Mount Stupid

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But it’s easy, right?

Your team is getting it in the neck today. After months of technical exploration and prototypes, they have been unable to produce anything that looks like it will make the backend of the new product work in the way that it was imagined. The team are frustrated and are further convinced that without provisioning potentially millions of dollars in hardware and annotator time, they’re never going to be able to deliver anything of value. It’s just not plausible.

This isn’t sitting well with the VP Engineering and the Sales Director, who needs to shift units. In fact, they’re completely livid.

The Sales Director is first to interject. “You’re honestly telling us that after 3 months you have nothing that is going to get this thing built?” Your engineers aren’t particularly used to this kind of intense confrontation, especially from such senior people in the company. It makes them feel like they are pretty stupid.

“We tried. It’s just a really difficult problem.” Their nervousness makes them fail to say they’ve produced some very interesting prototypes and insights into tangential problems along the way.

“3 months and 6 people and we have nothing? That’s the problem with this team. I just don’t think you’re working hard enough, especially when compared to the sales team. They’re on it all of the time. When are you going to step up and take ownership?”

“I’m sorry; it just doesn’t seem possible,” replies your data scientist sheepishly, again failing to mention that they’ve produced a number of useful experiments that could make their way into the product.

Your VP Engineering is gripping her pen tighter, as one of her teams is making her look stupid in front of her peers. “You do realize that other companies are just solving this with machine learning now? It’s all off the shelf. Should take a couple of weeks tops. I’ve seen our competitors launch stuff really quickly this way. Why can’t you?”

“It’s not that straight forward; it’s really hard to get right.”
“I don’t believe you. Others are doing it. Did you not see their press release last week? I just don’t think you’re working hard enough. I reckon we should have just outsourced this problem. That would have got it done in half the time.”

Everyone is angry and at loggerheads. Senior management who are disappointed with performance and a team on the receiving end feeling utterly stupid yet unable to demonstrate they’ve done some worthwhile work. How did we get here?

I’ve been on both sides myself. It’s likely you will as well.

Two psychological concepts

The hypothetical situation described above frames two interesting concepts in psychology, which I often see played out in the workplace. To an extent, one could be seen as the inverse of the other.

  • Dunning-Kruger effect: A cognitive bias of illusory superiority in people of lower ability.
  • Impostor syndrome: A concept where high-achieving individuals are unable to internalize their achievements and fear being exposed as a fake or fraud.

We’ll have a look at both of these and identify situations where they can occur in the world of technology.

Dunning-Kruger effect

A 1999 study by David Dunning and Justin Kruger presented the results of experiments that proved that, in many social and intellectual domains, people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities. Not only does this lead to poor decisions, it also means that people are unaware that they are making them! The paradox is that in those same areas, when the skills of the participants were improved, they were able to recognize the limitations of their abilities and therefore realize that particular decisions were bad.

What does this mean for us in engineering? Unfortunately, it means that there will be limitless situations where those that know the least about particular problems will feel the most bullish and comfortable with making a decision and will not realize that the decision is bad. This effect can be seen from both ends of the seniority scale.

  • Poor decisions by junior engineers: High-achieving and confident junior members of staff, notably those who have just graduated with excellent grades, may not have the experience to make considered decisions about doing engineering in production. Their overconfidence in being able to solve a problem may give a project a green light, only for it all to not work further down the line. Their limited experience of production systems combined with their confidence in their own abilities can result in them not seeing any warning signs in their initial beliefs.
  • Rash decisions by managerial staff: They will be too far from the technical details to intuitively know whether a project is achievable or completely intractable. If they are confident, as your senior managers usually are, then they may be unable to be convinced that there isn’t a simple solution that your team hasn’t yet found, despite being told otherwise. This can lead to bad decisions about starting or stopping projects, outsourcing work, or blaming poor performance for a particular outcome.

The most dangerous place in the Dunning-Kruger effect was plotted to humorous effect by the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. The graph has been reproduced with permission.

It’s very easy to be on Mount Stupid, and the worst part about it is that you won’t know that you’re there. We can all experience it as it happens to all of us. Unfortunately, this can lead to a decision being made where nobody really knows anything at all as there is no counter-balance to an argument, or where the person with the most power, who happens to be on Mount Stupid, exercises their executive right, making everyone else feel dumb.

Impostor syndrome

It is possible that high achieving individuals who are very good may not give an outward appearance that is congruent with how good they actually are. This is called imposter syndrome and was published in a 1978 study. This internal contradiction about one’s ability can result in excellent individuals feeling like they are somehow a fraud; that they are faking it and will soon get found out. This leads to nervousness and lack of confidence.

