build a hybrid of these – that’s fine. We had a mix across the class of each type and combinations of the types.

Types of Launches – 20 minutes

After settling on projects and thinking about the key types of technical concerns for each launch, we discussed “What is a launch, anyway?”

As expected, this varied across the class. We built a full list of different types of “launches” based on some expectations. There are probably more, but this is a good starting point:

Alpha – The first time anyone is using your Product. Possibly looks like an “experiment” or “test” mores than a big launch.
Friends & Family – A short list of people you want to try your Product that you know, and who will report back.
Beta – Probably a larger list of people using the product. Might involve asking for an invite, a waiting list, or something else.
Public Soft Launch – Available to everyone, but not publicized.
Traditional Launch – Available to everyone, trying to drive as much usage as possible, press coverage, etc.

This also impacts how much planning you need to do for the first piece. If you’re having a small set of friends and family use your app to test, you can have a different quality bar than a large public ship.

Building a Technical Launch Plan – 20 minutes

Based on these first two groups, I had each student come up with what they thought was the biggest concern for their launch, and how they planned to address it. If we’d had more time, I would have asked them to pick more issues and go into more detail.

While I don’t write a full launch plan every time I ship something, I think it’s wise to consider all the angles once academically so you get a feel for what could be going wrong.

For example, one student was considering a “breakfast delivery” startup. An appropriate beta launch might be in a specific apartment building or office building – rather than a launch in an entire city – or everywhere!

Communications Around Launch – 45 minutes

The other part of launches that often gets overlooked is the communications side. I wrote down a bunch of different launch communications that happen:

Purely Internal:
Team – Thank you Notes, party, etc.
Internal email (team vs all)

Internal/External:
Customer support plan – best case? worst case?
Company blog post – how do you present this?
Changing the homepage, new badges, etc. – how big of a splash?

External:
Product Hunt Post
Press Release / PR – who do you pitch to? why do you pick them? how do you write to them?
Help Documentation, FAQs

For each project, a student picked something they’d like to do. Some tried to write the launch blog post they’d want the company to share. Some tried to envision a worst possible scenario (food poisoning on day one of the breakfast startup!) and write how they’d communicate with customers. This is harder than it sounds! It’s about getting the brand voice right, but also about appealing to your customer demographic and sounding genuine.

While we didn’t have enough time to write out all the pieces, this was again meant to expose students to the various aspects of launch.

Selected Changes / Notes

1. Having guests is hard! I didn’t adequately prepare for the guest situation. Each classroom has it’s own dynamic, and as the instructor, you pick up on it. Tom opted for more traditional lecture, which contrasted by socratic style. I should’ve been more up front about how to directly engage with the students.
2. Students anchor on what you say. As mentioned, my hardware/software/services was just meant to be a starting point. Once again, students thought of it as a hard and fast rule. It’s hard to keep things general.
3. I wish we’d had more time for the communications / launch time. I think that was more valuable than the more technical sides of launching.

 

Startup Lockdown: 5 Lessons

I’ve already posted individual recaps of some things that I’ve learned each day via Startup Lockdown. I wanted to write a quick summary of the overall lessons I took away. Given the whole five people / five days / five ideas, I figured I might as well also stick to to five lessons.

1. Define what “business” means to you.

Going into Startup Lockdown, we thought we had everyone on the same page. After all, how many ways can you interpret Five Businesses/Five Days/Five people?

At least five.

Our sticking point was “what’s a business?” Amongst the five of us, this was inconsistent. It can be a the first sale, it can be making a Product people use, it can be having a business model you know will work, or it can be something else entirely. Those different definitions create a lot of different directions you can go for the first few deliverables.

Since we weren’t consistent, it was hard to know if we were working towards the same goal on any given day. If I were repeating this, I’d define what let the owner define what “business” is for each idea up front, and part of that definition would be what qualifies as a success at the end of the day.

A great example of this was Tuesday/Wednesday. On Tuesday, we had a rough financial model – but as a group we felt like it would’ve been better if we’d found a real customer a puppy. On Wednesday we considered booking a vacation for one person (exactly what we’d wished for on Tuesday), but it didn’t feel “big” enough, so we opted to make a website instead. The difference was in what the leader felt like would be a good validation of the idea.

