David Gunn is a man who gets things done. He was the president of the New York City Transit Authority for six years and is the sole reason that you don’t see or have ever seen graffiti on subway cars.

Gunn had a few goals for the NYC subway. But, he also knew that most of his goals would be a long burn, and people needed to see change and progress now. They had to feel like a difference was being made. So Gunn made cleaning the trains the overarching goal. 

Gunn was ruthless about achieving his goal. He knew what it was and knew what it wasn’t. His goal wasn’t to increase the number of cars in service, reduce accidents, or improve on time rate. His goal was to provide clean trains and was very clear on what tradeoffs he was willing to accept to achieve that goal.

So when graffiti artists “bombed” (as in tagged an entire train) a car the MTA would pull it from the system, no matter what. It was difficult to do this, even for Gunn. During this time he said, ”It was tough going at first. One day I ended up pulling 500 cars out of service.” Imagine what your commute would look like if 500 cars were pulled out of service - it would be terrible. Gunn didn’t care about your commute for that day. He was playing the long game, he had a goal to achieve. 

Gunn achieved his goal of cleaning the trains, and people knew it because they could see it. The trains were cleaner. And because Gunn saw cleaning as part of maintenance the trains weren’t just cleaner. They were also more reliable, so they started breaking down less. 

The hardest thing I’ve found about achieving goals is that everyone has a different idea of what you can or can’t do to meet the goal. Gunn understood this and made it very clear what hard tradeoffs he was willing to accept to achieve the goal of clean trains. And that’s true of achieving any goal. It’s more

This post was heavily inspired by 99percentinvisible's podcast Clean Trains which is a superb story about David Gunn’s campaign to clean the NYC subways and a great piece of NYC history. You should stop everything you’re doing and go listen to it now. 

This past week I struggled with my triathlon training. Every day I woke up and went out to train I felt tired and unmotivated. My swim felt labored, my legs felt like bricks (even not on brick sessions), and the weight during my lifts felt heavier than usual. But what made it even worse was only a few minutes in to any of my training sessions I just wanted to stop. 

I still want to keep training for my triathlon. In fact, the training is usually a lot of fun. But with still over 40 days until my race I find myself stuck in the struggle.

It’s not a short enough time frame to get excited, it’s also not enough of a time frame to feel like I’ll be able to make any real strides performance wise. 

This isn’t unlike the struggle that happens throughout product development or the life of a startup. Sometimes the goal seems far away, but you also feel a little helpless. Sometimes, it seems like you’ll never get past the next few months or releases, and you just don’t want to go into the office in the morning. 

Going through them a few time, and getting to know the early signs of a struggle certainly helps. But, I’ve found that the only way to get through these types of struggles are to grin and bear them. And if you do, you’ll almost always finish the race. 

I’ve been following Lookback for a while now. I think that they have an amazing product and it seems that they’re building it in a very smart way. This past week Jonathan Littke - a founder of Lookback - tweeted a link to a blog post he wrote about the past few years at Lookback. 

If you’re interested in learning how you start a company I suggest you read through it. You can read the post here

The post is very honest and transparent. It highlights all the major points of buildling Lookback.

  1. Investment
  2. Growth and Customers
  3. Press
  4. Team
  5. Economy
  6. Product

One of my favorite excerpts from this post is around what Lookback learned about how to build their product.

Having a single, irreplaceable core feature has allowed us to keep focused on maximizing its potential and discover great use cases for the product.

Lookback might still be in their early stages but based on where there product is and what they’ve learned, I’d find it difficult to believe they’re not going to succeed. 

The other day while getting my fingers stained with blueberry juice I had a thought occur to me. How did the limited choices of dye affect the colors chosen for the U.S. flag? 

Since it’s Independence Day and many of us are out there celebrating with U.S. flags or the colors of the flag I thought it would be great to explore this. 

The first synthetic dye was introduced in 1856, long after the first appearance of the U.S. flag in 1777. So the dyes that were used in the flag had to be natural dyes. The most well known and accessible dyes at the time were indigo and carmine. Carmine (red) dyes were gathered from madder plants or female cochineal insects. Indigo (blue) dyes were gathered from indigo plants. 

In a way, the U.S. flag came about through creativity through limitations. I find that pretty fitting for our nation. 

This morning I had a Twitter conversation with garychou and Tina about getting feedback on what you work on. Better yet, what you build. You can get most of the back and forth we had on Twitter here

There were a couple of important things that came out of our conversation. Maybe they’re obvious, maybe they’re not - I wanted to share them either way.

When you’re in the early stages of development whether or not you’re receiving positive or negative feedback doesn’t matter. It’s far more important to ensure that you’re receiving valid feedback. You can act on positive or negative feedback - you can’t act on invalid feedback. It gives you absolutely nothing. 

But more importantly show what you’re making to who you’re making it for. If you’re making something for artists, show it to artists. You can abstract this even further. If you’re making something for the internet, show it to the internet. And one more abstraction gets you at if you’re making something for people, show it to people. 

