Become a Stranger in a Strange Land

Last night I attended a “Shark Tank” type event sponsored by the Zino Society, a Seattle-area Entrepreneurial and Angel Investment group. By attended, I mean I dropped in uninvited, handed over a business card and paid out of my corporate account (because it’s a write-off, right?), and no one asked me to leave. I got to stick around for a few hours, do a Scotch tasting, network, and listen to some pitches.

As a technical leader and former full-time software developer, most of the first 15 years of my career was spent getting better at writing code. I learned about design patterns, architecture, dove into the nitty-gritty of TCP/UDP networking, UI implementation, efficient data structures, multithreading, and so on. All of that is important in order to deliver solid software that performs well, doesn’t crash, and delivers a compelling experience to customers.  After 15 years, I never considered myself an expert, but mostly because I was always comparing myself to much more senior developers. Looking back at the Jr. and Mid-Level developers, I was a super-efficient coding machine.

However, I didn’t really think much about leadership, management, business functions, or the other questions that get asked when deciding in what direction to take a project. Over the last five years, I’ve found that these have been far more important in driving my career, teams, and projects forward than constantly trying to find new ways to level up as a developer. In fact, I would argue that the difference between a midlevel-to-senior developer and a high-level architect or Director of Engineering is not that the high-level person is an order of magnitude better developer, but that they have broader experience and are able to forsee the business impacts of their decisions far better than an IC developer.

The key experiential differentiator between the solidly employed and the highly successful is that the latter have mastered two different skillsets. Business and Software. Engineering and Design. Art and Commerce.

This is why, now, when I have the chance, I don’t attend engineering conferences. I don’t hang around with too many other game developers. I’m actually more interested in how other CEOs think about their business and their problems. How do investors think, and what questions do they ask? How do leaders hire great people? How does marketing work?

The Zino Society event was uncomfortable. Despite my love of blogging, I’m still an introvert at heart. A great night for me is sitting with my wife on the couch, drinking wine and watching a movie together. But I got out, and met a few great and talented CEOs. I spoke briefly with the keynote speaker, who was seated beside me for the Scotch tasting. I listened to the business pitches and grilled them on their mitigation strategies. Yes, my initial questions were technical in nature, but I’ve learned to ask about their business, their pivot points, how they grow, their market share, runway, revenue stream, and so on.

I have become used to being a stranger in a strange land. It’s something I recommend for everyone who is looking to grow personally and professionally. Get out of your comfort zone. Get off the couch. Meet people in a different industry, but one that interests you. Stretch. Grow. Be uncomfortable in the short term, so that you can be very comfortable in the long term.

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