Taking a Moonshot

I shared a few takeaways on IT projects in the recent Reid Hoffman post and I’ve just come across some more gems in a post by Astro Teller, the guy who runs the Google[x] group. Here they are:

Speaking of self-driving cars,

But this real-world testing taught us something that steered us off that path we’d been on… Expecting a person to be a reliable backup for the system was a fallacy. Once people trust the system, they trust it… We came quickly to the conclusion that we needed to make it clear to ourselves that the human was not a reliable backup  —  the car had to always be able to handle the situation. And the best way to make that clear was to design a car with no steering wheel 

Decisions like this act as a catalyst to move beyond the design phase of a project. Doing something extreme will draw out objections that allow you to validate your requirements and design and these objections show how people intend to use the system, how much they’re prepared to trust the system and and what would need to change to deepen that trust. It’s valuable to be explicit about your assumptions and to be prepared to take your assumptions to their logical end. If you do that, you’ll often find that you can simplify your design, shed some historical baggage, and produce a product that better fits the requirements.

On the psychology (and value) of end-user feedback

The faster you can get your ideas in contact with the real world, the faster you can discover what is broken with your idea. Seeking out contact with the real world means hearing and seeing things you don’t want to hear and see  —  because they’re discouraging and disheartening when you’re pouring your all into something. But better to learn that after a few days then after a few months. The more work you do before you get the learning, the more painful the learning will be, and the more you’ll unconsciously avoid those learning moments.

My first reaction to this quote was to start justifying why I should keep my products closed until they’re finished (enough). Keeping them closed means that nobody has a chance to second guess me, or try to change the scope. Now, managing a stream of requests while you’re trying to actually deliver something is a challenge but as long as you can maintain focus, and see feedback in the context of the bigger picture and if the act of sharing doesn’t consume much time, opening up the product will be valuable.

Sharing and honestly seeking feedback makes you vulnerable. Allowing yourself to become vulnerable is hard. We (developers, ops engineers, product managers, designers etc) are in the business of creating, and creating is a personal thing and few people enjoy giving others an chance to not like something they’ve created. It’s easy to get offended when someone gives feedback, but we can’t afford to if we’re truly going to be effective in producing a product that actually helps others.

Here’s the full article, How to Make Moonshots - it’s an interesting 10-15 minute read.

10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman

Ben Casnocha, quoting the LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman:

If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.”

Be more aggressive in the features that you cut or postpone in your products, particularly early in their life.

And on being identifying levels of engagement on a project:

  • Principal – You’re driving the process. You’re the man. You have ball control.
  • Board Member – You’re probably an investor. You’re regularly meeting with the principal. You’re thinking about the project even when you’re not formally scheduled to be doing so. You’re continually up to speed on the latest and greatest.
  • Investor – You’re a supporter (financially or with periodic bursts of time), but you’re not actively involved in the project. You’ll meet with the principal occasionally. If you’re called to do something, you have enough context such that you can be helpful on a reactive basis, but you won’t have up to date knowledge.
  • Friend. You enjoy talking to the principal. But the moment you walk away from the breakfast or lunch – that’s it. You’re not thinking about it anymore.

It’s a half-hour read, but it’s worth it.

10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman

Avalon Airshow 2015

Recently, my wife and I took our boys to the Avalon Airshow and we had a great time. We stayed in South Yarra, which had lovely views of Melbourne City.

Early morning hot air balloons

The food was wonderful too - the best coffee was from Elephant Stamp Espresso (Yarra St, South Yarra), my favourite food was a Kong Pau from Dainty Sichuan (Toorak Rd, South Yarra) that transported me back to Shanghai. My wife loved the Carbonara from Versachi’s.

As for the Airshow, we had fun but the boys ran out of steam before the day was out so we missed out on some close-ups of the combined assault simulation that showed all the Australian Defence Force (ADF) aircraft in action. I saw it at the 2011 Airshow and it’s one of the highlights - if you find yourself at an Avalon Airshow and there are ADF planes listed back-to-back on the program, chances are it’s one of these simulations and you should make your way forward so you can get a good view.

Here’s a few shots to give you a feel for the day. The whole album is available (23 photos) as is the 2011 Airshow Album (33 photos).

An F-22 static display:


Formation flying by F-16s from the Singapore Air Force:

F-16 formation flying (Singapore Air Force)

The KC-30 aerial refuelling plane (that flew later in the day):

KC-30 tanker

Airplane mode for the undisciplined

I have trouble moderating my intake on the internet, particularly during my 90 minute commute to work. When I’m online, new and interesting content is easily accessible which means I don’t get to the books that I’ve bought, the emails that need a reply, the half-written blog posts, the programming projects or the interesting long-form articles that I’ve already saved for reading. Of course, new content isn’t bad, it just has diminishing returns and unfettered access to it, with my level of discipline, is a hindrance to doing everything else.

While I’d love to have the discipline to say no without any help, it’s more important to actually move forward, so unless I actually need (yes, need, not just want) to access something online, my iPad is in Airplane Mode (with WiFi and Bluetooth enabled i.e. no 4G data). My RSS feeds, Instapaper articles and email all automatically sync when connected to my home WiFi and work WiFi, so I do stay up-to-date, but only in batch mode.

Using Apps that are compatible with this workflow is important, and I’ve chosen them, where possible, so that they can operate in offline mode. This means that I can still process things that I’ve downloaded, but can’t get access to any more. Here are a few that I use that have some level of offline support:

  • RSS: Mr Reader
  • Long form reading: Instapaper
  • Email: iOS Mail (composing, but not deleting)
  • Writing: Evernote and Textastic (iCloud sync)

The internet isn’t the problem, I’m the problem, but this is one way that I can make sure the internet serves me, and not the other way around. I’ve tried to work this way for about 6 months, and while I sometimes fall back into old habits, it’s definitely been a win.

The Martian

I just finished reading The Martian, by Andy Weir and it was captivating. The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe on Mars cum Apollo 13 story full of engineering problems and creative technical solutions with an entertaining monologue. It’s a physics and chemistry lab-book fused with a personal journal and snippets of a technical design document and I found it to be suspenseful, believable and interesting throughout.

Now, where did those two days go?