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Technically Human

From Military Officer to Software Developer: Lessons on Influence

David Kyle Choe
May 31, 2021

Understanding the difference between authority and influence as an engineering manager

Evans Wang, former military officer turned software engineer, goes deep into lessons around influence, managing up, teaching as a skill and much more. Here are our top takeaways from this episode: 

  1. Influence & Authority are not the same: Although he was able to exert authority over his subordinates and they were legally required to obey, this type of authority still did not produce the results he looked for. In order to actually create meaningful impact, Evans talks about building up relational currency. The more relational currency you build, the greater the trust, and the more willing your team will be to support.
  2. Understand your manager's goals: Managing up well requires the EQ and situational awareness to seek out your manager's own needs and goals for their career. It requires aligning the realities of your work and capabilities to the complexities they're navigating.
  3. Good Managers are great teachers: Teaching is a core skill critical to management. Teaching a concept requires you to learn it twice. Being able to simply explain something to someone requires a real grasp of the concept. The best teaching comes through metaphor. Being able to explain complex ideas through familiar ideas is a hack.

Full Transcript Below: 

David Choe: Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of Technically Human. I'm so excited to have Evans here as another guest.

He has an incredible story. We actually connected over LinkedIn, so that shit works. But now I'm excited to, I'm excited to hear a story. I'm excited for y'all to hear a story, and we're going to dig into a few different kinds of topics, but I think we're going to be in for a ride here.

Evans, I'd love for you to introduce yourself and, you know you don't have to get too much into this story cause w we'll dive in there, but yeah. Let, let the audience know who you are, what you do.

Evans Wang: Yeah, sure, sure, sure. So my name's Evans Wang. It all started 3000 years ago. They said he will be born.

And so here I am. No, but I'm currently a senior software engineer right now. At area 23 I'm a veteran served for over 10 years, five and a half, were active. I've got two deployments. I used to teach at a coding bootcamp as one of their lead instructors at Flatiron school. And so I think that's pretty relevant information.

So I'm just happy to be here. Happy to talk about my experience there and anything I can do to help.

David Choe: Where do you currently work? At a agency called area 23 part of the innovation labs team, where we build all sorts of technical projects. So anything that isn't a email banner or a microsite is me and what me and my buddy do over there.

I love it.No, that's interesting. I actually came from agency world too, so familiar with eight area 23 and in their work. So that's fun. Yeah, I would love to love to dive in, you know, I want to hear first about, you know, your time in the military and how you decided to transition from the military into software.

Evans Wang: Ooh, what a great question.

So Basically when I got out of active duty, like most veterans it was very good, very, very hard. Like I was lost for a long time. I didn't know what to do next. So I fell into what I would describe as like a very common trap. Either you go get an MBA. So you use your GI bill for some higher education and follow that because most people do that.

Or you take some sort of like construction job or you go through one of these, like hiring firms where they'll place you in some sort of management position. I had my experience doing that. Wasn't in love with it. I was lucky cause I saved a lot of my deployment money, which was tax-free. And so I had the runway to reinvent myself professionally and that's when I kind of like sat and thought for a long time.

What is it that I want to do? Who am I, what does the future hold? And ultimately, like, why do I really want to do that? And so I got really lucky because as a veteran, I had access to like networks of other veterans that I had to find by myself, by the way with this tough so there's organizations like Veterati or like Slack channels Yeah. Like other things like veteran mentor network. And so I think just first off piece of advice would be whoever you are find, find your tribe is that they call it. It's a book by tribe. Tapping into. People that like they understand your experience, they get you. And definitely there's going to be people that  want to help.

So through something called Veterati , which is a platform where veterans can mentor other veterans. I spoke to a lot of different people in HR, marketing, business operations and tech. And it just seemed like all the people in IT. Cause that's how I knew it at the time. I didn't know the difference between front end backend infrastructure.

Like all of that and they always seem to just be real chill. Right. They had great pay. And so it's important to have very open, honest discussions with these people. Yeah. They had great pay. They really liked what they did. They felt like there was always something new to learn and they weren't stagnant in the role and it would feel really good to be an individual contributor again.

