A conversation with Sam McAfee, Founder of Startup Patterns

“I can readily admit that I have been scared to break the firewall between where I stand socially and politically in my private life, with my friends and family and stuff, and this sort of professional, polished persona that I’ve had, that I’ve built my livelihood on. And one of the really significant things that is different for me personally about the latest sort of, like, unprecedented wave of national interest in supporting black lives and being anti-racist is that I, among many others of my colleagues, have really started to knock down those walls and be much more public and much more vocal.” -Sam McAfee

In these week’s episode of the Control the Room podcast, I am so excited to speak with Startup Patterns Founder Sam McAfee. Sam is a Silicon Valley veteran of 20 years and has worked with companies such as Adobe, Teach for America, and PG&E.

Sam and I speak about how a Craigslist posting launched his tech career, how the internet changed the way companies are shaped, and how he is working to be a better ally to people of color in his professional communities. Listen in to find out how he is tearing down the firewall between his personal values and professional persona.

Show Highlights

[2:35] A Craigslist resume & the beginning of Sam’s career in tech
[8:14] Startup Patterns: Sam’s first book
[12:14] How the internet changed the way companies are shaped
[19:30] Building the next generation of leaders
[24:35] The critical role of purpose in change processes
[31:55] Time & space for reflection
[41:05] Being a good ally & anti-racism policies

Sam on LinkedIn
Startup Patterns

About the Guest

Sam is the founder of Startup Patterns, a company that helps organizations build and scale new digital products, find product-market fits, improve software development processes, and master teamwork while scaling. He has worked in Silicon Valley for 20 years; some of the companies he has worked with include Adobe, Teach for America, and PG&E. A community activist, he is committed to making the world a better place to live.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

Douglas: Today I have Sam McAfee, founder of Startup Patterns, where he helps companies build and scale digital products, and recently has been helping teams through leadership development. Welcome to the show, Sam. 

Sam: Thanks, Doug. Great to be here. 

Douglas: Absolutely. So I’d like you to start off with a little bit about Sam and how you got to where you are today. 

Sam: Sure. So, yeah, it’s a fairly circuitous route, but, basically, I grew up on the East coast of the U.S. and came from a fairly social activist kind of background. One of my family members and friends were kind of in that scene around the Boston area. And I went to school originally in social sciences and had no idea that I would end up in tech. I did not do C.S. as an undergrad. It wasn’t really my plan. 

I came out to California after graduating because California seemed like a cool place to do some sort of social-impact work, looking at a lot of the organizing that was going on out here around climate and sort of prison reform and all kinds of other subjects that I was into. And so I came out here and kind of knocked around for a while at the end of the ‘90s, trying to figure out what I was going to do. And all of my friends that I made socially here, they were all engineers, and they were all here for the dot-com boom that I was sort of only dimly aware of. I was like a starving B.A. graduate trying to find a job with nonprofits and stuff like that. And they were all making three times as much as I was, running code for all the crazy startups that were going on here. They were like, “Hey, Sam, if you just learn a little bit of web programing, you can get a real job, and then it won’t be, like, scrimping and scraping.” 

So it was really out of economic necessity that I grudgingly picked up a couple of books on web design and hashed together a couple of toy websites over a weekend. And I put my resumé on Craigslist with HTML under “Skills.” The next morning, I had 50 emails from recruiters. And I’m not really exaggerating. It was that crazy. 

So I consider it beneficial that I kind of got sucked into the demand for technical labor that was going on at the time. I had no idea what I was doing at first. As I started out, I was a freelance web developer, picking up contract jobs here and there. But I did learn fast, and I learned on the job. And I’m sort of a book learner, so I bought all the books on full-stack web development, such as it was in those days, and very quickly became a pretty proficient contractor. And I managed somehow to survive the dot-com, initial dot-com, crash. 

Gradually, my freelancing work turned into setting up a little agency. So I found that my people skills were good enough that I could talk to clients and customers and get work, be able to translate that layer between the sort of the business and the client and the technology. So there was a comfort level with working with me. So before long, I was bringing in more work than I myself could do. And so I started recruiting some of my friends who were other engineers to work on projects with me. And that just kind of organically grew into an agency that I ran for about 10 years, from 2002 to just the end of 2011, where a lot of changes were taking place.

