Posts by jcuene

Digital marketing & innovation leader. Founder of Fahren. Previously at GoKart Labs, General Mills, Ameriprise. MPLS. Husband to Andrea, father to 2. Lover of bikes, food, beer and rock'n'roll.

Father’s Day 2021

Thinking about my own father in a different way this year. He’s getting older, frail, a little more cranky. But, still on the whole, optimistic about the time he’s got left. We joke about him being in the 4th quarter of his life, but he’ll laugh and say he’s in the last minute of the two minute warning and the fat lady is stepping to the mic. 

I’m beginning to let myself wonder what my life might be like without him, how things may be different when he’s not there to call or consult.   While I’ve never taken him for granted, he’s been a constant presence, the center of my life’s radar, the point around which the arm sweeps. No matter where my actions might show up as a little  blip on that radar, he was always there, the home coordinates around which i traveled.  

He’s one of those good 1950’s/1960’s dads, a warm, steady presence but not overly involved unless it’s a big decision: Job changes, mortgages, investing. I don’t think he gets the concept of an interior life. I wouldn’t go to him to get advice or discuss philosophical questions, or the hobbies and pursuits that I’m passionate about. His parenting model was pretty straightforward: He gave me all the space I needed to figure shit out on my own, and he offered love and faith that eventually I’d make something good happen. He’d listen all day long, but he was mainly just letting me talk it out. He’s known me by the actions I’ve taken and the friends I’ve made, not what’s in my heart or head. 

Most days I believe he’s given me the best of the tools he’s had and the wisdom he’s gained. But, as I look ahead to the next 5-10 years, I can’t help but wonder if I should be digging to find any more nuggets as the clock ticks. 

And, the clock is ticking for me, too. I feel urgency to step up my game as a dad and review the past to consider my own work as a father and what I should be doing better, differently. My boys are both at important ages, one in the critical first years of college, the other in the wide open post graduation period. They’re both good young men, grown in most ways.  But, in other ways, they are still figuring out how al the pieces fit together and, more importantly, what pieces they can put on the table. 

They’re smarter than I am, but I’ve made more mistake and thus have some hard-earned wisdom. As I get older, I get more confident that I know The Truth about certain things. I want, more than anything, to tell them everything I know (or think I know). That Paul was the most important Beatle, but I’d want to hang out with Ringo. The Who is probably overrated. The Clash might be the best band ever from England. Buffet and Munger are the ones to listen to. Ride your bike. Keep a diary. I would love the chance to lecture them on the importance of friendship, kindness, compound interest, a buy and hold strategy, etc. But, at the same time, one of the best gifts my father gave me was the space and time to do things my way without a lot of judgement or oversteering. So, my plan is to wait, with a full heart and a bottomless supply of love, for them to circle back to me when the time is right, when they need a little reorientation or to check their coordinates a bit. 

My 2020 Music Picks – 2020 Was Actually A Great Year for Music

While 2020 was sort of a disaster in so many ways, there was great music to listen to.

  • Fleet Foxes / Shore – Man, I loved this record and it came at exactly the right time for me, this fall. A “return” of sorts, but it sounds exactly like you’d hope it would
  • Pinegrove / Marigold – I’ve turned into a superfan, and its a little weird because it’s been years since I’ve gone this deep into one band. Their songs are the kind that grow more meaningful with each listen; their playing is subtle, and technically really good. (Side note: the last live show I saw was Pinegrove in Seattle with my son in Feb. Remember those days? )
  • Fontaines D.C / A Hero’s Death – Oh man, I love these guys. A Yeats-spouting punk with a killer band? Sign me up. The lead singer’s delivery isn’t for everyone, but I love the energy, the attitude. And, the band are players. If you liked the Walkmen, you’ll probably like these guys. 
  • Sylvan Esso / Free Love – this one got a lot of repeat playing in our house. Crazy good electronica production, with a voice that has a million emotions. Great hooks. Ferris Wheel has been stuck in my head for months. 
  • Khruangbin / Mordechai – This has been on heavy rotation while I work, I’d call it power-pointing music, but that sounds terrible. Just a terrifically chill sound, and probably the coolest band I know of. Super talented musicians and tasteful, too. 
  • Taylor Swift / Folklore – I’m not (too) ashamed to admit how much I loved the folklore record. Surprised? Sure.  But, that group or artists couldn’t miss. 
  • Waxahatchee / Saint Cloud – Just beautifully written and performed songs. In my top 5 of the last couple years. 
  • Wye Oak / Fear of Heights EP – I love how rich the sounds are on this whole record. Fear of Heights was one of my top songs from 2020
  • Disq / Collector – A bunch of super smart teenagers from Madison WI? What could go wrong. These guys might be the find of the year for me. Came out in January. Sort of like Pavement, but a little more stoned. Daily Routine was a top 10 song in 2020. 
  • Phoebe Bridgers / Punisher – My sons are embarrassed at how much I like her music, but i’m not. Kyoto is just a great song.
  • Jason Isbell & 400 Unit – Reunions – Well, just superb songs and great playing. 
  • Kelly Lee Owens / Inner Song – I fell in love with her first record, but I think I might like this one even better. Chilly/Cool electronica meets singer songwriter. Plus, the first song is a smart Radiohead cross over
  • Los Days / Singing Sand – Desert landscapes, spaghetti western soundscapes. Instrumental, but great for getting lost. Or, powerpointing. 

Also fun, but not from 2020: 

  • Nobody Can Live Forever –  This song gets stuck in my head all the time. This is from some hippy dude and it’s from 1976. You can almost feel how stoned everybody was when they were in the studio recording this. This is like the perfect driving song, for that time you’re heading home after the party with your buddies and your jamming out. We’re not here forever, you gotta love the people around you while you can, and be cool to each other. And, play your music: https://open.spotify.com/track/7w3ymiN6ciV6H11PpJLLIX?si=xG-zMy7ESdC-MJhjytL58Q
  • Post Doc Blues – I think John K Samson might be the best songwriter alive right now. Or Isbell. But, this song from a couple years ago got me through the pandemic. Everybody could benefit from having the narrator be their inner voice. Bonus points for working in the word dongle and powerpoint into a  beautiful song about hope when all around us is despair. https://open.spotify.com/track/5l1AMUJEA43GYqxpfTyhoT?si=L03XTDIYRP217y2xofEJWw
  • Superdrag / In the Valley of the Dying Stars – This sounds like straight up power pop from 2001 and it is. This record might be perfect, front to back. If you like thick guitars, heavy drums, and superbly written pop songs, i’m pretty sure you’ll love this. My Favorite record of 2020

The Internet is Still Amazing

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the stuff coming at you from the internet. But, when you look around the edges, there are amazing things out there. I still love examples of creative, curious people using tech/tools to develop surprising solutions.

I love this project:  Halt and Catch Fire Syllabus, from Ashley Blewer. It’s for people who love the show, Halt and Catch Fire, and want to create study groups to use the show to understand the history of technology in the US.

Why I love it:

  • Its a super niche need, getting filled in a super creative way
  • it’s a great example of what a syllubus can look like outside a typical classroom
  • The materials linked are deep, not-typical and bound to spark a lot of ideas

Forget Section 230, We Need To Think Bigger

This take from Benedict Evans on the challenges of Section 230 and regulating social media is, as typical, really thoughtful. The key takeaway is that a fight over Section 230 is sort of aiming low, at this point. Trying to make regulations around social media based on old forms (newspapers, radio, TV, phone companies) works if you assume those old forms and the new things work the same way-ish. And, clearly they dont. The size, the scale the speed, the targeting, the volume of makers and consumers – all those are different than radio or TV or magazines or pamphlets or telegraphs or phones or whatever. We need some new, imaginative thinking to address a future media/comms tools. Keep 230, but get some new laws in place to regulate.

Meanwhile, here’s a useful take from Joan Donovan at Harvard Business Review on the fundamental difference between current social media platforms and the media of the past. Key point: A system that incentivizes and rewards items (content, features, mechanics) that produce high engagement at scale, with no limits on the bad actors in the system, will inevitably produce disinformation.

Deep in her essay, she gets to the heart of the issue, something that’s not being discussed at all (emphasis mine):

In every instance leading up to January 6, the moral duty was to reduce the scale and pay more attention to the quality of viral content. We saw the cost of failing to do so.

So, do corporations have a moral duty to do anything? Is there a moral and ethical dimension to the working models of companies? Do we hold them to a different standard?

More Dangerous Than the Capitol Riot – The Atlantic

I’m still trying to completely get my ahead around what happened last week in Washington DC. I’m pretty heavy reader of history, specifically the times around the first revolution and the Civil War. Given what happened last week, and the events leading up to it, Ive been thinking about how the history of this moment will get told. Short version: It’s not going to be good. 

While much of the coverage was focused on the melee, I was stunned by how many elected representatives were so willing to go with the flow of their dumb, conspiracy addled constituents who had a range of ill-founded beliefs about the legitimacy of the election, running from thoughtful skepticism to raging nutjob fervor.

Its just mind-boggling to me – now – that so many republicans were willing to turn over the election results. I “get” the politics involved, but I’m stunned by the lack of awareness of the broader situation: A mentally ill guy was leading the party, manipulating everybody, lying with every breath. And they all went along with it!

From Zeynep Tufekc writing in the Atlantic:

But the most important, most dangerous part of all this was Trump’s successful attempt to convince millions of his supporters that he’d won and was being cheated out of his win—and the fact that many leaders of the Republican Party, at all levels, went along.

 

Texas Election Lawsuit: Republican Attorneys General Backed a Dangerous Argument | National Review

I don’t think the Republicans have completely thought through their attempts at a Supreme Court case to address perceived election system wrongs. If it were to have gone to the court, there’s a whole lot of stuff in that pandora’s box, a whole bunch of unintended consequences. Andrew McCarthy at the the National Review provides a reasonable take:

“What this argument implies, whether the states making it realize it or not, is that even if Missouri wants to apply its own, stricter voter-identification standards, California should be allowed to file a complaint against Missouri in the Supreme Court. After all, the uber-progressive Golden State’s experts will say a strict-identification requirement disproportionately discourages qualified minority voters, which depresses Democratic Party turnout, effectively inflating the value of Republican votes to the detriment of Californians, who voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate.

You can see where this goes.”

 

Source: Texas Election Lawsuit: Republican Attorneys General Backed a Dangerous Argument | National Review

Groundhog Day, Together On Zoom

Staying Optimistic At Work When Everything is Hard

We’re now seven months into the slog of this pandemic. Those of us who can work — and can work from home — are probably feeling fortunate that, despite the hassle of zoom and video calls, we’re able to keep the train mostly on the tracks.

But, I’m sensing that, for a lot of us, the routine is starting to feel a little bit empty. Like the movie Ground Hog day, but without Bill Murray. Maybe our moods are getting a little jagged, and the humor is getting a little dark. And, maybe that future we’re building towards is getting a little cloudier. We’re trying to do good work, meaningfully, to create something better and, if we’re lucky, more useful. This rock won’t push itself up that hill, you know.

But, it’s getting harder. Trying to do it from the basement or home office is going to get lonely, if it hasn’t already. After a while, it’s all going to feel like most days are our worst days, when work is bullshit and we can’t really see the point of it. (Or, maybe the work really is bullshit, pandemic or not; that’s another post)

It doesn’t help that the virtual world we’re working in is overcooked and populated by a lot of empty wannabes. Those of us who pretty much live and work online are pepper sprayed with positivity and hustle-secrets by bros hawking their classes and private communities. I read too many click-baity headlines and I get worried for those under-employed journalism kids getting crappy hourly wages to crank them out, seeking just a bit of a career toehold so they can get off their parents’ payroll. There’s too much glossy snark and manufactured “I’m living my truth” first person stuff from stay at home moms and dads who dream of becoming the next Tim Ferriss or Glennon Doyle, the edge cases who actually did it, who jumped off the “real job” grind. I’m avoiding Youtube because it seems like every video is over-dosed with ads featuring some guy pitching me their course that will teach me how to sell my course, so I don’t have to work for the man anymore.

The relentless hustle and commercialism of this new workplace is toxic and transactional like the old one, just in a different way. It just reinforces the fear among us working alone, at home, that we’re not only in the wrong job, but that we’re not trying hard enough.

So how do we stay grounded? How do we see the meaning in the work, the satisfaction in the routine?

On my best days, I remind myself, in the words of the philosopher, that I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

Remember how Phil Connors escaped the bleakness of those Feb 2 day-loops? Hint: It wasn’t just waking up next to Andie McDowelI.

On my good days, I can wake up and see pretty clearly what we’re trying to do at Fahren:

• There’s a leader out there, trying to make something important happen at their job.

• It doesn’t matter too much what it is, but they’re probably trying to put some technology to better use.

• They might be trying to bring something new into the world.

• They know there’s a better way to work, some techniques they can use to do something smarter. 

• They want to keep growing and getting better. As workers, as leaders. As humans. They might be using their job to enact some real improvements in how they think, how they act and how they perform.

• They want help. They’re open to getting some ideas and support from a team that has gone through it before.

• Maybe they just want to hire an outside firm so they can work with likeminded people, so they don’t get stuck being a lifer in the old way.

• We can help. We can help that person solve their problem, to learn something new, to get a job done.

• We can help them make their own transformation, while they are changing the work they do.

Our chosen work is to help people develop and grow while they accomplish something important using the best, leading edge techniques and tools. That’s not a mission statement, or a slogan. It’s a reminder, a commitment.

Maybe that’s too optimistic? Perhaps a little naive? Well, that’s the choice I’m making. It’s how I want to view the world we’re working in now and I’ll keep doing it, even after the pandemic is over. I want my business to be successful, but I can’t keep working on it if cash is the only thing that drops to the bottom line.

We’re all swimming in tech. Technology is the water. But, when we click off zoom and look out the window, we have each other, good and bad, on the other side.

We work with people. We’re working for them, and in their own way, they’re working through us. 

I don’t want to be stuck in a loop of emails and Zoom. This choice is my way out.

Where’s Walt When You Need Him?

When I did my graduate work on Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and the American, civil religion of democracy, I got eye rolls from my professors for wasting time on a well trodden topic. Whitman was “over” (because who cares about form/structure and authorial intent anymore) and Kerouac was for dilettantes (which i guess I was), kid stuff. They were deep into post-structuralism, Foucalt, semiotics and Gramsci. But, i loved history, politics, religion and reading, so i got to do a little of all of those through my work.

When i watch the shitshow that is America circa 2020, I wish i could get a do-over on my thesis. The one I wrote was boring, poorly argued, not very interesting. What i probably should have focused on is the role of a creative, media celebrity in influencing ideas about politics and culture. I should have turned it into, effectively, a media studies project.

In their times, both Whitman and Kerouac were, in their own ways, media darlings. You could make an argument that Whitman was one of the first self-made influencers. If he lived today, he’d have a couple million followers on Insta and YouTube. Kerouac was one of the first post-WW2, mass media literary stars, pulled to prominence by editors and journalists and PR people who loved what he was saying, but still had to perform in their day jobs. They both had important messages about America, why we should love it, and how we should savor the elements of America that make democracy great. They both wrote beautifully about the role of the individual vs the greater culture.

Importantly, they also represented – and were presented in the media of their times – two different directions the American culture might go if the personal freedom inherent in a liberal democracy were taken to their extremes. Whitman, the communitarian, celebrated the beauty of a gajillion different identities brought together by the ideals of American democracy. Kerouac, the seeker of individual transcendence, was mostly focused on “kicks” and the freedom to follow his own path. If he lived and sobered up, he probably would have turned into a hermit monk or a libertarian.

The media of their times used both of these guys as a way to talk about American democracy. The audiences learned a little bit about democracy via the stories and the subsequent reading of Kerouac and Whitman’s work.

There are probably a lot of dissertations out there on the outsize influence Kerouac had on the hippies and “back to nature” culture dropouts of the sixties. I know there are plenty on Whitman.

When I watch the videos from the All Gas, No Brakes guy, I see the edge cases (i hope) of American freedom, pursuit of “kicks” and happiness run amok. When i watch peaceful protests, I see some hope. But, who is out there sharing a view of what democracy can and should be? Someone who isn’t a politician? Where’s the Oprah of political philosophy, someone making it easy to understand how we’re all supposed to act in a super diverse culture, but still live together in peace.

We need Walt Whitman right now. Or, something like him. A poet of democracy, someone that can teach and model what our American way of life can (and should be). Someone speaking beautifully, deeply about stuff no one wants to think about anymore: How we live together in a democracy, the beauty of the concept of “out of many, one”. Maybe they’re out there on Tik Tok? Maybe they’re streaming on Twitch?

GSD: The Maker’s Schedule for the CEO?

We’re a couple years into our “startup” journey with Fahren and, oh man, am I learning a lot about how NOT to manage my schedule. But, I think there might be a better way.

While I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in our short time, I’m one of those guys that can’t stop thinking about how to do more and do it better. As the CEO/Founder, it’s my responsibility to make sure we’re on track and driving this whole thing forward. It’s humbling to say it, but “clock management”- my time management skills (or lack thereof) – might be one of the things that is creating drag for us. If we want to accelerate, I have to be better at GSD.

My whole career has been an attempt to excel in what Paul Graham calls the “manager schedule”. Its been a schedule designed around 1-2 hour meetings, lot’s of variety throughout the day, and, a blend between quick decisions and deep consideration. Successful managers and directors and VPs were the busy ones, stacked up in meeting. A day full of meetings typically indicated more busy-ness and, by the power of the transitive property, more busy-ness meant “success”. In other words, a typical workday in corporate America is mixed bag of start/stop, high and low pressure, inefficiency. In those days, I had to come into work at 5 AM to get my “deep work” done in the quiet hours before the meetings started. It was a weird schedule, but, I was pretty good at that.

The team at GoKart Labs (RIP) were super talented makers, some of the best, most creative folks I’ve ever worked with. There, I learned the importance of the “Maker” schedule, where the focus was on the deep work that resulted in smart, clever solutions to gnarly problems, whether it was technical, creative or product strategy. I understood (and still do) the problem of context switching, and the lost creative momentum and productivity that happens when you are on the hook to make something great, but your day is broken up into 1 hour meetings. Back then, because I was a manager at the time, that was sort of a theoretical problem. Now the shit is real to me.

At Fahren, we’re building the business and, as the CEO/Founder, I’m a both a manager and builder, too. I’m a maker of things: Proposals, strategies, concepts, blog posts, etc. I’m supposed to be both a doer while I work “on” the business (i.e. figure out our healthcare plan options, pick some software for X), a doer while I work “in” the business (e.g. work on client engagements) and a maker (of ideas, posts, industry analysis etc). I’ve been trying to do all of it on a “Managers” schedule and it’s not working especially well. I have to make some changes, fast.

This isn’t an unexplored dilemma. These days, we’re all dealing with it to some extent. But, it’s one thing when your clock management skills get in your own way, and another when your lack of skills is holding back the rest of your team. Managing the balance between the two types of work is, I believe, a critical skill that any “ready” leader needs to hone. So, I’m going to try a couple adjustments.

  • Workshop Mornings – I’m going to pick at least one morning a week to block off as my “workshop” time, where I can focus on doing the deep work: writing, researching, planning, etc.
  • Meet and Greet Blocks – I’m going to block off a couple afternoons a week for the kind of meetings that would otherwise get interspersed throughout my schedule: Intro meetings, interviews, sales calls, regroups, etc.
  • Office Hours – I’m going to leave my schedule open for a 2-3 hours each week for random, drive-by talks. If folks call or want to video conference, these would be the time slots to do it.
  • No Meeting Fridays – I’m going to try (really hard) to not schedule meetings on Fridays if I can help it. If a client wants to meet, I’ll do it, but I won’t schedule it. In general, Fridays’ don’t seem like the most productive days and, at least in the summer, not much gets done after 1 PM anyway.

I’m going to try this for the 3rd quarter of 2020 and see how it goes. I’ll make adjustments at the end of September. If you’ve cracked the code on this balance, please let me know how you did it. I’m all ears.

What Comes After Zoom? Video everywhere and Then What?

I’m on a bit of work break right now and that means i’ve not had an online meeting in over 10 days. So, no Zoom, Hangouts, MSFT Teams, Slack video, WebEx, Skype, UberConference, GoToMeeting or Facetime (all of which i used in the two weeks leading up to my break for work).

You won’t be surprised to know I haven’t missed the meetings at all. At least, not the work part. I miss the social interaction of course. But, i don’t miss the small task of figuring out which tool to use for each of my meetings or fiddling with the equipment to make sure it worked and i could hear and be heard.

Zoom seems to have emerging as the leader because it’s easy, relatively simple, and reliable. It just works. But my time away has me wondering what’s going to come after Zoom?

I tend to agree with Benedict Evans, that video eventually just be a feature that every app has as part of it’s core offerings. Your project mgmt app will enable video interactions, your commerce apps will have video for customer support, etc.

But, in the meantime, there will be really interesting innovation ahead as, Evans says, “There’s lots of bundling and unbundling coming, as always.” Until, “Everything will be ‘video’ and then it will disappear inside.”

I’m curious about the way video is going to reshape the way we design our apps, once we make it a core feature. See, for instance, the vision of the Makespace team, where video is the interface for collaboration in realtime and more. I’m also curious how video gets used to support formal networks at work (think: Business unit conversations, meetings, projects, etc.) and informal networks (i.e. – peer groups, networking groups, etc.). I hope we see more than updated takes on House-party for work.