The Specs

My dad taught me how to build bookshelves when I was a little girl. He was forever building them because the flow of books into my parents’ house was always in, and never out. I grew up thinking “library” was a home décor style, like baroque or shabby chic. So Dad built bookshelves. The fanciest kinds were built-in, floor to ceiling, with painted molding and shelf supports cut into the uprights with a frightening spinning blade called a router. The quick and dirty kind were made with cheap pine and strips of metal shelving supports. I’ve always been partial to stand-alone book cases, the kind you can take from apartment to apartment. When we were dating I made my now-husband a tall, narrow bookshelf for his Fells Point row house with 8 inch deep shelves, hand rubbed oak stain, and mitered trim around the top and bottom. It lives in our dining room now, and it leans only a little bit.

My first step when building is to stare at the space, or imagine the finished product, until some image comes clear in my mind. I look pretty weird when I am doing this: when my husband walks into a room and sees me staring intently at a wall he knows there is a trip to Home Depot in the works. When I have a vague idea of what a build should look like I sketch it on paper.

That is when the real work begins: the specs.

You can’t walk into the hardware store and just buy lumber, or screws. You could, I suppose, but you are going to waste time and money and – worse – find that your design decisions are driven by what you have already bought, rather than by what would work best. And so you take your sketch and you take your measuring tape and you start to figure. How high is the ceiling? How wide is the wall? How big is the biggest book I want to put on the shelf? If I want two shelves 24 inches high, and the rest about half that, how far apart, exactly, should each shelf be, given the space between the floor and ceiling? Ooops – have I accounted for the thickness of the shelving pine, and the fact that a “1 inch” piece of lumber is actually only ¾ inch thick? Don’t ask – it just is that way.

The end result is a sheet of paper with a sketch covered with lines, arrows, numbers, and notes like “shelf held up with quarter round glued and screwed into uprights.” Beside that are some scribbled math problems: 8 shelves x 2 pieces of quarter round each, each piece of quarter round 8 inches long, 128 inches of quarter round divided by 12 is 10.6 feet total. NOTE: buy 2 8-foot lengths quarter round. I do that with each component of the build. And with that I head to the hardware store.

Compare that to the way I might plan for a work project. Here is an example of a conversation I might have about a new assignment:

My boss: Lisa, could you draft a presentation for me on that new project data?

Me: Sure.

I make a note on my To-Do list (“presentation for boss”) and then, when I’ve got some time, I pull up the data, pull up PowerPoint, and start the presentation. I might outline it first, or just use slide titles as the outline and then move those around until I’m satisfied before I actually start writing content.

But wait: where are my specs? Yeah, I don’t really do those for stuff like this. But I could, and maybe I should. Maybe we all should spec things out a bit more carefully, especially when we are carrying out someone else’s vision, or asking someone else to carry out ours. Presentations, reports, workplans, strategies, studies, meetings…they all have characteristics and features that we can describe, if we put the time into it. And putting the time into it, and describing the features of the product we want sets a bar for success or acceptability for the person we are collaborating with, whether boss, colleague, client, or consultant. I don’t want to give my boss a presentation that doesn’t meet her needs, or that makes her say “Huh. I expected better of Lisa.” Or worse: “This isn’t what I was looking for. I think I’ll just do it myself.”

What would that conversation look like, if we were to talk about specs?

My boss: Lisa, could you draft a presentation for me on that new project data?

Me: Sure. Could you tell me more about what you want? Who is it for, and when are you giving it?

My boss: It’s for a group of muckety-mucks in D.C. next Thursday, but I’d like a couple of days to get familiar with the material, so could you send it to me by Tuesday morning? I want to show them how our program is linked to impact.

Me: Okay. How many slides, do you think? And do you want the text to be in notes, with graphs and stuff in the slide, or do you want the text to be in the slide?

My boss: Make it pretty. Text in notes, graphics in slide. Maybe 15 slides total. Oh, and could you please make sure the version you send is clean? I’d rather see it later but no errors rather than earlier and be distracted by making copy edits in my head.

Me: Sounds good.

This time I make more notes in my notebook than just a To-Do:

Specs for Boss’ Presentation:

  • 15-slides, graph and data heavy.
  • Talking points in notes, not in slides.
  • Audience: high-level influencers
  • Purpose: convince muckety-mucks that our program produced results
  • Due: Tuesday morning
  • Send only finished presentation with clean graphics and text


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