About RFPs, Puzzles, and Life Lessons

“Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”

That’s the voice of the narrator in my favorite book The God of Small Things by Arundathy Roy (a paperback copy could be yours for just $10 – you will never regret it). I can’t think of a wittier quote to better describe what the daily life of the (fiction) writer is like. As storytellers we see, feel, and breathe drama from the moment we wake up (and sometimes even before then). We’re surrounded by stories: Every situation we experience is an invitation to call in the muse even if she’s taking a short break or busy working with another writer. It can be exhausting at times, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love it.

The process is a never-ending dialogue with the characters, the plot, and even the narrator, as they provide you with the exact pieces of the puzzle that will become your next story. Some pieces fit perfectly and some are difficult to assemble. I can literally spend hours finding my way through them in the quietness of my room, in front of a computer or a nice, big notebook. There are few places I feel more at home than when I’m in that ecosystem, creating.

I never thought this perspective would change.

The intricacies of assembling one’s own puzzle

My grandma is a jigsaw puzzle junkie. She can spend as many hours interlocking pieces together as I can spend combining sentences (or even more). She once told me pieces can sometimes be oddly shaped and not fit properly, or that it seems impossible to find the proper pieces for the section she’s working on. She’s never abandoned a puzzle to date, but she doesn’t hesitate to stop right there and move to another section of the picture that makes more sense. Life’s more or less the same. We can easily end up in an in-between, trying to make that one piece fit, but despite trying all the orientations, things just don’t move forward or develop. The wise decision is always to move to another section of the puzzle.

In 2016 I knew something in my professional life needed to change. I had been a teacher for 12 years and, even though I was going to miss the perks of this rewarding profession, I couldn’t wait to be motivated by newness. Now, 180-degree changes are appealing but never easy, and the transition is never perfectly smooth. Teaching I knew, but was I any good at other jobs? What if my career change turned into an epic fail?

My trick in these moments is to ask myself, “What if it isn’t? What if change helps me find exactly what I’m looking for?” So I chose to hush that impatient voice within, lose the self-judgement and follow my best friend Mariano’s advice: “Take a leap of faith.” In April that year I became an RFP writer at a software company called Avature.

The 2000-piece puzzle

Just as you guys, I had to Google “RFP writer.” I even asked my friend and fellow Avaturian Lina Hölker about the responsibilities of the position because I had no clue what an RFP writer did. All I knew was that the job entailed writing for a living and that was enough of a hook.

RFP stands for Request for Proposal. Prospects and clients invite Avature to engage in these for specific solutions and services. Submitting a proposal is actually the first step in the ladder up to a commercial deal. If well executed, it can result in partnering with new clients or extending a client’s solution suite.

I had never worked in sales. In fact, for someone who as a child never mastered the skills to sell cookies to parents and relatives at the school fair, I couldn’t help but feel this would be an interesting test.

To add complexity to my move, the process of writing an RFP response requires different skills than those of fiction writers. Key tasks in assembling a response include fully understanding the customer’s needs and objectives, answering in-depth questionnaires on our solutions and services, coordinating the review of policies, legal redlines, security and data privacy assessments, pricing, translations, and, last but not least, sitting down to write a compelling and persuasive proposal. I’ve even had to dust off my designer skills to create diagrams, put together a decent-looking PowerPoint, and yes, Photoshop stuff. In the puzzle-assembling world, it would be like making the leap from a 500-piece puzzle to a 2000-piece puzzle, and with a (sometimes tight) deadline.

I know it may sound intimidating, but that’s exactly what I needed, what my professional life lacked at the time: a compelling challenge. I switched from being a full-time teacher to a full-time student from one day to the next.

Learning to learn

My first major lesson at Avature was that to do my job right I would need to engage with not one or two, but many of my colleagues, who instantly became direct or indirect writers. I can’t write a proposal without the invaluable help of my RFP partners and a variety of teams across the company. Each sales engineer, security analyst, lawyer, and tech expert involved in the process of writing an RFP has become a patient, committed teacher for me. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t learn something new at my job.

Lesson number two, was that I don’t need to know everything. I’ve admitted there are things I don’t know (more often than I’d have liked), asked silly questions, delegated tasks when I couldn’t do them on my own, and asked for help time and again. It’s all part of the process, and necessary to obtain a great final result.

Lesson number three (maybe the most important one) was about embracing change. At first, leading proposal writing projects felt as if I were in the driver’s seat of a crowded car where all passengers had their own opinions, responsibilities, needs, and deadlines. As a former solo writer, it was a bit intimidating to turn the key for the first time. But then I remembered the “leap of faith” concept: how that vertiginous fall looks more uncomfortable than it really is, and how leaving the comfort zone brings about positive outcomes.

I have learned I could be two types of writer, and in return Avature has given me the perfect puzzle partners.

In much the same way my grandma would do it, when I receive an RFP I soon categorize all the pieces. Some are immediately identifiable, with others I now know exactly whom I need to ask for some help or a fresh perspective. We all come to the table eager to play and, by the end of the day, (or sometimes 30 minutes before the deadline) we see the final picture emerge: a perfect RFP response.