Hitting a roadblock, and getting past it

A few months ago I started writing on this blog with a weekly cadence. I was publishing an essay every Wednesday morning. I established a routine for it. I had my draft ready by Monday, review it for a couple of days, and then I’d hit publish on Wednesday.

It was working pretty well, and I published quite a few pieces. They are all under the essay category and they are easy to reach on the top nav of this site.

Next to weekly publishing on this blog, I started sending out a weekly newsletter. I came up with a cool name, got a domain for it, and “The Owl and The Beetle” was born. It goes out every Tuesday, and it’s focused on leadership, technology, and other nerdy stuff.

From September to the end of December 2021, all went smooth: I was sending out a newsletter every Tuesday, and publishing an essay every Wednesday. No problemo.

Then, a couple of things happened, and I hit a roadblock. As you may have noticed, I haven’t published a post here since the 23rd of December; more than a month without writing a word.

“What happened?” you may ask.

The first thing that happened was the winter holidays. I changed my routine for a couple of weeks, and that was just enough to compromise my writing habit.

The second thing was coming to the realization that my writing routine for this blog was unsustainable. If I have been able to find a good flow for my newsletter, I cannot say the same for this blog. At least not in the format of 1000 words essays on a weekly cadence.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll experiment with different formats, topics, frequency of publishing, to find that flow that I’m currently missing. Feel free to stick around, or not, I’d totally understand.

If you are in for a more regular presence, highly focused, and very disciplined, I recommend you to subscribe to my newsletter. Here you’ll find an experimental ground, and I cannot tell now where it will be heading. It’s gonna be fun, that’s for sure. If you are up for it, subscribe and follow.

PS: I might go back to being more active on Twitter, but I won’t promise. Just sayin’…

Do you have a recommendation? Feedback? Advice? Drop a comment!

Avalanche Week: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Skiing at Forty Years of Age

As I’m packing my gear and getting ready to spend eight days skiing in the Alps, I want to reflect on the series of events that took me, born and raised at sea level, to get on the slopes and enjoy this great outdoor activity with my family.

“Come on, go faster! You need speed to carve your turns properly!”
That’s what a 60 something years old ski teacher yelled at me at some point during avalanche week.

I call “Avalanche Week” the time that went from my timid snowplow in the children’s snowpark to my glorious descent from the black slope that winds down to Vierschach, Pustertal, Italy. To be honest, they were actually two weeks, but that’s not relevant.

In 2019, in 12 days, at the age of 39 and a half, I went from zero to hero on a sports activity that, unless you learn as a kid, is considered really hard to pick up later on.

I’m an average overweight dude, 6ft tall, a little less fit than I should be, and I had no prior experience on those two narrow strips of semi-rigid material worn underfoot to glide over snow.

This is how I prepared, executed, and iterated on getting it done.

Part 1: Preparation

I knew I would spend 12 days on the alpine slopes with my wife and her family. They are all experienced skiers, and I didn’t want to spend my days on my own, crafting snowmen, freezing my toes, and hating every minute of it.

I wanted to spend quality time with my family, enjoying the fantastic landscape, the cold air in the face, the camaraderie around the lifts, and most importantly, the eggnog shot at the end of every slope.

We went skiing on Christmas week, and in September, I had already bought my ski boots. That’s commitment!

I didn’t like the idea of wearing rental ski boots because they are disgusting, uncomfortable, ugly, and overall gross!

Skiing is a demanding sport, very unforgiving to the tender feet of a tech worker who sits at his desk wearing slippers or just socks all day. For this reason, not only had I bought my boots three months earlier, but I had my insoles thermoformed around my feet to have a perfect wearing of those two pieces of modern plastic torture placed at the end of my lower limbs.

As a final step for my preparation, I booked 5 days of group ski class and 5 days of private one-on-one private lessons. It wasn’t cheap, but it was the game-changer. Learning a complex activity quickly requires a coach; there are no hacks around it.

Part 2: Execution

On day one, I suited up and joined the beginners’ class at the children’s snowpark.

