Smelting is the process of removing the impurities from the iron ore, leaving behind the elemental elements, and adding the alloying metals to produce steel.
I came to you as a piece of software full of bugs. We first met on Skype when you interviewed me. We talked about startups, Stanford and at the end of the interview I asked, “So, why do you want to hire me?” “Because you’re independent.” “What do I really have to do for this job?” “Anything to win the deal.” I didn’t understand what it meant, until a few months later.
I started the job strong with my head held high. I was confident because this wasn’t my first job in the US. I was confident with my English and I believed I had a pretty strong technical background. I came into meetings trying hard to make my points, usually by interrupting people. I didn’t want to listen to or evaluate others’ opinions. I thought I knew a lot.
The so-called the Office of the CTO consisted of only 1 boss and 2 minions, each handling a platform. When I joined, you gave me the most precious gift a boss could ever offer his employee: a rock solid teammate and a caring friend. My first impression about him was that he was …all over the places. One day he was up in LA to deploy beacons and the next day he flew to the East Coast while making demo apps on the air plane.
Soon later it came to my realization that there was no job description that would fit us and our team did not belong to any departments in a 200+ people company. We operated in our own schedules, measurements and beyond any regulations and processes. We built app demos. We set the fire off when things got tough. We attended sales meetings. We hung out with the customers. We drove to the customer site at midnight to fix the bugs. We hopped on the plane to anywhere in the country in 24 hours to learn about the competitors. We’d do anything necessary when necessary to secure the package.
Coming from a different kind of company, I expected to be a part of something already moving. That I would have my own piece of tasks to complete. That I was a part of an assembly line. I expected to have someone to book the air ticket when I needed to travel. Someone to give me the assets so I could just import them into my projects. Someone to give me the server APIs to call.
It turned out that that someone didn’t exist. We were not part of the assembly line. We were the whole line, building things from scratch.
I was terrified by the amount of work and responsibilities because although I’d done many job functions before, I’d never done them all at the same time. I’d never expected working for an executive would be that challenging. I felt overwhelming and at some points, broken, and hopeless. I was not independent enough. I started to complain. I asked a lot of questions, hoping for someone to do part of the job for me. I relied on my partner to do my job for me.
And when you told me people thought my English wasn’t good enough, it was like the last nail on the coffin. English has been one of the things I’m proud of the most. I didn’t believe it. How could it be? I used to teach at an international university in English. I used to lecture hundreds of students in the auditoriums. I usually walked in into many English exams half-headed and still walked out with good grades. So how could that be true?
Just like the iron melts in the burning furnace I reacted hard. I felt like I was left alone, that my work didn’t get enough attention. I… I tried to reason, looking for holes in others’ arguments. I couldn’t sleep well in many many nights. I often woke up not accepting the fact that I was not deemed worthy for the very job. I refused to accept the reality that I was sub-par to the expectation. That I was not on-par with my partner. The reality shook me to the atomic level because it’d never happened to me before. It was the tipping point for my confidence and egotism to melt. They hit the ground. Suddenly the laws of physics of the universe I came from did not apply in this universe.
But along the way I knew I reacted because I was …changing, like, when the iron has enough heat it transforms. You also told me that English would eventually and naturally come back. That I would survive if I endure. I then realized why people left the team after a few months at most. For the impurities get eliminated during the process.
Somehow I survived the first 3 months. Barely. Somehow.
I started with learning to listen more and talk less in the meetings. And I gotta tell you this. Man… it’s really hard to resist the urge of talking, especially when working with people who can think much faster than they can talk. There’s a temptation for one to open his mouth to raise his points as if he doesn’t raise them he’ll forget them. But listening is a skill, an art. When delaying to talk and articulating, I realized how thoughtful people were and that sometimes they already thought of the scenarios I was about to bring up. Only by actively listening do we capture the manners, choices of words, tones and emotions, which contribute a large part in the actual content. Only by articulating do we respond, rather than react. I knew to get better, I needed to keep my head down and my ears up.
I also found that it didn’t matter how I felt, or how much casualty I took. It didn’t matter if I was hit at the arm and the leg, the job still needed to be done. The business was still going. It didn’t matter if my work was at the center of the attention. What mattered was that I had a task to focus on, and that I delivered results. What mattered was that as a team we moved forward and that we scored in demos. What mattered was that as a company we won deals. And as long as I paid my dues, all things were good.
As time went, I felt that as I accepted the changes, things got better and better. It was the resistance to change that made me miserable. It was the good old days that made me feel insecure. It was the stubbornness that hindered me to change. The more receptive I was to the heat, the easier for me to withstand.
People referred us as those who do things “on the fly”. For us to do our job, you offered great autonomy. In the field we make decisions, ones that can make or break the multi million-dollar deals. With power comes responsibility. With responsibility comes pressure. Because every field op is a new experience, the stuffs we do can only be prepared but can never fully be.
We are true believers of the Murphy’s law. Server crashed 30 minutes before the demo? Debug and make it work. Want to change the floor-plan images a few hours before the demo? Learn Photoshop. Want to have some APIs when the server guy is not around a day before client meeting? Learn Node and write our own server. Want to measure the transmission power of a piece of hardware because it doesn’t behave as it should an hour into the demo? Write our own diagnostic tool. Want to make that client developer like us? Take him to dinner and talk about his arranged marriage and his Indian college sweetheart. Get him cry.
We got to get the job done at our first strike. One way or another. We got to maintain our laser focus. We get in. We make it work. We get out. There’s no excuse. No reasons not to make things work. For there is no next time.
Before building someone up, sometimes it’s necessary to break him down. To transform something into a different kind, one has to touch it at the core level. When iron is turned into another kind of metal, it can reach new limits. But first it has to go through the extreme heat, be melted, and withstands the painful process. The process removes the inanity, and adds the toughness. The result is something harder to break, more durable in the long run, and can withstand new temperature heights. Something called steel.
A few years ago, when I looked back, I realized I didn’t know anything when I turned 30. Now, when I look back, I realize I didn’t know anything a few years ago. I’m sure in a few years from now, when I look back, I will realize I don’t know nothing now.
It is truly a privilege to have worked and learned from you, sir. Thank you!