The following is a rough transcript of my DevOpsDays Rockies 2019 Ignite talk entitled “Be a Boat Lifter! A Rising Tide that Lifts Everyone Around You.”

Slides are available here, and the video from the event is here. Additional resources about this topic are available at the end of the article.


We all have a responsibility to help each other get better. None of us can reach our full potential, unless we’re helping each other to learn and grow.

An analogy I like is being a “boat lifter”: a rising tide that lifts up everyone around you. I think it’s a good metaphor for us to think about what we should be doing every day.

Here are a couple examples of people that are living this out:

“On Being a Senior Engineer,” Kitchen Soap

I want you to notice it says “mature engineers” here. Not “senior engineers.” Not “principal engineers.” This is for everybody at all levels.

So let me suggest a few disciplines we can instill in ourselves and others to help each other out.

First, realize that you bring an extra set of eyes and a unique perspective to others. Everybody else can learn and be helped by this, if you’re willing to share it.

Your past experiences give you a kind of view into the future, where you can see problems before they happen. Make sure to be calling these out! It’s so important! It’s like clearing the mines before your team walks across the field.

Be on the lookout for “patterns of pain.” These are the recurring things that are always causing trouble and burning a lot of time. Focus yourself and others on dealing with those things first. Otherwise, they’ll just keep dragging you down.

Now, to borrow from Agile a little: try to focus everything you do on specific outcomes. That’s your finish line: the outcomes, what you actually want to have happen. The work that gets you there is not that important.

And constantly be evaluating how you’re doing against those outcomes. You can never get any better unless you’re doing this. Build that habit in others as well. It can be really easy to lose this perspective.

A good litmus test is to take your team’s outcomes and try to connect those to the higher-level goals of the company. You all need to be pulling in the same direction. After all, this is how your team provides value to the organization.

If you have trouble making those connections, be prepared to shift your priorities. And this could even mean abandoning work that’s already in progress. It’s ok not to finish that stuff! If it’s not giving you the value and outcomes you want, there’s no point in doing it.

But this could be a problem when you have to kill a sacred cow. It’s painful to have your pet project abandoned. So help others to see that their value comes from their knowledge and skill set, not the particular project they work on.

One way to do this is to get people thinking about their career goals, and how to get there. Constructively point out areas they can be working on. It’s super important to actually provide real feedback about this.

Sometimes we have a tendency to just say, “Hey, you are doing a great job, keep it up! Just keep doing what you’re doing!” But that is so not helpful. People need real feedback on how to get better.

Next, encourage and instill a healthy work-life balance. We all know someone who will stay up all night to fix and outage or knock out a big project. These are our “heroes.” But in the long run, these “heroes” aren’t good for anybody.

Watch for people who are burned out, or aren’t as happy as they used to be. Find out why. Encourage them that it’s OK to take time to recharge. We need to be actively advocating for this in our industry!

Seek to be humble, and don’t attract a lot of attention to yourself. When complemented for a job well done, give credit also to those around you who helped. Very little of what we do is completely on our own.

Finally, don’t keep these skills to yourself. We all need to be doing this. We can’t do it in a vacuum. Don’t just do these things, but teach others to do them as well. Shape the culture in your organization toward helping each other succeed.

Follow Swarna’s advice: helping others be successful is your success. I challenge you to be a boat lifter every day!

Additional resources & articles on this topic: