There’s so much rampant negativity in the world and on the Internet that it can be hard to deal with some days. It seems like more and more, I’m seeing people being mean and succeeding, and that makes me sad. Perhaps the biggest poster child for this was Steve Jobs, who by all accounts was a really big jerk.[1] In one way or another, he seemed to legitimize being an asshole as a good way to do business. And I’ve seen this even more now that I’m involved in startup life.

A situation recently popped up in my life where I had a decision to make. I could do what “everyone else does”, tell a lie, and end up with a bunch of money. Or, I could tell the truth, and never see a cent. Perhaps because of some abnormal wiring in my brain, the thought of lying didn’t even register as a realistic choice. I was told, “but this is how things are done.” I didn’t care. That’s not the way that I do things.

I began searching for examples of where being nice and polite actually worked out in business or otherwise. An opportunity where it would have been easy to be mean but being nice changed the result. After struggling to do research and thinking about stories I’ve heard, I came to realize that the best story is my own.

Back in 2003, I was working in a nondescript job that I hated. I was going on year two of an almost unbearable four years at this job and needed a creative outlet. I had started writing articles for several online sites and had gotten the idea to write a book. I wrote every day for about six months straight trying to figure out what this book would be like and what the focus would be. I knew it would be on JavaScript, more specifically all the stuff people didn’t understand, but I really wasn’t sure of the title or the outline or who I would propose the book to. All I knew was that I wanted to write about JavaScript and so that’s what I did.

After that six months, I had enough material to put together a rough outline and start proposing the book to publishers. My first choice was Sitepoint. I had written several articles for their website and they were just starting to publish books. I thought a book on JavaScript would fit in great with what they were trying to do. So I sent over a proposal with a writing sample and anxiously awaited a response. Not too long later, I got a rejection e-mail. And it wasn’t just a rejection e-mail, the person who wrote the e-mail not only didn’t like my idea for the book, he said he didn’t understand why anybody would ever want such a book and also that my writing style was terrible. This was quite a blow to me and my ego, but keeping with what I had been taught growing up, I wrote back to him and thanked him for the feedback. I asked if he could give me any advice on how to improve the book or my writing style. I heard nothing back.

I next approached Apress. At the time, Apress was just getting started with web development books and I was hopeful that they would be interested in a JavaScript book. My proposal was accepted and somebody started to review it. After a couple of months without hearing anything back, I e-mailed this person only to have the e-mail bounce back. Not a good sign. I dug around on the Apress website and found another editor’s email. I e-mailed him and explained the situation: someone was reviewing my proposal and now it appears that he doesn’t work there anymore. I inquired if anybody was looking at it now, and if not, if it would be possible to assign someone. He apologized for the inconvenience and assigned somebody else to review my proposal.

That someone else was John Franklin, a really nice guy who spent some time looking over my proposal and researching potential. After another couple of months, John finally got back to me and said that Apress was going to pass on the project. They felt that the JavaScript book market was already dominated by O’Reilly and Wrox and they were not interested in going head-to-head with them (particularly ironic given the number of JavaScript titles that were later published by Apress). I was disappointed because I felt like there was room for more JavaScript books in the market and they were missing an opportunity. As this was my second rejection, I was a little bit down. Still, I wrote back to John and said thank you for taking the time to review my proposal and for giving me his honest assessment.

Much to my surprise, John wrote back to me. He said that he personally thought that the book was a good idea and that I might be better off going with a larger publisher that might have the resources to pull it off. He gave me the name and contact information for Jim Minatel, an acquisitions editor at Wrox. I had never thought to contact Wrox because they already had several JavaScript books including the original Professional JavaScript by the late Nigel McFarlane.

I e-mailed Jim and introduced myself. It just so happened that he was looking for somebody to rewrite Professional JavaScript from scratch. Jim and I worked together to merge my proposal into his idea for the book and the end result was Professional JavaScript for Web Developers, my first book, which was released in 2005. What happened over the next several years is something that I still can’t believe.

The first interesting thing occurred when I got an e-mail from Eric Miraglia at Yahoo!. He let me know that Yahoo! was using my book to train their engineers on JavaScript. This was really exciting for me, because I had been a longtime Yahoo! user and knew how big the company was. Eric said to let him know if I’m ever in California, because he’d like to meet and show me around. I thanked Eric and told him I wasn’t planning any California trips soon, but I would definitely keep that in mind.

