Who Do We Think We Are?

Has there ever been a year we wanted to end faster than 2020, or one we were more ready for than 2021? Not in my lifetime. After a devastating, intensely polarizing 2020, a new start was something everyone seemed to agree on, regardless of political affiliation.

Well, Happy New Year. Here we are. Did you really think we could do all that drinking and avoid the hangover?

Yesterday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol was both completely shocking and absolutely predictable. And it was terrifying, and infuriating, and depressing, and scary. For years now, we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept up in maddeningly polarizing political rhetoric, to surround ourselves with people, news sources, and TV stations that tell us what we want to hear, regardless of whether or not it’s true. What did we think was going to happen? And what does the fact that we let it happen tell us about who we are? Many world leaders, including U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and lots of our congress people, have commented that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are.”

I’m not sure I agree with them. I’d argue that after these last several years, the scenes of chaos at the Capitol reflect exactly who were are. I’m just not sure it reflects who most of us want to be.

Who are we?

In his speech yesterday, President-elect Joe Biden said:

America is about honor. Decency, respect, tolerance — that’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been.

[…] For nearly two and a half centuries, we the people, in search of a more perfect union, have kept our eyes on that common good. America is so much better than what we’ve seen today.

(https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/01/06/transcript-joe-biden-capitol-chaos)

This is a hopeful view of what America stands for, but it’s not an accurate assessment of who we are. If we really want to be a nation that values decency, respect, and tolerance, we have a lot of work to do, and we have to be honest with ourselves. We can start by educating ourselves with great books like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, or by acknowledging the differences between the way police treated yesterday’s armed white insurgents, opening doors and taking selfies, and the way they treated peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors just a few short months ago, with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Are we capable of being decent, respectful, and tolerant to people who don’t look, think, or act like we do, or do we only embody these qualities when we’re surrounded by people who are just like us? Can we tolerate facts even when we don’t like them? And if we don’t respect each other or the rules, will we be held accountable for our actions? Right now the answer to all of these questions appears to be “no.”

How do we go on?

While our elected representatives in Washington D.C. debate how to repair our broken nation and hold those responsible accountable, the rest of us have to figure out how to do our part – and go on with our lives – from our home offices. Lots of us have to go back to work, developing code, completing projects, providing support, and leading teams. We can’t spend the week watching CNN or Fox News. We can’t quit our jobs and dedicate our lives to a better government or police force. We can’t crawl into a hole and wait this out. Depending on our jobs, maybe we can’t even say what we really think. How do we go on?

The first thing we can do is acknowledge that we’re all in this together, regardless of our politics. Some things, like trying to overthrow our democracy, encouraging racist behavior, or promoting conspiracy theories that are demonstrably false, are issues of human decency and ethics, not politics. We don’t have to agree on everything (I’m strangely excited for the time when we can go back to arguing about taxes and legalizing marijuana), but we can agree on a few things, including what we will and won’t tolerate from ourselves and each other. We can also acknowledge that there are times in life when standing on the sidelines is not a viable option, and that some topics once considered taboo – like systemic racism, misogyny, sedition, and lies – need to be confronted consistently and openly regardless of politics. We need to have the courage to be who we are, even at work.

And if work isn’t the best place to share our thoughts on what’s happening in the world, there are other places that are. I’m not advocating preaching to the echo chamber on social media. I’m suggesting that each of us take a look at how our elected representatives behaved yesterday and what they’re saying today. These people work for us. They need to know what we think, and that we will remember and hold them accountable for their actions, both good and bad. My wife and I still remember which of our senators voted for and against issues that were important to us 10 years ago – remembering how each our representatives responded to an attempted government coup is worth the effort. Making a few calls to your local representatives now, while you’re fired up, couldn’t hurt either.

The next thing we can do is admit that these last 12 months have been hard in ways in which many of us have been completely unprepared, and to show more empathy for each other than we ever thought possible. For employees, that means understanding that emotions, fears, despair, and anger come in waves over time and that they will get in the way of everything else you’re trying to do. It means knowing your family may need you now more than ever. It means making sure your work gets done and your coworkers aren’t left holding the bag … but it also means giving yourself and others the space to be human, regardless of work pressures and deadlines.

For leaders, it means acknowledging that all of the things I just described are true not just for your teams, but also for you. It means taking the time to process your thoughts and feelings so you can be there for your teams. It means knowing when you need to get some perspective, take a walk around the block, and come back ready to kick ass. The emotional roller coaster we’re all on, and the logistical challenges we face given the pandemic, can’t be controlled or wished away, but if we work hard at it, they can be understood and managed. We need to take care of ourselves.

Who do we want to be?

Questions about who we are and who we want to be are important ones to wrestle with. In some ways, the country is not all that different from a company that needs to review its mission, vision, and core values on a regular basis to make sure everyone still agrees on where we’re heading, how we’ll get there, and the rules of engagement. It’s hard work, but it needs to be done. We can be aspirational, as long as we’re honest. And no good leader would tolerate an employee who openly flouted their company’s – or their country’s – values. This applies to our congresspeople at least as much as it does to our administrative assistants. Those who actively and openly lied to our people in order to fan the flames of hatred and undermine our democracy need to be held accountable, and they need to go.

But if we’re honest about who we are and who we want to be, and if we all agree and are aligned, then our actions will speak for themselves. When that happens, in the words of President-elect Joe Biden:

And this godawful display today, let’s bring it home to every Republican and Democrat and Independent in the nation, that we must step up. This is the United States of America. There’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a thing we’ve tried to do that when we’ve done it together, we’ve not been able to do it.

(https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/01/06/transcript-joe-biden-capitol-chaos)

We just have to agree on what we’re doing first.

Rock Star Leadership: Advice from Queen Bey

It’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count: when you think about your career, who inspires you?

As a technology leader, I know the right answers to the question: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Annie Easley, Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, and Katherine Johnson are good ones, for example, geniuses whose vision, drive, passion, and focus changed – and continue to change – the world forever. But I spent my teenage years dreaming of being a rock star, not a technologist, so while I’m blown away by Elon Musk’s work, I’m also convinced that the world would be a terribly boring (and potentially scary) place if we all had posters of him on our walls.

When I think about the people who inspire me, and who continue to push me in creative, visionary, exciting ways, I still think about the people I looked up to (sometimes literally, on my bedroom walls) as a teenager – artists like David Bowie, The Beatles, and even Lenny Kravitz. These artists challenged our perceptions of art, music, sexuality, and race. They broke boundaries while producing incredible art. And they made us dance while they did it.

Which brings me to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Even as a teenager in the late-1990s group Destiny’s Child, her talent, drive, and star quality set her apart from her peers. When she released her first solo album in 2003, it was clear that Beyoncé was just getting started.

As a musician, Beyoncé has sold nearly 180 million albums worldwide (including 60 million with Destiny’s Child), making her one of the most successful recording artists of all time. She has had 22 Number One hits on the U.S. Dance Club Chart, and has never had a studio album that didn’t go platinum at least one time. She’s won all of the most important awards in her field, including those from MTV, BET, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Billboard, Kids’ Choice, Teens Choice, and the NAACP. She’s been nominated for 79 Grammy Awards and has won 24 times.

As impressive as this is, it only tells part of the story, because Beyoncé is much more than a recording artist with great dance moves. In 2007, she formed the company Parkwood Entertainment, which not only oversees her tours, videos, and recordings, but also acts as a management company for other artists, a record label, a film production company, and the owner of an athletic apparel brand called Ivy Park. As a self-made, high-integrity entrepreneur and business person, Beyoncé famously demands creative control over her projects, and the results speak for themselves. Her net worth is estimated at more than $500 million. It’s not Gates/Musk/Buffet money, but I bet her parties are a lot more fun than theirs are.

Before. I go on, I need to confess: I’m not the world’s biggest Beyoncé fan. I haven’t seen all of her specials, bought all of her albums, or watched all of her videos looking for clues about her life. I didn’t have her poster up on my wall as a kid. Still, here are a few things about leadership I’ve learned from Queen Bey:

Without diversity, we all lose

If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.

Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine

Even when she’s working with her husband Jay-Z, who operates within the bravado-filled world of rap, Beyoncé and her music are always, always inclusive. She is a fierce LGBTQ ally and is outspoken on issues related to Black people and culture, using her position of power to educate her fans (and some who are not) in ways that are respectful, confrontational, and challenging. She doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, regardless of the stage she’s on. Her lyrics tell the same story:

My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone
So we’re gonna tear it up
Everyone moves to my stuff

Translated from “Mi Gente,” by Beyoncé

Beyoncé reminds us that without diversity of experience and thought, “we will all lose.”

Find your strength and stand up for yourself

Beyoncé is one of the most empowered and empowering performers alive. From “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” which tells a former lover “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it,” to “Bow Down/I Been On,” which boldly claims “I’m bigger than life, my name in the lights/I’m the number one chick, ain’t need no hype,” Beyoncé celebrates the power that comes with being a successful woman and a leader.

Queen Bey also knows that you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. In the past decade, she has famously took on Target and Amazon in 2013 for refusing to stock her Beyoncé album, wore a Black Panther uniform in the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, and created a birth announcement for her twins in 2017 intended to show that “she is mother and saint and goddess of beauty and sex, all at once, and she’s doing it as a woman of color, too.” (Vox) Beyoncé does things her own way.

Be fierce, and also compassionate

One of the things I really appreciate about Beyoncé is that even when she’s fierce, she’s not afraid to show her more sensitive side. Her confidence is not the overblown trash-talking that shows up so often in music and politics – it’s a much more nuanced thing, tempered with humility and humanity. The Lemonade album provides a masterful example of this. Throughout the album’s 12 songs, the narrator struggles to make sense of what led her spouse to be unfaithful, alternately feeling rage, loss, depression, and love. The rage part is clear and convincing. The narrator of the story has been wronged, and she, a powerful leader with truth on her side, does not mince words:

Who the f— do you think you is?
You ain’t married to no average b—-
Keep your money, I got my own
Keep a bigger smile on my face, being alone

I am the dragon breathing fire
Beautiful mane I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broke and I’m not crying

Don’t Hurt Yourself,” by Beyoncé

But equally compelling, and at least as honest, is the narrator in the song “Hold Up,” who can’t help questioning her own worth, even as she knows she’s in the right:

I’m not too perfect
To ever feel this worthless
How did it come to this
Scrolling through your call list

Is there something that I’m missing? Maybe my head for one
What’s worse looking jealous and crazy, jealous and crazy
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately

Hold Up,” by Beyoncé

Each of us – leaders, employees, parents, friends, lovers – experience times of fragility, times that balance our moments of absolute clarity with doubt or ambivalence. Beyoncé does a masterful job of helping us understand that this is a normal part of what it means to be human. Leaders who can find this balance are on a path to greatness.

