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Book Review – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

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influenceA lot of the time in my position as Product Manager is invested in convincing people (mainly developers, but also managers, and sometimes even customers) of my ideas. So being persuasive is an trait that I need to master to do my job well (at least from my point of view). Because of this, Influence was a must-read for me, which I did a couple of years ago, and I decided to re-read it recently after Scott Adams referenced him so much in his blogs. Good decision.

As many previous books about behavior show, we (a.k.a humans) are easy to manipulate. Way too easy. And in his book, Cialdini gives a number simple and straightforward of techniques to use in our everyday life, both to convince others of our ideas, and to identify when others are using these techniques to make us do things we should (probably) not be doing. And don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to manipulate my co-workers to do my bidding so I can do whatever I want. But if you can convince someone of something in 15 minutes instead of an hour, time is saved. And when I’m wrong I don’t try to convince others that I’m right. So disclaimer over, let’s talk about the book :-).

One of the first and most impressive examples of persuasion is the use of a reason when asking for something. For example “I need to do X because Y”. The word “because” is very powerful because “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we give a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do[my emphasys]”. Take the example in the book, where an experimenter wants to cut in line to use a Xerox machine. In the control group, the experimenter asked the person in the machine “Excuse me, I have five pages, May I use the Xerox machine?” In this case, only 60% of people complied. After this, the experimenter asked “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” A startling 94% of those asked complied. But it doesn’t stop here, you don’t need a real reason, you just need to have a reason. The sentence “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” An impressive 93% of those asked complied (!!!). Incredible.

There are many other examples like this, some using the scarcity principle, the principle of social proof, anchoring, consistency, authority, and many others.

So why do all of these “cheat sheets” work? As the author writes in the book’s epilogue: “Very often in making a decision… we don’t use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. [and] Despite the susceptibility to stupid decisions that accompanies a reliance on a single feature of the available data, the pace of modern life demands that we frequently use this shortcut”. But thanks to him, we now know better.

Written by vainolo

September 12th, 2016 at 7:39 am

Book Review – The Lean Startup

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I approached this book with some skepticism. After having read “Who moved my cheese”, which is basically a repetition of a very simple idea for about a hundred pages, I expected something very similar here. I was very wrong. Not only was it a pleasant reading experiences, the book has many insights and teachings that are very important not only for entrepreneurs and startups, but probably any modern information worker who wants to succeed in his life.

My first surprise came in the introduction: “The stories in the magazines are lies: hard work and perseverance don’t lead to success”. There are so many places in the net that preach that if you work hard and follow your dream, you will succeed. This is not true. Hard work is definitely an important factor, but there are many others (and luck is definitely one of them).

Chapter 3 talks about learning, and start with a very strong concept that today is probably common sense: if you measure progress by making sure that work is finished, you are doing it wrong. You can finish on time, under budget, and with great quality… but if nobody is using your product then you have nothing. In the world of daily software updates, where you can measure what value you are giving to your customers, this should be your first priority. Understand what your customers want/like, experiment with them, find what they will want next, and iterate continuously (and yes, “learning is the oldest excuse in the book for failure of execution” :-)). “our job was to find a synthesis between our vision and what customers would accept; it wasn’t to capitulate to what customers thought they wanted or to tell customers what they ought to want”. From my experience we are usually wrong about what our customers want, and our most important job is not to try and predict what they want, but to let them tell it to us in the easiest way possible.

The concept of the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) and why lean manufacturing works, which shows that short iterations and continuous improvement are not only for the software industry, but for any industry that desires to build products that delight customers. This book theorizes that behind every technical problem there is a human problem, and because of this we should use the “five whys” method, to dig out this human problem. While I completely agree with the theory, the five whys will only work in work environments where employees feel that they can talk without getting blame. And sadly most places I know are not like this, mainly because we are humans and like to have someone to blame for problems.

I could go on and on, but better if you read the book and enjoy it. You will learn a lot from it. You can buy it from Amazon, and I’ll get a cent or two, which makes me feel good even though the gain is purely symbolic :-).

Written by vainolo

September 2nd, 2015 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Thoughts

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My First Year at Microsoft

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Today (more or less) I celebrate my first years as a Microsoft FTE (Full-Time Employee). And I say celebrate because I am very happy of my decision to work here. And as a year has passed, this is a great moment to look back.

It all started with a call from a good friend (and peer in a previous project) that worked at MS, telling me send my CV as his team was searching for an PM intern. As I was doing a full time PhD, but started being tired of it, this was a good opportunity to try something else without having to throw the PhD out the window. Long story short, I started working as an intern around mid-2013 and after weighting my possibilities, I decided to go all in and make MS my main occupation and the PhD my side-project (which I’m still working on)

Looking back, it has been a very interesting year here at MS with many changes. With the appointment of Satya as our CEO, a wind of change started to blow all around. I had very interesting discussions with many employees about how the company is changing and how it must change to embrace new technologies. Microsoft became more and more active in open-source projects even open sourcing the next-gen compiler; embraced Git as a first class citizen in its development platforms; kept its word on being a “mobile first” company by delivering Office apps for iPad, iPhone, and Android; moved into more rapid engineering practices and adopted “combined engineering”; and on a personal level, my team delivered a private preview of our service (Azure AD Application Proxy), a public preview of it and took it to GA level, and I gave a presentation at TechEd EU 2014. Ah, and MS bought Mojang (as my kids love Minecraft, they are happy that I now work in the company that owns the game, for whatever that’s worth :-)).

But as always, there are things that still need improvement (how politically correct of me, ah?). First, if we liken companies with boats, then MS is a Supercarrier. And it takes time and effort to change the direction where this ship is going, especially as this ship is still moving forward very fast, and the change is not 1-2 degrees but something like 60 degrees. And in the era where patience is not widespread, this makes some people (like me) hesitate and think that maybe the change is not really happening. While collaboration has improved impressively and development velocity is also much better, there is still much room for improvement. We’ll just have to wait and see. On the technical side, Azure had a number of major glitches this year (1, 2), which was expected as usage increases and new features are added, but is still sad.

Unrelated of the technical elements of my job, Microsoft is a great employer and community member. In 1013, it donated $113M to charity with a 1:1 employee donation matching (I donate $1 and MS also donates $1, also before tax, so my actual donation is even less!). And has donated more than $1B since 1983. That is really impressive. And while I have been experiencing some personal problems this year, I have received the full support of my managers and peers in every step of the way, which is something that can’t be taken for granted. And for this I am very grateful.

It has been a great year. Let’s make the new one even better.

P.S. we (the Microsoft Israel Development Center) are hiring. Interested? Contact me :-).

Written by vainolo

January 1st, 2015 at 4:34 pm

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