Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Drink the (Un-Spiked) Kool-Aid

I discovered the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" from (now ex-) Product exec Jonathan Rosenberg at Google. I loved the concept  immediately. The phrase materialized happy childhood moments of being a kid and sucking down Kool-Aid glass after glass. To me, there was something neat about employees "drinking the company Kool-Aid" and being giddily excited about the products and culture. Shortly thereafter (and yes, probably after overusing the phrase), I was informed by a friend where the phrase actually comes from. Prepare yourself. Ever heard of the Jonestown massacre of 1978? The event is often referred to as a cult suicide.  Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, persuaded many followers to move to a commune in Jonestown, Guyana. In November 1978, he ordered the residents to commit suicide by drinking a flavored beverage laced with potassium cyanide. Those who could not or would not comply, such as infants, were injected involuntarily. Over 900 people died. While the dark past of the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" is not something I am jazzed about, I still find it serves as an interesting business idiom.

All great tech companies experience some degree of the Kool-Aid effect. It makes sense, right? Once a company creates a number of products that people deem as "cool" or "must-haves", it only follows that many engineering minds are attracted to work on them.  However, occasionally a company culture is so strong that people lose their critical eye and follow product vision blindly. A modern example of this is Apple.  I have met a handful of "Apple fanboys" who will obtusely argue that every product Apple creates is the best in the market, without much rational analysis or definition of what "better" even means. Generally speaking, I am actually a proponent of employees indulging some business Kool-Aid from time-to-time. There is nothing quite like drinking in an admired executive's words while sitting with your peers. I felt this countless times in a college leadership program in Colorado. I also have enjoyed the high of contributing to a product that people are delighted by, while building features for Google Local Search last summer.

Going a step further, I would assert this factor plays into the convoluted mix of reasons for why failing startups persist too long. Perseverance an essential quality for success, but often times, employees are taught to drink the founder Kool-Aid early and often and can lose sight of when to move on to the next great idea. My advice?  No company always makes flawless decisions (yes, even at Apple); so enjoy some sugary Kool-Aid with your coworkers, but stay alert enough that no one can spike the batch.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Connected World: A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong

Awestruck silence. That's the best description I can provide for my reaction to the Ted Talk I saw today. If you have not had the pleasure of stumbling upon ted.com yet, you are missing a treasure trove of 20-minute-or-less videos. Each video showcases a gifted speaker's presentation about technology, entertainment, or design. 

TED's tagline is simple: Ideas worth spreading. The video below represents an idea that must be spread to music-lovers of the world. I could not resist sharing an example of a person who is using this "connected" world to create breathtaking art. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Redefine Your Bar Identity

Sadly, I will admit up front, I have never been quite "cool enough" to craft myself an alternate identity to share with people I meet while out on the town. It was always entertaining to hear engineering friends in college try and charm ladies at the bars, by pivoting the nerdy-sounding "engineer" into the oh-so-intriguing "Rocket Scientist" or "Code Cryptographer." Not surprisingly, I never thought that claiming myself to be an Exotic Dance major would win me more desirable attention than Electrical and Computer Engineer. I like nerds, what can I say? 

Though now, for the first time since I arrived in San Francisco two months ago, I am seriously contemplating creating a new bar identity. I was out grabbing a late happy hour with friends the other night, when we began to talk with people sitting next to us. After learning that they work in tech recruiting, we happily enjoyed conversing about the latest buzz around town. Everyone eventually left and, like dozens of other simple encounters, I assumed we would never think of each other again. Right? Wrong. Within a couple of days, I was connected with some of them on LinkedIn. And while I think their intentions were purely friendly and social (read: they were not actively recruiting in a bar)...the situation still feels a bit weird. Suppose I had told a white lie, inflating my position or previous work experience, as thousands of people do while having evening drinks? It is as if the web now exists as a fact-checker that people can consult the next day. To be sure, the expression "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is becoming frighteningly less true all the time; just ask my friends on Facebook who have posted hundreds of pictures detailing every minute of the adventure. 

Note that I am not (yet) picking sides on whether this outcome is "right" or "wrong." But it is definitely worth taking a second look at. It is another weird case to add to the file, which documents how the web is becoming increasingly person-centric. Now, it matters much less if you are Larry Page or Katie Corner: both biographies of information can be searched and found on Google.com in seconds. Thus, I have attempted to turn my indecision into something more productive (in the short term at least): creating a new, fun bar identity to buffer some space between my personal life and my online professional life. The current top contenders are Susie-the-volleyball-manufacturer or Judy-the-Mango-Scientist. 

But jokes aside, think about it. The social web rules are still being written. How far should our society allow the online and offline identities to blur?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Google My Maps: Because Your In-Laws Will Stop Asking You Where Your Son’s Pediatrician Is

Anyone who knows me well is laughing already: directions, maps, navigation…not my strongest skill. Thanks to my decade as a Girl Scout, I am a decent map-reader. But truth be told, I am notoriously awful at keeping track of cardinal directions and street names. I am more of a “turn-right-when-you-see-the-big-tree-by-the-McDonalds” kind of girl.
As a direct result of my loose navigating style, I consult Google Maps on an (almost) daily basis. At some point, I stumbled upon a cool feature where you can build your open personalized map. Cue the flood gates: I became a map building fiend! Remember growing up, when you would see a map plastered up on your grandparents’ basement wall, covered in thumbtacks and push-pins of their many adventures? Now you can build a map online with a bunch of locations and simply share the link with your friends or family. Here are a couple fun examples I thought of, that could be a great use for My Maps.
  1. Wedding Website: Nowadays, I have seen more and more couples creating a website where all of their wedding details can be seen. How about creating one map with all the important locations on it? Chapel, hotels nearby, rehearsal dinner, reception, airport … done!
  2. Restaurant Map: San Francisco has more restaurants than I can remember. I keep a single map with all the places I have eaten, along with a few notes of what I had. That way, if a friend comes into town and wants a recommendation, I can just send them the link and they can pick a place close to their location.
  3. World Travel Map: Drop a pin on the map for every place you have visited, and easily add the dates or names of cities for referencing later.
  4. Family Schedule Map: Families can get busy. How about having one map the whole family can see, which has the most important locations to see: home, Dad’s office, Mom’s office, doctor’s office, dentist, daughter’s ballet studio and obviously…grandma’s house!

If you are curious about My Maps and want to build one of your own, you can check out a post on the official Google Maps blog I authored a couple weeks ago, Using My Maps for your summer sublet, for step-by-step directions. Still, I always get a kick of being mapless and instead wandering to find that-one-bakery-by-the-house-with-the-extra-friendly-golden-retriever-and-rose-bushes…

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building a Gender-Aware Interview Part 1: "Success"

I had dinner with a friend who works at Google recently. Over Mediterranean cuisine, we fell into a topic we have talked about before: Google’s low female engineering population. To be fair, Google’s statistics are similar to many companies. They are also leading the way in fantastic initiatives such as the Anita Borg Scholarship or BOLD Intern Program…but that’s not good enough for me. It may be na├»ve, but I have secretly held out hope that Google would be the single company to truly push the boundaries with an enlightened and inclusive recruiting process.

I have a dream to impact more than 10,000 young women who are considering a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field. My senior year at CU, I spent 10 hours/week completing research on women in the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences. I care about this stuff. A ton. So much, in fact, that it almost feels too personal to publish it to a widespread blog. But the movement continues, and I insist on being part of the propellant. Springing forward…

After learning of my research, I am occasionally asked, “What was your most surprising finding?” Clear winner: men and women use different language to explain their successes and failures. Let me give you an example. In separate settings, both men and women in the college would lament about certain classes: “Oh discrete math? Yeah, I totally failed that class.” The differentiator? When inquiring about their specific mark, while the men had actually received a failing grade in the class, the women had typically received a passing grade. Yet, in their words, they had both “failed.” I listened to this phase repeatedly, even from women who had received A’s and B’s, which is above the college’s 2.9 average GPA! My research team observed this shifted semantic scale for the other side of the spectrum too. Generally speaking, women would say they did “ok” when receiving an “A-“ while males would unblinkingly say they “rocked it.” Unsurprisingly, both sets were happy with A’s.

I am obviously generalizing a bit to make a point, but it is a point I want to make clear to potential interviewers out there. I have heard stories from Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google about interviewers who really liked the look of a female candidate “on paper,” but she did not appear as confident in the interview. I have even taught fabulous women in programming classes, who have confided in me that they are, “not really good at engineering stuff and just work super hard.” Believe me, ladies, I have felt the same way before. But stop. Saying. That. Stuff. In. Interviews. Especially when you are styling a great GPA and being interviewed by top companies. It’s 100% normal to have these thoughts (dig into the Impostor Syndrom, for proof), but save the comments for your friends and mentors who can help you grow.

As is the theme with most posts on this blog, I am not promoting a strict metamorphosis from one side or the other. Let’s step forward by meeting halfway. Women, it is not a crime to question your instincts and employ tactics that seem more egocentric than your typical style; know that it is sometimes a dog-eat-dog world, where you are evaluated against your peers. Interviewers of the world: there is data out there. A little education and sharing among your colleagues can go a long way, as it may bag you one of the great female leaders of the future.

(Please feel free to share this with your friends and coworkers. More tips in the “Building a Gender-Aware Interview” to come!)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The 12 Days of Caltrain

This week, I’ve been commuting from Mountain View to my office in San Francisco via the Caltrain. These high-speed trains are decently comfortable and can zip me between the two points in about an hour. Today, however, something about my train compartment struck me as odd. The general painting of evening Calrain commuters is a box of people buried in their gadgets or snoozing; and although no one is saying it out loud, their faces all clearly convey, “I’m tired, busy, and yes, very, very important -- just look at the scholarly article I’m skimming through on my new smartphone!” I usually squeeze into a seat and settle into politely ignoring everyone. Today, perhaps due to the 3 cups of coffee I consumed at work– oops, I had the urge to say a quick “hi” when I sat down by my neighbor. I apparently startled the poor guy with the sound of human speech, but he managed to mumble a reply and resume “reading” on his phone (::cough:: Angry Birds ::cough::).

This train is unnecessarily connected. Twenty people packed like sardines in my car: 6 on their smartphones, 5 with music on their iPods , 4 laptops, 2 E-Readers, 2 people sleeping, and just 1 real book. And since I know you’re wondering: zero partridges in a pear tree. It makes me want to call my grandma and see if people ever talked to each other on trains when she was a little girl?

Goal for Caltrain commute next week: no electronic entertainment. When my sister and I were growing-up, my family would play Count the Cows on long, multi-hour car trips (yes, admittedly, only after our Game Boy batteries had died). I wonder what variation I can find for my Caltrain rides. Count the lights on the shore across the bay? Count the billboards targeted at hipsters? Count the native Californians wearing winter jackets in 50-degree weather? How about count the minutes that my eyes enjoy focusing on objects farther away than a computer screen? Now that sounds like a game worth playing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview Dictionary: Stand-Out in Your Phone Screen

It takes attending about two "Interviewing Workshops" to tire of hearing the standard schpeel on why it's important to research the company you are interviewing with. "Go to the website," they tell you. "Read recent news articles." I understand why they tout these practices at a one-sized-fits-all workshop; after all, I am guessing many companies of all sizes tire of bringing in interview candidates who clearly have not even made the effort to learn more about their business or products. When you're interviewing for competitive positions, however, if it isn't obvious that you should thoroughly research the company before interviewing, you have MUCH bigger problems than attending a bland interview workshop. 

I think what frustrates me most about the typical workshop, it they often seem to sell that the ways you can "set yourself apart" are by researching the 
company or having more verbs on your resume. Shouldn't these requirements be the obvious baseline assumption to begin with? To get a chance at the most competitive stuff, you need more.
There will be a whole series of postings with interview tips. This one will focus on setting yourself apart during the phone screen, by making (what I call) a Company Dictionary.

Sometimes I get awkward responses to this idea, like, "But wait, isn't that sort of cheating? I'm not going to mold myself into someone I'm not." My best response to that is that if you the way you go about using this Company Dictionary is somehow making you or your personality less authentic, then you're clearly taking the metaphor way too seriously. It's meant to be a helpful tool. Imagine if you were deciding to travel abroad in Spain and on a hunt for housing in a small community; wouldn't you take the time to learn a few basic cultural words to bridge the communication gap? It's true that you could stomp around insisting on being an authentic American, but most new opportunities involve meeting halfway.

Walking home from work yesterday, I had a real laugh. A roughing-it gentleman of the streets stumbled up to me and informed me I had "a beautiful feet." I hope he meant face. Maybe he's from a country where complimenting feet is a real honor, but I can guess that unless he learns the way ladies get complimented around here, he may just strike out.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Dog Food Buffet

In software companies, someone mentioning "dogfooding" often results in two reactions from employees: excitement or groans. Dogfooding, in layman's terms, means that all employees in a company "eat their own dogfood" by using the product internally first before releasing it for everyone outside in the world. For example, while I was working at Google last summer, I opted-in to dogfooding Google Instant (aka. search-as-you-type). As you might imagine, dogfooding can be a wonderful way to test your design and implementation on a larger scale. Employees usually can submit bugs to the engineering team before the launch, leading to a more polished and stable product for the actual release.

It's a no-brainer that dogfooding your company's products is a great practice (caveat being that you can still be moderately productive in your daily work). Yet I'm always surprised how few people even touch their competitors' product. Not even a quick walk-through of a primary use case? In fact, I have even met some folks over the years who adamantly oppose using a competitor's product. Some of the more bizarre justifications I have heard include: "It's so bad that it's not worth my time," "I've clicked through the screenshots on TechCrunch already," or "Their implementations will taint my own design ideas." Set your ego aside; you should know what your competition is doing. While you may live in a bubble at the office, we now live in a connected world where VC investors, potential partners, and end-users can observe and pick between many relative choices without asking your permission or opinion first. Note that I am definitely not advocating copying features; let's be honest, in great companies, usually your competition is heading the wrong way.

You might have already deduced where I am going with this. In some ways, it would be nice to be able to dogfood your competition too. A dogfood buffet! Yet, by definition, that metaphor won't hold and is ruining this blog post title. Luckily, a (slightly-stretching) pun saves the day: in a busy ecosystem, there is a good chance many of your competitors' products looks like, well ... worse than sloppy, moist dogfood. So sit down and really dig in. Savor it. Chew it over for the flavors. Because as any great wine connoisseur will tell you, it's much easier to find an ambrosial Bordeaux after sampling a bunch of Trader Joe's Two Buck Chucks.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Light Yourself on Fire

I'm not a pyromaniac, just so we're clear. Starting a new blog, where the first post connects to an old video blog I wrote while working as a "Nooglerista" at Google last summer is probably in the standard list of Blogging-101-No-No's. Nevertheless, the last post in my old blog was inspired by one of my favorite quotes of all time:

"Success isn't a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire." 
~Arnold H. Glasgow

It was a rosy video tying off my summer adventures, full of cheesy puns related to fire, like "kindling" and even "gasoline." While I still use the quote as a guiding mantra, there's a bit of risk; it may inspire you to dive off the deep end, leave the known, and ... be in a little over your head.

This blog will capture me being a bit in over my head. It's sure to be full of cool designs I stumble upon, insights gleamed from the tech start-up world, and delectable food and wine I devour. A melting pot, I guess (just can't get away from those cheesy fire puns!). The newest adventure is leaving my Computer Science grad program in Colorado early, to move out to San Francisco and join a start-up. And as many great adventure stories begin, this one starts with a walk.

"Go for a walk." It may be the single greatest piece of advice on the planet, and is likely the top response I give to people who seek my advice. If life gets sticky, a co-worker is ticking you off, you can't decide what project to work on next ... vacate the building. Find fresh air. And walk. If you're up for it, snag a friend. You might be tempted to think that walks are a waste of time -- after all, if you're in over your head, surely dropping everything for 30 minutes is counter productive?

I take a different stance. Walks are a strategic part of my routine. It's amazing what a little adrenaline can do to your thought process. Here are couple of concrete ideas I regularly subscribe to. 1) If possible, schedule 1:1s as "walking meetings." My old manager at Google would often do this with me, and it allowed us to bond more as mentor-mentees and hash through difficult topics away from everyone in the office. 2) Jot distracting ideas on a "walking Post-it" as they come up during the day. Don't let unrelated items interrupt your work flow; simply collect them on a Post-it, and promise a walk later to churn though them. 3) Practice giving your speeches while walking. Ok, calm down all you debate experts! The "mirror" practice has value too. Walking will simulate some of the live speech effects better: a hint of adrenaline, slightly out of breath, etc. The best part? You can use people passing by your path as practice viewers (more realistic eye contact than the rubber ducks reflected in your bathroom mirror!). Not to mention, you'll weird-out a few onlookers by talking to yourself in public, which is always delightful.

Today, I took a swig of my own advice, after waking up to the realization that my new job begins Monday. I decided to tour the area near my office on foot. Just me, the sea air, and the farmers market by the Ferry Building, where I promptly annihilated a hot, wood-fired Pizza Politana. Divine. These next months will be me living out a life I've set aflame. Probably about time I invest in fire extinguishers.