I don’t understand people who don’t drink coffee.

I don’t mean that I don’t understand them philosophically, like why are they against such an awesome beverage? I mean that I literally don’t understand how their bodies are physically capable of functioning. Telling me you don’t drink coffee is exactly the same as telling me you avoid oxygen.

I’m even baffled by people who can get out of bed and shower before they have a cup of coffee. And those people who have their first cup at the office. When I check into a hotel and find that the rooms don’t come with coffee makers and instead I’m supposed to somehow manage to put something presentable on my body, operate an elevator, and use the power of my mind to operate my legs and feet in a motion that enables me to walk across a lobby, I’m completely stumped. How exactly does one do that without already having had coffee?

The absolute only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the knowledge that coffee will be in my body in less than two minutes. (A few months ago, when my doctor wanted me to take a blood test that required me to not eat or drink anything before, I seriously considered booking a hotel next to the lab because I wasn’t sure how I would be able to not only get out of bed, but drive the 15 minutes to the lab in the morning coffee-free.)

You can see then, how alarming it was to open the drawer where I keep my Nespresso capsules to find that I had just brewed my last one.

Normally I have several backup coffee makers (two Keurigs, a french press, a standard coffee machine), but my house is being remodeled so everything’s in storage while I temporarily live in another location. I’ve had to go minimal. Hence just the one Nespresso.

Nespresso coffee is OK. I’m not one those fanatics who thinks it’s the world’s greatest. But it is the world’s fastest. Get out of bed, manage to find the kitchen (mostly through blind luck), press one button. Coffee. Done.

I normally order the capsules from the Nespresso web site by the case (a packet of 10 capsules last me 2 days at most) well before my supply gets too low, but I’ve been traveling a lot and had somehow lost track.

I immediately went online and rush-shipped 100 capsules. In two days, all would be well with the world. But how to survive those two days? Surely I can buy Nespresso capsules someplace in Seattle, right? I searched [nespresso capsules seattle]. The Nespresso web site page came up. Put in my zip code, find coffee near me! Both Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table are just around the corner. Disaster averted.

That afternoon, I popped into William Sonoma, innocent, carefree, and oh so naive. I walked around. I saw the machines but no capsules. Someone behind the register asked if I needed help. Yes! I just need some Nespresso capsules.

“Oh,” she said (so casual! as if she were saying nothing ominous at all!). “We don’t sell them. We only sell the machines”

She saw the expression on my face.

I explained that surely she was mistaken. I had gone to the Nespresso web site and typed in my zip code and was sent right to this store. The promised land of coffee.

Then she explained.

Nespresso doesn’t sell their capsules in the United States. The only way one can get them, if one is not say, in Paris or Barcelona, is to order them from the web site.

She saw the new expression on my face.

I told her the tragic tale of the empty drawer. She immediately went into code red mode. “You already ordered from the site right? And you picked next day shipping, right?”

Yes, yes, of course yes.

But what about tomorrow?

“Wait here.”

And then she was gone.

Moments later she returned. William Sonoma has a few of these capsules, you see, so that potential customers of the machines can try the coffee. As the capsules tumbled from her hands to mine, I could feel the panic lifting.

“Thank you, thank you.”

In my head, I thought, I will always shop at William Sonoma at every possible  opportunity.

Here’s the thing. You can run Super Bowl ads or email marketing campaigns or engage in social media or merchandise your stores just right, but in the end, one employee can create a loyal customer for life or someone whose new hobby is building a hate web site in your honor. Flyers judge an airline by the helpfulness of the agents at the ticket counter. Travelers leave terrible Tripadvisor reviews for hotels that spent millions on remodeled rooms but nothing on front desk staff training.

Who’s the person responding to those social media inquiries, answering the customer service line, running the cash register? As you invest in new technologies, don’t forget to invest in people. And a well-stocked supply of coffee for emergencies (obviously).

Last week, I talked with a BBC reporter about a story she’s writing on the importance of networks for women (I’ll add the link when the article is published in a few weeks). I think this is an important issue, so I wanted to talk with her honestly, without any spin.

