The Best Lessons I Learned from Per Vonge Nielsen



“Build the brain.” – Per Vonge Nielson

I like to learn from everyone around me.

One of my most influential mentors has been my manager, Per.

Here’s a highlight of some of the lessons I learned from Per over the years:


  • Consolidate communication.   Chunky over chatty.  Rather than a random stream of ideas, consolidate down to a theme.  Rather than a bunch of mini-mails, consolidate to a more meaningful message.
  • Distinguish between phases of communication.  Walt Disney used three stages for ideas: Dreamer, Realist, and Critic.  Dreamer is the vision, Realist is the steps, Critic is the constraints and limits.  In practice, Per encourages first brainstorm, then critique.

Cutting Questions

  • Do you influence or do you own?   Distinguish between when you own the decision versus when you influence.  If you influence, but don’t own, reset your own expectations.  Responsibility without authority is a common pitfall.
  • Does it matter?   In the grand scheme of things, does this particular issue matter.
  • Five customers under your belt?  If you don’t have five customers you can point to that stand behind what you’re doing, it’s a flag.  As simple as this test sounds, I’ve used it many times to ensure project success.
  • Is it the right thing to do?  First figure out the right thing to do, then figure out what you can do based on the circumstances.
  • Is it working?  If you keep taking the same approach, but it’s not working, you need to change your approach.  It’s simple, but you’d be surprised how many people get stuck.
  • Next steps?   Asking “next steps?” at the end of your meeting is a pretty crisp way of turning talk into action.
  • What’s the agreement?  When you’re not sure why things aren’t happening as you expect, check the agreement.  You might find you don’t really have one.
  • What’s the solution?  If you’re spending too much time on the problem, switch by asking, “what’s the solution?”
  • What’s their story?  If you don’t get why another person or team isn’t doing what you want, figure out what their side of the story is.  (see What’s Their Story)
  • What’s your gut say?  If you find a decision isn’t sitting right, check your gut.   While the numbers may say one thing, your intuition may be telling you a deeper story.


  • Argue the data.  Rather than argue your opinion, argue the data.  Arguing the data keeps it more objective.  It can also be more convincing.
  • Don’t state the conclusion.  Rather than state your conclusions, show the data that leads to your conclusions.  Even if you know the “right answer,” showing the data can help others get on board.
  • Lead the horse to water.   Let them connect the dots.  You can draw a dotted line, but let your audience connect the dots.
  • Mental Judo.  This is Per’s phrase for Ward Cunninham’s uncanny ability to lead people to a conclusion through rhetoric and stories.
  • Set the frame.   Frame the problem or solution so that you have a common backdrop to share understanding.  This will help set boundaries, create agreements, and improve communication.
  • They’re not engaged.  If you notice a lack of engagement throughout your meeting, there’s a good chance that you don’t have rapport.  If you don’t have rapport, you won’t effectively influence.
  • They’re not on board.  You should be able to tell whether somebody is on board.  If they aren’t, then don’t kid yourself.
  • You didn’t agree on values.  Recognize when you don’t have the same values.  Do they value time or do they value a level of results?  If you don’t share the values, you can expect problems in agreements, prioritization, expectations, and results.
  • You didn’t have buy in.  Just because somebody shakes their head yes, doesn’t mean they are bought in.  You don’t want somebody to tell you yes, just to drag their feet.

Organizational Prowess

  • Call it an experiment.  In a risk adverse environment, it can help to call a project an experiment.  It’s a simple but effective metaphor to help people think about trying something new.
  • Do you influence or do you own?  If you don’t own the decision, you don’t own it.  Period.  You can attempt to influence, but at the end of the day, you’re not the owner.   That doesn’t mean don’t try your best.  Just don’t be surprised if it’s not the decision you wanted and don’t take it personally.
  • Expose the approach.   People may not agree on the implementation or the results, but sharing the approach is a good place to start.  Exposing the approach gives you a chance to improve the approach.  Exposing the approach can also build trust, particularly if everybody buys in.
  • Expose the thinking.  This is similar to showing your homework.  If you expose the thinking, then you can improve the thinking.  You can also help build trust.  You may not get to the right answer, but showing how you got there helps bring people along with you.
  • Get consensus.  Where possible and time permits, get folks on board.  If there’s resistance, this can be a flag that you’re off in the wrong direction.  If it’s a decision where you need everybody’s skin in the game, then you’ll want them on board helping push the ball forward versus dragging their feet.
  • Get smart folks on the bus.  This is just a general belief that if you have smart people around, the right things will happen.  It’s about people over process.
  • Slides are a forcing function.    Slides are a great way to get folks on the same page, or at least start the dialogue.  If you can’t show your ideas in a slide, then you don’t have a well-formed message for others.  Doing slides helps create a strawman of the thoughts that can be reviewed and improved.  Slides can help turn thoughts into action.


  • Change your approach.  If it’s not working; change your approach.
  • Change yourself first.  You can change yourself faster than you can change others.  Seriously.
  • Chunk it down.   If you can’t release something in a healthy rhythm, chunk it down.
  • Divide and Conquer.  If you have an overwhelming challenge, divide and conquer.(See Divide and Conquer – One Step at a Time)
  • Drive or Be Driven.  If you don’t drive it, you’ll be driven by somebody else.
  • Get it out and get feedback.  Good ideas often die because there’s no action or momentum.  If you get something out, you can get feedback and start to improve it.
  • Give attribution.  In our industry, acknowledgement is important.  Be sure to give attribution where it’s due.
  • Focus.   If there’s one place where projects fail or people fail, it’s a lack of focus.  Focus is your friend.  If you’re not getting results, narrow the focus.
  • Follow your passion.  Where there’s passion, there’s strength.
    Forcing functions.  Use meetings, slides, and reviews as forcing functions to drive results.
  • Model the best.   This is Per’s phrase for my approach of finding the best people and modeling their success.
  • Play to your strengths.  Per’s a fan of the book, Good to Great, and he believes in focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
  • Rattle the cage.  Challenge the thinking.  Challenge ideas.  Challenge yourself.  Don’t fall into the trap of the status quo.
  • Ship it!  This is one of Per’s favorite sayings which characterizes the emphasis on getting results and making impact.   He’s learned that a rhythm of shipping produces results while failure to ship is how teams fail at Microsoft.


