“Change is the only constant.”
This is how you start a decade recap on LinkedIn or Medium now, right? Ugh. I hate truisms—especially the implicitly condescending ones like that.
That particular soundbyte is one some bandy about as mantra’d badge of honor — a would-be battle scar from what was likely the result of bad decisions in the field now retconned as the signifier of a “real warrior”, akin to that person’s “hustle” arm tattoo.
To others, it’s an excuse to forfeit — a concession that absolves the sins of its utterer; a meaningless apology like that from a chronic smoker who falls back on “it’s just what you did at the time” to explain away their addiction; a lapsed catholic’s convenient confession—a cathartic release of responsibility.
Yet, were I to think about the year that has past as part of my introspection, I suppose that trite truism is apropos given that I’m writing this post from an entirely different country.
So let’s talk about change, then.
A year has passed, and as the internet would be quickly to call out, so too has a decade. And as my FOMO shifts from Facebook Event pictures and Instagram Stories to self-serving LinkedIn “thought leadership” posts, I would be remiss if I didn’t have and eat the only cake of mine which won’t make me fat of anything but head. On we go.
The first change is perhaps obvious given the overwrought writing to this point: I’m having a hard time writing the way I used to.
In past years, I’ve had no problems sitting down and writing the retrospective in one fell swoop. Yet, for some reason, I’ve found writing this year’s to be particularly more work than I’m used to.
I think there are two reasons for that:
- Working for a public company with the visibility of Salesforce demands of me significantly more restraint in what I write, and I’ve already had my pen slapped once, so I’m being deliberate in what, and when, I share.
- This year has been one of quiet and subtle introspection more than outward and bombastic exposition.
At the root of #2 is a reality which appears to contradict, and thus informs my aversion towards, the truism I have held in contempt: on the surface, not all that much has changed in the last 12 months.
I’m still at Salesforce. I’m still a technical solution engineer. I’m still learning every day and loving most of them. I’m still with Vanessa, and we’re still thriving as a team. I’m still working to invest my money and time more deliberately and to improve my body with better food and fitness and to improve my mind with better awareness and presentness and more gratitude. And, yes, I’m still buying and selling tech like it’s going out of style, because it constantly is.
That we’ve moved to New York City to follow Vanessa’s dreams and in parallel the natural and necessary progression of thriving at Salesforce is almost entirely circumstantial and not born out of ingratitude or impatience.
For those that know me, this will seem most out of character: I’m content. And this year, I want to reflect on why that is.
As it turns out, and to completely contradict my opening salvo with fitting and deliberate irony, the reason is simple.
I’ve changed, much more this year than ever before.
Change #1: The Psychological Shift Of Becoming A Salesperson
After finally escaping the clutches of product management in pursuit of growth that I felt the role I’d stumbled into couldn’t offer, I spent the majority of this year translating everything I’d learned as a developer and technical product manager into the radically different role of solution engineering.
As I am so wont to do, I had found many ways to rationalize my new role in the framework and mental model of my old role with the intent of accelerating my time to effectiveness.
Had you asked me in April or May of 2019 what I felt the SE role was, I would’ve said “it’s like being a customer’s product manager, where all of the conceivable product solutions are already built so you don’t need devs”.
The act of discovery, where we as consultants strategically engage with customers early in the sales process to better understand their businesses and business challenges and effectively map them to our sold solutions, is in no significant way different than the equivalent exercise for problem identification in the product realm.
And the novelty of each engagement, each new business and new set of stakeholders and new situations, is intoxicating. It provides the kind of constant newness that consistently captivates my natural yet smartphone-exacerbated nanosecond attention span.
But as the year has gone on, and as I’ve learned the role through the combined trials of real-world sales cycles and the tribulations of being coached by internal folks who all have radically different ways of working, my perspective has swung wildly towards realizing that I was concerned about the right things before but I was simply in the wrong role.
I think that’s because I’ve realized that people are what makes technology interesting — and everything else is just the new coal mining.
The Value Of Coal Mining
When I was young, I hungered for and treasured having technological knowledge. I loved being able to bend a computer to my will for my machinations by learning to speak its language. That skill was valued for a spell. I, and the broader we of programmers and technologists, seemed the modern-day soothsayers.
But that soothsaying has become sophistry as the likes of Brainstation and other boutique, well-branded bootcamps cultivate in the masses a “cushy” skill that is increasingly commoditized — particularly as the internet has consolidated and curated and contextualized the once-specialized knowledge and Google has made it instantly accessible and searchable while, in paralell, the proliferation of open-source software and instant elastic infrastructure that becomes increasingly lego blocky has made accessing the matching tools trivial.
Much like coal mining.
