Interns Can Run Your Business: How to hire interns that ROCK!

We’ve all been there. Your projects are taking off and there’s a ton of work to be done. Important work. You need to hire more people. You request a new headcount but you’re told that unfortunately there’s no budget for full-time hires. You’ll need to get things done with the people you have…or hire interns.

Let’s face it. None of us likes to hear that. Most of us don’t think important work can be done by interns. How can someone who’s only with the company for three months be effective, anyway, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you that I totally understand where you’re coming from and that you’re wrong. If you hire the right intern, they could potentially run your business in three months. For real.

Over a year ago, I needed help with API community management and outreach as well as the development of code samples to expedite the API on-boarding process at Edmunds.com. Like you, I had no budget for a full-time headcount and interns were my only option to scale. At first, I wasn’t really happy with the thought of an intern managing a community of developers, communicating with potential strategic partners, and writing quality SDKs. But that’s exactly what I needed help with, so I went for it with very low expectations.

Fast forward to today, I couldn’t be happier!

The Process

I started the search with a list of minimum requirements a potential hire must have (intern or otherwise). I knew I wanted someone who a) coded for fun, b) had experience with REST APIs, and c) was personable, humble and engaging. Simply put, I wanted someone who was demonstratively interested in the tech and business of APIs.

So I worked with HR on crafting the job listing. I set the bar really high. I wanted someone who was coding on Github because it’s fun, not because they had to. Someone engaged on Twitter, Stackoverflow and Quora because they have something to add to the conversation. Someone who was having conversations.

API evangelists are a special breed of developers. The good ones are experienced and possess excellent people skills. This made it even harder to find a candidate amongst the pile of resumes sent in by students trying to get a paid internship to meet some school requirement.

Needless to say, the process took a long time, almost 6 months. I got resumes from students with stellar academic credentials in computer science and math but with zero presence on Github, Twitter and forums. Some hadn’t even heard of APIs until they saw the job listing on their school’s bulletin board.

The Result

When the search was finally over, I hired @MichaelRBock, and boy am I glad I did! Michael’s been with us for over 6 months now, even while he’s doing a semester abroad …in Singapore.

Michael and I clicked right away. He’s smart, easy to talk to and very personable. Most importantly, he was extremely interested in our world of car open data APIs and their business impact.

Michael quickly proved himself an invaluable member of the team. Almost everyone who’s worked with him was shocked to learn that he’s just interning with us. He was all caught up with our systems, challenges and roadmap in a couple of days and by the end of the first week, he was knee deep helping developers with their API questions.

He sat on business development meetings and partner discussions on the second week of his hire. He built our Python SDK and was updating the Developer Portal on daily basis during our DX Certification process with Mashery.

Michael saw the potential in some of our API developers and brought them to my attention. He’s been great at handling difficult developers as well. All in all, he’s been fantastic at everything he’s done.

We’re Hiring!

Sadly, Michael’s time with us is about to end at the end of May ☹ If you or someone you know is interested in APIs and want to have a summer internship with us, let’s chat! There’s some big shoes to fill, which is always a good place to be.

Entitled Much? The Yahoo! Memo That Irked America’s Tech Community

Marissa Meyer, Yahoo!’s CEO, stunned her company’s 11,500 employees when she sent out a memo on Friday that read in part:

Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Here’s the entire memo. Make sure you read the comments.

The response to the memo so far has been mostly negative. How dare Yahoo! reverse its policy, some cried. Others wondered if Meyer thought this was the 1980s. Some were just downright obnoxious, calling the memo a desperate move by a dying company.

I don’t work at Yahoo! and I couldn’t care less about their internal affairs. I’m also not here to rag on remote workers.

What bugs me is the temerity of the tech community in criticizing a company without knowing anything about the reasons behind its decision to revoke a popular policy. There’s a sense of entitlement that has permeated the tech world over the past 12 years and this exercise in acrimony is a testament to that very sad state of affairs. This is what this post is about.

“Everything is Amazing Right Now and Nobody’s Happy” – Louis C.K.

This unfolding showdown at Yahoo! reminds me of Louis C.K.’s bit on how this generation is spoiled and easily irked by the most inconsequential of things, even though we live in the most amazing time in history. In this particular case, the fact that Yahoos complain about going into work like it’s such a terrible inconvenience illustrates Louis’s point very clearly.

Speaking of entitlement, I interviewed a guy once, fresh out of college, who expected to get paid six figures on day one because, well, he went to Stanford. He didn’t understand the concept of “paying your dues”. I asked him, “do you even want this job?” He replied, “yeah sure, why not.” He was 22 (I think). He didn’t get the job.

But I digress.

“This aggression will not stand, man” – The Dude

Remember when Mr. Lebowski asked the Dude if he was employed?

The same surprise seems to have hit the tech world’s El Duderinos when they heard about the memo. Unlike the Dude’s, their response wasn’t nearly as funny.

Shouldn’t people be happy they’re employed at one of the world’s top companies? Do people actually think it’s easy for companies to reverse a popular policy without having a strong reason for doing so?

Working Remotely Works (for the most part)

I get how the remote-working environment works for some folks and how cost-effective it is for companies. I get it. But Yahoo! is not just any company. It’s an innovative company that’s in revival mode trying to compete in an extremely cutthroat environment.

Working remotely is great when your tasks are clear and ready for execution. It’s great for call centers according to a recent Stanford University experiment:

Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment).

The experiment was conducted (PDF) on call center employees at a Chinese travel company.

So it works. But does it work when the company is in the business of generating new products and innovations? I wonder if Apple has a work-from-home policy for its designers and engineers? Does Facebook? How about Google? I honestly don’t know. I would love to get some data on that.

Face-to-Face Time and Innovation

There’s a reason companies like Facebook, Google and Apple spend millions of dollars on their campuses. From gyms, restaurants, soft-serve machines to daycare and tennis courts. These campuses are built like colleges. They’re meant for people to live and work there. This kind of environment maximizes the face-to-face time people get to spend on the job. Whether the time is planned (i.e. meetings) or organic (i.e. chance hallway encounters, last-minute lunches, impromptu brainstorming sessions, beer after work, …etc)

Great ideas happen when creative minds bounce ideas around by the water cooler or the espresso machine. They happen when the team is close and conversations flow without the awkward energy induced by unfamiliarity.

These conditions do not exist in a remote-working environment. Innovation doesn’t happen remotely. Steven Johnson talks about the Adjacent Possible and Liquid Networks in his book, “Where Great Ideas Come From“. Both concepts require the physical presence of creative people in order to work.

Remote workers might have a great work/life balance and the company that employs them might be saving money in the process. But at what cost? There might be no negative cost incurred if the company is in the business of executing tasks. Law firms, accounting firms, call centers and newspapers might find it a godsend. They cut cost dramatically and their employees are freer. It’s a win-win situation.

But when you want to innovate (I mean, seriously wanting to innovate), you need your talents to be present to feed on each others ideas, passion and enthusiasm. You need that energy around the office. It’s good for teams and their morale and it’s crucial for innovation.

Parting Thoughts

I’m sure Marissa Meyer had a good reason for revoking the beloved perk to which everyone feels entitled. Instead of revolting, this is the time for the El Duderinos to abide. If the captain of the ship decides that she needs all hands on deck in order to save the ship, it’s your duty to comply. Don’t feel like it? Leave.

Seven Practical Themes From The Lean Startup Conference

Earlier this week, I attended my very first Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. I was invited to sit on a panel discussion of the lean startup practices in the enterprise by the good folks at Neo (thanks, Josh.) I spoke about my my experience at Edmunds.com and both the blessings and challenges that go with applying the lean startup principles in the context of a mature business.

Throughout the conference, many inspiring speakers told stories of successes and failures; dos and don’ts. There was a lot to take in (kudos to the event organizers for packing an impressive lineup! Seriously, my brain is still swollen from the data intake!)

After a few days of processing everything I heard, the seemingly disparate concepts started coalescing in my head into themes of lessons learned or best practices or whatever you want to call it. These are beacons derived from real-life experiences to help guide us maximize our chances for success and avoid unnecessary failures.

I distilled them down to seven main themes that every entrepreneur or change agent should live by. Here they are in no particular order:

Just Do It

Lean innovation and disruption is based in action. If you don’t do, then what the hell are you doing? We live in an incredible time where creating high fidelity software is easier than ever. With tools like Heroku, Twitter Bootstrap, Django or Ruby on Rails, Google Analytics, and Facebook Canvas, validating a product by building a minimally viable version of it, or an MVP, and putting it in front of real customers is relatively a no-brainer kind of affair, yet not many people do it.  In his talk, Steve Blank stressed the importance of “doing it” as opposed to reading or talking about how it’s done. If you work at a large company, use the tools aforementioned to “do it.”  If you can’t code, try to onboard a developer to help you out. If you can’t, then maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

It All Starts at The CEO Level

Senior executives to companies are the VCs to startups, for better or for worse. If your CEO doesn’t truly believe in validated learning and experimentation, the spirit of the lean startup is dead in the water in that organization. Many senior executives give good lip and rarely follow up with action. Beth Comstock from GE spoke about the protected class of ideas at GEThese are innovation teams believed in and protected by the CEO and are set up for success (i.e. they are funded, removed from the day-to-day chaos, …etc.)

It’s Not About You; It’s About The Team

Eric Ries stressed this point several times as did other speakers: in order for you to be successful, you need others to believe and embrace the lean startup principles as well. It was almost a call to action: how to inculcate these principles in our peers and organizations? How do we create an ecosystem in which validated learning is a core value? It was almost a call for evangelism. I believe the best way to show others the way is to lead by example. By “just doing it,” others will follow, especially after seeing the value of the ideas in practice.

Talk to Your Customers

We’ve all heard the “get out of the building” cry for action, but it all comes down to engaging with your customers and learning what their needs are. That’s accomplished by talking to customers in person or virtually through usability testings or even through collecting behavioral data through Google Analytics. As long as you’re “listening” to what customers are telling you and adjusting your product accordingly, you should be fine.

Cut The Crap!

My personal favorite learning from the conference. This encompasses cutting unnecessary features out of your MVP to speaking to people in the language they understand without the jargon. I find myself struggling with this a lot. Just because you understand what an “MVP” or “validated learnings” mean, it doesn’t mean that the person you’re talking to understands them as well as you do if at all. Taking the time to adjust your language to the audience before you is a crucial tool that ensures proper onboarding, understanding of, and ultimately the success of your project.

Use Android to Validate Mobile Products

I really liked Matt Brezina’s talk on Rapid Mobile Development and his contention that all products, including mobile, can be validated fast. This gets really important in mobile development since iOS development doesn’t lend itself to rapid development, given Apple’s tedious approval process. Matt’s suggestion to use a different platform for rapid testing mobile products is really interesting. Doing whatever it takes to find out if there’s a market for your product before building it out will in the end save you money and time. No one wants to work on an app or product for several months and have no one use it in the end. Now that would be heartbreaking.

Having Daily Outcomes

This was one of the learnings I spoke about from my experience. Validating a hypothesis or releasing a feature/test/fix every single day is important for success…and morale. Having 3-week iterations promotes procrastination and lots of wasted time. If you break down your product properly and “cut the crap” brutally, you will end up with very small tasks that can be tackled on daily basis. The team needs to leave for the day with a sense of accomplishment. This practice isn’t common in big companies and one that the lean startup spirit could help bring to the table.

These are the main themes that jumped at me. What do you think? Did I miss something?

I left the conference inspired to continue embracing the “just do it” mantra but also doing a better job in reaching out to different people across the company to help institutionalize the practice of validated learning and rapid experimentation. What will you do differently with these learnings in mind?

Lean Innovation: How to Become an Effective Innovator [UPDATED]

Yesterday, I gave a talk on Lean Innovation at the very first Edmunds Tech Conference. Before I started my talk, I played this Louis C.K. video:

Very funny, but it also set the tone for my talk. We do take innovation for granted. We do so because our expectations are continuously resetting and normalizing that unless we start teleporting people tomorrow, no one is impressed.

My talk defines innovation by stating what it is and what it is not, and how lean innovation is different. At my job at Edmunds, I took on two projects with highly uncertain business values: the open APIs and Facebook Timeline integration. Through the process of implementing both, I learned a lot about bringing highly uncertain products to customers and making them work. I felt I needed to share that with my colleagues and now with you.

Most importantly, I truly believe that if you cannot recognize innovation you can never create innovation. 

Innovation has four cornerstones:

  1. Creativity: vision and ideas are impetus of innovation.
  2. Execution: acting on those ideas is the realization of innovation.
  3. Business Value: what separates innovation from invention is how the value proposition that consumers adopt.
  4. Evolution: innovation is iterative. If you’re not iterating, you’re not innovating.

What makes innovation lean is the high uncertainty surrounding the business value of the innovation. When you think you know what people want but you don’t really know. That’s when you have to innovate the lean way.

Effective innovators are:

  1. Dreamers: You gotta dream and dream big. Tune out the naysayers and the eye-rollers. Dare to see things differently and believe in your vision.
  2. Fighters: Armchair and fair-weather innovators are what gives innovation a bad rap. You need to fight for your vision.
  3. Doers: You can dream all you want but if you don’t do something about it, you’re not innovating.

Here’s how to ensure your lean innovation is effective:

  1. Set Daily Outcomes: when you’re innovating, time is not on your side. You need to test your hypotheses and validate them quickly. You can’t think in weeks or months. You need to think in hours and days. Set a daily outcome that you have to deliver on. You’ll be more productive, much happier as a person, and well .. more innovative!
  2. Know Your Tools: You cannot innovate without knowing how to build, test, deploy, market and measure your innovation!
  3. Measure Everything: Since you’re dealing with high uncertainty, you need to measure everything you can possibly measure. Otherwise, your results might be skewed (invalidating a valid guess or validating and invalid guess) and in turn your product won’t be successful.
  4. Find Your Allies: Like anything else, you cannot do anything worthwhile alone. Find people you trust to collaborate with you.
  5. Do It: If you don’t do it, it doesn’t matter. Doing can take on various forms. You can code or put together a team that does. Whatever it is, you need to do by being involved and ensuring that the project is moving forward.
  6. Sell It: Storytelling can make or break any innovation. If you can’t tell an engaging, compelling story of why this innovation makes sense, you failed.

You can see the entire talk in these four video installments:

I’d love to get a conversation going about Lean Innovation within companies. Feel free to post a comment below of tweet me at @ielshareef. Looking forward to it!

UPDATE (June 20, 2012): You can now watch my Lean Innovation talk here.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Jobs is a Four Letter Word

Many people might mistake this book for a mere biography of the man that made Apple a household name and its products coveted by millions around the world. It’s not.

This book is actually three books in one. It’s a business book on how to (and not to) run a company using Apple, NeXT and Pixar as case studies. It’s also a history book on the ascent and the drama behind the consumer electronics evolution. And as its title suggests, it’s the fascinating story of one of the most gifted people of our time.

As a business book, Isaacson writes about three distinct business practices. The first is how to really create a company from scratch. The passion exuded by Jobs and Wozniak is detailed with infectious enthusiasm in the first half of the book.

The second practice (and one often not talked about in business books) is how to drive a company to the ground. The book is rife with examples of internal politics, lack of leadership and the absence of focus that truly illustrate how companies fail.

The last practice is how to build and operate a creative company that endures. For me, this is the most fascinating narrative of all. But to fully appreciate it, one must truly understand the first two, which almost always precede this one.

The book offers a great case study of three companies: Apple, NeXT and Pixar. One fascinating vignette in the book draws a contrast between Apple and Sony and why Apple was successful in conquering the consumer-end of the music business while Sony, who was in a favorable position to do exactly that, failed to do so. This story draws attention to the importance of inter-departmental cohesion that Apple possessed and Sony didn’t, to the success of innovation in a company.

Business leaders reading this book will learn a lot about the power of “focus” in business. Steve Jobs’s most doled out advice was “focus.” Throughout the book, we learn how Jobs followed his own advice to a deadly fault.

As a business book, it is amongst the best.

It’s also an even better history book. It details the ascent of personal computing from the perspective of the very people that were (and still are) at its helm. The book doesn’t only cover Apple’s evolution, but Full Article

Highlights from Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Event in San Francisco

Great conferences don’t need to span two or three days. In fact, they can be done in one day as Fast Company fabulously demonstrated earlier this week.

The Innovation Uncensored Conference was an impressive feat. It featured great speakers like Scott Case of Startup America, Padmaress Warrior of Cisco and Seth Priebatsch of SCNGR, who discussed pressing topics like customer-centric development, social in the enterprise and game mechanics in business. The mix of speakers and topics was intense without being overwhelming. I was able to walk away with many great learnings.

Oh and the catering … amazing!

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the conference:

#1 Successful Businesses are Flexible and Persistent

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gave general good advice to startups. He singled out perseverance and focus as the two main objectives of any business. He emphasized the importance of listening to the “smartest people that will talk to you” and heed their advice. He also recommended getting an introduction to VCs you don’t know instead of sending them unsolicited emails (they hate it.)

Scott Case of Startup America echoed Hoffman’s sentiments with his “10 Steps Toward Success:”

  1. Ecosystem: Be part of the environment in which you partake. Give your time to fledgling startups that seek your help.
  2. Pick Your Team Carefully: Founding team members can make or break your business.
  3. Embrace the Pivot: Know how to pivot. Read Eric Reis’s book (my review.)
  4. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  5. Build Your Network: The smartest people in the world can’t get anything done without help. Build your support system and mingle with people that are smarter than you.
  6. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  7. Customer Development: Know your customers. Read Steven Blank’s book.
  8. Capital: Are you going to raise money? Self-fund? Where is your capital coming from?
  9. Get The Boring Stuff Right: Business, legal, accounting, …etc. Most founders waste their time figuring this out instead of focusing on their product.
  10. FOCUS: Do I really need to say it?
Pretty much everyone that spoke mentioned “focus.” They made a compelling case for the power of saying “NO” and how crucial that is for success. It’s only when you’re “focused” you can be flexible and have the energy to persist.

#2 Your Customers are Your No. 1 Asset

This was another common takeaway and one we take to heart at Edmunds.com.

David Cush of Virgin America stressed the paramount importance of managing customer expectations when rolling out a new system. Virgin America just recently implemented a new reservation system (still buggy as of this writing) and they have worked closely with the marketing department to manage customer expectations and reactions.

Padmaress Warrior of Cisco said the same thing. She implemented BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy at work after her customers (i.e. Cisco engineers) continued using their “unsupported devices” (i.e. Macs.) The new policy has been great not only for her consumers but for business as well.

Customer is the No.1 asset. Also, if your employees are happy and satisfied, that normally translates to customer satisfaction as well.

#3 Focus

I know I mentioned it above, but it was such a focal (no pun intended) point at the event. Focus is success.

Gary White of Water.org and Doug Ulman of Livestrong talked about passion, social responsibility and the role of focus in their success. If you come up with ten projects, prioritize them and then cut the last two and focus all your resources on the first eight. Personally, I’d go further and say cut eight and focus on the top two, but I guess it all depends on the amount of resources you have. Full Article

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

Important History All Entrepreneurs Should Know

I read this book when it first came out back in November 2010 and I’ve been catching myself referencing it ever since.

From describing to my colleagues what a “Cycle” meant to engaging in long debates about what constituted a sustaining versus disruptive innovation in the context of the projects we’re working on. One story I find myself relaying whenever I get a chance is the one about how the telegraph was rendered obsolete with the introduction of the telephone and how that represented a typical “Cycle.”

Tim Wu does something very powerful in this book; he defines a cyclical business pattern, calls it a “Cycle,” explores its history and explains the one we’re going through right now and its probable outcomes. He relies on history to understand the present and foretell the future, which makes the book a very entertaining read if you’re a history buff.

The book is rife with accounts of industries that have gone through the “Cycle.” They rose to success, conquered the competition, became a closed system, declined slowly and invariably fell. Tim says:

History also shows that whatever has been closed too long is ripe for ingenuity’s assault: in time a closed industry can be opened anew, giving way to all sorts of technical possibilities and expressive uses for the medium before the effort to close the system likewise begins again.

This oscillation of information in industries between open and closed is so typical a phenomenon that I have given it a name: “the Cycle.”

Business owners and senior executives must be aware of the “Cycle” and the stage of the Cycle at which their business lies in order to make informed decisions about the future and continuity of that business. Understanding the Cycle and preparing for it is prudent if not absolutely crucial to the survival of a business. Full Review