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.

5 Summer Survival Tips for Busy Moms (and Dads)

Kid and SprinklerTell me if this scene sounds familiar. You’re about to join a conference call and have spent the last 15 minutes beseeching your children to please, please keep the noise level to a muted roar. You join the call and just as you’re reviewing the slides you’re about to present, you hear it – the unmistakable and incessant bickering that children seem to reserve for when their parents are desperate for quiet. This nightmare doesn’t just unfold for working moms, as this dad’s hilarious account of being interrupted during a live radio interview by his arguing kids proves.

In my case, my home office is directly off the landing of the stairs down to the playroom. It’s incredible how a stairwell can amplify the sound of children hollering. And I will freely admit to having muted the phone while threatening my kids to keep it down or else!

Balancing work against the needs of children is a given for a working parent, but the summer months present a particular challenge. For all that school introduces stresses and pressures, it also provides structure for kids and their parents. If you don’t really need full-time childcare during the school year, you may find yourself at a loss during the dog days of summer.

Here’s my summer time survival guide for busy working moms. Disclaimer: my kids no longer require constant supervision, so these tips are geared toward slightly older kids. What are your top tips?

1) Add Structure to the Day

My kids like structure. I’ve found that giving them a short list of things to do on any given day can make a tremendous difference in terms of household harmony. I’m talking about simple things like, a) bring your laundry up, b) clean your fish tank (before the fish all croak), and c) take that book back to the library. Simple chores that require cooperating with siblings are an added bonus.

2) Let ‘em Be

Yes, I know that my first point was about maintaining a measure of discipline. But a little goes a long way and it’s the summer, after all. Let them play in the dirt and be responsible for deciding how to spend their time. Goodness knows they’ve got their fill of responsibilities when school is in session.

3) The Library Is Your Friend

Have you ever noticed how libraries can feel like a wonderfully hushed cocoon? Have you also noticed how calming a library can be for over-stimulated children? Let your kids peruse the aisles of your local library and choose a few books to bring home. Give them a few bucks to spend on donated books that you library might be selling. Then offer a silent thank you when you get home as you watch your kids reading (quietly) on the family room couch.

4) A Little Extra Screen Time Is A-OK

No screen time during the school week is a cardinal rule in our house. It might sound harsh to you but it works for us. When school’s out, this rule falls by the wayside. I figure that if 30 minutes on an iPad will preserve the peace in our house, then that’s a fair exchange. We try hard to keep screen time within reason, but hey, sometimes we fail.

5) Work It, Baby

Make sure to give your kids plenty of reasons to get outside, run around, and enjoy the sunshine (don’t forget the sunscreen).  Kids have seemingly boundless stores of energy. Encourage them to take it outside. I find that if my kids are cooped up inside all day, they’re much more likely to argue, fuss, and fight.

 

How to Get S&*t Done in 5 Steps

Posting for Guest Author: Alyssa Simpson

productivityI think one of the most under-valued and important quality in evaluating candidates for a new position is measuring their ability to “GSD” (Get Shit Done) or even better GSDR” (Get Shit Done Right). It’s not about how smart you are, what you’ve done in the past, who you know, or even being in the right place at the right time. It’s how much I think you can accomplish with the least amount of guidance and overhead.

1. Know what’s important – and what isn’t important.

Most importantly – know where the goal posts are. How will you know that you are checking items off the list if you don’t know what is on the list to begin with? In starting a new role, or evaluating how to succeed in a current position, make sure you know what is important to accomplish and how you know you will have achieved it. Most positions aren’t as clear as hitting a sales quota – having a clear direct conversation with a manager can quickly put you on track to hit the right targets and leave you both feeling reassured and aligned.

2. Don’t be afraid of trying and failing.

So the goalpost might be really far away – and daunting. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. You need to start somewhere. Breaking up big items into smaller items will get you closer to checking items off. Start small and don’t worry about not getting everything exactly right. It’s okay to get it wrong the first few tries. Recover quickly and move on to a better plan.

3. Ask for help

Teamwork is by far the easiest way to accomplish anything hard. These days most anything of value comes from the hard work and dedication of a strong team – no one individual. Be clear on what your value is, and where you need help from others. Don’t be too proud or embarrassed to ask for help – everyone needs help.

4. Have perspective

So the goalposts moved half way through…bummer but no sweat! The world is changing fast – being accommodating and flexible to new ideas, goals, and requirements makes it easy to move on quickly to the new goal. It’s okay to change course (hopefully not every time) and re-evaluate a plan to meet accommodate an unforeseen obstacle or success.

5. Be grateful

Don’t be afraid of accomplishing more then you set out to accomplish. Often your goal will creep up on you from behind and remind you that you just knocked it out of the park and achieved even more then you set out for. Be grateful to those who helped along the way, and don’t forget to celebrate the win as a team!

 

 

Everyone is a Journalist

by Guest Author Amy Kweskin  –  www.amykweskin.com

Teaching marketing and management to college students is like a scientist running a lab experiment while simultaneously living in the petri dish. For today’s class, Public Relations and Promotions, I invited a team of guest speakers from onpublico.com to introduce their recently launched collaborative news site. In search of Interns, Santiago Corredoira-Jack and Michael Hines engaged the students in an earnest discussion about news content creators and content aggregators.

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Santiago and Michael gracefully presented a lecture on PR that eventually migrated into advertising. They explained contextual, native and targeted advertising and the advantages of Internet users being active in determining the content they want to see as opposed to passive receivers of data. This is where I felt like I was in the petri dish in an experiment of news objectivity. Who is curating content for whom and where does journalism end and advertising begin?

Their site is built on the premise of “news for the people, by the people” and as they spoke I kept thinking, “is social media content so seamlessly intermingled that news, PR and advertising are equally credible sources of information? As users of social media we can literally break the news. Yet waiting on the sidelines, and creeping into the editorial content, are advertisers eager to deepen our brand experience.

Here is the quiz question I asked my students after Santiago and Michael departed:
“In the age of the Internet and social media, “everyone is a journalist”. How do social media platforms affect public opinion? Additionally, how could you, as a budding Public Relations professional, utilize onpublico to influence public opinion about your client?

I was intrigued by the quiz responses. While I thought that the students would only see the social side of media they understood the advantages of commingling of messages and images to sway public opinion. Nearly every student proposed strategies for encouraging user generated content as a tactic to engage targeted publics. I realized that the next generation of marketing professionals is fearless about reseeding the marketing mix.

Spicy Chai Latte Made in Belgium, or Startup Life on The Old Continent

Spicy Chai Latte Made In Belgium

Notice the Made In Belgium logo on the left?


We are sitting close together, oddly perched on the high bar stools in the boardroom, when Julie mouths the question “Do you want to blog on Silicon Valley Tales?” Joy rises to my cheeks. I temporarily fade out of the meeting. The tall wooden table we’re sitting around is basking in the bright winter light coming from the windows, where the medieval surroundings of our inner European city office clash hard with the SaaS platform for tablets we’re all working on.

Magical land of technology
I get this warm fuzzy feeling inside, like pride and excitement and wonder all mixed together. I’m proud of all the people around me who are building Showpad, I’m so happy to work for a startup, and now I get to contribute to a blog that has Silicon Valley in the title. The magical land of technology, that mythological place where the future is being shaped by clever people with Pixies t-shirts and/or beards…

Mekka
This place doesn’t actually exist as I imagine it. I’m not even interested in what it’s really like. I believe in the idea of Silicon Valley, in people giving it their best shot to develop technology that has an impact on life. I’ve never even been there, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to have visited Mekka to understand what it’s about. I’m not even sure I’d want to go, not to break the bubble of wonder – just kidding.

Hormones and football
in my case, this blog is more about surviving the concept of Silicon Valley. Which, believe you me, is potentially more powerful than the real place. As for the part that this blog is written by women, I’ll be short about that. I’m in complete denial about what gender has to do with anything. My life is not that different from that of my beloved, except perhaps for my roller coaster hormone rides and his particular love of football.

Startup life
So, is startup life different in Belgium than it is in the US? I can’t really say, because I only know startup life in the US from reading and hearing about it. I’m sure people don’t really run around drinking spinach smoothies and munching on raw cocoa husks all day. I also don’t think people in Silicon Valley have this unquestionable belief in success all the time. And I’d be surprised if every coffee shop is full of entrepreneurs.

Grumpy Europeans
Now you know the clichés as we get them here. I wonder what the clichés about European startup life are like in he US. Maybe that nobody wants you to succeed here. That we’re a bunch of grumpy skeptics. Or that it’s always raining, and that we eat pork sausages with garlic for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Let me know in the comments.

Chai latte and spinach
If you want to come over and taste European startup life, you might have to be quick though. Because there’s a tin of chai latte, that quintessential ingredient of a good San Francisco workday as far as I can tell from here, sitting on my kitchen shelf, with “made in Belgium” printed on it. We’ll have spinach smoothies next…

Thanksgivukkah

Last night I had an impromptu girls night out “family dinner” with three of my best girlfriends. The type of evening you can’t plan – one that organically integrates and you need it more then anything. When everyone had a crap day, and needed a collective shoulder to lean on.

We were celebrating new jobs, former jobs, and grand future plans together. Laughing, sharing stories of love, heartbreak, sexism, leaning in (and out) and everything in between, I was reminded how grateful I am for the wonderful women who navigate silicon valley along side me. Even as four privileged women – who have been given every opportunity for success – spending any amount of time in this valley can be hard. Really hard. Even when it’s suppose to be an enlightened, progressive, meritocracy, where everyone is empowered and breaking traditional norms are celebrated, it can still be hard. In order to have any hope of success or happiness it’s imperative to have girlfriends (of all types) along for the ride.Shared Dessert

Girlfriends at the office, who you can share a smile with when someone shows up with a push up bra, collagen lips, sleeping with the boss and asks to be taken seriously.

Girlfriends who will point out that your ex-boyfriend is giving a TedTalk which has gotten 20,000 views today and it’s probably a good sign you had no idea. (But it’s okay to watch it when you get home).

Girlfriends who will tell you it’s okay that you didn’t say anything when you were told “you should have been born a man” because you didn’t even realize how offensive it was until the moment had passed.

Girlfriends who know how to eat – and understand that sometimes a fries course after an entrée is not only acceptable, but encouraged!

Girlfriends who will remind you that you do in fact know something about the market you work in, and it’s okay to share that.

Girlfriends who know what it feels like to be articulate and poised navigating technical nuance and market share, but tongue tied and blubbered about their own emotions.

Girlfriends who will take you out to dancing and karaoke and make sure you finish that fireball damn-it! And let you pass out on their couch and take your hungover self to work the next morning.

Girlfriends who run along side you around the park and back because the endorphins will make you both happier. Bright neon shoes highly encouraged!

Girlfriends who will get you hired, be your boss, mentor you, and teach you what “ROI” means. (The amount of jargon in this valley could fill several dictionaries).

Girlfriends who look to you for guidance that remind you how far you’ve come even when you think you haven’t learned a thing.

Girlfriends where you can be yourself, judgment free, and have a good long laugh with.

In this season of Thanksgivukkah – I give thanks to the women along side me.

Google Alerts Can Cause Cancer

As the HMPIC (Head Marketing Person in Charge) of several wine brands and business entities (Clos LaChanceVegan Vine,Hayes ValleyMommyJuiceCougar JuiceBay Area Bottling, and CK Vines to be exact), I have a Google News Alert set up for each of my charges.  If any of my “babies” are mentioned anywhere on the web in a news outlet, I get an email telling me where. It’s pretty intuitive and saves me a lot of time. Back in the dark ages of tech bubble number 1, my fellow public relations interns and assistant account managers used to scan all the actual print publications for coverage of our clients. It made for a long day looking for clips about executives, software and servers. Fortunately I escaped that world many moons ago and went into booze. Wine is so much more fun than a CD-ROM game called “Gubble”(one of my actual clients back in ’97) on so many levels. image

I digress. Back to Google Alerts. I get a lot of, hmmm, interesting notifications from time to time. The most common—articles about drinking wine and its correlation, or lack thereof, to cancer. I read them all—scared out of my mind or jumping up and down for my good decisions.

One article covers a study that young women who drink wine before motherhood are more likely to get breast cancer. But then upon Googling that, another article references a study that claims no—wine will actually reduce your risk of cancer and then another that insists alcohol in general will raise your life expectancy.

WTF?  Do I freak out and overhaul my lifestyle or do I celebrate my choices? I need to know!  Google, help me!

Information is all around us—and it is becoming increasingly difficult to weave out good from bad, fact from fiction, important from the drivel, truth from bullsh*t—you get my drift. What comes out one day is often contradicted the next. The stress of all of it all may give me cancer.  Can I sue Google?

Oh, and as an alcohol industry professional, my recommendation for a long and happy, healthy life: everything in moderation. Like what this guy says. Note the reference to my MommyJuice in that link—my inspiration for today’s blog and received via Google News Alerts. Looking forward to coming full circle when this blog comes up in a Google Alerts.