My career began in earnest during the days of the “dot.com bust”. Of course, I held numerous jobs before then, including stints in a major lab’s accounting department and at Time Warner, but these were simply means to earning money while in school. I count my actual career as starting after graduating with my MBA and moving to Atlanta the next day.
My first real position was with a small web shop start-up that was managed by a couple of guys who had a rich friend that wanted to get in on this new-fangled “Internet fad”. Looking back, it was amazing how unorganized and amateurish the place was. I got the gig not because of my MBA or because of my fairly impressive school portfolio but instead because I was really good at Power Point. I later learned that this was because their “proposals” were actually printed Power Point presentations with pages of org charts reflecting the navigation of the proposed web site and a last page featuring an itemized list of costs.
Their typical customer was a local artist who had a small business selling hand-painted tiles for people looking for a custom kitchen. That is, until the day that they somehow got an inside track for the website for a globally known manufacturer of watches. I have no idea what contacts they had that gave them this shot, but the watch maker made it clear that if the proposal was solid and they came up with an interesting slant on the site that this little Atlanta web shop would get an honest shot at the project.
The boss brought me into the conference room, explained the situation in less than three minutes, told me to come up with something brilliant and then stood up. Before leaving, he unwittingly gave me the mantra for my career from that point on. He dropped a handful of whiteboard markers on the table, turned and; on the way out the door; smacked the board and said:
Over the next two hours I stood at that board, scribbling whatever crossed my mind. A lot of it was obvious or just crap but I tried to make a direct connection from my brain to my hand. Finally, I came up with half of a great idea. I couldn’t come up with the other half no matter what I tried. However, when I stepped back I noticed something that I had scribbled an hour ago and it was like clicking a seat belt. I swear I heard a “click” somewhere in the room. I had scribbled a note that was the perfect other half and had no idea until I stepped back and looked at the whole board.
I circled both parts in red and then went to grab the boss. He stood in front of this 28 square feet of Neolithic cave paintings as I explained the concept. He then pointed at another scrawl and asked about it. I explained what I had been thinking. He asked me another follow-up question and I realized what he was driving at. One simple change and another “click”. The seat belt now had a third strap, a shoulder strap if you will.
The small fry Atlanta web firm got the project and it served to double the amount of staff from two coders to four. Two years later, long after I had moved on, the company went under. It was a good first job out of college, but the take-away for me was those two words:
From that day to this I have always had a whiteboard in my office and a stack of blank 11” x 16” paper in my bag. Whenever I get a new project my first hour or day or week is spent standing at that old reliable friend, trying to make the connection from brain to hand without edit. It’s never failed me. At times, the effect is almost mystical- like I’m standing there wondering what revelation is going to appear on the board next. A famous author once said that he has moments like that at his typewriter, that he’s reading the novel as it appears on the page and thinking “I wonder what will happen next.” I totally understand that sensation.
I’ve looked for software that would let me do this on screen for years with no success. I’m an expert at Visio and I’ve tried a dozen “mind mapping” or other such software packages to no avail. The problem is that you can’t go from brain to hand when a software application is involved because your brain is forced to manipulate the UI of the application, breaking the circuit. So, for now I’ve got a large collection of snapshots taken of cluttered whiteboards and scribbled ledger paper.
Sadly, I don’t even remember the name of the boss at that little web shop, but I’m still grateful for my mantra…
After I hit “Publish” for this piece, WP displayed the following quote by Isaac Asimov: “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
Rarely is life so perfect.