Filed under "Career"

In the past few years in my field, I’ve found a common thread that defines true professionals.

Pros don’t get cocky. They don’t complain. They show up each morning and serve. They serve their teammates by delivering quality on time and under budget. They serve their clients by maintaining a kind demeanor and patient attitude. They serve their leaders by being reliable and professional. For them, the value they provide with their craft is their act of dignified service each and every day.

Another quality of pros: they know that to be truly effective at providing service to others, they must put in the time and learn to do the work properly. I, as a web developer, can’t walk into an operating theater and perform open-heart surgery. If we can’t meet people’s needs effectively, we’re not providing real service.

Pros also approach career advancement cautiously. They know that as our careers advance, it’s not an opportunity to wield more power; it’s a call to greater service. It’s why we uses phrases like “serve as President” or “serve in the military”; these roles require extraordinary sacrifice, and when those in power act as servants, they inspire and enrich those around them.

Lastly, pros have a mission. They understand why they carry out the service they’ve committed to, and this makes them highly effective. Service without a mission is an act of self-service.

At every point in your career, ask yourself: what service am I providing to others? Is this work valuable to anyone but me?

We are all servants, but pros truly serve.

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If you choose to lead, you must also choose to leave the field.

You must head to the sidelines and encourage your people to claim the victories. Advise offscreen and direct your team towards the goal when they need your help. Cultivate a passionate team, praise their strengths, and coach their weaknesses.

To win as a leader, be of service to those doing the winning.

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A major part of my job is hiring talented software engineers and building productive, happy teams. Here’s what I look for when I interview and evaluate engineers.

Humility

Ego will kill your career almost as quickly as punching your boss in the face. I’ve seen arrogant people drag their teams through the mud, and I’ve seen smart people look ignorant because of a stubborn attitude.

I keep an eye out for ego when speaking to candidates. Do they make past successes all about themselves rather than praising their team’s involvement? Do they assume to know everything there is to know about their craft? A good candidate understands that there are always opportunities to learn, and success often comes from the influence of better, smarter peers and leaders.

Character

One of my favorite questions to ask candidates is: what are your core values? It’s a question that doesn’t have a cookie-cutter answer, and requires an honest response to avoid sounding cliché. Most importantly, it’s a clear indicator of selfish vs. selfless.

A candidate who values success and praise will ultimately choose selfish actions to achieve those values, while a candidate who values service and compassion towards others will abandon self to do good for those around them.

Collaboration

I once spoke to a candidate who, when I asked about his process in working with teams, described to me how he routinely goes over the heads of his teammates to get things done. Sometimes, he told me, he’d even go over the heads of his management. As he described it, he hated being wrong; if the team unanimously disagreed with his decision, he’d throw his hands in the air and say, “well, I guess we’ll all just be wrong together.”

This was discouraging to hear.

A great candidate understands that the strength of a team comes from mutual respect and collaboration among all involved. A member who thinks themselves better than the collective team represents a weakness for the group, and a team is only as strong as their weakest member.

People focus

Great products aren’t about the people creating them; they’re about the users who adopt them. A great engineer understands this, and places the users’ wants above their own. I look for candidates who are empathetic towards people from all walks of life and have an open mind to different points of view. When they successfully adopt this mindset, they’re better able to provide what users crave the most—genuine service.

Competence

It’s not just about being skilled at your craft—that’s certainly important—but I believe competence is shown in three key behaviors:

  1. Showing up on time when it’s time to show up
  2. Delivering what’s due when it’s due, and
  3. Delivering quality work at every opportunity

To me, this describes the “pros” that I’ve encountered and had the pleasure of working with in my career; I love hiring these people.

So if you’re a competent, humble, empathetic collaborator with a heart of gold, let’s work together.

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April 17, 2017

The Service Mindset

In an early 2017 episode of How I Built This, Tony Heish, CEO of Zappos, described his company as such,

[Zappos] is a service company that just happens to sell shoes.

Zappos is seen as revolutionary in their commitment to customer service, an approach that Tony describes as somewhat nonsensical at times — doing things for their customers that their competition would never do. Their main goal is to make the customer happy at all costs. And it pays off; Zappos brings in an estimated $2 billion in revenue each year, and was acquired by Amazon in 2009.

What stands out most to me when reflecting on Zappos’s story is that, in an age of paying customers being dragged off of airplanes, the idea of offering genuine service is foreign to most of us. This only serves to reinforce a belief I’ve developed over the past few years.

Here’s what I believe.

We achieve higher career satisfaction, build better companies, and attract happier customers by adopting a servant mindset towards our work.

Your Career is an Act of Service

When we talk about our careers, what do we envision? A successful career looks like a long string of big promotions, big accomplishments, and an impressive resume. Too often, we believe that our career is about us. But I want to challenge this definition of a career.

Here’s how I’d define it:

A career is an extended period of dedicated service to a cause or organization.

It’s why we used phrases like, “serve as President”, “serve in the military”, “serve on a board of directors”. Achieving these positions is not an opportunity to dictate or wield unchecked power; it’s a call to greater service.

As our career develops, so too do our skills and talents that brought us into that career. But what are those skills and talents really for?

We use our skills to make the world around us better; we use them to serve our team, our company, and our customers.

To be truly effective in our work and build a great career, we must be willing to serve others and put their needs before our own.

How to Practice a Service Mindset

If we want to practice a servant mindset, there are 3 approaches we must take:

1. Drop the ego

Ego will bring you down, as well as your organization. We have to be able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable with each other.

True service doesn’t have an ego; we can’t assume we’re above an act of service.

2. Have an open mind

With a closed mind, we become selective about who we serve. We might withhold our service towards others who don’t share our viewpoints or position in life.

3. Avoid busyness.

I’m sorry, I can’t help you, I’m too busy.

Oftentimes, busyness is for us. We have to be careful not to hide behind busyness that could prevent us from taking a moment to help someone.

When someone comes up to your desk, take off the headphones, give them your attention. Simply giving people your time can be a major act of service.

Service Culture Attracts Happy Customers

If we adopt this servant approach to our work and put others’ needs before our own, what does it do for our business?

It breeds a culture of service. It creates an environment where, because we first served each other, we’re better able to provide great service outside of our business.

And by providing great service, we attract happy customers.

Who doesn’t love to be well-served by a company or a product, to feel like your needs and wants were truly met and exceeded?

 It’s an instinctive craving.

It’s why companies are investing millions in products that mimic the experience of having a person right there in your home, serving your every need (and why those products are so popular).

There’s no better customer experience than another human asking you, how can I be of service to you?

A Call to Service

As you walk into work tomorrow morning, commit to serving your team and your customers. With every interaction, ask yourself, how can I help this person?

When you treat your work as an act of service, it attracts loyal customers, it creates a great work culture, and it gives life to your career.

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April 13, 2017

Process vs. People

People come first.

When working with a team, you can either have a flawless process or a happy team.

Processes can be perfected, but this requires you to discourage failure and limit improvisation.

But people are at their best when they feel autonomous and can stretch beyond process. Failure leads to learning. Improvisation leads to fresh insights.

Don’t sacrifice people for process.

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March 23, 2017

Win the People

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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Show up when you’re supposed to show up.

Finish work when it’s due.

Follow up often, and don’t be afraid to over-communicate.

Determine what you’re actually responsible for and apply your focus to those things first.

Don’t let ego get in the way.

Don’t stop learning. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong place.

Be kind and patient with those you work with.

Take time off of work. You need time to recharge.

Say “no” more often.

Be professional.

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I’ve been managing a team of software engineers for 7 months. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Let go of some control. As an individual contributor, I was encouraged to exert control over the projects I built. As a manager, striving for that same level of control can damage team dynamics and come across as micro-management.

Exercise restraint. I’ve found it helpful to not inject myself into decisions or problems where others are better suited to the task. Let others have their shining moments and victories.

Vulnerability builds trust. A lesson from Brené Brown. Admitting your mistakes to your team is rarely frowned upon.

Praise is potent. My team members are important, and I’ve found it effective to make sure they know this and are reminded regularly.

Communicate more. When I’m not communicating effectively with my team, they notice. It’s up to me to make sure they have what they need to do their jobs and understand the vision of the company.

Delivery is crucial. When giving feedback, word choice is imperative. Receiving bad news doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

Be approachable. I can’t expect my team members to approach me with delicate topics if I’m viewed as unpredictable or judgmental. Friendliness and empathy are fluffy words that work.

Ego is the enemy. As your responsibility and status increases, so too must your humility. Becoming a leader is a call to greater service.

Professionalism is key. Set a standard and stick to it. Everyone has a unique communication style; your inappropriate jokes or foul mouth will lose some well-meaning people, but a professional demeanor is suitable in every occasion.

Keep your cool. If you lose your cool, you become ineffective. Treat both good and bad events with equal stride.

Put your team first. I have to daily get over myself. It’s not about me. I was placed in a management role not for my own glorification, but for the glorification of those I serve.

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Yesterday, I shared a room with some brilliant leaders and discussed approaches to better communication. Here’s what I came away with.

Developing a rapport with those you regularly communicate with ensures that your viewpoints will be more readily accepted.

The best way to build trust with others is through being vulnerable. Show humility, admit mistakes, and be human.

Context is crucial. Make sure both you and the person you’re speaking with have the necessary context to understand each other’s viewpoint; don’t make assumptions.

People respond well to positive encouragement. Take advantage of opportunities to compliment good work.

When crafting emails, be mindful of others’ time and embrace brevity.

Make sure difficult conversations are had verbally rather than hiding behind email or other digital communication methods.

If you manage a team, regular one-on-one meetings with your team members goes a long way towards team health and trust.

And finally,

Shut the f*** up and listen.

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January 4, 2017

Give an opinion

Next time you’re working with your peers and trying in vain to come to a decision together as a group, here’s a suggestion:

Give your opinion. Make a decision for everyone. Then step back.

In working as a manager, I’ve often encountered the opinion vacuum, a place where everyone has an opinion but they may find it difficult to commit to it among the group.

To fill this opinion vacuum, give your opinion and watch as the right decision becomes more clear. Whether right or wrong, your opinion acts as a compass for others to follow:

“That a terrible idea! We should actually do [x].”

“Eh, I disagree. Maybe [x] instead.”

“Great idea! I totally agree!”

In the end, it’s not really about your opinion, but about helping others realize theirs.

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