Job titles are signposts

In the “Lets Make Mistakes” podcast, episode 50, there was a listener question that prompted a characteristic rant from Mike Monteiro. To paraphrase, the question was, “If you create wireframes, are you are designer?”, to which Mr. Monteiro became very heated in explaining that if you are helping to solve the problem at hand, then yes you are a “designer”, because you are designing solutions to problems. End of story.

I understand Monteiro’s line of argument very well, as it is something I have argued myself many times. He is adamant that no time should be spent on figuring out job titles. We should just unify in solving the problem. Makes perfect sense. I always hated being in an environment where a) there were titles next to names on office doors or cubicle badges and b) people aspired only to have their name next to that title instead of actually doing a good job. However I think there is a deeper point being missed here.

The phrase “to explain the problem is to start to solve the problem” immediately rang around my head as Mr. Monteiro picked up speed. The need to create job titles such as Information Architect, User Experience Designer and Content Strategist, is part of the process of understanding the problem. Roughly 5-7 years ago there was a burst of interest in Information Architecture. As websites grew, and the web matured, organizations realized that there was a mess of incongruent information on their web holdings, and no unified pattern of navigation. So, Library Sciences emerged from the physical bookshelves and started applying similar rigor to the web. Yes we gained a job title that may seem superfluous, but underlying this was a need to start thinking about the organization and navigation of information on the web in a more holistic fashion.

Looking back over the last 2-3 years there has been a similar surge in interest around Content Strategy. As the “content first” argument picked up traction, so a new specialist profession was born of people who do not manage content and it’s creation, but instead strategize around what that content should be, and to what broader organizational goal it should serve. Had people always been doing this job? Yes, absolutely. But was it common practice? Absolutely not. Hence a new job title and consulting business space was created to specifically serve and evangelize this need.

Now take User Experience (UX) and we see the same pattern. To again paraphrase Monteiro, “everyone is having a user experience, whether they are using the train or buying a coffee, so what the hell does a UX Specialist do?”. Well, as aggravating as the title may be, appending “UX” to a title is an implicit acknowledgement that the correct strategic dissemination and organization of information on your site is not enough for it to be successful. It is the physical embodiment of the realization that there is an emotional component to your website or application, and somebody needs to take responsibility for that.

If that person is called a “Designer” then great, just so long as there is someone or process to deliver on that, then who cares what they are called. Job titles in many way are signposts along the way to a better understanding of how to build and manage engaging websites and applications. They may represent a bureaucracy and hierarchy, and the many big business negativity that comes with that. But they can also represent the progression of understanding in the field.

API Documentation: Where to Begin

I just had my first post for the Braintree blog released today, check it out –

The first job I took on after joining Braintree was to help solidify, expand and generally make more comprehensible, the API documentation.  We have an awesome API at Braintree, but the learning curve can be a little steep, so I am starting off by working on a Quick Start and then some easy-to-follow tutorials.  I’ll update here as they are released.

Finding something to get behind

I just started a new job with Braintree as a Product Manager.

Thanks for reading!

Well, actually that is not all I wanted to say.  I have been mulling over what my work-life motivations were ever since deciding to look for a Product Manager job.  In my previous role I was a Project Manager / Business Analyst / QA / Engagement Manager for a small tech consultancy.  Basically I was the only non-dev on a project, and managed everything from client relationships and expectations, contracts and billing, through grasping and defining the requirements, testing and shipping the finished product.  It was a hands-on position that  really I enjoyed, and I learned a helluva lot.

As I approached the 2 year mark however, I felt an ever-growing need to pair the ownership and responsibility for projects I already had, with a broader sense of purpose and drive about why I was doing it.  I wanted to feel like I was contributing to more than a bottom-line of billable hours-per-client, which is what it always seemed to boil down to in consulting.  It’s not that we didn’t care about what we built for our clients, and when we were building them, they were our babies, but the hand-off at the end often resulted in a sadness for me, because I saw that as really only the beginning.  I wanted to dig in to analytics of usage, talk to users, and work to improve what we had built.  But often you were either not given the chance, or if you were, you may not agree with the direction being dictated by the client, you were just happy if you won the contract.

