Refactoring Leadership

A geek struggles to become a leader

The Living Room Floor

Over the years, I have struggled to describe the frustration of building on top of systems full of technical debt to my non technical friends. I have never cared for drawing comparisons between building, say, a bridge and software. I'll give it a try for once with someone more personal than a bridge: your living room.

No one sets out to build an unusable living room. It just happens. We find ourselves with an inexperienced builder, or a builder who usually builds tree houses, or two builders who disagree with each other and we eventually find ourselves in a living room with problems. The floor looks as though it's designer was attempting to pay homage to Picasso and Pollack at the same time. Rather than floor joists on standard centers covered with OSB, there's a bizarre pattern of joists held up by columns in the basement and some areas are not covered with flooring at all: gaping holes straight to the basement.

Now the painters show up and they complain. They can't put the ladders just anywhere (since there are holes in the floor) but they lay down some boards and they get the living room painted. Next the carpet company shows up. After complaining to the general contractor (who tells them to find a solution, not complain) they grudgingly stretch carpet over the gaps in the flooring. 

Here's where the real fun begins. Some children can walk across the floor no problem, but adults sink in and trip. 

Occupancy is granted and the owners arrive. They try to place their couch and their nice modern LCD TV stand in the most natural places. Things fall over. The TV gets a crack in it. The builder, having detailed knowledge of how the floor looks underneath, shows them precisely where they can place the couch and the TV stand. Things are stable, as long as the owners stop changing the living room layout. It's really hard to never change the living room, though. When you have some friends over to watch The Sportsball Game, you have to sheepishly inform your guests that depending on where everyone sits and stands, the experience may be less than ideal.

Technical people will understand the frustration of the painters and the carpet layers. You show up hoping to do good work, and you just can not. There's no easy way to re-do the floor while also allowing people to use the living room either. You obviously can't go back in time and make the floor builders plot a new course.

My heart goes out to the poor owners. They had no say in how the floor was built. I suspect and I hope that no one would claim that efforts to fix the floor were inspired by the ego and the laziness of the carpet layer. Sure, the carpet layer does want to do good work, but it's the suckers who have to live in the house who really have it bad.

And yet I can't overstate the frequency with which I encounter this in businesses. The users are suffering. The business has a huge support team. Sometimes the support team has to help fix an obscure issue caused by the latest Windows 10 update, but more often they have to help perform rudimentary tasks for the users because the system just doesn't work. The business has to budget a painful amount of the development team to help support, creating a drag on forward progress. Releases are not predictable because it's really difficult to build on top of the mysterious living room floor. Releases are difficult to test and impossible to roll back. Engineers leave the team for green field projects. They'd like to do their best work and they hope to get in on new construction before someone decides to build the floor out of rope and glue.

With tangible and quantifiable evidence of the cost of difficult to maintain software all around, the business will often tell a developer something along the lines of "I'm not paying to rewrite that piece just so your life can be easier." Well, I'm sorry that's how you see it. My advice is to never re-arrange the living room again, but if you do it's going to cost you.

Thoughts on Getting Fired

I recently read this article on The Atlantic: . While I am not one of the majority discussed in this article*, the ideas about the shame revolving in talking about money were not lost on me. I've been thinking about another secret shame that we are not supposed to discuss: the shame of being fired.

In March of this year I got fired for the first time in my professional career. Not "laid off", not "right-sized", just good ole "This isn't working out so we're getting rid of you.", fired.  The actual details are seldom up for discussion for legal reasons, but as I began the dance of having meetings and interviews, I realized there is tremendous stigma around even simply admitting that there was an abrupt change and I wasn't the one who initiated it. I have collected a few thoughts around this:

Given the ever-increasing recognition of the power of Culture in business, it should shock no one to admit that not every person is a fit for every culture. Saying that there was a lack of alignment should be accepted as a serious issue, but not one that means you're an untouchable troublemaker.

Don't try to un-pull the trigger. During my meeting, thousands of thoughts quickly went through my head around how this action wasn't right, how I was doing what I needed to be doing, how much value I was adding, this must be a mistake, etc. No matter how you got there, if you find yourself with HR in the room looking at walking papers, the time for negotiating is past. Walk out respectfully with your dignity as intact as you can.

I loved the end of this article ( about presenting to Jeff Bezos, particularly where he surveys the room and realizes how terrified the VPs are of losing their position; they wouldn't laugh, smile, or offer an original thought until they were given permission by The Dread Pirate Bezos. If, like me, you agree that that sounds like a horrible way to live, then you have to accept that by taking strong positions and defending them, you may eventually get fired if the organization doesn't come around to your way of thinking. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Don't give in to the scarcity mentality that you'll never have it this good someplace else.

Resist bitterness, especially public bitterness. Letting bitterness leak out just makes you look like poison. The first thing I did was go to Facebook and LinkedIn to let my network know that I was suddenly on the market, and wish the company and the senior leadership well. Despite irreconcilable differences in perspective, the business was undeniably on a vastly improved trajectory compared to the previous owners. I have no desire to see anyone, let alone an entire business fail. Don't embrace the scarcity mentality that someone has to fail for someone else to succeed: find your success out there.

