From Personal Reflection


Why should you tell part of the story?

Early 2016, I had an opportunity to introduce web analytics to a group of business executives in the company. I just took my new role as digitisation evangelist and was eager to build up my credits. The meeting room was filled with suited up Korean managers in their late 50s. Everything was still, without a single sound,  move, or even facial expression. I smiled mildly, desperate to break the ice. While the lack of feedback only made the situation more awkward.

Despite the embarrassing atmosphere, I was well prepared. I started with a humorous story featuring the challenge of digital marketers, followed by a brief introduction about web analytics. Then I explained in detail different problems that web analytics can solve, accompanied by report samples which I’ve collected from the real data. After comparing different techniques and tools, I completed the presentation with an adoption plan and monthly roadmap. The presentation which took me one month to prepare was, to my standard, perfect. But guess what?

The room was silent, but not in a good way. All the managers stared at me as if I was some alien monkey, and finally one said “So we can know how many customers click on those banners, right?”. I took twenty minutes to explained that although we can do that, the purpose of the web analytics is much more than tracking banners. Then the room fell into complete silence again. It was such a traumatising moment, but what happened later was even worse.

Months passed since my presentation. In every meeting that I assisted, I was still introduced as “The girl who tracks banner ads”, despite my endless effort correcting everyone that web analytics is not banner tracking. The concept -“banner tracking” unintentionally invited by this person was so strong that it defeated my one hour presentation with detailed explanation and rich demos. Why?

Because people want simplicity before they commit to complexity. For a business manager, who is new to web analytics, he doesn’t want to know a list of problems that can be solved, he doesn’t care how the reports look like, and he certainly doesn’t mind which tool to choose. What he needs is a single answer telling web analytics is. Unfortunately, I focused on providing a complicated answer that is true, instead of a simple answer that is useful. The poor audience who got completely lost caught the last straw – a misinterpreted concept proposed during the Q&A session.

As engineers, we have a tendency to make things complicated. Because when we see one part, we see the system. Especially we can imagine how this single part functions, or more frequently breaks down and crashes the whole system into pieces. We feel urges to warn people about the risks, to show them every possible way that a part can go wrong. Without realising it, we get carried away by this self-indulgent imagination, make people confuse, or worse, stagnate the execution.

It’s good that you can see the whole picture, but sometimes it’s better to keep the whole picture for yourself and only tell part of the story. Whenever you want to add more to an idea, think first.

Is it really relevant to what you want to do now?

What will happen if we tell this story another time?

Are people ready to listen to and understand it?

Does the information add enough value comparing to the harm that it will do to people’s comprehension of the idea, or people’s commitment to the execution?


Lessons learnt from our first business: stay open to serendipity

My husband and I have been working on a side project recently. At first we wanted to generate some revenue so we could afford the Leica camera which he had been longing for years. Then one thing led to another, and we decided to put his engineering knowledge and my internet skill into use so we could create a small personal business. The preparation for our first product was both daunting and hilarious, and it taught us so much more than we had expected.

Stay open to serendipity

One thing that I’ve learnt from life in cooperations is that we hate unplanned event: it interrupts the agenda, it excesses the budget, it messes up the annual plan and it stresses everyone up. To avoid accidents, we plan daily, weekly, monthly and annually to make sure that things will follow a designed path and nothing is out of control.

While this have its positive aspect in organisations, in personal life, tendency to plan for everything beforehand prevents serendipity coming to us. We might stay in our comfort zone, keep doing the same thing that we are good at, follow a life path that we or our families have planned for us. The several times that I loosed my guard and let uncertainties happen to my life  always brought me good surprises.

My husband and I are both engineers, we are good at many things, but one thing that we both aren’t good at is dealing with money, which we thought is the expertise of financial guys. Since we decided to earn money instead of save money for the Leica camera, we suddenly became more creative about doing things. We attended courses about business; we started to do investment; we learned selling skills that we never thought would be useful for engineers. One small step led to another, and we started to try out business ideas. Our original goal, the Leica camera, was not that important comparing to the new hobbies that we both found on the way.

