This past weekend, Jerome Bettis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Normally, I wouldn’t associate with anything Steelers-related, but his acceptance speech was particularly good. Semil Shah of Haystack also enjoyed it, and took the time to transcript the last bit:
Greatness is not a sports term — it’s a life term. I believe there are four things that get you to greatness. One, you gotta have the ability to sacrifice. A lot of times that means sacrificing the relationships that mean the most to you. The second thing is pain. You’re gonna have to go through some type of pain in your life — either physical or mental — and you’ve got to find a way to endure. The third one is failure. You’ve got to have the ability to understand that you’re going to fail, but it’s how you recover that makes you a better person. And the last, the fourth one, is love, because if you love it, then, it’s not a job — it’s a passion. And if you love it, you’re willing to sacrifice for it, you’re willing to go through all types of pain for it, and you are willing to go through that failure and understand that ‘I will be successful.’ If you go through those four things and understand [them], … then success is in your path. Greatness is available to you.
Nick Bilton in yesterday’s New York Times:
Mr. Jobs said he wanted freshly squeezed orange juice.
After a few minutes, the waitress returned with a large glass of juice. Mr. Jobs took a tiny sip and told her tersely that the drink was not freshly squeezed. He sent the beverage back, demanding another.
A few minutes later, the waitress returned with another large glass of juice, this time freshly squeezed. When he took a sip he told her in an aggressive tone that the drink had pulp along the top. He sent that one back, too.
My friend said he looked at Mr. Jobs and asked, “Steve, why are you being such a jerk?”
Mr. Jobs replied that if the woman had chosen waitressing as her vocation, “then she should be the best.”
Cool story, read the whole thing to see why.
App Camp For Girls is on a mission: we encourage girls to pursue app development as a career by teaching them how to make iPhone apps in a fun, creative summer camp program under the mentorship of women developers. We are shifting the gender balance in our industry. App Camp 3.0 is the next stage in bringing the program to more girls in more locations!
There’s a few days left in this wonderful campaign. I’ve supported them, and I hope you do too.
When someone is in a leadership position for the first time, their tendency is to feel responsible for everything. They define leadership as the ability to make all decisions and be the focal point of their team’s output. On the surface this is a noble effort, but the rookie leader doesn’t yet see the full picture.
Leadership is not just about one person doing everything. Leadership is about lifting the team up. It’s about making the collective better than the individuals. And it’s about leaving the team better than it was before. Great leaders don’t try and do everything forever, great leaders replace themselves.
To illustrate the point here’s a common story I’ve seen many times:
Meet Rachel1. She was recently promoted to be the head of her company’s engineering product team. The team is small with only about 6 full-time engineers but they do fantastic work. Before her promotion, Rachel was on a small product team as an engineer herself. Many on her team agree that she is the best engineer in the company. She has great leadership skills and she can speak to customers, management, and the technical team with confidence. She was a natural fit to fill the recently vacated team lead role.
Rachel’s first few weeks as the team lead were a breeze. She was still able to write a lot of code and help the team get better. Her team respected her and they came to her with their code puzzles, bugs, challenges, and ideas. She loved being able to help on each of the team’s projects and everyone’s work became better because Rachel was leading the team. Quality increased, speed increased, and the customers were happy with a steady stream of new features.
As the months in her new position went by, this cycle continues. Rachel is the focal point of the team. She immerses herself in every project and every decision. She loves it. She finally has the ability to speak into all aspects of her team and the team respects and craves her decisions. Everyone comes to Rachel for every crucial decision. She reviews all code before it is released. She white-boards architecture before every project kick-off. She handles indecision between the other engineers by making quick moves about which new cool framework to use. Rachel’s presence at the helm of her team is undeniable. She is so relied upon by her team that she often hears “I don’t know what we’d do without you.” This is extremely satisfying to Rachel, as she remembers back to a time not so long ago where she wasn’t even leading a team yet.
The company’s executive team catches wind of how awesome Rachel is. They already know her as a great engineer but now she can lead a team of her peers with ease. This is perfect because the company has a big new initiative coming up: a new product offering that they want to take to market next year. Rachel is again the natural choice to lead the new team and make it just as awesome as her current team. The decision is made, and Rachel is given a few weeks to transition to the new product team.
But wait. How can Rachel leave her current team? They rely on her for everything. Every line of code goes through her. She makes every major architecture decision. Every framework dispute is solved by her. Her team is full of smart engineers, but none of them have had to think about bigger decisions since Rachel took over the team. They have loved being able to just focus on their code and leave the high-level decisions entirely to Rachel. She is the focal point of the team and without her the team wouldn’t be able to function. At best the team would have setbacks as someone else was brought up to speed.
I’ve seen this scenario several times over the past few years. What’s the problem? Why would a team leader not want to make themselves the key focus and have everything go through them? Not only is that satisfying for them it allows the team to focus on doing great work rather than making every decision. There’s two pieces wrong with this thinking. First, no one on the team feels the desire to step up because there is no reason for them to. And second, the leader can’t move on to do anything else without damaging the team. A great leader is always working on finding and training their replacement. Their #2.
If you’re leading a team, stop and think: Who is my #2? Who am I training to replace me? Who am I lifting up so they can take my position when I move on to do something else? Am I actively working with my team to take more responsibility, or am I shielding them from it? These questions terrify many leaders. The insecure ones fear for their jobs. They fear being replaced and they fear someone else under them being good enough to take their jobs. If you’re happy being in the same position for your entire career, then don’t bother with your replacement. But if you’re ambitious and want to do bigger things then part of your job is finding a responsible way to leave your team in great hands.
Let’s finish Rachel’s story: She’s not able to take the new position to build the company’s new product right away. But she’s smart. She knows that another opportunity will come up, and the company will come asking again. So this time she puts her head down and gets to work preparing for that day. She identifies a great young talented developer, Jim, on her team that has been chatting in their one-on-ones about one day leading his own team. Perfect. Rachel’s potential #2 has been identified in Jim. She pours into him. She not only makes decisions and ensures quality of work for her team but she brings Jim into those decisions. She thinks out loud and allows Jim to ask questions about her thought process at every turn. It doesn’t happen overnight, but soon Rachel defers most of these decisions to the team, including Jim. The team recognizes this and also rallies behind Jim. Rachel is now better equipped to lead her team because she’s not running point on every day-to-day decision. She’s also set the team up for success regardless of her involvement.
As Rachel suspected, the next big opportunity in the company comes within another few months. The executive team once again turns to her and this time she’s ready. She recommends Jim to take over her team. After a period of transition, Rachel is now in charge of one of the company’s biggest initiatives to date. Her old team is still running at a high pace and hasn’t skipped a beat because its leadership is already in place. By the time the announcement of Jim’s new position comes, the title is just a formality because everyone knows he’s already been doing the job. And, he’s learned from Rachel well. He immediately starts working on finding his #2.
Bad leaders are afraid of being replaced. They fear the young upstart on their team that is slowly taking more and more responsibility. They work themselves into every situation, every meeting, and make themselves irreplaceable. Great leaders quickly identify their replacements2 and train them to ensure the team’s long-term success. Great leaders want to tackle new challenges. They want to be replaced so they can move on to something even better.
Mathias Meyer, CEO of Travis CI:
There’s one fundamental mistake in both using and looking for culture fit as a means for hiring: You’re assuming that your current culture is healthy and doesn’t need to be changed.
Using culture fit as a reason to fire or not to hire says more about you than it says about them. It says that you’re not willing to dig deep and figure out what exactly you think doesn’t match in your expectation and a candidates personality. It shows that your culture is a fixed property of your company and team, one that can’t be changed, one that is exactly where you want it to be.
Culture fit is a reason to continue maintaining the status quo.
