Opportunity in a gorilla suit


It’s annual review time at Microsoft. We differentiate pay between high, average, and low performers in the same roles. Thus, it’s time to calibrate those who’ve made the most of their opportunities in the past year with those in the mainstream of solid engineers and those who haven’t quite kept pace with peers.

Eric Aside

There are many people inside and outside of Microsoft who critique differentiated pay, saying it sabotages teams and teamwork. While I do agree team results should be a component of compensation, I don’t think differentiated pay is the problem (see “Beyond comparison” in chapter 9).

As a manager, this is also time for the whiners and the clueless to lament to me about their lack of opportunities to grow and demonstrate their true worth. As if managers hoard those opportunities, giving them out only in moments of weakness or pity. As if those opportunities are rare—hidden treasures available only to the select few with guile and charm. No, you fools, opportunities aren’t rare and they aren’t hidden. Opportunities are big, loud, and aromatic. They stand right in front of you in gorilla suits beating their chests all day long.

Yet many smart engineers don’t notice. Huge, noisy, smelly gorillas in their face day after day, and they don’t notice. Sometimes their manager hands them the opportunity, invites them to a meeting, or puts them on a project, and still the engineers, capable engineers, ignore it. They hand the opportunity to someone else. They give it only passing attention. They leave it sitting in a corner till it finally devolves from inattention.

Why?!? Why don’t engineers notice these opportunities? Why do they toss them aside, only to complain in July about the lack of opportunity? Towering, raucous, pungent opportunities in gorilla suits, every day, ignored. Why?

I’m blind, man

I used to think people ignored these opportunities because they were lazy or apathetic. I still believe apathy is a real problem, but I no longer consider laziness a key cause. Instead, I believe people miss opportunities due to a concept called, “inattentional blindness.” Basically, engineers don’t notice flagrant opportunities because their minds are focused elsewhere and aren’t paying attention.

There’s a telling video you might have seen that asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed amongst a group of people. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the group, faces the camera, beats its chest with gusto, and then walks out of frame. At the end of the video, viewers are asked if they saw the gorilla. Not only do people miss it (including me the first time), some people insist the gorilla must have been camouflaged. Then they watch the video again and notice the big gorilla in the middle of the frame, making a mockery of their perception.

It is all around us

Engineers don’t notice the opportunities in gorilla suits because they are focused on their day-to-day duties of counting basketball passes. They are too distracted to notice. However, perhaps you are one of those who think the opportunities are camouflaged. Allow me to remove your blinders and list the opportunities that pass you by every day:

§  Killer features—sure, you know these exist. You might even know what some of them are. But how do you get the opportunity work on them? I’ll bet they’ve got designs and code that need reviewing, usability, unit, and automated tests that need writing or reviewing, and bugs that need fixing. I’ll bet the developer working on them is out from time to time and needs a backup. But, of course, you’re too busy.

§  Customer advocacy and business intelligence—you think you know the customer and business, but you don’t. That’s the opportunity. The more direct engagement you have with customers (product support, usability, feedback data), and the better you understand the business (VP talks, business plan, business model and metrics), the better you’ll know what the killer features are and what the critical features are. But that’s someone else’s job, right?

§  Critical features—you think these dull features like setup, patching, privacy, compatibility, accessibility, and manageability are for losers. Yeah, they can be when a loser implements them. If you are knowledgeable about the customer and the business, you’ll know how to go the extra mile to turn the mundane into the marvelous. But why bother when there are cooler things to implement?

§  Task forces, committees, virtual team projects—you could safely argue that these activities boil up straight from Hades. However, they only arise when there is a problem that someone above your pay grade wants solved. Because everyone hates these dysfunctional efforts, you’ve got an opportunity to actually lead the effort toward a real solution. Or you could let someone else do it.

§  Process and tool improvements—you probably love these, but no one will listen to your ideas. Stop making improvements your idea. Stop making it about you. Start looking at other people’s processes and tools. Start thinking about how you can embrace and extend them. Start thinking about being better together as a team and a company (see “Controlling your boss for fun and profit“). Or you could just do your own thing.