We did some warm-up exercises, we were told the basics of balancing the body weight, edging the skis on the snow, and we took off for the first ski-lift and snowplow. It was damn hard.

My feet were sore. And frozen. And I was damn scared. So I pushed harder, and I was snowplowing properly on day three. Then, on day four, I was parallel skiing and attempting my first turns.

On day five, I was pretty ok. But I was in constant agony. My feet were sore. The pain was unbearable, so I went to the ski shop and asked for help. And they helped.

Part 3: Iteration

They looked at my boots and started fixing them. First, they adapted the boots to my feet with a masterful usage of a heat gun and wood forms, allowing for more space for my toes. It took a few rounds of back and forth, but my boots were comfortable yet very tight in the end.

I also iterated on my garments. On day one, I wore a full-body thermal suit, a sweater, ski pants, ski jacket, a helmet, gloves, and a mask. It was way too much, and I had already dropped the sweater on day three. I also added a 10l backpack to the gear to bring water and chocolate with me on the slopes.

I also went back to the rental and changed my skis. I went from beginner to pro, allowing me for more controlled carvs.

I dropped the group classes on day six and started with private lessons. Fun fact: the teacher was the same who taught my wife and her brothers 30 something years before. It was an actually sweet get-together when they met again. 🙂

For five days, I went up and down the red slopes with my teacher, and I refined all the basics until he claimed I was ready for the black slope on the very last day.

Was I scared at that point? Hell yeah! I was afraid every minute of Avalanche Week! But I never let fear have the best of me.

I went on the black slope, followed every instruction it was yelled at me, and I made it.

The point of Avalanche Week was not about not being scared; it was about learning how to ski despite being scared. And on that, I totally succeeded.

Next week I’ll be on the slopes again, and I’ll be scared for sure. And I’ll push through.

Wish me luck! I’ll have a wonderful time, I’m sure! Eggnog, here I come!

On Privacy, Transparency, and Trust

Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders are vibrant, enthusiastic, and inspirational. Not only are these leaders committed to the process, but they help every member of the group succeed as well.

In modern organizations, especially in distributed environments where most work happens online, we cultivate transparency as a crucial cultural element. We document our processes, have standup meetings, and many companies push towards the extreme circulation of information within the organization’s ranks.

When I joined Automattic, a fully distributed company, it took me a few weeks to get used to asking questions in public channels instead of relying on private chat messages. However, getting accustomed to discussing matters in public has significant advantages for everyone.

For example, a question asked in public reaches more people who may have the answer instead of being forwarded a hundred times before getting to someone who can provide help.

When teams share their updates publicly within the organization, it’s more accessible for stakeholders to interface with them, gather more context before making requests, and be more informed about how the business is developing.

But when this idea of extreme transparency goes too far, we may get in trouble. Total transparency has been debunked as a myth, big times. For example, in the article “The Transparency Trap” on HBR, Ethan Bernstein says:

My findings […] suggest that more-transparent environments are not always better. Privacy is just as essential for performance.

I push it a little further. To me, privacy is also essential for transformational leadership.

In his studies, Bernstein finds that in organizations that pursue total transparency:

[…] individuals and groups routinely wasted significant resources in an effort to conceal beneficial activities because they believed that bosses, peers, and external observers who might see them would have “no idea” how to “properly understand” them. Even when everyone involved had only the best of intentions, being observed distorted behavior instead of improving it.

What is this telling us about the relationship between the employees and their stakeholders? First, when people are required to give up privacy in the workplace, a crucial element of trust is inevitably lost.

When expectations of transparency are unilateral and excessive, the relationships in the organization become transactional. People will start following guidelines to the letter, meeting specs with extreme caution, and they won’t feel comfortable experimenting anymore.

There is a reason why musicians perform in public but rehearse in private.

A solid body of research demonstrates that in the presence of others, people do better on repetitive, rehearsed tasks (called dominant responses). However, people perform worse in public on learning tasks that call for creative thinking. 

