I almost got fired once.
My friend, and CTO at the time, Dustin Moskovitz pulled me into a room one morning. He told me I would no longer be working on News Feed, which was surprising because at the time I was the only engineer keeping it running. Instead they were going to hand it off to someone else and build a team around that person. With alarm in my voice I asked if I was being fired. Dustin relented only after a telling pause: “no, but you need to find something else to do.”
I believe if you looked at what I had accomplished in my two years at Facebook to that point, it would not be obvious that I should be a candidate for such a stern conversation. In addition to building the backend and ranking for News Feed I had also launched a number of other popular features on the site. I maintained our early anti-abuse efforts in my spare time. I was one of a small group of people making decisions that would shape our infrastructure for years to come. I wasn’t the best engineer at the company but I was solid, I was dedicated, and I was clearly having an impact.
So why was I being sidelined? I demanded answers. Dustin did not disappoint.
He gave me a single sheet of paper. On it, in a dull monospace font, were anonymous quotes about me from my coworkers.
“Boz is one of the better engineers at Facebook” one read, and then the next “I would have a hard time working with him.”
These two statements struck me as incongruous. If I was a good engineer, why would it be hard to work with me? Of course that question was the very foundation of my problem.
“He is most interested in the truth…but more inhibited members of the team avoid any discussions with him.”
The realization hit me hard. In short, I thought my job was to be right. I thought that was how I proved my worth to the company. But that was all wrong. My job was to get things done and doing anything meaningful past a certain point requires more than one person. If you are right but nobody wants to work with you, then how valuable are you really? How much can you realistically expect to accomplish on your own? I was “winning” my way out of a job one argument at a time.
I headed home early that day to think about what I had heard. My future wife April was gentle but she offered me little reprieve from the feedback: “If you want people to work with you, you need to be kind.” It turns out this wasn’t just a problem I had at work. Looking back, I’m amazed (and grateful) that my friends put up with me.
Altogether this feedback changed the course of my career and probably my life.
I don’t think I was ever outright mean to anyone. I was just callously indifferent and on a long enough timeline that is indistinguishable from being mean. In a cruel twist of irony I thought that was what it meant to be professional. In retrospect it just seems inhuman. It will take me several posts to details the many mistakes that got me to this point, but my biggest lesson was the importance of kindness.
Being kind isn’t the same as being nice. It isn’t about superficial praise. It doesn’t mean dulling your opinions. And it shouldn’t diminish the passion with which you present them.
Being kind is fundamentally about taking responsibility for your impact on the people around you. It requires you be mindful of their feelings and considerate of the way your presence affects them.
Being kind hasn’t hurt my effectiveness at all. Being thoughtful about the emotions of my colleagues hasn’t made me any less right or wrong, it has simply made me more likely to be asked to help in the first place. Being invited to more conversations has allowed me to scale my impact in a way that would have been unfathomable on my own.
I’m still not as good as I’d like to be at any of this. When I’m under stress I can sometimes fall back into my old habits. But believing deeply that I am responsible for how I make others feel has been life changing for me. Being kind turns out to be a long term strategy for maximizing impact.