Reclaiming Focus

After 180+ days of quarantine, several weeks of wildfires on the West Coast, the occasional heat wave, constant social justice protests and riots, and a controversial presidential election on the horizon, my ability to focus on one task for any meaningful length of time has plummeted. If I’m not doomscrolling on Twitter or monitoring headlines for my latest dose of outrage, I’m concerned I’m missing something important.

Last week I decided to take some drastic steps to detox my social media and digital channels. I already use Pomodoro and bullet journaling for productivity. My new challenge is avoiding the guise of multi-tasking and social media distraction.

I’d heard about distraction-blocking tools for applications and websites. Before the challenges of the last six months, I never thought I’d need one. Personal discipline should be enough, right? Wrong. I needed help regaining my ability to focus.

Luckily, I picked up Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour about becoming a more productive writer (I’m focusing on fiction for the first time in years). One of his pieces of advice is to use distraction-blocking software to eliminate interruptions. Or, if you’re like me, compensate for waning self-discipline.

I downloaded Freedom, a simple application that works as a VPN (virtual private network) to block distractions on macOS and iOS. (It also works on Windows, Android and Chrome, but I don’t use those platforms.) Setup is web-based for all devices and you can sync your changes between them. Each device can have its own settings and pre-defined schedule, which I’ve found valuable for establishing a routine. You can also drop into an ad hoc focus session anytime by setting the number of minutes it should last.

The app also features a locked mode, which stops you from ending a session. I haven’t needed to use that yet, but it’s there if I do. Another interesting Freedom feature is ambient noise to aid focus. The app features background noises from cafes, libraries, offices or nature. It won’t replace my Deep Focus Spotify playlist, but it’s another thoughtful feature.

I paid around $64 for a lifetime subscription, which was apparently 50% off for September.

Using Freedom

Installed the app on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and I configured my automated sessions. Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Instagram, news sites – every time-waster I could find went into the list. Pre-configured categories make setup simple.

One bad habit I’ve fallen into is checking my phone as soon as I wake up, keeping me in bed for another 30-45 minutes. That’s time I could spend writing. Waking up the first day with a Freedom session already running was disconcerting. Twitter didn’t load. Couldn’t fetch tweets. Same for IG. When you’re using applications on your phone, you only see that the apps can’t get data. You don’t get the type of message you see in the featured image above, which is browser-based. That part is less than ideal, but I can’t imagine how the developers could improve it.

Once I remembered the app was running, I got on with my day. Time saved: 45 minutes.

I have a scheduled gap between 8-9am, when I usually clear email and check everything else. Then the Freedom sessions run from 9am-12pm, then from 1-4pm. Who doesn’t like a little current events-induced misery over lunch?

The first day was great. I knew I couldn’t get to the distractions and plowed through work. The next two days were more challenging. I’d finish something and want to take mental break on social media but couldn’t. I was locked out. Instead, I’d read an Economist article, or something on MIT Tech Review, or I’d run through some yoga in my office. Then I’d get back to work.

It’s still early days for me and Freedom. So far, the results have been positive.

If you’re struggling with distractions and a raging doomscrolling addiction, check out Freedom for a month and see if it helps. And let me know if you’ve found other methods that help. I’m always interested in new tools and techniques.

Crafting Your Alter Ego

Everyone plays different roles in their lives. Over a day, you may play the role of a parent, coworker, public speaker or athlete. You could be playing the role of job seeker and interviewing for a new position. Each of those roles requires us to access different facets of ourselves, and other facets may interfere, impacting performance through self-doubt. In Todd Herman’s “The Alter Ego Effect,” he argues that creating a personal alter ego provides a vehicle to bring out the characteristics needed to perform at our best.

Alter egos aren’t a new concept. Beyoncé famously adopted her Sasha Fierce alter ego on stage to deliver a confident performance. Kobe Bryant transformed into Black Mamba to gain separation between the court and struggles in his personal life. Alter egos give you distance from yourself, allowing you to focus on performing without distraction.

