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.
  • The ideas presented in a narrative document matter more than anything, even the details discussed in this post.

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 given me pause to reflect on my career. In doing this reflection, I utilized a mental model a long-time mentor of mine, Chris Phillips, taught me: The Merit Badge mental model. This 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 “confidently presents to 1000+ people audiences.”

My landing a role 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! 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 anyway.

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 versus 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’m absolutely addicted to finding things I’m clueless about and then trying to master them. Not everyone views the world as I do 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.

My Apple ][ Tribute

It’s safe to say that the Apple ][ personal computer had a great an impact on my life as any other factor, short of the fact that I was born.

This is my tribute to the Apple ][ on it’s 40th birthday.

In 1978 I spent a day at my cousin’s factory in Grand Rapids, MI. I was 11 years old. I had never touched a computer beyond the Atari Pong my family had. After a tour of the factory, I think to get me out of the way, my cousin sat me down in front of his Apple ][ and fired up the game “Artillery”.

I was entrenched. For a few minutes anyway. Then I got bored.

Then I noticed The Applesoft Tutorial sitting there…

Shortly, I had figured out you could press Control-C to break out of the game in the the “Monitor”.

I learned I could type LIST and see the BASIC code for the program.

I learned I could change any line in the program by simply re-typing it with my changes. E.g. I could change

10 PRINT 2+3

to

10 PRINT 2-3

I learned I could then type RUN and the updated program would execute with my changes.

 

“OH MY GOD. THIS IS POWER.”

Never being one to actually, really, read instructions I dove in. I started changing things to see what would happen. I made Artillery my own.

Eventually I broke something and the Artillery game would no longer run.

In a panic, I shut off the Apple ][ and left to tell my cousin I was ready to leave.

From that point forward, my life’s direction was set. I wanted that power.

Later that year I conned my dad into buying a home computer so he could use VisiCalc for “business”. We visited the computer stores in the Phoenix area. One was a RadioShack and another sold Apple’s. My dad was leaning towards the TRS-80. I convinced him the Apple ][+ was better. I don’t remember why I thought so, but I ended up winning. He shelled out the dough for an Apple ][+, a Rana 5.25” floppy drive, and a color monitor. And VisiCalc.

For about 6 months the computer resided in my dad’s office (which was really a shared family room). He never really used it. I sat there for hours on end teaching myself BASIC by typing in programs from books and magazines.

Eventually the machine migrated to my bedroom, and as they say, the rest is history.

I had that Apple ][+ through high school, eventually adding a Microsoft Z80 Softcard to it. I had ‘graduated’ from Apple DOS to CP/M and from BASIC and 6502 assembly to UCSD p-system Pascal…and then Turbo Pascal.

When I got to college I upgraded to an //e (with a home-built external keyboard!) and put a 4MB memory card in it, which I used as a RAM disk for CP/M, Turbo Pascal, and my dear friend WordStar.

Eventually an IBM PC XT clone entered my life and I saw the writing on the wall w.r.t. Windows so I left the Apple ][  behind.

I still have all the old programs I wrote for the Apple ][ both on 5.25” floppies (that probably can no longer be read) and printed out in a set of 3-ring binders. Maybe I should crack open an emulator and get ‘em to run…

Thanks Steve & Steve for creating such a magical experience and setting me on my way.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

What it Means to Be Great Product Manager

A Tweetstorm of mine from earlier in the week:

https://twitter.com/natbro/timelines/611337333711843330

Piling on a comment @natbro made about PMs:

Besides customers, there are two groups of people involved in building tech products:

Engineers and everyone else. Only the engineers actually produce anything for the customer.

The job of everyone else, especially PMs is to generate clarity and commitment to a purpose so that the engineers can create magic.

Bad PMs don’t get this and think the product and business revolve around them.

Great PMs have no ego in this regard and understand the reality: That the only work that truly matters is that of the engineers.

That said, it is also true that left to their own devices, engineers will do two things: 1) the most complicated thing, 2) the thing they think is fun. Therefore, do not confuse the fact that a PM’s job is to enable (and influence) engineers with the idea that PMs are not needed.

On the contrary, when done right, great PMs free engineers to focus on what they are best at: technical invention and execution. They do this by creating clarity around who the customer is, where the customer is, why the customer cares, why it’s important for the business, and when it’s relevant.

Oh, yea: I have more open PM roles on my team. Join me in enabling engineers to create magic for customers. See this link.

