When I was in first grade, I found a Leopard Moth Caterpillar (pic) near a playground swing set. Startled by the dark, prickly barbs on its skin, I ran over to fetch my friend to share what I’d found. He told me a story he heard about a Leopard Moth Caterpillar falling from a tree down the back of a grown-up’s shirt, which killed the grown-up. From that day forward, I was fearful of walking under trees, thinking I too would be murdered by one of these violent bugs.

If I was picked to stand near a tree to count to twenty during a game of Hide and Seek, I’d plant my hand on the back of my neck where my shirt met skin to avoid one of these deadly caterpillars from impaling me in the spine. I imagined it falling onto my hand and having an opportunity to flick it away for the price of maybe a few severed fingers. When my counting was done and I ran off to find my friends, I’d catch a quick glance up into the tree branches to scan for falling caterpillars. You never can be too careful.

Only minutes before writing this did I realize that the Leopard Moth Caterpillar’s spiked exterior is actually hair.

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I work with dozens of brilliant designers, engineers, and leaders. From time to time, I seek out those people for help, which could include anything from a modification to a deliverable to simply a few moments of their time. As I’ve learned throughout my years, there’s an approach that’s needed if I hope to come away from those interactions with a positive and mutually beneficial outcome.

Before you can get the best out of people, you must first win their trust and loyalty. Building contentious relationships and hoping for a productive outcome from those relationships is futile. I’ve seen projects collapse due to lack of trust among a team. I’ve seen managers lose quality people by betraying their trust.

To win an outcome, you need to win over people first.

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Read books.

Let rich stories sink in. Let different viewpoints strengthen your empathy. Let the expertise of others improve your skills. Let a challenging viewpoint shed light on your prejudices. Let their lessons enrich your experience.

A life without books dulls the mind and clouds perspective.

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These days, I’m managing a team of engineers at a tech company in California, all thanks to a guy from my hometown who drank too much at a party and cheated on his girlfriend.

Let me explain.

In 2007, I was a single, recent high school grad on my way to an uncertain career path. I had a small group of friends I’d known for most of my life. Shortly after starting college, one of those friends introduced me to his new girlfriend, Sarah. He’d known Sarah for most of his life, but they only recently made a connection after Sarah’s boyfriend cheated on her during a drunken night out at a party. While Sarah’s heart was broken, my friend stepped into her life. Shortly after their relationship began, my friend introduced me to Sarah. We three became fast pals.

One day, in passing, Sarah mentioned that I’d be a perfect match for her friend, Ashlee. I knew the name; I’d seen pictures of this Ashlee girl on MySpace (yep, MySpace). She was super pretty. Weeks later at a social gathering, I ran into Ashlee. To my dismay, she was with another guy.

She was just as pretty as her pictures. Recalling Sarah’s match-making recommendation, I introduced myself and pointed out our shared connection. Through this alone, we bonded and soon became close friends. One year later, after her relationship with the other guy fizzled and through a series of unusual events (that’s a story for another day), Ashlee and I were dating.

Fast forward two years later. Ashlee and I headed to a new college. We embraced the college experience as well as two introverts can manage and spent most days together. One day, on our way out of the cafeteria, I stepped through the main doors only to find that Ashlee was no longer walking with me. I turned back to find her scanning a job posting bulletin board. She met my eye and pointed my attention to one of the flyers. It was a job posting for an IT Specialist Internship at a local accounting firm, a perfect fit to go along with my major. A few weeks later, I landed the job. Looking back, that was the day my career began.

Years later, as Ashlee and I were making marriage plans and I was building my experience in the IT Specialist role, she took me out for dinner. She could sense my complacency in my job. She reminded me I could always go somewhere else and pursue a better job. I didn’t have to stay somewhere that wasn’t good for me. In my heart, I knew she was right, and it was this insistence that would push me out of my comfort zone into something better. Months later, I made a career change into something I had a growing interest in, web development. While that IT Specialist job is what started my career, the move into web development is when I found my purpose, and I credit my wife for the motivation to make the switch.

Two years later, the complacency set in once again. I was exhausted. That first web development job was working me far too hard to maintain a happy newlywed life, and she again stepped in to give me the push I needed; this time, it would be an even greater step forward than before.

“Boobie,” as she calls me, “I think it’s important that we move away from home.” It had been an ongoing discussion since the beginning of our marriage a year earlier. I was terrified. Both of our jobs up to that point had planted us firmly close to our childhood home, but we both knew there were greater possibilities out in the world. With our shared goal, we set our sights on a move.

Months later, we hit the road to Memphis, TN. Up to that point, I never imagined I’d leave home. It was never in the plan. I’d go to the schools on my life to-do list, get a boring degree, settled down with a boring life that never challenged me, maybe have some kids, and die. That’s the best I had ever hoped for. Sure, I had dreams to see and experience the world, but I truly don’t believe I would’ve chased them without the continued support of my wife. She’s said the same of me; I think we’ve always been great for each other.

