How to lead without authority

I spent a lot of time being angry when I started my career. My employers and bosses frustrated me. My coworkers frustrated me. End users, customers, everyone frustrated me.

I got angry about decisions that made no sense to me. Most of my complaints fell into the theme of:

“If I was in charge, we’d never do X.”

If only they’d asked me first. If only I was the boss. If only…

I probably had a few legitimate criticisms and good ideas, but most of my frustration was based on the ignorance of youth and inexperience — thinking I knew more than I knew.

When I did want something changed or disagreed with a decision, my first course of action was to complain to my boss.

“This is stupid. You should fix it.”

I had no sense of agency and thought I couldn’t change anything because I didn’t have the power to. I could come up with ideas (Fun fact: ideas are easy.), but I needed someone else’s permission and authority to put them into motion.

I thought I needed control and a mandate to lead and affect change. More often than not I thought “I can’t do anything about this, other than complain.”

I was wrong.


Over time I discovered three things:

  1. True leadership is not based on authority.
  2. It’s possible (even preferable in many situations) to lead sideways.
  3. The degree to which anyone has actual control over anything or anyone is comically small.

Getting people to follow you

I’ve been very lucky in my career to have worked for good managers, although I often took them for granted. Even though I looked to their authority for solutions, with only a couple exceptions did any of them ever tell me “Do this… because I said so.”

Rather than dictating specific action, they presented a vision of what needed to be accomplished (goals), and provided me with support and breathing room to get it done. They trusted and empowered me. They made me feel important and that they genuinely cared about my well-being and personal progress.

I still thought I needed their mandate to change things, but I was able to move out of my comfort zone and build confidence in my skills and judgement.

My motivation to do well flowed from a desire to not let those managers down. I didn’t want to betray their trust or make them look bad. None of that dedication came from fear of losing my job or a respect for authority — it was because they inspired me to care. If any of them called me today and asked for help, personally or professionally, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of bosses that micromanaged me (making me feel like they didn’t trust me at all) or leaned heavily on their authority to drive me and coworkers to action. I respected neither of them, although I have some sympathy for them in hindsight.

I’ve come to believe that there is no surer sign of a person’s self-perceived inadequacy — feeling in-over-their-head or simply out of control than when they feel the need to declare themselves “the boss”. The moment a person asserts their authority as the reason to follow them is the same moment they’ve proven they aren’t worth following.

I’ve seen that behavior in pimply-faced kids who get promotions at fast food restaurants. I’ve seen it in 60-year-old CEOs of large companies. Everytime I see it, I want to pull those people aside and tell them “Shhh… Shhh… You’re OK. It will all be OK.”

Then I’d tell them three things about what real leaders do:

  1. They provide a vision of something greater than day-to-day tasks.
  2. They spend the time and emotional effort to discover what the people they’re leading care about.
  3. They trust and empower the people they’re leading, even when the stakes are high.

The scope of what can be accomplished by people who are inspired and care about the person leading them is far greater than what is done out of fear of losing one’s job or being reprimanded.

The power of soft influence

Even working for good bosses, I remained under the impression for a long time that my power to drive change had to come from them.

Yet again, I was wrong.

Without really being conscious of it, I started copying some of the behavior I saw in those I admired. I spent more time building relationships with co-workers, learning what motivated them, and sharing a little of myself in turn. I started trusting others a little more and let go of tasks and control of conversations I would have normally tried to hold tight to my chest.

I made conscious changes as well. I started asking for other people’s opinions more. Although it doesn’t come naturally to my personality, I started asking for help.

I started sharing more of my vision for the things I wanted to build and the changes I wanted to make. I worked to build consensus, soft-selling my ideas and compromising when necessary. I started letting others take ownership of my ideas as well.

And a curious thing began to happen. A lot of the things I was frustrated about and wanted to change — started changing.

Much to my surprise, it was entirely possible to lead and affect change among peers without any authority at all.

Also to my surprise and frustration, the hardest thing for me to do was also the most effective in getting others to follow my lead: asking for help.

It’s one of those head-slapping things that you feel dumb about when you realize how well it works on you, but when someone asks for your help (and really means it), it makes you feel important, which in turn, makes you want to help.

Asking for help is a little like rolling over and showing your soft underbelly. Some of us have a hard time doing it because of ego and vulnerability, but if you can get past that and have confidence in your end goals, asking for help is straight up magic.

You’re saying to the other person, “You, specifically you, have the power, skills, knowledge, etc… to help me accomplish this thing. You are important to our success. You are important to me.” That’s hard to turn away from.

If this sounds a little like manipulation, it absolutely can be, but that’s fairly transparent when it happens. I think most people can tell when someone else is buttering them up or asking for something just to mooch.

If you ask for help and can get past yourself to believe that you really do need the other person’s help, you and all the others you’re leading will be able to build spaceships and cure diseases. You’ll be tapping into the real social network, the type of collaboration that got humans out of scraping by, living in caves, and into planting wheat and building cities.

Control is an illusion

I am a control freak and used to be much worse than I am now.

I thought I needed control for things to be the way I wanted them to be. I thought I needed control to change things and didn’t really change much because also I thought I needed someone else to provide me with that control.

Seeking out control is a good way to make yourself unhappy, because you’re never going to get it and those that think they do have control tend to look like idiots to everyone around them (see teenage fast food manager above).

It’s hard to admit you don’t have control. It’s really scary too. That anything can happen at any time and you can’t really do anything about it is a good way to give yourself nightmares.

But it’s the truth. The most we have control of is ourselves and how we react to things, and even that’s limited.

You can get mad and yell and try to change someone’s mind about something, but you can’t control what they think. Nevermind that desiring that type of control is borderline psychopathic.

You can buy insurance and build your house into a fortress, but you can’t stop the freak electrical fire from burning it down while you’re out of town.

The best you can do is manage your reactions and maybe give a nudge here and there. That seems to be true for both leadership and life in general.

You don’t need control or authority to lead, because those aren’t real things. Instead what you need is empathy, vision, and a realistic understanding of what you can and cannot influence to direct your efforts.

We seek out control because it feels like an easy fix. We just need that promotion, or to be our own boss and then everything will be better. Control gives us the authority to lead the charge and get stuff done.

That’s just not how life works. Actual leadership is hard because having empathy, vision, and a detachment from control is hard. The sooner you give up chasing after control and put your efforts into building those other muscles, the sooner you’ll actually accomplish something.

Originally posted on BestTech.io.

Do’s and Don’ts For Writing Online

If you were to ask me for one thing to do to advance your career, my answer would be: write.

Even if no one ever reads what you write, it’s worth it. Writing helps you think things through and work out problems, both personally and professionally. Over time, it also makes you a better communicator, more able to get your ideas onto the table and acted upon.

Putting your writing online helps you connect with people. It drives conversations that make you think and revisit your assumptions. If you establish a unique voice and present solid ideas, it’s also a really good way to market yourself.

Ultimately, I think that writing makes you a better person, someone who is more self-aware and able to empathize with others.

I’ve been writing online off and on for more than fifteen years, working as a freelance copywriter for some of that time. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I try to improve upon every time I write.

Do

Write like you talk. The world is clogged with overly formal academic- and corporate-speak. Formality and circular language put a wall up between you and the reader. Peppering in $10 words when 2 cent words work just fine doesn’t make you look smarter . It makes you look like a blow-hard who isn’t worth listening to and shouldn’t be trusted.  Here’s an example:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality. – Homi K. Bhabha via The Bad Writing Contest

If you can figure out what Mr. Bhabha is trying to get across, you are smarter and more patient to me. I made it to “ruse of desire” before I started zoning out. It could be that he is saying something really profound, but no one will ever know because he wanted to be smart and fancy more than he wanted to express his idea.

There are times to jump into the deep end of English to pull out words that are beautiful and complex, but hammering people over the head with your word choices tends to dull your message.

Be clear and concise. I’m not advocating that you dumb things down, only that you need to be clear in what you express. Even if you use simple language, you can write a maze that’s difficult for people to follow.

Read some Ernest Hemingway, then read Charles Dickens. It depends on the subject and your personal voice, but using the razor-sharpness of Hemingway’s short, direct sentences often conveys more information than Dickens-style paragraphs.

Start simple, cut your ideas to the bone, then add meat if needed. Everything else is dead weight that gets in the way of understanding. You may end up at Dickens if that’s what’s needed to get your idea across, but start with Hemingway.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens

vs.

Sometimes things are good and bad at the same time, and that can be confusing. – Me

Be honest. This doesn’t just mean “tell the truth.” It also means “be yourself.” The closer you can get to “yourself”, the more compelling your writing will be.  It’s scary to be honest, because you start expressing things that matter to you and make you feel (and look) vulnerable.

If you’re angry, happy, sad, or scared, express it. If you’re uncertain, even better.  It doesn’t matter if you’re journaling or writing professionally, let the doors open, even if it’s just a little. That’s not an excuse to rant or gush. It’s more effective to focus those emotions into surgical strikes that support the truth you’re telling without overwhelming it.

Showing that you are human creates a connection that helps people care about you and your writing. No one likes showing off their soft underbelly, but if you want an audience that cares, you’ve got to give them something.

Why else are songs about broken hearts so popular?

Admit when you are wrong. I screw up all the time. Last week I screwed up by not attributing a cartoon I used in a blog post to the artist. A couple of people called me on it. At first I was a little annoyed by being called out, but then I took a breath and said “You’re right. I screwed up.” and took the image down.

People often bring up angles I haven’t thought about in my arguments. I do my best to fold their feedback into my thought process and change course when needed. Sometimes that means retracting things I’ve written.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. I care about figuring out the truth of things more than “being right”.
  2. It’s more embarrassing to me to puff up and be dishonest than it is to say “I was wrong”.

The muscle you have to exercise in this is learning to let go of your ideas, both during and after you write. I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing something with a conclusion in mind only to do a 180 once I get a few paragraphs in – thinking the idea through and putting myself inside of the counter-argument forces me to let go of my idea and take hold of a new one.

Don’t

Tie success to page views. The truth is, for every post you publish that gets thousands of readers, you’ll probably have written millions of words that almost no one read or responded to. Sometimes it feels a bit like shouting into a bottomless pit and it’s easy to get discouraged when you never hear an echo.

Even if no one is reading, keep writing. Write and write and write and write. Get comfortable with the idea that you may never have readers and learn to write for the sake of writing. The point when you stop caring is often the same point when you start getting readers. It just works out that way.

From time to time, go back and read your past writing. If you’re embarrassed by it, keep writing, because it means you’re improving. If you’re not at least slightly embarrassed by or frustrated with it, it’s probably OK to stop writing, because something is wrong – you’re either an egomaniac or you’re not getting better.

Forget to read. If you want to write well, you need to read. Immersing yourself in other people’s’ writing will help you identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.

Don’t limit yourself to a particular genre or type. Fiction, non-fiction, long-form, short, sci-fi and the classics – it all helps give you perspective and broadens your knowledge of what is possible.

Books about writing should be read with caution as they tend to steer people down rabbit trails where they spend all their time reading about writing instead of writing. There’s a danger in getting trapped in a search for “the secret” that will unlock your writing magic. However, used sparingly, some books about writing can be really helpful.

Here are a few that have helped me:

Be afraid to have an opinion. Take a stand. Don’t be so worried about people disagreeing with you that what you write is watered down, boring, and sounds exactly like everyone else. Why bother if you’re going to play it safe and generic?

People will disagree with you. That’s OK. If you’re writing stuff that no one would disagree with, it’s probably not very interesting.

One of the benefits of these disagreements is that they help you figure out who your audience isn’t. Something to keep in mind as well is that people who disagree with you are much more likely to respond than those who agree, so the negative voices will almost always outweigh the positive. If you need proof of this, look at Yelp.

There are people you will never be able to please, and you shouldn’t try to. It’s wasted effort. It’s OK to consider other people’s opinions, but focus your energy on the people who like your writing. In Seth Godin terms, those people are your tribe. Lead them.

You may be worried about turning off potential employers with your opinions, but consider this: if you have to hide who you are to work for someone, do you really want to work for them? If your views are polarizing, it may be a good idea to temper them a little, but if they are fundamental to who you are, you’re going to be miserable working for someone who would judge you for them.

Lastly, don’t feed the trolls. 

Some people will go past disagreement and try to drag you down with insults. It’s not worth engaging with them. Roll your eyes and move on. They just want a reaction and are starved for attention. Don’t give it to them.

Photo credit: Fredrik Rubensson

Oklahoma City will never be a tech hub

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When people talk about tech communities, they tend to have the coasts in mind – Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, Brooklyn. Few cities in the middle of the country stand tall as pillars of tech – Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, and increasingly Kansas City and Omaha being the exceptions.

I know a lot of people who want Oklahoma City to join that club, to be a place where startups prosper and talent gravitates towards. It’s something I want too.

But, given current conditions, Oklahoma City will never be a serious tech hub, because Oklahoma City is in Oklahoma.

“What are these ‘priorities’ you speak of?”

While Oklahoma’s infrastructure decays and our schools are being shut down due to lack of funding, our legislature is busy moralizing and drafting reactionary, idiotic laws that anyone with even a middle schooler’s understanding of constitutional law would immediately recognize as indefensible.

Bridges and roads are literally falling apart. Schools are closing and already underpaid teachers are being laid off in a system that is 48th in the nation. Mental health services and poverty assistance have been completely gutted.

Core services are in a death spiral, yet the state legislature seems determined to spend all their time banging their heads against a wall instead of addressing actual problems. I’m not sure what litmus test they are using but it’s certainly not “Who does this help?” or “What does this improve?” or “What problem does this solve?”

It’s a continual cycle of:

  1. Pass law
  2. Law challenged, millions of dollars wasted
  3. Law struck down
  4. Return to line 1

Whether you agree with the ideas behind each piece of legislation or not, it would be hard to argue that repeating the same process over and over and expecting a different result is a sane tactic.

Attracting tech talent

Building a strong tech community is at least partially about attracting and retaining talent. Oklahoma City is doing a decent job of that right now, but the state is failing miserably.

