Ownership

Interviews are weird. Of course there are the nuts and bolts – getting there early enough but not too early, dressing nicely but not too nicely, the technical and behavioral questions, and so on – but more interestingly, every so often someone asks you a question that really forces you to reflect seriously on your experience or worldview. Recently, the question I’ve been hearing most has been, “so what did you learn?”

There are a lot of good answers to this question, some of which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. My operational experience improved dramatically. I gained an appreciation for a 100% Javascript stack, and learned how to use Node, Express, and React effectively. I worked extensively with a NoSQL database, used a number of the new crop of SaaS tools, and had some success in hiring a diverse team.

But these are all tactical lessons – important, but really only the outer layer of the onion. As I’ve continued to reflect on the experience, I’ve realized that the key change was one of perspective, and of growing up.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when things aren’t going your way. Or to tell yourself that something broke because someone else screwed up, or because you didn’t get needed information or action from another team. Or that no one could have predicted the problem. These are all reasons, and while they may be interesting, and even important to identify in order to fix a problem or avoid it in the future, they’re also irrelevant.

Did the servers go down because AWS had an outage? Ouch, nothing you could have done about that. Except it was your responsibility to keep them up, and all the reasons in the world won’t change the fact that the company lost $X in the outage. Did the factory that manufactures a critical part of your product get hit by a meteor? Couldn’t have been predicted, not your fault, but you still need that part.

This isn’t an observation I came up with on my own. Ben Horowitz and Steve Jobs both made this point:

When things go wrong in your company, nobody cares. The press doesn’t care, your investors don’t care, your board doesn’t care, your employees don’t care, even your mama doesn’t care. Nobody cares.

And they are right not to care. A great reason for failing won’t preserve one dollar for your investors, won’t save one employee’s job, or get you one new customer. It especially won’t make you feel one bit better when you shut down your company and declare bankruptcy.

– Ben Horowitz, Nobody Cares

“When you’re the janitor, reasons matter,” Jobs tells newly minted VPs, according to Lashinsky.

“Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering,” says Jobs, adding, that Rubicon is “crossed when you become a VP.”

– Steve Jobs, The Difference Between the Janitor and the Vice President

It may sound ridiculous, but I’ve honestly found these two quotes to be incredibly powerful tools for managing myself when I start down an unhelpful mental path. “Grr, so-and-so screwed up, and now we’re in the shit!” “Doesn’t matter, no one cares, it’s your responsibility. Fix it, take your lumps, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” “Grr… Sigh. OK.”

I’ve been on this path for a while – certainly, this was the expectation when I was a Director at TripAdvisor – but there’s something fundamentally different when you’re in charge of the technical organization and report to someone non-technical. You can’t hide behind your boss, you can’t assume that things are magically going to be taken care of by someone on another team, there’s no one else to blame. The internal voice that tries to avoid responsibility gets quieter, and the internal response of “doesn’t matter, no one cares, it’s on you,” gets louder, more automatic, and more natural.

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