"leadership" entries

Mary Yoko Brannen on ethnographic thinking and contexts of organizational cultures

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Organizational cultural identity, HELP systems, and the end of English as the lingua franca.

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast to track the technologies and people that will shape our world in the years to come.


In this week’s episode, I sit down with Mary Yoko Brannen, the president and CEO of CLIA Consulting, the Jarislowsky East Asia (Japan) chair at the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, and a professor of international business and research director at the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business.

Brannen is an expert in ethnomethodology and qualitative studies of complex cultural organizational phenomena. She spends a lot of time focused on how changing cultural contexts affect technology and how to leverage cultural identity in the global workplace. We unpack all that in this episode and talk about how her proposed “ethnographic thinking” approach can address language and culture gaps in the global marketplace.

Here are a few highlights from our chat:

I’m an organizational anthropologist. What does that mean? It means that, like anthropologists study far-away tribes, I study organizations as if they were tribes. I’m interested in organizational culture, and how organizational culture combines with national cultural differences, as well as occupational cultural differences, and how people can integrate those and work together.

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The first rule of management: Resist the urge to manage

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick on leadership, teams, and culture.

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast to track the technologies and people that will shape our world in the years to come.


In this week’s Radar Podcast, I sit down with Google engineering site lead Ben Collins-Sussman and Tock founder and CTO Brian Fitzpatrick.

The two have just released a new book, Debugging Teams, a follow-up to their earlier book, Team Geek. We talk about the new edition, how managing is a lot like being a psychotherapist, and how all their great advice plays out in their own lives. Enjoy the show.

Here are a few snippets from our conversation:

Collins-Sussman: The first rule of management is resist the urge to manage. … a manager’s main job is not to bark commands, but to actually aid the team and provide cover, do whatever it takes to remove roadblocks and make them more efficient. Really, being a manager is about getting out of the way and trying to figure out what they need.

Fitzpatrick: Another thing is, when you become a leader, people will come to you and ask questions. They’ll come to you and ask you for advice, and the best thing you can do is ask them questions right back. It’s not being dishonest, or disingenuous, or evasive … If you ask them questions like, ‘What do you mean by this?’, or ‘What are you thinking of?’, or ‘What do you like to do?’ or, ‘How do you feel about this?’, you can gently guide them a little bit by the questions you ask, but really make them think. After a few minutes of questioning, they’ll come up with their own answer.

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On leadership

Dinner conversation turns into a career retrospective. Food for thought for leaders and leaders-to-be.

Toss Bhudvanbhen co-authored this post.


Over a recent dinner, my conversation with Toss Bhudvanbhen meandered into discussion of how much our jobs had changed since we entered the workforce. We started during the Dot-Com era. Technology was a relatively young field then (frankly, it still is) so there wasn’t a well-trodden career path. We just went with the flow.

Over time our titles changed from “software developer,” to “senior developer,” to “application architect,” and so on, until one day we realized that we were writing less code but sending more e-mails. Attending fewer code reviews but more meetings. Less worried about how to implement a solution, but more concerned with defining the problem and why it needed to be solved. We had somehow taken on leadership roles.

We’ve stuck with it. Toss now works as a principal consultant at Pariveda Solutions and my consulting work focuses on strategic matters around data and technology.

The thing is, we were never formally trained as management. We just learned along the way. What helped was that we’d worked with some amazing leaders, people who set great examples for us and recognized our ability to understand the bigger picture.

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Amazon, boredom, and culture

Corporate leadership is as much about building people as it is about developing product.


Attend Cultivate, September 28 to 29 in New York, NY. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

I want to call attention to two articles I’ve read recently. First, Rita King’s analysis of Amazon’s corporate culture, Culture Controversy at Amazon, Decoded, is an excellent, even-handed discussion of one of the past year’s most controversial articles about corporate culture. I hadn’t intended to write about Amazon, but King’s article needs to be read.

King doesn’t present a simple “bad Amazon” story. Anyone in the industry knows that Amazon is a tough place to work. King presents both sides of this picture: working at Amazon is difficult and demanding, but you may find yourself pushed to levels of creativity you never thought possible. Amazon’s culture encourages a lot of critical thinking, questioning, and criticism, sometimes to the point of “brutality.” This pressure can lead to backstabbing and intense rivalries, and I’m disturbed by Amazon’s myth that they are a “meritocracy,” since meritocracies rarely have much to do with merit. But the result of constant pressure to perform at the highest level is that Amazon can move quickly, react to changes, and create new products faster than its competitors — often before their competitors even realize there’s an opportunity for a new product.

Without pressure to achieve, and without critical thinking, it’s easy to build a culture of underachievers, a culture of complacency. A culture of complacency is more comfortable, but in the long run, just as ugly. DEC, Wang, and a host of other high-tech companies from the 70s and 80s never understood how the industry was changing until it was too late. HP is arguably in a similar position now. I can’t see Amazon making the same mistake. When you’re making the changes, you’re less likely to be done in by them. Read more…


Lead with merit and be rewarded with success

Michael Lopp on the concept of merit badges for leaders.

Girl Scout Sash with Badges," by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license

Attend Cultivate, September 28 to 29 in New York, NY. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

At our Cultivate conference in July, Michael Lopp had a fantastic session on “Leadership: By the Numbers,” which was a bit like leadership fundamentals that you may have forgotten or never knew. However, he also had a few slides in his presentation that were meant to be a brief tangent from his primary talk, but they grabbed my attention immediately. Lopp always has fantastic stories and pearls of wisdom from the hard-won experiences in his career like “Busy is a bug, not a feature.” But before he launched into his “Vegetable Talk” on how being a good manager is really basic—like vegetables—he explored the idea of having merit badges for leaders. Read more…


Cultivate in Portland: Leadership, values, diversity

Building the next generation of leaders, for any size organization.


Register now for Cultivate NY, which will be co-located with Strata + Hadoop World NY, September 28 and 29, 2015.

At our recent Cultivate event in Portland, O’Reilly and our partnering sponsor New Relic brought together 10 speakers and more than 100 attendees to learn about corporate culture and leadership. Three themes emerged: diversity, values, and leading through humility.

Almost every speaker talked about the importance of diversity in the workplace. That’s important at a time when “maintaining corporate culture” often means building a group that’s reminiscent of a college frat house. It’s well established that diverse groups, groups that include different kinds of people, different experiences, and different ways of thinking, perform better. As Michael Lopp said at the event, “Diversity is a no-brainer.” We’re not aiming for tribal uniformity, but as Mary Yoko Brannen noted at the outset, sharing knowledge across different groups with different expectations. No organization can afford to remain monochromatic, but in a diverse organization, you have to be aware of how others differ. In particular, Karla Monterroso showed us that you need to realize when — and why — others feel threatened. When you do, you are in a much better position to build better products, to respond to changes in your market, and to use the talent in your organization effectively. Read more…


To suit or not to suit?

At Cultivate, we'll address the issues really facing management: how to deal with human problems.

Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon, which will be co-located with our OSCON Conference. Cultivate is our event looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Ties_(Cravate_-_Larousse)_crop1What does it take to become a manager? According to one article, you should buy a suit. And think about whether you want to be a manager in the first place. You’re probably being paid better as a programmer. Maybe you should get an MBA. At night school. And take a Myers-Briggs test.

There are better ways to think about management. Cultivate won’t tell you how to become a manager, or even whether you should; that’s ultimately a personal decision. We will discuss the issues that are really facing management: issues that are important whether you are already managing, are looking forward to managing, or just want to have a positive impact on your company.

Management isn’t about technical issues; it’s about human issues, and we’ll be discussing how to deal with human problems. How do you debug your team when its members aren’t working well together? How do you exercise leadership effectively? How do you create environments where everyone’s contribution is valued?

These are the issues that everyone involved with the leadership of a high-performance organization has to deal with. They’re inescapable. And as companies come under increasing pressure because of ever-faster product cycles, difficulty hiring and retaining excellent employees, customer demand for designs that take their needs into account, and more, these issues will become even more important. We’ve built Cultivate around the cultural changes organizations will need to thrive — and in many cases, survive — in this environment. Read more…


Flattening organizations

It's easy to talk about eliminating hierarchy; it's much harder to do it effectively.


Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon, which will be co-located with our OSCON Conference. Cultivate is our event looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Do companies need a managerial class? The idea of a future without management takes many forms, some more sophisticated than others; but at their most basic, the proposals center around flattening organizational structure. Companies can succeed without managers and without grunts. Employees are empowered to find something useful to do and then do it, making their own decisions along the way. That vision of the future is gaining momentum, and a few businesses are taking the fairly radical step of taking their companies flat.

The game developer Valve‘s employee handbook is outspoken in its rejection of traditional corporate hierarchy. There is no management class. Teams self-organize around specific tasks; when the task is done, the team disappears and its members find new tasks. All the office furniture has wheels, so groups can self-organize at a moment’s notice. Employees rate each other, producing a ranking that is used to determine salaries.

More recently, Zappos and Medium have been in the news for adopting similar (though apparently more formalized) practices, under the name “holacracy.”

There’s a lot to like about this model, but I also have concerns. I’m no friend to hierarchy, but if I’ve seen one thing repeatedly in my near-60 years, it’s that you frequently are what you reject. By rejecting something, whether it’s hierarchy, lust for power, wealth, whatever, you make it very difficult to be self-critical. You don’t change yourself; instead, you turn what you dislike most about yourself into your blind spot. Read more…

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Cultivating change

Cultivate is O'Reilly's conference committed to training the people who will lead successful teams, now and in the future.


Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Leadership has changed — and in a big way — since the Web started upending the status quo two decades ago. That’s why we’re launching our new Cultivate event; we realized that businesses need new types of leaders, and that O’Reilly is uniquely positioned to help engineers step up to the job.

At the start of the 21st century, Google was in its infancy; Facebook didn’t exist; and Barnes & Noble, not Amazon, was the dominant force in the book industry. As we’ve watched these companies grow, we’ve realized that every business is a software business, and that the factors that made Google, Facebook, and Amazon successful can be applied outside the Web. Every business, from your dentist’s office to Walmart, is critically dependent on software. As Marc Andreessen put it, software is eating the world.

As companies evolve into software businesses, they become more dependent on engineers for leadership. But an engineer’s training rarely includes leadership and management skills. How do you make the transition from technical problems to management problems, which are rarely technical? How do you become an agent for growth and change within your company? And what sorts of growth and change are necessary?

The slogan “every business is a software business” doesn’t explain much, until we think about how software businesses are different. Software can be updated easily. It took software developers the better part of 50 years to realize that, but they have. That kind of rapid iteration is now moving into other products. Read more…


Lessons Learned from Cultivate

Kate Matsudaira, co-chair of O'Reilly's first Cultivate Conference, shares her take-aways from the event

Last week I had the pleasure of co-chairing Cultivate.  The conference was one-day event focused on technology and leadership.

The Backstory

The original idea for the conference came from my co-chair, Eli Goodman, who wanted a place where like-minded folk could discuss some of the challenges, successes, and experiments that come along with leading technical teams.  I have been super passionate about this topic since I started my career as a bad manager, and I have had to work hard to build the skills necessary to lead groups of highly intelligent and opinionated people.

When we were planning the conference, we thought about all sorts of ways we could shake things up with format – panels, structured networking sessions, or even shorter/longer talks.  In the end, though, we decided it was most important to have fabulous speakers with compelling messages, so we stuck to a typical conference format (45-minute slots) and just let people do their best work.  The only thing we did differently was adding a closing networking event and morning yoga session to get things started, both of which were quite positively received.

I was so worried our speakers would overlap with one another’s topics, but thankfully each person had a clearly different message, style, and, when put together, they all added up a day where you couldn’t leave without learning something new.

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