Remembering Robert Fair

I wanted to commemorate the February passing (I only learned of it this morning via UVA Magazine) of Robert Fair, Virginia Glee Club 1946-1947, associate dean at the Darden School, WWII veteran, and member of the first incarnation of the VGCAFA, the Virginia Glee Club Advisory Board, in the mid-1990s.

Bob Fair was a mentor to Larry Mueller and brought a lot of wisdom to our meetings in Newcomb Hall as we worked to figure out how we were going to grow the then-$200K endowment to support the needs of the Glee Club. Bob was wise, funny, and more than happy to share his wisdom when asked.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have learned from some of the finest men and women in the world. Hats off for Bob Fair and much gratitude for all he did.

Bonus: Bob’s oral history of his early life and World War II makes for a riveting read.

Improving PM, part 2 – When not to listen to customers

This is part of a short series about the talk I gave at Product Camp Boston, entitled “Getting Better at Getting Better: A PM Kaizen.” A general introduction to the talk is here and you can view the slides.

The hardest thing for me as a PM has been to learn how to listen to customers, and when not to.

I know, I know. Customer centricity is a key tenet for growth, if you don’t listen to customers you die. But I’d argue that you can get yourself in real trouble if you listen to customers too much, or listen the wrong way.

Here’s the thing. Customers will tell you really important things about how your software works, or doesn’t work, for them. But sometimes you have to really dig for the key information. I can’t count the number of times that a customer request came into my email, passed along by a well-meaning co-worker, that when I dug in turned out to be a completely different issue.

The reason is that we all try to solve our own problems. Customers know their workflow better than anyone else, and so as they think about something that irks them about your software, they’ll consider lots of possible ways to solve the problem within what they understand to be the constraints, and discard the ones that won’t work for them. Then they’ll think of other problems and revise their solution, and ultimately pass along a solution that is so specific to their use case that it may actually not solve the problem for other customers, and may even create new problems.

So I tend to follow the rule of Five Whys. Because what is tremendously valuable is understanding the root cause, the underlying customer problem, that sparked the communication in the first place. Sometimes customers are inspired to identify good solutions, but often their understanding of the constraints, lack of knowledge of other features you have in your roadmap (or under development), or thought process constrained by their local environment results in partial workarounds that don’t solve the root issue.

So much for the microcosm of customer feature requests. What about your roadmap? Surely that should be customer centric?

Well, to a point. But you have to be keenly aware of who the customers are who are influencing your roadmap and who they represent—and what stage your product and your market are in. I find the Crossing the Chasm model helpful for understanding this part. A lead customer for a pre-chasm offering, or a mainstream customer for a post-chasm offering, can provide helpful feedback. But if you’re in the middle of a market disruption, listening only to your existing customers can be a recipe for disaster.

That goes double for when you get successful. Large software product teams get very good at listening to their existing customers, and miss out on the customer pain points that lead some prospects to choose other solutions. If you couple the crowded PM calendar with lots of feedback from existing customers, you can get into a trap of the Urgent Now and miss the signals that your market is shifting.

So how do you stay focused on longer term, bigger picture problems? How do you avoid being dragged into that tire fire in your inbox? It turns out that the tools you need to stay focused on the right things may be closer to hand than you think.

Improving PM, part 1: the calendar

This is part of a short series about the talk I gave at Product Camp Boston, entitled “Getting Better at Getting Better: A PM Kaizen.” A general introduction to the talk is here and you can view the slides.

The number one complaint I hear from PMs is the tyranny of the calendar. “There’s no time.” “I’m in meetings all day, all week.” “I’m staying until 8 to get work done.” “I’m logging in after the kids are in bed and staying up until 2.” “Let’s meet, two weeks from now when I have free time.”

The net result is a calendar like the above, with about three or four free hours scattered throughout a work week. There are all kinds of problems with this way of working. One of the worst problems is something I recognized first in working with building software for developers, and that I recognize in my own calendar: the time to build context.

Knowledge workers, like software developers and product managers (and marketers and others), rely on an understanding of the context in which they’re doing their work to be effective. As a software developer, you can’t effectively debug a problem unless you first build a mental model of how that part of the software works. That’s time-consuming, and if you’re interrupted you have to start all over again. (There’s a great illustration of this challenge for programmers by Jason Heeris.) And for some PM work—strategy, building roadmap, understanding user problems—you need that mental model time too. A half hour or hour here or there doesn’t really cut it.

But many PMs that I know are achievement oriented. We like to make lists and check off items. So what do we do? We spend all our downtime getting stuff done. It isn’t the strategic important stuff that needs a half hour of context building, because we don’t have time for that. It’s responding to email, putting out fires in inboxes, answering customer feedback.

The strategic, in other words, gets crowded out by the tactical.

There are many ways you can solve for this problem. One of them, which I heartily recommend, is becoming more effective at saying “no.” That has its own challenges. You can just say “no” and leave the requester with no way to fill that request. Unless you’re uninterested in the welfare of your customers and the bottom line of your company, that’s often not behavior that maximizes long-term outcomes. So you may find yourself trying to understand the breakdown in the system that led that person to your desk and left you as the only person in the organization that can help them solve their problem, and suddenly you’re back to square one.

If you’re good at saying no when you can, and diagnosing organizational breakdowns when you can’t AND taking steps to shift the permanent solution elsewhere in the organization, then that’s an effective way to keep your calendar clean. That means, though, that “just saying no” isn’t really within reach for most PMs.

So what’s the alternative? I would argue that we have to find a way to systematically think about our work, in such a way that we don’t constantly have to reconstruct our context before we can move the work to the next step. I’ll discuss this more next time.

Follow up reading: The challenge of being “the only person in the organization that can help solve the problem” is covered extensively in the writings of W. Edwards Deming; he calls the process of finding these “only people” identifying the constraint in a process, and recommends that you find ways to elevate the constraint by redesigning the process so that it is subordinate to the constraint. There’s some practical discussion about elevating constraints in the context of software development and IT in the classic DevOps novel The Phoenix Project.

 

Cocktail Weekend: Commander Livesey’s Gin-Blind

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on Cocktail Friday, so to make up for it here’s a special holiday weekend cocktail post. The change in weather (however fickle) toward summer has me thinking away from my normal brown liquor based drinks and toward gin, and that’s the direction I went exploring this past weekend.

The immediate trigger for the exploration was a bottle of The Botanist, that remarkable Islay-based gin (from Bruichladdich Distillery). Far less sweet and more herbal than the Plymouth and Old Tom gins I’ve been experimenting with recently, there’s a lot going on in this bottle. I first tried it just directly with tonic and lime, but the mediocre tonic water I had in my bar just made it sweet and swamped the complexity.

Charles H. Baker Jr. to the rescue. We’ve sampled recipes from his A Gentleman’s Companion before — see the Remember the Maine — and this one does not disappoint either. The curaçao highlights the herbal flavors of the gin while the cognac and orange bitters. It’s not a mild drink, even after stirring over ice. Baker’s story says that when he and his wife, traveling in Bombay, met the good Commander of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, he noted that “We don’t prescribe this just before target practice.”

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

New mix: Exfiltration Radio: time out for fun

My other Hackathon mix is here. This is a true mixed-genre, anything-goes hour of stuff, with everything from Devo to shoegaze to Folkways to the late Philip Levine. I’m really enjoying this format, btw—though it’s hard to edit down to an hour, it feels like these come together much more rapidly than the bigger mixes I’ve been doing before. Enjoy!

  1. Time Out for FunDevo (Oh No! It’s Devo)
  2. Do You Like MeFugazi (Red Medicine)
  3. Blonde RedheadDNA (“Fame” (Jon Savage’s Secret History of Post-Punk 1978-81))
  4. JununShye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express (Junun)
  5. ExhumedZola Jesus (Okovi)
  6. Political World (feat. Keith Richards)Bettye LaVette (Things Have Changed)
  7. Dry BonesDelta Rhythm Boys (Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas)
  8. Police & ThievesJunior Murvin (Police & Thieves (Expanded Edition))
  9. Lonely StillJesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter (Reckless Burning)
  10. Wine and PeanutsDaniel Bachman (Daniel Bachman)
  11. You Got To MoveMoving Star Hall Singers (Sea Island Folk Festival)
  12. Location Recording (Unknown)Peter Gabriel (Passion Outtakes)
  13. Melon YellowSlowdive (Souvlaki)
  14. Enlightenment Suite, Part 2: The OfferingMcCoy Tyner (Enlightenment)
  15. Moon FlightRashied Ali Quartet + Quintet (Moon Flight)
  16. What Work IsBenjamin Boone and Philip Levine (The Poetry of Jazz)

New mix: Exfiltration Radio – them Newport beats

Still catching up from Hackathon. I put together a couple of hour-long radio shows that were a lot of fun to build. The first one is an hour of 1970s and 1970s-adjacent jazz. Lots of fun stuff in this, including some electric Vince Guaraldi, tasty jazz organ, some modern finds (Yussef Kamaal for the win), and a little Digable Planets. Enjoy!

  1. Birth Of A StruggleWax Tailor (Tales Of The Forgotten Melodies)
  2. OaxacaVince Guaraldi (Oaxaca)
  3. Red Sails In The SunsetJimmy McGriff (Groove Grease)
  4. Everybody Loves the SunshineRoy Ayers Ubiquity (The Best of Roy Ayers (The Best of Roy Ayers: Love Fantasy))
  5. Mystic BrewRonnie Foster (Jazz Dispensary: Cosmic Stash)
  6. Joint 17Yussef Kamaal (Black Focus)
  7. Jettin’Digable Planets (Blowout Comb)
  8. Ayo Ayo NeneMor Thiam (Spiritual Jazz)
  9. Superfluous (LP Version)Eddie Harris (Instant Death)
  10. Lady Day and John ColtraneGil Scott-Heron (Pieces of a Man)
  11. Early MinorMiles Davis (The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions)
  12. Black NarcissusJoe Henderson (The Milestone Years)
  13. Infinite SearchMiroslav Vitous (Infinite Search)

Getting better at getting better

On Saturday I attended my first ever Product Camp Boston. This event, an unconference devoted to product management and product marketing, was massive in terms of attendance (over 500) and content covered (some 58 sessions). I was fortunate enough to nab a speaking slot. I debated what to speak about, and ultimately ended up giving a talk on applying agile scrum to the work of product managers to help a team improve their PM craft.

About now my non-engineering friends and family are looking at me with a little white showing in their eyes, and my engineering savvy readers may be skeptical as well. But I’ve written about this idea before in the context of agile marketing, that by committing to work up front for a limited period of time, documenting what we work on, publishing what you achieved, and being purposefully retrospective (what went well, what didn’t, what will we change), we can improve our effectiveness as individuals and teams.

For PMs the big payoff is in slowly transitioning out of firefighting mode and into bigger-picture thinking. It’s too easy to succumb to the steady pull of today’s emergency and tomorrow’s engineering release and lose strategic focus. Our kaizen has given me the ability to think farther ahead and be more purposeful about the work I take in.

I’ve posted the slides for the talk, and will write a little more about this topic soon.

The Old Cabell Hall skylight

Old Cabell Hall ceiling and skylight, 1994 (University of Virginia)

I read with interest a UVA Today article about Andrew Ashcraft, a fourth year architecture student who has had the privilege of exploring attics and other hidden spaces at the University as an intern in the Historic Preservation team. Having been an inveterate explorer of the University’s nooks and crannies myself (with a particular fascination for Old Cabell Hall and the roof of Clark Hall), I envy Ashcraft his job. However, one paragraph caught my attention:

“His favorite view so far has been from the attic of Old Cabell Hall, where he could look down through an ornate false skylight into the building’s grand two-tiered theater.”

It may be a “false skylight” today, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. The evidence, as always, is the University’s collection of the photographs of Rufus Holsinger. In a collection of views of the Grounds dating to 1914 we get the photo below, showing the view of the stage but also the ceiling above:

Old Cabell Hall stage, 1914, Rufus Holsinger (UVA Library Special Collections)

That sure looks like a working skylight to me! The Library’s online exhibit on the work of McKim, Meade, and White (the designers of Old Cabell Hall) indicates that the skylight was eventually enclosed “to accommodate modern lighting equipment,” and from the stage you can see the lighting in the space that would originally have let natural sunlight in.

The University has a small tradition of enclosing skylights, apparently, or at least doubling them up. As an undergrad I learned from some of my older neighbors how to enter Clark Hall (originally the home of the Law School) at night and climb up to the dusty hidden room enclosed by the outer skylights and the inner skylights of the building. Yes, there are two layers of skylight. I haven’t been able to determine if this was the original design or a concession to weatherproofing. (You can see a hint of the double-layered design in this photo.)

Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen, die loben dich immerdar

Boston Globe: John Oliver, founder of Tanglewood Festival Chorus, dies at 78. I wrote an appreciation of John on his retirement some years ago, which still expresses most of how I feel about him.

And yet, there’s one important part of what he taught me that my essay didn’t include, which is apparent only in retrospect. Which is this: drilling and refining details of musical performance is important, but so is singing that is fully committed to the purpose and mystery of the music. Full musical commitment cannot be taught, only shown. I’m grateful for all he showed me in my ten years singing with him, and for how I feel I’ve continued to learn after.

Shaker Glen

Yesterday morning, I happened to take a different route to work and noticed a sign along the road (courtesy, it turns out, of Lexington’s Eagle Scouts) for Shaker Glen. This wasn’t just a fanciful developer’s name for the subdivision that’s there; it turns out there was, briefly, a significant Shaker presence in the Lexington area.

First, the subdivision. Peacock Farm was a postwar modernist subdivision, designed by Walter Pierce, that’s literally right down the road from my house. It turns out that the developers of Peacock Farm, Edward Green and Harmon White, replicated the Peacock Farm design in a couple other areas around Lexington, including at Shaker Glen. But why did it get that name?

Seems the area came by the name honestly. From the Lexington historic survey site:

The name Shaker Glen refers to part of the hemlock-lined glen which extends into neighboring Woburn. In the late 1700s Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, settled temporarily at the Kendall Farm in Woburn, which included part of the glen. Nathan and Sarah Kendall were converted to the Shaker faith in 1781. But local residents were suspicious of the Shakers and the Kendalls sold the farm and left Woburn while Mother Ann Lee went on to establish a utopian religious community in Harvard, Massachusetts in 1791.

So not only is Shaker Glen named for a real Shaker settlement, it’s named because the founder of the Shaker faith lived there. Who says history is boring?

Virginius Dabney on mint juleps

Yesterday was Easter, which around our house means that the food is a little more Southern than usual. In addition to ham and deviled eggs, I made a pimento cheese spread for the first time, an experiment I’ll be repeating. And the best beverage with all of the above is, of course, the mint julep.

But what is a mint julep? Turns out there’s a fair amount of confusion, stemming from the original recipe using brandy. The version we know and love is really the Kentucky mint julep; others used to exist, including the Maryland version (rye) and the Georgia version (peach brandy). Such heterodoxy, however, be damned: we seek the One True Mint Julep, and fortunately Virginia historian Virginius Dabney (author of the second history of the University of Virginia) has our back. In a 1946 letter to Life Magazine, he wrote:

And Life obligingly printed Dabney’s recipe:

No discussion of mint juleps could be settled so quickly, though, as the following letter from Harold Hinton showed:

Venturing through the slipstream

Doom & Gloom from the Tomb: “Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison, Aquarius Theater, Boston, Massachusetts, May 19, 1972. With the impending release of Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, finding a live performance of any of the songs by Van in Boston is an unexpected treat, even if it’s a few years after the event. But this performance is doubly a treat: peak Saint Dominic’s Preview-era Van Morrison, with much of the hazy adventure of the original performance supplemented by a forthrightness and confidence (and horn section) characteristic of the latter record. A fun listen.

Jefferson, the gourmand

I keep thinking about Jefferson and being afraid that I’ll forget something about him, so I’m posting these thoughts as I come to them. If you’re not a doggy person, you may want to check back in a few days.

From the time he came home, Jefferson made it clear that he belonged to the Jarrett family: by his propensity for naps, his heroic snoring, and most of all by his appetite for food. A few weeks after we brought him home, we were shaking down our newly installed oven in our Kirkland house, cooking a turkey for Christmas dinner, and he sat in front of the oven door and watched. Just watched. With a concentration bordering on the unshakeable, he sat in front of that oven door and took in the smells coming from it until he could no longer stand it.

That’s when he would start growling. And blowing out air in frustration (see the “fuffing” in the video above). And eventually, full-on barking at the oven.

The whole family could tell when I was cooking breakfast for the dogs—especially toward the end of Jeffy’s life, when a persistent canine digestive problem had shifted us to feeding him on home cooked ground pork or turkey and rice. He would stay upstairs with Lisa until he could smell the food cooking, and then he would head down the stairs (something he rarely did under his own power; as a doggy of leisure, he preferred to be carried) and sit under the kitchen table and watch me cook, usually at around 6:15am. And then as the meat started to brown, he would start barking at the food. And it wouldn’t stop until his plate hit the floor.

Jeffy would eat anything. And he would always try to steal his sister’s food. In his younger days, he would simply wait til she wasn’t paying attention and then voom on over and start wolfing it down. As his joints started giving him problems, he would move more subtly and slowly—or as subtle as a slightly rotund Bichon with arthritis can be.

I knew that we were in trouble with him when his fabled appetite finally started failing. We now know that he was suffering from a slow moving progressive kidney disease that impaired his digestion and generally made his life hellish, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks that it became a roll of the dice whether Jeffy would eat dinner (or breakfast). In those weeks he got to enjoy the full range of food left to him: poached salmon, ground pork, turkey and beef, grilled flank steak, pressure cooked and roasted turkey. I like to think that wherever he is now, he’s eating heartily.