5 ways to demoralize your tech employees (and the other ones too)

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 17, 2017

I’ve managed over 50 technology employees over my career – and have been managed as a tech lead for quite some time. Here are some hard-won lessons from my experience.

1. Be bossy.

We’ve all seen Steve Jobs running around Apple having tantrums in movies. Especially as a young manager, he did this often – before he learned there were better ways to manage. There’s a small place in the world for that. Being bossy doesn’t always fail, but it is a recipe for disaster. When you look at the inspiring example of Sheryl Sandberg and the transformations she wrought at Facebook, you can see the benefits of true leadership.  Leadership that is earned rather than cheap theatrics. Google has a culture that encourages cooperation and has created one of the most profitable companies in the world.

Ed Catmull is the founder of Pixar and the author of one of the best books on management, Creativity Inc. He explained what he saw as the core of good management:

I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.

Many managers seek to emulate the raging teenager in Steve Jobs mode. They take as their naive mantra, “Be Bossy.” That’s the quickest way to lose all your best people.

2. Create a culture of blame.

I used to work for a company that had a top-down culture of blame. I hadn’t realized how bad it was until after (I was working in a different division). I heard horror stories from people who now lead this group. They spoke of how the head of their group would yell at their boss for every failure. And then how their former boss would break phones and throw stuff against the wall and loom over their desk. There was a rigid process to follow that was almost impossible given the rate of work. Anyone who tried something new was personally blamed. The turnover rate was catastrophic. It took a herculean effort to transform this culture into one where people felt able to fail and innovate.

The worst companies are those that are built on a culture of blame – because this leads to the creation of bureaucracy – quoting Rory Sutherland:

Bureaucrats really love a formula because it prevents them from having to exercise judgment for which they might be blamed…

You can avoid blame by claiming what you did was entirely rational, and as if the act was therefore unavoidable because reason told me to do this. We scoped the market, did market research. It told us that people needed that. So we produced that. If you follow all the precepts and fail, you won’t get fired or blamed because you were rational. If you do something which is better, but involves a degree of human imagination or judgement, if it works, well and better, you might get a bit of credit but you probably will get people saying it would have been even better if you had followed reason. If it goes wrong, you’re fired.

Innovation comes when you take risk. And bureaucracy is it’s death.

To quote Eric Schmidt: “To innovate, you must learn to fail well.” Failure is inevitable. And a business needs to acknowledge that. The businesses that are best with technology are built on this assumption. For the company in question, this led to a rapid adoption of various technologies and the development of many new ones.

3. Don’t value your employees.

One of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever experienced was a cartoon villain of an attorney threatening a room full of employees that we could be “upgraded” in a week. It’s hard to feel motivated and to push yourself and to make the small right decisions everyday when you feel devalued. And the truth of technology is that doing it right is hard. It involves long-term thinking.  You need to design systems – and make decisions that allow you to scale. If you’re pushed to think short-term because you’re short-staffed or undermined or a pawn in political games, things will go okay for a while. Until they don’t. Those who sell and those who produce create value every day. But technology sets the foundation for them to create more value next year than they did today.

Never push loyal people to the point where they don’t give a damn

People aren’t interchangeable. They can’t just be upgraded like a faulty RAM drive. In the tech world where there is so much demand, that’s especially true. You especially need your tech team committed to making your company better and thinking long-term.

If you’re a decent person, a decent manager, an effective CEO, when asked the question of what made you successful…the answer is never “hard work” or “a great idea“. All of that helps. As does luck. (We all need to check our privilege.) But the one core common thing is a great team. This is a truism that Rory Cowan (former CEO of Lionbridge) stated at SlatorCon last week: “What someone buying your company is buying is ‘the next level’ of executives below the founder.” It’s probably one of his few areas of agreement with rival, Phil Shawe (co-CEO of TransPerfect). As Phil stated in his GlobalLink NEXT presentation as the key to the company’s growth:

– Find the best people.
– Align incentives.
– Get out of the way.

4. Be a Communist.

You can’t centralize everything. Anyone who promises to centralize all technology in a single group is promising to destroy innovation. Technology needs competing groups. It needs side projects. It needs, to quote Phil, controlled chaos.

What a tech company does need is to agree to the “rules of the road.” They need to agree on rules for competition and cooperation. But if you put one dictator above everyone, you will fail.

5. Being clueless about technology.

You don’t need to be an expert in technology to lead a tech company. After all, it was Steve Jobs, not Steve Wozniak, who ran Apple. But you do need to engage with the concepts and care about it. You need to have a base level understanding of what’s going on at minimum. And from there, you can often manage people rather then technology. The best tech CEOs need to be able to assert in clear principles their vision.

