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.
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.
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 🤫
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.
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.
As I reflect upon the years that were & start thinking about what comes 🔜
I depart with the following thoughts:
- It should not be a surprise weekend of chaos when multiple employees who have been communicating clearly with you their concerns resign. In my case:
- after being told that you cannot help me on topics of compensation, I took action into my own hands and fixed it with a phone call. Sydney is expensive and I do not wish to work from a van forever.
- corporate intellectual property theft is a serious matter and my suspicions, backed by evidence, should not have been automatically dismissed. No, I will not start a conversation with the suspect and ask them why their previous employer's intellectual property is in Notion. 😬
- Goals and results that harm the organization and team cohesion should be removed.
- Clarity and vision for a team are your job as a leader.
- There was, perhaps, more I could have done to guide you but the handling of point #2 was the final straw for me.
If you are a senior engineer who is considering switching please learn from the above and 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:
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.