Episode 113 – Learn to Lead and Develop a Successful Development Team with Cal Evans
Phil’s guest on today’s show is Cal Evans. Cal has had a long and successful IT career. He started by working as a developer and programmer using PHP, MySQL, OSX and Windows. But, most of his career has been spent building and running development teams. Cal is a well-known conference speaker and the author of 11 IT career and programming related books.
(1.03) – So Cal, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Cal explains that he got into software development pre-internet. His first computer was a Commodore 64. So, he has been coding for 35 years now, and he loves it.
(1.54) – Is there any particular thing that keeps you engaged so that you stay on top of things? Cal said that he is a creative person, yet, he often introduces himself as “a man of many skills, but few talents.”
He has found success by focusing on those relatively few talents. Perhaps his strongest talent is the ability to break a problem down into its component parts. A skill that is essential for successful software development.
(2.43) – Phil asks Cal to share a unique IT career tip, one that listeners may not already be aware of. This tip comes directly from Cal’s book – Uncle Cal’s Career Advice for Developers.
He says that it is important to remember that the job will never love you back. These days, companies work hard to keep their developers with them, in particular startups. They do all sorts of things, regularly host parties, provide lunch at the desk and a long list of other things to keep their developers happy. But, at the end of the day, you will always find that the company is not as committed to you as you are to them.
(3.44) – Phil agrees and says that you always have to “look after your own interests.” Cal agrees, he sees so many developers working themselves to death for the sake of their companies. Unfortunately, if a startup goes belly up it is the developers and workers are the ones that end up losing out the most. Typically, the founders will walk away with something while everyone else is left high and dry.
Cal says, that as a result, you need to be realistic about what the relationship is. Basically, you are exchanging your time and talent for money. As soon as you run out of either of those the company will be finished with you and move on to someone else. It is OK to be committed to doing a good job, but it is not wise to overdo things and burn yourself out.
(5.26) – Cal is asked to share his worst career moment by Phil. Cal explains that circa 1999 he was managing three teams. They were working on a big Oracle and Java application. At that time, most of his work was related to the medical field, big contracts that involved a lot of money.
One day, he received a text message that said the production database was down. Naturally, the outage was having a huge negative impact, so Cal went in to sort out the issue. When he got there he discovered that one of his young developers has accidentally deleted the data mix. The team restored everything, within the hour, using the backup. But, it was a costly mistake.
During the debrief, Cal was asked if he was going to fire the young man who was responsible. Cal said no. The ways he saw it was that he had just paid out a lot of money for that developer to learn a tough lesson. The last thing Cal wanted was for that young man to end up putting that newly acquired knowledge to use working for another employer.
(7.52) – What was the most important thing you learned from that incident? Cal said it taught him the importance of being able to stand back and not interfere. He understood that as a director his main role in that situation was to keep communication flowing. He had to make sure that everyone knew what was going on, to give his team the time and space they needed to be able to work uninterrupted.
Cal recognized and acknowledged that, in this situation, they had more expertise than him. So, he was willing to take care of the menial sounding task of sending out an update, every 15 minutes, via email. There was no Facebook or Twitter back then, so this was the most efficient way to keep everyone in the loop.
(8.59) – Phil asks Cal what his best career moment was. To date, that would be running the Zend training and certification division. When Cal first got involved it was very early days for PHP. Yet the training material was already woefully out of date. As the scripting language, and the way it was used, changed the training had not been updated
He upgraded the certification and all of the training. Very quickly, they went from the training being about 18 months out of date to everything being 100% current. Trainers would update the files each day if necessary to make sure the next session was as relevant as possible. This approach enabled the trainers to lead the way when it came to what was covered in the course. As a result, each wave of new students was learning and using best practice. It was the trainers that had the power.
Cal describes himself as just the shepherd for this project. It was all about “investing in his people.” Giving them what they need and getting out of their way.
(11.53) – Phil says that the last part, “getting out their way”, is absolutely key. Cal says that is definitely the case. Yet, it is still something that very few managers or directors are prepared to do.
They have a tendency to overestimate their own skills. Some seem to believe that only they can do it, which is just so wrong.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan – the greatest leaders are not the ones that do the greatest things. They are the ones that enable others to do the greatest things. This is certainly important to remember when you are leading and managing an IT team.
(12.47) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Cal started out by saying that, personally, he is scared and went on to describe himself as a dinosaur. But, he is also excited for the kids that are coming up behind him. The pace of change and the tools that are available to the new generation of developers means the possibilities are endless.
(15.42) – What drew you to a career in IT, Cal? When Cal was about 14, he went for a sleepover with a friend that had a new computer. His friend showed him the code he used and Cal was hooked from that point on.
(16.29) – What is the best career advice you were given? He received that advice from Marcus Whitney. Marcus was the guy who started the first PHP Podcast, in 2005.
Later, it was acquired by PHP Architect. Something that Marcus now regrets. This is the case, despite the fact that he has since branched out and is now involved in other industries. Cal said that Marcus’ experience with this has made him realize the importance of hanging onto and nurturing every part of your brand. He actively works not to allow any element of his brand to die off or slip away from him.
(17.16) – If you were to start your IT career again, now, what would you do? Cal said he would now focus on the back end and middleware. He said that he would start out by working with Circles.
(17.48) – Phil asks Cal what he is currently focusing on in his career. Right now, Cal is concentrating on building the next generation of IT managers and leaders. This is a badly neglected area of the industry. For example, Starbucks spends more on training a barista than they do on training developers to be IT leaders. Across the industry, developers get virtually no management training. It is assumed that they will have acquired the skills they need to manage people without any formal training, which is rarely the case.
(18.50) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Cal joked that it is singing, but goes on to say that it is reading. He reads or listens to 3 or 4 books a month. This habit has helped him to uncover all kinds of inspirational gems.
(19.32) – Phil asks Cal to share a final piece of career advice. Cal says “the computer should be more afraid of you than you are of it”. With persistence you can solve any problem. He once spent 36 hours sorting out a file server that would not turn on or turn off properly. Much of that time was spent on the phone speaking to Dell and trying out their suggested solutions. In the end, they worked out that the processor chip had overheated, which had flicked a piece off. Installing a new one solved the problem.
(21.29) Phil commented that sort of failure is a rare occurrence. Cal agreed, but commented that it just goes to show that weird things do happen. So, you have to be tenacious and learn how to learn other things quickly. You also need to have a passion for programming. If you do not, you will not last long working in the IT field.
(2.33) CAL – “One of the talents that I seem to have is seeing a problem and being able to break it down into its components.”
(3.26) CAL – “The job won’t love you back. The company will never be as committed to you as they want you to be committed to them.”
(4.48) CAL – “Remember that you are trading time for money, time and talent for money. As soon as you run out of time and talent, they will no longer give you money.”
(11.47) – CAL – “It’s all about is investing in your people, giving them the power to do what’s necessary and then getting out of their way.”
(19.44) – CAL – “The computer should be more afraid of you than you are of it. You will solve the problem. It just takes persistence.”