A Delicious Metaphor for Painless Prioritization

When I think about my own personal time management, I sometimes have to remind myself: “I can do anything; I just can’t do everything.” This is true about building products in the digital space too. No matter how effective and speedy the development shop is, product and project managers are responsible for reminding the stakeholders that we live in a world of finite resources, and that once we have our laundry list of all the stuff we want, we have to decide what stuff is more important than the other stuff.

This is always harder than you think it’s going to be, because the product you are building in real life is always competing with one the stakeholder imagined in her mind. I sometimes find it useful to employ a bit of shorthand to help everyone speak the same language when prioritizing. Metaphors are very effective for that, and ice cream is great, so here we go!

High Priority: The Ice Cream

Represents the features that constitute the basic conditions for satisfying the business need. Not a picture of ice cream, not ice cream without flavor, but a real, delicious, sweet frozen treat in at least one tasty flavor. It’s not worth doing the project ‘go get ice cream’ without this set of functionality. When imagining a new digital product, try to identify the pieces of work that are non-negotiable – the things for which the statement “It’s not worth doing this without x” evaluates to true. These are your success criteria. They are the minimum feature set necessary to be able to say that the product developed moves the business closer toward its objectives. As much as is possible, product managers must work to recalibrate their stakeholders’ expectations to maintain focus on this feature set. Remember, ice cream is, by itself, delicious.

Medium Priority: The Cone

After we’ve addressed the basic minimal needs of the product, we can start to look at features that add some more substance to the product. I relate these features to the cone: also quite tasty, definitely an improvement over the basic paper cup and spoon, convenient and environmentally-friendly disposal mechanism. But it stops short of being high priority because by itself, it does not make or break the ice cream experience. You wouldn’t go to an ice cream shop and ask to buy a sugar cone by itself because that would be crazy. The cone only adds value to the ice cream. It’s good at its job, but ultimately it’s not a ‘project ice cream’ dealbreaker. Try and imagine the features that would eliminate pain from the user’s process even if, without those features, the user could still get the job done.

Low Priority: Sprinkles

Asking for a bunch of sprinkles without an ice cream cone would make even less sense than asking for a cone by itself, and that’s because the sprinkles really only have any value when added on top of a solid foundation of sweet frozen dessert. In terms of digital products, this category describes those features that are nice-to-have, but require that the high-value items — remember, they are the reason we are doing the work — are in place before they make any sense or add any business value.

Prioritization can be a difficult exercise no matter what metaphors you use. No stakeholder is excited to imagine a world in which they don’t get all the things they want. Whatever analogy you choose to use, going through this exercise is critical for organizing your team’s effort to help ensure you minimize risk and maximize the odds that you will actually deliver on all of the value that the stakeholder needs.

How you sabotage your efforts to hire inclusively

There are reasons why your teams still look like this

I recently finished a year-long job hunting process aimed at the role of product manager, which ended with me taking a position at a product development agency that I feel very fortunate to be a part of. While the team contends with the same problem of homogeneity that plagues the tech industry as a whole, we are aware of it and making conscious strides to try to draw people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

In the year that I spent wading in the world of tech recruitment, I filled out countless online applications, attended a handful of interviews, and showed up at meetups, happy hours, and open houses at company headquarters. It was tough sometimes, but it came with one advantage: I got a front row seat to some of the best and worst recruiting tactics the tech scene has to offer. I attended an open house recruitment event where the hiring managers spent the evening drinking and conducting interviews like speed dating. I had a job offer rescinded because I took a day to think it over and in the meantime they found a ‘better fit’. I tailored countless cover letters to the hyper-masculine messages: We need rockstars with hustle! Get shit done! Grind! Hustle! Rockstar! Is that you? If not, don’t even think about applying! Etc. Am I doing this right?

Below are a few of the ways that companies might sabotage their ability to create an inclusive culture. I focus largely on women, but these issues apply to all minorities; most are more affected than I have been due to white privilege.

You have said the words “it’s a pipeline problem” and meant them.

