Corporate Networking: Filling Gaps

by Darius Kazemi on January 31, 2008

in corporate,networking

One of the most important skills you can have as a new person at a company is the ability to detect gaps, and then fill them in.

(photo by Flickr user wokka, licensed attrib-nc-noderiv)

Gaps are the little spaces between the pieces that make up organizational puzzle of any company. These are roles or projects that either don’t exist and should (a true gap), or do exist but are neglected and have fallen by the wayside (a responsibility gap). If you can fill in a gap, you have become an extremely valuable employee. Let’s dig a little deeper into the two kinds of gaps.

True Gaps

A true gap is either a project or a position in a company that doesn’t exist, and yet the need is there. It can be tricky to detect a true gap: sometimes nobody knows that this gap exists, and sometimes there are people who are aware but feel like they can’t do anything about it.

I’ll give you an example. You’ve been working diligently in QA for about two months now, and you’ve got this sneaking suspicion that things are a little… repetitive. Your boss has asked you to test weapon animations in the game: load up every weapon and attack with it, make sure that the animation isn’t broken.

The problem is that this game is an action-RPG, and there are 2,000 weapons and weapon variants, and it takes about 10 seconds to type the command to spawn a weapon, equip it, and use it. Hmm. That’s 20,000 seconds, or 5.5 hours of testing. How would you solve this problem? One solution is to plug away at it for 6 hours.

Another solution is to automate things. You can spend those five hours learning how to use something like AutoIt, which is a basic scripting language that lets you write a program that tells the computer to do things with the keyboard and mouse in a given order. If you have any programming experience at all (I’m talking intro to programming in high school or whatever), you should be able to write a script that says: click here, type “spawn weapon a”, click there and there, hit enter. You don’t even have to be smart enough to figure out how to write a loop: just grab a list of all the weapon names from source control, dump into Excel, use the CONCATENATE() function creatively and all of a sudden you’ve generated 2,000 lines of script, one for each weapon. Then all you have to do is set the script running before you leave the office for the night, and run a video capture program like FRAPS. Show up a little early the next morning and you’ve got 8 hours of video of the computer doing your work for you. Now you can just spend an hour skimming through the video for animation problems.

It’s not a perfect solution, and you might have spent more time solving it through automation than you would have otherwise, but you know what: now you know automation, and you can show your supervisor what you did. And all you have to do is say these magic words: “So Boss, if there’s anything else that comes up that you might want automated, let me know. I can handle it.” Before you know it you’re the automation expert on the team. For those of you QA testers who want a good way to transfer into programming: this is one way to do it.

(Sometimes you can get away with doing this kind of project without permission from your boss. As Chris Hecker once put it: if it’ll take a few hours and doesn’t interfere with your other tasks, just do it. The end result will justify the time you spent. It’s much easier to convince your boss that automation is good by showing her something cool than by pleading for a chance to spend time on it.)

The point is that you took the extra step to offer your services in the future. What you’re really saying to your boss is: there is an automation gap in this department, and I am here to fill it.

Another way to sniff out true gaps is to pay attention to what people around you are saying. Is there complaining going on? Because where there’s complaining, there’s a problem. And where there’s a problem, there is sometimes a solution. And sometimes you are the person who can provide that solution.

Responsibility Gaps

I owe my career path to a responsibility gap. When I was at Turbine, we had a metrics project, but there were only a few people working on it, and those people were only on the project 5% of the time. It wasn’t their fault, they were pretty overextended. The problem was that nobody was using the metrics, and with no end user, there wasn’t much motivation from developers or management to put any real effort into it.

One day I noticed that we had these metrics reports going out, but they looked a little… thin. I asked my boss about them, and he said, “Talk to so-and-so about it.” So I did. And that person was more than happy to teach me about a system that he really didn’t want anything to do with because he had 100 other things on his plate. So I figured I could learn the stuff. I spent three days learning SQL and spent two weeks (with my boss’ permission) putting together a killer metrics demo. It was great, everyone loved it, and I got promoted into a position where I became “the metrics guy” at the company.

Do you see overextended coworkers? People with a dozen different jobs whose eyes yearn wearily for the sweet, sweet sleep of unemployment? Projects that have no discernible progress to report every week during the all-hands meeting? Ask if you can help. Even better, if you’re feeling bold, propose a way you can help. People love handing off responsibility: it’s yours for the taking.


AlexxKay February 1, 2008 at 4:04 am

These posts have had excellent advice. I inadvertently followed the path you describe here, and it worked for me. Filling a ‘responsibility gap’ was crucial in getting me noticed and promoted out of QA. When someone in production wanders by and says, “Do any of you have a minute to help me with something?”, that’s the sound of opportunity knocking.

David February 1, 2008 at 4:33 am

Filling Gaps… Perfect.

While it is difficult to pick up a gap, if you have been (or hell, at least begin to be) attentive you will undoubtedly begin to become aware of things that happen in your office from a personnel standpoint to a technical standpoint that can be improved in some way.

The key is not being afraid to step up. This is where initiative really pays off because your coworkers will begin to see real, pure, value in you. This is also a Prime opportunity to really help your company and look great at the same time.

At both points in my prior jobs, which were in two completely different careers, and far from what I wanted to do with my life (Oh, yeah, keep an open mind about EVERYTHING), I’ve been commended by, not just the co-workers, but by the upper management for stepping in, doing an excellent job, and filling gaps. Think about that. These people literally asked me why I worked so hard.

Love what you do and you’ll never have to explain why you “work” so hard.

David Ryan Hunt February 1, 2008 at 5:28 am

I’m doing a lot of the metrics at Flying Lab due to a similar situation. But I’m also one of those guys who has too much to do and would love to dump it onto someone else!

David February 1, 2008 at 4:47 pm

It’s unbelievable how many people just stay in their box and never even try to break out of it.

People get in a comfort stage and they don’t feel like experimenting with gaps, or helping outside of what they are required to do. They want to move up, but they don’t have the desire to work for it.

And then they wonder why they never get promoted.

Branden February 1, 2008 at 7:01 pm

This is great advice; easily some of the best I’ve read. I have to agree that when someone asks for a hand with something, you should definitely always do your best to help them. If it’s totally out of your league, it’s better that you not waste everyone’s time, but if there’s a chance that you can help or even just lead them in the correct direction, by all means do so!

Nobody likes to ask for help; in ways, when someone asks a co-worker for help it puts them in a vulnerable state. Recognize this and prove to this person that they didn’t take such a risk in vain. Be friendly and dependable; not only are you helping your company solve problems, you’re also ingratiating yourself to your co-worker. One thing that I have quickly learned in this industry (and this is likely true in any situation) is that it is much easier to get things accomplished when people like you!

Ian Schreiber February 2, 2008 at 4:38 pm

This reminds me of advice I got from my boss on my first salaried job.

He said: if you want to get promoted, don’t do YOUR job, do the job you want to be promoted to.

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