Learning is hard

02Nov13

I feel like I’m taking a big personal risk writing this, even though I know the internet is large and probably no-one will read this :-).

So, dear reader, please be gentle.

As we grow – as people, as developers, as professionals – some lessons are are hard to learn (e.g. you have to keep trying and trying to learn the task), and some are hard to experience (they might still be hard to learn, but just being there is hard itself…) I want to talk about a particular lesson I started learning in late 2008/early 2009 – while I was at Canonical – sadly one of those that was hard to experience.

At the time I was one of the core developers on Bazaar, and I was feeling pretty happy about our progress, how bzr was developing, features, community etc. There was a bunch of pressure on to succeed in the marketplace, but that was ok, challenges bring out the stubborn in me :). There was one glitch though – we’d been having a bunch of contentious code reviews, and my manager (Martin Pool) was chatting to me about them.

I was – as far as I could tell – doing precisely the right thing from a peer review perspective: I was safeguarding the project, preventing changes that didn’t fit properly, or that reduced key aspects- performance, usability – from landing until they were fixed.

However, the folk on the other side of the review were feeling frustrated, that nothing they could do would fix it, and generally very unhappy. Reviews and design discussions would grind to a halt, and they felt I was the cause. [They were right].

And here was the thing – I simply couldn’t understand the issue. I was doing my job; I wasn’t angry at the people submitting code; I wasn’t hostile; I wasn’t attacking them (but I was being shall we say frank about the work being submitted). I remember saying to Martin one day ‘look, I just don’t get it – can you show me what I said wrong?’ … and he couldn’t.

Canonical has a 360′ review system – every 6 months / year (it changed over time) you review your peers, subordinate(s) and manager(s), and they review you. Imagine my surprise – I was used to getting very positive reports with some constructive suggestions – when I scored low on a bunch of the inter-personal metrics in the review. Martin explained that it was the reviews thing – folk were genuinely unhappy, even as they commended me on my technical merits. Further to that, he said that I really needed to stop worrying about technical improvement and focus on this inter-personal stuff.

Two really important things happened around this time. Firstly, Steve Alexander, who was one of my managers-once-removed at the time, reached out to me and suggested I read a book – Getting out of the box – and that we might have a chat about the issue after I had read it. I did so, and we chatted. That book gave me a language and viewpoint for thinking about the problem. It didn’t solve it, but it meant that I ‘got it’, which I hadn’t before.

So then the second thing happened – we had a company all hands and I got to chat with Claire Davis (head of HR at Canonical at the time) about what was going on. To this day the sheer embarrassment I felt when she told me that the broad perception of me amongst other teams managers was – and I paraphrase a longer, more nuance conversation here – “technically fantastic but very scary to have on the team – will disrupt and cause trouble”.

So, at this point about 6 months had passed, I knew what I wanted – I wanted folk to want to work with me, to find my presence beneficial and positive on both technical and team aspects. I already knew then that what I seek is technical challenges: I crave novelty, new challenges, new problems. Once things become easy, it call all too easily slip into tedium. So at that time my reasoning was somewhat selfish: how was I to get challenges if no-one wanted to work with me except in extremis?

I spent the next year working on myself as much as specific projects: learning more and more about how to play well with others.

In June 2010 I got a performance review I could be proud of again – I was – in no way – perfect, but I’d made massive strides. This journey had also made huge improvements to my personal life – a lot of stress between Lynne and I had gone away. Shortly after that I was invited to apply for a new role within Canonical as Technical Architect for Launchpad – and Francis Lacoste told me that it was only due to my improved ability to play well with others that I was even considered. I literally could not have done the job 18 months before. I got the job, and I think I did pretty well – in fact I was awarded an internal ‘Spotlight on Success’ award for what we (it was a whole Launchpad team team effort) achieved while I was in that role.

So, what did I change/learn? There’s just a couple of key changes I needed to make in myself, but a) they aren’t sticky: if I get overly tired, ye old terrible Robert can leak out, and b) there’s actually a /lot/ of learnable skills in this area, much of which is derived – lots of practice and critical self review is a good thing. The main thing I learnt was that I was Selfish. Yes – capital S. For instance, in a discussion about adding working tree filter to bzr, I would focus on the impact/risk on me-and-things-I-directly-care-about: would it make my life harder, would it make bzr slower, was there anything that could go wrong. And I would spend only a little time thinking about what the proposer needed: they needed support and assistance making their idea reach the standards the bzr community had agreed on. The net effect of my behaviours was that I was a class A asshole when it came to getting proposals into a code base.

The key things I had to change were:

  1. I need to think about the needs of the person I’m speaking to *and not my own*. [Thats not to say you should ignore your needs, but you shouldn't dwell on them: if they are critical, your brain will prompt you].
  2. There’s always a reason people do things: if it doesn’t make sense, ask them!  [The crucial conversations books have some useful modelling here on how and why people do things, and on how-and-why conversations and confrontations go bad and how to fix them.]

Ok so this is all interesting and so forth, but why the blog post?

Firstly, I want to thank four folk who were particularly instrumental in helping me learn this lesson: Martin, Steve, Claire and of course my wife Lynne – I owe you all an unmeasurable debt for your support and assistance.

Secondly, I realised today that while I’ve apologised one on one to particular folk who I knew I’d made life hard for, I’d never really made a widespread apology. So here it is: I spent many years as an ass, and while I didn’t mean to be one, intent doesn’t actually count here – actions do. I’m sorry for making your life hell in the past, and I hope I’m doing better now.

Lastly, if I’m an ass to you now, I’m sorry, I’m probably regressing to old habits because I’m too tired – something I try to avoid, but it’s not always possible. Please tell me, and I will go get some sleep then come and apologise to you, and try to do better in future.

Less-assily-yrs,
Rob

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10 Responses to “Learning is hard”

  1. 1 red

    thanks! I had / have similar problems. one thing that helps: beeing reminded of them (as you just did).
    i guess nobody (or very, very few people) actually does (do) this on purpose. but as you said it is a constant effort (at least to me).

  2. 2 janefraser101

    That is a very good and very self aware blog post. Well done!

  3. Nice post Robert. We all learn these lessons in different ways and through different means.

    For me it was divorce and years later discovering a process called “Non-violent Communication” and being able to replay things with a different perspective.

  4. Rob, you should add yourself to the list of people to thank, because honestly few people would have the maturity and sense to act upon the criticisms you have heard and turn it around for good.

    So kudos to you, and thanks for sharing.

    -c

  5. 5 cvd2701

    Thank you so much Rob.
    I don’t think I ever told you, but that experience of walking around the grounds of La Mola also gave me the confidence to believe in myself and I have gradually been working towards my dream of becoming an Executive Coach.
    My love to Lynne.
    Claire

    • 6 rbtcollins

      Hi Claire, no you hadn’t told me that – it’s really moving – thanks! I’ll pass your love onto Lynne when I get home from ODS in HK :)

  6. 7 vds

    Thanks for sharing, I’m sure your experience will be useful to a lot of people.

  7. Thank you for posting this lifeless. It’s made me look back at myself and how I behave with my colleagues at work and on open source projects.

  8. thx for your inspiration message ^^


  1. 1 管好自己的情绪 | /home/wenlong

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