Who You Know

The reality is that of course who you know is important. Whether you’re looking for a job, employees, customers, funding, media coverage, or advice, more connections are always better. And it’s a virtuous cycle. Say you know someone great who is looking for a job. If someone else in your circle is looking to hire for that role, you make the connection, and you’ve paid back double.

Most networks grow organically. Let’s grab a drink after work. Who wants to watch the game? Men make up the majority of tech and of course know a lot of other men. When they make plans to have a scotch or watch some football, they mostly aren’t actively looking to exclude women. It just happens that way. And along the way, they trade advice, learn more about each others’ companies, and their networks grow.

Where does this leave women?

Certainly, women should be proactive and start their own organic networks. Some of the best support, advice, and referrals I’ve gotten have been from the women in my networks.

Women can also join what they consider the men’s networks. Mostly, men really don’t want to exclude women. They just aren’t thinking about balancing gender ratios when they get thirsty for a beer (I’m talking here about informal networks, not formal, structured ones, such as those organized by companies, when lack of thought about gender is both short-sighted and inexcusable).

During the interview, I mentioned that I occasionally attend regular poker games and I’m nearly always the only woman. I’m a really terrible poker player, but no one cares (in fact, they probably appreciate the easy money!). I’ve met lots of great people and always have a good time. Sometimes work stuff comes up; sometimes it doesn’t. The networking isn’t the point, but a happy side effect.

But Dudes Don’t Have Any Overlapping Interests With Women

I told the reporter that I think some women are hesitant to join these kinds of events because they worry they’re not really wanted or they’ll just get in the way. When you have a man who just got $6.5 million to launch a women’s web site being published in the New Yorker saying:

“I am a dude. I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests with most women my age. I’m really into history. I’m really into markets and finance.”

And:

“Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read. When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’?

Then you could easily start to assume that men (as evidenced by that dude), media (as evidenced by the New Yorker giving that dude a voice), and venture capitalists (as evidenced by those who gave that dude money) at the very least think of women as having completely different interests than men (and certainly don’t expect to be hanging out with a group of people with such a lack of overlapping interests).

(Can’t help it, although surely obvious aside: the last time I heard a man say “I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it” was probably yesterday.)

And then you think, sure, I really want to walk into a room full of men who see me and think, there’s that woman with no overlapping interests, who doesn’t care about money or our world and only wants to talk about stupid books.

What If They Think I’m Just a Taker?

The BBC reporter I talked to also thought perhaps that some women think of going to these kinds of events as mercenary: that they’d be attending just to try to get something, and that would leave a bad taste. I agreed that no one should be hanging out with people they don’t enjoy spending time with, participating in activities they don’t like. My point, rather, was just that at this point in time, women are fewer than men in tech. And so focusing on only creating more women’s networks may not be enough. We also should turn (accidental) men’s networks into co-ed networks, and that may require us to take a leap of faith that we won’t show up someplace and be relegated to the women’s book club corner so the men can talk finance. I believe that most men aren’t like that dude. (The reason some women may be so hesitant to go to that poker game is that some men are in fact exactly like that dude, and we women know that from experience.)

Later, I was talking with a friend about the interview, and I mentioned how I just had an honest conversation, but since these types of articles have to surface only short sound bites from larger discussions, I’m now worried that I’ll come across as mercenary and in it only for what I can take from my fellow poker players. And that’s not what I was trying to say at all.

Which is one example of how complicated it all can be to talk about. But all of tech is better off if we can. Plus, maybe we all can get some good book recommendations.

January 15, 2013

Active Users, Habits, and Puppies by Vanessa Fox

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I just finished The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which talks about identifying and improving habits. (You can’t really “break” habits; the best you can do is replace the routine withe something else. The key is identifying the cue (what triggers the habit autopilot) and the reward (what you get out of it) — both of which can be tricky to pin down — and then finding some other routine that will satisfy that reward.)

The book walks through personal examples (why does the author eat a cookie every day at 3pm and can he change his behavior?), organizational examples (can Starbucks employees all learn to have an automatic, pleasant reaction to an irate customer?), and marketing examples (why do always buy the same brands, even if we don’t like them?).

This morning, I spoke to a group of owners of tire stores. One asked what tire dealer I frequented and I said that I didn’t go to a tire dealer. I always go to the Volvo dealership for maintenance (even for non-warranty items). And as I was speaking those words, I realized why. Volvo has three years of free maintenance, including oil changes. The whole time I was thinking how nice and convenient Volvo made everything for me, they were really ingraining a habit that would last longer after the free maintenance expired.

We talk a lot about viral components and stickiness, active users and differentiators. But if we want users to come back to our products again and again, we need to both provide a reward (the awesome thing our product does for them) and a cue (what triggers the automatic action to come back). The reward alone (having an awesome product) isn’t enough.

For some products, everyone’s trigger might be different. (I never log in to Facebook unless I’m waiting for a flight to take off and everything’s packed away except my phone and a magazine, and then I always check Facebook). Some companies are trying to create new triggers rather than rely on existing ones (the big red Google+ number that shows up at the top of all logged in Google pages comes to mind).

We experience these triggers all the time — every time our phone buzzes, which is always, we look down to see what’s going on. If we have a product, can we create cues that trigger habits? And more importantly, as  consumers, can we identify cues before a habit is formed or change the routine to something else if it’s too late for that? Maybe every time my phone buzzes, I pet a puppy rather than look down to see the latest check in? Does anyone have a spare puppy I can attach to my phone?

Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition is this weekend and I’m a coach. But hey, where’s the men’s edition? Can’t women attend the regular startup weekends? Is this discrimination or what?

Our Network is Based On Who We Know (And Who Our Network Knows)

We talk a lot about ratios. That tech conference you just went to had 35 male speakers and 2 women speakers. That startup you just read about has only one woman employee. And she’s the admin. We talk about all kinds of reasons for this (women don’t pitch to speak; we don’t encourage women to take science and match classes in seventh grade; women tend to interrupt their careers to have babies….) but one obvious fact is that we only know who we know.

Finding good speakers and good employees and good friends and good people for anything is a lot about first, the hard work of finding them and next, the hard work of figuring out if they’re the right fit. But even when we cast a wide net with the best of intentions, we tend to start with our network. The people we know and trust. And often, we just so happen to hang out a lot with people who are the same gender as we are. So that’s who we know. And that’s who they know. And if conferences and startups and engineering departments have a high ratio of men, it’s likely they mostly know more men. So it’s just reality that searches often start with networks comprised largely of men.

Last year, I realized I had twelve or so people working for me in either permanent or contract roles and only two of them were men. One of which was the admin. Were I a male founder with nearly all male employees, someone might have cried foul,  but the truth was that my staffing selections were not on purpose. I didn’t set out to find women to work for me and I didn’t seek out a female attorney or CFO consultant, but that’s just how things ended up. Why? Because while I have a strong network of both men and women, I just happen to have more women friends. And they happen to have more women friends. So when I ask around for recommendations, I end up largely with a pool of women candidates.

Helping women at an event like this startup weekend get more comfortable (see the third point for more on this) being involved with more events is one step in connecting the dots so a mostly male network and a mostly female network can become a larger connected network. Like me, many of the participants and mentors and judges at this event likely are connected to both men and women, and this event helps get women just starting out on everyone’s radar. Which in turn helps everyone because when you’re looking for a diverse group of speakers or employees or friends, that hard work of finding them gets a bit easier when you have networks of both men and women to reach out to.

Even Without Discrimination, There Can Be Unconscious Bias

Remember those old gender discrimination exercises where you had to tell a story about a doctor and a nurse and the point was to show that most people called the doctor “he” and the nurse “she”? I don’t know if that still happens but I know that we (as an American tech culture) mostly think we’re beyond that. I don’t want to spend too much time telling stories that refute that perception since the very definition of unconscious means that you don’t see it even if it’s right in front you, so I’ll just share this one story.