(August 13, 2018 – updated formatting and changed job posting link).

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Attention is the Currency of Leadership

Great leaders optimize how they spend their attention. They are skilled at turning up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things at the right times. Attention is the currency of leadership and each person has a fixed amount of attention to spend.

“Leaders have a fixed amount of attention units they can spend in a day, week, or year. Are you spending yours on the right things?” (A mentor of mine, Chris Phillips)

The number of “attention units” (AUs) a person can spend over a period of time is fixed. Let’s use a week as our time period. You have 1000 AUs you can spend in 7 days. Each leader’s amount might be different, but is fixed for each. Attention Units cannot be carried forward. You can’t earn more. The same balance applies to the leader’s personal and work life. Spend yours wisely.

I spent last week at an amazing leadership training offsite. One theme of this training was how to ensure others’ attention is focused on the right things. I’ve had some success becoming a better leader by using the concept of Attention Units to focus my own attention, and to train others to do the same. For example, the idea that “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” is a powerful mental model you can use to focus your attention on the right problems.

“Attention is the currency of leadership” – Ronald Heifetz

As I’ve contemplated what I learned this week I’ve tried to mesh my former mental model of Attention Units with the far stronger concept that attention is THE currency of leadership, which was introduced to me this week. I sat down this morning to write this post (writing is a great way to create clarity of thought) and an article about Reid Hoffman serendipitously came across my twitter stream. In it, Ben Casnocha wrote:

“Every decision has tradeoffs: when you choose to do one thing it means you choose not do some other thing.” – Ben Casnocha

This is so true! I found this definition of Attention on Wikipedia, which resonated:

“Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.” (Davenport & Beck 2001, p. 20)

Leaders need to become masters at the following:

  • Optimizing how they spend their precious personal AUs.
  • Teaching other leaders skills for optimizing how the spend THEIR AUs.
  • Defending the pool of AUs belonging to the people who work for you (being a “shit umbrella”).
  • Creating an atmosphere where groups of people turn their attention towards, and focus their attention on, the right problems at the right times.

Great leaders figure out how to optimize how they spend their attention units. They are skillful at using tools (such as the 5Ps) and mental models (such as only 90% of the decisions you make don’t matter) to do this. Great leaders know how to say no to requests for attention from above and below. Great leaders figure out how and when to turn up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things. Leaders succeed and fail based on the things they give attention to.

What tools or skills do you know of for managing your own attention economy? Please share in comments!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Find Work That Does Not Feel Like Work

The first thing I ask people who are looking for a new job is “What work do you want to do in your ideal job?”

It is interesting how few people answer this question. Almost everybody wants to answer different questions like “What do you want to work on?” or “What kind of work environment are you looking for?”

They respond with answers like “I want to work on a small dynamic team with other smart people” or “I want to build products that millions of consumers will use.” These are great answers; they are just answers to a question I did not ask.

work [wurk] noun

  1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil.
  2. something on which exertion or labor is expended; a task or undertaking: The students finished their work in class.
  3. productive or operative activity.

The people who I think will be the most successful can think about and discuss the actual WORK they do in their jobs, day-to-day. Their answers include specific tasks. “Write code”, “respond to emails”, “create user stories”, “analyze data”, “run brainstorming meetings”, and “build relationships” are great examples.

Happiness, I believe, comes from doing work that makes you happy.

When I ask the question “What work do you want to do?” I’m asking a very precise question. I ask it because I believe the biggest indicator of someone being successful in a job is whether they are happy with their job. And happiness, I believe, comes from doing work that makes you happy.

I have been known to spend hours cleaning and polishing the wheel wells of a car. Yes, I get the satisfaction out of the clean result, but, as screwed up as it sounds, I actually love the hard work of the cleaning. I think it is fun. It makes me happy!

I have also been known to spend hours reviewing spreadsheets full of product usage metrics. Finding the key indicators gives me satisfaction, and makes my customers happy, but I find the actual work excruciatingly painful. For me that kind of work is not fun. I do it because it is required.

In my job at Amazon, I am blessed the majority of the work I do is fun for me. Talking face to face with employees about their career is fun. Doing pixel-perfect reviews of our product’s customer experience with the team is fun. Teaching the team that saying no is more powerful than saying yes, is fun. Sitting down with my leads and writing and re-writing a 6-page narrative describing our product is fun. And the list goes on.

I am happy with my job because most of the work I do, even though it is hard, is fun. It is an extra-special bonus that someone is willing to pay me for doing it. Because I’m happy with my job, I’m generally happy.

