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Changing the World with a Breath and a Test

Today is Friday and it’s time to relaaaaaax.

Chilling out in tech can be so hard sometimes.  There are so many places the stress comes from, I don’t even feel the need to explain it because it exists for all of us in one form or another.  Yes, you can say, “that’s life,” however, I feel it’s intensified to a fever pitch in tech almost every day at even the best workplaces.

As I worked on finding ways to chip away at my personal incarnation of stress, I began to think of how a web app could address the larger topic of workplace stress and chilling out when you need it the most.  I won’t ask you to raise your hand if you’ve suffered anxiety at work, because I now assume that most of us do.  This was on my mind as I was doing lots of testing of text fields for my job such as names, comments and descriptions.  Testing text fields often involves pasting some text into those fields, usually from a dummy text generator commonly referred to as an ipsum generator.

Every tester has their favorite Ipsum, from the meats of Bacon Ipsum to the irony of Hipster Ipsum or even the NSFW Samuel L. Ipsum.  One day as I was pasting another lengthy sheaf of text while taking some deep breaths, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to see the meditative phrases I’m often muttering to myself staring out at me through my test data.

This is how I came to build the app I’m releasing today, Relax Ipsum.  I built it with help from friend and javascript developer, Ryan Dy.  It’s a fairly simple, straightforward, static app that uses HTML, CSS and Javascript with a guest appearance from JQuery.  You can look at the source here.  In the process of building this app and working together on some other JS projects, Ryan taught me a lot about thinking in Javascript vs. Java (the language that began my programming journey), test driving code and taking Javascript from tutorial-grade to a real-world implementation.  

Our mentoring relationship has been the difference between me putting this app in your hands vs. me building another fake twitter cobbled together from web tutorials and stack overflow.  That’s power.  Having someone tell me that, yes, I can do this even if I feel like an idiot, is a machete cutting deep into imposter syndrome.  I carried this confidence with me to AdaCamp where I discussed the power of mentoring with others who have had similar experiences with mentoring and I even helped some people get started on their own web development journey.

I feel like Ryan and I discovered the path to change the world. The folks organizing this year’s Cascadia.js conference agree that we are onto something.  Ryan and I will be talking about Hacking Mentor.js at this year’s Cascadia.js conference in Portland.

In the meantime, let’s take a deep, everybody-chill-out-we-made-it-to-Friday breath.

The Conversation of Code Review: Using Satir modes to improve your code review skills

I recently got to see a terrific talk about Better Code Review by Doc Ritezel at the March SF Ruby Meetup. His slides are posted here and are worth a look. Meetup talks can be a mixed bag, but with detailed examples and useful takeaways, I found the talk itself to be that rare mixture of entertaining and thought-provoking.

Doc’s talk follows in the wake of another huge discussion about hostile workplaces, this time at Github. His presentation focused on what a positive workplace looks like and what’s missing from most workplaces in terms of code review. He first illustrated the difference between authoring and reviewing code, then covered what can go wrong on each side of the table through a few example scenarios. These scenarios were, sadly, recognizable by more than a handful of audience members. Finally, he made a few suggestions about how to modify feedback to be more positive.

If you’ve ever participated in code review, either through static comments on Github or real-time pair programming interactions, you know how easy it is to spoil someone’s day by saying the wrong thing. If you’re the author, to use Doc’s parlance, you could be working with an otherwise-great reviewer whose comments suck all the pleasure out of working with them. Likewise, it’s important as an author to know how to be open to feedback. Building software is a highly collaborative process, and understanding how giving feedback can go wrong is important.

I found myself noticing Satir Categories in some of the slides that Doc presented. One of my recent reads, “More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense,” by Suzette Haden Elgin, talks about personality categories developed by Virginia Satir, widely known as the originator of family therapy. I definitely noticed my own personality in the group. There are five categories, and you might recognize yourself in one of them, too:

The Blamer places permanent responsibility on anyone else’s shoulders. Although the Blamer could be identified by someone who loves shouting and pointing fingers, in reality the Blamer can speak with a soft voice. Professor Snape, for instance, was pretty good at cutting people down with his voice at a minimal volume.

A good way to identify the Blamer is the use of absolute language: “always,” “never,” “only,” “everybody,” “not even once” and so forth. For example, “Never use strings as hash keys,” “Only smart people use vim” or “Always use git add -p.”

It’s worth thinking through this a step further. Imagine phrases that don’t necessarily use these keywords but imply an absolute rule like: “When you don’t use git rebase, a kitten dies.” Notice that there’s an implied “Always,” like “always use git rebase.” Or maybe “these tests are so redundant,” which carries an implication that “every test should be unique.”

The Blamer’s actions universally carry a single subtext: I disagree with your code, so you should feel ashamed.

The harm that results from placing shame on another teammate, someone who is presumably making an effort to work with you on building something complex can have far-reaching consequences at the individual and the team level. These issues are beyond the scope of this post, but for now, let’s just say placing shame is something to be avoided if you want to foster collaboration.

The Placater feels quiet anxiety and fear while trying to please everyone. Playing the victim role comes naturally to the Placater, as does using appeasement to defer any decision-making responsibility. You won’t identify the Placater by tears or yelling; they’re most likely too tightly wound.

Key phrases sound like “Let’s do things your way” and “I don’t know enough about this.” What’s sad here is that the Placater really does know what they want, but doesn’t feel comfortable putting themselves in a position where they might be wrong later. After all, being wrong would open the Placater up to persecution, which they fear above all else.

The Placater’s actions have their own subtext: I wish I wasn’t here.

Okay, now imagine that the Blamer and the Placater have to do a code review. The Blamer wants to shame the Placater for disagreeable code, and the Placater takes the abuse while trying to make the Blamer like them personally. This is a dangerous dynamic to have in place because it will re-enforce the blamer’s pointy finger and make the Placater feel even more victimized than they already do. If this is happening on your team, it’s time to get some help for yourself or for your team.

The Computer, in addition to being named the same as the thing in front of you, is another Satir Category. People in Computer mode hide as much emotion as possible. Science fiction loves this part of the strong, silent masculine image such as the character Dr. Spock from Star Trek.

In hiding behind a facade of detachment, the Computer is able to avoid projecting emotions, and thus avoids placing blame on the other person. Any blame is therefore directed at the code, or something abstract. This category is marked by a lack of referenecs to “I” or “me,” or really to any person at all.

Although Doc mentions using “I” and avoiding “you” as positive takeaways in his talk, this is a half-measure compared to the total detachment of the Computer. While it has obvious utility for reviewers who are purposefully trying to avoid shaming an author, becoming the Computer can also be useful for authors dealing with the Blamer.

The Distracter cycles through Blamer, Placater and Computer giving an impression of disorganization, panic, silliness or all three. Although this mode is trickier to pin down, think about it this way:

Reviewer [Placater]: “I’m not sure, but you might want to parse out the xml here. There are a few libraries to choose from, feel free to choose any of them.” Author: “Ok, I’ll use Beautiful Soup” Reviewer [Blamer]: “No, don’t ever use Beautiful Soup.” Author: “Ok, I won’t use that one. Is there one you prefer?” Reviewer [Computer]: “There are several libraries preferred within the Python community.”

In this case, the reviewer gives the author a choice, but doesn’t support the choice being made by the author. Besides being very confusing to the author, it also puts them in a no-win situation because it doesn’t matter which action the author takes. Anything they do appears to be wrong in the eyes of the reviewer.

The Leveler matches up what they are thinking and feeling with their words and body language. This is also defined as congruence which I wrote about here. This is someone taking in the context of the situation and being straight-up about what they are saying without resorting to blamer, computer or placater mode.

The advantage of leveling is that you know you are getting an honest response upon which you can rely. The downside is that it might be very harsh or more intense than someone is ready to hear which can throw your audience off guard.

In a code review situation, this is the mode I personally appreciate even if the feedback I am getting is not puppies and kittens. Even if the reviewer is not totally happy with my work, if they can manage to avoid the other modes mentioned, it’s easier to get on with the business of correcting what needs to be fixed or to engage in more of a discussion.

What do I do with these?

  • If you feel like you are in hot water in a code review, go to computer mode. In fact, think of this as “safe mode” for your conversations. It will be harder to work through choices because you are not expressing much of an opinion, but you won’t be taking as many risks. This buys you time to figure out what’s going on or to get in touch for a face to face conversation. However, if you are speaking in Computer mode most or all of the time, it might be a sign that you are shying away from voicing an actual opinion
  • Unless you’re pretty sure that the other person is in leveling mode, don’t match Satir modes. For example, two blamers will end up in violent disagreement that will be challenging to repair. Two placaters will find it challenging to come to a decision. Two computers, well… there’s a reason why it was Captain Kirk and Spock. If Star Trek had been Spock and Spock, the Enterprise would never have undertaken a mission as risky as exploring unknown galaxies.
  • Avoid using Distractor mode as much as possible unless you deliberately want to look crazy in your code review.

