~jpetazzo/Train people well enough

I’d like to tell you a short story illustrating why training your employees is crucial to the success of your organization.

I was born and raised in France, and worked there until 2010. Of course, I’m a native French speaker. What about other languages? Well, I could vaguely get around in German, and my written English was pretty good. So good, in fact, that most people with whom I was interacting (through emails or instant messaging) could easily mistake me for a native English speaker. My spoken English was a very different story, though. We’ll get back to that soon enough!

In 2011, I moved to San Francisco to join dotCloud, the startup that eventually became Docker. We were 5, 6 engineers in a coworking space, Founder’s Den, at 625 3rd Street in San Francisco. My extremely thick French accent did not get too much in the way when working with dotCloud founders Solomon Hykes and Sebastien Pahl, who were both perfectly fluent in French and English (and German as well for Sebastien); or with my fellow compatriot Sam Alba. (I have to give props to Mark Erdmann, who was the only one who didn’t speak French in the office back then. Thanks for keeping up, dude!)

One day, Solomon’s sister visited our office and filmed us at work. She was shooting a documentary about tech startups, and interviewed all of us. That’s how I realized that my French accent back then was, to put things mildly, not awesome.

Countless people (including our investors–true story!) had told me multiple times that I should “absolutely not try to change it,” but it turns out that said accent was so thick, that Solomon’s sister had to add subtitles when I was speaking. Ouch.

I don’t know if that was related, but later on, Solomon encouraged us to take English lessons.

Multiple times a week, an English teacher (paid by the company) would come to the office, and that’s how I learned that the words law and low are, in fact, pronounced very differently (shocker!).

I still have the thick French accent, but people can understand me more easily now. In 2013, when dotCloud became Docker, the SRE team that I was managing was reduced to a huge team of one, to borrow the words of my amazing coworker Kristie Howard. I considered switching gigs. But I accidentally submitted a talk about containers at the SCALE conference; and after that talk, I was asked to do a repeat in Beijing, and then in Moscow. My speaker career really took off, and I gave up to 100 talks per year about Docker. (We can have a conversation about whether that was a sane, healthy thing to do; but that’ll be in a later post!)

Without these English lessons, I wouldn’t have been able to speak at so many anglophone conferences and meetups. Because even if his accent is “cute,” you don’t want a barely intelligible French dude to speak at your conference.

Instead of becoming Docker’s first evangelist, I’d probably have continued to build infrastructure and fling requests at cloud API endpoints (at Docker or elsewhere).

At the end of the day, these modest English lessons had a huge impact for me. But what was the value-add for the company? Well, I said it one paragraph above. At a moment when Docker needed adoption, traction, and to build a community, here I was, a passable speaker but with a deep knowledge of the product and the tech behind it. If you can put a dollar amount on this, let me know; but without overstating my achievements, I want to believe that the return on investment for Docker was tremendous. Bigly.

I’m going to conclude with this joke, that most of you probably know already:

– CFO asks CEO: What happens if we spend money training our people and then they leave?
– CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

And if you want to say the same things but with the class and words of of Richard Branson:

“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

I’d like to thank AJ Bowen for proofreading this post. All remaining mistakes and typos are my own. By the way, are you looking for a Pythonista who is also fluent in Go? Somebody with outstanding interpersonal and communication skills; willing and able to write properly documented code; somebody with great attention to details, as in “my CLIs have bash completion”? AJ is looking for a remote job. Get in touch with me so we can discuss my referral fees ;-)

I’d also like to thank for Kristie Howard who suggested a few changes and improvements to that post, and contributed to my never-ending English education. You’re the best!

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.