The Muselet #0: Get on the party bus
“Listen Zef, I see your yellow — influence — is very high, I usually summarize this personality dimension as party, party, party!”
I had talked to various coaches over the years. I had taken various types of personality tests. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to hear “Zef” and “party” be mentioned in the same sentence.
Yet, barely two weeks later, there I stood, in front of a group of 10 other “emerging leaders” in our company, clumsily putting up a handmade drawing on the wall visualizing what I had discovered was my newfound purpose.
The audience squinted, trying to figure out what my drawing was supposed to represent.
“It’s a party bus” I clarified.
What had happened to me?
Me and my wife met about 15 years ago through a mutual friend. About two years ago, this friend suddenly got very sick and a few months later passed away. She was just two years older than us, mid-divorce, and left two kids of 7 and 9 years old. Dead.
I’m sorry. You probably thought you subscribed to “Zef’s fun list of links for the week.” Sorry to disappoint, we’re going to go a bit deeper.
Now, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be somewhere in your thirties, maybe forties when you’re supposed to start asking yourself the big questions: What's the point of all of this? If I were to die tomorrow, how will I be remembered? What will my legacy be?
Whatever the appropriate age to ask those questions — for sure this was the time for me.
For a year or two these bigger purpose questions lingered, but I couldn’t really figure them out. Yet somehow the “party, party, party!” comment lead to some insights that got me closer to an answer.
After a bit of digging, I understood this “party” line was the coach equivalent of clickbait. What it was supposed to communicate is: it’s the journey that matters more than the destination, and it’s a journey you take with other people.
I had to let that sink in a bit.
Reflecting on the highlights of my career thus far, a particular type of event stood out. They were all evidence of positive lasting impact I had had on people I’d lead in some capacity.
The first time I’ve had this happen was twenty years ago, I was about 17.
At the time I was developing YaBB (Yet another Bulletin Board), an open source Perl-based discussion board (online discussion boards were all the rage back in 2000, Perl was the hotness of web app development, open source was not all that mainstream). The code wasn't very sophisticated, and as a result pretty accessible (rather unusual for software written in Perl). I got a fair number of contributions from the community, even from people that had no significant previous programming experience.
I have many fond memories of those days ranging from the very active Dutch and German language communities that traveled from all corners of the country to meet in person from time to time. In the German community “modding” (extending) your YaBB install with crazy tweaks was so popular that somebody wrote a windows desktop app to patch the Perl files based on some crazy XML format automatically (likely parsed with a regexp). However, I suppose I knew I really made it while watching a Dutch television news show that covered a website called hookers nl, where people reviewed, well, hookers. The ultimate Dutch sophistication. As they flashed some heavily censored website pages on the screen, I recognized it immediately. Yep, it was running YaBB.
All silliness aside, the bigger thing happened when I decided to leave the project and hand it over to others. I got a message from an active community member: “Thanks for everything,” he said, “because of this project and its community, I decided to learn how to program, and it had a major impact on my life. I recently got my first gig as a programmer!” I looked him up at LinkedIn recently, he's VP of Engineering now.
The YaBB project is more or less dead (although the website is still up, and a PHP-based fork seems to live on). It's been 20 years, what do you expect? Nevertheless, the ride had lasting impact on some people. In this particular case it created a career for at least one person, and perhaps others as well.
Products fail; cooperations end; people quit; your code will one day be deleted. Those things matter, but they matter more if it’s only the destination you care about. All the lessons learned, mistakes made, and personal growth outlive most projects. It's the ride, not the destination.
That was it. My thing. Creating more of such environments, vehicles if you will, busses perhaps, where lasting positive change in people's careers happen. Where people 20 years later still say: “I'm happy I was part of that, it had a significant impact on me.” That's my type of party. A party that has a positive effect on its passengers, long after they’ve disembarked onto other busses, or perhaps even drive busses of their own.
That sounds great. So, how do we get there? How do we turn our rusty old bus into the ultimate party bus? I don’t have a universal answer — and likely no such answer exists, we all to find our own way. Here is the approach that comes very natural to me: constant reflection and iteration.
Here’s an example of how I operate.
I'm in a meeting, I notice something. Something's not quite right. I start to think — muse, if you will — “This person says this, but that doesn’t make any sense. Do I misunderstand? Am I missing something? What’s the context of this person, where is he or she coming from? Were we clear about what was expected? What mistakes did I make that lead to this?” You get the idea. As a believer in extreme ownership, I always tend to look at what my role is in the current situation and what I could have done to avoid it. I'm the driver after all; this is my bus.
Obviously, that requires a bit more thinking than a simple, more primal Jobsian“your work is shit” response, so I remain quiet in the moment. However, the processing in my head keeps happening in a background thread, and usually I’ll get back to the topic later (with various levels of lag). Either directly to the person in question, or sometimes it results in a broader insight that appears in a blog post or newsletter of some sort 🙃.
What happens between the occurrence and the invocation of the asynchronous callback, if you will, is a mix of things: deep thinking, but also dumping the problem I observed on unsuspecting colleagues to see what they think. I then take that input, reflect some more, and find the next unsuspecting passer-by to see what they think. I described this crowd-sourced approach to problem solving in “the dump-engage-merge cycle.” This usually leads to ideas and decisions that are slightly more well-considered than “your work is shit,” they just take longer to form. Not only are the solutions usually better, participants get something out of it, and since the act of writing it down is a fairly essential part for me to structure my thoughts, I tend to share the result.
Absorb. Discuss. Connect the dots. Write. Share. That's my how. That’s how I attempt to upgrade my bus and its passengers, step by step. Hoping that some of it sticks.
And this is where this newsletter, or rather museletter comes in.
Writing is my tool of choice to structure thoughts: my insights, questions, musings, mistakes, and conclusions. I'm also very willing to share those writings. Since I work in engineering management, topics usually involve people, management, leadership and technology strategy.
Some of these ideas and insights will pop out fully formed, others will need a few iterations of polish. Some may contain mind blowing deep insight. Some are likely youthfully naive.
As James Joyce once said:
The demand that I make from my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.
But that's a bit of a low commitment for me. Therefore, I’d like to ask something more: Let me know what you think from time to time. Tell me if something resonated with you, upset you, confused you, or sparked something. Remember, you’re reading an email right now. This is a relatively private medium. If you hit the “Reply” button below, it will just be me receiving your response. Chances are high I will read what you write, and even respond back! Crazy times. Let’s try this, shall we?
It's going to be a party, party, party! I promise to limit bringing up deceased friends as much as possible. That should help.
So, let’s pull the champagne from the fridge. Let’s unwind the muselet. And aim that cork toward the stars.
In your face, northern star!
Talk to you soon. Thanks for subscribing.
PS: If this was TL;DR. Seriously, unsubscribe. You're in for a world of hurt.