On Becoming a Presence in the Software Community

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I don’t do personal posts much on this blog, but it’s the week after Thanksgiving, so it seems fitting to try a brief change of pace.

A while back I was talking to a friend about the Crossfit Games, where lots of high profile athletes and coaches can be found wandering among the crowd. From this, my friend and I broached the topic of meeting our heroes.

I don’t specifically aspire to meet my heroes—at least not the high-profile ones. I recognize that the person I meet is likely not the person I imagine.

Two reasons for that. First, the version in my head isn’t real. I have combined my knowledge of this person’s accomplishments and skills with a personality that I made up. And if I admire their accomplishments and skills, then I’m likely to gift them an aspirational personality—an unfailingly positive, giving, kind one. That’s a tall order, right? In real life, they’re people—people with talents, worries, and flaws, just like you or me. My version of them might not include how they act when they’ve had a bad day, or when they’re tired.

But second, even if my assumptions about their personality were dead on, few high-profile people can bring their true personality to their meet-and-greets. Their public persona represents not only them, but also half a dozen sponsors. They’re responsible for meeting thousands of fans, sometimes in a single day, and making a positive impression on all of them. This might sound like a champagne problem, but it’s exhausting work. It can require donning an armor of detached pleasantness that protects their genuine energy, but also encloses it. They’re not quite real in those interactions. That’s the cost.

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So maybe I can’t meet the “real” them, or maybe it wouldn’t be fair to expect the “real” them to live up to my idealized version. But I’ve learned something from meeting a few of my heroes, plus hundreds of others who weren’t specifically my heroes: people don’t end up being cool, or not cool, based on the things that they have done on paper.

Instead, it comes down to how much they value being present with someone else.
 
I have a friend and mentor who intimidated me when we first met five years ago. What could I, a lowly bootcamper, possibly say of value to someone with twenty years’ experience—a principal developer, a keynote speaker, a household name in open source software?

Of course, I still think that this person is fascinating and brilliant. But her accomplishments are not what springs to mind when I think of her.

Instead, I think about a time when I was going through a tough life change. My friend made me a massive mug of tea and listened to me talk myself in circles for four hours.

Whenever I make a massive mug of tea, I think about my friend.

I only own one massive mug. It was a gift from another friend of mine. This friend throws gorgeous mugs and teapots for fun on the side of his own formidable resume of accomplishments.

Once, while we were stuffing our faces with egg tarts, this friend shared a saying with me that he has tried to live by lately: “Soul over ego.”

It’s the kind of pithy phrase that you could re-appropriate to mean whatever you want it to mean. To me, it means reminding myself to value being present with someone else.

Back to the first friend—the one to whom I spoke about the athletes at the CrossFit games.

This friend reached out to a widely recognized name in the programming community for advice about something tech-related. At the time, though, my friend was dealing with some really difficult family changes of his own.

When the time came to talk to the household name, my friend had had an especially tough day, and it came through in the conversation.

Do you know what that household name did?

He held space for my friend, and cried with him, over video chat.

How many of the people who wrote your favorite programming books do you suppose would do that?

I’m not saying that they have to. I’m not saying I expect that of them. But their willingness to do that, especially when their fame or power uniquely guards them against having to do that, and even prevents them from doing it sometimes…

…makes them rare.

Rarer than their accomplishments make them.

Far, far far rarer than “smart people” are.

And to learn to be this type of cool—to learn to be present with someone else—I don’t have to have to garner fame, fortune, or even a blue ribbon at the local county fair.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to do anything.

It means I need to set aside time and energy to work on skills that allow me to be present with someone else: noticing them, appreciating them, listening to them, asking them questions, caring about their answers.

I’m finding that the people whose perspectives I seek are not necessarily the coolest on paper. Instead, I gravitate toward the ones who come to be present with me.

And I cannot help but believe in the poetic idea that learning to be present with others makes our presence in the software community more impactful.

In fact, it presents us with an alternative to fame, accomplishments, or genius to make our presence matter.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The listening series (same idea as this piece, but more implementation-focused)

Why make yourself replaceable, and how? (A piece so good that Malcolm Laing plagiarized it, to resounding applause on Medium)

Enabling your Pair During Pair Programming (If you appreciated the CrossFit example above, you might appreciate the bench press analogy in this piece)

2 comments

  1. This opened up a whole bunch of thoughts in me and I hope you’ll indulge me sharing them.

    I have something in me that wishes to be famous for something, even on a small scale. When I started my software blog some years ago I hoped it would be a lever into becoming THE Jim Grey. Hasn’t happened. It’s ok; my life and career are objectively very good. I’m through my midlife crisis, figuring out how to continue this great career through the rest of my 50s and into my 60s, choosing to be content toiling in obscurity. I’ve been at some level of management for 22 years now and leaves me to double down on being the best at that I can be, which to me means being real enough with the people I work with that perhaps I can be the one to create those safe spaces when need be.

    I’m fortunate that two people I knew only from their online presences and their books have become, if not full on coaches and mentors, at least people I can send an email to with a question or a thought and get a solid reply back. One wrote a bunch of blog posts that revolutionized the way I look at my career and the other taught me every solid principle I know about project management. Even though I have a lower need for privacy than most people, I still can’t imagine unloading on them about personal challenges. Perhaps I’m blocking opportunity for a more real connection, but I am afraid to cross that line if they’re not willing, and there’s no real way to know if they’re willing without crossing that line.

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