Listen: Leading & Learning

This turned out to be a kind of freewheeling discussion between myself, our question-asker Patrick, and three guests. It circles around the idea of leading a team of technologists, and not only on how technology gets selected in an environment, but how those three lead their teams to the right learning to get the job done – and to support their teams’ overall careers. Audio is a bit messy in spots, but I hope you enjoy the listen.

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | Pocket Casts | Spotify | More

Why I Teach

I have had so many people who have taught me so many things over the years. It would be very easy to adopt what I feel is the majority world opinion and think, “well, they were paid to teach me.” And it’s true that many, if not most, were paid to teach me things.

But I feel that information and knowledge are free. “Free as in beer,” meaning available without the exchange of money or value, and also “free as in speech” meaning available without restriction. What we pay for is the TRANSMISSION of knowledge: we pay for the teacher’s time, not what’s in their heads.

And that’s why I teach. Yes, sometimes I get paid for that, but plenty of times I don’t. And it’s fine — if I’m making enough to cover expenses, then I don’t feel I should be hoarding knowledge.

While I feel that most of life is not as binary as it’s sometimes made out to be, I do feel that knowledge is pretty binary: you’re either sharing it, or you’re hoarding it. Maybe you get paid to share it, which is absolutely fine and respectable, especially if knowledge transmission is your full-time job.

But if you already have a full-time job, and if it’s already making ends meet for you, you still need to be transmitting knowledge. You don’t need to change the world. You don’t need to moonlight as an instructor. Share something small, with just one person. Constantly be transmitting knowledge that you have, so that other people have it. The transmission of knowledge, I feel, is what truly sets us apart as a species. Other animals use crude tools; it’s our ability to share what we’ve learned that allows each generation to iterate and improve our tools, our processes, and our collective lives.

So many people have taught you things without being paid to do so, haven’t they? I mean, really think about it — I’m sure you learned something yesterday, or the day before, that didn’t come from a paid teacher in some kind of formal class, right? Well, if that knowledge was transmitted to you free of charge, then you’ve incurred a debt. You can pay it off by transmitting something to someone else, also free of charge.

The success of your life is measured by the lives you’ve helped succeed. And you don’t have to help in some major, earthshaking way. Remember, even horseshoes are powerful.

Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where you helped one person take even one tiny step forward than in one where you didn’t?

Last Call: “Shell of an Idea: The Untold History of PowerShell” Hardcover

As a quick reminder, Shell of an Idea: The Untold History of PowerShell is basically “content-complete” and off to copyediting. If you purchase the ebook edition prior to the end of May, and enable Leanpub to notify you of manuscript updates (instructions are in the front of the book), you’ll receive an offer for a limited-edition hardcover at cost ($15-$18 estimate) once the edits are in and complete. The hardcover will not be offered for public sale, and you WILL have an option to arrange a signed copy (US only) by return mail.

“Teaching:” a Word to Avoid?

One thing I feel people get wrong about “Be the Master” is around the word teaching.

The word “teaching” gets a bad rap in many organizations, because nearly everyone immediately visualizes a classroom environment. They start to worry about resources, like where they’ll find room for it, and how they’ll set aside time for everyone to basically take off work and go into class. That’s not what teaching should mean, but I get that all of our cultural experiences tell us that’s what it is.

“Mentoring” gets more love in most organizations, but I still dislike it. Mentor was a dude in “The Odyssey,” and his student wasn’t named “Mentee.” And mentoring STILL creates that toxic “teacher-versus-student” vibe, where one person is demonstrably better than the other.

In most true apprenticeships, teaching isn’t a formal thing you set aside time for, go into a different room for, and so on. Teaching isn’t one person being set above another. In a true Master/apprentice relationship, it’s just people working together. One of them likely has more experience than the other, but they can both learn from each other.

When I worked as an aircraft mechanic apprentice, I worked alongside a journeyman or Master mechanic. They taught me a lot, much of which wasn’t in our extensive manuals on how to assemble the aircraft. The “tricks of the trade,” so to speak. Yet even as a first-year apprentice, I could contribute, because I was never made to feel like I was in a traditional classroom environment where my instructor was “superior” to me. A good example: there are a couple of hard-to-reach spots in an F-14, and you have to snake your hand up through machinery to install cotter keys in the end of bolts. It’s hard, because you can’t really get any tools in there, so you have to bend the end of the cotter key by hand. I suggested snaking a piece of safety wire up and round the cotter key, and then yanking down on it to bend the key’s “leg” down. “Huh,” the guy I was working with said. “Let’s try it.” It worked, and it called a couple other mechanics over to show them.

If you read “Timothy the Blacksmith” again in “Be the Master,” you’ll see that Timothy and Edmund learned from each other, and though Timothy was in the “superior” position in the smithy. THAT is what apprenticeship and Mastery is all about. It’s teaching in that it’s knowledge transfer, but it’s not a class, it’s not a “lunch and learn” session, and it’s not “mentoring.” It’s simply working alongside someone, showing them what to do but also letting them actually do it — and paying attention to their observations. Apprentices often bring a fresh, unbiased view to their work, and it’s useful to have them articulate that view. It’s a good way to have “ah-ha!” moments and change your perspective on something that you’ve just gotten in a rut about.

A true Master/apprentice relationship doesn’t require you to take time away from work to teach; you teach AS PART OF that work. Working and teaching as there exact same thing. Sure, it takes a little longer to get things done, because you’re letting your apprentice do some of the work, and they’re just learning how. But it’s nothing like hauling everyone into a classroom and talking at them for a few days, hoping they remember it all, and then tossing them onto the job. Because apprentices get to work right along their Master, and because they get an opportunity to make mistakes (which their Master will catch and correct), they actually learn faster and more thoroughly than the “tried and true” classroom approach.

It’s 30 years later and I can STILL absolutely remember which actuator in an F-14 needs that safety wire trick.

Everyone’s Afraid

Since the late 1990s, I’ve been a fairly regular speaker at technical conferences. I’ll talk to groups of 15, and I’ve spoken to groups of 5,000. I’ve almost always done pretty well, but if you think all that experience makes me any less nervous…

When it comes to serving as a Master to one person or hundreds, we all get afraid.

Back in the late 1990s, I worked for a company called Micro Endeavors, based near Philadelphia. They were well-known in the FoxPro world at the time, and they were growing a name in SQL Server education. They were approached by Shirley Brothers, who now runs the “Intersection” conferences (like Dev Intersection), who wanted to partner with them to launch a FoxPro event and a SQL Server event. Part of the deal was that some of Micro Endeavors’ trainers would get speaking slot at her other dev-content shows until the new ones launched, and I was tagged to be SQL Connections’ first conference chair. So that was my first speaking gig, back in 1996 or 1997 – I think I presented on ActiveX Data Objects (ADO; this was before .NET had launched).

So my entry into the world of conference speaking was a little unusual; honestly, with most conferences these days, it’s easy to submit a session proposal. Most conferences are eager for a diverse variety of speakers and actively solicit submissions. The exceptions are your major first-part vendor shows like Microsoft Ignite; they’re less open to outside speakers (and if they do accept you, can get a little dictatorial about what you present on and what you say, which is why I don’t present there).

Once I got over the basic nervousness of standing up in front of a bunch of people and pretending to know what I was talking about, I’ve really only had a couple of scary presentations.

One was at TechEd… 2007, I think, in the US. This was a few months after Windows PowerShell had launched, and Jeffrey Snover called me and asked if I could give a presentation on it for TechEd. He’d been scheduled to present, but had a schedule conflict and wasn’t going to be able to attend. “SURE!!!!!” I said. Well, TechEd time approaches and the organizers contact me. They tell me that the session is overbooked, and ask if I’d be okay scheduling a repeat the following day. “SURE!!!!” I said. A few weeks later, the repeat was overbooked, and they asked if I’d be okay live-streaming the first session. “SURE!!!” I said. This was in the LiveMeeting days, so I show up and they’ve got the stage bathed in lighting. There are three cameras. I have to present slides from their machine, and if I want to do a demo, I have to make a big deal that I’m about to do a demo so that someone in the back can push the screen share button in Live Meeting. The lights are hot, and I’m sweating bullets. The room has like 5,000 people in it. I was working with SAPIEN Technologies at the time, and my partner, Christopher, was working for them as well. He came up from the expo hall and sat in the front row, right in front of the podium, for moral support. And Jeffrey Snover walks in and sits next to him. “Um, hey, what’re you doing here?” I asked. “Oh, PowerShell is getting an award, so they rearranged my schedule so I could come accept it. Have a great session!” Gulp. So I start. I’m telling my jokes, I’m waving my arms around, and I’m sweating like a whore in church. I do my demos, and I keep seeing Jeffrey leaning over and whispering to Christopher, which makes me even more nervous. I finally get to the end – a perfectly timed session, by the way – and everyone claps. Jeffrey stands up, says, “good session,” and hustles out. Gulp. I answer a few questions for people, and start walking out with Christopher. “What the hell were you guys talking about?” I asked. “The first time, he said, ‘I’m glad he’s up there, because I couldn’t say that but it needs to be said.’ After that, we realized it was making you nervous, so we just kept doing it.”

