I’ve recently been traveling through Japan, covering all the way from Nagasaki on Kyushu island in the south up to Sapporo in the north. Three weeks. 2500km. By train. Needless to say, Japanese trains are awesome: They’re fast, they’re clean, they’re cheap (at least for tourists), and they will take you pretty much anywhere. But by far the most remarcable thing about them is: They’re on time. All the time.
Language is arguably humanity’s most consequential invention. Unlike any other species, Homo Sapiens has developed a means by which complicated, abstract plans can be efficiently and effectively transmitted from one mind to the next. Thus, our prehistoric ancestors, in contrast to their natural rivals, could successfully coordinate, say, a large-scale hunt, an attack on a foreign tribe, or even how they wanted to arrange life in increasingly complex social communities.
The advent of ChatGPT and the subsequent release of GPT-4 have brought a wave of publicity to the field of generative AI. Many observers marvel at the levels of “creativity” that the technology has attained seemingly overnight and it’s tempting to get lost in pondering its implications on the future of, say, education, white-collar work, healthcare, or any other sector of the economy that suddenly looks ripe for disruption.
If you’re reading this, the mounting news of apparent breakthroughs in generative AI have surely not passed you by: Tools that can compose music, write code, paint pictures, and genuinely seem to be smart enough to pass various state exams have become publicly (and mostly freely) available in a surprisingly short timespan. This wave of commoditization has also shed the light of public discourse onto debates about AI safety which had, until now, been confined to relatively small, mostly academic circles.
Almost three years ago, Covid-19 began to manifest itself as a global, historical turning point. Since then, its far-reaching consequences have been analyzed and written about in much detail. Despite an abundance of insightful pandemic stories on an institutional as well individual level, I feel compelled to provide one more personal anecdote. Not because I’m looking for praise for the few hours of weekly voluntary work I that I’m doing since then.
Meditating comes with an interesting side effect: When you’re sitting still and observing your own thoughts, you slowly start to appreciate how weird and quirky your mind actually is. That can be scary at times—for instance, you realize how little control “you” ultimately have over what’s going on in there. But it can also be highly instructive. One interesting thing I’ve come to notice, during as well as outside of formal meditation sessions, is how much the degree to which I feel “fidgety” varies from day to day and even from one situation to the next.
I’m a big fan of making things as simple as possible, but not simpler. As many of those witty quotes, this one is also frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, even though it’s unlikely he said it in quite those words. Nevertheless, he was surely on board with the meaning: Every idea, every concept, every argument can in principle be reduced to an essence, but one that’s often padded with a lot of fluff.
I have referred to my meditation practice a few times now, but I realize that I never actually explained what I even mean by that. So, what is it that I do when I say I meditate? Why do I do it in the first place? And is it really worth the hassle? First, let me clarify what meditation, to me, is certainly not: It’s not “sitting around and thinking hard about a problem”—even though the term is frequently used in that sense in everyday language.
Product management is likely to be the most cross-functional discipline of them all. Conceptually, we’re trying to align desirability ("What does the market need?"), feasibility ("What kind of solution can we realistically build?"), and viability ("How do we make this a profitable business?"). That part of the job alone necessitates broad knowledge across a variety of fields, as well as a reasonable amount of depth in each of them.
One thing that never fails to astounds me is how far the boundaries of possible human experiences extend. The label “beyond good and evil” is certainly overused these days, but lets try to take the idea seriously for a moment: What do experiences look like that are so totally incomprehensible that you can’t even begin to speak about them, let alone chart them on a mental map. Think of the comfort zone model for example:
More than a year ago, I published this blog post about my daily routine. Since then I’ve received a lot of feedback, ranging from curiosity to mild encouragement to raised eyebrows. In essence though, the comments most people brought up boil down to three things: “This kind of lifestyle seems dull / repetitive / strenuous / masochistic. How do you find any joy in that?” “Isn’t it all just a fluke?
John Cutler recently published a nice piece “In Defense of Frameworks (and Process)". And some defense is indeed in order, as the very idea of structured, well-documented, repeatable processes has suffered quite a few attacks over the previous decades: They’re too heavy, they stifle creativity, they diminish an organization’s ability to respond quickly to change, they’re not agile. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater: To “learn, collaborate, and lighten cognitive load”, as Cutler puts it, are great reasons to install frameworks and processes in the first place, as are increased transparency, predictability, and involvement.
When I talk about strategy, particularly product strategy, and particularly to engineers, I like to start with a picture that looks like this: My goal here is to draw their attention away from what usually comes to mind about planning and prioritizing: Which features are on the roadmap and which aren’t? Where’s that issue ranked on the backlog? Will this enhancement request make it into the next sprint?
At an all-hands meeting earlier this week, I ran a little experiment: I polled the assembled engineers to find out how many of them felt that they had a solid grasp on the workings of our business model. Guess what? Not a lot of hands went up. But if I had turned around and asked the sales teams how familiar they felt with the architecture of our software products, I’d probably gotten a similar result.
“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?” The Doctor Yes, I plucked that quote from a cheesy Doctor Who episode. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot of truth to unpack here. So indulge me, if you will. I’ve been fascinated with stories for all my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around being read to, and later reading myself, books about epic battles, about murder and deceit, about the lives and deaths of heroes and villains both real and fictional.
At first it struck me as an exaggeration when James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, wrote the following in one of his recent newsletters: “Most big, deeply satisfying accomplishments in life take at least five years to achieve. This can include building a business, cultivating a loving relationship, writing a book, getting in the best shape of your life, raising a family, and more.” Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
In biology, there’s a concept called homeostasis: Living systems seem to effortlessly balance differences between internal and external conditions in order to remain within their existential boundaries. The human body for example maintains an almost constant core temperature through sophisticated heating and cooling processes, and thus manages to keep us alive and flourishing in a wide range of environments. Social systems on the other hand don’t come with such built-in regulatory mechanism.
The act of thinking is probably the most interesting human behavior, but one we usually pay very little attention to. But bear with me, and… think about it for just a second: What’s actually going on in your head when you think about anything? Or, when you try to think about nothing at all? And is that even possible? It’s likely that you’ll find that what we call thinking mostly consists of a strange, one-sided dialog: A semi-structured conversation between you and… Yourself?
Conflicts, especially within organizations full of smart and well-intentioned people, often turn out not to be rooted in substantial differences at all. Much more often, minor misunderstandings are what actually wreaks havoc on our ability to collaborate. Yet, the consequences can range from a diffuse sense of constant irritation to an unnecessary proliferation of endless clarification meetings. I therefore believe that precise communication is an organizational superpower, just as much as a lack thereof can quickly poison a company’s otherwise healthy culture.
The human mind has an interesting weak spot: It is able to ask questions to which it knows that no satisfactory answer can exist. No other form consciousness (of which we know of) shows this behavior—or is even remotely capable of doing so. A cat doesn’t ponder what the meaning of life is. No octopus contemplates the value of its existence. Chimpanzees don’t question their higher purpose. For animals, despite many of them undoubtedly being conscious in ways not dissimilar to ours, a state of mere being is enough.
If you’ve got about 20 minutes to spare, I’d invite you to listen to the following performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101) by the great Igor Levit: What caught my attention about this piece—apart form the beauty of the music itself—are the peculiar titles Beethoven chose for each of the four movements. Normally, these are intended to clarify the composer’s intentions for the benefit of the performer.
These days, I find it hard not to think about concepts such as chance and luck. About all the good things in life we take for granted. About how we often act on the assumption that we rightfully deserve our privilege, even though most of it came to us out of sheer serendipitous coincidence. But also about the other side of that coin, namely the haunting feelings of guilt and remorse evoked by a sudden exposure to others’ suffering vis-a-vis our own happy, content existence.
There’s this famous story about Christopher Wren, the legendary architect who rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666: One day, while inspecting the ongoing construction, Wren came across three bricklayers who must have triggered his curiosity. He struck up a conversation, asking each of them in turn who they were and what they were doing. The first one answered: “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working here to feed my family.
Of a Happy Life by Seneca. At various points in his writing, Seneca uses fictional debates as a way to illustrate and then counteract objections to his views. In one particularly intriguing dialogue in “De Vita Beata” ("Of a Happy Life"), he and his virtual alter ego argue back and forth wether pleasure or virtue form the basis of a fulfilled, happy existence. Of course, the issue at stake here could hardly be of any greater significance: How does one live a good life?
Peak Mind by Amishi P. Jha. We’re all distracted, all of the time. More and more studies show that on average, we spend only 50% of our waking hours engaged with the present moment—the other half of the time we’re zoning out, ruminating, mind-wandering or daydreaming. Furthermore, research suggests that our ability to pay attention is on the decline. And why wouldn’t it be, given the increasing pace at which we’re assaulted by social media notifications, breaking news alerts, and instant messages.
Frankly, I didn’t have the best of weeks this week. I found myself questioning my self-worth based on perceptions of having fallen short of certain achievements. It’s pointless to judge yourself solely by outcomes of course, particularly those that aren’t entirely under your own control–as the Stoics would put it. But to understand that basic principle is one thing, while applying it in everyday life is quite something different.
Getting people–others or ourselves–to do something that’s not obviously pleasurable is immensely tricky. Never mind if you want to start an exercise routine, eat healthier, or motivate someone to get their Covid-19 shot, the underlying challenge is always the same: In the short-term, it’s easier, less painful, or more convenient to simply avoid doing the “right” thing. So what can we do, in spite of that bias towards immediate gratification, to overcome the mind’s inbred inertia?
“Where’s the fun in that?”, many people asked after I had published my daily routine. Often, the question seemed borne not purely out of curiosity or interest, but rather inspired by pity, or even concern about my wellbeing. Doesn’t so much rigidity and discipline grind one down? Am I renouncing all of life’s pleasures? Doesn’t all work and no play make Jack a dull boy? How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Product Roadmaps Relaunched by C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan, Michael Connors. To be honest, I’ve built a lot of terrible roadmaps over the years. Some resembled Gantt-charts and came with work packages, milestones, and deadlines. Unsurprisingly, these created an unjustified sense of security and commitment. Others were too lofty and vague, needed lots of explaining and still left behind confused and irritated audiences. I came to try various formats and templates, adapted and tinkered to address some of these issues, but I am yet to uncover the holy grail of roadmapping.
AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee. On the topic of US/China relations, themes reminiscent of the Cold War era almost immediately spring to mind. Yes, one can look at the geopolitical, economic, and societal disparities between the world’s two leading nations exclusively through the narrow lens of domination, and thereby reach the conclusion that head-on conflict is unavoidable. Both fiction and non-fiction writers have explored that possibility at length, and technology always plays an essential part in these deliberations.
It’s 4:15am when my alarm goes off. I get out of bed immediately, without snoozing. Before I know what’s happening, I’m already in my running gear, and with a sip of water I’m out of the door no later than 4:25am. I run for 60 to 120 minutes, covering between ten and twenty kilometers. When I get back, it’s time for breakfast: Usually, oatmeal and a banana to refill the carbs I’ve burnt, together with a big glass of water to rehydrate.
I consider myself reasonably fit. I know I can run a mile in seven minutes, or a kilometer in four and a half. On even ground. In cool climate. When I’m feeling fresh and relaxed. But upwards on a 75% incline? On a rocky hillside? In 40°C or more? With lungs full of smoke, the roar of a wildfire in my ears, and under threat of a sudden and violent death?
That tiny moment between sleep and wakefulness is a fascinating thing: Your mind hasn't quite caught up with reality yet, but it already tries to make sense of what's going on. When something feels even a little bit off during those split seconds, that can be a frightening experience: The light comes in from the wrong direction. The air is too humid. The touch of the bedspread seems unfamiliar.
Our mind is under ceaseless attack. Constantly, our senses assault it with a gazillion bits of information about the outside world, and the mind itself produces its own fair share of deductions, inferences, and projections on top of that–things we commonly refer to as thoughts. There’s just no way any system anywhere could process all that data in real time, so over eons of evolution, human minds have developed rigorous methods to separate what is considered useful from all the other crap.
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer. My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel. I’m not sure why, but over the last few weeks I rediscovered a passion for adventure literature. Re-reading Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet” led me down the rabbit-hole towards lesser known, but no less epic, tales such as Alexandra David-Néel’s “Journey to Lhasa”. Right now, I’m halfway through “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, which details the horrors of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and just when their ship finally gets crushed and the crew is forced to flee into the freezing wilderness of Antarctica, the central heating in my house breaks down.
Back in the day, I once attended a big software conference somewhere in Germany. As chance would have it, I struck up a conversation there with an agile coach who was working for a big customer of the product that I was serving for as Product Owner at the. During the course of the event, we would occasionally bump into each other again and chat about our respective challenges: Me, shepherding a medium-sized product team at an international software conglomerate, and him leading the agile transformation of one of the most stereotypically conservative organizations in the world: The federal government of Germany.
A few months ago, I began working on a small private project. Back then, the world was on lockdown and I found myself unemployed for the first time in my life. Desperation and boredom rarely go well together, and when I now reflect on those gloomy days, it’s fair to say that keeping my mind occupied with that idea was one of the very few things that kept me from slowly losing it.
Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (aka George Elliot). “Surely,” said Dorothea, “it is better to spend money in finding out how men can make the most of the land which supports them all, than in keeping dogs and horses only to gallop over it. It is not a sin to make yourself poor in performing experiments for the good of all.” — Mary Ann Evans (aka George Elliot), Middlemarch (1871)
The sun was just barely visible above an undulating landscape on that Saturday morning. Although the weather forecast had been fair it had also warned of extreme heat. Therefore, they had opted to launch their endeavor as early as possible. Rising temperatures would only make things more difficult. And thus, increasingly dangerous. They followed a narrow gravel road out of the sleepy mountain village, and into nowhere. He stopped the car when the others told him to.
Crises such as the current pandemic force leaders to make tough decisions. Governments were—and in many cases still are—faced with practical and moral questions like “To what extent can we stifle social interactions to limit the spread of the disease, but at the same time protect businesses from going bankrupt?”, “Where’s the break-even point beyond which the suffering caused by a recession surpasses the number of lives threatened by the pandemic itself?
Designing Your Work Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. “F**k this s**t, I’m quitting!” Many of us have played with the thought of making a memorable exit from a job we didn’t enjoy at some point in our careers. I know a few people who actually did (though not with quite such strong language), but unsurprisingly that didn’t end well for any of them.
“How long will this take?” is a tricky question. Most of us are terrible at estimating which is why organizations often make decisions based on either wildly inflated guesses, or wishful but unrealistic thinking. Furthermore, estimating itself takes time and binds resources that we could invest in actually doing the work instead. Intuitive Prediction by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Advocates of the #noEstimates movement argue that it is in fact possible to get the benefits of estimating without having to pay the (full) price, and they get a lot of traction these days.
In many instances software architecture is less a product of deliberate design and more an accidental result of countless interactions between people. Or, as Eric Raymond put it more pointedly: “If you have four groups working on a compiler, you’ll get a 4-pass compiler.” How Do Committees Invent? by Mel Conway. This idea was originally introduced by Mel Conway in his 1967 paper “How Do Committees Invent?
I once was given advice by a senior product manager that toppled one of the fundamental assumptions I had held about the PM role. What he said was: “Don’t go down with your products.” I had intuitively thought of the PM as the proverbial captain who is supposed to go down with his ship (at least as far as popular opinion is concerned) but what my colleague suggested sounded more like an invitation to opportunistically hop from one product to the next, jumping ship whenever things started to look dire.
The other day I had a wonderful conversation with a friend and fellow software enthusiast about fairness when it comes to the remuneration of knowledge workers. Both of us have been through various posts in different technology companies, increasingly concerning ourselves with management and leadership as our careers progressed. Our conversation honed in on the following question: Is the way people are payed in our industry today fair? Note that I’m not referring only to software developers here—data scientists, UI experts, DevOps heroes, product managers, and all the others who contribute to successful projects are included as well.