Based on these premises, here are some of the principles I apply to make sure I can strike a balance between privacy and transparency with the teams I manage:

  • I don’t track the working hours of my team members, but only the work done.
  • Weekly status updates are only limited to the essential impact items and do not require a complete record of the performed tasks.
  • I encourage people to keep their calendars private.
  • My teams are encouraged to have private channels among peers without their manager in them.
  • We don’t publish meeting minutes but only the outcomes and decisions.
  • People can attend meetings with their cameras turned off if they prefer.

I noticed over the years that providing safe spaces where teams can explore new ideas without the fear of getting their words on record allowed forms of expression that led to more creative ideas.

There are companies, for instance, that have a solid habit of recording online meetings to make them available to people who cannot attend. However, if the intention of increasing accessibility is positive, I experienced that people start to hold back on spontaneous reactions when they are recorded.

For this reason, I discourage the recording of meetings, favoring asynchronous notes on internal channels. Notes that report decisions rather than individual comments during the sessions.

Trust is the cornerstone of transformative relationships, which support a transformative leadership style. To develop that trust, I learned that I needed to give away part of the control in management, and I had to respect people’s privacy in the workplace.

We have a fertile ground for transformative leadership when there is a good mix of transparency, privacy, and trust. In the absence of such balance, we must accept that most of our relationships become transactional at most. In some circumstances, this alternative can be functional, but it’s less effective when we expect creative output from our organization.


Thanks to John Nicholas for the review of this essay.

What Really Drives Us

When I was in my twenties I spent a couple of years at the ticket office of a dance club. Young men and women ready to sweat their Saturday night off used to line up in front of me, and purchase their entrance to the hall.

Every Friday, the owner of the club used to send out a coupon code to his newsletter. Just presenting that coupon, people were getting a discount on the entrance fee. Instead of 12 bucks, they only had to pay 10.

Signing up for the newsletter was free and besides sending the coupon every week, it didn’t serve any other purpose.

Pretty much all the regular customers had their coupon ready when they showed up in front of me, and the line moved fast.

However, it happened that someone had forgotten to print their coupon, and then panic ensued. I had people begging, yelling, arguing, but the rule was the rule, and I could only grant that little discount when the coupon was present.

Every night, at least one person who had forgotten their coupon, went back to the car, returned home, printed the coupon, and came back. At that point, I kindly gave them a discount on the entry fee, and they were happy to join their friends.

Fast forward almost 20 years.

Yesterday I was in Naples, Italy, with my family. We were Christmas shopping in the busy city center and we looked for a place to have lunch.

We finally settled for a steakhouse, and we booked a table. The place was clean, modern, quiet. We got great food, even better than expected. The service was fast, kind, professional. It was all just perfect.

On the way out I went to the counter and settled our tab. The price was ok, not too expensive, not cheap either.

But a few steps out of the door, I realized that they rounded the final price on the credit card. The receipt says 136.90 and they charged 137.00 on my Amex.

As of today, twenty-four hours later, I’m still bitter about it. I had excellent food, great service, and a great time, but those ten cents of malicious rounding are driving me off.

I won’t go back, nor recommend that steakhouse to others in the future.

For years, I could not figure out how someone could waste an hour of their life, especially on a Saturday night, to head back home, print a piece of paper, and come back, to save 2 bucks on a ticket for a dance club.

But now I know the reason.

Forgetting your coupon makes you feel stupid, as much as getting ten cents deliberately overcharged on your credit card.

Going home and fixing the coupon is a way to redeem yourself and be at peace with your feelings. The same that will make me avoid that steakhouse in the future, depriving myself of that amazing food.

It’s not about the money, it’s about how we feel about it.

Decide Fast, Revert Faster

When I was 25, I accepted a job at a local company as a software developer. I had a desk on the ground floor of a condo that served us as our headquarters, and it had reinforced windows with steel bars.

I remember spending 8 hours at my desk looking at those bars and asking myself if they were supposed to keep intruders out or employees in.

It took me a good couple of months to decide it was not for me and quit the job.

Like many other choices I made in life, if I have to find a single regret about them, it took me too long to decide.

Is it worth spending more time scrolling through Netflix’s catalog rather than picking a movie and just watching it? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.

We are convinced that life is all about nailing down good decisions. We believe that our success depends on a long streak of perfect answers, just like we are playing the “Millionaire” on TV.

In reality, it’s quite the opposite.

Successful organizations don’t always win. But, they do all possible to never fail the same way twice. 

While inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

We fear failure, so we play safe to avoid it. Postponing decisions is the epitome of playing safe. We secretly hope that someone else will decide for us or that at some point it won’t be necessary to choose anymore. But doing so, we make problems even more prominent, and we don’t learn much.

The quality of a leader is all about decisions: making and implementing them. In addition, a decision that was not implemented is as good as a decision that was never made. 

We can mitigate the stress around decision-making with a few realizations and a manageable framework.

Most of the decisions we make are easy to revert. We think that all our decisions are final, but only a bunch of them are impossible to change once made.

In addition to that, most of the decisions we make have little to no long-term consequences.

Here is my framework for making decisions:

  • Limit time and options
  • Decide fast, revert faster
  • Keep a log

Limit time and options

Instead of spending a few hours in front of Netflix’s catalog, I quickly pick five shows I want to watch and five minutes to make a call. If I don’t have a winner by the end of the given time, I pick the first one on the list.

Limiting the scope of the decision and the time for it, I know I’ll end up watching something tonight. Will I like it? Let’s find out!

Decide fast, revert faster

As much as we believe our decisions are final commitments, the reality is that most of them are easy to revert. Yes, some are final, and those require a lot of thinking, but all the others don’t.

If I don’t like the movie I’m watching on Netflix, I stop it and watch the next one in line. No drama, no problem.

Keep a log

I keep a log of most of my decisions. I didn’t like a TV series about ghosts? I take a note, and I’ll stay away from spooky ectoplasmic shows in the future. Did I enjoy a crafty show on pottery? I’ll make sure I’ll watch the next season for sure.

The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.

We can afford to make bad decisions; what we can’t afford is learning nothing from them.

On Being Human

The global pandemic hit me while I was visiting my spouse’s family in Udine, Italy. At that time we were expecting a baby and we decided to stay put near our family, rather than going back to Vienna, where we used to live, and being on our own for the following months.

In 2020, Italy went for a full lockdown, and some of the restrictions are still in place as of today (November 2021).

In the last two years, I have had a rollercoaster of emotions related to the consequences of a tiny little ball of genetic material coated in gunk, trying to kill us. 

Most of our habits have been impacted and for many people, the most visible change happened in the workplace. To me, it was quite the opposite.

I have been working from home since forever. With the exclusion of a few years in Vienna, all my professional life has been office-free. I never needed to go somewhere in the morning, to get my stuff done.

For the last 8 years, I have been working for Automattic, a fully distributed company that counts almost 2 thousand employees. We all work from wherever we happen to be, living in more than 70 countries. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was already used to leaving the house only for primary necessities. I actually had to push myself and leave the house every now and then to avoid self-isolation.

For this reason, the first part of the lockdown was awkward for me;  I was already fully adapted to working from home, while the people around me were not. 

From that time, I remember my social channels being filled by people recommending the best video conferencing tools, the best chat apps, the best tutorials on Youtube. Welcome to my world, I had been living that way for 25 years already.

Furthermore, my job did not change a bit during the global pandemic. I used to manage a team of engineers across 4 continents long before the virus became part of our life, and I kept doing so during the following life-changing 18 months. We used to make software back then, we make software now, and most probably we’ll keep making software tomorrow. And the day after too.

My friends, instead, as soon as they were forced out of their offices, felt lost. Many of them had little to do, their days grew endless, and they started publishing links to online museums, streaming services, and online yoga classes. To be honest, Youtube was already full of that content before the pandemic, so it was not novel to me. I simply don’t have time for that. I have little to no interest in watching the sourdough rising in the fridge of a random baker in Vermont. 

I’m not impressed, nor interested in such content.

Before the lockdown, I used to work from home, but my home was anywhere in the world where my spouse was. I didn’t have an office, but I had my backpack, filled with all I needed to get my work done. I used to take about 60 flights, spending 200 days traveling every year.

