Today I talk with Ernie Miller. Ernie is the head of engineering at Monograph. (They are hiring!) This is the second part of my interview with Ernie.
We talk about the four-day work week, fragility of culture and the importance of taking care of it, and the differentiation of culture and values.
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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
In the last episode we discussed the idea of the 40 work week, we discussed the idea of competing incentives for engineers that are looking for a job. How do we compose our incentives in a way that are meaningful in this episode with Ernie Miller? We're going to be talking more about the purpose and how the purpose of a company or the mission of a company can get translated to the people who are working there. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. If you missed the first part of this interview with Ernie Miller, I encourage you to go back to the last episode that released just two days ago and listen to that first. It will likely give you much better context for what we're going to talk about today. Thanks so much for listening and let's get straight into the interview with Ernie Miller. And it is surprising, you know, when somebody is working in an area. It's surprising how I think how complicated I as a manager or I as a content creator or whatever. I can imagine that people really want specific meaning that they have some very honed in desire they would have worked with this specific arena. But I think a lot of times people are willing to work because there's some utilitarian value that we can't escape from our work for the average person. People want to work and then they want it to have meaning. Absolutely. And I don't necessarily think that it's so hard, like you're saying, to point them towards a meaning that is that you can attach to. It doesn't have to be something that they're deeply, you know, people joining monograph may not necessarily be, you know, targeting deeply passionate about architecture or enabling that group of people. They want to work on a product that enables some group of people, right? And point them towards that and you have this kind of moment of unlocking where it's previously I was doing tickets to just in order to make money, right? Right. Now I'm actually, I can see the effect of what I'm doing. And it doesn't really matter what that effect is as long as it's kind of a do no evil policy, probably for most people. They're willing to connect to a mission that isn't necessarily something that they would have come up with on their own. Right. Absolutely. It's a matter of I am doing some good for some little corner of the world somewhere. The bigger the area, the more rewarding certainly, but there are many ways to connect to the to connect to the idea that I am doing something that is fundamentally improving things. It's why there are certain companies that I would never consider working at because I would not be able to connect to some idea that I am doing something good. And it's why when I talked to you in the past, I may have discussed in a less, less rigorous manner because I'm still kind of forming my thinking around this. The idea that values matter so much to me as a leader. Values are these people like to joke about, especially with large companies about company values, being those things that people stick up on posters on the wall. And they're all very generic things like integrity. Well, of course, yes, you want to have integrity. But values, I had a pastor once that said, values are what come out when you get squeezed. Just like you don't squeeze orange and expect lemon juice to come out of it. If you get, if you apply pressure to an individual, how they behave in that situation where there are actual challenges to be faced is where their values shine through where you see what they're actually made of. And for me, being values aligned with the company has become sort of where I draw my power from in a sense, like my power I don't mean like authority, but rather my energy to go on to be able to do the job each day. Because if you can say like we fundamentally align around a certain set of values, then when we say that, we can say, okay, so there is some sort of underlying truth or bedrock foundation, like an axiom on which anything that we're doing can probably be traced back to. And it's the same thing with a company's mission and, you know, sort of, but the mission and values piece of it is so incredibly important because specifically because of that. It is the thing that sort of feels like I can personally connect to and draw from to say, here's why we do this this way. Because if I can't answer as a leader, the why, if I have to resort to because I said so, then which I mean, that is, that is, it never, it was the least satisfying answer you ever got as a child, right? Was because I said so. And we're grownups are just large children. I mean, we still have that part of us. And it's a reasonable question to ask why, right? We have to do a thing. And if I can't answer that, well, then I've got a problem as a leader, right? Maybe I maybe I shouldn't be doing the thing or maybe we shouldn't be doing the thing that I said just because I said so, right? Yeah. So, so like at monograph, we have a people first value. We have a value of curiosity. We have a value around being intentional. We have one around doing the hard thing, one around having fun while we do it and one around ownership. And these are values that that you can actually take back to say like, here's a practical, practical look at how that looks when I operationalize that value. And that's what I'm using as the basis for building the growth framework for the team. We didn't have a growth framework when I joined. And so I'm working on one. And in that growth framework, I'm basing, I'm tying anything, any, any access that somebody's going to grow along to one of those six values because I think that they're really good values. And they support a lot of great, great ways that an individual can grow in a way that's aligned with monograph and also with values that are worth having as an individual. Yeah. This is, this is particularly relevant, I think. Well, I guess so often companies at this stage, you know, it's, it is a very, I imagine if you're coming into a, to a startup, you are ready to see, you know, we have a key values that the site that I guess should, you know, displays the values of the company. And people are orienting more around this idea. As a company grows, I think there's a tendency to kind of say, okay, we've got our values, we figured that out. Now let's do work, right? And I think there's, there certainly is a tendency to disconnect, especially as the company is large enough that you start getting in these cycles. I kind of think about it like off-shoot cycles, right? And thinking in my head, I'm just imagining like a weather system that has spawned another weather system. And the second one has discus, was started by the first one. So in some ways connected, but nobody really knows quite exactly how that happens, right? And then it has moved out away from it and it has its own ecosystem. And there's, it's own kind of, you know, incentive system and all of this stuff that happens in, you know, in isolation. And so so much of the work that happens, especially as organizations grow, there's no clear line, no clear way to say this is, you, you might be able to put it on like a label, or you might be able to say, oh, yes, the value that we have in that document over there, I'm going to slap it on to this effort and say, this is why we're doing it. But it's not it's not generating that work, right? Or it's not, it's not front and center when decisions are being made. And I think it's so often is actually very practically helpful, even at the, at the simplest level, to have ways that you apply these values to your point, you know, do the hard thing. I can imagine having this conversation in a, you know, a product planning meeting with a team and saying, okay, we have this way X that is, you know, it's, it's going to put us in some technical debt or whatever the trade-off sorry. And saying, oh, we have this value of doing the hard thing, which one of these things is better for the company, even if it's harder. Choose that one because this is, you know, this is how we make decisions. And using your values to create decision making frameworks, rather than saying, here's something that we kind of ethirially believe. And we kind of rally around to feel good about our jobs, but operationally, it doesn't, we don't really know how to practice it, right? operationally, all we have is delivery as it, as it's kind of North Star. Yeah, it's the, those values are the things that sort of the rest sprouts from. And it's okay, too, by the way, as a team grows, you're going to see smaller teams and they're sort of, they're sort of going to spring out of, you know, whatever you have originally and sort of adopt some of their own sort of supplemental values. And, you know, if as long as they don't conflict with the overarching sort of, like the mission of the company and the values established by the company, that's to be expected. In fact, it goes back to being intentional, right? When you think about, like the company culture, for instance, and I want to be careful because I don't want to conflate culture with values, I think they're subtly different and it's worth calling that out. But, but when you think about, sort of the kinds of subcultures and subgroups that form within a company, they will develop a unique sort of fingerprint, you know, that is all, all their own. You can either choose to allow that to just happen or you can be intentional as a leader about how you're going to guide and sort of nurture that the environment that creates the kind of culture that you want for that team. And I think that makes all the difference. But we don't want to ever sort of, we're certainly from my perspective anyway, we don't want to sort of villainize the idea that these offshoots happen, but rather we want to, we want to own the fact that we can design for them and accommodate them in a way that doesn't conflict with the broader mission and values of the company. We're going to take a quick break to talk about today's sponsor. Today's episode of Developer Tea is supported by OnthZero. Identity is the front door of every user interaction. 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But I do think that maybe the most difficult thing that a company at scale faces is this ability to make decisions as a cohesive unit. We have some kind of goal, but where did the goal come from and how do we achieve it? By what means, these are the decisions that split teams apart and one person wants to do it one way and another person wants to do it another way. Very often things settle at the lowest common denominator. That's a really frustrating place to be, especially as an individual contributor, because you have no idea what your work is going towards. Versus in a healthy culture and in a company that practices those values more, like we've said so many times at an operational level, you have more clarity around, here's why we're doing it this way. Here's why we have. We are doing a four-day work week, specifically because of these things. If you can buy into these things, then the four-day work week is kind of an output. It's not the input. It's an expression of the value. Exactly. That's what, and I really do enjoy the term and actually a former coworker, a friend of mine, Brett Watson, is the one that familiarized me with the term operationalizing values. I had never thought of operationalizing values before, but simply that's put those values into practice. What does that actually look like in practice? That's the part that's sometimes scary as well. One of the things that I have taken up arms and defense is manager readme. The reason that I do it is because I think there's a way you can do them that isn't toxic and isn't putting all the work on the direct report, but rather is making commitments and making promises to a direct report. There are various thought leaders in the community that have spent some time demonizing the idea of a manager readme as almost as unambiguously a bad idea. I think certainly done poorly like any tool they can be, but also as a leader I want to seek accountability. For instance, one of the kind of take down pieces of this concept, it was called out that you are going to fail to live up to something that you commit to in your document at which point you have damaged trust. To me, I want to normalize the idea that we aren't perfect and that we can fail to live up to our highest ideals and the hopes that we have for ourselves and create a framework by which someone could hold me accountable for what I intend to do when I fail to live up to that ideal. If that, yes, I suppose if you don't address the problem, it could damage trust, but also how we act when things fail or when we fail is also a great opportunity to build trust with others. It really comes down to how you use it. Another thing is how you plan for work in general. Have you read a radical focus by Christina Woodkey? No, I haven't. I'm taking notes on all these books. Right. So in radical focus, and there's a second edition out now, I have now bought the second edition in both Audible and Kindle format. So I know I own like three different copies of this book. It is a book essentially, it is about OKRs and about like aligning teams around delivering goals. And I have to tell you, as someone who has seen OKRs implemented poorly in a number of companies in the past, I didn't think I would ever get excited about a book about OKRs, but I can tell you enthusiastically, this is a book for you. If you're a leader, actually, if you're in anyone that's in the workplace, this is a book for you. And a lot of it comes down to talking about creating space for us to iterate on the ideas that are going to get us to the goals and not create, like, for instance, you know how in the typical sort of smart goal sort of process, a lot of times when you ask a team leader to come up with a goal for the team, it'll be around the idea of releasing or like finishing a particular product feature or like finishing a project in general. Some project is complete, therefore we have met our goal, but that's the wrong thing to measure. Right? Because the project, ostensibly you're doing because you want to impact the broader company, you want to impact the world in some way. And so there's this deeper level of like why we're doing what we're doing, because you need to capture whenever you're doing goal setting. Otherwise, you don't allow yourself the opportunity to learn and adjust as you go, because you're locked in, because you've set the goal complete this project to potentially doing the wrong thing. And that is why I think you see a lot of a lot of companies, you know, they do annual planning, let's say. And then by February, they throw the plan out and say, never mind, we're doing this other thing, because the annual planning was slowly, we sort of ossified it, you know, it has ossified into like specific projects are going to happen. And not we're going to move the needle in these particular areas that we care about. It's a subtle difference, but it's the one that I think we screw up. I've currently got an extended and offered every person that's in leadership of my company for, you know, it is the season of giving after all while we're recording this. So I, I want to buy them. Yeah, I told them, tell me what format you wanted in, I'll buy it for you. It doesn't how much I believe in this book. I haven't opened offer to buy anyone who's willing to commit to reading at a couple of books. And I will read this one to see if it makes that list. But oh, I want to know your books. Thinking fast and slow is, is one of them. I'm in the middle of noise. And I imagine that it's going to be the next one. It is Danny Connemons follow up. He has written essentially two books in his, his very long career as a behavioral economist. And he essentially is kind of the grandfather of behavioral, behavioral economics. And thinking fast and slow lays out the majority of the kind of studies and arguments around understanding bias. And noise is essentially the other kind of error, mental error that we make, which is incidental most of the time. So whatever that noise is is maybe not necessarily a cognitive bias. It is, you can imagine a target. If the target is the accurate evaluation, the noise might scatter it around the target in a, you know, pseudo uniform way, where a bias might move it in a vector away from the target. I got it. Yeah. So it's, it's getting close to, in noises, like you can get close to the target. You're actually all around it and dancing around the actual subject, which you're actually need to get to. Exactly. Yeah. And for what it's worth, you know, these are a little bit more abstract in terms of how you might apply them. They're, they're definitely on the outside, not a specific application to, you know, for example, setting objectives. But you could say, okay, noise has, and has impacted the way that we measure this. Right. How do we reduce noise? And this book actually has more, a little bit more of a practical approach than thinking, uh, fast and slow had. Um, thinking fast and slow very largely focused on kind of explaining kind of the kinds of bias, but didn't really provide much of a playbook for what to do about it. Whereas noise does provide a little bit more actionable advice. But those are my two, two books. I have another one that I have offered on, uh, on occasion, depending on the person, which is Annie Duke's, um, how to decide. And she was on Developer Teaone time. And the book is very much so workbook oriented kind of ways of making decisions in difficult environments, uh, without, you know, overanalyzing to an extreme extent. Oh, that's fantastic. If you're working with someone that admits they struggle with analysis paralysis, being able to give them tools to extract themselves from that prison would be fantastic. Exactly. And there are a lot of really good kind of principles and I