How To Become An Engineer With People Skills

My mother told me when I was young that people get hired for their technical skills, and fired for their people skills (specifically a lack thereof).  And I’ve seen this play out in the real world repeatedly.  Assessing whether someone can code a sudoku solver is a lot easier than assessing whether someone can maintain their cool under pressure, apologize when they’ve made a mistake, and reach out to maintain or repair important working relationships.

AngelHack, a company that provides Hackathon planning and marketing services, is launching a soft-skills course called The Whole Developer, that aims to teach developers, designers and product managers these soft skills.

The course is split into six sections:

“A big part of being a Whole Developer is communicating effectively. This goes beyond just getting along with people – it means being able to deliver persuasive, trenchant messaging that gets your point across and compels others to act on it.”

Team Building
“When placed in a leadership role the developer turned manager might take misguided approaches to forming a team, managing a team, and ultimately this leads to a non-productive work environment.”

“There are numerous benefits: clearer thinking, better decision making, and a sharply-honed intuition among them. Mindfulness is also especially useful during crises, allowing the practitioner to maintain a level head and not let external circumstances affect his/her decisions.”

Emotional Intelligence
“Emotionally intelligent people are able to navigate social situations and adapt to different people and groups. Even more than traditional intellect, emotional intelligence is a huge predictor of success. It explains why the most charismatic candidate – even if he/she’s not the most intelligent or even qualified one – gets the job or promotion.”

Work/Life Balance
“Being able to balance work with other interests – education, hobbies, and a social life – will lead to a happier, more fulfilling life for the Whole Developer. And a happy worker is a productive worker.”

Social Responsibility
“The idea of social responsibility rests on how we interact with and affect those around us. From maintaining personal relationships to contributing to the betterment of one’s community, social responsibility must be ingrained into the Whole Developer’s very DNA.”

It’s interesting (and heartening) that they included a section on mindfulness.  Communication, Team building, and Emotional Intelligence all start with a foundation of not letting your own thoughts, needs and emotions dominate your thinking.  This can be learned and developed through the practice of mindfulness.

Right now they’re just signing up people who are interested in the 12 week course starting in June.  If you’re looking to get started right now on becoming a “Whole Developer”, here’s what you should read:

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A Hardware Startup in the Dorm Room Next Door

We’re crossing a new threshold. Individuals can make real hardware products and bring them to market.

Thanks to open and accessible hardware platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and even ARM processors, Frankenstein prototypes can be hacked together in short time on short budgets. What used to take more than 60 engineering months can now take less than two.

Add the ability to apply lean product/market fit testing via crowdfunding and we’ve got a hardware innovation explosion on our hands.

What crowdfunding does is enable product-market-fit experimentation in a category that has historically been deprived of it. Two engineers in a dorm room who build a prototype on a low-cost development platform can quickly see if anyone wants what they’ve built by setting up a crowdfunding campaign. If the campaign goes well, not only does the team have verification that there is a market for their product, they also have capital to fund manufacturing; if it doesn’t, they just spared themselves the pain of spending time and money on a project that may not be met with success

Great post by Matt Witheiler at VentureBeat : The hardware revolution will be crowdfunded

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Jeff Bezos: Think Long Term

It’s a couple of years old, but I love this short talk by’s CEO Jeff Bezos.  In it he presents four things he knows:

  1. Obsess Over Customers
  2. Invent
  3. Think Long Term
  4. It’s Always Day 1


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Lean Startup and Lean UX in the Enterprise (Videos)

I’m always amazed by all the lean startup events and activity that I have yet to discover.  Yesterday I learned about Lean Day West – a 3 day conference that took place in Sept 2013 and dealt with Lean Startup and Lean UX in the Enterprise.   Lucky for us the talks have been recorded and they are awesome.  If you are at all interested in how to apply lean startup in a non-startup, check them out!  Some of my favorites:

Lean Engineering: Key Principles For Transforming Engineering Into A Full Lean UX Partner

billSquareBill Scott · @billwscott · Senior Director of User Interface Engineering, PayPal

How do you take a gigantic organization like PayPal and begin to transform the experiences? Engineering is often the key blocker in being able to achieve a high rate of innovation. In this talk, Bill Scott will give specific examples on implemented Lean UX in a 13,000 person company, re-factored the technology stack and changed the way engineers work with design & product partners. In addition, Bill will provide additional examples that go back to his early days writing one of the first Macintosh games to his more recent work at Netflix and the power of treating the user interface layer as the experimentation layer.  (Slides)

Building With Lean: A Cross-Functional Pairing Approach

jonoBenSquareBen Burton · @bjburton · Software Engineer
Jono Mallanyk · @jonomallanyk · UX Specialist / Senior Designer

Part of the inspiration for lean is to eliminate as much unnecessary work as possible to arrive at a valuable end-product. Methodologies such as Lean UX aim to design the best customer experience in the shortest cycle possible, but how do these approaches apply when it comes to executing and shipping a functional Minimum Viable Product? In this talk, designer Jono Mallanyk and software engineer Ben Burton delve into the hands-on approach they’ve taken to cross-functional pairing to design and build products quickly and effectively. In this talk, they’ll detail how and when to involve execution in the lean process, tools and techniques they’ve found useful for developers and designers working together, and do some live cross-functional pairing to demonstrate their process. At Neo Innovation Labs, Jono and Ben have spent the past 6 months pairing as designer and developer, learning from each other, and honing their cross-functional process to arrive at a truly lean approach to software creation.  (Slides)

Iterative Innovation – Small, Focused Changes Can Lead To Big Successes

emilySquareEmily Holmes · @uxemily · Director of K12 User Experience, Hobsons

At any large company, it can be difficult for a UX team to be innovative: the roadmap is pre-determined, quick fixes are the objective, revenue and new features are often prioritized over fixing what’s broken. Combine that with an aging infrastructure, and true innovation seems like an impossible goal. This session will examine how the K12 UX team at Hobsons found very small ways to innovate within existing constraints, and gradually built on those successes to move toward the forefront of the company’s product development process. By focusing first on tiny innovations, it is possible to iterate toward big changes within your organization.  (Slides)

Research Rebooted – Why Most Market Research Is Broken, And How Lean Can Help Fix It

farrahSquareFarrah Bostic · @farrahbostic · Founder, The Difference Engine

Based on 10 years designing, managing and conducting market research, Farrah had the opportunity to start with a blank slate on a recent project. In the interests of limited time and tight budgets, she started to experiment with lean techniques for doing research better, and discovered that a lot of what we take for granted about the research process, from study design, to recruitment, to the way we actually talk to customers, is broken. Based on what she learned on that first project, and each project since, Farrah has started to develop some lighter-weight, less expensive and time-consuming, and ultimately more useful ways to conduct research that helps brand and product managers make decisions, and grow business. (Slides)

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Visa is looking for someone to head up their Innovation Incubator

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 9.31.49 AM

I noticed this job posting on the wire today (copied below).  Looks like VISA is setting up an Innovation Incubator.  VISA refers to their larger R&D group as VISA Labs, and this group would be known as the Incubator.  VISA Labs doesn’t seem to have a dedicated website (but it looks like their design contractor has a preview up here).

I did find an interesting interview online with Joe Cunningham, Visa’s Global Head of Technology Strategy & Innovation where he talks about VISA Labs and the way they’re organized for innovation.  My guess is Joe is who the Sr Director of the Incubator would report to (you can see him speaking here to the Singapore Big Data Meetup group).

Although they’re big into open innovation, it looks like they want to pilot some stuff in-house too.  If you’re interested in innovating inside a company with lots of assets to leverage, this might be interesting.

VISA – Sr. Director – Innovation Incubator

Visa Inc. is a global payments technology company that connects consumers, businesses, financial institutions and governments in more than 200 countries and territories, enabling them to use digital currency instead of cash and checks.Visa does not issue cards, extend credit or set rates and fees for consumers. Visa’s innovations enable its bank customers to offer consumers choices: Pay now with debit, ahead of time with prepaid or later with credit products. From the world’s major cities to remote areas without banks, people are increasingly relying on digital currency along with mobile technology to use their money anytime, make purchases online, transfer funds and access basic financial services. All of which makes their lives easier and helps grow economies.

Behind the Visa brand are our talented employees who continuously raise the bar with innovative solutions and products that deliver the convenience and security of digital currency to more people all over the world.

Job Scope:

Visa is selectively recruiting for a Leader who will help build and lead Visa’s Foster City-based Incubation Unit. You will have the rare opportunity to work at the vanguard of payments, mobile solutions, social media capabilities, digital commerce experiences and a wide range of emerging digital payment platforms. You will reimagine how consumers interact with their money for payments and commerce through innovative product concepts, prototypes, and pilots that delight our customers and position our company for substantial growth.

– Lead rapid prototyping and piloting of new consumer experiences. You will be part of a highly dynamic, lean, and multi-disciplinary team to validate hypotheses and new product concepts
– Integrate broad knowledge of product concepts in emerging spaces (e.g. loyalty platforms, business analytics, authorization, and identity management) to develop viewpoints that inform internal development.
– Collaborate with external partners. You will also help us nurture relationships with key external stakeholders in the payments and commerce ecosystem including academics, entrepreneurs, VCs, etc. You will be a key team member in structuring business development relationships with external pilot partners.
– As the senior member of the Visa Incubation Unit, you will interface directly and often with officers throughout Visa’s business units, with the explicit objective of helping accelerate the firm’s corporate agendas through research and learning, rapid prototyping, and applied pilot market tests.
– Work closely with the enterprise research and development function to complete the innovation lifecycle at Visa.
– Provide consultative development services to validate/prototype ideas for Visa products and services.
– Define/evolve the incubation innovation portfolio.
– Based on incubation results and market insight, advise Corporate Strategy, IT and Product regarding potential technology injection, partnering, and investment opportunities.
– Actively participate in the Open Innovation framework to tap into outside expertise and make Visa an innovation partner of choice.
– Act as a “front door” for innovators wanting to work with Visa.
– Develop relationships with external entities to evangelize Visa’s innovation agenda.
– Match innovation partner capabilities/goals with Visa needs.
– Leveraging the Open Innovation framework, democratize innovation at Visa by broadening access to the innovation pipeline through evangelizing, promoting, and participating in initiatives/programs designed to foster a Culture of Innovation at Visa.

