It Takes Three Programmers to Change the World

2020-01-14 -

As a young student, Eric Bowman had no interest in any kind of business-related activities. And certainly not leadership and management. His dream? He wanted to become a physicist.

“An academic lifestyle was kind of perfect for me,” so he thought.

As the Senior Vice President of engineering at TomTom, Berlin, he supervises over 2,000 engineers. That’s quite a transition for someone unwilling to take up the challenge of leadership.

In this podcast, Tobi interviews Eric, discussing the critical milestones in his career, including how he ‘cheated’ his way through an interview at Maxis after reading a book he purchased on Amazon in 1995.

He also sheds some light on his belief that: “three good programmers can change the world.”

Teaching Himself to like Computer Games

Eric and Tobias have known each other from way back. They first met at Zalando as colleagues. Back then, Eric was the VP of engineering at Zalando. But as Tobi confesses, his perception of Eric was a guy who always carried an aura of an inspirational leader. Yet, Eric says he never wanted to be a leader.

“I watched some of my favorite people moving the leadership direction, and I was a little bit like, ‘why would you do that? That just doesn't seem like fun at all!’ So, by the time I got around to it, I took it pretty seriously,” he says.

His journey into the corporate world is an interesting one. As a physicist, he had always felt like people who had made a real, long-lasting impact were quite intelligent, which he thought most people studying physics fell short, including himself. This, he says, made him realize it was not going to be a satisfying field for him.

Although he knew the commercial world would be challenging, his interest in writing computer programs got him his first real job in the corporate world. He got a job at Maxis, whose city-building simulation video game SimCity 2000 was quite popular.

Eric didn’t like computer games, and he didn’t know much about them either. But he thought they were cool.

“I thought that sounded great,” he remarks, “And I found an ad I had used a long time ago and I really needed a job. (So I) kind of talked myself into it.”

He says he stayed up late the night before while playing SimCity hoping to fake his way into liking games.

Before this job, Eric’s first experience with writing programs for commercial purposes was in college. Back then, the college used to pay students to write software programs. After graduation, Eric ended up staying in college to keep programming for the school.

“That just sort of allowed me to extend my college experience.”

It Takes Just Three Programmers to Change the World

Tobi asks Eric to share his thoughts about having small and effective teams in a company.

His response:

“I still kind of hold (it) in my heart, the belief that three good programmers can change the world.”

This has become his kind of rule of thumb; whenever possible, Eric tries to organize and work with a team of three people.

In most organizations today, the structure of teams has changed. Finding teams of three is increasingly the exception rather than the norm. Eric says he misses working with small teams and is grateful for the experience, but appreciates the evolution of teams over the years.

“I wouldn't trade the present, really. I think, you know, everything kind of builds on each other and certainly, the same way that, (in) software, you have to worry (about) everything from the bit level to terabytes, organizations are kind of the same.”

“Honestly, working in that small team was pretty emotional. We spent a lot of time together and went through intense and meaningful experiences together. And some days we probably hated each other, you know, but knowing what that's like is helpful.”

Eric’s 1500-member Team

TomTom is a location technologies company that creates navigational solutions for automobiles. Location technologies are quite rare. The field presents lots of technical and engineering challenges. Besides TomTom, there are just a handful of companies globally with this kind of tech, among them Google, Apple, and OpenStreetMap.

At TomTom, they use maps, navigational software, and live traffic algorithms to help the engineers understand how cars are moving while detecting sections on the road with traffic. The company’s primary target market is the automobile industry, and it also sells its technology platform to big tech companies with the need for accurate maps and locations.

Here, Eric manages a team of about 1,500 members, most of them software engineers who report to him directly.

A Turd in the Pool

It’s no secret that being very selective in your hiring process is what gets the work done within an organization. Eric puts it this way: “The last thing you want to do is just get warm bodies.”

“The difference between a good colleague and a not so good colleague is, you know, two times, three times, ten times, 50 times sometimes.”

“The network effects are profound. Imagine you're having a lovely garden party and you've got the swimming pool and you've got a live band and a lovely buffet and everybody's dressed up. And if there's a turd in the pool, it's not a great party.

“It doesn't matter all the other great (things) that you do. That turd is just radiating around it. And so, it's kind of a similar thing when there's someone in a team who doesn't fit it. That person is affecting everyone around them. And no matter what you do, it just takes a big toll on everyone.”

Eric’s leadership approach is similar to Amazon’s.

“I think it's very interesting the way Amazon, for example, have rolled their leadership principles into how they hire, and I try to do something a little bit similar to that.”

While emulating Amazon’s example, Eric tries to model his hiring process applying his principles to drive the decision-making process at every level within the organization.

When building a team, everything comes down to their needs and wants. Being able to incorporate this as part of your hiring process is what will make people connect. This way, you can establish powerful teams that can make a difference. How do you get people who want to make a difference?

“The most effective way that I know to really understand people is to just get them to tell stories about what has gone well, what has not gone well.”

He likes Marty Cagan’s idea in the book “Empowered”. Marty recommends conducting a test when interviewing people to assess their capabilities. The test is simple: ask the interviewee to rank their capabilities based on principles of product management. The idea is to get them to tell you which of those principles they’re best at.

Eric says you should prefer candidates who:

  • Want to show leadership by identifying existing gaps and taking the risk to close them
  • Want to make a meaningful and impactful difference
  • Are willing to acquire the capabilities they don’t currently have

Autonomy Is Not an Input: It’s an Outcome

Since his time at Zalando, Eric has shifted his thinking when it comes to autonomy. He says that back then, he saw autonomy as an input where he believed that if they put autonomy into the system, they’d get the outcomes they were hoping for.

“That, unfortunately, was a little bit naive. Autonomy is more like an outcome, and it comes from, essentially trustworthiness and accountability,” he says, explaining that accountability revolves around three things:

  1. Showing positive commitment to what the company is trying to do and the optimism that it can be done.
  2. Being transparent by clearly explaining the goal, plan, and progress, and being proactive by exercising high judgment regarding when people need to know what’s going on. “Everybody doing that at scale is very powerful, and that’s what great teams do,” Eric asserts.
  3. Being open to self, peer, and leadership assessment

Eric Bow's Key Business Principles

Tobi also asks Eric what his key principles in business are. He shares three.

The first is:

“Never pass up the opportunity to be generous.” — Jim Collins.

The second:

“Happiness comes through finding meaning. So don't seek happiness, seek meaning, seek to do things which affect the people around you in a positive way: help them grow, help other people get through experiences.”

The third:

“Loving what you do and doing what you love.”

“So, if you are not loving your job, you should go.”

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