Cynicism and Technology Careers

The tech world is one of great duplicity and extremes. On one side is a profound optimism on how technology can inspire and change the world and ourselves to achieve great things. On the other however, is a paralyzing cynicism that cripples people on the inside, and with others, can find a painful outlet in forum and social media comments that ignite flame wars and make the Internet a depressing place to be at times.

Over time, I have found that I have gone from being the eternal technology optimist to feeling crippled by cynicism. It is a journey that I was part driver and part captive passenger, but ultimately wound up at my current location, and want to find a way out. Part of that is to look back and try to piece together some of the things that got me to where I am. As I do this, there are five things that struck me as themes that apply to me, and may be valuable to others. Continue reading

Google Glass Open Beta

So as some of you know, I was able to get an invitation for Google Glass last December. Yesterday, Google announced that they are opening the Explorer’s program to the general public as an open beta. The price is still the same, $1,500, but now the only limitation is hardware availability. I posted on the lynda.com blog with more information and links to my courses that I recently completed.

Generally, the technology is cool, but the “Glasshole” stigma is real. I don’t want to be hidden by technology, and I don’t want technology to be the first thing that someone sees when they interact with me. So while the technology has some great specific uses, I’m not quite convinced it is appropriate to wear 24/7. Just like you wouldn’t want to have your cell phone out all the time throughout the day.

The courses I created at lynda.com are interesting. Part of my job as an instructor is to present things in a balanced way. While I have used Glass in public situations, I am not using it in my daily life. It just isn’t right for me, or perhaps I am just not ready for it. You can make the argument either way. Regardless, creating courses on new technology is a lot of fun, and being able to absorb something new and help teach others on how it works is an amazing job and something that I find incredibly fulfilling.

I’d love to hear what you think of Glass, so ping me @sfdesigner and share your thoughts.

IFTIDK: If This, Then I Don’t Know

I have been hearing a lot of the IFTTT workflow where you are able to take inputs, evaluate them in a programmer-esque logical way and then perform an action based on that evaluation. I can see a lot of advantages of being able to manage data streams and organize a disparate number of inputs and put them into a workflow. With so many technologies spanning across multiple ecosystems and companies, the IFTTT workflow serves as a “meta” service that can tie everything together.

But recently, I have been seeing posts and articles that are taking it further by integrating IFTTT deeper into their lives. For example, a recent article on Engadget’s popular IRL series, talks about using it to automatically post photos to Flikr and other integrate other services together. But when I saw this it struck me as incredibly mechanical and impersonal. If I want to share something, shouldn’t that require me taking the time to make the effort?

There was a recent episode of Mad Men where one of the characters was chastised for having their assistant buy the presents, cards, flowers, or other gifts for their spouse or loved one. In a way, IFTTT is a digital personal assistant, but does giving the reins over to an automated process take the humanness out of it? If I use IFTTT to post on social media, is it from me, or my automated workflow? What part of “me” have I put into it?

We are inundated by tons of new information and sources of data, more so each day. I enjoy putting my personal mark on what I post or have it come from my own fingers or interactions with it instead of just “having something take care of it” for me. I use tools to help send information between things, but it passes by my eyes, and I am the one that presses, “OK”.

Product Management: Get Past the Data

I want to open this with an apology. To every engineer, customer, designer and partner I have worked with before as a product manager: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for giving you canned answers. I’m sorry for not listening. I’m sorry for not relying on your instincts. I’m sorry for not putting faith in your expertise.

Admitting you had a problem, is, as they say, the first step towards recovery. I have recently been exposed to accounts of these flaws from people being in a situation where he or she had to be on the other side of the table. Being the recipient of product management is frustrating and in some ways paralyzing and demoralizing.

The phrase, “I’m going to do what is right, based on data” is a statement that should be eliminated from any conversation. It is one that I have used myself because it is used when you are in a position where you aren’t a subject matter expert, but need to show a position of strength. The problem though is that product management is the most pure form of partnership. You are responsible for everything, but own nothing.

But if you are going to be that true partner, you need to dive in deep. Not just understand the user, but to be the user. This is where there is a lot of grey area in the field, because not everyone can be an expert on everything. It has, however, helped me in so many ways and I have navigated my career based on roles, products and technologies that I use, not just know about.

While I was a product manager, there were a few tenets that I tried to adhere to. If I have to rely entirely on data to make decisions, I need to get out. The things that have worked best for me have been when I feel deep inside what I believe is right and back that up with data. Data-first product management is cold. It lacks emotion, empathy, and the spirit that a user brings to it. It ignores the human element of what makes a product great.

With any product, that intuition comes from many sources, not just the product manager. For everyone that you partner with, all of their “human-ness” needs to flow into the product manager, so that the instinct isn’t just based on one source.

Because the responsibility for success rides on the product manager, the result can sometimes lead to arrogant behavior. Phrases like “I know” enter into the conversation too often, because the basis for that statement is founded on data research. But it has a devastating effect on relationships and actually turns away people that you ultimately need to work with to succeed.

When I hear that, I immediately try to respond with, “I don’t care what you know, I want to know what you feel.” feelings are personal and are based on experiences in addition to data. Feelings are relatable and open to discussion. They aren’t infallible, which leads to risk, but also greater rewards.

The products I have managed I have approached first as a user, because I was a user. I used that experience as a leading indicator for where I needed to go. Focus and pinpointing the course were based on data. It was when I moved to products that I didn’t know as well that I started to falter, because I wasn’t funneling the collective experience of everyone I was working with and for to build that instinct to take me forward.

The notion that the product manager is the CEO of a product is bunk. You are not ordained with authority, and you are not positioned as a single leader of a team. You are one of many that synthesizes the experiences of your users, team and yourself into a belief–a feeling, that drives you forward to do what is right based on your human perceptions, not just data.

“I need to update by blog” and other geek procrastinations

Something I say a lot, and hear a lot from fellow geeks is: “I wish I had time to update my blog”. I have been guilty of this for a very long time, and even now, I’m writing a post, but it will be posted in an old theme that really doesn’t capture who I am right now.

Why is it that geeks put these things off? When I look back at other things that I put off, there is a theme: configuration. Anything that requires me to configure something, be it a new printer, a new wireless router, restoring a computer that needs to be reset or reformatted—they are all things that I tend to put off.

Personally, I think that the difference is between the act of “doing” something, versus setting something up to do something. I prefer to do something, but hate the act of doing stuff to actually make that happen. As a result, I find myself blocked from actually doing things, which then gets me down and then I get discouraged. So while it may not be exciting, I need to take the time to enable myself to do things so I can allow myself to actually do as much as possible.

What I’m Expecting: Microsoft Build 2013

Next week is Microsoft’s annual developer conference, Build, which is located in my hometown of San Francisco this year.

Last year was my first attending Build. I generally really enjoyed the conference, but the venue was too split up between two buildings on the Microsoft campus, I’m hoping that this year being in a single location will help the conference.

I’m expecting that most of the sessions will be on Windows 8.1 app development, and perhaps on Office 365 app development. While I would love to see Windows Phone 8.1 information, I don’t think it will be ready in time, but we may get a small preview of what might be coming, which would be great. The last piece that I’m hoping is more information on Xbox development, specifically with the Xbox One.

In terms of announcements, other than the obvious Windows 8.1 announcement, I’m hoping to see more information on the next generation of the Surface line. With the proposed rumors of moving to Qualcomm chips, and the introduction of Haswell on the Surface Pro side, it would be great to see refreshed hardware. My biggest complaint with the Surface has been the difficulty in working with the device on the couch or in a chair without a stable surface. Having a laptop dock for the Surface would be great, but I’m not expecting to hear anything about this. With the new Acer 8″ tablet that was announced, it would be great to see a Surface 8″ device released or previewed to take advantage of the smaller form factor and some of the new enhancements in Windows 8.1.

On the mobile front, I’m not sure if we will see any new hardware from Nokia. I was hoping to see an announcement on the “EOS”, the PureView inspired ultra-high megapixel Lumia variant that should be coming out, but with Nokia holding a press event next month, my hopes of getting my hands on one have faded.

While I’m not doing development as much as I was before (see my last post), it would be interesting to see if the HTML5 authoring story has been advanced more, including new developer tooling support, and proposed WebGL integration into Internet Explorer 11, and perhaps tied in with Windows 8 app development as well.

Should be a fun week! Looking forward to attending…

Hanging up my Hat

Over the last few months, I have been struggling with some fundamental aspects of who I am, what my interests are, and how they fulfill me. Something I have noticed as I get older is that when you feel low and need to regroup and find something that you enjoy, that you go back to the things you always liked and wrap yourself within it like a warm blanket. The trick though is that the things that bring you happiness and fulfillment yesterday aren’t necessarily going to work with who you are today.

Take coding and programming. When I was a child, I was very lonely. I didn’t have many friends, and I would seek refuge at my computer, creating computer programs and games to extend my fantasy life and to play. As I got older, I tried to take programming and make it something that was part of my career. I was good, and I enjoyed it, but without realizing it, I started to hit a wall. As the world of programming and software development got more complex, I was really struggling with making that leap and growing with it.

This happened in two ways. First, I found that I was in a career where I wasn’t required to code anymore. I was working as a product manager and as a teacher. When I looked at my former developer colleagues sticking with their career, they had to evolve and grow their programming disciplines and skills to keep pace with the industry. I didn’t have the same challenges, so I didn’t need to grow and evolve the same way.

I would look at myself and would criticize myself for standing still. I looked at myself two-dimensionally. I would look straight on and see my developer colleagues moving on one axis and I would just be standing there, immobile. But if you angled the camera on myself off to the side and look at the situation in three-dimensions, I actually was moving, but perpendicularly to my colleagues. I was moving, but just in a different direction.

Now this isn’t to say that I don’t love technology, but my tastes have changed. I used to think that my love for technology was about building and creating. One of the scariest moments in my life recently was when I was faced with the fact that I didn’t love building and creating anymore, that I, in turn, didn’t love technology anymore as well. I freaked out and felt that I had wasted so much of my life on something that I didn’t enjoy. I was so upset that I remember I went out and got blackout drunk at the idea that what I thought was the biggest love of my life was meaningless and unfulfilling to me.

The idea of losing anything in my life is extremely difficult; but that is usually from things external to me moving away. Be it friends, jobs, achievements—they all were external to me. It was even more unfathomable to consider loosing something because I was pulling myself away from it, using my own energy and drive. Especially when it was something that was so important to me and so formative for my childhood.

But the truth though is that I’m just a different person than I was before. I would hang out with my friends and they would talk about their latest coding projects and my eyes would glaze over because either I didn’t understand, didn’t comprehend, or I was reminded that I this interest was one that didn’t make me very happy anymore.

But recently when I have talked about this with other people, they all come to the same conclusion that I had never considered: “Why is this necessarily a problem?” It is true, there is no problem with getting older, changing interests, finding new passions in life, and adjusting things. The only problem is not allowing yourself to be happy and feel fulfilled.

The best analogy that someone told me is how much I love rearranging my office. I’ll move things around, put things away, bring things back out, and I’ll love it when it is done. Then a few months later I’ll do it again and it will be a different combination of things that I will equally love. What I keep thinking in my mind is that I’ll eventually find the perfect desk setup that I’ll stick with forever, but that will never happen, just like I’ll never find the perfect combination of interests, hobbies and fulfillment from the same things throughout my life.

So while my job involves technology, I’m going to hang up my hat as a developer in my personal life and embrace the new passions I have in my life: lacrosse, fitness, music, and writing. These will change over time as well, but right now, when I sit down at my computer and try to code and dive into what gave me passion and life I feel sad, frustrated, and unfulfilled—and as a result, rob myself of time and opportunity to do things that I love and make me happy today.

So fear not, I ain’t going anywhere, I’m just changing directions—and who knows, I may be right back to where I was, but that is part of the fun, right?