Friday, November 16, 2012

The Balancing Act

I've been thinking a lot about what is called "work/life balance" lately. Notice which word gets top billing?


I can still remember the day I realized my father didn't get summers off. That unlike the school year, the business year didn't have a break. It seemed unfair, and I wondered how he and every other adult could possibly deal with that - it was like going to school year-round!

Except that in my Dad's case, he also left not long after I did for school but arrived home several hours later. And for much of my childhood, he worked at least a half-day on Saturdays. My father co-founded a company which later went public, and its success had something to do with the extra hours that he and his co-workers put in.

But I also remember that Dad played squash regularly, stepping out of the office for a few hours each week. And he took regular, long vacations. Every few years we'd pack up the whole family and leave the country for a month or more, heading to exotic locations and adventure. And if we weren't doing that, it was off to sit on a beach for a week over the winter holidays.

Back in those days, there wasn't an internet or mobile phones. Even if there were, it's unlikely they'd have been available where we were going. We were truly disconnected.

The Start-Up

I recently talked with the CEO of a start-up who proudly told me he and his team regularly worked until 8:00 or even 10:00 PM. He said his team was really dedicated, and passionate about what they were working on.

He asked me what I thought of that. I told him I thought it was borderline exploitative, and it sounded like his team was under-resourced. I pointed out that most contemporary research demonstrates that worker productivity tails off dramatically after 6 hours.

In the case of tech jobs, it's a big deal. Bad, sloppy, or buggy work impacts far more people than just the person doing the initial work. Overwork makes more waste than haste.

In my experience, long hours just burn people out. Especially if they're working on something they care about and are good at what they do. You'll end up watching them all walk out the door sooner than you'd like.

Throwing more hours at something isn't much better than just throwing more money at it. But you can always get more money. And you can't get any more time.

The Sprinters

One of the founders of 37Signals, a successful company, recently noted in an interview that in the summer, his staff only works 4 days a week. When asked if people could work more days if they wanted, he said yes, but the company actively discouraged it.

He said it was important for his employees to enjoy life, and to be in a place where they wanted to come to the office and do a great job while they were there. His company had found the limited hours made the employees both more productive and happier.

He is one of the authors of "Rework", a book which both reflected and affected my own thoughts about work. Since I first read it, I buy a copy for every office I work in, and gave a copy to each person on my current team.

Ultimately, it is a book that suggests you work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Focus on the parts of your job where you add the most value, and simply ignore the rest.

This type of thinking, contrary to typical business logic, is usually written about with the print equivalent of an arched eyebrow and slightly mocking tone. "Isn't this wacky and unusual?"

That type of hype, or at least aspiration, has also driven the success of Tim Ferriss, whose "4 Hour Work Week" takes things to an extreme. Ferriss is unusual, and his main industry and success seem to be marketing himself and his books, but I give him credit for being a bold and unusual role model in a society that still thinks the people who get up at 5:00 am and don't get home until after 9:00 pm are not only "smart" but something to emulate.

The Colleague

One of the people I work with recently resigned, after working hard for years. This person was a major asset for the company I'm working for, and their loss is disruptive in the short term and will result in additional long-term challenge for our organization. They're leaving because they're tired of working. Burnt.

Another former colleague has this life pattern: he takes a great job, works like a maniac for a couple years, does amazing things, and then snaps and quits. He cites burnout and lack of a life and relationship. He takes a few months off. Then he starts the exact same cycle over again.

I think of how much companies invested in these people, these human resources. The hiring was difficult enough. But after even a few years, even a merely good employee is incredibly valuable to an organization because they're trained, they have domain knowledge, they know how to get things done. The stakes only rise as the years pass.

A Gloved Hand Typing On An iPhone, Forever

If you're reading this, you probably work in a "modern" office. Which means you have a smartphone and at least one computer. Both are likely issued and/or paid for by your employer, with the agreement (explicit or tacit) that you will be available electronically almost all the time.

Like me, you probably start reading and responding to email over your morning coffee. Maybe that's 5 am. Maybe it's 7 am. You might work through lunch, reading email or meeting with someone. You might have a business dinner. You probably look at email before you go to sleep, whenever that is.

