You are not the customer!

Unless you’re building a solution for your exclusive personal use, you are not the customer. If you are not the customer, you need to invest in understanding the customer’s motivations, problems, and goals. The right solution for you may not be the right solution for someone else – even someone you may think of as being “like you” – for reasons that may not be apparent until you look more closely.[1]

This is another post looking at problem domains and solution domains, and it’s inspired by a recent non-technical conversation over brunch[2] with some foodie friends. My wife and I had gotten together with friends who love good food – people who we’ve had over for dinner many times over the years, and from whom we’re always delighted to receive dinner invitations. These are people who know how to cook, and who have invested in their kitchens over the years, so they’re well-equipped to cook what they want.

Imagine my surprise when a friend who has a fabulous combi oven[4] in her kitchen kept talking about how much she loved her new toaster oven that was also an air fryer. Or when another friend who is more than capable of making wonderful meals from scratch waxed poetic about how Thermomix now allows you to use community recipes from any region so she can now make that dumpling recipe she’s been looking at… and about how easy it is to make toast in her June smart oven because it recognizes that she’s put a slice of bread into it and knows how dark she likes her toast…

My initial reaction was to point out how all of these toys were unnecessary, because they already had the real tools they needed to do all these things and more[5], but as the conversation went on I realized I was in a tastier version of a very familiar conversation. This was a conversion about pro and self-service tools, and  about persona-appropriate experiences.

Have you ever been in a conversation when someone suggests that “all you need to do” to solve a problem is to use some code-first tool or service, when all you really want is something lightweight and simple? You probably don’t have an environment set up already, and even if you did the proposed tool don’t solve the problem in the way you want to solve it… even though the tool is capable of solving the problem.

Have you ever built a report that gives its users all the information they need to answer their questions, only to find that your target audience doesn’t like or use the report, and instead keep building their own workarounds?[6]

Have you ever found yourself on the other side of that scenario, where someone has given you a report with all of the numbers, but none of the answers?

These are all variations on the same theme: the importance of persona-appropriate experiences. Delivering capabilities is never enough – you need to deliver capabilities via an experience that works for the people who will use it.

Building an experience people want to use requires a meaningful understanding of those people. What are their backgrounds, their skills, their motivations, their priorities, their preferences… as well as the problems they need to solve. There are lots of ways to build this understanding, and they all start with your acknowledging that you are not the customer, and your willingness to spend time understanding the actual customer’s problems before you start trying to solve them.

I’m confident that a commercial restaurant kitchen would have all of the capabilities you would need to prepare breakfast – and more. I’m similarly confident that you would prefer something smaller, less complex, and more familiar – like your own home kitchen – and that if you were only given a commercial kitchen you would soon start looking for alternatives or workarounds that work better for you.

The next time you’re working to solve someone else’s problems – whether you’re building a BI solution or a software product or service – pause to ask yourself if you’re giving a commercial kitchen to a home cook. While you’re paused, also take a minute to remind yourself that you’re not the customer.


[1] The admonition “you are not the customer” was included in some of the first training materials I read when I became a program manager at Microsoft. It took me a few years to understand why this is so important, but now it’s something I think about almost every day.

[2] This was December 2021, our first restaurant meal with friends since December 2019, right before the omicron wave arrived in the Seattle area. Who knows when we’ll be able to dine out again…

[3] Kind of like me. I’ve been cooking and baking as a primary hobby for over 30 years, and have a wonderfully-equipped home kitchen. It doesn’t have every tool or toy I might want, but it has everything I need, and quite a few specialized tools I might not technically need but which make common-enough tasks easier and less time consuming.

[4] A combi oven is an oven that combines convection and steam, and which allows you to precisely control both the temperature and humidity while you’re baking.  This simplifies baking lots of things, from bread to cheesecake, but they tend to be very expensive. They’ve just recently moved from high-end professional kitchens into high-end home kitchens. I don’t own one, but I definitely want one.

[5] Thankfully I had my mask on as we were waiting for our food to arrive, which made it easier for me to keep my damned mouth shut for just one minute, which is not my forte.

[6] Yes, in Excel.

Understanding the problem domain

If you’re reading a Power BI-focused blog[1] you’re probably someone who builds solutions. As a BI and data practitioner, you may build reports, datasets, dataflows, databases, or any number of technical artifacts that together represent a solution domain. You have a toolset at your disposal, and you invest your valuable time and energy into refining the skills needed to use those tools.

But what if you’re holding the right tools, while using them to implement the wrong solution? This could happen if you’re holding a hammer and building a chair when what’s really needed is a table, but it could also happen if you’re using Power BI to build a solution that deliver what its users need to make their jobs easier.

Action doesn’t equate with value, and time spent solving a problem you don’t meaningfully understand is often time wasted. So how do you, as a Power BI author, meaningfully understand problems in domains like finance, supply chain, HR, or patient care if you lack personal experience in those domains?

Asking good questions is a great start.

If you want to deliver a fix for a problem someone has reported, asking targeted closed-ended questions to narrow down the scope of the problem can be valuable. What is the error message, when did it start happening, what are the steps to reproduce the problem, does it happen all the time, does it happen on other computers, does it happen for other users… that sort of thing.

