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Dealing with a legacy brain...


You thought dealing with legacy code was a challenge... the code in your head is thousands of years out of date. Plus the docs are really sketchy, and there's nobody alive who knows how to refactor it. But if that's what we're stuck with (at least until Ray Kurzweil's future gets here), we have to figure out ways to live a 21st centry life with a brain that thinks you're still living in a cave surviving on berries and mammoth meat.

A big part of our goal at passionate users is to find workarounds or ways to trick the brain into thinking that the content in your stats textbook is as life-threatening as a tiger, but it was a comment on my last post (from P-daddy) that reminded me that's it's not just info attention/retention we're fighting for. A large part of why it's so frickin' hard to lose or even maintain weight is that your brain/body thinks it better save everything to prepare for that long winter.
(One of the reasons that most calorie-restricting diets make things worse... you're just cofirming what your brain was already worried about, and it says, "HELLO! We're starving here! If you thought I was hanging onto everything before, well now things are drastic, so I'm going into all-out protection mode." And you end up with an even bigger fight. You'll have to wait until we start a fitness blog to hear our thoughts on how to work around . Tip: weight training with heavy weights is the crucial part, because it sort of "tricks" your body into thinking that you're growing.)

But knowing what your brain is motivated by is half the battle. Because you can't change it, but you can work with it. The biggest challenge is that you can't simply consciously order your brain to care. You can't tell it, "OK, I know this looks really dull, but trust me--I'm screwed if I fail that exam on Tuesday..."

For learning, one of the best things you can do is whatever it takes to convince your brain that what you're learning is life-threatening or life-saving. What does your brain think is important? Novelty. Surprise. Sex. Danger. Shocking things. Stories. Human faces. Pleasure. Things that make you emotional. Things that move you, and things that cause you to move. Things that cause you to think deeply. Solving puzzles. Stories.

See the problem there?

Your stats textbook probably doesn't warrant a checkmark next to any of those. So, you'll have to retrofit it yourself. To trick your brain into thinking that what you're learning is important, find ways to add some of those things into what you're studying. But you can't do it by passively reading! Here are a few tips, though:

* Write notes, and read them out loud. Just talking helps your brain.

* Write notes as poems, haikus, limericks, songs, and say or sing them out loud. One guy we know quite literally writes songs on his guitar, and then records them as mp3's and shares them with others.

* Create a tiny little play, and have you and your study partners act out the parts of different components in the system. If you haven't done this, it seems weird. If you have, then you probably know just how amazingly effective this is. What might take fifteen repetitions when you're trying to read something and burn it in, might take just one little act. So, form the "Dorm Three Interpretive Dance Troupe", and start handing out scripts.

* No study partners? Teach your dog, or explain it to a rubber duck.

* Make pictures! Draw mind-maps. You can't possibly buy too many of those flip-chart-sized post-it notes, with some colorful Sharpie markers. If an illustration that the author creates is worth a thousand words, the picture that you draw is worth 10,000.

* For rote memorization, create your own mnemonics and flash cards you can carry around. (It's always best if you can use the "the more you understand, the less you have to memorize" approach, but there are always a few things you simply must burn in.)

* Use visualization.

* Use chunking and patterns -- (more on that in another post) to group the content into meaningful arrangements, so that you don't have to learn as many individual arbitrary bits, and can focus on bigger chunks.

* Involve more senses. Record your notes and listen to them, while walking around. There's even some evidence that having a strong smell, like freshly-popped popcorn or fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies can help you get the material in. (Or at least it's more fun.)

* Certain kinds of music might help, although this is a little controversial, there's some interesting research. (More in this book, including a music-for-learning CD.)

* And make sure you drink enough water. The brain works a lot better with fluid (and I don't mean beer up there).

* Make the hard thing you're studying the last hard thing you read before going to sleep (or before doing some long, brainless activity like a hike). A big part of your learning and memory encoding happens after you put the book down (or stop listening). If you put something else into your brain before the other stuff has a chance to "gel", you'll weaken or completely inhibit that process. But you can mix things that use completely different parts of your brain. So you could learn Java, and then go work on your golf swing, without losing too much of the Java you were working on.

* If you're studying for an exam, and you wear the same shirt each time you study, there's some evidence that suggests you might have better recall if you wear that shirt into the exam room. Bummer about the smell, though... And after you pass the exam, you can have a sacrificial burning of the shirt along with your text book.

* The same principle that makes the shirt thing work can work against you if you always study in the exact same place, and then take the exam in a different location. So make sure that while you're wearing your "special shirt", you do your studying in different rooms, desks, cafes, etc.

* If you can find a way to link what you're studying to sex, go for it. Your brain won't forget, and your study partner may thank you. (Or, alternatively, slap you. Your brain won't forget that either.)

The most important thing is just to remember that your brain isn't trying to make it hard for you. Your brain is trying to save your life. You have to find a way to make your brain think it's helping you, by tricking it into seeing your stats homework as crucial to your survival. : )

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Bestsellers: the sequel

Boy is blogging a great way to get instant feedback ; )
[Warning: this is long, and probably quite boring to anyone not involved in creating/publishing books. You've been warned ; )]

If you've read the comments on my creating a non-fiction bestseller, you'll see a lot of thoughtful responses. It's obvious now that I left out a pile of important caveats, exceptions, perspectives, etc. so here's a quick part two...

1) I'm not suggesting that you do the book for money. My approach is that if you do the book to enhance the reader's life, then assuming other things are in place (but this is a huge frickin' assumption), you're more likely to earn out with that perspective than if the goal is to enhance your consulting prospects. However, I didn't mean to imply that this is an either/or--that if the book earns out because your goal was helping the reader that you won't see any career benefits! From a systems thinking view, things fall out naturally: you create the book focused on helping the reader, not you, but you end up benefitting from a greater awareness of your message (which is more likely to lead to more work for you, and it's a big happy reinforcing feedback loop).

2) There are some very valid reasons why a good book, with all the best intentions, still won't earn out... and yet it's still worth doing for both the author and publisher. A publisher might decide that simply having a book in a particular niche area is an important strategic goal, even if everyone knows the size of the audience simply isn't large enough (at least at the time the book is developed) to sell enough copies.

3) Dave Taylor makes a great point that it's just as unethical to mislead an author into thinking they will make money, when the the odds still show they won't. And my simplistic just care advice, without enough context, isn't by itself going to guarantee a different outcome. His original advice was based on practical realities. But my point is that we have to ask, "reality of what"? It's certainly not my reality. We can tell people, "this is where most books are, but here's how to do things differently, in order to increase your chances of doing better..." In other words, his advice is dead-on and realistic, but that's like saying, "Most adults in the US are overweight, so that's just the reality you have to accept and expect." when in fact, most people can do something to greatly improve their odds of seeing a different reality. The fact that most of your neighbors are living a different lifestyle doesn't mean you have to do it that way.

Tim O'Reilly gave us some really good advice when we got our very first royalty statement, "Assume the book is going to do well, do everything you can to make that happen, but trust me--don't take out a mortgage based on that first check."

4) And James McGovern, who also has written some excellent bestsellers, makes the point that sometimes the goal is simply to get the good information out there, regardless of whether it will sell a lot of copies. I'd put that in the same category as #1, where strategically (and for the good of, say, software development practice as an industry), there are compelling reasons to put out a book despite less-than-stellar absolute numbers given that (especially in the case of James' books) there just aren't enough readers at that advanced level.
James and I have had this debate before... and I think we more or less agreed that yes, someone still needs to do books for beginners, but James' point was that if this is all we end up with, simply because that's where the bulk of the market is, then this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy--the industry ends up with nothing but beginner-level thinking.

And this brings up another really important point--if every book is supposed to sell a lot of copies, then where do I (the user/reader) go for help when the thing I'm working on is too obscure or too advanced or too cutting edge to justify anyone doing a book on it? Should the publisher and author do it anyway? Maybe, sometimes. As a user, I'm thrilled if someone would do a book on my off-the-beaten-path use-case (say, "Using Java to write MIDI audio software"). I hate waiting for the critical mass of readers needed to justify someone doing a book on the topic I'm interested in.

But this is where other publishing platforms might make more sense. It doesn't always need to be a printed book, and in fact the longish lead time to go from author's head all the way to Barnes and Noble's shelf is a big problem with the bleeding edge. I've found topics I'm interested in, only to learn that the first book on it will be out... in a year. With other options like print-on-demand, or some kind of electronic delivery, there might be less need to do all topics in a traditional format.

4) Finally, someone with a much better perspective on publishing than I have, Joe Wikert from Wiley (Scoble and Shel's publisher), wrote a response/rebuttal on his blog. He points out something that I hadn't intended but was apparently implied--that the publisher would simply do a book to help the author's career without the publisher doing their own due diligence.
But I think we're addressing two slightly different points. I definitely think the decision to do a book on a specific topic, right down to the table of contents, is a crucial decision that the publisher plays a huge role in. Where I think the author's build-my-resume part comes in is not in the decision of what book/topic/TOC to do, but rather what happens when the words start hitting the page.

The problem lies in the more subtle details of the actual way in which the book is written. The delightful and wonderful tech book author Peter van der Linden put it best when he said in an interview something like, "Too many computer book authors suffer from 'clear only if known' syndrome." Where the material suffers from the same thing you often get from tech support--"Technically accurate, yet completely impenetrable until after you've figured it out."
OK, end of that rant.

Joe Wikert also pointed out is that advances are set based on the individual book, market, author, etc. and then he walks the fine (but appropriate) line between not wanting to "set the bar too low" while simultaneously painting a realistic picture (similar to Tim's advaice) where the author doesn't bet the farm on the book's royalty statements.

So, I certainly agree that there are a lot of variables, many of which the author and publisher can't fully control. And I do agree that authors have to be realistic in recognizing that the book might not earn out, and that they should have a realistic picture of how many don't. BUT... I still believe that this general acceptance of "this is simply the way it is, so do the book for other reasons" isn't as likely to create a book that will sell more copies. And whatever the author's goal is, selling more copies usually means more satisfaction of that goal (spreading "pollen", encouraging a higher level of thought, getting the message out there, creating passionate users, encouraging people to want to read more, etc.)

Most importantly, though, I want to emphasize my original point that barring all the exceptions and qualifiers, we shouldn't be looking at books that are bestsellers as somehow "lucky" or "rare". There is a formula that works! Lots of them, really... but I'm just pursuing one of many possible implementations of "how to create a bestseller." And I'm also holding my head high and not ashamed like I'm somehow "selling out" by deliberately wanting to create a bestseller. Creating a bestseller, remember, is not the goal. The goal is "enhance the reader's life." That this happens to be a formula for making a bestseller is just good news all around, because a bestseller = more opportunity to do more of the good things.

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Can you teach someone to care?


You usually can't create passionate users unless you deeply care about them. If you didn't, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog. But what about the other people on your team? How do you get them to care?

Obviously you can teach customer service skills. You can teach active listening. But can you teach them to care?

But you can infect them.

Passion is infectious, and so is caring. The brain usually can't help sliding toward the behaviors of those that brain is around. So if you want people to care, make sure the culture of your environment has hit a critical mass of caring.

I worked for the Sports Club LA/Reebok for a few years, and one of my jobs was to write software that trained employees on customer service skills. Each of the several thousand employees in the entire company had to go through the same customer service training program. But we noticed that at some facilities, virtually 100% of the employees were nice-as-pie to the customers, while in a couple other facilities, you'd think it would kill some of the front desk staff to even smile at a customer let alone help them out with anything. What was the difference?

Critical mass.
In the places where the service was awesome, the norm was to treat the customers like gems. If a new employee started working the front desk, for example, and didn't say goodbye to a customer as they walked out, everyone noticed. The rest of the people there would turn around with an odd look. Not a condescending or angry look, just... that it was strange to not hear someone say goodbye to a customer. The norm was to greet and say goodbye to customers, and anything that violated the norm was really noticeable.

But in places where the service sucked, that culture didn't exist. If a new employee started working the desk and didn't greet a customer, nobody noticed. Nothing out of the ordinary.

We fixed the situation in less than two weeks by taking the front desk employees who couldn't imagine not greeting the customers and sent enough of them out to the other facilities until we thought we had critical mass. It worked.

There's another question, of course, which is, "Yeah, but weren't they just being fake and going through the motions?" Just because they had the behavior of caring doesn't mean they actually did. That's true, although in many cases, it doesn't matter all that much as long as the behavior of the "faker" is indistinguishable from the Real Thing. But it would matter, in the end, because sooner or later that employee would be put to the test.

But that's where the brain kicks in... because the brain can get "infected" by an attitude of caring. It's not guaranteed, of course, but just as having a teacher or friend who is enthusiastic about something can eventually cause you to start genuinely liking that thing, you can be infected by being around enough people who really do make caring a top priority.

The tougher job is when you don't have critical mass and you somehow have to get there. And that's when you need to bring in The Big Guns... real customers. Most often, when people don't care about the users, it's because they don't see users as real people. They're just abstract concepts. But if forced to meet one face-to-face, or at least see some in a video talking about real needs, hopes, dreams, concerns, they'll have to start seeing them as real humans. And unless you've got sociopaths on your team (and I have a former manager or two I might put in that category ; )), it'll be hard to keep them from feeling something.

So you can't teach caring (although you can certainly teach ways to demonstrate caring to users), but you can use the brain's built-in tendency to model what it sees in others to infect the newcomers. And by finding ways to keep users "real people" instead of spreadsheet numbers, a critical caring mass shouldn't be that tough to hit.

I heart users : )

Posted by Kathy on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

How to create a non-fiction bestseller


Yes, book sales are way down across the board in tech books (actually all books, but tech books especially), but that doesn't mean the market's gone. It does mean there are far fewer guarantees of success, though. Even those who still have tech jobs are probably having to pay for books out of their own pocket, unlike the days when employers let us login to Amazon to click and buy with abandon. So you can't just get something out there and expect it to sell, even if it is on the hottest topic, and even if you do have an established name and reputation, and even if your publisher is committed--with marketing bucks and a plan--to making a hit.

But what prompted me to write this is a disturbing trend toward viewing technical books as a crap shoot. A big gamble. You roll the dice and assume that most books won't be bestsellers, but hey--you might get lucky.

Luck has nothing to do with it!!

(Well, I'll qualify that: luck is a factor if you're writing about a new, unproven topic because you're trying to get a jump on the market, and you're betting on the fact that the topic/technology will take hold.)

First, a disclaimer for those who don't know me: I'm a relative newcomer to books, (two years), and what I'm about to say conflicts with what many of the most experienced people in this industry are suggesting. However, my partner Bert and I have five current bestsellers--which is extremely rare in the tech book world today--and all of these books are still in their first editions (correction, we just released a second edition of one of our books (Head First Java), and it's just starting to show up in bestseller lists, so temporarily at least, we have six bestsellers, although the second edition will eventually cause the first edition to drop out).

In fact, every book we've put out has been an instant bestseller, and taken over the top slot in its category. But that's not the amazing part. The amazing part is that we're not good writers, and we aren't established "names". But we refuse to believe that we just keep getting ridiculously lucky. We're making our living on this, so we can't afford to leave it to chance. We believe there's a formula, and that almost anyone can follow it. Oh yes, one more disclaimer: the word "bestseller" doesn't necessarily mean "big bucks", because the total size of the market has dropped so low. (I'll say a little more on the numbers later.) But a "bestseller" today does mean the difference between a book that doesn't even earn back its advance, and one that gives you and your publisher a nice steady source of income long after you've finished it and moved on to something else.

The formula?
It's multi-part. What to do and what not to do.

First, don't listen to this advice from Dave Taylor (although you should listen to virtually everything else he says... they guys knows frickin' everything about everything, and has written way more books than we have. This is the only area where I violently disagree with his advice):

"...don't go into writing a technical book with the expectation that you'll make any money. ... unlike the heyday of the late 1990's, a technical book that sells 5,000 copies is considered a success in the industry today. So why write a technical book? One good reason is because it's a great calling card, a demonstration that you're a thought leader in your field and an expert on the subject."

I hear this same thing everywhere from virtually every other tech book author I know, see, or read about. It's a trap! I hardly know where to begin, but I'll try...

1) It's unethical.

Unless you're self-publishing, you are risking your time (and opportunity costs) while your publisher is risking real money. Your publisher is not in business solely to help you pursue your career goals and build a better resume. Would you willingly and enthusiastically go into business with someone who said, "well, it's not like it's going to make any money, but at least it'll be good on my resume."? But that's what you're asking your publisher to do. And believe me, the downturn has hurt these folks hard. Our main publisher is O'Reilly, and we feel like we're in a partnership with them. We want them to do well because it benefits everyone. They're a fabulous, innovative publisher interested in getting knowledge from one person and spreading/sharing it to others. I believe that doing a book with the attitude that "it isn't going to make money, but it'll help me" is taking advantage of the publisher. There are lots of people at O'Reilly we care about who have jobs they'd like to keep. (Same with Osborne/McGraw-Hill, who published our very first book.)

But let's say you don't care about the publisher, and maybe you've even heard they have a reputation for ripping people off at every turn. That's not our view, but it might be valid for publishers we don't know anything about. So there's a far more important reason to not have this attitude, and it's the one that affects you the most:

2) It's self-fulfilling.

If you go in with the attitude that you're doing it solely for your reputation, and not to have it earn out, it dramatically increases the chances that this is exactly what you'll get. A book that doesn't (or barely) earns back its advance. We've met many tech book authors who say they've written multiple books that have never earned back their advance. That is beyond our comprehension. Given that these folks usually have way more real talent than we do, what's the difference? For one thing, we hadn't actually heard that advice when we started. We were too ignorant to know that this is supposedly the reality, so we went in with the attitude of, "OK, we plan on earning back our advance and having this book do well, so what can we do to help guarantee that this happens?" This is dramatically different from asking, "I can't expect this to make money, so what can I do to make sure it helps my career/reputation.?"

We asked a different question, and got a different answer.

But there's more to it than that. It's not just that doing-it-for-the-resume isn't as likely to produce a successful book... writing a book with the motivation of enhancing your reputation is more likely to HURT the book. I won't go into all the details, but I said a lot about this in an earlier post, Users Shouldn't Think About YOU. The main problem is this: the more focused you are on demonstrating how smart YOU are, the less likely you are to help the READER feel/become smart. And that's a formula for hurting sales. The more you make the book about how much you know, the less you have something the reader can benefit from. We write our books from virtually the opposite perspective--we don't care what they think about us. All we care about is that they have an "I Rule!" experience, and that can come only from them truly learning and understanding in a meaningful, efficient, and enjoyable way. We care about their life, more than we care about anything else. And that is the formula.

The downside (if you care about it) is that approaching books this way won't do as much for your reputation. On any given day, we usually have five of the top ten bestselling Java books. On many days, we have the top five bestselling Java books. Yet, virtually nobody in the Java world thinks of us as The Java Experts. No, they think of us as the people who've written the books that have helped me learn this well, and actually made it easier and even enjoyable... " They don't think of us as the experts. But they thank us for helping THEM become experts. And that's the rest of the formula.

Because when they start talking, and they will, they'll tell their friends, co-workers, and everyone else they talk to online that they know more because of your book. And that carries a lot more weight than telling their friends that you, the author, sure know your stuff.

So here's the formula:

The Author Kicks Ass: The book might earn out.

The Reader Kicks Ass: Bestseller.

