Becoming a Leader: From Title to Trust

It used to be that whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do in my career, I said that I wanted to run a support team. I wanted to manage. But over the course of the past few years, that has shifted. Now I want to lead. Let me tell you: it’s easy to say “I want to lead. I want to be a leader.” Almost as easy as it is to say “I want to manage.”

But what do those things mean? How do we get from managing to leading? Well, let me start from the beginning.

I’ve been working in support on and off for the past 15 years. Those of you that know me or have heard me talk know that I took a break for a few years there to work in coffee and just generally enjoy some prolonged adolescence. This time, I’ve been working in support for 7 years. I was a Customer Champion at Wistia, then started conducting 1:1s in a leadership capacity sans title; then I moved to Campaign Monitor where I was an integrations manager for a team of 1. Next, I moved to Trello as a Support Engineer, became a team lead, and eventually, head of support.

A lot of these roles were things I was doing before I had a title—I was leading prior to managing. But I built additional trust with my fellow team members and got their buy-in with each new step I took. And that’s what I’m going to teach you how to do today. Keep in mind, some of the things in this talk might not resonate with you, or maybe you’ve never wanted to be in management. That’s okay! There are other opportunities besides management, but most of the lessons here are going to be most applicable to that job path.

First off: management is different from leadership. When you lead, you inspire the people around you and lift them up to do greater things and take steps towards a larger team vision on their own. When you manage, you make sure that they are doing all the shit that they need to do to get to that same vision, but do not give them the freedom to chart their own path. Notice the language that you use to describe what you do: do you say “I run the team” or “I’m the support team manager” or “I lead the support team”? How you talk about things says a lot about how you perceive them, so try to notice how you talk about what your role in the team is and how you might shift it.

I read a book a little while ago called The 5 Levels of Leadership, and it changed the way that I perceive management and leadership by proxy.

There are a five levels of leadership, and they build on top of one another:

  • Level 1: You’re a leader because you’ve been given the title

  • Level 2: You’re a leader because people CHOOSE to follow you

  • Level 3: You’re a leader because you get shit done and motivate those around you.

  • Level 4: You’re a leader because you are developing other people to be leaders

  • Level 5: You’re a leader because the leaders you developed are going through the same steps (it’s a little bit like an MLM).

As a seasoned gamer, when I learned that there were levels the first thing that I wanted to do was know how to beat them, right? We all want to get to the final boss. But, with leadership, as with all challenges, you need to start from the beginning.

Level 1

When I was at Wistia, I only had any management privileges because my manager gave them to me. I hadn’t earned them through any particular leadership except via individual contribution to the queue. You do not need any trust cultivated to become a level 1 leader, as it is wholly title-related. This is often times how managers get started: they’re on a team, and they get selected out of the group to manage when someone steps down or a role opens up. It was no different for me. I hadn’t done much except for a bit of strategizing and totally slaying the queue.

Did that mean that I didn’t deserve the title? No. But what it does mean is that I wasn’t a leader by any means I had visibly earned. The team was only following me because the title deemed it, and our leadership said they had to. This is a great example of a Level 1 leader. I never got out of Level 1 at Wistia, and at Campaign Monitor I never had people to lead, so I never got out of it there either.

To be clear, being a level 1 manager isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My team was doing just fine, I was doing just fine; we were meeting all of our metrics and people were generally happy. But, if I stayed as a level 1 manager, I never would have been able to advance in my career, or start working strategically on advancing a team forward. It was time to do more.

Level 2

When I went to Trello, I was given the role of Support Engineer. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted: as I said earlier, I wanted to be running a team. But Ben, the then-manager, told me that there was opportunity for growth, and so I came aboard. After a few months, Ben shifted my role to team lead. I was nervous, there were other people on the team who had more historical context at Trello than I did, and I wondered how they would take it.

The work that I did while I was a Support Engineer helped. Unlike at Wistia, I had served as a support to the people of the team in a leadership capacity already without the title. I had helped to bolster and get to know their needs, and then support them through it. When I was given the title, it was just a secondary affirmation of the role that I’d already been performing.

In order to build that trust, I had to get to know them. I could never have moved from Level 1 to Level 2 without the team putting their trust in me. I couldn’t just passively wait for them to get to know me. I had to learn. What was their dog’s name? What did they do for their girlfriend’s birthday? Know whether they like Star Trek or Star Wars better. What were their professional goals, and how could I help to get them there. Without that focus and mutual understanding, the team never would have supported me in the shift, especially because I was so fresh to the team.


This is a common issue for people that are new to a team, especially managers just coming in to a company without any previous experience. To shift from Level 1, where people just follow you because they know they have to, to Level 2, where people follow you because they choose to, you need to get to know them, and let them get to know you. Be vulnerable. Welcome feedback. Let them know that you are like them and you are on their level.

Other than just conversing about personal stuff with them, one of the best ways that I know to do this is to be in the shit. When the queue gets bad, they’ll notice whether you are there with them or not. Don’t break that trust that you are beside them.

Level 3

When you manage, it can be easy to let go of the day to day drive to accomplish things. Instead of your own merit being what deems you a “good worker” it is the merit of those you lead. With that, it can be easy to fall into a trap of “just” people managing, without continuing to develop yourself or develop the team.

After a few months of being the team lead, Ben left Trello and I became the temporary manager of the team. Temporary. It frustrated me that I wasn’t just being given the title, and instead had to conduct interviews and evaluate people that were champing at the bit for what I perceived as being rightfully be my job. I fell right back into the old habits from Level 1, and I could have stayed there. I was upset to do the work without getting the recognition.

However, after the initial month of so of sulking about not being just given the title, I realized that the best way to show that I deserved it was to earn it. Ben and I, prior to his leaving, had worked on an OKR program to try to drive forward initiatives within the support team outside of the inbox. We’d never done anything like it, and it was a radical idea. We were effectively giving responsibilities that would have normally fallen to a manager to our team to champion, like evaluating and managing the switch to a new help desk, or pioneering a proactive support methodology. We were believing in them to be able to do things far out of the scope of their normal day-to-day. Not only to do those things, but to excel at them.

The team was freaked out about the idea of taking so much time out of the queue, especially when, up until this point, it was their primary method of measurement. But, after the first round and seeing exactly how much they were able to accomplish, they were in. They trusted the process, but most importantly they trusted me to lead them through it.

Ultimately, Trello decided that I was the best fit for the role over the other external candidates that they’d interviewed.

To move from level 2 to level 3, you need to prove to your team that you have the chutzpa to take the things that you know about them and use that to direct them forward. If I had waited that whole time to get started on strategizing and leading the team, I would have lost all of the trust that I’d built and probably wouldn’t have been able to drive the initiatives forward that I did.

I knew, from conversations with my team, that it was important to them to do more and have more impact than working in the queue could provide. Ben and I built the OKR program to address that, and then had the faith in them to be able to do the more self-directed work it took to make it happen.

I could have easily just let myself fester over the anger of being appointed “interim manager.” Had I done that, I would have remained at level 2 with my team until I was given another opportunity to drive them towards larger goals and get shit done. The best way to get to level 3 from level 2 is to show your team that you hear what they are looking to do, then find a way to align it with company goals and get that shit done. Knowing that you are acting with their best interests in mind and that you care what they think about the future of the team helps them to trust you more.

Level 4

Getting shit done is all well and good until you can’t anymore. During this whole thing, I was very pregnant and knew that, at some point, I would have to go on maternity leave. I did as best I could: I made a list of all of my responsibilities and then delegated them out, I prepped the team with a list of everyone they would need to reach out to if anything went awry. I developed a schedule of 1:1s with the person that I reported to so that everyone would have their voice heard. Then, the acquisition happened.

Oh fuck.

The person that was supposed to be conducting my 1:1s left the company, and I was a mom fresh into baby-having-dom. I came back part-time to try to make sure that the team had 1:1s and felt that they were being advocated for during this scary time, but otherwise was absent.

It wasn’t ideal.

I had my feet both in the boat and in the ocean, and wasn’t paying very much attention to either. I needed to pick one. I picked my baby. But what did that mean for the team?

I’d been working to cultivate leadership skills amongst the members of the team, having them participate in interviews, work as mentors when people first came on board, and I knew that there were a few people who had leadership on their list of long term development goals. So, we did it.

I had one of my employees serve as the team lead while I was out on maternity. I gave him all of my trust and believed that he would make the right choices to get it done. Trust had evolved: it was not just him that was putting his trust in me as his leader, but me putting my trust in him to continue leading in my stead. And he did awesome.

You are able to move from level 3 to level 4 in your leadership when you start trusting people enough to let them be leaders on their own, and when they trust you enough to start making the big steps to get there. Mike, the person who I’d appointed to as lead in my absence, had to do a lot of extra things to make the role work, but he knew that I and the rest of the team had his back. Subsequently, the rest of the team seeing this, knew that they could trust me enough to tell me if they, too, were interested in leadership, and believe that I’d do all I could to get them where they needed to go.

Level 5

I haven’t made it to level 5 yet. I have been lucky enough to start in young organizations that do not have so many levels of leadership to allow me to be a leader of leaders who are then going on through the levels themselves. But, it is my goal to get there. Eventually, I hope that the Trello Support team will be large enough that I will allow the people that I developed on Level 4 to truly take the reins and run things--I hope that I will be there to see them.

But, for a great example of a Level 5 leader, I’d recommend taking a look at Mat Patto’s career and what he’s doing in his life right now. Not only did he manage the support team at Campaign Monitor (which was HUGE and multinational), but now he writes and builds documentation for HelpScout’s customer base to make them even better leaders. His net is so wide it’s ridiculous.

All of this is not to say “hey, it’s easy. If I can do it, you can too.” The picture that I’ve painted is definitely much cleaner than it was in the moment, and it took me some time to figure it out. Furthermore, the level that you are on differs with the person you are talking to. Just recently I was speaking with one of my team members, and he said that he didn’t see me as an “inspirational leader” but instead someone that he could come to with his problems and that would support him.

This boggled my mind. I’d never heard anything like it before. I had assumed that I knew where I was at with this person, but I’d never asked. The best way to find out how people perceive you is to ask. I did this by building a survey and sending it out to my team. Here's a version of the survey you can copy and use for yourself: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1nCrv36O4lx55VdLkxe5f-OY6UI2WOLHVZeLDttdcl-Q/edit?usp=sharing.

