Dani Nordin works for athenahealth as the Product Design Architect for athenaClinicals. There, she uses her superpowers in user research, pattern recognition, and snark to help the organization unpack big, gnarly problems related to EHR configuration, clinical content, and specialty support. She also serves as the chair of the Clinician Experience Working Group for the HIMSS EHR Association. She lives in Watertown MA with two fire-cracker daughters, a delightfully supportive husband, and an adorable golden retriever named Larry.
Tent Talks Featuring: Dani Nordin
On Tuesday, November 29th at 5:00pm Central, Dani Nordin joined us for a live Q&A session called “Your Brain & Your Next Job.”
Notes from Dani’s Sessions (Courtesy of Dani)
Thanks for coming to my Tent Talk on Your Brain and Your Next Job. If you’re wondering about some of the resources and systems you can put together to do some of your own navel-gazing, I’ve collected some of them in this handy Notion page. Hope they help!
These are some of the databases I’ve been using to track my daily progress over the past few years. It’s helped me clearly see what I’ve been up to, keep track of progress, and do my end of year (or sometimes mid-year) reflections.
If you aren’t ready to commit to the full digital route, I’d be super remiss not to give props to the Levenger 5-year Journal, a really well crafted and simple way to build just a bit of daily reflection into your life. I ultimately have filled two of these, and kept it beside my bed for almost 7 years before I switched to my daily Notion recaps.
A few things to think about as you do your reflection:
- What aspects of my current work exhilarate me?
- What aspects of my current work drain me?
- What do I find naturally interesting?
- What do I struggle to make progress on, even though I know I need to?
- What are the things I’m naturally good at, and are there any partners in my team/immediate area who I could lean on to support where I’m less successful?
- Are there any particular supports (props, software, environmental enhancements, etc.) that would help shore up areas where I tend to struggle?
- Corporate Horoscopes: The Enneagram and the DISC model are both super useful to get your reflection on and help you identify patterns in how you relate to your work and others. Of all the ones out there, I’ve gotten the most use out of these two.
Books and videos to check out
This is mostly stuff about ADHD and neurodiversity, but there’s a few careerish things in here as well that I’ve found useful. Enjoy!
Here’s a photo of Dani’s personal timeline that she mentions in the Tent Talks session:
[00:00:00] Chicago Camps: You’ve made the interesting choice to move from a people leadership role into more of a design / product leadership role. Could you tell us about that journey?
[00:00:09] Dani: Yeah. I’ll give you a little bit of context for where I am today and where I’ve been. I realized after doing this like timeline of my career, that I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and I got my first job in 1990.
[00:00:27] And this is all related to what we’re gonna talk about later, but where I am today is I work at Athena Health. We do software and services for doctor’s offices, urgent cares, medical practices, and health systems. Basically most things that aren’t a hospital we do software and services around. And I work as a product design architect today.
[00:00:52] Which is a very high level individual contributor role. I sit within our clinicals organization, which is the electronic health record, and it’s a relatively new role in the organization. It’s only been around a year and a half. There’s only like three of us, although we have a very large UX org at Athena Health, which is one of the reasons that there, each of the three of us who are in this particular role had two colleagues in other subdivisions who do something similar to me.
[00:01:23] We all bring our own sort of flavor to the party depending on what our particular superpowers are and what the needs are of the folks that they work with. The way it ends up showing up for me is it is very much a discovery and design strategy role. So most of what I end up doing is like to joke that I drink coffee and I learn about people and then I teach that to others.
[00:01:51] What I do is basically we know we wanna go after this space in the next like couple years. We have no idea what that even looks like, how those practices work, how this whole thing works. Dani, go work with this product strategy partner and go figure out what that means. That’s what I do. I just chase really big, crazy complex problems.
[00:02:16] I came to that from a different role, which was a zone lead role. The zone lead is, if you’re familiar with the Spotify model, with the triad and the triangle and the like product engineering, UX thing, grouping at the top, and. So we are set up very much like that. So each subdivision clinicals has a triad at the top and then each, there are several zones that sort of own these broad problem areas.
[00:02:51] And as a zone lead, I own strategy for that zone, helping help to figure out like what do we wanna execute on and what are the things that you know we need to go after. And then I managed the designers who are actually executing on it. So the journey of going from that role to previous role was really a journey of a couple of things.
[00:03:21] One was realizing that I really struggled in that management role I wasn’t fully expecting to, but like at the time that I took the role, we were just out of a reorg and the option was go support a Scrum team or manage people. And so I was like, all right, fine. I’ll manage people. And I had managed before and had a horrible experience.
[00:03:49] I had a horrible experience, but I chalked a lot of that up to the toxicity of the environment. I didn’t think of it as like necessarily I’m a bad manager or I’m bad at managing or, and I still don’t think that’s it. What I wasn’t expecting when I started managing people was just how exhausting I would find it and how much it would swallow everything I had and leave room for almost nothing.
[00:04:15] And so I would go into my one-on-ones and just be actively miserable and crying in front of my boss because I was so overwhelmed and overwrought and like I didn’t know what was going on and I was having so many problems. And to his credit, he hinted very strongly and actually said directly at some point: I’m trying to hire for this role over here.
[00:04:44] You might wanna think about this, and for various reasons, I didn’t take him up on it until finally I reached a tipping point and I did the other side note to this, and then we can talk a little bit more about the process I took internally to get there. The other sort of side note to this is that this year, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD, which is something that I have known more or less since I was a kid. But I grew up in the eighties and they didn’t say that girls had ADHD in the eighties, and I was a gifted kid. So everyone’s like, oh, she’ll be fine.
[00:05:28] And all of that kind of ends up playing into the reason I ended up where I am today and much better there than where I was as a manager.
[00:05:39] Chicago Camps: You mentioned that you were able to spend a good amount of time self- reflecting on the things that happened in your people manager job that helped you go to product leadership.
[00:05:47] This is a three parter. How did you know where to start? What did you learn through your introspection? Were there any things you kept coming back to?
[00:05:58] Dani: I realized as I was thinking through that question that there are nuances because there’s always nuances. That’s my brain. It just thinks in nuances. There’s the part of it that is just how I’ve always operated that is partially the ADHD. And that’s just how my particular brand of neurospicy shows up.
[00:06:19] And then there’s the part of it that is systems that I have put into place, either intentionally or not over the course of years that have helped me to make reflections the thing that I do. And then there’s this whole other piece that I would be really remiss to not name as privilege.
[00:06:42] So I will get the privilege stuff out of the way first, which is that I tend to respond to anything that, and this is part of how I work and part of privilege. I tend to respond to any of these types of like real big challenges where like I just can’t figure out why this is working or why this isn’t working.
[00:07:03] By hyper focusing on it and figuring out, okay, what do I need to learn? Where’s a course I can take? What’s a thing I can do? And so that is a habit that I’m trying to break slowly, but I had not broken it yet. And so I took a MicroMasters in business leadership from EdX. And that had a whole bunch of self-reflection exercises.
[00:07:29] I also hired a really amazing coach, Whitney Hess, who I absolutely love working with the things I learned from those two experiences. And they were very much like I had to pay for this out of my own pocket, and it was real not cheap. And I am blessed that I had the privilege and support to do that. Also have one, a couple of really great resources at Athena.
[00:07:50] In fact, we have one of our employee resource groups. The Women Leadership Foundation has a mentoring program, and it’s a formal mentoring program last six months, a year. And so I’ve been a mentor and a mentee for two years running. And so those three things were super helpful. And again, recognize these are not things that everyone gets.
[00:08:17] There’s a lot of things that I really picked up from all of those things with the leadership course. It really gave me a sense of, okay, how do I actually want to lead? How do I want to show up in the world? How do I wanna show up for the people that I serve? And so at the time I was taking this course, it was still very much like I was still thinking of myself as I’m a manager and I have to figure out how to be a manager working with Whitney.
[00:08:47] Dani: The most interesting thing that she shared with me, and mind you, there was a lot, but the a-ha moment she gave me, and this is where the ADHD came in, there were these different levels of influence that she talked about, different levels of UX impact and she, I forget what all of them were, but the two that were most related to where I was in my career were drive and guide. So drive is you are managing other people to get the best performance out of them.
