Sunday, July 28, 2019

People matter more than programming

I am finding the book i am reading at the moment fascinating for many reasons. The book is Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs.

This book is almost autobiographical in nature, but of a different kind. I have read autobiographies of the leaders from various fields in life but this one covers the events in a life of an Apple engineer (Ken Kocienda) and through that lens explains company's unique design philosophy. He covers his journey through the various projects including the first-ever soft keyboard design, creation of WebKit for composing webmail, building Safari browser from scratch and even shares difficult technical concepts with relatable analogies.

The part that i intend to talk about in this blog is not the analogies Ken writes (i do want to write about it sometime), not the technologies but the phrase that he uses somewhere in the book:

People matter more than programming
Ken was disappointed at not been given the managerial position after successfully delivering Safari browser project. Apparently, his colleague was favored over him. Though he moved on to a different project, the disappointment stayed with him. He appeared for interview with Google and eventually reached a stage where he was asked to confirm the offer. At this stage, he spoke with his Scott Forstall, who was the VP at that time. Infact, Scott himself reached out to him and understood what made him tick and assured that he wouldn't want Ken to leave. Though there wasn't any managerial positions open at that time, Scott figured out a new project (about making Web email work with Apple mail) that had visibility at the level of Steve Jobs. Ken hung on and delivered on the project.

During the execution of the project, he was faced with a typical technical issue where he wasn't able to place the cursor at the right place when the user chose to reply via HTML. On surface, this seemed like an easy problem but deep within, it had various nuances that needed to be taken care of. Feeling struck, he reached out to his old manager (who over-looked him for managerial position, but was still a friend). He suggested to seek guidance of 2 of the senior colleagues. Later, Ken explained the problem and brainstormed the solution with the suggested people. He was eventually able to clear his mind and fix the problem and deliver on the project.

Looking at these two distinct experiences, the situations could easily have gotten out of Ken's favor if they were approached with a binary mindset. Most technology decisions are binary, in the sense that there is a right solution and there isn't one. There are trade-offs but more often decisions tend to be this way. When it comes to people, there are far many variables at play least of which are motivations, emotions, personal situations, backgrounds, context under which they are operating.

Scott couldn't have given Ken his personal attention and Apple would have lost him to Google. With the busyness of Scott's schedule, he could have just said he was busy and chose not to meet Ken. Or he might have met and not shown enough empathy and follow up.

Don could have simply let his ego overtake himself (as Ken expressed displeasure on his decision to not give him managerial position) and given an half-hearted advice to Ken. Or Ken could have chosen to not listen to advice given by colleagues and shown vanity by thinking his skills were above anyone else.

None of these situations happened. It didn't happen because all the people involved in the situations showed exemplary emotional intelligence. They showed awareness of situation they were in, they showed empathy and showed maturity in not letting their egos overtake them.
These behaviors eventually helped solve the problems that were technical and that were deep but without them writing a single line of code.

Ken sums up these experiences beautifully when he says:

As a programmer and self-professed geek, possessed of typical geek programmer's communication skills, it was a revelation to me that both the setting and the solution to my hardest technical problem turned as much on the social side of my job it did on the software side.

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