Product Management Curriculum

This Spring I have an opportunity to do something that’s (quietly) sat in the back of my mind since I graduated: I get to teach a class at my alma mater, Olin College.

Olin strives to educate a new type of Engineer. Part of that is constantly experimenting with new things*. A recent experiment is having Olin alumni teach evening “seminars” to group of students. This Spring I’ll be teaching a seminar on Product Management.

It’s a unique opportunity for me. Most Product Management classes help people transition into the discipline. Oliners have most of the fundamentals – they know technical skills, they’ve learned about user centered design, and they’ve taken a Products & Markets class. This class can be based purely on how to practice and integrate those skills into Product Management. We’ll have fourteen weeks with about three hours per week to work together.

This is where you come in:

  • What do you wish you’d learned before your first Product Management job?
  • Is there one skill you think a PM needs? Which one?
  • Any (uncommon) must-read articles? Most work will be in class, but I’ll assign some light reading.

Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or via email! I’m also open to hear about any exercises you think would be good. After the seminar concludes, I’ll put the curriculum and some notes online for anyone else to use.

* If you want to learn more about Olin, this book is great.

2014 in Review

I sat down to write this on New Year’s Eve and struggled. I’m taking advantage of my (jetlagged) time in Jakarta to get it out.

2014 was a very good year – possibly supplanting 2004 as my favorite. It came with a lot of changes: two months of travel, a move (back) to Boston, and starting at HBS. I definitely got more done than I had in many other years. If it had a drawback, I’d say I spent a lot of time doing things, but not necessarily prioritizing which ones were important.  I’ll need to figure out which ones are, because I don’t think I could keep up this level of activity every year.


This was (by far) the biggest part of my year. I learned how to read financial statements (FYI: an Income Statement and a Profit & Loss are used interchangeably). I learned how to use those financial statements to make future projections, or to value a stock based on a company’s expected income. I learned about discrete and continuous process flow operations – and the impact of adding a “buffer” to a system, or adding extra capacity. It’s impossible to summarize all the things you learn at HBS in one paragraph, so suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot.


I read 115 books in 2014. This is the most I’d read since I started tracking in 2009, when my New Year’s Resolution was to read an hour per day.  This was more notable for me given how much more I had to read for school than I ever did for work. I could tell by the end of the year that my reading speed was getting faster.

It was pretty equal fiction/nonfiction again – 56/59. It was shockingly biased towards women authors – 80 books by women and 35 by men. The full list is available on Goodreads. Here’s a few specific recommendations…

Autobiography of a Face and Truth & Beauty – if you read these, read them paired. It was enjoyable to hear Lucy Grealy’s take on her own situation, and Ann Patchett’s relationship on the situation. I’d read a bunch of Ann Patchett before going down this track, so I have to admit I preferred Truth & Beauty.

Whistling Vivaldi – For as much as I talk about gender and tech issues, I often worry about a lack of hard data for some of the things we discuss. (Kieran Synder has done some good work on this this year). I enjoyed seeing more of the academic studies on stereotype threat, particularly because they were done across groups and industries.

Several Short Sentences about Writing – As mentioned below, I wrote far more this year than ever before. Earlier in the year, Yancey bought 14 copies of this book for the Kickstarter office. I then bought my own, and one for a Secret Santa gift this year. I like the near-poetry format of the book, and it has some solid writing advice, too.

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories – This is a collection of essays by Marina Keegan, a Yale ’12 graduate who died in an auto accident shortly after graduation. I read the Opposite of Loneliness shortly after that happened, and enjoyed getting to read a fuller collection of her work. I’m very sorry there won’t be more of it.

Inspired – I’d avoided reading this book for years because I thought the title was hokey. In reality, it’s probably the most solid “textbook” we have for Product Management. It forced me to reflect on how I define the role – and particularly about what I want out of the role vs. what the role should be.


I wrote 52+ things in 2014 – 46 on this blog, three on Medium (for TheList!), one for the Popforms blog, a The Setup profile (which ended up in MacWorld!), one for ACMQueue, and contributed to  The most widely read was “I’m Angry because I’m Afraid” and my personal favorite was probably “Want to be a PM? Do a project.

