Work and Life

Personal Brand: You Tell Me


Jim De Piante of the Voices on Project Management blog has a post on managing your personal brand.

Here’s the thing about branding: at its heart, your brand is how people perceive you. It’s not what you say you are, but what they say you are. So how you see yourself (or how you want to see yourself) is not necessarily the same as how others see you.

What do I see as key elements of my personal brand? Here’s a start:

1) I’ll get the job done. You have a problem, and I’ll help you solve it. You won’t have to worry about progress, because I’ll be on top of it, and I’ll let you know how things stand.

2) I’m great at asking for help when I need it. I don’t need (or want) handholding, but I know when I need support–and I’ll ask for it when I do. Your project is not going to take a nosedive because of my pride.

3) I pay attention to goals. A former boss told me that she could always count on me to know when something was good enough. She didn’t mean that I settled for adequacy; she meant that I knew what it took to complete the project and meet or exceed standards, and when a particular flourish might be cool–but would be too expensive, or too time-consuming, or inconsistent with the larger effort.

But that’s how I see myself, and that’s only part of the story. At least as important is this: How do you see me?

Mythology: Work-Life Balance


Yesterday someone came by my office for an informational interview. She was well-prepared and asked smart questions about the organization and the work itself. But then she asked, “How do you handle work-life balance?”

Sometimes I think that’s the equivalent of my two least favorite job interview questions: “What are your weaknesses?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

But I think it can also be a very good question, because if taken seriously it can lead to a real discussion of what that means, and what it doesn’t mean.

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.

  • Work-life balance does not mean that you can “have it all.”
  • It does not mean that things are divided 50-50.
  • It does not mean that you feel no tension between different parts of your life.

So what does it mean?

Well, for starters, I think we can have it all–just not all at once. Life is about choices, and we have to choose what we want to emphasize at any particular point. So if you work full-time and have a family and a home, you probably are not going to be able to excel at work, spend hours each day with your spouse and children, and keep floors so clean that you can eat off them.

Or maybe you can. But I’ll put good money on the likelihood that because you have those clean floors, you haven’t cleaned out the fast food wrappers in your car since last winter.

When you really get right down to it, there is no single equation for work-life balance. Sure, some people will tell you that there is–but somehow the answer they promote is always what they do. That’s great for them, but it may not work for you. So don’t worry about it.

Determine what matters to you. What do you value most? What are your priorities? What are your boss’s priorities, and your organization’s? Do what matters most, and don’t worry so much about the rest. Find ways to delegate, or revise your standards.

Then again, maybe we should all just move to Denmark.

Social Media Background Checks and You


When I started working with my current employer, I had to have a background check. The reason why is a bit ridiculous, in my opinion–apparently it has nothing to do with, say, data security (I’ve never had that kind of job), and everything with a failure to properly check references. So now, instead of doing a more thorough job of verifying the claims on resumes, we all get fingerprinted. Make what you will of that.

There’s a new kind of background check in town, and it makes those “be careful what you post” warnings sound a bit less paranoid. Social Intelligence, a one-year-old startup, conducts “social media background checks” for employers, collecting information available for the past seven years.

The idea is that you sign a waiver and the screening company reviews your social media presence, reporting back to the hiring organization–but leaving out information that can be discriminatory, such as race, pregnancy, disabilities, and so on. The benefit for the hiring organization is that they’re buffered from discrimination claims. The benefit for you is . . . well, I guess the benefit for you is that the interview remains the key point at which you might face discrimination in the hiring process.

So what kind of information are they collecting? That depends on what the employer wants. According to the company’s website:

Social Intelligence Corp solely generates reports based on employer pre-defined criteria, both positive and negative. Negative examples include racist remarks or activities, sexually explicit photos or videos, and illegal activity such as drug use. Positive examples include charitable or volunteer efforts, participation in industry blogs, and external recognition.

At the same time, this doesn’t remove the possibility for individual bias, personal interpretation, or simple human error. As Kelsey Blair writes for Social Times:

Who determines what constitutes aggressive or discriminatory? Is it participation in a Facebook group? It could be. Is it angry status updates? Absolutely. And who gets to decide? The good folks at Social Intelligence Corp, of course. According to Drucker “since our team are in fact human beings, they are able to discern to the best degree possible what ‘explicit’ means.” And what discriminatory means. And what violent means.

In writing about the process, the New York Times says that the review also may look for “flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity.”

Here’s an example of where discretion comes in. What counts as “flagrant display of weapons”? Is it a picture of a soldier deployed in a war zone? Someone teaching their son or daughter about gun safety on a firing range? A group of friends getting ready to go hunting? A disgruntled employee outside the boss’s office door? That seems like a pretty wide range of behavior to me, but someone else might not make that distinction. And since a photo is literally a single moment in time, how do people conducting background checks know what the context is?

So those are some of the issues related to social media background searches. The next question: what do you do about it?

Well, to begin with, be aware that when you use social media, you are choosing how you present yourself to the world, and that the world may not see what you intend to show. That’s true regardless of whether the person looking is a potential employer or your Aunt Edna.

Next, take a look at your privacy settings. These firms are going to be looking at what they can see–you’re not handing over your login information.

And consider what information you’re providing employers to begin with. In his Gizmodo article “I Flunked My Social Media Background Check. Will You?” Mat Honan writes:

It only uses the data an employer gives it to run a search. This tends to be standard issue information from your resume. Your name, your university, your email address and physical location. Which means that, ultimately, you are the one supplying all the data for a background check. Because you are the one who supplies that data to your employer. And that means you should be smart about what kinds of contact information you put on your resume.

Your personal email address, especially if you’ve had it for a long time, could have all kinds of things tied to it that you’d rather an employer not see. Spend the nothing it costs to set up a dedicated job search email account, and list that one on your c.v.

Social media background checks are here to stay. Social Intelligence isn’t the only company providing them (a quick Google search turned up at least one other company), and the FTC is fine with the practice. So take a look at what you’re putting out there, who you’re sharing it with, and what’s on your resume. But you were doing that anyhow, right?

Let’s Run It Up the Flagpole and See if Anyone Salutes


Warhol's Light Bulbs

I’ve seen this advice to new and recent college graduates: don’t worry too much about your lack of experience, because what you have to offer is your ideas.

I’d suggest that’s actually true regardless of how long you’ve been in the workforce. I’d also suggest that you do your best to make sure those ideas are good ideas.

While it’s (pretty much) true that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming–because my bad idea might trigger you to have a better one, and vice versa–that doesn’t mean that all ideas are good ones, and it doesn’t mean that all of your “interesting” ideas have a sound foundation. It’s particularly important to make sure that you keep this in mind when you’re presenting those ideas in a highly public forum–say, on the Web.

Case Study #1: Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein posited that the votes of the young should count more, because they will feel the effects of that vote longer (because they’re younger–get it?). Klein writes:

If your response to this is that it’s crazy and offensive, that all American adults are equal and so is their vote, you might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Senate, where a Wyoming resident’s vote is worth almost 70 times as much as a Californian’s, or the electoral college, where the presidency could be won by a candidate who loses the popular vote 4:1.

All of which is to say, we already reweight voting in this country. But we do it to give residents from small states more power.

So before the reader has had time to get past the suggestion that we vote like we’re living in the world of Logan’s Run, Klein seems to overlook both the concept of a bicameral legislature and the Great Compromise. He did add an update in which he alludes to the latter, but he doesn’t actually suggest an alternative–he’s mostly concerned with justifying his original idea, which still doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out.

Case Study #2: In the same blog, Brad Plumer speculates on the constitutionality of the debt ceiling. He seems to be suggesting that President Obama choose which law to enforce, effectively ignoring conflicting law. That is a legal conundrum, regardless of topic, and worthy of scholarly analysis and public debate. But what Plumer says is “If Obama decided to treat the debt ceiling as unconstitutional and start floating new debt anyway, it’s not clear anyone could stop him.”

I’m not sure how one would “treat” something as unconstitutional. But the error that originally caught my attention comes in the post title: “Why won’t Obama just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional?”

Was this title written by Plumer or by an editor? Regardless, someone this closely involved in content creation for the Post ought to know that the answer is “Because he’s the President, not the Supreme Court.” After all, in Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that established the concept of judicial review, Chief Justice John Marshall declared:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.

Now, if one needed to be a constitutional law specialist to understand these issues, the errors would be easy to excuse. But each of these topics–bicameral legislature, the Great Compromise, and judicial review–is covered in every high school government textbook in the U.S. Marbury v. Madison is one of only a handful of cases identified by name in those textbooks. These are not obscure references, but subjects vital to an understanding of how federal government works in the United States. I didn’t know Katharine Graham and I’ve never met Ben Bradlee, but I have trouble imagining that either of them would have put up with this.

So when you have what you think is a great idea, don’t just ask your friends–run it by people who may know more than you. They might be able to help you find the holes before you put them on display for the whole world to see.

Photo by zetson, via Flickr.

Limiting Yourself Can Boost Creativity


When I was growing up, my mother would say, “Look at Picasso’s early work. He knew how to paint conventionally. Then he came up with his own style. But the early work tells you that the later work was the result of his talent and vision, not the result of someone who couldn’t paint shapes correctly.”

In college, I had a seminar class led by a professor who would only accept two-page papers. He said that if we couldn’t make and support an argument in that amount of space, we hadn’t focused our topics enough.

A few years later, I worked on a print project that had specific space limitations. The freelancer said, “I can’t be creative if you’re going to be that strict.” I pointed out that all work is done within certain parameters, and that I thought she could do a great job within the ones we had. Lo and behold, she delivered.

I was reminded of all of this as I read Seth Godin’s post about embracing constraints. As he says, “Once you can thrive in a world filled with constraints, it’s even easier to do well when those constraints are loosened.”

There’s a lot of validity to this. Identify your goals and find ways to meet them. If you can do this when your resources are limited, then you’re really developing your skills and thinking creatively about challenges and solutions. If you can create something beautiful by coloring within the lines, you’re going to be much better able to choose how to color outside them.

Is Your Head in the Cloud?



How do you use cloud computing? And what precautions do you take to keep your information secure?

Over the weekend, an authentication bug made Dropbox accounts accessible via any password. Because encryption and decryption happen on their servers and not yours, they hold the encryption key. This gives you access to your files even if you lose your password. In this case, it also gave hackers access to your files.

Dropbox reports that only a small number–about 1%–of accounts may have been accessed, and they’ve contacted the owners of those accounts. But it raises the question: how safe is the cloud?

Of course, nothing is foolproof. But there are some things to keep in mind. Namely, these kinds of services can be great for file sharing and transfer. The question is, what files are you sharing and transferring? Take a hard look at what kind of information you put there, and think about your real comfort level.

Photo by zebble, via Flickr.

3 Ways to Handle Criticism


We all have room for improvement. And we all want to get it right the first time. All too often, this results in conflict. Here are some tips on how to handle that.

1) Accept that you’re not going to get it right the first time, every time.
Life is one big learning experience, and sometimes we just screw up. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and find a new approach to whatever didn’t work. People are more likely to overlook your errors if you acknowledge them and look for solutions.

2) Recognize that it is not “My way or the highway.” There are lots of solutions. Is yours the best? Maybe. Maybe not. When someone disagrees with your idea or approach, focus on what is best for your project, rather than what is best for your ego. If your way is best, be prepared to demonstrate why. If it’s just “your way,” consider the merits of “their way.”

3) Consider the source. Sometimes the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and isn’t a stakeholder. The comment is still worth considering, because someone with an outside view may have a perspective you don’t, and can’t. But if the criticism is based on a lack of familiarity with project goals, organizational mission, or previous decisions, then it’s probably fine to let it lie.

Please note that #3 is not a license for rudeness. Being a jerk will come back to haunt you.

There’s No Excuse for Legalese


How many times have you clicked “yes” on a user agreement without reading it? Pretty much every time, right?

No one is reading them. The result is that we don’t really know what we’re agreeing to–but most of us are willing to take that risk. We don’t have time to read 67 pages of arcane text before we start using a site.

So, to all software developers/social media site managers/companies of all sizes and shapes: Stop writing them. It is not that hard. Give us the rules of the road, and let us move along. There’s no reason for user agreements to be written in a way that makes reading them onerous. Just because we live and work under an Anglo-American legal system (except for you, Louisiana, I know) doesn’t mean we should be writing documents in some Middle English/Latin hybrid. Henry II of England is not checking your policies, and if he were, he’d have no idea how to keep his status up to date on foursquare.*

So let’s all act like we live in this century, and write for our audiences. That includes our user agreements. It’s right there in the name of the document.

*Although now that I’ve written that sentence, I really want to create social media profiles for him, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their assorted dysfunctional children. And yes, I know Henry spoke French.

Are You Bumping Your Head?



The concept of a glass ceiling isn’t new. But maybe it’s not always about the glass. Sometimes, I think what we’re really running into is a green ceiling.

Although women now graduate from college at a higher rate than men, we’re still being paid less for the same job. I’ve heard a lot of rationalizations–women get mommy-tracked, some of these studies don’t really establish job parity and include CEO bonuses which skews the results, yadda yadda yadda.

But according to a new study, women who are new college grads earn less than their mail counterparts, even when they hold the same job. According to the article, “NACE research director Ed Koc analyzed starting salaries of 2010 bachelor’s degree graduates and found that women pulled down an average of $36,451, vs. $44,159 for men.”

That’s a 17% difference. That’s huge.

So, okay, it’s unfair. What do we do about it? Is this a question of how job applicants market themselves? I tend to think not. I suspect it’s perception on the part of the person doing the hiring. But the fact is this: a job is worth a certain amount of money. That’s true regardless of who fills it.

It’s time to end the unfair practice of salary confidentiality. This benefits the employer far more than the employee–and I’m not persuaded that there is any true benefit to the employee. We’re adults. We should be able to handle this news. And all the company has to do is pay its employees based on the jobs they do.

Photo by AMagill, courtesy of Flickr.

Office Space


Conference Table

What’s your ideal workspace? I don’t really mean how it looks. I mean, in what spaces do you work best?

Looking back, I’ve been most focused and productive at large tables–no doubt this hearkens back to doing my homework on the dining room table. Later, I organized and wrote my master’s thesis in the department’s library, where my fellow students and I often gathered around a large conference table. (Mostly we worked there, but on occasion there was table-top waltzing.) (You didn’t hear that from me.) A few years after that, I had a job that required me to process so much paper that I could only use my cubicle for storage; my actual editing work was done at the large table in our common area.

So if I could design my own office space, it wouldn’t contain built-in furniture. And it definitely wouldn’t involve an L-shaped desk.

What I’d like would be a large table with a few chairs and a compact computer station. Oh, and a small file cabinet. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound modern and cool. But here’s what it is: an environment that lets me spread out, see new combinations, and find the big idea. And isn’t that the point?

Photo by Martin Ujlaki, via Flickr.

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