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.