This type of question is often great if you need to deliver a fix, but what about when you need to deliver a product? What if you need to deliver a Power BI app that will help a group of people be more productive completing a complex set busines processes?[2]

Asking good questions is still a great start, but you need to ask different questions.

While focused, detailed, targeted questions can be very effective for scoping down a tactical problem to deliver a fix, they tend to not be great for understanding a broader problem domain. Ask closed-ended questions when you want to deliver a fix; ask open-ended questions when you want to understand the problem.

What does your current process look like, where are the places where you struggle, what are the triggers that would cause you to begin the process, why do you do it that way, who works with the output you produce, and what do they do with it… that sort of thing.

If you’re used to asking the first sort of question, the second sort may not be obviously useful. What would you do with these answers? How can you act on them?

The short answer is “it’s complicated” and the longer answer is “read The Customer-Driven Playbook by Travis Lowdermilk and Jessica Rich.”

This amazing book presents a “hypothesis progression framework” that includes tools for learning about customers and their problems before building a solution to those problems. This framework is broken down into four phases:

At the risk of oversimplifying 250 pages of expert guidance, the framework looks something like this:

  • Who is my customer, what does she do, what motivates her, and what problems does she have?
  • What is the scope of my customer’s problem, how does it affect her, and what is its impact?
  • How well the concept you’ve come up with to solve to solve the problem actually fit with your customer’s needs, does its value proposition motivate her to learn more, and how will the limitations of the concept reduce its value?
  • How well does the product or feature you’ve built to implement the validated concept actually solve the customer’s problem it was built to solve?

Each of these phases is presented with best practices for asking the right types of questions of the right people in the right way, with guidance for formulating the right questions, asking them in structured experiments so you can better trust the answers you get, and then making sense of what you’ve heard. That sensemaking process is where your deep expertise in the solution domain will help you the most, as you look closely and mindfully at what you you’ve heard and decide how to act… but most of the process is about learning the details and nuances of the problem, not about solving it.

Albert Einstein once said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Think about that.

In my experience most technical professionals don’t value and appreciate the importance of the problem domain, and instead focus their energies on solutions to problems they don’t fully understand. We can do better, as individuals and as teams and as an industry, and The Customer-Driven Playbook is an excellent place to start. I hope you’ll read it, and I hope you’ll let me know how it changes the way you approach problems and solutions.


[1] Does BI Polar count as a Power BI-focused blog? These days it feels like I’m posting more about ancillary topics and less about Power BI itself.

[2] For that matter, what if you need to deliver a complex commercial software product like Power BI?

Please help make Microsoft Teams more accessible

If you’re in a rush, please skip reading the post and instead vote on these two Microsoft Teams feedback items:

  1. “Please stop blinking” – requesting an option to disable the near-constant blinking of the taskbar button for the Windows app for Teams
  2. “Request User-Level Option to Disable GIF Autoplay” – this one is pretty self-explanatory

Thank you for your votes and comments!

Now on with the post…

I’ve blogged previously about the importance of diversity, including the importance of having a diverse team when building software. I’ve even posted about  specific accessibility challenges with the collaboration tool many of use every day – Microsoft Teams.

And in this context, I am requesting your help.

Last week I shared this quick Twitter poll, and over the course of a day I learned that my challenges with Teams’ default behavior – turning the taskbar button orange and blinking every time there’s activity in the app – are not just mine. Nearly 100 people responded to the poll, and over two thirds of them identified this behavior as a challenge for them as well[1].

For me, this constant flashing is like having someone scream at me all day along. If I’m having a challenging anxiety day, it’s even worse. Judging from the replies on Twitter, I’m not alone in this regard either. And because more and more functionality is being delivered via Teams, it’s not like we can simply close the app to make the blinking stop.

I’ve discovered an undocumented and unsupported hack that appears to solve this problem for some users, but it doesn’t appear to work for everyone. Also, it’s an awful hack that’s about as user-friendly as watching YouTube on your Peloton bike…

If this behavior is a problem for you, please take a few moments to vote up on this feedback item, and to add a personal comment as well. The Teams product team needs to hear from their users to understand what’s important, and this is apparently were they’re listening.

Thank you!


[1] This is a pretty vague interpretation of the poll results, so I’ve included the Twitter poll so you can keep me honest.

 

The Blind Men and the Data Elephant

Are you familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant?

elephant-skin-245071_640
Would you have known this was an elephant, just from this picture?

Sometimes it seems to me that the world of business intelligence – and self-service business intelligence in particular – is made up of blind men feeling their way around a elephant made up of technology and people, each of them feeling something different but none of them able to effectively communicate to the others what they are experiencing.

This blog post was inspired by this email, sent by a technical job recruiter:

Data leader recruiter email
What does this email tell you about the role and the company?

More specifically this blog post was inspired by a tweet[1] from Power BI consultant Jeff Weir, in which he shared this recruiter’s email:

2020-01-18-14-16-43-964--msedge

In this conversation Jeff and I each took the role of a blind man, with this data analytics manager position playing the elephant. Jeff and I each reached very different conclusions.

Jeff may have[2] concluded that Power BI as a tool wasn’t ready for the job, or that that this company wasn’t fully committed to doing what it takes to build a successful data culture, including the right training for their Power BI creators and consumers.

I reached a different conclusion, and I the more I read and re-read the recruiter’s email the more I believed that my initial conclusion is correct: this is an organization that is stepping back from solutions to ensure that they’re focused on the right problems. This is an organization that already has tactics, but is willing to admit that those tactics aren’t getting them where they need to go without the right strategy. This is an organization that seems ready to make significant, substantive change.

Why did I reach this conclusion?

The first sentence: “Ultimately Power BI while being a tool they are currently using it is not the only tool they will consider.”[3]

Wow. As an organization they are avoiding the sunk cost fallacy and explicitly stating they’re open to change, even though that change is likely to be disruptive and expensive. Switching BI tools is hard, and it is not a change that is taken lightly. The leaders at this organization are willing to take that hit and make that change, and they’re taking the steps to find the right leader to help them make it… if that leader decides the change is necessary.

The second sentence, with my emphasis added: “Here they are really looking for someone with some strong technical ability, but more so strong leadership and strategy skills.[3]

Wow!  The recruiter is explicitly calling out the organization’s priorities: they need a strategic leader. They need someone to help them define the strategy, and to lead them in its execution. Yes, they need someone with the technical chops to help carry out

The third sentence: “there will be an element of helping there and mentoring the staff members currently in the team.”

Maybe not exactly wow on this one, but it’s clear that the organization knows that they need to build the skills of their current BI team, and they want someone able to help. Something missing here that I would prefer to see[4] is additional information about the size and skill levels of the team today, and what other learning resources the organization makes available.

The third sentence, again: “it is more about getting a grip on the current landscape of the data and what can be done with it, setting a vision and a strategy aligned with product development and then going from there…”

WOW! This sounds like an organization that knows their current path isn’t leading them to success. It sounds like an organization that acknowledges its challenges and is proactively looking for a strategic solution to root causes, not just a band-aid.

But… it also sounds like an organization that needs a Chief Data Officer, not just an Insights and Data Analytics Manager, and based on Jeff’s Twitter comment it sounds like they’re not willing to pay a competitive rate for the less senior position, much less the more senior one. They seem to want parts of a data culture, but don’t  appear willing to invest in what it will actually take to make it a reality

I was originally planning to structure this post around the theme of 1 Corinthians 13:11, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that describing a technical solutions focus as being “childish ways” that you then grow out of really didn’t match up with what I was trying to say.[5] Although to be fair, this post has traveled far afield from what I intended when I started writing, and I’m honestly not certain I ended up making a particularly strong point despite all the words.

Maybe if I’d had more time I could have just said “different people see different things in shared situations because of differences in context, experience, and priorities, and it’s important to take multiple perspectives into consideration when making important decisions.” Maybe not. Brevity has never been my forte.


[1] Please feel encouraged to read the whole thread, as it went in a few different directions that this post doesn’t touch on directly. I also did explicitly ask Jeff’s permission to reference the conversation and image in a blog post… although I doubt either one of us expect it to arrive quite as late as it did.

[2] I qualify my summary of Jeff’s conclusion because I’m only working with the information available to me in the Twitter conversation, and I do not know that this is a complete or accurate summary. I suspect it is at least accurate, but only Jeff can say for sure.

[3] Please pause for a moment to reflect on how difficult it was to type in that sentence without editing it for clarity and grammar.

[4] Yes, I understand that this is an excerpt from one email that shows only the most narrow slice into what is likely a complex environment, and that it is not realistic to expect every aspect of that complexity to be included in three sentences – no matter how long that final sentence might be.

[5] Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts on Twitter about the wisdom of using a Bible verse in a technical blog post.

Thoughts on community

This post is mainly a story about how community has affected my career, and how it might affect yours as well. The post has been sitting in my drafts for a few months waiting for inspiration to strike. That inspiration came in this recent[0] data culture video where I talked about communities of practice inside enterprise organizations, and the ways that positive behaviors can be promoted and encouraged for these internal communities of practice – because the same patterns often apply to public communities as well.

So let’s talk about community.

No, not that Community. Technical community. Community like this:

hand-1917895_640

I started off my tech career as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) in 1996. I spent much of the next decade as a trainer, mentor, and consultant, but even though I was learning and growing year after year, the pace of that growth felt slow. I quickly became a medium-size fish in a tiny pond[1] and that was pretty much that. My career growth was limited in part by the company I chose to keep.

To be fair, there was an online[3] MCT community where I would often lurk and occasionally post, but I never took real advantage of it. I didn’t feel confident enough to post often, and for some reason traveling to a conference or other in-person MCT event just didn’t feel like something that was available to me – this was something that other people did, not something I could do.[4]

In late 2004 I started thinking about getting back to more training after a few years focusing on software development and consulting. I decided that the upcoming SQL Server 2005 release would be a great opportunity for making this change. Microsoft had made available to MCTs the preview versions of two “What’s new in SQL Server 2005” courses – one for developers and one for admins – and I was going to get certified to teach these courses as soon as they were available to offer. I’d been working with SQL Server since version 6.5, and much of my consulting work included developing solutions on SQL Server 2000, so this was a logical direction that matched my experience, skills, and interest.

To make a long story slightly less long – and because I’ve shared some of the details while this post was sitting in my drafts – that focus on SQL Server 2005 was my jumping off point to become an active member of the MCT and SQL Server communities. I was still doing many of the same things I’d been doing all along, but now I was doing them where more people could benefit, and where more people could see me doing what I did. And people noticed.

People noticed that I knew what I was talking about on technical topics, but mainly people noticed that I engaged in a constructive and helpful manner. That I gave more than I took.[5]

And this brings us to the concept of visibility from that earlier blog post, and the opportunity that comes from being seen kicking ass – being seen doing the great work you do every day. For me, being actively engaged in the MCT community led to my first job at Microsoft. People who knew me because of my community involvement let me know that there was a job I should apply for, and they put a referral into the internal HR systems to make it more likely I would get called for an interview[6], and the rest is history.

For you, being actively engaged in your community – whether it’s the Power BI community or something else – will likely mean something very similar. The details will be different because the context is different, but adding your voice to the communities you frequent is how you let the community know who you are and what you do.

When you answer questions – and when you ask them too – other members of the community will begin to understand what you do, and how you work. When you write a blog post or record a video, more people will begin to understand how you think, and how you communicate. They’ll learn from you, and they’ll learn about you.

This is good.

As more people learn about who you are and what you do, and as more people begin to see and value your contributions, they’ll start thinking about how awesome it would be if you could contribute more directly to their projects and products. For me this meant being asked more frequently to teach SQL Server and SSIS classes, and an increased volume of inquiries about consulting availability.[7] I had more opportunities for more interesting and better paying work because of my engagement with the community, and it changed my life for the better in many ways.

For you it will look different because the context is different, but you can follow the same pattern. Your contributions to the community organically become your resume[8], your marketing web site, your demo reel. Potential employers and potential clients[9] will have a more complete picture of how you work than a job interview can provide, and that can make all the difference.

Implied in this pattern is the positive nature of your community contributions. If you’re a bully or a gatekeeper or engage in other types of abusive behavior… people notice that too. This can become its own opportunity for improvement, because if you’re more mindful about presenting the side of you that you want people to see, the more likely you are to become that better version of yourself.[10]

Engaging with the community changed my life. It can change yours too.


Interesting side note on timing: I joined Twitter ten years ago this month.

At that time I had just accepted a position on the SQL Server Integration Services  (SSIS) product team, and had asked one of my new colleagues where the SSIS community was centered, and he pointed me there. The rest sort of took care of itself…


[0] Referring to this data culture video as “recent” gives you some insight into how long this post languished in draft form after the introduction was written.

[1] This is kind of like saying “big fish in a small pond” but self-aware enough to realize I’ve never been a large fish on any scale.[2]

[2] I am so sorry, and yet not sorry at all.

[3] Two words: Usenet newsgroups.

[4] I’ve thought about this a lot in the intervening years, and believe that the root cause was probably a combination of my rural, poor, opportunity-sparse upbringing, and my mental health challenges, but I doubt I’ll ever know for sure.

[5] I’m generalizing here, and making some big assumptions based on the available evidence. This is what I think people noticed based on the way that they reacted, but only a handful said so. Of course, they typically said so when offering me work…

[6] This is something I have done a few times over the years myself, and there’s no better feeling than knowing I played some small part in helping Microsoft attract new talent, and in helping a member of the community achieve their career goals.

[7] For me it also meant that I roughly doubled my billing rate over the course of 18 months. I had so many inquiries that I was turning down almost all of them because I didn’t have the bandwidth to say yes, and decided to take advantage of the laws of supply and demand.

[8] This 2016-era post from MVP Brent Ozar presents a much more prescriptive approach to this theme.

[9] And potential employees as well, in the fullness of time.

[10] And let’s be honest – if you’re an insufferable asshole who refuses to change, participating in a community is a great way to let people know, so they can know that you’re someone they should avoid hiring, interviewing, or contracting. This is also good.

Never underestimate the voice of the customer

Most of what I do in my day job involves listening.

A sculpture of men with ears pressed to a brick wall - Image by Couleur from Pixabay
It’s better to put your ear up to the wall than it is to bang your head against it.

Specifically, I spend a lot of time listening to people who use Power BI[1] talk about why they use it, how they use it, and where they struggle along the way. I ask a few questions to get them started, and then I ask a few follow-up questions to help them along as they tell their story – but mainly I listen.

I listen, and then I use what I hear to help make Power BI a better tool for these people and their organizations’ needs.

I listen for patterns and trends, and for a signal to emerge from the noise of hundreds of conversations. When it does, I make sure that the right decision-makers and leaders hear it and understand it, so they can take it into account as they decide where to invest and how to prioritize those investments.[2]

I listen with an informed ear. I spent almost 15 years building software and data solutions, so I understand a lot of the technical and organizational challenges these people face. I spent the next decade or so building data products and services as a program manager at Microsoft, so I understand a lot of the challenges involved in prioritizing and building product features. And perhaps most importantly, I am genuinely interested in listening to and learning from the people with whom I talk. I truly want to hear their stories.

Of course there’s only one of me, and I can’t spend my whole workday listening to people tell their stories… so I’ve helped build a team to listen[3], and it’s making a difference. The next time you see an announcement about new capabilities in Power BI that will improve the lives of large enterprise customers, odds are this team had a hand in making those capabilities a reality.

Why am I telling you all this? This is my personal blog, and I’m not looking for a job, so who cares, right?

You care.

You care because this type of listening is a thing that you can do to make better software. You can do this whether you’re building commercial software or if you’re part of a BI team that needs to build solutions for larger user populations.[4]

You care because letting the people who use your software – or the people you want to use your software – talk about what what’s important to them… will let you know what’s important to them. And if you’re really listening, you can use what you learn to make better decisions and deliver better products and features.

If you’re genuinely interested in the people who use the software you build, you should consider giving this approach a try.


[1] These people tend to be the business and IT owners of Power BI in large enterprise organizations, but they can be just about anyone involved in implementing, adopting, using, or supporting Power BI.

[2] If you’re interested in learning more about the Power BI product team’s planning process, I cannot recommend highly enough this 2019 presentation from Will Thompson.

[3] As part of building that team we all read and/or re-read Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez. If you have not yet read this awesome book, there’s no time like the present.

[4] I honestly don’t know if this type of rigor is appropriate at a smaller scale, because I haven’t done it and haven’t personally seen it done. I suspect that it would be very valuable, but also suspect that there may be lighter-weight options that would provide a better return on investment.

Webcast: Unleashing Your Personal Superpower

Last week I delivered a presentation for the Data Platform Women In Tech‘s Mental Health and Wellness Day event.

The recording for my “Unleashing Your Personal Superpower” session is now online:

I hope you’ll watch the recording[1], but here’s a summary just in case:

  • Growth often results from challenge
  • Mental health issues like anxiety and depression present real challenges that can produce “superpowers” – skills that most people don’t have, and which can grow from the day-to-day experience of living with constant challenge
  • Recognizing and using these “superpowers” isn’t always easy – you need to be honest with yourself and the people around you, which in turn depends on being in a place of trust and safety to do so

In the presentation I mainly use an X-Men metaphor, and suggest that my personal superpowers are:

  1. Fear: Most social interactions[2] are deeply stressful for me, so to compensate I over-prepare and take effective notes for things I need to remember or actions I need to take
  2. Confusion: I don’t really understand how other people’s brains work, or the relationship between my actions and their reactions – to compensate I have developed techniques for effective written and verbal communication to eliminate ambiguity and drive clarity
  3. Chaos: My mind is made of chaos[3], which causes all sorts of challenges – to compensate I have developed a “process reflex” to understand complex problems and implement processes to address or mitigate them

I wrap up the session with a quick mention of the little-known years before Superman joined the Justice League, which he spent as a Kryptonite delivery guy, and absolutely hated his life. Once he found a team where he could use his strengths and not need to always fight to overcome his weaknesses, he was much happier and effective.

In related news, if I could only get these Swedes to return my calls, I’m thinking of forming a new superhero team…


[1] And the rest of the session recordings, because it was a great event.

[2] Think “work meetings” for starters and “work social events” for an absolute horror show.

[3] I have a draft blog post from two years ago that tries to express this, but I doubt I will ever actually finish and publish it…

Upcoming webcast: Unleashing your personal superpower

This damned pandemic[1] has been getting the best of me, but Talking About Mental Health is Important, and it’s more important now than ever. So when I learned that the Data Platform Women in Tech user group was hosting a free day-long online event focused on mental health and wellness, I knew I wanted to participate.

Today I am excited to announce that I will be presenting on “Unleashing your personal superpower” on Friday May 7th:

Building a successful career in tech is hard. Every day is a battle, and sometimes the barriers placed in your way seem insurmountable. Wouldn’t it all be easier if you had a superpower?

Maybe you do.

Greta Thunberg famously described her Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis as being a superpower: “I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower.” We can all learn something from Greta.

In this informal session, Microsoft program manager Matthew Roche will share his personal story – including the hard, painful parts he doesn’t usually talk about. Matthew will share his struggles with mental health, how he found his own superpower, how he tries to use it to make the world a better place… and how you might be able to do the same.

Please join the session, and join the conversation, because talking about mental health is important, and because the first step to finding your superpower is knowing where to look.

You can learn more about the event here, and you can sign up here.

I hope you’ll join me!


[1] Of course it’s more than just the damned pandemic, but when I first typed “this year” I realized this year has been going on for decades now, and I figured I would just roll with it because finding the perfect phrase wasn’t really important to the webcast announcement and anyway I expect things will probably suck indefinitely and isn’t this what run-on sentences in footnotes are for, anyway?

Representation and visibility

tl;dr: We need more representation in tech, in part because career opportunities come from kicking ass where people can see you, and that comes from knowing that you belong, and that knowing comes from seeing people like you already belonging.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Representation is a complex topic. Being a straight, white, cisgender, American man, I don’t have a lot of personal experiences with the lack of representation. But I do have one, and it involves swords.

Back in 2004 a friend of mine sent me a copy of the first edition of The Swordsman’s Companion by Guy Windsor. At this  point I had no idea that people were recreating medieval martial arts and fighting with steel weapons[1], so I read through the book and eventually sold it at a yard sale. I was interesting, and I loved the idea of being able to do what the people in the book were doing, but deep inside I knew that people like me didn’t actually do things like that. I was wrong, of course, but at the time the totality of my life experience told me I was right, and I simply didn’t question this knowledge.[2] Ten years passed before this opportunity presented itself again – ten years in which I could have been studying, practicing, competing, improving.

Now take this almost-trivial example and apply it to your career. What if you had never seen someone like yourself in a job role? How would you know that this was something that you could do, that this was a path that was open for you to travel?

When I look back on my career in IT, I can see tipping points – places where everything changed, and my life was forever improved. All but one of them (we’ll come back to this one) happened because someone saw me kicking ass and said “I want you to come kick ass with me.”

  • In 1996 when Dave saw me excelling as an applications trainer and offered me the opportunity to become a technical trainer and MCT.
  • In 1997 when Jeff saw me teaching Windows NT networking and offered me a job with a much higher salary and responsibilities that included consulting and application development.
  • In 2003 when Carolyn offered me a full-time contract as I was leaving my then-collapsing employer and starting my own consultancy, and when I simply didn’t know how I would pay my mortgage in six months, or pay the hospital bills for my impending second child.
  • In 2005 when Corey saw me teaching a beta SQL Server 2005 course, and said “you need to come work at TechEd this year.”
  • In 2007 when I quoted Ted almost double my then-standard daily rate to get him to quit nagging me about working for him, and he instantly agreed and asked how soon I could start.
  • In 2008 when Ken and Dave told Shakil that I was the only person who could do the job he needed done, and he ended up offering me my first job at Microsoft.
  • In 2011 when Matt learned I was looking for a new role and said “we have an open PM position on the SSIS team – let me introduce you to the hiring manager so you can see if you want to apply.”
  • In 2017 when Kasper kept subtly mentioning how much he loved the team he was on, until I finally figured out he wanted me to join it.

This is my story, and I’m including names both to say “thank you” and to make it real – these are the people who enabled me to be who I am today, where I am today, doing what I love so much today. I’ve heard variations on this story from many of my colleagues and peers, but this one is mine.

Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe anyone was giving me any handouts. At every step along the way I was doing the work – I was working hard, pushing, trying, struggling to kick as much ass as I possibly could. I was really good, because I had studied and practiced and put in the long hours to learn and improve – but without these people seeing and recognizing my hard work, the opportunities simply would not have existed for me. At any of these tipping points, if I hadn’t been where these people could see me, the moment would have passed, and the opportunity would have been lost. Each opportunity was dependent on the opportunities that came before it – each one depended on my being where I was, being visible and being seen.

This brings me back to that very first tipping point. In 1996 I saw a classified ad[3] for a job teaching people how to use Microsoft Windows and Office, and I applied for it.

And this brings us back to representation.

I applied for that first job because I could see myself in the role – I knew that I could do it. I had no difficulty picturing my 20-something Christian white male self in that role, and neither did the folks doing the hiring.[4]

But what if I was female, or Black, or transgender? What if I looked at an industry that was overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly cis, and knew that I didn’t belong, because there was no one like me doing things like that? Would I have opened that very first door, on which every later door depended?

I can’t answer that, but looking at the still-white and still-male faces around me every day in tech, I have every reason to believe that many candidates would see this lack of representation and infer from it a lack of opportunity – and never take that first step. And for those who do take the first steps I only need to look around to see the barriers that the tech industry put in place for women and minorities, letting them know every day that they’re not welcome.

Back in July I shared a post that referenced an amazing webcast by UX Designer Jasmine Orange on “Designing for the Ten Percent.” In that post the link was buried in a footnote, so I want to call it out here explicitly – if you made it this far into my post, you really want to watch this webcast. Jasmine’s premise[5] is that by designing for underrepresented users/communities/audiences/people you end up making better products for everyone.

I believe the same is true of tech in general – by building organizations, teams, and cultures that are welcoming to people who have been traditionally excluded, we build organizations, teams, and cultures that are better and more welcoming for people who have never been excluded. Diverse teams are stronger, more resilient, more agile, and more productive. Diverse cultures thrive and grow where monocultures collapse and die.

Why do I care? Does any of this even affect me directly?

Yes, it does.

On one hand, being part of a diverse team means that I will be more likely to be part of a successful team, with the financial rewards that come with success. On the other hand, I feel more welcome and more at home as part of a diverse team.

Still, it’s not about me, is it?

If you’re considering a role in tech and you’re not sure if you should apply for a job, do it. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a perfect fit, or don’t believe you meet every single requirement in the job posting. The white guys are going to apply because they know they below. You belong too, even if you don’t know it yet.

If you’re coming into tech from an underrepresented minority, you not only belong, you’re vitally needed. You bring something that no one else can bring – your background, your experiences, your perspectives – all the lessons you learned the hard way that an all-male, all-white team might pay an expensive consultant to tell them about after they’ve failed enough times.

Not every employer will recognize this value, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, or that it’s not real. Some employers will judge every candidate against the “tech bro ideal” and will try to make every hire fit into this mold.

If you’re an employer, don’t be this guy. If you’re an employer, recognize the strategic value of having a diverse team. And recognize that this diverse team won’t happen on its own. Support organizations like Black Girls Code, because this is where your hiring pipeline will come from. Value the diverse perspectives that are already represented on your team, and promote them. Give authority and power to people who will hire diverse candidates. Give authority and power to people who look like the people you’re trying to recruit.

And if you’re working in tech today, please be be the person who notices. When you see someone kicking ass – doing an amazing job and demonstrating talent and potential to do more – be the person who says something. Even if you can’t see yourself in that person. Even if they don’t look like you and the rest of your team.

Representation is important, because it helps more people know that they can open that first door. Visibility is important, because it provides the opportunity for change and growth – visibility is what opens the second door, and the third, and….

Ok…

I started off writing a completely different post, but this is the one that wanted to come out today. At some point in the next few weeks[6] I’ll follow up with a post on community and how community is a key technique for increasing your visibility, but this post has gotten long enough, and then some.

Thanks for sticking with me – I’d love to hear what you think.


[1] I learned in 2014 when I first saw this video and fell in love.

[2] Underlying this false knowledge was likely the experience of growing up rural and poor, and not having a lot of opportunities as a child, or many experiences as an adult. It wasn’t until 2005 when I first travelled to Europe for a Manowar concert that my mindset started to change, but that’s probably not relevant to this post.

[3] Classified ads are what we called Craigslist before it was LinkedIn. Something like that.

[4] At this point I feel compelled to mention my friend Kathy, who actually got the job I applied for. I didn’t get the job, so I ended up taking a job as a bank teller. When the training center had another opening a few weeks later they called me back to ask if I was still available, and I said yes. True story. Hi Kathy!

[5] More accurately, this is my interpretation of Jasmine’s premise.

[6] LOL @ me, and LOL @ you if you haven’t learned by now not to trust any predictions of future output on my part. We should both know better by now.

If you cannot change, you cannot grow

Back in 2013 I presented for the very first time at the MVP Global Summit. I was terrified.

At this point I had been working for Microsoft for five years. I’d been an MVP before joining Microsoft as an employee and I had been a regular public speaker for many years – but this presentation felt different. MVPs are some of the most technical, most vocal, and most skilled people I know, and as a general rule they are talented presenters and communicators. I was very nervous, and I wanted to break the ice, both to help myself relax and to set an open and conversational tone for the session.

So I started my presentation like this:

2020-07-01-15-36-56-716--POWERPNT

A warning before we proceed: This post is likely to have more coarse language than I usually use. If you’re offended by swearing you may want to consider skipping this one, but I hope you’ll read on. I’m writing the warning before I write any swears, so maybe I’ll find another approach by the time I get there.

As the initial icebreaker I used the cover of Madonna’s 1984 album “Like a Virgin.” This was my first MVP Summit presentation, and I wanted to remind everyone that even though I might be a familiar face, this was my first time… or close enough.

The next slide represented the transition from the intro into the technical content of the session. I wanted to emphasize how we were talking about internal Microsoft processes and planning[1], and that the session would share these details that are typically not shared with anyone not on the product team… so I used the title “opening the kimono[2]” and as a family-safe but slightly risqué visual joke I used a “no image found” placeholder for the slide body.

The session went better than I could have hoped. People laughed where I wanted them to laugh, and shared deep technical feedback and constructive criticism were I wanted them to share deep technical feedback and constructive criticism. I was very happy.

Until later in the day, when someone came up to me to let me know that there were complaints. That someone had been offended, that someone hadn’t liked my choice of slides and sexually charged metaphors and images.

I was shocked.

The MVP who was reporting the news let me know that he wasn’t at all offended, and that the complaint came from someone who was always complaining anyway. “You know who,” he said to me, knowingly. I didn’t know who, and I never tried to find out who[3].

Instead, I thought about how my actions had a negative impact on someone in a way I didn’t plan, intend, or desire, but which was real nonetheless. That process was painful, and even now – almost seven years later – it is still uncomfortable to write about. I’m worried that someone might comment “you should have known better, you were an adult and 2013 wasn’t 1984” because criticism is difficult, and maybe they were right. Maybe I should have known better, but I didn’t, and because I didn’t I caused problems for someone who didn’t need me causing problems for her.

And I didn’t do it again. I messed up, I learned about my error, and I did my best to correct it. I made a choice, and I chose to change and grow.

That was 2013. Now let’s fast-forward to 2020.

Last week one of my data platform community heroes, Jen Stirrup, stepped down as a Microsoft MVP because the MVP program has not chosen to change and grow.

I want to unpack that last sentence before I proceed. Please bear with me, because this is important.

Jen is one of my heroes. She’s deeply technical – she’s one of those people who knows more things about more things than anyone could ever be expected to know. She works with some of the biggest companies in the world, helping them deliver global scale data solutions using a huge range of technologies. She can hold her own standing with the best of the best because she’s that good. She’s also an effective communicator who freely and selflessly shares what she knows. She’s soft-spoken, but when she’s speaking it’s worth leaning in and listening to what she has to say.

But that’s not the only reason she’s a hero. Jen is compassionate and tireless, and speaks the hard truths where so many others would chose the easy path and remain silent. Jen consistently chooses the right thing even though she knows it is also the hard thing.

And Jen chose to give up her status as an MVP. If you know anything about the program, you’ll know that this is a big deal. The MVP program comes with significant benefits and access to information that is invaluable to someone in her profession. I remember being an MVP and I know that I could not have done what she did. I am in awe.

The final thing I want to unpack is community – I called Jen a data platform community hero. The context of a community carries some baggage that may not be obvious, and I want to look at it a little bit here. Every community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. If a community tolerates abusive behavior, that abusive behavior will thrive and will become the norm. People who can’t tolerate the abusive behavior will leave, and they won’t return. People who are made uncomfortable by the abusive behavior will engage less, and contribute less. And people who appreciate the abusive behavior will recognize that it is allowed, and they will repeat and amplify it. This is how communities work – not just technical communities.

Weeding out the “bad apples” isn’t enough. Successful communities need to define what they want to be, and to do it deliberately. I don’t know of any technical communities that do this[4], but I know one in another part of my life: Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly. Valkyrie is a martial arts school in Vancouver, BC that saw the abusive behavior in the North American HEMA[5] community and decided to be something different. In this awesome blog post, Valkyrie co-owner Kaja Sadowski describes how she did what she did, and why. Please read the whole post (it’s much shorter than this one) but for now, please read this bit:

If a female student is worried about whether the guy she’s partnered with is going to hit on her again, or “accidentally” grab her breast, or refuse to hit her in drills, she can’t focus on her training. If an Asian student feels like he has to prove he’s not a bookish stereotype, or has to put up with constant shitty Kung Fu jokes, he can’t focus on his training. If a queer student is anxious about how their fellow students will react when their partner comes to pick them up after class, or a transgender student is stuck worrying they’ll be called out for using the “wrong” bathroom or misgendered by their training partner, they can’t focus on their training. All of these students end up in a position where their learning suffers, because they can’t put 100% of their energy and effort into their training and instead have to deal with the background noise of harassment and discrimination. If I put them in that position, I have failed them as an instructor.

Kaja decided that inclusion and diversity was important, so she decided to be aggressively inclusive.

Aggressively. Inclusive.

And the results are fantastic. I’m a middle-aged straight white guy. I’m tall and reasonably fit and reasonably good and I expect I would be welcome in any club. I have never felt more welcome than I am at Valkyrie. I visit Valkyrie for events, and am delighted when they come down to my club in Seattle for our events. They built a community that is aggressively inclusive for the people who might feel unwelcome in a traditional martial arts school, and along the way they built a community that includes everyone.

That’s how inclusion works.[6]

I’m not done. There’s one more thing I need to call out here – both because it’s important and because it is central to Jen’s decision – and that is the #MeToo movement.

Some of you might be saying “MeToo is so 2017, is that still a thing?” I hope not, because that is likely to get the swearing started, and I’ve done so well so far.

MeToo has the name that it does because women have put up with sexual harassment and sexual abuse that men don’t experience, and often men don’t see. Women are literally saying “me too – I have also suffered the thing that you are talking about” because for far too long they’ve been told everything but this.  Most[7] of the women you work with have been harassed and abused at every step of their careers, and they’ve tolerated it as best they could.

This is important, and this goes back to my personal story from 2013.

My choice of slides may not have been a big deal. On their own, they may not have been worth mentioning, even for someone who would rather I chose different images and phrases. But they weren’t on their own – they were part of a lifetime of challenges and indignities large and small. Despite my lack of malice, they were another straw on the back of someone who didn’t need one more person telling her she wasn’t welcome, and I was that person. Casual sexism doesn’t need to be intentional to be hurtful.

In 2013 the only person who mentioned that complaint was the guy telling me it was no big deal.

In 2016 a small martial arts school decided to build a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone, and their results speak for themselves.

In 2020 one of my heroes left the MVP program.

I suspect that in 2020 there are young women and brilliant people from other underrepresented groups who are questioning if the MVP program has a place for them.

Communities are defined by the behaviors they tolerate.

One community in this story chose to make diversion and inclusivity a true priority, and one apparently did not. One invested time and money and careful thought in “actively and aggressively building… a safe space for all,” and the other one apparently did not.

I hope the MVP program will recognize this moment for the wake-up call it is. I hope the MVP program will choose to change and grow.

But it needs to be a choice.

Hey, look – no swearing after all. Good on me[8].


[1] The MVP Summit is an NDA event, which is one of the things that makes is to much fun.

[2] If this phrase feels immediately inappropriate as you read this today, I would like to share this MacMillan Dictionary post from the general timeframe of this event that calls this phrase “a vividly effective metaphor for conveying transparency and frankness” which nicely sums up my intent.

[3] The same brain that made it hard for me to know who might have been offended by my presentation also makes it hard for me to remember the male MVP who let me know about the complaint. Faces and names have always been hard for me.

[4] Not to say that they don’t exist – there’s a universe of stuff out there I don’t know about. If you know of a vibrant and inclusive technical community, please tell me.

[5] HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts, which is a blanket term for the modern swordplay practice I love so much. The HEMA community has enough “bad apples” to drive away many people who would love it as much as I do, including sexism, racism, and more. That community is starting to change and grow, and Valkyrie is part of the reason. There are some other delightful folks in this community who take no bullshit, and I love them too. If you want to imagine what the abusive behavior looks like, watch Karate Kid, but give the Cobra Kai dudes swords.

[6] If you don’t believe me, check out this great presentation from Jasmine Orange on “Designing for the ten percent.”

[7] Look it up yourself – do a little legwork on this one, bro.

[8] This was a rough post to write – it’s difficult to talk about hurtful mistakes even if they’re years in the past. I like to think I am a better person than I was a year or a decade ago, but I still make mistakes. I still act thoughtlessly and carelessly, and I still fail to live up to the moderately lazy standards I set for myself. But I’m trying, and the people in my life are forgiving.