Betwixt Code and Music

A Journey Through Leadership

October 10, 20197 min read

Recently my uncle Tommy passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. It makes one think on life and our purpose when a close family member leaves this mortal coil. Am I doing enough? What have I accomplished in the past? What does the future hold for me and my family? What did Tommy think about his long, adventurous life at the end? Was he full of regret? Was he joyful thinking back through his memories?

In my software development career, I am beginning to come of age and grow at a rapid pace. A friend and I started a company in 2019. This total ownership of the business and product makes us approach that work in a different manner. My daily work at my main gig continues to be fun with increased responsibility and increased influence. The most recent months have seen me lead a project from beginning to end and research/build the bones of the upcoming mobile app. A natural question that dawns on a person with regards to their career is, “What’s next?”

Vision

Our one-on-one evaluations at my day job have evolved into a list of goals that each team member wants to accomplish — 101 goals, to be precise. The exercise works its way through some iterations into a personal 10-year vision. About four years ago I wrote a one-year vision for myself, only two months after starting my first software development job. Looking back, I was spot-on about some of the things while other objectives were a bit too aspirational. No shock to me or my wife — I am a dreamer. I think about the big picture a lot. I wonder what else there is out there. Like Alexander Hamilton (and Eliza Schuyler), I am never satisfied. The act of putting the vision down on paper, working through as many goals I can think of, it’s a great process. Highly recommend. When finished it’s much easier to understand your trajectory through a career and life in general. Armed with a vision about your future will clarify the decisions we face each day.

User Group

For the last three and a half years I have volunteered as the main organizer for the ReactJS Dallas User Group. This work as a leader in the community brings me joy. I work with two other organizers to arrange for venues, food, speakers, and communication for our monthly events. The success of this user group is measured in many ways beyond the smiles and laughs at our events. Countless people have connected with each other in person. Several people are in new jobs that they found through our events and network. Companies and recruiters continue to attend our events to plug their open positions and meet eager developers. My idea to start the user group was born out of the kindness shown to me at Dallas and Austin meetups. I hoped to pay it forward while also learning more about React. Organizing these types of events helps others connect. It also helps to satisfy my unending desire to learn as much as I can about everything. Aspiring polymaths unite!

What is leadership?

So…leadership. What does that even mean? A person running a company is a leader by default. The title of “President” or “CEO” means that people are going to listen when you speak. A woman who is a team lead is a leader. I mean, it’s right there in the title. But what about regular people, the team members who are building the widgets and filling out their TPS reports dutifully? Can they be leaders?

Well, like most things, it depends. Some organizations do not have a structure that lends itself to nominal leadership. The company where I work during the daylight hours is pretty much a flat organization. We have the founders and a few other “director”-level positions. There is really no path for an advancement for a title change. If those things are important for a person, then a bigger organization with more structured levels might be more of a destinationn. But in a bigger organization one is likely to find oneself in endless meetings and dealing with middle management. Play your cards right, and you can move up. Not my style, but some poeple dig it.

My Journey

My background in leadership is interesting, but it starts with hitting things. You see, I am the offspring of two fantastic musicians. My mom and dad could play any instrument (and the same for my mom’s brothers Ricky and the aforementioned Tommy). Both of my parents are deceased, but I imagine that they are sitting on a cloud in heaven at this moment strumming a guitar and singing together. I have an album that my dad made years after I was born where he played every instrument on every track and wrote all of the songs himself. I was hitting things in the house from an early age. Everything is an instrument, as every drummer knows. I started band in Dallas ISD in 4th grade when I was 9. Over the countless hours of practice, practice, practice — rata-tat-tat — paradiddle flam flam — I got to be one of the best percussionists at my high school. I loved it. I was eating, living, sleeping, breathing playing drums and all things percussion.

Due to my dedication and personality, my high school band director placed me as Drum Captain in 11th grade. Sometimes it was awkward to be the person in charge over friends in the group a year older than me. Looking back now, it is clear to me that I was already a leader in the group. I would talk, and people would listen. I would organize sleepovers with friends where we would try to drum all night while watching movies. I acted as the ringleader for trips to see local college drum lines and drum and bugle corps shows. I was a force-multiplier. People were getting better at playing drums by being in my vicinity because I was ALL ABOUT it, all the time.

Carry this theme forward to university where I was stuyding music education; same story here. By the time my third year of college rolled around I was the Drum Captain of the college drum line. That first year of leadership a good friend of mine was in my section who was a legendary drummer and five years older than me…and our professor decided that it was me that should be in charge of the group. Another friend was two years my elder and my big brother in the band fraternity, and I was his section leader, too. Those were fun years. So of the 9 years I was marching in drum line, I spent five of those years as the leader of the entire group, the nominal Drum Captain.

Now, I don’t know all the details that went into these decisions. I definitely wanted to be in these positions. If there was an application process, I would do that. I could visualize myself doing the work of being a leader, showing up early, staying late, putting in the hours, being a good example, bringing any team member who is struggling up alongside me, teaching others. But what I never did was try to curry favor to get these positions. I see this quality in my own children, too. It’s completely foreign to me (and them) to try to feign compliments or try to get something that I don’t deserve.

In my first career out of college I worked as a percussion teacher and band director for 13 years. These positions all carried a built-in quality of leadership. Even if a teacher may not think of himself or herself as a leader, that person functions in that capacity. The subject matter expert with a title who is much older than the learners in the room is the de facto leader. My work with high school bands always included interactions and training with the student leadership team, too. Sometimes this would mean leadership training for the students (and me!) with great leaders such as Dr. Tim, Frank Trokya, or Jeff Jones. I also worked alongside Jeff and Frank, so I enjoyed the added benefit of daily interactions and watching their leadership training in effect throughout the course of a school year.

Present Day

I work as a rank-and-file software developer focusing on the front end code, meaning the parts that a customer will touch and use. Often I will look up from writing code and a couple of people are in line at my desk to see if I can help them solve a problem. Another person in the kitchen has a casual conversation about an issue he is facing, and my advice helps get closer to a solution. A customer service rep comes to me to help her understand a customer-reported bug. Interns need scaffolding to learn our process, our apps, and general real-world software development, and I contribute to their learning and success. I step up and take care of things when they need to get done. I hold others accountable and never settle for less than the best in myself. I make the team around me better each day.

Where do I go from here? Does a person acting as a leader stay where they are to keep being a productive team member, even though having no title bears no official leadership? Or does a person seek out a formal leadership position to exercise the already-present duties and traits in a more appropriate manner? As usual, it depends. I am four years into this software devlopment position, and it is the longest I have done any activity and not been a named leader in the group. I know that my gifts lie in teaching, leadership, and discernment, and those skills are currently used less than they could be. Also, many organizations attach a higher pay to a “leadership” position of some sort. Raising three kids is expensive, so that aspect is attractive. On the other hand, I am doing interesting work at my day job. We have the freedom to govern our own time. The job allows me enough extra time most weeks to work on the business that I am building that will help fine arts teachers. It’s a conundrum.

I do know this: a person can be a leader without a title. If the reader is questioning whether or not you have any leadership in your career or other aspect of your life, then consider your influence. Do you have an influence on those around you? If the answer is yes, then you are a leader.


Michael D. Mathew.

Written by Mike Mathew who lives and works in Dallas building useful things. Sometimes he tweets.