S1:E1 – Stretch Yourself (Bill Barnes)

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Bill Barnes has been in the tech industry for over 30 years. He also successfully ran the web-based comic Unshelved for 14 years and turned it into a diversified media business. He’s currently Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft.

Transcript:

ES: This is 5 Minute Mentor, a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent engineers, authors, artists, and more in 5 minutes or less.

ES: Today’s mentor is Bill Barnes, Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft.Bill Barnes has been in the tech industry for over 30 years. He also successfully ran the web-based comic Unshelved for 14 years and turned it into a diversified media business.

ES: This is their advice.

BB: The advice I find myself giving the people I mentor the most often these days is to solve the biggest version of the problem possible. And, generally, as people advance in their career, they are able to, conceive of larger and larger problems. Or maybe just, sort of see themselves as solving. So for instance, we work at Microsoft, and at Microsoft our mission is to empower every person and every organization to achieve more. And, like in a perfect world, literally everyone at Microsoft is always trying to achieve that thing.

BB: Now that’s an enormous goal. Literally every person on the planet and every organization is the goal. And it’s really hard on a day-to-day basis to figure out how you could do that. Nonetheless that’s sort of the goal. But if you’re just like starting of out of just college. That’s impossibly large. And in fact, the biggest problem you might be able to solve, is the bug in front of you. And that is fine. So it’s not really about, “I’m overreaching”. But I do find that people tend to put themselves in a box. Like “Oh this is my title,” “I’m a Software Engineer 2”. And so this means I’m able to solve this size problems. And you may, legitimately only be able to solve this size problems. But I love when people stretch themselves, when they push forward.

BB: I’ll give you an example. So, in my previous job, I was working with Microsoft’s team that was developing the bot framework. So this is a framework that helps people write bots. The things that have conversations with you. Which can be silly, but you know, once in a while can actually be useful. And, I talked to a Program Manager who was working on the same product, And he essentially was always trying to, limit himself, to a very narrow definition of the job. And he actually said I just wish I could have a bigger impact, I wish I could do more. And I was just like, why don’t you? Like, what’s the biggest problem you want to solve? Then he kind of sat back. And he said it in a nice sort of big version of the problem he wanted to solve. And I’m like, go do that. He said, And I’m like yeah, but it and it would be your job a lot faster if internally you feel like that’s your problem to solve. The thing I want to acknowledge is, I say this from a very privileged spot. I say this as a distinguished, gray-haired, you know, white guy in software. It’s easy for me to say, I should go around solving the biggest version problem possible. A lot of the people, I think, don’t have permission to do that. Or certainly, they face bigger barriers than I do. So it’s easy for me to say.

BB: Nonetheless, I think it’s a good goal. I mean, in a sense what I’m saying is stretch yourself. But this is just my take on it. Which again, is to solve the biggest version of the problem possible.

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Bill Barnes, Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft

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