Steve Hicks and Justin Bennett talk about empathy in workplace culture, how to build trust and safety, and the importance of providing space for people.
Steve Hicks 0:09
On this episode of Artsy Engineering radio, I talk with Justin Bennett about humanizing the workplace culture. We talk about how to build trust and safety and the importance of making space for people to flourish. Hope you like it.
Hey, friends, welcome to another episode of Artsy Engineering radio. I'm your host, Steve Hicks. Today, I'm here with my friend Justin. Justin, do you want to say hi?
Justin Bennett 0:38
Steve Hicks 0:40
So I feel a little bit like the harbinger of doom, I think is an expression. That kind of feels like a lot of these episodes that I record our episodes with people who are unfortunately leaving Artsy or have left Artsy. And sadly that is the case again today. Justin, how much time do you have left here at Artsy?
Justin Bennett 1:00
I've got one week, exactly. Next Friday is my last day. Yeah.
Steve Hicks 1:05
Cool. I really want to talk a lot about what... Well, I'm gonna, I'm probably gonna cry a bunch. But aside from that, what I want to talk about is like, what are your experiences that you're taking away from Artsy? What are the things that that you feel like have worked at Artsy that you'll take you'll carry forward with you to other jobs that you have in your career, etc?
Justin Bennett 1:28
Steve Hicks 3:54
Yeah, the human. The word human is definitely something that resonates for me. It's, I think, actually, a lot of my story is similar to yours coming to Artsy, I also had not worked at a startup before Artsy, I also had not heard of Artsy didn't know very much about the art world. And so I remember feeling a lot of the same things that you're talking about walking in and just kind of being blown away by how, you know, I think I always had dreamed that there would be a place where I could work where it was about the people more than it was about anything else. And obviously, like everything's a business and when it comes down to it, you have to make money and find a way to, to, to survive that way. But it doesn't seem to me like making money and treating people like humans is the has to be separate. And that was I honestly don't know that I truly felt that that existed before I came to Artsy and so walking in the door and talking to people and then honestly having like, like you said, a really great interview experience, and really great onboarding, all that stuff. It did very quickly make me feel like you know the things that I had read about Artsy were real, which was a little bit of a surprise to me. Can you maybe dig into a little more of that human side? Like, do you are there? Are there more stories or examples that you have, that maybe you think really reflect what it's like to, to kind of humanize the workplace?
Justin Bennett 5:32
Yeah, yeah. I feel like if we could take this, like, secret sauce of Artsy's culture, especially the culture from the early days, and really bottle it up and sell it, we can make a lot of money. But I mean, it always just comes back to this idea of empathy and of really questioning, like, how are the actions that we're taking the decisions that we're making? How are those impacting the people around us? And it sort of radiates, I was listening to the episode, where Anna had interviewed dB. And if you haven't heard that, I recommend you go back and listen to it, because it's, it's a great episode, two episodes, you know, db came on. And he was thinking about this idea of openness, right? So so he had wanted to, like open source or project. And that was like a principle that was important to him. And it's really interesting, starting off, it's a sort of like, primordial level of like an idea like openness. Because like, openness implies a lot of things. It implies this vulnerability, this trust with in your, your surroundings, with the people that you're working with, that maybe that wasn't the intent of like bringing that idea of openness on but like, I think that was one of the sort of key sparking factor, the key indicators that really spread. So I remember what the thing that was striking to me when I was like, joining Artsy is like, Hey, you know, we do this open source. And it's for many reasons, but one of the reasons is for us, for us as individuals, because we're working, we're spending so much of our lives on this body of work. And it's so great to be able to reference this body of work to look back, whether it's a future employer, or whether someone you're talking to or someone you're connecting with, to look back and say, hey, yeah, here are these things that I did. And you can actually reference the code and see, like, this is my last work, you don't just like, fall into a hole and disappear for people, right? Like, you're just by the nature of doing your day to day your paid work, you're like making these very open and visible contributions. And the fact that that was even a consideration, you know, that mattered, was like, to me very sort of telling, you know, and in very humanizing in a way that I just felt. I feel like this industry often, like, turns engineers into a commodity, right? It's a resource to be used. And, you know, if you look at, you know, this huge waves of burnout, people talking about, like, trying to say, Oh, you know, don't, don't talk about politics at work, or like, don't do, like, we want to definitely make this just about, like, you come into the office, you do your work, you go home, and you leave, that kind of thing. I try to empathize even with that perspective, because I know that there are things that are like dangerous, and we can even talk about the dangers of empathy later. Because it's not nothing is all upsides, right? That's one thing that teaches us but there's just not enough places in our industry, like that. encourage you to be your human self, that encourage you to learn openly to make these investments by doing open source things to help you and help the organization and help the community to invest in the tools that you're using, you know, Own your dependencies. Because it helps Artsy's mission, it builds relationships, and the community helps the community like those sorts of things are just so important. And so energizing and so fulfilling that it just like, I don't know, that that notion of like being treated like a real valuable human beyond just your day to day skills, makes it just makes you feel like you can do so much more, you know, inspires you.
Steve Hicks 9:27
Right? bring it bring your whole self to work. The ability to bring your whole self to work is certainly not a thing you can do. everywhere in the world. Yeah. And you obviously have to have a culture that really promotes safety and promotes, just makes you feel like you can bring your whole self to work, whether it's a whether it's explicitly said that you can't or whether it's just in assumed that you can't or you're not comfortable with that. Do you think that there are other ways to build safety?
Justin Bennett 10:03
You know, it's, it's, it's interesting. So just talking about like psychological safety, it's hard to really think about, like, ways to build it, but it's easy to think about a lot of ways to tear it down.
Steve Hicks 10:14
Justin Bennett 10:16
Right. And I feel like this is the same of trust and trust and safety, or like their hand in hand, they're the same sort of thing, especially when you're dealing with people. Because, and this is especially true, if you're a leader, if you're a leader, and people don't trust you, they can't feel safe under you. That's just like, you can't separate that, right? Because they have to question your they question your motives, like everything you do. And then it becomes this, it can become a toxic environment if you're not careful. Right. So the question of how to build safety is, is hard, I think, I always like to sort of think about, like, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right? So there's a, there's a lot of things, but it starts off with this basis of, you know, your, your biological, physiological needs, like, Oh, can you breathe? Do you have food? Are you sleeping? You know, are those needs met? You know, and I would actually add to this, do you have the energy to function as yourself? And I would like to get back to that topic later. But the sort of second thing in that pyramid is do you feel safe? Generally, it's like, from a psychological perspective, you know, do you? Do you feel safe? Are you scared for your well being for your family, for whatever, because if you don't feel safe, you can't think about anything else, right? You can't like it's so hard to function. And I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent here. But like, I think, to me, that's why like, last year, over the pandemic, and even in this year has been so incredibly hard. And that has been hard for people to acknowledge, because the thing that we've been missing is safety. Because we've been scared for a really long time. And whether it's afraid of, you know, things that are going on in politics or afraid of virus, or afraid for family members, or whatever, that lack of safety means that like, all these other things that come further up in the hierarchy of needs, like love and belonging, self esteem, meeting your sort of like cognitive needs, all of those things, you can't really get to those if you feel unsafe. But I mean, I guess going back to how to build safety, you know, you just gotta, you got to care, and you got to put in the work. And you got to admit when you're wrong, and you got to show people that you got to show people that you care, and that you're trying and that you're willing to learn, be humble, and just be kind and do the best you can. Yeah, I don't know.
Steve Hicks 13:00
Yeah, I it is definitely a difficult thing to build. It's not I don't think it's the kind of thing that like, you know, one person can't build safety in an organization, everyone cumulatively has to build the safety. In order for me to feel comfortable failing at something I have to see my coworkers, you know, do something that they maybe were afraid to do and fail and be okay with it, and have everyone else be okay with it. So it's like this collective, it's this collective thing, this collective activity that we all need to kind of take on maybe a little bit of responsibility for everyone to keep it going.
