If you can’t explain it to a 5 year old …

One of the consistent problems I have faced both as a result of a highly irregular career path (I don’t even like the word career), and my own extremely broad interests, is that answering the inevitable “what do you do?” question inevitably leads to a stuttered response on my part.

This problem in no small part has been a result of living in Taiwan for 18 years, where design specialization is a difficult path to take.

My responses have been purposely vague and often include the titles designer, design manager or engineer. Inquisitive people, like my son, often want more detail and that’s where I usually start to fail. How to explain my work, experience, and/or my interests to non-practioners, which is to say just about everyone.

Last December I attempted to do just that, as I was required to do so as part of 3+ month evaluation presentation. I wrote the following:

For over 20 years I have worked with organisations to help them build applications, websites, music, and other digital products that work for real people.

I’m a maker, love my craft, and enjoy working with others to realise a products vision. I have experience, and am comfortable, working in a variety of roles.

我有著20年的經驗幫助各類組織製作應用、網頁、音樂 、提升使用者體驗、以及開發其他幫助人們實現其 目標的數碼產品。

我是一個製造者,我愛我的手藝,並樂於同其他人一 同努力實現產品目標。 我有著豐富經驗,能夠適應在 工作中扮演不同的角色。

I don’t like it but it served it’s purpose at the time, particularly the Chinese version.

The problem with these couple of paragraphs is that they don’t actually explain anything. And the term maker in English has all kinds of connotations that I don’t want.

So this is a problem I hope to solve over the next couple weeks as I make some time for a healthy does of introspection and define some further focus for the next few months.


A quick departure

NetDagon’s very impressive ChangLe campus attracts allot of new recruits and tour groups. Really well done and the whole campus is incredibly well maintained. Missing from the picture is the new executive “borg like” apartments on the right. While it deserves all the attention it receives, it becomes obvious over time that the campus and office buildings were designed more for the “wow”, than for the needs of employees.

Some decisions are difficult. While I am really excited to be returning to Taiwan for these next few months and have a direct impact on a new company’s product, I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of disappointment that I am leaving China early without accomplishing all I had set out to do (it was a big list). I’m a bit of an outlier, an odd duck, for a lot of good reasons, but instead of wasting time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I thought it best to part ways, quickly, and on friendly terms.

I hope to write more about my experience in the coming weeks


Inside look at NetDragon

I always find it interesting to have a voyeuristic look into the work environments of others. While I wish these photos were as beautiful as many I see of design studios around the world but I hadn’t given any forethought to this series. My other photos of the of the ChangLe campus largely feature the buildings exterior and environment.

Most of the team at a dinner activity.

Cramped quarters in the Fuzhou office – less room for thinking and collaborating, more focused on production.

Afternoon meeting

Merry Go Round near the industrial design teams workspace.

Lots of space creates possibilities for thinking and co-working.

If I have the opportunity I’ll come back and update this with new photos.


Less Adjectives More Verbs

In other words, less talking more doing.

Taken from the blog of the same name, this should be my mantra for the rest of the year.


“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”
— Jessica Hische


Creativity isn’t linear

I die sitting at a desk all the time, and despite most of my favorite ideas coming at times I’m not even at work, I must sit there for at least 8 hours a day. Many don’t truly understand the following, and prefer a factory model of employee productivity and value.

… let’s remember that research shows human productivity does not follow a linear continuum with time. Specifically, according to Pareto’s principle, people produce 80 percent of what really matters in approximately 20 percent of the time they spend at work. So when I hear clients complain about summer hours, coffee breaks, or employees’ short days, I always remind them of the result of the study. Timesheets for employees are a relic of the past. They made sense in the industrial era when the scientific management of labor was implemented to organize work in assembly lines. But in today’s global economy more and more companies rely on their employees’ creativity for their success. Because creativity does not follow a linear relationship with time, time management for creative employees shouldn’t either. For instance, great advertising copy can take weeks or even months to be worked and reworked to final edit, whereas, conversely, a brilliant slogan may come to mind in just a few seconds. Time spent on copywriting is not a guarantee of success. So when Google provides employees with space and resources for a break, relaxation, or a massage they actually are managing the 80/20 rule of human productivity very well. They know that at some point in the day it inevitably becomes useless to require employees to sit at their desk. From this article which is excerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass


Doing a Project in Your Spare Time

“The Problem With Doing a Project in Your Spare Time is That There isn’t Any”

I shared this on twitter earlier but the 140 character limit doesn’t allow for much commenting. I think it was Matt Owens of Volumeone (one of the original flash based “ezines”) who served as my inspiration 17 years ago for doing personal projects. It was at that time a very fundamental part of what I did, and about the only opportunity for trying new things that ultimately increased my skill set or alleviated the boredom of corporate design work. Many of these projects went on to be sources of income in themselves. When asking young designers today if they doing any work outside of the office they almost universally say no. Which is a shame because much of what gets done at work is full of constraints and as such it can be hard to grow or simply have fun.

