Mandy Musings


a knife sitting on top of a table next to a keyboard

One of the hats that I wore at a former employer was being the “dean” of the internship program. I was responsible for recruiting efforts, offers, and mentor training for the 12–20 interns that joined us each summer during my tenure. In doing so, I gained a lot of appreciation for how difficult it can be to avoid the Curse of Knowledge 1.

A huge part of ensuring a great experience for interns is setting clear expectations—especially when it comes to performance related questions like, “What do I need to do in order to get a full-time offer at the end of the summer?”

This led to an directive that I repeated often enough that I’m sure all of the mentors got sick of hearing it:

No intern should be surprised by whether you recommend them for a full-time offer at the end of the summer.

This might seem like an easy, obvious goal, but that’s where The Curse comes in: while a mentor may clearly understand their expectations for their intern, how can they know whether they’ve conveyed that understanding clearly?

It’s tricky.

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On disagreeing and committing

two birds sitting on top of a white rope

While variations of the phrase “Disagree and Commit” have been floating around the tech industry for decades, it took on a life of its own after being invoked in Jeff Bezos’ 2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders . Since then, many companies have enshrined this as an explicit value in their recruiting literature and employee handbooks.

This is a powerful value! When applied judiciously, it can enable teams to move swiftly while building trust and empowering one another. At the same time, misapplication can destroy a team’s effectiveness through distrust and disempowerment.

In this post, I’ll explore both the positive aspects of this value and some of its most common pitfalls.

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Cut Scotty some slack

Scotty leans in towards Geordi in the Enterprise D’s main engineering and asks, “Do you mind a little advice?”

Although I never watched much of the original series, I was a huge fan of Star Trek: the Next Generation when I was a kid. The series has a lot of memorable moments, but one of my favorites is from “Relics” (Season 6, Episode 4).

In the episode, James Doohan reprises his role as the Original Series’ Chief Engineer Scotty—but now older, retired, and barely relevant. Predictably, the writers use every opportunity to contrast him with Next Generation’s chief engineer, Geordi. After an exchange in which Geordi tries to shake off Scotty’s “help”—saying that he doesn’t have enough time to get Scotty up to speed—Scotty chooses to reveal the secret behind his reputation . (43 second YouTube clip; you should absolutely watch it)

Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children! They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need—not what they want.

Geordi: Yeah, well, I told the captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.

Scotty: How long will it really take?

Geordi: An hour!

Scotty: Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would really take, did you?

Geordi: Well, of course I did!

Scotty: Oh, laddie, you’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker!

Despite the humor of this scene, it can be tempting to dismiss Scotty’s advice: his smug air and conspiratorial delivery make him appear contemptuous and dishonest towards his colleagues. However, underneath these attitudes is an important organizational principle:

Any well-designed system needs some slack.

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Why aren’t you doing better?

woman using computer sitting on black chair

In my years of mentoring other engineers, I’ve noticed a pattern that often arises as they reach the cusp of “Senior Engineer” status. In general, these are folks that…

And yet…

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