May 24 2012

Find a Problem, Solve It

Carlos Portocarrero

This is Day 7 of the 39 Days to a Better Job series, where we review actionable tips to make you better at your job.

Finding a problem and solving it shouldn’t be hard, right?

I know the finding a problem part will be a little too easy for most of us, but your true test will come in finding a solution that helps make that problem smaller.

Types of Problems

What we’re looking for is anything that affects the bottom line. Things like:

  • Paying too much for something
  • Paying for something at all (can you get for free?)
  • Spending too much time on a task
  • Using something solely because you paid for it
  • Having an inefficient process

The list could go on and on, but what you’re trying to solve for is something that takes up too much time or requires more money than it has to. If you can save money or time, you’re going to be a hero.

Power of Checklists

I used Google’s 20% rule to make my job easier by tackling a problem that nobody really cared about except for me and some of my coworkers. It was annoying that our two software systems weren’t totally in sync and we had to manually make a bunch of changes, but what else were you going to do?

Spend some time trying to figure out and spin your wheels when the damn things are sitting there waiting to get done?

That was the risk I took: I spent time doing something that wasn’t my job—working on an alternate solution to an unspoken problem—to try to make my own job easier.

I wound up creating a checklist that turned a three hour task into a 10 minute task.

Excel is Your Friend

I’ve long touted the power of Excel as a way to become more efficient, so I would recommend you learn some of the cool things Excel can do.

Disobeying your boss is rarely recommended, but that’s what I did when I was tasked with a tedious, boring project: pasting a bunch of emails into Excel.

I found a workaround that included Outlook, Access, and Excel that took a 4 hour process and squeezed it down to about 6 minutes. I wrote up a manual on how everyone could do it and told my boss the good news.

Hero? Me.

Check out for help on mastering Excel. And make sure you keep up with the different software that’s available out there in case you ever need to lean on a program to hack your way through a problem.

Work Gloves

I’m reading a great book right now called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, and one of the stories is about Jon Stegner. He discovered that his company was buying 424 different kinds of work gloves at varying prices (from $5-$17, even though they were essentially the same glove).

He was able to make the change and the company saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over time thanks to this tiny fix.

You can read more about Jon Stegner here.

Share, Obviously

If you are able to solve a problem, small as it might be, you have to tell people about it. Start with a coworker to make sure your solution is as great as you think it is. Double check it again.

When you’re ready, share it with your boss and recommend the best places it should be adopted. Again, if you can put numbers on it, that’s even better.

People respond better to “This will save us three hours every week and $15,000″ instead of “We’ll save time!”


May 23 2012

Personal Status Report

Carlos Portocarrero

This is Day 6 of the 39 Days to a Better Job series, where we review actionable tips to make you better at your job.

girl writes in notebook

The day-to-day stuff tends to bog us down at work, especially when things get crazy busy. When we’re trying to dig out of our inbox as fast as we can, we tend to lose track of the big picture.

We forget about our long-term plans, how and why we feel, and which direction we want our career to go.

The big picture is important.

So I recommend you put this task on your calendar once a quarter (or once a month if you can): write up a quick status report about where you’re at with your job, how you feel, and what you want from the future.

I’ll be honest: I try to do these every couple of months and sometimes it just has to get pushed back. But lately I realized it doesn’t have to be very long to be effective.

Even five minutes of typing up how you feel can make a world of difference. The goal is to take a snapshot of how you’re feeling and what you’d like to do in the future and keep it for future reference.

I like to fill in the blanks to these kinds of thoughts:

  • Today I feel like___ , mainly because of ___
  • Right now I’m working on___
  • The most stressful part of my job right now is___
  • My favorite part is___
  •  I can see myself working here for___ more years and then I’d like to___
  • I’m learning this skill right now___, but eventually I’d like to learn how to ___ so I can ___

That’s just to get you started: I usually just free write whenever I’m feeling like I have a lot on my mind and then email it to myself wherever I am.

How it Helps

It’s the same basic concept of keeping a journal, but just focusing on work-specific feelings, plans, and thoughts. When I read some of my old journal entries, I’m often surprised at the things I was feeling and the things going through my head.

With work, it’s crucial to make sure you don’t forget these thoughts.

It’ll make it easier for you to learn from your mistakes and get better and more efficient at work. When you move to a new job or are even thinking about moving on, reading these status reports can help give you guidance about what you really want to do and which direction you should go in.

It’s almost like having a counselor helping you out, giving you some reasonable advice and insight on your situation. Only instead of a counselor trying to give insight into your situation, you have a first-person account from someone who was there the whole time.

Image by ErinKphoto

May 22 2012

IFTTT: Your New Best Friend

Carlos Portocarrero

This is Day 5 of the 39 Days to a Better Job series, where we review actionable tips to make you better at your job.

If This Then That logo

Technology is crazy: things are changing so quickly that it’s tough to keep up. It seems like new social media platforms and photo-sharing tools are coming all the time.

It’s very easy to throw your arms up and say “There’s no way I can keep up.” But giving up is the wrong strategy: if you don’t play the game then you could get left in the dust.

Not to worry: there are tools (more tools!) out there that can do a lot of the work for you. Not only that, they can also help keep you up to speed regardless of how little time you devote to it.

The Basics

If you haven’t set up a Google Alert for your name and your company and your boss, then do that now. Seriously, where have you been all these years? Go to and set something up like this:

google alert screenshot

You’ll get an email every time a new search result is found for your name (make sure it’s in quotes…). This way you’ll be aware of any mentions of your name…it’s like having a private detective out there hustling while you sleep in.

Thanks Google!

The Next Level

Google Alerts is cool, but there’s something much cooler out there that can help you do some cool things to optimize your work flows and stand out at work.

It’s called If This Then That (IFTTT). Here’s what it does: you can mix and match any web application you can think of to alert you when something happens.

And If This Then That might become your best friend: it’s a free tool that let’s you put together “recipes” to accomplish “tasks.” It’s cool to put together your own tasks from scratch.

For example, I have one set up to shoot me an email anytime my company is mentioned in a tweet. Just to keep tabs on what’s going on.

But the coolest part is that you can browser other popular recipes and see how others are using the site. That’s how I discovered the recipe that sends me an email whenever Amazon adds a new album to their Top Free MP3 Albums. You can check out the Amazon recipe.

You can have the weather texted to you every morning or you can archive any images you take to Evernote. The possibilities are endless.

Channels for IFTTT

Automation is Your Friend

From paying your bills to keeping track of the latest news on any given topic, automation is your friend. The automation behind services like IFTTT and Google Alerts are about doing two things:

  1. Saving time so you can focus on other things
  2. Getting more done (in the past I’ve called it Going Beyond)

First off, look at the tasks you do every day (or every week) and see if you can automate them.

Then just play around with the channels and all the recipes that IFTTT has available and see if you can apply them to your work. The goal is to create tasks that are helpful and create value for you, your boss, or your company.

Because there are so many channels and so many possibilities, it’s up to you how crazy you go with this. From stock monitoring to checking on whether anyone mentioned you on twitter, how many hours of time could you save if you let your IFTTT personal assistant do the work so you can focus on getting things done?

May 21 2012

Find an Insider Before Your Job Interview

Carlos Portocarrero

This is Day 4 of the 39 Days to a Better Job series, where we review actionable tips to make you better at your job.

Spy figure in doorwayWhat a perfect segue:  after talking about pumping up our networks, here comes a tip that is going to help you get an edge once you have a job interview lined up.

Think about your last job interview and how nervous you were: maybe you really wanted the job so you were very careful about what you said and how you said it so you would come off as the perfect candidate.

Well guess what? The person on the other side of the table is just as nervous.

It’s their responsibility to fill the position and they have to get a good read on all the candidates so they make the right decision. Because trust me—if they hire someone who turns out to be “the wrong person,” they’ll be the ones interviewing for another job.

So the person making the hire wants as many positive indicators as possible before making an offer that this person is the right candidate.

And there’s no better feeling that when someone who already works in the company vouches for candidate.

The Power Being Recommended

If you ever have to hire someone, you’ll know why this is such a big deal. It’s why people ask for references and try to talk to as many people as possible before making a decision on a new hire: there’s so much uncertainty about people until you actually get them in the door and they start working.

So if you have someone that’s already an “insider” and knows the vibe that can vouch for a new person, then that goes a long way.

Why do you think so many people wind up hiring people they worked with in the past at other jobs? They know what to expect—they’re a known commodity that takes some of the mystery out of filling a new position.

How to Find an Insider

Once you’ve pumped up your network, it’s not that hard. All it takes is spending some time sending out some emails and getting creative:

  1. Go to LinkedIn and search for people at the company you’re interviewing for
  2. If you have any that are first-degree connections, you’re in luck! Send them a message and ask if they can help out
  3. If not, move on to the 2nd degree connections and see if anyone is in the department you’re going for
  4. Make sure you check out the “Your College Alumni” tab of a company search: if you can talk to someone that went to your school that makes the introduction less awkward
  5. Send some messages/emails and follow up in a few days (depending on the interview date)

What to Say

It’s not that hard. It’s some variation of:

Hi XXX, It’s Carlos from Boston College. I just wanted to reach out because I have an interview at Apple next week and wanted to chat with someone beforehand so I could get a better idea of the hiring process, the general vibe of the Marketing department, and maybe some insight on Bill S., the person I’ll be interviewing with. Could you email me back at [email address] or call me at [phone number] to chat for a little bit? Thanks!

If you aren’t first-degree connections then you reach out to the person that stands between you and the person you want to talk to:

Hey XXX, it’s Carlos from that writing seminar we took with Professor Smith a couple of years ago. How are things going? I just wanted to reach out because I have an interview next week at Apple and I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I see you’re LinkedIn friends with [connection]. He works in the department I’m interviewing for and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind introducing us? My interview is next week and I’d like to connect by Thursday. Can you help me out? Thanks!

It’s not rocket science: most people are more than willing to help providing you haven’t burned any bridges or are a total nutcase.

Finding these connections is easy with big companies, but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to find a connection of a connection that has a connection at almost any place out there.

What to Ask

Once you get the introduction, what should you ask?

  • Be smart: you want to get information but you also want to make a good impression
  • Don’t ask anything that Google can tell you: it reeks up unpreparedness
  • Ask about the culture, the hours, advancement, the bosses: the things you care about or are curious about
  • Be honest: if you’re a good candidate it will come through
  • Have a 30 second pitch where you summarize your skills, what you’re looking for, and ask if that person thinks it’s a good fit (better to find out now)
  • Ask them if it’s OK for you to mention that you talked

That last bullet is crucial.

Whether they do it or you do it: you need to make sure this new connection is known to whoever is making the decision. So when you come in you aren’t “The dude from Boston College” or “The kid with the awesome resume.”

You want to be “The guy that Chad knows.”

Because this will create safety and familiarity. The more of a known commodity you are, the better. Your odds of being hired at the gig you want just got better.

My Own Experience

I was able to find a person at a small company that was one connection away and this method worked great for me. I got a job before the interview so I didn’t need to put it into play, but I was surprised at how helpful people that I hadn’t talked to in so long were when I asked for help.

All you have to do is be polite, do some work up front, and ask for help. Most people have no problem helping someone out that’s a friend of a friend.

And if you’re out of work, mention that as well, because that’ll make some people try even harder for you.

Image by Tony Fischer Photography