Friday, June 24, 2011

The Seven Skills

There was one part of Seth Godin's Linchpin that resonated very strongly with me, and that I wanted to riff on a bit.

Seth has a section on factors that make one indispensable within one's network or organization. I struck me that while these do apply anywhere, in large company environments in particular, Seth really nailed the blueprint.

Here's his list (in bold) with my commentary about how I've seen this apply at large companies like Microsoft and Intel.

I'm certainly not claiming I rate super high on any or all of these. But, where I've had successes, it was from delivering along one or more of these vectors. Similarly, where I've failed it was because I required one of these and fell short.

  1. Provide a unique interface between other members of the organization: Complex organizations inevitably get divided into groups to work on different functions. Sometimes that split is vertical (by product or market segment), sometimes horizontal (by functional area), often both. This necessitates meetings or processes by which decisions get made and priorities managed. Being the person that manages that process, runs the meeting, etc, even if not the person that makes the decision, is a valuable function. That person ends up being the person who knows who is doing what, has all the history of what was assigned to whom, etc.
  2. Deliver Unique Creativity: This is that person in your organization that can synthesize a problem, and provide unique creativity to one element of it. "Sara is the best at coming up with compelling business plan pitches", or "No one comes up with out-of-box ad concepts like Fred".
  3. Manage a Situation, Project, Product or Organization of Great Complexity: The larger the project, be it hardware, software, game, or whatever, the more likely that there will be very complex tradeoffs and priorities to manage. It is VERY common for people to spin themselves into a circular holding pattern because they can't get past some tradeoff. Being the person that understands how to trade off features, schedule, cost and priorities, keeps their eye on fundamental product goals, understands what decisions can be made at a low level and which have to go to the top, and who does/doesn't need to be involved in making it -all of these are valuable skills, especially in aggregate. It also involves recognizing that you can't be the domain expert on every area, so when someone asserts "we must do A", you bring in the expert on the contrarian view and manage the debate.
  4. Lead Customers: There are two angles to this, in my point of view, one is salesmanship, in the most positive sense of the word - understanding customers needs, and helping lead them to a solution. The other one is internal, acting as an effective customer advocate, which means not just "they are asking for feature X", but understanding why, helping internal product teams understand the benefits or consequences of not doing so.
  5. Inspire Staff: People need leadership. At large companies in particular, there are a lot of people that never leave the building. Inspiring them with a mission and a view of how they can have impact, well, I think we can all think of how rare the examples of this are in each of our work histories.
  6. Provide Deep Domain Knowledge: "The smartest guy in the room on topic X". Pretty self evident. Hint: There's no amount of reading that substitutes for actually doing it. e.g. There are sports commentators that are huge fact repositories. There are those that were players or coaches themselves. Those that have both are the ones that have life-long careers.
  7. Possess a Unique Talent: Easier said than done. "She's the only person that can...". The weak form of this is "He's the only person that can access our database because he's never trained anyone on it's structure". That's not a unique talent, that's protectionism. I remember a friend introduced me to a senior guy at EA a few years back and told me "He's the best closer in the business". I asked what they meant, and they said "when a product is over budget and/or behind schedule, or not meeting goals, they send him in. And then it gets fixed".
Anyhow, it struck me as a good list. Chances are you have abilities and challenges along all seven of these points. Good to think about how you can improve and which ones you can make your best ones.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Riffing on the Popcap acquisition rumor

Yesterday Techcrunch broke this story:

Popcap to be acquired for $1+B, which started a rumor mill going. Who could it be? Story points to potential buyers as: Zynga (discounts them as not having stomach for the price & multiple, EA, DeNA, Tencent.

I tweeted about it saying I thought EA just as a gut call. Later though, I started wondering why no one had asked if it could be Google, or even more credibly, Microsoft.

Techcrunch added a story about rumors that it was likely EA.

And then today, VentureBeat had this story pointing to EA (nothing new, just citing the techcrunch article), but being skeptical about it and pointing at other potential buyers: Zynga, DeNA, Media companies like Fox, Activision/Blizzard, and throwing water on any "stingy" chinese companies.

(WTF, why is VentureBeat also not mentioning Microsoft? Does everyone assume they are broke after buying Skype?)

The interesting thing about these pieces is that they are looking at the market rather naively. Techcrunch refers to Popcap as a startup while at the same time mentioning that they've been in business since 2000. VentureBeat mentions their social games but barely mentions mobile let alone all the other platforms they are on.

Anyhow, I believe the EA rumor is most likely accurate (though I still have a side bet on a surprise that it's Microsoft, but I'm crazy like that).

