Brian Shaler

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People Put People in Boxes

Individuality Demotivational Poster

"Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else."

If you think about it, it is obviously not possible to completely and accurately describe a person’s personality in one sentence. Unfortunately, that’s about as much thought as most people will give you. The best way to understand how other people summarize you is to listen to how they introduce you to others, because they have one sentence to convey to the new person everything that is important to know about you.

“He’s the guy that jumps.”

In 2007, I was at the after party for a conference and sat down at a table with a couple of strangers. Before my butt reached the chair, the guy on my right who I had never met before said to the guy on my left who I had never met before, “This is Brian Shaler. He’s the guy that jumps.” I was surprised and amused. I rolled with it. If I took myself more seriously, I would insist that I’m not nearly some guy who jumps, but an astute software developer. It’s a strange feeling to be summarized by something silly you did instead of what you’re most proud of.

I learned a lot by being the guy that jumps. I learned about how people try to put you in a box and how they decide to represent you internally and externally. Not everyone can appreciate my skills. Like my parents, for example, who would probably describe me the same whether I did data visualization or made WordPress themes—”he does stuff with the computer,” or “he makes web sites.” Now, my parents actually care, and they try to understand. So what happens when people don’t care, or don’t try? As it turns out, they’ll try to put you in the easiest box that seems to fit, based on the most vague knowledge about you. It will tend to be the first thing they learned about you, the thing they most understand (often the simplest), or the thing they find the most intriguing or unique.

Boxes are hard to escape.

Once someone puts you in a box, it will be very difficult to get them to change how they summarize you. This is part of the reason first impressions are so critical. If you say something offensive within a few seconds within seconds of meeting someone, they’ll likely see you as a crass person from then on, even if what you said turns out to be uncharacteristic of you. If someone meets you as “the guy that jumps,” chances are they will introduce you to the next person in the same way.

If you don’t fit their understanding, they’ll fit you to their understanding.

If you’re an impressionist artist, someone who doesn’t understand Impressionism will describe you using the things in your art, rather than what is being being conveyed in the art. For me, my skills with programmatic animation, data visualization, and interactive interfaces are often summarized as “making web sites,” because some of it may exist on the web and people are more likely to understand what making web sites means. Ideally, you would be described as what you are, but if the person doing the describing doesn’t share your knowledge on the subject, they will make up something that sounds close enough to them.

If you do something sticky, it’ll stick more than anything else, no matter how relevant it is.

There are pros and cons to being known for something more interesting or intriguing than what actually defines you. On the plus side, people with know, remember, and perhaps even talk about you. Unfortunately, most of those people won’t have any idea who you really are or what you really do. This was the case with the jumping persona. It would be great to have strangers introduce me to strangers as a talented interactive developer, but the people who understand my work deeply enough to appreciate it are few and far between. It also sounds less glamorous and exciting than a zany set of photos.

It was clear jumping was much more memorable and it was certainly a conversation starter. It didn’t convey anything of meaning about me or command any sort of respect, but it opened the door and got people’s attention. It showed me the power of intrigue, which I will ramble about in more detail in another post.

PHXdata Update and Fostering Community

I posted previously about the idea of having a user group for data. The group has come together in the form of PHXdata and 6 meet-ups have already taken place.

It’s exciting to see it unfold, as more people come together and get involved. The next meeting is 6:30pm Tuesday, July 6th, where the Civic Hacking work group will continue working on a challenging campaign finance project (“Open” data is not necessarily “Useful” data. 3,000 scanned documents as PDFs? Are you serious?). The group will also discuss the planning of an Open Government event, where government officials, technologists, and journalists will get together and discuss how to improve the accessibility of open data, making more data open, government transparency, and ways open data can change lives. If you’re interested to hear more, check out and join the mailing list.

At this planning meeting, we are expecting to have special guests, technical representatives from various cities in Phoenix metropolitan area. The group is already getting serious interest from the local government, which is very exciting!

My Hidden Agenda

After my recent announcement about jumping into the world of self-employment and specializing in data visualization, it may become clear why I decided to help Mark Ng and Marc Chung get this group going. My involvement in this group has been part of a broad, long-term strategy. If I want to establish myself in this new industry, it is in my best interests to empower those around me with similar interests.

Collaboration over competition

A rising tide lifts all boats. While you can lift yourself up by pushing others down, you will get higher if you help lift everyone around you.

Community is serendipity

While helping foster community has few direct and measurable benefits, the possibility for all kinds of indirect benefits is immeasurable.

Humans are great filters. If you surround yourself with enthusiasts in your field, you’ll always know what’s new in your field, without having to spend all your time trying to read about everything. If something is new and exciting, someone will want to talk about it. This is why User Groups are extremely valuable.

If you are part of a community, you have people to go to for advice, to answer your questions, recommend alternatives, and miscellaneous human resources like beta testers, proofreaders, and referral networks. You also have a pool for professional help, like potential employees or subcontractors.

You can’t say, “I’ll help start a meet-up group and get [this or that],” but you can say, “I’m going to bring people with similar interests together in a meaningful way, and there will be opportunities for me—and everyone else—to benefit from it.”

Cutting Loose

photo by pcgn7

This is how I feel right now.

I’m taking a leap of faith, and I don’t have much runway. I’m in that pivotal moment where everything needs to be executed just right to avoid falling on my face.

I’m shedding a pair of golden handcuffs. I have a good job with fun work and good people, plus some paid travel. There are few things I could complain about during these last few years of employment. I love direct deposit. You have no idea. I love not having to worry about money. It just shows up. Magically and predictably.