There are a ton of cultural reasons why women don’t pursue tech careers in the numbers they once did, but we don’t do the issue any service when we pretend it is the only explanation and abdicate our responsibility.

You recruit exclusively from your existing tech network.

Tech ecosystems – even the ones working hard to evolve – are notoriously homogeneous. Find ways to creatively reach beyond people you know.

You only recruit at the same networking events all the time.

Attending only evening events will make you less likely to meet excellent candidates who have after-work obligations like picking the kids up from school, getting them to karate or soccer practice, getting dinner on the table – still disproportionately women. I moderate a biweekly coffee club in the morning because it is way easier for me to accommodate that than to change around evening plans. Vary the types of events you attend and the ways you reach into the community.

You fail to diversify your hiring committees and panels.

Homogenous groups have historically not been shining examples of meritocracy when it comes to evaluating people who don’t look like them. If you have the ability, stack those committees with people that represent the diverse culture you want to create. Not only will they be more fair in their evaluations, they will also show minority candidates that they are represented in the company. You can also curb this issue by conducting blind hiring exercises using tools like Blendoor.

Your education/experience requirements are inflexible.

A requirement that a candidate must have a computer science degree, for example (or, frankly, a college degree at all) is a blunt instrument. It’s a great way to weed out great candidates that don’t meet a requirement that isn’t actually required to do the job as often as job postings would make it seem. It doesn’t honor the huge variety of life paths and educational experiences that lead different people to the same role. Again, while there are a lot of cultural reasons why women and minorities are much less likely to pursue or finish computer science degrees than their white male peers, it’s a fact, so by requiring it you are decreasing the odds that a person of color or a woman will fill the job. Is it worth that if the job doesn’t really call for it?

You fail to actively seek out minority candidates.

You’re expecting those candidates to come to you and you’re not willing to do any extra legwork to identify them, find roles for them in your workforce, or convince them your company is a welcoming place to work for them. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Salesforce have directors of diversity for a reason – they recognize that it’s not just about meeting quotas, it’s about changing the face and culture of your workforce, and that takes planning, effort, and resources. Are you wondering if it is okay for you to say in a forward, public way, ‘we would really like to see more applications from women of color’ or similar statements? It is.

There are no minorities on your leadership team.

Even worse, there are few, if any, minorities to speak of on your entire team. Representation matters. When people don’t see people who look like themselves on your team, it makes it more difficult for them to visualize themselves there; this might even be turning good candidates away from applying. Further, if they don’t see anyone who looks like them in your leadership, they might also worry about their upward mobility. This is a problem that takes time and concerted effort to fix.

You penalize women for negotiating salary or other elements of an offer.

I hope most companies would never dream of doing this, but it’s not always intentional. My rescinded offer happened right after I asked questions about medical coverage, the stock options they thought were such a great perk (always ask what the total shares are), and if I could think it over for a day and talk it over with my husband. I didn’t get an opportunity to negotiate, but got the sense that having the audacity to interrogate the offer was a misstep. I have sincere doubts that this would have happened to a man in the same position.

Avoid falling into this behavior by interrogating your responses to negotiation: would I react this way if a man were asking these questions? Am I being fair?

You require candidates to disclose their current salary and use that to determine what you offer.

Massachusetts made this illegal.  You should be basing your salaries on what the job is worth to the company. Since women and minorities are more likely to begin their careers with pay disparities, each subsequent job that requires them to disclose their current salary puts them at greater risk of losing more earnings over the course of a lifetime. Math has been done to back this up. Ideally, companies would share a range right off the bat – but at the very least, allow applicants to state what they feel is a fair market rate for their position as a requirement.

Just be more human.

If you are in a hiring role in technology, these are just a few practical ideas you can try. I’m asking you to be more thoughtful and human in your hiring. Realize which of your habits and behaviors are sabotaging your culture. Ask yourself if you would want to be treated in the way you’re about to treat an applicant, and if the answer is no, do something about it.