Why you should love your computer and your phone

My father, in his younger years, was an interstate trucker. As was common in those days, he owned his own truck, instead of leasing one or driving one that belongs to a company. His truck, the trailer, the tarps and ropes and chains, were all the tools of his trade.

During the week he was always away, somewhere on the Pacific Highway, a roughy 1000 km stretch of coastal highway between Brisbane and Sydney. On the weekends at home, he would care for his tools.

He would start by washing the week’s worth of road grime, dirt and bugs from the truck. He would carefully unroll his tens of meters of tarps and inspect them for holes and scuffs. He would untangle the chains and oil the ratchets, fill the water tanks, check the tyres…

The point is, he loved his tools. His tools were a part of who he was, and he knew he would only be as effective as his tools were.

I don’t have a truck, and I don’t work with chains or ropes or tarps. The physical tools of my trade are my computing devices and my software. But I still love my tools as my father loved his.

You mean you love your MacBook? You really love Illustrator? Keynote? Outlook?

Yeah, I do.

(Ok, so I don’t love Outlook. It’s hard to love Outlook. But you get the point…)

To be truly productive, I think you must love your tools. You spend your whole life with them in your hands. They shape your words, they communicate your ideas, they turn your dreams into reality. How could you not love that?

How horrible it must be to spend your whole day working with tools you dislike, or even tools you hate. How can that be anything but negative for your productivity? For mental health? Your well-being?

There is nothing worse than poor quality tools. But, like spanners or wrenches or cordless drills, the tools of the information profession have a variety of quality levels, and as the saying goes, you really do get what you pay for.

A professional mechanic isn’t using the 30€ set of wrenches from the supermarket.

Invest in the tools of your profession. Buy the right tool for the right job, and pay for the right level of quality.

And love your tools.

Special note for employers: your employees will only be as productive as the tools you give them. Sure, the 500€ Dell PC might seem like a bargain now. But the question is: what price do you put on the productivity of your staff?

The Law of Two Feet – every day

My feet

In open space-style workshops/sessions there’s a concept called “The Law of Two Feet”. It means that if, at any time, you feel you are not contributing to the session, or if you are not learning something, then you should use your two feet to leave the session and find one where you can contribute and where you can learn something.

It’s a beautiful rule because it gives all participants the permission to go where they think they can be the most effective.

It occurs to me that nearly all the meetings I attend in the workplace could benefit from having meeting participants understand this concept.

So often we find ourselves in meetings that are not valuable for us. Sometimes we’re invited “just for our info”, so we go along just to avoid the risk of missing out. Sometimes meetings go so off-topic that the value starts to dissipate. And sometimes the meeting probably wasn’t necessary in the first place.

In any of these situations, I propose to you that you invoke your right to use your feet. If the meeting isn’t valuable for you; if you cannot contribute or cannot learn something valuable – then leave.

You have my permission!

A brief memoir of my days as a barkeeper (and why ex-barkeepers make great employees)

Cocktails
Cocktail Group – by kurmanstaff.

Over the years since I finished high school I’ve had the immense good fortune to work with a handful of remarkable people who have inspired me deeply; who have mentored me and taught me an incredible amount about myself.

The first of these was not a CEO or a VP; he had, in fact, nothing to do with the technical career I was then aspiring to pursue. He was a barkeeper.

A cocktail maker in fact; “Chief Cocktail Maker”, if such a title existed. His name was Ted; he was in his mid fifties then and had worked in the same piano bar in Sydney’s inner southern suburbs for something like 20 years.

The cocktail bar was part of a large lounge and bar complex, filled to overflowing with glittering poker machines and rowdy teenagers. In the midst of this sea of lights, noise and excitement, Ted’s little cocktail bar was an island of quiet and still.

There were many bartenders working at the club; maybe 40 or 50 at any one time. Ted was feared by some, awed by many; and respected by everyone. Something of a legend in the cocktail business, his skill with a boston shaker and hawthorne strainer was renowned.

Ted had worked in that dimly lit bar behind that lotus-green marble countertop for as long as he could remember, and as far as I know he’s still there now, mixing up his classic appleseed martini. And yet I learnt from Ted a few fundamental things that have stayed with me through my career as a Product Manager and helped define who I am and how I work.

How?

Firstly, Ted taught me the value of understanding the customer experience. When you come into his bar, you are not there just for the drinks. What you pay for is the end-to-end experience. This is something any good restaurateur understands: the quality of the meal itself is only as good as the quality of the experience surrounding it.

The same is true of software products. When you pay for a piece of software (either with cash, or with your attention), it’s not just the source code that you obtain – it’s an experience. And the experience doesn’t end with the user interface of the product. The sales process itself is part of the product, as is the customer support line, the warranty process, the packaging, and so on. And the user’s perception of every part of this experience influences their perception of everything else.

Ted taught me about this experience. The guest’s experience starts when they enter the bar and see how the room is lit, how the chairs are organised, what music is playing. It continues when they order their drink: the menu, the options. How a cocktail is prepared and presented to the customer is almost more important than how it tastes; in fact, mixing the ingredients in the right way is the easy part – the true artistry comes with the flair with which it’s prepared and the quality of the presentation in the glass. (The artistry involved in creating new drinks is quite something else, but that’s another story).

This brings me to the next critical skill I learned under Ted’s tutorage: attention to detail.

Cocktails
Red Stools – by Jack Zalium.

Ted was obsessed with orderliness, and every stool and every table needed to be perfectly positioned and perfectly aligned. He was known for walking through various parts of the club with a ruler, measuring the distance between the chairs and tables, as well as rigorously enforcing other standards of excellence, such as ensuring coasters laid out on the table were positioned so the text would be the correct way up for the seated guests, or that every bottled product served to a customer should be served with the label facing the guest (something actually every bartender knows and continues to do intuitively when placing bottles on the table, long after their bartender career has ended).

Details come in all forms great and small, and the ability to keep your eye on the details while maintaining the end-to-end view is, I believe, one of the chief virtues of incredibly successful people.

To understand the impact of these two things, consider the packaging of an Apple product, whether an iPod, MacBook or an iPad. Every aspect of the package has been considered; the colour, the use of images and type. Bold in its modesty, an Apple product stands out among the clutter through its thoughtful minimalism and stark beauty.

Attention has been paid to every aspect of the end-to-end experience, from what the product looks like on the shelf to the experience of taking the product out of the box and using it for the first time.

In every product I work on I come back to that which I learned during those long evenings in the Skyline cocktail bar. But Ted taught me more than that.

Cocktails
Library Bar – by ZagatBuzz.

Ted’s obsession with orderliness didn’t end at the alignment of the chairs and tables. If he saw a dirty table, he’d be the first to grab a rag and a spray bottle and he’d be off to clean it. If an ashtray had ash in it, he’d empty it, or if there as litter on the floor, he’d pick it up.

It didn’t bother Ted that he was actually the bar manager. He could have called the cleaners; he could have delegated to a more junior bar staff member. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his job: if something needed doing, then he’d do it.

Ted, of course, expected nothing less of the people who worked for him, and the result was a culture where “not-my-job” thinking just didn’t exist.

Every team has issues that don’t get resolved as quickly as they probably should – old, un-refactored code, unanswered customer support queries, lingering bugs. But when these things start to stack up into ever-increasing piles, I’ve found that it’s often due to an established “not-my-job” attitude, and changing this attitude once it’s ingrained in a team is very difficult.

On top of all that, my time in Ted’s cocktail bar taught me that hard work is rewarding work. It might sound like a socialist slogan, but when I fell into bed at 4am after making cocktails all evening, I fell asleep exhausted, but fulfilled. I’d had fun at work, I’d learned something (which I did nearly every day), I’d met interesting people and helped serve an experience to our guests that they appreciated and told their friends about.

