How to Be a Superstar: Change a Few Well Placed Things That Make a Difference


There’s a few things about creating a luxury experience that apply to the daily work of database administrators, developers, and general programmers. I worked this out last week when I did some spring cleaning.

Things I Learned from Cleaning the Bathroom

I noticed something when I cleaned the upstairs bathroom: I’d put in a lot of work and scrubbed almost everything. It looked clean enough. Then I cleaned the chrome circle around the bathroom water faucet and the faucet itself.

I stepped back and the bathroom no longer looked clean enough. It looked awesome. There’s something about the shine on chrome and a large clean faucet. The floor could have been a bit dirty, and that bathroom would still have looked awesome.

Life is Like This

This is how the world goes– you can clean the toilet and the floor again and again and it’ll look OK. Those basics are needed, but they don’t make something feel fantastic to whomever uses the bathroom.

It’s a few well placed smart things in the midst of a good-enough environment that make a user feel like they’re using something really special.

Let’s break this down:

A Few

You don’t have to make everything awesome. You shouldn’t really– you should make a few things awesome for your customers. If everything is shiny and full of complexity, your customers will be overwhelmed and confused. Worst of all, you’ll be so irreplaceable that you can never be promoted.

If you’re a DBA, this means you don’t offer highly complex and detailed explanations of all of the settings and configuration to your management or the help desk. You offer summary information and aggregate performance data, and identify a few key places to give rich, complex information.

If you’re a developer, this doesn’t mean that you always write perfect code. But it may mean that you write a cool add-in to automate documenting code.

If you define the feature set for applications, this means you don’t include every feature customers ask for. Instead, you keep the overall interface simple, and carefully select the features that will be the most effective long term.

Well Placed

Pick something noticeable and meaningful. Talk to your customers and peers about what they currently see as important. Ask them questions about how their processes work. Listen carefully.

Listen for what might simplify their life and their process, what you might be able to do to save them time.

If you talk to several customers and peers, you’ll find patterns. Don’t promise everyone everything– what you’re looking for is a couple good places to focus. These places are something where you can add a feature, develop a tool, write a report, or provide deep information. If you’re in a large organization, it might just be a way that you can bring two teams together so they can help each other without your assistance. They key is that it needs to be noticeable: it needs to be something that makes a difference.

Smart Things

You’re looking for a place where you can shine. You need this to be a “smart thing”. This means it needs to be something people can easily describe. You need a quick name to describe your contribution that sounds cool in your company culture.

Depending on your workplace, this might mean coining an acronym, making a code name, or just using industry terminology. But you want something short and memorable.

Here are some examples of names you might introduce for your features:

  • The Activity Tracker: a daily report on the total inserts, deletes, and selects on critical tables.
  • The Build Watcher: a utility for the nightly build that does x (there’s a myriad options of utilities you can do for your builds)
  • The Hall Monitor: a utility that tracks changes in permissions granted to databases.

A Good-Enough Environment

While you’re finding a few achievements you can create in your job that create a great experience for your customers, you don’t want them to often be horrified by using basic services.

This can be tricky. What if you’re greatly understaffed? What if things beyond your control are a mess, and constantly make your customers unhappy?

To some extent, this is always true in all our jobs. There’s always a few things that aren’t perfect which cause problems for people, but the costs to fix them are so high that they don’t get tackled.

What you need to do is to figure out how to get a good-enough general experience for your customers. When big problems surface, talk to them with your customers. Don’t contest whether there is a problem– be open about the situation and the costs of changing things. You want your customers to understand that you listen to them. This will help them understand when the problem is out of your scope.

If the environment has repeat failures or causes critical situations for your customers, use these conversations to identify your “smart things.” Create a few smart things that help manage around the failures. Create a tool that supports workarounds. Scope your plans for a few things that will improve usability, and you’ll still become a superstar.

Being Part of Something Really Special

Success in the modern workplace is creating an environment where you feel like you’re part of something really special– and so do your customers.

You don’t achieve that by bringing in unicorns and rainbows. You make yourself successful by being a great team member, and by making yourself known for a few special, noticeable, key things.

I’ve been there, and I’ve done it– I just didn’t always know exactly what I was doing. It took cleaning a bathroom to really figure it out.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Man, I could have used this post a few months ago. Back then I designed a “Production Performance Statistics Monitoring Project” It doesn’t really sell itself does it? I wish I came up with a better name for it.

    Thanks for the article Kendra!

  • well said.

  • Excellent post! Thanks Kendra.

  • You totally nail those everyman analogies. Though my br sink is copper, so it is gleam-resistant. I think playing mostly to your strengths but leaving a bit of time to brush up on the fixable weaknesses makes for a stronger, engaged performance.

  • This applies to relationships as well. What really makes the other person feel special? It probably isn’t just (e.g.) taking out the trash, feeding the dog, and remembering the milk, even if you do those things really well. You have to make time and put effort into the key things, while leaving time to take care of the other stuff (i.e. 80/20 rule).


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