Cultivating a cause worth believing in for software teams…

“By design they care gravely about where they plow their trade and by virtue of their idealistic natures they are looking for something that they can believe in.”

The lonely road of vision of leadership

“In order to land the best talent in industry, you need a purpose or an idea that people can rally behind. More importantly it has to be real and speak to the hearts and minds of people on whatever path they may be on.”

Anybody that has tried to build a software development competency will tell you that it is really hard to hire well. The reason for this is due to the fact that one is searching for a very unique type of individual. Individuals that are extremely idealistic in nature,  can think critically and are pragmatic when needed. Yet the same individuals have to have a healthy dose of creativity and artistry allowing for abstract thought and non linear thinking.

Of course there are certain organizations, individuals and teams that don’t care about culture. For them its easy to hire since it essentially just becomes a numbers game. A rough checkbox marking exercise where you just find people that kinda look right and throw money at them. But I am not referring to these toxic cultures.

I am rather talking about those organizations that don’t view delivery as mere ‘resources’. Those organization that realize that the culture one builds is the thing that actually creates whatever outcome you are looking for.

“If they wanted just another ‘job’ they could have it a few days of interviewing.”

In healthy organization such as this, to find the aforementioned individuals can be excruciatingly hard and time consuming. They regularly get approached by recruiters with offers and they have a veritable pick of a wide range of opportunities. If they wanted just another ‘job’ they could have it a few days of interviewing. But for these individuals it not just about another ‘job’. By design they care gravely about where they plow their trade and by virtue of their idealistic natures they are looking for something that they can believe in.

The right individuals don’t see their careers as just a ‘job’, but rather a calling. They are passionate about the craft that they have spent years honing and want to use it to build great things. They want to be trusted and empowered to use their craft and certainly don’t want others to dictate to them how they should be using their craft.

Understand that these people are not stupid. They are hyper intelligent, well educated and ruthlessly clinical in their thinking. This means that they can smell bulls@#$ a mile away.

“Lots of corporations think that they can attract a lure talent by talking a big game, manufacturing unauthentic ideals/values/visions and engaging in imitation innovation to show ‘coolness’.”

Lots of corporations think that they can attract a lure talent by talking a big game, manufacturing unauthentic ideals/values/visions and engaging in imitation innovation to show ‘coolness’. This type of behavior will only fool people for so long if it is not truly part of the organization’s DNA.

In order to really land the best talent in the industry, you need a purpose or an idea that people can rally behind. And more importantly it has to be real and speak to the hearts and minds of people. This vision that you share with people has to have integrity or it will simply fail.

Secondly, behind this vision should sit a leader that is not just a salesman but who cares (and regularly shows) a responsibility for the careers (and by extension the lives) of the people that choose to follow the vision.

Now the natural reaction for people outside of technology is to view such views with a healthy dose of resistance. Statements around technology not being unique or that everyone should be treated the same way would be common. And they are right, everyone should be treated the same. But that treatment should be more in-line with the way technology wants to be treated.

The corporate cargo cultures frequently miss this point. What technologists are after is an environment that has moved on from the traditional command-and-dictate structures of the industrial era. A flat networked styled organization in-line with the modern knowledge economy. And since most white collar workers are also participants in the knowledge economy, they likely seek the same goals of autonomy, mastery and purpose that the geeks wane about all the time.

Whether we want to admit it or not, software has and continues to drive the modern industrial revolution. It is therefore at the forefront of shaping what modern organizations culture should and could be. So instead of taking a defensive position and mounting the delicate snowflake attack, realize that your delivery team culture is a testing ground for your organization’s future culture. The really interesting thing is that if you pass the test with hyper-critical geeks, it means that your cultural values will undoubtedly work well in all areas of your organization.

“Having a cause that you believe in as a leader is not enough. In order to galvanize and motivate others you have to translate that belief into something tangible and meaningful to them.”

But how to make it real? Having a cause that you believe in as a leader is not enough. In order to galvanize and motivate others you have to translate that belief into something tangible and meaningful to them. Everybody works for their own selfish reasons and unless people can clearly see what it is that is in it for them, they will not care. If you are honest and sincere, and can successfully translate your vision in a tangible way to others then you have the makings of a movement.

And there are warning signs. For example if your top technologists and leaders are continually in debates about how to achieve something instead of focusing on what. This is a tell tale sign that the cultural foundations are weak and are at risk of failure.

Daniel H. Pink is a renowned author on this subject matter and certainly his book Drive should be read by every ‘leader’ in business. But to end this somewhat long article I think it is appropriate to borrow some of his swag with a quote.

“While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.”

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The learned helplessness of corporate companies

“I don’t necessarily want to elaborate on all the details of the experiment but in a nutshell it pretty much involved electrocuting dogs in controlled experimental chambers where their only option was to take the shock.”

