Departments vs. Project Teams

Structure should begin with motivation. Not the other way around.

I recently wrote about the challenges a start-up company faces when it grows into a mature, medium sized business. Yet there’s one topic of debate within the company I work for that particularly frustrates me: Structure.

How an organization coordinates its activities and organizes itself sounds like a horribly mundane topic. It is. But that’s not why it’s frustrating. The biases for and against certain ideas, principles or frameworks are what drive me bat-shit crazy because they often get in the way of making actual improvements. Or they just make things worse. Either way, it’s a major problem when performing any work begins with structure. And since I manage a group of people that depends on almost everyone else in the company to get shit done, structure really, really matters to me personally.

Even after a year of trying to evolve the company structure into something that supports our growing organization more effectively, we don’t talk much about specific processes or workflows. We still argue mostly about the differences between departments and project teams, and how they can best serve an organization like ours. It’s like we’re stuck in an existential loop talking about David and Goliath. To summarize the popular beliefs expressed in these countless discussions: Departments are inherently bad, and project teams are inherently good. Therefore, we must minimize the importance of departments and focus on making project teams succeed. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, project teams will replace departments altogether and our utopian dream of the ultimate workplace will finally be realized.

Although I understand the sentiment, I vehemently disagree with that assessment.

Some background

In the early days at eyeo there was no structure — just a dozen or so people doing the work of 50. Departments and teams weren’t necessary, and would only have consisted of single individuals anyway. But by the time we were 50 people, de-facto departments had already begun to emerge as a byproduct of natural self-organization. At around 80 people, those departments were determining processes and workflows that defined our culture and how we worked. As a result, we had suddenly become a big, slow beast that was easily paralyzed by major decisions. That’s not a good thing when opportunities are scarce and competition is abundant.

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Illustration 1: Departments – In the beginning there were just departments, some of which were explicit, others implicit. Projects were always ad-hoc, and work was driven primarily by the executives.

Thus we set up a task force to analyze the current structure and operational patterns. Our mandate was to come up with a better way of organizing ourselves and working together under increasing external pressures. Our goals were to improve efficiency and increase speed overall, while preserving the fundamental values that make eyeo a unique, fulfilling place to work. In other words, a small group of people were tasked with engineering a solution to a huge, complex problem that would affect everyone in the company. (No pressure!)

The real problem, many believed, were the departments themselves. Departments — especially traditional ones — are typically large, include only certain types of people, and represent the most basic, obvious way to organize a bunch of people. They are the opposite of “agile”. They often establish self-serving processes that get in the way of everyone else. And, worst of all, they are by nature exclusive (which, ironically, automatically makes them mutually dependent on one another). When thought of in these terms, departments are like giant ships on a canal that need a long time and lots of space to properly coordinate so that they’re all going in the same direction… And if just one ship wrecks, the whole fleet can go down with it. That’s a lot of risk, and tremendous overhead, to manage.

The solution, the same “many” believed, were project teams. Smaller units of people that worked on a particular thing until that thing got done were easier to manage and maintain. They could focus like a laser on limited, specific goals. They wouldn’t be so dependent on other teams if every role required was already a dedicated resource. Most importantly, they would be free to work however they wanted if they didn’t have to worry so much about external processes.

By creating project teams that could get day-to-day work done more quickly and independently, departments would then only be responsible for two things:

  • Hiring the right people
  • Keeping those people happy

Everyone would still have a “meta-group” they could identify with on a general level, but their contribution would have a more direct, immediate impact on project teams.

It all sounded really good at the time, even to me.

What happened?

Early on we decided that all project teams should share some characteristics. For example, every team should be:

  • Small (no more than 2 pizzas should feed an entire team)
  • Autonomous (there should be few, if any, external dependencies)
  • Self-organizing (teams should decide what they work on and how they get work done)
  • Cross-functional (teams should include roles from across departments and include a variety of specialized roles)
  • Flexible (most teams will have people that are dedicated all the time, and members who contribute only when needed)

Based on this criteria, our knowledge of all existing work streams at the time, and months of extensive interviews with individual employees, we proceeded to carve up the company into over 30 individual project teams (with no more than 12 people each) in addition to the 9 departments we had explicitly identified. Then we rolled out the new structure to the organization with an announcement and corresponding manifesto. We had kickoffs with each team, and gave some general guidance. By the summertime, everyone was supposed to be working within their project teams in earnest.

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Illustration 2: Departments & Project Teams – We kept the departments in place, but made them all explicit. Then we added project teams to drive all the work. People from each department are either dedicated members, or occasional contributors. How work gets done is determined by the individual project teams.

So we were really surprised when things didn’t go very well. Sure, we thought, some tweaks and coaching would be necessary. But with time, we anticipated that project teams would naturally replace traditional departments and workflows, resulting in efficiency and increased “velocity”. In actual application, though, many teams were confused about what they were supposed to actually do and/or failed to make much progress on anything substantial. A few did in fact work great out of the box, but that was mostly because they were working like that before any teams were formally announced. For the most part, the majority of teams struggled to function as intended, and couldn’t resolve their issues on their own. Even after 6 months of trying, it’s obvious that something isn’t “clicking”.

As a consequence, departments have since become even more entrenched than they were to begin with. This should not have been surprising. When goals aren’t clear, processes are undefined, and help is hard to come by, people often retreat to the one group they can relate to, rely on, and get help from: their peers. And where do all their immediate peers “live” in a professional environment? Departments.

Now the debate between between departments versus project teams has resurfaced. Only this time we can’t just hope that departments will eventually go away. We have to face entrenched issues that are not easily solved by a reorganization exercise.

What was the perceived problem?

After copious reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that we didn’t understand the actual problem we were trying to solve, and then prescribed solutions based on ideology.

We thought the problem was the structure itself. The original structure was getting in our way and slowing us down. Thus, we assumed that by arranging the parts differently, people would start to work more efficiently/effectively naturally. We approached the whole situation like a mechanic approaches tuning a car. Replace all the slow parts with lighter, faster, more powerful ones. Boom. Now you’ve got a track vehicle. Just get in and drive.

But organizations aren’t inanimate objects made up of parts. They’re living, breathing organisms made up of complex, fickle humans. You can’t just arrange them a certain way and expect better results. In the case of a company, structure is a function of its humanity, not the variable that defines it. You first have to deal with the things that make humans human. Otherwise you just end up making everyone miserable.

And that’s where we failed.

What was the actual problem?

It wasn’t until after things started going pear shaped that I remember a course I once took in psychology (shortly before dropping out of college). I had learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Whether wholly or partially true for every person, I always thought it was a simple way to figure out what drives people.

I fully believe that at the most basic level, our personalities, activities, and personal choices are all driven by one thing: Motivation. We’re not humans because we have big brains and opposable thumbs. We’re humans because of our innate, internal desires. Everything else is an outward expression of those desires. Maslow simply arranged them into a pyramid according to relative priority.

Considering that every employee at our company has their basic needs met, and a safe place to live (presumably), belonging within the company in general is thus the basis we should start from in terms of structure. We all want to belong. It’s the foundational requirement for a happy, healthy, productive company culture. Until we truly believe we belong, however, we’ll always be seeking to prove ourselves as worthy, or find ways to avoid rejection. Neither of these motivations serve a company very well in the long run, since they are essentially self-preservation instead of the long-term success of the organization.

Only once we feel like we belong can we start being our true selves. This is the basis for Maslow’s fourth layer of the pyramid: Esteem. Having “self esteem” is another way of saying that we recognize our value or contribution to something bigger than ourselves. It’s achieved only through applied, consistent actions that yield demonstrable success. We gain self-esteem from positive experiences, and garner the esteem of others by being reliable and trustworthy.

The very top of the pyramid, self actualization, is something much deeper and more complex. If all our other needs are met, we believe that we belong and that our work makes a difference, then our motivations start to become a lot less about us fitting in and more about our long-term purpose. Or, to put it another way, that’s when we start caring about our legacy. Who we really are, as individuals, matters most when there are no other external deficiencies to drive our motivations. Then we can ask ourselves, “when I’ve done and said all that I can, what actual value will remain?”

Bringing it all back to the discussion of company organization, departments, and project teams, the problems we faced were never really about structure. They were about motivation. People want to feel like they belonged and make a difference, not an org chart and manifesto. They want to be able to trust their coworkers and be trusted in return, not enforce trust through specific process and procedures. Above all, they want to know that they’re truly valuable.

In prescribing a solution based on ideological principles, we ignored the human motivations any good structure should actually support and focused too much on logic and “measurable results”.

What were the lessons learned?

Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to how things worked out in reality, I now see the requirements we came up with for project teams in a different light.

Absolute size doesn’t matter

The requirement that all teams should be small was purely arbitrary, and stemmed from an ideological point of view that “smaller is always better”. However, the “right size” for any group of people trying to get something done is entirely relative. If we’re talking about a collection of close friends who are trying to arrange a dinner party, then sure, there’s an absolute maximum number. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about professionals who are trying to build software products. Sometimes it takes a lot of people to accomplish just one thing. And that should be okay. By forcing a requirement to keep teams small, we ended up with too many small teams who can’t get shit done by themselves.

At the end of the day, what actually matters is not size, but a common purpose… which is all about belonging.

Autonomy is relative

The biggest problem we recognized with the old structure was the labyrinth of dependencies needed to ship something. Somebody owned the goal or vision. Others owned the visual design, content, or user experience. Someone had to build it, yet another had make sure it was built correctly, and still another person had to develop the communications plan. So how do you assemble all those necessary parts into a small team that doesn’t rely on other people or teams to deliver results? (The answer: You can’t — at least not all the time.)

Dependencies are not in themselves a “problem”. The real issue is whether or not the dependent parties trust one another, and value one another’s contribution… which is all about esteem.

Self-organization is a soft principle without a hard application

Okay, so as a project team you are expected to define how you will work together, what tools you’ll use, and the priorities of things you want to work on. But how do you know if your workflow will work for everyone else in the company? Will your processes or infrastructure be compatible with those from other teams? Are your priorities aligned with the company’s larger goals or other important projects you’re not responsible for? What if you have a big disagreement and nobody is the obvious decision-maker? Suddenly “self-organizing” seems like a fragile principle that falls apart the moment you apply it.

But so what? Most people don’t really want to make all their own decisions, even if they could. (And those who do/can rarely make the best decisions all the time). Rather, they just need to know if they’re making the right decisions, in the right context, and have the full support of the rest of the organization. In retrospect, the problem we were trying to fix had nothing to do with raw power or explicit authority, but had everything to do with a sense of belonging and shared esteem.

Cross-functionality in not a problem that needs to be solved

It’s almost weird to include cross-functionality as a requirement. Of course any team performing complex work will include various specialists. If you want to build and launch a massive product update, you’ll need designers, developers, content and translation managers, quality assurance people, legal experts, and marketing/communication folks (at a minimum). Specifying that a bunch of different roles should be a part of any project team is therefore not helping anything. It’s stating the obvious.

What isn’t obvious, however, is how to ensure all those cross-functional people work on the right things, recognize when to bring in other contributors to achieve success, or ultimately reach their full potential. Only the self-actualized team can do all those things successfully.

Flexibility is an illusion

Our original thinking was that there would be a bunch of people who would be dedicated to ongoing project work, while a few others would only contribute as needed. Our intention was make sure each team had enough resources to perform their work without hogging all the resources (especially in cases when only a few people contributed to a bunch of different project teams, like content creators). In practice, however, dedicated members were always waiting on those ad-hoc resources to get shit done. And the ad-hoc resources never knew exactly what was going on and/or were rarely included in important decisions. Basically, we learned that there isn’t such a thing as an “occasional contributor”. Everyone should be considered a dedicated resource.

Why is this important? Because the most basic need a employee has is to belong. If they’re temporary, or only needed once in a while, then they aren’t actually a part of the core team… so they don’t belong. And if they’re not included in important decisions, or invited to recurring meetings, their self esteem erodes while their value to the rest of the team is questioned.

As for departments…

Departments have a bad reputation because they can often be bloated, slow, procedural, and bureaucratic. Yet the one hugely important characteristic they all share is that departments are permanent. Permanent things are stable things. And when humans get frustrated or feel insecure they tend to seek refuge in the most stable things they can find. So, on a primal level, departments are “entrenched” within our professional psyche because they are stable, and therefore predictable. Stability and predictability are foundational to one’s sense of belonging.

This is in direct opposition to the idea of project teams. Projects are temporary because they have a clear end. A team that does nothing but temporary work may feel a sense of accomplishment, but not necessarily a sense of belonging and meaning. For example, let’s say that there are 3 teams dedicated to a major product, but then the company decides that the product is no longer worth the investment. What happens to all the people who were on those project teams? They will all have to be absorbed somehow, or else fired. Neither outcome is especially appealing to somebody who just wants to know they have a permanent role in a company that values them.

And by the way, when defined and managed correctly, departments have far more value than just hiring and keeping people. For many folks, they are like an extended family who depends on one another for advice, comfort, and validation.

What’s the solution?

To be honest, I have few concrete solutions. What I do have is a deep sense that our current solution was fundamentally flawed to begin with. We should have first started with the motivations that drive people at our particular company, and then defined structures that supported those motivations while facilitating the collaboration necessary to produce consistent, meaningful outcomes. Some work is temporary. Some of it’s never-ending. But the people who do the work should always be regarded as permanent assets.

If I were to go back in time, and had total control over how the task force approached our mandate, I would start by redefining the permanent structures of the company according to shared motivations. Leaving aside the negative connotations, I’m perfectly comfortable calling these permanent structures “departments”. What I care more about is how departments are defined so that they cultivate a sense of belonging. A few ways come to mind:

  • by areas of expertise (product, development, legal, etc.)
  • by strategic focus (communications, delivery, operations, etc.)
  • by product platforms (desktop, mobile, services, websites, etc.)
  • or by geographic locations (Cologne, Berlin, North America, etc.)

Any way would have advantages or disadvantages. The important thing is that the majority of people genuinely feel they belong in their department.

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Illustration 3: Departments & Functional Teams – Maybe a better approach would be to establish departments according to product platform, and then form teams based on functional roles. All work would be driven by the departments, but teams of like-minded people would determine how work gets done for each individual work-stream within a given project. Projects and products can come and go, yet everyone would still have clear goals and a permanent place where they “belong” since the platforms and functional roles would never change.

Then I’d figure out a way to facilitate both short-term and long-term work within those departments. Again, I would start with some basic motivations. Any work a dedicated group of people perform can be a few things:

  • transparent
  • fast
  • effective

Now pick two. No, seriously.

A very transparent department can be a highly effective one as well… but transparency is overhead, and so everything will take longer. Or else a department can be extremely fast and effective… but decisions will have to be made by a limited number with minimal debate (or documentation). A department can even be transparent and fast… but they’ll likely never go very “deep” when solving problems, and therefore will be less effective. Which might be okay if you can make small, iterative improvements that makes a big difference over time.

The real question is: Which of those two attributes do you value most? Only then can you possibly derive the best processes, platforms, and protocols to reinforce those values. Also keep in mind that the two most appropriate attributes might be different for each department.

Conclusion

To summarize, a company’s structure and its processes are extremely complex issues. When defined and implemented well, people will feel like they belong and can make a difference. When defined or implemented poorly, people will become unmotivated and unhappy. So, start with what motivates your people. Until you truly understand those motivations, any structure or process is going to feel arbitrary and prove ineffective.

What the EFF Doesn’t Understand

A few choice words for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

This post is personal, and from the perspective of somebody who works at a company that was mentioned in the news. The views stated here are my own and do not represent the official views of company. Any inaccuracies are unintentional and my fault alone.

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The company I work for, eyeo GmbH, recently released a version of Adblock Plus for Firefox on desktop. The update includes a new Settings Page which provides a variety of options that users can enable or disable with a single click. One of those options, Acceptable Ads, is on by default, and includes a new feature allowing users to opt-out of Acceptable Ads with tracking, specifically.

In response, the EFF wrote a couple of articles that were aimed squarely at eyeo, Adblock Plus, and this particular attribute of the product. One article is a critique of the new update, including their particular issues with our product itself, our policies, and the company in general. The other article provides step-by-step instructions for disabling Acceptable Ads with third-party tracking.

The TL;DR version of both articles boils down to the following:

  • The old product was flawed
  • With the new product, users are still exposed to security and privacy risks
  • Acceptable Ads should be an opt-in feature, not opt-out
  • Acceptable Ads without tracking should be enabled by default for users that have tracking protection enabled
  • Because eyeo is a commercial entity, its motives, business practices, and criteria for Acceptable Ads are suspect
  • Acceptable Ads are just a shady scheme to make more money anyway
  • By the way, here is some advice for fixing all these various problems…

As an outsider reading those articles, I would probably think that eyeo is a shitty, evil, greedy company. Thank goodness the EFF came to the rescue on behalf of users everywhere and sounded the alarm!

But I’m not an outsider. I’m very much an insider. Which is why I wanted to share my own assessment of the situation.

Context is everything

What those articles omitted was that eyeo attempted to collaborate with the EFF on the new Settings Page way before it was ever released. It began a long time ago with an email from them pointing out a particular conflict regarding tracking protection and Acceptable Ads. I personally set up a few of our initial meetings to discuss their issues and to share with them our plans for the next release — including the new Settings Page. We then responded to their feedback as much as we could at that time, and showed them our revisions. They still did not approve, and weren’t especially interested in further involvement.

We even invited them to join the Acceptable Ads Committee, which is a completely independent, non-profit organization that represents users, publishers, advertisers, technology companies, and user rights advocates who are entirely responsible for the Acceptable Ads criteria. In fact, we thought the EFF was the perfect organization to advocate for user rights online, and knew full well that privacy was of utmost importance to them. By having a seat on the Acceptable Ads Committee, they would have had an opportunity to evangelize important issues with the very people who matter most to the future of advertising on the web. Unfortunately, they declined.

Then, suddenly after we launch the new ABP and Settings Page for Firefox, the EFF shares their opinion with the world — quite starkly, and with heaping mounds of moral superiority.

My theory: They couldn’t get their way, on their terms, or according to their preferred schedule. So instead the EFF decided to pressure eyeo into doing what they want by making us a public spectacle (and maybe even instigate a user boycott in the process to make it really sting).

Regardless of their intentions, the EFF is of course free to make any critique they want of us, or anyone else. We always have, and always will, applaud their commitment to user rights online and dedication to privacy, security, and better business practice issues. I don’t fault them expressing their views. But I do take issue with the implications they made in doing so.

History is everything

About those Acceptable Ads...

Before Adblock Plus and other ad blockers existed, there was basically one way publishers could earn money for the content they produced: advertising. More importantly, completely new industries were built around the technologies that delivered those ads automagically, in real time, and without human intervention. When Adblock Plus and others started getting really popular, therefore, publishers were getting hammered, and they had absolutely no control over the situation.

That’s precisely the reason why the founders of eyeo created “Acceptable Ads” in the first place: so publishers could still earn revenue for the free content they provide to users who have an ad blocker installed. Most users didn’t seem to mind seeing some simple, nonintrusive ads (if they noticed at all). It was a good, albeit small step forward for the web publishing industry that allowed users to continue consuming content for free. Over time, the company has gone to extraordinary lengths to create fair, user-centered standards that publishers and advertisers can implement easily on their websites.

Still, eyeo has always gotten a lot of flak for Acceptable Ads, whether it’s about our motives, our policies, the money we earn, or the Acceptable Ads Committee. Still, after years of calling us dirty names, the IAB eventually teamed up with industry giants to form the Better Ads Coalition. And now, the entire online publishing and advertising community is suddenly concerned and very serious about ad quality. Dare I say that Acceptable Ads have instead had an overall positive effect on the entire web, even if they are far from perfect?

About that Acceptable Ads Committee…

The original criteria were indeed determined by eyeo, but based on actual user research. Once we began offering a whitelisting service to partners, we quickly realized that credibility and fairness were of chief concern to everyone. The Acceptable Ads Committee was therefore formed earlier this year to take over all responsibility for the criteria as an independent body of representatives from across the web community. eyeo no longer has any say, and doesn’t even have a seat on the committee.

The EFF could have had a seat at the table. They turned it down. And now they question Acceptable Ads on principle. But wouldn’t users have benefited more from EFF’s influence on a committee made up of important/influential people, than from a scary blog post about eyeo? Just sayin’.

About the new option on the Settings Page…

Once we learned about the issues EFF had with the original implementation of Acceptable Ads and its conflict with tracking protection, we immediately started working on solving the issue. We had a number of challenges and limitations to deal with. For one, we wanted to make it clear to users what Acceptable Ads are, and what their options were on Adblock Plus. We also had to respect our partners, who rely on Acceptable Ads to generate revenue for the free content they publish. If we made Acceptable Ads an opt-in feature, many users would never try the product with Acceptable Ads enabled in the first place, and thus would deprive publishers even more revenue. By making it an opt-out feature, publishers stand a better chance at earning money through noninvasive ads while still giving users the choice to participate. Furthermore, ads without any tracking are less relevant and therefore less effective, which means fewer users will respond. And if users aren’t clicking ads because they aren’t relevant, advertisers aren’t making any money… which means publishers aren’t making any money… which means the whole notion of “free” content is in peril. Again. That’s why Acceptable Ads without tracking are a secondary option.

