Leadership and Communities

I was honoured to be invited by Alan Gardner to speak at Northern Lights, an amazing little conference he organised in Aberdeen last week.

This is a rough transcript from the (unrecorded) talk I gave about leadership and communities.


I want to talk about leadership. And I want to talk about you.

For things to happen we often need a leader. Not necessarily an omnipotent dictator, but even for good things to happen, someone needs to take a chance and say “hey, things should be different around here, and I think it should look like this”.

The trouble is that we often think of leaders the way that hollywood likes to present them, and that is that they are the heroes, the chosen ones.

Take the matrix. Fate has come together and decided that Neo is the chosen one, the one who has the power to make a difference.

He has a few mere mortals to help him along, but anyone else in this universe is destined to live a life that depends on his leadership. We don’t have the power to change things, that’s up to the chosen few.

We can see the same thing in our culture of celebrity and of hero worship. We take such interest in our heroes for two reasons.

Firstly they are aspirational. Which is a good thing. Tom Preston-Werner, who spoke here last year, is clearly incredible. He started Github, which is not only making a bunch of money, and helping every developer I know, but they are also creating an amazing team and culture around building great software.

As the founder of a startup I look up to people like Tom in awe.

But the second reason that we take such interest in our heroes, is that we think they are special, that like Neo, they are the chosen ones.

It’s not that Tom was a normal John Smith like us, who took a chance, worked hard, and with a bit of good luck made it to where he is today. Tom must be special in some way, the stars have aligned for him in a way that could never happen for us. His position is unattainable. And that too leaves us in awe.

But this is patently wrong, right? Tom was not chosen by the universe as the founder of Github. Tom chose himself. In the nicest possible way, 5 years ago, Tom was a nobody. But along with a couple of his friends, he saw something that interested him and that he thought could be better, and ran with it.

So what are you interested in? What can you be the leader of? It doesn’t have to be a startup like Github. Starting things within your community is a great place to start, as you can immediately make a positive impact on yourself, the people around you, and the wider tech community in which you sit.

Edinburgh’s tech scene has been growing and changing a lot over the last few years, and we have some great examples of leaders who have grown community projects from nothing.

One of the earliest, and most successful, has been TechMeetup. TechMeetup was started by Sam Collins along with his co-founder at the time Arnav Khare. Sam felt lonely as one of the few startups in Edinburgh back in 2008 so started tech meetup so that he could connect with other techies in the city.

At the first TechMeetup, Sam persuaded a couple of people to talk, convinced the uni to give him a space, and found a little cash to pay for some beer and pizza. That was it. And it has now expanded to Aberdeen and Glasgow, and in Edinburgh we get between 50 and a hundred people attending every month.

At the slightly more ambitious end of the scale we have TechCube. TechCube is an incubation space for startups, which literally opened this week.

Now TechCube’s foundation and history, is a little complex. But without one man, Olly Treadway, who was ballsy enough to look at the empty shell of a building and say “this would be a great space for startups” it would not be open this week.

For my own part, I am currently trying to start TechSupport. TechSupport is an emotional support network for developers and founders to help them deal with the non-technical aspects of life in the startup world: stress, depression, burnout, and personal growth.

And there are many other groups in Edinburgh. Most of the popular programming languages have their own meetups; there is StartupCafe a blog covering edinburgh’s tech scene and startups. All started by people who saw a need in the community, and decided to fill it.

Ultimately things don’t just happen in a community. No matter how many good people you have around, it still takes someone to stick there head up and say “you know what, there should be an x for y, and maybe nobody else cares, but I’m going to try and start it”.

So what’s holding you back?

Maybe you don’t know what to start? That’s okay, just kick around and be a good member of the community until you feel like “hey, I wish I could learn from other people about this”.

Fear. This is undoubtedly a big one. “What if people don’t like my idea?”, “What if it’s a boring meetup?”, “What if it doesn’t work out?”.

The nice thing about communities, is that if you go about it in a constructive and positive manner, people will want you to succeed.

And even if you fail, they really won’t hate you for it, I promise. We’ve had a number of failed new meetups in Edinburgh. We tried night owls for a while, where people would hack together on side projects late into the night, but it didn’t really work out. and I’ve been a part of numerous “let’s work through this book and we’ll chat about it every week” and never got more than halfway through the book.

Sure they were ultimately “failures” but really they were successes. We tried something. We got to know each other a little better. We all learned some stuff. But we certainly didn’t hate people for having the idea, even if it didn’t work out.

This fear thing is really hitting home with me at the moment with TechSupport.

I have been really slow about getting the group started, even though I know I have supporters. And that’s ultimately because I am scared.

I am trying to tackle a really important issue in our community, which is people people coming to terms with burnout, and depression, and stress - and that’s not an easy topic to talk about.

I have had to open up and be really honest about who I am. I have had to stand up and say, “Hey, I struggle with this stuff, and I am sure other people do to, so who wants to do something about it?”

I am scared that it won’t be helpful for people. I am scared of getting it wrong, of making things worse instead of better.

I certainly haven’t done that for direct career advancement, or for direct personal gain, but because I care about it, I care about other people in my community and I want to help them, and I am prepared to put myself on the line to try and do that.

But I feel the biggest blocker in the tech world for people starting anything, whether it’s companies, or community projects, or even side projects, is that they think they aren’t good enough.

With things like hacker news, we are constantly exposed to what everyone else is doing online, that it’s easy to feel like everyone is smarter than you. That everyone has cooler side projects, and more successful businesses than you do.

When you feel that way about the world, it’s hard to start things. You can feel like somehow you don’t have the right to start something, because you aren’t the best or the smartest person to do it.

But here’s the kicker. You are the best you that there is in this world. Nobody else has your weird combination of knowledge, and experience, and background, and interests as you do. Nobody.

You are the best you that there is in the world, so please share that with the rest of us in some way. I guarantee that people will be glad that you did.

Thank you.