But the choice quote above from Jim Coudal above does ring true. None of us get off at 5, and though I leave earlier than most, the mental energy to start a side project is nearly impossible to muster. It should be apart of our week, but unfortunately in all of the past 17 years in Taiwan, I’ve only met 2 bosses who believed in giving teams time to learn new skills. As a result I sacrifice my lunch hours, Friday nights, some early mornings, and Saturday afternoons practicing skills that make me a better designer.


It’s amazing the difference experience makes

A recent school meeting where we get introduced to all our kids teachers, and hear about the coming year amongst a myriad of other things, was a refreshing change. All but one of the teachers were mid career or older and had an air of confidence and experience that was palpable. They spoke from their success and failures, and with many stories to illustrate their point. The results of our kids studies at this school are far from being evident but despite having an unfavourable impression of the school as a whole, I left feeling at ease and confident that our children’s educational needs would be taken care of.

In my life I don’t often run into people with experience, Taiwan employers favor youth over experience, and so it was interesting to be talking to people whose abilities were as much defined by what they have done as what they have read. There is a struggle to gaining knowledge over time and this comes through with their delivery. Which reminds me of a quote from Limitless:

And you would even think that, would only show me how unprepared you are to be on your own. I mean you do know you’re a freak? Your deductive powers are a gift from God or chance or a straight shot of sperm or whatever or whoever wrote your life-script. A gift, not earned. You do not know what I know because you have not earned those powers. You’re careless with those powers, you flaunt them and you throw them around like a brat with his trust-fund. You haven’t had to climb up all the greasy little rungs. You haven’t been bored blind at the fundraisers. You haven’t done the time and that first marriage to the girl with the right father. You think you can leap over all in a single bound. You haven’t had to bribe or charm or threat your way to a seat at that table. You don’t know how to assess your competition because you haven’t competed.

Companies in Taiwan over-reliance on inexperienced workers in their teams may be misguided (more time spent does not equal to quality output) but that not to say that younger people have no value, many of the people who I have worked with are far more skilled in some areas, but that one should have balance. The best design team I worked with had people of all ages and backgrounds.

Also: At 90, She’s Designing Tech For Aging Boomers and Former Apple artist Susan Kare joins Pinterest as a lead product designer.


Saturday afternoons

A great working partner

A great working partner

This is getting to be a bad habit. I enjoy working in coffee shops, the few I frequent in Hsinchu are some of the best you will find anywhere. Great coffee, free wifi, and great environment. Saturdays are less enjoyable as it’s standing room only and the noise level rises above the usual background din.

For the past month or so while my son is at soccer I have been spending most of Saturday afternoon with my daughter at our local favourite Ink Café. I study, or catch up on odds and ends, or work on projects that can’t be accomlished through-out the week. Catriona finishes homework and then dives into a book.

It’s not a total waste but I can’t help think that this would be better done during normal (western) working hours. I would rather be hiking, or watching my son practice, or simply helping my daughter with homework over coffee and then going off exploring. But there is so much I hope to do.

Maybe if in the future my employment situation is more stable, I can relax and not be concerned with these small tasks.


Empathy and teams

How can you create products without being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, without caring deeply about how they will use your product and how they will feel. The same with the people you work with. If you really don’t care about them or their time, if you don’t try to help, or aren’t aware of their needs, how can you possibly work well together as a team? The best teams I’ve ever worked with were in music, where everyone intuitively worked together, communication was nothing more than a glance or a deep breathe. I often think of these questions lately.

Below is section from Stewart Butterfields recent interview in The New York Times, Is Empathy on Your Résumé?

You’ve had a couple of big successes, starting Flickr and now Slack. What are your thoughts about culture?

I really admire good restaurants. I don’t necessarily mean expensive ones. I mean restaurants that are well run with a seamless kind of flow. I notice things like whether the servers keep an eye on each other’s tables. If someone needs the check, they’ll tell each other. I think everyone likes working in an environment like that.

I played in jazz bands when I was younger, and I like playing improvisational music generally. You really have to keep your eye on everyone at the same time.

So how do you try to maintain that feel as your company grows?

One of our values is that you should be looking out for each other. Everyone should try to make the lives of everyone else who works here a little bit simpler. So if you’re going to call a meeting, you’re responsible for it, and you have to be clear what you want out of it. Have a synopsis and present well.

At the same time, if you’re going to attend a meeting, then you owe it your full attention. And if it’s not worth your attention, then say so — but don’t be a jerk about it — and leave the meeting.

People can go to work every day for a year and not really get anything done because they’re just doing the things that they felt they were supposed to be doing. We just went through this process of canceling almost every recurring meeting that we had to see which ones we really needed. We probably do need some of the ones we canceled, and they’ll come back — but we’ll wait until we actually need them again.

When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one. If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.

One way that empathy manifests itself is courtesy. Respecting people’s time is important. Don’t let your colleagues down; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. A lot of the standard traits that you would look for in any kind of organization come down to courteousness. It’s not just about having a veneer of politeness, but actually trying to anticipate someone else’s needs and meeting them in advance.


If something that seems like work to other people doesn’t seem like work to you, that’s something you’re well suited for.

[…]

The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do.

[…]

What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem like work to you?
Paul Graham


On speaking: HAIL

I’ve been avoiding TED for the past few years but this talk caught my attention and is worthy of your time. I’m certainly guilty of a few of his 7 deadly sins. I’ve tirelessly practiced how to perform but his advice shows me areas where I certainly need to improve and or remind myself of. I love his 4 principles, HAIL:

H: Honesty – Be clear and straight
A: Authenticity – Be yourself
I: Integrity – Be your word
L: Love – Wish them well

Julian Treasure: How to speak so that people want to listen


On recruiting

This should be required reading for just about every company hiring in Taiwan. I’ve been wanting to share my recent interview experiences but framing the article in a positive light was just about impossible. I’ve had guys show up to interview me for senior positions that didn’t know who I was, didn’t know I was coming and no clue what to ask me. I had a CEO send me a letter asking for a meeting as he was looking for someone to direct the user experience for his company, only to tell me afterwards that he simply wanted someone to manage a website (after 2 interviews). No one checked out the kind of work I’ve done, my approach, let alone what I’ve been saying on social media. This after I had done exhaustive research on the companies and their products, and the current and former team members. It stands in stark relation to the way I hire and treat people I ask to work with or help me.

Recruiting is about relationships. Every candidate who applies to your company isn’t just a prospective employee. They’re a prospective customer. Evangelist. Source of talent.

And never, ever judge a book by it’s cover.

The basic premise is simple: treat everyone awesome. You don’t know who the A+ player is before she walks in the door. And you don’t know who the B- player is friends with when they walk out the door. Every candidate that works their way through your recruitment process will undoubtedly share their impressions and experiences with their friends. This will impact your brand.

Be sure to keep in mind these important facts: engineers know other engineers, designers know other designers, product managers know other product managers, and marketers know other marketers. Duh.

On Recruiting, Part One by Jesse Hertzberg, former COO of Etsy and Squarespace.


And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.
Christopher Plummer


Being early

For our first interview for The Distance, he arrived 20 minutes early to the Starbucks in suburban Chicago where we had arranged to meet. Due to a slight miscommunication, I ended up at a different Starbucks at the same intersection, so he actually waited for 40 minutes before we figured out what was happening.

Jim was gracious, though, and later explained that his penchant for extreme punctuality stemmed from his days as a professional trumpet player. As a freelance musician, he needed to be dependable — competition for gigs was intense, and band leaders didn’t want to deal with players who showed up late or weren’t prepared. Jim arrived at all his gigs early, with enough time to warm up and even grab a cup of coffee before the performance started.

Though I’m sure a friend or colleague could remind me otherwise, I share the same desire for punctuality as Jim, likely as well due to my experience as a musician in my youth. I always arrive early and never seldom arrive late. Which is to say the habit of people arriving late for meetings in Taiwan drives me crazy, because in some circles here the more important you are the later you arrive.

There so many basic skills that are all too often forgotten.

From: The Music Man