Saturday, May 26, 2018

[Daily] Saturday 2018.05.26 - Brain dump: a few things I learned this week, mostly about people

I learned a few things this week from two events and a new acquaintance. This is a brain dump of things that stuck.

== Work -> Coworkers -> Health ==
On Tuesday night I went to an event where Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford Business professor, talked about his new book on the cost of modern management practices. His opening line: “According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work has a bigger impact on your health than your family doctor.” It's obvious when you think about how often we see doctors, but it's an unusual way to frame the people we work with: are they helping extend your life? That's a question to turn inwards to ask myself: am I helping extend the lives of my coworkers (or killing them faster)? It's also a responsibility I had never explicitly thought about.

One objection to measuring "well-being" at a company is that it's hard to measure. However, Jeffrey said a single self-reported 1-5 of “do I feel healthy” has been found to correlate to mortality. I.e. people roughly know whether they are healthy or not.

== You get what you screen for == 
Wednesday night, I attended a panel about mentorship that featured a mentor/mentee chain: Ken Coleman, Ben Horowitz, and Michel Feaster. The second half of the panel focused on diversity and inclusion (often shortened to d&i). People management lessons are best conveyed in stories, and Ben told two stories that stuck.

The first story was about a person named Chris they'd hired for a role that required being really good at making people like you. They had interviewed and passed on a number of people who were investment bankers (Ben joked that was probably not the ideal profession to be looking in) before considering alternative profiles. Chris used to work as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory, where they rank waiters by their tip percentages. Chris had ranked #1 chain-wide in percentage tips, so he was a champion in a field where to be good, you have to be liked. Ben's points: 1) when hiring, are you defining what skills you actually need for the job? (notably Ben didn't stress the title of the job, rather the skills needed), and 2) are you then seeking out people with those skills in all possible places, including non-obvious ones?

Ben prefaced the second story with, "People at the firm don't like it when I tell this story, but I'll tell it anyway." He once asked a team that was all women, "What is it about your interview process that you can't hire any men?" The team responded that they screen for helpfulness. Ben could have taken this response in a number of ways—are no men helpful? this team must be crazy—but his observation was, hey, it's unusual to screen for helpfulness, and that is clearly making a material difference.

I remember this one statement by Ken: if you are discussing a candidate and can't identify their weaknesses, stop. You are probably missing something because everyone has weaknesses, and if you know about them upfront, you can manage around them.

== Words and connotations; Culture from office furniture ==
Yesterday, I met up with Jules W, whom I ran into at the a16z event. He's a product manager at Slack working on growth. During our conversation, he told two stories that gave me, "oh shit, I'd never thought of that" moments.

The first story is about words. At Slack, they did a few months of user research and found the most effective phrase to describe Slack to most new users was "collaboration hub." For the longest time, Stewart, the CEO, had opposed using the word "collaboration" because it's a fluffy, overused-to-the-point-of-meaningless word in Silicon Valley. But the Valley is not the rest of the country, where "collaboration" can be viewed quite positively, and the Valley already knows and uses Slack. Their research also found that people were confused by the word "tool," because people outside of tech don't really use "tool" to describe software and tend to think of physical objects. A "hub" captured the feeling of "tool" while illustrating the purpose. For me, that's something to chew on regarding the words we use to describe Instabase. Mind you, we have many other critical things to think about, but I had at least personally been operating with the mindset that an "operating system" sounds cool!

The second story was actually a statement. "Slack will never have a ping pong table." Why? He said, a ping pong table is fun for people who have looser schedules—which tend to be younger folks who don't have families. They can afford to take longer breaks, play matches, and make up for it by working late. People with more commitments outside of work can be conflicted, possibly feeling left out because they can't afford the breaks in the middle of the day. In general, Slack wants to foster a culture of "come to work, work hard and stay focused, then go home," because that culture tends to work for a wider range of people. And building that culture requires thinking about even the office furniture. I have thought about open offices and noise and distraction, but not about this particular second-order effect of fun things.

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