Over the years I have worked with banks. Charities. Governments. Hospitality firms. Insurers. Law firms. Pharmaceuticals. Regulators. Retail. Start-ups. Telecommunications.
Mostly as a consultant.
Sometimes a freelancer.
Occasionally as a permanent member of staff. A turn of phrase that says it all. Member or non-member. Belonging or not belonging. One of us, or one of “them”.
Some might call that a career. Though the term implies far more strategy and planning than was the reality.
These were the factors that guided a large part of my professional journey. The intersection point of a client’s need, my availability, and a lucrative market price determined by however much a problem was worth to the client.
Investment banks paid the best. They had to. Compensating for their soul-destroying corporate cultures. The price of entry is doing a deal with the devil. For once, nobody pretends otherwise.
The charity and public sectors paid the least. Their ability to deliver constantly compromised by a workforce consisting of a few idealistic true believers, surrounded by hordes of salary collectors unable or unwilling to sell their services to a higher bidder. Creating an outsourcing wonderland, purpose-built to funnel funds from client to external service providers, via lucrative troughs badged as change programmes and digital transformations. Costing much. Achieving little.
Lifestyle-wise, I have found the sweet spot to be retail banking or insurance. Money almost as good as investing banking. Without the death-march working hours, endless stress, and constant misery.
From a professional pride standpoint, telco and pharma won. Smart people doing clever tangible things. Unlike the world of start-ups, they sometimes had enough time, resource, and vision to get the job done well. Sometimes!
Whatever the sector, my due diligence (mostly) managed to avoid the types of projects long on ambition but short on investment. Spaceship dreams with bicycle budgets. Happiness is not found in jobs designed to fail. Guilt, blame, and recrimination all reside there in abundance.
Some people do earn a good living playing chief apologist, professional fall guy, human shield, or “interim” toe cutter. Not me.
I also managed to (mostly) screen out projects where the client was massively over-investing. Attempting to crack a walnut with a nuclear bomb. Where the gap between price and value became a vast chasm. Such gigs tend to become feeding frenzies of high-priced consultancies, “enterprise” vendors, and self-perpetuating perma-contractors. Each inserting their snouts and gorging themselves silly until they blow themselves up or the money runs out.
Unsurprisingly, both types of projects tend to fail.
Hustle cultures view workers as consumables. Vampirically extracting out every last drop of productivity. Discarding their burned-out carcass. Swapping it for the next unwitting starry-eyed victim. A production line powered by ruthlessly exploiting greed and ambition.
Meanwhile, under-utilised staff entertain themselves by making trouble. When left unaddressed, petty squabbles become turf wars and eventually blood feuds. Cancerous to productivity. Paralysing the ability to deliver anything. A proven time-honoured recipe for failure.
Recently, I’ve encountered a few people who made me stop and think. Their message wasn’t new. Their approach was not revolutionary. They weren’t self-proclaimed gurus nor self-evident geniuses.
But for whatever reason, they were able to make their message heard. Perhaps for no better reason than I was ready to hear it.
The first was a User Experience designer. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that such a profession existed, nor what it entailed.
Her job was to craft application interfaces and workflows that were friction free and intuitive to use. Websites and applications that we use on our phones, tablets, computers, watches, and wearables.
The tools of her trade were behavioural science. Empathy. Observation. And data-driven decision-making. Her constant response to sweeping statements, generalisations, urban legends, and conventional wisdom was “let’s try and quantify that, show me the data that supports that conclusion”.
Typically, there was none.
Before long she would collect some. Methodically. Objectively. Systematically.
Then she would work with whichever subject matter experts could help interpret it. Quickly analysing the story it had to tell. Performing root cause analysis. Understanding why things happened the way that they did, and more importantly, why people thought the things that they did.
Next, she would make suggestions for experiments.
Things that might help.
Things that might enhance the experience.
Things that might improve the outcome.
Dismantling barriers. Addressing obstacles. Removing friction. Countering fear. Overcoming reluctance.
Distinguishing between problems with people. Problems with process. Problems with technology.
Identifying where and how to solve each one. One small step at a time.
Then showing by doing via experimentation. Rather than theorising in the abstract. It was compelling!
Always remembering that at the heart of any system are people.
People who are easily distracted. Fallible. Time-poor.
People who were transient. Arriving. Learning. Leaving. In a constant cycle of staffing churn.
The User Experience designer made some interesting observations.
Automation over repetition.
Behavioural cues over nanny state style controls.
Prioritising convenience over constraint.
Intelligent design rather than choosing between beauty and function.
Fewest clicks. Fewest controls. Fewest screens. Fastest outcome. Least effort.
Information that could be calculated, derived, inferred, looked up, or sourced from elsewhere should be. Requiring human interaction became the last resort, rather than the default option.
