After the conference ends

Conference season is upon us, specifically for higher ed web nerds. I always enjoy this time of year, but it’s difficult when you go and have fantastic conversations with old (and new) friends only to come home and feel a bit defeated. I was talking to Scott Kubie at HighEdWeb Michigan and he made the comment about how conferences are better when a coworker can come, because the big ideas you get are that much sweeter when you can divide and conquer the event; or where major breakthroughs are experienced at the same time.

I agree majorly.

When a lot of people aren’t super aware of what kind of work I do online, it’s sometimes easy to gloss over the meatier parts of what gets covered at a conference for simply saying “it went well” and “it was good,” and not fleshing out the process or even that the conferences are intensive, chock full of information and go all day long.

While it can difficult to integrate everything you learn — especially at once — it’s no less important for us to come home and try to adopt at least one of the things we learn as soon as possible. Even if it’s telling people, “I learned a new thing I’m excited to try because…” it emphasizes the experience changed our perspectives and does more than just demonstrate the best parts of what conferences are about — people.

Sometimes, your work isn’t enough

For a long time, I believed in the quaint notion that if you just do good work that people want to see you succeed. This hokey notion is akin to grazing on the prairie and believing you won’t be eaten. Workplace culture is a lot like the animal world, only the animal world is more sane. No one talks about this in college and you can’t be trained for it.

For so long, I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to overstate my work. I don’t profess to ever be anything I’m not. But in the process of doing so, I tend to understate a lot of what I am in an effort to make strangers feel comfortable. I’ve been told for years that I need to stop, but it’s difficult to know where the line is. What’s important? What do people really need to know? It’s the reason I like resumes more than LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a braggarts dream and a showpony for showing off.

It’s not how I’m wired.

I intentionally go places others won’t, because I figure someone has to do it. Part of what’s worked for me over a long period of time is making IT or web or digital related things accessible to people who view them as far outside of their abilities. I enjoy teaching and I’ve never embraced the role of IT overlord as “keeper of all the things” as if there’s only place to get the answers.

The thing no one tells you when you start working is you have to chronicle your experiences or you’ll forget. That you need to itemize your wins, not because it has to matter to you, but when it does matter, you need to be able to talk about it.

Own What You Know

One of my personal struggles with blogging, presentations or just plain opening my mouth most days is the fear I’m going to say something wrong. Not something stupid, just that I might be wrong and that’ll cause people to think I’m not as smart as they thought I was before. Now, this doesn’t stop me from blogging, presenting or opening my mouth. Nonetheless, it’s a real fear.

Meeting people from far outside of my professional realm who confront the same fears — and ironically giving them pep talks over it — made me realize I needed to deal with this topic once and for all. You need to own what you know. Your experiences are what brought you here and it’s incumbent upon you to share that with people who might need to hear it.

Fearing that your voice doesn’t matter does no one any good. It doesn’t mean you’re always right. None of us are. But it doesn’t diminish the responsibility we all have to share what we know.

What To Blog About

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I’ve been blogging off and on for a really long time. In my younger days, I pretty blogged about whatever was on my mind, whether it was politics or whatever random online games I’d been creating at the time. Then I got older, social media became the soup de jour and I didn’t dip my toe in again until I thought a personal blog made sense. And by make sense, I mean that I wanted to see whether any of the stuff clanging around in my head met muster.

That led me to Twitter. Most of my connections made these days are through Twitter or conferences. The other day, it occurred to me that blogging was responsible for my ascent and I should dive back in. Except, I’ve always wanted to dive back into it and have opted against it. Why not? A fear of saying something that might offend. If you’ve ever met me in real life, you probably understand that I have a lot of energy and personality. You also realize how boring I’d come off if I restrained all of that in an effort to sanitize content so as not to seem to controversial.

Herein lies the problem friends. When I had no followers on Twitter — it didn’t exist yet — and I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever read my blog, I was free to type whatever I wanted and felt emboldened to do so. Bottom line is, I just didn’t care very much. I just figured if someone found me, great. And if not, that was okay too.

I’ve written variations of this post in the past, but it’s still a conversation that comes up a lot. Not just for individual blogging, but for organizations. Here are a few tips.

1. State your purpose. If you want a professional blog, great. But you still have to give people a reason to care. Be comfortable with no one reading. Set a personal goal for why you’re doing it in the first place, so when you’re bored of it, you have a reason to keep going. This is likely to happen within the first few days, too.

2. Recognize that it’s work. Just because you can share, doesn’t mean you should. Once you decide to do it, recognize that it’s something that requires an investment of time to be great. If you can’t commit several hours a week to it, reconsider whether you really need a blog or not.

3. Know your audience. There are going to be surprises. You might find the people you really thought would be interested in your work are less so, but others like the content. What’s more likely to happen is that no one will read at all. You need to know who you want to reach. After all, you’re sharing something and figuring out what people are sitting somewhere yearning for a voice like theirs needs to be in your head.

4. Read other blogs. I know that when you start blogging, it’s easy to want all the traffic. It doesn’t work that way, friends. You need to see what others are talking about. Don’t be jealous. Sometimes, you can get into situations where someone will blog and you can use that as a chance to respond with your own perspective. Then people are able to read your blog and theirs. Ultimately, you need to be a better reader than a writer.

5. Know when it’s over. Blogs don’t have to go on forever. At some point, you realize that it’s time to shift, pivot or stop saying anything. That’s okay. If you’ve achieved your goals (or even if you haven’t) you can walk away knowing you tried your best.

Thank You For Being A Mentor

For those of us who make the digital space our vocation, it’s easy to conflate friends with mentors. Mentors are our advocates, people who encourage, support and champion our work.

For many of us, having someone from afar valuing your contributions can be a huge boon to your self-esteem. Especially if you’re just starting out.

I mostly began professional blogging as a way to reach out to others who were doing what I do. I wanted to test my insights against a wider world of smart folks who might have perspectives different than mine. I wanted to be proven wrong, to some degree. What I found was more than just critical minds willing to engage, disagree or participate in sometimes theoretical conversations; but access to people who I could reach out to with questions about job and career issues.

Sometimes, it’s the people who don’t think of themselves as mentors who do the best job at it. As I’ve grown in my own career, I’ve tried to pay forward all of the things I’ve gained from mentors in my own life. When it comes to things like blogging, I’ve actively sought out new people who are sharing insights to discover folks who were once like me.

I think it’s always harder to break out as time goes on, because there ends up being more noise on the scene and we have a more difficult time — especially in social media — of synthesizing the voices as networks become more cluttered.

Nonetheless, few days go by that I don’t think about how remarkable it is to live in a world where borders become less important and enable us to cultivate broad, disparate interactions that can yield direct dividends in our everyday lives.

On First Impressions

I think it was instilled in me at a pretty young age that it’s important to dress well and look good. It’s less about money and more about making sure that you take the time to care about your appearance. There’s probably some politics to this, but I think at our core, we all want to reflect how we feel and if we’re feeling good, it extends to how we present ourselves through our outfits.

One of (many) things many of us don’t find out as kids are how to navigate the waters of dressing well and what that even means. We’re all probably seen enough “What Not To Wear” episodes to recognize that some of us are just less sartorially minded than others.

As I contemplate stepping into a different role, there’s a comfort (and a fear, frankly) associated with the first impressions and perceptions people have of you. A lot of this stems from when you first walk through the door. My music teacher in high school used to always say dramatically that when you walk in the room, everything should stop and people should take notice.

He usually illustrated this by throwing a music stand but that’s neither here nor there. His point is and remains well-taken.

For all of the chatter in my social media world about brand identity, personal brands, Klout scores and follower counts, few things have the same impact of a first meeting. It’s why so many people flood our inboxes trying to schedule meetings. They want that face to face. Whether it’s a date or an interview, folks are always looking to size up others to see what they’re made of.

Still, we don’t really spend a lot of time talking about clothes because it’s a personal thing. There are general dress codes and I know for men, the politics of these things aren’t as deeply fraught with controversy as they can be with women. All of these things are an entirely different conversation than I’m riffing off of here.

Ultimately, I just think it’s interesting to consider the idea of transition to a new place and how our look impacts how we begin building relationships and ultimately present ourselves to an entirely new audience. You lose the comfort of people knowing you, of having an established brand identity and have to rebuild and refresh.

It can be scary, but it’s a good opportunity to revisit, revise and revamp as necessary.

When All You Want Is To Matter

There are so many articles these days about how useless millennials are, with people imploring them to conform or be doomed to a life of perpetual underemployment. Putting aside the absurdity of these arguments for a bit, I just wanted to reflect on something I see consistently that’s a difference between the work of yesterday, versus the workplace of today.

More and more, people are branding themselves less as generalists. People are continually entering the workplace these days with broader skills, more breadth and experiences that enable them to dive into a bevy of diverse projects. This benefits organizations and institutions that they serve. While it might not result in a pay increase, a title change or much else; it’s the new normal.

When I join a company, I tend to want to leverage everything at my disposal to their benefit. Not just the regular duties assigned to me, but wherever else I need to pitch in. This isn’t an unusual thing. I know lots of people who do the same things. Whether it’s helping however we can, it’s just part of what we consider being part of a community even if if said community is the workplace.

More and more, I find that leaders just don’t care about these things. Whether it’s a failure to understand the challenges with being a worker in a millennial age or just a general tone deafness about the ways to motivate young people; I find that it can be very challenge to stay consistently fired up in a context where you don’t feel any of your contributions are being recognized.

Maybe you’ll think this is a screed issued by a kid who spent too much time getting Certificates Of Participation during youth sports. But that’s not the case, here. Simply put, when you’re a single worker who hasn’t started a family yet, you place a premium on your climb up the ladder. There are so many easy ways for organizations to benefit from the energy and consistency that young people bring to their institutions by crafting milestones, challenges and ways to keep the work interesting. Not every task will be interesting. Not every aspect of the job glamorous. But there can be so much bureaucracy in the ways that we dole out job titles, in terms of how we can become rigid about “facetime” when it’s not necessary that we shoot ourselves in the foot in regards to helping our organizations thrive.

The future will be won by companies who understand how to craft environments where people want to be. It’s no accident that companies like Google are lauded for their policies that improve workplace productivity. These are not anomalies.

Not every company can be as flexible, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t evaluate how you craft your workplace experience to make sure it’s people-centered.

Without employees, you have no business. We’re often so customer-centric, that we forget the linchpin in our success are the people who consistently deliver these first-class experiences.

It’s not always about money or titles, it’s about making sure people feel like they matter. Making people feel like they matter takes work and consideration. It takes a pulse.

On Context

The other day, I was talking to a friend about LinkedIn. He’s on the job market and a recruiter told him about how necessary it was for his field (he’s not in higher ed) and that he needed to get serious about it. I was telling him that I’ve never been much of a fan of LinkedIn because it was just your resume splayed out there for whoever to read, without any real context for what it all means.

It works fine in my mind, if you went to a good school. If your career has been linear and makes sense to someone, then I can totally understand how just copying your resume with some extra words and maybe overselling your accomplishments for all to see would be worthwhile.

But how do you decide what’s important? What if your own experiences don’t quite move along that path? I’ve managed to do okay in spite of having a career that I mostly fell into. There’s no way that I’d ever encourage some kid to follow my trajectory and yet, so many of the experiences I’ve had that I value immensely came from being bold and making the moves that others would’ve admonished me not to make.

There’s no real way for a resume to explain “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just figuring it out as I went along and each place I went, I maximized my opportunities,” because well..even a cover letter saying that might be a bit strange.

Alas, this is my own dilemma of sorts. I was a non-traditional student after spending four years on active duty in the Air Force. I left college at two different times after that before finally getting my undergraduate degree while working my first job. I tried a few startups including a time when I sort of stumbled into developing an athletic brand with a Chinese company. (Yes, this actually happened.) Back since the early days of personal websites, I was never a partisan of “put your resume on your website” and so, LinkedIn doesn’t really offer me much in that way.

Plus, the competitor in me is not too keen on giving away too much of the “secret sauce.” That is, there’s a whole pitch that goes into getting you to a place where you can even get into the room to talk to people. I’m not convinced oversharing does anything other than give people more ways to scrutinize.

So what do you do? I’m more interested in it from the perspective of someone who wants to try to encapsulate a bevy of life experiences into some kind of coherent narrative. I want to provide context for the things that wouldn’t make sense (or let’s be frank, raise red flags) because while the answers might not satisfy, I’d rather people know the right answers than to assume the wronganswers.

Maybe I’m thinking about it the wrong way? Everyone approaches these kinds of things in such a predictable way, maybe the right approach is to take it from a different angle? What if the answer is really to own your path for what it is and communicate that in a way that owns every aspect of what’s made me who I am and why that makes me an asset? (Now you understand why I called this post “Thinking Out Loud…”)

This all boils down to the notion that there’s no context button online. Context takes time and not everyone seems to have much of that these days. I’ve taken to segmenting my messaging on Facebook because I feel more comfortable having contextual conversations rather than just barraging everyone with inane things they may or may not care about. While this is a strategy most of us employ in our work social media lives, it’s not one that we always feel like bringing to our personal worlds. Or if we do, it’s more in theory than in practice because sites like that don’t make it easy to filter out the noise.

The trick is finding a way to provide context for strangers. Dinner guests are easy to cook for when I know they’re showing up; it’s the ones showing up unannounced (with food allergies) that I always have a difficult time preparing for.

I’m headed to the kitchen.