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Firing Myself, Thanks to Chapter Seven

July 30, 2015 by Audrey Crane

I’d moved my family to a tiny town in Colorado where I was the Director of UX for a small software company. At the time of this story, I was reporting to a recently-hired COO.

He brought in a new engineering team, one of those situations where a manager comes along with a posse of engineers. So I know how this goes, either the engineers are going to be excited to work with a UX team because we make their jobs easier, or else they’re going to hate us because they’ve effectively been the designers in the past and liked it, or maybe they have PTSD from working with horrible diva designers before.

So I learn that they have never worked with designers in the past.

We meet via video conference, because they’re in Denver and I’m in this small town. Having been at a design consultancy before, and working with lots of dev teams that I didn’t know, I had a normal spiel for this: We show them some of our deliverable types and talk through our process. I explain that in many ways they are our most important users, because as consumers of our deliverables, if they can’t (or don’t want to) build based on what we deliver, we might as well have not bothered designing it in the first place.

Well, they seem pretty skeptical; these are old-school guys who have always been in engineering-led organizations. So I offer to send over a few copies of “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”, which was written by Alan Cooper back 1998. Cooper argues that designers using personas make better design decisions on users’ behalf than engineers who love and totally grok computers. Cooper was a developer himself, so I figure he has the credibility and the entertainment value to engage these guys and get them to think about UX in a different way.

I ship over 10 copies and honestly think nothing more about it until probably 3 months later, when I get called in to the COO’s office. “Audrey, you’re going to need to apologize to the Director of Engineering (I’ll just call him Frank). He’s really angry.” I’m shocked! He’s mad? At me?? Why??? I’m a nice person! I can’t imagine what happened. This must be some kind of misunderstanding.

“Did you send them some books?” Shit. “Yes.”

“Well, evidently there are some very offensive things in chapter seven, and you need to apologize immediately.” Holy crap. What the hell is in Chapter Seven???

I try to explain that this is how Cooper is, he offends everyone, it’s part of why people listen, because he’s funny and irreverent. But the COO is unmoved, and not hearing any of it. I’m completely convinced I’m going to be fired. In this small town in Colorado. Where there are literally no other high tech companies. Where I moved my tiny, helpless children.

Well, of course I immediately call Frank to apologize. It’s even worse than reported — I don’t know who was actually reading it, but it becomes pretty clear that no one cracked the book except one person, who was creeping through a few pages at a time, and then brought it in all pissed off about Chapter 7. Then everyone else, who’d had it collecting dust somewhere all that time, just opened the book and flipped straight to Chapter 7, and now they have no context at all, so they’re tooootttaaaallly pissed.

So I apologize. Profusely. I pen a deeply apologetic email and send it to the entire engineering team. I explain that my father, brother and husband at the time are all developers and I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for them. They are still pissed, I apologize again. I send pizza and beer to their office. The COO provides zero backup, and frankly seems to enjoy the whole thing. In fact it’s still coming up, months later.

In the end, convinced that no matter what I do, my team will never make progress with me there, I quit the company, staking my family’s livelihood on freelancing. Freelancing!

Well it all worked out in the end, and if you’re also dying to find out what’s in Chapter 7, no need to Google. Here it is, in part, and without context, as most of them read it:

  • He reminds us that Robert Cringely calls programmers, “’stinking gods among men’, referring simultaneously to their superior attitudes and their hygiene habits.”
  • He points to Po Bronson’s Seven Habits of Highly Engineered People, including, “They’ll keep fixing what’s not broken until it is broken” and their habit of saying ‘I didn’t answer incorrectly, you just asked the wrong question.’”
  • He also says that Programmers Act Like Jocks: He says, “I use the term very consciously because it is freighted with overtones of immaturity, egotism, and competitiveness, as well as physical strength and coordination.”… “They dominate others with their mental ability because they can, and they see nothing wrong with humiliating users with dauntingly complex products. They sneer, joke, and laugh about the ‘lusers’ who simply are not smart enough to use computers. Their work habits, too, of isolation, pressure, and long, odd hours offer little civilizing influence.”

Pretty bad, huh? This stuff is hilarious, biting and brilliant read in context. Out of context… imagine opening a random book someone had sent you and flipping straight to the 7 habits of Highly Whatever-you-are-y People.

It was easy for me to feel at first the injustice of not getting backed up by my boss, of the developers, a bunch of older men hanging me out to dry, when I both knew how successful software was made and had a family to support.

But in the end, I honestly believe I made some huge mistakes. I really gave this away at the beginning when I said, “I had a normal spiel for this.” What I genuinely needed to do was connect to these guys in a very human way: understand that they may have felt nervous about this new way of working, possibly concerned about feeling outdated, uncomfortable with the idea of giving up control to designers. I needed to begin to develop trust, a feeling that we’re all in this together. Which we were!

But a spiel is not a conversation; it’s not a connection…

If I couldn’t have met with them in person, a video call was a good first step, but I should have listened more, talked less.When I did talk, I should have paused often to ask questions and see if they had any. If I was Cooper himself, I probably could have pulled this off easily, but I’m not. Frankly, as a younger woman talking to a team of older men, I should have remembered that confidence can come off as “bossiness”, and been gentler in my approach. And first, I should have pre-flighted the whole call with Frank and presented to the Engineers as a team with him, instead of to him in front of his team(!) I should have been a human first, and a designer second.

And I never, never, ever should have sent those books!

Written for Rosenfeld Media’s excellent Enterprise UX Conference, and fine-tuned with much help from Dan Willis.