The Idea Book

How many times have you said to yourself, “Someone should build an application that does [x]…”, or “Wouldn’t it be easy to add automation to [y]”, or “It would be a lot of fun to work on a project to build [z]”? For me, this has happened a lot, and seems to occur more frequently the longer I’m in this business.

image In the early days of my career, these ideas were all great – for someone else. Someone with more skills and experience than me. Someone with more connections. Someone more confident, good-looking, eloquent. But definitely not me. I subconsciously put onto pedestals those other someones who actually could do the things I thought up. Sure, I had the occasional wild thoughts like “What if I were to build the next eBay?”, but thoughts of realism and self-doubt always reigned me in. I would move on, sooner or later forgetting that I’d even come up with the idea.

However, a few years into my career, I turned a corner. I started to mingle with those who were creating solutions, and I began to realize that they weren’t demigods. I learned that folks who were building successful widgets weren’t vastly smarter or more talented than me. They were just ordinary people who had an idea, explored its potential, and then worked like crazy to make it happen. It was this realization that led me to believe that I, too, could dream up and build successful widgets. From there, my Idea Book was born.

Yes, it really was a book

Version 1 of my idea book really was a physical book. More specifically, a spiral notebook. I carried it with me and would jot down ideas big and small. Most of the ideas I wrote down in my idea book were dumb. Many were wildly ambitious and unattainable by anyone at any skill level. Others were so narrowly focused that their implementation would benefit no one. Still others were solutions looking for problems that didn’t exist. The vast majority eventually found their way to the cutting room floor, and only a fraction of them had enough merit to really pursue. In spite of all of these deficiencies, my idea book has been a resounding success. I’ve carried several of the ideas to implementation. Some of them have made their way into the code tool bag that I use on a nearly-daily basis. A couple of the ideas from my idea book have made me a lot of money.

Having an idea book doesn’t make it a success, obviously. For the first year or two, my book was where ideas went to die (or more accurately, to fall into a coma). I was also timid at first about adding ideas I wasn’t sure would be practical or doable. My idea book didn’t bloom until I committed to two concepts: no idea is too big/small/ridiculous to be added to the idea book, and I must actively push the ideas through the funnel.

All ideas are welcome

Over time, my idea book has transformed from a physical notebook to a virtual one (I use Evernote). I’ve also worked up a semi-structured idea funnel, which I used to categorize ideas into buckets including brainstorming, researching, and in-progress. I’ve also resolved to allow any idea, however grandiose/trivial/odd, into my idea book. My idea book is mine and mine alone, and it doesn’t get shared with anyone – not even my wife or my business partners will ever see the unedited version. Any and all ideas are welcome, though not all will survive the vetting process.

My idea book is with me all the time, in one form or another. If I’m riding in an elevator and a new idea strikes me, I type out a quick note into my phone app to capture the moment. If I’m in the middle of a presentation and someone asks a question I want to pursue later, I scratch out a note on my spiral pad (yes, the old-fashioned method still works sometimes). On occasion, an idea will strike me in the middle of the night, and I’ll grab my Surface from the nightstand and jot down my idea. The medium(s) used to log the ideas isn’t critical, so long as I’m faithful about getting them into Evernote as soon as practical.

The real value shows through when I’ve got 20 minutes to spare, and I’m looking for something to fill the time. Sitting in the lobby of the Kwik Lube, waiting for my oil change. Waiting to see the doctor. On hold with tech support. Using my idea book (the new virtual version), I can review ideas I’ve previously logged, and sketch out pros and cons, flesh out why they will or won’t work, and weigh the benefits against the investment. Having my idea book easily accessible makes it easy to do this in bite-sized chunks rather than having to schedule several hours to go through these ideas.

So where is your book?

Should everyone have an idea book? Absolutely. Whether you’re a technical professional or not, newbie or seasoned veteran, a maker or a strategist, a coder or an executive, having an idea book can stoke the creative fire in you. Thinking through new ideas, analyzing them, and implementing the good ones helps keep you thinking about alternative approaches and different ways of doing things, and can keep you out of a career rut. And who knows, your idea book might end up producing the next eBay, Facebook, or Rubik’s Cube.

On Failure

Well, there's another way not to make a lightbulb.The first rule of blogging is that you should write about topics you know a lot about. And I know a lot about failure. This post will be the first in a series on the topic, through which I’ll share a few of my own failures and how I’ve done my best to use them to my benefit.

In almost every context, the word fail is a negative:

  • Last night’s database backup failed.
  • Our data warehouse project was a failure.
  • We failed to close a deal with this prospect.
  • The boss failed to live up to his promise.

Failure means that something wasn’t done, or was done incorrectly. Failure is a missed deadline. It is a lack of planning, or misplaced trust. Failure is a lost parcel, a lost customer, or a lost cause. It is a business ending, a marriage dissolving, a career plan torn to shreds.  And it’s also an inevitable part of life.

I don’t consider myself an expert on failure, but I’ve experienced enough failures – both large and small – that I can speak with some measure of authority on the topic.  I’ve lived through multiple divorces of parents and grandparents. I’ve lived in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks. I nearly got fired – on multiple occasions – from my first job because of my immaturity and a bad attitude. I dropped out of college in the middle of a semester (and failed to withdraw, of course) and received grades commensurate with dropping out in the middle of a semester. I invested years in preparing for a career I’d dreamed about since junior high school only to discover that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I started a business which failed in under 2 years. I’ve missed out on dozens and dozens of business and career opportunities due to my own procrastination. And those are just the high-level failures I can think of off the top of my head that I’m willing to share – there are many more that I’ve forgotten, and some others are frankly too embarrassing to blog about.

But the beautiful thing is that I’m still here. I’m alive, I’m employed, I’m healthy, and I’m sane (stop laughing – I really am). But even more importantly, I’ve learned that failure is a part of life, and more specifically, it’s a part of my history. For every failure I experienced, for every hardship I brought on myself, I learned something. And because I still fail, I’m still learning.

I don’t know if there’s value to anyone else in my sharing this information. So in that way, this post may be a failure. Except that it won’t.  Even if neither of the people who subscribe to my blog get any value from this, I will have learned something from writing all this down. And at a minimum, I’ll have something that I can refer to on those days after I’ve had a particularly large failure and need a reminder that I haven’t failed in vain.

I realize that some of this may resemble bumper-sticker logic. I promise not to go all-out Tony Robbins on you, but here are a few of the points I’ll cover in this series.

  • Failure is necessary for growth. Not unlike the muscle-building process, to build we must first destroy. Failure is a little bit of destruction, but managed properly, will lead to personal and career growth.
  • Failure of integrity. This is the worst and most destructive kind of failure. How do you get past this?
  • Failure through inaction. Failing to seize an opportunity is a huge source of regret for many (this guy included).
  • Respond properly. You’ve got to know how to respond to failure (yours and that of others) to be able to properly manage it.
  • If you’ve not failed in a big way, you’re not taking enough chances. This is where I’ll tell you all about my business failure and what I learned from it.
  • Failure doesn’t have to be fatal. Failure is not the end of the line. It’s an obstacle in the road.
  • Failure demands both forgiveness and accountability. Learning to forgive failures (especially your own) is critical, but there must be accountability as well.

I’m not necessarily proud of my failures, but I try to remind myself every day to use those failures as a way to do it better next time.

Six practical tips for social media success in 2015

Social media is the new résumé.  In many ways, it’s even better than a résumé – a person’s social media stream can reveal attitudes, biases, and deficiencies that wouldn’t dare appear on a résumé.  Your online thoughts – blogs, Instagram pictures, tweets on Twitter, posts on Facebook, among others – help to make up the digital you, which friends and strangers alike will use to assess who you are and what you can contribute.  The things you share on social media become part of who you are.

Even more importantly, there’s a permanence to social media content that requires us to pay special attention to anything posted on the Internet.  There’s no Undo on the Send button; once you publish something to the Internet, it can be there forever.  Remember that potential clients and employers will most likely review your social media activities before making a hiring decision; in fact, a recent survey of human resources personnel revealed that over 90% of respondents looked to social media when checking out a candidate.  Even if you’re not looking for a job, consider that what you post today may still be around for years afterward.  Sure, you can edit or delete content or restrict its privacy settings, but have you read the terms of service for the medium on which you’re sharing that information?  In some cases, content you share online may be used in ways you don’t expect, according to the provider’s terms of service.  The bottom line is that privacy settings and deletion won’t necessarily keep your content private, so think twice before posting angry rants or NSFW after-hours photos.

With that, here are a few basic rules I try to follow when posting to social media.

Don’t write anything in the heat of the moment, especially if you’re hurt or angry.  Intense emotion often leaves logic behind, and those types of posts tend to be the ones you regret.  If you routinely find yourself posting to social media and later editing or deleting those posts, you might have a problem with this.  Things posted on social media can have a long life span, even when the original media is deleted.  The few minutes of satisfaction you get from sharing that angry tweet, Facebook post, or blog post might cost you years of embarrassment.  Take an hour and walk around the block before you post in an emotional state.

Find your pace.  Everyone has their own speed at which they share on social media.  Some will write a new blog post almost daily, while others do so just once or twice a month.  There are folks who post to Twitter a dozen times each day.  These are all acceptable, but the most important thing to remember is to be consistent.  Don’t publish a dozen blog posts in January and then stop blogging for the year.  Your audience, however larger or small, will follow you in part because of your volume and velocity.  Find a pace that you’re comfortable with, and most importantly, that is sustainable for the year.  The right scheduling tool can help with this, especially when the amount of time you have to devote to social media can vary from week to week.  (As a sidebar, I use HootSuite, though it’s just one of many such tools available, many of which are free.)

Check ur grammar.  I’ll admit it – I’m dogmatic when it comes to proper grammar and spelling, and I evaluate the quality of social media entries based in part on those criteria.  If your posts are littered with misspellings and grammatical errors, you could end up being passed over for a job or a gig.  It’s a fact that some folks are simply more attentive to this than others, so if you struggle with spelling and grammar, find a trusted adviser to proofread your posts (especially longer and more permanent compositions, such as web articles and blog posts).

Rid yourself of negative influence.  The things you read will affect how you write, and negativity breeds negativity.  You know the type – the blogger who complains about everything, the person on Facebook who’s all about drama, or the Twitter follower who’s always posting in anger.  I exercised a social media purge recently, either hiding or completely removing some folks who were constantly angry and negative.  Following people who post a constant stream of bile will almost certainly affect your mood and attitude, and is an unnecessary distraction.  Don’t disengage from someone over one online rant, but if they demonstrate a pattern of this behavior, cut ‘em off.

Have conversations.  Your social media presence can be advertisement, an online résumé, and a series of conversations.  Don’t neglect the last one!  You don’t want to be known as someone who simply broadcasts without listening.  The more you establish yourself as an expert on a topic, the more folks will want to chat with you, whether it’s to ask for advice, share an idea, or simply to get to know you.  While you don’t have to engage with everyone who reaches out to you (see the prior bullet), it’s usually best to err on the side of openness.

Last and most importantly, be you.  Don’t look to mimic someone else’s blog posts, tweets, or Facebook activity.  Your followers will read what you write because it’s yours, not because it resembles that of someone else in the community.  In fact, being different is a good way to gain even more followers; if you’re writing about things few other people are writing about, or if you’re approaching it on a level or from a perspective others aren’t, you’re likely to be different enough from the crowd that people will seek out your content.

Everyone uses social media differently, and each of us will have our own set of internal guidelines on what to post.   Just remember that your social media stream becomes an extension of, and a window into, your personality.  Take care in what you share, pace yourself, and be accessible.

On Perspective

Perspective can make or break a career.  Maintaining a proper perspective is very often the differentiating factor between a good technologist and an incredible one.

6281420488_68b88bfc00_zIn my 15-ish years in IT, I’ve said a lot of dumb things.  Many of them I’ve forgotten, but I can’t shake the memory of one particular phrase I uttered more than a few times back in my early days of my career.  Even today, it still embarrasses me that I ever had the mindset to say these words about other people:

“… those stupid end users …”

Yep. I said that.  Why would I say those words?  Sure, there was some emotion and frustration involved, but even more than that, my perspective was all wrong.  Being new to the IT field, my expectation was that it was our job as technical professionals to dictate standards and practices, and that the end users we supported would modify their business processes and their workflow to match those standards.  I looked at most business problems as the fault of the users for not following our standards, or not using their software tools properly.  Looking back on 15 years of experience, it seems silly that I would have ever held that position.  But in my (at the time) limited field of vision, this was my expectation.

Fast-forward a few years.  With a little experience under my belt, my perspective had changed.  Through a few hard lessons, I had evolved to the point that I fully understood that my principal function as a technical professional was to serve the business, not the other way around.  My attitude significantly improved, and I became a more proficient technical professional.  But my perspective still had one significant shortcoming: I simply solved the business problems that were brought to my attention.  Sure, I had my technical resources in order – my backups were always done and tested, my code used common best practices and was checked into source control, and I did my best to get out in front of performance issues before they ballooned into bigger problems.  But I still considered business problems to be outside my purview until my assistance was specifically requested.  My perspective was limited in that I was still trying to be a technical professional, rather than focusing on being a business professional solving technical problems.

I still remember when it finally clicked for me.  I’d been working in the industry for about four years, and after multiple rounds of meetings to solve a particular business problem, it hit me: my perspective is all wrong.  I’ve been looking at this from the perspective of “Tell me your problem and I’ll fix it,” when the dialog should have been “Let me understand what you do and what you need so we can address our problems.”  That’s right – it’s not that those end users have business problems.  It’s that we have business problems and we need to solve them.  There’s nothing more comforting for a nontechnical person to hear, and rarely a statement more empowering for a technical person to make, than a sincere expression of “I feel your pain. Let’s solve this together.”  This is true whether you’re tasked with front-line technical support, you’re working deep in a server room, or you’re a senior consultant in the field.

I believe a person can be a moderately successful technologist by focusing strictly on understanding and solving technical problems.  Where one becomes a rockstar problem solver is the point at which he or she has the experience and maturity to see things through a perspective other than his or her own, while understanding and feeling the pain points of others.

Eight Words

I remember a lot of things about that day.  It was July in Texas, which is to say, it was unbearably hot.  For the work I ended up doing that day, I was way overdressed in my long-sleeved blue button down and khakis.  I was training a new guy – Andy – who had recently been promoted from Service Agent (car washer) to the Rental Agent (working behind the retail counter).

Space was unusually tight that day.  As a franchised car rental agency, we shared a location with an auto dealership, and square footage was at a premium.  As a result, our entire indoor existence was confined to a space about the size of a decent sized bedroom.  There was nowhere to hide – if you had even a whispered conversation in that space, everybody in the office could hear it.  In the office that day was the site manager, another rental agent, Andy, and me.

And Bob.

Bob was the boss. He wasn’t always in the office; overseeing four different franchise locations called him away a lot, but on that day he found his way to us. When I say Bob was in “the office”, what I really mean was that Bob was in the middle of our small retail space.  There was no private office, no place for Bob to retire to for conducting high level business.  When Bob was in town, he took over the manager’s desk, which overlooked the tiny rental area as well as the parking lot where the rental cars were prepped and stored.

Bob was a difficult man, but not intolerable.  He was highly critical of mistakes, but usually had the professionalism not to scold you in front of customers.  He was polite in his own way, and when things were going very well, he could be downright nice.  I never knew him to lie, and he didn’t seem to show favoritism to anyone.  Still, he was a tough nut, and anytime he was in the office the whole staff would be on edge.  It was an unenviable position to be the person who screwed up Bob’s mood, as he ended up taking it out on all of the staff equally.

That day was largely unremarkable, save for eight little words that Bob said to me.  And because of those eight words, I’ll remember that day – and the way Bob treated me – for a long time to come.

Those eight words

Our four rental franchises were part of a single business entity, so we shared a fleet of cars.  As such, it was a daily occurrence to transfer vehicles from one location to another to accommodate advance reservations and expected walk-up business.  Everyone had job titles – rental agent, service agent, site manager, driver – but as a small business, we were expected to do whatever was required.  Service agents normally washed and detailed cars, but were commonly called upon to help customers at the counter.  It was not uncommon to find well-dressed rental agents scrubbing or fueling a car, and site managers had to do it all.  And with the volume of cars that had to be transferred to various locations, everyone was a driver.

On that day, I had transferred a car from another site to our location, after which I linked up with Andy to help show him the ropes.  To demonstrate to him how things really worked, I took him out to detail a car (in our dress clothes, of course) to reinforce that his promotion didn’t mean he’d left behind the days of stinking of sweat and Armor-All.  Polishing the car in the hot Texas sun, it didn’t take long to get hot and sweaty.  Back in the cramped office, the air conditioning was a welcome relief, but only for a moment.  Bob asked for a word with me outside.

It wasn’t unusual for Bob to ask for a private conversation, but this time there was something different about his tone.  It was cold and firm – more so than usual.  Maybe it was always like that with Bob, but it really stands out that day.

I met Bob outside, and he led me over to a car in the to-be-detailed area – in fact, it was the same car that I had transferred from the other location just that morning.  He walked me around to the passenger side of the car, and pointed out a small but noticeable scratch and dent on the rear passenger door.  I immediately began thinking, “Did I do a walk-around before transferring the car?”  We didn’t have a lot of fixed policies around these things, but for my own peace of mind I almost always walked around and checked for any unreported damage before I drove a fleet car.  That day, I couldn’t remember if I’d checked.

Bob wanted to get to the bottom of this.  He was very upset, and was obviously choosing his words very carefully.  He told me that I should confess immediately if I knew anything about the origin of this damage.  Then he said the eight words for which I will always remember him:

“If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”

Bob and I had never been friends.  He was the boss, and I was the subordinate – that line was silently yet clearly drawn.  Still, we were decent to one another.  To my knowledge, neither of us was ever dishonest to the other before or since that day.  I was young and prone to occasional foolishness, but was still a reliable and trustworthy employee.  And in spite of that, I’d just been threatened with termination if I couldn’t convince my boss that I truly knew nothing about the damage to a fleet car.

Before responding to Bob, my mind went a thousand directions at once.  I was afraid.  I’d left a stable job of six years just months before to take this position.  I had an apartment, a car payment, and other obligations that are unfriendly to an unemployment check.  I was confused.  Did I transport a damaged car?  Did I check it?  Could the damage have occurred after I got here?  Or even worse, did I unknowingly hit something that caused the damage?  I was angry.  I’d never demonstrated any sort of dishonesty, and couldn’t imagine why I would be treated as a liar.

In the end, my response to him was one of reserved anger.  I clearly communicated to Bob that I had no knowledge of the damage, and that I was offended that he’d treat me with such disrespect given our history together.  Bob seemed to be surprised at my frustration with him, but it must have been enough to convince him that I really was telling the truth.  Neither of us ever spoke of that conversation to each other ever again.

And on down the road

Bob and I had an unremarkable relationship after that – neither good nor bad.  Not long after that encounter, I left the rental agency to take another job.  I haven’t spoken to Bob since my last day there; it’s not that I’ve avoided him, just that our paths have never crossed.

Bob was probably a good man.  I met his wife and kids on a couple of occasions, and they seemed great.  He had two long-timers who had been with him for a while, and although he treated them badly at times, they stuck with him.  He had a good head for business, and was a very hard worker.  And yet, the one thing that stands out in my mind about my time working for Bob was that one conversation and those eight words.  “If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all bitter about this experience.  In retrospect, though the rental car agency wasn’t a great job, I truly learned a lot from the job – and from Bob.  Though I doubt he intended it, he taught me more about business than I’d learned in six years working in a big box retail store.  It was in my time there that I found my entrepreneurial spark.  I’m glad I worked there, glad I worked directly for him, and glad we had that conversation.  I learned a great lesson from that conversation.

The takeaway

That experience emblazoned in my mind, I carry to this day several lessons from that conversation.

1) In tense situations, words are weapons. Choose your arsenal carefully.  Most workplace conversations don’t qualify as being life-altering, but it’s important to recognize when the things you say can affect the trajectory of a career.

2) Little things you say can have a lasting impact.  I’m willing to bet that Bob never gave this conversation a second thought after it was over.  He likely passed it off as just another conversation with a subordinate.  However, my young and impressionable mind remembers everything about it – I was scared as hell that everything I had worked for could be taken away due to no fault of my own.  If he was to read this post, I’d bet he would be shocked that such a trivial conversation would create such an impression that it would still ring clearly after almost two decades.

3) Don’t treat everyone the same.  This is a tough one, especially for me, because my traditionalist upbringing pounded into me that everyone ought to be treated equally.  However, we need to be careful with how this is interpreted.  People should be treated with equal fairness, but this doesn’t mean that the way you interface should be identical from one person to the next.  The approach you take with a hard-nosed veteran will likely be different than the way you handle a fresher just out of college.  Similarly, an eager-to-please performer shouldn’t be handled in the same way as a slacker who barely makes it to work completely clothed.  Bottom line: everyone will be treated differently based on where and who they are, but everyone has the right to be treated fairly.