Thoughts on current events

Remote work sucks big time. I met a neighbor yesterday who is like me not from Germany and he was saying social life will be affected greatly, we were joking as if it was missing one more hit and being in Berlin wasn’t enough.

On the bright side of remote work, I don’t have to go from 9th floor to the 2nd to use the accessible bathroom every time I need to. When is Germany going to change the laws on this?

As a pranoid person I don’t like the aspect of remote work where a lot of communication happens in writing. Writing misses the nuances and doesn’t allow for much off the record freedom. I am surprised by how much said that would cause so much trouble in writing.

I am avoiding twitter these days. Too much panicking and negativity.

On the virus side there is a lot to be worried about. There is my family in Egypt which isn’t equiped to handle this. There is me who is a high risk case due to respiratory and heart condition. And there is the economy that’s currently collapsing. Unfortunately one can’t do much about this and it is hard to stop the mind from worrying about them.

That’s it for now.

Just do something on paint

A practice I noticed Amazon doing on few pages of the website is just using a dirty image to communicate something instead of doing proper HTML.

Since those are mostly internal pages for logged in users, I doubt they do this to avoid scraping or something. It looks to me they are just being frugal on resources and someone on the team would just open Microsoft paint and do something.

I like it. It is counterintuitive. And that’s why they are worth a trillion.

Notes on Germany

One of the reasons I don’t like posts like this one is because people use it to support a black and white narrative. I don’t like this however, I decided to write it to save my time in the future and more importantly, to create a gravitational field around me of people who will read it and drive interesting discussions or correct me if I am wrong, which is equally valuable.

It is puzzling to me how in the German ethos of individual freedom the state has the right to decide what’s right for you, even if it has nothing to do with anyone in the society.

Let’s take the example of the TV tower in Berlin. Anyone living here know they can buy a ticket and go up to enjoy the view. What you don’t know is that people on wheelchairs are not allowed to go up. The justification is that the building has a single elevator which should be reserved for the fire department in case of fire. Even if I want to waive my right to be saved in case of fire, I simply can’t.

On my birthday I went to watch a movie with a friend, I asked the guy at the tickets counter to reserve me a normal seat as I will move from my wheelchair. The guy refused, citing again, fire safety. I wasn’t in the mood to argue but I could literally book a seat from my phone.

If you start a company in Germany and you are its managing director (the equivalent of a CEO in American companies) you must pay social security on your salary. You don’t have to if it is a sole proprietorship, but if you try to do a joint stock corporation, you get extra bills just because you have a different company type even if it is the same business. Another example of the state dictating what personal risks you are allowed you take on yourself.

Moving to unsaid words, I wrote a post that I didn’t publish titled “The A Word”. The A word to me since I moved to Germany is “Alignment”. If you work in a German company, this is what you will hear the most. Alignment is mostly about stating the obvious over and over. Very low signal to noise ratio discussions.

I recently realized a deep cause for overusing “alignment”. No one tells you the important info unless you ask specifically for it. This can be quite harmful in areas where there is asymmetry of information between you and person you are dealing with like lawyers, accountants, and doctors. They won’t tell you the important stuff unless you ask for it and if you don’t know what questions to ask, you will never know. This literal answering of questions bears the need for alignment. You have to interrogate all the options of a question until you get the critical answers. It is frustrating and extremely inefficient, but it is what it is.

Now let’s talk business, tech, and startups. One less talked about element of Berlin’s tech ecosystem is that the three big outbreaks are all Rocket Internet’s, which if you think about it, they did things in a very non-conventional way relative to how most people in Germany think. They were literally moving fast and breaking things. I still don’t like the mercenary nature of how they operate but one can’t not admire their ability to scale things quickly. If Germany had better employee share participation laws, Rocket could’ve produced a big number of wealthy individuals who would go and fund the next generation of outbreaks. Sadly it is a missed opportunity.

Speaking of employee participation, I am following the so called “Startup Verband” which is some form of union aiming to make Germany competitive in the tech era. One eyebrows raising action for me is that their biggest demand at the moment is a German ministry of digital. Regardless of this, I like their efforts in pushing better employee participation laws and I hope they don’t produce another mediocre outcome.

Last but not least, I appreciate healthcare in Germany every time I have have to deal with it. Apart from the language barrier, I rarely had unpleasant experiences. I was joking the other day that the nicest people in Germany are nurses, and the people working in Lindt shops. I am grateful for this.

That’s it for now. Those thoughts came out after a lot of filtration and cool down period. They look mild but some of them drove me nuts, sometimes calling friends and swearing why I am here. Anyways, I am staying here and not going anywhere, until further notice.

Random Thoughts

I am trying to curb my twitter addiction so you will see me here more often. There is this negative correlation between how much I write/want to write and how much I use twitter. Twitter makes it easy to write ideas but they are less thoughtful and short lived compared to blogging.

My talk at the Product Management Festival is now online. I got lots of great feedback when I did it back in November. The organizers said it is one of the top rated talks and invited me to PMF Singapore but I declined the invite.

For some reason I am reluctant to share the talk on LinkedIn because I don’t like the type of self promotion people do there. What I am saying is irrational given that twitter has a lot of self promotion as well, but I feel on twitter due to its openness one can attract high quality audience faster than LinkedIn. It also contradicts that I share links to this blog on LinkedIn but I do this only automatically which is just a drop. I still won’t share it there and anyways, who said humans are rational?

I am bored of all books. Can’t find something interesting. The last interesting books I read were the culture map and Accelerate. Both were eye opening and kind of “I wish my people knew this”. If you have book recommendation shoot them my way.

The Final Destination Argument

Today I am writing about what I call The Final Destination Argument.

The idea goes like this: You are in an important meeting discussing implementation details of something, one of the meeting attendees propose the following scenario

“What if there is a zombie apocalypse and everyone dies, miraculously one of our users survive and they still want to use our app, but all the AWS data centers got burnt during the apocalypse and our service is unreachable, what are we doing then?”

To which someone responds “why would the zombies be interested in burning AWS? This doesn’t make sense”

The discussion goes on.

The sad thing about such discussions is that they derail the meeting. It gets worse in consensus driven cultures where every voice should be heard and all the points should be addressed. I am not against mentioning the improbable but I also like fast decision making. When such discussions start and people go with the flow I know the meeting is over and we will spend the remaining time discussing why zombies don’t like AWS and whether we should move to Azure.

I call this the Final Destination Argument. People discuss death scenarios similar to those in the “Final Destination” movie. I know the people died in the movie but companies also die by being slow.

I am glad I wrote this. Next time I will call it out when someone goes into this.

My biggest 2019 lesson


2019 did not end yet, however one of my biggest lessons this year out of multiple experiences, observations, and reads is to never compromise when hiring.

I now deeply understand Steve Jobs’s “A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players.”.

I understood why Amazon insists on hiring people that demonstrate their leadership principles. Which in itself is the application of the principle “Insist on high standards”.

I came to the conclusion that 10X engineers, product managers, or sales people exist. They don’t have to be assholes – as when the discussion ignited on twitter – to be 10X. But there are those individuals that really make a night and day difference in an organization’s output.

This takes me to this piece I read earlier. SO TRUE.

“You are also judged as a leader on how many people you need on your team to achieve your output, i.e. your managerial leverage. How much are you able to do with as few people as possible?
This has implications for how you should think about hiring people to your team. People should either individually be so productive that they raise the average productivity of your team, or act as a multiplier to everyone currently on your team. In either case, make sure your overall productivity increase covers the cost of bringing them on. This prevents leaders from arbitrarily hiring into their team for sake of building up a fiefdom. Want to add someone? Sure, go ahead but remember that it raises the bar on expected total per person output.”

Overall, if I think what is my next professional goal, it is becoming a magnet for A players. It is being able to identify who they are, building relationships with them, and at some point being able to persuade them to work with me on projects. Because I strongly believe that building something that matters requires a group of A players working together on achieving it.

My Forecasting Challenge

Did you miss me? I missed you too. I am sick at home. My back hurts badly and I can barely move. So it is time for a blog post.

One line of thinking I am contemplating is the whole idea of forecasting. The biggest challenge I see in forecasting – especially if there is historical data – is separating what one hopes for from what the data is actually telling. I have seen all sorts of smart people fall into this trap. They want to keep the target the same or higher because this is what they hope to achieve and not what they actually can achieve.

Add to this the idea of not engineering your success. If you shoot too low, you leave some success on the table.

But also if you shoot too high, and you miss over and over, the goal loses its purpose, motivation plummets, and you end up in a worse position. I have also seen this happening.

I don’t know where is the balance. I also don’t know how to convince people otherwise. It is challenging especially with people in leadership positions who don’t want to appear wrong. And it is challenging when you don’t want to be the naysayer. It is a dilemma. And I don’t have a solution. Because the answer is always like all life questions “it depends”.

Side note: One of the ideas I learned from reading “Superforecasting” is keeping a record of one’s forecasts and comparing them to the actuals. I mostly remember when I am right, but rarely when I am wrong. I want to keep a record of both my right and wrong forecasts. And I want to do it for others around me. May sound crazy, but if you read the book you will understand how great this is.

Inside the mind of a product manager: How as an engineer you can convince your product manager with your awesome ideas?

Everyone talks about thinking like an engineer but no one talks about thinking like a product manager. One common misconception developers think is that we just block their ideas. While there is an element of truth to product managers saying no a lot, maybe it would make sense to clarify why this happens and how can you get around it.

As with all humans, you should start by understanding product managers’ desires and incentives. Product managers are driven by building products used by the target users that lead to driving business results. The more the users and the bigger results, the more they are happy (As long as it is being perceived internally/externally as driven by the team with this PM). This leads to a certain way of thinking whenever PMs hear new ideas, regardless of where they are coming from.

The first thing that pops into a product manager’s brain when someone pitches an idea is who is this for? The reason to this is because if the idea targets a segment of users the product manager cares about, the more likely they would be open to listen more. To know where this segment lies in priority is more art than science. It requires a mix of asking the product manager who does she care about and the developer having some sense of which user segments are more important. Data is your friend. The bigger the segment, the better.

Then comes the problem. The reason product managers annoyingly ask what is the problem we are trying to solve (other than trying to appear smarter in meetings) is because by understanding the problem, the better they can assess whether it is worth solving. You should also be prepared to answer why is it a problem? Because many times it can be a problem just for you, or it can be not painful enough that it is worth solving. Sometimes the pain is obvious, other times you have to be persuasive enough to convince others. You can do this by looking into the data and showing how it leads to users churning because of the problem, you can demo how shitty it is to get something done, or you can use one of the customers to lobby for you. The bigger the pain, the better.

Ok, you have made it this far. There is a good user segment that has a pain that needs to be addressed, now let’s talk about your awesome idea. Many times developers think that the product manager should have a strong opinion about the best solution, and many times product managers think they should have a strong opinion as well. The truth of the matter is there are only three things that matter when discussing a solution: 1) Does it solve the problem? 2) Is it feasible? 3) When can it be achieved? If the answer to 1 and 2 is yes, and the answer to 3 is soon enough, then you are too close to getting your idea through.

Last but not least, what is the business result? You can sell a dollar ($1) for eighty five cents ($.85) and I guarantee you, you will have a big enough segment that strongly feels the pain of wanting more money, it would be feasible and within reasonable time to solve it by giving them $1 if they give you $.85, but the result is the company will go bankrupt. You don’t want this to happen and therefore you want to make sure that your awesome idea will deliver positive business results, even if you don’t care about business. The simple way to think of it is imagining writing a report to the big bosses after this is released, what would the PM wants to write there? Think of the company and team objectives and what needs to be achieved. The bigger the results, the better.

All of this you need to apply while being aware of the current priorities. At the end there is a finite time and infinite number of items the team has to work on, the stronger the arguments on each of the previously mentioned points, the higher it ranks in the list of priorities.

In a nutshell: Big pain, to big number of users, with a feasible solution, within reasonable duration, that leads to a business result, and you won the product manager’s heart.

Thanks to Muaaz Saleem and Vicky Gkouta for reviewing drafts of this

Taking a break

I think will take a break from writing for some time or reduce my frequency. I am recently so busy and I don’t have time to have quality thoughts. Also most of the action happening I can’t write about publicly. It might be better to take a break.

Mental Resilience

Since many people are being diagnosed with depression, I wonder how to build mental resilience. I know it is part genetic and part environment, so I am more asking about the environment part.

I understand the concepts of small stressors and antifragility, but they don’t really answer my question. Are we having more fragile people? Are our environments getting worse? Or the ratios are the same and it is just advancement in diagnosis and the internet makes it seem bigger?

How we make sure people are mentally resilient? How do make them not reach their breakdown limit?

I don’t know.