The difference between college and professional projects

In my summer internship, one of my tasks was designing a customer survey form. My supervisor gave me about two dozen questions that needed to be answered in various ways. A few were fill-in-the-blank, but of the rest half needed to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, and the other half had to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. This would have been pretty simple if I were able to write the html myself, but I needed to use an existing form assembly tool so that we could import the responses directly into our database. The form tool was not very sophisticated: I had control over the CSS, but not the HTML, so any changes I made were applied to all questions. I tried to find styling that would look good on both scales, which was nearly impossible with the HTML I was stuck with.

So rather than pull back and say, “To design this form well, I need more consistency. All the ranking questions should be 1 to 5,” I kept editing the CSS, trying to find a way to make the two styles look the way I wanted. I was so stuck on how to make different ranking scales look nice that I couldn’t step back and see that using the same scale would be much simpler. It took a review from a coworker in marketing to point this out, and when he did, all I could think was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

I later realized that I was looking at the project as I would a school assignment. I took it for granted that the instructions I’d been given were set in stone and must be followed precisely. But in the office, requirements are always changing, and the person who designs form questions is not necessarily a design expert. When I graduate in a year and transition from college to industry, I’m going to have to make a mental shift from accepting projects as they’re assigned to examining instructions more critically. After all, why would I be given a project if whoever assigned it didn’t think I had some expertise on the subject?

Lesson learned: my boss is not my professor, and I shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate project instructions if I think there is a better way to do it.

  • http://anitaborg.org BJ Wishinsky

    Great post, Carolyn! And good work, figuring that out during your internship. If you learned nothing else (though I’m sure you learned plenty) that will serve you well.