(Destination Code) Meet the Mentors — Sharon Steed

Mountain top vista at Summit Powder Mountain, location of Destination Code

As we prepare to release tickets and other news for Destination Code, I also wanted to take a moment with some of our awesome mentors and ask them a few questions about themselves, their story, their passions, and some things they are interested in speaking on at our mountain-top abodes in Utah!

This time, I’d like to introduce Sharon Steed (@sharonsteed). Sharon works with teams to focus on effective collaboration. Sometimes this amorphous and hazy topic becomes a huge issue amongst teams — and it can seriously set deadlines and progress back. Strangely, it can also seem to be difficult to identify and prevent.

She’s received accolades for her talks. “I teach teams the tools they need to better collaborate as a collective,” her website Communilogue states — and she’s not kidding around. 
I caught up with Sharon to ask her some questions in preparation for Destination Code, as she plans a brand new workshop for us to take part in.

Hi there, Sharon!

Thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions and share some of your stories with the world through this short-series of “Meet the Mentors”.

What has been your biggest inspiration(s) of late?

It’s definitely being better than my past self. For me, self doubt has been incredibly crippling. When I decided to start speaking, I chose to not turn things down because I was afraid of them. Looking back now on what I came from — always succumbing to the fear and constantly feeling lesser than — it really does inspire me to continue to say yes to new opportunities that completely terrify me.

I’m also lucky to consistently find myself surrounded by inspiring people. One of the coolest parts about speaking is spending significant time with people I wouldn’t have ever met before who give me different perspectives on what success really looks like. I’m constantly inspired by what folks I meet in the industry are doing.

You speak at a lot conferences and are super well-received. What are some of the biggest challenges facing software teams today?

Thank you for the kind words! Diversity is a hot topic right now and, as a black woman speaking at tech conferences, I can absolutely see why. There are a lot of people talking about diversity and how it sucks, and I think the basis of that is people feeling comfortable dealing with those that do not look like them.

Hiring people of color is great, but it’s only the first step in improving tech’s diversity problem. When that person of color comes into the office, what are they going to be met with? A group of people who look nothing like them speaking in a way they don’t get and unwilling to show any empathy for their experience? Managers of people need to take charge of the way their team communicates, especially when their direct reports aren’t all carbon copies of each other. Think about it: how much empathy does one have to show when they are surrounded by people who are just like them?

Company leaders need to invest more time in what happens after they hire people. If culture truly is important, create one that is inclusive. Encourage people to share opinions that are different (in a non-harmful way). Set up a system of communications checks and balances. Don’t let employees be silent in meetings. Also, don’t punish mistakes; take them as an opportunity to teach.

The diversity issue can be fixed. It’s a matter of making your office one that encourages positive communication and empathy. Also, this starts at the top. If you’re at the top of the pyramid, take ownership of what’s happening in the ranks. The way you act has a positive correlation with how your employees act.

You travel a lot, ya? What’s the longest stint you’ve spent on the road? Any favorite spots you’ve visited?

I used to stick around at events a lot longer, but I try to keep the work travel time to a minimum — leave the night before, come back the morning after. So far my longest work stint has been six days. I had to be in San Francisco Monday, Chicago on Wednesday, and Portland on Thursday with a trip back home (to Pittsburgh) Friday. I definitely woke up at 5am one morning in panic not knowing where I was or what time it was!

I do have a pretty intense travel schedule coming up though. For a three-week span from mid-September to early October, I’ll be in Krakow, Poland; Berlin; New York; Brookings, South Dakota; and Miami with three trips home to Pittsburgh squeezed in there. I’m not the best flier (or as my partner says: I’m obsessed with planes and not in a good way haha) so I definitely get nervous when I have a bunch of flights to take, but it’s always worth it.

Favorite place? This one’s easy. I spoke at a conference in Bologna, Italy last year. What was a four-day business trip quickly escalated into a 10-day Italian vacation! After I was done conferencing, my partner and I rented a car and drove down to Tuscany. Driving through the Italian countryside is literally a dream with the rolling hills, vineyards and villas. There’s a town there called Pitigliano that was built on top of a mound of volcanic rock. Definitely the coolest looking town I’ve ever seen. The people are wonderfully kind, the views are something out of a painting, and there was lots of delicious wine.

Pitigliano in Tuscany

The most surprising place was Medellin, Colombia. You really only hear about the bad stuff — the drugs, the violence. I didn’t experience any of that. The people went out of their way to be helpful, and it was a gorgeous place. Also, I had just come back from Europe and was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive everything was. The exchange rate was awesome. I lived like royalty for four days!

I also really loved Boulder, Colorado. I got a chance to drive up into the Rockies and grab brunch in this little mountain town called Nederland. I’d never been to the mountains before, and I can honestly say that I’m now hooked. I can’t wait to get back!

Do you code or tinker with anything (i.e. cooking, knitting)? What have you made recently?

Well, I’ve always liked cooking. The process of it — grocery shopping, cutting vegetables, taste testing — I enjoy from start to finish. Every time I go home to Chicago for any length of time to see my parents, I always end up doing most of cooking because my mom really loves the food I make. I just love it so much. It’s almost like a puzzle, and the prize for solving it is eating. Can’t go wrong!

I also recently got into powerlifting and can deadlift 235 pounds for reps, which is very exciting. I can overhead press 95 pounds. It took me a while to just get the barbell (45 pounds) off my shoulders so when I finally hit the 25 pound plates, I was pretty pumped.

The thing I enjoy about powerlifting is that it’s so different from anything else I do. I spend most of my days solving puzzles having to do generally with writing — blogs, speeches, emails, etc. I’ve been writing professionally since I was a 19. I’m now 32 and guess what — it’s not any easier! Powerlifting is cool because it’s an hour every day that I can shut down my brain and all of my glowing screens and just focus on numbers.

The other thing that I love is that I get to use something other than my brain. If writing has taught me anything, it’s that some of the best ideas happen when I’m not trying to think them up. Using my body, being active and getting stronger has definitely made me a more productive human and the professional side of me has measurably improved.

When was your latest “breakthrough” in something you were working on? Can you share some insights into what that project successful?

I think my evolution as a speaker has been a series of breakthroughs. Before speaking, I was a marketing/business writer and had written speeches for clients in the past. So I knew what it took to create a good speech — you have to pack in a ton of quality content and wrap it in a good story — and I was always incredibly confident in my ability to create a compelling experience for the listener.

So my first breakthrough was speaking in front of people. As a stutterer, my voice has always been a very sore subject for me. I used to dread oral presentations in school or if I had to speak to a group of people for work, so the first breakthrough was when I decided to pursue this officially. You’d think that once you face your biggest fears, they are no longer scary. That is not true.

After I spoke for a while, I realized that the content had to improve but I didn’t know how exactly to do that. After talking to enough people and getting feedback, I had a writing breakthrough as well as a general one — it doesn’t matter how great I think something in a talk I give is, if it doesn’t translate to the audience well it has to go. I had to learn quickly that I needed some emotional detachment from my content.

So I improved as a speechwriter but then I found myself having trouble with speaking. LIke a lot of stutterers, I go through phases of being more comfortable with my speech and, as a result, more fluent. Then I go through times when I feel completely helpless to stuttering and start doing things to avoid it. I’m definitely in the latter phase currently. But I can’t just stop talking because this is now my livelihood.

And here is my current breakthrough — even though I’m uncomfortable talking and feel inadequate, I 1) still have to do my job and 2) still must focus on the the thing that matters: the message. I built my speaking career around exposing my insecurity as a way to help people embrace and work with theirs. I feel incredibly insecure, and that is actually helping my talks. Crazy, right?

Many refer to the idea of “flow” when they discuss how efficient and effective they were while working. Do you have any approaches or rituals to working effectively? What about methods of learning?

Flow, for me, is based in reality but often times the emphasis is placed too much on being touched by the spark of creativity. Yes, I get a lot of valuable things done when when that elusive spark hits. But the vast majority of the time, I am not feeling creative and the flow just isn’t there. When that happens, it’s almost painful. It’s like trying to start a fire with wet matches.

What I find works well for me most of the time is just sitting down in from of a blank word processing sheet and just writing. I pick a topic, aim for a thousand words and just brain dump. Even if what I write ends up being total garbage (which, in all likelihood, it will be), it helps me get in the work mindset. And once I’m in work mode, I can maintain that — with breaks — most of the day.

Being that I work from home, it can be quite difficult to maintain that flow. So on days when I have to get things done, I sit at a table and literally do not move until I’m finished with what I’m doing. And even though I feel like creativity sparks are overrated, whenever I that spark or a bout of inspiration I definitely stop what I’m doing and and get it on paper. I find that the more active I am — running errands, talking a walking break to a coffee shop, etc. — the more “sparks” I get.

When it comes to learning, I’m pretty basic. I’ll break things up into pieces and understand each part before I head on to the next piece. I personally have to learn by doing, and so if there’s any way I can learn something “hands on” than I take that opportunity.

You clearly have been quite busy with all the talks you’ve been giving. What are some common misconceptions people have had about what you normally do for work and hobby?

People who have normal desk jobs view travel as either a huge treat (almost like vacationing while you work) or that it is work but the travel component isn’t that physically and mentally taxing. Neither of those things are true in my case. Traveling for 10+ hours, walking out of the airport in a time zone hours different from mine, and then immediately going to work is exhausting. Being in and out of different hotels, dealing with the unexpectedness of air travel, and not being home is rough. Not to mention spending so much time alone.

With that said, I can’t complain. The good truly outweighs the bad. I’ve met the best humans through my travels. I’ve seen places that have left me in total awe. And I’ve built a ton of confidence and matured a lot since I started doing this a year and a half ago.

Travel forced me to be open minded. Business travel forced me to be quicker on my feet, more productive and generally just a more well-rounded person. If I had a normal job, I’d never have these types of experiences. Yes, it’s rough. Airports suck. Hotels are sterile and boring. But I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

Snowboarder or Skier?

I’ve actually never done either, so this is going to be based purely on visual awesomeness: snowboarding.

If you could invite 5 people to Destination Code, who would they be, and why?

Is saying Oprah cheating? :)

I think people like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson would really enjoy Destination Code. They love tech, bright minds and people who make shit happen; there will be a lot of people there that fall into that category. Hopefully they’d get as much from us and we’d get from them.

I think that the empathy research Brene Brown would be a fascinating addition to the group. She has one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, and she’s worked with people from all walks of life on embracing vulnerability from an academic’s perspective. I’d love for her to talk to the group about the science behind empathy and vulnerability.

I’d also love to invite some of my non-tech friends. The majority of my friends work in corporate America and I think a few of them would find great inspiration in being around creatives, devs and entrepreneurs.

With that said, on a completely personal note, one of the specific people I’d like to invite is my partner. He’s an energy attorney on the east coast, but he has so many great startup ideas. I truly feel like he should be working in tech! I think he’d be really inspired by the types of people who will be at Destination Code because they’re a lot like him — smart, ambitious, hard working. Also, he loves the outdoors and would have a total blast on the mountains snowboarding.

The Destination Code icon

Thank you so much for taking some time to share your experiences with us, and I look forward to having you join us up in Eden, UT from March 27th to 30th, 2017 at Summit Powder Mountain! More info at http://destination.codes.

Destination Code tickets are going on sale soon with a special early bird pricing. Sign up for the waitlist for further updates and to get more interviews and other information first!