Software engineering notes

Dave Chang interviews Preet Bharara

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Dave Chang, chef and restaurateur, interviewed Preet Bharara, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York on June 20th, 2019. Their discussion focused largely on professional development and management and identified commonalities in their respective professions. I too identified commonalities with my experience in software development, so I wanted to take some notes for future reference. I tried to clearly quote and paraphrase, but this isn’t intended to be a transcript. I summarize, merge, reorder and comment on the thoughts.

Bharara’s book Doing Justice was the inspiration for the interview. Chang’s recommended it to many of his managers. He found the process by which Bharara approached criminal justice was the same as for being a chef. Bharara clarifies the book was intended for anyone, at any level of an organization, and is about how to approach problems in general.

The book has a chapter on asking questions. Junior and senior members of an organization need to feel safe asking questions. Chang comments that not asking questions is how we start making mistakes.

Innovation is important, but isn’t always dramatic. Innovation can take the form of thinking about a problem differently, and come from anyone at any level of an organization. It’s important to cultivate a “culture of innovation”. It’s insufficient to have a couple innovative people. Management must respect innovation.

This ties back to asking questions; it’s important to understand and question the rationale behind the status quo. Doing things one way because that’s the way they’ve always been done is insufficient. For example, until recently no one thought to use wire-tapping for inside trading investigations, even though insider trading is an act of communication.

Bharara describes the slow pace of change in government and how we have to work around that. His was the first US attorney’s office to contract with a data analysis firm, and the first to have a twitter account. He describes people looking at him like had three heads, which I find validating; I’ve felt insecure before expressing an unorthodox view.

At one point, Bharara recognized he understood law well enough, but had no training in business management. Two things are important for institutions: continuity and change. We want continuity of values and a culture of innovation.

People don’t like change. The legal and culinary professions are especially averse to change. Chang describes chefs dismissing advanced cooking techniques: “I don’t need to learn anything. I have fire. I have chicken.”

Chang wrote down a line from the book: “There are people who fight for the status quo and reject change.” (Aside, this fits the Economist’s definition of “conservatism”, so there’s a positive side of this too.)

How do you change an organization to be more open to innovation? It may be sufficient to identify and support a minority who embrace the concept. Bharara comments: “Not everyone is going to be a leader. You want to have more leaders than the average organization, but a lot of people are going to be followers.” Chang asks: “Can you be effective at your job as a follower?” Bharara clarifies a distinction between innovation and execution. Both are valuable. Some people are better at one or the other. Few are good at both.

Different people have different skills. As we ascend higher in an organization, people become more specialized. Any one person may be better than average in any role, but the difference between the best team and the worst team is how closely people’s skills are aligned with their roles.

Chang asks Bharara if he was successful at identifying people’s skills in his first management job as US attorney. He responds: the most important part of being a leader, because one person can’t do everything, is identifying who the best people are and putting them where they belong. He consulted a lot. He also saw value in a balance of, say, aggressive and cautious, people on a team.

Promotion isn’t always a good idea. Different levels require different skills. Bharara’s unaware of any manager who doesn’t have a record of significant personnel mistakes. Chang comments this is exactly the case in the culinary industry too. Traditionally, people are promoted in a kitchen based on excellence at one level, but that is not an indicator of excellence at the next level. Bharara agrees and describes law offices as typically having poor management because there are no business people involved. Management and individual contribution are completely different skills and have a completely different reward structure. For example, no US attorney has tried a case in recent history because they’re busy managing. Bharara codified this by prohibiting leads from participating directly in cases describing that as an “indulgence” for a manager.

Self-awareness is important in this context. It’s beneficial for people to recognize whether they want to manage other people. Bharara would ask people seeking promotion “Are you sure you want that?” He continues: “Some people are so ambitious they think that there’s a natural progression to their career that must include certain kinds of promotion … I wish more people thought about their own fun and ability rather than always being on this rat race to have another item to put on their resume.”

Chang acknowledges the same is true in the kitchen. As an executive chef, he no longer cooks. Bharara talks about his difficulty describing his job, but it boils down to “meetings”. Leaders oversee and are the outward face of an organization. Bharara paraphrases Pat Fitzgerald, a former US attorney: when you have the right people, who know what they’re doing, the job of the leader is to get out of the way and let them do it, and when they’re not doing it, to steer them.

Likewise, folks in leadership should be aware of their skills, roles and the fact they are often not the best choice for direct execution. “If you want something done well, you have to do it yourself” is an anti-pattern in this context. Chang describes chefs taking direct control in times of stress, but because they’re not involved in the day-to-day production of the kitchen, this is often disastrous: “You’re going to ruin the flow of the kitchen through entirely one’s own ego.”

Bharara describes two motivations for this:

  1. leadership thinks “I could do this better”
  2. leadership is trying to demonstrate they add value

Chang describes a risk at the upper limit of ability: the person eventually creates something only they can maintain, or they run the organization in a way that only works for them. Both are bad for the organization. Part of Chang’s job is to shake them out of it.

Chang asks how do people adapt to loss of control and recognition they’re not the best at everything. Humility is helpful. People presume the head of the office is the best at everything. Bharara describes having “warring self-doubt”, which was validating for me to hear. He also describes being very nervous about starting a new stage in his career when he created his podcast. Consulting with experts is essential. The difference between good and great is consultation.

Talent is often the greatest obstacle to becoming a great chef. At some point, talent is no longer the most important factor to success. Chang’s describes telling talented people they need to grow up. I wonder if he’s talking about a threshold between individual contribution and management, and if this is in conflict with the earlier discussion about self-awareness.

The interview closes with discussion of making decisions under stress. Chang jokes that every day in a restaurant is like defusing a bomb. Bharara describes the tension between imminent danger and sufficient evidence. I suppose the general theme is problem solving under pressure.

Another general theme is how to prepare for the unknown. Judgement is as important as education and credentials. Bharara comments there are lots of intelligent people he wouldn’t put in charge of anything; some folks are much more comfortable with contemplation over a long period of time. Bharara describes the importance of core values in these moments. For SDNY, the mission is: “Do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons every day and that’s all.” He paraphrases To Kill A Mockingbird: trying to do the right thing, is the right thing.

Good behavior is important for effective management. Fear, intimidation and perfectionism doesn’t work in the real world. Bharara paraphrases Eisenhower: hitting people over the head is assault, not leadership. Empathy, respect and even temperament are much better. Chang acknowledges that’s a lot to ask of someone who just wanted be a cook.

Bharara states one of his goals is to never let people you lead see you freak out. He freaks out with his closest deputies, but the organization as a whole benefits from calm leadership.

Written by Erik

October 13, 2019 at 11:48 am

Posted in notes

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