The science behind why better energy management is the key to peak productivity
We live in a culture that seems obsessed with being productive.
While increasing our output and doing more with our time is certainly an admirable goal, according to Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, that misguided approach is actually liable to hurt your productivity.
Without real restoration and rejuvenation throughout the day, people (knowingly) hold themselves back because they are worried about “pacing” their energy to make it through the day.
This is incredibly damaging to your potential, because it distributes your efforts at 25% across your whole work day instead of reaching 90% output at the moments that correspond with your body’s naturally productive rhythms of alertness. The result is that you aren’t able to do your best work and you aren’t getting the rest you need to rejuvenate yourself either.
I know I’ve fallen into the trap of conventional thinking that to be productive, I just need to work harder. I spend more and more hours at the desk, but when I look back, I’m not sure where the time went.
To Schwartz, not being able to push yourself to 90% output without worry is the biggest impediment holding you back from being truly productive and producing your best work. True productivity is determined by better energy management rather than simply cranking out more hours at your desk.
What do our energy levels actually look like throughout the day?
We all have a sense of our energy level, whether we feel productive or not, whether we’re alert and excited or tired and groggy, but most of us try to ignore it and don’t know the science underlying its effect on our work. It turns out that our energy functions according to what psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie called “ultradian rhythms,” or natural cycles that take place during the day.
Lavie conducted a fascinating series of experiments where he put young adults on an ultrashort 15 minute awake-5 minute sleeping schedule in 8-hour sessions, first from 4 pm until midnight, and then after 6-7 hours of sleep, he put them on the 15/5 schedule from about 7 am until early afternoon. He then observed when his test subjects fell asleep and couldn’t fall asleep during this bizarre sleep schedule and came up with some surprising findings.
In the afternoon and evenings, we get sleepy at two times: at 4:30 pm and at 11:30 pm. But in the morning, we get sleepy every 90 minutes. These 90-minute cycles are our ultradian rhythms which define when we’re naturally feeling awake and productive. We perform our best in between those periods of drowsiness.
Those who work with instead of against their ultradian rhythm perform better, according to a study on world-class violinists. You might expect the best violinists to practice until their fingers bleed. Not so. Top-tier violinists practice no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, in 90-minute bursts, plus they got more sleep than their peers (notably, 20-30 minute afternoon naps).
It’s not just about concentrating when your energy levels are high. It’s also absolutely vital that you rest when your energy levels hit bottom. One piece of research that Schwartz regularly cites is a Federal Aviation Administration study of pilots on long haul flights that shows the crucial importance of resting when your energy levels are low:
One group of pilots was given an opportunity to take 40-minute naps mid-flight, and ended up getting an average of 26 minutes of actual sleep. Their median reaction time improved by 16% following their naps.
Non-napping pilots, tested at a similar halfway point in the flight, had a 34% deterioration in reaction time. They also experienced 22 micro sleeps of 2-10 seconds during the last 30 minutes of the flight. The pilots who took naps had none.
If you push yourself to continue working during periods of low energy, you risk continued grogginess and low performance. It’s critical that we acknowledge our body’s natural rhythms and align our periods of work and relaxation with them to work in a sustainably productive way.
You improve by pushing your practice, not yourself during low energy.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is what you need to become an expert in your field. Research from psychologist Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice shows that it’s true strain and “wear and tear” that helps people build expertise.
(via K. A. Ericsson, Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406)
Although getting into a flow may feel good, sometimes we use the term “flow” to describe times when we’re not pushing ourselves very hard. But it’s the hard practice that allows us to improve. A good metaphor is weightlifting at the gym: while a good flow might involve a 30-minute walk and some light free weights, if you are looking to push yourself into chiseled, six-pack ab territory, you’ve gotta hurt.
Building muscle at that level doesn’t come without pushing into the territory of the uncomfortable, and this is why Schwartz and noted authors like Cal Newport are so adamant about these “hold nothing back” periods of work. During these sessions, it’s vital that we challenge ourselves with increasing difficulty and focus uncompromisingly on how to fix our weaknesses.
When deliberate practice corresponds with periods of intense concentration, we suss out our weaknesses, make progress, and do our best work.
3 Important tricks for managing your energy
Break your work sessions into 90-minute blocks: I tested this for myself, and I noticed that the feeling of reckless abandon in being able to give your all for those 90 minute periods was incredibly useful in allowing yourself to pour out creativity without having to think, “What will I have left for the end of the day?” It’s a surprising bit of mental jiujitsu, but it works: I feel energized and empowered to operate at peak levels because I know that it’s only for 90 minutes.
After your 90-minute sessions, take 15 minute breaks: According to Schwartz, breaking up work periods into 90 minute sessions with the knowledge that there will be a 15 minute break at the end is a great process to get started with balancing energy and recovery throughout the day. This way, the 90 minute work period can be approached without having to worry about pacing or burnout: a scheduled break is just on the horizon. It seems strange to allow yourself these sorts of breaks if you are a person who prides themselves with being busy/productive (two very different things, actually), but on the advice of Schwartz and the complementary studies that support it, it’s definitely worth a try.
Take Naps: The naps were the hardest sell for me, but after seeing the science behind napping by my buddy Leo Widrich, I was sold on at least giving them a go and was very glad I did: my productivity “dip” around 4pm is now all but gone, thanks to a quick 30-minute nap at 3pm. Schwartz gives this schedule as a sample:
Nick, by contrast, works intensely for approximately 90 minutes at a stretch, and then takes a 15-minute break before resuming work. At 12:15, he goes out for lunch for 45 minutes, or works out in a nearby gym.
At 3pm, he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes it turns into a 15- or 20-minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 and 5pm, Nick takes a 15-minute walk outside.
What did you think of the research in this post and Schwartz’s approach to finding a work schedule that works with you?
Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
“Trust yourself. If you are passionate about your idea you can do more than you ever imagined. There is no secret to success; you simply start with a vision and then it is about problem solving, breaking everything down into smaller pieces, getting it done, and remaining tenacious even when the uphill pursuit becomes steeper. Nothing is more rewarding!”—Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, co-founders of Birchbox, giving the scoop at goop about starting your own business.
Wistia provides super easy, distinctive video hosting, management, and marketing for businesses. We wanted to find out from co-founder and CEO, Chris Savage, how Wistia uses iDoneThis and why they love it.
In the past year, Wistia has gone through a growth spurt, doubling to a total of fifteen people. Chris wrote a great blog post about the challenges of staying productive during such rapid growth, pointing out how Wistia’s “internal communication mechanisms have had to evolve so that they are less disruptive, more relevant, and more helpful.”
Allotted ample ownership and authority, people at Wistia have a great deal of freedom over what they do. As a result, as Chris explains, “it’s hard to know what everyone else is doing, which I think is really important.” So, the Wistia team uses iDoneThis to “facilitate what would often be those random connections that would happen if you were sitting next to somebody, if you were walking by somebody working on something.”
iDoneThis enables fast-growing companies like Wistia to revive something of the easy immediacy of two founders working in a room together, capturing valuable information that wouldn’t have been pre-set on a task list or deemed “worthy” of sending out yet another email. Chris notes, “That’s something that’s been really big. It’s good that other people can see that that’s happening, know that it’s important, and can comment on it.”
The Wistia team relies on tools like Yammer to keep the productivity engine running and continues to hold weekly stand-up meetings, but specifically for announcing goals for the week. iDoneThis is used for “a very different purpose,” says Chris. “It’s an accomplishment list and a way to show others what we’re working on. Other tools don’t supply that.”
What’s distinctive about the Wistia team is the obvious pride that they have in the company culture and the deliberate effort with which that culture is cultivated. Chris elaborates, “A big thing we wanted to do was start to write it down and talk about it and have a vocabulary, because we felt like if we don’t fight for it, we won’t be able to maintain it. It actually feels like a competitive advantage.”
Part of building that company culture meant defining a company identity, or the “Wistia way” of doing things. When Wistia launched a free version of its service in June, for example, they created a rap video instead of simply sending out an email and adding the plan to the pricing page. They did it the Wistia way: “Go a little over the top, have a lot of fun with it, and express our own excitement.”
We haven’t created a rap video about it, but we’re very excited that iDoneThis helps make the Wistia way happen!
“A growing body of research suggests that paying attention to the body clock, and its effects on energy and alertness, can help pinpoint the different times of day when most of us perform our best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.”—
Any.DO is an elegant task management application available for Android, iPhone, and the Chrome browser. While the app has received praise for its simplicity and ability to sync across platforms, the Tel Aviv-based startup found that it needed some management tools to synchronize itself, with one of its founders, Omer Perchik, relocating to San Francisco. Plus, the company, which started in 2010, saw its team nearly double to twelve people.
Any.DO turned to iDoneThis to sync its team, and as co-founder Yoni Lindenfeld explains, to solve one of the challenges of fast growth— how to get all the newbies up to speed. “It’s a good tool to get new people coming on board to understand what other people are doing and to show other people what they’re doing.”
Communication and coordination are priorities for Any.DO, achieved through transparency regarding the inner workings of the company. “It’s really important for us for everyone to be involved and aware,” declares Yoni, as part of Any.DO’s tight-knit “family-style environment” work culture. These objectives led the Any.DO team to implement iDoneThis with a plan to be more specific in their daily entries. Yoni elaborates, “Before we started using it, we talked to everyone about how we would profit most from using it. It’s going great because people are writing more details about what they’re doing and other people,” —including new hires — “know more details. It’s a great tool.”
Everyone at Any.DO uses their own creation to manage personal and work-related tasks, but according to Yoni, iDoneThis plays a different role. “When you put a task in your to-do list, it’s more of a personal thing. Actually that’s something we’ve learned from researching a lot about how users manage their tasks. Tasks are usually much more personal and you don’t elaborate a lot because it’s just something that will remind you about what you want to do.” Meanwhile, a tool like iDoneThis functions more broadly and publicly. Members find value both in personally focusing on accomplishments and in sharing that attention with others.
We’re delighted that a company that made a task management app uses iDoneThis to help get them from to-do task to Done!
The art of getting stuff done without bossing around
The availability of seed-stage funding today means that there are a ton of first-time entrepreneurs out there assembling teams and building companies without any experience running a team or managing people. Building a team in this environment is especially difficult because funded companies typically grow teams prior to sustainability or product-market fit. It’s hard to steer the team in the right direction when you yourself don’t quite know what to build.
Naval Ravikant at AngelList has blogged about “Building a team that ships”, describing his assembled team as “self-managing people who ship code.” Naval calls this peer management: one person per project (with help from others as needed), no middle managers, and individual choice on what to work on using accountability is the rudder. In his words: “Promise what you’ll do in the coming week on internal Yammer. Deliver – or publicly break your promise – next week.”
At iDoneThis, we’ve seen peer management as an effective approach to take for the young startup CEO. We’ve worked closely with many first-time entrepreneurs like Danny Wen at Harvest and Tobi Lutke at Shopify who have succeeded in building unique, quirky, and profitable companies by empowering individuals at their companies to manage themselves and each other to build out great products exceeding a high standard of excellence. Here are some keys to effective peer management that we’re seeing.
Skillshare uses a system called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to systemize accountability. Every individual is responsible for company objectives, which are broken into measurable bites in the form of key results, resulting in alignment within and accountability throughout the team. At the end of every week, month, and quarter, individuals measure themselves against their OKRs to evaluate performance.
OKRs have a rich history in building great tech companies, going back to Andy Grove at Intel in the 1980s and what he called “Management by Objective.” Drawing a fundamental distinction between output and activity, Grove’s use of the word “objective” involves dual meanings. Output is both the objective and something that’s objectively measurable, while activity is a black box. An engineer at heart, management by objective was Grove’s way of bringing scientific and engineering principles to management.
OKRs have since been embraced by tech giants like Google and Zynga and spread throughout the Valley and to the broader tech world. At Salesforce, they do V2MOMs (vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measurement); at Yammer, they do MORPHs (mission, objectives, results, people, and how did you do); others use KPIs (key performance indicators). While the acronyms may vary, the general principles hold true.
To Mark Pincus, OKRs are the solution to the basic problem that’s at the heart of many a founder’s anxious and sleepless night: how “to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.” Every individual has one objective, and they are the CEO of that objective, entrusted with authority and accountability for their objective and the key results necessary to get there.
In old school, hierarchical companies, information that passed down to employees or up to executives had to travel through middle managers and that created a single-point of failure anti-pattern. You had to rely on your manager to get information and also to market your accomplishments upward to upper management and the executive team.
Where individuals manage themselves and each other, it’s vitally important that everyone gets the requisite information flow they need to do their jobs and that they have channels to market their own accomplishments and results.
The system of snippets adopted at Google is an example not of big brother monitoring, but of empowering individuals to see everything that’s happening in the company so that they can find their niche in the company and contribute. You get a weekly email that asks what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.
The power of snippets is in gathering data to demystify the black box of the notoriously fuzzy production process — in which raw material turns into output with the application of labor — and makes progress possible to measure, analyze, and recognize. It makes sense then that peer management environments tend towards transparency, meritocracy, and individual professional fulfillment. Companies on the rise like Shopify and Harvest track and celebrate their daily accomplishments with a daily email from us here at iDoneThis.
Fit as a Deal Breaker
In company cultures of extremely high personal autonomy, fit is paramount because it reduces friction in every interaction. Companies like Valve and Github tout bossless cultures. Stripe is building a world-class team and every employee can veto a potential hire.
While fit can be tested by hiring a candidate first as a contractor, fit often amounts to guesswork based on intuition and impression during interviews. Peter Thiel said PayPal once rejected a top-notch engineering candidate because he said during an interview that he liked to play “hoops,” and a PayPal engineer does not play basketball, much less “hoops.” The wisdom of that decision is unclear, but that decision process no doubt solidified a sense of self in the team.