From the great Farnam Street blog:
A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”
Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed - incapable of doing anything.”
It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. Remember to put the glass down!
Wayne Chang’s story of how a small team at Crashlytics built Answers, their incredibly popular analytics service, is really great. The whole thing is quotable, but I love this part especially showing the power of a small, focused team:
After taking a sip of coffee and setting my bag down next to my desk, I fired up my laptop. 20 tabs proceeded to unwind, like a dealer shuffling cards. Opening one of the tabs in my browser, I wasn’t quite sure I was reading it right. My tab had SourceDNA open, one of the most comprehensive data sources for mobile developers, and it listed Answers above Google. In fact, we were number 2, just behind Flurry.
I mean, Flurry was acquired by Yahoo for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Here, it was saying that we had done in a few months what it took Flurry nearly 10 years to do — and with just six people on our team.
Natalie Nagele on the Wildbit Blog:
On the last retreat in April, we asked the entire team to read Ben’s Good/Bad essay. Everyone then spent an hour writing out what they think makes a good or bad developer, designer, QA engineer, etc. We wanted each person to put their expectations down for their teammates. We then regrouped and read them all out loud. We made comments and put together common themes. Finally, each team (designers, developers, QA, success, etc) broke away, and started crafting their own essay on what makes a good/bad ___.
I love this approach to setting job expectations and clarity around what makes a role great. Kudos to the Wildbit team for sharing their documents for the community to review and use.
I launched this site twenty years ago (a year before the Wayback Machine, at least two years before Google) and it was one of the only places you could read and learn about web design. I launched at a tilde address (kids, ask your parents), and did not think to register zeldman.com until 1996, because nobody had ever done anything that crazy.
At a recent fireside chat, we discussed average versus great work, average companies versus great companies, and average careers versus great careers. Most everyone can quickly describe great work, especially in the form of design, development, or a particular product launch. But we had a tougher time describing the qualities of a company that had achieved greatness. The question seemed impersonal and cold. What if we flipped the question to a different angle and asked a more personal question: What are the hallmarks of a great individual career? What are the hallmarks of simply an average career?
We came up with a giant list, including just a few here:
- In a great career, my work became an inspiration for others.
In an average career, my work had little lasting significance.
- In a great career, I grew myself and grew others around me.
In an average career, I only grew myself.
- In a great career, I celebrated victories.
In an average career I rarely celebrated.
- In a great career, I continually pursued new things and pioneered new ideas.
In an average career, I sometimes flirted with new things and executed on others’ ideas.
- In a great career I created an inheritance for my family.
In an average career, I provided for my family.
- In a great career, I overcame obstacles and persevered through adversity.
In an average career, I was rarely challenged.
- In a great career, I spent time with my kids while they were growing up.
In an average career, I worked all of the time.
- In a great career, I enjoyed the journey and the destination.
In an average career, I enjoyed only the destination.
- In a great career, I reached something that others said couldn’t be done.
In an average career, I never reached for something big.
And, one of my favorites:
- In a great career, I looked forward to Mondays.
In an average career, I looked forward to Fridays.
The list goes on. Once we got the ball rolling it was tough to stop thinking of the differences between great careers and average careers.
Throughout the discussion, it was important to clarify that an average career does not mean a “bad” career. There’s nothing wrong with “average.” Many people have average careers. They provide for their families, they have a steady paycheck, they do their work well, they eventually advance in their positions. There’s nothing dishonorable about an average career. But we’re not reaching for average, we’re reaching for something great.
When I look back upon my life’s work I want to see a great career. I want to see great impact. I want to see a tradition of new ideas, creative thinking, and a pattern of challenging status quo.
The secret formula to building a great company is filling it with people that want to achieve greatness themselves and in their life’s work. A great company is not simply a corporate entity doing all of the thinking and the planning for us. We are the company and our life’s works shape its future.
The exercise of discussing great versus average is a healthy act in discerning what is important to us as individuals so that we can archieve greatness together. Once we had identified what defined greatness for the individual, we easily swapped the words ‘career’ with ‘company’ to chart our path as a group.
