Oct 29, 2021

ken norton on art and science of pm

Ken Norton, who always brings the donuts, delivers some wisdom from his career in product management.

The “art” of product management matters more than the “science” over the long term. In product management, there’s an art and a science. The science is all of the stuff you read about: managing a backlog, writing a PRD, KPIs, marketplace dynamics, growth metrics, analytical thinking, the latest agile whatever. The “art” gets dismissed as soft skills: communicating, empathy, leading without authority, having difficult conversations, storytelling, making decisions when you don’t have all the information, dealing with ambiguity, inspiring others, and connecting deeply to customers and their problems. The thing is, science gets more attention because it’s easier to understand, and therefore better for hustling boot camps and selling software tools. This trend is troublesome because it implies there’s one “right way” to do product management, and all you need to do is learn the technique or buy the right tool, and you can pass the interview, get the job, and win.

I’ve been working with Reforge the past few months as an “Executive in Residence,” helping to teach two fantastic courses: Product Management Foundations, and Mastering Product Management. Both of these courses are packed full of incredibly useful frameworks for developing product strategy, working through a product design process, developing a roadmap, setting and evolving OKRs, etc. But in the weekly case discussion I’m leading with the Reforge members, what I’m trying to do is bring the “art” to the science — helping the hundreds of people on our Zoom calls understand that learning most often comes from making mistakes, and getting things wrong. I think that approach working? Some people dig it…some people want more framework time. 🤷‍♂

Frameworks and tools can improve your chances of getting things right, but the longer I do this job the more obvious it is to me that a massively underappreciated role of the PM is how you make people feel when you’re side by side with them, shipping and iterating.

Go subscribe to Ken’s newsletter. It’s consistently excellent.

Oct 28, 2021

what's a computer?

Robin Sloan, in The slab and the permacomputer, puts a finger on what makes deploying a contract to the Ethereum blockchain feel so…different.

Even so, I can’t deny that Ethereum’s “world computer” is interesting and, even more than that, evocative. The Ethereum blockchain is one entity, shared globally, agreed upon by all its participants: that’s what makes it useful as a ledger. The Ethereum Virtual Machine, a kind of computer — simultaneously sophisticated and primitive — is likewise one logical entity, even if it’s distributed in space and time.

As with a lot of things in crypto, the feeling is as much mystical as it is technical. I understand why people get excited when they deploy an Ethereum contract: it feels like you are programming not just a computer, but THE computer. That feeling is technically wrong; it is definitely just a computer; but since when did the technical wrongness of feelings prevent them from being motivating?

One of the “mystical” Web3 things that is delightfully breaking my brain is that the EVM is forcing us ask the question (again): What’s a computer?

Sep 18, 2021

Max Fischer's clubs, ranked

It’s college application season, and I can personally attest that there are a lot of high school seniors that are currently stressing about their GPAs, their standardized test scores, their essays…and their extra-curricular activities. As a reminder of just how absurd this whole process is, here’s a list of the club activities of possibly the greatest extra curricular film participant of all time, Rushmore’s Max Fischer…ranked by potential attractiveness to college admissions officers.¹

  1. Max Fischer Players, Director
  2. Yankee Review, Editor-In-Chief, Publisher
  3. Astronomy Society, Founder
  4. Trap & Skeet Club, Founder
  5. Debate Team, Captain
  6. French Club, President
  7. Calligraphy Club, President
  8. Yankee Racers, Founder
  9. Fencing Team, Captain
  10. Rushmore Beekeepers, President
  11. Bombardment Society, Founder
  12. Kite Flying Society, Co-Founder
  13. Stamp & Coin Club, Vice President
  14. Model UN, Russia
  15. 2nd Chorale, Choirmaster
  16. Lacrosse Team, Manager
  17. Track & Field, JV Decathlon
  18. Kung Fu Club, Yellow Belt
  19. Piper Cub Club, 4.5 hours logged

¹ Also, I had this list kicking around in my Notes app, just begging to be shared.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Aug 23, 2021

the optimism of modernists

Lorin Hochstein has a great, short post about the distinction between modernism and post-modernism, and the connection to software engineering. In short, modernists believe that the world is turbulent and dynamic, and can be constantly remade anew; while post-modernists believe that “we can never cast off our history and start from scratch.” He writes…

We software engineers are modernists at heart. We see the legacy systems in our organizations and believe that, when we have the opportunity to work on replacement systems, we will remake our little corner of the world anew. Alas, on this point, the post-modernists were right. While we can change our systems, even replace subsystems wholesale, we can never fully escape the past. We ignore the history of the system at our peril.

