Cross-posted from the Communitech blog.
Waterloo Region is a small town in a lot of ways. Even smaller when you work in tech. I’ve argued over whether the average number of degrees of separation among people is two or three, which ain’t nowhere near six.
In some areas, the sphere shrinks even more when you’re in a sub-space of tech, like startups, as I was. However, the Region is still small enough that even our sub-groups are generally still all part of “tech”. Enterprise, startups, developers, marketers, mainframe or mobile — we all hang out.
A lot of the other activities I’m involved in have significant crossover, too. Women in tech and social media events, certainly, but also Ignite, StraightUp KW, and plenty of arts and fests. I have been accused many times of knowing “everyone”, which isn’t even remotely true. Besides, within these rarefied spheres, there are only so many people to know.
The danger of inhabiting this environment is that it can really limit your perspective. Same people, same ideas, same events, etc. Who or what is going to challenge you? Where is “new” going to come from?
But there’s more. I also work at Google now. There are endless things going on, and a helluva lot of smart here. We are also ridiculously well taken care of. Again, this limits your perspective. I’ve worked in big companies that aren’t cool and where there’s way less smart, and I’ve worked at startups where there’s lots of smart but you have to take care of yourself a lot more. I know this isn’t the usual. But it’s really easy to get used to.
How do I keep myself curious and compassionate and creative? I try to Go Outside.
When I was a volunteer at the Humane Society, perhaps the most valuable experience was that it is never about you. Flat tire, too many meetings, customer was rude to you… it all becomes irrelevant when you walk through those doors. The dogs are overjoyed to see you — they finally get to go outside to pee. They don’t care how your day was, but at the same time they still think you’re awesome.
There’s a lot of work to be done for furry friends who can’t verbally appreciate it, but that’s okay. After all, many of the world’s ills will melt away instantly when you have a lapful of fat, fuzzy puppy belly. Just try to walk out of there without a smile on your face.
The Humane Society is Outside.
I also heartily believe that everyone should do time in customer service — retail, restaurant, etc. You work your ass off, often don’t make much money, and are regularly unappreciated. But you will never again walk into a store or restaurant or other location unaware of what and how the staff is doing and how you are treating them. You know exactly how little it can take to make or break your day.
Work environments unlike your own, especially that offer way fewer perks, are Outside.
None of my immediate family works in tech. They haven’t really understood what I do for a long time. So when I’m with my family, we don’t really talk about work, or tech, or startups. Once Mom was satisfied that I was settled in at Google, that was about it. (Though she and Dad still want to come for lunch some time.)
My parents are going to teach me how to can produce and make jam this summer. My brother taught me how to climb trees and tie my shoes. Don’t need the internet for any of that. I like conversations about hockey and cars and apple trees and the neighbours and UFC. And it’s only occasionally really frustrating that they assume that working online means that I know how to fix computers.
My family is Outside.
Interestingly, even us tech types can forget what “tech” means. It’s not just all web apps and geeky t-shirts and Ruby on Rails. Is someone more or less a software developer because they work at an insurance company instead of a startup? Are you less of a community manager when your customers are your company’s thousands of global employees rather than thousands of bloggers scattered around the Internet?
I know a couple of people who work in engineering in completely different industries. They work on multi-million-dollar projects where, if something gets really screwed up, people will die. I’ve apologized a million times for software breaking or some lost data, etc., but has a web app ever killed anyone?
And could those developers really have anything in common with people who write software that enables you to virtually fling cartoon birds at pigs? At the same time, do those people working in Big, Serious Enterprise understand just how incredibly powerful it is to be able to convince someone to start and keep coming back to play a game? Or convince their friends to join in?
Even within tech, it’s not only possible, but equally important, to Go Outside.
I am very fortunate to be part of a community and industry that can and does change the world on a daily basis. Where people graduate from university — or not — and instead of thinking about which brand name company they might go work for, already have an idea, a prototype, or even a company started up.
You hear horror stories about how awful and entitled some co-ops out there are. Which makes it is wonderfully refreshing and positive to look at kids who aren’t yet out of their teens and be confident that they have the brains, drive, and insatiable curiosity to enable them to always work for themselves. And to know that for everything they don’t know yet, there are mentors and resources and infrastructure in place to help them learn and succeed.
But while these leaders of tomorrow are learning about writing business plans or social media marketing, they’re still within this tech sphere, and not everyone that their companies will be serving or selling to will be part of that. Mostly likely, most people won’t be.
We are all tainted in terms of our perspective toward what we work on. We don’t see the way other people see, we don’t use things the way other people use them. Especially in tech where many of us understand the products and services right down to the code they’re made of. And when we’re used to getting what we want by building it ourselves, or are just used to being really well taken care of, it’s impossible to be a proper representative of the real world folks who we want to embrace what we do.
So get out there. Talk to people. Ask lots of questions. Try stuff and break stuff and screw stuff up. (Treat other people’s stuff much better than you’d treat your own.) Have conversations that have nothing to do with tech.