Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2013: Resolving to feel more fear

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to be more than just a beginner skier. So, I took a private lesson and in the very beginning the instructor took me to the top of a mountain that I thought I had no business skiing down. I was sure I was going to get injured and was beyond panicked to even make the first move. And logically, aside from the fact that I had paid money for the lesson, why did I have to do it? Couldn't I learn on an easier slope? Maybe I was happy enough just doing the green runs afterall?

Well, after much deliberation and the realization that skiing down was the only non-embarrassing way down, I made it down just fine. In fact, not only did I not get injured, but skiing down that run did in fact make me a better skier (turns out the private lesson was worth the money). In that vein, I've spent the last few years throwing myself down runs I have no business skiing down. It hasn't been without tears, screaming, cursing, and (a few times) wiping out, but I've been getting better.

But see, here's the thing. I'm glad I learned how to ski, but what has truly changed my life is discovering an activity that I cannot live without and a place that I love. Skiing is now my favorite sport -- by far. Maybe it's the altitude and lack of oxygen to my brain, but there's something peaceful yet exhilarating about it that I haven't been able to find in anything else. Just being in Tahoe in the winter energizes and renews me, and this feeling has only grown stronger as I've become a better skier. Skiing for me also has this odd calming effect, which if you know me at all, is difficult for me to find elsewhere.

We feel fear for a reason and some fear is a good thing. It is probably good for me to be afraid of walking around a dangerous city alone at night. But most of the time stepping outside of your comfort zone will take you places you didn't know you could go. There are all different types of fear -- fear of rejection, fear of danger, fear of pain, fear of the unknown -- and sometimes we need to feel those things to get to a better place.

I was trying to come up with 2013 resolutions and all the usual suspects came to mind (lose weight, exercise more, work harder) but this year I'm trying something different. My resolution this year is to feel more fear. I hope that beyond just surviving, I'll be surprised about what I find on the other side.

A photo I took last weekend in Tahoe

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Building in utility

There's an app on my phone that I use almost every single day. It's so important that it's on my home screen and it's one of the few apps I can't live without, even when I go on vacation. Have you guessed it yet? It's the built-in alarm clock on my iPhone, which for years has replaced the alarm clock on my nightstand.

There are so many apps out there today trying to get users to think, act, and behave in new and interesting ways. Thanks to Foursquare, I now checkin on my phone when I arrive at a location. But it turns out that there's a whole host of verbs that people already do in their daily lives. A simple trick to getting users to try your product, or to use it more, is to build those verbs into your product. I call it building in utility. Building in utility means taking something that people already do in some form, and making it easier for them to do by using your product. The more obvious the utility is that your product provides, the easier it is for users to understand why they should use your product.  

A great example of built-in utility is Facebook's feature that shows you upcoming birthdays. For most of my life, I wished friends and family a happy birthday through either memorizing their special date, maintaining a separate calendar with important birthdays, or being reminded by others. Facebook has simplified this for me. More recently Facebook has taken things one step further by allowing users to send a gift right from Facebook. These are all verbs I already do, and by building in an easier way for me to do this, they've built in a lot of utility for me.

Utility is good for getting users to keep coming back to your product, like how I consistently use Facebook to check for birthdays, but it is also good for baiting users to try your product so that they have the chance to experience the true magic your product provides. I originally downloaded the Nike+ app on my phone because I was going for a run and I wanted to know when I had reached a certain number of miles. However, I soon discovered that I could link my Nike+ runs with various social networks and hear cheering through my headphones while running when friends commented or liked one of my runs. I'm not sure that it would have been obvious to me that this would provide me with incredible motivation on my runs, but having stumbled upon it somewhat accidentally, I've found myself addicted to running with Nike+. So in short, I installed and tried the Nike+ app for its simple utility of telling me how far I ran, but that was really just the bait to get me hooked on the full experience, and entirely new verbs, it offers.

Providing utility around existing verbs can be the gateway drug to all the new, innovative verbs that addict users long-term to your product.

So returning to my alarm clock app, the thing about it is that for such a critical app, there's really very little that's being done to innovate on the experience. It doesn't wake me up to my favorite song. It doesn't let me decide how long I want to snooze between alarms. It doesn't check my calendar automatically and set an alarm based on what my day looks like. It doesn't give me the weather forecast for the day when I wake up. I would wager a bet that the right app (I'm thinking Path, Google+, or even Lift) could get a boost in daily active users through building in utility like this.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thank you

I've spent most of my life trying to prove myself to people, and I think I will for the foreseeable future too. Most people don't think I'm capable of what I think I'm capable of. It's rare for me to find someone who not only believes in me, but actually believes I'm capable of more than I thought I was.

So thank you. For believing in me. For seeing something in me I maybe didn't even see in myself. For listening to where I wanted to be in 1 year and in 5 years and not only not laughing, but actually saying that you wanted to help get me there. For giving me critical feedback. For challenging me. For inspiring me. 

Thank you.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why I'm uber excited

For those not familiar with Uber, it's a taxi cab replacement service that allows you to request a car right from an app on your iPhone or Android phone.  Not only is it straightforward to use, but it's also exceptionally convenient and comfortable: you're automatically notified when your driver arrives, all payments happen in the background via your credit card that's on file (even the tip), and you get to ride in a luxury town car. The best part is that it doesn't even cost much more than a normal taxi cab.

But this blog post isn't an advertisement for Uber.  The reason I'm most excited is because Uber exemplifies the kind of startup I'm eager to see more examples of in 2012.  Uber, TaskRabbit, OneMedical.  These companies are all providing very different services, but they're all doing the same, unthinkable thing for me: they are allowing me to pay a little extra money for a lot of convenience and saved time.

I've been thinking about it, and there are a number of things I'd love to pay for, but there's no simple, Uber-esque way for me to do so (at least, not that I know of).
  1. I'd pay a premium for a restaurant reservation in the case where otherwise no reservation is available.  This happens to me every. single. weekend. 
  2. I'd pay to get on-demand beauty services in the comfort of my own home.  Hair, makeup, pedicure, massage -- these are all things that are difficult for me to schedule and travel to.  Heck, I can't even book most of these things online.  If someone can figure out how to get me beauty services more conveniently, I'd pay. (StyleSeat might be sort of doing this)
But then there's all the more "complex" parts of life that are ripe with inefficiencies.  I just went through the hell of wedding planning, followed by a massive amount of "newlywed work" like changing my name everywhere, setting up wills and establishing joint finances.  There's financial and retirement planning, and of course the big one: family planning and childcare.  All this stuff could be made a lot more convenient and it goes without saying that there's a huge market for it.

I'm excited to see that there's finally innovation around the everyday parts of life that end up eating up so much time.  Right now it may just be a luxury car ride out to dinner and help assembling Ikea furniture, but I hope it eventually turns into people spending their time doing what they love and spending their money on everything else.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Is there a wage gap in Silicon Valley?

During my senior year at MIT, I remember comparing my job offers with a few of my friends.  We discussed what base salaries and signing bonuses we were offered from various companies and some friends even shared with me how they planned to negotiate for more.  Unfortunately, this type of discussion came to an abrupt end for me after college.  Once I entered the workforce, discussing salary became taboo.  

I bet a lot of women working in tech have no idea what they are making compared with their male counterparts (and I bet men don't know either).  This data is not readily available at most tech companies.  Employers have little incentive to disclose this data and probably even less incentive to analyze their data this way in the first place.

Here's some data that I did find: 
Women make 77 cents on the dollar based on the 2008 US census and women earned less than men in all 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed by the Census Bureau in 2007.  In tech, the situation may be slightly more equitable.  According to a 2011 study by the US Department of Commerce, women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) make 86 cents on the dollar.

I've seen at least one study that suggests this might be shifting, but it comes with a bunch of caveats.  According to a Time article from 2010, unmarried, childless women under 30 living in major cities were actually making more money than men in their peer group. However this same article said that the phenomenon doesn't apply when you look at peer groups in particular fields.  For male-dominated fields, including tech, men are still out-earning women.  From the article:
    The holdout cities — those where the earnings of single, college-educated young women still lag men's — tended to be built around industries that are heavily male-dominated, such as software development or military-technology contracting. In other words, Silicon Valley could also be called Gender Gap Gully.
I found data more targeted to women in tech in a 2009 analysis run by Glassdoor, a site that collects salary data for many different jobs and companies.  According to Glassdoor, "The analysis revealed that women engineers earn 96.7% of what men earn early in their careers (0-3 years experience), and earn 89.1% of what their male counterparts earn when both genders have more than 10 years experience."  The gap widens dramatically when you look at just bonus pay.

So from what I have to go on, I hypothesize that there is a pay gap in Silicon Valley, but probably not one so insurmountable that we can't take steps to understand and correct it.  Here's what I propose:

(1) Women need to get the data
The cold hard truth is that it does not benefit employers for their employees to know how much other employees earn.  Having this information advantage means employers don't overspend when they don't have to in order to attract and retain talent.  Not only that, it allows employers to overpay for talent on a one-off basis when necessary in order to compete with other employers.  And women, who have been shown to negotiate less than men, may be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to keeping salary information private.  It's time that women (and everyone for that matter) at least start considering how much they're earning compared with their peers.  If you can't ask your peers directly, at least use the tools out there (I've checked out Glassdoor and Quora) to get a better sense of what you should be paid.  

(2) Women need to negotiate
There are studies that show that women don't negotiate their salaries as much as men, or they're worse at negotiating, or that they don't value their contributions as highly as men do so they don't aim high enough if they do negotiate.  So give negotiation a shot. Do as much research as you can in step (1) to find out what your peers are making and then estimate what you should make.  Now add 25% to that because you're probably underestimating yourself. 

(3) Women need to stop demoting themselves
This one deserves its own blog post so without going totally off topic, I'll just say that all too often women are sidelining themselves.  I've seen this at all levels too.  Sheryl Sandberg famously said "Don't leave before you leave", but I think that women need to do more than not leave, they need to double-down.  I'm not discounting work-life balance and sleep and all that, but when you're doing your job, do it with all you got. Focus. Be present. Care.

So is there a wage gap in Silicon Valley?  We need to keep asking until we're sure there's not.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A simple resolution, with a twist

Over this brief holiday vacation, I've now read 5 books, which was more than I've read in a long time. I'm embarrassed to admit that I almost never make time to read. My mom is a librarian and my dad, an attorney, is in the process of writing his own book. Books are in my blood, so it's inexcusable that I rarely make time to read them.

In light of this, my 2012 New Year's resolution is simple: read more. My goal is to read at least 1 book per month.  But here's the twist. Every month, I'm going to ask someone I really respect and admire to choose what book I read that month. They might recommend to me a book they think I'd just enjoy, a book that would teach me something, or maybe a book they want me to "test read" for them. Whatever the recommendation is, I'm going to read it cover to cover. I think that asking people I respect for a recommendation will hold me accountable to actually finishing the book.

I'm starting off with my mom. She recommended that I read Sarah's Key so that will be my January book.  Here's to a 2012 filled with reading and learning!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." - Steve Jobs

When I was in my freshman year of high school, I found this summer science program offered at the University of Pennsylvania that I wanted to participate in. Based on the requirements for the program, I had all the right credentials to apply, except the part that said the program was only for students completing their sophomore and junior years of high school. When I showed my parents the program they told me that it looked like a great program and I should remember to apply the following year.

But I wasn't satisfied with waiting; I wanted to participate in the program that summer. So, I decided to send a note to the head of the program expressing my interest in participating and asked if I might at least be able to apply. And as it turned out, the answer was yes. Not only was I able to apply, but I was told that I would likely get accepted to the program.

Participating in the program was great, but I learned something far more valuable in the form of a life lesson: you never know what you're capable of getting until you give it a shot. I remember explicitly thinking of this my sophomore year of high school when I approached a cancer research scientistic who came to speak at our high school during a career day and asked her if I could intern at her lab. This time the answer wasn't quite a resounding yes, but that didn't deter me. I arranged for a time to meet at her lab and came prepared with some suggestions for how I might be able to help out. My persistence paid off & I got to spend the next summer in a lab helping test cancer treatments in mice.

With Steve Jobs' passing, I'm reminded of his famous words "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." Back in high school, I was hungry to be the best, and foolish enough to think it was possible if I worked hard enough.  It was a naive way of thinking, but that naive belief gave me this incredible skill for creating opportunities. I was fearless in asking for things that I wanted, and trying to prove myself until I got them.  Fast forward a bunch of years and some life experience later, and I'm no longer that naive (or egotistical). But as I've become more realistic about my place in the world, it has unfortunately made me less skilled at creating opportunities for myself.

I'm proud of where I am today, but I do wonder where I could be if I had challenged the status quo with the same fervor as the person I was 10 years ago. 10 years from now, I don't want to look back and have that same question. I'm going to start believing anything possible and then work as hard as I can to make it so. Maybe that's foolish, but I'm hungry again.