the art of giving a shit

the art of giving a shit

Geoffrey Huntley

I was asked recently on the topic of leadership. In short, I’m an avid fan of servant leadership - being selflessly 100% focused on helping folks within my team / being a janitor.

What is Servant Leadership? - Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

Back circa 2018, I joined an AI startup in Sydney that brought me in to serve an existing team. The people within the team were freaking brilliant but misunderstood (literal mathematicians and a comp sci professor who published a paper contesting the Church-Turing thesis).

The Church-Turing Thesis confuses numerical computations with symbolic computations. In particular, any model of computability in which equality is not definable, such as the lambda-models underpinning higher-order programming languages, is not equivalent to the Turing model. However, a modern combinatory calculus, the SF-calculus, can define equality of its closed normal forms, and so yields a model of computability that is equivalent to the Turing model. This has profound implications for programming language design. - Barry Jay, Jose Vergara

What followed was some of the most emotionally stressful yet rewarding work I’ve ever done. We managed to partially flip the organizational culture around through clarity and being consistent in communication which resulted in other engineering teams coming to us for advice, education, and mentoring.

The key to making the transformation happen was selflessly serving the team and removing historical leadership debt. Upon reviewing the quarterly reviews for the last couple of years it became clear that they weren’t even provided with the right tools by their employer to do their job. They are mathematicians - they needed whiteboards to do their job.

They were using this flimsy whiteboard which did not spark joy.

The people within the team had been clearly communicating but the existing leadership structures had not been listening. So I ordered two of the biggest 7m long whiteboards possible and asked the facilities team to get them mounted on the back office wall. Heck, I don’t even know if what the employer did was completely legal because the building is heritage listed 🤫

one of one of the two 7m whiteboards aka “IDEs” that transformed the back area into a place of mentoring, education and learning.

Unfortunately, as with startups, market conditions changed and the company almost went under due to serious financial mismanagement. Unfortunately, the actions taken by leadership involved letting go of many many many teams - including mine - whilst I was on a flight to Seattle. Imagine my surprise and reaction (👇) only to find that out I was also being let go as well.

1-up: "hey, can you jump on a call. We can't tell you over Slack what's going on"

Trapped in Seattle and unemployed, I could only think of one thing - getting these people placed and employed again at companies as soon as possible.  And that’s what I did.

To this day, I miss these people every single day. I miss that team. My time with them changed me, and exposed me to high engineering standards, academia and fringe compsci.

I’m not saying I’m a good manager or leader - mistakes were made - but with that team, I deeply gave a shit and I think that’s ultimately what matters.  If people can feel that you care through your actions then the rest flows from there.

If you are a senior engineer who is considering switching please know that leadership is a completely different skill from engineering however learning the skillset will make you a better person and engineer. All senior engineers should do a tour of duty - even if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pendulum experience where you end up going back to being “just an engineer".

Here are some resources I highly recommend:

The Engineer/Manager Pendulum
Lately I’ve been doing some career counseling for people off Twitter (long story). The central drama for many people goes something like this: “I’m a senior engineer, but I’m thin…
All Podcasts | Manager Tools
Back in 2013, I stumbled upon this blog post[] by Brendan Forster[] which fundamentally changed my career trajectory.Knowing that there was a human I could turn to ask questions related toopen-source made all the difference.…
The Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback Tool: Providing Clear, Specific Feedback
Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) feedback model to give feedback that is focused, specific and objective.
Use the SCARF Model to Understand Our Individual Triggers
Using SCARF to Collaborate with and Influence Others[7] We’ve known for a long time that our assumptions, emotions, world views, and paradigms influence our behavior. The latest research in neuroscience tells us that our neurobiology is what drives our behavior and defines how we, as leaders, make m…

As I look towards the future and what comes 🔜 I hope above provides clarity about my views on the topic of leadership. If [actually, because I'm human, when] I fuck up know that I deeply give a shit and make-up chicken salt is available in boundless quantities upon request.