Management Too many metaphors

The Coach and the Fixer

For this piece, I am going to simplify management a bit. Let us assume there are three different hats you wear as a manager. They are: the Leader, the Fixer, and the Coach. I will briefly each role and then explain how I’ve screwed up each. I’m going in reverse order because I’m building tension.

The Coach

Your standard persona. You are the more experienced human in this team, and your job is to pass your hard-earned wisdom on to others. Most of these lessons are not planned because we move intently and quickly in business. After all, that’s how you win.

Problems arise. Conflict ensues. Some you see with your eyeballs, others you hear about after the fact. In both cases, your job is usually not to escalate but to educate.

You say things like:

  • Did you think about this perspective?
  • When I’ve seen this in the past, this is why it happened.
  • Allow me to explain how I’ve failed amply doing this in the past.

Delivery of this wisdom is key to both building up the team and establishing yourself as an approachable Coach.

And this is how I screwed it up.

Months after I left a prior gig, I received a mail from the person who took over my role. A friendly note. They wanted to understand what I could teach them about the team. I responded with an immediate, “Of course.”

The conversation was rich. They had a good read on the team after just four months. I dropped some knowledge on several of my co-workers’ professional hopes and dreams and asked how else I could help.

This person said something off the cuff that I think about every single day. They were talking about their perceptions of what had changed since I left. I don’t remember the entire story, but I remember this phrase. “They liked you. Perhaps too much.” A throwaway comment that they forgot immediately that I’d never forget.

See, the Coach is nice. They want to be liked, they want to be always approachable, they like positive vibes, and they are conflict adverse.
They liked me? Perhaps too much? What I heard between the words was the team appreciated me as a Coach and as a helper, but they did not trust me to make the hard calls because I was afraid of hurting my relationship with the team.

And they were right.

The Fixer

A specialized persona. As it’s prone to do as we move intently and quickly, the sky falls now and then. There is no more obvious call to action than the sky falling, and when it does, you leap up and run to the front of the room, waving your hands, declaring, “I GOT THIS.”

The circumstances that require the Fixer are not fun, but the role of the Fixer is a blast. Why? First, you get to blow through the bureaucracy. Second, everyone wants to help. Third, you get to move exceptionally quickly. It’s a delightful change of pace.

I’ve written extensively about Fixer-esque situations over the years, and that’s because I love being The Fixer.

And this is how I screwed it up.

The VP needed us to move to a new platform for reasons. Other Directors had made two attempts, and both had failed, leaving us on a janky old platform costing us millions of dollars. The previous efforts were happening outside of my engineering world, but the VP had seen me fix it before, so he tasked me with fixing again.

Off I go with my Fix mandate! I spent the weekend researching how Attempts #1 and #2 had failed. I educated myself on the future platforms, building a lovely pro/con list, a cost analysis to scare the hell out of everyone, and an initial two-week plan of action. I finished by scheduling a Monday morning all-hands.

Look at me! At the front of the room! Fixing the thing! Enthusiastically!

Wednesday, close of business, the VP dropped my office and said, “Let’s take a walk.”

Outside he began, “Thank you, you are starting to fix it. You are moving quickly and purposefully, but there is a problem. Your bedside manner signals to the patient that they will die.”

What? Bedside manner? Death? Too many metaphors.

“Do you think the folks who have already worked hard to fix this screwed up?”

“I do. They did. Twice.”

“Yes, they can tell how you feel about them by how you treat them.”

“But they screwed up.”

“Do you think they don’t already know that?”

The Leader

I’ve screwed up. More times than I can count. There was a time when I leaned too much into being the Coach, so they didn’t believe I could make the hard calls and lead. There was the other time when all I wanted to do was Fix, but I killed the team’s morale because all of my well-intentioned actions predominantly conveyed how much I believe they screwed up.

Management isn’t a promotion; it’s a new job. Leadership isn’t management; it’s a set of principles you continuously and consistently demonstrate to your team to show what you believe is important. Leadership is how they learn what to expect from you. Managers tell you where you are. Leaders tell you where you are going.

Sometimes you’ll need to Coach, and sometimes you’ll need to Fix, but aren’t they the same thing? The Coach fixes stuff. The Fixer coaches to resolution. Aren’t they vastly different hats?

I finish one of my talks with a synopsis of this article regarding being unfailingly kind. Go read it. Classic Rands. Invariably after the talk during Q&A, someone asks me a question about kindness in the business place. They have a benign scenario designed to test whether kindness works as a practice, so I make it serious.

“Is it kind to fire someone?”

The room is silent.

“Your gut reaction is no, but you’re thinking of the scenario where someone is randomly fired without prior knowledge. They are shocked, and that’s not kind at all.”

“When you first identify a challenge someone is having, you talk about it with them clearly and constructively. You listen to their reaction and then start to coach them. For weeks. You talk about the challenge with them. For months. And sometimes the challenge can’t be fixed.”

“You explain this to them, listen to their reactions, adapt your coaching, and talk some more. If letting them go comes up, there’s no surprise. There is a probable disappointment, but no one involved is uninvolved.”

“And in that scenario, after all that discussion and coaching, the fix is for that person to find a different role. Perhaps at the current company. Or another. And you never call it firing because that’s not kind.”

The Coach listened. The Fixer acted. They did it with kindness because that’s how good leaders behave. Being nice is a part of kindness, but the core of kindness – and leadership – is respect.

Tech Life You die. A lot.

Don’t Panic

Elden Ring, developed by FromSoftware, wants you to rage quit the game. This is an undocumented feature of the game.

You’re introduced to this feature promptly.

After choosing your character, you’re plopped into a castle wondering Why is there no onboarding training? You walk through dark hallways reading warnings on the floor from other players. Suddenly, a boss. Yeah, a boss shows up, and you die quickly. Years of video gaming instinctively warn you, “I am extremely under-leveled for this encounter.”

This voice then says, “But, I don’t even have a level yet. I don’t know how to play this game. How could I possibly….”

But new game? Right? It’s a learning process. Sure. Embrace it. You’re in a cave now and walking through the barest of onboarding experiences. Here we go. Ok, this does a sword something. This is a heavy attack. Why do I have to figure this out? A richer training mode is coming up, right?

Up an elevator, and you’re introduced to the Lands Between. You see your first enemy, and you’re dead again. And again. And again. The rage builds with each empty death. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and reflect.

What important lessons did I learn during game onboarding?

Very little. You were allowed to pick a character type with no context save for a picture of the character type. Wizard, I guess. You were then asked to pick Type A or Type B without any visual clue what you were picking. Gender, I think. You were given options to change your appearance, and when you went to change your eyes, you discovered the options were endless. The voice in your head was alarmed.

“If this is the level of detail they put into the look of my eyes, how much complexity is hidden elsewhere, and why do I have no clue about the attributes of this Vagabond character I picked entirely based on a picture?”

Back the Land Between. A Tree Sentinel stands in front of you. This majestic knight on his steed is, wait for it, another boss. You’re fighting another boss sporting an unexplained set of attributes combined with no experience in battle, so, of course, you are dead.

Welcome to Elden Ring. You’re dead.

Yeah, I’ve Played Souls Games Before

The soul-crushing difficulty of FromSoftware’s games — “Souls” game is not news. The boy had me play Bloodborne years back and warned me, “You’re going to die. A lot.”

The consistent themes and attributes of a Souls game are:

  • It’s hard.
  • You die. A lot.
  • It’s a dark gothic world full of increasingly bizarre enemies. Horror.
  • They really don’t like showing the faces of their characters.
  • Figuring out the game takes real work.
  • Figuring out the plot is a fool’s errand.
  • You die. A lot.

I never finished Bloodborne, but I enjoyed it. You’re in a dark gothic city, and you’re on a narrative rail. You are not wandering hither and fro; there are one or two directions you need to go, and in your way are enemies that crush you repeatedly. The goal is to understand a particular enemy attack and build your counter-attack to work around their attack patterns. There is no button mashing in Souls games. That’s how you die fast.

Adding insult to injury, when you die, all the enemies you previously killed reappear, which means you have ample opportunity to learn how these enemies work whilst also dying a bunch more. Additionally, all of your runes (the in-game currency) are dropped at the spot you die, and if you don’t pick them up before dying again, they’re gone. There are save points you’ll discover as you make your way through the game, but the game is not about forwarding the narrative; it’s about mastery and precision of the moment.

Finally, there are bosses. Massive, often grotesque, one-hit killing machines. Bosses are why I stopped Bloodborne. Was it the werewolf? I don’t know, but I was fifty hours into the game, feeling shakily confident, when I walked into that graveyard and died. Instantly. He leaped across the room and crushed me. Four hours and two dozen deaths later, I had him down to half health on my best run, and he leaped across the room and crushed me.

Yeah, no. Just say no to Souls games.

Are You Having Fun Yet?

I’ve deliberately written this piece leaving you wondering if I am enjoying Elden Ring or not. Rereading what I’ve written so far, I think most of you believe I am about to tear into FromSoftware.

I’m not.

Elden Ring is one of my finest gaming experiences in the past decade. Yes, it is punishingly hard. Yes, I am mostly lost regarding the plot. Something about fingers, I think? It’s not important. What’s important is a question: Is it a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn?

Before I answer that, I’ll explain the key differences between Elden Ring and its predecessors. First, it’s an open world. When you arrive on the main continent, you can head in any direction and explore. There are hints of a direction you could run, but unlike Bloodborne, there are no rails. Want to go west and check out the dragon? Go for it. He’ll crush you. Say hi for me.

Elden Ring is a rich open world where exploring is rewarded. Wondering what that rock formation is over there? Could you go check it out? There might be a useful item or perhaps a pack of enemies. Regardless, your curiosity will be rewarded. This leads me to one of the key quality of life learnings within the game: if it’s too hard, do something else.

This addressed my key issue with Bloodborne. The reason I stopped playing was a lack of hope. I was uninterested in killing the prior enemies four thousand times to level my character, and I was tired of exploring the limited set of paths available to me. So I stopped playing.

The act of walking away from a boss that is crushing you is contrary to how many video games are designed. If I am presented with a challenge, I must rise to the challenge. Elden Ring introduces you to this option early twice. First, the unkillable pre-boss that transports you to the Lands Between, and second once you’ve landed, there’s that Tree Sentinel between you and your obvious path. They will crush you. Over and over again.

Stop. Go around them. Do something else. You are not ready. You need to level up your character’s attributes and your understanding of how this game works. Each enemy has a specific set of mechanics you must learn, and you have a clear of actions you can deploy, and until you have a good understanding of both, you’ll be crushed.

Walking away from a fight is not how most video games are built. The design pattern is to teach them and then present appropriately designed challenges. My first of thirteen Elden Ring rage quit involved a knight. Just over the hill from the starting area, there’s a decaying village full of mostly killable guards and one knight. This knight’s attack’s in a, well, very Elden Ring-type fashion. He moves towards you gently until he suddenly leaps across the field and quickly triple jabs you with that halberd. Dead. Crushed. Didn’t even have a chance.

At this point of the game, you’re low level with beginning gear and zero understanding of game mechanics. Instant death. Repeatedly. It’s unfair. I have no idea how to get out of the way. He hits me for all of the hit points. They have not prepared me for this game. I quit.

I ask again, is it a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn? Maybe, but there is another lesson.

Don’t Panic

My definition of a good game is one that teaches me a fundamental truth. A piece of wisdom that doesn’t just illuminate the game; it teaches me a bit about life. World of Warcraft lessons includes, “Look what a group of like-minded players could organize and do together.” It taught me about volunteer leadership and the value of relationships with humans you may never meet. Destiny is my favorite game, primarily because of community lessons I first discovered in Warcraft. It also helps that I can play Destiny for 30 minutes instead of the multi-hour runs of Warcraft’s Molten Core raid that put my marriage in the worst shape of my life.

More important than Elden Ring’s “just walk away” lesson is another regarding remaining calm. The FromSoftware game designers deeply love pissing you off. As a friend says, “They’ve built in a high degree of fuck you.” You walk around a dungeon on eggshells. Checking every corner, every ceiling, and scoping out every nook and cranny because that’s where the bad guys are hiding. Elden Ring delights in tucking the enemy just out of sight and empowering them with an instant swing of a ginormous sword. Crushed.

Add the fact the bosses get bigger, faster, and more bizarre. Last night, I fell from a platform into a boss area where some gothic robot Iron Maiden was rolling around, and when it got close, it opened up; tentacles jumped out and pulled me inside the contraption. Munch. Munch. Munch. Dead.

The fundamental lesson in Elden Ring is a reminder: don’t panic. Yes, the hideous crow-like creature is ten times larger than you, it makes horrific noises designed to terrify you, but this creature in this game is a knowable machine. It acts in an almost predictable manner. Your job in this game is to discover the pattern and to use it against this creature. It is a scenario designed to get your heart rate up, but the winning strategy starts with a lesson that is always useful: you are your worst self when you panic.

Is It a Good Game?

It is.

It’s stunning. Many of the notes players leave for other players are a reminder, “Stop for a moment. Check out this view.” They are right.

It’s a wildly successful game. At the time of this writing, it’s the best-selling game of 2022, and this is the year that Horizon Forbidden West landed and, friends, that is a phenomenally great game.

But what I love about Elden Ring is that amongst the beauty, the grotesque horror, and the utter strangeness of the plot is there how it rewards you for being deliberate, planning ahead, and not panicking.

Last time. It’s a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn? Yes. It doesn’t feel like it during the punishment, but the personal satisfaction for conquering difficulty grows exponentially with that difficulty.

I’ll see you in the Lands Between. Maybe.

Rands Hard-earned and easily shared

Just Awful Writing

Frequently, I get a direct message from a community member on the Rands Leadership Slack pointing out a broken link on this weblog. I am happy to fix the link. I am not happy to reread what I wrote fourteen years ago because much of the early writing is… just awful. Unbearable, poorly punctuated, semi-coherent ramblings of a person in a hurry to make a point. But it’s there. Broken link and all, so I fix the link, let Grammarly point out the most egregious offenses, and move along.

Sometime during 2022, this weblog turned twenty years old. No one noticed, including me. While I write for this place actively, other creative endeavors increasingly occupy my free time, including the aforementioned Slack community, the podcast, and the bikes. This means fewer articles per year, but the writing… never stops.

There have been quite a few changes to the world of weblogs since I began:

  • The arrival of social networks grabbed a considerable amount of traffic.
  • The practice of commenting on weblogs has mostly gone away. Not sure why.
  • A once vibrant community of active webloggers has continued to dry up. Kottke is on sabbatical. Pray for Gruber.

I don’t expect to stop publishing here because I never stop writing. Also, this place and the content it contains continue to be a high return on investment, including:

  • Providing the starting material for publishing three books so far.
  • Allowing me to travel worldwide speaking on a diverse set of topics.
  • Attended conferences where I met my favorite humans on the planet.
  • Finally, it’s made me a better writer. I have proof.

The critical writing lessons are hard-earned and easily shared:

  • Editing takes as much time as writing.
  • Trusting another human to edit your work is work. Important work.
  • Sleep on it. Don’t publish crap.

So, while we missed the anniversary, let’s celebrate. In honor of 20 years of Rands, I’m re-issuing the first Rands t-shirt for a limited time.

rands-20th

The original shirt was offered in a single color — brown — and printed on material made from 70% bamboo. This material has always been my favorite, but I’ve been unable to source it. However, the amazing folks at Cotton Bureau continue to provide fantastic service and deliver high-quality shirts. The colors. Quite a few. The design? Kevin Cornell. He’s amazing.

As with all prior t-shirt sales, all of the shirts’ profits go to charity, and I will continue to match all the profits.

Finally, as a bonus, I’m posting my original blog: The Bitsifter Digest. From 1996 until 1999, I wrote a blog before we called it a blog. It captures an interesting time on the Internet. Yes, all the links are broken. Yes, like early Rands, the writing is awful but awful is where you start when you intend to get better.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate you.

