What are you optimizing for?

Recently this is becoming one of my most favorite questions. Whether it is product or life, knowing what someone is optimizing for is key to making the right decision.

I start to feel wary when people give me multiple contradicting answers. Optimizing for multiple things in the opposite direction ends up with nothing, or at best with something mediocre.

Everything carries a risk, and our brains try to protect us by telling us not to let go of what we already have, which leads to “try to do everything” syndrome, or loss aversion at all costs.

Breakthroughs only happen by exploring new territories, and failures are data points for next steps.

The side less talked about: Benefits of Uber’s aggressiveness

I was hesitant before publishing this. It can be interpreted as I fully agree with the tactics or some of the other bad things Uber did. I don’t.

One less talked about side of Uber’s aggressiveness – especially with cities and their officials – is that it paved the way to making ride sharing mainstream. I would also argue Uber’s aggressiveness  is one of the factors that helped local competitors survive.

Uber’s sneaky tactics, lobbying power, and almost infinite cash combined with the convenience of the service, and global experience made them able to take the first hits (regulatory, Cab drivers…etc). Local competitors wouldn’t have survived those hits if it wasn’t for Uber.

If Uber was founded by an Egyptian team based in Cairo, they would’ve been sent to jail because of threatening national security by using GPS technology to track citizens and sending this information to foreign governments. But when this is done by a US based company, sending its senior vice president to Egypt to announce investing $250 million dollars in MENA region amid an Egyptian economic crisis, it changes the whole game, and it paves the way for the local competitor to catch their breath and focus on growth.

Some of Uber’s tactics might be unethical/illegal to some, but we can’t deny that in some cases they were necessary, and led to greater good opening thousands of opportunities to people in poor economies. And if you oppose those tactics because they are illegal, remember that the whole concept of ride sharing was once illegal.

Never Split the Difference

One of the books I finished recently is “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss. He used to lead the FBI’s international hostage negotiation team. In the book he gives his best negotiation advice having spent a career negotiating people’s lives.

Negotiation is hard. I once tried reading “Getting to yes”. I couldn’t get beyond chapter 1. It was following a typical rational process while the reality of a negotiation is much more irrational and complex.

I liked the mental model Chris created for negotiations. The model has basic principles, supported by tactics to help you achieve the negotiation goals, without diverting from the principles.

Some of the principles

  • Great negotiators go in with a sit of hypotheses about the counterpart’s desires and emotions. They try to validate these hypotheses throughout the negotiation process, and discover black swans.
  • The problem is the issue, not the person behind the table.
  • Be willing to walk away. No deal is better than a bad deal.

As for the tactics, for every tactic he explained the psychological basis for it. This make things easier as it made me understand the why behind each of the them.

What I didn’t like about the book is it could’ve been better organized.

I listened to it more than 5 times and was taking notes. Some of the topics were repetitive, and some chapters had a lengthy introduction (sometimes more than half of the chapter) before going into the core of the topic.

Some important topics were just mentioned between the lines (like when and how to shake the other party), sometimes out of context with no proper introduction like the other tactics.

In general it is my best read of 2017. I highly recommend it.

What people miss when evaluating their year

Almost everyone I know is reflecting on the year ending today. Most of them think it wasn’t good.

I beg to differ. Not because I had a fantastic year, that’s not true. I had my share of stress and bad days. I just don’t measure my year this way.

“I view myself as a piece of software, today’s version must be better than yesterday’s version, because there is a cliche life is too short why live the same day twice, and tomorrow’s version has to be better than today’s.

Even though I make mistakes, the mistakes are important opportunity to learn. So you can imagine the software will have more ‘if statements’, so that when similar situations happen, you will avoid those.” – Qi Lu, Ex-Microsoft veteran and the current  Baidu COO

That last statement by Qi is how I measure my year.

Most of the people I know are not happy by the year’s results because they look at individual events, rather than looking at the number of learnings or the number of added ‘if statements’.

Another point people miss when evaluating the year is the fact that most success in life comes from compounding. That’s why one year is both too long and too short. It takes time to see the results of today’s investments. Be patient.

Now, look at this ending year and ask yourself “How many ‘if statements’ did I add?”. It is more than you think.

Happy New Year!

You are naive

A friend of mine recently said “I decided to be naive” . My answer was “You are naive”.

Naivete is about knowing unknown unknowns. Unknown unknowns are things you don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know them.

The naive kid who touches fire doesn’t know heat exists, and it hurts. And the naive entrepreneur who starts a business doesn’t know how bad things could get until they do.

When we find out those unknown unknowns, we realize how naive we were when we didn’t know they might exist.

Naivete has two interesting characteristics: It is always present, but only realized in hindsight.

There are always unknown unknowns, and because they are unknown unknowns, we can’t find them out, because we don’t know what to search for. This is what makes naivete always present.

And when we realize the unknown unknowns, their state changes from unknown unknowns to a different state. Only then we realize how naive we “were”, which is why we can’t relize naivete in the present. This realization only happens in hindsight.

You might think standing still protects from your naivete by avoiding unknown unknowns. This is a common fallacy, because you might realize your inaction was a result of your naivete trying to avoid consequences that were only in your head. Again, another example of not knowing unknown unknowns.

