Many people think of a manager as this sort of stereotype of a bad boss, right? The pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, the micromanager, the empty suit. The seagull: fly in, shout at everybody, shit on everything, fly away again. And good managers are so much more than that. They're multipliers. They help people be the best they can be, and that's like having a great sports coach.
It frustrates me that we have so many people thrown into management without any kind of training or help or support, and then we don't think it's important to make sure that they get good at management, which is quite a different job to the jobs we all do until we become managers. Software engineering in particular - the steps along the way that make you a Senior Engineer don't prepare you very well for being a manager.
A lot of times, managers get confused with leaders and leaders get confused with managers. More than anything, organizations treat them in a way that says, "I expect you to be the manager, but I'm going to expect leadership things out of you," or, "I expect for you to be a leader and I expect manager things out of you." And then, people in the jobs also want to be treated like they're the other.
I would define coaching literally just as helping someone figure out their own way forward. Mentoring is more where you're giving advice based on what you've experienced, but I think coaching is the skill that really levels a manager up, and really makes a manager able to scale. Because, if you can coach, you can help someone who is different from you.
There's this thing about women in tech being over-mentored and under-sponsored, Lara Hogan's written about it. A lot of women in tech now have mentors, but it's not helping any of them get promoted. And that's because a lot of the time they're being given advice that's very well-intentioned, but very bluntly, if one of you gave me advice, and I tried to do exactly what you had done, I would get reacted to differently.
We need to move from only valuing how things are done to valuing that they are done. So, measuring outcome and impact rather than mechanism. And that doesn't mean someone can achieve something in a shitty way and it's okay. Within the context of, "you have values and you act as decent humans," then, let's let people achieve an outcome whatever the most comfortable way for them to achieve that is.
We’ve often talked about how the best engineers don’t always make the best engineering leaders, and Jason uses one of his classic sports analogies to explain.
He calls it “The Case for The Mediocre Athlete”:
“If you look at the mediocre athlete to head coach pipeline, it's actually quite strong. But the hall of fame athlete to successful head coach pipeline is pretty small.
And the reason why, I have always surmised, is because the mediocre athlete has to understand way more about the game early on. They have to understand and they have to coach themselves around different situations.
On the other hand, the hall of fame athlete doesn’t really has to understand many situations, and they don't for a long period of time.
A good example would be, in Basketball, if I were to step on the court with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and I were to say, "What would you do in this situation?" They would say, "I would dunk over them."
But I don't have that ability. So what do I need to do to break down this situation, to understand what is happening. I have to understand the game and the situation and the context way more than them, where they can just say, "if all else fails, I just run around them."
I can't help somebody else in that situation unless I understand the complexity of the game, so that I can coach them through, saying, "Here's what's gonna happen. Here's how they might react. Here's this situation.”.
So, to boil it all down, the understanding and the ability to coach others through that situation is fundamental. It's bedrock, in my view, for the ability to become leaders, ultimately, and managers as well.”
When talking about the importance of context when giving and receiving advice, Eiso recalls a song that he listens to at least once a year: Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, by the extraordinary Baz Luhrmann.
Eiso quotes the verse:
Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it.Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the pastFrom the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly partsAnd recycling it for more than it’s worth.
Listen to the full song here:
Meri mentions an inspiring talk by Hywel Carver, CEO of Skiller Whale. The talk is about advice, context and knowledge. One of the quotes that stands out is:
“Wisdom is context and knowledge and skills and experience all wrapped together.”
You can listen to an online version of this talk here:
One of our favorite mental models from the podcast makes an appearance in this episode, as Jason mentions one of the most important skills engineering leaders should master:
"Lead with confidence, show a little bit of competence, and end with confidence again."
Check out Episode 4’s Show Notes to learn more about the Competence-Confidence Spectrum
You can also explore this, and other mental models for engineering leadership here.
You can check out Meri’s online course, here!
Meri: [00:00:00] One brave student would always ask one of the senior leaders during a kind of fireside chat, you know, "Did you always know you were going to be this senior?" Like, "When you were us, did you know you were gonna get that far?" And it was really interesting, because over the years that I, that I helped run the program, I noticed that the pattern was the guys all went, "Yeah, I believed in myself, and, and every time, you know, I figured I could get to the next level, I backed myself, and I believed in myself, and I made it." And literally every one of the women leaders that we had said, "No, I never thought I would get this far. And sometimes I didn't even want to say yes to the next step, because I didn't think I was ready for it, but my mentors told me that they believed in me, and sometimes I trusted their judgment more than my own."