Research has shown the self-distancing provided by an alter ego can also improve executive function in children as young as five, indicating the benefits aren’t only for adults dealing with imposter syndrome or similar difficulties.

Creating an Alter Ego

Think about the type of persona you want to cultivate and the qualities you embody when you’re at your best and craft an alter ego around that. Give that person a name. If you’re looking for inspiration, you can pull from athletes or performers that embody the traits you’re looking to represent, fictional characters or even animals that have the strengths you want to display.

Triggering Your Alter Ego

“Putting on” your alter ego should involve some type of ceremony, ideally personal to you. It might be a pre-game warmup routine, a predefined rehearsal before getting on stage, or even as mundane as putting on your alter ego’s favorite pair of shoes. Being consistent with the ritual channels the qualities inherent in your alter ego.

Have you cultivated an alter ego to improve your performance or outlook? Or just to achieve some self-distancing? Let me know in the comments.

Resources

Analytics Dashboard

Heads of Data vs Chief Data Officers

The data & analytics space loves to create new roles and titles. Often, it’s hard to tell exactly what these new roles do, or if their proposed responsibilities are already being met elsewhere. One role I’ve uncovered while researching data product management is Head of Data. While this sounds similar to the Chief Data Officer role, the two are really quite different. This post looks at some of the differences in these two positions.

Enterprises have been adding Chief Data Officers (CDOs) to their C-Suite since the early 2000s, hoping to support business strategy with a cohesive data strategy. The CDO is responsible for many aspects of data management, like:

  • Data governance at the corporate level, commonly overseeing some form of enterprise data governance team.
  • Data monetization strategies across the enterprise.
  • Creating a data vision and strategy around how data is managed, stored and used with what the business’ objectives are and ensuring alignment.

As you can tell, Chief Data Officers are focused on interacting with the business and how it uses data. There is less emphasis on technology and infrastructure, since those remain the responsibility of the CIO or CTO. CDOs may report to the CEO directly, but it’s also common to see them reporting to R&D or finance.

If CDOs are primarily focused on governance with an eventual goal of creating a data-driven enterprise (whatever that means), Heads of Data are a new type of role designed around growth-oriented customer-facing activities. Instead of taking an enterprise scope, Heads of Data are more like senior product managers. This role may be expected to:

Like many new data-centric jobs, Head of Data is a multi-faceted role that requires people to be effective collaborators and communicators, but also adept technologists. Prospective Heads of Data must have deep domain knowledge and be as comfortable optimizing SQL as presenting to executive and board-level stakeholders.

Alternative titles for Heads of Data include: Head of Customer Analytics, Head of Business Intelligence, Head of Analytics and Head of Digital Analytics.

Unlike the CDO, Heads of Data likely report to the Chief Product Officer or Chief Customer Officer, but the reporting structure will depend on the company.

Chief Data Officers often have a strong foundation in data governance or risk management, which I believe limits their potential upside to the business. Heads of Data are likely coming from product management, data science or engineering backgrounds, which focus more on customer value and growth. Unlike the CDO, which focuses on what can’t be done, Heads of Data focus on what can. While both roles may be required for enterprises going forward, the growth-focused Head of Data is a great career progression for data & analytics generalists looking to make the next step.

Photo by Stephen Dawson on Unsplash

Create a Customer Advisory Board for Your Startup

Creating a Customer Advisory Board for Your Startup

Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken with a number of early-stage startups with impressive customer numbers but no formal customer advisory board. I strongly believe your startup should build out a CAB once you reach 75-100 customers. Others believe you should have a CAB when you have your first two dozen customers. Opinions certainly vary on when to create your CAB, but the benefits to a young company can be incalculable.

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

A Customer Advisory Board (or Customer Advisory Council) is a cross-section of customers that meets to provide feedback and input on products, services and overall company direction. Beyond that, the CAB serves several other functions. Your CAB should:

  • Surface any customer experience problems and help craft solutions.
  • Offer insight and validation of your strategic plans.
  • Provide feedback on your current offerings and forward-looking roadmap.

How do you create a Customer Advisory Board?

You start building your CAB by figuring out who will run it. This should be someone with broad knowledge about the company, its products and its customers. It’s not uncommon to see a Senior Director of Product Management, Chief Product Officer, Chief Customer Officer or similar titles running a CAB. This role might be supported by analyst or marketing roles to help create content for CAB meetings.

Supporting a CAB takes time. Getting a CAB up and running can take up to 50% of the CAB leader’s time. This percentage could increase in during the ramp-up to meetings and during post-meeting debriefs.

Once the CAB leader is selected, you’ll want to choose from a range of customers. This is challenging because you have to be aware of the competitive realities of your customer base. Recruit too many customers from one industry that compete with each other, and they’re less likely to offer feedback or highlight challenges in a group setting. Ideally, you’re looking to start with 5-10 customers without too much industry overlap.

This may be a surprise, but your customers may not be all that eager to join your board. It’s a time commitment for them that primarily benefits your product team. You’ll need to highlight the things they get in exchange, like:

  • Access to senior executives, including the CEO. (Involving the CEO is essential, particularly as your company grows. It will improve the prestige of the CAB.)
  • An opportunity to learn new best practices from peers.
  • Beta-testing new features.
  • Network with similar peers and increase their profiles within the industry.

Once you have your initial CAB candidates, you’ll want to draft a charter of sorts detailing the confidentiality expected within the CAB and between members, the types and quality of feedback desired, how frequently the group will meet and the participation requirements.

How do you keep your CAB engaged?

With your CAB members selected and charter in place, you have to create a feedback plan. The suggestions CAB members make or feedback they offer must be prioritized and each item responded to and tracked. The fastest way to get your members to lose interest is failing to provide feedback. If CAB members feel their issues aren’t getting addressed, they’ll lose interest. And you’ll lose spending time with your most important customers, getting validation and critical feedback that you couldn’t get any other way.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve created a CAB for your company and any advice you’d offer to startups on their first customer advisory board. Thanks for reading!


Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash

Why Data Stored as DNA Won’t Go Out of Style

Whether it’s a sixty year-old unemployment system written in Cobol or a data warehouse on its last legs, every enterprise grapples with legacy technology. What’s worse, every technology will eventually become legacy, regardless of how vibrant it looks today. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if there was a technology that would be viable as long as humans are around to use it? 

During a recent webinar on DNA computing, I described DNA-based data storage as future-proof. Some of the attendees pushed back on this idea and I wanted to explore it here. 

DNA data storage is based on two families of technologies and processes: DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing. Sequencing gets most of the attention in the press, typically around the falling prices to sequence a genome. On the other side of the DNA story, synthesis is the process of creating DNA either through a biological process or in a lab. In the context of DNA computing, DNA synthesis is used to write strands of synthetic DNA that represent your data. Those strands are sequenced to read the data, which is then converted back into its digital form. The figure below attempts to illustrate this. 

These two key technologies, sequencing and synthesis, will continue improving because they are essential to life sciences. The need for them to become faster and cheaper is constant. But whether synthetic or organic, they’re still just working with DNA. There’s little risk that we’ll create a DNA 2.0 that isn’t backwards compatible with current and future sequencing and synthesis technologies. After all, those are the technologies we’d use to create that new version.

As long as there are humans around to read it, DNA-based data storage is the only future-proof storage technology we’re likely to discover.* This, coupled with its incredible storage density of 200PB/gram and a half-life of 500 years, makes DNA storage one of the most compelling technologies in development. 

*This doesn’t mean that the data your storing as DNA can’t be damaged. High temperatures and ultraviolet light degrade DNA over time, so you’ll still need to take some precautions to ensure fidelity. 

Esports Changes the Influencer Game for Brands

The rise of esports signifies a major shift in how brands will connect with prospects and customers: from prerecorded, mastered content with large production efforts, to casual, ad hoc live streams from a bedroom repurposed as a studio. Some media brands, like ESPN and TBS, have already gotten on board. Others will follow quickly.

The Complexity of Esports Will Offer Massive Rewards

It is difficult to find analogies for esports in traditional sports. In traditional sports, like American football, everyone plays the same game and cheers for (or against) the same established teams. Esports is much more fluid, with new games and creators emerging on a monthly or weekly basis. What works for one audience may not work for another. Game-specific, customized efforts will be required to engage with different communities as brands enter the esports market.

If brands are successful at entering the esports market, they can tap into a rich demographic that they typically have a hard time reaching: Millennials and Generation Z. Three-quarters of esports viewers are between 10 and 35 years old, representing a massive amount of potential consumer spend.

Brands Must Cultivate a Range of Creators

While well-known esports personalities like Ninja get a good chunk of the headlines, I believe the trend towards sponsoring content creators won’t be towards the largest names. Instead, I believe brands will get much better return on investment by working with creators that are extremely focused on a specific region or game and drive higher audience engagement. The days of low-engagement campaigns using an Instagram influencer with 5 million followers is fading. The new model is becoming hyper-focused and hyper-engaged.

This means brands must work with multiple content creators that collectively align to the brand’s strategic objectives. This will have a corresponding increase in relationship management, from scouting creators to releasing them. Given the pressures of creating live-stream content, which is challenging to scale, high levels of creator churn should be expected.

Prepare for Massive Shifts in the Esports Market

Like any heavily hyped market segment, lots of money has been flowing into the esports space. From arenas to gambling to sponsorship, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested various areas of esports. Right now, brands and investors are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s prudent to recognize that lots of people are going to lose money in esports until the space becomes more mature. That said, the opportunities are too great to ignore. Brands need to embrace esports to avoid being left behind in this new and rapidly growing market.

Using Your Presentations to Build a Content Library

I happened across a tweet from Brianne Kimmel today where she offered a practical, if unpopular, view:

She is 100% correct. If all you’re doing is speaking at one or two conferences with that deck you worked your tail off to produce on time, you should have used that time for something more substantial.

The key is leverage.

You can take that one presentation and turn it into at least three 1000-word blog posts. You can create a webinar – perhaps even training material you can sell. Or a planning toolkit or reference architecture. Get invited onto a podcast and talk about what you talked about.

There is no reason you can’t dine out for a year on the content you create from one presentation. When I make a deck, it is usually the result of 2-3 published documents. I later use the deck to create a toolkit of board-ready slides and multiple webinars throughout the course of the year. Sometimes I’ll reuse that deck in subsequent years with minor, sometimes major, changes. And everything else I created based off of that deck gets updated too.

Brianne’s advice is spot-on: focus on compounding activities. Your conference presentations can be a great beginning – or result – of those efforts. The key is leverage.

Collegiate Esports Expands Rapidly & Changes Competitive Dynamics

The growth of the esports market, particularly in US colleges, has been astronomical. Multiple universities now offer formal esports programs. Some even have coaches and dedicated esports arenas. And yes, there’s an apparent governing body – the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Today, roughly 135 colleges have an esports program.

Esports doesn’t require the massive investment of other collegiate sports, allowing smaller schools to become competitive alongside larger, more prominent rivals. Schools creating an esports program can also pair it with online education programs, and this offers two key benefits. First, schools like SUNY Canton can use their esports program to give online attendees the experience of being involved in extracurricular activities. (Much of my undergrad and graduate work was online and I always missed that feeling of being involved in the school, so I think this excellent.) Linking esports and online attendance also allows schools to recruit from a much wider talent base.

It is too early to say if this rapid expansion is just a fad or if it has an enduring future. Over the short-run, it will change how smaller schools compete for students and tuition dollars against larger schools with better brand recognition.