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Dare to Matter

To matter means a lot of different things to different people. “To matter” is a complicated thing to think about. To me, living a life that matters means that I am making a difference in someone else’s life. I try every day to make a positive impact in someone else’s life. To me, that’s what makes me feel like I matter. Whether it’s as easy as just making my roommate laugh or helping my mom at 8pm with her computer issues, I honestly can say I not only enjoy doing that but it gives me a sense of mattering.

I write this as I am going through old videos of choir performances in high school that I did tech for. Doing those gave me a pretty awesome sense of mattering. Me and a group of 4 guys would more or less be the backbone of every choir and band performance, pep rally, anything requiring some kind of tech. This gave me an immense sense of mattering. The fact that I was able to make their lives easier and enhance the production quality of all these different events made me feel like I mattered.

From the book “Dare to Matter,” Jordan Kassalow defines mattering as finding what drives you or needs you and acting on it. More or less, finding your niche in the world.

In my career, I am taking a few steps to matter. Mainly, I like to add value to the company I work for. I’ve been able to reduce operating costs and streamline processes for a number of things in my time there. Not only has my boss been very grateful but my own workload has been reduced. I used to have to spend 3-4 hours per laptop setting them all up but now it’s all automated – I can just ship people brand new laptops and once they sign in it loads everything automatically. A year ago when I was doing 3 laptops a year it made sense, but now when we have 6 new hires starting in the next 4 weeks it starts to make less sense. The really satisfying part for me is getting to see the fruits of my labor. One example of this is me building a lot of custom programs to tie different parts of our technology together. One of these is tying our physical security system to our unified security management software that monitors our network for threats. With it, we can see all of our security threats, virtual and physical, from one place and have smart alerts based on all of it. Server room door open and suddenly the core stack went down? Seems a little sus.

I think there are a lot of things that feed me. One notable one is my curiosity and desire for learning. I am naturally very curious and love learning about the silliest stuff sometimes. For example you could ask me about how fire alarms work and I could tell you how all of the different parts of a system work, why every part of it needs to be supervised, all the different codes and how they influence installs and product design. No real reason I need to learn it; I’m not going into the fire protection field or anything. But it’s just really fun to learn about in my opinion.

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Ambiguity

There are many times in my life when I have had to navigate an uncertain situation. One of those situations was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic at work. I remember being at my desk on that Thursday in early march when we all realized it was for real. I was sitting at my desk working on deploying a couple new utility servers when I got a text from my mom asking when I was going to be home. I said, “Dunno, why do you ask?” She then explained to me what was going on. I told her I’d be home when I got off work (it was already about 3 or 4pm at that point).

Next day, me and my coworker were discussing what we would do from a technology standpoint. We were in a pretty magical place though. Even though we had just merged with another company less than a month ago and practically doubled in size overnight, there was one thing that we both had in common. About 40-50% of our workforce was already remote – we had people in Virginia, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, you name it. This was a great benefit for us – we could spend more time strategizing and less time scrambling. While I knew other people in the industry that were scrambling for budget increases or deploying VPNs, we had the benefit of time since we already had remote collaboration tools – and that bought us options. One of those options was actually a blessing in many ways. The other company we merged with were Microsoft partners, and they got a number of benefits from it – including a number of Microsoft 365 licenses. They had been under-utilizing these benefits and one of my jobs was to make the company better utilize those benefits. Our side of things was on Google Apps for email and a number of various solutions for phone conferencing and two shared WebEx accounts that had to be scheduled so that no two were used at the same time. It was a massive pain.

I proposed a solution: Our side of the company would migrate email to Microsoft 365, and we as a company would standardize on Microsoft Teams for video/voice conferencing. This would in the end save us about $600 a month, between dropping the Google licenses, getting rid of the various WebEx accounts, and getting the other side of the company onto the benefit licenses.

We had executed a full migration by May with no disruptions to email service. It was pretty awesome to see all these moving parts come together in the way they did. Without the COVID-19 pandemic motivating us, we probably would not have a) unified the company technology that quickly or b) saved that much money as quickly as we did. I think that is a great example about how an uncertain situation can motivate you to make some impactful and lasting change for the better.

I also learned a number of things from this experience. One is that you can react when you don’t flinch. What I mean by this is you can have a knee-jerk reaction to do something, but once you’re down that path you might realize there was a better option down a different path. For us in this instance it was really luck that helped us more than anything but it taught me that lesson of what happens when things work the right way.

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Creativity

For this post, I wanted to look at the thought of “Leaders must be creative in order to spark innovation and inspire those that they lead.” I personally really agree with this statement. There are three parts to that: actually being creative, sparking innovation, and inspiring. As a leader, you should be creative. Being creative isn’t really something you can be taught but rather something you need to try and experience. It is my opinion that a lot of learning is as such. Being simply taught something is not enough to truly learn it. If you want to learn something, you need to practice it. A lot. Creativity is no different. It sounds stupid to practice creativity but it is really important. I like to dream and plan random things out in my head and imagine how it all fits together.

