Wisdom From The Mug Of Truth

February 27, 2011

Career, Leadership

Confucius: I hear and I forget I would never have predicted that a mug from a university summer job would become an important coaching tool for software developers, managers and executives more than fifteen years later!   Two programmers dubbed what is now my pen holder the Mug of Truth after I referred to the wise words from Confucius written on it while coaching the programmers on how to help game designers understand some new technologies.  As much as I value the philosophy of I do and I understand, I have to admit I sometimes have my days where I wish I could just tell people what I needed them to understand.  Inevitably, they walk away, often forget what was said and rarely put any of it into practice.

The video game industry has a lot of experiential learners.  In other words, a concept will only be understood once it is actually tried.  That sometimes means learning things the hard way.  Video games are also visual and interactive products with many artists, animators and designers involved in the production.  The two programmers did remember what I showed them on the mug and left space in their demonstration for the game designers to participate and try the technology themselves.  Unfortunately, the group was reluctant to do that.  Huh.  Well, we learned something.  We are conditioned to expect training to be delivered in a lecture format.

Both the programmers in this story have recently left the company.  I gave one my other Mug of Truth to remind him of what he learned.  When I started transitioning the team to Agile and Scrum three years ago, he was more than skeptical.   He eventually accepted it and gave it a try.  He then adopted the techniques and kept using them, even when I no longer insisted.  After a few more successes under his belt, he became a believer.  He was no longer just following a process.  He was truly customer-focused, working and thinking about his work in terms of iterations and business priorities.  He understood.

My past manager also recently left the company.  He is an avid learner, constantly reading management, leadership and business books and trying out new concepts he had learned.  While we worked together, we evolved a mutual coaching relationship.  He would share with me how things worked at our company and I would give him feedback on what worked and didn’t work, based on my own experience.   However, his understanding really accelerated when he became the head of a studio that was 6000 km away.  With the distances and the cultural differences, he had to try (and iterate on) a lot of management techniques that he had never really had to put into practice.

What both men might not know, though, is that I learned a lot from them.  Both of them challenged me.  In the years I worked with them, I had to put into action everything I thought I knew about coaching, giving and receiving tough feedback, how programmers and executives think and work.  As a result, they helped me understand a lot more than I did three years ago.  Both of them had been with the company a long time, so it was time that they move on.  I will miss them, but I look forward to hearing about their new adventures and what they learn from them.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

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7 Comments on “Wisdom From The Mug Of Truth”

  1. Bruno Champoux Says:

    As a newly appointed disciple of Liza, I was trusted with the Other Mug of Truth, with which I shall shine the eternal light of wisdom upon distant lands.

    You’re giving me more credit than you should. Our team manager deserves more praise than I. She actually made my biggest concern go away: how could a team have a full-time manager while the technical leads are still taking the decisions? Well it works, and now I don’t see any other way.

    How did we do it? I think our agile process really kicked off once we went beyond “papers on a board”. On a personal basis, the focus on “making increments” as early as when we were discussing requirements with the client was certainly a turning point. On a team basis, the periodic backlog prioritization from client votes really helped everyone understand both the value and the limits of our development capacity. While there was additional magic by our manager behind the scenes, those two elements really stood out for me.

    I wonder when the production teams will follow this route. When will we see a programming backlog driven by game designers and artists? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to start worrying about what production managers are doing…


    • Liza Says:

      Yes, the team manager did play a big part in your journey. She was one of the first people to try Agile and to become a believer in the process. She is also a fine example for this story 🙂


  2. Bruno Says:

    I take care of your Mug of Truth as if it was still yours! It currently holds my numerous WWDC and GDC passes, and sits between two Totoro toys.

    I use the Mug periodically to educate the young stallions. I must admit that as an architect they listen more to my technical advice than my project management advice, but they stand no chance once they discover that Val and I teamed up on their case 😉


    • Liza Says:

      Good to hear that! There were a few moments at work this week that reminded me of this post. Thought I should share it again 🙂



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