Balance process and structure with creativity

I don’t like too much structure. I like to be free. I’m not alive unless I am creating something. I’m not happy if I’m not creating, if I’m not dreaming, if I’m not creating a dream and making it into something real. I’m not happy if I’m not improving, evolving, moving forward, inspiring, teaching, and learning.

Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine

Some amount of structure is critical to our success – leaders need consistent, well-articulated processes in order to scale teams and solutions. But too much structure can get in the way of our ability to be creative, and it’s by balancing process and creativity that we unlock incredible opportunities. Apple is great at producing iPhones, but they had to invent them first. The same goes for Tesla and the Model S.

Queen Bey, like other recording artists, has a “normal” process too. Albums come out every two years or so, with Rolling Stone articles written in advance to generate hype, and a single or two dropped within weeks of the full album release. After an album is released, there are interviews, videos, and world tours. This tried and true, predictable process has served the recording industry well for many years.

But when the album Beyoncé was released on a random Thursday night in 2013, Beyoncé showed that, by leveraging the power of social media and digital music platforms, she could open up new ways of thinking for the music industry, generate enormous buzz, and – importantly – continue to sell millions of albums. Beyoncé wasn’t the first to do this, but she was the most successful, and the reverberations of her 2013 album launch are still being felt by the industry. Creativity FTW.

Be true to yourself

As the mother of two girls, it’s important to me that they see themselves too—in books, films, and on runways. It’s important to me that they see themselves as CEOs, as bosses, and that they know they can write the script for their own lives—that they can speak their minds and they have no ceiling. They don’t have to be a certain type or fit into a specific category. They don’t have to be politically correct, as long as they’re authentic, respectful, compassionate, and empathetic. 

Beyoncé in Vogue Magazine

Unlike most of us, Queen Bey’s celebrity means that everything she does is viewed under a microscope – not her songs, performances, and business deals, but also her pregnancies, political views, and vacations. And while Beyoncé experiences this reality in a completely different way than most of us, the core concept – that work and life are not “balanced” but are one and the same – holds true for most of us (my friends Marc Kermisch and Nancy Lyons have written and spoken eloquently on the subject). From Forbes Magazine:

Today the boundaries between one’s professional and personal life are constantly blurring. It is impractical to think of work-life balance as a complete separation between worlds. David Solomon, the global co-head of Goldman Sachs said, “today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.” Ron Ashkenas, a consultant and author, shares his experience with a conference call while on vacation, where each member of the call was on vacation as well, but no one thought to suggest rescheduling. The idea that a person’s work life and personal life will not intermingle is unrealistic today. Jim Bird of WorkLifeBalance.com writes, “work-life balance does not mean an equal balance.” In fact, he notes that few people have found a single definition for the concept of work-life balance.

Forbes Magazine

But Beyoncé does much more than implicitly acknowledgment that work and life are completely intertwined. Her message is one of empowerment for all girls:

We’re smart enough to make these millions
Strong enough to bear the children
Then get back to business

Who run the world? Girls! Girls!
Who run the world? Girls!

Run the World (Girls),” by Beyoncé

For Beyoncé, every interaction, every piece of art and work, is an opportunity to express her truth and her values. If she wants her girls to grow up feeling that they can accomplish anything, she needs to believe it, say it, and show it.

Let that be a lesson for us all.

Leaders: You Must be Present to Win

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Years ago, the company I worked for was struggling. We hadn’t hit our numbers in months, and it was determined that layoffs would be necessary. Secret meetings were scheduled, often early in the morning or late in the day. Spreadsheets were created, reviewed, and updated. The process went on for weeks. During that time, if you happened to catch a glimpse of one of our executives, it would have been racing through the halls from meeting room to office, quickly and with focus. When they arrived safely in their offices, our leaders closed their doors, so as not to be asked questions that were impossible to answer.

If you’ve been around awhile, you’ve likely witnessed this kind of behavior. It’s completely understandable, and an absolute disaster. Employees know their leaders are privy to private information, and that there are things they can’t share. They get it. But when leaders start to hide away, purposely making themselves unavailable, it makes employees angry and nervous. And what do employees do when they’re angry and nervous about their jobs? They look for new ones. In most cases, your best employees are the ones who’ll find jobs first.

This is what happened at the company I’m describing. What started out as a small, potentially containable reduction in force turned into a mass exodus, as employees lost trust in their leaders and looked elsewhere. I learned a lesson I will never forget: leaders must be present to win.

Unprecedented times

Remember back in March when the coronavirus was spiking and our employers sent us home? My company’s first fully remote day was Friday, March 13. We thought we’d be back in two or three weeks, tops.

It’s shocking to remember how naive we were at the start of this global pandemic. Did we really think it would be taken care of in two weeks? My first note to the team included a sentence or two about the emotional aspects of the situation, and then a full page of logistics: best practices for remote meetings, core hours, ergonomic concerns, and the like. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t awesome. I soon learned that the logistics of working from home were going to need to take a backseat to the more pressing concerns of my team members, like fear and loneliness.

In March, there was no way to know what leadership challenges we’d be facing in the coming months. We said the word “unprecedented” a lot, but how many of us fully understood what that meant? If a global pandemic was our only challenge, there were still no books to read to get us through, no podcasts to listen to from people who’d been through it before. And a global pandemic was not our only challenge.

Still, at that time we had our hands full with the things we knew about. As three weeks turned to four, and then five, my leadership team and I looked for new ways to keep the team upbeat, engaged, productive, and informed. Our weekly all hands meeting would continue, of course, complemented by daily leadership stand-ups and a weekly all-team happy hour, with trivia and other fun games. We slowly settled into our new normal.

Staying in touch

There’s a big difference between leading a remote team and leading a remote team during a pandemic. It was a little bit different for my technology team, but in general, my company had considered working remotely a perk, reserved for all-stars who had proven themselves capable and trust worthy. When working remotely became a requirement on March 13, it was as big an adjustment for managers as it was for individual contributors.

A technology team, of course, handles issues as they occur, at all hours of the day, from wherever we happen to be. This means the logistics of working remotely had been figured out ages ago, as a matter of course. I had zero concern in this area.

But I was concerned about how I was going to continue to connect with my team members. Each of our teams has a daily standup, but I’m not on any of the teams, and “walking the floor” had been an important part of my routine. How would I replicate that in an all-virtual environment?

The short answer is that I couldn’t, but I could find other ways to connect. I became a Slack power user, adding comments in channels where I used to lurk quietly, and reaching out to employees I didn’t naturally cross paths with on a regular basis. I blocked time on my calendar time for these Slack check-ins, almost as though they were one-on-ones.

I did – and I do – other things too. I’ve scheduled long-distance lunch dates with employees and teammates, gone for bike rides and walks, and hosted small socially-distanced happy hours in my backyard. I’ve sent emails, texted, showed up at meetings, and met people at parks. The reasons for doing these things are both personal and professional. Of course I need to find creative ways to stay close to the work my team is doing, to get beyond the surface. But I also need to stay close to the people. I miss seeing them in real life, and I need to make sure they know they’re on my mind, that I care.

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The weekly email

Nearly every Monday morning since March 16, I’ve sent an email to my entire team (I missed two when I was on vacation). It’s a commitment I made to myself on day one, and George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed reinforced the need. There were things I needed to say, and things the team needed to hear. Even if I couldn’t see every person on my team every week, I needed to be present, and I need to communicate proactively.

After more than five months, it can be hard to find ways to keep the emails fresh and new, but that’s not really the point. Some weeks I write about world events or work highlights. Other weeks I discuss things that are happening in my family or articles I find. It can be hard to find the right balance between sharing my opinions and veering into what currently passes for politics, but I try. Here are a few excerpts from my emails.

March 23:

My family, like most of yours, is trying to make the most of our time together without killing each other. My teenage son works at the local Kowalski’s, and he’s thoroughly enjoying being the only person in our family classified by the government as an “emergency worker.” 

June 8:

Over the course of the last week, George Floyd’s murder went from being a local story about an unjust police killing in Minneapolis to a national emergency focused on much larger, systemic issues. Thousands of people across the country are joining together and saying “no more.” It’s about time. Please stay safe and wear your masks out there.

July 27:

I know it can feel weird to do, given that most people aren’t actually going anywhere, but an occasional day off can be fantastic for our mental health, and I strongly encourage people to use PTO when you can. Most people are not currently doing this. Maybe you’re saving it for a rainy day, or hoping things will open up more this year? Fair enough. I’m not telling you what to you – my only motive is to make sure those of you who need a break find a way to get one. Burnout is real, and it’s something I’d like to avoid, if possible. 

You get the idea. The email isn’t magical, but it reminds my team that I’m here, that I’m human, and that I’m deeply invested in our success. It also keeps me present and gives me another opportunity to lead, and I’ve gotten consistent feedback that the team likes it. (By the way, if something important happens today, I’m not going to wait until next Monday’s email to reach out to the team.)

Employee expectations

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in uncharted territory, both as employees and as leaders. You can argue that great leadership strategies work regardless of the situation, but let’s face it: Jack Welch never led a team through a pandemic.

There are a lot of things we don’t know – how long the coronavirus will last, its lasting impact on our businesses, when we’ll be back in our offices, the outcome of the next election, whether we’ll make real improvements related to equity, and so much more. It’s incredibly hard to lead a team through so much uncertainty. In order to do it, we need to free ourselves from the idea that our teams expect us to be all-knowing. They don’t.

But our teams do expect certain things from us, especially now. They expect us to be honest, for example, and to be as transparent as possible, even though they know we sometimes have information that can’t be shared. They expect us to listen to their concerns, and to escalate them within our organizations as it makes sense. They expect us to understand that it’s impossible to be completely present in a meeting when they’re bouncing their toddlers on their laps. They expect us to be human, and – even if they don’t always show it – they know we’re feeling a lot of the same stress and uncertainty they are. Most of all, our teams expect us to be present, to show our faces, and to walk the talk.

In this post, I’ve shared a few of my own ideas and strategies for being present with my team. I hope some of them are useful to you, but I’m very aware that I don’t have it all figured out – we’re all learning as we go. Now I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies. How are you finding ways to connect with your teams? What’s working, and what’s not? How are you balancing your own stress with your work? How are you showing the team they’re in good hands? How are you leveraging technology? How are you being present for your team every single day? I’d love to know.

Can agile principles help us become anti-racist?

fists

Like many people, I’ve been a sponge lately, taking in amazing books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, listening to fantastic podcasts like How Core Values Influence Diversity and Inclusion with Kim Crayton, and reading mind-blowing articles like What is Owed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now is a time for me to learn, and I’ve got years of work to do before I can claim to have gotten past the tip of the iceberg.