Like the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can play out at differing seniority levels:

  • Overly shy junior engineers: High-achieving juniors may observe a lot of smart and senior folks around them and believe that they have absolutely no right to be there and that, in comparison, their ability is poor.
  • Overly cautious senior staff: They forget that many of the things that come totally naturally to them due to experience are through their hard work, not luck. This may turn them inward and make them cautious and risk-averse, as they know the devil is always in the details. It may prevent them from speaking out for risk of being “found out”.

Elements of impostor syndrome can be viewed as the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Whereas those on Mount Stupid may be overly confident and brash because of their lack of knowledge about their own inabilities, those who have impostor syndrome may be overly unconfident and shy because they believe their own success is due to something other than their intelligence and hard work. This gives the impression to others that they may not know what they are doing, creating a nasty clash with the outspoken and confident people on Mount Stupid.

Bridging the gap

So, as a manager, how can you help?

In short, you need to exercise your emotional intelligence to spot when people are displaying traits that fall in either camp, and then work with that behavior to help your staff overcome it.

Dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect

For junior members of staff being potentially reckless due to not knowing the ramifications of what they are doing, you need to show sensitivity. We’ve all been there. You definitely don’t want to make anyone feel shot down by demonstrating your superior knowledge. Instead, you want to try and make junior staff come to the conclusion that they are being overconfident by themselves. Think of a coaching mentality here: how can you keep the thought bubble over their head while they tackle a problem? Can you pair program with them and subtly lead them to discover where the problem is much harder than they thought, or can you do the same on a whiteboard? Once they discover that a great number of technical problems are harder than they initially seem, they will have developed more mature techniques to analyze approaches and find the right balance of confidence and skepticism.

Senior staff who find themselves on Mount Stupid can often be difficult to deal with, because a senior person may be highly confident in a group; others present may by worried about arguing with them. Here you need to subject them to a similar process as that of junior staff, where they can arrive at the conclusion that something is harder than originally seemed by themselves. You need to pick your battles here: some personalities may be totally open for a reasoned debate or working it through together on a whiteboard, but others, depending on the situation, may benefit from discussion being taken offline, where some proper research can be done and results presented in a less confrontational format, such as an email or short document. Mount Stupid combined with ego can cause degenerate in-person conversation. Instead, present only the facts; resist the urge to tell someone that they are being dumb. Sometimes you have to submit and leave a meeting in a haze of anger in order to revisit the facts later.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Brilliant junior staff who experience impostor syndrome need to experience repeated success to overcome how they feel. One way of doing this is by pairing them with a senior member of staff who is a good mentor, and having them work through problems both abstractly, on paper and whiteboards, and concretely, implementing them together through pair programming. We often forget that in education we are receiving specific grades and scores for the quality of our work, and over time, self-confidence can be fostered by seeing repeated positive results. The workplace doesn’t offer frequent quantitative feedback like this, therefore regular interactions with more senior staff who can show the junior that they’re doing a great job. This is critical to build their confidence.

Senior staff experiencing impostor syndrome can forget just how much they know and can contribute. To reinforce their knowledge, pair them with junior staff. This actually benefits both parties, as shown in the previous paragraph. They will realize just how much they have to teach. For those that are reserved verbally, then as a manager, try to weave them into debates by asking their opinion directly. “How’s this problem playing out in your head right now? What are you thinking?” Make a concerted effort to bring their opinion into the room as often as possible. They will soon see that their knowledge is valued, hard-earned and useful.

In summary

The Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome play out in the workplace much more often than you think. Many people haven’t heard of either. It’s up to you to use your emotional intelligence to spot when your staff may be experiencing them, acknowledge that it is totally normal, and then try to employ some techniques to help them overcome them, without making anybody feel stupid or embarrassed.

Educating others about these concepts can also enable them to call you out when you’re being brash about a decision you know little about, or are being overly reserved when you actually have a lot to contribute.

Your career is your responsibility

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A tale of two employees

Firstly, let’s set the scene by considering one employee called Alice. She joined a company a couple of years ago and she’s really enjoying her job. She works with a team that gives her enough autonomy to work in the way that she wants, using the tooling that she prefers. She feels that she can pick and choose the work she is most comfortable with in her team’s sprints, and she’s given some technical talks to the department recently; she is working on her public speaking. She attends a conference of her choice each year, and she has started mentoring a graduate developer who has recently joined the company. In the recent company survey about employee happiness, she was extremely positive in all of her responses.

