Tech Life A swell little island of you


I can turn a phrase.

High school journalism is where I discovered this. Mrs. Wickett kept bringing stories to me in my junior year “Needs a clever headline.” I’d read the story and throw out a terse, clever headline.

No clue where this ability come from. If I actually think about how I pick the words and construct the idea, the ability vanishes. The less I know about it, the better.

I’ve been riding this talent for years. Turns out the ability to summarize isn’t only handy for writing headlines; it’s useful in meetings, too. “He just said that, you think this, let’s move on and stop saying the same thing over and over again.”

It was this appreciation of summarization that I took into my first executive product presentation at the last gig. 10th floor of corporate headquarters. Four VPs and their minions surrounding the table. My thought: Wow them with crisp, clean, and clever thoughts. Alliteration. Witty. Headlines.

So I did.

“This is the product. Here are the 20 clever phrases to describe it. Thank you very much!”

Silence. 30 seconds of awkward silence followed by the VP of Marketing breaking the tension, “What exactly are we reviewing here?” The next five minutes were less pleasant as the room realized I was done and all I’d accomplished was filling the air with clever alliterative phrases. There was no obvious strategy behind the headlines.

The Russian Lit Major was standing outside my door as I limped back from the beat down “How’d that feel?”


“Yeah, details bore the shit out of you and you suck at talking to executives.”

“… I what?”

I See Bell Curves

You are horrible at something.

You are a bell curve. A standard distribution. At one end of the curve, you have your talents. You’re naturally and uniquely good at them, but you’re not quite sure why. At the other end of the curve, you have your natural deficiencies and, while I am an optimist and I do believe you can learn your way through just about anything, you’re genetically predisposed to be pretty bad at these things.

Now, chances are you are a horrible at a whole bunch of things, but I want to focus on one thing. It’s the thing that will have the most impact on your career. By being bad at this thing, you limit your career growth.

I’m going to make a leap and assume that you’ve already identified your horrible. At some point in the past, you realized you were bad at this thing. “I am unable to read people.” “I love to program, but I am a lousy architect.” “I dress like a goofball.” Whatever your realization was, you become aware that you were deficient relative to the rest of the world, and you took one of two paths.

The first path: you structured your days and your life so that you wouldn’t stumble over this deficiency. Bad programmer, but deeply technical? Ok, you stuck with QA. Unable to read people? Ok, stick with code, don’t manage. Horrible fashion sense? Right so, you’re not first in line for customer visits. As path of least resistance strategies go, this can work. You can sit there and hide from the horrible, but my thought is, if you’re reading this weblog, you chose the other path and you attacked the horrible.

Your thought, “I refuse to suck at this,” so you took the other path and forced yourself to learn through the horrible.

Educating yourself in your deficiencies. Learning. Researching. Practicing. I’m a fan. There is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment when you know that Darwin is rooting against you. I would go so far as to say that success at overcoming the horrible is far sweeter than success when you know what the hell you’re doing.

And yet… you still might suck at your horrible.

I Want More of You

Back to the Russian Lit Major lurking outside my executive disaster,

“Yeah, details bore the shit out of you and you suck at talking to executives.”

“… I what?”

“You have a product there, but your problem is that you believe that since you can see, everyone else can. They can’t. You need to stitch together the details of how you discovered the product and you need to say it in the language of executives. I’ll show you.”

That night, she took my presentation home and ripped it to shreds. The following morning she sat me down with a completely revised presentation and she walked me through it, slide by slide, pointing out that while I was making fine points, I was skipping over essential details the executives needed to hear. My thoughts were big, but they lacked meat and executive-friendly messaging.

It sucked. It’s one thing to know you’re horrible at the something, but discovery of this horribleness by the rest of the team is a whole other order of magnitude of embarrassment.

Except the slides were better. My messages were still there, but the deck made sense to someone other than me. Two weeks later when we presented again, the questions were enthusiastic, not problematic. I was saying the same thing, but the additions of the Russian Lit Major’s natural ability made my message clear.

Big Trust

There’s a defining moment in your career when you choose to trust someone beside yourself. I’m not talking about trusting them with the small stuff: “Hey, can you fix this bug for me?” I’m talking about big trust “Hey, your design sense is 10x mine, what the hell is wrong with this dialog? Be brutal.”

