Be a “Green Banana”

Recently, I read a series of interesting posts from Fabien Mouvet.  Fabien, who recently started at what is his dream job, details his life experiences, and how he found his passion in an environment that he considered 10 times as stimulating as somewhere else.  It’s a very fascinating inspirational series of articles.

 

There are a few things that stood out to me and I would like to dedicate a post to his outstanding articles. This will be a lengthy post because I want to go over what he wrote and expand in depth on my thoughts about it. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this – previously I’ve previously detailed why I think society needs more people like Carl Sagan and expanded my thoughts about a programmer’s thoughts on how much programming society needs.  I think that it is when you read an article (or in this case several articles) that raise your interest, you cannot help but think about them in greater depth.

 

Series One: Life story and how it builds who you are

The first series traces Fabien’s life experiences and how they led to his current opportunity.   Fabien traveled extensively in his life, going from his native France to China, Bolivia, Silicon Valley, Vietnam, and finally to here in Canada. The nature of the trips varied from career opportunities to sports competitions to entrepreneurship. I would encourage you to read his first 4 articles to learn the details for yourself.

 

Travel, hobbies, and career

The first thing that stands out to me is that when you travel the world, you never know how your experiences in childhood or the things that you do that you think have nothing to do with your career development end up affecting your career development.

 

Much like Fabien, I have traveled quite a bit, having lived in 10 different cities in my life. Along the way, I find that you meet different people, and it changes your perspective. You see the world in a whole different manner. You appreciate the perspectives of other people. There is so much more to life than the standard “get good grades in high school to get to a top university, so that you can get a high paying job”. Along the way, what i would describe as “side opportunities” that build your person. We may not see them as that until later in life, and I’m saddened to say, many people may view them as a waste of time, but they are important for building up who you are. Later on he notes how his sports experiences gave him many of the characteristics that enabled his later successes in life.

 

In fact, I’d say they are every bit as important as the standard “get good grades” or  “study hard for your exams”. In fact, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock has argued that GPA has no correlation with success at all and only a slight one for new graduates. That doesn’t mean of course that you should fail your courses because it has no correlation, but it means that grades are not the all prevailing thing that people often portray them as. Neither (as Fabien discovered) is getting into the absolute top university that you want when he didn’t get in.  Also, there is a reason why Google stopped with its brainteasers; they didn’t lead to better quality candidates.

 

The other key thing to discover is that paradoxically, sometimes not getting what you want in the short-term may end up being a blessing in disguise. It’s entirely possible that in his dream university that he would have ended up in a totally different career path.   Whether he would have gotten his dream or not in that career path, we will never know. As I said, it may have been a blessing in disguise because he has realized and achieved his dream, despite not doing so in his career earlier.

 

About people who help you and never giving up

This is the title of the second of the series of four articles. In part two of four (of the articles detailing his life), Fabien discusses the people who helped him in life.  Part two discusses Fabien’s experiences with internships in the technology industry as a university student.

 

More importantly than technical skills, than being able to have a polished resume/cover letter, he discovers that people who are willing to help him get further is the most important aspect to being hired.  Fabien was only able to get a position, despite spending many hours polishing his resume, getting his technical skills up, and the “conventional” things that we all do to get a job.  It was only when he was able to get a favorable referral that he was able to get an internship.

 

He also realizes that you cannot give up. You will get rejected at times. It’s easy for me to say  that now because he is “in his dream job”, but in reality, I’m sure he was very anxious back then after getting all of those rejections. I think that we all are. I’ve been rejected before and I’m sure you have been.  The big takeaway I suppose is to work to build links between the good people that you want to help you and to remember to always pay it forward – help everyone else that needs you as well.

 

The other thing I should note is that although Fabien is focusing on career development, everything is sort of like this. Have you ever asked a friend for advice on what model of a product to buy? In my immediate circles, I am regarded as a geek and many people ask me for advice on what to buy for computer parts. I have found that sometimes, even people with a background in IT do! A single good or bad customer service experience can cost a company a lot if they tell their friends about it.  The thing is, we are much more willing to trust the people that we have immediate contact in that we are willing to vouch for.

 

Get Stuff Done

Fabien sum’s his 4 parts up with “Get shit done and people will notice. Want people to help you? Help them first. Off-site events are the best for team building.”