The User Experience designer viewed the need for documentation or training as a personal failure.
The tools that she provided her customers with should “just work”. Easy. Intuitive. Simple. Like Amazon or iPhones or Netflix. Few users ever read a manual. When it comes to user interfaces she created, there was no need for one.
To illustrate, look at the internet and mobile app user interfaces provided by traditional banks, brokers, FX exchanges, pension funds, and healthcare providers. Compare those to the gamified insurgent upstarts in each sector. The new ones are far from perfect, but are certainly easier to use than the offerings of the old guard.
Her approach struck a chord with me.
I’ve long viewed the majority of project documentation as being ineffective busy work. Dated and stale even before it is published. Rarely maintained. Necessary only where precision is required, architectural blueprints for building or engineering schematics for a circuit board perhaps, but little of what is built by or for megacorp IT departments qualifies.
Highly paid white collar professionals drawing out static gantt charts, process maps, software architecture diagrams, or status update reports by hand. Interesting in the moment, but of little lasting business value.
Such outputs should be automatically generated, providing a window pane view into the live environment. Teams cling cult-like to their project religions and methodologies such as agile scrum or kanban, but few really understand the purpose or philosophy behind their ceremonies and rituals.
The User Experience designer would say if something didn’t make life tangibly better, then stop.
She would be right!
The second conversation was with a random C-suite exec I bumped into at a coffee shop. He was talking about continuous professional development, and the need for staff to individually take control of their own career journeys.
He cited the example of his team members, who would gormlessly obey instructions to attend mandatory anti-money laundering or inclusivity training, but would fail to submit a request to attend any form of training that might actually benefit their career prospects or stimulate their interests.
His company offered each permanent employee an annual allowance of £1500 that they could spend on any form of training, no questions asked. The education didn’t have to be work-related.
They could learn to fly a trapeze. Perform standup comedy. Decorate cakes. Or become a Certified Financial Advisor.
He lamented that the vast majority of staff failed to spend all their allowance.
Indeed, more than half didn’t spend any of it.
Granted, the allowance did not include time off to attend in-person training, but it would pay for a Pluralsight subscription or Open University style remote learning tuition fee.
The C-suiter questioned how his staff could hope to move on to bigger and better things when they failed to take the initiative. To invest in themselves. To improve their marketable skills.
Nobody was going to do it for them.
Nobody cared more about the outcome than they did.
Yet dishearteningly few availed themselves of the opportunity. Content to drift aimlessly towards irrelevance and redundancy.
The third conversation was with a Product Manager. Aggressive. Brash. Driven. Very in your face. The sort of person who takes no prisoners and gets things done. Whatever the cost.
She had worked at a series of start-ups.
Enjoyed some successful exits. Alas, never joining early enough to get rich in the process.
Experienced a greater number of quiet failures. Cruelled by cash flow. Poor product market fit. Run over by competitors, who enjoyed better execution, better brand recognition, or simply better lawyers.
Now she found herself in the thrall of marriage, mortgage, and motherhood. Responsibilities driving her to swap the rollercoaster ride of start-ups for the relative stability of financial services.
She observed that every major feature of a product should have the potential to be a successful business in its own right. If it didn’t, what was the point?
This stopped me in my tracks. I opened my mouth to object. But then I realised she was correct.
Thinking about Windows or MacOS, almost all the little native apps like the calendar, text editor, and weather had dedicated pure-play rivals who offered competing products as their primary business.
Numerous software vendors offered products that could apply accounting rules. Produce analytics or visualisations. Offer “low code” programming environments, with low competency bars and a short time to value. All of which are key features of applications like Excel or Google Sheets.
The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became.
If a customer wouldn’t happily pay for a key feature as a standalone product, did they really need the feature at all? The answer was probably not.
Which called into question the vast majority of functionality being built by corporate IT departments and outsourcers the world over. Firms for whom their core business is not building software, let alone commercially viable software. A very different way of approaching things.
As I reflected on the three conversations, an interesting picture emerged.
Our goal should be getting the job done. As efficiently and effectively as possible. Reliable. Repeatable. Smooth. Simple.
While doing so, we should focus on things that enhance our individual prospects.
Where those align to the interests of our employer or customers, great.
Where not, as the airline safety message says “fit your own oxygen mask before helping others”.
Those things we invest our time in developing, enhancing, refining, or producing should be commercially viable. Aligning our activities with cash flow and revenue generation is never a bad thing. It is much better to be attached to a profit centre than a cost centre.
When taken together, those three learnings can be equally applied to our careers, our finances, and our investment approach. If our activities are not, and also fail to bring us enjoyment, then we should stop and realign our priorities.
On reflection, my professional journey highlights that some jobs were worth doing. Others would have been better off avoided.
Obvious in hindsight.
But in many cases, the answers had been hiding in plain sight, had I only known where to look.