In this episode:
- Listen in to hear about:
- Does the best engineering solution always win?
- What does it take to make better connections at work?
- How can you get the most out of even a boring project assignment?
Download this free “Questions for Your Leadership Lunch” one pager for questions to ask your boss or leaders in you company when treating them to lunch.
Article: Harvard Business Review – How Successful People Network
Sponsored by Geek to Great
Announcer: Becoming a Geek Leader, Season One, Episode Eight.
Tom: [00:00:05] This episode of Becoming a Geek Leader is sponsored by the Geek to Great 101 course. We all want to grow our skills and improve the work we do, but who has time for that? In this online blended learning program, you and your team will gain practical skills in topics like time management, dealing with difficult people, improving communication, and so much more. Train your whole team for less than $500. Each lesson is 30 minutes or less, so it fits right into your current team meeting schedule. Find more information and get immediate access to your first free lesson at brighthillgroup.com/helpinggeeks. That’s brighthillgroup.com/helpinggeeks, so that you can get access to the Geek to Great 101 course.
[00:01:03] Welcome to the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast. My name is Tom Cooper. As a geek, I’m on a mission to figure out better ways to lead other at work and at home. Through the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast, I’m sharing what I’m learning so I can help make you more effective at leading people too. Ready?
[00:01:25] In today’s episode, I’m going to talk to you about the question, is engineering enough? Is developing a great engineering solution sufficient to solve the business problem? Second, I’m going to talk about the importance of developing relationships. And finally, I’m going to talk about what it means to really get experience. Let’s get started.
Tom: [00:02:09] In today’s tech segment, I want to talk about the question of whether a great engineering solution is enough. And to set the stage for this, I’m going to tell a story from the deep archives of tech history. And I call this story, The Best Engineering Solution Always Wins, Not. In 1957, there were two engineers who were part of the MIT research lab, and they had a great idea about building computers that could be used interactively instead of processing batches of cards or data, which is how IBM, the market leader, had designed their systems to work. What they noticed is that students would line up and wait to use the interactive system, a TX0, rather than get immediate access to the much faster batch based IBM computer.
[00:03:05] With a focus on interactive computing, they found funding and started Digital Equipment Corporation. Now DEC was a company with hardcore engineering roots. These guys were engineers just fundamentally, and the company was founded by engineers, they had an engineering culture, and they did produce some of the most innovative and high performing computers the market had ever seen. IBM was the market leader and yet DEC was eating their lunch in the mini-computer market. And over the years, DEC became a major force in the marketplace.
[00:03:45] Now one thing that we engineers pride ourselves on is that we are not emotional in our decision-making, that we let the facts decide. Ha! One of the things I’ve seen is we use the facts to justify our emotional position. And let me give you a specific example. Now Ken Olson was one of the founders of DEC. Ken was not a believer when it came to personal computers. He thought the personal computer was a pointless toy, that it was useful only for playing games. In fact, at one point he said and I quote, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
[00:04:29] Now you might imagine at Digital Equipment Corporation that personal computers were not given a lot of R&D money, and you’d be right about that. However, by the late 1970s, it was becoming more and more clear that there was going to be a huge market for personal computers. And in the same way that Google’s engineers spent some time on pet projects, the DEC engineers had some time they spent on pet projects too. And some of their engineers had been working on personal computer projects.
[00:05:04] Now their reigning philosophy in this hardcore engineering company was let the best engineering decision win. And during that time, multiple products were conceived, designed, and built. In fact, in 1982 Digital launched three completely different personal computers to the marketplace. They created the DEC Professional, the Rainbow 100, and the Vax Mate. Three personal computers, all of them were incompatible with the original IBM PC and all of them were completely incompatible with each other. The engineers had made design decisions based on their preferences, on their understanding of what was superior. And each of the computers had good points, and each of them had limitations. And DEC’s leadership was content to let the market decide based on the engineering merits.
