Feb 25, 2014 0
A new adventure has just started. I will tell you more soon.
Jan 19, 2014 0
(an old post from April 2011; saved as draft, left unpublished until now)
I am reading a book on presentations, “Resonate”, by Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design, one of the largest design firms in the world.
Below there’s an excerpt from page 12.
People are interesting
“A great way to stand out is to be real.
Presentations tend to be stripped of all humanness – despite the fact that humans make up the entire audience!
Many corporations condition employees to put meaningless words together, projects them on a slide, and talk about them like an automaton.
The cultural norm is for presenters to hide behind slides as though that’s a form of skilled communication. Look at the slides to the right. These are real statements taken from real presentations. They’re meaningless. Yet these statements were written to attract and lure customers to products or services. It’s the wrong bait.
Presenters think they can hide behind a wall of jargon, but what people are really looking for at a presentation is some kind of human connection.
Forming connections is an art, and when it’s practiced well, the results can be astounding.”
What do you think about it?
Sep 2, 2013 7
[edit: thanks to Thomas B. for correcting a few mistakes I did below. You rock!]
The recent discussion around “Accents” is very dear to me. Let me tell you something. Read on.
Paul Graham recently wrote about accents. Simply put: if you have a strong accent (e.g. your English is not that great), you are more likely perform poorly as the CEO of a startup.
It is rather obvious, but important to know.
One more point that Paul raises is that when communication is important (when you are the CEO of a Startup, and not just any employee), there are situations where communication degradation is particularly bad for you. When on the phone, for example, your understanding of English and your ability to be understood degrade a lot.
The Mean Opinion Score shows that on the phone it’s at least 20-25% more difficult to understand what people are saying, and it doesn’t take into account that you can’t watch body language. When on a videocall, body language is still used far less than in real life.
It also doesn’t help that the language spoken is English, that is, containing English phonetics, as some of the sounds are particularly hard to understand when communication is degraded. Which leads us to the next point.
Latin and Greek were the “Lingua Franca” of the Roman empire. The Mediterranean Lingua Franca (80% of Italian, and a bunch of other languages) became the main medium of communication in the Middle Age and Renaissance, and remained common until the 19th century.
None of these languages (Latin, Greek or MLF) were easy to master and the latest modern example of global Lingua Franca, English, is no exception.
There is an important difference, though.
Mediterranean Lingua Franca was a pidgin: “a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common”.
English, instead, is a full-blown language. It means that:
2.1) There are native English speakers who master it.
2.2) It’s more difficult to learn compared to other Lingua Franca languages.
Sometimes it’s arrogance and sometimes it’s just ignorance, but when native English speakers are in conversation with non native English speakers, they often don’t grasp how difficult it is for the latter to follow the conversation, and the non native speakers often perceive the other as either arrogant or ignorant.
I am NOT saying that they are necessarily arrogant or ignorant, but that is what is perceived.
Antirez (the creator of Redis) writes about all this: English has been my pain for 15 years.
He is a technical person, and has had trouble explaining things in English.
He has communicated in English with other non native speakers (Europeans), and has realized that English is a bit broken. It is a tough language to learn and speak.
In his view, learning how English sounds is really the key.
If you don’t master it you become an introvert.
Anyway, it’s too late to find another (easier) Lingua Franca, and therefore he suggests to just study English.
Let me explain why I think I believe there is a combination of perceived arrogance and ignorance.
The first time that someone tells you: “I didn’t understand. Please say it again.”, as a native speaker you will often ignore the fact that a non-native can have trouble understanding/processing/hearing you.
However, if you simply repeat it with the same voice and speed, you don’t show particular respect for that person in their perception.
If later in the conversation you keep speaking too fast or not loud enough, you keep showing a perceived lack of respect, or perceived arrogance.
You might say: “If you don’t understand English, it’s your f**king problem, not mine.”.
