Friday, December 13, 2013

flashback: the official cocktail of summer (2006)

UPDATE - In advance of my announcement of the official cocktail of summer (2008), I wanted to give you, dear reader, an opportunity to enjoy the winners from previous years. Enjoy (in moderation, please).

Thanks to all of you who volunteered such novel and (dare I say) potentially lethal cocktail recipes over the last week. A few hours trapped in an airport bar afforded me the opportunity to try a number of them last night. A few additional hours of dialysis this afternoon reminded me of why this was a Bad Idea. I applaud your creativity, and welcome future submissions on all topics alcoholic and product management-y.

But through it all (and advised by notes scrawled on a moist stack of bar napkins) I was able to identify - with total clarity - the official 2006 summer cocktail.

Welcome. . .The Manhattan.

It's a classic. A. . .dangerous classic. The Manhattan is a cocktail that says 'howyadoin' while reaching for both your wallet and your girlfriend. It lures you in with its sleek visual appeal - served shaken in a martini glass with a cherry, it's murky golden hue filtering the evening light like a liquid pane of stained glass. Dangerous stained glass.

When created with one of the better bourbons (I requested - and received - one fashioned with Makers Mark), it welcomes you with a spike of spiciness shot through with a brief note of sweetness followed by a sharp jab from a concrete-filled glove. Ahh...bourbon.

It's a drink you know is hurting you while you're drinking it. It's the liquid equivalent of putting your car into reverse right after you enter the Avis car return area. You know you've always wanted to see just what Severe Tire Damage feels like. That's a Manhattan.

3/4 oz sweet vermouth (one short glug)
2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey (four glugs)
1 dash a bitters (shake the bottle once)
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel (if you're feeling fruity - see below)

Combine the vermouth, bourbon and bitters in a shaker filled with ice. Shake the bejebus out of it, who cares about clouding the whiskey, you're a man, right? You want it to be cooold. Cold like your heart, like the love of an ill-tempered Bavarian pretzel maid. Place the cherry in a chilled martini glass and strain the whiskey mixture over the cherry.

If you happen to forget the cherry until you're about to serve the drink, and happen to rush back to the fridge in search of that 5-year old jar of cherries which you find buried behind the half-empty jar of salsa, that's OK. The drink doesn't care. The Manhattan regards the cherry like the Slim Jim regards the lettuce it passes in your small intestine. With contempt.

If you're feeling especially "fruity" rub a bit of orange peel around the rim of the glass. I can't attest for what this does for the Manhattan. But it sounds. . .nice.

I invite any Manhattan fans to join me in celebrating its victory over a broad pantheon of lesser, better-tasting, less-dangerous beverages.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

You Want a Mongolian Travel Wrap

When the temperature drops outside, I mean, really drops, not this oh my it's chilly here in suburban DC but HOLY CRAP I CAN'T FEEL MY NOSE, nothing else matters but finding a way to Not be Cold. As your core temperature drops and your ability to reason goes out the window (freezes and shatters into dust), you will realize you want, no, need, a Mongolian Travel Wrap.  Oh my, yes you will.

But first, let us consider the source.


This*, my friends, is a Yak, known to clever folk as Bos grunniens.  Say hello to Mr. Yak.

Now I don't know about you, but this does not look like a docile, hey buddy, come on and grab some of this sweet, sweet hair I'm sporting here and turn it into a blanket, I'll just hang out until you're done.

No, it looks like something that would run you down and turn you into something only vaguely reminiscent of a bipedal hominid.  And it wouldn't care.

Thankfully, two bright-eyed, clever fellows named Julian Wilson and Aaron Pattillo made nice with some much heartier, yak-friendly types in Mongolia and figured out a way to separate the yak - actually, a rather large number of yaks - from their sweet, sweet hair:
Their pursuit took them back to the far reaches of the Tibetan plateau, and then north to the steppes of Mongolia, where they experienced yak wool auctions, tortuous rides in Russian made jeeps, large mugs of yak butter tea, fiery local drinking sessions of the homemade yak milk liquor archi, and, naturally, a lot of yaks. 
Flush with piles of yak hair, they have crafted something you can use to keep your sorry ass warm.  Brilliant.

And, they've been kind enough to share some yak facts which I, being an unscrupulous blogger, will copy and share with you:
  1. Over 90% of the world's yak population of nearly 15 million lives on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas.

  2. Lamps in Tibetan monasteries are fuelled by yak butter.

  3. Yak cheese has higher amounts of heart-healthy fats than cheese from dairy cattle.

  4. Yak polo, played on yaks instead of horses, was pioneered in Mongolia a decade ago.

  5. The first yakalo, a cross between a yak and an American bison, was produced through selective breeding in Alberta, Canada in 2000.
  6. A major use for the yak’s coarse tail hair is to create fake beards worn by actors in Chinese opera.
  7. In local communities, yak bone is often made into exquisite handicrafts, including combs, buttons and ornaments.
  8. The only natural predator of the wild yak is the Tibetan wolf.
  9. In Mongolia yak milk is fermented in a leather pouch and distilled as a "milk wine" called archi.
  10. In winter a wild yak can survive temperatures as low as - 40 degrees (C).
  11. A wild yak doesn’t reach full size until six to eight years of age.
  12. Amongst yaks living in the wild, births usually occur in June and a single calf is born every other year.
  13. Dried yak dung is used as fuel on the treeless Tibetan plateau.
  14. The male wild yak can reach up to 6.5 feet high at the shoulder and can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. Wild female yaks are up to a third of the male’s size. Domestic male yaks are much smaller in size and weigh up to 1,300 pounds while domestic female yaks weigh up to 560 pounds.
  15. Even in the below-freezing winters, yaks have been spotted bathing in lakes and rivers. This is because yak’s warm coat provides insulation through a thick outer coating of long hair and a dense inner coating of matted, shorter fur.
  16. It is believed that the strength of yak wool comes from the high levels of amino acids contained within the fibres.
  17. Yak wool is very resistant to static electricity meaning garments a less likely to spark or cling to the body during dry conditions.

RESPECT.

*photo by travelwayoflife, cc-by sa, from wikimedia commons, sourced from EOL

PM in a Can (a.k.a. Is this the best part of being a PM?)

Hello again.

I'm now 39 days into my new operations role and may I say, I am loving it.  Most of the time.  But that's pretty much life, right?

One of the 'challenges' of taking on a new role is making sure you stay far, far away from the comfort zone of your previous role.  For me, that comfort zone is Being a Product Manager.  It's something I know How to Do.  Kind of like falling off a bike or setting fire to an abandoned car, it comes easily to me.  Also like juggling and hobo tracking.

I hear the voice of my board chairman echoing, echoing, you can't be the product manager anymore, Bob, you're an operator now, but you've still got to find a way to get that work done, have a nice day, oooooo (rattles chains).

Sigh.  Yes indeed.

And so, faced on day one with the operator's challenge to "assess a new opportunity to determine whether it can contribute to the sustainability of the enterprise", I considered my assets and liabilities.

Assets: Some reasonable amount of cash and freedom to spend that cash
Liabilities: The clock, no in-house staff capable of doing the work, no time to do it myself, no Holocaust Cloak

OK, I can work with those, I said.  And so I set forth to establish the PM in a Can.

"What is a PM in a Can? It sounds like Prince Albert in a Can."

Shh.

I sat down and asked 'what is the absolutely smallest set of information I need to make the best possible decision?' and came up with the following:

1. I needed to develop a product concept and its value proposition
2. I needed to test that product concept with some people who could conceivably buy it
3. I needed a minimally viable product spec (my favorite new acronym: MVP)
4. I needed a business model that challenged all of the assumptions of #1-3

I figured, OK, I really shouldn't ask one organization to do both of these because that's a fox in the henhouse problem - of *course* an organization that heard happiness from the market on the product concept would conclude that there's a business model that could support that concept.

So I hired two sets of people to do the work, serially.

And in doing so, I realized something entirely terrifying about product management.

This part - the PM in a Can - is the MOST INTERESTING PART OF THE ENTIRE PM JOB.

Everything else is. . .how to put it . . . .just 'work'.

Maintaining the story backlog = Just Work
Going on sales calls = Just Work
Negotiating with development around product delivery = Just Work
Evaluating win/loss assessments = Just Work

I could go on.  I won't, because it's too depressing.

The very best part of being a product manager is finding brand new problems to fix, and figuring out whether or not an investment in fixing them will advance the cause of the enterprise.  At least it was to me.  But now I've got a sinking feeling that those opportunities are, practically speaking:

1. Few and far between and
2. Often co-opted by clever operators who understand product development

And so I arrive at the point in this post where I ask you, my dear friends and readers, if you agree, disagree, care, wonder if Green Bay beat the spread, etc.

Because I'm thinking I may have just figured out something that has vexed me for years - why all the talk of "strategic product management" never seemed to translate into actual work, because all of the most strategic work gets directed & evaluated by others.




Monday, July 29, 2013

Hello? Are you there?

Why, hello there.  I have a question for you.

Are you interested in ack/nak "coming back" from the dead, as it were, to again occupy that singular place in your reading habits it once enjoyed Back in the Day?

It would not be a "product management blog" per se, but something product-y.

Because if The Grumpy Product Manager can't raise $10k to help her write a book, there's no market for independent PM voices.  Simply put, you're all cheap and I'd be a fool to try and sell you anything.

Also, I'm unlikely to want to live in airports and try and train people to become something they'd likely end up not doing in 3-5 years anyways.

And blogging as a way-of-life, or even as a pastime, is vastly overrated.  It takes time to write things.  And writing things for free is a chump's game.

No, I will entertain you with tales of derring-do and whimsy.  And try and convince you to have me come and talk to you and your cohorts (colleagues? cow-orkers?  conspirators?) on topics of an urgent and compelling nature.

Some of which might have something to do with products.


Monday, September 05, 2011

recipe: duck confit

I am a devoted reader of The William Brown Project, as I aspire to the lifestyle of the country squire.

"I can see meself now, strollin' across the fields, me dog at me side, bringing a brace of coneys home for the wife to make some rillettes.."

"That's not quite what I was thinking about."

"Fair enough."

As I was saying.  One of the joys of M. Brown's website is the opportunity to discuss recipes with men.  Not "here's a bowl, here's some chips, open, pour, serve" recipes, ladies.  I speak of the actual process of preparing food for actual enjoyment through a process that involves heat, sharp implements and fine ingredients.

"I enjoy chips in a bowl."

"Shh, you."

A recent discussion Chez Brown concerned that most perfect of foods, duck confit.  It is my belief that you, dear ack/nak reader, might be interested in such a recipe.

"Do you serve it in a bowl?"

"Don't make me come over there."

There are many ways to prepare moderately good duck confit, but most wonderful ways involve letting the duck sit overnight in an herb-infused salt rub and then a full work day in the oven, bubbling away gently in its own fat.

Our preferred recipe is a variant of Emeril's with Thomas Keller's salt rub formula (as described in his book Bouchon).  It is possible to pull of a decent confit faster - Our Friend Mr. Brown managed it - but a longer cook time produces a more tender result.

Duck Confit a la Bob

Procure 2 fresh ducks and process into:
4 duck leg portions with thighs attached, (about 2 pounds) excess fat trimmed and reserved
2 duck breasts, split down the keel bone, excess fat trimmed and reserved

1 tablespoon plus 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
10 garlic cloves
4 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon table salt
4 cups olive oil

Lay the leg portions on a platter, skin side down. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the kosher salt and the black pepper. Place the garlic cloves, bay leaves, and sprigs of thyme on each of 2 leg portions. Lay the remaining 2 leg portions, flesh to flesh, on top. Put the reserved fat from the ducks in the bottom of a glass or plastic container. Top with the sandwiched leg portions. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.

Remove the duck from the refrigerator. Remove the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and duck fat and reserve. Rinse the duck with cool water, rubbing off some of the salt and pepper. Pat dry with paper towels.

Put the reserved garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and duck fat in the bottom of an enameled cast iron pot. Sprinkle evenly with the peppercorns and table salt. Lay the duck on top, skin side down. Add the olive oil. Cover and bake for 8 to 12 hours, or until the meat pulls away from the bone.  You'll know when it's done.  Whatever you do, don't let it go too long, as it will become something you'll rather not eat, but you'll feel you have to, and it will have the deep, lingering taste of Regret.

Remove the duck from the fat. Strain the fat and reserve. To store the duck confit, place the duck leg portions in a container, cover with the reserved cooking fat, and store in the refrigerator. Alternately, pick the meat from the bones and place it in a stoneware container. Cover the meat with a thin layer of some of the strained fat. The duck confit can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Now go make some.

finally: launch day arrives

In January of last year I began work as the product manager for something called the Encyclopedia of Life.  A version of the product was already online at www.eol.org.

Today, the new version went live at that same URL.

