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What modern business leaders could learn from Genghis Khan?

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album;

Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire, the biggest empire in human history. At its height, the Mongol Empire covered a land area of more than 9.15 million square miles and a population of more than 100 million. Another surprising fact is that the population of Mongols was only a few million.

Why were Mongols able to conquer the world with such a tiny population? One important reason is that Genghis Khan created a specialized organization that could leverage the most advanced technology at the time (Mongolian horses) to solve the most ambitious problem (conquering the world). 

Despite the small number of human soldiers, there were a huge number of horses in the Mongol army. Each Mongol soldier has 3-4 Mongolian horses at his disposal at any time. Mongolian horses had very great endurance and were the most advanced military technologies during the cold-weapon era. In contrast, their enemies either don’t have any horses or could only use inferior horses. 

More importantly, Genghis Khan organized his Mongol soldiers in a way that could leverage the advantages of those Mongolian horses to the full extent. The command structure of the Mongol army was much more flexible than other armies during the period. Lower-level leaders have significant license to execute orders in the way they considered best. The super flexible organization allowed Mogol armies to attack en masse, divide into smaller groups to encircle and lead enemies into an ambush, or divide into small groups to mop up a fleeing and broken army. Because they could fully leverage the mobility of horses, a few Mongolian cavalry soldiers could easily defeat hundreds of foot soldiers.

Thanks to horses, the Mongolian army could cover up to 100 miles (160 km) per day, which was unheard of by other armies of the time. Mongolian soldiers were able to travel thousands of miles without stopping by rotating horses during the trip. Because of such great mobility, the Mongol empire could allocate resources on a global scale to defeat every local enemy. For example, the Mongols were able to fight with both the Muslim world and China at the same time. After Mongols conquered Muslims, they were able to leverage the technology they got from Muslims (like the counterweight trebuchet) to destroy the Song dynasty.

Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies have taught us two things:

  1. New technology requires a new form of human organization to fully leverages its power. 
  2. An organization that could leverage the new power would be able to unlock even more new opportunities.

In the past few decades, we are creating new technologies to extend our brains. One notable new technology is artificial intelligence (AI), which allows machines to make predictions and decisions autonomously.  The relationship between the new AI tools and humans is similar to horses and Mongolian soldiers.

A business would need to transform its organizational structure to fully leverage the power of AI tools.

  1. For a lot of traditional businesses, the bottom of the organizational chart is a huge number of employees who work on operational tasks. As a result, management is based on carrots and sticks. More advantage management like (motivation alignment) is only available for strategic positions.
  2. In AI-first organizations, even junior employees will have hundreds of AI tools at his/her disposal and their influence on the organization is equivalent to a much higher-level person in those traditional organizations. Organizational management needs to be more motivation-driven throughout the organization.  The organization also (is able to ) and needs to be leaner and flatter, which encourages innovation.
The hidden workforce of AI-first organizations

Proactively leveraging AI tools not only reduces cost but also unleashes new powers (like horses do to Genghis Khan’s troops).  

  1. The natural way of organizational growth is to throw hiring humans. However, more people would create a communication burden and operational overhead. As an organization grows, the Return-On-Investment (ROI) of extra hiring will eventually decrease to be below 1, which prevents the company to scale further. 
  2. “Hiring” AI systems, in contrast, would not incur extra overhead. What’s more, AI systems typically get smarter as more people use them. As a result, the ROI will increase as the usage of the AI system increases.

The only ceiling floor for the scaling of an AI system is from the technical side. Currently, most of the commercial-viable AI system is only designed for a single problem. And for most of the problems, AI systems haven’t reached the human-level yet. This will be a bottleneck in the foreseeable future but more and more AI systems will be invented as time goes by. Human + AI collaboration would be a strong disruptive power for industries in which AI solutions are available. 

