You Are Not Special

Photo by: Ethan Hein

Everybody wants to think they are a unique and special snowflake. And they are … in a blizzard of other unique and special snowflakes.

If I seem to be going a little Tyler Durden here, it’s because I am sick to death of people assuming that the challenges they face are unique. That no one else in the history of the world has ever faced quite what they face. And in particular, that working in IT is just so completely different from every other profession out there. Despite the fact that they’ve never worked in any other profession, and don’t realize it’s the same everywhere.

“Technical Debt” … AKA Taking Shortcuts

People who write code for a living have a very specialized vocabulary, just like every other profession. And just like in every other profession, knowing the lingo is a screening tool to separate “us” from “them”. But people immersed in the vocabulary every day don’t know that they’re using jargon to describe a well-known concept.

Take technical debt. People in IT write articles arguing whether it exists or not, what to do about it, how stupid managers are for allowing it to build up. But all it means is that if you take a shortcut today, at some point in the future you’re going to have to pay for it, and it will probably cost more when you do. Yes, this is exactly what Fram was talking about when they said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.

It doesn’t sound so impressive once you realize they’re just copying an old commercial, does it?

“Arbitrary Skill Lists” … AKA Weeding Out Resumés

Job listings in IT tend to be full of acronyms, and list how many years you should have worked with each technology. These lists are “unreasonable” and “arbitrary”. And exactly the same as job listings in every other industry.

What does a degree in Art History have to do with being an office manager? Not a damn thing, but you need “a college degree” to get in the door. Any old degree is fine.

And four or more years of experience with this specific vendor’s purchasing system, which has only existed for four years, is “preferred but not required”.

Oh, and Clarity for project management.

And Peoplesoft for HR.

And SAP.

And Oracle Forms.

And Sharepoint.

And this is for the entry-level admin assistant job. The Office Manager job has already been promised to the current admin assistant, but HR says they have to advertise the opening anyway.

Same as it Ever Was

Sure, there are things about every industry and segment that are unique to that area. But it’s not nearly as much as people seem to think. Odds are whatever you’re thinking is unique really isn’t. It’s the things you do every day without thinking about them that set you apart.

When newspapers are gone, will you miss newsstands?

Marketing guru Seth Godin asked the question today, “When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?” Before getting into the various sections and showing how the web covers each of those areas better, he offers this opinion:

Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand… I think we’re okay without them.

But are we?

The presses and trucks — the machinery of creating and delivering the paper — are transparent to most people. But the newsstand is a user interface. Any UI designer will tell you that the interface influences the type of interaction you have with the underlying system. What type of interaction do you have with a newsstand?

Newsstand in web terms

First, the newsstand serves as a “portal” to divergent news sources. It provides a rough snapshot of what the different publishers think is worth reading about today, all in one place. No matter what your interest, you can go to the newsstand and know that it’s represented there.

Then there are the cases where someone discovers an interest while at the newsstand. The user who knows what she is there for, but sees the same screaming headline in 144 pt type on three different papers and decides she wants to see what’s happened in the world. Or the user who wants to read something, but doesn’t know what until he browses. This second type of user is very common in airports.

The newsstand also serves as a feed reader, always showing the most recent issue of periodicals and dailies, with older issues sometimes available behind the counter. Just as there are people who don’t know or care about RSS readers, there are people who have been reading magazines for years who don’t track when the new issues will be out. They just check the stand every day or so until they see something new they want to read.

Don’t make me think

Both of these functions, the portal and feed reader analogues, are zero maintenance for the users. At most they might ask the proprietor to start carrying a new title. But the mechanics of delivery, storage, display, are all handled for them. With no subscription, no ongoing cost, and the incremental cost entirely under the user’s control.

So Seth is right, we probably won’t miss the newspapers. But will we miss the newsstands?

Being Useful Is Better Than Being Right

Being right isn’t nearly as important as most IT people think. Understanding why that’s true is one of the fastest ways to build trust and respect with the non-IT management in your company.

Let’s try an example where it’s better to be useful than to be right

Suppose you find out there is a structural problem with your building. It is severe enough that the building could collapse at any moment.

Being Right

You look up the emergency notification policy in the employee handbook. There’s a number to call. You call it and explain the details of what you’ve discovered. They start asking questions about evidence, as you get frustrated that they’re not responding fast enough to this emergency, and why don’t they get it?

Being Useful

You pull the fire alarm and everyone leaves the building.

Business Prefers Useful

Executives like to get things done. They got where they are by being good at getting what they want. The respect and respond to that trait in others.

So if you want to be recognized as someone who can get things done, you need to actually get some things done. If excruciating detail is what it takes to convince someone they should listen to you, then use detail. If a convenient metaphor will make your point more strongly, then use one. Of course it will gloss over important details, that’s why we use metaphors. They simplify reality in a (hopefully) useful way.

Find a good balance between rightness and usefulness, and you will take control of your career like you never imagined you could.

You can’t unplug a book

The first printing presses were used to print bibles … and porn. That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

The internet was first used to distribute scientific and academic papers … and porn. It seems man hasn’t changed much in the last few centuries.

The printing press and the internet share some other features. Like the impact they had on society: education, communication, freedom. Plenty of people have written about the similarities. Some have written about the differences. But I haven’t seen much conversation about one important difference: Books can’t be turned off.

Why this matters is that writing is something that can be entirely learned by each person who uses it. There is no risk of being unable to use the technology.

I’ll grant that large-scale printing presses are far beyond the reach of individuals, and even whole cultures. But the base concept of printing is so simple that it could be easily duplicated, and scaled up by anyone with basic mechanical aptitude.

Computation is a whole different animal. The utility of “pervasive computing” is explicitly the pervasiveness. The smart chip in my credit card is useless without a reader. Or a computerized register to attach the reader to. Or an internet connection between the register and the VISA system. Or … or … or …

Look at any major urban blackout. Commerce comes to a complete standstill within minutes. You can literally turn the technology off, and society grinds to a halt.

If you smash a printing press, everyone who already had a book still has it. If you burn all the books, people still know how to write.

But disable the networks that allow us to engage in commerce, and suddenly the grocery store shelves go empty. And we don’t have local farms any more to fall back on.

I’m not suggesting that we’re likely to face a protracted breakdown in the current system. But the impact of such a breakdown is certainly on a new scale.

Emboldened by Ignorance

Fans and followers of Tim Ferris are already familiar with his concept of the low information diet and selective ignorance. The basic idea is that there is so much information in the world, and so much news coverage, that you could spend your life keeping up-to-date and never have time to do anything for yourself. By cutting down on the amount of news you follow, you regain time for yourself.

But there’s another benefit of selective ignorance that might be even more powerful. If you look hard enough, you can find a good (sounding) reason to not try anything:

  • Don’t record a blues album, no one listens to the blues.
  • Don’t travel abroad, terrorists have threatened the airlines again.
  • Don’t self-publish your book, they never sell.

If Brunonia Barry had known what she was doing was impossible, she never would have gotten a seven-figure book deal when she finished. According to her husband Gary Ward, “We were emboldened by our ignorance. We knew just enough to get going, but not enough to stop us.”

He encouraged Brunonia to self-publish her debut novel “Lace Reader”. They brought un-bound prints of the book to local book stores and clubs and solicited feedback.

That just isn’t how books are published. Authors submit manuscripts to publishers and wait for an offer. Then the publishers tell the authors when, where and how the book will be marketed. But Ward and Barry didn’t know that.

Had they known how the publishing business works and, more importantly, had they “known” that what they were doing wouldn’t work, there’s a good chance no one would have ever heard of “Lace Reader”. Instead, reprint rights have been sold in 20 countries and Barry is in discussion for a movie deal.

Bold doesn’t mean stupid

The danger of ignoring your critics is that sometimes they’re right. When Simon Cowell tells someone that they can’t sing, there’s a good chance he’s right. He’s an expert.

That’s not the person you want to ignore. The ones to tune out are the naysayers who tell you, “That can’t work. No one does it that way.”

Every great thing was once the new thing that no one did. Until someone ignored the critics and did it anyway.

So listen to critics. Pay attention when someone has done exactly what you’re trying and has valid feedback. But if all they have to say is, “No one does it that way,” maybe that means you’ll have the field all to yourself.

How To Tell When You’re Being Lied To

Stay up some night and watch the late-night infomercials. Odds are you’ll see one for a real estate selling “system” with some variation of the pitch, “Do what I tell you on the tapes and you’ll be rich.” But the only people making money are the ones selling the tapes. No one ever gets rich actually following the advice on the tapes.

It doesn’t matter what the tapes are about: real estate, home cleaning products, debt consolidation. They’re all a scam, because the real money is in selling the system, not in using the system.

The new wrinkle in this is that the scammers have gone “meta”. The system they’re selling now is the infomercial. Instead of claiming their system will tell you how to sell real estate, they claim their system will tell you how to make your own infomercial. Which can be about real estate, or it can be about … well, making more infomercials. And making them on the web. See, it’s different!

You would think that eventually someone has to get something of value out of the whole arrangement. With the real estate scam someone allegedly gets a house out of it. But with the new racket the only thing that ever comes out of it is a “business” of selling more ads for the system.

If you’re too young to know about it, they have a name for this arrangement: Ponzi Scheme. The only people who make money are the people who know that’s what they’re doing.

So here’s how to tell when you’re being lied to. If what you’re doing is a Ponzi Scheme, are you the one doing it on purpose? If not, then you’re being lied to.

Do You Demand Flowers From Your Staff?

What are you supposed to buy for your wife for Valentine’s Day? Quick, first thing that pops into your mind …

Right: flowers. A dozen long-stemmed red roses. Because decades of consistent marketing has worked its magic on you. You could debate that it should be a box of chocolates, or jewelry, and I’d say that’s because those two industries have been advertising just as hard.

But have you noticed the hidden assumption? That you’re “supposed to” buy something at all. No matter how aggressively the flower, candy and jewelry industries market against each other, none of them will ever contradict this fundamental belief: That extravagant purchases are the approved way to demonstrate commitment.

Most modern American corporations expect you to demonstrate your commitment, too. But instead of flowers the symbol of your commitment is time. Time above and beyond the forty hours you’re supposed to work. Time eating at your desk instead of going out to lunch. Time on call via the Blackberry they gave you.

Doing good, steady work is better for the company. But late-night marathons of work get noticed. If you plan well and execute, you don’t need late nights, but then there’s never a clear moment for the boss to look at and say, “That moment really showed commitment.”

In a perfect world, the boss would take the extra effort to recognize good, steady performance. And that’s exactly what it takes: extra effort. Which is why it happens so rarely. Even if you’re doing things on time, it seems that sometimes you have to put in the late night to get noticed. Because this isn’t a perfect world.

But you may be in a position to make the world a little better. If you are the boss, make the extra effort. Publicly recognize employees who reach their goals during normal working hours. Make it clear that late nights are a symptom of poor planning. Demand extra work because it needs to be done, not just to show commitment.

It may be less exciting, and less obvious, but in the long run it’s much more productive.

How To Stop Turning Down Work

It’s your sixth birthday and your grandfather has just handed you a ridiculously heavy package the size of a shoebox. You open it up to see that yes, it is a shoebox. A shoebox full of pennies.

“I’ve been dropping all my pennies in there each night since you were born,” he says. “I planned to give it to you when it’s full, and it’s getting close. There’s probably more than $200 in there. All you have to do is count them out into stacks of fifty and roll them in those little paper sleeves.” This was before the automatic coin counters appeared in grocery stores.

Your six-year-old mind reels at this windfall. You count and wrap until your hands are cramped. You beg you mother to take you to the bank to turn the pennies into “real money,” then straight to the toy store to get Frogger for your Atari. (Any similarities to the author’s life are purely coincidental.)

Flash forward to today. Someone offers you a box of pennies. All you have to do is count them by hand. You might still take it, but it’s not going to be such an obvious choice. How long will it take? What could I be doing instead?

Thinking small

For the mid-career freelancer, this is the calculation that dooms you to punching a clock. You could build that website for the local restaurant, but they want you to keep it up-to-date with their specials. You’re not interested in doing maintenance, and they can’t afford to keep paying your development rate. So you don’t take the work.

You just turned down a lucrative contract because you’re thinking like an employee. No, you don’t have a boss, but you still think that any hour you’re not working is an hour you’re not getting paid. To break this mindset, you need to start delegating. You need people working for you.

You’re making it as a freelancer because you solve people’s problems. When someone wants a site and ongoing support, they have two problems. You can solve the first by building the site, and the second by finding a qualified support person. There are plenty of online resources for finding contract technical workers. Don’t make your client go to these sites and try to evaluate people, do it for them.

Thinking big

Instead of selling a Content Management System that will allow a small business owner to update his own site, offer a one-stop service, where your employees will keep the site updated for a monthly fee. Do this enough times and your “passive income” could exceed your new development work.

But even if you don’t take a cut of the support fees, having the capability means you can bid on a whole new type of contract: the large kind.

How many Danny DeVitos does the world need?

Seth Godin is absolutely brilliant at questioning the assumptions and “conventional wisdom” that we all rely on when promoting our products or services. He doesn’t offer step-by-step recipes “Guaranteed to triple your sales!” In fact he rarely talks about specific numbers at all.

And if his recent post Thinking about Danny Devito is representative, then it’s a good thing he doesn’t. Because he completely missed the point that “a few” is a whole different thing than “one.”

If you haven’t read it — and you really should, it’s only 152 words — the point is that there are a lot more people competing for the George Clooney-type roles than there are competing for the Danny DeVito-type roles. Seth phrases this pseudo-mathematically:

(number of people resembling George Clooney)/(jobs for people resembling George Clooney) is a much bigger number than the ratio available to Danny. For the math challenged: Because everyone in Hollywood is trying to be George, there are a lot more opportunities for the few Dannys willing to show up.

Since his breakout role in Taxi in the early 80s, DeVito has 76 acting credits. During that time he’s also had: 33 producing credits, 13 directing, 6 soundtracks, and 76 appearances as himself. It’s fair to say he’s prolific. And as long as he’s able to maintain his pace, he will remain the first choice for anyone who wants someone resembling Danny DeVito.

Think about that phrase, “resembling Danny DeVito.” Then consider this chestnut about the career of a movie star:

  1. Who’s Brad Pitt?
  2. Get me Brad Pitt.
  3. Get me a Brad Pitt type.
  4. Get me a younger Brad Pitt.
  5. Who’s Brad Pitt?

Now try to come up with a list of actors who you would describe as “a Danny DeVito type.” Or “a younger Danny DeVito.” I’ll wait …

Yeah, I can’t come up with any, either. So it seems that, for now, the important formula is (jobs Danny is able to take)/(jobs for people resembling Danny). And for now that ratio seems to be “one.” And “one” is really not at all close to “a few”.

It’s time to cheat on your publisher

With the current generation of high-speed digital printers, print-on-demand [POD] publishers are making aspiring authors feel wanted like they’ve never been wanted before. It seems like everywhere you look there’s another slick come-on … free ISBN numbers, your own storefront, listings on

For someone getting propositioned for the first time, it’s easy to fall into a deep relationship with whoever offers the nicest package. The smart ones make it really easy to say “yes”. It’s just so simple and comfortable, let them take care of everything for you.

I bet you can see this coming

Then something goes wrong and you realize how dependent you’ve become. All those links on your blog pointing to the order page. All the people you’ve told where to find you. The PayPal account you set up to take the payments.

It sure was easier to get into this relationship than it is to get out. You tell yourself the problem — whatever it is — isn’t really that bad, come to think of it. At least it’s not bad enough to be worth the pain of finding someone new.

You don’t think that time is going to come? Well, you may be right. Through some combination of luck, work and compatibility you may have found the perfect partner for the rest of your publishing life. But do you really want to jump into things that deeply without seeing what else the world has to offer you?

So what’s the alternative?

The great thing about all these options is that you can try lots of them without guilt. You realize, if think about it, that they’re hooking up with every other writer on the planet just as fast as they can. You’re nothing special to them, so why should they be anything special to you?

So play the field. Sign up everywhere you can find that doesn’t have setup fees. Upload, test, experiment, enjoy the thrill of it all. And see who actually gives you what you really want: sales.