Hypervigilance is not a sustainable lifestyle for leaders

In This will only take a minute the Raw Signal team shares some much-needed advice for leaders who feel like they never have time to think and reflect. This state of constant hypervigilance is not a sustainable lifestyle because:

On one level, you’re a human being. Regardless of your title or role, you are worthy of work that doesn’t wreck your health, or your happiness, or your ability to enjoy lunch away from your webcam. On another, if you’re a manager, you’re responsible for the work of a team of other human beings. If you don’t have the time to be thoughtful about your own work, the odds are very high that your team doesn’t either.

They go on to share some ideas for how to make this time to step back a priority, once you are “past the point where working a little bit more is going to clear your plate”.

Using “steel threads” to reduce product delivery risk

Jade Rubick resurrects an old engineering concept (and dead Wikipedia page!) in Steel threads are a technique that will make you a better engineer:

A steel thread is a very thin slice of functionality that threads through a software system. They are called a “thread” because they weave through the various parts of the software system and implement an important use case. They are called “steel” because the thread becomes a solid foundation for later improvements.

With a Steel Thread approach, you build the thinnest possible version that crosses the boundaries of the system and covers an important use case.

He explains this in detail in the full post, with lots of helpful examples.

Product team principles for focusing on short-term growth

We’re shipping rafts this year, not boats is a sobering read from Nate Jones that covers 8 principles for product teams who had to make a shift to short-term growth projects in 2023. An example:

It’s long-term if it’s short-term. That’s two principles for the price of one. First, realize that building to keep the business going today is long-term. That can help product teams recognize they have a long-term role to play. Second, any product plays with long-term payoff have to also include short-term revenue potential. You need both-and this year to innovate.

You might not agree with everything he says in this post, but at the very least it will get you thinking about your own team’s principles and priorities as we continue to navigate this… “complicated” year.

The 4-subfunctions of growth marketing, and a good Figma example

In How to organize your B2B growth marketing team Emily Kramer explains growth marketing in a way that I think I finally understand:

To support full-funnel marketing, multiple GTM motions, and all of the data and tools available, 4 sub-functions of growth-marketing are needed: Demand Gen, Inbound & Web, Lifecycle Marketing, and Ops & Analytics.

Emily also touches on the many ways that this team ideally works with Product and Engineering. It’s a highly recommended overview of this critical function in an organization.

And speaking of growth marketing… In Figma and product-led sales Jesus Requena, former head of growth marketing at Figma, shares some really interesting details on how Figma’s Growth team works with their Sales team:

We wanted to take this to the next level and learn what exact product behavior correlated with an upgrade. We partnered with our data product team, sales ops and sales leaders and created a model that surfaced around 10 data points. When two or more of these were triggered, there was a high likelihood for the account to upgrade. We showed sales and sales leaders the data and got their interest, then we tested it in a small group. Endgame, the product-led sales software, helped us display the data at account level and user-within-account level.

Don’t blame outages on human error and technical debt; improve the system instead

The FAA outage in January that caused the first nationwide ground stop of all flights in the US since 9/11 is kind of old news now, but there’s one detail that I can’t stop thinking about. In the aftermath of the incident the cause was determined to be a database sync issue:

The F.A.A. said in a statement that the workers had been trying to “correct synchronization” between the main database for the Notice to Air Missions alerts and a backup database when the files were mistakenly deleted, causing the outage that snarled air traffic throughout the day on Jan. 11.

CNN added a little more detail:

A contractor working for the Federal Aviation Administration unintentionally deleted files related to a key pilot safety system, leading to a nationwide ground stop and thousands of delayed and canceled flights last week, the FAA said Thursday.

The FAA determined the issue with the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system occurred when the contractor was “working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database.”

The unsurprising narrative that came out of the tech world following the incident can basically be summarized as “ha ha, silly contractors!” But that feels like a lazy response to me. I didn’t see anyone ask what I believe is the more important question: How do we improve the system (people, processes, technology) that enables one person to inadvertently take down all air traffic in the US?

Let’s remember that this kind of thing can happen to absolutely anyone. Etsy even hands out a “three-armed sweater” award to the engineer who had the most spectacular mishap in any given year:

Kate’s story is a nail-biter, involving a tiny code change that unexpectedly brought down Etsy.com. All of her coworkers rallied around her to help get the site back online, while offering words of encouragement and reassurance.

So it might be really convenient to blame the FAA outage on “contractor error” and then just keep going. But that’s not going to prevent the next incident from happening.

It is further also tempting to blame the entire issue on “tech debt” and call it a day. And, fair enough, there’s certainly plenty of that going around in FAA systems. Ars Technica has a good overview of some of the major issues and how the FAA wants to fix them. But like all giant “replatforming” projects (this one is called NextGen, because of course it is) things are… not going great:

FAA tech problems were previously described in a March 2021 report by the US Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. The report discusses the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), “a multibillion dollar infrastructure project aimed at modernizing our Nation’s aging air traffic system to provide safer and more efficient air traffic management.”

“NextGen’s actual and projected benefits have not kept pace with initial projections due to implementation challenges, optimistic assumptions, and other factors,”1 the report said.

But blaming tech debt—and especially blaming individuals—is not going to get us very far. Tech debt will always be there (although I have some thoughts on how to prioritize it), and individual mistakes are not going to go away. What we can do is examine the system that enables, in this case, a database sync to corrupt the primary live db, and figure out how to prevent that from happening in the first place.

Almost 30 years ago Jakob Nielsen published his 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design, and “error prevention” is still as true today as it was then:

Good error messages are important, but the best designs carefully prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions, or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

The example I always think of here is how you often seen battery packs shaped in a certain way so that it’s impossible to insert them incorrectly (contrast that with the terrors of trying to insert a USB cable the correct way the first time!).

In a situation like the one the FAA experienced, yes it’s important to acknowledge human error, and talk about the underlying tech issues, but that’s not enough. We have to figure out how to add preventative measures to our systems and pipelines2. To put it another way, they might not be able to replace their battery packs with NextGen solar yet, but they can certainly change the shape of the battery to prevent contractors from blowing up the camera.

  1. My emphasis added because who among us have not heard those words before… 

  2. For further reading on what to do after a major incident, check out Will Larson’s Move past incident response to reliability

Link roundup for March 3, 2023

The African Bricks 3. Mosaic artworks inspired by the culture and beauty of Africa, by Charis Tsevis.

The Cello in Soho Square. I like this description by Michael Lopp of the difference between “dabblers” and “S-tier” people (who are the absolute best at something): “There is an infinite list of exciting things to learn, but the Dabbler knows they have finite time, so they dabble. They get 80% of the juice, and they move on. Respect. S-Tier knows the last 10% of the challenge is the hardest, but it also teaches you the most.”

Physicists Say Aliens May Be Using Black Holes as Quantum Computers. This is fine. “In a recent study, a German-Georgian team of researchers proposed that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) could use black holes as quantum computers. This makes sense from a computing standpoint and offers an explanation for the apparent lack of activity we see when we look at the cosmos.”

Honestly, it’s probably the phones. Don’t dismiss this argument just from the headline, like I almost did. There’s some solid evidence presented here. “If we’re looking for one big ‘silver bullet’ or ‘grand unified theory’ of modern teenage unhappiness, phones are probably the place to start looking.”

Papercraft Models by Rocky Bergen. “Construct the computer from your childhood or build an entire computer museum at home with these paper models, free to download and share. Print, Cut, Score, Fold and Glue.”

In an Uncertain Job Market, How Can Companies Retain Workers? The conventional wisdom that people tend to hunker down when there are layoffs around them might not be accurate: “Layoffs ‘create an environment where people worry it might happen to them next,’ said Laszlo Bock, who was Google’s SVP for people operations. Poorly handled reductions may ‘degrade trust in management as people start hearing rumors of further cuts, and that in turn raises anxiety, which causes more people to quit.’” (NYT gift article)

How the Phonograph Created the 3-Minute Pop Song. I can’t resist a good “technologies people thought would ruin everything” article, and this is another fascinating one: “Plenty of folks worried that records would destroy musical culture. John Philip figured it would demotivate anyone from learning to play an instrument themselves. Why bother, when you could just put on music by a true virtuoso? ‘When music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study,’ he fretted in a 1906 article, ‘it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely.’”

The Case for Hanging Out. I love this essay. “Pushed further into isolation by the pandemic, we’re all losing the ability to engage in what I view as the pinnacle of human interaction: sitting around with friends and talking shit.”

Explore. I think it’s probably too late for a viable LinkedIn alternative, but this site would be a great contendor.

Meaningful metrics: How data sharpened the focus of product teams

In Meaningful metrics: How data sharpened the focus of product teams Erin Gustafson goes into detail on how Duolingo grew their Daily Active Users (DAUs) by 4x since 2019. It all starts with the growth model they built:

The Growth Model is a series of metrics we developed to jump-start our growth strategy with data. It is a Markov Model that breaks down topline metrics (like DAU) into smaller user segments that are still meaningful to our business. To do this, we classify all Duolingo learners (past or present) into an activity state each day, and monitor rates of transition between states.

Once they were confident in the model they did a bunch of simulations to build a hypothesis of where they should focus on for the most growth:

With the Growth Model in place and trained on historical data, we began to run growth simulations. The goal of these simulations was to identify new metrics that—when optimized—were likely to increase DAU. We did this by systematically pulling each lever in the model to see what the downstream impact on DAU would be.

Click through to see a visualization of the model, and where they are planning to take this work next. The article also pairs well with Jorge Mazal’s How Duolingo reignited user growth.

Link roundup for March 1, 2023

Open Circuits is “a photographic exploration of the beautiful design inside everyday electronics. Its stunning cross-section photography unlocks a hidden world full of elegance, subtle complexity, and wonder.”

Good conversations have lots of doorknobs. This is a fascinating essay about the elements of good conversation and the difference between “takers” who keep things going, “givers” who tend to ask a lot of questions, and how the wrong match-up can cause a conversation to stall. Includes good advice backed up by tons of academic research. This is one to save and revisit often.

Why do modern pop songs have so many credited writers? Some of the examples are wild. “When these cases are settled in favor of the plaintiff, more songwriting credits are added after a song’s release. This is why the number of songwriters listed on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” has increased over the years. To avoid a Mark-Ronson-style-courtroom-induced headache, artists will sometimes preemptively credit writers of older songs even if the similarity between the older song and their composition is purely coincidental.”

A “Last of Us” Episode 7 musical mystery (light spoilers). I just want to say don’t worry The Last of Us fans, I’m thinking about the important things over here.

The choice is easy. Robin Sloan with a good reminder: “Anyone who adds one of those email newsletter pop-ups to a website demeans them selves and makes the world worse for everyone else.” Reminder that if you are an author using Substack you can turn off “Subscribe prompts on post pages” in Settings.

Quick Review Summary. Ok this seems like an actually good use of OpenAI. Instead of poring over hundreds of reviews of a hotel, copy the Tripadvisor URL of the hotel into this website and it will generate a summary of the general sentiment of the hotel.

Neurodiversity Design System. Great resource. “The NDS is a coherent set of standards and principles that combine neurodiversity and user experience design for Learning Management Systems. Design accessible learning interfaces supporting success and achievement for everyone.”

SoundPrint is an app to “discover quiet places and share them with others.” This looks really useful, especially if you’re a fellow tinnitus sufferer.


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