It Comes Back Tenfold with Chris Williams (3/3)

Welcome to episode 231 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 3 of a discussion with Chris Williams. We’ll talk through Chris’ current role at HashiCorp and how he acts as a plyer coach, qualities of good managers, how he’s kept in touch with former managers, differences in leadership and management, and what he might be looking to do next in his career.

Original Recording Date: 06-09-2023

Chris Williams is a Developer Relations Manager at HashiCorp for the North Americas region. You can find him on Twitter @mistwire. If you missed parts 1 and 2 of our discussion with Chris, check out Episode 229 and Episode 230.

Topics – Hesitant to Be a Manager, Constructs of Good and Bad Managers, The Tenfold Return, What’s Next and Parting Thoughts

3:31 – Hesitant to Be a Manager

  • Now that Chris is getting paid to do something that was once a hobby, he has to think about whether he is doing a good job and how to measure it.
    • At HashiCorp there is a concept called impact hours. They are made up of metrics like number of people Chris has spoken to, how many views a video he posted has received, etc.
    • Chris tells us developer advocacy is going out into the community and talking about the technology.
      • "It’s what we do on vBrownBag. Here’s a problem. I’m an engineer. I’m going to fix the problem in front of you, and I’m going to get you excited about the technology because this is something that I think is really cool." – Chris Williams on what developer advocacy means
    • Chris couldn’t be a developer advocate for a company where he did not like the tools / products.
      • If he didn’t believe HashiCorp tooling was fun and relevant in the market he would not have taken the job.
      • Chris sees Terraform as something that is applicable to so many clouds. With it, he can play in AWS, Azure, Google Cloud (GCP), and VMware Cloud offerings.
      • Chris says the technology is super fun and that it excites him. Without the excitement factor coming into play, Chris would not have been a good developer advocate (or DA as he calls it).
    • In many ways, Chris is a public facing representative of the technology and is looking to influence hearts and minds to use the technology to solve problems.
      • This is not so different from how Chris felt about vBrownBag content when studying for a VMware certification. He thought it was cool, enjoyed it, and decided to record it.
      • After this Chris got into cloud, Kubernetes, and then DevOps and CI / CD pipelines. Now he’s into Git, Python, pull requests, etc.
      • "I love doing it, and I love learning in public. And HashiCorp wants to pay me to learn their stuff in public." – Chris Williams, on being a developer advocate
  • The role at HashiCorp for Chris is a manager role with reports.
    • This is the first manager role Chris has had since his first job in New England where he worked as a manager at a small software company.
      • That first manager role made Chris not want to be a manager because he was a horrible manager and eventually was fired as a result. Chris was young and didn’t really understand what it meant to be a good manager.
      • In every subsequent job before HashiCorp, Chris was an individual contributor (even in the ones where he would be rented out to companies every 3-6 months).
      • Over the course of time, Chris has worked for many different managers, some who were very good and some who were stinkers.
      • Chris tells us the best manager he’s had was Heather Houseman. Chris describes her as the best manager, enterprise architect, and Unix administrator he’s ever encountered. Heather has now retired, but Chris still keeps in touch with her.
    • Chris aspires to be as magnificent as he felt Heather was as a manager, and Chris was initially hesitant to accept a manager role at HashiCorp.
      • There was a 3 hour conversation before Chris was hired at HashiCorp during which Chris kept stating all the reasons he should not be hired as a manager, while his current manager shared all the reasons she should hire him as a manager.
      • Chris shares a quote by Steve Jobs that he wholeheartedly agrees with: "No good manager ever wants to be a manager. They see that there is no one else qualified to take the position, and they step up because they know there is no better option."
      • Some managers find value in having a bunch of people underneath them. That’s not Chris in any way.
      • After talking through all of these items with is current boss Melissa, they came to a consensus. Chris took the job.
    • Chris refers to the people he manages as his team and says he is a player coach.
      • Chris does the same job his team members do but just so happens to approve expense reports.
    • John says he has not been asked to serve as both player and coach, but it’s an interesting role we’re heard some things about from guests.
      • John is in a first time managerial role right now and seems to have started around the same time Chris did.
      • Should John start a brand new podcast called Nerd Managers?
      • John says as a manager meetings often consume half his time each week or more, and he cannot imagine an additional expectation of doing the same job as the members of his team in addition to that.
      • Chris does not have the same number of impact hour requirements has the members of his team do. Because he has managerial duties as well, the expectations aren’t as high on the same type of work his team members do.
      • There is a distinction between being a leader and being a manager. As an enterprise architect, Chris had to be a leader every time he was put onto a project, sometimes of hundreds of people working with him.
      • Chris will not ask someone to do something he would not do himself (what is called leading from the front). This is exemplified in his role as an enterprise architect where he was in the trenches with everyone else but had to also make sure things were running smoothly at multiple layers of an organization (i.e., interactions with C-level executives and board members).
      • From a manager perspective, Chris’s psychology background helps in communication and 1-1 meetings, for example.
      • Developer advocacy life is a bit different. While there are some projects where the team will collaborate, much of the work in independent (writing a blog, creating a video, etc.).
      • "There’s more autonomy but still teamwork and camaraderie." – Chris Williams, on the difference between working in developer advocacy and enterprise architecture

