Despite really only needing to have a few qualities to be exceptional, most people find writing interview feedback to be intimidating at best, to terrifying at worst. Exceptional interview feedback has a few essential qualities: clear, concise, containing additional data for the reader to dive deeper into. It clearly outlines (at least at Amazon) which competencies rise above the bar (i.e. the theoretical average of that skill across everyone who has and uses that skill…) whether they are functional competencies or Amazon’s leadership principals or (at your company) your organization’s key values.

Why do people find this so difficult? I have a couple of theories. 1) No one likes passing judgement on someone AND THEN FINDING THEY WERE WRONG. Well, I get past that by realizing we’re all getting only a tiny slice of a candidate’s overall story, and we could put the wrong frame on their answer — but even with the right framing, we still don’t have anything near the whole story, and that’s just how it is. 2) Like any skill, writing good feedback takes time to learn. The key here: “like any skill”… and I add “worth doing” to the end of that. So, like any skill that’s worth doing, writing exceptional feedback takes time to learn, so I might as well start yesterday. I have a couple other guesses but they don’t seem broadly applicable, so I’ll leave it with those two key concerns. Now that you know how I get past those concerns, hopefully you’ll get started faster in your own learning journey.

I use a very particular process to interview, prepare to write feedback, organize my interview notes and my feedback itself, and then to de-bias my nearly complete feedback. I’ve crafted this process over more than 200 interviews at Amazon and other companies, and I think it works pretty well by now. I will explain that process in the next post.

Changing habits and holding yourself to an agreement both present significant challenge to most people- it’s why we admire people who make big changes in life, like the friend who lost weight equivalent to an entire them (today) because they were 2x bigger four years ago; the family member who gave up drugs and alcohol cold-turkey (despite both alcohol and opiate withdrawals being incredibly challenging); the extremely organized person you recently went out to covid-safe dinner in the park with; you know who you admire & you think, “I could never do that” when you reflect on them.

So I was duly impressed with a friend of mine, who had borrowed a jacket about a month ago now, and who I’ve bothered about it several times since. I saw him in person, and, obviously frustrated, asked, “where’s my jacket!?” He whips out his wallet and says, “Every time you see me, if I don’t have your jacket, I’ll give you $20.” AND THEN HE GAVE ME MONEY! For real!

I was flabbergasted. I know this guy doesn’t want to give up $20 every time he sees me, so he’s going to forget my jacket MAYBE one more time. (Which is too bad, because it’s a winter jacket so by the time I get it back, I won’t need it, but …)

This move impressed me so badly because it plays to his biggest fear – he won’t have enough money. It has tangible consequences – he needs money to live and to grow his business. It has an effect on both of us – me, it makes me less likely to bother him about it in between social events, and him, it makes him more likely to actually bring the jacket back and stem the loss.

I’m so proud and happy about this – partially because this person is something like a nephew to me, and when I mentioned how great that trick was and that I would use it, he mentioned, “I learned it from you.” Confused, I asked him to expand on that thought, because I sure as heck didn’t tell him to put a penalty on himself for his bad behavior — a genius move — and he pointed out the talk I’d given him recently about responsibility. He made this genius move because of me! I couldn’t be any more thrilled than I am right now.

Would you implement something similar in your life? If yes, what would the situation be, and how about the penalty?

When you can’t recall nouns, especially proper ones? I came across an old article about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon [1] which is something I refer to regularly as, you know, when you become aware of something and it’s everywhere (which is close, but not quite spot-on, its true definition: “… once we notice something for the first time (or for the first time in a while) that all of a sudden it seems to be creeping up everywhere.” (From [1]).

I talk about this frequency illusion often enough (at least once a quarter, probably more often?) But because I also struggle with nouns (especially proper nouns like those two names ‘Baader’ and ‘Meinhof’) I tend to just wave my hands and stumble through half a definition.

I’m hoping that, by writing a brief note about it here, I can both help people see a side of their cognition that may surprise them, as well as to finally put a name to it, in my own mind, at least.

[1] https://poly.land/2018/12/02/wow-i-literally-was-just-talking-about-this-and-now-its-everywhere-i-look/

I was recently texting with a friend of mine who does not work in technology, nor in any related field…in fact, he doesn’t even work in an office! He’s very firmly blue-in-the-collar, and has been for years. He has so much passion for, and investment in, the success of the site where he works, that he’s probably the front-runner for inheriting the business when his boss finally retires, sometime in the middle horizon (i.e. in the next 10-15 years).

Seeing as I only think about my career in the fuzziest way after, oh, about 5 years into the future, I find his clarity about the future both appealing and somewhat mystifying. I don’t know how we got onto the subject, but this very well-read individual hadn’t heard the term, “servant leadership” and, since I had explained that it was how I approached work-life, and managing my team, and acting like a leader, he requested I tell him more. So I wrote a quick couple of lines completely spontaneously, and then I kind of fell in love with my words. So I thought I’d share them with you. Here’s how I define servant leadership, when I’m not thinking too hard about it:

you’re there not to get rich or sell the most widgets, but instead you’re there to make sure your team better – to help them learn & grow, to make sure business goals get crafted in such a manner that you match your team’s career goals…you show your team your respect and care for them with every assignment and every question. and you always want to know more, and to do better by them. you know you can do more with a team who’s bought in on the same vision that you’re presenting

— Celeste Thayer, on servant leadership, 3/12/2021

… and what in the world do I do when I realize I’m not!?

I spend a fair amount of time, as a people manager, dealing with ‘fires’, everything from building a rush interview loop for a candidate with other offers, to escalating a show-stopping problem that appeared late in the working plan for a high-profile project, in the hopes that we finish something like on time (or, perhaps only kind of late…) You may have used the four quadrant model to identify a fire, in the past – fires are urgent tasks, which may or may not be important (refer to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on the four quadrant model).

Fires represent one exciting part of my job, where I get an opportunity to act decisively, which appeals to me greatly; the high stakes that come with every fire keep me interested and stimulated, while letting me learn something new every day. (Learning motivates me more than most of the other verbs do.)

You may have already experienced one or more negative states in your work life, but when you have many urgent matters competing for your attention, you risk one or more of a state of overwhelm, making frequent errors and finding peer mistakes, or even your own and others’ burning out.

In order to ensure I stay on top of the ‘right things’ without simply working harder and thus overworking myself into a state of burnout, I create a rubric that helps me evaluate and prioritize among the many items jockeying for attention. For each project or deliverable, I ask myself:

  • Is this something that I / we may fix through some kind of preventative measure? If not, how do we generate a fix?
  • How do I / we measure success in this arena? We don’t want to work to produce an outcome we can’t perceive – and if we can’t measure it, we can’t perceive it.
  • What’s the expected lifespan and level of impact to deliver this control? (the ratio here should be favorable – if we work for 6 weeks to deliver a fix that will disappear in the next quarter, was it worth the effort?)
  • Number of owners or systems impacted? Who’s the customer, and how many of them are there? We generally prefer a greater impact over a lesser one, but sometimes (say in certain compliance cases) we may have to prioritize a fix for a smaller number of affected customers.
  • Number of resources impacted (e.g. groups, Teams)? There may be one owner or a single system, but there could be a much larger number of Teams, posix or ldap groups, etc. utilizing that system or reporting up through that owner. We should account for their numbers in our impact calculation, when relevant.
  • Is this a one-off or repeating request? Certain workflows repeat on a regular basis, e.g. quarterly or annually. If I know I will generate this report once a month, I am more likely to automate as much as I’m able vs. a one-off report that answers my manager’s singular inquiry.
  • Do I enjoy doing this myself (am I able to deliver on my own) or is this better delegated? You don’t want me writing your enterprise HTML or CSS, even though I’m theoretically able. However, if you want a 3 year plan or vision for our roadmap, I can whip that out no problem, and I enjoy learning about a team and our software ecosystem in order to draw a compelling vision that retains current employees and appeals to prospectives.

Once I have this data for each project or priority, I can play a kind of multi-dimensional Tetris that shuffles employees’ career goals, the business goals, and available projects and features so that we meet as many of these at a high-enough quality level, as close to on-time as we are able. For the items that I must deliver personally, I give a little extra thought and consideration to what I’m able to automate and what I’m not, and then craft a plan to deliver it – including blocking off what seems like an appropriate amount of time on my calendar to actually do the work. I monitor those stats, too, so that I can improve my estimations over time.

With the above, and with regular check-ins with stakeholders and leadership (including my direct manager) to improve my understanding of the business context & details of requirements, I know that I am pretty likely to be focusing on the right thing. I can’t always be 100% certain that I’m right, especially when I’m working mostly-autonomously. But I can be certain *enough* to get my work done, without blocking on outside input.

Learning by teaching yourself & others

This video has a great, short explanation of the Feynman technique – basically, explaining a concept well helps you learn the concept better. Those of you who work with me have heard me mention this as the “learn one, do one, teach one” technique for learning. The Feynman technique improves upon the “teach one” step by expanding upon how you actually manage the teaching. Watch this video, and I’ve summarized the steps here for your convenience:

  1. Write the name of your technique / concept down
  2. Explain the concept in simple, plain language as if you were teaching another person
  3. Identify any areas you’re still shaky on (or got stuck on) and improve your understanding
  4. Look at the explanation again, and simplify any areas where you used technical jargon or difficult language, and further simplify those

Give that a shot next time you’re teaching someone something, and comment here how it worked (or didn’t work!) for you.

I’ve included two bonus links from my “frequently-shared” list at work. First, how to figure out your unmet needs, a great list that helps when you’re not really sure what you want out of your job (or life, really). And second, but less likely to get used in the average American office, a feelings list that helps you identify your feelings. This can help you express when you need something, or if you’re struggling to explain exactly how you feel, it can offer inspiration. I have used the lists at work to help me clarify my thoughts, several times!

I recently had a birthday – and next year will be one of the big “Star-Oh” birthdays, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50… I try to reflect back every year, and project forward, something like a retrospective you might encounter after completing a project at work. During this look-around, I think about the lessons I learned over the year, any highlights, and any lowlights. Last week, I talked about lessons learned over my past year, and this time I’d like to talk in very general terms about some highlights and lowlights, and end with a bonus: some things I’m grateful for.

Lowlights

Because I’m the person I am (I want to be an optimist, even though I often approach the world with a slightly-negative bias) I will start with the lowlights so we end on a high note!

  • I tried to put on a strong face for a job, and muddled the job badly by being inauthentic, or only partially-authentic. I regret a lot about using the facade I chose to use, and how badly it fit me
  • I over-booked my money, and therefore I made some rash choices to respond, and kept my living costs artificially, unusually, painfully low for about a year so that I could actually pay my bills on-time. I miss things like travel, new clothes, restaurant meals, and gym activities (partially offset by the fact that many of those things aren’t really available during covid, but still painful nonetheless)
  • I haven’t visited family in the Midwest all year! I usually visit at least one person, one time a year…

Highlights

I am more fond of sharing my highlights, because of the optimistic face I like to direct toward the world, and also because I feel like focusing on negative thoughts makes me a negative person.

  • I’ve gotten such good feedback on these posts here. I could wish I got more, but the few responses I have had on the blog and online leave me with some serious warm-fuzzies
  • I bought a house! I didn’t know that last year would be the year I bought a home, but I closed on the birthday before this one, and have enjoyed doing projects and making things happen around the hosue, since then
  • I’ve managed to make new friends even despite the global pandemic. I worried that I would go hermit and lose all my friends, but instead I’ve managed to uphold my most important relationships, despite the distance, and even carve out one or two good new ones, somehow

Thanks

I hear that being grateful is good for your mental health and well-being, and I can guarantee you that this is true. Whenever I’m struggling a bit, I add in a daily gratitude list to my routine, where I express how thankful I am for 3 things (which vary day-to-day). Here are three things I’ve been grateful for consistently, this last year.