What you don’t want is to not know how to operate the most basic consumer technology. I once worked with an executive to whom I handed a set of Apple earpods. This was back in the day when Apple earpods still had wires and when there was still a headphone jack on the phone. (*Those were the days!*)

I handed the package over to the executive, and they looked at me quizzically. I assumed they just wanted me to open the package, so I did that, and handed the opened case over. They were still confused. So, I unwound the headphones and held them out. They asked me to explain how it worked – and I really wasn’t sure what to say. “These pieces go in the ears,” I said. “And you can talk normally, but the microphone is here.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. My frustration came when the same executive told me that they didn’t understand what tech people did all day. And then assumed that they must be lazy and drains on company profitability. Many companies have thought that over the years, but few of those companies continue to exist today. I was just lucky enough that another executive came along to guide my career from there.

Conclusion

It’s easy to say you’re a tech executive. It’s harder to be one. In the end, most of the things to avoid are the same things that you should avoid if you want to be a good person.

Retain humility. Don’t be bossy. Give credit to your employees. Encourage competition.

Despite everything, that’s one of the things I’ve always seen at TransPerfect. And one of the reasons I’ve been proud to be part of the great team we have had here.

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Are human beings redundant?

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 16, 2017

Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, interviewed on the Knowledge Project podcast, gave a great example of the what gets lost in automation, talking about the difference between an automated door and a doorman, pointing out that while an automated door offers the main benefit, it misses the ancillary benefits of a doorman from security to status to accepting deliveries:

This is a criticism that I have for Silicon Valley, that what they often do is they take something that a human does, they define it’s role very, very narrowly, devise an algorithm or technology which replaces that very narrow role and then assumes that the human being has become redundant…

You realize that what Silicon Valley is doing is sometimes they take the simplest and most salient part of someone’s job, replacing that, and then leaving the rest of the functions to go hang…

Quite a lot of these [jobs] have evolved to have multiple purposes of which one may be the most obvious; but that doesn’t mean if you replace the one with a technological solution, that all three somehow become miraculously technologized…

I’ve been to 3 conferences in the past 3 weeks: GlobalLink NEXT (for clients of Translations.com/TransPerfect’s translation and localization technologies); Tableau 2017 (for analysts and business intelligence experts); and SlatorCon New York (focusing on language services). Each of them has focused a lot on two concepts:

  • The growing importance of machine learning to businesses; and
  • How this machine learning still points to the paramount importance of people to an organization.

I’ll be writing about these concepts more in the coming weeks – as I think navigating between these two concepts will be the key for any organization in the coming decade.

A special thanks to Shane Madden of TransPerfect for pointing me to this podcast. As he said… It was brilliant.

 

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Water seeks its own level

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 9, 2017

As my father used to say:  Water seeks its own level.  I never knew what that meant as kid, but what I’ve learned as an adult is that it means if you do the right thing, over a long period, build love and trust with enough people and help make them successful, then you’ll be OK…maybe even better than OK.

Phil Shawe on ethics and karma.

Especially in an age with politics and current events as dark as ours has gotten, as corruption is rewarded and an obstinate refusal to negotiate results in windfall power, it’s important to realize that what you do matters over a long enough time horizon. To act honorably, and to realize that in the end, to quote clergyman Theodore Parker:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…

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The largest group of people you can convince to build a different future

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 5, 2017

New technology tends to come from new ventures — startups. From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by some sense of mission have changed the world for the better. The easiest explanation for this is negative: it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risk. In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now). At the other extreme, a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry. Startups work on the principle that you need to work with other people to get stuff done, but you also need to stay small enough so that you actually can.

Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think…[T]hat is what a startup has to do: question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.

Peter Thiel in the introduction to Zero to One.

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Building systems beyond our ability to intellectually manage

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 4, 2017

One of the smartest articles on software development and what it means that I’ve read:

Software is different. Just by editing the text in a file somewhere, the same hunk of silicon can become an autopilot or an inventory-control system. This flexibility is software’s miracle, and its curse. Because it can be changed cheaply, software is constantly changed; and because it’s unmoored from anything physical—a program that is a thousand times more complex than another takes up the same actual space—it tends to grow without bound. “The problem,” Leveson wrote in a book, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.”

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break…[In the case of major failures such as with Intrado:] The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination…

This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical. “The complexity,” as Leveson puts it, “is invisible to the eye.”

James Somers on The Coming Software Apocalypse in the Atlantic.

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A TransPerfect love story

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 3, 2017

Find the best people. Align incentives. Get out of the way.