Just for grins and giggles though, here's some alternate takes on the headlines made possible by this acquisition, which I think make it more apparent that this isn't such a bad buy. Allow me my editorial liberties:

If it's EA:
  • #1 iPhone games publisher buys #2(3?) iPhone games publisher to further cement leadership
  • #2 Facebook games publisher buys #3 facebook game publisher in bid to take lead position away from #1 FB games publisher
  • Leading western games publisher buys another entry ticket in race for China gaming market (Popcap has social games/portal play in China, a shanghai studio doing original IP, etc)
  • EA buys leading casual games dev, "Popcap is the Valve of casual games" says Someone.
If it were to be Microsoft
  • MS buys publisher of popular iPhone, iPad games in bid to secure exclusive content/features for MS phones/tablets
  • MS buys publisher of social games in bid to catch up in that race
  • See same two above points about traction in Asia and Popcap's production abilities, quality
In any case, my point is that there's a lot more value to Popcap than just "Plants vs Zombies on Facebook or iPad". They are a force in the mainstream games market with recognizable IP, real revenue, good distribution, top notch development talent, international portfolio of games and distribution, etc. You can play their games on almost every platform under the sun - even play bejewelled on airplane headrests!)

$1B is a lot of money, but Popcap is an awesome crew, and likely worth it. I sure hope whoever it is doesn't screw the magic formula.

Book Review: Linchpin

I've reviewed a bunch of Seth Godin books here, and while I'm a great admirer of his, my reviews have varied; with some medium-to-highly rated (Meatball Sundae, Poke the Box, Small is the New Big), and some less so (The Dip).

Linchpin is flawed, but valuable. I give it a recommendation, but only for those that understand that there'll be some repetitiveness, and some random jumping from topic to topic. Nevertheless, there are some good points made.

At a high level, it's Seth's take on what it takes to be essential - a linchpin - in your organization, network or community. His high level assertion is that the Internet, the attention economy, and other factors have fundamentally changed the nature of work. Being a quiet cog in a machine is a decreasingly viable path, and so people need to think about what factors make certain people indispensable.

By way of flaws, the book flits from topic to topic and back without a lot of structure. It's divided into sections, but then bounces between some of the same issues covered in other sections. Many of the anecdotes are detail and context free enough that they added little value or color.

The book is still valuable though. There are many points in the book that provide good food for thought, and several more structured entries that provide the kind of well articulated analysis that Godin is capable of and that I wish we'd see more in his recent books. At least one of these sections was valuable enough, and resonated with me enough, that I'm doing a separate post on it alone.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: Panic!

I really enjoyed Michael Lewis' The Big Short, and so when I saw this previous work at the local library I picked it up.

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, is *edited* by Lewis, but is really an anthology of articles from WSJ and other financial news outlets. The book takes a look the last few big financial market panics (the 'black monday' of '87, the Russian crisis, the southeast Asian currency crisis, the dot-com bubble, and the recent real estate crash) and takes select pieces of reporting from before, during, and after each of those panics.

When viewed as whole one is led inevitably conclude three things:

  1. That no matter how many instances of "irrational exuberance" we go through, we never learn. We have innate ability to believe that this time it's different. The ability for amateur investors, professional investors, economists and reporters to collectively lose touch with reality and start drinking each other's kool-aid is *amazing*.
  2. That after panic hits, after the bomb goes off, and when people finally pop their heads out again, everyone has an equally amazing ability to claim that they knew this was going to occur, and that they called it ahead of time. This level of revisionist history is somewhat akin to how every friend you have that went to Vegas has convinced themselves that they returned "up a couple bucks" (they didn't. Somone is paying for those hotels).
  3. That in both the run up to the peak and in the panic afterward, the press is not only not objective, but possibly an even greater contributor to the mob mentality than the investors they later blame for it. Examples from the dot-com era here were an awesome example, buying hook-line-and-sinker the pitch that fundamentals no longer applied and that it was about a land grab now in favor of user revenues later - the press *loved* this story and sang it to whomever would listen.

Some critics of the book claim that the analysis here isn't deep enough, and that solutions to the crisis (or future ones) weren't offered or expanded on. However, I don't think this is the point. I think the book is a valuable one if only to view how important it is to lift your head up from whatever current trending thought there is and ask yourself if there isn't myopic group think happening once again.

In this sense, the book serves it's purpose, and so provides insight as well as a fun little history lesson.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book Review: Team of Rivals

Before leaving for E3, I had the chance to finish Doris Kearn Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and quite enjoyed it, despite a couple flaws.

The book is about Lincoln's relationship with his famed cabinet, made up of what had been some of his biggest rivals in the run up to his winning the republican party's nomination as presidential candidate. Much has been written about how he structured his cabinet out of people that would not only counsel him objectively, but take strong contrarian stances to his position on issues. This book explores those relationships, from the run up to the presidency until his assassination, and does so pretty deeply through letters, diaries, and other accounts of the communications between them.

Perhaps those that went to school in America are more well versed on Lincoln and on the history of the civil war than I am, but still I think there's a lot of depth here that offers some great lessons on character and leadership.

Also, again, because I don't know a lot of the history here, I found the accounts of the great battles and turning points of the civil war to be fascinating. I also didn't know that Lincoln's assassination was part of a triple assassination (the other two planned killings, of vice president Johnson and secretary of state Seward, were abandoned and unsuccessful, respectively).

The main complaint I have about the book is that in gushing praise upon Lincoln, it fails to make any criticism of him. Even while talking about his failed calls in selecting some of the leadership of his military leaders, it apologizes on his behalf. The book also gives disproportionate weight to some things in his life versus what must have been the heaviest at the time (e.g. social functions and the like, compared to war campaign decisions).

This critique aside, the book is still a good read and a good crash course and inside peek on a great leader in action.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Seven Fables Kickstarter project

Mark Stephen Meadows, a couple of who's books I've reviewed (here, here) has a cool new Kickstarter project project going, building an interactive iPad app and a leatherbound collector book around seven fables taking place around the sea.

I spent a little time last year on Mark's boat in Mexico and he's a pretty interesting character, and I'm confident the book and app are going to be marvelous. Go support it!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Project Cafe Speculation

Since we're a couple days away from Nintendo's presser at E3, I'm calling last chance to speculate on what Nintendo has up their sleeves with "Project Cafe" that hasn't already been leaked.

The most fervent rumor discussion is around the controller, which is supposed to be some kind of tablet with a 6 inch screen, buttons and a d-pad on the side, and tilt sensors and the like.

Anyhow, here's my prediction:

- Nintendo will claim the controller can also play stand-alone games.
- They will position the controller as being a "tablet that comes free with your console" and will show some entertainment functions for it
- The 'comes free' is a bit of a ruse, as buying a second controller will have a hefty price tag
- They will put on a brave face about the 3DS and that business being alive and well

Over time, though, I believe they see the writing on the wall about their hand-held businesses being commoditize and subsumed by phones and tablets, and so this is their attempt to in turn commoditize those businesses. I think its a weak attempt to do so, but there's some logic to the strategy and should allow them to circle the wagons with their core base.

It'll be interesting to see whether Nintendo can pull off yet another hail-mary pass (like they did with the Wii and the DS).

Shh!! 3 Unspoken Lies About Social Games

The inimitable Greg Costikyan wrote an excellent piece for Gamasutra, lambasting Social Games, and claiming that they are in fact not very social at all.

I agree, and thought I'd add two more topics that came up in conversation at Login recently, and in conversations with a couple social games developer friends.

So let's give Greg Credit for calling out the first lie on my list:

Lie #1. Social games are social games. (Truth - they aren't very social at all)

And to this I'll level two more accusations.

Lie #2. Social games are viral. (Truth - they aren't)

Social games are often cited as "viral", or having the opportunity to be so, because of the social network on which they reside. However, short of the early days in which FB allowed apps to spam a user's friends list, this just isn't the case.

Companies like Zynga are rumored to spend many millions on advertising within FB to acquire users, but if the games were truly viral, they would spread on their own, being recommended whole-heartedly by friends via word of mouth.

The fact that few social games have been able to exceed the virality of the average dog-on-skateboard Youtube video - let alone the virality of an Angry Birds - is proof that they aren't viral. (Some examples do come to mind though. Parking wars and Cow Clicker certainly got a lot of watercooler talk.)

Lie #3: Social Game Publishers are building Games, not Products. (Truth - most have little respect for the medium other than as a revenue generator).

I'll cut to the chase: To my knowledge large publishers in this space, like Zynga and Playdom, don't have developer credits listed in their games.

I wasn't able to find them anyway. I had a couple developer friends lament about the fact that there were no game credits and that when they'd asked management at these companies, they'd been told no.

I think that speaks volumes about those publishing these games and what they think of the people working on them, and of their contributions. "It's just a product, and you are just a cog".

There are a few companies out there doing the right thing (I'm looking at you Brenda!), but I fear these are the exception.

With all the excitement around 'Social Games' these days, it's important that we don't delude ourselves about some of the lies being told.

//rant off

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beyond Aperture: Unofficial Portal 1 Epilogue

BoingBoing points us to this beautiful Portal (1) epilogue. Well made, clever.