Leading a Team as a PM

I love building software and seeing as I've thus far decided to be a generalist in my career that has usually meant that I'm a PM for a team of specialists.  Managing projects should never really be easy; if you find yourself coasting that likely means you are being far too conservative.  If you are struggling, Robbie Abed recently published a great essay on Project Management that hit upon many of the same things I've learned thus far in my career, especially the two philosophies he lives by as a PM:

  1. My #1 job is to make everyone's life around me easier.
  2. My #2 job is to make everyone else around me look good.

I could not agree more with these philosophies, especially #1.  I believe in being fully transparent with my teams, but at the same time I strive to do whatever is possible to let those in my team avoid the distractions and focus on the work they are best at.  I shield them, baby them, spoil them.  Need help with writing that script?  Sure, send it my way.  Need me to waste an hour debugging some slow running query?  Here you go, this join is causing us some problems.  Need a quick wireframe for that page?  Just give me a few minutes.  It's one way for me to not drift too far from the details of the project, but it also earns a lot of respect from those I work with who can focus on other stuff that only they can deliver.

I can also think of a few people I've worked with that at first I didn't really see eye to eye with.  Robbie writes:

There is no such thing as a difficult person on a project. It's just someone who you don't understand why they act the way they do. Understand their motives. Understand why they are being difficult. Understand how you can make their lives easier. Understand what makes them happy. Ask how you can help them. If you make their life easier, you will become best friends with them and they will give you everything you need in a timely fashion.

On a personal level, I naturally enjoy making people happy.  As a PM, I enjoy my team being as effective as possible.  Usually these go hand in hand.  Finding what motivates someone can take a little time, but it is totally worth the effort.  One team member always enjoyed the free food I'd bring back from the common area, another liked the detailed specs I'd write, many appreciated the hours I'd spend answering questions even though they knew I was super busy.  Empathy and compassion will go a long way towards earning the respect of one's team and more often than not delivering solid products.

A San Francisco Soda Tax for a Healthier City

A San Francisco soda tax of 2 pennies per ounce is on the ballot in November 2014.  This could be the first such tax in the country to pass and would be a great step towards making SF a healthier city.  The reactions that I've read thus far to this tax have surprised me and motivated me to clearly explain the details of tax and why it is worth supporting.  Read on to get accurate information based on facts, not emotions or press releases from soda industry funded "activists".

What are the details of the San Francisco soda tax?

The 2 cent tax would add about 40 cents to the cost of a 20oz bottle of soda.  It will not be applied like a sales tax (which is added to the product cost at the cash register), but instead it will be charged directly to the beverage manufacturer (and one would assume manufacturers will pass the tax onto consumers by raising their prices).  It will apply to soda, energy drinks, and other sugar sweetened beverages with more than 25 calories; diet sodas and naturally sweetened beverages like juice would not be included.

Come on, another tax?

This is a little different than most taxes in that the primary purpose is not to raise revenue but instead to influence consumer behavior.  The goal is to help consumers make healthier choices, similar to the cigarette taxes that have very effectively reduced the number of Americans that smoke.  This tax is expected to raise about $30 million and by law the revenue must be used to fund active recreation and nutrition programs in San Francisco public schools, parks, and recreation centers; food access initiatives, drinking fountain and water bottle filling stations; and dental health services.  In other words, the revenue from this tax will go right back to the SF residents that are statistically most likely to be at risk for obesity to help educate them to make better decisions.

Doesn't this tax unfairly burden SF's poorest residents?

Unfortunately, lower-income residents are already unfairly burdened with obesity and other health issues.  These same residents also consume more sugared beverages.  Unlike a traditional regressive sales tax, which taxes everyday items that consumers of all income levels have no choice but to buy, there is an easy way to avoid the impact of this tax.  Those that are financially burdened by the San Francisco soda tax can drink fewer sugared beverages, instead choosing other (healthier) options that will quench their thirst and not have the additional tax applied.  In the long run, by avoiding sugared beverages, these residents will have saved money and given themselves a better chance to living a healthy life.

I'm an adult, can't I make my own decisions about what I do to my body?

I hear you and I agree for the most part.  However, there are many kids out there that drink soda every day without knowing or understanding the long term effects this will have.  In most cases, it is these same children that are not making purchasing decisions.  So, if you are an adult and choose to drink soda and would be paying more for it, think about the children who will be  drinking healthier beverages because they can't afford the tax or because they learned how to make healthier decisions based on tax funded nutrition education programs.  A few cents tax on your soda is a small tax to pay if it can save children from a lifetime of obesity related health issues.

But will this solve the obesity problem?

Of course not, it's only a small step in the right direction!  But sugar sweetened beverages are one of the largest contributors to obesity and one of the easiest things to cut out from a diet.  This tax will play a role in raising awareness to how big of a deal obesity is in this country and how small changes in habits can have a tremendously positive effect on health.  The programs funded from this tax will be used to teach people how to embrace an overall healthy diet (not just about healthy beverage choices).

Obesity?  Is that really a problem?

Yes!  It is a FACT that obesity rates have grown significantly in the last few decades.  It is also a FACT that obesity is directly related to increased health problems and money spent on health care.  In fact, the medical costs for someone who is obese averaged $1,428 higher than those of someone normal weight in 2008.  That adds up to about $147 billion spent to treat obesity in a single year.

Center for Disease Control chart showing a sharp rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period. A San Francisco soda tax can help reduce obesity.
Center for Disease Control chart showing a sharp rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period. A San Francisco soda tax can help reduce obesity.

Is soda really that unhealthy for you?

I could bore you with lots of medical studies telling you that your body doesn't process sugary beverages the same way it does food, and that drinking sugary sodas for just two weeks contributes to the development of diabetes and heart disease.  Or I could just show you this chart and let common sense be your guide.

Infographic showing that a 20 oz. bottle of soda contains 22 sugar packets. Support cutting sugar through the San Francisco soda tax.
Infographic showing that a 20 oz. bottle of soda contains 22 sugar packets. Support cutting sugar through the San Francisco soda tax.

I encourage you to support a healthier city and vote in support of the San Francisco soda tax.  Two cents an ounce is a small price to pay to help reduce obesity.

Sources:  http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Apple needs to eat its own dog food more

I am an owner of an  embarrassing number of very expensive Apple products.  I've also been a big fan of the massive changes iOS 7 brought to hundreds of million mobile devices this past fall.  However, as a vocal supporter of everything Apple gets right, I am beginning to question more and more if the people designing and building some of their products/apps actually use them in the real world.  In other words, Apple needs to eat its own dog food.

The most striking example of this is the Reminders app.  I use this on an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook Air running Mavericks, and via iCloud.com.  Each version of this app has noticeable bugs and questionable design issues.  Let's be honest, this app is designed to do only one very basic thing:  let a user record something they wish to be reminded of.  This is not rocket science now, is it?

I build software for a living and I understand quite well the challenges many teams face in the prioritization of features and fixing bugs.  However, for a company with more than a hundred billion dollars of cash, there is no excuse for the number of issues with this app.  I'm not talking about the design of the new icon or flat vs. skeuomorphic design, just basic things like being able to see what one is typing while they type it, trust that their data won't mysteriosly vanish, and avoid duplicating data.  I find it hard to believe that the team responsible for these apps actually uses them, because if they did I'm sure they would be much improved.

iOS 7 multi-task view that crashes multiple times a week for me

This is just one example of many others I can think of that show a complete lack of empathy for many owners of Apple products.  I could also have written about the terrible lag for the keyboard on my older iPad 3, the sorry state of iTunes Match playlists on iOS, or the poor memory handling on my iPhone 5s that results in springboard crashes.  I'd have to guess that most working at Apple headquarters have the latest devices and  access to unreleased versions of iOS months before the general public can.  As a result, they are likely unaware just how painful these issues can be to millions of their customers.  It's been over four months since iOS 7 has been released and Apple still has not released a substantial update addressing its many common bugs.  I'd expect a 4+ month release cycle from car manufacturers, not a company like Apple.

So what am I asking from Apple?

They need to show more empathy for their users.  Publicly acknowledge issues and let the public know they are working hard to fix them.  Release fixes more often like app store apps, not bundling them up into a massive release.  Finally, they need to reduce some of the secrecy around new products or updates so that real users can work out the kinks before being released to the general public.

The Internet Still Amazes Me

It's been a while since I last wrote, yet I've had three random encounters with my blog in the past few months.  Each has left me a little weirded out (random people are reading my writing?), but mostly just excited that someone else has taken interest in my perspective despite no attempt to publicize my writing or even write regularly. First, a woman emailed me asking if there was ever an end to the sciatica pain I started experiencing in the summer of 2011 and wrote about here.  In short, there is hope for it to lesson, although more than 2 years after I wrote that I am still experiencing pain.  Oddly, running my first ever marathon is what reduced the pain for me most (still can't explain that one).  Then, someone asked if I would sell them a print of the Zakim Bridge photo that I took in Boston a few years back.  I was flattered, and ended up sending the photo in exchange for them making a small donation to the charity of their choice.  I still think that is one of the coolest photos I've seen of that bridge, and it looks pretty great printed on Zakim and Golden Gate Bridge printed on canvascanvas above our bed.  Today, I exchanged a few tweets with a developer here in San Francisco that is struggling with the same thing I have been:  Is it better to specialize or generalize?  I've decided to not go for a dev or design bootcamp and instead continue looking for a product manager or technical project manager position in an industry I'm passionate about.  I enjoy all the elements of building products (whether it's design, leading others, getting into the details, planning, or executing) too much to focus on just one area.  I know that when I do find the right role for me (and I am crushing it there) I will share some good laughs with my boss about any hesitation they had in hiring me.

This all brings me back to how much the internet still amazes me to this day.  It makes it so easy to connect with random strangers around a shared idea, struggle, or photo by just putting a few words up on a blog or writing a 140 character Tweet.  The transparency that more and more companies are now embracing (see the Buffer "open salary formula") is  becoming the standard way that young and innovative companies are doing business.  I love it - sharing what you have learned or struggled with in order to help others is a beautiful thing.