Some of my biggest struggles on my current team at Microsoft were related to the question of who got to contribute what. Some people’s word would be taken as gospel, and others as a mere distraction. The difference was initially mysterious but, in hindsight, should have been obvious. Ideas aren’t independent from the people who produce them, and relationships and credibility matter.
This post provides a set of guidelines for contributing ideas to a new team. The best coder I’ve ever met used many of these principals to rocket through the ranks at Microsoft, and I have him to thank for most of the wisdom herein. This playbook represents my own aspirations for how I want to approach my new job next month - I hope it can be useful for anyone else wanting to make a bigger impact on their own team.
I’m naturally drawn to the idea that the world is a rational place, and that everything has a solution. If there was a difficult math problem, and someone produces a novel proof that’s independently verifiable, then of course that would be the correct answer and your team of mathematicians would embrace it and move on. Unfortunately, when it comes to engineering or product decisions there’s no 100% ‘correct’ answer, and the best path forward depends on tradeoffs, context and intuition.
For such decisions, while you can’t know with certainty if an idea is correct or not, you can know whether the person suggesting it is smart and has been right in the past. Imagine a 15 year old teenager, let’s call him Bob, is telling you to invest one way, and Warren Buffett another. Even if you think that Bob could have a point, you’re going to believe Buffett every time, because in the end nobody really knows the correct path, and Buffet’s track record speaks for itself. Even if Bob ends up being right, on average you still made the right call. And Bob would have earned a bit more credibility in the process.
So, even if you read every post from Paul Graham, Benedict Evans, Stratechery, Hacker News, TechCrunch, etc., it will only solve one part of the equation. You’ll probably (hopefully) have some well-informed and intelligent opinions, but you’re still missing two things: 1) deep, nuanced understanding of these topics, and 2) the credibility required to actually make your colleagues want to listen to and believe in your great ideas. Fortunately, the solution to both of these is the same: put your head down and work hard, get some wins in your current area of responsibility, then grow the scope of your work from there.
So, what I’m advising against, from personal experience, is to come in to a new team and suggest a bunch of big ideas. Interviews teach us that we should have strong opinions about the future of the company/product right off the bat, and we should. But we should replace the confidence in the interview with humility and a desire to learn. Figure out how to add value as early and as quickly as you can. Learn as much as you can in your specific area of responsibility. Be open-minded and a diligent and fun person to work with. Be as helpful as you can to your manager. Then, once you’re “taking care of things at home”, reach out to someone you admire working on something you think is cool, and ask how you can help.
As the months start to go by, what happens? You understand the company and the space more deeply. You have strong, trusting interpersonal relationship with your peers. You have a number of tangible achievements under your belt. You start entering a space where people will feel like you ‘get it’. And your voice and ability to contribute will slowly increase. Then, one day, there will be a team meeting about which direction the feature or product or company should go, and someone will ask you, “What do you think we should do?” This is a magical moment; not everyone gets asked such a question. It’s a signal that you’ve transitioned into the land of credibility, and any ideas you present in such a forum will have 10x the impact they would have had if you had volunteered it unprompted (and probably be 10x better, too).
Once it continues to build, this trust and credibility becomes a magical thing. In one of his letters to the shareholders, Bezos talks about the importance of “disagree and commit”, where an executive can pitch something (e.g. Amazon Studios), and Bezos will support the project even if he thinks it’s a bad idea. In this case the only thing really being pitched is the executive’s credibility, and everything else is secondary. As the most extreme example, Elon Musk can pitch (currently) impossible projects and still get ample funding and talent. Figuring out how to pitch a new feature in your current job is the first step.