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Dom Davis - FFS just f’ing talk to each other
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Dom Davis, 19th September 2018, at @FFSTechConf

FFS Just F’Ing Talk to Each Other.

[slides are here]

>> So we have Dom who is going to ask for fuck's sake, people, just fucking talk to each other.

DOM: Cool, thank you. So, thank you. [Laughter]. I've got to do this through interpretative dance.

The key to a good rant or a good sweary rant is to go for it, really get in there. Denis Leary is a wonderful example of this style. I sincerely wish that I could just come up here and lose my shit over maple nut fucking crunch but I can't because I fucked up...

The full title of this rant is “For Fuck's Sake, people! Just fucking talk to each other! It's not fucking hard, and we wouldn't be in this mess if we all learned how to do it!” 

It's good ranty seed material, I can tell you. The schedule simply lists it as “For Fuck's Sake, People! Just fucking talk to each other!” I don't know if it's because of brevity or because the organisers spotted the big fuck off mistake.

At face value my original title lets me go full Denis. There is a vitriol that only comes when I know I'm right and you, you are all fucking wrong. But, for some inane reason, you can't fucking see it! 

But I fucked up... there's no rant.

When I tried to write all of this, the words didn't come. It was flat. Hollow...

The problem is here in the middle, where I say it's not fucking hard. Actually, yes, it's really fucking hard. [Laughter].

And I suspect a 15 minute sweary rant on how very wrong you all are is just going to make it even fucking harder.. Why? I don't know! Well, I do, sort of. And it's got a lot to do with the question why?, and the response I don't know.

What I do know is that if I could provide an answer for this in 15 minutes, we would be having this conference on my private yacht in the Grenadines. To put that into context, I spent last night in a Travelodge ... in Norwich... [Laughter].

Now, in many working cultures, the words, "I don't know" are completely anathema. Hands up if you don't know what anathema means. [Some hands go up] Excellent! According to the dictionary built into my computer, because I'm smart like that, anathema means someone or something that one vehemently dislikes. Everyones able to to give me a dictionary definition of vehemently, right? Yes, I can use it in a sentence. But if I had to describe what it meant to my six-year-old daughter, would I be correct? I don't know. Nothing brings your vast vocabulary crashing down around you faster than a six-year-old asking what something means.

Why? Because they ask why. And, in the context of pretty much any child, that means I don't know what you're talking about, and I would like you to explain it to me. If you can't explain it, then you're rather forced to consider that you also don't actually know what you're talking about! [Laughter].

So this is W- [ED: his daughter] learning about computers, while wearing her Jessie outfit, because why the fuck not! If you're jealous of W- and her hat, award yourself one million internets and congratulate yourselves for not being overly uptight. I'm overly uptight. I come to work in sports and T-shirt, but it is a uniform like a suit. I will not be coming to work in dress-up any time soon. I'm also rather uncomfortable acting like a kid at work, despite appearances. It turns out that most of us are, actually, so, instead of pretending to be like a child, we codify the behaviour. We give it positive and grown-up names. Like the five whys.

So the theory of the five whys is you can get to the root cause of a problem by asking why repeatedly. We gloss over the fact this comes out of the kids' play book because we are adults. I've picked a real-world example that we can all relate to.

I need this impossible thing in one week. 


Because we're launching something new that requires it. 


Because that's the date we gave the business. 


Because that's when you said it would be ready for!”

“Wh…. Oh! [Laughter]. Shit! 

At which point we discover the entire organisation is geared towards providing what the business want to hear rather than what is based in reality; and we have a why left to start the blame-storming off with.

Still, we are where we are, we've got a week left. Lets free ourselves of our uptight constraints and lets throw one of those left-field questions that children often field:  "Daddy, what does burnout look like?"

In the wrong crowd, I'm a foul-mouthed sweary bastard who should engage brain more before engaging mouth. One of my favourite sayings is that a closed mouth gathers no foot! [Laughter]. I sincerely wish that I could live according to that philosophy. My talks are very much scripted, rehearsed and given to a wide variety of audiences, including school children. As such, the zeroth rule is do not fucking swear. Far from being liberating, having a conference, I can liberally drop the F-bomb is quite constraining. Where are the limits? Am I overusing the word? Is my usage adding to or detracting from my argument? Can I drop the C-bomb? [Laughter]. That's probably which a no, so we will move away from that.. how about the A bomb. Fuck it, I'm going to say it Agile! [Laughter].

We're all doing Agile. We're having all the conversations; with our team members; with the stakeholders; with the product owners, and the other people in the organisation, and we know we're having them because there are Post-it notes all over the fucking place, and Post-its mean conversations, right? I bet some of you are so fucking agile your PostIt notes have PostIt notes… And, yes, if you're using Jira you can just pretend your issues are PostIt notes and nod along enthusiastically hoping no one notices.

But many of you are really just going through the motions rather than actually fucking talking to each other. We put in bullshit updates saying we’ve isolated the root cause of the problem which we hope to have sorted in a couple of hours. What is actually happening is we are reframing the problem every single day hoping that no-one notices that we are really fucking stuck! Basically, I don't have a fucking clue what is going on. We do this because of how we’ve become indoctrinated. We’re told to bring solutions, not problems, and encouraged to display a can-do attitude. We are pushing people to say what we want to hear rather than just simply telling the truth. Or to put it another way, have you tried not lying? [Laughter]. Or more to the point, have you tried not building a culture that encourages you and rewards you for lying?

That's the crux of the problem. It will be all-too-easy to stand up here and do this in a five-second talk: “For fuck's sake, people, stop lying to each other and that includes stop lying to yourselves, drop mic, rapturous applause. That's not exactly constructive. It's an easy answer to a complex problem. And the problem isn't going away any time soon.

So let’s go back to our hypothetical request: "I need this impossible thing in 1 week!”. Now lets anchor it in the real world. In some places, the only acceptable answer is "absolutely!" Of course privately we're thinking the requester is a fucking idiot devoid of clue, but yeah, whatever, with bells on.

Or, maybe we're allowed to question things. But all too often, that's done from the stance of "you're a fucking idiot who's devoid of clue" and a wordier version of fuck off. These aren't conversations but basically fights.

If we were actually talking to each other, we would be communicating, and trying to communicate with each other. We need to get to a place where both sides have an understanding of the outcome. I would love to say there's a place where both sides are happy but that's not always possible and we've just said we really need to stop fucking lying to ourselves. It would be lovely if we could sit down, thrash out something where we would be happy, and the business would be happy, and we could achieve it in a week, and it would be great and joyous. But quite often, there is a problem: the person demanding the impossible thing doesn't have the first fucking clue why they're demanding it in the first place. They're someone who said abso-fucking-lutely when someone else demanded they do it and they don't have a clue what it actually was. In a larger organisation, this chain of cluelessness can go on for quite a while, and that aggressive just-fucking-do it-it response is really just code for "I don't have a blind clue what it is or why we're doing it, so stop asking me”.

Yes, we can sound like we know what we are doing. You note this rant has been rather light on facts! But a paucity of verifiable research doesn't hide the fact that we all know I'm right and we know it on a visceral level. We live it daily.

So, in our company, we have this idea of "thought toast. The name comes from Drop the Dead Donkey where Gus, the chief executive says I would like you to pop that into your mental thought toaster and see if it pops up brown. [Laughter]. Thought toasters are a way of floating an idea without requiring an immediate response. It is something to take away and meditate on, to chew over, and it's deliberately asynchronous. We have a Thought Toaster Slack Channel, and a thought toast section in all our internal meetings. They're safe places. We’ve carved them out as safe spaces for these to be raised. We encourage them to be raised at any time.

I would like to finish up with some thought toast for all of you: would you have mentioned the elephant slides? Be honest with yourselves. Would you have had your hand up ready to ask what the deal with them was? Or perhaps you would have sat quietly and hoped someone else asked what is the deal with the slide? Maybe you feel you've worked out what they signified and don't need to ask. Maybe, you don't care? Or didn't even notice. So this is thought toast. I don't expect an answer, perhaps even ever, but I want you to go away and think about it. Then I want you to think about your answer to that question. Is there any insight to be gained? Is this how you behave when there's information when there is something you don't understand in a meeting or in a conversation?

Pachyderms are important to us in our company. We have an elephants Slack channel and an elephants section in any meeting. Like thought toast, elephants can be raised at any time. But what is an elephant? Elephants are simply the elephant in the room. We all know what falls into the elephant category, even if it it's not a clearly defined National Geographic front cover elephant. It is the thing you're unsure about, that makes you uncomfortable, the unspoken things that loom while we studiously try to ignore them. Sadly, all too often if the elephant is wonky, we feel we can't speak up. By addressing the elephant early on, we can get rid of it, leave it, and it becomes weaponized and explosive. So let's address our impossible thing and say that we can't do it in a week, a year, or ever, and open a dialogue and start asking the difficult questions now when we've got a week and room to manoeuvre, because the other option is we spend a week doing something that's doomed to failure and we have an even more awkward conversation about why it's all gone wrong.

Of course, the whacking great big elephant in the room is that most of us work in places where this is going to be hard to implement. You may even face active resistance to doing this. So I'm going to shut up, and we are going to try to work out how the fuck we even talk to each other, and feel free to raise any thought toast too, because amazing as we all are, we're not going to solve this problem in 15 minutes. And now I'm going to suggest that you go away and fucking talk to each other or sit here for the 15 minutes in awkward silence, but you've been awesome. Thank you very much. [Applause].

Stunned silence always follows one of my talks. For the benefit of doubt, there was 109 slides in that one which beats the 30.

FLOOR:  So, I was thinking it was going to go in one direction, and it didn't. That's quite good. One of my thoughts was maybe it was supposed to be for fuck's sake, stop using Slack and go and talk to those people. Then I realise there's a reason I'm using Slack because often I find myself talking to someone a number of type of people, one who wants to give me every detail about the thing I asked, and then everything else about the why that may be relevant in the bigger picture, and why I don't understand it. Essentially a 90-minute discussion where I wanted a five-minute answer. There's another one which is where I will go and ask someone a question, and I have to explain why I want to know, like justify my knowledge is permitted on this particular subject. There are a lot of techniques or people where I'm interacting with where getting a Slack is a cheap way of getting an answer, even if it is a 20-paragraph thing, I can get a response. I would like to know if there are any tactics that you can think of for dealing with this scenario that might aid and ex-peed 80 these type of discussions?

DOM: First of all, you didn't communicate with me, you made an assumption we weren't talking. The reason we use Slack is because our CEO is based in in France, one developer is in London, our main office in Norfolk, in Norwich, and my home where I often work is in Cromer, so having these discussions in Slack means everyone can see what is going on, and a captured record of it. The other thing is that when we started the company, we set up one of the guiding principles, and not the big blue chip in marble on the wall that no-one believes in principles, but things that people actually fundamentally felt needed to be reflected in the company. And we regularly discuss how the company should continue along those principles, and whether they need to be changed. We are engaging people to start having discussions about how to interact with each other, how we go around having these discussions, how we go around raising the elephants. One of the things we have is about having fun. The amount of companies where you're forced to have fun, and it's bloody awful. You need to start having the conversations with people then to work out how to have the conversations with people. It's very difficult, and it takes a lot of perseverance, and a lot of bloody-mindedness, I would say, to get started. We're lucky. I'm the CTO, the CEO is behind this as well, so the two top people are forcing this through. If you're in a company where you are in the lower ranks, or the right way round, the higher ranks, you may face a loft active resistance. I don't have an answer for that. It is not easy.

FLOOR:  M-. You might have justified sort of half-answered my question there. I was going to say I sometimes feel I would be more successful in my career if only I had allowed more. Do you think there's an answer to that or am I just wrong?

DOM: You're absolutely 100 percent correct. I spent 13 years in investment banking and I saw a lot of people getting promoted because they were good at lying. It is - is that the type of organisation you want to work in? If you're in an organisation where having to lie in order to

[CoC Red Card]

I've been red-carded. This is generic. If you're in an organisation where you're having to lie, do you want to be in that organisation? So, I mean, it's one of those things. Find an organisation, where you don't have to lie. It is great, I can tell you.

FLOOR:  Hey Dom. What is the difference between a lie and a fiction we tell ourselves as a narrative about how we might want to be? [Laughter].

DOM: One makes you feel a little bit dirty inside -

FLOOR:  Which one? [Laughter]. [Applause].

DOM: I've been told I can't talk about investment banking! As with everything, there are no black and whites. There are levels of truth, so you might be making an aspirational statement about, "I hope to have this finished in a week" and you might honestly belief that you're going to have it finished in a week because it's a lie and you've opened Pandora's Box and it's gone horribly wrong. If you're having the conversations regularly, what was at one point an aspirational statement is turning into a lie, we can turn round and say, "Hey, I was wrong."

FLOOR:  So it was a mistake.

DOM: Yes.

FLOOR:  That is your definition of the difference and that's the conversation?

DOM: Yes, the important thing is having those conversations, actually speaking to each other. If things are going to be late, tell people. They're going to find out. Not delivering software is kind of obvious! People notice.

FLOOR:  D-, again. I'm reminded of Tom Lehrer whose line was if people can't communicate, the very least they can do is shut up. Thinking about getting on by lying, I think one of the lovely things I found in this industry is that I get jobs not from people I'm working for but from the people I'm working with, and those are the people that appreciate the truth, and so, yes, I think you can tell the truth, and get another job, but you just may not get it from the people you were telling the truth to. [Laughter].

DOM: One of the things I discovered at a company I worked out the reason why they were turning round saying we need this in the next four weeks is because they decided they were going to do an advertising campaign, a print run fined it, there was a whole load of logistics we didn't see. We said speak to us before you make the decisions and tell us whether it is feasible to do what you want to do in the four weeks, or perhaps we delay it a bit, or try something else. They appreciated that kind of honesty, because it went from the for fuck's sake you haven't delivered to the, "Let's do something that will actually work and meet our goals."

FLOOR:  P- here. One of a number of comments, one thing you were talking about was very much talking across boundaries rather than with peers, and I think that's an incredibly difficult things - in my experience, it is a very difficult thing for developers certainly to understand communication across levels. Which is I think something that's very difficult to learn over time. If it's not something that is natural to you, I think that's something very difficult to do. The other thing is I think, as a kind of addition to that, my experience of developers as a whole is that they usually are pretty terrible at giving kind of follows on from J-'s point, follows on from J-'s point, terrible at giving - they say they can do something in a week. They always say they can do something in a week because they generally want to be stroked like a puppy, and be told they're a good boy, and isn't it lovely, and isn't the world a great place? They want you to go yes, well done. Thank you very much. When it doesn't happen, then everything goes wrong. I think just that whole, I think the relationship is problematic at that point. I think that we kind of, as managing, I think we need to learn to treat people more like adults rather than like pets. Sometimes, it's how it comes out. It's a strange way of putting it, but I was just kind of - anyway.

DOM: Very good observation. Someone give him a biscuit! [Laughter]. One of the things I annoy my local university intensely because I keep telling them they're doing the degree wrong. I tell them I don't want computer scientists, I want Office Politics as a major and maybe Computer Science as a minor. There's that whole learning how to speak, both across to your peers, but also to your superiors. If you do have developers that need that continual sort of ego-stroke, you can change the work slightly so that they're getting rewarded differently, and one of the things I ended up doing at one company was I bought some gold stars. It's all started as a joke on Skype where I put a gold star when someone bailed us out of shit, and one day, he said when am I getting my gold star? I spent 90p on Amazon. It became a thing. The team tried to get the gold stars. I can't do it in my current place, I would get punched in the mouth. It worked there. There are case you can go around keeping your team happy and engaged. The way you go about understanding them is to fucking talk them.


FLOOR:  I noticed at one point, you mentioned you used the word "the business" and that's something I wanted to ask. Why does that distinction exists? Everyone works at a place is the business, but we always talk about the business.

DOM: 13 years in an industry I'm not allowed to discuss! I have always worked in an in-house IT department. I know can be very different if you're working where you're going out and dealing with clients, and the business becomes less of an issue, and you search from a place with the business with the client. Both have a capital T, and both have a capital B, or C. I will let you decide what follows those two letters. So, there is generally, there is that them and us distinction. You've got the idiot in the back room who don't know what they're doing causing overruns and not delivering on time, or the idiots in the businesses and clients who don't understand what we geniuses are doing. It's about bridging that gap and having the conversation so that it isn't them and us, it's just us. That's one of the founding principles of our company. We are all on the same team. We all have the same goals, and, if we don't, you will need to talk. You will spot the theme. It is about having those discussions and getting past that divide, and quite often, the people you're dealing with in the business are more senior than your developers, so you have that problem of how do I speak to the senior people? It's not something we are solving today.

FLOOR:  It's A-. I suppose I've struggled as well with working in large organisations for a reasonable amount of the past 20 years, and isn't this an unbridgeable divide, in the sense that the people, the people that you needed to talk to at the top have generally got there by exercising skills and capabilities when people talking about lying, and so on. Almost like a small version of our proportions, where essentially, we have a - politicians. We have a bunch of politicians narcissists, psychopaths, various other traits. If people are having to do this to get to the top of an organisation, which most organisational systems are geared to be that way, then how can we have a conversation? We can't negotiate with the code. We can't say, "Do it faster or quicker" with the code. So aren't we always condemned to have this - be on the wrong side of a conversation in that sort of organisation?

DOM: No. It is not a negotiation, it's a discussion. You're not having to go to the person who is your boss's boss's boss's boss, your boss does not want to look like a dickhead. If you have have a conversation with them about how your software deliveries works, certainties and uncertainties, rather than it's going to be done, oh, fuck, it is not going to be done, they can start having a discussion with their superiors about we have a confidence this will be delivered in this particular time frame, and you can start making a bubble in the larger organisation where things are getting delivered, in one case, one team worked six months early which confused the shit out of them! The most agile team I've worked in has been in a large investment banks. My favourite manager came from that bank and was heading up that team. We delivered six months early and said can we have some clients, please? Oh, fuck, no! So it is about discussions locally where you can win the battle, and then try and push it out. The alternative is to go home and cry, or join a start-up - we are hiring!

FLOOR:  I would like to start by saying I'm a huge fan much growth mindset which I was introduced to by my children. It is about the power of believing that you can improve, and that you can learn stuff. What I would like to pick up on in this discussion is that we have had this discussion about the people at the top of these lying political evil people, who have got there through nefarious means, and the developers are kind of socially incompetent people who can't talk very well, and I think like there is a real self-reinforcing belief in there that we've got to break down. When you assume that the people that you're trying to communicate with don't want to listen to you, won't live to you, can't listen to you, then you know, the communication, people stop even trying to communicate, so, stop believing those things. They're not true.

DOM: Absolutely. My biggest piece of advice is have you tried talking to these people? They might be nice.

S-: I'm really confused. This is a very confusing area for me generally because I struggle to filter and stuff, just comes straight out of my mouth all the time. It's got me in so much trouble during my career, but I'm really confused, because up there it says "fucking talk to each other" and then I've also heard "understand office politics" which to my mind, a lot of understanding that - and I don't do well with that anyway - is about knowing when to be quiet and not talk to each other, and then I've just heard what is going to get you on is lying. So now I'm utterly confused.

DOM: So am I! [Laughter].

S-: For fuck's sake, what a relief!

DOM: I've got a fantastic example from one of my staff members. We're a start-up. We've got our first client sort of proposal going off. One of my staff members turned round and said I'm really quite nervous, and my response was good. That's where you should be. The CEO is losing sleep over this, we're all panicking, if you're not panicking, there's something wrong. To be able to turn around and knit I don't know what I'm talking about, I don't understand, nervous, or confused, this is a starting point for a discussion. Where does the confusion stem from? How can we get through that confusion and make it so you're not confused? If we can't, we have to bring in outside help perhaps to sort of explore the thing even more. In terms of throw it out to had a larger audience. I don't have any answers for this. This was a facetious tweet some ten weeks and two days ago.

S-: So I have an answer that's worked for me which is just find the right people to work with. Find people to work with who, when you're a me, and I don't know if we're building the right product, I don't think we need the cute CRS system, I think we're wasting money, and everybody is going fuck, fuck,   and finding a group of people who you work with all the time, rather than being years ago when I was in IBM, and nobody that's not, you know, that's not what people look for, so, for me, the only way I can navigate this is through working with people who value me not being able to filter rather than never going to learn the skill.

DOM: We would love, you would be filling our elephants channel, it would be fantastic. I acknowledge that our company is unusual, yes.

FLOOR:  I wanted to reinforce what the lady on the end here said around most of the people that we are afraid to talk to aren't incompetent or lying. They have their own jobs to do and they're looking to us to provide answers about what we are capable of in terms of technology. If we can't have that conversation with them, we're doing ourselves a disservice. We're not actually not providing the part of - not providing the knowledge of the part of being knowledge workers.

DOM: The other part to consider is that we're not some other special person who is not clueless and incompetence and every other fucker is, or we're just not seeing things from the same perspective. Maybe we have had a conversation about that and talked to them and talked about where their perspective claims from as opposed to ours. We could bridge the gap, no knows?

FLOOR:  Where I work, we do regular one-to-ones. Not every day, once a week, and I guess my question is more like do you think - what does that affect, like, this notion of talking, have you seen positive impacts from that, or is that not enough?

DOM: I fucking hate one-to-ones. [redacted] Feedback should be regular and sort of direct. If there's a problem, don't sort of, "Can we have a meeting in ten or 15 minutes" because if you've got someone of a nervous disposition, they are shitting themselves what the hell is the meeting about? You want to do it in a compassionate way. So you don't want to be single ing "Right, you now," get them out, talk. If there are positive things, praise them in public.

FLOOR:  Some people don't like being praised in public.

DOM: But you will have a discussion with them. You will say in private, you've done very, very well. Find out about the people.

FLOOR:  One thing as maybe who had a line manager I didn't interact with that often, having a line manager that I do have that regular schedule is, there is a benefit there, able to express the problems that I have in a way because I know that every Monday morning we get to have and have a coffee together and talk about things.

DOM: If that works for you. I know I'm ignoring the elephant in the room waving over there. We can talk about this afterwards. I'm here all night, thank you very much. [Applause].