Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

feedback

Not Too Philosophical

I recently got an email from a Monday Mailer subscriber, complimenting me on an article I’d written. They liked the piece and told me to,“keep them coming.” I love hearing from readers, particularly when something I’ve written has helped them in some way. But it was a comment at the end of the email that caught my eye.  “Not too philosophical, though” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, to be honest.

I recently got an email from a Monday Mailer subscriber, complimenting me on an article I’d written.

They liked the piece and told me to,“keep them coming.” I love hearing from readers, particularly when something I’ve written has helped them in some way. But it was a comment at the end of the email that caught my eye. 

“Not too philosophical, though”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, to be honest. I just replied, “Heh. Thanks.”

I’ve heard variations on that comment before, and it confuses me every time. Side projects involve a lot of technical topics, to be sure. It’s rare not to have to think, at least a little, about things like database structure, deployment, programming language, and hosting. 

But, when it comes to creating something new and sharing it with the world, there’s something else you need to deal with: the space between your ears.

When I sent out the Monday Mailer survey, I asked, “What’s the biggest challenge, when it comes to your work?” The majority of the answers were related to time management, motivation, focus, and prioritization. In fact, less than 3% of the responses involved coding at all.

I think I’m different from many programmers. I’ve always been interested in technical topics, but programming has always been a means to an end for me. I’m not interested in knowing every nook and cranny of a particular language or framework. I’m interested in solving problems for real people, using technology. Programming is just what it takes to get there.

If you asked some people, they’d say that makes me less of a programmer. To them, you aren’t worth much unless you know how to find the minimum depth of a binary tree, or can recite how to do a Heap Sort from memory. 

I realized a long time ago I was never going to appeal to those people. It isn’t that I couldn’t pick up the skills necessary — I just don’t care. If you’re plugging away on sophisticated algorithms at Facebook or Google, I salute you. But I’ll never be you.

I deal with a lot of technical issues all day, at work. When it comes to my writing, I want to explore other topics. The kind of themes that aren’t discussed very often, in most programming circles. Topics like, “What do I do when I’m falling behind the rest of my team?” or, “How do I get over my fear of shipping?”

Those are thorny problems. And they’re problems most of us face, from time to time. Technical skills can be taught relatively quickly, assuming you’re a willing student. You can buy an online course or a book. You can listen to podcasts, or hang out in Slack channels. If all you care about is writing pretty code, there’s plenty of ways to fulfill that goal.

But if you want to become more confident in your skills, get over your fears, learn how to ship your work, or get better at working with other people? That’s alot harder to do, particularly in a field full of people reluctant to think about the non-technical. It requires support from other people and maybe, just maybe, some honest writing from people who have been there.

The Monday Mailer won’t always be about motivation, or fear, or other “soft” skills. I’ll always write about how to promote your work, be more productive, get better at consistently shipping, and brainstorming new ideas. But it won’t be what I write about exclusively.

Until next week,

-Brian


It's All About the Work

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates.

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. 

I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates. A few have stuck with it, but most are working in decidedly non-journalism jobs these days.

My favourite part of working in a newsroom was the opportunity to solicit feedback from fellow journalists, photographers, editors, and the paper’s readership. You get feedback on your writing, whether you want it or not. At best, you hear reasoned arguments and opinions. At worst, you get a valuable opportunity to develop a thicker skin.

But these days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anyone can publish their work and receive feedback. It wasn’t all that long ago you had to wait for someone to write a letter or call the newsroom. Now, feedback hits your inbox almost daily.

With sites like Reddit & Hacker News, it’s possible for thousands — or millions — of people to read what you write. If your post ranks highly enough, your traffic goes through the roof, newsletter signups skyrocket, and your inbox gets slammed.

I was on the receiving end of it, once, when I wrote Be Kind.

I posted it to Hacker News one Friday, on a whim. Much to my surprise, it quickly climbed to the #1 spot. For many of you, this was your introduction to the Monday Mailer.

For a few days, I felt great. I saw the number of people visiting the site, signing up for the newsletter, and emailing me and thought I’d finally “made it.” Whatever that means.

But, eventually, it all came to an end. My website traffic went back down to pre-Hacker News levels. The rate of newsletter signups dropped off. The majority of the emails stopped coming.

In the end, I had the same thing I’d started with: the work.

I’ve been lucky to meet and chat with a few people who are prominent online. Despite their Internet fame, they’re all regular folks like you and I. They’re busy working at a job, or running a business. They’re raising a family. They’re working hard to build an audience for their work. They’re putting their voices out into the world, despite their fears.

The one thing they all obsess over? How best to do their work.

They want to get better, work fucking hard, get to know their audiences, and find ways to help them. To build products that improve people’s lives or jobs. To have real conversations about doing good work.

The work never really goes away. It’s always there. You can accomplish audacious goals, becoming well-known in your community, and earn a lot of money. But, in the end, none of it matters. The work will still be there, waiting for you.

Temporary “fame” will change your brain if you let it. You create something new, it gains a following, and suddenly all you care about is numbers. And once those numbers start to decline — and they will — you’ll do anything to keep them growing. It’s why scam artists find financial success selling “50 Ways to Turbocharge Your Newsletter” courses.

You stop caring about the people consuming your work and start caring about how many unique visitors your site had last month. Or how many Twitter followers you have. Or how your podcast’s downloads are faring.

It’s the wrong path.

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

“Find something you love and let it kill you.”

You can read every blog post about marketing, shell out thousands of dollars for online courses, and tweak your social media presence until the cows come home. But, in the end, all that’s left is you, a laptop, and the work. So you’d damn well better love it.

Love the work. Love the process. Love the act of working. Protect that love and put it into everything you do. It’s all you have.

You aren’t guaranteed anything in this life, except the opportunity to work hard.

Embrace it.

Until next week,

-Brian