Why You Need Engineers In Your Life

In my house we’re a bit sentimental about cars. My parents loved road trips so much that by the age of 16 I’d been to to every continental state but one. Our family car had a name: Bessie. We’d say “Do you think Bessie can get up this hill?” when in the mountains or “Bessie is a bit overheated and needs to rest.” when encountered with the blazing hot desert sun for too many hours. No matter which car we had her name was always Bessie. And when a car had to go to graveyard in the sky we’d mourn her as if we’d lost a member of the family. You might think we anthropomorphize our cars a bit too much but see, my dad is an engineer. For 30+ years he developed prototypes for GM. He worked on the really innovative, progressive stuff that often never saw the light of day but would advance the field with every project he undertook. Because he was an engineer who was also a mechanic, he loved to tinker on cars which meant we never drove new cars except for the company car he was given to drive.

When I 16 learned how to drive a car. Along with braking, blinkers and the value of bumpers I was taught three additional things:
1. How to drive a stick shift
2. How to dutifully write down the mileage and amount of gas at each fill-up
3. How to listen to your car

Although all three have been very useful in my driving history it’s the third one that has had the biggest impact on my life. When I got my first car, a 1979 dark blue hatch back Aster, my dad sat me down to talk to me about listening to my car.

“Listen for an unusual noise.”

“Like what?”

“Well, that can vary but mostly listen for a new noise.”
“ok. Listen for new noises and then tell dad.”

“Now, when you’re telling me about a new noise don’t tell me “The clutch is broken.” Tell me what it sounds like. For instance, when I accelerate I hear a loud noise on passenger side of the car near the front wheel.”

“OK. So I describe the noise or condition I am experiencing.”

“Right.”

And on and on this went. At the time frankly I thought my dad was a bit nuts and I hated driving old cars. I wished he did something else for a living like say be a banker so we’d have lots of money or be an artist because he’d be the coolest dad in the neighborhood. But alas, he was a born engineer. His predilection for this way of diagnosing actually started when I was probably no more than 6 or 7. If I was sick he’d ask me a number of questions that required deeply listening to what my body was saying before I asked him to take me to the doctor. “Does it feel worse in the morning or at night?” “Is the pain getting worse or better?” “Is it a scratchy feeling like sandpaper or more like you have a big golf ball stuck in your throat?"

 When you have an engineer for a father you get cool drawings like this in your inbox with a request to talk about the potential problem with your trans axle when you have a few minutes.

What an Engineer Knows
As I got older and I moved into my career I began to feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I was finally able to see that what my dad gave me was far more valuable than an expensive designer purse or having that “cool" factor. He taught me how to listen and how to diagnose. I learned how to listen deeply. How to decipher the serious from the mundane. How to pull a part a problem to tell if there was more than one condition present. I learned how to not make assumptions but rather to observe first.

Although I work with people and organizations rather than cars, the training he gave me as a young child has become very critical to my career success. When someone comes to me with some sort of people, organizational and promotional challenge, I begin by listening and observing. I pay attention to what they say. I hear what they don’t say. I look out for nuances. I try to separate out complexities of a challenge and break them down into more manageable chunks. Now my mantra is:

Seek to understand then seek to be understood.
        

Stephen Covey

Why You Should Be Friendly With An Engineer
Growing up with a proudly geek dad is why I find myself most at ease with developers and other engineer types. Even though we speak different languages, me the language of emotional intelligence and organizational behavior, and they of machine behavior, we seem to process the world using a similar map. As an adult I am thrilled that I grew up with an engineer for a father. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’re an engineer of any sort--thank you for using your talents to make our world a better, more workable place. If you're not one but know an engineer, take a minute to get to know the way they think.

You're sure to learn something new about problem solving. And that's a mighty powerful thing.

Time Travel

Time travel and their accompanying time machines have always fascinated me. Most of my favorite films and books play with the notion of time (The Matrix, The Time Traveler's Wife, Pulp Fiction, Timeline, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency to name a few).

A desire to relive happy moments, make a different choice (uber short bangs as a college freshman) or make a different decision to see how my life would turn out are the impetus.

I've created my own sort of time machine with my A Simple Question practice. Looking back to what was going on a year ago affords the opportunity to measure which direction my life is going. Knowing this arms me with the information I need to engineer a turnaround or continue what I'm doing.

Now there's Timehop, a service that reminds you what was going on a year ago. It gives me a quick, easy way to connect with my year-ago self.

A year ago I was nursing a relationship hangover, taking a memoir writing class, trying to decide where I wanted to live and looking for my next gig. Can you say transition? I actually love times like this when things are so raw and...so free. A year later I oddly find myself in another transition--by choice. Once again I have consented to lose sight of the shore to discover new land (credit to Andre Gide).

   

I am a woman without a permanent address or long-term gig at the moment. Being betwixt and between can be challenging, requiring a zen state of mind. Time traveling back 365 days was a great reminder that I've been here before and that things always work out in beautiful if unexpected ways.

