Memorial: John Skorpen

My father, John Skorpen, passed away in April. He was 78. Below are my remarks from his memorial service this past August.

Last week, I was up in the Adirondacks. 

In a break in rain storms, Kathleen and Abby and I hiked Mnt Catamount. It’s a mountain I hiked with dad maybe a decade ago. I think it was the last big mountain we hiked together. I don’t know if you’ve ever hiked a mountain with dad, but whenever you got to the summit, he’d immediately look to the horizon, searching out other mountains. 

“Look,” he’d say, “there’s Ampersand! There’s St. Regis! Ah, that’s Lion mountain … you’ve got to bushwhack to summit that one!” 

He always could name every peak, and seeing them on the horizon would get him fired up. He’d immediately start plotting a route up. The more off-the-beaten path, the better. Every hike added to his backlog of adventures. He had a list of adventures a mile deep. 

Years ago, when I was in fourth grade, we took a family trip to Europe. Dad joined Evan, mom, and me in Switzerland, and we headed south to Italy. Every night in Italy, he’d pour over the local maps, and he’d find us adventures — a little castle icon, just a few hills over. 

We’d set out in search of these Italian Castillos. He’d have us driving for hours down tiny Italian backroads, and we’d finally come across a small, ancient, but not-too-impressive walled village. 

In the decade’s since, dad’s hunts for Castillos have became a running family joke. He’d come up to the Adirondacks, and in a conversation with some local — despite being pretty introverted, he was so good at talking with anyone — he’d hear about a waterfall or a swimming hole. He’d spend the rest of the week winding his way down remote dirt roads to discover the Adirondack Castillo and finding a route to share. 

My last visit to the Adirondacks, to Mossflower, was a bit bittersweet, since it really was my last visit. You get a different lens on a place when you’re leaving it behind. I went through dad’s library of Adirondacks books — books we left up there, and I hope are appreciated by the next owners — and all across the margins were his scrawled notes, identifying his finds. 

For dad, I think, the journey was way more important than the destination. The destination was just an excuse for the detective work, the camaraderie of sharing his plan, the preparation, the journey. And this was how he approached all his life. 

In recent years, it was hard for him to hike or paddle. But he’d still search out new put-ins and trailheads. He’d spend a summer working on a broken motorboat engine, in anticipation that his grandchildren would use it to putt putt out to Saranack Lake. He spent years building different braces for his feet to prepare for one more hike. He spent months caring for wounds so that he could get his legs wet while on one more paddle.

And he was at it to the end. Two weeks before he died, he was telling me about a trip to the Caribbean he was planning with mom — when she was understandably a bit skeptical, he told her he was going, with or without her —  and interesting drives he’d uncovered in the Tetons, near where Evan’s getting married next summer. 

Kathleen, Abby, and I drove across the country to get here. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. I know that if he were here he’d want to hear all about the journey. 

And gosh, Dad, let me tell you: It was some trip. America the beautiful. I really loved Southern Utah and Colorado. They were gorgeous. There were a bunch of rivers I want to raft, and I think I spotted a few trailheads we might hit on the way back. You would have loved it. 


Diner Discovery Masterclass

Last year, I visited Melbourne and led a diner discovery and search master class for many of the city’s best restaurants.


Effective User Stories

“When your team goes home at the end of the day and they’re describing what they’re doing to their spouses or significant others or roommates, they should be using the language in the user story, because they’re inspired by the vision you’ve talked about,” Skorpen said. “If people go home, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I can’t really explain it,’ that’s a sign the product person has failed.”

“One thing you learn in product management really quickly is that your instinct, your precious product idea, is going to be wrong all the time,” Skorpen said.

9 STRATEGIES FOR WRITING MORE EFFECTIVE USER STORIES” by Tatum Hunter, based on interviews with Lauren Hutton, Vanessa Kafka, and yours truly.


Reviews on marketplaces

Uber drivers average a 4.8 rating.

Lyft drivers a 4.86.

Average Yelp restaurant reviews are 3.71

What’s the difference?

Is the average Uber driver delivery a better experience than the average restaurant on Yelp? I don’t think so. Is Uber deleting bad reviews? I don’t think so.

Part of this is selection bias. Uber and Lyft police their platforms in a way Yelp can’t. Bad drivers get kicked out. But I think that’s only part of the story, based on my own experience managing a system with many tens of millions of reviews.

My hypothesis: People rate versus expectations. Most experiences, Uber ride, meal, whatever, meet expectations. And for Americans, meeting expectations means you get five stars.

If you’re consistently not meeting expectations, you’re going to be kicked out of the platform or you’ll go out of business (or clean up your act, in which case your average rating should improve).

So, how does this explain the difference between Yelp and Uber? Uber knows whenever you take a ride and prompts you to review. The share of rides that generate a rating on Uber is probably very high. If most people leave reviews, and the typical experience is a five star experience, most reviews on the system will be five star.

It’s very different for Yelp. Unlike Uber or Lyft or OpenTable, Yelp typically doesn’t know when you’ve been to a restaurant. They can’t prompt you to review your typical five-star meal. Only a tiny fraction of dining events are reviewed on Yelp, and for many people it’s going to take something exceptional to get them to seek out Yelp and choosing to leave a comment.

An exceptionally good experience can’t get better than a 5-star rating. There’s a lot more room to move down. Hence lower average ratings.

Originally on Twitter.



OpenTable’s product book club recently tackled Marty Cagan’s Inspired (which has a new edition out recently). My first week at OpenTable was a workshop for our product development organization led by Cagan, and re-reading the book was a great reminder of how significantly he’s defined my product management philosophy.

My take-aways for great product teams:

  • Product teams, with a focused mandate and appropriate staffing
  • Process matters enormously: Good process isn’t just a marginal competitive advantage
    • Good process involves launching and iterating fast with a dual-track discovery/development process
    • Good process gets the people building the product involved in figuring out what to build ASAP
    • Good process means delegating decision making authority down to individual PMs; decision makers who are close to the customer are a competitive advantage
  • Encapsulate business logic so that teams can own across the broader product