Nigel likes Linus (as do most people who've met him in person) and points out that Linus can get away with being somewhat prickly because he's a genius. The same could be said about the late Steve Jobs and a number of other interesting leaders in the computer business. And Nigel's book and this interview also talk about something that may be more important in the long run than this year's small spate of Linux publicity, namely mentoring and how it can help millennials become productive workers in knowledge fields -- which a whole bunch of them need to start doing PDQ because all the baby boomers everybody loves to hate are either retired already or will be retired before long.
Nigel: When you rub two objects together, you get friction, friction produces heat, that produces light and light makes us think more broadly.
Slashdot: Okay, so Linus Torvalds routinely gets called out for running the Linux development effort with too much conflict and that he has no problem fighting to head off. What do you think? Is that possibly some of the reason for Linux’s development success?
Nigel: Well, it could be. And he is a very unique character. And so when you get somebody like him or a Zuckerberg or somebody who leads an organization with such charisma they are going to get away with a lot more than everybody else. So they can do some of that stuff because of who they are and what their history is. For most of us, we are not going to get away with that sort of behavior. So we can create some conflict, but we have to be careful how we do that. Because it is very easy for people to take that personally.
Slashdot: So you might be saying “You are not Steve Jobs.”
Nigel: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I mean Steve was well known for going into a room and complaining about the shape of the letter p or the particular color in the Google sign. And that works for him, but it is probably not going to work for most of us in our work environments.
Slashdot: Okay, so how do we set up meaningful and useful conflict? What do we do? Or should we try?
Nigel: So I think we should try. And I think the answer is what we have to do is look for places where there is disagreement, I mean forcing disagreement I think is a pretty negative thing to do.
Nigel: There’s normally some disagreement in work and there are people with different opinions, you’ve got to give them the chance to air those opinions and discuss, but you got to do it with some very basic rules. And I think one of the most important rules is: You can’t make this or take this personal. You have to keep it focused on the business objectives. And the other most important rule is: You got to do it with transparency. So where this goes wrong is when people go to their sides, go to other side of the room and start whispering about each other. Conflict at work is okay when there is transparency in the process and there is transparency in the decision making process at the end of it.
Slashdot: Transparency—how do we define that in this context?
Nigel: So I tell people that to really work effectively in this modern world they have to really run with three things: Honesty, integrity and transparency. And so here, we are talking about the transparency of decision making. So let’s say you and I are arguing about a particular program or process we are in, and we bring in a third party who may be our boss or some other person to help resolve this. Transparency means when they make a decision, or when a decision is made, you and I need to be as involved in that decision making process or at least see it go on, as we were in the debate. Because if we are not, we lose. We are just going to go lick our wounds in the corner. So transparency means make the decision making process visible, make what you are doing visible so everybody can see how the final result came to.
Slashdot: Now you wrote a book, what is that titledin the 21st century.
Nigel: Yes. It is called Become a 21st Century Executive. And I think if we were retitling it, we might have just called it Become a 21st Century Leader. But it really plays to the fact that what it takes to succeed in this century may be different from what it took to succeed in the last century.
Slashdot: Well, so for instance, you and I are using Skype at the moment to have a face to face interview without the annoyances of airports, airplanes and the expensive tickets and hotels. In the last century, we didn’t do this, did we?
Nigel: No we didn’t. We either did a phone conversation and you sat in front of your golf ball typewriter banging on the keys. Or one of us spent a large amount of money or both of us did. And I think what you are showing is one of the three big differences in this generation in technology and how the technology is used. It is probably the biggest of the three.
Nigel: You want to know the other two? The other two are the millennials. So the millennial generation by 2020 will be half the workforce, and they are coming with a very different set of desires and needs and interests. And they are changing our workplace. And I think the last one is globalization. We see everything, now some of that is caused by technology but we are in a world where stuff means really quickly and what matters to us matters to someone at the other side of the world. And if you bring those three things together you can’t just work in the bubble, but maybe in the ‘70s or ‘80s those of us who worked in those years did.
Slashdot: Yeah. No, not only are you right but I read Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat number on, the web is worldwide, the world is flat and I can talk to Cliff Miller (who is not a relative of mine) in Beijing just the same way, you know, we have got earth covered.
Nigel: Yeah, I was stuck in Dallas Fort Worth airport a few years ago.
Slashdot: Oh my God. Yes.
Nigel: And I am sure you know that experience. And in the thunderstorm, I went into the bookshop and I was just looking though the management books, and it struck me they were all written by people who were leaders in the ‘70s and ‘80s of the last century. And nothing about their world and our world looks similar. And the next generation of leaders, and look—half the workforce is going to be millennials by 2020.
Nigel: Then you and I are going to rely on them to not screw up everything we need.
Slashdot: And the paychecks and social security will come in.
Nigel: In particular. We need to make sure they are getting the same skills and support and help that we might have got twenty or thirty years ago, but companies don’t do it today. And so we build a website and a set of tools really to try and help mentor that generation.
Slashdot: Yes, and we do do it, don’t we? I do.
Nigel: I think we do actually. I think naturally good people mentor. Because we are keen to share our experience. I would say, by the way, it is important to understand the difference between coaching and mentoring. Because coaching is people running up and down the sidelines shouting instructions, mentoring is about helping people train the next generation to think for themselves. So millennials don’t necessarily want to be told what to do by us. But we can mentor to help them be more effective of what they are doing, and I think that’s a role we’ve all got to do.
Slashdot: Alright, so we do that. This is to make a world a better place. Do we have less conflict?
Nigel: I think we don’t have less conflict but I don’t have a problem with conflict I have a problem with warfare. And so I would encourage companies and encourage organizations to be transparent to get the conflict out to have a conversation. And now by the way, that requires compromise okay.
Slashdot: Compromise yes.
Nigel: And compromise is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in consensus because consensus may be either impossible to achieve or take so long that you miss the opportunity.
Slashdot: And yet for years I remember that Japanese companies are held up as examples because they operated on consensus management. Is that dead?
Nigel: So I actually one of my first customers as a systems engineer years ago was a Japanese car manufacturing company and they would operate on the consensus. So when you try to sell them something it could take a year for everybody to come to agreement. But actually the world and business moves a bit faster than that now. And I think you are not going to have the same time you had in the ‘80s to achieve consensus, nor by the way, will you ever, I think successfully do it. The last thing you want to do is have people become passive aggressive because they didn’t get included. So while you do want to compromise, consensus may be culturally a really hard thing to achieve.
Slashdot: Okay, now, I know a lot of people who worked at Sun. Now you worked there too. How didI have always tried to figure out how Sun’s management worked—conflict, consensus, compromise--or did it?
Nigel: So I joined Sun Microsystems, we were acquired, I was with a company called Storage Tek which you may remember - they were tape libraries and we were acquired, and so we got acquired in, and I found it a really interesting environment. And I had really come from East Coast world of IBM where, and some people used to joke, we used to say IBM takes nine months to make a decision, and I would say, yeah, but at Sun we take nine seconds to make a decision and then we argue about it for nine months. So the elapsed time can really be the same, but I think Sun had that very west coast San Francisco move fast more sort of aim-fire, aim-fire, aim-fire, where I had really come from the East Coast which is a bit more aim, ready, aim aim aim fire. And so they moved and they made mistakes but they also succeeded a lot. And I think Scott and then Jonathan really led a culture that wanted to think through and occasionally use conflict but just get things done.
Slashdot: So your book, which we have linked to in the text—will it help them, ‘them’ being the great washed, I didn’t say unwashed, I said the great washed?
Nigel: So the subtitle of the book’s called Become a 21st Century Executive, but the subtitle is Break Away From the Pack. And I think the book was really written for people to stop muddling through, it is an old English expression, ‘to muddle through’.
Nigel: So many of us muddle through our careers. And the idea is that there is a bunch of 36 very simple lessons in the book that if you follow you won’t muddle through your career, you will accelerate, so it will help you hopefully break away from the pack of people muddling through.
Slashdot: Okay, now I would say most of people who are watching this, or reading the transcript are programmers, are coders or they are IT people probably not management, how does this apply to them?
Nigel: So it is a good question. I would tell you that even within the coder community there are leaders. And there are supervisors, and there are all the way up to CTOs, and into your career, you want to be in your little cubicle, and your own office and do 10,000 lines of code a year and be happy with yourself, then maybe you shouldn’t buy this book, but if at some point you want to be more than that, you do want to be a leader, to be an architect, to really drive a team, then there are lots of lessons in this for you, that by the way, maybe there are soft skills that sometimes programmers look down on, but might actually be required to achieve some success.