3 weeks ago I heard the incredibly sad news that my friend Li had passed away. I was his manager for a few years at Culture Amp, and to remember him, I want to share a few stories of conversations we had during out time working together that I think speak to the quality of his character.
Talented, but humble
Li was a remarkable front end engineer. He was quietly productive, building high quality user interfaces faster that almost anyone else around. It wasn’t uncommon to hear feedback that he’d finished building out an entire interface on his own while a whole team of back end engineers were still working on making the data available for it. Eventually people started to notice, and Kevin Yank, our Director of Front End Engineering, asked: how do you do it? Is there some secret the rest of us could learn too?
His answer still makes me laugh. “I’ve got my code editor set up really well.”
To this day I don’t know if he was just trying to deflect the compliment, or if he really thought that was his secret advantage. Tool sharpening is definitely a thing in our industry – we like to quote the proverb “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Li’s editor setup was simple, it wasn’t something he wasted time tweaking over and over, but it was effective. When I watched him work he spent his time thinking about the problem at hand, not trying to remember where a file was saved or trying to remember what a keyboard shortcut was.
Remembering it, I love the humility of his response – he didn’t boast, he wasn’t proud. He knew he was good at what he did, and was happy to share the things he found helpful.
Learning, to share
I remember a point where Culture Amp had just acquired a smaller company, and we were looking for some senior engineers to transfer in and join the team we’d just acquired to help them integrate their product into ours.
At first Li was interested in exploring the opportunity, but then backed out when he realized the move would be permanent, not a secondment from his current team.
We had some conversations to explore the opportunity, and he surprised me with his biggest motivation not being the desire for a lead role, or a high visibility project, or the desire to work with a team based in the US, but instead the chance for mutual learning. He wanted to work with an established team, see what he could learn from them, see what he could teach them, and bring that back to his existing team and work, sharing what he had learned. Which explained why he was interested if it was a secondment, but not permanent.
Throughout our time working together I was always impressed at his willingness to learn, be curious, do deep dives into a problem, and then to bring what he’d learned and share it back to the team around him so we would all benefit.
I remember wanting to understand some of Li’s long term career aspirations, and I asked a question I learned from Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor: “At the peak of your career, what sort of work do you want to be doing?”
Most people have a few different answers to this, sometimes its a job title (“director of X”) or a specific role (“I want to be focused in Application Security”) or an ambition outside the industry entirely (“I want to run a small business, maybe a food truck”) or a personal goal (“financial independence, then volunteering”).
It was hard to get a picture from Li of a specific goal he was working towards, and the reason I eventually learned, is that he was content. He really liked the kind of work he did, and found it meaningful. He really liked the people he worked with. “I’m actually really happy in my current role” was something he’d say if I kept asking.
Contentment is rare. Especially in the high-growth software industry. When I think about Li’s good-hearted approach to work and life and his ability to actually enjoy the place he’s at, without longing for more, I think of this quote from the bible:
godliness with contentment is great gain.
Li found contentment, and I admire him for it.
There was a whole lot more about Li I never got to know that well – perhaps because of the manager/employee relationship dynamics, perhaps because we worked from different cities, we didn’t share much of our personal worlds with each other. There was a little bit – I’d hear about an upcoming dance congress he was excited about. Or how a lunch we shared reminded him of Sunday lunches after church with his family when he was growing up. Or about the ups and downs of buying, owning, renting out, and selling an apartment. I had no idea he could speak Spanish. I wish I’d had more time with him, and asked more questions, and shared more of myself too. But even without that, I’m grateful for having crossed paths, worked with, learned and laughed together.
I’ll miss you friend.