Switch it up

Usually task-switching is a bad thing, yeah? You want to get into the flow and dive deep into that work, look up and it’s three hours later and you’ve made something amazing.

But sometimes the flow just doesn’t happen. Sometimes the work you’re doing is frustrating and painful and you might as well quit the entire internet and go raise sheep. You’ve been banging your head against this problem for three hours and it’s just dumb. You’re just dumb. Computers are dumb.

So here’s something I learned from the decade where I was a jack-of-all-trades: switch it up. Set the problem down and do something as radically different as your job will allow. Rest the code-brain, the writing-brain, the design-brain, and go pick up some other sort of work.

That problem that’s driving you nuts will still be there, and most likely, when you’re done with that break, you’ll have a slightly different perspective.

And if all your work is the same, clean your desk, make some food, or go for a walk. Your brain will thank you for it.

You are not “The Guy”

I was about four years into a career in tech support at a major financial company. My job was to report technical issues affecting multiple clients; the maintenance developers fixed them. About once a month my boss and their boss and all of us sat down to discuss what had and hadn’t gotten fixed.

“This one’s been open for three weeks, and it’s not even assigned yet,” my boss pointed out.

“Oh, we can’t fix that one… that’s going to be out there a while,” came the response.

“Why?” my boss (who was nicknamed “the bulldog” for his inability to let go — a trait I learned too well) asked.

“Well, see… Sue[1]not her real name is the only one who knows how to work on that, and she just went out on Maternity leave. So that will have to wait until she gets back.”

If the manager on the other side of the phone had sounded the least bit repentant about having 30 developers in his shop and only 1 that could fix this module, things may have gone better for him. Instead:

“Oh my God we did it. We finally found ‘The Guy’,” my boss said.


“The one person the company cannot live without. There’s nine thousand people at the company, but this one can’t be replaced by anyone else, nobody else can do what she can do. So we’re all going to wait here and twiddle our thumbs until she returns in three months and then maybe, maybe, if she decides this is important, we’ll get a fix. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

Reader, the other manager was not kidding, but amazingly after looking at his decision from this angle, changed his mind and decided perhaps someone else could be trained to program this particular module while Sue was out.

You are not The Guy.

For values of companies where employees > 4, anyway, as I know nothing about micro startups, there’s a damn good chance that if you can’t do it, someone else can. If they can’t today, they will be able to tomorrow. If it’s important enough, someone else can and will step up. You are not The Guy.

There are two reasons you need to understand that you are not The Guy.

  1. Sometimes your manager will treat you like you are The Guy, and you deserve better.
  2. Sometimes you will treat yourself like you are The Guy, and you deserve better.

If your boss thinks you’re The Guy, you have a problem

When our managers treat us like we’re indispensable, a couple things happen:

  • We get big important projects on horrible deadlines all the time and never get a chance to rest.
  • We get praised and told how wonderful we are and how they couldn’t live without us in an effort to make sure that we go absolutely nowhere even if the working conditions are shit and the pay rate is not so great.
  • Sometimes we get offered “golden handcuffs” — money so good that we talk ourselves into horrible hours and horrible treatment and shit situations.

The trend to look for is the continual line of emotional manipulation designed to ensure us that we believe the team/department/company, whatever, cannot live without us. This is especially effective on women, but I’ve seen it used successfully against men too. I’ve even seen teams where a manager had more than one of The Guy working for them at once – two or three different people who are so invested in how they personally are saving the world by doing their best work that they don’t realize they’re carrying a burden that would be spread across twice as many people under a good manager.

Because that’s what fostering a The Guy on a team is about: getting one person to carry a superhuman burden so The Company isn’t faced with hiring more people or restructuring a toxic organization or doing good management. They don’t need to hire three developers because The Guy will work 15 hour days for 6 months at a time to save us. They don’t need to work with better partners or negotiate better contracts or protect their employees from abuse by unruly clients because The Guy will solidly soldier on no matter how bad it gets.

This is a toxic relationship and if you’re in it, you need to realize that you’re not really The Guy, you’re The Sucker, and there’s one born every minute, so you’re not even The Guy at that.


