Guest

15

"None of us were actually naturally born leaders. I think a lot of us had to put a lot of work into this. There's work, homework, assignments, and screw-ups to be done. But it's really rewarding."

In this episode

In episode #15, Jean-Michel Lemieux invites us to explore what and who it takes to lean into leadership. We also discuss the importance of knowing when to lead and when to follow, the extraversion myth, and what it means to treat your team as a “connected network of brains”. 

Jean-Michel is the Chief Technology Officer at Shopify and has an impressive career history. Prior to joining Shopify, he served as the Vice President of Engineering at Atlassian and led a team of over 150 engineers in his role as Chief Architect for Rational Team Concert, a division of IBM. 

Jean-Michel is also the creator of Shopify’s exclusive leadership handbook.

Tune in to hear all about Jean-Michel’s leadership journey and the lessons learned along the way!

. . .

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.


2:54

What does a memorable leader look like?

5:34

The importance of context and being present for your team.

6:43

Jean Michel’s exclusive leadership handbook for Shopify.

7:38

Being a manager is a career change, not a promotion.

8:37

Understanding how humans work so we can work with them.

10:37

Breaking down the extraversion myth when it comes to leadership.

11:12

The three habits that leaders possess.

13:37

Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

15:10

The 25,50,25 leadership model.

17:46

Building a connected network of brains.

21:59

Having hard conversations to have great impact.

24:49

Trust with a capital T.

28:39

Demystifying the word strategy.

34:10

Providing feedback and rewarding our teams, creatively.

38:56

Jean-Michel’s engineering term, layerinitis.


Resources


Episode Transcript

Jean-Michel  0:00  

How do humans work? I did not take enough human sciences. I did not take enough biology about how the brain works. I was terribly equipped for leadership. As a society, it’s not like we train people to be good leaders.

Aydin 0:14  

Welcome to the SuperManagers podcast where we interview leaders from all walks of life, to tease out the habits, thought patterns, learnings and experiences that helped them be extraordinary at the fine craft of management. Our goal is to bring you the lessons and the insights so that you don’t have to learn through your own mistakes. But so that you can shortcut your way to being a great leader. This podcast is brought to you by fellow, a software platform that helps managers and their teams work better together. Check it out at www.fellow.app

Aydin 0:50  

Hey, fellow managers and leaders. I’m Aydin, and I’m the CEO of fellow dot app. Today, I’m excited to bring to you a conversation I had with Jean-Michel Lemieux, the Chief Technology Officer at Shopify. Jean- Michel  has an impressive career history. Prior to joining Shopify, he served as the VP of Engineering at Atlassian, where he helped grow the engineering and design team from 100 people to over 500 employees in less than four years. And prior to that he was Chief Architect for the Rational Team Concert, a division at IBM. In this episode, you’re going to get an exclusive look at a handbook that Jean-Michel wrote for leaders at Shopify. We talked about so many different concepts, including the extroversion myth, the importance of knowing when to lead and when to follow and a playbook of how to do that, and what it means to treat your team as a connected network of brains. I was honored to have this conversation with Jean-Michel and I’m sure that you’re going to feel inspired after listening to all this Leadership advice. And you’re gonna get a bunch of tactical inputs that you can apply directly to your teams. So without further ado, here’s Jean-Michel Lemieux on episode 15, of the super managers podcast. 

Aydin 2:14  

Jean-Michel, welcome to the show. 

Jean Michel 2:16  

Thanks for having me. 

Aydin 2:17  

I’m very excited to chat about this handbook that you wrote that I guess is, is obviously you’re distributing to managers to technical leaders at Shopify, and we’ll spend a lot of time talking about that. But you know, given you know, your background, you were Chief Architect at IBM, your VP engineering at Atlassian. And now obviously, CTO at Shopify. Even before going into that stuff I have to rewind and it sounds like you’ve been a leader for a long time. I’m curious, like, in your opinion in your history, who’s been the most memorable leader or boss that you’ve come across? And and why did you think that way? 

Jean-Michel  2:54  

My first memorable boss was my first boss who left a month after I started, and I inherited his codebase. And, you know, I think the important lesson early on was people spend way more time reading your code than you spend writing it. So I think that that affected me like, Listen, I was right at a university, I did my co op at that company, and my boss left. And you know, I inherited his entire codebase. It was a large distributed system that did fraud detection, just outside telephone networks. And it was I was like, man, okay, this code base is not something that I can like, he did not build this for someone else to understand. And I think that’s stuck with me right now, maybe that’s not a leadership thing. But it is around communication. 

You know, like as, as engineers as we build things, a lot of what you build is collaborative, and other people have like, and especially with code, people who read your code more than you spend time writing it and like, how do you make it so that people can participate in what you’ve built? Right? And so that really hit me because as engineers, we spent a lot of our time building things and I think that that also helped me because I did a lot of open source work, I spent about, you know, eight years full time doing open source. And when you’re building communities around software and around what you’re building, a lot of it’s not actually in the writing of the code, right? It’s in a lot of other activities, right? 

Whether it be how you engage with the community, how you, you know, take feedback from the community, and then people are going to be  reading your code a lot more. So I think that was really memorable. Just from I think from an engineering leadership perspective, like as you lead engineering teams, it’s something I think you have to be on the lookout for, and obviously my first boss just dropped it on my desk and had a bit of a hard lesson. But another really good boss after that actually forgot what his name was when I was prepping for this. I was like, man, it started with the J maybe I’ll call him Jason. Okay, maybe I’ll make up a name. Jason. You know, when you’re young, you’re starting your career yet you have a lot of questions. And I have a visual memory of Jason always turning around stopping what he was doing. When I entered his office, he always had time for me. And it was such it like it was such a visceral moment, like, you know, over time he was obviously trying to make that it’s really important that you build a culture where we’re like, they want to come to you. Right, and you make time for doing that. So maybe those are the two most like pretty impactful, early early managers that I had. 

Aydin  5:52  

Yeah. And that makes a lot of sense. I mean, even in the first case where you were talking about writing code that other people can read. I think, you know,it translates to other areas of the company as well, like just this concept of, yeah, you know, we can make sure a project gets done. But if we don’t get it done in a sustainable way that when someone else takes it over, they’re going to be able to continue to run with it. I mean, I think that’s a very astute sort of observation, making sure to give people the presence and not I guess this doesn’t apply because we’re not in offices anymore, but not like, continuing to type out that email while you’re having conversation on the phone at the same time probably makes a big deal. I’d love to basically spend a bunch of time going through, you know, this Handbook, we’re going to talk a lot about the handbook. And I’m curious, do you intend to ever publish this for public consumption as well, for those that are interested? 

Jean-Michel  6:43  

I mean, it started as like the JML Survival Guide for being a manager and then, you know, it turned into, you know, let’s make sure I can, I can share some of the learnings and I’d love to, you know, you know, inspiring by, you know, what, rands did by you know, obviously read managing humans and you know, trying to read as many books as possible.I’d like to I, I always worry that it’s, it’s a bit, it’s my experience and I, you know, I’m always it’s kind of not done yet. So I think if it’s done it might be open to publishing it. I got a lot of good feedback that has been valuable. So anyway, so I guess I got distracted with running Shopify at this point. But you’re actually the first person outside of stuff. That’s kind of maybe a bit of it subconsciously, a bit of imposter syndrome of like, what am I to do, but talking about leadership kind of thing? 

Aydin  7:27  

Yeah. I mean, I feel very privileged. So let’s get into it. Let’s talk about being a manager. Everybody thinks about it as a promotion, but you say that it’s not quite a promotion. People thinks it’s a promotion. 

Jean-Michel 7:40

I think it’s a career change. There’s actually an image at the top of the handbook. I think it’s someone typing into Quora, or the internet going, how can I be a technical manager of teams or something? It was like, What the hell like WTF, What am I doing? And I think the emotional response I wanted to get out of using the word career change, I think that’s the way you’ve got to lean into the new job. Think about this in like a context of how we all learn, like we became into the roles that we had right in tech companies is, you know, you go to school, you learn all the science you’re supposed to learn, maybe you’re lucky and took a sociology class, which I did not take. You go to university, and you’re so focused on building things, learning how to program, learning how to write well, you’re doing assignments, like, I had no classes on how humans work, right? 

Like, I did not take enough human sciences. I did not take enough biology but how the brain works. Like, I was terribly equipped for leadership, and mostly just be like, again, I wasn’t taking my fault. Like as a society, it’s not like we we train people to be good leaders, right? We train people to know math and study and memorize. But like, I would actually throw out most of the education curriculum and actually change things. I think there’s a lot about how humans work that I was duly equip. So for me to create change, like listen, you’re  kind of leading humans now. And humans are this weird thing. 

Like we’re this unfinished, biological thing that you gotta understand how humans work. And I know that most of you’ve not studied it, because our education system does not force us to study humans, when we probably should. During my own journey is is, you know, as I stumbled, you know, screwed up, a lot of it was by my lack of kind of spending time studying and really like taking my own like having to build my own curriculum of how people how humans work and how we communicate languages, cultures, how to get shit done. Right. And that’s what I was trying to evoke there. And I mean, at some point, maybe people will read this, but that was the, how I wanted to start it. So people get into the mindset right and say cool, I’ve got to relearn and learn new stuff. And it’s not that you know, people were bad, like people are inherently bad at it. It’s just no one’s taught everyone  any of this. 

Aydin  9:46  

Yeah,

Jean Michel  9:46  

And some people were by osmosis, were really good at picking it up. If you look at how much time we spend teaching people about other things like, this is like 0.1% of what we teach people right before we end up in these jobs. 

