Book Report: Idea Flow: How to Measure the PAIN in Software Development by Janelle Klein

ideaflowThis is a self-published book that covers a lot of ground, and it has some flaws. Reading this feels a bit like experiencing a non-stop high velocity flow of ideas (sorry, couldn’t resist) that can be roughly organized and overwhelming at times (I was reminded of the character Jordan from the movie Real Genius).
But the ideas themselves? They are crazy thought provoking. This book has me thinking a lot, and I think you could choose almost any section of it and dig into the ideas for weeks before coming up for air. This book will definitely require a re-read to fully explore what I’ve discovered from reading it, and I expect to find it just as fascinating the second time through.
As the subtitle might have you guess, this is primarily focused on solving painful projects. As I read the book, I thought back to various projects I’ve worked on where Idea Flow could have made a tremendous difference in our ability to identify the correct problems, and sell the executives on why we needed to invest in fixing the issues identified. I’ve recommended the book to several folks who are currently working on projects that have a lot of “pain” and I expect it will help them quite a bit. One strong reaction I have after reading the book is that Idea Flow Mapping strikes me as an idea that would be very difficult to implement as a top-down initiative. This is a developer-led movement for sure — the amount of data that needs to be collected could easily be perceived as very “big brother”-ish (in fact, more than one developer I’ve described it to used exactly those words) as a management initiative. Klein’s own suggested presentation supports this:

I want to make the business case to management for fixing things around here. No more chaos and working on weekends, this needs to stop. I need data to make the case to management, though, so I need everyone’s help.

I also haven’t fully figured out my own reaction here, but although I think this framework could offer a lot of value to many teams (including teams that I’ve worked on in the past), I’m quite convinced that the approach described here would add little if any value to my current team. Why is that? I’m not sure — perhaps my team is small enough that the communication of ideas between the developers and code are easier to keep in sync. Perhaps it’s simply that the codebase itself is small enough. Maybe it’s just that the group of developers are similar enough to make ideas flow naturally. I’m also willing to concede that I may be flat out wrong. I know I’m going to be thinking through this for a while though, and trying to figure out why I think that this is true.
Even though the practices described here don’t feel right for my project right now, the ideas will influence the way I approach problems moving forward.
Klein’s ability to describe the escalation of pain in our processes can occasionally feel like re-living the very worst of our professional experiences:

The pain doesn’t happen all in one step. One decision usually sets up the preconditions for an unavoidable high-risk situation later.
The classic example of this in software is writing confusing code. When the code is written, the author can manage it fine, get it working and deployed to production. There is no immediate impact from this decision. The problem comes in when we have to understand or modify that code and there is suddenly a high risk of making mistakes.
The best way I’ve found to explain these problems, I picked up several years ago from an article by Scott Bellware. The pain comes from an increase in the number and severity of safety hazards.
When we use analogies like land-mines, fires, and various types of hell, we’re referring to the hazards in our everyday work. We may not be working with sharp objects or explosives, but the anxiety, stress and exhaustion from working in a hazardous environment is very real.
Likening these conditions to working around land-mines makes a lot of sense. We aren’t necessarily aware that we’re in a high-risk situation until we happen to step on the land-mine and something explodes. The lack of awareness makes these conditions all the more dangerous. It’s the knife that’s in the wrong drawer, the toys left out on the stairs, the loose screws in our bicycle. Hazards increase the risk of injury.
Let’s say we deploy some changes, then later realize we made a mistake. Our code is doing something horrible like over-charging our customers. Now we have an urgent situation on our hands. We care about the company and don’t want to fail, so we do whatever it takes.
Suddenly we’re working late nights and weekends, choking down Red Bull to stay awake, and hacking out last minute changes. We might end up breaking something else in the process.
It doesn’t matter if we’re sick, if we were supposed to go watch our kids’ recital, or meet our spouse for an anniversary dinner. When things go wrong and our project is online, we sacrifice a lot. At the moment of urgency, we can no longer choose safety.
By compromising safety, we increase the likelihood of making mistakes and the pain from the impact. Things don’t always go wrong, we’re gambling. If we’re lucky, we save time. If we’re not, we can lose big. The more we lose, the more time pressure builds and the more compelled we feel to gamble.
Compromising safety pulls us into a vicious cycle that’s fueled by constant urgency. We keep rolling the dice and making riskier and riskier bets, in an attempt to save time, but in the long-run our optimizations backfire.