Have I oversimplified? Of course. But not as much as you might think. I will put some assumptions/qualifiers on this just for completness:

1) The topic must be of interest to enough people.
I can't expect to earn out on a book about "Blogging to improve your bowling scores." (although Robert Scoble just might be able to pull that one off. The rest of us couldn't : )

2) The publisher keeps the book available.
Besides the authors who keep claiming you can't expect to have a bestseller, I also disagree with publishers who claim that a book's success today is about the publisher's marketing reach combined with the author's following. That can help, sure, but you can see from my graphic that I put those things on the weakest end of the factors contributing to a bestseller. (Yes, I'm even disagreeing with the publisher who (to use the cliche) has forgotten more about this business than I'll ever know.)
But where the publisher is especially monumentally important is in keeping the book in stock. And apparently that is no easy task. The publisher's reputation with the booksellers is vitally important, and this is where a great publisher can really make a big difference. Key publishers like O'Reilly, Wiley, Pearson, etc. can make sure that once word gets around about your book, people can get their hands on it! Now, there are some books, especially consumer books and those purchased by older/less-web-aware folks for whom discovering it in the store is the most important factor, but I'm not really addressing that. I'm talking about technically-oriented books likely to be bought by those who are connected to one or more online communities in such a way that if word spreads about a book, they're likely to hear it.

3) The author knows, or learns, how to show the reader what the reader needs and wants.
There are some skills here, of course, but the most important one isn't writing! I'd put writing skills fairly low on the list, assuming some baseline capability equivalent to, say, a sophomore in high school who might get a B in basic grammar/writing. The most important thing is in teaching/communication/information design. And that's a lot of what we talk about in this blog. (But in another post, I'll offer more resources if you're still looking to improve in these areas.) And perhaps the best advice I can give to our authors is to simply not go into some kind of "writer mode". Most people who have a subject they want to communicate, could explain it just fine to a colleague over lunch, with a pencil, a napkin, and a conversation. But something gets lost when they try to "write" about it, especially if they're trying to impress others with their serious level of expertise. Say it in your book almost exactly the way you'd explain it to a friend, and you're way way way up the curve.

And finally, the most important assumption:

The author genuinely, deeply, truly cares about enhancing the lives of the reader.

So, creating a bestseller is not such a big wild-ass gamble. And the best news is that it's a win for everyone if you follow that formula. The publisher doesn't bleed money on the book, the author is well-compensated for the time they spent, the reader's life is improved through your work, and--most importantly--you get the indescribable joy of knowing that you made someone's day/week/job/even life a little brighter. And if you follow this formula, they'll tell you! Once again, let this be my huge thank-you to all our readers who take the time to write and tell us how they feel about the book (good and bad, although -- gotta tell you -- we prefer the good ; )) or that they passed the exam, got a new job, or even just that they found themselves smiling while reading about a technical topic, and how they were delighted and surprised by that. YOU are why we do this, and having the books be bestsellers means we get to continue. Wow, I couldn't possibly enjoy my work more!

(And thanks to O'Reilly for sharing this attitude and making this possible.)

Posted by Kathy on February 25, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Too Many Words

A picture really is worth a thousand words, especially when you're trying to get information or knowledge to go from your head into someone else's. You can talk all day, but that sketch on the back of the napkin can suddenly make it all clear. When you're communicating, you have a thought bubble over your head with a representation of what you're trying to convey, and the listener/receiver has a thought bubble over his head with a representation of what he thinks about what you're saying. The big question is, do they match?

If you use only words, there's a way better chance that the picture over the listener's head won't match. And sometimes even the subtlest difference is a deal-killer. But it's not just accuracy you get from using pictures... you get speed. This picture from our servlets book, for example, did in a two-page spread what would have taken me many pages and several thousand words to explain with the same depth of understanding. Pagesample

Pictures save time.

And here's a third benefit: the brain likes them, so you have a better chance of getting past the brain's crap filter using pictures than words alone.

For learning, there's a ton of research that supports using visuals. In one set of ten studies, people who learned from graphics and words together produced between 55 percent to 121 percent more correct solutions to transfer problems than people who learned from words alone (Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer).

And I've talked before about how the effectiveness of words goes down as your audience gets younger, and/or has a brain raised in an increasingly visually rich environment. Remember, while those over 45 will generally say that pictures are used simply to support a text (but the text is primary), most twenty-somethings say that they'd be just as happy (or happier) if the text were there only when required to support the pictures. The pictures rule.

If you're like me--a communicator/teacher/blogger who isn't necessarily a writer, make sure you spend more time figuring out how to incorporate visuals. Use a graphics program, or use a digital camera and a whiteboard to just put in drawings like this one (a mind-map we made while talking to book authors about how to choose what should go in a chapter):Whiteboard

Consider this exercise we give our authors: before you write something, ask yourself "What could I do in a visual form (photo, illustration, cartoon, whatever) that would make this point?" and see if you can do it. If you don't know a graphics program, start learning. It's the 21st century, and I believe that skill with visual/graphic tools (you don't have to be a designer!) should be right up there with typing and writing. Just something everyone knows how to do. (Virtually all kids in US schools are getting some training in some form of computer graphics.) Not everyone who writes on a blog is expected to be Hemmingway, and not everyone who creates pictures is expected to be Picasso. Keep thinking back of the napkin sketch. If you're not used to thinking in pictures, it might take a little practice, but before long, you'll wonder how you got along with only words. : )

Posted by Kathy on February 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Point of view matters


My previous post on the power of One was from the perspective of the individual on a team. But then Eric Titcombe made a great comment that could reflect the manager's point of view. And that reminded me of how the POV of people in different job roles and departments can be so different. Marketing (and/or sales) folks have a point when they say that without them, the best product in the world won't have enough customers (although that picture is changing). The engineers have a point that without them, the marketers have...nothing. Who is right? Does it matter?

I developed a game for Virgin Sound & Vision (a part of Virgin which had still been owned by Richard Branson and was focused on younger games), called Terratopia, that had 300 people working on it in one form or another. And exactly one programmer... me. I thought I was the center of the world for that game. I mean, come on, without the programmer, there WAS no game. But then when the credits were created (and rolled to look like movie credits), I came in around number 12. I didn't really care, but it still shocked me that I, center of the world, wasn't #1. But of course the producer assumed that HE was the center of that product, and the art director thought HE was, and the story's creator thought SHE was, and the lead designer, and I think even the sound designer/composer thought he ought to be above the coder.

So it was all a matter of perspective.

But what I think is far more important than recognizing that each part of the world in which the product or service exists has a different POV, is finding a way to make sure these different people talk to one another. I couldn't believe how few cross-departmental meetings we had when I was at Sun. Here I am complaining about people not ever talking to an external customer, when an even deeper issue is that so many people never talk to anyone outside their own department. And that's just crazy.

A couple of months ago I was at the Sun campus working on the new version of the Java programmer certification exam, when I bumped into the marketing guy to whom that exam belonged. He asked what I was doing there, and I told him how we were working on the new exam, and how cool it was. He looked at me strangely and said, "but there's really nothing new there, right? It's just yet another version of the same old exam." So I looked at him strangely and said, "Are you KIDDING me? This is a profoundly different exam in so many ways, and..." off I went, detailing all the reasons why I thought there was indeed a Big New Story here. I invited him down to the meeting room where he could meet the entire exam development team and interview us while we were right in the midst of it. He was seriously surprised, but in the end... delighted.

Whether the right people from other departments know about the exciting things you're working on should not depend on whether a contractor crashes into them accidentally in the cafeteria.

If you're producing a product, and you're the engineer, for frick's sake find a way to make sure the marketing and sales people hear how exciting it is. Don't wait for official department channels, just tell them. If YOU show how excited you are, chances are you'll infect them and god knows, the marketing folks could probably use a little passionate enthusiasm from the ones who deliver the goods.

And vice-versa. If you're in marketing, why aren't you really spending time talking to the ones who do the work? If I ruled the world and were a manager, I'd absolutely insist on getting these groups to meet face-to-face (or at least on web-cam) on a regular basis, not just at the annual company picnic.

And if both sides spent more time learning what the other folks really did, they might use that new knowledge and appreciation in key ways. One of the worst things that can happen to an engineering team, for example, is when marketing suddenly schedules a "press opportunity", which means... an impressive demo. I was once given two weeks to come up with a version of a game (All Dogs Go To Heaven, for MGM) that was going into a box of Cheerios. [perky voice]"You can't miss on this one, Kathy,--this is the first CD-ROM to ever go into a box of cereal. But we just KNOW you can do it" : ) [/perky voice]
I was horrified, yet not surprised, that marketing had yet again promised something that would kill me to deliver. And I couldn't help thinking that if these folks really knew what we did and how software development worked (especially on games), they wouldn't just sign us up for stuff with abandon. On the other hand, at that time I had zero appreciation for what their job or life was like in marketing, so I considered them just a big fat annoyance. People whose sole responsibility was to mess up our schedules and way over-promise the press and clients.

(Footnote: it turned out that I got four weeks instead of two, because just before they shipped it, someone realized that the protective sleeve around the CD-ROM might actually be harmful to the cereal. So I very nearly became the girl responsible for delivering the game that killed kids. )

So, what are you doing to see things from the POV of the other folks involved with your product or service? If you're a manager, what are you doing to encourage the conversation within the company?

Posted by Kathy on February 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The power of One


If you asked the head of a company like, oh I don't know... Sun for example, which employee he'd prefer: the perfect team player who doesn't rock the boat or the one who is brave enough to stand up and fight for something rather than accept the watered-down group think that maintains the status quo (or makes things worse), which would he choose?

In his book Re-imagine", Tom Peters says, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

I'm guessing there aren't many CEOs who'd publicly disagree with Tom on that.

So yes, I'm thinking Mr. CEO of Very Large Company would say that their company should take the upstart whatever-it-takes person over the ever-compromising team player. "If that person shakes us up, gets us to rethink, creates a little tension, well that's a Good Thing", the CEO says. riiiiiiiiiight. While I believe most CEOs do think this way, wow, that attitude reverses itself quite dramatically the futher you reach down the org chart.

There's a canyon-sized gap between what company heads say they want (brave, bold, innovative) and what their own middle management seems to prefer (yes-men, worker bees, team players). Oh, you won't actually hear any manager say that... but you see it over and over again in their choices. When the tech downturn hit, wouldn't you know it... the less-than-team-player folks were the first to go in layoffs. Yet, these were probably the folks the company most needed when it became painfully clear that business as usual was failing horribly.

Just one of the many problems with the whole team player thing is that you (the one accused of NOT being one) have almost no defense against it. In the business world (except at the top or in certain industries), team players are thought to be filled with inherent goodness. Those who challenge the status quo against the team are viewed as hurting the culture and productivity of the team. Mavericks, they call us. Cowboys. Lone wolfs. Trouble makers. That's not completely untrue. Teams where everyone is completely in sync with little disagreement are more productive.

But the question is... productive at what? Because team think usually promotes doing things exactly the way they've always done them. Not exactly a recipe for being totally f'in amazing.

Team thinking leads to incremental improvements, and prevents revolutionary ideas.

Revolutionary thoughts are, by definition, thinking outside the team.

Purple Cows just don't usually come from teams working together to reach a solution. Purple Cows come from the wild-ass idea one guy had in the shower. That doesn't mean he can't be part of a team, but the more unusual an idea is, the more resistance it will get from a group, and that's often enough to suck the life out of an idea. Or it goes from being a purple cow to one that's merely a slightly darker shade of brown.

I'm not dissing teams--our books are all collaborative efforts, and far better because of it. And we consider ourselves to be on a team that includes our publisher O'Reilly. It's not teams that are the problem, it's the rabid insistence on teamwork. Group think. Committee decisions.

Most truly remarkable ideas did not come from teamwork. Most truly brave decisions were not made through teamwork. The team's role should be to act as a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. People with their own unique voice, ideas, thoughts, perspectives. A team should be there to encourage one another to pursue the wild ass ideas, not get in lock step to keep everything cheery and pleasant.

I simply don't buy into the "none of us is as good as all of us" as fact. While it's often true, it's just as often not. There are times when you can and should step back and say, "Not only am I as good as all of us, I'm actually better at this particular thing, because the entire team is headed in the wrong direction, and there's too much inertia to get the whole damn team to turn around at the same time." Obviously a manager doesn't want total anarchy and chaos from each individual thinking their idea rules and everybody else is an idiot, but somewhere there's a balance, and the heavy emphasis on teamwork/teamplayer-ness is tipped way too far in the non-individual direction.

I consider "There's no 'I' in Team" to be terribly depressing. It sounds, in fact, just like what the Borg said on Star Trek. There is most definitely an "I" in any team I'm on. I have value in, and out, of a team. I will not surrender my passion in order to be a team player. And any team who doesn't value that isn't a team I want to be part of. I do believe that a team can change the world, but it's still a team of individuals supporting each other in being brave, strong, innovative, and passionate.

There is an "I" in PASSION.

Posted by Kathy on February 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Creating passionate fans


Musicians know a lot about making and keeping fans. Last night the four Headrush bloggers (me, Eric, Beth, and Bert) went to a sold-out Finn brothers concert at the Boulder Theater, and two amazing things happened:

First, the show was nearly cancelled because Neil had a severe case of the flu. He was in the hospital in San Francisco the day before. But they pumped him full of drugs (and apparently a single-malt scotch) and he somehow managed to get there, arriving minutes before the show was to start. I hadn't even been a Finn fan prior to the show (Eric and Beth talked us into it), but I have a really soft spot for those who leave a hospital rather than disappoint the customers/fans. : )

But something more important went on throughout the night...

They played the songs they've been playing for twenty years as soulfully and passionately as though it was their first time. As though we were their first and most important audience.

Think about how damn many times over the years they must have played Neil's biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over". Thousands. But it was achingly beautiful last night despite what might have been, like, the 3,042nd time they've played it live.

But I'll come back to that in a minute.

It got me thinking about how good some artists and bands are at loving their fans. Or at least getting their fans to love them. I've seen Coldplay three times in the last couple years, in three different venues. (I love live shows). Each time was amazing, and Chris Martin was always inspiring. But the last time was incredible--it was at one of the most magical concert spots in the country, Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Red Rocks is outside, and the concerts are held during the summer when it should be warm and gorgeous. But not this night. It was pouring rain, from start-to-end, and near freezing.

But the fans stuck it out, shivering and huddling under plastic tarps, blankets, and trash bags and everyone was drenched. Chris Martin kept mentioning how grateful he was that everyone was there putting up with this. He even apologized for the weather!? But at the end, when he should have been as anxious as anyone to just get the hell out of there, he said he was going to do something they never do... an extra encore. He told us that he felt so bad about what we'd been going through that he wanted to do something special for us, so they came back out again after their last encore, and then did something they'd never planned on... and started playing.