Is our solution perfect? Absolutely not. Would I personally rather that Acceptable Ads were an opt-in feature on Adblock Plus? Absolutely. Would I prefer that online advertising didn’t require tracking to work effectively? Most definitely. Maybe one day those things will be true. But the world we live and work in is complex and imperfect. Gigantic problems like improving the online advertising industry take a really long time to solve, and require a lot of hard work along the way. Our primary goal with this latest update was to at least make the options explicit, and to make it as easy as possible to configure the product without have a huge, negative impact on the publishers who make the web a place worth visiting. On that metric, the new Settings Page is a huge improvement.

The Settings Page will continue to evolve over time, and we’re committed to making it better, more transparent, and more fair. However, it will require willingness and cooperation with the very publishers and advertisers who are critical to keeping content on the web free for everyone.

About the company…

Yes, eyeo is a for-profit, commercial enterprise. We charge partners with massive volumes a fee for participating in Acceptable Ads. And I, personally, make absolutely no apology for it.

Our core mission is to provide users more choices over the content they consume on the web, while offering publishers and advertisers ways to fund the content they provide. We can do that most effectively, and on a scale that matters, by being a company.

The web economy is just like any other capitalistic system: money matters. If we were to become a non-profit that developed nothing but pure ad blockers with every privacy feature imaginable built in, we would gain loads of credibility with users and organizations like the EFF… but such products don’t generate large user bases, and without a substantial user base we would have very limited relevance with companies and industry leaders. As a non-profit, we would have a limited number of supporters, and equally limited influence on the industry as a whole. But as a company that serves users and partners in major markets or industries — with real money and longterm sustainability of huge businesses at stake — we’re in the best possible position to influence all the players at once, and in a positive way.

Also, nearly all of the money eyeo makes is invested back into the company. Just six years ago, eyeo was a 3-person startup without an office or even chairs to sit in. Today, the company employs 112 people worldwide, and offers a suite of products that collectively offer users, publishers, and advertisers a better experience online. eyeo also has two offices to facilitate all the work that happens, outfitted with all the equipment and systems needed to collaborate and communicate. Meanwhile, we’ve managed to become profitable and sustainable. I’m super proud of all these facts.

Finally, about all the people who work at eyeo. We’re mostly a bunch of nerds who care about the internet. We were founded on open-source principles. Privacy and security are so central to everything we do that sometimes it feels like we get nothing done. We barely know anything about our users, and any data we collect is only with their explicit permission. We even fight over whether or not our internal processes are transparent enough (let alone our external ones). In other words, we care deeply and passionately about everything we do, and strive to build the best possible product solutions for all stakeholders (not just one group in particular).

In conclusion, I fail to see how being a for-profit company somehow makes us untrustworthy or corrupt by default in any way. Our actions will determine that. And so far, I see a company that’s in it for the long game, and genuinely wants to make a positive difference.

So when the EFF claims to see “dark patterns” in eyeo or its practices, I call “bullshit”.

Values are everything…

At the end of the day, the only big difference between the EFF and eyeo is our ideology. Our values, however, are essentially the same. We believe in an open web that’s free and fair to all. We think existential threats to privacy and security must be addressed. Whenever we show up to court, we frame our arguments in terms of user rights, and in doing so have won major victories that protected those rights for users in Germany and other European Union nations. Above all, we believe in truth, transparency, and accountability. So instead of pressuring us to comply with their point of view, I would rather they continue to work with us, and others like us, in a more positive way.

Until then, I can only hope the EFF doesn’t give up any more opportunities to contribute directly to the sustainability of the web in the name of “principles” or reluctance to work with “evil” companies. That approach is the opposite of effective or positive.

At eyeo, that’s what we want to be most of all: Effective and for the greater good. This is what the EFF doesn’t seem to understand.

Mo’ People, Mo’ Problems

Growing a small company into a medium-sized company is a lot harder than it sounds.

Over my career I’ve worked at both small companies (with less than 50 people in a single office), and huge companies (with multiple offices and more than 10,000 people worldwide). Both have their pros and cons, as well as their particular frustrations. But before starting at eyeo, I had never worked at a company making the transition from small, intimate start-up, to a grownup, medium-sized business. When I first joined in February of 2016, we were just 40 people. Today, there are 112 of us. That’s nearly 3x growth in less than 2 years.

Now I know first hand just how painful such a transition can be. Recently I’ve been reflecting on my recent experience to unearth lessons worth remembering. Here are some things that stand out.

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With 40 people, direct, organic communication is critical. With 100 or more, direct, organic communication is problematic.

The most striking change I’ve noticed over the last two years is how people communicate. In the beginning, everyone knew everyone else and who was working on what. Individuals could operate mostly in seclusion. Every employee had regular check-ins with the CEO or CTO. All of us could easily fit into one big room each week to talk about our projects. If something wasn’t working, it was obvious who needed to get involved. In this environment, communication was mostly between individual people on an as-needed basis.

But as we grew, organic communication began to break down. More people meant more complexity and variety, making it more difficult to know who was responsible for what. And after a certain number, large groups naturally split into smaller sub-groups. These groups naturally introduced even more dependencies and increased complexity. At some point, direct communication became the least effective way of getting shit done.

In response to these issues, we defined departments and project teams, retooled (or created) processes, and even retooled our tools. The entire company was essentially rearchitected in a matter of months, and we’re just now learning whether or not these changes actually make things better (or worse). However, a few things have become clear already.

  1. Communication works best when it’s intentional, inclusive, and consistent. It doesn’t work so well when people neglect/ignore processes or other stakeholders.
  2. Good processes facilitate communication and lead to a final result. Bad processes cause communication breakdowns and lead to endless debate, which results in inaction.
  3. The more people involved, how you communicate matters just as much as (if not more than) what you’re trying to communicate.

We’re still learning how to facilitate collaboration between different people and teams and departments. Change is sometimes very difficult, slow, and/or painful. But coming up with potential solutions, testing them, and applying the learnings is the only sure way to improve.

Culture is something that naturally develops own its own. A culture that attracts and retains talent is something you must cultivate.

A culture initially forms whenever there are 3 or more people, and is mostly self-sustaining up to about 50 people. In a company, the founders and first-hires define their core values as a natural byproduct of working closely together on a lot of different things. Closeness and common cause translate quickly into the “way” things are done.

eyeo is no exception. When it was founded in 2011, the company had one product, no real competition, and a rapidly growing user base. Anyone who worked at the company in the early days had get involved in a lot of different projects outside the scope of their core competencies. They sat together in a cramped office for long hours, made decisions as a group, and relied on their instincts. They were passionate about open source development, user privacy, and technical excellence. Success or failure meant the difference between keeping the lights on for another month, or hunting for a new job. Thus, the culture that emerged was felt intimately by everyone, simply because they did everything together and shared the same, basic values. This culture continued to extend and evolve as more people with more skills were added. Even when I joined as employee number 39, the there was still a distinct, cohesive identity.

But then something started to happen around 60-80 people. More newbies questioning how things work or why they are the way they are invariably put pressure on the incumbent culture. Values that were once self-evident were forgotten or challenged, or else they became major pain points that got in the way of delivering results.

For example, one of the foundational values inherent in the initial eyeo culture was self-determination and a flat hierarchy. When you don’t have enough people to work on all the things well, everybody works on everything until it’s good enough. As long as shit gets done, nobody is going to question your authority, methodology, or decision-making process. So, it’s easy to just “take control” of something. When there are multiple specialists working on multiple projects, however, and those projects are dependent on lot of other people, “ownership” gets real fuzzy real fast. Authority, methodology, and decision-making gets questioned more and more often. Our self-determination and flat hierarchy eventually became a constant hindrance, to the point where things weren’t getting done because nobody knew (or agreed on) who was in charge to begin with. Today, we’re working through these issues and are making progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Another implicit, original value was user privacy. Our primary product was so “privacy-centric” that we didn’t know anything about our users. In fact, we were really proud of this lack of information. After all, there can be no privacy issues if no user data is collected in the first place. Yet this quickly became an issue right around the time I joined the company. As a product manager, how was I supposed to propose new features, improve the core user experience, or measure the effectiveness of any particular solution? How was I going to evolve our products into things that served all users, and not just the “techie” crowd? Now we have 4 product managers, 4 designers, and a bunch of marketing and communications folks. Suddenly, not knowing anything about our users on principle has become a liability. As a result, we’re constantly challenging the idea that “no data is a good thing”, and are working to find ways to collect the data we need to make product decisions in a way the protects our users’ identities.

That core culture is still a part of us today, but we’re trying to find a better balance between idealism and pragmatism. Time will only tell how successful we are. So far I’ve learned that:

  1. A culture that continues to define itself by accident eventually becomes unhealthy.
  2. The values that attract new employees are sometimes very different than those that retain existing talent.
  3. Ideals are implicit only until they’re challenged; whereas values are challenged only when they’re not properly defined.
  4. In the beginning, the most important duty of the executive team is to hire the right people. Once the company has grown beyond their capacity to manage every single person, then their primary duty is to define and cultivate the right culture.

I suspect that cultivating the ideal culture will continue to be our biggest challenge in the coming years.

As you grow, “us” vs. “them” will mean different things.

With a few dozen or less individuals, everyone at a company thinks of themselves as part of “us” vs. a larger competitor, industry, or system (“them” in the abstract). When everyone knows and works with one another personally, everyone’s ass is on the line. If one person fucks something up, the whole ship can come down. Conversely, when any one person succeeds, that sense of success is shared by all so that it’s always really the entire company that’s winning.

This was true of the company I work for now as well. Whenever our user numbers spiked or we won a legal battle, everyone felt like they directly or indirectly contributed to each success. If there were any internal struggles, they were almost always between individual people. And when we were getting pummeled in the press, it stung the whole organization, not just the guy in charge of public relations.

Then we started to grow from a few dozen individuals to a complex organization comprised of departments, project teams, and management layers. As more people were added, the fewer “originals” there were to share a sense of collective identify with. Instead, people began identifying with smaller groups within the larger group, be it their department or project team. These subgroups started thinking of themselves as “us” vs. other subgroups (“them” in local terms).

Consequently, problems were mostly felt as a struggle between subgroups, and less like existential threats to the whole organization. If something wasn’t working, it was no longer because Competitor A was outsmarting us—it was because Department Y couldn’t get its shit together. Tensions that mounted between individuals quickly metastasized into ongoing skirmishes between departments or teams, eventually becoming a full blown “problem” that was slowing us down.

Through these challenges I’ve discovered that the “us” vs. “them” mentality boils down to several things:

  1. Just as one cannot un-break a coffee mug, neither can a growing company un-change.
  2. Any change is stressful, and under stress individuals will invariably gravitate to whatever affirms their core sense of identity, including the people who are most like them.
  3. Unless a company actively nurtures a shared sense of identity, specific subgroups, such as departments or teams, become a proxy for “others like me”.
  4. In either success or failure, therefore, individuals within a large organization will feel it locally (within their subgroup), rather than collectively (as a company).
  5. If left unaddressed, a company can quickly become a victim of localized “us” vs. “them” mentality.

We’ve been tackling this issue by opening up dialogues between groups and executive leadership, holding forums to allow people to discuss topics that are important to them with other from across the company, and becoming more rigorous with our processes. There’s still a lot of work to do, but already I’ve seen the barriers between “us” and “them” start to dissolve. Although tensions remain, we’re slowly learning how to think like one, single organism again (even though a particular department or project team may only represent one, single leg of that organism).

In conclusion: Growth is painful. Steele yourself for the challenge.

There are a million other things that change as a company grows. Almost all of them are impossible to predict or effectively plan for ahead of time. The most important lesson I’ve learned going through this transition myself is that growth can be destructive if it’s not managed well.

Fortunately, the company I work for has been very careful. We came up with a list of roles we desperately needed, but hired no more than necessary. We took our time to find the exact right kind of people, and have always been rigorous in our on boarding practices. We anticipated the need for more structure and processes, and worked hard to propose the right ones to start off with, realizing that anything we instituted might need to be refined, or may not work at all.

The point is that we’re fully aware of how difficult it is to grow in a smart, sustainable way. It’s turning out to be more difficult than we imagined, perhaps, but for as long as we’re willing to test, measure, learn, and adapt, no problem is unsolvable.

Growing an organization may be hard work, but it’s also very satisfying when positive changes take effect. The key is to keep your eyes wide open, and to be fearless when facing new challenges. It’s the only way to stay sane while building for future success.

Going for Distance

Sometimes you need take the long, difficult way on purpose.

Whether you’re just starting out as a professional, or building an already established career, you often have to make hard choices. Maybe you’re currently unemployed, or stuck in a job you loath. Perhaps you’ve plateaued in your current role, title, or salary. Or it could be that you just need a big, hairy challenge to reinvigorate your passion. In any case, you will likely have to choose between the short-term and long-term gains whenever accepting a particular position with a new company.

My last job search, for example, was a peculiar case. I’d gained a lot of experience working across many different industries over the years. I could have sought out a fledgling start-up destined for an IPO. I could have focused instead of building on my strengths and maximizing my salary. Or I could have looked for a stable, safe company that provided more security. Instead, I chose a position I had never held, at a small company in another country no one’s heard of, to do something I had never done before.

So far, it’s been an intense journey, fraught with complex challenges. The product team I was hired to build has grown from 1 person to 12, while the company grew from 39 people to over 110. We’ve updated our core products while releasing a new one. Our company structure and processes have changed dramatically. We even changed the locations of both our offices. Meanwhile, my wife and I moved to Germany to be closer to the action.

Throughout it all, I’ve felt deep frustration, uncertainty, or excitement (occasionally simultaneously), and have experienced so much change in such a short period of time that it already feels like a lifetime. I’ve watched some folks evolve into superstars, while others continuously struggle. I’ve seen our efforts to improve our products receive both praise and immense criticism. I’ve witnessed (or contributed to) both huge wins and epic failures. As a result, the company I started at two years ago is almost unrecognizable. Some days I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Yet it also feels like I’m just getting started.

Who knows if the company will continue to thrive 10 years from now? Who knows if the blood, sweat, and tears will translate into substantially more happy users? Who knows if all my success and failures will add up to better futures for everyone on my team? I certainly don’t. Earlier on in my career, I may have been tempted to jump ship, skip pay levels, and do something far less risky. After all, two years is good run at any company in this industry (or in this economy). But I don’t care about the short term uncertainty and pain. I’m in it for the long-term reward. It’s the most exciting time of my entire career, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the first time ever, it’s hard to imagine myself anywhere else and be just as happy.

So, if you’re deciding between new opportunities in your own career, I encourage you to consider the long road… The difficult road… The road that can lead to many different, unexpected destinations.

It may be worth the extra trouble.

Confessions of a Luddite

OR: The day I started covering my laptop camera with electrical tape.

My relationship with technology has evolved over the years.

When I grew up in the early 80’s, smack in the middle of rural Ohio, “technology” was generally rare. The only place one could even obtain technological devices of any sort was RadioShack. Fortunately for me, my parents were unusually drawn to cool gadgets and had access to numerous credit cards (which RadioShack gladly accepted). So, I happened grow up with a dual top-loading VCR, multiple-CD player, Commodore 64 computer, and dot matrix printer.

Still, back then, tech was mostly occasional entertainment. I played plenty of video games (actual Pac-Man and Centipede), watched movies (mostly campy comedies), or listened to music (which was either Whitney Huston or Footloose, our only 2 CDs). Most of the time, however, I was outside watching tadpoles in the stream behind our house, or experimenting with various art materials in the basement. My only real interests in life were discovering and creating new things.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that technology itself become more important to me than a Walkman or aftermarket car stereo.

+++++

After dropping out of college, where I had been pursing a degree in Fine Arts, it dawned on me there was another way to be creative without being a starving artist: Become a Graphic Designer. After asking my parents to buy me a Mac and some design programs, I taught myself how to type, code HTML websites, and troubleshoot dial-up modems.

By this time we were living in Northern Virginia, a fast emerging hub for technology companies and design agencies to serve them. Within a couple of years, I landed my first real job as a design professional at a small creative shop in Fairfax. There, I continued to learn things, like how to actually design, manage thousands of proprietary fonts, or prepare files for print vendors. Armed with the latest Mac G3 and an enormous 17” monitor, I was responsible for real accounts, real clients, and real money.

While lightyears beyond my childhood experiences, my understanding and appreciation of technology would only grow exponentially from there… mostly because technology itself began to evolve exponentially.

+++++

Nearly a decade later, my career as a pure Visual Designer ended while working for a big creative agency that designed digital technology solutions for clients around the world. By this time, billions of people had access to the web (hundreds of millions of which had access to reliable high-speed internet services), and virtually all of them were already on Facebook. Instead of webpages and brochures, clients cared about scalable web-based services, targeted social media campaigns, immersive digital experiences, and, of course, mobile apps.

Needless to say, tech had come a long way, and I wanted to solve deeper, more interesting problems than just the visual ones. Therefore, I successfully transitioned from a Visual Designer to an Experience Designer before leaving the agency world for “Product”.

Ironically, this was also the inflection point in my relationship with tech, since moving product-side only brought me that much closer what’s actually going on under the world wide hood.

+++++

Nearly four years later, even more has changed. Now I do a variety of things for an open-source web software company based in Germany, including building prototypes, mapping out user journeys, scheduling meetings, and writing functional specifications. My primary work machine is faster than most of my previous laptops combined, and only has a 13” screen. There are no more clients and vendors (just users and stakeholders), and technical implementations are far more important than fancy presentations.

More importantly, the kind of things I worry about today are completely different than those I worried about a decade ago. That’s because I don’t just know more about technology in general, but also about how the web works, specifically, including the vast exchange of user data and programmatic ad buying that powers its economic engines. Considering how the web underpins nearly all of the new technology emerging today, knowing such things evidently changed me.

Because today, I’m not learning about typography, adaptive layouts, or how to design a frictionless credit card payment flow. Instead, I’m learning about a world where virtually everything about us is collected, stored, and shared via API’s every second we spend online. Instead of reading about the latest social media trends or next iPhone, I’m learning how to better protect users data in the products we build. And instead of keeping up with the latest techniques in agile software development, I’m worrying a shit ton about privacy in an increasingly mobile, insecurely networked world.

+++++

15 years ago, I was the artistic kid that grew up into an bonafide design professional — dress pants and all. Whenever somebody showed me new trends (like all-Flash home pages!), I eagerly incorporated them into my designs. Technology was something I avidly consumed, and only sought the newest, latest gadgets to satiate my credit card-financed appetites. The future was bright with possibilities and endless opportunity.

Today, I’m almost a middle aged man who wears hoodies, avoids social media like radioactive waste, and covers his laptop camera with electrical tape. My mobile phone requires fingerprint authentication and runs a VPN at all times. I refuse to buy a new gaming console because they’re capable of recording every word and action, which an AI could analyze to serve me targeted advertising. And I always keep some cash in multiple currencies locked in a safe at home, just in case financial markets ever shut down.

What the fuck happened?

Explosive technological advancement happened, and not all of it positive.

More people have access to advanced technology than at any other time in recorded history, just as technology itself continues to grow exponentially in scale, scope, and complexity. In this hyper-connected world of mega data we’ve created, it’s finally impossible to live in the modern age without the web — and yet we have failed to address its most serious flaws and vulnerabilities, and in the process have completely lost control of all basic individual privacy. Even worse, we’ve given nearly all that control (and valuable user data) to a handful super-powerful American corporations, or to government agencies in the name of “national security”. It seems more than likely that all the data we’ve generated, floating out there in the “cloud” or stored in massive data centers, will one day come back to haunt us.

The very world I have helped create no longer seems so… positive.

+++++

For now, I plod forward. I care less about aesthetics and more about substance, meaning, and core purpose. I do what I can, creating products that make a positive difference in the lives of ordinary people while, hopefully, making the web a better place for everyone. To this day, my overwhelming desire is to discover and create new things — for the benefit of all — and there is no better time to do just that than right now.

But in the end, it’s hard to feel optimistic. I fear the worst case scenario because I understand the potential for real catastrophy. The future isn’t a threat, per se, but it does appear more and more threatening every day. So, as a result, I cover my cameras and stay away from social media.

Maybe I’ll fall in love with technology again one day. Perhaps I’ll be forced to terminate our relationship completely. Until then, I currently prefer to keep our relationship strictly casual.

Mentors Matter

Developing skills and building a career are not the same thing.

Looking back over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how a few people can have more impact on a developing career than any particular role or experience. When I started working as a professional designer, my first boss taught me how to work with clients. The co-founder and creative director at another agency taught me how to think strategically. Then there was my last boss and team VP, who showed us all how to lead in seemingly impossible circumstances. These, and a few precious others, were all my mentors in some form, at a pivotal moment in time.

Here were a few a my favorites…

The kindler

When I applied for my very first design position at Affordable Creative Services, I had a passable portfolio and a lot to prove. For whatever reason, owner Russell Anderson took a chance on me. He was my original, foundational mentor — though I didn’t realize it at the time. A truly amazing teacher, Russell taught me how to field inbound phone calls, run effective client meetings, and manage vendor relationships. He was also a very direct person. Early on, for instance, he told me that I needed to work on my layout and typographical skills (which was painful to hear, but true), and respectfully dressed me down every time I mishandled a client (which was often). But over the course of two years, Russel laid the original foundation I would later build my entire career on.

The igniter

Some time later I landed a graphic design role at Hinge, a small agency with clients throughout Northern Virginia. My boss was cofounder and creative director, Jen Sterling, who is the personification of creativity on tap. With fiery red hair, a contagious laugh, and a mind overflowing with ideas, she was impossible not to like. For the brief time I worked at Hinge, Jen pushed me to explore bigger ideas and new solutions, regardless of how “small” the project or client was. She always encouraged me go further than I thought was possible, no matter how crazy my ideas were, while teaching me how to win over skeptical clients (who, to my constant surprise, tended to go with the best, most creative concepts instead of the cheapest). As a result of Jen’s unfailing enthusiasm, I produced some of the best print work of my career, and fell in love with “winning” through great design.

The accelerator

Unfortunately, business was not growing for Hinge, and my personal life was falling apart. After getting laid off and then moving to Washington DC as a recent divorcé, I scoured the job market for almost three months before finding a position at Greenfield / Belser, a legal marketing and professional services firm near Dupont Circle. My boss there was Burkey Belser, cofounder, president, and creative director. One of the biggest personality I’ve ever encountered, Burkey has supremely high standards and an indomitable spirit. He challenged everybody to try harder, to be better — always and no matter what. Every Friday, for instance, the company got together to hear one of our peers give a presentation about something they were passionate about. Consultants were regularly invited to train folks in new proficiencies. We blogged, shared recommendations for industry-related books, and practiced pitching our work to prospective clients. Meanwhile, nearly all creative work went through dozens of design iterations in search of the perfect message, the perfect visual, or the perfect layout. It was hard work, but I’m more grateful for my time at Greenfield / Belser than at any other place. What Bureky taught me then has only continued to grow in importance and nuance as the years go by.

The flamethrower

After many more years of working at agencies, I eventually went “product side”. At one point I landed at Mozilla on the Content Services team, a fledgling group tasked with monetizing the New Tab on Firefox through targeted, non-invasive advertising. Darren Herman led the team as Vice President before Mozilla dissolved the group 24 months later.(It wasn’t until after joining the team that I realized how antithetical the very idea of advertising was to an organization like Mozilla.) For 18 of those months, he was my boss, mentor, and true friend.

What was so special about Darren, however, wasn’t what he did, but how he did it. Darren didn’t just “manage” people, he connected with everyone on the team — personally and regularly — to discuss their issues, professional goals, and opportunities for growth. He didn’t just “lead” them either. Every decision he or the organization made was communicated to the team early and often (usually with charts, graphs, and financial data), and he invited everyone to participate in the decision-making process whenever possible. More importantly, Darren actively sought to strengthen the culture and values we shared as a team, which gave us a coherent identify we could all be proud of during some very trying times. Working with Darren, and watching him work, prepared me for the job I have now, and because of him I have a clear template for leadership to iterate on.

+++++

For me, having a mentor at crucial moments has made all the difference in the trajectory and quality of my career. Sometimes I didn’t always recognize when I was being “mentored”. Other times I made a conscious effort to learn from a certain individual. The point is that there was somebody import, teaching me important things, all along the way. If it were not for these special people, I would not be the designer —or the person — I am today.

So if, dear reader, you happen to be looking for some inspiration or direction in your career, take my advice:

Make finding a new mentor your priority this year. Your future self will thank your past self.

The mark of a champion is to welcome scrutiny, persevere, perform beyond expectations, and provide an exceptional product – for which forgiveness is not necessary.

– Danny Meyer

Future Family Planning

1.

After two years of testing, interviewing, genetic profiling, and legal hurdling, the official letter of governmental approval finally appeared by drone at Lucy and Ethan’s doorstep. They had been arguing for weeks whether the recent lack of communication was an indication of rejection, or if ‘no news was good news’. Lucy dreaded the worst, while Ethan remained hopeful, knowing that even if they didn’t have perfect DNA, they had money and perfect credit scores.

Both were in the kitchen when their home computer announced the delivery, “Good morning. A secure package from the Office of Human Genetics and Reproduction has arrived for you. A signature is required.” Lucy twirled and raced for the front door as Ethan took a moment to swallow his nutrient capsule and take one last swig of synthetic cappuccino.

Before he could catch up to her, Lucy was hurrying back with the envelope already half open. They stood there in the hallway, holding hands, reading the letter together out loud through tears and laughter. Lucy thumbed the embossed lettering as she read the last sentence proudly:

“From this day forward you are considered Family of the State, and have full reproductive rights and privileges as stated in Article 28.9, Section G, of the Human Genome Purity and Preservation Act.”

When she looked up, Ethan feigned indifference, even though his heart was pounding with excitement.

“See, I told you everything would work out.”

Lucy hugged him around the waist and rested her cheek on his neck. “Oh shut up!” she said, smiling.

Each thought about the future for the first time in months as they held one another in silence. There were no more calls, office visits, or forms to fill out. Every test had been passed, every signature collected. They could fully focus on the one thing they wanted more than anything else: a State Sanctioned Child. One who would be born into a life of privilege and protection, instead of obsolescence and struggle.

After a few minutes, Ethan asked, “So, are you going to make the appointment, or should I?“

2.

Lucy was giggling when the pair exited their hyperloop pod. “Now that was a first class ride!” she cooed as the pod whooshed away.

“Yeah, I’ve never felt leather so velvety soft. The floor-to-ceiling holoscreen was a nice touch too.” Ethan recalled with slight awe.

“Not the mode of transportation, dumbass,” Lucy replied, looking coyly at his undone pants zipper.

“Oh yeah! That was the best part,” he said smiling before taking her hand. “Now let’s go!”

They ran down the platform and followed illuminated arrows along the floor, through the empty receiving terminal, and then to a wide staircase leading upward. Emerging into an immense courtyard, they stopped just outside the entrance, raising flattened hands above their eyebrows to shade against the afternoon sun. Any remaining postcoital euphoria dissolved into vague anxiety.

“Whoa…” they said in unison, somewhat alarmed.

The courtyard itself was a perfect square, about the size of 10 city blocks. Completely uniform Cypress trees lined each side, providing a natural barrier between the complex and rugged terrain beyond. Perfectly trimmed, deep blue-green grass filled the manmade expanse, interrupted only by circuitous walkways leading to a building at the center. The building was also square — a 1,000 by 1,000 foot reflective cube with no visible doors, windows, or any other structural details. As the couple made their way along one of the paths towards the structure, watching their tiny reflections grow from indistinguishable specks into recognizable figures, the effect was both stunning and unsettling.

“Are you sure we’re at the right place?” Ethan asked, realizing neither of them had said anything for several minutes.

“It has to be. They arranged everything. Even transportation to the hyperloop station,” Lucy replied. She looked down at her wrist to confirm the message displayed on a screen imbedded in her skin: You have arrived.

Their pace slowed as they approached the smooth, featureless building, stopping about 25 feet away from the nearest side. Lucy craned her neck upwards. Ethan glanced from side to side. “Is there anybody even here?” he asked, now noticing that they had not yet seen a single person. Before Lucy could respond, a large rectangle directly before them turned opaque black, and then slid away to reveal a tall woman dressed in a white lab coat, pencil skirt and glossy 6 inch heels.

“Hello Mister and Misses Chou!” the woman declared as she approached the tentative couple, hand extended, smiling warmly.

Ethan shook the woman’s hand first, “Hi, yes! I’m Ethan. This is my lovely wife.”

Lucy went next, “Lucianna Chou, but you can call me Lucy.”

“Wonderful! Welcome to the Center for Human Genetics and Biological Development. It’s a pleasure meeting you both. My name is Mary-Anne, and I’ll be your State Family Administrator. Please, join me in the reception lounge,” the woman offered, gesturing with her other hand towards the entrance.

They followed Mary-Anne through the opening and into an empty corridor wrapped in white, semiopaque panels of diffused light. She talked while they walked together towards a black rectangle at the end — presumably another door.

“I hope you found us okay?” Mary-Anne stopped, turned towards the ‘door’, and patiently waited as a small device emerged from the wall beside to scan her retinas.

“Yeah… kind of hard to miss,” Ethan responded, making a quick sideways glance at Lucy.

The rectangle slid away to reveal a spacious room filled with white leather sofas, arm chairs, and low tables. The trio walked towards a white solid marble counter on the right. There were no windows, only soft, glowing panels covering all the walls, ceiling and floors.

“This is the reception lounge.” Mary-Anne stated casually. “Once I get your signed consent to proceed, we’ll sit down together and discuss the itinerary for today. Sound good?”

Lucy and Ethan nodded together as Mary-Anne turned to the counter and tapped the polished, veined surface. A piece of the stone slid away to reveal a digital screen, showing a dark gray “X” and thin line against a blank background.

Turning back to face Ethan, Mary-Anne become very formal. “Ethan, do you grant the State permission to conceive and deliver your offspring into the care of The Family?” she asked, waving towards to screen. “If so, please sign here.”

When Ethan hesitated, Mary-Anne smiled again. “Of course, you will have full Parental Rights to any offspring you procreate. The State simply provides the means for an Immaculate Birth, complete care, and quality upbringing.” Nodding to both, she added, “You two will do all the hard work.” Her eyes became crescent moons above a wide grin.

“Um, ok…” Ethan turn to Lucy, shrugged, and then walked over to the screen and signed with his fingertip.

“Thank you,” The State Administrator said once he was finished. “Lucy?”

Lucy paused for a brief moment. “Let’s do this.”

Mary-Anne recited the required statement and Lucy signed then screen, which immediately turned black and disappeared beneath a marble slab.

“Excellent!” Mary-Anne exclaimed, abruptly walking towards a collection of plush chaise lounges arranged around a translucent table.

Before following, but after Mary-Anne’s back was turned, Lucy punched Ethan in the thigh.

“Your zipper!” she whispered, pointing with playful urgency. Ethan fidgeted at his crotch while the couple made their way to the empty chairs.

Once everyone settled, Mary-Anne continued. “I mean this literally: the hard part is over. Because you’ve already supplied us with ample blood, sperm and ovum, passed all of our tests and screening questions, qualified financially- “ Ethan pumped his fist “-and have now signed the last form, all you have left to do is meet with Doctor Spencer.”

Lucy looked over to Ethan, who had leaned into the white, silky hide and propped his feet up on the ottoman. “Sounds good.”

“She will go through all the options with you, in private.”

Just as Lucy was about to speak, Mary-Anne interjected, “Would either of you like a coffee while you wait?” Standing to straighten her lab coat, she made eye contact first with Lucy, “Cinnamon chai latte, whole milk?” Then to Ethan, “Semi-dry cappuccino, light foam?”

“Fuck yeah!” Ethan blurted. “Sorry, I mean, ‘Yes please!’”

Lucy grinned and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure. You obviously know our vices.”

Mary-Anne spoke over her shoulder, heading for the far corner of the lounge area. “We do our research.” Then, pausing, she faced Lucy and smiled. “It’s my job to notice the little details that make our patients feel most comfortable.”

“Well, thank you. Yes, I’ll take that latte then.”

Tapping the wall to reveal yet another door, Mary-Anne spoke to Ethan. “By the way, every wall in this room is also a holoscreen. Just look in any direction and ask for entertainment options.”

“That’s kind of awesome,” he responded as both Mary-Anne and the door disappeared.

“Also, what is that lovely smell? Lavender?” he asked himself more than Lucy.

“I don’t smell anything. Just clean.”

The translucent table instantly became solid, shiny, and black. An outline of a circle appeared on the tabletop, then slid away as two steaming hot beverages rose from the surface. Each were presented in perfect, porcelain cups – one large and wide for the latte, another tall and narrow for the cappuccino.

Instinctively, but silently, each grabbed their respective drinks and sank bank into their chairs. Meanwhile, the circle slid into its original position and the table became translucent once again. Just then, a portion of the wall just beyond the table turned black for a moment, before white lettering faded into view: ‘How may I entertain you?’

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, closing her eyes. “Now that’s a good latte.”

3.

Dr. Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘office’ was more of a sparse, meticulously appointed penthouse. Each thing displayed evidence of extreme attention to detail. All furniture was made with the finest materials and superior craftsmanship. Every object was arranged just so. The polished, solid marble floors were spotless. Seamless walls pulsed with soft blue and white light, but were otherwise bare. A ceiling constructed of what appeared to be one, contiguous piece of brushed metal finished the space — no edges or light fixtures anywhere. On the far left wall, a giant window overlooked sheer granite hills beyond the courtyard. Dr. Spencer sat with Lucy and Ethan at her enormous, hewn granite desk on the opposite side of the room.

“I’m glad that you’re both excited, because now is the fun part!” The doctor said with a forced smile, hands folded in her lap, sitting upright in a custom task chair, legs crossed at the ankle. She waved a hand at a nearby panel, which immediately showed a detailed diagram featuring a generic newborn baby.

“Think of it this way: we have decoded your entire genome, and we have the ability to form human genes with precise specifications. Therefore, we take the sum total of all possible genetic variables captured in the specimens you provided many months ago, and then create a personalized matrix of those traits, as defined by your specific DNA.”

The doctor gestured to enlarge the diagram, activating more screens as she zoomed in and extruded the image into a holographic, 3-dimensional form.

“So, if Ethan and I could produce a child with hazel eyes, then that would be one such option available to choose from?” Lucy asked.

“Exactly. We have 13 of your eggs, and millions of his sperm. Considering that human DNA consists of roughly 30,000 genes, you actually end up with a lot of choices for customization.” Dr. Spencer waved a hand across the image, filling the wireframe baby with skin, hair, and eye color, while altering each part of the body and face slightly. The new, longer baby was creamy brown, with hazel eyes and a tuft of dark brown hair.

“Do we have to specify every trait?” Ethan asked.

“No. In fact, you don’t actually need to specify any traits at all. Undetermined attributes will be completely randomized, but still based on the genetic profile available. No matter what, in other words, it will be your unique child. Minus all the undesirable genes, of course.” She drew a horizontal circle in the air with her finger, spinning the holographic form like a top, until it eventually rested in its original position. This time the baby was rounder, paler, had brown eyes with epicanthal folds, and a full crown of black hair.

“What if we want something different than what’s in our genes?” Ethan asked.

Flatly, Dr. Spencer replied, “Modifications are extra. But yes, they are indeed possible.”

“We have plenty of money,” Ethan replied half jokingly.

“Yes, well, there are other implications. We can discuss those options if and when they come up,” she countered. “Anyway, the only modification we perform by default is the inclusion of a simple geolocation tracker. That can be upgraded as well.”

Lucy interjected, “Wait, what?”

“If, for example, you wanted your offspring to have hazel eyes, but your DNA did not allow for that possibility, then we can splice alternative genes — developed right here in the lab — into the DNA of the egg and sperm selected for conception, thereby prescribing otherwise impossible hazel eyes.”

“No, the geolocation tracker.” Lucy was perturbed by this.

Dr. Spencer wiped away something invisible from her knee. “Oh that. Yes, well, in order to ensure the safety of any child born into the Family of the State, and to confirm his or her identity at any given moment, anywhere in the world, your offspring will come equipped with a microscopic device that will never degenerate or loose operational capacity. This benefits you as parents, since you’ll always know where your children will be, and can sleep more soundly knowing that the State won’t allow any preventable harm come them – throughout their entire lives! Plus, when they grow into adults, your children will enjoy the privilege of worldwide access available only to members of the Family.”

She paused for effect, then added, “I just returned from a private island off the coast of New Nevada last week.”

Ethan’s eyes grew wide at this. Lucy pursed her lips.

“Although I don’t especially love the idea of a government device being implanted in our baby, I understand why it would be necessary. I also like that we’ll know where our child is at all times,” Lucy concluded.

“Right,” the doctor affirmed. “Now, do either of you have any more questions before we proceed with the Attribute Selection Process?”

They looked at one another briefly, then back to Dr. Spencer. “Just one,” Ethan ventured.

“Yes?” the doctor replied hesitantly while she readjusted the lapels of her lab coat, refolded her hands, and managed another smile.

“What about our kids? Will they be able to reproduce on their own?”

“Oh! That’s an easy one: any child born into the Family will automatically receive privileges to conceive and bare up to 2 offspring, without prior approval, once they turn 25, but so long as they are younger than 39.” The doctor tilled her head to one side, awaiting their responses.

“Sounds fair to me,” Ethan said, nodding his head up and down.

“I guess,” Lucy rulctantly agreed.

“Wonderful!” Dr. Spencer replied, turning again to the displays and made a closed fist. The 3-dimensional baby evaporated as the panels returned to glowing, blue-white light.

“So, shall we get started then?”

4.

Dr. Elizabeth’s personal assistant, Samantha — also wearing an identical skirt, white lab coat, and heels – escorted the nervous couple from the penthouse office to hyperlift pods, which sucked them down to the ground floor in exactly 3 seconds (two of which were spent opening and closing the doors). Lucy and Ethan talked the entire way to the reception lounge.

“Do you think we made the right decisions?” she asked, squeezing his bicep tighter with both of her arms. Her eyes darted back and forth ahead of them, as if searching for something, while Ethan led the way. Just moments ago she was elated, literally bouncing with excitement. This abrupt fluctuation of conflicting emotions deeply unsettled him.

Wanting to assuage both her fears and his own, he answered unequivocally, “Yes I do. Don’t worry about it, my darling. We made every decision together, over the course of 14 long months. Don’t start second-guessing everything now.”

“I don’t know. Before today, I had this particular image in my mind. Now there’s a 3-dimensional holograph in my inbox depicting what she is going to look like… precisely.” Lucy sighed. “I kind of wish we’d just left it all to chance.”

Ethan thought in silence for a moment. “It’s true that there’s a certain appeal to the unknown, the random. But our hazel-eyed, soon-to-be-daughter will still have a personality we don’t yet know about, and a lifetime of experiences to influence who she ultimately becomes.”

He kissed Lucy on the top of her head as Samantha stopped beside the entrance to the lounge, allowing the two to enter by themselves. “There will be plenty of other unknowns to keep things interesting. Besides, we kept her ‘pure’. 100 percent our own DNA. Just a little… remixed.”

Lucy looked up and answered with a little more confidence, “Yeah. I suppose you’re right. The curtains don’t really change the house, after all.”

Ethan looked down, grinning. “Of course I’m right.” Then he pinched his eyebrows together, suddenly frowning. “And I really wish you’d stop mentioning the house. I know we need more space and at least another bathroom.”

The doctor’s assistant called from behind them, “Mary-Anne will join you momentarily.” They both waved from over their shoulders. Before either could say thanks, Samantha disappeared behind a black rectangle.

Standing alone together in the lounge, Ethan then faced Lucy, took her hands in his, and began to speak tenderly, “Hey. Look at me. I love you. Everything is going to be okay, my darling. We should be excited right now, not doubtful or combative.”

Looking him in the eyes, Lucy took a long breath in, “Yes. Excited. I can do that.” She let out her breath all at once, clapped her hands and then laughed. “Ethan! We’re going to have a baby!”

“Yes you are!”

They jerked their heads in the same direction at once, surprised to see Mary-Anne standing beside them.

“A beautiful girl with dad’s looks and mom’s intellect, to be exact,” she said while walking towards them with an extended hand.

“Hey! Yeah. You kinda sneaked up on us there,” Ethan responded as he shook the Mary-Anne’s hand.

“We’re pretty stoked,” Lucy added, wrapping one arm around Ethan’s waist.

“Good! Well, you both have a lot of preparing to do,” Mary-Anne continued. “Thank you again for trusting the Center for Human Genetics and Biological Development with your first child born into the Family. Now let’s get you on your way,” she said while walking towards the exit corridor.

They silently followed the Administrator a few paces behind. Eventually Ethan managed to asked, “So, there’s nothing else we need to do today?”

As they came to the building’s main ‘door’, Mary-Anne stopped to tap the adjacent wall. A black rectangle formed and slid away, revealing the expansive courtyard and Cyrpess trees in the distance. “Nope.” She gestured towards the opening as the pair exited. “That’s it!”

Exiting the building, Ethan and Lucy turned around and began to wave. “Okay then…”

Mary-Anne waved back. “We’ll email you in about 41 weeks, when your baby is ready. Enjoy the remaining 9 months of freedom!” The black rectangle slid back into position and melted away into the building’s mirror facade, reflecting Lucy and Ethan’s astonished faces.

Two Guys and a Worm

[Participant of CGTrader Digital Art Competition]

Without the spice, human beings are captive to the present moment. They cannot sift through collective memories to examine minute details of the past, nor can they follow the threads of multi-knowledge to discover new vectors emanating from a distant future. But limits are sometimes necessary. If I offered them the spice freely, humanity would most certainly self-destruct! Therefore, I – God Emperor Leto Atreides II – use the instruments of religion, government, and military might to guide the nearsighted multitudes along the Golden Path.

And if ridged social constructs or violence cannot bend the masses in the correct direction, there is always targeted advertising.

– The Stolen Journals

Rising nearly 3,000 meters into the desert sky, the Citadel was Lord Leto’s favorite place to think. Being mostly a giant sandworm (but with a human face and atrophied appendages), he craved the dry, coarse sand once abundant on Dune. Green forests and lush fields covered much of the planet’s surface now, and this vast desert was all that remained. Having foreseen the evolution of Dune into Arrakis, Leto commissioned this needle-like tower over 3,500 years ago as a permanent refuge from omnipresent moisture and vegetation. He would ride out from the festival city of Onn on his mind-controlled Ixian cart, through vast tunnels carved deep below the Last Desert of the Sareer, before emerging from a secret passage at the base of the Citadel. He would then retract the wheels and activate suspensors, lifting the worm-man and his cart up to the very top.

After entering the Observation Room through a circular portal in the center, Leto would often peer through its enormous, open windows for many hours without moving. At such a height, one could see massive storms gathering in the distance days before any sand-laden winds blasted the tower’s stone and plasteel exterior. Today, the God Emperor stared out of the southeastern-most window, watching one such faraway tempest fester.

Presently, Leto heard what his prescient mind already knew: an ornithopter carrying his two most trusted advisors had arrived, exactly on schedule. A narrow landing pad extended outward from just below the Observation Room. The vessel approached, deposited its passengers, and then banked away in the direction it had come. After several more seconds, the walls opened inward as Duncan Idaho and Moneo Atreides strode into the Observation Room. They stopped precisely three meters in front of Lord Leto’s cart, as required, and waited for acknowledgment.

Turning from the window, Leto silently appraised each man. Moneo wore a pure white robe over purple leotards, with a large hood pulled back and to one side. Gold embroidery along the cuffs and bottom edges indicated his position within the God Emperor’s court. With trembling hands clasped behind him, Moneo bowed his head to conceal visible exasperation. Meanwhile, the Duncan Idaho ghola was dressed in a nondescript, black uniform – no pins or decoration of any kind – and stood with the calm confidence of a man who had served many lifetimes in military command. His gaze was fixed directly on the youthful face of Lord Leto II.

Finally, the God Emperor spoke. “How was your journey? I presume the latest CHOAM short-range aircraft provided adequate accommodations.”

Moneo looked up at once, his voice quivering. “Yes Lord, thank you! We came as soon as we heard that you had summoned us!” His feigned gratitude was transparent.

“Why, then, are you so shaken, Moneo? Your trembling hands betray you.”

Why does he taunt me thus? Moneo thought. The Lord Leto knows how much I fear heights, and yet he insists on making us stand on that landing strip, waiting for those monolithic doors to open. There aren’t even guardrails! Just a metal rectangle jutting out thousands of meters above the sand…

“I do not taunt you, Moneo, I test you,” the worm-man said.

Damn! Can he read minds as well as see the future? What else has he heard me think?

“You must always know how close you are to death when entering my presence,” Leto continued.

Moneo looked downward, chastened and more afraid than before. The human face of Leto Atreides II – surrounded by a pink fleshy cowl at the end of a hulking sandworm body – was still seared into his memory, as if projected onto the floor.

“Anyway, I did not request your company to discuss ‘thopters or mortality.” Leto did not continue, but twisted instead to face Duncan

Duncan’s tone was firm, bordering on agitation. “Why did you bring us here? I was eating breakfast when your Fish Speakers barged into my quarters demanding that I follow them at your direct order. Either you intend to execute us, or rebels have attacked the city!”

Moneo pulled his robes close around his body and shivered.

The face of Leto smiled. “My Duncan, arrogance drives you to the edge of both death and profound knowledge. I have no desire to kill you. Neither has there been an attack. Yet.”

The ghola recoiled.

Again with the ‘my’ Duncan! Just because I am a version of the original Duncan Idaho, developed in an axlotl tank on IX, does not not mean the worm owns this Idaho…

Nevertheless, the rest of Leto’s statement intrigued Duncan, and he was no longer so defiant. “Yet?”

“While it true that the Empire has avoided open conflict for 243 standard years, it is exactly this quiet that I deeply distrust.”

Duncan pursed his lips in thought, wondering at first why this would require the God Emperor’s immediate attention. Then it occurred to him.

“You suspect a conspiracy?”

“Of sorts,” Leto replied cryptically.

Moneo nearly shouted, afraid now for his Lord’s life. “Lord! We should summon the entire Fish Speaker Guards at once, and dispatch the Death Commandos to the rebel’s hideout!”

The worm-man appeared to heave slightly, as if to sigh. “Moneo, you are always such the planner – and a supreme worrier. It is why I have asked you here.”

Moneo tilted his head. “Lord?”

“Seriously. Please explain, Lord Leto.” Duncan scowled, arms folded across his chest. It was a familiar posture, signaling the commander’s readiness to process data and make important tactical decisions.

The God Emperor slowly navigated his cart towards the window to watch the impending sandstorm engulf the horizon.

“In times of protracted peace, a populace tends to forget that their enemies continue plotting. This in particular does not worry me, since I know all of my enemies by name, and see what they plot in secret.

“However, stasis of any kind – especially peace – allows unrest and alternative social power-structures to develop. Forged by shared ulterior motives, new alliances eventually gain influence, further diminishing the power of he who rules legitimately. Such alliances can quickly become a united enemy that cannot be easily defeated. Therefore, a ruler must exert his power continually in order to maintain maximum power.”

Commander Idaho stood with fists clenched at his side, incredulous. “Are you suggesting that we preemptively attack our own people to avoid a future conspiracy, one that you have apparently foreseen?”

Meneo pinched his eyebrows together and stared at the curry-colored stone floor, momentarily lost in thought.

“Attack? No. Not in the direct sense.” The worm-man glanced over his gross form at Duncan. “I prefer to influence. Peace is a delicate thing, best maintained through strategic maneuvering – not indiscriminate violence. Otherwise, the masses would conspire against their ruler as well.”

Leto knew that he had their full attention then. Moneo peered up with a glimmer of awareness in his eyes. Duncan relaxed his hands, but no less eager for more complete answers.

Rolling back towards his original position in the room’s center, the God Emperor said, “I already know that the Benne Geserit Sisterhood resent my Golden Path, and collude with Ix to build machines that can escape my prescient awareness. Meanwhile, the Tleilaxu experiment with the genetic profiles of their gholas, intending to test my supposed weakness. And while the Guild would never risk outright conspiracy, neither would they decline to supply new customers with star lighters and troop carriers. It does not require a Mentat to compute the potential for future rebellion.

“So, since preemptive wars almost always lead to even greater chaos, I propose a better way.”

Duncan breathed in through his nose, but did not exhale.

Wait for it…

“We should motivate the masses to trust only their Supreme Lord, and distrust any who would subvert his will. By redirecting natural unrest to work against a vague enemy, conditions are created in which large-scale rebellion is prevented from developing in the first place. In other words, manipulate the levers of fear and misinformation. Then, when everyone is suspicious of one another, they will rally around the only leader they can trust.”

Damn this pontificating! The Idaho ghola exhaled impatiently. “Okay, so even if this theory of yours is true–”

“Not theory. It is human nature,” Leto corrected.

“Whatever. Then how – exactly – do you intend to motivate a hundred billion people across the entire Empire to trust you?”

The worm-man closed his human eye lids, withdrawing into the multi-memories of ancient ancestors on Old Terra.

“Deliver the right message, to the right person, at the right time,” Leto said in a voice neither man recognized.

Moneo appeared entirely lost in the conversation. Duncan furrowed his brow.

Leto opened his eyes and grinned from cowl to cowl. “Through advertising, gentlemen!”

Both men were nonplussed.

The worm man puckered his lips. “Must I always explain every little detail? Very well.

“Nearly everyone in the Empire – throughout the entire colonized universe – uses electronic viewers produced by the Guild. Over 100 billion people access information on these viewers every day, machines which all use the same essential network. The network delivers most information automatically – to each individual user – through predictive algorithms and platform-specific communication feeds. In other words, everyone, everywhere, is going to the exact same place to get their data every day.” The God Emperor paused for effect.

“We have already identified the target audiences, all of whom are captives to a single system. We also have the means to reach them at exactly the right time, anywhere in the universe! Now, we just need the right… message.”

Leto looked into the eyes of each man – first Duncan, then Moneo. “Instead of a tactical military campaign, Moneo Atreides, I want you to coordinate an end-to-end advertising campaign, delivered to all of my subjects!”

The Mentat nearly hopped in excitement as the full scope of Leto’s intentions outpaced Moneo’s capacity to compute them. “Ingenious! Of course, my Lord! It would be my supreme honor to direct this campaign–”

“Coordinate,” Leto interrupted. “You are only to make sure that the plumbing works, without obstruction. Nothing more.” Then he returned to Duncan’s moody stare.

“So why the hell am I here?” Duncan appeared bewildered and extremely agitated. “I know nothing about this… advertising.”

“To the contrary,” Leto responded. “My Duncan, you are the man I want to direct the creative aspects of the campaign. Things like messaging, calls to action, the key benefits of their God Emperor’s dominion. There is literally no one in the entire universe better equipped to craft a campaign that is both motivational and believable! Being once a man who knew me as the boy Leto Atreides, and now as God Emperor of Dune, you have special… insights. You understand my character and unique powers, as well as the Golden Path – which alone can save the human species from oblivion.”

Duncan scrunched his face and closed his eye, computing this unexpected data. “Know you? I still don’t know whether you are more man or monster!”

The worm-man was unaffected. “Don’t be so melodramatic, Duncan. It will be easy! I can even get you started with some ideas.

“For instance, insert messages into the Fish Speaker’s daily report on FacePortal, encouraging them to stay vigilant for enemy spies using the Guild’s latest thermal-imaging goggles.

“You could flood the Master Builders of Ix Galactic Monitor with news feeds about my plans to build no-ship and no-room detectors, and then allow the Ixians to share this information easily with their Tleilaxu contacts.”

“Or try running a negative campaign against the Benne Geserit Reverend Mothers, emphasizing that their command of ancestral memory is only maternal, and that I alone can conjure the memories of every man, woman, and child throughout the millennia of human civilization.”

Duncan Idaho cocked his fists and took one step backwards. “You’re fucking insane!”

Leto did not respond. Moneo jerked his head in Duncan’s direction, slack-jawed

After an additional microsecond of calculation, Duncan pivoted on the heal of his shiny, black boots, and sprinted towards the nearest window. Without hesitation, he lunged head-first into the emptiness above the Sareer, spreading his limbs outward while bending his lower legs straight up into the sky – classic base-jumping technique. After a few seconds, he reached behind his collar to pull a previously concealed cable, releasing a black CHOAM parachute stolen from the ‘thopter.

Moneo ran to the window, gripped the lower ledge, and peered over the side just in time to see Duncan Idaho glide expertly towards a huge blister dune in the northwest. Realizing the height at which he gazed down, the majordomo quickly backed away from the window and pointed instead. “The fool!”

Suddenly aware of the God Emperor’s calm expression, Moneo dropped his finger and recomposed himself, facing Leto. “The Duncan Idaho ghola merely escapes your wrath, Lord. Surely the Coriolis storm approaching will swallow the traitor, if the desert does not kill him first!”

The worm-man erupted in laughter, grasping his segmented anterior with withered fingers. This simultaneously starteled and disturbed Moneo.

“Duncan Idaho is a desert Fremen, just one born on another planet. The Sareer could not claim him any more than I! Duncan will find a long-forgotten sietch to wait out the storm. Then he will make his way back to Onn, before fleeing to meet with your daughter, Siona. All of this I have foreseen.”

Moneo gathered his robe and hurried back towards the middle of the room where Leto continued to sit passively on his cart, stopping abruptly to kneel, “Shall I send the Fish Speaker Guard to dispatch Duncan Idaho before he reaches the walls of Onn, my great and mighty Lord?”

“Of course not! This was planned long ago. I have finally driven Duncan Idaho into the arms of Siona Atreides. He will tell her what we discussed here. She will vow to build an ad blocker that can be easily installed on any viewer. Then they will fornicate vigorously, and conceive a human heir to the Emperor of Dune, the God who will soon return to the desert as Shai-Hulud!” Leto started to laugh once again, more maniacally this time.

“But Lord…” Moneo peered up into the blue-on-blue eyes of Leto Atreides II. “Who will now direct the creative aspects of your advertising campaign?”

Leto’s laughter dissolved into a waning smile.

“That was merely subterfuge, dear Meneo. I have no intention of manipulating the masses through such… 21st century means. The mere suggestion of advertising my greatness across the empire was enough to motivate Duncan Idaho to fulfill his destiny, and my will.”

“But Lord, why let such brilliance go to waste? Should not the entire Empire understand the benefits humanity enjoys under the rule of God Emperor Leto?”

Leto stopped smiling.

“I can see it now: everyone throughout the colonized universe, consuming messages of your supremacy as they read their daily communiqués! Ally and enemy alike could be persuaded by repetition alone.”

The worm-man’s eyes began glazing over – a worrisome sign that Moneo was usually keenly aware of. Still, the majordomo continued, caught up in his own excitement.

“Please, my Lord, permit me the opportunity to sketch out some ideas for a truly groundbreaking campaign! The Benne Geserit Sisterhood, the Guild, Ix and Tleilaxu – they will all know the virtues of allegiance, and the consequences of dissent!”

Presently, Leto’s atrophied appendages were twitching – another sign.

“Your Highness, let me prove that I would make a marvelous… creative director!”

Moneo paused for an response. Only then did he notice Leto’s spasms.

Oh no! I’ve aroused the worm!

It was too late. Leto’s massive, ringed body convulsed, launching him from the Ixian cart and onto the floor, directly on top of Moneo. The worm thrashed about violently, until Moneo’s body was a flattened, bloody pile of robes beneath. After several moments the worm stilled, and alertness returned to Leto’s eyes.

The God Emperor eventually slithered back to his wheeled platform and gazed through the window through which Duncan had fled.

“No Moneo… Only my Duncan would have made a worthy creative director.”

Learning How to Lead

If it doesn’t feel like drowning, you’re probably doing it wrong.

For a long time (longer than I’d like to admit), my primary responsibility was mastering the craft of design. From identity to print or Web design, there was a lot to learn. Branding. Layout. Typography. Color theory. Substrates and printing techniques. Technical requirements and limitations for the Web. These are all things I could spend a lifetime perfecting, only to remember that there will always be many people who are far more talented than me.

Then I ventured into the vast world of “UX” (mostly by accident). There was even more to learn. User journeys. Site maps. Information architecture. Wireframes. Content strategy. Functional requirements. The list of artifacts and specialties were endless! My only saving grace was that I was a halfway decent designer, so my documentation looked better than most. Still, it was yet another universe dominated by extraordinary talent.

Fast forward to 2016. I somehow landed a job at a startup company with a fancy title. I had experience designing things. I could do UX stuff. And by this time I had enough industry experience to somewhat understand how screwed up online advertising had become. Only now I was responsible for doing all the design things, prioritizing projects, hiring people, and getting shit done. It all sounded very exciting and important (because it was), but leading was a new frontier.

+++++

After several months of pretending to know what I’m doing, I had a meeting with a newly-formed-but-loosely-defined team. My grand vision was that we’d figure out our Experience Design Process in a 1.5 hours on a Thursday afternoon (because, um, we never had one to begin with). Instead, I quickly realized that shit was all fucked up, people had no idea who was responsible for what, and our collective activities felt more like an exercise in chaos theory. We barely even got to the actual process stuff.

So, I obviously felt pretty terrible at my job. Again. Only this time there was no hiding behind pretty layouts and clever copy.

But you know what? It was a very good thing that happened in that meeting. I learned in that moment to embrace my deficiencies and failures. It was no longer about my portfolio, my reputation, or my experience. This was about other people – super talented, immensely dedicated, very motivated people (if I had done anything right, it was hiring). This was a mess I honestly could’t fix on my own. I needed help. Because the problem had nothing to do with “managing” people.

It was entirely about supporting them.

*****

In the days since that awkward, very painful meeting, I’ve been focused on the team’s success instead of my failure(s). There’s still a lot to do, and much more to learn. But I’ve started by trying to understand the challenges before prescribing solutions. My job, it turns out, is not to have the “right” answers, but rather involve those who actually have the experience, skill, and vision.

After several months in this role, I’m just now beginning to grasp how limited I am on my own, and how all the help I could ever need surrounds me in abundance. They are the answer. I am not the solution.

I’ve always had a knack for learning things the hard way… But this time, the truth never hurt to good.

The Zen of Building a Product Team

How to manage people and priorities for a growing team without being anyone’s boss.

One of the things I like most about working at Eyeo is the flat hierarchy. Everyone reports to a few senior managers, but otherwise people manage themselves. As a company, we define clear goals, and then allow everyone to apply their expertise however best supports those goals. And even though we’re over 60 people strong – half of which operate remotely all over the world – somehow it all works.

More recently, we hired a Product Designer and another Product Manager to fill out the team. Now what? How do we scale our capacity, while maintaining a “flat” organization? It definitely sounds like marketing spin, if not complete fantasy. But so far I’ve seen it work in practice, and on a daily basis. Someway, we find a way… usually without getting in each others way.

After giving this considerable thought, and reflection on my own experiences, below is my current approach to building a killer product team, but with a healthy does of skepticism. To paraphrase a popular adage, no plan survives first contact with reality.

But you have to start somewhere, right?

+++++

Get new hires started quickly, and support them completely.

If you hire self-directed people capable of delivering superior work, then they likely crave input and context even before starting. So, provide them with the resources they need to better understand your products a week or two before. Let them self-service their curiosity, and then ask specific questions later. When they do start – officially – you can give them problems to solve their very first week. Meanwhile, be available to answer questions, talk through ideas, provide file assets, or do whatever else is needed to help them succeed. No request is too big or too small.

Prove your commitment to the success of others from the very beginning, and they will be more likely to genuinely support your decisions later on.

Delegate ownership, not projects.

If everyone on the team has comparable skills, then they should be permitted and encouraged to work on a variety of projects. But in the end, each product does need a final decision maker. Therefore, give those with similar roles authority over a specific product or problem. For example, one person might own the mobile version of a product, while the other owns the desktop version. However, they should always be willing and able to help each other as needed (or desired), on any project.

This way there is accountability, but nobody gets bored or feels trapped thinking about the same problems over and over again.

Connect people working on similar problems.

When giving someone the authority to solve particular problems, also make certain that they work together with at least one other teammate to support the larger goal(s). This approach offers checks and balances, since they will naturally challenge one another in search of deeper understanding and broader insight. “Management” may be necessary to ensure that communication and delivery happen smoothly, efficiently, and productively. But once a person is connected to the right teammates, get out their way.

If the team member understands the problem and requirements fully, you won’t have to micromanage their individual contributions.

Maximize transparency. Minimize process.

The Open Source community is clearly capable to working collaborative, globally, on common projects, and with clear goals / deliverables. So why not make this the standard approach for internal product teams as well?

By simply documenting all the problems, goals, priorities, research activities, etcetera, anyone can find answers to their questions more easily, and they will understand the “why” much more easily. Inviting everyone to participate in a minimal process, and then allowing them to ask questions organically, also helps people in different time zones, or with different expertise, to find the information they need to do their job more effectively.

The context and completeness of information is everything. This is the key to unlocking great potential, because once smart people start working together on a common problem, they will quickly arrive at better decisions than you ever could on your own.

Never ask a software engineer how long it will take to build something.

Software development is not a linear process with defined tasks and timeliness. It’s jungle warfare, and everyone’s always hacking something. Engineers have to figure out exceedingly complex problems all the time, and often without knowing what challenges they’ll run into next. Therefore, you’re never helping by asking them “when can you get that done?” because they honestly can’t tell you.

Instead, ask them what’s blocking their progress. Work together to solve problems they can’t by themselves. The faster you can connect the dots, and get then get the right people talking to each other, the faster a developer can solve the enormous list of problems you gave them to solve.

Remember, your engineers want to ship amazing products – preferably ones that operate as intended, and without flaws or inconsistencies. Let them take as much damn time as they need to figure it out, and fully support them along the way. In the end, users will thank you for it.

Leave no one behind. Ever.

If somebody needs help, spend time learning about their problems before offering solutions. Then actively help them help themselves.

If somebody says something upsetting, confront it directly, and in the moment (whenever possible). Then seek new solutions instead of further blame.

If somebody feels lost or unheard, help them find their way or their voice. Ask them how you can help, and then follow through. A motivated, empowered individual will likely find another way to reengage with the overall team.

These, and other individual circumstances, will arise no matter the company culture or existing processes in place. It’s okay and totally normal, but it’s still your responsibility to respond with empathy and action.

Everyone matters. Encourage respect and cooperation, but never tolerate blame or inaction.

Own your mistakes and failures.

Even the best, most well intentioned plans go terribly wrong. Longterm success is a collective effort, over time, through trial and error. A growing team will present all sorts of problems or challenges you cannot possibly anticipate. So learn what exactly went wrong, and why. Then fix it or try something else, and move on.

Indeed, you’ll fuck up plenty of times – especially the harder you try. But embracing failure is the first step to finding a credible solution that will produce better results, for everyone.

Just don’t ever fail the same way twice.