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October 12, 2005

talking to people

"so did you talk to the woman wearing your shoes?" - sarah

the simple answer is no.

for some people, one of the primary reasons to go to a conference is to network. not the kind of "icky" networking that marketing and sales people seem to do (which might be better called "schmoozing"), but the kind of networking that geeks do, which involves a beautiful aristotlean exchange of ideas in a sunlit forum with everyone wearing togas and olive leaf headbands...

...or, more likely, it involves buying beers for the guy who wrote perl, and having a beautiful exchange of ideas in a dark bar.

i don't like that i work in solitude and have little to no contact with other ui design / interaction design / visual design / usability professionals at work. but when i get to a conference filled with my peers, even though it's a prime chance to connect with people who actually might understand what it is that i do, i rarely meet anyone. i have the skills and i could do it, but i really, really don't want to.

why is that? part of it is that it takes energy and a certain kind of focus to start conversations with strangers, even when i have an easy opening. the conferences take a lot of energy anyway; in a good one, i'm learning, heavily, for a full day. this is a completely different kind of energy from what i need to be highly social. to swap back and forth would be extremely taxing.

at this type of conference, i am In Class. being In Class means certain things for me: that i am anxious about looking like a moron in front of my peers; that i am intimidated by the people around me, who seem to have far more expertise in design and usability than i do; that i am intimidated by the instructors, who i don't see as resources there to serve me, but as authority figures whose displeasure i don't wish to incur.

now, i realize that that last statement is a little preposterous, but it is the attitude that i took all the way through grade school and on into my unsuccessful career in college, and it probably had a lot to do with the fact that i failed out of school. i know now that it's ridiculous, but i haven't yet succeeded in shaking that feeling when i am sitting down and there's an expert at the front of the room lecturing and manipulating a giant overhead projector. i don't raise my hand, i don't ask questions, i don't come in late and i don't go see the instructor after class. i fly below the radar as much as possible.

now, today i could have gone to the class on css and xhtml instead of the class on advanced usability testing techniques, and i would have felt like a big expert the whole time, because i am an expert on css and xhtml. but what would be the point in that? i was startled to find that experts in usability testing were in the usability testing class. at first i felt intimidated by the people who were making comments that demonstrated their experience in the field-- but realized that it was ridiculous to be intimidated by people who have the luxury of specializing when i simply do not. still, i was glad they were there-- i took notes on what many of them said.

it is true that i do feel anxious about the possibility of looking stupid. the people who have worked with me for many years (or perhaps i should say, the person who has worked with me for many years) have seen ample evidence of the confidence problems i have had and continue to have. this is at least partly due to my background; i don't have a degree, have learned everything on the job, and have had to prove my worth and competence to people who hold CS degrees-- often advanced ones-- from one of the top technical schools in the region.

i read once that women in professional careers are often plagued by the feeling that they will be "found out"-- that the people around them will suddenly realize that they are not competent, and have been somehow fooling everyone into believing otherwise. i have this problem, less so now than i have had in the past, but it's partly grounded in fact-- when it comes to running a formal usability test, i am clueless. i have never done an heuristic evaluation. i have never written a formal usability test report, because the person i am reporting to is usually me! i design it, i test it, and i fix it. this is not a valid way to ensure usability, and that's extremely apparent to me now that i have finished today's seminar.

that feeling of being a sham comes to the front when i attend a conference of this sort, because i am surrounded by people who are experts, have been to design school or hold degrees in HCI (human-computer interaction).

i realize that my skills are unique in my department and that they are grateful to have me. but suppose there comes a day when i need to move on? will i be able to? then it will matter to someone besides me that i don't have the chops.

well, i have strayed from my original point-- not talking to people. but maybe it's clear now why i don't-- there's just too much happening in my head. welcome to my head.

Posted by lisa at October 12, 2005 06:04 PM


The "found out" fear exists in many men, too. Though it wouldn't surprise me to find out that it's more prevalent with women.

Re: networking -- I did the marketing schmooze at the CED's InfoTech2005 this afternoon. Part of the fun of being in marketing at a technical/finance oriented conference and show is the ability to get excited about technical stuff. At least three of the marketing people I spoke with today are also former engineers (just like me!).

Also: I saw a very cool composition/performance product called Notion. Imagine a synthesizer where the notes are recordings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Now imagine connecting that synthesizer with composition software. Now you can compose a score and have the London Symphony Orchestra play it. And more. Way cool. I wonder who recorded their accordion parts?

Posted by: Phil on October 12, 2005 09:18 PM

Speaking of UI stuff and this conference... our company publishes quite a few books on UI/Usability/CSS and stuff, including some by some of the presenters at that conference, I believe. I can get copies of stuff and "loan" them to you, if there's anything you're looking for.

Posted by: Steph Mineart on October 13, 2005 11:05 AM

sometimes i'm floored by how very different we are. ;-)

the ONLY reason i go to conferences any more is specifically to meet people. my profession is pretty specialized at this point, so it's comforting to talk with other people who understand the biz.

at conferences, i avoid the sessions at all costs. snoozeville.

Posted by: christa on October 13, 2005 02:20 PM

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