Where do I even start?… It can be really hard to sustain an emotionally safe work environment. Since making software is highly collaborative, the challenge is increased even further. I am hopeful that the days of choosing CS as a major because you won’t have to work with people or talk to anyone are over, but even then, we’re still left with the fact that we are human. In fact, many of us who work in tech come from a background of being taunted at school or picked on by parents to the extent that we were driven inward, towards the machine, towards the code and away from the responsibility of external relationships with real people.

  • One quick win is to practice avoiding words that signal blamer mode (always, never, only, everybody, anybody, ever, not even, once) If you know of things you’ve said in a code review that are in blamer mode, can you think of a way to re-phrase them?
  • Watch this talk by Jenn Turner about Non-violent communication from Cascadia.js. She brought the house down and her talk was recorded.
  • Read more about Satir Modes in More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense or start at the source with Virginia Satir’s groundbreaking classic, New Peoplemaking.
  • Read about non-violent communication in the book, Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg and Arun Gandhi

Forgive yourself for mistakes you’ve made and take a deep breath! You get to try again tomorrow.

A big thanks to Doc for helping me put together this post and to Sarah Mei for organizing the SF Ruby Meetups.

Underwater Blues: Getting Down into the Second Draft

“You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Díaz

From Becoming a Writer/ The List, O Magazine, November 2009

 

It is easy to write the first draft.

Starting with a blank page means that your characters can be anyone you want.  The story world is yours to build anywhere you choose.  It’s easy to tell yourself that eventually the plot points will line up, the heroine will save the day and maybe end up with a hot guy.  This is because the first draft is essentially a brain dump, the worst version that will exist.  Expectations are low.

By the second draft, however, you are working with something that came before.  There will still be big changes, but they have to fit in with the existing framework.  The blank pages that caught tragic flaws and mistakes so easily before are now filled with words that can be their own sticky web of tangles and snarls.  The layers of story you’ve built might fit together but it’s more likely they’ll run over each other or sit across the widest chasm waiting for the bridge you have to build between them.

It can be hard to feel forgiveness in your own writing.

Even worse, life and world events change your perspective on your own story and what used to look like a battle to save the world is now chick lit where the heroine’s big task is rearranging her closet…in 300 pages.

There is also the fatigue.  In the first draft, you are a fresh-faced, new grad with no mistakes or missteps marring your record.  As the plot winds on, however, every challenge seasons you.  For the most part this is good, but in the second draft, self-doubt can creep in as you read back over your previous pages.  The shitty first draft you wrote turns into its own performance review and your own words tell you that you are, undoubtedly, under-performing.

That under-performance affects what you think you’re capable of writing next or whether you are capable of building the bridge.  The inner critic shows up to explain in voluminous detail how each word is a failure and the tragic flaws of your characters become your own.  Instead of your monumental achievement, your precious first draft becomes the written warning sent by certified mail and you are on notice about your own writing.

This can be a death spiral.

It is important to recognize the inner critic if only to banish it.  Everyone, no matter what they do, has one of these.  Sometimes, it’s your past coming back to haunt you, which is truly sad.   No one deserves being made to feel as if everything they do or write is a mistake, but for too many people, at some stage in their lives, a person exists who does that very thing.  Even if it’s only your own internal pressures, it’s important to learn how to let go of these harsh voices and continue laying down the pages word by word.

Letting go is the key.  Letting go is how your initial draft came to be in the first place. It is the release from your own high expectations or any thoughts that this next draft will be better at all than the last one.  Even if it is worse, who is counting?

So let go of the page count and the chapters.  Let go of the location of your story and your character’s point of view.  Let go of what must be and let go of “the message.”  It’s ok to float and ok to release what you knew about your story.  Let it all go, all of it.

I’m sure that for every story, there are some pieces that float away and won’t return, but there are also the pieces that stay.  This is the kernel of truth about your story and this kernel makes it the story that only you can tell.

When I let go, my characters come back to me.  They take my hand and they walk me back to the story world we created together.

We are walking and I am writing.

digi.lit – ism

Was the last book you read a printed book?  I’m guessing it wasn’t.  Maybe it was a book on the kindle or a graphic novel on your iPad or a novel in serial form you read on your phone from any of several vendors.

As a blogger sitting on the first draft of my first novel, it’s never been a question to me of “if” I will self-publish, but when and where.  I’m still working through craft issues and I know that there is more work ahead before I release, but even outside of that, I find what is happening in publishing to be completely fascinating.  For these reasons, this past Saturday I attended the digi.lit conference on digital publishing put together by the organizers of San Francisco’s LitQuake literary festival.

The saying is typically that things change by the minute, but in publishing, it’s changing by the nanosecond.   The amount of time between the word hitting the page and the reader having it in their hands is drastically shrinking even to the point of writers releasing their work in a more serial format.  In the case of many of peers in Software Testing (Hello Elisabeth, Mike, Alistair, Cheezy, and Alan) they are publishing on Lean Pub and iterating on their work.

With the game re-arranging itself at such a fast pace, I’ve had a lot questions as I’ve been working on my draft and I’ve even seen some of those questions answered or change over time.  Here are some of the questions I had during the conference today.  Not all of them have answers, but I’ll leave those unanswered questions as a place marker or invitation for a blog comment.

Q:  I have a draft.  I wanna e-publish.  Now what?

A:  You could hang that draft out there for all to see, but it would likely be caught adrift in the tubez.  Literary agent April Eberhardt is of the opinion that 95% of e-books are not edited or layed out well or have crap covers.  Having read more than a few these, I tend to agree.  April suggests that you need to at least:
1.  Engage an editor so that you don’t have typos and so that your sentences flow well
2.  Get yourself a “good” book cover.  As an example, she suggested Holly Payne’s “Kingdom of Simplicity.”

Q: Should I plan on having some printed copies?

A:  This question gets to the heart of what is currently a huge tension within the world of self-publishing.  Fact: E-books require far less work to publish and market than printed books.  However, if you want your book to be reviewed, or if you want to engage the community that is physically around you to read your book, you will likely need some that are printed.

In all of the discussion I heard, the conclusion I came to about ebooks and independent booksellers is that the relationship between ebooks and independent booksellers is very murky waters.  A major and, I believe, unintentional theme of the conference was the hate-hate relationship between independent booksellers and Amazon.  It was emphasized that if you want an independent bookseller to carry your book, you shouldn’t be telling people to only go to Amazon on your web-site.  Ultimately, this is one of the questions that I haven’t answered for myself yet, but I also expect more change in this space before I have to worry about it.

Q: When should I start marketing my work?

A: The suggestion was repeatedly made that the time to start marketing a book is yesterday.  So much was said in this particular session about “building your marketing platform,” by blogging and tweeting, but, by all means “do what makes you comfortable.”

I couldn’t help but listen feeling very tongue-in-cheek about it.  On the one hand, I’ve been working on my novel for over a year by getting up every morning and writing.  I’m definitely interested in doing what I can to sell it when the time comes. OTOH, social engineering makes me throw up in my mouth a little.  I think every blogger will know what I’m talking about.  So far, I’ve always erred on the side of authenticity and I don’t really think that’s going to change, although I can see putting up a badge and blogging about a book I’ve published every now and them.   As a whole, the conference did inspire me to blog a little more.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Q: How much should you really shell out for a cover if it’s just an ebook?

A: Aside from getting your book edited, the other standout piece of advice that was mentioned over and over was to invest in a book cover that doesn’t suck.

In the panel discussion, “Judging a Book by its Cover:  The Potential of Graphics,” Geary Zendejas said that you have 6-8 seconds to sell your book on a web-site.  He also mentioned that research indicates book covers for ebooks that sell are very, very different from covers of print books that sell.  For ebooks, large typography draws the most attention but for printed books it’s more about photography, detail, texture and feel.  In the session on marketing, independent bookstore owner Christin Evans mentioned that for printed books, it is not just about the cover, but it’s also about the spine.  My personal philosophy is that you can sell anything with a cat on it, so maybe I’ll just stick with that.

My takeaways

  • It’s time to get back to the basics of blogging.  This isn’t even about blogging more.  What people forget about blogging is that it really is a two way straight where you’re participating in a community.  For myself, I plan on reading more of other people’s blogs and leaving comments.  It might sound cheesy, but I believe in having a shared pool of knowledge with active participants.
  • It’s time to get to know some of San Francisco’s independent booksellers.  I’m privileged to live in a city that is rich in indie bookstores and a few of the owners were present at the conference.  Something that was mentioned in one of the panels is that now that the American “big box” bookstore chain, Borders, is gone and Barnes & Noble is hanging on by its fingernails, indie bookstores are experiencing their own renaissance. I’m planning an upcoming post about this.
  • Expect change.  If you think things move fast in tech, try publishing.  I mean, who knows, the ebook market could collapse in a year!  Amazon could descend into chaos!  That ok.  If everything goes south, I’m sticking to my philosophy that you can sell anything with a cat on it.  I’ll just switch all of the hackers in my novel from humans to cats.  It’ll be great!

Never volunteer…

These words were on my mind as this year’s Telerik Testing Summit kicked off.  They were advice my grandfather, Ed, frequently imparted to me amongst other life lessons such as, “Don’t act too smart.  It can scare a guy off.” (I married a firefighter I met volunteering.  Heh.)

 

Despite his advice, there are plenty of landmarks in Atlanta, Georgia such as the Fox Theater, that would not be standing today if he hadn’t raised the alarm and helped start a campaign which saved the Fox and resulted in the formation of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc.

 

But this isn’t all he did and isn’t, in my mind, his greatest accomplishment.  In the 1960′s when most people in The South were finally waking up to the fact that segregation is inhumane and not to be tolerated, he volunteered, as a restaurant owner, to be the spokesperson for the voluntary integration of Atlanta’s fine dining scene.  I’m proud to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dined at Herren’s.

 

Sometimes, as a child, I got to hang out with Ed downtown as he managed the restaurant.  I guess it was the old-school version of take-your-kid-to-work day.  I always noticed that he seemed to know and say hello to everyone we saw on the street and treated his customers like gold.

A Hug from Ed

And then there was his sense of humor.  Ed lived for corny jokes, goofy smiles, red socks and the beat of his electric organ.  I can still hear echoes of “Strangers in the Night” as he sang at the top of his lungs to his wife whom he referred to as “Beautiful Jane.”  I can still feel the wind in my hair as he drove us down the street in his orange convertible chevelle with a fat basset hound wagging her tail in the back.

Ed was a master collaborator and new how to bring people together for good.  Although I do my best to be as engaging, it can be hard sometimes.  We live our lives at such a fast pace these days.   Sometimes it’s easier to tell someone “no” and keep on trucking with my own agenda rather than to stop and listen to what someone has to say.  Ed was the greatest example of a person who knew how to slow down and listen to others.

 

The Telerik Testing Summit takes place yearly in Austin, Texas and I was lucky enough to book a few relaxing days in Austin ahead of the conference.  My flight for Austin left the Sunday before the conference. Unfortunately,  after I cleared security and was having a pre-flight beer and garlic fries, I got word that Ed passed away.  Let’s just say it was an interesting flight to Austin and I’m glad the lady sitting next to me was so comforting.

 

Although sad, it’s not like this was totally unexpected.  Ed was 91 and suffering from Alzheimers.  Also, Beautiful Jane passed away a few years ago and he was definitely a boat without a rudder without her.

 

It’s just… he was such a force for good in the world and so lighthearted about it.  Perhaps this is why I prefer surrounding myself with lighthearted people.  I married a man who makes me laugh when I least expect it.  At work, I’ll often try to move my desk next to someone with whom I know I can tell jokes and maybe act a little stupid. (Okay, a lot stupid.)

 

There I was, in Austin for a week while my complicated family gathered for Ed’s funeral in Atlanta.  There were a few times when I almost called the airline to ask about a flight home, but family members told me I was much better off following through with my plans.  I floated in the pool, drank some margaritas and had a cry, then it was off to the Testing Summit.

 

Ed was my role model for engaging the community I live in, engaging other people and, above all, keeping a sense of humor and humility about it.  All of these were important themes at the Testing Summit this year and I thought it a great unspoken tribute to Ed that I was able to take part in these discussions.

Over my shoulder in Austin

Hanging out at Lake Travis

I like to think that Ed was hanging out over my shoulder as we talked about the new realities of testing in the wider context of software development and how we can all get our community more positively engaged.  These are things I’ve started making notes and writing about, but I wanted to take a post to reflect on someone who meant so much to me and who I’d like to make an unofficial member of the #expectpants crew.

 

I’m ending this post with a link to Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks.” One of Ed’s favorite jokes was to say, “follow me” or “walk this way” and commence with his own silly walk.

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Ready for a Revolution

You say you want a revolution

Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
all right, all right

-The Beatles

 

Have you ever had Grand Plans to Take Over the World?  I have.  It requires hunger, and not just the “oh I need a little snack, here let me have an apple” kind of hunger.  I mean the kind of hunger that would be a lion’s roar if it had a sound.  This is the hunger that will you lead down the craziest paths which turn into the craziest ideas which become inspiration that lights the way after you’ve been stuck in the basement working your ass off with nobody watching.

 

The sad thing about Grand Plans to Take Over the World is that, more often than not, reality overtakes them.  Even if you have a firm grasp on your Plan, there are countless for it to be torn away and it’s usually taken in pieces over a long period of time.

 

The pieces of my Grand Plan are scattered across the skyline of Atlanta,Georgia, sunk at the bottom of the Tasman Sea off the coast of Sydney, Australia, buried in a server room in the heart of Silicon Valley with the final pieces washing up on the ever gray and windy shores of Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California.

 

I arrived at Pivotal Labs a shadow of the person who started this blog.  I was missing so many pieces, I didn’t even know if I wanted to stay in tech at all.  There have been many days when I asked myself what happened to that girl with the Lion’s roar.  I wondered if she was gone forever and if it was time to just acclimate to the fog invading my head like the fog which so often invades San Francisco.

 

In my first week in Pivotal Labs, I sat in on a retrospective where lots of strong feelings were shared.  When I pointed this out, a co-worker let me know, in writing, that empathy is part of the Pivotal way.

 

empathy is part of the pivotal way

Empathy!

I don’t know why, but it seems that in so many work places, empathy and trust are checked at the door.  It doesn’t matter if the culture is supposedly “open” or supposedly “no bullshit.”  There are still a million ways to hide toxicity and mis-trust in what appears to be daylight.  Open can mean many things including a festering, open, passive-aggressive wound that’s hidden beneath a t-shirt with a pithy phrase or a clever logo.

 

This is why I dismissed and completely ignored every ambition I ever had in tech and boiled it down to looking for the right team with the right culture.  I decided it didn’t even matter what I did every day as long as I got to do it with respect and trust.  I’ve found that at Pivotal in spades.  A match was struck and a flame was lit.  Maybe it was the tiniest flame and maybe my head was still cloudy with fog, but I felt alive again, and, occasionally I got to scream with glee and do a snoopy dance whenever, Elisabeth Hendrickson would show up to hang out at the Lab.  (I think we scared some people with our screams.)

 

Everyone should have a list of people they scheme and plan to work with, and Lisa Crispin has been among those on my short list for a while.  Aside from being a champion of collaboration, she is one of the greatest cheerleaders for trying new things you could ever hope to find.  When she joined our team a few months ago, a window opened and daylight flooded through.

 

However, Lisa works in Denver and I work in San Francisco.  We’re lucky that the Tracker team is willing to bring us together every once a while, but it’s not the same as being together in the same place.  I could feel pieces shifting around me, but I’ve still had this feeling of, “now what?”

 

My answer came on Monday when I saw Elisabeth with an HR person in the closet.  She was being handed the black track jacket all Pivots receive upon joining Pivotal Labs as an employee.  If anything, Elisabeth is a catalyst for positive change and WE’RE WORKING IN THE SAME PLACE!!!!  We can trade crazy ideas over lunch and I’m sure we’ll find ways to loop Lisa in with our crazy ideas as well.  The fog is burning away and in it’s place, three Lionesses of Test are rising up at the Labs.

 

Alan Page’s tweet sums it up nicely:

 

Oh yeah!

 

We might be quiet for a while as we marinate in each other’s company, but rest assured, electricity is gathering at Pivotal Labs as it does before a powerful storm that shakes the ground.  Am I making Grand Plans?  Not anymore.  Instead, I want to focus my revolution on today and what I experience on a daily basis rather than grasp at some mythical Grand Plan.

 

A belated blog welcome to Lisa Crispin and another welcome to Elisabeth Hendrickson.  I’m so grateful that I get to work in the same place with you both.  As the Beatles say, “it’s gonna be all right.”

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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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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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: 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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