Golden handcuffs are handcuffs nonetheless. It’s human nature to want to grow. Stagnation is the enemy of ambition. A plateau, no matter how high, is terrifying. It’s a ceiling. I could continue being content, or I could strive for more.

Generally, you can only go so far working for someone else. I’ve resisted entrepreneurship and justified my decision to remain a full-time employee, much to the dismay of my entrepreneur friends. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m a builder. I make prototypes. I’m not a manager or an accountant or a salesman (well, I used to be, but I didn’t enjoy it). The force of inevitability, however, can eventually catch up with you. It can push you forward.

Seven months ago, I realized the path I needed to go down. Everything was pushing in the same direction. I needed to specialize the work I do, instead of just being a guy who makes stuff move with code. I needed to branch out, and work with more clients and more visible clients. I needed to establish myself within my industry. I wanted to travel more and farther. What I needed and wanted was looking less and less like a full-time job.

I am extremely fortunate to have a rare and valuable skill set. By blending visual and technical thinking, I can create compelling interactive visual experiences. Not only is there money in what I am good at, but I enjoy doing it. However, I need to be very tactful about where I apply my abilities. I could easily tie up all my waking hours building interactive web sites for people, but that won’t make the type of impact I want.

My goal right now is to ride a wave.

Five years ago, I became interested in data visualization as a hobby. Since then, I’ve followed the industry and have noticed a wave coming. More developers are getting involved, more tools are being built, and more people and businesses are learning what data visualization is. I don’t have to be the first, and I don’t have to be the best. But if I’m one of the first and one of the best, I’ll get on top early and ride the wave. After a year of conceptualizing and building various data visualizations professionally, I know what I should be focusing on exclusively.

To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. Data visualization has become my horseradish.

I’m starting my own business. I’m specializing in data visualization. And for lack of a better term, I’m going to “Crush It”.

More information and announcements soon!

UPDATE: Progress Report: The Free Fall

Activating Advocates

This is a topic that has been seeming more and more important to me, on a personal level. Everyone knows bad news travels far and fast while “good job” remarks are never heard ’round the world. The same goes with reputation and your (or your company’s) brand.

Relying on word-of-mouth, with this fact in mind, seems to be a risky proposition with limited ROI. Some people and companies seem to be able to pull it off wonderfully, though.

Part of what got me thinking about this was noticing how I sometimes become an advocate for companies or products I like. The best examples are for some of my favorite restaurants:

Four Peaks Brewery: I regularly tell people their Arizona Chicken Rolls are the best on the planet.
Chino Bandido: While hearing “Mexican/Asian Fusion” makes some people uneasy, their food is ridiculously flavorful — especially the carnitas and Jad Red chicken.
Firehouse Subs: It’s all in how they make it. When I start going on and on about toasted bread and steamed meat, people assume I’m a Firehouse Subs salesman. Try the Club on a Sub!

In these cases, the companies did nothing to provoke my advocacy for their products. All they did was have a spectacular product and be virtually unknown (in Four Peaks’ case, they’re not unknown, but that appetizer is). If everyone knew how great their food was, I wouldn’t be such a strong supporter. My reward for evangelizing their food is building a relationship with whomever I can convince to go. They try the food, like it, and recognize me as the person who told them about it.

Extracting the principles from that (extracting principles and over-analyzing things seems to be a hobby) and I see a huge problem for me trying to get my name out. Somehow, people got the impression I’m more well-known than I am. Perhaps it was James Archer’s “THE Brian Shaler” meme, or maybe people wrongly assumed that having a lot of Twitter followers means something.

I have actually heard people STOP themselves from spreading the word about something because I tweeted it. They somehow thought that when I spoke, *everyone* listened, and there was no need to say anything after that.

So, I appear to have two shortcomings: not enough reach, and overestimated reach. Together, they can be an impediment of my ambitions to reach many people with my work.

The title of this post probably implied I would talk about how to activate advocates. Instead, it’s merely a topic I have been pondering and a problem I have yet to find solutions to.

Don’t Self-Promote. Intrigue.

I talk and think about marketing a lot. I think about marketing on a business level and on a personal level. My own success has likely been a result of effectively marketing myself.

When you are marketing someone or something, you are trying to convey a message to as many people as possible. There are many ways of getting that message across. My method of choice is intrigue.

Instead of pushing my message onto other people, I try to get people to come to me. Instead of talking about myself, I say less and let others around me fill in the gaps. This is risky, because you can’t control what others say about you. However, when someone hears something about you from someone else, they’re much more receptive than they would be if it was you saying it.

If you can get people to come to you instead of pushing a message to them, you can potentially convey much more information. Essentially, you can lead someone down a “rabbit hole” and let them discover things about you, piece by piece.

I have a very scattered presence online, but I’m very easy to find. I don’t count on people finding every single page or site I’ve created. Over time, I’ve created so much content online that someone can spend hours online and still have more to discover.

A few people have told me I have the “world’s best business card” (My name ranks well on Google for that, too!). I can’t say I completely agree about the “world’s best” part, but there is something to it. While some people write it off as pretentious, the card has an overwhelmingly positive response. It intrigues people. When sorting through 100+ business cards after a conference, seeing that one will often lead people to search online. Once I have lured them to the rabbit hole, I must do my best to captivate them with as many interesting things as possible. For the purpose it was intended, my business card very well may be the best. Other people have other needs for business cards, so it isn’t the “world’s best” for everyone.

Don’t talk about yourself. Don’t self-promote. Try to leave an impression on those around you. Get people talking about you, especially those you know you well. Intrigue those you meet and let them discover you on their own.

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