All posts by Dan Oshinsky

Pay Your Debts.

A few years ago at BuzzFeed, my co-workers on the Product side of the house — the folks that built our website and kept it running — started talking about this idea of “tech debt.”

Here’s a simple way to think about it:(1) At BuzzFeed, we’d built our website on systems that were a few years old. Over time, our team hacked together solutions to build new features and tools using these older systems. These weren’t supposed to be long-term fixes — a lot of these solutions were hacked together.

Almost a decade later, we’d ended up with was a website that — from a coder’s perspective — was like a Jenga tower. We stacked these hacks and workarounds one on top of the other, and eventually, we couldn’t go any further. The building blocks of our site could no longer support it.

By making all these short-term compromises, we’d put ourselves in a tricky position. We couldn’t really move forward with new projects until we’d gone in and fixed the basic infrastructure of our website.

We’d accumulated all of these debts, and we finally faced the realization that we had to pay those debts off. In order to move forward, we first had to tear down and build from the ground up.

So our tech team did. It was challenging, and it took an incredibly smart team the better part of a year to do it. But they did it — and moving forward, with the right systems and structures in place, that team at BuzzFeed is going to be able to do amazing things. They’ve got a strong foundation to build off of.

But there’s more than just tech debt out there. In the first few months at my new job, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what debts we need to pay at The New Yorker. I’ll ask co-workers: What are we doing that drives you crazy? What are you spending too much time on? What could we fix that would change the way you work?

Slowly, we’ve started to identify our debts. We’ve been able to streamline old processes that were broken, and build new processes that will allow us to move quickly. We had process debts (teams using inefficient systems to do work), communication debts (teams struggling to work together towards common goals), and quite a bit of tech debt (teams using outdated or ineffective tools and apps).

It’s going to take us a while to pay off these debts. But by identifying them, and putting together the teams to fix them, we’re making the short-term changes to allow for long-term success.

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That piggy bank photo was taken by Fabian Blank for Unsplash.

  1. And I’m going to really oversimplify here — I promise that my old colleagues were incredibly bright, thoughtful people, and this doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work, effort, thought, etc. they put into building some amazing products.

Do Something Small, Do Something Kind.

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I’ve written before about bad days — how to react to them, how to keep going when you’re having one. I even wrote a blog series back in 2011-12 called “Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.”

I was thinking about those posts this morning on the way into work. The New York subway system has been having a rough year, and things went a little off the rails(1) this morning. It took three trains and an extra 45 minutes to get into work, and me and my fellow New Yorkers were understandably grumpy as we made our way into the office.

Here’s what I know: A bad commute can ruin the rest of your day. I’ve certainly been guilty of getting frustrated with co-workers after a bad ride into work — the chain of screaming is real:

So I’ve been trying to find new ones to break the chain — to take a bad day and turn it around. Here’s the simplest one: I try to find a few moments during the day when I can be especially kind to someone else. That might mean helping a tourist on the subway find the right stop after a train delay. It can mean sending a nice note to a friend. It can tipping the extra buck at the corner bodega, or stopping by a co-worker’s desk to thank them for something they did.(2)

I don’t know if it really helps — maybe it’s just an act of good karma — but it’s something. And on bad days, it’s something I can focus on besides a lousy start to the day. These aren’t big acts, but I’d like to think they help a little.

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That NYC subway photo comes via Andre Benz and Unsplash.

  1. Pun unintended, sorry.
  2. If there’s something you do to break the cycle of a bad day, I’d love to hear it. Shoot me a note.

Be Willing To Suck.

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I talked to a journalism class this week, and they asked me about Silicon Valley mantras, like “Move fast and break things” and “Fail fast, fail often.”

How do you feel about them?, they wanted to know.

I’ve written a few times over the years about failure, and I’ve been thinking about it more at this new job. Here’s what I told them:

The first time you do something, you’re not going to do it very well. I look back on things I wrote a decade ago — sometimes even stuff I wrote a year ago — and I’m embarrassed at how bad it is. I look at old projects of mine, and I can’t believe how average the work is.

My earlier work sucked.

The only way to get better is to keep pushing yourself, and to surround yourself with people who push you just as hard. It takes time, and it takes work.

And yes, it will often suck.

The best people I know are a lot of things: Talented, creative, and lucky. And nearly all have something else in common: They’re willing to go through periods where their output isn’t very good, and they’re willing to work hard to improve.

Those Silicon Valley mottos miss one key point: The only way forward is being willing to suck. If you’re just starting out, remember this: It will be a long time before your work is any good, and that’s OK.

Doing great work isn’t about failure — it’s about perseverance. You’re not failing — your work just isn’t very good yet, and there’s a difference.

They won’t put this on a bumper sticker or a poster, but it’s the truth: Be willing to suck. Adversity and struggle is how you get better. Keep at it until you get to a place where you’re doing the work you really want to do.

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Unfortunately, I still suck at picking images to run with posts, so here’s a very cool (but very generic) photo of the road less traveled. This photo’s by Samuel Edwards, and was posted on Unsplash.

The Montage Scene.

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I was having dinner recently with a few friends, all of whom have started new jobs in 2017. We were talking about the struggles with a new job: Building relationships with new co-workers, learning new workplace procedures and etiquette, and challenging yourself in a new role.

And then, in the way that dinner conversations tend to go to strange places, we got to talking about the movies. A friend noted that they don’t show people putting in the day-in and day-out work in movies. If movies were like real life, someone would show up at an office, pitch a big idea, and then spend the next eight months slowly getting the buy-in to make that idea happen. Nobody wants to watch a movie where someone spends two months writing memos or getting coffee to brainstorm new ideas. Wouldn’t make for much of a movie.

Then we thought about it some more, and realized that we were wrong. They actually do show people putting in the work in movies! But it’s always in a montage:

And all of us at that dinner table agreed: The early stages of a job are a lot like the montage scene of the movie. You put in a lot of work, you try to make stuff happen, but it’s not glamorous. It’s… work.

In the movies, the montage scene is always fun. When you see a montage in a “Rocky” movie, you know that a big fight is coming up. You know you’re going to get closure for a character soon.

The montage scene at a new job isn’t quite like that. It’s work, and more work, and building new routines, and learning new stuff. It doesn’t always lead somewhere right away. You start a new job with a lot of ambition, but it always takes more time than you think to start getting stuff done that you’re excited about and proud of.

At BuzzFeed, the montage scene lasted my entire first year. It took a long time to build something from nothing, and even when we made progress, I’d look back on what we’d built so far and realize: We hadn’t done that much. It was frustrating.

But eventually we got there. Eventually, all new jobs get out of the montage scene, and then you can move on to bigger things. But you’ve got to put in that work first — and unlike the movies, you can’t compress it all into a three-minute-long montage.

Keep your head down and keep doing the work. You’ll make it through.

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That photo of a film reel comes via Noom Peerapong and Unsplash.

Here, Read This.

One of my former BuzzFeed colleagues, Millie Tran, put together this fantastic presentation about how to visualize your career. It’s full of wonderful advice for people in their 20s and 30s — especially if you work in media. Take 5 minutes and give it a read here:

Make It Work.

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If you don’t have all the money you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the knowledge you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the time you need to build something, you can still make it work.

It won’t be perfect. It might be far from perfect, to be honest. But find a way to get started. Find a way to make it work.

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That generic desk photo comes via Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash.

A Good Test Starts With A Great Question.

science experiment

Perhaps you’ve run an A/B test before. You wanted to see which would result in more clicks: Headline A vs. Headline B. A red “Click Here!” button vs. a blue “Click Here!” button. A photo of a cat vs. a photo of a dog.

What you’ve done is an optimization test. It’s a simple form of testing — you’re tinkering with the variables to try to find the best possible combination of content.

But when I talk about testing, I’m talking about something different. A test is more than just tweaking stuff at the margins.

A good test starts with a great question.

Right now, I’m asking two really big questions at work:

1) How can we build a big, highly engaged audience through email?

2) How can we convert those readers into paying subscribers to our print or digital editions?

These are complicated questions. To get the answers, we’re going to run dozens of experiments over the coming months. We’ll test out new sign-up funnels to grow our audience; build new designs for our existing newsletters; create original content to live in our emails; launch entirely new newsletter products; and test all sorts of calls to action to see how, when, and why a newsletter subscriber might be willing to pay for access to our premium products.

But it all starts when you ask clear questions. Those questions help set the boundaries for your work, and make clear what you should be focusing on, and what you shouldn’t.

And a few months down the road, once we’ve used these tests to build out the framework to answer these questions, that’s when we’ll get into the nitty gritty of optimizing. We’ll run all sorts of little tests — button colors! subject lines! cats and dogs!(1)— to get to that optimal version.

