I promised myself to get better at identifying and contributing to healthy work environments.
I believe the thoughts and feelings presented here aren’t singular or disruptive but I am publishing them because I think they are at least underrepresented in the tech sector and I want to do my small part to help change that.
Having taken some time away from tech work, I’ve had the chance to observe my brain respond to problems in construction, kitchen and restaurant work, music production, and parenting, to name a few.
I’ve learned that my brain’s response to a problem invariably unfolds in this order:
I believe we more often need to stop, think, and feel for others in order to get to the right solution.
And curiously enough, this all excites me.
This way of thinking and feeling makes for a hard and daunting road, but it’s a road that I believe helps us genuinely make other people better and happier. I’ll take a hard road towards that over an easy road towards crap any day. I prefer work that’s rewarding over work that’s fun any day.
There’s a lot of emotional labor in this and I’ve found that that’s something I really enjoy.
Building, supporting, and rewarding teams that excel at applying emotional labor to genuinely make other people better and happier - that excites me.
Competition doesn’t excite me; mostly it’s just a turn-off. I don’t care to beat anyone or have my success imply or require the loss of another. I recognize there are many who find competition exciting. I’m just not one of them, and if you are, we may or may not get along and that’s okay. I do want to be better than the me of yesterday. I want to learn and grow, but I also have enough empathy for myself not to force that on me every day so as to compete with myself.
I’m pretty convinced that I’m onto something with this empathy and emotions thing so I care a lot about how I work. As a shorthand, let’s call this culture.
Most importantly, though, I care that you care.
If you don’t have the time or energy to actually care about culture, empathy, or diversity - we’re just not right for one another at this time and that’s okay.
To figure out whether we might have a good time together I thought of some questions as conversation starters.
How some of my previous bosses have or might have answered this:
Obviously some of these worked out better than others but just about none are inherently wrong.
The answers don’t need to be ideal, if there even is such a thing, nor do they need to be perfectly aligned (perfect alignment can well be a bad thing).
It’s great if you have a cohesive view on this and if you’re actively managing discrepancies in others’ definitions of success.
There’s a lot to unpack about organizational culture and I think this is a good, pointed question to get started with.
Specific examples would be awesome.
I believe that healthy organizations consist of people who complement one another. Nobody can be everything to everyone in every situation.
By extension, your group — up/down/sideways — would ideally have complementing and thus conflicting points of view and those should require y’all to say no to one another from time to time. If you don’t, something’s off. If you can’t do that with ease, respect, and care (i.e. empathy), something’s off.
Follow-up question: You may well have come across ideas that are technically or economically sound but have some ethical implications worth exploring. What happens then?
And if your culture is based on “how do we get to yes?”, how do you get past bad ideas once you’ve identified them to be bad? In other words, how do you learn?
There’s a lot to unpack here in part because good learning requires some dissonance.
Again, the answers don’t need to be ideal, if there even is such a thing.
This is also a good time for a conversation about psychological safety, consent, and agency.
Whichever way you slice it, diversity is hugely important.
The more we as a group think, feel, and operate differently from one another, the more likely we are to come up with better and broader solutions that better the lives of more people.
Of course I’m curious about your diversity stats; I’m more curious about how readily we could do even better.
My previous conversation starter questions don’t directly ask about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity/preferences/etc.; instead they try to determine whether we have what I consider to be prerequisites for a diverse organization.
If you don’t know what success looks like, how do we value how much closer to success a more diverse team will get us?
In my experience, because it’s the right thing to do lasts until the next hiring frenzy or the next round of budget cuts — either can be just as bad.
If you don’t know how to part ways with people, how will we take greater chances in hiring to improve our chances of diverse hiring?
No one in tech ever got fired for hiring a college kid, and yet that hiring strategy hasn’t gotten our industry to where we want to be. So let’s not just “blame the pool”. Let’s correct for structural inequities by expanding our notion of pools, writing better job ads, and taking some chances.
If you don’t know how to intentionally identify and resolve conflict with empathy, how can we maintain a safe and supportive environment for people with diverse approaches to conflict?
If you don’t know how to foster learning, how will we grow people from diverse points of origin?
If you don’t want to talk about the things I care about as described above, you will find me difficult and we will not have a good time.
If you don’t want to sit down and talk with me at least once every fortnight, you will find me difficult and we will not have a good time.
Empathy is a form of emotional labor. Emotional labor involves emotions. If talking about emotions (mine or others’) makes you uncomfortable, you may find me difficult and we may not have a good time.
I want to do my best, at my best. Labor — emotional, intellectual, or physical — draws upon reserves that I need to recharge every week after 35-40 hours if I am to be at my best. If you believe in late nights, long hours, and the hustle, you will be disappointed in me and we will not have a good time. (And that’s before we talk about the deleterious impact of the hustle on diversity that I’ve observed.)
I like doing things right. That’s not the right approach for every problem (e.g. the v1 of a startup). Others love minimum-viable-v1 stuff and that’s great, it’s just not me. Need something complex/expensive/high-cost-of-failure done well and with discipline? That’s my jam.
If your company is all about open space, we’ll have words. I’m not saying it’s a deal breaker, but open space as practiced by most tech firms is quantifiably bad and scientifically as well as empirically (by my own A/B experiences) worse than individual workspaces. If nothing else, let’s at least talk about how this is a bad idea and then move on.
If you care about the things I described above as much as I do, we may have a great time together.
If you need somebody who cares about all these things and also has a proven track record of shipping software to a billion users and writing kernel code that currently executes trillions of times a day, let’s talk. Just because I care doesn’t mean I’m not also deeply technical.
Further reading that has informed my views and opinions: