Archive | January, 2013

QuickNote: Knowing Where You Excel

23 Jan

Today I participated on a large review panel (20 people or so).  This is not an uncommon occurrence.  What is uncommon is that the head of the board had to leave midway through and I was volunteered, elected, and deputized in her place.

“You have to be careful because sometimes your vanity can cause you to take the wrong job.”  So said Benedict Cumberbatch on the importance of reading the script before taking the title role in Sherlock.  The traditional model of corporate leadership has held that the best [fill in the blank] step up to become managers of their former positions.  But of course, it’s been widely realized that the skills to be a great [blank] and the skills to become a great manager are unrelated.

I can say without exaggerating that on an objective level, I am a great panelist.  Strong attention span, calm and inviting demeanor, a discerning intellect and (evidently) an uncanny ability to ask the right questions without revealing a point of view.  But I hate being in charge, because the head of the panel has totally different priorities.  Essentially, your job is to keep the investigation on course – it’s not just a managerial, but a centrist position.

In this case, it didn’t matter much: a one-day panel means playing that role for a few hours, and I’m okay with that.  But I was highly conscious of how different it felt to be just “good enough”.

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Momentum II: (Slowly) Getting It Back

8 Jan

The ideas in this pair of posts actually came from a happy place :).  Steve Kamb, who runs NerdFitness (motto: Level Up Your Life), wrote an great blog post in September called “The Mario Kart Guide to Momentum” (my favorite video game).

The gist of Steve’s point (as relevant to this blog) is that there is always stuff that is going to get in your way (usually a banana peel, bob-omb, or a red shell fired by a particularly nasty competitor).  Dodging obstacles is great.  But if you can’t dodge, the key is to accept that the obstacle is going to get you and minimize your loss of momentum.  If you slow down as the obstacle makes impact, it will send you tumbling a few times, but you’ll be able to get back up to speed pretty quickly.  But if you try to outrun the damn thing, the combined force of your top speed plus the impact can send you flying off the track.  Then you have to wait until a dude with a crane comes to pick you up before you can move at all.  And if you try to gun the accelerator as soon as you return to the track, the car twists back and forth and squeals, wasting more time.

There wasn’t a way to avoid taking such a hard hit, at least not one that I can see from here. (We’ll see in five years.)  And when I see my little brothers with their A+ careers and their devoted fiances, I wonder (horribly) whether life would be different if I’d gone for broke and had a meltdown, forcing someone else to take over.  But until then:

  1. Make a list of three tiny things to do every night. Do them.  There are days when I literally cannot get out of bed. (“On the internet, no one knows you’re bedridden” :P.)  I have hated myself so many times for failing to learn a programming language or tackle a major project, or having to pull out of a commitment at the last minute because my body will not function.  There is no advantage to this kind of self-hatred: it’s demotivating, and it bleeds into the following day.  Now, I pick three tiny things: maybe a phone call, a Tweet, and printing a 5-page article to read.  Write them on a Post-It and put it and all those materials next to my bed.  I cross them off over the day, and anything else feels like gravy.
  2. Laugh. Or watch things that used to make you laugh.  Not happy or pretty or cute things necessarily.  I don’t think they engage your brain deeply enough to make an impact on a rut.  You may not be laugh.  But anything that cues a laugh memory is helpful (for me, that’s old episodes of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”).

Hopefully there will be more in the future, and a third post on explaining this stuff to your employer in a way that doesn’t sound whiny.  I suspect there’s something to be said for the fact that from a complete stop, it’s easier to change direction without crashing into a wall.  But having just returned to the track, this is what I’ve got.

Momentum I: Losses and Collateral Damage to Your Career

8 Jan

Today I want to talk about the place of momentum in building young careers.

There are a couple of tried-and-true methods for dealing with abrupt stops on your resume.  If you’re fired due to downsizing, you’re advised to fudge the dates to years (a job that ended in January 2012 becomes “2012”).  If you’re out for a long time due, particularly due to child-rearing, you’re supposed to populate that time period with activities that demonstrate transferable skills like leadership and management.  I have yet to see a post that tells you how to deal with the loss of momentum.

Four years ago, the s@#$ hit my own personal fan.  Within 12 months, I experienced (kid you not):

  • Death of a parent, close friend, to-be mother-in-law and two aunts, all prematurely,
  • Death of a grandparent from grief, and,
  • Exit of fiancee, who wanted to start fresh without baggage.

At that point, a background in classical drama became a blessing because, ye gods, Oedipus had it worse.

People understand grief: something like losing a parent is supposed to stop your heart for a while.  It’s stark, but clear.  We have well-wrought rituals for sending flowers and casseroles and eventually the person becomes okay.  What we don’t know how to handle is the collateral damage.

Because of all these losses, I

  • Moved home to take care of my father,
  • Ran the holidays and birthdays for younger sibs so that they could finish school,
  • Became the point person for lawyers, wills, and estates,
  • Turned in an incomplete thesis, dropping from summa to cum laude,
  • Got a low-stress, low-status job back in my hometown to be on hand in case there were additional complications, and,
  • Developed immune and emotional trauma disorders that messed up a few projects.

Looking at my resume from the last five years, it looks “fine”, just a little like “underperforming”.  But in a competitive industry, that’s damning with faint praise.  It reads like laziness.  People don’t believe that this sort of stuff happens to 24-year-olds, and most 24-year-olds for whom it does happen don’t end up with so much of the responsibility.

Next: how to offset the loss of momentum.

Writing Process and Rant/Rave: The “Basic” Website

4 Jan

So now that the demographics half of the report is fully drafted, I can move on to drafting the analysis of the website.  Which presents its own challenges.  (Yes, challenges – not a euphemism for “headaches”.)

When I’m writing a report, I typically need to use the most direct and graphic language on the first draft.  All the details need to come out, in often excruciating detail.  This is doubly true when the report, like this one, does something I’ve never done before, because injecting tact at the beginning muddies my thinking.  It’s time-consuming to write and trim so much, but so far it works better than to outline and try to hit bullet points.  So dumping out my thoughts about this website is the first step in an inevitable process.

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The problem with critiquing the website is that there’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s handsome, it includes working links to everything the clients want to offer the public, and it loads fast on every browser.  But as a user experience designer, or even a user who’s played around with it a bit, it doesn’t perform its function.  How do you a tell a perfectly nice client that just had their website revamped by a probably (paid) web designer and is evidently happy with the new look, that it doesn’t work?

I consider this a problem of the times, the fact that we’re still in the early days of the Internet.  Several years ago, big companies started having websites and this year we seem to have crested the wave started by LinkedIn and Google+ profiles.  To be someone, to be up-to-date and savvy and competitive, you has to have a website.  But there’s not a lot of thought about what it does and how it attracts consumers. And this is what upsets me about the “basic” website: pretty graphics and all of the expected elements (name, CV, portfolio, contact information), but no thought about how they’re put together.

Big companies needed sites for two big reasons: disseminating information (databases) and selling products (stores).  Their consumers are largely searching for them directly: you want a Dell computer, go to Dell.com.  But if you’re an individual or a small company, particularly one in an industry with tons of alternatives like entertainment, consumer don’t find you by searching, but by stumbling.  Your website is your flying shingle, a hand in the air saying that you exist and “Ooo, ooo, pick me!”  If a consumer finds you, your site’s front page has under five  seconds to convince them to probe further.  Dell.com does not need ease-of-use at every step to convince its users to stay.

My dear clients’ website is lacking in every basic usability affordance.  The front page is cut in half by a normal web browser, and it’s designed so that you need to look at both halves to make the content function.  Links look like graphics.  Graphics look like links.  Text (a catchphrase that appears nowhere else in the series or the site) is turned into a graphic  that looks like the only clickable link.  The most important material is tiny, and the minutiae is huge, and in one place the Most Important Thing is visually linked to two bits of minutiae in order to balance the composition.  The contact information is written out (so spammers can grab it), but it’s also a link, so you don’t know whether to copy and paste it or click it.  Basically, you go to the site, it looks pretty, but then you have no damn clue, as a new user, how to interact with it.  And even looking at it, there’s no way to positively state what product it’s advertising.

People pay other people to do the things they maybe could do but can’t be bothered with, so it doesn’t really surprise me that the clients skimmed over the page, said “Looks great!” and went on with what they want and need to do, which is make a fantastic series.  And at this point I make my living in other ways, so it doesn’t make me angry that the demand for graphic web designers is so high that not all of them will bother to make sure their work functions as well as fits.  But it kills me to have to state the obvious: your beautiful new site doesn’t work.  It wasted money.  What good is a shingle if you can’t open the door?