I recently did the keynote talk for the Puget Sound Python users group, and while it wasn’t filmed, I had a couple of requests that I post the material somewhere. Here you go!
Going from an engineer to someone who can manage people and execute on the company vision takes a commitment to changing yourself, changing your environment, and changing how you relate to others. There are three key areas that I had to work on and will be striving towards for the rest of my life. They are: (1) your people skills, (2) a will to change, and (3) your support network.
First, let’s take a look at people skills. You need to lose your contempt for interpersonal skills. You may be one badass engineer, but if you cannot communicate your purpose and assign tasks to your subordinates in such a way that they’re enthused about the tasks you set for them, you can’t be an executive. That’s it. Learn to rephrase your requests and statements about situations in a positive way. Many engineers are uncomfortable about dealing with people, and you’ll need to not only lose that discomfort, but actively enjoy employing your people skills. Note that I don’t say that you have to actively enjoy people. I’m a full-bore introvert, and dealing with people takes it out of me if I cannot escape and recharge. However, I can always enjoy that I have a skill, and that I’m getting better at using it every day.
If you don’t like social media, tough cookies. You need fans and connections. These are people that you can transmit ideas to, and from whom you get updates on how the world thinks and works. Make the connections on LinkedIn and open up your Twitter and Facebook profiles. You won’t be able to hide what you say anyway, and you may as well keep your lack of privacy in mind. You no longer get to bury your head in the sand when it comes to social issues. You’ll need to keep updated on meaningful news. There would be no excuse for a leader of people who made a tone deaf crack about protesters the day after the Ferguson grand jury decision because s/he didn’t know what was happening in the world. You can be yourself on social media, but you cannot treat your public pronouncements as if they reflect only on you now. I am communicative on social media, but I don’t complain about individual people anymore, no matter how bad the customer service was. I have the ability to point attention at issues, and as a representative of my company regardless of how many disclaimers I put in bios, I have to respect that I’d be punching down, not up. Remember the same.
The last thing on people skills, and the hardest lesson I’m still working on is this: don’t be the smartest person in the room. That’s a direct quote from a mentor of mine. It was an especially hard lesson for me to learn. As a female engineer, I’ve been screaming for 15 years that I’m right, that my code is good enough, that my solution works, and that I belong in this room with the rest of the engineers. I’ve had to shift my approach a lot. Now, what matters is that the people that I’m talking with feel like they’re heard, not that I’m smart. That is how they’ll build consensus on the right way to solve a problem. If you figure out how to do this, please tell me.
Second, let’s talk about your personal will to change your life and grow. This is a very difficult topic, because it has to do with social class, judgment, and your own goals. There’s a common phenomenon among professional athletes and musicians who succeed dramatically. Those among them who came from less privileged backgrounds often will struggle with negative influences from the people who loved and supported them while they were on the way up. I have friends and dear loved ones who have loved and supported me, but are still fighting to give up drugs, get out of prison, and get their lives together. I can love them and be there for them to the best of my ability without being pulled into problems I have no power to fix. Think very hard about the people you surround yourself with. The motivational speaker Jim Rohn very famously said that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I choose to be around people that I like AND admire. I think of people who I respect for their kindness, entrepreneurial spirit, irrepressible joy, courtesy, intelligence, and strength, and then I figure out if we like the same comic books and TV shows (thee must like Arrow or I will not have to do with thee). Those are the people I try to spend my time with.
Develop your own sense of judgment about people to the point that you’ve learned to trust your instincts about someone’s character before you start making final hiring decisions. I screw up sometimes, and I make mistakes all the time. However, we have built a culture at Fizzmint that ultimately reflects my personal decisions about people’s characters, and I have to trust that I make good decisions while always being willing to revisit those choices if needed later. You are going to start learning to consciously harness the judgments you make about people, because if you don’t, you’ll judge unconsciously. That’s how poor hiring decisions get made, like hiring a team of nothing but straight white men and thinking it’s because they’re the only ones tough enough to stand up for their coding choices. Without examining how you judge others, you’ll do so without thought. Don’t not think.
If there’s any one thing I can tell you about being a different person and one that others will respect, it’s this: be on time. People who are habitually punctual have a whole lot of other life skills nailed down. They manage their time well. They’re honest with themselves about how long tasks will take. They have the logistics of their city and transport down. They respect you and your time. They have built time into their day for small tasks, often after they’ve arrived early to meetings. They likely sleep and eat on a healthier schedule. I and everyone else understand that sometimes you cannot help being late. There’s a difference, however, between someone whose definition of ‘on time’ is 5 minutes late, and who arrives more than 15 minutes late half the time, and a person who arrives early or on time 19 out of 20 times. The habitually late person is not honest with themselves about their commitments and how long their day will take to execute on–or they’re pushovers about letting others dictate their schedule. That’s not someone I want managing others. The more time I spend with the people who run companies, the more I realize that this is one of the unstated expectations on people who should be trusted with making decisions. When I set up coffee with a fellow CEO, s/he is nearly never late. That’s even in Seattle, which has a truly terrible transportation system, and which can unexpectedly jam up with hours of traffic and overpacked buses and trains.
Develop your personality and interests outside technology. I have lots and lots of interests, side projects, hobbies, and fun things I do. I have to, or I would be a deadly dull person with a stultifying lack of stories, points of commonality, and conversation openers. I like reading audiobooks, and I’m currently running a Kickstarter to bring Frankenstein’s Creature’s favorite book to audiobook for the first time ever. I helped found and currently am on the board of Hack The People, the world’s largest tech mentorship initiative. I help underrepresented hackers propose to speak through Defcon Unlocked and Infosec Unlocked. I take cat pictures and read and play WoW and do triathlons and cook. If you don’t have a cool hobby and some volunteer commitments, get some, or you’ll be boring. Also, you’ll miss out on personal growth and contributing to your community.
Finally, let’s talk about your support network. There is nothing, NOTHING more important than your mentors and mentees. Your colleagues can come and go, but you MUST develop tight relationships with people who want to teach you, and whom you can teach. You never really learn something until you teach it, and you need to pass on what you learn. This blog is part of how I pass on information to people, after I filter it through my own experience and understanding. I’ve been given truly terrible advice, and truly spectacular advice, but the common thread there is this: someone cared enough to try to help me.
Join your professional association or a group of people who do the job you’re currently doing and the job you want to be doing. Learn from them. Treat your network like a million dollars, because that’s literally what they are to you. Create weak and strong ties to people in your community and in your virtual network. Find a person you admire online that you’ve never met in real life, and tell them that you admire them. You might be surprised at the result. Most of what people face when they’re public-facing is criticism, anger, and second-guessing (unless you’re Taylor Swift, in which case bless your heart, honey). It’s always nice to hear that someone’s picking up what you’re putting down.
Add some comments about your best tricks and tips for how you transitioned from engineering to executive work, and post your questions. I’ll do my best and point you at the right people if I don’t know the answer!