Time To Have An Idea

What are the most important pieces of professional advice you’ve ever received?

I remember one of mine clearly: It was in late 2004, and my colleague Bill told me that it was “time to have an idea.”

I had hired in as the first employee at a small consulting company in early summer. The founders had been handing me pre-specified projects for a few months. These early projects appeared on my desk ready-made, with the Statement Of Work (SOW) already written, the scope negotiated, and the customer interested mostly in when the resource (me) could be scheduled.

Now it was fall, and it was time for me step up my game and spec my own work. I realize now that they were tired of carrying me.

In the spirit of “learn by doing,” they dumped me on the phone with a prospective customer, the IT department for Stanford.

That, in itself, was an incredible opportunity.

Rookies look down on “sales.” I know now about the grinding work that leads to calls like that. The series of interactions with gatekeepers whose only options are to say “no” or else to continue the conversation. The people on the other end of this call could say “yes.”

Also, their “no” would end the conversation entirely.

At the time, I wasn’t even savvy enough to be nervous.

I know now that we practiced a variant of “spin” selling, which focuses on understanding the customer’s pain points as the first part of the conversation. It’s not “our floor cleaning machine is great,” but rather “do you have any irritation connected with dirty floors?” Our model was characterized by a triangle of needs, features, and benefits. If your offer (the features) addresses the customer’s needs, and if the benefits to them (the perceived value) are greater than the cost, the deal pretty much closes itself.

I was prepped with the need: Stanford had recently done an audit and determined that they employed more people in computer support roles outside of IT than within it. Further, they had found at least 20 instances of an on-campus closet with a ton or two of recently added cooling to support a feral compute environment.

IT needed to justify their continued investment in scientific computing. The user community was routing around them.

The conversation went back and forth for about 20 minutes, introducing ourselves, re-hashing the situation, doing the human part of the meeting. Somewhere around that 20 minute mark, Bill, my colleague / boss / and co-owner of the company popped into the group chat:

Time to have an idea, Dwan.

I was stumped. What did he mean?

Conversation continued, my teammates carrying me. Bill pinged again.

Dwan, write yourself a job.

So I went for it. Broke into the conversation and suggested that maybe it would help to have me … um … fly to California to spend a week with them? Yes. Having me onsite was totally part of it.

They were curious but unconvinced. What did I have in mind?

Maybe the need was that folks on campus were unaware of the resources available within central IT. So I would come out and give a series of talks on batch computing and how scientists might use the central IT compute cluster (the feature!). That would draw prospective users to the resources of central IT (the benefit!).

They dug it. There was a brief digression to fill in the details.

Bill texted again:

Keep going. There’s more. Go for it. You got this.

So I kept going. I suggested that I would also talk to the various user / stakeholders and ask them what they needed. With prompting from Bill, this turned into an offer to author a report describing the “capability gaps” between central IT’s offerings and the needs of the community. We would use my talks as bait to draw an audience with legitimate value, and leverage those connections to help central IT better align its services against its stakeholder needs.

Sorry for the consultant-speak. It’s what I do for a living.

On that call, it was enough. We got the work. I still sort of marvel that my words on that phone call created a trip to California.

As a mentor and friend would say about a different project, a decade later: “You spoke it into being.”

Knowing what I know now, I should have gone further. I could have helped more. My proposal was tactical rather than strategic. I should have offered to help with the root cause rather than just going after the symptoms. There should have been check-in and follow-up to make sure that I didn’t just drop a consultant report and leave, but instead fixed the problem for good.

How, exactly? Well that depends on a lot of other questions.

Did you have a “have an idea” moment?

If you’re further along in the career journey, can you give such a moment to a person on your team?

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