Category Archives: Leadership

Surviving a Technical Interview

Over my career as a software something, I have had a bunch of technical interviews.  Some I have done well in and some I have not.

The first part of this journey was understand something for myself. For the interviews I performed poorly in, about 50% of them I actually knew the answer, but could not get it out. Why was this?

The second part was as I led teams, I wanted to find an accurate way of assessment where a person was in their journey, whether they would stick with it, and whether they are a good fit for the rest of the team.

Here is the presentation I did to a lunch and learn group at CodeCore:

I feel many Technical Interviews fail to do their job properly.  Whether the process is not well enough thought out, the people involved are not trained, whether interviewers are evaluated higher for their technical skills but not their people skills, or they really just trying to get extra “clones” of themselves. But without a doubt the worst is, there is a lack of reflection and accountability for the actual success of their chosen candidates.

Still too many questions are on topics or specifics that the interviewee will never do in their actual day to day work.

So many people conducting technical interviews fail to imagine that this is a two way process.  That the “employer” is actually showing the future “employee” how they work with people.

All of that said, some are getting right and it is not from the traditional “hazing” approach, but a more collaborative approach, where the potential “employee” show a project they have worked on, where the interviews feel like a great passionate conversation..

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Leading software engineers

A friend (non technical) recently asked me how I lead my dev team, he had led product and marketing before, so I have attempted to focus on the differences, that said good team leadership has commonality with all disciplines.

I currently have three software engineers, one IT/Dev OPs and one product designer (3 female and 3 male).  In the past I have led 23 teams. I will use this blog for my team to hold me to account 🙂

Casting Workbook Team

No Surprises

Being accountable for “no surprises” is the core. Where ever possible you should be accountable for all of the people that you work with, people should not be surprised by what you say, because you have already asked their opinion, maybe even evolved your thinking and they can see the process by which you went through to reach a decision.

It means more communication and more interaction with your people. It means you can be vulnerable. It means stepping outside of your “assigned” responsibility and forming relationships with all parts of your organization, and other organizations. Its about being connected, its about being a leader and a follower. It shows that people understand you and your core principles.  That you can be consistent and when you adapt they can see that to.

There are not things left unsaid, you are not passive aggressive or have control issues.

Being a Leader of context

The role you take on should change depending on the context.  Sometimes you are the coach, sometimes the mentor, sometimes the friend, sometimes a psychologist, sometimes the engineer, sometimes the product owner, sometimes the user advocate, sometimes the engineer advocate, sometimes the leadership context, sometimes the inspirer, sometimes the critic..  There are different leadership styles and yours should adapt.  In 2003, prior to my MBA this book really helped me step up my game The New Leaders: Transforming The Art Of Leadership Into The Science Of Results

You are the right person at the right time

Different places/ways to work

People are generally smarter/productive longer, when they can have different types of environments to work in and have multiple ways to express themselves.  Have multiple places that engineer can work in.  When I recruited my current team, I got the organization on board with the following:

  • Give the engineer a laptop
  • Have somewhere comfortable to work e.g. sofa, kitchen
  • Have somewhere serious/quiet with extra screen
  • Have somewhere they can stand up and code
  • Have somewhere outside if possible, natural light/fresh air is a great refresher
  • Make it possible to work remotely
  • That there are white boards for people to express, figure out a problem.

This is a good book if you want to really consider your culture and the way you work. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.  Without doubt you should ask each team member what helps them concentrate, what distracts them, what they need to stay in the zone.  The obvious big one for many is a good set of headphones. Do not underestimate the quality of a good display also, anything at the quality of a Retina can reduce eye tiredness.

Different physical environments can refresh you, help you think bigger or focus. Be flexible.

Leave chunks of time to code

Engineers are generally more efficient if given chunks of time to code.  Thus have your meetings meetings near mornings or lunchtime.  To give several hours of interrupted research/code time.

  • Get engineers to block out their time on their calendars, so product/founders can book time when needed
  • Use an IM system to ask questions such as Slack or Skype during those chunks of time and do not expect a quick response

Developers need chunks of time to be left alone to get on and focus

Being a good human being

This means understanding each others needs and wants. Expectations both from the lead and engineer should not be hidden, things should not be left unsaid.  Sometimes we need processing time, to check in destructive emotion, but you should still tell that person how they made you feel. You should also be kind but not nice.

Both people should be able to be vulnerable with each other and trust each other.  You both need to avoid surprises.   This is done through good communication, which is not common and takes effort. This needs time together.

  • Feedback in the moment, always ask permission before giving feedback and make it about the behaviour you saw.  Do not assume intent, in fact assume positive intent. Give positive and negative feedback. Understand how each member likes to receive feedback. This is my slide deck from teaching my teams about feedback.
  • Weekly One to One checkins 10-30 mins, any fire issues? any smoking issues?
  • Monthly sit down at least one hour.  I have a list of questions to always go through, which we agree when we start together.
  • Allow others to lead, giving opportunities to members of your team to lead on a project/task whatever you do not need to be the boss of everything.
Question set for monthly
 
First conversation should be to agree the questions, here is a starting set.  They should based around the culture we wish to create and how we want to treat our people
  1. How are you feeling? Any hot issues we should talk about?
  2. How are you contributing to the company and your team?
  3. Are you a Team player? How are you involving others in your process?
  4. How are you growing/learning? Are we are helping your reach potential? Do you have mastery?
  5. What are your Technical Capabilities here? Where do you feel competent? 
  6. How are you helping the company grow and evolve?
  7. Are you Hungry? How productive are you? Are you taking inspired action?
  8. Do you have a friend here?
  9. Do you have a mentor or coach in the company? Are you coaching others?
  10. Do you want stay with the team and the company?
  11. What can can we do better as an employer/me as your leader/CEO?
  12. Do you feel you have Autonomy? Are there things stopping you doing your job?
  13. Do you feel you have Purpose? Do you understand what we are building and why?
  14. Are you contributing to the wider community? What can we do to help?

One to one, face to face is the highest bandwidth of communication

Your processes and system should evolve.

The way you do things should be Agile (as originally intended i.e. flexible and evolve NOT rules).  Agree a workflow together from product to engineer.  It should change and evolve to be right for the context.

  • When starting with a team, I will audit all current systems and ask for each members views privately on each tool/system/process, to ensure the less confident or shy people get their say
  • I will then have a team meeting to review what we need and what we like
  • Any team wide system change should involve all parties
  • Deadlines should have engineer involvement and not be dictated downwards

For example in my latest team we discussed the tools we wanted and we decided to use

  • Slack for IM
  • BaseCamp for idealization and research
  • Github for product/features/user stories and code/issue management – The way we used tags evolved several times.

Freedom to solve the actual problem

Sometimes Product/founders/Engineering leads may try to solve the problem in their way i.e. micromanage.  Giving the engineer the “code monkey” role of just coding to a very prescribed way i.e. an exacting feature.  Giving no space, to actually problem solve can be very limiting and create an environment where creativity and innovation are stifled i.e. the evil called micromanagement. Most humans do not like their freedom taken from them.  So find the the right balance between the organizations’ needs and the employees. That said some people like more structure, context matters.

