Author Archives: quiettiger81

The Everything Store by Brad Stone

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A lot has been written recently about the big five technology giants (Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook) that dominate the technology sector. There are fears about the power and influence that they will wield and that they will crush all competitors and stifle innovation. One of my goals for 2017 was to understand these five giants better. I started off last year with Apple by reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs.

The Everything Store tells the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Jeff Bezos possessed an extremely high IQ and attended a school for gifted children. His first job out of college was with DE Shaw a hedge fund that used algorithms to identify opportunities. As the internet started to become big in the early 90’s, Shaw had Bezos investigate a number of potential internet enabled businesses including an “everything store”. Realising that it would never truly be his if he stayed at DE Shaw, Bezos made the decision to quit and start up by himself. He made the decision using what he called the “regret minimisation framework” i.e. what would he regret more at the age of 80, giving up a big bonus or not starting a business that he was excited about?

Steve Jobs loved music and this passion surely had an impact on Apple’s decision to make music a big part of the company’s offerings. Jeff Bezos on the other hand loved books and it’s probably why it entered consideration as the item that Amazon launched with. However, there was a solid business reason as well – a book is a commodity that is the same in every store, the SKUs are large, no physical store would have them all and the number of distributors was low. Even when Amazon started to expand, the products were chosen the same way i.e. CDs, DVDs etc.

The big book stores at the time Borders, Barnes and Nobles did not take the internet seriously. Eventually, they realised the threat and began building out e-commerce departments. Analysts thought that Amazon was toast but the large companies had trouble competing as their distribution centres were optimised for their large physical stores. Secondly, in big companies, it is hard to move your best people away from the cash cow and onto emerging areas as demonstrated by Clayton Christensen (whose work had a big influence on Jeff Bezos.

Amazon is a very interesting company to study for a variety of reasons. Some of the things that struck me are as follows:

  1. Intense customer focus: Many companies say this, but few actually mean it. An example of this is the Amazon Marketplace. Facing a threat from Ebay, Amazon was under pressure to respond. The problem was that the Amazon website and the marketplace were two different sites and the marketplace had very very low traffic. Bezos’s genius was to allow third party sellers to be listed alongside the Amazon listing on one site. In most companies, internal politics would have prevented this move and even in Amazon there was strident opposition, but Bezos prevailed.
  2. Work Culture: Treatment of workers is in stark contrast to the rest of Silicon Valley where employers compete to offer perks. Work culture at Amazon is intense, with people burning out frequently. The behaviour of some of the managers at Amazon would not be accepted in most other places, yet they clearly seem to attract talented  workers who are highly driven and ambitious (like Wall Street??).
  3. Continuous Innovation: Most companies innovate when they are small, but become more risk averse as they grow larger. Amazon has a very interesting organisational structure. Teams are highly autonomous and can choose their own technology stack. Multiple teams can work on the same problems. Bezos also formed secret teams whose mandate was to disrupt existing businesses. Amazon’s many innovations came from diverse sources.
    1. Kindle – Observing Apple’s disruption of the music industry and fearing the same would happen to books, Amazon had a secret team work on the Kindle.
    2. Prime Membership – An internal tool where employees can submit ideas was the source of this idea.
  4. Amazon Web Services: How did a e-commerce store become the largest seller of technology infrastructure? Bezos had always harboured ambition of being a technological innovator. The motivation was the increasingly hard process for teams to get access to resources at Amazon. Bezos was also influenced by a book called Creation that describes a video game where players guide intelligent creations rather than control them. He mandated that the primitive building blocks (storage, computation) be available for developers to use as they saw fit.
    1. Since the book was published Amazon has expanded its AWS offerings and released Alexa a voice activated speaker that uses AI.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and I recommend it. I think it’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand the current technology landscape.

 

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Agile Transformation

Last year, Freshdesk underwent an Agile transformation. Some of the changes that we adopted were as follows:

  • Cross functional teams – A team must contain all skills required to take a feature from ideation to deployment. This avoids the need for handoffs to other teams and communication overhead.
  • Iterative development – Develop features in bite sized chunks and aim to deploy every sprint (A sprint is a timeframe between 1-4 weeks)
  • Transparency – Break silos by brainstorming ideas and planning for Sprints together as a squad
  • Limit WIP – Productivity improvement due to decreased multitasking and opportunity to spot improvements

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Agile borrows heavily from the lean methodology in manufacturing and aims to avoid waste. Waste could be due to picking up features that not required, inefficient processes, communication overhead, quality issues etc. During the initial training, I recognised several similarities to concepts that I has learned during the Operations Management MBA course.

My squad (teams in Agile are called squads) has made several improvements over the last year which have increased our development velocity. While some of the changes (avoiding handoffs, iterative development) came part of the process, others (continous integration, test automation) were a a result of the squad embracing the need for continous improvement. Here’s how we went about it.

MAKE WORK VISIBLE – When I began my first job, I was confused about how little I was saving. I was earning a decent amount and not making any large purchases, yet I was saving very little. I took the advice of a personal finance site and started using budgeting software to keep track of my spending. Once I did this, I was able to see exactly where my money was being spent and I was able to make the necessary changes and start saving.

Agile does something similar to drive improvements. It makes work visible by ensuring that large features are broken down into bite sized user stories and tracked using a too such as JIRA. The sprint ceremonies also a vital role in in improving transparency.

  1. Sprint planning – At the start of the sprint, the squad estimates which features will be deployed at the end of the sprint. This is entered into JIRA and it is visible to everyone throughout the sprint.
  2. Daily stand ups – Update the squad on what we are currently working on. We use the Kanban board to track the current status of user stories and be reminded of the sprint goals.
  3. Backlog grooming – Gain visibility into what is coming up in the next few sprints and collectively brainstorm.
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INSPECT AND ADAPT – The agile principle “Inspect and Adapt calls for squads to come together at regular intervals to reflect on how to be more effective and adjust their behaviour accordingly. This is achieved through the sprint retrospective.

Sprint Retrospective – During the retrospective the squad identifies what prevented them from achieving the goals. This feedback is then prioritised and we figure out the best way to address it. It was feedback that led us to embrace continious integration, mock testing, and increased test automation.

One important point here is to keep the number of features taken up each sprint down to a minimum. Only features that you think will be shipped should be taken up. Why? First, it reduces multitasking which is a known productivity killer. Secondly, “Inventory is Evil”. Having buffer, prevents you from identifying bottlenecks in the process. In lean manufacturing, inventory is compared to a lake that hides sharp rocks underneath it.

Imagine that your code reviewer falls sick. If you maintain a buffer of code reviewed features, then the QA engineer would never waste time waiting for a new feature to test. This seems good in the short term, but may hurt you at a critical time. In Agile you face the delay and then introspect on how to prevent this. For example, you could set up a process to ensure that there are multiple engineers who can code review a feature.

The retrospective is critical as transparency by itself will not drive change just as keeping track of you expenses by itself will not make you save more. You need to act on the information and make changes i.e. Adapt.

Emotional Design by Don Norman

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I’m a big fan of “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman so I picked up the sequel. When the author wrote DOET, he was was frustrated about the lack of importance given to behavioural or functional aspects of design. Therefore, that book is entirely composed of functional design critiques and advice. However, he received criticisms that he ignored the other aspects of design that he then addressed in this book.

There are three aspects of design – visceral, behavioural, and reflective. Visceral is how a product looks, behavioural is about usability, and reflective is how it makes you feel.

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Take the teapot above for example. The author notes that he loves it, even though it’s hard to use. The unique look (visceral) and satisfaction (reflective) that it gives him more than make up for its behavioural deficiencies.

Reflective: It’s the third component of design that the book spends most of its time on. Norman uses the example of souvenirs to highlight the role that emotions play in our attitude towards products. For e.g. souvenirs that look cheap and have little utility value are loved as they are usually associated with fond memories.

Humans have an intrinsic need to create a sense of identity. They often purchase products that reflect their identity. This is reflected in the demand for branded goods that are often similar to cheaper generic versions. Brands exploit this by attaching emotions to their brands through advertising. Hence a brand such as Rolex will associate itself with top athletes to signal high class and success.

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Prior to reading this book, I had been puzzled by some of the design decisions made by Apple. For example, the mouse pictured above is usually panned for the fact that the side buttons are in fact not buttons but for design alone. After reading this book, I understood that the designers made a conscious decision to sacrifice functionality to appeal to the visceral and reflective aspects of the buyers. They went too far in my opinion, but I now understand why.

Overall, the first few chapters were interesting, but the second half of the book that goes deep into the role of emotion bored me and I skimmed over most of it. It’s not a must read in my opinion.

 

What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro

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Joe Navarro is an ex FBI agent who was a founding member of the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Program. He was a body language expert who he used his ability to successfully identify suspects who were lying or attempting to conceal their involvement in any wrongdoing.

In this book he draws from his years of experience to list the various ‘tells’ that different part of the human body exhibit and why they do so. I enjoyed the ‘why’ much more than the ‘what’ and therefore my summary is all about the ‘why’ but I think it’s worth a quick read if you are interested in understanding non verbal behaviour.

Why ‘Tells’ Exist: When our ancestors encountered danger they were typically a few standard responses. Most of us are familiar with the first two – flight or fight. The third response – freeze is unfamiliar but actually the most common response to perceived danger. The modern incarnations of these responses and ‘pacifying’ behaviours that accompany them are the reason that these tells exist.

Freezing is a mechanism that our ancestors deployed to make themselves less visible to perceived predators. Today we use it when we make ourselves small or perhaps unnoticed when we feel uncomfortable or threatened. The reverse is true, we make ourselves large to show dominance.

Flight is another way to escape danger. While today, we cannot run away when uncomfortable, we try to cope by blocking behaviours such as looking away, closing our eyes, placing barriers between ourselves or leaning away from people. The feet are excellent indicators here – feet pointed towards exits or preparing to leave are clear signs that the person wants to end a conversation.

Fight is the final option when facing a threat. Thankfully, it’s becoming quite rare and people tend to restrain or limit themselves.

Pacifying behaviours are those that people deploy to calm themselves when they are agitated. Common pacifying behaviours include massaging the neck or touching their face. Since these behaviours are employed when a person is agitated, they provide valuable clues about their state of mind.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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Yet another book that I had wanting to read for a long time. This book entered my radar after I watched Susan Cain‘s TED talk on the power of introverts. The talk was viewed nearly four million times in its first year alone.

As an introvert, I found the book really interesting. In particular the first part of the book was a real eye opener and resonated strongly with me. I had not realised how biased everyday life is towards the ‘extrovert ideal’ and how I should respond. Therefore, this book is a must read for all introverts.

The Extrovert Ideal
As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t always like this. In the early 1900s, there was a shift from the culture of character to a culture of personality. This coincided with a migration to urban centres where you had to interact with people that you didn’t know and extroverts gained an advantage in this new reality.

The Myth of the Charismatic Leader
“Among the most effective leaders I have encountered and worked with in half a century,” the management guru Peter Drucker has written, “some locked themselves into their office and others were ultra-gregarious. Some were quick and impulsive, while others studied the situation and took forever to come to a decision.… The one and only personality trait the effective ones I have encountered did have in common was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”

Nature vs Nuture
There is a strong biological aspect but it can be altered by upbringing (like a rubber band, you cannot stretch too far from your default state). The intricate interaction between the two that makes us who we are.

Impact of Culture
Migrant cultures are considered more extroverted as they had to move around while others were introverted. Hence, Asian cultures are not as extroverted as American ones. Yet, they too are following the American example of the ideal worker.

Introverts in the Workplace 
Research suggests that extroverted leaders enhance group performance when employees are passive, but that introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. This makes sense as introverts tend to listen more and are therefore more likely to be open to new ideas. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.

INSPIRED: How to Create Products Customers Love

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Marty Cagan is founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, a consulting firm that helps companies with their product strategy. Prior to that he held product roles at EBay, Aol, Netscape among others. He is a well respected product thinker and several of the ideas in this book can also be gleaned from his insight blog on the SVPG website.

I had bought this book over a year ago as it was one of the highly recommended books for new PMs, but it sat in my Kindle until I finally got around to it recently. I concur with the advice about this book being an excellent read for new PMs, it covers an incredibly broad range of topics.

There are more than 40 (short) chapters in this book, so it’s impossible to talk about them all, but here are the parts that resonated the most with me.

Importance of product design – Even though the author was a platform product manager, much of the book is targeted towards products which have a UI and therefore there is a lot of advice on the importance of designers. He recommends doing away with PRDs in favour of high fidelity prototypes that can be tested on actual users.

Startup vs Large companies – Startups that are still trying to find product market fit are places where the emphasis is on getting things out of the door. They learn by shipping and mistakes are accepted. By contrast, large companies have a lot to lose by shipping an ill thought out feature and are much more risk averse and detail oriented.

Leadership by objective and roadmaps – This management style advocates giving people a goal and letting them figure out how to achieve it. Marty advocates a similar approach to road mapping. Leadership comes with a central theme and then rather than features, gives individual teams a set of goals and lets them decide what features to ship in pursuit of that goal.

Role of emotion in purchasing decisions – In the enterprise the dominant emotions are greed (If I buy this, I can save money or time) and fear (If I don’t buy this, I will lose to my competitors). In the consumer space, the emotions are more personal – pride, greed, love, lust etc.

Platform product management – There are three user personas a platform PM has to consider 1) Developers 2) Business head of the developers, and 3) End users. A common error is to think that since developers are the most important as they use the platform to create apps for end users. However, the reality is that the end user and the business head are much more important.

This resonated with me as it was a mistake that I made. It can be hard when your passionate development team comes up with lots of ideas on how to improve the development experience. You give in only to realise later that they didn’t really make a difference to the key objective of the product.