 

I often find that within organizations, especially in difficult situations, people do not always “get it done”. The reason is often they do not see something for themselves to go beyond.  I have always maintained that if a person does something, they should at least try to do something well. They may not succeed, and probably will make mistakes in their first few attempts, but it is the effort that counts. Eventually, if given the opportunities to do so, they will get it. It’s that drive that really makes the difference.

 

A person that can put in the effort will eventually stand out.  I have noticed that first hand. From my experiences, you know you are succeeding when you become the “go to” person that people come to for certain problems.  It is a vote of confidence towards you because they know that you will pursue the matter most diligently. It means that you have earned their trust. I want to particularly emphasize the “earned” part because not everyone becomes a “go to person”.

 

Fabien notes that just as importantly, when you become the “go to person”, people will be more willing to help you when you have challenges.  Who knows – someday they might “Pay it Forward”. I would encourage you to pay it forward as well when you are asked.

 

 

Series Two: The green banana

When  you think of a green banana, probably the first thing that you think about is the idea of a banana that is on sale in the store. Although Fabien doesn’t discuss it in the article, banana ripening today is not actually a natural process. It is done through carefully controlled rooms of ethylene gas.  I guess in a way, personal growth is not something natural either.

 

In Fabien’s case, he took that literally, by taking a “green banana” as part of the his portfolio. I have actually been thinking about doing something very similar, only with the “Gadfly” rather than the green banana. The reason why is because the gadfly reflects who I am.  In his case, I have no doubt that when he was thinking about it, he was much more nervous – interviewing can be a very nerve-wracking process, and dream jobs are by nature, very competitive organizations.  As he indicates, I’m sure he was wondering right after he thought up what he was going to do whether his stunt was actually going to work – or backfire on him.

 

Actually, I like the way that Shopify handled that as well. Probably the biggest failure of companies today is that they emphasize previous work experience above all else, rather than what you can become.  Organizations that are forward looking in that regard are actually very rare. How often do you see a job application with “must have x years of experience”?  I’m not saying that people should hire an inexperienced candidate over an experienced one, but the “must have x” does say quite a bit about an organization. They are probably not as willing to invest in job training and employee growth. They figure that a person did in the past, therefore they won’t need as much training, and that’s it. They don’t focus on what the employee could become.  It’s the people with the most learning ability that will have the best long-term potential.

 

 

Finding one’s way – age is no measure of wisdom nor are titles

Fabien’s next article kind of recaps what he said previously. He is writing for university students, recent graduates, and people around his age.  Basically he summarizes what he said previously and encourages everyone to do what they can to join what he calls a “rocket”.

 

The one thing that I will note is that he says “Who are you to pretend you can inspire others in their career at age 21?”  Age is no measure of wisdom.  I have found that our society tends to put too much emphasis on older people being wiser. As I am of Chinese origin, I find that East Asian society is even worse, particularly with its ideals of filial piety and the history of ancestor worship. Perhaps the biggest weakness of Asian society is its high power distance, where often an elder person’s opinion will be more heavily weighed regardless of their actual expertise or experience in the subject. From my experiences, what makes wisdom is the ability to learn from one’s previous mistakes and failures. Both young and old people alike can do that.  Likewise, there is also the matter of technical knowledge in a subject matter. Here years of experience can play a role, but only if they have experience in the subject itself.

 

Fabien also notes that he doesn’t come from some prestigious career directing background or anything along those lines. Again, like age, titles are no measure of success.  Actually, titles and too much success may a bad thing as well. Successful people are far more likely to make the fundamental attribution error.  That is worthy of a post as well, but if you have the time, I highly encourage you to read the HBS article I just linked.

 

The big thing though is that you don’t give up, learn from when you do fail, and to constantly keep trying to learn.  In the Green Banana article, Fabien notes that a friend of his said that “If you’re not learning, you’re relatively becoming more stupid as human knowledge improves everyday.”  That is exceptional advice. Here is a great article by the Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat – intellectual curiosity is required. Not everyone unfortunately, has that mentality.

 

The 10x Environment

Fabien’s next (and at time of this writing, most recent) article  is about the working at what he calls a “10x” environment. The most important thing of all in working in such an environment is that you are surrounded by great people. From my experiences the people are what will make or break an organization.  Enthusiasm is infectious.  So too is negativity. The cost of a bad hire can be truly devastating if they are not highly motivated, or as they say in Shopify, if they do not “give a shit”. I suppose that is one of the reasons they go to such lengths in their recruitment.