  • I am very thankful for my friends, old and new
  • I’m very thankful for the many gifts my hard work and a decent amount of luck have brought me
  • I am grateful for my supportive and interesting family members who bring me joy with every phone call (and someday in-person, again!)

I recently had a birthday – and next year will be one of the big “Star-Oh” birthdays, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50… I try to reflect back every year, and project forward, something like a retrospective you might encounter after completing a project at work. During this look-around, I think about the lessons I learned over the year, any highlights, and any lowlights. Because I’m not doing this at work, I skip developing a list of any Action Items 😀

Here are some of the lessons I learned this year:

  • I still need to improve my prioritization methods. (I primarily use Dale Carnegie’s Important vs Urgent quadrant and block time on my calendar to execute.) I am good at addressing the highest priority, most urgent items, first. However, I don’t always look ahead with a wide-enough window, and so large projects that are due somewhat soon, but not immediately, get allocated time in a sub-optimal manner. This means I struggle to complete these types of task to my high quality bar, in the little time I have remaining before the item comes due.
  • I need to be more intentional with my hiring. Amazon has trained me to always be hiring, because I’m likely to get headcount for my rapidly-growing team in steady blocks at least once a year, more likely twice, sometimes even four times a year. So if I have a pipeline that I’m curating all year round, I’ll be more successful at filling my projects than if I’m reacting. So while that part’s working well for me, I hired two engineers when I had three positions open up on 1/01. The third position, the project manager, I thought I’d have in the bag since I used to be a TPM! I was mistaken. After moving through my warm-backlog of candidates without finding the right person, I had already hired and started my two engineers, and with the two interns who are also starting soon, I have 4 more engineers’ worth of work on my plate, and no project manager to help split the load. This is the first time I’ve regretted being so successful at hiring, and makes me hesitate to be so enthusiastic about adding engineers, temporary OR full-time, anytime in the near future.
  • I need to coach my team on management tasks earlier and more often. I took a couple of months after joining my current team to figure out who was interested in learning any management skills, and then made sure that these individuals start to develop the personal goals they need to encourage, track, and support their learning in this area. Then I coach them in the skills themselves. In the meantime, I went on to hire more engineers than I could comfortably on-board, without having the task-level and project-level management support available from my more senior engineers, and still with that TPM slot open. While that’s support is coming soon, I’m currently working a bit more than I had imagined, because of the mis-allocation.
  • I need to keep my eyes open more frequently to people’s non-verbal signals, especially when they’re at the front of the pack. I tend to believe leaders: when they say a thing, their words are simply true. I sometimes choose to ignore the non-verbal signals that accompany that signal and make it a bit fuzzier. Leaders don’t get respect just because they’re leaders, they get respect because they’ve earned it. If they haven’t earned it yet with me, personally, I must trust AND verify in order to be sure I’m reading their words, body language, and the situation correctly.

These are the main lessons I’ve learned in the past one-circle-around the sun. Next post, I’ll discuss some highlights and lowlights from the past year!

I’m pretty swamped with career chats, annual performance review season (writing, meeting with all the organization’s managers and senior individual contributors to talk about everyone and how we can help them meet their career goals), and hiring for three positions that opened in 2021 (I hired 2/3 by the 19th of January, so I feel pretty good about all the work, even if it does feel like a metric ferk-ton of effort already). Despite being so busy, I try to schedule time for self-reflection. I wanted to share with you a brief scene from a recent performance conversation. During one topical conversation I had with one of my direct reports, I caught myself saying, “Look — your success is my success. I’ve got your back, but I need you to do your part: pay attention, and talk to me. “

I noticed, as I said this, that my words had quite the affect on him. I could tell from the long pause, from the hitch in his voice when he replied, that he felt deeply moved. I think he had never seen that kind of buy-in, at least not at the level I projected, from a manager before. (I wish I’d asked whether he had or hadn’t, honestly…I might sometime soon.) Having a strong effect on him meant a lot to me, in return. I like these moments.

One of the things I absolutely love about management is actually the ability to get to know someone at more-than-surface level, where I get to do what I call ‘play 3d Tetris’ with business goals, personal / career goals, project work, and deadlines. I get a lot of joy from meeting the business’ goals by fulfilling my team’s career goals. I enjoy meeting customer needs by crafting new business goals and massaging my teammates’ curiosity and their stated goals so that everything synergizes into a greater whole. (Except, I kind of hate that I used the word ‘synergize’!) I work to understand my space deeply, foresee and outline a compelling vision my engineers can get behind, and work to give it all life.

Hopefully as 2021 moves along, I’ll get to share with you, the blog reader, stories of building and sharing a vision, rallying the troops, and delivering customer-obsessed software. Wish me luck!

I have a longer post brewing in the back of my mind about how I formed my management thesis. The tl;dr: Over the years, I’ve had several truly terrible managers (and no, they weren’t all in my tech career, and no, I will never say who! So don’t bother asking, mk?) I’ve developed my management thesis more by weaponizing my self-awareness, than through any exceptionally good example in my direct manager position. All the while I occasionally think “no, I don’t want to be *that guy*”. I use that directional indicator to ‘sharpen my sword’ and improve despite the adversity of having terrible managers who weren’t in my corner, who would take advantage of my caring kindness. I’m also less of a pushover these days, thank goodness.

If you have any questions about how I learned to set reasonable boundaries, pay attention to my thoughts & opinions, etc. please feel free to comment or direct message me somewhere! I’m easy to find online. I’m sure I will write more on those topics, later. I just can’t be sure when, until I start to actually write.

As part of working my way through The Self Confidence Workbook (as I also mentioned in a recent tweet), the authors Markway and Ampel (M&A) recommend the reader connect with their values. So I decided I, as an enthusiastic reader, should connect with MY values! Well … I realized that first, I needed to discern my values! So I spent some time thinking about them. Because I found the Self Confidence Workbook and this exercise valuable, I have since decided to share the result of that exercise while describing some highlights of the process I went through to develop a list of values, here, and some of my thoughts throughout. This ended up appearing more free-form than essay; more train-of-thought than structured…and I hope it’s not too confusing, in the end. Feel free to comment with your opinions or any clarifications required!

In the Self Confidence Workbook, M&A describe confidence as “…a choice to take steps to act in line with your values.” I particularly enjoy their spin on the matter over my prior, internal (admittedly simplistic) definition, where confidence is “when someone acts as if uncaring or unbothered by their current context.” My old definition leaves a lot to be desired, if I examine it in much detail, especially as I used two negatives to describe a positive. Mathematically that works, but logically it presents difficulties.

M&A go on to say, “…confidence roots you in who you really are. You’ll be able to accept your weaknesses, knowing they don’t change your self-worth… Your actions will be in line with your principles, giving you a greater sense of purpose… you’ll be able to let your best self shine through.” Ok, now I’m really excited! I realized after reading this passage that the values exercise builds on my personal learnings from another book I greatly enjoyed, which also inspired the title of this post, Start with Why. Knowing the Why behind my actions and choices gives my life purpose, and values — and also makes me a more confident person. Cool!

So here goes — I’m sharing with you Internet strangers, family, friends, and fans my Why, my principles, and my purpose…Hopefully to make myself more confident, among other things!

When I’m at my best, I try to cultivate the following traits and habits: offering the world radical acceptance, loving-kindness, and unconditional support (meeting people exactly where they’re at); presenting an ever-questioning mind; unwavering belief in human ability for hyper-growth; a certain dedication to life-long learning and improvement; all while holding relentlessly high standards throughout.

None of this allows me to roll over for the critics, nor even lets me pay them any mind (though I’m tempted, always tempted, to spend mental cycles trying to figure out what the haters want). Say “no thanks!” to the bullies and the people who want to cut others down. Never forget the wise words of the wonderful RuPaul, “Unless they are paying your bills…pay them bitches no mind.”

Am I confident yet? 🙂