Aydin 9:57  

Yeah, totally. And it’s like even for your own skills, if you’re an engineer or your finance person, I mean, you’re continuously working on keeping up to date and learning. And it’s the same thing with the management side of things. There’s this thing that you talk about. And I think it’s really interesting because I feel like even I had this belief system for a while, which is that, you know, great managers are great leaders. They’re extroverted like that. That’s what they are. And like, if I’m going to be a great leader, then I need to turn myself into an extrovert. But you basically, I mean, you don’t agree with that. 

Jean Michel 10:37  

No, and I think maybe that was a second part of the handbook where I was like, one of the biggest, like mental blocks I had about maybe leaning into leadership was I opted out of it, because one is I’m a bit more of an introvert. You know, I, you know, enjoy hanging out at home and reading or doing other things. I’m like, Hey, listen, I’ll leave leadership to the extroverts because they’ve got to spend all their time with people. Maybe it was the Peter Drucker book that I read that I was like why at some point I did have really good managers right? Who were a bit more. You know, I’ve seen a variety of styles but the Peter Drucker book was was fascinating around him actually studying leaders and going Listen, like if there’s one quality trait that’s similar between all these people who’ve had really important leadership jobs, not just, you know, nothing to do with technology, but prime ministers and leaders of like companies have had like innovated crazily is the actual habits they have, not what their personality type is. 

That got me into like, what habits do people have who’ve been who’ve been making an impact on this planet that we have? He talks about three things and when he talks about those three things, I’m like, Oh, I like doing those things. Right. 

I think I’ll just by memory, right, the three I think he has a list of like 11 like habits but they can be collapsed into three things right? Like being really ruthless about getting knowledge you need to make decisions about,  getting context like super context hungry, acting on that and working together and like building a great team that does it. I’m like, so when I’m like, Oh my god, you just described exactly what I like doing, you know, so that  took out the personality type and turned it into habits. And I thought that was a really good mindset that allowed me to really lean into leadership, I think and go cool, I can do this. Cool. It’s not you know, I, I guess I went from opting out to opting in, based on, you know, some of some of that feedback, which, maybe people shining a light on something that’s always been there, but I hadn’t seen it as crisp. And also I know there’s a really good book, I forget what it’s called a bad memory for book names, but around introverts right around. Like there’s a, you know, 50% of the world, I guess, if you draw a line on personality types, like people are on that side, and I’ve learned how to fake things as well, right? And actually in that book, there’s a lot of great actors who are more introverted, because you have to practice a bit more. So I do have to put a lot more effort into it. And it’s I’ve used that as a bit of a catalyst for things. It took some people in some books to give me a good kick in the ass to wake up and realize that it could be a positive thing, and let’s not opt out of leadership because of that. 

Aydin  13:03  

Yeah, that’s awesome. I think that’s super inspirational for all the introverts out there. It’s amazing. So I think the other thing that I find really interesting is that obviously, I think when society we all start working and start forming companies, it was very much a, I would say, we probably lean towards very top down, oriented, management’s. And now there’s kind of like this movement on servant leadership, which is it’s all about serving your team. And what I like that you you talk about is that it’s actually a little bit of both and you sometimes lead and you sometimes follow, you just have to figure out what to do and when. I’d love for you to just maybe help us explore, you know, how much time should we spend leading and following and when should we do either art? 

Jean-Michel  13:52  

I think you explained it really well. I think the challenge I have with a lot of, I’d say manager self help books or one line in inspirational tidbits about being a leader is there’s a lot more nuance, you know, like servant leadership, I get a bit of Heebie Jeebies when I asked someone go Hey, what’s your management style? Like I’m a servant leader, I’m like, Okay, so that’s 20% of your time. What do you do the rest of the time? You know, like it’s I think as leaders as you progress you have to develop multiple tools for different situations and I think the the leaders I’ve seen I’m not gonna use the word fail because that’s that’s pretty dry but people have been the least effective you know, because I think leadership, your job is to is to probably get more out of the situation you’re in, your team etc, by bringing context and all that. Those who have not been able to do that are those I find, they’ve had a mono tool, they’ve had one tool and they use it all the time for the exact same reason. 

Right so it’s like whether it’s top down,  I’m top down all the time. Cool. I’m a servant leader all the time. I’ve been trying to always develop and house like, what’s a good mix? And I think that’s that’s what I was getting at around a bit of a formula that I came up with actually didn’t come up actually Jay Parikh, who ran engineering at Facebook, I stole it from him. I don’t know where he got it from. But he was saying, I was like, where do you spend your time? And he’s like, Listen, I, with every one of the people who reports to me, here’s what I tell him. I said, 25% of my time, I’m your boss, and I’ll keep you accountable for big goals, I’ll push you and stretch, you make you a bit uncomfortable. That’s, that’s my job, right? I’m gonna bring some context to that. So that’s 25% of my time. 50% of my time, I’m your peer. And as a peer, what do you do as peers is,  I need you to brainstorm with me, like I need you when we have conversations, to bring challenges and questions. I want to know what kind of decisions you’re trying to make. And I’m going to go into brainstorming mode with you. And it would be terribly ineffective if you cannot tap into our collective experience. And we can have those chats and then 25% of the time, I work for you. And in our one on ones, I expect you to bring homework assignments that I have to do on your behalf. Right, so that’s basically a 25 5025 model. 

