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Inspiration Overload: Lessons from Women in Product

Originally published in May 2017 on Medium — see it here.

Women in Product’s panel event last week gathered an impressive crowd at Facebook to discuss “Building Product and Careers at Scale.” With a supportive walk-up-to-anyone-and-introduce-yourself atmosphere, the event facilitated a great environment for getting to meet countless influential product managers, in addition to a hugely inspiring panel discussion.

Ami Vora (Director, Ads) moderated a panel that included Deb Liu (VP, Platform and Marketplace), Naomi Gleit (VP, Social Good and Core Growth), Fidji Simo (VP, Video, News and Advertising), and Mary Ku (Director, Marketplace), all of whom have significant hours (read: years) clocked in at Facebook. There was so much good stuff covered in this conversation; I couldn’t possibly cover it all, but I’ve attempted to summarize some highlights here!

“Care less about being nice: Instead, be respected.”

Leaders need to have an opinion and be ready to back it up to push things forward, but being conditioned to be accommodatingly nice and agreeable is one of those classic women-in-leadership problems. The panelists also seemed to agree that some of the particular challenges of being a woman in business means that while for much of our careers we’re told to be nice and smooth out our edges, at a point later in your career you’ll be told you need to be more bold and out there (a stark contradiction; “but you just told me not to…!”). This requires you to reconnect with “what makes you you” and find your voice (again). Of course, being a good person is still key; Fidji continued, “…but we usually don’t respect jerks!”

“Believe and internalize that you have more power than you give yourself credit for.”

This followed a revealing exchange:

Ami: “When was the last time you felt strong and confident?”
Fidji: “When I didn’t know any better!”

Fidji told the hilarious story of how she brought her boss with her to all her meetings for the first few weeks after a promotion she worried she was not prepared for; her manager eventually said instead to imagine the ghost of him there sitting there in the room, giving her support and authority, until she felt confident standing on her own.

Deb described too how it took her years to realize how she was editing herself to her own detriment. It’s absurd to hear that any of these brilliant leaders ever experienced imposter syndrome, so it came off as somewhat hilarious (and encouraging) to hear that even such intimidatingly successful women have also struggled with this. Deb’s advice: “Just go. Stop editing.”

“Reframe failures as experiments.”

We’ve all heard this advice before, but how Ami contextualized this sentiment really hit home for me: The panelists described times they’d messed up — big responsibility means big opportunity to make the wrong call — and how they often felt bad about this. However, by realizing that these failures were actually “opportunities to learn something about the company and the world that’s useful,” and especially by being intentional about doing a post-mortem, these experiments become something truly valuable for the company.

Naomi described how perfect execution is key here too: “You can have the right or wrong strategy, but if you have only imperfect execution then you won’t know if your strategy was right or wrong, or just a flawed execution.” This also requires a learning mindset to work: Mary powerfully explained how it’s important to “have conviction about what you’re doing but also openness” to learn from these experiments.

“Myself? Who is that? I haven’t seen her in a while!”

Clearly, Fidji is overflowing with fantastic one-liners: This was Fidji’s response to a question about how she makes time for herself, describing how she felt lost in her identity after her first child. This theme of losing and reconnecting with oneself came up not only in the context of having children but also again in the context of retaining your unique professional identity as a leader: In both career and growing a family, leaders are constantly challenged to remember who they are (what makes you you) as they define and grow their unique strengths.

Fidji found that art helps her reconnect with herself, and Deb — who does this by working out every day—told an unforgettable story of how she found a way to incorporate working out every day into her new-mom routine by using time on the elliptical as a way to make her daughter fall asleep (eventually her daughter started holding her accountable: “When are you going to work out so I can go to sleep?”).

“Don’t take all feedback seriously. Become un-objectionable; trying to satisfy everyone else will make you lose yourself.”

Ami explained that when people are giving advice to others, they’re often only saying what made them successful; what makes you successful may be completely different — and it’s okay if not everyone likes it. Deb said a key realization for her was that “the thing that’s worked for you your whole career is probably what’s going to end up holding you back.”

“How do you manage a career how you manage a product? Be intentional about what’s really important. What are you optimizing for?” (PM your life!)

Throughout these diverse career and life conversations, this kept coming up, nicely summarized by Ami. We all know how to use our PM toolkit to “product-manage products — why not apply these principles/processes to your life?” Just like products, our lives have goals — set KPIs, define strategies, reflect and measure your progress. The first step is defining what you really want (vs. your nice-to-haves that may be worth sacrificing), whether you’re optimizing for domain expertise, finding your people, having a breadth of different experiences, or whatever it may be. Deb continued that this also has to do with knowing what you bring that’s so unique that only you can do it, and also with acknowledging that if you lose your passion for what you’re doing, it’s best for you and your team for you to move on.

Overall Takeaways

Beyond these nuggets of wisdom, I think what was most inspiring and refreshing for me was the supportive vibe of the event itself. Lately I’ve found some women-in-tech/leadership groups to be in existential crisis mode, trying to figure out if they’re meant to be a support group to share stories of workplace harassment, a place to discuss what makes women different from men, an attempt to substitute the ‘boys clubs’ that men may benefit from, etc.

While none of those models are what I need right now, WIP nailed it by hosting an authentic, real-life conversation focused on navigating the product world, while touching on all the quirks that complicate things as a woman in the field, and — most of all—giving me a whole new set of awesome product icons to look up to as models for how I want to lead.

If there was one overall theme that I most want to carry with me from this event, it was this sense of mutual support. Naomi epitomized this at one point, saying, “I have lots of models for who I aspire to be like, and — other than Beyoncé—many of them are on this stage with me.” Both as an intentional practice (sharing their experiences, starting Women in Product) and in the more subtle ways they boost each other up (crediting one another, backing each other up in meetings), there’s a very apparent culture of strong mutual support amongst these women. I was just as impressed and inspired by everyone else I met at the event too; the sense that we’re all in this together and are here to support one another resonated through.

Thank you so much to Ami, Deb, Fidji, Mary, and Naomi — your openness and honesty was appreciated, and it was so meaningful to get to hear your insights on so many aspects of work and life (and share in some laughs about all the absurdity we all encounter, too).

Thanks also to the event organizers for putting on a great event, and to all the other attendees — I have learned so much from you already, and can’t wait to continue learning with you!

Follow Women in Product’s awesome newsletter for event announcements and other great resources: http://www.womenpm.org/ (There’s also a very activeFacebook group!). A few more other women-focused groups that have also had a big impact on my career and life include Women Who Code (great newsletter and meetups interesting for non-coders too, chapters worldwide), Women Techmakers (Google-sponsored network with great event hookups), TechLadies(newsletter with lots of job postings), XX+UX (events for women in UX, local chapters) and OKREAL (stories and inspiration from creative women).

I hope attributed the panelists’ statements properly; please let me know if you have any corrections, and please share any other feedback or thoughts on these topics!

Allison Marie Cooper
Adobe Experience Design: First Impressions

See the original post from March 2016 on Medium.

“Preview the new UX design tool from Adobe.” My wonderful coworkers and I were thrilled to see this email notification that Adobe’s Experience Design product—XDCC, once “Project Comet” — was finally public. We were so excited about it, in fact, that we’ve spent almost all our work hours since using it for our current projects.

My very initial reactions:

1. It’s Sketch, Keynote, Flinto, Invision…

Adobe has taken and merged the best features from many of my favorite existing products — quite obviously stolen them, really, into a Frankenstein of UI prototyping perfection. It’s the best of the best — I love drag-and-dropping click order like Flinto, and the perfection of dropping images into shapes from Keynote, and I love getting to do these in the same tool — but I can’t help but feel sad that these companies aren’t recognized for coming up with these great features first.

2. It’s for a very specific type of design.

Obviously, it’s built for designers of web- and mobile-based ‘experiences,’ but even beyond that narrow field, it seems to be specifically built for the field’s current trends. It will have to be updated once this specific default drop shadow styling (hopefully, eventually) goes out of style. Because of its (useful) limitations (i.e. not having all the features at your fingertips as other Adobe mainstays), it doesn’t seem yet to allow for easy creation of complex visuals that would be needed for high-fidelity prototypes or asset creation.

3. It is, of course, a very lightweight preview.

Of course, it is a preview — many features I’d like simply aren’t there… yet. The first thing I wanted in using it for actual work was the ability to input hex codes. Totally possible I just missed where to do this, but there are definitely some other features missing too that I’m hoping will be in the real deal. I can’t tell yet of course what they intend to build out vs. what level of simplicity they intend to maintain; it’s missing lots of the different interactions and fancy things you can do in Axure, and seems for now like it’s not going to try to be as full-featured as Axure (or obviously, HTML prototyping) in terms of complexity and prototyping fidelity.

4. It’s awesome.

Despite being a preview, it already more than gets the job done that I once did with Illustrator or Sketch combined with Flinto or Invision, and it’s so addictively easy flipping between Design and Prototyping modes that I can’t imagine going back. I also can’t help but imagine how it will immediately change all the UX training programs out there: With it’s instant ease-of-use and simplicity, there’s practically no learning curve; aspiring UX/UI designers will no longer have to grapple with learning famously complex tools just to even start creating product designs. (Not to mention the price: I’m envious of current design students who get this type of amazing tool for free; Adobe’s prohibitive pricing of its old creative suite model prevented me from accessing design tools through college.)

Quite simply, it’s reminded me how fun prototyping can be — I was straight-up giddy each time I uncovered a new feature that significantly improved my workflow or immediately fixed an error right from prototyping mode, and was happy it wasn’t too far removed from the familiar either (I didn’t have to think twice about using my usual shortcuts like v, cmd+, cmd-…). Watching the first tutorial video, I felt like the XD design researchers must have been looking over my shoulder while I was working for the past few years because of how perfectly it mirrored my workflow and needs. I was beaming the first time I immediately, neatly placed, named and linked a bunch of iPhone 6-sized artboards. I can say with confidence that my UI design workflow will never be the same.

Download Adobe Experience Design CC for free here (Mac only) — hope it gives you as much silly UI design excitement as it gave me!

Allison Marie Cooper
Workshop Weekend: Arduino

Originally published February 2014 on Medium.

It felt absolutely amazing this past weekend to be so completely immersed in a project—not wanting to look away from my breadboard for a moment—that I had a silly smile on my face and forgot to have lunch.

I spent the past weekend in my absolute ideal way—intensively immersed in the thrill of rapidly tackling new concepts in programming and hardware! Thanks to the awesome WorkShop Weekend hosted at Tech Liminal in Oakland, I started Saturday morning with a shiny new kit of great Arduino tools and resources and no idea how to use them and left Sunday evening with an awesome LED Matrix Pong game and even a lesson on soldering under my belt, pages of project ideas and sketches, and full confidence in my abilities to get to the next level of electronic prototyping (with the help of the many many great online resources and Tech Liminal’s open Monday hack nights!).

Getting Started

Day 1 started with talks about Arduino history and basics, but we jumped right into example code immediately. Something so powerful about the Arduino is its ability to engage and educate people of almost all ages; it feels a lot like the snap-together electronic kit I had under my bed through my childhood—and proved to be just as hard to put down.

The learning from Arduino is two-fold, of course: The tool allows users to experiment both with circuitry and basic electronics as well as with the code that controls it—it really helped me isolate and merge both analog and digital concepts in my mind. And users can choose to focus on the aspects that most interest them—if it’s code (or “sketches” in Arduino [andProcessing] lingo), there are plenty of very simple sensor input setups that can be hooked up to complex and interesting Processing code or servers, and likewise very simple (or just copy/pasted) code can feed into myriad cool circuitry tricks.

Experiments in Basic Game Design: Pong!

After going through the basic tutorials, I was excited to move on to building the ‘Pong’ game project from code created by workshop facilitator J.D. Inspired by his suggested hacks for it, I set up the hardware (Arduino, LED 16x24 Matrix, two potentiometers and the usual mess of wires and resistors) and ran the code to use the potentiometer knobs to move the paddles up and down the sides of the board.

The potentiometers however, being small and tough to move quickly or with your fingers, were pretty uncomfortable and ineffective, so I began to devise ways to play with other inputs to move the paddles. At first I was set on using two buttons per side that would move the paddles when pushed, but found that the 11 pushes it would require to move the 5-pixel paddle from the top of the 16-pixel screen to the bottom too cumbersome and slow for good engaging play, and that increasing the number of pixels moved per click lost too much control.

I then heard about flexsensors—strips of a magical plastic-y material that can measure and record the amount they are bent. These inputs seemed like they could be more comfortable and intuitive joystick-like paddle controllers. Flexsensors in harnd, first I had to figure out the comfortable and relevant sensititives of the flexsensor to this project, which involved running a lot of test script on the ’duino and moving the flex sensors as joysticks to establish that a range of about 700 to 900 on the raw input readings (Analog.Read) from the sensor was an effective and intuitive range.