But I don’t have years, weeks, or even days to read, listen to, and process all of this information before taking action. I have a job to do, and a team demanding that I use my position to make positive change now. Yes, this is a time to learn, but it’s also a time to act. We’ve been patient – even with ourselves – for too long.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a terrible time to make mistakes. The stakes are high and scrutiny has never been greater. On the positive side, we’re all being held accountable for our words and actions, as we should be. On the negative side, we’re also demanding that people take risks, and mistakes can be costly.

So it seems like we need to listen, learn, and take action, and we need to do it without making mistakes. But how?

Unfortunately, we’re going to make mistakes

Unless our plan is to learn everything before we do anything, we will fail, at least occasionally. The issues we face related to racial injustice have been deeply ingrained in our society for hundreds of years, and in order for us to make things better, we’re going to have to have hard conversations and take risks. And what are the odds we’ll get it right every single time? Not very good.

If our goal is to make things better, and to do it quickly, we need a structure that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them iteratively. And here’s where I turn to the agile principle of failing fast. In agile development, when we talk about failing fast, we assume that failure is inevitable, at least some of the time. And if failure is inevitable, then the faster we do it, the faster we learn and improve. According to Ben Rossi in Information Age:

In software development, the point about “fail fast” is that if a failure is going to take place you want to reduce the time lag in a) detecting the failure, and b) relaying the detection back to the responsible developer. 

What would it mean to apply this concept to our interactions with others, to our discussions about racial injustice? If we all agreed that “detecting the failure” was step one, then we’d expect it, and we’d be grateful when it happened quickly so we could move on to step two, “relaying the detection back.” For example, if our organization unintentionally supported the wrong charity, or made well intentioned hires without supporting them well, or changed HR policies that singled people out instead of bringing them together, we could identify these errors and fix them. If we could do this without fear or judgement, imagine how quickly we’d learn and improve.

Of course, this would require that we all acknowledged up front that we’re going to make mistakes, and that this is as important as it is inevitable. We’d have to trust each other, assume positive intent, and agree not to blame or judge each other when we fail. We’d need to speak freely, without fear of unintended consequences, and we’d need to listen openly, giving others the benefit of the doubt. This sounds hard, but I think it’s possible.

Embracing the agile concept of failing fast

At the start of this post, I said what we needed to do was clear: listen, learn, and take action without making mistakes. But what if we acknowledged that mistakes will be made and leveraged a process – like agile – that helped us fail fast, correct our behavior, and learn? What if we were willing to be wrong without being defensive?

As we work towards social justice and equality, we need to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, make mistakes. And while agile philosophy may not be the silver bullet that makes us anti-racist, I do think it might offer us a viable way forward. If we embrace the concept of failing fast and use it as a way to learn, understand, and improve over time, we’ll be better able to meet the needs of each other and our teams over time. And that’s a start.

Donald Trump, Job Applicant

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I’m not the first person to point out that if Donald Trump had a “normal” job, he’d have been fired by now. No HR policy would allow his behavior, and no Board of Directors could withstand the scrutiny, regardless of how much money he was making the company. A recent Business Insider article titled “What if Your Boss Acted Like This?” put it this way:

Imagine your boss did this: 

You send him a memo about a life-or-death issue for the company, and he doesn’t read it. He has regular calls with firms you’re doing deals with, but he doesn’t prepare for them, and instead spends the whole call talking about himself, or insulting the person he’s talking to. He commits an egregious, humiliating screw-up one morning, then turns his phone off and plays golf, leaving everyone else to clean up the mess.

These are not hypothetical examples. This is quite literally an account — taken from a single day! — of how Donald Trump does the job we hired him to do, and that we pay him to do.

But Donald Trump doesn’t have a “normal” job, and the only way he can be “fired” is if the American people vote him out. In fact, Donald Trump has never actually even had to  apply for a job (if you think running for president counts, compare that with any job interview you’ve had). So I started to wonder: what would happen if he did?

An interesting resume 

Imagine it, if you can: Donald Trump, fresh off his tour as President of the United States, sending out resumes in the hopes that one of the companies he’s considered buying over the past 50 years might hire him instead. The jobs I hire for, typically team leaders, product managers, product designers, and software engineers, are somewhat specialized, and require a fair amount of experience, but let’s face it: Trump’s resume is pretty interesting, so I might bring him in regardless.

The Interview

The interview here is, of course, imagined. Trump’s words are his own, pulled from interviews and statements he’s given in the last five years, with links to their original sources. My questions aren’t actual interview questions, but I think they get the job done.

Lee: What makes you a the best candidate for the job?

DJT: ….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

Lee: That sounds impressive. And that makes you the best candidate?

DJT: So great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!

Lee: Um, okay. Accountability is a big deal to me. Tell me about a time when you took responsibility for something that didn’t go well.

DJT: [Silence]

Lee: Maybe related to the coronavirus?

DJT: I don’t take responsibility at all. This horrible disease was sent to us by China. It should not have been sent. They should have stopped it. They could have stopped it.  They didn’t. And the entire world has gotten infected, and a lot of countries are going through a lot right now.

Lee: Once it was clear that coronavirus was here, and that we needed to deal with it, how did you see the role of the federal government versus the states?

DJT: The states’ testing is up to the states to do, which will implement the test and logistically coordinate the tests.

Lee: “The states’ testing is up to the states to do”? That’s not really saying anything at all.

DJT: Similar to the situation with ventilators, states need to assess their complete inventory of available capacity. Some states have far more capacity than they actually understand. And it is a complex subject, but some of the governors didn’t understand it. Not simply ask the federal government to provide unlimited support.

Lee: So the states should not ask the federal government for support?

