Software engineering as a sign of the future

They say that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed. One area where this adage is manifest is in working arrangements – or, if you like, the organizational technology – in software companies.

At most software companies, there are two business functions that are very commonly staffed with a heavy complement of “remote” employees: sales and engineers. On the sales side, the reason is pretty obvious. Where in-person sales calls are a part of the business, you want sales personnel geographically near the client. On the engineering front, the reasons are a little more interesting.

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Why aren’t there more software engineers?

One perennial area of debate in the tech industry centers around who’s in it (and who’s not). The constant background noise about the supposed scarcity of developer talent has led to any number of new approaches aimed at bringing more skilled candidates online. All manner of “bootcamps,” career-switcher programs and innovative approaches like Lambda School have emerged to meet labor market demand for skilled software developers, with varying levels of success.

A lot of people have wondered why more people, particularly young people just beginning their careers, don’t go into computer science. Dan Wang wrote what is probably the best summary of the common reasons proffered: that CS is hard, it’s unwelcoming to women and minorities, the degree isn’t strictly necessary, etc. These are all true points.

There’s a bigger question at stake, though – are there, in fact, “too few” software engineers? I’m not convinced there actually are. And if you do grant that this is true, then the reasons for it seem clearer from outside the Valley bubble.

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Yes, you should blog

Personal blogs seem to be on the wane today. While blogging now seems like table stakes for every organization, company (especially in tech) or celebrity, fewer and fewer regular ol’ humans seem to bother anymore. I think there are a couple big reasons for this. Among those people who might otherwise think about blogging:

  • They think blogging is hard to do.
  • They don’t see the advantage of blogging over using social media.
  • They simply don’t think they have anything worth saying, or that others would actually want to read.

I’m going to dispatch numbers one and two in a sec, but this blog post is really about rebutting #3, and to say – don’t listen to the cynics. If you have even the slightest inclination, you should blog. About whatever. Blog about unicorns, or growing ghost peppers in your flower box, or about raising a child with autism, or even about your views on politics. (Really!) You should blog because it’s good for you, it is often fun, and dammit, it’s good for the internet.

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The fetishization of “technical”

One of my more controversial opinions on product management is that most PMs do not need to touch code, and in fact, usually shouldn’t.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Product Managers can’t use code in common tools of the trade. Testing APIs, running SQL queries and simply understanding how common languages and frameworks work are all important. Rather, when I say “touch code,” what I mean is contributing to the product code base. That is often an antipattern that pulls the PM away from their core job responsibilities.

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The internet as television

One of the biggest generational schisms on the internet today (besides your level of gif game) is your connection to the idea of the “free and open web.”

Anyone in their mid-20s or younger does not remember an internet not utterly dominated by today’s giant digital platforms. After all, the idea of having a full, unencumbered internet experience without ever needing a Google or Facebook account is pretty much inconceivable now. All ecommerce roads eventually lead back to Amazon. All your online activity is tracked and monitored in order to “optimize” your “experience,” which turns out to mean targeting ads to you from the highest bidder. Much of the content you see online is predetermined by an algorithm that shows you what you’re statistically most likely to “engage” with.

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Don’t work “remotely”

Depending on who you ask, “remote” working is either gaining steam in the tech industry or still a coveted-but-rare perk for the lucky few. A pattern that seems to be emerging is this:

  • Tech giants like Amazon and Google, wagering that their corporate brand and bidding power are strong enough to attract and retain local talent, are doubling down on co-located teams. Amazon’s choice of “conventional” sites in Northern Virginia and NYC for their much-hyped HQ2 presence, as well as Google’s announcement that it’s doubling its presence in NYC, seem to support this.
  • Meanwhile, smaller tech companies are slowly (reluctantly?) coming to terms with “remote” working, as they are increasingly squeezed by talent availability and costs in giant tech metros like San Francisco and NYC. (For some reason, few people want to move there.)

There are the conventional objections to “remote” working: namely, VCs hate it, and simple path dependence leads many founders to not even consider it until a solid co-located team has been established. Adopting “remote” working is not simply a matter of hiring someone out in Sioux City – it involves a series of intentional organizational and cultural changes that lots of stressed leaders just don’t want to deal with. Moreover, all of us start with basic inherited ideas of old-fashioned “work culture” that don’t really translate into the knowledge economy of 2018. These are all real, but solvable, obstacles to overcome.

But one largely overlooked obstacle to the adoption of “remote” working is the popular conception of how it actually works, the root of which has to do with all the quotation marks you’ve seen here so far. The term “remote” work itself implies tasks being done at arm’s length, and at some critical remove between object and subject. I’m here, and “the work” is over there, in other words. Like anywhere, this framing is critical. And it’s also mostly wrong. Don’t adopt “remote” working. Adopt distributed work.

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The false gospel of “social entrepreneurship”

Among the most popular recruiting pitches in the startup world today is the claim to be “mission-driven” and to be oriented towards “social impact.” This follows the lead of so many established tech companies, whose pretensions to “make the world a better place” ring so close to home that when skewered on HBO’s Silicon Valley, it’s hard to know who’s in on the joke. Throughout the tech world, “social impact investing” and “philanthropy” are some of the hottest new status brags for the upwardly ambitious.

When I first stepped into business school back in 2009, I was surprised to learn during orientation that more than a third of my classmates had cited a strong interest in “social entrepreneurship” as a part of their applications. At the time, I was puzzled why anyone would pursue an MBA to go into social entrepreneurship, which was a concept I only vaguely understood at the time. What I later learned was that almost none of them actually did. Nevertheless, social entrepreneurship programs are so popular that not only are they ubiquitous at prestigious business schools (and at those that aspire to be), but they are very prominent features in school marketing. This trend has only grown since I graduated. The landing page for Harvard Business School’s MBA program features a big splashy carousel advertising how its graduates are “Making a difference” in Southeast Asia and Africa. (70% of HBS grads last year went into management consulting, finance or tech, btw.)

It’s time to splash some cold water on this phenomenon. Some corrective is needed to counter both the gospel of “social entrepreneurship” as the most effective route of social change, as well as the usefulness of corporate partnership in the same.

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What’s a Senior Product Manager’s job?

I found myself inspired recently after reading another outstanding blog post by Julia Evans titled “What’s a Senior Engineer’s job?” If you’re not reading Julia’s blog yet, then… what are you doing? Go open a new tab and check her out. Her blog has really taught me a lot about how software engineers work, and that post above is just one of many examples.

It got me thinking about the natural counterpart on our side – what, exactly, is a Senior Product Manager’s job? In many ways, the Product Management role is much more amorphous than Engineering is, which leads a lot of people to be confused about what they “should” be doing. In that spirit, I’m going to take a crack at this question for folks in our world.

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Progress is slow

The past week here in the Raleigh/Durham area has been full Hurricane Florence prep. While hurricane preparedness is pretty much an annual rite in this region (there are minor hurricanes almost every year), the strength and size of Florence sent this year’s cycle into overdrive. The last storm to cause really massive damage here was Hurricane Fran back in 1996, and memories of that one have lingered, informing everyone’s preparedness this time around.

Something that struck me was how little storm preparedness has changed in the 22 years since Fran, despite how much technology has changed so much else.

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