When I was in high-school I played in the pit band. Every year we would play the music for the yearly musical that was put on by the drama club. Over the course of a few months we would learn the entire score and perform for two nights. 

For four years it always went the same way. We would practice once to twice a week and kind of glance over the music. Then when there was two weeks left to a dress rehearsal we’d get serious. Suddenly the music started sounding a lot better. Careless mistakes were avoided, and we didn’t miss a beat (pun intended). The day before dress rehearsal we would be in great shape. 

Whether it be a product, project, or high school musical, a sense of urgency is important. It’s what keeps everyone on the team sharp and efficient. 

Nothing’s really changed since those days in high school playing in the pit band. No matter what I’ve worked on or who I’ve worked with instilling a true sense of urgency is difficult. But there are some tactics that can be used to simulate - as best as possible - a sense of urgency. 

Schedule demo days. The earlier and more public the better. Everyone wants to show off their hard work and be recognized for it. Formalizing a demo date gives everyone on the team an objective to work towards to before the “real date”. You can even schedule a few so that you can show progress throughout the course of the project or product development. 

Get objective feedback. Again, the earlier the better. No matter how good the vision of the product is, or how you’re excited about working on a product nothing motivates a team like hearing real life objective feedback. If the team hears a customer say that the current version of the product isn’t good you can bet that they’re going to want to fix the product for that customer, and quickly. 

Reinforce the vision and raise awareness. When you think you’ve talked about the product enough, that’s probably when you should talk about it some more. A product vision has to be reinforced early and often until everyone understands and can repeat that same vision. By reinforcing the vision, awareness across a team or organization also increases. Soon, it’s not just the team working on the product that’s excited about it, it’s the whole damn company. That’s sure to make any team feel that what they’re working on is urgent (and important). 

I’ve found that there is no substitute for the real thing. But simulating it as best as possible does come somewhat close, and leads to far better results. Sometimes, more than just a few days before the product goes live. 

For the past few weeks I’ve read a Five Thirty Eight article every single day, and I’ve been loving it. I can’t remember the last time that happened with any media outlet, or for that matter dedicated site. 

I’ve been a fan of Nate Silver’s “style” since before Five Thirty Eight - but when he started Five Thirty Eight I was both excited and skeptical. I wanted his style to be applied to not just politics or sports, but many other areas. But, I also knew that he wouldn’t be able to write every article on his own. So I figured he’d hire writers, they would be good but wouldn’t be able to execute Nate’s style the same way. I’ve been proven pretty wrong. 

Every article on Five Thirty Eight feels as if it were written by the same writer. The approach to the article and the quality of the analysis performed is always dead on. It’s pretty amazing. You might think this is a bad thing but I think it’s great. Especially when you’re trying to deliver a very specific style of writing - or to be even more accurate, journalism. 

The other thing that has made Five Thirty Eight special for me is that it’s one of a kind. It’s goal is to present information and data that makes it accessible to everyone, and then lets everyone make up their mind. They don’t rely on which argument is better, or strong opinions, they rely on data and I like that. 

Five Thirty Eight has done an excellent job in not only executing a clear vision for their publication, but also filling a huge void in journalism. If you haven’t ready anything on Five Thirty Eight I recommend you do so right now. 

Everyone wants to do the right thing. So we struggle to answer the question, “What’s the right thing to do?” 

We ask ourselves this question about products we build, retention methods, marketing tactics, technology we develop, and so on. But in trying to answer the question, it’s transformed into a question about success. This can make the wrong thing feel like the right thing without anyone is noticing. 

Having success is important, but I don’t think it should ever come at the cost of doing the right thing. And if you want to do the right thing, you have to figure out what the right thing is. 

Only thinking about what the right thing for success is can make you focus on the wrong things. 

It’s harder to figure out what is the right thing to do in general. You have to think about a the people, the customers, and the business. But I think it also makes being continuously successful that much less of a struggle. 

Note: How to think about what you need to do the right thing for (people, customers (product), and business) comes straight out of Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It’s the best way to date that I’ve found to think about things like this. 

I found this post on my Twitter feed earlier this week - you can read it here. It’s an interesting post on attempts to use design and technology for social good. 

This type of “social good” work makes the design process ineffective. Poverty and racism, etc. are not poorly designed systems. They are systems working exactly as they were designed.

Regardless of how you might react to the post I can guarantee you it will make you think. It puts things into perspective. While design and technology might help solve problems, the people who can build the design and technology for social good don’t really know the problems. 

If nothing else it calls for those of us who are involved in design and technology to be responsible about what we build. 

The title says it all. Today I hiked 12 miles on the Appalachian trail with Gillian and Raphael.

It felt incredible to get away from the city and out into nothing. Nothing was fighting for our attention. There weren’t any phones buzzing or crowds to manage.Just quiet, the trail, and us talking. 

I also find that hiking just brings everything back to basics. You eat and drink what you have - the choices are simple. There’s also something to be said about traveling using your own power. 

It was a perfect day.