It’s a particularly unnerving aspect of the human condition that we’re longing the most for the things we don’t—or can’t—have at the moment. As of this writing, I’m sitting comfortably in a warm house, wearing decent clothes, am well fed and somewhat relaxed. Still I get the feeling that I’d enjoy nothing more than being outside in the blistering cold of this foggy December morning, pushing my body to physical exhaustion by running for an hour or two, only to arrive at where I started.
I once worked for a manager who would send his employees home by 5:30pm every day. This was at a time and in an environment where looking productive by working at all hours was not only prized and honored, but to some degree even expected by upper management. His argument for limiting the amount of time people should spend in the office was rooted in a different mindset though: He rightfully insisted that nobody produces outstanding results while being exhausted and overworked.
Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. Recently I read Richard Rumelt's business classic Good Strategy / Bad Strategy which, beside clarifying what strategy actually is and why any organization would benefit from having one, offers many insightful stories and anecdotes on economics. One I found particularly amusing was about Andrew Carnegie, who was arguably the most successful business man of his day, being ranked the richest American for several years at the beginning of the 20th century.
I attended a great concert in Vienna this Friday night. Afterwards, on the way back to the apartment of the friends I was staying with, we passed a cafe where we had drinks a couple of times on previous occasions. Much to my surprise, the cafe was closed. I asked my friends what had happened - surely a location like this with thousands of concert goers passing by every night must be a gold mine?
Abraham Lincoln has been quoted saying: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." As it turns out, he probably never said that at all. But I still think we can learn something from that advice, despite its uncertain origins. Preparation In its most literal sense, the expression reminds us that time and energy spent in preparation tends to pay off by allowing us to do the actual work more efficiently.
How does anybody actually decide what they do? Life is an endless parade of choices: In every moment we prioritize and decide: Do we get up or stay in bed? Do we read the paper or go for a walk? Do we exercise or watch TV? Each of those tiny choices may seem inconsequential on their own, but taken together they end up defining our entire life. The same is true in business: Every day, we make countless small decisions that end up shaping our organization and its culture.
It's been over a month now since I joined Cockpit365, a startup where more or less everything is in flux: The product, the organizational structure, the market, the ecosystem, … So I didn't know what to expect - except to expect the unexpected. In fact, I wasn't sure if I would even survive the first month, given both the personal, professional, and economic dynamics at play. But here we are: One month in, and hopefully many more to come.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. I've been curious about the world for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I used to question my parents about the inner workings of almost everything, from household appliances to world politics. At some point I remember talking to my dad about the origins of humans, I think after having read or heard somewhere that African apes are somehow our ancestors.
Range by David Epstein. Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are two very different kinds of athletes. Each has achieved outstanding success in his field, but they took very different paths to get there: While Tiger Woods started playing golf before he could walk, Roger Federer experimented with a wide variety of sports before honing in on Tennis at a rather late age. David Epstein uses the stories of Roger and Tiger to start his book Range, in which he builds the case for shunning the "
When it comes to engagement, motivation, and ultimately outcome of meetings, I find there's two extremely unsatisfying ends of a spectrum. One end — let's call it Dress to Impress — is the type of meeting where everyone tries to show off to somebody else. I saw that happen when a new manager is in the room to whom everybody wants to demonstrate how great they are, or just whenever too much ego is involved on anyone's part.
People say that life is short, but that’s not true. Life isn’t short, it’s long. In fact, it’s the longest thing we ever experience first hand. We only perceive life as short because we don’t make the best use of the time we have. It has become all too easy nowadays to waste away an entire lifetime with distractions like TV or social media. All the while we subconsciously hope that some day, by some miracle, a more satisfying future will roll around in which we will be… happy.
First things first: This blog exists mostly for myself. It exists because I was looking for means that would coerce me to write more — and better. See, nowadays we use written communication as much as never before, but I'd argue that at the same time the quality of our writing is in deterioration. At least, for me it is. I noticed that when I was younger, I enjoyed writing a lot more, and I remember being relatively good at it, but years of typing e-mails, text messages, and other one-liners somehow seemed to have damaged that ability.