jstanier Here be dragons.

The vulnerable hero

The latest Star Wars film, aside from being generally excellent, is a strong parable in leadership. Rey and Finn show the characteristics of the most likable movie heroes: a strong will to do what’s right, courage in difficult situations, and a transparent vulnerability in the face of danger. These are characters that we can clearly relate to, and rally support for, in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Back in the real world, I’ve seen managers and leaders who are afraid to show that vulnerability.  It is hidden under the pretence that, if revealed, it will be exposed as a weakness. However, this really isn’t true. A lack of vulnerability is cold, hard to judge and, fundamentally, isn’t human. I would much rather interact with those who are open about their challenges and difficulties, because we can then share our fears and overcome them together, as humans do so well in great tales from fiction and non-fiction. 

I’ve found remaining vulnerable challenging though, especially when moving into more senior roles: people are looking to you for the answers in challenging personal situations, or during large, tricky projects. If you’re worried as well, your team might not get the answer they expect. But think of the opposite of not remaining openly vulnerable: not exposing it is, at its essence, deception. Being open about our vulnerabilities enables the growth of trust; it’s the pinky promise at the edge of the cliff. Let’s be vulnerable together.

Plans

I’ve read a number of books recently that are staunch advocates of having concrete plans. Plans for today. Plans for the week ahead. Plans for the year ahead. Some even encourage people to regularly keep dream-like lists of what should be happening to them in 10 years from now. If you write it down then you commit to it. You can even get a friend to share their own plans so that you can hold each other accountable.

If I was to admit that everything that I’ve done was due to a solid plan, then I would be lying. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, for over two years I was convinced I’d be going to work as a software developer as soon as I’d graduated. I digested job boards and mailing lists, making shortlists every month. However, as I approached my final exams, there was a great chance to apply for Ph.D. funding. It felt right and I went for it, and that experience taught me more about myself than anything I’ve ever undertaken.

Similarly, during the Ph.D. itself I was completely convinced that I was going to be moving into a post-doctoral research position afterwards. I had interviews at Imperial College London and Royal Holloway, and I was applying to anything I could find advertised. Yet, completely out of the blue I had a call from a small Brighton-based tech company called Brandwatch. They were looking for engineers and it was a 15 minute walk to the office. It felt right and I went for it, and that seems to be working out OK as well.

Plans that are too solid can often set you up for failure and disappointment. If you tie yourself to achieving specific objectives, then the chance of not attaining them gets higher, which leaves you at risk of being disappointed even if you are doing brilliantly. Instead, isn’t it better to aim for fuzzier things, such as being secure, being passionate about what you’re doing, and making a difference no matter where you are in the world? It respects the unpredictable nature of the infinite outcomes of any moment of your life. It might encourage you that it’s OK to do something more wild, or that it’s OK to stay where you are and be appreciative of what you already have.

It’s great to have a plan, but it’s only celestial navigation. You never know what you might bump into along the way.

Time is your currency

Ding.

You have a new direct message. You click on it to read it. Afterwards you find yourself wandering around the rest of the website, looking at the latest posts.

Ding.

You have a new email. Your friends have shared some content that might be of interest to you. You click on it to go to the website and read it. The link opens in a pop-up window that ensures you’re back on the same site when you’re done. You scroll through the latest news after closing it. You forgot what you were doing ten minutes previously.

Ding.

Notifications can become exceptionally overwhelming if we don’t keep them under control. Websites are fighting for our time because, quite simply, our time is what we pay with to use these services for free. The longer you linger, the more likely you are to see advertisements. The more you engage and reveal your browsing patterns, the more likely you are to get better adverts tailored to you.

Ding.

When you sit in a quiet room on your own, what do you reach for? When you reach for it, what do you do on it? Are you mindfully partaking in this activity? Try and think critically about the steps that you are taking, considering whether you wanted to do this, or whether you are just going through subconscious motions.

Ding.

The ability to focus on a small amount of worthwhile things is what makes the difference in your lifetime to come. It’s OK to ignore that email until later. If you want to see the content that your friends are sharing, do so because you have chosen to.

I fought hard with digital overwhelm in the last few years. Now I try my best to batch up my communication, where possible, into a couple of discrete blocks each day. I’ve turned off most of the notifications on my phone. I try to close Slack when I don’t need to communicate anything. I try to keep only one or two browser tabs open at work. One thing at a time.

Between all of these distractions you can find a surprising amount of calm. Breeze can blow over the brain.

Ding.

Where was I?

Not knowing

I’m sure that you’ve seen either a film, a TV show or a cartoon where the teacher turns to the class and asks a question, only to see that no child raises their hand. At that moment, the teacher singles out one of the children and puts them on the spot.

“Suzie, what’s the answer?”

“I don’t know, Miss”, the girl replies, blushing.

The rest of the class proceed to titter at her misfortune, relieved at the fact that they’ve not been chosen themselves. Not knowing things in school could be cruel and humiliating.

With technology, not knowing is an admirable thing. It means that the person has had the honesty to admit that they need to learn more. It can be the start of a mentorship, where a more experienced engineer can have a constructive pairing session. It can be the beginning of an honest conversation where, in fact, nobody knows the answer and people can begin to find out new things together. It’s opportunity.

Conversely, pretending that you know the answers is harmful. It can set others off wandering down the wrong path and it can teach bad habits. Be proud of not knowing, because it’s a wonderful time to discover new things.

Brain over gut

There are a number of situations in life where it’s important to trust our gut instincts as well as our brain. I can think of a few: who to love, where to live and deciding our life’s purpose. However, technology is not a place for gut instincts to be involved.

You may be incredibly passionate about an open source project, an operating system or a complex distributed memory store. That’s wonderful that you are, because you will be passionate at working with it and maintaining the software we build with it. But when it comes to choosing a technology to solve a problem with, there is only one thing that matters: data. How fast is it? How does it scale? What are the gnarly corners that we need to know about? These are the nightmares that we’re all going to deal with in the years to come, so it’s important that we rely on data to make choices.

It’s not easy to do this, but it’s important. The 3AM pagers of the future could be buzzing if decisions aren’t made with facts. Leave the emotion at the door.