Sam Lambert, CEO of PlanetScale and previously VP of Engineering at GitHub, joins us to talk about building high-performance teams. We chatted about leading with influence, advocating for your team, creating delightful hiring experiences, knowing when to fire people and how to keep your software engineers close to your end-users to build great products.
I think what's interesting about the episode we're recording today is that we started from "what do high-performance teams look like?" And very quickly ended up on, "if you want to build a high-performance team, organization, culture, you need to start with yourself." And for every single one of us that looks different.
One thing I saw at Facebook that really I loved was that on your way in, - and I went in as a director and I went through their director interview processes, - they test really heavily that you can lead with influence and speaking. Leading with influence is something they talk about a lot in the interview processes because it means that you can go in and you can work with people, help find problems, and help them see their own problems, without having to play power games or without politics. To be influential, you need to be competent, you need to know what you're talking about, you need to be good-natured and have good intentions.
If you want to know who is a leader inside your organization, look for this: imagine you've got a ball sitting on a table and it's about to fall off. Two types of people. One person is going to catch that ball, stop it from hitting the floor, and then ask around "who's ball is this?" Another person is going to let the ball drop, hit the ground, and then they'll say, "yeah, I saw it falling, but I wasn't sure who was it was." You want the person who's going to catch the ball first and then figure out whose it was after.
You know, great people, people that you want to work with, you have to assume you work for them as much as they work for you. They can go anywhere they like. They can just migrate to other companies or other teams by the nature of them being fantastic. They have a ton of optionality. So you have to wake up every morning and think, how can I do better for these people? Are they being paid? Are they getting opportunities that they want? Are they feeling empowered?
One of the hardest things in the industry is finding real true, positive examples at the top or leadership positions of people who have been able to do these things because they themselves don't embody those actual traits. I can go on for days about this because everyone's read to all the same books, but not many people can live what it actually means to be a leader of an organization. Most people know. It's easy to know. It's not easy to be.
People are terrible at advocating for themselves when it comes to their own packages and what they offer. So my goal when I put a comp package in front of someone is that it exceeds everything they would expect and it delights them. And I believe every moment of the hiring process should be delightful. They have to have the mission, they need to know they're waking up every morning with purpose, but when it's all said and done, it should be a very financially significant decision for the person coming to the company
Today's episode on building high-performance teams was, unsurprisingly, not very technical, and it touched on a lot of the soft skills leaders need to harness to create high-performance teams. A heavily featured topic is the notion of "Leading with Influence."
So let's take a closer look at what this means, as said by the experts:
The ability to influence is an essential leadership skill. To influence is to have an impacton the behaviors, attitudes, opinions and choices of others. Influence is not to beconfused with power or control. It’s not about manipulating others to get your way. It’sabout noticing what motivates employee commitment and using that knowledge toleverage performance and positive results.
A leader’s ability to have influence with others is based on trust; in fact, our influenceexpands in proportion to the amount of trust that exists in a relationship.
We love this quick two-pager from the Human Resources University of Florida, which explains how to establish this type of leadership skill and why it's so beneficial to your team.
[00:00:00] Eiso: Welcome to developing leadership, the podcast where I, Eiso Kant, and my cohost, Jason Warner, talk about our lessons about Engineering Leadership throughout the years. Today, we're joined by Sam Lambert, CEO and President of Planet Scale and previously VP of engineering at Git Hub.
Sam built one of the highest performing teams in the world while working in GitHub, and so he joins us today to share his toolkit on building exceptional teams and being an influential leader. If you want to build a high-performance team, you have to start with yourself. So today we shared our tips and understanding of yourself and bringing a sense of calm into your decision making as a leader. If there are technical terms or topics you would like to learn more about, check out this episode's show notes linked in the description.
[00:00:44] Hey everyone. We're back again for another episode of Developing Leadership, today Jason and I have with us a very special guest, Sam, currently CEO of Planet Scale and a former colleague of Jason at GitHub. As we get started, Sam, can you maybe give us a little bit of an introduction to yourself?
[00:01:04] Sam: Hi everyone, my name is Sam Lambert, I'm based out of San Francisco. As you said, I work as the CEO of planet scale before that I was at Facebook. And then before that I was at GitHub. I'm incredibly passionate about building tools for developers and working with developers. I think developers are the greatest audience you could possibly build software for. And yeah, I just love what I do building kind of the world's best database, that's how we feel.
[00:01:30] Eiso: Fantastic. And so Sam, you and I had a great chat a while back and in it we were talking about your experience at GitHub. And before I ask you about them, I'd love for you Jason to kick it off, maybe with a story about Sam.
