Sunday, February 24, 2008

Things That Are Important

"Things That Are Important" is a list of 5 principles that I have carried around in my Palm Pilot/Treo/Blackberry since the day in 1997 when they seemed to flow from my thoughts effortlessly. At least I think it was in 1997. I was about to transition from being an individual contributor to being a manager at Sun Microsystems, and I found myself thinking about my career, about what I thought was important, and how I wanted to manage my group. I like to believe that I have guided my career by these principles, and that I manage by them. Everyone who reports to me gets to hear them at least once.

1. Teamwork. This is about working for the good of the team, and thinking about the team. I use the term "team" in reference to all levels of the team - your local group, your larger organization, your division, all the way up to your corporation. All too often I have seen individuals act in their own self interests, rather than the interests of their group. Or groups act over the interests of their larger organizations or even their entire corporation. For people in my team, I expect them to watch each others' backs. This might be as simple as sharing information or giving a team member a "heads up" about something. Or it might be seeing a need and helping out. As for managers, we should always be aware of how our words and actions either foster or destroy a sense of team, both within our groups and among different groups.

2. Leverage. This is about making use of your work beyond the immediate purpose. Leverage is about making your organization more efficient. This is often played out in terms of taking lessons learned and sharing them with others, so that they don't have to learn what you already know the hard way. Sharing templates and tools and techniques that you have developed is another way of applying leverage to your work. One might call this just an aspect of teamwork, but I find it unique enough to deserve a place on my list.

3. Technical excellence. I am simply blown away, day in and day out, by the technical excellence displayed by the engineers with whom I work. As design professionals, it is important to also demonstrate a level of technical excellence and competence. There are two aspects of this. The first aspect is a level of technical competence regarding the software or device architecture upon which we are designing. This does not mean knowing the architecture as well as the engineers, but it does mean knowing enough to be an effective designer. You must have an understanding of what is possible, of what is difficult, of what is impossible. Without some level of technical competence, you will almost surely fail to establish a meaningful and productive relationship with your engineering counterparts. The second aspect is a level of technical excellence with respect to the domain for which you are designing. It doesn't matter whether you are designing, say, a programmer productivity tool, a financial application, a network or system management application, a social networking application, or a civil engineering application. You simply cannot be an effective designer without some level of technical competence in the application's "domain space."

4. Attention to presentation and detail in everything we produce. We are design professionals, and everything we produce should speak to that. This does not mean spending an infinite amount of time on an infinite amount of detail. Not at all. But it does mean considering the audience for everything you produce, and producing it with an eye toward design. Think of it this way - it isn't just about the quality of your design ideas, but also the quality of how you convey them.

5. It's not just a job, it's a profession. I am extremely passionate about this principle. While I don't discount that there are some pure natural design geniuses, most of the rest of us are mere mortals. I have a masters degree in the field, and have spent two decades practicing and reading and learning my profession. As such I have little patience with those who seem to think they can click their heels three times and call themselves an interaction designer, or a usability engineer, or whatever - all without having the foggiest idea of fundamental human-computer interaction and design principles, or without having any familiarity with the body of knowledge, or with the important thought leaders of the field. And, frankly, this means more than simply browsing a couple of web sites every once in a while. Like all established professions, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. When I was in graduate school twenty-some-odd years ago the field was small enough that you could literally read the body of literature. This is no longer the case, but you darn well ought to be familiar with the major works, and you darn well ought to be actively staying in touch with the field though readings and publications, local professional networking groups, and other training opportunities. Another way to think of this is as using constant professional learning as a means of continual process improvement - of learning and getting inspired by others to continually improve yourself. (Which reminds me, I posted a "top 5 books" list to my web site several years ago, and it is in dire need of updating - maybe that will be my next bog post.)

There you have it. Five things that are important. Have you thought about your own career principles? Or maybe just as important, do you have any idea of what your manager thinks, and whether his or her principles are in concert with your principles?

2 comments:

Kate said...

Tom,
Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement. Often enlightenment comes as we walk the path. We may not know how to articulate all the principals of our life’s work but events and turning points serve to remind us of the lessons we learned.

Having time to reflect on those moments allows us to crystallize our thoughts and guide our actions for the future. Clearly, those thoughts have eloquently crystallized for you.

You have inspired me to reflect on my own professional principals. I can tell you I am still working on it. I’ll keep you posted and let you know my “ah-ha” moment. And yes, I do know what my manager thinks are the five most important principals ;-)

Dana said...

I'm copying this into my planner right now. Just the words I needed to help me gain some focus on this new journey.