DJT: The authority of the President of the United States, having to do with the subject we’re talking about, is total.

Lee: I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s assume – just for a minute – that it is. How would you rate yourself in your handling of the coronavirus? I mean, the U.S. has already had more than 5.5 million cases, with more than 170,000 deaths.

DJT: Nobody has done anything like we’ve been able to do. And everything I took over was a mess. It was a broken country in so many ways. In so many ways. We have done a job, the likes of which nobody has ever done.

When I took this over, it was an empty box. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have anything. We had a broken system there. We had a broken system with stockpiling. We had a lot of broken systems. And I’m not just blaming President Obama. You go long before that.

Lee: I’m still trying to figure out which role on the team might be the best fit for you. Your responses don’t exactly scream “engineer.” What job on the team do you think you’d be best suited for?

DJT: I don’t know if you know this but probably 10 years ago I was honored. I was the man of the year by I think somebody, whoever. I was the man of the year in Michigan, can you believe it? Long time.

Other countries come to see me, all of their leaders they say, sir, first thing, sir, congratulations on your economy. We’re trying to do the same thing. Congratulations sir. And I say you think Hillary could do this? I don’t think so.

Lee: Are you talking about Hillary Clinton? I’m not sure what this has to do with her, and we don’t have an opening for “man of the year,” but since you’re focused on the economy, maybe a job in Finance? Although it’s been extensively reported that, under your leadership. the US economy is suffering its biggest contraction in 75 years. That doesn’t make it sound like you’d be an asset to our Finance team.

DJT:  It was just put out that the United States economy added almost 5 million jobs in the month of June, shattering all expectations. The stock market is doing extremely well, which means, to me, jobs. This is the largest monthly jobs gain in the history of our country. The unemployment rate fell by more than 2 percentage points down to just about 11 percent. We started at a number very much higher than that.  As you know, we broke the record last month, and we broke it again this month in an even bigger way.

Lee: This certainly seems like good news to me. All this talk about jobs makes me think you might be a fit for our HR department. Like other companies, we’re working hard to be anti-racist, and as a Minneapolis-based company, we were sickened by the murder of George Floyd.

DJT: All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served.

Lee: I’m so glad to hear you say that, I was nervous you were going to say something about there being “fine people on both sides.”

DJT: Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, “This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.” This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality. It’s really what our constitution requires and it’s what our country is all about.

Lee: How on earth can this be a great day for a man who was brutally murdered by police?

DJT: What we’re announcing today is a tremendous tribute to equality. We’re bringing our jobs back. When we had our tremendous numbers. And when we had just prior to the China plague that floated in, we had numbers, the best in history for African American, for Hispanic American, and for Asian American and for everybody. Best for women, best for people without a diploma, young people without a diploma. I mean so many different categories. Our numbers were the best in almost every category.

Lee: I notice you mentioned women.

DJT: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the –

Lee: [Interrupting] So definitely not a job in HR. Wow, look at the time! Thanks so much for coming in. We’ve got a few other candidates to talk with, but you should expect to hear from our HR team within a few days.

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Unqualified for any job

There you have it. My imagined interview, with answers pulled from real interviews, speeches, and Tweets. My goal was not to be comprehensive – I barely scratched the surface – but you get the idea. You can’t make this stuff up.

And yet, much of what Trump has said, even here, is made up. Recent data shows that the President tells more than 23 lies every day, a number that has increased since the start of COVID-19.

Setting aside the bluster, Trump’s record as a President is clear, consistent, and public. So is his record as a businessman. A quick internet search will give you the facts related to his handling of race relations, the coronavirus, his record on job growth, the state of the economy, what he’s done to the environment, the company he keeps, and who has benefitted from his policies. It will also reveal that Trump has golfed 135 times since taking on the presidency at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $140 million, and that he has openly used the highest office in our country to line his own pockets.

If, after all of this, you’re still feeling good about a second Trump presidency, consider this: if Donald Trump showed up at your place of business (office, fire station, convenience store, restaurant, etc.) for an interview, what job would he be qualified for? What job would he be good at? What job would you give him? If your answer, like mine, is not a single one, then is he the right person to run our country?

No justice, no sleep

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Just under two weeks ago, just over a mile from my house, George Floyd was murdered. It is indisputable that if he were white, he would still be alive today. 

We’re all exhausted. It’s hard to sleep with helicopters circling overhead, and with the constant threat of violence in our neighborhoods. It’s hard to sleep with white supremacists and anarchists descending on our city and hiding in our backyards. It’s hard to sleep when we see so much injustice all around us. 

We white folks slept better a few weeks ago, didn’t we? But how? The racism and hatred that led to George Floyd’s murder has been with us all along. Without systemic change, it was inevitable that another black person would be killed by another white police officer. How did we sleep? 

We slept by pushing these terrible, inevitable facts out of our minds. We focused on the small things we could do, and on our good intentions, and on the donations we made to the right causes. We did this even as the coronavirus continued to spread disproportionately to communities of color. We knew these things, but they were too uncomfortable to face, so we looked away. 

It’s much harder to look away now. How will be sleep? Maybe we won’t. Probably we shouldn’t.

What now, white guy?

I’m a well-meaning white man. I’ve been extremely restrained on social media, because I believe it to be an echo chamber at best. And while my priority is to listen carefully and openly, I need to make my feelings public and clear:

Racism is poison. I’m committed to working against it, even when it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll listen better and learn more, and I’ll use my influence to make things better. I’ll put more of my money, and all of my votes, where my mouth is. I stand in solidarity with the black community and demand justice for George Floyd. Black lives matter.

So what? So nothing. To build a society that works for all of us, this statement and the thousands just like it being posted across the internet by well-meaning white people are less than the price of admission. I know I need to back up these words with actions. I’ll write more about that in future posts, including how to lead people through these challenging topics and times.

The center of the world

I love so much about Minneapolis. I love its lakes and its restaurants, its culture and its parks, its sports and its quality of life – I’ve even written a song about it. But Governor Walz put it perfectly when he said that:

We don’t just rank near the top on educational attainment. We rank near the top on personal incomes, on home ownership, and on life expectancies. We ranked second in a survey of the 50 States, second in happiness behind Hawaii. But if you take a deeper look and peel it back, which this week has peeled back, all of those statistics are true if you’re white. If you’re not, we ranked near the bottom.

Have you heard about “Minnesota Nice”? It’s the idea that we Minnesotans are as pleasant as can be when we’re together, but that we’re just being “nice.” That we’ll do anything to put someone else at ease, but we don’t actually mean it. That we’re not genuine, we’re just trying to avoid conflict. This is something we readily acknowledge and often laugh about, and that white people often credit to their Scandinavian or Germanic heritage. How can it be bad to be nice?

The truth about “Minnesota Nice” is that it can prevent us from getting below the surface, from really understanding and connecting with each other. “Minnesota Nice” is what allows us white Minnesotans to say we empathize with black people, to donate to black causes, and to vote for people of color without actually engaging in the community or the conversation. I keep thinking of the lyrics from Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith”:

You can’t depend on the goodly hearted
the goodly hearted made lamp-shades and soap

It’s time to stop being nice, to stop avoiding conflict, to stop running from the hard stuff. It’s time to engage.

Clearly Minneapolis is not the only city in the country – or in the world – with a racist history, and with racist policies that have created vast inequities for hundreds of years. Still it’s my city, and right now it feels like the center of the world for the worst possible reason.

This is our time

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Right here, right now, we have an incredible opportunity to shape the future, to turn Minneapolis into a city that works for all people, regardless of the color of their skin. If we can rise to the occasion, then maybe we can be the city where things got so bad that they finally started to get better.

This is a time to listen openly, to challenge our ways of thinking and behaving, to stand up for the things that matter (including each other), and to work for change. This is our time.

We can sleep after that.

For heaven’s sake, apologize!

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It was just over a month ago, but it still makes me feel sick. I was presenting an important and sensitive topic to the team, something I’d worked hard to get right. There were two versions of the deck I’d created, and between the stress of the day and a variety of technical difficulties, I found myself presenting the wrong version to the team. The fact that this version and the scenario it described were old and outdated didn’t matter. There it was, for all to see.

The worst part of my mistake was that I wasn’t the only person who was embarrassed by it – the deck I’d accidentally presented had implications for others on the team too. It was not my best hour. In response, I did what a lot of reasonable people would have done in the same situation: I ignored the mistake and hoped it would go away.

Only – surprise! – ignoring the mistake did not make it go away. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake a full week later that the team could get past it. “I made a mistake,” I said, genuinely, “I’m really sorry I did that.”

In response, one of my team members said something that truly amazed me. “I’ve never had a boss apologize to me before,” he said, “that means a lot.” What took me so long?

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

It’s not just Elton John who thinks so. According Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today:

Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility. Apologizing temporarily reduces one’s self-esteem.  The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control.  Having announced their imperfection and error, the offender is now vulnerable.  It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.

When we apologize, we acknowledge our “imperfection and error,” which makes us feel weak and vulnerable. But we are imperfect, and we do make errors. There’s nothing weak about it at all. I’d argue that you need self-confidence in order to admit your failures. As Plato said in The Republic:

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

I used to wonder at what age I’d be smart enough to stop putting my foot in my mouth, but that was a long time ago. Now I know that age will never come, that I’ll never be that smart. I may not be “the wisest man alive,” but I know I don’t know everything. And if I don’t know everything, sometimes I’m going to get things wrong – and sometimes that will require an apology.

“Sorry” can be overused

The internet is littered with articles describing people who apologize too much. According to Greatist:

If you’re someone who throws out “sorrys” like candy from a parade float, that can be a problem. While on the surface this might seem like a polite habit, overusing any word can devalue it—and more importantly, excessive apologizing can make you look guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong.

While according to Tonic:

Apologies aren’t always helpful—and sometimes they can be excessive. This behavior may stem from anxiety or depression, although research on the topic is scarce. What we do know is that, for some, the urge to say “I’m sorry” for every little thing is involuntary and often has little to do with actual remorse.

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According to the Child Mind Institute, this is especially problematic for girls:

Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a child is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying you’re sorry too much can backfire. For instance, when a girl starts a statement by saying, “Sorry, but… ” or “I might be wrong, but …” she may think she’s being polite, but it undermines what she’s about to say. “It says ‘I don’t feel confident in what I’m about to say or my right to say it,’ ” explains Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Got it? The point is not to apologize with abandon. It’s to acknowledge that we genuinely care when our actions hurt people, and to admit that we make mistakes.

Coda

We’re actively hiring at work – we’ve got lots of open roles on my team and lots of great candidates, both internal and external. In an effort to get the word out quickly and get the ball rolling, I rushed a few job descriptions out before checking them with the hiring managers.

Can you guess what happened? Candidates had applied for a job based on a description they’d seen last month, and we were planning to interview them based on a job description we’d updated last week. Not ideal.

