The Odd Guy Out

Working at Whiteboard is the most fulfilling occupation I have ever had in my short twenty-something years. I have the privilege of being around people who care about other peoples’ dreams and passions enough to actually do something about it.

We recently relaunched our site, and the following phrase stuck out to me when I read through the copy proposal.

We love technology, but not
 as much as being human.

I had to sit with that one for a while. This phrase juxtaposed with a title like Director of Technology, for some developer types (like myself), may at first sound a bit like “we aren’t really deeply interested in technology.” After all, we don’t tout our Comp Sci skills or our understanding of the latest framework/library/whatever anywhere. Sure, we mention the importance of technology throughout, but all in all, the proverbial tech talk is kept to a minimum in favor of more purpose-centric language.

This is only a veiled understanding of the truth: we love technology and are in fact constantly pursuing deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the web and computer science in general. So, before you developers cultivate a sense of sympathy for me, understand this: I am not the odd guy out. In fact, my obsession with technology thrives in this environment, for many reasons.

  1. Practicing the art of definition

Technology defined by words like “stateless machine” and “MVC” and “dynamic typing” means nothing to those who don’t understand it. However, this doesn’t mean these terms and the meaning behind them is useless. In a company like Whiteboard, the exciting challenge is learning how to translate technical explanations into experiential narratives. Fancy word, simple concept: how does it feel to use a front-end-MVC-driven application? Or, on the other side of the fence, “I want my actions to have snappy responses on the front end, and I don’t want my browser to reload.” (Of course, a contrived and very obvious example.) Understanding the mapping of technical implementation to human experience precedes an elevated perspective of technology as a catalytic medium.

Perhaps it is indeed your passion to practice computer science for the sake of curiosity, or maybe your work is focused on a sector that places education value on tangential exploration of computing as a subject matter; however, Whiteboard works in a different space: technological development with a final human-centric home and purpose. This redefines technology as a sort of set of tools for creating human experience, and I am a mechanic. My father is a talented mechanic; he has worked on everything from lawnmowers to helicopters. He has a fascination with the inner-workings of machines, as well as a fascination with tools. My father also understands that when he is working on a machine, the tool that does the job best is the tool that should be used. Furthermore, the person using the machine once it is fixed could care less what tool my dad used to fix it. And so it goes for developers: while we may make a hobby out of our toolshed, it is arguably more important to focus on the purpose of the machine and the person using it.

2. Semantic Humility

Continuing the same theme as the previous point, the position I find myself in constantly is that of “project optimizer.” At a practical level, my job is to constantly search for the aforementioned tools that make our business run. More specifically, as an agency, our time is limited; when we can execute a project significantly quicker (read: on-time) with a tradeoff of a few hundred milliseconds on the client-side, we will do so, and optimize later. This is the dirty truth of web work for most people: “modularity” or “maintainability” cannot come in front of the bottom line. However, this comes with an equal weight of knowing when pre-optimization for maintainability is essential to the success of the project for our client.

Confession: I have written a lot of inline CSS while working for Whiteboard. Why? Because something needed to be fixed immediately. Redemption confession: under my leadership at Whiteboard, we have shifted almost entirely from an FTP/Dropbox workflow to a GitHub oriented, SSH-centric workflow. This fight of working with “best practices” versus shipping fast is often a dichotomy. What choice do you make? That’s the job of the mechanic to figure out. Take the knowledge you have, bring it together, and act always as an advocate for the user/client relationship.

3. Cross Disciplinarian

If I was around a bunch of developers all day long, I certainly would learn a lot. And there is absolutely no reason why I would ever come down on that environment; however, it is of great importance for Whiteboard as an agency to have persistent visibility of client purposed content-orientation. This is, after all, the criteria I use to make informed and sometimes complex decisions outlined in the previous point. Does their team see a future in this particular platform? Do they have more developers working on the project? Are we keeping this in-house for the duration of the project? What level of change is expected in the near or distant future? What does the user-base look like? What is the budget elasticity on the project? What is the priority outlined in the vision as it relates to [ mobile, tablet, conversions, aesthetics, market competition ]?

All of these factors are pieces of information that are passed around in the “non-tech” circles of the company. These are the human pieces that are so very important to execution. If I was around only developers all day, these things would likely lose their place of importance; instead, we work together as a team. We execute with expertise in areas, but in reality we work together. Everyone has a say when it comes to human communication; if they don’t know the lingo, does that make their input less valuable? Certainly not. It is each team member’s job to take the input given and filter it through their understanding of their area.

4. Respect for trade

Simply because one person in the company doesn’t share my propensity for hack sessions doesn’t mean I am ostracized for my love for technology. Simply put, it is exactly the opposite. Internally, we promote a culture of artisanship; if you don’t love what you do as an artist of the trade, you likely are working in an area because of proficiency instead of passion. And we are all about passion. Empowering doesn’t happen just for our clients, but also for our employees. Thus, my passion for technology is given space on a daily basis. Hack sessions are celebrated, not ridiculed. Technological culture is prevalent amongst our employees, especially internally. We have a very profound respect for each of our separate trades.

With all of this said, I find it a personal mandate to help engineers learn how to work better with visionaries. Understanding the motivations and personalities of each type of person, I believe it is imperative that we begin to rehumanize our understanding of technical culture.

… a capability given by the practical application of knowledge

This has nothing to do (necessarily) with nerding out over the latest framework or the fastest algorithm. It has nothing to do with page-load speed, mobile compatibility, or analytics. No, technology has everything to do with manipulation of knowledge. If we get a hold of this truth, the conversations developers and visionaries have will have the effect of cohesion. If we can learn to respect our differences, then no one will be left feeling like the odd guy out.

Originally published at