Futureheads

FFS Jeff Gothelf

Liz Elder

Liz Elder

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We recruit across the digital product lifecycle. This means we get to spend our days working with generally awesome people who are doing interesting work across technology, product management, user experience, digital design, project management, analytics and insight, marketing, change and transformation and leadership roles.

And we love exploring what makes these digital minds tick. So we launched FFS, or Futureheads Five Stories, where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell, to find out more about their career in the digital world, and the lessons they've learnt along the way.

And we couldn’t resist the acronym.

This week we sat down with author, speaker and executive coach, Jeff Gothelf.

What’s the story of your career so far?

In 1995 (good gawd, this was 23 years ago now), I graduated from uni and joined the circus. No, seriously. I spent six months on the road as the sound and lighting technician for the Cole Brothers Clyde Beatty Circus on the East Coast of the US. We could take up the entire interview with circus stories but, surprisingly enough, the things I learned on that adventure (ask me about the human cannonball sometime) have actually come in handy in later life. After the circus, I spent a few years touring with a couple of rock bands. Try as we did, stardom was not to be had. 

In the late '90s, I realised that being a broke musician was not for me (anymore) and with the rise of the Web I took to learning HTML and basic graphic design. I got a job doing exactly that — HTML coding and basic graphic design — and from there we were off to the races. I transitioned into Information Architecture shortly thereafter, then on to UX and interaction design. Ten years into my career I realised that half of my work (at best) was not being implemented. There had to be a better way, I figured, or I was going to find something else to do. 

I moved into management positions that allowed me to try new ways of designing and developing digital products. In the process, my teams and I managed to solve the “agile + UX” issue that was plaguing the industry in the mid-2000s. It worked for us so we shared it. That turned into a series of articles and talks that ultimately yielded the Lean UX book. 

It still amazes me how much a book can impact a 21st-century world and perhaps, even more, the author’s life. All of a sudden people stopped asking me to design products and to start teaching them how to do the work we wrote about in the book. I left my job, started an agency with Josh Seiden and Giff Constable and built a content and education business over the course of four years. I took that business solo in late 2015, wrote another book, Sense & Respond (with Josh Seiden) and have been working as a coach, consultant, workshop facilitator and keynote speaker ever since. 

In late 2017, Josh Seiden, Vicky Olsen and I launched Sense & Respond Press — a small business book publishing house focused on first-time authors writing relevant, short, beautiful, practical business books for busy professionals. The first book we published was my extended essay on Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking

I moved to Barcelona in mid-2017 to give my family and I a new perspective on the world and to increase our intake of tapas, sangria and sunshine. 

What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?

The best advice I could give my younger self is to start writing sooner. Writing, I believe, is the key skill for success in the creative economy. If you are able to coherently express yourself and connect with others in your industry, you stand a much higher chance of success. I was a terrible writer, for a long time. I didn’t really start writing until the mid-2000s. Had I started in the '90s I believe I’d be even further along in my career now. 

Writing is a muscle. You have to exercise it for it to get stronger. You need a coach (or an editor) to correct your form and introduce you to new ways of thinking. I’ve been lucky to work with Josh Seiden, who has been my business partner and friend, but also my editor for a long time. It’s tense sometimes but the end product is always better. 

So, bottom line: write, then write some more, and then keep writing. It’s the most important skill.  

What do you love most about what you do?

I love making a difference in an organisation. Since most of my work is now done as an external consultant, I want to know that I’ve made a team or a company’s way of working better. I want people to feel like they’re doing better work and delivering more value to their customers. It doesn’t always happen but when a team or organisation truly get what I’m teaching, it really makes my day.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?

I learned a valuable lesson from a former boss of mine about “creating a moment”. Every time we had some kind of a conflict at work he wouldn’t let it fester. He’d say, “let’s create a moment” and he’d put the feuding parties into a room and force them to talk it out. It’s so easy to get and stay mad at someone at work if you refuse to engage with them (or they with you). By creating the moment, the interaction is forced, feelings get laid out bare and, with good moderation, a resolution is reached. Perhaps even more important, you realise the other person in your conflict was typically looking out for something just as important to them as your issue was to you.

I think this is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned because I believe collaboration is key to success. Sometimes it seems like there’s no way we can collaborate with someone else. In most cases, creating a moment helps bring that to a head and resolves it. 

What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next five years?

The rapid transformation of human-computer interaction away from the keyboard/mouse paradigm along with the pre-scripted responses of static systems will radically transform how we think about digital experiences. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, the blockchain, voice-activated interfaces, augmented reality may all seem like flavours of the month to some extent but their impact on digital experiences is increasing. This will put a whole new set of challenges in front of digital creatives. The questions will be a lot tougher than when I started my career. Back then the number of choices we could provide users was limited. Today, it’s limitless. How does that affect user interface design? How does it affect tone, voice and copy? How does it affect interaction models?

Perhaps even more importantly, how does it affect privacy and anonymity? 

These are going to be the big challenges of the next ten years. 

A little bit about Jeff

Jeff is a coach, consultant and keynote speaker. He is the author of three books: Lean UX, Sense & Respond and Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking. Jeff works with large companies to help them put the customer first, drive innovation and increase the agility of their businesses. In late 2017, Jeff co-founded Sense & Respond Press to publish practical, tactical books for busy executives. 

You can read more about his work on his website and connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Jeff is also leading our next Leaders In Change event around building high-performing digital product teams.

Want to take part in our FFS series? Say hello at liz@wearefutureheads.co.uk.