[00:06:04] Now I remember I had a friend who had a DEC Rainbow. It was cool. It was far better technically than IBM’s stuff. It was a dual processor system. It’s disks held more data than PC floppies could hold. It had an optional graphical display that could support two monitors. But here’s the problem. Being better wasn’t good enough. Just because your solution is more elegant, that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer to the business problem you’re solving.
[00:06:36] The Rainbow ran software only from DEC that DEC had designed specifically for that system. And because it wasn’t IBM compatible in any way, there was very little software available for it. Over time, all three of those systems died, and let me just ask this question. What if, instead of launching three completely incompatible products, what if the leadership at DEC had had the courage to say no to two of the projects? They pool their resources, and then focus their attention on the marketing and sales of the system they wanted to get behind. They tried the best engineering solution and the case of the PC, that failed massively.
[00:07:19] Now I’m not suggesting that we need to go with substandard engineering. That’s not true. Great solutions many, many times have fantastic engineering. But there are other factors that lead to success. When it comes to compatibility, DEC absolutely could have solved the compatibility problem. They had the money to do that research, but they squandered their skills and their time and their money on internal squabbling. While they were arguing and wasting their time, Compaq spent a record $1 million to reverse engineer the Black Box of the IBM PC BIOS. And you know what happened? Eventually, Compaq bought what was left of DEC. The fact is that sometimes the right answer is to say no to a great, even an elegant, technical solution. DEC didn’t do that, and DEC paid the price. And that’s today’s tech segment.
Tom: [00:08:33] For today’s mentoring segment, I want to talk about one of the factors, besides engineering elegance, that goes into decision-making about solving business problems. That factor, relationships. Let me start out by asking, who do you know? And perhaps more importantly, who knows you? I remember when I was a kid, my dad shared lots of life lessons with me. And when he wanted to share a lesson that he had learned through hard, painful life experience, he used to say to me, “Son, I’m not telling you what I think, I’m telling you what I know.”
[00:09:15] Today, I want to be a little bit like my dad. I’m not telling you what I think. I’m telling you what I know. One of the things that I absolutely did wrong when it came to my time in corporate America was that I focused on being the best whatever I happen to be at the time. I worked hard to understand my job and do that as well as I possible could. So you might be asking, “Well, how could that be wrong?” Well, it’s not wrong to be good at your job. But one critical mistake that I made was I didn’t make enough connections with other people along the way.
[00:09:54] Let me suggest that when it comes to career opportunities, it’s not just about how competent you are at your work. In fact, I’d argue it’s at least equally important who you know, and who knows you. Now when you think about who knows you, how do people know you? I recently went on a brief trip with a group of folks from my church and we spent a few days working on projects together where we helped an organization that provides disaster relief. While we were working shoulder to shoulder, one of the other participants said to me, “Tom, I’ve learned more about you in the last two days working beside you than I have in the last six months seeing you every week.” He was right. We did learn about each other when we were working together.
[00:10:46] So let’s get back to my professional work. I spent a decade at Marriott. I have many good memories about being a part of that company. I had good opportunities and I learned a lot, and during those ten years, I essentially held two positions. Two! Looking back, I’m sure that I would have found more opportunities if I had been willing to branch out and do different things. But I liked being good at what I did, and I liked being in my safe space. And it was risky and unsafe to try different things so I didn’t do it.
[00:11:20] But there were about 1,200 people in the IT department. Surely, I could have found another job that I could have taken. In fact, both of the jobs that I had were in the same part of the IT department. I reported to a couple of different VPs over the time that I worked there, but I lived in a pretty small world. And eventually, I decided that I wanted to branch out. But here was the problem. I hadn’t made enough contacts. I hadn’t reached out and worked with enough other people to give me the opportunities that I wanted to have. And I only had a couple of options when I wanted to change roles.
[00:12:01] So what could I have done to fix it? Well, there were two things that I could have done that would have made a big difference. And one of them was actually pretty easy. The first one is, what if I had been intentional about reaching out to other people? One strategy for reaching out to others is what I call the leadership lunch strategy. Now it’s as simple as this. It’s about taking someone in leadership out to lunch. You can start with your boss. Here’s how it works. You invite them to lunch, you pay for lunch. During lunch, you ask them tons of questions. You listen closely to their answer and you take notes.
