Three Thoughts (at 39)

I turned 39 this month and I had three thoughts / reflections that I thought I’d write down and share:

  1. Great people, over long term: Meet lots of new people and be open, generous and curious. When you discover great people try to help them repeatedly without asking for anything in return. Relationships are built with consistent positive micro interactions (especially when you’re not physically present) and building deep ones takes focused effort. Collaborate with folks with the intention to have a 20 year relationship and share your whole self (family, thoughts, hobbies); you’ll build deeper, more durable friendships.
  2. Own equity, don’t rent time: Whenever possible choose equity over renting your time even at a higher price. Even if you’re able to capture very high rent (law, consulting etc) I think it’s better to own a part of the thing you’re building and hold it for the long term as long as you believe in it. This is how real wealth is created, and it also helps avoid the trap of increasing your burn rate as your $/hour rent rate improves. If you don’t have a path to own equity, then take your excess money and invest it into assets you believe in, over consumption, especially when earlier in your life. As you get older and are responsible for your family (e.g. children or parents) it’s harder to keep your burn rate as low.
  3. Healthy is simple, adherence is hard: The basics of having a healthy mind and body are pretty simple. Eat well (less sugar, more whole foods), sleep well (8 hrs a night), exercise daily (cardio and load training), and be present, focused and calm. I know all this, but I’m particularly bad at consistently practicing what I have learned. I go through phases of having good habits but then “fall off the wagon” and find it lower resistance to fall back into bad patterns where I eat like crap or check my phone the first thing when I wake up v.s. setting my intention for the day. Healthy habits have been a lifelong battle but now that I’m a father I can’t think of a more purposeful “why” to be better.

Individual Contributor to Manager

In my last role at Pocket Gems, I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to a manager and then to a manager of managers. It was a hard transition as we grew from 5 people to 150 in less than a year and a half, but I learned a lot along the way. I was directly responsible for a team of about 10 -15 product managers and indirectly responsible for a multi-function team of about 120 people.

In order to transition from an IC role to a manager role, it’s important to be a functional expert so that you can win the respect of the people that you manage. If you’re not a top quartile functional product manager it’s very difficult to progress into a management role. When you transition from a management role to a manager of managers the skill set is completely different. Your skills as an IC become less relevant and your role evolves into a strategy, staffing, prioritisation and coordination role vs. being a great IC. You need to create systems to be able to get the right information at the right time through data, people, and process. This then informs strategy, which leads to prioritisation and staffing.

I personally found the transition from IC to a manager of managers role quite depressing. I realised that I gained fulfillment from completing tasks (running analyses, designing features etc) and I was doing very little of these tasks any more. I became much more comfortable in the role after I did a few things:

  1. I read the High Output Management and the Hard Thing about Hard Things
  2. I kept 10-20% of my time to work on IC type projects from running a particular analysis to designing a new feature that I wanted to test.
  3. I gained fulfillment from developing others and seeing them grow as product managers

I do think the best leaders are able to work along all the dimensions of IC, Manager and Manager of Managers. People who perform well at all these dimensions scale particularly well at growth startups and are a great fit for leadership roles at early stage companies.

There are a few other things that I learned, mainly by screwing them up a few times and dealing with the ramifications of my screwups. These mistakes can permanently break trust with people, create really strained working relationships and are hard lessons I learned along the way.

  • Genuinely care about people on your team. There is no substitute for authenticity and your team will be able to tell if you’re apathetic towards them.
  • What you say as a manager is amplified because of your position – you have to be even more thoughtful about what you say as you can distract the team unnecessarily and also affect morale both negatively and positively with even a few words.
  • Never take credit publically for yourself (give it to others) and always have tough conversations 1-on-1 privately. Building loyalty with your team will pay for itself 10x in the long run.
  • Great managers never complain about their team. They understand what the individuals are capable of, set them up for success and then manage expectations upwards.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – figure out what motivates them, what they care about and manage to those things. This should be one of the first conversations you have with someone new on your team. I often talk about my motivations first in order to break the ice.
  • Make each person feel respected and valued regardless of their role – if someone’s role is sometimes more ‘thankless’ (e.g. QA) it’s even more important to celebrate wins.
  • Focus on process to make things better vs. placing blame on individuals (very easy to do, especially in the heat of the moment). It’s very easy to damage relationships permanently by doing this repeatedly.
  • Deal with personel/performance issues expediently. The person affected and the rest of the team will appreciate this in the medium term (but often not in the short term). Dragging your feet here will lose you respect at all levels of the organisation.
  • Learn how to influence. People respond much better if they feel like they came to the conclusion themselves vs. forcing the outcome onto them. There are lots of levers for influence and using these levers thoughtfully is an art e.g. do it for yourself (own goals), do it for the company, do it for the team, do it for me (manager).
  • Be transparent with your team. If people have context they will perform better. This does not mean sharing noise (information that is not a useful signal or irrelevant) with the team; a common misconception when talking about transparency.

I am learning more every day in this capacity, and writing these learnings down helps me systematise my learning.  I hope that others out there find some of this useful as well.

Why are people with MBAs called ‘MBAs’ forever?

I don’t really get why people who have MBAs are pigeon holed with an ‘MBA’ as their primary tagline for the rest of their careers. It’s a short part of your career and half the length of your undergraduate degree. Why am I more of an MBA than an engineer?

I think people probably get a few things out of doing an MBA:

  1. Branding: Much like working at a recognised company, going to a recognised business school helps open doors

  2. Friendships/Network: You make great friends and people at business school are at the same stage of life and in the same mindset, so you make lots of lasting friendships in a short period of time

  3. Lifestyle: Business school is fun. You travel, you play sports, you party and live in a new city/country

  4. Content: You learn from your courses, classmates and professors

I spent 2 years of my life doing my MBA and it was a lot of fun.  I made great friends, travelled to cool places and learned some interesting things through the case method. But by no means do I think it defines me, my aspirations, the way I think or what I value.

I love thinking about what new products and platforms will shape our future and how I can contribute. I love building things and get satisfaction from people deriving utility/joy from the things I build. I feel energised by geeking out about solving analytical problems at work, discussing gameplay strategies in League of Legends or Hearthstone, or just the act of shipping something before a weekend. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in technology and the last 5 in product management. I know I want to spend my career building products and investing in great companies. I feel like my choice of career defines me so much more than whether or not I have an MBA and I’m sure many other ‘MBAs’ feel the same.