What are we shipping today?

Ask any of the PMs who have worked with me, they will say that this is my favourite statement. I ask this statement at least once a day to them.

I was talking about this with one of the PMs who works with me, and I thought I would share some of the conversation highlights here.

  • Shipping is the most important outcome that any PM needs to aspire towards, at any given time. The more you ship, the better you are.
  • The primary reason for existence for a PM (in my humble opinion) is to ship. Sure, programmers code. Designers make the product beautiful and usable. Business folks give their requirements. Marketing folks get out the word. Customer support teams are on standby. But what is the use of all of this, if you do not ship. The PM is the glue that enables all of this to come together and ‘happen’.
  • Example of ‘shipping’ being considered a real (and an important) thing — the famous ship-it awards in Microsoft. Every stakeholder who was part of a release used to get a Ship-it award (a tiny trophy kind of thingie). MS folks proudly display these ship-it awards on their desks.
  • A lot of PMs that I know (including yours truly) come into this field from Engineering, Marketing, and various other fields. In most cases, we have boarded this ship, as a leap of faith. As a matter of fact, the best PMs are the ones who learnt on the go. It is incredibly hard to ‘explain’ to someone, or to ‘teach’ someone about ‘PM-ship’ (no puns intended). In these cases, the only way to ward off self-doubt (which is bound to happen) whether you did the right thing — is to ship. You keep shipping. And the spiral is always upward.
  • Shipping creates tangible outcomes. And it reinforces.
  • Ship incrementally. If this is not an option, get your devs to at least commit incrementally.
  • Lastly, you are known by what you ship.

The original conversation was a very free-wheeling conversation during our 1-1. And so, was this recollection of thoughts. The above is in no particular order.


(Cover image source)


Hiring decision should not be democratic

A hiring decision should never be a democratic decision.

The interview panel gives its recommendations -> and then the hiring manager gives his observations. It is the hiring manager’s single call – with the recommendations factored in.

Some mechanics and rules (such as categorization between hire/no-hire/weak-hire etc) can be brought in to break ties and help the hiring manager strengthen his view point, but it should be just that.

The hiring manager should have his veto call over the others. The accountability rests on him to hire whom he thinks is the best hire. The buck ends with him. The minute it becomes democratic, the buck starts circling. The accountability dilutes and spreads out. There is no skin in the game. Too safe. No risks. This can never end well.

How to hire Designers

img src: https://pixabay.com/en/photos/ui/

Portfolios: HR sourced UI/UX candidates for me. We took on only resumes which had pointers to their portfolio (in Behance or elsewhere). If they did not have a portfolio, I did not consider them serious enough to be applying to us.

UI/UX designers vs Creative Designers: There is a fair amount of ambiguity that candidates typically play on, between UI/UX and creative designers.

My definition of a UI/UX designer is a combination of visual design and interaction design. In other words, the candidate should have designed web or app flows (or atleast part of them). These guys have the knack of leading a user through a flow. They know the importance of consistency, primary colors, templates etc.

Creative designers (per my definition) are those who focus exclusively on visual design. These are folks who are exceptional at creating marketing collateral content (such as ads, brochures, posters etc). These are guys who are awesome at designing stuff that will catch your attention. They know the contours and contrasts that will stand out. They know the colour palettes that will work better on banner ads vs print vs mobile.

While hiring for your designers, you should be able to distinguish (to a large extent) at the very beginning what kind of work that they have done, and what their strengths are. Most folks tend to sell to you that, they can do both. I am not a full believer in that yet.

Talk to the candidates: My lead designer and I used to have an intro call with every one of these candidates. You can figure out the ambiguity that I talk about (above) very easily in this call. Talk to them to get a feeling of whether they would fit in, into the culture. See if they can express themselves to you. They need not be eloquent (most aren’t) but they need to get their point across.

Sample project: Those, who pass the phone call, I had our lead designer send out a sample project to them. Depending on your timeline to hire, this can be as small as redesigning/reimagining a page on an existing app/website; to as big as redesigning a process (the payment flow for instance). We used to give adequate times for these. The smaller projects are 1-2 days, and the larger ones 3-4 days. There is a reason for this. Designers typically take time. One cannot push designers hard, like you can do to engineers. More number of hours does not equals more work, in the case of designers.

We also took a look at how these sample projects were submitted. It shows the seriousness of the candidate. There will be candidates who will submit PDFs. They will be some who will submit sketch files. And there will be some really good ones, who will give you an invision file, with sample click behavior and everything.

In-house interview: For the in-house interview, the candidate should talk to one Product Manager (PM), one front end engineer, lead designer, and the hiring manager. If all goes well, one round with the HR.

You probably guessed why the above people were chosen to interact with the candidate. Yes. These are the guys who will be working with the designer. They are the stake holders. You need to know how the designer interacts with a PM and a front end developer. These are one of the touchiest relationships.

The PM dreams of impossible stuff to design, and the front-end engineer would refuse to code it up. And the designer is stuck in the middle, typically. How assertive is the designer? How much data is being requested from the PM? Is the designer trying to understand why the front end engineer is saying, something is not possible?

The interview with the designer is typically to touch upon the technicalities. What are the tools he is familiar with? Is he an expert user? Or very novice. How well does he know his interaction design? A lot of this would have come through the sample project. Typically the lead designer (or me) would probe as to why the designer designed the sample project in a certain way. If there is any plagiarism or this was a fluke, this will come out now.

History and lessons learnt: Contrary to what everyone thinks, the designers job is a very hard one – playing to the tunes of multiple people and scenarios. They have to walk a very thin line between being creative, and delivering within time pressures ; between making a noticeable change, and preserving your style guide ; between taking up a largish revamp of a page, and making a dozen tweaks for the short term ; taking a call between what the PM thinks, the designer thinks, and the customer perceives. I typically ask the designer, what are the lessons he has learnt on the job, while being a designer, and listen. I would expect some of these above thoughts to come out. If they did not, he has been too passive a member, and has not contributed enough. I probe into some of these thoughts, and see what are the learnings that the designer has been exposed to.

Endnote: I had hired a lot of engineers in my career, but hiring designers is a totally different ball game. It is not a 0-1 decision problem. You cannot hire a designer because he knows his tools really well. Designers are creative types, and for a large fraction of them, it is hard to gauge attitude and personality. It needs time and effort to hire the best designers. But once you get them, you are set.

DisclaimersWe were a product based company. I was hiring UI/UX designers.


Pride and Joy

img src: https://www.pexels.com/photo/adult-apple-device-business-code-340152/

As a leader, the two most important things you can gift your team is pride and joy. Your team should enjoy their work and feel pride in what they worked on. These are the two fundamental premises that I base leadership on. If you are able to enable this for your team, you are a good leader.

Most other leadership traits and good working environments are derived from this base. Let us take a couple of examples, and see.

  • Great teams pour their heart out into building cool stuff. Have we all not realized that, we put in our best effort if we enjoy what we are doing?
  • Growth – Most folks grow in their career paths when they accomplish significant milestones. I measure milestones by impact. And people realize significant impact that they are making, when they feel proud. Pride swells when you accomplish more and more.

It is a cyclic process too. When you enjoy the work you do, you achieve more, feel pride, which makes you reinforce the joy in your work.

What do I look for, when I hire.

img src: https://vimeo.com/62395898

Interviews are a shot in the dark. You never know the state of the candidate on that one date, and deciding his fate based on how he solves a certain analytical problem, has never seemed the right thing to me.

What they have done earlier: I always ask about one project that the candidate has done in her previous work experience that she is most comfortable with. I ask the candidate, to then, go in depth, and explain to me. There are a few things that I can assess from this question:

  • Depth of knowledge: While knowledge of depth first trees and red-black trees are important, what I feel is more important, is how they have applied this knowledge. I go deep and probe into the problem, assessing, how deep the candidate has understood the problem, and the involvement with which it was solved.
  • Applied problem solving: How was the problem solved? You can test, how the candidate has applied existing algorithm techniques, or data structures to solve this problem. I ask “why so?” and “why not?” questions to see if the candidate took these decisions in an informed manner, or was she just implementing what she was told.
  • Big picture: I typically ask, where the particular piece that was developed new, or fixed, goes in the large product, or project. This gives me an idea as to how much the engineer is focused on the larger picture. The great candidates would know exactly ‘why’ they are fixing a problem, or developing a new feature.
  • Customer empathy: Yes. Every project has a customer. It might be external, or internal, but everything has an end-user. A developer in another team, consuming your API is a consumer too. I ask questions on how the candidate kept the consumer in mind. You get a lot from this question.
  • Communication skills: Was the candidate able to explain to me in a structured, lucid manner, about the problem, and how it was solved? I place very high importance in this facet. This is not to be confused with presentation skills. I do not expect engineers to be brilliant presenters (they are a few, I know of, though!). But, they should be able to communicate well enough to QA, PM, Design, and management. Else, there is huge productivity wasted here.

Attitude towards learning: Let us all agree, that, there is no one who knows everything. No one. So the best candidate, to me, is one, who realises this, and has an open slate to learn anything that is required, to do her job efficiently. There are a few ways by which I gauge this. I ask how much the candidate has learnt in the recent past. I ask about good projects and bad projects in recent past. I look for, if the candidate mentions her learnings on good and bad projects. I ask if something completely greenfield is thrown at the candidate, what would she do? Her structured methodology to crack it. I look for google, quora, online MOOCs etc.

Team player: While this seems cliche, I place a lot of important in this. I observe the candidate keenly on behavioural aspects. I ask questions such as, how the interactions with other teams such as QA, Design, PMs are? I seed sly questions such as – “These designers just don’t get technology, do they?” and observe. If there is one thing that I cannot tolerate, it is jerks. There is no place for brilliant jerks on my team. Sorry, cannot tolerate it. I will take a week more, with a slightly lesser brilliant engineer, but I would rather have fun doing it. Life is short. I want the engineer, and the team, to have pride in what they built, and jerks hamper this beautiful emotion.

Thinking process (PM interviews): I usually toss in a large green field project, such as “Growth for a Boutique Online Coffee Roasting Company”. I give the PM a few minutes alone. Once back, we work through the scenario together. I gauge structured thinking process here. I see how the PMs are making assumptions and communicating to me. I watch how the PMs react to suggestions from me. Is she accepting everything I am saying? Is she contradicting appropriately? If so, how is the dialog? Prodded deep enough, you check attitude here as well. I can sense condescension from a mile away.

I was thinking about all this today morning, and I thought, it would be good if penned these down here as well. I have been using these techniques for more than a decade for interviewing folks, and to a large extent, hit success. Sure, there were a few misses, but then, like I said, interviews are a shot in the dark. In the case of misses, you just need to realise it quickly and rectify.

Inference and Insights

This came up in a recent meeting with the Product team at work. We were talking about data and how in recent times, we have gotten a ton of it. We were also talking about how some of this data was actionable, and some was just there. In some areas, data was just becoming very hairy and unmanageable.

We spoke about Inferences vs Insights.

Inferences: You look at all your data. You crunch what you require. You ignore/delete what does not matter to you. You separate out key metrics and secondary metrics.

Insights: These are trends and patterns that you spot in your inferences. You then distill them, cross-reference them, and derive insights out of them. Because of a drop in metric x1, and a corresponding metric x2, the resulting derived metric had a double increase to x3. Add to it, seasonal variations, of a corresponding period in the last year, you get an insight as to whether what you have ‘built’ has been worth it or not.

Getting inferences is more or less a science, but distilling insights is almost an art. It takes experience, and an open perspective to effectively derive insights.

Insights also serve another purpose. They serve as basis for hypothesis, and experiments. You get insights using a subset of data, for a period of time, which leads you to make a hypothesis, which in turn you experiment for a different period of time (or a different subset of data), to prove it.

The above was the effective crux of the discussion that we had, and I thought this might be valuable as food-for-thought (if not anything else), for the few folks who read my blog. 

img src: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/big-data-insights-found-unexpected-places-austin-wentzlaff

Company Culture and the Universal Workforce

I was reading this great HBR article on how praise and how it is delivered is very important. The article highlights the importance of this via an example of a manager from Germany working with a universal work force. As widely perceived, German culture is heavily result and detail oriented and quantitative. Praise, is often offered as an acknowledgement of the quantitative work delivered. The article described the manager as not being very comfortable with the american way of praise – such as saying “Good job” etc. And this lack of praise got folks to leave.

I do agree with this a 100%. And I would like to extend this to general cultural sensitivity. I work from India in a company spread across at least two geographies. And the folks on the US side are from even more diverse geographic backgrounds (such as the middle east). It is super important to understand the cultural context of the specific team you work with. In the current environment, there is no way, this can be generalized across the company.

Company culture cannot be decentralized either. Local managers (like me) are expected to handle the cultural implications of the local geography. While this is a noble idea, assuming that the local managers know best, it is necessary but not sufficient. This is because, given the increasing amounts of participation from remote geographies on larger projects, it is not just the local manager that the individual contributors work with. More often than not, on a day to day basis, engineers work with other engineers (or their engineering managers on the other side of the ocean). While the local managers tries his or her best to accommodate these cultural conundrums, if the relationship with the others are suffering, there could be bad side effects. This could work against the effort put in my the local manager, and hence making the local manager unhappy as well. Classic examples of cultural differences in the Indian context would be religious festivals (or pujas or functions) where the entire family congregates. In the American context, other than Christmas and Thanksgiving, there are probably no other similarities. Another example is the case of a close family member recuperating from surgery, where the employee would take some time off, or work from home. Again, in the American context, the love and affection is reflected in the quality of health care and care givers that the family member provides.

In closing, my firm belief is that, management in the 21st century is not just project management or technical management. If you are working in what we, in India, call an MNC (or a multi-national-company), management includes educating your peer managers in other geographies on your local cultural context. It also includes you learning from your peer managers about their cultural context and propagating to your team. The more the engineers in your team understand this, the more comfortable the work distribution and interactions become.

(reblogged from filterkaapi.in)

Ranting and Bitching


Rands has done it again. A very nice read for people managers in the tech world. I have experienced this first hand in my few years of management experience. It is defenitely true that, our first instinct as a manager is to see if you can act and fix the problem leading to the rant. But then most often than not, the rant is just a bunch of unorganized information that comes out of the employee, that he (or she) shares in the act of trust. The employee feels that talking about this to you makes him (or her) relieved. The most important thing is to determine when to act. The essay has a few nice pointers on that – such as “has this rant come in multiple times before?” Is the person ranting in pain? Is the impact leading to failure? Understanding and categorizing the rant is key.


(img src: flickr)