A New Adventure: Working at the Smithsonian as a Presidential Innovation Fellow

Diego, Sarah, Jason - Presidential Innovation Fellows

With Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, my Presidential Innovation Fellows teammates at the Smithsonian

A little over two years ago, I wrote about taking the leap to start a company. Starting and building Ridejoy has one of the most thrilling, challenging, humbling and educational experiences of my life. That chapter of my life is coming to a close and I am embarking on a new adventure. [1]

Today, I am happy to share that I’ve been selected to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF). Along with two other amazing PIFs, Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, I will be working on initiatives to strengthen the Smithsonian Institution’s digital enterprise. I packed up my life in San Francisco in early June and shipped out to Washington DC, where I’ll be for the next six months.

What Will I Be Doing at the Smithsonian?

We’ve all heard of the Smithsonian, but like a lot of people, I didn’t fully appreciate the scale at which it operates. The Smithsonian Institution runs  —  get ready for this —  19 museums, 20 libraries, 11 research centers, 2 magazines and a freaking zoo. There are over 137 million artifacts, specimens and national treasures in their stewardship and yet only a fraction of a fraction of those pieces are physically accessible to the public at any given time.

The organization’s mission is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and while you might not traditionally think of a museum as an educational institution, that’s very much what the Smithsonian is. So along those lines, Sarah, Diego and I will be working with the Office of the Secretary and staff across the various museums and facilities toward three priorities:

  • accelerating the Institution’s digitization efforts
  • building a crowdsourcing platform to enlist the public in strengthening the digital collections and
  • improving the tools for the public to search and discover digital content.

It’s an amazing opportunity, but also a huge undertaking. We have learned a ton in the past week and I anticipate we’ll continue drinking from the firehose for some time to come.

What is the Deal with the Fellowship?

At first glance, the federal government is basically the antithesis of a startup. It operates at gigantic scale, moves at the speed of molasses most of the time, and is saddled with lots of rules and regulations. Which is why the Presidential Innovation Fellowship is so fascinating.

The big idea behind the program is basically this: what if we got the best entrepreneurs and innovators in America to partner with forward thinking government leaders? Could we make some awesome things happen? Based on the work from the Round 1 fellows selected in 2012, the answer appears to be “Definitely”.

This year, 43 fellows were selected to work across 20-something agencies within the government. From USAID, the State Department, FDA, Veteran’s Affairs and more, my peers will be working on really hard, interesting and important challenges that aim to help the government deliver better services and reduce expenses. I like the way one person put it: “helping taxpayers get better ROI on their government”.

I’m incredibly excited to work with White House CTO Todd Park, and Deputy CTO Jenn Pahlka (who is directly overseeing the program and previously ran Code for America) and just floored by the talent, experience and desire to contribute of the other fellows. They have done amazing things and as a guy who rates really high on the self-confidence scale,  I am humbled to be part of this group.

Get Involved

We are just starting to figure things out and brainstorming ways to help the Smithsonian do (even more) Seriously Amazing™ things in the digital space. I welcome your help and support.

If you have ideas, resources or other opportunities you think would benefit the fellowship and or specifically the work we are pursuing at the Smithsonian, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at ShenJa@si.edu

FOOTNOTES

[1] This post today is about what’s next. I have a lot more to say about my experiences at Ridejoy but it deserves more thought and space than I have here. I promise I’ll be sharing more about that soon.

If You Don’t Have Time for a Side Project, You Are Probably Just Lying to Yourself

 

side projectsHaving a side project to work on is a tremendously powerful way to develop new skills, improve your career capital and recharge from the repetitive tasks you do at work. In a couple of months (or less) you could learn how to code, or train to run a marathon, improve your social skills or write a novel.

Despite these advantages, most people never even get started with their side projects.

They make excuses, saying how they don’t have time, how next month will be less busy or how they’re more dedicated to their job or their families to embark on such extracurriculars. Look, I know it can be tough to find the energy to embark on a side project. But unless you are working 100 hours a week (and you’re probably exaggerating) or the parent of a newborn child, you are probably just lying to yourself.

Stop Watching So Much TV

Most Americans watch around THREE HOURS of television per day. Sure, there are probably a few people watching like 10 hours a day, but that’s still a lot of people vegging out for over an hour a day. For a lot of folks, TV can be swapped with social media or video games to the same effect.

You really only need average 35 mins a day on your side project to net 4 hours a week on your side project. That’s 200+ hours over a year – which would allow you to do a tremendous number of things.

 

The Mayor of Newark Has a Side Project

Cory Booker is the well-known mayor of Newark, NJ and unofficial Senatorial candidate, has also co-founded a video sharing startup called Waywire. Now, I don’t care what your political stance is, being the mayor is a lot of work. And if you believe even half the stories that make him one of the “hardest working mayors in America” you’ll understand that Booker is not just punching the clock on his public service duties.