And what’s super interesting about that kind of mindset is, is for each one of those leadership tools, you’ve got to kind of work out with the team that you work with, like, how do you like, how do you actually do that? Because I think these are habits that aren’t well known. I think I have a lot of leaders who’ve come to work for me where, again, a myth is that leadership comes in and takes all your problems away and goes away. And if you hear from them, that’s bad. You know, so that actually, that’s and that’s basically like, a lethal error, I think in leadership is, you know, like, if I hire a VP or a Director, that that that they think their job is to make sure that I don’t have any problems, and then I don’t have to think about anymore, but actually, that’s not true. And so that 50% of how we work as a peer is really important. I think we don’t know what that looks like. And what I tell people is like, Listen, I’d love to have, you know, a slack and email once a week with like, what problems you’re trying to solve in your area and I can give you I’ll, I’ll spend half an hour and I’ll give you some feedback, right I’ll I’ll say, sometimes they’ll say I have no frigen idea. Sometimes I’m going to ask them questions about why that is the most important thing and sometimes I’ve worked in that area, and I’ll go cool. 

Here are some experiences I have with that. But I think if you don’t have that dialogue going, and openness, both ways of sharing that, that, that I find that relationships go south and it’s really hard to build trust with people. For me, I build trust by by understanding how people think about problems. But if they never let me in, and it seems actually like he’s my boss,  I just want to make sure he doesn’t shows up, or if he Slacks me, something’s wrong and that’s bad but I wanted to encourage a bit more of a, a collaborative kind of relationship with the people that work with me. So again, the the 25 5025 is that nuance leadership, bring a bunch of tools to the table, and then train your team on how do they engage you to pull you into helping out right and the companies we’re building for the future are ones that are I hate the word agile, but they’re like we’re building a connected network of brains. Not a tree of brains. You know, I’m trying to tap that. 

Aydin  17:52  

Yeah, actually really like that the connected network of brains and not a tree of brains. I like that a lot. And I like what you send me. It’s never just black or white, you know, one model or the other? I yeah, I mean it’s all from first principles. That’s excellent. 

Jean-Michel 18:05  

Yeah. But but it’s, it’s amazing how many people get stuck up on this. I can’t like no, this is not taught anywhere. You know,  probably the simplest thing anyone could do as a manager to be a better manager is look at your month and if you if you almost separate the like every time you had an interaction with your team, were you acting as a boss, as a peer or as their employee, and then how did you go about doing that? Right? How did you solicit feedback? How did you give very direct feedback, because you know what people are shipping bosses to going, by the way I needed to do this right now. 

Trust me, it has to be done by Friday, like people are super uncomfortable doing that, right. And then employees are super uncomfortable getting their bosses involved and maybe soliciting feedback, you know, and so I think it’s a really good exercise to look at your month and go, what kind of tools did I use as a manager over this month, and make sure that as you said, right, you’ve got a good diversity in your portfolio tools you use.And I think if you only use one then probably look in the mirror. And you’re probably not not getting the most out of your team and your relationships. 

Aydin  19:07  

I like where you took that because I think it’s a perfect segway, something I was going to ask you about. I mean, you mentioned that a lot of people are not comfortable saying that, trust me, I need this by Friday, just do it. And maybe a lot of that is this discomfort of or this notion of potentially being disliked. And for a lot of people. I mean, for humans in general. I mean, we’re mostly not wired not to be liked. Evolution has taught us that it’s good for people to like you, but you think that being liked all the time can be really bad. So I’d love for you to dig into that. 

Jean-Michel  19:39  

Yeah, yeah. I mean, you’re right. I think biology forced us yeah, forced us to make sure we don’t get killed and sometimes being nice is a really good strategy for not being killed. There’s a quote I read a long time ago around just saying that the success and value you’re going to get out of life is directly attributed to the amount of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have during your lifetime. With your spouse, your kids, with your friends, etc. With your parents. I think that really stuck. 

But I think what we’re trying to get about not being liked or having a couple of uncomfortable conversations, is just one is avoiding politics, right, like being pretty clear that your team understands what you value. And the other thing is, there’s a lot of things we have to get better at. And if we tiptoe around that, and if we don’t,  build a culture where we think that like every individual on my team is kind of in control of their emotions, and that you have to take responsibility for that. And what we have to do is we’ve got to, again, we’ve got to get down to first principles, and sometimes it’s going to hurt, right? It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be direct, we’re going to do it in different ways. 