It’s tricky to leave that swell little island of you. It’s hard to suck up your pride and acknowledge there are those who excel where you suck. But whether you’re an individual or a manager, your job is to learn to scale at what makes you great. Yes, you want to fill your professional experience gaps, but if you work where I work, you’re in a hurry. Getting anything done requires a balance of your natural talent and your ability to find and leverage the talents of those around you.

By putting big trust in someone else, you’re solving three problems: you’re increasing the chance you’ll get your project done, you’re building a strong team, and, oh yeah, you get to watch and learn as someone deftly works in a place where you’re horrible.

By watching someone be great, you’ll learn just like I learned. I don’t need the Russian Lit Major for every presentation, but I know whenever I want to be great, I’ll go and find her.

21 Responses

  1. Matt W. 16 years ago

    I like your writing, but I think you’re wrong. In general, it’s better to improve your strengths than your weaknesses. Imagine two people. One is brilliant at math, but knows nothing else. The other is average in math, writing, speaking, dressing etc.

    What happens to them? The latter’s probably a nameless insurance salesman, the former is Paul Erdős

  2. Matt W: It depends on whether your ambition in life is to be a specialist or some variety of generalist. I think that in particular, specialists suck for management.

    Generally speaking, the geniuses who are successful in spite of the relatively huge list of deficiencies aren’t a good model to compare ourselves against.

  3. Geoff Pado 16 years ago

    This probably why some of the world’s greatest companies started as a pair. Jobs and Woz. Larry and Sergey. Bill and Paul. Hewlett and Packard.

  4. Jim Gaynor 16 years ago


    I think that was Rands’ point. Be strong at your strengths, and spend your time being strong there. Be aware of your weaknesses – and spend enough time there that you a) don’t shoot yourself in the foot with your weaknesses and b) recognize when others are strong where you are weak and strive to collaborate with them.

  5. I find it amusing that in the first two paragraphs you brag about your ability to come up with good headlines … and the title of the blog post is the bland and undescriptive single word “horrible”.

    That said, it was a good read!

  6. Ilya Ryzhenkov 16 years ago

    Swallowed this. Now thinking…

  7. Yes. Yes. Yes.


    Well put.

    All due respect to TJIC, I actually think “horrible” is a good title. It grabbed my attention in the midst of 65 unread items in my feed reader.

  8. diN0bot 16 years ago

    I applaud the general tone of your article on how people can develop and learn. If more people felt this way we’d have a lot more constructive rather than negative and insulting critiques, and the world would be a better place.

    minor point re: “I was saying the same thing, but the additions of the Russian Lit Major’s natural ability made my message clear.”

    Optimistically we cannot assume that someone’s abilities are natural versus worked towards. Likely they’re both, since a predisposition in some area can provide encouragement for further work. At any rate, I’m not convinced that the Russian Lit Major’s presentation tips were not themselves passed on from someone else. Eventually you’ll pass these tips on to the next guy. And so constructive critism goes.

  9. Jason Livesay 16 years ago

    Translation: because of your inexperience, lack of detailed product knowledge and desire to replace critical thinking with snappy phrases, you gave a superficial sales pitch that left out important business information. Your “advice” here simultaneously provides cover for your failure, rationalizes the undeserved attention of your female coworker, and soothes your over-sized ego. And by the way, being able to recognize one’s weaknesses and ask for help is a given for any worthwhile human in my book.

  10. Chris 16 years ago

    The strongest message in this post – the one that overwhelmed every subsequent observation – is how immeasurably arrogant you are.

  11. All the comments have good points and different outlooks for the same situation.

    All I really have to say based on the story and comments is that if you end up making the next step or move up with the company, make sure you remember how you got there and be sure to let ?her? (Russian Lit Major) enjoy some of the fame as well. Taking the credit for these projects with no mention of her is a sure way to not only burn that bridge but shoot yourself in the foot for failing to continue this line of great presentations once she has had enough and refuses to help anymore.

    Bring her along for the ride and make sure you work well as a team, giving credit where credit is due.

  12. A very important step to fixing this horribleness is to determine if it actually needs to be fixed. Is it a part of my core duties and what I need to become? Do I need to be self-sufficient in this area?

    If everyone tries to be good at everything we end up like the case of The Animal School.