Next, let’s consider Bob. He joined his company a couple of years ago, and he’s stuck in a rut. He never feels like it’s clear as to what he should be working on during each sprint, and he feels stuck with the tools and language that were provided for him. He’s never been asked to speak about any of his work to a wider forum, and has never been asked whether he would like to attend any technical conferences. He’s quite unsure about whether he wants to stay at the company as he’s never been shown what his career progression should be. In his recent company survey, he gave some very negative answers.

Sounds like two very different situations, doesn’t it? Well, Alice and Bob are actually in the same team, and they’re both Java developers. What’s going on?

It’s your call

The difference between Alice and Bob is that Alice is proactively seeking ways to make her job more fulfilling, and Bob is expecting to be told what to do. Even though it is a manager’s responsibility to ensure that their direct reports are motivated and are having a positive impact on the company whilst being fulfilled in their career, there can sometimes be a misunderstanding about who is actually responsible for planning that career. In my experience, there is only one answer: the employee themselves. The manager facilitates it happening.

Given a choice between being passive and active in the way your career is going, you should always be active. Now, it’s impossible to write an article that will help you define exactly where your career will want to go. We’ve written before about the two tracks of growth and also whether you like stability or change, and if you’ve not read those before, then they might serve as some inspiration. However, regardless of what you feel like you want to do, or how you want to grow, I would heavily encourage being entrepreneurial with your career. Find out what you want, and then think about ways that you can get it.

There are broadly two ways in which you can affect growth in your career:

  • Growing outwards: where you focus on improving your existing skills to become more of an expert at your current role. This aligns with an individual contributor career track.
  • Growing upwards: where you focus on beginning to experience what it’s like to operate at the next level up in the org chart; aligning with the management career track.

Let’s have a look at some ways in which you could actively grow, motivated by yourself and on your own terms. If you feel uncomfortable just doing these things in case you feel like you may be overstepping your mark, then perhaps bring them up in your next 1 to 1 with your manager first.

Growing outwards

There are many ways that you can, of your own volition, hone your existing skills whilst doing your existing job. These will require self-motivation and an entrepreneurial attitude towards your own development, but they are rewarding. If you have been previously feeling stuck, you may actually find that you have more autonomy in your role than you first thought.

  • Mentoring others: One of the best ways to become more knowledgable and to more deeply understand what you currently do is to teach others. It gives you the opportunity to train a more junior member of staff, hence improving the overall output of the department, but, at the same time, it allows you to reflect on the way that you solve problems yourself. Mentoring can be done in a number of different ways. You could seek out a more junior engineer and introduce yourself, or you could regularly encourage pair programming sessions with those on your team. Another strategy is to advertise “office hours” in your schedule where anyone can drop in with a problem that you can help solve together.
  • Giving talks: Whether you are a fan of it or not, getting better at public speaking is a life skill rather than just a career skill. What better opportunity to practice than to speak on subjects that you know a great deal about in front of friendly people from a similar skill set? You can start small by encouraging an informal talk slot at regular intervals within your team, or you could give a department-wide talk if you’re feeling brave. Even better still, submitting abstracts to conferences and then getting accepted is a great way of forcing yourself to dedicate time to doing a great talk. Once written and done once, you can take that talk and do it again and again at different meet ups and gatherings. Similar to running a marathon, you don’t become an expert by default. Public speaking requires practice, practice, practice.
  • Actively seeking training: Don’t wait to ask whether you would like to go to a conference, just ask! If you find out there is no budget, see if there are some cheaper alternatives. Perhaps you could volunteer at the event in exchange for a free ticket. Additionally, ask whether the company could arrange other types of training that you might find useful, such as public speaking classes or finding you an external coach. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.
  • Seeking out the latest technologies: Spend time during the week reading the latest developments on open source projects, via news aggregator websites such as Hacker News or project sites themselves such as the Apache Incubator. Perhaps have a browse while you eat your lunch. If you find something cool, share it with your team. Could one of these open source projects be considered for your next piece of work? Could you do a prototype with it?
  • Building your network: Think about how you can make influential connections both inside and outside the business. For the former, a previous article addressed how you can begin to make additional connections. For the latter, see whether your work will let you leave a bit early once a month to go to that interesting meet-up where you can connect with other likeminded people who work for different companies. You’ll probably learn a bunch of new things and have a lot to offer others as well.

Growing upwards

The previous section looked at some different ways of honing your current craft through teaching, speaking, learning and socializing. However, for engineers that want to get into management but feel stuck as to how to do so, how could you be entrepreneurial with your time so that you get experience of what lies above you in the org chart?

