Career

How to Avoid the “Hammer and Nail” Pitfall in Your Job

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This is the first article in a new series on jobs and careers. We at BROography want you to live a rich life (no we don’t mean sitting on a pile of cash like Scrooge McDuck). And since most of us spend half our waking hours at work, it is very important to thrive in this environment and be fulfilled by what you do. Unfortunately, if you’re still a student, or just getting out of college, you’ll soon realize your studies didn’t prepare you optimally for the workforce. Whether unlucky or unprepared, Jarelle recently learnt this the hard way at Salesforce, but that’s something he’ll talk to you in a future episode. With a lot of you having graduated this month, a jobs & careers series is all the more relevant right now.

I’ve been in the workforce for longer, and have had the chance to experience environments that accelerated my learnings (I mean that in a neutral way: I’m not saying any of these places was positive or negative; just that I learned a lot on how to be part of a company and perform at your job): 6 months in a global advertising agency, 6 months in a IT startup, and almost 4 years at Google across 2 countries and 3 teams (with 6 different managers). Today, I wanted to share one small idea that’s often run through my head when doing my job. And that is: how to avoid the hammer & nail problem.

Although this idea has now entered popular maxims, it is attributed to either Abraham Maslow who, in 1966, said: 

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

 or Abraham Kaplan who, in 1964, said “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Either way, we can be sure the metaphor came from one heck of a smart Abraham. Closer to home, if you have a grandfather who applies the same BBQ sauce to all meats regardless, you understand this very well. Not all grilled meat calls for the same grandpa’s family recipe.

You see, no one really spells this out for you, but in order to thrive in a company, you really do need a well-stocked toolbox. The pitfall of many a young graduate is to have a limited toolbox -say, only a hammer- and, after having successfully pounded a nail (read: done a task), start using their hammer on everything, regardless if that thing needs hammering or not. Unfortunately, work life isn’t a Marvel movie, and you are not Thor.hammer

Let’s take a few examples: my first year at Google, I learned all about a database-querying language called SQL, and spent a decent amount of time becoming intermediate at JavaScript, another programming language. I learned enough to be dangerous in my department (applying the famed “80/20” rule) and impress my colleagues who didn’t know SQL/JavaScript. Sidenote: as soon as I interviewed to other departments with higher requirements, I discovered my knowledge wasn’t enough: in a year and a half, I had 2 SQL-related questions in interviews that I didn’t know how to answer.

So now that I knew a few SQL/JavaScript ways of doing things (i.e. last time I had problem X, I used this function and it worked), I tried to apply it to every data-related problem. Just because I could, I did. Not considering: was it worthy to spend time solving that problem? Am I using a complex solution for a simple thing? Was there a more optimal way of doing it? 

On these projects, we may all have a tendency to simplify by choosing the tool we know (i.e. the hammer). The issue is “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Another good example is forecasting. There are many methods one could use (from beginner to advanced) and many nuances to take into account. A lot of the time, unless you are directly in a Business Analyst team, your manager won’t know about these methods or nuances (and it’s not really their job either). Imagine that you are asked to predict what an output variable (say “production”) will be at the end of the year. Left to their own device, 90% of employees would open Excel, copy the growth that occurred the previous year, apply it to this year, and voilà, they’d have their prediction.

forecasting hammer and nail

But thinking about this further: You could do it in Excel, in SQL, in Python (another programming language), in R (a statistical programming language). You could build machine learning models taking into account many parameters, including seasonality. You could test multiple models against each other manually, or let one of many enterprise solutions do it for you. Most likely, even if you’re advanced, your solution is not the best solution. There are just way too many options and you probably don’t know about all of them. This was made clear to me when I attended a Google Analysts meetup in 2017, where an intern made a presentation on how he had drastically improved forecasting of support ticket volume for his department (which has a considerable impact on staffing). His explanations and methods were amazing and he had clearly designed a more accurate way than the existing ones. After that, experienced analysts were asking him for advice.

So what do I suggest? Building up your toolbox.