  • Give space for engineers to solve the problem in their way. If you are already using Agile then you may evolve the story a couple times as users respond to the work.
  • Within the user stories/feature requirements do not limit.  Ensure you actual describe the problem you want solve, suggestion ideas/solutions but where possible do not dictate
  • Involve the team in talking about the features and discussing possible approaches, but the actual engineer who takes the feature gets to decide
  • Engineers should have some understanding of the customers. Ensure your engineers meet customers, and spend time with your Customer success/relations people.
  • Keep the engineer accountable for the response by users. Thus have good monitoring software and have a culture when engineer go back to check the real world implications of their work.

Micro Management is the evil of leadership, it kills creativity, innovation, trust, and growth. It can appear both in a manager and in the processes you impose on your people

A culture of science

Scientists experiment many times and fail many times and one day they get it right.  Encourage a culture of learning from mistakes not teasing/persecution which means encouraging experimentation and forgiveness.

  • Discussion should be based on logic in reference to code
  • Create an environment where people can I say “I do not know.. but here is an idea/feeling/instinct”
  • Call people out if they tease others about their failures or use it to argue they case in a discussion
  • Careful to not let irrelevant aspects enter into the discussion such as gender, race, age or sexuality. I say careful because humour can involve these but they should not sway discussions and the receiving of the humour should not be hurt.

Experimentation and failure should be Ok, team members should not “haze” each other. Leadership need to be able to move on

To build a team well, needs reflection and the teams involvement

The team needs time to connect as a team and evolve together as a team.  We have a book club where we talk about the teams performance in terms not related to code. How good are we at communicating:

  • Giving/receiving feedback
  • How do we react to others ideas?
  • Who do we go to help us through problems?
  • Who pair code with more often
  • How much do we know about each others strengths and weaknesses?
  • How vulnerable can we be with each other?

We used The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to kick start this conversation.  Every couple months we take time to talk about how a team we are in terms of communication. You need to invest in the actually team to have a team..

You need time for the team to talk about the team, spot weaknesses and evolve

 Ask your people how you are doing

“How am I doing?” should not be a hard question for you.  Ask it informally in your one to one monthlies and formally at least every 3 months.  The no surprise rule should be for all. It should be 360 your leaders, peers and your people.  Find out if people get what they want and what they need from you, in terms of communication, conflict/challenge, advice and performance.

You learn faster by other people telling you what you are doing right and wrong

Collaborating with your leader

Hopefully you chose your boss carefully when you were recruited into the organization.. but things evolve, so maybe that perfect person you went to work for, moved on.  I have found the best leaders are those who keeping growing i.e. they read about how to be a better leader, they can be vulnerable with you and you can talk openly.  When you make mistake your instinct is to tell your boss, when one of your team performs really well you never feel the need to take credit and generally you have no fear of your boss talking to your team.  If you do find the above hard, understand why.

  • Never underestimate the amount of time you will need for your leader
  • Know each others strengths, weaknesses and blind spots
  • Find those things you really enjoy about each other
  • Find those things that you find difficult and talk about them
  • Build strong relationships throughout the organization, ensure all find you approachable

Success in any organization is about working together and helping each other evolve

Adding to the team

Whilst you as the lead will drive this process, you should involve the team in the process. You should ensure everyone is trained and good at the interview process.  This may mean mock interviews, where your team interview you. Its worth noting that you do not want more clones, you need different types of people, skillsets, who sometimes will clash, but have the communication skills and reasoning capacity to grow from each other.

  • Be clear what the team is missing and what you need
  • Agree on what you are looking for both terms of technical and personality
  • Ensure the all those that are interviewing try out their questions, again no surprises
  • Have space for something social
  • The best interviews are like a great chat amongst friends about something technical
  • Personally I hire on communications skills, problem solving skills, learning capability and then current technical skills
  • I often look for potential as much as current craft capabilities
  • I do not hire more of me, I want diversity
  • If employing someone with less experience, be clear what the areas are and put in place a training program to fill those gaps.

I look for growth potential, hunger, curiosity, pro-active, problem solving capability, how they will add value to the team and how they will help the team evolve. Then I start start to consider technical experience.

Software engineers are great problem solvers

Sometimes we box people into a role.  Humans are so much more than their job title and job description. Most people are capable of applying their skills in other domains.  You have a problem, why not ask a software engineer?


I will keep adding to this blog as I learn.

Is ageism a lazy form of decision making?

Ageism is often used in reference to what some people think about older people. I have seen ageism used to undermine the opinions and thoughts of younger people.

I think what I have learned is that perception of someones age has some strong prejudice and assumptions that come with it. That these undermine people when they need not. That by treating someone with more or less respect due to their age can often blind you.

together we are stronger

Friends

My friend circle varies massively in age range with my oldest friend being 35 years older then me and my youngest 23 years younger.  Interestingly I find younger people more prejudice than older for  relationships. Personally I like a good mix of friends who we can have fun, conversation and trust.  Having friends from very different backgrounds, helps me to have greater perspective of the actual world.

Dating

Dating sites encourage age discrimination, with Tinder/POF/okCupid (not eHarmony) having it as priority information. Age seems an easy category to filter on, but like looks it’s not a good predictor of chemistry or how you feel with someone. What little I know of relationships is you need to be a partners (that control and guidance should be shared by both), grow together and respect each other. Also I have found that some people are more concerned how others think i.e. he looks too old for her or vice versa than anything inside the actual relationship. We are sometimes concerned with one taking advantage of the other.  The question really is what is equal? No doubt a journey travelled together is more powerful and sharing the different perspectives of your different experiences is more powerful.

Being younger in work

My experience in my twenties was there was a lot of assumption by older people about what I did and did not know.  I found myself looking older to be heard.  I had a goatee for a long time to and dressed to look older, it made a huge difference in the reception of my thoughts.  I also found that adults/leaders/managers would not include the why when they were doing something and just tell us what and sometimes how. I felt like a child and I did not like it, in fact it made me more rebellious. And in part I gave up sharing my best ideas. The best leaders who would explain the why would get best of me.

Life Stage

Our Life Stage can sometimes be mistaken for ageism, for example couples tend to hang with couples, couples with kids hang with couples with kids.  Whilst this is not always true, there is something in it.  One potential employer asked me because you have a child will you be able to truly commit to this job. I just left the interview, and I don’t have a child!

Being Older in work

Now as an older person occasionally I have been asked if I have too much responsibility or have the energy to really commit to a job i.e. stay late on a regualry basis.  The energy one is something I have seen both to me and others (if you know me you know I have more energy then the average 16 year old).  In fact it has increased the older I get (hangovers however last longer then they should)! Medical science is also improving the quality of our lives, which is good because most of us will not be able to afford to actually retire. One employer asked me because I was older would I be able to keep up with the younger employers?  I asked him what he actually meant, he said are you hungry enough to work long hours?  It felt like he liked to take advantage of people.  I have always worked long hours.  Six months ago I worked for two years seven days a week.. My age had nothing to do with it.

It’s assumed that if you’ve made it to a certain level, you must be over a certain age and have advanced credentials (Eg. A master’s degree). Assumption makes an arse out of me and you.

Startup and Techs

When I go to startup pitches I find the Angels (Investors) tend to favour young men. There is a combination of sexism and ageism going on here.  And there is a mythology that all successful startups are built by young people, which is not supported by any science but appears to be the “view”. This article digs into this.

Mark Zuckerberg apparently said that people under 30 are smarter.  Another article explored The Brutal Ageism of Tech. One practice of hiding jobs behind Recent Graduates is explored here.  There appears to be a view that people over 50 should not be in leadership jobs.

Rising above ageism

I want to be better than my past experience, I want to evolve not enforce a stupid prejudice. So here are my suggestions to myself:

Never ask someone their age

Do not judge someone by their age.  It is lazy, get to know them first. Attitude may be effected by your age but is not dictated by it. Just because you started with same (or opposite) political view as your parents does not mean you keep them.  Its experiences not age that will determine what they become.

Talk to all like an adult

Take the time to explain why, treat all like equals and invest in a person. Treat others as you wish to be treated.

Ideas should be valued regardless of age

A great idea can come from experience but also from lack of experience. Understanding the idea is more important than making assumptions of what I perceive it to be or who delivers it. Ideas are always fragile, so grow it see where it takes you before dismissing it.

Actual experiences is more important than age

Wisdom I feel comes from experience more the bad ones than the good ones. Own your experiences, they maybe apply to others. That said, experiences can also limit us, sometimes you need to prove there is more to explore.

Age does not relate to capability

There are now more ways to learn, than ever before.  And its not just knowledge, There is more shared wisdom in the world. Take this article on reaching 40 and what you realize. Just look at TED.COM or the number of self help books. Money does not always determine access to knowledge. And teaching has become better so we can all learn faster. In fact I would say that two things can show this how well read a person or how many “good” videos (ted.com) or video subscriptions a person follows e.g. RubyTapas. All of that said getting fit right is often more important than current capability.

Age does effect health but not energy or drive

That said, it can be severally muted with a good diet and exercise.  When I was younger I took my health for granted.  As I got older I appreciated my body more, learned more and in some ways I am fitter now than at any other time of my life.

What thoughts or experiences do you have?

Actions speak louder then words

A person, company, organization community can be judged on its actions and behaviours not its intents. Especially when the shit hits the fan. Its easy to be nice when the world is all good. Behaviours, the culture under stress shows the real capacity of the leadership.

Becoming a junior rails developer

So I looked for a tech cofounder and infact found almost three. Then a friend who was a developer said they would be happy to “play” and see what comes of it, if we paired (pair programming) as it would be fun, and if he was going to use his non-work time he wanted it to be fun. I agreed this was a better approach, building alone is hard (Thanks Phil)

A bit of context

My father was a computer engineer i.e. he fixed mainframes for Digital, DEC and than Apple II upwards.  My first computer i.e. my dads was Sinclair ZX81 it had 1k of memory and used a tape cassette for storage. I learnt BASIC.  My second computer (this time mine!) was a BBC Micro 32k of RAM. My first serious application was again written in a different form of BASIC and allowed you to paint and draw. My childhood was very unstable and I went to a number of foster homes and many schools (I was little too curious). Anyways eventually I got to college (16 yrs old) and did a (BTEC) Diploma in Computer Science.

It felt too easy for me and I was more curious about humans so dropped the course (even though I was one of the top performers) and took a bunch of A Levels in Psychology, Sociology, Communications and Human Biology.  At this point I learnt , I was a really bad at written english (it took several years before I found out I was dyslexic). I dropped the courses and went to Northern Ireland for a year or so.  I came back and tried again in one year intensive courses. Someone close to me died and I screwed up my exams.

I got enough to get into the Higher National Diploma for Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.  In the first year I was in the top 10% of my class and got moved up to a Degree program and graduated in 1996. And than than did not code again until 2013.

Becoming a coder, again..

Phil’ comment set me off in a two year journey to become a developer. I took two evening classes a week (about 20 hours a week) and over two years worked seven days a week. In all I did 13 courses (including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, XML, SQL, MySQL, PHP, JAVA and System Design).  I started with an intense HTML course and worked my way through the whole stack from front end to back end.

[update] in hindsight these courses gave me confidence, but did not relate to the reality of what it is like to be a developer in a full-time job.

a few of my coding books

a few of my coding books

Rails..

I wanted to learn Ruby and Rails, all along because  I want to build prototypes for my startup (Professional You). Yet there were no local courses. I prefer learning with others, its good to have a peer group. So in Jan 2013, I booked myself on RailsConf 2013 and gave myself a deadline to read and complete Learn Web Development with Rails prior to the conference. I was introduced to a start-up (Thanks Jessie) and started working with them two days a week as a junior rails dev.  I learned a couple things about myself,  I was not good at asking questions from the lead software developer as I was worried about taking them away from their tasks (as they were under a lot of pressure from their boss) and we worked remotely, which is not ideal for a junior. I also found testing before coding was very difficult, in part because thought I needed to know rails better first.  Additional good Rails book that helped in my journey were  Rails 4 in action  Rails Anti patternsPeepcodes Videos on RSpec and rails casts.  railscast are brilliant for an immediate problem to solve but is very out of date, Code School as a selection of rails videos as does GoRails. That said I do not find that anything I learn online or via video sticks, I seem to forget it quickly..

If I was to do it again:

  1. Learn Web Development with Rails there is just no better
  2. Build several Web Apps for yourself e.g. store all your boardgames/books, role up characters for RPG, whatever feeds into your hobbies and use rails casts to add features
  3. Read Rails Anti patterns

Ruby

It becomes clear that Rails does so much and its BIG, but the better your Ruby knowledge, the easier working with Rails, no shit. There are times you have to build your own model without Active Record and connect to APIs.  Everything becomes a little easier, your code gets tighter.

I tried the Well Grounded Rubyist book, whilst I understood all the concepts it was too much without having not built Ruby Apps first. Most of the online Ruby course were interesting such as Code Academy, but they failed to stick in my head, one exception was a course on Lynda called Ruby Essentials, which frankly was brilliant (Teaches the basics and the gets you to apply them in a Ruby App). After that I tried the Ruby Koans. The hard part about coding is trying to remember it all, understanding I think is easy but holding it all in your head is hard.  One senior developer said to me you do not need to remember everything just remember you can, then Google it. The more times you use it the easier it will be to remember. His other tip was to store all of his projects on Google Drive, so he could use it has augmented memory.

Training that actual gets you to build an application, I found to be more useful and gave me extra value, rather then little bits of code. Looking at how other developers tackle the same problem is also incredibly useful.  Peepcode did a bunch of Play by Play videos, which taught me a lot about how they solved the problem and I also learnt how to use different tools.