  • Speak out! This almost goes without saying, but if you’re interested in growing further in the management track, then you need to make that known. This allows your conversations with your manager to start aligning around the skills and experience that you’re going to need to work towards. Bring it up as soon as possible; don’t wait for end of year reviews.
  • Shadowing: Your manager will be doing all sorts of activities that you currently aren’t privy to. These can include meetings with their peers in the department, steering meetings about roadmap, budget and priorities, or reporting up into the executive. Why not ask to see whether you could attend some of these sessions to hear the discussion and get involved. You will naturally gain access to other notable people in the company by doing so, and this can help grow your network.
  • Ask to be delegated to: As well as attending particular meetings, there are activities that your manager does regularly that you could ask to gain exposure to. You could work on some of these things together so that you can gain some experience, or perhaps they could be delegated to you completely. Examples include getting involved in budgeting decisions, having input in the overall technology or product roadmap, doing interviews, or simply acting as a sounding board to help with their own decisions. You’ll gain some interesting insight into how their world works.
  • Network with others in your company: Make sure that you don’t cut yourself off; take time to network with your peers, and depending how accessible they are, those that are more senior than you. Why not invite people out for a coffee at lunchtime to get to know more about them and what they do? Conversations can help you learn more about different paths you want to choose in your career. The more that you get to know everyone, the more that people will be willing to offer you that next opportunity.

In summary

It’s important to take control of your career and be proactive and entrepreneurial in how you spend your time and energy. Over time, the difference between someone who is proactively seeking knowledge, experience and opportunity and someone who isn’t continually widens: those who do not seek may find themselves in the same role feeling unhappy, and those who seek may find themselves with many opportunities and a deep satisfaction for their work and those they work with.

Own it and challenge yourself. You’ll never know where you’ll end up.

The sophomore slump

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The difficult second album

Question: what do Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and the Beastie Boys all have in common? Answer: they had brilliant sophomore albums. Nirvana released Nevermind. Led Zeppelin dropped Led Zeppelin II. The Beastie Boys delivered Paul’s Boutique. These are classic albums that have stood the test of time. They were much, much better than their first albums. They were artistically accomplished and refined.

The sophomore slump, as it is often called, is a make or break situation for new artists. A first album may have been years, if not a whole life, in the making. The second album must be made with the burden of a record deal that may contractually require a new record being made every 2 years. The pressure is on to deliver something as good, if not better, in a shorter timeframe with higher expectations. Does this sound familiar at all? If the second album is a knockout then that’s proof of a successful artist. Success begins to grow exponentially. If it’s mediocre, well, let’s just not talk about the Second Coming by The Stone Roses.

If your company has been a success due to a stellar first product and growth is beginning to slow, then people will begin to ponder whether it’s time for a second product. Can the company have the same success all over again? The notion can generate a great deal of excitement for the business: salespeople will have something new to sell to a potentially untapped market, and some of your engineers may finally get that greenfield project that they’ve been waiting for.

However, the reality is that launching the second product is extremely hard.

  • High expectation of success: There is probably an implicit expectation that anything new that gets created will be just as successful as your first product. After all, it’s the same successful people making it, right?
  • Underestimation of effort: Your existing product has probably gotten to a stage where it has had enough time, thought and planning to have a clear roadmap that is releasing at regular increments, and all of the under-the-bonnet infrastructure, tooling and frameworks are already there. Starting from scratch gives you none of these force multipliers: it may actually take longer than expected to get something off the ground.
  • Umpteen existing processes: Your engineering and company processes have been created around your existing product. How is this going to work when there is a new product being made, potentially addressing a different market, with a different release cycle and different revenue model?

Doing something new is risky and it might fail. Think about how many startups fail every year. Your second product might suffer the same fate. How do you proceed in such a way that allows the best chance possible for your new product to survive?

Let’s consult the literature.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

The good news is that this is not a new problem. It was written about extensively way back in 1997 in a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma. This article isn’t meant to serve as an in-depth book review, but it is easy to distill the principles. I would highly recommend reading it regardless; the book is as relevant now as it was when it was written.

It addresses how successful companies can ultimately fail in the face of disruptive innovation. Imagine this: given you have a successful product which is selling well and iterating through a sensible roadmap with positive feedback from your customers, how can it be the case that a small competitor’s offering, which is seemingly worse-looking, slower and with more bugs, is beginning to eat away at more of your deals?

The answer is that the smaller, disruptive company is better focussed on satisfying the future needs of your customers rather than their current needs, which is what your own product is serving. An idea for a niche market may be dismissed because it doesn’t appear to be worth the time and money when compared to further developing a current product. This thinking, left unchecked, can be similar to the market shifting from Blockbuster to Netflix. Given a few years to simmer, this can turn into a world of pain.

