Advice from Strangers: Finding Your Own Strangers

It was a project that began with a questionnaire, ate its way through at least 500 Post-its, inspired a few unexpected interviews, and finally found its voice here. Now, build your very own!

Written By

BFC Admin

bon voyage

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This is the final column in the series.

A few months ago, I set out to explore areas of the software development experience whose depths, I felt, were in need of plumbing.

The project began with a questionnaire, ate its way through at least 500 Post-its, inspired a few unexpected interviews, and finally found its voice on this site about new music.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Advice from Strangers was not the overlap between tech and new music (which was, after all, its impetus), but discovering that the process of researching and writing exemplified the themes discussed within the series: creative growth, community building, trust, collaboration and resource management.

There are also other challenges worth exploring. How do we document and/or (an)notate our work so that it is usable by others? How do we make smart technology decisions in the face of cost and ongoing obsolescence? How do we support ourselves financially while starting a new venture? Furthermore, the juicy juxtaposition isn’t limited to new music and tech; I’d venture to say we could look at any two creative fields and find advice (and even solace) from across the divide.

So: How to harness this delightfully eye-opening and joyfully serendipitous experience? It can be yours in seven easy steps:

  1. Choose a field. Starting with friends, find a few people you respect who work (or play) in an industry that is not your own. (It helps to pick something you find interesting.)
  1. Identify the challenges. Ask them what their main challenges are in their work, interpersonal or otherwise. This is the backbone of your questionnaire.
  1. Prepare a questionnaire. When you start to see themes surfacing, use the themes to write a questionnaire. (Here’s mine—Gmail access required.) In the questionnaire, describe the challenges and ask people how they handle each issue. You may be able to use the same questionnaire for both the industry you’ve chosen and your own industry; if you need to, make a copy and tailor the language to fit the audience. Use quotes or examples to clarify the questions as needed.
  1. Find strangers. Share the questionnaire on Facebook, Twitter, and email. Ask your friends to share it with others in their industry. This is where the strangers are! If you’re lucky, you’ll get responses from around the world and from many different perspectives.
  1. Write down the main ideas. When you have at least 15 responses from each industry (the more the merrier), arm yourself with a sharpie and a stack of Post-its. You’ll need two colors, one for each industry. Start with the first question from your questionnaire. As you read through the responses, write down each independent concept on a Post-it. You may find there is more than one concept in a response. For example, Question: How do you successfully balance collaboration and privacy? Post-it #1: Sharing feels natural!, Post-it #2: I believe in sharing over hiding.
  1. Group the responses to discover themes. Stick those post-its on a wall and admire your glorious handiwork. Then, start looking for themes. Group together similar concepts until you end up with little Post-it clusters all over the wall. These are your answers! (Or starting points for further investigation.)
  1. Dig deep for meaningful information. Are any of the themes vague, or too theoretical to be actionable? Ask your strangers what they had in mind. Request anecdotes to explain a strategy or outlook. Follow up over coffee and a pastry. Worst case scenario: they draw a blank. Best case scenario: you get to know an interesting person who will continue to share his or her wisdom for years to come.

That’s it—your very own advice from strangers.

Should you choose to embark upon this Jules Vernian quest, you may find that looking at a familiar problem through an unfamiliar lens can cast rainbows on even the thorniest of challenges. Go talk to strangers, have a blast, and drop me a line if you turn up something interesting. Bon voyage!