Personal Slogan

May 21, 2008

The personal slogan is a technique I used as I wormed my way into the hearts and minds of the good people of Ideal, LLC. I asked myself what it was that I wanted to do there, and I challenged myself to come up with an elevator pitch for it.

I want to transform their way of doing business to be more efficient, to be more reliable, to be more robust. I want it to be scalable. The result of all these changes will be that Ideal is poised to make more money than it makes now. The reason that’s true is that the changes will make it easier to make money. Sales will be easier because our products are stable and documented. Support will be easier because the calls will be less urgent and less frequent. Development will be easier because there will be a roadmap and a timeline that the developers can rely on to reduce the pressure on them.

I am there to make everyone’s life easier.

Easy Button

This is the slogan I use, and it works for everyone I meet at Ideal. I was hired to be an agent of change at Ideal, and people hate change. To cushion the transition, I ask people in various parts of the company what their pain points are, and I ask them what would make them less painful. I say:

“I understand. I’d be frustrated about that if I were you, I’m glad you’re the one doing that for us, you do good work. Wouldn’t it be great if [solution here]? I’m going to talk to some people and see if we can get that done for you. I am here to make your life easier.

I always get a positive reaction when I approach issues that way and use the slogan. They subconsciously associate me with making things easier for them because first I say it, then I actually make things easier. The benefit of this, much like a positive first impression, is that I get the benefit of any doubt that may come up. I have made their lives easier in a tangible way, so when I ask them to go out of their way to make my life easier, it’s not an imposition: it’s their pleasure.

Choosing the Slogan

The most important thing to me in any marketing activity is integrity. Whatever impression you leave on your audience must be a true reflection of reality. Jennifer Rice outlines a strategy you can use to develop what she calls the elevator pitch:

  • Keep it short. Distill your mission into a phrase or sentence that rolls off the tongue naturally and quickly.
  • Use your audience’s language. I could have explained to developers that I wanted to document our products, but documentation is a side effect to them. Documentation is a tool, a given developer won’t care about it per se. The end result is their life is easier with documentation, and that’s what I chose to focus on.
  • Make sure your pitch is something your audience really wants and cares about. Make sure it’s something that no one else is offering as such, so that you become a breath of fresh air to them. Be sure you can actually follow through on the promises you make to people. Last, make sure your activities are really valuable, and you’re not acting as a destructive or divisive force. In short, be sure your proposition is sustainable. These can be summarized as the 4Ds of positioning, Desirable, Distinctive, Deliverable, and Durable.

Positive Impressions

May 19, 2008

The interesting thing about impressions is that they have inertia. Biases being such as they are, people will tend to remain committed to their original positions unless something jarring happens to change their opinion.

I’m going to skip the obvious part of this essay about appearance, body language, and rest of the advice you’ve read before by simply linking to an article by Bill Lampton on CreateMyself.com. Instead I’ll focus on how to plan an important impression.

Joel’s Dud

Joel Spolsky has an article about interviewing technical candidates in which he mentions a particular candidate he interviewed once. An HR person came into Joel’s office before the interview and told him he would love the candidate. That simple act painted Joel’s perception of the candidate so much that the person could do no wrong. Joel overlooked the warning signs, filled in the blanks, and ultimately issued a “hire” decision. There were multiple people interviewing for the position, all of whom issued a “no hire” decision on the same candidate. Joel had been hoodwinked! Tales abound of similar situations in which bias misleads people.

It’s a powerful lesson and a basic fact of social reality that biases influence perception. You cannot get away from human bias. You can make the choice to ignore it at your own peril, or you can use it to your advantage.

The dud candidate would have had to make a huge mistake to jar Joel out of his biased perception. In exactly the same way, if Joel had a negative impression of this candidate, but the reality was that the person was amazing, that person would have to do something jarringly incredible in order to change Joel’s perception. That’s a situation you don’t want to find yourself in.

The Build Up

Walking on Water

If you know you’re about to make a first impression, now is the time to begin planning the build up to that impression. You don’t want to be the amazing candidate who has to prove himself despite a negative first impression. You want to be that candidate that everyone assumes walks on water from the beginning.

When I was researching Ideal, LLC before my meeting with David, the CEO of Ideal, my goal was to create a positive impression with him right away. I was set up with a three part meeting beginning with Jim Peterson, who was listed only as a “Software Consultant.” I called Ideal before the meeting to say hello, and verify the time and place. You can find out a lot about a person and company with a 30 second phone call. It also provides the opportunity to prime the person you’re meeting with to think you’re conscientious since you called first, and to expect a friendly, well-spoken person to show up when the meeting does come.

