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Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse



Andy Walker talks about one of the most important skills people need to develop in career - Self Management. This skill ensures us that they are able to take care of themselves, understands the impact they have on other people and focuses on the important things they need to do in order to be successful. He describes some techniques for being a better version of ourselves.


Andy Walker has been doing software engineering for nearly 30 years. He's been at Skyscanner for the last year and was previously at Google, Netscape, Sony, IBM and various startups.

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[Note: please be advised that this transcript contains strong language]


Walker: Before I get started, I need to start this talk with an apology and at least two admissions of guilt. The first apology is to Sally for putting together an obviously clickbait-y title for my talk and then expecting her to introduce it this morning at the track intro, so I'm sorry about that. The next admission is I really wanted to give a talk about zombies. This talk is all because I found a single picture to try and hang a concept from, this is going to be a magical journey for all of us. The last is some of the things we're going to talk about in this talk are about self-management and actually looking after yourself. I'm kind of the poster child for burnout, I'm not looking after myself. Many of the things that are in this talk are things I've learned by pushing myself up to the edge of incapacity by overworking, by allowing stress to get to me, and not taking care of myself. Don't be me, be the slides in this talk.

We're going to go back before there were zombies, about 2,250 years, in fact, before the first zombie outbreak, and Aristotle said one of the wisest things of all time, "Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." If we're going to be successful, we need to start with ourselves. The thing we can control is ourselves, our own reaction to things, and what we do. The rest of the world is some crazy town clown factory that basically happens around us whilst we are trying to make things happen. The part we can control of it is ourselves, and if we learn how to be personally effective, we can carry it on into lots of walks of life.

I'd also like to introduce you to the protagonist in our little tale. On the left, we have humankind, otherwise known as a vehicle for tasty monkey brains. On the right-hand side, the living dead. We are not going to talk about the zombies which go really fast, because if they turn up, we are all fucked. We're going to talk about the slow-moving, slightly stupid versions of it. Actually, when I started going through this talk, I've realized the parallels between zombie apocalypse and my career were actually quite staggering. In one, you have a bunch of slow-moving dimwitted people trying to drag you to the ground and eat your brains, and in the other, you have the zombie apocalypse.

You see on the left, the people are actually quite chilled out about this because they got something very slow-moving there, they got a high chance of success, and at the end of the day, they know Brad Pitt is probably coming to save them. Bad news, in both your career and in the zombie apocalypse, Brad is not going to be there. He's got an island which is basically safe, and he's going to leave you to your horrific fate.

Understanding Stress

Let me start off with the first thing we need to understand here, the human response to stress. Zombies win this round pretty conclusively because zombies don't actually suffer from stress. The people on the left, you can tell that they're happy, because they're smiling, the zombie on the right could be anything. It could be happy, it could be depressed, it could be slightly miffed that somebody took his parking space. You just have no way of telling, they do not have the same stress response as human beings, and unfortunately, the things which happen to humanity under stress can be quite debilitating.

In terms of framing it for your career, you can think of your career growth as the bigger your scope, as in number of zombies, the more stressful it is, and it's not a linear curve. The more senior you get, the more responsibility you have, the stress you will potentially feel grows exponentially. There will come a point where the skills you have previously learned to manage that stress are going to be insufficient to do the job. When you hit those tipping points, bad things happen. If you understand how your body is reacting and how to manage yourself, then you have an opportunity to avert catastrophe and to be able to scale that tiny bit further.

I was horrified when I became a manager when I realized that I'm now responsible for people. Now, I'm carrying all of their fears and ambitions on my shoulders as well as my own. When I do the annual performance review and promotion cycle, I don't sleep for about a week because I am terrified that I am going to miss that one key factor that's going to cause somebody in my team not to get what they deserve. That may not be the best way of approaching this. I did say I was not the poster boy for this.

In terms of dealing with stress, there is an optimal level of stress for people to be under. If you are under no stress at all, you are asleep, which is a great thing, by the way, and we're going to talk about sleep later. If you are under too much stress, then, for a period of time, it will raise your levels of alertness and activity, but very quickly, it will lead to breakdown. In fact, when we are under stress, the human body pumps a load of the hormone cortisol around itself. If you are subjected to too much cortisol over a period of time, you will suffer from anxiety, depression, you'll struggle to eat, you'll have headaches, you'll have cognitive problems, you will put on weight, and you will struggle to remember things.

One of the ways I know I'm going into one of my dark spirals is when I'm unable to remember my three-item to-do list or finish the sentence I have just started, this is how seriously it can affect you. If you find the sweet spot of stress, you can actually do amazing things, and we need to find a way of being stressed enough to be motivated and alert whilst, at the same time, not tipping over the edge into a place of incapacity.