Because of the success of Professional JavaScript for Web Developers, Jim contacted me soon after to ask if I would write a book on Ajax. The Ajax revolution was just starting and Jim wanted to get out in front of it with a book. I initially turned it down because I was burned out on writing and the schedule he was proposing was really aggressive. However, he was eventually able to convince me to do it and Professional Ajax was released in 2006. It turned out to be the second Ajax book on the market and ended up being one of Amazon’s top 10 computer and technology books of 2006.[2]

The success of Professional Ajax was overwhelming. The book put me on the radar for Google, who came calling asking if I would like to work for them. Google was in a big hiring spree, bringing in top tier web developers from around the world. At the time I was still living in Massachusetts and the thought of moving to California wasn’t one that I relished (Google didn’t have the Cambridge office at that point in time). But I saw this as an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and accepted their invitation to fly out and interview.

At the same time, Jim came ringing again asking to update Professional Ajax for the next year. With all of the excitement, the Ajax book market was exploding as people discovered new and interesting ways to use this new technology.

While I was out in California interviewing with Google, I emailed Eric and asked if he would like to get together for drinks. I met with him and Thomas Sha at Tied House in Mountain View. We talked about the current state of the web and how exciting it was to be a web developer working with JavaScript and Ajax. We also talked a little bit about what was going on at Yahoo! at the time. When I got back to Massachusetts, Thomas called and asked if I would be interested in interviewing at Yahoo! as well. After all, he said, if you’re going to move all the way across the country you might as well know what your options are.

I ended up choosing to work for Yahoo! instead of Google and moved to California. I can’t say enough about my time at Yahoo! and how much I enjoyed it. I met so many great people that I can’t even begin to list. However, there are a few that stick out as I look back.

I met Bill Scott through my cubemate, Adam Platti. I had mentioned to Adam that I wanted to start giving talks and I didn’t know how to go about it. Adam said that his friend Bill did talks all the time and I should chat with him to figure out how to do it. He then made an introduction to Bill, and Bill made an introduction to the organizer of the Rich Web Experience, which was taking place in San Jose. That was my first conference speaking opportunity. The experience made me realize that not only could I give a talk, but people actually liked it. From then on, I was giving talks at conferences and other events.

I met Nate Koechley through Eric and Thomas when I arrived in California. Nate gave an introductory class to all new front-end engineers at Yahoo! that I was in and really enjoyed. Over the years, I would get to see him give several talks, and he more than anyone else influenced my speaking style. I loved how visual his slides were and how we could explain complex topics by breaking them down into small chunks. He also had great interactions with the audience, never getting flustered and always being both personable and respectful. I was fortunate to have Nate in some of my talk rehearsals and was the beneficiary of a lot of great feedback from him.

I met Havi Hoffman through email. At the time, she was working for the Yahoo! Developer Network and was looking for somebody to write a book. Yahoo! was just starting a partnership with O’Reilly to have Yahoo! Press-branded books and someone had written a proposal for a book called, High Performance JavaScript. I still to this day don’t know who wrote the original proposal, but that person was unavailable to write the book and so Havi had contacted me to see if I was interested. Havi introduced me to Mary Treseler at O’Reilly, and we all worked to get the book out in 2010.

High Performance JavaScript was also a hit. The time was right for a book on JavaScript performance, and people really liked it. The success of the book led to more speaking engagements which in turn led to requests for more books. In 2012, I proposed Maintainable JavaScript to Mary as a new title, and it was published later in the year. That was after the third edition of Professional JavaScript for Web Developers was released in January 2012.

The success of my books and speaking engagements led me to leave Yahoo! in 2011 to do two things: start a consulting business and attempt to create a Silicon Valley startup with some former colleagues from Yahoo!. Because people knew who I was, it was fairly easy to get consulting work. That was important because we were bootstrapping the start up (WellFurnished) and we would all be chipping in our own money to get it off the ground.

Today, I have the career that I couldn’t even have dreamed of coming out of college. Being able to work for myself, do the things that I love, and still have time to write and give talks is truly a blessing. And all of it, every single piece, can be traced back to a simple “thank you” I emailed to John Franklin in 2004. If I hadn’t sent that e-mail, I wouldn’t have been introduced to Jim Minatel, which means I wouldn’t have written Professional JavaScript for Web Developers, which means Yahoo! would never have started using it and I never would have written Professional Ajax, which means I never would have been interviewed by Google, which means I never would have met Eric Miraglia and Thomas Sha, which means I never would have worked at Yahoo!, which means I never would have met Adam Platti, Bill Scott, Nate Koechley, or Havi Hoffman, which means I never would have started giving talks or writing for O’Reilly, which means I never would have been able to start a consulting business, which means I never would have been able to attempt a startup.

My life was taken on a completely different path just by being nice to somebody. The truth is, you never know when that one moment of being nice will turn into a life altering moment. Amazing things can happen when you don’t push people away with negativity. So, embrace every opportunity to be nice, say please when asking for things, and above all, never forget to say “thank you” when someone has helped you.

References

  1. Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography (The Atlantic)
  2. Best Books of 2006 -
    Top 10 Editors’ Picks: Computers & Internet
    (Amazon)

Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.

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