Just in under the wire, (what does that even mean?), here's our newsletter for the year. Follow the link to enjoy the PDF.
Happy New Year!
Just in under the wire, (what does that even mean?), here's our newsletter for the year. Follow the link to enjoy the PDF.
Happy New Year!
It's an Internet thing going around, posting on your first seven jobs (search on #myfirstsevenjobs if you're on Twitter). Once Fred Wilson and Brad Feld posted on it I figured there was something of value beyond narcissism, so I figured I would join the fray.
One thing before I jump in, is that I've noticed the people I've seen who have posted were in some sort of professional role by about job five. I'm sure that's not always the case but I did find it interesting.
I was 10 or 11, and my Dad hired me to help with cleanup after Holy Name Society breakfasts once a month. I think I made $5, and thought that was a ton of cash at the time. I also used to see them cook scrambled eggs in a big baking dish in the oven, which ruined that dish for me for quite a while.
I got to supervise kids while I was in the Scouts. I'm pretty sure I didn't get paid for this job. The most memorable moment was when I had to put nitroglycerine under a Scout leader's tongue to prevent him from having angina.
I was the third of fourth person in my family to work at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. There were many memorable moments (like the time I went to work while I was developing chicken pox). But one thing that stood out was seeing the tattoo on the wrist of each of the store owners--their German concentration camp prisoner ID's.
My Dad's contribution to my college aid package was to get me a job with the City of Santa Monica, where he worked. I worked cleaning Santa Monica Beach, starting as a "picker" walking and picking up trash, to working on the garbage trucks, to driving the trucks. Over four summers of this work I learned and witnessed a lot. Learning to drive a converted World War II truck that had to be double-clutched at low gears to take seaweed up the hill to a transfer station was quite a thrill.
My first job at Stanford was working in the dining hall. I quickly earned a reassignment to the dishwashing area when I got into a argument with my roommate while serving dinner. A memorable moment was when, during the Organic Chemistry term, someone created a chemical diagram for Turkey Tetrazzini.
I started this job for a small consulting company in Palo Alto while finishing up at Stanford, and transitioned into a full-time role after I graduated. I knew how to program statistics using a "4th generation language" called SPSS so I got to work on a large dataset collected from the Bendix Corporation. I got to learn about all sorts of multivariate statistical methods, such as factor analysis and analysis of variance. I wrote the analytic methods chapter of a co-worker's PhD dissertation in exchange for weekly pizza and beer.
I moved on from Job 6 to Allstate Insurance, where I carried out market research projects. I finished up a project that would ultimately be used to justify Sears' move into the financial services business, a project that four other people had failed to finish. As I sat at my desk seeing my work future unroll in front of me I had one of those, "is that all there is?" thoughts. At that moment, the phone rang. It was a manager from Bell-Northern Research, calling to ask if I was interested in getting into the technology world.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I'm sure you've seen--or rather, skimmed past--the Terms of Service that govern services like Facebook, LinkedIn and the like. Similar to End User License Agreements, these are the things you skim over so you can quickly click Accept and move on.
Well I've decided to change my terms of service, at least when it comes to LinkedIn networking. More accurately, I've decided to revert to something closer to my original terms.
When I started on LinkedIn, I took seriously their advice to "only connect with people you know." I even remember an email exchange with a (somewhat distant) co-worker who wanted to make sure he really new me before he accepted my connection request.
This advice from LinkedIn was in contrast to the "LION" (LinkedIn Open Networker) approach, which was much more promiscuous about connecting. Their argument was that you never know who you're going to want to know or be able to help. OK, that's a valid point.
Maybe a year ago, things at LinkedIn seemed to change, in two important ways
In a fit of pique, I decided to go ahead and accept these connection requests. Hey, if LinkedIn was going to make it that easy, then I was going to oblige them. Often I would notice that the requester would show up on my "who's viewed your profile" list, making me realize they were mass-mailing these connection requests and really weren't even aware that they'd sent me a request. So for a while I would write to them, explain that I wasn't sure if they intended to connect but I was happy to accept. Sometimes people would write back and say that, indeed, they wanted to connect. And I've built some good relationships out of these kinds of blind-date connections.
More and more, however, things have been getting a bit spammy.
After a while, people like Susan (and their associates) show up in my news feed, and I have to work to remember: is this someone I have a professional relationship with? As with other social forces, the noise starts to overcome the signal (what?)
So as of today, I've started purging my connection lists of people that seemed to want to treat networking like a one-night-stand. And I'm turning back people that have no connection to me, and haven't included a personal note with their connection request.
I've had some great conversations with people I didn't previously know, so I'm certainly still open to requests from out of the blue. But if it looks like you're just following the LinkedIn Path of Least Resistance, and it looks like you want to sell first and help later, then I can say "it's not you--it's me."
As in, "I have this strange desire to know first and sell later. So find a way to connect with me, show me that your interest is more than transactional, and we'll talk."
I took a day trip to Southern California this week, to meet with a potential customer. We were selected as one of the finalists to conduct an IT assessment, and we headed down to meet with the President and a few other executives.
Normally, my posts like this are more in the style of "and then I did this" but that seemed boring, so (for no reason) I decided to catalog the day's events in haiku format. Hope you like it!
Which route to San Jose?
85 often beats 101
But Google map's red
I will use CLEAR card
Even though the lines are short
Keep your shoes on, sir
Soon call with Ghana
Hope I'm through security
The travel sales life
Three excited girls
Disney taping in LA
What to ask the star?
Bob Hope or Burbank?
Small airport by any name
Like SJC's past
Lunch with customer
Head says salad heart says beef
But no micro-brew
Please increase your quote
Surely a buying signal
Too early to cheer
Back to Burbank end of day
Porque no freeway?
But metal in my shoes-dang!
Barefoot after all
Computer pass fail
Board only with paper
Now low tech is best
Scotch on the rocks-nice
Peanuts make me think of Sean
Always brought him nuts
Town car takes me home
Another successful trip
Now rinse and repeat
Off to Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead an implementation of Office 365 for the country office of one of our NGO customers. Herewith, some random notes, observations and musings.
Yes, those are real trees... inside the airport terminal
Islamabad, from the Capital Monument. They say that's "fog." I have my doubts
I'm pretty sure this tells you where to face when you're praying in the direction of Mecca
Capital Monument, Islamabad. Kind of a lotus flower design
Detail of bas-relief on one of the lotus petals, highlighting people and events in Pakistan's history
View of Islamabad from Daman-e-Koh park
Back in Dubai, headed to SFO. Welcome to the middle seat. 15 hours of opera, old Disney movies, Dubai tourist videos, and Bruce Springsteen's entire music collection. None of that matters—I'm on my way home.
For your viewing pleasure, here are some notes from my visit to Washington, DC during the last days of the US Government shutdown. I was out to meet with one of our larger customers, a group of sixteen agricultural research centers, to talk about a plan to migrate their messaging and other services to Office 365. As has become my custom, I took the opportunity to line up some informal visits with a couple of other customers. And, as luck would have it, I was asked by another customer if there was any way I could pay them a visit in Boston (Watertown, to be exact; across the street from my first MIT residence.) Since I was going to be in Washington, I arranged to leave one day early and head to Boston for a visit. Herewith, the details...
I wake up at 3:00 AM, after falling asleep in the chair watching TV. Since the car will be picking me up for the drive to the airport at a little after 5:00 AM, and since I haven't packed, I decide to pack before I go to bed. Good call—efficient and focused.
Hit the Town Car, asleep almost immediately. Next thing I know, we're exiting the freeway for SFO.
During the flight to Washington I have a brief panic attack. Did I actually pack my suitcase? Or did I just pull it out of the closet and load it into the Town Car, empty?
Landing in Dulles. Since I'm wearing a backpack for my carry-on, I nearly walk out of terminal without my suitcase. I have that groggy feeling you get when you take a midnight flight somewhere—except I didn't.
Brian and I meet for beers at the Black Rooster. The weather is quite nice, so we sit outside and catch up. Brian wants to take me to his latest find, a small Thai restaurant near his house. After taking some time to get there, we realize why they never answered the phone when he called to make a reservation: they're closed Mondays. Oh well.
Instead, we go to dinner at his new favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Zenebech Injera. The food is good and surprisingly cheap for Washington. We splurge and order a bottle of their best Yellow Tail wine.
I'm always surprised at how many homeless people I see on the streets.
Today is meeting day. I've got customer meetings about every two hours. With meeting over-run's and factoring in transportation between visits, the result is a series of meetings from 11 AM to 6 PM, without a break.
Brian and I catch up for dinner again, and I get to see his (new) office. From there, we walk past the White House. In the (officially closed) federal park across street, Brian points out the lady that's been protesting for the last 15+ years. Apparently if she doesn't abandon her post, the park police (when they're working) leave her alone.
DC Shutdown Humor: Someone put "Sorry, We're Closed" stickers over the monument icons on this Metro subway map
We have drinks at Old Ebbitt Grill (near the White house), very cool and historic. I loved the duck decoys. The bartenders are all white-haired, and you get the feeling they have the goods on every politician who's worked in DC over the past forty years. We decide to stay for dinner. The menu is very good and the prices are not too expensive, considering the tourist-trap location. Plus, we get fresh oysters!
Today is an all-day session on how to roll out Office 365 to all the agricultural research centers. I arrive at the meeting location a few minutes early, only to discover I'm at the wrong building. Nothing like a four-block run in the morning to get the blood flowing.
Lunch is at a local American/Vietnamese restaurant. I notice that the Pho isn't served with Jalapenos, although Sriracha sauce is available. We have to remind one of the diners that it's hot sauce, not ketchup, in the red bottle on the table.
After the meeting I head over to the Charles Tyrwhitt store to buy a shirt. I discovered the company while in London a while back, and love their shirts. Now that the Great Recession is thawing for me, I have an opportunity to buy a new shirt. After extensive shopping, deciding, and optimizing on my purchase, I go to pay and realize I don't have my credit card. You know, the one I got JUST FOR THIS TRIP? Holy sh$t, where could it be? I head back to my hotel and spend equal amounts of time ripping apart my room looking for the card, and calculating how I'm going to pay for my hotel in Washington, fly to Boston, and fly back to San Francisco with just the cash I have on hand (which is never very much).
Fortunately, I call the Old Ebbitt Grill and they have my card. Phew! The rest of the night is spent retrieving the card and tracking down Brian to see if he wants to meet up with my sister Mary (who's now flown into town) and me. Turns out Brian needs a night for laundry and what not (since he spent part of the weekend at an event in New York), so I have the rest of the night to myself.
Unsurprisingly, Congress passes the debt ceiling bill just in time. The glum mood that has existed in DC for past 16 days starts to ease.
Another early wake up and off to the airport. At least I'm flying out of Reagan National (or whatever it's called) so it doesn't take too long to get to the airport. I get a view of the Pentagon 9/11 memorial "contrails" as we head to the airport.
Hello Boston; good to see you again! As I take the "T" into downtown Boston, I realize I'm part of the morning commute, which wouldn't be bad except I have a large bag I'm dragging around. Soon enough, I make my connection, from Blue to Green to Red Line, and the next thing I know I'm in Harvard Square. It's refreshing to see the same impossible-to-understand accents on Red Line. I finally find the bus stop for the 71 to Watertown Square. Oh, I pay when I get off the bus? OK, so some things have changed since I was going to school here…
Thursday is another full day of meetings. It's a little like the old Johnny Carson "stump the band" routine, as people cycle through to ask me about their respective area of technology interest. Lunch is brought in from Theo's—the restaurant may not be from my time but the style is the same; no horseradish, you'll have to have mustard, bub.
After a full day, my customer gives me a ride back to the airport. My first chance to ride through The Big Dig since they finished it. On to the UA lounge, where I get to grab a glass of wine and get the user accounts set up for another customer migration to Office 365 that's starting the next day. Soon enough, I'm on my way home. Miles to go before I sleep.
I hadn't planned to attend, but my Microsoft representatives really, really wanted me to go. So they got me into the "Partner Executive Summit" the weekend prior to the Conference, and paid for my conference registration. Since the answer to all of my "how do I find the right partner?" questions in the weeks leading up to the conference was always, "go to WPC!" I figured I should go ahead… even though Houston doesn't immediately jump to mind for pleasant summer destinations.
Other than passing through its airport (the "Midnight Madness" connection to Boston remains surreal to this day), I can only remember one other visit to Houston. That was about fifteen years ago, on a road trip that included a stopover with my Aunt Bunny (the only name I ever knew her by). It was hot and humid that time, too; no surprise there. The highlight of that visit was my Aunt Bunny swatting and stunning a giant cockroach and then telling me, "Danny, you can go ahead and toss it out of the house now." Yeesh.
The conference starts on a Monday, but the Executive Summit kicks off the prior Saturday. We were in McCloud to celebrate Independence Day and Brian's birthday with the family, but I will have to cut my weekend celebration short.
McCloud. My day starts at 2:45 AM. I get up, finish packing for the conference, pack up all the stuff that's going back home with Crystal, and make a mental note to be sure to bring Bucky, my much-traveled neck pillow that allows me to sleep more comfortably in an airplane seat.
By 3:30AM Mary (my saintly sister, who's driving me to the airport) and I are out the door, right on time. We hop into the Mercedes we've borrowed for the weekend from Cheryl (saintly sister #2) for the ride to the Redding Airport. But first, we need to get some gas. We pull into the local gas station, I push on the filler cap cover to open it and… it won't open. I push again; no luck. This is a Mercedes—everything is activated by pushing. What else could be causing the problem? After 20 minutes of brain-fogged problem-solving, including several unsuccessful attempts to reach Brian or Cheryl by phone, Mary calls it and we head back to the rental house to get the Honda and head to the airport.
Now all the extra time I had built into the schedule is gone. We jump on Highway 89, heading west toward Highway 5. It's still dark out, a great time to find a deer in the road. And sure enough, we encounter a big buck crossing Highway 89, far enough to one side not to require me to take defensive driving action. But judging from the points on that buck, I can see why he thinks he's a badass.
We get to Redding airport on time, just a few minutes behind schedule. There are basically three flights a day, so I had missed this flight, it would be a while before I could take another flight to SFO. It's a small airport, but the security is big-time. It reminds me that the 9/11 bombers got into the air traffic system at a small regional airport in Maine. Lesson learned.
The group ahead of me is from Australia, and apparently they've showed up a day after their flight… makes me think they were operating on Australia time. Somehow things get sorted out for them. Brian had showed me how to use my United Airlines iPhone app the day before, so I'm all checked in except for paying to check my bag. I don't want to carry it anyway, but surely there's no way it's going to fit on this twin-prop commuter flight. Then again, I'm apparently traveling with a group of musicians, judging from the number of guitar cases waiting to be carried on to the plane.
On the plane, seat 2A. Dawn breaks, the thin sliver of a crescent moon fades, and we're headed to San Francisco. Once at SFO, it takes me a while to sift through all the Houston flights for mine, so I can get on the right shuttle bus from the commuter terminal to the main United terminal.
On my flight to Houston. I think CalTrain was in charge of the cabin temperature, because it's freezing. It's like they want to overcome the heat and humidity of Houston by making the temperature as low as possible on the flight. I have no jacket with me (who needs a jacket when the Houston forecast is for 90+ degree temps and 90+ percent humidity?) and good luck finding a blanket; maybe that was one of the options for purchase when I checked in.
Getting ready to land. The flight attendant, in that sweet Texas drawl, is shooing a passenger back to his seat. I can see his problem—he's located his luggage behind him on the plane, a cardinal sin. I kind of feel sorry for him, but not too much since he is sitting in first class after all.
We've landed at Bush airport in Houston. This airport is definitely Texas-sized. My United app has just told me that my flight has landed. Uh, thanks for that.
There's a message on my phone from Brian: call us right away when you land… what's that about? This is what it's about. Oh and welcome to today's reality—first news of it arrived via a fellow passenger's Facebook feed. I call Brian to let him and everyone know I'm fine, and not stuck at SFO.
At the hotel. There are an awful lot of "how to stay safe" commercials on the TV at this hotel. Makes me wonder about the neighborhood. I later learn that the area, Greenspoint, has a nickname of "Gunspoint." Ok, then! I hit the gym for a nice, long workout.
Taxi ride into downtown Houston, for the cocktail reception in advance of the Partner Executive Summit. Just like the airplane, the hotel temperature is turned way down to overcome the effects from the outside temperature. I try to be discreet as I wolf down the little spoons of Asian-flavored tuna tartare.
Today is a full day of Partner Executive Summit sessions. I go outside my hotel to catch a cab, and my glasses immediately fog up.
It's weird working on a Sunday. It takes me a while to figure out why no one is returning my emails.
After a full day of presentations, it's time for cocktails. Actually, there are two cocktail receptions in a row… this could be trouble. I skip one reception and go to the Partner Summit dinner at III (as in 3) Forks restaurant. Time for a Shiner Bock beer; hello Texas! It may have been a mistake asking for the medium-well filet, as I get the "hey bub, you asked for it" cut from the filet mignon. Hey, who's complaining?
I finish the evening with a glass of wine at the bar. I end up leaving my work bag in the bar and get a phone call in my room… doh!
Fogged glasses again.
My morning alarm goes off as planned. Unfortunately, I've left my phone on vibrate, which means I sleep through the alarm—so much for working out. And so much for making it to Steve Ballmer's keynote. Still, the follow-on sessions are interesting. There's one on Business Intelligence that uses bubble charts to show the top musician each year. Turns out Mariah Carey has more staying power than you would think. The presenter showcasing all the cool things about Windows 8 looks remarkably like Rick Harrison from Pawn Stars.
Q&A session with Steve Ballmer. The staging of it (don't be late, he waits for everyone to be there before he comes out) reminds me of Paul Stern and his "tour" of Nortel back when. Those were not happy times.
The session format is standard talk show, two living room chairs with a little table in between. Except that Steve Ballmer doesn't want to sit back in the comfy chair and talk. He keep scooting up to the edge of the seat. After a while I realize his speaking style is like Father Dan from our church—he has that Midwest twang and he kind of shouts when he gets excited or wants to make a point. But he's well prepared and gives on-point answers, no real platitudes. Substance! But you also see some of that competitive "I want to crush the competition" drive. It's interesting that Microsoft was once viewed as the Evil Empire and now that title has passed to others like Google and Facebook.
Partner dinner at the Petroleum Club, 43rd floor of the ExxonMobil building. Yes there is a dress code (M-F: business casual, jackets suggested). I walk over from the convention center. Since it rained earlier, the skies are clearing and it's merely incredibly humid. I make my way past the homeless people and the guys playing basketball in the city park nearby. After a half-dozen blocks, I'm at the ExxonMobil building (I'm still wondering where the Enron building was located). I look like I've walked through a waterfall to get here.
