Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, wrote in one of the Bond novels that “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” I think the “enemy action” one is more a function of the spy business than real life, but my life has been filled with coincidences, regular, recurring, frequent coincidences. So many, in fact, that it can not really be considered as coincidence any more. It’s got to be intentional. I have a charmed life and yes, damn it, you’d think that WOULD include the lottery, but …
And it’s been this way most of my life. When I was in college they instituted the draft lottery system, to make it more equitable to find human fodder to send to Vietnam and my lottery number was 10, so low that companies wouldn’t even schedule interviews with me – there was no point. So the Navy sent me a letter telling me about a program they had that would keep me far out to sea away from Vietnam, would get me promoted faster, and potentially trained in something useful for the future. Coincidence maybe, but it worked.
When I finally finished the Navy and got a Master’s and moved back to Nashville, I had all the interviewing skills and personality of a cross between Al Gore and a wooden indian. Despite having the highest recommendations possible from the CEO of Hospital Corporation of America, I blew four or five excellent interviews there and eventually got a job by testing highly on openings at the state, where they had to pick the highest rated people period. My future wife and the love of my life worked there. Coincidence, I don’t think so.
This job changed over time and I became a grant officer, helping establish programs for the disadvantaged across the state. We had a “special” sort of funding and we were encouraged to experiment with things that were a little out there. So we funded a program for displaced homemakers, women who had ben out of the job market taking care of children and were suddenly needing to earn a living, usually because their husbands had found someone younger. The twist this program put on the process was that they purchased a video camera and a monitor. They’d video the women in mock interview situations and then analyze what the cameras saw in the interview – body language, hesitations, etc.
One day I was talking with the director of the program and mentioned I was thinking about trying to get into industry and out of government, because the pay was so much better. She suggested we spend a weekend in front of her video camera. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was working in aerospace with a 60% raise. Not a coincidence.
Aerospace pays well but one reason it does is that it is highly dependent on government budgets for fighter and bomber budgets. When they end, so do the aerospace jobs so two years later I found myself unemployed and headed back into a state office building looking for a job. I was asking down a lower hallway in the Cordell Hull building when suddenly a woman came out of a stairwell and around a corner right in front of me. We both went flying, landing on our rears. It was an old friend I had known years before at the state. She asked what I was doing there, I told her and she immediately said “I have a friend who needs someone just like you.” Not a coincidence.
Within a week or so I had a decent job, paying nearly what I’d made in aerospace and a few weeks later, my new boss got promoted and reorganized her department, making me a director with another 50% raise. Because I had a Master’s in Economics, I was in charge of the budget as well as writing our annual plans. I created separate Excel spreadsheets on a 512K Mac, one for each of 16 departments, and a summary one that added up the individual categories and let me do reporting faster than our accounting department could.
Plus we were working with the local Apple reps on trying to negotiate a deal for Tennessee schools. I upgraded my 512K to a Mac Plus (I still have the motherboard) and I did some freelance design work for the Apple sales people, getting paid in software (they’d given up paying off in hardware by this time). I got a program called PageMaker, Illustrator 88 and a beta of some image editing program called Photoshop. Each one came on a 300K single-sided diskette. By now it could no longer be coincidence, it was fate of some sort.
I used to Pagemaker to design the impending annual planning document. This was required by Federal regulations to get the money (several hundred million smackers) and tended (in other states and in Tennessee in the past) to be dense beyond measure and approved by the State Board of Education only because Federal law required it in order for us to get the money. But when I looked at what it really needed to say and started rewriting it to be simpler and more straight-forward, it became more useful and truly understandable. It also became a lot smaller document. I used the data from my spreadsheets to show what we’d done in past years and how that was to change in the future to meet (as best as possible) real demand in the local school systems. The State Board of Education called it the simplest and easiest to read state plan for Vocational Education they’d ever seen. Not a coincidence.
Then a new administration came in and, since I was a director-level person, I was considered a political appointee and I was replaced fairly quickly. I used my writing skills to find a position with an accounting firm that was moving its computer center from Manhattan to Nashville as a cost savings and I started supervising writers doing system documentation manuals. Unfortunately, all we had were writers so there was nobody to create the hundreds of forms necessary for all the systems or design the page layouts or create cover art. Some forms had already been created as nightmarish pages of form fields, broken up by hash marks for each character, and some forms had yet to be created. I learned that creating a paper form is something anyone can do, but making it usable is another thing altogether. I made them usable.
While I’d been looking for work, my wife had landed a job at Saturn as a visual designer working in their training department. They had more work than she could complete in even 60 hours a week, despite having eventually hired a dozed remarkable artists and designers, so I began helping her do her work here and there until we were working almost 50-50 on some of her projects and earning money like crazy.
So once I started at the accounting company, I started doing the design work as well as supervising the writers because there was no one else to do designing. After a year or so, our team merged with another writing team and I became the lead designer, after having taught myself how to design using magazines like Step-by-Step and it’s co-publication Step-by-Step Electronic Design. Because everything was still print then, using Illustrator and FreeHand were preferable for design because of things called trapping, chokes and holds and CMYK separations, arcane aspects of design lore from the inky abyss of print.
This was fun and we were getting paid to do it. I went to Seybold annually, a magical conference at the intersection of print and the electronic future where everything in the industry premiered and where I was by now a second tier player, having trained with Jeff Schewe, Bert Monroy, Sueki Woodward, Kai Krause, and others at the top of the game. I’m not sure there were ever coincidences involved
We started creating interfaces, electronic transaction and interaction kiosks, primarily supporting in-house IT functions and meetings, complete with everything from conference displays with session and room information and 3D directions (including carpeting and wall coverings mapped to the 3D environment) displayed on screen. The first few interfaces were horrible, but the learning from them was incredible. Then we began to create interfaces for internal Lotus Notes databases, creating dozens of custom looks and applications. As part go that process we learned how insanely impossible it could be to get “leaders” to decide what the users really needed and wanted (or what look they liked for any current project).
By then, the web started to take off in the late 90s. Nobody wanted the responsibility for the company’s website but our partner saw the value and realized that there was also a need for an internal version of a website as well, an intranet. Wild dreams back then. Our writers became part-time content specialists and our designers became part-time interface designers. From our first experiments in Lotus Notes until we had a full user experience team with researchers, testers, designers, and multiple managers, It took fifteen years of effort to get beyond the leadership and the subject matter experts to the real users, but we did it.
We built a usability team, laid half the team off under a development-oriented CIO, and rebuilt it a few years later into an exceptionally talented group of 20 individuals around the world, thanks in large part to a new Chief Information Officer who lived and breathed the user experience as intently as we did, simply because it made sense. Sadly, in time he was made the global CIO and was replaced at the national level by someone who thought that he, like Steve Jobs, knew what the users really needed without having to ask. He destroyed the team there a second time.
But none of this was really coincidence. Haphazard at times, perhaps, especially the three times I was laid off, but it all built to a crescendo of a wonderful life focused on making things easier to read and use. That’s a story that never ends.