Six great ideas from Above All Human

There are some very special conferences, where the actual conference-track is embedded into a much broader community experience with very deliberate choices of venue, speakers, code of conduct and support like day-care for children. It’s a celebration of the organisers’ superb sense of taste as if they imagined a great day that happens to be a conference. With Above All Human, Susan Wu, Bronwen Clune and Scott Handsaker created such a wonderfully curated event in Melbourne:

“Above All Human is a conference for startup founders, makers, designers and innovators who want to do great things, build innovative products, and be the most effective entrepreneurs they can be.”

I had heard very good things about last year’s first instalment and it single-handedly surpassed those high expectations.

Things that I really, really liked about the conference:

  • The quality and variety of speakers — a lot of people whom I’ve never heard of or whom I would not have actively sought out, but they shared such a great variety of topics and backgrounds. Who knew I’d be fascinated by the philosophical aspects of astrophysics?
  • The diversity of speakers — apparently is was no big deal to pull off 50% female speakers, but I think it was and think it should be highlighted as an example for other conferences to follow.
  • The tone of the conference — there was very little brouhaha and a lot of sincerity. As pointed out in the opening remarks, it was a heartfelt, inclusive and honest conference. Presenters talked openly about their struggles to share their hard-won learnings and present food for thought rather than half-baked solutions.
  • The venue — it easily hosted 1,000 people and never did I feel constrained, packed or uncomfortable, which is not a given for an introvert at conferences.
  • The food — plenty, good and easily available. Such a great idea to place food all over the place instead of having one central trough where everybody crams around.

So, what did I learn on Friday?

  1. JOMO — The Joy of Missing Out. Being so immersed in the moment and disconnected from everything else that you very deliberately avoid any distractions. That was not part of the conference itself, but it came up in a conversation with a stranger in-between sessions.
  2. There is still room for growth in the Australian venture capital (VC) ecosystem. $500m was invested amongst the Australian VC community in 2015 vs. $800m that were gambled just on the Melbourne Cup in one day alone. I found that an exceptional way to illustrate that the Australian VC community is way below saturation and Australia has a significantly higher tolerance towards risk that it currently admits to startups. In that same session, I liked Annie Parker’s version of know your customer intimately: “The best ideas at our refugee hackathon came from non-technical caseworkers and refugees themselves. Those ideas had little tech involved and a lot of impact.”
  3. A culture-first company (i) knows what it is willing to suffer for, (ii) builds on a promise (a brand is a promise to a customer and its culture is how it is going to deliver on that promise) and (iii) sees a world that others don’t. Didier Elzinga gave a great presentation about why culture matters and why it is not that soft and fluffy thing, but a hard-hitting tool to drive company performance. As Didier put it “moral makes the difference between whether you get on your dollar a return of 25 cents or $3.” I wish that talk had been longer with time for Q&A.
  4. Persistence come from purpose — if you have a strong purpose and can communicate it with passion, you will inevitably end up with traction with employees, customers and investors. Kate Morris of Adore Beauty told the unglamorous story of her startup and how she got to be as successful as she is now. Long story short: a lot of suffering and conviction — it’s not pretty (ironic for an online beauty business). It reminded me of the Parker’s law: “Running a startup is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”
  5. The total amount of kids taught coding by Code Club Australia could now fill the entire Googleplex in Mountain View. Being one of their volunteers that visual made me very proud, especially given that we target a very specific niche of kids between 9 and 11. Just imagine the potential of a whole generation being able to understand how code works, its potential and its limitations. I’m looking forward to seeing us fill another Googleplex in the next year or two.
  6. Software is the ultimate infinite game. Ali Rayl of Slack gave a good reminder that in hardware businesses like construction it is very difficult to continuously improve your creations, whereas software can improve infinitely. It’s a way more optimistic view of the world where bugs are constantly fixed, features implemented and new functionality invented.

There were two other sessions by internet royalty at the conference, that were just too rich to put into a simple bullet of insight (fortunately, you can find their talks here and there). The first was by Mike Monteiro talking about the apprentice model and why it might be a good idea as a designer toget some experience before joining a startup (very applicable to other professions as well — you can see a version of the talk over at Vimeo). He’s a force on stage, very insightful and highly entertaining. If you haven’t seen him, I highly recommend checking out some of his presentations online.