Memphis would turn out well for us; we developed a strong community of friends and found our footing in the world far away from the familiarity of home. With each other, it was easier than we’d expected. But still, something crept back. The call of the outside world was still alluring. Should we answer it?

Answer it we did, in the form of me receiving a job recruitment email to a tech company in California. As we debated pros and cons, it was decided for us by what I can only attribute to divine intervention. A good phone interview turned into a good technical evaluation, which turned into a terrifying flight to California for a round of interviews. From there, an accepted offer turned into a frantic search for a place to live, which culminated in an apartment acquisition that, in retrospect, defied all odds.

With these events laid before us, we made our move to California. It was me who made the final decision to move this time, much to Ashlee’s distress. She had to abandon a good job and put her career prospects in the air, leaving us in a difficult position in examining the trajectory of our lives. It would take months to overcome the outcome of this difficult decision, but as was the common thread through our lives up to that point, new opportunities presented themselves to Ashlee in the form of some amazing calligraphy projects and a few featured spots in a California magazine.

As my career was carrying on at the tech company, my planned path towards a potential Senior Engineer title after a few years soon was up in the air as my manager left the company. Suddenly, my role was being shifted to another department to assist with resourcing needs, and I began to wonder if that Senior title would ever come. Could it be that our California move was just a big mistake that I’d brought us into?

One day, as my fellow engineers and I were discussing our difficulty in finding a new manager, I went home to consult my wife. “What if I applied for the manager role?” I asked her, suddenly afraid of the words.

“Boobie,” she said, “I believe in you.”

That’s all I needed. Weeks later, I went through a round of interviews with my peers, leading to a successful promotion into my current manager role.

I often wonder what that moment of success will represent in 10 years time. Will it be the beginning of a string of failures, of greater success, of terrible tragedy?

All I know is that the story of the jerk at the party who cheated on Sarah, whose introduction led me to meeting my wife Ashlee, whose encouragement led me away from a life of complacency, which gave me the confidence to pursue bigger goals makes a damn crazy string of events if you ask me. Without that fateful decision by that guy, I never would’ve met Sarah. In not meeting Sarah, I never would’ve met and connected with Ashlee. And in not meeting Ashlee, I’d be a fraction of who I am today.

I sometimes wonder what became of that guy at the party. Maybe I should buy him a beer.

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It’s likely that you’ll come across many problems in life that have no realistic solution. Maybe your boss is a jerk who lacks basic leadership skills. Maybe your project is doomed due to an upper management oversight that’s beyond your control. Maybe your country is going through some difficult changes that are affecting you and those around you.

Since we feel powerless in these situations, our natural tendency is to take control of what little we can—we get angry, resentful, and maybe even lash out at others.

Instead, I offer an alternative, and that is to learn from everything. Learn from every difficult situation that’s beyond your control. If your boss sucks, study him or her closely to see where you can do things differently when you get an opportunity to lead. If your project is doomed, learn why it’s doomed so you can communicate those red flags next time you foresee a project going down in flames. If your country is in peril, learn from the circumstances that led to that outcome, and work to inform others of how to guard against another such outcome in the future.

You’re not as powerless as you think. Your greatest asset is the ability to observe, reason, and learn when you’re up against the wall. From there, you can take those lessons to make a better future for yourself and those around you.

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More than ten years ago, I stood in front of my bedroom mirror with my pawn shop acoustic guitar and strummed three chords, hummed a tune, and called it my first song. I had no idea if it was good or not (it wasn’t), but I’d finally crossed a line into being a creator. Over the next 10+ years, I’d craft songs for fun, play in bands, record EPs for friends, and hone my craft into something I can be proud of. Here’s what I learned along the way.

In the beginning, you’ll be bland and rip off other artists’ work

The wonderful, yet terrifying thing about creating any sort of art is that there are, in theory, an infinite number of combinations and outcomes when putting pen to page, so to speak. The average guitar has 138 playable notes and an estimated 2,341 chord combinations. Not only that, but simply holding your guitar in different ways can yield different sounds.

With stats like these in mind, we typically approach new art forms with the help of frameworks. I learned guitar by memorizing basic, popular chord patterns and pop songs. I was instructed by teachers to hold my guitar a certain way. From there, I moved into learning scales and absorbing guitar method books.

We turn to these resources because we’re lost, and we’re overwhelmed by the possibilities. We want to create something, but we don’t know how to go about creating it. Only once we’ve

As a result, when starting out, you’ll mostly be ripping off other people’s work and/or making bland art. What you need to know is that this is totally okay and part of the creation process. Rip people off all you want, but don’t publish it and know that you’re capable of much more.

Inspiration is a mix of influence and accident

Last I checked, I have over 150 song samples in a folder on my computer, dating back over 5 years. Of those, only 12 were developed into full songs. While that’s far less than the output a full-time musician might have, it illustrates that you’re not going to get it right the first time. I’ve written full songs after months of trial and error, and I’ve written full songs after 2 hours of goofing around on my guitar. There’s no tried and true system, except that you absolutely have to put in the work and fail repeatedly.