The book is self-published and, as with many self-published books, it occasionally flared the OCD grammarian in me. A bigger problem for me is that it was not possible to read this on my kobo for two reasons. First, the images flow off to the right of the page, so they’re not fully visible. But even allowing for that, color is required for understanding the images — you’re going to have to read this on a color screen (or print it out, I suppose).
Organizationally, the book could use the hand of a professional editor as well. One example — the book could do a better job of laying out the mechanics of how idea flow mapping works and how to read an idea flow map a little earlier and more clearly. It’s not a complicated topic, but the book jumps quickly into showing idea flow maps without a sufficiently basic primer on what they are and how they work. By the end of the book, I think I understand how they work, but during the first few chapters I often felt lost.
Regardless of these small complaints, the book and it’s ideas are well worth exploring. You should go read it! If you’re not the reading type, you should at least watch Klein lay out her case here: Let’s make the pain visible

Confession: I am terrible at interviewing (and I suspect the rest of the world is, too)

n.b.While I would imagine a good bit of this applies outside of the realm of interviewing software engineers, what follows is specifically written about software interviews. If you’re looking about other types of interviews, read on, but, proceed with caution.

I’ve had positions open under me for pretty much all of my career as a technical manager. And so I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing, and given a recent focus on hiring a more diverse team, a lot of time thinking about interviewing. And what I’ve become more and more convinced over time is that no one (really, no one) is good at interviewing. Sure, lots of us point to the teams that we work with and say, “Look at all these amazing people! We must be doing something right.” And that’s probably true, but I’m reasonably sure that the thing we’re doing well is not interviewing. Even more terrifyingly, as I’ve looked at it closely, I’ve become convinced that it is not possible to do well.
Does that sound crazy? I don’t think it is — under the very best conditions as an interviewer, you can only ever have one side of the story. If you should be so lucky over a long career of hiring to hire no one that you view as a mistake on any level, that’s fantastic (if somewhat improbable), but also only tells you 1/2 of the story. Have you ever been talking with someone who was doing really well in the interview process, only to suddenly choke and bomb a segment of it — eliminating themselves from consideration? Do you think that was a fair representation of their skills? Have you ever interviewed someone and wondered at their evident career success v. their inability to perform the simplest tasks in an interview? Sure, some of those folks may have completely misleading resumes; but I’ll bet more than one of them simply choked under the pressure, and your assessment told you that they were no good.
And why is that? How good is your assessment? Let’s take a look at a few common tech interview gotos.

  • Whiteboard coding has taken a well deserved beating over the past few years, but that’s only a sample of the awful things we do.
  • Stupid questions. What do you expect to learn by asking someone how they would keep from being eaten if they were a cucumber in a salad? Or how they would escape from a blender if miniaturized? Do these questions tell you anything about a candidate? Is this an ice-breaker? Do you expect these questions to put a candidate at ease? Puh-lease! Best case scenario, they give an interviewer an opportunity to feel smug. That’s not going to help anyone.
  • FizzBuzz and other well-known interview problems. Congratulations, you’ve just learned that your candidate can memorize some stupid code from a programming interview questions web site. Do you know if they can actually code? This category of simple question may have some value as a screening question, but I’m unconvinced it tells you anything you need to know on an on-site. And if you find yourself questioning whether someone who struggled a bit with FizzBuzz is worth hiring, because the last 3 candidates aced it in seconds, shame on you. You’ve got one candidate who just thought on their feet and got where they needed to be against 3 who read one of the 892 books that currently come up when you search for “programming interview” on Amazon.
  • Have you ever been in a good panel interview (on either side of the hiring equation)? I’m pretty sure it would be possible to prove the exponential relationship between the number of people interviewing and the terribleness of the interview. Add 3 interviewers to an interview, and at least one of them will get distracted by their laptop or mobile. Four? Then you’ll have at least two with a conflicting agenda. Five? Someone’s going to start monologuing (and everyone else will check out). Your focus quickly becomes about group dynamics, rather than the candidate. Meanwhile, you’ve wasted a significant chunk of multiple peoples’ time and increased the stress on your candidate. Are you testing for endurance?
  • Pair programming? I’ve talked with a lot of strong advocates for this, but this technique can be a great way to eliminate anyone who hasn’t spent a lot of time pair programming. (Remember how uncomfortable it felt the first time you paired? And I’ll bet that wasn’t with the added pressure of being on an interview.) Also, as much as I just beat up panel interviews, having a second interviewer in the room brings a valuable second perspective to the table, and there’s just not much room for a 3rd in pair programming. If you’re not looking for someone bringing a specific language skill to the table, this can get even more complicated — you might have to switch interviewers depending on the candidate, and now you’re going to lose any reasonable chance of fair evaluation across a set of candidates.
  • Looking for someone that “clicks” with the team? That’s a great idea, but it’s also almost impossible to make this an important factor without guaranteeing a monoculture. Are you looking to increase diversity on your team? (hint: you should be) Are you competing to hire in an increasingly candidate-friendly market? (hint: you are) Then you need to monitor this carefully. It’s also too prone to eliminating candidates who are too nervous to let their real personality through in an interview. (Relevant: how often have you let your real personality through in a job interview? )
  • Post-interview analysis meetings. sigh Here’s an area where I’m especially ashamed of my own once-valued previous practice. My last team would wait until everyone was available, gather around an open section of floor, kick a soccer ball (oh, hai, rest of the world, that’s a football to you) back and forth, and discuss a recent candidate. Chances are, minus the soccer ball, you’ve done something similar. There are a few problems with this approach. First, by the time we all got together for that conversation, no one’s perspective was fresh. But the biggest problem with the let’s-all-get-together-and-make-a-decision approach is that the first member of the team to voice a strong opinion will generally carry the conversation. If you’re feeling slightly positive about a candidate, but the first person to speak says, “Oh, that candidate was terrible!” are you going to argue? What if everyone was reasonably positive except that first speaker? What if someone at the table has a very high opinion of the candidate but doesn’t like conflict? How will you know?

Given these practices, which have all been at least considered in the various iterations of my interviewing process, it’s not really surprising at all that I’m terrible at interviewing. And if you’re a hiring manager and somehow the logic of all of the above hasn’t convinced you (and honestly, even if it has), then you really, really need to go read Interviewing.io’s article on the arbitrary nature of tech interviews. Seriously, go read it. At the very least, scroll down to the interactive chart titled “Standard Dev vs. Mean of Interviewee Performance” and click around till you understand it.

Seriously, go do that.

Okay, back? “Only 25% of candidates are consistent in their performance.” I’d also like to take a brief digression to point out the realization that got me in this mess to start with:

The dark side of optimizing for high false negative rates, though, rears its head in the form of our current engineering hiring crisis. Do single interview instances, in their current incarnation, give enough signal? Or amidst so much demand for talent, are we turning away qualified people because we’re all looking at a large, volatile graph through a tiny keyhole?

With those horrifying, all too believable figures as context, go back and think about past interviews. I’ve definitely had the experience in the past of rejecting a candidate based on a teams opinion, while remaining somewhat sure that the team had eliminated someone with a tremendous amount of potential. I’ve also pushed back against a team decision to reject a candidate only to make one of the best hires of my career.
After thinking through all of the above, I came to what seemed like an obvious conclusion: I am terrible at interviewing. And given that the practices I’ve followed are widely accepted interview standards, I’m pretty sure the rest of the world could use some work on this too. In fact the only convincing evidence I’ve found that there’s a useful way to hire for actual skill in any field is a blind listening technique for orchestra members. I think there’s some interesting potential in applying more techniques like blind resume (or code) reviews, and I’d be in favor of experimenting with fully blind hiring. But unfortunately, I don’t think most organizations are ready for that yet.
So where does that leave us? Are we all just in an impossible situation with no hope? After all, I started thinking about this with hopes of identifying the best hiring process in the world and then implementing it and collecting all the benefits and privileges pertaining thereto. Instead, I’ve spent months staring at various revisions of this post with my head in my hands, wondering “what now?”
Here’s my conclusion, at least for now: hiring well is simply not possible yet. At least not for me.
Hiring better? That sounds like something I can work on. I’ve definitely got some ideas for that. Working with the candidates I hire through an imperfect process to help them realize their potential? Now for that, I’m definitely in.

Book Report: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Amy Cuddy - PresenceIf you’re a reader of this site, you’re likely to have watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses. This book expands on that, and is filled with fascinating insights into recent social science. I read the book after seeing Cuddy talk at Philadelphia Free Library’s Leading Voices. (You can listen to the podcast here.)
I was interested in the talk and the book largely because I’ve recently been spending a lot of time thinking about interviewing and hiring through the lens of building a more diverse team. One of the things I was hoping to get out of the book were some ideas for helping those from underrepresented communities in technology be more “present” during interviews. I certainly benefited from the ideas Cuddy presented in her TED talk when applying for my current job, and I shared the ideas with my daughter right before she kicked ass on the SATs. When I think about applying this from the other side of the interview, I have this vision of saying, “Okay, now stand in this room like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes, and I’ll be right back so we can begin.” Fun as the image may be, of course it would be far to socially jarring to actually work in an interview situation.
Why is it important to me to figure out how to put someone interviewing to work on my team at ease? Cuddy explains that better than I could:

Research shows that in pressure-filled situations, when we are distracted by thinking about possible outcomes of our performance, our skills are measurably diminished. When we explicitly monitor ourselves, second by second, any task that requires memory and focused attention will suffer. We don’t have enough intellectual bandwidth to perform at our best and simultaneously critique our performance. Instead we’re caught in a faulty circuit of trying to anticipate, read, interpret, and reinterpret how other people are judging us, all of which prevents us from noticing and interpreting what’s actually happening in the situation. This dynamic, which psychologists refer to as self-monitoring, is significantly higher for people who experience impostor fears. It takes us out of ourselves. It stands in the way of our presence.

So given that we know that interviewing is one of the most pressure-filled situations, what can we do when interviewing to break that faulty circuit? Here’s one useful thought from the book:

Pamela Smith, a professor of management at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and [Adam] Galinsky have demonstrated in their research that power often operates at a nonconscious level, meaning that it can be activated without our knowledge — turned on like a switch — and can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of. That’s good news. It means we don’t need to wear a crown to feel powerful, and we don’t have to plot and strategize ways to deploy our power in order to reap its benefits.
Recall a moment when you felt personally powerful. A time when you felt fully in control of your own psychological state — when you had the confidence to act based on your boldest, most sincere self, with the sense that your actions would be effective. Maybe it was at work, at school, at home, or in some other part of your life. Take a few minutes right now to remember and reflect on that experience of your personal power, on how it felt.
It felt good, right? Whether you know it or not, you’ve just been primed. Thanks to that little exercise, your psychological state was, and likely still is, infused with feelings of confidence and strength.

How simple would it be to start an interview with a question like “Tell me the professional accomplishment that has made you the most proud?” If that should prime someone to feel more confident, and have a better conversation? Well, chances are, you’re going to have a much better conversation.
During Cuddy’s talk, I asked her whether there was any research on how an interviewer could improve a candidate’s confidence through body language (you can here her response at about 1:08 in the podcast). She offered three concrete suggestions. “Come out from behind the desk… Be aware that your presence is really intimidating… so make sure that you’re not using that big expansive body language… Listen for whether they’re telling you everything they want to tell you… Ask, ‘Is there something else you’d like me to know about you?'”
The book offers another, related interviewing tip on the importance of warmth and openness in our body language:

In a famous 1974 paper, Princeton psychologists presented a pair of experiments on the self-fulfilling power of body language. The researchers wanted to know if white college admissions officers were unconsciously adopting cold, disengaged, and discouraging body postures (e.g., orienting their bodies away from the applicants, crossing their arms, not nodding) when interviewing black applicants, and, if so, how these postures might affect the applicants’ interview performance. In the first experiment, white interviewers were randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. Indeed, when interviewing the black applicants, white interviewers used cold, disengaged body language, and the black applicants were perceived to have performed more poorly in the interviews than the white applicants. In the second experiment, trained white job interviewers were split into two groups and instructed to use either cold, disengaged body language or warm, engaged body language. They were then randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. The black applicants performed as well as the white applicants when their interviewers exhibited warm, engaged body language. And applicants of both races performed equally poorly when their interviewers behaved in a cold, uninterested way.
Furthermore, in both cases, the applicants’ body language matched that of the interviewers; they were unconsciously mimicking what the interviewers did, which is what we usually do in social settings. In short, our body language, which is often based on prejudices, shapes the body language of the people we’re interacting with. If we expect others to perform poorly, we adopt body language that is off-putting and discouraging. Naturally, people take the hint and respond as expected — poorly. How could anyone ace an interview under those circumstances?
When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.

Again, simple — remember to lean in towards the speaker and pay close attention. Nod or vocalize encouragement when appropriate. Orient your body towards the speaker. If you’ve been put in the position of interviewing candidates, hopefully you understand how to do these things in a way that feels natural. Essentially, treat the conversation as if you’re going to find it deeply fascinating, and chances are, you will.
The book offers far more than some useful insights into interviewing; it’s filled with research that will spark your imagination: after reading about research into risk-taking after assuming power poses (spoiler: it goes up) I became worried about what casinos might be able to do with that research. After reading about how her research has been applied to horse training(!) I’ve been debating conducting some research on our pets.
Cuddy has filled the book with the personal stories of many people who have been inspired to reach out to her and explain how her TED talk has changed their lives. While these stories provide a good bit of the heart and soul of the book, at times this feels a bit overwhelming (especially in the final chapter, which is essentially a collection of these stories). Very strongly, the same warmth, humor, and personal experiences that compelled us all to share Cuddy’s TED talk come across on almost every page of this book. It’s well worth the read.
Update:FiveThirtyEight has published an interesting article on problems in reproducibility which talks about Cuddy’s research quite a bit.

