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Joel Beasley from Modern CTO

Published 8/5/2021

Joel Beasley is the host of Modern CTO, a podcast with guests coming from IBM, Microsoft, Nasa, Reddit, and hundreds of others. Joel and I have wanted to have this discussion for a long time, and we finally found the right overlap to do it!

You can learn more about Modern CTO at https://moderncto.io and listen to this episode in the alternate podcast universe here.

Thanks for joining me on Developer Tea, Joel!

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey everyone, welcome to today's episode of Developer Tea. This episode is a little bit unconventional. I was contacted by Joel Beasley, who I've been in contact with for many years now because Joel runs another popular podcast. You've probably heard of it or listened to it. It's called Modern CTO. You can find that at moderncto.io. Joel and I have wanted to have each other on each other's shows for quite a while now. So we finally did it. And in fact, we had a conversation that kind of went back and forth. We interviewed each other at the same time. This first part was pretty heavily Joel kind of interviewing me. So it's a little bit different from the average interview that you hear that you hear on this podcast. But hopefully this is an engaging discussion. You get a little bit more of a look into my working life and some of my personal belief in philosophy and that kind of thing. And I'm really excited to share this with you. But I'm more excited to send you over to learn more about Modern CTO. That's moderncto.io. Thank you again to Joel for joining me for today's episode of Developer Tea. Let's get straight into the discussion. So I was curious to know a little bit about your your playing flying hobby. Can you tell me about that? Yeah, I wish I could carry the camera. Although the plane right now is actually out for maintenance. But so back in, I think it was 2000. Oh geez, I'm going to lose time here. I believe it was 2017. I came to the realization a friend of mine actually was going to get his pilot's license who's being you're going to training and that kind of thing. And I came to the realization that I'm an adult. I'm an adult now. I can do this stuff. I can just kind of go and get my pilot's license if I wanted to. And I never had really thought about it from that angle. My dad has flown since I was, you know, actually, since before I was born. And we had an airplane in our family. That's not that he rebuilt the engine with his father. And it's still in our family. And so I thought, well, you know, this kind of kills a bunch of birds with one stone, right? I'm going to get closer to my dad. We're going to have like a shared hobby because I don't know if there's other software engineers that have experienced this. But it's kind of hard to explain what you do, right? It's especially if you're a manager of software engineers. So it's little, little tough to connect, you know, on that professional level or you know, we don't really have a lot of shared hobbies. But this is something I've been interested in. When I was a kid, I would get sick. Air sick. I make motion sickness. I thought, oh, let's try it out. Let's see what it's like. Because I get motion sickness in the car as a passenger. But I don't when I'm driving. So that, well, maybe I, you know, getting in the pilot seat, I might actually be able to do this. So I went and got the training. I loved it. Absolutely. I'm, you know, figurated with the idea that I'm able to fly an airplane. It's mind boggling to me. And fast forward a few years, you know, I'm flying dad's airplane and actually I'm talking to my wife. Because we have this airport that's just down the road from our house. So we actually moved to a house. It's kind of close to an airport. So if we wanted to hop in the airplane on a Saturday morning and fly to the beach, we could do that. And there's a lot on the airport, like a house lot. Land for sale. And I'm talking to my wife and I'm like, would you want to live there? Like if I get snapped my fingers and we're we're living on the airport, would that be something you would even want? I imagine a lot of people would not want that. I don't want to hear airplanes all the time. And she said, yes. So fast forward a few more years and we're here. I actually live on an airport now, which is just wild. There's so many changes that have happened, you know, in this short span of two years, you know, the least of which is a pandemic, I suppose, or not the least of. But all of that to say, you know, that hobby was fueled in so many ways by the opportunity to work remote, the kind of flexibility in my job. I feel like it really dovetails really nicely with being an engineer. I think a lot of engineers end up becoming pilots. So it's a blast. I love, I love flying. And I love flying with my family, especially. It's a ton of fun. That's exciting. Yeah, there's a couple of neighborhoods near us that the neighborhoods are flying neighborhoods. So they have their own, yeah, like earparks, right? Yeah. Yeah. And so I'm curious. Most people listening, they'll know you from other podcasts from the Developer Tea, right? And I want to know about that podcast. But first, I want to know about you and what do you do for your day job? So I am a director of engineering at PBS, PBS, like the one that you know about, the cookie monster, PBS. And most of what we do, the team that I work on is responsible for orchestrating a bunch of other services that are disparate into a more centralized service. And that centralized service goes in feeds, basically everything but the kid stuff. That's the way you can think about it. So all of the, you know, kind of PBS proper applications, they eat from our API. We feed their all that data through to them. So I'm responsible for coordinating those teams and helping essentially, like I said, it's really hard to explain what you do, right? As a manager, but essentially kind of greasing the wheels on new initiatives for, for example, technical initiatives that non-technical people wouldn't necessarily understand the value of, it's my job to translate that. So I'm working pretty closely with the developers, working really closely with product folks to make that, to make all of that happen. Right now we're in the process of working on a GraphQL implementation, for example. That's pretty cool. So you identify and execute on opportunities. Yeah, that's a much simpler way of putting it, right? You can also put a filter in there. You identify, filter, and then execute on opportunities. Yeah, and quite a bit of like, I think, you know, you can think about the job as functional. I like to think about it also as environmental, as kind of being available and present, communicating, being kind of a translation, conduit in a way. I think it's easy to try to shoo-horn a lot of our work into what process does this follow? When sometimes the process isn't really sufficient, right? You have two or three people that are all kind of trying to work together and things aren't really working well, and somebody comes in and tries to institute a process to fix it, and really it's just a, now it's a process laying on top of all of that conflict. And what you really need is something that resolves the conflict that isn't just mechanization, right? It, nothing mechanical is going to solve that issue. And that's something that I've learned going from startups to much larger kind of legacy organizations like PBS, very different environments, and very different thinking involved. Tell me about some of those differences. Yeah, oh man. Well, so probably the most stark difference between a startup environment, especially early stage, like maybe first round, second round, certainly not public, versus something like a huge super organization, like PB, I say a super organization. There's a very large, long-standing organization, sustainable, et cetera, like PBS. In the startup environment, everything you do is thinking about the next three to six weeks. If you're really thinking long-term, you're going six months out. And that changes the way that you make decisions about technology. It changes the way you make decisions about team. All of the decisions you would make, like all of the theoretical, correct ways of doing things have to be put on the back burner in a lot of startup environments. And for some people that's exciting, it's a challenge, it's fun, it's part of that decision-making process, and you kind of earn the ability to go back and refactor, for example, right? You earn the ability to pay down the tech debt that you took on to get to whatever that landmark was that you were trying to get to the milestone. On the flip side, well, and I should talk about the positive of that is, you do move quickly, right? The organization is fluid. You often can suddenly have a lot more responsibility, which tends to go with a lot more experience, spending one year in a startup, kind of equates to spending like five years in a much larger organization in terms of the kinds of things that you're going to do, how much you're actually going to get done. If you were to go and join a longstanding work, and if you joined, for example, Microsoft, in a more traditional longstanding team kind of role, most of what you're going to be doing is figuring out how can you make changes that don't break the sustainability that's in place. So much longer-term thinking, much more, very often, there's fragile things that you have to work around. Part of your job is identifying where those fragile things are and trying to make them less fragile. Ideally, something as far as antifragile, which is the to-let word for it, but even if they're resilient, which is the middle ground between fragile and antifragile, that's much better, right? So a lot of your job is about slowly kind of cultivating, gardening around, and existing infrastructure versus rapidly building something that could easily fall apart under a certain amount of stress. Are these the type of things you talk about on Developer Tea? Oh, yeah. Well, this stuff, certainly. A lot of this show, so it's 975-something episodes now, so I don't know. I think I could say, I get to safely say I talk about everything now. We've talked about certainly these kinds of differences, a long-term, short-term, and the value and context to both of those. Other stuff that we've talked about on the show though, especially more recently in the past year or two years, has been much more about introspective understanding yourself, because it's such a fundamental kind of building block to be able to learn, to be able to improve introspective thinking and recognizing, for example, understanding how you, specifically you, are going to fall prey to certain biases, right? Which ones are you most likely to be hurt by, right? Or which ones have you used to your advantage? These are things that typically are not really, it's not something that you're taught in school. Critical thinking is rarely taught even in school, much less thinking critically about yourself, and recognizing your own, like, confirmation bias, that kind of stuff. So we talk a lot about that, but we also talk about how that kind of, we try to take these ideas that come from psychology or even economics and apply them to your career, right? How does this actually affect you today in your career? And that's a challenge sometimes. Sometimes it's a challenge to come up with the right kind of angle on a given topic and make it relevant. The making it relevant part, there's sometimes a gap there, right? And it's not because it's not applicable, but because explaining how it's applicable can be really hard. It can be really hard to explain, like, how specifically this is going to change your job today. Yes, I understand that when we did the leadership training, taking insight and advice and making it actionable to how you can apply it to your job today, that ended up turning into quite the project to figure out the formula on how to do that. That's hard. It's tough. And I think the hardest part is it really depends on you experiencing it and then kind of retroactively recognizing that that's where it applied, right? You kind of have to review a situation. And so I try to find something that's almost like a trigger flag, something that signals, hey, when this happens, trying to think about this. Granted, when you have 975 episodes, you're not going to remember all this stuff. Nobody is. It's not really about creating this catalog of perfect knowledge. I don't remember everything I've said on this show, certainly not. It's just like reading. You don't remember everything you've read. There's no way. There's frameworks that you read about, you can forget the entire framework. There's all these things that we, I think theoretically, we want to apply all of this knowledge that we've gained. But there's even some guilt, I think, in feeling like, oh, I don't even know how to apply it because I can't remember, how do these things dovetail? How do these things even fit together? These two separate methodologies or architectures of thinking, how can I even make them work together? I don't know. I'm not even sure where I was going with that other than to say, there's all these concepts that we want to hold on to and apply. But most of it, I think, is about building into a shinn and looking back and trying to improve incrementally rather than trying to revolutionize your life with this new model of thinking. Yes, I love that you and I have come to similar conclusions on separate paths. I'll go a little deeper to say that you said that after all of these episodes where your focus has kind of been drawn more recently for the past two years is introspection and working on yourself first. For me, my evolution was if I just know this new skill, if I just figure out polymorphic associations when I was really young in starting programming, I could just wrap my mind around this and then I built skill after skill and then I need to know this language and this framework. Then after you go through a decade of it or 15 years of it, and you stumble into this area of improving yourself, you realize, oh man, if I would have started with myself, I would have started with my health, my fitness, my mindset, my relationships. If I would have focused on all of that first and put effort into that, then it would have amplified everything else and gotten me so much farther. Now I want to go out and tell the world about this. If you want to be a better programmer, do something very physically intense and difficult. Yeah, it's 100% that. When people come to me and ask me, what should I learn? Or really, they ask me anything almost, right? My answer is almost always it depends. And I try to get them as soon as I can to express the things they care about. And that's kind of the turning point for most people. It's amazing. It's amazing how many people haven't even thought about that question. They're going through their careers and I think kind of implicitly following a previously determined path, which is exactly what you're saying. I know that if I get these skills, then I can get this job, which means that then I can grow into this one. And I think I want that job, right? Maybe that's as far as that articulation has gone. But if you were to say, well, what specifically do you want from that job? What does that give you? Does it give you money that you want? Is there another way to get that money? And when people think about it that way, they think they change their path naturally. Rather than saying, oh, well, then I don't need to learn Python. I need to learn Ruby. I don't know, whatever. So often the pathway kind of expands a little bit wider, right? There's more ways to get what you want, which is I think more optimal. You become a little more flexible in what you, in the specifics of your career. Would you say that that has happened for you? Yeah. I mean, yes, I've seen people try to master the tool specifically and just try to do really cool things with the tool. And that tends to work. It's a long hard path. I think all the ways are a long hard path. But I've seen the people go the tool route where I'm just going to fall in love with a tool and figure out how to use this really well. And then I've seen the people that go on the outcome route where I just want this outcome and what tools best suited to get me to this outcome. I am personally, I started as a tool person because I was geeky and it was cool and I liked the tools. And then I quickly realized that that doesn't generate revenue. And for the entrepreneurial side of me realized that I have to switch my love from tools to outcomes. And when I switched my love from tools to outcomes, I started to have more success and then help more people, which is ultimately the thing that feels really good. Right. Yeah. And it is interesting that you can find success in both of those routes, but that the people who tend to be the most successful, they choose the route you're talking about. They start with outcomes. And then they say, okay, the tools that exist are not good enough. Now I'm going to build something or I'm going to do help somebody else build a collaborate on a tool that does reach that outcome. And so it's almost like both ends kind of meet each other in the middle. In the best case scenario where you have entrepreneurial work that's happening towards a specific end. Oh, but also I need this tool. Right. I need I need something that doesn't exist yet. And so you develop tools and the end good kind of the end goal at the same time. Yeah. Beautifully said, you know, when I go out before COVID and was giving all of these talks, you know, after trying to condense the knowledge I've learned on the podcast, I would keep the talk short. It was an hour session. I would keep the talk at 15 minutes and be 45 minutes of crowd engagement because I wanted to bring everyone comes with their own questions. But usually the Q and A is the smallest part. And that's backwards. So I said, all right, let's flip it. And I would so often get like, what's the secret or what's the key or what's the one thing? And so I've tried really hard to come up with a good answer for that. And the best thing I can think of is persistence. Like you have it's kind of a balance. You have to keep trying. You have to want to improve. You have to want to grow. You want to have to have good intentions. You have to want to help others. And then you're going to constantly face challenges. And you're reward for overcoming the challenges are larger challenges. So so follow up with that process. Yeah, persistence can can can certainly be the fuel, right? And without fuel, you go, you don't go anywhere. I, you know, you're saying that makes me like kind of realize that basically every question that I've gotten is exactly that just a different form, right? It's, oh, I've met this, this challenge. I need to know what the secret is. What is the shortcut, you know, to get me from here to there. And it's funny. Your answer is actually there are no shortcuts, really, right? That's, that's not really the point. But that it's also okay. That it, it's okay that it's more work because that's true for everybody, right? There's going to be somebody who has kind of an odd experience. Maybe they jump from one place to another faster than you did. That's okay. That's just kind of the nature of not just the industry, but life, right? Let's, and again, this is why I come back to the introspective thinking and, you know, of course, we want the short way. That's our, that's our nature as humans. We want to find ways that get us the most for the least input. That's, we should probably, right? I think it's probably not a bad instinct, but also recognizing reality. And I think resisting reality is probably the biggest detractor in people's careers that I've experienced. Watching people, for example, be so afraid of failure when failure is just part of the fabric of their reality. And if you can't accept that, you're stuck. And the, the outcome, as we're saying, outcome is really kind of the goal here. The outcome is the same as if you failed. If you can't accept it, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter because you're basically accepting failure by not accepting failure. It seems kind of counterintuitive, but that's the case, right? And anyway, so, so all of that to say, I think, I wonder, you know, in your experience in talking to these leaders that you've had so many opportunities to talk to, did you find that thing with them? The, the theme I found with all of these leaders is they genuinely love what they do. They, they care a lot. They work in their persistent. So they have a high quality of standards. They raise their own bar. So they're competing against themselves most often. And for me personally, I found that to be very effective. So those are some of the trends that I've seen across all of these, these leaders I've gotten to talk to. I wonder what is something that you feel like was totally unexpected or maybe something that, when you originally started this, you're saying, okay, I was seeking tools and now you're realizing that's not really the route to what you, you know, to your path to success or whatever. What is something that you learned and hopefully even thematically that you're like, wow, I would have never