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

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. If leaders don’t learn and practice skills for controlling flow of ideas, their teams will fail.

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 a tool like the 5Ps could really help.

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 that I was spouting these ideas while the team was 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, after 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, and an idea person, 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 team of mountain climbers 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 business 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

The “Plan” part of the 5Ps is 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 two hour “Future Planning” meeting about six weeks into an ten 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 and Live Them

A project’s principles (or tenets) 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 like 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 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 feature or 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.

Four Things I Learned in Jordan

The Treasury At Petra

I wrote a guest post for the Huffington Post on Dec 7, 2012. You can read the full post here, but here’s the TL;DR:

  • If the Middle East can stay relatively stable for just 10-15 more years, entrepreneurship will have a major long-term positive impact on the social-economic future of the region.
  • As the Middle East grows as a source of commerce and technology for the rest of the world, Arab women entrepreneurs will be the region’s most powerful and differentiated asset.
  • I previously did not understand what “Arabia” meant. I, like most Westerners, thought the Arab world was defined by a combination of geography and religion. I now understand how important the Arabic language is to what it means to be an Arab.
  • There is very little adoption of electronic payment systems in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. Changing the structural and cultural barriers to using electronic payments will cause more economic growth in the region than any other factor.
© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Apps are Dead. Long Live Experiences. Powered by Buddy.

Dinner

I like to get people’s attention by asserting “apps are dead”. I do this because it causes people to pause and think about what “apps” really are. After Apple started the app explosion in 2008 most apps were primarily client-side code. Today, however, it is almost impossible to find an app that does not rely on at least some Internet based service. In fact the apps most people use most of the time are almost all server-side code. The client-side code is there to project the experience on to one of many devices the user may have.

I also believe “apps are dead” because the end-user value proposition is no longer based on some piece of code a user buys in an app store on their device, but an entire experience they choose to use that spans all of their devices.  These experiences are powered by Internet (aka cloud) services. Examples of what I mean by experiences are Pandora, Kindle, Xbox LIVE, Netflix, Facebook, Gmail, and even The Walking Dead. All of these “apps” are available on all my devices and are curated over time.

Experiences are the new app.

Building great experiences requires the brand that is building them to be excellent at some core competency. For example, the people at American Idol need to be excellent at producing TV shows, identifying artists, managing Steven Tyler, and other things related to the entertainment industry. But to extend their experience beyond the TV (which they do) they also need to deliver excellent client-side code for a myriad of devices that connects to stable, secure, and scalable, Internet scale services.

In talking with brands and developers building these types of experiences three things are clear:

  1. They want to focus on their core competencies.
  2. Dealing with cross-platform mobile client development is their biggest challenge.
  3. Building Internet scale services is their second biggest challenge.

I’ve written extensively on why I think solutions like Xamarin’s can really help ease the pain of cross-platform mobile development (and why I think HTML5 and WORA is a fallacy).

This post is focused on the third problem: The challenge of building Internet scale services.

In the past two years this trend away from “apps” has led to a bunch of new products intended to make it easier for brands, agencies, and developers to build  experiences. These new products range from Amazon’s AWS which provides what people call IaaS, or Infrastructure as a Service, to Heroku, which provides PaaS, or Platform as a Service. I see a place for all of these offerings (although there’s going to be some serious consolidation in the next few years given the number of these offerings that exist today).

The existing IaaS and PaaS offerings all make it easier for you, as a brand or developer, to write code that runs on the server.

I’m a huge fan of the newest type of “aaS” product, that is designed to enable you to power your experiences by not having to write ANY code on the server. These products are known as “BaaS” or Backend as a Service offerings. I’m a huge fan because my experience building the Windows Phone application platform, and engaging with all of the brands, publishers, and developers building apps made me realize the pain.

BaaS solutions are pain killers for brands and publishers and “It’s far easier to sell a pain killer than a vitamin.”

This is why I am an advisor and investor in one of the leading BaaS providers:  The Buddy Platformclip_image002

Most BaaS providers provide low-level constructs in their service. I found the diagram below that illustrates the low-level kind of thinking these providers embody:

The Buddy Platform is unique amongst the BaaS providers in two primary ways:

  1. Buddy provides a set of scenario based APIs.  Instead of just providing low-level primitives like collections and entities, Buddy also provides high-level constructs focused on the scenarios most mobile experiences need. 
  2. The scenario based approach enables Buddy to track API usage with high “semantic knowledge”. This enables Buddy to provide amazingly powerful real-time analytic information about the experience, and the users who use the experience.

