Our Cortisol is Airborne

Today, the stock markets accelerated last week’s belly flop, stopping just 1% short of bear market territory and threatening to end the eleven year old bull market. Entering “uncharted territory,” a fresh fight between Russia and OPEC could “lock up credit markets,” a Fed who confused a virus with a monetary policy issue, and trillions in investor’s money has vaporized. Sometimes you hear the term “black swan.”

At the same time, and what kicked off global markets’ death spiral last week, was, of course, coronavirus. It seems Italy “shut down the country” today (whatever that means), conferences all over the world are being cancelled, including one of mine. “The United States is not ready” for the virus the WHO tonight declared is “close to a global pandemic,” over $100 billion in airline losses may rack up, they say, and Costco’s doomsday sales are through the roof, defying market trends.

It’s even supposed to rain in Los Angeles all week. That’s never supposed to happen, and I pay too much in rent for this.

In short, there’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the air. Forget COVID-19, our collective cortisol is now airborne.

And yet…

And yet. Yesterday, Sunday, we drove up to Venice. The sun was shining down brilliantly. The ocean breeze turned LA’s hazy air impossibly clear. So clear that one could almost make out a few Malibu mansions across the Santa Monica bay, where white sails dotted a postcard perfect Pacific. I actually found a parking spot.

Something about yesterday in Venice was the most positive moment I’ve ever been in so far. And I’ve been around for a minute. To try to (inadequately) capture just a few micro interactions in the span of an hour or so…

First, there was the impromptu, ragtag roller skating dance troupe. I don’t think they really knew what they were doing, but I also think they were having too much fun smiling, dancing, and laughing to give a crap at 2:00 pm on an unflinchingly sober Sunday afternoon.

Then there was the guy who randomly started chatting us up with the biggest, most disarming smile I’ve seen in some time. He was so enthralled with the roller dancers that he almost couldn’t contain himself. Enjoy your time in Venice! He called as floated on to chat up some more folks.

We kept walking down to Muscle Beach, which was under construction. A few body builders were hanging around anyway, including a behemoth of a human clowning around in the sand playgrounds, cutting TikToks, perched on an enormous portable speaker. The A-listers on their Malibu verandas probably mistook his megawatt smile for the sun reflecting off a car window.

He stopped often for pictures with the mortals, including us. We asked him how much work it was to maintain that body, and he said, roughly, “Nah, you got it wrong. It’s not the work; it’s the positivity and health that’s the thing, it’s not work at all.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many smiles in such a short period of time.

If someone were to measure smiles per hour with the same meticulous focus they deploy to calculating floors and ceilings in technical equity analysis, this place would have been off the charts that Sunday afternoon.


It’s not like these people are oblivious–well ok, maybe a little by choice–but by Sunday, everyone knew about coronavirus, the market was already tanking, and I’m sure they all have faced their own personal struggles–like we all do.

They made the choice to smile in the sun. Fear’s primary purpose is to keep you from dying, which, having tried to live that way for a time myself, isn’t a particularly awesome way to live.

I felt lucky to be there in that moment.

Tech Leadership

Purpose, Consistency, and No. 80

On Monday, I finally restarted some of my podcasting and writing for tech leads. During my two month hiatus, I reflected agonized about whether I really want to continue this.

Writing to the tech leads and podcasting is, after all, really just a hobby for me.

“For me” is the operative, and limiting, phrase here. To be completely honest, I started writing in this area back in 2016 because I thought it would be cool for my career. Later, I bought a Blue Yeti for the personal thrill of putting myself out there on a podcast, which as definitely an uncomfortable thing for me.

But now, I’m finally getting over myself (only took four decades), and I’m much more interested in you. The reason I decided to restart this is that I’m legit worried about you. It’s not that being a tech lead is the hardest job in the world, but it’s one that challenges you in ways you don’t anticipate. And that surprise, combined with your lack of skill has impact on your personal life, your effectiveness as a lead, the career of your team, and their personal lives.

Anyway, now that we’re rolling again, I hope you’ll read Monday’s letter on consistency as a tech lead and listen to the podcast (No. 80). I mention those issues but focus mostly on “consistency,” which I thought was a mea culpa kind of topic to take on for being, well, inconsistent.

Professional Services Tech Leadership

“You’ll have leftovers!”

There were two elderly women sitting near me during lunch at Whole Foods today talking in an upbeat, spirited way about this and that. We were outside. Between the almost perfect weather and their amazing attitude, it felt great to share this moment with them.

Mostly they talked about the soup that one of them was making tonight.

It must have been a lot of soup because at some point during the discussion, one exclaimed, “You’re going to have leftovers!” Her friend nodded and smiled, something almost imperceptible crossed her face. Something about her eyes were far away for a moment. This comment, which I would never in a million years have thought to say let alone put an exclamation mark upon, clearly left an impact.

Maybe she was thinking about saving some money on future meals. Maybe she was imagining having not just one experience with this epic soup but more. Maybe it was just a feeling of abundance. It was a fleeting thought, but seemed to connect.

It was such a factual, technical comment about leftovers, yet it somehow demonstrated so much empathy and landed so well. Magical.

Actually it’s not magic. It’s totally within your capability here at work. You have it within you to make these kinds of comments, to build relationships through these small things, even in our technical field. You just need to commit to being there with people.

If leftover soup can a put sparkle in an old woman’s eye, your observant comment about a team member’s pull requests can make an impact too.

In fact, I’d argue these tiny comments are far more valuable than some big, coordinated offsite or manufactured “happy hour” ever can be. And they don’t cost a dime.

Tech Leadership

Who are you doing this for?

I was listening to a Tony Robbins podcast recently. His interviewer, from LinkedIn, asked him something like: “Tony, you do a lot of coaching with people who are already successful, or on their way. What advice do you have for someone just getting started?”

Seemed like an innocuous softball question to me, so I almost tuned out. Glad I didn’t because his answer contains the kind of hard won insight you only get from doing the kind of work Tony does, a lot of it.

Role models can be examples for you, but you’ve got to decide what are you going to give? What are you here to deliver? I think you’ve got to fall in love with whose lives you’re going to touch and through what vehicle. You can’t fall in love with your product or service today. It’s going to change. You’ve got to fall in love with the client. … And you’ve got to know more about their needs, their wants, their fears, their desires than they do.

Tony Robbins

This was such a powerful idea to me that I went back and listened to it quite a few times.

Why? What does Tony have to say to software engineers?

Well, if you’ve read my letters or listened to my own podcasts to tech leads (I’ve got a long way to go to be Tony!), you know that I hammer on you to make sure you give work meaning—to make sure there’s a vision for what the team is doing, and you too.

But I haven’t done great job at giving you ways to craft that vision.

Tony’s is one excellent way to to find a vision. Your team probably gets so lost in the what of what they’re doing, and that’s ok a lot of time. Lots of time it’s good to be in the emotional blue zone and to stay in the focused/flow state. As tech leads, we help our team get in that mode.

But because your team spends a lot of time in an emotional blue zone, it’s naturally a little depressing, melancholy even, for them. If they can’t emotionally come up for air and get a positive emotional connection (the “yellow zone” but I still owe you a blog on that) to what they’re doing, then they’ll be in that blue zone for too long.

All kinds of bad things happen when people spend too much time in the blue zone. People get burned out, depressed, lethargic, and worst of all, their engagement drops—sometimes a lot.

So find a vision, and use Tony’s advice as one way (probably not the only way) to help you find it!


Falling into despair won’t help anyone, though. I mean, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. I’m getting a fucking welding torch. Okay?

James Carville

Professional Services Tech Leadership

Happiness is hard work

“You cannot buy or win happiness. You must choose it.” -John Maxwell

Humans, as I understand them, are hard wired to look for negativity. Just a few hundred generations ago, your grandparents spent their days scanning the horizon looking for threats while gathering berries. You know, like a saber-toothed tiger or something.

If fact, we actually got a dopamine hit when we spotted the threat we were expecting, which is interesting, isn’t it? Think about it: you’re out there in the field, and you catch a whiff of something that smells like a tiger. All of a sudden you get anxiety so you start looking around carefully, and there it is. You found the threat, and your body rewarded you for it. The anxiety turns into a real fear, and now it’s time to run to safety.

Survival has always been more important that happiness, so seeking happiness is not how we’re natively wired. Hunter gatherers were not concerned about aligning their chakras.

Even though it’s not in my nature or yours, if you have a team, especially in consulting, and you lead it, then it is incumbent upon you to make the team a happy, safe space where they can run from the saber toothed tigers in those corporate hallways. I don’t mean a party atmosphere. I mean optimistic, hopeful, positive, safe.

When your team is together, they should feel safe for the next time it’s time to go back and face the world “out there.” And then when they’re in the field, give them hope. Remind them that they make a difference and they can fight tiger if they need to.

When your team is working on code or doing hard analytical work, there’s something to be said for being just as negative as they are. It stimulates intellectual thinking. But when they’re back “home,” during the downtime, keep it happy and safe. It’s hard because you have to override your own natural circuitry even when you don’t feel like it. But your team needs it. You do too.

You’re human, so you’re not always going to be happy either. But remember, a single Slack positive message can make a huge difference in someone’s day, including yours.

Choose happiness leaders!


How do you live?

Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.

-Les Brown

Professional Services

Day 1, Hour 1

You touched down in St. Louis around 12:45 a.m., having taken the last flight out of LAX Sunday afternoon so you could make your kid’s soccer game and spend as much time with your family as possible.

The deplaning passengers are rushing, sprinting almost, in the direction of “Ground Transportation” signs, so you follow the herd while you fumble with the Uber app in one hand while dragging your roller bag over the carpet with the other.

Yours was one of the last flights in, so it’s quiet in STL. The air is damp and cold. Storms. That explains the turbulence on final approach.

You’ve never been to St. Louis before. You aren’t sure where to go, but after a little awkward coordination your Uber showed up pretty quickly. Gratefully, it was only a twenty minute ride to the Marriott near your customer’s headquarters. Still, by the time you get checked in and in bed, it’s after 2:00 a.m.

As you settle in, you think about what time to set your iPhone’s alarm. “Let’s see,” you say, “if they want to start at 9:00 a.m, then I probably need to be out the door by 8:15, and, oh yeah, I need to grab some breakfast in the cafe downstairs, so, should probably get up no later than 6:30.” Then it dawns on you:

Holy crap, that’s only about four hours from now, and it’s going to be 4:30 a.m. California time when I get up!

As you lie there, staring at the ceiling, it doesn’t help you fall asleep when you start thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow morning. In just a few hours, you’re going to be meeting with a new customer who needs your help with your company’s products.

The issues could be easy, they could be hard, but no matter what, they are looking to you to be the expert on your company’s product. You’re in professional services, and this is what you do. It’s both tiring and exhilarating.

That first hour of the first day (I call it “D1H1”) is a critical moment where everything that happens in professional services comes together—all the training, enablement, engineering, and sales. But we don’t talk about professional services very often.

Since we rarely talk about it, I thought I’d write a short book introducing people to the industry, the job of a consultant, and how to succeed in that moment (as well as get some sleep the night before) and beyond.

It’s called Day 1, Hour 1: An Introduction to Professional Services in Software Companies. Some of the topics covered include:

  1. An introduction to professional services, the roles, and where projects (“engagements”) come from
  2. Then I explore how to get the hard, technical skills you need to be successful as well as some of the soft skills mindsets that will serve you well on the ground
  3. Then we explore some of the practicalities of how to navigate day 1, hour 1 as well as the hours that follow

I feel like it’s a complete overview, if a bit brief. But it could have some typos or things that don’t make sense.

Please give it a read for free, and let me know! Use coupon code michaels-blog through this link:

Would love to know what you think!

(Photo by Matt Hardy from Pexels)



So it’s February 4, 2020, a new year and a new decade (maybe, anyway) is underway, and I feel like it might be time to get back to something I loved the decade before the last one (the Lost Decade for me), which was blogging.

Blogging. I want it back in my life.

And the tools are so much better now, even venerable WordPress.

I considered and dabbled with other platforms, especially the really fast static generators like Hugo. But if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really like writing markdown, especially on mobile. And, worse, I’m constantly shifting devices around so it would be quite a bit of work to fuss around with the synchronization, git, github, netflify, etc.

Ok, ok, if I’m even more honest with myself, it is a ton of fun to play around with that stuff–too much fun. (I’m a developer at heart.) If I start futzing around with tooling, I’ll get distracted and never publish anything.

And besides, WordPress has served me well with tens of thousands of visitors over the past decade, so for now I’m going to stick with it.

Hope you’ll tune in during the next decade. Think we can have a great one together.

Tech Leadership

Mental toughness for tech leads

Hey Tech Leads,

Just thought I’d share some links with you–in case you’re following me here (hope you are, this is the place to be).

For the Wednesday update, I shared some information about mental toughness from Psychology Today. Interestingly, you don’t need to be mentally tough to be a tech lead, and some mental tough people are terrible tech leads.

So it’s neither a necessary nor sufficient condition.

HOWEVER, there are some significant advantages if you can develop mental toughness.

Read my post on Substack (it’s free for everyone today!): Are you a mentally tough tech lead?

You can also listen to the podcast: No. 47 – Let’s refresh this thing + mental toughness for tech leads 🧠💪