And you probably have a commute at some point in your day, even if it's not rush hour, or even if it's on some sort of employer-sponsored bus.

If you figure that all that stuff is actually "work", your work day has probably stretched out to 10-12 hours easily. In my own case, it's not uncommon to send my first email at 5:30 am and my last at 11:30 pm. Don't even get me started on business travel.

My company is global. It never sleeps. I can clear my inbox and within 4 hours, I will have 50 new emails. Doesn't matter if it's 11 pm or 11 am, or what time zone I'm in.

Yeah, we can look at Facebook or order something from Amazon "on the clock", but really, when else are we going to do that?

In some sense, we're always working. The lines between our personal and professional lives grow ever blurrier, and telecommuting (driven by our petroleum-challenged future) is blurring the lines between our personal and professional spaces as well. I expect this trend to continue, and for those lines to nearly vanish for the next generation.

That is a significant change, and one that has occurred during my relatively short working career.

The Joke

One of my mentors once told me a work joke I repeat quite frequently.
A young lumberjack watches an older lumberjack who seems to stand around a lot and doesn't appear to work very hard. Irritated by the old man's laziness, the young man challenges him to a tree-felling contest. The old man laughs and agrees. 
The next day, they start at the appointed time. The young man and old man begin sawing away. After about 45 minutes, the young man sees the old man stop and walk away. 15 minutes later the old man returns. The young man shakes his head and keeps working. 
Throughout the day, the young man watches the old man through sweat-blurred eyes, and unbelievably, sees the old codger has to stop every 45 minutes to rest! The young man is sure he's got this in the bag. 
But at the end of the day, when the trees are counted, the old man has beaten the young man by a sizeable margin.  
The young man, thrashed and tired, says "Grampa, I gotta know - how did you manage to take a break every 45 minutes and still beat me?" 
The old man smiles and says "I wasn't taking a BREAK. I was sharpening my saw!"

In many ways, this story describes my desired approach to work. It's not the hours that you put in - it's the results. And sometimes the best results come from stepping away for a while. Exercising or reading or taking a walk or getting a coffee with someone. Then returning with a fresh perspective - a sharpened saw.

Working Hard to Not Work Hard

When people ask me about my own work ethic, I say "I work very hard to make sure I don't have to work very hard." Like a talented musician, I put in a lot of effort behind the scenes to make it look easy on stage.

I look at regular long hours as a failure. I didn't anticipate something. I didn't manage a project correctly. I messed up. Or I simply have too much work to be effective at all of it.

I spend a lot of time measuring and thinking before cutting and executing. Execution matters for a lot (if not everything) in business, and without a good plan, one cannot execute.

I work hard on not wasting time, mine or anyone else's.

I try hard to keep my saw sharp, to leave work at work, and to take regular vacations where possible, even if just for a few days. I try not to look at email all the time, all weekend long.

I even try to get out of the office for a reasonable sit-down lunch with friends and colleagues at least once a week.

Really, I don't want to put in that many hours at the office or anywhere. I have other interests outside of work. Those interests and that time to think are some of the very things that I think make me good at the work I do.

And when something truly important comes up I want to make sure I have the energy and passion in reserve to devote to it.

I've also learned - several times, the hard way - there are things far more important than work. There's always going to be more work. There isn't always going to be more LIFE.

A Cyborg Future

There are those who argue that we have no choice. The only way to keep a job and stay competitive is to go all in, and perhaps beyond human limits. Needless to say, the prospect is not entirely appealing to me.

How do you balance your work and your life? Do you?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Music! Old New, New Old Music

I actually look forward to some of my intercontinental flights. Trapped for 10 hours in a seat with no internet and few outlets, one has ample time to listen to music.

Recently I had a chance to check out 4 new albums: "Sunken Condos" by Donald Fagen, "Beautiful Friction" by The Fixx, "Battle Born" by The Killers, and "Clockwork Angels" by Rush. All of these bands have been around for a while. (The Killers are the "baby" of the bunch, having formed "only" 11 years ago, in 2001.)