12:50 – Constructs of Good and Bad Managers

  • What does a good manager look like?
    • A good manager understands what the people on their team do and can ask the right questions. Humility to ask the right questions is important!
    • A good manager has empathy to put themselves into the shoes of others. When Chris speaks to his team, he tries very hard to make sure he is not injecting his own biases into conversations. Chris seeks to be an active listener
    • It’s important to realize humans are biased creatures based on their own experiences. Self-awareness in this area is important.
    • John says it sounds like Chris has tried to form an amalgamation of what good mangers are from previous experience.
    • "It’s a mixture of the things the good ones do and trying to amplify that in myself…and minimizing the things the bad ones did and making sure I never do those things." – Chris Williams, on forming a model of what good managers look like
    • John says this isn’t terribly unlike the way we learn to be good individual contributors through watching others. Perhaps we can take our own strengths to a similar organizational process or a similar brainstorming process, etc.
    • This is a skill we can all develop whether or not we are managers – look at the ways in which people work that we really like and the things we see that we might need to avoid in ourselves. You adapt these to suit your own personal style whether an individual contributor or a manager.
    • Chris hasn’t run into a company that trains people to be managers. Additionally, he has rarely seen a good, young manager.
      • This is probably not a lack of ability but more so that we don’t train people. The way you become a good manager is from trial and error and working under / observing both good and bad managers to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
      • Being a good engineer means you get promoted, and you keep getting promoted. Often times these folks are promoted to management and fall victim to The Peter Principle (promoted to their level of incompetence / to something they aren’t good at).
      • Chris says we don’t demote people back to what they were good at and leave them as crummy managers until they stop being crummy.
    • One of the reasons Chris did not want to become a manager was because he did not want to fall victim to The Peter Principle.
      • After Chris and his current boss talked about this, he mentioned she would have to tell him. He would rather be an incredible developer advocate than a not so great half manager.
      • "Have that in your head so that if I need to be demoted I am perfectly fine with it." – Chris Williams, on not wanting to fall victim to The Peter Principle
      • Few people would communicate something like the above to their boss, but perhaps they should.

18:37 – The Tenfold Return

  • Chris says his former employer calls him about coming back now and then.
  • Most of the folks Chris has worked with he has loved as colleagues, and Chris tries to leave companies on good terms.
    • When an employee leaves a company, everybody is just trying to make it work. Chris doesn’t believe someone wakes up and wants to be a villain and make their life and everyone else’s miserable.
      • Chris got along with most of the people he’s worked with, even those who were tough to get along with as a result of the way they communicate, etc.
    • As an example, Chris tells us there was a little bit of a mismatch in what he wanted and where the company he worked before HashiCorp was headed.
      • Chris told his boss at the time about the HashiCorp offer being amazing and that he would be paid to do during the day the same kind of thing he did in evenings. His boss wished him well and encouraged him to come back if it did not work out.
      • This happened at the previous employer too. When Chris got the offer from WWT (Worldwide Technology) while still at Greenpages and shared it with his boss, the boss said if Chris didn’t take it he would fire him and force him to take it. That same boss also said if things did not work out Chris could come back.
      • Doing what is best for the person in question (even if it means leaving the company) is a quality of a good manager. Chris eventually brought that manager from Greenpages over to WWT.
      • "If you give, it comes back tenfold." – Chris Williams

21:08 – What’s Next and Parting Thoughts

  • There are so many possibilities for what Chris would love to try next.

    • If Chris was independently wealthy he would start over again as a junior developer.
    • "I’m never going to get out of this gig. If I won the lottery tomorrow I would still probably do this, just less of it." – Chris Williams, on working in tech
      • Chris says he would still do vBrownBag, write articles for his blog, and go to conferences (including doing AWS Hero interviews).
      • Chris might also get back into martial arts. He once taught kids Kung Fu.
    • "I try to find the things that I stink at and that I want to get better at. And then I figure out how to turn that into a career." – Chris Williams, on how to decide what is next
    • Chris tells us he is most comfortable when he is uncomfortable.
      • He has not stopped being uncomfortable and still gets the butterflies before doing a presentation (which get worse as the audience gets larger).
      • Chris doesn’t see himself getting bored of giving presentations.
      • "There’s always something new to learn. There’s always something new to present on. I’m never going to stop learning, so why would I stop talking about it?" – Chris Williams
    • John points out there is another element here. For Chris, it has to be something that makes him uncomfortable and needs to be exciting / interesting.
      • Nick says on the surface one would think being excited and uncomfortable don’t seem to go together.
      • John says perhaps more of us should adopt the mindset Chris has. Find something exciting that we’re not good at yet, put in the work to get good at it, and then decide if we want that thing to be part of our career.
      • Chris likes running into people like this and helping them. He shares a story about a network engineer who wanted to be a cloud engineer. This person reached out to Chris for advice, and he provided a 6-month learning plan. The person who received this advice decided to learn live and completed the recommended learning in a couple of months. This person then asked Chris for more recommendations (which resulted in her getting hired by him as a cloud engineer at WWT).
      • The person Chris mentioned above falls into the same category of doing things intentionally that are uncomfortable but exciting and interesting.
  • If you want to get in touch with Chris, look for mistwire on Google. Chris should be the first few pages of results. You can find his blog here or connect with Chris on Twitter for reference. He should be mistwire across all platforms (including BlueSky, Mastadon, and many others).

  • Mentioned in the outro

    • For more on the role of player coach, check out these episodes:
      • {Episode 195]( – Perceptions and Realities of Startup Life with David Babbitt
      • Episode 196 – Manage the Product, Influence the People with David Babbitt
      • Episode 210 – A Collection of Ambiguous Experiments with Shailvi Wakhlu
    • We should carry the learnings about player coach here into interviews. Does the title say manager but is really a player coach? How is the time split between individual contributor tasks and management tasks? Dig into those details, and ask how you will be measured.
      • Maybe this comes back to some of the job leveling lessons Shailvi Wakhlu shared in Episode 211.
    • It’s important to tell your manager what you want and what you do not want. Chris didn’t want to be a poor manager and said to demote him if he was not a good one. They had the conversation up front before he took the job.
    • It sounds like experience as an enterprise architect is relatable experience for being a manager.
    • Chris’ insistence on putting himself in discomfort to keep learning reminds Nick of Range by David Epstein and keeps Chris a generalist (and broadens his Range).
      • A wide variety of experience allows us to apply deep structural similarities across different domains and can make us better specialists than those who have only ever been hyperspecialists in a single manager. Go read the book if you haven’t!
    • If you were on the fence about being a manager did this episode change your mind? Or maybe player coach is a natural in between step?

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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