Jason DiPopolo

UX/UI Designer & Frontend Developer

How to Be Great at Your Job

A gentleman who must have read Justin Kerr's book
A gentleman who must have read Justin Kerr's book

I picked up Justin Kerr’s How to Be Great at Your Job as it was recommended by a UX Designer online and it caught my attention. I’m always interested in picking apart how to best perform these important things we often neglect and aren’t taught like writing emails or communicating in the workplace.

Below is what I’ll be talking about that I pulled from the book:

  • Being Early
  • Meeting with your boss weekly
  • Showing your work and claiming credit
  • Giving a good presentation
  • Sending great emails
  • How to balance work and life
  • Be Early
    Kerr’s logic on being early at work is simple:

  • Get to work early
  • Turn in your work early
  • Leave work early
  • Getting to work (even just an hour) early will differentiate you from the mediocrity pinned on those who show up on time. Not only that, but you’ve got - time to start your day by “replying to emails, reviewing your calendar, messaging people to remind them what you need from them, and more” that Justin Kerr suggests in the book.

    Turning in your work early also rightfully earns some points with any boss. Rather than setting your deadline as the deadline or the morning of the deadline, it is much more impressive to hand in your work 24 hours earlier than the deadline. Hence this should be the true deadline you set in your personal calendar or schedule.

    Leaving work early is a funny (yet great) idea from Kerr and I think he acknowledges that. Working longer could lead to people thinking your a hard worker, but often people will just think “you’re behind, can’t keep up, overwhelmed, don’t have a life, late on a project, and not good at your job.” Kerr mentions that you don’t need to ask for this, just do it. It can be 30 minutes or an hour. However early you get to work will likely determine soon you leave.

    Meet Weekly with Your Boss
    The purpose of setting up a weekly 30 minute meeting is to stay on the same page with your boss by sharing updates, getting approvals, resolving issues, etc. To have a great meeting, Kerr says:

  • You schedule the meeting
  • You set and send an agenda for the meeting
  • You lead the meeting
  • In scheduling, find a time where your boss is consistently free so you can continue these meetings. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings are often the best times according to Kerr due to Monday busy-ness and nobody liking meetings on Fridays.

    In sending your agenda to your boss, email bullet points on what you’ll cover before 5pm on the day before the meeting. According to Kerr, this ensures the meeting isn’t cancelled, helps you organize your thoughts, gives your boss a heads up, and show that you’re organized and good at your job.

    Leading the meeting for your boss shows that your reliable and allows them to relax for once whereas they typically are always in a leading position.

    Image of white collared workers talking
    Image from Christina @ wocintechchat.com

    “Show Your Work” to Your Boss
    Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work and my time in university excited me about the idea of showing my work. I always say “doing the work is just 10% of the job, presentation is 90%” which isn’t to say we should do poor work, but their should be an emphasis on delivery and rightfully claiming credit for work you’ve done.

    Kerr understands this well, differentiating between how most people view projects, what really happens, and lastly how he solves the problem.

    Here is what people think happens on a project:
    1. Your boss asks you to do something.
    2. You go away and do it.
    3. You present it back to your boss.

    Here is what actually happens:
    1. Your boss asks you to do something.
    2. You go away and work on it.
    3. Your boss asks you if you are working on the project.
    4. You say you are working on it.
    5. A few hours (or days) later your boss asks again if you are going to be ready for the deadline.
    6. You say yes.
    7. You present the project to your boss.

    How to fix the problem:
    1. Your boss asks you to do something.
    2. You send your boss a quick email by EOD of how you will accomplish the project, and key specific timelines you will work toward, including check-in points (meaning these should be on your own schedule as well).
    3. You work on the project.
    4. You give your boss an update during your weekly 1:1 meetings or you give a quick (minimum effort) status email saying everything is on schedule. Keep reminding them of the timeline you had agreed to earlier. It’s usually best just to forward that original email with a quick comment.
    5. You send an email by 5:00pm the day before the project is due with a simple title and message: Pre-Read: Project X. “Hey Boss, I wanted to send you a copy of the final project in advance of tomorrow’s deadline. If you have any questions or comments I’m happy to adjust before the meeting tomorrow.”
    6. You turn in the project (at the meeting), etc.

    Working consistently this way will have your boss seeing you as more reliable than most people. Even if your on top of your projects, your boss doesn’t feel like you were relying on their check-ins, instead you supplied the check-ins yourself.

