This is an actual conversation I’ve had a couple times:
Them: “What do you do for work?”
Me: “I’m a Program Manager at a web company.”
Them: “Oh, so you’re a Manager.”
Me: “No, not exactly.”
Them: “Then you’re a Programmer.”
Me: “Not exactly. I’m actually more like a…”
At that point I’d often try a variety of metaphors, none of which really conveyed the true sense of what I did (nor were they all that glamorous), “translator”, “middleman”, “interface”, “coordinator”. Somewhat sadly, “middleman” is probably the closest. I’m in between the business folk and the tech folk and I make sure they both understand each other. And then sometimes I throw in the exciting point that I write documentation to achieve this communication from the business to the engineers. I “manage” the “program”. I always hated saying that, but it’s true. We wrangle all the folk together, make sure they’re talking, sticking to the things that the business requested, and figuring out how it’ll all fit with the way the website/product/whatever currently exists. Of course the roles can be drastically different depending on where you are. And that’s without even throwing in the other PMs; Product Management, and Project Management.
And now I have to figure out a whole new awkward spiel about what I do, when I now say, “I’m an Information Architect”. I’ll babble about how it’s organizing the information, and features in a product to best fit the user’s needs, and how it involves user research, testing, and getting inside the mind of the user. I’ll have to borrow some of the explanation from the good Wikipedia entry on Information Architecture. I may not even need a metaphor for what I do, since a pretty good one is already in the title; “Architect.” Reversing the title in the same way and saying that I “architect” the “information” is pretty close to it. But for the sake of confusion, try sorting out the fuzzy lines between: Interaction Design, Interface Design, Product Design, Experience Design, User Experience Design, Usability Engineer and Information Architecture.
There are plenty of common cross-industry jobs that are much easier to understand. A Sales-person is a Sales-person. A General Manager is a General Manager. An Accountant is an Accountant.
Do you find yourself in a position where it’s tough to explain? How does the conversation usually go? Any good metaphors?
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Like some people with personal websites or weblogs, I have my resume sitting on my site, just hanging out. Every once in a long while I’ll get a recruiter who stumbles across it as they’re doing searches. I received this in an e-mail the other day:
I am a recruiter looking for some top talent to fill an exciting Software QA Tester position at Google.
There is a Google office that opened up not too long ago in Kirkland, Washington and apparently they’re looking to fill a number of QA positions (temporary assignments). I do have a bit of experience, but unfortunately I’m not too interested in moving back into QA, let alone on a temporary basis. The rest of the message was your typical technical job description and common sense requirements: “a quick learner, a great team player, and able to work independently…” But at the top of the requirements there was an intriguing line, surrounded by double asterisks:
** Some of the openings require extensive experience testing Flash applications and some game background. **
What is Google working on? Flash and games? Not a lot of Google’s products currently use Flash. There’s Analytics which was almost entirely acquired and not in-house. Google Video uses Flash to embed their videos, and Google Finance does some nifty Flash stock charts. Is there much else?
And games? What’s the plan there? Sure, it falls somewhere on the list of possible directions that Google could go. Yahoo has a huge user-base in their online games, and Google may want a piece of the pie. It would of course be a huge area for targetted advertising through the AdSense behemoth. Puzzle games, maybe an umpteenth Bejeweled clone, Google-tris… A Flash-based Google MMORPG? Although I think they’d make a real killing if they went with online card games and poker, using real-money powered by Google Checkout.
Anyway, if you’re interested in a temporary QA position in the Seattle area, the big “G” is up to something.
When Dilbert hits eerily close to home, er… work. On process:
In my Techcrunch party write-up the other day, I pondered a bit about the profitability of the various startups around. I’ve chatted a bit more with some friends about Redfin in particular, and how well their model of selling houses online is going to fare. I ran across this blog post, actually written just before last week’s party, which dissects some of the numbers quoted in this Seattle PI article about Redfin’s sales to-date. Whichever numbers are correct; 40 homes at $18 million ($180k commission), or 13 homes at $7 million ($70k commission), I think they’re fairly impressive for having their direct service running for just 5 months (and still at just 25 employees).
The PI article mentions that ZipRealty sold $900 million worth of homes in the first three months of the year (with a shocking 1,400 agents!). Applying Redfin’s “measly” 1% commission to that and we’re talking $9 million in income. Yeah, yeah, so what do all these numbers mean? I’m no economics genius, but it seems clear that the online home buying business scales nicely. Despite having to hire numbers of agents to man phones and process paperwork, manage offers, etc. the throughput of a polished web-based real estate system is always going to be faster (not to mention cheaper to the buyer) than going through it the old-fashioned way. Also, considering only a fraction (maybe half?) of Redfin’s employees are currently agents, they’re currently more efficient (by either sales figure) than ZipRealty (for the time being).
Redfin is in it’s infancy, and the 360Digest post mentions that a small $70k commission sum might not be worth an $8 million investment round. I would argue that the ZipRealty example demonstrates that the idea scales very nicely, and can easily make that $9 million back with the right throughput of sales. I think Redfin is in good shape, and I’m really rooting for them as they’ve taken on the San Francisco market. Expanding means hiring more of their pseudo-agents to handle the sales, but the more they can streamline their core application, the more sales they can push through, and so on…
Over the weekend I watched the excellent documentary, The Corporation. It did a great job of covering everything from, “What is a corporation?” to the political issues, environmental impacts, sweatshops and some chilling case-studies on press cover-ups and controversy, such as bovine growth hormone. It never felt like they were trying to tackle too much, by hitting these seemingly disparate subjects. The way it was presented, it was frightening how inter-connected all of the pieces are. The underlying argument seemed to be that the original purpose of the corporation has been lost over the years as capitalism has exploded, and some of the laws originally designed to protect small corporations are now the biggest points of exploitation in the system. In the end the question that’s asked is, how can we re-align the priorities of these behemoths, so that the environment, the public, and the stockholders are all equally important?
Later in the same day I started reading the feature article from last week’s Stranger, The Nonprofit Motive (there’s a longer version available here). The article does a great job of explaining the basics of non-profits vs. for-profit companies , all explained within the simple framework of, “Pretend you’re running a lemonade stand.” It makes the setup easy to understand, and when it gets to specific examples, you understand how things work. In the end, the author presents an idea for restructuring the non-profit only benefits, so that for-profit organizations could essentially create a non-profit division under their roof. This opens up a world new possibilities for keeping independent, struggling non-profits alive, and promoting the foundation of new ones. The article clearly lists the auditing nightmare of this setup, but the possible benefits to the company and to the public could certainly be worth it.
This non-profit idea (not without it’s flaws) seems like part of the answer to the question raised by The Corporation. It suddenly gives a for-profit company true incentive to think of others and actually benefit from it. At least on paper. Greed is a very powerful force and may continue to hinder any valuable change.