Think about the work you have done in the past and create two lists: In one write down the tasks that didn’t feel like work and in the other write the tasks that you toiled over. Then go find a job where the majority of required work is in the first list.

Don’t get me wrong, accomplishing big things can give you confidence and bolster your resume (and change the world). Confidence and a strong resume create opportunities to find jobs where the majority of the required work doesn’t feel like work. Happiness does not comes from what you’ve accomplished. Happiness is not about the past. It is not about the future. It is about the now.

My team is hiring. Maybe the work that needs to get done in revolutionizing local commerce sounds fun to you. If so email me your resume (kindelc (at) amazon.com).

More Posts on managing your career:

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Once I was Afraid

Once I was afraid to ride a bike. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid to program in BASIC. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of getting married. Then I married Julie.

Once I was afraid of assembly language. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of printer drivers. Then I mastered them.

Once I was afraid of having kids. Then I had two.

Once I was afraid of network protocols. Then I wrote one.

Once I was afraid to tell my manager he was wrong. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of changing my own oil. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of managing people. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of rebuilding a differential. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of lambda expressions. Then I wrote some.

Once I was afraid of building my own company. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of doing upholstery work on a car. Yesterday I did some.

I don’t know how much this applies to others, or how much it’s just part of my own personality, but I keep re-learning the lesson that I really can do anything.

I am not saying I can do everything well; I’m not being conceited. I also know that there are things I either don’t have the physical make up for or require years of study that I don’t have.

My mental model for things I’m afraid of is they are black-boxes. Opaque. It turns out that all it really takes to expose the insides of those boxes is to “give it a try”. I have repeatedly discovered that if I just dive in that black box turns into a set of smaller black boxes that fit together. Rinse and repeat.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to remember this. I’m bolder than I used to be and more willing to “just do it”. But I still hesitate.

If I could give my younger-self one piece of advice it would be: “Don’t hesitate. That fear you have is unfounded.”

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Iconic: Photos of Every Apple Product

Last year Jonathan Zufi reached out to me asking if he could use a quote from my “Why Nobody Can Copy Apple” blog post in a book on Apple he was working on.

I said sure, why not?

I’m glad I did. Jonathan has released the book, Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, and sent me a complimentary copy. Fittingly, I received it on the anniversary of Steve Job’s death.

My quote is on page 181.

“Apple’s products are unique not on their feature merits, but because of the way they are conceived, designed, built, sourced, manufactured, shipped, marketed, sold, opened, held, and used. This is integration taken to the extreme and it would be difficult for any company to replicate.

–Charlie Kindel, cek.log”

The photo on page 181 is of the Apple Time Capsule. This is highly ironic given I built a competitive product to Time Capsule at Microsoft (Windows Home Server). I have no idea if Jonathan made this connection, but I think it’s hilarious either way.

The book is just amazing. It is full of great photos of all of Apple’s products, inside and out. It includes forward by Steve Wozniak and Jim Dalrymple and each photo is accompanied by a quote from a smart and famous person (mine excluded).

The quality of the printing is top notch and the book looks great on our coffee table. He sent me the “Classic Edition” which he sells for $75. There’s an insane “Special Edition” that comes in a case that looks like an Apple ][ accessory that’s $300 (!). www.iconicbook.com

If you have ever been an Apple fanatic you’ll really enjoy paging through this book.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Be Excellent At Saying No

Steven Sinofski has written another great post on his “Learning by Shipping” blog. In this one, titled “8 steps for engineering leaders to keep the peace” he focuses on things an engineering leader can do when his or her ‘manager’ asks for too much.

Solid advice, but it only addresses half the problem (the engineering leader). #5 in his list of things is

1. As part of doing that, I’m going to sometimes feel like I end up saying “no” pretty often.

I believe the best product development organizations are those who are as excellent at saying “no” as they are at saying “yes.” When I say this, I mean the entire organization is excellent at saying “no”. This means that if you are the ‘manager’ (CEO, VP, GM, whatever) then YOU need to be excellent at saying no too. I wrote a post a few years ago on this topic that fits nicely with Steven’s latest post. You can read it here:

Don’t Make Your Team Say No To You

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

How to install a 2 port USB power adapter in an ‘87 BMW

For some reason BMW forgot to put USB power sockets in my ’87 535is.

D70_5615

In addition, while the JVC stereo the previous owner installed has a USB port, I use it for a memory card for music. Lastly, the cig lighter socket in these cars is “always on”.

