#UCExpo Series: A Q&A with Michael Affronti

This was originally posted on the Fuze corporate blog on Tue Apr 19.

We sat down with Michael Affronti, VP of Product for Fuze, to dig deeper into the michael affronti“appification” of the enterprise ahead of his upcoming session at the UC Expo in London.

Attending the show? Click here to check out Michael’s conference session.

How have you seen the industry shift to address more user-centric technology? What have companies gotten wrong when it comes to applying this thinking to new innovation?

Several years ago the phrase “Consumerization of IT” caught on as early-adopters inside of companies were pushing IT to adopt new products and services. It then became “Consumerization of the Enterprise” as it extended beyond the IT function and into the everyday apps and services used by every information worker (IW). IWs spend nearly 65 percent of their time at work communicating and only a fraction of that time (20 percent) creating and editing content.

Smart companies embrace a BYOD philosophy, while picking the right tools for core collaboration scenarios. It is great to allow your teams to bring their own mobile phones to work, but having their work communication scattered across a smattering of consumer tools is both inefficient and dangerous. The smartest companies look at what and why their employees are doing with consumer apps and then bring in the right enterprise-grade tools to be used in place of them.

Fuze recently conducted research in Europe, indicating that two-thirds of those surveyed thought workplace technology needed to catch up with personal technology. What can businesses learn from user preferences outside of work?

The “appification” of consumer services has now fully bled over to the enterprise. The pattern that a user employs at home is what they expect to happen at work: if their work tools don’t provide the right functionality, they will just find an app in the app store that does the job. It used to be the case that only a handful of companies, usually small/medium-sized businesses, allowed for users to bring their own devices and use their own apps. We’re now seeing financial firms and healthcare companies moving services to the cloud and allowing for their teams to use more and more modern apps. This is often in conjunction with a mobile device management strategy.

This sounds like a BYOD issue. What should employers keep in mind when navigating unsanctioned app usage in the modern workforce?

Having a clear and enforceable BYOD strategy is important. Even more critical is deploying apps and services that your employees actually want to use. If you roll out poorly designed apps, your users will vote with their feet and find a way to use the apps they love (even if they’re consumer-based and insecure). I’ve even seen users rubber-band two iPhones back to back – one locked down too tightly by their company, the other a personal device where they use WhatsApp to talk to their co-workers!

How can companies support the modern worker to be more collaborative by using technology?

Listen to your workers! Ask them about their favorite apps and find out why they’re using them. This will directly impact your rollout plan for introducing new apps and help you communicate it in a way that will be receptive to teams. Next, find out what line of business apps they want linked into their new apps. A critical part of rolling out new collaboration tools is having them connected into the important systems they use on a daily basis.

If you’re heading to UC Expo, come visit us at stand H805 and learn more about our presence here.

Earning Your Customer’s Trust: Act Like Their Butcher

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My grandfather, Antonio Affronti – known affectionately as Poppa Tony to my siblings and I – immigrated from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was 19 years old. This was back in the late 1940’s when most of Brooklyn, NY, was empty lots, small shops, and a lot of immigrants from all over Europe living in tiny apartments with their families. In the early 1960’s my grandfather and his brothers, entrepreneurs in the truest sense, opened a small Italian-style butcher shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn called Los Paisanos Meat Market.

Paisanos started out simply: when the shop first opened they kept sawdust on the floor to absorb blood and liquids that dripped during butchering, and my grandfather would smoke Te-Amo cigars behind the counter while working (no joke). Like most entrepreneurs at the time they didn’t write down (or even think of) a policy for how to treat customers, they had no formal plans for how to grow the business, nor did they have to worry about Yelp reviews or complaints on Twitter.

A simple truth, however, was readily apparent to them: as a small retail business, your customers’ loyalty and trust in you and your product is the most important asset you can ever have. In 1965 they definitely did not have CRM tools, retention metrics, or even SendGrid (how did they get by?!). Instead they focused on having good conversations ‘over the counter’ as their customers ordered their food and shared a bit about their lives. Even when the store was packed and the line was outside the door, my grandfather and his staff always took the time to ask each customer questions like “How’s your family?”, “Did you take that trip?”, or “Is your son’s leg doing better?” These are not your “How’s the weather?” questions, these are the type of questions that demonstrate genuine caring and interest and ultimately increase loyalty and trust.

In the early ‘90s my father, Mike, took over Los Paisanos from my grandfather and has been running the business full-time ever since. His extensive background in retail shops, incredible attention to detail, and his love of meeting new people made him uniquely suited to run such a customer-driven business. Don’t worry, though, about Poppa Tony. He is 85 years old and still drives to the shop on Sundays to spend time behind the counter and to say hi to his favorite customers.