One of the things I did during 2014 was try to only write if I had “something to say” – usually with a takeaway that was tied up in a bow. While some of the pieces were hard to write, I at least felt like I had an “answer.” I was afraid to write things if I felt like they left holes open, or people would be able to get traction to argue.

In retrospect, I think that limited my writing. This year, I’d like to be more courageous in a different way. I’d like to share more things that aren’t entirely resolved yet, and use the writing as a way to learn. That’s definitely been the case for some of the things I’ve written about HBS so far.

At some point I also lost a more personal nature that my blog used to have. If you read back far enough most of the entries are about baking cupcakes, and about my personal life. I’m going to try to weave that back in this year.


2014 was a low year in terms of “shipping” – 2013 held my big three projects at Kickstarter – The Start Page, Advanced Discovery, and the Backer History changes.

2014 included smaller projects, like making the navigation menus match, and a security history feature. While they might not be as splashy, it’s still more than I shipped in 2010, or 2011. I think doing small improvements is an underrated part of Product Management.

On the bigger side, I did start working on a personal project. Tom and I made an iOS app that’s currently only on my phone, but I’m glad even that small version exists. Hopefully 2015 will involve a public debut.

Teaching, Speaking, and Events

This was also a big part of my year. I taught classes for Startup Institute again, and at General Assembly for the first time (including a 10 week class!) I spoke at #ProductSF and Beyond the Code. I also helped with a few cool events: a Women in Product networking event with Stacy-Marie, and ProductDebaters in Boston. Steven and I started a Product Management breakfast in NYC that’s still running regularly (get invites!)

I didn’t track exactly how many, but I met with a lot of people who were interested in getting into Product Management (I’d guess 1-2 per week, so between 52 and 104).

<update> Conclusions I was attempting to not do “takeaways” – but that was a bit abrupt. In summary, 2014 was a good year.


HBS FIELD Day 1 (Indonesian Recipes!)

I usually leave my blog for work that involves “takeaways”. Right now, I’m currently on a trip to Indonesia for HBS FIELD, and wanted to share some of what I’ve done.  This is more personal and less practical.

I ended up in Indonesia at 2am, after 36+ hours of traveling – BOS-SEA, SEA-Seoul, Seoul-Jakarta. I napped for a few hours, and at 8am we head out for our first day of exploration.

We started the morning at an Indonesian market to buy groceries in preparation for cooking class.



I learned that duck eggs are blue, and quail eggs are speckled:


Palm leaves are used to wrap rice, and tempeh:


There are lots of fish and cool vegetables:



We paired off into groups to make six different Indonesian dishes. Indonesia is a geographically diverse country, and the food varies by region. The three chefs we worked with were from different areas – (I think) Jakarta, West Java, and North Java. There are also three primary types of sauces/pastes that go with the dishes. A white sauce, a red sauce, and a sauce I’ve already forgotten.


I wanted to share the recipes for the dishes we made. I haven’t had a chance to type them up, so I’ve linked to images of the paper copies that I have.

Gado-Gado: A vegetable salad (not lettuce based), with a peanut sauce. The peanut sauce can be used independently with other recipes as well.
Soto Ayam Madura (IngredientsDirections) : A lemongrass-chicken soup (my favorite). I’d make a ton of this and eat it as a meal.
Sambal Fried Potatoes: I feel like every culture has a type of fried potatoes. These are chopped small and in a red sauce.
Tempe and Tofu Bumbu Kuning: A fried tempeh/tofu with spaces (this is the one I made!) It’s particularly good with the peanut sauce. We also learned how to make flower plate decorations out of chili peppers.


Grilled Chicken with (coconut) Curry Sauce: this one was also a highlight.
Nasi Uduk: A rice/egg dish.

Why I’m Writing about HBS

I’ve written a couple times about HBS in the last few days - positive and critical. While I have a few more positive things coming, I wanted to pause to explain why I bother to write.

