Valley of Anguish. The express tour

18 02 2009

How to face your new job part I.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past month, it has been almost two weeks since I started at my new workplace. As it is customary I would like to share some impressions and feelings I’ve struggled with, hoping these can help others while facing a similar situation.

Before we get down to the bare bones, black and white, details of my experience I feel a little background is needed. Having fortune played a major role on my life it didn’t let me down and again touched me: while preparing the road for my personal venue I was reached and asked to participate on an interview process.  Knowing sometimes interesting challenges and professional opportunities knock at your door in unexpected ways I went to the meeting. Four interviews, three psychological tests, one medical check and lots of paper signing later I am now writing this while getting used to my new role: SubManager for LAN Airlines Argentina’s Internet Channel –mouthful-.

So what kind of feelings I have had while entering a whole new unexpected venue? As far as I am concerned I’ve been thru three major phases during my introduction to the new surroundings: Anguish, delusion, serenity. It is about the first phase I would write in this post: the valley of anguish a.k.a. SMOG* I am a recruiting blunder.

 

Una lectura de Edvard Munch by Eneas

Una lectura de Edvard Munch by Eneas

 

Day 1, introduction 1

After filling out the regular paper work required for every new employee, I walked into my first introductory meeting with my new boss. After the expected greetings and still wielding a million dollar smile I opened my moleskin and started writing down what ever information I found was either new to me or sounded as if it was a core issue I must handle in the near future. There was some talk about the hierarchical structure (“you are here”), the matrix relationship with the holding structure, who were the individuals and the roles of my direct team and the service teams I would be working with, etc.

Suddenly, I felt as if I had just opened a submarine hatch while under the deep sea: my moleskin was being scribbled all over the place, I wasn’t able to discern whether the numbers I was being introduced to were positive numbers or were things I needed to fix, and on top of all that I had a starry page covered with acronyms I needed to check later in order to understand +80% of what I was being talked about. And then is when anxiety kicked in: “OMG would I ever be able to match head and tail of all this? Who was the moron who hired me believing I would be able to handle all this? Who am I kidding?”

The other introductory meetings ran more or less by the same script and I ended my first two days with a major headache and a bashed ego.

Day 3, meeting 1

Once I hit 80+% of my introduction to this whole new crazy travel industry, my boss kindly suggested I went to an operational steering committee so I can get a sense of the things I  would be doing on a daily basis. It goes without saying, I had already lost my smile and had instead a Bert look (don’t we all frown when we are concentrating?) with which I entered meeting room number 2028.

Routine introductions made we jumped in into what might be my worst meeting ever. I couldn’t help myself raising my hand every 5 minutes or so to ask something: “Would you please explain to me what PRK stands for?” “Would you kindly remind me the cost structure we use?” and so on. Thankfully instead of being the target for condescending smiles, general sighing and other kinds of boredom and disapproval manifestations, all of my fellow coworkers kindly answered all my questions.

Day 5, meeting 3

Anguish was gone and I was experiencing a Nirvana of sorts, where I started to understand more of what I was being told and even risked offering my opinion. The Nirvana was the calm before the storm, but that will be the subject of a future post: “So you want to be a hero?”.

So, what happened during day 3 and 4 that helped me conquer my anguish? How would my experience help you cope with a similarly scary situation?

 Believe others know what they do

 While reviewing my posts and talking with my friends about my anguishing circumstances I came to realize this: If you were the candidate who was hired it means human resources saw in you the competence to not only match the corporate culture, the industry needs but also the potential to ride your role to new positive places. Hey, human resources is for sure responsible for hiring the other 1k+ employees and the company didn’t disappeared because of them!

Prepare yourself to adaptation

Let’s get real: every place has its own rules and you need to adapt to them if you want to survive. I am not only talking about a whole industry change, as it is my case, organizations are made up by individuals and as such they gather different traits and thus produce different environments. If you think you could survive a whole new culture by sticking to the conducts you might have had at your past job prepare for a mighty struggle.

Check your ego at the door

Some might have an uncalled need to expose themselves as an expert on every single subject. Why play as if you were not in a team if you could tap into others to obtain knowledge? Everyone else have been in your same situation before and if they are not un interestingly offering their help it is still in their best interests to help you get up and operational as fast as possible. Forget about how you would look and keep asking until you feel you can understand what others are talking about. Ignorance is not a bad trait if you are working to correct it.  