Well, I disagree, because if your intent is to communicate and you realize that the other person doesn’t understand everything correctly, then you are supposed to do your best to be understood. At least, when the conversation is between equals this should be the case. There are other situations where it is, indeed, your f**king problem.
Let me give you an example I know very well.
I work for a big US company. Long time ago, when I started, my English was already quite good, but not as good as now (still far from perfect, but good enough indeed). I was mostly interacting with Americans and MOST of them would put NO effort in trying to make me understand, not even when I would tell them on the phone: “I’m sorry, I’m not able to understand what you’re saying. Can you space it a bit?”. My feeling was that if this company has hired me knowing that I am not a native English speaker, and if we’re here mainly to communicate with each other, I expect you to try to help me a bit. ESPECIALLY when your effort is minimal (just slowing down a bit would suffice), compared to the HUGE effort I have to put to try to understand every word.
If you perceive that this is a problem, then someone made the wrong hiring decision. But again, since I’m hired and nobody questioned this when I was hired, and we work for the same company, well, I want you to help me a bit.
On my end I did all I could to learn and improve my English. I have to thank two people in particular: Martin Buhr (back then, my boss when I was based in Europe), and Shane Owenby (my boss when I was in Singapore). I simply told them: “Every time I make a mistake, correct me. Don’t overdo it, but please keep doing it”. They both did it. I am so grateful to them that they did.
Every time they would correct me, I would take a mental note and once the meeting or the call was finished, I would write things down, or research why that was considered a mistake. I kept reading books in English, watching movies in English, and now I can safely say that my English is good enough. You can still hear that I have an accent, but it’s not as bad as it could be. In fact, I’m a public speaker for a technology company, and if they let me do it, it means that I don’t have too many issues.
As Antirez wrote, there is no other practical solution other than work hard to improve your English.
A few pieces of advice:
1) To be understood better, try to capture the tone (music) of the language you speak. English speakers have a specific intonation when they converse, and if you put accents in weird places, they will have a hard time understanding you. Some people disagreethough, and I am not an expert.
Also, try to use pauses between sentences, and use this time to check if the other person is properly following you. You can restate something, to make sure that you’ve made yourself clear. A very simple example (imagine a bad accent): “In Italy we have a lot of developers with good skills that can do a lot of programming for us in the future, so we want to hire them fast. In other words: we have developers (pause) they are smart (pause) I want to hire them (pause).”.
2) Dare to ask someone to correct you. With a very little effort, you can correct your WORST mistakes, and improve considerably.
3) The way to improve your understanding is to train your ears. If you think there is a shortcut to this you’re probably wrong. If a shortcut exists, it would have made for a super successful startup. Unfortunately, I believe there’s no easy way.
4) I’m a hacker, and there is a way to hack the “conversation” system: try to avoid situations where the “noise” is too high (e.g. phone conversations, or chatting with a friend in a crowded, noisy bar). Another trick is to slow your pace. When the interlocutor hears you speaking very slow, he slows down automatically. Avoid situations where the other person is in a rush, as it would prevent her from slowing the pace. When you hear something and you’re not sure what it means, repeat for confirmation, and mask it as a desire to summarize: “So, what you are saying is that, in essence, we should find 2-3 more people for that geography, and let them cover the community of developer? Did I understand correctly?”.
5) Don’t feel dumb just because you don’t understand too well, but also, don’t feel smart because “these Americans only speak one language, I speak three, they’re dumb and they don’t even know they are”. They’re not more dumb or more smart, they’re just people like you, and they have the advantage that they have practiced the language more.
If you’re not a native English speaker, good luck with your learning.
If you ARE a native English speaker, the next time you are in conversation with an Italian, or a Bulgarian, or a Korean: think about this.
Discuss on Hacker News.
Aug 30, 2013 Comments Off
Aug 25, 2013 Comments Off
On Aug 24th, 2013, I spent the Saturday at the wonderful “20th Street block party” here in San Francisco.
Enjoy my Flickr set.
Jul 7, 2013 Comments Off
Seth Godin has a great post on money.
Just go there and read it.
He also mentions the need to learn a few concepts, and here’s the short, simple explanation for them:
Opportunity cost: the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. Assuming the best choice is made, it is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by taking the second best choice available.
Opportunity cost is what you must forgo in order to get something.
Investment: putting money into an asset with the expectation of capital appreciation, usually over the long-term future.
Debt: A debt is created when a creditor agrees to lend a sum of assets to a debtor. Debt is usually granted with expected repayment; in modern society, in most cases, this includes repayment of the original sum, plus interest.
Leverage: a general term for any technique to multiply gains and losses. If I have stocks for 10,000 US$, but use leverage of 5, it is as if I had 50,000 US$ when it comes to gains and losses. If my stock loses 10%, without leverage I lose only 1,000 US$, with leverage of 5 I lose 1,000 US$ times five.
Basis points: A basis point (often denoted as bp, colloquially referred to in the plural as “bips”, also known as a “beep”) is a unit equal to one hundredth of a percentage point, or one part per ten thousand, 1/10000.
Basis points are used as a convenient unit of measurement in contexts where percentage differences of less than 1% are discussed. The most common example is interest rates.
Sunk costs: In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a retrospective (past) cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken.
Hope this helps.
May 8, 2013 Comments Off
I work for a big company, but in the past I’ve been an entrepreneur several times.
Now I mentor for a few startups, and most of the time they’re struggling with one thing: FUNDRAISING.
Even the brightest and smartest people are not at ease when they need to find the money for their startup.
It takes guts, and you can do it only if you strongly believe in what you’re trying to build.
My suggestion for you is to learn how to do it, by doing it for a charity first. The reason why? I am raising money for a charity NOW, and what I’ve seen is the same dynamics, same barriers, same problems that you would have if raising money for a startup.
These are the steps you have to go through:
1) Find donors
Who is going to give you money? Friends? Colleagues? Write down a list. Get a sense of how much these people might be willing to donate.
(same thing with startups: find angel investors)
I selected friends and colleagues with which I’ve interacted in the recent past. I would find ODD to email someone that didn’t hear from me for the last few years, only to ask him for money.
2) Create a campaign, a message, a call to action
What are you going to tell them? Well, X is a problem, and we need to solve it, and I need your help, and you can do Y to help.
(same thing with startups: you are going to solve a problem with your startup, and you need money to do so)
3) Tell them
What are you going to say? How are you going to contact them? How will you engage them, without annoying them?
(same with startups: you cannot simply email someone and say: “Hey, gimme da money!”)
This is the message that I’ve sent to my friends, to raise money for a charity.
What do you think? Do you like it?
I wanted it to be short, specific, and give people an easy “solution”: go to this site, spend 20 seconds of your time, and help out.
in early June 2013 I will climb the Kilimanjaro for a good cause: raising money to provide an education to street kids in Africa.
I know that your time is precious, so I’ll keep it short: go to this link below, and please donate as much as possible. It takes about 20 seconds to do so.
This will be my first and last email about it (these kind of things can be annoying otherwise); it’s your only chance to help, and I will thank you forever for that!
Well, why did I write this blog post? To share this thought with you, and to ask you something.
Why don’t you donate 50$?
It would be awesome!
Feel free to discuss this on Hacker News.
Apr 2, 2013 Comments Off
There are many, but this one caught my attention:
11. What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend 6 years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.
Mar 2, 2013 Comments Off
Jan 4, 2013 3
A few weeks ago I passed an important mark: five hundred times on stage as a Technology Evangelist for Amazon Web Services.
When I started in 2008 (thanks to a virtual church and a lot of work), I couldn’t have imagined that I would have covered conferences across all continents (except for Antartica, but I’m working on it!) for a total of FIVE HUNDRED times.
I hardly believe it.
In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts, learnings, considerations and the like.
