👩🏻‍💻 Amy K
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In the first entry of my talk review series, I'm going to review Bryan Cantril's "Principles of Technology Leadership" talk and hopefully convince you that it's worth your time to watch.

But first, why?

I enjoy watching programming and technology talks, because they are a great way to be exposed to new ideas and to find new ways to grow my skills. One day, I'd love to be able to travel to all of the tech conferences that I could ever want, but until then I am grateful that so many conferences make their talks available for free online.

However, I realize that not everyone is interested in spending between thirty minutes to over an hour in order to see if a particular talk has anything they personally can gain from watching it. My hope is that these reviews can provide a curated library of sorts, where you can read an overview of the talk, a pitch on why you might consider watching it, and my reflection on it.

The Talk

"Principles of Technology Leadership" is a talk given by Bryan Cantril.

The Pitch

In this talk, Bryan lays out an argument that the stated principles of a company influence its behaviors. The impact of that influence extends from the leadership at the top all the way down to the lowest levels. If you are wondering why the company you work for behaves the way it does, this talk might help you frame your thoughts.

Maybe you are looking to write out your company's principles and you are looking for sources of inspiration. This talk covers well-known collections of principles and values from Sun, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber. Bryan analyzes the progression of principles and values statements over the course of time and tries to see how each company's approach reflects its reaction to what came before. In my opinion, this provides a useful foundation for discussions about how to avoid pitfalls when writing out your own principles and values.

At the very least, I think that everyone should watch the last three minutes, because it stands alone as a solid, positive perspective on how to be a person with integrity in the field of software development. Bryan is a passionate presenter and moments like these are where his talks really shine.

The Overview

The talk opens with Bryan describing what he means by principles and how they differ from values. Principles must have some fundamental and universal aspect to them. He then contrasts values against principles by noting that values have relative priority instead of a fundamental value. He uses historical examples related to the Declaration of Independence to demonstrate the impact of stating principles explicitly, even when they were inherently hypocritical.

From there, the talk covers a few positive examples of companies' principles with Levi Strauss and Sun. He shows the value of these approaches through the example of Sun's CEO's open resignation letter, in which he stated "I never had to hide the newspaper in shame from my children".

Bryan then proceeds to lay out the progression of principles and values in the tech industry, from Google's "Don't be evil" through Facebook's "Move fast and break things". He spends a good deal of the time talking about Amazon's fourteen principles, which contain contradictions between "Are right, a lot" and "Bias for action", which notes that "Many decisions and actions are reversible".

Next, Bryan focuses on Uber's principles as the culmination of the path that tech companies have been taking. The principles themselves are nonsensical, with items such as "Super-pumpedness" and "Always be hustlin'". He discusses incidents in Uber's history, like the Grayball project, the hiring of Anthony Levandowski, and the retaliatory firing of Susan Fowler, that were influenced by the stated values of Uber.

Bryan ends the talk by reflecting on principles and values that he personally holds and notes that software companies have the responsibility to work within the democratic system to change laws if they believe the laws need to change.


What do principles and values influence?

Bryan mentions that he values integrity, honesty, and decency as principles and says "if those aren't one of your principles, thank you for the clarification. I'm never going to work there and nor should you." Having publicly stated principles is a helpful way to ensure that the people that are looking for jobs have an understanding if they are compatible with a company. However, this can often be either aspirational at best or misleading at worst. I've found that knowing someone who is already working at a company who can give an insider's perspective can be significantly more useful when making decisions on where to apply. On the other hand, I do look for a values statement that includes specific language around "gender identity and expression", because those statements tend to drive away the sort of person who wouldn't want to work with me in the first place.

From a day-to-day standpoint, I think it is important for leaders in the company to intentionally model behaviors that embody the principles and values of the company. This is impactful because people look to the actions of leaders to see what the company values in practice. Who get promoted and handed larger responsibilities demonstrates career expectations more effectively than checklists of required accomplishments.

When is too late for a company to instill principles and values? Is there such a time?

From my experience taking part in exercises to write down the values of a team of developers, I've observed that a team that has been working together might have different, contradictory understanding of what the team's values are based on the role they play in the team. People who have to deal with the production issues of the application might value stability, while people who have more visibility into the financial side of the company might value adding features to entice new clients to the company. These are both positive values that can be in conflict at times.

I wonder if there is a point where the behavior of the team or the company becomes entrenched such that attempts to change it cannot succeed. A hypothetical example of this would be the principle of honesty coming in to conflict with an organizational behavior of lying to leadership in order to make projects appear more successful than they are. We have seen these sorts of behaviors with the Wells Fargo fake accounts criminal allegations, where the institutional pressure to improve internal sales metrics was more influential than their internal code of ethics.

Does the value of stating principles scale down to the personal level?

Bryan starts his talk by focusing on a country and then scales it down to the size of single companies. Does this scale down further? I think that it would be an interesting exercise to write out my own principles and then attempt to assess how well or inadequately I live up to them.

References and Further Reading