2. Understand what your process optimizes for.

Before we started, we sat down with the original Startup Lockdown process. I made some “small” changes to include deeper user insights. This fundamentally changed the process – even though it looked cosmetically similar. Even while working, we didn’t realize how much we’d changed it until Wednesday.

The process you come up with reflects your idea of what makes a business. For me, a business has always started from a Product, which addresses a serious user need, which means starting from ethnography – finding people to talk to, and talking to them. For me, Everything else is an afterthought. I’ve always believed that if you make something good, you can figure out a way to have it make money. (While that sounds nice.. it’s unfortunately not true. The best way I’ve seen this explained was in Editorially’s announcement “Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.”)

When I made changes to the process, I was aligning to my own process. While it aligned to what I thought of as “business” (piece one) that wasn’t necessarily the case for everyone. It doesn’t address things like an actual financial model or competitive landscape.

The upside is that I now realize that about my process. I know what it’s good for, and I know it’s weak spots. I need to make sure to have accountability systems in place to cover the things my process neglects.

3. Reflect on right and wrong early.

One of the things that was most interesting for the week was that a day is NOT enough time to think through the ethical ramifications of what you’re building. That’s not only a limitation with having a day. Anytime you’re moving quickly it’s hard to stop and reflect for long enough to figure it out.

I’m not talking about straight forwarded cases. I’m talking about some of the more subtle issues. If you build an ethical puppy marketplace – are you preventing puppy mills? Or making it easier to opt to get a puppy instead of a rescue dog? Do you hurt or help animal welfare as a whole? How do you figure out how to measure that?

Many of the things I’ve worked on haven’t had these ramifications. Kickstarter is a positive force. I stopped working on Office Mobile in part because ad campaigns like these give me the heebie-jeebies.

officemobile

That doesn’t mean it won’t keep coming up. I’m working on a project now that helps connect amateur photographers and low-budget events. I don’t want to drop the bottom out of the photography market, and that’s a genuine concern of mine. I do want to expand the number of events that can have higher quality photos. I’ve been moving quickly, which means I haven’t spent as much time on that question as I should.

4. Stop Judging.

It’s hard to admit, but throughout my career, I’ve judged people and companies based on some pretty unreasonable things.

One small example: this blog runs on WordPress – yet I still found it absurd when I heard that the Daily Muse started there.

My brain said: how can you not care enough about your business to build your own site?!
Reality says: It’s a content site. Of course it makes sense to use a CMS at the beginning.

Only having a day means you have to work faster and cut corners you normally wouldn’t.

Normally, I wouldn’t throw up a bunch of Squarespace landing pages for fear of the judgement others might make about my technical competence/lack there of. I’d either (slowly) build things myself, or I’d ask a friend to do it for me. Given the extreme time constraint, I just threw up the Squarespace pages. I did lots of things I normally wouldn’t have done out of fear for my reputation.

I didn’t entirely realize I was thinking this way, and it’s a dumb way of thinking. Early on, done is better than perfect. Sometimes it’s better to go fast and experiment. And even more important? I should stop judging how others build things – that’s just lame of me.

5. Honor all of your commitments.

The last piece is the most personal, and probably one of the most important. I dropped a lot of balls during the week of Startup Lockdown. It’s hard to do something like this and keep everything else in the air. In retrospect, I wish I would have made the schedule work so I didn’t have to drop the rest of my life. I think the most important one is that I was not a good domestic partner during Startup Lockdown.

Being physically unavailable most of the day wasn’t ideal. I was gone from 8am-10pm each day. Even when I was home, I wasn’t pulling my weight. For the week, I was not the person who fed the cat. I did not cook us any meals. I did not do any chores. I actively made things messier by leaving stuff all over the floor. This is not uncommon – the busier I get, the more likely I am to fall into this pattern.

I also was relatively emotionally unavailable. After fourteen hours of people time, I don’t really want to talk more. I don’t think I listened well about Tom’s day, and I didn’t share very much about what I did during the week. Sadly, also not that uncommon when I’m busy.

I try to be aware of this because I know that it happens. When it happens, I do try to compensate – getting up extra early to have breakfast together, making sure the weekend before is totally empty, planning something special for the week after.

I point this out because it would be easy for me to do this all the time. I get wrapped up in the crush of exciting new projects. Work obligations do come more easily to me than personal ones, and new things seem shinier than old ones.

This isn’t about work/life balance – it’s about honoring all the commitments I’ve made, and not just the latest one.