But first, we have to answer these big questions.

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That photo, “Science experiment” by Zyada, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. OK, maybe not this one.

My OOO Misadventure.

email ooo

A few months ago, I started thinking about ways to handle email while out of the office. I was getting a lot of email while I was on vacation, and I wanted to figure out a way to, A) Reduce the number of emails in my inbox, and B) Make sure that my co-workers weren’t sitting around and waiting forever for a reply.

That’s when I read this story about a company in Germany that auto-deleted emails sent to employees on vacation. It seemed a little intense, but intriguing. Maybe there was a way, I thought, for me to shut off the email spigot on vacation.

So I dug a little deeper. I read about Huffington Post trying a similar email strategy, and other leaders adopting this auto-delete strategy. They all raved about it. Communicate what you’re going to do, they said, and how you can help them when you get back from vacation. And then try it.

So I did. I reminded my team that I’d be on vacation and not checking email. I wrote an out of office reply explaining that I was on vacation, and declaring email bankruptcy. I’d be deleting my entire inbox when I got back, I said. So I asked co-workers to email me again on a specific date — the day I was returning to the office — and promised that I’d be able to help them quickly if they emailed me on that date.

I turned on the out of office reply, and I went on vacation.

And I got feedback pretty quickly: People hated it. They thought I was acting like a jerk.

And honestly? I couldn’t blame them.

Here’s what I believe: What matters most is not what you say — it’s what others hear.

What I thought I was saying was: Please help me maintain my sanity! Email me when I’m back at work, and I can help you then.

What my co-workers heard was: You clearly don’t value my work or my time.

And they were right! My OOO reply came across as rude, and borderline hostile. Instead of pointing people towards someone who could help, I was shutting the door on them entirely. And at a big company, where I was getting emails from people in other offices (and sometimes in other countries), there were a lot of people who were asking for stuff who didn’t really know me. This might have been one of their first interactions with me — and this was how I was treating them?

The “auto-delete” strategy seemed nice in theory, but at a big company, it didn’t work. (I sent a lot of “I’m so sorry” emails afterwards to apologize to co-workers. I probably spent more time apologizing than I would have spent just replying to my normal, post-vacation inbox.)

So I’m doing something different now. Now, the email you get from me says, “I’m out of the office until (this date). If you need to reach me, text or call my cell at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.” Then I list the contact info for colleagues who can help, and I explain how they can be helpful.

Here’s what I like about my new OOO reply: If someone desperately needs my help, they’ll reach out directly. But most people see it and think, “This can wait.” And they do. If not, they can reach out to a co-worker to get the answers they need. It’s an OOO that’s designed to make sure that others can get the help they need as soon as they need it.

As for the emails: Sure, they pile up a little. I have to take an hour on that first Monday back in the office clearing through my inbox. But if my OOO does its job, most of the emails are about issues that were sorted out while I was gone. I get my vacation, and the office keeps moving forward. That’s a win-win.

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That photo at top, “Email” by Aaron Escobar, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Here, Read This.

A few weeks ago, I wrote, “When They Zig, You Should Zag”, about trying to find opportunities hidden in plain site. And with that in mind, I wanted to share this fantastic piece from The Ringer about the unusual lessons that the Atlanta Falcons have learned from a cycling team. It’s a fantastic example of how a team is making small improvements — in the way their players sleep, eat, train, and learn — to get better at their work.

>> How a Cycling Team Turned the Falcons Into NFC Champions — The Ringer

After A Disaster, Give Money. (And Only Money.)

I’ll be back soon with the normal blog fare, but for now, here’s a PSA:

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, here’s something to keep in mind: If you want to help those in need, the best way is to donate money.

CBS’s “Sunday Morning” did a fantastic piece about the mountains of donations that arrive after a disaster. After hurricanes, tornadoes, or even mass shootings, donors send water, clothing, toys, and other goods to needy areas. The issue is: There’s nobody to sort through everything once it arrives, no systems to distribute it, and nowhere to store it.

Which is how you end up with relief workers burning piles of donated clothes on the beaches of Indonesia, or officials in Newton, Conn., trying to figure out what to do with 67,000 donated teddy bears.

Here, just watch the story:

If you want to donate to communities in need after Harvey, NPR has an excellent list of places that could use your help.