I decided to move to the product side, to find that broader purpose.  I wanted to find somewhere that would give me the responsibility and ownership I already had at the project level, and also give me a seat at the table for the broader, long-term strategic plan for the product or service as it evolves.  I wanted to join a team that was passionate, and cared about more than fulfilling hours obligations and satisfying the client, but instead constantly improving the product and delighting users or customers.  The difference between satisfying and delighting is crucial. However I had to tread carefully, and not walk from a great job in to a bad situation.

So I scouted out the Chicago landscape, and kept a close watch on the burgeoning start-up and tech scene.  The Built In Chicago site was a particular focus, but I also continued to attend the Agile Project Managers and Ruby meetups when I could, keeping my ear to the ground of who was doing good work, who was happy and who was not, and which products or services were making a splash.  Slowly, I constructed my list of target companies.  Looking back on which companies made that list, the one key component they all had was personality.  The characters of the people who worked there shone through on their website, or blog, or in job descriptions, and that was as, if not more, important than the product itself.  It indicated to me that the company saw the people who worked their as the primary asset, and my guess is that the people who worked there would in turn reciprocate this focus by caring about the product too which they were devoting their working life.

Braintree made the list early on.  Their team page was a good start, but they were active in the open source and Chicago tech community and the Founder, Bryan Johnson, was vocal about wanting to build a company that would be the best place he ever worked, as well as the best product in it’s sector. Fortunately I made the cut when they posted a Product Manager job, and I am just finishing week 3.  It is a wonderfully liberating place to work, that encourages freedom of expression, hard work and play, and passion for the cause.  Somehow, the payment gateway service doesn’t seem like a dry area of business at all, and to someone who is almost allergic to the word “finance”, that is a high compliment indeed.

I know I am in my honeymoon period, so feel free to take this 3 week assessment of my new awesome job with a pinch of salt.  But I think what is important, and something I took away from my last job and the whole process of deciding what to do next, is that I wanted to find something to get behind.  I don’t necessarily want strong leadership or management (however that obviously plays a part), but instead I want a clear purpose, a sense of personal control and freedom within boundaries, and the feeling of belonging to a cause.  Braintree is delivering so far, and long may it continue.  But regardless, I feel I have made an important personal decision about how I want to shape my working life, whether it be working for a company or running my own.

Some outside influences should be mentioned that helped me define this vision of my working life, so here is the list in case your interested:

Little Printer

I absolutely love the pitch for this product, the Little Printer, and the video from the design group BERG. They managed to give the product character, without sliding in to the Clippy danger zone.  The video just perfectly sets the tone and feel, and the face gives just the little touch of personality that enhances your feelings towards it, even before you see or touch it.

A great example of emotional design.

Infinite Creativity not Infinite Stupidity

In a fascinating conversation on, provacatively titled “Infinite Stupidity”, Mark Pagel makes an engaging case that humans default behaviour is to copy rather than innovate. We would rather use what already exists, than develop new solutions, because as social animals, we also socially learn together, feeding off ideas presented by others rather than consistently cultivating our own. Over time, and with the constant advancement of technology, we are more able than ever to indulge this inherent desire, as new solutions are developed, meeting a lot of our wants and desires, and reducing the need for us to go and create our own solution. There is no implicit accusation in this argument that humans are not curious, and that we may think about or discuss new options all the time, but taking that step from thought to action, and actually innovating, is where, as a species, we fall down. This leads the author to the conclusion that the Internet is the ultimate enabler for this behaviour. Because so much knowledge is at our fingertips, more than ever before, we can rest on our laurels, and assume that someone else is working on any problem we may encounter.

Personally when reading this article, I was with the author right up to this final conclusion, that the Internet, is in effect, making us dumber and more complacent copiers. It seems very apparent to me that the modern man and woman does not need to innovate to survive, or even prosper. We live in a world where almost every convenience is on offer, with the promise of ever more advancements just around the corner, and although we may often use a device, or engage in a process, where we think we could come up with something better, there is very little need to do actually follow through with it’s development. However there is one distinct premise in his argument doesn’t ring true with the infinite stupidity conclusion.

As I read before in James Gleick’s wonderful book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood , ideas and memes operate in an evolutionary battle of natural selection just like genes (see also The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins for the definitive text on memes). Ideas are fighting for our attention. They pit themselves against competing ideas, and the winner is the one that gets passed on to someone else. Every time you share a link, re-tweet or recount an idea to a friend, it’s interesting to consider the part you a playing in the evolutionary process of ideas. That idea has just won one, of possibly millions of discretionary battles, that are necessary to become a idea that is put in to practice, and to perhaps change the world in some small or large way. Mark Pagel grasps on to this, critically emphasizing that ideas mutate along the way, just like gene’s. He makes it clear that it is this mutation, and the very randomness of our innovation, that is critical to it’s evolution. As social learners, we churn out millions of ideas in to the wilderness, where our fellow man takes that idea, mutates or changes the context and passes it on. Ninety-nine percent of these ideas fizzle out quickly, but some of those mutations become fully fledged concepts that ignite into reality. However, with the advent of the Internet era we have become exceptionally good at retrieving information, vastly diminishing our need to be creative. It feels like all the answers are at our fingertips, and where ideas spread like wildfire on a global scale in a short space of time.  Because there are so many of them available at any one time, we are less inclined to produce our own, hence we spend most of our time consuming and copying, redistributing and re-purposing.

Here is where the argument falls flat. I see the Internet more like a petri dish for innovation. It’s a place where ideas percolate, divide, flare, fizzle, attack and die away, leaving behind only the strong and durable for the next innovator to build upon. Rather than shut down what little innovation there was, I see the Internet as throwing open the doors of innovation. It is the most random and generative environment ever created by man, with such a low barrier to entry that anyone can throw out an idea, and go viral, through no more than digital word of mouth.

We now don’t just socially learn, but socially innovate.

Ideas build upon ideas in digital time, the evolutionary iterative process of concept > test > mutate > test etc. has moved in to digital speeds. Where once innovation and idea development seemed like the endeavour of those gifted few, who through a mixture of genetic predisposition, socio-economic situation, and luck, could create something that impacted the world. Since the Internet has blossomed, it feels like anyone with enough drive, a computer and an Internet connection, can set forth a chain of events that is global in scale and impact. Yes we are copiers, and yes we are expert information retrievers, but for me that is an innovation positive not negative. All ideas are built on the foundation of others, so the more ideas we are exposed to, the greater the chance of that random trigger igniting in our brains, that could lead to the next evolutionary step for that idea. Whether that idea be for the next note taking app for the iPad or a lower cost MRI scanner, each idea is so much more available, and ready to mutate.

Going back to the Lean methodology again (which I do admit to being a little obsessed with at the moment), the very process of getting a minimal viable product (MVP) out in the world and then iterating to find your customer base, even to the point of pivoting away from your original idea, is the very essence of idea mutation encapsulated. The idea is only the beginning, the iterative process is the true innovation, and the global online community will quickly show you whether the idea has long-term merit.

In the pre-Web era, it seemed that economics drove innovative success as much as the idea itself. Simply having the resources to get a physical product in to the hands of users was a large part of the battle, and users were thus restricted in their ability to give feedback, or innovate on top of that idea, through lack of resources or an effective rapid response system. Now that barrier is lower. There is still a barrier, no doubt, you need some technical expertise, but the playing field is leveling all the time. Now we have a situation where users are truly engaging with product manufacturers and service providers. The execution of that idea, and it’s rapid evolution is now the driving force for success. If it can it withstand the attacks from countless copies and mutations that will spring up around a succesful idea, then it is an idea worthy of success. I believe that this is why there is such a focus on interaction design and usability for new products. The competition is fierce and forever evolving, and it is that extra bit of attention spent during implementation, that can help keep your nose ahead, and your users coming back for more.

The Internet is not highlighting our infinite stupidity, but instead setting free our infinite creativity. By harnessing the very nature of humans to learn socially, and to copy, the Internet is providing an environment in which we learn quickly, but also discover, mutate, transmit and re-purpose ideas, speeding up that evolutionary process, and driving innovation.