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Ducks in a Row: Attracting Women to STEM? Simple

April 28th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Considering all the hand-wringing and diverse efforts to attract women to tech, it turns out that it’s relatively simple.

Lina Nilsson is a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and director of innovation at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, noticed a quaint factoid.

…if the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. That applies not only to computer engineering but also to more traditional, equally male-dominated fields like mechanical and chemical engineering.

This held true at dozens of universities, such as D-Lab at MIT, Arizona State University, University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University and Santa Clara University.

And it’s important to recognize that the primary, or even secondary, intent was not to attract women, but to solve problems.

None of the programs, clubs and classes were designed with the main goal of appealing to female engineers, and perhaps this is exactly why they are drawing us in. At the core of each of the programs is a focus on engineering that is cutting edge, with an explicit social context and mission.

The problem, of course, is that most existing companies and current startups are focused on money, while “women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.”

Higher purpose vs. greed says it all. 

Image credit: Kurt Bauschardt

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Change Who?

April 27th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Having trouble getting people to do things differently or do something new?

According to Henry Thoreau, “Things don’t change, people do.”

Over the years, I’ve watched managers and companies try to change the outcome without changing the input.

They’ve talked/explained/begged/pleaded/threatened, but nothing changes.

They are suffering from Einstein’s version of insanity.

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If change is the goal, it’s best to start with yourself.

To change what they do, change how you think.”

You need to change because the way you think, what you think, how you think, and what you believe — in other words your MAP — dictates the authenticity of what you do and the responses you get.

No matter what great ideas you read, hear or talk, no matter what great leader you try and channel, you will always walk your own MAP.

Image credit: Newtown graffiti

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If the Shoe Fits: Funding is No Guarantee

April 24th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWhether your goal is to be a horse or a unicorn, raising round after round of funding for a higher and higher valuation may do nothing more than give you a false sense of success and security.

Y Combinator’s Sam Altman summed it up in an article focused on the $1M-plus burn rate that is getting more and more common.

…it’s never good to be at the mercy of investors.

If you’re a founder, you shouldn’t want that,” he says. “If a company is profitable, the founder is in control. If it’s not, investors are in control.”

One tip he often offers Y Combinator founders: Treat every round of financing like it’s your last.

There’s a reason that popular wisdom, the kind that comes from experience claims that companies that start in moderate-to-cool and even bust economies fare better in the long-term.
As do hundreds of startups that aren’t on the receiving end of current largesse because their founders aren’t connected.

Bootstrapping or working with minimal funding forces founders, especially young ones to

  • be savvy money managers;
  • put financial controls in place;
  • focus on productivity (not perks);
  • monitor and constantly reduce customer acquisition cost (CAC); and
  • become profitable or, at the least, breakeven as quickly as possible.

The founders who will be best positioned when the startup eco-system cools, as it always does, and funding is restricted are those who master the first four points and whose companies have embraced the fifth.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Entrepreneurs: It’s Never Either / Or

April 23rd, 2015 by Miki Saxon


The other day I was asked, “When do you lead rationally vs. when do you lead emotionally?”

“Rationally” refers to communicating and appealing to those who are more cerebral, while “emotionally” means focusing more on feelings — it does not mean that one type is cold and the other overwrought.

People hear in different ways and it’s the responsibility of the speaker to communicate so that all can hear.

Over the years, I’ve been told many times by people in positional leadership roles that having to constantly alter how they present information is hard work and they believe that it’s up to the listener to understand what they’re saying.

What these bosses don’t understand is that if “they” can’t hear you “they” certainly won’t follow.

It’s not just a choice of rational vs. emotional, it’s understanding your audience and then speaking appropriately.

For instance, if you’re presenting plans for a new building to investors, business, the community and the media you might be inclined to concentrate on relative costs and ROI, since you want to win over the money crowd, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the esthetics and ambiance.

First, you need to think about the different viewpoints and craft your presentation to include both types of information, even when it’s stuff about which you don’t care, that way you have it all at your fingertips.

During the presentation a money person suggests that construction costs could be lower by using smaller windows and lower ceilings and you know that this won’t fly with the community and business interests, since they’re concerned more with how the building will look and feel.

If you’ve done your homework, then you can show that higher ceilings and larger windows have been proven to increase worker productivity and the improved ambiance means higher rents.

Each group will focus on the information addressing their primary interest with the rest being relegated to backup position, but the important thing is that each heard something positive that directly addressed their concern.

Doing this is a habit you can cultivate and the fastest way to do so is to make yourself hyper aware of that to which your reaction is “who cares,” since that’s the information/viewpoint you’re most likely to skip.

While it’s not rocket science, it does require self-awareness supported by a driving passion to be heard.

While there’s never a guarantee that people will agree and follow, they will hear you and that’s where you need to start.

Image credit: Andy Morffew

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What Value Liberal Arts?

April 22nd, 2015 by Miki Saxon


I constantly read/hear that if you want your kids to have a good life focus on a purely STEM curriculum and they’ll be home free.

Moreover, if they are great at coding they don’t even need college.

While it may be true, at least at this point in time, that they can get a good job if they have strong coding skills, what they are unlikely to get is a promotion that takes them beyond coding, whether in a technical or leadership/management role.

Pulitzer Prize winner (twice) Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, with 1.4 million followers on Twitter, 1.3 million followers on Google+ and 600,000 followers on Facebook (click ‘more’ to see his bio) sums up the value of a humanities, AKA, liberal arts, degree 1, 2, 3.

First, liberal arts equip students with communications and interpersonal skills that are valuable and genuinely rewarded in the labor force, especially when accompanied by technical abilities.

My second reason: We need people conversant with the humanities to help reach wise public policy decisions, even about the sciences.

Third, wherever our careers lie, much of our happiness depends upon our interactions with those around us, and there’s some evidence that literature nurtures a richer emotional intelligence.

Even the most rabid coders don’t want to do it for 40 years.

But if your knowledge of society is limited to code and your ability to interact with others is negligible, then you are left with little choice.

Even a degree in STEM or business won’t give you the broad outlook or emotional intelligence it takes to be promoted, let alone start a successful company.

The best way to assure yourself a bright future, whether you decide to code or earn a “useful” degree, is to patronize your library as so many “self-made” folks did/do

Stay away from your area of expertise, instead wander sections of which you have no knowledge, select books randomly and read at every opportunity.

Image credit: Susanne Nilsson

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Ducks in a Row: You Can’t (Successfully) Have One Without the Other

April 21st, 2015 by Miki Saxon


To build a solid culture that will stay true to its values, yet flexible enough to grow with the company you need get past the idea that positional leaders don’t need management skills or that managers don’t lead.

Jim Stroup, who wrote a blog called Managing Leadership, the archives of which contain tremendously useful information on leadership and management for bosses at all levels, used to point out in numerous posts the absurdity of separating the two.

“No one has proven that leadership is different from management, much less that it is a characteristic inherent in individuals independently of the context in which those individuals operate, one that they carry with them from one organization to another and which they then instill into groups otherwise bereft of it.”

A comment left on a 2008 Washington Post column by Steve Pearlstein regarding the leadership failure that led to the economic crisis neatly sums up the problem with defining leaders based on their vision and skill at influencing people to follow them.

“What a great summary of the economic problem. However this was not a lack of leadership. Defining leadership as influencing people to move in a specific direction, the financial and economic elite successfully led the country into the economic disaster. The problem was a lack of management that failed to identify the signs of the pending disaster.”

Honing the skills to only do one or the other well short-changes your people and your company — but it’s how you win.

Being proficient in both leading and managing will

  • prevent visions from blindsiding you;
  • provide strong motivation;
  • increase productivity and creative thinking;
  • create an environment in which people are challenged and grow to their true potential;
  • ensure a higher level of personal satisfaction; and
  • increase your tangible rewards.

And if those 6 results don’t motivate you, the sophistication and mobility of today’s workforce certainly should.

Image credit: Rodney Campbell

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Internal Leadership

April 20th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Do you equate leadership to influence?

Does being labeled an “influencer” by LinkedIn or other social media make you a leader?

Not really.

True leadership is internal.

It’s a function of your MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™).  

It starts by knowing both yourself and your MAP.

Knowing yourself refers to knowing what you’ve done.

Knowing your MAP means knowing why you did it.

Knowing both allows you to accurately evaluate where you are and where you’re going.

That knowledge is the rudder with which you can chart and achieve any course you choose.

Image credit: Jevgenijs Slihto

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If the Shoe Fits: Physical Advantage

April 17th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mDo you use technology to solve problems? Enhance creativity and drive innovation? Develop your team and build your people?

Years ago I wrote Fools, Tools, and Management Cool about how technology doesn’t take the place of good management.

I’ve written about the advantages of silence and the importance of unwiring and how to be Luftmenschen (people who deal in the non-tangible: ideas, thoughts, dreams).

When it comes to technology, you may want to rethink the approach.

A growing body of neuroscience research has begun to reveal the exact ways in which information age technologies cut against the natural grain of the human mind. Our understanding of all kinds of information is shaped by our physical interaction with that information. Move from paper to screen, and your brain loses valuable “topographical” markers for memory and insight.

Although screens have their strengths in presenting information — they are, for example, good at encouraging browsing — they are lousy at helping us absorb, process, and retain information from a focused source. And good old handwriting, though far slower for most of us than typing, better deepens conceptual understanding versus taking notes on a computer — even when the computer user works without any internet or social media distractions.

In short, when you want to improve how well you remember, understand, and make sense of crucial information about your organization, sometimes it’s best to put down the tablet and pick up a pencil.

The work described was done by the Drucker Institute and is easy to try with your people.

The great news if you want to try unplugging is that the basic techniques are simple and free. Here’s an Un/Workshop-style exercise you can try on your own time, with your own team, in just a half-hour: Including yourself, get six or more of your colleagues together. Divide yourselves into two or more small groups. Give each group one piece of paper with a single question printed on it: Who is our customer?

Depending how young your team is you may incur some minor costs — like the need to shop for paper and pencils and possibly explain how to use them.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Entrepreneurs: a Good Hiring Process

April 16th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Last Friday I shared my response to a founder who was having difficulties closing desirable candidates and touched on the need for a good hiring process; here is the information needed to create one for you company.

Key points to remember,

  • process is good;
  • bureaucracy is bad;
  • authentic, transparent communications are the basis of good process

While a good hiring process is necessary, it is often one of the first to ossify into bureaucracy.

A good hiring process is

  • transparent and painless for the candidate, and
  • simple, easy to use and painless for the hiring manager.

But why a process? Why take the chance on creating something that so often turns into a bureaucratic nightmare? Why not just grab ‘em when you find ‘em?

Because you need a repeatable procedure that allows for the orderly acquisition of people, so the company can plan for and support its growth and, more importantly, land the candidates you want.

A good hiring process removes chaos and allows speed in staffing.

The best hiring process is flexible and, although based on a set of fixed principles, constantly re-invents itself based on changes in the real world.

Speed is the key.

Without question speed is the most effective, least expensive of all hiring practices.

This means there must be speed at all points of the process—any delays should originate only from the candidate.

Speed is key because people tend to judge what it will be like to work for a company/manager by how they are hired.

If the process is fast, smooth, and enjoyable, they will assume that decisions are made speedily, the company has little bureaucracy, and that working there will be fun—and they are usually right.

And vice versa.

Here are the basics of a good hiring process:

  • The company’s operating plan and budget are the basis of the staffing plan.
  • Know exactly what the job entails, what authority it has, and how it interacts with the team and outside departments, customers, vendors, etc.
  • Based on number two, write a complete req and hire the first person who meets its minimum requirements (see Req or Wreck in the right frame).
  • Be flexible and creative when sourcing.
  • Involve your people.
  • Interviews should be as culturally-relevant as they are work-relevant.
  • Always sell the meat (projects, growth opportunities, chance to contribute and make a difference) as opposed to focusing on dessert (perks, money)


  1. Do create a positive experience for both the hire-ees and hire-ers.
  2. Do use multiple interviewers—they are harder to con
  3. Do have a well-understood set of components including: media spending, recruiter use, relocation, sourcing, resume evaluation, scheduling, interviewing, negotiating, cutting and extending offers, closing candidates, deflecting counter offers, and pre-start actions in your hiring process as well as a flexible way to deal with each.
  4. Do make sure that sourcing and headhunter policies reflect both company needs and the current labor market.


  1. Don’t “figure out” what you need by interviewing multiple candidates.
  2. Don’t keep interviewing candidates in the hopes of finding one who embodies your entire wish list.
  3. Don’t assume using a headhunter will automatically reduce your time and work.
  4. Don’t have a start and stop hiring process—whether from whimsy or human bottlenecks.
  5. Don’t buy people; those who join only for the money/perks/stock will leave for more money/perks/stock.

When all is said and done, the true purpose of a hiring process is to help the company compete for talent, which, in turn, allows the company to compete for customers.

Image credit: Jordanhill School D&T Dept

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Why John Doerr is Wrong

April 15th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins believes that the most successful tech entrepreneurs are “white, male, nerds.

“That correlates more with any other success factor that I’ve seen in the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos, or [Netscape founder Marc] Andreessen, [Yahoo co-founder] David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life.”

If you dissect it, is an ignorant, short-sighted statement, especially from such a  prominent star in the tech firmament.

Let’s take the words separately in their reverse order to see why.

In the tech world, nerds are typically consumed by the bleeding edge of technology, socially challenged and will doggedly pursue their ideas come Hell or high water.
Of course there are more male nerds. Starting in elementary school, girls are discouraged from STEM, whether it’s Barbie saying, “Math is tough!” to the unconscious bias that permeates our classrooms and companies.

As to white, nerds actually come in many shapes, sizes, genders, colors, faiths and from across the socio-economic spectrum. but anyone who follows the current state of tech culture shouldn’t be surprised.

The real reason that that white, male nerds are successful is that they get funded.

They get funded because they are connected — by family, friends, school friends, ex colleagues, etc. — which means they get into the right accelerators (just as Harvard and Stanford are the right schools) or are personally introduced to investors.

The end result is that if you take a superficial look at the stats Doerr’s comment seems to be true—but it is not.

Image credit: TechCrunch

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