The closing session was by Anil Dash talking about why we should get rid of the cynical notion of “don’t read the comments on the internet” and rather start transferring our learnings from 10,000 years of building a society into the online world. In his Q&A he gave one of my favourite quotes of the day: “These companies [Google, Facebook] have all the money in the world. They shoot rockets into space, design self-driving cars and work on pro-longing life. But once you ask them to make sure that the jerks on their platforms behave for five minutes, they throw their hands in the air and declare that it’s too hard.” Anil posted earlier this week his talk Against “Don’t Read the Comments”.

It was a great conference with very insightful talks and great people on stage. Thank you, Susan, Bronwen and Scott. You’ve done a fantastic job. I am very grateful for this conference and hope to have the chance to attend again next year.

Image by Scott Handsaker at Vimeo.

Susan Kare on her history with Apple and icon design

If you want to see an example of software with a truly long-lasting impact, go watch a talk by Susan Kare. She talks about her work at Apple where she designed “iconic” pieces like the original fonts and the original set of icons. You learn so many things like why the Apple-key’s icon is not an apple, how icons that were designed more than 30 years ago are still in use in applications like Photoshop today and the difference work ethic can make.

What makes this video great in particular is also the second half where John Gruber interviews her. (a) it’s great to see somebody like John being all giddy and excited about meeting one of his heroes and (b) it is in this part that you begin to understand how meaningful Susan Kare’s work is, because she was too humble to brag about it in the first half.

Go, have a look. With an hour, it’s fairly long, but excellent entertainment and a lesson in modern history.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Mark Manson wrote a nice piece about what it means to take ownership and when to say no. It’s a nice long-read with good lessons for leadership. Two pieces I liked in particular.

A quote by Eric Hoffer:

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.

And his three subtleties on what it means to not giving a fuck:

 #1: Not Giving A Fuck Does Not Mean Being Indifferent; It Means Being Comfortable With Being Different

#2: To Not Give A Fuck About Adversity, You Must First Give A Fuck About Something More Important Than Adversity

#3: We All Have A Limited Number Of Fucks To Give; Pay Attention To Where And Who You Give Them To

It’s well worth the read even if it’s just for the images and this wonderful pearls of wisdom: “Fucks don’t grow on trees”. It fits quite well with a story on Obama from last November:

President Obama genuinely gives no fucks at this point. He is fuck devoid. Fuck deficient. Fuck deprived. Fuck destitute. His cupboard of fucks is barren; his tank of fucks has been depleted. You know how, on cloudy nights, you might look up into the vast and endless sky and not find any stars? The same thing would happen if you looked at Obama and searched for fucks.

The creative power of no

Over at Medium is Kevin Ashton wrote about Creative People Say No. It’s a great reminder of the trade-off everybody needs to make when doing others a favour. It’s coming more from a time management perspective.

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.

It’s a pretty extreme position. In the end, as with so many things in life, it’s about getting the balance right.

In that context, there is always the Apple clip from a few years ago about their product strategy: there are a thousand no’s for every yes.

Writing good copy

I write a monthly newsletter at work. Our team is distributed across three continents and too many timezones. From time to time things slip through the cracks and you hear the inevitable “I wish I had known that earlier”.  The newsletter tries to close the space between the cracks and helps people know what’s going on. It is also a welcome place to highlight the great work that people contribute to the team.

I very much enjoy writing it. It’s a highlight of my month, because I can channel the best person I want to be: fun, enthusiastic, empathetic, helpful, … My objective is to write in the tone that I would like to have a good conversation in. As a German, I’m a non-native speaker in Australia and tend to overthink and over-structure my sentences when I speak. I choose words deliberately and it’s common to hear me talk in numbered lists. The newsletter is an opportunity for me to freshen it up. And it works: people enjoy reading the newsletter, they forward it – even our CEO reads it. Not bad for a 30 people team in a company of 40,000.

My big secret is that I copy the newsletter. Not the content, that would be obscure. But I try to channel my inner Slack. They have such a wonderful tone all their copy, be it tweets, quirky messages when you open their app or even release notes for software updates. Anna Pickard is Editorial Director at Slack helped create that tone:

It is sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes just plain and informative, but throughout, it should feel like nothing more than a person, talking to another person. Human to human […] making sure we’re treating people with respect, empathy and courtesy all the way through. […]We want people to like using Slack, and to want to share the experience. 

Slack’s Editorial Soul: Anna Pickard
on Writing the Brand Experience

And the best thing: they got their inspiration from Mailchimp, who have been kind enough to publish a Style Guide for Content. I’ve only dipped my toe into it for now, but it looks like a wonderfully written guide on how to write well, especially the section on Voice and Tone. Mailchimp rules and I love them for doing this.

Once you manage to have good topics and write them up well, you have a winning formula to make a lot of people’s lives easier and happier.

Photo credit: Martin uit Utrecht / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Bad writing is a meeting factory

From Guilded, a Seattle web design & engineering firm, comes a nugget around why good writing is so important:

Bad writing is a meeting factory. Being able to articulate a thought in writing means your team gets to take advantage of asynchronous communication. Whereas meetings are synchronous— requiring all parties to be present and engaged for the duration of the communication event—written communication is asynchronous, meaning the recipient can address your request or idea on their own time.

Source: Software is 10% Code

Taking b/s out of innovation

Stewart Butterfield wrote last year We Don’t Sell Saddles Here, a great piece on Slack’s vision. It describes how one shouldn’t just look at the product or what the product can become, but rather on the impact a product can have on its customers as this will give a better north star for product decisions.1 I’ve now read it three times and still find new gems. This time I discovered his understanding of innovation, a term that only few people are innocent of having abused (cough, cough), and how tangible and intuitive it is:

The best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behaviour. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.

1 See also Bruce Lee’s quote: “It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

About this blog

Having started multiple blogs before with various degrees of moderate success, I know of the dangers of crafting the About-page too early: you write down all your good intentions and once you press “publish”, you struggle to live up to your grand aspiration. It would be much safer to do it with a portfolio of posts in your back pocket. However, I understand that it is a good idea to define the scope of the blog early on and that should be part of your about-page. Let’s make this my ingoing hypothesis and if this blog turns out to become something completely different, I’m happy to change it.

As the tagline in the upper left says, this blog is a collection of thoughts on helping others be their best (you can call it leadership if you want to) and software as a strategy to change business models (I still have to write up what I actually mean by this). I deeply care about both topics. If you think of it as a Venn diagram, I like to spend my time in the space, where both circles overlap.

But why this blog?

Writing helps me organise my thoughts and typically improves my thinking along the way. Doing so publicly provides an incentive to be less sloppy. Also: sharing is caring and if somebody enjoys reading these notes, that will make me a delighted person.

What would this blog look like if it is successful?

Success would mean writing one longer piece every other week and sharing two or three articles each week. In other words: making the time to write regularly and thereby progress my thinking. That’s all. That’s quite a lot.

OK, but who are you?

I was born and raised in Northern Germany, my journey has been continually south – Bremen, Regensburg, Munich and now Melbourne, where I work as a program manager, i.e. gathering, filtering, abstracting, synthesizing and delivering information. I’m part of a small team in a large corporation that helps that bespoke corporation learn from high-growth software companies and startups. Before coming to Australia, I worked for six years as a strategy consultant and before that I did a degree in business IT. And now this …

Photo credit: Atos International / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

How Medium’s engineering team works

Medium has a regular Way We Work session where their engineering team shares tips in lightning talks of ~5-10 minutes. The topics covered in the Teams Session are: the value of diversity and listening, finding your path, management roles at Medium, and running effective meetings in a holacracy environment. I got most out of the first presentation (diversity and listening). Two points stood out in particular: (1) the listening framework: Receive, appreciate, summarize and ask and (2) “conversations are not contests”. If you just have only seven minutes, go watch the first presentation. It’s well worth the time.

Mega post on company culture

Evergreen is a fortnightly business newsletter by Eric Jorgenson compiling great articles around a specific topic. The current edition is around company culture. It contains so many great insights and anecdotes, including this bit

When Facebook first started to grow, Mark Zuckerberg spent time asking other CEOs about some of the things they did early on at Microsoft, Apple, and others to establish culture and explain to people what it meant to work there. One of the best pieces of advice he got was to write down a succinct list of what it meant to be “one of us.”

Source: Most Company Culture Posts are Fluffy Bullshit — Here is what you actually need to know