(originally posted on Medium here.)
Why I want to help every child find her or his inner geek.
It was a chilly March morning in Austin, Texas when I met a new friend to go visit a classroom in a low income part of East Austin at a school called East Austin College Prep. I knew this school was special because there were live camels outside when I arrived. Camels are part of Texas history apparently. Yet I was not there to learn about these dromedaries, the purpose of the visit was to see a class using Globaloria. Globaloria is a social learning network where students develop digital literacy, STEM and Computing knowledge, and global citizenship through game design. At EA Prep, Globaloria is a required class for all 6th — 8th graders. Imagine 1 hour of this a day for 3 years?! I was blown away by this program and how effective it was in the classroom. These middle schoolers were writing code in a real commercially used programming language and doing their own animation and graphics. They even talked like mini-game development professionals. These students were not just building educational games for a grade, but to improve their community. The educational games were for local non-profit organizations such as MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The most inspiring part of this class was that it was about 80% Latino and 50% women. Completely unheard of demographics in the real world of computing professionals. In the almost 20 years I’ve been working on STEM advocacy for underrepresented minorities I had never encountered such a program. This was truly a life changing experience and cemented my interest (well obsession) with computer science K-12 education programs and how to bring it to every child especially those children from historically underrepresented groups.
This is not just an obsession from an outsider looking in. I am a computer scientist by education. I taught myself to code when I was 6 years old. Computer science was a way to enhance my already growing problem solving and maker skills. I was very lucky to have had this chance in life to start so young. It was completely accidental. Since my mother was a newly arrived immigrant and spoke little English she would have my brother and I do puzzles and math problems before we were in kindergarten. This did not require much English. With the computer, learning a programming language is not English intensive either, which is why a child at a very young age can pick it up conceptually and start programming very young.
My story was 30 years ago. Surely computer science education is a core part of K-12 curriculum today, right? Where almost every industry is becoming computing enabled and the growth of future jobs in computing is surging. NOPE! It has actually decreased in schools. The number of high schools offering computer science has decreased 35% since 2005. Only 5% of high schools today offer AP Computer Science. The number of K-8 schools which offer computer science is too low to even count. This is not just an employment pipeline crisis, but it is even more hard hitting for underrepresented minorities who are the fastest growing segments of the US population. By 2040, the minority will be the majority where over 40% of all Americans will be either Latino or Black. Right now 20% of students in K-12 are Latino and 25% of all five year olds in public schools are Latino. Already in California, 50% of K-12 students are Latino. This is tomorrow’s workforce! And they are being left behind when it come to learning the skills for tomorrow’s jobs. You can already see it today where just 1% of the computing workforce in the US in 2012 was Latina. Yes, I am the 1%!
Back to the school visit. All hope is not lost. Once you zoom out and look at the learn to code organizations aimed at K-12 it is like overturning a rock on a hidden ant hill. There are more and more programs popping up every day. Several programs are in-school, but most are extracurricular. Even youth development programs are starting to integrate more technology education into their programs. For instance, the Girls Scouts of America now have a badge for computer game design. New York city has an initiative to bring computer science education to all 1.1 million K-12 public school students called The New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education. There are already 2 high schools centered around computer science education called the Academy for Software Engineering. And then there are even larger overarching organizations such as code.org trying to bring computer science to all schools.
With all these disparate efforts it is a challenge for a student, school, or parent to know what makes a program good.The problem I find is that there is no common language to speak about these programs or compare them. More academically based computer science programs use terms such as “CS0”, “CS1”, “algorithms”, “data structures” etc. Coding programs use the nomenclature of the computing profession such as “hacking”, “frameworks”, “apps”, “mobile”, “robotics”, “front-end programming”, etc. It can all get very confusing very fast. How do colleges and universities and even employers evaluate the skills of graduates of these various programs in a standardized way? Some programs are trying to map to curriculum standards. Some may count as college credit. The characteristics to describe these programs is almost as long as the list of available programs.
All joking aside, what I really care about are the computational concepts and algorithmic thinking ,problem solving skills, which a student can learn from computer science. These are what we call 21st century skills for 21st century jobs. It is not about turning every child into a software engineer. It is about making every child computer literate and proficient at solving problems. Learning to code is just a tool to gain this knowledge not the end all be all, which is why I really like to understand the curriculum of a coding-only program. Being an engineer, I am averse to redundancy and inefficiency and being a product manager I am trained to empathize with the pain points of the customer and build valuable products. For this reason, I am on a mission to understand the greater computer science education movement in K-12. In essence, I want to help every child find his or her inner geek.
Think about an app or gadget you love to use. Is it Instagram? Is it Snapchat? Your smart phone? Whatever it is, at some point it did not exist. At some point someone out there decided that there was something missing in the world or they wanted to make the world a better place. An entrepreneur is someone who feels this way and makes something to create the world they want to see. When this something makes money, it is a business. If it does not make money, then it’s just a hobby. You do not have to have an MBA or a PhD to start a business. Anyone, no matter how young or old, can be an entrepreneur. You just need to have ideas, perseverance, and an iterative framework to test your ideas until you find one that makes money, in other words, creates revenue.
“An entrepreneur is someone who… makes something to create the world they want to see.”
My first entrepreneurship experience was when I was a little girl of 7 years old. We had a bird farm. I would train my father’s parakeets to stand on a finger and be pet by a human. When my father sold the parakeet I would get a cut of the sales price. My idea was that people want their pet parakeets to be nice and affectionate. A parakeet that was not trained would not sell for as much as one that was. In this way I was able to test out my idea and make some money. Now it’s your turn!
The steps below will guide you in starting a business:
Ideation is the process of creating ideas. At this point no idea is good or bad. Do not worry if your idea does not seem like the most incredible idea ever. It does not have to be unique to become a business. Facebook was not the first social network. Think of MySpace. Generally the first place to begin creating ideas is to “scratch your own itch.” This is a phrase that means if you already have the problem or know the problem very well, you are probably the best person to come up with ideas to fix it. If nothing jumps out at you, just pick a problem area and analyze it. For instance, what is your morning routine when you get up and go to school? Is there anything that could make it a better experience? Once you identify an idea or set of ideas, then you want validate you then have a solution that will work for more than just yourself or a small circle of friends. This is one of the first steps in defining the business model for your idea. We will discuss the business model next. Remember, this is an iterative process. No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.
“No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.”
It is time to fill in the blanks that will take your idea from a dream to a revenue producing product or service. A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation. Below is a table, which will help you understand the questions to ask so you can formulate a business model for your product. Notice I am not calling it an idea any more. It’s time for that idea to mature into a tangible product. Just like a growing child, this product will have to learn through trial and error until it can stand up by itself. Failing is expected and fine as long as you learn from it and then try again with the new learnings. It is a fun experience to get out there and test your product. The steps below are not a junior way of starting a business. These are the questions every entrepreneur must answer.
“A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation.”
Let’s get started! You’re now an entrepreneur!
The value proposition is key to building your product. In simplest terms, the value proposition can be stated in one sentence. It’s like playing Mad Libs.
____[insert product/service name]___ WILL HELP ____[insert customer description]____ TO____ [insert the problem being solved]____ _____[insert secret sauce]____
A self-driving car will help mothers with many children be able to make sure every child will always have a ride even if she is busy with another child.
At the beginning, a value proposition statement is just a hypothesis, which needs to be validated. Talk to who you think is the target customer. This will validate if your hypothesis is a real life problem that people want fixed. In the case above, a good group of people to ask about this value proposition would be mothers who have multiple children and even children who have multiple siblings. You are looking to see how much pain this problem causes and if your solution really resonates with them. Then ask how much they would expect to pay for such a product or service.
Now that you have evidence from speaking to various people that the problem exists and is worth solving, it is time to understand how many people have this problem or type of problem. If we continue the example from above the market size would potentially be all the mothers who have multiple children. The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be. Let’s say you’re first starting in the US. Then you will want to know how many mothers in the US have children who are not of driving age and do not have a car.
“The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be.”
This part of your business model defines how you will reach the target customer, whether they are a paying or non-paying customer. You will dive more into the price in the revenue streams section. Distribution channels also are the ways you will keep your customer using your product or service. Here are some examples of distribution channels for a self-driving car.
- city community centers
- website and mobile app for sign up and management
- car dealerships
There are several ways to make money. The challenge is to find the best way or ways, which will maximize what your product makes and is still more than the cost of producing and running your business. Finding the right revenue streams will need to be tested along with the rest of your business model. That will be done with your MVP (minimum viable product).
For many types of businesses, common revenue streams can be evaluated. For a self-driving car think about your customer and what her need may be and how frequent it may be. If a mother constantly finds herself double booked to pick up two children should the self-driving car be owned by the family or should the family rent or subscribe to using the self-driving car. Advertising in the car during a ride can be a source of revenue. The equivalent to in-app purchases could be added services that can be bought while in the car, for example Wi-Fi or watching a movie or show. These are all examples of revenue streams that do not just apply to self-driving cars, but other products such as apps.
It will cost money to run a business. Identify fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs can be a one-time cost or a recurring cost that is the same. For instance, setting up the factory to make self-driving cars will cost you once. Creating new self-driving cars will cost you every time you make one, but the cost to make one is fixed. Variable costs can change overtime or at different quantities. One example of a variable cost is the cost to acquire a new customer. This is generally the cost of marketing, which can be periodic and vary in expense depending on how much needs to be done. Think of your costs when you have 10 customers, 100 customers, up to 1 million customers. A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that, as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up. The line “More money more problems.” can be very true, so think big and plan for the success of your product.
“A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up.”
Now that you have done your detective work to build a business model it is time to build your minimal viable product ,or MVP, to test out the different pieces of your business model. The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model. Usually this means starting with validating the value proposition. Prototype the experience you want for the customer. A prototype can be done quickly and inexpensively through paper prototypes, using power point, or there are several websites and apps which make it even easier to create an interactive prototype. For the MVP of a self-driving car, you do not have to actually build a car that does not need a human driver! You can simulate the experience by having a human driver who helps a mother pick up her other children when needed. Just by doing this or any other simple form of prototyping you will learn a ton and tweak your business model as you go.
“The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model.”
Rinse and Repeat as necessary
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
No entrepreneur gets it exactly right on the first try, which is why starting a business is an iterative process. Through each MVP you will learn something new and modify the business model and the MVP a bit. This is called “pivoting”, where the business model is modified when a hypothesis proves invalid. This does not mean that one failure results in a completely new vision. If that were the case, then a new business model would have to be built from scratch each time. Once you get through MVP1 and MVP2 and you see the amount of new information decrease, your business model will start to stabilize, which is a great sign that your business is working. You have reached the golden state for a startup called Product/Market Fit. This means you have customers signing up, paying or pre-ordering your product, and sticking around to use it over and over again.
Congratulations! If you have made it this far you have started your business. You are an entrepreneur! Life is grand, but do not think life is over. The opposite is true because the next stage of your company is growth and scaling. Getting the first early adopters is one thing, but capturing the attention of your next set of customers will be different. All in all, remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company. I wish you the best of luck on this fun journey!
“…remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company.”
One of the most comprehensive lists of entrepreneurship resources is from Steven Blank: http://steveblank.com/tools-and-blogs-for-entrepreneurs/
“Ever want to start programming or understand startups more and just not know where to start?” That was the line I used to pitch TEKD at the AT&T Hackathon for Social Good.
Tekd is a fun mobile app to help folks reach their tech education goals, whether that is to learn to code, find a community to hack with, or volunteer for a program. The initiative behind this app came from the need to create more awareness and visibility of educational programs in technology for underrepresented groups in the US, especially underrepresented youth. This initiative is called Connect to Tech. It spawned from a roundtable held at the White House in August about Tech Inclusion. The problem is that many people do not know where to start when it comes to entering the tech community. There are many high quality programs emerging right now such as Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, Spark America, Technovation Challenge, and many more. However, if you do not have someone in your family or network who is plugged in then it may be a challenge to find these programs and tech communities. As the founder of Code Scouts told me, “It is about getting an invitation to be part of the tech community.” The Connect to Tech project will hopefully serve as a way to be invited or at least know where the parties are at.
When I started looking at the Connect to Tech project, my product hat immediately went on and I started thinking about how we could build a fun experience that is a platform for the community of learners and the education providers to come together. Just building a boring database with a web front end was not appealing and thankfully there was a hackathon coming up so we could build a mobile app to start building out the various pieces of the Connect to Tech project.
The AT&T Hackthons are pretty intense. Friday night you hear from all these sponsoring companies. People then pitch their ideas and you get to work while the senseis, company representatives, walk around and help teams. With a high level idea in mind of building a fun mobile app to engage learners some Latino Startup Alliance members got to brainstorming. That night we had Jesus, Ed, Ro-el, and myself bouncing around ideas of how we could build an app that used games to assess what kind of learning classes or programs would be best suited for a child. Essentially we were going to build an interactive recommendation system. We knew for this app to be successful we needed a sticky way to keep a child engaged or else he or she would not want to use it. We had grand ideas of how we were going to create a game where a kid played the parent and the data gathered would help select a program for the kid. We could do that in less than 12 hours right?
Ha! A night of sleep cleared our heads! We decided Saturday morning, the main point was to show a recommendation system that helped map classes to the learner and we needed a simple enough use case to build in just one day. If you must get it done in one day another trick to these hackathons is to utilize your sinseis and the sponsoring companies. It’s like having an expert on your team to help you.
We settled on the use case of Lupe. She’s a 27 year old social media professional who wants to make her own website, but does not know where to start to learn the skills she needs. Looking at the sponsoring companies we quickly assessed how to implement this use case and leverage the technologies available. For creating an app quickly, Tiggzi was our best bet. It’s a drag and drop interface to build mobile apps. Tout, was one of the sponsoring companies, which is an app to create 15 second videos and post to your social networks or embed in your app. We decided we could create an app that would collect some demographic data and then show short videos of different learning environments. The user could pick the learning environment type they preferred. The app would then serve up a list of programs best suited for them. For the user database and the database of tech ed programs we picked Apigee, since it had integration with Tiggzi. Lastly, we spoke more with Michelle from the Keen.io team and she gave us great ideas on how we could use their analytics platform to create useful dashboards for our app.
