Packing: One Month

I’m going back “home” tomorrow, for the first time in about a month. When I left, I packed one suitcase full of everything I’d need for that time. It was particularly challenging because it involved a bunch of places: Seattle, NYC in the Summer, the Galapagos, and then back to NYC. I did get to do laundry every ten days.

Typically, when I pack (even for a weekend) I worry that I’ll forget something. Given I managed to live for a month, I’m pretty sure this suitcase has everything I need.

I’m mostly documenting for myself, but if anyone else dreads packing, maybe this will help…


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For the trip, I brought three different bags. I highly recommend each of these. The suitcase is by Travelpro (I think it’s this one on Amazon), the laptop bag is le pliage by Longchamps, and the smaller purse is Cole Haan. All of them are very durable and comfortable to carry.


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This is pretty straight forward. I need my Macbook to work, my Kindle to stay sane, and my iPhone for everything else. The iPhone isn’t in the photo because I needed it to take the picture (before it was in that little gap in the middle).

I also take all the associated chargers. This trip I brought along two sets of headphones. For a short trip, I only take my earbuds. For any long trip, I also bring the noise canceling ones. For “wearables” (can’t believe I just wrote that) I brought my Pebble watch and my Fitbit. I carried these all in the laptop bag.

Would pack again: all of it.


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This is where things get more complicated. I was pretty surprised by some of what happened here.


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The biggest limitation when traveling is shoes. To give myself the most variety I opted for a pair of black ballet flats (with ties) and a pair of beige sandals. They’re neutral, so they match everything. They generally work pretty well for casual, and about as formal as I get.

I’m also usually cold, so I included a beige cardigan. I have some shirts I like to wear something under my shirts, so I included Uniqlo airism tank tops in both white & black.

Would pack again: 5/5.


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I packed five neutral shirts. For the last year or so I’ve been a subscriber to Elizabeth & Clarke, a basics service. Each season they send me a couple new basics. I haven’t been a fan of the fitted tops (button down particularly) but all of the T-shirts are great. Four of my neutral shirts were from there, and I’d recommend subscribing.

Would pack again: 5/5.


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I also packed two blouses. I’m not really sure why. I’ve worn one twice, and one not at all. I probably could have gotten by without this.

Would pack again: 0/2.


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I packed four pairs of pants. Jeans, jeans that happen to be green instead of blue, capri jeans, and maroon shorts. All of these were completely worth it. I only wear pants on planes, so I wore the jeans when I flew. Seattle was cold, so I wore jeans there too. NYC was super hot, so I wore the shorts or capris.

Would pack again: 4/4.


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I packed three skirts. The pink one also doubles as a strapless dress. These were of the most use in the Galapagos to pull on over my swimsuit. I could have gotten by without the purple one.

Would pack again: 2/3.


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I’m a little befuddled by this. I own 9 white sundresses (no, I don’t know why). Yet somehow I didn’t bring ANY white sundresses for the month of July. I did bring five colorful ones.

These were worthwhile, especially in Galapagos/NYC. If I was doing it again, I wouldn’t bring the long one. I hardly ever wear maxi dresses, and it takes a specific mood. Not a staple.

Would pack again: 4/5.

Exercise & Sleep

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I always have grand aspirations of exercising while traveling. For that matter, I have grand aspirations of exercising while home. Regardless, I always pack the clothes just in case inspiration strikes. I did end up going running some this trip, so it was worth it.

My exercise clothes aren’t very exciting. I literally still wear the same sweatpants and sports bras I used in high school. For shirts, I tend to use startup tshirts and other tops I like. I sleep in the same type of stuff.  (Yes I wear those weird shoes to run, whatever. I like running in them and never wear them in public unless I am out running).

I also brought a swimsuit & towel.

Would pack again: 8/9 (one less top).

Other Stuff

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There’s a few other things I always make sure to have – a set of rainbow pens, a few small notebooks, and a reusable water bottle. I did forget one notebook I would have liked to have, but generally this was good.

I also packed the usual toiletries you’d expect: toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, razor, etc. I very rarely pack shampoo or conditioner, and tend to rely on hotels and/or friends having it. One of the things I try to make sure to do is pack bandaids & cortisone (just in case!) I also pack some basic meds: ibuprofen, nyquil, sudafed, etc.

Every time I pack I end up thinking “What if something important happens and I need make up?!” So I pack it. I never wear it. Similarly, I packed a few extra pieces of jewelry, but I just wore the rainbow block necklace the entire time.

Would pack again: everything but the makeup and extra jewelry.

New Stuff

I obtained some things during my trip.

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I’ve been teaching with Startup Institute New York for the last year, and during my last class I was gifted a hoodie. I just wish I’d had it earlier in the trip when it was cold in Seattle! Similarly, when Diana was in town from Soundcloud she let me have a tshirt. I’ve been sleeping in it.

One day while i was in NYC at the end, I went shopping. In high school I LOVED shopping, but haven’t done it as much since adulthood. I picked up a dress and a couple shirts, all of which I’ve been wearing.

Things that are conspicuously absent from these photos…

Underwear. I packed basically all of the underwear I own. I figured you didn’t need to see a photo of it. I would pack all of it again, it doesn’t take much space, and it’s nice to know you have it and aren’t going to be in a laundry crisis.

Traditional sneakers & socks. I hate both of these things. Tying shoes is so much effort and my feet feel suffocated and like I’m walking on a weird pillow. I also just dislike having to wear socks. I’ve come around to wearing them in the winter, but very rarely do in the summer. While Galapagos was doable without, I’d recommend taking either durable rubber sandals, or sneakers/socks. So I didn’t back either of them, but probably would next time.

Hair dryer & straightener. Sometimes, I dry & straighten my hair. Both of those items are big and took up a lot of space in the suitcase. So I didn’t bring them. I’ve been happily hair dryer free all month. If it were winter and cold out, I’d bring it.

Umbrella. Yeah, should have packed that. Whoops. Next time.

Anything I didn’t have that you always take, but should? Let me know!

Engineers: So your PM sucks? Here’s how to fix it.

Dear (Senior) Engineer Friends,

I was thinking more about the time you told me that your PM sucks. They might.

There’s three options:

1) Your PM is awesome, and you are wrong.
2) Your PM is awesome, but you don’t know what they’re doing for you.
3) Your PM might suck. Or they might not suck, but they could be better.

I have some good news! Regardless of which of these options it is – you can help improve the situation.

To start with, it’s important to understand why your PM might not know how to do their job.

You probably got to go to college where you learned how to write software. You probably had internships and wrote software professionally. If not, you at least did a lot of projects and practiced on your own.

Your PM didn’t get that. They didn’t go to college to major in “PM.” They majored in Engineering (like you), or Design, or Business, or Liberal Arts. It’s hard to practice being a PM on your own time – you have to find other people to work with.

Plus, practicing PM skills is a lot more complicated than just starting a side project. I’m envious every time Tom says “I want to learn Go, I’ll just start a project.” If I want to learn how to be a PM for internationalization, there’s not much of an equivalent.

If you have a brand new PM, at best, they got a three month internship being a PM. There’s a decent chance they never even got to finish an entire project.

Even if you have a PM who’s done a couple projects, there’s a chance what you’re working on is something they’ve never done before. Plus, PMs don’t get that much tangible feedback. At a bigger company they might, but at a smaller company, most of the time they are on their own.

So yeah, I’m not surprised when you say your PM sucks. No one ever taught them how to be a PM. I know you don’t want to teach them, and it isn’t your “job,” but it’ll save you a lot of time in the long run. Here’s a few common ways PMs tend to screw up, and how Engineers can help. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list.

1) Your PM isn’t doing the right work.

This happens a lot, especially with people who studied Engineering and then decide to go into PM.

You might find your new PM is annoying because they try to dictate how to write the code, instead of what the code should be.

You also might find that your PM feels closer to marketing/sales. Those PMs tend to like a conduit – “well the Account Manager says we need X” instead of synthesizing how the Product works.

The PMs manager won’t always notice either of these situations. If you do notice this, the best way to solve it is just to tell them.

In my first project I worked Nokia on Office Mobile for Symbian. There were a lot of discussions between the Nokia PMs & myself. I was much more junior than the Nokia PMs and came into the project late. Unfortunately, I just ended up telling the Engineering team whatever Nokia said. They didn’t know when I passed information along to our Engineering team, and didn’t feel the cost the same way I did. As a result, they tended to change their minds, and I’d just change the spec. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Until in my first review. The engineer I worked most with wrote something like “Ellen has the potential to be a great PM. Unfortunately, I feel like she doesn’t yet have judgment for what things in the Product will change. The PM’s job is to prevent churn. Since she isn’t doing that, we’ve had to rip out code several times when the spec changed.”

This was the most important feedback I’ve gotten to date. No one had told me my job as a PM was to “prevent churn” until that piece of feedback. I was doing lots of work, but not a core piece of my role. I wanted to be a good PM, and had no idea I was messing up such a key piece.

As an Engineer, if your PM isn’t doing the right work, figure out a way to tell them. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them, see if you can find someone else who does.

2) Your PM isn’t doing the work well.

A new PM is doing everything for the first time. They might have a vague idea that their job is “defining things,” but not a clear impression of all the details.

The first project I did on Office Mobile was writing the spec for a Sprint on error cases. I knew nothing about error cases. I did my best to write a spec, but because of my inexperience, it basically said “we should take care of error cases.” (in four pages). My version of a spec review was reading the entire four pages out loud to the entire team and then saying “Okay? Thoughts?” I’m pretty sure the spec review was painful for everyone involved. Me included.

The development lead I was working knew it was wrong. He didn’t embarrass me in front of the room, but he pulled me aside and pointed out I hadn’t specified anything. He made it crystal clear that I needed to go back, figure out what types of errors happen in mobile apps, and specify what to do in each one.

As a Senior Engineer, you can look at a spec or direction and know if it tells you what you need to implement things well. You’ve seen specs before. Honestly, you could write the spec better than your junior PM can.

So when your new PM doesn’t do it right, don’t just sigh and do it yourself. Instead, tell them what’s wrong. It doesn’t even have to be confrontational – “I took a look at your spec, but I saw you haven’t defined the error cases yet. Could you add those and get back to me so I can give you a better cost estimate? Let me know if you need help figuring out how to do that.”

Next time, they’ll give you a better spec, and you won’t have to write it yourself.

3) Your PM is overwhelmed and can’t focus on anything.

Starting a PM job is complicated. You need to be thinking about lots of moving pieces. New PMs often seem to be like chickens running around with their heads cut off. If your PM seems stressed and is doing badly at everything, see if you can figure out a way to lighten the load.

You can split the PM role into a few big pieces. Two of those are “vision/direction/spec” and “project management.”

As an Engineer, you’re used to managing your own time. You figure out your own estimates, talk to your manager about your own estimates, etc.

If your PM seems overwhelmed it can be really helpful to take on some of the project management yourself.

As a new PM one of the worst moments is when you go into a 1:1 with your manager, they ask about a specific project, and you have to stare blankly.

As an Engineer, if you have a new PM, go out of your way to let them know how long things will take, and if things are progressing. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Plus this lets you do it when you want, and doesn’t result in the PM interrupting you while you’re trying to work.

If you’re an Engineering Lead, you can do even more for this. As much as I kept track of the projects I worked on at Microsoft, I knew the Engineering Lead knew far more than I did. If I were to make a mistake, he’d be there to step in and fix it. He had enough experience that it made sense for him to do that – it helped de-risk our project, and also helped me learn.

Again, as an Engineer, this is more work for you in the short term. But in my mind, having a PM that does one thing well is better than having a PM that does two things badly. In the long term, it’ll help your PM master one thing. As they get more comfortable there, they’ll start getting better at other skills, too.

4) Your PM has bad judgment.

This is probably the most common reason Engineers get frustrated with PMs. The first three happen a lot more in the first few years of a PM’s career. This can happen continuously, and each time you start a new job.

One common way is not having a good sense of what is “hard” or “easy” to do from an Engineering perspective. The way to fix that isn’t to say each time if something is hard or easy – it’s to explain why. Again, like all of these suggestions, it’s more work in the short term.

It pays off when your PM starts to get better judgement for how long things take, and why. (“I remember this part of the codebase is old, and in a technology we don’t typically work with, so that’ll be hard.” or – “These types of stats queries are ones we don’t usually do, and we’ll have to invest in new infrastructure.”)

Another way is when your PM has bad Product sense. While the PM usually owns “what” and the Engineer owns “how” – you should still say something if things seem wrong.

The solution here is to ask more questions. You shouldn’t say “no, we should spec like this instead” – that’ll just make the PM defensive. Instead, try to make sure their decisions were deliberate. “Why do you think we should build this feature vs. this other feature?” “Did you consider X as an alternative? What were the problems there?”

This makes you seem interested in the Product work, and helps the PM see alternate perspectives, without feeling undermined.


The common thread running between these suggestions is that you need to tell the PM what you need. There’s no “PM school” they went to where they learned a proper process. Especially starting out, you’re their best hope for learning to be a good PM. So yes, they might suck right now. I can’t fix that for you, but you can. Set clear expectations, and invest in teaching them early on. Let me know how it goes!

Design Play Seattle

Last year, Jon wrote “What if 20 people show up?” about having a design conference that’s just getting 20 people in a room to talk. (You might want to read his piece first).

Last weekend, 23 people showed up for just such an event. 23 people who have work that I admire. But rather than speakers and discussion, we just hung out.

It turns out 23 people hanging out makes for a lot of Space. Space for fear. Space to sketch. Space for rest. Space for stories.

Space for Fear
Our first activity for the weekend was a two hour Improv class. Two hours of space. Two hours of silence to fill. I’d always wanted to take an improv class. I also rehearse what I’m going to say for a standup meeting – even when it’s just “Working on the Play Page.”

So as much as I wanted to, the fear had always won.

Having it as part of an event suddenly switched the equation – it became harder to not participate, than it was to participate. It wasn’t too scary given there were only 23 of us, and we were all expected to participate. Design Play gave me the space to try it.

Plus, I needn’t have worried. We filled that space with exercises. Our instructors walked us through games. We learned each others names, practiced building on ideas, and got comfortable moving around.

It turns out what I’m afraid of isn’t talking. I’m afraid of starting a new topic. It makes me nervous to pick something out of thin air. What will people think? Will they judge me? That’s what I need to practice.

The weekend culminated with something much more scary than – Karaoke. I didn’t quite get to the point of willingness to choose a song, stand up, and sing, in front of all of those people. (I never have!) That can be what I try next year.

Space to Sketch
When we arrived, Jon gave us each a sketchbook. Mine is Maroon, and had forty pages of blank space. Forty pages to fill during a weekend.

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Having forty pages to get through is nearly impossible. I didn’t get anywhere close. The expectation helped.

Knowing I had forty pages to fill in a short time made me draw differently. I’d dare to say it was the first time I just sat down to draw “for fun” instead of being anxious about getting it right. Quantity more than quality. I drew tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I experimented more. I played with ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise. I got to sketch my way.

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Space to Make
The weekend of sketching was nicely complimented by Sunday afternoon. We went to the Pratt Institute and spent four hours screen printing. I’d only screen printed once before, and hadn’t really gotten into the details.

It was nice to make something with higher production value. Nikki and I teamed up and made the Awesome Foundation logo:

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Space for Rest
At almost every conference, I am overwhelmed. I’ve started taking a book to conferences for this reason. I can go sit alone, and read my book. It’s still pretty awkward, but a little bit less awkward.

The complete openness of “sure feel free to go do your own thing!” at Design Play let me take breaks when I needed to.

The large chunks of time for longer small group activity also let me get to know people as individuals. Rather than jumping from person to person, we spent more dedicated time.

Saturday morning we spent time exploring Seattle in a group of five. Rather than constantly talking to all five people, I got the chance to get to know each person. Some through our group conversations, and some 1-1 as we walked around the city. That also let me spend some time walking and thinking alone.

I’d almost always rather go to an event with fewer activities, and more time to reflect on them. I think because our events are so expensive, we expect to cram them full of things. This reinforced that I’d rather do something cheaper and just get to talk.

Design Play was the opposite of your typical event. We even had 35 required minutes of silence. that was what enabled me to be ready for the next conversation.

Space for Stories
My favorite activity of the weekend was on Saturday afternoon. We were responsible for spending three hours on Bainbridge Island getting to know one person’s life story.

Three hours is a long time. Most of the time when I meet someone, the first meeting is an hour (or less). You get 10 minutes to run through your background before diving into some discussion topic. My typical “life story” is surface level. I grew up in Michigan, went to Olin, took a year off to do a startup, it didn’t work, went back to school, went to Microsoft, went to Kickstarter, going to HBS. Honestly, I’m bored of it. It’s linear. I’ve told it a billion times.

I got to talk to Bob for those three hours. Even though we talked chronologically, Bob’s story didn’t feel like a list of “things I have done.” Instead, it was a set of “the experiences that made me, me.”

I started out with a lot of my linear pieces. But the way Bob described things got me thinking about how I could tell my story differently. The longer we talked, the more I added anecdotes that have personal meaning instead of the things other people care about.

And that’s what I got from this weekend: I might be a little less afraid to try new things. A little more willing to pull out my sketchbook and draw. But most of all, I know that when I’m bored of my story, I can tell a different one.

Product & Art

Last week I had the chance to talk at #ProductSF. I gave a talk on Product & Art – and the different processes that go into making each. This is a written version of that talk.

Something that’s been on my mind a lot recently is the difference between Product and Art. The notebook on the left is a Moleskine. My brother and his girlfriend got me a bunch for Christmas. I take them everywhere to take notes. The notebook on the right is one I made in an Art Books class with Esther Smith.

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One is a Product. One is Art. Both are notebooks that I take to conferences and take notes in. What’s the difference?

I started thinking about this a lot after I started working at Kickstarter. When I joined the company, I thought it was a tech company. I’d heard about the Elevation Doc and the Ouya and the Pebble.  Everything I saw in the press I read was about using Kickstarter as a different way to fund companies. It was for cool projects. Prototypes. Experiments. Things.

But that’s not really what Kickstarter is about. It’s obvious as soon as you look at a profile page – Kickstarter has 15 categories now, and 13 of them have nothing to do with technology! In a deeper way, a very substantial piece of Kickstarter is about Art.

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Shortly after I started, I was frustrated. Trained in Engineering, I felt like tech was usually about solving problems and art was usually about expression. As a PM, it was hard for me to build features that I thought addressed both of those. I went through a phase where I spent a lot of time questioning if both could live in the same home.

Just to come back to the same conclusion, that, yes, Art and Product are both about creating things. Kickstarter is about creative projects, and they both belong.

The difference is in the process. I’m generalizing – not every artist and every PM use these same process. These are some underlying themes I’ve seen.

The Product process is an established system. Whether you’re using something like waterfall, or agile – you have goals and metrics. You have a schedule for what you want to get done. You have a roadmap for what you’re doing next. You build things, get feedback, make changes. At the core, you have a dedicated problem you’re trying to solve – and you can measure yourself on if you managed to solve it.

The Art process isn’t like that. It tends to be much more about starting the work, and progressing as you go. You just keep working. If you make a mistake, it’s likely to somehow shape the future direction. You don’t show your unfinished piece for feedback. You know when it’s right, it’s right, and when it’s done, it’s done. You share, and get reactions, not feedback. The best way I’ve found to describe it is from Steven Pressman’s book, the War of Art.*


photo from Tambako (linked).


“The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. The professional steels himself at the start of a project, reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull into Nome.” – Steven Pressman

It sounds a little crazy to think about building a product the art way. You just start building something – you don’t know what it’s for – and someday you make a Product? I definitely wouldn’t have believed that a year ago. But for some projects, it can work.

During the talk I walked through the example of how we re-designed Kickstarter’s Start Page using a more artistic process. Before the redesign the page was the version that Andrew Cornett made in 2011.

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When we started the page redesign, it wasn’t necessarily from the sort of thing a PM would usually start with. It wasn’t a list of features and metrics and all the usual “Product” things. We started with the sentiments that we wanted to create.

Image from Magnus Brath (linked).

Image from Magnus Brath (linked).

One that stood out to me was the St. Exupery quote “If you want to build a ship, do not drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

(It turns out this quote isn’t really a quote, but it’s what we used internally. Marc Hedlund’s interesting story about that is over here).

During the talk, I walked through a few different versions of the page that we tried out. I’m not going to include them in the blog, but to summarize…

There were 11 major versions in all, and many minor versions. I showed the first version we tried (very literal), we tried sketching, we tried lots of videos of creators, and we tried drop downs to let people make choices before getting into project build. We learned a lot, but none of them were quite right.

When we got to the seventh version, we started playing with the idea of having a walkthrough of the project process, and we continued along working on things.  Eventually we got to the point where we were pretty happy, and felt pretty close to shipping.

Of course, as mentioned before, the Product way cares about a ship date. The Artist way wants things to be right!

From the Pressman work: “This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

Unfortunately for your PM, Ideas come and insights accrete right before that ship date.

As Verlyn Klinkenborg pointed out in Several Short Sentences about Writing – “It was all change until the very last second.”

So, we kept working to make our version of the Start Page better, right up until the end. The added the entire celebratory confetti video the weekend before shipping. We changed the copy until the very last day. We ended up with an experience that I’m very proud of. In the talk, I showed a video, but you can see the final page over here.

The thing I like about this page is that it really shows the benefit of using an artistic process. This page is way better than anything I would have come up with by trying to optimize, or by setting a goal. The artistic process can help steer you away from a local maxima, and towards something much better.

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One caveat I want to add to this is how long this process took us. The entire process to create the page ended up taking about eight months. While I’m proud of the page – it’s hard to say “was that page worth eight months?” Eight months is a lot of time you can use to build Products.

I think it was worth eight months. First for the page, but then for everything we learned along the way. We spent a lot more time wondering why people do and don’t create, and how we could help. Many of the earlier versions of the page were adopted in different ways – our version of the drop downs ended up being this page. The $1 Billion Page uses many aesthetics that we first experimented with for the Start page. The Start Page was a worthwhile investment.

All this is to say – you can try out the artistic process with your Product too. It’s not for every project. If something’s primarily engineering work, I’d steer clear. If something’s really time sensitive, you probably don’t want to go this way either.

But when you want to express something about your company – your brand, your values, your mission, the art way can help you find the best way to do that. It can help you figure out what you’re really trying to make when you start a new Product.

Don’t replace your Product process with the Art process. Remember that it’s another option you have available, and sometimes it’s the best tool for the job.

* Full disclosure: that Amazon link is an affiliate link – experimenting with that. If this bothers you please let me know! Here’s a non-affiliate one.


Deciding to go to #ProductSF

Have you read Rachel Sklar’s piece about how buying a plane ticket to go to Arianna Huffington’s party changed the course of her career? If you haven’t, you should.

#ProductSF was a bit like that.

Josh Elman and I have been friends on Twitter for a while, and started emailing after I announced my plan to go to HBS in the Fall. During our exchange he dropped the critical phrase, “if you were in town I’d love to have you as a guest [at #ProductSF].”

Those are the magic words. When someone you respect says “if you happen to be in town” – it tends to mean “you should get yourself here, it’ll work out well for you.”

So, I booked my own plane ticket and got myself there.** Before I even had a list of speakers, a venue, or knew anything about what was going on. It was worth it.

Adam Sigel already wrote a nice recap that covers most of the talks, so I’m going to pull a few my personal highlights. Later this week I’ll post my slides and a summary of my own talk.

Make sure every decision is intentional.

Julie Zhou, Director of Design at Facebook, talked about how to work with designers.

She made hundreds of points, but on in particular resonated for me. The PM’s role is to “make sure every decision is intentional.” I think this could be a PM tagline. I also think it expands way beyond just working with designers. If I had to pick the one point that made the whole conference worth it, this was it.

It’s so tempting to avoid asking all the questions, especially as you get closer to shipping. It’s a bad habit of mine. Everyone wants to ship, you don’t want to throw a wrench in things, but it’s your job.

Sometimes the questions are hard – “Is this what we should ship?” “Do we want to continue to invest in this?”

Or it can be something more design like – “Why is this piece of information the most important?” “Why this order?” “Why’d we choose this motion? These are the questions Julie was pointing towards.

It goes beyond that, though. As the PM you want to be responsible for how well the Product goes out the door, and working with each team. “Can we go through this detail of the launch plan again?” is a question I wish I’d asked more in my career. “How do you think we can best respond to tickets about this feature?” is another one.

You can keep yourself honest on this. When something doesn’t work after shipping, be sure to ask yourself “was this intentional?” If it was, you can figure out which assumption was flawed. If it wasn’t, there’s your problem.

If you’re a PM, and can only have goal to measure yourself off of, I’d try “Make sure every decision is intentional.” That’s a much stricter commitment than “Ship a high quality product.”

Focus on making the best thing – not on the competition.

Mark Towfiq, CTO @ Flywheel ended up doing an Ignite-style talk right after Mina from Uber talked.

That’s an interesting place to be, speaker-wise. It sets everyone else up to be thinking about your competition. Of course, someone asked Mark about the competition.

His response was what resonated with me. He did not waver. You should work with your users and build the best possible product. Focusing there will help you improve far more than focusing on your competition. The market is big.

This struck me because while I was at Kickstarter, people asked me a lot about other funding platforms. I do find other platforms interesting and keep track of them. Still, it always shocked me how much impact other people thought it would have over what I built. What motivates me wasn’t competition. I just wanted to make Kickstarter’s tools as wonderful as possible for Backers & Creators.

Mimicking someone else seems like chasing shiny objects instead of committing to your product. Like Mark said, focus on making something that matters to your users.

Sales is important for everyone.

Another talk that struck me was Ty Ahmed-Taylor‘s discussion of sales. He organized his talk to be about you, internal stakeholders, and external stakeholders.

He drew the parallel between Sales and how a PM gets other people on board with your ideas. He also shared a “one page” template for advocating for yourself to management.

I think in Product we sometimes get absorbed in our area, instead of talking about the adjacent disciplines. It was great to hear Ty diving into Sales techniques.

Unfortunately, At the time he was talking, I was nervous for my talk. When the videos go up, this is definitely the first talk I’ll be watching again so I can take better notes :)

I also want to call out that this was an Ignite style talk. He’d rehearsed his talk – all his timing was spot on.

Let yourself love the details.

To close the day, Shiva Rajaraman talked about how to take PM from “meh” to “awesome.” He showed us tons of the everyday delights you find when working on YouTube as a PM.

For instance, try to search for Futurama Neutral Response. You’ll find that somehow the community has made it so that all the videos have the same number of up and down votes.

I love stuff like this. I love meeting people who backed every category on Kickstarter. I love finding projects from my hometown. Sometimes I try to downplay it – I feel like it’s a bit lame because I get SO excited every time. But I do get so excited every time, so maybe I should just own it :)

Running Better Events.

I also always try to think about “what did this event do well?” for when I plan things in the future. Plus it’s nice to call it out – organizing is a TON of work. Josh & Ty did a great job.

First, they included a non-Product talk. I haven’t seen this many times, and they referred to it as a “palate cleanser”.  Andrew Shanken talked about the history of Treasure Island. I enjoyed this – it gave me a chance to learn some about where we were, and also be a “fun” talk rather than a “work” talk. I hope to see this copied at other events.

The venue they picked was great. I heard rumors they chose something a bit out of the way to prevent people dropping in/dropping out throughout the day. If so, I’m in support of that. If it was just to feel like a “retreat” I’m in support of that too.

photo (12)

It was a lovely place to have the event. Being able to look out over the water and at the skyline between talks was great. The food was good, too.

They ran on time. I hate when events get behind and things feel rushed. Everything was on time, and it didn’t feel like a hassle to do so. It was just the expectation.

I’m looking forward to (hopefully!) attending again next year.

** Sure, it can be a bit of a work to figure out the plane ticket/housing cost, but it’s almost always worth it. This is far from the first time I’ve done something like this. Going to SXSW 2009 on a whim resulting in being on a SXSW 2010 panel with Hung. A trip to XOXO was a piece of my job at Kickstarter. You’d be amazed at all the ways I tried to be invited to join, but that’s a story for another day. Invest in yourself.

Summer 2014

If I made a pie chart of questions I get asked when I say I’m going back to school in the fall, it’d look like this:


I already covered why. The next big questions are about my summer. Right now I do have a summer vacation. The weather is beautiful, we just turned on our air conditioning, and I’m going back to school in the Fall. When I was a kid, I spent my summers reorganizing my school supplies. I didn’t like not having anything to do. In high school, I filled my summers with various camps and trips.

I’m a big fan of the idea of “sabbatical” for those of us who aren’t academics. I think it’s important to take time off between big steps (if you can). This summer is time off for me, but I’m also using it for a few specific things. In eight words: founding, teaching, conferences, vacation, HBS-prep, moving, & normal stuff.


I’ve been beating around the bush with this one. So here it is, in writing: I want to found my own company while at HBS. This summer is the first step.

I’m in no rush to figure out exactly what that company is. I have a few areas I’m interested in. The bulk of my summer I’ll talk about the ideas I’m interested in now, come up with new ideas, and start exploring what I’d like to do.

I’m going to write a series of blog posts on the ideas I’m interested in. I’m also going to pick some days to sit in coffee shops around NYC and invite people to drop by and talk about them with me. I’m open to other ideas for how to play with ideas, too! In many ways, I expect it to be like the first few months we worked on Alight Learning.

By the time school starts, I want to have a list of the areas I’m interested in, and some more details for each. I want to get a “genuine HBS experience” and don’t want to pressure myself to work on the ideas during my first semester. I’ll revisit and re-evaluate them in the Spring when I have more time. Then I’ll still have an entire second year to be building.

By the time I finish, I want to have something worth continuing. This summer is the first step.


One of my fears when I decided to go to HBS was that people would stop taking me seriously as a PM. While I don’t think that’s completely true, an MBA definitely isn’t the degree I’d recommend for someone who wants to be a PM.

The upside is that it’s prompted me to do more with PM before I go. I’ve been writing, teaching, and mentoring much more than I would have otherwise.

One of the things I wanted to do was to teach a set of students from end to end – not just one coffee chat, not just dropping in for a lesson.

The opportunity to do that arose this summer. I’m teaching the 10 week GA PM class with my friend Steven Benario. We cover the basics of business and design that go into Product Management. Our class meets twice a week, for two hours per class.

Prepping for the course take longer than the class time. I run through the lesson plan, change the slides, and figure out if we want to alter the group exercises.

Between my prep, prep with Steven, teaching, and reflecting on how each class went, it’s about 16 hours of work per week. I think it’d be shorter if we were teaching the class again.

Regardless, it’s important to me. It’s cementing everything I’ve learned in the last four years. It’s a nice way to give some closing definition to four years of PMing. (Don’t worry, I won’t stop talking about PM after this).


I’m going to two Product related conferences.

Next week, I’ll be in San Francisco for #ProductSF. It’s the first time I’m going to a conference with my brother, and I’m giving a talk!

My talk is about the Balance of Product & Art – a case study of Kickstarter’s Start Page. It was the most challenging, and iconic, project I worked on at Kickstarter. I’m excited to share some of what I learned, and it’s a nice way to close out my time at Kickstarter. This week most of my time will go to preparing for the talk.

Later in June, I’ll be in Seattle for DesignPlaySeattle. It came up when Jon Bell wrote this essay. It’s much more open ended, but I’m excited to get to go hang out in Seattle, see my friends, and meet some new ones.


While I’m not doing a crazy around the world trip, or going to Croatian Yacht week with HBSers, I am taking my usual summer vacation.

My family is great and plans family vacations twice per year. We all go – my parents, me & Tom, my brother & Amy, my Aunt, and my Grandma. My involvement in these trips is: showing up at the airport and then going with the flow.

This July, we’re going to the Galapagos with my family! Because they’ve planned this (hooray!) that’s is about all the detail I can give you. I can say it’s my first family vacation in years where I didn’t have any other responsibilities to think about. I’m excited to have 10 days completely off.

HBS Prep
HBS is an organized place. I have an entire “pre-matriculation” checklist to get through. Some of it is administrative (health forms). Some of it is substantive (accounting tutorials). I’ll be spending a piece of my summer getting through those items.

Moving is non-trivial. We have to pack our entire apartment. We don’t have any overlap with our next apartment, so there are details to coordinate there. Tom is moving at the end of June with our furniture & cat. I’ve made matters complicated because I’m out of town for a conference while he needs to move. We’re trying to work out as many details as we can to make it as smooth as possible for him.

On top of that, since I need to stay until July, I have some moving within Brooklyn. I’ll be spending a few days at the beginning of July with a friend, and the last couple weeks of July with another friend. I’m excited to get to live in the other side of Brooklyn for a couple weeks!

Normal Stuff
Those are the highlights of my summer. Lots of other stuff will come into play too.

I learned the hard way that I don’t do well with no structure. When I had time off between Microsoft and Kickstarter, the first few weeks were rough. Tom would come home and I’d be still sitting on the couch, in tears, paralyzed by all the choices.

After some trial and error, I figured out that “time off” goes better when I force myself to get up and go running first thing every morning. So there will be a lot of running (or cycling, or yoga, whatever – just something that gets me out and moving).

I’m still going to do the things that are parts of my routine – events, meeting people for coffee, reading, writing. I’ll also have time to explore NYC before I leave (I haven’t been here long enough!

Professional Photos

As many of you noticed already, I posted a new profile photo to Facebook. It’s one of a set of my professional photos from Sarah Lovrien. Here’s all the photos.

I’m going to link to Sarah’s site now, but please keep in mind that it is NSFW. That is: Not Safe For Work. Sarah mostly does artistic work with models, not professional head shots.

My mom already learned that the hard way:

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.47.29 PM

OK now that you’ve got that disclaimer, here is Sarah’s site.

What do you need those for?

Honestly, I don’t know yet.

Ok, so why did you get them?

Two things: A pattern I’ve seen in what I do, and coincidence.


I try to emulate people that I think are successful and interesting. I don’t mean “copy what they do verbatim.” I just look for commonalities between people and try to do my own version. It’s how I look for things to be be better at.

This is probably the only time you’ll ever see me reference a sport. I always liked the Wayne Gretzky quote: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Looking at successful people is one way to do that.

While I strive to do it in many ways, it’s easiest to see through my website’s evolution.

First, people just had personal websites. So I put one up. I had no idea why I had it, but everyone had one, so why not.

Then, I noticed I spent a ton of time staring at peoples’ design portfolios. I made the first lightweight version of my portfolio. Despite not being a designer, or having many projects to show. It was pretty terrible, but was a good first step into trying to share the story behind my work. It also taught me that I need to document my projects better!

After a while, Diana started her mentoring project. I had about two years of work experience, and no idea why anyone would want me as a mentor, but I went with it. Since then I’ve given advice to a hundred or so people.

Recently, I noticed that lots of people I respected had tabs on their website for “writing” and “speaking.” So I made those tabs too. It worked! I ended up writing more to fill the tab, and it seems like I’ve been getting more speaking invitations too.

It turns out that when you write more, and speak more, people ask for photos with your bio. I was getting tired of scrambling to find a suitable photo every time I did something. I also noticed that people I respected had nice photos – not the kind I was sending.


Kate Matsudaira pointed out the lack of photos of my website shortly before I noticed their importance. She mentioned the lack of photos made my site seem a bit odd, and less human.

At the same time, she mentioned how much she likes the photos on Joanna Lord’s website.

The person who took Joanna’s photos was Sarah Lovrien (remember, NSFW!) I already knew Sarah, because she’d flown to NYC to watch my cat over Christmas.

The pieces fell together: I needed professional photos, and Sarah was the perfect person to to take them. (Plus, how many photographers will tell you it’s a good idea to use your cat in your professional photos?)


Day Of

Sarah flew out to NYC in April for her work. She stayed in our apartment with Gutenberg while we were at a wedding.

Before I left for the wedding, she spent an entire afternoon doing my photos. It surprised me how long and tiring the process was. All told, I think we spent about five hours.

That day, I showered & got dressed as usual, and picked some clothes I wanted to wear.

When Sarah arrived, we spent about an hour discussing outfits and locations in my apartment to shoot. She also helped me clean up all the clutter.

Sarah also arranged for a Makeup Artist (MUA) come by my apartment for about 90 minutes. If you see me when I’m “dressed up,” I spent about 10 minutes on the makeup. Max. I could write an entire post about just the make up – lots of attention to detail, and particularly to making sure my face was well defined.

We spent about two and a half hours taking photos. We had four different outfits and a lot of different locations in my house/roof to get through. From my side, it was like hanging out. Sarah would talk to me as I moved in various ways through my home. I’m sure it was a lot more work for her – she took tons of photos in every position, and reminded me to smile.

Follow up

Sarah turned the photos around the same day. She gave me a sample later the same evening.

When I responded with some feedback, she did the appropriate modifications, and we narrowed to the set that I have now. These are definitely “best me” photographs, and definitely look better than how I am on the average day.

The photos have already started to be useful. One went out with my supplement to the PM handbook. I know another will be used with an interview next month. I’m going to update my website to include them. Now that I have them, I see why I need them. It’ll be nice to send professional photos instead of “oh here’s an awkward selfie I took with my iPhone good enough?” photos.

HBS Application Essays

As previously mentioned, I’ll be attending Harvard Business School in the Fall. Lately, I’ve been thinking about who I was when I applied five years ago. These are my application essays. I’m amazed by both how familiar and how distant they feel. There’s a lot that I’d like to change and update, but I haven’t. These are exactly what I applied with. I’ve also included the fifth essay that I wrote for an “application update” last fall. 

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?

Raw passion, drive, and confidence can be the most critical resources in academia or work. Despite all the rules, structures, and guides of how to be successful the one thing that seems to propel me towards success more than

“You’re ruining your life,” used to be a statement I heard frequently, “you’re going to go to a school no one’s ever heard of. Why don’t you go somewhere good? Don’t you want to apply to more of the Ivy League?”  My passion for Olin College propelled me forward. I never worried about if I would get in- of course I would get in- because I was going.  The act of going to Olin College would not be listed amongst my accomplishments, even with its accreditation recognition. What’s substantial about Olin College for me is my devotion for the mission, and my consistent dedication to change.

Despite the fact that a substantial part of the Olin curriculum has been refined since I’ve been there, despite having helped to reform the student government, the service organization, and the student external relations group, I’m still open to change. My passion for having change at Olin has never wavered, and I’ve never become complacent with the educational community we’ve created.  Institutionalizing change is an oxymoron, and a near impossibility.  Yet, somehow, I have managed to do so within myself for this one school.  Being constantly critical of the group and never allowing me to become complacent have been constant struggles. There are days it would be easier to say “it’s okay, Olin is done now because it’s successful” but my internal feelings have never let me say that.

“Don’t have six co-founders if you can help it- try to get some to quit. At least distribute the equity unequally,” are words I’ve heard more than a few times lately. Everyone insists that to have a successful start you can’t be a student, you can’t have more than 2-3 cofounders, and someone needs to be the one definitive leader. Sometimes, the achievement is in proving the system wrong.  Alight Learning started in a completely nonconventional way- six students deciding they wanted to start a company, and then decided to come up with something they had in common. They all worked equally on all parts, not dividing the labor, and each passionately pursuing their favorite elements. With little experience, organization was a constant struggle. Yet somehow, these oft-criticized circumstances have led to the alpha launch of a product that will hopefully revolutionize middle school education.  Creating Alight in a circumstance that many business people would fight against was a challenge. Yet in the Fall, we will launch and refine the alpha product.  Being able to do this was an uphill battle, but the most rewarding of anything I have done.

Neither of these things would have been possible without what I regard as my greatest accomplishment:  a sense of fearlessness.  Being fearless is about knowing what risks are worth taking.  The combination of passion and fearlessness means that some attempts will work out and others won’t.  While this isn’t a concrete accomplishment I can point to and say “I made that,” “I helped that situation,” or “this will keep going because of me”, fearlessness is what makes me sure that there will be countless more accomplishments to add to this list as I go through life.  Doing this means I’m never afraid to go to a new school move to a new location, risk not making money for a while, or try something that might be dangerous.  Fearlessness is the context for all future accomplishments.

2. What area of the world are you must curious about and why?

In the entire world there is only one aspect that truly captivates me. It isn’t a location, an industry, or a movement. Rather, what makes the world an interesting place for me to live in is people. In fact, it’s not people as a whole, but specific individuals and their mentalities, and how those play into a group mindset.

Over the past year I’ve worked closely with a psychiatrist in the Boston area, Arnie Kerzner.  Arnie allowed me to sit in on his therapy sessions, visit other schools to discuss student problems with them, and attend his lectures.  Working with Arnie and watching his analysis of why people behave the way they do, and what challenges they face has completely changed my mindset.  People and how they think is a compelling concept, as no two people seem to think in exactly the same manner.

The next implication of this is how it impacts people when you look at the dynamics between people. This can be people in pairs, or small groups, or larger entities. This is where my passion for organizational behavior stems from. When I work, I spend far more time examining how the people and groups work together in order to create the overall system than I spend just doing the assignments that are laid out for me.  Products and services would not be created without the organizations behind them.  These organizations do stem from individuals, and how they perceive others, their interactions, their assignments, and the overall goals.

The next level to this discovery of how people think, and how their thinking impacts each other is that I am curious about how to best do things for people. Both from a business side and a design side, it’s important to know what a user is looking for. One must not think of themselves when designing, but instead be aware of the broad uses and many types of users.

Though each of these descriptions is brief, there’s near-infinite material for thought in the concept of people. As one, I’m entrenched within that constraint on my perspective every day, and it controls nearly everything that happens to me.  Life would be nothing without the study of how people think and how that thought is applied.

3. What have you learned from a mistake?

Large mistakes point overarching problems, but these problems are often the type that can be seen from other viewpoints.  The small mistakes reveal layers of complexity that I would not have considered.

Last November my resume listed the year I intended to graduate instead of the year I was eligible to graduate. I figured this transparency would demonstrate my academic plan, and wouldn’t reflect negatively on my applications for jobs.  My first round interview with Microsoft went stunningly well, so I was shocked when a couple months later, with no other explanation, I received a flat out “sorry, no jobs available” email.  I thought it might be based in the economy, so I immediately emailed recruiting to ask where the process had gone awry.  Apparently, they have a policy of filling all positions with seniors, and then rejecting everyone else without further discussion- regardless of qualifications, or interest level.

I emailed my recruiter, explained I was eligible to graduate (though didn’t intend to) and she immediately found me a position in the PowerPoint group.  Reaching PowerPoint, I learned that they did not care at all what year a student was- and instead looked for specific traits in specific people. I was hired for being “crazy, non-traditional, and likely to shake things up” with the long shot of hiring me full time.  Their process was to find the best people, regardless of year in school, as the timescale of Microsoft products is far longer than a year.

Due to my experience, I became far more aware of learning why product groups choose to hire individuals- for long or short term, experience, potential, or influence. Yet, this process was being hindered by some filters unrelated to interviews. It became clear that this same problem plagued the company- groups were unaware of what the others were doing, and it was difficult to coordinate between large initiatives.

From this knowledge, I created two initiatives. An intern version of the side project group- designed to allow employees to work on products they weren’t directly responsible for.  This group helped people better understand the holistic product visions. Additionally, I launched an intern version of the internal discussion mailing list for ideas- in order to provide external perspective on the company. From a very small initial mistake, I found a niche trying to shake the foundations that silo Microsoft’s teams apart from each other.

4. What would you like us to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

“Are you in, or are you out?” Seven of my best friends and I sat in a circle.  The date had come when we finally had to make decisions.  We’d all discussed quitting school for a year to see what we could learn free of the educational framework we’d been immersed in for so long.