I hope you’ll enjoy it. Let’s start!
1) Did you watch the movie “Up in the air”?
I’ve been asked this question at least fifty times, if not more.
People who know me often compare me to George Clooney in that movie, but not because of my handsomeness – only just because I (used to) fly A LOT.
Now that I’m based in San Francisco and that I focus on the Bay area I fly less than before, but up until recently, I used to fly over 100 times per year, and be “not at home” for 220+ days a year, on average. My wife and parents are the main beneficiaries of millions of airmiles with tens of different airlines.
It’s tough, almost impossible to sustain this type of lifestyle, unless you find little tricks that can help you.
In my case:
1.1) I’ve switched to a vegetarian diet, and I believe it helped me stay healthy despite a very stressful lifestyle.
1.2) I’ve learned how NOT to waste time at airports and during flights, either by working or by reading, and sometimes by watching nice movies on the plane. Being able to work effectively while on the move is a necessity when you are traveling for 2/3 of the year.
1.3) I’ve also learned to decompress whenever I could, and do some light exercise whenever I could. Walking is my favorite; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to maintain a proper fitness program, but I should have.
Despite this, I went from 220 pounds down to roughly 205, which is now my stable weight, and a good indication that I’m not doing too bad.
Decompressing also means to enjoy a city’s landscape, urban gems, architecture, and sometimes art. Despite being a hard worker, I’ve always tried to find some time to “learn” from the place I was visiting. Otherwise, it would have been such a wasted opportunity.
1.4) Avoid alcohol whenever possible, for two reasons: it makes you fat, and it kills your productivity. Also, it’s very tempting to drink when it’s free (airport lounges, flights, etc.). I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but once I started with this lifestyle, I decided to almost cut my alcohol consumption. I think it worked pretty well.
1.5) Last, but not least, I’ve learned a few tricks on how to fly more comfortably (in short: become Gold with two airlines and get free access to airport lounges; pick seats in the back, possibly isle seats; book in advance, so you can afford good airlines while complying with your company policy), despite the fact that we always fly economy (frugality is one of the key tenets of Amazon.com).
As a result, this is a map of the places I’ve been in the last few years. Pretty nice :)
Most people never make it to Iceland, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, India, Cuba, Japan, Korea, Nepal… Etcetera. I am glad I did.
This list shows the number of events per year, since 2008:
You might be thinking: how can someone possibly make so many trips and events in just one year (e.g. 114 in year 2010)?
Well, you can by becoming a master of “multiple destination” trips. To keep costs low, you just need to start and end in the same place. Other than that, you can do Singapore – Mumbai – Bangalore – New Delhi – Hong Kong – Shanghai – Seoul – Taiwan – Singapore in just 9 days and a reasonable cost.
Anyway, I guess the point is clear: I’ve travelled A LOT.
It doesn’t necessarily make sense to travel like this, though. More on it below.
2) What is a Technology Evangelist, anyway?
Besides my traveling errands, I have to admit that my role is not easy to “grok” for most people.
Technology what? Evangelist what?
I’ve tried to explain my job thousands of times.
In short, a Technology Evangelist is someone who explains a certain technology (in my case, Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services) to crowds of potential or existing customers. Most of these “talks” are at conferences, and most of them are quite technical. My main duty, then, is “public speaking”, and I also do a bunch of other things as part of my role.
You want to see some of my presentations online? You got it.
You want to see me on video? Here you are, below.
This one is about Parmigiano, a Monastery, Love and Faith. And, of course, about Backup and Disaster Recovery in the Cloud.
3) What did I learn?
Now you might want to ask: after 500 talks, presentations, keynotes and the like, what did I learn?
Many things, among which:
3.1) Somebody in the audience is smarter than you: no matter how smart, focused, sharp you are, you’ll always find someone who is smarter, more prepared, more skilled. Which means: be humble, and if you don’t know something, just say so. People don’t pretend that you know everything; they just want you to be honest.
3.2) Slides are only a small part of a presentation: you present to inspire, and possibly to provide knowledge and details. Slides are not the main part… The most important part is telling a story, involving people, showing passion, making things memorable.
3.3) Always be listening. I mean it. Even when you’re on stage, speaking.
Don’t just listen to WORDS. Listen to feelings as well.
I’ll tell you a little story to explain this point.
Late 2009. I was in France, and I was the last speaker before lunch. I was supposed to speak at 12:30, for about 30 minutes. However, previous speakers took more time than expected, and one of the big sponsors pretended to have their CEO speak before me, unplanned, for more than 20 minutes, reading some text the entire time. READING. No slides, no interpretation.
Why didn’t he simply email all of us, instead?
His message was very boring, very corporate, full of vaporware. His last words were about how customer-obsessed his company was.
He was using people’s time as he pleased, without even thinking about their needs.
When it was my turn, it was already 13:00, and people really wanted to go to lunch.
I was angry. I was in a difficult situation.
I introduced myself, and then told the audience: “My talk was planned to be 30 minutes long. However, we are late, and you are hungry. I’ll cut my talk down to 15 minutes, and then we all go to lunch at 13:15. This is what I call customer obsession.”
Big round of applauses. The crowd was mine.
So, the lesson is: if you want to deliver a message, the length of the message doesn’t count. Other things count.
Or, if you want to be a Technology Evangelist, don’t FORCE the message to your crowd. Use empathy.
3.4) Get inspired. I have amazing colleagues that inspire me every day. Our CTO, Werner Vogels, is one of the best public speaker I’ve ever seen, perhaps second only to my all-time favorite, Matt Wood (a rare combination of intelligence, humility, knowledge and a collection of PhDs), who recently moved to a new role, Chief Data Scientist. Our most senior Evangelist, Jeff Barr, is a walking encyclopaedia on all things AWS. Jinesh Varia is a talented, super-smart producer of high quality content, and a good presenter too. And there are other colleagues (like Simon Elisha) which, despite not strictly being Technology Evangelists, are amazing speakers nevertheless.
There are also a lot of amazing Technology Evangelists out there, not just within the Amazon Web Services team.
I loved reading Kenneth Reitz’s blog post about his experience at Heroku.
So the lesson here is: get inspired, as much as possible. Never stop learning and improving.
3.5) I’ve mentioned above that “It doesn’t necessarily make sense to travel like this, though”.
In fact, after 500 talks, I think that I should focus on quality, rather than quantity. Let me be more clear.
At the beginning, you should do as many talks as possible, simply because you learn a lot, and you mostly learn by doing.
After a while (500 is enough, but also 200 would be enough), you will notice that you’re not improving so much anymore. It’s time for you to start focusing on quality. Quality, in this case, means committing your time and energy to events that matter. It could be a small user group, or a huge conference, but as long as it matters, it’s ok.
It will actually be easier for me now, since I am focused on the Bay area, and therefore travelling time is not as much as it used to be… Which means I can afford to do more events, while keeping the “quality” high.
3.6) You’re a public figure representing your company, learn how to deal with it. This was a tough one to learn, and I admit it wasn’t easy for me, but eventually I’ve learned it the hard way. Different companies might have different policies, but in most cases you are not “just one employee”, whatever you do online or in public matters a lot.
Ah, and by the way: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of current or past employers. Just in case.
4) What’s next?
I love this job, and I think I’ll keep doing it for at least some time, perhaps a couple more years before thinking of a different role.
It’s fun to search for my name online and come up with pictures of me speaking at conferences… It seems that I’m much more important or famous than I really am :)
Seriously, I think that this role is a quite unique combination of customer facing activity, technical activity, and interaction with several members of the company you work for. For now, it’s the best job I can think of.
If you want to join our team, start from here.
I hope you have enjoyed my little story.
Let me know what you think :)