How not to fall in the cliché of the web 2.0 site.

8 01 2009

Don't fall in the cliché... stand out!Many companies feel they’ve got the need to go viral. They want to take their product and create an online revolution. Some people like Blendtech’s CEO made it possible. He took an ordinary household appliance like a blender and transformed it into Internet’s WOM for quite a while. What did he do? He started making videos of himself blending different kinds of stuff with his products. See willitblend.com for further reference.

This guy a several others pulled it off; it does not mean, however that you will. Ok, ok. Before you start calling me a buble-popper, give me a chance to explain myself. What I really mean is that if you want to pull it off, you have to know what to do and what NOT to do.

Now a days people are talking a lot social networks, web 2.0, bla, bla, bla. The truth of the matter is that most of them are an obvious attempt of driving traffic to a site without promoting them thorougly enough. Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking. You could be talking about a mini site like Quilmes Verano or a promotional site. Sure, those are ok. The thing is that more and more I keep hearing about those wanna-be networks that never pull it off.

Ok, so how do I get one of them to work, you ask? First of all, you can’t be obvious. In most cases, these type of sites are made for promotional purposes only. That’s fine, just don’t let the user see that at first glance. An easy way to spot this type of network is when you don’t really need a network for your newly released product but you’re launching one anyway.

A good example of a properly launched network is Adagio Tea’s tea forum called Tea Chat. I don’t know why they named a forum a chatroom, but they sure seem to know their stuff. What types of tea are good for losing weight, upload photos of your teacups, etc., etc. You’ll always find good ideas, and if you don’t, your users will probably find them for you and post them.

Break the cliché!
Bring fresh not default templates into your site’s look & feel. If you have to, pay someone to design a wordpress or joomla theme that no other site has. Put some effort into your designs and break the a-dime-a-dozen type site.

Another good way of avoiding the cliché of the web 2.0 site is with some kind of extra advantage for the user. For instance, some sites obstaculize the posting procedure with logins, post pre-moderations, etc. Those aren’t particularly bad ideas, but they can play against you. If your site is completly new and not really different from other more established ones in the same niche, then you probably shouldn’t give the user a reason not to post. Avoid putting obstacles in the posting path at least at the beggining until your site’s a little more established and you should do just fine.

More on how to not fall in the cliché of the web 2.0 site on upcoming guest posts.

Dario Manoukian





Excessively searching for inner harmony?

6 01 2009

 

Dwelling in insipidness.

Most of us run shy from the battle meetings that some times burst out at the office. We lament the moment someone steps into someone else’s toes and hell breaks loose; that is, when someone finds a pitched product lacks and offers an unbiased critic. Though the intention might have been good, we all know most people tend to take things personally, so what was an impartial argument was really a “my idea is better” fire cracker. 

... fight off the Furry trio of foxes by jillallyn

... fight off the Furry trio of foxes by jillallyn

In this kind of meetings -generally product or functionality definition reunions- arguments are rapidly fired back and forth, escalating in tone and reducing in value, swiftly reaching the screaming point. And suddenly magic happens! Tones go down to a civilized volume, arguments are organized and the meeting ends with an action plan. Time for joy?

Why then, is everyone who was in that room leaving it with contorted faces and the pitcher is mumbling incoherently?  Chances are someone at the meeting with a leadership position suffering from reunion-battle aversion stood up and tried hard to tone down the meeting thru several maneuvers that will end dismissing and superseding research findings and crafting a false sense of participation.

Why invent the wheel?

When you hear this or something by the lines it means your managers or the leaders of your organization are giving up, are growing very tired of facing every argument and prefer to find an easier route out of the problem. I am not talking about time proven procedures here, what I am thinking of are the times when you having understood your audience needs and aligned them to your business goals have produced a new feature design and someone else says: I prefer to copy cat. 

Oh sure, copying what others have done in your industry will help you reduce design time, and it might even produce something useful for your audience but then you’ll be just one more grain of sand at the beach. You might have rationalized why your competitors have developed such a feature; yet, what you’re copying today might be aimed to a similar audience with similar needs to your own but otherwise it is another set of people and will soon leave you clueless as to what might have gone wrong.

Democratize the process

Maybe the arguments, the shouts and the screams were because someone felt like they were left out of the decision process? Asking everyone to cast their vote would help them feel part of the process, wouldn’t it? Perhaps some of your employees and coworkers will fall for this stunt, but sooner or later they would realize it was a vain attempt, something that neither establishes a culture for participation nor adds value to the processes by itself. Voting on functionalities or priorities gives everyone a chance to have their say and will produce a warm feeling of order; however, the final product will be a produce of everyone’s gut feelings, a blend of what Tom from accounting thinks is important with what Alice from operations thinks her costumers need. 

Instead of wildly gathering votes unexpectedly, organizations should institute ways by which the people designing their products/features leave their ivory towers and aside from hearing the costumer voice, mingle with their coworkers, understand their needs and assess their great ideas. As for how to settle priorities and defining what to work, organizations could introduce a method by which every feature and product could be evaluated against business indicators (how they will be affected), brand stance and audience needs –easier to say than to follow-.

Even though these methods, and others, might prove useful from time to time when the hordes are running wild, I believe if they are used frequently you are playing for consensus instead of giving people on decision making roles the chance to proof their worth. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand a harmonized office environment works marvels for everyone involved and it is part of managers’ role to keep a close watch on it, but when the priority is on making everyone comfortable at work instead of producing kick ass products something is really unbalanced out there.

Continuously struggling to bring consensus to the decision table will cut the sharp edges from your produces, eliminate their singularities and with time make them just something anyone else can offer. You will end with a very harmonic working environment but with an undifferentiated product. Why wait for a final meeting to find the stressing points, instead work on serializing the decision process (establish check points during the design phase) in which people who must have a saying could have it in an organized way thus producing a product in which everyone who had to collaborate did and ingrained it with sharp edges.





The office bully, how to retort

29 12 2008

How to kill a coworker and get away with it. Part II.

I’ve had my days when just after awakening I wanted to scream at top of my lungs: “I am sick, I do not want to go to school today!” But why in heavens sake will I do that? Well, it happens I used this phrase on my early teenage years; whenever I passed part of the night replaying the occurrences of the day and fantasizing about the many ways I could have snapped back at the young man who either routinely stole my lunch money or made a loud remark about anything I was wearing or doing and left me amidst piercing general laughter. The positive thing about this, is that I learned how to recoup bad experiences, learn about what went wrong in order to not misstep again in the future, the bad aspect is that it took me some years to act upon the acquired knowledge.

Don’t think I am once again wandering, truth is most of the environments we live by have their own bully; whether this archenemy uses physical force or psychological punishment what matters is that everywhere you find people fighting for the alpha dog coup and think that by intimidating others they would achieve it. Bullies at the office wear several masks, and I would love to share my own categorization and what are the ways I’ve found out work to retort their actions.

Superman Superboy Super trouble by hyperscholar

Superman Superboy Super trouble by hyperscholar

The Devil’s Advocate

Who hasn’t heard the phrase “let me be the devil’s advocate for a minute”? If you have ever been in an organization; someone, if not yourself, has without doubt used this invocation to play this horny little role in the past while in an all hands meeting. This phrase is the bullies’ war cry. Think about it for a minute and you will see these seemingly benevolent words are a polite introduction to an unabashed critic without the least intent of adding value to your idea or project.

What most do is take a defensive stance and eventually start attacking the devil’s advocate using the very same techniques: long-winded descriptions accompanied by superficial argumentation. It is easy to see that this kind of reply ends resting value to the parts involved and might eventually escalate to a domestic brawl.

What I’ve decided to do when confronting this mighty warrior is to get the most value as possible from the situation. Negative criticism is not necessarily something bad if gathered carefully it might even shade some light into unattended problems and its possible solutions. How to do this? Simply adopt a quizzical role with two intentions: gather background information around what you are being told and try to find a way of bringing the contender to your side.

Set of questions to gather background information: How is that a problem? To what type of costumers will that be an inconvenience? How our competitors faced this trouble?

Examples of questions to build rapport and eventually befriend the devil: How do you think we can work this out? Is there something in your area of expertise we might have overlooked?

The Ninja

Have you ever came back home thinking you might have just delivered the best ever pitch or that you have killed the Goliath of turn? And then waked up and arrived at the office to find people glancing at you just like you were a zombie. Fired up your station to find a single message which, far from being the pompous praise you was expecting, was a single courteous line asking you to get to your manager box first thing in the morning?

What have I done? What happened from 6 pm to 9 am, Armageddon? Chances are you did nothing to change the waters while something extraneous did. It might be that your manager found out a major fallacy in your estimations, but that won’t explain the weird looks you keep getting from others, would it? Besides, this time you doubled and tripled checked the deliverable, reviewed the plan with your manager on an almost daily basis, pitched it against your peers; so, if there was something bluntly wrong you would have found out earlier. Then what? Don’t wind up it might be that there is a ninja in your organization. Someone who surreptitiously works lurking in anxiety for the time in which someone makes a mistake and no one else notices it. Ninjas are people with enough knowledge and intelligence to find slip-ups no one else identified have direct access to powers that be and have faith that if they point to others flaws they will gain recognition and power.

Cosplay - AWA14 - Ninja stalking by mikemol

Cosplay - AWA14 - Ninja stalking by mikemol

In a balanced world managers who receive notice of a mistake thru a ninja should aim to eradicate the practice and then correct the mistake. Why? Because, this kind of practices do not build value. If the intention was to help, the ninja should have gone to you and tell you about the problem once it was spotted, creating the opportunity to correct it before delivery.

Nevertheless a mistake was committed and it most be corrected. Don’t invest time on trying to find out who was or the intentions behind the attack. This turn time is not on your side buddy. If you wander off road you’ll be not only helping the ninja but will also hamper any value created by work done up to this instant. Instead of falling into espionage mode, bravely gather your shredded feelings, face the crowd and approach your manager. Hear what he has to say, asses if an oversight did exist and if so acknowledge it and find a resolution as soon as possible.

If by chance you gather up who was behind, my advice will be to confront show her up how much more value for all will have been created if the mistake was uprooted when sighted instead of waiting to creep into the project and go bombastic after delivery. Explain to your ninja coworker how much better he will have looked if instead of waiting,  you were told about this from the start and that now that the bully waited it just looks less like a team player.

The eternal bully

Some people  cannot grow out the character they once played as little boys and they keep at it their whole life. Ever heard the phrase “you’ll do it because I said so?” on a corporate environment? There is a bully in the wild, someone who has neither tools nor methods to face debate, explain to others why a certain path must be followed or recognize an erroneous position and correct.

What to do? Well, this is something I do and applies to every other bully type: don’t take it personal. If you take it personal the bully will know a button has been pushed and will keep at it until its goal is reached; besides, since you actually acted berserk everyone else at the scene might think he could have a point and you are covering something.

If everything else fails, don’t take it personal ignore the wise remark, the gesture, the attack, at least your bully won’t know what buttons to push. Be more like batman.





A foal giving Web 2.0 lessons? :)

19 12 2008

in your face Mr. Ed!

You still don’t get why all the noise around web 2.0? Wondering how you can follow along this beta companies? Still banging your head against the wall? Let Kathy’s foal show you how to apply Web 2.0 principles for startups:

I totally loved it, still the castration part was unasked for 🙂





Hawk or peacock? – The relationship between product aesthetics and usefulness

17 12 2008

Having some leisure time of my own, err, I am kidding myself again, let us start over again… Having more time to spend on reading, analyzing and pondering over anything related to my line of work and passion -product development-, I’ve found myself meditating around several situations I had been in while performing my duty, trying to understand what was going behind the mind of the people on scene and whether this circumstances are common events on the product development arena.

My apple by .p a n e.

My apple by .p a n e.

One of such situations is when your product receives the unexpected “I do not like it” statement. Whether it comes from a manager, costumer or a peer, it is still an infamous phrase to hear. Yet again, in the age of the iPod and the value of aesthetics it is something you will surely face on a frequent basis. If you haven’t heard it, don’t over joy; you will my friend, sooner than what you expect. The need of classifying something on sight is embedded in the human being, a natural reaction to encountering something new. It is the mechanism that has helped us survive: is that hairy multi-eyed spider something I would want to touch?

I am digressing here, back to the subject at hand. Is it so terrible to produce something someone else doesn’t found compelling? I really don’t think so; a negative commentary might be an opportunity to better your product. Before committing into a discussion, asses the person who is delivering the critic. Is she someone who recurrently plays the devil advocate or says whatever comes to her mind first? Or is she someone who delivers new insights and adds value to your work? Done? Ok now you know what you are in for. Let us assume the person stating her no appreciation of your work is someone who adds value, we will deal with the other kind of people in a future post.

Prior to doing a defensive stance let she state her motives but, give hand her a helping hand: reintroduce what are the business and user goals your product is trying to attain, what are the users’ expected mindsets when using your product, the different scenarios it might be used, etc. Hmm, we should have done this before, don’t we? Yes we should have. A way of working around the “I don’t like it” lance is to prepare the terrain earlier; we are not delivering work of arts here where interpretation is left to the eyes of the beholder. We are talking about delivering products of use to our costumers, people; hence we need to clearly understand, and be able to put in plain words, not only the business motivations but also who these poor souls are and what are they trying to conquer by using our product.

If you all of the aboveis cleared and you have done a correct introduction prior to exhibit your prototype or final product you will then have more chances of understanding what the “I don’t like it” meant. Try to understand if what your critic is rejecting is the way your product solves the needs of your costumers or is it the way it presents itself. It might be something in between: the way it presents itself works against what the users are trying to achieve.

All this doesn’t mean you have to completely left aesthetics to rot aside. Emotion has come to be known as an important and valuable factor to take into account when people evaluate the possibility of purchasing or using something; and, aesthetics recall emotions that in turn trigger actions. A cluttered page, an appliance with button labels with an ugly typeface, might pose as unreliable to your users. While, a clear interface, a page with well placed elements and the just quantity of attention attraction on the correct objects, would prove even inviting and delicious to be used.

Aesthetics are a matter of balance and of understanding the context your products will be used in and what your users are reaching for. An over decoration might prove a futile addition to the end of an emergency door. While an over boxed item page or a results page with lack of critical information might scare costumers off. Hawk or peackock indeed.

Words are very unnecessary... by lepiaf.geo

Words are very unnecessary... by lepiaf.geo

To wrap things up, I support and rally the idea that products and services should be designed to go as unnoticed as possible by the people who use them. In other words, you should design your products with one goal in mind: be useful to your costumers. How can your product be not useful? Run the functionality race: products that overwhelm their users with either a myriad of functions just because the competition has them, put too much effort on the looks that costumers instead of pursuing their objectives sat back and watch your work of art. Or simply stab yourself and play the vanity queen, stubbornly shut yourself from the outside world and decide by yourself (or within the organization) who the users are, what they are trying to reach and what is the best for them without ever contacting those weird people we call costumers. As in the aesthetics and usefulness pulse, the need of innovating within in contrast with innovating with the help of the outside world is a matter of balance.





The trip so far.

17 12 2008

It has been two weeks since I resigned and started working on my own venture, two very high geared weeks I might say; yet, at the same time, I’ve come to realize that the most amazing part of riding to your own vantage point is that you can, from time to time, roll down the window and gorge at the view as it gets more and more interesting. 

My view has twisted from very common to remarkable. People who were weeks ago not more than coworkers, turned out to be stepping stones on my journey (continuously asking how I am doing and giving help when needed). Acquaintances I’ve made via a virtual interaction –yes, twitter and linkedin again- have made some quite interesting critics about my project and have kept encouraging me all over. And finally and most surprisingly, things that I thought were a given on the Internet industry, turned out to be more part of a fiction most companies think they live than the reality, thus amplifying the opportunities of my venture.

Tornado! by askin

Summer holiday, day 27: Tornado! by askin

Naïve was I to think this would be a bumpy ride: the journey has proven to be a blend of a rollercoaster, a vacation and a rodeo. I’ve found myself missing the office ambient, the water cooler chats as well as the professional discussions (even though they some times resembled kinder garden encounters) with people outside my area of expertise, while at the same I have found out solitude is a good companion, the copilot you need to point at the good and bad things you were barely passing by while day dreaming at the office. 

The one thing no one who I talked with before jumping into the water and while giving my first laps anticipated and warned me about is this: the worst enemy while following your own quest is your anxiety.

It turns out, as an employee one unwarily gets used to getting a quick feedback and results of your work. Why is that? Your work, even and R&D role, is part of a whole that lies within a strategy, you are expected to turn something out at the end of the day, week or month and as an employee you’ll never be really alone there is always someone overseeing, managing or expecting you to pass your homework to start theirs.  

Things are quite different to someone who is at the same time designing his journey and traveling: results and feedback get a lot longer to get to. Whether it is a return call from a client prospect, a document review from a probable partner or a critic of your idea from a friend, the timing of things are no longer dictated by established machinery, they have a live of their own for real. One has to get accustomed to it, learn how to control part of the timing and keep reviewing the plan, while at the wheel, since from time to time you’ll need to get the occasional detour.