interiority.org mailbag: Team building events on the cheap

Christopher-
I’ve got a team that’s been running full steam to meet a tough deadline. We hit it — barely — but it didn’t close the deal we were hoping for.
Morale’s at an all time low.
Normally we would head out for a night at the pub, but without the expected deal, the budget for team events is gone. What can I do on the cheap to reward the team?
–A Broke Lead Engineer

Well, ABLE, you probably weren’t asking for this, but I’ll start by giving you a challenge: find a variety of team activities to do, even when you have budget. Your team might like the pub, but that’s probably the most wide-spread example of creating a culture of traditions over values. Heading to the pub every time is not going to help create an inclusive vibe for team members who aren’t comfortable with that. I enjoy taking my team out for a round every now and again just fine, but if that’s all your team does, it’s probably time for a shake up anyhow.

So let’s talk about some options:

Extra time-off for completing the project may be a short-term morale boost, if you have the authority to grant it: you’ll need to discuss that with HR. That might do something to reset team energy, and it’s likely to be popular and help with retention; but it’s unlikely to bring the team together. So even if you can pull that off, you might want to follow up with a group activity.

It’s a tough time of year for it where I live, but heading outside is a great change of pace. Head to a nearby park, or simply to the nearest sidewalk and practice some Management By Walking Around. If it’s too cold to gather outside, try googling for free tours of local buildings: libraries or town halls sometimes run tours. Call ahead to make sure they can support your group size.

If you need to stay in the office, a team pot-luck can be a great tradition, or even a brown bag lunch. Still too much work? I’ve hosted “Movie Thursday” before, where the team would vote on a movie to show, and we would all bring some monotonous work (think expense reports) to work half-heartedly on while watching the movie. You could even probably manage to spring out-of-pocket for some popcorn. Another possibility (depending on the office you work in) would be to have an in-office scavenger hunt.

If you work for a company that happens to donate to the arts, you might find that as a result employees can get in free to some local museums, or maybe there’s a nearby museum that offers free admission during certain times. This is a fantastic option that I’ve taken advantage of.

Free things to do with your kids/boyfriend/girlfriend in lists are also potential goldmines for local activities that are ALL OVER the internets.

One huge advantage all of these ideas have over pub night is that they create shared experiences: opportunities to make connections with your teammates to things outside of your workday life. Those are the sorts of traditions that can re-enforce the values of the team.

–Christopher

[editors note: none of these suggestions do a great job of including remote team members, but since the question was looking for a replacement for a pub night, I’ve saved that for another post ;)]

Inspiration: Teddy Roosevelt on labels

Teddy Roosevelt circa 1902
I suppose whether you think Teddy Roosevelt was a great president depends on your politics, but it would be hard to argue that he was not a successful leader.
In 1902, Roosevelt was searching for a way to end a long-running coal strike without taking extra-constitutional (quite possibly unconstitutional) action. He was being urged variously to send in federal troops to break the strike, or to send in the same troops to seize the mines from the operators. He had finally gotten both sides to agree to a temporary halt in the strike with a commission appointed to settle the dispute.
The mine operators were holding firm that this commission could not include a labor leader, lest that be construed as recognition of the miner’s union. Unsurprisingly, the miner’s union was holding just as firm that a labor leader must be on the commission.
With a flash of insight, Roosevelt suggested that he would appoint E.E. Clark, the head of the railway conductors’ union, to the commission as an “eminent sociologist”, which was acceptable to the operators.
In his own words “I at last grasped the fact that the mighty brains of these captains of industry had formulated the theory that they would rather have anarchy than tweedledum, but if I would use the word tweedledee they would hail it as meaning peace.”
A great reminder that words matter. Sometimes finding a small face-saving gesture — even a better label for the same truth — can get everyone to the table. In this case, Roosevelt found a way to end a months-long standoff that had sent coal prices skyrocketing without having to send in federal troops.

Book Report: Beyond the Resume

cover[disclaimer: this is based on a “beta” copy of this book from gitbooks. the book is not complete at this time, and may be a bit different by the time you read it. I believe that most of my comments will still apply, but I’m also likely to re-visit this when it is complete.
further disclaimer: I happen to work with Pam Selle. However, this was not a solicited review, nor was it discussed with the author.]
If you’ve seen Pam Selle talk, or listen to the Turing-Incomplete podcast, then you’re probably going to read Beyond the Resume: How to get your next job as a developer in Pam’s voice, which comes through clearly in the book’s conversational tone. In this case, that’s definitely a good thing. It’s like sitting down with a friend or colleague and getting some advice over coffee. Which is probably exactly what you’re looking for while you’re dealing with the stress of a job search looming over your head.
Of course, in this case, you’re sitting down with someone well connected in the industry who has some useful insights on how to effectively frame a job search in the candidate-friendly tech job market. I don’t agree with everything Selle has to say, but it’s certainly useful and thought provoking; and I suspect the final edit will be well worth consideration. As the subtitle indicates, Selle’s insights are focused on the developer market- while there may be some comments of generic utility, this probably won’t provide value if you’re trying to land a job as a CPA.
Overall, if you’re looking for a job as a developer, the book is well worth the read. Here’s a quick sample that I think does a great job of capturing the tone and utility of the book:
In fact, a search for “$YOURLANGUAGE interview questions” will serve you very well, because here’s an unfortunate truth:
Most engineers are terrible at interviewing.
Not only are they terrible, they often have little guidance on what they should do, what questions they should ask. Even if they do have some guidance, I can almost guarantee these kinds of technical interviews will be similar to what you can practice online.

interiority.org mailbag: Should I stay or should I go?

Christopher-
Things are getting increasingly craptacular here at [xyzco]. Every month, someone else quits, there’s been another big reorg, executives keep leaving the company, focus keeps changing, and we’re working crazy hours to complete projects that make no sense. I’m so stressed I can’t sleep.
Buuhhhtttt, I don’t want to go look for a new job. Honestly, I make a lot of money, and it’s not like this job involves backbreaking labor or inhaling toxic fumes on a regular basis. Plus, I’d feel pretty bad about leaving behind [Sally and John] — they’ve really helped me out and if I leave, things will get even worse for them. Also, there’s lots going on in my personal life and getting a new job would cause even more stress at home.
What should I do?
A Confused Engineer

Okay ACE, let me summarize your letter: I hate my job, but I don’t want to quit, what should I do? It sounds like you want me to talk you into quitting — I can’t make this choice for you. You’re going to have to make it on your own, but here are some things to keep in mind.

Sound about right? Okay, lets break it down.

Let’s start by leaving aside some rationalizations. Leave behind your guilt about earning good money for what you do. (Or, if you’re so inclined, find a positive way to help out people who inhale toxic fumes or subject themselves to backbreaking labor to support themselves and their families.) Income gap may be a growing problem in this country, but that’s a poor reason to stay at a job. Sally and John? Glad to hear you have friends at work. That’s important. But as you say, people are quitting monthly. How long will Sally and John stick around? Friends are important, but you need to leave them out of this decision. I’m pretty sure they’ll still be happy to meet you for lunch once in a while even if you choose to leave.

Now let’s talk about stress. Really, that’s mostly what leads most people to look for a new job, and what holds people back from doing so. It’s undeniable that looking for a new job is stressful. You’re going to be judged. You’re going to get yourself excited about new possibilities, and you’re going to have to make yourself vulnerable to rejection. Indeed that’s stressful, and maybe more acutely stressful than continuing in your current job.

But I have a theory about stress — there are two different kinds of stresses in our lives. I’ve stolen some terms from Robert Pirsig‘s Metaphysics of Quality and characterize them as static stress and dynamic stress. Static stresses are the stresses of our everyday lives. You’re accustomed these — you’ve worked out coping mechanisms and you’re good at burying them to get through your day. But they stick around like a background noise in your life. Static stresses are the things that cause ulcers and heart disease. These are the stresses of your current job. Dynamic stresses are the temporary stresses that come with unexpected or unusual life events and changes. The stress of moving into a new house, or getting married (or divorced). The stress of looking for a new job definitely fits into this category.

Humans are very good an underrating the impact of static stress on our lives. After all, that’s how we cope with them. We shove them into the background, where we can forget about them to the greatest extent possible. But they linger. They impact our sleep, our moods, our health, and our relationships with our loved ones. Ever gotten in a meaningless argument after a stressful day at work? Is there anyone who hasn’t? Static stresses are negative forces in our lives, but we’ve gotten so good at putting them into a corner of our mind that we all tend to minimize the overall impact of static stress on our lives.

Dynamic stresses, on the other hand, are terrifying to think about. They come from the major (and sometimes unexpected) changes in our lives and they loom large in our imagination. And many dynamic stresses come from entirely negative situations: the end of a relationship, a layoff, an accident, or a natural disaster. But some of the changes that generate dynamic stress are from the most meaningful events in our lives: marriage, moving into a new house, graduation. And, yes, looking for a new job. It’s true, you’ll loose nights of sleep wondering if you’ll get a callback. You’ll do research into a new position and get yourself hugely excited about it only to never hear from the hiring manager. Or go in for multiple interviews, only to be told they’ve chosen another candidate. And if you do get lucky enough to find a great opportunity and land an offer, then you’re going to have to go in and meet new people, and prove yourself all over again. I won’t deny that those are enormous stresses, but they’re positive stresses in our lives. They energize us. When large groups of people go through dynamic stress together — say after a natural disaster — it often brings out the very best in us. Communities come together. Why? Because humans are resilient. When changes happen to us, we by our very nature do our very best to come out on top. And yet, it’s natural to fear change, and our imaginations tend to amplify the possible negative outcomes of any change — especially changes created by our own choices..

