April 17, 2019
This is a rough transcript of short talk I gave at a meeting I was in a few years ago. Enough time has passed that I don’t feel like I’m airing out any dirty laundry, and nothing’s brought this on but the periodic requests I get to publish it. No, I won’t be taking questions. I hope it’s useful to someone.
Can I get a show of hands here? Raise your hands if your job is hard. Raise your hand if there are a lot of difficult trade-offs, weird constraints and complicated edge-cases in it, that aren’t intuitively obvious until you’ve spent a lot of time deep in the guts of the problems you’re working on.
[everyone raises hands]
OK, now keep your hand up if you’re only here for the paycheck and the stickers.
[everyone but the CTO lowers hands]
I’d like to try to convince you that there’s a negative space around every conversation we have that’s made up of all the assumptions we’ve made, of all the opinions we hold that led us to make whatever claim we’re making. Of all the things that we don’t say out loud that are just as much a part of that conversation as the things we do.
Whenever you look at a problem somebody’s been working on for a week or a month or maybe years and propose a simple, obvious solution that just happens to be the first thing that comes into your head, then you’re also making it crystal clear to people what you think of them and their work.
“I assume your job is simple and obvious.”
“Maybe if you’ve been working on a problem this simple for this long, you’re not that smart.”
“Maybe if it’s taken you this long to solve this simple, obvious problem, maybe the team you’re working with is incompetent?”
“Why has your manager, why has your whole management chain had you working on this problem for so long, when the answer is so simple and obvious?”
“And even if I’m wrong about that, your job doesn’t matter enough for me to be the least bit curious about it.”
There’s not a single person in this room who’d ever say something like this to one of their colleagues’ faces, I hope. But somehow we have a lot of conversations here that involve the phrase “why don’t you just”.
One of the great burdens on us as leaders is that humans have feelings and words mean things. Our effectiveness rests on our ability and willingness to collaborate, and the easiest way to convey that you respect somebody’s work is to have enough curiosity and humility to open conversations with the assumption that maybe the other person’s job is just as challenging and complicated and important as yours.
This “why don’t you just” thing is bullshit. Our people deserve better and I want it to stop.