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Freedom Writing

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up in The South, or, more specifically, in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to plenty of civil rights history.  As someone who considers herself a southern expat, much of that history burned a deep hole inside my chest.  In 2nd grade, I was taken to the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and taught about segregation.  It came as quite a shock since all of my friends were black and I previously had no concept of race.

 

Racial inequality is a deep thought for a six year old and it really shook me.  I continued my pondering as I grew older and visited the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  Walking through the forever tainted air of a cattle car used to shuttle Jewish people to their deaths in Nazi, Germany, the ultimate consequence of racism chilled me to the bone.  Picture it: your relatives are dying horrible, tortuous deaths all around you and you are likely next because of what you all believe or the color of your skin.  It happened in The South too.  It just wasn’t government sanctioned.

 

Even today, what I know about the history of my family’s small town in south Georgia is a white history.   The monochrome shade of it makes me wonder what has been boarded up in so many of the tumble-down, tin-roofed shacks you will pass if you journey there.

 

As a writer, I work at making everything I write a work of honesty, and what I’ve found is that the best writing always comes from the deepest feelings.  Great writing is not about the good times in life.  Great writing happens when you feel wronged or hurt or marginalized.  Writing is not a pedestrian activity.  It is the emotional equivalent of fire-breathing, flames dancing and the residual smoke that permeates for a long, long time.

 

Thus, I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream speech,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a writer who swallowed more than his fair share of flames. Here is a sentence of his that has been on my mind lately:

 

“…when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

 

I first read this sentence in the book that currently tops my Goodreads shelf, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” by Stanley Fish. It’s an example of a sentence built up with dependent clauses.  Whatever.

 

Even without an analysis of its grammatical brilliance, this sentence is a wildfire, and you might think that Dr. King agonized over this sentence at a desk in a nice office as he planned out his next protest, but that is WRONG.

 

Dr. King wrote this sentence on toilet paper while he was sitting in a jail cell after protesting to end segregation.  This is what happens when a brilliant writer and thinker has something to say and manages to get it down on paper in the moment.

 

While today we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech,  the letter Dr. King wrote in a Birmingham jail certainly fanned the flames which led to his march on Washington.  Godspeed, sir.

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Getting through the first draft

 

See the Australian Vampire?

The first draft: A visual

 

First a character shows up.  You see them in the shower or as you are getting yourself to work.  Some details are fuzzy, but some are plain as day.  They become someone you greet in the morning, before you rise from your bed or someone you turn to on a really bad day when it seems the whole world is against you.  Eventually, you realize that they aren’t going anywhere until you make them real on a page.

 

 

 

Thus I began my journey with just a few pages.  I typed them up, then put them away thinking, “so that’s done.”  Little did I know that my protagonist had other ideas.  I kept looking at my pages, re-reading them, adding to them and even having a couple of people read them.  The point at which they turned from pages into a “novel” is lost to me.  Perhaps it happened on the day I completed the first scene and asked myself, “now what?” or perhaps it was when I looked at it and realized I needed a writing class.

 

 

 

At this point, I was back in the U.S. from Australia, living in Mountain View, California.  As luck would have it, I had a job which allowed for easily sneaking off early once a week to drive up to San Francisco.  I found some classes at San Francisco’s Writing Salon and signed up, eventually landing in a 6 month Novel Continuation Class.  Aside from teaching me some basic elements of fiction writing, the classes taught me how to build my own writing practice and week by week over a year I managed to keep going.  I finished up on July 4th, Independence day in the U.S.

 

 

Here are some of the lessons I learned as I worked my way through:

 
You MUST lower your standards
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, hints at the conundrum of working on a first novel when he talks about beginning creative work:  You have more taste than skill.  In my case, I told myself that this first draft was supposed to be the “Twilight” version of my novel and no better.  If my pages wanted to be cheesy and awful, I let them.  If a character had an urge to do something completely “out of character,” I let them.  There are run-on sentences, phrases which are repeated too many times and I can’t even tell you what’s going on with the point of view.  For your imagination to work, it has to go where it wants to go and there’s very little steering involved when writing a first draft.  In fact, I found it useful to acknowledge that the craft side of writing exists, and to then ignore the bulk of it.

 

 
Once you get through the pages that set up your novel, you will need help with mapping the plot
Eventually you will have some vague sense of your characters and the world that they live in.  At this point, it is likely you will have to map out some of the plot.  There are different ways to do this.  I chose to read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which was written for film but can also help for novel planning.  Another suggestion that I might try as I work on my second draft is to read the second half of The Art of Story Engineering.  When mapping a plot, expect your page count to go down.

 

 
There are people who can write a whole novel in 6 weeks.  Screw them.
If you have a job and/or children, this will not be you.  If you manage to consistently write 5 pages a week, you’re doing great, and some weeks your page count will be as low as one or two.  If you’re sick, just give it up and get better.  The pages will be there.

 

 
Other areas of your life will suffer
This past year has seen me withdraw somewhat from blogging, and very much from attending conferences or even working on tech projects at home.  It’s been painful letting all of that go, but it needed to happen.  I don’t even promise that I’ll be picking those things back up because there’s more work for me to do on the novel.

 

 
Don’t write about tech unless you have no other choice
We’ve got 3-d printers, robots helping the elderly and cars that drive themselves.  Good luck staying ahead of that curve.  Since I began writing, the name I chose for a fictitious company has turned into a real company and meanwhile, “mobile first” is here.  After reading this interview with Warren Ellis, I made a conscious choice to stop writing in technical details because they change too quickly.  The bottom of all conflict is always inherently based on people and their relationships so I tried to focus on that as much as possible and leave the technical details for later.  It is no accident that my other ideas for novels are as far away from tech as I could make them.

 

 
You will be a different writer when you finish than you were when you started
This was something Karen pointed out in one of our classes.  As I progressed through the pages, I found myself digging into my characters more and finding that some of them were different than I had initially imagined.  In fact, some of the main plot points in the novel changed in front of me in ways I had not expected at all, yet if I go back and read the first pages, the bones were there.  My mental archaeological digging uprooted ideas buried so far down there is no way I would have seen them in the beginning.

 

 
The end of the first draft is just the beginning
So, here I am with my bag full of bones.  The next step is to assemble this Pterodactyl.

 

 

 

 

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!

Community Learning in San Francisco

On Top of Nob Hill

On Top of Nob Hill

My process of learning code originally went something like this:

  • Find a book with lots of examples.  Favorites are Kochan & Wood’s Unix Shell Scripting, Head First Java and Kernighan & Ritchie’s C Programming, and I’m finishing up Head First Javascript.
  • Work through as many of the examples as possible.  It might take a year but that’s ok.
  • Make my own crappy stuff.

This strategy went to hell for several reasons when I decided to get more serious about learning web development for the following reasons:
1.  Any half-way useful web-stack has many pieces and a considerable amount of time can be spent just getting those to work together.
2.  The pace of the web typically outstrips any book.
3.  I’ve gotten serious about a novel I’m writing.  Every morning, I spend an hour writing creative fiction.  Between that and working 8 hours a day, when I get home, I am usually D.O.N.E.

But I’m still serious about learning more web development.  Since I work at Pivotal Labs in test and support on Tracker, when fellow Pivot, Sarah Mei mentioned a Railsbridge workshop, my ears perked up.  Railsbridge is an intensive Friday evening installfest plus all-day Saturday learning extravaganza.  Recognizing the opportunity to commit to myself with a date, I signed up and have attended a couple of Railsbridge sessions.  The thoughtful detail put into Railsbridge shows in how they divide people up by skill level, how they make sure you have what you need installed on your computer, how they have a great student:teacher ratio and do a retro at the end of the Saturday.  I honestly wish I’d had the benefit of an experience like Railsbridge in college.

Oh yeah…college
There will always be a debate about whether people should get a CS degree or not.  I have one.  Many successful people I know don’t.  Many places require them for employment, but a lot of places in San Francisco don’t.  While I believe there are benefits to college, specifically, liberal arts degrees, I’m becoming a believer in the community education system I see emerging here in San Francisco.

In the case of Railsbridge, while the program doesn’t cost money, it is a sacrifice of a Friday night and most of a Saturday so there is an opportunity cost and some commitment involved.  It’s true that there are many beginners, but I’ve met plenty of people there who are beginning to get pretty effective at building Rails apps.  In fact, at the last Railsbridge I attended, I was greeted by someone who got a job after attending and learning from Railsbridge.  I’m sure she worked really hard on her skills outside of Railsbridge as well, but she did the work and got results.

One argument I hear about meetups is that they’re full of people who don’t know how to code or who aren’t serious about their programming skills.  While there are plenty of people at these Meetups who are learning on their own schedule and may never work as a programmer or even in tech, there are plenty of people who go to Meetups such as the Javascript one and will spend the better part of 2 hours on a Wednesday night writing some code.  I’m routinely impressed whenever I show up at these events by the focus of my fellow attendees.

If you think that these types of group learning only cover a few “beginner” topics, what about Algorithms or Scala?

Part of what’s fueling this ecosystem is the proliferation and refinement of online learning.  I remember when the M.I.T. open courseware was a bunch of syllabi.  I also remember the agony of pre-millenial online classes.  Those were definitely the dark ages.  Now we have Khan Academy, Code Academy and CourseEra.  Between these and the ease of setting up a gathering with Meetup, the SF tech community is turning into it’s own community college, and I’ve learned a whole lot more about Rails.

What I like about this system is that it’s not just the students who win.  If you’ve ever taught someone how to do something you’ll understand the benefit the instructors are getting out of it too.  As a bonus, I can see that anyone who learns something out of this community system is also likely to turn around and give back.  I dream of the day when I’m good enough at web development to be the one pointing out CSS and Rails typos.

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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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Too Far

Painting image of Joan of Arc

Painting image of Joan of Arc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the breaking point:  the moment when someone has pushed you too far and you know that the rest of your time with that person will be spent managing as you find a way to make your exit.

The moment you realize you’ve had enough is so awkward because, usually, in addition to feeling angry and possibly embarrassed or ashamed, you are asking yourself “how the FUCK will I get out of this.”  (If this is happening in your head, how censored are you really going to be?)

So then you start assessing how this is going to go down, how you’re going to make your escape and possibly let the other person know that you are D.O.N.E. This is when ideas of revenge start flooding through your head and you make a list.

Contemplating the list gives your rational brain a split second in which to punch through the other side and keep your anger from boiling over.

 

It’s a split second that can determine how much longer you will live with someone, how much longer you will continue in your present job or how much longer you will sit in a chair at a conference.

These situations usually involve a compromise in dignity.  Professional life seems especially rife with personal indignity because the stakes are high.  If you have a mortgage or aren’t sure how you would otherwise make money…yeah.  Work or even peer situations in our industry can require checking your dignity at the door and putting up with some awful shit.  Maybe you hate yourself for it and maybe there really isn’t a good way out even after you assess all of your options.

 

And then you get to that moment with a boss who keeps pointing out what they feel are your numerous personal failures while you’re sitting in the middle of a crowded open office with people swirling all around you in oblivion as the insults fly or you’re stuck listening to someone at a conference on or off of a stage who is saying things that offend you so deeply you just want to jump up and scream, ENOUGH!!!

 

What happens next?

 

Here is what I did:

 

I had just moved to the Bay Area and was attending my first tech Meetup in San Francisco.  It was exciting to finally talk to some people and to participate in the San Francisco “tech scene.”  I noticed that there were even a few women in the audience which made me happy.  There were 2 speakers on the schedule and the second speaker was in the middle  of his talk when he cut to a slide of naked male parts.  You know what he said?

 

“This is San Francisco, I’m sure we’re all ok with this.”

 

I was not ok.

 

I was disgusted and embarrassed.  I looked around at everyone else looking around.  My internal conversation went something like this:

 

Angry Marlena: I’m gonna stand up and scream at that motherfucker that IT IS NOT OK!!!!!!!!
Friendly Marlena: Shut up!  You came here to make friends!  Who will want to be friends with you if you shout down a speaker at this tech talk where you don’t know a soul?
Angry Marlena: (Heavy sigh) Fine!  But I’m gonna stand up anyway and just STARE HIM DOWN!
Friendly Marlena: Would you shut up! That’ll just make you look crazy.
Angry Marlena: $%^^%$$%^&(&%$%^&*(*^%$#$^&**&
Friendly Marlena: %#$%^&J#$@#$#&^((^$#&*^%$#%@#%^%^&*&$

After another 2 minutes of mortification, I noticed that the bus I needed to catch would be arriving directly across the street in 15 minutes, so I got up and quietly exited.  It was a while before I came back to San Francisco for a Meetup.

 

But that’s not my only example.

 

A few months later, I was at an internal corporate conference (for someone other than my current employer), sitting in one of those “seating areas” with some co-workers.  The conference had just wrapped up and we were all sitting around being pretty quiet as our energy was at a low ebb.  Through the thin veil of fake-conference-plants behind me, I overhead a conversation.

 

“But how do you get the motion of them so that they’re nice and bouncy?  Like you just want to grab ‘em?”

“Oh, there’s a library for that.  I love using it for 3-D tits.”

 

People who know me will know exactly the look that was on my face.

 

The conversation continued and I kept doing my best to let it go.  I was not in the best place with my job at the time, and it would have been horrific timing for me to rock any kind of boat.  This made it hard to have a realistic perspective in the moment.
Also, as an aside, I’d just like to say that I LOVE California for making people at larger companies take an online workplace harassment course created by the state.  With the B-movie actors and the hysterically cheesy script, I laughed my way through when I took it, but there have been so many times when I’ve been glad that I took it and glad that my co-workers have also taken it.  It set the right baseline.

Back to the conversation about how to create the best virtual female parts.

 

I tried to be quiet. I did. But I wasn’t.  I jumped up, turned around and screamed, “WOULD YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT ME???!!!!!!!”

 

The guy turned around with the most freaked out look on his face and he screamed back, “NO, NO, I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT YOU!!!!”

 

That was the end of it.  Was there a better way to handle this?  Of course there was!  But, the split-second opportunity for my rational brain to make a better assessment was not long enough.  I guess this was me finding my voice, and even though I’m not 100% proud of what I did, I’m glad that I did something because if I hadn’t said something, I would have been bottling my rage at this incident for the next unfortunate person who told an inappropriate joke in a professional situation.

 

And that’s the double-edged sword that gets plunged through your heart when you’ve been pushed too far:

  • If you don’t do anything and stay quiet, you bottle your emotions up for later which means you’ll be even more rage-tastic the next time something similar happens even if the offhand comment isn’t as cut-and-dried or your boss is making the only fair point he’s ever gonna make.
  • On the other hand, if you do say something, plenty of people will say you’re a crazy paranoid freak on a rant and you just might get fired (in Joan’s case, burned at the stake).

At this point, I’ve been through enough to know that no matter how bad things get immediately after you say what you need to say, even if you lose your job or popular opinion is not on your side, at least you’ve said your peace and let it go.

 

My thoughts are with Adria Richards.

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Welcome to the Walled Garden: When leadership is really just bullying

holes in the garden wall

holes in the garden wall (Photo credit: Badly Drawn Dad)

There is a person in tech, let’s call the person Engineer X, who thinks I am a blight on the industry of software and that my opinions deserve to be seen nowhere other than inside of a black hole.

 

This happened after a really awful conversation on twitter that I won’t be talking about here.  Let’s just say that it happened, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone was right or what either of us said.  For Engineer X, this culminated with blocking me from their twitter and removing the link to my blog from their much viewed blog roll.

 

For me, it began a genuinely awkward couple of months.  I got in trouble at work as my then-boss thought and still thinks Engineer X hung the moon.  I showed up at a small conference typically attended by Engineer X (Engineer X was away that year) and had to introduce myself, for the first time, to people who knew ALL ABOUT the whole twitter fight.  Between my boss’s anger and my own personal anxiety, there’s not much I remember from that conference that wasn’t awkward, and it was no one’s fault but my own.

 

Eventually, though, I moved on and realized that it didn’t matter that much because there is a whole community of people who have been left behind in the wake of Engineer X publicly denouncing them, even threatening physical violence in public against them for the opinions they have expressed about software.  One of my friends tweeted to me, “Welcome to the Walled Garden.”

 

In this age of extended contact through blogs, twitter and other social sites, it’s much easier for anyone to interact with someone they view as a “leader,” and we do.  I’ve actually become pretty close friends with some of the bloggers and people from twitter I followed and originally, idolized.  Sometimes, however, it can be much harder to get a real picture of the people we idolize, and sometimes that picture is vastly different in reality from what we think it will be as we build a pedestal for our uninformed perceptions of these people.

 

I’m a big believer in forming my own opinions about things, but when you start following people on twitter and they start following you back, not to mention having conversations with you, it can be easier than you think to relinquish control over your own thoughts and opinions.  Twitter is always on and fairly asynchronous.  Thus, while I initially thought Engineer X was amazing and a thought leader, when things went so far downhill, so quickly, it hurt even worse because here was someone I had really looked up to telling me that my opinions were worthless.

 

It was upsetting for a while.  Having a harsh conversation in public is unsettling, but everyone has their own personal tipping point.  When this happened to me, I went back over what happened and found that while, in some ways, I had acted rashly, there were good reasons for doing what I did, and I wouldn’t take it back today, even if I could.  There was even a point at which I tried to apologize for my part in it to Engineer X and it didn’t work out at all.  I guess there are some people in this world I’m not meant to get along with and this person is one of them.

 

We all have favorites on twitter and in the software industry.  We all have our false idols.  We hold them up as better versions of ourselves.  Maybe they are who we want to be “when we grow up.”  The truth is, they are all humans.  They say things they don’t mean, they talk out of turn and I’m sure that there is a time, every now and then, when they take out anger and frustration on someone undeserving, just like every human does when we are at our worst.  In this age of blending professional life with personal faults and idosyncracies, where do we draw the line and how much should we be willing to forgive?  How bad is it ok for Engineer X to be?

 

Personally, I’m happy to have this person out of my life, but it still hurts when I see them dump on other people I care about.  What’s even crazier is that there is this weird silently understood reaching out that happens when Engineer X dumps on someone.  This is how often and how widely the person is known for dumping on people.

 

I hope we’re on the edge of a polar shift in software and in social networking.  The “No Asshole” rule has been read by plenty of people and we even have industry segments such as conferences beginning to recognize the importance of emotional safety.  This stuff matters and it makes me happy that it is slowly, but surely infiltrating our culture.

 

It’s time to recognize that we live in a world where our personal and professional lives mix more than ever and that this usually happens in a good way.  But, also, we deserve better than to have bullies in charge of thought leadership in software (or anywhere really), (and before you hold up Steve Jobs, I’d like to remind everyone that there was exactly one Steve Jobs, he is deader than a doornail and you are not him).

 

This blog post comes with an ask.  My ask is that you, dear reader, commit to standing up when you see someone getting bullied on twitter, at a conference or wherever and, even if the bully is someone with influence, letting the bully know that you don’t approve and that IT IS NOT OK.  If you end up being the person who steps out of line because you’re human like the rest of us, at least make the effort of a sincere apology when you are ready.  It will be humiliating and it might not be well received, but it is important to try.

 

As for people like Engineer X who don’t seem to understand how to not bully others, I believe they are in a slow process of building their own walled garden because, eventually, they will block out everyone who’s opinions don’t seem as perfect as their own.

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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.”

If you do testing, you need more monitors.

Here I am at my desk, doing some cross-browser testing.  You’ll notice that I’m surrounded by screens.

three monitors

3!

I’ve been fortunate because I’ve insisted at my testing jobs that I have two or even three monitors and I have never been turned down.

 

Having more monitors leads to better testing because:
More supported browsers are open and easy to compare
More sessions are open so it is easier to see cause and effect problems
I can have more than one or even two or three users signed in with different permission levels.
Even though there are still several browsers open, I can also have some terminals open for grepping through log files and taking notes or logging bugs.

 

In the world of web application testing, this is the difference between noticing something and having it obscured behind too many screens where you will never see it.  In fact, if you have to switch to another tab or swipe to another space on your Mac YOU ARE TOO LATE.  The bugs are gone and laughing at you beneath your fingertips.

 

We live in a time of “do more with less” and, let’s face it, testing is usually where the money dries up.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you will be seen as greedy if you ask for another monitor, but it makes the difference between being a good tester and being a great tester.  If your team really wants you to find all the bugs, they should make it possible for you to SEE THEM.  Believe me, they will crawl across your screens faster than you ever thought possible.

 

How do you ask for more monitors?

 

The three situations I’ve encountered from easiest to hardest (and naming no names):

 

If you see a monitor no one is using, just take it and hook it up.  This is exactly the time to ask forgiveness instead of permission, and the truth is some places really don’t care.  Hook it up, find some bugs and mention it to your boss.  On the positive side, if no one is using the monitor, you’ll be putting a resource to use that would otherwise be wasted.  At the worst, you might have to give it back and endure the “we have an allocation spreadsheet” talk from I.T., but if you can show someone the benefit before it’s taken away, you’ve got your case for more monitors started.

 

Ask in your job interview – when you are negotiating for salary is the time to ask for any special equipment you will require.  Ask for a laptop and not one, but two additional external monitors so that you have a total of three.  If the person on the other end balks, be sure you understand exactly why and be very clear that you will not find as many bugs if they don’t honor your request.

 

Here is a vga to usb adaptor I’ve had success with in the past.  The company seems to update their drivers for Macs more quickly than others vendors.

 

If you work at a place where developers (even developer interns) automatically get two monitors, argue that everyone doing cross-browser testing should get an extra too.  I’ve actually done this before and credit the group I was working with and the boss I was under for taking the argument to his superiors.  In this type of workplace, however, where management isn’t too dear with what they give to developers to get their job done, it only stands to reason that they would want those doing testing to have what they need too.  If you need to make a case, you might want to get some developer collusion going and have one of them test with you for an hour or so.  That’s usually all it takes for people to judge the effectiveness of more browsers.

 

If you work at a place where no one has an additional monitor, it is possible the assumption will be made that you are setting a dangerous precedent which means everyone will want more monitors. Go ahead and laugh but there are places where you will hear this.  If you happen upon this situation, strap on the guns and BE THE WICKED TESTER.

 

If better testing is dangerous, then I wanna go down in flames.

Flaming Skull

Flaming Skull (Photo credit: Tortured Mind Photography)

 

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Time.ly

skull

 

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.
-William Gibson

 

Writing about tech is as necessary for me as breathing.  It’s something I do every day and have done for a long time.  It’s probably not surprising that the novel I’m working on involves a tech company.  When I started, I didn’t think of myself as writing science fiction.  There are no jetpacks.  There is no space travel.  There are no cats shooting lasers out of their butts.

 

I spent quite a while setting up a story world that would help me reinforce the story I am telling.  This has included creating a fake office, fake products and fake managers with fake management problems.  It has included creating company in-jokes and company events.  There is a boss and a boss’s wife.

 

This is stuff I’ve been working on since 2010.  I named the company Time.ly.

 

This morning, as I was writing, I noticed that when I typed the company name, it turned into a URL.  Initially, I dismissed it as my writing software mimic-ing Word’s annoying habit of turning all URLs into a link.  In trying to  remove the distracting hyperlink formatting, I discovered that it goes somewhere.

 

Try it:  Time.ly

 

This is but one small problem. I won’t even go into the challenge of writing about cutting edge products that will still seem cutting edge when I finish the novel.

 

It turns out that I am not alone in my struggles.

 

Earlier in the week, this article came out with writer Warren Ellis saying, “Futurism’s gotten harder to write, because the future arrives so quickly.” Although he’s talking about the future, I would extend that to writing about today as non-historical fiction which is why I totally get the next thing Ellis says which is that his new novel is set in,”near-as-damnit present day.” (hat tip to Chris McMahon for the article)

 

The photo of Ellis in the article shows his bald head in the foreground yet lined up with a row of skulls in the background.  I’ve seen this photo before…

David Tennant used the skull of pianist Andre ...

David Tennant used the skull of pianist Andre Tchaikowsky for Yorick’s skull in a 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

only it wasn’t a photo.  It was writing.

 

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? (Hamlet, V.i)

–Shakespeare (bitches)

 

R.I.P.  Time.ly

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