The Ascent of Money

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Written by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, the book is subtitled “A Financial History of the World”. There is also a long documentary of the same name that the author produced for PBS and the BBC that you can watch. The book is an good read for anyone interested in how and why the major components of our financial system such as banks, credit, debt, equity etc got started.

1) Credit and Banks

Without credit, only those with capital could participate in commerce as merchants typically require an initial investment to buy goods in order to then sell them and earn a profit. However in Italy, the Church had banned the practice of Usury; charging your brother interest was forbidden and this had this removed the incentive to give loans to aspiring entreprenuers.

To get around this, Venice allowed Jews (whom they did not consider brothers) to give out loans to Christians. This historical fact accounts for why a large number of banking institutions were founded by the Jewish minorities. However, loan giving was problematic for a small minority owned bank. Powerful borrowers would default on their loans and turn the local populace against the minority.

To counter this, the Medici family in Florence diversified into several markets and grew larger. Although, the way in which they made money was not new, they applied it on a scale that has never been seen. This allowed them to spread the risk of default and they prospered becoming rulers in Florence.

2) Bonds

Bonds were made necessary by the appetite of nations for war. They allowed the financing of wars and the victors forced the losers to pay back the bonds through reparations. Because the loser could not pay back debts to its own bondholders, it was hard to borrow if you were a likely losers and Ferguson cites the role of bonds in deciding outcomes in famous battles such as the American Civil war.

3) Equity

The establishment of colonies required a large initial investment. This enabled colonisers to hire soldiers, establish forts and other defences. Then over a longer period, they could get income from the colonies. This led to the formation of equities where shareholders pooled resources to come up with working capital. Since shareholders sometimes needed the money that they has invested, they were allowed to trade their holding to other investors leading to the establishment of the equity markets.

4) Insurance

You may wonder why a whole chapter is devoted to insurance. Is it really that large of a sector? The answer is that the modern welfare state that accounts for a large portion in a  developed country’s budget had its origins in insurance.

Primitive insurance was little more sophisticated than gambling; it was bets placed on whether ships would make it safely back on harbour. Several mathematical discoveries such as probability made true insurance possible. The first was a scheme to provide pension for the widows and orphans of Scottish clergy.

5) Housing

Housing and mortage are a huge part of the the financial sector. But it wasn’t always this way. For a very long time, only the elites and aristocrats owned houses while the vast majority owned rents. As democracy took hold, Governments have tried to democratise home ownership through policies such as subsidies loans, interest deduction etc with varying degrees of success.

2016: Year in Review

It’s the start of a new year, so it’s time to reflect a bit on 2016 and look at what went well and identify where I can improve.

Reading

My target in 2016 was to read 12 books and to write about the ones that I found interesting. Writing about what you have learned improves your ability to retain information. I also get outside my comfort zone of self-improvement books and explore biographies and history. In 2016, I managed to read a total of seven books (and write about three).

  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • The Elephant Complex
  • The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman
  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

For 2017, I am planning to retain my target of 12 books. More than the number of books, I want to use the knowledge in them to become better. This is a hard goal to measure but important nevertheless. Another target is to read more about emerging trends and understand them – for 2017, I plan to read about Artificial Intelligence.

Writing

I had neglected this blog from mid 2015 to mid 2016 at which point I had resolved to start again and get to 12 blog posts for 2016. I managed half that number and stopped just three months after I began. The blog received a total of 500+ visitors this year which was about a 50% drop from last year.

The main factor that limited my blogging  was that I wanted to get serious about investing and the scene in India is very different than in the USA. Hence, I spent a considerable amount of time reading and researching the topic. It took nearly three months before I settled on a strategy and I should have more time going forward.

In 2017, I am targeting 18 blog posts. In addition to the PM posts, and the book summaries, I plan to start adding in a few posts about my travels. I visited Sikkim, Udaipur, Agra, Bali, and Sri Lanka this year and plan to visit many more in 2017 so that should add to the number of blog posts.

Career

2016 marked my first year as a Product Manager and was fairly eventful. My team launched our first big feature (We started development in 2015, but did not ship until early 2016), expanded in size, and began an agile transformation. I plan to write more on my learnings as a PM this year.

When I started my role, I fancied myself as a PM who would take on a design and business specialisation. This was primarily due to my interest in UI design and human psychology. However, my role was in the API and Developer platform team and this has led to me enhancing my technical skills. Technical PMs are definitely underrepresented among PMs and there is a growing demand for them, but I have not decided if that’s the path that I want to take.

In 2017, one area that I want to focus more on is my managerial/leadership skills. This is an area I had not given much thought to in the past, but as the team has grown and I move into a more senior role, it will become more important.