There’s a breed of reality TV that is particularly interesting: the “professional improvement” shows. These include home improvement and self-improvement programmes, but the theme is the same: professionals evaluate a person or thing (or sometimes both) and make dramatic improvements.
Why are these shows so popular? Is it really so compelling to see a house torn down and rebuilt, or a person getting a fashion makeover? Some say it’s so that we can learn to make similar changes in our lives, but I doubt I’ll be rebuilding my house or getting plastic surgery any time soon. (Besides, if you’re nose is too big, you can always make the rest of your face larger.)
Help – I Need Somebody!
I think these shows are popular because deep down, we all want to be helped by others who we think know better than us. As much as we strive to be independent, the idea of a professional arriving into our lives, giving us expert advice and then working to make the necessary changes is very appealing. It means less work for us and absolves us of the responsibility of doing it ourselves.
The experts who are on these shows are therefore not just professionals, but rescuers, or rescuer professionals. Rescuer professionals are not professional rescuers, the people who rescue the lives of others for a living: the firemen, paramedics, emergency room doctors, secret agents and late night hair stylists. The rescuer professional is someone who deals with non-life threatening situations in a calm, authoritative and professional manner, and who gets the job done right.
Woody and the Wolf
There’s great examples of rescuer professionals in the movies. In Toy Story 2, a toy repairman nicknamed “The Cleaner” skillfully repairs Woody, the main toy character. On a slightly more violent level, in the classic cult film Pulp Fiction, Harvey Keitel plays Winston ‘The Wolf’ Wolfe, the consummate rescuer professional, when he’s assigned to help gangsters get rid of a dead body and gets the gangsters to clean up the car it came in. (This inspired one of the greatest lines in film history, with one of the gangsters exclaiming: “You’re the [one] who should be on brain detail!”)
The question I come across the most in our profession is “How can I get the job at an interview?” The next most common question is “How do I keep the job I’ve got?” The answer to both questions is the same: be a rescuer professional.
Ordering: One Interview, Please
In an interview, you need to give the impression that things were not too peachy in the documentation department before you came along. You need to imply that there was little or no documentation process, that the docs were 42 years out of date and used 127 different fonts, that anarchy ruled, with hell, fire and brimstone raining down each day, with dogs and cats living together and issuing drafts; in short, that it was total chaos.
You were the rescuer professional. You brought order to the chaos. You cleaned up the templates. You created a style guide and perhaps a practices and procedures guide. You got the writers working together. You got the documents to look like they were created by one writer, and not by Sybil, with her various personalities.
You don’t want to appear arrogant, of course. You need to say it was part of team effort, but still show that you did these things on your own initiative without being asked.
And if you want to keep your job? Sorry – the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. You may be able to escape the latter if you’re richer than God; the former if you’re God himself. No job is guaranteed. The most you can do is lower the probability of you being laid off today. Don’t worry about tomorrow, for it is a day whose time has not yet come.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
At work, we must be the rescuer professionals. Ask yourself: What are you doing to further improve things? Oh yes, everyone is just so very impressed with how you turned water into wine, and made the drafts sing and dance yesterday, but what have you done today?
Do you have short, mid-range and long terms goals for your work? Are you making the time to investigate newer tools and technologies? Are you getting out of your comfort zone and working with things other than user guides, such as training materials, release notes, error messages, user interface elements, and even the names of code elements such as XML tags and class names? The more pies you can stick your fingers into, the lower the chance the company will put a pie in your face and discard you in the pie-heap of history.
Excuse Me – Do You Have the Time?
If you have the time to do these things without jeopardizing your deliverables, you need to do them. And if you don’t have the time to do these things, then that itself could be a sign of a bigger problem. The best jobs are ones which allow you the time to grow in them. If you’re not growing, and others are, where will that leave you in five years, in ten years, and beyond?
To win jobs and keep them, be the rescuer professional. Be the one willing to step into the fire to rescue the documentation dog. Be Extreme Makeover – Documentation Edition.