Category Archives: reflection

Delegation: Being clear about what you value

In Spousonomics (now retitled as It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes), I came across a brief explanation of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Economically speaking, it can make sense to trade with other parties even if you can do something faster yourself, because trading frees you up to focus on higher-value work as long as the transportation and transaction costs are not prohibitive.

I’m slowly learning to let go of more and more tasks in terms of delegation and outsourcing. For example, I’ve been working with someone on developing marketing materials for this business idea around sketchnoting. We want to put together a leave-behind that can help event/conference organizers learn more. The person I’m working with has a lot of experience in graphic design and illustration, although I’m probably more comfortable with the copywriting and sketchnoting aspects of it.

She set this up as a fixed-price project. I’ve worked on similar illustration projects at fixed price, and I’m always careful to specify the number of rounds of revisions included. For revisions beyond that, I work at a specified rate, although I might throw in minor revisions for free. I do this because I know people in both software development and illustration who have gotten burned in an endless revision cycle because of client expectations, but I guess many illustrators do open-ended fixed-price projects instead.

When I hire people to do work for me, I want to make sure that I’m doing right by them as well. I don’t want people to get tired of working on this never-ending project. I want to build on people’s strengths and their career interests instead of running into their gaps. I want to focus on the highest-value activities, going for about 80% awesome instead of spending all the time trying to chase down 100%.

One of the things that I’m learning to do is to be explicit about what I value and what I’m looking for. For example, we were going back and forth on the copy for this leave-behind. It can take a while to get to copy that feels right. The discussion does help me clarify what style I’m looking for (now I have a “Goldilocks style guide” with examples of what’s too formal, what’s too informal, and where I want to be), but copywriting isn’t the key value I want to get out of this arrangement. I’d rather have her focus on the parts where I hope she can really make a difference.

I suggested using filler text like “Lorem ipsum” so that we can play with the layout and the feel of the piece without getting distracted by the words. It’s important to have an idea of the rough structure of the text – short paragraphs? a bulleted list? – but we don’t have to finalize it just yet, and I don’t want her to spend hours wrestling with it if there are better things she can do.

What are those things? Well, let’s think about what I really need help with in terms of a leave-behind. The final form factor is probably something like a half-sheet of cardstock. I want something that I can print at home if I’m in a rush, or have printed elsewhere for extra oomph. It should probably be double-sided for efficiency, but it has to accommodate the imprecise nature of printing on home-office equipment. It should look good in black-and-white, and extra-nice in colour. It should be something I can easily edit. There are a whole lot of things that need to be figured out: layout, font selection (must be a Google Web Font that I can use on my website as well), visual balance, what needs to be drawn.

So, what does mini-success for this project look like? Maybe an Adobe InDesign file (ideally, something that I can also convert to an Inkscape SVG!) with some text boxes in a selected font… I’ll probably need to do the final drawing of any illustrations, so maybe there are just boxes where the images go, too.

It’s a bit different from other things she’s worked on, then, where she designs the piece, writes the copy, and draws the illustrations. It can be odd working on something that seems like something you’ve done before, but isn’t quite the same equation. I know I’ve felt insecure about working on projects like that! If I’m clear about what I value, maybe that will help us make the most of the time we spend working on this project.

So I said:

If you’re worried that it’ll be too close to "Well, I drew these boxes on this InDesign file and tweaked them a few times until they lined up, and then you sweated over the copy and the illustration and all of those things I usually work on," I’m sure you’ll find other ways to create enough value to feel good about it. For example:

  • "I looked at X fonts and shortlisted A – E. I recommend B because ______, but C is another good fit for you because _______. Both pair well with D if you need to use a different font for emphasis."
  • "While working on this, I found some examples of marketing materials that you might like. _____ is interesting because of _____, _____ because _____, and _____ because ______."
  • "You’re trying to say too much here. People only need to know ____, _____, and _____. We can save the rest for the website."
  • "You’re not answering enough questions here. We need to bring back that point about ______."
  • "Here are some sketches of what this could look like."
  • "That sketch is unclear – doesn’t communicate ____ to me. How about these versions?"
  • "I checked this with ______ and _____ and they understood it, too."