And I'm having all of the standard product management emotions.

Emotion #1 - Loss.  The work we were doing was secret, and now it is not.  The team was galvanized by a common objective, and that objective has been reached.  There are a number of other dimensions of this most unwelcome of emotions that I won't bother you with.  But they're all a flavor of "it's over", even though in reality "it's just beginning".  Don't expect it to make sense, it's a feeling.  A Bad Feeling.  The Worst Feeling.  Like someone died.

Emotion #2 - Fear.  What if no one likes it?  What if it breaks?  What if the press doesn't think it's super-fine?  What if we misinterpreted some of those requirements?  What if the beta testers were all "just being nice"?  What if someone else does it better and launches next week?  The never-ending cascade of "what ifs" feels like someone throwing rocks at you from waaay up on a building.  The hits just keep coming.  You want to cover your head with a metal garbage can lid and move quickly through your day, because you don't know when the next rock is going. . to . . land.

Emotion #3 - Defensiveness.  I'm sorry, such-and-such a feature wasn't in the release plan.  I'm sorry, we weren't able to ship with that capability.  I'm sorry, that's on the known issues list.  I'm sorry, we'll be sure to get that into the next release.  I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.  There's never enough time to do it all, and inevitably there are people who are sad.  And I'm sorry about that.

Emotion #4 - Detachment.  OK, what's on the list for the next release?  Yes, I know, the new version still has that clean baby / new car / spring morning smell, but, you see, product managers are Tomorrow People and I've been working on the next release for, gosh, a month now, and let's start talking timetables.  Thank you, we're all very proud.  It's wonderful.  Now, about that Next Version.

We're wired differently.  We don't take victory laps.  We don't linger on current successes any more than we pore over current failures.  We move on.  If we're lucky, and we've got a) the support of people who love us, and b) a team we respect, admire and enjoy, we can c) move on without feeling like the one guy at a party who doesn't seem to get the fact that HE'S AT A PARTY and the point of the party is to BE HAPPY.

So with all that said, I am actually happy.  At least when I'm not parsing emotions one through four.

(PS - Gosh, the new Blogger editor sure is swell.)

(PSS - Travis Jensen (@softwaremaven) believes I am suffering from "Post-shipping stress syndrome" or PSSS.  I prefer to think of it as "Corrigan's Disorder".  But it might explain why people think I am PSSSed lately.)


Monday, April 11, 2011

wondering: when to let go of your "product focus"

I thought I had lost it forever, but there it was, in the bottom of a plastic bag full of crib mattress pads I discovered while cleaning out my basement.

My Newton MessagePad 120, nestled in its leather case with business cards from the (long defunct) Newton Source store in NYC tucked inside it.  Four AA batteries and one backup battery later, it booted up fine, looking as tidy as it did in 1995 when it went missing.

Alas, its handwriting recognition is still awful.  And it won't let me set its date to April 2011.

It's still as beautiful a piece of hardware as it was when it was new.  It's still delightful, even all these years later, for what it is.  But I've moved on.

I wonder if the #prodmgmt responsible for this device still think about it, or if they've moved on too.  They're all (obviously) doing something else today with their professional lives.  I doubt any of them still use a Newton.

But they still have users.  Some of them are very, very devoted. And I bet there are many more who would be ready to have their devotion restored, under the right circumstances.  Still, most have moved on.  It's the way of things.

I don't think about my old products very often, but I think about my old users, customers I used to care about deeply back when I was very, very devoted to delighting them.  I wonder if any of them are still delighted, or if, like me, they've moved on to other products, other problems.

It's why, as Boss Strouse once said, you don't meet many product managers over 50 - because by the time you hit that age, you've figured out that it is organizations that last, not products.  If you care deeply about people and you're trained as a product manager, eventually you need to let go of your product-focus and become organization-focused and brand-centric if you want to keep on delighting people over time.

Because those are the only two things that can last - products never do.  They're not supposed to.

So when is it time to let go of your product focus?

You'll know.  It's one of those forest and trees problems.

"That is. . .so frustrating.  I made it all the way to the end of the piece and you spring some zen mumbo-jumbo on me?  Damn.  This is why Cauvin and the other PM bloggers kick your butt these days.  They answer questions.  Forest and trees. . .you're losing it."

"What can I say.  There are some things you can't teach, you have to find them out for yourself.  All I can do is let people know that the question is looming out there so they're not surprised when it hits them."

"You used to be a lot more fun."

"Ha."

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

wondering: is everybody in product management?

There was an old joke that used to circulate every time the nice people in marketing would circulate a brochure or a press release or a sell sheet or an ad or whatever that "everyone is in marketing" because every one who touched the piece - regardless of whether or not they were qualified to do so - felt it was their job to monkey around with it.

"Change the font."

"Can you move these paragraphs around?"

"This message isn't strong enough."

"We need a quote from such-and-such."

"More cowbell."

And so on.

This used to frustrate the nice people in marketing who actually knew how to do their jobs, but who were tradition-bound to invite other people outside of marketing to get involved in the business of marketing.  Too often the head of marketing wouldn't stand up for his or her people, and so the adventure continued, to the detriment of the marketing department which was increasingly seen as "indecisive".  Really.  I can't make this stuff up.

Theseadays, as I read various and sundry product management blogs and twitterings and rumblings from the underground I'm starting to see the same awful malignant practice that used to plague marketing departments start to afflict the product management craft.  The challenge here is that the meddling is constant instead of seasonal, and it's coming from higher up in the org.  We've created this problem by writing about product management, and now non-PM people are using what little they know about it to show how smart they are.

"Our customers want such-and-such.  Go do it."

"That's too late to deliver that product.  Make it sooner."

"These guys over here are the new shiznit.  Partner with them."

"I'm the chief such-and-such officer and I know this market and here's what you need to do."

"I want these guys in the beta."

"You don't have enough market research to make that call."

"More cowbell."

And so on.

Here's how I avoid these problems, because I do.  I'll even boil it down to two sentences you can say with your mouth full of food.

"Everybody has a stake in the success of this venture, and everybody has a special unique contribution they can make to that success that no one else can.  If we all play together and work hard to delight our users, we can be successful together."

Smile when you say it.

Getting the people who think they are product managers out of product management is a matter of attitude - it is possible to be collegial in the effort to create the best possible outcome without creating an environment in which decision-making becomes diffused, or worse, capricious and inconsistent.

You, dear product manager, must create a process environment that involves the team appropriately and you must ride that process like a world-class cowboy as the surest way to get stuff done.  Because if people don't understand your process and the role they play in it, they are free to play any role they want at any time and expect that their inputs will be acted on (if they are senior enough to get away with it).

So good luck with that.  We've got no one else to blame for it but ourselves.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

best: product management manual

What is the best instruction manual for product managers?

Yee, Wong Herbert. Hamburger Heaven. New York: Scholastic, 2001.


In a review of this fine book, C. Posey wrote:

My son was delighted while we read this book. Tickled by fantastic illustrations and disgusting delicacies, he enjoyed the book from front to back. I used it as an opportunity to teach him about entrepreneurship, a not-so-obvious theme underlying the story.

While others' reviews have pointed out that the moral is about helping others, I believe it goes deeper than that. It is about Pinky Pig taking charge, and doing what is required to not only save her job, but to help grow the business she works for.

She performs market research (asking others what they'd like), planning and advertising (distributing the new menus in places her customers were most likely to frequent), and even delivering the desired product to the masses, which nets the business (and her personally) financial success, and loyal customers galore.

A great book with a moral? Yes. And a fantastic one about self-reliance at that.

This book is full of PM goodness that will stick in your head forever. Which is why it is the best product management manual ever. Recommended for readers of all ages.

PS: When I read this to my kids years ago they both said "that's what you do Daddy!" My son then asked when I was going to start a hamburger stand. He was not satisfied with my answer.

PPS: My reason for writing about this today was I found myself saying "it's the product our users want that is important, not the one that you or I want", and I was reminded of the line "Aardvark's burger has termites inside" from this book. Everything is Connected.

Friday, April 09, 2010

embracing: crossroads

IF you've been brought into an organization as its first product manager, most likely you've spent your first 100 days figuring out the lay of the land.

AND you've probably figured out that there are changes that need to be made in order for the product and perhaps the organization to succeed. Otherwise they wouldn't have hired you.

THEN you realize you're at a crossroads. You can either continue along the previous path, or introduce the disruptions required to get the product to the destination the organization has set for itself.

This is a very lonely moment in time. It's also the most important moment you'll face in your time with that organization.

How you lead your team through this crossroads will challenge you in every way. It's a make-or-break time for you, Mr. Product Manager. Embrace it.