I was recently asked a question that was, essentially, “What is your perfect job?” What is my passion? After a few moments of thought, I knew exactly what to say.
I’m passionate, work-wise, about three things: two of them I’ve always loved, the third has come about only in the past few years (see Transformation). They are related to each other, but separable in terms of job responsibilities and opportunities.
When I was in eighth grade, living in Reno, I had a friend at school – I don’t even remember his name. But his dad owned some 7/11 stores, and he used a Radio Shack TRS-80 to help him manage them. It was my first glimpse of a “personal computer”. I asked how it worked, and he showed me a “code listing” – lines and lines of BASIC. I could even recognize some of the words! I played Dancing Demon on it and started trying to figure out how to get one of those things.
After working a while as a dishwasher, I managed to save enough to buy a Model I Level II 16K TRS-80 for about $700. I was about to turn 15. I spent many nights and weekends in a scary attic space workroom typing in lines of code from SoftSide magazine and learning how to debug my typing errors using just a language reference manual. Fun stuff!
My first passion reared its head when I was 17, working at a skating rink. I became an assistant manager and started calculating payroll for the employees. I used a rate chart and a calculator, and it took me about 4 hours to do the twenty or so employee time cards every week. With a couple of years programming under my belt, I just knew I could create something on the computer to do this payroll thing for me! It took me a couple of weeks, but I wrote my first computer program that solved a customer’s pain. Including unpacking the computer, running the program with its nice summary printouts, and packing the computer back up, my payroll time was cut in half to just two hours. My first passion is simply:
Solving Customer Pains
I like to visit customers, talk to them, discover ways in which I can help them work better, faster, easier, whatever-er. This is why I created QuickBooks Keyword Search. It’s why I took on consulting jobs like my first paying gig for Plaza Diagnostics. That one took a 2+ week billing cycle for a medical diagnostics firm down to 1 night. From a “hand the papers off to a data processing company running a PDP-11” to “enter the night’s stuff into a T1000” and bill the next day! I interviewed that customer, understood his process, turned it into a program that saved him thousands of dollars. And learned to value my time more – I only charged $90 for that program.(!!!!!)
Today, this translates into visiting customers, talking to them, seeing their work, seeing them work, discovering new ways to help. You know I’m visiting customers if I’m applying for patents! There are always new ideas out there.
My second passion is all about playing around. I like to play with new languages, new platforms, new types of customers, new technologies. When I was coding in BASIC and Z-80 Assembly, I was part of Fidonet, answering questions and creating samples for people. When Windows came around, I wrote VB samples (see BlackBeltVB.com) and helped folks.
When I was stuck on version 12 or so of the accounting system our team created, I thought I’d go bonkers. I asked my boss if I could write articles for magazines, create some shareware, have some fun!! He told me, “Sure, as long as it is non-competitive with our software.” So I wrote maybe 20 or so articles, several shareware applications – one of them highly successful, and dozens and dozens of sample applications… just fiddling around with functionality and learning new things. I created a 3D rotation and transform wireframe app (it’s on the bbvb site). I tried my hand at games, at network communications tools. I even wrote my own HTML web browser!
Nowadays I still experiment with every language and new technology that comes down the pike. In one week last year, I remember that I coded in: 1) Groovy, 2) VB6, 3) Java, 4) PHP, and 5) Objective C. Groovy was for an app at work, VB6 was a quick and dirty card printer, Java and Objective C were for a Droid phone and iPad respectively, and PHP was the app that worked somewhat with the VB6 thing. I latched onto Smartphones when they first appeared, creating Palm apps and even a floating point emulator in C (of sorts – really it was just a very large integer math library) for the early Blackberries. I can’t help myself… I see an RFID reader for $39.95… wow!! Gotta have it and play with it. Cameras and GPS and motion sensors, big touchscreens… I even bypassed a UPS power switch and wired it to a phone-controlled radio transmitter relay system for remote power cycling of a computer and network switch. All that to state my second passion:
I’m usually pretty good at making connections between a need and a solution. The more I learn about new capabilities in the world of computing, about new technologies and devices, the more connections I can make and the more potential solutions. But mostly, it’s fun! It’s fun because I’m curious, I’m a programmer, so I love to find a real challenge and then figure it out. I’m like a little kid with a cube full of odd-shaped holes and a bunch of plastic shapes. I pick up each one and try to hammer it in a hole, crying out with joy when one fits!
Two down, one more passion left: acting as a catalyst. This one is really my least defined, as I haven’t really been “passionate” about it, or recognized it as something I love, until far more recently that the other two. Oh sure, I enjoyed teaching the occasional class on creativity or visiting customers, and I enjoyed participating in or facilitating brainstorming sessions. But it turned out that what I really like is to just be part of a team that wants to be more creative, wants to try more solutions and possibilities. I want to be a catalyst on that team, spurring people to greater creativity of their own. I want them to empathize with the customer the way I do. I hope that my curiosity will rub off on them. I want to instill the ability and desire to be innovative to others. I have tools that I’ve both learned and created for framing problem spaces, conducting customer visits, taking and understanding notes, using qualitative data to determine which direction a project should take.
I remember standing at the podium in a standing-room only gallery and holding up a bottle of conditioner I’d grabbed from my hotel room. My first words in that session on Walking in your customer’s shoes were, “How many of you tried to use the conditioner from the hotel?” The room erupted in laughter and people calling out – immediate customer empathy! Those little conditioner bottles were diamond shaped, stiff, filled with thick creamy conditioner. It was almost impossible to squeeze out the stuff. Observation! Empathy! Success! I took a whole room full of people and made them customers on a visit to their own hotel.
That’s something I want to do more of, and I’ve found the best way, so far, is to join with teams on their journey toward solving customer problems – be it with new offerings or old.
Be an innovation catalyst
I steal that term unashamedly from my current company, and although I mean the same thing… I think… I want more than short spurts of innovation engagement, rather I want to be part of the entire journey of investigation, learning and development: to be a real part of lots of teams.
So there’s my perfect job: visiting customers, creating offerings that solve their pains, using a variety of solutions and technologies, and as part of a team of innovators.