Be a Great Reader

When an organization has a culture where the written word is valued, being a great reader is just as important as being a great writer. In my time at Amazon, I’ve learned (more like it was beaten into me) to have a very high-bar for my own writing. I wrote a little about this in my post Details Matter. I’ve also learned the importance of being a great reader, and that’s the topic of this post.

In the latest Amazon Shareholder letter Jeff Bezos wrote more about Amazon’s famous ‘six-page narratives’. He used the process of writing a great narrative as an example of what it means to have relentlessly high-standards.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.”

– Jeff Bezos, Amazon 2017 Annual Letter

The “narratively structured six-page” mechanism at Amazon is not about the document itself. Instead the ‘six-page memo’ mechanism creates a virtuous cycle that results in ever-increasing clarity of thought. The major components of that cycle are great writing, great meetings (“study hall”), and great reading.

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It turns out that not everyone is a great reader (including those like me who have always read a lot)! Great reading is a skill that requires focus and training.

Understanding is key

I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.

– Isaac Asimov

I finish novels in a fraction of the time it takes most people because I learned as a kid how to skim and cluster (two of the primary techniques used in speed reading). For novels this is fine. But for Amazon-style narratives and technical papers speed reading is bad. Understanding is key. I had to train myself to slow down and focus on understanding to be a valuable participant in document reviews at Amazon. I am still working on it.

Learn how to understand first, then apply skills for efficiency. I see two modes to reading: Novel mode and study mode. These modes are related only because they both involve eyes seeing words on a page; otherwise they are diametrically different. In reading a novel, efficiency is key so skimming the boring bits is fine. Inventing character or plot details that were glossed over will not ruin the story.

But for narratives every word, every element of grammar, every punctuation mark, and every number were carefully chosen by the writer. Thus understanding is key. Skimming and clustering are anti-patterns to reading narratives well because if any detail is missed, the entire point of the memo may be missed.

I’ve become a better reader by training myself to be an active reader. Active reading means being 100% focused on the document at hand and scrutinizing every word, every punctuation mark, and every bit of formatting. It means checking the math. It means reading slowly and pausing regularly (like every time there’s a period indicating the end of a sentence or whitespace indicating a paragraph break!) to think critically about what the writer wrote. Great active readers can identify omitted “obvious” details the writer left out, but others miss.

Contrast this to passive reading, which is when the point is just to be entertained.

Tips for Being a Great Reader

  • Be an active reader.
  • Have a pen in hand. Use it. I find having a pen in hand when I start reading helps put me in Active Reader Mode.
  • Pause on numbers and do the math yourself. Don’t trust any number. If a number seems hyperbolic, find the place in the doc where it was justified.
  • Pause after each sentence or paragraph and restate it in your head. Pausing between paragraphs allows the brain to digest details and make connections.
  • Stop if you find yourself reverting to speed reading. Go back and read what you skimmed again.
  • Don’t let document author cajole you into hurrying up. If they made the doc too long, or so confusing that you’ve had to re-read parts of it, that’s not your problem. Insist they give you more time.
  • Hold the writer to a high standard. If the doc is confusing, say so. If, after reading, you are hungry for more details on something, insist on more details. Writing, reading, and the review meetings are part of a complete mechanism that is intended to give everyone involved clarity of thought on a topic. There is nothing wrong with going through a loop multiple times, and until the topic is presented as simply and clearly as possible, your job as a reader is to help the writer come back next time with an even better version.

What tips and techniques have you learned for being a better reader?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO)

Sometime near the end of the last century, J Allard coined the term BXT at Microsoft. As Robbie Bach notes in his book Xbox Revisited:

BXT = Business + eXperience + Technology

I used the BXT mental model for many years to get clarity on organizing product teams, hiring leaders, and mentoring on careers. However, several things about the BXT model always annoyed me.

  1. I always hated that B (Business) came first. The Customer ALWAYS comes first, not the Business (or Technology).
  2. While the “X” was cute and sexy in an Xbox sort-of-way, the word “experience” failed to capture the most important thing: The Customer. Building experiences is not the end, but a means to the end.
  3. It didn’t factor in another critical dimension of building great stuff for customers: All of the things around the people who build and how they are organized.

I eventually came up with a framework that addressed all of these issues. I call it CBTO. The name is certainly not as sexy sounding as BXT, but it is still easy to remember.

CBTO

CBTO = Customer + Business + Technology + Organization.

Customer

Who is the customer? How do we segment customers? How many customers are there? What do customers want? What pain do customers currently feel? What is the customer experience we are working backwards from?

Everyone in the organization needs to take this perspective, but generally folks who consider themselves Product Managers and UX Designers tend to index very highly on this perspective.

Business

Why are we doing this? Is there a new strategy, or does what we are doing accrue to an existing strategy? Is there money to be made? If so how much and when? What deals do we need to make to deliver the customer experience? What our our inputs and outputs for the business? How do we measure success?

This is typically the perspective where folks with business backgrounds (e.g. MBAs) are the strongest.

Technology

How are we going to execute? What do we need to invent to make the proposed customer experience true? What shoulders of giants do we stand on? What’s our execution model (e.g. agile or waterfall)? How do we operate our services? How do we ensure operational excellence?

The Technology perspective is usually the strongest with engineering leaders, like SDMs or Technical Program Managers. Generally engineering is where the center of gravity in most high-performing organizations is, simply because engineers are the only people who actually do work that directly impacts customers.

Organization

How are we organized? Functionally? Or single-threaded? How will we recruit and hire the best? How do we ensure everyone is setup for success in their careers? What’s our compensation and reward system?

All managers have to index high on the organizational perspective.

 

You can use the CBTO mental model to gain clarity on a broad range of topics. For example:

  • If you are designing an organization you can use it to determine if you have the right balance of leadership in place to be successful. The best product organizations have a balance excellence in across all four perspectives.
  • When considering a career move, ask yourself where you are strong, and where you are weak relative to these perspectives. Then decide which of them you’d like to be putting more energy into in your next role.
  • When interviewing leaders, ask them to stack rank their relative strengths and weakness across these four perspectives. If you are hiring someone to be an engineering leader and their stack is “BOCT” then they probably won’t make a very good engineering leader.

Frameworks and mental models like BXT or CBTO can help create clarity of thought. There’s no perfect framework, but I have found CBTO to work pretty well for me. What do you think?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Details Matter in Presenting Narratives

Narratives are written documents used to present clear thinking. Narratives enable readers to quickly understand the author’s ideas in order to drive robust conversations and decisive decision making.

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Details matter when it comes to printing narratives for others to read. Sloppy presentation of the written word detracts from content and shows the author lacks obsession about his or her customer (the reader). Authors must apply a very high standard for making it easy and pleasing for the reader to understand ideas. This post contains tips for ensuring written narratives are well read when printed.

Using overwrought presentation style in narratives is the same as using hyperbolic adjectives: Fancy styling is a sign to the reader the document may lack substance and clarity of thought. It distracts versus illuminates.

Minimalist and consistent formatting makes documents easier to read. Less formatting allows the reader to focus on the words. Consistency throughout the entire document reduces the readers’ mental burden. Here are some specific tips:

  • Use a single typeface and size. Text should be big enough so that readers don’t have to squint; nominally this means a font size no smaller than 10pt.
  • Do not use color. Well written words do not require color, and if graphics are required to explain the idea, the idea hasn’t been simplified enough yet.
  • Use whitespace between paragraphs and sections to separate ideas. Horizontal indenting can be effective in guiding the eye, if simple and consistent. Two spaces after a period are not needed; all modern typography systems do the right thing with a single space.
  • Page margins should be no smaller than .75″. Do not make the margins smaller in an effort to make the document seem shorter. The reader will not be fooled and reading extra long lines is more work than short lines.
  • Make sure the document title, the date of last edit, any relevant confidentiality notices, and the page number are in the headers and footers of every page. 
  • Numbers in narrative form should be consistently presented. Numbers less than 10 should we written out (e.g. nine). Numbers above that should be in numerical form. Use commas (e.g. 34292 is harder to read than 34,292). Be consistent on how you abbreviate orders of magnitude (e.g. pick either M or MM for million as in $10M).
  • Date formatting should be consistent (e.g. don’t mix “September 10, 1996” and 9/10/66 in the same document).
  • Use Word’s line numbering feature as it makes discussing the document easier. Change the line-numbering style to use a lighter shade of gray than normal text to make the line numbers less distracting.
  • Likewise, numbered headers (e.g. FAQs) should be numbered continuously through entire doc; this way when discussing the document readers can refer to those numbers without ambiguity.
  • Be diligent in ensuring you have no spelling, grammar, punctuation errors, or inconsistencies in the document. Readers will appreciate not being distracted by sloppiness. For example, read every sentence and every word out loud, have someone else proof-read the document, and always do a test printing before final print.

Much has been written about Amazon’s culture of the written narrative (aka “Jeff Bezos outlaws PowerPoint” and “The Beauty of the Amazon 6-pager”). This post is not about why narratives are so powerful, nor is it about how to actually write well. But it does provide tried and tested tips on how to ensure the narratives you write meet a high standard for readability. Maybe someday I’ll write up my own thoughts on why the written narrative mechanism is so powerful, but for now I’m going to assume you have already drunk that particular flavor of Kool-aid.

UPDATE: Literally the day after I posted this, Jeff Bezos posted the 2017 Letter to Shareholders. In it he used narratives as a way of illustrating what it means to have high standards. It’s a great read. I did not know this would be the topic of the shareholder letter when I wrote this post (really!).

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Merit Badges – A Mental Model for Success

Today I celebrated my 5th-year anniversary working at Amazon. Woot! It’s also the 5th anniversary of me announcing I was going to Amazon as an April Fool’s joke. Tee-hee.

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(Yellow Amazon employee badges indicate 5-year tenure)

This milestone has caused me to pause and reflect on my career. In doing this reflection, I utilized a mental model a long-time mentor of mine, Chris Phillips, introduced me to. The Merit Badge mental model has given me clarity and peace of mind over the years when navigating big career decisions. I seems to resonate with folks I’ve shared it with. I figure I’m overdue taking the time to write it down and share it with others.

What’s the Merit Badge mental model for measuring success?

The concept of a Merit Badge comes from the Boy Scouts. The idea being a scout can only earn a particular merit badge (actually a patch that gets sewn onto a vest) by demonstrating mastery of the skill or ability defined by the badge. For example, a scout would only receive the “Firemanship” badge by clearly demonstrating, repeatedly, the ability to start fires without matches.

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(the Boy Scout Firemanship Merit Badge)

Merit Badges can come in all sizes. You can earn a small Merit Badge for something like “Touch typist.” You can earn a big Merit Badge by demonstrating you “Can repeatedly lead startups to successful exits as a CEO.”

I’ve collected a bunch of Merit Badges throughout my professional career. They range from “Can learn any technology” to “Expert at ideating and launching V1 products.” Other examples of my Merit Badges are “Quickly hire senior talent”, “Can fumble through using git”, and “presents to 1000+ people audiences.”

My ending up at Amazon in 2013 was sort of accidental. I left Microsoft in 2011 because I couldn’t identify any big Merit Badges I wanted to earn there. All the big ones seemed to be outside Microsoft, like “can bootstrap a tech startup.” So I went after that one and while the startup I bootstrapped is still cranking I don’t claim I’ve earned that Merit Badge (Freebusy.io is run by my former co-founder Stefan). I can’t claim the Merit Badge because doing something only once does not prove you can do it repeatedly. No demonstrated ability to do it repeatedly, no Merit Badge! No soup for you!

As I was trying to do the startup thing, I discovered people were willing to pay me to consult for them. I had no idea how to ‘do consulting’ so I set in my mind the goal of earning the “excellent at management consulting” Merit Badge. I said “If I can land three consulting gigs, and deliver the results promised, I get the badge.” I read books, I asked others how they did it (thanks Marc and Fabrice!), and I dove in. This was how I kept cash-flow coming in while trying to do startups. I did five consulting engagements in those two years and my customers were happy with the results. Badge earned.

The last of those consulting gig was with Amazon. I won’t bore you with the details here, but the gist was a very smart lady at Amazon realized if she could get me to see the ‘inside’ of Amazon, I’d probably love it and want to work there. She broke all of Amazon’s rules of paying ‘consultants’ and gave me a contract. She was right and after completing the consulting project, I started full-time at Amazon on April 1, 2013.

At the time, I had not finished earning the “can bootstrap a tech startup” badge. To go to Amazon I had to give it up. Maybe some day I’ll get back to it. Or not. The point is, this mental model gave me clarity of thought in making a career decision. It was super clear to me what I was giving up.

I was clear on what was next too. I saw a large number of potential Merit Badges I could earn at Amazon. A primary one I choose (and wrote down in my post describing the Job Decision Matrix) was “Succeed at > 1 Big Company.”

Which brings us back to what motivated me to write this post: I clearly (in my own mind, which is what matters) was successful at Microsoft. I shipped some really great stuff for customers and had a blast doing it. Now that I’ve survived Amazon for 5 years, and absolutely loved the work I’ve done to help make Echo and Alexa so loved by customers, I look in the mirror and am able to say to myself “yep, I’m successful at Amazon.”

Yay for me! One more big Merit Badge I can sew onto my vest (metaphorically)! This gives me personal satisfaction and confidence. I was pretty scared of Amazon when I joined. What the eff did I know about anything EXCEPT how Microsoft worked? The inventory of the Merit Badges I had earned at MS gave me the confidence I needed to get started.

Are Merit Badges useful outside of work?

Merit Badges don’t have to apply only to your professional career. For example, it gives me great joy that I’ve earned the merit badge of “engine builder.” I had no idea how to build a car engine when my son & I decided to build a new engine for my classic BMW. But I did it and the damn thing worked (and is still running flawlessly after 25k miles). But one engine build does not prove mastery. Two does (in my opinion). So recently I completed my second motor for a different car. This one works too (knock on wood). I’ll probably never build another engine (I can, thankfully, afford to pay others to if I have a project that requires one) because, for me, all that really matters is I’ve proven to myself that I could.

How do you know you’ve earned a Merit Badge?

I use a couple of tests. There are probably others.

  • When setting out to earn a Merit Badge, if I can, I’ll write down objective criteria. For example, I told myself I’d only get the “Succeed at > 1 Big Tech Company” badge if I was at the big company for more than 3 years.
  • I ask myself “would I add this to my resume, knowing an interviewer might ask me for examples and details?” (Advice from someone who has hired a lot of people: Putting something on your resume you don’t really know how to do is just about the stupidest thing you can do. It’s almost as bad as misspelling your own name; which I’ve actually seen!)
  • I ask myself “can I look myself in the mirror and say ‘Yeah, I effing earned it’?” Of course if you are delusional this may not be enough. But if you are delusional, you probably don’t realize you are delusional, so it doesn’t matter regardless.

What else have you written on managing careers?

I wrote a post long ago about how most people think about their careers in the wrong way (You are Thinking of Your Career Trajectory Wrong). The Merit Badge mental model is very complimentary to the idea presented in that post. It’s complimentary because Merit Badges give you a way of measuring your success in your own terms vs things like ‘how many people work for you’, money, or title.

I’ve also found that Merit Badges are aligned with using another tool I’ve written about, the Job Decision Matrix, that helps drive clarity on what’s really important to you (and what’s not) as you make career decisions.

This link will show you all of my career related posts: Other career related posts.

The name “Merit Badge” and the concept resonates with me because I’m wired such that my self-worth is centered around my talents, the effort I put in, and what I’ve achieved. It also works for me because, for some reason, I’ve been absolutely addicted to finding things I’m clueless about and then trying to master them. Not everyone views the world as I do, and so this mental model may not fit everyone. Try it and see. As usual, feel free to let me know what you think in comments or on Twitter.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.