    How to Give a Good Presentation
    Kerr’s method to a good presentation is high impact and high recall which should be achieved through structure and content.

    Kerr’s Perfect Structure
    The one-sentence overview “I am here to present The Boys Winter Outwear Collection.”

    Explain the structure “There are 3 main points I want to discuss.” (let them know how many points to listen for)

    Give them the headlines “I want to talk about nylon fabrication, length, and price points.”

    Present each topic “The first thing I wanted to talk about is nylon fabrication. Nylon fabrication is the biggest trend in the market and I see an opportunity for us to… OK, so that’s why I think nylon fabrication is going to be really important for us next season.” (Cue, present, summarize each topic)

    Tell them what’s next “OK, we’ve talked about length, so now I want to talk about price points. It looks like we have 5 minutes left for this last topic.” (Let them know that you’re keeping track of time and how much of their time you’re taking)

    The one-sentence conclusion “OK, so we have talked about nylon fabrication, why we’re going to add longer-length jackets, and opportunities to raise price points — does anyone have any questions?” (Remind everyone what you told them and open the floor to questions)

    Kerr’s Perfect Content
    Observe what is happening and what are you going to do about it.

    When it comes to what is happening, there is plenty to choose from. Choose one number to make and prove a point. Set a context that shows why you used that number over every other number, make people feel the weight of that number. Instead of saying, this item will be “25 cents cheaper to produce,” say “we’ll cut costs by 20%.” Lastly, make your number surprising. For example, instead of saying “we’ll cut costs just by decreasing the fabric weight by 0.4 grams” you can say “we’ll cut costs just by decreasing the weight of the fabric by the same weight as a single piece of tissue paper.” In this example, you’re getting visual to show how small the risk is in your proposal, making it easier to say yes.

    What you are going to do about something relies on using a frame of mindset. Someone made a slip-up in an organization my girlfriend is apart of and her and I were surprised that all the members were running back and forth, shouting to each other “we didn’t do X in time?! We’re f***ed!” Instead of offering solutions, everyone decided to make matters worse. Kerr recommends we say “X is happening, so I will do Y (by Z time).” Be specific and measurable. Taking the reigns instead of leaving other people to solve problems is how we lead.

    Image of laptop displaying an email inbox
    Image from Justin Morgan

    Writing Great Emails
    Kerr’s 6 Requirements for an Awesome Email

    Subject Specific, punchy, and action-oriented subject lines decide whether your email gets opened now, later, or never. Kerr’s example of a good subject is “Q2 Project: Action Required: Chris Goble + Maurice Skinfill”

    Deadlines If there is a deadline, put it in your subject. Use bold, highlight it in red, whatever you need to do to make it obvious. Consider saying “Project X: Due Tuesday, 3:36pm” because it catches people’s attention more than 5:00pm or EOD.

    Bullet Points Use one sentence bullet points. If you’re using more than one sentence, you’re rambling or making more than one point.

    Jump to Conclusions Get to the point in the first sentence. You can write more after that, but assume that the first sentence is all they’ll read.

    White SpaceUse the return key liberally between paragraphs and bullet points. Also, ditch any signature embellishments.

    The Attachment Trap Assume your attachment won’t be opened. Provide a few key points to summarize and give context to your attachments. If you send an attachment, make sure it is formatted to print.

    Work and Life Balance
    During the work week, Kerr recommends to get to work early (no surprise), eat lunch outside (bring co-workers and explore), or take a class.

    Kerr recommends leaving work at work by putting your phone away, not bringing your work home from the office, and to acknowledge that nothing important happens between 7pm and 7am so don’t psyche yourself into thinking you have to worry about being present at those times.

    When it comes to taking time off, Kerr recommends volunteering during work hours (many companies have charities they’re connected to that you can work with) and take vacations. Kerr says we should:

  • Ask for vacations well in advance to get approval.
  • Remain visible about your vacation and work right before your vacation. This way, people remember you’ll be absent and can see you deserve it.
  • Talk about your vacation before and after because “before” will give that visibility while the “after” will boost your personal brand.
  • Take a vacation when you’re on vacation! Don’t work, enjoy yourself, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Conclusion
    I typically read books based on subject, but this is the only book I’ve read and thought “wow I want to read more from this author” as Justin’s writing is so direct and full of wondrous insight. Kerr clearly lives by his own rules of conciseness he addresses in his book so I’d highly recommend reading it.

    While there is plenty of information here, I plan on referring back to this article to criticize my own working life. If anyone’s found any insight here, I’d encourage them to do the same.