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Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson: Give Yourself Permission to Be Human

Jeff Lawson Twilio CEO
I have known Jeff Lawson for over a decade. As a software developer–turned–founder/CEO of Twilio, Jeff Lawson wrote the book “Ask Your Developer” to help businesses unleash engineers’ full potential. Jeff wrote his book in response to people who tend to think of developers as little more than, in his words, “code monkeys.”Jeff is a serial inventor and a self-made billionaire. Prior to Twilio, Jeff was the founder & CTO of NineStar, founding CTO of Stubhub.com, and founder, CEO, and CTO of Versity. After those leadership roles, Lawson worked as one of the original product managers for Amazon Web Services. Not bad for a University of Michigan dropout and by the way to his credit, he later returned to finish his degree. As a work-from-home parent, Jeff is keeping it real during the pandemic, and still making time to hack on new software and hardware projects. After all, he believes in the power of using the creativity of code to solve business problems.Jeff describes “Ask Your Developer” as a playbook based on his observations of being a developer and also a CEO. He told me, “we have over 200,000 customers at Twilio — and when I talk to company after company, you see a disconnect between a developer’s work and what their skills are and what business people often think developers are capable of.”  In February, Jeff led a free digital conversation through Fable's events celebrating his book. He was joined by two innovative leaders: Fulp Diversity CEO Carol Fulp and Reboot.io CEO Jerry Colonna.He further elaborates that all too often managers will write business specifications and expect to “throw it over a wall” to a developer to crank out code — which he argues is missing the full opportunity. “I believe software developers are incredibly creative — they’re creative problem solvers,” he says. “We’re getting a fraction of the potential out of these human beings when we treat them as people who only know how to solve quadratic equations. They’re not just math geeks. You can’t keep them in a corner and slide pizza under the door and expect that they’ll grind out code for you."In a recent conversation with me, Jeff dove deeper into creative problem solving and shared his tips for managing stress.
"One of my core hypotheses is that code is creative," he said. "It’s not as much about science and math as it is about creativity. For business people to collaborate with developers, we need to hand them big business and customer problems to solve. You'll be amazed at the results and solutions you can get out of developers when you hand them problems. I think a lot of well-intentioned executives unintentionally remove the agency that developers have, and should have, to get the best outputs."

How To Manage Stress

When I asked how he found the time to write a book while running a large public company like Twilio, Jeff had some good advice:"The process was me sitting down and blocking off large swaths of time to write. I found the creative process of getting words down so therapeutic. You can see progress by your word count and there'll be hours and hours of staring at the blinking cursor, having nothing to show for it. And then suddenly in about 20 minutes, just being able to hammer out an entire chapter of 8,000 words," he said. "That creative process feels so good — to unblock yourself after all this thinking and false starts. In many ways that progress as a creative problem solver — whether you're an author or a developer or whatever you do — is so good for the soul." Here’s Jeff’s advice for how to manage stress while juggling many demands in our daily lives:

1. Get plenty of sleep, and schedule time to exercise regularly — otherwise, you won’t do it.

I manage stress better when I'm getting good exercise. I feel the impact of stress more acutely when I don’t exercise.I schedule time to work out. Prior to putting exercise on my calendar, I never worked out. If you Google photos of me, you’ll find old photos of me of running Twilio through 2016, and I was getting progressively larger. I wasn’t taking good care of myself. In the beginning of 2017, I finally started putting exercise on my calendar. My calendar was packed with all these meetings back to back. I started thinking about how all those meetings are typically about things other people are asking for your time. I started thinking about how people asking for your time takes precedence over having control over your time. Once I put exercise on my calendar, I lost 50 pounds over the course of about six months just by exercising and eating better. It’s about taking control of your calendar and adding balance to your day. 

2. Keep everything in perspective. 

It’s easy to overreact and get riled up about things — at work, on social media, problems that friends, family, or coworkers dump on you. It’s easy to let those things affect you.Whenever I hear something that gets me riled up, I realize a fight-or-flight response is not useful and won’t solve the problem, so I stop to put things into perspective. Take a deep breath and realize that in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not that big of a deal. Figure out how to handle it, how to process that information.

3. Be an observer of the traffic. 

This is a technique in meditation. Instead of being in the traffic, you’re an observer of the traffic. Imagine seeing yourself on the side of the road — you’re off to the side, observing, as opposed to being in the fray. When you take that approach, it allows you to keep perspective, remain calm, and take a more measured response. This helps keep everything in perspective personally and professionally.

4. Build a schedule that accommodates managing stress and being the human being that you are.

Especially during COVID when there are so many challenges in life and work and everything else takes a little time to prepare yourself for the day. Whether it’s meditating, working out … I gave myself permission to not be a machine. I think it’s more important than ever to recognize and give ourselves permission to be human. I think about the ordinary corporate schedule for someone who has a lot of meetings — executives and managers — you know, our schedules don't even account for the fact that we need to use the restroom.We need to recognize that we’re human — and build expectations of normal human things into our schedule, even small things like using the restroom or taking a little break, breathe, and think. That's just being human. You can check out Jeff's Folio "Think Like a Developer" as well as other great book recommendations from indsutry titans on our Fable Folio page!And continue to manage your stress through reading by finding great books on our Fable bookstore or by reading with others through our public book clubs!

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