Readership Survey

Who reads this blog and why?

Since it’s been a few years since my last readership survey, I decided to poll members of the Art of Ass-Kicking insider’s list to see who they are and why they read the blog.

Here are some of our findings:

Demographics

While the readership skews male, we actually have a pretty strong spectrum across different generations, from Millennials, to Gen X to Boomers.

Attributes

  • Technology: 63% of folks work in tech. 31% are developers or engineers, 25% are marketers, 22% are product managers, and 19% are designers
  • Entrepreneurship: 31% of readers are active startup founders and another 27% are aspiring founders. Related: 42% of readers directly manage other people at work
  • Blogging: 31% of folks have their own blog
  • Fitness: 57% of folks identify as being generally physically active, with 34% doing crossfit or some kind of weight training and 27% who see themselves as runners

How they describe the blog

I did this exercise where I asked people to describe the blog in a few words. I created a word cloud out of all the entries and excerpted a few favorites here:

  • it’s one of the few I regard as pretty good no-bullshit business / personal development blogs
  • interesting and different, not run of the mill thoughts and stuff, sometimes funny
  • useful, utilitarian, cross-domain thinking, energetic, bold
  • Gets inside the head of a connected millennial

Assessing the Name and Slogan

I’ve been pondering a redesign of the blog at some point in 2016 and also having some conversations with a close friend about the name and brand of the blog. So I decided to ask what people think of it.

Almost three quarters of folks were pretty into both the name “The Art of Ass-Kicking” and the slogan “Conquer fear and do epic sh*t”, which was a great data point for any future brand work.

Why do they read it?

One thing I’m always wondering is why people read this blog. To compete on the web, you have to understand why yours matters to people or what makes it stand out.

The number one reason people read this blog, according to the survey, is for motivation and inspiration (79%). Next was for lessons and directly applicable information (64%) with analysis and personal interest in me tied in 3rd at 36% and 37%.

Who they admire

This was an interesting question. I wanted to know who my reader consider “their heros” or people the generally admire. I asked this question after listening to a couple of Tim Ferriss podcastswhere he often asks “who comes to mind when you think of success”. I adapted it slightly to focus on who people admire or look up to.

The most common answers:

  • Elon Musk “won” with 15 write-ins out of 198 entries
  • Tim Ferriss (9)
  • Steve Jobs (7)
  • Barack Obama (6)
  • Bill Gates (4)
  • Seth Godin (4)
  • Mark Zuckerberg (4)
  • Jeff Bezos (3)
  • Richard Branson (3)

A few honorable mentions and interesting people:

For me personally, I would probably say Barack Obama, Seth Godin, and Dwayne Johnson. [1]

Giveaway

Finally, I did do a giveaway for the book so congrats to Anthony – you’re getting a  a copy of Strengths Based Leadership!

—-

[1] I recognize my top three are all men and that’s not ideal. I do admire many women like Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, and JK Rowling, but I can’t say they make the top 3.

Learning from Volkswagen

Takeaways for Engineers, Product Managers, and Executives from a Massive Cheating Scandal

Volkswagen has been eviscerated after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in September that VW had installed “defeat devices” to cheat on their emissions testing.

It turns out least 500,000 diesel cars made by VW were rigged with software that would reduce engine emissions to meet standards, but then turn off to achieve higher fuel mileage. When not in testing mode, the engines released nitrous oxide chemicals at levels up to 38x times greater than allowed by the Clean Air Act.

How It Was Discovered

In an ironic turn of events, the cheating was discovered by an environmental group working with West Virginia University to prove that diesel was in fact clean. In 2014, they conducted real world tests of VW cars that revealed far greater levels of emissions than what was certified by the E.P.A.

An investigation ensued to understand the discrepancy between lab and real-world results and repeated questioning by the EPA, which was preparing to certify new VW models, the company admitted to installing these devices on over half a million diesel cars sold in the US since 2009, and up to 11 million cars worldwide might be affected.

The Fallout

The stock fell over 40% when the scandal first broke in September 2015 and was still down 23% three months later, representing a $25 billion dollar loss in market cap. Martin Winterkorn, the global CEO was forced to resign, even as he still maintains he didn’t know about the cheating. Of course, they’ve been trying to blame the cheating on a small group of bad apples, and VW recently announced a negative quarterly profit, their first in 15 years.

The company has set aside $6.7 billion for recalls, repairs, and other customer service requirements. The U.S. Justice Department has begun investigating criminal fraud charges and has sued VW for $48 billion dollars. Even if they settle on a much smaller number, that’s nothing to sniff at. The company recently announced that they’d be making “massive cutbacks“, which probably will result in people who were not at all involved in the situation losing their jobs. Beyond the business ramifications are health ones: an MIT research study indicates that the additional emissions will cause 130 people to die premature deaths if the cars aren’t taken off the road by the end of 2016.

Why It Happened

As far as I can tell, there’s a number of factors that lead to this:

A culture of gaming the system. It appears VW is far from the only company that has significant discrepancies – in the past decade, the gap between lab tests and real world results in terms of pollutants has grown 50%. As far back as 1998, it was known that emissions tests and real world driving engage the engine in different ways and car companies have been exploiting that difference to pass tests but pollute more under normal conditions. And while the other companies may have been gaming the system legally, this culture of treating the tests as just something to pass and move on with is dangerous.

