A Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast Interview with Rob Lambert, Author of 10 Behaviours Of Effective Employees
Rob Lambert is the author of the Leanpub book 10 Behaviours Of Effective Employees. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Rob about his background, his book, how big changes in your personal life can lead to changes in your professional life, a surprising approach to managing millenials, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on December 6, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
A Note About the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast
This summer we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:
Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.
Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider’s perspective on what’s happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Rob Lambert. Based in Winchester, Rob is [formerly — eds.] Vice President of Engagement and Enablement at NewVoiceMedia, a customer contact platform with offices around the world. He also blogs about how to remain a productive manager at cultivatedmanagement.com, and blogs elsewhere on Social Tester and at parentbrain.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @rob_lambert.
Rob is the author of a number of Leanpub books, including The Social Tester: 8 years worth of thoughts on Software Testing and hiring Testers and 10 Behaviours Of Effective Employees. He’s also co-author of *[So You Want To Be A Scrum Master? A collection of ideas, thoughts and learnings from the agile community at NewVoiceMedia.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Rob’s background and career, professional interests, his books, and at the end we’ll talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author and blogger.
So thank you, Rob, for being on the Leanpub Podcast.
Rob: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for what I jokingly call their “origin story.” I know you do have one. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you first became interested in software and testing?
Rob: I’m from Sheffield in the north of England — that’s where I was born. I think very early on, I was exposed to computers. My dad was a computer engineer, going around the UK fixing them. So from a very early age I was doing desktop publishing on old DOS machines and all sorts of stuff. That was my origin story with computing.
Growing up in Sheffield — “Steel City” is where we used to do all the manufacturing of steel in the UK. A very industrial city, lots of sort of working class origins. It kind of led into documentaries, writing, university and college. I studied comms and all that sort of stuff. Really, it’s always been about publishing. It’s always been about taking a message and communicating it — that’s what I studied in college and university.
And then from there, I entered the workplace straight after university. I fell into software testing, like most software testers actually do. From there, I had a very illustrious career — hopefully.
I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the software testing world. But I think at one point, I wanted to sort of escape from it. I wanted to do something different.
The companies I worked for were good, but we weren’t shipping software very often. And the publishing and the blogging side of it was what kept me engaged. It kept me there in the industry, because it allowed me to use that creativity stuff — the origin-story foundations of publishing using computers, and blogging. That’s how it all kicked off and started that side.
Len: I wasn’t planning on asking this question, but I remember when I was living in the UK, hearing stories about out-of-work steel workers. In particular, I remember speaking to someone from there, and I was asking, somewhat deliberately naively, “Why don’t they just move on and do something else?” And this guy looked at me like I was the biggest idiot. He said, “Len, they’re steel workers.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that aspect of life there, and maybe how things look in Sheffield now?
Rob: I’ve not been back to Sheffield for a while. I moved down south to Winchester, probably about 10 years ago now.
But certainly when I was growing up, it was during the whole miner strikes, so there was very grim sort of feel to the city. Lots of people unemployed, the sort of air of, I guess, desperation, a little bit. Like, “What are we going to do next? How are things going happen?”
There’s a very famous film called The Full Monty, which you may have seen, about four out-of-work miners, or steel workers, who decide to go and actually strip in strip clubs for a living to try and make some money. It’s a very good film and it kind of captures, the essence of Sheffield at the time. Lots of unemployment, lots of people wondering what to do next. A city trying to regenerate itself.
And actually, it’s done a really good job. I’m heading back to Sheffield next year for the first time in probably 10, 15 years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much has changed just as much as being able to describe it.
Len: When I moved to England, the memories of Thatcher and grimness were kind of ending because it was 1999 and Tony Blair was coming in, and all that stuff. But there was a kind of legendary past that people still walked around with.
Rob: I think in the 90s — obviously Tony Blair in the UK was kind of a great time, really — everybody was positive, optimistic, there was a lot of prosperity. And you kind of felt like you could do anything. The future was there for the taking. Mobile phones had just come out, the internet was kicking off. It was a wonderful time to be at university, a wonderful time to be learning about technology and web — which is what I was studying at the time. You just felt like you were unstoppable almost, like, “This is it. We can do anything we want to.”
Len: I remember the excitement around the millennium as well. Being on the Banks of the Thames, right under the London Eye — which didn’t work.
Rob: Yes, absolutely.
Len: But it was an exciting time. Did you study programming in university? Or formally in another setting?
Rob: No, not at all. At university I did a degree that’s called Media Science. In a nutshell, it was a science degree. It’s all about anything scientific really — making microprocessors at the time. We studied a lot of biology, we studied chaos theory, high-level scientific theories. The goal of the degree was really to take something extremely complicated, and communicate it to a number of different audiences.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily see the value of the degree. I wanted to be a film director. I wanted to be the Spielberg from Sheffield kind of thing. That didn’t pan out. But the degree actually, when I look back at it, was all of the tools that you needed to get into publishing on the internet.
We would take something incredibly scientific, like launching a spaceship into space, and we’d be able to write an article for the New Scientist, which was a big scientific journal. You could use as much jargon as you wish. You could be as elaborate in the way that you described it as you wanted to be. But then we would also take that same concept, that same topic, and have to write that for a tabloid newspaper, where you have to use simpler languages, you have to use more visuals to explain things.
We did word processing, we did desktop publishing. It was the early rise of the CD-ROM, so we were in Microsoft Dreamweaver, and all those sorts of tools, building websites. “What you see is what you get” publishing. It was taking something very scientific and communicating it through video, through podcasts, through audio, through all sorts of different stuff — well before it was trendy to do that.
I think that was what was interesting — the science side of it, but actually we did sociology, communications, and all the other things that have helped me to no end in writing books, blogging, speaking at conferences. Stuff that I just thought, “You know, this is not going to be very useful in my career,” actually it turned out to be fabulous.
Len: You mentioned that you “fell into” testing, as testers often do, and I was wondering if you could talk about what your experience was? I’ve spoken to some other testers on this podcast and heard their stories, and I’d like to hear yours too.
Rob: When I finished university, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a film director, I wanted to get into media. But unfortunately, the media industry as a whole wasn’t very big up north — Sheffield and Leeds. And there weren’t a great deal of jobs. The jobs that it did have weren’t very well paid at all. I had a student loan, I had things I needed to pay down.
So I moved with my girlfriend up to Leeds, and we rented a little property up there, and there was a job down the road for a software tester. I had no idea what it was, but I went ahead and took it. It turned out to be a really good job working for a very large IT company that produced school software. I was testing timetable software, school planning software — a very, very good company. Lots of good products.
And that’s how I fell into software testing. It just felt like a good job to take. Previous to that I was delivering snacks around Lincolnshire in a van, so this was a very big move, and it was a very positive one. I stuck with software testing for probably about three or four years, before I started to really think that there’s a better way of building software than this.
Len: The education software, was it for children?
Rob: It was for schools. This was for school administrators and teachers. For example, a teacher’s putting together your end-of-year report. They can use boilerplate text, and we can fill in your name — and they can drag sentences around to create a school report. Or the teachers would be timetabling students for the next year. So there would be a timetabling system, to make sure there’s no clashes, get all the students studying the right topics, etc. It was really more for school administrators, heads, and teachers.
Len: I was just curious because I’d never thought about what the difference might be between testing something for adults and testing something for children. And in fact, how that might have changed over the past, let’s say 10 years or so, as children get introduced to more sophisticated products at a younger and younger age than they may have in the past.
Rob: I think the products now are obviously clearly more intuitive. Back then, these were all desktop clients, with not a lot of networking going on — or what networking there was, was a little bit shady and maybe not quite as secure as it should have been.
I think nowadays with kids — I’ve got three boys, and they just pick up tablets and go for it. They pick up their laptop and everything just seems a lot more intuitive. I think kids nowadays are becoming a lot more tech-savvy.
In fact, I’ll never forget the time I took my middle kid down to the local supermarket, and there was an advert outside — one of these big advertisement boards, a digital one — and it was rolling around, it was kind of like a scrolling screen. And he went up to it and put his hand on it, and swiped up — just at the same time as the picture changed, and he thought he’d done it. He thought this was just some sort of giant iPad, and everything was just touchscreen. He’s touching every screen, everything. And some stuff worked, some stuff didn’t. And that’s just intuitive; it’s just the way that they’re wired, really.
Len: Speaking of children and parenting, you have a project called Parent Brain, and a book. I wanted to ask you about that, because you frame the inspiration for the book with a story about a transformation that happened to you when you became a parent.
Rob: It’s called “The Baby Effect.” Most people, I think at some point when they have children, go through this. It’s this realization that this small bundle of joy is relying on you. For me it manifested itself in this: “Stop playing video games. Stop burning your evenings doing pointless things on the internet, and actually start creating something. Start making yourself employable.”
I think what this harks back to is Sheffield, and growing up and seeing the raft of unemployment and redundancies in the family left, right, and center. I’ve always had this thing where I didn’t want that to happen to me. I think when my first son, Ollie, was born, it was kind of, “Wow, I need to sort of grow up a little bit here. I need to start earning a bit more money, doing something more with my career,” and making myself basically hire-able. Remaining relevant and constantly employable.
Since then, that’s been the theme that’s gone through everything. The Parent Brain book, The Employable Parent Brain, is really that same thing. It’s about, take that Baby Effect and drive it — use that energy and that enthusiasm to make yourself more employable.
I think really, the catalyst for Parent Brain was, I was on one of the parent forums. And there were highly qualified, super talented parents, with great education, great experience, great skills — and they couldn’t get jobs. They just could not get back into the job market. And it got me thinking about why. Why is that? There’s some problem with companies not embracing flexible working and all the other stuff.
But there’s also this inability, I think, for people to articulate where it is that they have value. The world is shifting constantly, and that value is no longer in your job title. It’s no longer in your qualifications, it’s in how you can create, and the value that you can bring to a business. That needs articulating, and very few people have the skills, or the energy, or actually the realization to think that’s the future of work. You have to show you can do good, interesting, valuable stuff.
Len: I noticed that theme in your work when I was preparing for this interview. And one of the things, I think — I’m just putting it together — but one thing that was striking, that I found in your description of the Parent Brain project was, you weren’t shy about talking about laziness. You pull it off in your description very well, without sounding just like a grumpy person from an elevated standpoint criticizing people.
It was sympathetic, but it was also very straightforward. It was like, one of the problems you can fall into in life — whether you’re employed or not, whether you’ve got children or not — is being unproductive. And unproductive, not necessarily in the sense of wasting time on the internet, which can make you feel like you’re doing something, but really just being lazy.
Do you talk about that in the book? What you can do to kind of get yourself out of that hole if you’ve fallen into it?
Rob: Getting out of the hole is really — you need the purpose. For me the purpose was the Baby Effect. This was my son relying on me — that was the inspiration, and the drive, and the purpose I needed to stop playing video games and stop messing around. I think it is easier, certainly with the internet like you say, to get stuck in the rabbit holes of reading articles, and thinking, and consuming so much stuff that you don’t actually create anything of value.