If we never decided that it was OK to try things that we were unfamiliar with, we would have been putting aside a small amount of money each month. We might have already bought the camera by now, but we would miss all the fun about learning new things and challenging ourselves.

Stop worry about “what ifs” , and focus on “what is”

One reason that serendipities won’t come to our lives is that we’ve killed them in our minds. When we have an idea and won’t do something on the spot, then our logical sense gets in the way bringing all kinds of doubts, eventually we decide that the idea is stupid. More than often, we spend too much time worrying about things that will never happen that we don’t have enough energy to deal with matters before our eyes. I’ve learnt this from my own experience.

Before my husband and I started to work on our first product, we spent almost 6 months doing(worrying) the(for) research(nothing):

What if we chose the wrong topic?

What if we don’t have enough engineering knowledge and people find the course too easy?

What if people hate the course and start sharing bad comments about our course?

What if people steal our content and share it on the internet?

What if we price it too expensive and nobody will buy?

What if we price it too cheap and people would associate it with poor quality?

What if the system broke and we can’t provide constant service?

What if nobody buys and it will traumatise us so much that we will never try it again?

We wanted to make sure that we have solutions for all these potential dangers before getting our hands dirty. To answer these questions, we were reading books, running surveys, talking to friends. The truth is as we answered some questions, there were more coming out. The more we understand about this topic, the more risks we can foresee, and the less courage we have to take any action.

Finally we were tired of the endless research and decided to start doing something even though we were not fully prepared. As we started to take the action, things were lots easier.  We met many problems and we are still dealing with some, but none of them was in the prepared list. By stop guessing and worrying about the future, we were able to concentrate on solving problems that actually happened. The six months spent on “what ifs” were not that worthy after all.

You can spend months preparing for “what ifs” but if you don’t start deal with “what is”, all these “what ifs” will never have a chance to happen. On the contrary, if you focus on dealing with “What is”, you will learn to be creative and improvise. Life is not that short, we always have some chances to try.

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Why we need mental models in life

I was reading the book Doing Data Science this morning. There was a small section about probability distribution where I came across the picture in the banner. The purpose of the picture, the author wrote “to remind that they only have names because someone observed them enough times to think they deserved names.” Then she briefly explained how people observed data generated from natural processes, noticed the recurring patterns and built mathematical model to represent the data.

My article had nothing to do with data science or statistics. What I wanted to say was the author reminded me something that I never thought about models. Models are not golden laws that come out of thin air. They are there because of our attempts to understand the nature of reality. They act as lens of visions and skeletons of  thinkings. Without models we can’t connect the dots in the chaos.

Learning the models is important when you start to study a new field

Before I started my digital marketing career in 2012, I was a product manager. The sudden change was a strike to me. Things that I had learnt about building product didn’t help me to sell the products. I felt disoriented and were easily carried away by the chaos of online information. I literally read a blogpost of top 50 online marketing tactics and tried out them one by one:  SEO, PPC, social network, viral video, user community, newsletter, etc. Months passed, but nothing happened, except that I was mentally and physically drained out by all the activities.


A few more months passed, I started to get good at some tactics, but I still didn’t know why I was doing them, especially I couldn’t connect them together to achieve my goal. This condition didn’t get any better until one day I came across this picture: the marketing funnel model, and suddenly everything became clear. I realised how I could align my activities with different stages of the model, and what I could do to make the funnel wider. Later I learnt that there were many digital marketing models out there and the funnel model had its limitation. But the way that this simple model helped me demonstrated the importance of having a model. No model is absolutely right. A model, even though it’s limited, can help us to see patterns in chaos, and when we see patterns, we know where to put the effort.

Companies can also use models to help people align their visions and make decisions

A company’s value statement pays this role. A successful value statement should be able to help employees make decisions, and help clients understand why certain decisions were made. I used to work in a company, whose value was “Simple and reliable”, which I found very practical in guiding my everyday work. Because it told us that the company cherishes simplicity against complexity, and encourages us to trust each other. We worked on making the product, the process and the relationship simple and reliable. It did a great job to help us cut abundant features and useless meetings.

I took this easiness for granted until I joined another company, whose value was “Happiness, sharing and rewarding”.  I could say without  hesitation the statement is right, but I didn’t know what I could do with it. I could’t get things done by saying “that makes me happy”, or decided to cancel a campaign by saying “that’s against sharing”.  The value statement was great but completely useless to guide everyday work.

I’m not judging the right or wrong of these values . I meant a successful value statement should work as a model: telling how things work in the company so people can align visions and make decisions more easily.

Another thing to remember is that a model is just one way to interpret facts, a facade of the reality

You need to have lots of them from multiple disciplines to understand the world better. As Charlie Munger’s warning about having only one or two models: the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your model, or at least you’ll think it does. To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This happens all the time to me, usually when I meet a new theory from a book. After reading Lean Start Up, I found the idea of MVP is genius. I started to spot MVPs everywhere, and many things that I could test on. I tested the lean way on lots of things: marketing, analysis, relationships, even cooking. The enthusiasm went out control until I realised the MVP model has its limitation and it isn’t always applicable to the other fields. Although testing the boundary of a model has its positive aspect, it can be dangerous if you don’t know many other models, in which case you are just holding a hammer and looking for nails.

No model is absolutely right. Each model can be genius solution in certain context, but completely useless in another context. To make models useful you need to know them well and practice using them a lot. My advice? Have a curious heart. Learn different models from multiple disciplines. Practice them and test their boundaries. Keep an open mind and accept that odds can happen.


A life lesson that an art student taught me today

Today I was invited by my sister-in-law to a graduation exhibition of her design school at Lille. It was a simple setup: each graduate took an empty class, and introduced his or her project to the visitors.

To my great surprise, the exhibited projects were not, by common standard, good art works. They were intriguing, but not technically good. I mean my sister-in-law is on her second year of the school, and I’ve seen how she showed great drawing techniques and art sense. I couldn’t understand why, with three extra years of study, the graduates would do such a lousy job.

This question haunted my mind during the whole exhibition, but I didn’t bring it out, until I saw this project. The project, comparing to others which were intriguing or at least interestingly weird, seemed extraordinarily banal. There were a dozen of Facebook type selfies on the wall, with the number of “likes” and a list of hashtags written at the bottoms. Below each photo there is a small black box containing a smaller photo of this person’s normal day. The idea was not bad but not very special either, especially there seemed very little work done considering the 6 months time. “That’s convenient” I couldn’t bear this anymore and complained with a low voice. The student looked at me with an embarrassed smile and explained that his idea was to illustrate the contrast between what people show on Facebook and who they really are. Then he told how stressful and anxious he felt when he put his selfies out there and wait for strangers to “like”, how he intentionally posed himself similar to people who he thought to be narcissistic and feminine, and how he chose those stupid hashtags to get his selfies wider spread.

At the end of the exhibition, I met a teacher of the school and he expressed his astonishment that this student had chosen such a project, because the student was technically talented but had an extremely introverted character.

Suddenly I got the answer to my question. Instead of doing something easy to them such as drawing aesthetically appealing pictures, the students had chosen the difficult thing to do, even though the difficult thing for them was as easy as posting a selfie on Facebook.

It takes great courage for us to confront and overcome our fears. It takes even more courage to make the decision in the first place: abandoning what we are good at and giving the future to the unknown.

I felt so sorry for my ignorance. Today an art student taught me a very important lesson about living a wholehearted life. Daring greatly, experiencing the process rather than focusing on the result.


A reflection on democratisation of expertise, collective wisdom and problem solving

Yesterday I was helping a friend to set up an online teaching system with WordPress. Just as each time I used WordPress, at first, I was amazed by how I could set up almost anything without touching a single line of code. After the earlier sweet moment of setting up the skeleton, the bitter part came – the system and plugins never work in the exact way that you want. There were tons of hacks to do and even more ways of doing it. Guides and tricks that I could find on the internet were countless. But the real difficulty was I didn’t know what problem I had and which solution would work for my situation. After a long day tweaking the system, I finally achieved a suboptimal work. With a disgruntled heart, I swore, as I did the last time and the time before the last time, that I would never ever use WordPress again.

It’s amazing how the internet has inflated people’s abilities and blurred the boundary between experts and common people.  Secret recipes used to be reserved for chefs or grandmas. Home appliance repair used to be reserved for mechanical technicians. Trip planning used to be reserved for travel agencies. Selling used to be reserved for merchants. Accountancy used to be reserved for accountants. Website development used to be reserved for developers.

But today, with the help of the internet, we can somehow take over part of these jobs by ourselves. We don’t even need to keep the knowledge in our own head. As long as the knowledge is somewhere on the internet, we can always retrieve it anytime with a search engine.

The third type of people emerges – amateurs. Amateurs are self-taught “expert” on a specific subject. They often can’t completely understand or handle the subject from zero. But they can somehow produce a suboptimal solution by hacks and tweaks, as I did for my friend’s website. You find more and more self-taught designers, developers, marketers, accountant, nutritionist, stylist, travel adviser, body trainer, copywriter, etc.

Many application products target amateurs too. WordPress, for example, helps amateur bloggers and webmasters to build up a website by themselves. Email service such as Mailchimp helps you to build up you own campaigns without  a whole marketing force. Web analytic systems such as Google Analytics helps you to understand your web visitors’ behaviour without an expert analyst. Accounting applications such as Freshbooks helps to manage financial resources of a small business without a professional accountant.

These products usually provide a quick fix to the target problem, but it never works in the exact way that you want. They also tend to become over complex to comply with users in different situations. To tune the product to fit your specific situation, you’d spent days tweaking the product. User communities, open forums, and blogs are made for amateurs to share the experience and help out each other.

Although there is rich information out there. Everyone who has tried to tune a system will agree with me that  finding your solution in there is almost impossible.

First, the information out there is pure chaos

By nature, user generated information is heterogeneous. Authors have different levels of knowledge and writing abilities. You never know to whom you should trust.

The information is highly fragmented. It usually starts with a question from a user in the forum. Then the question is discussed among several users. With a little luck, the problem is solved. Most of the time the discussion finishes with no solution. Sometimes the thread is linked to another discussion in another forum. And sometimes the discussion is interrupted by another asker and get completely off the subject.

The information is without context. We are good at describing the problem itself, but we rarely give enough attention to its context. Partly because we are lazy, and partly because we don’t know which context is relevant. Take WordPress for example, if a plugin doesn’t work out, the reason might lie in configurations of WordPress system, default settings of your host, compatibility problems with the theme or other plugins that you have installed, etc. But as we don’t know what our problem is, or what potential problems there could be, all we can ask is “This plugin doesn’t work for me”. Solutions to questions without context are rarely helpful for another person.

The information lacks feedback. People have little commitment to forum discussions. They may ask a question and never come back for the solution; they may find the advice helpful but never mind to express their gratitude; they may figure out the solution by themselves but forget to share it with the community.

Second, amateurs don’t always understand where the problem is

Unlike experts, amateurs, without a ground understanding of how the system works, usually can’t identify the problem by themselves. When they search for information online, they are actually searching for potential problems and solutions at the same time.

The information chaos doesn’t do them any favor. They’d browse through a large quantity of information, take the time to try and rule out different possibilities.

Third, search engines aren’t the best tool to do the job

Solving problem is not about relevance. It’s about helping users to understand their situations and make a choice. Search engines do a great job retrieving relevant articles based on user queries. But in a situation that people don’t understand what the problem is and can’t make up an effective query, search engines are just retrieving all the possibilities in pure mess.

Linear structure is not an efficient way to solve ambiguous problems either. Search results are mostly organised in a linear order, with the most “relevant” result on the top. Again, when the problem is not clearly defined and hundreds of results out there are just in pure mess. Going through one result to another down the list is the least effective way to find the solution. It’s frustrating to read a long article only to discover it is talking about a situation which I’ve ruled out earlier.  A tree structure or case-based result page, which provide a certain way to group results into clusters and rule out irrelevant results in mass,  might be more helpful.

With the democratisation of expertise, people will rely more on the collective wisdom for problem-solving. There is definitely some progress to do about how we share and make use of the collective knowledge in online communities. Systems are needed to help people process and represent the huge amount information in a more interpretable way.