Thursday, November 28, 2019

Is Elsa a Superhero?

I've been in a couple of spirited debates with my almost 3-year-old, Samson, over whether or not Elsa is a superhero. We watched Frozen II - which I liked, by the way - and I left the theater convinced Elsa is a superhero. Don't worry, no spoilers ahead.

Samson disagreed. "Elsa is not a superhero!"

According to him, a superhero is defined by 2 characteristics:

One, they can fly. Two, they have a sword.

Or they shoot webs and can jump. (Of course, you can't leave out Spiderman)

It's usually at this moment I point out that Elsa can shoot ice from her hands, and Samson moves onto something else in frustration.

I get it, he's three. We're not going to get far, but it does make for hilarious conversations given his "logic."

Part of Wisdom is Changing Your Mind

But his "logic" is what's so intriguing to me! There's clearly some sort of logic in his head that defines what a superhero is, and I wish I could tease it out. There's something about his observations of superheroes - which is limited to a couple of kid shows, some costumes, books, and our stories - that has left a gap in his understanding. Because let's be honest, Elsa is clearly a superhero.

And then I start thinking about all the other places he only has a partial picture and has therefore formed incorrect conclusions. I wonder where he thinks water comes from. Or why we pray before eating.

I don't expect him to have everything figured out (I don't!). But I do hope and pray he has a growth mindset, and is willing to change his mind when presented with new information - that's what a wise person does.

But cognitive bias is a real thing that prevents us from objectively evaluating new information. This is why our political climate is so polarizing. Why two people can see the same thing and claim it supports their side of an argument (it's record low temperatures this winter. Proof the climate is fine. No, it's proof the climate is not fine.). Wisdom is identifying your bias and being willing to change your mind.

One thing I strive to demonstrate for my kids is to admit when I'm wrong and show them it's OK to change your mind. And not just do it, but explain, "I was thinking this, but then I learned about X, and so I changed my mind, and that's OK." I've been practicing in my job, which my co-workers may or may not have noticed, so I'm comfortable doing it with my kids. Plus, I want to be wise myself.

But Seriously, Is Elsa a Superhero?

But today, Samson and I need to settle this debate. Here's my 36-year-old logic.

IN MY OPINION, there are two parts to a superhero. Breaking down the compound word, let's start with "super."

To be super, you need to have some sort of ability beyond normal human capabilities. Flying, climbing up walls, mind control, etc. They can be natural, magical, or with the aid of some sort of biological/mechanical thing. Think Superman and Spiderman. Even Ironman and Batman count because of their mechanical enhancements. I think that means anyone can become super. I'm OK with that.

Age doesn't matter. Gender doesn't matter. Nor does socio-economic status. In fact, it's possible to have a disability, like an inability to walk (Professor X), and still be super.

The other part is "hero."

It's NOT someone who is admired or idolized. Though, that often happens as a result.

A hero, IN MY OPINION, is someone who seeks justice for others. They demonstrate courage in the face of adversity, and ideally, save the day (in big and small ways). Think police officers and firefighters. Even teachers and coaches.

It's definitely a subjective, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder, type of criteria. But that's OK. I personally don't count athletes who "save the game" with a fantastic play (justice was never in danger). But they can definitely be heroes off the field, and towards their fellow players.

Does Elsa have some sort of ability beyond normal human capabilities? Yes, she does.
Does Elsa seek justice for others and demonstrate courage in the face of adversity? Yes, she does.

Therefore, Elsa is a superhero.

And a woman. And a fantastic singer. And a royal. And a sister. Let's not get too caught up in labels. :)

Friday, September 06, 2019

Using Shape Up in Project Management

This last year I've been leading a software development team on a large project. As the project manager, I started to run into the classic issues, tools, questions like many people before me.

I learned about the different types of projects: waterfall (you plan every step of the project ahead of time) vs. agile (you plan the next 2-3 weeks to allow future priorities to shift).

One risk with agile is that you might never feel a sense of completion. This is especially true in the software world: the list of things that could/should be done continues to grow. Especially as you launch incremental updates which spawn new feedback and ideas.

Then there's tracking a project. In agile the two main ones are Scrum (planning meets to start/end each cycle and daily 15-minute check-ins: What did you do? What will you do? Any barriers?) and KanBan (a list of tasks in at least 3 columns: todo->doing->done).

For my project, I went towards agile. Tracking on a KanBan board, longer Scrum meetings on Monday, shorter the rest of the week. We aim for 15 minutes on the short days but often go longer as they turn into work sessions (the team is small enough it's OK).

But along the way, I ran into a couple of issues:

  1. How do you focus on the current cycle, yet keep your eye on the overall project?
  2. How can you set an overall goal for a completion date when only the most recent steps are planned?
  3. As the team gets bigger, more tasks need to be created, tracked, talked about, etc. How do you stay sane?

I reached out to a couple of successful project managers and the answer was: it's a lot of work to do it right. Plus, I need to add some elements of the waterfall back in. I didn’t need to detail every task along the way, but I do need to make time estimates of the larger blocks of work, and put them all on a calendar to see where the timeline ends. As work gets more detailed and progress happens, adjust the timeline and/or adjust the scope of the project (depending on your constraints).

It turns out I'm not great at estimating time because every week we were pushing deadlines out another week(!) because everything was taking longer. It got to a point where I stopped referencing the calendar because it was no longer near (by months!) the original aspirational launch date. Instead, we went back to asking, "Is this a must-have? Yes? OK, let's build it, and it'll be done when it's done."

This made sense when we were building the first iteration of the product. And since we intended to charge, the quality of the product and it features were important, and our appetite for funding the project was 2-3 times the original budget (it's said: work expands to fill the time given, apparently that's also true of budgets and money).

But as we prepared to launch, the nature of the work began to change. For starters, the backend part development still had "must-haves," but the frontend was starting on some "nice-to-haves." But then those nice-to-haves starting adding tasks to the backend. Ops. I didn't do a good enough job of catching those. How do you keep a project in balance when the majority of the work is either frontend or backend? One answer is to only hire people who can handle both. Not super realistic at this point. Avoid unbalanced projects and instead, aim for ones with equal work? Maybe. Hire more of one type of developer? The answer, it seems, is a little bit of yes of each.

A book I just finished, called "Shape Up" by Ryan Singer at Basecamp helped answer a few of those questions for ongoing projects. You can read it for free online:

For starters, spend time shaping a project: what's the problem you're solving, the solution's scope, and the general functionality. Basically, get it to the point that a designer and developer would feel comfortable getting to work. This is an area I've been lax at. I tend to be too general about the directions. Or, don't thoroughly think through what needs to happen.

They recommend 6-week cycles. So, the project I shape needs to be able to be completed in 6-weeks. If it's a larger project, I need to figure out how to break it down into smaller, shippable in 6-weeks, chunks.

At the end of the 6-weeks, either the project ships or is canceled. That's the right, the deadline is the hard stop. It means something went wrong if you can't ship yet: maybe the scope was too much, or something was harder than expected. Either way, they recommend stopping and going back to evaluate what happened. While you evaluate, the team works on something else during the next 6-week cycle. Real consequences that everyone feels.

The nice part about 6-weeks is that it's long enough to create something meaningful, but not so long you risk a lot of time if something doesn't work out. It does a better job of spacing out the bigger planning meetings and lets the team manage the smaller tasks however they like.

(BTW, their hiring principle is to hire people who are smart and get work done. That alone solves a lot of issues!)

Another mindset I like from the book was deciding when to stop. Often we compare to the ideal product that's in our heads or on our roadmap. This can be demotivating because it's unlikely the product will ever achieve the ideal at all (let alone on time and on budget). Instead, compare to the baseline. What are customers currently doing to solve the problem? Does this project/product make it easier? If so, it's a success and move on. It keeps the focus on the customer and makes it easier to stomach removing features from the scope if time gets tight.

The book is worth reading if you're managing projects. I've already started shaping/scoping projects at a better level per their recommendations. I plan to shift our team to longer project cycles, and (this will be hard, so it won't happen right away) making the deadlines, not the ideal features, the hard stopping point. It'll provide us a level of accountability we don't currently have. I do plan to continue to track things on a KanBan board and still hold Scrum meetings.

I think it'll work particularly well with a product we're selling. Since people are already buying it, we won't feel as compelled to say, "but we have to build this no matter how long it takes. Otherwise, people won't buy it."

Then all that remains is the hardest part, which all project styles recommend, and I seem completely incapable of doing: is not adding anything else to the development team’s plate during a cycle.

Monday, June 24, 2019

How Do I Get a Job Doing Data Science If I Don't Have Much Experience?

I regularly get calls from MBA grad students with a similar situation: "I took a few data science classes, love it, and want to get a job doing data science. However, my resume doesn't show much, if any, related experience. How do I get a job doing data science?"

It's a great question, and it makes sense why they'd call me. I was in that exact position when I graduated. The only difference was at the time the term "data science" didn't exist and tools were still in their infancy (Google had just bought Youtube, and we were all still wondering if this "video upload" site thing was viable).

In 2010 I wrote about a general post about finding a job, which is still relevant, and here's my specific answer to aspiring data scientists.

1. Define Your Talents

The Talents

Data science, like Marketing and HR, is a broad term with many jobs and skills within. So when you tell me, a person looking to hire data scientists, you want to be a data scientist, I'm still not sure what you mean. To which I usually follow up with the profound question of, "What does that mean to you?" I typically get a bland response simply because they're still discovering what it all means themselves. Here's some guidance:

First, decide if you're going to be a specialist or semi-generalist. A specialist is easy: focus on one thing and be the best in the world at it. Get amazing at producing accurate forecasts. Become THE data cleaning person. A warning: you'll be competing against PhDs in this space.

My recommendation is to go down the semi-generalist path. Find an interesting combination of skills/interests that's helpful. You're good at project management AND forecasting? That's interesting. You crunch numbers AND can give a presentation to executives? Now you have my attention.

HBR wrote a fantastic article called Data Science and the Art of Persuasion, and I recommend reading it at least once. It breaks data science into six talents. In brief, here they are:
  1. Project management: do you know agile/scrum project management? Can you be an effective scrum master and get product owners to define done and prioritize?
  2. Data wrangling: can you find, clean, and structure data? Are you good at automating processes?
  3. Data analysis: can you find meaning in data and apply it to a business question?
  4. Subject expertise: what business model or industry are you interested in?
  5. Design: are you good at data visualization? There's the technical side, but also the art side of it. 
  6. Storytelling: Can you write a narrative around the data and analysis? In my experience, this is the weakest talent on a data science team.

The People

If you read that list and still aren't sure, go talk to people. Actually, no matter what, go talk to people. Informational interviews are amazing. It's the lowest risk way to learn about something (which, if you messaged me to chat, and I asked to you read this first, and you are right now... good! keep going!).

Find other data scientists. Find people who work with data scientists. Find people who work in data-intensive industries.

I go into more depth in my original post, but here's the high level: come up with a set of questions to ask everyone. You may not ask all of them, but having a pre-set list will give you the confidence to reach out because you're prepared. Talk to at least 12 people, more if you can swing it. I talked to 2-3 per week while in school.

The Companies

My observation is there are three types of companies. They all have pros and cons. After talking with people and evaluating your talents, one of these types of companies may attract you.

Large companies, especially in data-driven industries, typically have a dedicated data science team (though the name might be different). Or, at least a specific role dedicated to data analysis. All fortune 500, if not 5,000 have this setup. These types of jobs tend to have narrow scopes. For example, my job at HP is to forecast how much money HP will make selling ink. Very specific. I use all 6 talents to do it, but my scope is narrow.

Small to medium size companies will have a small marketing team, but no data scientists. In my opinion, these are interesting positions. You don't need to be the best analyst in the world, but you can bring your skills and add a lot of value to the original position. For example, my internship was with a 500-person credit union. My job was to create a new checking account offering. I did competitive research, ran a survey... and did an analysis on their customer database. Nobody else on the team knew how to access this fantastic resource! Granted, I had to figure out how to get access and build my own tools (data wrangling), but I was OK with that. It was like I had superpowers relative to the rest of the team. The pay is typically less, but the variety is more, and the expectations are lower. This could be a perfect first step.

Boutique analysis consultants are super small, 1-5 people, companies that specialize 100% on data analytics. Like a typical consultant, they come into a company, learn about their problem, and do an analysis on behalf of the company. These are harder to get into, but you can learn a ton as an apprentice in a short amount of time. Be willing to do the grunt work for long hours.

You think you know what you want to do, or at least have a plan to figure it out? Great! Let's move on.

2. Cultivate Your Talents Into Skills

"The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft." - Will Smith

The lack of experience on your resume is tough. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut. To get the experience, you actually need to practice data science. The good news is you don't need a job to "beat on your craft". There's almost an unlimited amount of data thanks to the internet. Pick a subject, find some data, and do an analysis.

FiveThirtyEight has its own dataset and often points to its original sources within an article. Sports data is interesting, so is political/polling data. There's census data, economic data, Zillow home sales data, stock market data, and so much more! There's data specific to an industry you're interested in. Collect your own data!

I tend to collect my own data and pick ones relevant to my life.

Can you guess my talents? I like the design and storytelling side. I'm much lighter on the technical data analysis and data wrangling parts.

If I were looking to get a job, I would do at least one per week. Beat on your craft to hone your skills and gain experience. We'll talk about what to do with all this effort next.

There is one more way to gain experience: [pro-bono] freelance work. There are a bunch of small businesses and organizations that would love help analyzing their data, but they don't know how to do it (like my credit union example), and often times they can't afford to hire someone to do it. This is an opportunity!

For example, I talk to contractors and landlords all the time who would LOVE to create an annual budget but don't really know how to go about it. Volunteer to take a look and help. I created a forecasting tool in R for my church to better predict giving trends. I worked with a local broker to create a "state of the real estate market" report he could share with clients. It didn't pay much, but it led to future projects. In fact, don't do it to get paid. Do it to help, and then add it to your resume.

Another interesting option for freelance work is to signup for Upwork. It's a website that companies go to for one-time projects and/or part-time work. Often times it's remote. I've hired 4 people from the site, and it's fantastic. Tip: I've noticed that data scientists call themselves a "financial analyst" on the site. If anything, it'll give you interviewing experience.

Got a plan in place to cultivate your talents? Let's show it off.

3. Showcase Your Skills

In the graphic design world, people have portfolios. In the software development world, people have gits. But they're the same thing: a way to showcase your work. As a data scientist, you want to create the same thing.

Think about it from an employer perspective: I'm about to take a considerable risk, financially and culturally, to bring someone into my organization. I want to reduce as much uncertainty as possible. That's why employers rely so heavily on recommendations and another reason why informational interviews are so important.

Reading accomplishments on a resume are helpful, but reduce my risk a lot and SHOW me what you did. That's why designers have portfolios. I don't care what school you went to, I want to see for myself you know how to draw.

So, create a WordPress site and find a theme that works for you. Or whatever tool you want - don't overthink this. Upload your projects to Google Drive and share the folder. It's not as pretty, but I'm not evaluating you on how pretty it is.

Then, as you do projects, add it to your website. Start with every. Single. Homework. Assignment. At this point in the game, you need volume, you can add a featured section later. But don't just post the homework, take one more step that'll blow everyone out of the water: create a short video where you walk through what you did. Wrote some R code? Use Zoom to share your screen and talk through it. Embed the video using Youtube (it turns out it was viable) along with the code. Or put the code in Github and link to it.

Did you have a final project with a presentation? Record yourself giving the presentation (do it again by yourself if the presentation came and went). Then record again showing the actual analysis. Show your work. For group projects point out the work you did.

I use video all the time, and it's fantastic. When I make an offer on a property, I don't just kick over the offer and hope the seller can figure out my thinking. I record a quick video on Zoom, upload it to Youtube and share it with the document. I get comments all the time about how professional it looks. You should do the same thing. I personally choose to keep the video on so they can see me and my expressions, but you don't have to. This is especially important if your talent is storytelling.

I made a sample presentation so you can see exactly what I'm talking about. Mine was done off the cuff. In reality, I'd script out what I wanted to say a lot more... and slow down my talking. Anyways, here it is:

You can also make tutorials. You can comment on other people's work. Flowing Data is a perfect example of these types of posts. So is Edward Tufte's Twitter account. If you do the commentary, go further than they do. Go into detail on what's good and bad.

Then put the link to your portfolio on your resume.

When following up after an informational interview, you might mention a project you did, share the link, and ask for their feedback on how to make it better. Then... follow their advice to improve it.

4. The Briefcase Technique

If you do this, you'll get interviews. Now it's time to knock it out of the park. Part of the interview preparation process is researching the company. Take it one step further and do an analysis for the company. The closer you can get to what you'll actually be working on, the better. If you interview for me, look for IDC data on printers. If you can't do that, look at HP's historical revenue.

Imagine being able to say, "I was looking at IDC shipment sales, and I found that the market is shrinking. Here, let me show you. (take a paper with a chart out of a briefcase, or portfolio, whatever).  I noticed X Y Z... And a question." Or, "It looks like HP is under-represented in the copier space. I recommend investing more there." Or, "why isn't HP in the copier space?"

I learned about this technique for freelancing from Ramit Sethi, but it works just as well when interviewing for a data science job (hint: it actually works for all positions).

Look, you're probably not going to teach me something or uncover some new insight. That's not the point! Your goal is to show me you care, to show off your skills, and to demonstrate you're going to take the extra step of a top performer.

Final Thoughts

I know what I'm suggesting is a lot of work, but the results will be worth it. Plus, it's a low-risk way for you to discover if you genuinely like data science without having to commit to a job to find out.

Good luck with your job search!

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Monday, June 10, 2019

Youtube is a Landlord's Best Friend for Home Projects

In case you didn't know this, Youtube is pretty awesome.

Specifically, I love it for education.

Especially for doing home projects.

To be honest, it's hard to imagine how people tackled home projects before Youtube. It's made my life as a DIY landlord significantly easier. And, this feels like a harbinger of the future of education in general because it works so well.

I know Youtube's search is fantastic (thanks to Google) for discovering great videos, but I also wanted to highlight a couple channels who are my go-to for most home projects. I think you'll find them helpful as well.


Shannon lives in Canada and has a huge library of videos. What I love is that his videos are complete. He shows each step, the tools required, and best practices. All at a reasonable pace. My favorite example is a 45-minute video where he demonstrates installing a pocket door. I watched the entire video, and then re-watched it step-by-step while I followed along. Perfect!

Home Renovision DIY

This is a recent discovery for me, and I like it because a) Jeff focuses on the technical side of projects, and b) he does a good job of showing alternatives. For example, I was replacing some drywall and was interested in improving the soundproof rating while doing. In this video, he shows 4-ways to soundproof a room, along with the quantitative costs and benefits. Plus, he actually showed how to do it. That's a perfect video.

Matt Risinger

Want inspiration for your next project? Want to know what's on the bleed edge of construction trends? This is your channel. You get the sense that the primary purpose is customer lead gen (show potential customers how awesome they are), but it's still great. I don't explicitly search for projects, but use it to learn about new technologies/techniques/materials, and then search other channels to learn the step-by-step process to do it. His home tours are particularly good. Here's an inspirational one on the possibilities with home insulation.

This Old House

Sometimes all you want is an overview of a project. You don't need the step-by-step yet, but kinda want to know what's involved. For example, in this 5-minute video, you get a clear idea of what it takes to install solar panels. There aren't enough details to start the project, but enough to dive deeper with more specific technique/tools/material questions.

Thanks to these 4 groups for taking the time to share your knowledge (for free!) with the world. I've benefited from your generosity and really appreciate it.

And a bonus: this was the first video I watched when I realized how powerful Youtube was to teach me how to do home projects. I heard someone say you could remove an aluminum window without removing siding, I wanted to know how to do it and came across this gem. Enjoy.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Real Estate Investors: Pay No More Than 100x the Monthly Rent for a Rental

If you're going to invest in rental real estate, follow this one rule so you'll actually make money.

Pay no more, including repairs, than 100x the potential monthly rent.

So, if you think you can rent a place for $1,000 a month. Don't pay more than $100,000 for the property.

If the property requires $20,000 of repairs, don't pay more than $80,000 for the property.

Follow this rule, and you'll make money. It's that simple.

What's the name of this rule?