I’ve heard several people say that Oklahoma City is becoming the “Austin for tech people with families”, which I think misses the mark. Austin is “Austin for tech people with families.” Oklahoma City is turning into “Austin for people who don’t care about having nice things or their children getting a decent education.”

It doesn’t matter how much OKC progresses or improves when everything around it and connected to it is burning to the ground.

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Look on Twitter and Reddit and you’ll find tech people anguishing over whether or not they should stay in Oklahoma. I’m faced with the same question, even more so now that I have a child. I wake up every day asking “Is it worth it?” and “Is there anything I can do to make this better?”

Unfortunately, the answer is increasingly, “no”.

I have family and friends here. My wife and I have built a life here. Neither of us really wants to move, but we also want the best for our son and the prospect of that being Oklahoma is dimming.

At this point, I honestly have no idea what to do. I vote. I write letters and make calls. I work within my sphere of influence to make things better, but it’s like chipping away at a boulder with a plastic fork. None of it seems to help and that’s both tiring and heartbreaking.

Building a better salesperson

My first tech job was with a regional VAR (value added reseller). I started in phone support, then moved up to bench tech, then to field engineer – a path that increased my exposure to customers and the rest of the business with each move.

I liked the technical work and helping people with their problems, but as I began to notice the sales engine that was at work around me, I started to dread coming to work.

Over time my reaction to the projects the owner and salespeople would bring to me went from “Yes, I’m on it!”, to “Huh, this is kinda weird.”, to “WTF is wrong with you people!?”

I found myself having conversations like:

Me: “Yes, we could upgrade every part in the customer’s PC, but wouldn’t it be better and cheaper for them to just buy a new computer?”

Salesperson: “Just put in the upgrades. It’s a big sale.”


Owner: “Go to their office, install this drive, and setup backups for them.”

Me: “Umm, we’re selling this? It’s 3 years old and the box is covered in dust.”

Owner: “It’s what we have in stock.”

Me: “But these things are worth like a 100th of the price on this invoice.”

Owner: “They don’t know that.”


Salesperson: “Can you look over this bid for these school lab computers?”

Me: “Why are you putting $1000 video conferencing codec cards in them?”

Salesperson: “Because we already have them and the grant allows it.”

By the end, I wanted to burn the building down with everyone locked inside. At the time I thought my experience was unique, that my employer was just particularly evil.

That was, of course, stupid. I was new to the workforce and naïve. Working for that VAR gave me the first insight into a cancer that is easily spread into any sales org.

Cracks in the system

Sales is an important job and I have met some amazing salespeople who are both good at their job and good at being decent humans. But sales is usually a pay for performance role which has inherent flaws, at least in the way it’s structured for most companies.

Quota-driven motivation tends to isolate the salespeople on a team and can lead to acts of desperation. Even some team-based quota models drive a culture of “every man for himself” that can never end well.

Traditional quotas recreate the cutthroat conditions of a medieval bazaar and living day-to-day in a system of “I must sell five more goats or my family will starve.” has an effect on the morality and judgement of an individual. How can it not?

I feel sympathy for people stuck in this situation. They have mortgages, kids to feed, whatever else and they feel like they don’t have the convenience of always fighting to do the right thing. It’s a crummy place to be – to have a moral compass and not be allowed to follow it.

In general, I find performance-based compensation off-putting.”You sell more, you make more.” makes sense and works pretty well on a small-scale, but crank it up to multi-million-dollar-mania levels and you’ve self-selected for a certain psychology.

The worst of humanity reveals itself when you put a bunch of people in a room who tie their level of effort to how much money they make. Extrinsic motivation is the stuff of pyramid scheme tycoons, politicians, and serial killers.

The status quo is ugly

On the customer side, I have multiple conversations a week that go a little like this:

Me: “In detail, here is the problem I am trying to solve. Could your widget help fix that problem?”

Salesperson: “Yes!”

Me: “So your product can cure cancer, solve world hunger, and keep our network free of viruses?”

Salesperson: “Yes!”

Me: “Do you understand anything that I’ve said?”

Salesperson: “No.”

Me: “And you still think your widget is the right solution for me?”

Salesperson: “Yes! It’s what I’m getting the highest comp on this quarter.”

I can’t express how frustrating this is and how much this sucks, especially when the person has swaggered in presenting themselves as a trusted advisor.

Customers need honest answers and guidance. They need help, even if it’s in the form of “Hey, I don’t think our product is a good fit for this problem.”

If you’re a salesperson who wants to build trust and a long-term pipeline that practically vomits money, be willing to walk away from a sale that doesn’t make sense. Spouting half-truths and outright lies may work in the short-term, but it’s a clichéd path that leads to gold chains, cocaine addictions, damaged relationships, and early heart attacks.