It’s 2015 and Paisanos Butcher Shop is still there now, standing proudly as one of the oldest family-owned business in Brooklyn and enjoying a loyal following of customers made up of local Brooklynites, Manhattanites who used to be Brooklynites, and even a few celebrities (who I believe are all Brooklynites). If you’re in town and around the neighborhood you should stop by; ask for the Paisanos Sandwich and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My father has worked tirelessly to expand Paisanos over the years. It now includes a large wholesale operation that services many of the restaurants in Brooklyn and south Manhattan, and a new burger joint called “The Butcher Burger” that is inside the Barclay’s Center. This expansion and innovation has required some changes away from old habits, like the disappearance of the sawdust on the floor and the fact that the shop does not have a smoking section anymore. They have a computerized point of sale system, several accountants and bookkeepers, QuickBooks, and the requisite Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. Paisanos embraced technology in order to stay relevant, increase revenues, and grow its business.

I encourage you to walk into Paisanos sometime, lean against the wall, and just listen to the conversations that happen over the counter. I was there this week picking up some steaks and walked in on my father talking to a customer who, based on the conversation, had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was discussing the fallout with him. My father listened and shared some thoughts that were half “toughen up” and half “you’ll be okay” in their guidance, all while clearly showing they were friendly and that this customer trusted him. I reflected that this scene demonstrated my father’s Rolodex-like ability to remember almost every important personal fact and detail about the customers he talks with. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not a salesman’s trick nor something he has to work that hard at; he genuinely cares and listens to his customers in every interaction he can. This level of conversation and caring has resulted in a strong 5-star rating on Yelp and glowing reviews of the staff at Paisanos. Along the way this slogan made its way onto the signage at Paisanos: “We treat you the way we want to be treated.”

I never went into the butcher business. Truth be told, the site of blood makes me kinda weak in the knees and I have focused my assistance on the technology and business sides of the house. Throughout my career in technology, whether at Microsoft during an Executive Briefing Session with a company, or at Klink when my CEO and I were hand-pitching our early customers, I have always remembered the examples my grandfather and father showed me time and time again: be genuine, get to know your customers, and you’ll earn their trust.

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Blind Spots, Transitions, & A Book Review: “The First 90 Days”

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A few years ago I switched teams inside of Microsoft and joined the Office 365 group inside of the Exchange team. I was jumping in mid-release and as a manager, so I had to get up to speed on my own responsibilities and that of my team. If you know me you’ll understand when I say that my first day was about creating lots of lists: who to talk to on my new team, documents to read, customers to talk to, etc. I love lists, and I love tasks. Since I was joining a big team with peers who had several directs themselves, I put together a big complicated list that mapped each of the PM’s in our larger team to their project and their manager. I found this helpful because I always like to ‘see the big picture’ visually. I shared it with my peers and my manager and asked them to update it since I had made guesses about some of the projects, telling them we could use it as a reference across the team. I didn’t get a response after a week and pinged them again. No response. Huh.

A few weeks later during a peer feedback session I got a response from a colleague that has stuck with me clearly ever since then: “I really enjoy working with Michael, but when he first joined the team he immediately tried to get us to use this complicated way of keeping track of our directs and their ownerships. I didn’t have a need for it and got annoyed that he kept pushing for it.”

Whoa. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t the guy who pissed people off while I was trying to help them. Or was I? What I realized was that sometimes my personal organization processes and styles need to be just that: personal. The point? Transitions are super tough and involve a million little things changing at once, and it’s easy to forgot areas of your personality that are already weaknesses when dealing with larger parts of the transition.

Now about this book. I feel the same way about self-help and self-training books that I do about the types of in-person training I’ve attended while working for big corporations: if I feel like at least 70% of the time I spent attending/reading was valuable then it wasn’t a total waste of time. That may be a cynical way to think about it, sure, but I’ve been burned in the past by overly-drawn three day training sessions where the entire time you’re wondering “WHAT IS GOING ON?!”, and then there have been rock-star ones like “Situational Leadership” that I still discuss and use almost every day in my job.

“The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Updated and Expanded” easily meets my 70% rule for being a great book and I believe can help with transitions in your career.

The first time I read it was when I left Microsoft in Fall 2013 and was on the recommendation of my best friend Vinny Pasceri, a fellow Microsoftie who knows a lot about transitions between startups and big companies. It was immensely helpful while I was making the transition to work at Contactive because of how well it structured the process of feeling like I had 9 million things to learn at once. Most importantly, it hammers home the idea of not making lots of quick, bad decisions because of lack of information that then inhibit your ability (and reputation) to do long-term good in the organization.

I re-read the book this January as we were going through the acquisition process with ThinkingPhones. It was faster the second time around and I was able to skim through parts that weren’t as relevant, but I found it a good refresher of some of those “blind spot” challenges that can be easy to hit in a new transition.

The book has a LOT of frameworks in it, and sometimes I feel like it tries to straddle the line too much between being a step-by-step training manual and a good reference of ways to approach situations. I tend to be very example-driven, so I wished it had more of the mini case studies to support the various frameworks. I stopped trying to fill out the (many) worksheets as I was reading it and instead allocated 30 minutes each week to pick a section and make actions items for myself based on it.

