The Mountains Are Calling

And I must go.

We've lived in Minnesota now for 6 years. We love so many things about Minnesota. We've met a bunch of cool people, have had the most terrific neighbors and have made some great friends.

But soon we'll be turning the page, starting a new chapter and heck, probably writing a whole new book. In July, we'll be moving to Fort Collins, Colorado.

Fortunately, I'll be able to continue working for SPS Commerce, managing the product design and corporate brand efforts from our new home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I'm extremely thankful for my team at SPS Commerce and very glad I'll be able to continue working with those guys. Once-in-a-lifetime friends and coworkers for sure.

It's not very often that you have the opportunity to move just because you want to, not because of a job relocation or some other factors dictate such a huge life change. As much as we love Minnesota, we've wanted to move somewhere out west where we could be closer to the mountains and enjoy a lot more of our favorite outdoor activities. Having family already in Colorado made it a natural choice.

We've made so many amazing memories here and there's a lot we'll miss about living in Minnesota, but we're super excited for this next phase of our lives.

Product Design Talk

This is a video of me giving a product design talk at our annual Product & Technology kickoff meeting in downtown Minneapolis. This is the 4th year I've presented at these meetings. Doesn't get any easier, but I do enjoy sharing what I know about UX, product design and craftsmanship.

ReWork Wisdom

I recently re-read ReWork, the great little business book from the guys at 37signals/Basecamp.

I originally read the book a few years ago after it was initially released. As I read it again last week, the words just jumped off the page at me. For some reason, so much of it resonated with me in a powerful way.

I underlined and dog-eared a number of pages and thought I'd share here the parts that struck a cord with me.

p.19 Planning is guessing
Unless you’re a fortune-teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy. There are just too many factors that are out of your hands: market conditions, competitors, customers, the economy, etc. Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control.

p.26 Workaholism
Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.

p.31 Make a dent in the universe
You want customers to say, “This makes my life better.” You want to feel that if you stopped doing what you do, people would notice. You should feel an urgency about this too. You don’t have forever. This is your life’s work. Do you want to build just another me-too product or do you want to shake things up? What you do is your legacy. Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see.

p.38 Start making something
Until you actually start making something, your brilliant idea is just that, an idea. And everyone’s got one of those.

p.43 Draw a line in the sand
If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. (And you’re probably boring, too.)

p.70 Build half a product, not a half-assed product
Cut your ambition in half. You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.

p.104 Interruption is the enemy of productivity
Interruption is not collaboration, it’s just interruption. And when you’re interrupted, you’re not getting work done.

p.106 Interruption is the enemy of productivity
Your day is under siege by interruptions. It’s on you to fight back.

p.108 Meetings are toxic
Set a timer. Invite as few people as possible. Always have a clear agenda. Begin with a specific problem. End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.

p.112 Good enough is fine
Problems can usually be solved with simple, mundane solutions. That means there’s no glamorous work. You don’t get to show off your amazing skills. You just build something that gets the job done and then move on. This approach may not earn you oohs and aahs, but it let’s you get on with it.

p.124 Your estimates suck
Estimates that stretch weeks, months and even years into the future are fantasies. The truth is you just don’t know what’s going to happen that far in advance.

p.139 Decommoditize your product
Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

p.144 Underdo your competition
Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition.

p.193 Marketing is not a department
Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.

p.201 Do it yourself
Never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first.

p.216 Forget about formal education
Too much time in academia can actually do you harm. Take writing for example. It’s no wonder so much business writing winds up dry, wordy and dripping with nonsense.

p.218 Everybody works
Delegators are dead weight for a small team. They clog the pipes for others by coming up with busywork. And when they run out of work to assign, they make up more—regardless of whether it needs to be done. Delegators love to pull people into meetings, too. In fact, meetings are a delegator’s best friend. That’s where he gets to seem important. Meanwhile, everyone else who attends is pulled away from getting real work done.

p.222 Hire great writers
If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. Being a good writer is about much more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.

p.249 You don’t create a culture
You don’t create a culture. It happens. Culture is a by-product of consistent behavior.

p.251 Decisions are temporary
The decisions you make today don’t need to last forever. Its easy to shoot down good ideas, interesting policies, or worthwhile experiments by assuming that whatever you decide now needs to work for years on end. It’s just not so. If circumstances change, your decisions can change. Decisions are temporary.

p.260 Don’t scar on the first cut
Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to decisions that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.

p.263 Sound like you
Don’t use seven words when four will do.

p.266 Four-letter words
Easy is a word that’s used to describe other people’s jobs.

p.271 Inspiration is perishable
We all have ideas. Ideas are immortal. They last forever. What doesn’t last forever is inspiration. Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk: it has an expiration date. Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work.

If you've never read it, I highly recommend it. An added bonus is all the great little illustrations throughout the book.

Enjoy.
/cm

Empathy for whom?

I've heard it said that the most critical trait for a designer to have is empathy. I think I agree with that. According to the Google, empathy is defined as ...

"the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."

Why is empathy important for a product designer?

In almost all cases, we are designing an experience that a person uses. Hence, the common word "user" is always associate with what we do — user, usability, user experience, etc. Unlike artists, our work is judged not only by how it looks, but also how it works. Is it easy to use? Can a user quickly understand it? Do they enjoy the experience?

As important as this trait is, I often see it applied in a subtle, yet incorrect manner. Scenarios like this often start with one of the following phrases ...

"What I think would work is __________."
"If it were me, I'd like it to work like this _________."
"You know what I think is a good idea?"

I know I'm guilty of this from time to time. Seems like we miss the boat sometimes as we attempt to be empathetic.

As designers, we can't just do what we would want if we were the user. When we do that, we are still bringing along all of our own personal preferences, expertise and preconceived notions. In a way, that's showing a self-centered form of empathy.

What I love about that definition above is the word "share". Its not enough to just understand, but we have to experience it ourselves for it to be true empathy. We have to take it a step further by putting ourselves in their shoes and really feel their pain points and look at the problem from their point of view, not our own.

How do we show empathy?

  1. Listen.
  2. Observe.
  3. Listen some more.
  4. Then ask questions.

So the next time we're solving a problem for a user, let's try to remember to apply true empathy.

AEA15: Career Advice from a Cranky Old Man

I have the good fortune of attending the premiere conference for web designers and developers in the country - An Event Apart (this time in Austin). Some notes below from the keynote presentation from Jeffrey Zeldman. Titled "The Fault, Dear Brutus (or: Career Advice from a Cranky Old Man).

  • Our other jobs (before we became designers) give us perspective. Makes us thankful to be a designer. We are extremely lucky.
  • Work never sells itself. You have to be able to explain your design.
  • Never talk about aesthetics. Talk about the business problems you're solving.
  • Attitude trumps work I'm most companies (great work + bad attitude = fired).
  • In big companies, politics trumps work. Its not fair, its just how it is.
  • First impressions are forever.
  • We have met the enemy and he is us. We are the only thing standing between us and success.
  • You need a good portfolio. Use sites like Dribbble and Behance if necessary to make sure that some of the work you do can be shown.
  • Blog like nobody's reading. Blogging is how he ended up on stage today (inception joke).
  • Don't wait for someone to hand you the dream job/project. Take it. DIY (do it yourself).

Best Quotes from Megamind

MegaMind is the best animated movie ever made. That's my opinion, anyway. It is filled with great one-liners and funny quotes. Here is a list of my favorites:

Our battles quickly grew more elaborate. He would win some, I would almost win others. – Megamind

Okay, Minion, you were right, and I was... less right! – Megamind

I'll just pack my thing and go. – Minion

And, the best of all...

Megamind: You dare challenge Megamind?

Titan: This town is big enough for two super-villains!

Megamind: Oh, you're a villain alright, just not a super one!

Titan: Oh yeah, what's the difference?

Megamind: PRESENTATION! (cue the video)

The Man in the Mirror

When you get what you want in your struggle for self,And the world makes you king for a day, Then go to the mirror and look at yourself, And see what that man has to say. For it isn't a man's father, mother or wife, Whose judgement upon him must pass, The fellow whose verdict counts most in life, Is the man staring back from the glass. He's the fellow to please, never mind all the rest, For he's with you clear to the end, And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test, If the man in the glass is your friend. You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years, And get pats on the back as you pass, But the final reward will be heartache and tears, If you've cheated the man in the glass. — Dale Wimbrow (Popularized by Bill Parcells)

My New Gig

If you read my last post, then you know I've been looking for a new job over the past several weeks. I have really enjoyed this September Sabbatical. The extra time with my wife and kids has been a blessing in disguise. Alas, all good things come to an end, I suppose. I start a new job this Monday.

I'm happy to report that I've accepted an offer from SPS Commerce to be the new UX Design Manager. I'm really excited about it because I'll be taking on a position that allows me to wear multiple hats and it also presents some pretty significant, but fun challenges and some tough problems to solve. It seems like a fantastic company and I'm really looking forward to working with some bright people.

Thanks to everyone who has networked with me over the past month and a big thanks to anyone that passed along my information with a good word. I never really put much stock in LinkedIn, but through the past few weeks, I've realized how powerful that network can be for someone actively looking for a position.

I feel very humbled and very grateful for this gift.

How I Survived Bloody Wednesday

For the first time in my adult life, I find myself unemployed. Three weeks ago, I succumbed to the axe on August 28, 2013, which will forever be known as Bloody Wednesday in Sport Ngin folklore. Throughout the past several years, as the economy declined, I really never feared for my job. I always thought, naively, that I was safe. That if there were going to be cutbacks, they would cut the slackers and underperformers first.

I was living in a fool's paradise.

Bloody Wednesday was, without a doubt, the single worst day of my career and even one of the worst days of my life. The news of the layoff came from out of the blue and caught me completely off-guard. It was a gut-wrenching experience.

I absolutely loved working at Sport Ngin. In almost every way, it was my dream job. The perfect blend of two things I really love - design and sports. I had a tremendous amount of influence over the direction of the product. I built a team of user experience designers and we were doing some fantastically fun work, designing Sport Ngin's next generation of tools to manage sports leagues, teams and tournaments. I had a blast designing two iPhone apps while I was there. I worked with some really smart people, worked for a great boss and made some good friends. I thought it would last MUCH longer than two years. I had mentally ripped up my resume and would have been content to work there the rest of my career.

One day, you're having a blast designing a new sign in screen for the app, the next day you are sitting at home, locked out of your laptop and wondering, "why me?"

I dealt with a good measure of rejection and quite a few "no, I do NOT want this!" moments for a couple of days. Thanks to the unending support and encouragement from my awesome wife, I was able to get back on the proverbial horse and prepare for the next phase of my career. I still don't know what that looks like, or even when that next phase will start, but my LinkedIn network has proven to be pretty valuable and I have several leads I am following, some definitely pretty promising.

In the meantime, as I proactively wait for the process to play itself out, I am learning a few things about life and about myself.

  • As painful as this is/was for me, it is nothing compared to the hardship and turmoil many others have to face on a daily basis.
  • Being mindful of the previous point, I have tried counting my blessings, but they are too many.
  • Even when you think you are in control, you are not. So don't act like you are; instead give control to God and walk in His will.
  • Companies are in business for one reason and one reason only - to make money.
  • From now on, I will put much less stock in the "operating values" of any company.
  • I am thankful for the talents God has given me to earn a living and take care of my family doing something that I am not only good at, but something that I really love doing - not many people get to do that.

All the unexpected time I have now has really been a blessing in disguise. This all happened right before school started. So for the first three weeks of school, I've been able to say good-bye to the kids in the morning and be there when they get home, help them with homework and, in general, just spend more time with them. Being at home more during the day has also been a fun time for Cori and I to spend more time together. We've been able to eat lunch together almost every day, we have time to take walks together and have even gone on day dates while the kids are at school. And the weather has been perfect. A guy couldn't have asked for a better time to have days off.

If you know of any great user experience design opportunities, feel free to send them my way. I am confident that this period of my career/life will be over soon. Until then, I'm enjoying what I get. And if what I get is more time with my family, then I have been given a wonderful gift.

Peace. /cm

Two Years in Minnesota

It was early morning on February 26, 2011. I was saying goodbye to my family. Not the most pleasant of days. Two years ago today, I began the journey of moving to Minnesota. I left the family behind to work onsite at my new job in Minnesota until our house in Texas sold. Its one of those scenarios that "seem like only yesterday" and at the same time I think, "that was 2 years ago?".

Looking back, everything worked out almost perfectly, even though we didn't realize it at the time. All we knew was that we were moving to Minnesota, but that our family would be separated until the house sold and they could join me. We had no idea of knowing how long that might be. We had no idea if we would like Minnesota. But we did know we were ready for an adventure and believed everything would work out in the end.

Boy, has it ever. It turned out that I was only up here without the family for about a month. It was difficult, but it could have been much worse. We found a great house in what we now know to be a perfect community for us, with outstanding neighbors.

On one had, it was difficult to leave Texas. We lived there most of our lives. Cori and I grew up together there. We were married there. All three of our kids were born there. We still have friends there and a ton of great memories.

But Minnesota has not disappointed.

A lot has happened since we've been here. I've changed jobs since then. We've done some remodeling. We've taken vacations. And we've had many visitors from out of state. All of this activity makes it seem like we would have needed more than two years, but that's the way its worked out. We absolutely love living here.

Here are just a few reasons we love living in Minnesota:

All in all, it was the right decision. And if you're ever looking for a great place to live or take a vacation, you might consider Minnesota - it might be right for you, too.

Trees

In suburban Dallas, having a wooded lot is about as common as having a moat in your yard. And if you are lucky enough to have a lot of trees, you pay a premium for them. Hence, we never really had trees, let alone woods. So when we moved to Minnesota, we knew we wanted to buy a house surrounded by lots of trees. That was definitely one of the must haves on our list.

If you've noticed the photos I take with my phone, it is apparent that I enjoy my back yard quite a bit. See Exhibits A, B, C and D.

We are very thankful for the lot we found and for the peaceful retreat of our backyard. Well, sometimes its peaceful. Other times it represents a monumental amount of work. You see, when we bought this house, it was still winter. There was about 2 feet of snow covering everything. So we really didn't know the details of what we were getting. All I knew was I could see a lot of trees out back and that was about it. Then the snow melted and leaves began to emerge. Then we realized we had a jungle.

The Jungle

I'll never forget one the conversation I had with my neighbor standing at the fence line between our houses:

Neighbor: "You know that's all Buckthorn, don't ya?" Me: "Uh, no. Buck what?" Neighbor: "Yeah, Buckthorn. All that green stuff you have is Buckthorn." Me: "Okay."

How do you intelligently respond to that? No idea. So, I did some googling. So it turns out that Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, is an invasive plant species brought to Minnesota back in the 1800's from Europe. It was introduced as a very popular hedging material. It wasn't until about the 1930's that they realized it was such a problem. Basically, it out-competes native plants for nutrients, light, and moisture and forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation if left unattended.

Buckthorn

In a nutshell, a big nightmare. So my "wooded lot" is filled with thousands of buckthorn "trees" ranging in size from about a foot tall to ones that seem like small trees - about 12 feet tall. The vast majority of them are about 3 feet tall with stems about the thickness of a pencil. The larger tree-types have to be cut down, but I have found the best way to get rid of most of them is to just rip them out of the ground. Fortunately, they have very weak root systems and can easily be removed, just like pulling weeds (big weeds).

I spent the majority of last summer clearing the buckthorn. I have a long way to go still, but it looks vastly improved from when I started. As I started clearing, I realized that once all the buckthorn is gone, there isn't much else besides really tall Amur Maple, Elm and Box Elder trees.

My background in horticulture and landscape design probably has me obsessing over this type of thing more than the average person, I admit that, but I do have a strategy. In addition to clearing the buckthorn, you have to replace it with something else, or else it can just take over again if neglected.

To that end, a couple of weeks ago I purchased 150 plants from the County Soil and Water Conservation program. I was very excited to come home with a bag full of tree and shrub seedlings. I bought 25 of each of these:

  • White Spruce
  • Norway Pine
  • Sugar Maple
  • Red Twig Dogwood
  • Highbush Cranberry
  • Black Chokeberry

Seedlings: Pine, Spruce and Dogwood

I've already planted the evergreens (spruce and pine) and am waiting for a day when its not raining (and I'm not at work) to plant the rest of them. Planting 150 trees takes awhile!

White Spruce

Norway Pine

It seems ridiculous to add 150 more trees/shrubs to an already wooded lot. But I'm a big fan of native plants and I also see the need for diversification. Adding some evergreen trees to the environment out there is a no brainer. And the Dogwood, Cranberry and Chokeberry will provide understory foliage, flowers, berries and ornamental interest.