Sunday, April 6, 2008

Leadership Wisdom From a Veteran Technologist

Friendly competition helps us excel in our activities and projects.I recently enrolled into a JavaScript class. It looked interesting and I’ve always been interested in knowing something about software and web programming. So, I took the leap.

After I paid my “12 dollars and 50 cents”, I began to question my reasons for doing so. Why did I feel the need to enroll into programming class? I have several books about learning JavaScript in the house, everything ranging from the beginner level to the advanced, make-you-computer-sit-up-and-beg-for-buttermilk level. And I have the necessary environment with the necessary software support systems. Why did I feel I needed to enroll into a class when I have everything I need at my fingertips?

The answer came to me while I was taking a leisurely run out in the night and I remembered an incident at the beginning of my career.

Back when I was fresh out of college and just starting my career, I began working for a company called Thinking Machines Corporation. Totally green and inexperienced, I was put in an environment with some pretty heavy thinkers: people like Brewster Kahle, the inventor of the WAIS system and founder of Alexa, and Danny Hillis, the father of parallel computing.

TMC also had a number of DEC alumni on the payroll, one of them being Dick Clayton, the VP of Engineering at TMC.

One evening while I was working late, Dick Clayton came down to the lab, saw that I was still there and invited me into his office for an informal chat.

We talked about all of the things that any new person just starting off their career would talk about, which wasn’t a whole lot because when you're just starting out, you don’t know a whole lot.

But Dick asked me a question that has stuck with me to this day. He started by asked me if I participated in any sports and I had to tell him no. At the time, my competitive days had ended when I left the high school cross-country team.

He then asked me, “Do you know why we compete?”

I think he was asking a rhetorical question because he didn’t wait for an answer from me. He said, “We compete to find out how good we really are, to hold ourselves accountable to reaching a higher level, and to learn new ideas from our competitors that will strengthen us and make us better.”

I didn’t think too much about his comment after that evening in his office. But just as I was finishing up my run tonight, his answer came back and hit me as the answer that I was looking for to this particular question about the JavaScript class.

His insight extends beyond this software class.

Looking back in time, I realized that his message was very relevant when I was running competitively in Boston. I achieved some of my best marathon times when I lived in New England because I ran with a group. I was in a situation where I could compare myself to my teammates, get ideas from the group on how I could improve, and they held me accountable to meet my goals and exceed my expectations.

It’s also the reason I took the Dale Carnegie Course. It’s why many people take our Dale Carnegie programs.

When I first took the program, I had no idea what I was getting involved in. I had read the books, How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living at the request of a friend. In fact, I had read both of them several times. Still, when I moved into technical support requiring me to spend time in front of customers, taking the course seemed like the appropriate next step to take.

In the course, I had an excellent instructor, Paul Bagan, who coached me through some of the course projects. My peers in the program held me accountable for the things that I said I was going to achieve, and they provided some excellent and creative insights into some of the challenges that I faced in my industry at the time.

So as I begin my JavaScript class, Dick Clayton’s comment on competition comes back to me as insight, not just for this class, but for all of the races that I’ve run, all of the jobs that I’ve held and for all of the classes that I have taught.

No one learns well in a vacuum. Sure, we can read all of the books available on a subject, but at some point, we need to apply what we have absorbed in order to make it powerful.

To really excel, however, a little friendly competition is required. We get that in our groups and communities, our classes and programs. That’s were we find out how good we really are, we commit to holding ourselves accountable to achieving our goals, and we gain new ideas from our peers and competitors on how to be better at what we do.

The next time you are weighing your options on taking any course, remember Dick Clayton’s wisdom and you’ll have a better understanding of the results you want to see at the end of the program before you even begin it.

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