Finding flow

What led three Cozyans to follow surprising paths

After hearing stories that started with “Back when I worked at…” and ended with, “I made a necktie with programmable LED lights,” I noticed a pattern. Many of us at Cozy have made major pivots in our careers, including me.

I’ve worked in brain cancer and endocrinology medical research labs, been an assistant at a veterinary office, led white water rafting trips, poured drinks as a bartender, and coached sports for kids. While I know how each of my jobs led to the next one, I wanted to understand how other people made these leaps. Did their job paths have something in common? Or did they share some trait?

I honed in on three Cozyans: Matt Greensmith, the technological realization of a jack-of-all-trades, Jess Engel, a lifelong creative who found her calling in software development, and Gino Zahnd, Cozy’s founder and CEO, whose career path may have set the precedent for hiring individuals with diverse work histories.

At first, I assumed their desire to learn led to their career twists. They were driven by curiosity, a trait all of us at Cozy seem to share. But curiosity was just the start.

Sure, an eagerness to learn helps you explore new opportunities, but to find fulfillment, you need to be able to find satisfaction in what you’re doing as you’re doing it.

A Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the idea that satisfaction comes from living in the moment. He called it “flow” (and wrote a book called “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”). His theory centers around the idea that people experience the most enjoyable moments of their lives when they overcome physical and mental challenges to achieve a defined goal.

You’ve probably experienced flow — when you complete a jigsaw puzzle; swish back and forth on skis through fresh powder; or methodically chop, sauté, and season ingredients to compose a meal. You might even feel it as you grip a steering wheel and drive through intense weather and precarious road conditions.

You get lost in the challenge and the intense focus of the moment. You might feel like no time has elapsed. That’s flow.

Concentration in the cockpit

“To break the bonds of gravity is one of the oldest dreams of mankind.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“A helmet fire is when you have too much stimulus surrounding, so you can’t process it effectively,” Matt told me. “You’re in a bad situation — your engine has failed, you’re spinning, or too many gauges are flashing red at you. You’re trying to deal with too many things at once and you just don’t cope, you just shut down.”

Matt, a senior engineer at Cozy, who has a beard that slightly obscures his mischievous grin, used to be a commercial helicopter pilot, one of many jobs in an impressive spectrum of employment: wedding DJ, school district IT administrator, call center manager, and professional bingo caller.

When I asked him to tell me what he does at Cozy, Matt leaned back in his chair and ran out of fingers as he counted his duties: build and operate the servers that Cozy runs on, make sure the servers perform reliably and securely, back up and protect data, write software to enable developers to work effectively, manage the office IT, dabble in data science and reporting, and fix things as the office handyperson.

No one’s life is at stake if Cozy’s website goes down, but if it does, Matt is responsible for getting it back up. That kind of moment might cause most people to panic. Not Matt. He knows how to recognize and circumvent the threat of a helmet fire.

“We care very much about security and reliability of our platform, so when problems happen, there’s an instinctual panic response,” he told me. “People freak out, and when you panic, you can instinctively make bad decisions — quick, let’s turn this thing off and try and start it up again, or change this configuration on the fly. Let’s do this drastic thing that we haven’t really thought through.”

Instead, Matt detaches from panic, so he can methodically handle any crisis or operational problem. He revels in these moments.

“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but of exercising control in difficult situations,” Csikszentmihaly wrote. “It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines.”

The risks of piloting and managing Cozy’s operational systems requires an intense focus and a practiced situational awareness. Matt’s exceptional ability to mitigate that risk, something most of us couldn’t do with such calm, makes him feel accomplished and empowered, one of the reasons he loves his job.

Coding as art

Jess adjusted her dark-rimmed glasses and tucked a bright green lock of hair behind her ears, as she considered why she enjoys writing code so much.

“There are so many avenues,” she said, “so many ways to get lost in it.” She pushed her sleeves up to reveal a tapestry of vibrant tattoos.

Even as a fine arts graduate, Jess told me she feels more absorbed in coding than she ever did with art — whether she was drawing, painting, or taking photographs. (With the exception of her study of technical art of animation.)

Part of her fascination with coding revolves around the complexity of the codebase as a whole. Modern applications, like Cozy, are made up of many smaller components that form an integrated online app. Each piece of the codebase has unique qualities, and performs specific actions within the system, so understanding how it all fits together is imperative.

Jess told me how in critical art theory, the context of a piece’s creation, and an artist’s personal history, can be viewed as part of the artwork itself. For her, code functions the same way. Building any subsection of the codebase requires an awareness of how that new development will impact everything around it.

“Coding is art that doesn’t stop,” she says. “It just continues to change and grow.”

By critiquing art, Jess re-examined her own beliefs about human existence through abstract, philosophical questions. But she never found the voice she needed to explore these topics in her own art. Instead she found the satisfaction of creation while coding, and her programming goals are more tangible and easier to realize than with art.

Working within an extensive codebase gives Jess goosebumps. At first, she explained, you have to become familiar with a given codebase, but after awhile, its vastness stops being intimidating. As she’s working, Jess loses track of her surroundings and becomes completely focused. She feels a transcendence of time and space.

Csikszentmihalyi described that focus as a key tenet of flow that allows someone to lose their own self-consciousness and connect with something larger.

“What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are,” he wrote. “And being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable. When not preoccupied with ourselves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.”

When Jess and her teammates start writing code, they work towards a common goal. That shared space and responsibility shows how teamwork can play in flow. Each person’s work contributes to the collective performance of the team, and of Cozy. “All involved share in a feeling of harmony and power,” Csikszentmihalyi said.

That connection with the act of coding not only builds Cozy’s web application, but creates a team bond while shaping and re-affirming Jess’s sense of self as a software engineer.

Jess laughed as she thought about how other Cozy engineers might think about the role coding plays in their lives. “Maybe they don’t see it as art, but they see it as their baby: a changing, evolving thing that they feel close to.”

Amps, feedback, and rock n’ roll

There are many metrics you can use to gauge performance, to sense what’s otherwise invisible and quantify progress. We use thermometers, stopwatches, and key performance indicators. Is the turkey done cooking? Did I beat my personal best? Is our company achieving the growth rate we anticipated?

While quantitative performance can be measured with KPIs, the fluid, emotive feedback from playing music can be a musician’s ultimate goal. Just ask Cozy’s CEO and founder, Gino Zahnd.

“For me,” he said, adjusting his flat-brim cap, “everything pales in comparison to the feeling I have when I’m playing with a group of accomplished musicians in front of a large crowd. There’s no better feeling than that.”

Receiving instant judgement on your work doesn’t happen all the time, but it does on the stage, where you’re in control yet vulnerable to the audience at the same time. The goal, Gino says, is to evoke human emotion.

“Fundamentally, it’s about empathy and being able to tune into how other people are feeling and adjust whatever signal you’re broadcasting,” he said.

In many ways, he measures Cozy’s performance in the same way. “When you launch something or put another feature out, it creates an emotional response. If it’s successful, the response will be a good one.”

As the face of Cozy, Gino’s told the stories behind pivotal moments in his journey to the point where they’ve become compositions that ebb and flow into each other, hitting all the crescendos at just the right moment. But I wanted to know more about his improvisations along the way.

For Gino, music became an outlet for his creative energy; he played in symphonic, marching, and jazz bands during the ten years he studied music. Percussion was his focus, but he dabbled with other instruments as well: bass, piano, and guitar.

Music also seemed to be a way for Gino to create order and convey information (musical notes and harmonies) in a way that optimized the performer’s and audience’s experiences.

The theme of optimization tied into his college years, when he studied broadcast journalism and film. He distilled large amounts of information into the written word and visual elements, a process he took to his next job as an interactive designer.

Starting a company with a mission to make renting easier for everyone was ambitious, but in a way, it was a natural progression for Gino. Writing music and creating songs with a group of musicians had a lot in common with building a company.

“You take an idea and you try to surround yourself with people who are all better musicians, technologists, designers, support people, or business people, than you,” he said. “The end result is always better than what you could have created on your own.”

The balancing act of performing to an audience while simultaneously communicating with bandmates requires an incredible amount of awareness of your surroundings, Gino explained. You’re reading and reacting to the audience, and playing off the energy you’re receiving back. That reminds him of listening to customer feedback and making product improvements at Cozy.

Csikszentmihalyi calls that “instant feedback,” one of the key components of flow. Positive feedback lets you know you’ve succeeded in your goal.

When Gino touched on the impact those positive responses had on him, I sensed the joy he took from his and Cozy’s accomplishments, from the smallest tweaks to the website to the growth he’s seen in his team. Internal fulfillment brings happiness, Csikszentmihalyi stressed, and a feeling of strength.

Gino still picks up at least one musical instrument on most days. Sometimes he strolls through the office with a ukulele tucked under his arm, lightly strumming some bubbly chords. For him, music is still an end in itself.


Originally published at cozy.co.