Month: March 2014

On new jobs & killing the incompetence game

On Monday, I started an internship in an industry that is new to me. I was nervous, so I wore my favorite pants (you gotta take your confidence boost where you can get it).

On Tuesday, I submitted a completed Excel spreadsheet of social media marketing campaign analytics, listened in on a status call with a client, and formatted a slide pitch deck for a digital strategy plan. Sound a little too corporate to you? Don’t worry, my desk chair is an exercise ball and there’s beer on tap on Friday afternoons—not that it matters. Sometimes, a little bit of corporate, structured medicine (and an education in how to use a PC) is just what the doctor ordered.

Desk with a view.
Desk with a view.

At every job, internship, or activity I’ve participated in over the past five years, the constant has been a focus on writing, on understanding storytelling and news-gathering, and on building a better organization. But not now. Now I’m learning to tell the story of the numbers in a chart, to gather news about relative efficiency of dollars spent and keywords used, and to find where I fit in a large, well-functioning operation.

We forget how entrenched we’ve become in the ecosystems of the intellectual paths we choose early on. In liberal arts college, they call each major a “discipline” because you train your mind to think in certain ways—to approach problems with a particular toolkit, a template for coming to a conclusion. For me, the anthropological approach was a natural fit with the journalistic activities I pursued outside class. In brief, the process is (1) interrogate and investigate the accepted reality, (2) observe and collect in-depth information about the truth of the matter, and (3) present your findings with panache—and without judgment.

But in this industry I’m now exploring, the process—the one-two-three of approaching and attacking a problem—is new. The end goals are different. On an institutional level, the social structure of the place is complicated and foreign. The vocabulary that’s tossed around in the office leaves me slow on the uptake, too: what’s a project manager vs. a brand strategist vs. a media planner? What’s the difference in our partnerships between vendors, creative, and clients? And how is social different from digital different from mobile? I knew what ROI stood for, but CPC, CPE, CPV, DSP, KPI, RFP, and SOW are all brand-spanking-new. The two main things that remain the same across all my working experiences are snarky email exchanges and the expectation to stay late.

Here’s what happens when you step outside your comfort zone: you feel incompetent. You want to apologize for taking up people’s time by asking questions—but if you don’t ask the questions, then the work doesn’t get done (and you have to apologize for that, too). You sit at a meeting and frown, lost before it even started, trying to memorize faces and names. I haven’t felt so young and fish-out-of-water in years. Being a n00b happens to be pretty damn uncomfortable.

But I’m not going to apologize. I’m still convinced my youth is my best asset, and so is my inexperience. It’s early days for me yet, but I have a feeling—in fact, at the ripe old age of 22, I know—that my current (and hopefully just momentary) incompetence is actually a plus. I’m being forced to bend my ingrained ways of thinking into new paths.

So if you’re considering a career you know nothing about, here’s the takeaway: it never hurts to stretch.

It’s kind of like a yoga class. Worst case scenario, you enjoy some undisturbed meditation, take in the chill music vibes, and work on your flexibility. Best case, you kill at your headstand and warrior three and your crow—and you just fly outta that studio, dripping with sweat and ready to take on the world.

 

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On the whole #BanBossy vs. #BeBossy debate

Some smart people have written some very smart things on this latest Sheryl Sandberg / TeamWorkingLady / bossy-is-a-bad-word marketing fiasco, so I’ll let the links do the talking:

Ann Friedman — NY Mag’s The Cut

Katy Waldman — Slate’s XX Factor

Jessica Roy — TIME

And my favorite: my friend Zara Kessler on Bloomberg View. Zara has coined the word “bossiful”, which we should ALL be using immediately. Goal for the weekend: use it in a sentence with 5 different people. Just spreading the bossy love.

Above is the star-studded #BanBossy campaign video, which has the right message but, ultimately, just the wrong hashtag. It goes back to the basic Lean In debate: do women adapt their attitudes and vocabularies to the already-existing culture, or do we attempt structural change? Sheryl says get with the program; the women linked to above say we’ve gotta change the paradigm. (Disclaimer: I agree with them.)

On a personal note, sure I was called bossy when I was younger—mostly by boys, but often by girls too. Sure it hurt—because it was somehow an insult; because it suggested I wasn’t “chill” enough, that I needed to just relax and care less about the class project, or the dance we were choreographing for a school show, or the extracurricular we were organizing. And yes, these were good lessons to learn about interpersonal communication and social interaction. You can’t go through life bossing people around indiscriminately. (Not that I was doing that, I hope…) Couch your commands in kindness; delegate with reason; lead with humility.

But bossy isn’t bad. I figured that one out soon enough. Bossy gets things done. Bossy doesn’t take no for an answer. Bossy knows that without her, things don’t happen.

Bossy is being a leader at the age where standing out from your peers is scary, uncomfortable, and not “popular” or “cool.”

And that’s really, really good. So, as those writers have articulated in the links above: don’t ban bossy. Celebrate what it truly means in a youth context. Encourage its positive affiliations for girls who are afraid to stand out. Don’t ban the word, because that makes it a stigma. Turn it into a compliment, because it means you’re speaking up.

As for me, right now I’m not the boss; far from it. But I damn well plan on being one. And being called “bossy” as a kid? There’s no shame in that now. In fact, in retrospect, it was definitely a compliment.

On the start-up experience

It’s so hot right now.

No, no, not the weather. Here in New York, it’s below freezing and I’m wearing three sweaters.

It’s all the rage though, and everybody’s doing it—everybody who’s anybody, that is. Or, if they aren’t doing it now, they plan to as soon as the timing’s right.

I’m not talking about spinning or zumba. Not Tinder, Grouper, or online dating (we can get to that later).

I’m talking about working at a tech start-up. (NOTE: This post is not a how-to guide for start-up success. If that’s your jam, go have fun at this blog instead.)

For a few months, I ran the media side of a small tech start-up called Mavrx. Mavrx provides critical image mapping and big-data analytics for agricultural operations. (Hit up our website for more info.) We were in Cape Town to work with South African vineyards and grape-growers during their growing season. While there, we tailored our tech product to best fit their needs. The next steps: expanding our market to other countries, other crops, and even other industries.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 11.34.34 PM
Not a bad substitute for a cubicle…

Now, I’m back in the Big Apple—about as different in culture (and temperature) from Cape Town as possible. As I inevitably meet new people here, the same questions crop up: Oh, you were at a tech start-up? What did you do? Did you like it?

As the media & communications guru for Mavrx (a self-proclaimed title, I admit), it was my job to run the public image of our fledgling company. I designed a website, put together press and sales and pitch materials, blogged, Tweeted, Instagrammed, and generally managed what I call “brand development.” I had dabbled in all of these things before, but… it’s different in a start-up. Each task required me to muster up a full measure independence, self-confidence, and initiative.

Here’s the thing about working in a small company with no set structure and no guidelines to follow: you make it all up yourself. You learn a hell of a lot. You mess up. And you figure out, slowly, what makes you tick in a work environment. For someone who’s played by the rules all her life, I often felt that I’d suddenly been thrown into the deep end. The good part? I learned to swim.

 
Tasting fresh grapes on the vines was a serious perk of the South Africa job.
Tasting fresh grapes on the vines was a serious perk of the South Africa job.

I’ve always been worried about work-life balance; I’m not particularly skilled at doing anything in moderation. For me—and I think for many of us—it’s always all work or all play. Some of my internship experiences had left me thinking that a finite workday would be ideal; just clock out and sleep easy. But other internships reminded me how important it is to work towards the bigger picture—a place where, even at midnight on a Friday when your friends are texting you from the bar, you know you’re doing something meaningful.

And start-ups? No thanks, I used to think. It seemed to me the worst of two worlds: the 24-hour intensity of a job that never ends, matched with the questionable ethics of a get-rich-quick scheme. (No offense intended to those awesome people I know who have had the guts, wisdom, and self-confidence to be entrepreneurs from the start. I never said I was right about any of this.) Still, the appeal of the “tech” industry eluded me. I may be a nerd, I thought, but I’m no geek.

There’s a geek in all of us, though, and—as reporting has taught me all along—asking the right questions will make any subject, however seemingly mundane, totally fascinating. So even though I was clueless about NDVI imaging, precision agriculture, viticultural technology, and harvest planning, I asked questions in South Africa. This is what happens in a good start-up: the pieces begin to fall into place, and the vision becomes something worth working toward. It might even, if you’re lucky, come to consume you. Then the line between work and play is blurred, and you’re not trying to get rich quick or even get investors—you’re just trying to make something important happen, and you believe fundamentally in it.

From Cape Town to Brooklyn, I'm lucky to live on some very cool streets.
From Cape Town to Brooklyn, I’ve been lucky to live on some very cool streets lately.

My first tech start-up chapter has closed—for now. Once again I’m not certain of the next step. I’m also not sure if I’m much closer to figuring out that work-life balance thing. But for the first time, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t scare me. There are only two things I want: to work with people who make me work harder, and to believe in what I’m building.

Sure, some people will always want to clock out at 5:00pm. The secret, though, is that everything’s more fun when the clock’s always ticking. Deadlines will make your heart beat faster, looming consequences will keep you focused, and that adrenaline rush? Time may pass, but it’ll keep you young.