[00:01:47] Jason: Sure. So Sam when I got to know each other, obviously as I joined GitHub and worked there for four years, Sam had been there for a couple of years already. Sam, could go into his history much deeper than I can, but, you know, he started out as the first DBA quickly started realizing that databases need infrastructure around it, started putting together one of the best infrastructure teams in the world. And eventually over the next couple of years built one of the best infrastructure teams the planet has ever seen at GitHub to scale GitHub.
[00:02:19] And I remember one story in particular, I think I was three weeks in to GitHub, and there was a scaling issue that we were hitting. We were hitting some limits somewhere and having an issue. And I asked a room of people that reported to me at the time what was happening, and not a single person had an answer or looked like they were going to take any sort of responsibility, and Sam said "I know exactly what the issue is. I know where it is. It's just not on our team and we'll dive into fix this and figure it out. But we're going to have to take a different approach to solving this piece. We can't do this again from the side."
[00:02:59] And, you know, I walked away from that meeting thinking, "okay, maybe this is a little bit deeper than I really would have liked, but it sounds like there's somebody over in Sam that we can kind of lean on here to figure this out." Went back and talked to him about the, what the problem was, Sam and three people he pulled into that meeting had such a handle on the issue, that it gave extreme confidence in the fact that like, no matter what we're going to get through this. The other side of that was a bunch of other people in the room had no accountability. Sam who was not on the hook for this, it wasn't in his group, it wasn't in his code base, put his hand up. That's what ownership inside an organization looks like. He didn't own it, but he was going to take ownership over it because the company needed it to succeed.
[00:03:43] Eiso: That's amazing, and Sam, from your side on the other side of the table, you know, three weeks in essentially a new boss, so to say, what was running through your mind in that situation?
[00:03:53] Sam: Yeah so, for some reason at GitHub whenever we had incidents, I used to just feel it in my gut. I hated it. Like it just, I hated the thought that users were getting a bad experience. And it used to just bother me. Like I always wanted to be around for every instant and just making sure I could help out however I could.
[00:04:10] And, you know, we needed to help here, right. Something was going on and, you know, I had a new boss, he was coming in, he was trying to turn our organization around and just kind of change how things are being done. And I know at that point, you can't just wait for someone to dig in and, and kind of go deep. And if you can, and you have people that will willingly do it with you, you should, at the end of the day, we all get paid out of the same bank account, right? Like, no matter what's going on. You, you have to just get here and help with things.
[00:04:43] And I noticed that with Jason as well. And I think that's one of the reasons we kind of bonded is we never really, we both shared the idea that no matter what was affecting the company, it was somewhat ours to try and fix it together and work on it together. And that was something I think we, yeah, we definitely shared this as a core value and I still believe that today. I don't, I don't think anything else is someone else's problems. And at the end of the day, if, if things start to fall apart and degrade, it becomes everyone's problem in a way that's really, really, problematic. And if you build a team of people that really care about the company succeeding and getting things done, you can benefit in so many other ways. And it avoids the need for reorgs.
[00:05:21] And it took me a long time to, to learn this, and I used to do the same thing, every kind of middle manager tends to do is that they seem to think you can solve problems with reorgs or, "oh, you know, I could fix this thing if only that team reported to me," it's like a super common thing that people do. And I used to be the same, like I honestly did. And now it's a behavior that actually really irritates me because. I don't think that's necessary.
[00:05:44] And one thing I noticed and I saw at Facebook that really I loved was that on your way in, right, now, and I went in as a director and I went through their director interview processes. They test really heavily that you can lead with influence and speaking and, this is something they talk about a lot on the interview processes, is leading with influence, because it means that you can actually go in and you can work with people, help find problems, help them see their own problems without having to play power games or without politics, you just be influential and you know, to be influential, you need to be competent. You need to know what you're talking about. You need to be good natured and have good intent. And it's something that's really, really important. And it's something that I've carried with me for a long time. And so it started to become more of a fundamental principle of how I kind of try and lead and, traits I pick in other leaders.
[00:06:33] Jason: I want to add to this because one of the things that I've always looked for in leadership and Sam knows this story, or the, I guess the example I would give here. And Sam embodied this in that one meeting that we had three weeks in.
[00:06:45] As I say, if you want to know who is a leader inside your organization, look for this: imagine you've got a ball sitting on a table and it's about to fall off. Two types of people. One person is going to catch that ball, stop it from hitting the floor and then ask around "who's ball is this?" Another person is going to let the ball drop, hit the ground, and then they'll say, "yeah, I saw it falling, but I wasn't sure who was it was." You want the person who's going to catch the ball first and then figure out whose it was after. And Sam embodied that. And I think that's what we need more of inside of organizations in general to scale, but to also achieve outsized outcomes is, everyone has to have that ability to kind of catch that ball as it's falling off the table, because nobody can handle all of the things inside companies as they grow.
[00:07:29] Eiso: So Sam, you, you touched upon something which was, you know, this notion of leading through influence, but not being political. Can you dive a little bit deeper into that on where that fine line sits and how do you manage that? Particularly in an organization like GitHub, which at the time was in quite a bit of turmoil.
[00:07:47] Sam: Yeah. So actually I've just actually remembered something else Jason told me. I remember him saying to me, "if you help everyone in the room be successful, you'll get into some really great rooms." And that was something that I did notice become true over time. As I found myself getting involved with the acquisition inside, like, kind of. I think meetings, by title, I was not supposed to be in at Microsoft. Right. But it's when you go into the room and you want everyone in that room to be successful and win, you get invited to a lot of rooms and that's how you learn, and you get to learn through watching other people. If you, if you kind of play politics games, you're down in the dirt. Right. And that's not really. People are not going to want you to win.
[00:08:31] And I was definitely like, I, you know, I definitely have suffered from this. I definitely don't want to give anyone the impression that I haven't kind of played politics in the past. I think unfortunately, a lot of organizations and a lot of companies that are in trouble make and allow politics to win. And then you're kind to have to do that to defend and take care of your team. But then once you get into this place where you play positive sum games, and everyone starts to win, you suddenly find that everyone wants to push you forward, everyone wants to help you with the things that are your priorities and the priorities for your team. And it makes things a lot less nasty and it takes, it defangs a lot of situations, and just generally nicer environment to be around.
[00:09:12] So we talk about this at Planet Scale, we talk about positive sum games, and we talk about how we can grow the pie for everybody and make things better for everybody so that we're all winning. And I think that's even easier at a Start up. In big companies, you can play zero sum games all day long and be very successful. Be personally very successful. You can get your promotion and you can get promotions for your teams. And ultimately it doesn't matter because you're inside a massive organization and you're like, ah, you know, I was a Facebook and then inside Microsoft, I couldn't do anything for the stock price. I couldn't do anything for the value of the company. I mean, you do your job, you do it well, but you're just, you're just part of this massive machine, of one hundred thousand people. And it's why this seems to happen in big organizations.
[00:09:55] That's why I love being at startups. Right? We're 70 people here at Planet Scale and any one of us can impact the company. Any one of us can just even just write that blog post that brings a load of users in that helps convert users into the platform. And when you get into that environment, you want everyone to win because then winning is you winning and everyone else in the company winning. And that's something I think about a lot is, is holding on to that and keeping that in the culture and scaling it as part of the culture so that, kind of, people playing positive games is overall beneficial. And I think that comes to. It comes down to a lot of who you hire and who you fire honestly, as your company grows. So I will say I wasn't always good at this. It took me a long time. It took working with Jason, frankly, coming in from the inside and seeing how low trust some of the, you know, some parts of our company was, and then just working through it. And it, and we did a lot in, in a short amount of time to kind of turn those things around.
[00:10:48] Eiso: So you, I think segment directly into, something that Jason mentioned earlier on. He said that you had built one of the most spectacular infrastructure teams he'd ever seen. I think Jason you said the words, "one of the world's greatest infrastructure teams ever built." I know that's a very, very strong compliment coming from you Jason. Sam, talking about, you know, who to hire, who to fire, building such a high performance team. Where do you start from, and what are some of the principles that you know today that you maybe didn't know in the past?
[00:11:20] Sam: Well, first of all, I start with myself cause that's the first place you have to start. Right? Otherwise, unless you work really hard, unless you try hard, unless you're very self-critical, you, you're not going to have really good people want to work with you, right. If you just sit there and you kind of try and lead from the back, rather than from the front, people are just not going to do it, right. So, first of all, I try and do, and I had an engineer that used to work, work with me at, GitHub and she was, she was outstanding. And one of the reasons, she had an amazing and a huge impact on me because, she always used to say, "well, you're in leadership, so you should just do better." She just, she'd always say, "you don't get to make excuses. You don't get to comfort yourself. You just should do better in every situation where things go wrong, you should just think, how can I do better?"
[00:12:10] And that stuck with me. And that still sticks with me and I, and when anything goes wrong now and I'll, and especially as a CEO, I mean, this is, this is default CEO behavior is you have to just blame yourself. Well, you just have to say, "okay, there's somehow I created an incentive structure. I did something wrong that eventually led to this situation happening." And that can actually, that that's tough because it can be months and months from something you did or just a weak decision or weak behavior from you can fester for months, and it can actually be hard to attribute your behavior and the things you've done, or the incentive structure you built in a moment in a single moment to a dysfunction that happens down the line.
[00:12:53] I always start with myself and then next it becomes the leadership team that reports to you. So your directors or your VPs. It's so crucial that they, again, they engender the same, the same spirit that they are going to try and work extremely hard for their people and do better constantly. People who want to play blame games, people want to point fingers, they're just not going to be able to run a high performance organization. It's just not, it's not going to work because people are gonna...
[00:13:22] You know, great people, people that you want to work with, you have to assume you work for them as much as they work for you. They can go anywhere. They like. They can just migrate to other companies, other teams by the nature of them being fantastic. They have a ton of optionality. So you have to wake up every morning and think, how can I do better for these people? Are they being paid? Are they getting opportunities that they want? Are they feeling empowered? And empowerment is a word that just gets completely overused at this point. But do they get an environment that's challenging? And there isn't full of red tape and process, and that's another thing is like too much process just kills any form of enjoyment or fun or innovation that happens. And really, you know, I've found that really solid people. They need that.
[00:14:08] Jason: Let me emphasize something Sam said here too, which is really important because I think when he said "starting with him," one of the things you'll see is people who would intellectually know or possibly say the right thing. There's a lot of people out in the industry right now that will say, "yeah, don't play zero sum games or have a growth mindset or any of those things." But what in reality they're saying is "I expect you to have a growth mindset or not to play zero sum games" when in fact what they should be saying to themselves, is, "I need to be the example of what this looks like," because what will happen in this scenario is that everyone inside the organization will look to the way that you as leader act, respond or situationally apply learnings.
[00:14:58] And if they don't see that evidenced in you, they're not going to do that themselves. And so, one of the hardest things I think in the industry is finding real true, positive examples at the top or in leadership positions of people who have been able to do these things because they themselves don't embody those, those actual traits. And you know, this is, I can go on for days about this because everyone's read to all the same books, but not many people can live what it actually means to be a leader of an organization. Most people know. It's easy to know. It's not easy to be.
[00:15:36] Eiso: How much of this is nature versus nurture? I have some strong opinions on this as well. And it sounded like you, Sam also felt that over your own career and over the years, you've, you've changed a lot. I'd love for you to dive a little bit deeper into that kind of change and journey. And you know, what was it that really started triggering you to go from maybe knowing some of these things to really embodying them.
[00:15:57] Sam: Yeah, actually, that's quite interesting. So I would say that a lot of it is nurture. A lot of it is getting to work with fantastic people and watching them and having them challenge. And it's actually is self perpetuating, right? If you work with fantastic people that give feedback that are challenging to work with at times you get to grow as well.
[00:16:16] I always often wonder actually why people at other companies or leaders or whatever, choose to put up with some of the problems they have, because I genuinely think in a lot of ways you can pick your problems and you should try and pick the problems that come from having great people. I that is not to say there is no problems, they're just a different set and I think they're more enriching to solve. But I, from, from my early career, I always wanted just to learn from, from great people and work with great people.
[00:16:42] But I knew this and I dealt with it in a very unrefined way. I don't think I was, I don't think I had the techniques and I don't think I had any refinement in how I felt, I just felt annoyed or unhappy dealing with sort of things that I didn't want to deal with, that just came from unnecessary human dysfunction, I guess, I just wanted to build amazing things with amazing people. I don't think we're allowed to swear, but that's a great Kanye quote that involves a swear about his life that I always think about, and we joke about this planning scale.
[00:17:15] But yeah, so I, for a long time, I just wanted to work with great people and I, that's why I sought out working at GitHub. The early engineering team at GitHub was also just outstanding in their own right, and in their own ways. And going into an environment like that, where you could work with people that really challenge you and you, and I honestly, it's uncomfortable to do it right, like you feel like an imposter a lot of the time, and that's okay, I think you have to just get used to that, and, you know, there is some, some feeling of inadequacy that comes from just having amazing people surrounding you, but once you get to, once you get comfortable with that and just see the challenges and try to live live through every day and, and do your absolute best, it becomes a really amazing environment to be in.
[00:17:54] And so then over time as I've, you know, grew up into management and then from management to leadership, and I think those two things are somewhat distinct in a lot of ways. It just came back to like obsessing over how people feel about working for you, whether they get the things they need and constantly being there to get the feedback and understand and, and just a lot of growth. And then that could start to turn into, less nature and, and more nurturing from working with these people. And generally now I spend my time and trying to nurture this in other people.
[00:18:26] Eiso: So you, you touched upon, you know, at some point getting the techniques, can you maybe, for someone who is in their position that you were maybe, you know, X years ago, share some of the techniques that have really helped you?
[00:18:39] Sam: Yeah, actually I would say the first technique that has really helped me is meditation. And self-reflection. And I don't know if that's one thing that will always get recommended. I think there's a lot of transactional techniques when it comes to management, but self-management, self-control and learning to pace your thought, like have a pace to your thoughts and not, not be ruled by emotions all the time is the first technique that I think anyone who wants to get into management or leadership should do.
[00:19:04] Meditation is a really fantastic way of doing this to get control of the kind of lizard brain, so that you're not making decisions from a place of fear. Because they never come out right, if you can slow down and if you can, you can take a pace that is in your control and make decisions that way, you will make better decisions. And that's something that, you know, something I learned from Jason, I don't think I've ever seen Jason get annoyed or flat, and he was always very calm and reassuring. And if you can engender that in your organization, that's first of all, just a complete superpower. So that's the first one.
[00:19:39] The other is, really, really think about performance. Great people don't want to work with underperformers, and there are underperformers in every organization, it's just a fact. And the longer you let those people linger, the longer it will spread a rot inside your organization. If you are working, if you love the mission of your company and you want to see that company succeed more than anything, and you're working on a team of people that don't even work a full week, or if you work with a team of people that spend their time coming up with really well articulated reasons not to do something, versus you just wanting to try something and put your best foot forward and step into a problem and just see if you can outrun the issue. It just it takes away such a sense of, kind of connection to your work when you work with people that don't take it as seriously as you.
[00:20:34] And I remember that I saw the results of some Google survey, that something like 40% of people were quitting Google at one point. And they were putting the reason, oh no then 40% of the people who were quitting, put the reason as being, cause they had a low performer on their team. And I think that's just this terrible. And I think it's it, it just eats away at an organization. And so I think as a leader, your job is to kind of garbage collect and, and clear up the parts of the organization that don't do well and hold people to account, because then your great people know that they're putting the effort in for something, and they're not just kind of carting around a bunch of people that don't take it as seriously. And if you work at a great company and a great tech company, you have this opportunity to hire pretty much anyone and you just should, you anyone fantastic. You should hire great people and make sure when you miss hire, you correct that problem quickly. That's tough, right? Like it's not easy to fire people, but it's an essential part of the job and it is your job to do that.
[00:21:30] Eiso: Yeah, and this is also the first time I've heard the garbage collector reference in this context, but I think, I think, I think it's a good one. And by the way, feel free to swear. I think if we weren't allowed to swear, Jason and I might have to scrub the last few episodes already.
[00:21:42] Sam: This is probably the longest Jason has ever heard me speak without swearing. I will just say, yeah, the garbage, the garbage collecting sounds cold, but at the end of the day, you have to, if you, if you have the privilege to lead people, you have to weigh you have to weigh your responsibilities and on balance, you should be doing the difficult, the tough to do, the nasty parts of the job. That is incredibly important, and that's the only way you earn your right to lead really good people.
[00:22:10] Jason: It's it's funny because it's exactly the mentality you have to have, for what its worth, I'd never heard that before too Sam, I think it's actually genius. I actually always called a sweeping or defragging, but garbage collection is actually kind of appropriate. It's awesome.
[00:22:24] Eiso: I want to jump a step back on something a little more softer than garbage collecting, which is you mentioned, you know, understanding yourself, building a sense of calm into your decision-making. Meditation, and I think this is probably the first time meditation is referenced in the context of engineering leadership. It's something that I've personally become a fan of over the years. And I, I always looked at meditation as a little bit of a, you know, out there thing. To be very honest. When I first heard about I was like, "ah this is a thing that's kind of out there." But once I realized that just a notion of, being able to approach any topic or any decision with a clear head calm and for some people, meditation is what does that, for other people might be, you know, going for a run.
[00:23:04] Would love for, for maybe you both you Jason and Sam, to talk a little bit about, you know, what it is that you do on a weekly basis to really make sure that you have that kind of calm mind coming into, what can be, you know, difficult conversations or stressful situations on your team.
[00:23:23] Jason: Something maybe that frustrates my wife or other people know about me too, is that I actually am quite structured. My days and my weeks, you know, I like some routine. And part of that routine is what helps me be good at my job. And for me, what it looks like is I really like to work out with weights or swim, swimming in particular is one of those things where you have to be in your own head, because you can't put music on, if you're doing it for 30 minutes or 40, 40 minutes.
[00:23:50] Now that's a long time you can go through topics. So I do situational thinking. I do, you know, I think through scenarios, I think through possible outcomes and avenues to achieve those outcomes. But even the same thing when I'm lifting weights, I might have music on the background, but I'm really concentrating on, you know, 10, 15, 20 seconds of the set. And then a couple of minutes of just going through scenarios.
[00:24:13] But I do the same thing at home too. I like to wake up every day and do a set of the same things like the, you know, do at night after we have dinner, you know, I've got chores that I do. The kids have chores that they too, but it's the exact same chores every day, for me, there's no ambiguity about it in the same night routines and things of that nature. Now, for some people that sounds like a nightmare, for me, it's actually what I need. I like that structure because it doesn't take any brain cycles away from what I'm actually trying to do.
[00:24:39] And one of the other things that's a little habit of mine, and people at GitHub know this, is that I walk around with notebooks. I always have a notebook in my pocket with a pencil, and I would write down all my raw notes. And then I would transfer that notebook of notes to either a short-term checklist or a long-term thoughts notebook each night. And again, that allowed me freedom to not have to hold things in my head. And that was incredibly important. The structure of that allowed me to, to do these things was it was really something that unlocked a lot of things for me when I figured that out.
[00:25:10] Eiso: I love what you're saying, Jason, that actually touches a little bit on the theme that we've been I think almost from episode one mentioning is that, you know, the similarities between high-performance engineering leadership and athletes, right, there's a lot of the routine and the checklists making sure that there's just a pure focus on, the one core thing that matters to them and everything else is, is almost thought out of, right in Silicon valley, we've gone as far as making fun of people wearing the same clothes, not to have to make that decision in the morning, but it really does come down to, you know, making sure that you can save your brain cycles for what you really want to spend them on.
[00:25:47] Sam, I know that you, for you, it's not swimming and weightlifting. And you, you mentioned meditation, walk us through your day and kind of what your routines are.
[00:25:56] Sam: So I like to get up really early. I get up at 5:00 AM in the morning. So we have a two year old, unless you take time and get up early then you don't really get your own time until they're in bed, which is, you know, quite a bit later in the day. So for me, I always feel like I'm stealing time by getting up really early because no one else is around, usually. And it's just, the world seems quiet. So I live in a pretty busy city and at that time in the morning, everything just feels very peaceful. And so getting up at that time means that I have time to focus purely on the things I want to focus on.
[00:26:29] That involves meditation involves working out or journaling or just sort of learning time, but very introspective learning time. I think mental health is not something that we talk about as much in industry and it affects everybody and taking time to care for your own mental health is really important, especially if you're in roles that require you to give a lot of your sort of emotional self away, and the way your emotions and how you feel as a person can really affect your job. I think then it's really important to take that time. So for me, you know, meditation has been transformative in terms of helping me take control of impulses and immediate thoughts that one would get in the moment and try and slow the pace of thinking down towards what I truly want out of a situation or out of a discussion, and I would recommend it to anyone to give it a go.
[00:27:28] It doesn't require any spiritual or religious beliefs. It's purely, you know, science based practice. It's, you know, it's fantastic, it's just a fantastic thing. And it can be, you know, you only need five minutes a day to get started, and if you stick with it, just like with everything, like with exercise, with any type of discipline, once you learn and you get into these things, it can start to really pay dividends. And the first transformative moment for me is when I noticed my kind of lizard brain reacting to something for the first time and being able to capture it and take control is an incredibly empowering moment for me.
[00:28:04] Jason: Sam and I have actually talked about this quite a bit in the past, and I think I saw even on this podcast, we've mentioned it, but when he's talking about his lizard brain as well, one of the things that I look for in leaders, and I think just kind of goes to counter to Silicon valley sometimes is the ability to actually control themselves and respond and act accordingly. And then people will say that there's a lack of passion or, you know, or if someone is combustible, they really liked the enthusiasm or passion or drive or, or whatnot.
[00:28:32] And I look at it the other way. I look at it as like, they're not able to control themselves. And there's a time, you know, just like with swearing as an example, like we joke even on here, sometimes we swear, but if you're dropping F-bombs every second word, they lose their meaning. So if you're banging the table every day or you're doing whatever, it kind of loses its purpose, but if you're able to control yourself and remain calm, the moments when you actually will be more passionate or act out or enthused, or even rough, they'll have more meaning. And so if I see someone who can't actually control themselves in that regard, that's a huge signal for me. And I think it's something that most leaders don't actively work on. And I think they should.
[00:29:15] Eiso: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think what's interesting about the episode we're recording today is that we started from, you know, what does high performance teams look like? And very quickly ended up on, if you want to build a high performance team, organization, culture, you need to start with yourself. And for every single one of us that looks different. Right, for you, Jason, it's, it's working out and very specific routines. It sounds like for you, Sam, it's a lot around being able to calm your mind, and you mentioned the lizard brain.