-Bachelor’s Degree
-15+ years track record of building and launching consumer products on web and mobile platforms
-Deep knowledge and passion around emerging payments technologies and how they will change commerce and consumer experiences
-Ability to communicate with and inspire developers, business analysts and other team members and drive toward a product vision
-Highly polished presentation skills. Ability to effectively communicate with, influence, and motivate C-suite executives.
-Start-up experience
-High level of intellectual curiosity and are comfortable with ambiguity
-Ability to put team before self and are energetically collaborative
-Enjoy working with a fun team of richly creative and accomplished professionals
-Familiarity with all stages of the software development lifecycle, extensive experience with rapid prototyping and agile development
-Strong manager with excellent organization and people skills and the ability to set priorities, problem-solve, multi-task and work well in a dynamic, rapidly changing environment
-Payments and digital commerce experience a strong plus
-Ability to roll up your sleeves and directly apply your diverse knowledge set to solve complex technical and business related problems if required—we need more than pure “managers”

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Relationship-building counts as work

“Relationship-building counts as work.”  That’s a great quote from in the latest article from First Round Capital Review: 23 Tools to Make Feedback Meaningful.  As Phin Barnes writes:

A lot of people skimp on the time they spend in one-on-ones or feedback sessions. They might dash off a few notes if they’re solicited, or think deeply about it once a year or once a quarter around performance reviews. But, generally speaking, we ignore people in our culture of hustle and growth. Building a real human connection doesn’t seem to count as productivity …

Not everything requires a concrete action to move the ball forward. When you learn you can be honest with your manager, or as a manager you learn that you can be open and candid with a teammate, work is being accomplished. In fact, doing this will make everything that you achieve going forward that much easier, faster and more effective. You’ll get what you put into it over time — you just won’t know when.

There some other great advice in the article for managers and individual contributors:

Assume the best intentions from your teammates and start with the belief that everyone wants the company to do great work. Envision yourself as part of this broader effort.

Don’t worry if your idea doesn’t win as long as the best idea wins. You will have more ideas.

Don’t try to make something perfect before offering it up for feedback. Adopt a napkin sketch mindset and check in with your manager along the way to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. The final result will turn out better, faster.

I’ve noticed that there’s a real battle going on between the VCs these days to put out the best engineering and product management content.  First Round Capital, Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures are all putting out awesome content.  I can only assume they’ve realized that it’s a great way to get mind-share and to speak to leaders in startups.


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Applying Lean Startup in an Enterprise with Steve Sanderson


I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Sanderson speak at the Austin Lean Startup Circle last night.  Although I’m a big fan of the Lean Startup, with a working wife and two little kids it’s rare that I prioritize a Meetup over some family time before the kids go to bed.  But I really wanted to hear what Steve had to say about applying lean startup methodology at Rackspace.

If you don’t know Steve, he was VP of Product at a couple of companies, most recently Food on the Table, and was featured in the Lean Startup book and on Eric Ries’ blog.  A little less than a year ago he made the switch to Rackspace to be their Resident Lean Startup Expert.  I was curious to know what that meant and any challenges he faced.  There aren’t a ton of people working to apply these principles in a larger enterprise and since I’ve now had the opportunity to run a innovation lab at two medium-sized companies (Bazaarvoice and Indeed) I want to see how other people view the challenges.

I loved how he started by pointing out that there are a couple of different contexts for applying these principles, and he ordered them from easiest to hardest:

  1. A Startup.  Easiest because there are fewer people, there are no products already operating at scale.  There is no revenue and brand to protect.
  2. A Innovation Lab inside an Existing Organization.  Harder than a startup (there is revenue and brand to protect), but you only need to persuade and convince a limited number of people, and protect them from the rest of the organization.
  3. Existing Teams inside an Existing Organization.  Hardest.  There are existing products running at scale.  There is revenue and brand to protect.  There are a lot of stakeholders to get onboard.

I appreciate that Steve was drawn to Rackspace to pursue the hardest challenge – working on the organizational change required to make these principles part of the product culture in an existing organization.

Steve started with some tips for effective organizational change.  Things like:

  • Have an internal sponsor / partner
  • Establish relationships (He used the expression build rapport, and talked about interviewing people – my preference to accomplish this is to take people to lunch).
  • Understand where value is created and exchanged, internally and externally
  • Take a step back from the acute symptoms and look at the big picture
  • Start small, and build upon wins
  • Use evidence that these principles work, rather than words to persuade
  • Be accountable for these changes

When he mentioned the need to protect the brand and revenue I suspected he was a fan of Marty Cagan, and he confirmed this later in his talk.

I had a chance to ask a couple of questions, but I still would love to know how he feels about the challenges of implementing dual-track agile, which is really necessary to get lean-principles running in a team that is also responsible for operating one or more products/features at scale.  Since Steve is based here in Austin I’m going to see if I can chat with him further to go into more detail about this.  I will be sure to share what I discover.

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