I finished the book Mastery by Robert Greene. It studies the lives of different successful people (masters), and abstracts what makes them so by going through specific phases that the author defines as the road to mastery.

While some parts are very true, like the part where he describes how naïve one is when entering the workforce, the importance of the apprenticeship phase and committing to objectives for long time (which is confirmed in many other places like Grit, and Outliers…etc), and the final step where masters put their own touch over what they learned during the apprenticeship phase to become masters themselves.

What I didn’t like is the book is very long. It can be summarized in less than 100 pages. The most annoying part for me was how the author narrates the details of the stories of these historical figures as if he was there. He keeps describing how they felt and what they said to themselves. Most of these figures have no written biographies and most of the details are from the author’s imagination.

I was talking about this with Shreef, he said he considers Greene’s stories as fiction. He looks at the stories as a way to explain the concepts on real scenarios. This sounds like a fair point. Maybe I took the author literally.

Here is a part from the book about entering the work force:

In childhood we are inculcated in culture through a long period of dependency — far longer than any other animal. During this period we learn language, writing, math, and reasoning skills, along with a few others. Much of this happens under the watchful and loving guidance of parents and teachers. As we get older, greater emphasis is placed on book learning — absorbing as much information as possible about various subjects. Such knowledge of history, science, or literature is abstract, and the process of learning largely involves passive absorption. At the end of this process (usually somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25) we are then thrust into the cold, harsh work world to fend for ourselves.

When we emerge from the youthful state of dependency, we are not really ready to handle the transition to an entirely independent phase. We carry with us the habit of learning from books or teachers, which is largely unsuited for the practical, self-directed phase of life that comes next. We tend to be somewhat socially naïve and unprepared for the political games people play. Still uncertain as to our identity, we think that what matters in the work world is gaining attention and making friends. And these misconceptions and naïveté are brutally exposed in the light of the real world.

If we adjust over time, we might eventually find our way; but if we make too many mistakes, we create endless problems for ourselves. We spend too much time entangled in emotional issues, and we never quite have enough detachment to reflect and learn from our experiences. The apprenticeship, by its very nature, must be conducted by each individual in his or her own way. To follow precisely the lead of others or advice from a book is self-defeating. This is the phase in life in which we finally declare our independence and establish who we are. But for this second education in our lives, so critical to our future success, there are some powerful and essential lessons that we all can benefit from, that can guide us away from common mistakes and save us valuable time.

These lessons transcend all fields and historical periods because they are connected to something essential about human psychology and how the brain itself functions. They can be distilled into one overarching principle for the Apprenticeship Phase, and a process that loosely follows three steps.

The principle is simple and must be engraved deeply in your mind: the goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character — the first transformation on the way to mastery. You enter a career as an outsider. You are naïve and full of misconceptions about this new world. Your head is full of dreams and fantasies about the future. Your knowledge of the world is subjective, based on emotions, insecurities, and limited experience. Slowly, you will ground yourself in reality, in the objective world represented by the knowledge and skills that make people successful in it. You will learn how to work with others and handle criticism. In the process you will transform yourself from someone who is impatient and scattered into someone who is disciplined and focused, with a mind that can handle complexity. In the end, you will master yourself and all of your weaknesses.

This has a simple consequence: you must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come — far more than the paltry increase in pay you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers fewer learning opportunities. This means that you move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress. You do not choose apprenticeships that seem easy and comfortable.

The elevator apocalypse

Yesterday there was almost an elevators apocalypse in Berlin. I wanted to take the U6 from Oranienburgertor and the elevator was broken. 

I opened Google maps and found an alternative. Walk 5 minutes, take the S25 from Oranienburgerstr. I walked, arrived, broken elevator. 

By this time I lost hope and decided to go home. I walked to Hackechermarkt, took the elevator, then S to Fredrichestr. I had to switch again to take the U6, broken elevator.

S again towards Alexanderplatz, had to switch multiple times until I got home.

This day reminds me of similar days in Cairo. When the traffic is so bad that no cab driver agree to pick me up (in Egypt the cab driver has to accept your destination before you get in the car, and in case you are thinking, public transportation isn’t wheelchair accessible). Some days ended up well, like the day a driver picked me up and when we arrived he didn’t take the money. He said he was on his way home and he wasn’t out for work! Other days I had to wait for hours or having to call someone to pick me up. 

Then Uber came. I no longer have to have someone go with me to stop a cab, and I no longer have to be at the mercy of drivers mood and where they want to go. Uber put an order to the chaos I used to live in.

Yesterday was like my Egyptian days, maybe this time before autonomous cars come and I no longer have to take elevators. 

These days are reminders to why I am grateful and excited for technology. Many years ago someone couldn’t go up to their home until elevators were invented. Today I couldn’t take the elevator to the train, in a near future this will no longer be a problem. Thanks to technology, and software eating the world.

Advice to a new PM

A friend of a friend started his first job as a product manager, he asked me what would be my advice to him, I decided to share it here 

  • Meet everyone you can. Make friends. 
  • Start with why?
  • Too much data will kill you. Signal vs noise.
  • Drive new insights continuously, by them you will shall make great products.
  • Question everything. Take nothing for granted.
  • Know when to say no stakeholders, team, and customers (hardest part of the job). 
  • “How do you know?” A powerful question. Helps many times.
  • Manage expectations.
  • Do your best, plan for the worst.
  • Above all, know more about the product and customers than everyone else.

Instagram reactivation

I deleted Instagram from my phone. Few days later they sent me an email with photos from my news feed and a link to download the app.  

I wonder if they are able to track users who uninstalled the app, or the email is triggered based on lack of activity for long.

I am always impressed by Facebook’s engagement loops. They never miss an opportunity to engage or reengage users.

German Sewage

When I visited Germany for the first time coming from Amsterdam, I told my friend while walking in Dusseldorf why does it smell like sewage? My friend couldn’t smell the odor although he lived there. 

Now that I live in Berlin, I smell this more often. Especially on warm days.

Doing some research it turned to be a well known problem. One of the main reasons is German water saving habits. Water saving technology is becoming mainstream in every household that Germans now consume much less water (for example modern showerheads insert more air into the water to make you consume less). 

This results in not enough water running through the sewage system to flush all the waste, which results in that smell that gets stronger in summer.

I wonder what’s the effect of this bad smell and the bacteria in the air molecules on people’s health. If by saving more water more people are getting sick, then we need to reconsider this decision.

Brain Junk vs Brain Nutrition

This morning a friend sent me this link to a Jim Cramer CNBC interview with the CEO of a company called Talend. I told my friend this is what I consider “Brain Junk”.

I first heard the phrase from Naval of AngelList on the knowledge project podcast. I really like it because for long, I didn’t have a term to describe such things.

My friend asked why I consider this as brain junk?

Because it focuses on what’s on the surface vs the underlying truth and complexities behind the topic of the discussion. When you look at the questions he asked and the answers the other guy replied, you can’t derive any conclusion on whether this company is good or bad.

“[Rephrasing] How do you win against Microsoft and Oracle? We are more agile, better technically, and have better pricing” what does this mean? Do they have technology that the other folks can’t compete with? Maybe they just didn’t go after him yet, or the pie is too small, or maybe he is right and after a great opportunity. But this 5 minutes interview doesn’t tell you anything beyond what you can read in a tweet summarizing the earnings.

The second reason I consider this brain junk is that it is almost never contrarian to the public sentiment. It is called mainstream media because it is “mainstream” and everyone knows it. Sometimes it is insightful, but my heuristic is if it is insightful enough, one of my information sources will get it in front of me.

Interesting things and ideas are in places where there is less noise. Where nobody is paying attention, and no one cares.

That’s why I try to avoid brain junk and focus on getting more “brain nutrition”. I have some rules and heuristics for doing this. It took me years to build these filters and it is an always evolving process. That’s why I am currently happy with my information diet, that’s a topic for another post.

Front end engineers

Finding good engineers is generally hard and competitive. But I don’t know why I am getting the feeling that finding front end engineers is even harder.

Few signs to this is the time it takes to fill front end positions vs back end even that front end positions are generally less. Another sign I see is some companies increasing employees referral bonuses for front end positions than back end.

I think part of this problem is that students are generally taught that back end is the real engineering, while front end is a work of designers.

I don’t know what other reasons might lead to this and I am not sure if the industry should work actively to close this gap. I am just writing this as food for thought.

The business model of the internet

In the 80s there was a popular Egyptian movie called “Ya Rab Walad”. “Dear God, a boy please”. The story is about a wood merchant who has three girls and going through the challenges of being the father of the girls within the Egyptian society.

One of my favorite quotes in the movie is Farid Shawky’s business slogan 

Profit a little, sell more, profit much more

اكسب قليل تبيع كتير تكسب أكتر

I remembered this today as I was discussing what’s the best way to achieve some revenue targets, given you don’t control pricing on the marketplace. 

I think it is very hard to sell the more expensive stuff on the internet. If customers are buying the cheapest, sell them more of it, or sell to more customers. Of course you can highlight the more expensive items to price insensitive customers, but those are not the majority.

Snap: A camera company

One thing I noticed with my teenage sister is that when she wants to take a photo, she doesn’t open the camera app on her iPhone. She opens Snapchat. 

Even if she won’t post the picture, she snaps it with Snapchat and saves it to the phone memory.

This isn’t the case with Instagram where the default when you open the app is content consumption. 

This gave me an eureka moment on what it means to truly be “a camera company”.

Finding the flight location in the air

Yesterday I was on a flight from Cairo to Berlin. Half way through I wanted to know how long until we land. The information screen was frozen, telling us we are still in Cairo and heading somewhere else. 

What most people don’t know is that the GPS chip on your phone needs no network/internet to get your location. So I opened Google maps, waited a bit, and successfully found we are above Czech republic.

Finding your location using the phone GPS should always work without a connection/sim card as long as you turn off the airplane mode. What needs a connection is the map details (as long as you didn’t store it offline) to tell you exactly where you are.

Luckily my phone cached this part of the world since I use it a lot, which made me able to know we are in Czech republic. For example in the screenshot below, it only cached the eastern half of Germany, that’s why you see city names only on the eastern part.

If you want to know how satellite navigation on your phone works, you can watch this five minutes video. Next time you are stuck without a connection and want to know your location, just use your phone.