An overly competitive atmosphere. The car industry as a whole is well known for having low margins and having its leading brands (GM, Toyota, and now VW) suffer scandals around faulty parts. Some experts believe that in order to achieve the number one position, which former chief executive Martin Winterkorn was pushing the company very hard to do, car companies almost always have to cut corners which lead to major issues down the road.

A thorny product trade off. VW wanted to produce diesel cars that had great gas mileage, super clean-emitting and affordable. And they wanted it now. Instead of actually innovating or investing the money to do it right, they decided to cheat.

A culture of punishing mistakes and problems. This quote from a former VW executive from Reuters is telling:

“There was always a distance, a fear and a respect… If he would come and visit or you had to go to him, your pulse would go up. If you presented bad news, those were the moments that it could become quite unpleasant and loud and quite demeaning.”

When no one is willing to say “no” to leadership and bad news is punished, secrets emerge and people spend more time covering their ass than doing the right thing.

Takeaways

Engineers and individual contributors: Refuse to implement work that is unlawful or violates your sense of personal integrity. Forget the obvious reason (that’s just the right thing to do) but think about this: if it works and you don’t get caught, you’ll be asked to do it again. And it’ll be more egregious the second time, and eventually the cheating will get detected. And when it does, it will probably be really bad, and you will be thrown under the bus. The US chief executive of VW went up to Congress and seriously said that the defeat devices were the result of “a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.”

Product managers and group leads: Every product decision has trade offs and no solution is perfect optimal on every dimension. Most PM’s recognize this, but it’s important to acknowledge that fact within your own teams and communicate that upward to leadership.

Do not pressure your team into doing something you know is wrong because it will spiral out of control fast. Make sure you understand what is happening on a technical level with your product. If a trade off “magically” gets resolved, you should be suspicious.

Executives: Winning is awesome and every organization needs to hustle to get ahead, but balance your ambitions with a long-term approach. Don’t use fear or punishment to manage, don’t turn a blind eye to potentially sketchy behavior, and don’t reward teams who cut corners but get results. Cheating can get you to the top, but you will get caught and everyone else in your industry will love seeing you fall from grace.

The Biggest Challenge With Building Products is Uncertainty

I was recently asked to share my views on three questions around product management for the UsabilityTools blog. My answers are now published along with thoughts from 46 other product managers and I thought I’d share my response here as well.

The questions were good ones and were worth thinking about. In general, I’ve found that building new things is all about creating clarity and alignment and dealing with the uncertainty.

What is the most important quality a good product manager should have?

The ability to think across disciplines and both understand and communicate needs + priorities between business, technology, design, research, users and other stakeholders.

What was (or is) the biggest challenge you were facing and what you have learned from it?

The ultimate challenge of building products is that it is hard to know what will work. You can have an incredibly well engineered, beautiful, and user centered product and it can still fail. Running a good process is how you steady a team’s morale – keeping it up when things don’t work, and not getting cocky when it succeeds wildly.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your and your team’s work?

The most important measure of productivity is time my team spends working in alignment, with a clear understanding of expectation and goals, on efforts they believe will have major positive impact.

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The 10x Job Application: What You Do When You Really Want the Gig

We talk a lot about the war for talent: the idea that organizations need to fight to recruit, retain, and grow great people. Harvard Business Review recently put it this way:

“Finding and nurturing ambitious, hard-driving, and international-minded managers and technical staff are major challenges for multinationals and will become ever more crucial. HR operations at many companies have traditionally been seen in terms of compliance, record keeping, and support. But as talent shortages grow more acute in idea-intensive industries, human capital management should become a much higher strategic priority.”

— The Future and How to Survive It (HBR October 2015)

But one of the biggest challenges in the war for talent is identifying who those top performers are.

Evaluating Talent

In creative fields such as interaction design or journalism, and technical fields such as backend or iOS development, there are reliable ways to evaluate core abilities. While imperfect, portfolio reviews, freelance work, code challenges, and open-source software contributions do allow hiring managers a window into a candidate’s ability.

But the vast majority of fields do not lend themselves to these types of evaluations and thus most hires are made based on resume highlights and a candidate’s ability to talk about stuff they’ve done.

This is inefficient at best, and counterproductive at worst.

When I think about some of the best people I’ve worked with, it wasn’t their degree, their previous employer, or their ability to generate articulate work-related stories on the fly that made them effective. It was their creativity, their attention to detail, their initiative, and their drive that set them apart.

For most ambitious people, finding a place where they can do great, interesting work, be recognized for their contributions, learn, grow, collaborate with good people, and make a meaningful impact (however they define it), is a crucial aspect to their general happiness and well-being.

So while organizations are indeed struggling to hire the top 1% of candidates, the best companies also get scores of job candidates coming through the door that they are trying to filter.

How do you stand out as a great candidate?

You do a 10x Job Application.

Breaking Down the 10x Job Application

A 10x Job Application is where you go way above and beyond the required elements of a typical job application (eg resume + cover letter). The goal is to demonstrate your commitment to the organization, your resourcefulness, and your ability to create something tangible, useful, and unique. This offering breaks hiring managers out of their daze of sifting through resumes, and gets them sitting up saying “Wow!”

It’s basically a demo of your work product. It should show off your personality, convey your understanding of the organization’s needs and styles, and convince them that you have the skills to get the job done and the initiative to make things happen.

This is probably easier shown than explained. So here are some of examples.

Examples of 10x Job Applications

Many of these examples come from my own experience because I know the full story and have details to share. But there are tons of others out there as well.

Airbnb

True story: I applied to work at Airbnb in a community support role in 2009. I didn’t have much experience, but I made this deck to go along with my resume and interviewed on the roof their office on Rausch street. I didn’t get the job (they decided they were looking for someone more senior) but got the nicest rejection letter ever. However, Mashable does report that one of Airbnb’s marketing directors stood out by illustrating a 2 page comic book about his interest in the company, while another developer was flown in within 12 hours of submitting a redesign of the Airbnb.com homepage and hired the next day.

Ridejoy

Margot Leong, our community manager and first hire at Ridejoy, blew all of us away when she made a 4 minute long video slideshow explaining why she would be perfect for the role, making jokes about our hair and referencing her experiences in travel, marketing, and building community. Margot, if you’re reading this, sorry to put your stuff on blast but hey, I put my even more lame 2009 deck up there so we’re even. =)

“It took two weeks to research Ridejoy extensively, conceptualize and then create the presentation. It sounds cliche, but I really did enter into the application process with a ‘go big or go home’ mentality, with the understanding that if it didn’t work out, I still learned a lot in the process,” says Leong. 

We still put her through a serious interview and even subjected her to a weekend work session (I can’t believe she didn’t just laugh at this point) and ultimately hired her. She killed it, and continues to kill it today at Gusto (formerly Zenpayroll).

Presidential Innovation Fellowship

When I was applying to work as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, I was gunning for a role at the Small Business Administration on a project called RFP-EZ. I built a site: selltothefortune1.com (now down) and even made a marketing video / screencast promoting the site to an audience of small business vendors.

While I didn’t get that particular assignment, I used Wistia to see that people from the network [Executive Office of the President] viewed the video multiple times so I know it made an impression 😎. Ultimately I was selected I got a wonderful experience as a PIF at the Smithsonian.

Microsoft

In 2012, Andrew Kim, a 3rd year student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena had an assignment: redesign the popsicle stick in three days. He was asked to think outside the box. On the day of the presentation, he showed his professor and his classmates not some new frozen treat, but a stunning and bold redesign of the Microsoft logo. He posted the entire concept on his blog, which then got picked up by many news outlets, including FastCompany.

The result? His inbox was inundated with job offers and he ultimately accepted a role at, where else, Microsoft, working on a secret project for Xbox.

Percolate

When I was interviewing at Percolate, I put together a PDF outlining a multi-phase marketing campaign around generating leads, drip email campaigns, ad units, blog as publication, and ultimately a conference. I designed the PDF to look similar to the company’s own branding and pre-existing style on their white papers, and focused on actionable steps that made sense for the company as it grew. We ultimately implemented many of those ideas (not that they were ground-breaking, but still nice to be right) and obviously I got the job.

Ideo.org

When one of my friends was interviewing at Ideo.org for lead a new kind of incubator for social enterprises, she decided to do her own 10x job application. She interviewed a dozen folks, from startup founders who had gone through accelerators, social venture fellowship winners, venture capitalists, and grant makers and built out a deck full of ideas and considerations about scaling the ideation -> launch process. Her plan worked, and she heard back from Ideo, but ultimately chose to join another firm instead.

Etsy

Finally, when I was applying to work as a product manager at Etsy, I wanted to show that I both had good product sense and a bit of technical and design chops. I read a bunch of articles on Etsy (including their S-1), put together a website called Powered By Sellers, used a material design framework called MUI, ran a SWOT analysis on Etsy, generated personas, and described some product ideas that might come out of those personas. One of those ideas, “build a manufacturing network”, has since become a real thing: Etsy Manufacturing. The project was a blast and got my brain really geared into the world of Etsy. I got the gig and months later, SVP of Product Mike Grishaver still remembered things I had put in the site.

Birchbox

After reading my post, my coworker at Percolate Barbara Sellmeyer wrote me with a really great story of her own job application:

“When I was interviewing for Percolate, I also had my eyes set on Birchbox. I sent through an application, but after learning more about their company and the ladies who run it, I felt they were anything but ordinary. So I made my own Birchbox – the BarbaraBox – and had it hand delivered to the CEO’s. My roomate is an art director so made the logo in their font. My box mirrored the set up of theirs – it had a card on top explaining the contents – basically a sample of my resume. Inside I had sample size bottles with stickers on it that had parts of my resume, recommendations, and fun facts.” – Barbie

The box got the attention of the CEO and she reached out to Barbie right away. After starting the interview process, Barbie discovered that the opportunity wasn’t exactly the best fit and she ultimately took a role at Percolate instead. Still, it’s a great example of how a 10x Job App can rocket a candidate all the way up to the top of an organization.

Doing Your Own 10x Job Application

A couple of final considerations:

  • Doing a 10x Job App takes a lot more time and effort and forces you to focus on the opportunity you’re most excited about
  • Make sure to focus the project not on (just) yourself, but on how you can make a great contribution to the organization you’re applying to
  • Get out of the building! Do your homework and push yourself to really understand the organization as best you can
  • Everyone can be creative. If you aren’t a designer, making a powerpoint, a spreadsheet, a roadmap, or just a really well-done piece of writing can be powerful
  • Have fun with it!

The Rise and Fall of Product Lines

The natural lifecycle of a product from birth to growth to decay

I’ve noticed a pattern when it comes to the growth of certain popular products — both physical and media [1]. The pattern looks like this:

Company Develops a Breakthrough Product

A unique product hits the market. It looks or operates in a way that feels distinct in an important way. It’s aggressively different from other things on the market.

  • iPod: bigger, heavier and more expensive than the tiny mp3 players on the market, but has a solid battery life and a massive amount of storage
  • Vibrams: shoes that look like gorilla feet, but some people swear it gets rid of their knee pain / plantar fasciitis
  • Marvel’s X-Men: a fictional team of superheros who are ordinary people with mutant abilities – depicted in comic books, tv shows, video games and movies

Product Gets Popular

Sometimes it launches to immediate success (iPod). Sometimes it sits around for a while before exploding (Vibrams). Sometimes it just takes years of steady growth in niche markets, until it eventually reaches mainstream (X-Men).

People are buying them off the shelves. Word of mouth is massive. Some people complain that it doesn’t work for them (too heavy, fit is too tight, want to see new heros/different storylines)

Company Expands Product Line

In a desire to grow sales, serve more customer segments and capture more market share, they start making a variety of versions of the product.

Apple expanded into different colors, and release smaller iPod nano, iPod shuffle products that are much more similar to the competitive Creative MuVo. Of course, eventually, Apple launches “widescreen iPod and breakthrough internet communication device” aka the iPhone.

As someone who bought my first pair of Vibrams four years ago, I’m a little overwhelmed by all the options there are today (here’s a screen grab of some of the shoes on Zappos). Most have a lot more cushion and padding than the earlier models.

Marvel dramatically expanded the X-Men franchise over the years, growing to a mind boggling number of different storylines, characters, spinoffs, and alternate timelines. In 1995 we had:

  • X-Men
  • X-Men Alpha
  • Generation Next
  • Astonishing X-Men
  • X-Calibre
  • Gambit & The X-Ternals
  • Weapon X
  • Amazing X-Men
  • Factor X
  • X-Man
  • X-Men Omega
  • Onslaught X-Men
  • X-Factor
  • Uncanny X-Men
  • Wolverine

Growth Stalls Due to Expanded Product Line

Probably the most contentious and hardest prove part of this pattern is that I think the product sprawl really starts to confuse consumers. But I think it’s what happens in the long run.

All things considered, Apple has done a pretty good job of prioritizing their products (by having a flagship in front of everything else). But there are multiple iPhones and iPods to choose from today (in addition to iPads, Apple Watches, etc) and it can still be pretty confusing for consumers.

If I want people to try Vibrams, I have no idea what the right model to recommend. There are hiking, casual, running, crosstraining, and who knows what other type. I can’t say for sure that confusion is causing sales declines but things are not going so well for the business, at least from a mindshare perspective.


And as for Marvel, we think of them as a juggernaut today, but as reported in Vulture, the comic book industry was struggling massively, shrinking more than 70% down to a meager $270 million in sales in 1999 (from 1B in 1993)

Marvel especially was feeling the burn: It went through a humiliating Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the late ’90s, saw wave after wave of layoffs, and executive leadership was shuffled every few weeks. In 1999, after years of comics-publishing dominance, the company lost its top spot in industry market share and watched its rival, DC Comics, take the throne.

Company Has to Clean House or Reboot

As I mentioned, I think Apple is doing a pretty good job so far. But if we rewind the clock back to 1998, when Steve Jobs first took over as interim CEO, he famously cut 95% of the product line because it was so bloated. And when the new CEO of Nike called Jobs for advice, he was told to “get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff”.

I really hope Vibrams does a house cleaning. I feel like they could cut down to 3 lines: a running line that’s got more foam, a thicker heavier shoe for hiking, trail runs, warmth, and finally a casual, walking, crosstraining, “beginner’s” shoe. Each could have regular and wide versions. It would make it easier to buy, and focus the team on making products that cover the major types of uses for Vibrams.

Marvel has probably the best story of cleaning house. They started with a reboot actually of Spiderman, starting the story over in 2000 with modern storylines, an emerging artist and writer team, and a teenage Peter Parker. They called it Ultimate Spiderman and it showed great promise. With that success came Ultimate X-Men, reverting the mutants back to angsty teens full of modern-day slang who need the guidance of a younger Professor Xavier. It was a hit.

Finally, in December, the buzz paid off and Ultimate Marvel hit the top of the comics sales charts. But it wasn’t with Ultimate Spider-Man. The first megahit Ultimate comic was the first issue of Ultimate X-Men, which sold a staggering 117,085 copies that month.

Of course, this set things up for Ultimate Avengers: the first issue of The Ultimates was the best-selling comic of the year, and the series basically became the playbook for Joss Whedon directed film years later.

The Ultimate experiment, the reboot, rescued Marvel from near death.

Concluding Thoughts

So what does all this mean? I think in general, it’s the problem with success: a simple product is clear, compelling, differentiated, and gets great initial uptick in the market. But as growth slows, there’s temptation to accommodate more needs, add more features, reach more customer segments. And that creates confusion, reduces the efficiency of creation / iteration, and increases the amount of upkeep needed to maintain.

People tend to be more comfortable adding things and making new things than they are to cut / edit things. So it’s easier to greenlight a new project than it is to shut down something. It may take a crisis or a big shift in management to generate the political will to reboot or clean house. But that’s a necessary thing to do.

Ultimately, recognizing the balance between focus, customization, and growth is an important thing for product managers, GM’s, and designers to recognize. Successful products will spawn all sorts of new activity, and result in expanded product lines, but the best creators know that they will eventually need to clear out too.

In other words, products are like redwood forests: they sometimes need a fire to keep growing.

Footnotes

[1] My caveat is that I think digital products are more resistant to this since you can personalize the experience much more for users and hide things that are not relevant. But it’s like a factor that’s <1 in front of the equation, slows but does not stop the effect from still taking place. Software clutter is real.

First Impressions at Etsy

The vibes I’m getting from the new gig

Since first publishing this post in October, our team has shipped the first product I had a hand in (in November). It’s called Shop Updates. You can read more about how the product came to be from this blog post by Nickey, our Group Product Manager.

It’s been about two months since I started at Etsy as a product manager on the Seller Experience team. I strongly believe that first impressions fade quickly so it’s important to try to capture them in the moment. I won’t be talking about product management at Etsy but more broadly how the company culture has felt for a new employee like me.

Staff = Admin. We often use the term admin to refer to the people who work at Etsy. This terminology comes from the fact that Etsy started as a community website for crafters which had (and still has) a strong forum presence.

Many people who worked at Etsy were also Etsy users, and to be transparent about who worked there, their avatars had a badge that said “admin” on it. While the term “admin” is typically reserved for specific people in a forum that have special powers to manage the conversation, the users of Etsy took to calling anyone who worked there an “admin”, and that nomenclature continues on. You see references to “Etsy admin” as in: “Let’s make sure the new nav bar feature is admin only” or the Hack Day game where you try to learn people’s names called Guess that Admin.

Say Cheese. I’m not sure how long they’ve had the photo booth, but it’s become a very standard look for admin to use their photo booth photo(s) as their avatar. With a black background, a strong flash, and a slightly washed out color palette, it’s pretty distinct. You can see mine up top.

Deeply technical. Because Etsy is all about being crafty and celebrating homemade things, it’s understandable that you might think their team is not super technical. That’d be a mistake. Inside the tech industry, Etsy is well respected for their engineering chops, including the things they share at talks and on Code as Craft. Designers and PM’s can deploy directly to production — I’ve had a chance to push code, not just a my mug shot as depicted in the pull request there, but also more substantial updates. Beyond just being full stack, many web developers have gone through a six week full-time training to learn iOS or Android app development. That’s pretty hardcore.

The three armed sweater. Etsy’s culture is really about embracing mistakes and learning from them, rather than shunning or blaming the person involved. At some point, we commissioned an Etsy seller to knit a three armed sweater, which hangs in the office andon the 404, to commemorate this idea. The three-armed sweater award is given each year to the individual or team who breaks the site in the most spectacular fashion.

It’s not your fault. Getting into the philosophy behind the three armed sweater, Etsy CTO John Allspaw wrote a blog post in 2012 about how shaming people who make mistakes basically guarantees that the mistake will happen again, either by that person or someone else in a similar role. Successful organizations operating in complex situations must create an open environment where mistakes studied, explored, understood, and addressed at a structural/systematic level. In just a month. I’ve already witnessed two product post mortems go down in different parts of the company, always with a eye to understanding, not blaming, and seeking to improve things in the future. After an incident at lunch (aka Eatsy), the team involved announced that they’d be holding a post-mortem of their own.

Posters. It’s like you’ve returned to dorm life. Posters everywhere. Some jokes. Some announcements. Some well-designed. Some ludicrously absurd.

Punsy. People love making puns out of our name. Eatsy, the twice-weekly catered lunch. Sweatsy, the group of admin who would do crossfit workouts every week. Stalesy, the warning that appears on the top of wiki pages that are more than a year old. Etski, the (retired) company retreat that would presumably happen at a ski lodge each year. Netsy, the casual basketball league / team. The Etsytorium, the large room where we hold big meetings. Etsyversairies – where we celebrate admin tenure milestones.

 Slack’s Great Grandpa. I love that we go old school with IRC over Hipchat or Slack. There’s a bot called irccat that does all kinds of things, from JIRA push notifications, to relaying the results (success/fail) of a test push on a virtual machine, to remembering quotes or GIF’s of staff members. Our team has a pretty chatty channel, with pull requests and product conversations getting interspersed between jokes, videos, and emoji.

Roll Your Own Everything. We’re really into building our own tools at Etsy with cool names. From our dashboard (Balderdash) to our data querying system (Superbit) to our internal tools platform (Atlas) to our own IRC client (Ftrain). We also own our own metal (aka servers), and you can visit the Etsy data warehouse. There are of course pros and cons to taking on all of this work internally, but I think what matters for this post is understanding that building it ourselves is very much the Etsy way.

Sustainability is Serious Business™. We have four different types of trash: metal/plastic, paper, landfill, and compost. We bike our own compost to Red Hook farm. We tear up the paper bowls we get from Eatsy into quarters because it makes the composting more efficient. There are probably a dozen different teams that work on issues like carbon neutral commuting, sustainable manufacturing, work-life balance, and more, which together from Etsy’s Sustainability Commission.

A Reply-All Culture. I first saw this on a pack of stickers but it’s pretty true. We err on the side of including more people in the conversation rather than less. The point isn’t to annoy people with unnecessary information, but to genuinely show that we aren’t looking to cut anyone out, and to ensure that knowledge is shared more broadly across the organization (more redundancies == lower chance of things falling through cracks)

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of silly email. There’s a “chatter” email thread that anyone can post to about basically anything, and one time a guy posted a video with the subject line “Cone me”, which was just a GIF of a cat throwing cones at a person. 4 days and 63 reply-alls later, you’ve got a ridiculous thread of every possible interpretation of “cone”. From the Coneheads to pine cones to snow cones to my own contribution, a Zen koan, it was clear that people were having a lot of fun with the thread.

I see you. Transparency is a big deal at Etsy. When I go to Etsy.com on my work laptop, there’s an admin toolbar where I can get stats on what page type I’m looking at and how many people hit that page per day. I see what experiments are running on the site. I can watch the videos from the past “Y’all Hands” (ie company wide meetings). The company’s wiki is chock full of documents, plans, schedules, and ideas across different teams within the comapny. It’s an amazing amount of transparency and trust that the people here will do the right thing with the data and use it to make the product and community better.

Hands on. Working here has made me want to do more things with my hands. Lots of admin are Etsy sellers, or have interesting hobbies that don’t necessarily involve computers. Also, as a PM working to build products for sellers who typically make physical goods to sell on Etsy, I’m finding myself drawn toward creative pursuits that are material in nature. I’ve done some painting, and have been trying my hand at hollow books.

That’s a quick look at some of the interesting cultural elements and vibes I’ve gotten in the eight weeks I’ve been at Etsy. It really reminds me of grown-up version of Columbae, the co-op house I would hang out at as a grad student at Stanford. In general, the people are friendly, quirky, laid-back, optimistic, helpful, silly, and really good at what they do.

Bonus: a set of stickers you get on your first day. Interesting mix of metaphors and descriptions for Etsy. My favorites include: Etys is relationship material. Etsy gives you the last stick of gum. Etsy takes composting very seriously.

Six Blistering Bodyweight Workouts You Can Do in Under 30 Mins

No time? No problem

One of the biggest reasons why people say they don’t exercise is because they don’t have time. Of course, we all have the same amount of time, and there are plenty of really busy people who work out despite having many other things to do. I trained for and ran the SF Marathon while doing Ridejoy, and have written about the benefits of physical activity for entrepreneurs.

But I also understand that the best way to build a new habit is to make something dead simple — so you can put all your mental resources in pushing yourself during the workout, rather than in thinking of what you should do. So I’ve compiled six workouts you can do any time. No more excuses about not having the time or equipment to workout.

Here’s the deal with these workouts:

  • They’re short. Including warmup and cooldown, they should take less than 30 mins.
  • They’re (almost) equipment free: You just need a small clean(ish) space on the floor to do these workouts
  • They’re total body. You burn more calories when you work your whole body at once, and I think it’s a more satisfying experience.
  • They incorporate strength training with cardio. Unlike spending 45 mins on elliptical or just doing pushups, these workouts train across your systems.
  • They’ve got variety: our brains our novelty-seeking instruments and there’s lots of variety in these workouts to keep you engaged.
  • They work for all levels.. These workouts are scalable, which doesn’t mean that they can handle ten thousand requests per second, but that they can be made harder or easier depending on how fit you are.
  • They’re tested. I ran through these workouts earlier this year during Wellness Month at Percolate. We had about a dozen people at every workout, and the program got rave reviews, including from co-founder James Gross:

The Program

Each of my workouts were organized in a similar way – there was a brief warmup phase that typically involved jogging in place, some arm circles and whatever else you might need. I don’t think it’s critical to spend a massive amount of time warming up if you aren’t going do lift super heavy weights or do something that requires massive strain.

Then we would do the light workout, which took about 3 minutes (and also sort of acts like an additional “warm up”)

Finally, we would complete the heavy workout, which was the key piece of the program. This would take up to 10 minutes and was meant to be especially challenging, pushing both the muscular and aerobic capacities.

Minutes 0-5: Warm Up
Minutes 6-10: Light Workout
Minutes 11-25: Heavy Workout
Minutes 26-30: Cool down / Stretch

The Workouts

Because I work in tech, I’ve decided to give each of these workouts a internet/computer related name.

  1. Port 80
  2. Pull Request
  3. Migration
  4. End Point
  5. Virtual Machine
  6. Client Server

Workout 1: Port 80

Light Segment: go all-out for 30 seconds on each movement

  • Jumping Jacks
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Rest (break)
  • High Knees (running in place)
  • Plank

Heavy Segment: Two rounds of Tabata – 8 rounds of 20 seconds going all out, 10 seconds rest.

Tabata 1: Rotate through all exercises 2x

  • Lunges
  • Pushup Rotation
  • Speed Skater
  • Plank to Pushups

2 mins rest

Tabata 2: Switch between these two exercises 4x

  • Burpees
  • Jump rope

Workout 2: Pull Request

Light Segment: go all-out for 30 seconds on each movement

  • Shoulder Taps in Push-Up Position
  • Air Squats
  • Rest (Break)
  • Punches (Shadow Boxing)
  • Wall Sit

Heavy Segment: two rounds of the Tabata protocol

Tabata 1: Rotate through all exercises 2x

  • Fast Feet (Step forward / back in a 1-2, 3-4 pattern)
  • Dancing Crab (On all fours with torso facing up, touch left hand to right toe, then alternate)
  • Knees (Pulling both arms down and thrusting a single knee up, then alternate)
  • Spiderman Pushups (bring one knee up to your side as you dip into the pushup, bring it back as you push up, alternate)

2 mins rest

Tabata 2: Rotate through the exercises 4x

  • Deep squat to high jump
  • Mountain Climbers

Workout 3: Migration

Light Segment: go all-out for 30 seconds on each movement

  • Jab, Jab-Cross, Jab-Cross-Hook
  • Slips
  • Rest
  • Jab-Cross-Slip
  • Jump Rope (if no actual jump rope, you can imagine one)

Heavy Segment: 7 rounds of Crazy One Minute Cardio (1 min on, 20s rest

  • Burpee
  • Tuck Jump
  • 4 Jumping Lunges (Switching)
  • 4 Mountain Climbers

Workout 4: End Point

Light Segment: go all-out for 30 seconds on each movement

  • High knees
  • Squat hold
  • Break
  • Shoulder taps
  • Plank

Heavy Segment: Another Tabata Protocol. (8x 1min on, 20s off). You’ll repeat the exercises 2x, then rest 2 mins, then do the whole thing again.

  • Burpee no push-up
  • Jump forward – jump back
  • Push up one knee in, push-up other knee in
  • 4 jumping jacks

Workout 5: Virtual Machine

Light Segment: 8 rounds of the following

  • 10 Jumping Jacks
  • 10 Punches

Heavy Segment: I nicknamed this adorable portion the “300 Routine”. Complete 3 rounds of the following:

  • 20 Mountain Climbers (both legs = 1 rep)
  • 20 High Knees (both knees = 1 rep)
  • 20 Shoulder Taps (both shoulders = 1 rep)
  • 20 Squat Jumps
  • 2x 10 Side Plank Crunches

Workout 6: Client Server

Light Workout: go all-out for 30 seconds on each movement

  • 30s knees
  • 30s 1-2, 3-4
  • 30s break
  • 30s pushup with rotation
  • 30s imaginary ball throws

Heavy Segment: Ideally this is done with a partner, but you can do it alone if you need to:

  • Step 1: Set a timer for 45 seconds and do as many burpees as you can (with no pushup)
  • Step 2: 10 rounds of burpees for 30 seconds. Cheer on and count for your partner – they must not go below the number they set in the 45 second timer. If you’re doing it by yourself, same thing, but don’t rest for more than 30 seconds between sets.

Goodbye Percolate, Hello Etsy

Leaving Percolate and Joining Etsy

I joined Percolate in March of 2014 as the 100th employee at the company (today: 250+). Back then, we were all piled into a single floor of our NY office in SoHo. We’ve grown tremendously, raising two rounds of funding, opening offices around the world, and delivering The System of Record for global Fortune 500 brands like Unilever and GE.

But in the next chapter of my career in product management, it is time to say goodbye to Percolate, and hello to Etsy.

I bought my first item on Etsy eight years ago, as a Christmas gift to my college sweetheart, Olivia. It was a thin silver cuff bracelet with a custom quote stamped onto it: “Expect happy endings”. I bought it from a woman in Savannah, GA named Kathryn Reichert. Her store has gone on to complete over 19,000 orders and is rated 5 stars out of 6,485 reviews. Similarly, Etsy has grown into a global marketplace that did just under $2 billion in marketplace transactions in 2014, across 20M buyers and 1.4M active sellers.

After I finished up the Presidential Innovation Fellowship in DC and before moving to NYC, I took a trip to Peru. In between sightseeing and eating all the ceviche I could get my hands on, I read Product Design for the Web by Randy Hunt, Etsy’s VP of Design. I thought it was really good and interviewed him on this blog in January of 2014. After the interview, Randy connected me with Nickey Skarstad, then a senior product manager at Etsy. We meant to meet up for coffee but coordinating between our busy schedules proved to be difficult as I jumped aboard the Percolate rocketship.

A year-and-a-half later, we finally caught up. It turns out she had been promoted to group product manager, overseeing two teams and was looking for someone to fill her role on the Shop Management team. The team builds tools for store owners to make it easier for them to manage their business, and develops additional features and services that could potentially generate revenue for Etsy.

It sounded like a meaty product challenge, and I was intrigued. After meeting more of the team at Etsy, I was struck by their passion for Etsy’s community marketplace (an idea near and dear to my heart) and their exciting ideas for the future. I realized that this had to be next step in my career.

I want to thank James Gross and Noah Brier for their leadership and vision at Percolate. I got to work across a number of areas, from blog editorialwhitepaperswebinarsproprietary researchbrand films, and product management on our sales demo. Working with some of the best people in the industry, we shipped lots of awesome work, and I learned tons about enterprise software. It was an amazing ride, and I’m proud to cheer Percolate on as an alum. We’re well on our way towards transform Marketing the way Salesforce transformed Sales.

I’m psyched take on this new product challenge at Etsy, a company that is reimagining commerce and creating a more human marketplace that operates both locally and globally. As a public benefit corporation that is now listed on NASDAQ, they’ve demonstrated incredible commitment to their buyers, sellers, and employees even as they look to grow their business financially. Everyone I have met so far has been welcoming, smart, and interesting. I know I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m ready to bring everything I’ve got (I start on Tuesday!) and help make life easier for the one-and-a-half million shop owners on Etsy (80% of whom are women).

I’ll be based in Dumbo, Brooklyn so if you’re in the area, come say hi. And if you run an Etsy shop (active or dormant), I’d love to chat with you. My business is making your business better.

Thanks to Bilal Mahmood for reviewing earlier versions of this post and Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya for art direction on the cover image.

The Extraordinary Power of Self-Reflection

I recently stumbled across an old document on my laptop. It was a PDF with journal entries from several years ago. While many of the entries were typical day-to-day activities, I also found about 100 short lessons that I had captured during this journaling period and I shared a few on Twitter.

Some of them were very specific:

As a panel moderator, you are the advocate for the audience – don’t just suck up to the big shots.

— Jason Shen (@JasonShen) July 16, 2015

Others were more generally applicable:

A few gems: If you don’t set clear expectations about what you want from someone’s behavior, you can’t get upset by the lackluster results.

— Jason Shen (@JasonShen) July 16, 2015

Some were perhaps a little judgemental:

Mediocre performers are much less methodical in training, not open to change, and always have excuses for bad behavior.

— Jason Shen (@JasonShen) July 16, 2015

And some could be considered arcane:

You have as many options as you allow yourself to have.

— Jason Shen (@JasonShen) July 16, 2015

Most of the lessons were based on conversations or experience that had happened in the days leading up to my journaling, and sometimes I wrote down the context for the lesson (for instance, the one on mediocre performers was based on working out with the men’s gymnastics team at the University of Nebraska, no offense to any Cornhuskers out there).

I remember starting this journaling exercise because I had read Howard Gardner’s book Extraordinary Minds. Gardner is the Harvard professor of education well-known for theory of multiple intelligences. Written towards the end of his career, this book focused on four different types of “extraordinary” minds, each exemplified by a particular figure, who is the archetype for that theme.

The Master (Mozart) who dominates a field
The Maker (Freud) who creates a new discipline
The Introspector (Woolf) who explores and shares their inner world
The Influencer (Gandhi) who leads movements

What I really took away from the book was Gardner’s observations around what these extraordinary minds have in common. What he saw were three things:

  • Reflecting: they spent a great deal of time reflecting on where they had been and where they wanted to go, revising their plans
  • Leveraging: they were able to identify what their unique strengths and talents were, and play to those, while preventing their weaknesses from holding them back
  • Framing: no matter what happened to them, they were able to find something useful, something valuable from the experience. They turned their failures into lessons and sources of strength

For some reason I stopped this journaling exercise, which is too bad because I really enjoyed looking through them again. I’m trying to get back into it as I am reminded of the value. Do you journal? What do you get out of it?

Why Being Real Matters

Where “fake it till you make it” falls down

There’s a great article on TechCrunch by Danny Crichton called Startups and The Big Lie.

Crichton, who is a former colleague back in my days at The Stanford Daily, has a great line about how startups “run on an alchemy of ignorance and amnesia that is incredibly important to experimentation” and that entrepreneurs essentially have to lie a lot of the time about how things are going.

The Relentless Push to Be Positive

It’s very popular to lament the fact that founders are always saying their startup is “crushing it” and growth is through the roof. But most of those people don’t have startups of their own, because otherwise they’d understand the pressure to make it seem like everything is awesome. No one wants to invest in, work at, or buy from a company that is struggling. This is also true for people: no one wants to hang out, work with, or date a negative person or a whiner.

But that kind of talk comes at a psychic cost, and is why nearly a third of founders struggle with depression and/or anxiety problems. The typical point here is that you need to build a support network of friends and family who you can be open with and who won’t judge you for your lack of success.

But I want to make a broader point – one that applies not just to founders, but anyone really. The point is this: being vulnerable and honest about your struggles is important not just to get things off your chest, but because it creates deeper connections.

Real Relationships Come from Being Real

At the end of the day, no one is perfectly happy with their lives. Everyone has insecurities and struggles, and if when they interact with you, they only hear the good stuff, then they are less likely to talk about themselves, especially if they’re perhaps less outwardly confident or have external indicators of success to point to.

By opening up and talking about the things that worry you or are not going well, you allow the other person to bring down their guard, and both of you can form a better relationship. I have a few very close high school friends and I remember the moments that brought us closer together were when we were talking about girls we liked, which for a 15 year old guy, probably the scariest and most vulnerable thing you could talk about.

More recently, I’ve been going through several difficulties in my own life. I send out a quarterly newsletter to friends and family and included a very honest and un-sugarcoated version of what happened. What surprised me is how many people then reached out to tell me they were there for me and that they cared. Typically the newsletter gets a few responses, but this time, I probably had 2 or 3x as many people writing back. I was touched, and I was reminded how important it is to just be real.

The Power of Vulnerability

University of Houston professor Brene Brown gave a popular TED talk on the topic of vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. She argues that being vulnerable is both the “core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness” but also the “birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging.” To some degree, a lot of the bravado around startups, and our ambitions to achieve in our careers, or look good, or be popular, are around want to feel accepted, to fit in and to feel worthy.

The talk is interesting, funny, and convincing and Brown went on to publish a book on the same topic that I’ve heard good things about: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

At the end of the day, there are of course times when we want to be prudent about what we’re sharing. Things that we say can be used against us, and our goal isn’t to go around spilling our deepest darkest secret to total strangers. But don’t underestimate the power of disclosure, of being open about difficulties. It helps you accept your own situation for what it is, engender trust and good will, and builds real relationships.