Resist gossip and ask that your contacts do the same. This one was hard for me. Obviously you have to be curious as to how things are going and what's being said about you. Don't be, nothing healthy can come from it. After a while I had to just gently ask my friends and colleagues to stop sharing their concerns with me or asking for my advice regarding the company or specific efforts I had been involved in. While this is a normal activity among friends in the same line of work, it seriously interferes with a clean break and your ability to focus on healing and looking  for what's next for you. Let it go.

Don't unfriend, unfollow, or blacklist people. Again, don't do things that make you look like a bitter crazy person. Don't send people the message that just because they're not on your team anymore they have no value as a human. 

Look for the lesson: There may be a lesson. If you are not naturally an introspective person, this may be a wake-up call that you need to start evaluating yourself and try to gain the ability to self-correct. If you are naturally an introspective person, you may need to think about what has been missing from your habit of self-inspection. You may decide that you had improperly weighted the relative importance of priorities, that you had misjudged the political landscape, or just said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Search for the teaching moments.

Give yourself permission to be right: This is a hard one, and I hope no one misinterprets this point as arrogance (or self-delusion). There may be lessons learned that you can internalize and learn from moving forward. There may not be

Give yourself permission to be hurt: Let's face it, in America our sense of self worth is often closely tied to working, making money, and what our title is. Even if you've been wise enough to save enough that this doesn't hurt you financially, it will probably hurt you emotionally for many of the same reasons I listed  under "don't try to un-pull the trigger." No matter how appropriate the action may be, it's going to affect you, and that's OK.

How much stigma is associated with being let go? It took me five months to finally press "publish" on this article. 

*I have, however, made it a point to be a little more open when discussing money with close friends and family, to do my part to normalize these discussions.

Culture is The Economy

Depending on where your political beliefs fall, you may smile or cringe when a politician or the chair of The Fed announces they are going to do something about the economy. Altering the law or changing the overnight rate to banks does not directly change the economy in America. Rather, hundreds of millions of individuals make decisions based on the new rules for themselves and their business interests. The laws are not the economy, the trillions of individual decisions and actions are the economy.

Culture in your business is the same way. The leadership can't simply declare "We value honesty." "Work/life balance is important to us." "Everyone's ideas have merit."
Walk around, read your email, listen in meetings, observe what's going on. That is your true culture. Your culture is the aggregate of every action, communication, and decision made by the people that make up your business. You can change or support the culture not by simply declaring it to be what you want it to be, but by actually doing the hard work of evaluating your own actions against your ideals. Constantly, Publicly, with humility. Engage your coworkers with Radical Candor when they are not acting according to the business's principles. When a company declares one set of values but people observe contradictory actions being rewarded, it creates the worst kind of rot in your culture. Principles that should have real meaning come to be viewed as worthless platitudes.

In the past year I've got myself changing course on a decision when I realized I had just done what I've always done, or let emotion cloud my judgement. It's OK to be wrong and backtrack. Culture has to come from the top, and then be individually adopted. It has to be defended and reinforced or it will be ruined, and it has to start with you.

The Riddle of the Suit

My company recently took professional pictures of all employees. I really appreciate this. It's fun for most people, and it's fun to observe the squirming objections of those who don't want their photos taken. For personality, they asked everyone to be prepared with Props or Poses that were clues to your personality.  Here are my pictures, which have earned me some interesting responses.



I really like my motorcycle. It's one of the ways I deal with stress, and I put a lot of miles on. Over 11,000miles on two wheels last year probably puts me beyond most people's definition of "casual rider". 

One of the responses that gave me pause was "Well, which person is the real you?" The implication here is that one of these is an act. Well I am definitely Director of R&D at Edgenet, and I definitely earned my Iron Butt Association patch on my vest.
What does that say about the commenter, myself, and Business? I actually started wearing a sport coat years ago because I currently live in Wisconsin and it gets cold during the winter and maybe my metabolic rate isn't typical. I've grown to like it because I do like to look better sometimes.

Given the choice, most people today will choose to dress more casual more of the time. Dressing up, we are told, is the "Uniform of Business" and must be done to be taken seriously by other Serious Business People. One dear colleague has even said his goal is to be so good at his job that he can wear shorts & flip flops into the board room. Given the cultural shifts brought about by the Internet age, the connection between appearance and performance seems ever more tenuous. If Vice Presidents and CEOs and venture capitalists all want to be wearing shorts why are we still participating in this costume ball?

I am reminded of an old story explaining why there were so many Vice Presidents at Hewlett Packard. Why so many VPs with no direct reports? Without that title, they found that they couldn't get meetings with the right people during customer engagements. If your company is so geeky cool that your business card says "Analytics Jedi Master" and I'm not a Star Wars geek, I guess I'm not really sure if I want to accept a meeting from a Jedi Master.  On the other hand, my employees don't treat me any differently on a sport coat day vs. a millennium falcon t-shirt day. What gives?

I'm convinced that business attire is like that VP title. It's the correct thing that makes you safe and appropriate. I don't need to wonder if your Legend of Zelda shirt is a band or a cartoon. For every person who will appreciate it, there are hundreds who won't get it, won't appreciate it, or will even tell you your hometown sports team sucks. Yes, some will even assume incorrectly that you're not taking this meeting seriously because of your retro Atari shirt and matching socks.

Unfortunately being safe still pays off most of the time. As for me I'll keep wearing sport coats to stay warm in my freezing office, and otherwise treat the suit like an overly rehearsed first date: once you see I'm not a broke, sloppy axe murderer I can cautiously reveal a little more "me" next time.