Learned helplessness in corporate companies

It is really hard not to become despondent in bureaucratic organizations

One of the strangest things that I have witnessed in many bureaucratic organizations is the phenomenon of learned helplessness.

In 1965 Martin Seligman and his colleagues were doing research on classic conditioning. I don’t necessarily want to elaborate on all the details of the experiment but in a nutshell it pretty much involved electrocuting dogs in controlled experimental chambers where their only option was to take the shock. The negative conditioning (zapping fluffy) when done enough induced a sort of learned helplessness in the dogs leading them to avoid seeking potential escape. Even when the configuration of the chamber was changed with an obvious exit in plain sight, the poor creatures still settled for the familiar negative reality of being shocked.

I believe that most corporate environments are like these chambers. There are simply too many people in what is more than likely a heavily regulated industry working in archaic ineffective ways with teams structured in Orwellian like configurations. In such a space if you put one foot wrong or deviate one iota from the ordained norm there is a generous amount of individuals that will stand in line to tell you how what you are trying to achieve is simply not possible and contrary to what is expected. These self-anointed guardians of all things process will then place as many obstacles in your way to prevent you from deviating from the learned norm.

The go-to argument most of the time is governance. The sad truth is that in these toxic environments the norm has become for people to use governance and regulation to build intricate systems of excuses whereby they can absolve themselves from ever having to take any accountability for real change or progress. This self-induced learned helplessness gets passed on from culture to culture, team to team until the vast majority of organization live in an eternal state of feeling hamstrung and dis-empowered, never venturing beyond the safety of their constant suffering.

To be fair most of these individuals have been smacked so many times by the same forces of self-induced learned helplessness in others that you can’t blame them for losing hope. It is really hard not to become despondent when facing the illogical reasoning of some of the hurdles that get placed in front of change agents.

There is however one even bigger evil that lurks in the shadows of learned helplessness. It comes in the form of the few that have learned how to exploit the learned helplessness for their own political benefit. The ones that dramatize and use the hyped up implications of these self-imposed governance policies to manufacture artificial urgency in teams and people. This fear based approach forces people to continually go above and beyond to get things done frequently for their own narrow need. In the process employee well-being frequently gets destroyed. This type of behavior almost always obliterates any hope of having a caring psychologically safe environment and can so easily become the norm for a learned helplessness infused environment.

So in closing, all leaders face constraints. I don’t for one second suggest that there is not real constraints placed on many industries. But true leaders differentiate between constraints that must be accepted and those that can be challenged. True leaders show their people that it is not only okay to go against the grain, but that they will be supported by the leader in that moment when they want to make a stand against the machine.

Why technical leaders fail

“What matters more than solving every scenario perfectly is execution. The ability to get things done trumps generating endless ideas of how some knob in the complex malaise of people and process can be turned. “

Why technical leaders fail

Good software developer != Good leader. Why we stumble as technical leaders…

Of course there are plenty of other industries that are comprised of very highly educated clumped together behind a common goal, but few have such a low barrier to entry in terms of building complete products with a relative small amount of resources. Simply put few other industries offer the intellectual challenge of the endeavor and the ability to realize ideas and products almost in complete isolation.

Due to this low barrier of entry, software tends to attract true creators. At the heart of every coffee slurping geek, is someone that is in love with using his or her mind to create something from scratch. Someone that yearns for a better world. Someone that sees things not for what they are, but the potential of what they can be.

Yet software projects and start-ups have notoriously high failure rates. How can it be that an industry with so many bright and capable people fails so darn much at delivery results? More worrying is how often leaders that come from a technical background fail. Commonsense would have you think that someone that understands the ins and outs of the craft should exceed where more traditional leaders fail? Why is it that so many technical leaders struggle so much to adapt to their role? Why do great engineers make mediocre managers?

The heart of the problem lies in the fact that as an engineer you live in the world of ideas. You are used to exploring the recesses of every problem losing yourself in the world of solutions and efficient designs. You value micro optimization and doing things right. You strive to make each aspect of your code or algorithm as perfect as possible.

The problem is that leadership requires you to be a generalist that is obsessed with execution. There are so many facets to running a business that technical leaders always run the risk of getting lost in the world of ideas, in the process suffering analysis paralysis.

What matters more than solving every scenario perfectly is execution. The ability to get things done trumps generating endless ideas of how some knob in the complex malaise of people and process can be turned. The line between visionary and dogmatic is unfortunately a very fine one.

“Simply put, as a former technical leader if you find that you spend a lot of time talking about ‘the how’ of things instead of ‘the what’ of things you might still be caught in the mindset of a programmer trying to micro optimize every aspect of a system. “

Simply put, as a former technical leader if you find that you spend a lot of time talking about ‘the how’ of things instead of ‘the what’ of things you might still be caught in the mindset of a programmer trying to micro optimize every aspect of a system. Users don’t care about methodology, architecture, design, or technologies. They care about great products that solve their needs and make their lives better. Tune your actions to always doing the things that will yield the best possible product and you will quickly realize that micro optimization to that knob in your process will most of the time not yield a faster better product and is simply a distraction.

Never lose sight of this..

What it means to be a leader

“You have taken the complex interpersonal dynamic of natural leadership formation, ripped away many nuances and intricacies and put in place a sub-optimal model.”

You have to have the natural trust and belief of those you should be serving in order to achieve great things.

True leaders are servants to their people.

It is unfortunate that industrialization has left us these rigid organizational structures that make no sense in a knowledge economy. When you put a hierarchy in front of someone and start talking about career paths, drawing their attention to where in the chart they are, emphasizing all the ‘growth’ that is above them you are in the process dis-empowering them. You are telling them this is you over here, and these are the people above you. These lofty people are your superiors and have this supposed ‘power’ over you for reasons that may be authentically valid or more often frightfully contrived and engineered.

You have taken the complex interpersonal dynamic of natural leadership formation, ripped away many nuances and intricacies and put in place a sub-optimal model. In the process simplifying the complex human dynamic to a laughably simple system that only vaguely reflects the natural tribal dynamic of a group of people coming together.

Like any simplified model it only works for certain circumstances and frequently fails for others. So why does it persist? In order for it to work it requires people to perpetuate and belief in the model. It requires people to embrace and live the model without question. It requires people to embrace it, ignoring the obvious faults. It requires people to make it a taboo to question it. Unfortunately tying people’s compensation to the model means that most rational people will do exactly these things.

People will always do what is best for themselves, and since money has become a proxy for survival when this terrible game is laid bare most people will compromise themselves. They will go with the flow since not doing so will threaten the livelihood of themselves and their family. So it is that learned helplessness kicks in and people start playing the game against their better judgement. They redefine their reality to trying to figure out how to beat the rules of the system and move up this artificial hierarchy. They give up on how it should be and start believing that that they cannot change it.

This results in so many issues, many of which I am sure will get explored in the blog. But the one I want to explore in this post revolves around how it bastardizes leadership. Leadership gets conflated into this misrepresentation of how high in the chart you are and how many leaf nodes there are underneath you. Leadership gets implied based on how well you play the game, not on whether people trust you and want to follow you.

The truth is that true leadership has nothing to do with rank or power. True leaders are servants to their people. A more natural model would be to invert the frequent organizational diagram with the subordinates sitting on top of the leaders, since a true leader’s responsibility is not to serve themselves and their own ego but those of his or her people.

“The truth is that true leadership has nothing to do with rank or power. True leaders are servants to their people.”

You are only as effective as the people who support you, and if you are only in a position because of you managed to game an imperfectly structured contrived system you are very quickly going to find out how hard it is to do anything of real substance. You have to have the natural trust and belief of those you should be serving in order to achieve great things. And no title or rank in a hierarchy can create this.

The Obligatory ‘Hello World’

“The problem is compounded when former technologists move into leadership roles where their formerly invested technical skill-bases have to almost be completely abandoned in favor of the soft skills that are required to be an effective servant leader.”

The Obligatory ‘Hello World’

It is my goal to create a resource that other technologists on a leadership path can use to help survive the gauntlet of fire of self management training.

And so, a new blog is born. I always found the software industry to be a counter intuitive experience. The industry is riddled with introverts that came into the industry because they draw energy from themselves and their thoughts. Software development presents more than enough problems that allow us to engage our inner thoughts.

But most of us quickly learn that in order to build anything of substance you need to work with other people. In fact, the ability to communicate and collaborate with others in the industry ends up being one of the biggest success factors for a software professional’s career frequently determining how fast and far the person can progress.

The problem is compounded when former technologists move into leadership roles where their formerly invested technical skill-bases have to almost be completely abandoned in favor of the soft skills that are required to be an effective servant leader. To make things worst organizations typically are not geared to help these new leaders to develop these softer skills required for their new role leaving them to fend for themselves. Most organizations take this bizarre approach of running their best technologists through this gauntlet of leadership adaption fire in order to identify the few that somehow learn to adapt and survive. This exercise frequently comes at great cost to the ones that fail to transition to the new skill set both in self-esteem and motivation. It is not uncommon for those former great technologists to regress and redefine themselves elsewhere meaning that their former talents and skills get lost to the organization in the end.

To be one of the few that survive it is a hard, frustrating journey where most are left to learn through continual trial and error and vast stretches of self-doubt and criticism. This sink or swim approach to management training is one of the biggest disservices we can do for our people and is the theme of this blog.

It is my goal to create a resource that other technologists on a leadership path can use to help survive this gauntlet of fire. I am by no means an expert, but I do feel that if I document some of the learnings that it would help solidify them for myself and perhaps do some good in the long run.

Let’s see how it goes…