[00:09:22] Guide is you’re actually steering the ship and figuring out the direction that you were gonna go and like, where are we gonna hit? And she told me multiple times we’ve been working together for, at this point, this was my second engagement with her. I worked with her in my first management job when I was having those problems too.
[00:09:41] And she said “I gotta tell you, you’re a guide and you’re stuck in a drive role, but everything you’ve ever said to me suggests that you’re a guide and you want to be a guide. So we gotta figure out how to get you a guide role.” And I’m like, no, that can’t be right. Like I just, I have this very stubborn habit, not believing people when they’re obviously right. And that was a, that was the biggest thing I got out of that piece of stuff.
[00:10:10] The other piece of it is some of the systems that I’ve put in place over the years, either intentional or unintentional, cuz the one thing I have known, even if I wasn’t officially diagnosed with ADHD. Is, I’ve always been really big on templatizing things and making databases and doing these other things because if I don’t write it down, it falls out of my head and I may never remember it again.
[00:10:34] And I spend a nontrivial amount of time trying to essentially remove decisions that don’t feel like they need to be made. And so a lot of this year, for example, has been trying to figure out, okay, what do I need to make sure I do the thing because certain things are causing more stress. So I bought an automatic dog feeder because I realized I was spending a solid 20 minutes every morning trying to remember if Larry got his food even 30 seconds after I gave him his food.
[00:11:05] And he’s a golden retriever, so he will not give you an honest answer. And so I was like, you know what? I’m gonna get an automatic dog feeder. And so I don’t have to think about feeding him anymore. I just have to make sure the damn thing is full.
[00:11:17] So the systems that I created, actually a lot of them exist in Notion, and I sent you a link earlier with a bunch of the resources that I put together. I have a bunch of Notion databases and templates, like I have one template for my case studies.
[00:11:35] So every few months or so, I take a moment and this is what I actually learned running my own business for a long time. I basically have a format for my case studies that’s, these are the heading, this is the type of stuff I talk about under each heading. And I’ve redone it a few times because I’m always changing how I’m showing up.
[00:11:57] But if you look in my work today compared to when I was a manager and you think of that Double Diamond, like that classic cliche design thinking, Double Diamond. All of my work and the stuff I love doing is on the left of that diamond. That’s what I do. I am not great at executing. There are so many other people that are much better at that than me, and it took me a really long time to realize that dates and things that are driven by date, and moving people towards a date to get things done on a date is the absolute worst use of my brain. And this is another a-ha moment was like, it’s not the fact that I’m managing people or that like I’m responsible for their careers. It’s that everything I’m being asked to do as a manager is drive people towards deadline.
[00:12:53] And my brain does not do that. Deadlines are suggestions just as recipes are. They’re like mild suggestions. They’re over here somewhere and because they’re not now, my brain does not remember them. And so the fact that my entire job was that. Was just taking everything out of me because I was constantly like, okay, wait a minute, when does the release start?
[00:13:19] Like to this day, I’ve been at Athena for four and a half years. I still don’t know when our release starts.
[00:13:22] And so people would say things to me like, oh, these teams need to be done by Sprint two. I’m like, okay, when’s Sprint two? What do you mean you don’t know when sprint two is? I don’t know. Gimme the calendar of sprints. I don’t know. And so I would have these conversations all the time, and I didn’t realize it was just because of how my brain works when that’s the thing that I have to do is like drive people towards this one thing.
[00:13:43] Oh, but I was talking about systems. This is also ADHD, by the way. Most of my stuff is a notion and I have a database of love notes. That’s the biggest thing, is a database of love notes.
[00:13:54] Chicago Camps: It’s great to hear that you had such a positive experience with Whitney. I think she’s great and I’m glad to hear about that. When you were going through that with Whitney and figuring out what you were and weren’t in your role, how did you keep yourself from falling into a pit of despair? Not knowing where you were or what was wrong, trying to identify that.
[00:14:14] Dani: Oh, I can’t guarantee I didn’t like I totally did multiple times. I think that This kind of goes back to the systems that I was talking about earlier and intended to actually like speak at length about them. And then I got caught off topic because squirrels. One of the things that I started my, I got my first job at nine in 1992, I think I mentioned to this, and it was a canvassing job at Clean Water Action.
[00:14:44] So I was going door to door, convincing people to gimme money for the environment because I was so passionate about what I was doing. I was so good at telling a story. I also, at the time, was studying theater because I was convinced I was gonna be an actress. Everyone who knows me is super surprised by this, but I studied theater for eight years.
[00:15:02] So much of my life has been naval gazing. It’s been about getting what’s in my head out of my head and into yours. That thread has followed me almost my entire life, and part of the way my particular ADHD shows up is I am very much a verbal processor and I think out loud a lot and have since I was a kid.
[00:15:26] If I am in a fight with you, oh my God, I’m at like a bus stop walking around talking to myself having an argument with you out loud, trying to figure out what I wanna say. That is just how I’ve always been. And, so part of it is just like I chew on problems and I talk them out and I think about them and I’m constantly talking about them.
[00:15:49] And so I think part of t hat in some weird way lets me step away from it, right? Because it becomes a thing to observe and look at, and it’s taken me a number of years in lots of therapy to get myself into that mode where I can figure out, okay, what’s my thing? Versus what’s everyone else’s thing? Or what’s this other person’s thing?
[00:16:12] Right, so that always changes, and so I try to give myself a little bit of space for that to change, right? For example, the realization that a lot of my problem in those management roles was the fact that I was being expected to drive people toward the deadline, and that is unbelievably hard for my brain. Like I go into spontaneous panic attacks when people ask me for a list of milestones for a project I’m working.
[00:16:34] Because I just don’t even, I know it’s gonna get done. I’m incredibly good at what I do. I’m incredibly fast at what I do. I can make connections faster than anyone I know in terms of seeing all of these different disparate patterns. Like that’s what I’m really good at. What I am absolutely not good at is looking at a calendar and saying, yeah, I should be done with this by December 31st.
[00:16:57] I can’t even guarantee you, I’m still gonna think that’s the way we should be doing this by December 31st. Because I learn things along the way and I adapt and adjust. And that’s what makes me successful. That’s what makes me good at what I do. And so that a-ha moment came a week ago, right? And this is going back in looking at two different management roles. I won’t deny that there was some toxicity that I was dealing with that I thought was like the deal like a while ago. But when I look back, even one of my colleagues in that last role said exactly the same thing to me.
[00:17:27] He said, you need to go find more of like this thing of just sitting here and running a team that’s responsible for churning out comps. Like that is not anything that you are good at or want to. I had to hear a lot of hard truths from people who knew me better than I was willing to know myself at the time.
[00:17:44] But I think also I had to unlearn a lot of things that I feel like the design community, the UX community, whoever we wanna blame this on, tell you, right? It’s like the thing that you do when you reach a certain level in your career is you have to manage people. And that’s how I got to my next level, and that’s why I took both of those roles. It’s like that was the option available to me if I didn’t want to be a scrum designer, which is like not at all the highest and best use of my skills, and I think I had to get over that.
[00:18:18] Chicago Camps: What if someone is feeling similarly and they’re scared? Scared to start that self reflecting, scared to face themselves, scared of any conflicts or negativity that could come next?
[00:18:30] Dani: Oh gosh. So I have no idea where I heard this, but it’s like one of those really old sort of quotes. It’s always attributed to some random person who probably never said it.
[00:18:40] The definition of bravery is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. There are a couple of things, and I’m gonna go back to ADHD for a bit. There’s a couple ways that ADHD tends to show up. The way that it showed up in me, the way that it shows up in women all the time, we tend to be very chatty, as you might be able to tell.
[00:18:55] Dani: We get really hyper focused on interesting things, like things that interest. And our brains literally cannot comprehend or deal with things that do not interest us. So I have to do all sorts of tricks to get me myself to do the dishes, including a special apron and gloves, because my brain will not do it otherwise, and it will fight me like literally physically fight me to not do the dishes I make connections and I can see patterns like literally no one I know. I think incredibly fast. I process incredibly fast. I am incredibly good at telling a story. I’m very entertaining. And that tends to engage people. I’m very naturally friendly because I’ve had a lot of experience talking to people, and so part of why I’m so good at this particular job is because I know how to find the people I need to get involved in this thing, and I have that experience in activism and building coalitions to be like, Hey, this is very relevant to you.
[00:20:00] Come with. And we’ll do this. That was something I wasn’t able to do as a zone lead. It was very contained to the one set of problems that I’m focused on, the thing I had to learn about myself is I need to expand. And I think what happens a lot when we get into this professional development and we start to reflect on ourselves, reflect on our strengths, we feel that fear because so much at professional development, and I was talking to someone about this today, is really rooted in the.
[00:20:24] I’m lacking. We talk about things like strengths and weaknesses and especially when you throw neurodiversity into the mix or neuro spicy. As a friend of mine likes to say, and I continue to use it because it makes me cack when you throw that into the mix, like so much of what happened with the way I communicate with the way that I operate, like some of the things that should be really easy but are just really hard for.
[00:20:49] They’re very often perceived as moral failings, right? So the fact that I am consistently late for things is a moral failing. It’s not like my brain perceives time differently. I often say things that I realize I shouldn’t have 30 seconds after the came outta my mouth because my brain was mo moving too fast to stop my.
[00:21:10] And I end up hurting people. That is an ADHD thing and it’s often perceived as a moral failing. There’s part of this that like if you stop looking at it as I have a failing, or I need to shore up my weaknesses and more as what is the thing that actually gets me up every day? What are the things I’m naturally good at that I can be doing more of?
[00:21:32] It becomes a very different conversation.
[00:21:35] Chicago Camps: So coming out of this experience you found where you are thriving and excelling, which is awesome. How can we take what you’ve learned and apply that to ourselves in the context of being a job seeker? There’s a few tools I put in the Notion page that I put together.
[00:21:53] Dani: So the first thing I did, the first couple of things I put in, there’s gonna be a link in the show notes, but I put together a full page of resources of just all the stuff that I’ve used. One of those things is a Notion template, that I put together, which is literally, I call it a Love Notes database, and it is every compliment that someone has ever given me.
[00:22:16] If someone gives me kudos for my work, if someone says, man, that was a great conversation, great presentation, whatever. I jot it down in this little database, and then at the end of the year I’ve got a hundred or some odd or however many love notes. And if I’m having a bad day or I’m in the pit of despair despair, or I am like spiraling, I can open that up and I can look at it and I’m like, oh my God, this is great.
[00:22:41] The other thing it does is makes review time super easy because I can point to that and give it to my boss and say, Hey, look at that. The other thing that having a database of Love Notes does is it gives you the ability to look at. And see thoughts over time. And so the other resource I put in there is a daily note template in Notion like a, literally like a daily recap Notion in template.
[00:23:03] That is a very slim down version from what I use. But it basically, it’s based on. This book called The Progress Principle. By Teresa Amabile but it’s a very simple idea. It’s just capture a very small amount every day. And I do basically two, three sentences. I’ve been doing it for about seven and a half years and, uh, almost eight years.
[00:23:25] Every night I write two, three sentences and just a quick recap of what I did of what happened. And if you’re able to look at it over time, like it becomes really easy to see the trend. Like part of the reason why I was able to figure out some things is because I’ve been doing that. And so there’s a notion template for the daily thing or if you wanna go super low five, the Levenger five year journal is what I used for the first seven years of doing this, and I literally could track the arc of three different jobs in one.
[00:23:59] Because I had written every single day. I can also tell you the exact date when my seasonal effective kicks in, because I saw every year on like somewhere between October 1st and October 15th, I would start hating literally everything. Every single night was just like, ugh.
[00:24:15] So like those two things, like just having that as a daily practice. It does not have to be heavy. It can be incredibly light, have been total life changers for me because a lot of what you have to do in this process is you have to find the patterns. You have to be able to say, okay, what is it that I’m really good at?
[00:24:33] What do I get complimented more for most often? What are the things that I’ve done that make me feel proudest? If you’re never capturing that in any kind of, Or thinking about it and building that reflection into your day to day, it’s really difficult to even know where to start. The other piece that I would say is useful, and this, I think I got, I think I got this from Abi Jones, who is a, she manages a design team at Google Health.
[00:25:02] She’s also a career coach. Totally rad person. But she had this exercise that she put her group through. Where she would say, you would just answer two questions, what drains you and what energizes you?
[00:25:17] And every once in a while, I literally just pull out those two things and I just ask myself those two things. Like what is it in my current work that I’m doing right now that. I’m really good at that gives me energy that I feel really like proud of and I have fun doing. And then what are the things that just exhaust me?
[00:25:37] And the way I ended up using that in, in this journey was when you get to that list of things that exhaust you or the things that where you just like naturally struggle, like your choices: Two things. One, is this something I absolutely have to do and I need to either build skills or find an accommodation, or is this an area where there’s someone else on my team that I could partner with because they have that skill like in spades and maybe they are not as strong in an area where I’m really strong.
[00:26:09] And we can swap. So I think those are the levers that I’ve used quite a bit, and I think that’s a good place to start. I think the other piece, and this is, I guess this is almost like portfolio guidance, and I think it’s probably portfolio guidance. One of the things I do every six months to a year is I take a look at my portfolio and I ask, Am I still telling the story of the work I want to, are these case studies?
[00:26:37] Is the way that I’m presenting this work, the way that I’m talking about this work, is this gonna get me the kind of work I want to be doing next? Or am I just sending what I did? And sometimes it’s just, yeah, this looks good and I’m just gonna keep going because I don’t really feel like I need to change.
[00:26:54] And other times, like I just. Completely redid my site because I realized, yeah, I don’t wanna be talking about managing teams and doing this stuff. I wanna be talking about like changing the roadmap because we realized we were that this entirely new direction could be really interesting like that I love.
[00:27:14] And then for the rest of it, I’m really happy being everyone’s really cool work auntie. I’m living that fantasy every day.
[00:27:20] Chicago Camps: All right, we’re down to our last question, and that is how do I reposition myself from trying to find a job to understanding what type of work is going to be a natural or a right fit?
[00:27:33] Dani: I will acknowledge this is again, where I think privileged is important to recognize because I think a lot ends up, depending on which you need a new job.
[00:27:45] And the mental state you have, or the mental space you have to devote to finding a new job when you have the ability to be choosy. There’s a couple of things that I think are important to think about. So in addition to the resources I talked about before, having a Love Notes database, like doing a daily recap every night, and literally I’m talking five lines I cannot stress that enough.
[00:28:10] Five lines, not 750 words, not like a blog, like five lines. This is what happened. One of the things that I ended up doing that was incredibly useful is I just got it a whiteboard and did a timeline, and I can actually show you, but I can send you a picture. I can put a picture in that ocean page. You can see here that is a timeline of almost every job I’ve had for the last 30 years.
[00:28:34] And just being able to look at it visually like that, and it was pretty simple. And maybe this is just my particular brain. Maybe it won’t work for other people’s brains, but being able to do that like way zoom out of. What have I done? What have I learned to date and what’s the next thing?
[00:28:53] That knowledge is so important and being able to build in that, like especially for folks who are like really new grads and are just starting their career. If you start building that muscle now of just literally for every job you’ve. What did I learn from this job? What was really great about it? What really sucked that I don’t wanna do again?
[00:29:15] And being able to see sort of those trends on a line over time is a really important thing to be able to have when you’re going into a new job. Right? Because so often what we think about is we think about the hard skills we’ll need. What are the craft skills we’ll need? And we don’t think about, or we go the opposite way and we think about what is the vibe I want?
[00:29:39] What is the culture I want? And we don’t think about that balance, right? And so I think that when you’re, when you do that reflection of who have I been? Who am I now? That helps you figure out what you need when you go next and back to the point of privilege and space, I think the best time to do that, [00:30:00] honestly, like that’s one of the reasons why I just build it into my day and I just take a little bit of time every three to six months just to shut everything down and just look at things.
[00:30:13] Say, all right, what have I been up to? What’s worked, what hasn’t? And the same thing after every project that you work on with somebody. Just couple questions. So what do you think went really well? What? What would you do differently next? And just get in the habit of doing that and collecting it, and eventually you see the patterns and you get there.