The pandemic put a halt to it, and I’m not sure I want to go back to that traveling schedule. I few things have changed for me in the meanwhile, because life cannot be put on pause.

Regardless of traveling the world on a constant basis or not, I still consider myself a citizen of the world, and I was disheartened by the nationalization of the global crisis. 

Every country went on its own, offering different solutions to its citizens. A few countries went for full lockdowns, others offered free tests for the population but were not pushing enough for getting people vaccines, other countries let the people decide about their destiny, taking little to no responsibility for the outcomes.

Many countries tried to raise the bar against free circulation and put a halt to immigration; in the end, it really didn’t work out. This virus has no passport but moves fast across borders. Actually, there are no borders anymore. There is just one planet, and just one human species.

Being born in a specific country is just the result of the geographic lottery, but being human is something that each of us decides to be every day.

Elevate your appreciation and deliver better feedback

A couple of years ago, my engineering team, which happens to be distributed over four continents and works asynchronously around the clock, was struggling to provide valuable weekly updates.

Most of the updates were too generic, some too specific. A few were too verbose, and others were too superficial.

Shall we write down every single task we get done, or shall we only document larger projects? And to which degree? These were the most common questions during one on ones.

I realized that one engineer was providing excellent reports. They were informative but not too verbose, they were absolutely on point. I wished everyone was publishing with that style, including me!

I sent this message to the team: “Last week, John Smith published a great weekly update. It was informative, concise, and well redacted. I felt very proud about it. If you are looking for a great example, look no further, that is a great model for everyone. Well done!”

Two weeks later, every single update was almost as perfect. In a month, all our updates were on point.

Appreciation is a strong form of feedback and it can be sharpened to achieve extraordinary results.

Every time we want to acknowledge, motivate, or reinforce good behaviors, we naturally resort to appreciation. 

We say “Well done!” to our toddler who finally puts on their shoes by themselves for the first time, or “Great job!” to our team member who completed an excellent project on time and under budget. But it’s just not enough to have long-term effects.

When people complain they don’t receive enough feedback, they mean that they wonder if anyone notices how hard they are working and if anyone cares about their contribution. They are signaling a lack of appreciation.

However, to obtain extraordinary results, it’s not enough to raise the quantity of recognition, we need to elevate its quality as well. To do so, we can start practicing the “Situation – Behaviour – Impact” framework. This tool is terrific for both beginners and more seasoned managers. Used correctly, it is quite a powerful instrument.

SBI demystified

Every time we want to give a piece of feedback, we follow the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (SBI)  framework to package high-quality, easy to consume, and highly leverageable nuggets of input.

Situation” frames your feedback in time and space. It makes it contextual

  • “Yesterday on our way to school.”
  • “Last week at the team meeting.” 
  • “This morning while having breakfast.”

Behaviour” represents an action that was performed. It’s important to describe it with a verb and to be as factual as possible, ideally like it was recorded by a camera or a microphone, without any judgment or assignment of intent to it:

  • “You thanked your sister for her help.” 
  • “You offered to pick up that project.”
  • “You complimented your grandchild for his new haircut.”

Impact” is a description of the emotional state that this behavior had on you

  • “It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.”
  • “I was impressed by your sense of ownership.”
  • “It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.”

Let’s combine the above examples in order to see them together:

  • Yesterday on our way to school, you thanked your sister for her help. It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.
  • Last week at the team meeting, you offered to pick up that project. I was impressed by your sense of ownership.
  • This morning while having breakfast, you complimented your grandchild for his new haircut. It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.

Now that we know how to produce a powerful nugget of appreciation, let’s lay out the three ways to deliver these nuggets and the purpose behind them.

Appreciation in Private

The most common form of appreciation happens in private. We deliver it directly to the person we want to recognize. It can come in various forms: a private conversation with our child, in the car, on the way to school. It can be part of a one-on-one with one of our team members. It can be handwritten on a holiday card we send overseas to a distant relative.

