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On belay?

Posted by Keshav Subramanya on April 21, 2009

Let’s say you’ve moved into a new job, a new role, or even a new assignment.  How do you get your bearings?

You could, in theory, “learn” from the ground up – maybe there’s some documentation that is totally relevant to you, maybe your intranet has all the data and information that you need, maybe there are internal forums or blogs filled with helpful information… you’ve my best wishes finding the lot and making sense of it all.  Experience may be a great teacher, but you’ll have bloody toes if you choose to find every stumbling block by yourself.

Or you could go about building up a good, reliable network as rapidly and aggressively as you can.  If you do, you’ll probably have an interactive, self-maintaining map of those blocks much sooner.  And you’ll definitely have a whole lot more fun as you take on your new responsibilities.

Okay, so most people aren’t naturals when it comes to creating a network.  The usual excuses are that they’re “not comfortable” talking to people, they’re worried about “appearing needy”, they’re “already too busy” coping with their assigned tasks… the list goes on.  Agreed, being the ‘new kid’ on any team is usually uncomfortable, but taking the effort to discover those people who have the information you need and to methodically develop ties into them yields unusually handsome results  That said:

  • It will need effort.  But if you spend a little time chatting with your teammates and/or at the water cooler and then moving outward, you’ll soon get a handle on who the ‘players’ are – the people who’re considered the ‘go-to guys’ because they’ve got something that you need in order to begin functioning more efficiently – knowledge.  They could be up or down the chain from you… they could even be outside your chain entirely.   But they’re people, and that’s all you should care about when you try forming a social connection with them.  (Okay, some organizational structures may actively block you making that initial contact.  And if you really, really want to have that person in your network, you’ll then have to use an alternate forum… maybe the golf club, the church, you get the idea.)
  • It will cost you emotionally.  It is up to you to make the initial contact with each one of your potential member set – you’re the one wanting them in your network, while they may not even be aware of you – so this is sometimes the hardest part in the process.  But most people usually give other people one chance to impress them – so don’t blow it.  Sincerity (and maybe reaching out through a common contact) goes a long way here – without getting all windy and boring, explain who you are and why you’re contacting them.  “Just to say hello” is usually a good enough reason – you’ve knocked upon the door and the door has opened.  If you’ve created a favorable impression, you’ll probably be allowed to knock upon that door again.
  • It will need time – set aside a couple hours each week to grow and nurture your network.  Reinforce ties to those members who have been helpful; renew ties to those that have potential, recruit new members based on changes either in your role or in the organization, recycle ties within your network’s members (aka “a friend of a friend is a friend of mine”), and try and repair those ties that haven’t been very functional  Finally, if a member has failed you consistently, remove that tie very carefully – you could stop nurturing it and like most social connections, it’ll probably just wither away over time.
  • And always, always, always remember that you’ve got to reciprocate – share knowledge whenever you can because that’s your network’s lifeblood.  It has to flow away from you as much as it flows toward you… because all “all take and no give” relationships invariably die young.  A network is made up of unwritten bilateral arrangements – to retain your privilege to knock upon a door, you’d better allow your door to be knocked upon.  And when someone knocks upon your door, you’d better be willing to share what you can.

Done right, the gains from having a robust workplace network are both immense and immediate.  You ‘become visible’, because you went out and got people to notice you and maybe convinced them to place you tentatively in their networks.  You can then ask any of them about what works now (hopefully documented), you can ask about what doesn’t work (also hopefully documented), you can even ask about what didn’t work (the mostly undocumented “also ran” ideas that didn’t pan out).  And, you can glean oodles about interpersonal and interdepartmental dynamics across the organization, which will help you recognize and react appropriately to what the organization considers ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

It is never too late to make new friends.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

STOP signs don’t need exclamation points

Posted by Keshav Subramanya on March 18, 2009


Take a downtown street corner, any one.  Look around and take in the number of constructs around you that are trying to tell you things:

  • Signs: Some laid down right on the street, some mounted on posts, some hanging under signals, some that require your attention, and others that you may choose to ignore.
  • Glyphs: Universal shorthand for complicated signage: U-turn permitted only from inner of two turn lanes, swing right or you’ll end up in the median, stay on your side of the line or you’ll go kersplat.
  • Colors: Painted kerbs, flashing indicators, virtual walls made of paint, law enforcement and maintenance vehicles in their unambiguous colors, trademarked tints in corporate logos.
  • Sounds: Traffic noises, your radio, Lucy (or whatever you’ve named your GPS’s voice), beeps from the Walk sign coming on, someone’s subwoofer making your rearview shimmy to music that you can’t hear, maybe an ambulance wailing somewhere far behind you.

So, you’re there at that street corner with all that input — which of it all really matters to you?  Maybe the “Speed Limit 40” sign with its little “Speed Checked by Radar” postscript really matters… but only if you’re driving an automobile (or if you’re the lidar cop parked nearby) – but otherwise, do you care?  Does a sign saying the two right lanes will take you to the freeway make you jockey your way into those lanes, out of them, or did you mentally white-out that sign without even thinking about it?

Since you’re a savvy user of your city’s road system, you’ve learnt to continuously gather data from those sources of input, instantly filter out noise that doesn’t belong in the immediate experience and then process the rest… but have you noticed just how much the creators of that input considered you when creating their messages?  Why does the right turn arrow look normal when you drive over it, but looks horribly misshapen when you walk past it?  Why are speed limit signs downtown two feet tall, when they’re four feet tall on the freeway?

The point of any good user experience should be just that – users should be able to easily get to that input that pertains to them.  The building blocks of technology, the gee-whiz of gadgetry – they exist to create things that keep the end user at the center of each constructed experience.

The stop sign is a good example: The whole-sentence-in-a-word simplicity, the size and location of the sign, and the color of the signage – together, that tells exactly what is expected from the user.  Similarly, input given to the user from any software application ought to be consistent in content, shape, and presentation, and should have no ambiguity about its importance.  Otherwise, the user will either get confused and stop, or worse, will ignore the input – in either case, the software has failed to do what it was supposed to, and Murphy wins again.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »