Note: I didn’t necessarily learn these things from CTO’s directly, though some of them did result from conversations between me and my favorite CTO’s. I didn’t necessarily work for these CTO’s either, though in all but the first I did. I have used poetic license in many cases since CTO’s, in my experience, are less pithy than I am wont to be. Finally, in at least two of the cases, the lesson I learned was not the original intent of the CTO I learned it from. Not that it matters. Lessons are funny like that.

1. If you don’t think this film can be your baby, I don’t want you directing it.

This nugget came from an interview process, actually. I was pitching myself to a company – I loved their growth and team. Their customer, not so much. It piqued the CTO’s Spidey sense. I answered honestly. I was kidding myself into thinking I could love this product I would be managing and said so. It was gut-wrenching to get that far along with people I respected only to be called out on my physical impossibility of using or enjoying the product I would be asked to manage.

Interview over. But what stuck with me was the fact that he invoked a film metaphor. What’s up with that?

In the question, it hints at the auteur theory of filmmaking. It wasn’t always the case that film directors were considered the “authors” of the film. It wasn’t until the French New Wave came along that directors were put front and center and then film history back-filled the history books with the “auteurs” of each opus.

You only need to look at how a film is made to understand why being a product manager is like being a film director. As a film director you work with so many talented and very focused engineers: from script-writers, to lighting and audio engineers, to special effects wizards and the cinematographer; then there’s the actors and musicians; and finally, the marketers and producers.

As a product manager you’re going to be working with so many people focused on singular efforts: designers, developers, testers, marketers and sales. But at the end of the day, while the success of the opus might be owned by many, it comes together because you took care of that baby. In all those facets, others were looking to you to know if their contribution mattered. As product manager, you are the director. As CTO, you need to know your team is getting the guidance it needs from someone who is invested in the outcome. Success or failure, it will have your name on it.

2. Talented people don’t need management, but they need product managers.  

Managing effectively, as a CTO means knowing how and when to offer guidance to the technical staff. In no small degree the CTO needs to be able to get a cow out of a ditch, know why it got there in the first place and know how to prevent it from happening again. CTO’s need to know whether development efforts should be rabbits, horses or elephants. CTO’s need to establish large blocks of development effort in terms of debt, equity and product. And CTO’s need to be able to hire talent and know enough to get out of their way.

Product managers manage people, processes and expectations. They are the fulcrum in the balance beam of resources and output. A good product must be good with people, fluent in development processes and deliberate in establishing expectations.

While talented people will rarely need management, they do often need product management. Why? Because if something is not creating equilibrium between all of these competing forces, the system will waste a lot of energy doing it itself.

It’s also important to note that at a technology company, this is one of the best rationales I know for why the product organization should report to the CTO.

3. Measure everything, but report only what matters.

I started working with a team on a product that was going from being a server-based install to a cloud-based SaaS offering. When I joined, it already had a cloud offering but it was suffering from multiple layers of suckiness. During my discovery process, I learned one of those layers was that the product was unavailable for hours every week. The SLA was non-existent. Confidence was low for customers. Morale was low for the team. There was considerable evidence that downtime was an issue. I was gathering a ton of this evidence and reporting it back to the team, but it only served as a whip to those who were already feeling bullied. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know. Nor was it that they didn’t care. Instead, I found that they didn’t have a clear target for acceptability for this problem and they weren’t being asked to focus on it.

Nothing establishes focus like setting goals.

What did we do? We picked an SLA we thought we could proud of: 99.9% uptime. In downtime here was our goal: 1m 26s per day. 10m 4.8s per week. 43m 49.7s per month. 8h 45m 57.0s per year. 8 hours a year compared to 8 hours a week. We had a steep mountain to climb. We got a tool that tracked uptime in realtime and which we would give our customers access to. We put a monitor in the same room with the engineers and let them focus on those goals. In a few sprints we had dedicated ourselves to this sole problem and we had the measurements to prove we had solved it.

We eliminated all other metrics. For the purposes of this theme, there was only one goal that mattered. Everything else was noise.

Over time, the monitor’s contents changed. Depending on the theme of the sprint, we would be reporting different goals. We never stopped measuring uptime even though I sprint themes changed. But we did stop reporting them because the new challenges were more invigorating. Morale improved. The product improved. It took a product manager to hold people accountable.

 4. Social contracts are important

Agile, waterfall, chaos, whatever your development style, it will be dictated by the team and its leaders and adopted begrudgingly. I kid. Teams love agile. The others are suckier. Why? Because agile is a natural byproduct of teamwork. Indeed, agile begets teamwork. Here’s why: Scrum. Put your heads together for a moment, then break. Repeat at regular intervals. Scrum is a fantastic way to align yourselves temporarily and set the tone for what’s going to get done. But when scrum works it helps you not only manage products, but it helps you measure what’s important for team-building.

  • What did I do yesterday?
  • What will I do today?
  • Do I have any blockers?

This order is important. Start off by listing the items you did. We’ll call you on your bullshit if they’re different than what you said you’d do.

What will you do today? Great. We’re going to hold you to it.

Your blockers? If I can unblock you, I will add that to my to-do list.

Round we go from person to person outlining our responsibilities in our contract to one another. It’s how good teams become great. If you’re eyes are glazing over in scrum, you’re doing it wrong. You should be holding each other accountable and calling each other out if you’re not holding up to your commitments. It’s not the CTO’s or PM’s job to do that, but to encourage peers to do it. When it happens, it’s magic.

5. Slow down the input process.

One CTO I worked with ran around with a stack of 3×5 notecards everywhere. Any time someone brought something up that needed to be done, he would give them a stack of cards and say, “Go ahead and write me every use case you can about that feature set. Then schedule a meeting with Kelly to flesh them out. We’ll look at them prior to the next sprint planning session.”

I loved this approach. First, it was so analog it was hard for people to not get it. Sometimes the tools that have been designed for power users get in the way of thoroughness and thoughtfulness of simply putting pen to paper. Second, it established a timeline that the reporter him or herself would be responsible for adhering to. Sprint planning happens every thursday from noon to 4. Get your stories straight with the help of the PM before that meeting. Last, the cards themselves were effective props. If a story was completed, the card itself was taken over to the person who reported it who then had the pleasure of ripping it up. So much smile.

6. I’m not building a religion, I’m building a church.*

Let marketing build the religion.

7. I’m a CTO, not a scientist. 

This is my favorite. The only people I’ve worked with who call themselves scientists are data scientists. However in most orgs, the developers have Computer Science degrees. The CTO almost certainly does. Yet, they go by developers, engineers, designers, directors, chiefs, leads or architects. Why not scientist?

I think the answer boils down to the intentions. Scientists, even data scientists, spend much of their day running experiments. The process is mostly academic. Whereas engineers are living in the world of applied sciences; that is, applications are the manifestation of knowing what works for ensuring this equation always stays true:

solution > problem

The exercise is not academic. It’s practical. And it’s why you are a CTO, an officer of a company, and not a hacker. My job as the product manager is not to minimize the hacking (the CTO will help there) but to make sure the problem exists and set priorities for its problem-solvers to apply their science.

Stay with me on this.

Avid reader of The New Yorker here. A few years back I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell about an indian guy in the Bay Area who started coaching his daughter’s basketball team, a ragtag group of misfits some of whom had never played the game before. Given his background in software engineering and mathematics he devised a system of play that his girls could adhere to easily that would result in a higher winning percentage. That tactic? The full-court press. The result? They went undefeated. Un-de-feat-ed. Girls who had never played the sport were routinely mopping up the competition because they simply got more turnovers. The system? Simple. Lose the ball, lose the game.

As fate would have it, I came across this pre-Super Bowl edition of Real Sports with Bryant Gumble featuring Vivek Ranadivé, the new owner of the Sacramento Kings and former girls basketball coach. The same guy. Turns out he found a love for the game and used his tech millions to keep a team where the fans wanted it most: home.

Home. Where the heart is, right? During the Super Bowl few ads caught more attention (or flack) than the Coke and Cheerios ads (respectively, because Coke with Cheerios would be gross). The Coke ad in question offended people because it featured the song “America the Beautiful,” as an ode to pluralism, sung in several languages. 60 seconds designed to make the heads of xenophobes explode. The Cheerios ad in question was 30 seconds designed to make the heads of racists explode (for the second year in a row). They followed up their hugely popular and hugely controversial 2013 super bowl commercial with an endearing ode to family values…again. Coke’s vision of the US as a beacon of progress is what Ranadive cites specifically as his aha moment for coming to the US to study back in the 60’s. And family values are what brought him closer to basketball and, consequently, what kept their team in Sacramento.In his opening address at center court for this season, he addressed the fans thusly: “The team is yours and it’s here to stay.”

Barf your guts out, middle America. Tolerance is in. Big-time. Your Coke is love in a bottle. Your cheerios are little life vests after all. What are our Kings but those with daring dreams? Dammit if sports doesn’t bring out the best in us after all. And dammit if the full court press isn’t exactly what America needs from its advertisers too. Good for Cheerios on sticking with the game plan and Coke, too, heading into Sochi.

If you’re still out for red meat, you can take comfort in the fact that the Super Bowl got almost 16 times the number of views as Downton Abbey last night.

Super simple Chili recipe. Why? Because Mandy’s parents keep asking for it. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • A pound of lean ground beef. 
  • One whole yellow onion, diced. 
  • Three cans of beans. Mix it up. Kidney, pinto, white, black, lima, or whatever.
  • One big can of whole peeled or diced tomatoes.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Paprika, cayenne and hot sauce.
  • Shredded cheddar cheese.

Cooking instructions 

On high heat, with a bit of oil, fry those onions. Then add the beef and brown it. Add the tomatoes and beans and get to a boil then simmer. Do all of this in a sizeable sauce pan. Add salt, pepper and spices liberally to taste. I like it hot. 

After a half hour or so of simmering, scoop and serve with fresh grated cheddar cheese. Do the shredding yourself. It melts better that way. 

Final note. There’s a saying in Texas: “Anyone who knows beans about chili knows you don’t add beans to chili.” We’re not in Texas. Anyone who’s ever been to a taco stand in Texas and compared that to a taco stand in San Diego knows Texans have no right to lecture us on how to cook carne. 

Short version:
  • Come up with your theme. 
  • Set up your gofundme.com page. Here’s mine.
  • Invite your friends. 
  • Keep inviting your friends. 
  • Promote it every day on Facebook and Twitter and Email.
  • Don’t require any work from VOSD staff but make sure they are invited to attend. 
  • Have party. 
  • Give speech. 
  • Send thanks.
 
 
Long version:
 
 

First, a Theme

My neighbors and I had been kicking around the idea of doing a block party in October to celebrate the beer-making we were planning on doing this summer anyway. When they didn’t brew any beer I called them on their second bluff: the block party. The only thing missing was a better reason to get together than just opening bottles of beer. 
 
From Balboa Park to Blocktoberfest
I first introduced my neighbors to Voice a year ago after we volunteered to help put the Lily Pond boxes together one Saturday morning. I had gotten wind that volunteers were needed because I attended Voice’s event held at the Natural History Museum capping Kelly Bennett’s excellent deep-dive reporting. 
 
What’s the Goal?
I set the bar a bit high. $2,500. But I also had a goal to get at least 60 people to come. I figured I could help Voice more if I simply got a list of people who’d be receptive attending events and becoming members. 
 
What’s the Message?
People want to party. Your friends will support your cause if you promise a party. So that’s what I did. The party was built-in, I suppose, it being a celebration of the beer I had brewed over the summer. I charged $50 per bottle which seems ridiculous until you account for the fact that nobody misunderstood the meaning behind the “charge.”
 
How did I raise the money?
Simple: gofundme.com – so simple anyone could use it. You can use the site to raise money for yourself, but you can also choose a registered 501c3 to be the beneficiary. They handle the sign-ups and e-commerce transactions for you. They also have a feature that helps you promote your campaign via social media and email. Bonus: they’re a San Diego company. 
 
Promoting the Heck out of it
I set up the campaign two weeks before the event. Basically then I put together a list of my groups of friends. There are the people I play soccer with, my professional cohorts and just regular old friends. I emailed each of the groups three times during the course of the two weeks leading up to the fundraiser. The pitch was simple: 
 

Hi, [Self-referencing group name]:
I’m throwing a party to taste my summer homebrews in a couple of weekends. I would VERY much like to see the [group name] contingent to show support of it. It’s a fundraiser for VoiceofSanDiego.org which you know has been doing some great work in promoting the tech and beer scenes locally in addition to being a fantastic resource for covering local politics, arts and education. They deserve some love. And you’re going to give it.
Plus: beer.
Plus plus: taco cart. 
Plus plus plus: [inside joke only this cohort will appreciate]. 
Details on the fundraising page. Go! http://www.gofundme.com/blocktoberfest2013

 
I made sure to follow up with at least two more reminders with special call-outs to anyone who already RSVP’d. I also posted public thanks to my Facebook friends who donated. It gives you a chance to report on your forward momentum as well as spreading the cheer.
 
Party Planning
The worst part was party planning. We like to host events at our place. But getting food and drinks ready for a big group like that is not easy. My work sponsored the food and drinks (in total they cost about $300. Karl Strauss donates regularly to Voice, so the session beer on-hand was left-over from them. The important detail here is that Voice staff had to do very little for this event. Zach, bless him, dug up the beer for me and tallied the number of VOSDers that would come. But beyond that, the only thing I wanted them to do was show up, have fun and make some of my friends theirs. 
 
The Party
By the day of the party I had raised about $1,800 online via Gofundme.com. I had a headcount of about 45 people including VOSDers. I figured I’d get a few walk-ins but those would cancel-out the no-shows. I was pretty much right. Our neighbors Russ and Carrie baked some muffins and brought the bounce-house. Our other neighbors Ken and Mandy brought over some outdoor tables and chairs. I made some pulled pork and carnitas. We iced some beers and put out snacks just in time. The invitation asked for folks to show up at 3 and leave at 6. We got our first guests at 3 and the last guest left at 9:30. We had no leftovers.
 
The Pitch
In my mind, I was hoping to give a brief speech about why voice is important to me. I botched this during the party. So don’t make the same mistake I did. I don’t know why but I felt like people weren’t mingling so I made a point of pointing out the cliques in an effort to get them to break up a little. I should have stuck to the script. I did give Scott a chance to talk though and he rambled a bit about me, actually. I was flattered. It worked. It made me feel good in front of my friends. But, again, it would have been better if either of us had pitched a harder sell for why becoming a member to VOSD is important. I won’t make this mistake again.
 
The Follow-Up
Gofundme.com has a nice feature that lets me email people and thank them directly from the site. I can personalize each message, which I did not do. But it’s important to make sure people do get your thanks. I also exported the names, email addresses and donation amount of each of the attendees so that Voice could add them to their donor database. This is key.

There’s not a lot of good options out there for short run beer makers like me. I starting brewing 5-gallon batches this spring and now I have 4 cases of 22’s for different types of beer. In my last post, you can see the labels I would have in my dreams. After some investigation, those labels would be quite expensive to make. So I did some research last night and came up short of any elegant solutions.

To be clear, I have a common problem up to a point.

1 – I do small batches which would yield not more than 96 12-oz bottles.
2 – I make different beer in each batch.
3 – I don’t drink them immediately. I’m saving them for my blocktoberfest party to share with friends and neighbors.
4 – Labels would need to be easy to apply in short runs.
5 – Labels would have to be water-poof.
6 – I don’t care if they’re permanent, but if they are, all the better. I won’t be re-using the bottles. And if they get saved as mementos or collectors items, great!

Then here’s where I get a little atypical.

7 – I have well-designed, custom labels a friend made.

If all you want are labels for your bottle and don’t care much about the design, here are some sites you should check out.

Beer Clings

http://www.beerclings.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=91

 

They make pre-fab, generic beer labels, some of which you can add your beer type by hand (as shown above).

 

Beer Labelizer

http://www.beerlabelizer.com/

This is an online app that takes your inputs and spits out a custom JPG. You still have to do printing at home.

BeerLabel

Label Creator

http://beerlabelcreator.com/

Same as the beer labelizer but with more design options.

beer-label

 

Sticker Mule

http://www.stickermule.com/products/die-cut-stickers

On the custom side, there’s always high quality digital sticker printing that will do. Since my designs are non-standard in both size and shape, I’d need a die-cut sticker print run. They’re spendy, but in a perfect world, I’d have enough money and that wouldn’t matter.

 

Bottle Mark

http://www.bottlemark.com/

I wish I’d known about these guys before I bottled my beers. They do short run digital prints on your bottle caps. I’ll do this for later batches so they all have my branded caps. Alas, I’m too late for the runs I’ve already bottled. I’ll definitely be getting some of these for future runs.

What’s next?

Steph had an idea to spray paint a stenciled design. She thinks it will be a lot of work for what amounts to 48 bottles. I’m not opposed to it, but I think she’s right. Right now the plan is to do a short run of custom, die-cut stickers with a space for writing in (or spray painting) in my beer type, date, etc. We’ll do one mass-run sticker that’s just the brewery logo and tag line. I’m not incredibly keen on my hand-writing so I’d like to, still, figure out a way to use a stencil to mark the bottle. So I’m thinking I might just use traditional numbered stencils and keep it simple. I found these numbered stencils on Amazon and will do some test spraying next weekend. My hope is to combine the uniqueness of the batch, serialize them for collecting purposes, and all the while upping the general game by having non-crappy printed labels that are both water-proof and durable.

Alexandria Brewing

The Labels for my New Venture. One must spoil his vices.

Steph forwarded this to me tonight. We love Fresh and Easy. We’d hate to see it fold. And we’re glad they’re communicating this to us directly even though we read the news too. Especially because we’re informed. We want them to say at least something. And this something, as little as it is, ain’t nothing.

Dear Stephanie,

Thank you for being a Friend of Fresh & Easy. We wanted to reach out to you to address numerous news and online reports about the future of our stores.

Our parent company Tesco is conducting a strategic review of Fresh & Easy – they’re looking at all options to find the best outcome for the neighborhood market that you – and we – have come to love. While we don’t know exactly what that outcome will be, or if Tesco will continue to own the company, we’re confident that Fresh & Easy can continue to be your favorite market.

We want to assure you: we don’t have plans to close stores. We’re still committed to providing delicious, wholesome and affordable food every day. We’re still Fresh & Easy; open for business with everything that you enjoy about our store, with even more exciting things to come. That’s why we’re going to keep on fighting the good food fight.

Now, more than ever, we appreciate your energy in our stores and being able to share a smile with you. We look forward to seeing you soon and thank you for your continued support.

The Fresh & Easy Team

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