I hope I could explain what’s on my head. It is a bit hard to wrap your head around it let alone writing it down.

What you don’t know that you don’t know?

Cautious optimism

I am an optimist by default. There are many reasons for this but that’s for a different discussion.

Growing up in Egypt I had to watch a lot of news. There was no satellite TV and you had to watch whatever being force fed to you. News was like a bad appetizer before a movie, a cartoon, or any good thing you want to watch.

One unforgettable line that was almost playing every night is that the American president – regardless of who he is – always feels “cautious optimism” (يشعر بالتفاؤل المشوب بالحذر) towards the middle east.

When I am recently asked how do you feel? I am mostly answering that I feel like the American president. Cautious optimism.

As diplomatic as it sounds, I see it a better version than absolute optimism. Maybe it is a sign of growing up, maybe of becoming less optimistic, or maybe both.

I don’t know.

The perfect echo chamber

I used to criticize Facebook for creating an echo chamber. My argument was – as almost every one else – that Facebook should show users what is right, not what they agree with.

I overestimated the level of transparency the internet brings. When the political events were happening in Egypt and the local media was hiding the truth, I thought as soon as every one joins Facebook/twitter the truth will be revealed. I was wrong. It happened to some extent, but the echo chambers were much stronger.

One of the main drivers of hostility on the internet is people seeing their core beliefs being attacked. Regardless of the side, seeing something we disagree with triggers our survival response and hence we become hostile to the adversary.

I am recently giving this a lot of thought. I started to think Facebook shouldn’t try to avoid echo chambers, it should strive to create the perfect one.

If you have the perfect echo chamber and only see the things you agree with, you won’t feel the internet is unsafe as it is now. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but this behavior is why people are moving more towards private conversations.

That being said, it makes me question why we don’t have this until now, this is what I could think of

  • Nobody thought of it. I highly doubt.
  • It is not technically feasible. I also doubt to some extent.
  • It drives engagement down. If we only see things we agree with, we are less likely to engage with the content. Less engagement means less time spent on site, less ads to be served, and less money to be made.

That’s my theory.


Many of my friends want to start blogging. They ask me where to start. I tell everyone I have a few simple rules I keep in mind when writing.

“Real Artists Ship” – Steve Jobs

The key to commit to writing is to hit the publish button. Most people don’t write out of the fear their posts won’t be liked. Here is a surprise: nobody is reading what you write, and nobody will share what you write saying they don’t like it.

There is a second reason to shipping, the only way to get better at anything is to actually do it. The more you do it, the more mistakes you make, which leads to becoming better.

“Anything you say may be used against you” – The Miranda warning

This is one of the traps I fell into multiple times. Opinions are not safe on the internet. I think before publishing any post, if my position has changed, can this post harm me in any way? If the answer is yes, I don’t publish.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time” – Leo Tolstoy

Things take time. Don’t expect to an audience from day one. I used to focus on how many people are reading what I write. I slowly adapted the mentality of doing it for myself, and for helping others. Not having Facebook also helped.

One of the most joyful moments is when someone messages me because they benefited from something I wrote. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is great.

Hit publish.

Shoe Dog

I recently finished the memoir of Nike’s founder Phil Knight. I didn’t know it is pronounced “Nikee” and not “Nike like Bike”.

It is a clear story of passion and persistence. The book reminds me of “The hard thing about hard things” by Ben Horowitz. It has the same pattern of a series of ups and downs with extremes on both ends. The main difference I felt was Phil’s story was more personal. He talked more about how he felt and what was he thinking when things were happening. It kinda makes you feel in his shoe.

It is a story of mastery. Starting the company with his three decades older coach is a great example of the evolution from apprenticeship to mastery. They both had passion for shoes and running. Phil had the energy, while Bowerman had the experience that made him innovate on shoe designs. I feel envious he was this lucky to find such a mentor.

The book is well written and worth the time. There are countless quotes to share but those two are the ones I liked the most.

  • “We’re also finishing construction on a new athletic facility, which we plan to dedicate to our mothers, Dot and Lota. On a plaque next to the entrance will go an inscription: Because mothers are our first coaches.”
  • “When goods don’t pass international borders, soldiers will. Though I’ve been known to call business war without bullets, it’s actually a wonderful bulwark against war. Trade is the path of coexistence, cooperation. Peace feeds on prosperity.”


Every time someone says we should use Net Promoter Score I get a feeling of irritation. It is neither a metric that tells you something you can act on, nor a KPI that indicates the health of your product.

It is biased. Those who buy will be promoters, and those who don’t will be detractors.

It is lagging. In the online world you instantly see the drop in sales, engagement, or whatever core metric you are optimizing, before sending out a survey to customers asking them about the likelihood of recommending the product.

It is non-actionable. The NPS score is a result of multiple core metrics coming together. Successful companies monitor core metrics closely. If some of these metrics get better while others get messed up, it is hard to justify the change in the NPS without looking at each of the core metrics separately.

NPS – most of the time – just creates distraction. Focus on the core metrics is more actionable, and leads to better results.

If you are looking for alternatives to NPS, I think the closest metrics are retention, and virality coefficient. Those two reflect actual product usage, they are actionable, and don’t have the vanity of asking someone “Would you do this?”.