The Real Way To Pay Down Your RTO: With Kindness, Comes Speed

Curiosity on Mars

Baggage” by Gryffin, AlunaGeorge, Max Aruj from Gryffin Orchestral 🎵

I had an unreal week. I met current and former colleagues for the first time. There were moments that reminded me why I choose to work at Zynga – the people.

This is a public blog so I’m cautious to say specific names of current colleagues but you are truly amazing. I’d have to list too many anyway- to our India teams, to our game teams, I really can’t imagine how I got so lucky to even know them. When I share a room, in person or otherwise, with someone I work with it’s a privilege. I feel dumb around them (and that’s okay), I admire them. I feel lucky to have even a moment of their time, the single most valuable resource we all have in the world.

One comment that stuck out to me was from an architect, years my senior, that said, “I don’t want to be so snarky.” I really like his humor and style so this was interesting to hear. It was wise to model – he didn’t want to model it for his daughter. Perhaps, we both desire an attitude of gratitude. To recognize that there are ways to lead to be most effective and get what we want.

Another moment that stuck out to me was a story told by an amazing Director of Engineering. If you are reading, it was so nice to finally met you – she told me about a woman, who no matter the day or how bad it was, when asked how she was doing, she would say “I am blessed.” I liked that. I liked the stoicism. Normally I just aim to make people laugh with self deprecation.

It sounded unshakable.

I tried to imagine myself saying it. Felt hard. Blessed. When I want coffee and have not slept well, I do not feel blessed. I am not religious. Perhaps, instead, I’m lucky.

My husband daily writes down three things he is thankful for on our fridge. Seeing it brings me peace. When I got home I realized this week on it were the same ones I had written before I left. He’d gotten too busy. He had to drive to see his mother in the hospital. I wrote in slot 1 “Home.” I erased it and wrote “Working from home.” The 2nd? Obviously, “My doggo puppers.”

My husband feels lucky. He reminds himself of it. He’s unshakable.

The most heartwarming moment that happened this week, the kind where you feel like your stomach just fell out – one of our fellows said in a packed room of people of his own volition, “The kubernetes team is amazing and their leader is right here.” He didn’t have to do that. I’ll never forget it. He knew how to master kindness in the moment, to wield a future by amplifying a past. He killed it with kindness. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky to include his name in a blog.

So many whom I work with are brilliant, but more importantly honest and kind. They are all trying to master that in their own journeys. They are practitioners. They understand it as a skill – they get really good at timing. It’s why I worked for my boss – I thought he was the nicest person at Zynga and I wanted to get better at specifically that when it’s hard. Like, really really hard. I got to meet Matt Trescot and Steve Phillips, both at AWS, for the first time in person and they are this way too – despite knowing them already for 3 years, I also know their reputations transcend them. These are the qualities of people in my life who mean a lot to me and whose leadership style has impacted my teams.

We Win More with Kindness

It’s harder to model that one may think. It’s easy to slip up.

In cloud engineering, it takes breaking infrastructure, and then, when breaking a system and hitting a high risk moment, being stoic and driven in your principles. There is a great story in The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson about Google X’s team that aims to fail fast. Amy cites Astro Teller’s TED talk from 2016 – when quoted on what makes Google X team successful Teller states, “The only way to get people to work on big, risky things – audacious ideas – and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first is if you make that the path of least resistance for them” followed by “Real failure is defined as not learning or not taking enough risks to fall flat on your face. Teller and X embrace failure so much that they don’t talk about succeeding on their projects at all; instead, they speak of ‘failing to fail.” (117, 118).

I think about this a lot because teams talk about building learning cultures, believe they have one, but then put in systems and processes that don’t enable them to walk the walk – or in moments of the biggest learnings – clamp down on the wrong lessons. They punish, instead of over indexing into kindness, running at the people most affected (the ones who were part of the change) and saying, “I’m so sorry. I was part of this change because I was part of the system – I’m so excited about what we learned. This is going to be a great post mortem.” They fail to fail because they are scared, truly, that they will be punished for it or are still modeling that in some way.

Dave Folsom, amazing TAM I used to work with at AWS lived by this. I asked him once how he was so good at his job. He is excellent at convincing people to do things for him and with him and he’s patient. He said, “I just kill it with kindness.” He actioned that in his words, his approach with people, even in tricky moments and that’s his reputation. I wanted to practice that. I wanted to absolutely kill it with kindness because I saw how well it was working for him. I want my bar for my reputation to be the most important thing to me to grow – and there’s a lot of work left to do.

It feels so good to vent, but when you do, you are asking of any listener. You are asking them to carry negativity and not output it elsewhere. To be a shock absorber. I want to figure out how to better shock absorb and then transmute what others are feeling into positivity and live this way. I want to make the days of many all at once because the mistakes in what I do, what we do, in infrastructure can do the opposite.

I want to get ahead – Often teams are competing with the negative of failed changes and what may be seen as under-appreciated successes. I’m competing against fear and so I run at that – the worse the failure, the more excited and grateful I get. I don’t want anyone to see the respect with which we own our work as anything less than incredible because I know it is. This is a conviction and guiding principle. I know the value of taking risks to learn. Real, preferably micro risks, to pay down harder risks. I want teams to take real risks and really learn because I know it keeps us safer overall and has significant return on investment with speed. So when I say…

My Team, This Team is Awesome, I Mean That

It is hard to have a bad day and project positivity in engineering. Real success is rare and comes from lots of practice and getting speed right. Modeling kindness through that is exceptionally hard to do it because you have to channel complexity and try to stay stoic.  It’s what I look for in a reporting chain, but also in my teams and it’s what I prioritize. It’s not about not correcting bad behavior (“ruinous empathy” is also bad). Rather operating through kindness is accepting you don’t want to live in a negative state when you don’t have to and that wielding negative thoughts, words, actions slows you and others down. It’s truly believing those around you are incredible and you would do a lot for them and wielding it in how you review anything at all. It’s sending people messages to encourage their day to go well – to be excited about what they are building and doing and helpful when they are stuck. To give them your time to see what they’ve built.

Even self-negativity slows teams down as we try to feel for each other because we are empathetic and want to help. Eventually, you know through practice you can scale much more by being nice when the opportunity is there and re-orienting yourself regularly. I accept that this isn’t an easy way to live or even 100% doable – days are hard. However, it’s a choice, I have to ask myself: In this moment, is there an opportunity to be actually kind? To others? To myself? What am I missing?

If I’ve recommended this to you, because I invested in you, I meant it. That is your P0. I measure others by it because I measure myself by it and hold my efforts to be kind to an incredibly high standard for which I do not always get right. I want to keep raising that bar because those I model it after have a much higher one. I ask those I report to and those who report to me to hold and goal me on that standard. Tell me when I’ve messed it up. It is easier to see what is going wrong and apply discernment than it is to see what is going right and accelerate being selfless. To make being nice the P0 in a P0.

Kindness Prevents High Severity Incidents

Getting excited when something breaks, championing it, is terrifying if you know you are surrounded by people who have not seen a person who refuses to live in the negative. It is why I am honest and straight forward about what I know real risk to look like and real micro-failures do to de-risk large failures. It’s why my site is called “SEV 1 Party.” I know if you are nice, if you are transparent, if you are truly excited by incidents you won’t have SEV 1s because you operate in the micro and you break things often, visibly, transparently. It means teams, when they write post mortems write a lot, because they enjoy it. They learn more faster. And you feel great about talking about them with each other. Instead, your team begins to fear not failing, they fear silence, and they fear angry bridges because they know the cost is so much more financially. They begin to see the results of gratitude in moments of trial.

To model kindness on top of infrastructure risk takes a lot of energy, practiced selflessness, and self awareness. Constant pushing down of negative feelings. Resist Complaining. Being grateful an incident happened (It’s why’s motto of “Not Incidents. Opportunities” resonates with me). This is a higher calling of a person. And it is so obvious to me that that is who I surround myself with, that is what I want to grow, and that those who practice and do well at it are ones I want to give more of my time to. I am grateful to be surrounded by many of those types of individuals.

I think it’s easy for engineers and managers alike to become frustrated – Not appreciate the journey. It’s the main area I’m working on – to see just how patient and practiced I can be. How well I can reframe a moment. How long I can stay consistent. Reliable. Kind. I’m measuring that KPI through what happens when I get it right. More transparency. Less risk. Less and less and less…

It is easy to be frustrated knowing that to make great change requires shaking the very foundation of what people believe is happening. Asking to measure. That wanting mistakes because it is learning is demonstrative of trust. If we plan to break stage – let it be together. Safely. We will show up together. Know the ask. Knowing we will not be punished for trying, nor back down. To get justification for something greater. Knowing that alignment and taking a risk is less costly than …. failing to fail at all.

Perhaps if we are kind enough, If we lead with it, if we model it, if we share our trials, and design our systems around trust, we fail faster and smaller. We learn and gain much more every time. If we assume that others, are on our side for the long game, and are a joy to work with, we know they will be there because we were, we are, kind when it counted and gained knowledge at a scale that was faster than others.

We believed in the principle, through kindness, we’d get speed.

Image Credit: Nasa / JPL-CalTech “Aug 5. 2020 Curiosity Celebrates 8 Years on the Red Planet: NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover touched down eight years ago, on Aug. 5, 2012, and will soon be joined by another rover, Perseverance, which launched on July 30, 2020.