Conference Notes: Neuroleadership Summit 2016

I’ve been looking for a conference entirely focused on leadership of software development teams, but haven’t found anything since goto leaders seems to have folded (if you have suggestions, comment, please!). But in my search, I found the Neuroleadership Summit, which appealed to the geek in me because of the hard-science aura of neuroscience. I was fortunate enough to attend this year and thought I’d share some of my observations.

General Impression
If you’re used to attending tech conferences, the first thing that will probably strike you about the conference is the diversity of the attendees. While I couldn’t find any published demographic data, I would guess that it was majority female, and it had many more people of color than you would be likely to see at a programming conference. This was a welcome change of pace for me.
The Neuroleadership Institute bills the conference as “the most brain-friendly conference on earth” (you can read some semi-propaganda about this) and I have to say that they certainly put some effort into this. The food served attempted to be more healthy than the average conference fair (mostly succeeding), but most impressively the format of the conference is significantly different than any conference I’ve attended. There are fewer sessions, broken up by more networking times, and most significantly, each presentation included several breaks during which you were encouraged to discuss your impressions with someone sitting near you that you had not chatted with before. While this was cringingly awkward for an nerd like me, it did often lead to insights, and I would say that generally I remember the content better than I normally would. Brain science, who knew, right?

Random quick hit clippings from my notes

  • “Mandatory non-thinking time”: decision making is taxed throughout the day. Before important meetings, set aside some time to not think!
  • Can we improve inclusion by capturing and encouraging curiosity?
  • Comment from Claude, one of the many interesting people I met: “Employees want to please their leader. Possibly in the laziest way possible.”
  • Impressive (scary!) things can happen simply by inducing a slight current to certain parts of the brain. This can be done with magnetic fields. tin-foil hats!!!
  • We still rely on labor policies that were created in the 1940s
  • A suggested strategy for overcoming bias in hiring: think about who will be the best hire 3 months from now?
  • Currently leadership potential is generally determined by self- or manager-based identification, which is a terrible predictor of future leadership performance.
  • Branding for new-agey initiatives can be hilarious. The Army brands its mindfulness training as “tactical breathing”.
  • Want to create culture change? Define a list of habits that embody that culture, and try to instill those. Keep the list small!
  • Feedback offered is almost entirely useless. Instead create a culture of asking for feedback. Thought: isn’t this exactly what we do when we submit a PR request? We should capture that better!
  • If you’re not getting feedback from at least three sources, you’re only getting bias (this one hit me hard)
  • We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.
  • Trying to control your unconscious bias is like trying to control your pancreas.
  • Awesome phrase, and I’ve entirely forgotten the full context: “Deeper thinking at a structural level”
  • People who perform the best feel that they are bringing something unique and important to the team.
  • Instead of calling it diversity and inclusion, we should call it inclusion and diversity.
  • heh… The last thing written in my notebook: “We’re supposed to be sitting here and reflecting on the past few days and they’ve invited the most distracting possible performer to sing while we’re doing this. Instead of being able to think, I’m uncomfortable and NOT enjoying this at all” (to be fair, other’s in the audience seemed pleased)

Useful things for 1:1s based on neuroscience!

  • Best feedback strategy: “You should do more of x”. All negative feedback offered flares defensiveness. (This is exactly the same advice I’ve read in every parenting book I’ve ever read).
  • “What was the most useful PR comment you’ve received lately?” (also: can we build a github plugin to capture this?)
  • “Who on the team energizes you? As in when you walk away from a conversation with them, you feel energized?”

First, a quick complaint: the Neuroleadership Institute spent a little too much time self-promoting during the conference — that became increasingly annoying over time. By the time they brought the entire team on stage (which took a good 10 minutes) for a public thanks at the end I was getting really annoyed with it.
I had a great time at the conference, but I’m not sure I would personally go back. I’m not really the target audience. Much of the audience were professional coaches or HR folks. I would recommend this as a fantastic conference for a new leader (1st year manager?) to attend. If you read Harvard Business review on a regular basis, there’s not much more for you here. If you subscribe but never get the chance to read, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to focus once per year on new research.

Interesting quote

Here’s a quote from a recent New York Times article on the recent Sony hack:

“Everyone is so excited about the cloud, but the cloud is really a drunken Xerox machine making copies of pretty much everything that everyone has said anywhere and spewing it all over the place,” said Howard Lerman, the co-creator of Confide, a messaging app that works like the corporate version of Snapchat.

My first reaction to this quote was a big loud “no”.  It’s a really nice soundbite, but misapplied, surely. This applies to social media, but not the cloud in general, right?  Then I remembered: what about those private Jennifer Lawrence that suddenly went public earlier this year?

The Sony hack wasn’t really about data in “the cloud”.  From what we’ve seen so far, Sony’s internal systems were compromised.  They weren’t on the cloud as we normally think of it.   Lerman has an agenda (selling Confide’s services), and he’s using the story of the moment to push his agenda. But this quote probably applies far better to the 2014 photo leak (sorry, I’m not going to use the popular name here) than it does to the Sony hack.

However, it is entirely correct as applies to much of recent history.  The question for those of us who develop technologies in/for the cloud is simply: How do we stop it?  This smells like market opportunity to me.  Can PGP be made easy enough for anyone to use it on their phone?  Does an entirely new solution need to be created? How can we extend security and privacy into the easy to use cloud?

Food for thought.

Saying Goodbye

I’ve been running a large team of software and infrastructure engineers for the past two years. I’ve just left this job to move to a larger, consumer facing company.  I’m obviously excited about the move, but I’m also going to miss the team that was such a huge part of my success.

This is the first time I’ve given notice from a leadership position and much of the experience was a surprise to me. Here are some notes from my experience.

Keeping secrets is hard: This was incredibly difficult for me. I pride myself on being transparent with the people that work for me and I care about them deeply. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had in the final few weeks of negotiation and background checking where I tried in many different but subtle ways to say, “Can we hold off on this conversation for a few weeks?” And in most of those cases, we really couldn’t hold off, so we had to revisit the conversation after I gave notice. I kept a running list of these types of conversations, and at times it was a little overwhelming.
If you’re not in a position to be open regarding your job search (and you almost certainly won’t be if you’re running a team), be prepared to be bothered by this one as you go through the process of looking for a new job. For me this was by far the hardest part of my job search.

You are probably being more subtle than you think you are: When I was finally cleared to share the news with my team, I expected emotional reactions from my team, but I wasn’t ready for their surprise. To me, it felt like I had been unintentionally broadcasting my intentions since I started looking — I had caught myself in many many slips; surely this very smart team had caught some whiff of what was coming.

It’s not enough time: Whatever notice you’ve given, if you’re running a team, it’s going to be a mad rush to meet with everyone and complete whatever transition you’ve been asked to execute.  You’re going to be remembering details that you need to share up until the very last minute.
All the while, as you’re waking up at 2:00am and jotting down notes to review tomorrow, you’re going to be hearing short-timer jokes from colleagues at work. If you’re doing it right, your team will see your efforts, and you’ll be spared that from the people that matter, but you’ll still hear it in the office from people who don’t work closely enough with you to see what you’re doing.  Just nod and smile and then rush off to send that email you just realized you need to send off.

It’s too much time: At the same time as you’re frantically scrambling to do whatever it is you need to do, you’re going to be cut out of strategic and planning meetings.  It’s going to feel a bit odd, but this another thing you need to accept and move on.

The end feels a bit anti-climatic: After years of hard work and a final crunch to get done what you need to before leaving, the time is going to come for you to just leave. It will be a quiet and reflective commute home.

At least for me, I can say that I’ve left the job, not the people; and I’m looking forward to seeing what the team does in the future. It does, however, feel a bit strange to be watching from afar.