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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.

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Music and It Might Get Loud

In watching the documentary It Might Get Loud, I noticed a lot of elements about leadership in it. The documentary follows three prominent rock guitarists – Jimmy Page from Led Zepplin, The Edge from U2, and Jack White from White Stripes. In it, there are many elements of leadership present. They show lots of collaboration and trust in the video. The artists were clearly collaborating in the documentary when they were working together to tell their stories and enhance their own content. They played each other’s songs near the end of the video and it was really inspiring to see three different artists with three different musical styles all work together to make music. Not to mention, they showed leadership when they went off on their own path and made music. It takes a lot of courage to go out and make your own path; and all three of them showed it in their stories they shared.

I think “to matter” is a complicated thing to think about. Everyone’s definition of mattering is different. 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

I think the artists in the documentary are mattering. Their music makes a difference in many, many other lives. U2 is one of the most popular bands out there – I mean, even Apple pushed a U2 album down to everyone’s device in 2016. Their music has reached many millions of ears and touched countless lives. And to me, that matters.