I think the link with people being unhappy when they’re on social media, and all that sort of stuff, is very real. I’ve seen it myself first-hand. In the book it’s really: you need to find the purpose. Why are you doing what you’re doing? If you’re super happy spending your evenings playing video games, great. That’s awesome. That’s your life. Everybody does whatever they want to do, and that’s great.
But I think if you want to take your career seriously, you have to put in the effort outside of work. I think what a lot of people — certainly when I’ve been speaking around the world in the tech industry, a lot of people assume that their employers are going to look after them. They assume that the training is going to get given to them. They assume that they’re going to have a job for life. That’s just not true at all — very few people actually achieve that. I think those that find themselves on the job market, surprisingly, are often woefully unprepared for it.
Really, that’s my mantra: just keep slowly but surely making yourself better and employable every single day.
Len: One thing you talk about that’s very concrete is adding skills — keep adding skills to your repertoire, and don’t necessarily be concerned with being the very best at something.
I think it was that talk you gave that I saw on YouTube, where you talk about the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who’s now become quite famous because — well, of course he was already famous, but he’s now famous for explicitly predicting Donald Trump’s victory.
In your talk, you talk about how he says that, “One path to success is to be the very best at what you’re doing.” And you sort of humorously, with a dry wit, say, “That’s the hardest way to do it.” But you talk about how there’s another way to do it, and you learned about it from this creator of Dilbert. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that alternative path to success?
Rob: I have this thing in my head where every so often I wish I was more of a specialist in something. You look at people that have gone down the expert route, and it’s the harder route to go down. It’s years and years of training and working. And generally, the opportunities just become less and less until you become the best in the world. And then you can set your own price, and you’ve always got work — and probably a very meaningful career.
But for most people, the value comes from having enough skills in enough areas to mash that together to create a very unique value. The challenge with that though is, how do you articulate that value?
You started the podcast saying I’m the VP of NewVoiceMedia, but I’ve since left that. It’s been about six weeks now since I’ve moved on.
Having spent the last year and half in HR, and parts of engineering management and testing, it’s dawned on me how difficult that is to actually articulate — the value that you have, because you’ve got all these different skills. I’m not an HR specialist, but I’m also not this and not that. I’m all of these things. And the more you speak to people, the more you realize everybody has a fairly broad set of ideas and enthusiasms and skills.
It’s just a case of working out which ones they need to work on a bit more, which ones they need to mash together — and bring it together into a very unique package, and then be able to articulate that to somebody who has a problem that you can solve. I think the skill, skill, skill thing is a model that suits the way I work.
But I do think you do need to have that core specialism. Are you familiar with this is from Ideo — the T-shaped employee?
Len: Thanks to watching your talk on YouTube.
Rob: There’s various different shapes, but essentially, you’re talking about having a core skill, which is something that you are extremely good at, extremely skilled at. You’ve spent years honing this craft. And that’s the center of the T, it’s like the tall bit, the bit that goes vertical.
And then the horizontal T across the top — they’re the series of different skills that you acquire that allow you to be able to talk to people in marketing, or actually do bits of teaching.
If you think about it, from my perspective — I was a tester, engineering manager at Graham Bigg’s scaled Agile teams [?]. That’s my core skill. The bit across the top is HR, public speaking, writing, blogging — all the different things. And when you mash all that together, you become a very unique and hopefully valuable employee.
But also, you have a lot of fun, because you’re learning lots of different things, and you’re bringing it all together, and seeing how you can resonate and get those things to gel — and forming something and creating something that’s never existed before.
It suits me, but I know for a lot of people it terrifies them and they just want to be the best at one thing. And that’s fabulous as well. Whatever works for you.
Len: I was just going to say, when I first heard about it in your talk, about the T-shaped person, that what it invoked for me was the Christian cross and crucifixion. And so when you say that for some people it’s torture, I’m sort of sympathetic to that, because that was just the first thing that occurred to me, that that was where you were you going to go.
As you’ve mentioned a couple of times, you moved into HR. How did you make that transition?
Rob: Tt was one of these fortuitous moments, where everything sort of came together. When I joined NewVoiceMedia about nine years ago, there was nine people in the engineering team, and I was the only software tester. Together with the engineering manager, and obviously the people in the dev team, we built a very high-performing Agile function, and scaled it to about 120-odd different people across the UK and Poland.
We went through the engineering manager, and I was starting to get really bored. Things were going fairly well, obviously there’s always things to improve, and I wasn’t doing that dynamic, chaotic sort of team-building stuff — the stuff that I thrive on, the chaos of getting people aligned around missions and stuff. What we had also achieved, is we’d achieved a very interesting set of numbers.
All engagement numbers were very positive for the DevOps team. People were very happy, people felt engaged, they had meaningful work. They didn’t leave very often, which is great. And we had a very smooth hiring process, our recruitment costs were rock bottom.
Basically we were getting more referrals than we were paying for agencies, which was great. So all of those numbers are very positive.
And so the opportunity arose to try and do some of those same things across the bigger business. That was engagement and enablement, which was really about training, it was about getting people the opportunities to progress their career, and getting the information flowing around the business, and making sure those departments were talking to each other.
I did that for probably about a year, year and a half. I took a plunge about five or six weeks ago to go off on my own and set up my own consultancy. So there we go.
Len: I’d definitely like to ask you about that in a little bit.
I had a couple of specific things about your experience with HR that I wanted to ask you about, one of which is about the interview process, which is something that I just find fascinating.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you’ve landed on what a good interview process is. Let’s scope it to — you’re building an agile team of developers and testers and such to deliver products within a big company. How would you go about recruiting and interviewing people?
Rob: It’s funny you should say that, because I do actually have another book coming out soon, maybe on the Leanpub platform, we’ll talk about that.
