A Character Test? Really?!?

I was recently listening to one of my weekly podcasts (Do By Friday, if you were curious), and Max brought up an interesting conundrum that he asked the panel of hosts. It went something like this:

You are interviewing for a job. The CEO of the company invites you to a breakfast in a downtown restaurant to have a chit chat to see what you’re like. Unbeknownst to you, the CEO has asked the waiter to intentionally mess something up in your order. The breakfast is brought out, and you recognize that it is not what and/or how you ordered it. What do you do?

Max went on to say that the point of this scenario is to specifically see how you’d act in the given situation. Do you stop the waiter and say “excuse me, but I think something may be wrong with my breakfast” or do you more boldly say “Please take this back, it’s just wrong”? Are you rude or empathetic? Nice or mean? Haughty or humble?

I asked a friend of mine what she thought and she said it would depend on how messed up it was, how busy the restaurant was, and what her current mood was that would determine her reaction. But overall, she thought it was a shit “test”. “It’s not a good way to judge one’s character” is the way she later phrased it.

I can’t say that I blame her for thinking that. In the podcast, Max went on to say that this is rumored to happen in the big investment firms on Wall Street to test the candidate’s “alpha”-ness. Sigh.

What a dick way to judge someone who’s going to be working for you. I mean, honestly. Is there even a right way to react and/or behave in this scenario? Are you really expecting the candidate to be a dick to the waiter and show their butts in the middle of restaurant to prove that they’re not there to take any crap from some lowly waiter? Is that a sign that you’re looking for?

I’m sorry, but if that’s the person you want me to be, and that’s the way you want me to behave, and that’s considered GOOD, then no thank you. I’ll be looking somewhere else, thank you.

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Educated

Educated

Earlier this week, someone left a comment on an article I’d written to shame me over a word they considered “not a word”. A few years ago this would have stung and left me feeling like an imposter. At age 42 I have very few fucks left to give about such pedantry.

Formal education gives you words and technical understanding, it helps you interact with other people on a level where you can all assume you have the same starting point. It isn’t everything, and perhaps my hard-won knowledge, learned from trying and failing and figuring things out alone is my greatest strength.

While I am a firm believer in higher education, and have spent a tremendous amount of time teaching and guiding my kids toward a successful future in college, I love the “fuck you” attitude from Rachel here. It’s unapologetically defiant. And coming from an unbelievably intelligent person that is shaping the world of web design as we speak, I applaud her so much.

Bravo, Rachel. Bravo.

Programmers who only code at work

Programmers who only code at work

What’s your opinion on programmers who are not passionate about programming, have no side projects and only program at their jobs. Not senior devs either, just programmers, who are not juniors anymore. Can they ever improve, write better code? Or do they stagnate. Asking because my coworker said he doesn’t enjoy programming at home.

I have to say something. This mentality drives me crazy. Even the question is so galling that it infuriates me. As if you MUST leave work and go straight home and continue to code so you can be viewed as a worthy developer. It’s ridiculous and wrong-headed.

You’re reading the blog of someone who is passionate about programming. I have been passionate about programming since I wrote my first C program in college. My 12-year anniversary at work was this past week. And guess what? I’ve never gone home to code “for fun”. Why? Because I have a life outside of my work, and I enjoy it. My kids are 11 and 13 now. I’ve watched them grow up, and am very proud of the fact that I have been present in their lives from day one.

I am a worthy father the same way that I am a worthy developer. One does not preclude the other.

I don’t understand this way of thinking. And I don’t understand why this idea would be so prevalent in the software development industry. I’ve heard stories of hiring procedures that depend on candidates having side projects on GitHb or BitBucket. Why is that a requirement? Because it shows you will bust your ass at work and bust it even more at home to prove…what exactly? That you are “committed”? That you’ll do whatever it takes? That you’ll sacrifice everything to “prove” yourself?

Yeah, no thanks.

All I’ve ever wanted to do in my career is matter. I want my work to matter. And it does. It fulfills me. And it’s enough for me.

The good news is there are voices starting to push back on this idea. I ran across this tweet this past weekend:

And a responder to the linked article above said the following:

Having said that, no-one’s trying to stifle anyones passion here. If you love to code, do it at every opportunity you get. But be careful when passing judgement on the skill, growth and development of folks who don’t share that same level of passion.

When it comes to my personal life, and the personal lives of my employees, work is work. And your time is your time. Enjoy both.

#youdoyou

Three Years in San Francisco

Three Years in San Francisco

Former Twitter employee Mike Davidson, articulating some lessons learned about product management, people management, and even how his surroundings have led to a better sense of himself. Well worth a read.

One of the things Mike soeaks to in the article that touched a nerve in me is emotional intelligence:

The definition of emotional intelligence I use may be a little more liberal than most. To me, emotional intelligence means that someone not only picks up on how teammates are feeling, but they also care deeply about running a team in which people are emotionally fulfilled and inspired.

Some people are almost born with emotional intelligence. They have it by the time they get to high school. Others need to spend a bunch of time in the workplace getting experience with all sorts of conflicts and original situations before they have it. And still others will simply never have it, or at least they won’t have it at a level which qualifies them to be what I consider a great manager. You’ve probably met all three of these sorts of people and can pick out the last group pretty easily.

I believe that every organization should make emotional intelligence a requirement of being a manager or executive leader. It should be no less a requirement than ability to recruit, inspire, multitask, prioritize or any other thing we typically require in our leaders. We should interview specifically for it and we should categorically reject as candidates those who show no aptitude for it. Some amount of “learning on the job” is of course ok, but where I struggled the most during my time in San Francisco was dealing with people who showed no ability or desire to balance happiness of people with visible output. False dichotomies like “we can’t optimize for happiness” make the problem even worse. That sort of thinking pre-supposes that somehow happiness is in conflict with execution. It also implies that the whole world is a math problem, which I strongly disagree with.

I could not agree with Mike more on this point. Growing from a small business into a larger business (I’ll use the term corporation for distinction) is hard. On everyone. What used to be, what used to work, no longer does. It just doesn’t. It’s not a fault in the people who were there before or a fault in what they contributed. The needs of a corporation are different than the needs of a small business.

In the end, it’s about the people who are needed now to make the corporation successful. As layers are added to accommodate multiple levels of multiple departments, people become more and more important. Which means you need people managers. Good people managers. Managers that support, motivate, and strive to make their teams better each and every day.

Too many times, the “old guard” are promoted into management because that’s seen as the logical next step. I think Twitter’s organization of product vs people management is very interesting. One that I think all businesses should at least consider.

Expertise

One of my favorite new podcasts is Top Scallops with Merlin Mann (“Hi! Can I axe you a question?”) and Max Temkin (one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity). Ostensibly, it’s about the reality show Top Chef. As with any podcast that Merlin is on, however, it’s not necessarily just about the titular topic at hand. To say it can go a bit tangent-y at times is being rather generous. But hey, that’s why I like the show so much!

In their most recent episode (It Snogged Out), they came around to talking about expertise. It was based on a scene in the most recent episode where this week’s celebrity chef Hubert Keller was describing his process for formulating a new idea for a new dish. According to Max’s notes from the show (I’ve never seen it, so I have no firsthand knowledge), Keller sits down once the restaurant is closed and empty with glass of wine and considers the current menu. He thinks about which dish he would like to change, as well as what dish he would like to replace it with. He then draws the dish he wants to create. On paper. Where the bone goes, where the sauce goes, and even the texture of the plated dish for the consumer.

To be honest, I had never thought of a chef drawing a dish he was trying to conceive. I do this all the time with screen design, but had never considered it for a chef.

Building off of this story, Merlin and Max delve into a discussion that, to me, really gets to the heart of what makes an expert an expert. I found this very interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about it myself. As I’ve grown in my role at my job, I’ve noticed that there are now others who look to me for expertise. Even when I don’t consider myself one in my own mind (see a future post about Imposter Syndrome coming soon).

The idea of expertise really boils down to details. The details that only an expert in their field will appreciate. Because only the expert knows which questions to ask. They know how to lay it out in their own mind; how exactly this piece fits with that piece or this piece of information will fit into the larger puzzle to create the solution that is sought from all parties involved. This exactly explains Keller sitting down and planning his dish. Down to the very specific detail of where to place the bone on the plate itself. He knows the details of how to get this dish from idea to reality.

In recent years, Max attended an Edward Tufte course. Something Tufte said (in almost a throw-away comment), Max can still quote today:

A question you can ask in almost every situation to bring clarity to what you’re doing is to ask someone, and to ask yourself, ‘how do you know that?’

That struck me. Take that with Merlin’s earlier discussion on “And then what?” and you arrive at the starting point of how to look at a problem with expert eyes. And from an expert frame of mind.

Everyone likes to be an idea guy. It’s a quick win in a meeting, a high five from the group, and possible serious credit down the line when the idea is implemented into a successful, tangible thing. I get it. I’ve even been the idea guy from time to time. I know how tempting it can be to brush off the details with a quick “It can’t be that hard. We’ll figure it out later.” But what we (all seemingly) miss is that the expert’s job is to come in and take the idea (presumably from the idea guy) and create something real from it. The expert’s job is to “figure it out”. That’s where the questions start. The “And then what?” questions. Followed by “How do you know that?”.

While it can certainly come across as confrontational, most of the time, the expert is simply trying to suss out where the idea needs to go and (even more) how to get it there. How much it is perceived as confrontational really depends on the expert’s personality/people skills and the nature of the relationship between the idea guy and the expert. It can be a very rewarding and thought-provoking experience if done and approached correctly.

I’ve been told that I frustrate people when they bring ideas to me and ask me to implement them. I do exactly what I’ve described above. I ask them “and then what?” or “how do you know that?”. Or even “what happens when it doesn’t happen?”. These are the questions nobody wants to think about because it’s too granular. Too “in the weeds”. Too “time consuming” for the discussion at hand. What they don’t understand is that’s the world I live in, and the world my team and I have to live in to be successful in implementing these ideas. It’s also a pretty good metric to judge if we are (collectively) good at our jobs.

We ask these questions, and maybe even spoil the serotonin high of a great idea, because we want to see the idea succeed. And we care enough to help the idea, and whoever came up with the idea, to see it through.

No one ever said being an expert was going to be easy!