Musings on ….

My journey of rediscovery continues as I continue to put myself in unfamiliar situations and test personal limits. In the same vein, I set intention in 2016 to stick with circumstances that are not ideal, paths that are difficult. This chapter continues and has started to yield interesting insights.

Reclaim your story

Nadya (my oldest childhood friend) was there as I lived out a fairly troubled childhood and watched me suffer along several dimensions as an adult because sometimes our demons are all we know and they scare everyone else away. She reminded me that I am not the product of my past and have the choice to be whoever I want to be. That didn’t resonate with me until I discovered forms of therapy (NLP, Lifespan Integration, EMDR) that helped me understand the nature of our memories.

2017-04-11_1606Every time we recall or relive a memory, our mind alters it, adding a translucent layer of our present vantage point to the picture from long ago. Layers upon layers until the story in our minds is as much about who we choose to be every day as much as who we were when that mental postcard was captured. A violent event can become increasingly less damaging in our memory if we relive it from the position of safety and empowerment in the present.

It is incredibly liberating to know that our past is not static, etched in stone, that our experience of time is not linear but rather circular. The present informs the past as much as the past informs the present and we can use this cycle to be exactly who we want to be.

While we can’t re-write the facts of events that have transpired, we can absolutely reframe the meaning we made of them, and in doing so reclaim ourselves. Knowing this has given me renewed vigor to explore the story of my life, the good, the bad and the ugly – to dwell on all of it (contrary to shitty advice) because in it lie the deepest truths of who I am and who I want to be.

Hush now, let it go

On my dad’s living room wall was a painting of a lost war ship, moment before the ocean swallowed it. I suspect all of us know what it means to be that ship. Scary as fuck!

We build large structures around us. We fortify. We amass wealth so the foundations can be stronger, the walls higher. We latch on to our communities. Safety in numbers. We insure our lives against the ravages of the ocean with pedigree, Linked In profiles, powerful friends, religious dogma, political affiliations.

All fine investments to make. Except for one debilitating flaw.

We’re trapped inside our forts, holed up, waiting to be swallowed up. We do jobs we don’t like, put up with people that take our light away, follow norms we don’t believe in, live in passive or active fear.

For a moment, let’s not be afraid. Let’s confront the baseline nature of life. We’re all in a dinghy a lot more frail than the lost war ship. The ocean we skim is infinite in all dimensions, and infinitely unpredictable. Any of us is one wrong turn away from heart breaking loss, long term disability, unemployment and homelessness, life long suffering, humiliation and abandonment. And many of us have gotten that call and lived through the horrors of drowning. The calmness we may be experiencing in our lives is only because of us in a small way. Let’s chalk up the rest to just a good weather day and not our silly little forts.

Let’s find gratitude for the sun that shines upon us, be humble for the prosperity we receive, step out of the controlled environments we’ve worked so hard to create and invest our time in the people and activities that bring meaning to our lives.

On Product Management

I talk to many people about their desire to become a PM in the tech industry. Enough of them have mentioned that they’ve found my perspective in these conversations to be useful, which is why I feel compelled to write it down.

What’s in a name?

First of all, I think the name must be revised in the context of the tech industry. P can stand for Project, Program, Product – each role being vastly different if done right. The P I’m referring to is Product.

Here’s the fun thing about this role – everyone from a stay-at-home mom to a dog walker to an engineer to a philosopher to a rocket scientist thinks they can do this role. I mean, after all, it’s just sending email, managing projects, telling people what to do, commenting on user experience, right?


Just like you and I speaking English and writing emails doesn’t make either of us an author, general life-planning skill doesn’t make us product managers. Unfortunately there are so many other P’s taking on the guise of product management that it’s difficult to have a clear picture of what a real Product Manager is all about. In talking with many startups, it’s clear to me that this skill is sorely lacking and it’s unknowable for the founders what they’re missing and why it’s needed. In my current role, I’ve had to push hard to create room for PMs for the same reason, been met with resistance and just exhibited through experience how they can contribute to top-line revenue, customer delight and team building.

The essence of a PM


  1. She’s a perseverent idealist (yep, I just made up that word, but you get my drift). She believes in the power of positive change, the value that one individual can bring to a larger group, and perseveres through detours and struggle.
  2. She’s obsessed with her customers – not just how they’re experiencing the product but who they are, what their emotional and logistical drivers are, who they aspires to be. Also important, her customer is always ultimately the customer of the company, not internal teams (which are all partners that must align to deliver end customer value). In interviews, I often ask people to design a product with me as their customer. I pick the product based on my read of them and what they’re least likely to use themselves. The best answers start from the candidate asking more about my lifestyle and who I am as a person and incorporate that in all elements of the product (form, function & distribution). The worst answers are either a “requirements gathering” exercise or the candidate designing a product for them and losing sight that they are quite different from me, their customer.
  3. She’s grounded in the business model – she understands how money is made, where it comes from, how it’s spent and how to create a defensible strategy for the business against competitors, but never fucking the customer over in the process. She can quantify business opportunity, use that to develop what’s really important and invest accordingly (i.e. don’t spend 3 engineers for 6 weeks on something that’ll make you 30k unless it’s part of a larger strategy that she’s not hand-wavey about but truly understand and agree with).
  4. She’s strategic in her thinking and tactical in her execution – she can envision a radically different world and use that to inspire people around her, but keep everyone focused on a set of well defined next steps.
  5. She’s qualitative and quantitative – she seeks out data to gain insight, but she knows the power of instinct and trusts it. She knows disruptive ideas require leaps of faith and she’s often right in her hunches.
  6. She’s outcome driven – and outcome is always defined in terms of benefit for the customer and the business.
  7. She’s curious about how things work – business models, user models, design patterns, organizational structure, technology – she follows industry trends, experiments with new products, learns new skills so she can relate with her partners and her engineers
  8. She’s flexible & creative – in her thinking (always evolving), in her ability to define a big picture and dive into the details, in her communication skills, in her ability to influence people and overcome obstacles
  9. She has courage – she is unafraid to share her perspective, she doesn’t let fear stand in the way of taking risk, she has the courage to receive feedback and evolve.
  10. She understands the difference between urgent and important and is ruthless in prioritizing what’s important above all else. The hardest part of this is letting go of the thing that’s just below the list. But that’s exactly what she does.

Simple. Here are some tips and tricks to refine your craft as a Product Manager, just in case you’re interested.

Habit creates excellence

I often have this discussion with PMs on my team. It’s easy to overlook the non-day-to-day things that are essential to your development as a PM – always another email you could respond to, always another meeting you could go to. This is why it’s important to create ritual and habit for the activities that make you a great PM. Here are some that I follow religiously:

  1. I use the product every day – not with the intention to click around and find bugs but actually use it as an integrated part of my life. Working at Zulily, this means friends and family get a lot more random shit they don’t need than before.
  2. I use competitive products – also not with superficial curiosity but as an active user. Note, I define “competition” very loosely (i.e. doesn’t need to be a like for like comparison)
  3. At least once a month, I talk to real customers (all the synthesized PowerPoint decks and usability result findings are great but aren’t supposed to be a replacement for high-touch textured understanding of real customers)
  4. I read customer support issues every week
  5. I read world news and tech news every day
  6. I take time each month to tinker with new products across the board (i.e. not related to my core line of business) to help me build and recognize patterns and trends.
  7. I tinker with adjacent skills – from learning Ruby to creative-writing classes to playing with cloud services – generally one class or activity in progress all the time
  8. I reverse engineer – whenever I find myself drawn to a product or service, I journal explicitly about what I like about it, why it works for me as a user, I ask why the company that built it decided to build it, what their business model might be, how I would do it if I was in their shoes.
  9. I talk to people from other companies to learn how they do work. It’s always interesting to compare notes and try things that are working for other people to see if they’ll be effective in my environment. Regardless, I learn from the experience.

None of these habits are rocket science – it’s just a matter of having the discipline to do them regularly. If you have other habits you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.



It all begins with a question

Context: A key part of designing products is understanding the competitive landscape. In this context, our work conversations focus on companies, their strategies and how they’re trading off growth versus profitability, research and development versus cashing-in etc.

The aspect of the conversation I find most interesting is the application of clever models to assess and express the growth and success of organizations. This is in sharp contrast to conversations I have about personal development with friends and colleagues. My observation is that more people are like driftwood than motor boats when it comes to taking charge of who they are and where they end up.

At the end of the day, companies are nothing more than collections of individuals with strategies and shared goals. Many of the models we apply to them have relevance to us as individuals. I’ll share some that have worked well for me – these are derivations of BCG’s growth/share matrix and graph theory.

To be or what to be?

At birth, we’re essentially cute, bald, giggly Question Marks. No one including us knows our potential, our preferences, our abilities or our outcomes. The market we will compete in holds infinite possibility and it’s anyone’s guess how much of it we will claim as ours. Our parents’ and community’s general aversion to Question Marks leads to some default answers (much like a pre-filled form) – Religion: X, Cultural identity: Y, Aspirational Career: Engineer/Doctor/Other, Life Goals: Marriage, Two Kids, House, Car etc., Moral Values: 1,2,3. Innate Abilities: 4,5,6.

If we’re lucky, we identify the temporary nature of these answers early on in life and begin our unique journey of defining and achieving success along all dimensions. It’s a hard path and one most people will shy away from in some if not most aspects of their lives. This is not a judgment but an observation.

Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star

Some of us choose to invest Time (the only currency of real value) in turning these Question Marks into Rising Stars. In doing so we turn amorphous possibility into probable outcomes and real potential.

First, and most important, only focus on turning one or two aspects of your life into Rising Stars at any given time. It takes a lot of effort to produce a Rising Star and investing in too many areas can lead to burn out and poor results. In my teen years, I took on Intellect and Cultural Identity as the areas I would invest deeply in. In my twenties, it was Spirituality and Moral Values. Now, in my thirties, I am taking on Career and Relationships (including Relationship-with-Self).

For any of these, the journey begins by shunning the notion of having an answer. You don’t. This is easier said than done since the answer is often something we deeply identify with.

Next, try different things on. This equates to the Research Phase of any project at a company. And just like any research project, expect mainstream community to speculate your motives and express distrust in your mission. Also, as much as I would like to tell you (and myself) that theorizing on your couch will get you to the answer that’s right for you, it won’t. It is only through complete immersion that you will experientially know what works for you. For instance, when I was invested in Intellect, I tried on literature, physics, biology, computer science, psychology, analytical experiments, creative experiments, social experiments to finally figure out what fit me perfectly. I hope you realize that this was the easiest example – now try this thought experiment with an area like Moral Values or Spirituality and everything just got a hundred times harder 🙂 I guarantee sleepless nights and existential angst. However the You that ultimately emerges is 100% your best and truest self.

Once you’ve identified the answer that fits, go all-in. You’re now in the Development Phase of the project. Define what success looks like. Surround yourself with people who have achieved excellence in this area already to help you get clear in your definition of success. Learn through observation (much like competitive analysis for product lines), exercise curiosity, be prepared to fail & bounce back and rinse & repeat until diminishing returns for learning set in. It is important to keep criticism at bay during this phase. Nothing is a failure. I am often pained by team members who make radical shifts in their roles (because they want to invest in a new aspect of their careers or learn new skills) yet not exercise the patience and curiosity required to achieve the very thing they’ve set out to accomplish – learning! I am guilty of the same mistake and there’s no way to avoid it. However it is possible to build awareness and course-correct when you catch yourself.

Through focus, structured hard work, a strong feedback loop and extensive time investment (sorry, no short cuts), you will gain mastery and that’s when your light will become an inviolable truth for others. Skepticism will be replaced with blind faith and trust. You’re now ready to leverage the asset you have built within yourself and milk it for all it’s worth!

Happy Cows come from Stars!

In our story, Stars grow up to become Cows. If you’ve ever tried milking a real cow (another story for another time :)), you’ll know that it’s not an easy task. It requires strategic thinking – placement, timing, rapport are all critical. This is also true for our metaphorical cow. Be purposeful about maximizing return. Choose an environment that will play to your strengths, negotiate hard and don’t settle for less. Fully internalize your worth and play your hand. This requires a surprising level of courage. When I was offered a job at Microsoft and decided to move to the US for it, I milked the Intellect I had built over the previous decade. It seems like an obvious choice yet it was one of the hardest ones of my life. I could have opted for a significantly less successful Cow phase by picking a less meaningful job in my home town. Competing desires and self-doubt blocked the path and it took tremendous discipline to step out of my way and get on the ride I’d been preparing for since childhood. It was only years later that I was able to connect the dots and realize that milking the Intellect Cow set me up to invest in many more Rising Stars within myself.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

And then there are aspects of our lives that just don’t seem as pressing or meaningful. For many of my friends Spirituality is one of them. It has little to no impact on their lives. Sadly though, whenever I bring it up (since it is a Cash Cow for me), it seems to trigger self-reproaching in my friends i.e. “I really should meditate”, “I really should think more about this”. There are very few Shoulds in life. If some aspect of your life seems obviously lacking in luster and you are worse off because of it, make it a Question Mark and start investing in it with the goal of turning it into a Rising Star.  Or divest completely and let this Sleeping Dog lie. It’s when you carry the guilt around and don’t act on it that you’re hemorrhaging energy and mind-share to something you don’t care for to begin with.

Life is a Step-Function

Finally, I’ve found life to be non-linear and non-continuous. There’s no elevator or gentle slope to the next level. It’s stairs all the way!

Try to remember your experience of learning how to ride a bike. I distinctly recall trying as hard as I could and yet always ending up in the same rose bush. Fifty nine times, same result. The sixtieth time, I miraculously rode my bike right by the rose bush and didn’t fall in. I have never fallen into a rose bush since then (at least not on a bike).

Growth in any aspect of life follows a similar pattern (i.e. a step function). It takes a lot of up-front investment (without any outwardly gain) and is followed by a spurt of vertical growth. Be patient and kind with yourself during the period of drudgery and celebrate the spurt when it happens.

So my dears, what are the Question Marks in your life?