Who knows, maybe it will include answering specific questions about Illustrator and InDesign in case there are little tweaks I can’t figure out myself! That would be useful too. =)

In particular, the key values I think I’m getting from working with you are:

  • Because you focus on graphic design, you’re probably exposed to lots more input and inspiration than I am. I’m counting on you to be able to pull out examples and ideas from your stash.
  • For similar reasons, you may be better able to differentiate between things and explain why something is a better or worse fit. Think of the way people who are versed in colour theory can explain why certain combinations work and what they can communicate, or how someone who’s interested in typography can discuss different styles
  • Because you aren’t me, you can push back if I’m giving too much or too little detail, using too much jargon, coming across with the wrong tone, or drawing something that people would find hard to understand. ("I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t look anything like an elephant inside a snake…")
  • You’re more familiar with the Adobe suite of tools than I am. You know what things are called and where they are. So you can get the basics in place faster, and you can help me figure out how to do things (especially if I don’t know what those things are called, or which approaches are easier than others).

Part of learning how to delegate is about figuring out where the task boundaries are, so that people feel good about working on and completing various chunks. I’m open to making the copywriting a separate project, and possibly even working with someone else for that. It’s tough, but if I learn how to break things down into projects that tap people’s strengths, and we figure out what makes sense to focus on, that’ll probably work out to a good thing.

There’s so much to learn, and it takes work to learn about delegation this way. I wish I could learn faster or more effectively, but I can’t imagine learning all these things in a class or seminar. Practical experience and mindfulness, then!

One to three, that’s all

One to three good pieces of work each day. That’s all I want to check off my list, and anything else is a bonus. On a day-by-day basis, this seems unambitious. Sometimes I wonder if I’m wasting this opportunity of an experiment – but I’m slowly feeling my way around, and it’s good to take my time.

This week’s accomplishments:

  • Monday: business planning, and a meeting with a potential client.
  • Tuesday: book sketchnotes, the book club, and halfway through putting together an e-book follow-up for my talk
  • Wednesday: lunch with another entrepreneur; coffee with Quantified Self organizers and brainstorming; ENT101 sketchnote; finishing the e-book
  • Thursday: digital sketchnoting podcast with Mike Rohde; on a personal note, survived another fitness class
  • Friday: first coworking session at ING Direct; more business planning; brainstormed business marketing with someone

I am so glad I stumbled across the power of writing and review. It’s much too easy to forget about where the time has gone, and to forget to celebrate the small wins.

While I waited for W- to finish his krav maga class, I mapped different emotions and the situations in which I feel them. The predominant emotion for this week has been a little hard to pin down. It’s not quite the thrill of developing code and closing tickets, or the happiness of having everything line up. It’s more amorphous. I think it’s more of a patient, deliberate preparation.

One thing at a time, one step in front of the other. If I accept this as the normal, it’ll probably be much better for me than assuming that normal is a whirlwind of activity.

Then I can hack this pace, bit by bit. I can experiment with breakfasts and other starts. I can write down more challenges and worries, and I can get better at working with other people to make things happen. I can figure out what my “treats” are – those small, productive tasks that give me a thrill – and sprinkle them through my week.

I’ve played with the “manic productivity” setting in life. Let’s see if I can get the hang of “steadily increasing strength.”

Sketchnote reflection: conference intensity

Still a little tired from two intense days of sketchnoting: 62 2-minute pitches from Sunday’s AngelHack Toronto, and then a 12-hour sprint involving 33 talks and 11 startup demos for Monday’s Lean Startup Day. Focused listening is tough – squeezing through hundreds of people to find a seat at AngelHackTO, straining to hear pitches despite the back-of-room chatter competing with weak sound; dealing with a quick succession of topics with a livestream that shows only brief glimpses of slides; tweeting with one hand while drawing with the other.

Although I had to shift writing positions a few times, my hands didn’t cramp up once. The breaks were just enough time for me to shake out any tiredness, drink some water, dash to the facilities, munch my way through three energy bars and a sandwich, and answer questions from curious onlookers. After the conference and a short time at Quantified Self Toronto’s pub night, I gratefully slid into the quiet of solitude, and I slept for eleven hours once I got home.

It was intense work, but worth it. Visually summarizing the pitches and talks during the event itself meant that the sketchnotes could be part of the conversation instead of an afterthought, and people appreciated it both here and elsewhere.



Every time I sketch an event, I learn something. Here’s what worked well:

  • I set up custom templates before the event. MaRS wanted partner logos on the template, so I created that PNG beforehand, and I added a light grid from my own drawing templates. This meant that the sketchnotes were consistently branded.
  • I saved my sketchnotes using Autodesk’s automatic numbering feature and a shared Dropbox folder. This came in really handy during the Lean Startup Day conference, as the talks were quick with very few breaks in between. Automatic numbering meant that I didn’t have to spend time changing the filename, while using Dropbox meant that my files were synchronized with my phone and easy to publish on the web.
  • I switched devices instead of switching screens. One of the advantages of using an all-digital workflow is that I can publish my sketchnotes during the event itself. My tablet PC is great for drawing, but switching windows and sharing notes on Twitter is hard when it’s in tablet mode. By saving the files in Dropbox and synchronizing with my phone, I could avoid switching applications – my tablet PC was dedicated for drawing, while the phone was great for posting links to Twitter.
  • Dropbox also made it easy to update files. If I wanted to correct an image, I could simply save a new version. The old links would continue to work seamlessly. This was much better than my previous workflow of using Twitpic or WordPress – replacing old images is so much easier now.
  • I kept the clutter off my blog. When covering single talks, I’ll often publish the sketchnotes directly to my blog. I didn’t want to post twenty separate entries for a conference, though! Using Dropbox+Twitter allowed me to publish sketchnotes immediately without cluttering up my blog. At the end of the event, I created a blog post recap with all the sketchnotes for easy access.
  • I stocked up on supplies. I tucked a few Clif bars and two water bottles into my backpack, and they came in really handy during the conference. Concentration makes me hungry!
  • I added some light shading. Using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6.0.1’s new Color Puck, I picked a shade that was related to the logo colours. Whenever I had time, I added subtle shading on a different layer. (Ex: panel) It was fun, and I’m looking forward to revisiting past sketchnotes and using that technique.
  • I set aside a day for recovery. Introvert overload – energy management required! =)

Here’s how I’m thinking of making things even better next time:

  • I might be able to automate the Dropbox > Twitter publishing process with WappWolf, if I can figure out how to add some information without needing to type it in using my laptop.
  • Alternatively, I can use an external keyboard (or even dust off my Twiddler!) in order to speed up data entry while I’m in tablet mode.
  • I can see if there’s a way to use Microsoft Powerpoint’s Photo Album feature to insert high-resolution images instead of having them downsampled. Inserting them one by one and changing the “Compress Pictures” setting to use the document resolution seems to work, though. You can see or download the results on Slideshare.
  • I can identify frequently-used nouns and build a visual thesaurus so that I’m not drawing boxes all over the place.

Next on my sketchnoting calendar: today’s talk by Dan Roam on “Blah Blah Blah”, the Wednesday lectures on Entrepreneurship 101, and next week’s book club on “Best Practices are Stupid”. People tell me these sketchnotes are valuable. I’m getting better and better at making them!

Coming up with a three-word life philosophy

Because people like my sketchnotes so much, I’ve signed up for the Rockstar Scribe course to see if I can learn how to sketchnote even better. I’m curious about layout and figure and colour, and I’m sure this will be a good skill to develop over the next twenty years. I could probably learn a lot practising on my own, but I promised myself that I’d invest more in tools and education, so here I am!

Our first assignment was to draw a visual introduction. Among the guide questions was this one: What is your life philosophy in three words?

20121102 Three Word Life Philosophy - Sacha Chua

So this is me, at least right now. =) Learn, share, scale.

Rockstar Scribe (from Alphachimp University) – affiliate link, non-affiliate link

A long reflection on getting more out of each hour

One of the people I met through the MaRS Entrepreneurship 101 course asked me what brought me to the sessions, since it looked like I was doing well already.

I like going to tech and business meetups that have talks. I get so much more than most people do out of them, I think. For many people, presentations are like lottery tickets. Sometimes the talks are directly relevant to their work, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re at the right level of experience, and other times, talks are too basic or too advanced for them. Sometimes an hour’s talk more than pays for itself. Many times, though, it’s an hour that they won’t get back. Their return on investment is highly variable.

I like getting multipliers of value out of my time. I spend the same hour that everyone spends listening. By taking notes, though, I make myself listen more actively, create something that I can use to trigger my memories, share with other people, and add more to my blog archive. I used to take a lot of text notes. Over the past two years, I’ve switched to taking more sketchnotes because:

  • drawing is quieter than typing (no distracting clackety-clack noises!), and it’s obvious I’m not doing e-mail
  • drawings are easier to quickly review than text notes – you can get an almost visceral reminder of things in a glance
  • drawings are easier to share with other people who might not take the time to read a liveblogged post, but who’ll find drawings interesting

So that gives me even more ways to get value from the time I have. Here’s the Evil Plan I shared in my e-mail response about why I go to the entrepreneurship course:

…I mainly attend for sketchnoting practice and long-term network building. Every session gives me exactly what I want: better real-time drawing skills, an excuse to delight and follow up with experts, stronger connections with event organizers and business resources, serendipitous encounters with potential entrepreneurs in person and online, the ability to give something to a pretty large audience, and material for blog posts and compilations. :) All for maybe two hours’ total investment of attention and a few subway tokens… As far as Evil Plans go, I suspect it’s a good one. ;) Five, ten, twenty years down the line, it will probably lead to something wonderful.

Some people are more productive because they require less sleep – my dad belongs to this category. Me, I like getting between 8-9 hours of sleep each night, averaging 8.3 hours over the past 321 days (standard deviation of 1.6 hours/day). That means I just have to get more value out of the time I have – not so much multi-tasking, but getting multiple kinds of value.

Right now, it’s easy to squeeze out more value from the dish sponge of life. I’m in the awesome part of the learning curve, where I’m getting tons of value out of going to things because I learn so much. When I hit the plateau of mediocrity, things might be different – or maybe I’ll get better and better at structuring things so I’m always getting lots of different kinds of value from the same hour: learning, skill-building, relationship-building, knowledge-sharing… In 2009 I wrote about how my interests complement each other, and the new ones I’m picking up – drawing, publishing, learning how to build a business – snap right into that framework. But there’s so much more to learn about learning and living. What can I possibly know even now, at 29, with so much more of life ahead? This is nothing, a tiny fraction of what’s possible. It’ll be wonderful to keep learning, to find out what it’s like to get even better at making the most of time. I’m looking forward to it. Any tips? Anything I can help other people learn?

Toolmaking

My first full day back at consulting after a month-long vacation, and it felt great. I started digging into the REST API for the system we were using, and I figured out how to build a simple command-line client to get data. I’d built a similar community analysis tool while at IBM, and that one saved lots of people hours and hours of work. Since we were starting to need similar reports, it made sense to build a tool instead of manually crunching the numbers. This time,

I decided to build the tool using Ruby instead of Java, packaging it into an .exe with Ocra. I found Ruby to be much easier to write in. The interactive mode made it easy to prototype my ideas. Gems meant that I didn’t have to hunt all over for packages and figure out how to make them work together. It was fun to come up with more ideas and add them to the tool.

I love making tools. I like digging into the wires behind web-based services and making up new ways to use stuff. The value isn’t as visible or as easy to appreciate as, say, web design work, but it’s much easier to build something quick and then tweak it to fit specific people. I like that part a lot – tailoring tools to specific ways of working.

I was thinking about the different things I might like to be really, really good at in twenty years’ time. My current shortlist: writing, drawing (mostly sketchnotes), and toolmaking. I think writing and drawing are like toolmaking for me too. They’re about making tools for the mind, helping people learn faster or more effectively or about more things. =) Maybe if I practise and learn more about writing and drawing — the way I’ve spent most of my life programming — I’ll be able to make wonderful little things too.