On Being the Willing Guinea Pig

I like being first. First in line, first in the door, one of the first to arrive at an industry event. There are key advantages to being first — but one doesn’t find him or herself first by default. It takes work. To be first, other people have to both trust and like you — two things that take time and effort to establish. Being first is an end, not a means.

My job changes consistently. During a given time period, I could be working on any number of projects involving various teams and product lines. It’s this constant change that keeps it interesting. It’s this constant change that repeatedly puts me on the steep part of the learning curve.

As a result, I’ve learned to bob and weave, to thrive in ambiguous situations, to ask the right kinds of questions to figure out what exactly the hell is going on. Often in this environment, I’m one of the first forging into uncertain territory. I find myself so often being the willing guinea pig.

As the first US product hire in a growing global company — making me a sole “product outpost” in a sea of sales — I was trusted by my product colleagues (including my manager) in Copenhagen to do whatever needed to be done to “support the US team.” I was given little other concrete directive. I navigated that situation by asking lots of questions, trying to understand knowledge and training gaps, and creating training and documents to help the team. Then I did it over and over again. (Such training and documentation could be seen as inconsequential elements — but they didn’t exist before I wrote them and tested them out.)

Next, it was clear there was a need to support sales in a “solutions expert” capacity, so I learned how to be good on sales calls, talking APIs, mostly. It was new and different and I ad libbed within reason like a pro — all of which hardened my confidence in our products as well as my technical understanding. But the most important thing I learned was how to better speak to someone about a technical solution in various levels of detail. Again, ask questions, think about what that person needs and wants, and figure out a way to give it to them.

Now, as we are building out a product presence in our New York office, I’m a willing guinea pig again, trying out new products to help our sales teams; running our initial efforts to roll out Customer.io for sales, marketing, and retention; and assisting with the technical setup of our partnership program. Many times I feel as though I have little idea what exactly it is I’m doing, but that’s the point. “Figuring it out” is something I’ve learned to be good at by being the willing guinea pig.

Being first means you are the pioneer. You are confronting the chaos before you and testing things out to see if order can be made. The inherent trial-and-error part of this can be daunting, but creating (even a semblance of) order out of the chaos that meets needs is worth the upfront uncertainty. Being first — being the willing guinea pig — is how I have learned the vast majority of everything I know professionally.

What do you think? Does being the guinea pig excite or terrify you?

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Originally published at jasonrintz.tumblr.com.