Finding Work: Knowing yourself enough

cord helps Engineers direct message other people looking to hire them. But finding work isn’t just about access to hiring managers…

Finding your best work is a life’s journey uncovered through an ongoing conversation with ourselves and the world around us.

The Best Work Stories podcast hosts conversations between Ben (Co-founder and CEO of cord) and Founders, CTO’s, Software Engineers and people in tech who are on their own journey to find their best work.

Transcript

Wojciech Sromek (00:00):

It’s a social problem. How can we solve it? Problem, lack of communication. Solution, learn how to communicate. How do you learn? Therapy. It kind of worked, right?

Ben Henley-Smith (00:11):

How do you plan what work you are going to pursue?

Wojciech Sromek (00:15):

Maybe it is not like planning a work per se, but rather being aware of what are the skills and trends, and maybe thinking about how particular technological contexts can be complimentary to each other. What I mean is that I started working as a fronted engineer. Then I went on to work as a full stack. And I worked with PHP and Node and JavaScript on the front end. I was very lucky to work in a company called Schibsted, where I worked with amazing people who boosted the amount of knowledge that I would have been exposed to during a tenure in any given company. I was working with amazing people who taught me a lot. I went out of this company after three years, but I’ve always felt like it gave me nine years of experience because it was incredible.

Wojciech Sromek (01:18):

And after that, I compared every role to that one. After that, I went to work in William Hill, which is probably a familiar name to you. And I have spent some time working as a leader, as a team lead. I wanted to do that because I wanted to complement the technical skills with the soft skills. I entered into this position starting as a principal developer back then. Then I was promoted to a development team lead. And what I decided to focus on this role, I wanted to keep a little bit away from the technicalities, but rather I wanted to learn about psychology, motivation, how to manage people.

Wojciech Sromek (02:07):

And it turned out that absolutely not being aware of the fact that it is a method. I went into something that is called a servitude leadership. So my approach was always, how can I help you to do your best work? Exactly this, right? I wanted to help my people grow. I wanted to be a tool for them, let’s call it a hammer. You need to do that, you don’t know what to do. Here’s me. I will do this for you. And it worked amazingly well.

Ben Henley-Smith (02:35):

What’s that process taught you about your own work and your own view of what it means to do your best work?

Wojciech Sromek (02:41):

I think that I measured my success back then by the happiness of the team. I think that I have learned that to be successful in even regular engineering contexts, the perspective of a leader who leverages his context and is able to give you himself as a tool is incredibly important. Probably, yes. This was probably the most important thing that I brought out of this, the awareness of contexts in which I would like to work. And I must admit that since then, I was extremely lucky to always work with people who worked in the same manner. I felt whether this was the environment which would be good for me or not. And I think that this was the experience that allowed it.

Ben Henley-Smith (03:40):

It sounds almost as if the experience allowed you to see beyond your own self, in a way, and to recognize the impact that the environment around you as an engineer has on you.

Wojciech Sromek (03:54):

I think that this is partly true. And while talking about environment, I think that this role of a people who are superior to you in your workplace is incredibly important.

Ben Henley-Smith (04:10):

What aspects do you think engineers who aren’t leaders don’t recognize as important? Because you only have this insight because you’ve been there and you’ve transitioned. But there are so many people who are working day to day who are unaware of those things.

Wojciech Sromek (04:32):

I believe there are three. I believe that absolutely the most important thing is the way that we communicate because this makes or breaks a senior and principal engineer. If you are able to lay out concepts, make them accessible, you are able to teach. And if you are not, you are going to get frustrated. The people who you’re trying to teach get frustrated as well, and it just doesn’t work. But this is only one.

Wojciech Sromek (05:05):

I think that there are two which touch a bit on each other. And one is emotional resilience, because in the context of, for example, improper communication, if we are able to be emotionally resilient, then we are able to try and try. And it kind of touches on work by Professor Carol Deck from Stanford. She wrote a book called Mindset. And she basically poses that, in contexts where you know that failure is a step towards success, and if you have that mindset, she called it the growth mindset versus fixed mindset. So when you think that you will no longer develop, you don’t. But when you have the knowledge that you’re able to grow, then you just take every failure as a lesson.

Wojciech Sromek (05:52):

And not everybody has that, which touches on the third point that, in our industry, there is a prevailing problem of imposter syndrome. I saw some data, it was quite some time ago, so right now I am unable to vouch for them. But they said that around 70% of people in the IT industry battle imposter syndrome. I wanted to provide my team with a psychological safety, to have this space in which everybody could actually voice their opinion without fear of being ridiculed, which happens in regular communication within teams. Because I have both worked in teams which were very, very safe that way, but also in ones that would ridicule you because they expected you to always come with good ideas.

Ben Henley-Smith (06:48):

How can someone recognize that they are in an environment that fosters those three pillars?

Wojciech Sromek (06:57):

I think that when you find yourself in a place like this, you will feel it. I have this feeling. If you don’t feel safe in your workplace, I think that this is a really, really strong signal that you need to get out. Also, I deeply believe that providing psychological safety in your company teams, in your process, should be a no brainer for any company. Even Google had this program, I think it was called Aristotle, Project Aristotle where they were looking for factors which made teams high performing, and perform at their highest level. And actually, the main finding was that psychological safety can make or break the team and it’s performance.

Wojciech Sromek (08:02):

As to the communication, I don’t think that in context of communication, this is dependent on the workplace. I feel that however your environment communicates with you will leave an imprint on you, but does not define the way that you communicate with your environment. So I ideally believe that this is a road that everybody has to take for themselves. I must say, from my own experience, that I started out working and I was unable to communicate well. I got angry easily. I was frustrated because I couldn’t convey my ways of thinking. I was a perfectionist, and this doesn’t lead to proper communication with people, I think, ever. So I believe that both communication and, by proxy, the emotional resilience, are things that we need to foster within ourselves. And I don’t think that this comes from work and environment as such.

Ben Henley-Smith (09:18):

And how do you think an environment can enable you to see through your own imposter syndrome?

Wojciech Sromek (09:23):

I think that whenever we are able to carry out our work in a way that we are satisfied with, and where we can actually see effects of our work, that this is a small building block. And if we connect them together, we are able to overcome it. But once again, this is not really common. There are so many companies in which we will work, work, work, and then this work will either be scraped or will just go unnoticed.

Ben Henley-Smith (09:58):

It strikes me as one of the hardest things to achieve as a leader, the ability to help someone overcome whatever imposter syndrome they may have. Because you’re exactly right, it requires both an environment that enables that person to fail in some ways. But then also, it does require success. It requires having achieved something.

Wojciech Sromek (10:23):

Safety fail, right?

Ben Henley-Smith (10:23):

Yeah. When you’re figuring out where to work and you are deciding between companies, how do you know which environment out of two is going to enable you to do your best work and see through your own imposter syndrome, in some way?

Wojciech Sromek (10:46):

Let me take a step back. Because I was telling you a little bit about my background, when I arrived at William Hill as a leader. And the idea was, I was first front end, then full stack. Then I became the leader. And after that, I went on in the same company to work as a front end architect. But I found out that the work of corporate architect was not a reward that I wanted to carry out, that my heart wasn’t in it. And I quickly stepped back, and I became a junior Dev Ops because I believed that this is a complimentary element to my work because I gained the experience in development. I gained experience in management. And then I thought that there is one element, which ties this all together to a whole lifecycle of product. And this was the infrastructure.

Wojciech Sromek (11:41):

So I have spent a year in a company which has been created by two incredible engineers, with whom I had the opportunity, previously worked in company, Schibsted. So this was basically an extension. I knew the gentlemen. I knew what they represented and I knew the quality of their work. So I went there. I have learned how to build infrastructures as much as I could have learned within a year. And probably, to answer your question, for me, the factor that allowed me to decide where I want to go was, first of all, I knew what I wanted to do because it came me, I wanted to learn infrastructure right now. I want to come complete the cycle. I want to be able to do stuff between layers. But I think that the deciding factor in saying where I want to go were people.

Ben Henley-Smith (12:45):

If you already worked with those people. How do you work it out without?

Wojciech Sromek (12:48):

I think there needs to be a touch of intuition to that, that you need to know yourself enough to be able to say whether you feel comfortable with those people. Because either way, you will spend some time talking with them. You will spend some time asking them questions, being interviewed, et cetera. You are able to ask good questions. I think that there are many contexts in which people, during interviews for different positions, do not leverage the position they’re in, because it is not like we are there to be interrogated. This is like this dance between employee and employer to know each other, to feel whether this dance works for both people. You can ask proper questions.

Wojciech Sromek (13:46):

Somebody who I knew once compared it to dating. And I feel like people do not approach this from this perspective, like this should work both ways. I think that a part of imposter syndrome is that you approach this from position, I feel like I’m not good enough for this. So if we are approaching such meetings from a position of already not being good enough, then there’s no place for us to be important there. So I think this all lives in us, that we are able to get there, to grow essentially into the mindset where you are able to choose your best work, because your own intuition will tell you what to ask. But I am afraid that this comes from experience. It’s easy to say something like that, having that experience.

Ben Henley-Smith (14:44):

It is indeed, the art of knowing yourself enough to use your own intuition in those moments. When did the penny drop for you?

Wojciech Sromek (15:00):

I think it was when I moved from this company, Schibsted. I think it was then, when I kind of opened my eyes and then I met the lead from this company, or the girl who was my direct superior back then. And she convinced me to come. I think that this was a moment where I started asking the correct questions, which is actually funny because they did not allow me to realize what the work is going to be, because the work turned out to be something else than it was supposed to. But it allowed me to feel that this is the environment in which I will be able to work.

Ben Henley-Smith (15:53):

What question did you have to ask yourself in order to have that realization?

Wojciech Sromek (16:00):

I think that it was mostly, what are you afraid of? What scares you? Because it kind of sometimes, I think, shows you the direction towards which you need to grow. But I think that the question was missing one link, because you said, what question I asked myself. And I think that this does not boil down only to you, because people around you will influence you in different ways. In my context, I have searched somebody to help me ask the proper questions, to help me build this feeling of safety and confidence. I have found a therapist who helped me. I realized at some point that, to be able to communicate effectively and to gain this emotional resilience, I would have to find a specialist. And I did it. And I feel it worked really well.

Ben Henley-Smith (17:07):

And interestingly, you went straight to an example there of when you have proactively sought out an environment that allows you to ask questions of yourself in a therapist.

Wojciech Sromek (17:18):

I think that I was looking at it in a problem oriented way, as a social problem, how can we solve it? Problem, lack of communication. Solution, learn how to communicate. How do you learn? Therapy. It kind of worked.

Ben Henley-Smith (17:34):

Where else could you apply that mindset when you’re making the decision to decide where to spend your time? How else could you use that problem mindset?

Wojciech Sromek (17:46):

Are you familiar with the work of Heath brothers?

Ben Henley-Smith (17:49):

No.

Wojciech Sromek (17:50):

Dan and Chip Heath. They are two gentlemen who are psychologists, I believe, who write.

Ben Henley-Smith (17:56):

That’s not Made to Stick, is it?

Wojciech Sromek (17:56):

Huh?

Ben Henley-Smith (18:00):

Did they write, Made to Stick? No?

Wojciech Sromek (18:02):

No. They wrote Switch, and they wrote Power of Moments, and they wrote something called Decisive, an approach to making decisions. I can wholeheartedly recommend this book because it is really great. One more. In context of asking yourself the important questions, I think there is one more book that I think is really, really incredible, Jonathan Haidt’s, The Happiness Hypothesis. I think that this book can help you ask some questions about yourself.

Ben Henley-Smith (18:37):

How did it help you?

Wojciech Sromek (18:39):

It gave me a perspective. It told me that not everything that I consider of myself that is undesirable really was. It gave me more comfort to be with the parts of me that I did not really like, maybe. And there was actually one more, Marshall Rosenberg’s Communication Without Violence, which was an incredible read, and I think is one of the most important books I read in my life, and I think that I will be coming back to this book over and over throughout my life, because it teaches you how to be gentle. And this is such an undervalued quality.

Ben Henley-Smith (19:31):

I love that last point. I couldn’t agree with it more. But I think it’s one of the hardest things to attain. How do you?

Wojciech Sromek (19:42):

The gentleness?

Ben Henley-Smith (19:42):

Yeah.

Wojciech Sromek (19:43):

Being gentle?

Ben Henley-Smith (19:43):

Because it strikes me that our conversation has been about understanding what is around you and recognizing all of the inputs that are coming from outside of us, and what impact that has. And perhaps it relies on us holding things loosely and being gentle to kind of open it up that force field around us and allow those thoughts in.

Wojciech Sromek (20:17):

I think this is really possible. My really, really good friend tends to say that he has really, really strong opinions, but he holds them loosely. And I think that this is it, that we need to be confident, but we need to be open. We need to be able to listen. We need to have our own convictions naturally, but we need to be able to take feedback, which is incredibly difficult. And giving good feedback is whole different story. And it’s also very difficult. But once again, the gentleness, and it all closes itself in an elegant look. What can you say?

Ben Henley-Smith (21:04):

Wojciech, I think you’re a piece of magic. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

Wojciech Sromek (21:09):

Thank you.

Ben Henley-Smith (21:10):

And I learned a lot from it.

Wojciech Sromek (21:16):

It was a pleasure.

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