What I'm Reading
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Saturday, January 5. 2013
This piece continues on from a previous article I wrote entitled, "RealPolitik," which is a self-documenting history of my journey as a founder attempting to transform an idea to a real-life product. A brief update from last time, the new leader that I alluded to last time has left the company, so that's one less thing I have to worry about this quarter.
Brace Yourself, Winter Is Coming
As I entered the month of August, I thought things were going fairly well with the progress of my product. I finally had engineers, product managers, and designers starting to work on our product. We had finished several sprints, and we thought we'd be done in no time at this rate. We had a new CEO in place, and morale was very high. Could this finally be peace time? I have to admit, a part of me privately wondered how long these good times would last.
I ran into a co-worker who was put onto one of the CEO's highest priority projects, and I asked how things were going. Her response was, "brace yourself, winter is coming, there is a storm coming." I wasn't precisely sure what to make of it, but it didn't sound good. When we entered September, the climate started changing.
Losing A Co-Founder
We finally managed to get some bandwidth from a designer to start working on our product. Unfortunately within a couple weeks, she was let go. It would be a while before we could find a new designer, and get them up to speed again. I thought, that's fine, I could fill that gap with my own design skills, no problem. I didn't realize this was the edge of the storm.
As I'm trying to deal with this first loss, my manager pulls me into a meeting. He tells me that he was transferring to another team which had better opportunities. My heart sank because he was a really good manager, and he gave me a lot of leeway to pursue my dreams, and shielded me politically from a lot of non-sense. He wanted to manage a larger team. My pitch to him was, why not just sit back and watch my funding come in, and watch the team slowly grow? That apparently wasn't enough, and so he left.
A week later, my co-founder wanted to meet with me, and I'm informed that he's leaving the company. I couldn't exactly comprehend it, and I certainly didn't see this coming. We had won so many awards together this last year, we just had to translate those ideas into reality, and we would claim our prize. I fancy myself as a pretty decent negotiator, but I couldn't turn the tide. We had a very honest and open discussion, and we focused on what was best for him. I am glad that I wasn't the reason for his depature, and we left on very good terms.
Trying to cover an engineering manager role, a designer role, and an engineering role was going to be very tricky. I wear many hats, but there are simply not enough hours in a week to cover all of this. I bumped up my hours and started working evenings, but it just wasn't enough.
Losing A Vision
We entered into September with a depleted force, but we managed to get a new designer onboard. We went through a design review of what we had so far, and the design leadership didn't like what we had. When we started the project, it was pretty straightforward in that everyone was working out of consensus. Now that were involving external groups, conflicts and arguments starting breaking out. Engineering, design, and product management all were pursuing different directions and we were deadlocked.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, a data-driven design guru was recommended to me. I brought him in hoping that he would help get us back on track. We brought the guy into a meeting, and I had really high hopes for what this guy could do. The Guru was evangelising a design process that would guarantee great emotionally designed products, and wanted us to follow the same process. Unfortunately the process was very abstract and hard to understand. I mentioned that his design process was similar to what one of the design heads already had, so couldn't we just use the same process? The Guru got offended, and was blaming the design head for leading the company astray. A red flag instantly went up for me because this guy obviously has an agenda.
He then started showing some of the product ideas that he had been pitching, and started name dropping very high level people in the company. The product ideas were mediocre at best, so I asked him, which one of these products are currently funded and in development? He said none of them, but he blamed his product manager for not pushing hard enough. I was starting to see a pattern here. This guy was all talk.
The Guru then started reviewing our product, and mentions how we need to model the user interface as physical objects. This design philosophy is called skeumorphism. In the early days of computing, we needed skeumorphism because people weren't used to computers. That's why your operating system has files, folders, and trash cans. However, there's a new generation called "The Digital Natives" who grew up with computers and intuitively understands computers, and doesn't need real world object metaphors, or the real world metaphor doesn't make any sense. For example, some applications that manage your contact list is modelled after a rolodex; but ask a young kid what a rolodex is, and they'll have no idea what it is because it's obsolete.
