This is a transcript of episode 308 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Effective executives draw on extensive battle scars for guidance and insight.

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Grey Beards

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you have a story, don’t you?

Jeffrey: I do. Funny thing. I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, and I was in a group of people, we were meeting for the first time, and each of us were telling a bit about our background, and I was actually talking about how I came to work with you at TIM Group. Lo, these many years ago, back in 2011.

Squirrel: Oh my God, now I feel old.

Jeffrey: Hahaha, well, that’s very relevant to the story because as I was telling the story, one of the amusing parts, I find anyway, was when I got in contact with you, we had a conversation and you said that you had been advised by someone else that it would be helpful— you had a lot of smart, young developers, but you need someone a bit more experience. You needed a ‘gray beard’. And to my great delight, I had just been camping for two weeks and had grown a beard.

Squirrel: ‘Cause I phoned you, to say, Jeffrey, we need you. And that was one of the inspirations, was this person telling me, absolutely correctly, I could see why it’d be valuable that I needed someone with your characteristics. And I didn’t know about your camping trip.

Jeffrey: That’s right, that’s right. And so I got off the call. My wife asked, ‘well, how did it go?’ And I told her ‘I can’t shave.’ And this is just kind of a funny thing that happened. But what happened here and the reason I want to bring this up on the podcast is that at the table, one of the women there said, ‘well, Jeff, that’s a great story. But I asked you, how does a woman become a gray beard in technology?’ And I thought that was really interesting. I think there’s there’s two things about it that are interesting. One is kind of I think the, the obvious element here around the gendered nature of the language. And you told me that you’ve started using a different phrase now instead of gray beard.

Squirrel: Yeah. So I use two different things and we can talk about both of them. The first is when when clients come to me and they often do this, they say, Squirrel, help us to hire a more experienced person to help us grow our team, to help us stabilize our processes, and so on. It’s been great working with you, but we’d like someone permanent who can do that. And I say, great, what we’re going to do is we’re going to look for someone with ‘battle scars’.

Squirrel: And the good thing about battle scars is you could get them when you’re very young. You could get them when you are female or any other characteristic. It has nothing to do with your hair on your face or your gender, or your age. And that’s an important one, because there are plenty of people who are just old and their their beards are gray or even white, and they don’t have the characteristics that you need.

Squirrel: And so then the other one, the other term, has really only just come up recently in a couple of different places that I’ve used is we want to talk to the ‘elders of the tribe’. We want the wise people, and they’re often called the wise old people. But I carefully didn’t say that. The wise people who really know, for example, if all the elephants that we hunt have moved somewhere else, we know that they’ve, they’ve moved to a different watering hole. And they might know that because it happened 30 years ago, we won’t know that because we’re the young hunters in the, in the tribe.

Squirrel: And there is a bit of age there in that anthropological sense and that anthropological example. But when I’m talking about elders, I don’t mean age. I do mean the people who know the history and the vital information that other folks won’t have. And I think that’s something that our listeners may want to look for and might want to have some criteria for. So maybe we should talk about that.

Jeffrey: And I thought this would be really interesting. My goal with this podcast in part is that we could kind of answer that question literally, rather than a gray beard, how do you become someone who has battle scars? How do you become someone who’s an elder of the tribe? Because I think there are things that people could do. And as you say, it’s not just about getting older. You know, I think a lot of people have the experiences, but they don’t learn from them. They don’t they don’t, you know, coalesce their experience in a way that makes them qualify along these domains. So let’s get into that. What is it someone has? What are the characteristics that people have for being one of the elders? You know, what are the kind of things that you’re looking for?

Characteristics of an Elder

Listen to this section at 04:45

Squirrel: Absolutely. Well, I’ll name some of mine. You might have some too, Jeffrey. I’ll use a funny example. I’m not going to use a technical example. I’m going to use one from my personal life, in fact, from my family, that I have someone in my family who I have consulted in this way. And the person is my aunt. That’s two people, my aunt and my uncle. And they are able to coherently share advice with me in a way that I can really use. And I think that’s the first thing, is it’s not just good enough to have lived a long time, which they have, but it’s also very important that on demand you can call on that experience. You can actually have a theory that makes it fit together.

