Predictions for the future

I was thinking about a few things that 20-30 years from now (our children) would be surprised that our generation thought was ‘normal’. I’ve broken this up into two categories – predictions where I have higher confidence and predictions where I have lower confidence.

Higher confidence

  • Driving cars: Much of the the research and data points to autonomous vehicles being the future of transportation. Lower rates of accidents (1m people die per year with 95% of deaths caused by human error), increased independence, reduced traffic, fewer parking spots and lower ‘wasted’ time from travelers makes this very compelling. I think our kids will think that we were ‘crazy’ to do something so dangerous every day. ‘Classic’ cars will still exist but they will be more focused on collectors and enthusiasts vs. a common mode of transportation.
  • Eating meat: I am a meat eater and enjoy eating meat. However, I realize that eating meat is inhumane, bad for the environment (deforestation, fresh water usage and greenhouse gasses) and an inefficient way of generating calories. We are much more likely to enjoy plant-based, lab grown ‘meat’ like the products from Beyond Meat (now served at McDonalds) and Impossible Foods – which are only going to become cheaper to produce over time.Like ‘classic cars’ it’s possible that consumers will still be able to buy meat but it will become much more expensive and rare and not a common mode of calorie consumption.
  • Mental health: As modern medicine allows us to extend life, cure disease and regenerate our bodies it’s entirely possible that (wealthy) humans will not die of natural causes in the next generation. As we live longer and longer, I think we are going to be more mindful of our mental health and not just our physical health. There will be better measures of overall mental health, preventative check ups with mental health specialists (like we do annual physical check ups now). We will also integrate time for meditation or reflection as part of our daily routine just as we do with physical exercise now.

Lower confidence

  • Owning a primary residence: Fewer people are buying homes (marrying later and higher student debt) and I think this trend is going to continue. Young people are spending more money on consumption and want optionality to move around. I also think that many people (in the US) have too much of their net worth concentrated in a single asset and would be better placed investing in a more diversified manner. I think there are lots of emotional reasons to purchase a home – e.g. roots in a community and family stability which is why I have lower confidence in this prediction.
  • Drinking alcohol: Drinking alcohol is terrible for you – we’re essentially poisoning our bodies. Studies have shown that alcohol is both more dangerous to individuals and to society than a number of illegal drugs. However, as humans we crave products that help us feel more relaxed, less inhibited, and facilitate shared social experience with others. Also many cultures all around the world have their own alcoholic drinks that are an important part of their history, and there is a massive $1.5 trillion global industry around alcohol production and consumption. Drinking might be too ingrained in society to go away, but I’ll follow how young people behave closely.

Thanks for reading – I wrote this mostly for fun and to capture my thoughts at a single point in time on how the world may change in the future.

Podcasts – my faves

In addition to audio books, I love listening to podcasts. I use Overcast and listen to most podcasts on around 1.25-1.5x speed without any noticeable sound distortion. Overcast also has a nice feature which dynamically adjusts the speed if ads or ‘intro sequences’ are played so you save even more time when listening.

Here are some of my favorites in rough order:

  • How I built this: Guy Raz from NPR interviews entrepreneurs who have built successful companies and they share their stories. I’ve listened to every episode and find it quite inspiring.
  • Entrepreneurial thought leaders: A Stanford series on the story of mainly technology entrepreneurs. It was the first podcast I listened to regularly and has been running for a long time (10+ years).
  • Hidden Brain: Shankar Vedantam from NPR presents well researched episodes about the human behaviour and society.
  • Recode Decode: Kara Swisher from VOX interviews folks in the tech community. She’s witty, dry, opinionated and gets really interesting guests on her show.
  • Invest Like the Best: Patrick O’Shaughnessy gets lots of smart investors and finance futurists on his show and I’ve improved as an investor through listening.
  • Serial: Sarah Koenig presents, and I really enjoyed Season 1 in particular. A lot of folks in the US who become regular podcast listeners start with Serial.
  • A16Z Podcast: This is really tech centric, and I only listen to the episodes with people or topics that I’m interested in learning more about.
  • Exponent: Ben and James talk about tech and society and are both really smart, thoughtful guys. James and I are friends from business school, which is an added bonus 🙂
  • The China Africa Project: Lots of interesting topics about the intersection of economics, politics and technology between China and Africa – likely a bit niche for most.
  • Freakonomics: Steven Dubner gets some really excellent guests to talk through a variety of topical issues. I don’t listen to them all, but select the ones that I find interesting.
  • Software Engineering Daily: This one is new, but I’ve enjoyed listening to more technical folks talk about designing systems.