Fit is about an ever-solidifying sense of self as much as it is about bringing on like-minded people, and that sense spawns canonical stories and processes. Carwoo is a company that’s a little weird, so they ask every interviewee how weird she thinks she is on a scale of 1 to 5. There is a right answer. 3-4 is the sweet spot a weird person who is self-aware.
Wistia is a company that highly values its culture and the unique identity it has built. Co-founder and CEO Chris Savage finds that combination of autonomy, culture, and fit becomes “a competitive advantage”, as Wistia hires more people, “the culture of the company should get stronger because we’re hiring for values that the company believes in, and people with those values should make it stronger.”
* * * * *
As work gets automated and outsourced, self-directed, creative work is required in ever-increasing degree. Peer management not only makes us more efficient, but it builds a workplace that enables — as Dan Pink describes — autonomy, master, and purpose that makes work fulfilling and joyful.
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—
Published in the journal, PLOS ONE, the study found that viewing photos of cute animals — which induces positive emotions — results in improved “subsequent performance in tasks that require behavioral carefulness, possibly by narrowing the breadth of attentional focus.”
Well then! Here are a few cuties to focus you today:
We’vewrittenbefore about the secret to happiness and motivation at work. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer wrote a whole book about it called The Progress Principle. They found that the number one driver of a positive inner work life, the key to motivated, engaged, and productive employees, is making progress on meaningful work, even if that progress is a small win.
In a recent 99U conference talk, Professor Amabile shared the best way to achieve those small wins and leverage the progress principle in our daily lives: keeping a work diary. We’re so pleased that she suggested using iDoneThis as an online work diary tool, and we thought we could break down how iDoneThis contributes to the four benefits of keeping a work diary that she identifies:
1. Capture progress that may have been lost in a busy workday and celebrate the small wins.
Professor Amabile notes that even on frustrating, seemingly unproductive days, you can almost always find one thing on which you made progress. Note it. Celebrate it. “This is the best way to leverage the progress principle,” Professor Amabile says. Next stop: more awesomeness.
iDoneThis helps you see your workday through the lens of accomplishment because it asks, “What’d you get done today?” In taking a moment to reflect on this question, you make a habit out of focusing on the progress you made and your wins, however small. Writing and recording wins in your iDoneThis calendar is a quiet affirmation and celebration.
2. Plan next steps, think things through, and overcome setbacks.
Professor Amabile also suggests using a work diary to consider the causes of setbacks you experience and create a plan of action if a similar problem rears its head again. The Progress Principle encourages learning from negative experiences and counts those valuable lessons toward your overall progress, turning negatives into net positives.
iDoneThis contributes to such positive growth, because it keeps a record of all your daily doings. You can go back into your log and see what decisions, actions and efforts led to the setback. In short, you can pinpoint where things started to go wrong. This record gives you the information to form a plan of action to resolve similar setbacks. Down the road, your iDoneThis becomes a map to which you can refer back and see how you overcame obstacles.
3. Nurture your own personal growth and work through difficult events.
In her talk, Professor Amabile provides an example of one engineer struggling through the experience of massive layoffs at her company. While grappling with the stress of watching her team members being laid off and her own uncertainty about the future, the engineer turned to her work diary to center her thoughts. She recognized that because she had no control over her position at the company, instead she would focus on the one thing that she did have control over — her work.
iDoneThis is about you, you the captain of your work. It’s not a task-specific or project-oriented tool in that it isn’t interested in micromanaging questions like: “How far did you get on Project X today?” or “What did you do for Team Y?” No, it asks, “What’d you get done today?”
This is a question that matters when the going gets tough. Your progress is what matters, not that of a particular endeavor. If you need to center yourself and regain control of a situation by focusing on work, iDoneThis allows you to see evidence of your control and progress. If you need to focus on your emotional and cognitive processes, iDoneThis provides an outlet for that as well.
4. Spot patterns in your reactions and behaviors. Identify your greatest strengths and weaknesses.
In The Progress Principle, Professor Amabile recommends asking yourself at the end of each month, “Do I notice trends over time in this journal? What are the implications?” She also describes how research participants would change their behavior based on recognizing unwarranted and unconstructive behavior patterns.
Patterns of behavior and trends are easy to spot with tools like iDoneThis. Because iDoneThis records all your entries in an easy-to-read monthly calendar, you can see at a glance the ebb and flow of your inner work life, day to day, week to week, month to month.
iDoneThis also provides a Word Cloud, a fun way to spot trends in your entries. The Word Cloud is populated with the most commonly used words in your entries. At the moment, my most commonly used words seem to be “worked”, “idonethis”, and “gym.” Sounds about right.
5. Find patience.
Professor Amabile adds a bonus benefit to her list of four, noting that keeping a work diary “can help to cultivate patience.“ Why? Because you can always look back and see how you persevered and survived much worse days.
It’s especially true if you’ve kept your work diary with iDoneThis. Every day that you make an entry, you’ll see a blue check mark appear over each calendar day. Over time, you’ll see from the number of blue checkmarks in your iDoneThis calendar that there are no unproductive days. Even on the worst days, you achieved accomplishments worthy of note. Don’t believe it? Click on that day and see for yourself. There’s always something in each of your past days to be proud of that contributed to the successes that came later on.
It’s an honor for us to have Professor Amabile’s recommendation. It’s always been our goal to create a tool that helps people find happiness, meaning, and motivation at work through celebrating their daily progress, however incremental.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
The Mozilla Foundation has a super software team working on projects that range from Popcorn (a video remixing application) to Thimble (an easy-to-use web page maker) to Open Badges (a digital badges system that support learning and achievement).
Developer Jon Buckley talked with us about the struggle to align three teams when Mozilla wanted to integrate Badges into both Popcorn and Thimble. Combining multiple product worlds could very well collide into chaos and confusing communication, but Mozilla is seeing smooth sailing.
Status update discussion used to fall to a weekly call, which was time-consuming, while a shared mailing list was only used periodically for such purposes. The Mozilla teams soon turned to iDoneThis to coordinate communication for people spread across time zones and for cutting across teams. “You don’t have to worry about being in the same room at the same time. That asynchronous nature of updating people is very helpful.”
After the switch, Mozilla found that they cut down on a ton of meeting time and used their gatherings for things that required real conversation. “I still find meetings have their place,” Jon noted, “but if you don’t have to give a status at a meeting because you’re using iDoneThis, then that’s a way you can save a meeting for this particular problem that we need to tackle. Let us discuss this in person.”
Jon is one of our work-style kindred spirits in his cultivation of time away from the distraction of Things That Constantly Refresh like, IRC, Twitter, and bugmail. He prefers to turn them off and head into one of the smaller conference rooms to work without distraction.
Personally, he has found iDoneThis helpful in broadening his perspective from building software for developers to building for a general audience, because he gains insight from his UI and UX design teammates. “If they’ve been working on mockups, they can post that in their status, so we can get visibility into what they’re doing. It’s not quite obvious. On our team, we use a bug tracker really heavily, and the UI or the UX designer workflow doesn’t fit into that all that well, so it’s useful to have a way to see what they’re working on that we can comment on.”
