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…

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

5 thoughts on “The best employee I ever had”
  1. Well, according to your description I have a whole culture here with such people! I guess at least half of my colleagues fall into this category – every single point in your list. Man, ain’t I lucky!

    Cool list – I love it already.

  2. Hi Dag,

    Either you are extraordinarily lucky or you are setting the bar far lower than I am.  Note that I’m talking about individuals, not teams.  If you take each of your team members and put them in a room by themselves, would they still do these things?  

    I’m willing to be that less than 5% of your team actually would do this. I’ve met over 1,000 developers in literally dozens of enterprises.  I’m seeing a hit rate of about 1%.  Even 5% would be a 500% increase over that rate.  

    — Nick

  3. This was a great post, and came at an important time for me. I’m a grad in my first job, always did really well at Uni etc, but lately have just hit a bit of a snag picking up one of the technologies we work with. I worked out it basically boils down to the fact that I need to improve my Java skills and understanding, and there were some other factors that made my learning progress grind to a halt, ending up with me being very very frustrated.

    However, a small part of my job required a little website dev. I started looking into the ‘best’ way to go about my work and came across the standards movement involving (X)HTML/CSS/JavaScript best practices, semantics, etc. Lets just say it was love at first site, I devoured books, pestered my designer/developer boyfriend for more details and real situations and cleaned up huge sections of our site. Already I do what I can to teach others what I know so far and keep reading/tinkering.

    I know I love learning, always have and it was a big part of my success at school. It’s just that sometimes a topic will ‘click’, you get it and it’s like wildfire (the 2nd situation). Other times (the first and current) you hit a snag and end up frustrated because you want to be better, you feel you should be moving faster, but you’re not. In this case I was lacking the outside resources to get over that snag. Perseverance will prevail and I’m confident I’ll at least get to the point of successful implementation.

    A love of learning doesn’t always result in being a master of everything though. If I like the topic I will get through to the education/evangelic stage, but at the very least I try to get a skill to the ‘useful and gets a job done the best way I can’ stage, and always take away any positive lessons I’ve learned from any situation or topic. Maybe that only makes me a 5% not a 1% but it keeps me going, and hopefully my employers are happy.

  4. Fantastic post, Nick. It seems to underscore the point that I was trying to make last week about Architecture Interview questions, but perhaps in a clearer way.

    One additional point, perhaps. A person who loves to learn has a tendancy to think outside the box, simply out of a desire to learn whatever one can, which leads to a dissatisfaction with what is already known or popularly believed. In other words, a person who loves to learn is so motivated by the desire that he or she is an explorer, someone who tries new things, just to find out what new information may be gleaned from the experience. Several examples spring to mind: Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. They not only studied the prevailing science (understood the box), but introduced new ways of thinking about problems.

  5. Awesome post.  

    There’s a small part of me that’s going, "I hope I’m on the list, I hope I’m on the list"

    The rest of me is wondering, how do you cultivate that sponge like quality in your co-workers?

    One of the things I miss about working on Campus was that the percentage of "Learners" seemed MUCH higher than I’ve seen it anywhere else.  (*MUCH* higher).

    One of the things I enjoyed about working with you was that you encouraged that kind of learning by doing.  One of my fond memories from that time was you letting me do the Dependency Injection talk in Shawn’s office.  I think I’ve given that talk 20 – 40 times since then, and it has had a huge effect on my ability to effectively teach Test Driven Design.

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