The responses that I got reassured me, but also let me know where I needed to be doing better. Each section corresponds with a leadership level. I was all “Yes” up until Level 4, where it started to diverge. I need to be developing people more readily and providing them with outlets to grow. I know this to still be an opportunity for me, but it was validating to see it confirmed by my team’s assessment. I’d recommend trying it for yourself just as a gut check.

Leadership is never easy, and there will never be a sure fire way to know how to do everything right. Hell, maybe even the path that I’ve taken isn’t right. Maybe the 5 levels of leadership are a total crock. But, to me, they are a useful map that is sketched out with a gist of kind of where I want to go. That’s what’s so fun about it: it’s a journey. There is not final boss, or way to beat the game, you just have to keep always playing, always striving to get better. So, no matter what you do, keep striving, be humble (as Kendrick Lamar says), and most of all trust others so that they may trust you.

The Art of Idea Midwifery

No offense to anyone, because I love all y'all, but I feel like I see all of the same faces (myself included) speaking at conferences nowadays. The truth of the matter is that, even though I love hearing people that I know and love talk, we would all benefit as an industry with some new faces and stories. Because of that, I've decided to start my new adventure as a midwife...of ideas.

Alright, alright. So, it sounds messy, but it's not so far from what I've already been doing. Here's the lowdown:

  • Have you ever wanted to speak at a conference, but you aren't sure what you'd talk about?
  • Do you have an experience or story that when you talk to people about it they say "Wow" or "Oh my gosh?"
  • Do you have some ideas brewing but just aren't sure how to put them into talk format?

Let me help you!

I'm currently opening some slots in my calendar for idea midwifery. Allow me to help you bring your beautiful idea and proposal for a talk into the world of conferences. I'm here to help you tease out something to talk about, develop already existing ideas, and get your proposal as polished as possible for its upcoming submission to SupConf.

After, if your proposal is accepted, I'm happy to work in tandem with you in the Talk Development program to get you feeling confident and fabulous up on stage. Your content and you will shine!

If this sounds like something you're interested in, or you're not sure and have more questions reach out at hey@mercenator.com.

Parental Leave: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When I first was making my maternity leave plan, I said that I was going to come back part-time at 12 weeks. When Liz, the head of People for Trello, reached out to me and said "You know, you can change your mind if you want to..." I scoffed. I love work. I thought to myself. What will I do just sitting around the house alone all day?

So, less than 4 weeks into my maternity leave, Trello was acquired! Yay! But this threw a bit of a wrench into my carefully planned and organized maternity leave. The person that I reported to was leaving the company, and I would be reporting to someone else. Not to mention there was a whole lot of organizing to do to figure out where my team would fit in to the new structure at Atlassian.

I decided to come back early, and started conducting meetings with 1:1s with my team members again. Most of the meetings were biweekly, but there were a few people who wanted to meet more frequently and I tried to accommodate that. Luckily, my husband was working from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays and was able to watch the baby if I wasn't able to get him down for a nap at exactly the moment when I had to go meet.

After 8 weeks of this, it was time for me to get back to work part-time. The plan was that I would be working on Tuesdays and Thursdays only and my husband would work from home and watch the baby. Needless to say, this did not work. While I loved work, and I loved being back in the saddle, I couldn't devote my attention to the work like I wanted to. Two days wasn't enough, especially with all of the changes happening, and when I was working I was thinking about the baby, and when I was with the baby I was thinking about work.

So, this only lasted two weeks. After that, I decided that I wanted to go back on maternity leave, and redelegated all of my responsibilities. Luckily, Trello and Atlassian were kind enough to help me organize this, and I've been back on maternity leave since. My team were incredibly supportive, even though sometimes I still feel a little bit guilty that, as the person running the team, I'm not there to help navigate some of the tricky stuff that can come with acquisitions.

This has been a really long roundabout way to get to talking about something that I think is a pretty common problem. If you are a driven, type-A parent, you probably want to get back to work as quickly as possible, but things might change after you have your baby. With that in mind, I have made a list of a few things that I wish I'd considered prior to leaving:

  • Are you wanting to come back early because you are afraid your team will realize they don't need you?
  • Will you come back part-time first? Will that be enough time to do the work you need?
  • Are you coming back for yourself or for your team?
  • Are there things that your team specifically needs you for that no one else can do?
  • Are you worried that your team will resent you if you stay on parental leave?
  • What are you sacrificing at home to come back to work?
  • Will using the entirety of your parental leave set a good example for the rest of your team/company?

Maybe coming back from parental leave early is something that would be a good fit for you, but considering the points above is something that I would seriously recommend prior to making your plan. For me, I thought that 12 weeks would be enough time and I would be champing at the bit to come back. While I was, and it felt good to be working, my motivations for coming back were maybe not in the right place. I also found myself feeling very guilty for coming back and then leaving again, and wished that I had just gotten it right in the first place.

Hopefully this quick checklist helps you accomplish just that! On a more business-y and less personal-mental-health note, check out the post I wrote for Kayako about my three-step plan to prepare for parental leave.

Self-Support Tools

I don't know about the rest of y'all, but I've had a hell of a few weeks. It feels like when it rains, it pours, and it can be so difficult to remember kindness—both for myself, and the people that I work with in the inbox every day.

When I read the prompt for this week's Support Driven #challenge, Tools, the first thing I thought was "Well. I don't use any of those. I guess this week wasn't meant to be the week I started in on this anyway." But then I thought deeper on one of the key tenets that I try to remind my team of every day: support is more than just being in the queue. 

Support, in and of itself, is empathy. As a support agent, you need to be emotionally ready every day to receive whatever the world puts out for you, and you need to be capable of handling that burden. You must handle it, otherwise it will crush you.

Yikes, that's a heavy start, Mercer.

Well, yes, but it's true. We get paid to be empathetic, to feel and take on the problems of everyone else as our own. Even just today I reminded my team of that, and urged them to take an hour or so away from their computer, away from Twitter, Facebook, Think Pieces, and just be quiet in their own minds without the influence of others' emotions. Because it's so important to give yourself the space and to support yourself before you help others.

Anyway, long intro. Here are some tools that I use for self-care and self-support every day that prime me to do excellent work in the queue:

A Regular Schedule

I try to keep to the same schedule everyday. I find that knowing what is coming, especially with the tumultuous nature of support, helps me to feel even-keeled and steady. In all transparency, I am bipolar, and so that was the original motive for this.

I try to get the same amount of sleep each night, and I try to wake up at the same time every day. I set three alarms. The first one wakes me up, and tells me it's time to roll over and snuggle my husband. The second one tells me that it's time for him to roll over and snuggle me. The last one tells me it's actually time to get up. This helps me wake up slowly, and sort out my thoughts for the day.

After that, I get up and meditate. Brush my teeth, wash my face, walk my dog, eat breakfast.

I end work at the same time every day, unless something has happened that requires me to stay late and help. I can count on this punctuation, and my brain now knows that, at that time, it can go from being in work/help mode to self-help/self-care mode instead. Finding this separation between work and home is so important to me not only because of working in support, but also working entirely remotely.

A Journal

I write in a journal every night. Every night. No excuses. Even if the journal entry is "Today was hard. Will write more tomorrow. Going to bed now." I try to write down and acknowledge how the day went and what I did. This helps with unpacking, and allows me to "get things off my chest" in a fruitful way that isn't just complaining. My journal is also a place where I can go and share things that maybe I don't want to say out into the universe, but I still need to say somewhere.

A Hobby/Exercise

I do yoga every day. Whether I teach it, take a class, or just think about sequencing a new class, it is a thing that I can use my brain to do that is not work. I also play video games, read, and make things with my hands. That being said, finding something that you really devote all of yourself to while doing it is important. If you play Magic: the Gathering and, while you are doing it, all you think about is M:tG, then perfect. But if you find your mind starting to creep back to the things that you're worried about, your anxieties and insecurities, you need to find something else.

I know that for the hour that I am teaching or taking, I am only thinking about that one thing. My brain gets a chance to shut off and reset.

A Reminder/Mantra

I have a mantra tattooed on my forearm. Om Namah Shivaya. Translated it means: I invoke Shiva's Name, or I honor the Shiva (divinity) inside of myself. I use this every day to meditate, but also try to think on it when ever I'm having a tough time. I think that having something nearby, whether that be a token of someone who you care about, or just a picture that reminds you of a positive time in your life, can be a huge impact on days when you need to remember to breath, and that things will all be okay.

I realize that this may not give you some actionable new advice to implement a hotkey that will make your support 10x faster, and these might not even be things that fit into your day-to-day life. What I can say, though, is that you need to take care of yourself. You need to give yourself the time to breath and defrag from the work that you do every day. This is how I do it. Being centered and able to step away from the fray of the queue is just as important to providing excellent support as being able to type 125 words per minute is.

Why You Need In-Person Time as a Remote Employee

I love working remotely. It saves me the hassle of having to commute to work and also saves me time on eating out every day for lunch. Every time that I prepare for a company meet-up or a trip to the office, I start to feel equal parts excitement and nervousness. I worry about how much of a toll being alone at home all day every day will have had on my ability to interact with people, but I also get excited about the idea of not being alone all day. I start to get nervous about feeling overwhelmed, or my coworkers not liking me without the filter of the keyboard between us, but excited about the idea of making new friends.

Every time I go, though, I realize the importance of doing it. While companies that do remote culture well (like my company, Trello, does) are making leaps and bounds with cutting out the difficulty of remote communication out of the equation, there are still things that are immeasurably important about face-to-face time. Here are the top three that I am reflecting on as of this past week at HQ with the rest of my team:

Banter


No matter how well you are able to express yourself in the written word, there are some things that are going to be missed. Sarcasm, little quirks and ticks of behavior, and other endearing things are usually missed unless you video chat every single day. Even with the end-of-week beer bashes that all of our remote employees do, not everyone is able to make it, so I don't get to know everyone. Being in person lets me get to know the people who *aren't* on all the video chats, or maybe don't have as much of a DM rapport with me. It is an outstanding way to build bonds and to start achieving that DM rapport that we are lacking.

Faces to names


So many people that I know are working at companies in stages of rapid growth. That is such an intense and confusing (and also very exciting and fun!) time. It can feel like there are 10 new people hired every week. It's easy, in a climate like that, to feel the FOMO or like you don't know who everyone is. Going to the office helps you at least get to know and see new in-office employees that might not come around the remote hangouts so often. That way, when someone says 'Al', for example, you can remember that you listened to him talk to his daughter over lunch that one day, and not feel out of the loop and lost like you would have before.