[00:12:47] I’ll give you a couple of questions you could ask. Here’s one. What’s one important thing you learned, or you wished you had discovered earlier, in your career? You can ask them, in your career, who are people you’ve learned from? Who’s been a mentor, either in person or a virtual mentor through books or webinars or podcasts or conferences? You can ask them, what’s something cool that you picked up from a mentor? You can ask them, how’d you get started in this line of work? And there’s so many other questions.
[00:13:18] Now, you ask the questions, you listen closely, you take notes furiously, and then you say, “Thank you for your time. Wow, this has been fantastic. I appreciate you for sharing so much with me. I’ve learned a ton. Now as I’m working on learning and growing, I’d like to learn from other folks. Who do you know that I should connect with? Who should I talk to next, and would you be willing to make an introduction?”
[00:13:52] If you keep doing this every month or two, you will be amazed at the opportunities that come before you. Now if you check the website, there will be a list of questions you can ask, you can download it, it’ll be a one pager that has your leadership lunch strategy. It describes it a little bit and gives you a list of questions you can ask. Your goal is to build your network, your network of people who know you, who like you, and who trust you. It’s about relationship where you seek somebody out, you ask questions, and you listen intently to what they have to say.
[00:14:30] When I think about this idea about making the connection and listening closely, I’m reminded of a story from over 100 years ago in politics. There was a young woman who went out on a date two nights in a row with different politicians who were running for office. And the two political rivals were William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Now reporters were very anxious to get insights from her about what she had learned about the two men, and they asked her what impressions these two celebrated men had made upon her. The young woman replied, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in all of England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in all of England.” Your goal is to build relationships. You want to have your leader that you have lunch with walk away feeling like they are the cleverest person you’ve ever met.
[00:15:36] Now this is not about flattery. It’s not about sucking up to them. It’s actually about being really present and seeking to learn from them. And you will be amazed at the things that you learn. So that’s the first strategy, the leadership lunch strategy.
[00:15:55] The second strategy, and this is one that I really, really wrestled with, is change jobs inside your company probably about every 18 to 24 months. Now that one was really hard for me. I remember talking to the HR people, and they advised me to do that, and I said, “But it takes 12 to 18 months to be competent, just about the time that I start becoming really competent in the role, you want me to change jobs? That’s dumb.” The thing is, I was optimizing for competence in the role and they wanted me to be more well-rounded, to understand more about what was going on, and to know more people.
[00:16:37] Here’s the thing. If you take advantage of the leadership lunch strategy, you will find out about jobs that could be a great fit for you. Now I mentioned that I was in one small part of the IT department. I was in the shared services part. But I could have experimented with Marriott.com or hotel property systems. I could have looked for jobs in lodging operations because my knowledge of the IT systems would have been hugely valuable to helping get more business value from the technology investments that lodging was making. I could have been a part of architecture and construction. My understanding of technology would’ve been a fantastic broker or force multiplier to help them get more from the money they were investing. And even if I stayed closer to home, I could have taken a job in operations or help desk leadership, or a ton of other places.
[00:17:34] Here’s what I learned. When I worked in different departments, or even when I worked on projects that required me to work closely with other in different departments, I learned a lot about them and they learned about me. Just like going on that mission trip where I got learn about these other guys, I could’ve learned about others by doing these types of projects. I liked staying in my comfort zone and I stayed in my comfort zone way too long. I want to encourage you to think about stepping out of your comfort zone to connect with other intentionally. Now as I said a minute ago, I’m not telling you what I think, I’m telling you what I know. And that’s today’s mentoring segment.
Tom: [00:18:35] In today’s family segment, I was reflecting recently on something my nine-year-old said. He was not happy about the chores I had assigned, and he made it very clear to me that he wasn’t happy. He said to me, “Dad, why are you making us work?” I said, “Son, it’s my job as your dad to teach you how to work hard.” He replied, “Dad, I’m not really the working type, because I’m kind of skinny.” Have you ever felt that way about a work assignment, that you’re really not the working type when it comes to that assignment?
[00:19:14] I like to say experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. Many, many years ago, I had a job where I was working for a mom and pop company. And more than once, when I was responsible for making payroll, the wife would get mad at her husband and she would go out and spend company money on something she wanted for herself, cleaning out the checking account. Now this seemed to happen usually a couple of days before payroll was due, and I would have to scramble to collect from customers so I could make sure the team would get paid and that I’d get paid too. Let me tell you, I got a lot of experience working at that job. I did lots of things that I found difficult, frustrating, stressful, and exhausting. But what did I take away from that work? And is there something that my son was actually about to take away from his chores?
[00:20:15] When you think about the work assignments you have, and you find that some of them are really annoying, or frustrating, or just crummy work, is it possible that there’s something that you could learn from that experience? Maybe it’s something about communicating with other people or maybe about assigning work to other team members, something about how to deal with customers, or resolve conflict, or how to grow your skills.
[00:20:43] Looking back, I’m going to say every job in my career that came with massive challenges and massive frustrations also brought with it learnings that helped me be ready for what was coming next, or that would help me in future work assignments. Even if I was going to pick a new boss, or pick a new job.
[00:21:04] So getting back to my nine-year-old. He was serious about not working. He’s brought up that idea up several times when chore time comes around. And I’ve told him, “Son, ain’t nobody going to pay you to lay on the couch and pay video games. So I better help you get some skills to pay the bills.” So in the process, whether it’s planting trees, or building a tree fort, or even shoveling ice from the driveway, he’s learning the things he needs to know to help him get ready for what’s next. Looking back at that job at the mom and pop company, I learned a lot about how to manage money and how to manage expectations, and about how to communicate and resolve conflict. I made a lot of mistakes in that job. It was my first job out of school and, boy, I messed up lots of things. But I learned a ton, and I learned a ton from making those mistakes. So for you, when you’re looking at your to-do list, and you’re thinking, this is a crappy job assignment. Let me encourage you to ask yourself, “How can I get the most from this so that I’ll be ready for what’s next?”
[00:22:15] Wrapping up this segment, that same kid told me another time, “Dad, everything’s edible.” I said, “Son, no, some things will kill you. Those are not edible.” He replied, “Dad, it is edible. It may kill you, but technically, you could eat it.” Not going to argue with that. And that’s today’s family segment.
Tom: [00:23:01] For today’s episode hack, we talked about the importance of elegant technical solutions, and how not only are they important, but they might not be sufficient for the overall picture. We also talked about how do you know, and more importantly, who knows you? We also talked about reframing your attitude about your work assignments to think about how can this work assignment make me ready for what’s next? For today’s episode hack, I want you to think about how you can make a connection at work. Is it through a leadership lunch? Is it through taking a project or work assignment that’s outside your comfort zone? What I want you to do for the hack is decide what you want to do to make a connection and then take the first step to make that happen. And that’s today’s episode hack.
[00:23:58] Thanks for listening to this episode of Becoming a Geek Leader. You can play a part in helping the podcast to grow. If you enjoyed it, please do me a favor. The way to get the podcast to grow is for you to go to iTunes and give it a rating. If enough of you give it a good rating on iTunes, this podcast will show up in their New and Noteworthy section. Being in the New and Noteworthy is a great way to attract more listeners, and having more listeners helps me have the support to keep the podcast going. There are three simple steps to giving me a rating. One, go to the iTunes store in the podcast section. Two, search for Becoming a Geek Leader. And three, give the podcast a great rating. And while you’re there, why not write a quick review as well? Thanks!
[00:24:42] This is Tom Cooper. Thanks for listening. Be sure to join me next time for another episode of Becoming a Geek Leader. Join me in my mission of discovering better ways to lead others at work and at home.