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Software mirrors organizational values, or: an error message annoyed me enough to blog about it.

I just had a moment where several points I’ve been making to colleagues about organizational culture, the myth of software’s neutrality, and poor user experience choices came together in one package. It was the intersection of Conway’s Law, cultural anthropology and user experience design.  Unfortunately, the outcome was… not great.

On my current project, I’m responsible for approving the deployments to the Dev environment.  My project is using Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) for build and release management.  After I approve a deployment, the system provides a response as to the success or failure of the deployment.

For successful deployments, I see this:

Succeeded

Pretty straightforward, right? I can see the request I’d made to the system succeeded, and some metadata about the deployment.

However, when the deployment fails, I see this response:

REJECTED

Uh, what?  Shouldn’t that say “FAILED” instead of “REJECTED?”

This is a perfect example about how the values of an organization slide into the software it produces. From my long experience working with Microsoft products, I know errors are assumed by default to be caused by the user behaving incorrectly with the software, rather than the software failing to meet the expectations of the user.

My expectation is not to have a system “REJECT” my request when it couldn’t successfully complete the requested action, but instead report its own failure.  But Microsoft believes as an organization that users are more likely to misuse their products than their products fail users.  As a result of this attitude, developers frame the status messaging as an assessment of the user’s ability to do things “correctly” rather than the software’s ability to respond as expected to a user request.

There’s been plenty of trench warfare in the UX community about whether systems should apologize for errors, so I won’t rehash that here.  I fall squarely in the camp of being delighted by systems that own their errors, rather than blame me for them.  I was immediately irked at TFS’s rude insistence on leveling its judgement of my deployment request. I’m usually neutral to mildly amused at apologetic messages from the various applications I use that clearly center a user (Chrome and Discord come to mind).

Next time you’re designing or building error handling routines, consider whether your system is both failing its user AND being rude about it.

Argument Culture Kills Creativity

I have a saying: “You can’t innovate in a dangerous environment.”  People need to feel secure in themselves and their situation to be creative, share their ideas, and take risks. If the culture where we work is adversarial, where jockeying for position and playing it safe are de rigeur, we can’t afford to make anything but the safest bets.

Kate Heddleston’s excellent article on Arguments Cultures and Unregulated Aggression describes in detail how the combative practice of argument-as-problem-solving-tool manifests in the tech industry.

We in the tech industry like to tell ourselves we’re making decisions based on facts, logic, and superior reasoning. We also like to tell ourselves that the people and ideas that rise to the top are the ones with the most merit.  Both of these conceits are false.  Humans as a species are pretty terrible at making decisions based on facts.  We respond and act more often from out emotions than our intellect.  Just like the most effective method of influencing is appealing to our emotions, decisions are driven from emotion and bias more often than logic.

Argument as a decision-making tool lacks a core component: ethics.  Rhetoric and debate have ethical ground rules in place for ensuring parties are arguing in good faith. To argue with a bad actor — as is most often the case in a technology solution argument — is a waste of time, intended to exhaust an opponent, not to root out any weakness in the ideas being discussed.  There’s now tech companies advocating for “no discussion” problem-solving, because they view discussion of any kind as a waste of time.

The waste isn’t in discussion, it’s in bad faith arguments.  If we approach every instance of idea sharing as a battle, soon no one wants to share anything at all. There’s no room for creativity when there’s always someone fighting for dominance, or to “win” a conflict.  Having a more humane approach to sharing ideas fosters a creative atmosphere where everyone can bring all their ideas to the table without judgement.

Successful design firms like IDEO embrace the creative with space and culture choices that help foster a safe environment for their teams to bring their most imaginative selves to their work. Especially when brainstorming, when you want to expand on ideas, not eliminate them, there’s no room for combative attitudes or bad faith arguments.  When we feel safe and confident, we can be creative and expand our ideas.  Arguments can wait… or maybe never happen at all.

Hate Networking? You’re Not Alone

Professional networking feels wrong — inauthentic and immoral — to many of us. Studies have learned people feel dirty when they engage in professional networking activities, especially if they’re on the low end of a power dynamic.  Folks who are already successful, and have less need of making advantageous connections, don’t seem to mind it so much.  Ironic, no? Those who need to network the most are the ones who feel the worst about the process.

Even as a self-professed extrovert who likes connecting people with others who may have common interests, I don’t love networking as a formalized activity.  I grew up with staunch rules around how much self-promotion was acceptable (the answer as a woman was pretty much ‘none’), and how expressing pride in one’s accomplishments was regarded as not confident, but rude.

This Tall Poppy Syndrome did nothing for my ability to navigate the professional world. As I contended with overcoming my own perfectionism in my work, I also came to understand the unique leverage of networking.  I stopped hating networking when I could approach it as a learning opportunity. I could be openly curious about other people, and share with the folks I met what I can do.  I also no longer needed to be an expert on many different areas, since I could “outsource” information in other people’s heads.  I didn’t need to know everything, if I knew enough people who collectively know everything.

Experts offer a similar tactic to improving how you feel about networking. Focusing less on what you need from the experience and more on what you can bring to your interactions with others helps you feel less gross about the whole encounter.

Networking became a lower-risk way of practicing self-promotion for me, which is still feels awkward, even 20+ years into my professional career.  I was taught my work would speak for itself, and I shouldn’t chase accolades. However, the reality is that only once in my professional career has a manager offered me an opportunity to do something new because he knew my skills well (Thank you, Bart!).  The only person who is going to advance my career is me.

As a result, I continue to practice getting to know people and their abilities so I can tap them on the shoulder for help later, and hopefully repay that when they need my skills. I have met interesting people in professional environments like conferences or training classes, and also in less formal situations like on a plane or while I’m traveling.

Like most activities, it gets easier the more I practice. I don’t know if I’ve made it to that level of success where I no longer feel odd about networking, but I keep moving closer to it each time I can approach the experience as an opportunity rather than an obligation.

Done is Better than Perfect

Hi. I’m Alex, and I’m a Recovering Perfectionist.

I have struggled with the demons of perfectionism as long as I can remember.  Without getting too deep into the gory personal details of my upbringing, suffice to say I was raised to be a Perfectionist.  Not just any Perfectionist, but the Most Perfect Perfectionist.

I learned from an early age that effort was not enough, if it resulted in anything less than excellence.  I was that child who was a superior student, involved in activities, volunteering in the community, working a part-time job while applying to Ivy League colleges.  In some ways, perfectionism helped me achieve, but in many others it crippled me with anxiety and destroyed my self-esteem.

I have spent years working on my own thoughts and behaviors to embrace a gentler way of regarding my self worth and my accomplishments at and outside of work.  I started by setting a mantra for myself:  Done is better than perfect.

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Servant Leadership

What is Servant-Leadership?

Richard Greenleaf is credited with the popular definition for servant-leader, when he wrote in 1970:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

The roots of servant-leadership extend back much further.  Confucius said, “A benevolent man helps others to establish what he himself wishes to establish and also helps others achieving what he wishes to achieve. If one is capable of treating others as one would be treated oneself, this is the best way to be benevolent.” Some scholars are applying the words of Confucius about humility to leadership practices.  The humble leader is one who can listen and learn from the people around her, and benefit from their insight.

Why is Servant-Leadership Important?

When we practice servant-leadership, leaders benefit from the insights their teams provide, while the teams are able to trust and collaborate with each other for the best possible outcomes.  Leadership expert Simon Sinek explains in his 2014 TED talk that when leaders make their teams feel secure, those teams can be more productive.  The teammates can trust each other and work together more effectively if they aren’t spending energy on protecting themselves from real or imagined reprisals.  When we feel secure in our place on our teams, we can do our best work together.  As servant-leaders, we can easily set aside our personal concerns for our teammates, because we know they would do the same for us.

How Can We Be Servant-Leaders?

Anyone at any level of the organization can be a servant-leader.  Being in a position of authority isn’t required.  Like any new behavior, it will take practice for us to make servant-leadership a habit.  On a personal level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by helping others with tricky challenges.  We can mentor others through formal or informal mentorship programs.  We can take on a mundane task that needs to be done so someone else can stay focused on their work, whether it’s taking notes in a meeting or cleaning up the spilled coffee in the break room.  On a project level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by assisting teammates to improve their craft. We can promote their great ideas to the rest of the team (and give them credit).  We can remind each other of the client needs that drive our work.  On an organizational level, consulting companies can be the servant-leader for their clients. We can listen to the client’s needs in the sales pursuit process.  We can structure projects to grow their capabilities and mature their systems.  We can build solutions to move them forward to reach their business goals.

Krthe Woman: Why Latina Women Aren’t In Technology

When you think about jobs you think about opportunities and equal chance no matter what race or gender that you are. You have an identity disregard circumstance. If you are a Latina or a white woman you should be granted the same opportunities that the other has, because you are both human. If you are […]

via Why Latina Women Aren’t In Technology: Because They’re Latina — Krthe Woman

The author makes an important observation:

Across the board we all talked about the lack of diversity and representation in tech companies and what we should do to solve this problem. I then realized the answer, the majority of the fifteen girls out of twenty that participated in girls who code – who had the privilege in doing this program which opens their eyes to a whole new world- were the daughters of engineers or people who worked in technology. And you ask yourself how could one aspire to be a computer programmer if you don’t see anybody who looks like you working in this career.

Representation matters, but so does access to the prestige networks where they can learn skills to pursue opportunities they didn’t initially think possible.