Takeaways from High Alpha Product Flight School 2018

Last Friday, High Alpha hosted our largest Flight School yet. 90+ attendees from our design, product, and engineering teams across the portfolio spent the afternoon at NCAA Headquarters for keynote talks and three content tracks. The day was jam-packed with great learning and insights — read on for an overview of the day including a social media highlights and compilation of takeaways from Kyle Jaebker, Will Jaynes, Ryan Krueger, Jon Hubartt, and Mark Williams.

Learning from Seasoned Leaders

To kick off the day, the entire group of attendees had the opportunity to hear from two seasoned tech CEOs and product-focused leaders: Scott McCorkle and Ade Olonoh.

Scott McCorkle, the former CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud and a current Executive in Residence at High Alpha, shared a range of stories and takeaways from his wide range of experiences leading both large organizations and building companies from scratch.

My biggest takeaway from Scott was that you shouldn’t get so deep into building a product that you lose touch of what the customer wants. As a CEO, Scott McCorkle attempts to speak with a customer every day. There will always be improvements and changes needed with a product, but staying in touch with customers and how they are using, adapting to, and experiencing your product will best inform the process.

“If you put out a new release with 0 escalations, you probably didn’t put enough in it.” — Scott McCorkle

Next up, we heard from Ade Olonoh, the founder of Formstack, Formspring, and Jell. Ade has been founding companies since he was in college. Through a candid conversation with partner, Kristian Andersen, Ade shared many lessons learned from the successes and failures in his career. Specifically, the incredibly quick rise of the Formspring product taught him a lot about the way he approaches building and developing products for the masses today.

Design Track

Our designers had the opportunity to hear from Anna Saraceno, Principal Product Designer at Springbuk, and Joel Hubartt, Head of Design at Sigstr.

Anna shared with our design teams how they should work with and communicate design decision’s with non-design stakeholders. A few of Anna’s main takeaways included:

  • As a designer at your organzation, you influence how your collegues understand and view the value of design and this value is not inherent in tactical deliverables. Anna recommends you supercharge your soft skills and step outside the traditional designer role.
  • Focus heavily as a designer on being proactive and setting the right tone within your organization.
  • Integrate design into telling the story of the user, the business, the marketing, and the development within your company.
  • Manage-up in your organization by presenting research-backed arguments for your design choices to leadership, speaking up, and taking initiative.

As the Head of Design at Sigstr, Joel dove into how product designers should use the company vision to to create a compelling, ambitious product vision. Joel emphasized that applying design early gives everyone something to work towards and highlights design as a strategic part of the product roadmap. Through detailed examples of top brand’s vision statements, Joel laid out a basic framework to creating a product vision from coversations all the way to a visual realization of that vision. He stressed some important factors to think about as a designer when creating a product vision:

  • Timing
  • Audience
  • Your day job
  • Other people
  • Moving the flag

Product Track

Our product team sessions included a panel of product leaders discussing their various strategies and observations from managing product teams of different sizes and various company stages. The panel, facilitated by Ben Pippenger, included:

The biggest takeaways from the discussion with our panelists included:

  • Know how to utilize qualitative feedback from customers/users combined with quantitative analytics.
  • Listen to the customer and meet with them regularly!
  • Don’t underestimate the usefulness of a Product Marketer.
  • “Fail early” — validate product features as early as possible with customers.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate the “wins”.

Robin Fleming, Entrepreneur in Residence at High Alpha, shared thoughts on “Staying Ahead in a High-Growth Company,” pulling from her leadership experiences at companies like Match.com, Teradata, and Angie’s List.

Some key thoughts shared by Robin included:

  • Know your roots.
  • Don’t be afraid to be bold — even when it’s the unpopular opinion.
  • Make sure you stay ahead on technical debt — and don’t underestimate the cost of a software rewrite.

Engineering Track

The High Alpha Product Flight School Engineering track was kicked off with an insightful take on the path to becoming a senior developer. Davey Strus, Co-Founder of Fretless, leveraged his experience as a developer, teacher, and entrepreneur to give advice to developers just starting out and those looking to grow in their role. The three keys to growing into a senior role included:

  1. technical capability
  2. leadership
  3. community

Davey made the point that the intersection of these three key areas is where the senior developer sits and striving to get better in each area is key to achieving the role. This talk drew from a number of thought pieces that are worth reading: Frontside’s Conjoined Triangles and Tony Dewan’s Scale of Awesomeness.

The second engineering session came from Matt Brown, CTO of Pattern89. Matt began with a practical introduction to blockchain and finished with an example of how to write your own simple blockchain in Ruby.

Matt explained some of the core features of a blockchain including how it has no central authority as a public, distributed ledger. By design, blockchain data is quite resilient to mutation/change. This makes for a great way to verify permanent data. Since the blockchain is really an append-only type of store, if some data was to be retroactively adjusted, the entirety of the chain after that would also need to change, and the network majority would have to approve of that change.

Matt continued on to give us a practical example of how to write a blockchain in Ruby, including the “proof-of-work” concept. Discussion around the scalability of blockchain started around the limiting factor of this proof-of-work. Matt explained that one of the approaches to solve this issue is essentially bundling multiple transactions in the chain at a higher level to allow for more throughput. His example of his code can be found here.

Flight Schools are an exclusive opportunity for our portfolio companies to come together to share learning and collaboration between companies, fully leveraging the benefits of the High Alpha network.

Look out for more High Alpha Flight Schools in 2018. In the meantime, you can learn more about High Alpha here or learn more about current job opportunities at High Alpha and our portfolio companies.