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Why I keep a Pencil on my desk


December 5, 2018 - 7 Comments

In this digital age, we have so many amazing tools, apps, and devices available to us that help us and our teams create, share, and collaborate. But despite all the technology available to me, I still keep a pencil on my desk.

As a Product Manager, I keep a pencil for a few reasons. Firstly, it reminds me that for a product to be effective, it does not need to be complex. Like any great tool, the pencil is designed to achieve one core task very well. Its simple, uncomplicated design is the embodiment of Occam’s razor, and tells us the simplest solution is often the right one. As software product teams, we’re often conflicted whether to provide the user with as much utility as possible with ‘Unified Communications,’ or to optimize the app for one key task or function such as Calling. We have learned that simplicity is the answer.

The second reason is that the pencil speaks to the durability of great product design. It remains largely unchanged since 1795 when Conté invented the concept of a graphite & clay core, fired in a kiln, and encased in wood – a technique that is still used to make pencils to this day. When something just works, it does not need to be continuously improved. Similarly, Agile software development has delivered many benefits, but with continuous development, its become harder to recognize when you’re done designing, with feature and design bloat frequently making previously great products complicated and hard to use. A well designed product, with just the right features, is just right.

The eraser on the top of my pencil, patented by Lipman in 1858, is a reminder that we all make mistakes, but also that they can be corrected. The addition of the eraser to the original product also reminds me of the responsibility we have to only add features to products when they deliver real value to the user. Many product teams can fall into the trap of adding features and design changes to products when they are not necessarily needed. There is a strong temptation to constantly tweak, improve, and amend the product long after it should be considered complete. The emotional investment in building products means that developers, designers, and product managers often can’t let go of the product in which they invested their toil and talent. It’s hard to conclude that it is finished, let alone conceive that it will be replaced by another product, especially one your own company wishes to bring to market. Yet, it is far better to create and correct than to never start.

The pencil also evokes memories of my school days, where the eraser was bitten and chewed while I struggled with the latest overdue essay or incomprehensible algebra problem. In this way, its a subtle reminder of the importance of education and that we are all still learning. Our users teach us how they use the product, and how they use it can sometime differ wildly from our research, assumptions, and built in bias from our own use of the product. Our peers, especially those with the new perspectives and enthusiasm of youth, also teach us to challenge the way we think about our products and the users that they serve. With Webex Teams, we didn’t simply take our current products to the cloud, we recognized that technology was enabling new ways for teams to work together and they needed new tools to collaborate.

The humble pencil reminds me that despite its simple construction and minimal materials, it still takes a team to deliver. There is not a single person on earth who can make a pencil alone – it takes the miner to extract the graphite, the forester to harvest the wood, the factory worker to fire the kiln, and the truck driver and retailer to bring it to my desk. Hundreds of people are involved, all with different skills, and each playing a crucial part in bringing the pencil to my desk. Our Webex product team is very similar, we are a team assembled from around the globe, which ensures we get the best talent – wherever it happens to be in the world. The diversity of our users are reflected in the team that’s working to deliver Webex Teams to their desk.

And lastly, if I’m honest, I also still reach for my pencil because amongst all my devices, it is the only one that never needs to be charged.

Accelerate team collaboration with Webex Teams, but don’t forget your pencil!



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7 Comments

  1. I couldn't help but notice the colored pencils in the included pic... those were another major upgrade. Myself and many others consider a good set of erasable colored pencils a requisite tool for CCIE studies.

  2. I take a lot of teasing for being in the IT department - and preferring a pencil! Great article.

  3. Great post Damien!

  4. ... and the pencil is fully interoperable!

  5. Amazingly universal device, that pencil... from art and music to sports and everything STEM, so much has been impacted by this unrecognized 18th century gadget. Gotta wonder how future generations will compare collaboration in the dark ages (you know, in the mid 1990's when Webex was first founded) versus today's emerging experiences. And think the impact it has on almost everything today!

  6. The pencil reminds me to stay sharp! Very nice blog post.

  7. This has been the most profound article I've ever read from the Cisco blogs and really drives home a lot of key points.