Wanna be the best at what you do?
Start paying attention to more than just “what you do.”
What Ken Block Does
Ken Block is a rally car driver, which means he slides cars around dangerous obstacles at high speed with great precision. Thing is, though, lots of people can do that. Standing out in a field of adrenaline junkies means going above and beyond the job description and giving your fans a truly amazing experience. He recently did a video with James “Captain Slow” May of Top Gear, and it’s quite a watch – even just to hear James May say the phrase “Facetube.” While watching, it may help to know that May is also a pilot with his own planes, so he may be especially nervous at the thought of sliding sports cars around someone else’s planes.
At about four minutes in, Block slides his Subaru alongside a taxiing airplane.
It’s amazing for his car control, but to just see the car control alone is missing the point. It’s impressive not just for how incredibly difficult it is, but also for how entertaining it is. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and what Ken Block “does” as a rally car driver is just one small part of this video. It’s about stunts, it’s about humor, it’s about timing, it’s about moviemaking, and more. Sure, Ken Block wins trophies, but paying attention to these kinds of details make him money. People are willing to shell out big bucks when you get every part of the experience right, and I’ll give you an example from my upcoming travels this month.
Molecular Gastronomy: Stunt Cooking
The phrase “molecular gastronomy” might sound like food for geeks, but that’s missing the point. The chefs might be geeks, but you don’t have to be geeky in order to appreciate the food. Rather, molecular gastronomy is food for people who like to watch stunt car drivers.
On July 29th, I’m going to have a fourteen-course dinner, and one of the courses will be Eggs Benedict. It’s going to look like the picture shown here. (Hopefully.)
I know what you’re thinking: “Brent, you’re an idiot. That’s not Eggs Benedict.” Exactly – in the same way that what Ken Block is doing isn’t driving. If you suspend skepticism for a minute and zoom in on that food, you’ll see that it’s chock full of stunts.
Sauce is a liquid. Liquids, by their very nature, can’t be deep fried, right? You can’t take a lump of mayo, drop it into a deep fryer, and expect anything recognizable to emerge, no matter how thoroughly you coat that lump in bread crumbs. But see those little cubes in the picture? That’s deep fried hollandaise sauce. See the cylindrical column? Egg yolk. The razor-thin sheet of something? That’d be bacon.
Deep frying liquid is a stunt – but that alone doesn’t make good eats. You have to have a reason to deep fry the liquid, the reason being a final result dish that is somehow in desperate need of deep fried liquid. Otherwise, you’re not really doing anything more revolutionary than deep fried Twinkies at the state fair.
Like stunt car driving, when it’s done amazingly well, molecular gastronomy is an art involving more than one sense – and Wylie Dufresne does it very well. Don’t take my word for it – read the WD-50 review by the New York Times. That place is one of only two restaurants on my bucket list – the other being Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. Hard-core readers will recall that I blogged about visiting The Lady and Sons a couple years ago during a road trip, and this is pretty much a polar opposite experience.
The key word shared between WD-50, The Lady and Sons, and Ken Block’s driving videos is experience, and I’m not talking about the number of years you’ve been punching the clock.
What’s Your User Experience Like?
When someone steps into your cubicle to work with you on a problem, are they scared? Intimidated? Pissed off? Most of us database administrators have ugly, nasty reputations for always saying no and never explaining why. Think about what that’s like for your customers – and yes, even if people aren’t paying you directly, they’re your customers.
I’ve never given Ken Block a dime, but in a way, I’m his customer, and he’s gone way out of his way to build a killer experience for me. He’s building a brand that he can sell to advertisers like DC Shoes. Web sites work the same way, too; in today’s Coding Horror blog entry, Jeff Atwood talks about the business of building a successful web site:
“Despite Benjamin’s well reasoned protests, the source code to Stack Overflow is, in fact, actually, kind of … well, trivial. Although there is starting to be quite a lot of it, as we’ve been beating on this stuff for almost a year now. That doesn’t mean our source code is good, by any means; as usual, we make crappy software, with bugs. But every day, our tiny little three person team of speedy-but-doomed Velociraptors starts out with the same goal. Not to write the best Stack Overflow code possible, but to create the best Stack Overflow experience possible. That’s our mission: make Stack Overflow better, in some small way, than it was the day before. We don’t always succeed, but we try very, very hard not to suck — and more importantly, we keep plugging away at it, day after day.”
Users aren’t giving any money directly to StackOverflow, but Jeff knows he has to build a killer end user experience because that experience pays off in other ways. Your career has the same goals. Even though the developers, project managers and end users may not pay your salary, they do have political capital with your boss. They can make or break your career in an instant.
After years of working with people who want to throw triggers everywhere, people who don’t understand the basics of indexes, people who want their server to run 24/7 for zero cost, and people who call you every weekend for trivial support issues, it’s easy to become cynical and angry. It’s easy to let yourself slip into growling when you pick up the phone. Heck, I have to refocus on this all the time – I get frustrated too, despite the shiny-happy-upbeat-please-your-customers stuff I post on the blog. Building a good end user experience is a never-ending journey.
To be the best at what you do, it’s not enough to just do what you do. Lots of people toil away just like you every day cranking out widgets. The difference is making people want to go out of their way in order to work with you and to watch you work.