6 things I learned from working at a start-up

This post is long overdue and most of it was already written quite a while ago.  A good chunk of the content I pulled and tweaked from the prezi presentation I gave at Prezi about my time at Prezi and it reflected a few of the topics I’ve thought about a lot this year. I started writing my presentation after my first day and five weeks later I was still mulling over how to be express my experience. It was more about – these people work here, why would they care to hear about what it’s like to work at Prezi? In the end I opened with the story about the first time I gave a prezi presentation. 

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“The first time I prezi a presentation…was two years ago at a programming conference called /dev/world in Australia. Looking back now, it was well and truly a ‘sneeze prezi.’ In my excitement, I’d forgotten to turn of twitter notifications on my iPad so I got to see the tweets coming in about my presentation.

There was one which said:

I considered this a success.”

I then went on to actually introduce myself.

The way we define ourselves and who we are very much depends on where we are. It’s about who am I talking to and why should they care? Often it’s a way of blending in and saying ‘I fit into this context.’

So for example, if I’d met you during my time at prezi, I would have told you, hi, I’m an intern here for 5 weeks working with the Learn and Support and Prezis Matter teams. I was a Prezi Campus Ambassador last year in New Zealand but I’m actually Hungarian, és igen, beszélek magyarul, yes, I speak Hungarian.

When I’m at university, I tell people I’m studying creative technologies and I work as a LATTE, and in that context that makes sense. Outside of that context, telling people I’m a ‘creative technologist’ feels a bit like saying I’m a wizard – no one quite knows what I actually do but it sounds pretty cool.

And if I told you I was a LATTE, you probably wouldn’t figure out that it actually stands for ‘learning and teaching technology enabler’. That’s actually what it says on my business card. This is our unique way of describing that I teach staff and lecturers and professors at my university how to use technology.

If we sat down and had a long conversation, you’d learn things about me like I love photography, design, dancing, programming conferences, dressing up in pretty costumes and pretending to be someone else in my spare time, also known as LARPing and that my masters research is about iOS development and the ‘killer app’ in the context of tertiary education.

I was told on my first day here I would have to give this talk about my time here and projects I’ve worked on and what I’ve learned. I thought a lot about how to frame it in such a way that was it was interesting, why would you care what I have to say?

Then I thought about this:
We admire monkeys, Joan of Arc, and Jean-Luc Picard

What prezi has really gotten right is this idea of celebrating diversity. It’s not about how do I fit into this context, it’s about, what can I bring to it that’s unique to me? And what can I learn about the world from the people around me?”

One thing they like to do at Prezi is to sum up things in six words, so I attempted to do the same and sum up the lessons I’d learn in six six-word sentences (some specifics have been omitted and content reworded to more of a written format).

Making things simple is not simple
Working with Learn and Support, my role was to design various learning material for teaching users how to use prezi (in the form of prezis). I realised quickly that when you’re trying to explain a concept to someone or how to do something, whether it’s a relatively simple or complex, you have to keep it clean and concise.  Even when you go to explain something relatively simple (i.e. sharing a prezi), sometimes you find that it’s a lot broader than you initially though.

Ask questions, no matter how scary
On day one, everyone is so friendly in offering help and “just let me know if you have any questions”, and yet somehow we’re often still afraid to ask things like “when is lunch” and “where is the bathroom”.  We are told there is no such thing, but we live in fear of asking the dreaded ‘stupid question’ or even worse, having our work criticised when in fact, it is that criticism that pushes us forward and often actually saves you work in the long run.

This I feel is also applicable to working with Learn and Support, where it is those questions from users which highlight things which may not be clear enough or straightforward enough, or bugs and issues in the software. It is those questions, which may seem ‘stupid’ at first which help prezi become a better product.

Geography, space, place are still relevant
Working with the Learn and Support team, even if I wasn’t ‘working’ directly with most of the people, simply being in the same space and those daily interactions, the conversations had in passing and over lunch, is so valuable.

Being in that space and getting an inside look at how a software company functions, you get to see the process of how an idea goes from concept to reality and deployed to millions of users, and just how many different teams are involved in shaping those ideas and the product as a whole. Everyone brings to the table their own life and perspective and experiences and you get to see that exchange of ideas unfold and become almost tangible in the product.

I’ve had an interest in technology for as long as I can remember, so it seeing that first hand was incredibly powerful and inspiring.

Stressing over pixels is not productive
Another team I worked with was the ‘Prezis Matter’ team and I was started off with a couple of short teaser prezis – this taught me that there’s not always room to be a perfectionist and when faced with the blank canvas, you just need to start. When you’re too obsessed with something being ‘perfect’ from the first pixel, you become too terrified to start. Every profession faces this ‘blank canvas’ and you quickly realise that when it’s suddenly nearly the end of the day and you don’t have anything really ready to show yet, stressing over pixels is not productive.

What I enjoyed about this team was actually that by working with designers to create prezis for other speakers, by facilitating others in their sharing of ideas by designing their prezis, I got to learn about topics I might not have otherwise stumbled upon.

Toto, we’re not in Cansas anymore
My second full week at Prezi, I got my wish for a real world experience. I found myself on a call with a TEDx speaker and that was when it hit home what I was doing. This wasn’t some university assignment, this wasn’t a presentation at a small meetup up or developer conference (and even those I pour every ounce of effort into). This was high stakes, this was the elusive ‘real world’ experience I’d been looking for. That was a long hard two weeks of iterations and refinement which pushed me to really think of different ideas and ways of communicating his story, ideas and message in a way that was right for the client but I think everyone was happy with the outcome. It was that design process I’d learned in high school design and photography and in the earlier stages of my degree which I’d neglected over the years.

What business hours? Who is awake?
This is challenge we increasingly face in a globalised world, it becomes less about ‘business hours’ but rather who is awake. It was a new experience for me working across different time zones. It really changes your perspective on how you work as part of a team. The flipside of the flexible working hours (most mornings I arrived in the office around 10-10:30am) is finding yourself having meetings at 7, 8 or 9pm. Like a lot of companies now, it is an integral component when you have offices in different countries.

So it becomes about balance between the people who we interact with in the physical space, and those we interact with in the digital space, which cares not for the time of day.

To sum up, I posed the same question that I’d asked a few weeks earlier in a company wide meeting – “in this age where technologies, such as Prezi, let us collaborate a lot more in real time, across geographic boundaries. what is the most important thing about coming together in these beautiful physical spaces?”

The reply had been that though these tools are fantastic, they do not yet replace interactions in the physical space, human connection. Perhaps one day they will. But right now, our interactions in the physical space, in these beautiful offices, are still a very integral part of how we share and communicate and create new ideas. Even though I am continuing some work with the company remotely from New Zealand, the five weeks I spent in the beautiful Budapest office, meeting and interacting with the people, going for lunch every day and drinks now and then, is still an experience that cannot be matched through any digital tool.
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