Closeup of closed Swiss Army knife

The Glue

Published 2022-05-05

When I worked at Kinko’s in the early 90s there was a large island table that separated the order counter from the big production machines. We called that the Glue Table — not because this was where we glued pieces of paper together (although sometimes we did that there, too) but because it was where all the jobs that passed into the production queue started and ended and got coordinated. Projects “stuck” to the Glue Table and kept coming back to it, until they were done. Every job that wasn’t a self-serve job, basically — which in 1993 meant color copies, resumés on fancy paper, faxes, page layout (by hand or using PageMaker), and ten-thousand-copy newsletters with custom folds-n-cuts for the local National Guard unit.

When the shop was busy, the Counter worker would take a customer order, fill out a job jacket, and place it on the Glue Table. If there weren’t any other jobs on the table, the Key Operator would pick it up and get started, or put it next in line on the appropriate machine. Then when the job was finished, KeyOp would sign off the job jacket and put it back on the Glue Table. The Cashier would pick up the jacket, call the customer over, and ring them up. If there were other jobs on the Glue Table, Counter would try to fit it into the queue, maybe after consulting with KeyOp. They’d arrive at an estimate for the customer and ask them to come back in 2 hours or 2 days.

The Glue Table was the place where all the roles — Counter, KeyOp, Cashier — would coordinate the work. Also the other people with even more specialized roles, like the Desktop Publisher. When work was light, so was coordination.

But sometimes the shop was really busy, and at those times more than three people were working. There were generally extra KeyOps — usually specialists on the color machines — or a second cashier. And maybe an extra person working a position that we just called The Glue. As in “hey Paul, can you work Glue tonight?” In other retail or food service jobs, that person might be called a Floater or Swing. They had to be a jack-of-all-trades, who could fill in if we opened a second register, or circle the floor troubleshooting jams on self-serve machines, or running the second-largest production machine, or refilling the (free) coffee machine, or doing page layout in PageMaker, or sending faxes. Doing whatever needed to be done.

The Glue was also, inevitably, someone who was good at, well, Glue. (Not “gluing,” although they were sometimes good at that too.) They were good at coordinating: guessing which jobs required which specialized input, which jobs needed to be scheduled for the graveyard production shift, which jobs they could cover quickly while someone else was dealing with a bigger emergency. Then routing the work between the people who could get it done. Project management. The Glue was good at project management because they were jacks-of-all-trades. Knowing a little bit about everything gave them a sense of scale for complex problems, and a feel for where the edges of domains touched.

I was hired at Kinko’s specifically to work the graveyard shift, so I had to become a jack-of-all-trades, because I worked alone. I had to learn the big production machines (to run those giant jobs scheduled over the weekend), but also how to ring up customers, make coffee, troubleshoot rental computers, unjam self-serve machines, send faxes, unclog toilets. And I had to learn it all in about a week. I was pretty handy with certain things (unjamming, production jobs, coffee), but not so great at others (I don’t think I ever had a balanced cash register at the end of a shift.)

As my tenure at Kinko’s grew I started to pick up other shifts, especially during crunch times. And I pretty much always wound up being The Glue. The person doing whatever needed to be done but also routing the jobs I couldn’t do to someone else. Project management.

That Kinko’s job is a metaphor for pretty much my entire professional arc in the Internetty/designy/computery world. I have struggled for 20+ years to define what I do: designer/developer? devsigner? UXD/product owner? product/project manager? full stack dev? full stack UX? webmaster? generalist? There are certain domains where I feel I rise nearly to mastery — well, top 20% anyway — and some things where I’m very definitely filling in for someone better who unfortunately just isn’t here right now but we really need to get this done, ya know?

For some clients, I am the Graveyard shift doing all the things, because there is no one else around to do it. They can afford one Web Guy and that Guy is me. But more often I’m working with a team, and inevitably I keep filling in the edges, the gaps where someone slicker than me just isn’t there right now.

So far this is a story I’m pretty comfortable with, that I’m a jack-of-all-trades and a git-er-done guy. It is literally my business plan. The part that has dawned on me in the last few months though is that I am also a kickass project manager. 🤯

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