As a believer in the Agile Manifesto, I’m committed to welcoming change, to favoring individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and to responding to change over following a plan. I move fast. I break things. My intentions were pure, but this issue was entirely my fault. As I called each of the candidates, letting them know how and why the job they’d applied for had changed and asking them if they still wanted to apply, I made at least one thing clear.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I said, “I made a mistake.”

“No problem,” they responded, “thanks for taking the time to explain what happened. See you next week.”

 

I’ll be voting tomorrow

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I believe diversity is a strength and not a weakness.

I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

I believe we’re obligated to provide for those in need.

I believe we’re all equal, no exceptions.

I believe we should strive to create a world that’s better for our children.

I believe we’re in it together.

I believe scientists.

I believe the world and our country are less safe, less compassionate, and more violent since the current president was elected.

I believe facts.

I believe my vote matters, and I’ll be voting tomorrow.

A quick word about estimating work

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A Google search for “creating accurate estimates for development work” yields more than 121 million results. A Google search for “why are teams so bad at estimating development work?” yields more than 47 million. If there’s one thing we all know about estimates, it’s that they’re almost always wrong. The reasons for this are well documented:

  • No two developers have exactly the same skill set or develop at exactly the same speed
  • Code issues are difficult or impossible to predict
  • Availability of other project resources (UX, QA, etc.) can be an issue
  • And so on (this article does a good job of outlining more)

And yet we continue to estimate, to make promises and commitments, and to convince ourselves that these wildly optimistic guesses (because they’re always wildly optimistic and they’re always guesses) are more than just that. I don’t need to add to the many millions of Google search results on this topic, but I do want to highlight the clear and direct connection between the commitments we make and our ability to give our teams work that’s both achievable and manageable.

Every product leader I know actively tries to avoid setting deadlines and making commitments, partly because we know our estimates are inaccurate, and partly because we know that deadlines don’t help teams create better products. And yet, making commitments is often unavoidable. When we’re in this situation, I like to remind my team of one very important fact: nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work.

There are lots of strategies for padding development estimates (a Google search for “how much should we pad our development estimates?” yields 35 million results), but this isn’t my point. My point is that, in an effort to force our estimates into pre-determined timelines, we sometimes leave out things that are critically important, like QA and UX. Instead of estimating what it would take to deliver a quality project, we jump right to how we’ll hit a deadline. When we do this, we miss all sorts of great opportunities to negotiate – we give up before we even get started. We also make it impossible for our teams to deliver a quality product on time.

Nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work. This gives us the power to estimate our work as it should be, and to include all the critical pieces that are sometimes thought of as nice-to-haves. It also gives us the chance to bring our business partners along, to help them understand what it takes to build great software, to enlist their help when making trade-offs, and to get their buy-in and support for the recommended approach.

Let’s not forget to take advantage of it.

 

Feeling overwhelmed? Channel Kurt Vonnegut and get to work.

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Every company I’ve been a part of has had more work to do than people to do it. (Has there ever been a company with too many people and not enough work to do? Not for long.) Sometimes the gap between need and output is relatively small, and a team can almost keep up, but more often – especially if a company is aggressive about identifying opportunities – the gap is much, much bigger.

This can lead to lots of frustration. In my last post, I wrote about how great leaders help their teams win by defining success in ways that are achievable. In this post, I’ll focus on getting to work and making it manageable.

My current product organization is responsible for a lot more products than we have teams, including nearly a dozen products built by companies we’ve acquired over the past two years. Inevitably, at any given time, there are products we’re not working on, or even thinking much about. This can be hard to stomach. But the reality is that we’ll never have enough people or time to adequately address all of the issues and opportunities in front of us. In order to wrap our heads around the challenge, we need a different way to think about it.

That’s where I turn to Kurt Vonnegut.

In his article, On the Work to be Done, first published in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Vonnegut writes brilliantly in the topic of getting to work. Although he’s writing about building a better world, Vonnegut’s words apply to building better software too. Here goes:

As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.

He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say 200 acres.

I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.

If God had given Adam and Eve the entire world, what would they have done? It’s easy to imagine them running naked through the jungle, shaking their fists, fighting back tears, screaming, “we’re not ready to take care of all these animals – we don’t even have clothes yet!”

In Vonnegut’s telling, God doesn’t overwhelm Adam and Eve, he gives them “some small part of the planet” – just as much as they can handle.  Adam and Eve weren’t responsible for the entire planet, I remind my team, and you’re not responsible for the entire platform. You’re divided into product teams for a reason, so that one group can focus on financial management while another focuses on mobile applications and so on. If you try to eat the elephant (or the forbidden apple?) in one bite, you’ll get sick. Vonnegut continues:

What painters and sculptors and writers do, incidentally, is put very small properties indeed into good order, as best they can.

A painter thinks, “I can’t fix the whole planet, but I can at least make this square of canvas what it ought to be.” And a sculptor thinks the same thing about a lump of clay or marble. A writer thinks the same about a piece of paper, conventionally eleven inches long and eight-and-a-half inches wide.

A product manager is responsible for creating an awesome product. A user experience designer is responsible for creating an awesome experience. A software architect is responsible for creating an awesome technical architecture. And so on. Often this work happens incrementally, over time. The good and bad news? The work is never done.

So here’s the challenge: take your 200 acres (or lines of code) and put them in decent order. Make them exactly what they’re meant to be, or make them even better. After that, there’ll be another 200 acres to worry about, and then another 200 acres after that.

That sounds manageable, right?