Be a Dirty Bridge – Communication Advice from Facebook’s Director of Engineering

Full disclaimer “Be a Dirty Bridge” is my paraphrase, not a direct quote. Read on…


image credit, creative commons

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity of hearing a presentation by John Ciancutti (@johnciancutti). [The event was hosted by Refresh Miami, a fantastic technology and entrepreneurship group here in South Florida.] Who’s John? Glad you asked… Director of Engineering at Facebook, former senior engineer at Netflix, and soon to be superstar at Coursera. Also, a fabulous, down to earth speaker with some great insight gained over a successful career in the tech world.

Over the course of his presentation, John shared some of his professional experiences and shed light on a topic that applies in many different business and leadership/group situations: How to bridge the gap between engineers and entrepreneurs. To get an idea of how universal this theme is, replace “engineer” and “entrepreneurs” with a few different words: project manager and creative team, sales and marketing, director and associates, manager and interns, inside sales and order fulfillment, the list can go on and on, basically any situation where someone is either in charge, asking for something, or working with other groups/people to make something happen.

The point is that in most of our everyday lives, there are people who are required to communicate and those conversations don’t always go that well. Different priorities, perspectives, goals, understanding of the current situation, and even varying terminaolgy can lead to a communication clusterfudgesicle. The end goal might be the same, but the middle part of everyone working together and getting the job done is a muddled mess. What to do?

A couple of main points in John’s presentation stood out to me. For the sake of my remembering them, I combined them into one phrase: Be a dirty bridge (see title of this blog.) And now I explain. (What follows is, again, not a direct quote from John, but more of what I took away from him presentation.)

Bridge – Let’s use the project manager and creative team example. This can be a challenging dynamic. To overgeneralize a bit, product managers are list and data driven, organized people, wired to meet deadlines and move projects along. Continuing the over-generalization, creative teams are a bit more free flowing in their organization, creative, see the world in a more colorful light, and can sometimes be more focused on the value and principles of exploring ideas and developing concepts than following up on black and white deliverables. In other words, their priorities can different. In a business setting, however, those priorities have to mesh in order to provide a product, solution, experience, or whatever the end goal is.

John’s advice is to approach this situation as a bridge maker between the perspectives. Strive to understand the varying perspectives and goals. Make sure people know that you genuinely understand them. (This isn’t one of those yeah-yeah-i-hear-ya-but-actually-don’t things.) Once you have the whole picture, start putting the pieces together. The “pieces” tend to naturally act as crossbeams, connecting the viewpoints and creating a bridge between two different groups, focused on the common areas and unified understandings. Once that bridge is in place, they different players are more easily able to work effectively towards the agreed upon goals.

Dirty – Anybody who manages multiple projects, people, or teams, knows that wearing a number of hats can be challenging. There’s a lot going on in each team to keep track of, plus, as the manager, it’s your job to be paying attention to the big picture of how all these projects come together. The big picture can get distracting sometimes.  John’s advice? Keep your hands dirty. In other words, never fully remove yourself from the nitty gritty of what’s making the big wheels turn. He provided an example of a CEO of a tech start up still concerning himself with the nuances of coding. In most cases, the CEO is not the one responsible for doing the coding for the company, but he should still understand how it works and what’s going on.

Here’s the challenge with the dirty part: Sure, the big picture can be distracting, but the little details can be distracting too. In my mind, the perfect leader is one who knows what’s going on, has some pretty dirty hands, but is able to avoid the dreaded micromanaging.  It’s all about balance, baby! Surprise!

So now if you’ll excuse me, I think there are some panels on my bridges that need some more dirt on them.


Alissa Jean

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