Creative Generalist Q&A: Susan August
The bio provided to me by the next kind participant in my humble Q&A series begins like this: “By many accounts and on many counts, Susan August is a very curious person. She is a resident of Silicon Valley, and mostly lives in her head.” To which I can only remark that she inhabits a most fascinating place indeed.
I met Susan a few years ago in, of all places, the internets; this blog in fact. She generously emailed me with some tips in response to a post I made venting some of my frustrations with Blogger at the time. We’ve kept in touch ever since and I continue to be inspired and enlightened by her. I know few people with such an enthusiastic thirst for knowledge across a wide variety of subjects. And it’s matched equally with a brilliant talent to condense and synthesize it all clearly and cleverly. This is evident in her posts to Cultural Canaries, on her mobile info blog Outside the Vox, and in her Cabinet of Curiosities. Susan is a Requirements Storyteller and Technical Analyst at InnoPath Software in Sunnyvale California. And this, appropriately, is where we begin…
What does a Requirements Analyst do exactly?
I’m a universal translator on a software development team. The customer has wants and needs that she calls “requirements.” In most companies, these requirements get passed from the Sales Team to the Product Manager to the Engineering Team, and each step along the way is subject to the distortion that occurs in the childhood game of Telephone. Engineers want to do the right thing, but they often don’t know how to ask the right questions, so they end up building the wrong thing. I intercept the process early and ask the difficult questions. I force clarity and big picture thinking to make sure that we really understand what is going to make our customers happy. I prod, provoke, and harass the Product Manager (or, rather, a team of them) to tell me stories. Once they tell me their stories, the things that they want the product to do, I write it all down using a language that engineers understand (in the form of use cases). I also make pictures, using the Unified Modeling Language (UML), that further refine our collective understanding. Then I prod, provoke, and harass the Engineers into building what has been described. If all goes well, nobody despises me at the end of a project, and our customers are happy.
Your work requires you to span diverse functional groups and translate very specialized information. What are both the benefits and the challenges of doing this?
I am rarely bored. As I have to establish credibility with both “rubber meets the sky” and “rubber meets the road” people, I have to know a little about everything, a lot about some things, and be quick to admit when I know nothing about some new thing. It’s challenging in that I belong to no particular functional group and must be eternally diplomatic.
Is it fair to say that your generalist work makes the specialists you work with more productive? How so?
I force specialists to speak in terms that I, a generalist, can understand. This encourages them to be clear, and to articulate their domain knowledge from a different perspective. These are healthy behaviors! I then take what I’ve heard and generalize it one step further, so that any team member can return to the conversation later to understand what was discussed and what was decided. It’s my job to collapse the Tower of Babble that specialists construct around themselves; it’s my job to help the team agree upon and use a common language.
I am a liberal arts major, having graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Claremont McKenna College. I was a French major and an EEP major (Environment, Economics, and Politics). Notably, the EEP major forced my mind to hold competing views (both of them rational!) at the same time. As for falling into high-tech, that came about thanks to nepotism. I grew up in Silicon Valley, my father was a programmer, I got an internship with his employer while in college, and I haven’t looked back since. I started out in Quality Assurance trying to find defects in existing systems, but later stumbled upon Requirements Analysis as a way to avoid defects by specifying the right system upfront. Professionally, I am very fortunate to love what I do.
With regards to learning and career, what advice might you offer to a young person with a diversity of interests and, as Dan Pink put it, a whole mind?
You can bring your whole being and your whole mind to whatever you are doing. A lot of people waste time thinking “if only I was working at…” or “if only I was doing…”. At every moment, you have a tremendous opportunity in front of you, right where you are. It is unlikely that you will ever find a job description that says “looking for a young person with a diversity of interests and a whole new mind.” But that doesn’t mean you won’t land a job with an employer who is looking for just that! Sometimes you simply have to get in the front door, then do not what they hired you to do but what needs doing most. Generalists know the difference, which is what makes them so valuable.
I’ve posted a few times on Creative Generalist about what I call the Big Picture Burden; the downside of grasping wholes and systems and the long view. I see it in some of your posts – about politics, science, news media, technology – at Cultural Canaries. Thoughts? Do you recognize it?
For me, the Big Picture is a burden — and a gift. Grasping the whole system strips away all the individual narrow minded points of view. And, for me at least, the Long View is clear: mankind in his current form is unsustainable, and we will either evolve or die. Personally, I’m hoping to do both in my lifetime.
In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting things happening on/to/with the internet and mobile these days?
The internet is exciting now for the same reason it was exciting 10 years ago — it seamlessly and instantly connects us to information, to products, and to one another. Mobile, on the other hand, is exciting because it brings the benefits of the internet to folks who have never even had a landline or a personal computer.
Regarding mobile advances, I’m not expecting anything revolutionary: location based advertising; search optimized for the mobile experience; electronic wallets; social networking in real-time physical space; a personal computer in my pocket; etcetera. Interesting? Of course. But not transformative.
I think the transformative advances are happening in the life sciences. We are redefining what it means to be human. It is happening casually, day by day, press release by press release. I believe that I can live to be 130. That is much more interesting than my mobile phone!
What is curiosity? (And how is it that you have so much of it?!)
Curiosity is an insatiable desire to know more — even if it means discovering that everything you believed previously was wrong. As for why do I have so much of it, I suppose I’m just wired this way!
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations or people or books that you find especially inspiring?
Online I head for Bloglines, del.icio.us, MySpace, and Amazon. Offline I head for magazines, listening stations, ethnic grocery stores, toy aisles, and mother nature. I admire the courageous work of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle, and the future studies of The Arlington Institute.
If you could start a museum, what sort of museum would it be?
It would be a museum that housed artifacts from the future. Items would be labeled with their future year of birth only. Visitors would inspect and handle the artifacts, and decide for themselves what the object’s future might be. And, yes, I would call it the Toynbee Convector’s Museum in honor of Ray Bradbury’s fabulous short story.
Alternately, and more realistically, I would start a museum where the price of admission was a hand-made item that would be added to the museum’s collection. Additionally, I would have regular raffles so that visitors could win and thus take home items from the museum. I believe everyone is capable of making art, and I believe owning art should be within the reach of everyone.
Thank you, Susan!
Susan would like to have a dinner party with famous dead people, including but not limited to Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, Leonardo da Vinci, Nostradamus, Oscar Wilde, and Peggy Guggenheim. If you would like to be added to the invite list, please send her an e-mail.