Minkey and Company Travel to Rome – (where the Minkey was 10 years ago)

(Editor’s note: The Minkey is currently traveling and could not get the creative juices flowing to come up with a more relevant post for the Sil Tales site – this will have to do for now)

A year ago there was a trip to Italy, specifically Rome and this is an account of our first day there:

We arrived in Rome early on Sunday morning which meant we needed to keep ourselves awake for at least another 12 hours or so. Some of us were in better shape than others and over the course of the day people started to drop like flies…

Our villa is smack-dab in the middle of everything. I kid you not. We are within 20-30 minutes of all the major sights in the centro. Initially we decided it was best to keep moving and find some food.

Our first tourist area was the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps where we were immediately taken in by the man ‘giving’ away roses. The roses turned out to not be free (hello dumb tourist ladies). We made a second mistake when we decided to have Prosecco with lunch …(fabulous but kind of put things further into slow motion). Jetlag and Prosecco don’t mix. It was also hot. The sun here beats down mercilessly and cooks you fairly quickly. The Minkey wore her hat and continues to wear her hat, it keeps her more sane.

Third stop was the Pantheon. This took some getting to via the Piazza Colonna where it was hot, and then past another interesting building with Roman columns incorporated into the walls, where it was hot, and then at long last into the Piazza blah blah (sunstroke moment), where it was hot, with the sun rays beaming down to illuminate this spectacular ancient building. It is still intact, approximately 2,000 years later! Even late in the day on Sunday this place was packed with people many of them unwashed (I know, we are supposed to be accepting of all cultures, including their bathing habits, but still). Anyway, we admired the architecture which includes a free-standing dome as wide as it is tall with a circular opening cut out at the top letting in light. That is the only lighting in the place. Fabulous. We lost Julie at the Pantheon blisters and heat had taken their toll. The rest of the herd kept moving forward.

pantheon_2014          pantheon_painting_2014         pantheon_dome_2014

I’ve mentioned that it was warm (once or twice), so we ducked into the church of San Luigi dei Francesi where there is a Caravaggio or two in one of the chapels. I went to every single chapel. In reality, I shuffled to every single chapel in the place before landing on the very last one that had the Caravaggio. At this point, Yvette was falling asleep on her feet – literally. Sooooo, we attempted to provide her with address and directions which she could not type into her phone, as she kept conking out. Now the herd decided to walk Yvette back to the villa.

Wendy, Alaina and Minkey decide they must keep moving and will head to the grocery store. Our rental property people told us there was a new grocery store down the street. We imagined a large marketplace complete with large signage. Ha. We walked around for a while baking in the sun, before we had to sit down on a window ledge and use the google to look for the stinking store. Which was literally across the street from us. Jetlag is cruel, people. We had looked into this store and thought it was a small tabac or something but no, once you get in there and turn the corner, it is actually much larger! Bah.

And now everyone is starting to melt as the lack of sleep really starts to affect your brain. We are American after all and ended up sitting outside in the Campo Marzio area enjoying some pizza … which hit the spot. Finally pseudo day one came to an end ….

It’s the little things….

I believe we are all aware that we live in an extremely stressful world.  There are constant stressors like the commute, the husband and kids (I don’t have either so I’m guessing here), pets, your job, and what cool color to use on your toenails.  And then there are random events out there which can start to nag at you.  For instance, is the bay area about to experience the mother of all earthquakes?  Since the Napa shaker, it has lingered in the back of my mind that I need to move to solid ground (I am on landfill and mud – think liquefaction).  And yes these stressors have different levels of magnitude – I get that – just trying to point out the wide range of worries that most of us have.

So – we need to have some good things to celebrate in order to break the stressor cycle.  And I find that so often there are random, sometimes very mundane events that cause little bursts of happiness and appreciation.  Sometimes I myself am surprised at how positive my reaction is to these events!  Let me list a few:

  1. Bike riding around the Canada road area a couple of weeks back when it was EXTREMELY hot. I thought wow, it’s getting unpleasantly warm, perhaps I should throw in the towel.  Instead, I slowed down some and enjoyed the scenery.  The scenery was brightened by all of the male joggers out there who were running sans t-shirts.  They all looked really good …   and that made me smile and giggle on the inside (ok, sometimes on the outside) and appreciate that hot weather, and appreciate the bay area men who are committed to physical fitness and willing to share their bare chests with the rest of us!
  2. I frequently find myself on airplanes and unable to utilize all of my United 1K perks, like upgrades. I had a lengthy conversation with a United Airlines representative about how unfair this was and received the typical spiel about this being how it works.  In any case, on my flight to Tel Aviv as I was boarding the bells went off and they handed me a ticket for business class!  It seems like a small thing, but I was thrilled to pieces.  Oh yes, I had to control myself not to tap dance onto the plane.
  3. Luna bars. Ok, to elaborate further I use luna bars when I’m biking or traveling as a quick fix for hunger pangs.  In and of itself this is no big deal.  But what IS a big deal is when I’m ravenously hungry, say after the gym, or having missed lunch, and I find a luna bar stashed somewhere that I had forgotten about!  The joy and rapture at finding one of those in an hour of need – I can’t tell you how happy that makes me!
  4. Someone leaving a piece of chocolate on my desk. I don’t know about your offices, but in ours we do have caches of chocolate items in various locations.  Chocolate and I have a very strong affinity for one another and several of my colleagues are aware of this.  Occasionally I will return to my desk to find one or two mini candy bars waiting there for me.  How fabulous is that?!  Not only was someone thinking about me, but they actually left a chocolate offering for me!  This always helps me to generate positive feelings towards the universe.

I think what I’m really trying to say, besides the fact that I like men, international travel and chocolate (not necessarily in that order), is that it’s important to look for these moments in our lives and really savor them, because otherwise we get bogged down in the stressors and forget that life is in the end a fabulous and funny journey.

July is for Bicycling

Perhaps this is not an issue for everybody but, I tend to get incredibly distracted during the month of July. And this year has been worse than most. For many years now, I have had a ‘thing’ for bicycling. The ‘thing’ means that I crave getting outside and cycling through the hills and dales of the bay area. It’s my preferred method of exercise and it also aids in keeping my psychological outlook rosy. July is a busy mother for cycling fans for several reasons, the first being that the grandest bicycle race of them all, Le Tour de France happens in July. The second is the lesser known, non-professional, crazy, week-long ride across Iowa, RAGBRAI, happens the third week of July. And for masochist cyclists in California, the Death Ride is held in the Sierras.
Le Tour, as they call it in Europe, is a three week long bike race that takes place mainly in France (hence the name). It is a legendary race that includes the very best teams and riders in professional cycling. Think of an event similar in magnitude to the Superbowl, for 23 days in a row, that is Le Tour. These riders race every day in all types of terrain and in all types of weather and the winner comes in with the least amount of time to complete all 23 stages. It is like a soap opera on wheels – with larger than life personalities, drug abuse, bloody crashes, and drama with a capital ‘D’. Alongside that are the die-hard physical feats of riding over 100 miles every day, sometimes climbing multiple mountain passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. This is all on TV by the way – and I somehow am compelled to record and watch every stage no matter what else is going on in my life. Many nights I fall asleep on the couch trying to get through a stage. This problem is compounded by work projects and my own bike riding, which this year posed a significant challenge.
That’s because this year I was training for one of the other July events, the California Death Ride. I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to participate in this ride – but I got signed up and eventually realized I had to do some extensive training to get in shape. The ride is 129 miles long and climbs 5 mountain passes: Monitor, Ebbetts and Carson pass in the Sierra Nevadas (you climb both sides of Monitor and Ebbetts). This ride ends up being about 55 miles of climbing at altitudes between 6000 and 9000 feet. It is representative of a stage in Le Tour, which should have been a siren of warning that it might be an extremely difficult ride. I needed to find the time to be on my bicycle every day to climb, climb, and then climb some more. This was extremely problematic with holding down a 24-hour a day high-tech job and all the travel that comes with said job (since January I have logged 60,000 miles flying the friendly skies). It just adds to the frustration of working in high-tech that I can’t find enough time to train for something like this. But I digress. So when Le Tour began, I was traveling and then preparing to head up to the mountains with my Father and riding partner in tow. Needless to say, I’m not sure the altitude adjustment worked very well, and on the day of the ride I felt like I worked harder than I ever had on any of my training climbs. And, no, it did not help to pretend that I was a professional riding a tour stage, but like the tour, the scenery was fabulous. In the end, the mountains beat me – as I decided to throw in the towel after climbing two passes (both sides of Monitor).
The other distracting bicycle event in July is RAGBRAI: Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Yes, Iowa is a state – hard to believe but true, it’s right in the middle of the country (in case you learned your geography at a California public school). Anyway, this ride has a different route every year, but the concept is the same, dip your bike wheels in the Missouri River at the start, and end by dipping your tires in the mighty Mississippi. It’s generally between 400 and 500 miles during 7 days of riding. This is one of the oldest organized bike rides in the country, been going strong for 43 years now. There about 10,000 cyclists that participate from all over the USA and probably some from other countries too. I have done the ride 7 times – I think. Sometimes you don’t want to remember your RAGBRAI week, especially when the temps are in the 90’s every day along with the humidity! This ride is all about fun though – unless you are really competitive. People form teams and decorate their bikes and themselves – some past teams we’ve seen include Team TuTu, Team Bad Monkeys, the Donner Party (their motto is we eat the slow ones), and so on. I had an encounter one year with a man who wore a bandolier of lipsticks, and was approaching the ladies to provide them with lip protection and also to have them kiss his white t-shirt … Needless to say a completely different atmosphere than the Death Ride, where people are anxious to make cut-off times. I did not ride this year, but I did happen to find myself in Iowa at the end of RAGBRAI week and watching the local news teams reporting from the last few overnight towns.
In the end July becomes a lost month for me – too much focus on the bike and too little focus on work. It makes me wish that adults had summer vacation. In closing, I highly recommend that you pump up those tires and get on your bike and ride – it is a guaranteed stress reducer, and we all could use some time off of the clock!

The Doctor Is In: Managing your Email Inbox

Lucy-van-pelt-1-Any Snoopy fans out there? Yes, I know, I’m dating myself, as Snoopy was en vogue back in the 70’s. But I’m sure those of a certain age recall Lucy and her psychiatry booth. She charged a whopping 5 cents per question. As a software product manager my advice appears to be free, but comes at a very high cost.

Lately, I’ve begun to feel like my entire job is about dispensing guidance; maybe not always psychiatric guidance but close enough. I receive inquiries from every corner of the company, about every imaginable topic that might have something to do with your product line. Some people even think that you can make miracles happen, which is flattering and disturbing all at the same time.

Working at a global software company means that every morning I wake up with (at least) 30 new requests for guidance in my email inbox. This means I spend a disproportionate amount of my day focused on ministering to the masses, who struggle with the perceived complexities of my product line. In some cases, I am doing activities that are not exactly my job, but are really the requestor’s job. Huh. It also means that I need to somehow maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of EVERYTHING that has to do with my product, corporate license, contract and pricing policies, and oh so much more. I find that there is very little time left for any type of product planning, product research, market research, or anything else that a product manager should really be doing. What’s a product psychiatrist to do? What would Lucy do?

I have a couple of radical ideas. One is to abolish email entirely. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. So scratch that, and try idea number two: don’t respond to any emails except for 1) requests from upper management (they REALLY need your guidance), 2) emails about critical sales deals that are on the path to being closed. And, never respond to emails where you are only on the CC line. In fact, really gloss over those bad boys, as those are usually delivered to 20 people selected at random (scatter gun approach). My theory is that anybody who desperately needs to speak with you will pick up the phone and call you. And those who can get their act together to answer their own question will do just that and you will not hear from them again. I know that your instinct is to answer ALL those emails and be a hero to everyone and save the day! But you need to let that hero thing go, because nobody ever got promoted for answering all their emails, whereas people do get promoted for having fabulous product ideas and making the company lots of money with their product line.

I have done some trial runs (dare I say a PoC?) and find that the smart requestors do indeed call me. For the less intuitive, I have advised them with comments like, ‘I get over 100 emails every day, if you want a fast response, try the old fashioned way and take the time to dial my number and CALL me.’ Ok, perhaps not phrased exactly like that, but you get the picture. I must warn you that there is a drawback to this method; you may be labeled as ‘unresponsive’. And some are quite vocal about their displeasure with unresponsive product managers. But on a scale where one end is being a great product manager and the other end is being everyone’s favorite Girl Friday – I am willing to take the risk. Especially because it is far more painful (and potentially career limiting) to be labeled as ‘unproductive’ where your product is concerned, and there is danger of that if you get stuck in the psychiatry booth.

If we build it, they will buy it…

I’m a product manager by nature and profession, so today in a slight departure from life in Silicon Valley – I’m going to talk about building products in Silicon Valley. Carl Sagan used to talk about, ‘ … billions upon billions of stars…’. And likewise we have billions upon billions of ideas floating around in the ether above highway 101. Everyone thinks that they are about to create the next big thing. And if you follow tech news, there are many big things that even receive several rounds of funding, before falling over. In my opinion many of these fail because they did not consider the most important step in product development: What is the problem? If you are not able to articulate a problem statement, and what your snazzy resolution would be – then you are going to run into trouble.

This means there needs to be some research done with your core audience, and I mean talking to actual people not reading industry analysts or guru reports that you can get online. Take your idea and meet with your existing customers first. They will provide you with one view – which is usually biased more towards their specific needs with your product line. But, you will have some customers that are thinking about the future and where their systems and processes go next, and they will provide you with valuable input. The next step may be more challenging, because you need to locate core audience that is not an existing customer. These folks are potentially your future customers, and they can give you another perspective. Perhaps they are struggling with a similar but different problem than what you previously focused on. Listen to these people, because if you are trying to expand your market, you need to bring fresh faces aboard the customer train. AND, do not ever leave out your field sales force, if you have one, that is. If your product requires direct sales, you should run your plan by the field, including the Services team, because they provide you with a third perspective. They are constantly beating the bushes for new logos, and can help you with input from prospects, and what they hear about the changing issues for companies in your field.

I realize that for many this should be product management 101, but I have rarely seen this done very well, and usually there are several products that a) never get released, but syphon budget and resources from revenue generating product lines, b) get released and never get sold, because the customer does not ‘get’ how the product will help them, c) reflect negatively on the company brand if a big marketing splash was made, and then the product is suddenly withdrawn. And yes, there are many other factors that affect the success or failure of a product – but it always boils down to what problem are you solving, and is that a valid problem. I have seen software organizations go into tailspins because everyone got caught up in the brilliant idea excitement and had a science project percolating in development which did not have real funding. I have seen posters, graphics and expensive product videos get built – even when the product has no true release date in sight. And, in the end, all of this harms your core product lines that are generating solid revenues. So product builders beware! Don’t be taken in by the next shiny object without doing your due diligence on the research side!

There is No Such Thing as a Reverse Commute

Twenty-two years ago when I first came to the bay area, we were (apparently) in the midst of the worst economic downturn ever recorded outside of the depression years.  Ok, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But in 1991, as a recent college graduate, everyone told me that I would be *lucky* to find employment.  And I put little asterisks around the word *lucky* because that is exactly how people would say the word, with heavy emphasis and waving of hands, arms and other limbs when they stated *lucky*.

Despite all the naysayers, I did wind up gainfully employed (after a two month stint in Emoryville at a chocolate manufacturer) at a leasing company located in Burlingame.  I happened to live in San Francisco and was curious about my commute.  Having spent a couple of months braving the bay bridge and downtown San Francisco traffic – I had no experience with highway 101.  Or, as I now refer to it, the 101.  I have other names for the 101 that are more colorful but may include profanity, so I won’t share those here.  And before you add a comment that says only people from LA call it the 101; I know, I’m aware, and I’m still calling it the 101.

The important takeaway here is that all of my new acquaintances told me that traffic would be a breeze, because I was doing a reverse commute.  And in 1991, before most of those .coms and non-.coms had launched themselves and started building out property up and down the 101 corridor that was kind of a true statement.  But ladies, it is most certainly not the case today.  So don’t be fooled by those misguided but well-meaning individuals who tell you how *lucky* you are that you have a reverse commute, because you live in the city and drive to work on the peninsula or vice versa.  And if you are new to the area, and trying to figure out where best to set up your domestic headquarters, there are some things to consider before settling down.  In the end, you will need to decide what is more important to you – time spent in the car, or time spent living your life.  I do realize that this is a difficult decision (everyone in California LOVES their car) so here are some pointers to help guide you:

    1. Do you thrive on darkness?  You laugh, but this is an important question.  Because if you live somewhere in the east bay or even San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley (let’s say between Sunnyvale and San Jose), your commute will often start in the dark and end in the dark.  In case nobody told you, a typical work day in the world of high-tech could be 10-12 hours.  Heading to work at the crack of dawn usually guarantees a pretty good flow of traffic.  And at night, you need to look at leaving after 7pm when the car pool lanes open up.  This is going to be a really long day, so you better make sure that you are thrilled with this job!
    2. Are you a type A personality?  Do you find your blood pressure slowly increasing as you try to maneuver in stop and go traffic?  Do you get agitated because nothing is moving?  Is there a specific time limit, that if exceeded will push you into full-fledged road rage?  If so, I would think hard about that time limit and make sure that your worst case scenario (ie:  one hour commute) is tolerable.  I would be sure to locate my home within that one hour radius from the workplace.  This will benefit not only your own personal well-being but the safety of other drivers around you.
    3. Is one of your requirements to have the big house with the big yard, but for a teeny-tiny price?  If so, you need to talk with your handlers about telecommuting.  Because that kind of real estate option is located on the outer fringes of the bay area (think Tracy).  This is especially true if your high-tech job is somewhere on the mid-peninsula.  Many companies these days actually have a category of employee labeled as telecommuter.  Generally they have no designated space in the office and there may be some other restrictions on activities, depending on your job.
    4. Are you crazy about San Francisco?  You dig the bright lights, the trendy restaurants, and wearing black?  (In case nobody told you, everyone in San Francisco wears black.)  Anyway, my suggestion for you hipster types is to find a job in the city.  That way you can avoid the 101 entirely, maybe even take a cable car to work.  Infinitely more satisfying than slogging down the peninsula.  And these days, business is booming in SF as they are constantly luring high-tech ventures there with tax breaks and other goodies.  The danger of living in SF and working 20 or 30 miles south of there, is that you won’t really get to live in SF – you will only be living on the 101.

To wrap this up – my ultimate suggestion to those looking to live and work in the bay area – find a home as close as possible to your workplace OR a home as close as possible to some form of rapid transit (BART or Caltrain come to mind).  The best commute I ever had was living within a mile of my office.  Yep, I could literally walk – it was even too close to bicycle.  Talk about a reduction in your stress levels.  Life in the valley is challenging enough without squandering precious moments sitting in traffic.  So, if you have the opportunity, locate your domicile in the nearer vicinity of your office and spend that extra time doing something more rewarding, like writing a blog?!  Feel free to share your best advice for eliminating or greatly reducing commute time, or better yet, what you would do with two more hours in the day….