Buddy’s APIs are built around the scenarios in this poster: 

BuddyVerse

To illustrate the concept of “scenario-based” consider Pictures.  Instead of just providing a blob store with search and indexing, which is what other BaaS providers do, Buddy provides high-level constructs for photo albums and image filters. With Buddy, it is a trivial exercise to build an Instagram clone.

Another example is the Game API which, instead of just providing the developer with raw table/collections APIs, provides facilities for tracking players and scores. It includes player ranking semantics, boards, and supports tracking in-game state on a per-user basis.

DiagramBrands building experiences today are clueless about how and where users are using their apps. They would love to know how many mobile users are using the app in a coffee shop versus a bar, for example. They are hungry for the data, but building the back-end systems that collect it and synthesize it is out of their reach. Buddy’s scenario-based approach provides deep analytic information about a brand’s customers.

The Buddy Platform provides a complete back-end-as-a-service without writing a single line of server side code. Publishers get Internet scale performance and scalability without having to buy any servers. The scenario based APIs allow the service to provide the incredibly valuable analytic data that would require an entire team to build.

Today, Buddy launched a new component of the Buddy Platform: Commerce as a Service.

Everyone and their brother is trying to build in-app commerce solutions. In particular, doing in-app commerce in Facebook apps and games is huge right now (and a pain in the butt). Buddy’s new “Commerce as a Service” solution makes it ridiculously easy to build a Facebook app or game that supports purchasing things within the experience.

Publishers can now manage inventory outside of the app, and generate rich user insight via a robust analytics platform cross-referenced with purchase history. Using the Buddy Developer Portal the publisher manages a database of goods listings with prices and item metadata. “Store APIs” are provided to pull store inventory in real-time. These new APIs combine with the other Buddy APIs to optimize inventory, offer targeted promotions and cross reference purchase history against other information such as user demographics, social engagement, geo-location and other in-app activities.

imageAn end-to-end user experience is a cohesive combination of devices, people, brands, channels, services, and content that improves over time.

For years people (BigCos, startups, investors, and users) have viewed the “app” as the center of the universe. And in the heyday of the Apple App Store this made sense.  But the proliferation of mobile platforms and the desire of brands to reach the largest number of customers means that, now days, this is flawed thinking. The new centerpiece of the consumer computing value proposition is the end-to-end user experience, and that user experience must be available on multiple platforms and is powered by cloud services.

IaaS, SaaS, and BaaS providers hold a unique, valuable, position in the industry right now. I’ve been extremely impressed with the Buddy team and their ability to build what I think is a unique pain killer for publishers and brands. They are on a roll with landing Nokia and regularly improving their offering with things like the new Commerce as a Service API.

Related posts:

What are your thoughts? Comment below.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Word as a Blog Writer? Finally?

I have fallen in love with Windows Live Writer as a blogging tool. I love how it reads & writes to my blog seamlessly, how it renders my posts within the editor as they’ll be posted, and how it handles images and other uploads easily.

So I’ve been pretty disappointed that there is no version of Windows Live Writer that works on Surface.

@AlexBream just made me aware that Word 2013 has a “Blog Template” that appears to work well. I’m composing this with Word 2013 on my Surface to see how well it works.

Pros:

  • Full Word editor.
  • Posts can be round tripped to my WordPress based blog. I was able to publish a first draft of this as a “draft” and then open it from my blog to continue editing. This is a great thing about Writer that I use frequently because I’m often using different computers andmlike to treat the copy stored on my blog as ‘truth’.
  • I was expecting to see the typical horrific HTML Word normally generates (with all that mso: crud), but was pleased to see the tool emits only the bare minimum. It does however, put style information that it shouldn’t (see below).
  • Images pasted in get uploaded automatically.