If you think you’re The Guy, you have a problem

Our boss’s influence is one way to become The Guy, but there’s a second, more insidious method that’s harder to spot and even harder to change: when we convince ourselves that we’re The Guy.

It starts simply enough: we fall in love with the work. We fall in love with a project or we fall in love with a problem. We really like working on a specific team, or we really believe in the company’s raison d’être. Whatever  the case, somehow we emotionally invest in our work.

And when we fall in love, we fall all the way.

First, it’s an extra few minutes working on that thing that we just want to finish up. Then it’s an extra few hours working on something to make sure that it’s the best it can be. It’s spit-polishing the code or the design because we’re proud of it and we love it, even when we’re still in the “all could be throw out any minute” stage of the design. It’s working out all the bugs, understanding the problems, fighting for the best solutions or the best designs or the best architecture… and ultimately believing that we’re doing it for The Company because we Know What’s Best.

  • We put ourselves onto big important projects on horrible deadlines all the time and never get a chance to rest, because we’ve proven ourselves capable and respected and we know it better  than anyone else.
  • We get both praised and derided by our peers because we either work our asses off and it shows  or we don’t play well with others and think we know everything when actually it’s a little of both.
  • But even then we find out eventually that nobody wants to upset us because if we did decide to leave, then all the shit work that we’re volunteering to do would be left to them.
  • Sometimes we get offered “golden handcuffs” — money so good that we talk ourselves into horrible hours and horrible treatment and shit situations, but more often we get told that the golden handcuffs will be coming — not this raise cycle, but maybe next, for years at a time.

Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we’re doing it because It’s Expected Of Us, even though nobody else seems to have it expected of them. Sometimes we get pissed off and bitter about that, even though the burden we’re carrying is one we picked up on our own.

Sometimes we get frightened that if we actually dropped down to the same level of productivity that other people produce – 8 hour days, vacations, working from home on occasion, the things that make work tolerable – that we’ll be dinged for becoming less productive. (If we’re in the first situation this can actually be true; there’s no rule that you can’t convince yourself that you’re The Guy while you’re boss is simultaneously convincing you that you’re The Guy.)

It’s hard to be on our best behavior when we see ourselves as the savior of the team/department/company, whether voluntarily or involuntarily… and once we give ourselves a martyr complex, it’s hard for us to treat non-martyrs as people with valid opinions because They Just Don’t Understand What It Means To Do This Job Right and We’re Under So Much Pressure We Could Explode.

But even if we treat everyone else with the respect due to them as human beings, and we don’t have a white-hot meltdown in the office, we still need to recognize that we’re abusing ourselves. This is a toxic relationship. We voluntarily give up a lot of free time and a lot of vacation and a lot of opportunities to do other cool things in our lives because we feel obligated to an idea we invented.

And thank you, we have plenty of those, so we’re not even The Guy at that.

The Company can (and will) live without you if you hit the lottery tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter whether we think we’re The Guy because of external forces or internal ones. What matters is what we do with it.

The first step is to realize that you’re not The Guy.

Never have being The Guy foisted upon you, and if it is, sit down and have a serious talk with your boss. And if that doesn’t work, polish up the ole portfolio because it’s time to take your resume out for a stroll.

And never assume that you are or have to be The Guy. There’s plenty of people here. If they’re not stepping up, it might be because you’re not giving them a chance. Do your work, and exactly your work, and see how other people respond. They’ll often surprise you. (And if not, see bit about taking that resume out for a walk.)

If you still think you’re The Guy, then figure out what it would take to not have that burden anymore.

  • Is it because you know facts others don’t? Document those facts in a public (shared drive) place so everyone can access them.
  • Is it because you have skills no one else has? Time to take on a mentee, or a new trainee, or just write it all down.
  • Is it because you have influence no one else does? Use that influence to give yourself a break and take the vacation you’ve been avoiding.
  • Is it because no one cares as much as you do? Stop it, you’re being a jackass.
  • Is it because your boss refuses to hire more good people? Call them on it.
  • Is it because expectations are too high for any human to consistently achieve? Go somewhere else. You’re obviously good enough to get another job as long as you don’t get in your own way being a jackass.

It is better to be The Teacher than The Guy

Knowledge is not a zero-sum game, nor are design and development skills. We can all contribute to The Company without any of us being The Guy. Your contributions don’t have to be more or higher or more important than anyone else’s to be valued.

But making sure that you live a balanced life, where you’re useful to more than just The Company is your responsibility. For that, you are The Guy, because you’re the one person whose care and love you cannot live without.

Go be your best you. Be the one that knows when to walk away and do something in the world only you can do for yourself.



1 not her real name

The Ubiquitous Design of Nutrition Facts

I was working with a student developer recently who was putting together a new site for a massive archive. She was doing the bulk of the technical heavy lifting while I sat by dallying with CSS and font sizes, and drinking a refreshing Dr. Pepper. After she finished the algorithms to migrate the data and got the site up and running, she showed me what she had. All-in-all, it looked great and was an enormous improvement over the old version of the archive. This was no small project. But now that she was wrapping up the technical side, I wanted her to take a moment to consider the visual design and content side.

While all the data had migrated successfully, pages felt a little bit awkward to skim in places, particularly near the top. There were large headings paired with small chunks of data, which required a lot of scrolling to parse. Now, pixels are cheap, but it didn’t quite flow, and it was difficult to absorb the information and orient yourself on the individual archive listings.

She set about exploring a better way of laying out the page, but she had little experience with visual design, and wasn’t quite sure where to even start. I attempted to talk about how bits of type in information design have different roles: “Think of it like HTML semantics, but applied to more specific bits of content. Kind of like XML, but in a more visual way.” Yeah, I wasn’t doing her any favors.

We both sat back in our seats and stared at the screen. The developer sighed and I self-consciously sipped at my chilled can of Dr. Pepper. That’s when I realized I was holding a good example of just what I was talking about in my hands. I spun the soda can around and pointed out the nutrition facts label.

Dr. Pepper’s nutrition facts label
Dr. Pepper’s nutrition facts label.

Admittedly, this label is not the most beautiful example of design, but that doesn’t matter. Upon examination, it still elicits a number of immediate questions:

  • Why are some words, like “Total Fat”, “Sodium”, and “Total Carb.” bold?
  • Why is “Nutrition Facts” the biggest, boldest part of the label?
  • Why is the ingredient list placed outside of the box?
  • Why is the percent daily value label right-justified?
  • What kind of information are the bold rules separating and what are the fine rules separating?
  • Why is the sugars label indented underneath total carbs?
  • Why is the asterisked information about percent daily values a smaller font size?

These were deliberate decisions to differentiate the data by giving it distinct roles. We can identify labels, like total fat and sodium. “Amount Per Serving” is a section heading. “% Daily Value” is a tabular column heading for numbers. The asterisked information is a footnote. I’m not going to give you the answers to all of the questions because you should come up with your own hypotheses, as well as your own questions. We might even disagree about which bits of content deserve which roles, but that’s fine. This isn’t an exact science, it’s design.

Once you have the roles down for your bits of content, you can start to build them into your template and style them in ways that make sense for your design and brand.

Determining roles helps you break through the limits of HTML semantics and branch out into more interesting directions with your content. But you need to be specific about each role and consistent in the way you present them. That’s key. If you decide a label should be bold in one place, then labels should be made bold everywhere… unless you can justify a new role for that kind of text! That sugars label, for example. Both it and total carbs are labels, but sugars has a slightly different role, because it’s a subset of total carbs. That’s why it can justify a different treatment.

Answer these questions and any others you might have, and you’ll have a starting point for organizing information your next project. While it is not the oracle of design, the Nutrition Facts label packs a lot of information into a very small space because it is very deliberate about what roles each piece plays, it is consistent in the way it displays them, and it is everywhere.

After I discussed this with my developer, she better understood what I was asking for. She went off to work and, by the time I finished off the rest of my bubbly beverage, she had come back with something that looked quite a bit nicer, and a new design tool in her belt.