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The Moo - How to write a user manual for yourself

Kaushik Subramanian
Kaushik Subramanian
The way you work will vary as you’re human, you’re not a machine. But, there are some things about the way you work that are always true. For example, I know that I’m not very good with focus work in the mornings. I’m more productive at night. So therefore, I like to have as many focus blocks in the evening, rather than in the morning. Some people would like to know that and schedule accordingly. 
That’s an example of what could go into a user manual. But first, let’s talk about what a user manual is, and why do you need it? So a user manual is a short document, usually about three or four pages that will help people understand how to work best with you. 
Why do you need a user manual?
The initial phases of a work relationship, similar to a personal relationship, are awkward. Everyone is on their best behaviour, and you’re constantly trying to test the limits of what’s possible. Not only is that hard to do, but also adds unnecessary mental stress to an already stressful time - starting a new job or working with a new person.
As you get more senior, you’ll have to meet more and more people, and also have large teams. It takes a while to work comfortably with all of these people - with a user manual you make the other person comfortable, and bat from the front foot. This is more important in a hybrid world where someone might be remote and you’re not going to be able to read non verbal cues. I believe it takes much longer to get comfortable working with a new person remotely vs in person. A user manual helps remove that awkwardness and takes the guesswork out of a new work relationship.
I wrote my first user manual at McKinsey - the Firm is famously known for its adherence to the Myers Briggs personality type (MBTI) and I thought it might be useful to expand on it so it isn’t as clinical. Now, user manuals are pretty common and I found quite a few of them at Stripe! Let’s get into what it takes to create one:
Section 1 (¼ page): your personal story
I like starting with a personal story so people know where you came from. For example, this is from my user manual:
‘I am from India, but have lived and worked abroad for the last decade in several countries. I am married and live in North London with my wife and miniature dachshund, Churro. I am generally fond of animals, and have a soft corner for anything to do with dogs or horses. If I was not in tech I would be a vet.’
This helps people get to know you as a person, rather than just a CV. It also helps people find common points. The more intersections/opportunities for common points you can provide, the quicker you can break the ice. People are always looking for conversation starters so you want to provide as many of them as possible here.
Section 2: (½ page): your career story
Quickly move to your career. You don’t need to explain your entire CV, but have short paragraphs for each ‘phase’ in your career. For example:
  • I started my career at X, and learnt A, B and C. My most significant accomplishment here was to do <example>
  • <2nd job> 
  • And so on
If possible, add a bit here around what you liked about each job, and what you disliked. This helps people form a picture of your working style
Section 3 (½ page): How to work with you so you’re at your best self
First, take an MBTI (or similar) test. These tests are easily available on the internet and while you may not believe in them, it will equip you with the vocabulary that you may need to describe your working style.
In this section, you should talk about at least the following things:
  • How you like to structure your day, especially if you have childcare etc. when you have blocked time out
  • Your working preferences (WFH, Hybrid, office etc.)
  • How you like to brainstorm/think. Some people (like me) are extraverted thinkers, which means they think as they speak and generally like to brainstorm ideas live. Others like to take the problem statement, ruminate and present a POV later. Which one are you?
  • What kind of culture you’re used to - for example, Facebook was highly contextual and collegial. Stripe is written and more cerebral. Your colleagues in your first 6 months can help you settle into the new culture if you flag where you came from
  • Your SLA’s on replying to things, and your primary communication channel (Email/Slack/Whatsapp)
Section 4 (½ page): Peer reviewed strengths and weaknesses
In Issue 1, we spoke about running a survey when you left your last organisation. You can use results from that, or use any data you may have collected from your performance reviews. Being open about this does not make you weaker, but in fact makes you stronger as you can be clear on what you want to improve on (and what you don’t). I firmly believe that it is better to double down on strengths than trying to solve all weaknesses and become perfect.
That’s it! These two pages will deliver outsized ROI, and have been instrumental in me settling down into several roles. Colleagues have appreciated the effort and openness, and I’ve been able to work better. A user manual is in addition to a manager manual, which you should make for your manager. What is that you ask? Something for future issues :)
Do you want my user manual to see what a full fledged one looks like? If so, share this on LinkedIn or Twitter, comment by tagging me and I’ll DM it to you on Linkedin. I’m also trying to grow to as many people as possible so I have incentives to continue writing - I’d greatly appreciate a share or forward to anyone who would find this useful!
See you in Issue 3, ‘How to write a manager manual’. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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Kaushik Subramanian
Kaushik Subramanian @theholykau

Career management with intermittent issues on product and tech

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