Ro-el and I created the interaction flow and handed it off to Ed to build it in Tiggzi. We put the senseis to work! First Jeremia from Tout and a rep from Tiggzi helped integrate Tout into Tiggzi. Next we had the Tiggzi rep work with the Keen.io API author to integrate Keen.io. Then at some point we had the Apigee and Tiggzi senseis working together to integrate Apigee. We were jamming. Ro-el designed and built out the user interface, Ed was doing all the integrations, and I was creating the data models and doing customer validation to make sure the app was serving a real need. It was a bit tight, but we finished in time with bugs, but we had at least one working path for the demo. A special thanks goes to Michelle and the Keen.io team who not only helped integrate the API, but Michelle stuck around with us all day to help build a dashboard and the Keen.io team starred in one of our learning environment videos!
Our demo went well. We ended up winning one of the drones from the Keen.io team and a year subscription to Tiggzi! WOOT! Plus we met a lot of folks who liked the idea and wanted to know what was its future.
This is only the beginning for a larger platform which will bring together learners and educators. This will become a 4th quarter project for me and hopefully some of the LSA’ers. In the end it is about building an inclusive tech community. At this time we definitely want to collect as many profiles of tech education programs out there so we can make sure they are in the app (see link below). If you’d like to learn more about this project feel free to reach out to me at jennifer at latinostartupalliance dot org.
I started this blog to cover my journey in entrepreneurship among other things. As I am taking personal stock in what has gone on in the last year, I came across this essay I wrote for an application. I thought I would share it since it captures the essence of what and why I want to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps some tenets will resonate with you. At least that is my hope.
Write 2-4 paragraphs on why you want to be an entrepreneur:
“I want to make a difference in the world” is the standard answer to this question. The difference for me is that *I am* making a difference in this world, but not at enough scale and not fast enough to solve the problems I see facing society. I chose my given field of computer science because I knew it would give me the foundation to attack various problems and that technology moves so fast I would never get bored. I am the type of person that must constantly be intellectually stimulated and I can get bored rather quickly. It just so happened that at 6 years old my parents gave me a little QWERTY keyboard as a toy and what I thought was play turned out to be programming. You can say I found my calling rather early in life. This insatiable curiosity is something I feel I will be able to fulfill as an entrepreneur.
However, being a geek has never been enough. I was brought up in a family who was not rich, but still managed to help people. From constraints came creativity and both my mother and father taught me a great deal about this. My father came to this country with $36 to his name. His mottos were “nothing is impossible” and “we all should be a little crazy”. He brought up his kids this way. My mother was deeply spiritual and no matter what hardships were faced, she had this blind faith everything would work out and it did. Even if we had nothing to give she would figure out a way to help people. She would do this repeatedly while being a new immigrant barely speaking English. The examples my parent role models gave me resulted in my ability to go through walls to reach my goals and a tendency to put myself in sticky situations knowing that everything would work out. This showed through many times in my academic and athletic accomplishments. Having courage and perseverance are characteristics that attract me to being an entrepreneur. I do not like taking the easy road and people think I’m weird. Then again, “being a little crazy” to me means I’m on the right track for me.
Lastly, I want to speak about leadership and why it is another reason I want to be an entrepreneur. As much as I am not a talker, it does not mean I am a loaner. I am a do’er and besides I believe we have two ears and one mouth, hence we should listen twice as much as we speak. Being a conformist has never been my forte, therefore, when something feels binding I generally figure a way to change the situation for the better. Since I do not like to reap the benefits by myself, I like more folks to be affected. I have held a myriad of leadership positions throughout my life both formal and informal. If you ask me what is one of my most proudest achievements, I’ll tell you it’s how one summer I went to Harvard Business School for a week , came back to start a mock company with 7 others, and by the end of the summer had a viable business with many potential paying customers. The point is that I could not keep what I learned at Harvard inside, I had to share it, and what better way to share than to put it into action with my friends by solving a need for our internship program. My formula for success has been to find the toughest challenge, master it, standardize it, scale it, teach others (or transition to others), and then move onto the next challenge. Incrementally I get better and in turn I help make others better.
All in all, I know I have the talent to be an entrepreneur. With more coaching and resources, I know I can become a successful one.
Provide 2-4 paragraphs on a field that you are passionate about:
The field I am most passionate about is educational technology. First there is my love for education. I love learning and I love teaching! As much as I have aspired to be a teacher one day, I have never reached the point where I think that is where my talents would be best utilized. Mainly because I think the institution of education is busted and I do not want to attack the issues from within it. However, you do not have to be a teacher to teach. I have held tutoring positions since grade school days and have continued in some form or another to do it on the side or be in a position where I am educating or training people. The reason I am so gun ho about education is because to me education opens doors. Anyone can learn. It is universal. No matter what color, what age, what gender, or what economic status, education is beneficial to all and I believe it is a right to have access to it. This is why so much of my life has been dedicated to either tutoring folks or providing better access to education.
