The way to grow

You are starting fresh, really

Looking for a job after graduation is one scary thing to do. And that is not your fault. You did your best, probably. Tried to broaden your perspective, learned from stuff you could google up, maybe went to a meetup or ten. All with a hope of getting that dream job.

Bit by bit, you find that all of the preparation you’ve done, all the things that’ve seemed so important — actually weren’t so. You fail to find practical application for the fancy methodological models and technical minutiae. Not because they are useless in themselves, no. You discover that what the market wants is stuff far more simple than them.

Plant sprouting from the desert, some blurred greenery visible in the background
Growth is possible everywhere. @bubo on Unsplash

You find yourself walking a tightrope. On the one hand, you must rapidly gain technical and domain (meaning stuff you are working on — for instance, you’re working for an online store, you need knowledge from the ecommerce domain) expertise. It’s like juggling, but the balls are alive and they want to eat you. Getting through this period will be… an exercise, to say the least. Well, it was like that for me. I can’t say my way was the way, but it did the job just fine. Let me tell you my story.

So how did I go about it, how did I get my job and delivered results? I assumed failure. I assumed that stuff that I am doing during my workday is not something of quality. That there’s much that is missing in my deliverables, be it in craft, communication or outlook. And that’s ok. That’s what being a junior employee is for. The company built you a padded room, in which you shouldn’t be able to break anything you’re not supposed to (with an obvious caveat that some competence is required, because well, the room you can’t break, but yourself on it — that you can, very much so). So find the bravery to fail.

It boils down to knowing your responsibilities, to know what is expected of you. I called this “thinking inside the box“. Before you can go and break the rules, to make something spectacular and leave your mark on the world, first you’ll have to know those rules. Most likely, you’ll be failing again and again (once more, that’s a good thing) not in craft, but in the other two — communication and outlook.

Out of all I think I know about professional life, that’s the stuff I’m most sure of. Expertise in craft will develop organically as you go about your daily duties. Perspective and learning different way to engage in a professional setting, that’s on you, actively on you. Most of the stuff you’ve been learning from online courses or maybe some meetups and stuff, they’ve told you to go and be “user-centered”. That firmly remains true, but you’ll find that it might be necessary to find multiple points of focus.

You need to be building a different outlook, a business-centered one, in order to understand what can be feasibly delivered, so the product can actually become more user-centered. It is so because it’s (relatively) easy to deliver recommendations that’ll impact the user experience positively, but to deliver ones that are feasible to develop in a reasonable time frame and won’t hurt the company bottom line (or even better, they’ll improve it)? That’s the stuff you’ll never stop learning how to do.

A spread stack of 100 dollar bills
In the end, it’s money that makes the world go ’round. @timbatec on Unsplash

So, now you have some idea about your destination. There’s still the question of how to get there. I’ve mentioned failure before. Get intimate with it. Claim it, acknowledge it boldly. Which means, say out loud you’ve messed up when you realize you’ve done so. That includes stuff that is more difficult to admit to, like say you went to a meeting and there you had some strong ideas about a particular action to be taken. You thought you have something clever to say, but it made some other person in the room look… worse than neutral. Then after a day or two, you realize you’ve been the one in the wrong.

So what do you do now? Couple of things, beginning with apologizing to that person. Then, of course, comes the whole “fixing up stuff related to the subject matter”, but back to the whole “to apologize” real quick. You have a different relationship with people at work than you have in other areas of your life. You don’t have to like them. “Like” is not your priority. It might happen so that you’ll like your coworkers very much, but that’s value added, not expected. What you must do is to respect them. To treat their work as you’d like your to be viewed.

