Your competition helps explain who you are

“Where there is no competition, there is no market. This is why start-ups who “have no competition” have trouble engaging partners and making sales.” – Geoffrey Moore, Escape Velocity

Open source projects often shy away from competition. They value collaboration and leveraging existing solutions. But competition is good for more than making you run faster. Competition helps define who you are.

This is why the Nike iPod sensor had such a hard time when it came out. There was nothing to compare it to except pedometers. In contrast, Fitbit and Jawbone’s Up have met with a lot more initial success. And just about every article about them compares them to each other. (Interestingly, Nike has a new, similar product called Fuel Band that is mentioned in very few of the articles.)

GNOME and KDE defined each other by competing in the Linux desktop space. Without an option between KDE and GNOME, very few Linux desktop users would know what a “desktop” was or what part of the Linux desktop was created by GNOME or KDE. By defining each other as competition, they helped explain who they were and what problem they were trying to solve. They also constrained themselves to the Linux desktop. That was good as it let them shine in a defined space, but if they want to move to new markets – like mobile, they’ll have to be careful to define new competition to explain to partners and users who they want to be.

Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera and Chrome have a long history of competing. They’ve helped define each other and the web.

So don’t be afraid of the competition. Choose your competitors wisely and let them help explain your story.


What I’ve been reading

I haven’t written a book review in a long time so I thought I’d just share what I’ve been reading lately.

  • Mark Coggins leads the technical evangelist team at Mozilla and as he’s someone I work with on a daily basis, I was curious about his books. I have to admit, I started with The Adventure of the Black Bishop because it was short but it was good enough to lead me to VULTURE CAPITAL which I enjoyed very much.
  • Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere by Will Richardson. While I really like my kids’ schools and teachers, I feel more and more like school isn’t the best way for all kids to learn. The focus is still very much on teacher directed learning, everyone learning the same thing and being able to recite it back. When that’s your alphabet and numbers, it feels very appropriate. When it’s US capitals or Canadian provinces, it doesn’t feel like the best way to learn that info. Will Richardson does a good job of explaining why and how schools could evolve but he doesn’t have the answer.
  • Fatal Exchange by Russell Blake. I’m an Amazon Prime member and so I can check out a book a month but I never see many of the “free” books that I’m interested in. This one was pretty good. It was a bit far fetched but complex enough, action packed enough and well written enough to be a good read. Gruesomely violent though.
  • Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic) series by Patricia Wrede. This is the wild west meets magic. It’s an alternate reality where magic animals (and magic wielding humans) exist and society is busy exploring the wild west of what we call the United States set in a technology age where trains and horses are used for transportation. The series was much more entertaining than I would have thought.
  • Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. I listened to this book. It’s been in my queue for a long time as something I “should” read. I was pleasantly surprised that it felt really relevant. I had a conversation with David Ascher shortly afterwards about changing the way things are done by creating a new group and I was pretty excited to tell him that Seth Godin agreed with him! I may need to buy the print version so I can take some good notes.

And then I’m working on these:

  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Since my team is working on the long tail of apps for the Firefox Marketplace, I thought I should listen to the book about what the long tail really is. If I’m going to make it through it, I think I may have to buy the print edition. So far it’s been very focused on the economics of the supplier offering a long tail and I’m much more interested in the long tail from the individual creator’s point of view.
  • Escape Velocity by Geoffrey Moore. We’ve been using Geoffrey More’s Horizon model to describe projects at Mozilla. I’m finding it full of very thought provoking ideas. For example, “participating in low-power category, such as desktop computers, wire-line phone services, or e-mail, is an exercise in playing on the margins”. If you are in a low power category, life is just going to be hard. You need to create a new category if you want to deliver innovation. There’s even insights on staffing such as “organizations tend to leave the same people in place for the life of a line of business, which is often not good either for the business or the people”. And he goes on to talk about how different types of leaders and manager are required depending on the stage a project is in. More to come …

What do you recommend I read next?

Help me name it: The Pass it On Dinner Club

We like having people over for dinner … and we like meeting new people … and we like it when we make serendipitous introductions.

But most dinner clubs, wine parties and happy hours seem to grow until they implode, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to structure a social situation that introduces new people to each other without growing too big. I think I have a structure (albeit a bit like a pyramid scheme), it just needs a catchy, fun, non-imposing name.

My plan? Have a dinner party for six and ask them to return the favor.

My plan is to have a dinner party for six where the plan is to introduce people that don’t know each other but you think might have something in common. And then ask them to return the favor.

So Frank and I might have two other couples (or four other individuals) over for dinner. Hopefully they’d at least have a good evening having good food and wine with us. Then, in return, at some point in the future, they’d each invite us over for dinner with a couple of other people that we don’t know. (And if they couldn’t or didn’t want to pass it on, no worries, the dinner itself should be fun.)

And if they enjoyed the people we introduced them to, they could do something with them. But that would be a side effect of the pass it on dinner club, not the next step.

So what do you think? Think it would work? What would you call such a club?

The 7 reasons I didn’t post it

We all have blog posts we haven’t written. Boris Mann wrote about why he hasn’t posted some.

Here are the top 7 reasons I haven’t published some of the blog posts I’ve written.

  1. Half baked. My idea was half baked. A lot of times I find myself blogging about things I’m still trying to work out. Perhaps those half baked blog posts would spark interesting conversations but I often find myself saving them as drafts and starting a conversation in email or in person. These are the ones I think maybe I should publish.
  2. Twitter. I tweeted it instead. Many things are only worth a tweet these days. When I first started blogging in 2004, I used to blog interesting links. Now I tweet them instead.
  3. Too personal. Often I realize I need to talk directly to the person, not blog about them. Many times I want to blog when I’m frustrated about a person or a situation. In those cases, I usually just write the post, save it as a draft, and then call or email the person I’m frustrated with.
  4. Too rude. The person I was blogging about would know it was about them. I actually keep a list of the funny things I want to tweet or blog about but I need to wait a few months so that the subject doesn’t know it was them … these are usually the really funny ones. Although often they are tweets, not blog posts. And no, that tweet was not about you! :)
  5. Too private. I used to blog a lot more about my kids and my personal life. After some really negative comments on a post about my kids, I decided to make most of these private. I still tweet about the funny things they do and blog about some of the insights they give me, but most of my posts about my family are now private.
  6. Time. I have lots of really good topics I’d like to blog about. In many cases, I’ve started the post. I just haven’t taken the time to polish it and publish it.
  7. Not mine. I find this the most frustrating one. Often there’s a really good opinion, idea or a news item that I think should be shared but it’s not really mine to share. I’ve often offered to interview or guest post for someone but they rarely take me up on it.

Take a look at the draft posts you have. What are the top reasons you haven’t posted them?

Do you think I should post more of the above topics? How would you suggest I do that?

What do you mean when you say “Write it down?”

I had this misunderstanding with my 5 year old about taking notes and looking them up.

“Mom, how old was I when I said my first word?”

“I don’t remember, but I wrote it down, so I can look it up.”


“Why did I write it down? Because I knew you might want to know some day.”

A few seconds later. “How old was I?”

“I don’t know. I’ll look it up.”

A pause. A pointed look at my phone. “How old was I when I said my first word?”

“I don’t know! I wrote it down. I’ll look it up for you when we get home.”

Another pause. Another look at the phone. “Is it stuck in the computer?”

Ah! “No, I wrote it down with a pen. On a piece of paper in a notebook. I have to find the notebook. I’ll find it when we get home.”

So what do you mean when you say you “wrote it down?” Five years ago, I meant I wrote it in a notebook with a pen. Today it means I noted it down some where in the cloud. Or perhaps I put just on my computer and it’s “stuck” there.

How to have hallway conversations when you can’t see the hallway

I recently listened to a talk by Michael Lopp about how to be a great manager.

During his talk, he stressed the importance of hallway conversations. Hallway conversations are informal conversations about projects, goals and status. As Shez says, they are great for bouncing ideas off people you might not normally interact with and just letting them know what you are up to.

Here’s how I do “hallway conversations” while working thousands of miles from my colleagues:

  • Chat informally. While most people will tell you it’s important to have an agenda for every meeting and to stick to it, I think that if you never see your colleagues at the water cooler, you need to build in some time for rambling. Maybe you’ll gripe about the latest project, maybe you’ll share the cool project you’ve been working on with your kids, maybe you’ll just talk about what you had for lunch. Or maybe you’ll have a great shared idea that inspires you to write that blog post that changes the whole project. It’s those relationships that enable you to informally share how you feel about the projects you are working on.
  • Send that trivial piece of feedback. Often I’ll send an irc message or an email that just says “I liked how you did this” or “here’s a piece of feedback I heard about your project”. Sometimes they seem too trivial for an email message. But if I don’t send the email, and I store them all up for the next time we talk in person, I might not send them at all. (I also keep a file where I keep track of things I want to talk to people about next time I interact with them. Things I think are easier to explain via interactive chats.)
  • Keep open channels. If at all possible, have some sort of real time channel where you can reach your colleagues. Best is a something like IRC where you can hang out and have informal chats. But if not a standing room, at least know how to find them via IM or txt messaging.
  • Be available. Be available in as many channels as possible. I’m regularly on irc, Skype, IM, email, txt messaging, Twitter and Yammer. And I try to respond in a timely fashion. Why? Because when someone thinks of something they want to tell you, you don’t want them to have to remember what they had to say until they get back to their desk. Right then, while they are standing in the hallway, you want them to be able to ask you “what do you think about …?” (You also need to make sure you aren’t letting your life be completely interrupt driven, but that’s for a different post.)
  • Get help. Ask others for help. I’ll regularly ask people I talk to what it feels like in the office or what they think about a paritcular project. What the mood is like, what people are talking about. Or I’ll say, “the next time you chat with so-and-so, can you ask him what he thinks about xyz?” I’ll also tell them I’m worried about a particular person or project and ask them to check in for me. After a meeting, I’ll check in with other folks that were at the meeting to share perceptions on how it went.
  • Meet regularly. If there are projects you care about, make sure you meet with the principal people on those projects regularly.
  • Meet in person. GNOME folks go out of their way to attend GUADEC – often taking vacation and time away from their families. It’s an important event because it’s the one time a year when much of the GNOME community gets together. Meeting people you work with in person is invaluable for community building. I love how humor in email makes much more sense after you’ve met someone in person.
  • Ask them. Ask how others are doing, how they are feeling, what’s top of mind, what keeps them up at night, what makes them feel so passionately that they are working at 3am, ask them … you never know what you’ll learn or what you’ll be able to do together.
  • Communicate effectively. I used to say “over communicate” but I now believe you have to communicate effectively. If you publish everything in the world on your blog and nobody reads it, or the important pieces get lost in the noise, you haven’t communicated. But it’s key to make sure people hear what you are worried about and the ideas you have for solving problems.

How do you effectively have hallway conversations when you don’t share a hallway with your colleagues?

Getting management feedback from your kids

Last night on our drive home from school I started asking my 11 year old about his science fair project. I asked him what it was going to be on, what supplies he needed, what was he going to do if his idea didn’t work, what was he going to draw on his poster board, … and he ended up yelling at me “I’M GOING TO DO IT, OK?!”

Then this morning I had a whole series of 1:1 meetings with folks on my team … and I caught myself asking them questions in much the same way. How many people are coming to the doc sprint? Where will it be? Do you have a theme? Did you email the developer teams?

Now Janet, the one planning the doc sprint, didn’t yell at me. But was she just being nice?

So I have some theories:

  • Maybe it’s ok to ask co-workers those questions and not your kid. (I do really want and need to know that information about the doc sprint …)
  • Maybe my way of asking questions is really abrasive (or giving feedback on what I think needs to be done via questions is abrasive) and my kid just feels more free to tell me so.
  • Maybe my kid feels like he’s behind on his science fair project and was just defensive. I expect my co-workers to have answers to those types of questions (and they do) but perhaps I haven’t taught my kid to think like that yet.

It made me think that I need to make sure I get more feedback from those I work with … especially since most of these conversations happen through a video camera.

Oh, and the science fair project is coming along quite nicely. So’s the doc sprint.

Global Community Champions Workshop

Mozilla is an amazingly global and diverse community. I like to think we got it from our open source heritage – open source projects know how to work globally.

Mozilla is committed to working globally – we hire all over the world, hold regular community meetups around the world and have community spaces in many cities.

But it’s not easy. Ensuring that a global team works effectively takes a lot of dedication by everyone.

Recently we had a Global Community Champions workshop to discuss what’s going well, how we can teach other best practices and what we want to improve on.

Amié Tyrrel organized the event. Homa Bahrami and Debbie Cohen facilitated.

There were a lot of great conversations and takeaways. We’ll be following up with lists of tips and a few specific task forces, but here are a few of the takeaways I had:

  • Open source (and Mozilla) are peer-to-peer teams, as opposed to parent-child teams.
  • All projects need a conductor and they need music to follow. A music sheet that says who plays what note when. When you don’t have a conductor, or you have an informal one, the music is even more important. We need to plan. :)
  • We talk a lot about how hard it is to be geodistributed but we don’t talk much about the benefits. A geodistributed team is amazing. There are traditional reasons like hiring the best talent or having continuous time zone coverage but it’s also a huge advantage when it comes to diversity (which makes sure our products and solutions work well for even more people around the world) and growing community.
  • There are different types of collaboration and different types of teams.
    • Collaboration can be pooled (we each do our part and then combine them), serial (I develop the product and then hand it off to QA), reciprocal and multidimensional.
    • Teams can be loosely coupled (like a golf team) or tightly coupled (like a soccer team.) Loosely coupled teams are much easier to coordinate in a geodistributed environment. Tightly coupled teams are likely to take a lot more time and energy. If you are on many teams, you might want to make sure you aren’t spending all your time on tightly coupled teams at the expense of your loosely coupled ones.
  • Many people at Mozilla are on many, many teams.
  • Mozillians are very emotionally connected to their work. (As opposed to financially or intellectually connected.) This is one of my favorite parts of working at Mozilla. However, it also means that emotions run high and when someone has diverged from the project, it’s really hard for them to say goodbye.
  • Remote teammates don’t have much signaling communication (random smiles as you pass by) and tend to focus on substance conversations. It’s important to build the signaling back in some how.
  • There are three times it’s important to meet in person.
    • At the beginning of a project to work out ambiguity,
    • At the end of the project to aggregate and celebrate and
    • Whenever there are conflicts.

    (I think this point will be important as we figure out when and how often to have work weeks.)

  • Several people have had success with office hours. Specific times when they are available to chat.
  • Conflicts in geodistributed teams are much more likely to be about relationships rather than tasks.
  • Ineffective teams are likely to have:
    • fuzzy goals
    • ambiguous roles
    • ad-hoc, unclear roles
    • internal focus
    • lack of identity
  • Effective teams usually have:
    • clear goals
    • differentiated roles
    • pre-determined rules for
      • how to deal with conflicts
      • how to build consensus, make decisions
    • external focus
    • shared identity
  • Debbie shared how Mitchell described Mozilla’s decision process. I hope Debbie or Mitchell will share with us in a blog post but basically it was you write an email describing the problem set, the issue you see. You make a recommendation. Ask for specific feedback, allow some time for discussion and then take action.
  • The team leader or orchestrator does not need to run the meetings. Several teams (like the Automation & Tools team) are rotating the facilitator for their regular meetings. This lets everyone play an active role in the project. I believe the facilitator touches base with everyone on the team, gets their status updates and issues. Sets the agenda, runs the meeting and sends out the notes afterwards.
  • Effective geo-distributed team leaders know when to be:
    • colleague
    • context provider
    • orchestrator
    • director
  • We need more team charters. :)

And that’s only part of what we discussed! Lots and lots of good info that Amie and Debbie will helping us get out to the rest of the organization in a way that’s hopefully useful. And in a way that starts a dialogue so others can also share their best practices and working globally knowledge.

How much big is better?

I think I know what a small house is. One year my family of 4 lived in a one room house without plumbing. And some of the neighbors lived in smaller houses. We moved every year and sometimes we lived in spacious houses, other times in small apartments. But we always had enough room. (Although as teenagers, my sister and I might have wished for another wall between us sometimes.)

I was informed last week – 10 times no less – that I live in a small house. We have 1300 square feet upstairs and 1300 square feet in our finished basement. It is not a small house. It’s a big house. Yet the person looking at it kept saying it was such a small, cute house.

She was a designer. I concluded that most people in our area must value big. And bigger. In 1950 the average American home was less than 1,000 feet. In 2006 the average house was about the size of our house, 2300 square feet. The dream house must be bigger than that now. When given the choice between remodeling to fit changing needs or just buying a bigger house, most Americans must pick the bigger house. Since we live in a huge house (by my standards), I figured most of her clients must live in enormous houses.

I spend most of my evenings sitting on the hardwood floors in the kitchen playing with the kids and talking to Frank while he cooks. I want a comfier kitchen/dining room, not a bigger house. I want to continue to hang out close to Frank and the kids, not have a more comfortable place elsewhere. (I’ve got that too.) I have not figured out how a bigger house would add to our quality of life at all. (Luckily the designer seems to understand we want a cozy, warm space for us and friends to hang out.)

What flabbergasts me is the new definition of what a “small house” is. I have nothing against big houses. Or enormous houses. I just resent being told my big house is small. But I guess it’s all relative.

Open source feedback (done wrong): “Look, you have food stuck in your teeth!”

At a party, if you notice someone has food stuck in their teeth, you probably wouldn’t go “HEY! You have food stuck in your teeth and it looks GROSS! I hate it. I think you should go brush your teeth right now!”

But we do that all the time in open source.

Someone writes a new blog post or a new piece of code or forgets to post something … and we criticize them in public. Because it’s open source, right? Instead of emailing them we think their blog post is wrong, we leave a blunt, often rude comment. Instead of IMing them and asking if they’ve considered the privacy implications of their change, we write a public blog post that details how wrong their strategy is. Instead of congratulating them on their new product website and emailing them a few suggestions that would make usability better, we write a long critique in a blog post of our own.

When we do this, this public criticism, we change their ability to respond to it. Now they must respond in public, often defensively. If the feedback was private first, it would be easier for them to change quickly and nimbly. (Or maybe they don’t need to change at all. Maybe we missed something.)

There is a time and a place for public critique. But it’s often not the first place the critique should happen if we want to effectively influence projects.

Most effective people on open source projects communicate privately first.

They communicate via private emails, IMs and even public IRC channels, which are less public than web pages and public mailing lists because they aren’t archived.

So the next time you read something and have burning feedback, consider your audience and how you might most effectively drive the change you are looking for.