One of the on-going risks for technical people these days is to be seen as a commodity-and treated as such. How many times have you heard the need for talented technical people reduced to a description of rather “vanilla” technical skills-like, “we need a great JAVA guy”? Now, granted, you cannot fill a technical role in a technology company without skills and experience with some technical products, tools and languages. And demand for project managers seems to be at least constant, if not increasing in the market today, but as new tools and processes arrive on the market that enable less skilled people to do that job, uniqueness and personal quality – dare I say it, people skills, are the skills that make you more valuable to your company. Of course we are all aware of many of the skills covered in books and seminars about working with and managing other people.
But in this era of commoditization, it is also valuable for technical people to understand the value of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. Or in real estate language, how do you increase your curbside appeal? Don’t think that is important? In How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle — How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers, the author William Poundstone cites studies that show that in a hiring situation, people tend to make up their mind in the space of less than 2 minutes, so one of the lessons here is, while you may think that all of us technology folks judge people based on their technical skills, the subconscious psychological reality is that we tend to hang out with and hire people we like.
With that in mind, I ran across two books recently targeted at “being a better you”, one written by a lawyer turned marketing consultant:
You, Inc. by Harry Beckwith & Christine Clifford Beckwith
Beyond Code: Learn to Distinguish Yourself in 9 Simple Steps! by Rajesh Setty.
Surprisingly, though written in fairly different styles, they conveyed many of the same messages:
Focus on building long-term relationships.
Figure out what how you can help.
Life is series of projects and you need to keep selling yourself, but that selling comes from caring about and listening to others, which in turn makes them care about and value you more.
Most intriguing tidbit to me in You, Inc.: After finishing this 316 page book, ironically I thought the most interesting comment was on page six, where the authors quote Meryl Streep as saying, “I thought life would be like college, but it isn’t. Life is like high school.” The authors go on to discuss the fact that while we think what is important in life (and by extension our job environments) is mastery, in actuality what always comes out on top is popularity. (Think Kerry vs. Bush). Having spent 4 years as a technical recruiter I can attest that if all technical skills meet a baseline required level, people not only almost always hire people they like, they tend to like people like them. So at least having some awareness of your “popularity quotient” (and really both books try to ultimately help you do that) can help you stand out: in a good way.
One practice I wish we would all adopt from Beyond Code. It is a simple thing, but from my experience on the receiving end of email, not done often enough. Talking about communication, the author says, “Communication has two components: sending and receiving. The tendency is to take responsibility for one part of the process, but not the other. For example, when we compose an email to a client or colleague, we should try pausing for a moment before we hit ‘send’. Reread the message from the recipient’s viewpoint. What will he or she understand and feel while reading our email: If it doesn’t communicate our message clearly, then take the time to re-write it; and repeat the exercise until we get it right.”
The Yawn-O-Meter (a very personal metric meant to reflect only how easy I found it to read based on a Harry Potter book being a 1 and War and Peace being a 10 or, if your prefer, a Guy Kawasaki book compared to an Edward Tufte): Both or these books are very easy reads, a 2 or 3. But my guess is that many of the folks who honestly could benefit the most from their messages may either not pick them up or if they do, won’t finish them. But if you want more people to start looking at the real you and not just the “technical” you, both of these books are great for picking up and scanning and just seeing if there are little things that make sense to you and that you might find useful in improving your “people visibility.”