So my experience in the military, I was I was an officer. And so there's a difference between your enlisted ranks and your officer ranks. So I'm not sure. Yeah. Like how much about the military you're familiar with?

Yeah, no, please explain. I mean, I do have family in the military, but I think the audience would like to hear.

Yeah, sure, sure, sure. So the enlisted are the doers they're the frontline soldiers. They get it done. You know, you've got your private, private first class specialists and then you Get promoted to higher ranks of responsibility. So in the enlisted route your private specialists, they do a lot of the grunt work, so to speak.

And then you have your sergeants in the enlisted branch, and those are the non-commissioned officers. And I'll talk about that in a second. So a non-commission officer are the ones that help delegate and also do all of the work that needs to get done. Right. And so then you have your officer ranks. These are the gebronis  like me who sit in the office.

We're just, we bark orders. Right. We write all the operations orders or as we like to call them OpOrds. And we kind of talk about big picture, what needs to get done. What's the intent, here's the general plan of execution go make this happen. Yeah. And so the main difference is it's not going to be me going to too, down the rabbit hole.

They a non-commissioned officer doesn't have a commission. That's literally what it stands for versus a commissioned officer are the ranks that you hear Lieutenant, captain major Colonel, and then your generals. Right? So a commissioned officer has a piece of presidential power, and there's a very important distinction here where if you want to talk about technically speaking, a non-commissioned officer and all the enlisted.

Their oath is they raise their right hand and they swear to obey the president of the United States and swear to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Now, an officer does not make that same oath. They do swear to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

But they do not swear to obey the orders of the president, which is a very interesting distinction. Yeah. And it's because of we don't want to create a tyranny, a monarchy where the responsibility of questioning your higher ups Should be legally authorized. We should not be doing anything that is illegal, immoral or unethical.

And so you will often hear the excuse of, I was just following orders. And that's, that's okay for what I would describe as like an enlisted soldier to say, right. Because they are legally bound to obey those orders. Wow. But as an officer at somebody. Order is you to do something because obviously Colonel can order like a major captain or Lieutenant to do something, but we are allowed to question them.

David Choe: That's interesting. I want to come back to that because that has to do with the question I want to ask you, but, how did you actually land your first software job, like through your discovery and, you know, getting mentored and stuff. How did that actually happen?

Evans Wang: Yeah, definitely. So through those mentorship calls I was like, all right, do I want to get into like computer imaging, maybe some infrastructure, some like traditional, like it roles.

But how do I get, how do I get into code? How do I break into coding? And so naturally that led me down the Google rabbit hole and I discovered bootcamps myself. And there was one dev bootcamp, the original bootcamp, the first one that started it all. I went there. It has since unfortunately shut down, but the alumni networks pretty strong, so that's great.

So yeah, after I graduated my first bootcamp and this is stuff that I definitely want to talk about. Is I wanted, and I was very naive at the time I wanted to use my passion and my powers for good not an uncommon philosophy. And so I got really lucky. I still have my security clearance and I was able to work for a contractor who was helping build a part of va.gov.

So naturally my veteran background, my new skills as a software engineer working for the va.gov and building parts of their website was very impactful and meaningful for me. And it helped that I had a security clearance. And so that was, that was definitely a big step that I had during the interview process.

David Choe: Yeah. I love that. Now kind of going back to what you were just talking about in terms of chain of command and stuff. I would love to hear a little bit about, you know, what. What lessons did you learn in the military that you apply today? You know, how does, how does your thinking from your time in the military kind of bleed into your work and, you know, are there things like fundamentals or values or principles that you still kind of stick with?

Evans Wang: Yeah. So I know you've had Eric on the show obviously, but he's absolutely right. He, 100% is correct. It's it's all about people. And being able to communicate so you get the stereotype of a coder or a software engineer as like, like mom's basement, right. I'm just going to build the next Microsoft billionaire here I come.

I'm not saying that's impossible, but that's generally not how it works, right? Yeah. And so you need to be able to talk to people. What I learned in the military is there's two types of currency. Hm. There's like your proficiency currency, where if you're really good at your job people will kind of like, and respect you.

