Ad Hoc's design team experiments with a book club

December 11, 2018
Ad Hoc's design team experiments with a book club

I spent two weeks of excitement and anxiety waiting for my first day of work at Ad Hoc. I paced around my house like the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities personified. That period of career transition was one of intense emotion and expectation – because nothing can truly prepare you for leaving one team and joining another. What are the people like? What is the cadence of work? Will I fit in more with the engineers or designers? Sketch or Figma? Spaces or tabs? The interview process and blog posts on the company website can tell you a lot, but it seems like nothing but time can really give you answers.

As I was waiting to join my new team, I spent a lot of time wrestling with these questions and my own nerves. I don’t think any onboarding team has figured out how to remove the pit from your stomach as your first day approaches. That feeling exists because you’re entering the unknown. I had worked at my previous job for more than four years. It was familiar, I loved the people, and I was passionate about the work. When I found the job posting for Ad Hoc, it seemed immediately like an extension of what I loved about working in government and public service. I left each interview encouraged, which was new and confusing. Those two currents, the fear of leaving the familiar and the excitement of venturing into the unknown, were mixing inside my head.

Then I received a package in the mail. My design director, Danny Chapman, had told me that the design team at Ad Hoc had a book club and that he would be sending me the next book they would be reading – my first experience as a part of that team. I enthusiastically tore open the package, wondering what it would tell me about the culture of the team I was joining. The book inside was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

I was a little bit surprised because this is a book about writing. In fact, it is as much a messy memoir of a creative person’s life and experiences in their field as it is a guide to better writing. Part of me had expected a book on CSS Grid or accessibility or something strictly “practical.” (Turns out we do read those kinds of books, too). The stories Lamott tells in her book are moving, inescapably funny, and heartbreaking all at the same time. I found myself pacing around my kitchen again, but this time I was reading with a pencil in hand, vigorously underlining just about every other sentence, sometimes stopping to read something out loud to my wife.

It was profoundly exciting to me that Ad Hoc’s design team was reading a book that dealt with issues of mental health, stagnation, anger, beauty, and work ethic in a way that was so richly fulfilling and honest. I was suddenly so hopeful that the people I would soon be working with would be people as complex and empathetic as what I was finding in page after page of Lamott’s book.

I have now been at Ad Hoc for about four months. I have met and collaborated with designers, developers, and other colleagues working on healthcare systems, Veterans’ issues, and so much more. I can genuinely say that I am astounded by them almost daily. They are brilliant but humble. They are encouraging and driven. They all care deeply about what they do and about each other.

When the design team met for our discussion of Bird by Bird, I remembered the feelings I had when I first received the book in the mail. Now I had faces and names and people to talk to about what I had read. I got to hear their thoughts and insights. I was part of a new team.

I see a lot of blog posts and strategies about the onboarding process and the lengths that companies go to to make it work well. But for me, what helped the onboarding process more than any introduction video or ping pong table was receiving a book – a book that immediately showed me that I was joining a team that cares and thinks deeply. I know now that some of the titles the book club reads are very practical, relating more directly to our industry and our specific work. But I think that the experiment of a team book club illustrates at its very core the desire that our team has to grow and connect. Starting with such a surprising, vulnerable book ended up making me feel incredibly grounded in what was to come. And now that my work at Ad Hoc has started to become familiar, I find myself excited that we will have more chances to pause and discuss a book together – to make the important surpass the urgent, even for a few minutes. I think that is the hope any time we open a book and begin to pore through it. I think that self-awareness and care can be absent from many workplaces and teams, and their importance to Ad Hoc is something that I do not take for granted now.

Four months ago, when so much felt uncertain and I was getting ready to begin my first day at Ad Hoc, passages from Bird by Bird like this are what made the excitement swallow the anxiety in my stomach:

“But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.”

I was ready to get to work.

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