profile

Human Who Codes Newsletter

Human Who Codes Newsletter - Social Capital

Published 5 months ago • 4 min read

Thoughts on Social Capital

When I first became a tech lead, I was met with the same challenge as others before me: how do you convince people to do things? With my peers, it was about earning their trust and confidence. But with my manager and others in leadership it was a different story. Trust and confidence wasn’t enough. The most impassioned speeches didn’t do it. Technical analysis wasn’t enough. The answer was social capital.

Social capital is a topic that isn’t discussed often but is absolutely critical for influencing up the organization. It doesn’t matter if you’re a junior engineer trying to convince a tech lead, a tech lead trying to convince a manager, a manager trying to convince a director, etc. Wherever there is a power differential where the person with less power is trying to convince the person with more power, it’s social capital that makes the difference.

What is social capital? I like to think of it as a bank account you can use to buy the things you want in an organization. You generally start out with some capital in this account based on the position you were hired into. Whenever you do something for someone else, deposits are made in your social capital account. (This is sometimes called “goodwill,” as when you make people happy, they remember it and are more likely to want to help you in the future.) Exactly how much is deposited into your account depends on a few things:

  • Success - did you successfully complete what was asked?
  • Trust - did you complete the task in a way that made the asker comfortable?
  • Results - did the completed task yield the desired results?

The trick with social capital is that you don’t know how much you have until you try to cash it in. Suppose that you’d like to introduce a new technology in your stack and you need to get the director’s approval to do so. The reaction to this request will let you know your social capital balance very quickly. If the request is dismissed without much discussion, you didn’t have enough social capital; if the request turns into an investigation of this and other options, then you have enough social capital for the request to be considered; if the request is met with enthusiasm and a go-ahead to proof-of-concept, you had more than enough social capital for the ask. And if that project goes well, your social capital account will be even higher than it was previously – more success, more social capital.

What if you introduce the new technology and it’s a disaster? Well, your social capital account is zeroed out and you need to start over from scratch. Trust has been lost and it’s difficult to get things done. You’ll need to rebuild that social capital account by taking on small, low-risk projects until you have enough social capital to start pushing the organization again. Not everyone is willing to go through this process, which is why senior engineers and managers with a significant blemish on their record tend to leave companies rather than stick around and do the hard work of rebuilding their social capital. It’s no fun being in the organization’s “penalty box.”

So if you’re wondering why you’re having a hard time pushing through big changes, it could be because you don’t have enough social capital. This is sometimes misunderstood as “office politics,” but in reality, it’s the politics of building trust with decision makers in your organization. Once you have proven yourself to be an asset, your social capital account grows, and you’ll be able to get more done.

Key Takeaways

  • Social capital is how you get things done in an organization.
  • Whenever you do things for other people, deposits are made into your social capital account.
  • You can cash out your social capital account for making changes you want.

More about Social Capital

📚 Workplace Poker by Dan Rust
There's a lot more than social capital when discussing office politics, and this book digs into all the details you need to effectively navigate your organization.

📚 The Staff Engineer's Path by Tanya Reilly
A more engineering-focused book that spends a significant amount of time talking about social capital and how to use it.


📚 Managing Your Interrupt Rate as a Tech Lead. Are you a tech lead struggling with managing your time? Are there too many interruptions in your day, making it difficult to get your coding work done? If so, this FREE e-book is for you.


Stuff I've Enjoyed This Month

📚 Tidy First? by Kent Beck
This short (< 100 pages) book distills a large amount of hard-learned software engineering lessons into small, concise chunks. I would argue some of the chunks are actually too small, but overall a really solid read.

🎬 AI can do your homework. Now what? by Vox
With AI usage exploding, this video explores how it will affect, and has already affected, the way that classrooms operate. Ban AI? Use it but in a specific way? We still have a lot to figure out.

📝 Questions for new technology by Kellan Elliot-McCrea
Engineers always love trying new technology, but how do you decide whether the time is right to introduce it into your application? This is an invaluable list of questions to ask.

🎬 A better image reset for CSS by Kevin Powell
A walkthrough and review of Harry Roberts' latest suggested CSS reset for images.

🎬 Why signals are better than React hooks by Web Dev Simplified
Compares Preact signals to React hooks in an approachable way that makes understanding the problems that signals solve easy.


What I'm Working On

🏠 Real Estate: All of the insurance work on my latest property is now complete! I'm glad to have that behind me. We are still waiting to get fully reimbursed by the insurance company. In the meantime, property insurance rates skyrocketed and many of my properties are renewing for double last year's insurance rates. Sadly, that means I'll need to raise rents to account for that. Follow my Instagram for real estate photos.

🎬 Videos: I was recently interviewed for a YouTube video about managing open source projects by Aaron Jack. I enjoyed the final cut, as I think it gives a nice overview of what it takes to manage popular open source projects.

💻 ESLint: ESLint v9.0.0-alpha.0 has been released! This is a massive release and I'm excited to finally get it out the door. We still have a lot of work to do to get to the final version. You can follow the progress on our project board.

Human Who Codes Newsletter

Nicholas C. Zakas

A once-per-month newsletter discussing topics important to senior-level software engineers, with a particular focus on frontend technology and leadership.

Read more from Human Who Codes Newsletter

Thoughts on Open Source Takeovers This past month saw one of the most well-planned open source software supply chain attacks in history. A program called xz Utils, which provides lossless data compression for most Linux distributions, was found to have a backdoor that affected sshd. As Ars Technica reported, “Anyone in possession of a predetermined encryption key could stash any code of their choice in an SSH login certificate, upload it, and execute it on the backdoored device.” There are no...

20 days ago • 5 min read

Thoughts on JSR This past month saw the public release of the JavaScript Registry (JSR), a direct competitor to npm. The folks behind JSR are the same folks behind Deno, a direct competitor to Node.js. While it may not be surprising that a Node.js competitor would also create an npm competitor, Deno actually started with a theory that the JavaScript community didn’t need npm or any other package manager. In fact, in Ryan Dahl’s original talk announcing Deno, he explicitly mentioned npm as a...

about 2 months ago • 5 min read

Thoughts on Burnout As tech layoffs continue to fill up news sites, I’m reminded of how hard I used to work as a full-time employee at companies who could dispose of me without warning. Not only was I giving my all to my work, but then I was working on open source and books in my spare time. For years, I had very little downtime as I bounced from one task to the next, all the while pushing through burnout and not taking any time to recharge. It’s no surprise that I ended up so sick that I’ve...

3 months ago • 6 min read
Share this post