Scott Berkun on leadership and teams | WickedlySmart

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I recently had a chance to interview Scott Berkun, who has just self-published a collection of his essays in Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds. Scott has been a programmer, project manager, team leader (currently at WordPress.com), public speaker, and, of course, author (six books and counting!). He’s always interesting to talk with about… well, just about anything; in this interview, we focused on leadership and teams.

Elisabeth Robson: What makes a great team?

Scott Berkun: Trust. Talent without trust makes for a bunch of disappointed talented people, who underperform against teams with less talent, but higher collaboration, based on trust. Trust sounds obvious, but most teams, organizations and families have a shortage of it.

ER: How is leadership different from management?

SB: They’re hard to separate. An effective leader does some management. An effective manager does some leadership. If you have to divide them, leadership is making good decisions about where to go, management is executing a plan to get you there.

ER: How is technical leadership different from any other kind of leadership?

SB: It’s more similar than not. A good leader earns trust (there’s that word again). A good technical leader earns a reputation for making good decisions around how to build technology, or which technologies to use, to solve a problem.

ER: If a programmer wants to move into a leadership position, what’s the most important thing you’d recommend for that person?

SB: That transition depends seeing the value of non-coding tasks. Convincing another developer to approach a problem in a better way may take an hour, but the payoff will be higher than if they had spent that time writing the code themselves.

ER: What motivates programmers to do their best work?

SB: It depends on the programmer. Good leaders ask their teams what motivates them, or what kinds of work they like the most. To stereotype, I’d say programmers like two things: 1) solving challenging problems 2) seeing those solutions help people.

ER: How do you get programmers to give good estimates for how long a piece of code, or project, will take?

SB: It’s a habit people have to develop. It starts by documenting estimates before work starts, and reviewing estimates when the work is over. Having healthy discussions about why the estimates weren’t accurate, and what questions could have been asked to make them more accurate, makes the next round of estimates better. The habit of asking reviewing estimates and asking questions at the end of iterations or projects fuels better estimates.

ER: What new technologies do you have your eye on to keep WordPress on the cutting edge?

SB: I watch people. The cutting edge is always where people are frustrated or annoyed. Listening to people gripe about their apps or their phones reveals what the next big thing will be. Great design comes from when technology is applied to a real problem, rather than technology invented for its own sake.

ER: You recently gave a talk about feedback at Hive2011. What’s the one most important thing for programmers to know about giving valuable feedback to their peers?

SB: Don’t let your ego make you an asshole. Taking pleasure in making someone feel bad about their work serves no one. If you are smart and creative you can find ways to give feedback to people so they want to hear more from you, rather than less.

ER: WordPress is always working on new things; what is the coolest new thing coming from WordPress?

SB: All I can say is never underestimate the power of open source.

ER: You recently self-published a new book, Mindfire. What’s the most important thing you learned from that process?

SB: This is the greatest time in the history of the world to be a writer. The freedom anyone has to write has never been greater.

ER: What’s the most innovative idea you’ve heard of recently?

SB: That there are no innovative ideas, There are only problems to be solved.

Thank you Scott!

Scott Berkun is the author of three bestselling books, Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, and Confessions of a Public Speaker. His most recent book is MindFire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds. He managed teams at Microsoft from 1994-2003 on projects including versions 1-5 (not 6) of Internet Explorer. He currently works as a team lead on WordPress.com. He works as a writer and speaker, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Economist, The Washington Post, Wired, NPR, and other media. He contributes to Harvard Business Review and BusinessWeek and has appeared as an innovation expert on MSNBC and CNBC. He writes frequently on his popular blog, scottberkun.com, and tweets at @berkun.

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