So during that time, technology scene changed a lot. You know, Cloud and mobile and lots of things kind of grew up during that decade. I also went back to graduate school to fill in my C.S. gaps that I was really insecure, that I didn’t really have, like, data structures and algorithms and distributed programing and all that stuff. So I did some grad work to fill in those gaps. And, you know, I also consider myself fortunate that by the time I was putting a team together to work on projects and had to look up on the Internet, “How does one organize a software project?” that was when Agile was really gaining steam. So I didn’t unlearn any previous methodologies. Agile was the thing right from the beginning for me that was the go-to methodology that was really becoming more popular for really good reasons. So I’ve been kind of steeped in the Agile knowledge base and community, really, since, let’s say 2003 or 2004, somewhere around there. And so that for me really was the way that I learned to build projects and the way that I learned to write code, and all the way from the technical practices of test-driven development, etc., etc., to the process approaches. 

And so we built really great software in my agency for many, many clients over those years, and one thing that really I noticed a lot was that clients would actually ask me to go out to their team and help them with their process as well. So I ended up sort of farming myself out a little bit as a coach or consultant as well on top of the work that we were doing in-house.

Somewhere along the line, I got exposed pretty early on to the lean startup stuff. I had a buddy who had been reading Steve Blank’s book. And this is back when Eric Ries was really just blogging at the time. And that stuff really blew my mind because by that time I’d had enough experiences of building software that nobody really wanted so many times. And granted, we were an agency, so usually it was our client who lost money. We were sort of mercenarial. We still got paid, but it really felt crappy to make stuff that nobody used or wanted. And so I’d had that experience. And so the idea of testing your concept before investing a lot of time in building the code made a lot of sense to me viscerally. So I really got involved with the lean startup kind of community pretty early on, started going to the conferences and meet ups and stuff like that. That stuff really resonated with me. 

Eventually, the recession really caught up with us and just kind of slowed business gradually year over year until about 2011 or so. I was pretty burnt out on running my own agency. And so I went off and had a series of adventures as a senior technical person of one sort or another in a couple of different companies in a row. I ran the engineering team at change.org for a while as they were in a period of growth. I was sort of co-founder in a couple of small startups that went the way that startups typically do. I got a chance to work for what was a much more real and polished consulting agency called Neo. A lot of my colleagues these days are sort of alumni from Neo from those days where I sort of learned a lot about how to be a real consultant, how to be kind of polished in front of executives from bigger brands like Adobe and Toyota and places like that, sort of bigger fish than I had been working with myself in my earlier agency. So the Neo days are really great.

And then, basically, in 2016, I went back out on my own and had been working ever since. Startup Patterns actually is my book that while I was at Neo, a number of the folks there were writing books, and they formed a little book writers kind of club to keep us going. And I heard about the club, and I’d always wanted to write a book. That was sort of my trigger to start writing the book. And so the book was self-published, and it took me about two years to finish, and it was called Startup Patterns. And so when I went out on my own, the book title seemed as good a brand as any to use as my company name. So that’s why the book and the company are named the same thing. 

And so I just have been doing my own sort of coaching and consulting since 2016. And whereas I initially started out really focusing on process on coaching teams, either as startups or bigger companies that were doing innovation labs around how to ship digital products quickly, how to do sort of the Agile-delivery stuff, and how to incorporate that successfully into lean startup, build-measure-learn-style customer-development approaches, that gradually shifted about a year and a half ago more and more into leadership stuff, which I think we’ll probably end up talking about a bunch more, which is that no matter how good these teams got with coaching, when you’re trying to really be successful in building digital products, the barriers that I kept running into as a coach and as a consultant were in the structure of the organization, in particular the leadership, and whether the leadership of the organization, whether that’s middle management or the senior executives, really support the kind of transformation and change that is required for an organization to fully embrace digital and fully embrace Agile leadership was constantly the barrier there. And so I just got more and more interested in putting my attention on, why is it so hard for these organizations to change? And so since then, I’ve pretty much been focused almost exclusively on working directly with technology managers who are trying to effect change in their organizations and how to kind of become better leaders and all that that entails. So that’s what brings me here.

Douglas: Excellent. Well, I want to dig in a little bit there on this concept of structure and how that plays a role and kind of stifling change or, like, embracing change, and you mentioned that in passing as you were starting to talk about this new leadership work that you’re doing. So I’m curious to hear how structure plays a role specifically and what leaders can do or what they should be thinking about as it relates to the structure.

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. The structure of the organization is really important. So when you look at—just kind of stick with Agile, but I mean sort of digital-product-development methodologies broadly, but let’s kind of hang it on Agile for a bit. There’s sort of this notion of the cross-functional, self-organized team that’s building software that the customer wants and able to kind of ship things reliably with high quality and sort of business success. And so a lot of—in the early days of Agile, we were talking a lot about, well, if you want a cross-functional team, you have to break down silos. So, like, you’ve got sort of design in one area. You’ve got product management in another area. You’ve got the business units that are sort of the stakeholders. You’ve got the engineering or developers in sort of a different area. And how you sort of get across that. 

And I think what I found is that those silos are very rooted in sort of a legacy of the corporate culture in most organizations. So you can kind of draw a line at where the Internet becoming a big thing, where companies are sort of digitally native, that came up after the boom of the Internet—so the late ‘90s, early 2000s—tend to be shaped differently than more traditional, older industrial or consumer or financial companies that have been around for a while that are really only trying to go digital now. And I think what we need to understand is that there’s sort of like a couple of major legacy—let’s just call it baggage—organizational baggage that’s been around since the early days of the 20th century, with Taylorism and Ford, that there’s sort of this notion of a very top-down command and control style of organization, where the people at the top are making all the decisions, and the people at the bottom are just doing the stuff that they’re told. So clearly, you can’t really have a self-organizing team that’s embracing agility or trying to move toward agility if they’re being told what to do all the time. So there’s sort of this conflict between a command-and-control culture and the levels of autonomy that are necessary for a team to be self-organized.

And then with the cross-functional stuff, what you end up having is I.T., as we think of it in generic corporate terms, really grew up out of the finance department. Like, we started using computers in corporations because we needed to crunch numbers. So software development emerging necessarily out of an I.T. function, that is really different from a tech company that was sort of natively starting with a cross-functional team as a startup and sort of grows from there. You know, now with startups, you do have to fight against the sort of silos that grow organically. But I think for big companies that have been around for a while, that are struggling through transformation, what is happening is just the whole structure of the company has to change. And that’s really scary for people who have been in an organization for a long time, you know, run a particular department, a lot of their identity is wrapped around, “Well, all these people report to me. I’m the V.P. of whatever it is. So my sense of self and my value as a person in this company is based on my authority, that people will do what I say, and that I have this big department of people that report to me.” And so we really have to unlearn that stuff if we want to build an organization that’s more flexible, that’s more resilient, and that can adapt to change in the way that a digital or agile or lean sort of transformation would require.

Douglas: What are some of the signs that you might see that an organization is not autonomous enough, or they might be trying to make some of these changes, but they’re just not successful?

Sam: There’s an interesting set of patterns that I do see. One in particular springs to mind as you ask the question, which is that even in organizations where—so there’s sort of like two things that can happen, I think. One is the organization doesn’t really want to change from being top-down command-and-control style but still wants the Agile teams to deliver or wants the product teams to build the right thing. And so you’ve got a culture where the folks on the ground who are doing the work are used to being order takers. Like, there’s a big difference between being a sort of short-order cook and being a chef. Like, being someone who is just sort of following instructions, you get one style of work coming out of that. And folks who are making a lot of decisions on their own and being more collaborative, you get a different result. 

And then, also, I think you have times where the leadership team maybe suddenly becomes enlightened. I don’t know if they read a book about autonomy on the airplane ride back from wherever, and they decide, like, “Okay, we have to announce that we’re going to do all these new innovative things.” And so, you know, I’ve seen it where the top leadership says, “Okay, everybody, we’re taking off the shackles. You’re all now free to innovate. Please go forth and innovate.” And what you have is an organization full of people who just yesterday were being shouted at and told what to do and are now suddenly being told that they need to be free, independent thinkers. And it’s a really abrupt shift in the culture. And so that shifting to an autonomous kind of organization takes time and patience and requires a lot of support and a lot of, what would you call maybe, baby steps. Like, small wins and gradual sort of earning of trust. You can’t just sort of like throw everybody free and expect them to know how to operate collaboratively when they’re used to being told what to do for years on end. So I think that creates a lot of challenges. 

By the time I get there, it’s usually because things are broken or something’s on fire. So, like, a lot of time—and I’m sure I’m not the only consultant that feels that way. You know, it’s like often it can be a rescue job. But what has often happened is that somebody’s made the decision to go sort of go Agile, if you will, and they got some shiny consulting company to come in and give them a diagram of how you do it. They try it for a year or two. It doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really stick. Things are broken and on fire. And then, I show up and I look around, and I realize that it’s really because there’s not the shift in values from top to bottom in the culture. There’s not a shift to—it’s like we want the fruits of autonomy, but we don’t necessarily want people to really have say over their work. And that just creates a lot of froth and friction. And then people say like, “Oh, well, we tried Agile, and it didn’t work.”

Douglas: Let’s talk a little bit about the shift of values. And so what does it look like when it’s done correctly? And I imagine it’s somewhat driven around the fact, the notion, that, well, as a leader, this notion of, well, what is my responsibility as a leader now? What does it mean to even be a leader in this new world? And also, I’m on the hook for making sure that the numbers come out correctly in this quarterly report and that we meet expectations for shareholders, etc. And so how do we balance giving over control with being responsible for outcomes? I’m pretty sure that aligns with what you’re talking about around this, like, the shared values not being met. So just kind of curious to understand that more.

Sam: Yeah. I think that’s really important. If you look at where the leadership literature is going these days, like if you did a search for top leadership books in the last 10 years or so, there’s a really consistent pattern, and that pattern to me is a focus on relinquishing control of all the decisions and focusing instead on the leader acting as a coach to grow other leaders. So, like, the real hallmark of a good leader is that they can build the next generation of leaders below them to take their place, that they’re focused on succession, they delegate well, and they help solve problems without directing and without micromanaging, but giving people room to grow. So we can actually connect it directly to say Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, this concept of a growth or fixed mindset in an individual extends for sure to the organization and its culture as a whole. 

So I think when it’s done well, people are approaching coaching teams and coaching new leaders that are emerging with really a growth mindset and with a focus on having some space to experiment and some safe-to-fail constraints. So you can draw a line around these experiments. You don’t want to make them too big that, as you said, you’re in danger of missing your numbers. So, like, we’re talking primarily about businesses here that have to ship products and make customers happy and increase their market share and post earnings and post profits. 

And so there’s always going to be that pressure to perform economically. I think that where the old style of leadership is falling away is that the world has become so complex and even the internal aspects of companies have become so complex that you can’t be directive and prescriptive in the way that you can if you’re sort of running a more traditional brick-and-mortar, manufacturing organization. In the world of digital in particular—frankly, let’s face it. All companies are basically going to have to be digital now—the complexity is massive, and workers are doing work that’s much more creative and knowledge work than moving widgets around, and so that kind of work has to be more emergent and collaborative. It’s a team sport, especially in design and product development. And so you can’t lead that kind of effort with commands. It has to be more like coaching. 

Frankly, I use a lot of parenting metaphors. When you think about what you do with your kids, I definitely had experiences myself with, my son’s trying to learn how to tie his shoes or something, and I’m sitting there, having to bite my tongue and not just reach over his shoulder, like, “No, give me that. Here’s how you do it.” It takes a lot of patience for a leader to sit back and watch the people that report to them struggle. But if they don’t struggle, they’re not going to learn. So that’s sort of where this growth-mindset stuff is really critical.

Douglas: So, let’s go back to some of these baby steps. You talked about it being an anti-pattern to just read the book and to come in and say, “We’re going to go autonomous. There’s a new way of working, and we need to adapt or we’re going to fail.” So what are some of the things that folks can do to get started, and how do they move more intentionally? And I know you get pulled in a lot to kind of fix the fires, but how can they avoid the fires in the first place? How could they do this more intentionally?

Sam: I think that it requires really acknowledging where you are, right? So it’s critical to take stock of the current state, and that’s the current state of, like, really, for me, that’s typically three big pillars in my head of the technology, the process, and the people, the culture, the sort of communication styles and values, and really understanding what the current state is and having some idea of, if we’re in a place that has rigid process and a culture of fear or toxicity or even just kind of like polite, passive aggressivity, which I actually see more often than anything else, and we have technology that’s legacy and hard to change and brittle and antiquated, it’s really going to be dangerous to just dive in and try to change all of those things wholesale all at once. And so we can have a vision, we have to have a vision, for what we want our organization ultimately look like, or at least what we want it to feel like to work there. And I think that’s actually a really important distinction. You know, people focus a lot in tech on sort of the left brain. They’re like, let’s draw a diagram, and let’s have maps and charts and spreadsheets. 

But I think there’s a lot to be said about getting in touch with how we want to feel as a team. Like, what does it actually feel like to come into work every day? Are these people we want to work with? Is this work we want to do? Is there meaning and purpose to what we’re trying to accomplish? Are we committed to being in this organization, given its stated mission and values? So I think they, like, having some vision of what the future looks like is really critical for any kind of change process. 

And then I think that we have to really only bite off as much as we can chew. Like, this is something, I’m almost saying this to myself because this was a hard lesson for me to learn even as a coach or consultant, where like, look, man, I live in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been in startups a lot of my career, and I’ve seen what a small cross-functional team of super smart, fast, flexible people can do in the marketplace. Going from a big old-fashioned organization to that sort of sexy-startup-looking organization is not an overnight thing. And I think I, maybe when I was first doing this work, was really impatient with my clients. I’m sort of like, “Look, I’ll tell you how it’s done, and I’ll show you what good looks like. Let’s just go, go, go.” And it’s been a process for me to learn how to actually be really patient as well, that it’s going to be a long road, it’s going to be very challenging, and all of those little steps are meaningful along the way. 

So if you have a manager, for example, like an engineering manager who’s got a bunch of engineers that report to them, and they’re trying to work with those people, just getting that engineering manager to think about and embrace their own fears and hopes and dreams and aspirations and think about what kind of leader do they want to be and just having them learn how to, okay, so you’re going to have a one on one with your people. How do you make that one on one structured so that the person who reports to you is getting the most value out of it as possible and growing as an employee? So talking to an engineering manager who’s a client of mine for an hour about how to have a good one on one and how to start that process seems like a small thing to do in the context of a huge organization, but it’s incredibly meaningful, and it’s incredibly impactful. And now I’ve changed the way that engineering manager is thinking about leading their people forever, you know? It’s like they’ll never look at a one on one the same way. They’ll always have a different, more valuable set of conversation. 

So for me, that’s an example of a baby step, because really, like when we’re in an organization, organizations are made of people, and people interact through conversations. And so you can think about like, oh, we’re going to change the process or we’re going to import this new shiny technology or we’re going to make org-chart changes. But really what happens is organizations, as they’re more fluid and they’re more like squishy tribes or villages where the real work happens often one on one or in small groups of people having real conversations with each other and making decisions about what they believe is true and what they believe is not true and what they’re willing to commit to in terms of change.

Douglas: Yeah. I once heard this quote that goes along the lines of, if there’s more truth in the hallways than there is in meetings, and it kind of comes back to the point you were just making and-

Sam: Oh, for sure.

Douglas: I’m always curious to hear from folks, if you could change one thing about meetings, what would you change?

Sam: Oh, man. Boy, I think that—so with a little context, there is a lot of anti-meeting sentiment in my field, in tech, and I think it’s misplaced, and I think it’s probably because people just had a lot of bad meetings. I actually really enjoy bringing a small group of people together to have a conversation. That is typically what we might term a meeting. So I think the concept of having group conversations of some sort or another, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that, you know, where it runs all crazy is when, like, people are there that don’t even need to be there. It’s not clear why we’re there. You know, somebody thinks it’s a discussion, and someone else thinks it’s a one way update of information. 

So I think that it’s really hard to pick one thing, but I think that if everyone who came to a meeting decided when they were showing up that they were going to be totally honest and authentic and transparent in their communication at that meeting, like, just, say what is on your mind, if people could be really real in those conversations, it sure would change the tone of a lot of meetings. You know, because I think the opposite is what we’re used to, which is everybody’s kind of not sure if they should speak up. Maybe they’re sort of issuing platitudes. Maybe they’re kind of speaking out of one side of their mouth. Like, if all that stuff—that could all go away if everyone’s like, “I’m just going to say 100 percent of what I believe 100 percent of the time. And then we’ll negotiate the rest,” meetings would be a lot more—I mean, some of those conversations would be tougher, but we have better outcomes at the end of the day.

Douglas: That’s right. And I think that’s very, very possible, when you take a facilitator approach when you think about, like, never starting without a clear purpose, and being really intentional about how you structure the meeting, and you hold space for people to behave those ways. I think it’s all possible. And it makes me think about the point you made earlier about in order to identify or prescribe those baby steps that are necessary, we have to take a close look at our current state and just get honest about where we are. I think that is an opportunity for starting the work that needs to be done. So if we’re going to be more collaborative, more autonomous, why not create a collaborative group to do this current-state analysis? Let’s launch off with these behaviors that we want to model and start doing them organically and build from there, and then the output of that yields more opportunity. It’s almost like the kata in a way, right? Like, we’re going to take a small incremental step, and then it builds on the next one and builds on the next one. 

Sam: I think piggybacking off of that reminds me that one of the things that’s really missing in a lot of organizations is time and space for reflection. Whether it’s collective or individual, I think that you can’t really be aware of your current state unless you can sort of slow down, put the tools down for a minute, and look around and have some reflection time. And as an individual, I know that certainly the people that I coach, the number one problem that most of them have is that they don’t have time or they don’t demand time—they don’t take enough time. Let’s put it that way—in their schedules for reflection. All the leadership books are like, leaders got to take an hour and block off their calendar and sit and stare at a blank piece of paper or go for a walk or whatever just to let the brain catch up with what’s been going on. Like, the neuroscience is well established. Reflection is critical. So is rest, you know? 

And so I find that as individuals, we’re so rushing through the rat race, that is our economies all the time and under so much pressure to perform and give in and show up, that taking a little reflection for yourself, it feels selfish, it feels irresponsible, and it’s completely the opposite. It’s critical. You know, that phrase, like, look, when you’re on the airplane, they say put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Like, that’s a good metaphor for thinking about leaders needing to take some time, really anyone, but certainly folks who are in a leadership position, to look back at how we’re doing and also for the organization itself, kind of back more specifically to your point, having group or organizational reflection time. I think that if we want to enact change, we need to be able to stop sawing—to take a page from Stephen Covey—and sharpen the saw a little bit. That requires a slow down and reflect. So I think if we were to build that into our company cultures and our values more explicitly, I think it would have a huge impact, a positive impact.

Douglas: Yeah. You know, it definitely resonates with me. We often think a lot about even moments of reflection, debrief, when we’re designing meetings and workshops, because that’s the moment where people integrate. Like, if we just teach, teach, teach, teach and cram stuff in, well, that’s just horrible anyway, but there’s no moment for them to really integrate what they’ve learned. So ideally, there’s a lot of practice. They’re going to hands on and doing things. But then we want to have them take a step back and go, “What does this mean? How do we make sense of all this?” and then translate it in, into the work at hand. And so I think not only when it’s about picking up new skills or coming together on a challenge or some sort of opportunity, it can be everyday work, but taking a chance to reflect. I think for a lot of us, the drive home or the subway ride home after work was that moment where we could do that, and now we don’t have that affordance, and so being, especially in this time of the pandemic, let’s be intentional about these reflection times and moments. 

Sam: Yeah. That’s created a lot of pressure on people, I think. It’s interesting to look at the required remote work that we’re all doing. I mean, I definitely, like, I have an economics background, like a political-economy background. And so I remember back in the day, a lot of people really being worried about, oh, your work is bleeding over into your personal time. The boss is able to call you at night or send you an email, and we all got our smartphones. And so the line between work and life outside of work is really blurry. And actually, I think that there’s a huge risk, despite a lot of probably warranted cheerleading about how cool remote work can be and that people are learning how to be distributed teams, and I think a lot of that can be great, and it’s really great for the business to not have as much pressure on maintaining an office space like they used to. But for the individual folks doing the work, do they actually feel like they can turn the machine off and have their own lives? And so I do worry about that blurry line, I guess, where we sort of, the diplomatic way to talk about it in Silicon Valley would be work-life balance. There are other more sharp ways of saying that. 

But I think that’s really important that when you think about reflection time, the conversations in the hallways rather than the meetings, or often at conferences, it used to be that you go to all these talks, and it’d be really interesting one-way communication, but the real cool stuff would be at lunch or outside or on walks or in the hallways between sessions. That’s people talking to each other and processing what they just learned and figuring out how to integrate it, as you said. And that integration is really critical, and so if we were actually able to build reflection time more intentionally into our workflows, in our process, and our company culture, that would, I think, soak up a lot of that need that people have to chat with each other and process and have that moment of reflection, that sharpening the saw that we all need to do both as individuals and as organizations. 

Douglas: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, this notion of not only reserving the personal time, but accounting for and reserving time for the group to do it so that there can be a group synthesis. It reminds me of the Agile retrospective. I think if you really get down to the principles behind it and why we do it, I think there is very much one and the same with what we’re talking about right now. I think the problem that I see that’s super pervasive and pathological, really, is that people use the retrospective as a way to just address problems that have arisen, and they don’t actually do it on a frequent-enough basis to where they are celebrating the wins, integrating the wins, realizing when they slip through by the skin of their teeth and being able to make incremental change. That’s one of the things I can easily get on a soapbox about. When I’m working with teams, it’s like, man, you got to do this frequently, and it can’t be just a tool that you pull out when something goes wrong. 

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. And it can be a forum for a lot of blame and shame, too, like, whether it’s explicit or just kind of under the covers, the idea of not taking responsibility ourselves for what we want to do better or want to make better. And I think there’s a lot of pressure on a facilitator for sure, retros probably more than anywhere, except maybe like an actual conflict resolution, that facilitator to make sure that people are learning how to listen as much as they’re learning how to express. And I think that’s a big thing we’re also missing in corporate culture. 

I make it a big part of the sort of the curriculum and coaching work that I do in leadership is around empathy and learning how to listen and learning how to listen in a way where it’s not just waiting for the other person to finish talking, but actually trying to put yourself in their shoes and hang on their every word and really integrate what’s being said, like, really build some empathy there. That’s real listening. And so I think the onus is on us, as coaches and consultants and facilitators, to teach people in our organizations how to do that. You know, that’s something that doesn’t come out of management school, doesn’t come out of technical school, barely comes out of social sciences, if at all. 

Douglas: That’s a nice segue because I was going to mention we’ve had discussions over the past few weeks just about the social unrest in America and how we play our part in breaking the silence and not being complicit and trying to be anti-racist as much as possible. And I remember in those discussions, whether at—various books came up, and you make comments about, “Oh, I read this in school.” And so it makes so much sense now that you studied social sciences and were really focused on kind of social justice, social-good-type work before you got into tech. And so I just wanted to touch on this because I know that we’ve both been grappling this and figuring out how to engage in anti-racist policies and just bring that into the work we do, port it, and just be good allies. I’m just wondering what you’ve found to be successful and what you might have to offer others that are listening and are just looking to add to their toolkit.

Sam: Yeah, yeah, definitely something that’s really important to me. I mean, I think that my perspective has really shifted over time but also in these last few weeks. I read a lot. In college, I studied social sciences. I read a lot about social issues like racism and sexism and other isms in school. And I think that when I got into the tech scene in my mid 20s, I was doing organizing and stuff when I first came out to California. I was kind of a rabid activist, if you will. And when I got into the tech scene, I think that a transformation happened where I erected a firewall between my personal and political and social values and my professional persona. And so for many years, and I’ve been in tech for 20 years, so let’s just say for 20 years, I’ve experimented with ways of getting involved in merging sort of social-impact stuff with tech. Working at change.org was one way. There were a couple of other examples of sort of trying to figure out a way to bridge those two worlds. 

But I really know that I stand on a mountain of privilege, right? So, like, I’m a white guy. I’m hetero. I’m in tech. I work for myself. Like, you could just pile it on, right? And I think that what this latest wave of organizing, you know, and I don’t even really necessarily like the term social unrest so much. I think it’s sort of maybe accidentally demonizes what is a long tradition of grassroots organizing to change things in this country, whether it’s the civil-rights movement or the anti-war movements or the labor movement. I mean, there’s a rich tradition of people coming together across many social lines to change things in the conscious. Really, ideally, I mean, really, that’s the only way change has really happened for real. 

And so for me, I think that what I’ve been really grappling with the last several years as there’s been increasing polarization in the country, is how do I leverage my privilege and my platform to weigh in on the conversation. And I think that I can readily admit that I have been scared to break the firewall between where I stand socially and politically in my private life, with my friends and family and stuff, and this sort of professional, polished persona that I’ve had, that I’ve built my livelihood on. And one of the really significant things that is different for me personally about the latest sort of, like, unprecedented wave of national interest in supporting black lives and being anti-racist is that I, among many others of my colleagues, have really started to knock down those walls and be much more public and much more vocal. 

And so I’ve been trying to do that, and I’ve been trying to be fairly deliberative and careful about how I do it. One of the things, I think—I’ve never seen so many people in my professional circles grappling with, how do we as white people support movement for black lives? You know, how do we be good allies? And people are really trying to learn, really trying to be sensitive, knowing that it’s uncomfortable and making a lot of mistakes. And I’ve been really impressed, to be honest, with how much the folks that I spend my time with are embracing the challenge of fighting against racism as white people who, let’s face it, it’s our problem. It’s our responsibility, and we benefit from it, and to sort of say, “Look, we’re not going to do it right. It’s going to be hard. Not to guilt, shame, embarrassment, all that stuff. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to put your foot in your mouth. You’re going to have—people are going to criticize you no matter what you do.” And that’s part of the process. That just has to be okay. 

And so I think the big shift for me internally is I’m not scared anymore. I don’t really care anymore. This is—I’m seeing now how important it is for people like me to really say something and take a stand. And I feel like I’ve got to a point, not just professionally, but in my life, sort of personally, morally, spiritually, whatever you want to say, where I’m going to say the right thing, and I don’t care what anybody thinks, you know? And I think that really—I’m fired up. I want to try to contribute in whatever way I can. And I am happy to join up with other people that want to have these difficult discussions and figure it out. I’m a little dismayed in some ways that more folks from the tech community, the innovation community, the sort of Agile groups in the world haven’t readily come out and been more vocal about these sort of social issues. For folks who really purport to be all about data and continuous improvement and a growth mindset, like, the writing is on the wall. It’s right there. Why those folks can choose to be silent, it boggles my mind. 

So I’m pretty committed to being out there and being a lot more noisy in support of anti-racism and in support of Black Lives Matter for sure right now, among a number of other social forces that are changing our world right now. So this is a new time, and I’m really embracing it.

Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. I think to your point, whether it’s intentional, people are afraid of those firewalls, or definitely afraid of dismantling them. And they’re put there. And I’ve been talking a lot with folks around this notion of professionalism and what it means to be professional. And I think that we’ve created this dynamic where it’s unsafe to be human. Like, we’re not supposed to bring our emotions. We’re not supposed bring “politics.” And sure, we don’t want to get in massive debates over who we’re for, etc. But I think caring for our neighbors and making sure that we create a safe environment that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone goes beyond politics, and that’s just human decency, and I don’t see why human decency is unprofessional. And so I’m with you in solidarity on tearing down these firewalls. I’ve been actively working on it as well. 

And, you know, I’d like to say thanks for joining me today. It’s been a real pleasure. I’d like to just wrap with any—well, I want to make sure that the listeners know how to find you, and you mentioned your book. And then if there’s anything you want to leave us with, a parting message. So how can they find you, and what do you want to leave them with?

Sam: Sure. So I’m easy to find. Two different ways. You can search for Startup Patterns, startuppatterns.com. We’ll come right up in the search results. That’s my site. A big LinkedIn user, Sam McAfee. It’s very easy to find on LinkedIn. I really encourage people to reach out to me there, connect with me. let’s have a conversation. So there’s just are the two easiest ways to get connected with me. 

I think that what I would want to leave people with is this is a time that we are in that is unlike anything the world has ever been through before. And it’s there for a number of reasons. The pandemic, for sure, is a giant change. It’s sort of incomparable to historical events. The sort of associated economic turmoil that comes with it. And now this major social movement that was a long time in the making, but it’s really broken the surface. And I think people are thinking and rethinking how they feel about what we want, what kind of world we want to have in ways that they’ve never been doing before. And I think for me, the personal is political and the political is personal. So there’s a lot of internal and individual transformation work that goes along with changing the world. And I just don’t want people to forget that. It’s not all about going out there. It’s not all about the public conversations, and going and being at the rallies and writing and reading and posting and discussing are really important. There’s also a lot of internal grappling that we all need to do and just know that you’re not the only one. And a lot of us are going through this major reckoning with things that we thought we believed or we thought we valued and really thinking about transforming ourselves from the inside. And so that’s a lot of what I focus on, the folks that I work with and friends of mine, around, how do we support each other through that very challenging but necessary personal transformation so that we can really build a world that we all really want to live in?

Douglas: Awesome. Thank you for being on the show, Sam. It’s been a great opportunity to talk with you. And I really enjoy the conversation.

Sam: Thanks. Me, too. This has been really great. Thanks for having me.

Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.