8 Weeks Away From Having To Get A Job

The latest episode of TechStars shows the entrepreneurs at week six of the program. It seems that most of the teams are settling in. This episode was filled with many great sound bite gems. It was the Fred Wilson and David Tisch show in this regard. My favorite is this one...

"They're about 8 weeks away from having to get a job."

I love this quote by David Tisch because it highlights a real problem for most entrepreneurs: having a short runway money-wise. Many, many teams face this dilemma.

Here are a few others...

"Don't make it too complicated." Fred Wilson (about the product)

"He is mind numbingly frustrating." David Tisch (about OnSwipe CEO)

"Do they have the entrepreneurial DNA to create an interesting and innovative company?" Fred Wilson

"I've been disconnected with his ability to relate with me as a person." David Tisch (again, about the OnSwipe CEO)

The Themes of this Episode

1. Name issues continue
This week three of the teams officially change their names. Homefield became Shelby.tv. Urban Apt transformed to Nestio and Socrated metamorphosed into Veri. Generally better names. The name change of the latter actually made Fred Wilson proclaim that this made them go "from the outhouse to the penthouse." Wiji's name, although not loved, sticks. For now.

2. CEO leadership

This theme showed up all over the show. Particularly questions about whether the CEO's had the right skills to be a great leader. The questions range from whether a CEO can sell, if another one has the ability to connect with people and yet whether another one can really build a business. We'll see the answers to this soon and I suspect at least one or more of these CEO's will pull through.

3. Pivots

According to Bloomberg, 1/3 of TechStars companies pivot during the program. With Homefield and To Vie For looking at pivots it seems this class is on target with this. Some of the mentor's concerns with the Homefield pivot to a web-wide video recommendation site was that it's a crowded category and whether they had false passion for the category. To Vie For was also looking to pivot but to what? That still remains up in the air. As the CEO said, they're having an identity crisis. Looking forward to seeing what happens.

Pivots are common but tough to navigate. And sometimes they're something more akin to what I like to call Startup Schizophrenia under the guise of a pivot. Preparing a post about this. In the meanwhile, pivots are looking very possible for a number of our TechStars companies.

We'll see how this all plays out.

TechStars Mayhem: Celebrating a Community

Boulder is an outstanding place to live because of it's an entrepreneurial enclave. Being nestled up right against the Rocky Mountains doesn't suck either. Last night was a big one for my fair city with the premier of the TechStars show on Bloomberg TV.

TechStars feels like my family. Even though I'm not a graduate of the program, some of my clients are and I count many friends among their number. But that's not why it feels that way. There's something special about it that not every company has.

 

TechStars is more than a company.

It's a movement.

It's a community.

I commend David Cohen, Brad Feld, Jared Polis, Nicole Glaros, Andrew Hyde and the many mentors for creating such a strong community where the attitude is welcoming, generous and always fun where they never take themselves too seriously. Although they had turned down opportunities to film the program before, they finally took Bloomberg TV up on the opportunity during the inaugural NYC class this past winter. The result is a 6 week series.

Techstars hosted a fun night of mayhem at the Boulder Theatre to commemorate the premier. I was lucky enough to be able to attend. It was a lively evening of sound bites and on camera drama. Just before the premier we had a chance to see the hilarious short I'm a VC written by Jason Mendelson featuring the Foundry Group. If you haven't seen it before or are like me and never get tired of seeing Seth eat sushi out of a car window, here it is.

 

This tongue planted firmly in cheek short film is something I could watch over and over again. Um, and actually have.  If you look closely you can catch cameos by some of Boulder's local entrepreneurs. After that it was on to the first episode of TechStars.


 

Some of my favorite moments:

- "You're not here because of your ideas. We didn't fund your idea. We funded you." David Cohen and "At the core of what we're doing is picking people. We're betting on people." David Tisch. This is such a key element to the TechStars program and to entrepreneurship. It's also one of the things people are most likely to neglect to consider when forming their startup. Which is a bad idea. People first. Then the idea.

- When one of the companies likened David Cohen to The Oracle in The Matrix. My favorite movie of all time and a pretty apt way to describe him from my experience.

- Mentor whiplash. Not the first time I've heard that term but always makes me smile in recognition when I hear it. I'm hoping they talk more about it this season as learning how to be discerning with all the advice you get to discover patterns that emerge and make decisions to move your business forward is critical for entrepreneurs.

- Any moment when David Tisch is onscreen. That man is the king of the sound bite. I had heard that he is bright and very direct in his assessments. I also learned that he's funny. I can't wait to see more of him this season.

After the show premiered David Cohen and Brad Feld held a Q&A session. Their answers were incredibly insightful and of course, funny. Sadly I missed getting one of the funny moments of the night camera. It's right after the clip below. Let's just say the answer involved something about porn and knowing an entrepreneur when you see one. You had to be there.

Anyway, here's the clip which has some great advice for inspiring entrepreneurs who want to apply to the program. Apologies for the shaky camera work and any ensuing nausea. My arms were getting tired from holding up the camera at that point. Watch it for the advice.