I got an email from an old co-worker the other day:
I was thinking about you and how you are a person I see as not being
particularly embroiled in office politics, but also as having a lot of
influence and knowing how and where to leverage it. I was curious if you had
any words of advice for how you got to that place.
Of course I was happy to hear that I come off this way, and as I thought about
how to replay, I found myself writing an essay.
So, about influence, and politics, and etc.
When most people say “office politics”, they seem to mean the “dark side” of
relationships at a company. Who gets the boss’s ear? Who “wins” when there are
decisions to be made? Who has their ear to the ground?
When people talk about influence and leveraging it, they’re talking about the
“light side” of the same thing. Who shapes decisions? Who “makes things
happen”? Who shifts behavior, changes the tone of the company?
Office politics and influence function in really similar ways: building
relationships with your co-workers, building trust with them, and keeping lines
of communication with them open. Most decisions are made before the decision
gets made, so being around for those early conversations is where you can
Some ways that I build relationships with co-workers:
- private messages when they do something great.
- always show up for those coffee chats and lunches. This is how you get to know people way outside your group. I have one lined up with our director of finance and a developer who lives in Europe. It's rare to get to talk with them both. If there isn't something like this at a job, it's usually pretty easy to kind-of start one.
- not-too-frequent 1:1s with people in other teams. I have about 5 of these going, and I do them every 3 weeks. I try to vary the rotation enough from time-to-time. They're hard to drop, though! Be judicious.
- ask people for help! most people love to feel helpful.
All of these have the advantage of being genuinely nice things to do! They make
me feel good, they make my co-worker feel good. The hardest thing about them is
making them happen when I have a lot of other stuff to do, or I’m feeling
stressed out or distracted. But it really is a part of your job, especially as
you grow into a leader in your team, organization, company.
I also work pretty hard to build trust. The best way I know to do this is to do
your job as best as you can, and to be transparent with people. When you’re
working on something hard, getting people’s opinion when the idea isn’t fully
baked does a lot - you can get better ideas, and you show that you’re trusting
a co-worker with something delicate, that you need and value their
contribution. When things aren’t going smoothly, being straight with your boss
Another way that I build trust and credibility is calling attention to issues
that affect “everybody” - but always offering to help make the improvement
happen, or even do initial legwork to offer an idea for a solution. This makes
it clear that you’re doing more than complaining; that you genuinely want
things to improve and you want to be part of that.
Finally, asking for hard feedback, and giving hard feedback are important
skills for building trust. The asking is much harder to do, and. I don’t
agree with everything in the book - even maybe less than half of it - but
Radical Candor helped reshape my ideas about
trust. I think the book goes too far, but being able to give criticism honestly
and with respect is crucia. Even more important is being ready to receive it
without rejecting it or saying “yea, but”. Living with it. Thinking about it.
Then accepting the parts that are true and rejecting the parts that are
undermining you. If you get sexist feedback, throw it in the garbage and note
how much you can trust that person.
So, how is that different from office politics? It’s not just tone, but tone
is a big part of it. It’s about genuinely wanting good for other people and for
yourself. It’s about character, and about honesty. It’s about genuinely wanting
good things for yourself, your co-workers and your company, and striving to
make that happen.
Influence is definitely related to competence, but also to prioritization.
You’ll be more influential if you’re addressing real needs that people care
about - especially your bosses. If they’re good bosses, this is both easy and
not morally perilous.
Unfortunately, none of this holds up when you’re surrounded by people of ill will. In that sort of situation, find the other people of good character in your workplace and keep your head down. If you can get out, get out. Don’t spend your energy trying to change people who show you they can’t be trusted.
An aside about conflict:
Every so often, influence doesn't work this way and you have to stick your neck
out. Again, the tone is really important here. In our two big meetings after
the layoffs, I directly asked our CEO and my VP some uncomfortable questions
about how decisions about who was being laid off and how the layoffs were
communicated. I followed up with more direct feedback in private conversations.
I think this made a difference in how decisions will happen in the future and
in gave my co-workers a better picture of what happened. The way I made those
conversations work was by communicating respect for my bosses as people as
early as I could in the conversation, and assuming good will by them.
About assuming good will - it’s complicated, but important. The key point is
that by assuming good will, you’re able to get more honest and less-defensive
communication with someone, even if they’re acting with ill will. That doesn’t
mean avoid confrontation, but it means approaching confrontation as though it’s
based on either conflicting priorities or mistakes rather than malice. This is
a key conflict skill that I wish I’d developed so much sooner! Life would have
been better. After the conversation you draw your own conclusions about whether
you’ve been dealt with honestly and you can choose your next steps with good
information. When good will is real, things will often change for the better as
a result of the conflict.
This all sounds very high minded. In writing it, I’ve noticed many ways that I
fall short of these ideals. But it feels right as a roadmap.
LuckyMay 22, 2020
We went through layoffs at work recently. Like a lot of companies, the belt is tightening, and the bathtub drain is getting blugged. I’m lucky to have not been laid off. Lucky again - this is the third “surprise” layoff where I’ve kept my job. I’m batting 1.000 but I know my number has to come up sometime.
I graduated from college in 2009, 9 months into the Great Financial Crisis. I was lucky to get into a good graduate school on a stipend that paid my rent, and even luckier to be leaving undergraduate without student debt. I was lucky that when I needed to quit graduate school I could find a government job.
I was lucky to go to a particular concert, meet a particular person, and lucky that we fell in love. Lucky that the US Government didn’t fuck around with her life and we were able to stay here in California.
I’m lucky to be living through this epidemic in good health, with plenty of food and a functioning society.
Count your blessings.
Slow software destroys flow
We all use dozens of pieces of software a day - email clients, web browser, email clients inside web browsers. Cameras and chat, digital art tools and spreadsheets. We switch between them dozens of times, and when we really get into a task, when can sometimes achieve a state of flow, a state of satisfying and effective effort that lets us accomplish more than we thought and enjoy it all the way.
But then you add another layer to your Photoshop project, or attach a picture to an email. The beachball starts spinning, the text box gets laggy, and you start thinking about opening that Twitter tab again.
This is one of the reasons I still use vim after all these years. Even in large software projects with plugins for syntax highlighting, autocomplete and build-on-save, the navigation and input remain quick. But not always - vim on my home computer feels faster and more responsive than my work computer, because I’m asking it to do less. When compared to a product like IntelliJ/GoLand, it’s like a car against a horse. Very few editors are both as fast and as capable, and I can thereby keep going as long as the work requires.
Every time your software lags, it’s a chance for your user to lose their state. Every time you make them move the mouse to open a menu, they have to go away from their task. Put your menus in context with the work, not in a toolbar. Make your software as quick and as smooth as possible. This is what makes people love software, not flashy features.
Fast Food for Slow Days
This is adapted from Tom Lacalamita’s Pressure Cookers for Dummies, but you should use the Serious Eats method of browning stew beef in one large piece, then cubing it before cooking, for better results.
- 1/2 lb stew meat
- 3 carrots, thinly sliced
- 3 stalks of celery, sliced
- 1/2 lb of mixed mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
- 1 cup barley
- 2 or 3 bay leaves
- 8 cups of liquid, stock preferred
- Chopped parsley
- Cook onion in oil until fragrant
- Add the meat and cook until browned. Remove and chop into small cubes.
- Add the carrots, celery, barley, mushrooms, meat, stock, and bay leaf to the pressure cooker.
- Bring o high heat and cook for 20 minutes. Release pressure with the quick release method.
- Add parsley, and season the soup with salt and pepper before serving.
Butter Chicken without butter
The secret here is that you can replace the Butter in Butter Chicken with just about any high-fat dairy product. Ricotta, sour cream, greek yogurt will all work. They change the flavor of the dish, but they’re all good variations.
This is adapted from a recipe in Tom Lacalamita’s Pressure Cookers for Dummies
- 1.5 lbs chicken, cubed
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 Tbsp minced ginger
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 small chili, minced
- 6 oz tomato paste
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 Tbsp minced cilantro or parsley
- 1/2 - 2/3 cup high-fat dairy. Butter chicken is 1/2 cup cream, 3 tbsp butter.
Limes for serving.
- Salt and pepper the chicken.
- Cook onion, ginger, chili and garam over high heat in oil, until browned.
- Add the chicken and brown in spices. Add the broth and tomato paste, stir to deglaze the pan.
- Bring the pressure cooker to high heat and cook for 8 minutes. Release pressure with a quick-release method.
- Over low hit, stir in the dairy. Serve over white rice, and squeeze fresh lime juice just before serving.