Why I’m writing

One of my goals for 2019 was to write more on my personal blog. I set this goal for a few reasons, and hope to share about 1-2 posts per month on a variety of topics (product management, investing, personal growth and travel).

I have four main objectives for writing:

  1. Improve the quality of my writing: I stopped taking written English classes at the age of 16, and studying only Math + Science + Engineering caused the quality of my writing to stagnate. I’m writing to improve the structure, the content and the prose by which I express myself (and I’m enjoying it).
  2. Clarity of thinking: When I am forced to write something down in a way that can be understood by others, I expose the gaps in my own understanding of the subject matter. Writing helps me understand things better.
  3. Efficiency gains: I often get asked similar questions (e.g. how to get into product management, what are you reading right now) by folks and find myself sending a slightly modified note or having the same conversation multiple times. I want to be helpful and make sure to follow up, so taking a few extra hours to write down thoughts in an easily shareable format has saved me time.
  4. Using WordPress.com: I work at Automattic on WordPress.com so spending time writing and using our product helps me understand our product and our user experience better because I’m also experiencing our product like a ‘normal’ user.

As an aside, I think it may also be quite interesting to look back in a few years and see how I thought about a topic or expressed myself objectively vs. relying on my memory alone.

Getting into Product Management

I get asked frequently for advice from folks who are looking to get into product management and often send them slightly customized versions of the same thing. I decided to write something a little more comprehensive and share it broadly. 

There are a few phases of work for folks looking to get into product management:

  1. Start by learning about product management and what product managers do
  2. Figure out where you want to work and make a list of companies that are exciting to you
  3. Prepare for your PM interview and get the job

1. Learn about product management

Product management is different from company to company. It’s worth learning about the different perspectives of product people at different companies, and here is a short selection:

2. Figure out where you want to work

An important part of the process is generating a list of companies you may want to work at by evaluating company size, quality of mentors, your connection to the product etc. Product management varies significantly by product, vertical (ecommerce vs. autonomous car PMs do different things) and individual company so it’s useful to spend time upfront here.

I recommend going somewhere where you think you’ll get good mentorship from people who are both experienced and very strong product managers. I also recommend joining a company which is growing, as a lot of opportunities can arise from growth.

Companies like Google and Facebook have very well respected product management practices, but it can be difficult to get an interview or get through their process without prior product management experience (unless you are earlier in your career where they have great rotational Associate Product Manager programs).

Some good resources:

3. Prepare for your interviews

Read and Learn: There are a few foundational books that will help you prepare for your PM interview and generally help you becoming a better product person:

  • Read the lean startup
  • Read design of everyday things to teach you how to think about user experience
  • If you are a ponderer and not a doer I would recommend making things happen
  • If you want to learn how to run a product development process I suggest reading agile product management which can be a bit dogmatic and dry, but it’s useful to know these foundational elements
  • If you don’t have a technical background, I’d spend some time learning how technical systems work and some of the foundational elements of programming. The best way to learn is to read/watch videos (good resource) and take a codeacademy class (javascript or python)
  • Cracking the pm interview is a really good book by a former Googler, and I’d start by watching her youtube video
  • Practice questions on the pm interview – it autogenerates a bunch of questions and you can go through them

Analyze products: Spend time breaking down products you like/don’t like – most ‘product people’ naturally do this, and enjoy this type of exercise. I like to break down my analysis into 1) Why does this product exist, what user need is it solving? 2) What do I like about the product? 3) What would I change and how would I change it? 

Learn how you’ll be evaluated: Companies hire somewhat differently so make sure that you ask your recruiter or hiring manager about how you’ll be evaluated as part of the interview process. Here are a few dimensions from my experience that I’ve used, and seen used in the past. 

My Interview Criteria: There are a few key skills that PMs need to be successful and I use them to assess when interviewing product candidates. It’s important to have at least one area where you feel like you are excellent and can get that across during the interview process.

  • Analytical Ability: Run AB Tests, Interpret metrics, Make data informed decisions
  • Product Sense: Identify and solve user needs with systems and user experiences
  • Leadership: Inspire, Influence, Build loyalty, Have empathy
  • Project management: Prioritize, Get things done, Unblock
  • Technical ability: Ask the right questions, Build respect

Google Interview Criteria:

  • Product Design: User experience and design
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, Key metrics dashboards
  • Technical ability: System design, Algorithms – earn respect from engineers
  • Strategy: Business turnaround, Go to market
  • Culture: Googliness, Kindness, Leadership

Facebook Interview Criteria:

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self starter, motivated, influence teams
  • Execution: Goals, Metrics, Prioritization, Process
  • Product Sense: Design, Understanding users
  • Engineering fit interview: Not a technical one like Google, more fit interview

Being a product manager is fun, challenging and a great fit for people who like to make things, and like making things in a better way.