§  Problems in general—you can hardly make it through five minutes without spotting one problem or another. Every problem is an opportunity. That’s not just a cute phrase, it’s true. Yeah, you’ll never fix them all, but surely there are some worth pursuing. Or you could live with the status quo.

Poor pitiful me

With all these opportunities being there day after day, I’m stunned when engineers complain about the lack of chances to grow and prove their merit. Yes, you are too busy. Yes, you’ve got enough for your own job. Yes, there are cool ideas to work on that aren’t what customers or the business thinks they need. Yes, someone else can run the meeting, write the white paper, or drive the change. Yes, doing your own thing is straightforward because no one else gets in the way. Yes, accepting the status quo avoids hassle. And yes, ignoring opportunities and being mediocre is always the easier option.

“But I don’t have time to take advantage of these opportunities,” whine the witless. Are you kidding me??!?!? As I described in my “Time enough” column (chapter 8), you never have enough time to do anything. Each day, each minute, you choose tasks from the unlimited list you have. The key is to prioritize, cutting out the interruptions and time-sucking activities that aren’t “must do” in order to focus on the activities that make a difference for our business, our customers, and in turn, your career.

To cowering clueless who say, “But there’s nothing to cut; everything I have is ‘must do’!” I say, “So you always accomplish everything you need to do? Really? You must be full of something to say that.” Look, if you aren’t accomplishing everything you must be making choices. If you are making choices you simply need to adjust those choices. That’s what life is. Successful people make adjustments to focus a portion of their time on new opportunities.

This concept of creating time by choosing your obligations goes by a familiar phrase, “under commit and over deliver.” Yet most neophytes over commit trying impress management and their peers. At the end of the day, these neophytes under deliver, lose out on opportunities, and get ranked below those who met their obligations and went beyond.

I took the one less traveled by

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it’s necessary. No one will serve you success on a platter. Not your parents. Not your boss. Nobody. You’ve got to decide to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities that come your way every day.

You don’t need to tackle all of them, just a few over the course of a year. If you are put on a panel you care about, actively participate. Become one of those people who actually contributes. I don’t care if you are busy. Make time. That doesn’t mean working longer or harder. It means dropping less important activities that mean more in the moment, but mean less in the long run.

Stop and consider the people you admire. It’s not their number of accomplishments; it’s the thoughtfulness and impact of their accomplishments. Give consideration to your work choices, be aware of opportunities, create space to take advantage of them, and you can become the person others admire.

Comments (4)

  1. asymtote says:

    There is one important piece of information in this article that unfortunately gets buried under all the whining about people whining.

    Specifically it isn’t necessary to try and follow up on every possible opportunity, rather you need to pick one or two across a year and invest some serious effort in going after them. Google calls these 20% projects but whatever the name the objective is the same, which is to achieve something beyond the scope of the job you were hired for.

    The problem when there are a lot of big loud smelly opportunities hanging around is that people get overwhelmed and do nothing in the face of such hopeless odds. However if you set a personal target of tackling 1 or 2 of these opportunities then everything becomes a lot more manageable.

    The practical reality is that this will likely require you to work additional hours. You can deny this is necessary all you like, but wishing for something doesn’t make it so.

  2. hardPunch says:

    Your comment about ICs ignoring opportunities is absurd. In fact, for every IC that ignores an opportunity, there is a manager who didn’t take the time to explain the value of that opportunity.

    I consider it a mangerila failure if the IC working under you does not live up to his potential. You failed to get his best work from him, what did you do then?

  3. Aditya says:

    The manager might not be even aware of the every opportunity the IC is getting.. for the manager is imp that he has to make best use of the team for the project plus help the employees to realized their potential.. I believe the post talks more about how the IC has to concentrate on the challenges, whicg are often not noted by him or his manager, and how it makes a difference by Just being watchful :-)

  4. Kris Allen says:

    Where can I find a copy of the video with the man in the gorilla suit in the middle of the group passing the ball?  I saw it once and was amazed; my sister would like to use it for some training.