The Mozilla Foundation’s getting stuff done and innovating for the people. We’re psyched that we’re helping Jon and his team build an open, accessible web by opening up avenues of communication and collaboration!
As any incredibly productive person will tell you, it boils down to knowing what your priorities are and systematically attacking your tasks with a focused mind. The one resource in the world that is common to millionaire CEOs and the average Joe is time.
How Reddit Builds a Progress Record (and the Front Page of the Internet)
Reddit, the popular social content site and community, hands power to the people to decide what’s important and what’s not. iDoneThis likewise hands the reins to Reddit’s team to use how they see fit.
With the Reddit team scattered, from San Francisco to New York and in between, the challenge may be to get a virtual team on the same page. Yet, the main use of iDoneThis for the Reddit team is as a personal record, and then by extension, as a reference for the team.
Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin explains, “We all wear a lot of hats. We’re only about twenty people. All of us do a bunch of different things, so it’s hard for us to jump around. It’s nice to be able to track how that’s going, maybe not what we’re spending time on as much but what we accomplish on any given day.”
So Erik’s team members use iDoneThis as a simple way to keep track of what they have done and what hat they wore that day. It’s not used to check in on people in an oppressive way nor is submitting entries absolutely mandatory. “I don’t want people to wake up and go, oh, I forgot to do my thing, that’s not the point. I don’t want it to be a chore.” The team’s individual spirit extends to the various ways people interact with iDoneThis, whether it’s on the web, e-mail, or phone. “I like how lightweight it is. It’s simple and flexible,” comments Erik who uses the web interface so that he can toggle between his team and personal calendar.
What’s especially useful for the Reddit team is the ability to see real progress. “It’s nice to see what you’ve accomplished especially when a lot of the work we do is vague. It’s not like building something with your hands where you see the progress, so it’s nice to look back and see what you’ve done and what other people have been working on.”
Erik’s team used to have a weekly email thread to keep an eye on people’s progress but it’s difficult to remember that much for that long. Most of us know that five days in a workweek can go by like Dali’s melty clock — that’s pretty hard to capture. iDoneThis takes care of keeping a record for Erik and his team. We think it’s pretty awesome that we’re helping Reddit continue making the front page of the internet!
Account Association Security Threats for Google Single Sign-On
iDoneThis recently added itself to the Google Apps Marketplace and the Google Chrome Web Store, providing OpenID single-sign-on access to iDoneThis through Google accounts. It’s a great feature to have, but as we found during our implementation, one rife with security concerns. Security advisories from both Google  and the OpenID foundation  pointed out possible vulnerabilities with various OpenID implementations related to the failure to check for signed AX attributes. But the failed check for signed AX attributes by certain implementations of OpenID is really a peripheral issue. A more fundamental security threat results from the incongruent use of the OpenID protocol for trust when it was meant for identification. This article discusses how our integration of Google OpenID single-sign-on addresses the issues brought forth by the security advisories as well as the more central issue of proper OpenID usage.
Our application is built on Python/Django and as a result, we looked to django-social-auth as a framework to provide OpenID authentication with the existing Django users account framework. django-social-auth itself relies on the python-openid library to handle the actual OpenID protocol implementation. One feature that django-social-auth provides is the ability to associate existing Django user accounts with new OpenID identies if they share the same email address. This is great for our existing users that now want to be able to access their iDoneThis account via Google Apps or Chrome. But using email addresses as identities for account associating could be a security risk.
Implementation Vulnerabilities in Handling of Unsigned AX Attributes
During the OpenID authentication process, an OpenID consumer, like iDoneThis, can request and receive an OpenID user’s email address as part of the Attribute Exchange (AX) extension. Last year, based on research from Wang, Chen and Wang , Google and the OpenID foundation published security advisories  that pointed out that certain OpenID implementations did not check that certain information passed through AX was properly signed. The Google advisory highlights one possible exploitation of this vulnerability:
"A specific scenario identified involves a website that accepts an unsigned AX attribute for email address, and then logs the user in to a local account on that website associated with the email address. When a website asks Google’s OpenID provider (IDP) for someone’s email address, we always sign it in a way that cannot be replaced by an attacker. However, many websites do not ask for email addresses for privacy reasons among others, and so it is a perfectly legitimate response for the IDP to not include this attribute by default. An attacker could forge an OpenID request that doesn’t ask for the user’s email address, and then insert an unsigned email address into the IDPs response. If the attacker relays this response to a website that doesn’t notice that this attribute is unsigned, the website may be tricked into logging the attacker in to any local account."
Since our implementation utilized django-social-auth’s email-based account association feature, we were potentially vulnerable to such an attack. We weren’t able to find any documentation or reports that indicated the python-openid library checked for properly signed AX attributes, so we peformed our own security audit of the code. Our audit showed that the current version of python-openid (2.2.5) does, by default, only return properly signed AX attributes.
@param signed: Whether non-signed args should be processsed.
If True (the default), only signed arguments
will be processsed.
@returns: A FetchResponse containing the data from the
OpenID message, or None if the SuccessResponse did
not contain AX extension data.
self = cls()
ax_args = success_response.extensionResponse(self.ns_uri,
The django-social-auth code utilizes this default behavior of python-openid, meaning we were in the clear with regard to this attack.
Proper Usage of Signed AX Attributes
As we were researching this OpenID security issue, we found a number of people advising against the use of any AX attribute (including an email address) as a means of identification. One poster on the OpenID mailing list wrote:
"Actually, you should never use anything but the openid.claimed_id in the positive assertion to identify the user. This or openid.identity are the only values that could possibly be used to identify the user.
The chairman of the OpenID foundation himself, wrote on his blog :
"The correct behavior is to identify the user using openid.claimed_id. Other parameters MUST NOT be used to identify the user. If RP uses any other parameter to identify the user, then it is a security hole. This is the root of problem."
Given these emphatic warnings against using an email address AX attribute for identity related purposes, we thought long and hard about the security implications of using the email address AX attribute as a means of identification for our Google Apps Marketplace and Chrome Web Store OpenID sign-in integration.
The core issue is that the OpenID protocol was designed to provide identity and not trust between the OpenID provider and the consumer. An OpenID provider will always attest to a user’s unique identity (the openid.claimed_id or openid.identity attributes), but in general cannot be trusted to validate attribute information like a user’s email address. For example, the iDoneThis OpenID provider can properly attest my identity to be mike.idonethis.com, but could falsely advertise my email address as email@example.com, even with properly signed AX attributes. This behavior could be leveraged by an attacker to gain access to accounts owned by firstname.lastname@example.org if the consumer gives account access based on the email address provided by the untrustworthy OpenID provider.