Justin Bennett 13:35
Yeah, for sure. Yeah, with with safety with all cultural things, really, it is a responsibility because the people or the culture. Artsy had, and I'm sad that we still don't have this as a core principle, but Artsy had the core value of people are paramount. It was one of the most striking things when I joined too, like, you know, people are paramount makes a real statement. But yeah, it's it's everybody's responsibility. And I think there's this, there's this other aspect of like culture and safety. And that is hard to sort of, it's hard to sort of identify sometimes, but you know, it when it starts missing. So there's this notion that I've been thinking a lot of recently of like having the space to sort of be oneself, having the space to sort of think about culture, having the space to sort of think about, or to invest in empathy, to invest in being an advocate for the people that you care about. Yeah, these things take energy. And if you don't have the space to express that energy, then it's really hard to participate in those things. And there's always these organizational pressures in any company that like, threaten to sort of suppress that space, because at the end of the day, like, you need to get work done right. You need to do things and all these other things are time too. Like, you need time, you need space to think about, like, how do I do this stuff. And it's also important to acknowledge that you are not a robot, you cannot sit down at your computer and code all day long, right? Yeah. So I think this idea of like, organizational space is something that I've been sort of reflecting on a lot lately. And again, if I go back to that point of like, thinking about that interview with dB, you know, he, he was talking about this conversation that he had with Carter, about like, hey, look, we're, I think we should open sources repo. And, and Carter was like, Well, why would we not? What would what would the benefit of not doing this be? Which was like, such an interesting way to flip it? But the fact that like, Carter even asked that question meant that like, you know, he trusted DB to make this decision, he was wanting a little bit more insight, or, like, you know, making sure that DB could explain his rationale, but like, there was trust there, right. And there was just sort of space to explore, and to do all this other stuff. Carter was like, you know, look, I just trust you to do what you need to do to take care of what you need to take care of. And I think historically, that's been one of the strongest attributes of this team is to really provide the space to be to be your whole self to explore, to do your best work. And that's the thing that is also very tenuous and takes takes work to sort of maintain because it also happens at different levels, right? So you can have an organization that provides the space and then be on a team that doesn't, or vice versa? Definitely, you know, so they're like these different bubbles inside of an organization that, like, have space or don't have space. And it's like,
Steve Hicks 16:57
Yeah. There's a, there's a lot of, there's a lot of different kinds of space, too, right? Like, there's the autonomy or agency that you were talking about, or the trust. So the fact that, you know, I'm giving you the space to work with this problem, rather than trying to solve it for you. There's also like a time aspect to space, right? Like, my, my partner, and I were talking about this yesterday, actually, she's a, she's a teacher, online, even before the pandemic, it was online. And, you know, we were just talking about the differences in terms of pace, as a software developer versus the teacher, teachers for nine months of the year, do not get space, in it from a time perspective, every single day, pretty much they're on, and they're working to teach the kids that are in their class. But then, and this isn't universal. But if if summer comes along, and they don't have to work over the summer, like that's a lot of time for them to take everything that they did in the last nine months and process it and try to maybe figure out what went well, what didn't. Retro on it, maybe is a way that I would describe it like to relate to software. And and then iterate so so you know, after that, you get to go ahead and plan your next year. And this time span is like, for for her is a lot. It's different than the space for me in terms of timing, which is a project happens. And it's heads down, and we move forward. And then maybe there's a little bit of time in between. and this is like you know, after a month or so of working hard towards this, this goal. So we get more frequent opportunities to retro and and look back and process the things that we have done, but they don't last as long. Right? So we get a little bit of time here to figure out what went well on this project and try to iterate and adjust for the next one.
Justin Bennett 18:49
Steve Hicks 18:50
Are there any other things about space?
Justin Bennett 18:53
Yeah, yeah, I'll get to another one. One thing that I want to say is that space between projects, that space being short is also so incredibly important. Yeah, because like, I hold a strong personal opinion, that five day workweeks are unhealthy. Because I hold the opinion that people can't don't have the space, they don't have the time to really unwind and to reset in those two days. You have one day that is recovery. And then that is like primarily its sole responsibility. And then you have another day that theoretically, you could have things you could do and accomplish but you also have this anxiety of like this pending return, right? So I say that because like I feel like actually giving people longer breaks, makes them more effective.
Steve Hicks 19:47
Justin Bennett 19:48
Gives them more energy gives them more excitement, it helps them bring their whole selves to a problem. I like referring to this book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people by Stephen Covey, this old manager, or this manager, I had at my last job named Tripp Shoemake, who make who is just such a hero of mine. He's just like the leaders leader, he recommended I read this book, and it has this notion in there of, like, with people moving fast is slow. And going slow is fast. And the idea is like, if you're trying to be efficient, it's not gonna work out well for you. But if you're trying to be effective, you have a lot of room to move. And so like, I just come back to say that those like refresh periods even as small as they are so critical and so important,
Steve Hicks 20:44
Definitely. And if you don't have them, I think that's, that's a pretty good recipe for burnout. Right? similar to an analogy, I always think about in regards to pacing yourself, or working at a sustainable pace is like is training, physically, just physical training. So exercising, lifting weights, if you're trying to get if you're trying to get stronger, if you tried to get faster at running, whatever it is that you're trying to do, if you if you do that every single day, and you don't take rest days, you're just gonna fatigue to the point that you can't do it anymore. You need those rest days for your body to recover, just like on any project, building something in software, you need those recovery opportunities to process the things that you did. And think about how you can do them differently.
Justin Bennett 21:31
Yes, yes. Anybody out there who's listening to this, who has not been taking breaks, and he has not been taking time for themselves, and they think, Oh, it's fine, just a little bit longer. It's like, yeah, you're not doing yourself any favors, just slow down, take a breath, take a rest.
There's another space aspect. Another thing that I want to that I want to bring that I think is so important, is just a space to be heard. The space to speak. I've recently started seeing a therapist after my own sort of bout of burnout earlier in the year. And, and I didn't realize actually how incredibly impactful having someone who is like trained to listen and ask the right questions, how incredibly impactful on your psyche that is. But as human, as human beings, we bring parts of ourselves to work, even if people would like it to be just work. We bring all these different aspects, all these insecurities, all our fears, all our hopes, our aspirations, you know, these are all bundled up in this really messy package. And if you don't feel like you can express yourself, if you don't feel like you can ask a question, or maybe raise that something's a problem, it could be a problem or like, you know, if you don't feel like you can safely do these things. It goes back to like, not having the space for that means that it's an unsafe environment, and that you can't get to all of these other things that you really need. Yeah, so I think that's such an important one.
Steve Hicks 23:09
Yeah. Are you interested in talking a little bit more about your experience with burnout? Or should we stay away from that topic?
Justin Bennett 23:17
Yeah, let's do it. Yeah. I'm more than happy to talk about it. Because I think what burnout looked like for me is not what I expected. I read the articles, you know, I, we were talking about burnout early in the pandemic, you know, it's like, oh, people are burning out, like, gotta be careful. And I was tech lead at the time, I as a tech lead, worried all the time about my team burning out. It's like, are you okay? Are you taking some time for yourself? Like, please, you know, take time off, like, I was so concerned with making sure that my team and frankly, all the people that I was working with, and all the people that was around me that were taking care of themselves that, you know, in some ways, I was blind to my own struggles. I wasn't completely blind to it. I know, I knew that I was going through things, but it impacted me in ways that I just didn't expect.
Steve Hicks 24:16
Justin Bennett 24:18
It's hard to pinpoint why you burn out or why you burn out because it's never just like, Oh, this one thing happened and I burned out. Because that would be like, it would be easier to understand and wrap your head around that, Oh, well, just make sure that event can't happen or figure out how to process that or figure out how to handle that sort of thing. But it's like this slow, steady series of small cuts over a long time that really gets to you and really starts adding fatigue for sure. But it's mostly in my experience emotional things that really build up. It's things like fear and like frustration and helplessness and guilt and shame. And like those very human, underlying emotions are all the things that I contribute to my burnout, you know. Guilt that I couldn't, I felt like I wasn't doing enough that I was struggling to focus. Shame that my team, I felt like I was failing my team because I wasn't able to help them deliver this work on time when that was an unrealistic expectation for myself. And nobody else had that expectation. But like I held those emotions in while I was working, because I just didn't have the time or the space to sort of offload those and figure out how to process that, you know, I wasn't taking time between projects, I wasn't doing the sort of emotional labor that I need to do. And I've said several times to people Artsy that take time if you need it. But understand that time off is not a panacea for burnout, that does not fix your problems.
So in December, I took two weeks off, I was having a hard time, December was incredibly hard for me for a lot of reasons. I lost a really close family member, earlier in the year. And that was the whole thing. So I took some time off for myself, but I didn't go anywhere, I couldn't do anything, I was alone. And I couldn't process the emotions that I had, you know, this anxiety, from COVID, all of these things, and... but I took the time off. And actually in a way, it probably was so much worse, because I came back into work, thinking I should be refreshed now. I've had this time, I should be good. And I just dived into it with a gusto and really tried to like help the team and there was this like, really big project coming up. Like the team that I was on was changing. And I just like was just trying to do everything I could to be helpful to be in the right place to say the right things to help the right people just help everyone just feel like they could do their best where they could have the space for themselves to bring their whole selves, make sure that technically we were on track, you know, all of these concerns. And, you know, every time a little thing happens when you're like, when you have, I'm gonna say for me, I had no space at that point, like I had no space for myself. The little things that happen, that always happened throughout your day, but the little things that happen then start becoming more impactful. Right? So two colleagues have a disagreement. You know, disagreements are fine. But like, there's a point where if you're not in a good place, and you care about this people, and you're supposed to be like a leader on the team, then maybe you internalize that as a failure of yourself, right? It's not rational. But like, those sorts of things start seeping in and start building up. And that's like, that's what happened to me, you know,
I was going to the doctor, because I was like, having heart palpitations, and like, Phantom pains, and I was like, having trouble sleeping. And I was like, you know, I think I think I have heart issues. Maybe I'm having too much caffeine, like, and I was having panic attacks, and I didn't know what they were. And I was like, you know, all these things are going wrong. And they're like, it's probably psychological. And I'm like, What are you talking about? It was a hard experience. I was connecting with one of our team members. And I was saying, I was like, you know, we were in a meeting together. And that's when I had like, my first panic attack. Not that like, you know, it was his fault or anything. And I was like, tried to frame that is like, just like, it wasn't because of the meeting. It wasn't because of anything is going on. I had literally no idea what was happening. I was talking, I was in the middle of a conversation, and I just started having a panic attack. And I just was freaking out. And I didn't know why I didn't know what was you know, what was wrong? And yeah, it was just, it was just such a surreal experience. So the thing that I will, you know, say is that burnout is such a personal journey. I was on this and people didn't know, like, was that and how I was suffering. And that's why now when I look at colleagues, if I think someone's going to burn out, I'm so worried that if this is the manifestation of where they're at now, what is it that we can't see? Where's the rest of the iceberg? How deep does that go?
Steve Hicks 29:42
Yeah, there's something about burnout where it seems like the only way we know to treat it, or the only way we think to treat it is with time off, which is, as you described earlier, a total bandaid because it doesn't fix any of the systems, any of the cumulative effects of all the things that have been going on, for the last, however long brought you to that point. It doesn't address them at all, you know, as you described in your story, if you come back to a situation where nothing, none of those things have changed. I have to imagine that, you know, it's like, trying to put a bandaid on your hand and then just like walking through a forest of knives, like it's not, the bandage isn't going to do much for you. Unfortunately, that seems to be it does seem like that's the only time we notice it is when it gets to that point that we absolutely have to do something about it right now. And we're going to give you time off.
Justin Bennett 30:41
Yeah, there's this other thing that I think is, is another thing that I struggle with, personally, I took medical leave for work, which is the first time in my life I've ever done that. But right up before that decision, I was struggling so hard with it, because like, the thing that I was, the thing that I felt inside is like I don't deserve this time off. I don't deserve to burn out, I am not working the hardest on this team. It is another like emotional aspect, sort of an irrational thing that goes through your mind in those moments. And I feel like people sort of self select out of this notion, because they have this like, very narrow ideas like, Oh, this is what it takes to burn out. You must be coding 80 hours a week, you know, you're like, doing all these things, when like, that is not true at all, like the conditions of burnout vary a lot. And the environment of burnout can vary, you can be in a supportive environment. And I was in a supportive environment on a supportive team who would do anything for me. But like sometimes that doesn't matter if the conditions are wrong for you, you can still burn out. So the thing that is really important is to make sure that you understand what gives you energy, what you have the space for, and really try to optimize for that thing. Because you can push through frustration and through pain and through emotions for a little while. But it's when you're trying to always sort of continually push those those things. That's when you're setting yourself up for this like, hard situation.
Steve Hicks 32:21
Definitely. Justin, there's one more thing one more quick thing I want to say about burnout. And I actually pulled this up earlier, because I wanted to get these three things, right. But one thing I have read about burnout is it there are multiple types of burnout, or people have categorized multiple types of burnout. And yes, the one that everyone thinks of is like the overuse, overworking, etc. But being under challenged is definitely a way that you can reach a point of burnout, where you feel like the work that you're doing isn't important, or the work that you're doing isn't challenging to you. And then another type of burnout that I'm reading about right now I'm looking over to the side here to read this, but burnout for neglect, for feeling helpless. So just for anyone listening, if you're, if you're thinking you don't have burnout, because you're not working 80 hours a week, maybe there's a different type of burnout that you're running into.
Yeah. Last thing, Justin, before we wrap this up, I just want to give you a real quick chance to talk about what you've got coming up next after Artsy.
Justin Bennett 33:25
Yeah, so I am, I'm super excited, I'm going to be attending the Recurse Center over the summer. So the Recurse Center is this sort of like programming retreat. So think of it like a artists retreat for programmers. So it's where you, you get with a group of people, and you go through the self study, retry to learn, you try to explore, you try to invest in yourself. It's an unstructured environment. So like they have things that you can attend, like daily check ins, and like sort of show and tells, but there's not a lot of structure around it, you don't have to do a lot of things. So you have this like central outlet where you can have this community, which is important in my mind. But you also have a lot of room to just explore. So yeah, I'm gonna invest in my education in a way that I haven't done in a long time, like really seriously. And just take some time to play with some of these ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a long time. Like there's this one idea that I'm really fascinated with this, like, how, like if we were thinking about the cell phone we carry in our pocket all the time and how distracting and interruptive in our lives that can be like, if we could sort of rethink how we design that. Is there something that we could do to make it a little bit more human? To make it a little bit more optimized for how we think and less distracting, use it when you need it kind of thing.
Steve Hicks 34:56
How do we make money off of that though? Just kidding.
Cool. So we'll wrap this up. One quick thing I want to say is, if anyone is interested in following along with your journey, you're planning on taking some notes and sharing them. You have a public website where we can see the notes of all the things that you're exploring at Recurse.
Justin Bennett 35:17
Yeah, so I'm doing an interesting thing where as I work on something, I have a editor, a notepad editor, like open in the the next window, and I'm constantly writing notes as I'm like building stuff. So I have a website. It's just-be.dev, and I have a /notes thing there. If you want to check it out. It's very stream of consciousness. Don't expect anything refined. It won't be a thought piece. But it will be what I'm thinking. So if that's something that interests you, please check it out.
Steve Hicks 35:50
Justin, I just want to thank you for being an incredibly human and for the, I think, two and a half years that we've worked together, it's been an absolute pleasure. And I'm just gonna wish you so much luck.
Justin Bennett 36:03
Yeah. Likewise, Steve, it's been it's been amazing. And to all the people at Artsy. Good luck friends, y'all got this, as Orta would say.
One thing before we leave. I would be remiss in my duties after having talked about burnout, if I didn't say, PSA, if you don't have a therapist, get a therapist. Getting a therapist is not easy. If you're trying to search for therapists, when you absolutely need a therapist, it is not easier. But if you need a therapist today, please do so. The process takes time, you might find people that you don't align with that aren't helpful. Please don't let that discourage you. Therapists are humans too, keep looking. It's probably the single greatest investment that you can make in yourself as a person. So please, please do that.
Steve Hicks 36:53
Plus one. Normalize therapy. I love my therapist. It's like you said earlier, it's amazing to talk to someone who was trained to listen, and it made me want to get better at listening. It made a huge difference in my life.
Alright, Justin, thank you so much for hanging out.
Justin Bennett 37:10
Thanks, man. Appreciate it.
Steve Hicks 37:13
Thanks for listening, friends. You can follow us on Twitter @artsyopensource. Keep up with the Artsy Engineering blog at artsy.github.io. This episode was recorded by me Steve Hicks, and Justin Bennett. It was produced by Aja Simpson. Thank you Eve Essex for our theme music, you can find her on all major streaming platforms. Until next time, this is Artsy Engineering Radio.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai