Sometimes I wonder what I should be when I grow up. I didn’t end up where I am because I wanted to. That was never the plan.
But to be honest, there never was a plan.
I am, by all accounts, a grown-ass adult. I’m 40. I have three cats, two kids, and one ex-husband. I’ve worked in the tech industry for over 13 years. I settled into my career as a software project manager pretty early on, a job that didn’t fit perfectly, but was good enough.
At times I flourished. At other times, it was as uncomfortable as a borrowed pair of shoes.
No matter what you call the job, people in project, product, or engagement management roles fall into one of two camps.
There are the ones who enjoy the analysis. These are the guys with the amazingly detailed, multi-tabbed spreadsheets. These are whom I call “The Beancounters.”
The world needs Beancounters. The beans must be counted, for you need to know how many beans you have left. It’s helpful, too, to predict how many beans you’ll use on a weekly basis until the bean bucket’s kicked.
Some of my best friends are Beancounters.
I, however, am not.
I’m the other kind. In my mind, The Other Kind doesn’t have a name beyond that. In reality, the term “proxy product owner” is far too formal, but “experience manager” has the right level of raw emotion.
Experience managers use every ounce of energy and inspiration, drawn from books they read as a kid and stuff they saw on Twitter and the silent nods they observed in the last meeting and that conversation they just had in the hallway.
They bring this to every client interaction, email, idea, and strategic roadmap. We draw connections. We own problems. We care, and we care deeply. For the most part, we are ourselves.
Spreadsheets are good when needed. I believe in MVS, or Minimum Viable Spreadsheeting. I believe in owning things. Policies and procedures should never trump people and practicality. It’s just common sense, and it’s my mantra.
Put simply, I’m me. WYSIWYG. And removing the “me” from my job, the part that brings excitement and passion and ideas and zeal, is completely impossible.
So when someone demands I do this, I lose my shit.
I don’t lose my shit in the classic way. I don’t throw tantrums; I don’t withdraw. I do, though, internalize it. I question what I’m doing. I question my skills. I assume I’ll never find a job in the tech industry ever again, not that I could update my resume anyway, as who would want someone who doesn’t have any tangible skills? I’m just an English major after all. I don’t have a CS degree; I don’t give a fuck about having a PMP. I can count beans, sure. Anyone can.
I can, but I’ll hate every minute of it.
When this happens, I start making other plans. It happened earlier this year, and I had intense fantasies about leaving technology completely. I needed a job where I could show my passion, feel the adrenaline of good ideas put into practice, and help people. Two possible paths emerged.
Both my mom and sister are educators. For a long time, I was convinced I’d missed my calling. I didn’t pursue it in college for several reasons. I didn’t really click with the Education majors around me. I also was very content with my Art minor, and got to spend hours in the darkroom swishing chemicals and even more hours at the kick wheel, throwing pots. I loved my dirty art student hands, stained for weeks. I also loved my intimate English classes.
I looked into going back for a teaching degree. The prospects were grim, and the courses looked costly. I knew I’d kick ass, but couldn’t make the jump.
The other option made more sense. I’d worked with oncology nurses for 12 years. I was a curious scientist in high school; I’d been inspired by amazing midwives during my pregnancies. I’d worked at the local community college back in the day, and I knew that their nursing program would get me a jump start on being an RN on the cheap. There’s been a nursing shortage for years. Pittsburgh has hospitals aplenty. I could enroll in the spring.
And then my tech job got good again.
I realize that those reading this may chalk me up as yet another swinger. Our industry is full of them. We love it, WE FUCKING HATE IT. We’re gonna change the world, WE’RE GONNA BURN THIS SHIT DOWN. Swingers are the “I’m moving to Canada!” of tech workers. Yeah, none of us want Trump to be president. But if he gets the gig, four years later, he’ll lose it, and things will change.
No job is awesome all of the time. But no job should suck all of the time, either.
My pressure to be a Beancounter had been miraculously lifted. It was a combination of staff changes, methodology changes, and overall common sense being applied.
The sense of relief was nothing short of physical.
A few weeks ago I was in Colorado. Go ahead, make the weed jokes.
I was there to celebrate my best friend’s 40th birthday. She’s an event planner in a small mountain town, located literally at the end of the road. Mt. Crested Butte is the peak opposite Aspen, and it’s opposite in every way, from the townies to the snow birds. Yeah, there’s weed everywhere. It’s fucking Colorado. There’s been weed everywhere for years.
(I did have to laugh, though: Crested Butte has no pharmacies. I was sick as hell with a head cold during my stay, and the only place you could get Aleve Cold and Sinus was 30 miles away, in Gunnison. They do have at least three dispensaries, though.)
We flew in for the party, joined by another dear childhood friend, who is a nurse in South Carolina. The birthday party was off the chain (events in Crested Butte are not cheap, and my friend has some sweet-ass connections).
We partied like no one was documenting the whole thing on Facebook.
My nurse friend, Sheri, is amazing. We weren’t that close as kids — we had the same best friend, but were rarely together just the two of us — but as adults, we’ve grown closer. I call her my “Sheri-lama,” for her advice and measured confidence have a calming, peaceful effect on me.
The night before the party, we got to talking about jobs. Fresh off my I SHALL NOW BE A NURSE plan, I asked her how things were going. She works in a pediatric intensive care unit, or PICU, at a large hospital in the Charleston area.
“It’s good,” she said. “I’m making a difference. And I have to tell you about this tool I developed.”
My ears pricked up. After years at ONS, I knew that nurses don’t use the term “tool” lightly. Tools, in the nursing world, are processes or procedures used to place some semblance of formality on the chaotic, often tragic world they live in. They’re used as a way to support evidence-based practice, or EBP.
EBP, in non-medical terms (I was a “layperson” while I worked in healthcare) is a methodology that supports reinforcing practices that work because the evidence, or collected data, supports it. Instead of doing something because “that’s they way they’ve always done it,” good institutions seek to employ EBP.
(A good example is recommending exercise to patients undergoing chemo. The evidence says that people on chemo who exercise have a better outlook, increased quality of life, and better chance of survival. Twenty years ago, this was rarely recommended — why would they tell someone to take a daily walk when they can barely stand up without puking? Thanks to EBP, nurses and other primary caregivers now recommend exercise as part of a patient’s care plan. It’s saving lives.)
“Well,” she said, “I was involved in a sentinel event. It was in no way my fault, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was called to testify. I wanted to talk about it, but was told I couldn’t. They offered to ‘arrange a conversation’ [read: instituted psychiatry], but that wouldn’t be enough.”
At this point, I was curious to the point of shaking. October in CO is pretty chilly, though.
A sentinel event, I learned, is an unexpected, and preventable, death or serious injury (either physical or psychological) that is unrelated to a patient’s primary condition. For many reasons, the medical community discourages making “sentinel events” synonymous with “mistakes,” but patients’ families obviously feel otherwise. Every year, thousands of nurses and doctors are called to testify in wrongful death lawsuits because, well, it just shouldn’t have happened.
“Every time I go to work, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I send one child to the morgue, then wait for the next one to come in. One time, the patient I got was dead before they got to me. I knew it, but someone else didn’t. It was horrible. So I developed a tool to help us through situations like this.”
My friend developed a process. She developed a tool for anyone on her unit to use. When a traumatic event occurs, be it an unexpected death after a bloody gunshot wound, or the decision to withdraw life support from a 6-year-old child with leukemia who has been on their floor for months, anyone, no matter their rank or title, can ask for a debrief meeting.
During this meeting, they discuss what they did well. They next discuss what went wrong. They talk about how they can improve. They document all of this, and a report is sent out so that others can learn.
They talk about roles; what works, and what doesn’t.
“It happens so fast — someone has to be the leader, calling out meds. We also need a recorder, who tells us how many minutes pass between doses and takes notes for the chart. The rest are the ones who do the work.”
The roles are self-assigned, with staff naturally falling into one or the other. “They’re usually the same, but I’m better at giving compressions to an infant than an 18-year-old, so I don’t always give compressions. It depends on the situation.”
Her tool has changed the way this nursing staff operates. Examples of improvements including pre-assembling goggles (they come from the supplier with the lenses detached; putting a pair together while a patient is bleeding out in front of you is difficult) and ensuring that their “code cart” is unlocked (before it had a special code; putting in this code slowed things down, as remembering the code, and punching in numbers with a gloved hand while a mother screams in pain for her dying child, is also quite difficult).
The conversations about these events occur as soon as possible afterwards, while it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.
I listened in amazement. My mind spun with parallels.
“I need to ask you something,” I’d said. “Have you ever heard the words agile, or sprint retrospective? You know, in the context of software or product development? Because what you just described is exactly that.”
She hadn’t. Of course she hadn’t. And I felt like a giant nerd for asking. What she was doing was just the right thing to do. It was applying common sense. It was introducing a formalized process for reflection in an otherwise fast-paced, very chaotic, ever-changing environment.
We had a kick-ass weekend.
When I spoke with her afterwards in anticipation of writing this, we talked about agile a little more. She laughed. “That’s awesome. But how did you see the connection?”
“That’s just what I do,” I said. “I draw connections. It’s my job.”
And you know what? I love it.
Technical Debt: More than Just Code
Wow, I’d thought, walking away from the first meeting. They really need some help.
Their situation didn’t surprise me. It’s a story most of us have heard time and time again: A business adopts a technology, the system is poorly implemented in one way or customized in several, power struggles over ownership complicate communication, and the company limps along with these injuries for years.
Where did it all start, and how did it get so bad?
We want a website! When do we want it? Now!
I figure it was around the mid-to-late 90s when Boards of Directors everywhere were forced to stop ignoring that “Company Internet Page” agenda item and finally take action.
So they registered a domain name, sent somebody from the public relations team to Microsoft FrontPage training, and put up a one-pager with the company logo at the top, a horizontal rule, and a bunch of Times New Roman after that.
Many of these companies eventually adopted primitive content management systems, but several failed to use them to their full capacity, and in most cases, not even correctly. At one of my first jobs, the company had a CMS, but couldn’t “M” the “C” in it very well because every page was just one giant-ass text field filled with HTML tags and inline styles.
The system was used by the publishing team, maintained by the IT team, and abused by everyone. (No one had had proper training, either.) I was eventually tasked with working in it, and my favorite atrocity was — on the homepage — finding the text “nbsp,” surrounded by white font tags, repeated several times over to create some white space between two article blurbs.
Eventually the company dumped that CMS and got another one, but things didn’t improve.
It’s Mine. No, it’s MINE.
Things did start to mature, though, and around the “let’s have a fixed-width site with really tiny Arial font” wave of 2003, places were starting to train their developers in classic ASP and put out some simple data-driven programs for the web. The majority of these devs had only worked on grey desktop applications for internal processes — a timesheet app, or maybe one that made minor edits in the company’s customer database — and the battle for website ownership began.
At the place where I worked, the publishing team — the writers, and in our case, the folks with design skills — were suddenly told to “sit back and shut up” while the IT team selected (with very little concern for the actual needs of the other team), implemented (with seemingly no care for workflow), and controlled the content that went on the web.
Want something on the website? Send it to the IT team. They’ll decide what gets published.
Find a bug? Get in line, sister.
Need something on the website, like now, because it’s actually serious, not simply something I forgot, not “just-me” important, but “it affects our whole company” important. Well, maybe if you planned ahead more, like we do here in IT, this wouldn’t happen.
I once overheard two IT guys discussing the “absurd” request they’d gotten from marketing to kindly please have the ability to publish their own content. “Are they serious?” one had remarked. “I mean, they could just go and write ‘Fuck you’ on the homepage.”
I was an “IT guy” myself at the time, and knew the marketing team would save their “Fuck yous” for something else.
PDFs for Everyone!
Despite the IT team’s focus on control and ability to click the “publish” button, and despite the marketing team’s focus on creation of content, no one seemed to really worry about the quality or quantity of the content.
Pages were created at break-neck pace. Everything, everything, everything the company published on paper — from journals to newsletters to flyers — was put out on the website. Microsites were created for every event, no matter how small. Vanity URLs appeared on stickers and buttons and magnets. Redirects to redirects were the norm.
The site had a tertiary nav that grew to a quaternary nav that grew to a quinary nav that usually had only one page under it. The site exploded with PDFs. Can’t find where it should go? Make it a PDF. No time to create a page in that beast CMS? PDF it is.
I once asked who the site’s audience was. The answer? “The world!”
Rise of the Homegrown
As customers started to expect more and more functionality beyond static pages, companies were faced with a new problem: Finding an off-the-shelf program that did what they needed or writing one internally from scratch.
Although many made noble attempts not to “reinvent the wheel,” their company’s need most often proved to be a very special snowflake for which no out-of-the-box system could suffice.
Enter the homegrown system.
Homegrown systems, many developed as long as a decade ago, still live on in companies today. These legacy systems often took years to develop, were QA’d by the same guy who wrote them, and are referred to internally by the developer’s name. (“I dunno, that’s Bob’s app. If you have a question, you just send him an email.”)
Oftentimes, “Bob’s app” has become so intertwined with a company’s processes that the idea of replacing it, even with a widely adopted and community-vetted OOTB program that does nearly the same thing, seems impossibly daunting.
Highly customized systems are no different. If a company did make the decision to purchase instead of writing a system internally, task number one was usually to customize it to account for the 10% or so of special functionality the company needed.
Instead of working to change the internal process to adapt to what would be different, many places customized the fuck out of these systems, year after year, making any chance of upgrade impossible.
Documentation? Not on my watch.
Bob, the guy who wrote that app? He’s a nice guy. In fact, he’s a super-nice guy. Bob will answer your questions and not be a dick. Bob might even take your idea for an improvement and do it!
Bob, man, he’s the guy.
But what Bob isn’t very good at, maybe because no one ever asked him to (but more likely because there wasn’t any time for it), is documenting whatever the fuck is going on in his app.
Bob doesn’t just not document his code — he’s the only one who works on it, so why bother? — he’s never written anything about what it does, how he changed it back in ‘09, or the third-party dependencies it has.
So when a company’s Bob leaves, as Bobs often do, they’re SOL.
Don’t Click That
Some places do have documentation, though. In fact, I once heard of a company that had an 80-page user guide. Problem was that the giant user guide was for their customer-facing eCommerce system.
If a new user wanted to transact on the system, they needed to fill out the online form, wait 3 days for a customer service rep to hand-key them into multiple disconnected databases, wait for a confirmation email, and then schedule a training session with the one person in the company who knew how to train users on the how to buy something.
The site was so complex, so tailored to the needs of the company’s internal systems, that a user off the street would be helpless if they tried to do anything. The idea of designing the system to work for the needs of its external audience was the farthest thing from their minds.
A New Hope
To borrow a phrase from a friend, and one I’ve heard repeated many times throughout my career, is that companies sometimes can’t get out of their own way. Their websites sprang up from a need to have a website, not necessarily as a way to actually meet their customers’ needs.
In everything from terminology to functionality, serving the internal needs of the business came first — and for some, it’s still that way. Thousands of companies — even those with household names — are paying developers and designers to stamp out the smoldering fires of the past, so much so that focusing on the future becomes lower and lower priority.
So many of the people working at these companies are tired. Tired of dealing with the bullshit, tired of the customer complaints, tired of the look their friends give them when they pull up the site on an iPhone. They’re convinced their company is the only one still operating this way. Their systems are full of technical debt — and emotional debt as well.
They know things have to change.
That’s where we come in. We’ve been down these roads before, and we know the way out. And as we look into the frustrated faces of the people seeking our help, we can nod, listen — and assure them that they’re not alone.
“Hey! Do you know the one about...?”
More often than not, these words uttered on the playground meant that I was about to learn a new, potentially lewd but always exciting, rhyme or song. The idea was thrilling.
“Miss Suzie” provided the excitement of almost saying “hell” without any guilt:
Miss Suzie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Suzie when to heaven
The steamboat went to —
The “Fart Song” was always a hit, with its fast clip and customizable lyrics:
Goin’ down the highway
(Insert name of friend) let a big one
And blew us out the door!
Taking bathroom humor to a new level, the “Diarrhea Song” was decidedly more graphic, yet we didn't have much past the first verse, as nothing really rhymed successfully with “second:”
When you’re sliding into first
And your pants begin to burst
Diarrhea (noise noise)
Diarrhea (noise noise)
And the epitome of the gross-out songs, “Gopher Guts,” usually surfaced around lunchtime as someone peeled open a sandwich bag, quieted only when the lunch duty teacher happened to pass by our seats:
Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Little birdy’s dirty feet…
Enough silliness, but the list goes on, and chances are, you have your own versions.
I've found the same thrill returns as an adult when I know I’m about to hear a new story from a co-worker or peer. The subject matter is decidedly different, but the idea of learning about something somewhat secretive—maybe insider info that'll make me better at what I do, or a story of failure that I can learn from —remains just as exciting.
As we move between clients, companies, projects, and teams, there's still a teeming subculture of stories and secrets that pass between us. We tell our tales to show that we’ve been there, we made it, and we’ve lived to pass it on, and if an element of shock helps us remember it and want to share it, so be it.
I won’t claim to be a scholar in the folklore of childhood, but I do know what these little chants and songs meant when we’d recite them. Once you knew the words, and could repeat them to someone else, you were in on something.
Keep telling the stories, keep sharing the ugly details. When necessary, whisper ‘em. But keep these stories moving between us —it’s the only way we’ll all learn and grow. Because we’re all singing the same song, really, if with slightly different lyrics.
We all hit bottom in our own separate ways.
For me, it came the morning I found a note that I’d written to myself the night before. I had a vague memory of writing it:
When you read this
you have to care
that the person
who is writing this
is not the person you want to be.
The previous day had been a re-run of so many others just like it over a period of several months. They all started the same way — with a pit of anxiety in my gut so severe that I had to control my breathing to avoid a puke — and progressed the same way — going through the motions, pretending to be interested in my kids and food and work and getting dressed — and ended the same way, drunk as all hell.
Repeat. And repeat again. And each day I told myself that the next day would be different, that tomorrow would be the day I’d “snap out” of this; ok, no tomorrow was going to be the day I’d feel joy again; no, well then surely tomorrow would be the day I’d remember what it felt like to have a clear head.
All those tomorrows came, and I didn’t.
It’s funny, those lies we tell ourselves. Like the shot of pleasure that comes at the moment of deciding to procrastinate, I found myself feeding off of them each day. That temporary jolt of relief, and the equally temporary buzz of pride that comes from thinking you’re going to keep that promise to yourself — that’s powerful stuff.
Why worry about something now when you can wake up at 4 am the next morning and get it done, right?
Why care what the lady at the liquor store thinks when you’ve made it this far and you’re obviously just fine, right?
Why sweat it when you said today was going to be the day you’d stop, and you couldn’t, but that’s ok, because you made it through yesterday, right?
I’m not sure where I found the strength to write that note, or what part of me came alive enough to do it, knowing it would matter.
It didn’t make sense at first, which honestly didn’t surprise me given the state I was in when I wrote it, but then it hit: you have to care.
The person who scrawled those lines knew there was a strong possibility that the person reading them might not care — that there was a strong chance I’d wake up, find it, and keep up destructive business as usual — and nothing would change.
I needed to tell myself to care — about myself.
I’d found the bottom. It was up to me to figure out what was next.
That day was sticky with storms, not unlike most summer days in Pittsburgh. I’d made it; shaking, but I’d made it. Near dusk the power went out, and my young daughter asked to go out for a walk in the drizzle. We suited up in boots and jackets to splash through the yard. We captured fireflies and found two frogs.
She won’t forget that day, and neither will I.
It was the day I bounced.
One of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature is in the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods. As Laura Ingalls Wilder paints the picture of her early family life, she describes the dolls that she and her sister Mary had.
“Mary was bigger than Laura, and she had a rag doll named Nettie. Laura had only a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief, but it was a good doll. It was named Susan. It wasn’t Susan’s fault that she was only a corncob.”
Susan, just the thought of Susan, struck me to the core as a child, and I often think about her now as an adult. Wilder manages to pack more humanity into a corncob, more motivation and reason for her existence, than some of us can muster for others, and sometimes, even for ourselves.
Because, you see, we've all been Susan. We're here, we matter; we're cherished and loved. We're making a difference in someone's life, project, daily work, or family. We'd like to think of ourselves as Nettie -- the fancier doll with yarn hair and the cloth dress -- but we can't always be.
Sometimes we have to be the corncob, wrapped in a handkerchief, because that's what's needed. And sometimes, that's all we can provide.
A few feet above my daughter’s bed hangs a mobile of our solar system.
It’s cheap, the kind thing you buy when trying to get out of a science museum gift shop for under $10. The planets are far from to scale: Saturn’s rings are emphasized to make it look more Saturn-y. There’s a moon the size of Earth included for balance. The sun hangs in the center surrounded by everything else on various lengths of white sewing thread.
The mobile’s been there for a few years but only recently caught my eye. I started watching it each night as she falls asleep and looking in on it when passing her room. By night it spins and twists; in an empty room by day, it hangs still.
I assumed it had something to do with the heat registers.
One night, as I lay next to my day-weary kid, my mind switching from work thought to work thought like a car radio on scan, I exhaled with a sigh. Sighs are common in these parts.
That big orange sun caught the breeze. Soon, Venus and Neptune were dancing. I let out a long steady breath, birthday-candle style, and the whole system was spinning, gently, pleasantly.
It hadn't occurred to me that we were the ones making it spin. When it hit me, I smiled.
And I felt silly and powerful and incredibly small, all at the same time.
“I did it, babe. I did a big wall.”
My boyfriend is a rock climber. He’s been honing his skills for years with trips to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, and earlier this week, he drove from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas to climb at Red Rocks.
Today he climbed the multi-pitch Solar Slab, “5.3 for some of it and then some long 5.6s” (in climbing terms, pretty damn hard for most of us earth-dwellers) and with a summit that required 11 rappels to get back to the ground. “I was so relaxed and focused, but the exposure was crazy. It was amazing.”
The idea of being up on an exposed wall of rock with my life in the grip of a few seemingly tiny cams and nuts scares the living shit out of me. I’m not totally freaked out by heights (not like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo or anything like that), but, let’s say, I’d greatly prefer not to experience that.
A few months ago, it struck me that his love of rock climbing was no different than my love of public speaking: Most people think it’s terrifying. I don’t.
There’s something to be said about loving something that most people are conditioned to fear. You don’t always know how to react to your pleasure in it. Is this normal? Do I really enjoy this, or am I pretending to? What happens if I’m suddenly terrified, like I’m supposed to be? Like people are expecting me to be?
For me, there’s no thrill in the I’ve-done-this, you-haven’t. There’s no thrill in doing something that makes people use the word “brave.”
For me, there’s a thrill in the focus and clarity and relaxation I feel when I’m up in front of people, the almost out-of-body experience I have when I know I’m doing something that feels so natural. I’m acting instinctively, purposefully, and honestly.
We’ve gotten pretty good at understanding that we humans won’t all like the same things, but many of us are still stuck in thinking we should all fear the same things.
Climbing mountains and public speaking are two big ones, but there are more. Changing jobs. Speaking your mind. Taking chances. Trying new recipes. Playing live music. You name it.
Your big wall? It may surprise you. Ask around. A skill and thrill you love and take for granted might be someone else’s most-feared challenge.
I hope you find it, and I hope you love it. And when you know it’s right, I hope you climb every big wall you find.
We’ll be here on the ground, cheering you on.
My first design project was a carefully programmed 8-bit version of my favorite image:
The Def Leppard logo.
Complete with a Union Jack.
Surprisingly, “computer programs” weren’t new to me. My small West Virginia town supported one of the largest elementary schools in the state, and we’d had Apples in classrooms since the mid-eighties. When we weren’t burying our young along the Oregon Trail, we wrote in BASIC, simple 20 GOTO 10 programs that would spit out a screenful of the sentence of your choice.
Using graph paper and colored pencils, I carefully mapped out my masterpiece. While other kids plotted out boxy flowers and sad-looking animals, I was crafting a computerized rendering fit to immortalize the Rock of Ages.
I identified x, y coordinates and set a color for each cell — red, blue, white, black, yellow, and a few orange ones for highlights.
I then wrote a line of code for each one. Individually. All of ‘em.
Painstakingly. Over weeks.
And when I was done I had what kinda looked like what I saw in Metal Edge magazine.
I’d made choices. I selected colors, adjusted placement, and did math. Then, I wrote code to make it all happen on a screen.
Until then, the computer was more in control of what the output looked like — displaying, repeating.
This time, I was.
And that’s where it all started.
I’m a bassist. I’ve played for 16 years.
I bought my first bass on October 1 and played my first show on Halloween night, dressed as Roller Girl from Boogie Nights (sans skates for safety). My boyfriend’s band needed a bassist, and I signed up because I’d been in the school band, grew up with a piano teacher mom, and had some Pixies CDs.
Also, I thought, it’d be kinda easy.
I became a digital project manager in much the same way. I’d been a copy editor, moved into web editing, did some basic programming, and a job opened. I signed up. I got it.
Half the time, being a PM feels like playing the root notes. You need a meeting scheduled? Check. Agendas? I got ‘em. Budget reports? Sure, what format?
When you’re on a project when this is your role, that’s cool. But it can feel unimportant (how hard is Outlook with Scheduling Assistant, really?) and less than challenging. Like a song that needs a 1–4–5 walking bass line, I can do it; tell me the key, and I’ll play it. Hell, I’ll kind of love it.
Playing root notes can be pretty rock and roll — just throw on a Ramones record.
But for the longest time, I beat myself up for playing the root notes, on my bass and as a project manager. While I knew the song or the project wouldn’t be the same without me, and my mistakes would be pretty damn obvious, I knew I could do more. I’d just need the right band, the right project, and some practice.
A recent project presented the opportunity to do just that.
I work as a consultant now, after years of being on the client side of web development, and the transition wasn’t easy. One of my first projects didn’t work out when the client “wanted a PM, not a friend.” I didn’t want to stop my cheery hellos on conference calls, but the experience did set me back a bit. (Since then, I’ve found a better balance between friend and project manager. It’s some of both, but that’s for another thought.)
This challenging project was both root notes and complicated stretches. Moments of meeting coordination followed by days of hard conversations, strategic guidance, and calling in the forces for last-minute changes. Plus, we had a hard deadline with about 15 business days to execute some pretty serious development.
In the midst of it, I realized that I was the constant, even if I wasn’t the one signing the contracts or making All The Decisions. I was the person our client could reach out to at a moment’s notice, the one they “ran things by” if they wanted to escalate something above me, an ongoing presence, like the rumble of John Entwistle’s bass on “My Generation.” With some picking on the root notes, and doubling Pete’s guitar part of the time, John’s there, but Roger’s stuttering is what you listen to.
Until the bass solo.
My bass solo came just three days before our deadline, when, in the midst of final development, I needed to have a hard conversation about priorities. Our available devs were putting the final touches on a social sharing piece, but the content folks were turning up bugs in the CMS that needed our developers’ attention.
Knowing that the social component was key to the success of the project, I put it this way: “Sharing content on social media is important, but having clean, authorable content to talk about in the first place is even more important.”
And it was a breeze. It made perfect sense, and no one could argue about priorities, or debate how many cars we could fit in our one-car garage. And it was articulate and clear and I was doing my job as a project manager, steering things in the right direction.
Next time you’re playing the root notes, give “My Generation” a listen. You’re the guy thumping along, driving the song. They need you there. It’d be incomplete without you. And maybe you’ll need to play a solo at some point, a memorable solo, that could make all the difference.
And you can do it.
Why English Majors Are Good at the Internet
I became an English major not because I wanted to go into journalism or teaching or law. I became an English major because of what my 11th-grade English teacher wrote in thin red pen at the bottom of one of my essays:
“You write a mean sentence.”
I was one of the only students in my college classes who wasn’t a secondary ed double major, wasn’t pre-law, and wasn’t a minor in PR or journalism. I was just an English major, ready for where the wind would take me. It’s been 16 years since I graduated on that tree-lined quad, and for 12 of those years, I’ve been working in some way on the web. I didn’t start working on the web on purpose, though. I was a copy editor who humbly suggested that we turn some PDF newsletters into little emails, and I eventually found myself on a team of software developers, working as their translator on a battlefield of business requirements and tech-blabber. I served with valor, and wore my Bachelor of Arts in English like a badge of honor.
Here’s why I think everyone working on and hiring for the web would be better served to look for more English majors, and even seek them out, for jobs that demand “technical expertise” in today’s workplace.
We add a level of verisimilitude.
A dear co-worker of mine was once developing a presentation for some internal stakeholders that would explain, in simple terms, the new API we’d be building for an e-commerce project. His slides were beautiful (he’s a designer at heart with a computer science degree), and I made a friendly suggestion to replace the generic label “conference” with the official name of one of our company’s upcoming events. “You know, it’ll add verisimilitude.” I waited through the raised eyebrow. “It’ll make it seem more realistic.” I watched him rename it, then smiled to myself when our senior executives nodded in understanding during the presentation. That minor change helped make the database and business objects mean something to them, and it proved that our team of developers was in tune with the business and what they cared about. It was a total win.
We obsessively fact-check.
I’d be surprised to find any English majors out there who were not excited when Facebook added the “Edit Comment” feature, because I’ll be damned if a misquoted line from Moby-Dick were to live for eternity on their servers, never mind appear on someone’s timeline. I was surprised when I saw this clever college campus “motivational poster” on Imgur; surely the author had hoped his or her work would show up on Reddit before too long, but the misspelling of “Lebowski” ruins it. An English major never would have let that happen, and if you want consistency and clarity in the work your company produces for the web, find an English major to manage it.
We can work within constraints.
This goes beyond comparing the composition of a tweet to the composition of haiku. For years I had wanted to start a blog, yet could never think of good posts, only good post titles. I discovered that Twitter was the perfect outlet for these funny but never-to-be-fully-baked ideas, and I enjoyed finding a way to convey their meaning within its limits. And, even if our stints at the college newspaper were short, many of us know the pressure of finding just the right words to make a 60-character headline fit into 30. There’s an art to this kind of creativity; it’s like a puzzle. People who can do this know that in business or marketing or development, hard choices need to be made to work within the system, be it a field of varchar(40) or limited space for the “perfect” email subject line.
We use literary devices.
Good writing is good writing, whether it’s in Harper’s or a well-done but under-read blog. And a lot of us, subconsciously or not, enjoy things well-written because we’re familiar with the work of classic authors and poets and appreciate those who know how to turn a phrase. We English majors do this naturally; we seek the “click” at the end of a sentence, the moment when the words beat down to nothing and you can feel an idea close like the back cover of a book. We love alliteration and anthropomorphism and know that malapropisms make funny status updates. These are the people you want running your social media beat, because your users will connect with their writing, and if they get a funny cultural or literary reference in the meantime, they’ll feel like a special insider and will want to spend money on your stuff.
We like people, and we want to talk to them.
English majors are the ones who invent the party games where you watch a movie and take a drink whenever a character or situation indicates foreshadowing. We’re also the people who know what it’s like to move our desks in a circle and read something to the class that you couldn’t get through writing without crying. We want to talk. We want to share. We want to talk about sharing. We’re good at talking to clients because we want to listen and craft their stories into something meaningful. It’s like finding a box of photos and arranging them in an album as a gift, only to have the recipient say with heartfelt thanks, “Wow. I can use this now.” If you want true understanding of a user’s needs, hire an English major to have the conversation and retell the story of what they learned; this time, more beautifully.
My senior year of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I thought I might open a rubber-stamp store and spend my days by a creekside writing. I figured something would work out, and it did. Next time you’ve got an open position in your IS department, take a walk down to the water. You may find an English major there, wondering what’s going to happen next.