Last week, I had a mobile detailing service out to my house to wash my car. I was talking to the very nice guy who was managing the effort about his plans to start his own small business and he was asking for my advice and I can promise you that he respected my opinions and didn’t value them any less because I’m a woman.

And yet. At one point he said to me “I couldn’t help but notice you’re not wearing a ring.” And then he explained why he was asking. He motioned at my house and said (after asking for my advice as a business owner remember), “I was just wondering, where is the man who is paying for all of this?”

You Feel More Confident When You Feel Less Alone

Without question, effective networking can give a boost to someone who wants to be be successful in today’s startup culture (whether as a founder or an employee). And it can be scary for everyone (both men and women) to go to an event such as a startup weekend for the first time — not knowing what to expect, not knowing anyone. But it can be even harder when you feel completely different from everyone else. A couple of weeks ago, an employee of mine was talking to me about a Rails Camp he was going to that weekend. He kept using male nouns and pronouns to refer to the group that would be there. Finally, I interrupted him. “You mean the men and women…” Well no, he told me. Only guys have signed up.

A few years ago when I still worked at Google, I was at a luncheon at the Grace Hopper conference for the women that Google had sponsored to attend. I was talking to one college student who told me how grateful she was for the opportunity to be there because the entire time she’d been at college, she’d never had another woman in her computer science class. She’d never had the opportunity to collaborate with a woman. Ever.

I’m not saying that women can’t hack it in environments with a lot of men, I’m just saying it’s nice sometimes to be reminded that other women are out there. I don’t want to get into stereotypes about how men and women are different, but I think it’s telling that I’ve been avoiding telling the following story in this post, even though I’m a confident, successful woman in tech, I have large networks of both men and women, and I don’t really care if you know that I went shoe shopping last weekend.

Years and years ago (I mean it — this was like 1995 in the telecom corridor of Dallas) I started a new job at a startup that made testing equipment for SS7 networks. On my first day, a woman rushed up to me. “I”m so glad another woman finally works here. Finally, I have someone to get manicures with!”

I resisted telling that story because I didn’t want this post to about women getting manicures, but you know what? In part, that’s exactly what this post is about. At the end of a hard work day, a woman can’t always turn to a male coworker and ask him if he wants to go grab a drink and talk through things. In some situations, of course. But in many others, I’m sorry, but she just can’t. And we all need people we can turn to.

If this event helps a few more people find someone they can turn to, I’m all for it.

A popular new year’s resolution among those of us in the tech world seems to be focused on getting out from under being so overwhelmed. We’re drowning in a sea of information, our to do lists, our email, travel, work. We buy time management software, read books on getting things done, install plugins for our email, and yet we still can’t seem to be free of the ever present feeling of doom: of being behind, leaving things undone, of running and running and not getting anywhere.

How did we get this way? Especially as many of us in this predicament presumably have substantial control over our workloads. We’re entrepreneurs, tech journalists, consultants. The things that threaten to crush us are too many flights, too many speaking engagements and conferences, too many articles to write, too many projects to complete, too many open tabs, too many blog posts to finish.

And by “we”, of course, I mean me. How did I get this way? Several years ago, when I was still working at Google, I talked to a life coach (yes, Google has those too, along with the chefs and masseuses) about my lack of work/life balance. How do I get better time management skills, I lamented. He told me I didn’t need better time management skills. Instead I needed to cut my to do list in half. “You’re trying to do too many things” was his assessment.

The Luxury of Taking On Less

A simple problem to fix: take on less. Simple, but perhaps not easy.

Consider: we are doing too much. We feel crushed by the weight of our obligations. Yet we tend to be the ones who sign ourselves up. That reads like a contradiction, but the reality is we see the items on our to do lists as obligations, not choices. It’s not enough to decide to take on less if the reason we’re taking it all on in the first place is we feel that we have to. There’s all kinds of advice about how to say no to things, but learning how to say no doesn’t help for things we think we have to say yes to.

