Better Tech Dev

Insights on Technology Development from Austin Higgins

Author: bettertechdev (Page 2 of 2)

What Technologists Can Learn from Stoicism

The Stoics are known for their control of their emotions and for their pursuit of wisdom, truth and perseverance. After 2,000 years, the philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus still hold true. This is because Stoicism is practical in nature. While I find the history and inner workings of philosophy interesting, most do not. Stoicism is popular for a number of reasons. It is practical and not just conceptual.

The writings of the ancient philosophers focus on real-world tips and tools to apply Stoicism in your daily life. This is why people, like Tim Ferris, choose to use philosophy as a personal operating system. Technologists should use this 2,000 year old method to identify what matters and focus solely on those things. Here are four things Stoicism can teach us.

1. Your product must serve a real, identifiable problem.

A product must serve a problem that a customer has and is willing to pay for a solution. The problem must be real enough to cause customers to change. Seneca talks about life being similar to a play but the importance is “not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

The same goes for everything about your product, operations and business. The excellence of delivery is the only thing that matters. And it all starts with one thing — a problem worth solving.

The first step is to have a real problem to solve. But that isn’t the only thing that matters. You must have a clear reason why you are solving this problem. The cliche and often overused words by Seneca apply here: if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.

The “why” not only drives your development process, go-to-market strategy and tactics but it influences team dynamics and hiring decisions. It has been written before, but you must know your why.

2. Focus on your minimally viable segment.

If you ask technology strategists how to launch a product they will come back with a number of buzzwords and phrases. Start lean. Be agile. Build an MVP. Launch a beta. Sure, this is fine advice. But often an important piece is missing.

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Seneca wrote this words to help his students uncover the importance of mindfulness and focus. This applies even more so when selecting a first group of customers to tackle. The technologist should think in this way. To try to serve every one is to try to serve no one.

Identify your first core group of users and solve their problem first. They will be your early adopters and referrers and provide early feedback on how to grow your product.

3. Data and customers are your true north.

Marcus Aurelius wrote a daily meditation while running his military campaigns. He journaled frequently on topics of perseverance and wisdom.

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius sought truth, the best technologists can find is data. You cannot ignore data as a technologist. All aspects of data are important but some are more important than others. Usability labs, traffic, customer behavior, feedback forms and digital metrics are just the beginning. When you encounter information on how your customers behave and what they want, you must adapt your strategy and tactics.

4. Anyone on your team can add value to your product.

Every team has a leader and every company a CEO. But, team members at every level could provide value to your product. Data scientists, software engineers, UX architects and product managers all have their relative expertise. Do not discount the potential for an intern or your CFO to provide excellent input and insight on features to build next.

Seneca the Younger in his Letters to a Stoic echoed this sentiment in his writings “I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” He was referencing ethics, reason, and good and evil, but the concept applies to product management. CFOs and interns can have great UX ideas.

Enterprise Applications of Blockchain

Many business leaders still don’t have a strong grasp on what blockchain can do for their company. Most of the focus is on cryptocurrency – which is exciting but has limited applications for enterprise in the near future. The real innovations and potential with blockchain remains untapped.

In this presentation, I dispell some of the myths around blockchain, give a business-level overview of how the technology works, provide enterprise use cases, show how companies can monetize blockchain and share what business leaders should be doing right now with blockchain.

How do you see your organization utilizing blockchain?

Stop Sending Surveys

Over the last few weeks I have received a handful of surveys to fill out. I’ve asked for feedback in the past, so I usually try to provide when it is asked of me. Every survey I have looked at has a couple of dozen questions, most of which have grid after grid of radials.

I never make it past the first page. This is especially true when I see the survey has 5 or more pages. I haven’t finished a single survey yet. And I’m one of the few people that actually want to give real, constructive feedback.

Surveys only need 2 questions.

  1. Do you like our product? Yes or no.
  2. Why?

Skip the “maybe” option for whether someone likes your product or not. If the answer isn’t yes, it is no. This is especially true when it comes to products and purchase decisions. From a data standpoint, you should treat your “maybes” as a “no”.

This will increase the number of respondents as well as the conversion rate on survey results. You may think you need a more complicated measurement. 5 point likerts, dozens of questions, Net Promoter Score.

Aside from production data like revenue, repeat customers and data on usage, all you really need to know is if someone likes your product and why. And a breakout of what % of your survey respondents like your product versus not liking your product. This is just as valuable – if not more valuable – than a traditional Net Promoter Score.

Keep it simple. If you need more intensive data, run a usability lab.

Blockchain Simplified

I regularly hear people talk about blockchain, bitcoin and distributed databases in the business and investment community. Cybersecurity is becoming more important by the day and business leaders are trying to find ways to optimize their technology work. So, I’m not suprised when someone tells me that they must get blockchain or do blockchain.

After a number of these conversations, I started to realize that most people get one thing fundamentally wrong with blockchain. Blockchain isn’t something you do.

The origins

Many people know the story of bitcoin and its rise to financial dominance. Few people know exactly why blockchain needed to be created, though. The problem with bitcoin and non-traditional financial transactions is there needed to be a factor of trust between two parties.

In our current financial system, banks act as the keeper of all records and therefore agents of trust. If I were to send someone money from my account, how can the recipient be sure that I didn’t already spend the money? In today’s environment, the bank ensures I do not overdraw or double-pay someone.

The creator of bitcoin needed a mechanism to ensure trust between two anonymous parties. The goal of blockchain was to replace the responsibility of the bank. Because there was no centralized ledger of transactions, he created a method to tie each transaction to the previous transaction. This is a chain of transactions, or blocks.

This chain of transactions is distributed across many computers and is used as a form of authentication. If a transaction doesn’t match the the chain of transactions, it likely isn’t valid and will not be added to the chain.

Blockchain validates bitcoin transactions and stores these transactions across a number of hard drives so the likelihood of a breach of trust is virtually zero.

Google vs. Microsoft

To get a better understanding of how blockchain compares to a standard bank, compare Google Sheets to Microsoft Excel. They are both similar software with similar functions and uses. A main difference between the two is how you send and receive updates when collaborating with someone.

Traditionally with Microsoft Excel you must make your updates, save it and then send it to someone else for them to make updates. Then, you have to wait for it to be sent back. Only one person can edit this file at one time. You are reliant on a some sort of version control to know which is the most accurate version.

This is how banks operate with traditional transaction environments. Only one person can access funds at a time. You initiate a transaction, then wait.

With Google Sheets multiple people have access to the same single version at the same time. They can view and edit the document without sending it back and forth. Version control isn’t needed because it is a main component of how the software functions.

Blockchain uses distributed, linked ledgers as a way to eliminate version control from banks or any other intermediately. While Google Sheets does not run on blockchain, the analogy is useful. The purpose and general functions of Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel are the same. The main difference is in how it accomplishes the general functions.

How, not what.

Blockchain is a method to ensure integrity of transactions between two parties. It isn’t just a peer-to-peer network or distributed network. It also isn’t just a ledger of accounts. Blockchain is a system to fulfill the responsibilities of a centralized, authorization organization in a distributed, anonymous and secure manner.

Blockchain has been used outside of bitcoin and currency for some time. Music companies like PledgeMusic are using blockchain technology to ensure artists are paid when fans listen to or download their music. Blockchain is used as the intermediary. AScribe is a service for artists to sell their work online and protect against copyright infringement.

Like the Google Docs analog and bitcoin, these two companies are using blockchain in how they conduct business not as what they do. Blockchain isn’t something you do, it is a way you conduct the technology side of your business. So, when someone says they need to adopt blockchain or “do” blockchain, they must clarify exactly the goal they are trying to accomplish.

Minimalism, Christmas and the Ideal Company

This time of year, and Christmas Day in particular, makes me think of my favorite style, minimalism. I love capitalism and, to an extent, consumerism. Life is all about maximizing things — compassion, experiences, giving, love, passion and plenty of other things. Material possessions can sometimes help us maximize what we love the most.

Minimalism is all about using the minimum effective dose of something to maximize the results. Minimalism is about reducing waste, not things.

I often ask myself during the holidays, what am I wasting? Time? Money? Resources? Relationships. Being mindful of waste can turn to being mindful of purpose.

I apply this same practice in business, too. When dealing with customers, how am I being wasteful? When leading a team, what activities actually drive value and what activities provide no value? How can I remove work activities or clients that aren’t essential?

The ideal company has no waste. There is no wasted money, every penny spent is spent on purpse. There is no wasted time, work is completed in the fasted way possible. There are no wasted people, all employees at all level are satisfied, growing and producing.

In Six Sigma terms, every activity should be value-add to end customers and internal customers. There should be no non-value-add activities in the values stream.

Is this possible? Absolutely. Is this probably? Unlikely.

At this time of year focused on abundance, it is important to remember in our personal and work lives this one question: what am I wasting? Identify and then correct. If something does not provide value it must be removed

A Logical Approach to Creating New Products

Most people think coming up with new product ideas is meant for only a select few. You have to be a visionary, a genius or special in some way. This thinking is counterproductive to most people. In reality, just about anyone can come up with new product ideas.

There is a simple and scalable process for new product ideation called Systematic Product Ideation.

In the most basic way possible, new product ideation fits in to one of two categories: problem solving or growth.

You may be trying to solve a discreet and identifiable problem. An easy example is a seatbelt, helmet or most safety equipment. Or, you may be coming up with a new feature or use that did not exist before. A simple example is a smart phone or 90% of the technology you use on a consistent basis.

There are really only two ways you can come up with new product ideas, too. You either do it on purpose or you do it by accident. Another way to think of this is you come up with ideas either by feeling or by thinking.

You have 4 real categories of ideation:

  1. On Purpose and Thinking
  2. On Purpose and Feeling
  3. Accidental and Thinking
  4. Accidental and Feeling

Your brain has two main modes of thought: focus and diffuse thinking. When you are actively trying to solve a problem, read a book, learn something new, engage with a new person, you are more than likely using the focus mode of thinking. Thoughts are linear and connected. This thought method is perfect for deliberate ideation.

Deliberate Ideation

When you start out on an effort to create new product ideas, you can choose to focus deliberately and guide yourself through a number of questions:

  • What do our customers complain about?
  • What do our customers ask for?
  • What isn’t working in our product today?
  • What are customers using our product for that we did not intend?
  • What other products are our customers using with our product?
  • What are the physical limits of our product?

In this way, you are using the thought process called focused thinking. This is straight forward and obvious.

Accidental Ideation

But what about the other method, diffuse thinking? Diffuse thinking is where your mind and thought process wanders. Your thoughts are not necessarily connected and often non-linear. This happens frequently when you are engaged in a repetitive, low cognitive load task. Where does your mind go when you are doing the dishes or running? What do you think about on long, silent walks? Your mind can shift in and out of diffuse thinking just before sleep, as well.

You can prime your mind for diffuse thinking. Many great minds have used diffuse thinking to expand their thought process and come up with new ideas.

Salvador Dali was known for using a technique to open his mind to diffuse thinking. He would use focused thinking when looking for new ideas for his art. Then he would become tired and sit in a chair while holding a key. His mind would slowly shift to diffuse thinking and drift to sleep. As he fell asleep the key in his hand would fall to the floor instantly waking him and taking him out of diffuse thinking and back into focused thinking. He used this exact technique to come up with one of his more famous pieces of work — “The Persistence of Memory”.

So, what does this have to do with product ideation?

You can use either thought process to come up with problems to solve or areas of growth for your products and customers. Choose the right process for the situation at hand. Focused, deliberate discussion and thinking has its place in ideation. But do not forget to let your mind — or your team’s mind — wander while focused on other tasks.

Or just grab a key and take a nap. That works just fine, too.

Three Pillars of Effective People Management

Management tactics, and their success, vary little from company to company. People managers at Fortune 100 enterprises, 3 person startups and everything in between must effectively communicate to their teams the definition of success.

After consulting for dozens of companies of all sizes, I have identified three foundational pillars of effective people management with regards to defining success.


This question is universally answered for all equal-level associates in a given role. Consistency is key for associate requirements. Each association at equal levels must be required to do the same share of work and have the same, shared definition of success. If a unit goal is 95 and there are 5 associates, each associate must be required to produce 19 units.


Expectations take the associates requirements to the next level. Associates may be required to perform 19 units, but management may expect them to produce ahead of the deadline. This could be due to the individual or the team the individual works with. Expectations should not affect core performance metrics for the individual but should affect reward and promotion.


Desired work performance is based on an individual relationship between an associate and their manager. This associate may be required to produce 19 units per month. Because they are on a high-performing team, management expects them to reach the deadline one week early. After reaching their goal ahead of schedule, they desire for the associate to help the analysts or new junior associates reach their quota.

Final thoughts

The expectations and desires for each associate may change, but it is paramount that the responsibilities and requirements are consistent across same-level associates. Having the same level of requirements streamlines the monitoring and performance metrics that management must use to evaluation performance.