I’ve been lucky to spend time at places that are receptive to feedback. At Olin, students co-create the school. We went to President’s Council meetings, curriculum reviews, and helped in the admissions process. Nothing was off limits for discussion. At times I’d suggest something and it would happen within days. (Trust me, not all my ideas were good – but they were interesting experiments).

Kickstarter was similar. There aren’t many posts critical of Kickstarter on my blog. That’s because the conversation was open internally. I was able to work through the things I was thinking about with my colleagues. Those conversations have resulted in other output. For instance, this talk wouldn’t have happened without the tension & resolution.

This has become my expectation. I’m at HBS to have the best possible HBS experience that I can. I’m also at HBS to give back in the ways that I’m able to.

I try to give back in the expected ways. I went to every single class (first time ever!) and tried to add unique comments. I’m available to talk with any student who wants to run a Kickstarter project. I wrote a talk on how to interview for Product Management jobs.

But I want us to have more of a public dialog about what we’re learning, and how we’re learning it. I’ve also had some great conversations about that behind closed doors. But those conversations don’t seem to happen as a community. I wish they did. 900 new students come to HBS each year, with new ideas. I think they could make the program better.

That challenge isn’t unique of HBS – I found Microsoft to be similar. In an established organization, it’s hard to hear all the thoughts. It’s particularly hard to do so without causing chaos. You can’t change everything all at once.

So, no, I’m not struggling too much with my own tradeoffs. And no, I’m not worried that I could have spent my time doing something else. I’m not writing to complain.

I’m writing because I want us to have more of a conversation about what we learn, and why. I’m providing my thoughts and reactions as a way to start that conversation.

The Isolation of HBS

I was happy to get the chance to reflect on HBS. Since then, a few more classmates have as well. I wanted to share their reflections, as I think they bring a more balanced perspective to mine. I agree with the underlying message in each. Here’s Philip’s Reflection on Myths of HBS, and here are Sparsh’s personal thoughts[ed: if you're an HBS student with a reflection up, I'm happy to add a link here, just let me know].

Besides “busy,” I’ve also noticed that HBS forces students onto a shared path.

One night when I was feeling particularly cynical, I made a sketch of how it felt. I don’t have it with me, so here’s a written version:

HBS is a giant highway. All the students are on the highway. The highway is paved, the billboards give clear instruction, and the view is nice. The problem is, if you stay on the highway long enough, there are only two exits: consulting and banking.

Next to the highway there’s also a little trail through the woods. It’s technically a path through HBS, too. It’s lonely, but gives you more space to think and reflect. It’s bumpy and not as smooth as the highway. You feel like you’re doing it wrong pretty often. And the trail goes close enough that you can see the highway, so it’s easy to keep ending up on the highway, even if you don’t mean to.

HBS claims it wants those nontraditional candidates – the ones on the trail. Students who want to do something other than consulting or banking – and get involved in other communities. After a semester, I’m just not seeing it.

As mentioned yesterday, everyone is busy. “Busy” starts with the time constraints created by HBS.

Even a job gives you flexibility that HBS does not. Coffee with mentors? Only if they’ll meet you at 7am, near campus. Product Management breakfast? Not an option anymore – I have discussion group from 8-9, every day. Conferences that happen on a weekday? Once again, class has to take precedence – no vacation time you can use.

Even if you want to attend other events at Harvard, it’s hard. Lunchtime research seminars organized for PhD students, but open to the public? Definitely conflict with class.

Even just the class schedule restrictions result in a limited amount of time to do anything. Then you have to toss on recruiting and extracurricular activities.

Most of the things that fit in the time that’s available are planned for HBS students. No one else is planning around the HBS schedule – nor should they. It’s not impossible to do other things, but it’s hard and most people don’t. I have a hard time blaming students too much for that – the system pushes people not to. Instead, students take part in the HBS system. They create clubs, take leadership roles, plan conferences, use HBS mentors, go to parties.

To be clear, before HBS, people had a job, hobbies, and a personal life. At HBS, it goes like this:

Your job is going to class, which is at HBS.
Your hobbies are HBS clubs, which are at HBS.
Your personal life and friends are also attending HBS.

