08 June 2011

Sitting Pretty

Guest Editorial for Simple-Talk IT Pro newsletter

‘DBAs and SysAdmins generally prefer an expression of calmness under adversity. It is a subtle trick, and requires practice in front of a mirror to get it just right. Too much adversity and they think you’re not coping; too much calmness and they think you’re under-employed’

I dislike the term ‘avatar’, when used to describe a portrait photograph. An avatar, in the sense of a picture, is merely the depiction of one’s role-play alter-ego, often a ridiculous bronze-age deity. However, professional image is important. The choice and creation of online photos has an effect on the way your message is received and it is important to get that right. It is fine to use that photo of you after ten lagers on holiday in an Ibiza nightclub, but what works on Facebook looks hilarious on LinkedIn.

My splendid photograph that I use online was done by a professional photographer at great expense and I’ve never had the slightest twinge of regret when I remember how much I paid for it. It is me, but a more pensive and dignified edition, oozing trust and wisdom. One gasps at the magical skill that a professional photographer can conjure up, without digital manipulation, to make the best of a derisory noggin (ed: slang for a head). Even if he had offered to depict me as a semi-naked, muscle-bound, sword-wielding hero, I’d have demurred. No, any professional person needs a carefully cultivated image that looks right. I’d never thought of using that profile shot, though I couldn’t help noticing the photographer flinch slightly when he first caught sight of my face.

There is a problem with using an avatar. The use of a single image doesn’t express the appropriate emotion. At the moment, it is weird to see someone with a laughing portrait writing something solemn. A neutral cast to the face, somewhat like a passport photo, is probably the best compromise.

Actually, the same is true of a working life in IT. One of the first skills I learned was not to laugh at managers, but, instead, to develop a facial expression that promoted a sense of keenness, energy and respect. Every profession has its own preferred facial cast. A neighbour of mine has the natural gift of a face that displays barely repressed grief. Though he is characteristically cheerful, he earns a remarkable income as a pallbearer. DBAs and SysAdmins generally prefer an expression of calmness under adversity. It is a subtle trick, and requires practice in front of a mirror to get it just right. Too much adversity and they think you’re not coping; too much calmness and they think you’re under-employed.

With an appropriate avatar, you could do away with a lot of the need for ‘smilies’ to give clues as to the meaning of what you’ve written on forums and blogs. If you had a set of avatars, showing the full gamut of human emotions expressible in writing: Rage, fear, reproach, joy, ebullience, apprehension, exasperation, dissembly, irony, pathos, euphoria, remorse and so on. It would be quite a drop-down list on forums, but given the vast prairies of space on the average hard drive, who cares? It would cut down on the number of spats in Forums just as long as one picks the right avatar.

As an unreconstructed geek, I find it hard to admit to the value of image in the workplace, but it is true. Just as we use professionals to tidy up and order our CVs and job applications, we should employ experts to enhance our professional image. After all you don’t perform surgery or dentistry on yourself do you?

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