So You Want to Be A Product Manager

Because I teach a course on Product Management at Harvard Business School, I am routinely asked “what is the role of a Product Manager?”. The role of a Product Manager (PM) is often referred to as the “CEO of the Product”. I disagree because, as Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support”. PMs are not the CEO of product and their roles vary widely depending on a number of factors. So what should you consider if you’re thinking of pursuing a PM role?

As an aspiring PM, there are three primary considerations when evaluating the role: Core Competencies, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Company Fit. The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the des

ign team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.

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Do you have what it takes to be the best PM?

Core Competencies
There are core competencies that every PM must have – many of which can start in the classroom – but most are developed with experience and good role models/mentoring. Some examples of these competencies include:

  • Conducting customer interviews and user testing
  • Running design sprints
  • Feature prioritization and roadmap planning
  • The art of resource allocation (it is not a science!)
  • Performing market assessments
  • Translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Defining and tracking success metrics

These core competencies are the baseline for any PM and the best PMs hone these skills over years of defining, shipping and iterating on products. These PMs excel at reflecting on where each of these competencies contributed to the success or failure of their products and continuously adjust their approach based on customer feedback.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
A good PM may know the Do’s and Don’ts of a customer interview, but the best PM has the ability to empathize with customers in that interview, are tuned into their body language and emotions and can astutely suss out the true pain-points that their product/feature will address. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and they have a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. Here’s a deeper look at how the four EQ key traits, as defined by Daniel Goleman, relate to the PM role:

  • Relationship Management: Probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is their relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts and working with others toward a shared goal which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource constrained engineering teams and the company’s revenue goals.

    Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support if additional funding is needed for a product or to sway an engineer to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode. These relationship skills can also be what makes the difference between having irate customers because of a bug introduced into the product and those who say “no worries, we know you’ll fix this!”. 
  • Self-awareness: PMs must be self-aware to remain objective and avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. If a PM is in love with a feature because it addresses their own pain points (PMs are often super users of the products for which they are responsible), they may cause a user to say they love it too just to please the PM (“False positive feature validation”). If not self aware, a PM may push to prioritize a feature they conceived even when all the customer interviews and evidence is stacked against it. This lack of self awareness could derail more important priorities and/or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers who may lose confidence in their PM when the feature isn’t readily adopted by users. 
  • Self-management: Being a PM can be incredibly stressful! The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency, but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. These PMs also know when to take a breath and step away if needed, regroup, and go back into the game to get sh*t done (GSD). 
  • Social Awareness: According to Goleman, the competencies associated with being socially aware are Empathy, Organizational Awareness, and Service. PMs must understand customers emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product (or support team to support it, or engineering to build it). PMs have to have a deep understanding of how the organization operates and build social capital to influence the success of their product – from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done which is ultimately what drives product market fit.

Read more about what Paul Jackson has to say about EQ and PMs here – including a sub-link of an interview with Sam Lessin, former VP of Product Management at Facebook, who says he has ‘never successfully trained empathy.’ (or as Lady Gaga would say “you were born this way”…or not!)

Company Fit
So if the best PMs have well developed core competencies and a high EQ, does that mean that they are then destined for success no matter where they work? Going deeper, it is taking these skills and personality traits and applying them to the right company – amid a broad array of opportunities – that will ultimately guarantee success.

I have yet to see a standard job description for a Product Manager because each role is ultimately defined by the size, type of product, stage, industry and even culture of the company. Assuming the core competencies and high EQ as the minimum requirements, the next step is to unpack who’s hiring and what they are truly looking for:

  • Technical Skill – The type of product, who uses it and/or the type of company (e.g. Google who requires PMs pass a technical skills test regardless of what product they’ll work on) will determine how technical a PM needs to be. If the company is building a SaaS CRM, there may be more requirements for experience with go-to-market and customer lifecycles than how the product itself is built. If it’s a data science product with machine learning algorithms and APIs, the role may require a lot more technical depth to not only understand how to build the product but also how to talk, credibly, with the customers who will use it. That said, having a basic technical understanding of what is “under the hood” and mastery of the tools that PMs use is definitely important for the role, anywhere. Colin Lernell has more to say about these necessary skills here.

    If you are an aspiring PM concerned you lack the basic tech skills for the role, you might consider taking online courses such as the renowned Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) course offered by Harvard University or one of the many intro and advanced technology courses offered by The Flatiron School. 
  • Company philosophy about PM – Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types with pros and cons:

    • PM Drives Engineering: A “throw it over the wall” approach where PMs gather requirements, write the quintessential PRD (Product Requirements Document) and hand it off to Engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
      • Pro: Engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; tends to work well for Waterfall development shops with long lifecycles.
      • Con: Engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers which can lead to a poor user experience; often there are unhealthy tensions when tech-debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized against customer requirements. 
    • Engineering Drives Product: More technically oriented product companies (e.g., cloud, big data, networking…) tend to be engineering driven where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PM and engineering, but typically, PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
      • Pro: Breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed (VMotion at VMware was a great example of this. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it and it became THE billion dollar game changer for the company).
      • Cons: Engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution or iterate forever (seeking perfection) before getting customer feedback; PM input on priorities are ignored, which is sometimes the most basic needs of customers to encourage adoption and increase stickiness of the product.

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    • The PM<>Engineering Partnership: There is a strong yin-yang between PM and Engineering where there is joint discovery, decision-making and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews and PMs are insprint meetings to help unblock tasks or bring clarity to  requirements, but the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded, but don’t tell engineers how to code and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs, but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
      • Pros: Streamlined prioritization process that values tech-debt/plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher performing teams with improved product velocity, quality and typically, happier customers.
      • Con: Breakthrough innovation may not get light/investment; time-to-market may seem to lag (but I’d argue what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs with a far more scalable product).

I’m clearly biased (as is Fred Wilson) on the third type of philosophy about PM as I’ve experienced all three and found the yin-yang to be most effective, but it’s not to say the others are notably bad and, again, it really depends on what type of product, stage, etc,. Regardless, when considering a PM role, the philosophy of PM at the company could be the deciding factor on fit for the role.

  • Stage of company – The role of the PM at a startup is far likely to be responsible for “all the things” vs. a mature company where their role will be more distinctly defined. Eriksson, Banfield and Walkingshaw’s book Product Leadership has a section that has a lot more detail on this topic).

    • Startup: Beyond discovery, definition and shipping, they may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support and potentially even sales of the product. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product market fit and learns to operate at scale.
      • Pros: Likely to be more involved with company strategy, exposure to senior leadership/board, able to take more risks/make a bigger impact; more influence/authority over company resources.
      • Cons: Little-to-no mentorship or role models or best practice within the company (may have to seek externally); may not have requisite experience for some of the “things” (comfortable winging it); tight budgets. 
    • Mature Company: The PM may have a more narrow scope (deep vs. broad), have co-workers who handle pricing, go to market strategies, etc.. and likely part of a larger team of Product Managers.
      • Pros: More likely to have mentoring/role models and development standards/best practice; close association with an engineering team can develop strong relationships over time (great for long term impact/career growth); if product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from vs. guessing until you get it right.
      • Cons: Less exposure to company strategy; just one of many voices of the customer; can get “lost” in the system; more politics; tight budgets. 
  • Founder/CTO/CEO relationship with PM – Especially in earlier stage companies, it’s important to know how involved the Founder/CEO/CTO is in the product process. If they are deeply involved, the PM role may play more of a support role to flesh out their ideas or validate concepts with customers vs. conceiving and driving ideas of their own. This can be great fun for some PMs who enjoy partnering with founders/c-levels and collaborate on the product evolution, but for some PMs it can be very frustrating if they prefer to take more ownership of product direction. It can also be challenging if the more technical founders/c-levels prefer working directly with engineers. This can leave PMs out of the loop or undermined (even if unintentional) causing not just personal frustrations but delays if they have to play catch up and/or continuously recalibrate. When considering a PM role that may work closely with the founding leadership team, be sure to find out their expectations of the PM function and decide whether this is the right fit with your interests.

There are of course many other factors to consider for any role such as the type of product you are building (B2B, B2C, industry, etc.), the humans with whom you’ll work and the overall company culture (diverse, inclusive, flexible work hours, remote culture, etc.), and of course compensation and benefits. There are also a million articles on hiring product managers to get perspective on what the hiring managers are looking for – I especially recommend my friend Ken Norton’s piece How to Hire a Product Manager. However, if you are striving to be the best Product Manager, consider all of the above before signing on to your next gig. Developing core competencies will be an ongoing activity throughout your career and leveraging a high EQ will ensure a more positive experience, but where you work, how they work and who you work with/for will ultimately determine your long term success.

Have additional pointers on succeeding in the PM role? Please share in the comments!

Visualizing Mile 26

Boston Marathon

“I don’t know how you do it” seems to be the comment du jour these days. I think it’s a compliment most of the time – an appreciation for everything I have taken on – but I do get this little jab in my brain when I hear it and it makes me wonder if I am insane.

I have a lot on my plate, that’s true. I am the CTO at a growing tech company in NYC, I teach a very hands on course at Harvard Business School in Cambridge. I have three daughters – one college kid in NYC, and a freshman and senior in high school (that’s right folks, college application season, round two!) – and two cats (one of which has a chronic disease requiring daily meds). I manage my household solo (yep, I’m a single mom) and I advise a few companies, coach a few rising stars and sit on a couple boards. Oh, and I occasionally blog.

What?

Ok, so I have taken on a lot, but I simply LOVE everything I do and I make it work by visualizing Mile 26.

I have never run a marathon, but I did the 26 mile Walk for Hunger many years ago with two of my BFFs. I remember being at mile 24 that day and thinking “oh my God, two more miles?!”. I had practically lost my mind because my feet hurt and I was tired and hungry, but instead of throwing in the towel, I just powered on and ran the last 2 miles and left my two friends in the dust, aghast. I had committed to this thing and I wanted to reach mile 26. It was for a good cause and my feet would feel better a week later.

Our lives will always have peaks and valleys. There were many sleepless nights when each of my girls were newborns that I thought would never end. By child three, when I had some experience under my belt, I got through those hard days of barely having time to eat, let alone take a shower, by visualizing Mile 26. The time would come when they’d all be sleeping straight through the night and the days would come when I had to drag them out of bed for school! I was close and I could make it to the end of this phase – Mile 26.

We also have to constantly recalibrate our priorities. When my Dad had major heart surgery back in 2001, I was running Engineering at a tech company and I had two little girls at home. During that time, my mile 24 was several weeks of a daily drive from work to the hospital to home to keep all the balls in the air. I missed many dinners and bath times with the girls, and my work suffered a bit, but Dad was a priority at that time. He eventually was back to himself and under good care at home – Mile 26 – and I was back to having dinner and splashing in the tub with the girls.

