The red line
The more impactful your role is, the more social proof your customer(s) will need before they agree to work with you. At some point in your career, your ability to get a great job/offer/contract will depend more on what your ex-customers and colleagues say about your work, performance, ethics. Not what you say.
As I write this, I have three unanswered messages on my LinkedIn. These are requests for feedback about my three ex-colleagues:
I receive such requests every day. Your colleagues and customers receive such requests, too. To make decisions in situations of uncertainty, we rely on people we trust. It’s very human. Such networks of trust can either boost your career or ruin it. So it’s critical that you can easily pass “the social proof test.”
One of the best ways to pass the test is to follow a simple career guideline – always do a great job. And never let anyone cross the red line. Irrespective of pressure and conditions.
People who follow this rule get a lot of respect of admiration from others. The corporate world is in dire need of heroes. Mind how you behave and do work, because people are watching. Mediocrity is not what you want people to remember when thinking of you. Inaction is a form of mediocrity. When you see fraud, and don’t fight fraud, you’re fraud. Same with mediocrity.
When I say “always do a great job,” I mean always do the right, professional, ethical thing. The right things are often the hardest things. Otherwise, everybody would do the right thing, and heroes would lose value.
Among the hard things are:
- Sticking to discipline and engineering rigor under pressure.
- Confronting the majority, management, and people who decide your pay.
- Doing what the customer needs, as opposed to what they want.
- Making yourself replaceable.
- Putting your customers first and your CV last by choosing boring tech.
- Leaving when you’re mission is accomplished or when somebody crosses the red line.
When I tell engineers in my masterclass that they should protect the good, always do good job, and never let anyone cross the line, I sometimes hear:
But I’ll be fired!
Oh, come on.
Stop for a second and think. Will you get fired for protecting the good? You probably won’t (unless people who hired you are fraudsters or fools). And even if there were such risks, does it justify bad work? If you respect yourself, you never do your job poorly. No matter what.
I’ve worked with thousands of engineers and I’ve never seen:
❌ Engineers who have reached career heights by tolerating bad work.
❌ Engineers fired for doing good work.
Here is what I’ve seen:
✅ Engineers who tolerate crap “because someone said them so” stand still for years without making any big career progress. It’s not possible to achieve remarkable results by doing mediocre work. Remember – people are watching.
✅ Engineers who are not afraid of speaking out loud and protecting the good get a lot of respect from everyone (or at least from those whose opinion matters). The world is in desparate need for engineers with character, ethics, dignity. These qualities have been of value at all times. It’s in our DNA.
The “firing” story is wildly exaggerated. It’s the story our minds tell us to justify our inaction and protect our psyche. “I am coward afraid of confrontation”, “My arguments aren’t convincing”, or “I am a lazy ass” kind of stories makes us feel bad. A more pleasant story that doesn’t endanger our self-image is playing a victim of a monsta manager. So convenient.
But unthinkable things happen when you take responsibility for your life and speak to your customers and managers in a language they understand. You’ll be surprised how much our values are aligned. Monstas who pay your bills also want quality, tests, resilience… Well, not exactly these things, but the business benefits they promise.
And if your values are not aligned, then it’s time to say goodbye. And never let anyone cross the red line.
Imagine for a second you’re a CEO of your business, and you need a CTO. Would you be looking for someone who says “yes” to all your whims? A CTO who tries to please you at all costs, because you are paying well? A “convenient” CTO afraid of confrontation?
I don’t think so.
Instead, you’d use the power of your network to find a professional with ethics, values, and principles. A CTO who:
- Acts like a business partner.
- Tells you honestly that what you’re asking for is not good for the business.
- Protects your business from an emotional, biased, and irrational human CEO.
- Applies good engineering practices even under tight deadlines.
- Leaves the campground cleaner than he/she found it.
A CTO who says – if you cross that line, you’ll have to find a new CTO.
Such set of behaviours is contrary to how some engineers try to achieve “job security” – by being convenient, by silently cutting corners because they’re afraid of confrontation, inventing new work, or making employers too reliant on them. That’s very shortsighted because it makes them more reliant on the employer, limiting their options (remember – people are watching), and locking them to a company they’re killing with their own hands. You don’t want such “job security.” That’s not the way of a hero. That’s not how you earn trust and respect.
You probably know that the best job openings get closed before they even appear on LinkedIn. Ever wondered why you don’t see many CTO openings, despite thousands of companies looking for a good CTO? The hottest roles are closed internally, through the network of trust.
At this level, nobody cares about your CV; you don’t have to pass through 10 circles of interviewing hell; roles are high quality and paid very well. Decisions are made quickly based on reputation, word of mouth, and social proof. And the red line.
Now, let’s summarize:
- The best deals get closed on the “dark pool” through the network of trust.
- For senior/strategic roles, reputation eats CV for breakfast.
- Word of mouth can either accelerate or ruin your career.
- Keep your reputation spotless. It’s hard to build, easy to fuck up.
- Reputation is built by doing the right things, a synonym for hard things.
And remember the red line. Make it visible. And never let anyone cross it.