To me, these things feel superfluous compared to the resources outside communities already have.

Instead of attending existing tech conferences, HBS made it’s own (Cyberposium). Instead of outside design conferences? DesignxHarvard. I rarely see students discuss events outside of the ones sponsored by HBS groups.

For every new field of interest, a group forms on campus instead of getting involved outside.

Why do HBS need all their own events, anyway? I’m all for starting new groups, but I’m also all for seeing what already exists.

This would bother me less, but it isn’t just about the events. The same system seems designed to shove people towards a “standard” MBA path after.

Want to interview with a consulting firm? Great! There are dedicated days where they come to campus and talk to you. All their events will be scheduled around the class schedule, so you never have to be absent. Everything will fit in the areas HBS makes for you.

Want to interview with a small startup in Seattle? Much harder. They’re never going to come to campus, and if you want to interview – you have to tell them to put it on one of the days there aren’t class. The career days are often Tuesdays – no way to fly to Seattle and back for a Tuesday. Then you’d better hope you find out about it and get an interview scheduled over WesTrek or Spring Break. That makes you look back to the startup – who wants someone that can only interview on two days? To me, that seems arrogant.

I’m also disappointed in this from the town-gown angle. I’ve always been hoping for another significant tech hub outside of the Valley – be it Seattle, NYC, Boston, Boulder, or Austin.

One of the laments common in the Boston tech scene is that students always leave. This doesn’t surprise me: from what I’ve seen at HBS, going to a school in Boston doesn’t make you loyal to Boston – because you’ve never DONE anything in Boston. It’s all about the school environment that you were isolated in.

Obviously, HBS has designed the program intentionally. I know there’s the intent to have a bootcamp, to have a shared experience. But in my mind, following a pre-set path isn’t what “leaders” do.

If you want a job in consulting or banking, go to HBS. No brainer. You’re going to get all the fundamentals you need, and all the path is convenient, structured, and there for you.

Want to do something else? The jury’s still out.  I hope that it’s less likely this in the following three terms, and I’ll keep you posted. For now, we need more nontraditional people if this is going to change. But, I’m not sure if it will, I’m not sure HBS wants it to, and I’m not sure if it should.

update: I’ve noticed that many people think this post is a frustration about my own balance. I’m doing fine (thanks for the concern!) For me, it’s more about opening the conversation. I wrote a little bit about that here.

Friendly, Busy, Learning

I get a lot of “do you like HBS?” and “are you happy you went to HBS?” I don’t know.I do know that these are the three big ideas bouncing around in my mind as I end my first term.


Friendliness is underrated.

Everyone at HBS is friendly. This is one of the reasons I wanted to come to HBS – alums seemed to have completely effortless conversations.

Before HBS, I had some “effortless” conversations. “Effortless” because I put the work in beforehand. It might have been months of talking on Twitter. Or brainstorming topics beforehand. The effort was all up front.

Being friendly on the spot is harder. Somehow I’d end up in conversations and tell someone my entire life story, but walk away knowing nothing about them. People would ask me about my weekend plans, and I would draw a blank while trying to remember theirs. I’d say something in class and people would come by during break to chat with me about it. Everyone was so friendly, it felt almost scripted.

I was still getting peoples names wrong. Did they sit at home with flashcards to memorize all of this? Was there a guide of “how to be nice in an HBS classroom?”

No. It’s just genuine. Everyone just shows up at HBS and wants to get to know you. People listen when you talk. They want you to feel comfortable. In my previous experience it was okay to admire someone’s work. At HBS, you can just admire someone as a person. The priority is getting to know people, rather than getting to know their work. You don’t need the work as a jumping off point.

I doubt I’ll ever be as warm as the people I’ve met this semester, but I am going to make more of an effort.

I worry that it is so busy here.

HBS is busy. I have no other word for it. Busy. Busy. Busy. Most of the people I know look exhausted all the time.

Many people have pointed this out to the administration. The (unsatisfactory) response: “It’s supposed to be like a bootcamp – we want you to go through the same experience together. If you don’t have time to reflect, go to fewer parties.”

