Excellence, Not Perfection

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How we work stands out to others more than what we work on.

Reference checks are the most informative part of the interview process. They cut through the theatrics. References share real-world insight into how this person has behaved on the job. Two of my favorite questions for references are “Is this person in the top 1 percent, 5 percent, or 10 percent of the professionals you know?” and “How would you describe this person in one word?”

Once they respond, I ask them to elaborate on why. Over the years, I’ve gotten hundreds of responses. References rarely remark on programming skill. I hear little about code writing ability or features built. At a certain point, those things are just expected. Instead, references speak of work ethic, teamwork, and diligence. While some characteristics are ingrained, many can be built. And in doing so your overall perceived value will increase.

Your Workplace Value

How we work stands out to others more than what we work on. The most remarkable professionals are those who focus, prepare, respond, follow-through, and follow up.


Focus in the workplace isn’t as common as you might expect. From the C-suite to the most junior employee, distractions are everywhere. If organizations and teams aren’t careful, it chips away at productivity and an individual’s ability to do meaningful work.

Software engineers excel when they prioritize focus. Whether they have to advocate publicly or develop habits privately, engineers need uninterrupted periods to dive deep into their work. Multitasking undermines an engineer’s productivity.

Time blocking has been the largest contributor to my ability to focus. Each week, I set aside at least five blocks of time. Each block is two to three hours and is guarded from interruption. By maintaining these blocks consistently, team members begin to anticipate this time and work around them. Time blocks are the simplest way to signal to the team and ensure time is set aside each week to push my highest value projects forward.

I didn’t start with five blocks nor was each block three hours. It began with smaller chunks of time at less frequent intervals and increased over time. As managers and team members witness the effectiveness of these periods of focus, they will not only respect them but will often add similar holds on their own calendar.

Time blocking isn’t the only way to increase focus. These are a few behaviors that lend themselves to improved focus:

  • Scheduling recurring events each day for two to four hours.
  • Listing your ideal work conditions.
  • Listing your weakest work conditions.
  • Creating agendas for time blocks each week.
  • Identifying common distractions in your typical work environments.
  • Identifying “amplifiers” in your typical work environments.


I (Morgan) love pizza. When given the choice of what to eat for dinner, my suggestion is almost always the same. Early in our marriage, my wife would travel in three-day stretches every few weeks. Without fail, I would eat pizza for at least three meals. I could order a large and eat leftovers for the following lunch and dinner. I was also fond of picking separate locations and ordering from a different restaurant each night.

When friends get together, pizza is our typical meal too. It’s not because my friends are as enthused about pizza. It’s because, when we poll each other for suggestions, I’m prepared to answer. I know what I want. And because of this, I’m usually the first to respond and present the strongest perspective. When groups come together and seek consensus, there is a lot of power in simply speaking up first. Being prepared provides disproportionate opportunity.





CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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Morgan J. Lopes

Morgan J. Lopes

CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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