Edward Jezierski(left) and Per Vonge Nielsen(right).

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  1. “Ship it” is my favorite. It sometimes hides “Call it experiment” too.
    I am a big fan of generating incremental results. It helps making sure you are on/off track. It also offloads the responsibility to customers making them active participants of the project/service i deliver.

  2. This seems like a very energetic approach to any problem. The changing of strategies when one doesn’t work and focusing on solutions rather than problems reminds me a lot of something a good friend use to say all the time, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That has always really stuck with me – I try to keep in mind wherever I go and whatever I get involved in.

    Great post J.D!

  3. @Alik

    Ship it has served me well. I learned to “version” perfection and, more importantly, not let perfection get in the way of the good.


    You hit a great point — it’s full of energy. Per lives with passion and he pushes others to follow their heart. Most importantly, he pushes people to give their best where they have their best to give.

    Somebody must have drilled that same saying into me too (you’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.) It’s a healthy reminder to take action. I try to be part of the solution as much as I can.

  4. Thanks for consolidating JD.

    A number of the people I had the opportunity to work with in patterns & practices (p&p) including JD and Edward (Eduardo) Jezierski provided inspiration for many of these articulations. Ed wrote the article Inside Out about the patterns & practices culture and approach

    Win over the long term, and be careful about using energy or capital if the short term gain does not contribute to the long term.

    Focus on your customers aligned with larger goals and strategies.

    Be positive, flexible and resourceful. Do “stuff” and then take a look from the outside (we called it: “go meta”) of what’s working well and what’s not working, as an example project retrospectives in p&p are done regularly. Over time increase what’s working well (consider the law of evolution). Expose the approaches that work well and consider how things may scale. Important ones for patterns & practices has been customer connected engineering, which is an adaption of agile development and TDD. Ward Cunningham was one of the creators of these at the outset and helped p&p realizing and fine tuning the practices, and Jim Newkirk’s work contributed to the TDD.

    Enable a culture of can do, learn and have lots of fun. “Ship It” is important in a software company, ideally with a given deadline and limited resources (agile provided a prescribed approach for this). It encourages a focus on and culture of ROI, continuous learning and accountability. Srinath Vasireddy once made a caricature on a post-it and put it somewhere prominent, where he described my planning model as: idea, ppt, ship it. Keep it small and nimble, both team and goals and keep shipping and refining (consider the law of evolution). Understand your contribution in the bigger picture, for p&p that could be how a code asset fit in the roadmap to product.

    Emotion beats logic. Create rapport and open and nurture communication channels. Be thoughtful about maintaining and developing relationship and understand how you do this AND achieve results.

    Understand the culture and what’s valued at different levels. Important axes are connections/ relationships and results.

    You most often accomplish things in teams or with other teams/groups. Understand the strengths and how you complement each other as individuals, teams and groups.

    Focus on how things may work (the path between the ice bergs), plus enable people and teams you work with. Build bridges and reach out to others.

    Be transparent and take accountability. Communicate the goals at the outset and accomplishments after shipping with appropriate attribution.

    Be able to walk away from a project or product (stay flexible), if it does not seem to gain momentum with your customers (your feedback). In patterns & practices history we rewarded people that did this. Plus, we have a few blatant failures, when we were unable to do it.

    Be precise including providing context. My favorite framework for this is “Precision Questioning and Precision Answering” (I only know of it as a course). SMART goals is another helpful tool.

  5. The link to the patterns & practices InsideOut wiki pages only contains the front page (there are app. 36 pages). Let me see if/how the whole wiki could be made available. The actual data is dated, but it is representative of the approach we had, and in many ways are still applied in p&p.

  6. @Per

    Wow — What a fantastic addition of insights! I particularly like this point “Enable a culture of can do, learn and have lots of fun.”

    I think you have some future guest posts waiting to be born 😉

  7. Your manager, Per, is very wise. Argue the Data, Rattle the Cage, and Set the Frame are a few of my favorites!

  8. @Stacey

    Indeed. What I like most is that he walks the talk. He’s a living example of practicing what he preaches.

  9. Hi J.D. – What a wonderful, value packed post. Then when Per came by and commented, he added tons more value.

    I especially like, does it matter, do you influence or do you own, call it an experiment, and change yourself first. I’m going to make a copy of this so I can reread it and see how I can apply more of it to our business and to blogging.

    How fortunate you are to have Per as a mentor/manager. I’m guessing he also realizes what a great “student” he has in you.

  10. @Barbara

    Thank you. Yes, Per’s quite the sage. He has an uncanny ability to tease out little distinctions that make a real difference. Change yourself first is a really good one, since it’s usually the key to improving results. You can change yourself faster than you can change somebody else 😉

  11. A truly informative write up.
    I have already bookmarked this to keep coming back few more times.
    I could really make use of some of the principles mentioned in there.

    — Vinay Chaganti

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