Hacking the Wetware

Working for Amazon has been a revelation to me in ways large and small.

One of the biggest by far has been coming to the understanding that career growth was not in fact laying in wait around the next corner if only I could master the latest technology trend. There are baseline skills that can either accelerate or retard your growth in profound ways, and many of them reduce down to changing the way you think in or react to various situations. Let’s walk through a few of them.

Taking Ownership

You are well and truly the captain of your own ship. Your performance is your responsibility. While these statements may seem blindingly self evident, in fact there are some subtle traps for the unwary who may not even realize they are rationalizing about failure by abdicating responsibility for their own success.

This can take the form of seemingly innocuous behaviors like not wanting to burn bridges or be the bad guy, but when push comes to shove everybody loves a winner and nobody respects a human door mat. Find ways to constructively deal with conflict head on and ultimately attain your goals. The inherent tension of conflict pales in comparison to the confidence you will gain by standing your ground.

Learning How to Learn Effectively

What do you do when presented with a new problem that you find daunting or confusing? Most of the time this happens to me it’s because there’s something I’m unfamiliar with, that lies outside my current wheelhouse.

It’s very easy to feel utterly overwhelmed by the sheer scope of a problem or by the fact that the problem seems to be so foreign as to not offer any foot holds or surfaces within reach.

I have found that keeping a very simple check list in mind can keep me from feeling overwhelmed and help avoid “analysis paralysis”.

  • Just try something. Doing literally anything can help un-stick your brain and get past a roadblock.
  • Write an outline, create a very rough draft.
    • Write “throw away” code / prose fully intending to not save any of it. This can be very liberating when you’re stuck!
    • Turn to novel sources of action oriented inspiration, I have found Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck helpful at times like this.
  • Narrow or broaden your focus. Are you actually concentrating on the key thing you need to accomplish? Does what you’re working on create value for your stake holders?
    • Is your problem well defined? Flesh out the problem statement. Even if you’re working on something creative, limitations can be incredibly inspirational! (There’s a pithy quote about this I can’t bring to mind right now 🙂
    • Break off the tiniest piece of the problem. Whatever you’re comfortable with. Write the introductory paragraph or a few lines of code, even if it’s just the header! Sometimes the simple act of getting started can create a momentum of its own.
    • Use tools like outliners or mind maps to work out the general shape of a problem. I’ve often written an outline and literally cut & pasted that outline into the document or code I need to write as a starting point.
  • Practice! The process of building a skill is universal across virtually every discipline. In Peak: Secrete from the New Science of Expertise, Robert Pool introduces us to the idea of “deliberate practice”. More than just doing a thing over and over, deliberate practice involves being taught by an expert and applying those lessons to the process of practice. While Pool specifically dresses fields like athletics or piano playing, we can apply this idea to all kinds of disciplines. One great example of applying deliberate practice in my field is Katrina Owen’s superb exercism.io which poses carefully crafted problems to students and then lets experts critique them and suggest better, more elegant or concise ways of solving them.

Emotional Maturity

I used to pride myself on being a passionate practitioner of my craft. Lately I’ve been feeling like that’s less of an advantage and more of a liability. Avid Grtimm’s excellent blog post on this topic had a great deal to do with changing my mind, and I suggest you run out and read it and other posts he’s made along those lines post haste. They’re worth it.

In point of fact I feel as though I should strive for dispassionate responses to problems and situations, especially those that are emotionally charged.

Give yourself that fraction of a second to take a breath, look at the response that’s on the tip of your tongue or keyboard. Ask yourself “Is this really what I want to say? Am I being fair to the person I’m interacting with? Am I really acting in the best interests of both myself and my team?”

This can be incredibly difficult in the heat of the moment. It’s a skill I am working very hard on cultivating, and I have achieved some modicum of success here, but my personal evolution in this area is far from complete.

Healthy in Body and Mind

There was a time when the stereotypes about people working in technology were more true than not. Many of us didn’t take care of ourselves all that well. Obesity and even poor sanitary habits were not at all uncommon.

Thankfully, I’ve been a member of the once a day shower club my entire adult life, but my diet and exercise regimen were pretty atrocious for quite a long time.

I’m still not quite as disciplined as I’d like to be where diet is concerned, but I work out every day and have been losing some weight recently. I just can’t say enough about how much this one simple change has benefited my mental well being both in terms of mental acuity but also in terms of being able to handle stressful situations in a more productive and professional way.

I’ve found my Apple Watch to be incredibly helpful in this regard. It tracks many different kinds of work-outs, in addition to tracking my heart rate and calories burned through the day. Its “Activity Rings” display tracks the amount of time I stand as well as how much exercise I get, and I’m a total sucker for gamification, so its achievements system keeps me motivated, pathetic though that may be 🙂

Exercising regularly is the only way to go. Full stop.

I still have a long way to go before I’m at my ideal weight, but I feel like I’m well and truly on the path to getting there. I start every day mentally refreshed and ready to conquer whatever challenges come my way. A big improvement over falling asleep at my desk 🙂

Another often overlooked aspect of living a healthy life is getting enough sleep. A lot has been written about how getting enough sleep can be critical in maintaining willpower, self discipline, and self control. I definitely struggle with this, as after getting up early to work out and working a long day it can be tempting to goof off for a while rather than getting to bed.

Something I’ve found rather helpful in this regard is an app called Autosleep. It uses the data on pulse rate and movement collected from my Apple Watch to give me a really rich report on not just how many hours I slept, but also the quality of sleep and periods during the night when I was awake, whether or not I was aware of it. Those old cheeky after school special slogans had some truth to them – “Because knowing is half the battle!”.

Discipline

Personal discipline is at the heart of good decision making and the bedrock of any successful career.

The most effective and productive members of my field utterly regiment their days. What goes where is of less importance than the fact that they do the same thing pretty much every day. Code reviews in the morning, followed by whatever meetings are required for the day, and then another burst of focused productivity before heading home.

To be honest, I have yet to attain this kind of self regimentation, but it’s good to have goals to work towards 🙂

Closing

These are just a few of the things that have been on my mind of late. I wrote them down in the hope that someone else may find them useful. If I have learned anything over the last few years it is that “common sense” is anything but common.

“disce semper quasi victurus vive quasi cras moriturus” – Learn as if you’re always going to live; Live as if tomorrow you will die.

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