I opened my mouth, still unsure of what words were going to emerge, and I was shocked at the sound of my own voice saying “I’m in.”  I’d never taken such a big risk before- every step of my academic career had been planned through wonderful schools and rigorous courses. I’d never gone without all of those benchmarks to see what learning was about in the real world.

With those two words, the most formative portion of my undergraduate education became the part during which I was not an undergraduate student, but an unemployed drop out.

I reached a new level of fluidity.  Rather than being forced to learn a set of objective metrics, I could explore and figure out what I wanted to know on my own. I could struggle through entrepreneurship that was designed for the long-term, rather than for the scope of the class. I could work on research at a graduate level, seeing what it would be like to attended two of the great universities. I could travel to a new conference every week, meet a new set of people, and find new fields to break into.

A year ago, I wasn’t aware of how my passions could be applied. I learned a series of facts, that might or might not fit into a later career, but didn’t know why I learned them.  I often felt that the structure of how I was taught was more relevant than the actual facts. My undergraduate experience was plagued with a variety of interests- electrical and computer engineering, software, medicine, biology, business, and education.

Only taking a step back from the educational system allowed me to see the value within. By taking time away, I learned what specific skills I needed to develop to tackle the projects I was looking at pursuing. The value of the 2+2 program is it leaves this buffer, allowing for a student to learn what they need to learn, and then the environment to learn it in. If only undergraduate institutions did the same.

5. Application Update Statement 

When I was very small, my parents had a Christmas party for their friends. I remember running around the party, staring at knees, and being overwhelmed by all the strangers. Everyone at the party was trying to be nice to the little girl, and kept offering me cookies from the holiday platter.

The first cookie was fantastic. It was a beautiful sugar cookie. The second cookie was pretty good, too. But the party was long, and near the end I’d had at least ten cookies from various adults. By the time I told my mom I was tired, and she said “well you can have another cookie” – and pointed out a bell-shaped cookie, I couldn’t form any words and burst into tears. I wasn’t old enough to figure out that “you can have a cookie” didn’t mean “you must have a cookie.”

Five years ago when I applied to HBS, I didn’t realize that “being offered an opportunity” didn’t mean “you must take the opportunity.” After my admission I agonized over stacks of post it notes – how could I possibly manage to get a Masters in Design, an MBA, go to medical school, have a startup, and be the CEO of a major company? How would I fit all of these things I might possibly do into one life – even one wild and audacious one?

It’s clear I was trying to take too many opportunities from my anxious journal entries about “not doing enough” at the beginning of Microsoft, and my calendar completely full of back-to-back events. As time went on, I started to realize I couldn’t effectively do everything. The opportunities are like cookies – doing too many just makes me sick.

Realizing this has allowed me to focus and finish my projects. It’s given me a stronger sense of myself and what events I like to go to. It’s helped me to lead more effectively and pick one strategy: just like I can’t be everything, no organization can be everything. I’d feel more comfortable than ever declining HBS knowing this. There would be other opportunities, and I could achieve other great things. HBS sticks with me, because I know it is a place where I will learn more of these lessons. HBS will force me to reflect deeply, and choose carefully. It’s the cookie I want.

I’m angry because I’m afraid.

You may have seen a few angry tweets from me earlier about how Github handled the situation with Julie Ann Horvath.

First, I was angry about Theresa Preston-Werner tying the situation to Kickstarter. That’s a personal issue. It’s upsetting for me, but that’s not what I want to write about.

Instead, I want to write about all the other women in technology that this impacts.

No one seems to be recognizing that this situation is scary. So, I’m bringing this up even though it’s a career risk for me. It’s a risk someone has to take, and no one wants to.

Every time I tweet gender, I go back through to make sure all the people who are “important” to me still follow me. (Hint: people with power over me. Heads of Product at interesting companies. VCs. I’m not too afraid that my friends are going to stop following me.)

I don’t want to spend my time writing about gender. I want to spend it doing Product Management and founding companies. But I’m afraid if I don’t write it, no one will, and we won’t get better. If you haven’t noticed yet: I always alternate my “gender” essays and my professional content ones.

The Github thing isn’t just about one set of facts. It’s about how this reaction makes other women in technology feel.

The Facts

I try to not make assumptions about situations I don’t understand. I try not to blame people. I try to avoid reading into things.

Github’s had some other issues. Take the Meritocracy rug. I know the general criticisms of meritocracy, but it’s not like I notice every rug in Kickstarter. I doubt a meritocracy rug would have bothered me if I worked there. I shared the story when they reflected & removed it, because I liked that they were responding to the community. Death by a thousand paper cuts sucks, but I’m not going to weigh in on another company’s paper cuts. (Unless someone asks me! Always happy to try to help!)

But – I am going to weigh in on things that send messages to women in tech as a whole.

Julie Ann leaving Github was VERY different from something like the rug. She already had a lot of respect & weight in the community. She’d been a strong advocate for “be female in tech and do awesome work, and it will be okay.” She was all about getting more women into our communities & supporting them, rather than focusing on problems.

I usually feel that way too – I think it’s important to talk about things – but also good to stay positive.

Julie Ann saying what she did was credible because of the reputation she’d built. Github immediately responding also gave the claims credence. It also seemed unsurprising given what others had heard. (I don’t know many within Github, but the general sentiment amongst folks I knew was there were issues).

I think she told the truth. But that isn’t all the matters.

The Perception

Regardless of the exact details of the facts, Julie Ann’s perception also matters. A lot. People internalize situations based on prior experience – this wasn’t made up out of nowhere. Something did happen – regardless of the exact details.

Github’s answer was upsetting because it felt like a “non-answer.”

It said “he messed up enough to need to leave, but it’s not a technical legal claim.” That’s.. ambiguous. It comes across as “something bad happened, but we’re going to pretend it didn’t to protect ourselves legally.”

It was particularly weak because Julie Ann already said the process was more about arbitration. She’d already said it wasn’t about finding out what happened. Github finally saying this felt expected, weak and cover-up-y.

I get that there’s a legal issue. They don’t want to be sued. That’s a hard line to walk. I bet their employees are writing anonymously because they were told not to comment publicly.

But, that answer isn’t reassuring for women in technology at all. What happens if (when) something like that happens to you? Will your company throw you under the bus to protect themselves legally? Will they try to discredit you, even while taking actions make it clear something happened?

That’s ambiguous and scary. Seems like you lose twice – something bad happens, and you get discredited! Why risk that?

Then that got amplified.

The situation started feeling much worse when Marc Andreesen tweeted his support.. I’ve always looked up to A16Z. I’ve respected the people I’ve met there. Ben Horowitz used female pronouns in his book!

Marc’s tweets still make me uncomfortable.

The entire situation reads: A male executive can do something that’s wrong/sexist. The company will want to cover itself legally, so it will discredit the claims. It’s hard to PROVE something was sexist. There’s always so much individual variation between people – so it’s easy to discredit. The company does realize something was wrong – so it forces the executive to resign. Yet, a prominent VC is still offering support and funding, with no context.

Without more information, this is even more terrifying! For some people, this would be reassuring. Marc has his founder’s backs! That’s great! That’s not necessarily how it feels for women who want to start companies.

Let’s say I want to start a company (I do!) Let’s say I was thinking about taking money from Marc and A16Z.

What if something bad happened to me? Another venture partner did something wrong? Another executive from a portfolio company?

Marc’s statements make me wary that he wouldn’t have my back in that situation. He’d have the other, male, founders.

Seems more that someone would try to discredit me, cover it up, and support the male founder instead.

