Why Sponsorship from Senior Engineers matters
Sometimes it takes some courage to be the person that starts a dance party
If you search for Guy starts dance party on YouTube, you’ll find a 3-minute grainy masterpiece of human interaction with 23 million hits. You’re probably wondering: why would 23 million people watch an old pixelated video of a weird guy dancing by himself?
Initially, everybody near him ignores him, walks around him. His moves are a little weird. It’s almost cringe-worthy to watch. He’s oblivious to the fact he might be making a fool of himself, or maybe he just doesn’t care.
But then, around 30 seconds into the video, Guy#2 walks by and decides to join him. Guy#1 is excited to have a partner: he raises his hands, excited, welcoming. Hey! Join my dance party! you can almost hear him say. Now, there’s TWO weird guys dancing!
Now that there’s two guys dancing, others consider joining. You can see three more join the party a few seconds later.
Now that there’s 5 people dancing, it’s more enticing to join. It ends like this:
This entire thing lasts 3 minutes. Just one person, in just 3 minutes, starts a mass dance party. That’s an amazing lesson in humanity.
I enjoy reading the comments on YouTube as well.
- “You can go from crazy man to visionary in a matter of minutes”
- “If it wasn’t for that one, single dude… they’d all still be sitting down”
- “You can indeed change the world if you inspire other people to follow you”
- “Let us all appreciate the 2nd guy who backed up the first dude, without him this wouldn't have happened”
- “Gotta give guy #2 the credit he deserved for amplifying guy # 1s energy.”
- “So cool how the first dude could’ve theoretically left at some point yet this would’ve continued because of the momentum he created”
So, what does this have to do with my life at Google, Amazon or Microsoft?
At times in my life, I’ve felt like Weird Person#1. I had some idea, something I was passionate about, and for whatever reason I couldn’t get people around me to feel my passion for a while. I tried, and tried, and tried. The times that I eventually succeeded, it was because a Weird Person #2 showed up at the right time, right before giving up.
Other times in my life, I’ve been Weird Person#2. I’ve noticed a person putting themselves out there, I knew it took courage and guts, and I’ve offered my sponsorship or just friendship. Sometimes because I genuinely believed it was a great idea, some other times, because I remember how lonely it felt to be Weird Person#1, and I took a chance.
Both roles (Weird Person#1 and Weird Person#2) are critical in any story where a very large number of people eventually did something. This is the blueprint of any culture shift or tool adoption in a software company.
Be Weird Person #1
I tend to see opportunities where others don’t. Or, maybe, I just see them before others do. Or, maybe I’m just more optimistic than most. Whatever the reason, it means I often have to be Weird Person#1. It’s lonely out there, sometimes for a lot longer than I’m comfortable with.
Being Weird Person#1 is painful. You’re out there socializing what you believe in, and people look at you like you’re crazy, or plain ignore you. There were times where I would show up to a work meeting, talk about something I was passionate about, and an awkward silence would follow for Q&A. Even while I was talking, some people would open up their laptops and get on their email to multitask, clearly uninterested in my message.
Have you ever seen a speaker that, in a futile attempt to engage the audience and make a presentation more interactive, asks a question hoping somebody in the room will answer it, a few awkward seconds of dead silence follow, and then they just proceed, more nervous than they were before? I took a course on public speaking and I learned the secret. Most speakers don’t wait long enough. They ask the question, wait 2 or 3 seconds, and move on, flustered nobody answered. My speaking coach taught me to use this as an opportunity to take a sip of water, breathe, and wait at least 10 seconds if I really want an answer. It works — it’s amazing what a couple of extra seconds can do!
Bottom line, most people give up being Weird Person#1 too soon. Ask a question during a talk, wait 3 embarrassing seconds, move on. If you had waited an additional 5 seconds somebody would have answered your question. Articulate a vision in a whitepaper and put it out there, nobody seems to be interested at first, give up. If you had continued beating the drum for a couple more weeks maybe you would have found the perfect sponsor. Go try your weird dance moves at a music festival, nobody else follows, feel like a fool, stop dancing. If you had continued another 30 seconds you could have started a flash mob dance.
Here’s some examples from my life.
Code Coverage at Amazon. I wrote up a long version of this story here, so I won’t reiterate it here in full, but I’ll give you a summary. In 2011, code coverage (and unit testing) was not quite a first-class citizen at Amazon. I wrote a tool that aggregated, and reported, code coverage for entire projects, for my team, just so that they would start paying more attention to it. Since they found it useful, I decided to open up to anybody at Amazon. And nobody adopted it! So my tool sat there gathering dust for a year. I felt like I had been the Weird Person#1, I had danced, and nobody had danced with me, so I had stopped dancing before I made a bigger fool out of myself. It was only through a series of unusual events that I ended up giving the tool a second life 2 years later, after some encouragement, and that’s when it really took off, grandfathering a bunch of innovation in the way Amazon looked at code coverage and unit tests as first-class citizens of the development process.
