Going. Ahead. With Gage: Interview with John Steinmetz, CTO of Convo Communications

“The deaf culture in the US has been shaped and built around ASL — every conversation is a story built around expression, emotion and body language.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

This is a very special #GAWG because I got to interview a person that’s impacted my life in such a positive way, is a mentor, and has watched me grow in my career and as a person. John Steinmetz is an amazing leader and friend who’s now the CTO of Convo Communications, a deaf-owned company that offers a different perspective to universal communication. I hope you enjoy the read!

John Steinmetz, CTO of Convo

What’s your favorite thing about being the CTO of Convo Communications?

It’s hard to choose one thing because every aspect of working at Convo is so rewarding. When I took the role at Convo, it was a huge step in my career. But more importantly, it’s the connection I get to have to a community that has given so much to me and my family. Having an Autistic child, who was predominately non-verbal until the age of 5, teaching him even the most basic of signs allowed him to communicate with us. It really changed our quality of life. Now I get to take my career experience and technical knowledge and give back to the Deaf community. In addition to teaching/mentoring our employees (the majority of whom are Deaf), I get to build products that contribute to the quality of life for Deaf individuals. For our teams, I am helping build careers in the tech field that Deaf employees would not get the opportunity elsewhere. My goal is to have Deaf employees that want to work at Convo, but don’t need to because of lack of opportunity in other places. 

“There are a lot of experiences that hearing people take for granted like not knowing your child is crying or not hearing someone knock at your door.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

What are 3 things you wish the hearing community knew/understood about the Deaf community?

  1. Being Deaf does not mean that a person is dumb. ASL (American Sign Language) is just a different way to communicate similar to learning French, Spanish or any other language. Language is what shapes and creates who we are. The deaf culture in the US has been shaped and built around this beautiful language. Every conversation is a story built around expression, emotion, and body language. 
  2. The things that hearing people take for granted — as part of Convo’s mission of creating connected experiences, Ive been able to talk to Deaf children of hearing parents and generationally Deaf individuals. Hearing those experiences and seeing the challenges of the Deaf in the hearing world has created a perspective that I wish more hearing people had. Just imagine
    • Not knowing your child is crying at night.
    • Not hearing someone knock on your door.
    • Being at school and not knowing there is an active shooter on campus (most notification systems are auditory).
    • Calling your parents/friends/family — a Deaf individual doesn’t get to make the same connections to people in their life who are hearing (who don’t learn ASL). Imagine if you only knew English and your parents only spoke French and you had to use an interpreter for conversations. That personal connection through language gets lost. I was very surprised to learn that a high percentage of parents of Deaf children don’t learn ASL. 

      These are just a few examples of important things we take for granted but the list goes on and I see them every day.
  3. I wish they knew how amazing and diverse the culture is. Deaf culture is alive and well across all socioeconomic groups. What is seen on TV is not a full representation of Deaf culture. Most of the Deaf population is in rural communities and they don’t have access to many of the resources within urban populations. Many never get the opportunity to learn sign language. The diversity of the culture is its strength and at Convo, we are leveraging that diversity to build connections to the culture. You should watch our video, created by one of our co-founders, Wayne Betts. Highlighting the history and some of the stories as told by some of our amazing Deaf contributors. Additionally, the Deaf culture is so welcoming. Ive had the privilege of becoming a part of the Convo family over the last year. They welcomed me and, in return, I’ve given effort to bring myself into THEIR culture by learning ASL and listening to their stories. 

“The #diversity of the Deaf #culture is its strength and at @convorelay, we are leveraging that diversity to build connections to the culture.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

I really liked your article “Make waves, don’t drift with the current” and how your experiences changed the way you communicate. What advice do you have for people that over-communicate, can’t communicate, and struggle to find a middle ground because they don’t want to rock the waters?

It really comes down to a couple of things. The first is awareness. I have been studying behavioral systems my whole life. For most issues, if you are consciously aware that you have a communication issue, you can change it. If you find yourself over-communicating to create talking points, write them down — write down actions to help you such as “stay on point” or “wait for a response.”

I use applications that allow me to schedule email responses for later. Sometimes, I will come back and see my scheduled emails and delete them before they are sent. Over communication is generally a response to self worth issues. I struggle with this sometimes, thinking that I need to over explain my thoughts to make sure people see me as knowing all the details. In reality, that awareness has helped me change my behaviors. The same strategies can be used for the inability to communicate effectively. If you struggle communicating, create a plan. Things like “everyday, check in with ____” or “make sure to follow up with an email about the meeting actions.”

Secondly, for people who are afraid to make waves, my article says it all. It is all about fear. Everything requires force to move. Most big choices require bold action. If you are afraid, you won’t take risks and you will move little by little. I suggest that people find what works for them. If you aren’t a risk taker, then be cautious, but understand that it’s okay to take some bold actions occasionally — the key is communication. Strong leaders will help you navigate those personal goals of being more decision based. Communicate often, solicit feedback, and be prepared to be wrong — it’s okay. I’m wrong all the time. With each failure, you gain experience and that leads to less fear for the larger risks. 

“With each failure, you gain experience and that leads to less fear for the larger risks.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

What’s your secret passion?

I love woodworking. In the last few years, I’ve built a large outdoor shed and a bunch of smaller furniture pieces for my wife (who is crazy talented by the way, It’s something that as I get older, I really love putting time into and I’m hoping to get even better as the more detailed projects become. 

“In order to innovate, you have to focus and love what you do.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

What’s something you’ve learned in your career that you’ve held on to inspire you to keep pushing forward?

You have to love what you do in order to innovate. I am always continuing to learn and grow through coding and reading. There are so many new things in the technology space that it can be hard to keep up, but I’ve chosen to focus my efforts mostly on the analytics side of technology and there’s no shortage of learning. It is all about focus. I hope to help inspire the people I work for (and yes, as CTO, I work for them) through understanding what they love to do, by training and lending my experiences. I want people to say that I was the best leader they ever had because I gave them the opportunity to grow by doing what they love.

“If you are doing everything then you’re doing nothing.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

How do you encourage your team to keep pushing forward when they feel like they aren’t getting anywhere?

Easy — our motto at Convo is “focus and finish”. If you are doing everything then you’re doing nothing. Shorten the expectations and create a finish line. Our plans are never more defined than 3-6 months. Everything past that is thematic. We have weekly demos that focus specifically on those weekly goals and expectations. I encourage them to write down what they want to do, daily. If they feel like they aren’t getting anywhere, that is a failure of leadership. I also empower them to say “no.” It is constant communication and expectation setting to make sure they feel there’s always a line to cross and then we celebrate those wins. 

“Choose a company that has strong leadership, fulfills your purpose, and helps you build your career.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

What advice do you have for younger generations that are early in their careers and trying to work their way up?

Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. Learn the foundations of whatever industry you are in. Those foundations are critical to understanding the “why.” The current social climate is a “benefit me now” mentality, but it’s not reality. Focus less on salary and more on your ability to grow. Choose a company that has strong leadership, fulfills your purpose, and helps you build your career. 

Most importantly, find a mentor — someone willing to help you navigate but won’t tell you how to do everything. I was lucky to have a couple of great mentors in my career. If you don’t know, then do your research. Searches on google on “how to create a social media plan,” “how to join data sets with SQL,” “how to implement a CMS,” or anything related to your field of study will give you a huge amount of knowledge. Be okay with what you don’t know and read about it. It’s a lost art to learn this way, but it’s the way most successful people work. Take the time to read and understand (don’t just copy/paste).

“Find a mentor — someone that’s willing to help you navigate, but won’t tell you how to do everything.” @Ob1JohnKenob1 #GAWG

What is one of the most difficult decisions you’ve made in your career and what did you learn from it?

Leaving the safety of the small pond in Louisiana for a career in Austin was difficult. I felt that I was ready to make that move because I had reached my cap. I had a great job with a great company. It was really one of the biggest decisions that affected my family. The rewards were easy to see. A much higher salary, opportunity to learn and grow my skills being around people who had vastly more experience than I did.

The risks were great. What if I wasn’t as skilled as I thought? What if I took this risk and didn’t live up to the expectations? What if my family didn’t like Austin? There were so many questions that ran through my head. It wasn’t easy, but we pushed through and with support of my family, I made it happen. I didn’t expect anything, I worked hard and kept an open mind. 

What I learned was that I didn’t know half as much as I thought. It was very humbling. I learned that I needed to work harder to build up the skills to exceed (not just survive) in this market. It’s a different world here and in just 7 years, I went from an engineering development lead to being the CTO for a multi-million dollar organization. I don’t regret anything because every experience has led me to where I am now. There were ups and downs, but with every failure there was learning. 

I love book recommendations to help me grow in my career and challenge my thinking – What books would you recommend as a must-read for career growth and/or just fictional fun?

For me, 3 books stand out. One was career changing, one was just a must read for anyone dealing with technology expectations and two are just fun reads to understand the current culture climate and innovation. 

The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt — a novel that helped me understand how to think about process and technology, and how to organize and manage life as a technical person. It’s about a guy who is working his way up, his struggles with understanding throughput, bottlenecks, and the most effective ways of dealing with those challenges. It also talks about his abilities to balance relationships, a key component to success.

The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks — a great book for anyone who is dealing with technical products and expectation setting. It’s a great read to understand development process and is key to success for non-technical people to understand engineering processes. I guarantee you will learn so much and it will help you avoid so many issues with miscommunication. 

1984 by George Orwell — just read it. You will see amazing similarities with how social media has changed our society. The kicker is that this book was written in 1949 🙂 

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku — amazing to read the thoughts of a theoretical physicist on technology, innovation, and where he thinks the evolution of those things is going. Super fun read.

Check out John’s personal blog:

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next #GAWG!

— Gage Grammer

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