The Important Thing Hunter jump rules

The One About Destiny 2

In our 55th episode, we return to familiar territory with special guest John Siracusa. The topic? Destiny 2 and why many, many years again, we continue to play every single day.

Interested in our Destiny Slack? Figure out how to mail me, and I’ll send you an invite.

Enjoy it now or download for later. Here’s a handy feed or subscribe via Overcast or iTunes.

Writing We had never seen anything like it

Prestige Writing

I am a short-form writer. A thousand words or so. Sometimes more, often less. I like to think I like tight prose and succinct thoughts, but I also know I’m impatient and have a short attention span.

Over the years, familiar article structures and narrative flows have repeatedly crystallized into familiar templates. The most obvious one. The three-act Vanilla structure; a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  • Your beginning frames your topic or asks an important question.
  • The middle expands, explains, and illuminates your topic.
  • The ending declares your conclusion.

Writing 101. Looking back at the last hundred articles here, you’ll see this structure repeated. There is a variant of Vanilla that I’ll call the Double Beginning. I discovered it when I struggled to find my Third Act. How do I want to close this thought out? Turns out, confusingly, I repeat the beginning.

The Double Beginning is repeating the first act as the third. Seems like cheating, but it’s not. See, if I’ve done my job in the Second Act, I’ve taught you a thing. I’ve pledged to explain my thought; hopefully, you’ve been illuminated. A repeated First Act as the Third isn’t a cheat; it’s a new narrative experience because you’ve succeeded in changing the reader.

The Turn

Christopher Nolan’s 2007 The Prestige opens with the following narration:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.

The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”

I’ve had this transcribed opening narration sitting in an unfinished article where I wrote about every Marvel movie leading up to the Infinity War and End Game. The purpose of this piece? Document how Marvel learned from its successes and failures. Looking for and documenting patterns and recurring themes.

I’d recently watched The Prestige as I continued to write this piece and discovered a similarity between Marvel’s narrative structure and how Nolan describes the construction of a good magic trick. You see this in the first Iron Man, where we’re presented with Tony Stark, the trope drunken billionaire; we see him go on the exceptional hero’s journey, and then in the final act, we see something we’ve never seen before.

“I am Iron Man.”

Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Secret identities. That’s a thing. You gotta protect those you love with a secret identity. How. Wait. Why…?

Roll credits.

It’s a stretch to call this moment a magical Prestige Moment. They’re not bringing something back but showing you something you’ve never seen before. Subverting your expectations. Surprising you.

I wrote for months on this unpublished piece as I discovered Prestige Moments in the MCU. They’re sprinkled all over the place, and I would argue the finale of the first three phases of the MCU resulting in Infinity War and End Game. 24 movies are all intertwined to reveal a coherent finale. The ultimate Prestige.

We had never seen anything like it.

The Prestige

My MCU piece is sitting on the floor. Right over there. It’s twenty printed pages long. Inappropriate for this weblog, but I keep chipping away. I loved the idea I’d discovered how the construction of magic tricks could somehow apply to narrative arcs in the MCU. Then I realized it applies to any story.

A good story consists of three parts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The writer describes something ordinary: a familiar situation or thought. The writer explains this situation; they make it approachable and understandable.

The second act is called “The Turn.” Here, the writer changes the narrative course. Often drastically. It’s jarring because the reader felt they were heading in a familiar direction, and suddenly they are elsewhere. However, the reader remembers The Pledge and buries their discomfort because they’ve agreed to go on a journey. As The Turn concludes, they begin to see how the Turn and the Pledge complement each other. The writer has described their point by combining what looks like two different stories into something brand new. But they’re not done yet. Don’t clap yet.

Prestige Writing builds to an unexpected but also familiar ending. The Pledge asks a question, the Turn answer the question, and the Prestige creates something extraordinary. Something you have never seen before.

That’s a high bar, and writing isn’t a magic trick. Good writing is a journey of learning, and Prestige writing is the aspiration of working so hard on your Pledge and your Turn that, yes, you can repeat your Pledge as your ending, as your Prestige. A repeated First Act as the Third isn’t a cheat; it’s a new narrative experience because you’ve succeeded in changing the reader.

And that’s magical.

Management a defining lesson

By Design

First start-up. We’re between Layoff #2 and Layoff #3. There’s a new VP of Engineering running the show and while he’s been hired with the guidance to “turn the ship around,” the tech economy is a wreck and his first official act is throwing passengers overboard so we don’t sink.

Now this will be the third (and last) layoff. The existing team of three directors completed the first layoff under the first VP, the second under the interim VP (the head of Business Development… another story for another time). In each case, it started with an unexpected meeting late in the day after the executive team had reviewed the latest books.

It started with, “I’m sure we won’t need to do this, but can you take this here spreadsheet of your team and document how much each of them is devoted to this set of in-flight projects? Take your time.

Sure.

24 hours passed and they walked into my cube, “Are you done, yet?”

You said take your time…?

“Yeah, I need the information in an hour. It’s critical.”

Ok, sure.

Fast forward four weeks and there are three spreadsheets of our three teams chockful of information regarding each employee. We are able to use this spreadsheet to understand who is on the team, their capabilities, what products they build, and what those product will contribute to the bottom line.

However, the three spreadsheets are biased. Each of the three directors has carefully built their spreadsheets to demonstrate why the humans on their team must remain. This does not meet the intent of the exercise which is to recommend a strategy that allows the company to survive. Both the first VP and the acting VP know we’ve done this and understand part of the job is a reconciliation of these disparate data sets.

It’s about as fun of an exercise as it sounds, but they each completed this complicated process by defining a set of principles, explaining them, and then applying them to our spreadsheets.

Yes, you’re drawing a line on this spreadsheet. The humans above stay, the humans below are let go. Yes, the application of these principles meant the lines shifted, often drastically, and that meant one director eventually was letting go of far more of their teams. It’s an awful process I wish on none of you.

And now it’s time for the third.

My co-directors already have the spreadsheet ready, we’ve done the drill, and we do exactly the same thing with our biased spreadsheets. Protecting the team, of course, but not helping the overall business.

When we handed our biased spreadsheets to the VP, he glanced at them, quickly discerned we hadn’t done our jobs, and said, “You need to cut more. This much more.”

Confused. “Aren’t you going to help us do that?”

“No, you’re a director. This is your job. By design.”

Interlude

I’ve had this schtick on Twitter for years. Goes like this. I hear something someone randomly says and in my head I translate to what I believe they are actually saying. What they say is, “I think it’s pretty simple” and what I think is, “Based on your understanding of the parts you can see… which is incomplete.”

That turns into the tweet, “When you say “I think it’s pretty simple”, I hear “I think I understand the parts I can see”. It’s snark. It’s usually not what they’re actually saying, but comedy is where we park the things we are uncomfortable saying.

This inner translation dialog is a habit I’ve had long before Twitter existed and to this day I think of those two words hanging at the end of the new VP’s guidance on how to figure out who to layoff from the company. A reminder, he said, “No, you’re a director. This is your job. By design.”

When you say “By design”, I hear “I can’t be bothered to explain this nuanced thing to you.”

Back to Layoff #3. We, the three directors, did our best to come to an agreement, but we didn’t so we ended up with different principles for different teams. When it came to layoff conversations different teams were hearing different narratives and, of course, they were sharing this information both with employees who were leaving and those who were staying. Those who were let go were unclear why they were being let go and those staying were unclear why they were allowed to stay because different stories being told.

It was a disaster, it was inhumane, and I can’t think of a more defining lesson in my leadership career.

Your Job as a Leader

Your job as a leader is not to make the hard calls. That’s ego talking. Your job as a leader is to clearly explain how you made the hard call so that your team understands how you think, what strategy you are employing, and what principles you are following.

If you have no strategy, you take the time to define it. If you don’t have principles by which to make this decision, you work quickly with as many humans as possible to clearly define them. A principle is a fundamental truth. It’s a foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning and you bet they’re hard to define, but that’s your job.

By design.