guess tools, uh, or I say tools more like workflows to help you identify, you know, for example, you, you're faced with two options, you know, um, deter, you should probably look at, you know, what is the best case and the worst case and the likely case for each of those options, right? Sure. And then also is there a third option that you haven't thought about? Um, that's the kind of thing that the book provides, but it's, it's been a very, you know, those, those three books have changed the way that I think about most things. Um, it's not something that I use on occasion. It's more like a, a mindset shift for me. Sure. The brainwaves have shifted in some way. They now, yeah, they'll move in a different pattern. Exactly. But I mean, in the space of thought work, what is a workflow, but a tool really, I mean, you know, we, we work with our brains most of the time. Exactly. And so, so, uh, yeah, I would call that a tool. Yeah. Yeah. That's fantastic. It's completely fair. Um, this has been an excellent conversation. And I'm going to, I guess I have to budget for these books now. You know what, Mary Christmas, man, I'll, I'll send you the book. Okay. I'd love to know, you know, we've, I've asked you these questions before, um, because it's something that I ask at the end of every episode. Um, the first question is, I, what do you wish more people would ask you about? What do I wish more people would ask me about? I thought there was another word after that, but just about in general. What would, yeah, what do I wish? Gosh, these days, I wish more people would ask me about how I choose my next job. I think there's a lot less, uh, there's a lot less intentionality out there and how, especially in a hot job market, oftentimes, we, you know, it's easy to get like, we would away to the sort of the highest pay or the, you know, the best benefits or whatever. And having come up with a bit of a framework by which to evaluate how I, how I look at taking jobs these days, largely around values alignment is, you know, and kind of critical at this point, at this stage and in our careers, right? We are not on the levels of a Maslow's hierarchy where it's like, we don't have food on the table. We are, we are unlocking, you know, higher tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs with our, with our jobs. And so there are so much more to what we do and how we spend our time than most of us, um, notice. Yeah. That is, uh, I do think a lot of people make these decisions about what the next role should be. It is a, it's a hard thing. It's a very personal decision. It's a very nuanced decision in a lot of ways for, for most people. And often, again, coming back to what we talked about earlier, we try to predict what life would be like under one decision or the other. And we often have some predetermined, uh, understanding, or some predetermined beliefs that we want to confirm in our minds. And in doing this, this prediction process, we try to predict things that confirm those beliefs, right? Or we try to predict things that make the decision less ambiguous, for example, right? Oh, that place. Oh, it's awful because of x, y and z. Well, it's probably not awful. Those, those couple of things you may not like about it, but you're probably convincing yourself of some extreme more likely than not. And so making those decisions often becomes even harder because when you do that and, and then you go back to it, let's say you say, okay, well, I'm not going to switch jobs because that other place is scary, right? And, or I saw one bad review of what it's like to work there online. And I'm just going to, you know, that that's going to be representative of the whole for me. Right. Then you go back to your existing job. And it's, well, things haven't changed here either. Right? So, so am I, am I happy in one place? Am I happy at another place? There's a really hard things to predict. I can hear the thinking fast and slow coming out in that description. Right? I mean, yeah, it would be great if it was that simple. Yeah. If we could just reduce things with some simple heuristics down to a quick, this is bad or this is good, but oftentimes it's much more complicated than that. Yeah, I would say it's almost uniformly more complicated. The final question. And thank you, by the way, for taking a little bit of extra time with me today. That was my pleasure. The final question is, you know, if you could provide advice and I realize this is going to be very reductive, but, you know, quick 30 seconds worth of advice to people of all backgrounds. I guess all backgrounds as engineers, you know, experience levels, etc. What would you tell them? Stay curious and seek to find somewhere that stretches you and makes you uncomfortable. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable because that is the area of growth. And everyone I have ever known early in their career seeks to be the person who, you know, knows all the answers and they think that's what success looks like and what I've learned over the many years I've been doing this is that I am much, much happier when I don't know the answers and I'm learning something new surrounded by really brilliant people. Stay curious and be willing to be uncomfortable. Yes. Ernie, thank you so much for your time and for your insight and again, for your time, for spending this morning, we're doing this on a weekend of all times. For doing this, this morning with me, I appreciate it very much. It's been my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me again, Jonathan. Another huge thank you to Ernie Miller for joining me on today's episode of Developer Tea. Once again, monograph where Ernie works as head of engineering is currently hiring. Go and check it out at monograph.io. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. Thank you again to today's sponsor, Auth0, that's a uth0.com. You can solve your login woes for good. Head over to Auth0.com. If you want to join the Developer Teacommunity on discord head over to developertea.com slash discord. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.