Thought experiment: define “our organizations” in the paragraph above at different scales: individuals, teams, teams of teams, companies, industries, states, nations, the planet. Where can you escape the past? Where must you have the modernist’s optimism to believe you can?

(Originally published on Medium.)

Jun 02, 2021

"I assumed that this will fail"

Marcin Wichary on The Making of Four Laps:

“Why did I do this? It seemed like a weird gimmick and a fun challenge. Like with many of my weird creative projects, for most of the time I assumed that this will fail — after all, I have heard of anyone doing something like this, and I had no idea if the tech was even available — but at least I will learn something.”

If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. I won’t spoil it for you.

(Originally published on Medium.)

Jun 01, 2021

20 years of personalization at Netflix

Gibson Biddle has an amazing retrospective of 20 years of personalization at Netflix, and its role in the company’s product strategy. The screenshots alone are worth the trip down memory lane.

It took Netflix more than a decade to demonstrate that a personalized experience improved retention. But consistent growth in this proxy metric convinced the company to keep doubling down on personalization until many years later, Netflix proved that personalization improved retention in a large-scale retention test.

This is an interesting proposition…

Here’s the long-term personalization vision: twenty years from now, Netflix will eliminate both the “Play Something” button and its personalized merchandising system, and that one special movie you’re in the mood to watch at that particular moment will automatically begin to play.

…not necessarily because of what this means for personalization (given a 20 year time horizon, this feels achievable), but what this would mean for creators. If the only decision is “Do I keep watching” how might that change the first few seconds of any new show or movie you’re watching? For better or worse, our next generation of filmmakers are currently learning and evolving these creative strategies on TikTok.

(Originally published on Medium.)

May 06, 2021

it has to be a team

Matt Levine, how does he do it? Seriously, there must be a team of people that are “Matt Levine.” There’s no way it’s just him, right? Every day with things like this, a graf from today’s newsletter about Dogecoin.

Just imagine traveling 10 years back in time and trying to explain this to someone; just imagine what an idiot you’d feel like. “There’s going to be this online currency that people think is a form of digital gold, and then there’s going to be a different online currency that is a parody of the first one based on a meme about a talking Shiba Inu, and that one will have a market capitalization bigger than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, and its value will fluctuate based on things like who is hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and whether people tweet a hashtag about it on the pot-joke holiday, and Bloomberg will write articles and banks will write research notes about those sorts of catalysts, and it will remain a perfectly ridiculous content-free parody even as people properly take it completely seriously because there are billions of dollars at stake.”

What a timeline we’re on.

Jan 09, 2017

all the news that's fit to print

What happened to “all the news that’s fit to print?” Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes calling out Trump for bullying a Times reporter was clearly news. Did the Times need to call Trump to get his response? Sure. Did they need to print it? No. Because his response was not news.

Jason Kottke nails it in his post this morning:

Is it newsworthy, what he thought of Streep’s remarks? Unless he agrees with her and plans to honestly reevaluate how he treats others when he speaks, I would argue it’s not at all worth printing what’s essentially a Trump press release full of bullshit. And news outlets that actually care about the truth and not just printing spin should stop doing it.

I can’t watch television news anymore, but I have to wonder if anyone is pairing Trump’s tweets this morning with the clip of him from his rally in November.

Aug 27, 2014

dead to me

Vox: Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?. To crib @savedyouaclick, No. But if you can’t get enough of David Chase, then Martha Nochisom’s whole piece is worth reading.