You might not believe it, but it’s truly amazing what you can learn in a bar.

Cheers!

Attention to detail

The Simpsons: Homer and Scorpio

Homer: It’s nothing big; it’s just a lot of little things.
Scorpio: Homer, you can’t argue with the little things. It’s the little things that make up life.

In the biography written by Walter Isacsson, Steve Jobs recalls watching his father paint the posts for the picket fence in the yard of their Cupertino home in the 60’s. A young Jobs asked his father why he was painting the back of the posts as well as the front, even though nobody could see the back of the posts. His father replied: “because I know they’re there”.

This is attention to detail.

The little details count, and more than you probably think. Whether spelling or grammar; visual consistency or alignment; order or neatness: paying attention to the finer presentation details makes an important difference to your message. It doesn’t matter if it’s a visual interface within a product, an instruction manual, a marketing message, a powerpoint slide or a simple email: the principle is the same.

It’s not just about having a powerpoint slide with consistent punctuation… and it’s not about perfectly painted fence posts. It’s an attitude that you carry with you everywhere; that’s part of everything you do.

Some general tips:

  • If you have three paragraphs on a slide or page, and the first three have a fullstop and the last one doesn’t… fix it. Don’t use 5 different font sizes on the same slide.
  • If you’re writing code, take care to follow the coding guidelines. Document. Clean up after yourself. Keep it tidy.
  • Grammar, spelling, etc matter… whether in an email or in interface copy. Take care. Use a spell-checker. If you’re not a native speaker of the language you’re writing in, have someone proof-read it for you if it is something that will be seen by a lot of people.

Cracking eggs

They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. That’s true.

You can, however, make an omelet without smashing eggs and getting egg-shells throughout the whole meal.

The act of breaking the eggs open is a controlled, thoughtful act. It’s not panic.

When you’re working on a new product strategy, fixing a bug, planning a meeting or refactoring a piece of code, think to yourself: are you smashing eggs, or breaking them?

When you want something done right…

“Well, you know what they say… when you want something done right, you have do to it your bloody self.”

My dad used to say this all the time. In fact he still does. How often have you heard it said?

A key turning point for a new manager is, I think, the realisation that this is quite often not true. (Certainly less often than you probably suspect).

Rallying the “troops”: how things can be misunderstood

Soldiers at attention.

I was reminded today of a story about managing people. About 8 years ago I was in my first management job, managing a team of about 15 web software designers and engineers. I saw a key challenge in bringing the team together, inspiring one vision and building a sense of identity and unity within the team.

At the time, I was fresh out of the Army, and was still active as a part-time Army reservist. I took to calling the team my “troops”, and turned some of the key challenges we faced as a team into our “key battles”. I saw it as a term of endearment to the team. In my mind, I saw it bringing a sense of unity and a common, understandable vision to the team. I saw it flattening the hierarchy, putting us all at the same level to encourage shared responsibility and the willingness to speak out. I saw it helping to build individual relationships between each of the team members. (Looking back, I think subconsciously I also hoped it would help give me, as a very young manager of an experienced team, a sense of authority; but I wouldn’t have told you that at the time.)

All-in-all, I saw it as a positive, understandable and motivational message. Indeed, military expressions like “rallying the troops”, “strategic battles” and “war rooms” were common in business parlance then, as they are today.

In reality, though, the team themselves saw something quite different. In short, they hated it. They hated being referred to as “troops” or “soldiers”, which they found disrespectful. Where I saw it flattening the hierarchy within the team, they saw a new hierarchy emerging: one with officers who sit back and give orders and soldiers who follow them. Where I saw it encouraging initiative and shared responsibility, they saw themselves reduced to simple soldiers who just follow orders and are not expected to think for themselves. On top of that many found the frequent references to war and battles offensive and tiring. (This was just after the second invasion of Iraq, and soldiers were still dying every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

I learned two very valuable lessons from this in my young management career.