Then, you need to be able to spark innovation with your team. This requires a number of things on a leader’s part. Firstly is obviously creativity. A leader needs to be interesting in order to spark innovation. An environment with same old same old is not conducive to innovation. Then the leader needs to be passionate and committed. Contrary to what some may think, people can see through others’ false motivation/see their true motives. If a leader is not motivated, or not motivated for the right reasons, their team will see through it and not be motivated themselves.

Finally, you have to inspire others. This is, in my opinion, the hardest part. Part of the responsibility falls on the leader, and some falls on your team. Obviously you can put the greatest leader with the least motivated team and you won’t have much inspiration. But conversely, you can be a bad leader with a good team and that’s entirely on you. This goes back to the motivation, too. A motivated leader will inspire their team to be motivated and think of new ideas.

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Listening

Listening is an important part of life. It’s even more important in design. Without listening you can’t have empathy with a user. Without empathy, you can’t understand a user’s pain points. And without understanding a user’s pain points, you can’t create a proper solution that works for them.

I think part of why we, in 2020, are as hostile as we are is simply due to a lack of listening. I attribute this partially to the internet and the age of instant information. People are so used to having everything at their fingertips that they won’t People will read headlines and go off of those without “listening” further into the article. This leads to in most cases a fundamental misunderstanding about what the article was about. That’s why I believe a lot of misinformation today is simply due to not listening fully – due to this more than anything.

In practice, this behavior manifests itself in more ways than just that though. In conversation, sometimes people will formulate a response in their head before fully listening to the person they’re talking to. Hell, even I’m guilty of that. Good leaders will listen to their team members and devote their attention to them. This way, the leader can understand their team, how they work, and what their pain points are. A leader’s job is to enable their team to do the best work they can, and that can’t happen if they aren’t listening to their team. Not just auditory listening but “listening” to other things – tone, demeanor, and other non-verbal cues. These can be great hints that can help you as a leader make better decisions.

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Empathy Interview

As I’ve discussed many times on this blog before, empathy is an important and powerful tool when working on problems. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains. Going back to my post from last week, without empathizing with his end user, Doug didn’t know what he needed to do in order to create another good product.

To practice this I interviewed a friend of mine. The prompt was this: “Use a marker to chart the emotions associated with a specific experience navigating college during the time of COVID as first-year freshman.” While interviewing, I learned a lot about him. He talked about how he was anxious about college starting even before COVID became a thing. He mentioned, “It’s a lot to go from high school to college, especially when you have no clue how everything can change.” Additionally, he mentioned how he was anxious about his roommates. He was worried that he might not mesh well with them or they might be a different person than they represented on their room match profile.

In working with our nonprofit partner I can also use empathy to help better understand their situation. Empathizing with them will better help me understand what their true problems are rather than simply offering a solution without understanding. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains – and more importantly, what solution they need. Again, going back to the example of Doug in the last post, empathy was what helped him to make a solution that was better for patients at the hospital. Before his new system the hospital had to sedate about 80% of kids before doing the scan. Using design thinking and empathy, he was able to reduce that to less than 1%.

The questions that provided the most insight for me were the most open-ended ones. This is because people have a tendency to “fill in the gaps” as they please without having the confines of a question to go around. Humans are naturally social beings and we like to talk. Oftentimes in interviewing people like to leave space around a question so that the interviewee gives more information about the question that you otherwise wouldn’t have known. What got me the least insight were questions with more borders and restrictions. The interviewee is less likely to talk outside of those boundaries you set.

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Empathy pt. 2

Recently I watched this TEDx talk by Doug Dietz about empathy in design. He had a very interesting talk in my opinion. Doug is an industrial designer at GE and this talk revolved around the medical division and MRIs. Doug starts off by telling a story. He had just finished designing a new MRI and it got installed at this children’s hospital. He’s admiring his hard work when the MRI tech asks him to step out as they need to use it for a patient. The patient was a young girl. Understandably she had a lot of anxiety about the MRI. She was sobbing in the MRI room when she had to get the scan. That led him to want to create a solution that could make kids less anxious about diagnostic procedures at the hospital. Before his new system the hospital had to sedate about 80% of kids before doing the scan. Using design thinking and empathy, he was able to reduce that to less than 1%.

This goes back to the idea of having empathy in design. I’ve talked about this before and it stands to be re-iterated. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains – and more importantly, what solution they need. This is why at my day job as an IT professional I always try to understand my users’ pains and issues. At the end of the day, not only is it my job to ensure my users to be happy and productive but it’s also just the right thing to do. They can’t be happy and productive if I’m not making sure their needs are met. And I can’t properly ensure their needs are being met without understanding what those needs are. That’s why you need empathy – to understand what your users’ needs and pain points are. This also means you need to be in the environment of your end user. Without being in the environment of his end user, Doug couldn’t have been able to figure out how to make a solution that would reduce kids’ anxiety.

Another facet of solution designing I think is good to consider is looking at things from a beginner’s mindset. This plays into the whole empathy thing. I don’t think you need to design overly complex solutions in the name of designing overly complex solutions (looking at you, vim). If you want to design a solution that truly can work and work well for an end user then it should be accessible to beginners. As in, someone unfamiliar with your solution or the problem should be able to navigate the basics of the solution without hand holding. My test for ease of use is the proverbial “Janice from accounting”. It’s not a reference to anybody specific but just the stereotype of the technologically inept person. The idea being, if someone who calls their computer a “CPU” can use this technological solution, then anybody can. I like to apply that to any kind of solution or explanation I make.

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Culture

Today I’d like to explore the topic of culture. Overall, culture is just how people work together. Is it casual? Uptight? Scared? A lot of culture depends on leaders. Berkeley actually did a study on this recently and found that narcissistic leaders infect their organization and cause lasting damage even after they leave – “There’s a colorful saying that the ‘fish rots from the head down’—employees see leaders acting like jerks, and they become jerks, too.”

I think a lot of these culture issues stem from a lack of trust. If you don’t trust your team or your leader then not only will you not share your opinion but you won’t be as encouraged to push the boundaries. I’ve even personally experienced this. One example on the good side is the dynamic on the team I’m on at work. Regularly my boss tells me “If I’m asking too much tell me” or “If I’m saying something stupid feel free to say ‘You’re being stupid'”. I trust my boss and he trusts me – and that means not only do I have a good experience but I also get to innovate and feel fine with failure because I know that at the end of the day my boss trusts me to do a good job with the next thing. On the other end, you have a lot of school projects I’ve been on where you get randomly assigned with people you don’t work well with. There’s not a lot of trust there, and as a result work wasn’t able to be done as efficiently or as well as it could have.

A lot of the pressure for setting goals is on leadership. Setting realistic goals is an important part of this. I know a lot of people who like setting super unrealistic goals and are surprised when they don’t achieve them. I don’t believe in that. A better idea is setting realistic goals and setting stretch goals. That way, you get a few benefits. First, you can have something to achieve. If you can look at something and know you can achieve it, it means you’re more likely to attain the goal. Second, you can still have stretch goals. If you hit the stretch goal, great! Celebrate a little. You had a goal that was higher than baseline and you achieved it. But with super crazy high goals, there’s no way you can achieve it.

A lot of it comes down to your team and how they work together. Sometimes you just need to talk to people and understand how they all work together. Talk directly with people and actively observe. Especially pay attention to how people act in times of crisis or stress. Oftentimes in times of crisis or high stress people will revert to what they know. For example this is why a lot of military/tactical people like to train under stress. You can put on a face all day but things are very different when your mind is under pressure.

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“Thanks”

In this day and age I’ve noticed it’s not often that we sit down and sincerely thank someone. So I decided to thank someone who means a lot to me. This person was a major mentor to me in high school and taught me a lot, not just about technology but life. This person was the IT director at my old high school.

This individual in my opinion helped form me into the person I am today. Without him I would not have the technical experience or leadership skills I do. Over the four years (well, three and a half really, thanks COVID) that I was there, I learned a number of technical skills – like working with security camera systems or troubleshooting fiber distribution for the network. But more important than that, I learned a lot of leadership skills – empathy, patience, and listening to name a few. These are skills that you can’t learn through a textbook but something that you simply have to experience and learn from. I was given the ability to experience and learn those skills. It might not have been the most fun thing in the world but it certainly has made me a better person.

This all plays into the idea of empathy in leadership. Being a leader means being empathetic in my opinion. This person was empathetic to not just me but the people he worked with. As an IT director he taught me how to be empathetic to even the users that are annoying. As a youngun in high school, empathy was a bit harder for me to grasp. I think without having him in my life I probably would have a different view of empathy in life. I think empathy in leadership is important for a few reasons but primarily because as a leader you should be able to work well with others on a team. In order to work with people on a team you need empathy. Empathy helps you recognize the individuality in each person and that each person on your team has valid ideas and feelings. Without empathy, you can’t truly recognize the ideas of each person on your team. And that’s why I think empathy in design is important.

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Empathy in Design

Too often I see products that don’t actually fill a user’s need and exist simply to exist. Or, even worse, attempt to fill a need and do so poorly. I believe this comes from a lack of empathy, whether purposeful (“I don’t care, we need to get it done”) or accidental (no time to actually iterate on the design or connect with users). I believe you need empathy in order to create a good product – product being an actual marketable product or a solution to help someone. Without empathy, you cannot understand a user’s pains – and more importantly, what solution they need. This is why as an IT professional I always try to understand my users’ pains and issues. At the end of the day, I want my users to be happy and productive. They can’t be happy and productive if I’m not making sure their needs are met. And I can’t properly ensure their needs are being met without understanding what those needs are. That’s why I believe empathy is so important in decision making and when creating solutions.

It’s also important that I don’t put myself in a position above my users, either. I believe that in order to make good decisions regarding the direction of a product or solution you need to be in the shoes of your user. For example, in my IT work, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get myself a better computer or give myself more internet bandwidth than my colleagues. Not only is it abusing your power; but also, if there is a genuine issue due to filtering or bandwidth limiting, I want to know about it. Or, if a user is having performance issues with their laptop, I want to know what that’s like. Plus, I’ve found that people are more likely to act on issues when it affects them. This is why you need to be in your end user’s shoes when making decisions regarding your IT systems, and, well, just solutions in general.

Another facet of solution designing I think is good to consider is looking at things from a beginner’s mindset. This plays into the whole empathy thing. I don’t think you need to design overly complex solutions in the name of designing overly complex solutions (looking at you, vim). If you want to design a solution that truly can work and work well for an end user then it should be accessible to beginners. As in, someone unfamiliar with your solution or the problem should be able to navigate the basics of the solution without hand holding. My test for ease of use is the proverbial “Janice from accounting”. It’s not a reference to anybody specific but just the stereotype of the technologically inept person. The idea being, if someone who calls their computer a “CPU” can use this technological solution, then anybody can. I like to apply that to any kind of solution or explanation I make.

Another topic I’ve had come up recently is conflict in groups. Group conflict is something that can seriously slow down a project. Navigating that conflict can be difficult, as much as I wish it wasn’t. One way I think conflict can be navigated is by tackling it head on. Have those uncomfortable conversations with your team members to figure out what’s wrong and work out your differences. Oftentimes it’s not necessarily malice that can be causing issues, but just poor communication. I’ve found that once communication breaks down, everything else falls with it. Also, another source of conflict I’ve seen is when one’s ideas are rejected. It’s often damaging to your pride to have your idea rejected. But I think sometimes you have to just suck it up and roll with it. If you have legitimate concerns – by all means, bring that up to the group – but forcing your idea on others is just bad for your team and collaboration.

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On Leadership

I recently watched this TED talk by Benjamin Zander entitled “The transformative power of classical music.” His message is that classical music isn’t just this far off “old people” genre but rather has a lot of meaning behind it.

In his talk, Zander mentions that he thinks he’s done his job right if the audience’s eyes are shining. Now obviously, it doesn’t mean that every single audience members’ eyes should be reflecting light, but rather that the audience is engaged with what they’re listening to. He says, “I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. You could light up a village with this guy’s eyes… So if the eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children’s eyes are not shining? That’s a totally different world.” “Eyes shining” is a measure of how engaged you are. More than just paying attention because you have to be somewhere. But that you are truly engaged with the music, immersed in it, and bringing your own experiences to it. That’s what Zander means when he says “eyes shining.”

Leadership is being a mentor and a servant. You can have different methods of leadership depending on your position in a team. If you are leading a team, leadership means giving them the resources they need to do their job. For example, if I was leading an IT team at a company, I would do whatever was in my power to make sure that my team has the equipment, money, and manpower to get their job done as effectively as they can. But you don’t have to be a boss to be a leader – you can lead a team even when you’re just a member of the team. An example might be if I were working on an IT team, I might be receptive of my fellow teammate’s problems and try to help them out if they were stuck on something. Or, if a teammate was feeling overwhelmed, I might offer to take some of the work off their plate. Additionally, a very easy way that everyone can be a leader is by being nice and open to collaboration. Too often I see people who are rude or snarky to other people, either on their team or other teams, and it seriously hinders productivity. And not only that, but even just me personally, I’d rather work with a group of people who like what they do and are kind and helpful. It’s just plain not fun to work with those kind of people.

There is a difference between simply being a leader and a responsible one. “Leader” is simply a title. You can lead a team to do great things or you can fail to lead a team and have nothing get accomplished. A responsible leader is a leader who can unite a team to accomplish a goal, and does so ethically. A leader might use fear to motivate their team – fear of losing a job maybe. But a responsible leader might motivate their team with a bonus if they get their project done before a deadline. Responsible leaders might also encourage their team to make ethical decisions that affect not only their own team but other people involved in the project. For example, if I were leading a team who was trying to source branded shirts for a company, I might look at manufacturers that are environmentally friendly or ones that don’t use slave labor. Part of being a responsible leader is seeing past yourself or your team. You need to evaluate every single person your actions impact – all the way from you, your team, or your organization; the city, state, country you live in; and all the way down to the contractors and suppliers your work with and the people they employ.