Oink Fails Fast

From Oink Closure Raises Questions about ‘Fail Fast’ Development:

Oink’s brief three-month stint seems to instead be a case of an extreme version of Google’s ‘fail fast’ mentality, which led to the shuttering of Google Wave and Google Buzz. Those services were provided with quite a bit more time to catch on; Oink’s rapid exit might leave a bad taste in the mouth of some regarding its future products.

Well, I believe the “rapid exit” might be the fast part of “fail fast,” folks….


A Three-Point Scale for Ranking Resumes

I’ve had the good fortune, both back when we had an economy and, less often but more recently, now that we don’t, to be responsible for hiring a fair number of people over my career. I’ve had the even better fortune of hiring some fantastic talent along the way, people who took my expectations and then climbed far past them, who learned from me and — more often — taught me, who I have had an enormous amount of fun with and shared some sadnesses, too, and who I have developed lasting friendships with even long after we’ve parted ways. Hiring is everything. It builds great teams, makes good teams stronger, and provides the personality and drive that sets the table for success. A bad hire slows everyone down, ruins morale, and creates a management problem you don’t need or want.

I’m currently responsible for or a part of two different search committees (thankfully) and was reminded how much my hiring has been influenced by a three-point resume-ranking model I developed about a decade ago. At the time, I needed a simple process primarily because we were hiring so many people and looking at so many resumes. Today, we hire far fewer people but have exponentially more candidates to cull through. In either case, a scale is very useful, and I thought I would share mine in case you find it helpful — or have a better idea to share back.

The Three-Point Scale

The applicant scores one point for achieving each of the following criterion:

  1. She has worked somewhere I have wanted to work. This assessment favors candidates who have worked at desirable employers: Google, Apple, IDEO, Starbucks, Fast Company, a university press, a boutique consulting firm, a successful nonprofit, a small design shop. Places that are desirable to work hire great, interesting people and inspire others to want to work there, which means they can be selective. I like to hire those people, too.
  2. She has worked on a project that sounds interesting or yielded a critical result. You may have worked somewhere that I have never thought of wanting to work or somewhere I may have never heard of, particularly if you are an out-of-town applicant, but maybe you have worked on a cool project: an agile transformation, building software for helicopters, a corporate turn-around, a healthcare research effort, an open-source project. People who work on cool projects either are cool or can become so by working on those projects. I think it was Tom Peters who characterized a career as a series of interesting projects. I want to hire people who have started beading such a string.
  3. She has done something that makes me want to have a real conversation with her. Maybe she went to an interesting school, studied astrophysics, taught poetry to prisoners, played on a collegiate team, won a national rock-paper-scissors contest, wrote a thesis comparing music composition to software development, lived somewhere eccentric or remote, wrote an evocative cover letter. Ideally this point is awarded outside of the first two (just because you’ve worked at Apple doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation with you, though it is likely) and could be considered an extra credit point. At the end of the day, or over lunch, or at the coffee pot, you need to actually be interested in having a conversation with your colleagues, and those with interesting experiences typically have something intriguing to say.

I try not to give half or quarter points and use a simple “0 or 1” assessment for each standard, though I am not a complete stickler and might give a half-point for someone who worked somewhere mildly interesting or on a semi-cool project, especially if we have a large number of resumes to get through and distinguishing among them requires greater precision.

I only use this scale as an initial screening to determine who we want to phone interview. We’re trying to find the five or six folks we want to schedule for a phone call and after that conversation we hope to get down to two or three for in-person interviews. I haven’t kept track of how many perfect threes I’ve actually hired, but I know I’ve rarely hired someone who didn’t score at least a two. Maybe never. And I’ve certainly been disappointed in the interview process by people who were fantastic on paper; not everyone who worked at Apple, ported a major app from C++ to Java in a month singlehandedly, or spends weekends trying to communicate with whales is actually someone who interviews well or will fit the culture of the team. But you need a process, because “[p]rocess is more important than outcome.”

When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

Introducing “Another American Childhood.”

I haven’t done a very good job keeping up with the constant stream of fail fast references and my terse commentary regarding them this year because my blogging time has been spent on another writing endeavor that will probably sound very nineteenth-century: poetry. I spent a lot of time writing in high school, studied literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, and my first career was as a writer and editor in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. I’ve been writing ever since, but my technical career and family life have certainly taken center stage the last 15 years or so.

Back in January when my dad was in the hospital, I instinctively turned to poetry as an outlet, and the idea for organizing some of these random pieces I had collected over the years as a gift for his upcoming 60th birthday came to me as I walked the bright, miserable hospital hallways. I realized I wanted to do something for him that I had never been able to do for my mom, who died in 1997 at the age of 44 after a 20-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

As I started to write and edit in earnest, I realized that, in today’s multimedia world, it would be more interesting to pair the words with images. Given that I happen to know two talented photographers, Dave Limer and Andy Schmitt, I introduced them to the project and was relieved when they agreed to help. We began pairing images with words and, to be honest, I was very surprised how quickly a basic structure came together. We shared some lunches together — seven to be exact — and a lot of emails — about 146 — over the next months, and made many, many revisions. As we neared our deadline, I thought it would be helpful to have someone with an English background review everything, and was lucky to have another literary and creative friend to call on, Michael Slawnik. Dave, Andy, Michael, and I, who work together on a daily basis as technologists, pulled everything together in time to print one copy of the book for my dad’s birthday in mid-August. It was a great day.

Early on in the process, I thought of expanding this project as a charitable effort to benefit MS, which has impacted my family in a way that is still unraveling itself. I had originally chosen Blurb as the publishing solution we would use because they print beautiful books, but the idea was concretized when I learned of their Blurb for Good program, which donates a portion of their own fees to your fundraising effort. Their technology and philanthropic model are fantastic.

I’m very happy to finally and publicly introduce Another American Childhood to you. Navigate the poems and photos on the website. Check out the page-by-page preview of the book. Buy a copy or donate directly to the MS Society if you can. And join the conversation on Facebook, where, over the next 16 weeks, we’ll be discussing the poems and photographs in order to give you a little of their background and the behind-the-scenes fun we had pulling this all together.

Any support you can give will mean more than you can imagine.

Fail Fast with Agile

A nice article yesterday from Aaron Erickson about the relationship — I would go as far as to say the symbiotic relationship — of agile software development and failure. He provides an overview of methods to identify a failing project and metrics that can help discern failure as quickly as possible. To quote:

Failing fast doesn’t just save us money. The cold reality is that people don’t like working on failing projects. When a project is failing, people generally can smell it in the air. Employee engagement goes down, turnover goes up, and things just generally get worse. The best thing to do — for your people, for your company — is to learn to fail, and create a culture that learns from failure.

I heartily agree, though I would emphasize that failure doesn’t have to relate to the entire project, and ideally it doesn’t. You could fail fast on an architectural approach, a feature, a graphic design, or an idea. As Alan Cooper recently wrote:

Generally, ideas are cheap and plentiful, therefore so are good ideas. Unfortunately, bad ideas are the most plentiful of all. While success depends on developing good ideas, consistently successful companies and individuals are skilled at both identifying and discarding bad ideas to devote resources to the good ones…. You have to be tough enough to nurture your idea to the point where its fatal flaws become visible, then ruthlessly put it out of your misery. The author William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”

Good night, darling.

The Best Coffee in Traverse City

Two summers ago, we migrated my family from our metro Detroit home to Traverse CIty, roughly 240 miles, so I could take a new job at the idyllic Interlochen Center for the Arts. Deciding to accept the position was easy; selling our house in Troy was surprisingly easy, too (at an economy-adjusted loss, of course, but any sale in which the seller didn’t have to write a check was considered a win at the time — and still is); leaving our family and friends was naturally the hardest.

Another non-trivial consideration was the availability of coffee and coffeeshops. Despite all the press over the last few years, Detroit is still a thriving area in many ways, and, certainly in the northern suburbs, a Starbucks is never far away. After living and working there my entire life, every route I took was subconsciously optimized to ensure that the easy acquisition of a Starbucks was a certainty. Every morning, I was there. Many important meetings were held in its jazz-infused interiors. I would send people on “Starbuck runs” around 2pm to provide some sparkle to a lingering afternoon or some energy for a late night. Traverse City, while one of the only economically growing regions in the Great Lakes, is a much smaller town, and there is only one Starbucks on the map — located in Meijer, no less. Could we — could I — survive after over a decade of more than one Starbucks a day?

The Siren Call

My own love of coffee began in Ann Arbor in the early 90s, when I was a literature student at the University of Michigan. Before then, the coffee in my life was over-adulterated with sugar and milk, more or less a bastardized form of hot chocolate. But, in Ann Arbor, every morning as I walked past Espresso Royale on the way to Angell Hall, the downtown streets alive in a way only a college town’s can be, the aroma of coffee beckoned through the crowds to me. Suddenly, the drink that had been an astringent, bitter, burnt drink from a worn Mr. Coffee at home had a new, cosmopolitan, out-on-the-town character. As I continued my twice-daily walks past the coffeeshop, I became more and more interested in the evident happiness of the students walking out with their double-cupped treasure. One afternoon on the way back from classes, I caught the silhouette of the iconic Professor Williams sitting at the counter, accompanied by a book as thick as a couch cushion and a tall cup of coffee. Sensing an opportunity, I stepped inside to small talk, ordered a coffee, and the rest is my caffeinated history.

One thing to note about the coffee I am talking about is that I am not focused on what my fast Canadian friend Tim Purdie calls a Fivebucks: A custom foo-foo latte or mocha (though Espresso Royale does offer what I consider to be the best mocha you can find). When I describe my favorite drink, I am talking about a freshly-ground, perfectly-hot, black-as-night, strong-as-acid coffee with absolutely nothing added to it. I don’t mean to sound Frasier-Crane-snobbish, but in the end this is what coffee is to me: simple, pure, austere. If you have to put something in it to make it taste better, it isn’t coffee to me. If you prefer it all laced up with other ingredients, that is okay, too — the soul of another is a dark forest — but the specific coffee for which I search and yearn is clear water brewed with beans, served quickly, sipped slowly. Aaah.

The Local Coffee Scene

As it turns out, there are a lot of coffeeshops in Traverse City; it is a beautiful area — I would argue the most beautiful in Michigan — with a small downtown that balances tourist-oriented businesses with art galleries, restaurants, and clothing and home stores. After two years of trying each of these coffees with a scientific but casual approach, I finally feel comfortable sharing my preferences, especially as you may be looking forward to a TC trip this summer or fall. (And, if you aren’t, you really should plan one. The coffee is on me.)

And so, in ascending order, here are the three best places to get a coffee in TC:

#3: Starbucks

Thankfully, there is a true Starbucks in Traverse City. Sadly, it is in a Meijer. It has no windows. It does not play jazz. Its only view is of the produce section. The majority of clientele, as in many parts of this region, are retirees. But, the coffee really is Starbucks, the baristas are extremely nice and learned my drink by heart within a week (I have now checked in there 150 times on Foursquare), and you can use your Starbucks Gold Card with a little bit of effort. Having to walk through the automatic doors into a grocery-store setting to get your coffee isn’t the general vibe that you are looking for when looking for Starbucks, but if you need your fix, you need your fix. I would say that either the water or the mix of coffee creates a less-bold brew than I am used to, but if you are looking for a Starbucks as you drive up the bay to a winery or secluded beach, this is the place.

#2: Frenchies

Photo by Andrew Schmitt.

Frenchies Famous and their new sign. How can you not want to go in?

Ah, Frenchies Famous, now we are getting somewhere. Frenchies is a little gemlike oasis in an off-the-beaten-path part of town, within a straight 3-iron shot of the bay. Much has been written about the fantastic food and the interesting story of its owners, but their coffee deserves at least equal billing. Most importantly, they offer the type of royal coffee that is not always easy to find: French press. This is the sort of coffee you make at home for good friends and, given the petite interior (it seats 10) and friendly atmosphere, you’ll likely feel like you are at an eccentric artist friend’s house, perhaps arguing about existentialism again, while you wait for your brew at Frenchies. Though a bit away from the downtown scene, if you are heading to the water after or for lunch, Frenchies is a perfect place to stop for a sandwich and a great, great coffee. (And look like a local by going into the door on the right side under the “Coffee” sign; don’t try the front door! Oh, and don’t forget to grab a pastry or other sweet near the register.)

#1: Morsels

Photo by Andrew Schmitt.

Tiny little Morsels is hardly more than a lean-to, but the coffee fills the space with verve.

I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to try the coffee at Morsels; I had always thought that it was a bakery more than a cafe. By accident, one morning as I was driving by I noticed a sign I hadn’t before: Intelligentsia Coffee. From a holistic brand perspective, the 22% of my heart dedicated to coffee is still wedded to Starbucks, but I had read about Intelligentsia, was interested in their story, and was thrilled to have an opportunity to finally try their coffee as brewed by professionals.

I was not disappointed. Or perhaps I should say that I was disappointed in myself for not walking through their doors sooner. The dark roast that Morsels brews is smooth, vibrant, and just a touch smokey (the good kind of smokey). The people in this ultra-tiny restaurant-bakery-cafe are extremely friendly as well. If you are in downtown TC and Morsels is open, you have no excuse to drink coffee anywhere else, including the many other coffee shops within walking distance. Grab a coffee and some of their signature bite-sized bakery morsels, sit on their outside patio or go for a stroll, and consider yourself lucky to live in a world where such fine coffee, great downtowns, and beautiful scenery — peeking at you from just around the corner — dare to exist.

[Update: As of the spring of 2012, Morsels has moved a few blocks east on Front Street.]

[Photos courtesy of my buddy and Interlochen-colleague Andrew Schmitt, who needs to get off his duff and pull together his website.]

Learning Effective Failure

Many thanks to Chris Mero for the reference to this short interview with Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist from Arizona State University. Given that “theoretical physicist” was one of the careers I really wanted to pursue, I have a natural soft spot for this podcast. The fact that it also includes this quote doesn’t hurt:

But I think we do a much better job and a much better service to our students if we try and teach our students to fail more effectively.

How to Fail

A little wisdom from Mr. Godin to get your Monday off to a strong start. I particularly like the last suggestion:

When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.