Fight to Make Your Product Great

In the mid-80’s I took my second tech job, at a company called Silicon Graphics, Inc.

SGI, before it officially contracted its name to “SGI”, was a fantastic place to grow and learn. It was intense and focused, and my modest technical know-how in Unix, TCP/IP Networking, and Computer Hardware matched well as the company grew its Unix workstation business and more customers connected computers to Internet Protocol networks. I was soon a main contact point for the most intractable problems from customers, and the Customer Support representative to new product introductions.

The focus and intensity made for arguments, some that probably would seem to outsiders as knock-down, drag-out fights.  But a friend from those days put it well when he said, “We fight with each other, but we fight to make a great product.”

If I came to engineering with a problem and hadn’t done my homework, didn’t have a good handle on what was happening and why, and hadn’t collected useful information from the customer, the criticism was withering. One networking engineer, who I consider an important early mentor, was especially tough. But once I learned to do my research and bring him useful information on real problems, he was very responsive and engaged, helping me pull in other engineers on really complex cases.

My team worked with real customers every day. We had an understanding of how real customers used these computers, and the real environments they were in — the networks, the labs, and the variety of configurations, and why a problem that some might consider a minor annoyance was actually a major disruption for another customer. But often it was difficult to produce clear data supporting our insights. By the time the data was clear, the problem was too big, or at least much more expensive to fix.

This was especially the case in new product introductions. Even down to the question, “Is this ready to ship?”, we were there, contributing to the decision and wielding a rarely used veto. These arguments were often heated, but the Product Managers and Marketing and Sales Execs came to know that our concerns should be considered, even on apparently light evidence. And we knew that a big part of our job in new product intro’s was to ensure that we never needed to use that veto.

It was an environment where you were expected to know your stuff, whether on technical topics or in business. And even if you had a reputation for knowing your stuff, you would get challenged, and you had to fight it out.

As Silicon Graphics grew, it became known as the place the best people all wanted to work. Not because of that original espresso machine that Jim Clark bought for the engineering team, but because of our reputation for excellence in every part of the company.

But as the growth started to accelerate in the early 90’s, things changed. Instead of arguments about making our products and services better, about serving customers, fixing problems and getting things done, the fights became political. Which VP was supporting that position? Who are you? Whose budget is this going to come out of? In-fighting between divisions and groups and backstabbing and office politics grew. SGI had become a “big company.”

Many great people left, but many stuck around. Even if you were unhappy, the growth made it easy to find something new and interesting to do.

But the necrosis had set in.

We were no longer focused on building great products and changing the world. We were fighting the wrong fights.

Building a great product (or service) is never easy. Tough decisions must be made, and among smart, motivated people, coming from differing experience and perspectives, that’s going to cause arguments. And even in the best teams, sometimes the argument will go too far, or stray into personal attacks, or involve some back-channel politicking. And learning to develop an idea and gather support for it is critical to getting anything done in a large organization.

You have to keep bringing everyone back to the point: To make a great product.

IIW, an Open Space Conference


(IIW)[] uses the (Open Space Technology)[] process for self-organizing the conference. The importance of all of this is often unclear to the newcomer, but people come around, as they come to understand that there rules generate a conference that works much like the hallways and bars in traditional conferences. The whole thing becomes a  great swirling stew of fascinating interlocking conversations, and real work comes out of it. 

This starts with four principles:

1. Whoever comes are the right people. These people came to this session because they  wanted to be here. The mix of opinions, ideas, and questions that result are exactly what we are hoping for. 

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. These sessions are generative. What happens is not always what you thought might happen, but that’s ok! Let go of your expectations and enjoy the flow of ideas. 

3. Whenever it starts is the right time. Start on time, even if you are expecting more people. Someone may join mid-way through, and that’s ok. 

4. Whenever it’s over it’s over. We give over the space to the next sessions on time. If you are still in the middle of a great conversation, move somewhere, or schedule a follow-up. If the conversation is over, or the part that interests you is done, then you may leave. 

Plus, the important Law of Two Feet:

You have both Mobility and Responsibility! Move around if you like. if a conversation isn’t interesting, just move. It’s common that there is several interesting sessions at the same time slot — move around, sample and enjoy. 

Book of Proceedings:

Every IIW generates a Book of Proceedings, containing the notes from every session. it’s important that someone at each session takes notes. There is a simple, standard format for the notes, to include the sessions number, location, convener, title and note-taker. 

See also: (IIW Wiki)[] and (IIW Session Notes Format)[]


IIW XXI Begins

Internet Identity Workshop is my favorite conference. The topics covered, which span across Identity, Privacy, Community, and Security and more, continue to be relevant even after more than a decade. The “Open Spaces” format generates lively discussions across a range of topics, all created on the spot by the participants. 

It’s also a conference full of friends who I’ve come to know over the years. I’ve already had a couple quick “catch-up” conversations and looking forward to more. 


To Make a Great Product, Be Present and Self-Aware

A key principle when thinking about a product is to understand, deeply, the needs of the user of the product. What job are they hiring it to do? Why – What are they trying to accomplish?

But this is difficult – and not just because it takes long hours and many cycles of iterative improvement. It’s not just that the things people tell us about what they want are wrong, or at best incomplete. It’s not just that it’s difficult to simultaneously have deep belief in your insight and also question every assumption.

It’s difficult because we get in our own way. 

We have difficulty sorting out our own motivations, dealing with our own emotional responses, and knowing our own mind. So how can we really understand someone else? At the same time, we also tend to attribute motivations and meaning to the actions of other people —as if we know what they are thinking. 

Look at your personal life. Have you ever been accused of some transgression that all turned out to be a misunderstanding? Now, be honest, have you ever made that sort of assumption about someone else, later to find out that you were wrong? 

These emotional examples just highlight a more pervasive problem. Our minds tend to make a leap of meaning, a shortcut of sorts, to help us understand the world around us.  We tell ourselves stories about things that happen around us that build our concept of how things work. This skill is useful. But we also tend to stick to stories that reinforce our ideas about the world. We resist, and explain away, anything new or different —especially if it challenges our core ideas. 

“If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies behind it: the contrarian truth.”

– Peter Thiel, Zero to One

We can never perfectly understand the motivations, aspirations, emotions and thoughts of other people. We can probably never perfectly understand our own. But by working at it, we can grow and become better at it. We can see our own thoughts as just thoughts. We can turn them over, examine them, think about alternatives, and decide what to think. 

This is the beginning. It’s not about having a formula for success, but rather a skill of being present and self-aware so that we can make better use of any idea, method, formula, or framework. It’s not about being perfect. Just notice that you are making assumptions or assigning motivation, and come back to self-awareness. 

Be Present. Be Self-Aware. Innovate. 

Thinking about product design

I had an interesting discussion this weekend about computers and devices and Internet of Things. I’m still sorting out how exactly to articulate this, and then this morning this great example from Marco Arment came to my news feed:

From Redesigning Overcast’s Apple Watch app –

It’s unwise and futile to try to shove iPhone interfaces and paradigms into the Apple Watch. Instead, design for what the Watch really is.

All these devices are testing the creativity and interaction concepts of designers and developers. Whether it’s the Apple Watch, some new “Internet of Things” device, or even something as straightforward, but polarizing, as the new Apple MacBook, Thinking about what the thing is for, and understanding the subtle ways that people will use the new thing — that’s where the magic happens.

Read Marco’s post about his app. The specific are interesting, and the more general lessons essential.

A better Steve Jobs

I’m looking forward to the new book about Steve Jobs, coming in a few weeks. The Isaacson book was a disappointment, and this one seems (by reports) to do a much better job of capturing the man and the complexity of his story. As Tim Cook says in an interview with Fast Company:

II thought the [Walter] Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person.

Read the whole article. Just this short piece gives a deeper view of the man.

The Internet and the FCC

On the eve of an important ruling vote at the FCC, Brad Feld has written a great piece on the subject. As he says:

There has been an enormous amount of bombastic rhetoric in the past few months about the issue that has recently become especially politicized in the same way the debate about SOPA/PIPA unfolded.


Indeed. And Feld continues on to debunk a few of the most ridiculous ideas and provides links to several other articles going into details. A worthy read.

IndieWeb Update

Since joining the IndieWeb Camp a couple weeks ago, I’ve had a great time learning more and getting things setup and working on my own sites. It’s still not all where I want it, but I thought I’d do a little update.

The idea behind IndieWeb is that you own your own presence on the internet. This starts with owning your domain, and some kind of website at that domain, where you post your stuff. But you set things up so that it’s easy to post a version to whatever social site you wish, like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn. This principle is called “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere” — POSSE, for short.

Then, when people post replies on those sites, those replies also show up on your own site, all pulled together in one place.

For me, this is like a kind of magic. All my stuff is on my site, and all my friends replies and comments and likes, as well. But I get that leverage and connection that today is only possible in the big social sites. Facebook has a near monopoly on “everyone”, but some people I want to reach are on Twitter, or, or LinkedIn, or Google+, so I want to be in those places, too. With IndieWeb, it’s possible, and even easy, to connect it all together.

At this point, the tools to do this seamlessly are not simple to setup — not yet something my non-techie friends are going to want to take on. But it’s getting there.


One of the best parts of the IndieWeb is the group of people creating it. My kind of nerds. It’s a high-powered group, and a friendly and helpful group, too. With a little help, I was able to get a lot of stuff setup in just a few hours.


I have the IndieWeb stuff integrated here at this WordPress blog, thanks to the nice SemPress theme and a couple plugins. While I was at it, I got https working with a real SSL certificate, and cleaned up a mess of disused and redundant Plugins. (This happens when you manage your own WordPress.)

If you’re interested in seeing this all in action, just check out the comments on my blog. Recent posts were done POSSE-style and you will see some comments coming in from other sites. To learn more of the technical details, check out

Tim Cook on Human Rights and Dignity

In November 2013, Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences bestowed the IQLA Lifetime Achievement Award on Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Computer. His acceptance speech is stunning.

“Never allow the majority to limit the rights of the minority. Never allow people who fear anyone different from themselves to limit others’ human rights or deny others’ human dignity.”

He talks about gay rights, discrimination, human dignity and human rights in a beautiful and passionate way.

Not only does he use an example, close to our heart at Square Pegs, of an autistic boy finding his voice through technology, but he makes this important point about the purpose of great products:

“We design our products so they surprise and delight everyone who uses them. And we never, never ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right, and that is what respect for human dignity requires, and it is a part of Apple that I am especially proud of.”

This is the kind of leadership technology companies need. This is why many of us got into technology in the first place — to change lives.

Bravo, Mr. Cook.