  13. Rebecca 16 years ago

    Rands: Motivational Speaker.

    This was a great read. Great help.


  14. Chris 16 years ago

    Some harsh comments here. I thought the article was pretty much dead on. I think it takes a great deal of self awareness to confront your weaknesses. Self awareness is not insecurity. We can try our “best” and still fail. Self awareness comes from those failures. Many people never put themselves on the line and go for something they might not be able to achieve even if they give it everything they have. It’s very enlightening and a little brutal on the ego too.

  15. Kailden 16 years ago

    It is a good thing to know your own weakness.

    A newbie in programming often needs to ask a lot of questions/assistance and should. As they progress they will get to a point where they you have to decide whether to tackle the current problem alone (and take 3x as long) or ask for assistance.

    The interesting thing to observe is when someone asks for assistance in solving a problem is what they do after its been fixed. Technical folks often still want to understand the reason the fix worked and the underlying concepts. Non-Technical folks are just glad the thing is working. If the problem happens enough, they might have a sticky note on their desk that has a routine for dealing with that specific error, but there is no true understanding of why it occurs, and a sort of lack of curiosity in that respect.

    Does that make the non-technical person bad? No, not really UNLESS of course they are pursuing a technical career because then they are probably leeching off very technical people to survive.

    Without a doubt, this works both ways to SOME EXTENT. A technical person left unchecked will probably not be the best business manager, but I think the redeeming factor for a technical person is that because they’ve developed a way to ingest a lot of detailed information they can often transform quickly into other roles.

    Unless there is a whole lot of nuance/human factors, its always easier to deal with less complexity and detail than you are (used to/designed for), as opposed to more.

  16. Billy K 16 years ago

    I hate Account Executives, but this is why they are necessary.

  17. Brennan Young 16 years ago

    Nice article. I recently bought “Managing Humans” and read it. It occurred to me that “Rands” could do with some humility, so it’s nice to see him writing about it here. Actually I have some comments about the book, but not sure where they belong.

    Is there a dating bureau for Russian Lit Majors?

    I must take issue with the bell curve bit at the beginning, with your competences on one end and your deficiencies at the other. This is nonsense. A bell curve measures linear data.

    It’s rather like having a bell curve of language skills with French at one end and English at the other – I get the point, but mathematically speaking it would be fairly bizarre to use a bell curve to describe the relative competences in each language.

    Competences and deficiencies are much more complex data, not least because they can not be counted or measured in the same way as (say) distribution of IQ in a population, or average height of daisies in a field, or whatever.

    Just wanted to point that out. BTW I am an Art History major and have been working in IT for years. I do write code.

  18. Rands,

    Another insightful post. Sure wish you had time to post more than once a month. 🙂

    Unfortunately, correct as you are, your post also touches on why so many people come up short when they try to put the “go with your strengths” advice into practice: trust.

    Or, more accurately, their unwillingness to trust. Many people much of the time find it hard to trust enough to let another “be brutal” in criticism. And even harder to listen deeply to that brutal criticism. Yet as your example illustrates, “going with one’s strengths” works only to the extent that one is willing to both trust and listen.

    As a teacher and consultant who’s always using my “Iterations” blog to rant about the virtues of listening, I tend to have a lot of faith in listening as a skill anyone can develop.

    However, developing it can be as hard and as much work as improving one’s writing or presentation skills. Maybe harder. Because you can’t listen well without being willing to trust the person being listened to.

    What does the person do when “deep trusting” is one of their horribles?

    p.s. Love the book.

  19. Niceread 16 years ago

    It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

    Good read, thank you.

  20. Justice 16 years ago


    You make a very good point. I think the main reason a lot of people have difficulty with trust is that you get a lot of people who interpret “be brutal” as “be mean.” The phrase we should always append to any request to “be brutal” is “…but don’t be a jerk about it.”

  21. Claire Giordano 15 years ago

    I like that you’re willing to share your screw-up to give context to the lesson you learned. Thank you.

    Are you recommending that people fix their deficiencies, and become better at them? Or that they learn to fill those gaps by asking for help, and by surrounding themselves with people who are great at those things, people who love to do them.

    The latter is my approach, except when I decide I want that skill in my toolbox (and I also believe that the skill can be mastered even if not a gift of nature.)