Dear Lucia

I had been meaning to write to you while you were in your mom’s belly, but you surprised us by coming a little early! Maybe that’s the first lesson – you can’t plan everything, which knowing your genes you’re likely to think you can. But I’m glad you’re here now; I couldn’t wait to meet you either.

I wanted to impart upon you some fatherly advice for making your way in the world. Granted, it’ll be a few years until you can read this, and many more until you’ll understand it. But as much as a letter to you, it’s just as much a reminder to myself about what’s really important, what values I really care about sharing with you. Without further ado, a few things I’ve learned:

  • Surround yourself with the best people you can find. Under no circumstance compromise on this issue.
  • You can have anything you want if you work hard enough for it and get lucky. But you can’t have everything you want; choose wisely.
  • Stick up for the little guy. Better yet, help them no longer be the little guy.
  • The only opinions that matter are those of the people who matter. We’ll revisit this issue in greater detail before high school. In fact, I’m sending you an Outlook invite now for Saturday, August 26th, 2028 for us to watch Mean Girls together.
  • Find a problem that’s so important to you that you’ll spend your life working on it.
  • Resist the temptation to tell someone how much you despise them – you’ll almost certainly feel worse afterwards. The opposite is true of telling someone how much you love them.
  • Try every kind of food and art you can find; someone somewhere thought it was good, and maybe you will too.
  • Time is the only truly scarce resource you have; spend it doing what you really care about.
  • Love, really is, all you need.

Part of me wishes you could stay this small, but I’m looking forward to watching you grow up. And I’m looking forward to you teaching me new things about the world.

Low Information Density: Why You Should Never Attend a Tufte “Course”

Let me save you $400, 6 hours of your life, and considerable frustration by imparting upon you the key takeaways from the Tufte course I attended here in Seattle last week.

I may have gone in with hopes too high. I expected him to discuss the general principles of visualizing data, to work through some examples of information displayed poorly, and most importantly how it could be improved using said principles. But we didn’t get that. Instead, we got a rambling collection of the fetishes and grievances Tufte has built up over the past few decades, including:

  • An obsession with maps. He thinks maps are the purist example of good data visualization. Sure, they’ve stood the test of time; yes, Google Maps is one of the most widely used websites. But are maps really such a great metaphor for summarizing data? It’s much easier to visualize objects in the physical world than it is to communicate abstract notions such as volumes, times, averages, etc. A mouse can find its way around a maze, but good luck getting it to understand your multivariate regression.

     

  • Blaming the tools, not training the workman. I knew we were bound to get some PowerPoint bashing, but I didn’t quite appreciate what an existential issue he has with the product, its creators, or the entire software industry. He talks about the “software industry” the same way you might talk about “the military industrial complex.” He actually has halfway decent joke about how there are only two industries that refer to their customers as “users” (software and illegal drugs, har har.) But his vitriol goes so far that you’d think his father died at the hands of a PowerPoint animation.

    Farther down the rabbit hole, he recommends using Latex over Word and R/SAS/JMP over Excel. Because what people really need is a new, more complicated tool instead of learning how to use their current tools better.

     

  • Magical Screens. He has some bizarre theory about how new 4k screens are going to change the way people interact with data, as if pixel density was the limiting factor we were coming up against. This wasn’t a passing observation – he had about 20 minutes dedicated to how much better screen resolutions are getting and I still have no idea why it matters.

     

  • Life is $GOOG. While he used “marketing” as a pejorative term about 20 times during the day, Tufte has no problem extoling the virtues of the biggest advertising company in the world. From Google Maps to Google News, he’s tickled by everything coming out of Mountain View. He even spent about 15 minutes on this project of his where you can create a collage of Google Image results. While I don’t know what the point of it was, I did enjoy making my own collage with it.

     

    The only thing in the known universe potentially more awe-inspiring than search advertising is an $800 device that lets you check Facebook and watch cat videos. I’m of course referring to the iPad, which along with everything else made by Apple is created only with organic materials in fair trade factories and is filled with pixie dust and hugs.

Toward the end of the day, he started getting even weirder. He had this soliloquy on presentation tips that morphed into a philosophical piece on how to treat your fellow man. Some of his insights included “show up on time” and “write down questions people ask you.” I half expected him to say, “and wear a tie – you see these kids these days in their jeans and their hoodies and their messenger bags and it just doesn’t look professional.” And the whole thing was him reading several paragraphs of text from a couple of slides; here he was giving a presentation on how to give a good presentation while committing one of the cardinal presentation sins – meta.

And just when I thought we were done, he left us with this parting gem: “never hire an MBA.”

Well, Ed, the feeling’s mutual. I’d never hire you again either.

 

Entering & Breaking (+Insuring)

I had a great July 4th weekend here in Seattle, spending most of it grilling meat on various roof decks and patios. During one such session, I had a friend pitch me their idea for a new business venture.

On Monday, July 7th, I wrote back on my walk to work:

Been thinking more about your idea, and I think it’s bigger than <redacted>. An area that hasn’t been much impacted by the sharing economy yet is minor housework. Imagine a service where you can schedule (or book ad-hoc) various household services/chores like doing your laundry, dishes, cleaning, walking your dog, maybe even do some grocery shopping while you’re at it and put the food in the fridge…

As long as you had some kind of keyless entry, could be a pretty slick way to improve household work. Taskrabbit wasn’t able to tap this market because (1) remote home entry and (2) too much friction for small tasks. If a service provider has a large number of positive ratings, odds are pretty good they won’t steal your TV while you’re out.

A mere three days later I see the following headline:

Farther down they comment, “The biggest change is getting rid of the auction format. Instead of posting tasks and waiting for people to bid on them, clients will now post a task and let the algorithms match them up with people willing to carry it out.”

A very smart way to deal with the second problem I mentioned, which is reducing the friction in the matching process for small tasks. But if I were Task Rabbit I would look to partner with a keyless entry system to reduce the coordination headache further. If I’m already home then I don’t need to worry quite as much about the insurance; it makes a bigger difference when I’ve granted someone access to the property without my presence.

Are you going to keep your windows phone?

There’s no question I get asked more often about leaving Microsoft. Sure, people want to know what start-up culture is like (Ping pong table? Check. Kegerator? Check.) And folks who have never worked at a start-up want to know about how risky an endeavor it is. I would have expected that. But I never would have expected the fascination with my choice of phone OS.

Maybe it’s because there’s something about your phone in this day-and-age that’s so personal. It’s your constant companion, your gateway to the world; is there a product with which you have more interaction?

So you might imagine I feel really strongly one way or another, but I’m torn. Here’s what I’m thinking:

Keep Windows Phone

First and foremost, I love this phone. My current one is a Nokia Lumia 928 and it’s the best phone I’ve had. It takes amazing photos, can transfer data with NFC (which almost never gets used), and can charge wirelessly (which gets used all the time.) And I’m a big fan of the Live Tile / Metro interface and operating system.

Then why get rid of it? Apps. The app situation is every bit as bad as it’s made out to be. When I was at Microsoft I used to roll my eyes every time I would hear “we have 48 of the top 50 apps!” Because, while technically true, a more accurate stat would have been “we have 3 of the top 5 apps” (missing Instagram and Pinterest.)

Sure, we finally got Instagram, but we still have a deprecated experience on it. There’s still no Pinterest or Snapchat, which means it’s virtually impossible to plan my wedding or send pictures of my genitals to my wife. And if the big blockbuster apps are only 95% there, you better believe the long tail of up-and-coming apps are less than 5% there. It’s enough to make you feel as if there’s an entire economy you’re not participating in.

And I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future. At Microsoft people touted the 50 million unit mark as a big one; once you start selling 50 million phones a year then the audience starts getting big enough for app developers to dedicate resources to the platform. But the reality is that app developers have limited resources, and you’re always going to get served third no matter how big in absolute terms your third slice of pie is.

iPhone

I’ve been hating on the iPhone since ’07. I bring that up not necessarily as a point of pride, but to note that getting an iPhone now would be tantamount to admitting I was wrong for the last 7 years; cognitive dissonance is a powerful force.

I remember once in our apartment in DC having a race with Alex Field to see whether he could really type faster on his iPhone than I could on my state-of-the-art BlackBerry, which had a real keyboard like all real smartphones did. I don’t remember exactly what the paragraph was that we raced to complete (I think it might have been something from the Federalist Papers), but I remember that I lost.

On a more practical level, my iPhone would constantly be out of batteries. Aside from the aforementioned wireless charger I have, there are also a zillion USB chargers near every outlet and hidden away in every travel bag I own; replacing them all with iPhone 5 chargers would cost hundreds of dollars, which I’d need to do again if Apple decides it would be 2% faster or more stylish if they completely change the format on the iPhone 6 or some other hair-brained idea that puts aesthetics above practicality. As you can see, I have some issues with Apple as a brand. But seriously, does no one ever question why they’re using a non-standard charging format?

Android

I think a big part of the Android pitch is that it’s married to all the other Google services you use and love; the problem for me is that I don’t use any of them anymore. I’d be fine switching over for maps and search, but I wonder what the Android experience is like using Outlook.com for email and OneDrive for storage. And I’m skeptical about using an OS from a company that’s fighting so hard to promote their inferior social network against Twitter and Facebook/Instagram. But if I can get my hands on one, I’ll give it a whirl.

Waiting Game

For now I’m waiting to see how the Windows Phone ecosystem evolves. I really want to be able to use this phone, but hate feeling like I’m stuck with the apps from 3 years ago.

Is there anything else I should be considering? Fangirls and fanboys of all platforms, sell me on yours.

Prosocial Networking

The Haverford Center for Careers and Professional Advancement asked me to write a post about the importance of using LinkedIn for college students to connect with alumni. Here’s what I said…

 

 

I used to think “networking” was a pejorative term, one that described the unsavory, backroom schmoozing that gave the unqualified-but-well-connected an express lane to the corner office. The scene I imagined was set at a country club, where the children of senators and industrialists would advance their careers at a white collar version of the NFL combine, putting on display critical life skills such as being able to have a functional conversation after three scotches and handling the embarrassment of your short game with grace.

The path to employment, at least in the meritocracy I wanted to believe in, was by doing well in school, writing a great cover letter describing your talents and passions, and applying to jobs through a company’s careers website. The universe, in its relentlessly rational way, would ensure that the most qualified applicants were whisked to the roles to maximize their marginal product of labor; think Milton Friedman wearing Hogwarts’ sorting hat. “Networking” was akin to cheating, giving a leg up to applicants with a coincidental personal connection to a hiring manager.

Nine years, four jobs, and an MBA later I’ve developed a more nuanced view of networking. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on the topic that I wish had been shared with me back when I was looking for my first job.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that networking is every bit as necessary as it’s made out to be, and might even be undersold. Personally, I’d be very hesitant to hire someone without having had someone I trust vouch for them; interviews and resumes are poor substitutes for a personal recommendation. For personality fit, only the most socially inept are unable to pull themselves together to seem employable during an hour-long interview. And for subject matter expertise, interview questions tend to be very predictable. Forward me any job description and I’ll give you ten questions you’re likely to be asked. As Sun Tzu said, “Know your resume, know the position, and you will get 100 jobs.” Or something like that.

Your resume isn’t helping you stand out either. For me the resume occupies a place right next to the fax machine in the category of business practices that need to die. No useful information other than proper nouns are ever conveyed, and they’re famously filled with exaggerations at best, and outright lies at worst. Plus, let’s be honest, when you’re 22 all your resumes pretty much look the same. Nota bene: you unfortunately still need to have a resume and make it conform to certain guidelines your career counsellor can help you with. But I’m hoping future generations will be as familiar with resumes as they will be with phones that require chargers or cars that require drivers.

A much better medium for networking purposes is your LinkedIn Profile. I’ll admit that I have a particular affinity for social networking given my company, Simply Measured, provides social media analytics for marketers. But I’ve long maintained that LinkedIn is a much better way for you to display your passions, your creativity, and your personality than a resume ever will be. It’s a place to have a multimedia expression of your career ambitions; talk about what you’re most proud of, what you’d like to accomplish, link to your work around the web (tip: start a blog, if you don’t already have one.)

And now the good news: networking is not nearly as reprehensible as you think. In fact, it can be enlightening and even fulfilling. But you need to change your approach 180 degrees from where it likely is. Don’t think of networking as a means-to-an-end, where the “end” is about calling in enough favors for you to land a job. Think of it as an opportunity to learn from people about their jobs (what do you do?), their passions (why do you do this?), and their backstory (how did you get here?). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed by the diverse ways people can make a living in this world; I continue to be. Another pitch for LinkedIn: you’re just a few clicks away from finding alums who are happy to share their experience and perspective with you.

But as great as the accumulation of knowledge is, there’s yet another reason why you should embrace networking: it’s an opportunity for you to help someone else. Yes, you.

If I could send one book back in time to my 22-year-old self, it would be Adam Grant’s Give and Take. I want you to read it, because I think it’ll change your outlook on networking as it did mine. In short, when you think of networking you need to harness your inner JFK: ask not what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network. Networking isn’t about asking for favors, and it’s not even about tit-for-tat; it’s about creating more value for others than you appropriate for yourself. And there are some ways to get started, like the 5-minute favor, for example:

  1. “Use a product and offer concise, vivid and helpful feedback.
  2. Introduce two people with a well-written email, citing a mutual interest.
  3. Read a summary and offer crisp and concrete feedback.
  4. Serve as a relevant reference for a person, product, or service.
  5. Share, comment or retweet something on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+ or other social places.
  6. Write a short, specific and laudatory note to recognize or recommend someone on LinkedIn, Yelp, or other social place.”

So get out there. Make your LinkedIn profile a place for ambition and expression, and use the service to find people you can learn from and add value to. Need more specific suggestions? Well, you know where to find me: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanaisenberg

So long, and thanks for all the SWAG

Today is my last day at Microsoft.

It’s been quite a journey from my first visit to Redmond three years ago. But after a summer internship and 18 months on the job full time, it’s time for Microsoft & me to part ways.

This may come as a surprise to many of you who knew how passionate I was about the company and my future there. I was one of the first people who’d enthusiastically show you the features of my Windows Phone, and would even use “Bing” as a verb. It was a place I saw myself for the long haul. I’ll write again sometime soon with some more of the details around my decision to leave, which I think could be helpful for Microsoft’s leaders, recruiters, and prospective employees to hear.

In short, I left because I just wasn’t able to find a way to make a meaningful contribution. I had great teammates, had a wonderful manager, and the hours were reasonable relative to the pay. But while Microsoft is at a critical moment of transition, and has many interesting problems to solve, I just wasn’t able to find a role where I felt I could make a difference. And there’s too much work to be done in the world, too many problems left unsolved, to not make a contribution.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Microsoft is a bad place to work, or that I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I returned someday farther down the road. Microsoft is a fascinating institution, one that I would argue has contributed more to the widespread adoption of technology than any other company in history. Few organizations can set a goal as audacious as “a PC on every desk and in every home,” and achieve it in the developed world within a couple of decades. It has truly been a privilege to experience working at such a momentous company, and with so many wonderful people.

While I’m disappointed that my career at Microsoft didn’t go the way I had hoped, I couldn’t be more thrilled about my next adventure: I’ll be joining Simply Measured, a social media analytics company right here in Seattle. I’ll be bringing my passion for technology, data, and building businesses and products to the social media industry, which I’ll be writing more about in the posts to come. I’m exhilarated to be part of the journey Simply Measured is on.

Let me leave you with some words of wisdom that I’ve been telling myself a lot during this process. From the man who set the standard for classy exits when no one would have faulted him bitterness, Conan O’Brien signed off saying:

Don’t be cynical – it doesn’t lead anywhere.
Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.
But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

To the next set of amazing things.

Alt+F+X

 






End of an Error

During my summer internship at Microsoft in 2011, our VP had lunch with the ten of us in her organization who were part of the program. It was an opportunity for us to share with her what we were working on, and a chance for us to ask her questions about her experience and the future of the company. I remember one intern asked her what she would change about Microsoft if she could.

“Someone forwarded me an email the other day,” she said. “It was a cartoon of the org charts of the various tech companies. Have you seen this?”

We knew immediately what she was talking about – this cartoon had made the rounds in the tech recruiting circles. We laughed in affirmation. Yes, Apple completely revolved around Steve Jobs; Google seemed super disorganized.

“Well, I think they got it right,” she said. “And I think we could do without the guns.”

The way I see it, there are two big factors that led to a culture characterized by such internal conflict. The first is the fact that the various divisions at Microsoft were managed as six separate P&Ls, as if Microsoft were no more than a holding company. That’s partly due to an outdated business model and, as I’ve previously argued, partly due to the legal environment in which Microsoft was forced to operate for more than a decade. Ballmer’s “One Microsoft” strategy is supposed to remedy this by grouping products by functional areas (operating systems & devices, application & services, etc.) rather than have each product group operate completely independently.

The second and, I think, most significant factor is the stack ranking of employees as part of the annual performance review process. For those unfamiliar with the system, it was one whereby employees were ranked against each other to fight for scarce rating scores forced to a curve. I won’t go into details about it here, just because I think they’re kind of boring, and are about as useful as studying the org chart of the Soviet economic bureau, the mechanics of medieval torture devices, or other discarded tools of human suffering. Last year Vanity Fair published this article that does an OK job describing the system; while they mess up a few details they nail the pernicious impact this has had on collaboration and creativity. If enough readers want me to elaborate I could do a separate post on how stack ranking was actually implemented.

But it’s a new era at Microsoft, with our head of HR having announced that stack ranking has come to an end! While details on the new performance & development system are scarce, I’m in the camp that says there’s no possible way it could be worse than the old one. In short, the new system gives managers more freedom to compensate their people without fitting them to a curve (i.e., forcing someone to take the fall.) I’m a big believer that there’s no better system for an efficient allocation of resources than giving local actors the resources and authority to invest as they see fit. On that front, we’re taking steps in the right direction.

But the big question I have is how long will it take to undo the damage stack ranking has caused to Microsoft’s culture? Two decades later the economies formerly part of the Soviet Union are still struggling to develop free market dynamics and the institutions that support them. At Microsoft, those in positions of influence are those who previously excelled in the old system that emphasized competition over collaboration. Adam Grant had another fascinating article today on a similar topic: how much can a system change your behavior, versus how much do certain types of people select into a given system? I’m hopeful that the change we’ve made frees us to be the creative and collaborative organization we aspire to be.