The other thing you should do is work out how to connect to your local community:

  1. Ruby Rogues podcast is awesome and their discussion site is worth the $10 per year
  2. Find the local Ruby meetup group
  3. Find a peer/mentor who will review your non work code

If I was to start again:

  1. The best beginner book for Ruby was The Book of Ruby: A Hands-On Guide for the Adventurous
  2. Add RubyTapas videocasts
  3. Then follow up with the Well Grounded Rubyist book
  4. Read Metaprogramming Ruby 2

Learning about software engineering/development..

There are a bunch of tools and “behaviours” (ways of working) that you have to learn, some of this comes from you just coding, but some you need to spend a bit of time working on i.e. Git (or other version control)

  • BASH – Re-learning Unix i.e. Terminal on the Mac, SSH
  • Text Editors – Trying out different text editors, BBEDIT, RubyMine, Sublime and finally Atom
  • Version Control – Getting comfortable with version handling i.e Git, how to use GitHub, decided to use command line to embed it in my head
  • Package Management – so home-brew is better than Mac Ports
  • Debugging – Where to find the bugs for debugging, using irb, rails console, understanding the logs and the stack trace
  • Object Orientation learn and understand all the meta language. I have yet to find a good book on this.
  • Data Structures – I am comfortable with, but I have yet to find a good learning option for this
  • Algorithms – The best option I found was Grokking Algorithms
  • Where to find the information that will help i.e. online manual, google, stack overflow, google groups
  • How to tackle the actual problem, when to step away and take a moment
  • Where to ask a senior and not annoy them (still working on this one)

Ready?

You are never ready, its just a matter of choosing the time, finding the courage to be vulnerable and going for it.

Its seems surprising that some of the best times in my life are when its has gone so wrong, you really discover the other people around you in that moment the good and bad.  You could wait to be that perfection and never make a move. I knew that two days a week of coding after working the other five was tiring me out, but I also knew I liked to code, I love problem solving.  That said I had yet to build my GitHub profile, most of my work was private, most of my student work was very specific, so not a complete web application but do this on this page. Whatever, It was time to go full-time. Lets see what happens..

Advertising myself..

The best way to get what you want is to simply ask

Just before christmas 2013, I sent out an email to the Ruby meetup group in Vancouver, BC. The discussion space often has recruiters looking for rails developers, why not flip this and advertise me!  I did not expect much of a response..

—–

Subject: Looking for a Junior Ruby on Rails job

Hello 🙂

I hope you are having a great day and not too bored..

I have computer science degree and most of an MBA. I have played and succeeded in many other careers like communications and being a politician. And I have learnt that I love to create. So I went back to school (BCIT) to refresh my computer skills and learn web applications, after two years I have done a bunch of evening courses with an average grade of 93%. For the last 6 months I have being learning/coding Rails/Ruby on my weekends for a local startup. I have also attended a bunch of Rails/Ruby conferences in the US on my own dime.

Full-time I have being working for Apple as a Genius/IST Support. I know crazy right working 7 days a week for two years.. I am now looking for a full-time software development role with an emphasis on Rails.

You will find all the good stuff in my linkedin profile -> ca.linkedin.com/in/ericbrooke/

Continue having a great day 🙂

Eric
—-

In all I got 80 responses, over a four week period (40 within 48 hours). There were 42 real jobs going, 20 were long term contract, 8 short term contract. 10 were you are the first developer, no not good, go employ a intermediate or senior developer! Leaving me with just 17 companies to talk to, after researching each of the companies, I spoke/emailed to them and then did 14 actual interviews. After which I cut it down to five after second interviews I cut it down to two..

Finding the right team to join..

You are the apprentice and you are looking for master/mentor/teacher/coach/facilitor not a boss, not the brilliant programmer whose ego is big enough for you both.

A couple principles for me:

  1. Those that asked for me to do code test prior to having a first human to human conversation, I did not continue.. I am not your code bitch.. or your slave, talk to the human in me first
  2. How much they truly bothered to explain who they are as a company and their intended culture, mattered to me.
  3. You need patient senior developers who are willing to coach and that their bosses will give them the time/leeway to coach
  4. That you will learn a lot from developers who have different styles and roots, prefer different languages and frameworks
  5. I need to grow and learn fast, how are you going to help me get to intermediate?
  6. Seniors that have being teachers or parents tend to be better at explanation. Just a theory at the moment.

Interview

I want to work with awesome people.

Be they smart, emotional intelligent, creative or just different. The most laughter at work I have had are with teams of such diversity, with so many forms of intelligence, not just the academic kind. I am going to be spend a lot of time together, consider it a road trip, we will get angry, sad and laugh together. The culture, the people that I work with is important to us all. For these people I will have lasting loyalty, forgive and move on, push the boundaries to ensure there is a future and learn every fricking thing I need to learn, take time out of the rest of my life to make my colleagues life easier. So if you send me a coding test before, we know, we like each you can frankly go @@@@ yourself.

A good interview is a collaboration of us exploring each other.

[updated] Questions to ask –

  1. Have you ever had any juniors before?
  2. How do you review code?
  3. What is your test Coverage? What are you not testing?
  4. Do you have Introspectives? What do you do to help developers learn?
  5. Do you use pull requests?How do you use them?
  6. Do you state why the code is wrong in the pull requests?
  7. How will help me growth fast, so I am no longer a junior?
  8. Is there flexibility on which projects/teams I work?

Technical tests

Understanding your capability is hard and is often judged on so many irrelevant things

There are few jobs where you are ask prove you can actually do the job before you actually do it. Some tech interviews felt like you were expected to put out on the first date.

The best I had were conversations and tested practical experience, not theoretical mathematics. The actually best asked we to describe what I know and then sat me down at a computer asked me my favourite coding tool loaded up an example application. They asked where would I find a routes file, explain these routes, where do they take me, asked me to follow the whole path what was load etc. After if I want to add this to the app what would you do? “feel free you access the internet”, explain what you are thinking? The sneaking bastards even had a couple “bad” things in the code to see if I would notice. So I did not mention them until I was about to leave 😉 That was my first job offer

The worst started with theoretic problems to write pseudo code on the board… Funnily enough they started questioning my pseudo code. Some people see an interview as a way to prove their intellect not understand yours.. Have you forget who is interviewing here, you, er no both of us.

For people who did their computer science degree a long time ago or learnt on your own path; I recommend this book Think like a Programmer by V. Anton Spraul.  The most stupid, abstract, non-relevant questions I have every being asked in any interview were all in technical interviews. And folks I was an elected politician.

Testing the “interviewers”

I have learnt more from people, when I have failed or needed help.

So every job interview I find something to fail at and see how the interviewer copes. I will also ask my interviewers how they will cope with my failure and how they cope with theirs.  I will always ask at the end of the interview what do you like and not like about me.  I learn so much from their response.

The type of organization to work for..

If I am going to work on something, I need to care..

Go for an one domain company, startup or for an agency style..

Domain companies tend to give you a position and you have to earn your right to grow, the structure tends to be more rigid, yep be a junior for three years. You get small parts of a big cog. But you would learn about scale to a higher degree. And maybe they may have systems/coaching/mentors/learning plans in place to accelerate growth of juniors. That would make sense would it not?! not one on my list.