This situation that is described so well in The Innovator’s Dilemma is exactly the reason that new products have difficulty growing from companies that have an existing successful offering. Two things can happen:

  • The no-starter: After identifying a cool new product idea that will serve a new market, it is dismissed because the current product is already making a healthy revenue and the decision is that resource is better utilized on that instead. Why would the company take a whole team and risk building something that might fail when everything is currently going well?
  • The premature failure: A new product is developed and launched, but at the end of the year, when the revenue is compared to that of the main product, it is seen as too small of a percentage to be worth the continued effort. It is sunsetted and the team returns to working on the main product.

Both of these situations are inherently bad. For every excellent idea that is not started, or not given enough time, there is a gap in the market for a competitor to break through. One of these ideas, with time, could be bigger than your entire company.

Giving your second product room

How can a new product be given the space to potentially succeed?

Let’s think about a start-up. A small group of people, with full creative control and a passion for their idea, usually raise some money. With that money they’ll either:

  • Succeed by breaking even and take their financial destiny into their own hands.
  • Run out of money but have growth that attracts further investment.
  • Run out of money and quit if it’s not going to work.

When contemplating a new product, you can untangle it from unfair comparison with your existing offering by treating it as if it were a separate company. This new product simply becomes a finite investment of time and money. But how do you decide whether it’s worth doing?

The pre-requisites

Here are some decisions that you and the business should consider carefully.

  1. Decide on the financial investment. If your existing company was going to place a bet on a new market and a new product, how much would they be willing to part with? £250K? £1M? £5M?
  2. Set a growth target. What is an acceptable growth rate for a new product? Is it 150% year on year, or 50%? What would look attractive to an investor if this really was a start-up?
  3. Decide on the allotted time. With all of the above taken into consideration, how much time is the company willing to commit to making this a success? How long are they willing to wait for this product to break even? A quarter, a year, three years?
  4. Build a financial model. Given the investment and amount of time allowed to break even at a certain growth rate, what does that mean for the amount of money available every month for CapEx, OpEx and salaries? A quick spreadsheet can help you derive these figures.

You can now all look at the data and make a call. Is this worth pursuing? If not, then that’s fine. You’ve analyzed it quantitatively and can back up your decision not to proceed. If it is, then get planning.

The go-ahead

If the business is happy to “invest” in this new idea, then it’s time to start thinking about resources.

  1. Form a cross-functional team. Taking into account how much money the company would be willing to bet on this investment, how big should the team be? Think about the salaries of the engineers that you are picking. Is this a team of 3 or 6? What current projects may slow down or stop as a result of transferring staff on to this initiative? Who is your product owner going to be? They’ll need to be self-starting and have a good understanding of what it’s like to be a “mini CEO”.
  2. Get buy in from other parts of the business. It can be extremely motivational to have a dedicated salesperson and marketer who can work directly with the team to bring their product to market. It doesn’t mean that they need to begin selling to brand new customers, but they could perhaps upsell the new product into existing deals. Leverage what you have.
  3. Make them fully accountable for P&L. Here’s the powerful bit: tell the team that you don’t mind how the product is built, as long as it is built to a level of quality they are happy with. That team will report back on their profit and loss, and the rest is down to them. Full autonomy drives creativity.
  4. Let them know it’s OK to fail. The business has outlined how long they’re willing to run with this initiative until the money runs out. If it doesn’t succeed after that, then that’s OK; not everything will be a success. Your staff will still have a job too! However, if it does succeed, they’ll be the owners of their new domain. They’ll have a product and revenue stream that they have created themselves, and they’ll have learned a huge amount about running a business along the way.

But why?

This may seem like overkill. A financial model? A completely autonomous team? Surely it would be easier to just define the new product and treat it like a new feature, funneling it into an existing delivery team? Well, you could do that, and it might work. But The Innovator’s Dilemma suggests that you will face a much higher chance of failure. Your existing processes, people, ways of working and choices of tooling suit your current, mature product. A smaller, hungrier product needs more nimble and self-directed ways of working, just like your company did right back at the very beginning.

Giving a new product complete autonomy aside from reporting on P&L allows staff to rethink how they work. It allows them to try new things with no risk of upsetting the status quo. It allows room for hustle and camaraderie and the ability to go through a brand new experience together. You’ll be surprised at just how fast things can happen with a small group of motivated people with autonomy. It’s exciting.

How does your own company spin out new products? How well does it work?