Benedict Evans nails it:
But for an actual brand, developer or publisher wondering if they should do an app or a website, I generally answer that the calculation is much simpler and less technical:
Do people want to put your icon on their home screen?
Do you have the kind of relationship, and proposition, that people will want to engage with it enough to put your icon on their phone? If the answer to this is yes, then you should have an app - if only because the app store is the way to do that that people understand, and they’ll look for you in the app store. Once that app is there, you can leverage all the interesting and sophisticated things that you might do with it, or you might manage the flow of information just like your website, but the app has to be there.
And, he adds:
In either of these cases - whether you have an app and a website or just a website, you should presume that your customers will engage with you only on mobile.
The transformation to Scrum was scary, messy, confusing — even emotional. We had to forget what we knew about building software and take a leap of faith. Truthfully, there were times we weren’t sure we’d come out the other side. But like when Andy Dufresne crawled out of the pipe at the end of Shawshank Redemption, our perseverance paid off.
Software development became collaborative; Product Managers and Developers began working together — no more silos. Software development became iterative; we shipped customer value every single week — no more monolithic projects. […]
We were so focused on figuring out how Agile Scrum could improve the way we build software that we didn’t consider how design fits into this new way of working. Design got left behind.
Figuring out how to ‘fit’ a true creative design flow into the Agile process has been difficult for us to grasp as well. They’ve illustrated a common pitfall very well:
One of the lessons we learned when we moved to Agile Scrum was that there’s no such thing as a purely technical problem, just as there’s no such thing as a purely business problem. Each problem in software development is a bit of both, and solving it therefore demands collaboration and teamwork across disciplines. We completely overlooked this important lesson when we tried to solve our problems with design. This all but guaranteed our inevitable failure.
Great read in the this week’s New Yorker about Marc Andreessen. The whole thing is great, but I especially liked this bit about some advice to Mark Zuckerberg:
In 2006, Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for a billion dollars, and Accel Partners, Facebook’s lead investor, urged Mark Zuckerberg to accept. Andreessen said, “Every single person involved in Facebook wanted Mark to take the Yahoo! offer. The psychological pressure they put on this twenty-two-year-old was intense. Mark and I really bonded in that period, because I told him, ‘Don’t sell, don’t sell, don’t sell!’ “ Zuckerberg told me, “Marc has this really deep belief that when companies are executing well on their vision they can have a much bigger effect on the world than people think, not just as a business but as a steward of humanity — if they have the time to execute.” He didn’t sell; Facebook is now worth two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.
People rarely schedule working time. And when they do it’s viewed as second-tier time. It’s interruptible. Meetings trump working time. Why? And why so often are the same people who assign deadlines the same ones reassigning all of your time? Crazymaking. They should be securing work time for you and protecting it fiercely.
Why are you letting other people put things on your calendar? The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them. It’s been allocated to you to complete tasks. Why are you taking time away from your coding project to go to a meeting that someone you barely know added you to without asking and without the decency to have submitted an agenda?
Andrew Bosworth, engineer at Facebook:
Being kind isn’t the same as being nice. It isn’t about superficial praise. It doesn’t mean dulling your opinions. And it shouldn’t diminish the passion with which you present them.
Being kind is fundamentally about taking responsibility for your impact on the people around you. It requires you be mindful of their feelings and considerate of the way your presence affects them.
Great, honest story about a very common problem. Kudos to him for sharing.
Andrew Wilkinson, of MetaLab, on how his team designed Slack:
In July 2013, I got an email from Stewart Butterfield. I recognized his name immediately. I was a big fan of Flickr, which he co-founded and sold to Yahoo, and we were both based in the Pacific Northwest. He had big news: he was shutting down Glitch, the game he’d started in 2009, and was working on something new. He wanted us to design his new team chat app.
I groaned to myself. We were avid users of Campfire, and had tested out the many copycat products that had come out over the years. I felt the problem had already been solved. It was a crowded market and knew it would be difficult to make his product stand out from the crowd. Regardless, I was excited to get a chance to work with Stewart, and thought it would be fun to solve some of the issues that we•d had with Campfire. We shook hands, kicked things off, and rolled up our sleeves.
When he pulled back the curtain and shared their early prototype on day one, it looked like a hacked together version of IRC in the browser. Barebones and stark. Just six weeks later, we had done some of the best work of our careers. So, how did we get from hacky browser IRC to the Slack we all know and love?
Slack is an amazing success story about a product that came into a fairly saturated market and took it all away by being smarter and better designed. I couldn’t imagine not using Slack every day as we grow our business.
Great piece by Mark Leslie on First Round Review:
Successful enterprises have a cycle of life. Startups build a product or service, enter the market and attract customers. Once they’re over these initial hurdles, they enter a growth phase, rapidly increasing their revenue and market share with big gains year-over-year. They continue to work on their product, fine-tuning it as revenue starts to flatten and margins stabilize at lower but still attractive levels.
As these companies mature, growth slows even more, eventually flattening out — yet operational expenses continue to climb as they strive to compete with new players in the market. Finally, unable to keep up, burdened with bloated budgets, companies spiral into negative growth, marked by layoffs, high burn rates and eventual bankruptcy or liquidation.
This paints a pretty bleak picture — especially if one considers the inevitability of this pattern — but it’s important to note that this cycle plays out over drastically different time lines for different companies. Many successful companies have prolonged their relevance for decades, and some for over a century. Technology companies are just like “real companies” except that the cycle is shorter so everything happens faster.
I love his explanation of the so-called Opportunity-Driven leaders:
You can identify this type of leader by their ability to not just see the future but seize it, their comfort with unconventional strategies, and their acceptance of bold risk. They don’t measure their success by rankings, quarterly earnings or liquidity events. They have a more grandiose vision to change the world, build a global brand, upend an existing industry.
People often ask me, “What is the biggest barrier to your company’s success?” The answer is always the same: finding and hiring great people. I’m not alone. This problem is top-of-mind for nearly every company I know. Finding a list of names isn’t difficult — there are tools out there to make searching and networking quite easy. The difficult part is figuring out if someone has the right blend of skills to be successful and make an impact.
Over the past three years, we’ve been very successful at finding great people that fit and grow our company culture. Some of the hiring wins were intentional and by design. Other wins, I’ll admit, were happy accidents. The common thread throughout every great hire (and every hiring blunder) was simple: the balance between hard and soft skills.
The Hard Skills
Most companies focus hiring on hard skills. If you’re a developer: can you write great code? Can you solve complex architecture problems? Can you self-manage your tasks? Can you ship code on time, without a lot of bugs? If you’re a designer: Can you use Photoshop? Do you have a great feel for user-experience design? Are you well-versed in color theory, typography, and whitespace? I could ask these questions in an interview and get a basic idea of how adept someone is at the hard skills for the job.
Asking questions is easy, yet hard-skills interviews are tough. How can you tell in a limited amount of time how someone will perform when given the tasks of the job? The tech industry has done a poor job of assessing hard skills in recent years. There are horror stories from established tech companies weaved with tales of confusing white-board drills, puzzles, and lame exercises that seem more geared toward fueling the interviewer’s ego than identifying a great candidate. Even if someone passes these tricks and teasers with flying colors that doesn’t mean they will be a great fit for a company, or will even be any good at their job.
The challenge of hard-skills interviewing can be solved by not relying entirely on those skills. In other words, hard skills are important, but they aren’t everything.
The Soft Skills
There are many soft skills that make up great people and great teammates: Leadership. Critical thinking. Empathy. Humility. The ability to handle stressful situations with clarity. If this was a grade school report card, we’re also trying to check the all-important box that reads “plays well with others.” Soft skills are crucial to assess during the interview process, and they are often overlooked in favor of great hard skills.