Donald Fagen "Sunken Condos"
Like many records I've listened to lately (Alabama Shakes, Jack White, the Rick Rubin-produced ZZ Top album), Donald Fagen's album sounded exactly like I expected it would, and is entertaining, but hardly essential.

Fagen is considered to be the "important half" of Steely Dan, and like many other "important halves", he seems to be missing something in his solo work, even though it sounds about as close to his band as anyone could.

Fagen releases records rarely. This is only his 4th solo album over 20 years. 9 songs. It's...good. It sounds like Steely Dan. It's polished, sort of jazzy, and grooves in its old white guy way.

Lyrically, he's also covering the ground you'd expect him to - there's a song about being replaced by that new IT guy that upgrades all your stuff, for example. But unlike the best of Steely Dan's stuff, there's nothing particularly subversive or creepy. Fagen sounds like a successful and moderately cranky old man, which I suppose he is.

Fagen's record was completely unsurprising, right down to the "well that was nice, but I don't need to hear that again, ever" feeling.

The Fixx "Beautiful Friction"
The Fixx's album is their first new record in quite a while as well, and comes after a recent reunion stint, playing all their old hits. The Fixx made some of my favorite records when I was a kid ("Shuttered Room", "Reach The Beach", and "Phantoms", in particular) before more or less running out of gas and ideas and disappearing 3 or 4 albums after that.

Unlike "new" records by The Cars, Al Green, and other reformed bands aiming for their old sound, The Fixx refuses to shamelessly ape their old hits and sounds, aiming instead for something that is aware of their "classic" sounds, synthesizing and incorporating the best of their past ideas while trying to update it in a few ways. It's similar to U2's approach circa "All That You Can't Leave Behind".

I expected not to like it very much, as the first track and lead-off single struck me as unremarkable. However, as an album it was quite listenable. Still nowhere near the level of their first 3 albums, but it sounds like, and more importantly feels like The Fixx without being self-conscious.

There's texture and mystery, songs that don't outstay their welcome, and a nice vibe throughout. It's not embarrassing, it's not a "HEY WE CAN STILL RAAAAWK", it's solid. I'm listening to it for a second time as I write this.

The Killers "Battle Born"
Perhaps most surprising was "Battle Born" by The Killers. Lead singer and primary songwriter Brandon Flowers is an avowed fan of Bruce Springsteen. The band's second album was criticized for too-closely aping The Boss.

To my ears, this new album is clearly the work of a Springsteen admirer. If the cover doesn't tip you off, the first few songs put any doubts to rest. Flowers sings in a higher register and the band prefers modern synth gloss, but the melodies could easily have come from Bruce, and it's easy to hear his voice and the E Street band stomping through these songs and their imagery.

Specifically, these songs reference Springsteen's earlier, more hopeful and joyous albums, before both the grim situations of his stories and his own success and self-importance made Springsteen so difficult to enjoy.

It's also just...good. Flowers can "do" Springsteen really well, but his homages never really take flight or hook you in quite the way that Springsteen's best work does. His vocals are polished while retaining a little of his own quavering tone, but the performances lack the sweaty soul-informed intensity of Springsteen's most inspired singing, and the overall musical effect is far tamer than any of Springsteen's early records, which at their best shine and swell and nearly explode.

Then again, Springsteen hasn't exactly been nailing it lately either. My friend Sid Luscious would say when your best record in the last 20 years consists of the stuff you didn't think was good enough to release 30 years ago, it's probably time to hang it up.

Still, it's surprising and refreshing to hear someone who is still obviously such a FAN of music (and of a specific, slightly unfashionable artist) so unafraid to emulate his heroes with so few concessions to modern tastes. "Battle Born" is unlikely to win The Killers any new fans, but much like Donald Fagen and The Fixx, they've either decided they have nothing left to prove to anyone, or they already know they're unlikely to bring in any new fans in today's music business anyhow.

Rush "Clockwork Angels"
It's challenging being an old artist in a new world. Rush continues to plow ahead, and their "Clockwork Angels" has them sounding as vibrant and mighty as they ever have.

They hinted at this vigor a few years ago on a surprising all-covers album that featured a scorching, ripping take on "Summertime Blues", of all things.

Rush is still unlikely to appeal to anyone other than the same teenagers they always have (though many of the original teens are well into middle age now), but there's something wonderful and admirable about their continuing to do exactly what they've always done, with a passion, open-heartedness, and lack of calculation sadly missing from most of the "old new/new old" albums one might hear these days.

That said, like a lot of old rock bands lately (Mission of Burma, Fleetwood Mac, Wire...), they seem to revel a bit too much in just playing loud and simple. While Rush has frequently had loud albums, they've also always been intricate and detailed. I know I'm in the minority, but I actually liked it when they got all proggy and threw some keyboards in the mix.

There are hints of that stuff here, but a lot of this record blurs into slabs of distorted guitar, some tricky drumming, and Geddy Lee not quite soaring above the way he used to.

All of these records also suffer from a few modern curses. For one thing, they're all at least a few songs too long. I'd have thought much more highly of The Fixx and The Killers' efforts if they'd been 2-4 songs shorter. The Rush album is nearly twice as long as it should be.

They also suffer from a lack of range. That is both dynamic range - they're all thick and loud records, more or less unrelentingly (even Fagen's, in his own way) as is the current fashion - and in range of tempo and emotion.

These records didn't really have bits where the singer is more naked and ballading, or where there are instrumental highlights. Once you hear the first track on these albums, you pretty much know what the rest of the album is going to sound like. They'd all benefit from a few peaks and valleys. You might get a bare intro or a tiny breakdown, but that's it.

A closing thought for all the bands mentioned here and any other artists: I don't think anyone can write a clever song about global warming. Yet all of these albums try, with pretty much exactly the same results: songs "about global warming". Boring, hectoring, vague, and inessential. Clunky and collegiate at best, and nothing that's going to change anyone's mind.

I had at least hoped Fagen would have pulled something out about how great global warming was, because the young girls were wearing skimpy clothing all the time, and his real estate values had gone up, and so forth, but no dice.

Instead, we're left with a poor metaphor name-checking "Mr. Gore". The Killers turn in the "nobody can escape the rising tide" side of things, and The Fixx continues the handwringing they started back on "Driven Out" to lesser effect on some of their tracks.

The end result so far is only The Fixx's record is meriting a second intentional listen. I'd check out Fagen's record again, but I doubt it would make much of an impression. I'd listen to the first 3-5 songs of the Killers' album again for sure. The Rush album is not one I'd look forward to again.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Why Products Really Suck, Part 3

I've written a bit about Why Products Suck. I wrote about how your own team might be wrecking your product. I even wrote about how Steve Jobs may have wrecked your product (and your CEO).

But there's one party more likely to do damage to your product than anyone else: You.

That's right, the person most likely to mess up is you: the product manager/designer. You're the one in charge. You're the one with the vision, the master plan. You're the one in charge of design and guiding the team.

Unlike the developers, QA, and schedule wranglers (who all have relatively defined and tangible jobs), your work has to mostly be done in advance of the sprint. You create the plan which never survives first contact with the enemy, and then have to constantly revise it and adjust it.

You're also a human, and probably working on multiple projects. You're probably going to make mistakes, and you are most likely to result in the product going bad.

Even if you don't actually wreck it, you're the "single neck to wring", and in any decent company, you'll be held accountable.

Here's a few tips on how to avoid ruining your own thing:
  • Have a vision. By that, I don't mean some airy, vague notion of what you're doing, I mean have concrete goals. Why are you building this thing? What problem is it really solving? How is it differentiated from other products in your space?

    Write down what your product is supposed to do for users and put that written vision or motto someplace where you can see it every day. Make sure everyone else knows what it is, too.
  • ...But don't be a slave to your plan. Things change. The world changes. Adapt your plan as needed. There's no point in launching a product behind the curve, or refusing to acknowledge new information
  • Collect data, but don't design by committee. You need to be aware of what your stakeholders and customers want...but great designers have a way of both understanding the real/underlying need driving most feature requests (whether from customers or management) and then synthesizing a product that solves problems while still feeling cohesive, unified, and compelling.
  • Don't blindly copy. Copy with understanding and intent! You should be looking at other products, and you should not be afraid to lift or emulate models that work. If there are "standard" ways of presenting certain UI elements or tasks, you should probably use them. But you should do this with a deep understanding of how and why those elements were originally included. It is true that a valid approach is to simply "copy the market leader" (see Rdio and Spotify, Spotify and iTunes), but without understanding how the original works, you're just doing cargo cult design.
  • Kill your ego. Good product managers are empathetic and are able to look past their own biases and opinions. Understand how users will perceive and use your product. You're just one user, and you almost certainly aren't paying for your product. Even if you are representative of the target demographic, your objective is to think beyond your own personal whims, preferences, and biases.
  • Value your team. Unless you're a one-man shop, "your" product is actually "your team's product". And if you're like most product managers, you're not coding, you're not creating graphics. Collect input from the team members, and recognize how important they are to your success.
  • Manage! Building consensus and keeping people involved does not mean letting them do whatever they want. Your job is to make hard choices with intent and meaning.
Ultimately, the product - and its success or failure - is your responsibility. You get dealt a particular hand, and you have to play it as best as you possibly can.

Make sure you're not the one who wrecks it!

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Reverse Job Interview

Recently, a friend asked me what sort of things they should ask prospective employers when considering the increasingly rare job offer. Here's what I suggested: (While these are aimed primarily at start-ups, they are useful for nearly any tech job opportunity)

Standard Financial Stuff for Start-Ups
  • How much cash do you have in the bank?
  • What is your burn rate?
  • How much cash have you spent so far?
  • How much cash have your investors committed in total? What's left to draw down?
  • How many rounds of funding have been accepted?
  • What's the current equity structure of the company?
  • Are you profitable, and if not, what is the path/time to profitability?
  • What is the current, post-money valuation of the company?
  • Who are the primary VCs or investors?
  • How active are they in managing their investment, and how does that activity manifest? (regular board meetings? daily phone calls? quarterly reviews? person on-site? etc.)
  • What is the expected exit strategy?
  • Timeline for exit?
  • Why did the VCs invest in you?
  • Why will they continue to invest?
  • What do the VCs see as the primary assets of the company?
  • What is your business model?
  • Who do you think your competitors are?
  • What advantages do you have over other competitors in the space? (and vice versa)
  • Why do you think that advantage or business is defensible from existing or new competitors?
  • What are the company's success metrics? How do you know you are succeeding or failing?
  • What's the plan for this week? What about next month? In 6 months?
  • What previous experience do the senior management team (CXO-level folks or other "person in charge of stuff" roles) have?
  • How do they know each other? How long have they been working together?
  • Have any of them ever shipped/launched anything?
  • What previous exit experience do they have? Did they sell a company before?
  • Who's in charge, and how do they communicate their vision to the team?
  • What's missing from the product today?
  • Why is or isn't it already successful?
  • You have made a very big bet on ___. What will you do if ___ changes?
  • Describe how your product is made. Are you using Agile or Scrum or a similar process?
  • How many employees do you have, in how many offices, in how many locations?
  • Are you hiring right now? How much growth has the company had in the last 3-6 months, and how much do they anticipate in the next 3-6 months?
  • What are typical office hours? 
  • If longer than typical Bay Area 9a-6p, why, and how frequently?
  • How do you evaluate whether or not I am doing a good job? 
  • Job Title
  • Responsibilities (in general)
  • Expected daily/weekly tasks
  • Who do I report to? Where does this job sit in the org structure?
  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Vacation time
What do you expect me to do?
  • What tasks will I have on day 1?
  • Why do you want to hire me instead of someone else?
  • What do you think I will add to the company to improve chances of success?
Companies may not be willing to answer all of these, but what they answer and how they answer should help you get a feel for things there.