[00:29:46] For those people who know me, it's a massive amount about a sleep and what I put in my body. So within Athenian, I'm known for, on a rare occasion, I will cancel a meeting and say, "I didn't sleep well last night. And so I'm going to cancel this meeting because it requires me to bring the best version of myself to it and I'm not going to be able to." And then for those that know me even better know that I haven't had caffeine, alcohol, processed sugar, and a whole bunch of other things for years, because I happen to realize that that impacts my chemical balances. Right.
[00:30:16] And I think mental health as a topic is it's becoming more discussed when things go wrong. Burnouts or, you know, depression or more serious topics. But it actually is not often discussed in the context of high-performance leadership. Right. It's not just about making sure that things don't go wrong for your team, but making sure that yourself and your team itself can really find themselves in the best version, best mental state of themselves to actually, you know, be able to control yourself, make good decisions, not combust in difficult situations.
[00:30:56] So Sam, before we started recording this episode, you know, Jason was telling me that a lot of the people who have worked with you in previous companies have now come over with you to PlanetScale. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about why you think that is.
[00:31:12] Sam: Okay. So obviously I don't fully know, and I think probably everybody's reasons are different. I think it comes down to a number of factors. So first of all, these are people that I kind of worked with closely at GitHub in a lot of senses, but then some who I didn't really work with a whole bunch. I think it came from being consistent with them and them knowing who I was previously. And when I say knowing who I was, I mean, they knew my kind of faults. They knew my good parts, and they understood what coming to work at PlanetScale would be like, right, like working with me and being, trying to be consistent over the years meant that they could predict and understand what the environment would be like.
[00:32:01] I also offered them something that you don't often get inside companies, which is, a lot of autonomy to build a product for people just like themselves. And that, you know, is a really key thing. We're building a product for developers, a database for developers, and we often will kind of often say that we're the only database built for developers. I know that sounds like a really silly thing to say, cause you probably think to yourself, "what else are developers for", but we genuinely obsess over the daily lives of developers that use our platform. And a lot of the features on our platform are oriented around the productivity of engineers and developers when using the database, which is which no one has really ever done, and no one really thinks about things that way.
[00:32:47] So, I kind of, I tried to get to the core of the purpose that they would have, at the company and what the mission was, and everyone has a kind of axe to grind against database scaling and problems they've in their lives as, as engineers, and I, I said, "look, we're gonna build something here that it means no one will have these problems in the future. All of those scaling issues, all of those nasty problems that we've dealt with in our careers when we've worked at high-scale and the hyper-growth startups, we're going to end that forever. We're going to, we're gonna build something." So it took kind of inspiring people to want to come and build something truly meaningful.
[00:33:24] And also we just pay well. And that sounds like flippant and funny to just say like, "yeah, we pay people really well." That's super important. It's a really hot market and we pay above market to hire fantastic people. We give them great amounts of equity in the company, way above the standard equity offers that another company would make. And that, that is because it's really important to me that when someone ships something, and they see that it moves the needle, that they know they've personally made themselves more wealthy and they've increased the value of the company, and that has a direct proportional impact on themselves.
[00:34:01] And one of my favorite moments in my career was we'd been working on the GitHub acquisition for months and it was, it was the acquisition of Microsoft. Microsoft buying GitHub. That'd be funny the other way around. So, we've been doing this for months and it involved going and sitting in lawyer's and banker's offices on weekends in secret, building reports, decks, doing due diligence on a 13 year old company, a massive tech infrastructure with no one being able to know what we were doing. And it was a lot of hard work behind the scenes, and it was exhausting and it was difficult. And by the end of it, there was still only a very small group of people knew that this was happening. There'd been rumors, some rumors in the press, but no one really short was sure.
[00:34:48] And we had this all hands that was going to announce to the company that we were being acquired. And I remember being stood at the back of the room. After all of this time, and you know, we've been working on it, but I'd never fully realized it in the sense that, you know, it was something that was kind of happening, but this was the moment that everyone was going to know. And I remember being stood at the back of the room, thinking "all of these people don't realize that they're about to make a lot of money from this acquisition," right? People had equity in a company and the company was being bought and knowing that, and knowing that people are going to be able to buy a house for their parents or buy their first home or gain financial security was such an incredible feeling that I knew I wanted to have that again. And I knew I wanted to help enrich the lives of an entirely new set of people and do this once more.
[00:35:40] So go into a startup, bringing over a diverse group of folks and hiring people from not just GitHub, but from other companies, and giving them very significant chunks of the company. And now working exceptionally hard to make sure that in the in, and hopefully we get another, you know, a long run at building a phenomenal company. But knowing when this company finally kind of exits, iPO's, whatever, that a lot of people that have put in years of hard work in the trenches, will then get the decision to do whatever they want in their future, because they'll, they'll see a great return is something that is massively motivating to me. So that's why to me, the, the financial element is something that we don't talk about enough. People are terrible at advocating for themselves when it comes to their own packages and what they offer.
[00:36:29] So my goal is when I put a comp package in front of someone that it exceeds everything they would expect and it delights them. And I believe every moment of the hiring process should be delightful. And I think that's something that came across to a lot of people. And I think that's why they, one of the reasons they were attracted to the company. They have to have the mission, great people need a mission, they need to know they're waking up every morning with purpose, but when it's all said and done, it should be a very financially significant decision for, for the person coming to the company.
[00:36:58] Eiso: Sam, you kind of combine the, this notion of, you know, exceptional people need a mission, compensate them above and beyond what the market says and, you know, have them work in a way that they have tons of autonomy. That is I think to a lot of people listening, this is a dream. But I think a lot of people who are engineering leaders will find themselves in organizations where they're maybe not building software for developers, they are, you know, a director at a company where they cannot change the compensation plan significantly. And, and maybe the mission is, you know, building software for dentists or accountants. What is the set of tools that you would give that engineering leader to still build the best possible team and the best, highest performance culture that they can.
[00:37:51] Sam: Yeah. So I think there's multiple things you can do without the fact, as you mentioned, it's definitely harder, but it's definitely not impossible either. So a lot of research shows and anecdotally, I know this to be true is connecting people to the work can have out-sized impact on how they feel about the work. So even if you're making software for dentists, you can still connect people with the dentists that you are building for and to show how that enriches their lives and helps their patients. Right, I think a lot of engineers that aren't building for themselves you're right, are kind of in an environment where they don't quite know exactly who they're building for. And if they do know who they're building for, they don't understand the positive impact of it.
[00:38:35] This was very easy at GitHub because you would just go on Twitter or Hacker News to get positivity and love about the company you were working out or building. But if you, if you don't have that naturally, and it's not something that comes from because of the space you're in, I think leaders could do a lot more to go out of their way to connect people to the people that their lives impact no matter what you build. And that will bring a sense of like passion and satisfaction back into the team. So spending time, even just doing support for your customers, like take engineers to sales conversations, we have to actually hold back some of our engineers from coming to sales conversations, because I think they'd come to every one because they love talking to the people that are impacted by their work. And that's a key thing that you can do for free. You can get your engineers to come along, listen to customers, listen to customer pain, and then give them the time and the space and the autonomy to solve some of those problems.
[00:39:31] You can't necessarily change the comp structure of your company if you work at a big company, but you can advocate and you can chip along at things over a long period of time and maybe do make a difference, right? If you network internally, and you build a case for your team. I'm certain that you can do something that's meaningful and impactful for them. It just takes being influential, leading with influence and knowing the problems you're solving for your boss. And then, and then, you know, having the stomach to ask for reward in return and passing that to your team.
[00:40:02] Jason: I think Sam summarizes really well, but Sam, we talked about, again, I keep referencing all these conversations we had in the past because of experience, but it's just, it's fun. It's true. As developers we can probably empathize with other developers easier, so it's just straightforward, but just knowing your customer, this is why if you focus on the customer quite a bit and just understand who they are, not the personas, an actual customer, like, you know, if you have a persona, hopefully there's an actual person behind this that the team understands and can resonate with. And it's a simple thing to do, but just understanding how meaningful the software they're building is for their life and why it should exist in the first place.
[00:40:44] But then internally, if you can't, there's certain things you can control and certain things you can't. And so I have a saying, which is, "I can't promise you an outcome on something I won't be able to control, but I'll promise you the effort." And that is a simple thing. I can't tell you if I'm going to be able to get you more money, but I'm going to go work for it. And how people know to trust you in that scenario is that they've seen you do that before, and they've seen you be successful or even not successful, but they know you're advocating for them and they can, they can feel and see it.
[00:41:11] So that's a pretty simple thing. And then what you can control, just do what you say you're going to do. If you say you're going to do it, do it. And be consistent in that. If you can put all those things together, most people, particularly high performers are going to be around, you want to be around you, but if you can't have them connected to the customer intrinsically, you haven't connected to the customer explicitly.
[00:41:34] Sam: Absolutely. Yeah.
[00:41:35] Eiso: Couldn't agree more. I think that's a great topic to, to end today's episode on. Sam, are there any passing words that you'd still like to share with engineering leaders listening to us today?
[00:41:46] Sam: Yeah. So we've, we've covered a lot. I would say, do the hard stuff first and that if you are doing the hard stuff for your team, putting yourself on the line and being high integrity for your team and you wake up every day and think what is the hardest, most impactful thing I can do for my, my team and the people around me and my peers and my peers's direct reports, then you can't go far wrong, lean into it, get through it and just try really hard for your people, and it will pay dividends over the years.