My changing relationship to a former employer

Or, a corporation becomes people in six acts:

Fed up with Job A and planning to move away, I looked for work in the new locale. And I found something. Something a little disappointing in terms of scale and compensation, but it was in the right place, nice people, showed some potential, and in a smaller market with much less of a tech scene what could I expect in compensation, really? Okay, let’s do this.

My relationship to Job B: I am a slightly skeptical new employee – hopeful but a bit disappointed, ready to put a brave face on things and help wherever I can.

Job B wasn’t a great business. It was able to pay the bills and pay the people, but incoming employees were typically disappointed by the compensation offered. Longtime employees seemed to stop getting raises at some point. And overall the folks in charge were not much interested, it seemed, in improving the business: making more money, growing, returning more value to the employees. That or they were trying but stuck. Or something; it wasn’t happening and there wasn’t much talk of being interested in major change.

My relationship to Job B: I am a guerrilla improver of the business – looking for ways to push us into making a little more money, or delivering a little higher quality, or do a little better at developing people, hopeful but a bit disappointed, ready to put a brave face on things and help wherever I can.

Our arm of the business was an hourly business – we made money selling our time to others. And this, I thought (and still think) is somewhat backwards; in the short term, when one is engaged with a client, your incentives are to sell them as many hours as you can. Your incentives are misaligned with the client’s incentives. Getting better at your job so that you deliver quality more quickly actually depresses your earnings. And if margins are tight there’s scant room to work ON the business, to make it work better and maybe be able to raise your rates or attract better clients or move into higher-margin work or develop a product or something, as you are too busy working FOR the business. The incentive to improve is out there in the hazy future, requiring a leap of faith while faith is in short supply.

So while I fairly happily worked there for a year and a half or so, it became clear that Job B probably wasn’t going anywhere, and that my ideas about how to maybe make it go somewhere weren’t interesting to the people in charge, and the part of the business I was in (consulting) was going to continually wrestle for oxygen with the other arm of the business (product), which was also not seeming to go anywhere. It was time to look for Job C.

My relationship to Job B: I am steady Eddie but looking for the exit – no longer pressing wherever I could press, much more focused on supporting my people and making things as clean as possible so when the right thing came along nothing was destroyed. Still disappointed, but more philosophical about it.

And then Job C comes along. Not without its challenges, but exciting in the way a new job can be even when the challenges are apparent. Maybe I can make a dent in these! Job B folks are sad to see me go, but I’m mentally done with Job B, so, bye.

My relationship to Job B: I am a distant well-wisher, but without much faith that anything will change. I’m much more concerned about the welfare of individuals I respect and keep in some touch with, and not at all concerned about the fate of the business as a whole, the leadership, folks in the other division, or anyone I found annoying while I was there. I have my own troubles to chew on in Job C.

As I integrated into Job C I started to notice things I had learned at Job B that were useful: more about design systems, more about scrum-like alternatives to project management, much more about accessibility and about bending typical design processes to meet the needs of the moment. Much more tolerance for misguided people, odd opinions, difficulties with priorities and resources, and the strange sort of decisions that leadership sometimes backs into that don’t seem sensible lower down on the org chart. So amend the above:

My relationship to Job B: I am a distant well-wisher, but without much faith that anything will change. I’m much more concerned about the welfare of individuals I respect and keep in some touch with, and not at all concerned about the fate of the business as a whole, the leadership, folks in the other division, or anyone I found annoying while I was there. I have my own troubles to chew on in Job C. But I’m grateful to Job B for many of the things I got to experience while I was there, and draw useful lessons from these. I recognize that Job B made me better at Job C that I would have been.

Then comes the news, a surprise to the majority of employees, that Job B is being acquired. This means upheaval and uncertainty, and many of the folks taken by surprise are angry. Angry about disruption, the impeding scattering of Job B social groups, of promises broken, of the small lies that are necessary when an acquisition is in the works, of having to find a new path forward when some can little afford it. This leads me to post here empathy for the leader whose company is being acquired, though since that probably wouldn’t play well with most soon-to-be-former Job B folks they see (via LinkedIn) the more-pleasant-and-relevant-to-them empathy for the employee that arrives via acquisition. (I don’t chase LinkedIn engagement and rarely post there.)

An alumni Job B Slack team pops up. Lots of Job B folks are active. They are angry at Job B leadership, angry at the acquirer, angry at fate. And it’s apparent that the acquirer doesn’t really know what to do with most of them, or how to treat them well as disrupted potentially incoming employees. Suddenly Job B is no longer a company for me to be disappointed in but a cadre of wronged, searching, frightened people who are banding together to support each other. And support each other they do, admirably, referring each other to new positions and organizing social events and commiserating and cheering each other’s successes. And, graciously, congratulating those who manage to land positions at the acquiring company, even as others are driven away from it by lowball offers, poor managerial behavior, or other problems.

My relationship to Job B: I am part of the Job B mutual aid society, a helper, a friendly ear, and, now that Job B is no more, a potential employer to a few Job B folks (since we are no longer bound by an employee contact that prevents hiring folks away from Job B). I can help! I do help. I’m a bit of a lurker on Slack but I chip in with information and good wishes where I can, and job referrals to a few people. One interviews, gets an offer, and chooses a job elsewhere. One is on my team now and I’ve overjoyed by that. And now that Job B is not a commercial enterprise, its leadership and their choices are moot, so my feelings about my time there are unexpectedly much warmer than before. Job B is now just the people, nothing more. And I love many of those people.

Long live Job B and the kind, smart, and gracious people I met while there. It served me well, in hindsight.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 08 08

Three wins:

  • While a respected and very productive design contractor gave notice, she had a lot of nice things to say about the team, company, and my management of the team. I’m sorry to see her go, but I feel pretty good about what I’ve been doing.
  • I had a great workout on Tuesday, but that night thought maybe I had injured myself. I had pushed hard, and while I felt good right after the workout about ninety minutes later I had knee pain, enough to have difficulty sleeping. But whatever it was dissipated very quickly, and by Thursday I was ready and able to have another great workout. I’m cautious, but expecting that this weekend things will be even better. A happy side effect is that I regained a little bit more knee flexion range than I expected.
  • I managed to work some bonus content into my presentation about NPS results, relating complaints in NPS comments to a similar signal in support tickets. I also completed that presentation a little sooner than I had planned. I haven’t presented yet, but I’m optimistic. I feel good about what I’m about to do.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 08 01

Five(!) wins for this week. It pays to think about what good is happening:

  1. After buying some cheap running shoes ($70, about as cheap as they had that felt good) I went for a run again. I hated it, but only a little bit, mainly at first, and much less that I would have had I not been wearing proper shoes. I’m four runs in and can see this as a possible “thing I do.” Between lifting three times a week, walking sevenish times a week, and running threeish times a week I’m getting a fair amount of exercise now.
  2. My knee flexion has improved to the point that I can do a Turkish get-up on either side without cheating. That’s a nice improvement.
  3. One of my mentees has progressed from “how do I convince my boss to let me do what I want” to “how do I communicate about this issue so we can have a productive discussion,” which is a critical change. I’m proud of them!
  4. Upheaval in a product has given that product manager and one of the designers I support to do some real live user research, and they are so excited by what they are learning that it seems like to significantly help the product and strengthen informed collaboration on the team. I’m proud of them!
  5. There was disconcert in a different product team, and I’ve helped address it mostly by pushing the designer and product owner together, and encouraging the two of them to pull the tech lead in to their discussions. I’m not sure how that team became so disconnected, but it hurt, and we’re meeting with some success undoing that. Everyone involved has so far been able to set aside whatever ill will had emerged. I’m proud of them!

Never mind the distractions, these are nice results.

The trouble with NPS

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a popular and fashionable customer experience metric meant to express the loyalty of a company’s customers. It’s simple to administer, and since it’s in widespread use a company can compare their results to others fairly easily.

The method is fairly simple: once each year, disconnected from any specific sales or customer service interaction, ask each of your registered users on a scale of zero to ten how likely they are to recommend your brand or product to a friend or colleague. If you’re fancy you might also ask why they gave the number that they did.

The method of arriving at a score is also straightforward – subtract the percentage of respondents scoring six or below (detractors) from the percentage of respondents scoring nine or ten (promoters). You now have one number between 100 and –100. If that score is above zero you have more promoters than detractors. A higher NPS score is supposedly correlated with higher sales growth.

What’s not to love?

Like other interesting tools such as brainstorming or Agile, NPS is commonly misunderstood and its practice distorted. People enthusiastic about the idea of NPS press an NPS-like survey into service in all sorts of off-label ways, sowing confusion within their companies. The most common distortions are

  • “Once each year…” – It’s common to receive an NPS-like question about this or that more often than yearly, increasing the likelihood that the next distortion will take place.
  • “…disconnected from any specific sales or customer service interaction…” – It’s especially common to receive NPS-like questions during or immediately after customer service interaction, sales interactions, etc. These are not NPS, as they are heavily influenced by the quality of a specific interaction.
  • “…ask each of your registered users…” – If your users are not your customers, asking about user loyalty will garner different results than asking about customer loyalty.
  • “…on a scale of zero to ten…” – This part of the NPS method is rarely violated.
  • “…how likely they are to recommend your brand or product to a friend or colleague.” – This part of the NPS method is less commonly violated, but it does happen.

Any one of these deviations would make your NPS-like survey not NPS. And one of them, confusing users with customers in situations where the two are distinct, is likely to produce misleading results.

It sort of sounds like I’m defending NPS, here, much as I would Agile or brainstorming. But I’m not. The real difficulties with NPS, if you manage to avoid the common traps above, are these:

It’s not that you shouldn’t use NPS at all. Just be aware of what it is and what it is not. Listen carefully for the real question behind your organization’s wish to use NPS, and see if that question can be answered more directly.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 07 25

Three wins for this week:

  1. It was less tricky than I feared to come up with four reasonable UX-led programs for the Connect Conference this October. I’m feeling more optimistic about my (and our) responsibilities for this conference than before.
  2. The nutrition coach pointed out that I’m slightly underfeeding myself with occasional peaks to try to make up for it. Even with those peaks on average I’m a little below where I should be calorie-wise and well-below where I should be protein-wise. That explains why weight and energy have both been proceeding downward and workouts have been getting harder rather than easier. I now have targets that will help me make better choices.
  3. I went for my first run in years, and it wasn’t terrible. I went slow, paid attention to duration but not distance or pace, and tried to take it easy on my knee. I used the Nike Run Club app, since it’s free. I’ll do this a few more times before making a decision about schedule, shoes, etc.

It was a little trickier than I expected to find the wins this week.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 07 18

Three wins for this week:

  1. Never mind my thoughts about NPS, which I have not written up here but should (edit: See “The trouble with NPS“). Our company Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) is five. Five is not terrible as it’s above zero, but it’s not something to crow about either. That of my team is eighty. If you’re curious about eNPS, Qualtrics has an okay writeup. Our engagement scores reflect a similar difference, albeit a bit less grand.
  2. Workouts this week, while at the same weights and only slightly higher volume than last week, were unexpectedly much harder. I did ’em anyhow. This might have something to do with the third win; while I’ve been losing weight slowly, I’ve also been losing energy slowly.
  3. I started with a nutrition coach. I’m in the “write everything down and don’t change anything” phase, prior to recommendations. I’m not jazzed about taking progress photos, but I am excited about having a knowledgeable person help me steer my habits toward my goal of being above average.

Have a good weekend.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 07 11

Past Belkin colleague Ryan Peterson recently began posting his “weekly wins” on LinkedIn. My impression is that he did this in part to steel his resolve during is (successful!) job search, and in part to begin a practice of positive self-talk. As he put it,

I find it easy to be encouraging and optimistic when talking about others. In the past, however, I have struggled to talk to myself in the same positive way. 

Ryan Peterson, Weekly Wins #1

But recognizing my own wins doesn’t come easily. We use 15Five at work, and each week are asked “what went well last week?” This is the hardest part of my 15Five check in to fill in. Ryan points out,

What I’ve been struggling to overcome when identifying wins is to allow myself to accept a small win, such as getting lunch with my mom. Also just the practice of taking time to write them down is “forcing” me to be reflective. I’m optimistic that as I continue on this path it will become easier to identify my own wins, and I’ll be able to model this for my family at home, and in the workplace.

Ryan Peterson, Weekly Wins #7

Accepting a small win may also be a piece of my challenge.

I have already begin thanking others at work as a weekly practice, one I hope comes across as authentic; with this new practice I hope to foster an accurate feeling of regular accomplishment.

So! Three four wins for this week:

  1. I witnessed people on my team enthusiastically collaborating and demonstrating gratitude for each other, suggesting that my effort forming a cohesive team is working.
  2. I helped an embattled product time seize the crisis-opportunity created by the diversion of their engineering staff with a solid research plan and a method to capture what they will learn as they prepare for a new take on their product.
  3. I had a lovely meeting with someone in People Operations where I got a sneak peek into our culture survey results, lending credence to insights gained by looking at exit interview data.
  4. I used Local to transform my slow-as-something-really-slow blog into a speedy static site. I’m not shilling for Local, here; it just seemed like a quick way to make this change.

Same time next week?

A quick structure for piloting a change

A recent correspondent asked how to move his team from “thoughts and fears about plans” to action, and I suggestion making their next intervention a pilot. That way an intervention is an experiment, and can be evaluated, then continued, tweaked, or ended.

I counseled him to consider coaching folks to articulate

  • the problem we see
  • the result we want
  • what we’ll try, for how long
  • how we will know if it is working or not
  • how we will know if we should stop the pilot early

At the end of the pilot you can evaluate the results and decide to

  • continue as-is
  • continue with tweaks
  • try something else
  • stop altogether

with the same five points above for any change or new intervention.

Mathilda asks: Can you all share how you distinguish product designers from user experience designers?

Mathilda asks:

Can you all share how you distinguish product designers from user experience designers? I’ve been trying to determine the differentiation with other UX friends, but it still seems a bit foggy. Some have explained it to me as user experience designers focus on users and usability, and product designers focus on “everything”, i.e. the product and the business. Many of the user experience books and resources I read (Lean UX, Build Better Products, UX Strategy, NNgroup) though seem to frequently connect business outcomes with UX. I’ve also heard the difference explained as product designers having greater visual design specialization, but I’ve seen that in UX designer roles as well. Also, why not hire a visual designer in that situation?

Mathilda in Where are The Black Designers? Slack

It IS foggy, and as usual, I think the term “product designer” was coined to clarify but failed to do so (and introduced conflict with industrial designers among others). I think it mainly comes from poor mutual understanding of the term “UX” and what all a UX designer does or might do in different settings. This varies WIDELY by organization; in general, the larger the org the narrower the role of an individual contributor UX designer and the more the job(s) of working on a specific experience are distributed over multiple people. This narrowing of the role of a UX designer in large organizations has led to folks who do more than “Edward wifreframe-makin’-hands” to adopt the “Product Designer” term.

Here’s what I see as a rough breakdown:

  • Graphic: the visual design of things, especially print pieces, marketing collateral, informational websites
  • UI: the visual and microinteractive design of web applications, mobile applications, and desktop applications
  • UX: the interaction design of web applications, mobile applications, desktop applications, and occasionally embedded or physical interfaces, with an emphasis on arranging the larger requirements and workflows to meet business goals and user needs together, and the research required to do a good job of this (sometimes some of this UX role is split off into a separate Researcher role)
  • Product: UX + UI

But companies don’t necessarily follow this, and these terms mean different things to different people, and so it’s always useful to

  • when looking for a job
    • be open to multiple titles in your job search
    • look for clues in the job descriptions you are considering
    • explain your capabilities and aptitudes rather than trying to choose a title – use plain English
    • ask questions of your prospective employers about what they mean when they say they want a {whatever} designer and compare their answers to what you want to do (always a good idea anyhow)
  • when hiring
    • be thoughtful and consistent with the language you use in your organization
    • explain what you’re really looking for when you write a job description rather than relying on the title
    • eliminate needless qualifications and job requirements from the job description
    • write a job ad that describes daily and regular activities and how these contribute to org success
    • remember that a job description is not a job ad
  • when talking within your org
    • be thoughtful and consistent with the language you use in your organization
    • coach managers and leaders to be consistent in this same way, which will require explaining why
    • plan needed capacity and capabilities before settling on roles and titles

What would you recommend to someone who is interested in starting with coding/designing/managing, but doesn’t know exactly where to start?

How do I get experience doing a thing without a job doing the thing? By doing the thing anyway.

For design or coding there are two good places to start, and you probably should pursue both:

  1. How can adding a bit of design or coding enhance your current job? Are there repetitive tasks that might be automated, information that could be brought together into a dashboard, metrics or research that might inform your work or the work of your team, places where quality might be improved through greater understanding or thoughtfulness? You can offer to do things, or just start to do them. You can learn a lot by applying new skills to something you already know about.
  2. What parts of coding or design can you try with what you already have, on your own time? I got started in design because I found desktop publishing tools fun to play with in college, and used them to make greeting cards, tee shirts, and to enhance my classwork. Playing with the tools in ways that scratched my own itches taught me skills that I could later apply to my work.

In re point 2 above, my daughter mentioned to me that she might be interested in filmmaking. I told her, “you have a phone, start making some films!” Getting started can be that easy. Your work might not be won’t be very good at first. That’s fine. Keep going unless you find you don’t like the process. Competence will come later.

Starting in management is a little different, but again I see two straightforward paths and it might be worthwhile to pursue both:

  1. Offer to help/take ownership of small moments in your job where coordination is needed, process change is needed, or a problem needs to be sorted out. This will give you experience talking to others to learn about a situation, proposing possible approaches, marshaling the effort of others, and delivering a result. This is managing! Managing in small ways leads to success managing in small ways, which leads to larger opportunities. The reward for good work is more work.
  2. Volunteer with charitable or vocational organizations and offer to help in ways that are more like 1 above over time.