thought that this was the case. Well, one Jason Warner, CTO of GitHub, used to write fitness books. That was pretty unexpected. He's going to hate me for that. But we, our research team found some old stuff on him, but I'm kind of kidding. The most unexpected thing, or the most important thing if I had to like pass one, one learning back to a past self of mine, would be I didn't understand the weight of relationships. Relationships are so incredibly valuable and then how to get those relationships and how to develop those relationships over time. I'm typically you want to develop the relationships when you, when you don't need them and you want to find something that's beneficial to both parties and then just build relationships for the future and go into it with a positive intent and put time into your calendar, like block it out, put an hour on Friday. Here's a relationship building time. It's just a block on my calendar and whoever happens to pop into my head, I'm going to reach out to them, say hello, write a message to them, go look into their profile, see how they're doing and just caring about people. I literally have a section in my schedule that says love on people. Right? Just like have time where I go seek out some people I know and show them some love. That's so interesting. I actually have this very similar practice and as mechanical as it sounds, I'll start my phone and I'll start with auto complete. I'll type A into a text message and I have a huge contact lit. You know, I've been building this thing forever, things to Google, I think, but I start out with A and I'll just say, hey, how are you? Then go down that list and people who have been talking to in years, sometimes. Typically, the conversation doesn't go very far. Every once in a while, it'll open up a whole new discussion and it's not always just to be clear. I think some people listening to this might believe, you know, there might be taking notes on how to improve their careers. Okay, yes, this is good for your career. Also, this is good for your life. Right? This is not just like a sleazy sales tactic to build a network of people that are going to improve your earning power. This is good for, it's actually quite literally proven to be good for your health right? To have a community of people. And so if you like me, this doesn't really come naturally. You know, it doesn't, I don't, I work from home, right? I don't have a natural community. This is something that you may want to take those intentional steps to step out of what might even be your comfort zone and talk to somebody you haven't talked to in a while. Yes, we, the number one request that we got from people reaching out to us had been for a while, had been to create a community. But I wasn't in the community business. I'd never ran a community. I didn't really have a desire to run a community. I enjoyed interviewing people and learning from great leaders, but community wasn't my thing. So I met this gentleman named Etienne De Bruin, who owns seven CTOs. And he said, you know, they do like executive peer groups for technology leaders, BP's and engineer CTOs, they're on the more like premium side where people are paying like $20,000 a year. And it's facilitated by a professional facilitator you have to pay in on that. So it's definitely a good value. But he wanted to create something for the mid level of the market. Like, you know, people that are, you know, they want to become a manager for the first time. Or they want to move from manager to director. And that was at a price point. That was like much cheaper than that. Like super affordable, even if they wanted to pay for it for themselves. So I said, okay, because I have the audience and you have the knowledge of how to run these communities and the staff and the support. So we created elevate 150.com. And the idea was elevate, you know, bring people up to the next level. And then 150 was like done one of Dunbar's numbers of community size. So we cap the community at 150 people. And so we have 100 people now. And we've grown that over like the past eight months. And every week we have speakers. And then see, it's like a 10 minute topic conversation. And then you go into a small group. It's like three to four people. And that speaker has set you up with something. It's not like a generic cycling of speakers that are doing sales pitches. Like they have to adhere to our format. And so what it does is it gets you in these communities having these small discussions and building relationships. And that's been like unbelievable. So now I've now I've got this like community where I can go. And then every every week or every other week I'm getting introduced to three or four new peers. And we're having legitimate conversations. Thanks for listening to this sort of unconventional version of an interview. And a lot of ways, Joel's kind of flipped the script and interviewed me. And you can find the modern CTO episode. Basically, anywhere you listen to podcasts. So go and listen. You can hear the full interview on modern CTO. Of course, we will do the second part of the interview with Joel on this feed as well. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you to Joel for having me on to modern CTO. And I'm so glad that he came on to develop a T kind of an exchange here. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.