In this case, I asked the receptionist for Jim Peterson, and she thought I had the wrong number. It’s a small company, so she knows everyone who works for it. That was extremely valuable information because it let me know that Jim was there temporarily, and that either Jesper or David trusted him enough to grill me technically. It also meant that neither of them are particularly technical themselves.

It also told me that Jim was probably David’s guy, not Jesper’s. If I were a bright CEO looking to hire technical management talent I would have my best tech guy grill the candidate beforehand. But how would I be able to get a report from my guy about the candidate if the interviews were scheduled back to back? I’d have to create a natural buffer between interviews. I’d create a break, or some down time between them. Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone by making a particular player feel as though he had decision-making power by allowing him to interview the candidate before I did. David had set up the meetings this way because he wanted to know what Jim thought of me, and didn’t care at all about what Jesper thought of me. That’s good to know about the interview, and about internal company politics.

Most importantly, the phone call told me that I needed to woo Jim. I needed to be prepared to answer complex and very specific questions about the work I had done, and the roles I had played. Just like the Joel’s HR person who gave him a biased impression of his candidate, Jim would give David a biased impression of me. I had to make sure that bias was positive.

Over the course of the interview, as I answered more and more questions in the kind of excruciating detail that I couldn’t possibly have faked, I could see Jim physically relax. I saw him change from the dour technical inquisitor that I began speaking with, into a relaxed, friendly, very intelligent guy. I knew I had him when he began giving me tips about what to say and what not to say around both Jesper and David. I knew he would be my advocate to David, so I had bias working on my side.

Eyes Open

If you aren’t approaching first impressions with the kind of attention to detail and strategy that I’ve just described, then you’re leaving your fate to the wind. Any success you find will be blind luck, and your odds are not good. You must think about the motivations and pain points of the people you are meeting, and target them with positivity and integrity.


Call First

May 16, 2008

Phones are your Friend

There’s not much to this one, but a little trick I use before I meet someone for the first time is that I give them a call first. Information is your most valuable asset, and a quick phone call can give you volumes. Does a receptionist pick up? Is he pleasant? How does the person answer the phone? Formal? Informal? One never knows… until he calls!


Self Branding

May 14, 2008

I was going to write an article about self branding, but as I gathered my thoughts and notes, I started to have vertigo as I gazed into the treacherous abyss of branding, marketing and related disciplines. I opted instead to create a whole new category to house what I think will be an ongoing series on the subject.

I began my timid and uninspired journey toward branding by fiddling with websites as a youngster. It developed into a minor career and a tremendously valuable hobby. As I forged further into the discipline of graphic design through the jungle of small business, a structure emerged. A deep architecture presented itself as I learned to understand how visual presentation, perception, psychology, and allied fields all contribute to this ecosystem we call Branding.

I think it’s far more useful and complex than most people realize or give it credit for being because it has been cloistered by popular perception into the same cage as smarmy salesmen and cut rate sign shops. It’s quite a profound concept that pulls together fundamental integrity, attention to detail, and verve. All the characteristics I’ve seen in successful people are taught by branding.

In the coming series I’ll point out these branding lessons specifically, and show you how you can use them to create your niche in the workplace and get ahead.


How to be a Code Monkey

May 12, 2008

In my line of work, the pejorative term for a drone is “code monkey.” Yours may have a different parlance: desk jockey, shyster, George W, whatever. They all mean the same thing: you are a warm body, expected to keep your head down, and do what you’re told. You have no ideas, no input, and if you rock the boat, you’re expendable.

There is a reason this is the first step of working your way up the ladder. It reinforces the notion from school that you are not good enough or smart enough to think or act independently. It instills fear into your thought process and conditions you to follow orders from up the chain.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no evil overlord carefully planning the subjugation of your independent mind. We’re not in the tinfoil hat brigade here. What I’m talking about is the status quo, and this is one mechanism by which it is maintained: those who climb ladders are likely to be conditioned to force other people to climb ladders, and they are conditioned to think this is right and proper. I’m here to tell you, it’s not. Companies are not machines used to rank human beings, they are groups of people out to make a profit. If you add value, good, if you don’t, you’re dead weight.

Deal with Reality

Code Monkey

But here we find ourselves, under the crushing weight of tradition and the status quo. People occasionally get lucky and accidentally steal a social networking script and start FaceBook. Chances are that at some point you’ll have to be the code monkey somewhere, even if it’s just for a little while. So here’s how to make the best of it.

  1. Do your work as well as you can. Excelling in whatever you do is a good way to learn a lot about it. Think critically about your work, the work of your peers, and that of your bosses as well. Constantly strive to do better work than you did before.
  2. Treat your boss like a peer. Careful with this one, bronco. You have to navigate the waters of ego with a keen eye to pull this off, but the idea is to carry yourself in such a way that your boss thinks of you as a peer. Speak his language, let him know you understand his job and situation. See #1 to be the perfect employee, but go beyond that by being able to mentally handle your boss’s job as well. It will become a forgone conclusion that you are in the next in line for promotion, or special assignments, or perks, or what have you.
  3. Branch out to other areas of the company.When I worked for Acme, I was always talking to people outside my department, and above my pay grade. I knew a lot about the business that others in my department had no idea about, not even my superiors. My boss’s boss’s boss had a policy of keeping a boundary up around people below the VP pay grade, but his boss had no such compunction. I called him, an Executive Vice President, who people in my department cowered under the shadow of, and I asked him out for lunch. We talked about a lot of things, but my point to him was that the department was headed for trouble. I told him that based on his plans for growth, the department would buckle in about a year and no one there could do anything about it, no matter how smart they were. It was dire, but I was speaking his language. He didn’t think of me as the pleb I was, because I was interacting with him in a neutral place, in the tone of a peer. That’s how to create opportunities to move up… if that’s your goal.

The secret of being a code monkey is to pretend you aren’t one. Use that wasted brain power to learn and grow, and expand your network, with an eye the future, and to your goals.


Investment Opportunity

May 9, 2008

I think now is an appropriate time to talk about employment at a corporation. I got a job at one once, but I want to reemphasize what I said in that article. I didn’t get that job because I wanted the money. I had a different goal in mind.

Before I get into the particulars, I want to mention an investment opportunity that I’d like you to consider. I want you to invest in my company. I want you to put your capital in right now, paying into the fund monthly, and in return we’ll pay you back around 0.5% of your contribution every month.

I know the interest rate isn’t very good, but there is potential room to improve it! If you continue to invest in the company over a period of years, your monthly pay back may increase up to .02% per year. The actual payback increase is mostly based on factors outside of your control, but if you stick with it for a long time, you may see returns as high 1% per month. One way you can slightly raise the odds of the increase is to invest more. If you put in twice the capital of your peer investors, you will receive exactly the same monthly pay back in dollars (in effect, halving the interest you are earning), but at the end of the year you might have slightly higher chance of receiving that additional .02%.

This is all subject, again, to forces beyond your control. I reserve the right to arbitrarily give increases to some investors, but not others. Depending on the contract you sign, your peers may make more than you at the outset, but you have no way of checking this. At any time, we may cut off your account, which means we will refuse further investment from you, and you will get nothing in return for your investments thus far. There is no way you recoup your sunk costs, despite the poor returns.

The upside, is that after many years of substantial investment, a very slim minority of arbitrarily selected investors will be invited to be partners in the company, and they will be compensated with the difference between investors’ capital payments, and their monthly payback allowance. Partners, needless to say, are paid handsomely indeed.

Does this sound like a reasonable investment to you?

Welcome to the Corporation

Welcome aboard, Employee #3456764!

This is a snarky investment proposal for people who work for a corporation or who are thinking of working for a corporation. We accept corporations because they feel “normal” in our society. Because of this “normalcy,” the pathways through our brain are burned separately for “corporate employment” and “investment.” The fact is that they are one in the same, and the above proposal is exactly the investment you are making when you work for Acme, Inc.

The capital mentioned in the proposal is human — your time. You put in your time, and you are compensated from a portion of the value you create. It’s slight of hand to think that it’s anything but an investment of value for a given return of value — just because in goes time, and out comes money, doesn’t mean it’s a better deal. It just means it’s easier to hide what a scam it is.

The point here is to help people realize that this style of employment is a waste of resources, and a waste of life.

There are rare circumstances when it makes sense.

  • When the company genuinely provides a context for you to make more money than you could otherwise. For example, you can work yourself keeping 95% of the value you create, and that means you bring home $10,000. You can work for Acme, making .5% of the value you create, but that .5% is worth $20,000.
  • When the company provides a context for learning that you could not create on your own.