We felt like we were the most special audience they'd ever played for. Here we all were, completely miserable, and still thinking we were lucky to have been part of that show, and that we experienced something nobody else would.

Skyler is a fan of the UK indie band Travis. They don't tour the US much, so it was a big deal when they came to town when she was 14. We got there hours before the doors opened to get a good spot, and before lining up we went around the back of the building, and there stood the band's frontman/lead singer Fran Healy. What happened next was astonishing (keep in mind that while Travis is mostly unknown in the US, they're HUGE in the UK. This is not your local bar band):

Fran: "Hello there, I'm Fran." (as if she might not actually know that!)
Skyler: "Hi, I'm Skyler".
Fran: "Hey, you're from the message board!"
Skyler: (stunned) "Yes! Wow!"
Fran: "It's great to meet you in person Skyler. Is this where you live?"

(On it goes, with two of the other three band members coming out of the bus to say hi.)

Think about that... it means the band actually reads their message board posts, enough to have recognized Skyler as a frequent poster.

So you probably all have a ton of stories about a band or artist that really made you feel like they cared deeply about their fans, but I wanted to come back to that part about singing a song as though it were the first time. I've thought about how many times I've taken classes from teachers who you knew had been teaching this class forever. You knew because it showed. They were barely present. You might know it as the "phoning it in" effect. You've almost certainly been there.

So that's the question... how do you keep your work feeling inspired and passionate? Fresh? If you're a manager, what can you do to help your employees stop sliding into the phoning-it-in stage? Obviously putting them under constant stress isn't the right idea, but what about making sure they have chances to have variety in their work, or at least occasional chances to work on a different kind of project or role, at least temporarily, to step back and look at their work differently.

How can you keep your own work from suffering from phone-it-in? What can you do so that when you sing to that audience after twenty years, you leave them feeling as though this was your debut night, and they were the most special audience you'll ever play to?

Posted by Kathy on February 17, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

What Users Really Want


The quote in the picture is slightly paraphrased from a brilliant rant by jwz (owner of DNA Lounge). The original (but you have to read the whole thing for context ; ):

"So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?"

The piece centers on designing (and spinning) products for what the user wants, rather than... oh, never mind. I'll just put in another quote because I can't say it as well:

"If you want to do something that's going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy."

(Thanks to Jed Cousin and Nathan Torkington for the link!)

Posted by Kathy on February 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The User's Journey


Lord of the Rings. Starwars. NeverWhere.

A beer commercial. Linux. College.

Viagra ads. Learning Java. Starting a business.

What do they all have in common?

Things are normal. Things become challenging. Thanks to the help of friends and perhaps a mentor/wizard, you're able to overcome the challenges. You return to the new and improved normal. A hero.

What would happen if developers/marketers/teachers tried to help users experience a kind of a hero's journey, and offered a way to help them through each stage? Unfortunately, too many products or services don't give the user a chance to get past the initial crises ("Help! I can't make your product work!"), and the user never ends up... a hero. They end up failing. Quitting. The "I Suck" experience instead of "I Rule!" And since users are increasingly less likely to take all the blame, your company or product is Sauron. Sure, the user was defeated... but only because Your Company Is Evil. As a developer of learning experiences, I desperately don't want to be the enemy. (I always fancied the trickster role though...)

The opposite (and sometimes just as bad) experience is where your product or service offers nothing interesting or challenging, or it doesn't try to at least inspire the user to do something interesting or challenging with it. No Challenge = No Hero.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Hero's Journey is that the hero comes out the other side better than he was before. (Or as Michael puts it... bigger.) Are you supplying a reasonable challenge, and then offering a way to move through the stages of that challenge and ultimately come out changed for the better?

Obviously not all products and services are--or need to be--particularly inspiring and challenging. I'm thinking toilet paper doesn't need to, um, take me on a journey. But... that doesn't mean there isn't a way for a company with an utterly (and ideally) unchallenging product to be associated with something meaningful. Something that upgrades the lives of their users.

The user's journey doesn't have to be about the product. It can be about something related to the ingredients in the product, or the design, or the company, or the employees, or causes supported by the company or...

If your product or service is daunting for users, or what they do with the product or service is challenging, you can welcome that as a great opportunity to give users the "I Rule!" experience. It means you'll have a much easier time taking them on a little hero's journey. If your product or service (or what users might do with it) is not challenging, then you can still ask, "What can I do to inspire our users to take on a new challenge?", and then somehow craft a challenge (suggestion: teaching your users something cool and rewarding is often an easy answer).

So, what are you doing to help your users on a hero's journey? What can you do to associate what you do/make/sell/write/build with a hero's journey? What can you do to help your user through the "I Suck" phase and into the "I Rule!" phase?

Posted by Kathy on February 15, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack