5 min read

Overly Transparent

Overly Transparent
I've got good memories associated with this movie. All credit to Alan Moore and 20th Century Fox

I try to be as open and honest as I can.

If I'm writing something on this blog, I'll share my thoughts freely. If someone asks me how I'm doing, I'll tell them plainly. If a person wants feedback, I'll give it to them frankly. If I need to report on something, I won't sugar-coat it.

In all of those cases, it feels like the right thing to do.

But sometimes I wonder if it's the best thing to do...

Now, Would You Like To Learn How To Shoot?

Lets talk motivations.

First, I like to know things.

Knowing things allows me to make better decisions, create more accurate plans and adjust my behaviour to create the best outcomes for everyone involved.

Scientia potentia est after all.

This underlying drive to know things leads naturally to the assumption that other people also want to know things. So I share, I speak the truth and I generally don't hold back.

Second, I honestly believe that if the truth can destroy something, it deserves to be destroyed.

Third, from a professional perspective, I consider being open and honest to be critical to any sort of leadership role, and strongly aligned with the concept of being a servant-leader. You don't exist to exert power and control; you exist in order to facilitate and help. Your power comes from the people that you serve, and they trust that you will use it wisely.

Being open and honest with the people that you are responsible for might not always feel good, but it shows that you think they will do the right thing when given all of the relevant information and thus repays their trust in instilling you as a leader in the first place.

Finally, I've found that if you're open and honest with people, it encourages them to be open and honest with you, so it creates a nice positive feedback loop where everyone benefits.

I Can Already

Motivations aside, I can think of plenty of times throughout my own personal history where I have been open and honest and it has created a good outcome for the people involved, me included.

Way back in the mists of time (aka April 2015), when I was still a software engineer and well before I worked at Atlassian, I accidentally published an AWS key with a lot of permissions to GitHub.

Within an hour or two it was picked up by nefarious individuals scanning public GitHub repositories and used to spin up a huge number of EC2 instances to farm cryptocurrency.

We didn't realise for almost 24 hours.

In that ~24 hours, said nefarious individuals ran up a bill of approximately 8000 Australian dollarydoos, which, in retrospect, isn't really all that bad. Default AWS account limits are a very good thing.

When I came in that morning to discover the situation, I quickly realised it was my fault. The first thing I did? Immediately fess up to the CEO and offer to pay the damages. I also dug in and started to fix the problem, and with the help of the IT team, I revoked the key, rolled out a new one to the services that needed it and started cleaning up the mess.

My reaction built trust with both the CEO and the IT team, and showed them that even when I find myself in a situation where I am disadvantaged, I can still be trusted to do the right thing.

Just not trusted with AWS keys.

A single example does not a point make, so I'll do another one quickly.

If you've been reading this blog at all over the last few years, you'll know that we do regular performance reviews at Atlassian. For managers, a key part of those performance reviews is upward feedback, where the people you are responsible for get to offer you feedback directly in a systemised way.

Whenever I get upward feedback, I analyse it and then publish my results internally, sharing whatever scores or ratings I got from the evaluation, along with any of the things that the people I'm responsible for have said. Anonymising it appropriately of course.

I could just as easily keep that information to myself, but it's important that others have more information about how I'm doing. Both my peers (i.e. fellow managers, who can use that information for comparative purposes) and the people that I'm responsible for (i.e. all of the engineers who wonder if their feedback just goes into a black hole).

In both of those cases, my drive to be open and honest creates a world in which people are richer in knowledge and thus better able to make the right choices.

It's More Than Just Firing Bullets And Hoping

It's not all puppies and roses though, as there are definitely times when I or the people around me have been burned as a result of my openness and honesty.

Going back to the AWS key breach that I mentioned above, the whole thing was caused by me being too transparent. Specifically, I published some of the work that we had been doing around automatic environment setup via CloudFormation and PowerShell, with the intent to let others benefit.

Others did benefit, just not in the way I intended.

Accidentally including credentials when you're uploading something to GitHub is a pretty easy mistake to make though, so rather than blame it on the desire to share, I just blamed it on stupidity.

Also, I haven't done it since, so I consider it a lesson well learned.

A better example of my openness causing issues happened recently.

I've been thinking about a change of roles for a while, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I actually wrote about it clearly, and that writing included the fact that I was exploring a potential TPM role. Potential being the keyword.

People read that post and started asking questions, which was the right thing for them to do. However, I was on holidays at the time, which meant that they were asking questions to my leadership team, who then had to decide what they should do. I had actually confirmed the role change at that point, so they told everyone the truth.

Good outcome, right?

Well, I wasn't there at the time (holidays remember), so it felt like a bit of a dick move on my part. I had my own plans about announcing the change, giving everyone I'm responsible for a heads-up individually and following it up with a general blog post to give more context.

It's not like it was the worst thing to ever happen, but it didn't feel great all the same. I didn't like that I forced my leadership teams hands and I didn't like not being there for the people I was responsible for.

I've got lots of other examples, but I think that will do for now. Point made. Sometimes my behaviour doesn't help.

Do I Get To Blow Something Up Then?

Are the negative experiences above enough to make me re-evaluate my underlying stance and change my behaviour such that I keep more things to myself?

Well, yes, but actually no.

I still honestly believe that more information sooner is better than any other option and I haven't been burned enough to change that opinion.

I could definitely stand to be a bit more nuanced in how I apply it though. To take the reality of the situation into account and subtly tweak how open and honest I am.

I worry that that might lead to a slow compromise to the principle though.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions after all.