The first circumstance is what you’ll tell yourself you fall into, but you don’t. It’s only true very rarely, and if you live in a first world country, opportunities to make more money than a corporate schill abound, you’re just not looking in the right places.

The only times I can think of when this is true is on the opposite extrema of the salary scale. If you are a person of genuinely low intelligence, who has trouble with academic work, then you may qualify. You probably can make more working with your hands for a company, than you could make on your own. You will probably be providing a service directly to the company, like janitorial services. On the other hand, if you’re made in the shade with more money than you know what to do with, executive leadership may provide you the opportunity to make bigger deals and work with more money than you could otherwise. Generally, those people will bleed into exception two, looking for new experiences simply because another million won’t make a damn bit of difference to their lifestyle.

A Better Way

If you aren’t slow, and you aren’t filthy rich, you have better options than corporations. Build something of value that will continuously provide income once it’s built. Write small software packages. Write a book that will sell. Take photographs that you can collect royalties on. Do all of the above and more.

The take home point here is to think about money separately from time. Spend your time living, loving, learning, being. Make money some other way. If you can spend your time living passionately, and your passion happens to bring home the bacon, well awesome. It’s rare to find someone with an honest passion for investment banking, but it happens. I’m lucky that technology and helping people is a lucrative business. You may not be that lucky, but don’t get stuck letting your passion play second fiddle to your mortgage.


Get your Foot in the Door

May 7, 2008

This is the story of how I jumped from young guy with no experience, to Senior Developer at a Fortune 500. You should go back and read the Lessons of the Fast Track if you haven’t already, it’s good primer material.

As I mentioned, I had been working with technology seriously for 8 years when I started college. I faced the issue of doing work that was better than the market average, but not having the documentation to prove it. I also was a full time student, so working a 9 to 5 wasn’t in the cards (not that that’s a great idea anyway). The obvious answer was to continue what I had been doing, but bring it to the next level.

I had been freelancing for clients, using my parents as a point of contact when necessary to provide the fictional context that clients need to feel confident. Now I was old enough to pull off the contact myself without pretense. I was fortunate to meet a guy who is a very bright business man, and we went into business together full time when I was about 20.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend going into business for yourself at least once. It doesn’t matter what market you target, just come up with something you think will be profitable, and go for it. You’ll learn at a ridiculous rate. I learned to handle the paperwork of a business, deal with clients of all stripes, sell services, design increasingly complex software systems, discover the joy of due diligence, and find that the business I was in wasn’t really for me. It was an extremely valuable period for me.

It was doubly so because I was able to parlay that learning experience into a Senior Dev position at what it reputed to be the best technology employer in my city.

Think Deeply

Think Deeply

This goes back to my thoughts on getting started early. If your formative years have been spent passively consuming media, then that is what you’re likely to want to do as an adult. You will attend class in college expecting to be passively educated. You will get a job by passively seeking interviews until someone accepts you. You will spend your career passively doing your job, and passively earning small raises and promotions along the way.

On the other hand, if your world is filled with opportunities and interests, waiting to be grabbed and explored, then that world is your oyster. During my time freelancing, I learned everything I could about my craft – I was always thinking about how to improve in technology and in business.

I tried many things that turned out to be miserable failures. I poured my heart into projects that were poorly researched, ill conceived, and turned out to be shitty. I’m really glad I did all that – I understood what I was doing far more deeply than most people in the profession do. I wasn’t just thinking about how to get through the day, I always thought about the skills I’d need in the future. What if I got a bigger client? What if I had to hire a person to help me with my growing workload?

I thought about that, and learned about it before it ever came to pass. That’s how I work on everything – I work with an eye to the future.

Foot, meet Door

I had a resume that listed my undocumented experience in a context that made sense to corporate recruiters and hiring managers. I sent it to everyone I knew, and put it on job boards far and wide. I looked for about a month, I went to dozens of interviews, sometimes up to three per day.

By the time I was sitting in the three part interview with the guy who would later be my boss’s boss, I was ready. I was primed to rock the interview because I had been practicing nonstop for a month, but I had no corporate experience. I emphasized my team management experience. I told him all about the exciting projects I’d worked on, and about how comfortable I was with all kinds of technology. I had researched the company, and I knew how I could help him achieve his goals. I set the right tone, and in his mind, he had already hired me.

The other two parts of the interview were more technical, but that was no problem. I answered most of the questions without a hitch, and for those that I couldn’t answer, I took the opportunity to explain with total honesty that I wanted this job because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was sure there were things I didn’t know, and I was hungry to learn everything I could. I didn’t know how clustered indices were implemented in SQL Server 2005, but I damn well would find out. There was no need to inflate my knowledge.

I got that job making $75,000 base salary when I was 22 years old, in a city with very low cost of living. But I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I genuinely believed that I would learn a tremendous amount while I worked there, and it was my plan to use that knowledge and corporate experience to jump to my next job within a year or two.


Start Early, and Don’t Screw Around

May 5, 2008

One of the most important gifts you can give yourself when you want to get ahead is to start early. Kids over eight years old spend almost 7 hours a day watching TV, giving way only to other worthwhile activities like youtube and newgrounds. The data suggests an average child spends 38 hours per week consuming media passively.

I was an exception to this rule. From the time I was 10 years old, those 40 hours (or more) per week were spent on productive activities. I taught myself everything from HTML, to 3D geometry. Don’t get me wrong: I led a balanced life with friends and girls and the occasional peace pipe, but during all that time that you spent watching MTV and screwing around, I was working. I was thinking. I was building.

The earlier you show up to the game, the sooner you start practicing, the better off you’ll be. By the time I was 18, I was competent to design large web based applications, because I had a few under my belt. I could design a workable data model in several different RDBM Systems. The point is that I had marketable skills in a few disciplines, so I was years ahead of my college peers.

The Tradeoff

Throw your TV away, it\'s worse than worthless

I think it’s worth mentioning that way of living requires trade offs. First, I had consistently poor grades until I (barely) graduated from high school. My grade in any given class was inversely proportional to the amount of homework I had for it. I didn’t do homework: I didn’t have time and I wasn’t interested.

That’s a choice I made, and sometimes it made my life difficult. I applied for, and was rejected from, CSU. I had to write a long letter to the dean of admissions. Through some combination of writing skill and luck I convinced him to reverse his decision, but it didn’t have to play out that way, and you can’t bank on that happening.

College was a different matter. I did phenomenally well — I had a 4.0 for the first 4 years or so, and only broke it with an A- (that I didn’t deserve, grr!). The new problem was that it was a horribly easy. Imagine getting a degree and working for 8 years, then coming back and doing undergrad college again. That was my situation, and that’s why I still don’t have my degree. I eventually couldn’t take the slog anymore. I still take classes one or two at a time because I want to get a couple more advanced degrees eventually.

My point is that it’s not realistic to get fired up about being productive without something else giving. Here are some ways you can squeeze more time:

  • Get rid of your TV
  • Limit your time on filler sites like the onion, fark, other nonsense
  • Limit your time on social networking sites
  • Put less effort into your dead end job

If you cut those first three things out, you’ll hardly miss them. Putting less effort into your current job is one of those trade offs that you have to make with your eyes open: there will be consequences, and you have to be sure the benefit is worth it.

One thing you should not do is neglect yourself. Do not stop exercising, do not spend less time with your significant other, do not eat crappy food. These things are actually important, so when eliminating distractions in your life, choose wisely.


Don’t be a Sucker

May 2, 2008

Americans are suckers. There’s no doubt about it — we work harder than any other society in the first world, and we aren’t any better off. We suffer lilliputian vacations, long working hours, and we do it because somewhere in our cultural psyche, we think it’s a good idea.

I’m here to tell you that it’s a terrible idea, and that you’re a sucker for doing it. Money doesn’t matter, your life matters. Your family matters. Your friends matter.

My fellow wage slaves at Acme would grind themselves into the ground for that sweat shop. They worked until the wee hours of the morning to make sure some data entry application was deployed to the Quality Assurance environment before some totally arbitrary management deadline, then they’d come in bright and early after catching a short nap and a shower. For what?

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Be a Miser

April 30, 2008

Consumerism is a killer. It’s so heavily ingrained in us that it can be hard to think in terms other than consumption, but I think it’s important to try.

Money is an Instrument

Pinch Pennies

The first important thing to realize is that money is not an end, it’s a means. Money has negligible intrinsic value. You could sell a dollar bill for a couple pennies as some of kind of recycled scrap cloth. You might be able to find a couple uses for a 3.5×2 inch plastic card. Basically, they aren’t worth accumulating in and of themselves.

This may seem obvious to you, O enlightened one, but there are people who live their whole lives without the faintest clue that money is not a valid motivator.

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