Load Testing at Amazon. This is another story that I wrote about in the past here so I won’t rehash it in full detail again. The short version is that I created a load and performance tool for my team after we experienced a high profile and expensive operational issue. I gained both passion and knowledge on load and performance testing, and I started evangelizing to anybody that would listen to me. I really did feel like “Weird Person#1 dancing by myself” in a lot of these meetings. Sometimes people would listen to me, but wouldn’t take any action afterwards. Or sometimes they would use my tool once, then forget about it. The only thing that kept me going was getting occasional thank you emails from engineers that had benefited from using it. I was just hours away from giving up, when I got an email that said, “[with you tool] I managed to identify and fix several bottlenecks increasing our performance from about 5 transactions per second per host to 50!” That made my day. Now I knew how Weird Person#1 felt when Weird Person #2 joined him. Next day, “We have used [your tool] to determine the optimal host type for the X fleet which saved us ~25% over our original host type (that’s $400k/yr).” These sorts of emails kept me going till I had a flash mob dance around load and performance testing… by the time I left Amazon, it was used by 10,000 services across the entire company.
Being Weird Person#1 means that you have to be comfortable doing this for a bit longer than it feels right to do it. Change, particularly innovative change, takes time. Think of it as beating a drum — you start with soft-beating, and increase the intensity of it with time. And you must keep that drum beat going. You have to cast your net wide: maybe you’re not getting traction because you’re talking to the wrong people. This may also mean you have to be comfortable talking to a lot of people that statistically aren’t going to care or “get” your vision. And you have to constantly evolve and fine tune your message: maybe you’re not getting traction because you’re not saying the right things.
Sometimes it’s the wrong time. You’re too early to a dance party. But that’s ok. Articulate your thoughts in writing, socialize the whitepaper, create a proof of concept, talk to others. It may be the case that by the time “the right time comes” you will have done all this homework so you’ll be prepared to jump on it, and people will naturally think of you as “the person” to go talk to about this.
Be Weird Person#2
In both of those examples, and many more in my life, what made the difference was at some point I had Weird Person #2 join my awkward solitary dance, just as I was about to give up.
Just like I am where I am in my career because others gave me sponsorship, it’s my responsibility to pay it forward. Yours too.
One obvious way to provide Sponsorship is on career growth. A couple of years ago, back at Amazon, I was working with an amazing Senior Engineer that was clearly operating as Principal. But she was far too modest to see it. She had very high standards (we want that in our Principals!) and was just a hard judge on herself. I grabbed coffee with her and dissected every single thing that she had done in the last year and argued why I thought those were Principal-level achievements. Still she didn’t believe me. I secretly chatted with her manager and several other Principals and Directors and secured their endorsement for her promotion. Next coffee I had with her, I started with, “I have four people ready to endorse your promotion, if you don’t write your promo doc, I’ll write it for you!” She got promoted 2 months later with unanimous support. She would have been promoted with or without me, because she’s awesome, but if my sponsorship helped that happen a little earlier than it would have otherwise, that makes me happy!
Sometimes Sponsorship is subtle. About a year ago, I attended a meeting here at Google. An engineer was pitching an idea. I was mostly a fly-on-the-wall. It was a good idea, but more and more people in the room started expressing their skepticism and asking really hard questions. They weren’t buying it. I could see this individual getting deflated as the meeting went on. I realized he was Weird Person #1. I initially kept my mouth shut because I was a little overwhelmed just being a noogler (“new googler”). But then I thought, I need to be Weird Person #2 right now! I didn’t even know him, but I interrupted, surprising some people in the room: “I think it’s a great idea. I’d like to be part of your effort!” I could see his eyes brighten up. This individual, myself and one more person started a Director-wide program and grew to 20 members in 3 timezones within a year, becoming really good friends in the process.
Being Weird Person #2 doesn’t mean indiscriminately encouraging everybody to do anything. You have limited hours in your day. The company has finite resources. Sometimes ideas are just plain bad. Or sometimes ideas are good but the individuals that want to execute them aren’t the right people.
Whether you like it or not, whether you agree it’s warranted or not, your title and level do carry some weight. Use that wisely to sponsor the right ideas around you.
As a Senior, Staff or Principal engineer, Sponsorship is a critical tool in your influencing tool belt. The more that you grow in seniority, the more this becomes a mandatory part of your job. Realize that sometimes, a small investment encouraging somebody here or there can make all the difference in the world at the right time.