Montage Sequence #4 - Memos.

This is a bit of an unusual update and essentially a link to other documents.

I'm fascinated by interesting memos written for an internal audience - a company, a campaign or even for the President. Raw, not smoothened over for PR departments, they help shed light on how people really think inside institutions. 

These are challenging to find. They typically seem to come into the public domain in one of three ways: through being really old, being part of some lawsuit/legal process or, sadly, being part of a hack.

Over the years, I’ve collected several of them and finally got around to publishing a few on my site. From Zuck’s memo on why FB should buy Unity to classic media memos to Presidential advice, they cover a gamut of impactful writing. They’ve personally helped me in my own writing in many ways.

Hope you enjoy them as much as I have over the years.

Check them out here.

Montage Sequence #3 - Your first 30 days as an exec

I’ve been lazy on this newsletter while also writing my blog so I’m going to do the time-honored tradition of cross-posting content from my blog. Apologies if you’ve seen this already!

Exec 101: Your first 30 days as an exec

You’ve just gotten that fancy job you’ve always wanted.VP of Eng/CRO/CPO/Head of Partnerships/whatever. Congratulations! But what do you actually do?

It often goes like this: it’s day one and you’re pumped. You have that fancy office/conf room! But as you go through meetings, your mood changes. You find that the organization is large and complex. Multiple teams and leads are vying for your attention and you can’t even keep their names straight. You’re are also detecting whiffs of trouble: projects in trouble and people who don’t like each other. A sister organization seems to be eyeing your turf. Your CEO checks in with you at the end of the day - “How are things? All good? Super excited you’re here.”. You nervously type out a “All good!” but you’re secretly worried whether you’ll survive your first three months.

Here’s a quick playbook I’ve compiled over the years on how to make the most of your first month. A lot of this is from personal experience and advice from leaders who have done this well.

First, relax! Every senior leader I’ve met has been through a similar experience when they’ve been promoted into a new role. These jobs are not easy and every single person struggles with impostor syndrome.

Second, meet everyone. Spend your first two weeks doing only 1:1 meetings and being a quiet observer in team meetings. In every meeting, cover these three topics and do as less talking as possible:

  • understand that person and how they fit into the org

  • three things they feel are going well and three that are not going well/need fixing

  • At the very end of the meeting, ask for a couple of names for people you should meet

When you walk out of the 1:1, write up what you heard and set up meetings with the people they suggested, even if they’re outside your org.

You’ll quickly build a mental map of common themes that emerge. Project X and Y which seem to be in trouble. Person Z who everyone thinks is awesome but is just some junior data scientist in title and should probably be promoted. Compensation issues. Space issues. Within two weeks you should have a list of three things the org needs to change and three things the org needs to double down on/accelerate.

You’re also laying the ground work for relationships and information flow across the org which will be critical later on where the same people may not be as open with you as they are with a new person.

Third, make obvious people changes quickly.

Within the first few weeks, it should be apparent which parts of your team are working and which aren’t. If you need to make an obvious change and ask someone to leave or change their role, it’s better to do it early and quickly. You’ll find people expect you to do this with your fresh slate than having to do it eight months later.

This can feel very hard. You have barely gotten started and you may not even know the other person well. However, you’ll always find that these situations are obvious and the org is almost expecting you to do it (and will judge your standards if you don’t).

Fourth, build key relationships.

There are three sets of key relationships you’ll need and in the first few weeks, spend time on all of these: Your direct reports, your peers and your manager. Your directs come first - they rely on you for their career progression and are your biggest responsibility. Take them to dinner, have coffee with them. Get to know them as people and not just in the confines of their role.

The most important however is your boss: the CEO or someone reporting to him/her usually. Check in with them at all times. Pass on your observations and get theirs in return. Calibrate whether this resonates with them and more importantly, get to alignment on what they think success in your job looks like. Ideally you’re chatting every few days. Most new exec failures are because there’s no early alignment.

Fifth, pick a crisis/early win

I can’t emphasize this enough. One of the most crucial things for new leaders is having an early “win” where the team sees you roll up your sleeves and in action. This could mean any number of things - close that sale yourself, handle that incoming press/PR kerfuffle, personally get involved in that site outage. Whatever it is, it is key that people get to see you engage - your style, how you actually do the work and add value.

I’ve seen many senior execs hope for a good crisis where they can help the team. The easiest thing to do IMO is pick a quick/small project (not something that will take months) where you can have a visible win/outcome and justify your role as opposed to being just another layer of management.

In many cases, I’ve seen people form their impression of leaders for years based on this first impression.

Don’t mess it up.

Sixth, communicate.

Every single week, write out an update to your entire org on the people you’ve met and some high level observations. Write about yourself and your journey. People want to hear from their leaders and you’ll be surprised how little they know of what you actually do all day. Writing is by far the best way to get them to know you.

The key here is consistency. Send it to the same google group/alias at the same time of week with the same structure.

Finally, at the end of the month, write up a document on everything you observed from step two and send it to the org along with a few themes you want to focus on. This can feel uncomfortable - most execs aren’t used to being transparent so broadly. However, there’s real value here. The org gets to see how you work transparently but also have a mirror shined back on them from an unbiased source. I often find these docs are valuable years after the fact and good ones are the key to changing org behavior and culture.

And…that’s it! These can sound trivial but you’ll be surprised at how repeatable and applicable this playbook is across job types and industries. Remember - these jobs are hard but you’ve earned it for a reason. Trust yourself, have fun. And send me a note on how it goes!

There are many people who have given me advice on this over the years but in particular I want to thank: Boz, Adam Bain and Gokul Rajaram. The book “First 90 Days” has also been a huge help

Montage Sequence #2 - bubbles, loonshots and the OA

Welcome to the 2nd ever “Montage Sequence”. Most of this was half-written last week but between my first week back at Twitter after paternity leave and the logistics of handling a baby at home, I had to wait for a flight this Friday to finish it. I miss the days of the mid-2000s when you would see people update their blog apologizing for not having written in a while and then hop on over to Scripting.com to see who had written recently. Those were some fun days.

Without further ado, onto this installment. Please send me any thoughts or feedback to sriram@sriramk.com or tweet me at @sriramk.

Tech Bubbles

I had a tweet go surprisingly viral last week. It was a collection of various press pieces over the last decade or so on the implications/predictions and fear of a bubble in Silicon Valley. It’s always hard to reverse-engineer why something suddenly catches fire but this seemed to hit a nerve in the midst of many competing narratives in tech and media. What I truly enjoyed was the conversation that ensued, both on Twitter and via private DM from people who both loved and hated it.

I came away with a few thoughts.

1/ The trauma of the dotcom bust has left a deep-seated fear of a return to the bleak years of the early 2000s. This, combined with the focus in recent years on wealth inequality and the impact that tech companies have on the world in multiple ways all result in a lot of anxiety. This bubbles (no pun intended!) up in many ways and often not well-understood by those of us who work “inside” the tech world.

2/ It’s worth examining whether we have over-rotated after the dotcom bust on who can invest in companies. There have been multiple articles on how a lot of the upside on the recent IPOs (say Lyft going from $4m to $20b+ in valuation) have gone to a select few institutions and individuals. It is worth asking then: why was this not available to the regular mom-and-pop investor? Is there a way to structure it so people don’t risk losing their entire savings or pensions over a scammy fly-by-night bust?

I’ve been starting to see some interesting ideas in this space including a) having investors take a test similar to the DMV driving license one before investing b) private company investments restricted to only a % of your net worth. There are some interesting ideas here coming from the crypto space after the spree of shady behavior in the ICO world.

The issue I care about here: how to get normal people here in the US ( not just institutions or high-net-worth individuals) access to one of the strongest drivers of wealth creation in recent times. In Forrest Gump, buying stock in “a fruit company” famously makes Lt. Dan and Forrest rich beyond their wildest dreams. How do you get  Forrest and Lt. Dan access to that in 2019 without the risks of the dot com bust?

3/ The unicorns going public now are fundamentally different structurally from the companies in 1999-2000. Software may not yet have eaten the entire world but has definitely eaten a lot of industries. First, these companies have been around a long time. Lyft, Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest, etc have all been around for a decade. Second, it’s clear that these companies are now here to stay driven by their underlying network effects and economies of scale: it’s hard imagine a world where Airbnb is not around a decade from now.

It may be time to stop grouping them together as “tech” and instead looking at each on its own merit as just regular ol’ boring companies.

4/ Finally, I was struck by how all the companies mentioned in the “bubble” pieces - often in reaction to the sticker shock of what seemed like a large valuation back then - went on to bigger and bigger valuations as time went on, often many times over. Which leads me to wonder:
a) why did so many commentators miss the growth that was going to happen to these companies?
b) is the same mistake being made now in the narrative around valuations?.

Loonshots

One of the best “business” books I’ve read in recent times is Loonshots by Safi Bahcall. When I first head the title, I was skeptical and assumed it to be yet another mediocre work promising the secrets of Google-esque innovation to a mid-level exec. But what I found was a real delight and a great framework on how to think about risk and innovation inside businesses.

Let’s start with the author.  After reading the first couple of chapters, it was clear this was no ordinary management non-fiction writer trying to expand a blog post into a book with a catchy title. I set the book down and Googled the author. You immediately see why the book has the gravitas it has. Bahcall is a well-respected entrepreneur in the pharma world and someone who has actually built companies in a challenging space.

This guy is the real deal.

Onto the book itself. Bahcall walks through multiple famous business case studies (Pan Am vs American Airlines, Apple, Kodak, etc). He does it with flair and a focus on the quirky characters that make up these companies: the book is entertaining for that alone. But deeper in, he reveals his real masterpiece.

Bahcall splits all “loonshots” (think of them as pattern-breaking innovation) into two kinds: P-Type and S-Type. The P (“Product”) Loonshots are those companies that competed by focusing on product innovation. Pan Am famously built planes no one else could. But what gets interesting is the “S-Type” Loonshots. “S” for Bahcall stands for “strategy” but I believe a better name for this would be “Operational Loonshots”. He breaks down cases where innovation doesn’t happen from “product” (new kinds of planes) but “operations” (yield management on pricing, the invention of frequent flier miles, optimizing routes). He walks through multiple case studies where companies fail by focusing on just one-kind to another. 

Over the years, I’ve come to realize the same in the tech world: it is key to understand what the dynamics of the market you’re in and then figure out whether you should be innovating on product or strategy/operation. The most common mistake I see here is the wrong team fit: asking a team focused on pattern-breaking innovation to focus on optimizing an existing process (or vice versa) is a recipe for failure that I see all too often.

There’s a lot more here in this framework. I highly recommend this as a read. 

The OA

The OA’s Season Two showed up on Netflix about a week ago and let me just say - IT IS AMAZING. My wife and I watched Season One and had the same reaction as many others: interesting, weird, uneven but very different from anything else on TV. And a lot of interpretive dance. Season Two is something else altogether.


First, unlike the JJ Abrams-Lindelof trope of having a mystery that is never answered, S2 starts with resolving the central mystery of S1. But then it gets weirder and weirder and more fun with every episode. I have to resist from giving away details but by the end, Aarthi and I were messaging about  the previous night’s episode  during our workdays.

Second, it is bold. The OA takes risks, goes places no show has gone before and takes the “weird” feeling of S1 and dials it up. I have rarely seen a show break so many patterns so quickly.

Third, I love the San Francisco-sci-fi vibe. It makes San Francisco look beautiful, mysterious and interleaves in modern tech in a way that feels very 90s cyber-punky. 

And finally, it might have the biggest “WTF …did they just do what I think they did?” season finale of all time. It’s up there with the classics like Lost’s flash forward. However, unlike many other finales, they attempted something truly audacious and somehow made it…work. Hats off to Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.

I loved it and highly recommend it as a watch (you will have to watch S1 first).

That’s it for now. Please send thoughts and brickbats my way at sriram@sriramk.com or tweet me at @sriramk. Until next time!

Thanks
Sriram

Montage Sequence #1 - Building teams and WrestleMania

A one time preamble:

Email newsletters are the new hotness?

My first reaction on hearing that was: "Thiel was right. We were promised flying cars and we are doing email in 2019 now? Humanity is doomed".
My second reaction was: "Thiel was wrong. 140 characters is way better than any flying car. And we now have 280 now so the joke's on you, Mr.What-Do-You-Believe-No-One-Else-Does".

My third reaction was "I should get in on this action!". I don't know what will show up here between my tweets and my blog posts but you (dear reader!) and I will figure this out together.

One last thing: why “The Montage Sequence”? It just so happens I particularly enjoy montage sequences in movies and spend a lot of time trying to deconstruct how they work. Be it the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up or a heist being put together by Danny Ocean, it’s a fascinating way to compress storytelling and emotion.

And no montage sequence is ever boring.

Teams and organizations

I've been spending a fair bit of my paternity leave reading about how people build things. In specific, bringing together diverse teams to accomplish a large endeavor, often engineering/scientific in nature. One particular fun set of stories has been those from the mid-century military and engineering projects from the US government.

Four in particular were compelling: “The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made A Difference” which chronicles how Admiral Rickover basically pitched and built something no one thought possible: the nuclear navy. Second, “Doing the Impossible: George E. Mueller & the Management of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program” is a riveting look at how George Mueller (no relation to the Mueller you might have been following these days) got us into space. ”Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project” is well-known for both the subject matter but also for it being written by one of the key players in the building of the atom bomb.

However, my favorite is maybe the least known of this bunch: “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”. If you don’t know who Col. John Boyd is, you’re in for a delight. This ex-fighter pilot turned strategist made not just one or two but arguably four different crucial contributions to how fighter jets are flown, how they’re made and with military strategy. Most of all, he’s known for inventing the “OODA” loop for how any team or organization should be run. If you’re in the business of running things, you need to read this.

Each of these are interesting in their own way but very quickly some common patterns emerge.

1/ They worked in large bureaucracies and were adept at working with multiple stakeholders, managing up, sideways and down to accomplish their goal. They weren’t the classic SV founder archetype in many ways.

2/ However, they were all mercurial characters often not liked by the career bureaucrats they were surrounded by. One consistent theme is they optimized for some macro goal rather than local incentives - or their own careers. Look no further Col. Boyd who never got beyond the rank of Colonel.

3/ They built small, agile teams with focus on experimentation, iteration and practical trials over theoretical debates. 

4/ They focused on building a shared understanding of the overall goal. It was always clear why your team or your work *mattered*. 

5/ They balanced #4 with strong autonomy for their leaders and teams. This sounds like an oxymoron but they somehow made it work.

6/ They were all strong communicators personally but also built transparent, frequent, wide communication into their organizations. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing and going through.

It’s both inspiring but also depressing to read these accounts. You get the distinct impression we are doomed to relearn these patterns from scratch with every new team we build.

The Road to WrestleMania: Becky Lynch and Kofi Kingston

Look, if you know me, you know I’m obsessed with the WWE and have been ever since I was a kid.

Nothing annoys me more than when someone asks “But isn’t it all fake?”. My goto answer is to say “Of course it’s fake. And so is every Marvel movie and Star Wars”. But that’s a lie. For the WWE is at its best when it’s real.

For a fan, there’s nothing better than the months of Jan-April when the company showcases their best storylines and talent in the lead up to their version of the Super Bowl, WrestleMania (you have to hear it in your head in full Vince McMahon voice. WRRRESTLEMANIAAAA). This year, there are TWO compelling storylines, both of which have been created as much by the fans as by WWE itself.

The first is the tale of Becky Lynch.

For the last couple of years, the WWE has been putting the spotlight on their female talent who have been headlined by former UFC champ, Ronda Rousey. It would have been a safe bet to assume Ronda would be standing victorious at this year’s WM. Becky, on the other hand, had been having a steady run. If you’re not a WWE fan, I would describe Becky as the indy band loved by the “purists” but hasn’t broken into the Spotify Top 10 yet.

But something unusual happened earlier last year. In wrestling parlance, without anyone really planning for or expecting it, Becky Lynch got herself “over”.

In other words, the crowd chants her name and the roof comes off when she makes an entrance. She is now not just a performer but a star.

No fan can explain exactly what made this happen or pinpoint a defining moment when Becky went from a talented performer with name recognition to someone a hundred thousand people want to see live. But it happened and it’s magical and now the WWE is running with it.

The second and even more intriguing story in my opinion is that of Kofi Kingston. Kofi has been in the WWE for over 12 years. If the WWE was a long running TV series, Kofi’s the equivalent of a familiar supporting character. Loved by all but no one expects him to take down the main baddie. He was best known for his acrobatic performances at the Royal Rumble and his role as part of a bigger group.

This all changed a month ago when Kofi got substituted in a last-minute replacement for another injured wrestler in a match. During that match something amazing happened: the crowd went from expecting him to put up a spirited performance but ultimately lose…to cheering wildly for him. And when it ended, he got that rarest of WWE accolades: the fans stood up and chanted his name as he soaked it in from the ring.

This is where reality meets scripted fiction. The WWE, obviously realizing the gold they have in their hands, decided to go all in on this storyline and now Kofi will have a chance to win the championship at Wrestlemania (he isn’t not confirmed now due to how the storyline is playing out but I expect that to be sorted out soon).

Here’s why this matters: the 80-90K fans at WrestleMania know this is all scripted. The millions watching at home know it’s scripted. However they also realize that Kofi getting this opportunity is a rare alignment of the stars. Something no one could have planned or predicted for someone who’s career seemed destined to be in the mid-card. Who doesn’t want to cheer for that? Who won’t be emotionally crushed if Kofi can’t pull it off?

That’s what makes this all real and that’s why I’ll be cheering for Becky and Kofi to win it all come WrestleMania night.

Until next time!
Sriram Krishnan


P.S Love this? Hate this? Let me know! Find me at @sriramk on Twitter or drop me a note at sriram@sriramk.com.

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