Appreciation in private is a great way to reinforce personal positive behaviors and provide relished validation.

Appreciation in Public

They say “Criticize in private, praise in public”. Well, this is just that! Appreciation in public is a great way to showcase positive behaviors. It amplifies the validation towards the individual, inspires others, providing good models to follow. It can be a praise to our child in front of their siblings, a compliment to our team member during a meeting, sometimes even comments on social media may do the job.

Appreciation in Absence

I consider this the ultimate form of appreciative feedback. It goes a long way when rewarding high performers. It can be delivered by itself, or in addition to the previous two forms. It happens when the appreciation —packaged in the SBI form — is not delivered to the subject, but rather to an involved third party.

It can be a praise to our child’s best friend who is particularly polite when visiting our house, delivered to their parents in the form of a handwritten note.

It can be an email to the CEO of a partner company, praising their employee who contributed to the success of a recent conference which was organized together.

If we look carefully, we are surrounded by signs of appreciation in absence. Every public monument, statue, or street that is named after a person, is a form of appreciation in absence. Probably a little too much for our purpose, but you got the point, didn’t you?

To elevate our appreciation and to reward positive behaviors, I say this: “appreciate often, appreciate properly, and appreciate with purpose.” 

Trust me, wonders will happen!


Thanks to Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Laila Faisal, Letizia Barbi, Renzo Canepa, Tom White for the review of this essay.

Getting Rid of The Plastic Hairball

It’s a giant hairball made of old cables.

It lives in every household, and it sits in a drawer somewhere. It’s made of old phone chargers, USB cables, a couple of obsolete adaptors, a few rubber bands, a hairpin for sure. I have it, you have it, everyone has it.

In my case, it fills out a couple of large Samlas, those clear plastic IKEA boxes. Over the years, I kept every single cable that my old appliances did not need anymore. Of course, they did not need them, but I did, maybe someday, so I kept them.

Every time I wanted to get rid of it, severe pain in my stomach made it impossible. What if I need to power up an Epson printer that only works with that specific type of charger? It doesn’t matter if I haven’t had an Epson printer in 15 years, nor do I plan to have one ever again.

The pain of wasting space in my house with that useless plastic hairball is sharp but even more acute is the pain of throwing everything out.

When we need to part ways, we stop thinking logically. As a result, we enter a state called “amygdala hijack,” and we fail to distinguish between consequences that will happen and consequences that might happen, like the possibility of an Epson printer in the house.

We picture our life in the very current state, with a gaping void in it. We ignore what we could gain, and we focus on what we certainly lose. It’s the same loss-aversion fallacy that kept us alive as a species for the last 20,000 years that now makes us hold onto that Nokia phone charger.

There are three valuable hacks they can help us:

Visualization

Instead of dreaming that an old cable will save the day, we better focus our imagination on the positives of getting rid of that mess.
What if I need that mini-USB cable? Just go on Amazon and buy it new.
In the meanwhile, you have more space for your Lego creations, ok?

Celebration

To properly process a loss, we need to find closure. To part ways with your plastic hairball, have a ceremony, a celebration, a sort of a funeral service. It’s about finding a moment to celebrate how every strand of the hairball served its purpose. For example, this charger was my faithful travel buddy for two years. This earpiece kept me connected to my E-TAC phone while I was commuting. Etc.

Delegation

Find a trustworthy friend, invite them over for a snack. Show them the plastic hairball and give them 20 bucks, saying: “I’m leaving the house for 15 minutes. When I’m back, I don’t want to find that thing anymore. I don’t want to know how you do it, and we won’t talk about it ever again in the future. So just do it, and this money is yours.”

Leave the house for 20 minutes. Yes, give it 5 minutes more than necessary, just in case. Voilá! The plastic hairball is gone.

Of course, these are oversimplifications, but the reality is that we need to get rid of the plastic hairball because it occupies space in our houses and our heads. So don’t let it happen. Don’t let the sedimentation of the past engulf your present and limit your future.

Let those cables free, and be free yourself as well.


Thanks to Mujidat Oladeinde for the review.

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash