November 05, 2019
Hi. I’m Garo, and I’m a Software Whisperer who finds better ways to solve software problems with people and people problems with software. What? You’ve never heard of a Software Whisperer? You must not be listening hard enough. Ironically, I don’t talk very softly and my whispers can be heard clear down the hallways and through thin cubicle walls. I like to solve technical problems and make insanely great software solutions for our clients with Headspring, and I also like to work with people and understand how to make them insanely great as well.
I started my career deep in the technical side of things: complaining about missing requirements, focusing on solving the next bug or feature, and not paying much attention to anything above my pay grade. Working at Baker Hughes, I was able to explore tons of electromechanical-software interfaces and slowly (very slowly) realized that the people aspect of this work was the most important. In the oilfield, software must be tailored to the situation and task at hand, it has to seem natural for the operator to use it because this is just one system they need to learn to maintain a field of products from tens of vendors, all with their own idiosyncrasies, bugs, and features (also bugs). If they need to context-switch another time to use your product, you’ve already lost.
I went for an MBA from University of Houston which I realized afterward was a good decision. In the middle of it, I kept asking myself why I went back to school when I had just gotten our a few years before. It was a time when I would have those dreams that I forgot to turn in an assignment and there was a distinct possibility of that dream being true! Numbers were interested: Accounting, Finance, Economics, but people were much more interesting: Marketing, Management, Organizational Behavior. Understanding how people tick opens up a whole new level of understanding relationships. Organizational Behavior was especially enlightening: considering how people tend to behave in an organization, how to understand their needs and how to convince them to follow you down the path to madness (followed by a sharp right turn to victory).
Having a fresh sheet of paper on my wall, I flung myself into management. First projects, then people. I read a lot of books, blogs, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Learning about new methods to the madness, trying out new strategies, looking at new tools to help us work better, faster, smarter. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. I read Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager by Michael Lopp (aka Rands). I learned two things from this book: (1) your one-on-ones with your direct reports are the most important meetings you have in your schedule, and (2) if you can get someone to make the cognitive leap to your conclusion without explicitly doing it, you’ve “Jedi mind-tricked” the person into doing what you wanted anyway (and as a bonus, they thought it was THEIR idea).
This was around the time I realized that my shiny-object fixation lead me to over-design a system and make it near impossible to maintain. I had become the evil I had despised and it lead me into the new enlightening age of trying to simplify. I found solace in leading people, teaching them and helping them to solve problems, challenging them to find a simpler way and not fall into the trap that had snared me.
Once you’re in a company for a long time, you start (hopefully!) to foster relationships and build influence around the organization. I noticed that I would be on the short list of people to reach out to whenever there was a software question. Also, our department had grown significantly (almost 100 people), and I was volunteered into the party-planning committee. I worked with a small team to figure out ways we could motivate and energize the teams, recognize accomplishments, celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries, and have fun doing it. We persevered, even through the rise and fall of the oil markets, pushing to keep this one last bastion of fun for the team while the company talked about takeovers, layoffs, reorganizations, budget cuts, and the uncertain future.
It became harder and harder to deal with the uncertainty, the lack of strong executive leadership, and the focus on the bottom line more so than the people trying to make it happen. There were some great technical projects where we were able to take modern software development and run it on embedded hardware, taking advantage of the cheap, highly available ARM processors to run .NET code. This project was the most fun I’d had on a project, we had the right resources, we had a solid team, and we had a business case that seemed pretty good. As we wrapped up that project, my whole team was laid off (except for me) and I broke down physically and mentally. Lucky for me, I had support from my family, my friends, and my coworkers and we were able to bring it back together.
Somewhere along the way, the company was reorganizing its software resources and I was told there was a team being created to be the glue between all the software teams in the company. I told them I wanted the role, and I was transferred the next week. The drive was longer, but it was something new and a change that I was looking for. My first job was to figure out what my job was. I did some digging, came up with my charter, and came up with my title: the Software Whisperer. Through some creative help desk tickets, I was able to get my title changed, get a vanity email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and order some neato business cards.
The Software Whisperer is basically a catch-all role. If there isn’t someone who handles a particular thing, you assign it to the Whisperer to figure out what it is and where it needs to go. I’m basically the Wolf, but I don’t drive nearly as fast. My goal was to help people navigate the company and find out where the support is to get the things done they need to get done. Siloed teams tend to come up with their own solutions and spend extra time maintaining their own systems, wasting time they could be spending on revenue-generating products. I broke down silos and got teams talking to each other and to the mothership.
My next transformation came from reading another book, this time it was Work Rules by Laszlo Bock. I was entranced by the idea of applying data driven analysis to human resource decisions. Mind blown. Why didn’t I think of that? While the technology organizations were surging forward, the support functions were all left banging rocks together trying to make fire happen. People are the most important resource, people make a company happen, why aren’t you investing in those people? This question would ultimately drive me to leave the company. I heard some excellent advice from someone (I think it was Ray Houston), and it wasn’t even directed at me, but it stuck with me: “You have to change your company, or you have to change your company.” So I asked: how can I fix the culture and the leadership here? When it was clear I couldn’t, I put in my notice without a firm landing in place.
Funny story, apparently Headspring had tried to recruit me a lot of times over the years, but I wasn’t really ready at the time. I was still ripening. But now it was spring time (Houston weather is weird) and I was ready to be picked. In a few short conversations, I learned that Headspring had already implemented everything I wanted to do to change Baker Hughes: transparency, recognition, solid core values, HR analytics, people-centricity, open and honest surveys with Workify, and fun. I started my Headspring journey as a Principal Consultant, and quickly leaked into almost every aspect of the organization.
I like to quote Basher from Ocean’s Eleven: “It will be nice working with proper villains again!” I’m working with some of the brightest people in the business (they pay me to say that, but I’ll say it for free). I learn new things every day from people and from projects. Now I have the time, opportunity, and support to do more writing, more speaking, and generally more interaction with the greater software community. Watch this space (the main page anyway) for whatever else I think of.
Until next time: work hard, be nice.