Additionally, I’ve found building a backlog of influences to be incredibly important. You don’t need much to get started, but you definitely need it to create something truly great. As you explore your craft, you’ll gain insights from studying other artists, each of which has the ability to teach you new tools for expanding your art. If you don’t appreciate other artists, you won’t be appreciated by other artists.

Not only that, but if you’re one to save all of your old drafts, you may even find yourself being influenced by your past self. I find this practice of saving old work to be invaluable, as I’ve often discovered that my past self had some interesting ideas that just needed time to bake.

If you’re afraid to seek feedback, you’re not ready

When I write music, I send an early draft to two friends to get their feedback. We’ve developed trust and honesty over the years, so I know they’ll get back to me with a reliable perspective. I do this because when you create, you can never go back and experience your work as someone experiencing it for the first time. You hear/see/read your work in a way that no one else ever will. You’ll see the flaws, you’ll have your favorite nuances that no one else notices, you’ll remember the entire story of how your work came into being. In short, you’re married to it. You need to give it to someone who can experience it as it’s meant to be experienced. If not, it’s nearly impossible to know if your work is actually accomplishing what you want.

Getting feedback on your work is scary and hard. It puts you in a vulnerable position of sharing your flawed creative process. And trust me, you’re going to create some garbage that you’ll initially believe to be a work of genius; it’s humbling to hear this isn’t the case. At the same time, it’s exhilarating when you discover that it’s really connecting with people.

Thankfully, the process of requesting and receiving feedback becomes much easier to stomach over time. You’ll eventually develop a sense for what’s actually good and what’s garbage, but it’s important that you never stop looking for feedback from those you trust and respect.

If you’re afraid to take this step and expose yourself to constructive feedback, you’re not ready to reach the heights to which you aspire.

You should love the final drafts

When you create something that matches up with what you want to express, you’ll love it. It’ll be the pinnacle of your self-expression, and you’ll consider it an extension of yourself (and you should love yourself, right?).

If you don’t love what you’re creating, go back to the drawing board. Rewrite it. Store it away for later. Re-use it in a future work, and reshape it into something better. Stop publishing art you don’t love.

If you’d like to hear my music, head over to my Soundcloud.

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March 2, 2017

Different

Everyone
comes to different conclusions
about different things
at different times
for different reasons
and you’re no different.

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As a manager, having difficult conversations comes with the territory. I’ve worked with others on difficult career transitions, delivered disappointing news, and addressed concerns over under-performance. It’s never simple, but I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be difficult.

As a quick tip if you find yourself in need of having a difficult conversation, don’t “prime” the topic with the person you’re speaking with.

In other words, don’t start with comments like, “this is going to be difficult,” or “I don’t want to be a jerk, but…”. Comments such as these only serve to tighten up the other person’s defenses before you’ve even started the conversation. If it begins with defensiveness, it’s incredibly difficult to lower those defenses.

In my view, “priming” difficult conversations is a defense mechanism. Perhaps we want the other person to empathize with the difficult position we’re in, but that’s rarely the result of “priming”. When I’ve been on the receiving end of those tough talks and the speaker “primed” the conversation, I could tell he was uncomfortable, which made me uncomfortable as well. I was immediately on edge, ready to defend myself against whatever “jerk” things he was about to tell me.

Instead, keep your initial comments brief, and dive into speaking directly and clearly. Don’t give into discomfort or nerves. Deliver your remarks with honesty, ensure the other person understands what you’re saying, and move on.

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Years ago, I was involved with an interview panel for a candidate who couldn’t seem to articulate his thoughts and viewpoints. While his answers to our questions were acceptable, he lacked candor. With the hopes of leading the candidate to more revealing and focused answers, one of my colleagues asked him a simple question, “in one sentence, what do you want from this job?”

The candidate offered up all the correct answers he could come up with—”to become a better developer; to learn how this company works and make it better; oh, and for the challenge; to be awesome; to do great work; to solve difficult problems.” His multiple responses only seemed to sour our opinion and dilute what could’ve been a confident answer.

In the end, we didn’t move forward with the candidate. It was tough to gauge his viewpoints or skill based on his responses, which taught me a valuable lesson:

Words are powerful, and often, using fewer words makes the biggest impact.

Next time you’re in a position that requires a careful choice of words, try to deliver those words with brevity. Take your time, think, and articulate.

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February 17, 2017

Be Helpful

For some people, being approached by a co-worker with a request is sometimes viewed as an inconvenience, especially when that requests asks a lot of us. Perhaps the co-worker doesn’t have a good understanding of what exactly you do, or what you’re responsible for.

If you want to provide a better interaction with those co-workers, immediately give yourself a goal when the interaction begins:

Help this person.

Avoid the temptation to slough them off on somebody else unless that person would be better able to help. Avoid making excuses for why you can’t help. Do what you can to make their situation a bit better. When the interaction is over, perhaps ask, “what else can I do to help you?”

Sometimes, the most productive move for your career is to improve the career of others.

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