Best of luck in your journey and thanks for reading!

Books I’ve read this year (H1 2019)

I started listening to books via Audible and it’s really helped me ‘read’ more, and am consuming books at about 3-4x the rate that I did in 2018. I prefer audio for most stories, and especially for autobiographies spoken by the author themselves.

I also decided to write 1 line for each book that I read to remind myself of one thing that I learned, which helps me remember some of my learnings from the book.

I’ve starred (*) my faves in the list (in the order I ‘read’ them)

  1. *Never Split the Difference (Chris Voss): Negotiation is about empathy, and understanding the person. At the end of the negotiation, that person should want to negotiate with you again. Identify, Label, and ask questions starting with ‘How can I’. Get people to say ’that’s right’ and agree before moving the negotiation forward.
  2. Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kannemann): System 1: gut and System 2: logic. Often times each system can betray the other system. Presenting the same thing in different ways can profoundly change the way it’s perceived. Different people behave totally differently in the same situation given their personal circumstance.
  3. Mindset (Carol Dwek): Growth mindset people derive value and joy from learning, effort and progression, Fixed mindset people derive value and self worth/unworth from comparative outcome.
  4. The Outsiders (William N. Thorndike): Profiles of 8 successful CEOs – all super analytical, excellent capital allocators (including aggressively buying back stock), and focused on generating cashflow and value for investors. Great CEOS hire young, less proven leaders and incentivized them with value creation.
  5. **7 Habits of highly effective people (Steven Covey): I really enjoyed this book.Do things that have meaning to you, value relationships, have a family mission statement and make sure everyone understands expectations and roles and responsibilities. Talk openly about problems and issues.
  6. **Principles (Ray Dalio): When you talk to people actually be open to your idea being wrong and really listen to their point of view, especially if they have high believability. Have a set of founding principles which you run your life (e.g. meaningful relationships and meaningful work), and company and make sure that the people around you know and are bought into those principles. Idea meritocracy is his general framework – make your passion and your work one and the same.
  7. *Homo Deus (Yuval Harari): Suicide rates are high (2/100 people who die, kill themselves), What’s more important – intelligence or consciousness? What happens when algorithms know us better than we know ourselves from our actions (but what about our deep conscious being)? What happens when all the tasks what we do now can all be done better by non-conscious beings (Robots)? 
  8. *Red notice (Bill Browder): make sure you always do what is right and if you see an opportunity that you have unique insight on, make sure to execute on it.
  9. *Born a crime (Trevor Noah): being able to communicate and be accepted in lots of wide groups is incredibly useful in life, and allows you to build bonds with people.
  10. The hate u give (Angie Thomas): it’s hard being a young black person in the US and they will be subject to a level of discrimination that I’ll never experience.
  11. The 10x Rule (Grant Cardone): I did not really enjoy the book. He biases to action and high effort/action to be productive – termed at ‘Massive Action’ and feels like it’s targeted towards people with high levels of inertia. This is counter to a lot of smart folks in the value investing world – e.g. Warren Buffet. 
  12. *Shoe dog (Phil Knight): trade prevents war, and helps create empathy for each other. Phil reads to learn before every important tasks. America is no longer the entrepreneurial shangri la. Find your calling because you’ll be able to keep motivated with bumps along the road.
  13. Sapiens (Yuval Harari): I forgot to write anything for this book so this is a bit weak – there are so many themes about culture, religion, socieatal norms that I learned about that I was ignorant to .
  14. *Thousand Splendid Suns (Khalid Hosseni): Life was very hard for women in the 90s during the Afghan war. Men who beat their wives are cowards, and  this book makes you hate them even more.
  15. First 90 days (Michael Watkins): Leaders try and do too much upfront. Focus on learning and getting to know the team l, culture, process and product. Make sure you have a quick win or two. Make sure you write down your plan and are in sync with your manager.
  16. Extreme ownership (Jocko Willink):  I thought the book was a bit gimmicky. There are no bad teams only bad leaders, leader is ultimately responsible. Make sure teams understand the why and are empowered to ask when they don’t understand. Simplicity is important.
  17. Enders shadow (Orson Scott-Card): Building relationships and trust is as important as being a great strategist.
  18. *Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson): The criminal justice system is broken in the US with so many black people incarcerated, even as children for their lives. More insight into the lives of poor, black people in America.
  19. 21 Lessons (Yuval Harari): This is the 3rd book I’ve read from Yuval Harari who I really like – his clarity of thought is exceptional. This book covers topical issues like AI/Future of Work/Universal Basic Income (UBI), Religion/Country design, Mental health /Aging and Wellbeing.

Unbundling your job

Why do we have jobs? Jobs provide us with a bundle of many things, which is why they’ve been such a powerful:

  • Predictable cashflow: cover lifestyle costs, plan for the future
  • Benefits: 401k retirement accounts, health and life insurance, paid time off, access to new capital such as mortgages, travel
  • Purpose: creative outlet, sense of accomplishment, contribution towards something bigger than yourself
  • Identity: personal and company brand, access to opportunities that would not otherwise be attainable
  • Social Interaction: friendships, human contact, collaborating with others towards a shared purpose

I’ve been starting to lightly consider what it would look like to unbundle these components of work, particularly the predictable cashflow component. Are there other vehicles that might provide a better source of predictable cashflow that we don’t typically consider investing in as ‘normal’ retail investors?

A couple of areas that I’m starting to explore, beyond dividend focused public markets investing are below:

1. Franchises: one idea could be investing in / running franchises which can have quite low initial investment costs, fast payback periods and decent margins which can lead to predictable cashflow. You would need to diversify the type of franchises to invest in so you’re not over-indexed on specific sectors e.g. boutique fitness or fast-food.

2. Real estate: a diversified real estate portfolio which focuses on yield is another interesting avenue – I’m currently exploring fundrise and potentially cadre to learn how each of these work.

This is currently just in the idea stage, and I’ll publish more on this if/when I develop my thinking beyond this initial idea.

Distributed work – initial thoughts

I recently joined Automattic which is a fully distributed company. We have ~900 people (in all functions) working in ~70 countries, with no central office. We are one of the largest, if not the largest fully distributed company in the world.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the advantages and challenges of distributed work after two months – both strategically and from a practical implementation/execution perspective.

One very important principle about Automattic is we are set up to be a distributed company and all of our internal process is designed with distributed teams as the default state. This way, folks that are remote are not ‘2nd class citizens’ but are the core of the company.

Advantages

  • Work from anywhere: Our people can live and work from wherever they want, which ultimately leads to happier employees that stick around longer.
  • Work when most productive: People can work when they feel most productive and manage energy, not time (one of my fave articles) taking into account their personal constraints (e.g. family) into their schedule. Managers, however, have a bit less flexibility.
  • Custom work environment: Some folks like others around, others prefer a quiet environment, others like to move around. At Automattic, people can set up their environment to suit their unique style which is very hard to achieve in a traditional office.
  • Everything is documented: We document everything using our internal blog system (called P2) and folks can always go back and find out the ‘why’ behind decisions. This is very powerful.

Challenges

It’s worth noting that these are currently a set of initial observations for challenges, and I’m sure there are a number of good solutions to them which I’ll be actively thinking about as part of my work at Automattic. 

  • Onboarding as a new employee: Onboarding requires getting to know the right people (and building trust), learning the right systems, and developing the right judgment to know where to focus. Doing this remotely can be a struggle.
  • Building relationships: It’s easier to build bonds with people in person. Nuance is lost over Slack and Zoom and there is no substitute for time in person together. At Automattic, we have meetups to help build relationships but it increases the amount of time and ‘deliberate-ness’ required to get to know your colleagues.
  • Finding product-market fit: In the earliest stages of finding product-market fit, iteration can be slowed down because of async, documentation heavy nature of our work especially if vision is shared among different people. This is an area where I feel there are lots of areas for opportunity to improve with more frequent synchronous interactions. 
  • Changing direction: It’s much harder to get alignment and inspire towards a different strategic direction via text and video. It’s harder to recreate ‘energy’ and velocity in a distributed environment.
  • Separating signal from noise: We are a large team (900+ people) and there is a lot of content that is created daily.I’m spending about 15%+ of my day parsing through posts and comments to figure out what I should read, participate in, or make decisions on and as a new person it can be difficult to know where to focus. More experienced distributed workers have similar issues, but they are less pronounced, which shows that this is a somewhat learned skill.
  • Time zone management: It can be difficult to run teams across different time zones but there are also opportunities to increase velocity by folks working over a 24 hr period.