Getting Out of the Bubble

When you live and breathe one industry for most of your professional life, what happens?

Usually you end up living in a bit of a bubble.  That bubble is reinforced when your friends, peers and colleagues are in the same industry.  This is dangerous because it changes your perception of reality.

I recently moved from being a developer in the tech industry to being a techie in the publishing industry.  Here are a few of the many things I have had to learn so far:

  • JUST SHIP IT: In software development, even when you’re trying to ship a product and the deadline has slipped and it’s massive panic all around, there still comes a time when people staying awake and checking in code does more damage than good.  You tell everyone to go home, get some sleep and come back in the morning to finish the work.  In publishing, there is no concept of go-home-before-you-do-more-damage.  There is only the concept of the publisher’s deadline.  Which is gospel.  You stay until it’s published.

Photo courtesy of delgaudm

                                        [Photo courtesy of delgaudm]

  • – NEW/SHINY == BAD: In the tech world, you can throw a new system, framework, device or design at people and they’ll intuitively figure out how it works.  In the publishing world, people rely a great deal on their systems working the same way.  You cannot introduce changes or features without ample training and/or documentation or you risk a massive productivity loss.
  • MY PHONE ISN’T BROKEN, THE SITE IS: Techies generally keep their software and devices up-to-date.  We’re interested to know if the new features are good, if performance is improved or if security holes are fixed.  Outside of the tech world, many people don’t update because they don’t know they can or they don’t know how or, more often, they just don’t care.  Telling people to upgrade their iPhone software can come across as an insult instead of the helpful tip you thought it would be.

Why does any of this matter?


                                    [Photo courtesy of shutterbc]

Living and working inside a bubble helps us to forget who our customers really are.  I observed this in my first full-time job working on a brand new development framework at Microsoft (codename Avalon, now WPF).  We spent months designing and architecting cool API test harnesses which dynamically integrated all APIs and extrapolated every possible combination of values.  It was a tough piece of work but no one else had done it, and we were so proud.

Walking into a meeting with the other 100 people on the team, we sat down ready to hear praise for our unprecedented and forward-thinking accomplishment.  Instead, the director got in front of us, said nothing and opened his laptop.  He opened Visual Studio, selected “Create new Avalon project” and hit F5 to compile and run.  Visual Studio crashed.  In all our discussions about ascertaining perfect quality, we hadn’t once thought about who was going to use the framework and what their process would be like. We failed.  From then on, at least 50% of my time was spent testing by “using the product as a customer.”  We shipped a much better product because of that change.

As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”  Knowing you are in a bubble is the first step towards being able to change your behaviour and do the right thing for whoever your customers are.  My customers right now are editors, copy chiefs, photography editors and print designers.  I still have a lot to learn, but each time I observe their work styles and habits, I can creep a little bit more out of my bubble and build a little bit better software for them to use.