I think for me, there’s a few things to consider here. There’s quite a few assumptions with hiring, and some of the assumptions that I have, these are the values and principles I hold dear.
It’s all about a two-way conversation. It’s not us looking for them, and we get to choose. It’s not them deciding where they want to go. It’s both of those things.
I think what you find in some recruitment processes is the businesses don’t care about the candidates at all. It’s all about, “Er, you’ll do what we want, and we’ll make it as difficult as we need to. We won’t get back in touch with you.” It’s not a very nice experience.
I also believe in hiring very, very slowly. I believe in hiring for good cultural fit and good technical fit. Both of them are super important, along with all the other stuff that sits around it — determine how does it affect employees, is essentially what we’re looking for here.
But then, we also believe in making sure the experience is unbelievable, as positive as we could make it, so people would welcome going through the process, they would come out the other side going, “Wow, that was really hard, but I enjoyed it.”
Interestingly, in doing those things, what we found is people that went through the process and didn’t make it, would go off and tell their friends and colleagues about how awesome it was and that you should apply for that. That was just bizarre. We were not expecting that at all.
What does it look like? In a nutshell, we want to go from first contacts to you, to making a decision in about two to three weeks maximum.
There’s only every going to be the one interview face-to-face — but before that, probably a good phone screen, technical exercise for coders. And then when you come in, if you’ve done the technical exercise, we’d probably ask you to extend it, and change our requirements, just to make sure that you wrote it and it wasn’t a friend of yours.
Then what we’ll do is work out why you’re doing it. Why are you writing the tests, why are you coding in that way?
The phone interview at the start is really just about, are you going to be a good fit? This is a society, it’s a culture. Everybody that comes to it needs to add to that culture. One of the things I learned as a manager for five or six years of managing engineers and managing HR — anybody really — is that it’s much easier to hire people who live and breathe a similar set of values to your business, than it is to hire somebody who’s awesome, but doesn’t agree with your values, and then try and change them.
You can’t change people, so it’s much easier to try and get the right people coming through the door at the first point.
Moving all the way through that process is really — from our first phone call, all the way through to making a decision, as quick as possible. The interview process is hard. It’s going to be maybe three or four different sections — an hour, an hour and a half each. So you’re looking at maybe three, four, five — not five but probably about four’s the maximum we’ve ever done an interview for. It’s pretty tough. You get to meet all those different people, and all of those people get together after the interview and make a decision.
If somebody says, “No,” then everybody else can try and persuade them and say, “Really, let’s look at the facts and the details.” But fundamentally any one of those interviewers has the ability to veto that candidate. We’ve probably not hired some great people because of that. We’ve lost some good candidates — because one person didn’t enjoy it, didn’t resonate. But it keeps the bar really, really high. And it makes it incredibly hard to join.
In doing so, you actually attract people that want to work with really great people.
In a nutshell, always be designing that service, it’s a service like anything else. Just like onboarding a customer, it’s exactly the same.
So you look at — what is the bare essentials you have to have? What is everyone else doing? And then what can you do differently that adds a wow factor to it?
Len: I’ve heard that particular tactic, of giving everyone on the team an absolute veto, from people before. It resonated with me, with something else you said, about the theme of, through the recruitment process, making your workplace an attractive place for high-performing people to be.
Because as frustrating as it can be when you’re applying for a job, and arbitrarily someone who doesn’t like the cut of your jib can prevent you from getting it, if you’re applying to places like that, and you do get into one — that’s an ideal outcome, not just because you’re going to know that you went through that. But you’ll know that everyone there thought about it and chose you. And again, as difficult as looking for work can be in so many different ways, that kind of process really can, as you say, make you optimistic about what your next opportunities are.
And as you go through it, you get better and better at the process yourself. Difficult interview processes are good for you. People are doing you a favour by putting you through them as well.
Rob: One of things that we always focus on — this is the kind of management style that I’ve sort of adopted, and is the basis of Cultivated Management really — is, it’s all about behaviours. The interview process is very much about behaviours.
One of the things we found early on, is people would put all sorts of stuff on their CV. They sounded awesome, and then you’d meet them and it was like, “Really? Have you done any of this stuff?”
It’s very easy to recite books, to recite other people’s opinions. It’s very difficult during an interview process to explain why things didn’t work. Why didn’t Scrum work? Why didn’t Kanban work? Why did that approach not work?
What we always try to do through the whole exercise, is tie it to behaviours. And those behaviours — if you think about the culture of a business, a culture of a business is nothing more than group habit, it’s what people do every day. So if everybody’s late for meetings, that’s your culture. You have a culture of being late for meetings.
We worked early on, and this is where the 10 behaviours came from, to look at our top performers and go, “Well what did they do? What behaviours do they have?” Not what languages do they use. Not how good they think they are at coding or testing or Scrum Master, but, what do they actually do? What behaviours do they do? And they the behaviours that we try to weave into the job adverts, into the phone interview, into the whole interview process, to try and work out whether this person, by default, demonstrates the behaviours that we think will contribute to a positive culture?
That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t seek at all diversity and the conflict of ideas, and people that think differently, of course. They must do that in a way that demonstrates positive behaviours, not confrontational. None of this hero worship, hero-grade developers that nobody likes. None of that sort of stuff, that’s not how you build a good team.
So that’s the whole process, when we look at, do you make it or not, it’s whether you have demonstrated those behaviours.
Len: Speaking about managing — I came across, on yourcultivatedmanagement.com website, a post called How Do You Manage Millennials?.
I confess the very split second that I saw the title, I was like, “Oh no, I’m familiar with this genre.” And I was very pleased when I looked into it and saw what your answer was, which is, I think, the best answer I’ve seen to that question provided by anyone. I mean that genuinely.
I was wondering if you could answer that question here. How do you manage millennials?
Rob: Exactly the same way you manage anyone else.
I mean, it doesn’t make sense, just assuming that this catch-all term for millennials is obviously a certain age group. Generation X, babies of boomers — they’re all individuals. And you manage individuals, you don’t manage a team. You manage individuals. And each one of those people is different.
I can find people from Generation Y or Generation X that have the same mindset and the same mentality as millennials do. But I could also find millennials who probably have the same attitude and outlook as baby boomers.
It’s this sort of catch-all term that’s been used for a certain age bracket. And it doesn’t matter. It’s all about behaviours and mindset and outlook. Seeking people from different generations is a very positive thing to do for a business. It’s been proven in research that mixing those different generations together actually creates a very positive culture, very productive as well.
So in terms of managing, you manage based on behaviours. And those behaviours are behaviours such as — are you a good communicator, do you listen? Are you articulate in the way that you talk? Do you demonstrate good, safe programming? Are you a good Scrum Master because of these behaviours?
It doesn’t matter what generation you come from, it doesn’t matter how old you are. It has nothing to do with that, it’s all about managing individuals. And everybody’s an individual, and everyone’s got positives, and everyone’s got negatives.
As a manager, you’re just trying to get that right blend of people working together, mostly on their strengths, developing their strengths, minimizing weaknesses, but also getting the right blend, so that people can conflict and confront, but in a safe, positive way so we can move forward and improve things.
Len: One thing I really liked about the post was how you sort of threw the question back at the questioner, and said, if you’re asking this question, what you really need to do is ask yourself another question. Which is, why am I dividing people up into generations like this in the first place? What is it about me that wants to think that way?
There’s an implication of — are you being self-indulgent, is there something that you just haven’t really thought through in your relationship to the people that you work with in a very fundamental way?
Rob: I think so. Particularly, this question often comes from managers: “I’ve got a millennial, they’re always on the internet, they’re doing this.” But it’s nonsense. What they’re actually saying is, “I have to change, but I don’t know how to change.” And the culture has to change. The culture will always change when you have people — no matter what generation they’re from, no matter what — you’re adding people to the mix, it’s going to be different.
The question is, how different do you want it? Where do you want that culture to go to? You can never be certain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can define a culture and then go for it. But you can try, and you can add the right people who are going to add to that.
I think what most managers are afraid of is, there’s this new group of people coming into the workforce that demand more of a work/life balance. They demand certain things. If you go by the stereotypes and what the research seems to show.
But if you’re building a very strong, positive culture anyway, then you’ve probably already got people that think that way. Why would you not want more of a work/life balance, or attention [to be focused] the right way? Why would you not want to adopt new technology if it makes you more productive? Why would you not want to challenge some of the nonsense that happens in some businesses?
Unfortunately the management are seeing this new group of people coming in who aren’t afraid to ask the questions. Who are happy to go to another job if there’s another one better down the road. They probably don’t have the families and the mortgages that keep some of the older generations in the workplace. And they’re just scared, I think. They’re scared of how it’s going to change, how they’re going to change. And they’re just saying it’s the millennials’ fault. No, it’s just the mixture of people in a business.
Len: That was the part of the answer that I liked the most — a lot of the things that the stereotypical millennial is asking for, are entirely reasonable suggestions for improvements.
Len: When you talk about nonsense, for example — I spent some time in the “be at work at nine” world, commuting often on the Northern Line in London. Which, for anyone listening who knows about that….
The whole thing just struck me as absolutely ridiculous. I remember one time — I come from one of the few places in the world that has no daylight savings time. And so when I moved to London, I just had no inbuilt instincts. I didn’t know about “fall back” and “spring forward” or anything like that.
So one day, I went to the tube, and the platform was absolutely empty. I was like, “Oh shit, something profoundly wrong has happened here.” And of course, I immediately looked at the clock, and it’s like, “Oh crap, I’m an hour late.”
I went to work, and there was nothing crucial going on. There was no meeting, there was nothing like that. But I remember being fearful of the consequences of my mistake — which were, of course, nothing more than a manager mildly indulging in some recrimination. But my commute that morning was fantastic.
And if my boss, who was a pretty smart guy, had just thought, “Oh, I’ll just let my team come in an hour later and leave an hour later at the end of the day, then they’re all going to be much happier and much more productive. And they’re going to appreciate the decision that I’ve made.” Not just because it’s better for them, but because it’s actually more reasonable to do things that way.
I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons that a certain type of person finds suggestions for improvements like that so painful, is that their own following of the convention was unexamined in the first place. It’s a reminder that they hadn’t actually examined this very important principle that they’ve carried out in their whole working life. There’s something kind of humiliating about that. And that’s where the bitterness comes from.
Rob: Very probable and very possible. I think also, the conventions and the norms — people just adopt the norms of the teams they move into, unless they’re a very strong character that’s happy to create a bit of a ruckus and throw some suggestions out there without fear of people shouting at them, telling them off. They are just going to go and do what everyone else has done. And if the whole organization’s been around for 10, 20, 30 years — they’re in the nine-to-five mentality as it is.
What’s interesting for me is, I’ve always viewed productivity as: there must be a better way of doing this. So instead of working more hours, which is what most managers assume productivity is — just work extra hours — my view’s very much, well, if you work better between six and ten in the morning, then work between six and ten in the morning. And then take a couple of hours out, and then do some work.
It’s not always easy to implement those things, because of HR and executives and other managers that might not think that’s a good idea. But there’s always a better way of doing something. And often it’s just a smarter way than just throwing more hours at it or going to the office nine to five.
In fact, what we found usually when we did process improvement — is there a better way of doing it? — there’s usually always a very, very smart way of doing it. Or we just don’t do the thing we’re doing.
Surprisingly, most managers are fearful of that as well. Just stopping doing stuff, just do something different. It’s the culture, it’s the fear, it’s all of that. It’s a complicated topic.
Len: When you talk about that, that reminds me of a couple of the 10 behaviours that you talk about in your book, 10 Behaviours of Effective Employees.
One of those is being open minded. And I was going to ask you if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by that? It sounds like you were touching on that in your response just now.
Rob: There’s a quote from Paul Graham, that sort of legendary investor, IT software guru. He said, be aggressively open minded. Because actually, if you’re trying to plan and predict everything, you’re going to be hugely disappointed. Because you actually have probably no idea what’s going to happen in the next two, three, four, five years.
So being open minded is super important. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re open to anything and will just waste time on ridiculous ideas. Being open minded is about saying, “Is there a better way of doing this, and what are the options that we have? Have we thought enough about these?”
What people confuse open mindedness with is, let’s just go and do this new Agile stuff. “I’m open minded, we’re going to go and do it.” But nobody’s questioned whether that’s the right thing to do.
So you have to get that balance of saying, “Here’s a new way of working, there’s some new ideas. There’s some people doing some really cool stuff over here. Maybe that would work for us? Let’s try it. But let’s experiment, let’s make sure that we are doing it for the benefit of the customer.”
Another one of the behaviours is always thinking about a customer. Again, far too many people improve things, change things for their own benefit, and it has a detrimental effect for the purpose of the business.
You have to always get that balance right. I think being open minded is one of the things that we always look for, always have done, as you know. “What new technology are you using? What new ways of working are you doing? What books are you reading? What are you doing in your personal life that’s challenging and opening up new directions for you?” Because it is one of those. There’s nothing worse than being sat in a meeting room with somebody who’s totally and utterly closed minded.
I found a phase on the internet. I found a quote. I can’t remember who said it, but, “You can spot the closed-minded people, because their mouth’s always open.” I just thought, that summed it up quite nicely. Closed-minded, we know the answers. We don’t need to do anything differently.
Len: That’s funny, it took me a moment to put it together, that you meant when their mouths are always open, that they’re always talking, because I was immediately thinking about a mouthbreather, as they’re called. That’s a really good line.
What you were talking about there reminded me of a line on your Cultivated Management website about how, before, let’s say, you make the switch in your team or your company to Agile, you should actually have an understanding of your foundations, and the foundations that are in place first. I was curious — I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that. What are those foundations, and how would you suggest someone go about examining them?
Rob: This is really the focus of mine, my new business and the way that I’m approaching stuff.
I think moving to HR was one of those moments where I closed the loop on the Agile transition. When I first joined NewVoiceMedia nine years ago, we would release software every 14 months. It was huge waterfall projects, with massive testing phases.
Aftr about two years, we got it to monthly, fortnightly. And then another couple of years later, we were doing weekly releases consistently. That was all the business really needed. The customers didn’t necessarily need anything more rapid than that.
And the journey. If you’ve heard me talking about that three or four years on the speaking circuit, it was all about the test techniques, it was about agile, it was about tester and development, it was about CI, it was about DevOps. It was about all those buzz words. And there’s loads of people still confused, thinking that that’s actually Agility.
But when I moved out of DevOps, and I moved to HR, we achieved the same sort of principles. We were shipping stuff, we were working in small increments. We were doing Agile by most definitions.
I had a 360 review of that, and I was able to close it out and go, “Well actually, what did we do?” and reflect on it. The core thing is, we released Agility. We didn’t buy it, we didn’t force it. We released it. Week and month after month, after month, learning new things, opening more ways, removing more friction, constantly releasing more and more Agility for those in the business.
And how did we do that? The answer’s in two parts. The first part is absolute clarity for the employee, so the employee knows how they contribute to that success. They know what’s expected of them. They know how they’re measured. Their manager has given them feedback based on behaviours, positive behaviours — and sometimes negative feedback.
The other half of that belongs to management. My view is management should be spending probably 70%, 80% of their time fixing the system. This is solving problems, fixing processes, dealing with communication issues, requirements — whatever, just stuff that unblocks the team.
So you’ve got two halves. One is, the employees need to know what’s expected, and what the vision, what the mission is. The other half is the managers need to own a system. They need to fix the problems. They need to do process improvement. And then they spend a small amount of their time managing people, if there’s ever such a thing.
Most people have it the wrong way around. Most managers don’t set clear visions. Their staff have absolutely no idea how they’re measured, until the annual performance review. And the managers spend all their time managing people, rather than fixing processes.
Agility can never really thrive in that environment. You might find the odd example where it does, but genuinely speaking, Agility is about removing the friction towards your purpose. If you don’t have a purpose, you’re not removing the friction. You’re never really going to achieve agility.
So that’s what my sort of focus is, those two parts of that. One’s people, one’s management. The two combined together with a good, strong purpose — you can achieve anything.
Len: I found a chapter, which was originally a blog post in The Social Tester, about how a preoccupation with processes still needs to be directed towards the right processes. You have a striking title for this chapter, called, “Planning For When Cows Attack.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you’re getting at with that hilarious -
Rob: I’m trying to think back. That was a long time ago, that post.
I think in a nutshell, it’s about this deep-rooted belief that if we just plan everything, if we spend our entire time planning with Gantt charts — whatever is your tool of choice for planning and documenting everything and thinking about all the risks — that stuff’s important. Agile isn’t about throwing that stuff out.
But what’s important is to realize that as you go down the journey of releasing agility, or releasing revenue and growing a company, you’re going to encounter things that you’ve never planned for.
Actually, if you have the right approach with the staff — knowing exactly what’s involved, how to measure — [everything] we just talked about — and the manager’s fixing the processes, what you actually release is stuff that you would never have dreamt of planning.
Would we have ever put into a plan that we want people to go away after being rejected for a job, and saying how amazing that process was? No, we would never have put that into a plan. Would we have put into a plan that we could be releasing software and scaling Agile in a fairly seamless way, onboarding 100% year-on-year?
We probably wouldn’t have been able to plan what that looked like. But when you focus on the right processes, from the perspective of your customers or your candidates or your employees — and you improve the process that’s causing the most friction, the one that’s slowing people down — you get gains that you would never put into a plan.
That post’s really about — you can plan for all of this stuff, but then when the cows attack and push that poor gentleman into the Thames, did he plan for that? No, not at all.
That was a true story by the way. There was a herd of cows that surrounded a man and forced him to jump into the Thames.
Len: Actually that story doesn’t surprise me. I grew up in a rural place. In my life, I’ve encountered cows, and when a group of them starts moving towards you, it can actually be difficult to get out of the way.
Rob: Run away.
Len: By coincidence, the last question I was going to ask you about, your book 10 Behaviours of Effective Employees, was about what you meant when you talked about behaving bravely.
I say it’s a coincidence, because you’ve obviously just done something brave. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, about why you’ve decided to make this change, and move out on your own.
Rob: For me, moving out on my own, I think it was one of those decisions where I’ve been at the company for nine years. I’ve achieved the things that I personally wanted to achieve in my career. And I’ve learned — I mean, it was a great place to work. Tons and tons of learning, growing, scaling Agile, building a team in Poland — all this sort of stuff. It’s got all the buzzwords associated with it. It’s just been one of those really, really fun journeys.
But I think you get to a point with any career, where you start to think, “If I don’t leave now, then I will be here for the next ten years.” Because you get stable, and you get comfortable. And the bills are getting paid, and everything’s going the way it should do.
So about six months ago, I thought, “You know what? This is something I have to do. I have to go and see if I can build my own business. If I can help other people achieve greatness in what they are trying to do.”
I’ve always had this dream of running my own business. And if I don’t do it now, I’m mid-life aged, it’s one of those times where I got this opportunity. We squirreled away some money to give us a runway, and this is an opportunity to try and do something different.
Interestingly, I think what happened when I pulled the cord, as I call it — I just, one day — that was it. I’m announcing I’m off — that’s it, I’m out.
The phone lit up, and lots of opportunities have popped up. Again, it’s that, sort of, being brave in what you’re trying to do. Do you just go and get another job, or do you stick to what you’re trying to achieve, and run the risk that actually, come March next year, I might have to go back and get another job, because this won’t have worked?
It’s one of those things. But I think I didn’t want to get to the point in my life where I was unable to try and do these things without having had a go. I think that’s the iterative — try, fail, see what happens, learn from it, and just keep moving forwards.
Len: Best of luck with this move.
I guess it’s kind of anti-climactic, but at the end of these interviews, I always like to ask a couple of questions about self-publishing for the benefit of those listening, who are interested in self-publishing themselves.
Obviously you’ve done a lot of the right things by conference-speaking and blogging a lot and stuff like that. But you’ve also decided to write books. I was wondering — was there anything in particular that got you started doing books? I believe your first one was The Educated Parent Brain Book. Was there something specific, or strategic, about, “Now I should get into books.” Or was it just something you fell into, because you’re always writing and being productive?
Rob: Writing for me is a very important aspect of my day. Even when I wasn’t really blogging, I’d sit down and try and write 1,000 words a day. Just one of those things. First thing in the morning. Just before everyone else is up, and write.
I think one interesting thing happened, which was, the more you blog and the more you get an audience, the harder it actually becomes to blog. Because you get more eyes on it, you’ve got more criticisms, you’ve got more opportunities to completely make a mess of it.
And so for me, blogging became this very fearful — kind of like, “Oh, I’m going to hit publish. What kind of fallout is going to happen from this?” Not that there was ever really anything controversial. But people tend to get quite angry about various different things, particularly around Agile. I lost that enthusiasm for it. It was like, “Oh really?” But I was still writing, I was still generating a ton of content. And from there, it just felt like the right time.
I think tools like Leanpub, for example, have given self-publishers a breaking down of the barriers that they needed to write a book. Before, you had to basically either create a PDF and sell it on your own website, or try and sell it through somewhere else, or give it away for free. Amazon’s still a little bit daunting for a lot of people, publishing straight onto the Amazon platform.
But things like Leanpub came along and said, “Well here you go — work in Dropbox, work in text files, spin it up, publish it. You don’t even have to say it’s 100% complete. You’ve got an opportunity to go and change it, and then try and get feedback. It broke down the barriers.
For me, Leanpub was one of those exciting — the new tool to use in the whole self-publishing world. And I’ve been publishing for years, all sorts of different stuff.
But really the books came about because there was now a platform that I could use, without having to get a publishing deal. It’s been brilliant. [I’m] enjoying the process of it.
I’ve got a couple of books up on Amazon as well, that aren’t on Leanpub and [?] and a couple of other platforms, and what have you. But really Leanpub took that barrier away.
One of the books, So You Want To Be A Scrum Master? was actually written during a Hackathon.
So while the devs were hacking away with code and [?] — Scrum Masters, testers and a couple of other people that didn’t really spend their time coding, came together to create that book.
And we did it in Leanpub. We had a Trello board with all the articles going through. And then a shared Dropbox folder, and we were contributing in. Literally it was a day and a half, and we’d managed to write a book.
That’s the power, I think, of self-publishing. That’s what appeals to me. And I think it’s great for anyone that wants to write books. Now is the time to get doing that stuff.
Len: Thanks for the kind words, but also thanks for that great description of how things have changed just in the last few years, as self-publishing tools have evolved, and attitudes towards it have evolved as well.
My last question is — if there were one thing about Leanpub that we could build for you, or if there were one thing that we could fix for you, what would that thing be?
Rob: That’s a really tough question. I think at the moment, having a free option. I noticed that now to create a book, there seems to be a price. I think it was $58 when I looked the other day. I think it varies upon how many books you’ve published with [Leanpub].
But sometimes I want to publish a book on Leanpub that I don’t want to sell. And so I think, unless I may have missed an option, and you can correct me, feel free to do so — I think a lite version, where, here’s one version when you publish, and you actually want to sell the book.
I think if the free model came back in some way, shape or form — in maybe a limited production, limited publications — you might start to attract people that are outside of the technology world. Because Leanpub’s a great platform, and you’ve got parents, you’ve got food bloggers, you’ve got all these people — but they’re not publishing books very often on Leanpub.
I think that barrier of that price could be something that would attract me to publish a lot more free books. Smaller books, short pamphlet-type stuff. Maybe some zines, maybe that kind of stuff? That for me would be back to how it was a few years ago, and keep that paid model if you want to generate some revenue from it.
Len: Thanks very much for that. That’s really excellent feedback.
The decision we made about just over a year ago now, to start charging people to create Leanpub books, was one of the top three decisions we’ve ever made. It’s something we thought about a great deal. There’s a very long post about it that you can read, if you’re interested, on how we made that decision.
The way it works is that currently, if you want to create a new Leanpub book, it’s $99 US. I believe if you’ve earned more than $1,000 in royalties as an author, then that price goes down to $49 per book. And if you’ve earned more than $10,000 in royalties, it goes down to zero per book.
We’re going to be introducing more options, one of which is, we’re going to be introducing free trials. Which is a pretty standard thing to have when you’re doing what we do, or offering a product like we offer. That’s been a long time coming.
We’re very open minded about pricing, and we’re definitely going to be iterating over time.
It’s possible, for example that — so for people who are listening, Leanpub has a variable pricing model, so any Leanpub book can actually be set with a minimum price of “free,” and then people can actually still pay for it if they want to, which sort of complicates the example you’re describing a little.
If you contact us, there’s a setting we have that says, “No payments,” which is, I think what you’re describing. Like an exclusively free book, which we actually developed because someone who had had funding from an American government agency to do scientific research, and who wanted to publish the results on Leanpub. And they’re like, “Well we can’t accept payment for it.” So we’re familiar with one version of that case. What you suggested is definitely something I’ll bring up.
Rob: I just think, if this is your first book, you’re almost like, “I’m not going to make that money back.” I can imagine a few people landing on the page going, “Oh, actually, I don’t know whether this will sell any copies.”
Len: One thing I do feel a little bit safe adding at the end of a long interview about the matter of pricing, is that, whatever the level is, as soon as you start charging money for something, there is actually a positive aspect to the way it makes people decide whether or not they really want to do what they are about to do.
I’m trying to be very diplomatic in the way I’m framing this, but writing a book is a commitment. And by introducing, effectively, a kind of paywall, that actually does change the nature of the relationship that people have towards what they’re doing when they’re on Leanpub.
Rob: That’s true. You get that — that commitment to finish it, yeah.
Len: Exactly. And in particular, it changes the general quality of the books on the bookstore. Which is a very in-the-weeds kind of thing, but if you work really hard on your book — and by the way, we encourage anybody who’s interested in writing, to get started, you can publish a Leanpub book when you’re two or three chapters in, give it a try — but what I was about to say was, if you work really hard on your book, like maybe for years, and maybe it reflects a lifetime of experience in some area that you really care about, you start to care abut what book yours is presented next to in a book store. Not necessarily, but you might start doing that.
That’s just one facet of the complex gem of our decision to introduce a price, to making a Leanpub book.
Rob: I, for one, that’s a price I am happy to pay, based on obviously what you’ve just said.
But there are those books that I don’t really want to charge for, and like, “This is a free book.”
I wrote one the other day about the improvement of the recruitment process, and it ended up being 19,000 words, which is technically a book. It started off as a blog post. I don’t know whether that’s enough to charge people for it. But at the same time, I want to try and get it distributed as a book. So yeah, there’s those interesting dilemmas, it’s always a challenge, isn’t it? Always a challenge.
Len: Yeah. I remember, just before we go, there was one person in particular who was creating dozens of books of Japanese fairy tales, I believe. And when we introduced our pricing, I think it was that person who had a tweet with a crying face emoji in it.
When we made that decision, there are definitely types of projects that are totally awesome, that are now incompatible with our pricing model. And that is definitely something that we’ll be iterating on and thinking about as we go forward. I mean, that decision is not set in stone the precise way we’ve done it to begin with.
Rob: That’s what I like about your organization. Iterate through it and see what works, see what happens — and build new features. It’s spot on.
I notice also you’ve got Jerry Weinberg’s collection of books on there now, which is very positive. So that’s good.
Len: We’re pretty happy about that.
Okay, Rob — thank you very much for taking the time in the evening to do this. I really appreciate it.
Rob: Thank you for having me on the show.
Len: And thanks for being a Leanpub author.
Rob: Thank you, and thanks for your platform.
Originally published at https://gist.github.com/lenepp/669daa97f57e982aeddf43ed8c17b066.