Communication, relationships, and everything else I learned from paper plants in the 90's
I listened to an episode of Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast this week, and it featured an interview with Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley about their book The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI. While most of the things they talked about weren’t exactly new to me, there were a couple of things that stood out.
First of all, we sabotage technical change when we are armored, defensive, and afraid of being obsolete. This is happening everywhere right now! Between big tech layoffs, Twitter’s public implosion, and the rise of AI, we are on edge. We’re afraid of being replaced, and honestly I wouldn’t trust most big companies not to do that if they could afford to.
In general, we’re also just afraid of change. This has been a huge part of my experience in nearly every organization I have worked in as a consultant. In my experience, however, the thing that most people are afraid of isn’t change, it’s disorganized change. There’s often an expectation that everyone will be able to seamlessly adopt new technology or new processes without any messy transition period where everyone is making mistakes and figuring it out together, and that’s just not reality.
The only known antidote to this fear is strong relationships and communication. As tech workers and leaders who want to bring about positive change in our organizations, it’s our job to come alongside the people who are in the midst of this struggle and help them through it. This might be cliche, but the person I know who has demonstrated this to me is my father. 1
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He spent his entire career working in corporate IT for a company that produced corrugated boxes and other paper products. In the 80’s and early 90’s he worked on a team that developed software to automate the machinery in the paper plants, and from what I hear this cutover wasn’t always smooth sailing. The plants struggled with learning the new processes, and sometimes ran into technical difficulties with their hardware and software. When this happened, they called the corporate offices, but their calls frequently got transferred around. I imagine that most people who were working in the corporate IT department in a Chicago high rise were too concerned about their important new initiatives or quarterly delivery goals to care much about technical difficulties in a paper plant in Columbus, Indiana.
But eventually through luck or the right connections, they would get my father’s phone number, and when someone at the plant called him, he would actually take the time to listen. He would spend hours troubleshooting over the phone, or when that didn’t work, he would go visit the plant to help in person. Whether it was a software bug or a networking issue, he took the time not just to resolve the issue, but to better understand the work that was being done at the plant and teach them about new technology that could help.
He liked working at these plants so much that every time we were driving near one on a road trip, he would just stop in and say hello. In return, we would all end up spending a day of our family vacation touring yet another paper plant and pretending to be as excited as he was about all the machinery that went into the manufacturing process.
My father took pride in using every PTO day and always leaving the office at 5:00. He never moved up very far on the career ladder, but even through mergers, layoffs, and lots of 90’s era corporate upheaval, he was one of the most valuable employees in the department. Why? Because he cared about building relationships and solving real problems for real people.
We often talk about communication as a skill, as if it were playing a musical instrument. I often hear engineers say things like “well I just don’t have the communication skills you have” when they are asked to talk about their work with others in the organization. Honestly, I think this is a bit of a cop out, because it leads us to believe that forming relationships with non-technical team members and talking about our work is something we should only do if we are already skilled at it.
When I think about my father, I don’t see him as a particularly talented communicator. He was never a teacher, a public speaker, a writer, or a company leader. He’s just a guy who makes time to talk to other people every single day. Even outside of work, he does this thing that is completely baffling to me as a millennial. If he has some downtime in his schedule, he will just pick up the phone and call a friend. He doesn’t send them a google calendar invitation or text first to see if they are free or do ten rounds of back and forth to find the perfect date and time, he just... calls them to see what they are up to right now. Does anyone under the age of 50 do this anymore??
Even if we are imperfect communicators, there’s something to be said for just making time to do it every day, whether it’s talking to users, talking to other engineers in the company, or calling a friend.
AI isn’t going to replace tech workers who know how to talk about their work, bring others in the organization along, and use their skills to help people. Perhaps the best opportunities in the future aren’t in big tech, but in companies like this one who are struggling through their digital transformations and need real people to help them through it.
If I can say one more thing today, I think I sometimes have a very narrow definition of what meaningful work looks like, or what could make work meaningful. As a job seeker, I’m most attracted to the companies that are (at least on the surface) making the world a better place. However, I think I need stories like this one to remind myself that for most of us, the thing that makes our jobs meaningful isn’t the number of impactful projects we ship, but our relationships with the people we work with.
Does this sound familiar? You may have read an abridged version of this post on LinkedIn this week.