Cons:

  • Not WYSIWYG. No local theme. This sucks as it is one of the best things about Writer: It brings down your blog’s theme and presents an editor that is WYSIWYG. With Word the font I am looking at as I type this is Times New Roman and the margins are as though I have an 8.5″ piece of paper to work with.
  • Not only does it not pull down my theme and use that, but it embeds font styling in the uploaded HTML. Note this post is in the wrong font? Lame. Super lame.
  • Copy & paste is a critical task in writing blog posts. Surface/Win8’s text selection and copy/paste system is sub-optimal, especially using touch. Keyboard shortcuts help as does the mouse pad on the Surface Touch Cover. This is not a Word vs. Writer issue, really, but an overall Surface problem. A native (Metro!) Writer app could help.
  • Categories do not appear to sync (and I can’t actually see what categories I’ve selected…rendering bug?). Actually, the whole Category feature appears completely broken to me.
  • Slow – Word on ARM is a dog. For example, dragging the screen shot to the right around was a painful experience. 2-3 seconds between each drag operation before I could re-engage.

I’m not impressed and until I find a better tool, won’t be using Surface to do any blog posts…

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Computer Vision Explosion

We are about to see an explosion in the use of computer vision systems. If you thought Kinect was cool or you think Creepy Cameraman is scary, the technology right around the corner, and its impact on our lives will blow you away.

We’ve all dreamt of the day when natural user interface (NUI) systems were “real”. For example, in 1984 I built, as a high school project a system that allowed my school to do a mock Presidential election…by voting via speech. I wish I could find the specs on the voice recognition card I used for the Apple ][ (or even the code I wrote <sad face>), but suffice to say the promise was big, the results…not so much.

I sincerely believe (again?) that we are finally, really, truly, on the cusp of a NUI explosion. We’ve seen massive improvements in the real-world usage of touch (iPhone), voice (Siri), and computer vision (Kinect) the the last few years. I think this is just the beginning. 

There will be huge strides made in voice and touch based input, but in my view, the area where our world will be rocked the most is in computer vision. Cameras are everywhere. They are dirt cheap. They can see things we can’t. And as amazing as the tech in Kinect is at decoding all those signals, interpreting them, and figuring out your body’s intent is, you haven’t seen anything yet.

I had the chance to visit Israel in 2011. I met with several companies in the computer vision space and visited several of the top Israeli university research groups working on computer vision. I was under NDA so I can’t discuss details, but I’m sure you are aware that Israel has been leading the way in computer vision technology.

I found it amusing the Creepy Cameraman story and this story on a new Microsoft patent came across my feed at about the same time.  I also recently upgraded the CCTV system in my house from analog cameras circa 2002 to modern IP based digital cameras (I use a GeoVision based CCTV DVR system that is functional but very haphazardly implemented).

These modern cameras all record 1080p in real time with audio. The software I have is just OK, but is nowhere near state of the art.

Another example: sports cameras such as GoPro and Countour. Next time you are a bike event, out on the lake, or skiing notice how many people are wearing these cams. The quality is fantastic and they are getting dirt cheap.

Remember, that due to networks, we have the ability to combine camera inputs from multiple sources, meaning that future computer vision systems will not be integrated as Kinect is today.

Some scenarios where I see breakthroughs coming:

  • Detecting and tracking people’s emotional state. Imagine your TV being able to sense whether you are happy, scared, sad, or mad and adjusting the content to either amplify that state or change it. This could be used for good (making a game even more immersive) or bad (adjusting advertising).
  • Predicting intent. By understanding ‘normal’ behavior games, user interfaces, and other systems will be able to predict what you are going to do, before you do it.
  • Tele-presence. Kinect shows how easy (ha!) it currently is to allow a computer to, in real-time, build a 3D model of human bodies and do intelligent things (control a game). We also know its easy (ha!) to map photorealistic imagery on 3D models with Google/Bing/Apple Maps.  Combine these technologies and it’s not a stretch to see Princess Lea floating in front of R2D2.
  • Augmented Reality. The work Google is doing on Glasses is a great example. I can imagine combining my the three other examples above with not only a head mounted camera, but also a more direct input into the human vision system (a tiny monitor you wear like glasses is actually pretty lame; I’m much more excited about research going on regarding directly inserting imagery into the brain).

Most importantly, I think, is the impact these breakthroughs will have on mobile. I joke that I think “Mobile is Dead”. What I really mean is that I think mobile is now ubiquitous and everywhere and that it’s high time we stop thinking about it as some discrete ‘space’.

What do you think? What scenarios do you see coming? What are the risks to society and industry?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.