And sometimes you know what, I’m gonna, I’m going to screw up on communicating and I expect you to read between the lines and understand and I’m not a perfect human as well. Right. So that’s, that’s where it’s like, I think a team’s ability to have those crucial conversations is really important. I think if you if you try to be liked, you’re going to do things like you know, just a super simple example is like, you know, you’ve got to pick one or two people on your team to give that project to. And you pick a person A right and to her you go, Hey, listen, I picked you, you’re the best person for the job. 

For these reasons here we have to get done and in for Person B, you go to him and you go, listen, I really would have liked it if you you had this but listen, you know, circumstances set up, my boss kind of forced my hand and you know, I gave it to that other person and she’s gonna get it. And you’re like, that’s really shitty. Like that’s politics, that’s not being honest. Right and and I think a manager in that situation was like, I want that person to know I’m on their side right but  a way better chat would have been to listen to Person A she’s, you know, she has a really good experience doing this. This is a really critical project. I’ve given it to her you know, for these reasons. I’d really love you to support her in doing this job. 

You know, like that. That’s all the chat could be right that don’t, don’t don’t leave this saying that your job is not to or the Your job is to control everyone’s feelings I think it’s to get, it’s to make an impact. It’s to make sure people see their blind spots, and that people get raw good, like high value information, that thing so they can grow. It’s hard for us as you said it, I don’t I don’t think we’re wired for that. But I think you can practice it. And I think, like for me, one thing is I do actually, when I have these conversations actually writing down like observable things, concrete feedback, like helps me because I find improvising is actually really hard. Because again, we’re not wired for it. So I think having these conversations requires a bit of work. But I think going around as a manager, and I guess, trying to figure what you want to be liked for 

Aydin 22:37  

Yeah.

Jean Michel  22:37  

Because I think you can be liked for being kind of a no BS, authentic person. You don’t want to be liked for being someone who fakes it. 

Aydin  22:44  

Yeah, I love the example that you gave. I feel like that’s just something that we’re naturally wired to do. One of the interesting things about that is it might be more painful in the short term, because you know, you have to do more work. 

Maybe you have to prepare for that conversation and so on. But in the long term, you know, I think people can read through you just trying to placate them. And in the long term, it’s probably much more beneficial and, you know, building that connected network of brains as you talked.

Jean Michel 23:14  

I think you have to practice, like, the more you do it, the better like I had someone a couple of years ago start, right and especially, like managing more senior people. They come in with, you know, we all do, right, like, like, you know, I’ve had to be managed, I’ve had some rough feedback that I did not, like, I did not catch it until it was given raw enough that I was like, holy, holy crap, okay. I did not see that. 

So for example, you know, a senior person comes into, director level, or maybe VP level, and they’re going about their things and you know, I get signals from the team, right? And whenever I have one on one, you know, she’s going yeah, it’s good. Everything’s good, the teams operating. And then at some point, I’m like, I was trying to, you know, feed her signals about something and then I had to say, listen, the team does not trust you. And I stopped. I kept the pause. Because I was like, that’s a bad like, not having trust in your team is like a bad thing. And I was like, why don’t you ever tell her that because that’s exactly the root cause of all this, I’m like, you see, they have trust with a small t. And I think you need a capital T. And they don’t, and you do not have it. 

So stop everything else you’re doing. You need that trust. I could tell that one is I, I was afraid of saying that right off the bat. Cuz I think people like they’re hurt when they’re saying trust, like, that’s actually achievement. Like, that’s hurt, right? Trust is a big thing, you know, but I was like, I really had to put my finger on it. And I think that was a bit of a failing, it took me two months, to really just say the most obvious thing, which is like, stop everything. You don’t have trust, we have to work on that thing. And I could tell right in her face that that was she was like, holy shit. 

And then and then I I literally, I outlined five examples. I was like this, like if you had capital T trust, these things would have happened and you’d be able to get this thing done right. So here’s, let’s let’s work on that. I try to do that with feedback now is trying like I find it’s my personal responsibility. Now to hone in on the one or two things that that people don’t see that know the people on your team probably won’t tell them that it’s it’s my job as a leader to maybe that’s like maybe your ultimate job is to hone in on that and really deliver it where it has impact you can help people grow. 

Aydin  25:15  

Yeah, it’s such a great example. You know, one of the things that I have to ask you about you obviously work at a company that, you know, obviously started from a group of people and now is like many, many thousands of people. 

And what, you know, at a high level, the company, I mean, continues to innovate, and you continue to produce great products. And one of the questions that I’ve had to ask you about is and, you know, here’s what you said in the handbook, which is you can’t delegate the process of innovation and quality. So I wanted to understand from you for managers and leaders out there, like how do you like what level of involvement is required? And how do you make sure that your teams can kind of control both innovation and quality. 

Aydin 26:02  

That’s a really good question. Do we have another two hours to talk about this? I think this is correct. I mean, you’re right. This is actually a big part of the little handbook that I wrote. There’s also a bit of a myth around leadership that again, because we’re not taught this is that like, your job is to be hands off manager, right? Your job is to build a team. And that team is just going to go off and do things. 

Yeah, we hear it often, hire smart people and get out of the way, you’re very rarely in that perfect equilibrium space. Now, just think about growing a company, you’re hiring new people, right? You’re putting them in roles where they might not have context, you got people who are new roles that maybe haven’t seen that kind of like you’re in this constant state of, like chaos of orgs, right of people with different experiences context, you’ve got to bring that energy and like, make sure they’re, we’re going to build something that’s 2% better than maybe we would have if we wouldn’t have, you know, magically, maybe spent a bit more energy on things and I think this comes back to the word strategy. You know, like if you think about it, you hire leaders who are like, cool. 

My job is to be the strategist. And I often ask people, I’m like, Well, what do you think strategy is? Imagine that’s your title? Like, what do you do? You know, some people will say, well, like my job is to point the team in the right direction, and pick what direction they’re going to go in and get out of the way. And some other people have a much more nuanced version, what strategy is. Now if you look at the actual definition of strategy, like it actually comes from a Greek word that was I’ll massacre but strategic most about and that’s what you call generals in the army. And to win a battle, you realize that as a general, as someone doing strategy, you have to know a lot more about how things are going to unroll in the battlefield, right? You need to view the terrain, you have to understand where your troops are like you have to understand where they’ll be positioned. 

You have to understand if there’s water through bridges, what the topography is like, and then you’ve got to start and you’ve got to adjust, right, you’re going to get everything wrong, like your strategy at the beginning can be wrong. And if you look at the handbook for really great generals is that they both had an in depth view that strategy was multi layered. Right? Like you have to understand a lot of things about strategy. And then when you start playing, you have to adjust because things are going to change. 

And I think what I said about making sure a company innovates, as leaders in the company, have to build a like strategy has to be detailed, right? It has to be multi layered, right? It has to be going, you know, for Shopify, like we’re gonna build, like online store renders that are going to use this kind of technology, we’re gonna, you know, I think we need this kind of team on it, and we’re going to start building it, we’re going to adapt, and I take personal responsibility for helping the team make some of those decisions, because some of those are going to be hard some of them I have to make. So I think what we’ve tried to build from a conference like over Shopify is demystify the word strategy that our jobs, not to do it in a like a very simplistic view. But then we have to build it a bit more like I think it was intended in the way the Greeks actually defined strategy is it’s multi layered, and it’s adaptive. 

And so imagine that you’re a leader of a problem at an engineering company, what does it mean for you to implement a multi layered and adaptive strategy is you have to understand things, right? Like if like, I still look at code as the CTO shop, I still look at code. I think code reflects some part of how we’re writing Shopify. And I’ve got to look at the UX. I’ve gotten to understand new technologies, I’ve got to meet with teams to understand what kind of decisions are making, and I’ve got to, you know, help them point in a good direction. And then I gotta check in once in a while, you know, like, that’s, and I think we’ve we’ve built that as a bit of a cultural thing at Shopify, that’s been important, because at the end of the day, I think the environments we’re working in are super complex that we all kind of have to get involved somehow and, and over time, like I obviously there’s teams that I’ve built a Shopify that I, I check in on and not that regularly. 

But that’s because we did, we spent a lot of time and strategy, we spent a lot of time building trust, we’ve aligned on I guess, principles about how we want to work and I’ve trust that they can do strategy properly in the more nuanced way of doing strategy. And I think when people show me that they can do that is when you know, I can start onboarding a new team. Maybe a good exercise for listeners is, like, What? What do you think the word strategy means is as leaders, it’s such a big word like you becoming comfortable with what it means. And I encourage people to think of it as more multi layered and adaptive. And then like, how do you do that? So I think that that’s something that we’ve embraced. Toby has been, you know, pretty adamant that that’s, that’s important to him. 

And it’s, you talk about really good bosses. I had a really good boss in the past where I thought he was micromanaging me. But actually, what he was doing is having a really good strategy implementation, which he sent me every week, he’d demo and use my piece of software every week, and send me a list of what he liked and what he thought need improvement. And at the time, I was like, like, every week, right? He was like, I tried your stuff out. And I’m like, I’m trying to figure out like, Why do you call that bad? or Why did you know I was like, get out of my hair. 

But what he was doing, he was really just, you know, he knew that we’re gonna build in a certain direction, but he wanted to check in and he wanted to pair with this on me and he wanted to understand what my thinking was like, and he wanted to figure out if he should, like if, if he’s pointing us in the right direction. Are things going away? He thinks he’s going. I think that was like such a valuable thing. Right, those check ins on the strategy, people can see that as being micromanaged. But I think that’s actually a really good strategist knows how to do check ins, knows the level of strategy that’s needed. And I think that that requires a pretty deep involvement in in how the company is running. 

Aydin  31:21  

Yeah.

Jean Michel 31:21  

If there’s a bit of a secret sauce that maybe makes Shopify like 1.5%, maybe a bit better than then we could have, I think that’s, that’s a big part of it. 

Aydin  31:29  

Yeah. You know, I think you you basically answered this question that, you know, at first, we talked about in the beginning, we were talking about the career change, and it’s not a promotion, and you have to relearn, but you also answer this other question of, you know, I know that for a lot of engineers that become managers, it’s, you know, should I keep coding and obviously, that translates to other things. So if I’m a business development person, and now I lead the team of business development, folks, do I still participate in, you know, making deals happen? And then it sounds like you’re saying you can’t. I mean, you say you can’t coast into just not knowing what’s going on anymore. And so it is nuanced. 

Jean Michel 32:10  

For every craft i think it’s it’s it’s like that I think if your job is if your company’s job and your mission is to build really great things, right? If it’s build business development, like do really great deals, or build great products, great technology, as a leader, your job is to, like, how do you know that that’s actually what’s coming out of the team? And then how do you get involved in like understanding both quality checks and understanding? Like, you know, knowing who to give high fives to as well, right?I think it’s important. So I do like I actually personally still code I code for two reasons. 

One is to stay up to date with technologies, which is kind of your job as an engineer is like, what’s going on in the world? And let’s keep learning, and two is I do some quality checks on our code base. Like I want to know are engineers making good decisions or not? And I it’s funny, I don’t like obviously I’m like, definitely a  very rusted one, but I can still, like I’ve been reading code for a long time and I can still ask good pointed questions. And I think that’s a valuable thing to do. Right. I think that applies to every discipline. I think what’s great about it is I think it builds a culture where, you know, we’ve got a culture of quality. I think bosses care about quality. 

Aydin  33:16  

Yeah.

Jean-Michel  33:17  

The quality of the process, quality of the outcomes, quality of the code, the quality of the development environments, then your team’s going to care about quality. And I think, anyway, we built Shopify a lot around the quality of the product. And if I don’t, like walk the talk, I think we’re going to lose that as a culture. 

Aydin  33:32  

Yeah, that makes sense. So, you know, one thing that you you just hinted at was this this concept of giving high fives when it’s to me you specifically talked about I don’t know if it’s pronounced matter but MTTR, and there’s meantime to resolve but also meantime to reward you kind of mentioned that obviously rewarding people when you see good things that you’d like to see is something that you should do as a leader. You also hint at being a lot more creative in you know, rewarding people and giving them positive feedback. I’d love to hear like some of the things that you’ve done in the past that you thought were creative ways of rewarding people on your team? 

Jean-Michel 34:10  

That’s a good question. I think maybe just going back to the MTTR comment you mentioned, I think that there was a section in the handbook that was called MTTR. And it was, as you can tell, very much targeted towards engineers, which is, you know, we all talk about grid systems, you know, it’s not that they that they fail, but that when they do fail, that they, you can fix them quickly, right, that we can move forward. And I think teams who say that, like my job is to have zero problems will build an extremely inflexible system, and I was saying, hey, let’s adapt that word to humans. And ask, what does MTTR mean about human relationships? And I think it was acknowledging that we will eff up, you know, like, we will like I will F up, you will F up but if we fix it quickly, that’s cool. Right? 

So let’s, let’s not measure our success as a team, as a manager, as a leader, etc, on the number of feathers, but let’s measure them on how do you resolve them? Right? So both on the giving rewards out, right, when something happens, how quickly can you high five that and then on the other side is, when someone’s mad at me or someone like, like, I’ll rarely phone you at home, but if I feel like I’ve messed up, I will because like, that’s my, I want to minimize mttr right? It’s kind of like, don’t go to bed angry with your spouse, like the same thing at work. And I think it’s, it’s important. I think that’s a bit of a mindset shift. I think if you’re trying to avoid everything, then you’re not gonna have crucial conversations, two is, I think you’re gonna let things fester. Right, so just like tackle it upfront, or try and prevent it from happening. So I think that’s important, rewarding people,  what are some of the best ones? I’m not like it’s, I like to give like a lot of high fives all the time. You know, like I I, I’m not a big physical, let’s give a bunch of t shirts to people, etc. But I think like maybe maybe one of the favorite rewards we’ve done at Shopify recently is about two years ago, I created a Slack channel called performance wins.

And we had a really big push around just making sure that fight doesn’t get slower as we get bigger. And there was so much performance work something where, you know, you could spend a week on something and find a, you know, this code path that like accounted for 30% of your flow, but like, that would not show up on a roadmap, you know, there’s no, they wouldn’t show up in our marketing page. And one of the things I wanted to do is how do I give? How do we both have visibility and give like, like MTTR, real time feedback to like, whether it be the intern or the principal engineer who’s, whose performance wins, right? who’ve done stuff that’s super visible. 

So that Slack channel, we went in, created it and turned off the removing history, so we have a complete history of the last two years. And I personally, like that’s the Slack channel I’m in the most, and I literally comment on each one. And it’s such a really great thing, I think, you know, like giving praise for people, like people want to know why they’re getting praise, right, like praise in public, you know, and they get some really great way of praising and public people can see that we value that in our team, right? It’s almost like in some ways I want to praise people in public so that we can realize that it’s, it’s valuable time to be spent. Right. 

Like you get promoted at Shopify, for working on things like that. And it’s been, it’s been a super low friction and really creative way, like I think some people were like, man, I need to I mean, my own JML performance one channel, because it’s such a, you know, it’s such a focus channel, its literally just about people sharing their learnings on on cool performance hacks, there’s no banter. It’s literally just graphs. And then there’s links to PRs and there’s people asking questions going, Wow, I didn’t know you can do that with My Sequal dumps. I didn’t know you. And that was such like, it’s such a cool community building. And it was great. It was, it wasn’t just me giving high fives anymore. 

Aydin 37:40  

Right? It took on a life of its own.

Jean-Michel  37:42  

There was substantial, right? They weren’t high five for the effort you put in or high five because I’ve got to do some employee of the month. There’s literally high fives on like this impact that you’re creating. And people are so proud about showing off. What it is that they’re done. So maybe that’s the performance when the channel was maybe the most creative.

Aydin  38:00  

That’s awesome. I love that. I know we’re running up against time and but there is a question that I needed to ask you because I was very curious about it myself, which is in there, you kind of referenced this thing saying that you want to avoid the no problem syndrome. What is the no problem syndrome?

Jean-Michel  38:17  

So that’s, that’s super interesting. I would probably rephrase that now if I had to rewrite that section, but I almost call it layerinitis, layerinitis. It’s not in the medical dictionary, but it’s an engineering thing. And I think part of your job at leadership is when you’re building things, you got engineering teams, who are kind of evolving a system right, like it’s not like you write software from scratch, you’re always evolving something. 

And I need leaders who again, are really good at strategy because a lot of the decisions about that are about busting layers, right?And going Actually, you know what that piece of code should go there and not there. Or you know what we need ,I know that I know, we don’t want to ship the charge I want to put code in the right places and I find that layerinitis is when when teams are Feel like code goes into the structure of where their teams are at. And that’s, that’s the scope where they solve problems, right?

 So that not my problem is like, well, that’s someone else’s problem behind that other API, or that’s the database’s problem, or that’s the UI part. Like, I want to know, problem teams, like full stack, take ownership of like full accountability, because again, like our software evolves, way more than then we’re writing new things. And there’s walls that were put up that should be torn down. And unless team sees those, and I think the leadership team, like the lead engineers, the managers actually ask those questions and go listen, like, and has a cue also, like when the team goes, actually that’s like, oh, that performance problems happening in either area, like, you know, I told them about it, they didn’t fix it. I’m like, No, that’s if those performance problems are affecting you. That’s your problem now, right? Or, oh, that’s a UI team. I don’t have a designer to do that. Cool. Like, why do you think we don’t have a good UI kit that we need a designer to create a forum you know, like, there’s all these cues that your team can give you about having layerinitis and and which is essentially like having their team fit in their own little box and they feel like they can’t exit it right from a Where’s your code go? 

How do you influence other teams? And how do you take accountability for problems? Because the reality is problems are gonna be thrown at you at your company. Like, don’t fit into one file. 

Aydin 40:14  

Yeah.

Jean-Michel  40:14  

So it’s like how and and as a leader, like you need full accountability for solving a problem. I think that’s that mindset. I think it’s really important to actually build great systems. And I think build great teams, you need that as a driving principle.

Aydin  40:27  

Yeah, I think from a military standpoint it is a concept of like Extreme Ownership. So I think I think it makes a lot of sense. JML, this has been incredible, so many great insights. I can’t wait to share this conversation with everyone. One of the questions that we ask just to wrap things up is, you know, for all the leaders, for all the managers out there anyone kind of looking to continue to improve their craft. Get better at becoming a manager and leader. What advice would you have for them, it could be resources tips and tricks, whatever that that you think would would help them in their journey,

Jean-Michel 41:05  

Maybe going back to our original chat will treat this as a career change, you know, you’ll get out of being a good leader, the amount of work you put into it. A lot of our environments are not set up, we didn’t read the right book to do it.

So we probably have to put double effort into it. Our teams expect it of us and I think what’s been great about me honestly, like, I brought so much of this back into my relationships, my marriage, my kid like, it actually makes you a better human as well, right? It’s not really just about work. Put a training plan together, right? 

My handbook was just my personal training plans. I felt totally unprepared to do it. For all of us,  it might seem like it was an overnight success, or we had it naturally born. That’s all BS. None of us were actually naturally born leaders. I think a lot of us had to put a lot of work into this. So it’s possible but it’s very rewarding but there’s work and homework and assignments and screw ups to be done and don’t give up. It’s really rewarding.

Aydin  41:57  

Thank you again for being on the show. 

Jean-Michel 41:59  

Thanks for having me. 

Latest episodes

We interview leaders from all walks of life to tease out the habits, thought patterns, learnings and experiences that help them be who they are.