Things got worst when The Guru suggested we needed some cartoonish character to guide users through our product like Microsoft Clippy. He asserted that Microsoft Clippy brings joy to users. I for one hate Clippy, and I believe Microsoft killed off that character for a reason. This was when I realized this expert's knowledge of users and trends was stuck in the 90s. It really took all my restraint to sit there and listen to this deluge of academic speak of how great Clippy was.
The breaking point occurred when The Guru wanted to add his own twist to my idea. He was going to take the idea, add some cartoonish characters and pitch the idea to VPs for funding. Without asking for permission or what I thought about it, he felt like he could just take my idea. Great, I had just created a competitor. I now suddenly had to get in front of VPs before this guy did to ensure they knew where the original idea came from, and ensure this guy was written off as a copycat.
The visit with The Guru was an absolute disaster. He told us to go back to the drawing board, and it really broke down a lot of the consensus that I had built up. Suddenly engineering, product, and design all had differing ideas of where to take the project. We had lost the vision.
The Storm Arrives
A week before our quarterly reviews, I got a cryptic warning that the higher ups are not happy with my progress. The short version of this was, a launch date was communicated up the chain, but the revised date wasn't, so everyone was expecting something, and we didn't deliver. I was absolutely blind-sided a week later when they announced our funding was cut, and all resources were being diverted to other higher priority projects.
I had reached a breaking point. I was running on empty, and with everything else that had already happened, I just didn't see how we could recover from this. The design team was blocking all our progress thanks to The Guru. Half my team had left in the previous weeks. The remaining half was shocked, angry, and confused. We were dead in the water. We had three more weeks before the team would be dissolved.
In hindsight, I think I was burned out. I looked like an absolute mess, I hadn't shaved for weeks. My hair was in dire need of a haircut. Every morning when I woke up, I didn't want to go into work. I was eating too much, and gained 8lbs. I sat through team meetings listening to people argue about the direction we should go, and I just sat there, indecisive.
There were two primary things gnawing away at me. One, I had jeopardized a bunch of people's livelihoods (career wise), and their only mistake was choosing to follow me. The second question that kept repeating in my mind was, what could I have done differently?
The day we lost our funding, I ran into my mentor, and he asked how things were going. I gave him a short version of the story, and he seemed troubled. He then offered to take me into his team. He didn't really understand why I bothered putting up with all of this. I had a lot of thinking to do.
Later that evening, I normally attend an evening church service for young adults. I wasn't scheduled to help with anything that night, so I had no obligation to go. I honestly didn't feel like going. The last thing I wanted to do was to put on a fake smile in front of people and say everything was going well. For whatever reason, I went anyways and sat in the back. None of my friends were there that evening, so I guess that made it a little better that I was being anti-social. During the worship part of the evening, I was just distracted by my thoughts and wasn't really paying attention. Pastor Paul then went up to preach, and his topic for the evening was on persecution. He opened with this verse:
"Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So donít try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way." James 1:2-4
My mouth kind of hung open because it was exactly what I needed to hear, at exactly the right time. The good Lord works in mysterious ways. I had come too far to quit now. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, and get back into the fight.
I spent the following week getting myself fixed up and tried to get inspired again. I had to look back at the beginning of the project, and understand what made us successful back then, and where did we go off the rails. I started re-reading my blog articles from earlier in the year, and it started rekindling a fire within. It reminded me, who am i, and what we set out to do.
I came across a great remix by Isosine which samples from Rocky Balboa which says:
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody!
The inner computer geek in me installed the strategy game Civilization 4, and I built and managed an empire over the weekend. There's something about destroying other empires that made me feel better. It made me feel like I was in control of something important again.
I hit the gym and started working out again. I started off with a 5km run on the treadmill. Over a week, I lost the 8lbs. I shaved the beard. I went to a hair studio and said, "my hair is a mess, give me a new hairstyle, do whatever you want with it, but it needs to look clean and professional."
In the midst of this, I was also watching "The Men That Built America," which went through the history of some of America's greatest entrepreneurs. There's a story of Tesla vs Edison which was quite inspirational to me. Tesla was confronted with a decision that would either see the world adopt his technology, or he could be rich in his career as an inventor. He decided the technology was more important and gave up rights to all his patents, and died a poor man. There's something very noble, inspiring, and liberating about that. I thought to myself, perhaps career isn't as important as building world changing technology. In either case, I decided I couldn't abandon the project now, even if it puts my career in peril, I couldn't leave for somewhere else, I had to finish what I started. Otherwise, what does that say of my character? When things get tough, I just quit?
