Servant Leadership

Over the last year or so, my role at TWG has shifted more and more into managing other people. It’s been a welcome challenge – it requires an entirely different set of skills from being a developer, and it’s an opportunity to work a new group of muscles.

Moving into management is often seen as an inevitability for good developers. They think they have to take that step to climb in the organization. And, at many companies, they’re right. It’s a shame. If a senior developer wants to stay on the technical track and master their craft, it should be celebrated – not seen as a career-limiting move. But if management interests you, it offers a unique opportunity.

Growing as a developer often means widening the scope of your responsibilities. As a junior developer, you’re responsible for one small task at a time. When you move up into the intermediate category, you’re responsible for one – or many – larger features. Finally, as a senior developer, you’re responsible for entire projects.

It isn’t just a widening of responsibility – it’s a widening of your potential impact. At one level you can positively impact a set of features or a project. But moving into a leadership role means having an impact on an entire team. For better or worse.

I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors as I start this journey. They’ve shown me, through their words and actions, what effective leadership looks like. It isn’t about amassing power, getting a promotion, or making tons of money. It’s about having a positive impact on a group of people, and the organization as a whole.

Wanting to do well in this new role, I’ve been devouring every book, podcast, blog post, and conference talk I can find. Along the way, I discovered a concept I love: servant leadership.

Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Servant leadership turns the traditional model of management on its head. Instead of employees serving their bosses, leaders help their people. They teach others and provide opportunities for growth. Everyone on the team gets a chance to learn and advance.

If you’ve been lucky enough to have some good managers in your life, I’d be willing to bet they fit that description. And I can’t think of a better example to try and live up to.

Communicating Like a Human Being

The traditional marketing blog wisdom is that using double opt-in for your mailing list is a bad idea. It’s an unnecessary step, they say. You’ll get 20-30% more subscribers without it. Oh, and put some pop-ups on your site. Don’t you want more people on your mailing list?

Ugh. I take the opposite approach. I put up as many barriers as I can. When visitors sign up for the Monday Mailer they have to:

  1. Type in their email address.
  2. Get redirected to another page, asking them to click a confirmation link.
  3. Open their email client.
  4. Find the email from me, assuming it didn’t end up in their spam folder.
  5. Click on the confirmation link.
  6. Get redirected to another page, letting them know that they’ve finally reached the end.
  7. Except, they have to wait until next Monday to get the first email.

That’s seven steps, just to read what I write.

The biggest benefit to this approach is that it's relaxing. I’m not worried about catering to an audience whose goals don’t align with mine. They aren’t on my list because of a free giveaway or some other marketing gimmick. They aren’t subscribed because I pounded them with pop-ups. They're on my list because I promised to share my thoughts on shipping side projects and doing good work. And that’s what I try to deliver.

Sure, it means fewer subscribers. But those people are worth more – and I don’t mean financially. I’m not here to sell you anything. I want to share what I know, build connections with people, and have interesting conversations.

And I’m succeeding in that goal. The Monday Mailer gets a handful of new signups each week. When you reach that final “You Made It!” page, I ask you to email me and share some of your work. Not everyone does it – that's fine. But every once in a while I get to hear about something cool. A new app. A blog post. An exciting project at work.

I write back, every time. We talk about motivations. Hopes and dreams. A tricky bug. Future goals. Finishing a project.

Sometimes I just let them know they aren’t alone.

I don’t care about having a massive audience. I want the Monday Mailer to grow because someone cared about what I have to say, got some value from it, then shared it with someone they like. By communicating with them like a human being.

It feels like the right approach.

Be Kind

One Friday afternoon, early in my career, I was wrapping up some new features for the back-end of a client’s Rails app. Simple stuff. Confident in my work, I deployed the changes, closed my laptop, and drove out of town for a weekend of camping with friends. I had just arrived when my phone rang. It was my project lead, Kevin.

“The client’s site is down. What happened?”

Oh shit. Fuck. I had no idea. I was three hours away with no laptop.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll take care of it. Have a good weekend.”

Like that was going to happen. I’d let the team down. I’d ruined someone else’s weekend. I beat myself up for days. Come Monday; I walked into the office certain I was about to be fired. The project lead walked over.

“Hey, Brian. How was your trip?”

He was smiling. There wasn’t even a hint of frustration or annoyance. “It was okay,” I said, waiting for the bad news. “Sorry about Friday. I completely blew it.”

“It’s okay,” he replied. “We’ve all done it.” He paused for a moment. “But what did you learn?”

I talked about the need for proper QA. About thoroughly testing my changes. About taking the time to make sure the job gets done right. After a few minutes, he held up his hand.

“Great. It sounds like you get it. I know that you can do better.”

And that was the end of it. Kevin never brought it up again.

Kevin gave me the space to screw up, as long as I learned from it. He jumped in, with his years of experience, and helped me out when I needed it most. And still believed I was a competent developer, despite my mistake. He saw my potential.

Now that I’m the one leading projects and mentoring junior developers, I often think back to that day. And I remind myself to be kind and see the potential in people. Give them a break.

Just like Kevin did for me.

Bring Value

I don’t have many concrete goals when it comes to my work. I try not to chase money, promotions, page views, or followers. Instead, I ask myself one question.

How can I bring value to someone today?

It isn’t a mission statement, or a manifesto. You won’t see it on a motivational poster. It’s simply a way to keep me on track – to remind myself where my focus should be. It’s a North Star when I feel lost, useless, or unproductive. Just try to be useful.

I try to bring value to you, dear reader, by sharing my thoughts and advice on shipping side projects, doing your best work, and being more productive. But bringing value to those around you doesn’t require an email newsletter.

Share your knowledge with a junior developer. Help a coworker figure out a tough bug. Grab a coffee with the new hire and make them feel welcome. Take on something everyone else dreads doing. Write a blog post. Empty the dishwasher.

Add value wherever you can, even if it isn’t part of your job description. Not only will it make you a more valuable employee – and human being – it’s incredibly rewarding.

Time spent helping someone else is never time wasted.

Your First Speaking Gig

I've spent the last few days preparing for a talk I'm giving at the end of September. Speaking is a great way to promote yourself, share your work, and build connections with people in your industry. But, for many developers, the idea of presenting in front a crowd means stress and anxiety.

I've spoken several times throughout my career. I thought my nerves would calm down eventually, but I still get butterflies in my stomach every time. If you're considering jumping into speaking, here's some advice for making the process a bit easier.

Start Small

Your first speaking gig needn't be in front of thousands of people at a huge conference. Instead, find opportunities to speak where the stakes are low. At TWG, we get together every Friday and show off what we've been working on for the past week. For many employees, these demos have been a good way to practice speaking to a crowd. A few have even transitioned their demos into full-blown talks and given them at conferences. If your company has a similar tradition, I'd strongly urge you to take advantage.

Local meetup groups are another great option. The crowd is usually on the small side and extremely forgiving of mistakes. There's also a good chance you'll spot a few friendly faces in the crowd.

Stay in Your Lane

Pick a topic you know like the back of your hand. If you’re creating tvOS apps like there's no tomorrow, speak about what it's like to build an app that's used from the couch. Built something interesting in a hot new framework? Walk the audience through how you did it and discuss the pros and cons of your approach. Struggle with imposter syndrome, never feeling like you'll match up to others? Please give a talk about it, because we all feel that way and need to know we're not alone.

The possibilities are endless. But the worst thing you can do is get up on stage and try to fake it on a topic you're unfamiliar with. I've tried. The audience will pick up on it right away. And, even if they don't, Q&A will give you away pretty quickly. By sticking to something you know extremely well you’ll come across as confident and prepared. Because you will be.

Don’t Focus on the Slides

Slides should complement your talk, not replace it. They’re great for driving home a particularly important point or showing something interesting in a visual way. But too many people use them as a crutch.

Have you ever sat through a presentation where the speaker read each slide out loud, point by point? It’s agonizing. And it’s a dead giveaway that they wrote the entire thing in Keynote. Look, I get it. Fiddling around with fonts and colours is so much more interesting than writing a talk. But it’s important to remember why you’re speaking in the first place: to share information with your audience. A good talk with passable slides will always be more interesting than a bad talk with lots of memes and fancy transitions.

I find it helpful to use a tool like Deckset. It allows me to focus on the content of my talk, while automatically formatting it in a way that looks good. I highly recommend checking it out.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In the end speaking is a skill, like any other. You probably won’t be very good at first. But pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. With some time, practice, and these tips, you’ll be wowing crowds before you know it.