Being vulnerable in public

At my previous gig, Slack channels were weird. No one would talk about the work; what was good, what was bad, what was difficult, what we could be doing better. Folks kept their work private.

So let’s say I was working on a refactoring project, I wouldn’t dare go into a channel and say “hey, I’m going to think out loud about this project for a bit as I’m refactoring this and y’all can give me feedback or just watch to learn more.” If I did that then people would just think that this is obnoxious, a waste of time, and quite frankly annoying. Or showing off perhaps. Or the sign of a junior designer and engineer. Because if you’re good then you must always know what the right course of action is, you must be stoic, and any sort of doubt or self-criticism must be a form of weakness, right?

Well, might I respectfully say: no! And also, subsequently, eff that!

Whenever I tried to show my work, or criticize an approach, or get into the nitty gritty details of a thing people would hate it. Instead, no-one was looking for real feedback. They were looking for emoji high fives and “great jobs!” or “heck yeah, my dude!” And it all wrong to me. Fake, even. Condescending at best. Intellectually incestuous. Anything that deviated from positivity was seen as suspicious and mean.

But, as all toxic environments go, you get used to things. Through peer pressure you start to believe that this is just how the world works and that you’re a part of the problem. It took me years to see how fucked up this state of affairs was. All those lost hours of sleep, all those useless rants...

So when I joined Sentry I was shocked by how everyone uses Slack and email; everyone was blunt and talking about things that actually mattered. Everyone, even the founders of the company, were in channels talking about how to improve things, where we’ve gone wrong in the past. Everyone is trying to push the needle every day and you can feel it. Folks will criticize my designs or my code in a public channel, not in a mean way, but instead to push me forward and stand up for my ideas. To help me grow.

The other thing I noticed is how being dumb in public is extremely difficult. It probably has something to do with joining a company during the quarantine but I’d have to slide into a public channel and ask a ton of questions. This would then reveal how paralyzing, incomprehensibly dumb I can be at times. But I noticed how other people were doing the same thing; they would roll into a channel, ask a bunch of questions, get their answers, and then go fix whatever problem it was that they’re working on.

This is how a healthy company should look.

Yet this would’ve been impossible at my last job. No one would dare publicly say “I don’t know” because that would require vulnerability, honesty, a lack of ego. It would show that maybe you’re not the hero you think you are, that the company might not need you as much as you think. Anyway, I’ve been worrying a lot about this stuff for a while. About what makes for a healthy workplace, or how to avoid a toxic culture and a sick system, and how to make good design possible. Now I’m adding “being vulnerable in public” to that list as a top priority for any company that wants a healthy work environment.

And so if you run a company or a team today ask yourself this: could you go into any channel right now and ask a question, no matter how dumb it was? Would those replies be kind? Would it risk future promotions or upsetting people? Can you work in public?