Up to the top. Nice view of the Salvation Army below, home of some of the other 99%. Where is JR? I know he's dead, I know that was Dallas. But if oil defines any place in Texas, Houston has to be high up on that list. There's a nice combo playing; they could be called, "Three Old White Guys." The music is fine, until they perform a rendition of Yes' All Good People. I'm starting to feel a little ill.
On the shuttle bus ride back to my hotel after the day is over. I count roughly two tattoo parlors, six adult video stores, five strip clubs (including Fantasy Plaza, because sometimes one building is not enough to contain one's fantasies), a couple of pawn shops and payday loan businesses, and more than a dozen boarded up buildings. Also a "Mas Club;" think Sam's Club for the Spanish-speaking population. And a furniture store called The Dump, with its tagline, "get dumped!"
My ritual morning fogging of the glasses.
Temps are in the 90s—cooler, but the heat index is above 100. I wanted to get up and work out, but I've got a stiff back. Or, I'm just feeling a bit lazy.
My first day of regular conference sessions. In the first session, I see one of the worst charts I've seen in a while. From my Nortel experience, I can tell it's one of those internal business plan charts that puts everything you might want to know on one slide. We could spend the whole hour just "unpacking" that one slide. Mercifully, the speakers move on.
On a side note: I think the infographic craze has gotten to Microsoft. That, and the "doors" metaphor as a replacement for "windows." The PowerPoint slides don't have titles. And there are no bullet icons. Each main idea is in its own little box. And if you want to "drill down" on something, you click on it… Open the door, get it?
Next comes the march of the acronyms. EPG, CA, MEC… "Rhythm of Business." There's no end to it; more on this later. And please, presenters, don't ask for a "show of hands." No one wants to raise their hand!
The new normal: people taking photos of the presenter's slides. A new opportunity for Evernote!
One thing I've learned about WPC is that you can't go hungry here. There's a buffet breakfast. There are refreshments all the time, and a buffet lunch—free to all attendees. Then there are the dinners and parties… Had a great BBQ brisket for lunch today, though it featured a North Carolina-style mustard and vinegar sauce. I'm surprised that made it past the Texas Board of Health.
Evening events include a "reunion" of the folks that attended the similarly named Partner Executive Summit back in March, followed by the West Region Partner Awards dinner. More booze and appetizers.
Slightly less fog on my glasses this morning; the weather's improving.
One of the big activities at the Conference is meetings with other partners. Microsoft even has it all wired, where you can arrange to reserve one of the tables they have set aside for this purpose; no need to meet in the coffee shop down the street (unless you aren't an attendee). A number of companies have set up meetings with me, mostly Independent Software Vendors. I don't see any immediate opportunity there (and tell them before we set the meetings) but hey, I'll meet with anyone for fifteen minutes.
Unfortunately, the execution lags. I've been on the go since early AM, and don't get lunch until 1:30 PM. Most of the events I set up using the WPC app on my phone also synch to my Calendar; but not all of them do. So I end up inadvertently blowing off two partner meetings, and get blown off by a third. I do manage to meet with an Israeli security company (with a US headquarters; this is a recurring theme…) that has an interesting encryption device. I tell them flat out not to suggest that their device would have prevented the NSA from reading people's mail.
It turns out to be a very good meeting, and kind of reminds me why I like working with startups. I had shown up early to the meeting, when the CEO was pitching to the "Google compete" people from Microsoft, and I could see them thinking, "what is your 'ask'?" One of them was kind of understanding that there was a "kill" message against Google, but she clearly knew nothing about cryptography. Her colleague had that "we're Microsoft, we're badass!" look on his face and seemed more focused on where the drinks were going to be happening that evening.
I finish up with calls to my customer in San Francisco, to get up to date on this month's planned project activities, and with a call to the boss, who is arranging my travel to DC later in the month. Things are all wrapped up by 6:45 PM.
On to Minute Maid Park, home of the Astro's. Or, as my late Uncle John loved to call them back in the day, the "Disastro's." There's this U-shaped redevelopment that comprises Minute Maid Park and the Hilton Americas hotel on opposite sides, and the Walter G. Brown Convention Center in the middle. It's a great start at some urban redevelopment. It's also clearly still a work in progress. There is a dirt lot across the street from the entrance to the park, and what are these historic-looking buildings doing here?
This evening is the big "partner celebration," featuring Fitz and the Tantrums along with Lenny Kravitz. The whole thing reminds me of the big Nortel bash held at the end of every International SL-1 (later Meridian 1) User Association meeting.
At any rate, I'm having a good time walking around the park. It's kind of like AT&T Park except it's indoors, which makes the field look smaller than it is. And they have that funny uphill section of the outfield in straightaway center field, which always looked like an accident waiting to happen for center fielders. They're serving beer and wine, no hard liquor; probably a good call. Some of the attendees have taken the time to change into their party outfits. I cruise around looking for something that will stand for dinner. Eventually, I settle on an Italian sausage with peppers. I'm hearing the pre-band music and realize many of the songs are from my morning BodyPump workouts. I think God is trying to tell me something.
Pop quiz: which of these items can be found in Minute Maid Park?
Answer: all of the above of course!
I stay for Fitz et al, but decide I've had enough before Lenny Kravitz starts to play. As I leave the park, I pass by a Catholic church. The plaque on the church says that, "In keeping with the penitential rites, there was no heating until 1914, and no air conditioning until the 1930s." My kind of Catholics!
Almost done. I'm going to miss you, foggy glasses.
The big news at the conference actually comes from afar: Microsoft just announced a reorganization. And so starts the speculation about who won, who lost, was it the right thing to do, can it be accomplished and so on. More navel-gazing.
I'm in my first session of the day, one of the "how to work with Microsoft" sessions I had signed up for. I actually hear the presenter say the following with no trace of irony, and no objections from the crowd: "The PTU mission is to be ATU accountable and STU aligned"… huh?
I manage to catch up with one of the partners I missed earlier in the week. They're a software developer from Bulgaria. The CEO is focused in his discussion, his partner looks like she's done for the week. We conclude that there's no immediate chance to work together, but we'll stay in touch nonetheless.
One final session on go-to-market in Europe. I'm here as much as anything because I love to hear the European accents. After the session, and some catching up on work and personal mail, I retrieve my bag and go find an actual BBQ restaurant in Houston: Tony's BBQ and Steakhouse. It's a bit of a dive, the way I like. You order cafeteria style and there aren't a lot of healthy sides to choose from. I'd love to finish my lunch with a Shiner Bock, but apparently they can't serve beer at lunch time.
I walk back to the convention center and cool off while I wait for my bus and head to the airport. It's been a good week. But, as with all conventions, by the end of it I'm ready to get home. I've connected with a lot of good people, learned some new Microsoft acronyms, bought a Surface tablet on sale (without having to wait in line for hours), had some good BBQ and learned a little bit about Houston. Not bad for a week on the road.
I recently had to make an emergency visit to a customer in Los Angeles. They were having some messaging problems and we decided that it would be best to observe the issues first-hand so that we could resolve them. Here, in short form, are my highlights from this one-day trip.
Product Management may be many things, but "dull" is never one of them!
I happened upon some posts recently that share a common theme—the current reinvention of Silicon Valley. Change is nothing new in these parts—it's what defines the place. And while it's easy to bemoan the changes that are occurring (and conversely, to celebrate what's new as if it was invented for the first time) that kind of discussion is pointless. The discussion that does have merit is represented by these posts. You could title them collectively as "Is this what we want to become?"
The first post is by Steve Blank, one of my heroes. He writes that social media is crowding out all other sectors for venture capital investment, because its (potential) returns are so large and realized so quickly. He notes that other investment sectors, such as clean-tech and life sciences, are being passed over in favor of "Web 2.0" (even that term seems dated now) startups such as Facebook, Google, Zynga and others. 30 years ago, a venture capital firm would invest multiple millions of dollars in a semiconductor company and not expect to see a return for ten years or more. Today, a VC invests a few hundred thousand dollars (at early stages) in a social media startup and might see a payoff in two or three years.
The second post, by William Davidow (another hero) notes the culture change occurring, as the CEO's setting the values for Silicon Valley shift from the likes of William Hewlett and David Packard to Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Pincus, and Larry Page. Where Hewlett and Packard built a business focused on pristine customer service, the new breed of CEO's are building businesses based on the exploitation of customers (more specifically, their data). It wouldn't be fair to imply that these current CEO's don't care about customer service. It's just that their businesses operate (to varying degrees) with a "free" model that focuses on attracting users and mining their data, with the paying customers being the companies that buy targeted advertising on these sites.
These commentators share a common theme—build your company to last, build it to change the world—because they come from a shared history and experience with "the Valley." Their sentiments are more (much more) than mere nostalgia for the Valley as they once knew it. They've given voice to feelings people like me have had as we've witnessed the emergence of these new style startups, requiring us to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant and valuable to today's startup community.
These writers, and those of us who have been here since the 1990's, remember the "dot bomb" era of the late 1990's/early 2000's. At that time you had companies with no proven business model being valued and sold at incredible prices. It was a common joke that you could drive up your company's market capitalization by simply adding a leading "e" or "i" or a trailing ".com" to the company name. I remember taking calls from Internet companies trying to sell me advertising: the callers had no knowledge of what my company was about and couldn't tell me why I needed their advertising. I also remember interviewing a new college graduate for a Business Development role. He had no experience, but was confident that he could command an $80K starting salary. Such were the times.
And so those (especially in the media) who witnessed this implosion as it happened now play the parlor game of "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" as they observe the multi-billion dollar valuation of companies like Box, Dropbox, Groupon and others. One difference with today's hot startups is that these companies tend to have an identified and validated business model. They often aren't cash flow positive as yet, but are trending in the right direction. The "Bubble!" crowd wrings their hands and wags a finger at today's startup CEO's: "Just wait! You'll get your just reward!" The "No Bubble!" crowd smoothes their hoodies and says "Wait! This time it's different!" The audience voting falls along the lines of who thinks they will profit from or get crushed by any such bubble.
The discussion of economic implications has largely been theoretical. That changed with the recent news regarding Zynga's secondary stock offering and subsequent earnings dive. To torture a phrase, there may not have been any fire here, but there sure is a lot of smoke.
But I'm not so interested in the "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" discussion. These are the questions that are worth asking.
Let's take the first question. I was talking about this over coffee recently with a colleague and former manager. He's younger than me, but still would be seen as outside the age demographic for today's startup founders. His perspective was that today's company founders are running so fast, they haven't figured out what they don't yet know. A few will learn without doing lasting damage to their companies. Some will realize that this is the point where they need to bring in some experienced help. And others… let's just say it won't be pretty. Remember, some of the "dot bomb" disasters were failures of execution (WebVan) as much as failed business models.
My advice to today's startup community would be this.
Regarding the second question, what does it take for a Valley veteran to succeed in today's startup environment?
I've been quite deliberate in embracing new ways of working (hello, Agile!), new technologies (too many to mention) and most importantly new methods of decision-making (ask me about split tests). I've been careful not to start sentences with "Back in my day…" But I've also been amazed when I realized that some of what I thought "everyone" knew was not nearly so widely known. Ask me about regulatory testing, hardware/software lineups, feature prioritization or user interface design.
So if it feels like a brave new world, maybe that's because it is… again. You can question what values today's startups are embracing. Or you can go out and show them what values will be needed to succeed. Which choice will you make?
I was inspired to write this post as I was packing up prior to our move last Fall from Roop Road, in the hills above Gilroy, to our new house in downtown Gilroy. We had committed that we would use this move to "purge" all of the stuff we had kept around since moving to Gilroy four years ago. I had gotten rid of most everything that wasn't needed anymore, or wasn't going to be needed in our new "townie" lifestyle. As I rummaged through the closet cleaning out my things, I came across these boots.
My practical side was in favor of getting rid of the boots. I mean, look at them! There was a hole in one boot, from when Doc was still a puppy and needed something to chew on. The hole in the front of the other boot was from when Wiley was cutting his teeth. I'd cut a hole in the back of that boot in order to get my foot in and out without pulling the insole out at the same time. But as I looked at the boots, I thought about the dirt, mud, and muck that had been ground into them since I put them on in those first days of living in Gilroy. And I realized that these boots could tell a story that I was feeling, the story of how my life had changed and how it was changing again, pointing me toward a future that wasn't at all clear.
My experience moving to Gilroy—and especially everything that happened thereafter—has had the feel of a dramatic movie. There were the early parts, mostly filled with the excitement of new beginnings, establishing new home and work routines, living with Sean and Danielle, learning (for me) about horses and how to be around them. That first summer was like the first month of living with new college roommates. The weather was warm, there was a pool to enjoy, and more than once we turned an afternoon swim party into an extended stay out by the artificial campfire, enjoying good wine and good company.
There were also the early signs of trouble. The title company failed to set up an impound account for taxes and insurance, meaning that every six months we were hit with a large tax bill, one we didn't fully factor into our many budget planning exercises. Each round of borrowing from the 401k seemed like it would be the last: I kept thinking that things would settle down once we got past the moving-in expenses. As it became clear that things weren't going to settle down, we took steps to reduce our credit card debt and attempted to modify our mortgage. But, as this was before the economy fell apart, banks weren't too interested in helping proactively address their mortgage payments.
Then the crash hit. Eventually the company where I worked closed its doors, and I entered the ranks of the unemployed. The next nine months were filled with daily collection calls, endless loan modification conversations, and endless time spent looking for work. The mood wasn't grim, but it was nonetheless a time for cutting all unnecessary spending. Thoughts of buying a tractor to work the acreage changed to renting a tiller for a weekend, and eventually to taking a pick and shovel to the ground, determined as I was to start a garden. Along the way I discovered that I really liked working the soil: it felt a lot more like farming than gardening. That led me to setting up a horse manure composting operation, which helped deal with the horse manure situation while also giving me the materials to amend the soil into stuff that could really grow things. In short, I discovered my "inner farmer."