Firstly, be very careful with military references in the workplace. While it’s still common in business to hear talk of “battlefronts” and “attack plans” and so on, I’ve learned to be cautious with how often, and in which situations, I use these. I think in the context of a conversation between a few people it’s probably ok; but I wouldn’t frame the team objectives/targets for the year in terms of “battles” and “wars”.

Secondly, sometimes you just don’t know how people are responding to the messages you deliver and the things you say. As a manager, when setting a vision or delivering a message, you need to remember that your job isn’t done until you can confirm that the message was heard and understood by your team in the way you intended. For my example above, how could I have known that my efforts to bring the team together were not working out as I had intended? I think the answer is: ask. Ask for feedback from individuals, from the team. Just like in agile and scrum, constant feedback helps you constantly iterate and adjust, which applies as much to management and communication style as it does to code.

The most important career skill for this century: fixing what’s broken

Companies are a complicated beasts. Reporting lines, structures, process, heirarchy, politics… finding your way through the corporate maze and working out how to get things done and ship meaningful work can be tough.

If you look around in any company, I’m sure you’ll see things that don’t make sense. You’ll see ineffective managers and inefficient processes. You’ll see failures and you’ll see waste.

When you look attentively and deliberately at the world around you, you will see so many things that are broken or could be improved. The more you look, the better you will become at seeing. You’ll undoubtedly see more things than you’ll ever have the time to work on.

Your first responsibility is to look. Your second responsibility is to act. If you see something broken, try to fix it – even if it’s not your job. Avoid ignoring the problem or building a complex workaround – try to fix the problem at it’s root.

If you really can’t fix the problem, then accept it as a constraint and move on. Leverage the constraint; use it to help you ship meaningful work.

In a world where software continues to automate generic factory-like work the most valuable skill becomes the ability to solve new and evolving problems… So if you have a choice between staring at your email inbox and fixing something that’s broken, what do you do?

The space between

Web developers can tell you that application speed is all about latency. It’s about the speed between component A and B; the distance between this server and that one; the response time of that API. In other words, it’s about the space between.

In organisations complexity is compounded in the spaces between – the spaces between teams, between components and between divisions. The trouble is the spaces between are often a no-mans land that is no-one’s responsibility in particular… but it’s the spaces between that matter if you want to get anything meaningful done.

Factories build detailed processes to help their employees navigate the spaces between teams to get things done. But what if there is no process for what you need to do? What if there is no roadmap to tell you how to get there?

If you understand the spaces between, you don’t need a playbook or a manual. When you step in and own the space between, you can make things happen and get stuff done.

The spaces between are your opportunity to do something new and valuable.

Not my job

Not my job
Not my job

One of my first jobs was as a bartender in a pub. My supervisor, Ted, had what I then thought was a compulsive neatness habit. If he saw a chair was out of place, he would straighten it. If there was an empty glass on the table, he would take it. A cigarette on the floor, he would pick it up. He couldn’t abide it if the other staff didn’t do this too. He’d say to us “don’t just turn a blind eye because you’re a bartender and not a cleaner. We work as a team here; your job is everything.”

The bigger your organisation becomes; the more distributed your team or the more defined the roles, the easier it becomes to think “that’s not by job”. Just like the guy driving the line-marking car in the photo above, who figured getting out of the truck to move the branch was not his job.

What would you think of a striker who stood by and let the ball roll into the goals because the goalkeeper was on the ground? It’s not his job to protect the goal, right?

If you are working on a team building a product or an experience for a customer, then your job is to bring them that experience, and to have it be the best experience it can be. Your job is not just testing or writing code; it’s not just writing the help copy or managing the DNS configs. They are just things that you’re good at – your job is the product. If you see something that’s broken, then it’s your job to fix it. Your job is everything.

So when you see that crooked stool or that empty glass – what will you do?