Very early in my career, I worked in Economic Development at the Western Valley Development Authority (now defunct) in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. I got to do a lot of really cool things there, and work with people who loved their work and wanted to make a difference in the region. It was easily the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and the artifacts of that work still benefit the region more than two decades later.
After a year or so of being overworked, I was excited to get a new colleague. A freshly minted Computer Science graduate named Graham (not Graham Lee, my current partner in multiple crimes) was joining to help out. I was really excited because I didn’t get to study at University, and was really self-conscious about this fact. I really thought I’d have a lot to learn from Graham.
Graham showed up first to work every day in a button-down shirt, and sometimes a tie. And he shared an office with a high-school dropout, foul-mouthed, blue-haired, atheist who wasn’t yet old enough to legally drink alcohol, but did anyway. Graham was everything I wasn’t: he did well in school, went to university, got married, bought a house, had kids, saved for retirement, all in the correct order. We respected each other, despite being polar opposites.
I learned a lot of things from Graham, but none of them were related to the CS education he’d had that I so desperately wanted. This is one of those things.
Every time we went to a meeting, Graham would bring a pen and a pad of paper. He was always first to volunteer to take the minutes. I found this weird: I always avoided being nominated to take the minutes because I found it a boring bit of busywork that I didn’t get much satisfaction from. I teased Graham for being a try-hard and assumed he was doing it in order to carry favour with the bosses. It annoyed me that Graham always volunteered to take the meeting notes.
During a drinking lunch one day, I told Graham that it annoyed me that he always volunteered to do things like this. Graham let me in on the secret. He told me “Steven, he who holds the pen, holds the power.” I snickered. I’d heard the phrase before, but I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it. He explained, “The minutes of the meeting are the official record. By taking the minutes, I can decide what to highlight and draw attention to, what to … the opposite of highlight, and perhaps in some cases what to forget to add.” In addition, he explained that when there was a meeting that didn’t have “minutes” he always took notes, and would send around a summary email to the participants after. This served the same purpose.
It was an almost too-cynical take for the do-everything-right goodie-two-shoes yes-man I’d assumed he was. I was impressed.
It has come up a lot in the decades that have passed. Not the sinister message manipulation bit, necessarily, but I have often found value in writing and sending a summary of the important bits of a meeting that I participated in. These summaries can come in handy, as a reminder of the things I want to remember, but also as a record of the decisions that were made and why they were made long after everyone has forgotten.
They’ve come in incredibly handy with problematic clients who want to insist on decisions that were never discussed, promises that were never made, or deliverables that were not late. When I’ve not taken these notes (and shared them), I’ve often come to regret it later.
I haven’t talked to Graham in over a decade. I hope he’s doing well. Last I heard, he had given up on the software industry and is a teacher now. I hope his students learn something like this that sticks with them for decades.