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The first 4 things to do when creating a viable piece of hardware

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Here’s a sad statistic in tech — 97% of hardware startups fail within the first 20 months after attracting their first investments. Hardware is… hard, but it’s also what makes these projects interesting. In this article, I’ll give you an insight into how my team and I developed a smart speaker and other gadgets as an example of how to create a hardware product.

I’ll go into how we developed these products to describe what stages of development a device goes through before it reaches store shelves. Hopefully it can help you on your own hardware journey!

Let’s start with the basics. Here’s a typical product development cycle (such as for a smart speaker or a smart screen) from idea to launch. I’ll focus on stages 1-4, the fundamentals.

It all starts, of course, with an idea. Everyone has a lot of ideas, but most are discarded at the feasibility study or proof-of-concept stages. These steps should never be neglected. Otherwise, at later stages of the project, it may turn out that the product is not technically feasible, or the cost of the final device is so high that it reduces the commercial success of the device to zero.

Feasibility study

The most important part of a product’s research is the feasibility study of the product.

You can start by analyzing existing platforms and solutions. This can be done by examining the teardowns of several popular devices from the target category, and making a list of the main components and their suppliers. Datasheets on these components will provide a complete picture of how the components comply with the specification that you plan to implement.

A few words about MVPr (minimum viable prototype), which should not be confused with MVP (minimum viable product). MVPr is an early working prototype with minimal functionality, which is created primarily to confirm the validity of the idea and test a number of product hypotheses.

MVPr is usually assembled from commercially available modules or HDK (hardware developer kits) to minimize development time. 3-4 years ago, developers would have had to work hard to create the MVPr of a smart speaker.

Now, smart speaker HDK are available both from small companies (usually quite affordable, costing up to $100), and from leading market companies such as Qualcomm, Amazon, or Google (such HDKs are often more expensive — from a few hundred to several thousand dollars). Often, access to the SDK, developer documentation, test firmware, and sample applications is bundled with the HDK.

Credit: Espressif
Smart Speaker Development Kit from Chinese company Espressif
Credit: Amazon
Amazon Alexa Premium Far-Field Voice Development

The choice of HDK depends on several factors, such as:

  • Target OS
  • Target platform / voice assistant that you plan to use (DuerOS, Amazon, Tmall Genie, Turing, JD, iFLYTEK, etc.)
  • Planned specification of the device (processor frequency, architecture, number of microphones, etc.)

Marketing study

The marketing study allows you to look at the new idea through the eyes of the user and answer a number of important questions:

  • Who is your customer? Perhaps the main question is whether it is possible to make a device for everyone. User personas (fictional persons or representations of the user) are very helpful in this matter. Created during the first stages, these personas will continue to grow richer with details throughout development and can be useful at later stages (development of features, development of design language / ID / UX).
  • What customer problems does the product solve? What is the value of the product for the customer?
  • Why should users choose your product?
  • What is the set of USP (unique selling propositions) of your device? What feature/set of features “hook ” the user? Which factor affects user choice more?
  • How adding a new feature will affect the complexity / success of the product?

Another important initial step is a competitive analysis. No matter how fresh and unique your idea may seem, it is quite possible that something similar has already been invented before. Try to find at least a few competitors and analyze their strengths and weaknesses, technical specifications, and pricing policy.

The technical aspect of a competitive analysis is also very important. The easiest way to understand the approximate cost of your future device and highlight the main components that you have to use is to disassemble a competing device by COGS (cost of goods sold). This may have already been done for you because tear-down and disassembly reviews of popular devices can often be found on the internet.

In the initial stages, both traditional SWOT analysis and less commonly used Porter’s Five Forces model will be useful.

Credit: Alibaba
SWOT analysis on the example of a line of smart speakers from Alibaba (AliGenie).
Credit: Alibaba
Analysis of 5 competitive forces on the example of a line of smart speakers from Alibaba (AliGenie).

And now, let’s see what happens to those ideas that are turned into products.

Patents

I recommend everyone to think about patents as a priority.

If you do not have the budget or time to file a full patent application, remember that you can always start with “provisional patent.” This application allows you to retain the authorship of the invention for one year until the time of filing a full patent application. The cost of the procedure is on average about $200-500.

Do not neglect a patent search. It is not necessary to immediately resort to using expensive patent offices for patent searches. A preliminary search can be done independently and for free. Below is a list of the main open patent databases by region.

Conducting a preliminary independent patent search is useful, not only to make sure that your invention is unique and does not infringe on someone else’s copyright, but also to see a slice of the industry and understand what is being done or was being done in this area in order to compare your developments with competitors.               

For a more thorough search, you can contact patent attorneys to not only check issued patents in open registries, but also patent applications.

Hopefully this article has helped you understand a bit better the importance of feasibility studies and patent research when it comes to making your hardware startup a success.

Published May 22, 2020 — 06:00 UTC

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Hey snoozy Susan, here’s how to stop falling asleep at work

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It’s 3pm on a Friday and you’ve had enough. Or maybe it’s just after 9am on a Monday and you’re struggling to get started, or even 12pm on a Tuesday and you’re falling asleep.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re probably used to the overwhelming struggle that is trying to stay awake at your desk when you really just want to fall asleep.

If it’s any consolation, you’re far from being alone. That’s why I’ve put together these few pointers to help you stay engaged, active, and awake while you’re at work.

[Read: The weirdo’s guide to WFH productivity: Sanity shower, squats, and snacks]

Get your steps in

Getting your morning routine right will undoubtedly set you up for a productive day and stop you from falling asleep.

Morning exercise is a good way of waking up your body and mind. If you can, go for a walk before you start work and get some fresh air.

You’ll feel more awake, and what’s even better, you’ll get your dreaded workout out of the way first thing.

Coffee isn’t the answer

Coffee is wonderful, it really is.

A good cup of the stuff can turn the worst of days into the best of days — but you shouldn’t abuse it.

If you’re going to be friends with caffeine, make sure you limit your intake because too much of it can leave you feeling lethargic.

I would recommend having one, or two (at most) cups of  in the morning and sticking to water for the rest of the day, which brings me on to my next point.

Stay hydrated

Water really is your best friend, especially when it comes to staying awake.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue because it impacts the flow of oxygen to the brain and can cause your heart to work harder to pump oxygen to all your organs, thus making you more tired and less alert.

Water can also help reduce stress. In fact, studies have show that dehydration can also lead to higher cortisol levels — the stress hormone — making it even harder to deal with daily problems.

You’ll need daylight

Natural daylight — or the lack of it — can have a huge impact on how you feel at work.

I used to work in a windowless office in a London co-working space and I’d find myself getting increasingly sleepy and restless throughout the day. I eventually realized this was mostly due to the lack of natural light — and it seems my conclusion wasn’t unfounded.

A study conducted by a US professor found that workers in day lit office environments reported an 84% drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision symptoms all of which can detract from productivity and potentially lead to sleepiness.

Snack away

I don’t know about you but I used to experience an early afternoon drop in productivity and would start to fall asleep, particularly in the colder, drearier months — and then I started snacking.

It turns out this afternoon slump was probably caused by a drop in blood glucose levels and the good news is that I managed to solve this problem by keeping several healthy snacks within arm’s reach or just a short walk away.

Time yourself

Whether you’re working on an ongoing project or you want to tend to your overflowing inbox, own your productivity and hold yourself accountable by timing yourself.

Here’s a familiar scenario: You need to prepare a report by the end of the day but it’s 4PM and you’re struggling to stay awake. Stop what you’re doing, take a moment, breathe in, and set a timer on your phone. Give yourself a deadline and motivate yourself with the possibility of a nap once your work is submitted.

Get the hard stuff out of the way

Only you know when you feel more awake, so keep this at the forefront of your mind when you’re planning your day.

If you feel less sleepy in the morning, take care of the hardest, most boring tasks then and keep the fun stuff for later. If you’re more alert in the afternoon or evening, then save the most menial tasks until then.

There’s no hard science and if you’re fortunate enough to work somewhere that offers flexible working, you should use this to your advantage.

Let music be the food of love productivity

Lastly, but by no means least, I have to be honest with you: I can’t do anything without listening to music and while my taste may be questionable, that’s besides the point.

If you’re working from home or are lucky enough to have your own private office, why not sing along?

It’ll perk you up, you won’t fall asleep, and if you’re as bad a singer as I am, well, no one will hear you!

Published June 5, 2020 — 09:00 UTC

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A step-by-step guide to becoming a better engineering manager

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The typical job description for many engineering manager roles is action-packed. It is a mix of hands-on coding, technical leadership and decision making, process and project management, product oversight, people management, finding and hiring talent… the list goes on.

In our work, we deal with both technical and people systems: we support individual engineers’ growth; help teams become successful; and make the organization more productive, functional, and innovative. Above all, an engineering manager is a service or support role across these various layers.

Perhaps most fascinating and difficult is the high-level of ambiguity that comes with engineering management. Many problems or questions don’t have straightforward answers. There aren’t absolute answers to what it means to be a good engineering manager either, but there are certain values and guideposts to follow.

In this post, I look at what can shape our thinking about our role as engineering managers and how to effectively support individual engineers, teams, and organizations.

What do engineers need to thrive at work?

It helps to start shaping engineering management roles by understanding what engineers need, and the environment in which they thrive. Research from performance coach and trainer Paloma Medina exposes six core needs humans have (including at work). She calls this research the BICEPS model:

  • Belonging. As humans, we strive to be part of a community of like-minded people where we understand and support each other. We also want to feel as if we are not being discriminated against or marginalized. Belonging is really important to me personally: I love working as part of a distributed team, but I also really enjoy seeing people in person every once in a while. It makes me feel more connected to them.
  • Improvement. We also seek to continuously learn, improve, and grow in areas that matter to us, as well as to our team or company.
  • Choice. We want to have choice, control, and autonomy over important parts of our lives. In one of my previous roles, I took on a lot of work to drive organizational change. But ultimately, the control I had over my domain was limited due to organizational issues – which led me to leave the company.
  • Equality. We want to know that our access to information, money, time, and other resources is fair and equal for everyone – not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us. Everyone’s needs should be treated as equally important.
  • Predictability. We look for certainty, safety, and stability in our lives. We also want goals, strategy, and direction to be consistent – and to not change too quickly. I’ve been leading teams in fast-growing startups for the last couple of years, and when there’s a lot of change happening, it’s a challenge to instill predictability in teams.
  • Significance. Deep down, all of us seek meaning, importance, and status. We also want to be appreciated for our work by people whose opinions mean something to us.

If our core needs are threatened, people resort to fight-or-flight modes of reaction, which are very stressful. The failure to meet core needs has high costs for organizations by harming people on our teams. So how can engineering managers put the BICEPS model into action to help their teams thrive?

Using trust-based relationships to help engineers grow

The foundation of being a good engineering manager is getting to know our teammates and understanding what is important to them. Here are a few places to start building trust within your team.

1. Ask questions

One of the most powerful tools managers have is asking good questions. The basis for doing our jobs well is listening, observing, taking note of what motivates our teammates, and really digging into their responses to our questions. I usually gather questions before I meet with my teammates one-on-one, so I am prepared and I can guide the conversation towards understanding them better.

Over time, I have built a kit of one-on-one questions that I pull out when I need some inspiration for these conversations. Asking questions helps us adjust our leadership style to the people we are leading. It also ensures that they feel understood and heard, which are really important pillars of inclusion and belonging.

2. Be curious

People are full of surprises, and sometimes our teammates’ reactions may be completely different from what we expected. I once received a message from an engineer on my team who was deeply upset about the specific wording used in a product-release note to customers.

At first I did not understand their strong reaction. But when we talked, I learned the engineer had been overruled by someone with more power, making them feel helpless, and threatening their core need for choice and equality.

What managers might perceive as no big deal can be enormous threats to other people. Cases where we’re surprised by our teammates’ reactions are good opportunities to focus on human-centric responses, like giving people the opportunity to talk through their feelings.

3. Connect to the bigger picture

Creating an impact is a very good motivator for all of us, so helping engineers understand how their work connects to the bigger picture (how it helps users or supports other teams) is an extremely important and strategic skill for managers.

While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help, it is also crucial to align engineering initiatives with higher-level goals, and connect them clearly with user value.

4. Involve engineers in decision making

Feeling that decisions are fair and equitable is an important component of the BICEPS model. When we make decisions, it is helpful to ask everyone for their opinions first, and take their opinions into account.

It is not always possible to go with what everyone wants. But we can still do a good job at contextualizing the decisions we make, and helping people understand that their feedback was considered.

5. Give feedback for growth

One of the best things we get to do as engineering managers is support engineers’ growth. Give feedback regularly to help the people on your team understand where they are at and grow – by course-correcting where needed, as well as by doing more in the areas in which they are already doing great. Managers need feedback as well: it’s important to regularly ask your team for feedback so you can make adjustments.

6. Coach engineers

Coaching helps people find answers themselves, improves their problem-solving and leadership skills, and increases learning, resilience, and self-management.

7. Sponsor engineers

Think back on your career, and whether you have had a mentor who connected you with someone, put your name forward, and used their influence to make a difference in your career. Be that person for someone else: invest in their growth, lift them up, and put your weight behind their success. Supporting your team’s success can make a real difference for them.

This is the foundation of our work as engineering managers.

Driving a culture of trust and continuous improvement on teams

The next important building block in our work as engineering managers is the team. According to research, high-performing teams need the following elements.

  • Psychological safety. This is about believing that we will not be rejected, and feeling free to express our work-related thoughts and feelings to the people around us. It also means believing that others won’t think less of us if we make a well-intentioned mistake or ask for help.
  • Structure and clarity. Everyone on the team should understand expectations, goals, and accountability.
  • Meaning and impact. High-performing teams find a sense of purpose in their work, and know that their work has an impact.

Luckily for managers, this research neatly aligns with the BICEPS model. All human core needs are represented and have impact at the team level as well. By understanding and responding to people’s motivations, leaders create the basis for teams to express themselves – and provide the structure, meaning, and impact they need.

1. Build trust

The first step in creating structure is building relationships. For our distributed teams at CircleCI, we’ve built different structures to help teammates do that, such as regular pair programming rotations and engineering talks.

2. Structure around how we collaborate

Our engineering department has doubled in size for three years in a row. Over this time, we’ve moved to a more streamlined engineering delivery process for all teams. But we still leave it to the teams to decide how to implement t day-to-day processes, including daily standup meetings, planning sessions, or collaboration. Every team has specific needs, and they know best how to address them.

3. Remove blockers

Structures can also help mitigate the impact of getting blocked at work. We all know how frustrating it is to be stuck. Putting up pathways to help people get unblocked can be really important – for example, setting up regular pair programming rotations, investing in self-serve information access, supporting each other across teams, putting up escalation paths for people to get help when they need it, or helping people support each other through knowledge-sharing.

4. Continuously improve

We can use retrospectives to discuss and improve how we work together. Blameless postmortems are also a great tool to help understand problems and drive towards solutions. Code reviews, mentoring, or knowledge sharing can help team members learn from each other.

The way we talk about learning matters – especially the way we discuss mistakes. These decisions will fundamentally shape the culture of our teams, and determine whether people feel safe or threatened in their core needs.

5. Drive toward alignment

Communicate strategy, direction, and relevant tactical details to your teams – and remember it’s almost impossible to over-communicate these details. Always repeat what’s important.

As engineering managers, we are like mortar: we connect structures, teams, and people. We hold them together, but also identify and fill gaps as needed. Handling ambiguity is one of the most important and difficult aspects of engineering management. For a lot of work in our field, there are no straightforward answers, let alone resolutions.

Our work isn’t so much about us; it’s about the people, teams, and organizations we support. We build structures to help others shine.

Supporting organizational change

Lastly, creating environments in which engineers can thrive is about supporting our organization. We need to use our power as managers to drive organizational change, no matter the size of our businesses.

1. Advocate for change

To be effective as managers, we need to push for organizational change to improve the larger structures around us. For example, we may need to advocate for more clarity around engineering manager roles, have conversations about what engineering management should be like in our company, and determine requirements for hiring engineering managers.

2. Manage up

Managing our own managers is a useful but difficult skill. Driving organizational change also means making sure that our engineers’ concerns are heard at the highest levels, and that we use our power to make sure engineers have a voice in the rest of the organization.

3. Build frameworks and standards

While it is always important to make room for individual needs, structures and frameworks for managers help us hold each other accountable. They also help level the playing field and build in equality for the people on our teams.

On my current team, every quarter we pick some high-priority projects to improve how we work as an organization. Most recently, we’ve worked on our hiring process and incident remediation; last year, we developed an internal career growth framework for engineers.

Growing as a leader

Being a good engineering manager isn’t always a straightforward path; a lot depends on where we are at in our careers and where we are looking to go, as well as the growth stage, size, and needs of our organizations. In our daily work, we hold vast amounts of uncertainty while also trying to make progress.

An overarching theme in my work in engineering management has been growth and improvement. We rarely deal with greenfield projects or are able to build a team or department from scratch. Even when we do, we build on existing structures in our organization. I believe our supporting role largely means helping engineers grow, supporting teams at continuously learning, and helping organizations become better.

As engineering managers, we frequently face questions that don’t clear right or wrong answers. Many years ago, my leadership coach encouraged me to use those kinds of uncertain situations to ask myself, “What kind of leader do I want to be?”

I want to leave the last call to growth and improvement with you (and me): no matter what your role or company is like, work on shaping your approach to engineering management. Get to know the people that you work with, and use feedback to help them course-correct. Build teams that are psychologically safe places, where people find meaning in a shared purpose. 

And use your power and privilege to drive change in your organization. Make people the center and focus of your work, and build on that foundation to create an environment in which they can thrive. Always push to continuously improve. Lead with humbleness, empathy, and lots of curiosity.

Published June 5, 2020 — 06:30 UTC

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Why entrepreneurs need to find their ‘inner clown’

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Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

Contrary to what many people may think, learning how to be a clown is not part of a circus school curriculum. I know, because I dropped out of school when I was 15, signed up for circus school, and graduated as a professional juggler three years later. 

Circus school was very much about specializing in one skill, spending countless hours practicing, and building an act around that. Becoming a clown, however, followed a completely different process.

Clowns, all joking aside, take being a clown very seriously. The thing is, you can’t just train eight hours a day for it and then eventually succeed, like with juggling. A real clown IS a clown. He or she isn’t acting. The clown is already there, hidden inside of us, and the course focused on finding your inner clown and peeling away the layers of respectability, rather than trying to make you simply act like one. 

Be authentic

Many years ago I knew a young entrepreneur who was always hustling. When he found an opportunity to make money, he went for it. He had no specific interest or hobby and was just interested in doing business. He’d buy and sell and make a margin and that was enough for him. I recently bumped into him and he’s now rich and successful and still hustling buying and selling ever more expensive things. 

[Read: Working from home is great — until your co-workers show up]

While this is clearly a success — he’s happy and rich and he has achieved his goals and dreams — I personally find it hard to be positive about what he achieved. I can’t relate because my starting point was always my interest in technology and innovation, building upon who I was at my core. Only caring about wealth is a very specific kind of poverty. 

I do realize that’s a very privileged thing to say, but if you can, try to unpeel your traditionalist layers and find out who you really are. Nothing can beat authenticity.

I heard a comedian describe once how he developed his act. At first, he began looking for jokes in the world around him, but soon he realized the best jokes were to be found within. 

When he felt uncomfortable about something, he discovered it paid off to poke and prod at it and build the joke around the discomfort it caused him. The deeper he went, the more personal and funnier his routine became, and also more distinctive. 

I guess we all have our inner clown to discover. And my inner clown is a very specific one. I couldn’t play a different clown and care about the things I don’t care about. Now let me ask you, who’s your inner clown?

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for TNW’s newsletters here.

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Published June 4, 2020 — 15:00 UTC

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