How LinkedIn made a laughably bad mistake and made people think I started working at “Pan”.

In this age of smart agents, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, LinkedIn made a laughably bad mistake on my behalf. 

A couple of days ago I added some information on my LinkedIn profile: I was a panelist for two General Assembly sessions this year. I added this as a “job” (no, I didn’t get paid), and I didn’t mark my current job at Redfin as having ended. I also made a typo and entered “Pan” instead of “General Assembly” as the company name. 

LinkedIn proceeded to tell the thousands of people in my network that I had a new job at “Pan”.
Let’s break down what the software could have done:

  1. It could have noted I had not said my current job had ended.
  2. It could have seen “Pan” didn’t match a known company name (or, if it does, it doesn’t match one that I would likely join). 
  3. It could have seen I fixed “Pan” to General Assembly.
  4. In a state of ambiguity, it could have asked me if I had indeed changed jobs (seeing two “jobs” as active on my profile).

What’s even more alarming is that this is all heuristic-based “intelligence”, and nothing fancy like what many companies are developing in the artificial intelligence space as of late. 

Now I have to explain to the dozen (and counting) people who have reached out to me that no, I have not left Redfin for “Pan”.

This is an amusing story, but it’s also a reminder of how products need to be conscious about user behavior and user errors, and be flexible and communicative when about to do something big on the user’s behalf.

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What product managers should do in their first month

Congratulations! It’s your first day at your new product manager job. You’re excited about the company and its mission. You’re looking forward to meeting your team. Your new hire orientation is done. Now what?

Starting a new job can be overwhelming. It can feel like a firehose of information is hitting you in the face every day. Where should product managers focus their time in their first month? Here’s my list.

Meet the right people

Product managers need to learn to be effective in their organizations. That is hard to do without knowing and working with the right people. This goes beyond your immediate team of engineers and designers.

On your first day, talk to your manager and find out two things:

  1. Who are the people outside your team you should work with?
  2. Who are the stakeholders that are interested in making sure you succeed?

#1 may include people in marketing, business development, operations, data science, and the field. They will help you figure out what products to build and how to deliver them to customers. #2 may be leaders in these or other parts of the organization. You may not work with them every day, but they are good sources of feedback on your plans.

Know your customer

To build great products, you need to know your customers and what they want. It’s good to spend time reading customer research that your colleagues have already amassed. But, there’s no substitute for doing your own research. Reading product reviews, driving usability studies, traveling to field offices, and doing first-hand interviews are all good ways to know your customer. Don’t forget to bring what you learn back to your team. Often, you’ll have something new to share.

Ship a quick feature

The best way to figure out how to get things done at your new job is to go through the motions of researching, designing, building, and shipping a feature. Even if you’re a manager, shipping a feature will reveal how decisions are made in your new organizations and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your team.

This is especially important for managers; if you don’t go through the process of building product first-hand, you won’t be able to judge first-hand what is and isn’t working well.

Get a mentor

Mentors are invaluable in giving you feedback and showing you a perspective you won’t have when entering a new organization. Find someone who’s an expert in what you’re not, and ask them if they’re willing to mentor you. If you’re not sure who to ask, get advice from your manager.

Read a book

There’s likely one or two books everyone around you has read and values highly. Ask your manager or mentor to name them. Maybe it’s a book about being a good manager, or staying innovative, or the trials and tribulations of running and scaling startups. Whatever the book is, if it’s in the headspace of your colleagues, it’s probably a good one for you to read.

. . . . .

The first month at your new product manager job will start slowly and end quickly. If you do the above, I bet you’ll exit the month will a lot of groundwork that will set you up for success in your second month and beyond.

The dark sides of deadlines

Over the past few years, I’ve been devoting less time to reading books. My reading time has gone to magazines, articles, and other short-form journalism. I wasn’t happy about this, but I didn’t do much to change it.

A few weeks ago, we visited the beautiful Central Library here in Seattle to get my daughter her first library card. When I inquired about my card, the librarian said it was long expired, and issued me a new one.

Curious about Seattle Public Library’s online collection, I checked out a couple of non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read (Business Adventures which Bill Gates recommended a couple of years ago, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things which more than one person recommended to me at work).

When I checked the electronic books out and downloaded them to my phone, I saw that I had 21 days to read them before they were automatically returned. 21 days! And then they’re gone! I had a deadline.

I read these books during my commute. I read them at night before bed. I even check out the audiobook versions so I can listen to them being read to me during chores at home. The result: I’m reading more books now than I have in the past few years. This is the power of deadlines: it provides clarity in priorities, and forces you to decide what’s really important to hit the date.

However, there are dark sides to deadlines, too.

The dark sides

When you apply time pressure on tasks, creative thinking can suffer. Worse, a Harvard Business School study found that people under time pressure think they’re being more creative when they’re actually less creative. Even worse, there seems to be a hangover to the lull in creativity that can last for a few days after the time crunch.

Why is this? The root cause appears to be lack of focus. Here’s what the study says about people who lacked time to focus during time-pressured days:

But when this protected focus was missing on time-pressured days—and it very often was—people felt more like they were on a treadmill. On these days, our diarists reported a more extreme level of time pressure even though they were not working more hours, and they felt much more distracted. When recording the number of different activities they performed, they were likely to use words like “several,” “many,” and “too numerous to count.” They were pulled in too many directions, unable to focus on a single activity for any significant period of time. One diarist, paraphrasing the oft-repeated lament, said: “The faster I run, the behinder I get.”

Cramming work at the last minute can also result in lower-quality work. A study from Syracuse University showed that patent applications clustered near the deadlines, and those that were completed at the deadline were both more complex and of lower quality.

And, too many aggressive deadlines with no end in sight can create a condition of chronic stress on the mind and body, which can lead to burnout.

Use deadlines wisely

Deadlines are of course not inherently bad. Work can fill all available time, and if there is no bound to that time, you and your team may never get a plan together to deliver something of value. The trick is to use deadlines in a productive way.

As for my library reading, I’ve decided to check out only one or two books at a time. After all, I don’t want my library checkouts to mean I never read magazines and articles anymore!

Remember to have a good reason for each deadline you communicate to your team. Make sure the deadline is achievable. And, above all, make sure your team uses the deadline as a way to focus on what is most important, instead of trying to do too many things at once and doing them all poorly.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

One of the things that initially drew me to Twitter years ago was celebrities. Actors, authors, musicians, and tech investors were all directly posting and sharing their thoughts to this medium, in a seemingly unfiltered fashion. This was pretty exciting; you couldn’t friend a celebrity on Facebook, but you could follow them on Twitter and get a peek into their thoughts.

Posting to Twitter is another matter. Hashtags and at-replies are part of the vernacular, but it’s not obvious when and how to use them. Conversations among people are hard to follow and join. Most importantly, it’s hard to find your social graph there. Sure, you can add people via your address book, but an address book is not a complete network, given how easy it is to make casual acquaintances online.

I post to Twitter, but I don’t get a lot of return from it, such as replies, likes, and retweets. And, a lot of people I know are either on Twitter purely for consumption, or don’t bother with the service at all. For me, this turns Twitter into a source of breaking news and celebrity chatter, and not a place to have a conversation with my social graph. This is an engagement problem for Twitter; there’s only so much one-to-many broadcasts from celebrities one can consume before wanting to move on to a real, engaging conversation.

Snapchat Stories vs Instagram Stories

When I first started using Snapchat, I had that same feeling as I did with Twitter. Here were people like Macklemore, Mark Suster, and Bob Saget posting videos, and I could watch them, unfiltered. How cool! But, posting to Snapchat had echoes of Twitter’s troubles: it’s tough to figure out how to post to Snapchat, conversations between people are difficult, and social return is low. Most people I know are not on the service. My posts get seen by 4 or 5 people, at most.

Recently, Instagram unabashedly copied Snapchat stories. I was surprised to see about a dozen friends had already posted to Instagram Stories. I tried it out, and found it simpler to use than Snapchat. And, in 18 hours, my first Instagram story had 10 times as many views as my most popular Snapchat story.

At this point, I’m questioning whether I’ll continue to post to Snapchat. Why post there when all of my friends and family are on Instagram (or, by extension, Facebook)? And here’s where Facebook’s advantage shines through: Facebook has the most complete social graph and is able to bootstrap any new feature or service they build or buy with it. The network effect is strong, and draws people in.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson is this: one-to-many broadcasts from famous people with millions of followers is great, and will get you far. But, at some point, you’re going to want everyone to post and consume to have a vibrant, growing social service. And to do that, you need to make it easy for users to find those they know and to post very easily. Right now, Snapchat is not that place.

For Snapchat to scale, it will need to heed Twitter’s hard lessons, invent new ways to differentiate, or suffer a usage plateau. There’s only so many videos of Bob Saget telling puns one can stomach.