Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

8 reasons my team is great (and keeps getting better)

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My current eCommerce team is among the best I’ve ever worked with. In the past year, we’ve launched four mobile apps, re-platformed three eCommerce sites without any downtime at all, made major strides towards continuous deployment, and much, much more. (Even if you don’t know what any of these things are, you’re impressed by now, right?) Much has been written about building great teams, of course, and this is in no way meant to be definitive. Still, I want to share a few of the reasons my team has succeed so far (in no particular order), and why we’ll continue to get better:

1: Everyone on the team is a business owner

It would be an exaggeration to say that everyone on the team is motivated by our KPIs in the same way, or that each developer, user experience engineer, and Product Owner feels the same passion for driving revenue. Still, we do a lot of work to make sure each person on our team understands what drives our business, and the items on our product roadmap can come from any person or team. We understand both what we have to do and why.

2: We define our own priorities

Continuing on the above theme, our product roadmap is largely driven by the team. Because we understand what drives the business, we have the flexibility to work on the projects that are most impactful, in the order that makes the most sense. There are times we have to justify our priorities – and we review them with our senior executives each month – but we own the roadmap, no question about it.

3: We like to solve hard problems

Being intellectually curious is a big deal. Our team is smart, and intensely focused when it comes to finding sustainable solutions to big, hairy business and/or technical problems. Sometimes this leads to frustration – we don’t always have time to do things right, and we all despise increasing technical debt – but, by and large, our team strives to do things right, and we’re up for any challenge that comes our way.

4: We persist!

We like solving hard problems, and we don’t give up. When we can’t figure something out, we keep at it. Sometimes we wrestle with a problem for weeks – or months – before finding the answer we were looking for. Sometimes we need to try a lot of things before getting something right.

5: Our leaders push us in the right ways

When we need a kick in the pants, we get one. When we need some space, we get that too. From top to bottom, our company and team leaders understand that empowering the teams to do our best work is critical to our success.

6: We test and measure everything we do

Measuring allows everyone to see where we meet expectations and where we don’t. New functionality is AB tested until it “wins” and we’re confident we haven’t introduced new problems into the system. We’ve got dedicated testing and analytics teams, and our Agile development teams wouldn’t even think of introducing new functionality without their involvement. Of course, we still make mistakes, but when we do…

7: We learn from our mistakes

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Building and running our own web platform is hard, and despite all the great testing and measuring we do, mistakes are inevitable. Because we encourage continuous improvement and innovation, we also favor blameless post-mortems and retrospectives during and after all projects. These allow us to truly understand where we’re most effective and where we still have opportunity to improve. We’re going to make mistakes, but we really don’t want to make the same ones twice.

8: We genuinely like each other

Who wants to spend all week, every week, with people they don’t know or like? Not me. Work is a big part of our lives, but it’s not everything. People go on vacations, have babies, experience loss, and root for baseball teams (they often do those last two at the same time). And people who like each other are there for each other when they need support – in their work and in their lives.

We’re not perfect

If some of this sounds a bit aspirational, it is. My team is far from perfect, and we don’t always get these things right. We get crabby, and frustrated, and annoyed by each other. We argue, we have egos, and we break more things than we’d like. Sometimes we focus on the wrong things, and we’ve been accused of moving too fast. But the foundation of our team is strong, and our core philosophies don’t change.

Do any of these ideas resonate with you? Are you part of a high performing team? If so, what makes your team great? If not, how can you get there? I’d love to hear from you.