Another problem was that the moving ‘ball’ would sometimes get stuck into a sort of equilibrium when it was released—at the angle it was being released at, from any of the middle four y-axis pixels the game would be pretty impossible to lose for one player but require repeating the same simple motions over and over for the other. I was able to make the game more interesting by changing the slope and speed at which the ball was sent into play, again within a reasonable range determined through testing.

It was pretty cool to build and hack the game, but I’ve still got a long wishlist of hacks to figure out on this game to make it more effective, including the ability to manually set the number of points needed to win before each game, to create a “solitaire” version which tracks the amount of time a the ‘ball’ is kept in play for players playing against themselves, and to alternate which side(/player) the ball is released from each round. I’m generally fascinated by game design and want to learn more, as it feels like the closest an ‘engineer’ at my level can tangibly get to artificial intelligence—the idea of creating a game made of code that can beat me (my creation winning against its creator!) it totally awesome and kind of scary…in a good way.

More Projects

I spent later Sunday afternoon working an awesome project introduced by another workshop facilitator to control a lamp switch through the internet (local network) through the Arduino, which I was excited to bring my raspberry pi into a well. The possibilities of expending this project are limitless—I can imagine my dad using it to control the lights or monitor the temperature at home while out of town, and I’d want to build something for my master-gardener mom to monitor her plants remotely with (possibly expanding from one of the incredible tweeting-plant projects online).

I was also excited to be working alongside an inspiring industrial designer who was working on such product ideas as a coffee cup/commuter mug with a liquid temperature sensor, which I was excited by for completely selfish reasons (it could really improve my morning bus-stop tea experience!). In our discussions, we realized that an actual temperature reading of the liquid (eg “70 degrees F”) would not be very useful, but rather we’d need to do sensitivity testing (for both the thermistor sensor and our tongues, unfortunately) to establish the ‘Goldilocks’ ideal warmth (or comfortable range) and at what point it becomes unpleasantly cooled or too-hot-to-handle/tongue-burning and communicate them with a lighting or display scale that’s more legible to the user. I get even more excited then dreaming up ways to actually build the rest of the prototype—could the thermistor temperature sensor be built into a glass casing built at the Crucible? Or maybe I could hack an old commuter mug, cutting holes in it to put the sensor with a basic microcontroller? Or we could 3D-print a new specialized casing?

The bottom line

The Arduino is such an incredible tool for learning and prototyping, and I’m so glad I took the time to really set out to learn it (and grateful for the opportunity from Workshop Weekend). I wish I had started learning the basics of coding/programming logic and systems thinking with these basic circuitry/computing/processing tools, as they’re so tangibly immediately gratifying—when your code works and your circuit is set up properly even in the most basic intro tutorials, you get flashing lights or music playing! Probably the most impressive super-simple tutorial I did over the weekend was building a digital “etch-a-sketch”, which was great also to dig into Processing a bit. Much more motivating for me that trying to comprehend the mysteries of how a browser reads my HTML/CSS to make my web pages display… Can’t wait to learn more, apply it to new ideas/projects and teach others! (which is dangerously easy because I’d rather play—I mean, work…?—on the Arduino than anything else right now…)

I’m considering depending how much time I have trying to hack something together from various sensor and Processing tutorials to make some upcoming hiring fairs more fun; I’ve even mapped out the circuit schematic, but we’ll see…

Getting Started with the ’Duino: A Few Great Resources

  • Adafruit—LadyAda is too cool for words and my life icon. I hope little kids today are growing up with this geek goddess as role model.
  • SparkFun Inventor’s Kit—lots of great intro projects with instant satisfaction (ie blinking lights and sounds!)—be sure to go to download the sketches too.
  • Make:SF and other maker meetups! I can’t thank the incredible Workshop Weekend crew and everyone who answered my incessant questions for the past several days enough. So excited to continue learning with this community!

Any ideas/suggestions/resources/tutorials from anyone reading this about any of the projects/ideas described above or any more resources that could help myself and others learn more would be greatly appreciated, please be in touch and thanks for being a part of the start of my hardware hacking journey & maker life!

Allison Marie Cooper