Sigh.

Read More

Don’t Impress Your Heroes

In fact, don’t even worry about your heroes. Here’s what I mean:

Too many of us too often measure ourselves against our heroes and role models. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; having something or someone to look up to can not only push us to succeed, it can also give us some clues on how to do so.

But you have to draw a clear line between that and valuing your own worth by comparing yourself to someone else.

“I’m not nearly as smart as [person], so there’s no way I could teach someone the way they do!” is something I hear a lot. And you’re right: you can’t teach the way they do.

But you can teach differently.

And your different might be just what your audience needs. Remember, your “worth” isn’t something you can define for yourself. Your “worth” is defined by the people around you. Are you providing them something they assign value to? Are you making a positive impact on their lives?

If so, then you’re “worthy,” by definition.

So admire your heroes and role models. Just don’t measure yourself against them; don’t try to be someone they’d be impressed by. Instead, be a hero for someone who needs one.

Why We’re Lazy

We all get lazy sometimes. It’s okay: there’s a perfectly good reason for it, and it’s not always a bad thing. But it’s important to know where it comes from, and important to know when to fight it, and why.

Laziness is tied to some of our very deepest survival behaviors. “This thing works, and I understand it, and it at least isn’t harming me; trying something new or doing something else could put me at risk.”

For example, if you’re the type of person who’s satisfied with “basic” foods when you eat out, you might not enjoy going to a “fancier” restaurant that has foods you’re either not sure about, or know you don’t like. Some of your friends might mock you (sadly, I probably would, as I love food), but look: you worked hard for your money and your time, and you want to spend them both on something you know is risk-free. Fine.

But you have to be careful about applying that same kind of thinking to other aspects of your life. For example, if you’ve decided to go to the gym and make some kind of change in your body – whether for appearance or health or both – you have to stare the laziness in the face and conquer it. And you’ll probably have to do it every day for a long time before your deep-brain stops fighting you.

Sometimes, just acknowledging the fact of the matter can help. “I’m being lazy about this, and I know I need to stop,” said aloud, can at least give you the opening to look for solutions. Or even for tricks, or other motivations, or whatever. Knowing what you’re up against can give you the opportunity to be thoughtful and deliberate about dealing with it.

Finding the Time

Changing your life. That’s what we’re here for, right? That’s a big deal. We’re talking about making YOU successful, and still somehow finding the time to help pass that success on to others. Finding others to pass it on to. Teaching and sharing. It’s going to be pretty hard to find the time to do that, right?

Except… it shouldn’t be.

When I I’ve my full-day “Be the Master” workshop, we spend a lot of time discussing this. Thing is, for MOST people, “finding your success and teaching others” doesn’t mean abandoning your career, starting a new one, and also being a college professor in your spare time. It’s kind of like all those studies that say a glass of red wine can be healthy for you — the first thing half the readers do is rush out and drink a case of the stuff. It’s all about MODERATION, and that’s true with “Be the Master” as well.

If you sit a six-year old down and say, “I want you to become a United States Senator!” They might smile and say, “sure!” But they can’t really grasp what that MEANS. What will be INVOLVED. It’s too big; to them, you just maybe apply for the job one day and either get it or not. Well, that’s true with big, far-reaching life goals, too: they’re usually too big to grasp. Intellectually, you and I as adults could break it down, though. To be a Senator, you usually need to start as a lawyer someplace. That means law school — three years of education — as well as an internship as well as some working experience. You could probably take those things and break them down further: law school means first passing the LSAT, and it means first having a 4-year degree. You could keep going, breaking each requirement down into single steps, all the way down to “Pass English 101 in Freshman year” and so on.

That’s what you need to do with your path to mastery. BREAK IT DOWN. Even if you are defining your success to require a new career and a professorship, BREAK THAT DOWN. On a WEEKLY basis, you can only accomplish small, incremental things, so you need to break it down into those small, incremental steps. And no, there’s no point in charting out a ten-year plan in 520 weekly steps! No plan will survive that long, anyway. So it’s great to have that 10-year goal in mind, if you can think of one, but you need to have something a lot closer to focus on.

Read More