PRISM: Bad for US Businesses?

Under SurveillanceI’ve been thinking about PRISM since the news broke, but I’ve stayed away from commenting so far. I was just amazed at how people reacted to the news. Some people said that if we were doing nothing wrong, then we had nothing to worry about. Others suggested that it was worth trading in our privacy for security. Others were saying that it would all be fine if we only spied on people outside our country.

I won’t bother with telling you what the government should be doing. They stopped listening to all of us a long time ago. Maybe the government ever listening to us was just an illusion. I wasn’t around in the late 1700’s, so I can’t really say. What I would rather focus on is what this tells us about the government and the impacts this could have on our businesses in the United States.

I know that the government tells us that they need to be doing all of this spying in secret in order to “protect” us from terrorism. If they don’t do that, “the terrorists will win.” I call BS on both of these statements. First off, I don’t believe that most terrorists are communicating via text message and gmail. What do I know though? Maybe they do. You know one way they could communicate that wouldn’t be so easy to tamper with? The mail. Does the Post Office open and scan all our mail? No. Does that mean that we are all fundamentally unsafe? Not anymore so than we’ve always been. So, why is this new form of spying so necessary? Because Big Data is cool. All jokes aside, it’s just because they can. They can violate our rights and get away with it, so that’s what they’re doing. The fact that they are so cavalier with our rights means that the rights of citizens outside our country receives even less protection. That’s the most important detail that could affect American businesses. (more…)

Worth the Risk?

The Open RoadThe other day, I stumbled across a blog post by Andy Dunn on Medium called, “The Risk Not Taken.” I’d love to credit where I found the link that led me there, but when I sat down to my computer after a break it was already on the screen. I probably clicked on a link in my RSS feed before my break, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the linking article when I searched through my feeds. So, maybe it was some strange bit of serendipity due to an errant click by my son.

Regardless of what led me to the article, it was an interesting read. Andy’s basic premise in the article is that when you are confronted with a new opportunity, the true risk doesn’t lie with taking the opportunity. The true risk lies in not taking the presented opportunity. His different way of assessing risk when faced with a new opportunity made me think about how I view opportunities and their associated risks.

Whenever an uncertain situation or opportunity pops up, most people ask themselves if they should take the risk and seize the opportunity before them. My wife and I have usually bucked that trend. If we were excited about the opportunity, we just went for it. That has led us down a much different path than most people in our shoes would have chosen. I’ve often thought about Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” when I’ve considered those choices. When most people think of that poem, they remember the last three lines.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

To me those last three lines are beautiful, but have the benefit of hindsight, which is not something you get when you make your decision to take a risk. I, however, have always focused on the first stanza, which is more on the decision than the result. That’s the part that has always seemed more important to me.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

That stanza fits how I approach those situations where an opportunity presents itself. I think as far down the paths available to me as I reasonably can and then try to weight the actual potential benefits and the actual potential drawbacks. I don’t let fear cloud my judgement. That would bias every decision against new opportunities. That’s not a useful bias. Despite what anyone thinks, there are no secure paths anymore. Some paths are less secure than others, but you can get a “safe” job and still get fired, get a pay cut or end up in a untenable work situation. Picking safety is more an illusion than it ever was. So, we don’t usually worry overly much about the long term security afforded to us by any given opportunity. Instead, we rely on our ability to take what life gives us and forge a fitting path for ourselves. After reading Andy Dunn’s article though, I know I’ll consider opportunities a little bit differently though. And that might make all the difference.

Week 6 Review

Business Men Running 100 MeterI don’t really want to post this update, but that makes it a good time to do so for many reasons. Updates are only useful if you do them regularly, no matter the circumstances.  Like most people, I like to give updates when I’m firing on all cylinders and everything is on track. Right now, most of the cylinders are firing at peak efficiency, but not all. I need to speed up a bit in the courses I’m taking. I’m not behind, but I was hoping that I would have gotten a little bit ahead of schedule. My writing goal of three times a week seems eminently doable, but I feel like it is sometimes interrupting my flow. I’ll be looking at ways to tweak that. My goal of developing a product prototype by year end feels a bit behind. That’s a much more difficult goal to quantify as far as percentage complete, but my feeling that I should be farther ahead is enough to make me unhappy with how that is progressing.

My exercise and meditation goals were inexplicably derailed for a little while when I got sick. I blame that on being a little slower at working and a little bit too uncomfortable at the time to do either in an enjoyable manner. So, those areas are points of weakness for sure. I’ll start fixing those today.

So, my overall assessment? At the moment I’m constantly scrambling to keep on track and just managing to do so. I guess I can look at that as having set a hard, but doable goal, but I have a tendency to look at that as a loss. Why the negativity? Well, while some people set easy goals and therefore have an easy time meeting them, I tend to set incredibly hard goals and then I’m constantly behind. Part of my task in this course was to set reasonable parameters, so that I could achieve the results I wanted without sacrificing all my personal time. While I haven’t sacrificed all my personal time, I think I set a couple goals a little more aggressively than I should have. At the very least, it has pushed me to get more done, which is a good thing.

I’ve checked my lap time at the half way point of my first 10 week course and I’m a little behind pace. So, I’m upping my speed. I can start to feel myself getting my second wind, which is what always happens for me in the same situation when I’m running. Let’s see if that will translate here as well. It feels like it isand that is a good feeling to have right now. See you at the finish line!

You Need Fresh Eyes!

Baby eyesIt’s become cliche to say that you should get fresh eyes to look at what you’re working on once in awhile. It’s cliche though because it’s true. So, I don’t have a problem with the saying, per se. My problem is with the way that people approach the cliche.

All too often, I’ve seen it play out a a little like the following scenario. You’ve been working on building something for quite awhile, so you ask one of your teammates or friends that is a coder and to give it a look. They look at it, understand what you’re going for and say it looks good or points something minor out. You feel good, maybe you make a small tweak as a result and move on. Always helpful to have those fresh eyes to catch something small or validate where you’re going with your work, right?

Wrong. The cliche asks for a fresh set of eyes. Bringing someone in with knowledge of what you are doing or a similar background is not truly that. Not unless you’re looking for a fresh set of eyes to debug code. Then, of course, you need someone with at least a knowledge of the programming language you’re using. If you’re looking for a fresh set of eyes to evaluate a product or a feature over all, then you want someone from your potential audience with no prior knowledge of the product. How they react to what you’ve built and their questions will get you a much better idea of how your product would impact your potential audience. That is extremely useful information. How someone on your team reacts to what you’re building has it’s own benefits, but it probably won’t be as large a factor in the success of the project once it launches.

At some point, your project will need some fresh eyes. When it does, you’ll have to talk to someone a little farther away than the next desk. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth the time.

Jack of All Trades, Master of the Universe!

Carpenter WorkingWe’ve all heard the old aphorism, ” jack of all trades, master of none”. This has been one that has bothered me for a long time. It comes from the belief that any time spent learning new skills is time that could have been better spent honing one skill to the maximum. I agree with the theory of that, but not necessarily with the reality of it. Yes, someone could hone and hone their craft in order to get closer and closer to perfection, but in reality, people usually just work until they reach good enough and stop. Perfection is difficult to achieve and the difference between being 95% of the way to perfection and being perfect is not much when it comes down to your return on it.

A post on Quora by David Cole, “The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer“, really got me thinking about this line of thinking that everyone should be a specialist.  Unlike the arguments that I usually see in support of that belief, David Cole argues that learning outside of one area allows for the knowledge necessary to create something with a more holistic view in mind. Having that holistic view, he says, helps to build a superior product. I’m inclined to agree with that thought since it echoes my own personal experiences. I’ve always done my best teamwork when I understood at least a little bit of the areas of all my teammates; not so that I could correct their work, but so that I understood how my work interconnected with theirs and how our work impacted each others.

I’ve also found that while I could spend 100 hours becoming slightly better at one of my areas of strength, the same amount of time could bring me from zero skill to a decent basic level that allowed me to do some simple work with that new skill. While that didn’t make me good enough at that skill to base a career around it, it did make me good enough to prototype ideas, make mockups and generally flesh out an idea to see if it was good enough to bring someone onboard to work on the idea. That is a great thing for a small business or an entrepreneur and I don’t think that value should be ignored. Frankly, that old aphorism sound like one of two things; someone trying to keep others from stealing work from them, or someone who is too lazy to learn new things and wants to justify that laziness to themselves and others.

Weekend Escape Revelations

Fremont Peak Observatory Telescope at SunsetOver the weekend, I took my five year old son on his first camping trip. It was just the two of us, which he was very excited about. I hadn’t been camping in about twenty years, so I was pretty excited as well. We camped at Fremont Peak State Park. The views were great, but the flies…well we could have done without those. The other great benefit of the park though is that they have an amateur observatory that opens to the public several nights a month. It just so happens that the night we chose to camp, they were scheduled to be open. So, that was a further reason of excitement for my son (and me as well).

I’m not here to chronicle the details of our camping trip, but I did want to go into what I got out of it. The trip was good for both my son and I, but for different reasons. For my son, as a bit of background, I have to say that his speech was delayed early on. So, while he could read at age two and was interested in lots of things and in everyone he met, he couldn’t really express it until about a year ago. What I’ve been seeing and was further demonstrated by the trip was that new interesting situations make his vocabulary and his communication skills explode into new areas.

When we arrived at the observatory he was a ball of energy, both physically and verbally. Suddenly, he was talking about the observatory and telescopes and binocular telescopes, what they do and how he wanted to build one with me(a green one). The next day, when I took him to school he took me to the art area and drew a line on a piece of paper. Then he drew an intersecting line and told me that this is the one that goes from the road to the observatory, where the telescope is. This was mind blowing for me because he is more of what I would call an abstract artist. Drawing something like a map is not something that I would have expected to have come from him unprompted. It reminded me that he always makes leaps into new areas, not when he is asked, but when he wants to demonstrate something and when it makes sense to him to do so. In many ways, that parallels what has always motivated me to learn things and it really touched me that something I had done with him had inspired him in that way. Where some “educators” had expressed doubt last year that he would be ready for Kindergarten next school year(before I pulled him out of their ridiculous program), I now have none. While he can learn the old fashioned way, when necessary, he learns much faster if he is engaged in a more interactive manner. The next few months will be as interactive as I can make them. He will be ready when the school year comes.

My experience with my son also reminded me that I need to interact more with what I’m learning. More learning by doing ratchets up my pace of learning. While it may not be the near exponential improvement he seems to enjoy, it’s still quite a leap for me as well. So, I intend to get my hands dirty with whatever I learn as soon as I can and not try to glean as much knowledge as I can in preparation. As a bonus, I know that will get me started on projects sooner, which will mean that I will be able to discard dead ends much faster and move on to what works, rather than mastering the minutiae of unhelpful technologies, frameworks or business models. While I think that will be tremendously helpful for me, I think it applies to almost everyone.

KPCB Internet Trends 2013

Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers put out a presentation on SlideShare.net  on the current trends in the internet. It’s the deck that she presented at the D11 conference last week. It’s an interesting collection of data. Some of it is expected, some of it not so much, but in aggregate it gives a nice picture of how things are going and what entrepreneurs should be considering as they start a company.

This is not a great presentation to skim because it is so information rich, but if that’s all the time you have, then at least skim it over. I think the data on mobile and the move towards wearable tech is very interesting. The information about the various tech companies and their gross margins is less so. If you watch the video from D11, she glosses over it herself. She might have had some reason behind the slide, but without any context, the information feels misleading. So, give the presentation a look and I’m sure you’ll glean some useful tidbits from it.

Cultural Fit Matters

Woman With HeadacheAs far as buzz words go, cultural fit would rank fairly high. Unlike many other buzz words though, theres a reason for its popularity. Cultural fit actually matters. If you’ve ever worked for a company with a culture that didn’t mesh with your own, you’re already well aware of that. And if you’ve worked for any length of time, you probably already have. If you’re a manager and you’ve hired someone that didn’t fit the company culture, it has probably caused you no end of headaches.

Companies are like people. They have personalities. Like any relationship, it matters how a person’s personality interacts with the group’s personality. When the two are at odds, nobody is going to be happy with the clashes that arise as a result of it. That’s why everyone should ideally be looking for a good cultural fit whenever they look for a job or when they look for someone to fill a job.

Unfortunately, people don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the best place to work. Sometimes they just need to work and will take any job. In that situation, they’re trying to get a job, not looking for the perfect fit. The same is true of companies. Sometimes a position needs to be filled and the perfect candidate isn’t appearing. So, they find someone with enough skills, decide they’re good enough and both sides try to force it. That almost never works. You’re either a fit or you’re not.

Sometimes, employees get very angry because of the lack of cultural fit. They start to look at it as a deficiency of the company. Before we get much farther, we’re not talking about discrimination, mistreatment, ethical considerations, etc. Cultural fit could be affected by work approach, aggressiveness, openness, work-life balance, etc. The key is that every person is the hero of their own story. So, when they don’t fit in, it’s the company’s fault, not theirs. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s a little bit of both during the interview process. It’s both sides’ duty to figure out if the fit is there. Often, it’s more the fault of the employee though. They usually have a better idea of the company’s culture than the company has about the employee’s personality. Once a person has the job, it’s usually more their fault because it’s much easier for an employee to quit, in most cases, than it is for a company to fire an employee.

While a lot of people wouldn’t agree, the best thing that can be done in the case of a lack of cultural fit is for the two parties to go their separate ways. How that happens depends on who is ending the relationship. The key is that, in the long run, trying to force the situation is bad for everyone involved. In some cases, having someone who is a poor fit can hurt every other member of the team. If the situation persists for long enough, other members of the team may leave as a result of the situation. Plus, it sours the employee towards work in general and let’s face it, most people will have to work for the majority of their lives. They can’t afford to take a bad attitude from job to job. That’s just going to make them a bad cultural fit almost anywhere they go.

So, if you’re looking for an employee, hire for the cultural fit over the skill level. At least if the person seems intelligent, passionate and eager to learn. If the person doesn’t fit the team, it won’t matter what their skill level is. Over time they will become more of a drain than a power source. If someone on your team fits that profile, it’s time for them to go before the whole situation deteriorates beyond repair. One person can’t be allowed to ruin the whole team dynamic.

Originality: Holy Grail or Boat Anchor?

Originality is a tricky thing. It seems like everyone wants to do something original or unique. On the other hand, there are those people say that “there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.” Well, according to Mark Earls at his keynote speech at TNW Conference Europe 2013, it’s the latter half that has things right. Experiments by the British government have shown that the most important determinant of what someone is doing, is what other people are doing. But rather than resulting in everyone doing the same thing, Mr. Earls likens it to a game of Telephone. Despite wanting to copy exactly what the last person said, inevitably between the first and last person in the game, the message is changed dramatically. So, even though everyone is copying, we end up with something different than what we started with. And when it comes to building a product, that same thing is true. Hopefully, that results in new better products than we would with everyone trying to create a singular product that has never been created before.

So, essentially he’s saying that we’re better of trying to build a better mousetrap than trying to come up with a product that has never been conceived of before. In many ways, I agree because an inordinate amount of time could be spent searching for originality. And, in the end, you might end up with a product that nobody wants. Taking an existing product and reimagining it, on the other hand, could deliver a product that people already want, but in a superior form that they would prefer to what is currently on the market. If you doubt that possibility, see how well Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or Google have done over the years, with just that strategy.

Not convinced yet? Well, if you have 15 minutes to spare, give the video a look. It’s worth the time.

Course Change

CompassI’m almost to the end of my third week and I think it’s time for me to alter my course a bit. Learning and building were the most important goals I set out. Unfortunately, since I love writing, writing quality blog posts matters to me. They don’t have to be perfect, but I don’t just dash out my feelings for the day and move on. I want each blog post to provide some insight or piece of knowledge to whoever reads it. Basically, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I respect everyone’s time and if they choose to read a blog post I wrote, I want to make a good effort to ensure that they don’t feel that I wasted time they could have spent much more productively elsewhere.

So, where am I going with this? Simple. I was a bit too ambitious with the blog post a day goal. I’m getting out a blog post a day, but it’s taking more effort than I wanted to expend in that direction. I have a lot of ruminations that I find interesting, but that are either quite difficult to articulate in a concise, cogent manner or are just not relevant to very many people. So, I spend a lot of time tossing out ideas and digging for better ones. That time could be better spent learning.

I contemplated cutting down to 5 days a week and leaving the weekends free, but I thought that I really needed to ditch at least half the articles. That way I would easily be able to find good topics to write about and leave a lot more time to work on courses and building a product. So, that leaves me at my new writing schedule of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. For the foreseeable future I’ll only be writing 3 times a week. Talk to you all again Monday