Episode One Hundred and Sixty Six: Unicorns; Six Minus 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

10:15pm. Tired. Assaulted by a woman and a man with sufficiently sharp and metallic equipment to be indistinguishable from a dentist’s office. TILT: I really, really don’t like visiting the dentist, but on the plus side, I have a new front tooth. On the down side, these people are threatening me with root canals in the future (thanks, fall off the back porch), and I can’t today read the wikipedia entry on endodontic therapy[1] without hyperventilating. Part of this, I suspect, is (pretty facetiously) branding: who wants to have a root canal on a tooth? That sounds like it’s going to hurt.

[1] Endodontic Therapy (root canal)

1.0 Unicorns

Okay, so I seem to have hit a nerve with the last few episodes with sections about the internet-life-crisis. My new working definition is: anyone who’s spent more than ten years “working” making stuff-on-the-internet because apparently some of you lot are not only young but also irritatingly talented.

Anyway. If I’m pulling on this thread just a little bit more it’s that quite a lot of the work on the “internet” over the past few years has been people variously figuring out what it’s *for*. And if you’re the kind of person who can see the potential of it, and knows that to do a good job you kind of need to pull together people who traditionally don’t work together (or if they do, only grudgingly), then you’ve got a recipe for a potential New Kind Of Person.

Of course, there’s your traditional product people at product companies – but that requires you to have had lots of Product Experience, explicitly building products. I suspect that there’s a whole bunch of people who have the *competencies and skills* required of product managers, but have never had a title or position that has reflected such job responsibilities. In other words: a whole bunch of people who’ve been “interactive” and have nominally held the title of something like a Web Designer or Director of Something Unrelated or Producer, or whatever. But in essence, what that job has involved has been holding the entire thing in their head, having the right relationships with the right people (and the relational and political clout to get what they need in order to succeed, or to explain why they need what they need) and that actually, in theory, aren’t *supposed* to be doing those things. But if you did the usual sort of communications graph analysis of that organisation you’d be asking: why does that person talk to so many people?

Inadvertent Product Mangers or Inadvertent Service Designers are exactly the kind of people who are connectors, and fulfill a unique role in large organisations that have overly relied upon specialisation. This breaks down a bit when you’re talking about small teams because perhaps one of the things that an Inadvertent Connector can do is exercise a lot of soft power and soft management. The good ones are trusted and respected, and can quite easily *ask* people to do things instead of *tell* people to do things and still get results – or even, better results. In smaller teams they’re not as needed – and this is the type of stuff that Michael Lopp talks about quite a bit in his Rands engineer management persona[1] – because you don’t have the communication overhead. Or, rather, you don’t have as much risk of lack of communication or lack of clarity in communication happening. In big teams, where people aren’t dedicated resources and they might be working on three, five or a million things, having someone whose job it is – whether on purpose or not – who can keep everything in track and co-ordinate who’s doing what and crucially understands *why*, becomes incredibly important.

In the film industry, we pretty much call those people Directors. They’re the ones with the vision, but they absolutely can’t do what they *want* to do, they can’t bring that vision to life without the input and assistance of a team of hundreds if not thousands. Sure, authority and responsibility cascade and delegate down, but the thing about directorial vision is that it *directs*.

The problem, of course, is that when the connector disappears, it’s not like the organisation ceases to function and collapses. Of course not. But what it does do is operate a lot less efficiently and it does, I think, produce work that’s a lot less *good*. But then these are organisations that haven’t figured out that what they’re kind of doing is making products and services but that they’re not prepared to admit it, and they’re not prepared to let someone just get on with doing that. It’s not valued – perhaps, ultimately, because it’s not understood. When someone gets a job as a “webmaster” a few years ago, and tries to do it well, they talk to everyone and try to figure out a way that the website actually reflects what the goals of the organisation are and tries to fulfill them. Why would you need a connector in such a communications oriented role, though, if all you believe a website is, is a way for people to find out about you?

So yeah, there’s another unicorn. Not the designer/developer unicorn, but the product/service unicorn. The person whose job it is to hold all of that together and to keep moving it forward and that people are actually grateful for existing.

This is also deeply conflicting if not for the orthogonal reason that a lot of these people who find themselves in connector roles also, anecdotally, think of themselves as introverts. From a human resources and organisational point of view, they make *no sense at all*. They don’t want to talk to people, they want to hide in offices, but apparently they’re also hugely influential and important in getting things done that are adjacent to their actual roles.

There’s something that I used to notice in the different kinds of project manager you’d get. Out of the set of all people who did “project management”, you’d get a whole bunch of people who thought that the job was in effect to move bits of paper from one place to another place, and possibly get those bits of paper squiggled on by a pen. There wasn’t any pro-active thought there, and it’s telling that in agency land, that era of project management was called Traffic. The art of co-ordinating flow and making sure that things kept moving. It’s not like this is different in the world of the cyber, but I think it’s fair to say that for whatever reason we are *still* in the early days of learning how to build stuff for the web, or that more accurately, organisations in aggregate are still in the early days of learning how to build for the the web. Sure, there are a whole bunch of people who know how to do it, but only until you get enough of them together and give them enough rope to create a rope-based Apollo project do they really get to shine. Otherwise, they’re just publishing, well, websites. The good project managers or producers – at least in my eyes – would be the ones who knew enough to know what might be a problem and were pro-active about it. But again, production or project management is in some ways an executionary role: find out what the director wants to do, and figure out a way to do it. And it’s always best if it’s a productive dialogue, right, otherwise you end up with the reputation of being the producer or project manager who always says no and never seems to want to do anything awesome, like autonomous drones that deliver QR codes to brand managers in Australia. A good project manager in that sense would be described as a *problem solver*, which is still very much so on the executionary end. The director or connector is the one who works out: okay, this is what we’re going to do, and this is how I’m going to make sure everyone understands what, why, and what each individual’s role is.

And no, we don’t really have a title for that role, I don’t think. Not in the majority of organisations.

[1] Rands in Repose

2.0 Six Minus

Five minutes with the new iPhone, the Minus version, and already it’s as if the top-left corner of my screen doesn’t exist. And already, massive frustration at Verizon for not figuring out how to activate my service. Because hey, that would be useful.–

10:43pm. It’s the weekend, and I’m tired and my mouth hurts. Go have fun over the next two days if you can, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Oh, and some administrivia: I’ll be lurking in the background at next week’s Code for America Summit[1] next week in San Francisco because apparently if you write for long enough about stuff like the Government Digital Service people ask you to justify your reckons. If you’d like to say hi and grab a non-alcoholic drink that’s either a Diet Coke or a coffee – for me, you can have whatever you want – then drop me a line.

Best,

Dan

[1] Code for America Summit 2014