Once I did start working again, we were able to get the bank to agree to "piggyback" our months of missed loan payments onto the back end of our loan. But they wouldn't agree to restructuring the terms of the loan, reducing the interest rate to current levels or reducing the principal to something approximating the lower value of the house. So we went had to decide whether we wanted to try to stay in our house and wait for conditions to improve so we could refinance our losses, or cut our losses and move on. Our heads said "move!" our hearts said "stay!" In the end, logic prevailed over emotion and we told the bank they could have the house.
With that, we started looking into house rentals. There was a period of uncertainty about whether moving meant continuing to live with Sean and Danielle or not: were we looking for one house or two? How would we care for Sassy, Dandy and Tux? What about the dogs? Chickens? It was a stressful time for everyone. Eventually we decided to continue living together until we figured out what was next. After close to a year of sharing a house, Sean took a job working on a ranch in McCloud. That meant Sean would be moving soon, and Danielle soon afterward. The whole process happened quickly, and before I knew it I was helping Sean load Sassy and Dandy into a borrowed horse trailer for their move to McCloud. Seeing Sean say goodbye to Tux (he could only bring two horses with him) broke my heart.
Fortunately, we found a great home for Tux in a very short time. It was hard to say goodbye but we were really happy that he was going to a family that would love him and look after him.
And then, a few weeks later, Sean came back to pick up Doc and Wiley.
The one constant through all my life changes had been walking one dog or another. At first, it was Henry and Doc, and later Doc and Wiley after Henry passed away. I walked the dogs with Danielle every morning, and sometimes walked them again or let them out to run in the fields behind our house when I needed a break from job hunting or wanted to clear my head.
And then, a short time after moving his horses, Sean returned to take Wiley and Doc to McCloud. I was happy that they were going to be with Sean full time again, but I knew that I was going to miss them. A lot.
Our household had, in the space of a month, gone from four people with three horses and two dogs to one that held two people (and Danielle on an occasional basis) with no dogs and no horses. At least we still had our chickens.
With Sean now in McCloud (and Danielle soon to follow) and with my looking at a job that might involve lots of travel to Europe and Asia, Crystal faced the possibility of spending significant time alone in our house in the hills. This wasn't an attractive option, and she had a desire to try living "in town" vs. out in the dust and dirt of the countryside. We found a nice Victorian to rent pretty quickly, but it meant giving up the idea of getting a dog while we were renting, as well as finding a new home for our chickens (Gilroy doesn't allow them within its city limits). My life had gone from caring for horses, dogs and chickens, and working several rows of vegetables, to… none of that.
I almost got rid of the boots.
Why would I need them? I didn't see myself owning a place or living somewhere where I'd be establishing a garden anytime soon. Horses weren't in my future; neither were dogs, at least while we were renting a house. The chickens would be close by at the Hubners, but visiting them wasn't going to be the same as seeing them every morning and evening. (Update: the chickens enjoyed their time at Hubner Hallow, but were eventually discovered and dispatched by a local fox.) This whole moving to the country experience had seemed like a grand experiment that had gone up in smoke.
I knew where I had been. And even though things hadn't worked out the way I had expected, I liked my lifestyle. But, like it or not, my life was changing. What was it going to be like? And how would I like it? As I stared at those boots, all I knew was that I couldn't go back; I could only go forward.
The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,
You can't let go and you can't hold on,
You can't go back and you can't stand still,
If the thunder don't' get you then the lightning will.
--The Grateful Dead, The Wheel
After some time in my new environment I was able to realize that things had worked out. Maybe not the way I had imagined, but in a positive way nonetheless. Sean had realized his dream of working as a horse trainer on a real, working ranch. Danielle had developed sufficient skills in health education and non-profit management that I knew she was going be just fine. (And she has adapted well to life in McCloud, lining up multiple jobs and connections with the local education/non-profit community.) Brian had done an amazing job learning how to network his way into a job that paid reasonably well and provided a lot of satisfaction. And he was successfully living on his own in another part of the country, one (as we saw on our recent visit to Washington, DC) that suits him perfectly, at least for now. Crystal left the CPA firm she had been at, and moved into medical practice management for an oncology practice in Monterey. On the day I was literally reviewing a job posting for Dutch Harbor, Alaska an old friend called to see if I wanted to do some consulting for him. That turned into a full-time position doing some very interesting stuff. And Crystal and I had worked diligently to reduce our expenses to a minimum, so that once I was working again we'd be able to meet our expenses and see the light at the end of our debt-reduction tunnel.
We've learned to enjoy living "in town" and being able to walk to dinner and the farmer's market. I'm able to ride my bike or walk to the train station. And I've channeled by gardening energy into helping set up and run the "Hubner Hallow" garden.
I'm glad that I decided to keep those boots. They still come in handy when things get mucky at the Hubner garden. And they remind me of where I've been, and what we've all accomplished. All in all, they've been a great investment. They hold a lot of stories, and they're not done telling their tale just yet.