October 12, 2018


Way back in the 90s, I got job laying out print catalogs using a desktop publishing program called QuarkXPress. I started out as an hourly contractor but eventually the company offered me an entry level full-time job, which I accepted.

On the surface the work was not particularly interesting, but I had a wonderful time learning everything about Quark. I was obsessed with it. I had dreams about it. Before too long, I knew the program inside out.

This was no small feat, because QuarkXPress was a very buggy piece of software. It crashed all. the. time. To get things done without losing a week of work, you had to worry about stuff like server mounts, and installed fonts, and “zapping your PRAM”

(Note for the younglings: it’s pronounced “PEE-ram”)

And let’s not forget keyboard commands. I love me some keyboard commands, but with Quark I went nuts memorizing them. It got to the point where doing page layout in Quark felt to me like playing a musical instrument. I can even remember bragging at a party one time that I knew so many Quark keyboard commands that I could layout a catalog without touching the mouse. LOL! What a nerd :-)

Anyway, here’s the thing...

My boss was a wonderful person, but she didn’t give a rat’s ass about how many Quark keyboard commands I had committed to memory. Or that I knew how to troubleshoot my fonts. Or how to mount the servers in the correct order. Or how thoroughly zapped my PRAM was. She didn’t know or care about these things. None of that was her job. Her job was to make sure that we got these custom catalogs out on time.

Sure, in MY mind there was a correlation between my mastery of Quark and getting catalogs out on time, but my mastery of Quark was IRRELEVANT to her. She would have been just as happy with me if I could have waved a magic wand and POOF! ...out popped a completed catalog.

In fact, I know for sure that she would have been even happier if I just waved a magic wand that popped out catalogs. How can I know this? Because I built a magic wand.

After mastering Quark, I found myself at the limits of what could be done with the application. Once there, I felt trapped and bored and started looking for ways to escape its limitations.

This tension drove me to cobble together an automated solution using a combination of QuarkXPress and two technologies that I had never used before: FileMaker Pro and AppleScript. I called the resulting mishmash “Octopus” but... “Magic Wand” would have been more appropriate, because it allowed me to do two weeks of work in a single day.

Unlike my Quark keyboard chops, this 10x productivity increase got my boss’ attention.

She asked if I could roll it out to the other people on my team, which I happily did. Next, we rolled it out to the entire department. Soon after, everyone on the floor was using it. I got a raise, a promotion, and a job that was WAY more fun than making catalogs.

Moral of the story:

If I had walked into my boss’ office and asked for a raise because of how awesome I was at Quark, she would have been confused at best, and laughed me out of the room at worst. But when I delivered meaningful improvements to a metric that mattered to the business, I got a raise without even asking.

Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that I delivered these results using software that I barely knew (i.e., FileMaker and AppleScript), not the software I had mastered (i.e., QuarkXPress).

Had I stubbornly stuck with Quark and fetishistically obsessed over its intricacies, even in the face of vanishing returns, I would probably never have graduated from that job. Instead, I zoomed out to the bigger picture of delivering desirable business results faster and found new tools that would allow me to do so.

Mastery of your tools MIGHT correlate to your ability to deliver desirable business results. But it might not. Either way, your clients don’t really care about your skills. What they care about are results.

What results do you deliver to your clients?