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Building a writing practice

Pieter Claeszoon - Still Life with a Skull and...

Pieter Claeszoon – Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately, much of my time has been spent writing.  Aside from the support emails I write at work, I’ve been building a practice for my writing.  So far, the result has been that I spend one to two hours every day writing creative fiction.  After writing tons of blog posts, a few conference talks and an article for Techwell, I now feel extremely comfortable with writing in various shapes and forms.  There might be areas in my life where I work at having confidence, but writing is not one of them.   If you like this post, you might also enjoy what I posted a while back On Blogging.

 

This post is my way of sharing what has worked for me.  If you have something to say but are wondering where to start with writing, I hope some of what has worked for me will encourage you.

 

Start small with a focus on consistency
Although writing now takes up a chunk of my time every day, I didn’t start that way at all.  Maybe give yourself 5 minutes 3 days a week or 10 minutes each Saturday and Sunday.  The trick is to give yourself an attainable commitment and don’t focus to much on writing anything in particular.  A 10 minute brain-dump will tell you a lot about where your head is.  These are the creative breadcrumbs that will lead you to more writing later on.

 

Don’t be your harshest critic
Writing is an act of self love, especially if you feel ignored or dismissed by those around you.  I never put anything on the page that isn’t 100% for me.  This is why I haven’t done a lot of paid writing, but it keeps all of my writing true and helps me tap into my own thinking and opinions.  It should be about what you feel and what you want to say.

 

Don’t worry about grammar or slang or whatever.  I promise, Strunk & White are not gonna ring your doorbell if you misplace a comma.  Just focus on getting your thoughts down however they look.  If nothing else, some of the writing in my posts should prove that you can write even if you use way too many adverbs, capital letters or pepper everything with lol-speak. (Cuz, you know…<3<3<3)

 

If your writing is a reflection of you, then, well done!!

 

Write it when you think it

I never know when inspiration will strike, but when it does, I find a way to grab onto it no matter where or what I’m doing.  Evernote helps because it’s on my phone, my computer and available through the web.  While it’s not the most secure application, the biggest risk is that someone will get in and see my chicken scratch notes that don’t make sense to anybody but me.  It is not uncommon for me to jump out of the shower, write something down and jump back into the shower.

 

If you are searching for words…mark your place and put the writing away

If I had a $1 for every time I heard someone say, “I just sit there and can’t think of any words,” I would not be living in a 1 bedroom apartment.  If you are staring at a sheet of paper, it’s time to do something else.  Believe me, this is how your brain works.  If you continue to sit and stare at the page, you will fall into a cycle of beating yourself up for not having anything on the page which will make it harder for you to put something on the page.  Remember:  this is about being good to yourself and learning your own creative rhythms.  If you are struggling for words, put the writing down and go do something else that makes you feel great.

 

Write like no one is reading

Fear is a huge creativity killer.  It is also something that everyone faces at one time or another in their writing.  I have found it helpful to tell myself, NOBODY IS GONNA READ THIS!!!  Each blog post, article or whatever might as well be a message in a bottle I toss into a vast ocean.  Even if my message reaches a few people, most of us are so far apart geo-spatially that it won’t matter anyway.  The other side of it is that once you are writing for other people, your writing is no longer yours and that would be sad.

 

Know where and when you do your best work

Somewhere I read that Steven Spielberg goes for long drives with paper and pencil in his car because it brings up ideas.  While I hope he pulls over when he starts writing them down, this is a great example of knowing what brings up ideas for you.  For me it’s the shower and my walk to and from work.  I also love writing in the early morning when everyone else is asleep.  In fact, I go to bed early because I love getting up and writing so much.  I’ve had a couple of jobs that required me to be working during this time and they completely zapped my creative energy.  My husband will tell you that I am very cranky in the morning, but it’s definitely my best time for creative work.

 

The cabin is a MYTH
You are not a writer if at some point or another you don’t fantasize about a solitary cabin in the woods or at the beach where all of your needs are met and all you have to do is sit down and write.  The reality is that most of us have to carve out time for writing.  As I mentioned, I get up early because I’m committed.  I know others that write late into the night.  The goal is, to find your time and space during the week and do it consistently.  This holds true even if consistency means a few sentences during time that you’ve managed to snatch away from your job and your family.  I try to write a page every day.  it works, mostly, but I also don’t beat myself up if life happens.

 

A blog is not a ball and chain
It always makes me sad when people think they have to write a post every week or have to stick to one narrow subject to have a blog or when they post something like, “I know I haven’t been writing enough but…”  The posts on this blog range from conference notes to research to book reviews and even a few vacation reports.  There’s no editor to tell me what is appropriate or not and I don’t have a schedule.  There are times when I go a few months without a post and times when I post more regularly.  While I see the readership go up and down, it’s more of an interesting for me than a goal.  This is not a billable project and, believe me, velocity is the LAST thing that matters.

 

Once you think you need a certain number of readers, I don’t see how the writing can really be about you anymore unless it’s just because you want to make money.  I’m not saying that wanting to make money with a blog is bad, but it does change the writing and it’s not a great way to build a beginning writing practice.

 

Find a writing class and see what happens
For a few years, I’ve had fictional characters move into my head and set up camp.  While I did some sporadic writing mixed with bouts of self-denial and thinking they would go away, they didn’t.  To be clear, I’m not saying they control my thoughts or anything like that, it’s just that they didn’t leave.  For that reason, I started sneaking away early from work to take some  writing classes this past Winter.  The classes were terrific because they not only validated my need to write, they gave me hints on writing craft that I’ve found has spread into the other writing I do.

 

If you feel the need for a jump start for your writing, take a writing class for any type of writing that interests you.  College outreach programs are a good place to look.  In some cities, you’ll even find businesses dedicated to the teaching of writing such as San Francisco’s Writing Salon.  Fellow blogger and tester Lanette Creamer will be leading a workshop at the 2012 Star East conference titled, “From Practitioner to Published Author: A Workshop About Writing About Software,” which will, likely, be a highlight of the conference for those who attend.

 

Be sure that if you go the route of taking a writing class that you email the teacher and ask how they will critique your work.  You are looking for a teacher who believes in positive, constructive feedback.  Anything else can be a hard strike at your confidence no matter how tough you think you are.

 

We need more voices in technology and I’ve met people with incredible stories.  It doesn’t matter to me if the voices are similar to my own or quite different.  I place a high value on differing opinions.  By building your own writing practice, you can not only learn about your own voice, but, by building a writing practice you will be learning how to “own” your voice so that it is clear and distinct.

 

But don’t take my word for it, here are a few writers with their own opinions:
An interview where William Gibson describes some of his writing habits …hat tip @chris_blain

Neil Gaiman on writing (plus he links to tons of other “writers on writing)… hat tip @woodybrood

Stephen King describes his writing career and habits in his book, On Writing

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Summer Reading in San Francisco

The SF Downhill

The SF Downhill

As Summer draws to a close here in the Northern Hemisphere I’m taking stock of my summer reading. I can’t remember the last Summer when I had time to read for pleasure instead of doing homework, renovating a house, learning more Selenium or writing a paper and practicing for a conference presentation. Being so industrious in my off time has made for a great blog, but without getting out there and living life, there’s not much to write about. Thus, I took a blog-cation and caught up on some reading instead.

 

While half of my blog-cation has been summer reading, I’ve also been getting to know my new home of San Francisco, California.  This has involved adventures such as screaming at the top of my lungs while driving up or down the incredibly steep hills, catching the wrong bus and deciding my new journey is better anyway, hearing a mix of Brazilian, Mexican and Chinese in a one-block radius in the Mission and learning how to shuck my own oysters.

 

This post is a wild ride through some of the things I’ve seen in San Francisco matched with the books on my Summer reading list.

 

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

 

Marie Antoinette

How about some Gingerbread, y’all?

 

This is a book that I began reading over 2 years ago and finally picked up again this Summer. It fits in with the collection of women’s biographies I keep and was the inspiration for one of my favorite movie adaptations and soundtracks of all time (Thank you very much Ms. Coppola!)

 

Aside from the events themselves being interesting, the writing is phenomenal and the research…OMG…THE RESEARCH!!! Excuse me while I take my master’s thesis and go jump back into the research kiddie pool! The balance between the macrocosm of world events and the microcosm of Marie Antoinette’s daily existence made me feel like I was there.

 

Catching Fire and Mockingjay(Books 2 and 3 in the Hunger Games Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

bart

This BART station doubles as a bunker

 

Catching Fire and Mockingjay(Books 2 and 3 in the Hunger Games Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins
There are many reasons why I love the Hunger Games Trilogy.  While romance is part of what’s going on in this series, it’s more of a sub-plot.  The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is faced with some very tough choices, all with trade offs.

 

The author of these books specializes in writing about children and war which shows in the way the characters, many of them children handle some pretty heavy situations.  The best YA fiction stands on it’s own outside of the genre, and Hunger Games certainly does that.  Also, if you liked Hunger Games, I recommend Glass by Ellen Hopkins.

 

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon Mackenzie

blast off

Blast off next to the Bay Bridge!

If you find yourself describing your job as soul-killing, the opposite of creative or undignified, this book will shine a light on how to restore at least some of what you have lost. The author, Gordon Mackenzie worked for Hallmark Greeting Cards for years which is why format of the book is so interesting. The book itself is card shaped and the the pages are filled with illustrations and craziness. There is no digital version of this book for a reason.

 

Spook Country by William Gibson

 

Spook Country

My SF swimming hideaway

 

As part of living out my professional credo, I’ve been experimenting with creative writing. This includes some literary analysis and reading fiction that has thematic commonality with my own writing. Since most of my writing has a heavy slant towards software and technology (surprise!), I’ve been reading William Gibson very closely.

 

I must have read the first chapter of Spook Country 3 or 4 times because a good first chapter is supposedly a microcosm of a novel.  What’s crazy is how similar some of the characters are to people I know in real life.  People with more gadgets than underwear who are always traveling and may or may not have a permanent place of residence…I know a few of those.

 

Summer might be winding down up top on planet Earth, but there are plenty of folks who are just beginning to welcome the warm weather back to the Southern Hemisphere.  As for me, it’s back to writing and blogging although it is highly likely I will sneak off to read Elisabeth Hendrickson’s new book Explore It!

How’s it going with Tracker?

Pivotal Tracker

Pivotal Tracker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been nearly 3 months since I joined Pivotal Labs and the Pivotal Tracker team.  So far, the experience has been great.  While most of my time is spent writing email replies helping people get to know Tracker, I’ve also done plenty of testing and even committed a tiny fix. In short, I’ve been doing whatever the team needs done and it has all been fun.

 

There is plenty to write about with Tracker.  Aside from selling what I personally think is a great tool for managing software projects, there is how the Tracker team operates.  Obviously, we use the tool we make, but there’s another layer that is firmly grounded in the culture of trust I have found at Pivotal Labs.

 

Starting with this blog post, Tracker on the Agile Continuum, I am working along with my teammates at getting the Tracker Team’s story out.  You might want to follow the Tracker blog because I’m not sure how often I plan to do “content pointers.”  This is because I am more of a fan of having actual content in my posts, and besides, If you like my post, you might like some of my Teammates’ posts as well.

 

There are some phenomenal writers on the Tracker team, and next week, we’ll be welcoming another great writer and tester, Lisa Crispin, to our team.  Tracker’s collaborative energy is ever rising and I hope that by combining the building of an awesome tool with writing about our experiences, we can disseminate even more of that energy.  Working with it every day has been invigorating and I’d like to say thanks to all of my teammates for that.

 

Although the question in the title frames this post of how it’s going for me at Tracker, I’d love to hear about how it’s going for you with Tracker.  If you send an email to tracker at pivotallabs dot com, chances are, I’ll be the one who replies.  Send me your questions, your frustrations and your bugs!!

 

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A List of Distorted Thinking

I own a piece of paper which came to me through the network of mindfulness classes, meet-ups and meditation sittings that exist in the Republic of California.

 

For today, I am posting it verbatim.  It is precious enough to me that I want it preserved forever on the internet.  If I have to type it up and post it for that to happen, so be it.  I just want it to be out there and I predict others will also see the truth in it.

 

There is also a reason for my timing.  Markus Gärtner, author of the newly published ATDD by Example (and tester of Amazon’s I18n encoding) has recently posted on some of the fallacies involved in contextual testing.  What he writes about seems awfully close to distorted thinking which is not surprising given the fact that we are all human.

Being human means that if you have a bad lunch or some cloud system goes down which keeps you from your testing, the physical reaction of frustration leaves you very open to distorted thinking.  In the case of testing, some of this distorted thinking seems useful for uncovering test ideas, and yet we also need to recognize when it’s time to stop catastrophizing and time to start collaborating with our teammates.  If we can recognize the distorted thinking we use for test heuristics, perhaps we can also recognize when it is time to leave the distorted thinking behind.  Polarization is for formal methods…not friends.

