Tuesday, May 13, 2014

9 Things

I work at a software company, making things and helping others make things.  I'd say my contributions to the maki-ness are an even split of three areas: software UX design, customization UX design, and data visualization; as such, I get a pretty even split of conferring with cohorts, clients, and myself.  Chewing on the better part of a decade has provided me many embarrassing mistakes.  Humiliating mistakes.  Just horrendous mistakes.  From them, I can think of nine lessons that continue to rattle around in my head that have turned out to be solid gold -affording me the opportunities to make different mistakes.

Here are 9 Things...

Original Image: Alexandre Dulaunoy

1) When you get the answer you want, stop talking.
If you are asking for permission or validation of a plan, and you get it, it's really tempting to elaborate on your really thoughtful rationale because you are proud of the process.  Mistake!  Not only is it self-indulgent but it is full of risk, laying out specific opportunities around which your counterpart may change their mind.  Just accept your green light and move on confidently.  Seems pretty simple but this little angel whispers into my ear all the time.

Original Image: Graeme Maclean

2) That’s not “easy,” it’s “straightforward.”
Never tell a client that a task would be easy, because that means free.  Few things ever deliver on the promise of easiness: inevitable surprises, testing, etc.  1) Your time, experience, and thinking are valuable and even though you didn't say 'free,' that's how it sounded, and 2) just watch that "easy" thing blow up into something more complex than you suspected.  If you want to vocalize an affirmative statement of effort, replace 'easy' with 'straightforward' in just about any case and you’ll be alllllright.

Original Image: Randy Robertson

3) Just go for it.
If you work in a smallish company there is a nimbleness and probably more autonomy than you suspect.  Don’t necessarily invite or presume the comfort of bureaucratic permission.  There are certainly times of frustration when bureaucracy can feel inordinate, but consider how it is in a massive and maybe-soul-crushing entity and then re-calibrate.  If you have an idea or an initiative just go ahead and try it out, so long as it isn't preventing you from "working" (wink).  Caveats: If it involves spending money, well of course you need permission.  And the more it involves other people, the more you need to involve them (and the more likely some manager will care).  But, generally, go ahead do stuff you think is worthwhile -and get ready to live.

Original Image: Wystan

4) Don’t know? That’s ok.
Customers, and I suppose managers, don’t expect you to know everything -but they definitely expect you to find out.  Whatever you do, don't give in to the urge to grope for a guess or nervously ramble (like I have done too often, and still do, probably).  Just own it.  Here is the four-step dance of this move:
1) Admit you don’t know, 2) claim the homework, 3) ensure a timely response, and 4) get a verbal ‘ok’.
A couple Cliff’s Notes examples:
“You know what, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, but let me ask the smart kids and I’ll get back to you, ok?”
“That’s a good question, let us do some homework on our end, and we’ll come back with some options in our next meeting.  Does that sound alright?”

Original Image: Travis Isaacs

5) Let the customer talk.
Never interrupt a customer.  Let them talk through their idea or problem.  They are the subject matter experts so there is a lot to learn -this is your chance.  Even if you strongly disagree on a suggestion for how a feature of tool is built (because you are more familiar with building them), you will be surprised at how often their line of thinking will come around once they work through it out loud.  And then it was their idea, and buy-in is secured.  And if that doesn't work, proceed to number 6...

Original Image: John Smith

6) Hear dictated solutions but listen for the root problem.
Often a customer or coworker, who is speaking with you as a valuable resource, will dictate a solution -rather than describe their problem and work together on a solution.  That’s ok, just try to mentally translate all dictated solutions to a description of the problem, on the fly as you listen.  Repeat back to them what you understand the real issue to be or problem to solve (without rejecting their prescription), naturally steering into a more collaborative and productive conversation.  You were hired for creativity and problem-solving, not as a commodity (if that's not true, take stock).

Original Image: Eran Finkle

7) Know when to ice an email.
Recognize when you are in an email fight and just cool off.  This can happen without your realizing it initially.  Email is fast and not spoken directly to a human face, and back-and-forths can grow terse.  So some level of anonymity, and the more callous retorts that that invites, is at play (how more likely are you to show anger to those on the other side of a car window than you are when standing in line next to them?).  If you are in a back and forth like that, make a phone call -stuff's going to go way better.  Failing that, shelve it for a couple hours and see if time gives you wisdom.  Relatedly, it is hard to emote in an email and something you confidently type in friendly sass can be intoned by a reader as really aggressive.  Good rule of thumb: Are you mad? If yes, your resultant email is likely to be counterproductive unless you’re really really careful.

Original Image: Steve

8) You do not own what you make.
This is one of the biggest emotional traps an employee who makes can fall into (if you make for hire).  While your job may involve your creativity, ingenuity, time, and effort, the result is not yours.  You are trading those things for payment (financial, and intrinsic satisfaction).  While you may be the one creating something, you are only a steward of it.  Additionally, your work, however autonomous feeling, comes from an ecosystem of collaboration, tasks, customer access, and a creative environment provided by your employer.  The most angst-ridden situations in a software company can come from the easily misguided notion that something is yours, resulting in: a reluctance to share information and responsibility, feelings of betrayal when the project is reassigned, and heartache if the project is cancelled.

Original Image: Kenny Louie

9) Your job is only a part of who you are.
While we spend maybe most of our waking time here at our jobs, and we invest our love into what we do and with whom we work, and hopefully take significant reward from our contributions, we are not our jobs.  It’s a great reward to love what you do, but we aren't our title.  Be careful not to over-allocate how you make a living into your sense of who you are.  This is a tough one, but balance and diversification can avoid some painful shifts and unhealthy expectations.  It especially helps you live in the moment outside of the office and with those you love, rather than caught up in distractions.

Anyway, that's that.  Nine things.

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