Social media considered harmful (for PMs)

I don’t often write about my day job as a product manager, mostly because I feel there is already so much good content from blogs like Learning by Shipping or podcasts like This Is Product Management. But recently I came across a few studies that I thought I could chain together into a theory – something that I haven’t seen covered before by any of the product managers I’ve been exposed to.

This theory is about social media and its impact on product managers specifically. I believe there is an inverse correlation between the use of social media and the effectiveness of a product manager, and here I’ll outline why.

PM Effectiveness Versus Social Media Use

Social media use linked to narcissism

It is clear that there has been a sharp rise in narcissism (at least in the US) over the past few decades. It is not yet clear that social media is a definite cause, but it has been shown that social media accentuates narcissistic tendencies and provides the platform to exercise them. We’ll have to keep monitoring the research on this, but for now it can be assumed that social media is just not helping with the narcissism crisis we are seeing – and could be making it worse.

Narcissism leads to a lack of empathy

If there is one hallmark trait of a narcissist, it is that they lack the ability to emphasize with other people. By default, narcissists just don’t care how others feel – and this ambivalence scales along with the severity of narcissism. Sure, there might be a category of empathetic narcissists, but even they have trouble applying their empathy to make real changes in behavior towards others.

Empathy is essential in a product management role

It’s hard to overstate the importance of empathy in life, regardless of whether it is used at work. It is well documented that empathetic people are happier, have longer-lasting relationships, and excel in their professional aspirations.

Empathetic people also have the ability to understand the unique needs of individuals they interact with, which is coincidentally a huge part of what makes a great product manager. The needs of customers, teammates, and project stakeholders are all critical to consider in order to deliver the right product in the right way – and this is all powered by empathy! Case in point – I have personally seen my own work shine or suffer depending on how deeply I was able to empathize with the people around me. Hence, I am convinced empathy is the one skill to develop and look for when seeking PMs for any product.

Conclusion

So social media use exacerbates narcissism, narcissism suppresses empathy, and that lack of empathy hampers a product manager’s ability to deliver the best possible product to market. The thinking is fairly straightforward, but there are a few points that can be poked at and/or researched more:

  • Does social media actively introduce narcissism in those who don’t historically have it? Or does it just amplify the narcissism that already exists?
  • Is it possible for certain types of people with narcissism to force themselves to empathize, if only to fulfill a certain job role?
  • Does some effect of narcissism outside of empathy (e.g., self-confidence) perhaps benefit people in product management roles, countering the negative effects?

Too much for me to tackle on my own, but for now I plan to take my new theory to heart and work at growing my own empathetic abilities while being more cognizant on how I use social media.

If you have any thoughts or counter-points to this theory, I’d love to hear them!

 

P.S. Shout out to Barking Up the Wrong Tree, one of my favorite blogs on human behavior, for inspiration and many of the references to studies mentioned here.

Addressing Income Inequality

Given the recent interest in income inequality around the web, I thought I would string together a few articles and research I’ve encountered to come up with my own little theory. Note that you may reach different conclusion(s) from the ideas or from your own findings – and I would love to hear them! Let’s keep this conversation going.

First, I’ll try to summarize a few relevant articles:

  1. Paul Graham’s essay Economic Inequality – The shot heard around the world. Posits that economic inequality partially stems from variations in productivity between people. The theory here is that many people are motivated by money, and there is a lot of money to be made in creating new wealth through startups. (Particularly true with technology startups.) Hence, we shouldn’t discourage economic inequality because that would be discouraging startups – which is tantamount to preventing technological progress.
  2. Give Some to Get Some – an episode of the excellent Exponent podcast where Ben Thompson and James Allworth react to Paul Graham’s article – noting that there are truths in it but also some obvious oversights and leaps of logic. The nugget here is that creating new wealth happens in two phases. First, technological progress (perhaps via startups) creates wealth for a few while they create efficiencies in how the world works – simplifying transportation, reducing the need for manual labor, etc. Then, the rest of the people in the world need to take advantage of those efficiencies to do more with their own lives – E.g. the hour that used to be spent washing clothes by hand is now spent developing a new drug that cures cancer, etc. The “pie” grows only when the impact of the original technological progress improves the lives of all people.
  3. Why Generation Y is unhappy – A great illustrated guide to what true happiness is based on. The formula is simple: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. If you have simple needs and don’t think you need to be exceptional at everything all the time, you will be happier.
  4. Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy – an HBR article with data that shows that as more income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more likely people report lower levels of life satisfaction. One theory here is that the bigger the range of incomes in a society, the more that people feel it’s impossible to “succeed” by getting into that coveted 1% bracket.

There are so many more articles and research written up about this topic (just doing a search for “income inequality” will show you it’s a global concern) but I feel there is a simple lesson with just the ones mentioned above.

Here it goes:

  • Humans are predisposed to making technological progress. It’s how we evolved, after all.
  • Technological progress benefits few people at first. As in the case of startups, it propels some into the class of the nouveau riche.
  • Economic inequality spikes. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing, as the new technology often enriches people’s lives and (more importantly) leads to efficiencies in the world that enable others to increase their own productivity and hence grow the whole pie. This is why overall GDP of nations increase as they modernize.
  • Unfortunately, the rate at which those get fabulously wealthy from new technology is much faster than the rate at which the rest of the population can take advantage of the new efficiencies to increase their own personal wealth. Thus, the inequality tends to grow larger over time.
  • As the inequality grows, its negative effects start to show. People (especially “Generation Y”, or those with similar culture) see those at the top of the distribution and wonder why their own situations are not developing as quickly. This leads to unmet expectations and ultimately lower life satisfaction measured in countries with this phenomenon – in other words, where there is fast technological progress that triggers this whole cycle.