Chase wasn’t just playing with our heads when he designed the conclusion of The Sopranos; he was part of the ongoing evolution of the American imagination. When he embeds his gangster story with both his love of detail and his fascination with Poe, he is infusing a popular genre with the mysteries of the two persistent though contradictory tributaries of American letters: one beginning with the pragmatism of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, filled with his many lists of things to do and things done; the other the dream-haunted stories and poetry of the American Romantics. This double face of America the doer and America the dreamer shimmers behind the basic premise of The Sopranos.

This is all great, but I don’t care what Chase says now, because Tony’s dead to me. That final scene is now and forever will be a dream-haunted story of a blood-spattered diner.

Jun 03, 2014

battery feedback loops

iOS 8 to Include Battery Usage Per App:

Along with the features that were demoed on stage, an iOS 8 graphic displayed some additional functions that went largely under the radar, many of which look quite interesting. For example, iOS 8 will apparently display battery usage by app, a handy feature that will let users monitor the battery drain of specific apps, shutting down those that are drawing too much power.

The product purist in me says “this is something that the user should never have to worry about. Why would any normal human ever want to monitor how much juice an individual app is using?” And herein lies the difference between want and need. Battery life isn’t scaling with Moore, and knowing when you’re going to need to tether your phone to a wall or a larger battery is something that has a real (world) impact on the life of the user. You don’t want to know the details of how your apps are sucking power, but you need to know.

And I think this will also drive some market feedback around power consumption. Making this visible to the end user – even if it’s only the power user who pays attention (pun not intended but not corrected) – will potentially drive power consumption feedback into app ratings. (“1 star, had to kill because this thing was KILLING MY BATTERY!!!”) Developers will hate these reviews, but it could force them to pay more attention to power consumption. feedback loops in development tools are one thing, feedback loops in the market are another.

May 27, 2014

four links, may 27

Maciej’s talk for Beyond Tellerand. “These big collections of personal data are like radioactive waste. It’s easy to generate, easy to store in the short term, incredibly toxic, and almost impossible to dispose of. Just when you think you’ve buried it forever, it comes leaching out somewhere unexpected.”

A head-shaking correction in the Times’ Upshot, in a post about Piketty’s use of spreadsheets. “An earlier draft version of this article, which drew a different conclusion about Thomas Piketty’s use of spreadsheets, was initially posted in error.” I’d love to see the email thread about this one.

danah boyd: Selling Out is Meaningless. “These teens are not going to critique their friends for being sell-outs because they’ve already been sold out by the adults in their world. These teens want freedom and it’s our fault that they don’t have it except in commercial spaces.” Note: I started to tell my 13 y/o at dinner about this post, and her first question was “what do you mean, ‘sell out?’” And then this happened…

…which in my mind is completely related to this point that danah was making:

Rather than relying on the radio for music recommendations, they turn to YouTube and share media content through existing networks, undermining industrial curatorial control. As a result, I constantly meet teens whose sense of the music industry is radically different than that of peers who live next in the next town over.

Zach Baron’s profile of 50 Cent, via kottke. every little bit is quotable, but I’ll pull this:

He represented a vision of street-oriented realness that not enough people cared about anymore, even if his fan base wouldn’t let him be anything but that. “I even saw when keeping it real—like, that concept or that phrase ‘keeping it real’—went out of style. Now it’s like, it doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that it sounds good.”

Even if it’s fake…oh, never mind.

May 22, 2014

not quite muzak

Nate Patrin at Pitchfork has a great link-ridden piece on The Strange World of Library Music:

If there’s such a thing as ephemeral music, this is it—recordings that were meant for a certain moment and usually filed away when that moment has passed, when Hammond B3s make way for synths, or disco rhythms turn passe after the rise of new wave. They give us a picture of the way day-to-day music sounded decades ago, outside either the bounds of pop-chart aspirations or the critically-acclaimed underground.

I love the idea of listening to the evolution of music genres through the background music of workday produced television, radio, commercials. It’s the “not quite muzak,” the soundtrack that invades your head while you’re paying attention to other things.

May 21, 2014

metafilter & google

Matt Haughey lays it all out re. the current state and future of Metafilter. There is a lot of heartbreak in his post; I haven’t been active on Metafilter for years, but I appreciate and admire the community that Matt and his team have worked so hard to cultivate and grow. Like, really hard:

We have a total of over ten million comments across on all our sites combined and we spend so much time and energy tracking the few problem comments down that I would be hard-pressed to find even a single public comment that could be considered comment spam.