Didn't Miss Her
Red beans and rice is simple, fast and good. Use a good hot sauce, use more seasoning than you think you’ll need. This recipe scales well - 2 or 3 cups of beans will fill most normal pressure cookers.
- 2 cups of red beans
- 1 large onion
- 1 head garlic
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped carrots
- 1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes
- 2 tsp hot sauce
- 2 or 3 bay leaves
- 1 smoked ham hock or 3 strips of bacon or 1 can of (gasp!) spam, etc
- 4 cups of water
- 1/2 lb of andouille or other smoked sausage
- salt to taste (around 1 or 2 Tbsp)
- Rinse the beans, and let them soak while you do the other prep.
- Chop the onion and garlic. Saute in olive oil until fragrant. Add the carrots, tomatoes, hot sauce, and bay leaf. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the ham hock, beans, water.
- Bring pressure cooker to high pressure, cook for 20 minutes. Release pressure via “natural release”. If beans are still hard, cook another 5 minutes.
- Add sausage, salt and pepper. Cook with cover off until desired thickness is reached, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Serve over white rice.
My favorite version of this
Originally from Ever in Transit, this is the best tasting version of the drink to me. I like to use the tomato juice from a can of peeled plum tomatoes. I use the whole tomatoes to make sauce, and keep the juice to make two micheladas with.
- Lager beer
- Tomato Juice
- 3-4 splashes Tapatio
- splash of worcestershire sauce
- splash of soy sauce
- juice of one lime or lemon
Quicker Rise, Soft crust
Originally from the NYT, makes enough for two pizzas.
- 306 grams of flour (50/50 00 and bread, or 100% AP)
- 2 grams of active dry yeast
- 4 grams olive oil
- 8 grams of fine sea salt
- 200 g of tap water
- Combine flour and salt in mixing bowl
- Combine water, oil, and yeast in mixing cup. Add to dry ingredients and knead until incorporated. Let rest 15 minutes.
- Knead dough about 3 minutes. Works well with a dough hook.
- Divide dough in half and shape into two balls. Cover with a damp kitchen towel.
- Let rise. 3 to 4 hours at room temperature, or 8 to 24 hours in the fridge.
- Shape, top, and cook.
My wife found this recipe on tastemade.com. These are fatty, sweet, and delicious. Great brunch food. Makes 4 roses.
- 2 persimmons
- 1 sheet of puff pastry
- 1/4 of a wedge of brie
- 4 slices of prosciutto
- Cut the persimmons in half from the top, then cut the tops off of each half. Slice the halves from the bottom to the top, 1/8” or less thick.
- Split each slice of prosciutto long-ways.
- Cut the brie into thin chunks.
- Lay out the puff pastry and roll it gently to increase the size. Cut the sheet into four pieces.
- For each piece of puff pastry, lay the prosciutto, then the brie, then the persimmons down a long edge, overlapping about half of the piece.
- Fold up the uncovered part of the pastry to form a sealed bottom crust of the rose.
- Roll up the pastry to create the “rose”, then place in the pan.
- Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees F, then 30 minutes at 350 degrees F.
Keeping Stuff in Line
I started taking paternity leave on my first daughter’s due date. (Un?)fortunately, she was born late, and I found myself with both a lot of free time, and a lot of pent-up anticipatory energy.
My workshop was a bit of a mess, since I’d acquired more tools - including a heavy miter saw and grinder. My mother-in-law was staying with us and helping with chores, so I decided to focus on cleaning up the shop. I built a sturdy set of shelves from scrap lumber and cheap sheathing plywood to hold my bench tools when they’re not in use.
The legs were made from two 2x4’s screwed together. The cross bars for each shelf were also made of spare 2x4s. Each shelf is made of a single thickness of 15/32” sheathing plywood that I picked up cheap from a big box store.
Similarly to my workbench, the inner shelf is cut with gaps for the legs, then slid into the frame at an angle before being set down. Instead of fixing the shelf tops like a table top, I chose to nail them directly to the frame.
Ugly, and very functional. I made the upper shelves around my shoulder height, and the lower shelves around waist height, which means each shelf and the floor have plenty of clearance for large storage boxes, tall tools, etc.
This was way cheaper than the much less-good plastic shelves I bought from a big box store. Make your own garage shelves!