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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.

Stories > Questions in Interviews

I’m regularly asked to conduct candidate interviews for fellow Business Analysts. I wanted to talk about my interview style, key questions I ask, and which questions I never ask.

My Style

My interview style is strongly informed by my training as an Anthropologist. I approach job interviews (whether I’m a candidate or interviewer) like ethnographic field work: I’m here to share stories and elicit stories from my interview partner as a means of getting to know them as a person and a professional.

People like talking about themselves, and the best way to do this is to give them a story prompt. I also share something about myself with each prompt, so they can learn about me, and we can swiftly establish some trust and rapport by being a bit vulnerable with each other. Bringing this human-centered approach has yielded excellent interview experiences for me, on both sides of the conversation.

Questions I Ask

Most of us who have become Business Analysts have a story of how we got here. Unless you’re fresh out of a business programme at a college where they have coursework related to Business Analysis (which is quite rare), then you’ve likely taken a winding road to get to where you are as a BA. It’s not uncommon to hear folks say they “fell into” the career.

So my opening question is more of a story. I explain to my interviewer or candidate I like to trade stories versus slogging through a list of canned questions, or making it feel like a firing squad where questions are peppered across the table, while looking for ways to catch each other out.

I start with my story of studying Anthropology in college, hitting the job market during the .com boom of the 90s, where I did helpdesk tech support for Netscape on Windows95 (to date myself!). I later became a network engineer for a telecom company, working on prototype data transmission technologies. Our provisioning software in the engineering team was so atrocious, I was spending more time explaining how the software should work to our IT developers than provisioning circuits. I was tapped for a big agile dev project in 2000 to become a Business Analyst representing the engineering team. We were given 6 months and 1 million dollars to deliver a custom workflow system, and we did it! I’ve been a professional BA ever since. Then I ask what their BA path story looks like, and they get to tell me the highlights of their experience.

By starting with a personal story, then being curious about the other person’s experience in an open-ended way, I get so much more detail from my interview partner than if I’d asked them specific questions about specific situations.

I continue my interviews with this pattern:

  • Raise a topic or situation
  • Share a relevant personal story
  • Ask about the other person’s related experiences

Topics I often ask candidates about are:

  • A moment, insight or accomplishment they are proud of
  • A hard lesson learned
  • A difficult person they dealt with
  • A great collaboration

I am looking more for a personality than a skillset in many of these story prompts, since I can teach techniques and skills, but I can’t teach personality traits like curiosity, a desire to learn about people and situations, fulfillment in problem-solving, and comfort with ambiguous circumstances.

The one delicate part of an interview using this style is time management. Most interviews are an hour long at best, so having good facilitation skills to guide conversation gently in an interview is invaluable. The trick I use is to key off a point my interview partner made, and ask a follow up question that segues into the topic I’d like to cover. This takes a bit of good improv skills to “Yes, and…” into the next topic without the other person feeling hushed or herded.

My ringer question at the end of every interview is this:

What question did you expect me to ask that I didn’t ask?

I ask this question for a few reasons. First, I want to make sure my interview partner has a chance to cover something they wanted to touch on, but didn’t get a chance. Next, I want them to get a completely unexpected question to see how they react when having to think on their feet. Finally, I want to learn more about their expectations of how they thought the interview would go.

This one question gets excellent results.  I’ve even had men at my organization steal this question and try to suggest it back to me as if it were their own idea. /eyeroll

Questions I Don’t Ask

I have some questions on my most-hated question list. I don’t like asking them, and I don’t like being asked them:

  1. Why do you want to leave your current position? – This is an awful question. There’s no easy way to answer this without making yourself or your employer look bad. You end up with useless canned responses like “I’m seeking new challenges and opportunities” which doesn’t give you insight into someone’s personality. Also: It’s none of my business why someone’s looking. Their reasons are their own, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that I need to test someone’s loyalty in the interview process.
  2. What’s your biggest weakness? – This is another ‘test’ question that seeks to push someone back on their heels and share something negative about themselves without the other person sharing their own negative traits. It’s a power play that’s detrimental and unnecessary when getting to know someone. I don’t ask people to be vulnerable to me without modeling that behavior first. This question also yields canned responses like “I take on too much work sometimes.”
  3. Where do you see yourself in five years? – Every time I’ve heard this question in an interview, it was another loyalty test. Asking me to predict the future is a bit ridiculous. Chances are, as a GenX worker, I won’t be in any job for five years at a go, after all. If this question were put to me, and it were being asked in earnest, it would be framed differently. The question would be asking what my career aspirations were, or asking what the company could do to help me fulfill my goals.

If you’ve got interview questions you love or hate, please share! I’d be interested in hearing them.

The Conduit Metaphor of Communication

I find myself telling and retelling this story about the Conduit Metaphor by way of explaining that how we talk about communication is important to understanding where breakdowns in communication can occur in Standard American English speakers.

Michael J. Reddy described in 1979 the Conduit Metaphor used by Standard American English (SAE) speakers. This demonstrates how we think about communication.

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