Squirrel: So, for example, I wanted some advice from them about a risk I might take. And I remembered that they had at the age of, I think 22 or something straight out of university in the 1960s, had got onto a plane with two tiny children, you know, barely out of diapers, and they had gone literally halfway around the world to, I don’t know if it was Hong Kong, it might have been, but someplace like that. They’d gone to Asia to study because my uncle studies Chinese language and culture. And so he said, great, let’s go to China.

Squirrel: But with these tiny children, in an era when you didn’t have the internet, you know, international telephone calls were kind of difficult. You were going to a country— My aunt certainly didn’t speak Chinese —it was it was a major activity! It was a major change for them. And they could talk to me about risk in a way, because they’d absorbed that they had they had thought about it. They had understood what that risk meant to them, how they thought about what was good about it, what wasn’t.

Squirrel: And they could give me really helpful advice. There are other people who have led very risky lives and have done some crazy, you know, Evel Knievel or somebody like that. But but I wouldn’t necessarily consult them on their risk approach, because those people who’ve lived very risky lives did so without consideration, without forming a theory. So I think that’s the first thing that’s very important. You need both theory and practice. You need the experience and you need to have woven it together somehow.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And I know we’ve talked before when we’ve talked about how to accelerate learning, that having a combination of theory of practice is important. And I think this is a good example of the long term payoff, which is that if you’ve developed the combination of theory and practice over time and reflected on it, then that’s one of the ways that you move towards becoming one of the elders or having being able to play that role.

Squirrel: And I’ll mention that a really good way to kind of create that practice might be to have a blog, or have other kinds of writing, my uncle has written two books, to have a journal. Those sorts of things kind of let you process the experience into nuggets, into pieces that are a bit more compressed that you could share many years down the line.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And that’s a really good example then, because I think one thing here is it’s not just enough to have had, even internally the theory and practice. But the question is, have you put it together in a way that’s coherent? Can someone tell a coherent story of their experiences? And I think you told me that that’s one of the things that you look for in these more experienced candidates.

Squirrel: Oh, absolutely. So a very standard interview question for me. I guess I’m giving it away now, but I’m not giving away what the interview question is, but the type of question that I’ll ask of a senior person coming into any kind of executive role is: where’s something in your experience that matches a current experience of this client, of this company that that you’re going to be joining? And if they can make that leap, if they can say, you’re telling me about a difficulty in this type of risk, and let me tell you about how we took this type of risk 30 years ago.

Squirrel: You did this with me, I remember, because you would tell stories from Borland. A company whose existence I think is long in the past. It’s dead and buried for a long time, and a totally different type of software development, right? You were printing CDs, but but you were able to tell me when you joined TIM group stories that came from that environment that were highly relevant to us and that would help us immediately. So I didn’t have to interview you because I already knew you, but had I been, I would have asked you for those. And and being able to pull out that story off the cuff without preparation is an extremely valuable skill and the sort of thing you can practice.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And I think part of it here is just what you said, which is on the one hand, it’s off the cuff in the sense that I’ve not planned for that particular scenario. But on the other hand, it is well prepared. And maybe there’s something similar here to the way, you know, an improv troupe might work. Where on the one hand, you know, what’s happening is completely improvised in the moment. But on the other hand, it’s built on a lot of work done prior to the moment. What you when you see people on stage. I know you have experience in improv troupes, we’ve talked about that before. Do I have that right? What you that the what you see on stage is built in part by the preparation done previously?

Squirrel: I think. So my improv experience is pretty limited, but as I understand it, that’s how it works, and it’s certainly how it works for effective executives, whether technical or not, that they can. And it’s often outside their field of expertise.

Squirrel: So you’ll have, I remember a very skilled CTO that I helped hire into a company, and he noticed a pattern of behavior in the customer service team that was really troubling. And he was able to go to the CEO and say, ‘you know, I noticed that there’s turnover and there’s an awful lot of bugs coming that don’t need to come to us technology people. And when I go sit with them, I hear them being very confused on the phone,’ those sorts of observations which he could make and he could say, ‘I’ve worked next to, and alongside, and with lots of customer service organizations and the ones in trouble sounded like that.’

Squirrel: And he actually wound up taking over customer service and bringing it in line and making it effective, which is not something you would normally ask the CTO to do. But because he was able to apply his experience, even outside his field of nominal expertise, and give it to the CEO in a nice package that came with some theory and some proposed actions, he was able to have a big influence on on the whole company and its profitability.

Jeffrey: I really like that because the situation here, you can see how they experience they’ve had in the past, they’re able to bring it to bear. And that’s what I’m saying. The ability to do that, even if he’s never had that conversation before, he was prepared to have it probably from a lot of other similar conversations where he’s reflected back on his experience and brought that to bear. And I think this gets to what I think is one more element of how someone gets to be in this role of the elder.

Part of the Tribe

Listen to this section at 11:59

Jeffrey: And this sounds may sound strange, but I think it’s a really important part here is to be part of a tribe. In other words, if you want to be a tribal elder, you need to be part of the tribe, meaning you need to be in conversation with other people. You need to be referenceable. You need to be speaking with them. It’s not enough just to have yourself, and your own experience, it’s also how you relate to other people, and that your knowledge is something that’s a common asset, that you’re active in dialog with people. This is not something that’s done it. You know, by yourself in a well-lit room or a dark room. I was going to say a dark room, but that sounded too depressing. But this is not something this is not a solo act.

Jeffrey: Even the people who are, you know, you mentioned doing blogs. Yes, they might do a blog, but they’re also putting it out in the world to then, you know, they’re engaging at least with their readers, and they have other people in mind. It’s not simply an internal exercise, and I think that is a really important element of how people move into these more senior roles is because they’re able to take what their experiences have been and relate them in conversation with other people.

Jeffrey: I certainly have met other people who had really interesting technical knowledge, really interesting experiences, but they had no interest in other people that at least not that I could see in those discussions. And they simply never engaged in discussions with the larger group. They simply focused on their narrow work, and they might be very good at it. But this is not someone who’s ever going to develop into one of these sort of tribal elders of the type we’re talking, which, you know, which can be fine. Not everyone needs to do that—

Squirrel: Certainly not.

Jeffrey: —but if you have an interest in that, then you this is something you can start practicing very early in your career is how to relate with other people.

Squirrel: And the great thing that happens when you have those relationships, when you have those interactions, is you’re constantly testing your theory. So you say, well, at my company, this is happening. And here at this conference, I’ve heard three people say that they have just the same type of problem. Maybe we should give this a name. And I think that’s how we wound up with things like continuous integration, right? Is our friend PJ and you eventually and others said, ‘hey, we’ve kind of seen this.’ You were in, if I remember right, PJ was in a consulting company, then-

Jeffrey: He was at ThoughtWorks, that’s right.

Squirrel: He was a ThoughtWorks. That’s right. So there are lots of opportunities to see the same kind of pattern at many clients. And the result was a theory that, ‘hey, maybe it would be good if instead of putting the software together by hand, we put it together with a computer.’ And that’s had some good effects on software development over the over the years. So if our listeners are interested in becoming elders, it sounds like.

Squirrel: Our summary here is you need a kind of mix of theory and practice. You need lots of practice, but you also need to be gathering it into theory, whether that’s through a blog or a journal or just in your head. You need to be part of the tribe. You need to be participating with others, engaging with others, and you need to be able to take those pieces of information that you’ve gathered and from yourself and from others, and apply it on the spot to demands and questions and requests from people in the moment. That sound like a good summary?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. And the good news is that this stuff is easier than ever, especially the tribal part.

Squirrel: Yeah!

Jeffrey: Given all the meetups that happen online, online conferences, it’s much easier to connect now with people beyond your immediate coworkers. And I think this is something if people have interest, then there’s definitely lots of opportunities out there to to start working on this immediately, which is which is why I was excited about doing this as a podcast, because this is sort of something that people could put into action right away.

Squirrel: Which is what we love to give to our listeners. And of course, the other thing to do to stay up to date with, with the Troubleshooting Agile Tribe, is to to show up next Wednesday when we’ll have another edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.