Some people call it the "1% Rule" because you can multiply the value by 1% (or divide by 100) to see what the rent "should" be. I like to think of it as the "100x Rule" and start with the rent.

What about all those property calculators and spreadsheets? Surely more analysis is needed.

Yes, you can get more detailed and calculate an accurate bottoms-up analysis of the property and calculate a precise return on investment (ROI = annual profit divided by your cash contribution). And yes, larger multi-family properties, especially if multiple investors are involved, requires a higher level of rigor to validate the numbers. And flips are a different type of investing which need a different kind of analysis.

But you know what you'll find when you do the detailed analysis? In general, you won't want to pay more than 100x the rent.

I've analyzed a few hundred properties, and it's shocking how consistent this rule is.

Why is this rule so important?

The primary reason for investing in rentals is to generate income over a long period by renting a product. A product that requires maintenance, working with a customer, and complying with laws. These all require time and money. And if you don't meet the rule, you'll find your margins are too thin to do all the repairs you want to do. And you won't be able to afford to hire someone else to manage the property or do the maintenance.

So instead you'll spend your time doing it all and making so little money, you'll be more rooted in the rat race. All the while telling yourself that the value is going up, or eventually, the mortgage will be paid off. When in reality, you should have put the money in an index fund and spent your time with family, or generating income some other way (overtime, freelancing, second job, side businesses, etc.). You would have been able to retire sooner because you'd have a higher return on your time.

It's sad when I talk to a landlord who's tired from working all the time and don't feel close to retirement despite owning a million dollars worth of rentals. Had they used this 100x rule, they would either be close to retirement, or able to afford to hire someone else to manage the property.

What if I provide a higher down payment to ensure a positive ROI?

You can, but you'll find your ROI drops to the point that you're better off putting the money in an index fund and keeping your weekends free.

But I can't find any properties that meet that rule?

Then wait or look somewhere else. Don't buy just because you have money burning a hole in your pocket. Yes, real estate can be a good investment, but only if you buy at the right price. Which is no more than 100x the monthly rent.

It took us 18 months to find our first deal that met the rule. Our annual ROI is 50%.

Some investors use a higher standard. They only buy places that meet a 50x rule. You can find them in the midwest. It's rare to find those ratios on the coast.

Here are 10 tips for finding cheap houses.

Fair warning: to mee the rule, you'll have to look at properties that need some work. Not necessarily a lot, but some. But that's fine because you're not looking for your dream house. The properties also tend to have been owned for a while, and the current owner is looking to sell for reasons beyond maximizing the sale price. So prepare yourself mentally.

What if I love the neighborhood? Or any other reason other than the ROI?

That's fine, but be honest about it. I get the appeal of wanting to buy your neighbor's house so you can control who lives there. But you might have to be OK with losing money and/or making less than if you put the money into an index fund.

But property values go up over time. So it's OK if I lose money, right?

That's speculation. Ask people who purchased in 2007 how that turned out. Plus, and here's the crucial part: Housing prices tend to rise slower than the stock market. I laugh when people talk about how their house price doubled over the last 10 years, implying they're a financial genius. Cool. So did the stock market without the costs of taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Think about this: if you live in an area where houses don't meet the 100x Rule, not only do you want to avoid buying rentals there, you're better off to rent yourself. That's right, if you did a detailed analysis of living costs, you'd find that it costs more to own a home than to rent when this rule isn't met.

If your goal isn't to minimize your living expenses - perhaps you want to guarantee your kids go to a specific school - then be honest about it. Jessi and I bought the place we're currently living at for multiple non-financial reasons and happily pay the higher mortgage and taxes.

What if I currently own a place that doesn't meet that rule?

Is your goal to maximize your ROI? Be honest. If so, sell it and buy something that meets the rule.

If I came across a property with a possible ROI higher than my lowest performing rental, I'd trade up. Yes, there are advanced strategies to minimize tax liabilities (such as a 1031 exchange), but stay focused on the big picture: If the goal is to maximize your ROI, you should sell a property if it's not performing, especially if it's equal to an index fund. Why bet on a possible future when you know you can get a better return today?

The 100x rule

It's not a perfect rule and doing a detailed analysis is good to do once you're further along. But if more landlords followed this rule, they would have the margins to properly maintain the property, make a significant contribution to their retirement, and avoid many problems that can arise later (like putting up with a bad tenant for too long because you don't want to lose the rent income).

It'll also give the margin to afford a property manager if life changes, and you no longer want to do it all yourself.

That's why we follow this rule when investing in rental and why I think you should too.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Meeting Mickey

We just came back from a trip to the magic kingdom, celebrating Elinor's 4th birthday (Samson is 2). It was a lot of driving, but worth it. We spent most of our time meeting characters and my mom and sister were able to join, which was great. Here are some of my favorite pictures.

We met a lot of princesses.

Plus a bunch of other favorite characters.

Plus some dudes for Samson.

Plus a few rides and other fun things.

I would say 2 years old is the minimum age and 4-7 is perfect to introduce your kids to Disneyland. Two days was also plenty of time because they were worn out by the time we left. We'll be back in a few years and I'm excited for when they're a little taller and can go on some of the bigger rides. Fun times!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Practicing Extreme Ownership

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
It's amazing to me how many things are simple to understand, yet incredibly difficult to practice. Leadership principles fall into this camp. I recently read "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin and there are a couple of things I like about the book.
  1. I got to read about some crazy situations in the war on terror. I'm thankful that none of my work issues are life and death.
  2. Each chapter covers a principle. It starts with a story from Iraq, then gives the principle, then shows an application to business.
  3. Each principle applies to each business, and probably each family, no matter where you are in the organization.
There are 12 principles. Here's a summary of each one. If you lead a group, it's definitely worth reading.

1 Extreme Ownership
"On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win. (p. 30)"

This is a mindset. When something doesn't go as planned, look to yourself first. Especially since you are the only one you can change.

2 No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders
"[W]hen it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards. (p. 54)"

The story in this chapter is awesome - it talks about Seal training and boat races. So intense! What's really cool is if you hold people to a standard they start to self-police and it raises the bar for everyone.

3 Believe
"In order to convince and inspire others to follow and accomplish a mission, a leader must be a true believer in the mission. (p. 76)"

"Far more important than training or equipment, a resolute belief in the mission is critical for any team or organization to win and achieve big results. (p. 77)"

I would add that this isn't a blind belief. It needs to be well-founded and explained.

4 Check the Ego
"When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission's success, performance suffers and failure ensues. (p. 100)"

Also, it's OK if someone else comes up with a better idea. Give them credit and go with it. Counter-intuitively, you gain more respect by being willing to admit there are people smarter than you.

5 Cover and Move
"Cover and Move means teamwork. All elements within the greater team are crucial and must work together to accomplish the mission, mutually supporting one another for that singular purpose. Departments and groups within the team must break down silos, depend on each other and understand who depends on them. (pp. 121-122)"

In battle, this is when you give cover fire while another person moves. One of the ways to make this work is to talk about how you'll be supported and get/make commitments ahead of time.

6 Simple
"Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders are too complicated, people may not understand them. And when things go wrong, and they inevitably do go wrong, complexity compounds issues that can spiral out of control into a total disaster. Plans and orders must be communicated in a manner that is simple, clear, and concise... If your team doesn’t get it, you have not kept things simple and you have failed. You must brief to ensure the lowest common denominator on the team understands. (p. 140)"

This is one I struggle with. My issue is my plans tend to be complex and I don't do a great job of documenting all of it. As a result, it looks "simple" on paper, but in reality, it's complicated. To make matters worse, I don't do a great job of limiting the scope of the work down. This is my focus area.

7 Prioritize and Execute
"[A] leader must remain calm and make the best decisions possible... We verbalize this principle with this direction: "Relax, look around, make a call." Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. (p. 161)"

This reminds me a fantastic book called "The ONE Thing" by Gary Keller where you ask yourself: What's the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

This takes it a step further and talks about it from a leader's perspective, where you then have to impart The One Thing to your team. Here's the exact breakdown of the process:
  • "evaluate the highest priority problem.
  • lay out in simple, clear, and concise terms the highest priority effort for your team.
  • develop and determine a solution, seek input from key leaders and from the team where possible.
  • direct the execution of that solution, focusing all efforts and resources toward this priority task.
  • move on to the next highest priority problem. Repeat.
  • when priorities shift within the team, pass situational awareness both up and down the chain.
  • don’t let the focus on one priority cause target fixation. Maintain the ability to see other problems developing and rapidly shift as needed. (pp. 162-163)"

8 Decentralized Command
"Human beings are generally not capable of managing more than six to ten people, particularly when things go sideways and inevitable contingencies arise... Teams must be broken down into manageable elements of four to five operators, with a clearly designated leader. Those leaders must understand the overall mission, and the ultimate goal of that mission—the Commander’s Intent. (p. 183)"


"They must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions. Without this trust, junior leaders cannot confidently execute, which means they cannot exercise effective Decentralized Command. (p. 184)"

A tactical way of handling this comes from Claire Lew of Signal V. Noise where she encourages managers to STOP solving problems. Instead, she suggests starting with 16 questions to encourage them to solve the problem on their own. One example (#2 on the list) is, "What are the options, potential solutions, and courses of action you’re considering?" The whole article is worth reading.

By empowering the team to solve the problems for themselves, you can reliably break teams into manageable elements and trust that they can solve their own problems.

9 Plan
"Leaders must identify clear directives for the team... [T]he mission must be carefully refined and simplified so that it is explicitly clear and specifically focused to achieve the greater strategic vision for which that mission is a part. (p. 204)"

That goes back to keeping things simple. But that's not just the actions, the why behind the actions needs to simple and understood.

"The frontline troops tasked with executing the mission must understand the deeper purpose behind the mission. While a simple statement, the Commander’s Intent is actually the most important part of the brief. (p. 204)"

"Following a successful brief, all members participating in an operation will understand the strategic mission, the Commander’s Intent, the specific mission of the team, and their individual roles within that mission. They will understand contingencies—likely challenges that might arise and how to respond. The test for a successful brief is simple: Do the team and the supporting elements understand it? (p. 205)"

One of the keys here is asking them to repeat back, in their own words, what needs to be done. I'm good at doing that myself to test my own understanding, but I need to get better at asking others to summarize plans back to me.

I also like the idea of making the plan, and then combined with Decentralized Command, stepping away from all the details. This allows you to come in later with the big picture and seem like a genius because you can see the forest from the trees. I've seen this at my company and it's amazing.

10 Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command
"[L]eading down the chain of command. It requires regularly stepping out of the office and personally engaging in face-to-face conversations with direct reports and observing the frontline troops in action to understand their particular challenges and read them into the Commander’s Intent. (p. 230)"

Bill and Dave of HP made this type of management style famous int he 1970s. There tends to be a trend towards attending more and more meetings and reviews, which doesn't leave time for walking around, but it's critically important.

Going the other direction:

"If your boss isn’t making a decision in a timely manner or providing necessary support for you and your team, don’t blame the boss. First, blame yourself. Examine what you can do to better convey the critical information for decisions to be made and support allocated. (p. 237)"

Another compelling idea from the book is realizing your boss is NOT out to get you. They want you, and the group to succeed. So if they don't seem to be headed in the same direction as you, it's not because they're trying to make your life hard for the fun of it. Instead, they're simply not able to see your point of view or have other considerations. Instead of getting frustrated, talk to them as someone who's on your side.

11 Decisiveness and Uncertainty
"There is no 100 percent right solution. The picture is never complete. Leaders must be comfortable with this and be able to make decisions promptly, then be ready to adjust those decisions quickly based on evolving situations and new information. (p. 254)"

If you chose to wait, you'll find you're playing defense more often than not because decisions will get made for you.

12 Discipline Equals Freedom
"Every leader must walk a fine line. That’s what makes leadership so challenging. Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities, between one extreme and another. The simple recognition of this is one of the most powerful tools a leader has. (p. 274)"

This chapter really is the beginning of another book: "The Dichotomy of Leadership" that talks about finding that balance between contradictory qualities.

Final Thoughts

As you can tell, there are a lot of nuggets to take away from the book. And it comes back to deciding to take ownership of your actions and the outcomes. Like my pre-school teacher taught me: You can't change others, but you can change yourself.

If you're in a leadership position, or a parent, this book has a lot of lessons worth taking to heart.