The next question then is this: why do we feel we have to take these things on? Surely the answers are as varied as we are, but one potentially core reason struck me as I was reading this post by Bryce Roberts about choosing to say yes to fewer things:

“If I’m not totally excited about something- an new investment, working with a new person, attending or speaking at an event or getting involved in a new project- I’m saying no.”

The ability to do that — to say no to things you’re not super excited about — that’s a luxury. Most of us who have that luxury now haven’t always had it. In fact, many of us who now have that luxury likely only have it because of our tendency to do just the opposite — not only say yes to everything but to seek out new things to say yes to.

Saying Yes To Everything Leads to Success

I get lots of variations on this question: how did you end up with such a weird career path? And the real answer is that I not only sought out opportunity beyond my job description, but I created opportunity and then voluntarily (wholeheartedly and excitedly) worked extra hours for no pay.

For instance, when I was 19 and in college, I worked as a cashier at a home improvement warehouse (similar to Home Depot or Lowe’s) for $5 an hour. Some of the bulkier items, such as lumber and metal pipes, had a tendency to lose their bar codes, so the registers had big binders full of descriptions and SKUs. However, this being a hardware store, the pages were dirty and covered with paint, lists were jumbled together in no order at all, and it was nearly impossible to find the right code. The best you could do was hunt for the right general topic area and narrow down your search until the customer became agitated and impatient and then scan the picture that resembled most what was in the cart.

As it happened, through the magic combination of a college bookstore that let me charge things to my student account, Apple’s educational discount program, and the ability to pay my account with student loans, I had recently procured a PowerBook 140 (cutting edge in early 1992). I took one of those binders, a notebook, and a pen, and walked the store to get missing SKUs from the aisle signs. I compiled everything into an organized structure in PageMaker, printed it all out, laminated the pages, and put new binders at each cashier station.

How much did I get paid for this project? Nothing. I did it all while I was off the clock. Who asked me to do this? No one. What did I gain from it? When I applied for (and got) a writing job at the corporate office of the same company after I graduated, I was able to claim experience not just with cashiering, but with PageMaker and store operational process (as you might imagine, that wasn’t the only such project I took on). Before graduating, I quickly moved up through the ranks at the store, eventually ending up working for the general manager in a position I basically designed myself, doing whatever needed to be done, in whatever hours I had available (which helped me juggle working full time while taking a full schedule of classes).

The point is that these ways of approaching the world (taking on whatever comes our way, seeing a hole that our skills can fill and bridging that gap without even being asked) are in large part what has made us successful.  It’s the best way we know to navigate the world.

Presumably, then, if we stop operating in these successful patterns, we become unsuccessful.

And this, I think, is the core of where we go wrong.

New Situations Mean New Ways of Achieving Success

We are reacting to new situations in the same old ways, not realizing we aren’t in the same old situations. And maybe these new situations aren’t best served by capably taking on everything that comes our way. Instead, we perhaps need to learn new patterns: providing an environment where others can shine by delegating well and providing support, pausing to evaluate the more strategic path rather than the reactionary one, providing better service, leadership, articles, talks by saying no to the speaking opportunity the day before so that we get a good night’s sleep rather than take the red eye across the country.

A key, perhaps, to not being so overwhelmed is to realize that saying yes to everything was the right response then, but it’s not the right response now. It’s not learning how to say no, but learning that in fact, saying no is not only a choice, but a good one. A successful pattern of its own.

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    Vanessa Fox I write and speak about the search engine industry and searcher behavior. I'm fascinated by our searching culture and how it's shifted the way we seek out and consume information. In 2010, I wrote Marketing in the Age of Google, which I updated and released as a second edition in 2012. In 2008, I founded Nine By Blue and Blueprint Search Analytics, which I sold in 2013. I used to work at Google, where I built Webmaster Central and helped launch sitemaps.org.