For these reasons I decided to do a little mod: Adding a 2 port USB power socket. This post explains how I did it and the parts I used.

Here’s the final result:

To start, I went to Amazon.com and bought 4 different cigarette lighter USB power adapters. I wanted to find one that had two plugs, supported Apple’s proprietary USB charging protocol, and would fit well behind one of the blank plates BMW provided on either side of the radio. Amazon’s amazing return policy meant that, as long as I didn’t damage them, I could return the ones I didn’t use.

After carefully pulling all 4 apart, I found that the PowerGen Dual USB 3.1A 15w High Output Car Charger had the following favorable characteristics:

  • Up to 3.1A output.
  • Red LED.
  • A short circuit board. Some of the others had boards that were almost 2 inches long.
  • A USB plug design that would adapt easily to a different bezel (in this case the BMW blank dash plate).

Disassembly of the power adapter was simple: just pry the plastic apart and the innards pop out.

See how the USB connectors hang over the edge of the circuit board? Turns out they extend almost exactly the same as the thickness of the blank plate!  (The blank plate in this picture is a spare that has a hole dilled in it for an alarm LED).

To cut the right sized rectangular holes in the blank plate I needed to use the faceplate from the USB adapter as a template. The USB connectors already fit the original faceplate tightly, but I wanted to make sure the new holes were very-slightly undersized to create an even better mechanical connection.

I used a pair of small Vise-Grips to hold the faceplate in place on the back side of the blank plate (I had to cut the sides of the original faceplate a bit to make it fit) and then drilled a pilot hole in the center of each rectangular opening. I then used a very small flat file to carefully expand the pilot hole and create the new rectangular holes in the blank plate.

I de-soldered the old ground wire and positive wire (spring in the above picture) from the circuit board and soldered in new wires of appropriate length. I then used a hot glue gun to further secure the electronics to the blank plate.

Remember, because I made the holes slightly undersized (10ths of a mm) the USB connectors fit really tightly providing a good mechanical connection.

Untitled

From here it was a simple matter of attaching some plug connectors to the wires on my adapter and their siblings in the dash (which I had previously exposed behind the right hand side plate when installing my Valentine One radar detector hard-mount). I plugged it in and snapped the plate into place.

I have it wired to the same circuit as the radio so that it is only on when the ignition is on. You’ll note that the red LED does a nice job of providing a little illumination of the sockets (that matches BMW’s instrument colors). The hot glue helps diffuse the light a little which is a nice touch.

Hope this helps others.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Have a Plan

Yesterday someone asked me to share my thoughts on the secret to building excellent things. I summarized what I know as:

“Put the customer first, have a plan, create a shared mission, get early victories, remove process, and make it fun.” – me, yesterday.

 

This was the formula my cohorts that built the Windows Phone app platform used. It worked. This is what the small team that created www.milelogr.com did.

“No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one.”  – Dwight D. Eisenhower

It shocks me how resistant many entrepreneurs are to writing down a plan. It’s like they’ve been beaten down by the “VCs never read business plans, so don’t write one” tripe. Or maybe they were burned by the dense, unapproachable 100 page plans as babies (when they worked at BigCos).

Here’s the secret to planning: The shorter your plan the better.

But always have a WRITTEN DOWN plan.

Elon Musk had a plan for Telsa Motors. In 2006 he wrote a blog post and disclosed the plan as:

  1. Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

The power of such a concisely written plan cannot be underestimated.

The plan for the Windows Phone 7 Application Platform, including the developer experience, fit on a single page. Yes, we had a 30+ page document that discussed all sorts of ideas and details, but the plan itself, the thing that served as our North Star fit on a single page. It concisely described all the things good plans cover:

  • Your purpose (some call this the mission)
  • How you’ll behave (your principles or tenets)
  • What’s important and what’s not (your framework for making tradeoffs, aka priorities)
  • Who’s responsible for what, and who’s not
  • When you’ll do things, and in what order

Our one page plan was the North Star that 100s of people across 4 Microsoft divisions marched towards over the 18 months we had dedicated to the project. As we headed north we ended up going a bit west and maybe a bit east, but we never went south. And that is why a plan is so important.

Have one. And make it as concise as you possibly can.