I’m not the only one trying to balance so much at once, so here are a few tips and tricks I use to keep it all together (most of the time) that others may find useful:

Give yourself permission to let stuff slide and get help
The school months are my most hectic time of year with many mile 24s (think: 90 degrees and humid running up a hill after 23 miles). I visualize many Mile 26s during this time, like holiday breaks, scheduled trips and the summers when school is out. During these killer mile 24s, I let some stuff slide like that growing pile of clothes I should really get to Goodwill or cleaning out the refrigerator (petrified clementines are cool). I may skip an evening networking event in favor of sleep or to catch up on work and I get help when I need it for errands, home repairs and cleaning (thank you InstacartTaskrabbit and Handy!).

Say “No”, but offer an alternative
As my career has progressed, I get a lot more requests of my time outside of work. I love paying it forward whenever I can, but my cycles are few and I am getting better at saying “no”. I’m flattered by every ask for advice, to speak or to attend an event of some sort. I wish I could do all of it but over the years I’ve learned to become more selective about what I say “yes” to. Whenever I have to say “no”, I try to find an alternative for the requester. Someone else who could coach or speak or attend the event. I find it not only gets me off the hook, but it usually ends up being a great experience for the alternate and very often the requester is quite happy with the result. It’s great when these situations turn into a win-win.

Block time off to GSD
I routinely block off time to make sure I can get stuff done (GSD). Sunday mornings are my most productive times – because #teenagerssleepuntilnoon. I focus on cleaning up my in-box and getting prep work done for the coming week. I have help at work with my calendar, but I do all of the personal stuff myself like making doctor appointments or coordinating carpools. I maximize driving/Uber time for that sort of stuff. It’s important to me that I stay plugged in and not offload everything – especially most things to do with my girls – and there’s something satisfying about getting out of the car and feeling like I just knocked a few things off of my to-do list – mini mile 26s!

[If Applicable] Respect your kids – you only get to do this once
My mile 24 life has taught my girls to be highly independent which is not so bad! They can make themselves meals, do their own laundry and help around the house (ok, with some prodding). That said, I make sure we have dinner at the table together a few nights a week and we have a no cell phone rule at meal time so we can actually talk with each other face-to-face.

I keep an open line of communication for my kids to voice when they need me for anything or feel like my crazy life is not in sync with theirs. When I’ve got a lot going on in a given month, we have “family meetings” where we make sure their priorities for me are in check. For the theater geek, I have a minimum number of shows I must attend (I usually make all of them, tyvm!) and for the sports kid, I have to attend at least two games a season – home or away. I get quality time with my big kid in NYC (perk of the job!) and thank God for texting and social media where we all stay connected probably more than my parents did with me when I was their ages! From Instagram, FB and snapchat to our “My3girlz” text stream that’s endlessly entertaining and annoying 24×7, we are in constant communication.

Take Care of Yourself
If I’m not ok, no one in my life is OK. I do yoga, walk or run a couple times a week. I am a self-proclaimed spa addict and try to get to one at least once a month – even when I was just scraping by early in my career, I made the budget work for this little luxury. I love to travel and take my all three of my girls on a trip together at least one a year. I do acupuncture, sleep eight hours most nights and I am a total freak when it comes to what I put into my body (GF, sorta vegan, organic). I also make time for friends – because friends are what keep me whole beyond my kids. Whether it’s a well needed night out on the town or just a long stream of texts to vent or to laugh, I have an amazing network of people that bless my life.

So, I guess that’s how I do it. I’d be lying if I said it’s a piece of cake. Sometimes I lose it amid a mile 24 and snap at the girls when I’m exhausted and stressed. Sometimes I cancel a few meetings and check out for a couple hours when I’m at work because I need to just think. Sure, a few balls get dropped on the floor – maybe a lot, sometimes – but that’s life and I try not to beat myself up over it. After all, Mile 26 is right around the corner.

Do you take on a lot or wonder how you can take on more? Share your thoughts and concerns in the comments.

Scaling Another Rocket Ship: Hello DO!

Every once and awhile, I meet a company so exciting, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking non-stop about its potential to scale, massively. Fortunately for me, I ended up joining two of them that turned out to be great success stories and I think I just found my third. Starting this month, I am joining the ranks at DigitalOcean as their CTO.

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Anyone who knows me well would agree that as much as I am an organizer and planner, I am also a risk taker. I love diving into challenges and creating results that require skill, agility and building relationships. While business savvy and technical skill are paramount to growing a successful tech company, understanding the human element and building high performing teams is what separates the good from the great.

In 1999, with a three year-old and an infant, I quit my healthcare IT job to go to Akamai to help them get organized before our IPO. Most of my friends and colleagues thought I was nuts, but I was hungry for bringing order to chaos and building something that made an impact. My three years at Akamai were among the toughest and most rewarding years of my career. We created the world’s first CDN for businesses and turned it into the backbone of the internet. The teams I led and partnered with were some of the smartest and coolest humans I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We pulled all-nighters together, cried together when we lost our CTO-Founder Danny Lewin on 9/11 and still celebrate the company’s success together at our annual “Akamai Pre-2002’ish Employees” reunion.

In 2005, I landed at VMware right after the EMC acquisition to help them figure out how to run a global engineering team. I took a leap of faith that we would not get fully absorbed into EMC (which was their MO at the time) and that I could help build another company made to last. What I found when I interviewed at VMware was the same good vibe I had at Akamai. Super smart people, fun, passion and humility…and of course, a wicked cool product. I still remember my final interview in Palo Alto – a last minute “Diane Greene would like to meet you” – that threw me for a curve. I was pretty frank with Diane that I wasn’t sure I could balance my role at VMware with three small children. She assured me that VMware would make it work, and they did. Both my career and the company flourished over my eight year tenure at VMware. When I joined the company, we had just over 800 employees and around $200M in revenue. Today, it boasts close to 19K employees and 2015 revenues were $6.57B. It was an incredible ride to help scale something that spectacular.

When I left VMware in 2013, I felt very lucky to have been part of two incredible rocket ship stories in the technology industry. After much soul searching around “Julia.next”, I settled into the startup ecosystem in Boston. I became a mentor at TechStars and recently began teaching a Product Management course at Harvard Business School. Until recently, I was fairly certain this was the tail end of my journey, but something was gnawing at me that I had at least one more in me. One more amazing rocket ship I could help scale.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a few investments and became a formal advisor to the founders of several local startups. It was one of these founders who introduced me to Moisey Uretsky, DigitalOcean’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer. For those who don’t know Moisey, let’s just say brilliance and tenacity is an understatement. Despite my protests against working with a company in NYC, Moisey convinced me to come to DigitalOcean HQ back in January to meet his equally brilliant and tenacious brother and co-founder-CEO, Ben, and get to know the business. One visit became several and within a matter of a few weeks, I was fully enamored and signed up to advise the company.

During my early work with the DigitalOcean team, my instincts told me that this is going to be another winner. It is beyond impressive how, in just four short years, DigitalOcean has built such a strong platform and community. Ben, Moisey and I – along with the other key members of the DigitalOcean leadership team – began to work together to forge a partnership that will enable us to super-scale this company. The achievements we’ve made to grow the business so far left me unable to resist the temptation to join full time to help take it all the way. So now here I am, honored and excited to be DigitalOcean’s new CTO.

So what is it about DigitalOcean that gets me so excited?

In addition to our tremendous business growth, strong culture, talented team and impressive list of investors, the most striking is the simplicity of DigitalOcean’s features that developers love. We let developers create, automate, and manage a robust cloud server infrastructure out of the box with floating IP addresses, shared private networking, tier-1 bandwidth, team accounts and SSD hard drives which all come as standard. And all of our services can be provisioned in as little as 55 seconds with a plan for as low as $5 a month.

I am continuously blown away at the reaction I get from people in our industry who hear I am working with this company.

“I love how easy it is to spin up a Droplet to build software!” – MIT graduate student building software for his own startup

“I have 6 Droplets of my own!” – Boston VC

“Their tutorials and community engagement is the best in the industry” – Engineer building a neuroscience application

“DigitalOcean gets developers – they give us what we need with no BS” – SaaS application developer

In addition to our core feature offerings, our multiple data centers around the world and a 99.99% guaranteed uptime enable companies to build and scale robust SaaS applications. Even more exciting is what’s to come. Our storage capabilities will begin to roll out this summer and what follows is a list of features that developers building production applications will surely love. Because at DigitalOcean, it’s all about love…

This is going to be another incredible journey of risk, opportunity and balance for me. We are an organization that values learning and what better way to hold that true than to continue teaching my course at HBS (fear not, @teisenmann & PM101’ers!). And, while I’ll certainly be spending a lot of time at our HQ in NYC, I will remain living in Cambridge and to continue to be an active member of the Boston area startup community.

Finally, I am hiring! We’re looking for amazing talent across the company. Check out our current career opportunities both in and outside of NYC.

Will DigitalOcean be another massively scaling rocket ship ? I’m pretty bullish about it. So check back here soon for updates on how it’s going!

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Note To Parents: When The Helicopter Flies Too Close To Work

Last week I had the pleasure of co-hosting an event with the wonderful team from Inteligent.ly. Our goal was to pull together local Chief People Officer types from startups (COOs and CFOs included) to get a conversation going around scaling organizations. It was a wonderful dialogue centered around talent acquisition, development and retention as companies scale. I think most of the attendees would agree, we could have talked for hours if we had the time. One striking take-away from the evening, however, was the topic of parents involvement in the hiring process.

Yes, you heard me, parents are flying their helicopters too close to the work place.helicopter_PNG5313

The topic on the table was “hiring and working with millennials” and the question was how far to go to cater to this demographic. One attendee told a story of a recent job candidate with approximately 5 years of experience who was shopping his offer from his company around to others to see what kind of deal he could get. The experienced, C-level, leader telling the story had given this candidate a short window to make a decision – he either wanted the job or he didn’t. When the candidate didn’t respond by the deadline, he was informed via email that the offer had been rescinded. The candidate responded with a detailed email on why he needed more time. When the leader questioned the rationale for needing more time, the candidate responded with “that’s what my parents told me to say”.

Most of the group hearing this story were not surprised. Many of them have been in hiring or manager roles of some sort in the past ten years and reported that it is becoming more common for those helicopter parents who harassed teachers about grades or college professors about assignments to continue on to the workplace and be over involved.

Another dinner attendee asked the group how many of them have received a phone call from an irate parent about the salary or benefits their child was being offered. I was aghast at how many nodding heads there were around the table. Seriously?

Every summer, my daughters attend an all-girls, sleep away camp in the Berkshires that develops young women to be independent thinkers and leaders. When the girls “age out” of camper status, they have the option of applying for a Leader in Training (LIT) program. There are only ~30 positions available for this coveted program and an average of 2-3 times that number of former campers apply. Each year, the camp director sends a very stern email to parents that explains the selection process and the competitive nature of the few spots in comparison to the number of applicants. She makes it clear to parents that she welcomes a call “from your child” if she is not selected and wants feedback or guidance on other leadership pursuits that summer. Yet, the camp director says that every year, without fail, parents continue to call on behalf of their daughters.

Certainly it is a big disappointment when your child doesn’t get what they want or you want for them. When one of my daughters did not get into the camp LIT program it was a very mournful day (more like a week) in the Austin household, but my daughter grew tremendously from the experience. She not only learned how to accept rejection, but she became more aware of who she was and what she really wanted to pursue. It was a pivotal moment in her life and one I am so grateful for her to have experienced at such a formative age. She has since applied to programs more thoughtfully (she ended up spending that summer doing a program with NYFA and is now a sophomore in NYU-Tisch‘s Film and Television program) and is now experiencing the job application process with mixed results (“how does one get their first barista job if they all require prior barista experience??”). It has been entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking to watch her trip and fall as she gains her legs as an adult, but hey, we watched her learn to toddle a long time ago. We never did the walking for her.

One of my favorite parenting books read when my girls were very young is The Blessing of A Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD. She writes of over-indulgence in today’s society (too much stuff, over-nurturing and soft structure) and how it leads to bless_knee_coverchildren actually feeling unlovable, needing constant affirmation, lack skills and lack self-sufficiency. Many managers of young professionals today, express frustration with these characteristics of their work force – needing constant affirmation and lacking that self-starting grit that comes from many a skinned knee.

Our job as parents is to provide our children with tools to handle what life brings them. To be empathetic and good listeners when they’re thrown a curve ball and to make suggestions and offer guidance when things are tough. If we do it all for them or augment their work, how will they ever be self reliant, confident, members of society?

So, put that phone down and delete that draft email ,moms and dads! Go fly that helicopter over the Grand Canyon or some other joyful place. Let your kids skin their knees, get rejection and suffer the consequences. My bet is, most of you did that when you were their age and you became capable adults through the process.

Mastering the 1:1

manager one-on-oneWhether you’re a CEO or a line manager, your team is just as important as a group as its members are as individuals. Today’s tech companies offer many perks to attract and retain the best employees. We offer competitive salaries, training and the promise of success – professionally and financially. But how we treat them as individuals can determine the way their DNA will impact the fabric of your organization. What are you doing, as their manager, to make sure they are satisfied and making the best contribution to your organization?

I have managed over 100 direct reports over the course of my career. From the nerdiest, most introverted engineer to the highly extroverted sales executive. They’ve been on either side of up to 20 years senior or junior to me, varying genders and from as far away as India and China to as near as the office next door. No matter what their role, experience, proximity or personality, I have always made their one-on-ones (1:1’s) a priority. Why are 1:1’s so important?

  • Whether it’s an hour a week or 30 minutes once a month, making time for an individual says you give a damn about them as a person.
  • The 1:1 is the only forum where you can have an honest, private, conversation with each other about what’s really going on – professionally and personally.
  • This is a routine opportunity for you, as a manager, to assess the parts (your employees) that lead to the productive whole (your team) – which we all know is more powerful than the sum of said parts.
  • A leader who makes time for their team members – especially those who are also leaders – is less likely to suffer poor team performance because of ambiguity and mistrust. Each 1:1 is an opportunity to clarify the goals of the organization, your performance expectations and build a trusting relationship with your employees by getting to know them as people, not just workers.
  • Finally, constructive 1:1s throughout the year makes performance reviews a breeze. With routine 1:1s, review time can be more about goals and the year ahead instead of constructive feedback from the past.

Don’t just schedule these important meetings with your direct reports, be thoughtful about how these sessions play out. Below is the guidance I give to new managers on conducting 1:1’s.

Set Expectations
Whether your employee has worked for you for awhile and you’re just kicking off 1:1s, or they are a new hire and you’re rolling them into the fold, set expectations up front.

  • I am a big believer in being clear about behavior changes. If this is a new process you are putting in place at your company/in your team, be transparent about it. Otherwise, people worry something bad is going to happen (getting fired) if you all of sudden start scheduling 1:1s. Announce it at a team meeting/all-hands or send out an email/slack being clear about why these are important to do.
  • This meeting is for them as much as it is for you. Be clear that you do this with all employees who work directly for you. No one is being singled out.
  • Book a regular cadence of 1:1s. They should not be ad-hoc. It’s ok to skip one every once and awhile, but having it locked into the calendar is your commitment to being there for your employee.
  • Decide the best cadence with them (weekly or every other week? 30 minutes or an hour?) and what the format should be – your office or theirs, a walk, or maybe grabbing coffee. Different formats work for different employees and they can always be changed as you get into a groove. [see below on remote employees]. Just don’t do after work drinks – that suggests a less serious discussion.

The Agenda
If a meeting is important enough to have, it should have an agenda.

  • Topics in a 1:1 should be about professional growth, personal connection and for giving each other feedback. Do not use the meeting to re-hash things from a group meeting or standup unless there are specific things you took off-line in that meeting or need to provide/get constructive feedback.
  • 24 hours or so before the meeting, email the employee a list of what you’d like to cover. Try to do a split between strategic, tactical and personal items and always ask your employee what they want to cover too. For efficiency, let them know if you need them to bring/read/do something before the meeting. For example:

Jessica, for our 1:1 tomorrow, I’d like to cover the following:
– Review a potential change to the product roadmap for next quarter and how that might impact your team. Please bring the latest roadmap with you.
– Walk through the training presentation deck you are preparing for your new hires. Please send me your latest version tonight if you can?
– Get feedback on whether the budget changes I made for you were helpful. Let me know if there are new numbers I should look at before we meet.
– Hear about your vacation! Your pics looked awesome.

Let me know what else you’d like to cover. Looking forward to catching up!

The 1:1 Meeting
With an agenda set and materials pre-reviewed/in-hand, you are ready for a productive session.

  • Walk through the agenda. Ask if there’s anything else to add before you dig in. Always leave a door open – sometimes an employee is holding back on something.
  • If there are hard things to discuss (maybe some tough performance feedback), try to bookend it with two positive topics. That way, the close of the meeting doesn’t leave your employee feeling down. You’ve given them good feedback and some things to work on.
  • Do not monopolize the conversation. This is for you each to get time to talk. Pause often and make sure there is opportunity for discussion and questions.
  • Always end the meeting asking them how things are going overall and if there is anything else you can do to make them successful. Sounds awkward, but that’s your job! If your employees are a success, you are success.

After the Meeting
It is important to always follow up any 1:1 (or scheduled meeting, for that matter) with notes on what was discussed, decisions made and, if relevant, any constructive feedback that will be measured going forward. Keep it short and sweet:

Jessica, good meeting today! From what we discussed:
– Sounds like the roadmap change won’t slip the schedule much. Please share the new schedule on slack so the team can digest it before our Product group meeting.
– Love the training deck! Let me know if you want to practice with me before you present next week. You’re going to crush it.
– Sounds like those budget tweaks aren’t cutting it for your team’s needs. I’ll try to adjust next quarter, but right now you are going to have to work with what you have. Manage your spend carefully.
– Thanks for letting me know you’re working on a personnel issue on your team. Let me know if I can help. Otherwise, keep me posted on how it plays out.

A recap ensures that you’re both on the same page and it serves as an audit trail if/when anything goes off the rails. Do this with ALL your employees. Otherwise, some may wonder why they’re getting follow up emails and others are not. Consistency in leadership is critical!

Remote Employees and Non-Directs

  • 1:1s with remote employees can be tricky. I recommend using video whenever possible and, if possible, 1-2 in-person 1:1s a year to maintain the personal connection. All other suggestions above apply for the remote employee.
  • It is perfectly OK to have 1:1s with junior people who do not work directly for you. Just remember, you are NOT their manager. Be clear about why you are requesting the meeting.

    Perhaps you are the CEO and want to have a 1:1 with a lead engineer to get a better understanding of a product challenge:

    • Make sure the engineer’s manager knows why you want to have the meeting.
    • Make sure the engineer understands you would like to get the detail directly vs. through other people. You are not going around their boss who knows you are requesting this meeting.
    • Be very careful about feedback. Always end such meetings with next steps being how you’ll follow up with the employee’s manager if there are any action items. Never undermine someone’s manager by giving specific direction without consulting with their manager. Especially if you are the CEO/CTO or other senior position. Often, the most simple “that sounds cool” can be heard as “do it!” from someone more senior than your boss.

Invest in Your Team
One-on-ones can make all the difference in how you lead. Your time invested in doing them right will pay off not only with each individual, but with how your organization functions as a team.

Have other tips on running successful 1:1s or good lessons learned from not having them? Please share in the comments.

“I was right, I am the only girl. AGAIN!”

This is the fourth summer in a row that my youngest daughter, now 13, has done some sort of a programming camp. For three out of four summers, she has been the only girl in her group. While I commend these programs for a great curriculum and instructors, this has caused me to think about how, as parents and a community, we need to step up efforts on gender balance in computing much earlier than college or even high school. If girls are not participating in programs like this in their formative years, how are to expect them to be computer science majors or pursue technical careers?

As we walked to Harvard this summer for her first day of camp, my daughter was a bit anxious about yet another digitalmediaacademy.orgsummer as the token girl. We had chosen a new program through Digital Media Academy (DMA) largely because they were one of the few to offer a Virtual Reality course where she could play with Oculus Rift and learn how to design virtual worlds. A second major factor was that much of the DMA website and materials are full of images of girls having fun with technology – suggesting they are very successful in recruiting girls to sign up for their courses.

In response to “Mom, if I am the only girl again this summer I am going to be so mad.” I tried to be encouraging and focus on the coolness of the course she was taking. I told her how leading edge she was to learn about an emerging technology before most people her age even knew what it was. I didn’t talk about the potential gender imbalance and instead focused on the fact that this was about pursuing her interests and passions. Inside though, I was hoping…no praying…she wasn’t the only one. Not just because I didn’t want her to be the one girl among the boys, but for the bigger picture. I was dying for a sign that the canaries were singing loudly in the coal mine. Hopeful that I would see a mixed group of boys and girls in the room eager to dig into technology.

The canaries weren’t singing…

When we arrived at the camp check-in area, we were relieved to see a few other girls signing in and heading off to their classrooms. The counselors whisked my daughter away to her classroom so I didn’t have a chance to see the gender composition. I asked her to text me at lunch with a pulse on how it was going.

As I walked back home, I reflected on the prior three summers. The first summer, she signed up for a game design course through ID Tech, hosted at MIT. The boys in this class were obsessed with Pokemon cards – something my daughter knew nothing about and had no interest in – and their break time was used to trade cards or play video games. As a pretty typical 10 year-old girl, she would have rather spent her lunch break talking about boy bands and Youtubers or maybe tossing a frisbee around outside. Needless to say, between that and being among a group of 8-10 year-old boys with zero interest in socializing with girls, my daughter felt pretty isolated among the group. Outside of learning a bit of Javascript, she was pretty disappointed with the experience that year.

The following year, I decided to combine a week I needed to spend at VMware’s Palo Alto HQ with an opportunity for her to try ID Tech again, but this time hosted at Stanford. She was willing to give it another try, thinking it was cool to “attend Stanford”. Once again, I dropped her off at the sign-in area and hoped for a better outcome than we experienced on the MIT campus the prior summer. At pickup time, she joyfully jumped in my rental car bubbling over about all the fun girls who were in her mobile app game design class. Just like her, some were there because their parents were in the valley for work and others were locals and long-time ID Tech participants. Not only did she have a lot more fun than the prior summer, but she accomplished a lot more in that week than I would have expected. We were both thrilled.

Flash forward to last summer and another year with ID Tech at MIT. My daughter was pretty into Minecraft at the time and was eager to go deep and get better at programming in general. She is a very go-with-the-flow kind of kid and told me she didn’t care if she was the only girl, she just wanted to geek out for a week after her return from a month at sleep-away camp. After such a good experience on the west coast the year before, I hoped that I’d see a trend shift here and she’d have other girls in her course. Alas, once again, she was the only one.

While I only have one data point of one summer in the valley, it was pretty interesting to experience such a different situation out there as compared to here. Are more households tech savvy out there because of the thick concentration of tech jobs? Is the bar higher in Silicon Valley schools such that kids out there are exposed to programming/technology earlier? Perhaps it’s climate and spending a week inside to code is a welcome break from sunshine (?!) whereas here we take every moment we can to get our kids outside before the next snomageddon.

Or, perhaps the girls here are not signing up because, like my kiddo, they’re worried they’ll be the only girl.

“I was right, I am the only girl. AGAIN!” was the text I received during her lunch break last Monday. I told her to hang in there and get as much as she could out of the course. But, I felt so very disappointed. Where are the girls that were shown so prominently on the brochure? Why are parents not signing up their girls for these cool classes? It’s Oculus for Pete’s sake!

My biggest concern here above all is that this is one of the biggest factors that impacts the pipeline of young women choosing technical degrees and jobs. If 8-13 year-old girls think their only option to learn how to code or experiment with new technology like Virtual Reality is to be an outlier in a room full of boys, they won’t sign up. Even now, while she learned a lot and got along just fine with the “gamer boys” (her nickname for them) in her class, my daughter is desperately looking into more girl-friendly programs for her age group next summer. Thankfully, now that she’s older, there are programs like Girls Who Code or Technovation. Even though I am a huge fan of programs like these and they give girls the critical mass of peer support they need, I worry it swings the pendulum the other way. I want to see balance in these programs. Not programs for just girls or those that cater to just boys.

So, how do we solve this problem?  Some suggestions:

  • Parents: Sign up your girls for programming summer camps! In most cases it’s ONE week. One! Your kids will survive a week of being indoors most of a day, trust me. And if not in the summer, sign them up during the school year or during school vacations (gasp!). Also, have them sign up with a friend to further balance whatever program they choose. And if you have boys interested in tech, try to sign them up for programs that are diverse too! The younger boys are sitting next to girls who are coding, the more “normal” it’ll feel to them as the grow up with technology.
  • Tech Camps: Don’t just try to recruit girls, sign them up. Reach out to faculty and school technology programs that have girls enrolled and develop partnerships that drive these girls to your camps. Also, try to mix up your courses so it’s not eight solid hours a day of programming. Stop catering to the boys who play video games all day and offer time to run outside or maybe even swim in the afternoon. Kids learn fast. There’s a lot they can learn in a week without having to sit in front of their desktop the whole time. And please, for the love of God, stop plastering your brochures and websites with just pictures of girls. Show boys and girls working and having fun together. Foster diversity.
  • Groups that target professional technical women: Invite young girls to some of your events or encourage mentoring between your members and the girls’ programs mentioned above. If more young girls interested in tech have role models, they are more likely to persevere in rooms full of boys. Maybe even start a camp of your own?

As the VR camp came to a close, I attended a showcase to see what my daughter had accomplished for the week. It was pretty cool to navigate the funky landscapes and terrains she had designed as though I DMA_showcasewas in them via the Rift. She was proud of what she had learned and was eager to download Unity at home so she could keep working on her project. I asked her how she felt about the week overall and she said “It wasn’t so bad this year being the only girl, in fact the best part was that I had the bathroom all to myself.”

Got ideas about how to get more young girls into tech?  Please share in the comments!

A Startup’s Guide To Having A Great Summer Internship Program

So, you’ve decided to hire some interns this summer. Well done! Often, early stage companies shy away from hiring summer interns because they dread the idea of “babysitting” on top of everything else that needs to get done. If you’re bringing one or several interns on, you know it is well worth the effort because interns:

  • are potential future full-time hires;
  • can work on stuff no one has time to do, but would be great to have (often referred to as “gravy projects”); and
  • they are walking advertisements of your company and your product(s).

Whether your company is fully established or just getting started, having a well thought out program for your interns will ensure that you get the most out of them and that they get the most from their experience at your company. A great experience means they’ll be talking up your company and your product(s) when they head back to school. Thus, they will be walking advertisements for future hires and future customers.

A Guide to a Great Internship Program

Let’s assume you’ve already made great hiring decisions for the summer and students are coming to work for you for approximately 10 weeks. I’m not going to get into salaries, temporary housing, or other pre-hire logistics in this post, but I will walk you through an outline for a solid internship program. It’s geared towards engineering types of interns, but most applies to any intern role.

The Timeline

  • If you have more than one intern coming on board this summer, try to have them start around or on the same date. This eases the burden of on-boarding processes by orienting everyone as a group and gives them a sense of belonging to a cohort from the get-go.
  • After orienting them to the office and getting them all the necessary logins, etc., do a kick-off lunch with founders and mentors to welcome them to your company.
  • Outline a weekly schedule for the intern program. Many interns have not worked in a business setting before and will need structure with a clear beginning, middle and end to their program. As much as they’ll appreciate a clear understanding of their summer schedule, this should also help your team balance their time around intern commitments. A sample schedule is below (click on the image for a larger view).

Sample Internship  Program ScheduleMentors

  • Every intern should be assigned a mentor. This is not typically their hiring manager, but rather a peer or someone slightly senior to them who can guide them through project specifics (e.g., coding standards or pricing models) and help them assimilate to the company culture or maybe even to a new town if they’ve temporarily relocated for this job.
  • Mentors should be briefed on HOW to be mentors. Make sure they understand the difference between being a guide and being a boss. No one wants two people telling them what to do all the time. Also make sure you pick someone who wants to be a mentor – this is a great growth opportunity for your team, but if they’re not up for it, it could make for a suboptimal experience for your intern.
  • Mentors should be generally available over the summer for ad hoc questions as well as weekly 1:1s. If someone is taking more than 2 weeks off this summer, they should not be a mentor.
  • While it’s nice to do, a mentor does not have to be a domain expert for the intern’s summer project. As long as they know how to help the intern get access to the experts and can guide in other ways, they are qualified!
  • Mentors should be expected to give feedback to their intern’s manager on performance and possible offers to return to your company for another summer or full time role. Mentors should not make such offers themselves. This is the intern’s manager’s role!

The Project

  • It’s good practice for companies to keep a running list of possible intern projects throughout the year. Again, gravy projects are ideal – meaningful and useful projects, but if they are not completed, it does not put your company at risk.
  • Try to offer projects to your interns that will:
    1. Allow them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
    2. Result in something tangible that others will use such as code that ships, content on a public website or even a tool that helps an internal team be more productive. Ideally, it has a result that can be listed as an accomplishment on their resume and added (or strengthened) a skill.
    3. Encourages them to get to know your company/products (remember, walking advertisements). For example, one that lets them dig into customer data or one that requires them to work with people from other parts of the company such as sales or support.
  • There are two different approaches I like to assigning intern projects. Either have a list of projects to offer when they start and let them ask questions and explore them a bit in the first week, then they pick one. Or, in advance of their start date, ask them questions about what skills they’d like to develop this summer and before they start, you and their mentor can pick the one best suited for their skills and goals.
  • Try to offer one or two meaty projects at most for the whole summer vs. several small projects that could limit their learning experience.
  • Pre-reads: Whether you have a project in mind before they start or a list of possible projects for when they start, it’s nice to send a suggested reading list and some company info to your hired interns a month or so before they start. Don’t overdo it since they are probably cramming to finish the semester. Just send things that will give them a leg up. Even with an NDA they still may be a bit clueless about what not to share, so don’t send them secret sauce information!

Learning and Having FUN

  • Interns chose to be interns instead of scooping ice cream this summer because they want to learn. Invest in them and expect that they want to understand as much as they can about how everything works at your company.Lunch-n-learn
  • Beyond what interns learn doing their project, consider offering weekly lunch-n-learn sessions where food is brought in (or they get their own if your company is being careful about burn!) and have someone do a talk. Change it up and do everything from a technical talk to a business talk to maybe inviting a guest speaker like one of your company advisors or a customer or partner. Also, talks should be relevant and understandable whether you’re a coder or a marketing intern.
  • Look for opportunities for interns to have a unique experience. For example, tagging along on a customer visit or helping out in the company booth at a sales conference. Not only is it nice to have an extra set of hands, but interns will be SO appreciative for these extra opportunity to get different perspectives of your business.
  • Include interns in routine company meetings and off-sites. They are employees of your company and these are also learning experiences.
  • Make time for fun. Take them bowling or a baseball game. If your interns are new to the area, show them the city via a Duck tour. Mentors should come along as well as part of the bonding process. The summer at your company should be memorable for interns beyond the work they did.
  • If your company is based in MA, enroll in TechGen, a program from the NEVCA, which has lots of professional development and social resources for your interns and is also a great place to source talent.

Wrapping Up

  • Throughout the summer, you should schedule time to give your intern feedback on their performance and for them to let you know how they think they’re doing. In addition to weekly 1:1s with their mentor, there should be a mid-summer review and end of summer exit interview. You don’t want to find out at the end of the summer that your intern had a horrible experience! They’re at a startup, so things will undoubtably change unexpectedly. Course correct throughout the summer as needed and help them understand that this is the nature of early stage companies.
  • In preparation for the mid-summer review, ask mentors to feedback to managers how interns are doing. Factor this into a potential decision to re-hire interns for the following summer or offer a full time job for when they graduate. Interns should be told that this is a possibility OR NOT. Do not set false expectations. If your company cannot commit, then make it clear that good interns will be the first people you’ll call when you are hiring.
  • The last week of the internship should be for closing things out. Checking final code in, writing documentation and/or tests, doing a code-walk for whomever will take over when they go, and maybe doing a demo day or poster session so interns can see each other’s work. Also, plan for one last fun outing so people can say goodbyes and feel all warm and fuzzy about their experience. Schedule this last event when most/all of your interns are still around. Even if a student is returning to a nearby campus, it’s not reasonable to expect them to come back to work even if it is for something fun.
  • If you are offering a sign-on bonus for a full time position when they graduate, give 50% of it in their last paycheck with no strings and hold the other 50% for them if they are to return. The second half will be in their first, full-time, paycheck. Start to finalize your plan to offer or not around two weeks before the intern leaves.
  • If your intern(s) are returning to local schools, consider offering them part-time work during school (with potential for full time during breaks). It’s a great way to maintain the relationship and further lock them into a future full time position.

Your company does not have to be big and profitable to be thoughtful about the internship experience. In fact, starting when you’re small and nimble will ensure that a strong internship program is part of the fabric of your company as you grow. Just envision smiling interns back at school raving to their friends about their best summer ever and the returning faces and quality resumes you’ll see next hiring season!

Have you worked (or currently work) for a company with a great internship program?  Share tips and tricks that made it great by replying with a comment.