The Porfolio-less Professional

We live in an age that is all about showing off. Your Dribbble and GitHub accounts are there – also – for that reason. And for that very reason a lot of companies value your Dribbble and GitHub accounts over your CVs and résumés.

But what if your role, experience, skills and competencies can’t be summarised by showing off digital artefacts?

Welcome to the world of portfolio-less professional.

I’m one of those, because I stand at an intersection where:

  • I have a degree in Economics, but I’m no CEO-CFO-COO
  • I can do graphic design work, but I’m not a trained graphic design
  • I can write code, but since I switched many kinds of languages and platforms over the years, I’m not headed to be your senior developer
  • I happen to manage teams and projects, but I’ve never been “just” a project manager

I can’t honestly come up with meaningful deliverables, artefacts that can aptly describe my value inside a company. And then again: why on Earth I should be compared with people that come up with portfolio filled with unsolicited redesign?

So, what should we do? My take is: focus on process, value creation and willingness to learn.

It may sound cheesy and naïve, but if what you deliver is problem finding and problem solving at different stages, you shouldn’t care about showing off a screenshot of the last app you worked on — I did that, many times, please, don’t.

Some of us have a job that is heavily deliverable-oriented: UI designers deliver interfaces as developers deliver code. For these people, putting together a portfolio of digital artefacts is relatively easy even if I would argue that focus on process, value creation and willingness to learn is valuable for them too.

In one of my many tentative portfolios, I once put the paragraph “Lessons learned” for each of the projects I listed: making your learning process explicit highlights your ability to understand when, why and how things went right or wrong.

It’s time to get out from the fairy-tale portfolio, where each project is a sugar-coated success where you come out as the hero who saved the day: shit happens every single day and it’s how you go through it that makes you worthy for your next company.

Ditch the shiny portfolio, focus on problems you found or that you helped solving. Your next role is not about your intrinsic features but about the work you help get done.

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Back to school

We are going through the back-to-school period of the year. I’m quite far from being nostalgic about it, though. It’s been almost 15 years since my nearly-breakdown year, when I came close to dropout from high school at 16.

Surrounded by all of these back-to-school moods and slogans, and with my younger brother starting high school, I wonder if that specific traumatic experience marked some sort of awareness about my relationship with formal studies. From that breakdown moment onwards, I didn’t really care about having great grades in every subjects, ever.

I had really good grades in what I was interested about, and did really poorly on subjects I didn’t care about. I took this idiosyncrasy with me at college too. And despite this seemingly careless and reckless approach, I managed to end high school, and then get both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, with good grades too.

I always thought I was I good student before I was 16. After that, despite good academic results, my approach wasn’t really that of a model student and I was aware I wasn’t a good student anymore. I just focused on what I was interested on, cherry-picking themes, subjects, skills, leaving out the rest, connecting the dots between different notions in different very disparate areas.

I’m not alone, we are not alone in this. Education is broken, as more and more brilliant people out there are either dropouts, self-taught, or simply with a huge gap between what they studied in school and what the ended up doing for a living.

There’s no school in the world that is going to prepare you for what’s happening next: as every single job in the world will require some sort of technological proficiency, the school system didn’t make the jump into the post-industrial era, yet.

I’m not telling you that you should dropout from school if you want a tech-related job. I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t.

Staying in school, and going to college later, gave me the time and opportunities to think about what I wanted to do. Possibly, even if I deny being a good student and more of tinkerer, while staying in school I absorbed the mental tools to make better choices.

If you’re in high school today, as I was yesterday:

  • You’re probably being taught outdated technology (if any at all)

  • The world you are living in today will be radically different 10 years from now, and you know it

  • Sad but true: There’s actually little you can do to change school as a student

  • You’re facing a wall between liberal arts and engineering and you have to choose a side

Yes, software is eating the world, but that doesn’t mean you should be eaten by software.

As someone with a technical background, partly self-built, partly learned at school, I must admit that studying also liberal arts is important if not fundamental: technologies and related skills come and go rather quickly. You’ll always have to play catch-up with tech-related skills.

