Social Hacks to Selfishly Up Your Work Game

If you, like me, work in a technical position, you probably think of social skills as a waste of brainpower. And one of the greatest advantages of having a technical position is that most of the time, social skills are optional for your job progression! But what I've discovered over the last few years is that if you develop social skills in particular ways, it can actually be a worthwhile investment, because they can make your job easier while making you look more valuable to your management. This means you can get paid more money to do less work! And if your technical skills are below average for your position1, improving your social game may be your best way to get ahead. Here are some of the most useful social hacks I've discovered over the years, loosely organized.

Whenever possible, speak to end users directly. It can be tough to understand their complaints, but if you're willing to put in the effort, end users are the best possible source of information about what your product is actually being used for and what sort of problems it is causing for people. If you work in a software company, there are likely several layers of hierarchy in between you and your users, which is at best a pleasant luxury for you, and at worst, actively makes it harder for you to do your job. But if you're able to work around this hierarchy, often by doing stuff as simple as "lurking slack channels where the end users gripe to each other", you can gain a wizard-tier insight into what sort of simple improvements can make your software way better. As a bonus, the product-level people who work between you and the end users will respect and fear your knowledge.

Deliberately cultivate the skill of "explaining a technical concept to non-technical people". No matter what your position is, you (or your team at large) will find yourself forced, at regular occasions, to explain something complicated to someone(s) who have no context or background on what's going on. Something important will break, or someone important will ask for something that "sounds simple" but isn't, or someone will suddenly need a crash course on some critical system. If you can be the one who explains it using words your audience understands, you'll earn major recognition and respect.

Get over your fear of being wrong in front of people. If you're not sure how something works, explain it to the best of your understanding and wait for someone to correct you. If you have to make a decision (or a decision must be made by the people in your vicinity) suggest a sane default and wait for objections. This makes you look confident and decisive, but more importantly, it's the quickest way to correct your own misunderstandings. The best attitude toward being wrong is "I'm probably wrong about at least a few things; I'm going to find out what they are and correct them as quickly as possible".

Find 1 way to make your manager's life easier, and make a point of doing that. This is brown-nosing obviously, of the highest order. But it's effective, and you can't argue with results. Even if your manager is terrible (I've had a few of those!) you should still accept that things could be worse: your manager could be terrible and also out to get you.

If you have direct reports, find 1 way to make their lives easier, and make a point of doing that. Brown-nosing is effective in both directions. You want your direct reports to have a favorable opinion of you, even (or especially) if they're dimwitted and useless.

Find 1 task that the people around you don't like doing, and become The One Who Takes Care Of This Problem. Even better if you can automate it, and/or document the correct procedure for others to follow if necessary.

Any time you have business critical information in your head, record it in a place that is accessible to others. This makes you both a valued contributor and a person who won't be bothered in their time off. True story: one time, a senior engineer on my team went on vacation to Hawaii. A couple days into his trip, we got a high-priority, somewhat recurring request from a customer. We looked into it and realized that every single time a previous version of this request had come in, this engineer had quietly handled it without recording what he'd done. We had no choice but to interrupt his vacation to ask what to do. He responded (eventually) that he had a script he ran every time this request came in; saved locally, on his work computer, which was in his home, not with him in Hawaii. A few hours later, I had roughly duplicated what his script was doing, and managed to run it and satisfy the customer's request. As soon as that was done, I made a specific point to SAVE THAT SCRIPT IN A CLOUD LOCATION ACCESSIBLE TO THE ENTIRE TEAM, with brief documentation on how to run it if that request comes in again. Why did I do this? Because maybe one day I'll go to Hawaii on vacation, and I don't want to give anybody a single shadow of a reason to bother me while I'm gone.

When you are given multiple competing priorities and expected to somehow fulfill them all at once, in parallel, be transparent about it. And by transparent, I mean loud. Make it clear to everyone involved that you can focus on exactly one problem at a time and you will start by focusing on the highest value problem. If anyone disagrees with your assessment of the highest value problem, make it clear that you will switch, but that you cannot be focusing on more than one at a time.

Make a point to cultivate relationships with people outside your immediate department. Bond over hobbies, interests, music, whatever. This way, when you need a favor from their department, you can leverage your personal relationship to ask for help, instead of being An Outsider Who Must Go Through The Correct Processes. Similarly, when outsiders ask for favors from your department, put in more than the required amount of effort to help them (as long as the request is reasonable). People remember those who have helped them out in the past, and feel a sense of obligation. If you've done a bunch of favors for people, you now have a high balance in the favor bank you can draw down from when needed.

Remember that process exists to serve people, and not the other way around. Learn when to work within the process and when to circumvent, ignore, or break it--or if it's not working for anyone, put in the work to change it. Develop a reputation as someone who puts results ahead of rules2; this earns you a lot of wiggle room you can take advantage of later.

Avoid beefing with anyone as much as possible, and make lots of allies. This is so if anyone tries to beef with you, you can crush them with the overwhelming force of your loyal coalition--and so you get a reputation as someone who doesn't cause trouble or make drama. That way if drama or trouble appears around you, people will have reason to assume you didn't start it.

By crafty use of these strategies, you can go far in your organization, while not actually doing all that much work. You don't even need to have any kind of organic social skills to put them in place! I certainly don't, and they've worked great for me.

  1. By definition, 50% of people are below the median, most due to no fault of their own! 

  2. Unless you work at the sort of place that puts rules ahead of results. But if you're doing that, my only advice for you is to choose between a) quitting and b) cynically extracting as much money as you legally can. 

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