Open Sourcing Myself

An attempt at refining my thoughts and values in the open

🚧 I’m a work in progress, and always open to feedback 🚧

Early into working together, my first manager at Google shared with me his “User Manual” — a short guide he wrote about himself to put all his cards on the table and help people understand him. For example, his written communication was often very terse and succinct. Out of context, this might appear to some that he doesn’t think a lot about his responses or express enough care. But once you get to know him, you’d realize it wasn’t personal. Just an efficient writing style and an unfortunate case of carpal tunnel.

I found his manual fascinating. More than helping me understand his brief replies, I appreciated how it demonstrated self-awareness and made himself vulnerable, which encouraged me do the same. So it got me thinking about what I would write in my own manual.

For example, I like to process things by talking out-loud, and I collaborate best with on-the-fly conversations — I’ve always loved improv. But I know some people much prefer to have time and space to think about a topic, so I try my best to be respectful of different working styles and ask that upfront given by bias to try and problem-solve in the moment.

While there’s no replacement for quality time as the best way to understand each other, I find people and relationships are complex; sometimes additional context can help avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding. So with that in mind, I decided to write a manual of my own. Some disclaimers apply:

This is

  1. An exercise in self-awareness to sharpen my values and coaching style
  2. An alternative way for you (current teammate, future friend, internet stranger) to understand me better
  3. A work in progress

This IS NOT

  1. A succinct or strict set of guidelines, rules, or expectations for direct reports or future reports. That’s something to be worked through individually, as everyone is different and management is contextual
  2. A replacement for spending time with me

Ok cool. Now that your expectations have been properly lowered, here’s an attempt at clarifying my core values, coaching style, and what you can expect if we work together. Which, if you’re a designer in the Bay Area looking to shape the future of design tools, we totally should. ;-)


Table of contents

What’s a helpful guide without a triangle / pyramid thing?

I’m a visual learner, and I love frameworks. They can do wonders to simplify complex topics, and I find them memorable and fun. So naturally I made one to navigate this guide. It starts with attributes and traits that are core to who I am, thus less flexible and harder to change, and builds toward how I interact with others, which are more flexible and contextual to the people and environment:

  1. Core Values: These are at the base level — the roots that make me who I am. The things that you will find are least flexible.
  2. Personality: The way I act and behave in social situations, which hopefully when I’m at my best reflect the underlying core values beneath.
  3. Coaching Style: The way I hope to guide and help in a management context; what you can expect with me as your manager.
  4. Collaboration Preferences: How I prefer to collaborate in general, and expectations I’d have from you as a teammate, or a friend.
  5. Understanding You: The most important part, but in the context of this article, I don’t know who you are yet, so this is a starting point.

Core values

  1. Honesty & Transparency. I don’t say things I don’t mean. I believe in being genuine at all times. One risk of putting myself out there is that it can be vulnerable. If people are at their worst they can take advantage of that, but at their best it creates trust and helps us grow together.
    Where this comes from: A belief that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. And being terrible at poker — I have the worst poker face.
  2. Balance & Moderation. I don’t like extremes. I prefer to understand both sides of a coin. I like to be both right brained and left brained — creative, but also analytical. Able to guide, or just listen. Balancing aesthetics and simplicity with function and utility in design.
    Where this comes from: My dad was a psychiatrist and gardener, and my mom an engineer and rigid planner. I inherited patience and practicism.
  3. Diversity, Inclusivity, & Equality. The best teams, products, and environments foster inclusive processes and avoid homogeny and monocultures. This may create more tension, but I see that as a good thing. It allows us to avoid stagnation and stimulates new ideas.
    Where this comes from: My mom was the only female mechanical engineer in her graduating class at Carnegie Mellon, and often the only woman in her various jobs since. She exposed me early on to institutionalized sexism, and her perseverance surviving it while raising two kids largely on her own. I’d like to use any privilege I have to create a better future for the next generation.
  4. Have fun; Life’s too short. We are working against a natural negativity bias, so I find it’s best to find ways to fight it through laughter, positivity, and frequent reward systems where possible. It’s too easy to be cynical. I try my best to bring a sense of enjoyment while collaborating.
    Where this comes from: I experienced a lot of loss around me at a young age, as did my family before me. I believe this fragility taught me to appreciate life.
  5. Patience & Growth. Believe the best intentions in others, and take time to understand. I try to reserve quick judgements as I’m often surprised at how often one encounter is not representative of future behaviors. I believe in a growth mindset, which inevitably requires patience (hence the pairing). Though just because it’s a core value, doesn’t mean I always exhibit it — I’m always trying to be more patient…
    Where this comes from: I’ve seen many examples of people in both my personal and work life make significant changes and improvements to their health, well-being, and performance despite the odds and despite past behaviors.

Personality

You’ll notice I reference several personality tests and frameworks for this part. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all framework or simple way of categorizing people, but I do find them helpful for introspection, empathy, and understanding. And they’re fun! 🙃

If I missed a framework that you like, please tell me about it! I love this stuff.

Of course, personality is a reflection of more than just what we say we are (or what these things say we are), but what we actually do: our hobbies and interests. In that regard, free to ask me anything about: podcasts, tv shows (especially dystopian futures), teaching, musical theater, burning man, meditation, center for humane tech, rowing, running, fitness, singing, technology, improv, comedy, folk music, psychology, and culture.


Coaching style

I’m approaching nearly 5 years cumulatively managing people as I write this, but I regularly feel like it’s my first day. Every job and every team is different, let alone how things change even within the same team at varying sizes and stages of a company. But there’s some consistency in the way I prefer to mentor that I think is worth sharing.

To start, I prefer words like “coaching”, “teaching”, and “mentoring”, over “managing” as there’s something more educational and less authoritative or hierarchical about those words. I like operating as more of a guiding function than a dictator.

At the end of the day, my job is to attract and retain talented people, to set and share context, to give regular/clear/consistent/actionable feedback to help others grow, and to cultivate a conducive environment for great design. It is not to be prescriptive — no one likes a micromanager. Some other things you can expect working with me in a coaching context:

  • I believe in Radical Candor (and love to geek out on frameworks)
  • I try to be a good listener, caring, and empathetic
  • I’m a believer in situational/adaptive leadership. While core values and personality are more firm, management itself is more contextual. I’ll guide when it’s helpful, and get out the way when it isn’t.
  • I prefer to lead by empowering others.
  • I believe the best teams are ones where there’s psychological safety amongst them; where everyone feels comfortable to make mistakes regularly, and can laugh with each other during the process.

What I can be helpful for…

  • Setting clear expectations and goals.
  • Bridging gaps and balancing perspectives. Having studied information systems and design, I straddle different disciplines and build empathy and understanding between product, marketing, engineering, and design.
  • Active listening, collaboration & mediation: Giving advice on working well with others. Helping see things from another perspective.
  • Communication: I’m good at shaping ideas into clear simple narratives.
  • Connecting with people: I’ve built a strong community of industry leaders over the years, and I love connecting people to others I think they might enjoy meeting or learn from in some way.
  • Product strategy: I’ve got great design instincts and can help make sure we’re thinking about things at a higher level.
  • Documentation (like this!)

A bunch of things I may not be helpful for…

  • Deadline setting and micromanaging; but I’ll try if it’s needed.
  • Project management & process. I’m pretty scrappy. I love and thrive with clear process and structure, but I’m not always the best at creating it.
  • Engineering expertise: I can make detailed prototypes, and understand the basics of engineering, but I’m not Rasmus-level.
  • Research expertise: I’ve managed researchers before, and find it critical for product development, but I’m no expert and look to others to lead here. That said, I cringe when I hear leading questions, or questions based on predicting future behavior rather than past behavior, and I love talking with customers.
  • Saying no. I love to help people, so it’s tough for me to turn down an opportunity to serve. I’ve grown a lot here in the past year. This recent twitter thread has some great tips for self-care if you resonate with this.
  • Finishing tasks. I love to start projects. I can get people excited about concepts, but I’m not always as great with the follow-through. Sometimes I need a nudge to remind me. This is why I partner best with product management and engineering; their structure and deadlines helps me do my best work.

Some of my peculiarities and mistakes I may make…

  • Sometimes in conversation I bias toward quick action or problem-solving over patient listening. I’ll never forget when early on in my management career, a designer on my team said, “Noah, stop trying to give recommendations — I’m just trying to talk through a challenge I’m having. Sometimes you just need to listen.” It stung initially, but it stung because she was exactly right. Here I was thinking I was being helpful by providing suggestions, getting excited quickly and sharing “have you thought about X or Y?”, when actually those were often things she had already thought of and this just felt like applying pressure to a wound. My job in this case was just to listen, not to try and take action. I learned then to ask earlier during our 1:1s, “is this something you’d like feedback or ideas on, or would you just like me to listen?”, and eventually as we got to know each other I hopefully improved when one was needed over the other.
  • Another example is how I’ve always loved improv, I like brainstorming and collaborating on the fly, and I often process things by talking out-loud. Many others prefer to do deep thinking individually, and process it on their own before coming back to collaborate.

Collaboration preferences

If we work together, there are a few ways in I prefer to collaborate. These can be adapted and depend on culture, but I do my best work when we agree to the following:

  • Communicate early and often. If you see something or feel something, say something. This is especially true if you see me doing something you disagree with.
  • While I do my best to intuit, I prefer people to be clear and explicit rather than passive and presumptuous. I like knowing where we stand.
  • I prefer positive approaches rather than cynical, but I’ll try my best to adapt. I’m ok with the occasional venting, but prefer when things are done constructively / productively. That said, if you are looking for an empathetic ear and for me to just listen rather than problem-solve, I’d be happy to do that, just be sure to let me know as my default may be to try and jump in with suggestions.
  • Collaboration > Silos. I don’t believe in “Us vs Them” mentalities between disciplines. I see design work as participatory and inclusive, where the best work happens when a variety of individuals get involved early on. I’ve seen too many design teams insulate themselves into a private studio and work for a while to showcase a big reveal, only then to be fraught with misalignment, confusion, and something infeasible to build. After all, the future of design is collaborative.
  • Bias toward sharing work early. I prefer when we are comfortable to share things that are unfinished. Given my core value of transparency I tend to prefer others are the same, but I also respect and understand the need to have ample time for heads-down work and privacy in that process. I realize ideas often need to be formed just enough that they are ready to accept feedback, I just want to make sure they don’t go for so long that they become stale or prevent redundancy.
  • Fall in love with problems, not solutions. It’s easy to get fixated on details and specific features in design conversations. I think when people work for a long time on one solution or detail, they can become determined to see that exact shape into the world and lose sight of what it’s ultimately there for. I think we need to be comfortable with change and iteration, and not hold on too tightly or focus on sunk costs. Doing that means falling in love with the core problem rather than the current implementation.

You

Most of this guide up until this point includes information about myself. But for us to work well together, it’s actually just as important if not more important for me to understand you and your working styles.

That’s why I always start 1:1’s with a bunch of questions to get to know your working preferences. How do you like to be managed? What did you enjoy most about past jobs? What are you excited about in this new role? What are some things you’re hoping to learn, or that I can help you grow in?

As we get to know each other better, it should get easier to be candid regularly. Ultimately, I hope you too will have underlying core values and personality traits unique to you, and part of our relationship may be figuring out how to navigate the overlap in our working preferences. Though for what it’s worth, I actually believe I should work harder to adapt to yours more than you to mine, as this quote suggests:

When it comes to adjusting to personalities, I strongly believe that the person in the more senior position is getting paid, partially, to adjust to the personality styles of the people reporting to them — Roy Rapoport
A relationship involves figuring out how to navigate each others preferences and working styles. Do you see a TIE fighter? Candy? Maybe it’s a Rorschach test!

In closing

I hope this is helpful for any of you. Thanks for Tin Kadoic for the nudge on twitter that reminded me to start it:

Upon reflection, writing this guide has been primarily an introspective tool for myself than anything else, though I hope it doesn’t stop there. If I were to write a refined “manager readme” guide like the (amazing) ones in the article above, I’d aim for something more succinct, customized to the job, and with a clearer set of working expectations. So instead, consider this an “open source” beginning to hold myself accountable to a collaborative, inclusive, and positive way of working.

In the meantime I’d love to hear what you think!


Appendix

Assorted Credits

I’m lucky to have many amazing teachers / advisors / mentors / friends / family that help me be a better designer / manager / person / friend, and who inspire me often whether they know it or not. Here’s some assorted people who’ve had profound affects on my professional career, in rough chronological order: Mark Lotter, Skip Shelly, Jon Wiley, Dan Fish, Marcin Wichary, Nicholas Jitkoff, Austin Bales, Gopal Patel, Koen Bok, Max Friedman, Braden Kowitz, Daniel Burka, Payal Kadakia, Fritz Lanman, Soleio, Dylan Field, Sho Kuwamoto, May-li Khoe, and much… much… more… I list these people because sometimes another way to get to know someone are by getting to know who their teachers are.

Another way to get to know me is through writing and speaking:

Writing

Speaking