tl;dr: This year I moved overseas and had to learn many things, both professionally and personally. Some of my key learnings were being curious and assuming less, focusing on the present, modelling problems as systems, and leading/being led omnidirectionally.
Despite 2020’s macro context, it was a fantastic year for me. I understand my multitude of privileges; I was able to stay safe for the whole year and support my loved ones to stay safe as well. Amidst high entropy and many changes, I grew a lot both professionally and as a human being.
This past year I had to learn again the essential things I took for granted in day-to-day life by moving countries: how to move around the city, how to pay bills, why houses need boilers, where to buy fresh ingredients for cooking and even how to put the rubbish out for collection – the latter being a journey of weeks to get to a conclusion, given we were hesitant to do something wrong and get fined by the council, and well, it turns out that this works exactly as it did in Brazil.
On a more serious note, at work, I’ve also learned a lot. Being a manager at massive tech companies felt different to me, even though I had experience managing even larger teams. Given most of my experience until then was working in early-stage startups, it felt paradoxical to me to think about how I could do my job well in this new context. Observing how things got done in such large scale and understanding why everything was designed in specific ways was fascinating, and frankly, also intimidating and daunting.
With all that said, I thought I’d share some of my learnings this year. I’ll save the rubbish one for later.
Be curious and assume less
Given that sometimes startups tend to transplant larger organisation’s practices, I believed in a lot of these practices blindly. Microservices are the way to go. Good software delivery is deploying faster, including on Friday evenings. Matrixed org design makes teams more agile. All these statements might be true, in some context, and to some extent. My new canned answer to almost anything is: it depends.
Let’s say you join a team, and their release cadency is every 30-days. One way to look at it is being judgemental and saying that it is likely bad practice. Another way to look at it is being curious and trying to understand why. Things are always uglier in practice than they sound in theory. This team might have all the reasons to do so: dependencies with a vendor releasing software on-premises into your infra, having high availability needs on a small team which isn’t spread across timezones. Being curious opens doors whilst being judgemental closes them.
This learning serves the same for relationships with people. Instead of assuming what is someone’s trajectory, what they need or want, ask. Being curious, asking, listening, and trying to approach conversations from multiple angles which are not my first conclusion has helped me tremendously to unblock people, enable them and honestly, get out of their way too.
Focus on living the present
When I came to Europe in 2019 to interview at Spotify, I was incredibly intimidated. Potentially passing the interview meant so many things for my family and me. Moving to a new country that I knew very little about, being part of a larger company, deepening my understanding of machine learning and distributed systems… I could go on here.
I was also terrified. I felt as if I had lucked out through the process and now was at the onsite stage. Because I had left my previous role feeling that I had failed people around me, I thought I wasn’t worthy of the position at Spotify. So three days before the onsite interview, I saw a tweet by Jason Fried about the The Manual, a collection of Epictetus’ essential teachings. I read it in that same night, and I believe this was the event whereby I decided I’d focus on what I could control for the next three days, which was myself. This decision gave me peace of mind to go to the interview and be present, listen, live the moment, and whichever verdict came back that was it.
Even though the first spark for me for Stoicism was this circumstance in 2019, I used the things I’ve learned from it throughout 2020 uncountable times. I already knew that living in the present was spoken of in many cultures and beliefs, such as Buddhism. Still, I think this specific event made it click for me and now every time I feel like I’m spinning wheels, I get back to some of the learnings I had through what I’ve read on Stoicism, and it always helps me.
Model problems as systems
I always have been a massive fan of slicing large challenges up into smaller challenges. That’s a core part of system design, and I always appreciated how hard it is doing it well. What has been new for me about it this in this year was using it consciously as a tool for finding clarity for any situation I cannot digest easily.
For instance, how to resolve a conflict between groups of people who have antagonistic interests. You likely won’t find the exact solution to your problem by googling. Although, I learned that breaking any problem into smaller problems helps. Observing what each constituent is optimising for, what goal they’re seeking, how they get their feedback to reach their conclusions makes it much easier to come up with a hypothesis on why things are how they are, and then experiment with change.
I learned there’s a large field of study for this called systems thinking and it is not only useful for solving adhoc misalignment, but also for creating mental models which you can reuse whenever you experience new scenarios, which has made me much more pragmatic and effective as a manager.
Be led and lead omnidirectionally
A very typical interview question for managers is “what is your leadership style?”. I had different answers for it: enabler, supporter, etc. These still hold, but my newest answer to it is that I am led and lead omnidirectionally.
What I have learned is that leadership shouldn’t be a hierarchical trait. Leadership is situational, and the best managers I have worked with are very self-aware of their shortfalls. They know what they’re good at, and when they need to step back for others to lead, regardless of who others are. By stepping back, delegating, or letting someone else drive direction, you truly fulfil your role: you seek the best outcome.
That said, I learned how to be vulnerable and open by default. Sharing my quirks openly and talking about them has helped me put people in a better position to help me. And what I have observed is that generally, people do it back as you build trust with them. Consequently, you – and the whole group of people around you – know when to step in, and when to step back. I learned a lot by allowing people to lead me, regardless of where in the reporting chain they are, and most importantly, I achieved better outcomes by doing so.
In closing, I also wanted to share how much joy I found through writing this year. It is quite early; still, I have learned so much by doing it. I hope this has been an exciting journey for you too. Thanks for reading my blog, and I hope the next year brings closure at a macro level, and for you, some of the greatest feelings I had this year.