Hiring more people doesn’t make the manager’s job redundant. Instead, it makes their jobs more important. Similarly, the adoption of AI systems doesn’t make their users redundant. They will increase the scope of their users and the whole organization. Humans are tremendously flexible and could always find creative new usage of new capabilities.  For example, AI may be able to help doctors to diagnose basic medical conditions, but it won’t be able to replace doctors. Instead, doctors would be able to focus on more complicated medical problems. As long as humans haven’t reached immortality, there are always new problems for doctors to solve.

We don’t want another Mongol empire that causes deaths, but we do need business growth that could make human life better.  In addition to scaling the human part of the organization, every business leader should also consider where their “horses” are and how to provide organizational support to enable employees to use them.

Reference

  1. Mongol military tactics and organization
  2. Wikipedia: Mongol military tactics and organization.
  3. “The Mongol Empire’s Best Weapon: The Mongolian Horse” History on the Net © 2000-2021, Salem Media.
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Conan’s Newsletter No. 16

Book of the Week: Shoe Dog

I typically recommend a book only if it is worth reading multiple times. Shoe Dog by Nike co-founder is one of such books. I finished reading this book a few months back when my manager recommended it and completed another pass when I was on a road trip to Death Valley. Every read gives me fresh thoughts because Phil is a great storyteller, and Shoe Dog is not a typical memoir.

The book starts with a vivid description of Phil’s world trip right before he founded Nike. In the 1960s, German products dominated the American sports shoe market. As a former track runner at college, Phil envisioned that Japanese running shoes would become significant competitors to German shoes. During his stop in Japan, he made contact with a Japanese shoemaker Onikusa. When Phil returned from his word trip with a contract to distribute Onitsuka shoes in the U.S., he started his legendary Nike journey.

In the early days of Nike, Cashflow has always been a bottleneck for its growth. Although the American venture capital was booming then, most of them were in Silicon Valley, far away from Nike’s headquarter in Portland. Besides, the Shoe business is not the high-growth field V.C.s were looking for. As a result, Nike had to grow from bootstrapping and from bank loans. For the first five years, Phil had to keep a day job to earn Nike cash and work on Nike in the evenings and weekends. Nike was continuously groaned by its bankers and almost fell into bankruptcy in 1975.  

Nike rides the tide of Globalization. From Nike, you could see how Globalization (particularly Japan) have profoundly influenced the United States in the 1970s. Nike was initially just a distributor of Onikusa in the USA. Later, when it started selling shoes, it relied on loans from Nissho, a Japanese trade company.

Flying geese paradigm

The history of Nike is also a history of supply chain outsourcing from the U.S. to east Asia. Despite that it is the most famous sports shoe brand globally, Nike itself manufactures nothing and entirely relies on a global supply chain, which gave Nike the edge over Adidas. Nike’s supply chain was first in Japan, then was moved to Taiwan and later to China. Nike is not alone. A lot of other American companies (such as Apple and Tesla) followed the pattern.

Japanese scholar Akamatsu’s came up with a concept of Flying geese paradigm for the phenomenon that the Asian countries would catch up with the West like flying geese because the production of commoditized goods would continuously move from the more advanced countries to the less advanced ones in the region hierarchy. 

The flying geese paradigm is the reason why there are so many economic miracles in east Asian in the past few decades (Japanese economic miracleMiracle on the Han RiverTaiwan Miracle)

Then why Asia? Some crucial reasons are the region’s social and cultural characteristics: hard-working ethic, Collectivism, and low labor cost (initially), which are somewhat very different and complementary with the Western culture. You could get more context for the difference in this excellent documentary American Factory.

However, the social and cultural characteristics that help the countries catch up with the West are a double-edged sword. Although the flying geese paradigm created economic miracles in those countries, it also makes them prone to the “technology snapshot trap,”— a phenomenon in which a society develops involutely in a “snapshot” of the outdated technology because it fails to learn from outside or generate innovation innately continuously.

For example, Japan developed an advanced automobile and Electronics industry in the 1970s but failed to lead the personal computer revolution. Korea and Taiwan picked up the semiconductor industry but missed the Internet. Recently, “Involution” also became a hot topic in China social media. More and more people complain that society starts to stagnate and more and people have to face more fierce competition on limited resources.

In east Asia, the working population suffers from severe over-working (e.g., 996Karoshi) in the catchup process. Over-work culture will prevent people from learning new things and reduces fertility rates, which will drive up labor costs and reduce the competitive advantage of society in the long run. The obedient culture in the region also reduces the diversity of ideas and disruptive innovation within itself.

Companies like Nike combine both ends’ advantages by leveraging the West’s marketing and sales creativity and delivering high-quality yet cheap products using the Asia supply chain. However, this fundamentally drives the tension on both ends and is the inherent reason for a couple of trade wars.

We are facing a dilemma for Globalization. American people complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs, and Asian countries complain that the West captures most profits. We are at the crossroad of deglobalization, and the pandemic adds fuel to the process. A healthy society needs to strive for the right balance between the two cultures. Both ends should learn more from each other and take the opportunity to transform their culture and industry structures.

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The Revenge of Apple to Intel

One hot topic recently is that Apple released its new ARM chips — M1. It is not the first time Apple designs chips — Apple has successfully designed chips for its iPhone and IPads. It is also not the first time Apple uses non-Intel chips in its Mac products — Mac had Intel cores only since 2006.

Then why is it important? In short, this is a declaration of war from Apple to Intel and a game-changer for Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) in performance-sensitive applications.

What are Instruction Sets?

Developers use chip instruction sets to communicate with computer chips. Metaphorically chip instruction sets are similar to the alphabets of human languages.

There are only twenty-six characters in English, but more than three thousand in Chinese. Similarly, the size of chip instruction sets also varies. Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) refers to building chips using a small instruction set. In contrast, Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC) refers to the option that uses an extensive instruction set. (Please see here for more descriptions)

A little history

Early computer chips were all CISC and mostly were designed by Intel. In the 1980s, there was a movement of reducing the instruction set. The ARM technology was founded in this period, and Apple–IBM–Motorola alliance built the PowerPC chips for Macintosh computers.

On the other side of the table, the Windows-Intel alliance (a.k.a “WinTel“) kept investing heavily in CISC. The rest is history; WinTel crushed Apple computers in personal computing. Apple had to switch to Intel chips in 2006. ARM survived only in a then niche market of IoT devices thanks to its energy efficiency.

Then the mobile Internet era came, thanks to Apple’s iPhone release. ARM is appealing for those applications because people care about the battery life of smartphones. As a result, ARM captured 90% of the market share for mobile processors. Intel lost the mobile war because it suffered from the Innovator’s Dilemma and wasn’t willing to risk upsetting its existing CISC business.

Despite ARM’s success in mobile phones, Intel still holds the crown for applications that require high-performance. Many people think this is due to CISC’s inherent superiority in high-performance computation, and Intel is safe in those fields.

Apple declared this is wrong through the release of M1. Intel maintained CISC’s advantage in the high-performance applications through massive investment, and previously there was no significant player who could compete.

Except for Apple. Some early users mention the performance of M1 could be comparable to NVIDIA’s popular 1080Ti GPU. The TensorFlow team also shows new M1 chips could outperform many workstations for AI applications, which have the highest computation requirements. 

What’s more, Apple has a great track record for disrupting industries. A lot of ARM manufacturers will follow Apple’s path to optimize ARM for high-performance applications, and they are eager to do so, given that the mobile phone market is saturating.

Besides, NVIDIA now owns ARM. The merger gives both edges in the age of AI. The road ahead for Intel is not rosy. Would the aging Titan be able to hold its position? It’s hard to say. But one thing is sure. More competition in the field is a great thing for companies in downstream areas like Cloud and AI, which could benefit from increased computation powers and reduced cost.

The market share ARM in different fields

Note: There is an interesting podcast from A16z about Apple Silicon. 16 Minutes #46: Apple Silicon — A Long Game, Changing the Game

Note: Although it is very promising, please still wait for a few months before you decide to upgrade to Big Sur or M1 chip if you want to use it for ML training. A lot of the libraries are not compatible with the new system yet (tweet)

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 14

The Market Curve

Business

  1. The Market Curve. Mike Vernal from Sequoia points out that a great product is not sufficient for a great business — a great market is needed too. In this essay, Mike introduce the concept of “Market Curve,” a  long-tail curve for the relationship between the number of customers and revenue per customer variables for a given Market size. Mike divides companies into five categories (Enterprise, SMB, Prosumer, Commerce + Marketplaces, and Consumer Apps) and offers some great examples for each type.
  2. Moving upmarket and the ascent of SMB SaaS. Adam Fisher from Bessemer Venture Partner shares his thoughts on how SMB SaaS companies could move to the left side in the Market Curve. There are two broad types of go-to-market strategies. One is the Customer-pull strategy, which relies on the growth of customers. The other is the Bottom-up strategy, which targets individual employees or specific types of employees as entry points within an organization. Adam then shared ten best practices for SMB-focused SaaS vendors to move to the upmarket.
  3. To own or not to own delivery? Grocers reassess the Instacart dilemma. This article discusses the dilemma food retailers need to face in dealing with eCommerce platforms like Instacart. I have been relying on service like Instacart since the start of the pandemic. This weekend is the first time I do grocery shopping in a physical store, and it feels very strange (and inefficient) to me. I think grocery eCommerce will continue to be a thing after the pandemic ends.

Interesting Facts

  • How could plankton in the Cretaceous influence modern American politics? This fascinating tweet stream summarizes the formation of a “swoosh” of counties in red states that consistently vote for the democratic party in the past decades. In the Cretaceous, the area was the coastal shore where millions of plankton live. As the planet cools down, the oceans recede. But the dead bodies of plankton make the soil extra organic and more suitable for cotton to grow. As a result, many African-Americans whose ancestors worked in cotton plantations live nowadays in the region, and they vote for democrats. You could also read this essay and this wiki for more descriptions of this interesting link between ancient history and modern politics.

Fun

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 13

This is an overwhelming week for everyone, so I will only recommend one book — a book about a president. Nothing more and nothing less.

The book is Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The 41st President’s biography also gives a great view of American politics from the sixties to the end of the 20th century. Is there a better time than now to reminisce about American traditions?

Bush’s road to Whitehouse was by no means rosy. He experienced much more failure than success throughout his career. He was defeated twice for his Senate bid (1960 and 1970), lost to Regan in the 1980 republican primary, and failed to get a second term. The loss of the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton was exceedingly hurtful for him. He called the pain “ghastly” many years after he left the Whitehouse.

No matter what happened, the 41st president held on American values and traditions to his heart. He had rivals but virtually no enemies, and he had proven himself an attractive and reliable man to those who know him. 

Nothing is more exemplar than his handling of the government transition after the agonizing defeat. In a Whitehouse tour after the election, Bush told Clinton: “I want to tell you something when I leave here; you are going to have no trouble for me. The campaign is over. It was tough, but I’m out of here, and I will do nothing to complicate your work, and I just want you to know that.”  He also left a well-wish letter for Bill Clinton when he left the Whitehouse — a beautiful symbol for American value. Even without his other outstanding achievements, this letter alone would make George H.W. Bush a revered and memorable president.

The letter that George H. W. Bush left to Bill Clinton.

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 12

Book of the Week

This memoir from the less famous Netflix co-founder Marc Randolf is an excellent read if you are interested in good stories about startups. Startup-founding stories are often about a group of genius, with a eureka moment, creates a terrific product to change the world. Those stories are beautiful but unfortunately less useful for us — the real world doesn’t work in that romantic way. Successful people are more hesitant to tell us the real story, and even if they do, they may have survivorship bias. As a result, I am always interested in the stories of either invisible founding members or companies that are not home-run hit.

Marc Randolph fits into that type: he is the founder of Netflix and its CEO for the first year, but he later departed and was outside the limelight. This book reveals many details about Netflix’s early days, including conceiving the idea and building initial prototypes. Marc also described a lot of his personal life when he was working on Netflix ideas. 

The book also includes some more drastic moments, e.g., when Reed Hastings — the more famous founder — sidelined Marc using a PowerPoint presentation and Marc’s eventual decision to depart Netflix. Many of the moments are personal and emotional, but Marc describes what happened from his perspective objectively. He is honest about his limitation and was in full respect of Reed Hasting and all his decisions. He sets his contribution to Netflix straight but gives Reed the most credit for what Netflix had achieved.

Productivity

GOTO 2012 • Scaling Yourself • Scott Hanselman. This video is a great and fun tutorial from Scott Hanselman about improving your focus and productivity. Although I already know many concepts, I still watched it end-to-end because Scott presents those concepts delightfully and exactly.

One tip I find interesting is here“Conserving your keystrokes is important … You should never write a long email to someone, anything longer than three sentences should be in Blogs/Wiki/Product document/Knowledge database, anywhere but in your email. Email is where your keystrokes die”.

Technology

  1. How to price your SaaS product. This excellent article from Patrick Campbell discusses the pricing of SaaS products. Here are my takeaways from the report:
    1. There are three critical steps for reasonable pricing.  1) Understand and quantify what value you bring to your customers. 2) Understand what your ideal customer profiles are. 3) Do user research and experiment frequently.
    2. Patrick also offers ten rapid-fire bonus tips. Her some interesting ones to me:
      1. Revenue per customer is 30% higher when you use the proper currency symbol. 
      2. In B2B, value propositions can swing the willingness to pay ±20%. In DTC, it’s ±15%
      3. Don’t discount over 20%. Large discounts get people to convert, but they don’t stick around.
      4. Social proof is important. Case studies can boost willingness to pay by 10-15% in both B2B and in DTC
      5. Design helps boost the willingness to pay by 20%.
  2. Measuring the engagement of an open-source software community. This study from Bessemer Venture Partners discusses the metrics that are useful to measure open-source communities’ engagement. My takeaways:
    1. The authors think the North Star metric for a project is its unique monthly contributor activity. A contributor is any user that has created a Github Issue or Issue Comment, or logged a Pull Request or Commit in a given month. 
    2. Out of the top 10,000 projects, only 2% have reached 250 monthly contributors in 6 or more months. One hundred contributors per month is a substantial milestone.
    3. The authors expect more and more companies will open-source their core technologies—for the mutual benefit that open source provides to both the community and the company—and focus on monetizing only a small portion of their user base. 

Other Stuff

Cecilia Chiang, an S.F. legend and the matriarch of Chinese food in America, dies at 100. Chiang’s incredible life goes beyond food and encapsulates the 20th-century history of Chinese culture in San Francisco. Chiang fled from China in 1949, first went to Japan, and then came to the US to found the groundbreaking Mandarin restaurant. She changed the course of Chinese restaurants in America. She introduced many dishes that become the canon for Chinese food in the United States: potstickers, hot-and-sour soup, sizzling rice soup, beggar’s chicken, and the bestseller, smoked tea duck.

Chiang is also the subject of a documentary: Soul Of A Banquet (amazon prime videoYoutube trailer)

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 11

Technology

  1. Emerging Architectures for Modern Data Infrastructure. This excellent essay by the a16z team summarizes emerging best practices and draw up a common vocabulary around data infrastructure. Several takeaways from the study:
    1. Data infrastructure serves two purposes at a high level: 1) to help business leaders make better decisions through the use of data (analytic use cases) and 2) to build data intelligence into customer-facing applications, including via machine learning (operational use cases).
    2. Two parallel ecosystems have grown up around these broad use cases. The essay mentioned there hasn’t been consensus on the two ecosystems will converge eventually.
    3. My take for that is that most of the two ecosystems’ infrastructure will converge because there is no inherent boundary between the two use cases. For example, interactive data analysis is essential to build new ML features or inspect models’ quality. Building interpretable models are also super helpful to get business insights.
  2. Interview of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the two co-founders of Instagram. In this insightful interview, Kevin and Mike shared some principles behind building the Instagram product and their future view. 
    1. Instagram is a phenomenal product of the mobile Internet. One interesting thing from this interview is how tools and technologies made Instagram possible. In particular, two key factors enabled Instagram. 1) The popularity of mobile phones with good cameras, and 2) the availability of open-source tools and scalable AWS cloud infrastructure. The former created the mobile phone-sharing market of billions of users, and the latter made it possible for Instagram to scale to serve a massive amount of users with a small team.
    2. Both Kevin and Mike are very excited about what is happening in the data & machine learning field. Many data infrastructures are being made accessible for the general audience, and the cost of setting up a machine learning (ML) system has reduced significantly in the past years. Open-source tools like TensorFlow and many clouds AI infrastructures affect the tech community, similar to what the AWS had influenced mobile development. As the machine learning infrastructure matures, what matters more for a company is what problem you use ML to solve and how you tailor your system to solve those problems.
  3. Roadmap: Consumer Earthquakes. In this video series, BVP Partner Kent Bennett details what makes a consumer earthquake startup and the keys to a viable business model and long-term defensibility.

Leadership & Productivity

  1. Establishing a Product Organization Structure | by Jens-Fabian Goetzmann. (you could switch the guest mode if you hit a paywall). In this article, the Head of Product @ 8fit Jens-Fabian Goetzmann gives many insightful tips for organizational structures that could empower people to build great products. Here are takeaways from the article:
    1. An innovative product organization’s core building blocks should be “pizza-teams,” which are small teams that are often 5-8 people and formed by people of different functional groups. Pizza teams could be either permanent or temporary depends on the nature of the problems that need to be solved.
    2. Each pizza team needs to be fully aligned with the organization’s direction. However, day-to-day decisions should be made autonomous instead of flowing through the management reporting chain, which slows down the feedback loops and often yields suboptimal results.
    3. Functional managers should engage in coaching and empowering instead of telling their reports what to do. Managers must step back to create this space while stepping in to remove impediments, clarify context, and provide guidance.
  2. Creative serendipity via Zoom. Is it possible? Or is creative… | by Bret Waters. In the post-pandemic new norm, Zoom is everything. However, many people miss the serendipitous nature of face-to-face interactions, which still couldn’t be entirely replaced in Zoom yet. This excellent article from Bret includes some useful tips about increasing the serendipity in Zoom meetings. 
    1. Besides, I took Bret’s course in Standford Continuing study a few years ago. It is super helpful, and I highly recommend it.
    2. As with Zoom, this is another good article from Benedict Evans about Zoom and what will happen next. 
  3. The days are long but the decades are short. This article includes some useful life advice from Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator, and now the CEO of OpenAI.

Interesting Stuff

  1. A talented guy makes live clay sculptures on TikTok like it’s nothing
  2. Singapore Air sold tickets to eat airline meals on a grounded A380. Sold out in 30 minutes. Link
  3. Pitney Bowes global parcel shipping index. China accounts the 62% of global parcel volume, with 2002 parcels shipped every second.

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 10

Tripartite Productivity System

The three challenges of modern work life. Credit: http://www.markwk.com/productive-calendar-usage.html
The three challenges of modern work life. Credit: http://www.markwk.com/productive-calendar-usage.html

A good framework for managing your time is important for personal productivity. One interesting framework is the Tripartite Productivity System. The key is to handle three challenges: managing information, managing tasks, and managing time.

  1. Information: We need a place to retrieve information, to process them, and to store the distilled knowledge. Generally, any document processing or note-taking software (i.e., “Filing Cabinets“) should work.
  2. Task: This is to track the context of each task to allow attention to be focused on taking action instead of  recalling contexts. There are plenty of tools for this. I personally use Trello as a personal Kanban system.
  3. Time: We should align our day-to-day tasks to a larger picture by tracking and reviewing our time usage.
    1. Tracking: We could use any time-tracking or calendar app to track times. I generally use Google Calendar and export my events to a spreadsheet to be reviewed manually. Besides, This is a good article that describes more tips on using Calendar as a self-tracking tool.
    2. Reviewing: It is also important to do a weekly review during which you could reflect on what you have done well and what could be improved in the past week.

Remote Team

How to debug remote work, as suggested by new research. With the pandemic, a lot of startups have to operate in the full-remote mode for an extended period of time. This great article by Atlassian summarizes the ways that could improve the productivity of WFH teams. Here are several highlights from the article:

  • We have an opportunity to embrace the fact that hours worked (or cold-calls made, or lines of code written) was never a meaningful performance metric in the first place. Now is an ideal moment to shift our attention away from outputs of effort and focus on outcomes achieved instead.
    • Employee motivation is much more critical in the WFH setting. You have to make sure employees have intrinsic motivations in order for them to keep staying focused and delivering results. This is also where innovation would come.
  • Handle the inequality caused by working from home. Different people have different expectations of working from home. Adjust accordingly. 1) Household complexity. 2) Role complexity 3) Network quality.
    • WFH removes the isolation between work and life and causes a lot of extra challenges. Be mindful of the different situations employee need to face at home and make sure it doesn’t create systematic inequality.

Entrepreneurship

  1. In this blog, the former CircleUp CEO Ryan shared his journey of creating the CircleUp and his decision to step down as CEO of the company. This is a super honest reflection with a lot of details. A good read for anyone who is curious about the startup world.
  2. In this tweet, the Okta CEO Todd shared his decision framework. One interesting thing about Todd is that he wrote a pitch deck for his wife when he decided to leave a senior executive position of Salesforce to co-found Okta.

Interesting Facts

The following video is an awesome visualization of the Gartner Hype Cycle of technologies in the past 25 years. This is a great way to see how technology has evolved in the past two and a half decades

The following tweet shows the tremendous progress we have made to learn our solar system in the past three decades.

This tweet shows what a Rocket launch looks like from space. Hope that it won’t be too long before we could trip by rockets could be as normal as flights nowadays.

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 9

Book of the Week

The Great Influenza. Credits: http://www.gatesnotes.com

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not the first pandemic, and it won’t be the last one. The book The Great Influenza by John M Barry may help you envision how the future years or even decades look like. I learned this book from Bill Gates’s article in May but only finished it recently. Despite that a whole century has passed, a lot of things in this pandemic have happened in the same way as the 1918 one so the book is still very relevant.

The book is not just a chronicle, it illustrates how American society reacts to a challenge like this and provides many interesting observations. In Chapter thirty-two, the author speculates that it was influenza that caused the bad judgments of the US President Woodrow Wilson in the Paris Peace Conference and caused the even deadlier World War II. In early 1919, the representatives of all nations gathered in Paris to discuss the new world order after World War I ended in 1918 partially due to the pandemic itself. For weeks and then months, heads of the US, Britain, and France were negotiating on the terms, and the sessions often went brutal. On April 3, Woodrow Wilson suffered a health attack, which Barry thinks was influenza, and had a fever of over 103 degrees. Partially because of the deteriorated health, Wilson lost the grit and ceded the extremely harsh terms insisted by the French prime minister Clemenceau, which created chaos in Germany and caused the rise of Hitler. Wilson also agreed to Japan’s insistence that it takes over German concession in China, which triggered the May Fourth Movement in China and catalyzed the spread of communism throughout the country.

It is incredible that the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic could be felt for the whole century. Had the Wilson not cede in the Paris Peace Conference, the rest of the 20th century will be quite different. Now that the current President and many white house officials have also contracted COVID-19 recently and an election is on the horizon, there is a chance that the aftermath of this pandemic may be equally long.

Personal Improvement

This week I highly recommend this interview by Spotify Cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek. In this interview, Daniel shared his lessons on managing Spotify and his personal life.

A great meeting has three key elements: the desired outcome of the meeting is clear ahead of time; the various options are clear, ideally ahead of time; and the roles of the participants are clear at the time.

One thing I find interesting is how Daniel’s perspective on time management and meetings. According to Daniel, a meeting would be a waste of time if one or more of the elements are missing. The make-up meetings are the single largest source of optimization for a company.

..learning resembles a tree: you see the trunk, you see the branches, and you see the leaves….

Another interesting thing from the interview is his comments on learning. Learning is all about the abstraction of the world. As you keep trying things, you will figure out what’s important and what’s not and build an abstract model yourself.

There are many tools to help with the process. One thing I find very useful is to organize knowledge in a graph and materialize the graph in some places (i.e. build your personal wiki). Previously I have been using Google docs to manage my notes and add cross-reference among them. Recently I started to use Notion, which I highly recommend. This video from Notion is a good tutorial for building a personal wiki using Notion.

Interesting Facts

The following tweet from Joaquim shows the first snowball fight in 1896 that happened in France. This is probably the most well-dressed snowball fight I’ve ever seen.

This cool tweet from Simon shows the trajectory of all active satellites. One interesting thing is that you could see the trains of StarLink satellites very clearly in the animation.

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Conan’s Newsletter No. 8

Behind the Cloud

This week I recommend the book Behind the Cloud by the Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. The book describes the history of Salesforce, a legendary Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company, and summarizes Marc’s lessons on his journey.

Before Marc co-founded Salesforce, he had worked on enterprise software for many years as an Oracle executive. During the Internet boom, he took an extended leave from Oracle, spending most of the time in Hawaii and then India, to reflect his career and to think about his next venture. He came back with a belief that that software could be delivered through the Internet instead of manually installed by customers. He created Salesforce to fulfill this belief.

March Benioff used a very creative marketing strategy in the early days of Salesforce. Instead of defining Salesforce as another enterprise software company, Marc marketed Salesforce.com as a new type of company that is fundamentally different from its predecessors — a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company. He waved the “No Software” marketing campaign and claimed enterprise software was dead. He also organized protests during the events of his software competitors. The controversial move drew a lot of eyeballs.

His strategy was a big success. The Software-as-a-Service has become a huge market, and its market size is projected to be 307.3 Billion by 2026. There have been a lot of SaaS IPOs in 2020 so far, including Snowflake, JFrog, Sumo Logic (Please see this Crunchbase report for the full list). As the first and still largest SaaS company, Salesforce is one of the examples for companies that define new categories of markets.

Another recommendation is one of Marc Benioff’s interviews in which he shared his philosophy on business creation and AI.

Productivity Tips from Marc Andreessen

Another good reading this week is Marc Andreessen On Productivity, Scheduling, Reading Habits, Work, and More. Marc Andreessen is the founder and the managing partner of the venture firm A16z. Before that, he was the founder of the legendary Netscape browser that kicked off the whole Internet revolution.

Interestingly, Marc Andreessen is also famous for one of his perspectives about software. In his famous essay about software, Marc Andreessen declares that “Software is Eating the World“, which became the investing a16z

The opinions of the two Marcs, despite their wordings, are referring to the same trend. Marc Andreessen is talking that software will be more and more important. Marc Benioff is talking about how the delivery of software will shift to the cloud.

Interesting Facts:

  1. A visualization of the light speed. It turns out the light speed is not as fast as we thought on the universe scale.
  2. Lindy Effect refers to the fact the life of a thing is likely to be proportional to how long it has already existed. Intuitively, a thing that exists x years is likely to exist for another x years. This is the reason why reading news is not that useful and we should focus on digesting information that is more time-proven.