I have known nothing else in life quite like being blindsided by death to gain perspective. Two hours prior I was fussing with numbers and trying to figure out why this new feature wasn’t getting traction. One message later the empty desk next to mine became a foreboding and dreadful void.
He died in a car crash, apparently a DUI accident late in the evening. A talented, energetic engineer. Just earlier that afternoon we were tossing ideas around and getting excited about a new project. His last messages to me were the outputs of a prototype he had built just during his train ride home. I didn’t see them until the morning. I responded, “that’s awesome dude,” not knowing he was already gone.
I now know what people mean when they say it’s a punch in the gut. After reading the local news article with his name in it, I headed out of the building, walked straight up Montgomery Street, and bawled. I was remembering everything about him. “Dude. Look at this.” “Dude, what the fuck.” “Yo.” That’s how we communicated, day in and day out in the last six months, cranking out new chunks of the product. That voice still rung clearly in my head, and I kept repeating it, desperately trying to hold on to it.
My heart grinds like a poorly greased gearbox, rumbling in fits and halts. Six months was too short to get to know you. Too few exaggerated high fives. Too few games of Starcraft. Too few inspiration-fueled side projects. We were going to keep working on awesome shit! How is this possible? How are you gone?
I spent the weekend with friends, finding solace in their company. I called my family, sharing my pain and finding comfort in their sympathy. Funny how it is people you cling to when things go wrong. Work will always be there. People can be quite abruptly taken from your life.
I frankly do not know what to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to go to work tomorrow. My work brain is missing so many pieces. But go to work I will. You’d probably want me to.
At the office we like to say “20:80”, which is a shorthand for, “Do the twenty percent effort version that gets eighty percent of the result.” I don’t like it, but given that time is one of the most valuable resource in a start-up, I try to run with it. I want to do it better, and as is typical of me, I went in search of a framework.
Last week during games night, I raised this question to some team members,
"This 20:80 thing … doesn’t really fly with me. There must be a class of tasks/problems that deserve the 100% effort treatment. How do we know we are 20:80ing the right things?"
This conversation continued on and off in the week, during which a couple candidate criteria emerged.
One was the strategy test, which is evaluating whether a particular task is core to the company’s strategy, or just part of the scaffolding that’s required to get there. This is good in theory, but it also seemed vague. As the company gets bigger, it becomes increasingly difficult for each member of the team to hold their entire company strategy in their head, let along trace each task back to the strategy.
Another was the competitive advantage test. Is the task crucial to differentiating the product from competitors. This is similar to the strategy test, and suffers from the same unwieldiness in application. If, say, the company’s core competitive advantage is machine learning, is it okay to 20:80 the entire design experience? I would argue no.
It is not clear that understanding just the product vision is enough to help us distinguish “20:80” tasks from “100%” tasks. In conversation this week, a teammate raised an alternative.
"If you chart the effort-to-impact graph, is it convex, or concave?"
This took me back to economics class. Essentially the convex curve test asks, “Is an extra unit of effort/polish going to yield an exponential return, or a diminishing return?” A task with an exponential return has a convex shape when plotted on the effort-to-impact graph.
Intuitively this seemed like a good approach. While it isn’t always clear that a task has a convex return, there are a certain class of tasks that seem to be clearly concave. In light of this framework, concave tasks are the ones that should be 20:80’d, and I ought to be more disciplined about time-boxing concave tasks.
It’s still not clear how to identify convex tasks though, let alone quantify and compare between convex tasks. Ideas?
Perhaps I just have to get over not being as hands on as when I was a graduate student. In my last several one-on-one’s with Sift’s CTO the biggest feedback has consistently been:
"I want you to think big, and look forward. You can bring 10x the value to Sift by setting the design vision for where we need to go."
The other side of the message is to not get caught up in the weeds. Trust the rest of my team to work out the execution/implementation kinks.
"Just be available when they need clarification. We’ll iterate as we go along."
This all makes sense. I am definitely not adding as much value when I am jumping in trying to write markup or UI code. My team (bless them) is far faster than I am at it. Yet I often find myself drawn into the weeds, helping push pixels and smith words. Why?
The struggle I haven’t been able to articulate until now is this: I think with my hands. Or, better put, I think through making. Working through the exercise of drawing rough sketches again and again is how I learn about the solution space.
In my role at Sift, however, I need to recalibrate which level of abstraction I am thinking/making at. Figuring out implementation level details is not a judicious use of my time. The team needs me to synthesize strategy, customer needs, product opportunities into project proposals, and then to communicate a high level outline. My deliverables are no longer detailed designs or functional code, but documents and sketches that provide my team with clarity to move forward.
So I suppose I have to strike a balance, where I am just hands-on enough to work through ideas, but not so much that I duplicate work the rest of my team can handle.
Not quite sure how to reconcile that yet.
This is some new height in user hostile design. In Paypal checkout forms, you can no longer checkout without logging in if your email OR your credit card is associated with a Paypal account.
Problem: My paypal account is Canadian, and uses a Canadian credit card that no longer exists. American credit cards cannot be added to a Canadian account.
For posterity, and anyone who wants to figure out how to change the country your Paypal account is associated with. Short answer is, you cannot. You have to close your account and reopen it. I found out in a very unpleasant way today.
Here’s what I wrote to them in their “feedback form”:
Do your customers never move from one country to another? Or do customers not ever have credit cards from two different countries? I just want to be a Canadian who pays with an American credit card!
For that matter. Why can’t I checkout without logging in? You require email on your checkout form, and then when I provide the email, you don’t let me checkout because I have an account. My account is in Canada, and linked to a Canadian credit card that no longer exists, to which I cannot add an American credit card.
So now I’m closing this account in order to reopen it, and I am losing $10 in the process.
Your checkout form is user hostile.
When you’re a payment gateway, giving users no way around you is one way to increase your conversion rate. It is also a way of making your users very angry. I am now motivated to actively root for Stripe, Square, and the like.
On second thought, I am not going to reopen my Paypal account.
At least they donate the $10 I’m abandoning in my account to an unspecified charity. Ugh.
Update: I’ve closed my account, and I even tried reopening an account in the US. Still can’t checkout. First it said that my email is still associated with an existing account. Now it says my credit card is linked to another account. Paypal is a nightmare. I just want to buy some pillow cases!