Speaking more than one language, knowing history and learning how to sustain a discussion using rhetoric will prove life-long useful. Learning empathy will make any of your technological skill much better because it will make you a better human being.

So, go back to school, stay in school: whether you like school or not, whether you’re into tech or not, you goal shouldn’t be becoming someone defined by school grades or a degree, but becoming a better someone.

Take on hobbies, drop them, do things, break them, listen to people, ignore them, take your time to find things out. Becoming an adult will most likely turn yourself into someone who doesn’t have the time, the will or the means to find things out.

Cherish these years, they won’t come back. And yes, this period of your life hurts and sucks, because that what finding things out is like — and that’s why “adults” don’t do that very often.

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Don’t hire heroes, please.

Product Hunt is a fast-rising website for discovering new products and services, both digital and physical, highly recommended: today I stumbled upon “InHiro“, a web service helping companies during the recruitment and hiring phases.

It’s all good and well: for a number of reasons recruiting is a broken process for many industries and companies. It really begs for improvements and I look forward to these new services and fresh approaches about how to improve the hiring process.

The tagline for InHiro, though, didn’t really impress me:

“Helping companies find heroes”

This is extremely wrong.

In just four words, that tagline sums up the worst side of our industry. It sustains the idea that extreme individualism is valued over teamwork. It sustains the idea that we are saving the world — in case you may have doubts: we are not 1. It sustains the idea that the only people you’re interested in are idealised outliers.

All of these goes against common sense and statistics: “heroes” are rare and often work alone, when you hire for a role you always have to come to terms with demand & supply curves. What most companies have to focus on while building or improving a team is chemistry, balance and compromise. They don’t wait until a unicorn appear on their radars.

If you consider your hires as “heroes”, relying on someone to “save the day” on a consistent basis, your company has a lot of problems to solve before being able to attract valuable prospects, as they don’t fall in the trap of click-baiting job offers.

  1. Some of us may be working on something making the world a bit of a better place, but technically speaking, nobody is saving the world out there
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From the quantified self to the qualified self

I used a Jawbone Up for about four months. I wanted to give it a try and to understand how its tracking stats could help me somehow.

To be honest, I wasn’t fond about activity tracking: I’m an active person (“moderately active”, I used to be much more active in the past), I played basketball since I was a kid, I know how fast I can sprint, how high I can jump, how much stamina I can have when I’m well trained. I’m quite self-conscious about my level of fitness. To put it bluntly, I really don’t need an app telling me that I’m not working out enough.

When you play a team sport, your physical activity can’t be broken down in quantifiable bits, especially a team sport as complex as basketball. If you are a runner, it’s easier to track common stats and to “gamify” and turning everything into a challenge. It’s clear why the most famous fitness apps out there are built for runners and not for basketball players.

Sleep tracking was much more interesting for me. When I bought the Up I was under a lot of stress, it was summer, hot, I felt that I had a really random sleep pattern. I always thought that I was a light sleeper, able to recovery with just four hours of good sleep. But I never had data to confirm my theories.

The smart alarm feature also interested me. Avoiding the sense of being woken up by the alarm clock when you’re are in the middle of a deep sleep phase is crucial for starting the day with a better mood. This very single feature worked really, really well from day one.

I started this post by saying that I used the Up for about four months. Then I sold it. What when wrong?

Apart from being useless on the side of activity tracking, sleeps stats weren’t helping me. After four months I had tons of data, made some adjustments about my habits, but the truth is that all these numbers I had about how many hours I slept and how my sleep was divided into deep and light phases, weren’t telling me the story of how and why I sleep the way I sleep.

In the end, all these data could not be turned into useful information. I could increase the total number of hours slept, or increase the deep sleep phase. I sold the Up, I gave up: it left me with the certainty that I will never be able to sleep more than 6-to-7-ish hours a night, that I will never have more than 40% of deep sleep, that I won’t be able to go to bed earlier than midnight and catch sleep quickly. And that I can actually sleep four hours and feel truly rested.