Which makes Google sending emails to domain owners (who in turn email Matt) complaining about “inorganic links” on Mefi so frustrating.

Every time I investigate these “unnatural link” claims, I find a comment by a longtime member of MetaFilter in good standing trying to help someone out, usually trying to identify something on Ask MetaFilter. In the course of explaining things, they’ll often do a search for examples of what they’re describing and include those for people asking a question. Whatever was #1 in Google for “crawlspace vent covers” in a question of “How to reduce heating costs in the Winter?” might show up, and now years later, the owners of sites that actively gamed Google to get that #1 spot at the time are trying to clean up their act but unfortunately I have a feeling MetaFilter is suffering as collateral damage in the process.

May 21, 2014

a cell network for things

MIT Technology Review: Silicon Valley to get a Cellular Network Just for Things:

[SigFox] will use the unlicensed 915-megahertz spectrum band commonly used by cordless phones. Objects connected to SigFox’s network can operate at very low power but will be able to transmit at only 100 bits per second—slower by a factor of 1,000 than the networks that serve smartphones.

Reminds me that my favorite connected thing was the Ambient Orb from Ambient Devices. It launched in 2002 (I think I bought one in 2004), well before the mass adoption of wifi. It used the pager network for data. Slow but reliable, and always available.

Mar 13, 2014

indexing apps

Interesting Wall Street Journal piece: Google Searches for Role in App Age. Key graf:

Google in the fall launched an initiative to better see—and direct—what smartphone and tablet users do on their devices. The effort seeks to mimic what Google built on the Web, with an index of the content inside mobile apps and links pointing to that content featured in Google’s search results on smartphones.

This is smart and useful of course, because there very well may be content / functionality that’s locked up inside an app on your phone that would be the perfect result for your search query. But the comparison to what Google built on the web is missing the point: the wondrous thing about the GoogleBot was that it didn’t index what was on your desktop PC, it indexed what was out there on the web and brought it directly to you.

Imagine the equivalent for apps: queries (intent-based or context-based) that return results full of rich content and services from apps, even if they aren’t installed on your phone. To do this, Google / Apple would at least need…

  1. A mechanism for developers to expose those types of app experiences. Think widgets; they’d be the investment equivalent of SEO on the web.
  2. The equivalent of the GoogleBot and PageRank for apps. The index space is finite and known (Google and Apple own the app stores, remember); but they would probably need to be running those apps (interesting virtualization problem at scale) to know what results would be most appropriate to deliver.
  3. Knowledge of the searching user to personalize results. The best result for a query about the SF Giants may be different for me (more serious baseball fan) than someone in the UK; thus, deliver the MLB app snippet over the ESPN app snippet. There’s plenty of context about the user available from the phone…
  4. A UX framework for delivering these to users at the right time (i.e. intent- or context-based queries). Google Now or Siri, anyone?

As Benedict Evans pointed out last year, The Google Play and iOS App Stores are today’s equivalent of the Yahoo directory circa 1997. We’re blessed with 21st century device capabilities (audio, video, sound, location, motion, identity, etc.), but stuck with 20th century application distribution. In other words, how long until Google Now and Siri get opened up to every developer in the app stores?

Feb 18, 2014

who do you want your customers to become?

In addition to being good at other things, Stewart Butterfield writes good memo. His email to the @slackhq team is an instant add to the product management canon. Here’s the bit that stuck out for me:

A central thesis is that all products are asking things of their customers: to do things in a certain way, to think of themselves in a certain way — and usually that means changing what one does or how one does it; it often means changing how one thinks of oneself.

When you’re in the thick of validating your market and writing briefs and and working with engineers and designers and hitting your sprints, it’s hard to remember to be asking this question: Who do you want your customers to become? Can you imagine your customers as better people, thanks to your product? Is the work you’re doing right now helping those customers become better versions of themselves?

Aug 14, 2013

on bustle

Bryan Goldberg:

Maybe we need a destination that is powered by the young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses.

Amidst all the chatter about the inanity / insanity of Goldberg’s PandoDaily post, this is the bit that stuck out for me. My first thought after skimming Goldberg’s piece was “well, he’ll have a hell of a time recruiting a good editor-in-chief now…who in their right mind would join Bustle after this?” But remember, his DNA is Bleacher Report, which was built on a community of distributed contributors covering individual teams. Bleacher worked because they rode the blog wave, surfing on the backs of geographically distributed fans who were writing about their local pro / college / high school football / baseball / basketball / soccer teams. The natural hierarchy of the sports media market meant that an individual contributor with a strong voice in a local market could get “famous” through B/R by covering games, spouting off about their local team, and slagging their rivals.

I don’t think Goldberg can run the same play here (to abuse a metaphor). The content structure isn’t the same (sports > leagues > cities > teams), and, frankly, the world’s moved on from the B/R model. The “young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses” don’t need a Bustle for exposure — they’re already doing it through Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. And without a strong editorial voice & vision at the top of the masthead (which would now be nearly impossible to recruit) what’s left to attract those young women to power the site? $6.5mm won’t buy you high quality content for long…just ask The Daily.

May 25, 2012

on black box

If you missed it, Jennifer Egan and The New Yorker started serializing her new short story "Black Box" on Twitter tonight, coming from the @NYerFiction account. Earlier today, Egan posted a bit on the backstory:

Several of my long-standing fictional interests converged in the writing of “Black Box.” One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself. ... I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.

She wrote the story in a notebook that is probably intended for sketching storyboards...but whose black boxes now just look like textareas.

The 140 character limit necessarily impacts her prose and the story she's telling. But what I love is how Twitter turns each of the "narrator's notes" into individual, addressable objects, each with a social life of its own. I haven't pulled stats on every Tweet, but just eyeballing it, several hours after the initial delivery of Tweets the line with the most social heat (RTs and favorites) appears to be this one...

Followed closely by this one:

(I don't disagree.)

At first blush, having this reaction data isn't much different than viewing the most highlighted passages on a Kindle. But the difference is that this is happening in real time, in public, connected to identity, and has the potential to be conversational. And there were a few intrepid readers who were willing to break the fourth wall and talk back to the story. Here are two of my favorites...

On discovering that our story's protagonist was on the beach, @bklynreader shared her weekend plans:

And when the story took a particularly adult twist, @Chocolatemama38 seemed a bit caught off guard:

Egan says that it took a year to "control and calibrate" the story she's now tweeting; her tight prose doesn't exactly invite replies. But the shift into Twitter is a truly modern serialization technique; there's more going on here than simply contemporary fiction meted out 140 characters at a time.

May 02, 2012

helping the kids think about infinity

The "all the grains of sand on all the beaches" metaphor is played out. What we need are some new ways to help kids think about infinity. Here are a few that I might use with mine.

  • Every pixel in every billboard, television, computer monitor, checkout terminal, tablet and smartphone.
  • Every JPG, PNG or GIF (static or animated) image shared on Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram. Including the automatically cropped versions, resized versions and cached copies (whether at a CDN, ISP or in your browser). And all the pixels in those images.
  • Every beep after which you are supposed to leave a message. Every time you’ve pressed pound to continue. Every breath taken while waiting on hold.
  • Every email, instant message, text message, private message or direct message sent from one loved one to another. Or from one colleague to another. Or from a loved one to a colleague.
  • Every spam that’s been caught by filters. Or not.
  • Every bit of every stream or download delivered by iTunes, Netflix and Spotify.
  • Every event written to a log. Every click, keypress or browser event captured by Google Analytics. Every purchase signal captured by Amazon. Every like, friend request, comment or poke on Facebook. Every display ad impression.
  • Every keyboard press, screen tap and mouse click made by people. Or pets, accidentally. And every processor cycle spent waiting for that input.


Mar 09, 2012

the silence of mike daisey

Reading the transcript of the Retraction episode of This American Life is one thing; listening to it is another. The most interesting bits were the silences, not only because Daisey is so clearly uncomfortable answering the questions, but also because we’ve been trained as radio listeners to abhor silence — it makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

So here is my edit of the most relevant moments of Retraction.