New Paint, New Focus

I have been privileged to work with fantastic Web designers who have helped me showcase my content. Years ago, the brilliant Shay Howe designed the first version of http://chrisjpowers.com as a code and speaking portfolio site. Last month, I worked with the remarkably talented designer Kenton Quatman to freshen up the design, make the site responsive, and tighten the focus on my speaking engagements and writing. Both of these guys are fabulous to work with, and I hope you cross paths with them someday.

This site refresh reflects the sea change of my career over the last few years. My career has taken many twists and turns, and now it is taking another.

Musical Beginnings

Ten years ago I was a struggling professional drummer. Fresh out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in music, I was trying to “make it” in the industry with my band. We traveled, we played countless shows, we created beautiful art, we had an enormous amount of fun — and we went broke.

Thankfully, I had taught myself how to “build web pages.” Our band needed a web site and we couldn’t afford to hire a developer, so I figured it out. My wife Sarah would wake up at 3:45am for her opening shift at Starbucks, and I would get up at the same time to study my PHP, MySQL and CSS books before the day started. My designs were uninspired and my code was shoddy, but it was good enough to win freelance jobs and pay a few bills.

Eventually I realized it would be beneficial to swap my profession of music with my hobby of web development. Building software was almost as fun as playing music, and it could support the life I wanted for my budding family.

I was given many titles in the swath of jobs that followed: contractor, developer, lead developer, development manager, consultant, startup CTO, software engineer. They all boiled down to “writing code, plus something else.” That “something else” shifted between coaching, consulting, working with clients, product management, whatever was needed at the time.

Groupon was the largest organization I had ever worked for. It was the first with enough people and projects to warrant individuals spending all their time on the “something else” tasks. My first inclination, like many developers, was to shiver at the idea. Who would want to “sell out” and stop coding, to become some kind of “paper pusher?”

Mastery

As I thought about where to take my career long-term, I read the book Mastery. I had heard about this book from Dave Hoover, it had a formative effect on his career thinking. The book talks about the pursuit of mastery as a forgotten but valuable approach to vocation, learning, hobbies and life in general. The author claims that pursuing mastery in one’s field, while enormously consuming and costly, was the key to satisfaction.

I assumed that I would take away the same motivation that other developers had found in the book’s pages — a calling to pursue mastery in software development, a compulsion to practice katas and Project Euler problems, a desire to develop as a “software craftsman.”

I did not.

I felt uninspired to dive deeper into my craft, I felt repelled. Pursuing mastery in software development struck me as long, arduous and ultimately unfulfilling. I was supposed to have found a stirring challenge I wanted to live up to, but instead I was left with a trajectory I had no intention of following. Where did I go wrong? Had I read the book incorrectly?

Pursuit of Perfection, or Just “Good Enough?”

The pursuit of perfection has rarely motivated me. While I was studying at the conservatory of music, I was regularly awed and confused by my violinist colleagues. They would lock themselves into a practice room after lunch, remain there until dinner, and then quickly return for yet a few more hours of evening practice. They would rehearse the same musical passages over, and over, AND OVER again, smoothing out the slightest imperfections, committing every nuance into muscle memory.

Then there was me. If I could keep myself in a practice room for a single uninterrupted hour, it was a miracle. This ritual tormented me, it felt foreign and forced. I spent years assuming that this was the result of a lack of discipline, a personal character flaw, a source of shame. It wasn’t until well after graduation that I realized my problem was one of alignment, not discipline.

Mastery of musical technique was not compelling to me. The personal value I found in achieving technical perfection would never validate the effort it would cost. I was motivated by creation, by collaboration. I simply wanted enough technique to be able to jam with a group of musicians, bring my musical ideas to fruition, and create something beautiful. Efforts outside of that goal felt hollow and unnecessary.

As a developer, my motivations were similar. I wanted to be just good enough to collaborate with others, bring my technical ideas to life, and create something that solved real problems. For me, being “just good enough” wasn’t a cop-out or laziness; rather, it was the most efficient path to my desired outcomes.

Mastery, Revisited

These were useful and liberating realizations, but I was still left asking, “What about mastery?” Clearly I was not motivated to pursue mastery in music or in programming, but shouldn’t I be pursuing mastery in something else? I longed for the satisfaction and fulfillment that were described in the book, but what could I work on for 10,000 hours that would be in alignment with my personal motivations?

I could only think of one answer: people.

For me, nothing seemed more fulfilling or worthwhile than mastering the ability of understanding and working with people. Making people feel valued, bringing people together around common goals, motivating people toward excellence — these are things I could spend the rest of my life trying to master, and every day would feel worth it.

This is why I continue to evolve my career away from programming and towards people and product management. I am very glad to be working with awesome developers who are pursuing mastery in software; together we build amazing things every day. Now, rather than providing value by writing code, I support my developers by solving organizational problems, casting a compelling product vision, and supporting their career goals and personal growth.

Mastery no longer seems like a daunting, painful pursuit. It’s still very far away, to be assured, but it now feels natural and envigorating. If mastery is not a focus for you in your field, give it some thought. What’s holding you back? Perhaps it’s time to consider a new role, however daunting, that will give you the necessary alignment to naturally pursue mastery.

About Me

Chris Powers

Chris Powers has been developing Web applications for the last ten years. He strongly believes in the power technology has to bring people together and enjoys developing platforms that empower the user. Currenty Chris is a senior engineering manager at Groupon and lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. In his free time he enjoys drumming, tabletop gaming and homebrewing.

Contact Info

Email: chrisjpowers@gmail.com

Twitter: @chrisjpowers