In summary: As long as people develop technology to improve people’s lives, overall lives will get worse by default. Said another way by my colleague @JK: “Life is hard; suck it up.”

That’s not to say we can’t improve this situation. Looking at the chain of events in the cycle, we could put measures in place to:

  • Stop or discourage technological progress
  • Add handicaps to people so they cannot accumulate wealth so quickly
  • Accelerate the adoption of technology so everyone can realize the improved efficiencies faster
  • Discourage the setting of unrealistic expectations so people become happier with their realities

Those are not necessarily all good ideas… So I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what they would want to do about this (if anything).

One solution – we could all become Buddhist monks. By living outside of traditional societies, none of these issues affect them. And the ones over in Chiang Mai seem pretty happy all the time. 😉

Moving Onwards

Three years ago, I was sitting in a Panera Bread1 and contemplating the future. I was debating with myself on whether I should give up what was becoming a great career at Microsoft in order to try my hand at a small startup in Silicon Valley called Box. The offer had come suddenly but it took me literally two weeks to rationalize the decision. Was it the right opportunity? Was it going to be a good fit? Did it align with what I valued in a job and in life?

I wrangled with this decision and eventually came to the conclusion that Box fit my needs and was the right move to make at that point in time. Fast forward the three years and I don’t regret the experience. I’ve connected with many great people at Box and around the Bay, and I was able to reconnect with plenty of others from my high school and college days. Coming back to the Bay for this was incredibly worthwhile.2

However, after I recently re-evaluated what was important to me, it was time to take a closer look at some new offers that arrived on my plate. The one that stood out the most to me was from the company that makes JIRA, Confluence, HipChat, Bitbucket, and more… (collaboration tools for teams). The company was Atlassian.

A few things about this company were particularly attractive:

  • Heavily biased towards being a product and engineering-focused company
  • Has a substantial customer base that buys and loves their products
  • Sees plenty of success with their products with a lean team
  • Hasn’t built up a significant presence on mobile platforms yet
  • Globally distributed and has a penchant for remote collaboration in their DNA

That last bit is key. This is actually the single most attractive thing about this company – they are not isolated in any one geographical area, and hence they have a much wider potential perspective on what makes great software.

Here’s why that’s important. As I spent more and more time in the Bay Area over the past few years, I started to realize that we have quite the “bubble” mentality. That is, we in the Valley really do live in our own world and it is hard for us to stay in touch with / understand / empathize with people outside our circles. I try my best (through various hobbies) to broaden my own circles in an attempt to avoid the “Silicon Valley entrepreneur” mindset, but I have found it to be extremely difficult to escape it if you work with tech in any capacity here.

So when it came time to weigh my offers against my values, I gave Atlassian an edge because I wanted a chance to work for a company with a headquarters somewhere other than the Valley. (Going back to Microsoft wouldn’t really count, in case you’re wondering.) Here was a company that could build software with teams not overly affected by the Valley’s collective Groupthink. Not to say that the Valley is a bad place for a career – on the contrary, it is an excellent place for engineers to get a breadth of expertise!3 For me, though, a chance to change my environment was something I saw as a valuable contribution to my own growth that I needed to seize now.

The role is right up my alley as well. Consider this: as a company, Atlassian hasn’t historically had teams working on mobile clients for their most popular products (like Confluence or JIRA). They recognized this when talking to me and invited me to help conceive and build out first versions of what could be a collection of Atlassian apps. As a product manager, nothing is more exciting than being a part of a V1 product – and (hopefully) my history with mobile products at Box can lead to success here as well.

One more thing about this role – because teams at Atlassian are distributed and the headquarters is in Sydney, travel will be a necessity. Other than being a nice perk, I believe it will also give me the opportunity to expose myself to cultures other than “the U.S. West Coast” – and given significant time at each major office (Sydney, Austin, etc.), should make me a more “worldly” person. The hope is that this will help me both grow as a human being as well as professionally.

With that in mind, I took the offer after about two months of consideration – and a few more visits to Panera Bread. J I start in December in the Sydney HQ, and will take the rest of the month to slowly make my way over there via copious amounts of recreational, email-free and guilt-free travel. Catch up with me on the other side of the world!

P.S. If you’re wondering how I can possibly just abandon my beloved Bay Area and all the great people here… you shouldn’t think of it that way. Instead, think of it as just adding more locales to my list of places to regularly visit, which currently includes Seattle and New York City. If anything big is happening in any of these places, I’ll make the effort to be there – even if it takes 16 hours to fly. People in Seattle can attest. J

1Panera is actually a great place to go for this kind of thing – it has warm soups, delectable sandwiches, and tasty pastries that you can nibble on for hours on end.

2I give Brian Tran flak for being the one responsible for dragging me back to the Bay, but in truth I’m incredibly grateful.

3Abhishek Agrawal may have put it best when he says that the ease of surrounding yourself with techies in the Valley is both the most invigorating and obnoxious thing about this place. (paraphrasing)