 

Without further ado:

 

Filtering:  You take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation.

 

Polarized Thinking:  Things are black or white, good or bad.  You have to be perfect or you’re a failure.  There is no middle ground.

 

Overgeneralization:  You come to a general conclusion based on  a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again.

 

Mind Reading: Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to divine how people are feeling toward you.

 

Catastrophizing:  You expect disaster.  You notice or hear a problem and start, “what if’s: what if tragedy strikes? What if it happens to you?”

 

Personalization: Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you.  You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who’s smarter, better looking, etc.

 

Control Fallacies:  If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate.  The fallacy of internal control has you responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you.

 

Fallacy of fairness:  You feel resentful because you think you know what’s fair, but other people won’t agree with you.

Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain, or take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem or reversal.

 

Should:  You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act.  People who break the rules anger you and you feel guilty if you violate the rules.

 

Emotional reasoning:  You believe what you feel must be true automatically, If you feel stupid and boring then you must be stupid and boring.

 

Fallacy of Change: You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough.  You need to change people because your hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely upon them.

 

Global labeling:   You generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgement.

 

Being right:  You are continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct.  Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness.

 

Heaven’s reward Fallacy:  You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score.  You feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

 

There are a few of these that I recognize a little to comfortably and I’m guessing that this didn’t quite make it into the Myers-Briggs.  Who are you?

 

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Credo Work: My Professional Credo Unveiled

I believe:

 

  • Writing will always be the thing I do first and best
  • At the crossroads of collaboration and craft stands an open well of deep creativity.  Great software emerges from those who gulp from and bathe themselves in the water of this well
  • Software thrives with transparency and reciprocity between its makers, its users and its surrounding community
  • Workplace safety is non-negotiable and includes emotional safety in the milieu of conferences, email lists, twitter and meet-ups.  If someone (a boss, peer, industry expert) says or does something that compromises my safety, I have the right to walk out whether it’s a conference presentation, workplace brown bag or one-on-one meeting
  • An open web, open information, open data and open source software are all critical for social justice on a global scale
  • Humans and their expressions are too complex to ever be completely definable by technology or labels.
  • Software is better when it is made by a team that functions not as a well-oiled machine but as a team of humans who respect each other and know how to collaborate
  • Focusing on the values in the Agile Manifesto means that software is built with heart and balance no matter what the process is called.
  • If safety and humility are a primary focus, confidence and risk-taking flow.

 

This is my professional credo which was included in my slide deck for Better Software West.  I will get around to uploading the slides although there is actually more information in the blog posts I wrote.
My presentation focused on the process I used to build my credo and why I think this type of thing can be valuable.

 

I had a great audience with lots of questions.  One person observed that some of my statements seem like a reaction, and that is absolutely correct.  There are some hard-learned life-lessons in that credo and publishing it on my blog is the equivalent of me showing off my battle scars.  I wear them proudly because I’ve fucking earned them.

 

Someone else pointed out that one time or another we all cave on our principles in order to earn a paycheck.  Let me emphasize that that these are areas where I am not likely to compromise very much, if at all.  I am also willing to put in the work on my skills, my career and my professional network so that I don’t have to worry about compromising these.  At the worst, things will shift around me and I will find myself in a place where I realize the compromise is happening, but that is the point of this whole exercise.  I will know that as the sands of my job, my career and my place in technology shift I’ve got my own values and priorities to steer my decisions.

 

Another person was asking how I plan to keep up with this credo.  This is an excellent question, because this is the point where I start living with my credo.  As I’ve watched my numerous posts in this project creep over my blog, I’ve come to realize that this is heavier than a few posts and needs more of an afterword than this one post.  The conference might be over, and my credo might be posted, but the project, itself is far from complete.

 

A few times during this process, I have been asked where the activities I’ve blogged originated.  It’s all from the workbook for a Unitarian Universalist religious education class called, “Building Your Own Theology” by Richard S. Gilbert.  (If you don’t know what Unitarian Universalist is, stayed tuned!  I will get around to posting about it.)

 

My current plan has two parts.  I’m working on putting together a short e-book of the posts I’ve written already (Don’t ask when it will be out. I don’t know).  That takes care of what I’ve written so far.  As for the afterward, I’m going to paste my credo into the about page of this blog and continue blogging about different pieces within the credo itself or link to posts I’ve already written that cover a part of the credo.  If Leanpub works the way I think it does, there will be a way for me to add those posts to the e-book as they happen.

 

Is it just me or have I made more work for myself with this?  Although my credo is up there, I don’t see an end.  I see a beginning.

 

Thanks to everyone who came to see my talk or who have posted comments, retweeted or sent me feedback about this.  It’s been one of my crazier blog jaunts and the feedback has reminded me that it is crazy AND worth doing.

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Writing bugs if you are not a tester (or if you are a tester and would like to review)

Software Bugs

Software Bugs (Photo credit: FastJack)

In the past month, I’ve had a few different people who are not testers ask me about filing bugs.  It always makes me happy when people ask me this question, because knowing how to write up a good bug is the first step towards getting it fixed.  The more effectively you write bugs, the closer you will be to getting your problem taken seriously and addressed.  Since computing is now so ubiquitous this goes for everyone from developers interacting to sales and marketing people or even end users interacting with support.

 

Write an effective title

In this day of scanning, bug titles turn into what everyone will look at the most in a bug.  In Tracker, they turn into story titles which is the most visible element of a story.  It’s worth taking extra time to make sure the title is as succinct yet as informationally dense as possible.

 

Take pains to write clear steps to reproduce the problem

While some bugs are worth capturing even if you cannot reproduce them, it always helps the person on the other end to understand your bug if you include clear steps to reproduce.  I make them painfully obvious, for example:

1.  Open the Firefox browser
2.  Open this URL:  <URL would go here>

3. Click on the big red button

If you can identify elements by their CSS class or ID, that is a great way to make things clearer, if not, do your best to describe what you see.

 

Include environment information

Which Browser, which Browser version and which Os?

If you are on a device, the name of the device (Asus Transformer) and operating system version will clarify what hardware you are using when you see the bug.

 

Expected Behavior vs. Actual Behavior

Explain what you thought you would see vs. what actually happened.  Often a feature works as the developer or product manager expected or you have uncovered an area of behavior that was not thought about when the feature was designed and coded.  For this reason, it is important to separate what you expect from what actually happens.

 

Screenshots

It is good to include screenshots if something is noticeably wrong.  Personally, I prefer a carefully written description as it gives me insight into what the author of the bug was thinking.

 

Manage your tone of voice – don’t write mean bugs

It can be easy to sound irate or self-righteous in a bug.  Testers know this.  After you’ve completed writing it up, read for and remove any overly emotional language.  This goes for obvious phrases such as, “THIS MAKES ME WANT TO SLIT MY WRISTS,”  “WTF” or “Really????????” and also more subtle language.  Such language will not get your bug fixed any sooner and will only alienate you from those who can fix the problem.  (I have learned this lesson from experience and have written a few mean bugs in my time.)

 

Don’t assign priority if you can help it

There is a difference between the severity with which a bug impacts your usage of a system versus the priority with which a developer will be able to fix the bug.  While it’s well withing range for you to right about how a bug has impacted the application you are using, you are not the one in charge of the development schedule.

 

Anyone who works on finding and writing better bugs deserves a pat on the back so, here, let me give you a virtual one: <Marlena pats you on the back/>

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Credo Work: The ‘So What?’ Test

I have wandered into an oasis in the middle of a desert…

An Oasis in the Desert

Water!!!!

 

O wait. I’m at The Mirage in Las Vegas. I’m presenting tomorrow at the Better Software Conference in Ceasar’s Palace.

 

The Mirage in Las Vegas

The Mirage in Las Vegas

I’m here to wrap up my credo series by presenting my credo and the steps others can use to create their own at the Better Software West/Agile Development Practices Conference.

 

But first, it’s time to really shake out my credo. I’ve been adding to it for quite a while now and it’s been good to see it grow. Writing down things that I believe has been a great confidence builder. Now it is time to go through each part of it and edit.

 

As a nomad in the desert can pack up all of their belongings and carry them from place to place, my credo is supposed to suggest ideas and values that are so core to who I am that I can take that they survive even among the shifting sands of the tech industry. They should be succinct and easy to remember. In fact, Bret Victor in his talk, “Inventing on Principle” suggests paring it down to one and only one guiding principle. (His talk is worth setting aside an hour and contains some amazing UX technology guided by his one principle).

