I was deep in the mix during the dot-com bubble.  It was one heckuva ride.  In the early days, it was hard as heck to get talented people.  The first, and often the most key, risk that we would take was “who to put on the team.” 

I have some very serious regrets about some of the people I hired or helped hire.  Other folks, on the other hand, I have no regrets.  Let me tell you about the best employee I ever had…

This gentleman came to the company with minimal software experience.  He could create fairly good graphics, but striking and creative visual design wasn’t his forte either.  He was basically a good web page coder… at least at first.

What made this guy the best employee I had was this: he loved to learn.  Wow did he love to learn!  He would drop by my office about twice a week just to ask questions and learn.  He would read books on every topic he could (that related, even remotely, to his work).  He learned project management, and interface design, and graphic information modeling, and eventually became one of the best user experience guys around.

I love to work with people who love to learn. 

How do you know if you are a person who loves to learn?  A couple of ways:

  1. self-motivation: you reach out for resources, find them, and consume them, at a rate that would make the ordinary employee blush. Often the resources are non-traditional, like learning from newsgroups or joining an open source project with experienced coders.  No closed doors.  No fear of looking foolish.  Just go.
  2. self-driven mastery: not only learning, but applying what you learn, to the point where soon, you are jumping in to teach others.  The terminology trips off your tongue.  You learn not only the words but their meanings.  You read deeply technical articles that use the new concepts, just to make sure that you can master their meaning in practice.  You practice justifying the ideas in articles and blogs and in hallway conversations.  Soon, others come to you to solve problems in the space you’ve learned only a few months before.
  3. passion for quality: It’s not just enough to learn, or know, but you must do.  You simply must.  It’s not optional.  You cannot help yourself.  The learning and knowing are wrapped up in the doing.  In your mind, it is not complete until you, and your employer, and your customer, have reaped a tangible reward.  You have to try it, to solve it, to solve it again.
  4. intense desire to fix what you screw up: You are fallable, and you know it, and you make an effort, every single time, to review how well you did and learn from it.  Sometimes you review your efforts more than once: once right after it is done, and then another time later (a month, six months, a year… however long it takes to lose the ‘self-congratulatory’ gloss).  Every time out of the gate is a learning experience.  Doesn’t stop you from bold thinking and bold action, but it does prevent you from earning the reputation of ‘reckless’ or ‘loose cannon.’
  5. values-driven: You start with what you believe, and you drive your learning from there.  Therefore, when you learn something, it sticks.  You don’t throw away the good with the bad.  Sure, you sometimes have to unlearn a practice that you discover is not useful, but you don’t flit from one fad to another, proposing one model one week, and another model the next.  

    You bind new ideas to the core values that you care about, and you place ideas into your internal model based on how well they align to your core values. This allows you to construct, build, and grow… not tear down and start over every two years.  

    It also means that titles and org charts are borderline useless.  A title only means something if you need it to.  Position means a bit more, as does recognition, but the truly valuable things in life don’t come from position or title or recognition.  They come from examining your work in the light of your values.  If you value what you do, and you measure your success from a stable, consistent viewpoint, then you will sleep extremely well.

Alas, I have met less than a dozen men and women who fire on every cylinder.  When I have, I have been better simply by knowing them.

If you don’t hit on every one of these points, look at yourself and think about this:  Do you want to be the person that your manager, a decade later, writes a blog about with the title of “best employee I ever had?”  If so, find the elements above that you aren’t doing, and start doing them.  Hear that sound?  It’s success calling…