Friday, January 26, 2007

why the works

I've wanted to write about this for quite a while.

During my last quarter at Stanford, I joined a class in the new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka called "Clicks and Bricks: Creating Mass Market Experiences". The goal was to introduce students to design thinking and to expose us to various industries by working on ambitious and abstract organizational design projects. Over the span of the quarter, we worked on the non-native English speaking experience for Disneyland and on Wal-Mart's new sustainability initiative. This was my first experience with the and I think the class was exemplary of why the is so successful, and more importantly, so fun and innovative.

Big picture speak, the works because of their emphasis on students. On their website, they put in big bold letters under People:

Students first

We encourage students to develop a personal point of view and confidence in their own design methodology.

We want great things for our students

We want to help students become people who can listen, ask good questions, help others succeed, develop empathy for people with different life experiences and opportunities, and have the skills, judgment, and courage to do things in new ways.

We want them to become wiser, more complete human-beings and leaders in design thinking.

Academic institutions acknowledge the importance of educating us, and while the importance of educating students fills many glossy viewbooks, the priority often gets blurred unintentionally under the pressures and various priorities of large academic institutions. But with's fresh start and focus on what's consistently vital to great organizations, they recognized the necessity of having the people -- the students -- be the core of the school and emphasized that on a daily basis.

In contrast to some aspects of my exposure in engineering, the emphasized the process of observation, design, and iteration, and the complement, teamwork. I was put in a team of four other individuals from different disciplines (Tom Maiorana (product design), Eric Hulin (b-school), Xiao Wang and Rebekah Black (management science and engineering)). We went to theme parks, almost got kicked out of the Mtn View Walmart store for our daring experiments, and worked late into the morning at Birch. I once made a remark to my mentor and good friend, Dave, that it's the people who make the substance interesting, and not the other way around. That stands true today, and the work that my team and I did oriented around the observations and ideas that we made, our steadfast commitment to our project, the teaching coaches, and the overall idea of designing for organizations. The class was taught by seven talented individuals: Perry Klebahn, Michael Dearing, Liz Gerber, Alex Ko, Debra Dunn, Julian Gorodsky, and Bob Sutton (see Bob's remarks about the teaching experience here, and the teaching team profiles here). Each of them brought personalities that I remember well and talents that I learned.

The class gave me the breadth to do hard out-of-the-academic element projects. For example, designing a sustainability project within a large organization can't solely rely on theoretical foundations of organizational behavior. My team and I interviewed the folks, talked to various individuals outside Target and Whole Foods who were passionate or apathetic about green, developed a point of view for our subjects, and came up with a cool solution based on our observations and prototypes. And like no other department I've experienced, we got access to the 24-7 and free food and drinks all the time.

The most important lesson from the class was how it changed my personal point of view. While I was taking this class, I was on the hunt for my first full-time job. Like any ambitious individual, I was not going to settle for any job. I wanted the dream job, the job that I will love, learn a lot from, and put me on the right path. With the dorms, departments, and the Stanford Daily filled with ads of the premier management consulting companies and investment banks and the best Stanford students going for such gigs, the pressure to find a perfect job often entailed joining the broadly-known best and brightests. Professor of Management Science and Engineering, Tom Byers, in a panel discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said something about students that I won't forget. He said that he liked to work with undergrads because they're inexperienced and willing to try new things. And he also noted the difference between two types of students: the entrepreneurs and the widely-recognized top students. He said that the widely recognized great students have bars set for them -- and they work hard to meet them, no matter how high they are set. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, set their own bars. They challenge convention because it's not good enough. They live life by their own standards and create new products, processes, or organizations that change the world. I pose one question that I think pretty much states what Tom Byers meant. What if Marissa Mayer went for McKinsey instead of Google? Sure, she would've done really well at a management consulting firm, but would she have pushed innovation as far as she did? And of course Larry and Sergey are the stars, but would Google have been as amazing or widely popular among the Stanford crowd had it not been for a standout like her? Many talented people in one place... hard to be recognized. One talented person in a burgeoning environment -- lots of room for growth and many opportunities for distinction recognition. This is why entrepreneurs get noticed. And of course, I don't dare mention "drinking the cool aid" to such rebels ;). Personally, my last quarter at Stanford was the best because I learned that the process of doing what I love (finally!) is so much better than living up to some abstract expectation even though it is, by convention, the best. Sure, the realization was a good part done by myself outside of the, but it was's welcoming, innovative, and incubative environment that helped me realize that the riskier and gutsy-er a path is, the better.

While at the, I heard stories from my professors about their experiences: cutting snowshoeing paths in Vail and marketing the hell out of his product, studying the evolution of the Ford Taurus vs. the Honda Accord as an example of "business as usual vs. business by design", developing new product lines for eBay, and promoting a book with the title, "The No Asshole Rule."

No, there are no bars I have to meet anymore, and the process of exploration, of design, that I underwent taught me lessons that no other class in college taught:

*Don't waste your time: do something you love and are good at.
*The process of discovery and actively doing outweigh the thrill of meeting goals.
*People are an integral part of learning and idea generation.
*The solitary geniuses don't exist anymore.


*Wal-Mart Sustainability Initiative design project abstract here (pdf)

*Fortune Magazine on Wal-Mart's sustainability initiative: The Green Machine (pdf)

*Carter Cast ( CEO) and Bob Sutton ( prof) presentation introduction:

jumpcut presentation by Carter Cast and Bob Sutton

*Team 4 Wal-Mart Sustainability presentation (slides here (ppt)):

jumpcut presentation by Stanford students

*BusinessWeek article on the The Talent Hunt.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

the eve of a new renaissance

I'm realizing that Apple's introduction today of the iPhone and iTV is the start of another really amazing beginning. And I'm also reminded of the struggles and learnings along the way, for Steve Jobs and all the hardworking engineers and designers who believed in the big idea. In particular, Steve Jobs' commencement speech to a crowd of new graduates in 2005 is particularly resonant to me right now.

"you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards"

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A response to Blake Ross on Google Tips

Before understanding to a greater depth some of Google's products, I had been a champion of the no-advertising rule. The blank page ideology and the initial aversion to ads were so admirable back in the days of Las Vegas-like pages. Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox and a Stanford undergrad (currently stopping out), brought to attention on Dec. 25th Google's release of "tips" (and more from Red Herring). His stance is with that original purist belief that great products will naturally arise to the top.

I agree with that statement. At the same time, I also sympathize with what generally worries Googlers: Google has so many great products that it has become hard to make the public notice and potentially use them. Would a lay person with some lack of ease in using technology dig deep enough to understand how to use AND, OR, and NOT for Google search? Probably not. Would that feature help him/her learn a bit more on how to be more at ease with searching? Probably. The big-picture issue is that Google is too much of a good thing. Sure, we would love to see every Google product grow organically. But because there's so much, it's difficult to (ironically) organize all those great products in a fashion that makes them easy to discover (the drill-down to find how to use certain search features is quite intimidating). After talking to Bret Taylor, the product manager for Google Maps, I learned that not many people know that Google Maps ranks a query for "pizza in NYC" by most popular first. (That was how I "discovered" Lombardi Pizza). Had it not been a Google NYC Open House where an engineer showed us this cool feature, I probably wouldn't have known. And that's the problem! It takes good leaps (and a certain amount of Google obsession) to discover the usefulness implicit in their products.

I think the idea of having Google Tips is good, but Tips is not targeted correctly (they pulled it out on Jan 3rd due to the outcry that arose from Ross' post). Targeting products for specific users is not about advertising but assisting. My last quarter at school, one of the teams for my class had the idea for Disneyland on "helping kids discover cool aspects of the theme park". Through various theme park visits and user studies, they discovered the "super kid" who commands his/her family, and hence, the day in the park, where money is spent, which rides to go to, etc, etc. As a result, this team devised numerous kid-friendly maps, signs, and various other ideas to make attractions more accessible for those who are less than four feet tall. Coming back to Google, I think a great way to go about is to help the person already familiar with basic Google search and products to discover other great products and features. A potential solution would be to better the accounts page. (Alphabetical listing and "try something new" below the fold?... come on now..). Based on how much Google knows about our usage patterns, it should be able to predict what kind of products we'd be more inclined to use. A person using Docs and Spreadsheets would probably be more inclined to use the Labs' new Notebook. And the obsessive would probably like Alerts. Mashups and convergence are great.. Marissa Mayer called them the "Los Diego" and "San Angeles" metaphor... put great products together. You make old products more useful, new products more accessible. I like that :) and I had a "wow, this is so cool!" moment when I saw this on my reader page yesterday.

I think it was a Businessweek article a while back that had the notion of how Google products go: you throw the idea on the wall and see if it sticks. This certainly goes to an extreme about how Google releases and tests products for success. But I've become a firm believer that you have to also be a bit more prudent with how to make that product more accessible for an audience with a need to use it.