photo by misty xicum

Jason Stirman Does It All

Medium’s Head of People Operations, Product Designer, and resident empathic generalist

Jessica Collier
Jun 20, 2013 · Unlisted

Jason Stirman is Medium’s Head of People Operations for one very good reason: “I’ve never wanted to specialize in anything. I want to get as much experience in as many things as possible.”

“Which,” he admits freely, “is a controversial career strategy.”

Some of this is humility, but a lot of it is Stirman’s signature good-natured bravado. Formerly an engineering manager at Twitter, Stirman, which is what everyone calls him, holds a computer science degree from UT Austin: “I just loved computers and I was a big nerd and still am, but I always knew—it was, literally, my first day of computer science class at University of Texas—that, whoa, I am not one of them. There are people who are just engineers at heart. They care passionately about, like, optimal algorithms.”

Stirman might not be passionate about optimal algorithms, but he’s passionate about building things, and engineering fulfilled a range of desires. “Writing code to create software,” he reflects, “I could channel my artistic and creative self, while also indulging my nerdy self that likes math.” Nerdy, in this case, does not equate to introverted or one-dimensional:

I’ve been told I have an empathic tendency. Choosing to be a generalist and be involved in a lot of things, it’s always been fun and easy for me to relate to people. I spent a year of my life memorizing Rubik’s cube algorithms. Piano, guitar, percussion, freestyle BMX, volleyball, basketball. I like to draw. Golf has been in there. Now I’m obsessed with CrossFit. In high school, I liked math, so me and the nerds were totally tight. I’m just starting to understand from a business perspective the value of being an empathic generalist.

When Ev Williams offered him an early gig at Twitter, Stirman turned it down. He was still living in Texas and had young children. Uprooting his entire life for a product that consisted of “140 characters and a button” seemed, well, too visionary to be true: “I was like, dude, I like you, but you’re crazy.”

Stirman can totally hang out, and he’s easy to talk to—the empathic generalist factor—which made him prime management material. Initially reluctant, he grew into the role once he (finally) joined Twitter, noting, “I loved management at Twitter because my job was to keep people happy: what’s your problem, let me help you solve it. But knowing how to code also gave me insight as a manager.”

Photo by Misty Xicum

Stirman, however, still grimaces when he talks about management. This visceral reaction stems from the language of “management books that talk about people as ‘resources.’ A resource to me is a coal mine. According to the books, management is all about, how can you extract the most value from this resource? It just didn’t resonate with me at all.” He pauses, then adds:

“You’re managing people who have lives. Words matter.”

As a Product Designer, Stirman applies the same thoughtful approach to building Medium. That process, he says, has been “about the value we bring. We know the mechanisms and levers we could put in the product to make it more popular. We could spam the world with Medium posts. But if you deliver something that’s meaningful, important, and worth people’s time, you don’t have to find gimmicky ways to tell people about it.”

He acknowledges, with pride, that the tactical concerns at Medium differ from those at many startups: “It is a long-term game, and it requires adhering to a longer vision.”

In addition to heading up People Ops and serving as a Product Designer at Medium, Stirman fills something like eight other roles, among them Holacracy Officer and Seating Coordinator. The latter sounds roughly equivalent to milk monitor, but Stirman notes, with characteristic empathy for his colleagues, “It is one of the most stressful and most important roles I hold. Our environment should empower us and give us the space we need to be who we are.”

Who is he, then? “Just the nerdy guy who likes building things that make the world a better place.”


    Jessica Collier

    Written by

    I design all the words. Working on something new. Advisor @withcopper; previously content + design @StellarOrg @evernote; English PhD.

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