Project like Sense are steering toward a much more intelligent tracking of the sleep experience: it’s not a step forward to the qualified self, in that these sensors still mindlessly track a lot of stats, but the connection of multiple sensors and hence the possibility of having more data points can allow you to make more educated guesses – I wouldn’t go as far as calling them “inferences” – about you sleep patterns.

A combination of better metrics (such as your room’s humidity and light levels — or your partner’s sleep pattern) coupled with diary-like tracking could and will lead to a better understanding of our sleep.

And maybe, one day, I will discover why I can’t remember my dreams.

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It’s not a product, it’s a campaign

Kickstartmart

via The Oatmeal, as seen on Facebook

Sometimes Kickstarter projects get too much hype. We went as far as having parodied campaigns, just for the sake of having a good laugh.

I found myself thinking that funding a project is similar to supporting a political party.

As it happens for political parties, you get a sort of thrill for supporting this or that candidate.
That thrill is almost never proportional to the real chances that the candidate has to win.

And even if he or she could get elected and so being the winner, it may be that the execution of his or her program may not reflect the one you voted for.

Politics is about compromise.
So is product development.

In a campaign, you’re a supporter, a voter, a believer. Strictly speaking, not a customer.
Yes, there’s money involved in funding (lots of money involved in politics too), but it’s telling that Kickstarter never speaks about “products”, but of “projects”, and “campaigns”.

So, cool off if you dream product will be shipped with a year or two of delay: what most people are paying for is to be recognised as part of a tribe, not for the chance to argue with customer service.

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Managing change, responsibly

You probably live in a professional world where there’s still a huge gap between “how things are done” and “how things should be done”, and your role seems to be somewhat stuck in the middle grounds. Many battles are fought in the name of changing the way things are done, some of these battles will be lost, some of them won. Winning the war would mean to have changed everything there was to change — but that’s probably never gonna happen.

How do you prepare yourself for this constant state of tension, where you know you can’t change everything and you know that in order to change things you’ll have to adopt different techniques each and every time you are confronted with a change management problem?

The problem with organisational frameworks and methods is that they’re theoretical abstraction: in the real world, you will never find a client or a team of colleagues that will be excited to jump aboard into SCRUM or Agile, or whatever technique is your weapon of choice. In the real world, adjusting to change is first and foremost a matter on how you approach change itself.

Chances are that you’re not the CEO of the company, nor someone in a position to force a substantial change in a top-down, radical fashion — you would argue that bottom-up change management can happen, but in my experience that turns out in micro-managing change in a way that the final effect for the entire organisation in counter-productive, e.g. some small groups inside a larger company may be working in entirely new ways, but the global inertia is so strong that these groups, and change itself, remain an exception to the rule.

If you can’t force change (not that forcing it is a guarantee that it will happen) you have to handle a plethora of subtle ways on how to build change day after day.

I found a quite interesting reading, Process Bricolage: Theft, Mashups, and Digital Products, which is a brilliant and pragmatical explanation of how you should beware of the dangers of excessive fundamentalism in adopting this or that technique, while being able to cherry-pick the right approaches to the right problems.

Bear in mind that you always have an array of choices, even if it’s fashionable to say that you’re an expert in some well-known but fundamentalist approach.

process-bricolage-1

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Personal mobile ecosystems

While everyone is speaking about the benefits of remote work 1 I made the unfashionable choice of shifting from a job that was about 5 minutes bike ride from my home to a daily commuting route via train and underground that is sucking 3 hours out of each of my working days.

I’ve been relying on public transportation for my main commute routes since I was 14, so I have almost 15 years of observation about what people do while they’re on the move. Incredibly, I discovered that I lost track of the miscellaneous personal ecosystems.

Some people have and iPhone and an Android tablet — sometimes a very cheap one, but that does one job well enough, just as a video player, for example.

People with Windows phones exist. People still read bulky books and yet they have a super-thin smartphone in their pockets. Some people have Kindles but no smartphones. Some people use netbooks as portable media players. Some people still use big-sized, 10″ tablets despite bearing two messenger bags at once.

The man in the picture on the left holds two magazines, a book, and an iPhone. It’s not one of those days where you end up holding more things you can possibly handle: he holds these magazines, a book, and an iPhone each day, I know because I see him at the railroad station each morning. And the has a messenger bag too.

Despite a seemingly clumsy setup, he’s not alone: hundreds, thousands, millions of people each day use technology way outside the “silos narrative” that people are willing to stick to just one environment or technology platform — yes, people using Apple products are more likely to be locked-in within Apple’s ecosystem, as much as people using Android-based are, but there’s no rule of thumb, there’s no real technological barrier for preventing cross-platform usage 2.

And the non-existent silos regard form factors and overall devices choices too: the other man shown in the picture above didn’t seem troubled to use his 15″ laptop as an mp3 player, even in a crowded place as the underground at rush hour.

People still read bulky books, holding them with both hands, while trying not to fall off balance on the underground: wouldn’t be wiser to get a Kindle? 3

Looked through the eyes of someone who can observe how people use technologies on the move each and every day, I’d say that a future where we wear those technologies is quite distant4  — if not entirely unlikely.

My daily commuting observations show that people are willing to compromise and to sacrifice the optimal performance when the perceived experience of their personal mobile ecosystem is “good enough”.

  1.  I couldn’t agree more that avoiding commuting is a healthy choice, but remote work isn’t for everyone, even if someone is a knowledge worker (I’ll write something about that someday).
  2. In fact, I’m happily using both iOS and Android since last November, I still haven’t found a reason to switch back to the full Apple experience I was use to — nor to abandon it completely in favour of Android
  3. I still don’t own a Kindle. I made the vow of finishing all of my paper books before getting one
  4. Especially until someone won’t find anything better than the (smart)watch form-factor. I played with a Samsung Gear, and the user experience is as horrible as it gets.
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Hired (or not)

A couple of weeks ago I signed up to a platform called Hired.

As someone interested in finding a job abroad, I eagerly sign-up to any kind of job search platform “with a twist”. On paper – or, from their homepage – they looked pretty nifty.

On the website’s main menu there was a specific and highlighted button for “International applicants”. I told  myself “of course they need to discriminate international applicants from local, US-based ones” – or, to put it simply “visas are bitches”.

The login system integrated with LinkedIn is a life saver for all those information that you’re usually require to re-write every time you apply for a job.

Anyway, my registration process stumbled when they asked me my “expected US salary”.

If you ever tried to look for a job abroad you are well aware of the painstaking process of understanding the salary level for your job in this or that country. Even in the same country (especially in the US!) salary level can be quite different between different regions and cities.

Moreover, the economic situation of your country of origin (in my case, Italy) can be profoundly different from the country where you should end up, making comparisons almost impossibile.

So I expected a tailored experience as an international applicant, one where I could be guided though information regarding salary level and costs of living in the US.

When you ask someone willing to relocate “How much money do you want to earn?” – and this is a piece of advice for head hunters and recruiters too – you should be able to give that someone a frame of reference. Or don’t make the question at all, because, most of the times, the answer is possibly inaccurate.

So I quit filling in my details. “Whatever”.

Today I received an email from Hired: they where aware that my registration process wasn’t complete,  they where asking for a follow-up.

So I went to the website, put a somewhat random amount of money in the “Expected salary” box, completed my profile, and I was ready to be astonished by a decent amount of job offers.

Shortly after, this is what Hired told me:

The International Auction has received an overwhelming number of applications, and we regret that we are unable to work with many impressive applicants due to legal and logistical constraints.

So, Hired, why bother with an international applicant form in the first place, if you don’t have the knowledge and the skills required to handle such requests?

It’s not nice offering such a horrible user experience for something critical as finding a job abroad. Very badly played, Hired.

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Minimum viable everything

So, I failed badly at my attempt of getting back to writing on a blog. 14 posts in almost a year isn’t bad in terms of my desired volume, but the quality of my writing isn’t getting better just because I decide to write less.

It may be the case that writing more will lead to better writing – nope, “less is more” won’t work here.

It turns out I didn’t really know what I was talking about when I was considering this a “minimum viable blog”.

Now that I actually know what MVP means, because I finally found the time to read The Lean Startup 1, I know where, why, how I failed.

Just as I avoided to read that book because I was sick about the startup frenzy 2, I avoided taking the time to write more because I was self-convincing myself that simply not writing was going to give me the inspiration to think more about what to writ.

Technically speaking, I failed because I didn’t shipped, I didn’t learn, I didn’t measure,  so I’m looking forward to fix that.

  1. I also read the excellent Lean UX. And I’ll be reading Lean Analytics soon. 
  2. I missed the great opportunity to understand sooner that, with the scientific approach described by Eric Ries, almost everything can be a startup
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First week of iOS and Android mixed use

I’m an iPod user since the early 2000s. I’m a Mac user since 2006. I’m an iOS user since 2009 (iPhone 3GS). I’m involved in iOS design and development since 2010. I’ve been using every iPad that came out from the original one onwards.

As of today I’ve been stuck with the Apple ecosystem for almost 10 years.
Seen from the outside, I would probably be marked and labeled as a “fanboy”.

I truly believe there are personal ecosystems of computing devices that go beyond the fanboy or fangirl narratives.

I’ve been a Windows user for quite a while (let’s say from the mid ‘90s to the mid ‘00s), using Linux in parallel for a couple of users. I started using mp3 players quite early, had a few of them from different brands (I landed on the iPod quite late before switching to the iPhone as my iPod replacement).

Juggling between different devices, software and platforms is something that a lot of us have been used to do for quite a long time before being hooked up in some sort of single-brand ecosystem: surely, the overall user experience of being immersed in one unique platform is reassuring, comforting.

For Apple users, this comforting situation usually it translates into feeling dumb because you don’t have to worry about the multiple problems you have to solve in order to make Windows or Linux run properly – in other words, technology making you dumber. On the other hand, for Windows or Linux users switching to OS X or iOS it usually means a quite discomforting feeling of coming to terms with a shiny, polished black box (been there, done that).

I had the chance to use a Nexus 7 (2012 model) as my everyday tablet. It has been sitting on the bottom of a drawer for a while so my very first impact was with OTA updates of Android, first from 4.2 to 4.3, and right after from 4.3 to 4.4. Everything went smoothly.

The first thing I did was to look up my two iPhone screens (and several apps’ groupings) and find the Android equivalent of each app.

Productivity

  • Simplenote
  • Evernote
  • Skitch
  • Trello
  • Fantastical*
  • Dropbox
  • Wunderlist*

So far, I’m still exploring alternatives for a synchronised calendar between my Mac, my iPhone and Nexus 7. No Fantastical for Android right now. For reminders and to-do list, after trying a lot of alternatives, I’ve been using Apple’s Reminders: I’m using Wunderlist as a crossplatform alternative, but I’m not sold yet.

Reading

  • Pocket
  • Feedly
  • Kindle

Social

  • Facebook
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • Buffer
  • Google+

Music
Music, and leaving the never-really-loved iTunes, were my biggest concerns about this mixed iOS-Android experience.
Google Play Music is great.
I uploaded my iTunes library with no problems whatsoever (actually there were problems but on Apple’s side).

Since I subscribed to iTunes Match, I can see myself dropping it for the All-Access plan of Google Play Music.

The Android app works great, as well as the web version.

The iOS app has a significant design flaw: it doesn’t allow you to filter between your entire library and music you downloaded on the device, making the process of finding out what is on the cloud and what is actually on the device quite cumbersome.

I still don’t get if this is a technical limitation due to Apple’s restriction or a really clumsy design flaw.

Bottomline
I’m quite pleased with the overall mixed experience of using the iPhone and the Nexus 7 as my personal ecosystem runs upon “mainstream” apps that are available on both platforms with no noticeable design flaws: surprisingly I found myself blaming Apple for its “closed box” approach over file system usage just two days after using Android.

Not so fanboy, after all.

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