I’ve written a post dedicated to a great framework for planning: The 5Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Businesses Buy Differently

My post on Why Nobody Can Copy Apple has become one of the most read posts I’ve ever written (thanks @gruber). Commenters are asking me “Can you describe more what the behaviors are that are different when building for business vs. consumers?” There are many, but central is the sales motion: the approach and process an organization uses to sell product. The sales motion for businesses is diametrically different than the sales motion for consumers.

One of my favorite truisms is

“People don’t buy things, people are sold things.”

Businesses buy products differently than consumers. But, just like consumers, they only really buy things that are sold to them:

“Businesses don’t buy things, businesses are sold things.”

How do businesses buy things differently? I love this answer by Steve Jobs from an interview he did in 2010 (emphasis mine):

“What I love about the consumer market, that I always hated about the enterprise market, is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person votes for themselves. They go ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and if enough of them say ‘yes,’ we get to come to work tomorrow. That’s how it works. It’s really simple. With the enterprise market, it’s not so simple. The people that use the products don’t decide for themselves, and the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused. We love just trying to make the best products in the world for people and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we’re on track or not.” – Steve Jobs, June 1, 2010

A commenter on my Why Nobody Can Copy Apple post did a great job of explaining this in more detail:

“The problem is that the business…are attempting to maximize their profit, so they want to buy bulk, cheap product that fulfills all of the criteria they come up with. And these criteria they come up with are universally profit-driven or simply stupid. They want X features, Y functionality, because they need to do aX and aY with the product. They don’t care about bX and bY, which in this case are the entire experience of the product, because it’s not something that is quantitated in the corporate machine.”

Organizations that build product for businesses must SELL in a way that is compatible with the way the business BUYS. The organization, say Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB), or Microsoft’s Business Division (MBD), needs a sales motion that fits the customer.

IEB, which makes Xbox, has a sales motion centered around allowing the end-user to viscerally engage with the product at retail (fed by ‘air cover’ marketing and advertising) . In MBD’s case, selling Microsoft SharePoint, the sales motion is about having an army of Microsoft sales people (literally tens of thousands of MS employees are salespeople) call on CIOs and other “business decision makers” to convince them the capabilities of the product address some pain point.

These sales motions and the sales force behind them are radically different.

Another of my favorite truisms is

“Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything. But getting people to pay for something is MORE everything.”

To be successful (profitable), an organization that builds something must be driven by how the product is sold. The product managers, designers, engineers, testers, and middle-managers all end up being highly influenced by the sales motion.

Therefore, in an organization focused on the consumer, every single person is attuned to the motion of sales. If a consumer focused effort where the primary motion is online or retail are ALSO asked to focus on business customers at the same time, they lose focus because they now have to deal with the enterprise sales motion. A loss of focus creates mediocre products. Likewise, a business product organization that also has to sell to consumers will suffer a lack of focus.

Microsoft has done an admirable job in setting up IEB to be mostly consumer focused. This is why the Xbox and related products are pretty damn good. But IEB’s products are not as consistently excellent because they depend on other parts of Microsoft that are not as consumer focused.

Windows? Not so much. And the reason, at the end of the day is the bifurcation of focus between business customers and consumer customers.

Comments encouraged. Keep ‘em clean.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

"Write Once…" is Anti-Customer

Just as in the ’90s, there’s a bunch of hype these days around solving the cross-platform development problem. Mobile platform fragmentation is killing developers, and if only every device supported some common language or technology engine we could all Write Once and Run Anywhere.

If only.

WORA was, is, and always will be, a fallacy. WORA reminds me of the mole in whack-a-mole. It just keeps popping up and the realities of competing platform vendors keep whacking it back down. What drives me crazy is not the “Run Anywhere” part that most people throw out and replace with something else (like “Optimize Everywhere” , “Suck Everywhere”,  “Test Everywhere”, or “Outsource the optimization“).

It is the “Write once…” part that’s the most dangerous. We all wish the world was rainbows and unicorns, and “Write once…” implies that there is a world where you can actually write an app once and it will run on all devices. But this is precisely the fantasy that the platform vendors will never allow to become reality. Stop asking for it.

Mobile fragmentation is going to get significantly worse over the next few years. While this fragmentation will be bad for end users in some cases, it will be particularly bad for developers.”
Me on LockerGnome, Oct 22, 2012

HTML5 is awesome in many ways. If applied judiciously, it can be a great technology and tool. As a tool, it can absolutely be used to reduce the amount of platform specific code you have to write.  But it is not a starting place. Starting with HTML5 is the most customer unfriendly thing a developer can do.

“We start with the customer and we work backward” – Jeff Bezos

“… you gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” – Steve Jobs

Like many ‘solutions’ in our industry the “Hey, write it once in in HTML5 and it will run anywhere” story didn’t actually start with the end-user customer. It started with idealistic thoughts about technology. It was then turned into snake oil for developers.

Not only is  the “build a mobile app that hosts a web view that contains HTML5” approach bass-ackwards, it is a recipe for execution disaster. Yes, there are examples of teams that have built great apps using this technique, but if you actually look at what they did, they focused on their experience first and then made the technology work. What happens when the shop starts with “we gotta use HTML5 running in a UIWebView” is initial euphoria over productivity, followed by incredible pain doing the final 20%.

The problem is each major platform has its own UI model, its own model for how a web view is hosted, its own HTML rendering engine, and its own JavaScript engine. These  inter-platform differences mean that not only is the platform-specific code unique, but the interactions between that code and the code running within the web view becomes device specific. And to make matters worse intra-platform fragmentation, particularly on the platform with the largest number of users, Android, is so bad that this “Write Once..” approach provides no help.

The father of WORA: James GoslingI blame James Gosling. He foisted Java on us and as a result Sun coined the term Write Once Run Anywhere. (Joking!)

Developers really want to believe it is possible to “Write once…”.  They also really want to believe that more threads will help. But we all know they just make the problems worse. Just as we’ve all grown to accept that starting with “make it multi-threaded” is evil, we need to accept “Write once…” is evil.

There is no “Write once…”. I wish there were. I know you wish there were too. But I wish my daughter had a baby unicorn to ride too.

There is, however, “Focus on creating the best possible user experience on each device and try to get as much code re-use as you can along the way.”

Focus on the experience, try to get code re-use.

Not as catchy, but far, far, more realistic. And helpful.

Edit: February 22, 2013 – Shortened title to make it less inflammatory.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Bubbly Time: MileLogr has its first, real, paying customers!

Champagne GlowWhen we launched MileLogr (www.milelogr.com) yesterday we didn’t know how long it would be before the first real customer actually paid us for a report.

It happened today! We have monies!

It is time for a serious glass of champagne!

We got some great press on the launch too.  Todd Bishop of Geekwire wrote:

The service, called MileLogr, works in conjunction with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple calendars, creating a detailed mileage report based on the location of meetings as noted in each user’s calendar.  One of the big selling points is that it works retroactively, pulling the information from a calendar even if you weren’t specifically tracking your mileage last year.

And Nick Wingfield of the New York Times wrote:

…it had the smarts to calculate the length of a trip even if I didn’t give it an address. For example, I set up a recurring weekly meeting at Microsoft, without supplying the company’s location in Redmond, Wash., about 20 miles from where I live in Seattle. It figured out on its own where Microsoft was located by doing a search of online mapping services. (The chief executive of BizLogr, the company behind MileLogr, is Charlie Kindel, a former longer time Microsoft manager and a respected blogger on technology.)

An awesome launch! Now it’s time to iterate, iterate  and iterate and please thousands of customers like the early ones!

If you forgot to track your mileage last year MileLogr can save you thousands by figuring out where you drove from your calendar. Check it out at www.milelogr.com.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Why Nobody Can Copy Apple

Horace Dediu has written another brilliant piece titled “Why doesn’t anybody copy Apple?”. As he points out, Apple is fairly unique in its command of vertical integration and many people point to that as the “why”. However, Horace also admits this can’t be the sole reason and he is unable to explain what that reason could be. I think I know.

Tim Cook refers to integration and a great team as unique Apple advantages (but also note the references to magic and belief.)

Apple’s products are unique not on their feature merits, but because of the way they are conceived, designed, built, sourced, manufactured, shipped, marketed, sold, opened, held, and used. This is integration taken to the extreme and it would be difficult for any company to replicate.

It’s a better explanation but it is still hard to understand why nobody copies this approach. Integration is something that can take a long time, but it is possible with a Herculean effort. A few companies are starting to make moves in that direction (e.g. Microsoft.) But efforts are half-hearted. There is no “move the Earth” panic to become an integrated company from Samsung, Google or Microsoft.

I completely agree with all this: Replicating Apple’s vertical integration is a hard problem, but not an intractable one for the Microsoft & Google’s of the world.

I assert there’s something else that makes Apple is unique amongst its (asymmetric) competitors (e.g. Google, MS, Samsung):

It only focuses on one customer: The Consumer.

In my experience, the behaviors and culture of an organization (large or small) that focuses on the Consumer as a customer is diametrically incompatible with the behaviors and culture of an organization that focuses on Business as a customer.

I feel strongly that this is a key reason Microsoft’s products are often good, but not excellent; the consumer ones and the business ones. This is why Google will never be able to beat Apple at Apple’s game: Google’s customer focus is split between the advertiser and consumer.

The behaviors of organization, which are really driven by the attitudes, actions, priorities of the people, define what the organization produces. The behaviors required to delight the consumer are simply at odds with the behaviors required to delight businesses. You cannot do both simultaneously in a single organization and be excellent.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

1929 Jennings ‘Dutch Boy’ Quarter Play Slot Machine

In the ’50s my father & grandfather came across about a dozen slot machines that had been unearthed from a building excavation in Chicago. Out of the pile, they were able to restore a couple of them.

I remember my grandfather’s at their house in Grand Rapids. It was a nickel based unit and he always had a jar of nickels next to it.

We had a $.25 based machine. When I was a kid, my dad gave me the job of keeping it running. This basically entailed removing jammed coins that one of my older sister’s had forced into it and occasionally oiling things.

Last spring when my mom passed away, I finally took possession of the machine. It had been sitting in storage for about 5 years. It required a deep cleaning, but otherwise is still in great shape.

I present to you an amazing piece of mechanical workmanship, a “1929 Ode D Jennings Dutch Boy Quarter Play slot machine”:


More photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ckindel/sets/72157629446309168/

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Don’t Make Your Team Say No To You

In early-stage ventures, whether it’s a bootstrapped technology startup, or a new initiative within a big company, the leaders are often visionary “idea people”. The difference between success and failure is how good these leaders are at training their teams to say No. Idea people often forget they are disrupting their own teams by voicing their ideas. I’ve learned some techniques that can help you avoid putting your teams in this position.

When I was building home networking for Windows at Microsoft, I learned getting a team to a focused plan, and getting the team members to stick to the plan, was hard. I also learned that it was possible and that a tool like the 5Ps could really help.

But, in retrospect, I also learned I had made it much harder than it needed to be. I’m an idea guy. Ideas come to me a mile a minute. At that point in my career I didn’t realize how disruptive it was to my team that I was spouting these ideas to the team while they were executing on the current plan. In my head, I was just talking about potentialities for the future; by telling the team about all the cool things we could do in the future, I was showing “vision”.

What I found out later, when talking to people who had been on that team, was they viewed me as a “randomizer” they needed to control. In other words, the team spent time and energy MANAGING THE MANAGER. I forced them, regularly, to say “No” to ME.

If you are a leader of an early-stage venture, you need to figure out a way to “vent” your ideas that has NO impact on your team. Here are some tactics I’ve used and seen others use that might help you do this.

Use the “Mountains To Climb” Metaphor

Charlie on top of OddessyA mountain climbing team sees a series of mountains in a mountain range. They aspire to climb them all. But they known they can only successfully climb one mountain at a time. As they climb the first mountain they can see the other mountains in the range. The view inspires them. As they approach the summit, gaining altitude, the view of the other peaks gets even more beautiful. This motivates them even more to complete the current climb.

A product team sees a long term vision for the product and starts marching towards it. If it is just one monolithic vision they will likely fail to accomplish it. To succeed the leadership should break the vision down into 3 or 4 smaller components, and say “Think of each of these as a mountain in a mountain range. Our goal is to conquer the entire range (that’s our vision). We’ve picked this mountain here as the first to climb. We can climb the others once we’ve summited this one.” 

Of course, prioritization is critical here (which component of the vision is the one that should be tackled first?). Great leaders are great at driving this prioritization.

Early on, help your team understand this metaphor, and use it consistently. Whenever you catch yourself saying “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we…” or “I’ve got an idea!”, go ahead and share the idea, but couch it with “Of course, this is part of our next mountain climb, not the current one.”

Put Future Planning Events in the Schedule

In the “Plan” part of the 5Ps, the schedule is always a top-down schedule. It starts with the end-date (the top) and works backwards to today. A great tactic for allowing potentially disruptive ideas to be aired, but not be disruptive is to ensure that the plan explicitly has a place for “Future Planning Events” where you get the team together to organize thoughts about the future.

For example, I’ve scheduled a 2 hour “Future Planning” meeting about 6 weeks into an 10 week project. At the start of the project I told the team “Anytime you have a new idea that does not fit within the principles and priorities of our current project, write them down. Know that on March 14th we have a planning event scheduled where, as a team, we’ll discuss them all.”

Then, whenever I had a new idea up during the project, I would do the following:

  • Ask myself “How does this idea fit within the principles & priorities for the current project?”. If you’ve done a good job getting buy-in on the principles & priorities the answer should be clear. 90% of the time, if there’s any ambiguity the answer will be “it does not fit.”
  • If it didn’t fit, I’d tell myself “Great idea. Add it to the list of ideas we’re going to discuss at the planning event on March 14th.”
  • If it did fit, double-check that it fits. It likely doesn’t.

This technique provides a nice pressure relief valve. Of course this is valuable to the other “idea-people” on the team as well (anyone can bring the ideas they’ve bottled up to the Future Planning meeting). I’ve found it works well, but only if you have good buy in on the project’s principles & priorities.

Define Principles On Focus and Live Them

A project’s principles define how the team acts during the project. A well-functioning team knows the principles and lives them day-to-day. They are non-negotiable rules for behavior.

There exist projects where “peanut buttering” make sense; where doing a lot of little things “just good enough” is the path to success. I, personally, don’t ever want to be associated with projects like that, but there are valid reasons for them.

In every project I’ve been involved in, where I was proud of the result, the team lived by a principle of “doing a few things really, really well”. To this end, I always push for the following to be a core principle of the endeavor:

We will do a few things and do them very, very well; we are better off not having a capability than doing it poorly. There are always future versions.

Getting a team to buy into this principle will require you, as the leader, to also buy into it. If you are living this principle, then every time YOU have a new idea you will, naturally, by default, ask yourself the question “Does this idea help us do the few things we’ve already decided to do better?”.  If the answer is no, then put the idea aside.

The secret to great leadership is being able to focus on what is important and ignore what is not important. Great leaders are excellent at training their teams to stick to decisions; to say No when they should be focused on executing on a plan. Often times, a leader is also an “idea person”. Dysfunctional teams often refer to this kind of leader as a “Randomizer”.

Hopefully this post will help you avoid being a randomizer. Don’t be the manager that the team has to manage.

Please share your thoughts below.

 

Related posts on leadership, focus, and decision making:

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Goodbye GitHub: MCE Controller now on CodePlex

I love git. I love GitHub. But GitHub doesn’t seem to appreciate open source projects that require hosting more than source code.

MCE Controller is an open source Windows app intended to be used by non-developers. This means it has an installer, online documentation, and requires a discussion forum for support for end users.

GitHub never really provided great support for this kind of project. For example, there is no forum/discussion feature (although some claim you can use their bug/issue tracker for this). GitHub used to support the ability to host downloadable files such as installers, but a few weeks ago they removed that support.

So MCE Controller has been moved to CodePlex which has nice support for all these things.

In the process I’ve created an updated release, Version 1.8.1, that includes links to the new resources as well as a few bug fixes.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

MCE Controller 1.7 Released – Now Supports RS-232

Serial Server TabBy popular demand (shocking, I know), MCE Controller now supports RS-232 in addition to TCP/IP connections. This means that you can now control any Windows PC via the serial port.

MCE Controller is an open source application I built for my home control system. It makes it easy to integrate Windows PCs with other devices and control systems. Any device that can send strings over TCP/IP or (now!) a serial port can now send commands to a PC running MCE Controller.

For example, sending ‘up’ causes the equivalent of an up-arrow keystroke. Or sending ‘screensaver’ causes the Windows screen saver to kick in on the target PC.

You can simulate mouse, keyboard, and Media Center remote control input. You can start applications, change windows’ z-orders, and even invoke Windows system functions (e.g. shutdown, standby or hibernate). MCE Controller is extensible as well, allowing you to define your own commands.

Enjoy!

MCE Controller Links:

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Be as Excellent at Saying No as Saying Yes

248264_757341629179_1871075467_nWhile in Amman Jordan last month, I had the opportunity to speak at Amman Tech Tuesdays, a local startup event held every month there. I was asked to talk about what I’ve learned in my career to an audience of about 500 geeks and entrepreneurs.

I decided to talk about focus, a topic dear to my heart. The title of the talk is “Be as Excellent at Saying No as Saying Yes”. 

Below the video of my talk captured by TechSparks. It is just over 6 minutes long.

 

I’m currently writing a longish post on what I learned in Jordan. Be looking for it.

Related posts on focus and decision making:

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.