Reflections on work, business, life
New Year is a perfect time for reflecting on past and future and my life in general. Here are some thoughts, mostly from a work life perspective, that I've collected over several years.
All links are to books I've found inspiring and highly recommend.
Value to our shareholders
When I go to work in the morning, not once did I start my day with the words: Today is a great day to create some value to the shareholders of my employer.
Value to the customer
Every exec with a tie can recite "we should provide value to the customer". This is an empty statement. It doesn't include any information about what is actually important to their customer. It doesn't mean they actually know what their customers need, nor value.
The big picture
The exec with a tie will advise you to focus on the big picture. But it turns out the big picture is composed of the details in it. While you shouldn't get lost in the details, it is not an excuse for not understanding them. You need to understand both the details and the big picture.
Live and let live
I'm a simple person who grew up in one of the most equal and democratic countries in the world. I don't care what color you are, nor what color your clothes are. For the most part I don't care how you do your work, as long as it gets done. As long as you don't create trouble to others, I enjoy people being exactly the way they are.
The older I get, the more I understand how rare it is to find people who really know what they're doing. Once I meet such a person, I treasure it above all else, and often become friends for life (particularly in cases where the respect is mutual).
Respect for competence is often coupled with "Live and let live". Some years ago when I had just started at a new job, I had the following conversation with my boss:
Me: I sent an email to this person about some customer requirements but he basically gave me the finger.
Boss: Yeah. Let me explain it to you. This is a really difficult person and he often is not very polite. But we tolerate him because he has been in the company a long time and really knows a lot about these things.
Me: Sorry but you misunderstood me completely. I don't care if someone is a complete asshole, I just want to talk to someone who understands the basics of this subject, and this person is not it.
In recent years I've come to really value professionalism. Given some years of experience, you usually reach a certain level of competence (if you have the potential for it to begin with). But professionalism is different, it's like a daily meditation routine you have to devote yourself continuously.
Professionalism is a philosophy that manifests itself in many small details. It's about refusing to compromise, and refusing to say "ok, this is good enough". Steve Jobs is a good inspiration on this (yes he was an asshole, but he had professionalism).
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a good example of what this means. When he was young and starting to practice with the main Malmö FF team, they had a 5 km running exercise they would do as a team. He and a few other young players would sneak out of the line and take a bus to the end point, just for the point of being cool and juvenile. But Zlatan also realized that to be a good football player you have to practice, so then he went home and in the evening ran twice the required amount!
When I engage with a customer, I want to make sure they get the absolute best I can offer them. I read up on the topics that will be covered in the engagement. I try to get a decent night's sleep before. When the customer says I don't need to allocate time on writing an engagement report, I should just come over and fix their stuff, I insist on writing a detailed report every time, and they've always appreciated it afterwards.
I often get asked to do just one more sales call - it's only 30 minutes. I've started refusing these in times of stress. For me there is no such thing as a 30 minute call. I will often spend another 30 minutes preparing for it, if not more. Since I'm Scandinavian I cannot be late for a meeting, and I also want to clear my mind of whatever I was focused on before, so I need the 10-15 minutes prior to the meeting for this. And since the reason I'm invited to the call is that someone wants to ask me some technical questions, it's almost always the case I will have to do followup tasks after the meeting. For example a 1 hour call once lead to 6 hours of followup work - and this was not an unusual case. Sometimes I get the feeling people think I just show up for a meeting and speak wise words - this is never the case. There's always a lot of work behind that.
More information is better.
Any company that does employee surveys will know that employees are never satisfied with the amount of communication they get from their managers. The employees are right in their opinion. For example in Nokia my personal bonus was dependent on the company as a whole reaching some revenue goal, yet the revenue goal was a secret. From my point of view then, the bonus was like a random amount of money you win on the lottery. Based on the information I had, it had nothing to do with how the company was doing.
There's a school of thought I've seen in many companies, that communication is noise and should be minimized. For example, I might be told that I shouldn't send such a question to a mailing list, I should ask my boss, and he will then know who is the best person to direct the question to. I disagree 100% with this school of thought. Often my boss does not know as much as he thinks he knows. Also there is value in broadcasting the very existence of the question to the broader team, they might learn something in the process.
If what you're saying is not important to me, it is not a reason to exclude me as recipient of your email. If it is not important, I can easily skip reading it. Let me be the judge of what is important to me.
Written communication is better than verbal.
Yes, it takes you a bit more time to write a well drafted email than it would take to call me. This is a good thing in itself, it gives you more time to think about what you're trying to say.
More importantly, I can read your email faster than you could speak the same words. Since everyone should listen more than speak, written communication is faster.
If what you're saying is not important, I can skip reading your email. If you call me, let alone you invite me to a meeting, I'm stuck and you're wasting my time.
In many companies the preferred medium of communication is to prepare a few slides rather than writing full sentences in a memo or email. This is used even when the slides are then just sent by email, not actually presented in any meeting. I assume this is for people who cannot read and write properly?
Communication channels should be open by design.
Old school internet technologies got this right. Always use a mailing list that anybody can subscribe to. Chat technologies like IRC have channels that anybody can join. In contrast, cc'ing a select insider group of friends, or collecting your buddies to an ad hoc skype chat, is withholding information from people that you didn't invite but that could have benefited from it.
Use good communication tools
You should combine tools to enrich the communication flow. In MySQL we used to have an official IRC chat along every all hands call. Only one person can speak at a time, but several can use the chat at the same time. You can even ask questions via chat, that the speaker can respond to. It was a best of both worlds experience. And when you do calls in 2015, I also believe video technology is better than just voice. More is better, always.
If you're one of those hipsters with an inbox zero problem, learn to use email filtering.
Even with face to face meetings, a written agenda is better than not having one. A whiteboard is better than not having one. Preparing a few slides shows that you're prepared. But preparing 50 slides shows that you're not.
The agile school is wrong on this one.
Yes, I know you read in that Scrum book that the best thing is to put all developers in the same office where they can talk face to face and this is way better than emails and, god forbid, writing documentation. Unless you're a small 20 person company where everyone can hear everyone else, this logic simply doesn't hold. In reality, if you do this you are excluding everyone not hanging around in that one magic cubicle. As a European, I know what I'm talking about.
Structure creates behavior.
This is from the Systems Thinking school of thought and is the fundamental philosophy in Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline. I found it fascinating while at university, but had no idea how strong the power of this law is.
When I joined MySQL as a pre-sales engineer, we had just partnered with Infobright, a columnar storage engine for MySQL. I thought it was pretty cool technology and asked a sales guy if he expected to sell a lot of Infobright. He answered without hesitation: I don't know, because I haven't seen the compensation plan for it yet.
Monty had an idea for a startup which could buy rare stuff for you. If you wanted to buy a pink elephant, an agent would search for pink elephants around the world, at auctions and so on. He would buy it for you and take a 5% commission for his efforts. I pointed out that this is perhaps not an optimal incentive plan for such work, as it encourages the agent to buy at expensive prices. Monty at first said that he is aware of that, but he believes people want to do the right thing regardless. Nevertheless it seems I convinced him, because the next week he had changed the incentive plan for this startup.
Yes it's true that a lot of people are simply idiots, but often it's also the case that most of us are confined by the structures we are part of. Most structures are not as clear as incentives for a sales or buying organization. They're implicit and unintended, but just as strong. These structures lead to politics and other undesired behavior, as people are simply trying to get their job done while the system is working against them.
It's true that people generally want to do the right thing. But good managers also need to reward people for doing the right thing and not for doing the wrong thing. Anything else is perverse.
"I don't believe in ecosystems. Business is all about you invest in a product, then you sell it to customers. Ecosystem has nothing to do with it." Surprisingly, these words were uttered by a long time manager in an open source company! Needless to say I couldn't disagree more.
Ecosystems (also known as communities) are fascinating because of the energy potential inherent in them. If you can understand the ecosystems you are part of, you can leverage tremendous amounts of power. If you don't understand them, you can be the next Nokia.
Most people get many things about ecosystems wrong. Most companies are focused on building a ecosystem around themselves. More often the right perspective would be to see yourself as part of an ecosystem, not the center of it.
People will accuse and judge you, based on the assumption that you are like them.
Interestingly this is exactly what parents used to say to us when we were kids: "If somebody calls you stupid, that means he is himself stupid". So maybe not a deep wisdom. Yet, I've seen it happen so many times that I've accepted it's a very dominant rule of thumb.
When I was working for Monty on the MariaDB project, a little detour that sucked up a lot of our time was when we ended up opposing the Oracle acquisition of MySQL in Brussels. It was actually irrelevant to our own business, yet we felt that we owed it to MySQL to give it our best shot. We wrote some papers, hired an anti-trust consultant and even testified in the hearings.
Someone, who shall remain anonymous, accused me and Monty for being paid by Microsoft to do what we did. It was truly bizarre - why would I need to be paid by anyone to defend MySQL against Oracle? The accusation was even more bizarre against Monty, who at that time was already a millionaire. Later I got confirmation that the person in question was actually paid by Oracle to side with Oracle. So the accusation really revealed more about the person who said it than about the object of the accusation.
Stephen Fry has an interesting documentary about homofobia in the world. He talks to the minister of ethics and integrity in Uganda. The minister is concerned that gays will rape innocent boys causing terrible damage to their anuses in the process. Stephen finds that fear bizarre, of course. Then it turns out the minister is actually quite ok with heterosexual men raping young girls (which happens a lot in Uganda, too) since "at least they are doing it the right way". This attitude of course perfectly explains why he would be afraid of being raped by a gay man. Otoh since he is not a girl, he has no need to be afraid of heterosexual rape, so it's not a concern of his.
At open source conferences there has been a strong push that every conference needs to publish a code of conduct to keep attendees safe from harrasment. Paradoxically the same group of people that are vocally demanding a code of conduct, are often also seen harrassing or bullying other conference attendees. (About once or twice a year, but this is still the majority of publicly known occurences of harrasment.) This is completely counter-intuitive and confusing to deal with for many. But it is adequately explained by this theorem.