Yet that has NOT stopped him from creating something new from scratch – on the side.

Paul Graham Spends 3-4 Hours a Day on Hacker News

Paul Graham is the cofounder of Y Combinator, which funded my startup Ridejoy and other, far more successful startups like Airbnb, Heroku and Dropbox. In addition to running Y Combinator as a partner and being a husband and father, he also spends a lot of time working on Hacker News, the Reddit-like community he created that gets 1.6M pageviews daily.

How much time? Three to four hours per day, according to a recent article on TechCrunch. Sure, Hacker News is tangentially related to his job running Y Combinator, but most side projects do provide real tangible benefits to your main work responsibilities.

Start Slow

Swayed? Thinking about buckling down to really take on that side project? Cool. But don’t start too hard.

From my research on human behavior change, I think one of the big missteps of human psychology is that we’re overly optimistic about our own abilities to change. We bite off more than we can chew.

Instead of diving in for hours one day, try spending 10 minutes a day on the project for a week. Consistency is great than intensity. You’ll make more progress in the long run if you keep at it a little bit each day, than if you immerse yourself once every few weeks.

I estimate it took me about 100 hours over many months to learn enough programing to build the first version of RewardBox, but there’s no way I would been able to do it over 50 hrs/wk for 2 weeks.

What’s a side project you’ve wanted to start? Let me know what’s holding you back in the comments.

Startup Founders: Don’t Forget to Sell the Dream

I’ve been speaking with some Y Combinator hopefuls as they prepare to interview for this coming batch. As usual, there are some really enthusiastic and super smart folks working to solve really interesting and important problems.

I love taking these meetings because I get to get back to the community that has supported me plus I learn a ton in the process. For instance, it was from all these meetings last time around where I wrote my most popular post of 2012: 11 compelling startup pitch archetypes.

This post addresses a very specific piece of the startup pitch: selling the dream.

The Final 10%

The vast majority of your pitch should be around the mechanics of your business: your customers, your product, your team, your distribution strategy. This is what’s going to make you successful: competent people who really understand the needs of their users and who have the ability to create the right product to address those needs and get it into the hands of their users.

But, there is a final 10% of your pitch which should be more aspirational. It’s about the vision, the dream, the magic. It’s the answer to the question “How is this going to be a billion-dollar business?” [1]

Two of the companies that I’ve spoken to were missing that part of their pitch. They had identified a market segment which had a burning problem, and their products all that problem, and they had good specific strategies to acquire those customers. This is a great start. [2]

But they were missing that aspirational story.
Continue reading…

Ignore the critics: Lean In should be required reading for everyone, including men

Disclaimer: as a man writing about gender inequality, I acknowledge my privileged (and biased) viewpoint in this discussion. I’ve run this post by several smart, awesome women and incorporated their feedback, but I know I still run the risk of getting things wrong. Still, this topic is so important that I felt I had to try to add to the conversation.

more_women_lean_in_quote

I recently finished Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. [1] Everyone from the New York Times, Slate, TIME and a host of bloggers has weighed in on Lean In — and many of the reviews are quite critical.

Among other things, people have said it blames women, offers unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite, and dismisses stay-at-home moms.

Ignore the critics. They’re wrong and they’ve missed the fact that Sandberg has produced a powerful book that should be required reading. [2]

Incidents like the disastrous PyCon/Adria Richards debacle underline the fact that some men have little understanding of the unique difficulties professional women face, and some female professionals have struggled to find effective ways of dealing with these challenges. We need to bring more constructive voices to the table discussion. Lean In is a nuanced and highly relevant read for anyone who cares about building a more equitable world in tech and beyond.

A short summary

Sandberg is a total badass, and yet she has struggled with significant hurdles to achieve professional success. Many of these struggles were with confidence, advocating for herself and balancing competence with likability, as well as overt sexism. I was forced to reconsider how to evaluate outward appearances of confidence between men and women and recognize there are no simple answers for ensuring a meritocratic workplace.

Sandberg cowrote Lean In with Nell Scovell, a professional writer, and acknowledges the help of many experts in refining her arguments. The collaboration made for writing that’s leaps and bounds above your typical business-buzz-book fare: paragraphs flow well, stories contain appropriate detail, research is cited and explained.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share some highlights, but I seriously encourage you to read the book for yourself.

More women in power

Sandberg makes the mission of her book very clear. She wants to see women in board rooms and the halls of Parliament, running companies and nations.

