Pay Your Debts.

A few years ago at BuzzFeed, my co-workers on the Product side of the house — the folks that built our website and kept it running — started talking about this idea of “tech debt.”

Here’s a simple way to think about it:(1) At BuzzFeed, we’d built our website on systems that were a few years old. Over time, our team hacked together solutions to build new features and tools using these older systems. These weren’t supposed to be long-term fixes — a lot of these solutions were hacked together.

Almost a decade later, we’d ended up with was a website that — from a coder’s perspective — was like a Jenga tower. We stacked these hacks and workarounds one on top of the other, and eventually, we couldn’t go any further. The building blocks of our site could no longer support it.

By making all these short-term compromises, we’d put ourselves in a tricky position. We couldn’t really move forward with new projects until we’d gone in and fixed the basic infrastructure of our website.

We’d accumulated all of these debts, and we finally faced the realization that we had to pay those debts off. In order to move forward, we first had to tear down and build from the ground up.

So our tech team did. It was challenging, and it took an incredibly smart team the better part of a year to do it. But they did it — and moving forward, with the right systems and structures in place, that team at BuzzFeed is going to be able to do amazing things. They’ve got a strong foundation to build off of.

But there’s more than just tech debt out there. In the first few months at my new job, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what debts we need to pay at The New Yorker. I’ll ask co-workers: What are we doing that drives you crazy? What are you spending too much time on? What could we fix that would change the way you work?

Slowly, we’ve started to identify our debts. We’ve been able to streamline old processes that were broken, and build new processes that will allow us to move quickly. We had process debts (teams using inefficient systems to do work), communication debts (teams struggling to work together towards common goals), and quite a bit of tech debt (teams using outdated or ineffective tools and apps).

It’s going to take us a while to pay off these debts. But by identifying them, and putting together the teams to fix them, we’re making the short-term changes to allow for long-term success.

———

That piggy bank photo was taken by Fabian Blank for Unsplash.

  1. And I’m going to really oversimplify here — I promise that my old colleagues were incredibly bright, thoughtful people, and this doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work, effort, thought, etc. they put into building some amazing products.

Do Something Small, Do Something Kind.

andre-benz-257878

I’ve written before about bad days — how to react to them, how to keep going when you’re having one. I even wrote a blog series back in 2011-12 called “Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.”

I was thinking about those posts this morning on the way into work. The New York subway system has been having a rough year, and things went a little off the rails(1) this morning. It took three trains and an extra 45 minutes to get into work, and me and my fellow New Yorkers were understandably grumpy as we made our way into the office.

Here’s what I know: A bad commute can ruin the rest of your day. I’ve certainly been guilty of getting frustrated with co-workers after a bad ride into work — the chain of screaming is real:

So I’ve been trying to find new ones to break the chain — to take a bad day and turn it around. Here’s the simplest one: I try to find a few moments during the day when I can be especially kind to someone else. That might mean helping a tourist on the subway find the right stop after a train delay. It can mean sending a nice note to a friend. It can tipping the extra buck at the corner bodega, or stopping by a co-worker’s desk to thank them for something they did.(2)

I don’t know if it really helps — maybe it’s just an act of good karma — but it’s something. And on bad days, it’s something I can focus on besides a lousy start to the day. These aren’t big acts, but I’d like to think they help a little.

———

That NYC subway photo comes via Andre Benz and Unsplash.

  1. Pun unintended, sorry.
  2. If there’s something you do to break the cycle of a bad day, I’d love to hear it. Shoot me a note.

Be Willing To Suck.

samuel-edwards-road

I talked to a journalism class this week, and they asked me about Silicon Valley mantras, like “Move fast and break things” and “Fail fast, fail often.”

How do you feel about them?, they wanted to know.

I’ve written a few times over the years about failure, and I’ve been thinking about it more at this new job. Here’s what I told them:

The first time you do something, you’re not going to do it very well. I look back on things I wrote a decade ago — sometimes even stuff I wrote a year ago — and I’m embarrassed at how bad it is. I look at old projects of mine, and I can’t believe how average the work is.

My earlier work sucked.

The only way to get better is to keep pushing yourself, and to surround yourself with people who push you just as hard. It takes time, and it takes work.

And yes, it will often suck.

The best people I know are a lot of things: Talented, creative, and lucky. And nearly all have something else in common: They’re willing to go through periods where their output isn’t very good, and they’re willing to work hard to improve.

Those Silicon Valley mottos miss one key point: The only way forward is being willing to suck. If you’re just starting out, remember this: It will be a long time before your work is any good, and that’s OK.

Doing great work isn’t about failure — it’s about perseverance. You’re not failing — your work just isn’t very good yet, and there’s a difference.

They won’t put this on a bumper sticker or a poster, but it’s the truth: Be willing to suck. Adversity and struggle is how you get better. Keep at it until you get to a place where you’re doing the work you really want to do.

———

Unfortunately, I still suck at picking images to run with posts, so here’s a very cool (but very generic) photo of the road less traveled. This photo’s by Samuel Edwards, and was posted on Unsplash.

The Montage Scene.

montage scene

I was having dinner recently with a few friends, all of whom have started new jobs in 2017. We were talking about the struggles with a new job: Building relationships with new co-workers, learning new workplace procedures and etiquette, and challenging yourself in a new role.

And then, in the way that dinner conversations tend to go to strange places, we got to talking about the movies. A friend noted that they don’t show people putting in the day-in and day-out work in movies. If movies were like real life, someone would show up at an office, pitch a big idea, and then spend the next eight months slowly getting the buy-in to make that idea happen. Nobody wants to watch a movie where someone spends two months writing memos or getting coffee to brainstorm new ideas. Wouldn’t make for much of a movie.

Then we thought about it some more, and realized that we were wrong. They actually do show people putting in the work in movies! But it’s always in a montage:

And all of us at that dinner table agreed: The early stages of a job are a lot like the montage scene of the movie. You put in a lot of work, you try to make stuff happen, but it’s not glamorous. It’s… work.

In the movies, the montage scene is always fun. When you see a montage in a “Rocky” movie, you know that a big fight is coming up. You know you’re going to get closure for a character soon.

The montage scene at a new job isn’t quite like that. It’s work, and more work, and building new routines, and learning new stuff. It doesn’t always lead somewhere right away. You start a new job with a lot of ambition, but it always takes more time than you think to start getting stuff done that you’re excited about and proud of.

At BuzzFeed, the montage scene lasted my entire first year. It took a long time to build something from nothing, and even when we made progress, I’d look back on what we’d built so far and realize: We hadn’t done that much. It was frustrating.

But eventually we got there. Eventually, all new jobs get out of the montage scene, and then you can move on to bigger things. But you’ve got to put in that work first — and unlike the movies, you can’t compress it all into a three-minute-long montage.

Keep your head down and keep doing the work. You’ll make it through.

———

That photo of a film reel comes via Noom Peerapong and Unsplash.

Here, Read This.

One of my former BuzzFeed colleagues, Millie Tran, put together this fantastic presentation about how to visualize your career. It’s full of wonderful advice for people in their 20s and 30s — especially if you work in media. Take 5 minutes and give it a read here: