What I'm Reading
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Wednesday, May 16. 2012
This last week was the second Hack Day at Yahoo! for 2012, and I entered a team to compete yet again. This time it was a bit more personal. After winning two awards at the last Hack Day, I thought I had earned the credibility that I'm the real deal, and my ideas were worth paying attention to. There were still naysayers who thought the double win was a fluke or a one-time anomaly. I set out to prove to myself that this wasn't a fluke, and I intended to win Hack Day again. As I was recruiting for my team with a couple rough idea drawings in hand, the question came up, "why should I join your team?" I was a bit taken aback, and then answered, "because we're going to win this thing."
For this Hack Day, I scoped out a rather large project, much more complex and ambitious than the last one. I formed a team with five members. To make it even more challenging, I decided to pull in two noobies who had not competed in Hack Day before (just to spread the wealth), and to give them a taste of victory.
The night before Hack Day started, I sent out an email to my team entitled, "The Hack Day Survival Guide," which outlined what to expect and what to bring. I explicitly told each team member to wear their geekiest t-shirt to the event because it was key to winning. I also warned anyone who came in with a collared shirt would be mercilessly mocked. Surely enough the next day, as I'm gearing up to go to Hack Day, I see a team member walk in with a collared polo.
Me: Ummm.... so.... you ready for Hack Day?
Mr. Polo: Yeah.
Me: What's with the collar?
Mr. Polo: What?
Me: You're totally overdressed for Hack Day. Are you trying to make us lose? Where's your t-shirt?
Mr. Polo: I couldn't find a geeky t-shirt that fit me, I've gained weight.
Me: Wait here. (I walk over to my cube and tap into my strategic reserve of t-shirts). Take one of these t-shirts and wear it.
No Sleep Til Brooklyn
We got down to business and started hacking code. The hours just seemed to fly by, and more and more food kept coming in to fatten us programmers up. As we entered the late evening, people were breaking out the Red Bulls to re-energize. I refused to take any performance enhancing beverages; I've concluded that my body produces its own caffeine.
I escorted one of my quality assurance team members to her car as she was heading home. On the way over, she thanked me for the Hack Day experience, she said she felt like a real engineer today. I thought that one statement made Hack Day worth it, even if we didn't win.
By 6:30am, I saw the sun rising, and I was the last man still awake, hacking away. Most my team had gone offline, so I decided to take a quick one hour nap. I figured, I could claim a partial victory for being the last man standing.
The final hour is always the most exciting. We had to close out as many bugs as possible before dropping our keyboards. It was 9am, and we had one more hour left to go, and most my team had come back online. We finished and submitted our project with exactly two seconds left on the clock. What a photo finish.
Round #1 Judging
The rules this time changed for Hack Day. Every team is given 24 hours to turn their idea into a working prototype. Once the 24 hours expired, you entered into a two-staged judging process. The first stage, you had to pitch your idea in front of an executive and his team of experts for a given category. The pitch would be 3 minutes, followed by 2 minutes of Q&A from the judges. The finalists would move on to a much larger venue where spectators would see the pitches.
During this first stage of judging, Hacks could also proceed to the finals if they had enough vote for it. My team mates were furiously asking their friends to vote for our hack. I chose to abstain from that because I wanted my product to speak for itself, and win on its own merits. I didn't want to win by popularity contest.
I was next in line to pitch to the SVP of Commerce. I put on my headphones, and got my fight music tunes on, and got fired up. Unfortunately the team that presented before me decided to pitch way longer than the 5 minutes allocated to them. They ended up taking about 10 minutes in front of the judges, and I'm thinking, if you can't sell your idea in the first 5 minutes, you're not going to be able to sell it with another 5 minutes. My team mates started giving death glares to that team, and laid the charge of cheating. I was much more nonchalant about it. I've come to crush the competition, I had nothing to fear.
My turn came up, and I did my pitch. I was very calm and collected. When I looked up at the judge's faces, they were visibly amused and delighted by what I was selling them. The time flew by very quickly, and I answered all the questions very quickly and naturally. I thought the pitch went well.
Once all the pitches wrapped up, all the hackers were invited to a private BBQ lunch. The food was wonderful: beef brisket, grilled portobello mushrooms, bbq chicken quarters, corn on the cob, fresh strawberry lemonade, and apple pie. We sat outside in the warm shade with a slight breeze. I sat there completely content, watching my tired yet joyful team trade war stories about Hack Day. Time just seemed to stop momentarily as we enjoyed each other's company, and there was not a worry in the world.
As we returned from lunch, the finalists were announced. Twenty out of the forty teams would advance to the finals. As the judges read out the list, we heard #26 had qualified for the finals. We were moving on.
Round #2 Judging
We moved downstairs to the bigger venue, URL's cafe, where the Hack Day finals would be broadcast live around the world. The room was filling up with spectators (150 people I would guess). The rules were simple, the 20 finalists would be pitching their ideas to all the judges now (rather than just the judges from a certain category), you had 2 minutes to demo your hack.
The strategy for my second pitch was simple, win the crowd. The pitch was like a stand-up comedian's routine; I had lined up a bunch of jokes with a big finishing punchline. I even used the term 'carbosaurus' (a mythical beast that loves eating carbs) in front of SVPs and executives. As I got up to do my routine, the crowd reacted delightfully to the first couple jokes I had. As I walked through my demo, I could see the judges looking up at the screen curious to see the punchline. I hit the punchline, and the room filled with laughter. I nailed it.
As I walked off stage and into the crowd, I got high fives, pats on the back, and people asking how they could access my hack. I told them, well, I don't have an appstore yet, but if you give me a dollar, I'll give you the hack. I saw a dollar bill head my direction, and then someone interrupted saying, wait.... this is the Yahoo! appstore, they take $0.30 out of this transaction, $0.70 goes to the developer. Amusing.
I saw a lot of really incredible demos go after me, I thought the level of competition was greater this time around than last. I saw things that made my jaw drop. Let me tell you, innovation is alive and well at Yahoo! As the last demo concluded, the judges left to deliberate, and a ton of pizza was brought in for the audience to enjoy.
Thirty minutes later, the judges came back and started naming off the winners. I sat there and never actually anticipated losing until they got to the last category, the category in which we were registered for. They read the winning team, and the winner was the famous programmer that I serendipitously met earlier. I thought.... oh no, did I just lose Hack Day? I had promised my team that we would win. As I was trying to comprehend what had just happened, the judges announced the Hacker's Choice Award, as voted by the people, team #26. We won. I was relieved.
As I walked up to the stage to collect my prize, one of the judges does a double take and asks, wait... where I have I seen you before? I told them, we won Hacker's Choice Award last time as well. Lightning does strike twice I guess. The winners were quickly whisked away for photos. I've included some of the photos here:
As I left the Hack Day event, I was walking with my boss, and I highlighted he had a big problem. The majority of his team has now won Hack Day, and the chances of the team being left intact would be slim since we'll be pursuing these hacks. He responded, well, that's a high quality problem that I'll have to worry about.
Anyways, special thanks to my team for sacrificing their time to help me work on my crazy ideas. It was an important milestone for myself personally. I had to prove to myself that I haven't peaked yet, and my former wins were not a fluke or an anomaly. I had to prove to myself I could still compete at this level consistently.
As the great song writer, Mike Shinoda, once said:
This is ten percent luck
twenty percent skill
fifteen percent concentrated power of will
five percent pleasure
fifty percent pain
and a hundred percent reason to remember the name
Now lets see if I can get some funding for this new idea. Stay tuned. If not, see you at Yahoo! Hack Day Q3 2012.
Tuesday, May 8. 2012
Today was the big day, I was pitching my Hack Day idea to two different audiences in the hopes of getting funding, and turning the idea into reality. This was the great culmination of this leg of the journey.
Pitch #1: Design Pitch
The morning started with me scouting out the conference room I was supposed to present in for the SVP of Design. Its been a habit for me to do reconnaissance ahead of a presentation. It's important to understand the room's layout, whether your laptop will work with the projector, where you would stand, where would the audience sit, what are the acoustic properties of the room, etc. Good thing I did the morning recon because the room didn't have a projector. I reported the problem, and the executive admin quickly changed the room, and she managed to get me a room in the the new Yahoo! Design studio. It was a gorgeous room to present in.
I set up my gear in the design studio and quietly waited for the SVP. The SVP entered the room, and my adrenaline started kicking in, the game was on. As I walked through my presentation, I saw the SVP deep in thought and nodding his head in agreement. It's always much easier to present when you see your audience responding with their body language. The presentation concluded and he loved the pitch. He quickly got up and went to a whiteboard to sketch out some additional ideas and theories. It turns out his group was working on a project that could complement what I was working on, so he wanted to schedule a follow-up meeting with his VPs to exchange ideas.
I told the SVP of Design that my main investment pitch was happening later in the evening. The SVP pledged his full political support behind our cause and promised designers if I was able to secure funding for engineers to work on the idea. I was blown away, the outcome exceeded my expectations.
Pitch #2: Investment Pitch
Later that afternoon, I went to my meeting for the main investment pitch. There was another group that would present ahead of me. I was a bit disconcerted when I found out the SVP would be unable to attend, and that he would be sending two of his VPs instead. One of his VPs was going to be tricky to convince because I had no insight into what motivated him or what he was passionate about. Thankfully at the last minute, that VP also couldn't attend.
As the first group presented, the VP of Engineering started his line of questioning, and the first group seemed ill prepared to answer. They had only gotten to their third slide and they were already encountering heavy resistance. In the end, they crashed and burned because they hadn't done their homework, and they hadn't talked to the right people before presenting.
I think my pitch had a couple key advantages over the other the groups that had presented. I was given a couple sample presentations that people had used as pitches. My immediate reaction was that a lot of those presentations were really ugly. Lots of text, bad stock photos with watermarks, and incomprehensible graphs. I made an effort to ensure that my presentation deck was beautiful and entertaining. I set the bar pretty high, and I wanted to demonstrate, if we put this much time and effort into the presentation, imagine what we'd be like if we were actually building this product.
As I started my presentation, the audience was blown away that we had a TV commercial showcasing the product we were pitching. I got this idea from an Apple talk that I attended; apparently at Apple, they start every pitch with a sample commercial to ensure they stayed focused on the customer. The brilliant thing about the TV commercial format is that you have 30 seconds to catch your audience's attention and communicate what you were trying to sell. If you couldn't explain what your product did, then it was too complicated, and it's a signal to go back to the drawing board.
Surprisingly as I walked the audience through my presentation, there was very minimal resistance. People were very engaged with the story I was telling. The people in the room were pretty impressed that two engineers had drawn up mocks, built a prototype, and even came up with the business case. They also responded well to the fact that we had gone through very non-traditional channels like Hack Day to attract attention. Every time the audience asked, "have you met with X, and what did they think?" I had an answer because I had spent a ton of time gathering allies across the organization, so we were well prepared.
At the end of the presentation, this wonderful conversation started:
VP of Engineering: "Who's the product manager driving this project?"
Me: "Uhhh... there's no product manager."
VP of Engineering: "What do you mean?"
Me: "It's just us two engineers. This is purely an engineering driven effort from the grassroots."
VP of Engineering: "Hahaha, at a boy. That's how it's done. Engineering!"
The VP of Engineering was thoroughly amused that we had broken every traditional role in the organization; typically product managers initiate new ideas, not engineering. We destroyed that mold.
The final question was about resourcing, how many people would the organization have to commit to make this dream a reality. I proudly declared that the SVP of Design had promised the support of his designers if we supplied the engineers. They asked how long ago did I secure that commitment, and I said, I secured it at 11am this morning, so the offer is still fresh and valid.
"Approved. Thumbs up guys," said the VP of Engineering.
The meeting suddenly ended. I couldn't believe what just happened. It was done. I was expecting far heavier resistance. It felt almost too easy. It's going to take a day or two for reality to set in that I will be getting my own team.
Thank you everyone for their kind words, prayers, and support. I couldn't have done it without you.
I'll end with the soundtrack that I used for my commercial:
Monday, May 7. 2012
Previously in the last episode, we left you with a cliff hanger. There were impending layoffs at Yahoo!. Thankfully I survived the reaping. This was the fifth round of layoffs that I have encountered, and I'm still standing. Unfortunately this time felt different, there were definitely some good folks that we were shocked to see go. In previous rounds, you sometimes had a feeling who might be targeted, this time seemed very unpredictable. We couldn't save them all. I salute those who have fallen, you give the rest of us another day to fight.
Through these dark trying times, there are glimmers of hope. I had all but given up hope on getting a green card because any time a company lays off enough workers, the Department of Justice puts the company on a labour blacklist, and the green card process freezes. Three weeks back, I attended an immigration forum, and it was completely packed out by agitated and angry folks looking for answers about their immigration statuses. Miraculously, the next day, the immigration folks contacted me saying that there's a small batch of green card applicants from 2008 that have small window of opportunity to proceed in the process. They managed to prove that there are no other qualified Americans that could do my job. This blew me away. I had been waiting for over four years for this, and it came during some of the most chaotic times. Thank God for that.
When the layoffs concluded, and my position was safe, I began fleshing out my Hack Day idea, and started putting together a formal pitch. My thinking was, as soon as the dust settles, I would need to be ready to present. There were some free resources floating around most likely, and I needed to capture them before they were committed to other projects. The last three weeks, I've been working furiously on the pitch. During the day, I've been traveling across the company gathering allies, advocates, and influencers for feedback and political support for my idea. Rallying support to our side would be critical to success.
Finally, last week I got an email telling me that I had been granted an audience with the leadership team to pitch my idea on May 8th. The game was on.
I decided to do a test run of my presentation. I invited a dozen folks from across my division to hear me out. It went really well, except I had one person in the audience who was a nay-sayer. They questioned the value of what I was proposing. It really got to me, and I felt pretty bad after my presentation. The odd thing was, a lot of folks came up to me afterwards telling me they really liked the idea and can't wait to use it, but my mind was too distracted by that one person in the audience I couldn't convince. It's probably human psychology where we give more weight to negative comments. I felt exhausted because I thought my presentation was complete, and it was a masterpiece; but there were definitely things that I didn't think of. Over the weekend, I drastically beefed up my presentation to better counter the arguments that my nay-sayer brought up in the presentation.
I was talking to a friend over lunch about this experience, and I realized that I was focusing too much on pleasing everyone. While getting a full consensus is a nice idea, in reality, it's nearly impossible to get everyone to see things your way (unless you have a room full of yes-men). After that realization, I made peace with my presentation experience. Convincing 11/12 people that my idea has merit is good enough. There are diminishing returns if you try to go after that last final person.
Fast forward to today, I received a remarkable email. I had sent an email a week back to an SVP asking for support. It was a long shot because the SVP was from a totally different part of the company, and I've spoken to him only 5 minutes in my entire career. I figured he'd be too busy to answer emails from commoners. The email I got was from the SVP, he hadn't forgotten me, and the email was asking for a separate audience to see the pitch. This was a far better outcome than I expected. Lesson learned, there's no harm in asking. The worst he could have said was 'no'.
Later this afternoon, I was walking back to my building and I came across the nay-sayer. He told me that after further consideration, he had a change of heart, and he thinks there's some legs to what I'm proposing. He has a potential client that may be interested, and if the client likes it, then don't even worry about resources for the project. Wow. 12 out of 12.
Tomorrow is the day I've been waiting for. I've got two audiences to pitch to. I've built up the fleet, an alliance across all parts of the organization. The chances of success are low given all the chaos still erupting around us, but through the breech we go. Your thoughts and prayers are much appreciated.
I'll end with this video that I watched one late night at work that gave me a second wind of energy as I was working on my presentation.
P.S. People think I'm crazy. Despite all this stuff that I'm working on, I'm also putting together plans to compete for the next Hack Day which is this coming Thursday. I'm putting together another team.
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"An optimist doesn't believe the future will get better, an optimist believes he can make the future better."
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