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Understanding America: The new immigrant’s reading list

Two years and six months ago, I moved to America. I had one bag weighing 33 pounds, a stamped passport, a Dropbox account and a lot of excitement.

I first met with an American in Nairobi, Kenya. Kopo Kopo — the startup that I joined after undergrad in India — was founded by two Americans — an eagle scout from Arkansas and a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur from Washington state. Ben and Dylan embodied the best of America —staunchly principled, humorous and action-oriented. After ~3 years of working in Nairobi, I moved to Seattle, our newest office.

Ben (left) and I at a wedding in the Michigan countryside

Each country brings its unique history. America stands out as the most dynamic and willing-to-change. In a rapidly changing world, this spirit keeps America resilient and forward-looking. It also makes the country’s culture complex, layered and conflicted. Below are some books that helped me unpack the complexities. I hope you enjoy them.

Cities — Cities are humanity’s greatest living artifacts. A civilization of hunters and gatherers created a dense environment that catalysed the flow of ideas and information. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles bring their own local flavors mixed with the 1960s downtown. The American suburb quietly complements the vibrancy of cities with its sprawling expanse. For someone who grew up in a tiny, dense and crowded small town in India, American cities are like perpetual amusement parks.

Suburban Nation and The Life and Death of Great American Cities are great reads on how the American city and suburbs came to be.

Media and Journalism — America breathes on narratives — both founded and unfounded. Its media empires command global attention and dollars. Lately, there’s a backlash against media elites, who are accused of partisanship and being out of touch with the ‘real’ America. That isn’t new. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism paints the partisan beginnings of American newspapers.

Also see: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business — a sceptical take on how high-fidelity forms of media (Radio, TV and Internet) are shaping national conscience.

Individual Liberty and Common Good — I grew up in a tribal society. In exchange for familial comfort, you prioritized community over individual ambition. America is different. Your American experience varies dramatically by the state you live in. From the liberal pilgrimage of the left coast to the libertarian frontiers of the South, America is eleven countries. They subscribe to varying levels between individual liberty and common good. American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good is a great read for those wanting to explore all eleven Americas.

The American Nations https://colinwoodard.blogspot.com/2012/04/presenting-slighty-revised-american.html

Also see:The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville, published 1831

Economics and Society— Like its political and ideological diversity, socio-economic life varies dramatically in America. Some seek inspiration from the upward mobility of meritocracy while others find themselves shackled by discrimination. In the last three decades, America has seen intensive economic polarization. Job growth statistics and median wages don’t add color to this issue. In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New Americathe author spends time living with Silicon Valley VCs, Jay-Z, foreclosed homeowners in Florida and steel workers in Ohio. If there’s one book you read from list, it’s this.

Race relations — You cannot understand America without race. To this day, the remnants of slavery affect justice, law enforcement and the American experience. The Asian immigrant experience is tangential to such experiences. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin paints a picture of his experience. His modern spiritual successor, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a painful memoir in Between the World and Me.

What books enhanced your understanding of America? I’d love to hear your recommendations in comments below or on Twitter.

Death by detail — when data is dangerous for product teams

We live in a time when building a product is becoming a science. The world is awash with frameworks that promise you the next big product. Build, measure and learn, they say. The marginal cost of running experiments and A/B tests has plummeted to zero, making them a regular tool for product teams.

That’s it, folks. Our work here is done.

Despite their noble intentions, I have seen teams use data in counterproductive ways.

  • Analysis paralysis — when a ‘data-driven’ culture becomes an end in itself, it motivates the wrong behavior. Product teams waste time performing endless A/B tests, even when they know the right thing for their customer. Endless testing creates inertia and dilutes the team’s vision, when they’d rather move on to an audacious problem.
  • Local maxima or mistaking the forest for the trees — when teams are obsessed with a north-star metric, they go all out in moving the needle by 0.1%. After years of successful obsession with a metric, teams find that they missed the boat on solving a bigger, valuable problem. (Also see: Blockbuster/Netflix, Yammer/Slack)

With self awareness, product leaders can break free of these traps, and use data effectively.