Startup, happy to take the risk but you have to love it and I did not love any of the startup offers. Also they tend to lack the numbers of senior developers you can learn from.

I went agency i.e. build prototypes, because I wanted to work on a lot of different products in different domains, I felt I would learn more faster, and so far that is true comparing my growth to my friends. With prototypes you have to do the beginning a lot and then you finish, and then you do it again, there is opportunities to grow in each project.

The job I took

It felt like a conversation between curious people.

It started on the phone, progressed to face 2 face and then there was a take-home coding test. They were good questions that I had to think about. The whole process felt open, unstressful, they trusted me and I trusted them.

I asked my boss what does he look for?

“People with a wide life experience who can clearly show they can learn”

So far it is pretty awesome I get to work with three seniors who have different approaches and the diversity is already teaching me a lot.

Updated

So after two and half months I got laid off.  They removed the Junior developer position (it affected two positions), and I was the least experienced, through out the company).  Two weeks later 11 more people got laid off, then another bunch a couple weeks later.

It was also reminder whilst you can test the people you get to work with.  But their bosses can(may have to) change their mind (and in fairness it may be outside of their control).  So in future I will look at the leadership and their track records.

I would still make the same choices, and worked there.  I learned an incredible amount and worked on 4 projects.

All of that said, I ended up in another startup mybesthelper where my first job was to get our tests over 85% and upgrade their Web App to Rails 4.1, fun 🙂

the need to reflect on yourself

Mirror

I am a workaholic (I never feel I work hard enough), there used to be a few things that make me pause and force me to reflect such as illness, love, friends, mentors, etc. Sometimes these “interruptions” are random and infrequent and may not occur for several years.

Life has taught me to occasionally pause and consider who and where I am.

Every year now I review my life, I considering all aspects and what I need to change or not. At work they would call this a performance review.

You in the end, are the only person you have to live with throughout your life, you need to stay in touch and avoid too much drift. A little drift is good because it can allow you to reflect and consider new paths.

I use the following categories to help me breakdown what is important.

These are my personal ones that have change throughout my life, you may have different ones, over time you will find that they will evolve.

1. Love

Is there enough love my life in terms of relationships, friends and family? Are there people in my life that cost more then they give/gave? Am I giving enough to them? Do I Love myself? Does your “friend” spend more time talking about themselves then asking you how you are? Who helps you out when your are sick? Who calls you out on your stupidity? Of course these questions are reversible? e.g. are you a good friend to them?

2. Purpose

Am I working or playing towards something? Am I just floating? Am I happy with my level of progress?

3. Community

Am I giving back? Am I mentoring, teaching or helping others grow. Am I paying attention to politics and the communities needs?

4. Evolution

Am I still the same person or have I evolved? Am I growing and learning? Am I pushing the boundaries of my personality, my knowledge, and my skills. Is there enough challenge in my life?

5. Inspiration

Do I have muses? Do I have people? Books? Music? Arts? Games? Food? Is there something refreshing my soul? Do I have moments to explore or simply rest?

6. Health

Am I healthy? Do have the body that I want? Can it do the things I want? Do I eat as I should? Do I sleep as I should? Are you snappy with friends? Do you need time off?

7. Work

Do I enjoy it? Do I have a leader who inspires me? Does the organization value me? Am I able to use my core capabilities? Is the cost of working for them matched by the value I receive? Yes I give my work a performance review – are they what I need?

8. Finance

Do I have enough? Do I have plans for when things go wrong? Do I have saving goals/purposes.

9. My Drivers

Over time you will start to see patterns in your behaviours, things or people you prefer to be around.  It has helped me understand that I have certain drivers (some good and some not) for example I am incredibly curious, I want to know why, but do I spend too much time exploring/discovering and not acting?  There are things that I sometimes find difficult to manage e.g. being a workaholic do I make sure that I have enough rest and/or vacation, is my health good?; we are all better people to others when we are refreshed.

Making it real

Often I will draw a mind map for each (1-8) and then give it an overall score between 1 and 10. If it is lower then 5 I start to consider how to improve it, by adding things that could improve the score on my mind map on the edges.  I build an action plan for the next year e.g. If I do not have enough Love, should I meet new people, do I deepen the my relationships that are good for me, or do I remove people from my life.  After completing  all the mind maps I consider the bigger picture and the inter relationships between each mind map, e.g. could I kill two birds with one stone? Or is one so high and at the cost of others e.g. Work is at 9 but Love is at 2.

Then I will consider my drivers. Some of these drivers will clash with others, how are you managing that balance? I draw an illustration for each of my drivers and consider both the good and bad of each.

Then I again I will look at the connections between all (1-9).

This is the way I consider my life on an annual basis, you may have different things that matter, different drivers that push you. I urge you to discover who and where you are and how to make sure you are in control of your life, not too much control, but enough to be heading in the direction that you wish.

Leading your professional you

The reality for most people is you will have many jobs and careers.

My journey so far would appear to be all over the map. I started as apprentice potter, a newspaper delivery boy, a general dogsbody in a kitchen, a cook, a chef, a computer scientist, a student politician, a trainer, a charity campaigner, a political campaigner, a english teacher, a dive instructor, a politician, a cabinet member, a marketing VP, consultant, startup founder, a college professor, a tech support, and a developer.

Every job and career can teach you many things (if you are paying attention), changing either, will give you a faster track to understand the similarities and difference in different sectors and jobs. In the end by having different of jobs/careers you will see connections, innovations that others who are stuck in one role and career will rarely see..  For me I connect so many disparate things, see opportunities where others are blind and I am constantly  readdressing what others see as the “truth”, common sense or the obvious. All because they are coming from one angle or a limited few angles and I am not.

Hint when you have lost your keys stand on a chair it will allow you to see the room from a different angle that you are unfamiliar with and you will pay more attention because it is new.. I am suggesting the same thing about your career..

A job and career should fit to your needs and desires at the time.. sometimes that will be simply to pay the rent, other times it should be explore another part of you.  Choose a pathway of jobs and careers that will make you happy and that will teach you the things you need and desire, to help you with the next step.. consider it a pathway or a tree with many opportunities..

Plan your professional life.

Tree of growth

So if you change your job career regularly what about loyalty to orgainsations and businesses, fair question:

  • Public companies are often more loyal to their shareholders and the organisations survival then you, yes even if you are the founder or CEO.
  • Private companies loyalties are determined by the power structure or family relationships or funders.
  • Governments are loyal to the last electorate vote, who often vote on the last bad thing the government did, whole programs and departments are wiped out as governments change.
  • Non-Profits immediate future are determined on the economic cycle

Ok a touch cynical I appreciate, but the reality is organisations are always changing even if a bit slowly. And so should you!

Here is a couple things that helped me and things I continue grow:

1. Importance of self awareness

The more context and angles you see yourself in, the more constructive feedback you get, the more you will truly understand yourself. As you experience different organisation cultures you will build an understanding in what you like and dislike.  You will need to book sometime for yourself to reflect, process and understand.

Most people are not truly aware of what their dream job is, they even think they do, just do not know until you have tried it.  Maybe you have be driven to this point because it was what was expected of you by your family or friends or teachers. Chill, I personally do not think you have to have a job or career for life, you are not a penguin you are a human you have choices.  Sometimes having choice is part of the problem..

In my experience, there is something more powerful then the right job, its working with an awesome team.  When this happens the role seems less important as long as you are contributing to the team. Being good in your role and being proactive in learning becomes natural.

Trying out a few personalities tests will also give you some slivers off your personality, remember most of this are very superficial and a snapshot in a time and a place.

2. Fear should become your friend

We all need become unafraid of changing both careers and jobs or at least manage the fear so it becomes your adrenaline, your extra boost, a source of strength, not weakness.

You can reduce fear by planning for the change, e.g. taking evening courses, internship, work seven days a week (5 in one job, 2 in the new role), get a mentor in the role you want to be in. Take a vacation and go to a conference that concentrates on that role, check out if these people are the ones you want to be surrounded by.

It is not easy to learn new skills for which you are being paid for.  You will often feel “stupid” and fustrated at yourself. Understand the basics of anger management, because your mistakes will make you angry at yourself more! Ask your partner(s), friend(s) or family(s) to keep an eye on you and help you adjust, reflect and process.

3. Choose your boss carefully

It does not matter how good you are, if your boss does not like you, the rest is irrelevent.  You must choose a boss who can be both your coach and mentor.  You are recruiting for you. You are looking for the best match for you.  Let them worry about if you are good match for them. Your interviews should be 50/50 in terms of questions, yes you asking 50%.

Questions to ask:

  1. How many of your staff have you coached and mentored?
  2. Describe to me your coaching style?
  3. Can you give me examples of your staff that have outgrown their roles?
  4. Have any of your staff ended up in senior positions to you?
  5. If I fail project how will you react to your colleagues and me?

4. Understand how to build a new network

You will not be here for ever, find out who the good people are. You have a strong advantage over those who stay in one job or company, your network will grow faster, this gives you more opportunities for new roles. Again match people on your personality, not power/influence. Look for the people you want to work with again. Also look for the people who are really good at, what you are not.

5. Understand how to learn and grow your skills fast

This is very important. Get to really know how you learn best and expand your learn capabilities. You should not, use one learning model to understand this, you use many models (they all see different things). It may require an investment on your part, in the end understanding this will determine in part your success in each job and career. Accept that your will occasionally make a mistake or even fail.

Here are some learning style models:

  • Honey & Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire (Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist)
  • David Kolb’s model (Accommodating, Converging, Diverging and Assimilating)
  • Neil Fleming’s VAK/VARK model (visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic learners)
  • Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scale  (avoidant, competitive, collaborative, dependent, independent and participative)

6. Grow both your leadership and followship abilities

Whilst we have media mythology that states that leaders are more important.

Leaders only exist if they have followers.

If an organisation expects you to serve as a slave for five years before you can have some leadership responsibilities move on, go work for a smaller growing organization, who offers opportunities.That said it is also important to occasionally work for larger organisations to understand how to work in one e.g. how bureaucratic systems work, how the culture of having several tiers of management, effects innovation and the impact policy decisions from on-high effect the person on the ground floor or customer facing.

In my career I have chosen to work in leadership and then not. It has accelerated my abilities in both. But it is not easy. It has taught me humility, patience, the ability to coach upwards and let others fail if need be. Sometimes you need to reinforce your roots, other times explore a branch. Growing upwards is not always the best choice.

7. Do not burn bridges

A lesson I learned from politics. You will fail, what people really respect is how you do it with humility and style and then come back and show people why you are good. You also never know who will be your allies in the future, occasionally you will have to forgive others and move on. Sometimes you will work out in hindsight it was you creating the problems.

8. You own your future

Plan your professional life. Work out where you think may want to be. Look at the skills, knowledge and experience you will need to acquire, to achieve each step. This plan should and will change as opportunities pop up. Reflect on each job, what did you like about it and what did you not. Reflect on your bosses, what was good and not, how will this improve both your leadership and followship abilities. How specifically are you going to grow, what books, courses, conferences will you attend? Which personality tests will you pay for.

Make a plan, but stay on your toes and change as you learn.

Last Thoughts

Do not let your manager or HR “talent manage” you. They care about their needs or the organizations needs not yours.  Of course listen to their advice, but check in with their motivation. Yes ask them!

Most talent management and skills databases systems are simply shit. They are limited by traditional concepts of the education you have received and the job titles you have had.  They are predicting your future by looking at your past. Idiots. Just imagine if we limited the human races future on the past, so why do we do it for every individual. Your past could be a reflection of your parents, the financial place you have come from, if you were teased at school, things that as an adult you can choose to move on from.

Even currently online resumes miss the point, how limited in expression and in understanding the professional needs of a human, even from an organisation perspective they are limited in use.

This simply waste of human potential, angers me so much, it is in part why I founded Professional You and why in time I will blow this shit into the past.

This has become my flame, the thing I will build all the skills I need towards, the types of people I will hunt for to help me with this mission. And if I fail it would be for a cause I believe in.

My path is clear, I understand the full grown tree that I need to grow, in myself. This clarity took many roles, many careers, many failures and success.

I hope this post helps you find some of your tree, or helps you on your journey. Please share your learnings, so I can learn from you 🙂

Becoming a leader of an organization

So recently someone I respect has being promoted to become a leader of an organization.  I want them to be successful, so I thought long and hard if I had some good advice that I could share. Was there a good book I could recommend? Or a video?

I own about 60 books on leadership excluding the MBA stuff.  There was one that I kept coming back to me, it was a book I first read when I had just being elected to office and became the cabinet member for Cornwall County Council (UK) as Community & Culture “Minister”. This role was a real step up for me in terms of budget (71 million) and staff (over 440 spread out over many locations), where there was often upto 4 leaders between me and the frontline staff.

Eric Brooke newly elected to the cabinet of Cornwall County Council 2005

Eric Brooke newly elected to the cabinet of Cornwall County Council 2005

The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman

A good book for those who wish to improve their workplace. Provides a lot of evidence e.g. psychology studies and crafts them into a compelling narrative. The actions at the end of each chapter are a usefu summaryl.

A lot to learn here for all leaders and those who wish to be leaders. And maybe even for progressive trade unionists. And of course for people who would rather improve their workplace, rather than complain about it!

The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell by Oren Harari

This book not only had a lot of wisdom in it, that we often take for granted and thus forget.  I think the best kind of leadership book is one you walk away from and think/feel I want to be led by this person.  And to make it even better I know now how I can ‘upgrade’ myself to replicate this over time.

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them”

In the end the leaders behaviour will create a culture, so the book and video I recommended were as much about context (i.e. of this new leaders organisation, and its culture).

Another choice was the video by Simon Sinek, Start with the Why

This video ties into the need to inspire and effective leadership is about inspiration not overt control.

The book The Power of Why by Amanda Lang, had a number of factors I needed, it is written by a women who is also Canadian and the stories come from other industry sectors. Context is everything.

“Permission to dream is also permission to fail”

A book I found useful early in my career was The New Leaders by Daniel Goleman (he also wrote Emotional Intelligence).  It was this book that showed me on reflection, the different leadership styles you will apply e.g. command and control has its place, depending on the context.  It was also the book that helped to delegate with trust when moving into middle management.

Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion an inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through emotions..

There is a great TED video -> As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify by Yves Morieux

Suddenly it becomes in my interest to be transparent on my real weaknesses, my real forecast, because I know I will not be blamed if I fail, but if I fail to help or ask for help.

 

The last book is produced by CEO of the company with probably the best customer service on the planet. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh journeys through time and a mans’ growth in understanding importance of leadership behaviours and their impact on the staff and thus the organisations’ culture.

Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

My last couple thoughts come from experience:

  • That leadership is as much about vulnerability, as it is about confidence – see Brené Browns TED Video
  • That followers choose who inspires and leads them rather then manages and controls them
  • That women leaders are often better coaches then males, but the often to do not “give” territory for their coachees to succeed in.
  • That “rebels” can often be bright people who are bored, give them something to do, they could become your greatest innovators

Finally leadership is a skill that you will never master, so expect to fail, maybe even plan for it, that said we often “love” rather than just respect the leaders more who have failed and have come back to succeed.

Good books to read if you want to create a web startup

These are books that have made a difference to my thinking.  I have read them all.  They are not all perfect but sometimes we learn lessons from imperfection as well.  Overtime I will keep adding to this list.

Top two to read now:

Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want

This book is visually amazing. Some in fact may find it too visual. It is an alternative book to The Startup Owners manual by Steve Blank or the The Lean Startup by Eric Reis. It takes the foundation laid in Business Model Generation Book and focus on customers and experimenting with those customers to establish a proven Value Proposition.

The contents is solid and assumes you have not a research background or a marketing background. Yet it gives you the things you need to know to reduce false positives.

Its approach is to assume the customer knows what they want.

I highly recommend this book for Product Leaders, MBA students, entrepreneurs, startup founders and project leaders.

Business Model Generation
Need to work how your business could make money, but not sure of which way to go. This book is an amazing and essential resource in establishing possible pathways. It also challenges you to stay flexible with business opportunities. It has some excellent real case studies in how to use this technique.

Top Lesson – Your business model should be a part of your daily thinking not lost in a 50 page MBA document.

Other great books

Getting Real -> Rework
Getting real was a good book to getting started, really from the perspective that you have all the skills and people already, it felt practical.  Rework was a updated version and it felt more abstract, more about the business then the product.

Top Lesson – get on with it and start simple

Four Steps to Epiphany -> The Startup Manual

This book really helped me do proper market research and how to do it. It is really a step by step guide in how to build a business around an idea.The updated book was much better designed and easier to read.

Top Lesson – don’t pitch but listen to the customer pains

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development

There is also a “cheat sheet” by Brant Cooper & Patrick Vlaskovites, I liked it because it was visually pleasing and gets to the point faster then four-steps and The lean startup.

Do more faster
This book was like having lots of friendly practical tips. The chapters are short and it’s useful as a reference for early stage Startups.

Top Lesson – Founders earn equality too

Web 2.0: A strategy Guide
This book was full of case studies of web businesses that we all know, it shows their journey and their strategies. It is helpful in helping you think through the big picture in terms in how you handle the market, competition and evolving customers.

Top Lesson – Stay flexible and be ready to adapt but do have a long term vision with game plan, in your head.

Start Small, Stay Small: A developers guide to launching a startup
This is a really practical guide to how to turn your website into a business. What are your first few steps.

Top Lesson – There are many paths to the same goal.

Managing Startups: Best Blog Posts

This book pulls together some of the best blog posts on well everything startup.

For the founder who concentrates on the business, money side, culture

Startup CEO: How to Build a Company to Success

Great book for first time CEO and how to survive growth.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

War stories

Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less

Finding and addressing management and leadership weaknesses in organizations. It’s more relevant to large organizations but had plenty for small teams to incorporate as well.

Presentation Zen
You need to be good a telling your story, in a really simple fashion that all ages can understand. It helps you move away from bullet points to visual explanations.

Top Lesson – can you make this simplier?

Start with Why
This is an interesting book with a great TEDx video. It will encourage better pitches and storytelling and improve the marketing of your business and products.

Top Lesson – Those who start with WHY never manipulate, they inspire.  And people follow them not because they have to; they follow because they want to.

Delivering Happiness

This is told from the perspective of one person and his journey to learn the importance of organization culture. Every behavior or interaction you have will set the foundations for your Organisation. If you bully your people will copy you and bully to. What are values and principles? This book will help you start this journey.

Top Lesson – Happiness never decreases by being shared.

For the founder is more technology focused:

Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup

An awesome book how to bootstrap, written by a developer for developers.

The Art of Agile Development
A most excellent book with practical tips in how you can truly move in applying agile. This book uses xp programming as its pathway.

Top Lesson -Your software only begins to have real value when it reaches users.

Clean Code

This book gives a good description of clean code and how to achieve it in your own projects.It is based above some very clear principles and will help you think through the code your currently create.

Top Lesson – always commit better code then you have checked out.

Clean Coder
How good is your code? How professional are you really? Can you say no. Do you pass the buck? Are you accountable for your code.  This author puts the prefect model out there, which is a good start for a dialogue for what is possible.

Top lesson – You need to say no when you need to say no

For the founder who is design focused, UX inclined:

The Smashing Mag Books 1,2,3
Both the books and the website are an excellent for both designers and developers alike. A smart collection on web design principles. It’s a high-level view of user interaction information and has useful takeaways in each chapter.

A Project Guide to UX Design: For user experience designers in the field or in the making
A step-by-step guide to web development from proposal through wire framing to testing and launch.

Final Thoughts

Now go and build, create and show us your vision.

You want more -> If you want to see all the books I have read on startups have a look at my goodreads profile and my startup shelf

Choosing a name for your startup

Through my marketing career I have helped companies name themselves and their products.  Each journey is unique, sometimes it is quick and sometimes not, it should not be rushed. More recently I have helped out a couple tech startups, think this through. Here are my insights from the perspective of a startup or small business. I will assume you do not have a large advertising budget to educate your consumers or users.

The strongest names tend to be:

  • Unique
  • Easy to say(pronounce) and easy to write(spell)
  • Easy to understand
  • They tend to reflect Values or Benefits of the product not features, not sure of what FBV are? Look here
  • Have emotion as they describe inherit values
  • They may use words, with inherent trust in them, or coming a mythology already in place
  • They may be counter-culture, to rest of their sector
  • At least one noun
Bad names:
  • incorrect spelling
  • acronyms
  • boring
  • based on the latest trend
  • swear words
  • when using two words or more there is an inequality in the power of the words
  • adverbs

Things that do not matter:

Too many companies choose names based on what is available on the web.  URL vs Google search – in my humble opinion people rarely type in the URL bar, but instead will type the company name straight into their search engine (Google, Bing or Yahoo).

Corporate or product naming

Corporate branding – about the values, behaviours and thus culture of your organization.  So that you can attract the right talent to your organization.  In Simon Sineks’ book Start with the Why – people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it

Product branding – All about your customers and their needs/desires.

An example from a startup weekend (54 hours – No talk, all action):

We wanted to build a tele-presence (e.g. you could control it from a web browser) robot (on wheels, inductive charging and video camera) that people were comfortable with having in their home, it would either check to see if their pet was ok, used to communicate with tech-phobic granny or sweep the house to see if all was good.  We felt the biggest market was to look after or checkin on either pets or grannies, our price point was $300. Women cared most. So I went to a dog park to see if small dog owners in apartment block inner cities would be interested.  There were more women the first morning, all small dogs, about half could not get home to check their pet at lunchtime and would then rush home after work.  They said “I would love to check-in with Frankly, he is so cute”. The term check-in appeared a lot in conversation.  However they did not like the idea of a robot, it felt too un-organic, but one suggestion was “well if it looked like a bear that would be cool.  So I started asking what animals people liked.. They seemed to reflect the movies of the time so, chicken, panda, penguin and monkeys.. so it made sense to call it ANIMAL + CHECKIN.  So I tried Chicken Checkin – people reacted with a surprise and then a smile (That is good). This played well with the audience would buy it for their grandmother as well (the grand daughters using their own or mothers money for their grand mother). I then used animal names people wanted most on the higher price scale, aspiration and all that. Chicken checkin as the cheapest base model, Chatty Panda for the good model (two way video conferencing) and periscope penguin (extendable neck – kitchen counter).

One other thing I knew the leading competitors at the start-up weekend – one was being led by a local Venture capitalist on home security – so i was guessing they would be going for rational proposition, a touch of fear (of home invasion), republican and money.  Another competitor was being led by a local Angel – another way to give money to homeless people, so very emotional, democrat, and fair.  In terms of name and brand I was looking for humour, clarity, independent, emotional but tying into common sense.  Essentially I was ensuring we would portray something very different in the pitch, not just in product but in style. It worked to a degree we won best presentation.

You can read the start weekend post here.

The importance of emotion

Every word comes with a meaning to a person, it may even not be about the word but the letters used.  They may not or love the name simply because of their history. People always come with baggage.

Literal versus abstract names – its on a scale

Personally I believe the more literal the name, the less education(marketing) will be needed for people to place you. And it is important(why psychology and memory) for people to be able to place/position you if you want mass market rather than just visionary buyers.

Comparisons

How would you choose a child’s name? Why do certain names mean more than others? We have a surprisingly amount of prejudices/emotion based on human names, often based on the first person we met with that name

Process

If you are finding difficult here is a process that may help you discover the name. This journey may help you explore more than just your name but your whole business. Its important to keep it separate from the design process.

Stage One: Research

  • Know your shit – the business, the sector, the competition
  • Know your values – a process in its self, which should really involve others
  • Research your stakeholders – Porters five forces (Customers, Suppliers, Competition, New Entrants, Substitutes)
  • Choose a perspective (Who are the first set of customers you want onboard, who will champion your cause – what is their psychological makeup? What words do they like and use)
  • Your name is not alone – Type, colours, logo – will add clues to what you are about and can dramatically change the way words are perceived.

Stage Two: Get past the NOW

Sometimes people are so fixed about their idea, filter and prejudices that they cannot see clearly.  As the startup journey is very often emotional, it can cloud us from ration thought, which can be helpful.  That said a good name depends on having a strong emotional connection.

First Impressions

Get your team together and put the following questions on flip chart paper – give everyone post-it notes and a felt tip (it limiteds the number of words used) and describe:

Q1 – What do you(the organsation) do?

Q2 – How does your consumer/user benefit?

Q3 – What do you change in your consumer?

Q4 – Why are you unique? This one tends to get more bullshit answers than the others, be honest.

Q5 – What are your values and how does this reflect in behaviours and product/services? (If you are seeking actual behaviours then your values are not a reality, yet..) You should know this BEFORE you consider your name.

Everyone gets to put up there own views, no filtering or founder bullying.  Each idea should be discussed (people can keep adding) and grown. Brainstorming – not sure how? Have a look here.

Stage Three: Record the journey

Reserve a lot of wall space..

The Wall of Names – somewhere there should a wall of ideas, post-it notes with names, all are valid ideas. Each person would try to grow each idea, or help it down the evolutionary ladder. The more people you allow into the process the more ideas you will get.  This wall is not limited to words , pictures, sketches and photos are equally good.

The Wall of Customers (for product name) – the same as above but describes the customers you want. Their personalities, their drivers, fashion, music, everything

The Wall of Talent (for corporate name) – What are the types of people you want to attract? We all want smart people to work for us. But what kind of smartness? At a small business level your talent will be limited by the personality of the founder/leader. The unaware founder will want lots of people like them, but with different capabilities. The smart founder will be looking for different types of personalities as building a team is often about weaving, very different people together (as they all have different perspectives and will be able to see different problems and solutions).

Stage Four: Step out of your space

A fair degree of innovation comes from looking at other people doing other things, in other places and seeking what we can learn from them.  In part this happens so often that Michael Porter had two elements (Threat of New Entrants and Threat of Substitutes) in his Porters Five forces model to account for people who can come from another sector and replace what you are doing e.g. Apple taking over music and in part mobile.

Look at other organizations in other sectors (not your own) – which organization would you want to be from any sector profit, non-profit or governmental.  You are looking for the organizations that you admire and would like to emulate in some way.  For each organization breakdown why you like them, into values, people, products/services, get a little deep here, you are trying to truly see past the marketing/propaganda to see how they are connecting with you.

Unique possibilities

After you have reviewed the organizations consider what does not occur in your sector that already exists in another.

Stage Five: Deciding

Choosing a name is not an easy process.  Some people start with code names e.g. Project ALPHA, so they can just label it. Labelling is important for most humans.  If you are on a timescale I would suggest taking everyone out of work to start the above process, allow for no distractions, if possible get an independent to help facilitate the session.  They will concentrate on getting the best out of people in terms of ideas.  What ever you do always sleep on it.  The brain generally does some amazing stuff whilst you are asleep.

Names are like falling in love, you know it.  This can take time. Everyone will feel it.  That said even after choosing you may have doubts, thats ok.

The advocate – you will need at least one person to love the idea and explore its possibilities. Without a true advocate you do not have a good name.

Good places to think about it – Road Trip (with the team, not alone) you are together but in the real world with different stimulations, walk around a shopping mall, go to a conference about something you know nothing about, read an autobiography of someone with a completely different life to you. Lack of sleep can help 🙂 Expose yourself to different forms of stimulation.

Good books

These books are not directly related, but each has taught me something with naming:

Sticky Wisdom – Understanding and growing creative cultures

Eating the Big Fish – About branding when you are the punk on the block

How to have Kick-Ass Ideas – Shake it up

Visual Meetings

Logo Design love

If you want to deeper into branding here are a couple other reccomendations

Designing Brand Identity 

Brand Sense

Brand Portfolio Strategy

I welcome your thoughts and experiences.  Where did your names come from?  What are your favourite names?