My Open/Closed-Door Policy

At a recent leadership conference sponsored by my company, I received the following anonymous feedback:

“Philip has done an excellent job creating a safe, supportive, and creative environment for his team. This has happened, in no small part, because of Philip’s ‘open door’ policy, which is a philosophy Philip truly stands by. He is always accommodating when it comes to questions, concerns, problems, or just to lend an ear. His willingness to stop what he’s working on, and put his direct reports first, has helped build trust among the team, makes them feel valued, and sets a good example for his direct reports. This is something that all managers can aspire to.”

I was really happy to see this because this confirms pretty much all the things I have been hoping to achieve in terms of leadership: feeling trusted and valued by a manager. So, the question then becomes how to create that atmosphere of trust and value. I do my best to meet with individual team members weekly, and I have a few simple rules that guides my meetings with my team.

  • Meeting time is their time. I have a general framework for an agenda to give the meeting some focus—roadblocks, questions, development, goals review, and administrative topics—but the contents of each section are entirely up to them. There are usually one or two things I have to update on during the meeting, but their weekly update meeting is their meeting to run. This means the meeting can run as short or as long as needed. If they only need 20 minutes and need to get back to a critical project, fine. If they need 2 hours to dive deep into a topic, fine. We can break up the meeting if need be, and they don’t have to wait until the following week’s meeting to pair up again. They can reschedule if they need.
  • Everyone is allowed to make mistakes. This is not a new concept, but I do my best to view a mistake as a learning moment.  One caveat to this is I prefer to hear about the mistake from the team member themselves as opposed to someone from outside the team. When discussing projects, I’m okay with hedging bets. Let me know where you think you need some wiggle room, so there are no surprises. This is because if the team member admits to a mistake up front, or highlighted an area where something could go wrong, and did, then they are being both attentive and learning. This also means I own up to my own mistakes, and team members can call me out on them. I don’t take it personally because everyone makes mistakes. Correct me when I say something incorrect, even in meetings (especially in meetings; I am rarely the smartest person in the room).
  • If you don’t understand something, ask. I’m happy to explain. I love to whiteboard. Just be prepared to return the favor when asked.
  • Decisions are mutually justifiable wherever possible. I like consensus. I like open conversations where everyone understands all the facts revealed to them, and we all kick around what things mean until we all meet somewhere in the middle. I have found when we have worked through not just how things work but also why things work the way they do consensus is far easier and the solution understandable. There are times when my hand is forced by some external influence, or things just go off the rails, and I have to make a top-down decision. But that’s rare when I do I do my best to explain why I am making the decision I am. By that point, there shouldn’t be any surprises in how I think.
  • All meetings are confidential by default. I feel this is the most crucial element to my meetings, and is what makes my Open-Door Policy actually a Closed-Door Policy. There are obviously things we need to discuss with others to move projects along. But the dirty work of working through problems, answering questions in excruciating detail, all stays behind my closed door. It’s that simple.

Pro Tip

1 package of Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Pop Tarts is the caloric equivalent to 4 cans of Miller Lite.

That is all.

Newton

I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist. Nothing can be more charming than the tales of his mechanical contrivances when he was a boy. There are his telescopes and his optical experiments, These were essential accomplishments, part of his unequalled all-round technique, but not, I am sure, his peculiar gift, especially amongst his contemporaries. His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary – ‘so happy in his conjectures’, said De Morgan, ‘as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving’. The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards – they were not the instrument of discovery.

― John Maynard Keynes

This reminds me of this quote from Douglas Adams:

He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which.

I aspire to be both, though I think I’m more in the latter rather than the former.

The Paradox of Tolerance

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper, 1945

“A Charmingly Preposterous Icon of American Masculinity”

A great article from the Hollywood Reporter article, Critic’s Notebook: Burt Reynolds Was a Charmingly Preposterous Icon of American Masculinity:

Reynolds probably made more terrible movies than almost any other star of comparable stature, full of juvenile humor and casual locker-room sexism. But even in his preposterously bewigged and bushy-mustached prime, he always seemed to embody an uncomplicated, undiluted, effortlessly likable strain of American masculinity that was driven much more by sunny mischief than angsty machismo. Not for him the tortured histrionics of Brando or Pacino. To his credit, Reynolds never seemed to take anything too seriously. Certainly not his career choices, and especially not himself. . . “I don’t take myself seriously, and I think the ones that do, there’s some sickness with people like that.”

I always like Burt Reynolds for this very reason. He knew exactly who he was, a similar quality I see in other male actors like William Shatner. I’ve seen all of Burt Reynolds’ movies, and there aren’t very many actors I follow like that.

Then, there is this quote which caught me by surprise:

“The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting,” he once said, “but never for being right and dull.”

This is applicable in so many other situations, even at work. Speaking from experience here.

XML and Search

Back in 1999–2000, I was working for a small, local compositor and doing some freelance graphic design.[1] Working at the compositor was good, if a bit of a grind. I liked the work, but I was trying to figure out how to get onto the publisher side of the equation, because that had more of a long-term future and a variety of career paths.

My mother was working at Pearson (now retired), and one day said to me, “You need to go learn XML. If you learn XML, you will never be out of a job.” What’s interesting about this moment is that my mother disputes two key facts.  First, she doesn’t recall ever having that conversation with me.  Second, she said that if we did have that conversation, she would have said “SGML,” not “XML.”

I swear she said “XML” but she must be right because I promptly went out and bought Practical SGML by Eric van Herwijnen.[2] Besides, we definitely had the conversation because at that time, I never would have come up with SGML on my own. I had never even heard of SGML before then. I was still stuck in Quark and managing the company’s server backups.

Either way, I practically inhaled that book. Pretty much everything made sense, both in terms of how it explains SGML and my own innate grasping of the concepts. Soon after reading the book, I tried playing with some of the concepts in the book with demonstrable success.  In 2001, I landed a job at a publisher based on my familiarity with XML through SGML.

There, I was able to demonstrate XML’s power in InDesign through building the company’s international catalog, saving a ton of time and error.  That work led to more technical projects, which in turn led to others, needing to learn new skills, and so on. All of which I leveraged to eventually pivoting my career from graph design into computer science, and opportunities which I found to be a lot more interesting to me. [3] Parallel to those efforts, Indian composition firms exploded in size, and a lot of domestic firms ended up being acquired or simply going out of business, including the one I was working for previously. Which of course means my mother was right that if I learned XML I would never be out of a job.

After working with XML for as long as I have, I understand the derision towards XML by the developer community at large. It’s just not the most exciting technology. It’s verbose, hardly human-readable beyond a low threshold of complexity, the development tools are usually esoteric and at times outright cryptic. Then there is the whole issue of working with schemas and DTDs, which have their own variant syntaxes. It’s not hard to master, but the surrounding environments allow you to get into all sorts of poorly-documented trouble.

But through all of those technical thickets is immense power and value by having all of that content semantically identified. XML is an exceedingly small portion of what I do today, but it is still foundational to what I do. These days, I am focused on building robust content search and re-use capabilities to meet a wide variety of business needs. XML lies at the core of those efforts because so much of that content is stored in XML or soon will be. Those semantics are what is going to drive so much search going forward, knowing what kind of content exists where, which makes it well worth the effort and reinforces its utility to me today.

If I had to say to someone what I thought the next big career skill would be, I would say learn how to search. Really understand how search tools like Google’s advanced search and using modifiers like “AND”, “OR”, and “site:”. I’ve been thinking about a quote I read by Chris Bolin where he wrote [4]…

“Make time. I bet the thing that makes you valuable is not your ability to Google something, but your ability to synthesize information. Do your research online, but create offline.”

I like that quote because it’s definitely true of my career these days, but the ability to search in any system, even Google, has been an immensely beneficial skill to have. Searching Google is not as frustrating when  you know there is just as much of a chance the answer you are looking for is a few pages into the search results, and new search terms may be revealed with a bit of research.

But, in addition to Google, esoteric wikis and content management systems just open up troves of information once I know the search modifiers. It may not be a publicly demonstrable skill like putting together that killer presentation, but the ability to research most any system for what you need is vital to coming to that solution.

——

[1] For those uninitiated in publishing, a compositor is a company that essentially builds books, taking manuscript, applying a design to it, and combining components to build a cohesive product. Most of this work in Adobe InDesign, but there are many other applications that do something similar, like LaTeX.

[2] https://www.springer.com/us/book/9780792306351

[3] Not that I didn’t like graphic design, but rather I found I was a lot better at programming than I was at graphic design. 

[4] Sorry, can’t find the original link.

Gödel, Escher, Bach

When I was in high school, a bunch of the honors English students had copies of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. They swore it was an awesome book. I was not an honors English student (I did terrible in high school) but I still hung around them because I was on the Speech and Debate team (one of the things I was actually really good at doing, and the only part of high school I genuinely enjoyed). I bought a copy because I figured they were on to something if they had all read it. Personally, I think some of them bought it because it looked cool in a nerdy sort of way and only claimed to have read it.. But I can’t criticize them for that because I bought it for the very same reason. Just by thumbing through it has an appealing pretentiousness. I found a copy for cheap at a used book store, and cracked it open.

I must have tried reading this book several times over the years, but I clearly was not equipped to read something like that (which spurned and fueled my doubts about most of the honors English students’ claims). I knew nothing of computer science and high-level mathematics, much less any formal knowledge of philosophy. I was still very much held onto the incorrect notion that much of philosophy was so much navel gazing about the universe. The book read like a foreign language to me. These were English sentences, but the words had little to meaning to me. So, I put it away, and did not open it again for another 30 years. Still, I lugged that thing around with a ton of other books I had, from apartment to apartment and even across the country, because it still has that nerdy cache that can be used to impress friends the way it was used to impress me (albeit falsely but I think we all do that one way or another).

Just recently, I was looking for a book for a friend in my personal library, and came across my copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach. I soon realized I was equipped with at least the rudimentary tools to approach this book, because when I graduated Harvard Extension, I walked away with a Computer Science concentration and Government minor, the latter being grounded in political philosophy, with some moral philosophy and logic thrown in for good measure, and with honors. So, I if I could tackle all of that, I could tackle this book.

Last night, I cracked it open one more time, read the overview, and all of it made sense. I decided right then I’m going to read it finally. It is clearly as pretentious as it appears, but I will have a good time with it all the same, just as I did hanging out with the honors English students while on the Speech and Debate team.

The Wisdom of Insecurity

Music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow. Yet the moment you arrest the flow and prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life.

The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts, 1951

Pocket City

I don’t have a lot of time to play games, as much as I love playing them. So, when I decide on a new game to play, I choose carefully so my time isn’t wasted. For iOS, my “go to” is Minecraft if only because I like to play with Lego, and the analog between the two is obvious. However, given the increasingly rare time I have to play, it’s been all too easy to get into a rut. A pleasant distraction still, but a rut all the same.

I don’t know how I landed on Kotaku’s review of Pocket City but it reminded me of how much I loved playing SimCity way back in the days of monochrome Macs. I looked at SimCity, itself, but it has in-game currency to purchase, which is a business model I won’t support. I prefer to pay a fair price up front, and get the whole game, even if I have to unlock content through well-designed achievements. A sandbox or creative mode is even better. Minecraft has in-game purchases, I know, but the difference is that I don’t feel pressured to buy anything. I can take it or leave it, and the entirety of Minecraft is available solely through gameplay.

The point here being that Kotaku’s review of Pocket City is spot on. If you miss SimCity’s creativity and depth, and don’t want to deal with the chicanery of in-game currency, then Pocket City is the way to go. At $4.99, it’s practically a steal.

P.S.: In case anyone asks, I’m not associated with Kotaku or Pocket City. I’m just an intensely fickle customer who has been delighted.

 

Vox.com: “Epistocracy: a political theorist’s case for letting only the informed vote”

Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan author of Against Democracy

We know that an unfortunate side effect of democracy is that it incentivizes citizens to be ignorant, irrational, tribalistic, and to not use their votes in very serious ways. So this is an attempt to correct for that pathology while keeping what’s good about a democratic system.

We have to ask ourselves what we think government is actually for. Some people think it has the value a painting has, which is to say that it’s symbolic. In that view, you might think, “We should have democracy because it’s a way of civilizing and expressing the idea that all of us have equal value.”

There’s another way of looking at government, which is that it’s a tool, like a hammer, and the purpose of politics is to generate just and good outcomes, to generate efficiency and stability, and to avoid mistreating people. So if you think government is for that purpose, and I do, then you have to wonder if we should pick the form of government that best delivers the goods, whatever that might be.

I read this book when it first came out. Even if you do not agree with his solution of replacing democracy with an epistocracy, his critique of modern democracy is witheringly on point and worth a read by anyone who is interested in government, regardless of their political leanings.