 

The big takeaway though is that the learning doesn’t stop even if you get your dream. Fabien writes:

Ever since I joined, I look back and think to myself: “How stupid was I three weeks ago?”

To be honest, I have made that mistake more times that I care to count. You probably have to, if you are honest with yourself. Ultimately, even if you have your dream job, now you gotta give it your full effort to make it happen.  Fabien puts a lot of emphasis on taking ownership and explores how hard it is to do so a junior employee. You gotta be able to do it, but you are also reliant on other people as well. I suppose that is where being in an environment where people are willing to help is so important.

 

Probably the one thing that gets the most media attention for companies like Google or Shopify are the very famous “perks“. As Fabien notes, although they may make working there more important, it is the people that you work with that make or break an organization. Good perks cannot compensate for a lack of development, but it can sweeten an already good environment. As Doug Tetzner notes, they also help retain what they value the most.  That said, I think it is worth exploring this because, all too often in this world, so many companies say that people are their most valuable resource, yet don’t follow up on it.  I’m sure the way Shopify is run reflects their attempts to learn from the mistakes of other organizations.

 

One thing I should note about Fabien is that he has said he has never worked in another “large” company. From what I can tell from the outside (and I’ve never worked for Shopify), that may have been very educational for doing so beforehand. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is when working at a well run organization to be thankful for that – it is something that i have learned the hard way. Tobias Lütke famously once said that he was “ridiculously lucky”.   I suspect that he too must have learned the hard way.  Judging by the article linked, he did.

 

 

A few other thoughts

I’ve tried to pull together my thoughts based on what  Fabien has written and what I have previously learned/experienced.  It is important to recognize the steps in learning.  Quick summary:

  1. People have to learn the new information, the skills, and learn from their experiences, along with perhaps most importantly, their mistakes.
  2. Once the facts are there, people have to try to retain their knowledge or at least the ability to re-learn quickly.
  3. As you advance, the next step is to understand the implications of what you have learned and to think about the problem.
  4. It is only then that you reach the level of being proficient and actually learned the skill.

Even when you reach 4, you are always going to look back and see what you could have done differently.

 

One last thing, before I conclude. In my previous article about Shopify, I noted that one should not idealize the company.  The reason why I’ve covered it extensively is because it is in Ottawa, which is where I currently live. There is no perfect organization.  In fact, I’m sure if you were to ask many Shopifolk, they would, like Fabien, ask themselves “how could I have been so stupid” and point out things that they would like to see changed in their organization.

 

The other thing to remember is that what is one person’s good fit may not be for everyone. Fabien’s rocket is not going to be everyone’s “rocket”.

 

 

Conclusions

A lot of this may seem so obvious when you read it, but it’s not. It is like when someone develops a very intuitive, very user-friendly way of doing something, and as an end-user, you think that it was so obvious in retrospect. It is too easy for us to go back in time and go, “oh so that’s how it all fit together”.

 

In reality, in was not for the people facing the challenges, and that is why they became so successful. There was no assurance that he would every have been successful. Go back a couple of years and I’m sure that Fabien had no idea where he would have ended up.  The articles that Fabien writes are not obvious to most people.  Otherwise, people all around him would not be asking him for advice and what he said would be conventional wisdom, which it isn’t.

 

Likewise, most people are not hyper intellectually curious, or hyper-motivated. Those are far less common traits than we think. That is very unfortunate, because the world would be a far better place if everyone was more intellectually curious.

 

I liked these articles because they felt authentic to me. All too often you get motivational articles that are overly cheesy, that you can tell have details edited out. In reality, nobody succeeds at everything they do. We all fail. I like the fact that he explored his failures and related to how they led to later successes. I think that admitting to the extent that we messed up is something that most people are not willing to do. I am going to be making a future post on that for sure.

 

Ultimately, that is how we learn, by making mistakes, and going back to discuss what to differently.  Even in the case of Fabien, despite reaching his dream, I suspect that he will always have to remain a green banana. In reality, we should all be green bananas, no matter where we are in life. There is always more to learn. I think that is one thing to emphasize, it is not about who you are now, it is about what you will become and what you are working towards.

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