User friendly work style – good for your career?

I was flipping through the tech ads in the Sunday paper this morning when I came across Windows Home Server. It was advertised as having the following features:

  • Your family's digital memories and media organized in one central hub
  • Home PCs backed up daily, automatically
  • Simple recovery of lost files or even entire PCs
  • Complete access from networked PCs to all your Windows Home Server files
  • A personalized Web address for sharing your photos and home videos
  • Easy and quick setup
  • Expandable storage space for future use
  • Innovative third-party applications

Being a Linux fan, my first thought was "another lost opportunity for Linux." My second thought was "I'm not surprised." Why? Because Microsoft gets marketing and more importantly, ease of use. They may not have the "best" of anything on the market but they know how to push what they have and they know how to make what they have "easy" for the typical user. Is there anything on the list above that a standard Linux build can't do? Yet who is setting the standard here? Microsoft - because they get it.

People can be similar to products in regards to how "easy to use" they are and how "user friendly" they can be. Stop and think about people you work with - there are some that you love to work with, there are those that you don't, and some you don't really have an opinion on. What makes people fall into those categories? Before we go any further - rate yourself - would you define yourself as having a "user friendly" work style? Whether you did or didn't rate yourself as user friendly - what did you use as your criterion? When I think of a "user friendly" employee I think of one that is:

  • Approachable - The person does not appear to be threatening, seems to welcome if not discourage your approach, seems "safe."
  • Knowledgeable - The person has a reputation for knowing, or knowing how to get the answer/results you need.
  • Ready/willing to help - It doesn't seem to matter where or when you catch them, they are willing to help and may actually drop what they are doing to do so.
  • Effective - going to them is not a waste of time. They get done what they say they will get done and the product is "good" or better.
  • Efficient communicator - says enough to understand what is needed, but doesn't trap you in unnecessary conversation.

Put these traits together and you have a "user friendly" employee. Now raise your hand if you want this person to work for you. Of course you do! Not only do you want them to work for you, but you want them to work with you and you want to work for them. Notice that I didn't say they were the "best" at what they did or that they didn't make mistakes. They are average to above average. What they excel at is their approach to work. They come to work to work and they appear to enjoy their work. They get the promotions - or maybe not. I think that to a certain degree they do and although I lack any empirical evidence to back myself up on this I'm willing to wager that they plateau. Why? Because these folks are the foundations of our workplaces. They are the glue that hold the extreme employees together to actually form an organization - these my friends are the long time employees in positions we count on, where they may have risen one or two levels, but are satisfied to be right where they are.

Most importantly - they aren't marketing themselves. Because if they were - they would be promoted - and they aren't particularly interested in being promoted - they are interested in doing what they like to do - or at least being comfortable in what they are doing. To get promoted you have to at some point decide to become self interested enough to market yourself as the "better" employee. It is at that point that the "eccentricities" of hiring come into play and while having a user friendly work style won't necessarily hurt you - it won't guarantee a promotion either.

So in the long run, being user friendly helps to get you to a certain level, but at some point stops becoming a factor in promotions. After that, marketing/politics/pure dumb luck play a more important role.