Money from A16Z suddenly feels very risky – what if something went wrong? Normally, I’d just silently strike it off my list of places to approach in the future. Today, I’m writing.

It isn’t just me.

We wonder why we don’t have women in tech – yet we don’t address when we terrify them! We focus on the facts instead of the overall climate.

Instead of thinking about what this situation means for all the women in tech, we focus on what it means for one founder.

I bet a bunch of talented women are writing off Github and A16Z as places to work and/or get funding right now because of this fear. I’d need to know far more to feel safe working with either of those places.*

As an industry we should and must care about facts. But we also need to care about the messages we send. Right now, the industry is telling me “if anything bad happens to you, we’ll throw you out instead of trying to address it.”

That’s what’s scary. That’s why I’m angry.

* I also know this isn’t just me. I’ve had women reach out today to share the same sentiments, who don’t necessarily want to share them publicly.

Some news: HBS

I applied to the Harvard Business School in the interest of “keeping my options open,” back in 2009. At the time, I didn’t intend to go (more on that in another essay).

That’s given me five years to think about it. There aren’t many decisions you consider for five years. In those five years, I’ve had at least 500 conversations. Thank you, everyone who talked to me.

People that I’d never met answered my emails, and agreed to talk with me about the decision. I’ve heard lots of strong, valid opinions for why I should go. I’ve also heard strong, valid opinions for why I shouldn’t. I’d even dare to say that I’m the world expert on “should an Engineer with two years of work experience at a large company and two years at a startup get their MBA?”

I’m so tired of thinking about it.

When I started having the conversations, I was searching for “the right answer.” There isn’t a right answer, but there is a right answer for me. I’m going.

The Long Run

In some fields, you go get an MBA to get to the next level. You put in your two years in consulting/banking, do the MBA, and then go back to the field. Some people to do it to my career switch to another discipline.

Tech isn’t like that. You don’t need an MBA in tech. It can hurt you. In two years, I’ll be seen as less qualified to do what I’m doing now. That terrifies me. (Yes, I want to stay in tech). Talking with Anna Khan helped me realize that I’m okay with being seen as less qualified – because I won’t actually be less qualified.

But it’s not about what happens for me in two years – or even in five years. It’s about what’s going to happen over my entire career. One of the earlier discussions I had about HBS was with Jeff Teper. The thing that stuck with me was “It isn’t one thing that helped my career after going to HBS. It’s just that every single interaction I have is a tiny bit better, and it adds up over time.”

From the two weekends I’ve spent on campus, I can see how that happens. It pushes you to think about your communication and interaction a different way. I know I’m not always patient. I know I have strong emotional reactions to certain conflicts. HBS will help me hone those things in a different way than the workplace would, and that over my entire life, that will matter. For me, that’s worth investing two years.

I’m going to HBS for all the small things I’ll learn, that will add up over my career.

Breaking my mental model

When I went to Engineering school, I said I was going to “learn to think like an engineer, but not to be an engineer.” Like many things I said early in my career, I had no idea what it meant. My dad said it, and I thought it sounded good.

Yet, that’s exactly what I did. I’m not a great pure Electrical Engineer, or Computer Engineer, or Software Engineer. But, I do think like an engineer. Whenever I hear something, it’s a problem that I want to solve.

Thinking like an Engineer didn’t feel constraining to me at first. Since I wasn’t great at one type of engineering, I insisted that I was a generalist and became a PM. It was the job that let me be closest to all the other jobs. It seemed like a broad way of thinking about things – even with that engineering lens.

The thing is: I’m not a generalist anymore. The more I work, write, and teach, the more PM fills my life. I act like a PM in my personal life. I approach every problem in a PM way (research, gather all the inputs, analyze cost/benefits, prioritize, do).

PM has become my hammer, and every situation looks like something to be PM’d. I rely more and more on my existing tools. I want to try to think differently again, and re-generalize myself.

I’m going to HBS to learn how to think a different way. I want to learn to see new opportunities, not just problems to be fixed.

The Case Method

I’ve also thought a lot about if another MBA program would be better for me. I’ve always wanted to live abroad, so INSEAD was tempting. The obvious choice for people in tech is Stanford. That’s not what I want to do. It’s not “Harvard” – it’s about the case method.

I’ve participated in five case discussions now. I’m convinced the case method will teach me to make better products. In each of the cases I’ve been astounded about the details that I’ve missed, what resonates with other students, and how many ways there are to think about a problem.

The case method is designed to create empathy and perspective. You have 90 brilliant people in a room, and many share their best, distilled insights on the problem. You learn how many different ways there are to see an issue.

You could argue that the best way to learn to create products is just to make more products. In some ways, that’s true. But, when I do that I tend to make them the same way, and optimize my process. I don’t build each thing using different techniques. I’d argue that I learn more about creating products from my hobbies.

Hearing all the perspectives through the Case Method will give me lots of new ways to think about building things. It will give me new areas to explore. It will help me build empathy, which is one of the most important things for making great products.

I’m going to HBS because the Case Method will teach about building better products.

Starting Something

I cannot hold two Product visions in my head at the same time. I can’t think deeply about how to help people best Discover and support things on Kickstarter, and also about “what do I want to start?” Trying to do this would be a disservice to my idea, and to Kickstarter.

For a long time I felt guilty (I’m just not trying hard enough!) That’s not true. A conversation with Hunter Walk made me realize it is reasonable that I can’t do both at the same time. I’m human, and that’s my limit.

I love working on Kickstarter, but now is the right time to go do something else.

I was talking with Kene when that clicked. We were discussing the oft-asked question “do you want to be a PM in 10 years?” came up. I’d toyed with the idea of wanting to be “head of Product” somewhere.

We were talking through it when I finally realized why I don’t want to be a PM in 10 years.

Being a PM means that you’re fulfilling someone else’s vision. As much as I love Kickstarter, and I feel a great sense of ownership over my work, Kickstarter isn’t mine. Kickstarter is Perry’s, and Yancey’s, and Charles’. I love the work I do at Kickstarter, but it’s for their vision.

I want to do my thing. There’s no reason to wait to do that.

I could definitely do my own thing somewhere other than HBS. Eric Stromberg pointed out “well couldn’t you go to Mexico for a month and figure that out?” I could, but I don’t want to. I like having structure, spontaneous inputs to my thought process, and lots of people to bounce ideas off of. That’s an environment I tend to thrive in.

I’m going to HBS because it will give me both the space and the structure that I need to figure out my own direction.

I don’t know where I’ll be in 20 years

When I look back five years, I’ve fulfilled my “five year plan” – but it definitely didn’t feel like that when I was doing it. It felt chaotic and messy and coincidental that I ended up here.

I have no idea what I’ll be doing in 2 years, or 20 years. I hope it’s just as messy and chaotic.

I’m going to HBS because I know I’d always be “what-if-ing” myself if I didn’t go.

A note on cost, and a few things that didn’t make this list

For many, the decision about HBS has a substantial financial component. It’s conspicuously absent from writing. I’m lucky in that my family has always been emotionally and financially supportive of my education. I’ve made this decision based on what I think is best for me, and not about a fiscal analysis of “payoff.”

Having “Harvard” on your resume does open doors. While I hope that someday everyone recognizes “Olin” that isn’t the case yet. While it isn’t a substantial factor in my decision, it does matter.

I also didn’t talk through the skills of the curriculum. I’m not passionate about learning accounting, but I do like learning. For me going to HBS isn’t about learning facts – it’s about learning how to be, and how to make.

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