Predictability and Consistency

Some of the ways we experience anxiety and stress. There's a rat with cocaine here for a reason, not because I like either rats or cocaine, I abhor both of them. There was an experiment done with rats and cocaine, and they put an intravenous line into the rat and they gave a little button in its cage. The rat could push the button and get a hit of cocaine.

Rats are very intelligent creatures, and a rat can stay pretty nicely wasted on cocaine for an almost indefinite period of time without self-harm. They don't overdose, the only side effects may be that the rat gets slightly chatty and talks about itself a lot, but this is as bad as it gets. No, they didn't change the experiment. When the rat pushed the button, there was a random number generator. If the random number generator came up, it got a hit of cocaine, if it didn't, it didn't. Our newly coke addicted rat pushes the button, nothing happens, pushes the button again, nothing happens, starts hammering frantically on the button, and eventually, law of probability, the random number generator comes up several times in a row, the rat overdoses and dies. In the second experiment, no rat lived through the afternoon. This is how the predictability of your environment is important.

Human beings are also allegedly intelligent creatures, albeit delicious ones to the living dead. We need predictability and consistency in our environment, and if we do not have it, then anxiety starts to take over. Over enough time, anxiety can lead to very negative consequences. Here are some things which might cause a level of anxiety through unpredictability. For example, the second you find out that production has just broken. That can cause a level of high anxiety, particularly if it's the entire site. Back in the day when I was at Google, I was on call during both the Fukushima disaster and Hurricane Sandy, where most of New York was underwater for about two days. There was a high degree of stress in those situations, and particularly if you're a manager in those situations, the way you respond to it will color the reactions and responses of every single person in your team.

If you run around and go, "Holy shit, it's all over," then everyone will take that as a cue to behave the same way. You have to deal with your initial terror reaction and respond calmly, if you do that, everything will go quite well because you have kept people on a nice level and you haven't kicked in their flight/fight reaction.

In fact, about two weeks ago, we sat in our company all hands, and I got an email which said, "That partner we've been having problems with, they're going out of business next week." "Are you kidding me?" I was like, "Take a moment. Are you fucking kidding me?" Ok, breathe. Now, at this point, I have to make some pretty hard decisions. I just spent the last two weeks going through a pretty involved planning cycle, and my plan for that day was to sit in the meeting, do very little, and just basically regain my shattered sense of self. Now, I'm having to deal with a future production outage of indeterminate length, which I have no way of controlling. The first thing I have to do is figure out, "Is this really a problem?" Then, I have to get the people together who are actually going to fix it so that I can sit back and be sure that it's in good hands, but I've got to set them off with a sense that they're actually in control of this.

We're actually going to talk about this example a bit later when we talk about prioritization, but these are the kind of things where your ability to contextualize things and respond in a common rational manner will affect everybody around you, and it will affect their levels of anxiety as much as you. In fact, horrible truth is the difference in your seniority to somebody in the org chart amplifies your reaction many times over. If you are the new graduate who's just joined the company and the CEO walks over to your desk and says, "Hey, how are you doing? What are you working on," your first reaction is not, "Great, the CEO wants to talk to me," it's, "What have I done wrong? This is my first job and I'm already getting fired." You are unable to provide a predictable environment for people to work in, where when mistakes happen, they are treated constructively.

Bad things will happen because people will be afraid of everything that could be happening if things happen suddenly with short timescales and enforced urgencies. Somebody sends you an email which says, "I need a status update from your team today for the monthly report." A monthly report should be predictable, why are you asking on the last day of the month?" A bad manager says, "Sure, let me go and ask the team," and scatters everything they are doing to the four winds to get this status report, which is not really the point of what they're trying to achieve. A better manager says, "I'll get that to you next week. They've got some stuff to deliver today. Let them focus on that."


Next one is transparency, and it took me a long time to find a picture of a zombie shark. I'm assuming that most people in the audience have seen "Jaws" at some point in their life, many of them are probably still scarred by it. I saw it when I was 12, and despite a childhood of surfing, windsurfing, and sailing, the sea terrifies me. The second I cannot see the bottom, I am in a bad place mentally, every piece of seaweed is that shark coming to get me.

"Jaws" was Steven Spielberg's first big motion picture, and this was his big chance to break on to the big stage, and it nearly went horribly wrong because the star of "Jaws" was a $250,000 shark called Bruce, and it took them a long time to make Bruce, to the extent where they had to start filming without the star of the show. Then, on the first day of filming with their new shining pneumatic shark, it sank to the bottom of the bay and had to be retrieved by salvage crews. When they finally got it out, they realized that the pneumatics kept freezing up, so they had to take it apart, clean it, and rebuild it every single day.

It became clear to Mr. Spielberg that he had no chance of shooting this film with this mechanical shark, plus mechanical sharks aren't all that scary if we're going to be brutally honest. Foist with the situation, he had to improvise, and the net result is a film with lots of low shots over the sea with dramatic music. Because when we can't see the danger, we are going to invent the worst possible thing imaginable. When you see "Jaws," and you hear that music, and you know it's down there, and you have no idea how fast it can swim, how close it is, how horrible it's going to be. Your mind will invent the most terrible thing it can to actually substitute for that. The reality of that is when the shark turns up, it's actually quite comical, but because they were forced to film the movie without the shark, Steven Spielberg's entire movie career was made in that moment of improvised genius.

At work, this also happens, when your boss schedules a meeting and say, "I set up a meeting for tomorrow to discuss some stuff" That is one of the most terrible things you can be put under because, "Why have they set up a meeting?" You now have an entire day to fantasize and agonize over all of the terrible things you could be discussing. All of the things you've done wrong, your mind loops back and saying, "Oh, my God, did Finbar get upset by what I said at the coffee machine? Is this it?" I'm like, "Is there going to be HR in the room? Is this the time they are going to walk me to the door?" Deep down, we are all riddled with insecurity, we all have impostor syndrome. We all believe that there is going to be a moment in our careers where we walk into the office and everybody turns to point at us and say, "You do not belong here." Because of this fear, when we don't know what's actually happening, we torture ourselves in terrible ways. If you're in an environment where there is a lack of transparency or context or trust, we will invent the worst things possible. If you are in that environment, it is in your self-interest to go and fill that context gap because I'm pretty sure whatever's being discussed is unlikely to be as bad as what your mind can imagine for itself in its darkest, darkest moments.

Basics of Self Care

We're going to move on to self-care now, something I also fail at and another reason the zombies are going to win. Zombies don't need to sleep, they can go a long time between meals, and they don't really need exercise to stay trim. Human beings need all of those things. Advantage, zombies. I learned some hard lessons of this. I was in the middle of the Gobi Desert, in a tent in the middle of a thunderstorm with an ex-SAS guy, and he was telling me, because we were in this race and we both retired, about what he'd had to get through to be there. On day one of the race, which is a seven-day ultramarathon, he had started day one with food poisoning, he was unable to eat, when he drank water, he threw it up. Somehow, this guy had got through to the end of a marathon through the desert and was still in one piece. The next day, he was not feeling any better, and he'd just done a marathon, and he did it again. Finally, at the end of the second day, his wife, who was doing it with him, said, "I think you should probably stop this right now."

In talking to him, I realized a number of things. One, I am never ever going to be that tough. There is no way I could have even made the first checkpoint with what he was going through. Number two, the way he talks about his mental process for dealing about it was really quite telling. He was talking, it's all about self-care in the moment, don't care about what's going wrong. You don't worry about that pizza you ate which clearly set all of these things off. It's, "What is the thing I need to do to take care of myself at this point in time? Do I need to drink? Am I going too fast? Do I need shade? Do I need to rest? Do I need to eat? Am I going to make the thing on time?" These are all productive forward-looking things, and if you take care of those micro-moments of self-care, you can actually do incredible things. The second your mind wanders on to other things, really bad things happen. I'll talk more about that later on with another confession.

Let's talk about sleep, to start with. The single most important thing you can do for yourself is to sleep well, and I'm going to do a quick study here. Who has trouble getting to sleep at night? Fewer people than I expected. There's a lot of clear consciences in this room. Who lies awake in bed fixated about all of the things they have to do tomorrow? Who wakes up at 5:00 in the morning wide awake and cannot get back to sleep no matter what they try? Now, the problem is that if we're not sleeping well, everything else goes out the window. If you are suffering from sleep deprivation, your memory goes, you put on weight, you become crotchety, you become grumpy, everything looks worse than it is. Obviously, the more we don't sleep, the less we sleep, and it becomes a very vicious cycle. I'm going to give you a 1,000-mile-an-hour view about how sleep works in a human body, and it's all down to the fact that, at heart, we are cave people.

Our sleep capacity has evolved from the needs of a species that did not have electric light bulbs or even fire but needed to be active during daytime and inactive during nighttime. There are two hormones which come into play when we're talking about sleep. The first is melatonin, which your body starts pumping out around 9-ish at night or whenever it starts going dark. The second is our old friend cortisol, which kicks in about 5:00 in the morning to give you that jolt out of sleep into being awake. If we didn't have a burst of cortisol first thing in the morning, we would stay asleep, and oh, how glorious that would be. Just take a moment.