In the last 15 years, most of my work has been done through an organization for the advancement of Hispanics in science and technology called the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). This organization has enabled me to hold several leadership positions in which I have lead events exposing engineering to students at various levels of education. Being a women and a Latina, I am in a unique position to influence and excite students about technology in a time when the number of technical degrees needs to increase. When in college, I worked tirelessly to make sure minorities in engineering majors were utilizing all the resources the university had to offer and surviving college life in general. For many SHPE members, they were the first in their family to go to college; therefore, having a support system at school greatly increased their chances of completing their engineering degrees. Yet, relying on students or volunteers to provide support is not very sustainable. Students have their own studies to worry about and volunteers usually have a full time job. Non-profit organizations may be able to stem the tide, but again without being a self revenue generating entity you’re at the mercy of donors. There has to be a better way. A way technology can address the scalability, sustainability, and accessibility challenges of providing an education.
In summary, here are the three things about me that drive this passion towards educational technology:
- I am passionate about making the world a better place by enabling those around me to do better
- I have an insatiable fascination of people and technology which drives me to find new ways to bring valuable innovation to the masses
- Even though I do not have engineer in my title anymore I am still a geek at heart.
As you have already read, I am technical and this is why educational technology to me is the perfect marriage of two of my loves. The other thing to note, is that the above three characteristics are not specific to any one demographic. I do not care if someone is blue, purple, or green, if they want to learn and get an education then I want to help them. It just so happens that I have focused where I think I can make the most impact, however, my passion has no bounds which is another reason I am excited to be a “maker”, I mean an entrepreneur, and see how much impact I can really achieve.
Hearing how people got into tech is fascinating to me, especially women. (Check out http://ilearnedtoprogram.com) Not that men’s stories are not interesting. It’s that women’s stories tend to have a lot of variability to them. From the age to the role model to the reasons. Here’s my story.
I started programming at the ripe old age of 6. In today’s world that sounds somewhat young, although not very unbelievable considering 18 month year olds know how to play with iPhones and download apps. However, my first encounter with computers was in the early 80’s which was probably not very common for that time.
My parents had their hands full with me. I was a very curious child. I had a knack for taking things apart because I either wanted to understand how they worked or I just didn’t like how they were put together. This meant there was a slew of disassembled toys in my house when I was very young. I remember that Radio Shack was one of my favorite toy stores growing up. Now one might say, Radio Shack, a toy store? Huh? Isn’t it an electronics store? Yes! I loved how it had all the cool robots and gadgets, and they sold battery chargers, which was essential since it seemed like everything I liked playing with needed batteries. I do not remember what the occasion was but one day my mother got me this little bitty keyboard and a companion book which said something with “Basic” on it.
The keyboard was tiny. Not like my parent’s manual typewriter. My little fingers fit perfectly on it. I started reading the manual, a habit I have never lost over time, and connected the keyboard to a TV. Next I went into the companion book and liked the animated pictures of a computer character. Picture Sponge Bob Square Pants, but a computer not a sponge. I followed the directions and typed in what looked like sentences which all started with a number. Within a few minutes and a few lines, I was able to get the screen to print something back at me. I can only imagine the A-HA moment I must have had. “Hmm, type a few lines and the computer talks back to me!” I was hooked as I followed my computer buddy in the book and kept doing more and more interactive programs. Soon enough the computer was asking me what my name was and then asking me how I was and addressing me by name. I’d made a new friend! I think my most impressive program was when I got the computer to make different sounds. I think I begged my parents to buy me a special cable to make that happen.
Ok, so let’s dive into the learning environment a bit more. Remember, I’m 6. I do not know how to type well. I read probably 2 grades higher than normal. I was bilingual so I could read and write in two languages. I had a very short attention span. Especially with the pace of my curious mind I got, still get, bored very easily. I did not have anyone helping me because my father was a microbiologist and more of a hippie not a techie. My mother still has no clue what I studied in school or do for a living. She just knows it has to do with computers. The only encouragement I had was from my guy cousins in Costa Rica who would send me note paper lined with numbered lines. I did not know what the programs did so I didn’t pay much attention to what they would send me.
Interesting, why did I pay attention to my book so much then? To answer let’s look at the technology I was working with. You can look at the technical specs of the Tandy TRS-80 MC 10 here, but from my point of view this was a “mess up once and start over again” toy. Basic is an interpretive language meaning, as you write a line it gets processed. There is no compiling as in write it first then process and find mistakes or run. Hence if I was writing and realized I messed up a few lines back there was no editor to go fix it, I had to start over. Moreover, this system only had 4kB of on-board memory and no persistent memory. Every time I turned it off or hit the reset button all my work would be wiped out only to start over again from scratch. Believe me that red reset button got worn from how much it got pressed.
Given these horrible circumstances why would a child get so enamored with this toy? Back to the book. Remember it was “Computer Bob, Rectangle Keyboard” who was leading me through the exercises. He would show me what to type and then show the outcome. It was almost like a comic strip. Exercises were broken down in a way that they built on top of each other. I could skip around the book and find comics… I mean exercises that interested me. I messed up a lot and pressed that red reset button. Impatiently I would wait for the command prompt to come back up and then start furiously typing again. So why did my cousin’s list of numbered lines not interest me? You can figure it out.
I wish I could say that was the start of a brilliant career where I started my own company by 9 and was on TIME magazine by 10. Ten years later in high school in my computer science class, we were learning to program in a language called Basic. It all seemed so familiar to me and that’s when I realized, “Wait! That book said ‘Basic’ on it and had the same funny lines that started with a number. Was I programming at 6?”
I somewhat chuckled when I heard this. I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. Then I remembered a book I read last year called “Click”by Ori Brafman, which was all about codifying why people click when they meet. I really wanted to understand why with some people it felt like I had known them my whole life and not so much with others.
A lot of the book seemed like common sense to me. I especially remember the chapter about Naturals, a person who can make a new close friend from just meeting a person once. They are called high self-monitors. When I read this chapter I could relate with it a bit, but secretly wished I had that level of clicking power. I seem to be getting there. I might as well tell my version of how I click with people so often.
First, my network is like my family. Maybe it is somewhat cultural. In Latin America, when you do business with someone you usually know all about them. You know how many kids they have, when they have a birthday, etc. That kind of information plus when you greet people you kiss them (on the cheek) creates more intimacy, more of a connection. It’s more than just a cut and dry business relationship it’s a personal relationship. Or maybe it is that I did not grow up with a lot of family around me so when I click with someone I see them as family. Deep down I think I just want to always be surrounded by family since it’s pure bliss when I do get to see my family. Why not have that feeling all the time.
The other trait of mine that may help in my ability to click with people is that I am a bit reserved and humble. I rather listen than talk. I need to warm up to someone before I start to come out of my shell. This gives me the chance to learn a lot about a person right off the bat. People generally like to talk about themselves so this is usually not a problem. However if I do run into someone more introverted than me, then I flip positions and I try to draw them out and make them feel comfortable. Then you can’t get them to shut up.
The third factor I think helps in clicking with people is that I actively listen. This means I do not only hear the words coming out of the person’s mouth, but I pay attention to the tone and pace of their speech. I watch their body language and take special note of what makes them react positively and negatively. The next step is synthesizing these cues and conversing with this person in a way that is complimentary to them. It’s like I’m mirroring them. How do I do it? I cannot explain it. It is as if a conversation is like two musical instruments playing. I am always trying to harmonize and make beautiful music. Or in other words make a connection. I guess once you make a nice song with someone they don’t forget you that easily.
Those are a few things which make it easier for me to click with people. In the end, it’s all about liking people. Well in my case it’s a fascination with people. Everyone has a distinct specialness about them. I just love uncovering it and seeing someone be their best.
I’m on a plane right now on my way home from Central America. Fortunately the long plane rides afford me a lot of time to be pensive and Startup Weekend is on the dome right now.
I’ve been pondering what I wanted to get out of the Women 2.0 Startup Weekend this weekend. It’s my one-year anniversary of starting to go to Startup Weekends. This will be my 3rd. The first one I actually took an iOS programming class the Friday night of the weekend so I could be a developer that weekend for a team. I ended up being the project manager, as I usually tend to be. The last one was an EDU Startup weekend, where I pitched and was the CEO of my own team Pariba. That kicked off a whirlwind 6 weeks (see my previous post). The dust has settled a bit, but I’m still riding that high.
This time I have no clue. I am well versed in product development, especially customer developer. I’ve been advising entrepreneurs this year. Helping them break down their ideas into actual buildable MVPs (or minimal viable products), or high level advising on what type of tech people they might want to look at recruiting, or I just connect people. Make introductions. Go to the introductory meetings. I may only be serving as a connector, but I still like to be at the discussion. Brainstorming is always fun for me. I really like the creative process of not having boundaries. Not having assumptions. Or rather having them, but being open to validating them with actual data. Either way you learn something new. This was a huge jump from the first Startup Weekend were we were so domain specific we did not do a lot of customer development to the last one where we were calling moms and interviewing them.
Ok so let’s do some idea brainstorming…
Pariba, which is a customized itinerary of local educational activities, was born from seeing many of my single mom friends overwhelmed with their day to day that on weekends they just didn’t have the energy to plan fun and educational activities for their kids. Instead sitting at home watching TV, going to the mall or a park was the default. There’s also the fact that many parents do not know what extra things they can do to enhance their child’s education. I once read in Freakonomics, that parents who have a lot of books in the house will probably have higher educated children than those parents who do not have a lot of books in the house. It’s not to say the kids read these books, it’s to say that a parent’s educational level highly correlates with the education level of their offspring. But that’s bleak! So if you do not have a good education your kid is screwed. I say Nay! My vision is that no matter what language or education level a parent has, she can enable her child to have a better education.
Ok, so I played through with that vision a bit as I iterated on Pariba. One missing piece that somewhat held me back was that I do not have children. As much as I see things that I think I would never do as a parent. Until I walk that walk, I really don’t know. It doesn’t mean I can’t do a whole lot of customer research to understand the problem space, but I think there’s a better way to use my experience and knowledge.
What does that mean? It means zooming out and asking myself what is a different way to express my passion for a more educated youth. A means to an end that is fun and educational. Mentorship has always ranked very high. I get very excited about talking to students about their interests, especially if it’s in computing. If so then you cannot get me to shut up about my experiences and what I think they might want to check out to explore their interests. Most of the time I want to be there playing with them, tinkering and making stuff. There are several programs out there that do this. What do I think should be different or added? The mentorship part. Events and activities, even longer programs are great for one time exposure, but a student needs consistent exposure and I argue one that is tailored to her. Hence the mentoring piece is missing. Again there are mentoring programs out there, like mentor-net. Do they work? I don’t know. I have yet to use them. Mentors have come and gone for me, yet they were huge in forming my achievement path.
Now comes the scaling question. What should my bandwidth be as a mentor to be effective? Do I need to have one on ones with all proteges? Is it really about mentorship or about creating a safe community for perspective mentors and proteges to come together? How do I spread my advice and experience further than a few proteges? What jumps out at me as a take away from my 9 days in Costa Rica is, given a degradation in the usual after-work day hours, how I kept my productivity moving forward. I say after-work day hours because my days are not just your usual 8 -10 hours at the office. I have a slew of other commitments that can easily occupy another 20 hours in my week. However, on this vacation once I shut down my computer from work if I could not easily do it on my iPad it was not happening. This led to twitter being my main way to get any extracurricular work done. 140 character replies or direct messages were easy to shoot off and receive. Which means that perhaps mentoring and tweeting can be combined to be a viable form of mentorship or at least one of the tools that can be used as a low touch mentor program or part of a larger mentor program. I have a hunch that other types of busy people, say parents would have this time slicing issue after work as well. Also, since I had no phone coverage, but I tend to do a lot of tweeting from my phone I would think this is a good mobile app not just for iPads. Yay, I already have some assumptions to test out.
Hmmmm Mentoreet or maybe WeetMentor?
… to be continued after Startup Weekend.
Often other technical women ask me what was my path from being a coder to a product manager. I’ve recounted the same steps over and over again. I coded for several years. Got a taste of working with clients. Liked the more social aspects of working with non-technical people and then using my technical skills to advise them. Was very good at organizing projects and getting things done. Did not want to keep building customized solutions and wanted to build actual products. Hacking shifted from code to requirements and project plans. Now it’s more about customer development and product definitions. Creativity shifted from the most elegant technical solution to finding a way to make life better for a consumer. From scalable architectures to viable business models, this has been the journey so far and I’m loving where I am.
However, it wasn’t until recently that I started looking at the path from another view and asking different questions. This did not come to mind until I was asked for advice on the career path of another technical woman to see if PM would be a good fit for her. The catalyst for this questioning was that coding was not her strength and maybe another role would be more fitting. Mind you, this was a 3rd person’s evaluation. Without much more thought, I went through my usual story of my journey to P* M. P* because I’ve been a Project manager, Program Manager, and now Product Manager. I guess to be more accurate I should say Pro* M. Anyways, I thought I did a good thing in helping with the guidance of another person’s career.
Wait a minute did I just encounter a stereotype of “person can’t code hence must be better suited for a PM role”? Hey now! I took issue with this postulate. I know, I know this could have not been the intention of the person asking me for advice, but what if this stereotype was true? Had people equated this formula to me? I started analyzing. This statement was not true for me. I was a good coder and enjoyed it immensely in my first job. Getting into technical discussions was awesome. I’d geek out, learn a lot, and go back to coding. I didn’t want to see daylight. I was working on the internals of a database engine and could not be happier.
The job where I started to ponder a career shift was the next one, Shady.com. No, that was not the real name, but that’s what it felt like. Everything from sexual harassment to embezzling money was going on there. Needless to say I somewhat hated life there. It was the stereotypical engineering environment of older white men. I was the youngest and one of the two female engineers. My only saving grace was that the professional services manager needed help and asked me to do some work for a client. I was off the technical ladder after that company.
AHA! – Now I see another strong force which contributed to my shift in career path. My environment as a programmer had become hostile and I did not feel comfortable anymore and I sought a more welcoming environment which at that time was professional services. All along, I thought my path to product management was a pull, where I was being pulled by a career that better fitted me. Now I, sadly, realize it was also a push. The technical environment began to push me out.
Now when I read an article like “Women moving up without moving out (of technology)”, I can relate to it more. I can’t believe I was blind to it in my own life for so long. I know now that when I talk to someone who is thinking of shifting from a developer to a Pro* M that I dive deeper into her environment. Let’s face it, coding is tons of fun! Building cool things is exhilarating, but if your environment sucks then maybe it’s time to change environments not careers.
Two pivots in 6 weeks
This year it is no secret that the entrepreneurial bug has come back to bite me and bite harder this time around. I’m still crazy for education and technology. A decade ago I was right out of school and ready to take on the world. The world of hacking that is since I was a developer back then. Now, I am still ready to take on the world, but a lot wiser and not as financially free as before. This is a story of how in just 6 weeks I had an entrepreneurial rebirth and pivoted twice.
In the start up world “pivoting” is changing the product direction to keep the business afloat and hopefully moving forward. It does not mean changing your vision, just your implementation of it. In this case I am the product, hence Product of Me (POM). My vision is to “Go big or go home”, meaning to have a huge impact by bringing valuable innovation to the masses.
As I got more into the startup scene, I became a quick study of the Lean Startup model. Where building a start up is about validated learning through a build, measure, learn loop (see the figure). You go through this loop to get to product/market fit. If done properly you iterate through the loop quicker each time. What I had not realized is that I pretty much ended up applying the principles to myself, but at a more macro level. I thought my idea was the product, but really I was the product and the market was the best environment for me to express my vision right now.
Lean Startup Validation of POM
Here I will go through the steps I went through to find that product/market fit over a very fast-paced 6 weeks.
I have the entrepreneurial skills to create an idea, attract a team, and develop an ecosystem for success.
This is where I started out. If this hypothesis was not true then I might as well marry rich (JK!!!) or keep working for someone.
Develop a pitch around an idea.
I was peddling around a pitch as a way to prove out my assertion. No code or deep research was needed. I just needed enough effort to be able to talk articulately about my idea and see if it resonated with anyone.
- Can I build a team? Pariba team at Startup Weekend Education
With just a 1 minute pitch gathered a 6 person team and delivered a great presentation after 54 hours of work.
- Can I build a base of potential advisers? – Latino2 conference reinforced support from LATISM, SHPE, and the White House.
Being on a “Latinas in Technology” panel afforded me the opportunity to tell my Startup weekend story and gather a lot of great feedback and new contacts.
- Do I really have entrepreneurial potential? – Accepted into Founder Institute, a very competitive incubator program.
- Can I get attention of others at scale? – Social network grew 100+%, Klout score shot up to 55.
- I learned that I have the charisma to get people excited even if my idea sucks. Being in leadership positions for so long, I have picked up the skills to deliver a memorable presentation to a crowd. And for one on one interactions, it turns out that I know a thing or two about “Building instant connections.” See Ecorner talk by Ori Brafman. So am I just a good sales person? I need to test that next round.
- Gaining momentum is not that hard, but keeping it is harder than you could ever imagine
- Am I still fitting “Go Big or Go Home”? Thanks to the Founder Institute, I could really get a feel for the amount of work it takes to be an entrepreneur. Full-time job + start-up + solo founder == too much work for one and I can go bigger by joining forces with someone else.
Put original idea on hold and join another project. Be the technical and product person.
Time to pivot: 4 weeks
- Started coding again. Doing technical analysis of potential architecture
- Did customer development through several interviews on the new project
- Refine the pitch
- Am I more productive by being on a team? Not really. Average sleep time ~4 hours a night
- Am I just a good sales person? No, because I was using canned interviews to get user feedback not pitches that could bias a user.
- Go big or go home fit? Inconclusive, since I was still in the middle of market research for new project
- Idea good enough to keep moving forward and building out an MVP and creating a pilot program
- I really like doing the customer development by talking with potential customers
- I really enjoy helping folks brainstorm, refine ideas, put together product development plans
- Even with a new idea I can still deliver a good pitch, as warranted by some serial entrepreneur mentors.
- As it is, I cannot function at a high enough level to “Go Big” I need to make more time or decrease scope.
100% dedication to start-up like work project that has high risk, but very high impact potential.
Time to pivot: 11 days
What a journey so far. In just 6 weeks, I was able to iterate a few times and find my Product of Me market fit. All the while working the Lean Startup model and getting faster at each iteration. However, that was just the end of one pivoting cycle. I am still living the startup life. I’m back to listing out assumptions, building out the methods to test and validate them, and then iterating as fast as we can go. What are Open Web Apps? That narrative is what I am helping define. I’m in full customer development mode and loving it.
Stay tuned for more adventures…
For those wondering where the love for education went, now that I’m more in a technology play. Please don’t fret. I’m still on the national board of directors for the largest organization of technical Hispanics in the US and on the alumni advisory board for the computer science department of my alma mater among other involvement in educational outreach events. Education is still very much a part of my life.