Jeff Bezos offers an eloquent mantra —

Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste.

Make no mistake, data is a great leveler and puts the truth above our flawed opinions. However, rather than treat data as objective truth, I encourage teams to use data as an invitation — an invitation to peek under the rocks, explore our curiosity and discover wonderful insights about customers’ lives. Teams need to be obsessed with their customers’ problems — the metrics will follow.

Let the science underpin your art.

Paying for an Uber ride in three continents

Uber is clearly the defining company of this decade. As of today, it’s available in 300 cities across 57 countries and counting. It is changing our lifestyle and the way we experience cities.

As a perpetual expat who jumps between three countries — United States, India and Kenya — it is incredibly reassuring to have a reliable, timely and fairly-priced ride, anywhere.

Building a local operation in Los Angeles is radically different from building one in Nairobi. To scale a company that operates in hyper-diverse environments requires juggling local regulation, payment infrastructure and operations.

Uber’s customer-facing app is coherent despite these localizations. A glimpse over my ‘select payment’ screen paints a microcosm.

In the US, the default payment method is obviously a credit card. (There are more than 2 credit cards per person).

If you take an Uber in India, the preferred way to pay is a popular prepaid wallet called ‘PayTM’. (25 million users).

And if you hail an Uber in Nairobi, Kenya, you may also pay with cash, a tactic Uber needs to apply in developing and frontier markets.

Most users will use Uber locally and never see the hard work that goes behind the scenes to keep the app lightweight and easy-to-use.

Let’s reconsider our “users”

jacks:

us·er
/ˈyo͞ozər/

Noun
1. A person who uses or operates something, esp. a computer or other machine.
2. A person who takes illegal drugs; a drug user.

Synonyms
consumer

During a Square Board meeting, our newest Director Howard Schultz, pulled me aside and asked a simple question.

“Why do you all call your customers ‘users’?”

“I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.”

It wasn’t something I’ve thought about for some time. The term “user” made its appearance in computing at the dawn of shared terminals (multiple people sharing time slices of one computing resource). It was solidified in hacker culture as a person who wasn’t technical or creative, someone who just used resources and wasn’t able to make or produce anything (often called a “luser”). And finally, it was made concrete by Internet companies whose business models depended on two discrete classes of usage, a paying customer (often purchasing ads) and a non-paying consumer (subsidized by viewing the ads). Along the way only a few criticized the term, calling it abstract at best, and derogatory at worst.

It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word “user.” We speak about “user-centric design”, “user benefit”, “user experience”, “active users”, and even “usernames.” While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis. An abstraction away from simply building something you would love to see in the world, and the hope that others desire the same.

At Square we’re removing the term “users” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “customers”, and the more specific “buyers”, and “sellers.” The word customer, given its history, immediately sets a high bar on the level of service we must provide, or risk losing their attention or business. Below is a letter I sent the team after that Board meeting explaining why. It’s a start (we’re not done yet).

To everyone in the technology industry: I encourage you to reconsider the word “user” and what you call the people who love what you’ve created, starting with yourselves.

Team,

I was reminded of something today which has always bothered me, which I have since taken for granted.

The entire technology industry uses the word “user” to describe its customers. While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do. So let’s now part ways with our industry and rethink this.

The word “customer” is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct. It immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on. And our customers think of their customers in the same way.

We have two types of customers: sellers and buyers. So when we need to be more specific, we’ll use one of those two words.

The other thing that has surfaced in a number of my 1:1s is that we have become a bit abstract and distanced from our customers. Simply: we don’t talk about them enough. So, we’re going to do two things.

First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.

Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.

From this moment forward, let’s stop distancing ourselves from the people that choose our products over our competitors. We don’t have users, we have customers we earn. They deserve our utmost respect, focus, and service. Because that’s who we are.

Jack

Barrels and ammunition

Keith Rabois’ analogy on building a fast-moving startup team is tremendously useful, and something I always adhere to.

“If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on.  Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously. Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them.”