And then there's, there's this like relationship currency. People will do things for you because they like you, they respect you or they trust you. So as a military officer, I would have the luxury of, and the privilege. Very easy for it to go to people's heads. It goes there all the time. But if I asked one of my subordinates, one of my soldiers to do something it's because they legally had to, they were obligated to by law very quickly in the military world, in my management positions, I've learned that's not exactly true.

I can't just be like, Hey, can you get this done? They would be like, Roger, that sir, I have to, a lot of it was like okay, sure. I'll just do it whenever I feel like, I guess. And so one of the things in as my transition is that people will do things for you because they have to, or because they like you, and I'm not saying you've got to go kiss everyone's butt, but if you can prove to people that you care about them, that they will respect you and they will work hard for you.

One of the sayings, if you're looking for a soundbite that people really like. Is people don't care how much, you know, until they know how much you care. And that's one of the greatest things in terms of showing people that you care about them, that you value them, that you respect them. And they will, they will go to battle for you.

David Choe: You know, that's, that's crazy to hear because for, I think a lot of people have that assumption, right. That. You know, as a manager, you tell someone to do something, they do it, but even in a space, in a context where they're legally bound to do something, it still doesn't work. It still doesn't work out.

Right. So you have to, even in that kind of a context, you still have to build that trust and relationship. I think that's. That's that says a lot about people obviously, but a lot about management as well. And I'm really curious, like, I think you mentioned before, you said you wanted to go back into like an IC role, right?

Having spent a lot of time as an officer in management, what, you know, I want to hear more about why you wanted to do that, but also how having had been a manager, it affects your. Kind of role and perspective as an IC.

Evans Wang: Got it. Man, such great questions. So. The reason why I want them to go back to be in high C is because you miss out on a lot of the cool stuff.

When you're an officer as a Lieutenant, you're still with the soldiers. You're at the ground level. I was at the team leader you know, walking the Mahalo is the, the, the mean streets of Baghdad. But you know, you get promoted to captain, you know, you become like an executive officer, a commander, and you're no longer there with the soldiers anymore.

And so there's just a lot of cool things that you miss when you enter into those management levels and it's cool to be like, Hey, we just shipped this new feature. And I was like, yeah, I heard about it from the client. I thought about how to kind of set that up. And then I asked my engineers to do it.

You know, there was some bugs in the first few days, QA squash them or QA identified them, then we squash them and now I'm happy to report that feature is live. Which is great, but I didn't do anything for that for you, you know, feel bad, man. And then what I get all the credit for that. No, I don't like that.

I definitely want to share the credit with the team and the individuals that made that happen. But there was something I missed about being the person that made it happen. Right. And so big time for me. Another thing from the military that I think translates is into like engineering specifically, is that.

Code does one thing, right? That's all it does. Like you write a function, input output. It's always consistent. It does this one thing and it does it really, really, really well. And so how can you take something that only does one thing chain them together to be flexible, to do basically anything. Right.

It's an interesting concept, but in the military, it's the same thing. Right? I trained this one, soldier. He, or she does this one thing really, really, really well. If you're an infantry, soldier care maintenance execution of your warrior tasks, battles and drills firing a weapon, marksman, your medic does their thing.

The cooks do their thing. The logistics people bring the beans and bullets. Every person does one thing, but. The military is flexible in that we can handle any sort of combat environment anywhere. Right. And so it's just a very interesting parallel there.

David Choe: Yeah. I mean, we'd love for you to get into a little bit about, you know, how I'm sure now you're being managed right.

As an IC. How does, how does it translate having had been in a management role for so long overseeing so many kinds of people? What is it, how do you receive  being managed? I guess now.

Evans Wang: Yes. Well, dude, I like talking to you, man. So there's an interesting phenomenon that happens. When you are a leader you have managed before I've had over 300 people under my command at one point being a good leader right.

Is really helpful. If you know how to be a really good follower. So having had the experience of management, I understand the pressures, the hierarchy, and I can empathize and sympathize with their position. This allows me to talk to them. To my boss and manage up very successfully where I guess a more naive approach is if I'm asked to do something, the first thing I think is as a naive person would be, Oh my God, that's such a stupid idea.

Why are we doing that? And I'm basically fighting with this person who has already fought that fight, right. To think that my manager and this is very naive to think that my manager is telling me to do something And there's no one above him or her that's telling them what to do. That's very naive, right?

It's like me as an individual contributor with no management experience, that's often how individuals think, but the reality is that they're being told. And so one thing that the military does well tries to do well is task and purpose. I have to tell you what you're doing and why you are doing it.

This allows you the flexibility to execute in any way that you want, as long as it achieves the goal. And that's how that's really helped with reducing micromanagement. And so when things like this come down the pipeline, it's like, what's the goal, what's the end state. Right. And that's kind of, when you start to understand that the user story, it's not like build a button, hit this API, get this data and show it.

It's like, what's the user story. All right. What am I trying to ultimately display? This puts you more of a product mindset. This makes you more of a senior engineer because you're understanding the why and the task. And so, yeah, definitely, definitely leadership has helped with being a good follower.

David Choe: Now I love that.

How does that, I mean, you said it helps you manage successfully or successfully manage up. How does, how does it actually do that? Is it because your asking your manager the why. The task and the why, or how does that, how does it translate?

Evans Wang: Okay. Yeah, what I, man, if you're looking for specifics, which is great because a lot of people full of fluff.

So if let's just say my manager were to ask me to do something. I think that being able to manage expectations and being able to set them up for success really helps. So if I have the inner will and strength to ask my manager, how does this impact you? And what is delivering this feature at this particular time do for your performance?

Because their performance review is going to come up right. And just start thinking like, okay, well, when I was a manager, I was an officer, how was I evaluated? Was I evaluated on my soldiers, individual performance, or ultimately what the outcomes are, how I impacted, how I influenced them. And so you can have these meta conversations by saying like, okay, well, let's think about this, right.

You're asking me to do this. What's the overall impact. How does that affect you as a manager? Does this make you look good? And I can start to push back on things that maybe I don't, maybe I don't agree with, because then you can give them the path to talk about with their manager, why we shouldn't be doing that.

Because you're at the ground level, maybe you're seeing something different maybe because of just the way the code base is set up, that that's not the right answer. That's not the efficient way. That's not the scalable solution. And then you can tell them, Hey, the reason why I don't want to do this is not because I can't, but it's because if we did it this way think about the returns, right?

X percent faster on whatever. And then you can tell them like, Hey, have you explained that to your manager that maybe this other way can yield even better results. And then they'll be like, you know what? Those are really good points. Let me, let me get back to you on that. Don't don't do that stupid petty tasks I asked you to do because you've made some good points.

Let me go talk to my manager and then you just give them the little ego boost, you know, the little hit, a hit a dopamine, and you can say like, Hey, this could be your idea. And you can take the initiative on this because I will execute for you. And then all of a sudden, now they can go back to their manager and say like, Hey here's even better idea.

Here's my value as a manager, because I listened to my subordinates and here's a better technical solution to ultimately hit the end state that you want. They go back there. Maybe they sell the case. Maybe they don't, but at least their managers know this person is adding value by being here and that trickles down to you.

And then your manager will see, Oh man, this, this kid is adding a lot of value because I am gaining some insight and I'm getting some headway into my manager's manager. And all of a sudden that's really kind of like building that trust, that respect and really being a strong individual contributor.

That's not just with the code, but that relationship currency I was talking about

David Choe: I would love to have been your manager and like, or like have saw that first time you said something like that because I don't think most people one have the mental or emotional capacity to think that far.

Right. Like, why should I care about my manager? I have to care about and protect myself, but they don't see necessarily how it could trickle down or, you know, improve their quality of life where work overall. I think that's really smart. I'd love to move into kind of a similar way, your journey with flat iron and teaching at flat iron.

Evans Wang: Oh man. What a great job. Have you heard of something called Ikigai? Okay. I had that there. Which obviously begs the question. Why did I leave? But we'll get to that. Yeah, it was such a great job, right? The mission was fantastic. I was getting paid for it. I loved what I did. I had amazing teammates.

And after. Like a year and change, you know, working with the VA and understanding a little bit more complex systems touching, just a little bit of Docker hitting that production database and just be okay. I see a lot more. I understand a lot more. And I want them to give back. I think that you can say that a lot about people specifically, those that are in the service.

They always want to give back me, myself being lost for a long time, especially getting out of active duty. Like what do I do? I decided to give back to a lot of those organizations Veteran's mentor network Veterati Operation Code. We ended up starting the operation code, New York city chapter, which we can talk about later.

Yeah. We hosted a ton of events had Eric help out on one of them, which is great. And part of that is going to be training the next generation of software engineers. And so that mission was super important to me. And, yeah, I'm sure you'll want to know about like a ton of those, the lessons learned there.

You know, it's funny. Cause I feel like you're kind of in a constant loop of teaching or mentoring or leading. And ICing, and it's like a, obviously a thread in your career. I would love to understand a little bit more about, you know, what it was like to jump into that kind of more teaching role and you were doing it full-time or you weren't working anywhere else while you were there?

No technically I was as a reservist in the army. I was also an adjunct professor of military science. So I was teaching ROTC at CUNY city college at the same time. Like once a week I would do, I would teach like a three hour lecture at ROTC. But either way I was teaching full-time specifically software engineering.

And I can't remember where I read this, so this is not a quote from Evans Wang. But to teach is to learn twice. And that's so powerful. You really know something, you think you really understand something, but if you can't explain it in simple terms to somebody else, do you really know it? And I think that's it's a skill.

It's definitely a skill. There are people that are incredibly talented, incredibly smart, and incredibly experienced. But some of them just can't teach right. In the same way that you might be a subject matter expert. But you bomb interviews. Maybe you're a bad test taker. And so public speaking has been the gift of gab, I can say has been pretty, pretty lucky for me.

And so I wanted to make sure that I can utilize that skill to, to teach.

David Choe: Yeah, no, I, this one hits a little close to home for me. My wife she's actually a data scientist now, but in our previous career, she was a, she was a teacher, but also she worked at a school serving the bottom 20% of the population there.

And she always says, she always says, if you can't teach, if you can't explain something to a third, third grader, and them understand it, you don't understand it. Yeah. You know, and I think, I think that's such a valuable. Idea, especially for managers, because I think it's, it's assumed a lot of times that I can do this.

Well, I can teach somebody well, whether or not it's true. Right. Yeah. Do you, do you have any, do you have any advice for folks that are managing people or leading people that might carry this assumption and how to deconstruct it or just get better at teaching as a part of management in general? Yes.

Evans Wang: I think. The phrase that I used a lot when I was in the military was a Eli five. I'm not sure if you've heard of that. Explain like I'm five. Yeah. Another phrase that is very common in the army, it's called the break it down Barney style, so silly. But I guess the advice that I would give to somebody who wants to make sure that they are in fact passing on the knowledge properly, Would be, do you have a clear start point?

Do you have a clear goal of where they are, where they want to be all the steps along the way? The traps and pitfalls and you have to check in with them. Oftentimes I will hear other people that I'm mentoring, where they're like, you know, I'm pairing with somebody and I'm following along. And then all of a sudden, I don't understand.

I don't even know where to start. I don't even know what question to ask. And so if you're checking in constantly with somebody, you have to be not afraid of asking them. Okay. Why don't you try explaining that back to me and creating a safe environment where they can do so where they were basically asked to not parrot.

Exactly, but paraphrase, right? That's that active speaker listener technique. And that's going to be really helpful because if you check in often, you can guarantee that you haven't lost them and you can understand how they are understanding what you're trying to explain. And maybe they do understand, but.

But it's just a little off. If you catch those early and often you can take them on that. You can take them on the journey.

David Choe: Yana. That's funny when I used to tutor, sat before a class, all of this stuff. Yeah. And I remember, I don't know why, but I used to do that and check in with them. And when you don't do it, it's because you're operating under the assumption that the way Yas explained something makes total sense.

But when you do check in, you completely kind of debunk that assumption and say probably what I'm saying, doesn't translate well, so I need to check back in and I think it's like, I think you're, you're right. It's like a two-way street there. It's like, you can't assume that this person completely understands, but you also can't assume that the way you're saying something makes any sense at all.

So I really love that. Yeah.

Evans Wang: There's before we move on. There's also something else I think is really important. And that is this is a beautiful thought. Actually, I learned this from Avi, the co-founder of Flatiron school. So again, not trying to take credit for this because this blew my mind is that we can only understand something, something new as we already understood something we know.

So it's a metaphor. You have to use metaphors in order to teach someone something new. And the greatest example of that is the dictionary. And that is if I'm learning a new word, the only way I can learn a new word is to understand it by how I understand words, I already know. That's literally reading a definition.

So if I'm trying to teach someone something about how AWS a certain AWS service work. I can be like, okay, great. So in the same way that like a dynamo DB, you can be like, well, you already know Mongo, right. Or you already know this like a non-relational database, so it's similar and here's how they connect.

And then they're like, great. I'm connecting the dots here. So metaphors are going to be the way to go to teach someone.

David Choe: Here's what I'm hearing is teaching is a lot of work. It's really hard.

Evans Wang: It's under. It's underappreciated and undervalued for sure.

David Choe: Yeah. No, this is incredible. I know we're kind of nearing time here and I think I would love to have you back on the show because you have so much amazing stuff, but I would love to end with one question is what would you tell us?

Your younger self before having had joined this entire industry and the world of software engineering.

Evans Wang: Oh, wow. Man, fail fast. Hmm, fail very fast. And the faster you realize that failing is helping you the better off you'll be. If I'm trying to figure out something and it's not working think about it, right. If I can try, if in my mind I've got nine ideas for something, I don't know any of them will work.

The second I realized ideas, one through seven don't work. It feels like you've wasted time. But real quickly, you've narrowed it down to option eight or nine. The problem is if eight or nine doesn't work and then you feel like a failure and you spiral into the negative feedback loop. But the idea is that one through nine don't work.

So you know that there is an option 10, your question gets better when you ask somebody for help. You're like, Hey, I've tried this, I've tried this, I've tried this. Am I going down the right path? I actually don't know what is next to try because I've done this, this and this. And that is so much more helpful than if you were to ask somebody for help and say, Oh, I don't know what to do.

And they're like, okay, well, what have you tried? Or like where's your starting point? And you have none whatsoever. It's one, a bit frustrating as somebody that's like trying to help you. But also it gives you a better understanding because, you know, for sure that those ways aren't the way to go.

David Choe: I love it ending with a banger. Yeah, no, this has been so good. Hopefully we, we can have you on if you have, if you have time and stuff, but yeah. Well, how can you, how can people find you or where do you want to point them to, to check some stuff out, would love for you to plug anything you got? Yeah.

Evans Wang: I would normally say something. Silly, like make sure to follow me on the YouTube, like, and subscribe, but I don't really have a YouTube. Actually that's not true. All my lectures Are on YouTube. Cause you just want like a Evans Wang bless up to my dad for giving me such a powerful, unique name.

You can, if you want to learn basics of Ruby or JavaScript, it's up there. You can connect with me on Evans J. Wang, LinkedIn. I don't know exact exactly have an Instagram I'm totally a boomer. I'm not on Tik TOK. But if you really want to connect with me. Feel free to join operation code. So operation code.org is a 5013c nonprofit.

I mentioned it earlier helped start the New York city chapter. I know it is targeted toward veterans and that's their target audience that we want to help, but one, a hundred percent open to anyone that wants to learn more about veterans in tech and to be an ally and to support. And so feel free to just slide into my DMS and hit me up.

David Choe: I love it. I will link all that in the comments below. So thank you again. Evans has been amazing. Thank you listeners. Please let us know what you thought about this talk and yeah, we'll see you soon.

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