While I use very little of what I learned in business school, it wasn’t for the lack of effort from my Marketing teacher, who said: “I’m giving you a toolbox, that you can borrow from in your career.” That philosophy (“this is what past marketing thinkers have come up with for influencing consumers. Use it when you need it.”) is the right way to approach this.

obama_stimulus

How do you build up your toolbox? By being deliberate in how you do your work and by borrowing from other people’s toolbox.

What do I mean by being deliberate in how you do your work? With anything you do at work, try to always be thinking if there’s something you learned that you could add to your toolbox. When I started my new job 2 months ago, I started a bookmark folder as well as a Google Doc, collecting examples & techniques on “how to do this job”. If someone sends a particularly brilliant email (one that’s well structured, transmits key information, and acknowledges everyone involved), it goes in my doc. If I find a financial prediction spreadsheet my team has used in the past, it goes in my bookmark folder.

In my previous job, colleagues and myself would keep “best practices” doc: we would compile methods and solutions to past issues encountered by our clients with our advertising platforms (which can be quite complex). My document was over 60 pages long.

What do I mean by borrowing from someone else’s toolbox? Attend relevant meetups (that analyst presentation I talked about for example). Get a coffee with colleagues and ask them what issues they’re wrestling with at the moment and how they’re thinking about solving it. Shadow people from other teams while they work (if your workplace allows it). Constantly scour the Internet for solutions (just head to stackoverflow.com and you’ll see many programmers trying to overcome the hammer & nail trap: they’ll post the problem they’re trying to solve, the code they wrote based on what they know, and ask for better solutions). And keep in mind that your toolbox should include both tools to deal with technical problems (ex: the SQL and forecasting mentioned earlier) as well as tools to deal with social and human situations (ex: how do you deal with an angry customer? How and when do you leverage other people to achieve the organization’s -and by extension, your goals?)

Finally, if you’re just starting out your career, I have to warn you that most companies won’t give you the toolbox you should use. While consulting companies like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group are renowned for the frameworks and tools they instill in all their new associates, a lot of companies won’t tell you how to solve all the scenarios that may come up. This is compounded by the fact that, by the time you’re in your career, you might have forgotten what was in your college-days toolbox, and your job might be quite different than what your school prepared you for.

Google is one company where, depending on the departments you work in, they may allow a lot of freedom in techniques employed to solve a problem. When I applied to a Business Analyst team (I ended up working in the team next to them), they told me they didn’t impose any particular programming language (SQL, R, Python) or tools when it came to completing business analysis projects. “Whatever works for you” was the recommendation. In other words, they recognized that there are many ways to skin a cat.

hammer-nail

My vision of the future is that we all contribute to a database of past problems and how they were solved (and I view work as an endless series of problems that you need to solve; seriously, if you think about your own work, tell me that’s not true: with anything you do, the successful outcome you’re looking for won’t just be handed to you). We would then feed that database to a super-intelligent neural network Artificial Intelligence -think IBM Watson in a few years-, who would either give us the answer, neatly packed with a bow on top, or the most optimal strategy to achieve the task at hand. Until that happens, start thinking strategically about your work and your toolbox. Not everything is a nail.


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romain broography.com

Romain

Welcome to BRO-ography! I am the Co-Creator, Romain. A 27-year-old NOW living in Silicon Valley. I write as an outlet for my creative thoughts and as a way to shut off my monkey brain. Despite our totally different upbringings and personalities, Jarelle is the yin to my yang (#corny #bromance). Our friendship has made us better men both and we want to share what we learn along the way. Learning (and teaching what I know) is one of my biggest values. I find meaning in sharing our "BRO-Adventures" (when we do get the chance to have them), and everything I've learned about a wide-ranging list of subjects such as travel, food, work, philosophy... While I always try to inject humor and lightheartedness, my writing style might be a bit brainy at times. Know that I want to challenge you, so read up on the things that intrigue you and engage in a dialogue with us. I hope you find some enjoyment or nuggets of wisdom in our articles to help you become a better version of yourself.

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