Cohesion


When you are with a group of people, whether you want to or not, you start thinking along with them and riding the tide of the group think. While in most cases group think is a Very Bad thing, I mean it in this instance as a net positive. As a remote employee, you are your own self-contained office of your company. You are responsible to keep your good-time-happy-feelings afloat, and if you are having a tough time or feeling a little-less-than-stellar, you are also the only one responsible for it. Going back to the office, or on a group retreat, is a great way to get back to that feeling that you had when you first started and to align with where the company is going. It's all well and good to have monthly meetings that *talk* about where the company is going, but when you are actually there with a group of people, you can feel it.

3 Ways to Amp Up Your Support Career; SupConf, May 2016

This is a text-based version of the presentation I gave at SupConf on May 24, 2016.

Hi! My name is Mercer Smith-Looper, and along with being an avid fan and participant in the Support Driven Community, I am a Support Engineer over at Trello. 

In 2010 I moved to Boston for Graduate School without any job prospects or ideas for what I wanted to do for work. I’d slung coffee before and had certifications from the national barista exam, so I relied on that and ultimately found a job making shitty espresso for hipsters and getting paid under the table. I looked like this:

 

“Wow, Mercer,” you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What impeccable fashion sense! I really love that avant-garde thing you’re doing with your hair there.”

Just kidding.

What you’re probably thinking is “Wow, that was just 5 years ago? How the heck did you get here?” And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about, friends. Specifically, how I started as a minimum-waged barista, and now I’m getting paid well to do a job that I love in a career that is fulfilling. Let’s amp your career up to 11.

Everyone wants to grow their career but, both fortunately and unfortunately, there is only so much of that that your company can do for you—the rest has to come from within and be driven by yourself and your own will-power. When we think about career development, we often think within the confines of our current job at our current company. We try to focus on what we can flex in order to be the best person that we can be there, when really there is a whole wide world out there that we could be excelling in. There is only so much you can do when thinking inside of and limiting yourself to the box of your company and, similarly, there is only so much that you should expect them to do. Here are the three things that I focussed on that took me from zero to hero without using any of my company’s resources or time over the past half a decade.

Industry knowledge

Most of you have been working in support for a while, I think it’s safe to assume, so you already know that when you’re first starting in the industry there’s a ton of little things to learn: tone, specific product knowledge, pains within your specific company’s user experience. But what happens when you’ve grown beyond that? Do you just stagnate? Ideally, no.

After you’ve mastered the basic tools required to provide excellent support, you can start to get even more macro: how are other people solving similar problems? You move out from the microcosm of personal knowledge, onto product knowledge, onto the universe of providing support as a whole. It’s no longer a question of how you support your individual customers, but how other people support theirs and what you can learn from it.

Start by developing niche knowledge from other companies that do similar things to yours. For example, if you work for a help desk company, find other help desk softwares and read about their struggles and successes with support. It’s likely that they will have different problems from you as, presumably, they have a different audience, but use some of those ideas to make suggestions for your own company’s preemptive support.

Read newsletters. I know, this sounds ridiculous, but round up a few really solid newsletters and subscribe to them. Not only does this save you time from having to go out and actively wade through social media profiles to find useful information, but you can hand select information that is pertinent or valuable to you. Also, reading newsletters designed by other companies or individuals might help you better understand how to make your own if you decide to in the future. I’ll get into that a bit more later.

Building up knowledge of how other people handle support outside of the industry I was in has allowed me to chameleon my way into some very unique and interesting jobs. For example, I started at Wistia—an awesome video hosting company—even though I knew little to nothing about video other than the cat videos I watched on Youtube. I then moved to Campaign Monitor—an email marketing company—despite the fact that most of what I knew about email marketing was from the newsletters I read. There is an opportunity to learn from everything even if it has nothing to do with what you are currently working on. Who knows what you’ll get the opportunity to work on in the future, after all. Try to be an active participant in everything that you engage with, rather than just passively consuming it. You can then pull that information, if needed, and reference it later.

Having this knowledge will make you more valuable to your current company, thus allowing you to level up your support career from an entry-level team member to someone who is able to move and shape the path of support for your company. By taking initiative and learning from other’s mistakes and successes, you will be able to suggest more forward-thinking, proactive options that others on your team might not have thought of yet. You’ll be on the forefront of industry knowledge in an industry that is bursting with new experiments to try.


The benefit of knowing about how other people are doing support or have done support in the past is that you can skip the step of having to make those mistakes and deal with those pitfalls yourself. You can get right into the meaty bits, and reap the benefits. It also sets you up with more data to create your own experiments to learn from and share about.  Cue “It’s the Circle of LIFEEEEEE” music.


Personal Growth

Talking to people is a skill that you inevitably need to have when working in support. If you didn’t want to talk to people, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a job in which you talk to people, sometimes even irate people, for a majority of your day. Because of that, it’s safe to say that you are probably pretty good at that, and have had other jobs that required you to flex that muscle as well.

That being said, as much as I love it, communicating is a soft skill. What I mean by that is: tracking the ability to speak well in any quantifiable, data-driven way is close to impossible. Trust me, as someone who has a Masters degree in Creative Nonfiction. You can use the number of years that you’ve been doing it as a measure, but that is qualitative rather than quantitative. Qualitative skills are helpful and wonderful, but can be tricky when it comes to conversations about compensation and your qualifications for a position. Quantitative skills can be tracked whereas qualitative skills must be experienced.

For example, the writing style at one company may be very different from another. A good example of this is Dollar Shave Club’s support style versus, say, a company in the financial sector. Dollar Shave Club puts value on a jovial, even colloquial, style of communication with their customers, whereas something in the financial sector would most definitely not want you calling their customers ‘dude’. Different strokes for different folks, as it were. So, even if you’ve been supporting people excellently at one company for years, it doesn’t mean that you will be a good fit at another. Because of this, it’s important to develop skills that are measurable and can be considered alongside your impeccable communication abilities.

The next step in your personal growth, after you’ve built up your knowledge of support as a whole and are able to customer service the shit out of people is developing hard skills. Hard skills increase the perception of you as a valuable member of teams because they differentiate you from other candidates and are measurable. For example: if you have been supporting people well for 5 years at XYZ company, but also are familiar with troubleshooting code-based API issues, and know how to record and edit video (you know, just a random selection of skills...definitely not person reference) you are more likely to be a contender for a position than otherwise.

To be clear: “hard skills” does not just mean “code.” There is an upsurgence in support that, in able to be able to do “good support” you also need to be able to code. That is not true. That’s what engineers and developers are for. If you do not want to learn code then don’t. Learn some other measurable, differentiating skill. For example, French. Or Icelandic. Or something else that nestles itself in neatly between your personal interests and professional life. Find what you are passionate about rather than what you feel like you need to be able to do. If you don’t care about something but are forcing yourself to learn it because you feel it is necessary you will just end up hating learning it and resenting the shit out of any job that hires you because of it.

This goes hand in hand with a very important point: you do not need to change companies in order to up your career. You DO, however, have to be with a company that understands where your goals are and is willing to work with you to achieve them. Transparency, in this case, is the best policy. Let your team lead or boss know where you want to go and that you are taking action to go there. Maybe even see if your company already has a skills development program in place, such as a conference budget or something else, that you could use to help pay for your learning. Use whatever resources are in your hands to get what you need and want—the internet has a site for almost anything, and oftentimes it’s free. You have no excuse.

If you’ve spoken with your company about where you want to go with your career they can either help you understand how to get there within your company or they can reciprocate transparency and let you know that that’s not really in the cards where you are at. If that is the case, leave. Even if you love the company, you should love your career and yourself more. You can always stay friends with them after you leave, it’s not like you’re being voted off the island or anything.

Develop hard skills to point you in the direction where you want to go, and you will go in that direction whether or not you stay with your current company (though I’m personally in favor of staying, rather than going).


Exposure

This is the scariest part because it involves doing things not on your own. It involves coming out of your own shell and admitting to yourself and others that you have something to say. For me, this took the longest. Imposter syndrome is a very real feeling and something that plagues support people because, by our nature, we are very humble and fairly supportive (rather than “braggy”) human beings.

You ready? You have to get out there. You have to share your story authentically and help others learn while continuing to learn from others. Doctor Seuss once said “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Let that drive you through every time you start wondering about whether your story is as interesting as you originally thought it was, or if people really are going to be surprised to hear what you have to say. They will. No one else has been in your skin or your brain or had the same experiences as you. It’s the joy (and strife) of the human condition that no one will ever be able to see things the exact same way as you do. Help others learn from what you have seen.

This can be as small as going to local MeetUps, or writing blog posts, or as big as proposing to give a talk at a conference and then going and doing the damn thing. Make talking about support and caring about support as second nature as biting your finger nails or wearing lipbalm. Not as natural as breathing, though, because no one wants to be working all the time. Gotta have that good, good balance.

A good way to start this, if you’re not sure where your path lies, is to talk about what you’re reading and doing. If you’re already following my advice from the first two parts of this talk, you’re doing tons of reading and development on your own time. Share information about that. If you like a link, Tweet it out, if you find a great place to learn new skills, share it with your network. This is an easy way to start having dialogue with people, even if just in a casual manner and to set yourself up as an “influencer” in the Support space. And you don’t have to do anything extra, just actually Tweet or link to what you’re already doing.

Remember: talking about what you know is not bragging and it is useful. There is someone that wants to hear what you think and wants to engage in a meaningful dialogue with what you have to say. Even if it seems small and second-nature to you there is always going to be someone out there who has not thought of it before. Remind yourself of this every time you start to get that niggling “but why does any one care about XYZ” thought in your head. You’ve built the industry knowledge, you understand the temperature of the support world, you know what is out there and what isn’t. Talk about what isn’t. Talk about the things that come into your brain late at night when you are just about to go to bed, or what you wish that someone had said to you when you were just starting out. You can do this and it will be important and valuable and you will feel like a boss after you share it.

Create a social media presence. I know that this sounds like a crock of shit, and 5 years ago I didn’t even have a Twitter. Having a social media presence not only helps you more easily connect with people who have similar opinions, it allows people who are just meeting you to see what it is you have to say and how you think and to engage with you in a way that isn’t face-to-face. The internet is a magical place that, along with being total crap sometimes, can help you meet and speak with people who otherwise you’d have no chance of meeting. Use this to your benefit by talking about your career and forming relationships with other people who do the same. Pstttt, you’re doing it right now! Support Driven is literally built for exactly this!

 

What the theme tying all of these things together? It drives me crazy when there are three unrelated things in a talk and they are just left floating amorphously with a smile and a goodbye at the end. The theme that ties all of this together is you. You are the person that accomplishes these things for yourself—not the company that you work for—and that makes them simultaneously harder and easier than anything else that you will have to do in your career.

It’s easier to do something for yourself because it means that you are self-driven and directed and are able to pursue the things that you care about, rather than the things that need to get done because they are on a list of tasks for the day.

It’s harder because it means you need to commit the time to do these things outside of your regular work hours which means that you really need to set aside time. It reminds me of something that one of my old professors used to say: “If you want to be a writer, you need to set aside at least an hour a day to write. Even if you just sit and stare at your keyboard for that hour, in that time you are a writer. Without that schedule, you are not.” Set aside time every day to work on these things: whether that be to read articles, or to practice your language or code or whatever other hard skill you want to work on, or practice your talk for the next Meet-Up that you are speaking at.

Time is the one thing that is not infinite in this case: there are endless things to learn, read about, understand and subsequently speak about. I can’t tell you what direction you need to take, just that you’ll need to find a passion and move towards it. Support is an endlessly growing scene, and there are opportunities blossoming for the right people to take them. Do you get amped up on analytics? Maybe you should master SQL so that you can be a database master. Is writing support emails what gets you going? Maybe try learning a language so you can do so in another tongue.

What I mean is, because time isn’t infinite, you will never be able to learn everything. Set your sights on something and plod your way to that point. Your career isn’t about what you think you should be doing, but instead what feels good for you. If along the way you realize “hey, this isn’t for me” pivot as quickly as you can, because you will never be able to regain your lost time. If you are making a ton of money, but you aren’t satisfied with your day-to-day, make shifts to change it. Find a thing that makes you passionate, that wakes you up with excitement for the coming day, and drive yourself towards that. As you find your passion, as you grow your knowledge, all of the other things will fall into place: your career will blossom and your finances with it. 

Why should you do this? Because nothing that is worth it is going to be easy. Would you pick up a guitar and immediately put it back down again after you couldn’t form a note on your first try? Not if you really wanted to play guitar. If you really want to make a career in support, you need to dedicate time to practice it, just like an instrument or a sport. Will it always be fun? Probably not. There will be times that you will probably get frustrated because you aren’t as good at something as you wish you could be or you’ll still be working on something when everyone in your house is asleep. Take those moments and remember them. They are the fuel for your success, possibly even more so than when everything is easy.

A little over a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about how if you say that you don’t have time to do something, you probably just don’t care about it enough to do it. In the blog post I noted that this was neither a good or a bad thing, but that if you genuinely cared about something and wanted to do it, you would find the time to. You would stop making excuses and prioritize it over something else that might come more easily.

I will be the first person to say that taking time out of your regular life outside of work to work on self-development is hard. But if you do, and you take the time to actually implement these three practices into your life on even a weekly basis, you will see greater success in your professional life, whether that be where you are right now, or somewhere else. It might take a year, five years, ten years, but what you put in will be exactly what you get out.

When I left my first support job to move on to a bigger, better paid new position, I cried as I gave my notice. I was sad to leave a company that had taken a chance on me when I was just starting out, but I knew that I needed to try to push myself further in order to advance my career. I was scared that I was making the wrong choice and that I would be a small fish in a huge pond at my new company, unable to make any impact or actually bring anything to the table. I knew, somewhere, that the work I had done in my own time had set me up for this bigger, better job (Heck, I met the person who hired me at a conference), and that my current company wasn’t going to be able to support my growth, but the leap into the unknown horrified me. Luckily, I made the right choice. And now that I’ve made a few pond-hops since then, I can tell you that there will always be larger ponds as long as you can grow to fit them.

Don’t stifle your growth. Be scared, break things, get stronger. Focus on yourself, practice and all things are coming.

Trello Training: My First Week with Trello

I just got back from spending my first week with Trello in their New York offices, and am vibing off of successfully spending my first day remotely at home. With that in mind, I wanted to jot down and share some quick thoughts about what I thought was awesome:

1. Two words: dog food.

Trello uses their own product for everything. All of my training and onboarding was done (or directed by) a Trello board. For example, here is a sample Trello board that is very similar to how the internal IT team handles support for employees. Perhaps this is because it is such an easy and diverse tool, but it was great to see a company that so sticks by what they have created that they use it for all of their internal processes as well. As a serial list maker and keeper, I am right at home here. 

2. Remote-first can work, and it can work well.

Every time I walked through the hallways of the all-glass cubicles in HQ, a majority of the people were on video calls. Not just video calls for the sake of meetings, but also collaborating on code or working together in another way. In fact, often the video screen would be open on a secondary monitor while they worked through something else entirely together. The video was a secondary aspect, but seemed to simulate what it would be like if they were there together and working on something.

To further emphasize this, they used to have company meetings in which, like most other companies, all of the HQ employees would sit together on one monitor, and all the remote employees would call in to view the meeting. That is no longer the case. All employees participate in the monthly meetings from their personal computer in their office, whether they are remote or at HQ.

3. Values are more important to me than they used to be

When I was younger, I mainly looked at jobs as a source of a paycheck. As I get older, I find myself looking for a home, which means that I really need to feel aligned with the values at the core of the company. When I first realized that this had grown so important to me, I was honestly taken aback. Not only is the company committed to happiness and living a healthy lifestyle (as is evidenced by their latest #ReadySetGoal campaign), but the core tenets of the product run through their culture. Trello believes in living agilely, and finding the core essentials—that's why we have the limits in place that we do on our boards—and that leads to a lack of clutter which I find very appealing. I am most excited to be here because I feel like I am on the same page with what the company cares about and what they value in decision making.

4. The people genuinely love each other.

I have been at a lot of companies who have tried to encourage group bonding activities: weekly drink nights, or special events where everyone gets together in the office. That being said, I have never seen them include remote people. Each month the Trello and Fogcreek teams get together to play games and just generally hang out in-office. At the same time, the remotes hang out in a group call together, drinking beers, talking about video games and speaking with various people in the office that drop by the sharing screen. Further more: both parties hang out for hours. Doing nothing, really, besides playing Drawful or asking after one another's holidays. It's truly inspiring and obvious that the hiring team totally kicked ass when it came to looking for culture fits. I am honored to be a part of it.

Alright, /endfangirling.

Cultivating Transparency

I am regularly told that one of my best qualities is my transparency, which is  one of the greatest compliments that I could be given. But, in a world where almost every company is billing itself as "transparent," the word seems to have picked up an occasional inauthenticity associated with its buzziness. How can we collectively work against "transparency" becoming just another meaningless catch-phrase  that companies use to brand themselves? We can take it upon ourselves to truly cultivate it in our life and work. Below are a few steps that I've found helpful in growing my own personal and professional transparency and allowing it to thrive.

Admit your mistakes

It is hard to say that you've done something wrong; it's embarrassing and requires eating a pretty large slice of humble pie, especially when it's in the face of someone else's success. With that being said, mistakes are a great learning opportunity both for yourself and your company. If you've made a mistake, or done something less well than you expected to, use it as a chance to reflect on what you could have done better. What went wrong? What was the cause of it? It might be good to talk about with your team, team-lead or partner in the project, as sometimes they have some outside perspective that puts things into focus and sways the possibility for self-hate and doubt into a learning opportunity. Just because something didn't work out as well as it could have the first time doesn't mean that you can't do it better next time. 

Also, write post-mortems always. Do it whether the project was a screaming success, or perhaps went a little bit sideways. This keeps a record for things to think about moving forward, and gives you a catalog to look back on for reviews and your own personal goal-setting.

Encourage open dialog

Create an environment where you and your teammates are comfortable giving and taking feedback. Feedback can be both constructive or positive, and you should expect both freely. The above example of admitting your mistakes is a great opportunity to open up the floor for commentary. Something that I've taken to doing, after each wrap-up meeting for a project, is asking for feedback from the members of other teams. "Is there something that I could have done better, or that would have made the process go more smoothly for you? What would you have liked to see more of? Was there anything that I did particularly well?" It might seem a bit like overkill, but it is super-important to make sure that you invite the feedback—some people might not feel as comfortable just coming right out and saying it, especially if it's constructive. By opening the floor and letting them know that you want to hear it, you will get much more valuable critique and compliment for your future growth.

Make your goals public

I am of the firm belief that both team and individual goals benefit strongly from being made public. The first reason for this is because of an increased sense of accountability: if you tell your whole company that you will do something by a certain time and don't end up doing it, you should expect them to ask why. Companies and teams fragment when goals are not aligned. It is also possible that you'll be asked why you made your goals in the first place. Being asked "Why" is one of the best things you can do when you are planning out the future of your team. Why do you want things to change? You should be able to explain this with clarity to the rest of your company, and have them be on board. If not, you might want to set different goals or reassess what's driving you towards them.

Secondarily, making your goals available so that any one in your organization can find them shows a sense of trust. You want people to trust what you are doing, and also want to trust them to have faith in your choices.

There is a ton more to transparency than I would ever be able to fit in a single blog post or blog, especially if you are trying to implement it into your company culture. With the three things above, though, you should be cooking with gas in no-time. What are some ways that you promote a transparent culture in your company or team?

 

 

Why Should I Care? UserConf SF, 2015

This is a text-based version of my presentation given at UserConf in San Francisco on 11/13/15. 

 

Are you happy with the way things are in your life currently?

Do you believe that things could be better?

Chances are, it's because they could be.

My name is Mercer, and I’m the Integrations Manager at Campaign Monitor, an email marketing company with an office right here in beautiful San Francisco! Today, I’m here to talk to you about self-care and how you can help promote it within your company and personal life.

Self-care. What’s that, huh? Sounds kind of...icky, right? Self-care is, wait for it, the act of caring for yourself. I’m not talking about making sure you’re clothed and fed and that you have a roof over your head, though in the most basic sense, that is self-care. I mean ensuring that you are taking care of all of your basic needs (of which there are six categories), and being the happiest and most productive human that you can be. And that your company is supporting you in doing that.

Here’s an example, for those of you thinking that this is about to be the basic bitch of all talks: how many people in here have gone to work when they were sick, because there was some deadline they had to meet or some other important “something” that had to get done? Raise your hand. Basically all of you, right? I can’t really say anything about that because I’ve been there too. The point of this talk and why I am giving it is because we have all been there. If it’s a friend that was saying “Yeah, I’m going to come into work even though I’m not feeling well,” you would tell them “No, no! Stay home, rest up!” Whereas, if it’s you, you’re all about being Typhoid Mary for your entire team. Why would you treat your friend any differently than you would treat yourself?

Support and customer-facing people are all innately nurturing, caring and kind people. It’s why we have the jobs that we have. If we weren’t all of those things, we’d be developers (hyuck hyuck hyuck, just kidding)! We spend every second of every day thinking about how we can make other people happy or solve other people’s problems, but never thinking about our own. For some, it’s because we feel selfish putting ourselves first, for others, we don’t even realize that we are doing it. You are your own most important asset. Without yourself, you could not do anything. Literally. Which means that all the people that need you around to help them and assist them couldn’t do anything either.

Self-care helps everyone. It might feel selfish to start off, but it isn’t. Taking a few moments (or even an hour or more!) for yourself, means that the rest of the time that you have in your day can be spent more productively. You do better work when you are happy, healthy and all of your needs are being met. You will be a stronger contributor to any groups that you are a part of, professional or otherwise, if you give yourself the space to take care of yourself. If you take just a few moments of each day to do some self-caring, you will be that much more open to caring about and helping others. Plus, it feels good. It’s a goddamn miracle drug. It lights up all the pleasure centers of your brain, and helps you do things like remember more, learn faster, and even beat out depression. Even further, you could be responsible for helping to implement something truly awesome for the rest of your company, and helping to pass that good feeling on to others.

We talk about work-life balance as if it means that the two, working and living, are separate, but I think that’s an outdated idea. We don’t need to spend equal amounts of time on both, but instead put equal commitment into feeling fulfilled at both. But, there are many different things that make up a “balanced” happy life. In comes the self-care wheel or self-care pizza if that speaks more to your tastes.

Your professional needs are some of the hardest to have met, primarily because they so often depend on someone else: your boss. In my own life, it has been hard to overcome the guilt associated with professional self-care: it’s meant leaving jobs, turning down opportunities, and sometimes even severing ties of professional relationships which might have started out as healthy. All of these things, though, came out of the motivation to ensure that my needs were being met, something which I have turned into my own personal guiding light after living a lot of my life very unhappily.

Think back on the past year of your life and the question that I asked at the beginning of this presentation: could things be better than they are right now? When was the last time that you worked overtime, on the weekend, canceled a personal engagement that was important to you in order to make a meeting? We are here at a professional conference to all learn how to do our jobs better, which implies how important it is to us as a whole. “Professional” is it’s whole own chunk on the sociological self-care wheel, which shows how important it is in terms of your overall wellness, too. As I dug deeper, though, I discovered that each of the other slices of this delectable pie were intrinsically tied to professional life, as well. Because, when you think about it, most of your life is work. We think about it when we are on the train, we spend 8 or more hours a day at the office and, if we are given the tools we need to be happy, we enjoy it.

Other than the professional aspect, there are five other pieces to healthy self-care: personal, physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. To be a healthy, balanced individual you theoretically need to have aspects of each of these needs addressed in your everyday life. And, because so much of our every day lives are spent working, you should be practicing each of these at the office as well. While you might not hit it out of the park with each different aspect at your own company (if you’re batting a 4 out of 6 average, I’d say you’re doing pretty well), I wanted to share some great examples of ways other companies are bringing this balance into their DNA. 

How’s your body doing lately? Are you getting 8 hours of sleep every night? Do you have a regular workout schedule? Your company should encourage you to get out and be active: it’s proven to be psychologically as well as physically beneficial to get your heart rate up and participate in group physical activities: does your company have a sports team, or promote physical activity and exercise in another way? Trello, for example, gives employees full reimbursement of gym costs, while Help Scout recently implemented a Slack bot that randomly pings their remote team members to do crunches, push ups or squats each hour. If your company doesn’t offer things like this, it might be a good opportunity to talk to them about it: ask why that isn’t something that is being encouraged, especially if its something like a Slack bot that can be built in for free. Exercise, along with producing and releasing endorphins in your body, enacts something called neurogenesis which generates new and protects existing neurons. This promotes better memory, learning and reasoning capabilities, all just from a tiny jog or some crunches. For me, this entailed going out and getting my yoga teacher certification so I could teach others, but maybe for you this looks like asking to have a fitness instructor come in and teach at lunch, or taking it upon yourself to lead some calisthenics if you feel so inspired.

When was the last time you bonded with someone over your profession? Do you ever go to support meet-ups, or have any kind of group you can talk with about support issues? There are tons of great opportunities for professional learning through sites like Meet Up, or Eventbrite—especially if you are living in a big city. Maybe, if you’re in office, you could even host a Meet Up at your space. If you’re a bit more isolated, online communities like Support Driven, and conferences like this one here are outstanding places to bond with others and gain great perspectives about what you could be doing better, or might be able to do more of at your own company. Many companies, like Zapier and my very own Campaign Monitor, provide very generous options for conference meet-ups that help you develop professionally, meet like-minded people, and gain some psychological self-care points. Belonging to a group or participating in group activities stimulates the same part of our brain that is responsible for feeling physical pleasure and pain, along with a sense of self-worth; as fun as it can be to talk with likeminded people, it’s also immensely psychologically important and rewarding. Take these opportunities as often as you need, and fully devote yourself to learning—no answering tickets the inbox when you are supposed to be focussing on a talk!

How often each week do you tell yourself (or hear from others) that what you are doing is valuable? Do you and your team have any kind of recognition system in place? Support is so often an unsung hero that it is even more important to implement in-team recognition as regularly as possible. The support team at Campaign Monitor, for example, has a weekly email that they send out that notifies the whole company of really awesome support interactions or work that their team members are doing. This is also something that I worked on when I worked at Wistia. Providing this kind of recognition serves as encouragement to keep working, even if the job can be difficult or frustrating at times. Further more, in such a sometimes thankless job, it can be important to remind yourself (whether that be by someone telling you, or by you telling yourself) that you are important. Providing and receiving positive recognition from your peers can help to validate your sense of self-worth and empowerment, and may even make you (or others) more inclined to tackle goals that you wouldn’t have without that encouragement. Many of the things happening at your company would not continue to happen were it not for your and your team’s tireless and great work. Make sure you are as loud and proud about that as possible.

Does your office have a meditation room or quiet space? Do you have any kind of volunteering policy? Participating in volunteer work with people less fortunate is a great way to feel more connected with the community around you and to feel more spiritually fulfilled. Volunteering and donating time or money provides us with a dopamine rush—the same kind of experience we would have if receiving a great gift or eating a delicious meal. So, while it feels good, emotionally, to give back, it can also lead to feelings of euphoria, happiness and physical well-being. Campaign Monitor offers one paid day off a quarter to go and participate in volunteer work at a local non-profit or charity organization. Something that we did while on our company trip to Fiji, for example, was help to renovate a school house by painting a new mural, building and varnishing furniture, and bringing a new library and sports tools for them to play with. Maybe, if your company doesn’t already have these opportunities, you could be the one to spearhead them.

How often do you ask yourself “what do I want to do with my life?” And, are you currently doing it? Personal self-care means taking the time that you need to focus on yourself and where you are going. Maybe you want to be a support team lead, maybe you want to move into a role in marketing. Start visualizing what needs to happen in order for you to get there, start making moves. How transparent is your growth cycle? Neurologically, each time you set a new goal or think about steps in your future, your brain already perceives that goal as being an intrinsic part of yourself, and releases dopamine each time you take a step closer. Scientifically, your brain likes it when you set goals—it is important and beneficial to its chemical makeup. Buffer, as most people know, is a great example of a company where transparency in how you are doing and where you want to go is key. How much everyone is being paid is made open not only to the internal teams, but to all Buffer customers as well. This helps employees to understand where they fit in the scheme of things, and even feel more brave when asking for raises or new job titles. 

Many people leave jobs because they are looking for advancement that they don’t perceive as available in their current company. By making paths of growth as clear as possible, companies give their employees the autonomy to think for themselves, and be truly aware of whether or not what they want to be doing in the future is possible at their current job. From the employee side of it, this means that you need to be speaking up and asking for more transparency if you don’t see a feasible way to get to where you want to go. Talking about it, and encouraging that, perhaps, a new process be built will help you meet your personal self-care goals, and will help others moving forward.

Just like in an airplane, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help other people put theirs on. You have to take care of yourself so that you can continue to take care of others. Once you make the commitment to start paying attention to and working on these things, whether you do so for your company or by yourself, you will start to see all kinds of things fall into place. Start slowly: make relaxing or meditating, or thinking about your future a TO DO on your list of things—forcing yourself to consider it as an important task will help you reframe the way you think about self-care.

Create a plan, set your boundaries, go forth and conquer. Things can be better, and you can make them that way.

What Yoga Can Teach You About Support

As I move towards my UserConf talk on self-care, I keep thinking about how much yoga has helped me to frame my own perspectives on life, work, and how I handle things. Increasingly, I find myself repeating yogic practices in my every day support interactions. About a quarter of my day is answering or helping answer technical questions about our API, API implementations and other integrations-related quandaries. While that's definitely not as much support as I am used to doing, the technicality and difficulty of the questions can sometimes make it feel like it's much more. 

With that in mind, I thought I would share three yogic strategies which have really helped me through some of the tougher days or interactions in support (and life!).

You are Enough

Yoga can be very challenging and difficult and, if like me, you are a Type A person, you can quickly grow frustrated with not being able to be as strong, bendy, or inverted as you would like. Something that I like to remind my yoga students and be reminded of is that they are enough. Where you are right now is exactly where you are supposed to be. If you wish you could answer more technical questions, or you feel stupid having to ask things of your coworkers, remind yourself that where you are right now is exactly where you are supposed to be. The longer you do it, the more you will learn. Everyone starts somewhere. Keep practicing those areas that are flat sides, and eventually you will be able to do them with ease. It's just like a handstand or backbend: you need to train yourself to get there.

Take a breath

In vinyasa yoga, the yoga that I teach, we link movement to our breath. With each inhale and exhale we change our pose. In combination with the heat, sometimes we can lose our breath or it can get choppy. At that point, I usually advise students to sit down on their mat in child's pose and try to reconnect with their breath to bring it back to a less-choppy pace. Sometimes in support, we can get caught up in things, feel like we have to go-go-go, and lose touch with what brought us there in the first place. If you start feeling anxious, aggressive, or maybe even just a little out of touch, take a step back, take a breath, realign with yourself and your goals. This can be anything from taking a walk, playing a game of pingpong, or literally just stepping back. The important part is that you focus on yourself, what you brought you to work, what makes you love what you do.

Leave it off your mat

As support people, we work all day with others. In fact, most of what we do is talking and interfacing with customers. Because of that, if you are feeling less-than-stellar, it can come across in your responses. In yoga, we advocate people to take whatever they were thinking about when they walked into the studio: dinner, that fight with their best friend, how stressed they are about a project at work, and leave it off of their mat. The hour that they spend in our class should be devoted to that: the class. When they leave, they can choose to pick it up those thoughts if they want them, or leave them if they don't serve them. I like the idea of physically leaving those bummer emotions, and most often don't pick them back up when I leave. When you come into work, if you're feeling particularly unhappy, try to leave it outside of the office. It will help you focus on doing your job better, and it also gives you the opportunity to be free of the burdens of those emotions. After work, choose to pick them up again, or leave them where they are at—if you survived a whole day without them, they probably aren't that important, after all.

Even if you don't do yoga every day, like I do, there are still some aspects of a yogic lifestyle that may help you in your day-to-day. Give these a try next time you're feeling pressured, anxious or bummed, and let me know how it goes for you!

I <3 APIs Masterclass: Building a Successful Developer Program

I am lucky enough to be spending this week in beautiful San Jose at Apigee's I <3 APIs conference. There have been a number of great insights shared, but few as valuable as the masterclass that I attended yesterday on building and marketing a successful developer program. Here were some of the points I found most valuable.

Jeff Hadfield, @jhadfield

 

  • Deloitte, API Trends 2015
  • Iot is a bunch of sensors talking to bunch of data in the cloud using both cloud and big data processing. Not just a wearable, not just your smart fridge.

How can we convince management that developers are important?

  • Software is eating the world “we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the industry.”
  • Hardware value increasingly in software. John Deere recently implemented a developer program. Why are tractor people having/using APIs? Sensors, etc, “precision farming”. IF TRACTORS CAN DO IT WE CAN TOO.
  • Uber as example: of all the spaces you thought would get disrupted, taxis probably wouldn’t have been it. 
  • APIs ties services, social media, data. Uber, for example, used a map via API, used available trackers on the iPhone, used APIs via square, hooked into existing social.
  • APIs drive purchases, consider>adopt>ops>add value.
  • The New Kingmakers, Stephen O’Grady
  • Apple’s App Effect

 

Exercise: Value proposition building

  • Every framework is flawed, but are they useful? 
  • Peter J Thompson: Value Proposition Canvas
  • Product: Benefits (why) + Features (how start here) = Experience (what?)
  • Customer: Wants (emotional) + Needs (rational) + Fears (hidden, deep whys)
     
  • EVERY ONE is different, best way to get to know your customers is to actually talk to them. Not trying to sell, just trying to ask.
    •     What does your usual day look like?
    •     What are your biggest challenges.
    •     What do you want to learn?
    •     What would make you a hero?
    •     What makes our API good and what would like to see made better?
    •     Why are some better than others?

 

Demographics—how to market/what motivates devs.

  • Stack Overflow 2015 survey
  • 84% of dev use open source software.
  • Developers trust things that they can see inside of. SHOW them as much as possible.
  • The hierarchy of developer motivations.
  • IBM research: developers want:
    • to solve a business problem
    • to solve a specific technical problem
    • to build existing or learn new skills
    • “fame and fortune.”
  • Computers are stupid, and that is why we have developers
  • The pragmatic programmer
  • Developer personalities: 1 in 40 people in the US is a software developer. 25% of people are INTJ, ISTJ, ENTJ, INFJ or INTP. 71% of devs are those types.
  • Please understand me: character, temperament and type.
  • Developers are “rationals”: represent only 5-10 percent of people, value intelligence, pragmatic, skeptical (need to think of all the things the stupid computer could do wrong), focused on problem solving, seek knowledge, prize technology, understand systems to make them work better. 
  • Break down of Myers-Briggs:
    • introvert (69% of devs, focus on the inner world, like to think about things, concepts. Do NOT want to talk through things with others) 
    • Intuitive (69% why things happen, long range implications, big picture, understand today and future)
    • Thinking (65% of devs, objective analytics, prefer to make their own decisions, logical)
    • Judging (77%, impatient with long descriptions, can make premature decisions just to be ‘done’, organized, structured, decisive)
  • Developers just want to find out where they need to go to do the things they want to do (action you want to take needs to be visible all the time)
  • Show benefits, let em touch it, let em test it out.
  • Developer relations is really just technical marketing. (we all like to buy, but no one likes to be sold to).
FullSizeRender-1.jpg

 

Developer Program Best Practices

  • Events and Community, Web site & Support, Marketing and Outreach, evangelism and strategic account management. 
  • Events and Community/Marketing: Standalone dev events are not as effective as they could be. Many choose to focus on one-to-one outreach. Local events, virtual events (webinars?), paid participation (showcase at apigee is a great example), owned events/hackathons (having our own event right out of the gate is never a great option). MVDP: participate in vertical events: speaking, exhibiting, content marketing, local events.
  • Online portal and content: MUST HAVE ONE. Used to drive engagement and inspire developers. Fundamentals: documentation, downloads, support. Balance between providing pre-purchase information and technical info. Involving engineers brings more people into the picture. Look at Twitter and Twilio,[ MSFT, SFDC, so much here] Facebook, Google. Make it clear where people need to start. What is the pain point? Advertise to that (features and benefits)—build them a path. Maybe sample apps for first stage of customers? Discussion community or links to external communities for discussion. If you’re going to have your own discussion board, you need to maintain impression of activity, or at least pay attention. Or, maybe you point them to a specific tag on stack overflow,
  • Tech support & evangelism: they should not be as different as they initially seem. Tech support should take place from early in the dev experience, during product, and not just later in the process. Closely align evangelism and support to make sure that there is excitement. Twill and Google both kill this here. You need to make sure that there is a content creator/community participation to see community.
  • Account management: if you get this customer, others will follow. Managed accounts are important. Microsoft, Intel, Apple. Task developer relationships team with care and feeding of strategic flagship, bellwether and other metaphorically signifiant partners.
  • Demand maturity determines strategy. When dev are drivers, you can rely on quality product, and scrappy tactics. When IT drives adoption, you must spend more money on that. 
  • Github, docker, very dev driven. MS, SFDC, IBM, SAP all very corporate it-driven/costly.
  • Evangelism is dev driven, marketing is corporate it driven.
“developer relations is a longer term customer attraction and retention strategy, not a metrics-driven, lead gen tactic.”
  • For a fledging developer relationships effort, a budget of 2m. a team of 2-3 is ideal. Budget is seed units, content development, travel, event budgets, advertising budgets and so forth. Team members, manager, director Vp), evangelist (marketer), tech team (api, sdk and web devs).
  • Developer relationships usually work with a direct report to sales for the most part.

More on marketing

  • Apigee’s developer program hierarchy of needs
  • Awareness can be complex—maybe they know it’s important, then you need to show them you are better.
  • Awareness: word; understanding: sentence; engagement: paragraph; adoption: buy it and keep reading.
  • Through your marketing funnel, you are increasing trust. You are decreasing reach, number of people you are talking to lessens. The need for touch/engagement increases. Dev influences increase. Search becomes less valuable all the way down to the bottom, and also only become applicable about halfway through.
  • It’s okay on twitter to retweet one billion times. Content reach is limited with our social efforts.

 

 

Michael Raslan, @eatabagel

Director of research at Evans Data Corporation - Understanding the development landscape for APIs

  • The only developer relations conference (in march) run by Evans Data
  • Why developers? They are the barometers or technological change
  • Largest pop of developers in APAC and EMEA. 2021, dev pop in APAC up by 50%
  • Def of developer: someone who works with apps and software development. Also people who have influence in the developer lifecycle (executives, management)
  • Consumer/commercial are one of largest segment at 28%, corporate apps are also 33% and are largest.
  • Back end, 28%, DB (25%), client/server apps (20%), business logic development, b2b/b2c.
  • Over half of developers are now spending at least half of their time on mobile development (APAC and NA)
  • EMEA less likely to focus on new technologies, effected by more conservative habits.
  • Iot dev expecting to at least double in the next 12 months.
  • Iot focus: office automation, industrial space, NOT wearables. Interesting.
  • 20% of devs list cloud as their dev environment. (also expected to double, like IoT)
  • 27% of dev involved in big data, increasing need to analyze information coming in.
  • External public cloud, mobile clients = largest security concern.
  • Is security about perception or actual compromises? This specifically has to deal with perceptions of vulnerabilities. Weak server side security and client injection are the two weakest security points.
  • 11.5 million working on publishing APIs or working at companies who have published APIs. 60 percent of dev pop. Almost *all* developers are using APIs. 
  • To grow your brands and your product adoption, you need to make UI offerings available to a larger audience (via APIs)
  • What business problems are dev trying to solve? No one size fits all understanding of what dev are doing—depends on industry and market habitation.

 

Bruce Jones

Hadfield Jones, technical field evangelism.

  • Questions that they often hear: how do we convince people internally, what should our strategy be? How do we do outreach.
  • Why do developer outreach? Who should represent the company in the field? When should he program start? How long will it take? What’s the outcome.
  • Early integrations, experimentation and partnerships get other people talking.
  • Sphero: 4 years of dev programs/other learning opportunities built into one awesome new product (bb-8 droid toy)
  • What other toy companies have open APIs? Furby, etc.

 

Michael Leppitsch

Global digital transformation services at apigee, Recruiting Partners

  • Enabling the digital value chain -> User (customer), Apps (product, but adaptive), Developer (also a customer), APIs (more product, but contextual/predictive), API team, Backend. (how do your assets become valuable to the developer ecosystem?)
  • Analytics, personalization, demographics all provided via API. Ability to differentiate.
  • A lot of your direct value comes from changing the processes that your customer is using to engage with you.
  • Audiences for APIs: APIs reach developers to create brand/awareness, reach partner’s developers for distribution/adoption, reach internal developers (employees) for process efficiency.
  • How to be sticky with partners: reduce friction (quick onboarding, self-service for APIs), improving connectedness. Increase openness (hackathons, dev events, participate in forums), increase creativity (don’t create rules and boundaries, potentially exciting/new technology/ideas?)
  • APIs reduce stranded investments, reduce risk in partnerships, and lower cost for all parties.
  • You’re able to “light up” partnerships more quickly, because you already have the APIs there to use.
  • New partners, current product offerings -> increased market share, and thus expand our market.
  • New product offerings, existing partners -> product innovation, and thus expand portfolio of products.
  • New product offerings, new partners -> new business models, and then create brand new markets.
  • Single channel (single place to buy), multi-channel (multiple places, not connected), omni-channel (multiple places, all connected)
  • Omni-channel -> careful between creepy, convenient, and compliant.

 

  • Best practices: 
    • Co-marketing. allocate a budget to work with partners to take value to market downstream (marketing money), feature on your digital properties (or vice versa), promote at events.
    • What does trust look like? What do you contractual obligations look like? Easier because APIs are not custom development efforts, APIs belong to us, what the partner builds on the API is theirs.
    • Design a EULA/leverage APIs to standardize partnerships. Manage partnerships at the edge with API policies.
    • Data has tremendous value, data shared with partners is more valuable than data is siloed. Approach data conversations with value creation in mind.

Matt Carter, @itsmattcarter

The Developer Marketing Game Plan

  • Forces us to feature the developer as a HUMAN.
  • Two core components of developer marketing: track progress of your audience, preferences and evolve to meet them. Track how you audience is progressing towards your objectives. Build, Measure, Learn framework (best stuff you can learn is what isn’t working). 
  • Tracking enables us to see what customers/developers are doing so that we can do it better (let them do it on their own). As you measure, you do a better job at meeting their needs. 
You want to do better by your customers, not build your own mini NSA.
  • Steps to buy-in:
    • Awareness(do they know they have a problem and there are solutions available and that you have a solution to offer them)
    • Understanding (do they understand your key value prop), engagement (Is there need great enough to want to try your API and see if it works for them)
    • Adoption (do you remove enough pain or provide enough gain to justify the effort of using your API?). Adoption is bottom of the funnel. Then, maybe, you can move them to advocacy, which broadens the funnel back out again. 
  • If we do not get people to understand “hey this is amazing, this is what you can build” they will not buy our product, they will go with a competitor.
  • Everything in developer journey is related to marketing automation—things change depending on what their behavior is.
  • Github.io. Nirvana is if customer issues a pull request.
  • Lots of tutorials and white papers, then they realized they had too much stuff. Wanted to create a more structured journey. developers.hortonworks.com
  • If you have a buddy and they are wanting to learn about our product, where do you send them first?
  • Key KPIS: Awareness (views, conversion, perception baseline), understanding (content consumption, convert to lead, baby steps to trial), engagement (first successfully pilot), adoption (usage and renewals), advocacy (holy grail—developer program participation [social media, hashtags], user groups, number of groups, participations, geographic distribution).
  • Test driven marketing: start with you outcomes, work backwards, simplify, prioritize, have your scorecard set: goals (I need 50 leads), KIPs (I want to improve my conversion rate), qualitative (I I want to be perceived as a market leader ahead ofmy competition).
  • Tactics for marketing is really important to connect to the end result. For example, why are you doing a hackathon? What is the end goal for your company. 
  • Paid, earned, owned, social. Owned is digital properties, like you sites. Earned: partnerships, syndication, paid: advertising. Social: social platforms.
    • Paid: (use sparingly, super targeted), launching a new product, support for a marketing “moment in time” competitive Judo, supporting your SEO strategy. Hypothesize, test, repeat, own your mistakes.
    • Earned media: search is everything—70% of web traffic comes from Google/others (developers looking for answers). Tips for success: basic site hygiene (title tags, attributes). get your team to tweet about you. Don’t gate your KB. Every landing page should be a beautiful home page, essentially.
    • Owned (your marketing annuity): website, developer network/program. Ask for likes and followers, listen and respond. LinkedIn, publish story and advertise. Get people accustomed to providing answers, and your community engagement will change drasticly. YES YES.
  • 9 dollar marketing stack

Notification phobia is a real thing

Did you know that there is a legitimate phobia of having those little notification badges that pop up on your smart phone show without being able to get rid of them? It's called nomophobia, short for no-mobile-phobia, and is surprisingly a very real, chemical problem. I know this because I have it.

Each time you see a notification from your phone, you get a little upsurge in dopamine, whether it be a text message, a spam email, or notification on Facebook. This then compels you to keep checking your phone, hoping each time that you get another one of those little bubbles, hoping that it's something good and not something, well, crumby. As Business Insider writes: "it's like the world's smallest slot machine." 

Chemically, you are being compelled to continue the behavior of checking your phone, just like a rat pushing a button for a treat. Your brain says "Yes, you have to do this to feel good," and so you do it. The only issue with this is that you can then start to feel overstimulated or, if the response to the impulse is negative (a spam email, a negative text message), your brain starts to feel agitated, and even anxious with each new stimulus. Crazy, right? So, if you (like me) start to feel crazy when you see that little red bubble with a "35" in it next to your email client on your phone in the morning, it's because you want to get rid of that potential stimulus. You want to get all of that gratification at once instead of your brain waiting to find out whether it's good or bad. You want to ease the tension in your mind.

From someone who works on application experience teams, this is fascinating to me. Each additional, redundant notification that we send via push notification could potentially be making or breaking our customers' days—we are chemically affecting them. Here are a few things that I've seen applications do that could be done another way to potentially avoid the over-stimulus that is leading our customers to uninstall, turn notifications off, or feel a heightened sense of tension and anxiety.

Birthday Notifications

I'm looking at you, Facebook. Every day I wake up to an extra bubble attached to my Facebook app on my iPhone telling me that it's my best friend from second grade's cousin's birthday. Is this a necessary use of screen space and dopamine? I think not. We should not be sending inane notifications for things that people did not ask to be notified about; whether it be birthdays, holidays, events I didn't RSVP to or any other item that I have not specifically indicated interest in. This is a false positive signal to dopamine, and can leave your customers and users feeling chemically borked.

In-app Update Notifications

Are you sending an email to your customers about updates to your mobile offering? Probably. If you are, you shouldn't be doubling up on notifications by also pushing an update badge to their smart phone. When they wake up, they will look and think that something notable has happened (someone has liked or interacted with their contact, they have a new personal message, etc), and will instead be greeted by stale news that they might have even already overlooked (or deleted) in their inbox. Keep your in-app notifications for truly important things, such as broken features or functionalities.

Random person did random thing Notifications

Did Biff Jonsington like my newest post on Google+? No? Have I indicated that I wanted to receive updates about what he's doing? Probably not. Then why are you notifying me that he posted a two-year old article about saving killer whales? Companies should not be sending badges or notifications to their users about anything unless they have indicated express interest and concern in the things that they are being notified about. What you are doing is essentially a more invasive method of spam emailing. This is like coming into someone's house during breakfast and shouting at them to read the newspaper just to have them discover that there's nothing in there that they care about anyway.

Notifications can provide real value, especially if they are telling someone that there has been a meaningful interaction with their content, or they are being notified about something that they genuinely care about. However, if your app is perpetually the cause of a negative dopamine response with false positive notifications, people may turn them off, move your app to another screen to avoid it taking prime real estate, or even uninstall it all together. Strategizing your notifications is a much better way to move your app up in priority, encourage user interactivity, and avoid being banished to the third screen in. It also helps to show that you care about your customers, their personal sanity, and don't want them to spend the next thirty minute just deleting inane red bubbles from their homescreen.

 

Don't help customers help themselves

Automation is the way of the future, or so I am told. We want to automate our interactions away to the point where, ideally, a customer does not one have to speak with another human in order to accomplish every single goal or task available within your product.

But why?

When we automated in the machine industry, it was to cut costs—robots were cheaper, in the long run, to have working in mass-production than humans were. There was less room for error, products were more perfect, they were able to create more. Is that why we are trying to move to automate questions away for support? People can do things faster? Less room for error from an unprepared support person? Not having to staff a full support team (or hire more) is cheaper for the company?

I might have slightly over-exaggerated in my title, but in the event that any of these above issues are motivators for your company's move to automation, I think it may be worth a reassessment of value. Here are the reasons why I think that keeping a strong human touch, especially when it comes to customers, can be helpful:

Nuance

Robots, documentation, and other automated tools do not understand nuance. There is a reason that a human operator instantly picks up as soon as someone starts swearing or saying "trigger" words to an automated phone service. Your customers will all have different learning styles and preferences, and there is no way that you will be able to speak to all of them using the same singular method. I hate to break it to you, but even the most expansive of documentation resources will still lack something that someone needs. You can recommend related articles as much as you want: if they don't recognize the signals your titles are trying to give them and they don't have anywhere else to go, they will stop using your product. 

Living creatures of all kinds are able to communicate and understand the nuances of tone, message, and intent. Documents, chat bots, forms and surveys can not. Your customer knows this just as well as you do.

Representation of Brand

What would you rather have: a perfect brand or a human brand? Humanity is what will help you stand apart from your competitors. If there is no life to your brand, nothing that helps your customers align with your values, you will have significantly less engagement, and probably less sales than your more human brethren. Just like in Ex Machina, robots and automation sure are pretty and shiny and definitely get the job done, but they are no replacement for humans—no matter how much they pretend to be.

Your customers would likely rather deal with a few typos or apologies for misinformation than they would trying to jump through one million hoops to find the right documentation or video gallery that they needed to find to get the job done. Plus, no matter how well-crafted your long-standing content may be, you will undoubtedly still need people to keep writing more in order to keep up with the pulse of your business. 

Longevity

Manufacturing machines break down and become outdated. Once they do, factories need to spend a whole 'nother boat load of cash buying the newest, shiniest edition. In these days where technology is evolving so rapidly, a company can find themselves needing to upgrade technologies as often as every few months. The idea of automating away support is still so fresh and new that tools come out every day promising to make it easier and easier to never have to touch your customers again. Instead of interviewing them, you can record them browsing your app; instead of having an employee watch your chat, you can have a bot monitoring it designed to look human. But things that look human and aren't human will eventually become rusty and need to be replaced. Stick to the rivers and the streams that you're used to, as TLC would say: use the fancy new support tricks as a test in tandem with the tried and true methods that are working for your company.

I'm not saying we need to be high-touch, holding-hands-with-customers-every-day, love reps, but I do think that putting a barrier in some places to require human support can be helpful. It can assist your product team in gaining new insights into what customers are looking for, it can help your developers uncover bugs, marketing develop personas—things being broken and real humans solving the problems ultimately helps give revenue back to your company. Your customers are your customers for a reason; if they knew everything about your product they would be your support team. It is very likely that, as much as you want them to help them selves, they will not always be able to, or even know where to start. In that case, you need humans. Sure, it may take longer, you may end up with some frustrated customers, but hearing about those frustrations with human ears, rather than letting them fall on deaf machine ones, may make a ton of difference to your customers and your brand.

 

Latte with a side of tech support

Every time someone asks me how I got to where I am today and I go down the long list of coffee and food service jobs I've had, their mouth is agape. How could someone who is seemingly successful in the tech industry have been slinging espresso just a few short years ago? The truth is that there are more than a few similarities between working in a restaurant, as a barista, or as a waiter and our friendly neighborhood customer support person. What are they, you might ask? Hold on to your butts, because I'm about to tell ya.

Commitment

My last job in coffee was at a coffee shop here in Boston called Wired Puppy. I was the opening barista which meant that I had to get up at around 4 AM, get to the cafe prior to the trains running, bake 60 muffins, 12 scones, brew 8 huge canister's worth of coffee and prepare the cafe for the rest of the day, all while taking customers' orders and making their fancy latte drinks. I was the only one there until around 7AM when a second barista would come in and help assist me through the morning rush.

That might not sound like it, but it's a lot of pressure.

If I didn't show up on time or overslept, the whole process of the cafe would be hosed for the day, and they would constantly be playing catch up, trying to bake more, trying to make sure iced tea was ready, running out of coffee...you get the drift. A lot of that was a deep-seated commitment to perfection, knowing what had to be done and doing it. This is incredibly important in a support role—your customers are depending on you, your teammates are depending on you, your company is depending on you. You need to get there and bake the metaphorical muffins.

Patience and Acknowledgement

People come into coffee shops or restaurants and bring all their anger and emotions with them. Maybe their boyfriend just broke up with them, or they got bad news, or they just started their day off on the wrong foot. To them it is a huge deal that there is 2% milk in their latte instead of skim, or that their muffin wasn't heated to exactly the right temperature. A good barista, waitress, bartender or other food-servicer understands that these small details can be a huge detail, and will always pay attention to, acknowledge and correct any mistakes that have been made. They'll remake the drink, get a new muffin, or maybe even offer a free credit for next time.

In support, there is a whole lot more nuance, but people will still bring their outside pain and frustrations into an interaction. If a person has handled a customer getting really angry, and maybe even yelling at them over using sugar-free hazelnut syrup over regular, they will also be able to handle an aggressive customer over email, chat or phone with patience and understanding. They are already natural mediators.

Practice and Memorization

When you first start serving, waitressing or being a barista there is a lot that needs to be learned. There are tricks to doing things that will help speed up your processes, people that will be able to help you do things that you wouldn't otherwise be able to, and tools that you won't even know about until a few months in. This is all even before you are tasked with learning the immense process of how to make a perfect latte, or a drink, or even plate a meal properly. 

I liken these to the soft and hard skills that are required in support. The little practices, like learning that you can brew a vat of iced tea in the time that it takes for a batch of muffins to cook, are similar to finding the tricks of the trade like which screenshot sharing tool works for you. The big practices, like learning how to make cappuccino foam properly, can be likened to something like learning how to use Chrome Extensions to debug a nonfunctional script. Both people in food service and support people practice these tricks and methods tirelessly and essentially memorize them in order to boost efficiency and multitask.

Obviously there is a lot more to support than that: natural aptitude towards technology, overall demeanor, culture fit, and so on. But, if you can find someone that has worked in food service as a waiter, barista or bartender, you can rest assured that they have the grounding bits needed to excel in support.

No More "Unlimited Vacation," Please.

I have a big pet peeve; it's when companies boast of their benefits over their culture or their employees. I think that in any job listing, after the actual description of the job itself, a description of the team that the individual will be working on, then a description of the company, and then a description of all benefits or perks should follow. The reason I say this is because, in my idealistic mind, the company and team should compel the person to want to work there more than the benefits or, shall we say it, perks do.

Right up there with my qualms about listing perks directly under a job description is something that may surprise you: unlimited vacation. Most people would see a job listing that says "unlimited vacation" and be clicking the "Apply" button faster than their LinkedIn can oAuth them in. I see a job listing that says "unlimited vacation" and I try to quantify how many days off, on average, the company actually takes as a whole: probably not many.

The fact is that people that work at start-ups, the only companies that I have seen listing themselves as offering unlimited vacation, are competitive. They want to be the best that they can be, are constantly striving to do more, better, more efficiently. There is a reason why impostor syndrome is something that I didn't know existed until I entered the tech world. It's not a bad thing, inherently, but what that natural competitiveness can lend itself to is not taking care of ourselves. It can lead to inbox guilt; a strange version of FOMO that isn't really positive but isn't exactly perceived as negative either. Or, perhaps, not taking a day off even though you are sick, because you know that there are things that need to be done. Maybe it even presents itself in not taking as many days of vacation off for the holidays because no one else on your team is--everyone is going to be working from home, or ski lodge, or parents' house. I speak from several Christmas' worth of experience.

Unlimited vacation is a problem, especially in an increasingly remote culture, because it doesn't mandate how many days off people should take. Nobody wants to be the guy that takes too many days of vacation, and nobody really minds being the guy that's perceived as "working hard." By stating that all employees get to take two weeks of vacation or four weeks of vacation (or however many weeks off), you are letting them know that it's okay. That everyone will be taking that much time off, or, if not, they'll have that time roll over into the next year. Without that, there are no lines in the sand, and people will work themselves tirelessly without those confines of "good" and "bad" to try to fit into.

If you want to offer unlimited vacation (which I think is still a very generous offer, despite my above arguments), give a mandate of the minimum amount of time off a year. This gives your employees the "okay" to take the time, because they know that everyone else will too. The balance not only helps your employees be happy and healthy, but it will improve their productivity at work and relationships with their coworkers. Having one less thing to compare yourself to others about, especially something as crucial as vacation, is definitely one of the best perks you can give.

How to Relax

I do not know how to relax. I know that this sounds pretty ridiculous. That's because it is. When I am relaxing, sleeping in, vegging and watching TV, I always feel like I should be doing something else. What this has lead to is chronic multitasking. Knitting or hula hooping when watching a movie, playing video games and listening to my podcasts for that week. When I lay in bed next to my husband on the weekends because I have woken up at 8 AM (2 hours earlier than he will awake), I do not get up because I know that he will tell me that I need to take better care of myself.

That being said, relaxation is important. It is key to our brains being able to function properly. You reduce your chances of physical illness, increase your memory and mood stability, destress yourself and even up your chances of sleeping more efficiently if you take the time to relax. I know this because Science. 

The issue is, despite knowing that it is good for me, I still can't help feeling like I could be doing something more—something productive or helpful, or generative—instead of sitting around like a bump on a log watching Buffy. 

What I've started doing is looking at relaxing as another task. It's just as important as going grocery shopping or taking the garbage out because, like those things, it increases my quality of life and helps keep me (and those around me) healthy. I write relaxing into my schedule. Nestle it between my to-dos and fool myself into doing it because it is another check box that I can mark off once it's done. I tell myself that it is okay to just sit for an hour in a cafe with a friend and not be doing anything else or working on anything else, because it is on my list and it needs to be done. 

I know that this sounds insane. I realize that there is likely some kind of disorder that I am showing major red flags for, and one of you readers are dying to tell me about it. But you know what? This works for me. I've found a balance between all of the things on my perpetual To-Do list haunting me while I do nothing, by making doing nothing one of them. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Right?

Try it for yourself. On one of those days where you are feeling too busy, have too many things to do, can't justify taking a second for yourself; justify it. Make it a priority to take care of yourself, make loving yourself a To-Do. You'll see a whole world of difference in your day-to-day.

#Challenge

The wonderful crew over at Support Driven are hosting a Challenge this month, and anyone who knows anything about me also knows that's one thing that I can't resist.

"What's the challenge?" You're probably thinking. "How can I get involved?" The challenge is very simple: just write everyday. You can read a bit more, if you're really into specifics, here; but, I promise you: that's all it is. Write a sentence, write a paragraph, write a novel, as long as you are writing something every day for the month of October, that's it. Bonus points if you share it in the Support Driven #draft channel.

In the spirit of beginning this challenge, I tried to reflect on what "challenge" meant to me. I instantly was reminded of Gregory Ciotti's post on the Help Scout blog: "If You Aren’t Cringing, You Aren’t Improving." 

I am intimidated by challenges like this, only because I know that writing is one of my Things. I've studied it for years, reading over books upon books of how to do it better, scrutinizing the craft of those around me, even of myself. I paid $75k just for the permission to write and critique and learn with a group of other amazing writers for three years, and was lucky enough to walk out of it with a Masters and a manuscript worthy of publishing.

But I still wouldn't call myself a "writer," though I would like to. I write support documentation and emails. I write blogs and jokes. I wrote a book, and in a journal, and poems every day; but I'm still not a writer. Why? Because I cringe. This is why I am afraid. Not of being able to complete the challenge, but of writing something every day and putting it out for the world (okay, well, #draft) to see. Because I know that there is no way I will be able to find enough time in my already threadbare days to write something worth reading.

But the cringe isn't always the worst, as Gregory poignantly writes, "You should only be worried if you don't feel the cringe." And so I'm here. Rambling about fears both unfounded and intensely personal. 

Sometimes, sitting in the discomfort of knowing that you could do better is better than doing the best of all time—after all, where can you go when you're already at the top?
 

So, here's to a month of feeling the cringe, even if it is immediately after publishing and not decades later. Furthermore, here's to sharing that cringe with others and further developing a thriving community of feedback, support and camaraderie. 

If you are not already a member of the Support Driven community, head on over to their site and get involved.

So, I do a lot of things, guys.

A few days ago I was talking with someone  about how I got my Masters in Creative Nonfiction and how much I think that has to relate to support. It had stemmed off of a conversation of what my past professional life had looked like and how they thought it would be cool if I were to write or give a talk on how I got there. I said that I didn't understand where the value would come from with a talk like that, at which point I was accused of crippling humility.

"You do lots of things." They said.

To which I responded: "No, not really. I write docs and tweets and emails, but that's about it nowadays, I don't do too much otherwise.  Some code, some debugging, but really I don't understand where I've gotten this reputation of awesomeness from."

"Look at all the stuff you write," they said, "Look at all the places you contribute to, look at how far you have come!"

So, I decided Well, maybe I should just see if I have enough to posts strewn around the internet to actually make a site with them all. I am getting kind of tired of posting random things on Facebook, it would be nice if they all had a place to live.

And so, here we are. A place for my things to live.