I don’t go to parties. It still feels busy.

At the beginning, I was barely making it through. The goal of every day was “make it until tomorrow.” I spent my weekends recovering so I’d have the energy to make it through another week.

As I got better at the material, I could reclaim my time. I didn’t go through the formal MBA recruiting process, and I didn’t go to parties. But having my time back didn’t make me happier – it made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Everyone else was busy. I’d been busy. What happened? Was I doing it wrong?

I wasn’t afraid of missing out, but my free time made me anxious. I don’t like being busy. I’ve been busy before, and it doesn’t result in me doing my best work. Yet, after a few months of HBS, my self expectation was right back at “busy.”

If we send 900 people to school, and they all get accustomed to “busy” – I’m afraid they’re going to keep expecting busy. I don’t even like busy, and I saw it in myself. I saw this trend in the alumni profiles we were able to read as well – they stayed “busy.”

I have a sinking suspicious that part of the reason corporate America is so “busy” and that white collar workers work so many hours is because of places like HBS. We shouldn’t be teaching our leaders that “busy” is the default – and we shouldn’t be expecting “busy” of everyone else.

Learning new things is hard.

I had the advantage of starting HBS a week early to go through an intense bootcamp in Accounting and Finance. In retrospect, I would call this bootcamp “how to make T-charts, and what the three financial statements are.”

I remember the first week that it felt impossible. I thought I might never understand how to make a Statement of Cash Flows. I was the one person HBS admitted that was too stupid to be able to learn it.

I always consciously know that learning things is hard. But knowing it, and going through it again are different things. If you haven’t cried from exhaustion while learning something new recently, you might want to try it.

Now, making Discounted Cash Flows is fun, second-nature, and like an amusing puzzle. It gives me the same sense of accomplishment that I get from figuring out a flow diagram to connect everything a user in an app. I didn’t realize it was the same thing I’d been doing at the beginning until I sat down to write this.

I’m less afraid of next term, because the thing that scares me at the beginning might be the one I like the most by the end.

Business School can make you a better PM

When I started at HBS, I was nervous that it would be a detriment to my career. Tech isn’t known for being the most welcoming place for MBAs. Plus, how on earth was Finance and Operations relevant to PM? I took the leap anyway, and this post is a simple sketch of how I’ve learned about PM over time: including at business school. As always in my blog, PM = Product Management.

When I started working in PM, I wasn’t starting from 0. I was starting from a strong liberal arts background (high school) and an engineering degree (college). I had a lot of ideas flying around, but none of them were particularly relevant to PM. I’m calling this general knowledge (grey dots) as what I started with.


After I started at Microsoft, I started learning things about PM (red dots). I also starting having my own insights (red triangles), based on that new information and my previous knowledge.


Over time, I learned more and more about PM, and formed more of my own opinions. But the map started to get full – I’d learned many of the “PM basics,”  so I learned more slowly.


I did things outside of PM to try to increase what I knew: taking design classes at University of Washington, going to Creative Mornings, running PM breakfasts. These things were still adjacent and fit nicely with my PM knowledge (more red dots, some pink dots).


They’d spark new insights of their own (pink triangle) and about PM (red triangle). This happened fairly often – but not as much as it did at the beginning.


Business school is like an entirely different world.

First, we learned some Accounting and Finance, which made a bunch of blue dots:


Then throw in Operations which made orange dots, and Marketing that made green ones:


If I’d been adding dots at a rate of one/day, business school was like suddenly adding five per day (or more). It was exhausting and painful, and at the beginning it was just dots. Nothing seemed to connect or make sense.

But as time went on, I started to see insights about each of the disciplines independently (blue, green, orange triangles):


And then I had lots of new pieces to use in my ideas about PM, too!


If I hadn’t gone to business school, I wouldn’t have all the green, blue, and orange dots to work with. I’d be stuck primarily with my red, grey, and pink dots – walking through the same ideas over and over again. Being at business school helped me answer two of the PM questions I was stuck on: do you need to be technical? and how to pick a PM job that’s a good fit. I’ve also gotten a much better sense for how non-technical people think about technical problems.

I’m sure that some of these insights don’t have much to do with business school in particular, just that I’m focusing on a different discipline. (I’ve written before that learning anything new can help with being a PM.)

I also don’t think this would work for every PM. Business school is incredibly distracting – and varies widely based on what you want to get out of it. There are always a million things going on. I’m able to spend the time to think because I say “no” all the time. My schedule is primarily: preparing for class, going to class, and reflecting on class.

Most students spend more time on other activities: recruiting, clubs, and 5-35 hours per week at parties. I cannot imagine 35 hours per week at parties. I’m definitely missing out on some of the networking, but I’m doing what I wanted to do: breaking my mental model. If a PM decided to go to business school for the social aspects, I don’t know if they’d have the same experience that I’m having with the academic content.

But almost three months in: I’ve learned more about being a PM in school than I would have in three more months of working. I’m not sure I’ll feel the same way at the end of the year, or in two years, but from where I sit: the first three months of business school are solidly worth it.

PM: The Person, The Situation, and The Style

As always in my blog, PM = Product Management. 

The Framework

One of the core frameworks we’ve discussed in the LEAD class at HBS is the idea of “person, situation, and style.”


The person is clear: It’s who you are (personality) and the skills you bring.

The situation is also pretty clear: It’s what’s going on in the existing environment and context. It’s what the person has to operate in.

The style bridges the two: It’s how you can change, while still acting authentically like yourself, to function within a given environment.

It’s hard to understand in the abstract, so here’s an example of how it played out in my last four environments:


At Olin, the environment was perfectly suited to my personality. I didn’t need to change at all. Microsoft and Kickstarter were both in the middle, but in different ways. They both posed their own challenges. At HBS it’s the total opposite: most things feel foreign, and I feel no matter how far I stretch, I don’t quite fit. It’s been helpful to examine my successes and failures using this angle.

Using this for PM Hiring

I think this framework is a solid lens to consider PM opportunities – from both angles: What PM role should you take as an individual? Which hold you stay away from? If you’re a hiring manager, who do you hire to strengthen your team?

Culture: Discipline Background

The first aspect to consider is the discipline strength of the PMs. PMs need a variety of skill sets, across disciplines. Even so, most companies have PM team that leans one way or another – towards Engineering, Design, or Business. As an individual, you probably know which discipline resonates with you.

To figure it out for a company: What’s the background of each PM you met at the company? What “org” do the PMs report through? Who do PMs spend most of their time working with?

For example, at Microsoft, the PM team is heavily Engineering leaning. PM is part of the “Engineering Triad.” PMs rarely (in my case, never) discussed revenue or business. There’s a separate design studio. Most PMs have an Engineering degree.


Culture: Interactions

It’s also important to consider how the team interacts. This is more subjective, but includes things like:

  • Do PMs spend more time talking to or listening to the rest of the company?
  • Does vision come from senior leadership, or does each PM set vision?
  • Is the culture meeting-oriented, or informal checkins?
  • Do weekly status emails matter? Or are they a hassle?
  • Do people argue? How loud are meetings?
  • Do we care more about being fast or being right?
  • Do people share as they work, or present a final product?

It will be rare to completely overlap, or completely diverge from the interaction types. It’s very likely that a candidate will be “more” or “less” like the existing culture.

Evaluating these together

Once you’re figured out what the discipline and interaction model for both the org, and the employee, how do you evaluate it? What’s the best option?

Both Match

If both match, the upside is in short term performance. It’s going to look a lot like the diagram I drew for Olin: the new PM won’t have to change at all to fit in.
They’ll fit in with the existing organization. That ups their likelihood of executing quickly (and well).

The downside is that it doesn’t grow the organizational knowledge. Adding one more person with the same skill set helps with execution, but won’t help with innovation. It doesn’t broaden the skill set available. The addition will be likely to keep the company set in it’s current direction – but not improve it.

Neither Matches

This is the opposite case.

If neither the interaction or the discipline matches, the upside is diversity of experience. You’ll have an employee who brings a lot to the table. They’ll have a different way of thinking about Product, and a different way of thinking about the organizational dynamics.

Unfortunately for both the company and employee, that’s going to be a rough. First, the new employee won’t be doing the same work others deem “valuable.” Second, given communication differences, it might be challenging to explain why. They have to stretch along two directions to figure out how to fit in. Stretching yourself multiple directions at once can be exhausting.

I’m going to guess that many PMs that quit quickly, or are fired for “career fit” fall in this bucket. They could be great PMs – they just didn’t match with the situation at hand in either way. It was too hard to move their style across multiple dimensions.

One Matches

I’d argue the sweet spot is when one of these two attributes matches. That gives some common ground – and some room for growth.

If you have a common ground on work style, but different backgrounds, you’ll be able to learn about different disciplines. Collaboration will occur, and it may be possible for each person to get better at Product as they understand it more deeply. i.e. Someone might fit in with the organizational dynamics at Microsoft, but stretch to meet the Engineering background:


If you have a common ground on backgrounds, but different work style, it comes with a different benefit. You’ll be able to work more effectively internally and figure out how to be more inclusive/get better ideas. Of course, you’ll still be grounded in the starting discipline.


So here’s my thought. If you’re an individual looking for a PM job, make sure you fit with either the discipline background, or the interaction style. You’ll be able to learn and teach about the aspect you don’t fit with.

If you’re a company, hire a range of PMs. Make sure that some differ from your “norm” in their interactions and some differ from the “norm” by discipline. This way you’ll be able to maintain a resilient team with diverse perspectives.

Feedback at HBS

A theme of the HBS has been the importance of self-awareness. The entire FIELD course works on trying to develop the sort of personal skills that aren’t applied by the case method. Part of that was two entire class days at the beginning of the term were devoted to “communication, voice & self awareness.” A big piece of that has been the importance of giving and receiving feedback.

If you aren’t familiar with HBS’s curriculum, everything else is done via the case method. A “case” is a long story with a problem that the protagonist needs to solve. We’ve done 7-12 of these per week across our subject areas: Accounting (FRC), Finance (FIN), Technology and Operations Management (TOM), Marketing (MKT) and Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD).

The 94 of us arrive (on time) and sit (in our assigned seats) and the professors helps moderate a discussion for 80 minutes. One person is usually “cold-called” – asked to open the discussion by summarizing the situation and giving their best recommendation for what the protagonist should do. Then everyone else jumps in to advance the conversation. This participation makes up about half of our grade in each class.

Participating in section is much harder than anything I’ve done at work. Harder than daily work, and also harder than key presentations. Harder than speaking at a conference. Harder than teaching. I’ve hit my metaphorical “wall” more times than I would care to admit.

Class is an exercise in balancing:
- What do I bring to the class to this conversation that’s unique and interesting?
- How can I make that point in 30s or less, in a way that will help my classmates understand?
- When is the best time to raise my hand to try to fit that into the flow of our conversation?
- What cases do I want to contribute to?

We’re now mid-way through the first semester, so feedback on participation has started to roll in.

Our two days of conversation on self-awareness and how to give effective feedback covered a lot of ground: give it in person, start from shared ground, give it as close to when something happened as possible, give specific examples, explain the impact of the behavior, provide actionable ways to improve, etc.

In contrast, the mid-term feedback comes as a form letter. Our form letter groups us into one of the three buckets – strong, acceptable, needs improvement. These buckets track primarily along frequency of contribution. This seems odd, as the message at the beginning of the semester starts with “quality matters more than quantity, but quantity also matters.”

It’s easy to be critical, but based on my experience with the feedback, and what HBS taught us about feedback, I think the feedback is more harmful than it is helpful.

My first feedback was an “acceptable” which prompted 0 reflection or improvement from me – thus automatically making it not very useful. I heard similar things from friends with acceptable/strong ratings, so I’m willing to bet about most of the class won’t change anything as a result of their midterm feedback. That doesn’t seem like a good way to improve our classroom discussions.