(Or why I turned Google down)

Seven years ago this month, I started working at TransPerfect. Andy, with whom I had co-owned a small startup a few years before, recruited me for a small technology team here.

When I first joined, I considered TransPerfect to be a temporary gig. I saw it as a way station before I would go on to found my own company. As I started, I learned how the company’s core technologies came together and how the company produced work. I sat with the production and sales groups for a week, working with them, analyzing. I created a list of 11 suggestions consisting of small web apps and information passed via connectors to existing APIs. Together, they would help bridge some of the gaps that I could see causing frustration and pain. My suggestions weren’t taken seriously. As a result, I didn’t feel empowered to effect positive change – and that frustrated me. Moving on to another company seemed to make more and more sense. In early 2012, my boss quit and I started looking for options.

Changing course

Three events in rapid sequence changed the course of my career in early 2012:

1) I met with a senior manager who explained to me that they didn’t value technology. We didn’t add to the bottom line because we didn’t produce revenue. “All tech people were lazy,” they said. “Except you I guess.” (Probably because my jaw had dropped.) I didn’t see that as a ringing endorsement, and I began to look for a new job in earnest. If that’s what one of the most senior folks at the company thought…how could my team succeed? And how could the company succeed given the increasing importance of technology?

2) Because my boss had quit, I began to work with co-CEO Phil Shawe. It was sometimes frustrating. Phil would make a point adamantly. And though he wouldn’t direct me to take a course of action, he’d insist on trying his suggestion. That was fine. What was annoying was that he turned out to be right quite often. I couldn’t understand why – which made me realize that I had a lot to learn from him. The guidance he provided led me to better understand TransPerfect as a whole. I realized that while some senior managers dismissed technology, it obsessed him. He encouraged me to take his feedback, but also to disagree and to try out things on my own. In short, he empowered me to start tackling things I felt were important as well as what he did. I began to knock out my list of 11, rather than waiting on someone else to do it.

3) When I started to put my resume out there, Google started recruiting me. Google is my all-time favorite company. I had introduced my friends to Google in the late 90s after reading a blurb on the small company whose search was “like magic”. I was a Gmail and Chrome beta user. I tried out Google Wave while it crested. I mourned the loss of iGoogle. I have a Google Phone, a Google Home, a Google Chromecast. I tried unsuccessfully to introduce Gmail to TransPerfect. If there was one company, aside from one that I ran myself, that I would jump to, it was them.

The choice

Like LeBron, I had a decision to make. And it wasn’t an easy one.

The encounter with the senior executive lingered. They had made clear to me that I should treat the company as theirs – and that they saw my team’s hard work as waste. But Phil empowered me to treat the company like it was mine. I had a team and the backing of the co-CEO to try to made the company a better place.

So I turned Google down. I had begun to see TransPerfect as the best place to train me to be an entrepreneur.

Over the next year, I rolled out one small tool after another from my list. (I’m using the first person ungenerously. As I’ve written before, I would have achieved nothing without talented partners: Eugene K., Alex P., Chris M., Chris C., Bill B., and more.) Senior developers gave us guidance (thank you, Nils!) but we were mostly on our own.

The first web app we launched was adopted immediately. Within months, two of our tools generated well over half of the company’s quotes. It was clear we had found a need and fulfilled it. The second tool we put out in beta facilitated communication pass-offs between teams. Today, teams use it to exchange over 13 thousand messages a week. As success breeds success, people began to throw more projects at us – and we took on many of these as well.

TransPort

By 2013, my team had completed all but 1 of my 11 initial projects. The remaining one was the most ambitious. To facilitate communication between major apps that were inefficiently integrated.

I wanted to take this project on – but needed a handle to do so. I found it when Phil tasked me with creating a client “WOW” experience in replacing the company’s portal (working with Raja M.)

It was a frustrating ball of competing priorities – and we struggled to get adoption. The road to success began when we brought on the right team. Igor, Leroy, and Iskandar came on to stabilize the development team. And Nathan Gao brought a passion for user experience that transformed the product. (I’m missing so many people who contributed as the team grew  – Alric, Victoria, Madhur, Silviya, Lenny, Patti, Anto.)

In the end, we succeeded because the team was passionate, we challenged each other, and cared about the product. From that, came TransPerfect’s 3rd flagship product – TransPort.

Over the past 2 years (as explained at the just-finished GlobalLink NEXT conference), the product grew to over 20,000 enterprise users. Hundreds of companies submitting thousands of projects a week. With just about 100 trainings over all that time. (How’s that for user experience?)

There’s no better graph you want to see as an entrepreneur. It tells you that you’ve identified a need, and that your product fits it.  If the graph keeps going on long enough, then it reveals the most important thing: that you have the team that supports the problems of growth.

The TransPerfect model

As an aspiring entrepreneur, an “ambitious overachiever”, it makes a lot of sense for me to focus on founding a startup. There are upsides and downsides – but it best fits what I want out of life. That’s true of many people on my team. In fact – when I’m looking to hire someone – that’s one of the things I tell people: We run our team like a startup within a larger company. That is the key to the team’s and product’s success.

Eric Ries writes about this in his forthcoming book, The Startup Way, as a strategy more established companies need to adopt. Reading some of Ries’s interviews, I realized this approach is exactly what made TransPerfect attractive to me – and is what I tried to describe to people I was recruiting for the team.

Phil has managed to apply these principles, hard-won, over his career at TransPerfect – as evidenced by team after team that operates similarly to my own. It’s what has made all the difference over the 20+ year history and is why TransPerfect is now a leader in the field.

At GlobalLink NEXT last week, Phil summarized the core of what has driven the company to succeed:

– Find the best people.
– Align incentives.
– Get out of the way.

That this is what has made the company a success is generally agreed.

I can say that this is what enabled TransPort to succeed, as I applied the same principles to the product. And it is what empowered me to create the team in the first place.

I have always wanted to form my own company. But TransPerfect has offered me the experience of running a startup within a larger company. It remains a great place to exercise an entrepreneurial spirit. And so long as that’s true, I’ll continue to (as we say here of TPT spirit) bleed blue.

* I expect to get some grief for this headline from my colleagues. So be it.

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Done is better than perfect

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 2, 2017

Another one of my favorite posters at Facebook declares in big red letters, “Done is better than perfect.” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst. I agree completely with the advice offered by Nora Ephron in her Wellesley commencement speech when she addressed the issue of women having both a career and family. Ephron insisted, “It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.

Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In on page 125.

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The greatest chance of success comes from trial and error

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 27, 2017

Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

Bryan Appleyard quoting Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Sunday Times.

Taleb also cites the work of Philip Scranton who has demonstrated that:

the original developers of the jet engine had no idea of the theory behind it, which was only developed after the fact. The jet engine was arrived at through tinkering and rote trial and error.

The theory to explain why it worked came later.

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A product is useless without a platform

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 26, 2017

I came across an accidentally publicly shared Google Plus post by Steve Yegge years ago in which he described one of Amazon’s turning points…

[One day Jeff Bezos who] makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies…issued a mandate…

1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.

3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.

4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.

5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.

6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired…

There are without question pros and cons to the SOA approach, and some of the cons are pretty long. But overall it’s the right thing because SOA-driven design enables Platforms…

A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.

My excerpts are shit. Taking so much of the personal observations out of it. Read the whole thing. It’s an incredibly insightful piece of writing. A few years later, I read another angle of this from Brad Stone in his The Everything Store:

In the engineering department, employees were constantly trying to fix a technical infrastructure that was now an aging, sprawling mess. The company had outgrown the original framework devised by Shel Kaphan in the 1990s, the monolithic code base dubbed Obidos that for years was held together by what Amazon executive Werner Vogels later called “duct tape and WD40 engineering.” And when Amazon cloned its clunky code base to run the websites of Target and Borders, those deals were lucrative but they magnified the company’s infrastructure problems. Instead of fighting flames emanating from a single building, engineers often had to deal with a neighborhoodwide inferno.

Like a lot of other technology companies at the time, Amazon got an education in the wisdom of moving to a simpler and more flexible technology infrastructure, called service-oriented architecture. In this kind of framework, every feature and service is treated as an independent piece and each can easily be updated or replaced without breaking the whole.

Led by Amazon’s chief technology officer at the time, an avid pilot named Al Vermeulen, whom colleagues fondly called Al V., the company rebuilt its technology infrastructure as a series of these independent but interconnected parts. The awkward and extended transition to this new code base, one element of which Amazon called Gurupa (after a section of the Amazon river where the tributaries diverged), took over three years and caused all kinds of excruciating pain…

Brad Stone in The Everything Store (pp. 201-202). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

This type of pivot is tough for any company to make. And it’s really only possible in a company that values technology. For in a company that doesn’t, the next day’s sales take priority.

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The fine balance between structure and mess

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 21, 2017

Lindsey Collins & Andrew Stanton

“I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.”

Lindsay Collins as quoted in Ed Catmull’s absolutely excellent Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization (Kindle Locations 3534-3538). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Incidentally, the definition of good project management I’ve always given to people who I’ve worked with is almost exactly her conclusion:

[Y]ou need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.

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