How You Think and How You Act


In case you don’t remember, Travis Kalanick had a great 2017. It started with Susan Fowler (one of the Time People of the Year) wrote a long essay about the terrible culture (especially for women) inside the company. At the time that piece was released, the company’s valuation was around $70 billion and rising. I believe this, more than anything, led to his departure from the company. The company that Kalanick built was a window into what he valued.

I’m sure you also remember, an Uber driver posted a video of the CEO of the company berating him: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility” he says, hastily leaving the car after an ad hoc discussion of pricing strategy. The fallout from that interaction was severe, exemplifying the worst of the deepening class divisions in Silicon Valley. Seemingly knowing that things were going to get much, much worse, Kalanick reportedly “writhed around on the floor” when a couple of his senior executives showed him the clip:

As the clip ended, the three stood in stunned silence. Kalanick seemed to understand that his behavior required some form of contrition. According to a person who was there, he literally got down on his hands and knees and began squirming on the floor. ‘This is bad,’ he muttered. ‘I’m terrible.’

This thoughtless exchange was the icing on the cake for Kalanick, who departed the company soon after.

In early 2017, Uber’s valuation was $70 billion and rising. Uber sold in December for $48 billion — between market forces (increasing regulation in its markets at home and abroad), and Kalanick’s character flaws, the company lost a third of its value in the space of a few months.

I don’t know much about Travis Kalanick, but I do know that we all have those moments when we want to writhe around on the floor. “I’m terrible.” We all are, to some degree. It’s always tough to get caught on your worst day, in a bad mood, with a ton of other things on your mind.

But, are you terrible because of how you act in in this one specific instance, or how you think?

Let’s rewind: suppose Kalanick had led a high performing team with a strong culture. (I know it’s possible — if you don’t believe me, we’re hiring.) With the support of his executives, and his team, he could have gone on late night talk shows and made his public apologies. He could have built a team of Uber driver representatives and given them some say in pricing changes. We all would have nodded, because (you know) we’ve all been there.

The problem with the situation is the company he built, and a culture that didn’t seem to treat women as people (and that’s what we know about). That, more than anything, revealed how Kalanick thought, what he valued, who he was as a person.

Your thoughts drive your actions 95% of the time. But that last 5% — that’s those “I’m terrible” moments. You fail, you fall short, you disappoint, you offend. You want to writhe around on the floor. Those are the moments where you have to be humble and go on late night talk shows.

Kalanick’s values bubbled up through the company he built. Success at all costs. Growth over compassion. Money over people. Rewards for politicking rather than results. The inevitable result is a company of 12,000 employees with a directive to win at all costs. I don’t know Kalanick’s heart, but I’d be willing to bet that those are his values. He hired the first employees, and probably interviewed an signed off on the first 50 or so. He planted those bad seeds.

The upside to Uber was astronomical. Kalanick’s 5% failures would have cost him a few jokes at his expense by Colbert. It was Kalanick’s 95% that cost him (personally) billions of dollars.

Starting a new job, in a new company, I can look back on my first 8 months and think about all the times I let my people down. I can think of all the times I let the business down. All the times where I affected negative consequences for someone that works for me, or someone for whom I work, or someone waiting patiently in his high chair for me to get home. Most of those failures were the 5% type, but a few of them were the 95% type.

And that scares me. The fear of failing someone who’s depending on me (especially someone that I hired, or someone who’s expecting a critical deliverable, or my family) because of who I am, and what I value weighs on my mind.

There are two options — give up or change. How might I reframe the way I think about my role, about my relationships with my boss and team, about the way I work? How might I find a better way to accomplish my mission at work, while giving more of myself to my wife and son (and soon to be daughter)? How might I dislodge decades of bad habits in the service of something bigger? For me, this involves reading things that challenge my perspective and reframe things in my mind. It involves buying lunch and coffee for mentors that I trust, being vulnerable in front of my wife and closest friends, and asking for help.

It’s slow. It’s hard. But it is possible 🙂

Two Types of Data Scientist


When looking to hire or contract with a data scientist or consultant, it’s important to understand the types of skill sets that “data scientists” typically have. In talking with colleagues across the industry, I’ve found that they typically fall into two categories.

The first group of data scientists are hired to design, build, and optimize “learning” systems. They have a penchant for deep, rigorous thinking and a taste for solving difficult problems. I call this group “algorithm scientists”: they thrive under the challenge of understanding the minutiae of the systems that they build, and often have a master’s understanding of math and computer science.

A good (and brilliant) friend of mine from grad school falls into this category. As the lead data scientist for a streaming music company, he built and refined their music recommendation engine. The algorithm scientist should be challenged with hard problems with longer horizons — for example, improving Amazon’s recommendations by 0.1% would potentially drive millions in new revenue.

The second group of data scientists go broad — they tend to be generalists, working across an organization to solve business problems. I think of this group as “business scientists”: they apply scientific reasoning to test and optimize a company’s business model and operations. While the Algorithm Scientist sits at the confluence of Math and Computer Science, the Business Scientist has a better understanding of how to dissect business problems.

The person who excels in this job is fundamentally different in skill-set and character than the Algorithm Scientist: this person is more of a “hacker”, doesn’t form deep connections to a problem space, and likely has a strong entrepreneurial streak. This person should be challenged to work across silos, connecting disparate parts of the business.

I definitely consider myself a Business Scientist. In graduate school, I spent many years building very beautiful, but ultimately untestable mathematical models of the universe. When I took my first job as a data scientist, I realized that the business faced difficult decisions every day, and those decisions were often made by the highest ranking person’s instinct. Adapting to my new career, I immediately learned how much I loved changing that person’s opinion with numbers.

Ultimately, your hiring plans should include an honest assessment of the types of problems you experience in your business. This will make your engagement with a data scientist more productive for both of you!

Do you care?


I just finished The Dip by Seth Godin. It’s a quick read (80 pages), and the point is the following: things worth doing are worth doing well, but they’re also really hard. Focus on the things that you can be great at (quit the things you can’t), and pay your dues (“the hard part”).

Revolutionary? No. But the book shows up on best seller lists (USA Today, NYT, WSJ). It shows up on top business book lists. It was published in 2007, and still appears in the top 100 lists in a few Amazon sub-categories.

Why is this book so popular? I’m sure Seth has made a good chunk of change selling advice that was pretty obvious. In fact, most of the books you read in the (broadly defined) “self-help” genre just recycle old ideas (seriously — go read the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament). That’s ok — the ideas are new to someone, and everyone learns differently. But it’s not like “choose your battles” is new advice.

There’s a great quote (Tony Robbins I think?) that has been haunting me. Paraphrasing:

Lots of people know the right things to do. Not very many people do them.

If so many people know the right things to do, why don’t they do them? How many times have I made a poor decision (or, worse, made NO decision) on the spot, and later admitted to myself that I made exactly the wrong decisions for completely obvious reasons? This is generally accompanied with “Well, I know I should do X , but…”.  I don’t think I’m alone in this 🙂

Let’s dissect it — if I know the right move but don’t act, why didn’t I act?

  • Something else was more important.
  • I didn’t think.
  • I didn’t care.

Of these three responses, “Something else was more important” is the only correct response. “I didn’t think” can be solved with experience. All other excuses fall under “I didn’t care”.

That is, and should be, uncomfortable.

When I find myself stepping in obvious holes, making dumb decisions, completely whiffing on pitches over the plate, I go through the questions above: Was something else more important? Was this the first time you’ve been in this situation? Do you even care?

The good news is, you (I) already know how to get better. The challenge is to actually care. Pick a reason (“It’s interesting”, “I’m supporting my family”, “It’ll move the needle”). Pick a project. And put your heart into it. This makes “getting through the dip” (as Seth would say) a whole lot easier.


Use Your Blinker

I got to work today a little faster with the help of a lot of people.

Austin drivers can be a bit…cut-throat, but some of us still use our blinkers during rush hour. And some good Samaritans still believe in slowing down just a bit — when you’re trying to get from one lane to the next, there are a lot of people who can help you. It’s just a matter of letting enough cars see your blinker, and someone will let you in.

You have to let people know what you’re trying to accomplish in life, just like in commuting. And (just like in commuting), lots of people have the power to help you. Your network should include people from different backgrounds and with different experience levels. This will allow you to get a broad perspective on your problems. But it’s up to you to reach out to them and admit your vulnerability — that’s what they’re there for, after all.

But it works both ways — if I see a car cut someone off, I’m less likely to respect that same car’s blinker (grace is sometimes hard to come by at 7:30 AM). If you aren’t generous with your time and your wisdom, you shouldn’t expect the same from your personal network. Regardless of your religion, karma is a thing.

The hard part is asking 🙂 Whenever I’m networking, I always be sure to ask two questions towards the end of the conversation:

  • What are you trying to accomplish right now?
  • How can I help?

By inviting my friend to be a bit vulnerable, and by demonstrating generosity with my own experience and perspective, I can set things up in a way that allows me to ask for help.

A slight aside: there’s a psychological effect called the Norm of Reciprocity at play here, it’s worth checking out. If you proactively offer help, it primes your conversation partner to do the same.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach:

Since starting a new role at a larger company (read: not a startup), I’ve had a lot of success getting my team to execute shorter-term (2-4 week) assignments. I’ve had less success getting larger, cross-functional stuff moved forward. One project, in particular, really bothers me — we had the right idea at the right time, we just couldn’t execute. We missed our window, and that was all on me. This is what I’m working on this year — scaling execution and ownership.

I’d love any advice you have, or book recommendations.