The second was a “needs improvement,” which is the most actionable of the buckets. It was helpful in as it forced this meta-reflection about feedback.

As mentioned, the “Needs Improvement” feedback is about quantity for most people. Given that, a histogram of “number of comments” for each student would be much more objective. I know how many times I’ve talked, but I have no idea how many times other people have. That would give much better measurement for self correction. Data would feel a lot less personal, and I bet would make people more willing to take the feedback. It would give me a much more compelling reason to raise my hand than this form email that says “raise your hand.”

I think that data could help across the spectrum. An individual with fewer contributions could see how big the gap really is. An individual grouped in “strong” could distinguish between “high quality” and “tons of comments.”

This feedback also isn’t timely. There’s a big difference between week 0 and week 8. I’d be curious to see the graphs of participation over time. I’m willing to bet a lot of the “needs improvement” people have an upward trend. I’m also willing to guess a lot of them are introverts who like to understand the situation before jumping in.

Frankly, no one is unaware that they haven’t been participating. So why give negative feedback in the middle of what is a possible upward trend? That’s discouraging for no reason – the form email even acknowledges that it’s discouraging.

I think sporadic, but more direct personal feedback would have much more impact on the classroom experience. Having a professor drop by my chair before class and say “hey, I’d really like to see your hand up today” would make me raise my hand. Alternatively, a one-off “really enjoyed your comment” today would make my day. It’d be far more encouraging than an “acceptable” or “strong” form letter – and would encourage more comments of a similar type.

As of now, the only relevant action from midterm feedback is “raise your hand more” or “keep raising your hand.” We all already knew that, because they’ve been saying it since Day 1.

The current feedback system is in an uncanny valley of pretending to be personal feedback, without adding insight for students. My hypothesis: either an objective system, or an informal but personal system would have a greater impact on the classroom.

An Open Letter to Satya Nadella

Dear Satya,

Like many, I was surprised to hear that you’d remarked “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise” at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this week.

I was glad to see you apologize, but I think there’s something more interesting at play. Your statement signals that you trust that the system at Microsoft to provide fair, unbiased raises. Microsoft released data about workforce diversity earlier this year. As a former employee, I know you also have plenty of data to examine about if the system is giving unbiased raises.

I’d love to see Microsoft release the data for:
• Promotion velocity by gender, and by length of time at the company.
• Retention rate by gender of college hires after 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 years.
• Salary differential (percentage) by gender by discipline by level. *
• Percentage Gold Star awards** by gender (and by discipline and level).

For each set of data I’ve mentioned, it’s equally important to do the same analysis by race, sexual orientation, trans*, and able-bodiedness.

Your statement makes me hope that this data would be positive. I hope that Microsoft could serve as an example for other companies to follow. Maybe that is the case! If so, you should be proud to share this data and help us all move forwards.

I worry that instead, your statement comes from ignorance. I worry that Microsoft isn’t analyzing or prioritizing these issues. I clearly remember my Vice President telling our group to never discuss salary with friends – “it only makes one person sad.”

Of course, it could also show systematic biases.

Even if the data isn’t great, I’d love to hear that you learned and have an action plan to resolve disparities. I might not still be at Microsoft, but many of my best friends are, and I hope the company is doing what’s best for all of them.

I think it’s unlikely this data will be shared due to legal risk. Even if you don’t share publicly, I hope you’ll acknowledge that you’re personally reviewing this data, and making sure women actually can put their faith in Microsoft.

Ellen Chisa

*If you aren’t familiar with Microsoft’s system, this is confusing. Typically, Engineering hires start at level 59. When I was there that included Program Manager, Software Development Engineering, Software Development Engineering in Test. Salaries are typically banded within a level, and every couple levels you get a new title: PMII at 61, Sr. PM at 63, Principal PM at 65, and Partner PM at 67 (and equivalent for other disciplines).

** Gold stars are “special” bonuses awarded for going above and beyond what was necessary in your role, typically by your VP. I know of four male friends who received a gold star, and no women. It might be men are more likely to share their accomplishments, but I have no way to know.