I didn’t find any framework or set of steps that was completely foreign to me. I did, however, find the single most useful outcome of reading the book to be getting way more honest about what my weakness are in times of transition, like trying to force old ways of work into the new one, and forcing me to write them down in order to be mindful of them.

The book is focused on senior-level management positions in large organizations making big transitions, and only really pays passing mention to startups. That’s not a blocker for making this a usable book by almost anyone making a transition in an information worker role, especially one in management, since the frameworks and methodologies are non-specific.

4/5 for me.

Thanks!

-m

Crossfit & Startups Are Basically The Same Thing

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“Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.” — Thomas Jefferson

I was recently at a startup event here in NYC and was having a great conversation with a random set of folks. We all started shaking hands in preparation of splitting up, ready to charge forward and continue networking with other people. I extend my hand to one of the woman to shake goodbye and instead she says, “Sorry, I can’t shake hands right now. I hurt mine this morning.” She turns her hand over and reveals a set of band-aids over the top part of her palm. I smile and ask “What was the workout?”, while quickly turning over my hands to show my chewed up palms and the scars of a few old but nasty tears.

We both laughed and spent a few more minutes talking about Crossfit; what our boxes (home gyms) were like, the communities there, and which movements we hated the most (her = burpees, me = rowing). It’s not the first time I’ve met a fellow Crossfitter at a startup event, and it made me reflect on the similarities between Crossfit and the actual experience of being in a startup.

Some context: I do love me some Crossfit. I can talk for hours about it because it’s something I’m passionate about and it makes me happy. I’ve been doing it for almost six years now, having worked out with Eric and Nadia at the awesome Crossfit Belltown in Seattle for many moons, then joining the very hip Crossfit South Brooklyn when we moved back to New York last year. I’ve always been an athlete through soccer, swimming, and generally being a gym rat for as long as I can remember. I love it so much I even became a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at Boston Sports Club while I was in college (I taught a pretty mean cardio kickboxing class).

So what, then, does the Venn diagram of Crossfit and a startup look like from my perspective? Here we go.

1. Efficiency and productivity.

Crossfit is intentionally intense. It’s based on the premise of high-intensity work done over short periods of time (“intervals”), meant to maximize the benefit of the exercise. I go for one hour a day, five days a week, and always feel great because I know I was as effective as possible in getting my workout in. The same set of folks go to my 6am class almost every morning and many of them are now good friends of mine. We cheer each other on while pushing each other to work as hard as possible. The unique “Workout of the Day” is always different than the prior day and never lets you feel like you’re being repetitive.

To me it feels exactly like working in a startup: every day at work is different than the last, I often work super hard for intense sprints of time, and I could never get anything done without the support of my team.

2. The right kind of competition.

My friends Peter, Brad, and I are always racing against each other in our 6am workouts. We know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, so when we’re planning out how to approach a workout we share tips and then a few taunts to push each other. The coolest part? You’re never really competing with your friends (unless you’re doing a competition), you’re pushing and competing with yourself. Whoa, #meta. Your community at Crossfit, like your team at work, are your support systems for setting personal goals and working super friggin’ hard (see point 4) to achieve them.

3. It’s all in the data.

We use an dizzying array of technology at Klink to monitor our products and users, making sure we know everything about their experience via the telemetry that gets reported to us. Combined with the fact that we are a big data company building customer intelligence solutions, and you would be correct in saying that my work is full of data. The goal is to always make measurable progress with our products and our customers.

We similarly track everything at Crossfit: how long it took to do a workout or how many reps you got, how much weight you squatted or how many pull-ups you did. There’s an important belief in the Crossfit system that you can’t improve if you don’t keep track of how you’re doing, so I use an app called MyWOD to monitor my progress and refer back to it each week as I’m planning my strategy for the different workouts.

4. It’s friggin hard.

I like to do things to the max. Crossfit workouts typically have a concept of a ‘prescribed weight’, meaning the maximum recommended weight to use. I almost always use that weight and almost always finish the workout in time (or with high reps, etc.). Yet every couple of workouts, like the 4x4x4 one from mid-January, I get completely crushed. For that one I had to lower the weight from the prescribed amount and still finished over 2min past the 10min time cap – it was one of the hardest workouts I’ve done in months. The thing that got me through it? My entire 6am class surrounded me as I pushed through the last set and cheered me when I finished (and promptly collapsed onto the floor).

Super-hard challenges requiring a ton of personal effort and the support of a team to finish? See “Working at the office until 2am on a financial model due the next morning”, or the always fun “Dogfooding a hotfix all-day on a Sunday so you can fix an urgent customer bug”.  Every week at work there’s always a day or two that feels like that 4x4x4 workout: it requires an all-out effort from everyone on the team, everyone works past the clock, and no one does it alone.

Are you a Crossfitter? What’s your favorite workout?