Great emotional intelligence — which I’ll loosely define as identifying and using emotions to communicate effectively with those around you — is the biggest difference maker between good and great hires. Emotional intelligence is watching someone’s facial expressions when you’re talking with them. Are they interested? Are they leaning forward or frequently looking away? Are they engaging with two-way conversation or have they been talking for the past 10 minutes uninterrupted? If someone can’t pick up on the nuances of a normal conversation, then they have room to grow in their soft skills. Poor emotional intelligence leads to awkward situations, mistrust, and productivity misfires.
We’ve all worked with someone that went on long tangents in meetings and dominated every conversation. Eventually it doesn’t even matter what this person is saying. They may be on the right side of a debate, and they often are, but the room has tuned them out. This person doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to realize that they are monologuing and everyone has turned them off. When we focus on hiring people with great soft skills, we keep people like this out of our company.
Soft skills are important, but just like hard skills they aren’t a silver bullet. Depending on someone’s specific role, they will always need to have some amount of hard skills. If they are a programmer, no amount of emotional intelligence is going to write that line of code. The perfect employee and teammate is someone that matches hard skills with soft skills.
The Perfect Balance
Most companies hire for a majority of hard skills and some passable soft skills. They bring in someone with great technical skills, but find out later that no one wants to work with that person because they have such a huge ego or they are miserable to be around. This type of hire is cancerous to a company culture. I don’t care how great someone is at design, if they are a jerk and treat people without respect they have no place on my team.
I believe in a 50/50 split between hard and soft skills. This means that we emphasize the ability to relate with others, the ability to think critically, and the ability to work with other humans with just the same (if not higher) priority than someone’s ability to use Photoshop, or write amazing code. Many companies hire with a huge emphasis on hard skills. The opposite is also true. If someone is emotionally aware, a joy to work with, and always brings clever ideas to the table yet they show few hard skills then the chance of a hiring success is also slim. The ideal situation is a pure balance.
Universities and colleges have known this for decades. It’s the reason your parents pushed you to join clubs and put outside activities on your college applications in addition to your GPA. University admissions officers know that just because someone earns good grades that doesn’t make them a well-rounded person to bring into their school. Yet, so many companies do exactly the opposite when looking to hire: they find the best, smartest, and most talented people and bring them on board without thought around soft skills and cultural fit. I want that kid that earned good grades and was able to live their life outside of a classroom, learning how to relate to and work with others.
With a clear focus on the balance between hard and soft skills, we can hire a company of people that are well-adjusted, smart, great at their jobs, and great at working together.
Dr. Travis Bradberry on Emotional Intelligence for Inc.com:
When the concept of emotional intelligence was introduced to the masses, it served as the missing link in a peculiar finding: people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70 percent of the time. This anomaly threw a massive wrench into what many people had always assumed was the sole source of success—IQ. Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack. […]
Of all the people we’ve studied at work, we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence. On the flip side, just 20 percent of bottom performers are high in emotional intelligence. You can be a top performer without emotional intelligence, but the chances are slim.
Danny Sullivan on growing the old-fashioned way:
It’s what I once called the “SimCity” model of growing. I used to often play the game years ago. I would take two approaches. One was to use the “FUNDS” cheat to get all the money I needed to build everything at once. But in doing this, I often found my cities built that way didn’t thrive. Instead, naturally growing my city slowly over time allowed it to stablize [sic] and do well.
Third Door Media has taken this SimCity natural approach, over the years. Our growth has continued. Two years ago, we were even able to take money out to return to some of our early employees, who have shares in the company. We’ve made the Inc. 5000 list four times in a row. We’ve done three hires this year and have several others planned, bringing our overall staff to nearly 50 people. This will all be funded by our own revenues, not because we had VC money pouring in. We also have a solid cash balance in the bank because our CEO Chris Elwell is dead serious (and right) on being conservative and being prepared.