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Human Skills 012: Productivity and leverage
With Shawn (swyx) Wang
Shawn Wang, also known as swyx, is best known for evangelizing the LearnInPublic movement, and for his developer relations and devtools work at companies like Netlify, Temporal, and Airbyte. He is a ridiculously prolific writer and speaker, hosts a number of online tech communities, and published the book 'the Coding Career Handbook' for Junior to Senior developers.
In this interview, swyx and I covered a wide range of topics, from how to optimize your rate of learning, to personal productivity, and even closing with a brief diversion into his most recent topic of interest, AI. But the theme that ran through this conversation more than anything else was one of leverage. How to achieve personal leverage through code and content, recognizing it when one of your specialties has become higher leverage than others, and even how to apply an investor's mindset to choosing the code you write and problems you solve for highest impact.
Please enjoy this conversation with Shawn Wang
What do you do to manage and improve your productivity?
So first of all, everyone asks about productivity systems. And this is where we talk about the Zettelkastens, the note taking tools, notion, reflex, obsidian, all that. I am an obsidian and notion user, by the way. And I don't think it matters if you understand the difference between productivity and leverage.
Productivity is for people who don't have leverage.
Who need to fill every single hour of the day with something. That's good. You want to fill every hour of your day with something. But also you feel constant stress. You don't have slack to just wander and have serendipity come into your life. So sometimes I actually challenge the question of, like, should you be productive? Is being productive a possible goal?
And I often find that a lot of us as knowledge workers, I'm sure you feel this as well, we are not always productive. And most of us hunt like lions rather than eat like cows. We sprint for a little bit, and then we burn out for a long time. And that is the unfortunate nature of the way that knowledge work is done, which is very hard to square with the way that we want to be paid. We want to be paid on a consistent basis.
There's long times of lack of productivity. But I do think that, for example, deadlines really good. So if you committed to deliver something every week, then whatever you have at the end of that time that you've given yourself, you have to ship. And that's just a rule that you don't let yourself second-guess. Because if you let it slide for too long, then you essentially have stopped being the thing that you want it to be. Your identity is not the thing that you say you are, it's the thing that you do consistently every day. I think that's a James Clear type of paraphrase.
The other thing that I'll say, so having that out of the way, I do have thoughts on productivity. And I haven't even talked about leverage yet.
So the main thing about productivity I offer to people is that you want to essentially debounce the things that come in asynchronously and then the things that you can and batch up the things that you have to do synchronously. So what I call this is "Mise en Place" writing. And I have a blog post about that as well, of course.
And what that means is essentially I'm working on 50 different blog posts at a time rather than one. And I think a lot of people work on blog posts or ideas... I have 50 different business ideas at once. I think people work on things in sequence, which is fine.
But then the timing or inspiration or energy doesn't really match up at that time. And it's actually much better to let inspiration happen, to let preparation go on in the background. And then when the time is right, be abnormally ready because you've been working on this in the background for years.
Literally, I have blog posts that I will ship sometime this year that I've been working on for two to three years. Because I just had them baking in the background.
And this fundamentally respects the nature of inspiration, that it comes randomly. And it comes in the shower, it comes when you don't want it to, when it comes when you're talking to someone. And that's very different from when you're sitting down to write, or when you're working on an idea.
So you need to establish a buffer, you need to multitask it, or you need to multiplex it. And I think that is a very interesting way to increase your total bandwidth, essentially.
How do you think about personal leverage?
So productivity, if you kind of view this as mathematical equations, productivity is output over time, whereas the relevant equation for leverage would be impact over effort. And you want to maximize impact while minimizing effort, but I actually don't even think about minimizing effort.
Let's say you have a fixed amount of effort budget... and you do want to have high effort. There's a lot of high leverage people, people who seek leverage by seeking to put in the minimum amount of effort and I think that's the wrong way to think about these things. It causes a lot of 80/20 thinking where there's a bunch of ideas idea guys who walk around and say like "I have an idea for this and you know, like once I've stated the idea, the rest of it is obvious. You can do the rest." But you can't get anywhere half-assing it because you don't finish anything. And therefore, you don't ship. It's not in a usable state.
So I definitely don't talk about minimizing effort. But I do think you want to maximize your impact. And so leverage for me is essentially, the best metric of it is how much can you get done, or how much value can you provide to others in your sleep. Sleeping is like literally when you're not around.
And so part of that will be writing. Writing is very high leverage, but writing is not the only way you can do that. You can also write software. And I think software is one of the highest leverage forms of labor that is known to humanity. And I think that's why software engineers are worth a lot, especially if you have self-healing systems that run thousands and thousands of machines at the same time. And that's why Kubernetes is valuable. Or if you write one piece of software that is deployable on all sorts of browsers and all sorts of devices like React. All those things are very high leverage activities, which I highly encourage.
Hiring other people is also a form of leverage. That's people leverage. And then borrowing money is a form of leverage. That's the classical financial definition of leverage. By the way, there's two kinds of financial leverage, one is operational leverage, and one is financial capital leverage, which I highly encourage people to learn about if they're interested in scaling businesses, but we don't have to go specifically there.
The reason that code and content have abnormal power in terms of leverage compared to the other two types of leverage that I mentioned, which is people leverage and money leverage, is that code and content are permissionless. I don't need your permission to write my own code that is valuable. I don't need your permission to write my own content that someone else finds valuable. I do need your permission to hire you. I do need your permission to borrow your money or take your investment.
And so being permissionless gives you autonomy and full control, especially if I do that with thousands and thousands and thousands of people, such that I'm not captive to any one particular audience. In effect, I'm uncancellable. And any one person churning away from me completely doesn't affect me. That is true power and leverage and wealth, to be honest.
Beyond code and content, what other types of leverage have you used and thought about?
I think that being pointy is more valuable than being broad. And that's a form of leverage because general capability is not something you can trade with someone else, but being a point solution, a domain specialist, is something you can trade with another domain specialist. And in the broader economy of skills and contacts and tips and help, that is much more useful.
I found that I am capable of many things. I'm known for many things. But the one thing that everybody comes to me for is developer relations advice. Because I happen to write one blog post that went viral and is now regarded the canonical post for how you do measurements for developer relations.
And that's OK... you want to resist being put in a box because you're more than that. You contain multitudes. But people want to put you in a box, so you might as well help them.
And that is a form of leverage. The way I put it in my book is you might as well put them in a high value, pretty, glittering box next to the checkout together with other attractive boxes that you want to be associated with.
[…did you choose your box or did it choose you?]
No, it definitely chose me. Yeah, no, I definitely didn't set out to this. I even got the job by accident, right? When I interviewed at Nellify, I was supposed to be a solutions engineer, and I failed that interview. But they liked me enough that they were like, what about this other role that we have open? And I was like, sure, what is developer advocate? And then I took that role and I did well.
[...how did you discover what the right box for you was?]
I do think it's the ever persistent question of what is the intersection of what you love and what the world values. Because you can't have one with the exclusion of the other.
And the sort of 120 IQ form of this is Ikigai, which I'm sure you know about, which is that intersection of four circles. What you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. So that's the ikigai four-circle meme.
The reason I make fun of it slightly is because what you love eventually will be what you're good at, so that circle collapses. And then what the world needs will eventually be what you can pay for. So that circle also collapses.
The function of the internet and the long-tail economy is that those two things do collapse over time. So ultimately, it's just demand and supply. This is just so many words to just say, "hey, what do you want to do with your life?" And then, okay, which of that bucket is something that I actually want out of you? And if you can just figure that, then it's a valuable thing.
I do think that you have to take a few shots on goal. You have to take a leap of faith in yourself sometimes and just put yourself out there as like, this is the identity I have for a few years. And if it works, it works. If it doesn't work, I can pivot and no shame because everyone is on their own journey and no one's judging you too much for that.
So I think you can try on a few identities. I think maybe you get like three to five shots at defining what that bucket is, but it is extremely valuable to be a domain expert. Because actually, when you are viewed as a domain expert, by the time you're viewed there, you're actually past that certain point in time where you've seen how fractal this thing goes, and you realize that there's always more depth to this. And you can get even more of an expert the more you are an expert.
What lessons from finance have you brought to your career in tech?
I think developers don't introspect on this nearly enough as it is important to their careers. What makes one line of code, one chunk of code, more valuable than another chunk of code?
You only have so many lines of code in your fingers. You obviously want to direct them towards the most valuable use. And It's not actually, it only has very little to do with how you write that code. It's more about the context in which that code operates in.
And so I think that I definitely think about that a lot. I think about my choice of frameworks or libraries or languages as an investment. And so I would sort of diligence it as an investment and think about the macro trends that are driving this and the fundamental bottom up reasons why this will fundamentally persist over time.
And I have an investor lens to this, but I definitely don't want people to think too highly of this. I think this is an analogy and not a science because I've made plenty of mistakes myself and the frequency at which we can make these decisions are nowhere like we can in finance. In finance, I can trade in and out of a stock within the same day. In tech, if I make a bet on a framework, I'm probably sticking with that for three to five years. And that's a relatively weighty bet. And I want to be invested longer than that.
I do also think that having a sense of what code is valuable and what is not eludes a lot of otherwise extremely smart people. I have a lot of friends who are extremely, extremely smart, way smarter than I am, who are very caught up in type systems. No value whatsoever. Yes, I understand type theories eliminates entire classes of problems. I understand that. There is absolutely in the history of business of technology, no evidence whatsoever that has any value at all to any business whatsoever.
So understanding what drives value and what people really want out of you, which is not necessarily what you want, but it just caters to the base desires of other people and giving them what they want, I think is a fundamentally. useful discipline.
And I think that is something that you take from investing. You can talk a big game about your mission of the company. You can talk a big game about elevating the human consciousness. But ultimately, if your day-to-day job is you're renting out office space, then WeWork is not that valuable. It's not a tech company. It's not elevating human consciousness. It's just renting office space.
And I think a lot of people could could be more practical in the way that they view tech businesses and what they choose to work on.
Resources by swyx that came up in the conversation:
A list swyx already published of best books to read:
Quick links to swyx:
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