This level of communication and definition helps associates understand what they must do to achieve what they want. If an associate wants to only remain employed, they can focus on requirements. If they want to progress in their organization or company, they can focus on the desires.

Using this model, managers can explicitly communicate what must be done and employees have a clear and accurate understanding.

  • Does this apply to any people manager in any industry? Yes.
  • Should it be adjusted to meet the needs of a company, organization or team? Absolutely.
  • How effective is this model once implemented? You tell me.

The Business School Alternative

“What do you think? Is it a good idea for me?”

“Its hard to tell. If you really want to be a doctor, you need a medical degree. If you want to practice law, you have to pass the bar. The business world is different. So let me ask you, what do you want to do”


“There is no barrier to entry in business. All you have to do is start.”


I’ve had that conversation what feels like a hundred times. As a chairman of a young alumni association for a top 30 MBA program and as an alumnus who regularly attends recruitment events, I expect people to ask me for advice on graduate school. I expect it and I love it. I want to help.

I typically respond with the same answer: if you need or want an MBA, get one, if you don’t, then don’t. It’s a canned answer but it’s the best I can do without context. After all, earning my MBA was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. It was an easy decision for me. After serving in the Air Force, I had plenty of education benefits.

The piece that many people miss is the underlying why. Do you want an MBA for prestige? Knowledge? Money? Connections? Personal satisfaction?

After speaking with dozens of prospective MBA students, I realized there might be a better way to learn and grow in to a better overall person — not just professional.

I read a dozen books and hundreds of articles on education, motivation, lifestyle design and career planning. I was looking for examples and paths of non-traditional education in the business world. What I end up creating is a Self Directed, Non Traditional MBA program.

What is a Self Directed Non Traditional (SDNT) MBA?

First, check out what Investopedia has to say about the current cost of an MBA:

“So summing it up, $80,000 for tuition, $40,000 boarding and books, $20,000 peripheral expenditures brings the total MBA cost to around $140,000, while the lost income brings the tab to a whopping $260,000. That figure amounts to more than four years of salary at an annualized income rate of $60,000.”

A SDNT MBA is a program of your choosing to learn general business, create an impressive array of skills and experience, create a digital narrative and become a relative expert in your field of choice — all for a fraction of the cost of a traditional MBA in half the time with an exponential output.

The program is split in to 3 core areas. You can do them in any order, at any time. It’s self directed, remember.

  1. Read
  2. Practice
  3. Build

There is an optional, extra credit area of Life Enrichment.

You will invest less than $10,000 and can finish as fast as you want. What will you gain? Knowledge. Power. Connections. Fulfillment.

What do you have to lose?

Semester 1 — Read

Investment — $500

In a traditional MBA program, you will read one to two textbooks per class and 5–20 articles and case studies. For a 12 class program that could be 24 books and 600 articles. For a 17 class program like the one I went to, the reading becomes even more intense.

As an avid reader, that does sound interesting but it is likely overkill. Use the minimum effective dose and cut your reading down. After a few best sellers in any give topic, the information becomes redundant.

Instead, pick a book or two in each of the core categories of business. I’ve outlined some options below. If these work for you, go for it. If not, adjust.


Information Technology

Organizational Behavior

Strategic Management


Finance and Accounting



In additional to the recommended books, grab a subscription to the Wall Street Journaland Inc Magazine. They are some of the best in the business.

Also, read your local business publication or business section of the weekly newspaper. If you don’t plan on staying where you are, read the news from where you want to be. Online, print, mobile. It doesn’t matter.

*If you are interested in meta-learning — learning how to learn — read The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferris. It is one of the single best resources on rapid skill acquisition. He uses the culinary arts as a medium to teach learning.

Semester 2 — Practice

Investment — $2,250 — $5,250

You can do this before, during or after the first semester. These practice areas are for people to learn as much as the can by doing, not just reading. There is no better way to learn than to try it for yourself.

You will cover marketing, sales, product development, finance, global business, investments, strategy, operations, organizational behavior and public speaking. Basically an entire MBA program. Don’t forget to follow the #1 rule: adjust to your goals.

Create an online portfolio / blog about you. Market yourself to potential employers. Create personas, marketing campaigns, content, project plans and execute. You are the product. Employers are the customer.

Find a student team at a business idea competition at a local university. Invest $5,000 in their tech project. Learn how they build it.