"A half-read book is a half-finished love affair." ―David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
One Last Charge
I got back into the office regenerated, and ready to fight again. People said I looked like a different man, and welcomed me back. My first order of business was to rally the troops. I sent out an email acknowleding what we had gone through, but now was the time to finish strong. We had two weeks of funding left, and I wasn't going to squander that time, we would go down fighting. My second order of business was coming up with a new design for the product that would get approval from our designers. It would hopefully also get people to unify around a renewed vision of the product. A couple days in, I came up with new concept drawings, and took them to my sole remaining engineer. We had a mini hack day and built a working prototype in 6 hours. It looked very promising.
Next thing on the agenda was diplomacy to rebuild peace with my management chain. I went up the chain to try to figure out what we could have done differently last quarter. I actually got a different kind of answer. I was told, in the end, ideas aren't worth a lot, execution is everything. One of my managers hinted that the reason why nobody listens to The Gurus was because they're all talk, but they can never get a product off the ground. Products that have actual customers using it is valuable to the company. My answer to that was, well give me 50% of my time back to work on executing on this product. It was granted. I'm very glad that I reached out with an olive branch instead of burning that bridge down. Minimal funding was restored for the rest of the quarter, but we would be on life support.
The final order of business was to get The Guru off our backs. The arguments we were having were basically endless debates that were not backed by data, but by taste and opinions. I halted all debate and said, I'm going to run a usability study with real users, and we'll let our users tell us where the product should be heading towards. The Guru was dismissive about usability studies saying your methodology will be all wrong, and the data we collect will be useless. I knew for a fact that a number of new flagship products from Yahoo! were going through usabiliy studies with the CEO's blessing, so I was going to see how those studies were being run, and try to do the same thing.
I met with the director of usability studies to see if we could borrow their facilities and resources. We explained what we were trying to break a deadlock over very opinionated people. At first he was hesitant because the labs were full, and he couldn't spare any resources. As we're wrapping up the meeting, he discovered that we came out of Hack Day with this idea, and said, "you know what, I have a soft spot for people like you coming out of Hack Day, I'm going to personally help with this." I choked up a bit, and couldn't thank him enough, this was our ticket to breaking the deadlock. We met with his staff a couple more times, and they approved our methodology and test. When we finished putting together the experiment, and began inviting external users to come in, the director gave us the keys to the lab for two weeks. I couldn't believe we had the labs all to ourselves for two weeks. The previous month they were booked completely solid.
Strangely enough, the lead designer saw that we were making progress on new designs, and gave us an additional designer to help. A couple weeks ago, the lead designer was thinking about pulling all our designers. Now she's adding reinforcements.
The usability testing went really well, and we got a lot of great positive feedback from our users. One of the usability folks gave us a hint though, she said call it 'user experience testing', and people will take you more seriously. I thought this was ridiculous, we're just playing with semantics. When we met with The Guru again, and mentioned we had just completed 'user experience testing', he says, "oh of course you have to do user experience testing, it's very important to do that." I sighed on the inside. He spent ample time dismissing these tests, and now was endorsing them?
I presented our findings to my management chain, the designers, the Guru, and folks from the product management side. Basically a lot of our assumptions were validated, and the new designs I had come up with were far superior. The Guru was completely disarmed because he couldn't argue with the data that we had produced. We had pivoted to a new vision, and everyone was onboard. The management chain concluded with this decree, "the SVP needs to see these results, go get a second round of funding."
I was absolutely shocked how our fortunes had completely changed in the span of weeks. People who were trying to shut down my team were now becoming our greatest advocates. I brought the team together after, and acknowledged that going through the trials and tribulation were hard, but I felt like we grew as a team, and we're stronger than ever now. I think everyone shared a similar sentiment. I feel quite blessed because it would have been easy for anyone to quit when the going got tough, but they stuck it out with me.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the story.
"I'm hurting you to make you a better soldier in every way. To sharpen your wit. To intensify your effort. To keep you off balance, never sure what's going to happen next, so you always have to be ready for anything, ready to improvise, determined to win no matter what."
--Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
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