Out with the old (product features)

The new year means a fresh start. With that in mind, I urge product managers, designers, engineers and developers – anyone who helps develop a product, really – to think critically about the features they are designing. Have you thought about what features you’ll say goodbye to in January? Because killing features now means better business velocity for the rest of 2019.

As a product and its codebase grows, it is not uncommon to see an increase in technical debt. This debt may be because usage of a feature has scaled beyond its original design (you can’t expect a Toyota Corolla to reach 300 km/h no matter how many turbochargers you add) or because a feature, and subsequently it’s code, is used in more ways than originally intended (like a lawn mower turned into a snow blower – it works, but it shouldn’t). Often, technical debt accumulates because old or infrequently-used features aren’t retired.

There is a cost of removing these old features, of course, but removing features is significantly cheaper in the long-run than maintaining relic code. When you support outdated or unused features you’re also allowing security, performance and backwards compatibility issues to arise.

I remember reading an article about Evernote that claimed 90% of their features (and they have thousands of them) are used by less than 1% of their users. Eventually, the company’s velocity grounded to a halt because every simple feature update required numerous discussions across the company before the change could be implemented.

So make no mistake, it is desirable and even essential to purge old product features. Here’s how in three steps:  

  1. First identify a feature that you think should be retired. Then measure the usage of that feature. The data won’t lie. If usage is low, proceed to step two.
  2. The numbers may not tell you the whole story. Talk to some of the old-timers who have more context than you and understand why the feature existed in the first place. In many cases, you’ll be surprised by the reasons.
  3. Decide to purge, modernize or maintain the status quo. Make a decision and then execute your action plan.

Years ago, I was part of a team that dedicated six months to find bugs and purge unused features. On the surface, it seemed we were spending an inordinate amount of time and effort ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’ and not working on things that took the product forward. In reality though, those six months pushed the product much, much further ahead. By the end of it the product ran faster, the UI was cleaner because many unused features were gone, and annoying glitches were finally addressed. The app went from 1-star to 5-star in a few months without adding anything new.

It’s a good reminder: Less is more. Simple is good.

Storytelling for change

Before we rung in the new year, Wattpad released its Year in Review, highlighting the trends and community movements that defined the year on the global entertainment platform. In a year when people around the world were pushing for progressive social change, Wattpad’s community of 70 million users broke new ground in literary representation and created a safe space online for marginalized voices and their stories.

From #MuslimRomance to Mental Health Awareness, Wattpad stories celebrate inclusivity across characters and genres. Check out the full Year in Review below:

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When tech giants move next door

A slew of international tech companies – Google, Uber, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon – have committed to or expressed interest in setting up shop in Toronto. If you’re a homegrown startup or scaleup you can’t help but think about the implications of having these giants in your backyard.

Companies often expand their footprint to lower costs, access specialized talent or for a host of other reasons. It’s not new. They aren’t the first international companies who want to set up shop in Toronto, and won’t be the last.

And why not? Toronto is a world-class city with some of the best universities in the world producing some of the finest technical and business talents. We’re home to an incredibly diverse community who have the perspective and understanding to solve global issues and build products and services that work for the world.  

Colleagues and friends have recently been asking me for my take on these moves. Are they helpful or harmful to the city and the local tech ecosystem?

In my opinion, we should welcome these moves – but be wary of them.

When a few foreign companies decide to move to a burgeoning city, they can help build a critical mass that directly supports homegrown companies by spurring interest in the region. They attract high caliber talent and then provide opportunities for these employees to hone their skills and learn new ones so they can further develop into well-rounded and in-demand workers.

But too many foreign companies in a single locale can make it seem like they’ve colonized the area, leaving little room for local businesses. It gets too difficult to compete, too expensive to stay in your backyard. Think about this: If data is the new oil, do you really want all the ‘oil companies’ to be foreign-owned?

So it’s not a choice of either-or. Having zero international companies who operate locally won’t stimulate the ecosystem. With too many foreign companies, locals lose the ability to control their our own destiny,  and eventually, ideas and innovation become stifled.

For now, I welcome these new companies into our backyard but make no mistake, it can never replace building our own homegrown giants. I’m certain that the incredible Toronto tech ecosystem will continue to make waves regardless of who moves next door.

5 tips for better meetings people will actually want to attend

Over the years I’ve attended thousands of meetings. The best ones respected my time and input. They kept me engaged – and often excited – throughout the meeting.  And the worst ones … well, I’m pretty sure we’ve all attended at least a few terrible meetings and know what that’s like.

Having seen the good and the bad, I wanted to share some simple tips that anyone, at any level, can implement for more effective meetings.

Go beyond the agenda
Yes, circulating a clear agenda prior to the meeting is important, but also consider explicitly spelling out the objective and the outcome of the meeting. It gives participants the right context to prepare for and be fully engaged during the meeting (or decline the meeting if they can’t help meet the objectives/outcomes).

Nominate a facilitator
This person makes sure the agenda is followed and desired outcomes are met. They empower all participants to contribute and get the group back on track if the conversation goes awry. Facilitating meetings is a special skill and not everyone is good at it but if you find the right person, you are practically guaranteed a great meeting. Keep in mind that the meeting organizer doesn’t have to be the facilitator.

Limit participants
Keep meetings participants to 4-7 people maximum. In my experience this really is the sweet spot. Beyond 8 participants, the introverts in the group tend to shy away from voicing their opinions (a good facilitator, though, can help draw out their perspectives and ensure introverts have a voice).

Forget the update
Don’t use a meeting to provide or ask for updates. Save it for email, or better still a collaborative Google Doc. Share these updates in advance of the meeting as pre-reading material so you can focus the discussion on healthy debates and decision making.

Save 10
Use the last 10 minutes of the meeting to recap the discussion. This is crucial. You’ve just spent the last hour having a productive discussion, it would be a shame for it to fall apart in the follow-up. Make note of the essence of the discussion, key decisions made and actions to take. Be sure to share these notes with all attendees and other stakeholders who couldn’t join.

Slight tweaks to the way organize your meetings can have a profound impact. Know of any other hacks to make meetings more effective?  Let me know in the comments.

This simple hack makes email introductions more effective

At some point in your career, someone you know will a) ask for an introduction to someone else in your network, or b) offer to make an introduction to someone they feel you should know.

Email introductions can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can be incredibly useful in connecting directly with an elusive executive. On the other hand, they can suck up a lot of time (and lead to bruised egos) if not done with tact.

The very worst email introductions automatically assume that the connection being made is appropriate and beneficial for involved parties. But the truth is unless you’ve explicitly asked in advance, this is just an assumption.

Here’s an example of an email I recently received:

Hey Allen,

I would like to introduce you to Cindy Lou (cc’ed). Cindy Lou is an expert in X, which you will find useful. I’m sure you would enjoy the meeting. I’ll let you two find the best time to meet next week!

Cheers,
Horton

The problem is, while Cindy Lou might be an expert in X, I don’t really care about X, it’s just not my thing. Naturally, I don’t want to spend even more time feigning interest in X. And I definitely don’t want to waste Cindy Lou’s time either. The other problem: Despite what Horton thinks, I’m mostly out of the office next month so can’t find a time to meet without a lot of calendar shuffling.

I used to accept blind introductions (and subsequent meetings) like these in the past out of politeness. It was an ineffective use of my time – and theirs. Even when I dared to say no, I had to spend time crafting a firm, yet polite email to decline the opportunity. Drafting the email didn’t take up nearly as much time as a meeting would, but it still took time out of my day that could be better spent on strategy or operational challenges. Eventually, it became too much.

Nowadays, when it comes to email introductions, I try to model the behavior I want to see. When people ask me to connect them with someone in my network, I make sure I have a double opt-in. This means I’ve asked for (and received) the permission of both parties before I send a note. Here’s what it looks like:

Pavel would like me to connect him with Uhura.

I’ll ask Pavel to send me a new, well-written email with the request (Pavel should NOT include our previous conversation i.e. the original request). It could look something like this.

Hey Allen,

As discussed, it will be great if you can introduce me to Uhura. Here is a summary of my ask: <insert awesome summary here>

Thanks in advance for your help.

Live long and prosper,
Pavel

Then, I would add a sentence or two before forwarding the note to Uhura (without including Pavel). My addition would provide further context and could be something along the lines of: “I don’t know Uhura well and I haven’t tried her products, but the elevator pitch sounds relevant to you” or “Uhura is brilliant and working on a super interesting project you might be interested in.” This context setting is important, but should only take 30 seconds of your time.

If Uhura agrees to the introduction, then I add Pavel to the thread. If she says no, I’ll let Pavel know that as well.

Double opt-in email introductions work well for a number of reasons.

  1. The onus is on the person requesting the introduction to write an awesome email detailing why the connection is valuable. It’s not the facilitator’s responsibility to make the case
  2. It avoids putting people in an awkward position of accepting a connection or meeting when there is zero interest in the product/service/pitch
  3. It encourages frank dialogue. If a person wants to decline an introduction, chances are he/she is more likely to provide a candid reason in a private one-on-one email with a trusted connection. It allows the facilitator to filter the information appropriately while still providing a truthful explanation to the requester
  4. It allows for brevity, without sounding cold. Since the facilitator has established relationships with both parties, a to-the-point email doesn’t come off as arrogant or rude

I make lots of introductions, and I am more than happy to do so. It’s great for community building. I hope the double opt-in method helps make introductions faster and a better experience for everyone!

The End of 8-Hour Days

Both my parents used to work for a bank. For them, the work day started at nine in the morning and ended at 5:00 pm sharp. Day in and day out, this was their routine. They never understood the concept of flexible hours. They questioned why I would bring “work” home. On the other hand, they were always amused that I never needed to take time off work to see the doctor or get the car fixed during office hours.

“Am I expected to work an 8-hour day?” I get this question from employees from time to time, but I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Employees are expected to get their work done, deliver on OKRs and contribute to a positive workplace culture. For the most part, I don’t (and neither should their direct manager) care where or how the work gets done. Of course, it goes without saying (but I’ll still say it), flexible work hours should never impact collaboration or attendance at critical meetings.

Startups are fast-paced, ever-changing environments filled with bright employees. They’re solving complex and fascinating problems and it’s all very exciting. Being a disruptor and part of a paradigm shift is thrilling and the work itself should compel employees to give 100%. Offering flexible hours instills trust in your team and gives employees a sense of ownership to execute on projects in the way that works for them.

That’s not to say there will be no instances when burning the midnight oil for a specific project or tight deadline is required. Make no mistake, there will be times when a critical security issue needs to be addressed after-hours or a client has an urgent need on the weekend. But there should also be opportunities to take it easy and spend a few weeks out of the country or deal with a family or health issue. It’s about flexibility.

Most startups offer flexible hours, and it makes sense. After all, tech is a creative industry unlike working at a bank or factory. As people head back to work after their relaxing summer vacations, my advice to founders and startup execs? Measure productivity by outcomes and results, not timecards.

Building a Company for Everyone

I wholeheartedly believe that diversity is a strength. Entrepreneurs can’t build a global product without understanding and embracing the spectrum of identity, gender, ethnicity and language found all around the world. Building a diverse team that reflects the people you serve is crucial to long-term success. It’s easy to say diversity is important, but how do you measure it?

Today’s post is from Wattpad’s Head of Product and Head of Wattpad Labs Seema Lakhani. Like me, Seema is a huge champion of inclusion and diversity. Her post outlines the results of Wattpad’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion survey that aims to understand how employees self-identify and tracks how empowered they feel within the company.

I strongly encourage all companies – startups, scaleups and corporate giants – to track and share results of their diversity and inclusion efforts. The first step in creating a diverse and inclusive tech industry for the future is to understand where you are right now.

Here’s the full post:

2018 has been a year of challenge and (some) change for the diversity movement in tech. The struggles of minority groups in the industry are finally a mainstream conversation, even as real change lags for many.

At Wattpad, we’ve long recognized that diversity is our strength. Our company culture, our teams, our ability to innovate, and ultimately our product, are all made stronger by the variety of perspectives, experiences, and voices that make up Wattpad.

Wattpad’s commitment to diversity has been established since Day 1. The fact that we were founded by two people of colour (one of whom is an immigrant), in Canada (one of the most diverse countries in the world), has helped us maintain a more diverse perspective than most technology companies. Early in Wattpad’s existence, we made the decision to make Wattpad community safety a top priority. This ethos deeply informs how we approach our platform and how we build our teams. As a result, Wattpad has always been a safe and diverse place for both users and employees.

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

It’s been a year since we released the results of our 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Survey. Our goal is to be a leader in transparency around these issues, showing exactly what we’ve done to create an inclusive workplace.

We’ve now completed our 2018 Diversity & Inclusion Survey.* This year, we’ve expanded the survey for a better understanding both the representation and sentiment for different groups across Wattpad. We know that building a diverse workplace isn’t just a matter of numbers; it’s equally important to understand that people will have different experiences of a workplace. This year’s Diversity & Inclusion Survey attempts to understand how people feel about diversity at Wattpad and if our efforts towards inclusivity account for how marginalized people experience life here.

DIVERSITY AT WATTPAD  

Today, we’re proud to say that a majority–56%–of Wattpad employees are women. That strong representation is reflected across most teams: women make up 50% of our Leadership Team, 50% of our User Experience and Design Team, and 100% of our Product Team.

We’re incredibly proud of those numbers, but know there is still work to do. For example, less than a quarter of our Engineering team are women, so that will be a continued area of focus for us in the coming year.  

For a more intersectional look at our team composition, we’re proud to say that People of Colour make up close to half (45%) of all Wattpad employees and 41% of our Leadership Team. Company-wide, 21% of Wattpad employees are Women of Colour, 15% are non-native English speakers, 8% identify as having a disability, 13% identify as LGBTQ+, and 3% are transgender.

Diversity at Wattpad – Highlights

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Charts_POCINCLUSION AT WATTPAD  

Sentiment questions help us better understand how marginalized people feel about working at Wattpad. We know the experiences of a workplace–its communication styles, and organizational structures and processes–can be different for men, women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ folks. So, it’s important that we create a space in our survey for people to express those experiences, helping us understand if we’re headed in the right direction.

We were happy to hear that, in most instances, there were no large gaps in sentiment among the diverse groups and identities that make up the team at Wattpad. While there is room for improvement, there were no major disparities between how different groups experience life at Wattpad. All areas saw an increase in sentiment from 2017.

When asked if they agree that “People from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to succeed at my company,” 75% of women and 77% of People of Colour agreed. At Wattpad as a whole, 80% agreed.

Similarly, when asked if they agree that “My Company Values Diversity,” 92% of women and 91% of People of Colour agreed. Company-wide, 94% agreed with this statement in 2018, up from 85% in 2017 and a true testament to our Diversity & Inclusions Committee’s hard work throughout the year. When asked if they agree that “I can be my authentic self at work,” 82% of women and 77% of People of Colour agreed. Eighty-one per cent of Wattpad employees overall agreed. When we dug even deeper into the intersectional data for this question, we found that while 88% of white men and 85% of white women agreed they can be their authentic self at work, only 80% of men of colour and 75% of women of colour agreed.

When it comes to voice, 79% of employees and 75% of women agreed that “When I speak up my opinion is valued.” This number was lower for People of Colour (68%) and Non-Native English speakers (58%). While both of these were improvements from last year, they still highlight the work we need to do to ensure all employees feel safe and valued when contributing at Wattpad.

Inclusion at Wattpad – Highlights

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charts_straight_authenticWHAT’S NEXT?

2018 has been a year of growth and expansion at Wattpad. We’ve grown our team, expanded our work in entertainment around the world, continued to lead the future of interactive storytelling, and deepened the learnings and applications from Machine Learning to the more than 500 million story uploads on Wattpad. Our community is growing every day. This means new voices coming to Wattpad from all over the world. A diverse and inclusive company culture means more voices and experiences to challenge assumptions. It means broader perspective and fewer blind spots. It means better products for users everywhere, built by happy, safe employees, who can truly be themselves and thrive.  

Our Diversity & Inclusion Survey is the result of a team of people who have worked hard to better understand and improve our workplace. These results show what is possible when a company empowers employees with the financial and people resources to research, listen, and take action on diversity and inclusion initiatives. But they also demonstrate areas for improvement.

Diversity at Wattpad is about creating more diversity in tech overall. We’ve taken a leadership position in transparency, holding ourselves accountable to continually do better and making sure our stakeholders are aware of our efforts to create a more diverse company. Our team should match our community, which is why we’ll keep listening, learning, and pushing ourselves to do better, until we get there.

*Results for our 2018 Diversity & Inclusion Survey are based on participation from 84% of employees.