Find a problem you want to solve. Sketch out a potential solution. Find a developer on Upwork and pay them to build it. You will lose money, waste time and learn a lot about how to actually build technology. If it goes well, you may have a product you can sell. If it doesn’t, it was still cheaper than tuition.

Loan money to an entrepreneur via Go visit them on your overseas trip (See below). Ask them how they build their business.

Pick 5 companies, read 2 years worth of financial reports. Convince someone who knows nothing about finance they are a good or bad investment. Back it up with facts.

Find a local family run business. Offer to work for free to help them improve their business. Marketing, process, finance, accounting, sales, strategy. Anything and everything.

  • Not sure where to start? Local chamber of commerce.

Join Toast masters for 6–12 weeks.

Join an industry networking group. Volunteer for the hard stuff. Talk to every single member and ask them what they want out of the professional association. Identify the top 3–5 trends. Make those happen. You will have dozens or hundreds of people thanking you.

Semester 3 — Build

Investment — $350 — $850

The third semester could also be titled “concentration”. Some MBA programs allow you to have a concentration in a core area, others do not. With a SDNT MBA, you can do literally anything you want. This is what I recommend.

Read 10–30 books on your concentration.

  • Best sellers, self published, new releases, timeless classics.

Create a blog and post 50–100 articles on your concentration over the course of one year. Once or twice a week.

Contact 100 companies / people in your target industry(s) and interview them for the blog

Create a service or product based on this concentration

Semester 4 — Life Enrichment

Investment — $4,029

An MBA is a time of personal and professional growth. You meet new people, learn new concepts and work hard. The late night group projects and back to back classes build character.

In a non-traditional MBA, you may not have those exact same growth opportunities. Here are some alternatives to continue your life enrichment while pursuing your business education.

Learn a language. Join a MeetUp for language learning. is the single best method to learn another language.

  • Here’s the summary
  • Learn 1,000 words
  • Learn basic grammar
  • Watch some TV shows in the target language
  • Read your favorite children’s book in the target language

Buy a Round-the-World plane ticket or use Frequent Flyer Miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia.**

Set your home page to Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you’ll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it.**

Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.**

Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know It Allby A.J. Jacobs, a good summary.**

** These ideas are taken from Chris Guillabeau’s Art of Non Conformity

Final thoughts

An MBA should be a vehicle. If you know where you are going, you will know what you need. If your path requires an Ivy League MBA, then you need to get an Ivy League MBA.

Question your motives and your goals. If you realize what you are seeking is knowledge, skills and understanding, a Self Directed Non Traditional MBA may be perfect for you. You can grow and build your career on your own education terms.

Success is in your hands. No one else’s.

The Real Language of Business

For the last few years I have been telling executives and entrepreneurs that the language of business is accounting. If you want to understand how a business operates, follow the money. It doesn’t matter the functional area or industry, money is the same wherever you go.

I believed this truth so much that I studied investment finance, accounting and valuation in grad school.

It turns out that I have been wrong the entire time. Accounting is not the language of business. The real language of business is the Voice of the Customer (VoC).

The Voice of the Customer should be the single guiding factor in making business decisions.

Marketing. How can I reach my customers and communicate to them in the way that they prefer?

Sales. How can I ensure my sales team and sales process provide value early and often? How does my customer define value?

Fulfillment. How can I fulfill customer orders in a timely manner? What are theirexpectations?

Customer Service. What are my customer’s expectations and what problems will I need to solve?

Product Development. What products and features do my customers care about? What are they willing to pay for?

VoC and Value Add Activities

The Voice of the Customer can help business executives and entrepreneurs in any industry and any functional area define what business activities are actually valuable. Every activity a business performs is either valuable to customers or invaluable to customers.

Some invaluable activities are necessary. Does payroll accounting for employees really provide any value to customers? Not at all. Is it necessary? Absolutely. There are certain activities and tasks that businesses must perform. The goal is to identify what areas of your business actually provide value and invest in that area to maximize value.

It is impossible to know what your customers care about without asking them.

Ideally, businesses should involve customer feedback at every stage. Every employee of your company – from interns to the C-suite – should be empowered to listen to customers and communicate their voice back to the business.

Idea to Action

There are many ways to incorporate the VoC to your daily operations. Surveys, focus groups and interviews all work. The most effective way is to ask one question during every customer interaction. The question is the same online or offline and the same in billing, sales, marketing, support or development.

What can my company do to provide more value to you?

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