How We Make the Glue (Without Getting Sticky)

Last Week…

I came back from yoga to my Brooklyn apartment, and our Tech Lead, Dirk Uys, was asleep. On my couch. He was in town from Durban, South Africa en route to Boston for a hackathon. I fixed coffee, poked that dormant mound of jetlagged developer, and we called Erika, our front-end wizard in Slovenia. For an hour we made decisions on product improvements from my kitchen table. (Full disclosure: I was in yoga pants the whole time).

This example isn’t rare–it’s actually the norm for P2PU. We visit each other, travel with each other, include P2PUers amongst our closest friends. What is it about P2PU that makes us love being around each other so damn much that we just want to devour each other’s minds?  We’re a team of 6 on 3 continents that rarely sees each other–it can’t be magic. I was inspired by Kyle Bragger’s recent post which encouraged folks in the technology sector to lead fuller, grind-free lives. Alex Godin wrote a follow-up post prompting people to listen to each other versus network. I agree with Kyle and Alex, but I wanted to take it further–for P2PU, we don’t think in terms of “hustling” or even about work/life “balance”–it’s about depth, about a more open kind of mindset.

People Before Transactions

“Instead, I propose that it’s better to carve out an opportunity to build some relationships BEFORE the transaction has an opportunity to take place. The interactions that come as a part of forming early stages of a relationship with another human being are far more valuable if and when the time for transaction occurs.” –Alex Hillman “Take Interest, Don’t Feign Interest

First and foremost, at P2PU we see each other as people–before the “transaction” of work–and we admire the person, not the “role.” We’re individuals with very complex lives and interests. We’ve gone through trans-continental moves, breakups, illness, graduate school, and other huge transitional life phases together. That vulnerability and sharing forms the trust that allows us to stay in each other’s homes, introduce P2PUers into our social circles, and include each other in the wider fabric of our lives.

I believe Alex Hillman’s conviction–connecting with each other as friends before transactions–has made our projects more kickass. Paul Osman and I hatched a plan for a P2PU-MIT-SoundCloud interdisciplinary Hackathon over beers in Tempelhof Park. That event sparked a P2PU Audio project led by Chris Ewald that was recently funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.

When we connect around our mutual interests, passions, and have reserves of trust in the bank, we make projects that are fulfilling. It’s work, in the “effort” sort of sense, but not labor. You don’t punch a clock when it comes to people you downright dig.

You Do You

“We’re about to start the broadcast, so if any of you have further objectionable things to say about pants, get it out of your systems now.” –Bekka Kahn, Community Manager, P2PU, before last week’s Community Call

P2PU started as a group of edupunks who wanted to change the way we learn. By its very nature, we are a group of “questioners,” perhaps even rebels. How does a culture of “informed irreverence” translate to the day-to-day? For me, at my job, I’m never held back from Waving my Freak Flag.

What does that mean? In a nutshell, working at P2PU allows me to be myself, all the time. I don’t have to shelve aspects of my personality that I might have to, say, in a corporate setting. I’m not afraid to show my fellow P2PUers who I really am–I am utterly comfortable. And this comfort is useful.  In educational theory, we often refer to the “affective dimension” of learning–or, how you feel when you’re learning influences how far you’ll take a project or how easily you’ll overcome frustration (see Picard, et. al. for more detail). If you approach a project in a comfortable or curious mindset (versus fear or anxiety) you are more likely to accomplish excellent stuff.

Which leads me to believe that compartmentalizing your professional persona from your actual self might be toxic. Or, at the very least, will inhibit awesomeness from fully occurring. Don’t be afraid to Wave that Flag.

Love Your Passport

“According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realise that a single thing can have multiple meanings….Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This in turn allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs”, as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses.” -Jonah Lehrer, “Why We Travel

There’s no keeping track of the global itineraries of P2PU staff, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. I report from Berlin, Philipp from Boston, Dirk from Durban, Bekka in London, Erika from Ljubljana and Chris, well…we never really know where Chris is. We’re always on the move, we stretch our cultural and analytical frameworks, stumble across new methods and ideas, and we bring that wealth of experiences back to P2PU.

I believe that our traveling band of P2PUers makes us more analytically flexible. This “thought diversity” enriches the team, and encourages us to think about “talent” in a different way. Talent is the ability the be open-minded and engage many different types of people with your skill set.

I’m curious about whether this kind of culture leads to gender diversity as well. P2PU is an even 50/50 split between men and women, even on the tech side. That hypothesis would be hard to prove, but my gut says that diversity is not just an internal policy. It’s also external, it’s encouraging your team to go out and have diverse experiences, so that they can connect with folks of all stripes. 

We’re On a Mission

True story: I was hired from the P2PU Community. I had run 3 courses on P2PU, was attending graduate school to improve my understanding of learning, and basically I had P2PU on the brain. But I’m not alone–everyone who works on P2PU is alight with passion, most of all our totally badass community members. We’re on a mission as an organization, and we try make  everything we do opt-in and interest-driven. So, how do we design for passion in our community?

It’s actually pretty simple: we’re all in this together, and we approach our community with this philosophy. Last summer we invited 20 community members to Berlin over the course of a month to work on projects of their choosing. Alex Kehayias built a mentorship platform. Jessy Kate Schingler set up our blog. Jane Park, Piet Kleymeer and Molly Kleinman organized P2PU’s School of Open. Recognizing and nurturing passion is also reflected on our People page–if you’re contributing to P2PU, whether you’re staff or a community member, you’re welcome to be up there.

Last week Ari Bader-Natal stopped me in mid-sentence–I had said the term “user” and he called me out on it. His line of thought is totally spot-on, because P2PU folks are not just users of software–we are “members,” which is an important distinction. Even in the language we use, we should be moving away from hierarchy and towards participation. I won’t forget it, Ari :)

Putting the Pieces Together

I should say that working on a non-profit, specifically non-profit tech, is not all hearts and rainbows. We encounter hiccups, disappointments and frustrations like all humans do (e.g. I’m sure Dirk *loves* resolving my spirited bug reports. Every. Last. One.). But my point is that seeing each other in three-dimensions helps to ease those tensions. Admittedly, we enjoy a unique position–as a non-profit, we are immune to many of the pressures of the business world. But seeing each other as humans first has widespread appeal and applications–these are ideas you can use.

And all of them basically trace back to our core value of “openness”–put another way, these are concrete examples of the freedoms openness affords. Not only are these guidelines signs of our core values–put people before transactions, support individuality, live globally and design for passion–but these are the elements that lead to real community. Not brand loyalty. Not conversion. Not really anything that could be captured by even the most sophisticated analytics. Rather, we have deep bonds between open-minded people who push each other to be more curious–that’s the glue. That’s our culture.


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