Narrator: Welcome to Developing Leadership, the podcast for engineering leaders, where Eiso Kant and Jason Warner share their lessons on the ins and outs of managing software teams. In this episode, we welcome Meri Williams, scaling [00:01:00] CTO, and one of the most inspiring engineering leaders in the world right now. Today's conversation took many turns. From a discussion on managers versus leaders, coaching versus mentoring, and promoting versus hiring, to what leaders need to know in order to mentor and coach people from different groups and backgrounds, and the power of sponsorship. As always, this episode comes with accompanying show notes, with a deep dive into the main topics, mental models and key moments from this episode. You can find them at developingleadership.co, and linked in the episode description.
Eiso: Hey everyone, welcome back to Developing Leadership, we're really excited to be recording today's episode with Meri, a very experienced CTO and, for me, actually, a very lifelong, almost lifelong, more a decade follower of her on Twitter. And a lot of your knowledge that you've dispensed that way has, has seeped into, probably some of the things I might have even said on this, on this podcast already, without proper attribution, years later.
[00:02:00] And so, we're excited to be having a conversation with you today. It's also, the first episode that we're doing that we're recording the video of as well. So for those of you watching us, Jason has the cool background. And let's kick it off. Meri, I'd love to hear a bit from you about the things that are frustrating you the most in our, industry, today.
Meri: I think one of the things that just perenally, perennially, there we go, frustrates me, is how we act like we have to reinvent everything. So I find that tech as an industry acts as if we have to start with like, 1920s style factory management and iterate our way from there. And we ignore that there's a hundred years of research and people who've really been trying lots of different things to see what works and we fail to take the best of that and just steal and reapply, I s'pose. So, it's a fairly mundane thing, but, but it is something that frustrates me, is that we don't just steal better from other, from other industries and other areas, and just apply it in [00:03:00] our own space.
Eiso: I think we can probably, there's a joke in here somewhere about how, how as engineers we always try to reinvent the wheel.
I, I don't think it's just across, stealing across industries. It can be as much as stealing across teams within the same company probably at times as well.
Meri: Yeah, everybody wants to write reusable code, nobody wants to reuse anybody else's code, right? Like, we take that a little too far sometimes.
Eiso: Exactly. So, you mentioned something, leadership v management. How would you define management and management practices differently from, from leadership?
Meri: There's a classic anecdote which is that, you know, you got a bunch of people working their way through the jungle, and the manager's the one who realizes that you need some shifts and you need somebody to sharpen the tools, and somebody's gotta make sure that there's some food at the end of the day for everybody and, and sort of organizes and looks after the care and feeding of the team. And the leader's the one who climbs the top of the tallest tree and goes, "Wrong way."
And I think both of those are really important, [00:04:00] right? You got to have the direction and you got to know where you're going, you got to have strategy. But if you have amazing strategy and nobody making sure that anybody's being fed or that the tools are sharp, then you're not gonna make good progress either. And I think we have often, we kind we kind of canonize leadership. We, we hold it up and we, nobody argues about whether leadership is important. I've been in so many discussions where people are like, "Do tech- tech companies even need managers?" You know, Google famously got rid of managers completely and then had to go back on that, because it was really not... It didn't work well, it wasn't popular. It didn't work out the way that they, they had hoped.
And I think that's because what many people think of a manager as, is actually this sort of stereotype of a bad boss, right? The pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, the micromanager, the empty suit. The, you know, the seagull. Fly in, shout at everybody, shit on everything, fly away again. And good managers are so much more than that. They're multipliers. They help people be the best they can be, and that's something that's, it's like having a great sports [00:05:00] coach, right? a really amazing sports coach can take a team of disparate players and turn them into a real team that achieves something amazing together. A crappy coach can really destroy the individual capabilities of those players as well, right?
And, so I think it's something where, it just frustrates me that we have so many people thrown into management without any kind of training or help or support, and then we don't think it's important to make sure that they get good at that job, of management, which is quite a different job to the jobs we all do until we become managers, right? Software engineering in particular is not, the steps along the way that make you a senior engineer don't prepare you very well for being a manager, which I'm sure is something you've discussed a, a lot on this podcast before.
Jason: We've discussed that, and I think one of the new topics we can discuss today, too, which is interesting, is, we've discussed manager versus leader quite a bit. And, and how they are distinct jobs. One of the things that just struck me as you were talking, too, is that a lot of times, managers [00:06:00] get confused with leaders and leaders get confused with managers. More than anything, organizations treat them in a way that says, "I expect you to be the manager, but I'm going to expect leadership things out of you," or, "I expect for you to be a leader and I expect manager things out of you."
And then, people in the jobs also want to be treated like they're the other. And I see this quite a bit at large organizations, where you're actually doing a manager job but you want to be treated like a leader. Or you're doing a leadership job and you are expecting that you have no accountability to a degree, or less accountability to the point where it's like, just about getting the X done and not making the judgment calls. I'm curious-
Jason: If you can kind of dive in a little bit, even, on that.
Meri: I mean, I, I think it's very tough to be in a senior management role without some aspect of leadership. I, I think-
I think you're always gonna be on the hook for the actual results, for the, for the reality of making strategic decisions and then having to live with them, which is, you know, fundamentally a lot of what leadership's about, [00:07:00] I think. I do think it's super important to have leaders who are not managers as well, though. I'm a huge proponent for having the kind of career paths where you can become a senior, you know, a very senior person in the organization without being forced to be a manager. I've had managers who were forced into management. It was not a great experience-
For me or them. And you have to have a path where people can have influence, and it doesn't mean they don't have to invest in soft skills, or that they don't need to become great at influencing, at teaching, at guiding, at inspiring people. But becoming a, a line manager shouldn't be an, an integral part of that. 'Cause I think, you can lead in multiple ways. I think that there's a level of management at which you have to be a leader as well. It's just very, very, difficult not to. But there's some manager levels where, actually, being great at the management part is way more than important than the leadership part.
Jason: Of all the things you just said there, too, a bunch of the things I'll agree with right off the bat, [00:08:00] are one, tech career ladders need to have, we'll call them VP-level destinations. You've got to be able to stay hyper-technical and be able to have the, the same sort of leveling that's out there for folks. And the, the worst possible path is to take your most technical person and force them to become a director or a manager, a VP, because they want to get that level, and we all know those stories. The other is, too, I do think that it's important to recognize that a lot of people, as they take their first step into management, should get good at managing. Should get good at project management and, as you said, you were going through the jungle. Those sorts of things. And they could learn the leadership skills.
I mean, I'll use myself as an example, this Is very similar to what my career path ended up looking like. And I think it's important to distinct those things and not to expect that your first-time manager is going to become the, quote-unquote, leader, of that entire unit. There's a, there's got to be an expectation difference there.
Meri: And I think sometimes it's even, it's not just an expectations difference. It's actually going [00:09:00] to lead to some really toxic management traits if somebody's trying to, lead whilst they're also trying to manage for the first time, because it, many of the people who get promoted into those roles, and I think it should be a sideways step, and it, but it often still is a promotion to, to be a first-time manager. And, but a, a lot of those folks, they bin the tech lead, or they bin the most senior engineer in the team. If they keep telling everybody what to do all the time, that's gonna lead to a pretty unhappy team with very unfulfilled team members on it, because nobody loves a micromanager.
I run a, a course called "Be a Brilliant People Developer", and it starts with a question which is like, "What's the best manager you ever had and what's the worst manager you ever had, and what did they do?" There's never been anybody, in the thousands of people I have trained, who've been like, "That one micromanager, that's who I really respected the most." Like, micromanagement is never something that people are like, "Oh," that, "Yes, this was called for in this one instance." Nobody ever likes it in any, in any, in any setting. And so, I- I think that if you [00:10:00] spend all of your energy when you're just becoming a manager focused on being the leader and on what is sometimes a fairly toxic und- understanding of what leader means. Like, the one who makes all the decisions, the one who decides everything, the o- Like. Those aren't great leadership definitions anyway, but it's something that people fall into very easily.
You're also missing out on developing all of these skills that you need in terms of, like, building trust with people, helping them reflect on their own performance and, and improve. Helping them realize what they want out of their own career and, and helping them to find their own way towards that. A lot of great managing is a lot more like a listen and coach kind of approach than it is a, you know, direct and lead approach, anyway. And so, I'm, I'm actually a huge fan of having a, an engineering manager role where people can be very focused on pretty much just becoming great at the management side of things. I think it's an important layer to have in your career framework, that you can have people just spend some years getting great at the [00:11:00] management part, and, and really, really invest in that.
Eiso: Meri, you said something earlier that I couldn't agree with more. There's very few organizations today, and I would say particularly in, in our world of, like, fast-growing technology companies, where the tools are being given to people who are making that transition. And what are some of the, the worst things that you're seeing happening because of that? And honestly, what can a company that's going from 50 to 100 engineers, you know, in the next nine months, be doing, to actually make sure that they bring in, they promote people from within wi- an- and help them great management skills? I sit in a lot of meetings where, honestly, the VP of engineering goes, "I have two great, great EMs, and I have 12 who were promoted from engineers internally, and they're not great at their job yet." And I'm curious to kind of hear what you say is, what's a solution to that discussion?
Meri: So, I think, there's two things here. There's, one is, like, how do you identify the people who would make good EMs if you promoted them? And there's another which is, [00:12:00] once you've decided who you're taking, what, what training and help and support do you give them? And I think that a lot of the time, what people assume is that their strongest tech leads are going to be the best managers. The ones who can make technical decisions, can make difficult trade-offs. And I'm not saying that there are zero tech leads who will make good managers. There definitely are some. But I think the more important behaviors and skills to look for are coaching and mentoring skills. When you find your engineers who already, as engineers, are showing that they can help coach someone, they can mentor someone, they can help someone figure out their own way to get something done, rather than just telling them, "I would do it this way. Go and, go and do it my way."
That's the thing to really look for. And if you've got that kernel of maximizing others, is what I'd summarize that as, is like, you know, coaching and mentoring, then taking that and making it the core of your practice as a manager is really important. So, I [00:13:00] train people on, on coaching, and I would define coaching literally just as, like, helping someone figure out their own way forward. Mentoring is more where you're giving advice based on what you've experienced, but I think coaching is the skill that really levels a manager up, and really makes a manager able to scale. Because if you can coach, you can help someone who is different to you. You can help someone who is like a wildly different demographic who, if they did exactly what you did, people would react differently to them, right?
There's this thing about women in tech being over-mentored and under-sponsored, Lara Hogan's written about it, where, lot of women in tech now have mentors. It's not helping any of them get promoted. And that's because a lot of the time, they're being given advice that's very well-intentioned, and it's very good that people take the time to mentor them. But very bluntly, like, if one of you gave me advice, and I tried to do exactly what you had did, I said the exact same words, I did exactly the thing that you had [00:14:00] done, I would get reacted to differently, right? And that's for a number, for a number of reasons, including the fact that I'm a woman.
But, I, and so, I think that that differentiation between coaching and mentoring is quite important. And then, selecting coaching as the core practice for a manager. You can teach them all the stuff about HR policies and how to do a review, and how to help, you know, someone figure out their, their career future and all of that kind of stuff. But the, the core skill that you have to start with is a really, really, really solid coaching practice. And that's not something that we've learned along the way as engineers, necessarily. Some of us stumble into it, but not everybody does.
Jason: One of my pet topics I talk about quite a bit, which does blend to Eiso's point of before, about the sports metaphors. I call it the case for the mediocre athlete. And if you look at the mediocre athlete to head coach pipeline, it's actually quite strong. But the hall of fame athlete to successful head coach pipeline is actually pretty [00:15:00] small. And the reason why, I have always surmised, is because the mediocre has to understand way more about the game, early on. And, in fact, they have to... They have to understand and they have to coach themselves around different situations. Obviously the, the hall of fame athlete never really has to understand many situations, and they don't for a long period of time, too. And the mediocre athlete has to earlier.
Good example would be, I remem- basketball is a really, is one of my favorite sports. But if y- if I were to step on the court with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and I were to say, "What would you do in this situation?" They would say, "I would dunk over them." I don't have that ability. So what do I need to do to break down this situation, to understand what is happening in all that? I have to understand the game and the situation and the context way more than them, where they can just say, "And if all else fails, I just run around them." Again, don't have that ability. Then, I, that [00:16:00] translates to, I can't help somebody else in that situation, unless I understand all of the complexity of the game that's going on around, so that I can coach them through, saying, "Here's what's gonna happen. Here's how they might react. Here's this situation," and all that.
So, to boil it all down, the understanding and the ability to coach others through that situation is fundamental, and it's the literal bedrock in my view, for the ability to become leaders, ultimately, and managers as well.
Meri: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I'm autistic, and a lot of, I only found that out a coup- couple of years ago for sure, and, and a lot of people are very, very surprised when I talk about it. And partly that's because there's some stereotypes around autism, lot of women aren't, aren't diagnosed, because it, because it's misunderstood in how it shows up for us. But also it's because people look at me and they're like, "You've literally managed thousands of people. You've managed these big organizations. Like, how can you be bad at people?" I'm like, "Well, firstly that's, you know, maybe, maybe 'bad at people' isn't the right summary of, of autism." But I think a lot of how [00:17:00] I manage and how I lead is very intentional, because it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to work at understanding what somebody's facial expression means, what that tone is about, whether they're upset. Like, I have a much more active and m- much more deliberate process to figure that kind of stuff out, and I'm a very mediocre athlete in that, in your analogy there.
I've had to think about the mechanics of how this all works and the processes and everything that we go through, I think, a lot more than maybe someone who's naturally super good with people, but then, the first time they ever get someone who's wildly different from them, they're, they're a little bit stuck they don't have that natural affinity with them anymore. So I think it's, that rings completely true to me, I'm probably going to steal that now. I'll, I'll start talking about mediocre athletes now.
Jason: Oh, by the way, if you talk to some, some men, make sure you call them that, because that would go over really well. I'm sure a lot-
a lot will, would love to be called mediocre athletes.
Eiso: Amazing. I want to [00:18:00] go a little bit further on something, Meri, because you spoke about this, of like, people who are wildly different than us. And I think you said something that is, is not spoken about enough, which is, it's absolutely true, right? If, if the words that come out of my mouth to someone else might be coming out of someone else very different than me, will be very interpreted very differently. What can we do, in our organizations and, with the way that we're mentoring/coaching people to, Yep.
Because unfortunately, engineering leadership still skews very much to, to us. And gladly, and hopefully, the world continues to change, and particularly our function, and one that has a lot more diversity, equity and inclusion in it. What should I know? What should Jason know?
What should the people who are listening to us understand?
Meri: I think the number one thing is to move from only valuing how things are done to valuing that they are done. So, measuring outcome and impact rather than mechanism. And that doesn't mean someone can achieve something in a shitty way and it's okay. Like, within the [00:19:00] context of, "you have values and you act as decent humans," then, let's let people achieve an outcome whatever the most comfortable way for them to achieve that is. And let's just recognize that there are differences, right? I'm not picking on, straight white guys, or any, like, some of my best friends are straight white guys, as the joke guys, right? But I, I think that, when we recognize just that the same actions are interpreted differently when they're undertaken by people from different groups or different backgrounds. If we just recognize that fact, and then you go, "Okay, any advice I'm giving, it's gonna be of limited use if this person's sufficiently different from me." Like, step number one. That's it.
Step number two is value impact that some- that somebody has, and allow them to find their own way. And then, the third is develop those coaching skills, 'cause coaching is all about, like, seeing how somebody is trying to get there, and helping them find their own, most powerful route forward. It's not to say that you shouldn't [00:20:00] mentor. Mentoring is great. But you should be giving your own perspective with the context that you are in, as well, and acknowledging that context. And then, the most important thing, the part that I think we don't talk about enough, is that what's really missing is sponsorship. If coaching is, "I help you to find your best way forward based on what you already know, I don't have to give you any information. You already know the problem that you're, that you're facing. My job as a coach is to help you find your way forward with it," right? Andy Murray's tennis coach is not a better tennis player than he is. But he is better at helping Andy spot that he's screwing that serve up, or that he's not returning the ball right, right?
The second part about, about mentoring, is like, give advice, but recognize it's advice from your own particular... and sometimes you want to help someone find advice from someone who's more like them, 'cause then it can be more directly applicable. But then, this last bit that's missing is the sponsorship. Sponsorship's what happens when someone isn't the [00:21:00] room. Mentoring happens when you're one to one, you're talking with a person. Sponsorship is when you're like, "Hey, you know who we should give that challenging project to? Victoria. She has been amazing this year. We don't see enough of her. Just because she's not, like, shouting that she sh- she should get promoted doesn't mean we shouldn't... She's our highest potential person. We've got to invest in her more," rather than just giving those kind of projects and those opportunities to people who shout the loudest or ask the most. Which is a really natural tendency, but a really harmful one.
Jason: There's something else, too, that I've thought about and done over the years, which I find to be interesting, 'cause I, so, this is across a spectrum of people in general, and it's something I kind of wished I had early, which is, I think that leaders need to lend their own credibility to a situation. And you don't need to do it necessarily the exact same way each time. So, you know, first time person you could lend more, and then over time you could, you have to lend [00:22:00] less, as they've, they've established themselves and proven themselves and things of that nature. But it's, it's something that can't be ignored, which is, there's not a binary situation where we say, "Give that t- to Victoria's," an example, and say, "We never have to do that again." I think you constantly have to do that to a degree, too, because what's going to happen in many of these situations, too, is if Victoria gets that project and does well, a lot of . People are now gonna cap her, Victoria, now saying, "Well, that's what she's capable of doing." Like, no, no.
That's but one level, and there's more levels and more projects and more seniority that she can go, and you've got to continue to do that, too. And so, I find that in the room, you can help and, you know, you can lend that credibility, and outside the room, you still have to continue to lend that credibility.
Or basically advocate for in that situation, too.
Meri: And I think we, we all like, when we're realistic, we realize that people develop these capabilities over time through experience.
And through being pushed further and further, right? But we sometimes kid ourselves that that all just happens organically [00:23:00] or naturally, that, like. It is happening organically or naturally, it's just invisible to us because it's how it's always happened. And, and I think that's, that's the other thing, is just to realize that different opportunities have always been given to particular people. We're just trying to broaden who that list of people is, who, what they look like, what kind of background they come from, and recognize that if we invest in them the same way that we've traditionally invested in, in folks who look a little more traditional, for want of a better, for a better term, then we'll get outsized dividends. Because actually, somebody who's managed to, like, make it this far, is already probably outperforming, if you, if you, like, took away everything else that's happening. They're, they're probably putting more effort in, not less. And if you could direct that to all be about the work rather than all these surrounding things that are so frustrating, then, you get a lot out of it.
Like, there's, there was some research Stonewall did about 15 years ago that showed that people could be 40% more productive if they [00:24:00] could be themselves at work. And that was a, it was a study about whether you could feel able to be out at work. It was, it was about how much you had to never mention the pronouns of your partner or talk about what you really did at the weekend, or all these other things. But there was so much energy consumed in having to pretend to be something that you weren't, that you could literally be 40% more productive if you hadn't had to bother with all of that. That's amazing, right? That's two extra days in a week. If I could get, you know, that kind of additional productivity from, from my team, just by letting them be themselves more, that's a no-brainer for any leader.
But we don't tend to see that tax that people are paying until we realize that, you know, there are people in the team, whether they're people of color or, you know non-binary or women, or, a different religion than everybody else. Like, we just don't see that tax that's being silently paid by, by all the, those people.
So, I agree, a hundred percent. The sponsoring has to happen more than just once. And actually, one of the really interesting things with [00:25:00] people from under-represented groups is, one of the most valuable things you can do as a mentor and as a sponsor is tell them when you believe in them.
So, I used to run the internship program for Procter and Gamble for tech, when I was, I spent the first 10 years of my career there. And we ran this kind of summer school for interns, basically, and middle of the summer there'd, there'd be a bunch of really senior leaders and, and these, you know, university students doing, doing s- projects for the summer. And one brave student would always ask one of the senior leaders during a kind of fireside chat, you know, "Did you always know you were going to be this senior?" Like, "When you were us, did you know you were gonna get that far?"
And it was really interesting, because over the years that I, that I helped run the program, I noticed that the pattern was the guys all went, "Yeah, I believed in myself, and, and every time, you know, I figured I could get to the next level, I backed myself, and I believed in myself, and I made it." And literally every one of the women leaders that we had said, "No, [00:26:00] I never thought I would get this far. And sometimes I didn't even want to say yes to the next step, because I didn't think I was ready for it, but my mentors told me that they believed in me, and sometimes I trusted their judgment more than my own."
And I, I remember coming away from this, internship y- year, where I had this realization, and I went and found some of the people who I really believed in, who I worked with, and told them not just that I believed in them, but why. Like, I gave them, you know, that kind of really good, concrete, specific, actionable feedback, but in the positive sense of just like, "Here are all the reasons I think you'll be my boss one day." One of them burst into tears. They had such strong imposter syndrome, they genuinely thought that everybody had been wrong about them and they were about to be found out and they would never succeed at anything. And I was like, "You're literally someone where we had a discussion about how it was a little ridiculous that you had an award at every all-hands for this organization this year." And they're worried that they might, like, fail out.[00:27:00]
And so, so, yeah, the sponsorship in the room, the mentoring. Sorry, sponsorship when you're, when they're not in the room, but the mentoring and telling them you believe in them, that this isn't a trap, this is an opportunity.
Eiso: You said something, Meri, that, to me, became very apparent, I would say, probably over the last five years, is that, for a lot of people, to whom it has, like you said, you're, you're, you're given the opportunities and you're, you're given a lot of confidence because your environment isn't one that is making you doubt your own confidence, are not aware of what it looks like when someone doesn't have that.
And so, to me, personally, I was super lucky over the last five years to come across, by chance, several founders who happen to be women, whose businneses I really liked and I got to spend a lot of time with them. And, it was the first time where I realized two things. One is the amount of crap you have to deal with in terms of how people respond differently to you, when you're not, for those looking on video, I'm [00:28:00] six-foot-four, white guy, grown up in the Netherlands, with all the education possibilities I could have had- And so, it was it was a pure not understanding, or maybe only theoretically understanding previously of, hey, people respond differently to you, to actually seeing email replies come in or phone calls that are happening or sitting in meetings where I think, for everyone, it's important to understand that it is not a little bit different. It is a lot.
And so, to me, that was very, very telling, and helped shape my views. I- I think mentoring, you mentoring is valuable, sponsorship is, is necessary. But I think mentoring isn't just valuable for the person receiving it. It ends up being incredibly valuable for the person who's giving it, right? Because you start getting an understanding of what it's like to not be you across any sets of dimensions. And that, hopefully, should lead to the sponsorship. It should lead to all these other things. But it was, to me, it- it was very, very telling [00:29:00] over the years, to kind of see this play out, and it changed a lot, my mindset, on how to, yep, how to be as a manager and as a leader.
Meri: It's It's fascinating and upsetting, some of the differences. [laughs]
Eiso: So, I, when you were talking about advice, I had to think of a song, and, I don't think I've ever referenced this song, in a long time, but there was one song that I-
Jason: Please. N- no singing on the podcast.
Eiso: No singing on the podcast. No, no, no. But it's probably the only song that I make sure I listen to at least once every three months. It's a song called "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen", a guy named Baz Luhrmann. Fascinating career. Read his Wikipedia page. It blows your mind. But there's a quote in there, that, that says, you know,:
"be careful whose advice you buy, be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it's worth."
And I wanted to kind of use to kind of hear your thoughts on, on advice in itself, [00:30:00] right? Like, how should we be thinking about advice?
Meri: So, there's a guy called Hywel Carver, runs a company called Skiller Whale, and he gave a really good talk recently at LeadDev, that gave me a new way to think about this. And he was talking about how there's different types of knowledge. There's knowledge you can have, like, information that you have. Then there's skills that, you can, that you can practice, and then there's wisdom. And he was talking about how, maybe the big problem that we, that we see when people try to share their wisdom, is they try to take wisdom and convert it into knowledge. But the process of converting it into knowledge makes it less useful, because that wisdom, and, you know, the, the quote was, " Knowledge is knowing that a, a tomato is a fruit. But wisdom is not putting it in the fruit salad."
Or, or, you know, knowing it's not really dessert. And he was talking about how, you know, people, I mean, bless them, everybody at Spotify [00:31:00] will tell you that the Spotify model doesn't exist, but it doesn't stop half the rest of the industry trying to implement the Spotify model, right? I think advice, when it comes without context, is really dangerous.
Is really what I think. but I love this, this talk that Hywel did, because I, I think this, realizing that wisdom is context and knowledge and skills and experience all wrapped together, and if you try to take, take it out of its context too much, it becomes... You know, it's theoretically knowledge, but it's not very applicable anymore because you've lost all the context. And I'm, I'm a huge fan of architectural decision records. They're my, my favorite architectural tool. I absolutely adore them. I love... I have worked on, you know, systems older than I am. I spent a lot of my early career...
I've worked on systems so legacy they were vintage, okay?
And so, I have in- inherited somebody else's system and all of their decisions, and have no idea. Like, the [00:32:00] archeology you do trying to work out why something is the way it is. So, I love ADRs, and I think ADRs are, a much better articulation of how we should give advice, right? 'Cause an ADR says, this is the decision we made, and this is the context we were in, and these are the other things we considered. And I think if every time somebody gave you advice, they also gave you the context they were in and the other things that they considered but didn't do because their context dictated it, then we'd all be better off. It makes giving advice very long-winded, I'll give you that much, but it does make it much, much better.
Jason: So, so this is, this is an actual, real topic, that I think our industry is awful at, at length. Which is, you can get bite-sized snippet Twitter 280-character advice, and, it lacks all context, and it lacks all circumstance, and you cannot apply it. And not only that, it's, it's, it may be right for a sliver, and wrong for 98%, but it sounds good.
[00:33:00] And the, your ADRs are great. I, I there was an old talk from an architect at Salesforce who said, "The system is the way it is because it got that way." Or, it got that way because it is that way. And if you don't have the same sort of view, circumstance, years of history in this, you could pick that apart a hundred different ways, a thousand different ways. But ultimately, you might not have made any different decision if you were in that same context and you had it all. Our job is now to figure out how to go forward in that architectural circumstance.
This is, one of the things that I try to impress upon people is that if someone is going to give you advice and they're not gonna ask a single question ahead of that, you can discount that advice, almost entirely out of hand.
But, if they're going to, you're gonna ask them for advice and they're gonna start asking you a series of five, 10, 15 questions, then say, "Okay, with this, here are questions I would then ask about the situation and circumstance," to start pulling it all together, well then, y- you're at least in [00:34:00] footing where you can start moving forward. To your point, though, it's very long-winded. It doesn't fit in 200- 280 characters.
Meri: One of the side things I do, I, I'm a tech advisor for a VC called Kindred. And they'll send people to me and th- they come with their big question. And they deflate when I'm like, "How big's your team right now?" Like, my first response is a question and response, because I'm like, "Well, my answer's very different if you got 50 people right now or 100 people right now. So, how big's your team right now? What's your biggest chall... Okay. Given all that, I would look at this." But I, I think you're right. I, I, I think that we, we spend a lot of time looking... We're looking for purist design patterns, and what we should have learned from architecture, as, my wife's an architect. She builds hospitals rather than, rather than, she's not a technical architect. She's a real one.
So, the one, the one textbook we have that was both of our textbook is the design patterns one. And design patterns are great in theory, but again, like, our ability to actually implement them [00:35:00] correctly is, is really very, very contextually dependent. And, and I, I think the, the same applies. So, I agree. I think anybody who just gives you advice with no, with no context, you can probably just disregard it.
Jason: There is this thing I've talked about in leadership, and I call it the competence-confidence spectrum. And I say that, you know, there's a lot of folks in the world who just have over-exuberant amount of confidence, but they don't really have the competence to back it up, but they can sound great. And then, there's engineers, who typically are in the competent spectrum but they don't have the confidence by which they can actually articulate it or say it. So, I think that one of the core skills that I've had to learn over the years is how to blend the confidence, I have to get some confidence in my competence, and I have to understand that different audiences are going to consume the information I'm giving in a different way.
So, if I'm talking to a technical audience, I can just 100% lean into my competence. But if I'm talking to broad-based sales force leadership, as an example, I probably have to overdo the confidence side of it, and just, you know, slither in a little bit of a, a, a [00:36:00] tiny cheese layer in the sandwich of competence in there. But if I overdo that too much, they actually will start to lose confidence in me, because I'm not presenting them in such a way. And I find that, also, to be kind of a fascinating topic to unpeel, you know, over the years.
Eiso: So Meri, we've spoken a lot about advice, and, I know you've given advice to thousands, but I'm curious, what is some of the advice that you've received, recent or in the past, that you'd say really had a big impact on, on your trajectory, your life?
Meri: So, early in my career, one of the best bits of advice or guidance I got, I suppose, was, I'm, you know, I'm a working-class South African kid. I was getting a lot of feedback at the time that was just that I was, like, too direct, too abrupt, too, all these kind of things. And I, it sounded a lot like, "Could you be less South African and less butch, please?" And I was like, "I don't know how to change those things about myself. I'm just... how do I fix that?" And a woman called Michelle Hughes, who is to this day one of the leaders I most [00:37:00] respect, who was, who happened to also, to be a working-class Glaswegian, sat me down and said, "It feels like when you jump to technical solutions, it feels like you're trying to make everybody else in the room feel stupid." And I was like, "Oh, that's what everybody means. Oh, shit. That's not my intention. That I can fix," right?
And so, it, I don't know if it, I don't know if it was advice or it was just this new lens for me to go, for me to ask in response to feedback. What is it that I'm doing, and what is the impact it's having? Whenever I got feedback that seemed to be about what I was, to just reframe it somehow to be about what I was doing. To figure out what the behavior was that was problematic. And so I think that was, that was one of the best bits of guidance, I suppose, that I got very early in my career. And then, I'm trying to remember who it was. It doesn't matter who it was.
The other really, [00:38:00] useful bit of advice that I got. I've moved between domains, or like, industries, quite a lot. And I had a, a mentor who helped me realize that that was actually a superpower, not, not a disadvantage. So, I was worried about whether me moving from, you know, to yet another industry, was going to be, like, a black mark, or starting over, or whatever else. And they just went, "Well, A, you can always go back to, to one of the industries you've been in before, and B, there's not many people who would have successfully navigated as many as you have already, so you clearly must be good at it somehow." And it just made me see something that I was, like, viewing as maybe too much of a kind of, grasping for novelty.
I really enjoy that super difficult learning curve at the beginning where you, you just know nothing and you have to learn everything. I love that period, and I was worried I was kind of getting addicted to it rather than, like, settling in and getting really good at an area, and, and then, they, they really helped me not [00:39:00] worry about that so much, I s'pose.
Meri: I don't, I don't know if those are useful, but they are two of the most impactful ones that I've had in my career.
Eiso: Well, you provided quite a bit of context, so let's,
No, I, honestly, this is a great place to, to end today's episode. I think, Meri, you've shared a lot with us, and, and really got, I think, a lot of listeners also thinking about topics that, seem at the surface level as probably easy to understand, but the moment we start digging into them are clearly not. And so, are there any parting words that you'd like to, to leave our audience of engineering leaders with?
Meri: Just that management is a worthwhile skill to invest in, and coaching is the best investment you can make in that realm, would be the, the thing I'd want people to take away.
Amazing. Thank you so much.
Jason: Well, Meri, it's awesome to have you.
Meri: Thanks very much for having me. It's been [00:40:00] great.