So go and apologize when you’ve made a claim that you couldn’t back up. That is also what you have to do even when you were in the right, but have (accidentally or not) thrown another person under the bus while pushing your opinion. Believe me, it’ll make your life at work a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

While getting intimate with failure is something you should be doing, you musn’t obsess over your failures. They are something to be expected, not something to be depressed about. While it is true your competence might not be where you want it, it’ll get there, reasonably soon. And the way for it to get there is to find opportunities for learning. When you pivot your mindset like this, when you think about failure not as of, well, failure, but as a tool for personal growth and learning, that’s where you will find your strength. Either one you always wanted, or some talent you didn’t expect to find in yourself.

And now you’ve found some solid ground

So, some time has passed, you’re no longer a junior. A year or two, maybe just six months. Now you have some grasp on the basics, or more likely, you have been successfully faking it and it turned out that you’ve actually made it along the way. You discover that your work duties have… expanded somewhat. There’s brand new stuff to do, new tasks to which you can only say “I don’t even know what I don’t know, all I know is that I have deadline ’till next Monday.”. You might even be getting a wee bit angry. “It wasn’t in my job description”, you’ll find yourself saying. You’re not wrong, but does it matter? Spoiler alert, it ain’t.

Graffiti of the words "trust your struggle"
Just like video games taught us, if there’s an opposition, you’re going the right way. @dj_johns1 on Unsplash

There’s this idea called “t-shaped skills”. It’s a T-shaped diagram, where the vertical line is your expertise in your field, and the horizontal one is the ability to collaborate in your workplace. In order to effectively work with people from different departments, you need to have some basic idea about how the stuff they are doing works.

So, remember that daunting task from before? The one you have no clue whatsoever how to do? That’s what I like to call a “t-shaped opportunity”! New skills, new perspectives to be learned, they will require you to do a leap of faith. In particular, faith in:

  • yourself — you can do it. You got this job after all. You didn’t get fired. You probably got a raise already or are nearing it. All you need is some in your browser’s address bar and the will to push on.
  • your organization — unless your direct supervisor is doing something really weird, you got handed a task that is well within your ability. It will require you to push yourself a bit beyond what you think are your limits, but you can do it. Asking for help, for directions isn’t something to be ashamed of, as long as you’re putting in the effort. When approaching a new subject, just search for all the information you can, write down what are the holes in your knowledge that you couldn’t have filled in by yourself, and go with this list to your supervisor or someone who’s an expert in this particular subject. People won’t shun you when you’ll come to them for guidance. They will only do so when you come to them with your hands flopping about and “I can’t do it. Please, save me!” attitude. Show of effort, especially an effort that leads to something productive in a reasonable time frame, will make you known and respected in your workplace.

This is one of the most important skills you can learn. How to seek information either from the internet, or from an expert in the subject matter. If you succeed in your task, you might find yourself doing new things more often. Embrace these opportunities. You’ll be surprised how much easier communication gets when can speak in the language of a different team, be it dev, marketing or sales.

Couple of these opportunities, bit of a comfort zone stretching and you can start seeking self-growth opportunities on your own. One way to do it (not necessarily the best one, just the one I settled on) is to set quarterly goals. Every three months, you decide what is it that you want to learn, and summarize previous three months. These goals should be:

  • related to your domain — if you can show the business value of you learning this particular thing, your company might give you support, e.g. give you a bit of time during your workweek to learn, pay for conferences, workshops, bootcamps. Also, stuff you learn will be plain useful in your daily job.
  • indirectly related to you work duties — stuff you set for your quarterly goal shouldn’t be something that falls within your daily tasks. Goals shouldn’t be redundant or require no additional effort.
  • practical — stuff you learn should have practical (not necessarily direct) applications in the foreseeable future. I won’t stop you from chasing the white rabbit, but personally I try to acquire skills I can see myself utilizing in the next year or two.

In addition to learning new stuff, remember that repetition is the mother of learning. Find some additional time to brush up on the basics. Great way to do so is to find employee more junior than you to coach. You can also try to evangelize UX knowledge throuoght your organization, e.g. make a presentation about UX research for the developers.

Try to follow latest developments in your domain. I go about this by using an RSS reader and subscribing to regularly updated websites I’ve found to consistently put out the good stuff. Sprinkle in some newsletters and that’s more than enough reading material. This is the stuff I try to never skip on:

  • GOV.UK blogs — great talks about research techniques, scalability, inclusive design
  • A List Apart — from ’98 they present curated articles about design, development and meaning of web content. Great resource if you’re interested in best practises and applications of web standards.
  • Smashing Magazine — pretty similar to the one above, more focus on cutting edge technology.
  • UX Design Weekly — list of handpicked content about UX design, delivered weekly. I think this one is my personal favourite.
  • InfoDesign — information design resource, a bit philosophically focused. You’ll find slow-burn, thought-provoking articles here.
  • Baymard Institute — if you work in ecommerce, you should be reading their stuff. If you don’t work in ecommerce… well, I think you should be reading them too. They present case studies on commonly used (or misused) design patterns.

Time to walk on your own

After many failures, and a few successes, you’ll get to a point where you become more or less autonomous in your job. This will entail more engagement with the big picture side of things, i.e collaborating with product owners and managers to plan and execute long-term research projects. Depending on the maturity level of your organization, you might even find yourself spearheading general research activity (way before you’ll feel like you’re senior enough to be doing that).

Person walking into a vast space, made of large pavement tiles
The world will be your canvas. @andrew_gook on Unsplash

If you ever happen to end up in such situation, there are couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Strategy — you’ll have to ask yourself a question of “What research will we be doing 6, 12, 18 months from now?”. Towards what goal is the company heading? What is the place of your team (or just you, if you’re research team-of-one), or what place do you want in the organization? How can research inform various departments in your organization, what impact will it have and how will you measure that?
  • Operations — in order for researchers to do research, much needs to be happening. Somebody (again, in team-of-one, that’s all on you) needs to manage recruitment, research toolkit (methods, software, hardware), data repository, communicating results and evangelizing the inclusion of research at every level of a product’s lifecycle… the list goes on. You can find my thoughts on ops and strategy in Planning research.
  • Actively getting buy-in from the management — even the best strategy will be for naught if the management doesn’t want it to happen. You can’t count on research buy-in from them to just… be. If your organization wasn’t data-informed before (or was, but only partially, e.g. only quantitative metrics mattered), it’ll take a lot of work and business acumen in order to get to the widespread level of research consciousness among the higher-ups.
  • Mentoring — find someone to teach. I can come up with nothing that’ll better force you to take a look at how well you actually know your trade than trying to teach it to someone. If there are no junior researchers hired at the moment, find someone else. Content people, marketing people, development people – they all have unique needs that can be serviced better if they can articulate their research needs clearer.

These are some difficult things to do and they will require a lot of effort in order to happen. They might even seem impossible, unless there’s a culture of feedback in your organization (if there isn’t one, guess what – roll up your sleeves and off to work). This culture I’m speaking of is basically:

  • faith in intentions — people can speak up and have their words interpreted as care, not malice. Remembering mantra praise in public, criticise in private is a very important building block of this attitude. Unless praise in public entails implicit censure of another team member, then do so in private as well.
  • short feedback loops — It’s easier to pinpoint the exact issue and implement necessary corrections to one’s behaviour when the memory of it is still fresh. Rapid feedback builds up momentum, allowing you to drop bad ideas more quickly and steer your activities towards business objective. Unless the atmosphere is reminiscent of sitting on a lit powder keg, then you’ll need to wait a little while with your feedback.
  • customary in the organization — different departments might have different goals. Presenting them clearly and aligning them to the overall business strategy is much easier when you work towards the common goal as partners, not warring nations.

When you’re at this part of your professional development, you can see the road ahead of you. It might not be clear, it might not be sure, but you can definitely see what it is and where it might lead you. Don’t be afraid to follow it. And try not to obsess about every step you take. You might miss a car that stopped to pick you up.