So keep this in mind when you’re weighing these choices against each other. Maybe the static stresses in your life are not that big — if you’re a positive and happy person, and you’re able to walk away from a stressful day at work and leave it all behind you, then it may not matter. But if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t have written this letter. Maybe you’ve got other reasons to avoid a sudden and large change in your life. Maybe you’re already going through enough dynamic stress — if a loved one is sick, or you’ve just had a child, switching jobs may just be too much. This is why I say I can’t make this choice for you.

But weight your decision criteria fairly. Are you underestimating the sum of the stresses you’re facing daily? It’s useful to try distancing yourself a bit from the emotional pull of this decision. Try pretending it’s not you in this situation. If this was your best friend talking about this, what would you say? What if it was your child? What advice would you give to someone in your situation?

If you do choose to stay, then it’s time for you to start working to change things in your current job and try to make things better. Are people quitting because of their boss? Maybe you should have a direct conversation with your manager about what you see happening. Executives keep changing focus? What do you think the focus should be? Do you have buy in from the team? It’s time to gather your thoughts into a killer argument and talk with the executives — if they’re not seeking out your input, schedule a meeting with them. Also, team morale is down — what have you done to change that? Get everyone out for lunch. Don’t take no for an answer. If meetings are intruding on everyone’s lunches, get sneaky — schedule a 2 hour “brown-bag” meeting for an important topic and then cancel it at the last minute and head out with the team. If you’re going to stick around, you owe it to yourself to make things better. Fake it till you make it really works. Pretend you have the power to change things. Pretend you aren’t afraid of getting fired. Be polite but insistent. I think you’ll be shocked to discover how much positive change a single person — even at the bottom of the corporate ladder — can make.

Whatever you decide to do, you’ve got work ahead of you, and stress. Do your best to make that positive stress.

–Christopher

Book Report: Lean Out

Lean Out Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture is an important and thought-provoking book that probably won’t get all of the attention that it deserves. While I’m not the target audience here (maybe I should be, but that’s a discussion for another time), I did find this to be a useful framework for thinking about some things that I’m pretty happy to have pondered.
The book is not as much of a rebuke of Lean In as the title suggests. It’s more just a collection of essays about the issues faced by women (and black and lgbt women) in technology. The book is (understandably) focused very much on Silicon Valley and Startup culture. As with any collection of essays the quality of the essays vary, as do the tone and message. In fact, that’s probably where this, as a book, most suffers- there isn’t one common agenda that emerges out of these essays.
Ultimately, that’s probably a reflection of where society is at this point in time, and also of the books efforts to be inclusive to many different viewpoints. The stories told in this collection are powerful, honest and sometimes painful to read.
Anyhow, if you work in technology, and care about making work in our field better for everyone, this a good book to read and reflect on. If you’re a leader, then this should absolutely be on your reading list.

Nice to meet you…

Do you take the time to properly introduce yourself to new team members? I’d like to suggest that a simple practice can help set new team members at ease and let them quickly settle into their new jobs and start focusing on the work at hand.

Hopefully by now you should know the importance of creating an environment where your team can form not just professional relationships, but real friendships. As far as whether a leader should try to be friends with their team, there are arguments on both sides. I personally say that the power dynamic is not going to allow you to be close friends with your employees. This shouldn’t stop you from building a relationship of trust, support and openness that is, in many ways very similar to friendship.

I’ve stumbled onto a simple onboarding practice that helps kick-start that relationship. I’ve not met any other manager who does this, and I’ve received positive feedback from every employee I’ve subjected to this exercise. But before I get into it I’ll explain the two main factors that led to my doing this as I onboard employees.

First, an experience as an employee: I’ll change the details to protect the innocent, but the heart of this is a true story. I worked for a manager named (ahem, not his real name, see above) Charlie. In almost a year of working for Charlie, I managed to discern the following details of his personal life: he had served in the Navy, and his son fenced competitively (again, not actually true, but close enough to give you the idea). Yep. That’s all that I had to show for a year of reporting to him. As someone who knows nothing about fencing and has never served in any military branch, this is a remarkably thin bit of information on which I would try, and generally fail, to base a conversation when we were say, in an elevator together. (It would require an altogether different post to discuss the reasons that I let this happen, but for now I’ll sum it up under the category of “mistakes I have learned from”.)

Flash forward a few years, when I found myself inheriting an offshore team of 10 or so employees. I scheduled a trip to meet them in person, but I had one week and a lot to accomplish. I had to quickly get to know the team — well enough so that I could reasonably ask them to work with me on significant changes to the way they worked. In short I needed to show up in a foreign city, earn the trust of 10 people, and move on to solving problems, in less than one week. I knew that this had to start with a one-on-one conversation, where I could introduce myself and ask questions to get to know each member of the team. And I wanted them to know me, not to be in a position where they where trying to think of an interesting question about fencing. To shortcut this process I built a presentation introducing myself and the things that matter to me. Basically a slide show introducing myself, my family, my interests and a bit about my work history, approach etc. This let me get through the “me talking” part all up front, to the entire team, so that during my 1:1s, I could jump right into asking questions to get to know each member of the team during our time together. This in turn meant that by afternoon of day 2 of my visit the entire team could jump into real discussion about how we could work together.

A few weeks later, I found myself getting to know a new employee in my office. As I started to introduce myself and talk about my family, I realized I could use those same slides to show pictures of my family, and I called it up. And then a slide about my favorite books came up, and I answered a question about that, and before I knew it, I had gone through the presentation on a one on one basis. I’ve done it ever since. It’s a bit awkward, but it does actually help keep me focused, and time-boxes what would otherwise be a rambling monologue about myself. Of course that’s not the end of the conversation — it’s just as important for me to try to learn a bit about the person sitting at the other side of the desk, which generally involves some questions as we go, followed by “tell me something about yourself”.

So give it a try, and see if your new hires like it, then let me know in the comments!

Book Report: Humans are Underrated

Humans Are Underrated.thumbAfter one of my colleagues posted this article on what makes teams work, I was inspired to read Geoff Colvin’s latest book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will
The first chapters of this book give Clive Barker a run for the money, as Colvin walks through the many different ways in which the economy is going to transform in short order due to computer automation and robotics. I found myself continually having to put down the book to work my way through the implications of some of this:

  • I’ve thought a lot about how autonomous cars are going to change the economy from a car-buying perspective. A likely shift towards a sharing model for car-ownership would certainly have broad impacts on jobs – from manufacturing to sales to repairs and parts. And the impact to taxi-drivers has been clear to me, but I never considered the impact on delivery vehicles. Truck driving is the number one job among American men, and it’s hard to believe that this job will exist in a few decades.
  • We all know that computers outperform humans at chess, but Colvin runs through other things they have been doing more recently, including reading emotions better than humans, writing articles for publication, and moving into increasingly creative fields like creating recipes for chili and chocolate burritos that were well received at SXSW in 2014.
  • Colvin runs through some terrifying human fallibilities as well, like the impact of lunchtime on a judge granting parole. (Did you that while overall, judges grant 35% of paroles, but that the number jumps to 65% immediately following lunch?). While humans are currently skeptical of computers’ ability to handle tasks involving the freedom of humans, it’s hard to look at statistics like that and not acknowledge that algorithmic judgement would be more consistent.

After a few chapters of doom and gloom, Colvin makes his case that the future will involve a shift where economic rewards are centered on deeply human traits – most especially the ability to empathize, rather than the current reward structure towards analytic thought. Although he sometimes undermines his own arguments, he continues to weave together deeply interesting facts.
Colvin makes a strong case for colocated teams in the section on the square of the distance rule. While I’ve personally seen highly effective remote team-members who are able to form deep ties to a mostly colocated team, I found Colvin’s evidence here quite though provoking.
The best measure that we currently have for human empathy, the Reading the Mind Between the Eyes test is something that Colvin talks about quite a bit, as is Collective Intelligence. If you’re responsible for hiring a collaborative team, this book is almost certain to change the way you think about hiring.
In fact, one of the things Colvin probably underplays is the following:

It has become a cliché to say that bringing women into a corporate team, for example, improves the group’s thinking because it introduces a wider variety of thoughts and experiences. That assumes the team was mostly men, and greater diversity improves performance. But the finding of this research is exactly the opposite. It shows that the more women in a group, the smarter it is, plain and simple. The smartest groups in the research had zero gender diversity; they were all women. If the diversity argument held, then replacing a woman with a man would make the group smarter. But it didn’t. On average, it made the group dumber.

Why isn’t this a part of the conversation? It is one of the most perspective-changing things I’ve ever read, and is worth the investment in the book right there.
So yeah, you should probably read this book.