This post will attempt to deliver a message of being present. Staying focused on a given job and doing it with 100% attention to the people around us. I will be sharing three techniques I learned over the course of 18 years.
- Story telling
- Active listening
I was flying back to Dallas from SFO in 2012. A Bill & Melinda Gates funded NPO reached out to me for an interview. The guy I was seated next to proceed to give me the best professional advice I ever received. He told me to “replant yourself every three years.” I had done this through the 90’s up until the time I worked for the largest privately owned wine and beer company in the Nation. While SFO proved to be too cost prohibitive for my family, I knew I needed a bigger pot.
One of my first career plans was cooked up over a glass of wine and a conversation with one of my account reps. I got a job managing a wine shop in the French Market after I dropped out of forestry school. The trajectory I plotted was to go from the wine shop to work at both a white tablecloth restaurant called Tapa Tio and then a private club named The Capital Club. After that the plan was to hire onto a wine distributor and move on to become a broker. I made it as far as becoming a wine rep for the best independent boutique companies in Ohio called Bauer & Foss. I was hooked on the nerdiness of the food and wine culture.
You really get a feel for an industry when you work all angles of it. The thing I Ioved about it was all the romance. The mystique of wine tasting, pairing with foods and all the storytelling involved. When you are slinging bottles the best way to do it to have some fire inside about what you are selling. I did this by learning more about where things came from. The people who made it. The grape growers and then all of the magic that happens when you pop a bottle of Champagne and pairing it with something stellar like Osso Buco. Yeah that dinner was incredible.
One of the best articles I’ve read about storytelling came from the Harvard Business Review. The author broke it down into these steps to tell your story beautifully:
- Start with a message
- Mine your own experiences
- Don’t make yourself the hero
- Highlight a struggle
- Keep it simple
Yeah, that’s me a long time ago careening down the side of Carmenet’s mountain side. Bauer and Foss would send us out to wine country every once in a while to meet with and listen to the people who made the products we were selling. This usually involved spending time on the vineyard in the guest house, hot days spent in the vineyard itself checking out the growth of the crops, smell of the soil, mood of the region from fog to sunlight to soil composition. We’d usually spend the afternoon in the barrel room tasting things that were on the make or things that few people outside the winery boundary had an opportunity to experience.
On one trip I met the folks from Ferrari Corona, Preston, Carmenet, St. Supery, Acacia and a hand full of others. I loved seeing the winemaker’s homes. Listening to the music they enjoy. Eating the food that their creative palates gravitated toward. The laughter. The friends I made while outside of my orbit and very far away from home. Sometimes letting loose and riding a flatbed truck down a mountainside with two of the most special colleagues I’ve ever had.
It’s these experiences that we were encouraged to take back home with us. We were wine reps on a route including fine wine shops and white table cloth restaurants. A small boutique company facing both larger and smaller ones. We were the ones who were passionate about it though. Our friendship with the people who made the product is what made us stand out among the competition… and enriched our lives in the end.
Whatever aspect of the tech industry you are in there is something about it that makes you want to do the work you do. Find that spark and get to know the story behind it. The people. Find a connection and then share that with your team mates and clients. Be careful not to evangelize. What you want to do is to share your enthusiasm about what makes the thing that sparks you excited. People tend to trust people who are open, honest, a bit nerdy and take the time to share something personal about the product you are selling.
Some years later after building custom web based reporting tools I implemented an open source DMS that caught the attention of the corporate office in Dallas. They asked me to relocate and come work for them in the Java/IBM shop on WebSphere applications. It was challenging work going from the sequential coding background I had into the full blown OOP world of the Spring framework. As time went on I volunteered and became the lead of shepherding the SharePoint and .Net platforms that they bought for enterprise collaboration.
These were days full of “big doin’s” as they say in Texas. There was a great deal of prejudice against Microsoft, and I get it, but I like to think in terms of what Jean Paul Gautier said once. “The idea is more important than the means used to implement it.”
I worked with some pretty hostile project team members who wanted nothing more than to see the return of the ideas of the 1970’s. Storytelling alone was not helping me either. I had to pick up some new moves so I bought some books on negotiating and brokering deals. One of the best techniques from this research is called “active listening.”
Once I relocated to Dallas I had to adjust pretty much everything about my life. I still had that Bauer & Foss independent streak burning brightly saying that I could overcome any challenge with enough hard work, dedication and creativity. It had been one of those career gear shifts that put me into arena where I had to learn Java Spring and the principals of OOP along with JSP and DB2… fast. After a year I was given a chance to lead the introduction of SharePoint 2007 and the .NET 3.5 framework to the enterprise. I grew the team to a humble 6 people and we did some big things together. It was not, however, without moments of despair and serious pain.
We were dragging the company away from IBM while it was kicking and screaming. There were two modernization efforts going on. The first was to convert all our decades old Lotus Notes applications to SharePoint for the purposes of collaboration and department based app ownership to reduce costs and technical debt. The other was to convert from a custom IBM AS400 LOB to SAP. Things were going great and my team was getting more accolades as SharePoint adoption was improving across the enterprise. Then that one project hit my desk. SAP didn’t have a way to incentivize sales reps so the knee jerk reaction was to build an ancillary system that interfaced between SAP and SharePoint.
I used to go to all of the Microsoft conferences in Dallas. They have a very large campus in Irving. It was at one of these gatherings that I heard a speaker say that “you can do anything in SharePoint, the trick is not to.” I architected the system to meet the requirements of the old AS400 system. My team was busy for 6 months solid, then 3 months in testing and UAT and iterative testing. Then we rolled it out to one of our States as a small rollout. It was a huge success. We then rolled it out to the largest portion of the company and the wind changed.
There’s a paraphrase from Melville I heard in one of the Star Trek Next Generation movies, which I think is better than the original line, which goes “if his chest had been a canon he would have shot his heart upon it.” That is essentially what I proceeded to do while protecting my team and taking the responsibility for the crippling system failure. SharePoint simply could not handle the massive through put that we were forcing upon it. We had used InfoPath, the .NET workflow framework in conjunction with Timer Jobs and PowerShell scripts. A great formula for small endeavors… not so great, as we discovered on the larger scale.
There was one point where a massive blow up occurred and it hit me square in the chest. I almost teared up while facing a situation where there was nothing I could do but clean up the mess and then go to the executive meetings and face the music.
All through that one year I was faced with dealing with waterfall project managers who were not digging the conversion to SAP let alone the loss of Lotus Notes. I knew I had to learn some new skills to surf the conversations toward brokering an agreement. So I went to the library and picked up some communication books. It was in one that I learned of a technique called active listening.” Essentially what you do is to be in the presence of someone who is talking, either in a meeting, your development space or anywhere else for that matter. You listen, think for a minute and then when it’s your turn to speak you stop yourself. You stop yourself from saying what your reaction is. Instead you wrap it within the original speakers’ message. So something like “Let me know if I understood you correctly. What you said is that XYZ. I appreciate the feeling behind XYZ but I wonder if we have considered ABC. What do you think?”
This technique lets the speaker know that you heard her or him and that you are invested in what they are saying. What does this do for you? It makes the speaker more inclined to invest in you. This technique can really save your deals, your projects and relationships.
After spending the better part of a decade in Dallas, a year after I the San Francisco interview, I got a call from a Microsoft Gold Partner to come work for them as a senior SharePoint developer. So me and my family packed back up and moved home to Columbus Ohio. The work was awesome and the technological culture vibrant. I was firing on all cylinders and enjoying the challenge.
A couple years into this I had found my swing and had become a highly functional consultant. Yet life throws us curveballs from time to time and I ended up catching one in 2015 that very nearly put me out of the game of life for good. After that everything changed. It was a struggle dealing with the emotional consequences of what happened so I hired a therapist, started running, became a vegetarian and started to tackle meditation.
My meditation practice was halting at best. I knew however that it improves the chances of not having a second heart attack, makes life generally better like you have heard about in “10% happier” and just makes people more present with one another.
Everything actually ended well in Dallas. It was a lesson learned for myself and the department and part of our platform maturity path. It was around 2013 that I got an email from some guy in Columbus Ohio who I’d never heard of before. He worked at a company called Cardinal Solutions. He had concocted a LinkedIn search using the keywords SharePoint, OSU and Texas. I met with the team, got an incredible job offer and relocated back to Columbus within a month.
I brought back my scars from Dallas and my hard headed determination from Bauer & Foss and proceeded to work on as many projects as I could handle. It turns out that I could not in fact handle everything especially when I was juggling two very prickly clients. In April of 2015 I had a surprise heart attack. No warning signs, no history, low risk and yet I walked out two days later with a bag full of medicine and a piece of platinum in my chest.
After an exhaustive amount of soul searching I was determined to rejoin the living and to get back to work and to be as productive as I could be. While I am an atheist I have learned to appreciate both running, vegetarianism and Buddhist principals. I know it sounds strange. But really, Buddhism is more of a philosophy and less of a religion than most people realize. With that I began to approach meditation with the goal of living longer. The American Heart Association endorses various relaxation techniques including meditation, or mindfulness as it goes these days.
I am not a touchy feely person by nature and the whole idea of sitting on a pillow after writing more lines of code than I could count to simply listen to myself breath sort of challenged me. I struggled with it for 6 months until I heard one guided meditation speaker say “it’s the spaces in between the thoughts that distract you which pull you back to the breath that is the true practice of meditation.” In that moment I knew it was OK that I was thinking about the class file I had just edited, my client visit tomorrow, what shirt I was going to wear, why is my cat sitting in my lap now, oh wow I should not have had that much spicy food at lunch, I wonder what Kevin Mack is up to this weekend… it never ends. But I knew right there that I was in fact meditating successfully every time I hit a spot of nothing, between thoughts, and was listening to my breath again.
Meditation in fact is a lot like programming. It has patterns. These patterns develop and grow the longer you practice. One quick and easy technique is to, now I want everyone to try this in a moment, tell your brain you are going to listen to your breath for a few cycles. That’s important. You are announcing mindful intent in the face of constant mindlessness. Then you inhale counting 4, hold counting 4, exhale counting 4, hold counting 4. Repeat two more times. OK, now try. You might not feel very different but physiologically your heart rate may have slowed, your blood pressure may drop, your thoughts may become clearer and your memory may have just gotten better. I use this technique not just at the beginning of a meditation session but in the board room, or while having negotiations with a difficult client, arguing with my partner about me leaving the protein powder on the counter and not in the hidden spot he’d rather me put it.
The idea behind this is that there is nothing fancy or mystical about mindfulness. It’s a simple practice of coming back to your breath. Over and over again. It makes you come back into the moment with your colleagues, team mates and friends. You know it’s funny, a lot of people blame our technology for scattering us into bad practices like multi-tasking. In reality it’s us. We need to learn to acknowledge life around us and let it be. To participate but not to let it take us too far away from our breath. Each other. The person right in front of you in the meeting or the one you are pair programming with.
We have covered my personal big three professional techniques of interfacing with the people around me to get cool work done while having fun and making memories. Yours will probably be different. But remember that it’s your passion, ability to listen/negotiate and be present while honoring yourself and the people around you that make us successful in everything we do.
So why the title “being there?” There is a 1970’s film, one of my all-time favorites, that inspired this post. It’s a film where the main character is portrayed as both a genius but with a severe intellectual disability. The point is that no one really knows, including ourselves, but if we believe in something and then just let it go like the breath, life really is just nothing more than a constantly changing collection of thoughts… and all that beautiful space in between.
“Life is a state of mind.”