Hard Problems

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Several months ago I was serendipitously seated next to Tara Lemmey on a flight home from London to San Francisco. Somewhere over the Atlantic we got to talking about technology, career paths, management, and life. When I asked for her advice on my own next steps, she offered me a guiding principle which has stuck with me ever since.

“Go solve the hard problems,” she said, “everything else will sort itself out.”

Certainly there is no shortage of “hard problems” in our world, but it has been trickier than I imaged to find one to help “solve”. I started to have a series of discussions with everyone and anyone from whom I could steal advice. I was looking for hard problems that resonated with me and a specific opportunity that aligned my passions, skill sets, and career aspirations. I came up with a list: Healthcare, energy, government, education.

San Francisco has a hot job market and is hiring product managers like gangbusters. I’m both lucky and privileged enough to have obtained a skill set and network that afforded me many choices when it came to a next career move. Unfortunately, few of the obvious job opportunities fell into the “hard problem” bucket. Many of my mentors or advisers, who so generously lent me career advice, were encouraging me to pay my dues, gain more experience, or in some way seek prestigious titles or financially sound roles on traditional career paths.

Against all of this well meaning and sound advice, I found myself creating reasons to turn down director titles, lucrative stock options, or opportunities at red-hot-sexy startups. Who am I? I feel crazy! Who am I to turn this down? Has my ego gotten out of control? My boyfriend can attest to many a stressful evening debating details with myself, fighting impostor syndrome, and becoming pre-occupied with trying to understand why I was uncomfortable accepting these opportunities. Certainly I have plenty to learn about people and general management–and these were great ways for me to accelerate that growth. Despite my best efforts to understand the “why”, I was left with the simple gut feeling that something wasn’t clicking. The opportunities were getting easier and easier to turn down. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life just optimizing bottom lines for large fortune 500 companies.

I wanted to be on a team solving a “hard problem.” Tara’s advice kept banging around in my head. These weren’t hard problems.

With some persistence and luck, I was offered an opportunity in the Watson division at IBM. Consistently, the advice I was getting was some version of “Watson is occasionally a really great career accelerator, but also an uncertain vortex where it’s very hard to be successful and many get chewed up and spit out – I don’t want that to happen to you”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement to accept the position. A lateral move to a team where I had no connections. No one to say “Oh yeah – I know them – they are great.”

Something in my voice had changed when I talked about the Watson job with friends and family. My eyes glimmered with the potential of the technology, and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help shape the market. Maybe this was a hard problem.

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on!” Sheryl Sandberg

Last week, on my first day getting up to speed, I joined a roadmap meeting for what was about to become my product–Watson Vision. “Holy crap I’m out of my league!” is all I was thinking. The team members’ resumes humbled me with their long list of accomplishments and contributions to the cognitive computing, image recognition, and artificial intelligence communities. I continued thinking to myself “I’m supposed to be figuring out the strategy, technical priorities, and business model? I barely understand how it works.”

I have a lot to learn.

“Watson” technology is named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J Watson. Watson encouraged his team to “go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success–on the far side of failure.” I, am going to make mistakes as I take on this new challenge–but what day one taught me, was that in no uncertain terms – I found a hard problem.

While I have no idea how to solve this hard problem, I’m delighted and excited to be privileged enough to be tasked with figuring it out. Which of the world’s problems can we solve with this technology? How do we build, package, and sell cognitive image recognition technology to sectors like healthcare, retail, aerospace, finance, and security? Facial recognition has many applications: it creepily impinges on privacy; it powerfully detects cancer diagnoses automatically; and importantly drives insights from weather patterns.

There seems to be no limit to how cognitive vision technology could impact different industries and everyday lives. Balancing privacy interests, helping shape near term product offerings, and navigating executional realities is going to keep me busy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could automatically diagnose abnormalities in x-rays, instantly find lost ships and aircraft, and unite families when disaster strikes?

Hard problems? You bet! Thanks, Tara–I think I found one.

I’ve decided to jump on the rocket ship and see if I can lend a hand.

Halloween Costumes Inspired by the Digital Age

Growing up, I would plan my Halloween costume out for over a month. Building it would take several afternoons, and I always found joy to parade it around at night with my friends. Back then, my ideas were inspired by the classic movies or TV shows that shaped my world. My friends and I would go trick-or-treating throughout our neighborhood, carrying plastic pumpkins full of candy, dressed up as ghosts, witches, mummies, pirates, clowns, and the such. My coolest costume that I designed was in 8th grade, when I made a one-piece Gumby outfit, inspired by Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skit. “Yo, I’m Gumby!”

Today, being a mom, and having exactly 10 days before Halloween, I am feverishly working with my kids to pull their outfits together. But, their dream outfits inspiration source is nothing like mine… my kids want costumes about characters that are found on YouTube, from a video game, or are completely CG. Glimpsing through Pinterest, this internet inspiration becomes more obvious, that even lazy, grown up costumes consist of a t-shirt with the inscription: “404: Costume Not Found.”

According to my very accurate sources (my 9 and 6 year old kids) there is a new Halloween costume hierarchy for 2015. Old people (over 30 years old), you may need to ask Siri what these actually look like.  And by all means, if you are the one serving candy this year, and a bright-eyed, squatty purple monster comes to the door, do not ask what it is.  Just say “That’s better looking than what’s on the internet!”

Hottest Costume Trends for 2015

  • Leading YouTube stars (think PewDiePie who made $12M in pretax money in 2015 – so don’t laugh too hard at kids idolizing him.) My 9 year old is going to be Nyan Cat, who’s annoying song has had over 125 million views.
  • Any BYOC Roblox Player (that’s Build Your Own Character, which my 6 year old can show you how to do this). Move over Minecraft, Roblox is the 2015 hit for 8 – 14 year olds. Think it’s not sticking, check out the Roblox pizza parlor game that has over 50 million plays.
  • Everything Star Wars. With heavy anticipation of the next sequel and the now adults who were dressed up as Luke Skywalker in the 80’s, will ensure that every child considers participating in the legendary story. Thanks to the Disney franchising mastery, you can turn any baby into Yoda, and any adult into a storm trooper.
  • Any adorable CG characters from Home, Inside Out, or The Minions Movie. All it takes is face paint, some silly outfits easily found at the local clothes recycling stores, and a few good lines from the movies.
  • Retro video game characters, thanks to the movie Pixels. Likely you will see an entire family dressed up as Pacman, Pinky, Blinky, Inky and Clyde.
  • Zombies are undeniably the scariest costumes you’ll see, thanks to the countless video games, Netflix series and movies like Warm Bodies that make zombies likable. But get ready to spend lots of time preparing every gash and wound.
  • Day of the Dead skeletons. Walking around showing a skull mask and a femur is not enough. Get ready for a 2 hour face painting session and a corset that restricts breathing as this is likely the hottest and scariest combination look.
  • Pixelated Outfits. Perhaps my favorite tech influenced costume. Instead of appearing naked, wearing a pixelated outfit making you PG friendly really shows how our society self-moderates on the web. Besides, these are so much more imaginative than the full green suits popular a few years back.

If you have other digital age inspired costume ideas, please add them to the comments!

My So Called Life—Day Job or Dating

“My So-Called Life” was a 1990s TV show that showcased a bastion of teen angst.  Many of the shows plots focused on Claire Dane’s character, Angela crushing on heartthrob Jordan Catalano. In the new world of single adults, does this type of angsty behavior still happen? Does anyone have time for it?

18z8n5rf74zw8jpgI have dated a lot. Sometimes I love dating and sometimes I hate it. To be honest, I’ve been on a dating hiatus for a while now.  It just seems like so much work and I put so much energy into my work day that I just want to be quiet when I go home at night.

I had a revelation this week. I think my day job is sucking up all my personal dating juice. Who knew that B2B Marketing and dating have so much in common? I don’t know why I didn’t see this before. It seems pretty obvious.

Here are a few things you have to do for both:

  1. Communicate authentically. Don’t try and be something you’re not. People see right through that. It’s one of those kindergarten lessons that stay with you for life. It’s the worst to meet someone in person that oversells themselves on a dating profile. Same is true in marketing.  Don’t oversell your features or promise things that aren’t in your product domain.
  2. Build relationships. You have to meet people and then get to know them. Building relationships often gives you insights that you wouldn’t see by just basing decisions on a first impression. Sometimes it takes awhile to see who a person is. Sometimes it takes awhile to see what product is like.  If you build a relationship by adding value to that person’s world and listen to what they are looking for, it’s likely they’ll come around.
  3. Find a channel that worksNot all avenues are equal. Find the best path to leads. Optimize and limit the areas that don’t work. It sounds cold, but you might be a Tinder or Hinder person in the digital dating world. Match.com and EHarmony might be too time consuming for you. Find the channel that works best for your personal habits.  Same is true in B2B marketing. We’re constantly optimizing digital channels to find leads that meet the needs of our sales teams.
  4. Setup qualifications. It’s important to know what you are looking for so you can make sure you are moving in the right direction. Also note that it’s Ok if  your criteria changes over time. (Do I really have to expand on this? I think I’ll skip it.)
  5. Leverage your network. I think every daytime TV host has done a show on this topic. Who are your brand or personal influencers? Can they help connect you to people that are qualified targets?  I don’t expect Oprah to walk out and say “here’s a boyfriend for you.. and a boyfriend for you.. and a boyfriend for you” but a hint or a direct question to the right person may put you in the path of exactly the person you are looking for.  The same is true for your company or product. (Is Oprah not a contextual reference anymore?) 🙂

So what’s a girl to do? How do you save some energy for your personal brand when it’s part of your start-up day job? Suggestions and adult Jared Leto substitutes welcome.