Interview and Upcoming Projects

Here is a recent interview I did for CLK Tech. CLK Tech is a newsletter based out of Northeast Ohio, run by a couple of tech recruiters in the area. Topics span general career questions and data science in particular.

In addition, I’m busy with a project that I look forward to announcing soon. It’s shaping up to be a a busy year…

My Next Home: Why DialogTech?

In my last post, I wrote about why I was making a change. I started in January at Ifbyphone’s Cleveland office. This week, we rebranded to DialogTech. In my opinion, a much better name.

We have software-as-a-service products (SAAS, Cloud-based, however you want to say that) around managing analytics, specifically geared towards marketing efforts. Anyone with much SEO/SEM experience knows that tracking lead sources, ad effectiveness, and other ROI indicators is key to marketing. For a lot of businesses, however, there is a real problem in that large amounts of their customers research online, but want to talk to someone before buying. Today, that is often via a telephone call, but consider the future impact of WebRTC (think Amazon Mayday on the web), Skype, Hangouts, etc. Those channels can be a blind spot for folks trying to analyze marketing effectiveness.

Our software helps businesses continue to gather intelligence across those channels. We also have software that improves the customer experience by intelligently routing customers directly to the right call agents, etc.

So why do I want to work here? A couple of reasons. First, I was looking mostly at product companies that work in either marketing or healthcare, because I believe those areas are the furthest along in terms of understanding how data science and modern tools can assist. And they have a lot of data to deal with.

Within the companies that fit that bill, I was looking for a growing opportunity where I had opportunity to make an impact. DialogTech is in a rapid expansion mode, but big enough to be stable. The company is already providing a lot of insight to our customers, but I believe there is a lot more we can do with our data. We also do a fair amount of integration and custom work, and that is a nice fit with my consulting background.

More than anything, my final qualifications were cultural. Does the team care about success, and do the leaders and owners represent a leadership I can work for. In both cases, I have been extremely happy with what I found here. The enthusiasm of a startup, mixed with the warm personalities of the midwest (Chicago and Cleveland). There is a genuine enthusiasm, without a lot of bravado and hyperbole. We are helping other businesses connect with their customers and potential customers better. Period.

Finally, via experience I have learned to take a hard look at the owners and Senior managers of a company, and see what I can perceive of their character. It may sounds naive, but I really believe it. Environments where people are solely focused on their individual success, hold open disdain for the company or their peers, these things are toxic and the company cannot overcome them. Particularly if they are present near the top.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to make many mistakes in my career in terms of direct employment. Consulting exposes you to a lot of businesses and leaders. I consulted for some great places, and some toxic places. I don’t see a need to dwell on the cost of the negative places, most people understand that. I’d rather emphasize the simplicity and support that great leaders provide that is easy to underestimate. Value it, and seek it out when you look for a job. And if you are willing to show some loyalty and sacrifice in return, you’ll form meaningful relationships with the type of people you want to work for. That will pay off more in the long-run. It’s like the compound interest of a career.

Needless to say, I liked what I saw when I took a look at our leadership here. I’m anxious to see what we can build in the coming years.

On Leaving A Job After 8 Years

In tech years, eight years is enough for a gold watch. I went to work for a newly formed company called Method Driven Software in early 2007 as it’s first employee (there were two partner/employees that remain with the firm today in various forms). Through the years, we acquired several firms and rebranded twice, eventually becoming Level Seven. I had the privilege of helping shape the company along the way, and working with many talented individuals. While I helped shape the experience, it certainly shaped me.

Over the course of 2014, it became fairly clear to me that it was time for a new direction in my career. Not because of Level Seven. With the labor shortage in technology and expanding economy, I think Level Seven is poised for success. I also happen to have supported some of the new leadership joining the company, and would recommend it as a place for anyone interested in technical service work.

I’ll expand on what is next for me in a later post, but I have been moving in the direction of data science tools and building of larger technical teams for a while. I also found myself looking to try my hand in the product space, where I could focus on growing and building a suite of software for a while. In short, my interests and talents were aligning less with what Level Seven was doing in the near term. We did have one project that required some of those technical skills, but in the grand scheme: I was growing in value to companies outside of the consulting world, and Level Seven was less dependent on me than it had been in the past. I can be sentimental about things at time, but work is rarely one of them.

I’d like to summarize some of the most important things working at Leven Seven taught me.

Customer Service

There are a lot of development jobs you can start your career in where you won’t meet customers very often directly. This is why UX is so hard, many companies’ processes just aren’t wired for it. Service companies understand the impact of client relationships. As do sales people. And at a services company, everyone should be selling.

Leadership Over Authority

If you choose to work as a consultant, you will regularly be put in the position of having to convince the people who are paying your bills that they are wrong and there is a better way. You have to be certain, and judicious about this, and have a good reason to do so. But most importantly, when you do this, you will have to drive consensus without authority. After all, you don’t work at the client, you’re just paid to be there. This is invaluable. Because at the end of the day, it’s the only way to lead anyway. If you are a team lead or manager at a product company, you may have the “authority” to order people to follow your direction without explanation. But keep in mind those people can find a new job in about ten minutes. And they will provide feedback to your boss and other stakeholders. Real leaders lead, they don’t dictate. Let the right ideas rise to the top. This doesn’t fix the fact that you will run into people that won’t admit they are wrong when the ship is going under, but that’s life.

Principles And Domains Over Languages

For the company, I worked in C#, VB.Net, ASP, Ruby, PHP, JavaScript, Java, Objective-C, C, and other languages I’m probably forgetting. That variety was nice, but it was the many domains and concepts I was exposed to that I found so valuable. Marketing, Finance, Property Management, Transportation & Logistics, Telecommunications, Health & Fitness to name a few.

Networking

It’s an cliche, but you should be doing this in any job. From the perspective of the job you’re in, it’s valuable to your company if you can generate business leads, find recruits, or recommend great vendor partners. But what about yourself? It’s how you grow by interacting with other perspectives, form an employment safety net, etc. Through user groups, client relationships, etc, I was able to drive value to Level Seven. And in turn, I knew that even though a company of that size carries some employment risk, I had enough contacts to be reemployed with a very short turnaround if need be.

Evaluate Jobs Based On Leadership And Strategy

Many job seekers look at finances. Others (especially in technology) look at platforms and toolsets. Working in consulting is a form of post-graduate education on business. You get exposed to a lot of business models and projects, and get a taste for what works and what doesn’t. The experience of working with the so many companies in NorthEast Ohio showed me that great leadership and owners prevail. Look for honest, driven people who are focused on sustainable success. And I would avoid getting trapped in stereotypes of platforms. Language X may be “dying”, but I would take a great team working with yesterday’s technology over a dysfunctional one with with ruby node elixir or whatever is hot.

In The End…

I had the privilege of working with some great mentors, and mentoring some great people at Level Seven. I entered the company as a newly-wed and leave a father of two still happily married. I was treated fairly (and then some) my entire tenure. I had many experiences and training opportunities that I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. And I left on my own terms with a sense of accomplishment. It was difficult to leave a workplace with so many friends, but I feel a sense of peace with my entire cycle there. It was an experience I can’t place a value on, and I hope you find value in me sharing some of it.

Ownership: Artist or Engineer?

There are varying ways that a client / service relationship can work, and this view can be the cause of harmony or discord in projects. It’s something I’ve understood for a while, but had trouble explaining at times. What follows is an attempt to explain my view of something that knowledge workers need to understand to have a successful and fulfilling career.

The Artist

When an artist does work, we typically think of them as having complete control of the work. This is certainly true in the case where the eventual owner is not yet determined. Meaning an artist creates, and then sells directly or via a gallery to the public. Even commissioned artwork has only varying levels of control. A commissioned portrait certainly falls into the realm of work that would come with constraints. After everyone involved is dead and gone, people tend to remember the artist, not the owner.

The Engineer

When work is not sponsored, but contracted, it begins to fall into a completely different classification. Though you may refer to it as “artwork”, a visual painting done for advertising is really more “creative” work for hire. Certainly work that is more functional (like a bridge) comes with rigid requirements. This is the attitude of the engineer. That work is asked to meet certain goals, and ultimately subject to the approval of the buyer. While the engineer is an expert who expects to provide guidance, but does so at the behest of the client. In terms of credit, this world is muddled. Sometimes it is the architect, other times it is the owner or visionary that is remembered.

What does any of this have to do with consulting, software development, functional work, or any other type of service industry? Don’t get caught up in the work medium (paint, steel, code), or left brain / right brain aspect of the work, but just consider the metaphor in terms of relationship to the client and ownership of responsibility. In my world (consulting in the areas of software development, creative, marketing, etc) this distinction makes a big difference. All of these types of work have a right-brained aspect to them. People think of software development as a very regimented thing, but there is a lot of freedom to work in your own styles and patterns. Languages are fairly abstract these days, and they are high level enough to provide nearly infinite ways to solve complex problems. Certainly I don’t need to discuss how easy it is for a graphic designer to relate to an abstract artist.

Here’s where the risk is of confusing yourself with having the control an artist does, when you do not. The consultant works in a world where the client owns the final product. And the project would never even exist but for the idea and financial commitment of the client. Deadlines, requirements and other constraints are all part of the context. “Ownership” of the direction is a privilege that goes to the person that takes the risk. While an artist that is producing works for sale is bearing the risk that the piece will not sell, the bridge builder is not. It was sold before the project started. Sure, many contracts include shared risk clauses, but for all intents and purposes, the risk is on the client.

It is arrogant and unproductive for a paid consultant to believe they have the final say in work. They have the right to turn down work. And some clients may choose to give control over to the consultant, but that is their choice, not a right of the consultant.

When a consultant is doing work for hire and thinks they have the privilege that come with the artist mentality, it easy to develop a disdain for the client. Whereas in the engineering mindset, it is understood that one can recommend to the client, but ultimately the idea must sell itself. There is no expectation that the consultant wins because they are the subject matter expert. They are expected to be able to convey their idea and it’s merits in plain English and at a level understood by someone outside the field. In short, they must sell the idea.

Am I saying that workers should not have principals? Not at all. Take the story of Howard Roark, the principal’ed architect of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark suffered while turning down business as he would only work on buildings where his style of architecture was called for and he had the free hand to build modern and innovative buildings. He turned down others with work that would not satisfy him, but he did so respectfully. In this fictional work Roark has many enemies, but not the clients he turns down. A read sympathizing with Roark may agree with those clients, but it’s hard to see them as malicious.

The problem is that so many give away the right to have those principles for the sake of expediency without realizing they gave up that control. So they still expect the control. As an example, coming to work for a consulting company, you give up that right. Why? I’ve already made the point that the client has control, so you can only control work by selecting projects that meet your criteria, or working with clients who are ceding control. But as an employee of the company, you are giving up the client selection privilege in order to minimize your risk and investment. The consulting company provides you with a salary, book of work, etc, in return for your work. You do not get to control what work the company takes or not. It is your choice to leave if their client base does not suit you.

Too easily do I see people in the business blame owners and clients for work they do not like. But owners and clients anted up. They paid for the right to call the shots. If you want them to call the shots differently, it is your obligation to sell them on those ideas. Not your right to complain if the idea is not sold.

So what should someone who believes in the artist mentality do? There are people that believe so strongly in the control of their output. Folks like this tend to idolize people they view as uncompromising, like a Steve Jobs. (It’s worth noting that there are a lot of signs that he compromised more than the public perceived).

There are some simple solutions. Being an independent consultant means that you can turn down work that does not fit preferred principles. Owning / building your own consulting firm allows you the control of selecting your projects and clients. The third option is to return to the artists root of non-commissioned work. In other words, start a product company. While your clients have say in the form of sales, you are free to put whatever product you see fit on the market that can be held to only your standards. For all the knowledge workers that idolize Steve Jobs and he uncompromising reputation, it is worth remembering that he started and returned to a product company.

Media is a great analogy. Being an independent musician, filmmaker, or game developer is hard. You have to market for yourself, sell each product, secure distribution, etc. But for that price, you have control of the product. Signing with a publisher makes those tasks easier, but you have to be aware of the conditions you agreed to with the publisher. Like any contract or relationship, you should consider what those terms will mean in good times and in bad.

This is not to say that the rest of us don’t have some control and determination of our own destiny. It’s just that you have to remember you only have one lever to pull, leaving the company. You can negotiate terms based on a company or client’s desire to have you be a part of the team. But to get emotional about it, or think you have a right to control without taking the primary risk is folly.

Teachable Moments

This is a quick thought. But a pattern has been on my mind lately. A lot of leaders want their employees to listen to them and learn from them.

However, when that same leader is questioned by their employees, they often don’t want to have to justify decisions. Do this “because I told you to.”

Why not let your ideas stand on their own merit? If a subordinate wants to engage in discussing the value of an idea, that sounds like an opportunity to teach them (or learn from them if they are right).