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ampersand Nevertheless

Lessons from opera

How my past as an opera singer has prepared me to survive in tech. A listicle.

One of the upsides of working in an international company is that you’re likely to have English colleagues. Not only do they have the best biscuit recommendations, but they also have a very special sense of humour. And sometimes, it rubs off.

One of mine is an avid writer, and he sometimes treats me to sneak previews of his blog posts. This week, he showed me this one. One thing followed another, and here we are. Enjoy. Or, more likely, shake your head.

1. Handling large egos with a vision permalink

Stage directors, just like startup founders, tend to have oversized egos. That’s how they got to where they are in the first place. Those giant egos often lead to visions of similar size, and that is not always a good thing.

Letting an obsessive Elektra dig through a thick layer of sand on the stage floor because she cannot find the axe she kept to get her final revenge? Why not! Did someone carefully point out some flaws? Probably. Did it nevertheless make it into the final production? Absolutely!

(I’m looking at you, Stein Winge. This made no sense and was a terrible idea in terms of acoustics, too! I’m still mad about it.)

Working in startups is a lot like that. You compartmentalise the nonsense, focus on your job because you need the money, and try your best to avoid the worst outcomes.

2. Judging silently permalink

Because you – obviously – have no power but enough skill and knowledge to draw your conclusions, you resort to silent judgement. At least you keep your dignity and self-respect intact even though you are forced to participate in ill-conceived activities.

Sometimes the only way is through. Disagree and commit!

And judge from under your wig and make-up.

3. Treating team members gently permalink

Opera premieres are stressful, and so is release day. Now is not the time to joke about your baritone colleague’s chest toupé. He might not go out there for his big aria, ruin the well-oiled machine that is any opera performance, and it will be your fault.

It is also not the time to ask the engineers about edge cases or the designers about the correct pixel margins on those secondary buttons at the bottom of the screen. Someone will freak out and postpone the release, which will inevitably be your fault.

Don’t be that PM.

4. Knowing how to distract your audience permalink

Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned, no matter how much you’ve practised and how well-prepared you are. This is especially unfortunate when auditioning with high-stakes arias, e.g. those everyone knows by heart or that have technically challenging coloraturas. Botching those will not go unnoticed.

As a product manager, I sometimes have to present in high-stakes meetings, and sometimes things go wrong. Maybe I am caught on the wrong foot, or I realise that my case isn’t as watertight as I thought it was. What to do?

Cleavage to the rescue! Wear something with a deep V-cut, perform a well-directed movement at the right moment, and no one will notice. About to muddle your coloratura or backed yourself into a rhetorical corner? Quickly shake your shoulders, smile, and change the topic.