As well as the hormones controlling sleep, if you go to bed a long time after the melatonin has worn off, you find it a lot harder to sleep. What you want to do is try and align your sleep cycles with the hormones which are going around your body. This is a problem because modern life wants us to stay up late. There are widescreen TVs, there are fluorescent light bulbs, there is Facebook. Another quick test, who takes their phone to bed with them? This is a really bad idea, if you are suffering from any form of anxiety about work or life or anything, the people who make phones and the applications which run on phones know that a large part of human decision-making comes from FOMO and from anxiety, and therefore, they have trained you with their user interfaces to be checking your phone periodically because of their variable reward cycle. If you are feeling anxious about anything, you will inevitably reach to that phone and say, "Has somebody liked my kitten picture? They haven't. Why do they hate me? This is terrible." Then you pick it up and someone's written something which you violently disagree with, and because it's the internet, you will have to spend the next hour putting them in their place. If you want a good night's sleep, leave your phone in another room or somewhere you cannot actually hold on to it.

When you are actually asleep, there are two main sleep cycles to take into account. The first happens between about 9:30, 10-ish and about 1:00 in the morning, this is when your body recovers physically. This is when, if you've been doing a lot of exercise, this is the most important time for you to get to sleep. Then, between about 2:00-ish and 5:00 in the morning, typically, your ancestors got up, stoked the fire, made sure they weren't being eaten by bears or wolves or whatever happened back then. Then, the last sleep cycle is when your mind actually recovers. This is when you make new memories, when you lay down the experiences of the day before when you contextualize things. Actually, what happens is neurochemical connections between neurons weaken during this period of time because otherwise, our thought patterns become too entrenched and too together. If you are not getting sleep during this time of night, over a period of time, you will become psychotic. In fact, there are some very famous world leaders, including Maggie Thatcher, who only slept for three hours a night, and over a period of time, it was noticeable that mental state was deteriorating in this manner. If you want to be successful and things are bad, you have to prioritize getting sleep.

Unfortunately, the way we cope with stress is counterproductive. We drink lots of caffeinated drinks, we eat lots of processed sugar, and we drink alcohol to try and numb the pain of the horrible existence of being human. Now, all of these things will harm the quality of your sleep. If you drink caffeine late in the afternoon, you're going to struggle to fall asleep. Sugar changes your mood, and it has violent upswings and downswings and, over a period of time, will actually change both your insulin and leptin response, so you become overweight. By the way, all of these substances are actually physically addictive. Alcohol ruins the quality of your sleep. If you are drunk when you go to bed, even if you're in an alcohol-related coma, the quality of your sleep will be less than half as good as it was if you were sober. What happens is when we get into this self-destructive state, we find ourselves in a situation where our coping strategy feels good for a short period of time, but actually doesn't help us get out of the situation in the long term.

We don't exercise enough, because when we're stressed, we go to the pub, we sit in front of the TV and watch "Game of Thrones" or something equally book settee. If you want to actually get out of it, then take exercise. Things that exercise do, it generates every single one of the neurochemicals from your brain that makes you happy, and there's about five of them, which in turn is a great way of fighting stress because it suppresses the cortisol. Also, fun fact is that if you do exercise, it improves both memory and concentration. If you are struggling with that burnout point where you are struggling to concentrate and remember simple things, going for some leg exercise can actually help you in a big way.

The Importance of Focus

This is the longest section, this is the most important one. We've talked about self-care, we've talked about stress, now we're going to talk about getting shit done, as one of my colleagues says. Another reason human beings are toast in a zombie apocalypse is because we can't prioritize. Worse than that, the zombies don't have to prioritize, their to-do list is tiny, find humans, eat them. It's really straightforward, there is no prioritization process which needs to happen there. Humanity, those happy smiling people who think that Brad Pitt is coming in in a Black Hawk helicopter, they have got a shit ton of things to actually do, and there is no clear delineation about what they should be doing first. By the way, that list could go on and because at the end of the day, you want to defeat the zombie infestation and rebuild the human society, which is not a small task by any stretch of the imagination. Yet again, zombies have the advantage because they have the ability to focus. If we want to be effective in our lives, and one of the ways we deal with stress and anxiety is by actually being productive, we have to learn to focus. If we cannot focus, we will split our attention between way too many tasks and achieve none of them.

Here is a simple framework for prioritization. Ask yourself, what is the one thing you absolutely have to do? Write it somewhere, "If I do not do this thing, I have failed." What are the things which you also should do but probably aren't as important? Everything else goes in your backlog. If you're trying to look at everything you could possibly do at the same time, you will do none of them. If you focus on a small number of tasks, you have a much greater chance of achieving them, you can also adjust by timescale. If you are struggling with prioritization, there is no point trying to understand what your project plan is going to look like in six months' time, it's irrelevant. It's what needs to be true at the end of today. If you can answer that and get in a habit of doing it, you can look slightly further ahead. You also need to accept that your backlog needs to be flexible just because you may not be immediately looking for transportation. If you walk past that perfect SUV in the parking lot and it's fully fueled on your way into whatever's left of the supermarket, you probably should take it and be opportunistic about it.

Being aware of what's on the backlog is also important, but prioritize what needs to happen, because zombies can go for months without food, whereas human beings, you start depriving them of food and water, and you're going to be struggling in pretty short order. I have passed out from dehydration, I can tell you, it's not a funny experience. You do not want to be in that state, and therefore, focus on the things you absolutely have to get done. The other fun fact, obviously, is that supermarkets are going to be where most of the zombies are because that's where the human beings need to go, because they don't know how to actually fend for themselves in the real world, therefore, weapons are going to be pretty high up on your list as well, because you have to fight your way to the food.

At a certain point, all of that food runs out or goes out of its sell-by date. Then you have a whole new set of problems to accommodate, like learning how to form the land or to find edible plants to eat, but this is tomorrow's problem. In the initial blast of the zombie apocalypse, it's, "How do I get through that first week," or even the first night in some cases, when humans have made really bad decisions about quarantine and shutting down flights and going to look for loved ones and thinking that they could save them.

Context Switching

In terms of focusing on a small number of things, here's some rationale why it's important. This is a comparison between multitasking and single-tasking, and this assumes that there's no cost to context switch between different tasks. In the multitasking example, Task1 finishes 9 cycles in, Task2 finishes 10 cycles in. If you were to do one task and then the other task, then actually, the average time to complete is seven and a half cycles. You actually deliver value more quickly. If you're thinking about it form a product perspective, if you have two changes you can make, each of which brings 10% extra conversion to your product or extra users, then if you do Task1 in its entirety first, you have that extra 10% for 4 more weeks than you would have otherwise, and you still deliver the second value at the same time.

Unfortunately, context switching is not free, and in the case of human beings, it's particularly not free. There's a thing called flow, and flow is that glorious point where you start working on something and time passes, and you look outside and it's dark. You got no idea how it actually got dark, but it is dark. Then, you look in front of you and you go, "Oh, my God, I did so much work today. This was the best day ever." Then, you look at the quality of the work and it's really high, but you wonder where the last eight hours of your life has actually gone. This state is called flow, this is the state you would like to be in at almost all times when you are working, because in a state of flow, you are super productive. The good news there as well is, as well as being super productive, all of those happy chemicals that get produced when you're doing exercise, also get produced when you're in flow. It is literally your happy place.

Have anyone been interrupted when they're in that happy place? Yes, what did you want to do to those people? I don't mind about how savage a response you contemplated at the time. You did not want to say, "Oh, thank you for interrupting me. How can I help you?" Because they have just shattered you out of your happy place, and the terrifying thing is it takes 20 minutes to get there.

If you have a series of interruptions over a course of the day, it may be entirely impossible to get into this happy productive state, you do not want this to happen. This leads to a couple of conclusions we can draw. If you are an individual contributor, so back in the glorious days when I was still writing code and my prioritization list was write code, everything else, you want to spend as much time doing what you need to do as possible. Everything else is a distraction and should be treated as such. This includes meetings, emails, chat, social media, the whole shebang. Anything which is taking you out of that state of flow and focus is actually causing you to be less effective and it's also reducing the number of happy drugs your body is creating for itself. It's bad on lots of levels, you need to get into a flow as often as possible.

Whose calendar looks like some kind of a fruit salad warzone? You can never be productive if that is the case. In fact, you need to look at meetings as a tool of Satan himself. There are no good meetings, almost no good meetings apart from ones I call, I have a rule for my team, a few rules. Number one, if the meeting is not more than eight people, just don't show up, because it's a waste of time. If you get no value from the meeting, even if I called it, vote with your feet and do not attend it. Spend your time on things which bring you and the company most value. If you're bringing your laptop to the meeting, you are not present and you are not engaged, you are not bringing anyone any value. The work you're doing whilst you're pretending to listen is probably really low quality. Save everybody's time and attention and just go and focus on the thing which is obviously more important instead.

The other problem we get is, who has a project which takes more than 10 minutes to build? The other thing which pulls us out of a state of flow is when our tooling lets us down. If you cannot get a quick turnaround time to see whether the change you made actually works, then you are going to struggle to stay in that focused state. What will happen when you're waiting for that last unit test to finally pass? You're going to look at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and you go, "Oh, look, a kitten picture." You are no longer in a state of flow. Therefore, if you want to stay in that state as well as learning how to focus, you also have to look at deeper things, like the things which cause you to drop out of it. These are organizational things, but they can also be technology. If you can make your build system fast enough that you can stay in that focused state, you are going to be a lot more productive overall.

If you're a manager, life is slightly different, and actually, I dreamed my calendar looks like that some weeks. First of all, everything you do to talk to your team is going to potentially bring them out of that happy productive state. Unfortunately, as a manager, the world treats you as a high-context switching rooting mechanism for getting information about. If you are not aware of the effect your actions are having on the people around you, you can pull them out of that happy state way too frequently. Some simple tips, interrupt less. Why are you sending a Slack message or an instant message to somebody when you could send an email, or you could go and talk to them later or meet them at lunch? Your impatience should not govern their ability to be effective. You also have to keep timeframe, if you have meetings back to back like that, you have no time to contextualize the meeting you just had. You have no time to follow up, you have no time to write notes, you have no time to sit back and think about what it is you actually should be working on. You're going from one reactive moment to the next. If you can't do that, then it turns out you can't effectively do your job because you'll always be in this reactive horror show.

The other thing is when you are interacting with people, and I have massive admissions to make here, too, you really need to have your laptop shut as well. If you suddenly get distracted into a conversation or an email, everyone else sees that as normal behavior, and worse still, you are not giving appropriate respect and attention to the person you are talking to. If you're IC, it's simple, write code, if you're a manager, stay the fuck out of the way so that your team can write code.

Finally, your phone, and I've spoken about this. This is both the most wonderful and terrible invention in the entirety of human history because it trains you to operate on the schedule of everyone around you trying to contact you on that phone at any point in time. If you want to become more effective, learn to make this phone the servant in the relationship rather than the human being. The good news is, during the zombie apocalypse, there will be no phones, so you're going to have to learn to live without a phone.

There is a simple test you can do, take your phone when you go back to your desk or wherever, at home, turn it off, put it upside down, leave it where you can see it for an hour. If you can get through that hour without any sense of anxiety, then you're a better human being than I am, for starters, but first of all, I probably don't believe you. If after 10 minutes you get an itch in your arm just to turn it on and see what's happening, you have a problem, and it is a problem that is only going to go away when you face up to the fact that this is a useful tool, not your master and commander.

Learn to make the phone work for you rather than having that moment where you're constantly checking it. Turn off notifications, turn off noises, don't let it buzz, let it sit there waiting for you to come to it with a question rather than telling you, you need to give it your attention. Again, phones are a kind of interrupt, and there are a gazillion ways we can be interrupted. While the phone companies and phone manufacturers are doing a much better job of thinking about things like dark mode, it's still not enough, and the default behavior of many applications is to try and grab your attention because it's all about eyeballs. The quote about you being the product is also true, do not be the product, the phone is the product.

Focus Is Looking Forwards

Finally, focus is about looking forwards. Back when I was running really poorly and trying to run ultramarathons, there was a race I was doing around the Isle of Wight, which is a small island, but it's about 120K-ish around the race. Somehow, going around the edge of an island, I managed to get lost and I took a three-mile detour and had to backtrack. The whole way back, I was like, "Fuck me, I just got to have to run another six miles here. This is just going to be completely miserable." While I was thinking about that, I missed another signpost. I'm going all the way to the bottom of a huge hill. When I got to the bottom, I looked up and there was the checkpoint I had to go and check in at. "Well, fucking hell. Why am I doing stupid stuff?" On the way back up, because I was so angry at myself about that, I forgot that I'd just been running for 10 hours and I probably needed to eat something. I got to the top and just went, "I need a bit of …" and basically pitched forward on to the ground. Do not think about the mistakes you made getting here. Think about what you need to do moving forwards. Focus is about productive things you can be doing, not things you'd fail to do in the past that are holding you back. If you cannot let go of the past and look forwards, you are going to trip over everything in front of you because you're looking in the wrong direction.

This is a message which is going to appeal to all of the narcissists in the room. You are the single most important person in the entire world, because nobody is ever going to be as motivated as you are to take care of you as you are yourself. If you do not properly take care of yourself, no one else is actually going to. It doesn't matter what company you are working for. At the point where you burn out and stop functioning, they are going to move on to the next sucker, and therefore, it is in your self-interest to learn how to do self-management and to make sure that you are looking after number one at all times, because that is the only way you are going to be effective. Also, if you cannot take care of yourself, you cannot take care of other people. That includes family, that includes friends, that includes your colleagues. If you cannot take care of yourself, your response to them is going to be unpredictable, you are going to snap at them because you are having a bad day. You are not going to listen to them when they really have a problem because you're wallowing in your own self-pity.

Learn to take care of yourself and buy yourself the space to actually be a good human being to everybody around you. Manage your stress levels, understand the things we do to cope on actually coping and take conscious control. When we're having those moments at work and when things do go in cycles where you feel completely overwhelmed, where the walls are closing in, go to bed early, drink less coffee, cut out the chocolate. You will find that you get through all those times a lot better, even if you desperately want to indulge in those things.

Finally, another way of feeling good about yourself is focus. Focus on what is important, look forwards, cut down your list of things to the smallest possible, cut out the distractions which do not bring you or other people value, and you will get a whole lot more done. By the way, it's how you are going to progress your career, which is how I link back to the career track and keep my speaker's position. If I've forgotten that line, I would not be going out for life.

Questions and Answers

Participant 1: You talked about - an example was coders and people who are managers - there will be people who would tend, in their careers, to transition from being in that first group to the second group. Are there things that can be done to help them make that transition? I often hear people saying, "Oh, you're asking this context switch," they're like, "Get used to it." What can we do to help?

Walker: Other than giving them a big hug for making a bad life choice and becoming a manager, I think, first of all, you have to make the transition gradual. Going from "Hey, you're an individual contributor" to "You've got 20 people working for you" is not a good idea. Start small, start with two or three direct reports, whereby you still have the ability to still be an individual contributor, because one of the other hard points of the transition, as well as learning that your time is not as important as you once thought it was, is actually you still have to have a framework of feeling that you're being productive. All of the things which make you successful as a manager, you don't know what they are or what success looks like. If you take all of that framework, which is like, "I know I did good, because I wrote 1,000 lines of code," and you replace it with, "I have a lot of meetings," often, a lot of the reasons people struggle in their career transition is because they don't have that framework for success and they don't believe they're having any impact or bringing any value. Allowing that transition to happen so that you can blend the skills across, that's one of the great ways you can support people journey.

Participant 2: Do you have any low-level hack when you have achieved these type of things? For instance, on my case, to stop being so many times per day distracted. I move all social applications to the last screen of my iPhone, so when I open, I don't see them anymore. I still have my craving, I know it's really poor and I'm really ashamed of that, but do you have any sort of quick fixes that you have applied to your success?

Walker: I think in times of extreme stress, just turn your phone off and close any window which is not directly related to getting stuff done. Go find a quiet place. If it's really noisy around you, it's very easy to get pulled into those things. Then learn how to get into focus. It's something which I think was mention by Francesca earlier, was the Pomodoro technique. You start a timer for 25 minutes and you don't do anything about apart from the task you are doing until the time it goes off and then you just kill it. In that 25-minute, you let go of all of those other distractions and you can focus on it, but it's something you have to practice. Under times of stress, you will always revert to your default state, and if your default state is easily distracted, then that is where you are going to return to, which again becomes a slightly horrible self-fulfilling cycle. Just be disciplined and say, "This is the thing I have to do, focus. Everything else, it can wait." Be ruthless with your time, otherwise, the world will be ruthless with it.

Moderator: On that, you said focus, but how do you convince your manager that you can work in that way?

Walker: You have an evidence-based discussion. Something I find very useful is this diagram here, which is, what do you actually want here? Pro tip, all managers are actually sociopaths that only care about their own advancement. If you want to influence people, appeal to self-interest. If you say, "You're interrupting me all the time, dude. I hate this shit," there's no hook in it for them. You show them this diagram and say, "The way you're going to get promoted is if this team is successful, is more successful if you stop interrupting. Maybe, let's change your behavior as well as our behavior so that, collectively, we can help you succeed." If you deal with it from a data perspective, you have a much greater chance of persuading them.

The other thing you can do is you can train people not to come and bother you. A number of techniques which you can use but I do not recommend because they may verge upon psychological warfare. When someone comes to bug you, you do not have to make eye contact with them straight away. Wait for, say, 10 to 15 seconds until they start feeling awkward, slowly turn to face them and go, "What?" If you make them feel enough discomfort over a long enough period of time, eventually, they will find other ways to communicate with you. Obviously, that is a horrible thing to do. I would never recommend another human being did it, but when I was coding, it worked really well.

Participant 3: You mentioned the situation where a manager or someone in authority sends you a message saying "Let's talk tomorrow" without giving any context. Do you have any advice with regards to potentially responding to that before actually going to see them?

Walker: It depends upon your response. If you have a high trust level with that person, it's totally fine. If you already have rapport and you've worked well over a period of time, it's less likely to trigger an anxiety response. If you don't, then to save yourself a day of agony for something which is probably quite trivial, it's in your interest to take care of yourself. There are ways you can approach it, you can go with the full on, "I'm not coming to any meeting without an agenda, so come on." That is not a good idea to deal with your manager or somebody in authority, or you could say, "I'm wondering what you want to talk about tomorrow, so see if I need to prepare anything," again, appeal to self-interest, "How can I make this better for you?" It gives them an opportunity to say, "Oh, it's nothing. I just wanted to talk about the project we're rolling out next week," and that helps you to de-stress yourself.

These are all things I've done which have gotten me into trouble, by the way. The stuff which is funny, don't do the stuff which I follow up with, please.

Participant 4: Thanks for the great talk. One question, what you're thinking about open door policies?

Walker: In terms of being available for your team?

Participant 4: Yes, or for others to ask questions on one side, but you can ask everybody about something you want.

Walker: I think, particularly as a manager, anytime someone in your team comes up to you and says, "Hey, have you got five minutes," the answer is yes. Because people only tend to come to you with that kind of look when there's something really horrible happening in their life and they need you. If you're not available for them in that moment of vulnerability, they're probably not going to have the conversation with you they need to have, and they're going to suffer in silence. This is one of the other switches, is if you don't keep yourself available when someone needs to have that conversation with you, you are not going to be there to have the conversation. If your calendar looks like that, you are not serving your team the right way, because there are no gaps for them to come and grab you for that ad hoc conversation which is going to make all of the difference to them.

Participant 5: Have you got any tips for how you deal with stress for something where you are unable to control it? For example, if you're working on a system where the build is 20 minutes and you want to punch your monitor every time it happens, have you got any tips for dealing with that when you don't have control because it's not in your control?

Walker: If your build is 20 minutes, there are probably things you can do to optimize it. Writing smaller modules and unit tests to be able to test subparts of it, and you can actually work around that to an extent. You also look at some of the skills you learned to, "How do you step through code in your head so that whilst that build is going on, that you're also visualizing what you have to do next?" One of the first systems I worked on was an IBM mainframe, where in order to compile your code, you had to submit a job control language request to the mainframe, and 20 minutes later, it might come back and tell you, "Your computer says no," or "Your code compiles." Then you submit another job to run the code to see what the output was. That led to a completely different set of behaviors, and because we're used to IDs underlining everything in red so we just fix it, I think a lot of the skill of reading and interpreting code has gone out of our world. If you do that in the time, you can use the time usefully and you're still thinking about the problem at hand.

You can also optimize your build system and you should be feeding back to the people doing your tooling. If your build system is 20 minutes, you basically have to wait 20 minutes to say whether or not what you've done has worked or not. There's 8 hours in a day, assuming no lunch breaks and it takes you no time to write code, you're only going to be able to test 24 things a day. Wouldn't it be great to test 100 things a day? Again, frame it in terms of the "How can I run through the failure cycle as many as possible so I can learn from all of the ways I failed to get this right" is a great way of actually persuading people that they need to fix it.

In terms of managing your own stress, at the point you want to punch your monitor, that is a good point to go for a walk. Whilst you're on your walk, not taking your phone with you so you don't write that angry email about why the build system is pantsed and the people who created it need to be fired into the sun, you can also be thinking at the problem in hand by throwing a perspective of "How do I make the build faster? How do I change the code I'm working? What problem am I trying to get? How do I influence the people in the build system that actually changing is the right thing to do? Is it a good investment of my time to go and help them fix it? If I can reduce that down to 10 minutes, then my life becomes twice as good in terms of being able to write changes."

Participant 6: Thanks very much, the talk is fantastic. You talked quite a bit there about individuals working ways that help them maximize their likelihood of attending a flow state and focusing a lot on what you need to do. I suppose that's going to work well as long as each individual has a task that's fairly well their task. It gives me a slight concern that you won't encourage really collaborative workflows. How do you marry the approach you suggested for ICs with the idea that, perhaps for certain projects, you need people to talk quite a lot or you need people to be approachable with technical questions?

Walker: I've had limited success with pair programming. It can either work spectacularly or it becomes an excuse to go to Starbucks. What I find is the way of doing that is if you split work into streams so that you never have one person working on a single stream of work, then the two people are forced into some kind of conversation even if it's only via pull request and merge request to actually communicate with each other on what they're doing, and then you get the benefit of having two sets of eyes or more on something without necessarily having to have lots of schedule meetings, which sometimes don't bring value. The other thing as well is have the meeting set up so that no one can schedule stuff over in your calendar. If you don't have anything useful to say, don't go there, and you can be very conscious about that as a tool for stripping down unnecessary ones.


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Recorded at:

Jul 19, 2019