In the first chapter, she recounts hosting a dinner party for Leymah Gwobee, the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize winning activist. Gwobee had helped lead women’s protests that toppled the dictatorship in Liberia and was asked what the best way to help her people and fight the mistreatment of women.

Her answer: “More women in power.”

Sandberg writes this book from a moral imperative. She wants to help ambitious women succeed, not just for their own sake, but to bolster the conditions of women across the globe.

Sitting at the Table

A phrase that frequently appears in Lean In is “sitting at the table.” Sandberg recounts a story of hosting a number of Silicon Valley executives along with Tim Geithnier, the Secretary Treasurer, and his staff at Facebook. While all the executives sat at the main table, Geithnier’s all-female staff seated themselves in chairs along the side of the room.

Sandberg was surprised and waved them over. They demurred and refused to “sit at the table”. Women often are unwilling to jump into the action, Sandberg claims, and this holds them back from moving their career forward and making their voices heard.

She says this not disparagingly from up high, but from the perspective of a woman who has sat on the sidelines herself more than once, and often feels doubts about her position as one of “the most powerful women in the world.”

Confidence versus Caution

There seems to be a disparity in how men and women value their abilities and approach job hunting. According to data from recent graduates at Northwestern, males were 8x more likely to negotiate their salary than women. At Hewlett-Packard, an internal report found that while men apply for open jobs if they think they meet about 60 percent of requirements, while women are more cautious and won’t apply unless they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria.

In the book, Sandberg shared her thoughts on negotiating once she received her COO offer from Facebook:

“My husband, Dave, kept telling me to negotiate, but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me. Was it worth it when I knew that ultimately I was going to accept the offer? I concluded it was not.” [3]

In discussing this post with a former female coworker, she told me how one time, after receiving a generous offer from a new employer, she made the decision to negotiate. However, her own mother actually tried to dissuade her from negotiating, saying “It’s already a such a high offer! Don’t push it!”

Ultimately she negotiated a better offer and accepted the position (woot!), but I thought this was a poignant example of how women are often discouraged from negotiating — a message rarely given to men.

Competent women lose points on likability

Sandberg cites a tremendous wealth of research around gender bias: the most memorable example is involved a real-life business case study about a take-charge entrepreneur/venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. In 2003, some Columbia business school professors had their class read the case study, but half the students got a version of the case with “Howard” switched for “Heidi.”

When polled, students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent, but Howard appeared to be a more appealing colleague. Both men and women felt that Heidi was more selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This is a very clear example of gender bias: the students read the exact same case!

“When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” or “difficult.” At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”

When you want to become C-level executive, having the support of your peers is crucial, and we must be aware of how competent women lose points for likability. This is the double whammy that makes it hard for women to advocate for themselves: because they’ll be docked points for seeming “too aggressive”.

When Sandberg finally did negotiate with Zuckerberg around her offer, she did it in a friendly manner, emphasizing that as COO, she would be doing Facebook’s deals and of course needed to demonstrate her ability to be a good negotiator.

Forming truly equal partnerships

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully— and I mean fully— supportive of her career.”

To get more women into power, they shouldn’t have to decide between raising families or advancing careers. [4] There has to be a way to do both.

On this point, Sandberg wants women to ask for truly equal partnerships (if they have a partner) and for men to respond and deliver on an equal partnership. In households where both men and women work full-time, women still do 30% more housework and and 40% more childcare than men. It is unsurprising then that women might feel more burdened by their jobs and struggle more professionally, as they just have a higher total workload than men.

And just in case you feel annoyed by Sandberg’s wealth and ability to hire nannies, note this anecdote:

“When I went back to my job after giving birth, other working mothers told me to prepare for the day that my son would cry for his nanny. Sure enough, when he was about eleven months old, he was crawling on the floor of his room and put his knee down on a toy. He looked up for help, crying, and reached for her instead of me. It pierced my heart…”

Being a working mom is hard, no matter who you are and while Sandberg has lots of money, it does not buy her unlimited maternal bliss.

Closing Thoughts

This book covers a lot of ground: Sandberg also discusses mentorship, taking initiative, seeking growth opportunities, stay at home dads, and a host of other topics. I’ve just scratched the surface with this blog post. I especially encourage men to read it because even if you think you’re “gender-neutral” [4] , I bet this book will led you to change the way you do things.

Here are some very unflattering examples of how Lean In has been relevant for me:

  • When discussing the business career prospects of a girl I knew growing up, I made an offhand remark that “it probably doesn’t hurt that she is an attractive Asian female.” I’m mortified those words escaped by lips, but even more disappointed that this line of reasoning made any sense even in my head.
  • When having a coffee meeting (not a date!) with a female I had previously only talked with online, I found myself wondering if the meeting was going well because she wasn’t smiling or sharing very much. Then I wondered if I would have the same concerns if I was meeting with a man. Probably not.
  • When I’m in conversation with any group that includes women, I am much more cognizant of how often I interrupt/talk over men vs women.

Lean In is an important book that should be read by men and women, in tech and beyond. Having more women in power will help unlock the abilities and contributions of a significant proportion of society that is often under appreciated. And making sure that talent surfaces and worthy ideas are heard is good news for all of us.

Thanks to Winnie Kao, Christine Yen, Margot Leong and Kat Li for reading drafts of this and Christine Lan for helping shape my thinking on this subject.

Footnotes

[1] This is an affiliate link. If you buy this book on Amazon, I’ll get a few cents. [2] To address those claims directly:
  • Blaming women: Sandberg acknowledges there is a chicken-and-egg issue with gender inequality, with external barriers and internal ones. As a woman who’s struggled with these internal barriers and an executive who’s seen hundreds of women struggle as well, she’s chosen to focus this book on the internal ones, without denying there are significant societal problems that prevent gender equality.
  • Unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite: while it’s true that Sandberg has more money, power and connections than your typical working woman, she routinely discusses her own struggles before she became one of the most powerful women in the world, and she also shares stories from younger, “more typical” women she’s mentored and how they’ve leaned in. Additionally, she shares some of her more recent struggles of being a professional and a mom. In my opinion, the fact that Sheryl-fucking-Sandberg, the TED-talking COO of Facebook, still sometimes cries at work over issues that probably relate to her gender go a long way in underscoring the far greater difficulties that “regular” working women must overcome.
  • Dismisses working moms: simply not true. First she says she’s grateful to the many volunteers, who are mostly mothers, that sustain our schools, nonprofits and communities, and calls for working mothers to “regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers.” She describes many of the painful the trade-offs she’s made as a mother in order to work full-time and recognizes it’s not a path everyone would want to choose.
[3] Sandberg ultimately decided to negotiate only after her brother-in-law made a striking point about how no man at this level would ever accept the first offer. [4] Sandberg makes it clear that not every woman wants to be a working mom, and that some people find full-time motherhood deeply fulfilling and she honors that. She does point out though that the more you can achieve before stepping away to bear your child, the more likely you’ll want to return to the workforce because you could have an exciting career lined up. [4] Actually, people who claim to have no bias are actually more likely to be biased, according to research Sandberg cites in Lean In. So people who think they’re gender-blind may need this book the most.

“When evaluating identically described male and female candidates for the job of police chief, respondents who claimed to be the most impartial actually exhibited more bias in favor of male candidates. This is not just counterproductive but deeply dangerous.”

Cronyism is alive and well (or why relationships matter)

presidents laughing

We tend to imagine that we live in a Just World. Especially in the field of technology and startups, we want to believe that the skilled, insightful and dedicated are rewarded and the suckups and sycophants are weeded out.

But people do not sit rows on a giant spreadsheet, with the best ones easily identified via a quick “sort-by” function. We are social creatures and treat those we know and like, better than strangers. Relationships matter.

And when considering people we don’t know, we are more likely to favor people similar to ourselves, often because we share the same race, social group, alma matter, or membership in a particular group, among other qualities.

I know someone who was hired a while back in an exciting new role at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. The guy who hired him was in member of a certain fraternity and confided that he was planning to fill his entire team with fraternity alumni. [1]

Is this fair? No. It’s complete bullshit. Do things like this happen all the time? Yes.

You can respond to the fact that cronyism [2] exists in two ways:

  1. Rail against it as unfair and stupid. Refuse to play games or get involved in politics. Struggle to gain influence over others and limit your potential.
  2. Realize that this is human nature, and make it work for you. Have coffee meetings with influential people, build social capital by making great introductions, create weak ties by working at companies like Google or joining startup communities like Hacker Dojo.

When I was younger, I fell into the first camp, hoping to avoid gamesmanship and stay ‘principled’. I eventually learned that to be effective with people, you have to enter the fray. Favors, friendships, fame — these things matter if you wish to enlist the support and involvement other people.

Lest someone misunderstand this article, let me be clear: the more we can operate in a world where positions are filled with the most qualified people, the better. We should do our best to bring about this kind of a world and avoid perpetuating corrupt practices. However, I believe that by refusing to play any kind of politics, one writes oneself out of the opportunity to gain any sort of power and thus will have little ability to influence the system toward becoming better.

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

[1] Now this newly hired person could be a fantastic fit and the best qualified person for the job. But because the hiring manager indicated a clear bias for an arbitrary quality in his team, the true qualification of the entire team could be called into question.

[2] The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without regard to qualification