The intersection of technology and leadership

Six Years at ThoughtWorks

For the first several years at ThoughtWorks I ran an annual personal retrospective looking back at the year gone by. I value celebrating success, making time to reflect and finding ways of continually improving. I ran them for the first few years before collapsing them back into each New Year’s review.

So what has happened six years on?

When I look at first starting at ThoughtWorks, I was just another developer, almost considered a graduate, because I’d only a small amount of real world experience. I worked for ThoughtWorks in Brisbane when we had an office presence, staying there until itchy feet drove me overseas. I could have moved to another Australian capital city, but London ended up much more of a drawcard with so many more opportunities and access to more interesting aspects to life harder to reach in Australia, such as exposure to so many different cultures (music, food, entertainment), personal travel opportunities and the presence of many professional communities.

To this day, I still can’t fathom working with the same company for six years. When I left university, I assumed two years would be the most I would work for in any company. Being lost in one of Oracle’s massive divisions only served to reinforce this view. So what’s changed? Working for a consulting company brings a variety similar to working for many different companies, yet without being tied to any particular one. Each project brings with it plenty of learning opportunities to uncover new contexts, problems and solutions.

Since being based in London, I’ve worked on at least nine projects of great length (a handful of much smaller ones as well). Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve worked on many projects beyond web technologies (although I’m sure they’re just as fun). Some of these applications integrated with lots of hardware (think RFID readers, barcode printers, scientific equipment), server side REST applications with extremely high performance requirements, lead several development teams, taught fellow colleagues through our lateral training induction programme in India, and coached some very large organisations on appropriately using and understanding agile methods.

In this time, I’ve been fortunate to work with plenty of bright people, both within our own company and at our client, and grown great personal satisfaction by helping others find a passion for learning and taking pride in what they do.

Seeing a variety of situations and working with lots of different people in lots of different roles has lead to significant growth as well. One of the aspects I appreciate the most about ThoughtWorks is the ability to move between roles and develop skills in different areas. Although we’re trying to put a little bit more structure in place, it’s not a place that thinks you have to grow up or get out like many other consultancies.

So the upsides:

Consulting – You develop many experiences and see many environments, giving you better insights into how people behave and how to overcome undesirable behaviour. This first hand experience is invaluable as you apply it to new environments and new clients. Not being independent means I don’t always get choice of what I work on, but I have to be thankful for some of the opportunities over the last six years (partly of what I’ve made it as well).

Growth – Not everyone takes the time to explicitly focus on learning from people around them. This is one of my core principles. Being surrounded by people who think and have great conversations helps me grow. Being put into new situations, slightly beyond my comfort zone increases my confidence and skill set as does dealing with difficult client situations. I can’t thank of many other organisations where I could develop facilitation and coaching skills whilst moving back and forth between hands-on technical work.

Opportunities – I’ve been fortunate to present at a number of conferences over the years. This isn’t an easy path and isn’t one that happens overnight. I’ll be the first to admit, fantastic story telling at the level of Dan North isn’t one of my strong points, but I like to think many people enjoy the experiential workshops I put together. Opportunities are about making the most of what you find yourself in, such as finding yourself, unwillingly, to work in Copenhagen over the summer lead me to finding that lone free booking at Noma, the world’s third best restaurant in the world and enjoying one of the best meals I’ve eaten in my life.

People – ThoughtWorks prides itself about hiring great people. That’s not to say that we always hire perfectly. However I’m glad to be surrounded by other people who take pride in their work, care about learning and passionately applying themselves in whatever they like. I’ve lost count over the years for the number of work colleagues who’ve inspired me to get better at things that I do, and challenged me to better understand the work that I do. I continue to meet more people like this everyday, and am thankful for that dimension.

And the downsides:

Support – Part of not having clearly well defined structures for people as they “advance” make it harder to plan for the right level of support and to time it correctly. I know of some people who moved on by not getting the right support at the right time, and those who failed to get the right sort of support. This isn’t to say that there is no support but it’s a bit random at times. I know that I was particularly let down during my last year although I recognise I have higher tolerances than most.

Travel – I primarily moved across to the UK because of the strong correlation between project work and the office. This has definitely changed over the years. Travel is a necessary part of consulting, yet made harder when traveling greater distances and amplified by the lack of support.

Consulting for clients is different from working in the office – This is definitely one frustrating elements for working for any consulting firm, and I don’t think that ThoughtWorks is any different here, with a different cultural divide between those working in the field and those working in the office. It’s taken me years to see some of the systemic effects, although I’m sure it will be much more before there is something significant I can do about it. Ask me about in person and I’d be happy to run through my current theory.

The key to retrospecting is about learning, so here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned:

Leadership is not about titles – People I talk to see leadership as a role you are explicitly given. I disagree. Leadership implies taking ownership of responsibility and this is true whether or not you are given it or not. It’s not about a role, or a title. It’s about the way you act and the things you say. The leaders I’ve most respected were those that owned the rewards and pitfalls of responsibilities, regardless of it not being an explicit part of their role. The best teams I’ve worked on ensure all responsibilities are taken care of despite the varying titles amongst the people on it.

Everyone is responsible for passing the experiences on – Working for six years for any consultancy is rare, and part of that comes with a certain responsibility of passing on the right culture, and creating the same opportunities for others new to the organisation. Every individual in an organisation should feel the burden of this responsibility. I’m grateful for feedback from co-workers the difference that I make to them everyday. It’s amazingly gratifying to know that I made a positive contribution to people’s growth, even more so when I already hold each one of them in high regard. It’s so gratifying to receive that random text or email from previous co-workers telling me how they’re still doing, or doing things differently as a result of the small investment I made with them.

People move on – People leave companies. That’s a fact of life. The way I look at it, an individual’s needs and wants change more quickly than what an organisation can adopt. I think it’s the organisation’s responsibility to ensure that it does as much as it can to keep people. I think an organisation’s failure is to not to do what it *could* have done to keep them there. This sometimes happens and it’s frustrating. I think we can also get better at keeping in touch with alumni because we definitely aren’t very good with that.

Consulting is a sharp, double edged sword – The change that brings about new experiences and opportunities also often requires travelling or something not quite matching up. Some people in our organisation believe growth will solve these problems, something I also disagree with. I think growth will simply make it much more complex to solve. Having more people on hand simply makes it harder to get the right people to the right place at the right time.

Learning is a lifetime endeavour – I continue to argue how our education systems force us to stop thinking and learning. We focus on teaching (push) over learning (pull) and worse, we focus on absorbing facts instead of thinking. Our environments offer learning opportunities all the time, yet we’re trained to turn a blind eye to them, or to fail to respond to them. Living and breathing agile methods has taught me to learn first, and judge later.

7 Comments

  1. Marco

    Brilliant and insightful as usual Pat, great post!

  2. toni

    Brilliant post,
    Re: “I think we can also get better at keeping in touch with alumni because we definitely aren’t very good with that.”

    I think we should somehow sort out an away day for alumni & not!

  3. Marco

    re alumni: I did organise a first evening meeting a couple of years ago and did propose to invite them at least to part of the regular away day (rather than organise an ad-hoc one). I might still have somewhere my proposal!

  4. Kedar Kulkarni

    Hey Pat,

    good post, and yes 6 years is lot of time!

    I think the stickiness @ a company like TW is just the learning and opportunity to work on different things….however not all people get that or perceive that they are getting it!

    Do let me know when you are in/around Pune…will catch up!

    Kedar

  5. Xuemin

    Totally agree on the paragraph on “Leadership is not about titles”. Its in line with my experience. The caveat is that it requires more than passion to do it. It requires skills to figure out 1. where your help is needed. 2. how you can make sure leaders believe you are trying to be helpful rather than trying to jeopardize their authorities. 3. what you need to do to be helpful, and sometime it means to acquire new skills rapidly.

  6. Denzel

    I wonder if you have noticed this kind of attitude happening in the background:
    http://lovethoughtworks.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-hilarious-review-on-thoughtworks.html

  7. Patrick

    Hi Denzel,

    The post is obviously quite a rant. In my experience, it is very exaggerated behaviour (I’m certain you will find this in all companies somewhere). If you would like an example of a different side, please read my colleague Andy Marks’ posts about this: http://vampwillow.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/hacking-thoughtworks-recruitment-part-1/

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