Upon realizing this, the once-technical workers are left with the same choice those before them faced as the technical revolution took root: evolve or die.
Those that will die are those that would scoff at my above analogy and defend experience and specific knowledge that they can draw on in an instant. But I challenge those time and time again, even in my current role which on paper should act the same way.
The in-memory function of “having the immediate, deep technical answer” for any given question once, years ago, could have a value expressed as the limit of 1/0 is now expressed as simply 0.
Why is it valuable to store in memory what can be easily, and more effectively, accessed in the infinite storage of the internet? What good is my experience in building a solution based on past knowledge when the technology half-life grows ever shorter and 6 months after implementation my previous solution has already been surpassed by a newer, turn-key approach that didn’t exist prior? Why is me belting out a pre-sales answer from memory more valuable than me finding the chorus of answers in Stack Overflow from actual implementation resources?
The answer to all of these is simple and the same: it isn’t.
This has become particularly stark as I’ve learned more about the low-code and devsumer markets which are radically changing what “skills” are necessarily to create, and roll-out, infinitely scalable infrastructure without the same kind of technical minutiae of the past.
Combine this with the increasing and inevitable onset of white-collar automation, and you may see where my worldview is coming from.
The Problems Of People
So if tech for tech’s sake is growing increasingly less interesting, what is taking its place? An obsession with people, their problems, and the combined quest for profit.
Ironically, the most interesting aspects of my role in solution engineering are everything but the technology and align directly to those aspects of product management that I found most interesting: understanding the people, their problems, the levers of profitability, and the plan for how my team can effectively position a product as the solution for mutually profitability.
As it has always been, that’s what modern tech businesses are all about: the intersection of people, pains, and profits.
Yet only now, at Salesforce, do I feel now closer to that than ever before. I find myself now immersed in one of the best software sales organizations, and I can’t get enough of learning how to dive into the people, deeply diagnose the pains, and define the mutually profitable path forward.
This year has been an incredible journey in understanding and further developing a skill that has always been the most captivating and interesting to me since my nascent days studying rhetoric at Waterloo: positioning.
The true solution that I spend my days now engineering is not a technical one but a rhetorical one, built based on a careful and curated discovery of the combined landscape of product, people, and problems. I develop and iterate talk tracks far more than technical solutions, and I’ve never been happier.
It’s intoxicating in its daily act as much as is the belief I hold that this profession that will be the last to exist, and I’m grateful to have found it for myself — even if I acknowledge it wouldn’t make many as happy as it makes me. I only regret not having been more open to this career shift earlier in my life. But I always was a late bloomer.
Change #2: The Resulting Spiritual Shift Towards Awareness
But spending so much time focused on people had another, even more powerful consequence than simply making me, for the first time in years, satisfied with what I do for a living.
Understanding people really well requires one to really understand oneself, and as a result, I’ve spent the last year doing a ton of work on myself to understand why I do the things I do and to find frameworks to describe why we do the things we do.
Indeed, effective rhetoric (and, by extension, positioning) is rooted in a deep understanding of and love for the audience, and one cannot understand a human audience deeply without understanding humans themselves deeply.
(N.B., it is this belief that reassures me of the comfortable permanence of new profession as the world around us evolves faster still.)
This has driven me to reread old favorites like How To Win An Argument and to discover new tools like The Instruction.
I’ve spent a ton of time this year thanks to the support of Vanessa and her amazing coach Mukarram honing an ability to listen deeply and to connect more intently with people. In doing so, I’ve forced myself to become more aware of my behaviors and can increasingly and productively control them.
As solving novel problems exercises our brains and can increase our IQ, so too can studying spirituality and emotion and applying it daily increase our EQ — and the latter is as if not more essential to effective selling and rhetoric than the former.
This newfound fascination in emotion has rekindled the very love for rhetoric which drew me to leave Computer Science for it in the first place. Only now, ten years and a lost marriage, and a new love, and hundreds of thousands of dollars earned and spent later have I found myself changing into what and who I should have been from the beginning.
There is something inherently fascinating in trying to systematize humanity, and the more you find frameworks that can articulate the world around you, the more appreciative one becomes of others and the more aware of the illusions we propagate amongst ourselves to protect ourselves you become.
This is particularly true when I turn this analysis inward and think about what has held me, and my family, back. I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about my parents and how they’ve trapped themselves in the stories they’ve told themselves.
At the height of my study of spirituality this year, my brother and I in fact worked an entire retelling of their story and in doing so came to the realization that we, in many ways, are committing the sins of the father.
The Story Of The Carons
Our mother as a young woman was never really career-oriented in the traditional sense but like many craved praise from authority and thus developed a dedication to working hard. She was naturally smart but quiet, and as a result, was seen as a good, reliable worker. This led to relative success.
She was also family oriented and wanted to have a fun life, albeit balanced with family, which was important to her at the behest of her Italian heritage. Her sisters were her friends in youth, and so was born an inextinguishable belief in the importance of family.
Our father was a young artist who had natural talent and optimism. He had a gift with his hands and his mind, a creative energy that was innate and of stupendous potential. Music and art came as naturally to him as any ever born. He loved the simplest things: the night city murmur, the fall’s wind, the brook’s babble, the bird’s chirp. He was born to love the natural beauty of our world.
But that love was beaten out of him by school and French culture and his father, slowly making him miserable as he aged. From youth Dad internalized his father’s ongoing resentment of his situation, and as a result, Dad’s potential reality became one rooted in the sins of his father. He hadn’t the tools to escape that eventuality.
Dad met and fell in love with Mom. He was an artist and likely a romantic at one point. And he was, as artists are, inherently productively lazy, or more charitably, laissez faire. But he was stereotypically French Canadian and a Catholic beaten one at that, so he was nurtured into forced, reluctant pragmatism and fear.
His pragmatism forced him to face the compromises he’d have to make to maximize his odds of survive and thus married our Mom at least subconsciously knowing she would take care of him. His conditioned risk aversion made it so, and he then acquiesced to many demands of Mom, including leaving Montreal and buying a house and, eventually, having children.
Mom and Dad have me after 9 years of trying and almost being retired to a life of travel and fun and friends without family. At that point, everything changed.
They sunk into the roles of their parents for lack of any other operating model.
Dad became effectively a miserable old man who did what he had to do and broke his body and soul in the process through work because he had no other choice. In spite of his underlying wants, though, he worked hard and did what he could to provide for himself and his family. He stayed the course.
Mom focused on family but lost her friends in the process largely as Dad drew inward to cope with his misery. She never fully pursued the opportunities that presented themselves to her because she was conditioned out of confidence slowly by Dad’s anxiety.
They continued to focus on family, having my brother Joe and continuing to hope that the family unit would keep them close. Slowly, friends drifted further and further away, leaving them each alone in their own struggle.
Dad was left to face the truth of a life lived doing everything but what he wanted, full of resentment and physical pain. Mom was faced with children three: her three boys, none of whom carry the same family values or the same love of people she did.
And now, we brothers were on track to repeat the sins of the father, pursuing what was immediately available and possible to survive instead of pursuing risky but high reward art.
But we do so with a touch mom’s intellect and a lot of dad’s laziness, which meant we were “fortunate” for more outcome with less effort. Yet we carried still the same begrudging “there’s no other way to survive as an artist” latent belief.
And as a result, we struggle as grumpy old men generally happy with nothing traditionally associated with happiness yet well aware that what we love doing isn’t profitable so we have to do other shit. Too pragmatic to actually pursue the things that could and would make us rich and happier if we surrendered to the risk and took it.
The Consequence of The Carons’ Story
In facing that story, and the fuzzy truthiness of it, we were left to face the reality of our own decisions. And that was a turning point of the year.
Becoming aware and humble about how our parents’ lives unfolded and how they approached the world would’ve been impossible without doing the work to step back from ourselves and the fog of our conscious, day-to-day minds in order to understand where we come from and why we do the things we do and think the things we think. And that awareness, and empathy, gives us the power to change.
It seems trite in writing, but I cannot understate the power and freedom that comes with opening oneself up to understand the deep why behind the actions, thoughts, and words. That kind of analysis is essential to deeply understanding, and improving, oneself and is as well valuable to doing the same with others.
In fact, it is in reflecting on that narrative that the relative lack of change from this year is rooted, I’ve recognized, finally, internally what so many have been telling me for so long: changing the external environment won’t fix the internal behaviors and problems that hold us back from true contentment.
Suffice to say, the realization was game-changing and that this is a side effect from my new work pursuit is fascinating. I look forward to investing further into myself and my awareness in 2020 and the decade beyond.
Plus ça change…
So, in spite of my consternation around the truism of “change is constant”, I can’t help but feel the suddenly-contented customer of its currency.
Sure, the change of this year past has been largely beneath the water’s surface, a flurry of kicking legs shifting the water beneath the calm visage of the swan floating above.
2019, and really the entire decade, took me towards this next decade a happier and healthier human being and human doing. I think I’ve finally found a path to contentment, and all it took was a little change — of mindset and awareness instead of literally everything else, as I’d been doing throughout the decade past.
How else, then, could I end this year and this decade as I am? Humbled by the journey and hoping it continues just a little bit longer — for all of us.