Personally, I respect the heck out of salespeople who tell me “no” and “I don’t know.” I will go out of my way to seek them out for future projects even if what they’re selling costs double the competition. I’ll come back to them when they change jobs and do my best to always take their calls.

A better path (maybe)

Being honest in sales requires a company culture that allows the person to be honest. The dude-bro, hyper-competitive environment that many companies create for their salespeople is not that. Quotas don’t support that, neither does performance pay. All those things box salespeople in and make them feel as if they have to lie, cheat, and steal to keep their job.

How about this:

  • Pay salespeople a good, fixed salary based on their skill and experience.
  • Get rid of sales quotas and replace them with other metrics like customer satisfaction and product usage. These are imperfect measures as well, but have a longer-term focus.
  • Manage salespeople like everyone else. If there’s a performance problem, coach and support them. If that doesn’t work, help them move on to something else.
  • Hire people who are motivated to do a good job because it’s the right thing to do, not because they want/need to chase carrots.

What about the salespeople who need the carrot? The ones who love the game, and are going to shuck and jive even when they don’t have to.

Honestly, eff those people. That’s not a personality trait that helps move humanity forward or builds a solid foundation for a business. If they can’t adapt to a healthier culture, they can go pound sand.

 

Stop asking tech people to build your ideas

Sometimes people bring me ideas.

They say “I have this great idea for an app.” or “I have an idea for a tech business.” Inevitably, both are followed by “…and I just need you to build it for me.”

This is nothing special about me – it happens to most tech people.

I used to gracefully dodge with self deprecation or whatever else I could use to let the person down easy. In most cases I was being completely honest. IT is broad and few people realize just how broad and how many different technology skill sets there are.

“I just don’t know enough about that to be helpful. I’m not a developer, I do infrastructure.”

For the last couple of years I’ve started pushing back more, either by destroying the person’s idea or by encouraging them to take action on it on their own.

“You’ve just described Facebook. No, no…stop. Your idea is not different. It’s still Facebook even if you are calling it Gerbil Town. STOP!”

“You know what? That is a great idea. You should totally build that.”

Telling someone that they should act on their idea usually makes them a lot angrier than telling them their idea is terrible.

They say stuff like “That’s why I’m talking to you. I don’t know how to do this crap. I’m bringing this to you as a favor.”

And there’s the crux. You aren’t doing anyone a favor by sharing your idea with them.

Your idea sucks because it’s just an idea.

What you’re really saying to the tech person is “I don’t believe in this enough to even attempt to figure it out on my own. I’m just the idea guy (i.e. useless) and I want you to put in the effort that I’m not willing to put in.”

Learning to code (and most tech stuff) isn’t hard. Developers/engineers/etc aren’t (generally) genius wizards, they just put in the work to learn a skill.

It’s actually easier to learn to code than it’s ever been and there are tons of great training resources like Code Academy and Udemy to help. Like most things, it’s mostly a question of dedicating time and effort – and you don’t have to become an expert, you just have to achieve “good enough” to get started.

If you’re truly passionate about your idea, you’ll make the time and put in the effort.

If you’re asking someone else to do it for you, that’s a pretty good sign that your heart really isn’t in it as much as you think it is. Ponder that. Is it fair to ask someone to be excited about an idea you’re not 100% committed to?

There are people who have pulled themselves out of literally sleeping in trash-filled gutters to 1.) learn to read, 2.) learn to use a computer, and 3.) learn to code and build their idea. And here you are, having just asked someone to commit their energy to something “kinda neat” you thought about while sitting on the toilet.

Even if you find someone willing to put in the work to build your idea (and it’s usually some idiot kid or well-meaning novice), you’ll own something that you don’t understand. Good luck with that.

Too scared to start

Maybe you really do want to do something, but you’re scared. You think “I’ll never be able to figure this stuff out.” or “What if I fail?”

  1. Shut up and start learning. It’s just work.
  2. So what? No one is going to die if you try to make your thing and it doesn’t work out. That’s a pretty good safety net.

Tech people have the exact same fears. We worry that we can’t figure out the business stuff or the biology stuff or the construction stuff, or whatever discipline we want to work with. Most of us don’t execute on our ideas either.

We all say “if only…” and stop.

I’m speaking as much to myself as I am anyone else. I constantly have to kick myself in the butt and say “Stop being stupid. Do the thing.” – Every day of my life.

If you build it they’re at least more likely to come

Great ideas and terrible ideas are of equal value until they are real. The value is in action.

Go do the thing. Build it, even if it starts out crappy. Just by existing it is infinitely better than the thing you never built.

You may discover on your own that your idea is terrible. Good for you. You learned something you can take into your next project. If it turns out to be a good idea and you put in the work to shape the skeleton of it, you won’t have to ask for help, because people will swarm to you.

Stop asking other people to build your dreams. Do it yourself.

Image credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi

The opposite of Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas

I haven’t been outside in three days. The hotel maze has continually redirected us back into the hotel. We went outside earlier in the week to try and find food but were steered back inside without realizing it. It’s easier to stay inside, so we do.

I have no interest in gambling or shows or anything else on The Strip. The rest of Las Vegas doesn’t hold any appeal either. Outside of a couple state parks close by and a sprinkling of jarringly green golf courses, it’s an urban wasteland.  Vegas is a glowing, cancerous growth upon an otherwise pristine desert.

Lobbying by the local taxi cartel meant that we could not grab an Uber or Lyft car when we arrived at the airport.  Instead, we were directed into the cattle shoot of the taxi line and herded along until a taxi was available. Moo… Moo… Move along.

I’m sure some taxi lobbyist somewhere was simultaneously arguing about the superior customer experience of their business.

Check in, get an upgraded room, then off for food. Google Maps reveals that my favorite Vegas taco shop has closed its location on The Strip. Is nothing sacred? It was the only Vegas thing I was looking forward to.

We find an alternative nearby that is decent but overpriced and poorly served. It does provide a good opportunity for conversation and people watching though. Drunks at the bar shout at the football game on TV. One of them throws his hat is disapproval.

I poke and prod my travel companion with questions. I want to know who he is and what we have in common. I’m impressed by his ability to redirect when I touch a nerve or he senses controversy nearby. I am certain that we disagree on many things, but he seems disinclined to embrace ideological extremes. That’s all the common base that any two people need.

Later in the week, I’m put further at ease when he asks me “Who’s Ayn Rand?” after I mention seeing one of her books in the window of a casino bookstore.

“A selfish hypocrite.”

We are in town for a convention that seems close to overflowing the walls of the Sands Expo. The subject matter is interesting, but the food is terrible and every room is uncomfortably packed. They open the show floor for two hours on the eve of the convention for a reception and navigating the clogged mass of humanity slowly rolling through the room borders on frightening.

The me of ten years ago would have abandoned ship after looking into the room or otherwise collapsed in a ball of anxiety and claustrophobia.

I have the advantage of height and can see above the crowd, but struggle to not trample on the shorter people around me. Keep moving and get out of the way.

We settle into a cycle of vendor meetings, eating, walking the show floor, and catching up on work. The day/night cycling of artificial light and sky-frescoed ceilings merge the days together. We are relieved when we discover a route from our hotel rooms to the convention space that circumvents the gaming floor, which is filled with cigarette smoke, sadness, and an ignorance of statistical probability.

In the evenings I stare out my hotel window and work on a presentation I’m supposed to give at the next convention I’m scheduled to attend. Unfortunately, that means I’ll be back in Vegas in three weeks.

End users are not helpless babies

IT departments, particularly infrastructure teams, are often thought of as being anti-user. We get the reputation of being grumpy cave trolls, unsympathetic to the wants and needs of those all those dumb, unreasonable end users. It’s all tech for the sake of tech.

Sometimes that characterization is earned and fair, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a problem of attitude and perception.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who consider themselves defenders of end users, protectors against undue change and hardship. It’s not very often that it’s classified as such, but this attitude can be just as toxic and damaging as any overtly anti-user sentiment.

End users don’t need you

If you think end users need you, either as the provider of some critical service or as someone who will protect them from change, you sir/madam, are arrogant at best, if not also an idiot.

Unless the core of the business is technology, most businesses would figure out how to keep functioning if everyone in their IT department got hit by a bus. It might be painful and frustrating, but they’d make it through. Believe it or not, there were businesses before there was IT.

If you believe your end users need you to protect them from the IT trolls who’ve been looking down their noses at them, consider this: there is no surer sign of disrespect for a person than to assume that they need your protection.

At best, end users enjoy the benefits and efficiency of the services we provide them. Our job is to help and lead innovation where we can, not to lord-over or to be a conservitor.

Get out of their way

When it comes to creating road blocks for users, the usual problems are those that can be fixed by discussion –  having an un-realistic security policy is a good example.

Making a cultural shift from traditional IT to things like XaaS and BYOD is a little harder. Becoming comfortable with user-led IT and innovation is something that many IT people can’t achieve.

“Why would you want to use Dropbox when we’ve built this super awesome Windows file share for you?”

One of the hardest problems to fix, though, is a hardline conservatism against change that evidences itself by people saying things like:

“We can’t do that, our users will never figure it out.”

When that attitude pervades throughout an IT organization or business, it prevents users from getting access to new tools that might help them do their job and puts the business at a competitive disadvantage.

Yes, change control is needed and yes, we should not change things for the sake of changing them. But to not embrace change and enable end users to use new and different tools will leave everyone coughing in the dust.

Your users will figure it out, because they are intelligent adults. Have some respect for them and trust them. If you’ve provided them with good tools (which are inherently coherent and usable), they’ll get there.

Exposing end users to change isn’t an unsympathetic act (at least it doesn’t have to be). Speaking for myself, when I give a user something new it’s out of an intense sense of empathy – I know they don’t need me to help them, but I also know they don’t need me to stand in their way.

I’m also thinking about a longer game, one where not everyone works for the same company their entire life. I’ve seen family members and friends who were inhibited by their employer’s IT end up having a lot of trouble either finding a new job or coping with a more modern IT ecosystem at a new company.

As much as dismissing user complaints offhand isn’t helpful, sheltering users from change is not helping them either. If we really care about the people we’ve been tasked to help, the right solution is somewhere in the middle – throttled change supported by good testing, training, and in many cases, just trusting that users will figure it out.

Image Credit: Harald Groven

How to sell IT to a cranky millennial

I am regularly accused of not liking salespeople, sometimes by the salesperson I’m currently meeting with. I don’t think this is true, but I can understand why one might think it.

If I smell blood in the water – an obvious lie, hyperbole, arrogance, insincerity – I go for the jugular. An example must be made, a lesson taught. I don’t mean to be this way, it’s just something in the way I’m wired – a neurological pre-disposition to not suffering fools.

To be clear, my hostility is not directed at the person, but the role they are playing, in many cases, the role they have been taught to play.

Truth is, I’m fine with salespeople. At several points in my career, I’ve been one. I have stared into the abyss of constant rejection. I’ve felt the pressure and inadequacy. Sales can be miserable and, at times, soul crushing.

What I actually dislike is the Game of Sales, the wagon wheel ruts that so many salespeople fall into and never steer away from – the pitching, the talking in circles, the “I read it in a Zig Ziglar book” tactics, and oh-my-God, the presentations.

I reject the notion that this is the way it has to be, that this is just “how it is” and everyone needs to get on board, power through, and get comfortable with never saying what they mean in a sales meeting.

It can be different. It can be so much better and it all starts with one thing.

Ask questions, and listen

I’ve lost count of the number of salespeople who’ve told me “Our customers love us because we listen to them.” and then proceeded into a lengthy soliloquy about how awesome their company is.

They talk about partnerships and our future together, coming off like the psycho person who talks about marriage and kids on a first date.

If we’re meeting in person, they probably brought a PowerPoint deck with lots of slides showing awards and Gartner Magic Quadrant placement and some insufferably cliche mission statement.

Guess what? This might hurt a little, but your prospects don’t care who you are. If they agree to anything as the result of your pitching, most of the time it’s just to get you out of their office.

As for partnerships? If you’ve pitched a partnership at our first meeting, I don’t want it. I don’t even want to be your customer. Partnerships are forged and justified by time, information, and action. We have none of those things together. What you’re really asking for is un-earned, blind trust so you can sell me the moon with no questions asked. Sorry, but no.

Try this instead: Ask questions.

  • “What do you need?”
  • “What’s causing you guys the most heartburn right now?”
  • “Tell me about your business.”
  • “What’s the next six months look like? Where do you want to go with this stuff?”

And just keep asking questions. Hone in on the problems your product or service can help solve. Gather information so that the next time we meet, you actually have something worth presenting: how you can help, which is 1000x more important to a prospect than anything else you’ve told them.

Maybe the answers to your questions reveal that you can’t help. That’s a real thing, accept it. What you’re selling doesn’t work for everyone.

Instead of wasting time chasing the prospect with follow-up calls and e-mails, and driving them to never wanting anything from you even if you could help, how about you shake hands and move along to someone else you might actually be able to help?

This works. It absolutely works. I’ve sold way more by asking questions than I have by pitching and I’m a lot more receptive to salespeople when they approach me the same way.

One of the earliest big sales I closed still sticks with me, not because of the dollar amount, but because of what the customer told me and my business partner after we closed.

“Out of all the companies who came in here today, you’re the only ones that asked me what I needed.”

Image Credit: Elias Levy

Accelerating Change: Adapt or be eaten

I was fascinated with animals when I was a kid. Whenever there was an animal documentary on PBS, I was glued to it.

My favorites were the predator and prey hunts – big savannah cats sneaking up on gazelles, chameleons popping out of camouflage to grab insects with their tongues – that sort of thing.

Mimicking the animals, my friends and I would play hide and seek in the woods – hunting each other with pellet guns (I’m really not sure how none of us ended up blind.).

Between reading, watching those shows, and getting pelted with lead, one thing stuck with me:

When you get comfortable and stop paying attention to what’s going on around you, you get eaten.

Or at least hit in the back of the head with a pellet.

Unable to adapt

Humans are terrible at anticipating change. It’s hard for us to get out of our day-to-day and our local scene. We’re busy, we’re distracted, we’re worried about surviving office warfare for the next 8 hours.

But we live in an age of rapidly-accelerating, Kurzweilian change. To keep one’s head down and assume everything is going to be a.) OK and b.) the same, is a form of intellectual and career suicide.

You know those people. You see them in the hall at work. You pass them on the highway.

They say things like “We’ll never do that…” and “It’ll be at least ten years until…” and “I’ll worry about that later.”

When it comes to technology they make the mistake of thinking that the next five years will resemble the last five. They look at continuous delivery, or BYO, or containerization and think “That’s fancy, but I’ll never have to deal with it.”

It is one thing to disagree about the nature of a change – this is healthy and necessary, but another to claim that something will not change.

Keep moving

We’re living through a major technological transition driven by pervasive compute and connectivity. It’s a big enough step that not everyone is going to make it – especially those who can’t or choose not to re-tool. Many people are going to find themselves pushed into lesser-paying roles or different careers.

It’s heartbreaking talking to those folks, trying to convince them that what’s headed their way is real – that the future is coming and it will be radically different than the present, even though we might all be wrong about the details.

“If you would move literally two steps to the right I think you’ll be OK.”

“Nope, ain’t gonna do it. You’re wrong, dummy. YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME TO THE CLOUD!”

But I’m going to keep trying because the world is in constant flux and the future is coming. In fact (in the words of William Gibson), it’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Image Credit: Shutter Fotos

Cisco Live: A river of dudes

It’s been a few weeks since Cisco Live, and I’ve had time to digest a lot of what I heard and saw there. There were some pleasant surprises: The DevNet area was awesome and highlighted some interesting things that Cisco is doing with Infrastructure as Code.

There were also disappointments: Intercloud remains a confused mess, some vendors went super-cheesy with their presentations, and the follow-up sales calls are relentless (Seriously, Puppet Labs, I didn’t need another 25 voicemails.).

But weeks later, the thing that stands out in my mind is the homogony of the attendees. Easily 99% of those present were male, and that stinks.

This happens everywhere

Diversity isn’t a tech industry problem – tech just happens to highlight the most egregious examples because of the current underrepresentation of women and minorities in math and science-heavy fields.

Across all industries, we make it hard for women to get their foot in the door – I’ve seen women turned down for jobs over concern for how others in the business would “cope” with them and a myriad of other silly reasons. I’ve seen women forced to prove themselves far past what’s required of male applicants with similar experience and credentials.

I’ve seen those that have gotten hired treated horribly – spoken down to, insulted, alienated.

Yeah, so…I’m gonna need you to answer the phone now

A few years ago my wife and I worked at the same company. When management fired the receptionist, they decided to split the phone duties among “the other women” in the office. Male peers, at the same employment level, were excluded – they had important work to do. My wife was managing HRIS, but because of her gender she was seen as “less than” the males working in entry-level roles a few offices away.

I know plenty of smart, competent women who have strong interest in fields in which they are not working – tech, science, manufacturing, field ops. When I ask them why they didn’t follow their interests, the answer is almost universally “because I didn’t feel welcome”. They didn’t feel welcome in computer club, in biology class, in their MBA program – so they defaulted to something they didn’t love in order to survive.

That makes me furious

My wife and I have been talking about starting a family, and during those discussions my imagination runs wild. I imagine future children, teaching them things, showing them the world.

I imagine having a little girl who gets told by others that it’s more important to be pretty than smart. I imagine her applying for a job and getting turned down because of her gender. I imagine her getting treated poorly by a chauvinistic manager. I imagine her standing up for herself and being called a bitch and it makes my blood boil.

Changing culture

The status quo hurts everyone. A meeting room filled entirely with men lends itself to the pack-mentality groupthink that results in bad decisions and stagnation. It creates a toxic, locker-room culture in which it is OK to talk down to others and management is accomplished through intimidation. It leads to stale ideas pushed forward by literal yes-men.

My ideal hiring scenario, because I don’t trust my own subconscious biases, would be completely blind – if I was managing a team, I wouldn’t know if a new hire was male or female, I wouldn’t know their race or age, I wouldn’t know any of the unimportant things about them until they walked in the door the first day.

(This sounds impractical, but Google is actually pulling something off that is very similar.)

That’s really hard though, especially for companies that don’t have the resources to setup selection committees or do away with the concept of “hiring” managers. It’s not that hard to blind resumes for the first round of review though, so we can start there.

It’s also not that hard to treat your current coworkers like human beings.

Diversity is a hard problem to solve. There are no easy fixes – there never are when a problem is based in the way people behave, but we have to start making changes, if only to build momentum.

Down with the patriarchy. Long live basic human decency.