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Human Skills 017 - Learning to See Power
with Elijah Meeks
Elijah Meeks has a fascinating background for a tech startup cofounder. He started with a graduate degree in the humanities, moved into software development within academia, got heavily into data visualization and worked at both Netflix and Apple, and now is the cofounder and Chief Innovation Officer of Noteable.
With that unique background, it's perhaps unsurprising that he has a different perspective on a lot of things than many engineers I've interviewed. In this conversation, we talked about the ways that has shaped his approach, how most disagreements are more about context than content, and how learning to see power and the different ways it is exercised in an organization is key to success.
How has your humanities background influenced your approach to tech?
I think that you can't get at sort of a graduate level in the humanities without being exposed to postmodernism. This idea that as I think it was John Berger who said that you can never tell a story again as if it was the only perspective on that story, that everything has multiple perspectives, that people have different truths.
And a lot of the stuff that I think in tech people are being exposed to under the auspices of sensitivity or diversity and things like that in the humanities... you were exposed to this a long time ago as part of your understanding of the world of human beings.
I remember when I was at, I studied Wikipedia for a while. and did some research on that. And I was at one of these Wikimania conferences, this was years and years ago, at Harvard. And I was being interviewed by a reporter from NPR, and they said, "well, you know, isn't Wikipedia garbage?" because you go to the George W. Bush webpage, like page on Wikipedia, and it's a mess of people arguing about George W. Bush, who was the president at the time.
And I pointed out to them that no, it's because we still haven't figured out in this sort of encyclopedic way who George W. Bush is. We're still wrestling with that. At that time, and we're even still wrestling it today.
And so that awareness that when I go and speak to somebody in a professional industry setting, whether that person is an engineer, product manager, somebody in people ops, is always there. I'm always aware that when they disagree with me or they disagree with others, that that disagreement is not necessarily an argument to be resolved with one person being right and another person being wrong, but rather a communication layer that probably needs a lot of translation.
That doesn't necessarily mean that everybody's right about everything that they feel, of course. But oftentimes, what we see as fundamental disagreements on content are actually fundamental misunderstandings of context, and I've found that to be extremely valuable in how I've navigated my professional career.
How do you draw the distinction between disagreements on content and disagreements about context?
We tend to think, especially in tech, we tend to have this idea of the rock star engineer and another engineer. And one of them is simply smarter or at least more experienced with the problem that they're trying to solve. And one of them will be right and one of them will be wrong.
But oftentimes what happens is that we actually don't fundamentally agree on what the problem is. We don't necessarily agree on the definition of the terms that we're using. It might be that for you... I'll use a technical term that to me covers this problem and to you refers to a different problem. I don't wanna go too specific or even too wide, because like you can go forever talking about language. And I know that your audience is practical and in industry you wanna be practical.
But we do have to recognize that people show up at work, not as like a fresh face out of the computer. They show up just like these large language models do with a huge amount of implicit context that they were trained on a certain set of material and as a result their responses are going to be influenced by.
Most of the time you run into in situations - especially like I did where I could I jumped around a lot in organizations especially at Netflix and worked with a lot of different teams - and you find that people are... concerned with whether or not you're helping them or you're helping yourself. And you have to understand whether or not you're wasting their time.
And to do that, you have to expend effort to understand the language that they use to describe what they do, to understand their domain. And then you have to sort of prove it to them. You have to build trust with them, but you also have to kind of spend that trust. You have to say, "Hey, now that you trust me, I'm going to make a bet that I understand you well enough to push you to do this other thing." And those aren't always the case.
So the context, what I guess what I'm trying to say in that regard is that that context isn't static. It's not like, Kevin, I entered this conversation with you. I know that you were at these startups. I know that you had this background in physics. So therefore I'm gonna talk to you this way.
It's also that as I'm talking to you right now, 30 minutes into this conversation, you'll have this updated context with me, being aware of how I communicate, what I do, and that will change what we're able to talk about 30 minutes from now.
What tactics do you use to deal with someone who is not interfacing well with the rest of the team?
I think in every situation, short of somebody who is just a confirmed malcontent, who is toxic... and also keep in mind that even somebody in that situation, you can find ways to frame that. If somebody is just the worst, and then you dig into it and find out they're the worst because their personal life is horrible right now, then you can help everybody by saying, "hey, you have to be empathetic toward this person. We're all human beings." And that's a great way to build camaraderie and to make more effective things.
There are times when somebody's completely just tuned out and there's not much you can do in those cases. But in most cases, it's that someone is more interested in experimenting with new technologies rather than... maybe achieving the practical goals on time, and maybe they're from a unit where they're not gonna be evaluated by whether or not this project hits its milestones, and so it's doubly difficult.
But in those cases, you can find what they're most excited about. And as a senior technical leader, you should be able to figure out, okay, well, they're interested in this technology. They wanna rewrite this entire framework. We can't do that, because we'll miss our milestone. But maybe there's some aspect of it that you can just give them control over that they can really geek out on and feel empowered by you.
And maybe you see in what they're doing there, a pattern that the rest of the team might get excited about. I'm gonna give Kevin the ability to rewrite this notification API, because I think Kevin, he's got a great idea for it. And I know that it's not on a roadmap, but I think it's going to ultimately in the long term be of value.
If I'm on a team that cares that, I don't think, "oh, Kevin's getting special treatment." I think, "oh, that's exciting. Maybe there's some way that I can also help in that way."
So it's about contextualizing people's trajectories. It's about contextualizing a person's actions in a way that the rest of the team doesn't doesn't take the least charitable interpretation of it, which is actually a logical fallacy as someone who studied logic. You're actually supposed to, in an argument, assume the most charitable interpretation of someone's argument. And if you don't, then you're actually in the wrong. So once again, humanity is providing me with all the tools necessary to succeed.
Given your background both in academia, big tech, and now a startup how do you think about hierarchy and power structures?
So I wasn't just in academia, I was at Stanford, which can get very hierarchical, very quick. You know, you're a full professor at Stanford... you have a certain expectation that the people around you are there to help you be productive. And that expectation can come out in very sort of explicit language. I don't mean cursing, but I mean very sort of like, these expectations are part of the job. And for a lot of folks, that can be very hard because we all in our personal lives have had times when we think that the person in charge shouldn't be in charge and they have too much power over us.
To me, it isn't one thing or another, it just is. It's a constraint that you operate under. You accept it, you understand it, and you either work there or you don't. And I don't mean to be blase about that, but. It's one of many styles. In contrast, Netflix, especially Netflix in the era that I was at Netflix, was very flat. It was very flat and very exciting. And you really did, you had work that you expected to do and you had opportunities like you're saying, Kevin, to change your role, to really change your role.
But to go back and contrast that with Stanford. At Stanford, you know, because of that strong hierarchical nature, if I happen to work with an extremely well-respected scholar and get that scholar a story in a magazine because of the work we did, then that person is motivated to support me, to allow me to further redefine my role, which is literally what happened.
At Netflix, it was more about less hierarchical power and more implied power. What we think of as kind of a healthier kind of power, where people want to work with you because they know you're a high performer. You want to work with them because you know you're a high performer. You both know it's an impactful project. And even though there are definitely units and there are managers and things like that, you have these mechanisms available to you to work cross-functionally and accomplish really sort of amazing things.
The challenge I think is for when people grow up in that, the latter environment, when they are promoted to a position where they actually have hierarchical power. And what I've seen there is that those folks don't have the best grasp. of how hierarchical power works. And I've gotten very, very theoretical here. So let me get very sort of practical in my language.
If you've spent years motivating people to support you through interpersonal relationships because you cannot order them to support you, then you might think once you get into position where you can order people to do things... that you wouldn't want to do that because it's clumsy and mean. And instead, you want to develop a personal relationship with all of your reports. And you want them to work for you because they want to work for you. When in reality, when you're talking to them and you have power over them, it is not the same peer relationship where you're negotiating peer trust.
Instead, you're talking to someone who reports to you, who you control their salary, who you control whether or not they get promoted. And even though they might respond to you in a language because they have figured it out of "I'm your buddy and we're figuring this out together," they might not mean that. They might be trying to navigate what for them is a very unequal position.
There's another problem too, which is that, and I was one of these people at Stanford... you know, sometimes I like to get ordered around. Sometimes I like for somebody to come in the room, kick down the door and say, "we need this, you need to do this by this. Like we need this. The order came from the top and this is what's happening."
I'm not saying all the time, I think it's clear from my personality that's probably not like my number one way of working with people. But there are people who enjoy that. And there are times in their lives when they enjoy that. When you just like you go home and everything's a mess. We built a house and for years it just felt like everything was a mess, and I just wanted somebody to just tell me what to do. That would have been much better. Instead of figuring out how to run the startup with no rules.
So when you don't do that, you're actually not honoring someone's working stuff, you might have a team then in this, in what I've described here, like the horror situations, you have a team, let's say 10 people report to Kevin, five of them are pretending to be your friends because clearly that's what you want us to do is pretend to be your friends.
And the other five are sitting there saying, this person doesn't inspire me, this person doesn't have any vision, they have no authority because they're not telling you, "this is what we're doing, this is why we're doing it, and now get to work guys, let's go."
That can be a blind spot for folks because to go back to, I think a common theme here is, there's only one truth and the truth is, is that there are no hierarchical relationships. We're all equal human beings. I fundamentally agree with that, but in a professional setting, that's just not the case. That's not what we agree to in our sort of social contract when we join an organization. And if you don't own up to that, if you don't acknowledge that, then you're operating sort of... You're not operating with reality.
Do you have recommendations for folks who are trying to learn to see power?
One thing is to start to see, like split it into those two dynamics we were talking about earlier. The person who has authority versus the person who is great at building consensus.
Walk into a room and see the person who gives orders that people enjoy hearing. Like the classic Steve Jobs thing, the person who for some reason can come into a room and say, "this is garbage, do it this way." And everybody smiles and they're so enthusiastic and they're like, "I can't wait to work until one o'clock in the morning."
See those people, but also see the people who enter into a room and say, "well, I...", you know, there was an old Saturday Night Live skit. The unfrozen caveman lawyer. "I don't know much about this or that, but it sounds to me like you're saying this. It sounds to me like you're saying that." And notice that there are some people who can do this. And then suddenly people are agreeing with them. And when the meeting is over, the decision very much tended toward what it seemed like benefited, not benefited them, but matched up with the way that they seemed to be positioned.
I'm trying to avoid like these judgmental things because it's all business. Like it's all made up stuff anyway. It's not like there's good or bad, when it comes to what is... Acme chemical company decide to do with its coding platform with its, you know, CI/CD implementation this year. Who cares? There's somebody who has one idea about it. There's another person who has another idea. Third person might have a third idea and what you end up doing is gonna most resemble one of those people's ideas.
And look for the people who didn't tell somebody what to do, but it seems like they're the most trusted advisor for many people who know what they're doing and when they're in those groups situations, they don't speak much, they happen to speak and when they do, people happen to agree with them.
And that helps, because that's two kinds of power. And then what you're gonna find is you're gonna probably find that one of those more suits you, and then challenge yourself to understand the other one, and understand the applicability and value of the other one, even if you find that you prefer one of those two.
Links to Elijah
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