In the specific case of Google Apps Marketplace however, the discovery URL (https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/site-xrds?hd=domain.name) and the resulting OpenID endpoint (https://www.google.com/a/domain.name/o8/ud?be=o8) will always be a Google Apps OpenID server. This means that if we trust Google’s OpenID servers to only provide email addresses that are properly owned by their respective Google Apps users, we can trust the user’s ownership of these email addresses. Based on the security architecture and policies of Google Apps, the email address associated with a Google Apps account must always be owned by the Google Apps user. Non-Google Apps email addresses can also be associated with a Google Apps user, but the user must verify ownership of those additional email addresses. Because of this unique situation and context, we trust email address AX attributes provided to us by the Google Apps OpenID providers and use them for features such as associating existing iDoneThis users with Google Apps users. The same policy restrictions hold for Google Chrome Web Store users; the Google account OpenID provider is wholly controlled by Google and requires all associated email addresses to have their ownership verified.
Side Note: Reusable Credentials
One minor issue with email addresses as identification credentials is that they are potentially reusuable. email@example.com is currrently my email address, but could potentially in the future be assigned to another person. Reuse of email addresses is not an issue that we’re concerned with as it common practice across the web to assume ownership of an email address implies ownership of the identity. Just about every web service provides account recovery via email.
GetWorkDoneMusic is a webapp by Ryan Ghods that plays music to help you get your work done … fast, or faster. The mostly electronic music is randomly pulled from SoundCloud playlists, and you can replay tracks you like, or skip to the next one.
I don’t just mean the ambient noise, that clickity-clackity typing, strangely noticeable chewing, annoying finger tapping, and chit-chatting hubbub of an open floor plan office. I’m also talking about the information and social inundation invading our work life, the buzzes and pings, the tweets and likes, the emails and comments, the meetings and chats.
Our notion of productivity has become imbalanced toward focusing on the inbox of our thought process — input, information, inspiration. I can feel productive after scanning tweets, reading articles, even having an inspiring conversation, but if I don’t take time to think and process, if I don’t actually turn the input into something, that feeling is illusory.
Ultimately, productivity requires producing, creativity creating. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it has been easy to forget these days that we need solitude, quiet and time.
The Need for Solitude
We need more of what Paul Graham has identified as maker’s time versus manager’s time. Makers need uninterrupted blocks of time to create and make progress in their work, the kind of schedule that resists carving out units of time for discrete tasks. For a maker, a meeting can disrupt and derail a whole day’s work.
The difference between makers and managers is not just in type of schedule, but more basically, in the nature of their work. Makers require solitude and quiet while managers require interaction and conversation. Solitude is necessary to create, to pay attention to yourself, to tune into what psychiatrist T. Byram Karasu calls your internal rhythm or music. Tuning in allows “time for previously unrelated thoughts and feelings to interact, to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations.”
Similarly, the late psychologist Ester Buchholz explains:
Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers…. The natural creativity in all of us—the sudden and slow insights, bursts and gentle bubbles of imagination—is found as a result of alonetime. Passion evolves in aloneness. Both creativity and curiosity are bred through contemplation.
Apple’s Steve Wozniak, too, champions alonetime for the sake of the creative process:
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists….And artists work best alone — best outside corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.
Woz’s point isn’t just relevant to artists, inventors, and engineers, nor is it correct to say so broadly that the only and best way is to work alone. It highlights how privacy, solitude, and autonomy are needed to get stuff done by limiting inputs that can reach the level of buzzy noise, the committees and groupthink and interference that restricts and interrupts innovation and creativity. Without some quiet, how can you listen to what’s in your head, let your own thoughts network?
Yet many of today’s business software and apps, while intending to make getting work done easier, are often disruptive. Real-time activity feeds, like Yammer, ironically mirror the addictive features of Facebook and Twitter. Online gatherings via text, voice and video chat work essentially as meetings without end. They demand the kind of time and attention that are antithetical to the maker’s schedule and make it difficult to hear and tune into yourself. Plugging in and collaboration is important but not as a continuous stream that burbles at the expense of actually producing and creating.
It’s not enough to point out how the noisiness of our information and work culture has created what Herbert A. Simon called a “poverty of attention,” nor does it make sense to get off the grid altogether. Instead, let’s tune into quieter channels that support the reflection and contemplation that enables us to better create. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, for example, have found that maintaining a work diary cultivates a practice of reflection and translates into engagement, motivation, and a positive impact on creativity, productivity, and commitment.
We think it’s possible to provide web services that run on these quieter frequencies (though we want to find the right balance between serving both maker and manager, roles that aren’t mutually exclusive of each other in the workplace). We’ve declared that iDoneThis is part of the slow web movement, because we want to encourage reflection and emphasize doing, to enrich our attention and help people turn toward meaningful engagement. Slow web, as Jack Cheng has so insightfully written, is:
Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. … It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.
While fast web is more about unfiltered consumption and real-time updates, slow web gives you some space and autonomy on how and when to engage, with timely interactions that “happen as you need them to happen.”
Finding Joyful Flow at Work
The value of slow web can be easier to see in our personal lives. In that sphere, we risk losing time and attention for the people and pursuits we love when we crave those hits of fast web.
Still, in our work, we risk losing relevance and development of skills that we’ll need to stay competitive. The unfolding of what Dan Pink describes as the Information Age into the Conceptual Age tracks the shift in qualities that will be required more and more in our work, adding to the traditional left-brain skills of reasoning and logic that have so pervaded the professional working landscape the right-brain skills of creativity, synthesis, and meaning. “In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices,” he writes, “the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere - artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.”
In this data-deluged, choice-choking environment, we also compromise ourselves and our capability to become lost and absorbed in our work. We mess with our flow, that “in the zone” state of being where your mental energy and attention snap into focus, and you experience joy.
Pico Iyer in his lovely piece about the joy of quiet describes the paradox of technology, how what “made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier … cannot teach us how to make the best use of them.” We can make better use of technology and information not only in our play but also our work. If we can tap into quieter channels and slower web, whatever it is that helps us really listen to ourselves, we fuel a burning flame, we build momentum, we help the maker make, we find more joy.
Systems down? Who you gonna call? PagerDuty is on it! The service dispatches alerts collected from system monitoring tools through email, SMS, phone, and mobile and provides no-fuss on-call management.
PagerDuty is all about intelligent messaging, integrating with tools you already have to notify the right person to deal with the problem, based on schedule and situation.
We’re fans of how PagerDuty promotes efficient, effective communication. The company carries over this value to its inner workings as well, implementing iDoneThis in place of its old daily stand-up meetings. “Instead of adding more meetings, I can see what everyone is up to by simply checking my email,” saysPagerDuty co-founder and CTO, Andrew Miklas. ”The iDoneThis digests are the first thing I read every morning. I glance through them on my phone before I even get out of bed.”
Launched in 2009, the company has grown to seventeen employees, with three main teams, dealing with operations, product, and messaging. Going through stand-up meetings with seventeen people got old fast, because of inconsistent staff attendance, and as Andrew explains, “some people just don’t like the daily stand-ups.”
Stand-ups can be intrusive and put people on the spot. A team leader who thought they were ineffective was the one to nudge PagerDuty to replace their meetings with iDoneThis. Now, PagerDuty’s staff are more responsive reporting in writing and can keep tabs on what’s going on by subscribing to a group.
While Andrew acknowledged the difficulty of a growing startup to find the right alignment of tools for getting stuff done, he has found that iDoneThis scales well as dev teams are added. “One of the things with iDoneThis that people really like is that it’s so unstructured.” Instead of having to make a ticket to record how you spent time interviewing people for two hours, for example, and then marking it as complete, “with iDoneThis, they can just say it.”
We’re delighted that we can help the PagerDuty team to just say all the awesome stuff they get done in order to be ever reliable in urgent situations to sound the alarm.
Business software’s increasing focus on real-time collaboration, activity streams and consumerization threatens what Paul Graham called the “maker’s schedule" in the workplace. Makers need long blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on ambitious, creative work. The result of always-on availability, random notification, and constant information deluge is a work mode of interruption-driven multitasking that’s antithetical to a maker’s needs.
Digital connectivity empowers managers to collaborate with makers in creating, but without regard to when. Because modern collaboration tools flow so neatly within their kind of schedule, managers often don’t realize the costs to the maker. At iDoneThis, we use a bunch of awesome collaborative tools including Asana, Github, Campfire, Google Docs, Skype, and Trello, and we’ve observed how those tools can disrupt maker’s time.
For instance, in Github, we noticed that creating a bug ticket and assigning it to someone will often result in that person switching tasks to kill the bug, regardless of its urgency or assigned priority level — all because the ticket assignment triggers an email notification. We decided to avoid assigning tickets during work hours unless the ticket needs to be resolved immediately.
We use Campfire for group chat, but we saw how a scrolling chat format can be a visual distraction and group chat can devolve into one long, endless meeting. Plus, without extended time alone, work product can end up designed by committee, a problem of too many cooks. So instead, we have quiet time during the day when we work away from chat in order to focus without interruption.
Similarly, Asana’s comment threads are a great way to discuss projects and action items, but we try to batch these toward the end of the day. Otherwise, email notifications of comments get triggered and they disrupt and add to the multitasking that pulls your full attention away from the task at hand.
With iDoneThis, we aim to create a quieter frequency for non-urgent, unstructured communication at work. We’ve found that having such a communication channel is essential to creating a bubble that protects and enhances maker’s time without sacrificing open and transparent communication within a company.
The way we work is through an evening email that asks, “What’d you get done today?” Just reply. In the morning, everyone gets a digest that shows what the team got done—to kickstart another awesome day. Pesky status updates aren’t randomly interspersed throughout your day, they occur on a rhythm that bookends the day — reflect and jot down your dones in the evening and scan your morning digest to get up to speed.
iDoneThis becomes the place for recording the reflective thought that’s vital to evaluation and improvement but often gets ignored in the hustle and bustle. A valuable repository of little nuggets of learnings, notes, emotions, appreciation, and thanks gets built up, bit by bit. You can record any non-urgent communication during the day, and you know that you won’t be bothering anyone with it — they’ll see it the next morning when they’re sipping a cup of coffee.
At the same time, we’ve struggled with realizing our maker’s schedule aspirations real through the product.
Notifications: We started with no real-time notification system, and when we implemented a feedback system of “comments” and “likes”, we built them into the evening/morning rhythm to avoid disruption. After running with that for a bit, our members told us that they expected the comments to happen in real-time. We found that people wanted to start a conversation about what had been recorded the previous day, and the lack of real-time email notification of comments made the conversation die, resulting in a failure to surface relevant knowledge at the right moment. No doubt, real-time email notification increases engagement with the product and that’s the primary reason for its pervasiveness, but engagement itself isn’t an end. We think we can look to the job that makers and managers alike wish to accomplish with the mechanics of iDoneThis to determine whether a notification should be turn-based or real-time rather than applying the real-time design pattern across our site without thinking.
Privilege: We began by treating every user as exactly the same, no one having a privilege that others didn’t, because our gut told us that it was important for building credibility. We didn’t want people to feel wary about a lack of transparency, that the tool was actually more for monitoring and control rather than for sharing progress and celebrating it. feel wary for lack of transparency that the tool was for actually for monitoring and control rather than for sharing progress and celebrating it. Nevertheless, we’ve seen that managers have felt the most strongly about wanting their companies to adopt our product, and as a result, we’ve seen an uptick in user adoption by empowering managers with configuration options to help make iDoneThis work for the way their team operates. While we’ve given managers admin access that other members lack, we’ve done it through the lens of helping managers better serve their team, and we think that’s a distinction that will stick.
Adoption: Where adoption happens through management, as it does for most business applications, the managers become your customers. Managers as customers inevitably request features that will help them do their jobs better, and who can blame them? We often receive requests for a manager’s-only view, which makes explicit who is failing to comply and provides mechanics to more strictly enforce compliance. When managers are the ones who are paying us, they become the people we want to please, but as the product’s creators, we also have a broader view on what works across companies. And the number one challenge for building open communication and a healthy work culture does not revolve around what the manager wants in the individual case, rather it’s getting trust and buy-in from everyone in the company. Armed with that knowledge, we try out best to focus on what’s best for makers and managers alike.
What’s at stake in developing business collaboration software is building and reinventing the modern office into the type of place we’d all like to work in. For us, that means ensuring alone time, maker’s time, and the quiet time we need to do our best, most fulfilling work.
“It’s how [exercise] make me feel: more energized, less stressed, more productive, more engaged and, yes, happier — better able to smell the roses and cope with the inevitable frustrations of daily life.”—
Brody writes about how reframing the message of why we should exercise as improving current happiness and well-being is more motivating than using hard-to-see long-term goals like losing weight and prevented disease.
Professor Mark did a study to find out what would happen if you did away with work email. She found that people were less stressed, simply communicated face-to-face more (what, human interaction!?), were more productive, and able to focus longer.
While there are great benefits to stepping away from email, it’s hard to escape the compulsion to be chained to work email. How do we shift social expectation and work culture on the instant timing of email?
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s plans for a new campus, a 420,000 square foot single-story warehouse made to look like “a hill in nature,” one giant room fitting thousands of people. He described their aspiration as wanting to build “the perfect engineering space.”
I admit that Zuck’s statement caught me off guard because I dislike the typical open floor plan office and so do most engineers that I know. Many engineers wear headphones to create the missing wall so that they can concentrate and focus on coding without distraction. We chose the small offices at WeWork in SOMA, SF, over co-working for those reasons.
The New York Times reported that recent research supported the hunch that open floor plan offices reduce productivity. The research showed that ambient conversations at work and a noisy office space contributed to “a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work.” According to the researcher, “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory.”
Nevertheless, the open floor plan office has become a shibboleth of startup culture. It reflects our rejection of hierarchy, and our embrace of agility, collaboration and creativity, and as a result, many startups take the open floor plan for granted.
We’ve recently visited two startups, Shopify and Zappos, that are reconsidering and riffing off of the standard startup open floor plan office, and we’ve been inspired by what they’ve come up with to ensure that engineers have the relative solitude that they need to get in the zone, without reverting away from the promise of the open floor plan for serendipity, collaboration and work happiness.
Work and Play at Shopify
Shopify, an e-commerce platform, is on their fourth office in their sixth year of existence, so they’ve learned a thing or two about offices. One important thing they’ve learned is that they don’t like open floor plans.
At Shopify, they work in pods, which are rooms of the 6-8 people you work closely with on a day-to-day basis. The pods shoot off from a central hallway loop. On the outside of the loop are the pods, and on the inside are small private meeting rooms and conference rooms.
Attached to the core of the office is a big open space called the Annex where they hold their weekly all-hands meeting and host events in the community. Daily free lunch and a big, central kitchen with free drinks and snacks facilitate collaboration and serendipity, but when people open themselves up to it, not on a constant barrage.
The configuration shows the value the company puts in quiet, distraction-free coding with your core collaborators. Open floor plan offices are noisy and distracting and that can prevent engineers from getting in a state of flow. There was definitely plenty of fun to be had in the office, but those areas weren’t in places that would create distractions for others trying to work.
To me, this reflected an organizational value of work-life segmentation. We worked out of Shopify’s office for a week, and we were shocked to see engineers come in at 9 and leave by 5 on a daily basis. Similarly, concentrated work happens in the work areas and hanging out and relaxing happens in the lounge areas. In Silicon Valley, work and play is all mixed up together so it sometimes feels like you’re expected to work and play all at the same time all the time.
What “Open” Means to Zappos
Their offices look like total mayhem to the outside observer and it’s hard not to wonder how anything gets done, especially with the world-famous Zappos tour rolling through the office nonstop. (Noticably absent from the tour, however, was the engineering team, which is housed in a separate building.)
They have a open floor plan at Zappos with team-oriented bullpens, but for them, that’s far from sufficient in ensuring serendipitous interactions and a culture where everyone knows everyone. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is famous for taking measures to hack serendipity like only allowing Zappos employees to enter through one door in the building to force spontaneous encounters.
Zappos is taking the concept of the “open floor plan” to the next level with what you might call an open floor plan community. The irony of the open floor plan Silicon Valley corporate campus is that they’re typically cloistered away from the community at large in their own ivory tower. Openness, collaboration, and nonhierarchical organization is the order of the day, but among themselves only.
Zappos’s $350 million project to bring its HQ from suburbia into downtown and revitalize downtown Las Vegas reimagines what an open floor plan office can be by opening itself up the entire community. It’s inspired by the idea that companies become more productive when they collide with people and ideas in the broader community, and the entire plan is organized to facilitate interactions not just between employees, but within the community, from the placement of the buildings and public spaces, to the grassroots investment model and the community-oriented projects being funded.
In some ways, the Downtown Project is an experiment in taking the open floor plan office to its logical extreme. It blurs the distinction between companies in the same way that co-working does (no wonder co-working is a big part of the Downtown Project) by subsuming individuals into a broader community.
What’s your take on open floor plan offices? How does your company balance work and play and openness and distinction? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
In the workplace, we rarely share what’s going on beneath the surface. At most companies, the unspoken expectation is that you park your emotional life at the door, put on your game face, and keep things light and professional. In short, you bring a part of yourself to work and try to suppress the rest.
But at what cost — including to productivity?
Tony Schwartz, in an HBR blog post, Seeing Through Your Blind Spots, talks about how acknowledging and understanding our emotions in the workplace are important to how well we work.
Paying attention to feelings, of others and of ourselves, and improving our communication regarding these emotions helps us know how to work better. (We recommend maintaining a work diary to bring the rest of yourself to work!)
Cheers to mistakes! Here’s the full quote about making mistakes from the excellent Neil Gaiman’s blog, totally worth reading before you get back to doing:
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
A recent Gallup poll found that workers who are engaged feel almost as good on the weekdays as they do on the weekends! Plus, learning and interestingness peaks for these happy, engaged workers during the workweek. In turn, they are more likely to be productive.
The bad news? Only 30% of U.S. workers were engaged in the first part of 2012.
“You also have to have perseverance – and maybe that’s the hardest thing, to persevere and to believe that what you’re doing is worth doing – and to do it, rather than talking about doing it.”—
Maira Kalman talks to 99u about work and overcoming the challenges of the creative process. Her daily routine expressly involves avoiding work: “Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.” Kalman’s wisdom is endless.
The Freedom Experiment lists 55 ways to take care of yourself when the going gets busy. There are many gems but we especially liked this one about remembering to schedule me-time and honoring it:
To make your life less chaotic, it’s a good practice to keep a planner. Make sure you write down every single appointment, to save yourself from unwanted surprises and missed meetings. Just remember to schedule time for yourself. Honor your appointment with yourself just as much as you would keep an appointment with anyone else. Just make sure you schedule time with yourself first – anyone else needs to come in second in your life.
“We forget that mastery is something human beings seek because we’re human beings. We like to get better at stuff because it’s inherently satisfying.”—
Daniel Pink, writing for the Washington Post, argues that we need more renewable motivation. How do we create this? Engage your employees, not by managing them but granting them autonomy.
We’re not mice on treadmills with little carrots being dangled in front of us all the time. Sometimes we are. There’s no question about that. But in the workplace, as people are doing more complicated things, the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t work.
What’s frustrating, or ought to be frustrating, to individuals in companies and shareholders as well is that when we see these carrot-and-stick motivators demonstrably fail before our eyes - when we see them fail in organizations right before our very eyes - our response isn’t to say: “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Let’s try something new.” It’s, “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Looks like we need more carrots. Looks like we need sharper sticks.” And it’s taking us down a fundamentally misguided path.
A lot has been said about the scarcity of women leaders in the tech startup world. As the lone woman in a tech startup company*, it’s a subject that fascinates me both personally and professionally.
Working with iDoneThis, I have long noticed that there are vastly more men than women in the startup world. Often, the individuals who can exert great influence over your startup’s future are men. The people you network with, get advice from, collaborate with and befriend are also men. And once in a while, the people you have to say no to, who you have to argue with or tell something they don’t want to hear, are also men.
This intimidates me, but I’m not entirely sure why. I’m not intimidated by law, medicine, corporate business, or any other traditionally male-dominated career paths. Could it be that I never had any role models in tech? I decided to ask leading women in the tech startup world this simple question:
What woman in tech startups do you look up to, and why?
I got an immediate flood of responses from CEOs and founders who were eager to applaud and promote other women startup leaders. Their responses were personal, insightful and full of pride at other women’s achievements.
“Katie Rae, Managing Director, TechStars Boston. She’s brilliant, funny and patient. No, strikethrough “patient,” she is a saint. She kicks ass and has made TechStars Boston into something truly epic, capturing the attention of even aloof elements of Boston’s startup scene. She knows how to apply just the right mix of nurture vs. beat up to struggling entrepreneurs, and can hold them to high standards even while building up their spirit. She has saved my ass too many times to count.”
Laura Fitton Inbound Marketing Evangelist, HubSpot
"I look up to any and all female founders because I know how hard it is to start something and grow it. Some of the women in technology that I idolize are Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman. They are all power women who are continuously challenging themselves and others.”
"I look up to Chantel Waterbury, founder and CEO of chloe + isabel because she not only built an accessories brand from the ground up, but also built a company that uses a direct sales model to provide opportunities for young women to learn and run their own businesses. She’s recruited a rockstar team, fostered a supportive culture, and created a beautiful product — all in all she’s an amazing CEO who I fiercely respect.”
"I salute Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer for crushing barriers and at the highest levels. I admire and am in daily awe of Jen Pahlka at Code for America for believing in the power of technology to solve large problems — and helping others make that happen. I seek advice constantly from Janice Fraser, who is introducing the world to the concept of “Lean UX”. I LOVE female founders who turn personal experience into a true solution — women like Melinda Wittstock of NewsIT; Tereza Nemessanyi of HonestlyNow; Ellie Cachette of ConsumerBell. And I am enormously grateful to the women who work so hard to empower other women: Rachel Sklar of ChangeTheRatio and TheLi.st; Whitney Johnson of Dare.Dream.Do.; Amy Millman and Kay Koplovitz of Springboard Enterprises. And finally, I look up to the strength, persistence, creativity, and vision of the woman I am privileged to call my co-founder, Rachna Choudhry.”
"I’ve never met Carol Realini of Obopay, but I really admire women like her that are pioneers paving the way in traditionally male-dominant industries like finance & tech. On top of that she started her entreprenuerial path over three decades ago— pretty bold if you ask me!”
"I look up to every woman who has ever started, worked in, led and grown a tech venture - because I know firsthand what it takes generally, how much more it takes when you’re female (no, it’s not a level playing field), and I admire every single woman who has ever gritted her teeth, pursued her vision, battled through every obstacle, and said, ‘I’m going to fucking well show them.’"
"My first thought is Ann Winblad, because she has been a VC for so long (before the chit chat about the lack of women in tech receiving funding), and was such a believer/supporter of us … She’s such a rock star, and yet when you chat with her she’s always genuinely interested in your business and eager to help.”
"I really look up to Cher Wang, she is the founder of HTC and she actually spear headed the effort to use Android as the platform for HTC phones. I think it’s rare that you see a woman running a hardware company especially in the mobile industry … I am also a big fan of Julia Hartz who founded Eventbrite. She is married to her co-founder and I think people really underestimate the power of having founders who are married/related to one another.”
“Rashmi Sinha, CEO & Co-founder of Slideshare. Rashmi built the most successful platform for professional content sharing with a small team and only $3M in investment. Her 6 year old company was acquired earlier this year by Linked in for $199M; a mere four months after she and her Co-Founder husband gave birth to twins. Her balance of professional and personal success is beyond inspiring.”
Joselle Ho Co-Founder & Creative Director, Miso Media
"Mine is, of course, Marissa Mayer. I’ve been a fan of hers since seeing her speak back in 2004, long before she became Google’s poster girl. The engineer behind some of Google’s most dominant products, she also developed as a business woman until she truly represented the whole package.”
"I’ve been very fortunate to work with several extraordinary women who have given me a lot of inspiration. Audrey M. Roy, Esther Nam and Jessica Stanton, who are brilliant programmers and community leaders, as well as Angie Chang, founder and editor-in-chief of Women2.0. They are role models not only for myself but for countless other women and are people whom I deeply admire.”
"We really respect the work that Halle Tecco, founder of Rock Health, is doing. Rock Health is a seed accelerator program for health tech startups, and is enabling significant innovation in that space. Because of Halle and the wonderful team she works with, revolutionary healthcare ideas are getting the support, partners, and mentorship they need to become game-changing companies. Halle is a true visionary.”
“Caterina Fake, the master of pattern recognition. With Flickr and then Hunch, she was first to market with products that harness consumer enthusiasm for human connection via technology … The late, great Michael Dertouzos of MIT wrote that the Web is just one big, Greek marketplace. Caterina’s gotten that from the beginning, delivered two successful multi-million-dollar exits for her investors, and taken the time to advise many other women entrepreneurs along the way. That’s my definition of a rock-star entrepreneur.”
"Having worked in the startup world, then going to Corporate America and coming back to the startup world, I’ve come across many smart women in my path. When I worked in Big 5 Consulting, although it was corporate America, running your own consulting projects, teams of people across the country was like being an entrepreneur even in that environment. I had two great women mentors there that showed me how to work hard, manage people and most importantly, ethics. With them, it was never women vs. men mentality and I’ve always lived that philosophy. They taught me about “no fear” and the art of presenting."
“Halle Tecco, the co-founder and CEO of Rock Health, is one of the female leaders in digital health I look up to. Halle strongly believes that startups can revolutionize health care and has created a fantastic platform to empower entrepreneurs to do so.”
"I look up to every woman who has made (or is making) the jump into realizing she is an entrepreneur. Regardless of gender, there’s always self-doubt and insecurity and women in particular tend to sell themselves short. It really inspires me when I hear about a female founder launching an idea and changing the world. It shows the younger generations that tech start-ups are not just for the boys, girls are winning too."
“Leah Busque took the idea of an online marketplace for errands, built the first website herself (she is an engineer, after all) and grew the startup business over the last few years. Today, she is reknown for creating thousands and thousands of jobs through TaskRabbit. That’s a really great feat. I also greatly admire other technical women who have founded startups: Mary Lou Jepson who used to be CTO of One Laptop Per Child and now runs Pixel Qi, Cathy Edwards who co-founded and was CTO of Chomp until it was acquired by Apple earlier this year, to name a few.”
Angie Chang Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Women 2.0
"I have learned over the years that it doesn’t pay off to ‘look up’ to anybody - you shouldn’t waste any energy on trying to be like somebody else. Rather use that energy trying to figure out what your own talents are and how you can best use them to the max! But I am very proud at women such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg for what they achieve and the role model they play for ambitious women all across the globe.”
Claire Boonstra Co-Founder & Head of Bus. Dev., Layar
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What I didn’t expect when I sent out this survey was the amount of support each of these women showed for my own efforts to create this blog post. Every answer I got was personal and enthusiastic. Many showed genuine interest in what I did at iDoneThis, my position as the Chief Happiness Officer and my desire to promote women in tech. Those who couldn’t participate wrote back personally to express their regret. Some went out of their way to collect answers from other women in their company. Some offered encouragement and kind words for my endeavor. I even received invitations to women in tech events.
All this is to say, women really support each other in this tech startup world. I never expected to send out a single question and be met with so much encouragement and support.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
“I learned that sharks sleep parts of their brain, like rolling blackouts; they can’t fall asleep because they can’t stop moving or they’ll suffocate. So they sleep sections of their brain at a time. So I do kind of a version of that, where I shut down brain centers. I literally tell myself, “Don’t logistically problem-solve for the next three hours, but you can talk to folks. Driving my kid home from school—don’t think about all the professional things you have to do.”—
Louis C.K., on how he manages his crazy busy life, in an interview with the A.V. Club. Shark-y brain sleep it is!