Mike Bland


Of Ships and Voyages

Another Rob Galanakis-inspired post, a reflection on the nature and value of teamwork in the context of my Testing Grouplet and Fixit experiences

- Boston
Tags: Fixit Grouplet, Fixits, Google, grouplets, philosophy, Testing Grouplet
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Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: But it ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.
River Tam: I do. But I like to hear you say it.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.
River Tam: Storm’s getting worse.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: We’ll pass through it soon enough.
—Joss Whedon, Serenity

Rob Galanakis is on a roll, at least in my eyes—this time riffing on The Flawed Project-as-a-Ship Analogy. After inspiring my previous post on the importance of autonomy and collaboration, he’s again struck a deep nerve, inspiring another reflection on past experiences in sympathy with his view, and also in the hopes that these memoirs may be of comfort or inspiration to others with whom the message resonates.

One of the things I never—well, haven’t—gotten around to writing about Google in the depth I’d originally intended was my experience with Fixits. I’d planned three more posts: one on the Revolution Fixit; one on the Fixit Grouplet itself; and one on the conclusion to the Testing Grouplet/Fixit arc of my personal life story, the TAP Fixit. In fact, it was when writing about Fixits that I diverted towards writing in-depth about Google technical issues, processes and tools in my whaling series, because I realized there was so much detail required to set the context that it would get in the way of telling the human side of the Fixit story. But, ultimately, it was the human side of the story I was most looking forward to telling, as that was the most special part of the entire experience.

In the two Fixit posts I did write, I illustrated how I took on so much responsibility for the success of those Fixits all by myself. Somehow it kinda worked for the first one, because the rush of the Fixit experience got people excited without me having to do too much in the way of explicit planning or delegation. The second time, I was nearly broken trying to do most everything myself, as I’d expected a magical repeat of the first experience. In the final three planned posts, I felt I would share the most valuable lessons of all, as I applied the insights gained from the second Testing Fixit to inspire and organize people to accomplish much greater objectives than just writing and fixing tests—with zero authoritah, only the power of a shared vision and effective organizational structures to persuade my fellow engineers of the value of the mission and the possibility of achieving it. In collaboration with Mamie Rheingold, David Plass, Jonas Klink, Lisa Carey, Chris Holstrom, and Won Chun, in a few short months, we practically obsoleted ourselves by applying the same Fixit-organizing principles to our own mission of documenting the collective wisdom of the Fixit Grouplet, making Fixit organization an accessible skill within Google. Finally, the experience of the TAP Fixit was a lesson in bringing people together on the largest scale yet, delegating nearly all authoritah to them and setting them free, wondering whether the hell everything would work—and standing back in utter amazement as they embraced the shared vision, their roles in implementing it, and ran like hell with with the ball.

So, what does this all have to do with Rob’s post? Well, in a way, with the Testing and Fixit Grouplets and each of these Fixits, I’d become an ad-hoc, often self-appointed “captain” in Rob’s lingo. And I believe that, on an unconscious level, I’d adhered to his asserted principle that “The people are the ship.” I had no power to hire or, truthfully, even fire anyone. The best I could do was persuade whoever was interested to participate, to give them the clearest objectives and parameters I could—especially in the explicit form of Fixit “roles”—and then do what I could to remove obstacles and make their jobs as easy and effective as possible. I don’t mean to make it sound like everyone lived up to some utopian ideal of autonomy and collaboration—not even myself, as I certainly made my share of mistakes—but the power of the principle allowed these organizational structures to emerge that enabled our ship to withstand the winds, rain, waves, reefs, and rocks of the journey. I had to be willing to accept whatever help was offered, and to let go gracefully whenever a volunteer had nothing left to give. But for those who stuck around for the ride, I guaranteed one hell of a trip. We went places, and we went further than we imagined because we each did whatever was within our power to contribute, and we did it together.

And that was the real prize for me, the experience of inspired teamwork. Yeah, we had objectives, and maybe we didn’t meet all of them within a set timeframe according to an objective form of measurement; but the ripple effects of our collaboration somehow amplified over time, and the company engineering culture ultimately changed to that which we’d envisioned. The whole time these things were happening, I didn’t give a damn about recognition; I was just happy to keep the ride rolling as long as I could.

Again, I assert that I did not do any of this alone. I speak from my own perspective, as that’s the only one I can speak from with any credibility, but there are many more. But I will categorically assert that there were no supermen or superwomen, just people who gave enough of a damn to stand up and change things, together. I truthfully don’t regret leaving Google, and don’t miss Google, Inc. itself one bit—but I find myself still writing occasionally, triggered by the inspired, resonant insights of others, because I miss my ship like hell, and I’m still searching for one worthy of replacing it.