 

This editing down of the credo is the “so what?” test and it involves looking at the credo through the lens of clarifying values.  I really like the list of clarifying values listed in “Building Your Own Theology” and found them to be a great guide.  After all, if I am willing to say I believe something, I should be willing to affirm it in public in front of my peers, act upon it and practice it consistently.

 

“Values, meanings and convictions are:

1. Freely chosen
2. chosen from among alternatives
3. chosen reflectively and deliberately
4. prized and cherished (you feel good about them)
5. willingly and publicly affirmed
6. acted upon
7. part of a consistent pattern of behavior”

 

It is also worth asking for each statement in a credo if “you practice what you preach” and rating that on a scale from 1 to 7.

 

I’ve written about the concept of congruence before.  This is matching what you think and feel on the inside with what you do and say on the outside.  Going through your beliefs and asking yourself if you practice what you preach is a great way to assess your congruence.  If something is out of whack, maybe there are some changes you can make to bring yourself more in line.  I realize that this is much easier said than done, but following through on that is necessary for building self-worth and confidence.

 

Here are a few more questions that round out the so what test:

 

How do the statements in your credo interfere with your career today?
What are the main obstacles for living your professional values?
What plans can you make to bring your professional life more in line with your values?
What will you do differently after today?

 

If you’ve been reading my blog, you may have noticed that I made a rather big change recently when I switched jobs from Software Engineer in Test at Mozilla to Support/QA for Pivotal Tracker. That was a direct result of noticing that I wasn’t living out my beliefs and values.  My life has been fairly nomadic in the past few years and if there is one thing I have learned it is that life is too short,  too precious and too wonderful for me to spend even a minute of it with my values out of whack with the way I live.

 

Tomorrow, I’ll post my credo here after I have unveiled it in my session.  If you are at Better Software West/Agile Development Practices, you can catch my session at 4:00pm in Florentine Ballroom III.

 

 

Credo Work: At the end of the world

“In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You…you said you’d wait
’til the end of the world”

 

-U2
Until the end of the world

 

This credo work is nearly over.  Next week I will be presenting the whole of the journey at Better Software West which includes the unveiling of my own Credo.  There is still, however, a bit of work to be done.  In this post, I explore the meaning and purpose of professional life.  If we were hiking through the desert, this would be the point in the trip where we reach the edge of a great precipice and, peer over the side, pondering our next move.

Road Follows the Twists and Turns of Island in the Sky, a Mesa in the Northern Section of the Canyonlands, 05/1972

Island in the Sky - U.S. National Archives

This photo is from a cliff I stood atop years ago with my husband.  It is in an area called, “Island in the Sky” in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.  I remember standing at the edge, my husband politely suggesting in a louder-than-normal voice that I step back.  It was exhilarating because I was staring at the end of the world.

 

This is the raw place I have written about where everything is stripped away and all you can see is your own bare reality.  All of the activities I have blogged about are levels of stripping away bullshit until you get to this moment and the meaning of your life is staring you in the face, intertwined with your physical mortality.

 

All of our careers have a shelf life, and before that day comes, it’s worth asking questions about the meaning of our careers and what we intend to leave behind.  If this seems too abstract and distant in terms of your current context, never fear!  There is a “purpose in life” quiz you can take!  It is not a magical cure for anything, but if you have lost your way and are too caught up in a daily grind (which happens to everyone at one time or another) this test will make it fairly obvious.

 

I took this test and managed to squeak over the edge of having a clear purpose.  I’m sure there are improvements I can make, but I’m in a pretty good place with what I’m doing.

 

Here are a few open-ended  sentences you can complete.  Some are from the book, “Building your own theology,” by Richard S. Gilbert.  Some of them I adapted to those of us working in software.  Don’t overthink them, but rather, jot down the first thing that pops into your head:

I most want:

My career is:

I hope I can:

I have achieved:

My highest professional aspiration:

The most hopeless thing:

The whole purpose of my career:

My day-to-day job:

My role in software:

To me software is:

I am accomplishing:

This should get your writing juices flowing.  Now try writing a paragraph about your professional aims, ambitions and goals.

 

In writing my paragraph, there were no surprises, but then, I’m nearly at the end of this journey.  At this point, it’s all about distilling the most important bits out of all of the work that I’ve done.  Whenever I find myself standing at the edge of a cliff, faced with my own physical mortality, the important stuff typically finds its way to the surface.  Who cares about stand ups or the commute or the fact that the office I work in is always so freaking chilly!  Whatever I want to accomplish most unfurls itself and hangs over the earth as I gaze out into the distance.

 

To end this chapter in the credo work, I’ve written a cinquaine which is a variant of the haiku.  Here is the structure if you would like to write your own:

 

start with a noun
two words modifying the noun
3 “ing” words related to the noun
a related 4 word phrase
a synonym of the noun

 

Here is mine:
data
messy unparsed
illuminating, clarifying, expanding
now you see it
information

Credo Work: A few bits from Software History

The Cathedral & The Bazaar

The Cathedral & The Bazaar (Photo credit: Hades2k)

Even though the software credo I am writing is a personal thing, I’m not writing it in a vacuum.  We are all writing the history of software and, at this point, the history of computers and software is big enough and old enough to have it’s own corners and back alleys.

 

In this post, I’ve researched into some questions about computer & software history. I’ll be writing about some events that were important in my corner of computers, some of moments which were not the best, and the event I would most like to have witnessed.
Who are some of the important people or events in your particular area of software and what did they contribute.

I’ve already blogged about The Ultimate Nerd and my ultimate nerds so I’ll be focusing mainly on the events in computer and software history that has meant the most to me.

 

The fight between Internet Explorer and Mozilla
I may have just left Mozilla as a corporate employee, but Mozilla and its mission are still very much alive to me.  If you don’t understand what the whole fight for the open web is about, it is worth Investing 40 minutes of your time to watch Mitchell Baker talk about the history of Mozilla.

 

Back in the nineties, I remember listening to NPR every day for news about how the lawsuit between Microsoft and Mozilla was proceeding.  I hope that, at some point, a book is written about the history of Mozilla and some of its projects.  I had chills more than once as I watched Mitchell Baker give this talk on the history of Mozilla.  A lesson she learned from the Mozilla project and her most memorable quote from this talk is something I will carry around with me until I die, “Leadership depends on who will follow you.”  (It’s at 11:30 if you wish to listen for yourself)

In fact, the fight isn’t over.

 

The blossoming of the open source software movement
The theology of the open web and open source software is deep water which I’m not expecting to plumb in a couple of paragraphs, but if you give yourself the time to really dive into the history and its ideas, you will be rewarded.

 

If you wish to wade into these waters, I highly recommend reading through The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond.  It is beautifully written and I think I must have highlighted half of it.  Although there are frequent references to the creation of Linux, the paper itself is timeless like K&R or Unix Shell Scripting.

 

Reading through this paper, I could see some of the groundwork for agile being laid.  There is a spirit of egalitarianism coupled with a “need for speed.”  Raymond mentions in a few places that it is important to “release early, release often.”  He also writes about the very inclusive development philosophy of Linus Torvalds which was counter to the more exclusive “cathedral” model of isolating a few geniuses and letting them polish the software creating a longer release cycle.

 

This actually deserves a longer post and critique in the context of what we know about open source today.

 

The signing of the Agile Manifesto

Looking at the number of people who were present for this event, I will never understand how they were all able to agree on the document itself.  It appears to me to be one of the greater examples of consensus.  The fact that what’s in the manifesto meant enough to these guys to get together and agree on it sends a strong message.  I consider myself lucky to swim in this every day at Pivotal Labs and I hope my blog helps you push further with it in your own professional life.

 

Historical Software Defects
These are the moments in software history that are not the greatest but they have valuable lessons to teach.

Therac-25
The, “primary reason should be attributed to the bad software design and development practices, and not explicitly to several coding errors that were found. In particular, the software was designed so that it was realistically impossible to test it in a clean automated way.”

 

The Therac 25 was designed to automate the delivery of radiation therapy to cancer patients.  Tragically, it sometimes injected patients with levels that were too high, even tragically high.

My software engineering teacher, Dr. Susan Duggins, first introduced me to this in our software engineering class. It’s important because it highlights that testing should be involved earlier in the software process and that building software is not just about typing out the code.  I am in love with the idea of ecosystems as they apply in software and in open source.  This legal case points the way towards software occurring in an ecosystem.

 

The Mars Rover
Imagine that you’ve spent months working on a small vehicle that will land on Mars.  Imagine the pressure of knowing that many millions of dollars has been spent for you to do this work.  It’s a crowning achievement involving your team and other teams as well.

 

Imagine that the Rover lands and doesn’t work because you’ve been programming in standard measurement units, but an external team you’ve been working with has used the metric system.  I would have cried for days.

 

The failing of the Mars Rover demonstrates the power of good communication and how major defects can occur without it.  If you are a tester and you sometimes feel like the team therapist because you’re trying to get developers to talk with each other, I have news:  You are not alone in feeling like a therapist.  If you ever wonder if you are doing the right thing or sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, think of the Mars rover team.

 

If you could only witness one moment in computer or software history, what would it be and why?
For this question I am brazenly cheating.  I’d like to watch one of the great visualizations being drawn just to see the tools that were used and the place where it was being drawn.  These had to be hand drawn as there was no machinery to produce them.  I’d like have a look at the instruments used to make the measurements and the drawing implements.  I’d like sit in the chair that William Playfair sat in or watch Charles Joseph Minard explain his visualization of Napoleon’s March.

 

This concludes my look at software history for my blog post, but it’s brought up some threads I’d like to push further.  I’m not quite finished reading and writing about “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”  I’m also not finished with “Leadership depends on who will follow you.”  It’s a funny thing about these credo posts.  They tend to open more doors and windows than I have time to close.  I don’t mind leaving them open, however, as this is letting in some fresh air.  Wherever you are, I hope that when you get to the end of my post, you take a minute and just…breathe.

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Lady Lego Pirates or Why My Mom is AWESOME

Pirate Legos

My sister and I opened our Lego gifts and were delighted!  What kid wouldn’t be excited to get a huge box of Lego pirates!  After we’d opened the boxes, Mom told us she was not happy that all of the pirates were men and that she’d written Lego a letter and received a response back.  “They actually do have lady pirates, they just hadn’t started making them yet.”  She showed us a letter she had received on Lego corporate stationary.  “They are sending us some lady pirates, but they won’t be here for a few days.  You two are getting some of the first lady pirates.”

Photo by Mom

We did, indeed, receive the lady lego pirates and enjoyed the pirate lego set.  In fact, we entered a Lego contest at the Kmart down the road and my sister won!!

 

This would certainly make a happy end to the story, but life is not a fairy tale and moments like these feed into what happens to us later in life.  At the time, I did not know that I would eventually be getting a BS in Computer Science or that I would spend a lot of time questioning why I was one of 5 women in the BS program at my school.

 

After listening to presentations and reading research papers passed around the Vancouver Grace Hopper conference, the conclusion I reached is that, at least in the U.S., girls are trained and messaged away from math and science at a very young age. The message is that we don’t want to play with erector sets or to take apart our computers.  According to the marketing, the only thing we’re supposed to want is an E-Z bake oven and a birthday party at the American girl store.  Don’t mistake what I say as a 100% rejection of those things.  I think it’s fine to learn how to bake or play with dolls. I do, however, reject the way it’s shoved down our throats as “what girls like to do.”

 

When I hear people say girls don’t stick around in math and science because they are not interested, I’d like to point them to the commercials that play on Saturday morning cartoons or to the faces they see on the boxes in the toy aisles.  If you have kids, take a minute to look around the next time you are buying toys. You might find it eye-opening.  Although I haven’t seen it, I hear the documentary “Miss Representation” deals with this topic.

 

I was prompted to write this post after reading Legos, Spaceships and Breasts by Kate Bachus.  Kate appears to be a mom who shares some of the frustrations my own mother experienced years ago and so I decided it was time to share my family’s story.  These types of choices and voiced frustrations reverberate long after the legos are put away.

 

I do think that there has been some progress although I feel extremely conflicted about some of the progress. While I understand on some level it’s good that lego is trying the “girl” lego thing (kind of like Barbie made a “Computer Engineer” Barbie), I also think it’s great that there are moms out there wanting to know why the girl legos aren’t better, and encouraging their kids not to care about whether their legos come from the pink aisle or the blue one.  My mom gave me the same encouragement and this is part of the reason why MY MOM IS AWESOME.

 

(With the Barbie…does anybody seriously wear pink cat eye glasses or carry a pink laptop?  I better change my vim color scheme to Flamingo or the Barbie police will arrest me.)