Emma Jane Hogbin Westby is an internationally renowned open source software advocate, technical author, and teacher. In January 2010 she was recognized by The Google Diversity Programme for her efforts in increasing female participation in software development. She is a frequent speaker at open source conferences in Canada, US and Europe and has volunteered with several open source projects, including The Linux Documentation Project, Ubuntu, and Drupal. Emma has been teaching internet technologies since 2002, and is the author of Front End Drupal and Drupal User's Guide. She is currently working on her third book, Learning Git for Teams. Emma encourages non-traditional participation in technology through craft and believes that everyone is capable of mastering the tools that surround them. To help engage new ways of participating in technology, she open sourced one of her knitting patterns so that you can make your very own Drupal Socks (as featured in CRAFTzine). Emma currently lives with her husband in England.
All year I've been thinking about what I would say for my final Pastry Box submission. It has been a wonderful an interesting process for me. I've shared different slices of my life. From how-to-style articles, to pieces about quilting, and being fired. I feel like I've been all over the place, and yet true to myself all at the same time.
All along I thought I'd have something more .. well .. just more for my final submission. But here we are, and all I have for you is this:
Somedays, the hardest part of my life is understanding how to be my consistent self whilst I navigate the murky territory of choosing the appropriate behaviour for the isolated situations I participate in.
Remember to celebrate your wins, no matter how trivial others may think they are. I look forward to reading about all the parts of your journey as you navigate your own murky territory. It's a hard world out there, but I'm glad I get to share it with you.
Correlating the demands on, and capacity of, an individual
When I was unsuccessful in a job application a while ago, my mother gave me excellent advice.
It was entirely fair that I hadn't gotten the job. It would have been a stretch, but more importantly, I had read into the description elements which weren't responsibilities the employer perceived as valuable for the position. I believed I could do the job, but the job I thought I could do wasn't the position they were hiring for. My mother's advice was this: "Write the description for the job that they should have hired you to do."
As part of the application process, I'd researched the company, I'd talked to current and former employees, and I'd researched what that position looked like when it was in the context of a different company. Although I'd had extremely limited exposure to the inner workings of the company, I put on my consultant hat and wrote down the rationale for why my dream job should exist, how it solve problems for the company, and what the key responsibilities should be for the position. I didn't write it in first person. I wrote it as a reusable job description that just happened to fit me exactly. In my debrief call with the company to talk through why I hadn't been successful, I had the audacity to ask if I could send them my job description. My brutal optimism didn't win me a position, but it was a very powerful exercise.
This technique is older than the sun itself, but it had never resonated with me. It just seemed like setting myself up for failure to be so selfish; and in moments when I could convince myself that it wasn't selfish, I knew it was definitely arrogant to tell a company what exactly I should be doing for them. But mother sometimes knows best, so I sat down and wrote the description for the job I thought I'd been applying for. It included all of the reasons why my experience was an asset, and all of the problems I would help that company to solve. It clarified what made me excited to go to work each day.
The company was very niche, so the job description was unlikely to apply anywhere else, but it the description had elements which were transferable to other companies. I made the active transformation to someone who solved problems for companies as an employee, rather than an external consultant, and rather than be a puppet who should just be put to work. I gained confidence in talking to companies who'd never heard of me. I told them what kinds of problems I wanted to solve. I grew accustomed to saying "no, thank you" when their problems didn't fit my vision. Perhaps even more fun, I would think of who would be the best person I could think of for each role; I would make introductions when and where I could. (Later I realised I was actually networking and wondered who I'd become.)
I'm so excited with this new-found power, that I want to wave the magic wand so you can have it too. I want to weave a beautiful narrative that results in you experiencing your own transformation. Instead, I'll give you this homework:
- Nicholas asks you to answer the following question: "Suppose you could design your dream job that you'll be starting on Monday. It's at your ideal company with your ideal job title and salary. All you have to do is tell them what you want to do at your job and you can have it. What does your job entail?" Read the blog post behind the question, it's great.
- Amye told me once that she writes a one page executive summary for how she plans to rock the first several months of a new position before she gets an offer for the position and discusses it with the folks she's interviewing with.
- My mum advised me to write my job description after I had been unsuccessful in my application for a job. If you've been applying for jobs recently that you haven't gotten, can you write the description for what you would have rocked for that particular company? Perhaps there are reasons why you're actually relieved you didn't get the job? Write those down too.
Each of these homework pieces ask you to clarify what you are after, and how this will help a particular company to succeed by your presence.
This story has a post script to it. At first I wasn't going to include it, but I've decided it's important. During a panel discussion on burnout in tech, Lorna gave the audience an absolute gem of advice:
If you quit your job without dealing with burnout you will bring your victim habits with you. Please deal with it.
Lorna Jane Mitchell
Burnout is an outcome of a misfit between demand on and capacity of an individual. There are a lot of resources about burnout, but the Velocity panel pointed specifically to Prof. Christina Maslach's work (video here). Even if you have no intention of moving to a different company, I encourage you to go through at least one of the exercises listed above either by yourself, or with a trusted friend. If you're on the road to boredom or burnout, it may just be the edge you need to re-align your passion, your capacity, and your employment.
Creating More Award-Winning Women In Technology
For a good chunk of my public school career, I was an award-winning kid. Academics, sports, and the arts put me up on stage. Being recognised for my achievements gave me confidence to tackle even more difficult things, and it gave me a line on my resume which acknowledged my interests and talents in ways that individual assignments couldn't. Maybe you too have won an award? Maybe you've never won an award because the things you were great at didn't fit into one of the predetermined categories that put people on stage.
Five years ago I created an award at my old high school to recognise and encourage young women in technology. The award is given to a girl who has demonstrated creative use of technology. She doesn't need to have the best overall marks. She doesn't even need to be enrolled in a tech program. From auto mechanics, to carpentry, to physics, to digital publishing, my old high school has a range of classes which might provide the space to show this creativity. It may even happen in a "non-tech" class, or on the sports field. The award itself has no limit to when and how creative technology is demonstrated.
The Ada Lovelace Award represents a whole bunch of things to me. It passes along the opportunity that I was given to be applauded by my peers, and my teachers. It asks teachers to think who has demonstrated creativity next to technology, and perhaps alters the way they think about presenting curriculum in their classroom, re-kindling their own love for a technique, or topic. It tells everyone who attends the awards ceremony that there is value in putting creativity into technology. And, of course, each year it makes another young woman an award-winning technologist.
Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Today, I challenge you to recognise and celebrate girls and young women in technology. One of the easiest ways I know to do this is to setup an award in a school. Here's how you do it:
- Think about what you would like your award to recognise. You're welcome to use my award criteria: The Ada Lovelace Award is given to the young woman who has demonstrated creative use of technology. Try not to make the award too specific, or it may be difficult to find a recipient.
- Decide on the value of the award--I suggest the value of one billable hour of your time. At the school's recommendation, my award was initially set at $50. This award is about (1) promoting young women in technology (2) giving a student a line on their resume. It doesn't need to be a lot of money, but it should be something you can afford every year. I have since increased the amount to $100/year.
- Phone up your alma mater (your old school).
- Ask to speak with the guidance department. These folks know everything. Tell them you're an alumni and that you want to sponsor an award. You will be redirected to the right department from here.
- When you are redirected to the right person, introduce yourself and explain that you want to sponsor an award. The school should work with you to come up with the exact criteria/language and the name of the award, and let you know if they already have similar awards. Be flexible.
- Write a cheque to the appropriate school division. (Mine is made out to the school board.) You should be issued a tax receipt for your donation. Ask the school about a donation receipt if they don't mention it.
The school takes care of selecting the student each year so no additional work is required. If you live in the area, the school might ask you about presenting the award. This isn't something that I have done, and I've never met any of the recipients. Some years I receive an email, or a hand written "thank you" note from the recipient, which is always a pleasant surprise.
For the first five years of the award, the school sent me a form letter a few months before the awards ceremony to remind me to send another cheque. The letter included the amount of the previous year's award and the name of the recipient they had in mind. I have since started sending a lump sum to cover multiple years at a time.
It doesn't take a lot of work, or money, to make a young woman an award-winning technologist--I challenge you to help me create even more.
Learning to Act Like an Ally
A watershed is an area of land in which all water travels in the same direction, towards a common exit. Where I grew up, it was common to hear about the quality and quantity of water available in the headwaters, and how that might affect the health of the downstream communities. Although watersheds tend to cover very large areas of land, it is possible to get to the edge of a watershed. You won't necessarily be able to perceive the edge. You might be walking along through a forest and crossover from one watershed to another without even noticing. But there comes a point when the geology changes enough that water which falls to the other side of that point will sink into a different watershed and flow in a completely different direction. To exaggerate the idea, picture the ridge of a mountain. Rain falling to the left side of the peak will continue to slide down the mountain to the left; and water falling to the right will continue in its direction.
A "watershed moment" is a point in a person's life when they cross that line where the water stops travelling in one direction, and starts to travel in another.
In real life, there's nothing that prevents you from turning around on the trail and heading back into the watershed you've just left. But here's the thing: you don't always realise you're in a new watershed, so it's not always a trivial matter to simply turn around.
Recently I realised I'd entered a new watershed around the topic of gender identity. I've always done my best to be inclusive of everyone whose sex assigned at birth did not match their identified gender. I know I don't always get my words right, and I'm sure that I've unintentionally used the wrong words, or been unkind without even realising it. But the last year just seems, well, different. From the articles on sex vs. gender, to the media coverage of Chelsea Manning, and then Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox previously being named Woman of the Year, it seems like the world I live in has started to grow up in its respect and language when addressing transgender individuals. It's not like these events have been my first exposure to transgender individuals. But somehow, the response from the world just seems different.
Without being able to exactly track the geology of my history, I don't know for sure when the moment was when I entered a new watershed. I think it may have been Sara's article on identity, and forms, and triggers. Or maybe it was when I was applying for a job that had a diversity section which offered more than two options for gender. Or maybe it was when my friend asked me to sign a petition to allow people to self-define their gender. Or maybe it was something else. I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that I'm in a different watershed now and I can't stop seeing broken forms, and hearing language which conflates genotype and gender.
Most recently, I was asked to fill out a patient survey for NHS England to help the Ministry of Health correlate quality of care to different types of patients. The form asked my biological sex ("male" or "female") and it asked my sexual preference ("straight", "gay", "lesbian", "bi", there may have been other options, I can't remember now). In other words: from the acronym LGBT the "T" was missing completely from the form.
So I did what any cisgendered privileged British woman ought to do: I wrote a letter of complaint.
(Well. First I defaced the form and asked why there were only two options for "sex". Then took a picture and put it on Twitter. And then then I wrote my letter of complaint.)
This summer I filled out the GP Patient Survey. Unfortunately the survey did not have sufficient granularity with respect to sex or gender identity.
Under the heading of "sex" two options were provided "male" or "female". I did not attempt to fill out the online form, but I assume this was a binary option online and that only one box could be selected. I can only assume you mean "genotype" by this question? Additionally, there was not the ability to select an option other than "male" or "female" as should be provided according to the GDS manual for forms requiring sex (https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/resources/patterns/gender-and-sex.html).
On the final page of the form, I was asked to specify my sexual orientation, but not my gender. This means I could not:
- Identify my gender separately from my genotype.
- Mark my sex assigned at birth as being different from my gender.
As a result of these omissions in the questionnaire, it will be impossible for the NHS to correspond the good health care service I have received as being statistically significant compared to individuals who are (1) intersex, (2) transgender, (3) non-binary. I would like to know how you are surveying the level of care provided for these individuals.
Then I emailed my letter to the NHS, the survey company, the Ministry of Health, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Labour Party (LGBT wing), and the Lib Dems. And then I waited.
To date I have received a response from the Conservative Party from their policy book (we had a lovely back-and-forth while I clarified that I was, indeed, looking for the Party's policy):
You may be aware that the NHS constitution commits the NHS to providing a comprehensive service available to all, irrespective of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, or marital or civil partnership status. The NHS also has a wider social duty to promote equality through the services it provides.
In addition, NHS England has created a gender identity clinical reference group which has developed a new service specification and clinical commissioning policy. It has also established a transgender network designed to hear the views of people and to influence the strategic direction of services.
The Government is committed to combatting discrimination and is determined to break down barriers that individuals may face when seeking to access health services. That is why the Department of Health has invested in a number of organisations, such as Stonewall, to improve awareness and deliver more personalised care to all.
And a response from the survey company conducting the NHS England GP Patient Survey:
Thank you for your email and for your feedback about the sex and sexual orientation questions in our survey. This is an issue which has been on our radar for some time now and is something we will look into as we develop our survey further. Methodological constraints and sampling methods mean that this has been a complex issue to resolve.
I appreciate that the questionnaire in its current format does not allow those for whom their gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth, and I'm sorry that this has been the case for you and for others this affects. As you say, it is important for the NHS to gather data on how its services are providing for intersex, transgender and non-binary individuals and this is something that in the future we hope to provide.
I found neither of these answers entirely satisfactory, but at least I got a reply.
If you feel like it's time you came into your own new watershed, there are some great web resources I can recommend:
- TransWhat. A resource to help allies.
- Real Talk with Trans People. An (illustrated) glossary.
- Gender 2.0. A collection of essays on Medium.
- Wikipedia page for intersex. Helps to remap terms for "sex" and "gender".
- Design pattern: gender and sex. A resource for web builders who need to make forms collecting information about gender / sex.
Years, and years ago I remember watching the tension in my local community as one of our neighbours made a public transition to a new identity. The support my friend Denise was able to provide was inspirational. She matter-of-factly asked what name and pronouns she should use, and began using them. There was no discussion or questioning or hesitation. She did it without judgement and then carried on just as she had before. This ability to switch her words from yesterday to today without skipping a beat or changing her behaviour still blows my mind. Denise remains one of my role models to this day for her very simple, gracious actions towards our neighbour.
May we all be able to achieve the grace Denise once demonstrated in helping every neighbour realise the identity they were born to be.
If everything has gone according to plan, my third book is on its way to the printer today.
If everything has gone according to plan, I have stopped looking at the manuscript and all of the remaining errors have stopped breeding while I wasn't looking.
If everything has gone according to plan, I will not be a nervous wreck about what people will think of my work.
But this is not my first book and I know the book gremlins have their own plan.
Diagrams with Diversity
I'm the first one to twitch at conferences when slide decks of developers use exclusively pictures of white men. But I'm also the first to use graphic representations of white people in my own work. I am white. I have a pretty good idea of what sort of imagery of white people is respectful. Whenever I try to diversify the imagery I use, I feel less comfortable. Is it okay for me, a short white woman, to use a picture of celebration which shows a black dude slam dunking a basketball? I want people to feel included by my imagery, not mocked or "othered". Maybe I'm spending a bit too much time thinking about it. (If we're being completely honest, I probably don't spend enough time thinking about it.)
Inspired by No more 'put a skirt on it' I started converting my diagrams in Git for Teams to replace a white smiley face with new shapes. First I changed the hair on a basic form to alter the gender of the outline. The world didn't explode. Next, I got bold, and adjusted the colour used for the faces.
The characters are not elaborate, but they're radically less grating than so many of the other sets of user icons I've found. I'm working from my own very specific background though. I don't know if my interpretation of how "others" look is playing on inappropriate stereotypes.
Please help me improve this little community of figures by submitting "bug reports" for any element you feel could be improved (features on any of the figures, names of the files, SVG file optimisations). Perhaps you even have suggestions on new figures I could include, which would make you feel represented by the community. The people project is available on GitHub.
The folks are available under a CC-0 license, which is effectively public domain. You are welcome to use this library however you'd like, with or without attribution; with or without modifications. Even if you're not interested in the basic shapes that I've created, I hope you will work with your team to talk about how to positively portray a diverse community.
I’m working on a quilt right now. Yes, of the blanket variety. None of the fabric was purchased explicitly to make this quilt. It’s bits and pieces I’ve collected along the way in various shades of purple. Some left over from other quilts I’ve made; some from my sister’s old projects. Some of the fabric I’ve dyed myself; some is from an exchange with another fabric artist. Each piece has its own history, its own connection to another time and place.
The quilt started as a collection of colours. When we moved to the UK last summer, I went through my fabric collection and bundled together future projects. I didn’t know exactly what the bundle would be when I first put it together, but it became its own set of arbitrary constraints for a future project. A few months ago I pulled the bundle out, planning to make a quilt for a wedding gift. The bundle sat unused as my life filled up with other commitments. I knew the materials, but not where I wanted to go.
Wandering through the craft books at a local bookshop, I stumbled on a copy of The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters. The idea was simple: start with a set of arbitrary rules, and build your quilts out from there. You don’t need rulers, and exact measurements to make the quilts in this book — in fact this book doesn't even have patterns for you to replicate. Instead the book gives a set of guidelines for each of the methods, with rules you can use to improvise your own creations. The book draws inspiration from improv comedy, and jazz. I’d always enjoyed this way of making quilts — building as I go. But I’d never thought about what this method might be called if I were to give it a name. Having someone else give the system a label liberated me into starting.
I accidentally chose the most difficult method in the book: sewing with curves. I chose it because I’d always shied away from circles in quilting because everyone said it was hard and required precision (I am not a precise quilter). I began by pulling together fabrics into half circles. Cranking out new shapes to build from.
Not bad for an evening’s work. The next morning when I began to put the shapes together, I realised they just didn’t work. I couldn’t quite identify why, but I knew that the shapes weren’t right together.
I began again.
This time I iterated with smaller units. I grew the composition instead of building blocks to assemble later. Still limited to the bundle of fabric I’d pulled together nearly a year before, I was now quite constrained as I’d used up so much fabric in that first evening of sewing. I’ve contemplated unpicking the first night’s work, but I don’t know that it would put me further ahead to undo that work, so I let it sit beside the ironing board. Waiting.
As I tried to decide what direction my quilt would go, I’d take pictures, documenting layouts in case I wanted to return to any of them. A lot of time was spent just sitting and looking and thinking. And getting up, moving to a different angle and looking and thinking some more. Shifting the pieces, and monitoring my reaction to how balanced it made me feel.
I’ve learned just enough about composition to be able to trust my intuition when things don’t feel right; but not so much that I can necessarily describe why something works or fails.
The quilt isn’t finished yet, but it’s brought to the surface a few important lessons.
- Identify your arbitrary constraints. In my day job, as a project manager, my arbitrary constraints include my team mates, my deadlines, and software tools. Getting to know these constraints really well gives me the freedom to improvise and be more creative.
- If the scaffolding is too well defined too early on, it can be difficult to iterate. On my first night of quilting, I misinterpreted the rules for improv. I made too many big blocks which didn’t fit well together.
- Observation allows you to isolate areas of discord. When I work with teams, I try to spend a portion of my time observing my own response to a situation. I won’t always be able to identify in words why something doesn’t feel right, but I will often pick up on a team mate’s discomfort before even they can articulate it.
- Try shapes in different places before you commit to a final structure. In the first week of a project set a few constraints; a few meetings, a few tasks. Then as the project progresses, move things around a little bit. That person seems a bit unhappy or stuck, what if they were given more freedom to explore, or maybe that person is flailing and actually needs a more rigid constraint to bounce against.
- Record your changes. Taking snapshots of how the pieces were put together gave me the security I needed to examine things from a different perspective. Document procedures for faster on-boarding; make checklists for deployments; make patterns repeatable.
- Seam allowances always change the piece a little bit. No matter how good your plan is, as you start to implement it by sewing the pieces together, the product will shift a bit. Be ready to accommodate those changes as you work. Continue to test the software, and monitor your response to observing your team’s interactions.
Know your constraints. Improvise. Pause to reflect. And begin again. Repeat the process until the piece has reached its end.
When I was in university I was diagnosed with panic disorder. At its worst, the panic attacks manifested as hyperventilation, or a complete emotional shutdown where I would somehow lose the motivation to breathe. Within a single day I could go through periods of depression, and then excited mania. From the outside looking in, it must have been horrible to watch. I worked with therapists to gain a better understanding my triggers. I learned to avoid my triggers, but initially it was hard. In the early days of the diagnosis, the trigger for a full-on melt down was as simple as getting my bike caught in the door as I headed to class. It was intensely embarrassing.
Gradually, and with a lot of help, I became better able to manage my anxiety. At first I would count the days between panic attacks, and then I was able to count the weeks, and now I count the years. There was no single turning point, every little thing I did contributed to the steady improvement of my mental health. Today, I still enjoy the big highs and the deep lows. In the moment, my emotions still consume me. I’m quick to laugh, quick to temper, and quick to recover.
Mood swings. Hot tempered. Unpredictable. Overbearing. The ways my panic was described by the outside world crushed me, because I didn’t believe those words were at my core. I began focusing on creating my own labels for who I thought I was. (If you’ve ever heard “she’s bossy” but “he’s authoritative” you know exactly the journey I put myself on.) Being a better me didn’t mean losing my quickness. It didn’t mean obeying other people when they told me to soften my emotions, or curb my outward responses. Nor was it about fitting in or being quiet because it was inconvenient for someone else that I was expressing my feelings. I figured out different words for the same state, and I practiced using my favourite positive characteristics more regularly.
I did not try to stop having the emotions, nor limit their volume, but simply to have the emotion, without the corresponding extreme physical response. I wish I could give you the simple answer of how I made this happen. As I roll around in the memories of what I went through, I can’t remember the progression of tools that I learned and used (“When Panic Attacks” is definitely in my toolkit though). I remember allowing myself to sink into panic attacks: to feel them without being afraid of them, or embarrassed that I was having an emotion with an external manifestation. As I learned to explore the sensation of deep overwhelming anxiety, I learned how to regulate my panic. I treated it like muscle memory in sports. Sort of. I didn’t want to have more panic attacks! I wanted to understand how panic felt, so that I could spot the early warning signs and remove myself—physically and emotionally—from potentially dangerous situations. I did the same for other emotions as well—happiness, sadness, anger, I continue to learn what it means feel each of these emotions completely.
As the worst of the panic attacks were decreasing in frequency, I picked up a copy of Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. I cried deep, and hard as I read this little book about the recovery people were able to make when they felt like they were loved, and that they belonged. (The book is an edited transcript of his Massey Lectures from CBC Radio.) I knew I was loved, but belonging…that was something else entirely. I remember going to a retreat, meeting Mr. Vanier and thanking him. At the retreat I spoke with a woman who also suffered from anxiety—she could not yet conceive of achieving the progress I’d made. I remember thinking as we spoke: my horrible panic attacks when twisted up, and shook out the other end are actually a source of hope for someone who’s coming behind me. It was my embarrassment; my brokenness; how could it possibly have value to someone else.
I am an emotional chameleon. I pick-up on whatever is around me, and adopt it as my own. Happy. Mad. Sad. It doesn’t matter. My body internalises its emotional surroundings. If I don’t like the emotion, my subconscious quickly gets to work on mapping the source of the emotion and turning it around. Before I learned how to separate my physical reaction from my mental reaction, this deep connection was a scary and dangerous place to exist. The connection made it too easy to get overwhelmed, resulting in a physical shutdown. As I got better at disconnecting the physical reaction, I realised that I could often mitigate my own reaction if I saw someone else’s reaction coming. (Brace yourself; winter is coming.) I learned to watch people—to see their reactions develop and decide before my body had a chance to react, how I wanted to handle the situation.
Today, I apply the principles I’ve learned to deal with my own panic disorder to work situations. Instead of shielding myself from taking on other people’s emotions, I try to safely engage in empathy and compassion. I spot trends in behaviour. I construct scenarios based on what I think a person might need given what they are dealing with outside of our own (work) relationship. (Sometimes I struggle with the idea that I am fostering co-dependencies.) Today, I love working with broken teams who are stressed out, burnt out, and can’t figure out how to come together to support one another. Through their own reactions, my friends and co-workers are constantly helping me to practice delaying my physical reaction from the emotions I have. From the outside, it might appear as though my patience has improved; or my temper subsided. From the inside it is an incredible release from the panic that once consumed me. Learning to read how my emotions match up to a physical sensation has made it easier to spot physical reactions in others. It allows me to have richer conversations, and to unpack the frustrations my teammates are having by simply recognising an external manifestation of an emotion I’ve had.
I’ll probably never be a great poker player. You’ll probably always be able to tell exactly how happy (or not happy) I am. Quick to laugh. Quick to temper. Quick to recover. We’re all wired a little bit differently, and I love being who I’ve become. I regularly deal with high stress scenarios which would have crippled me twenty years ago—and each time I do, I get a little better at it. In some ways I’ve become a bit of a stress addict, looking for the next difficult situation to understand and learn from.
Maybe your journey doesn’t start with panic disorder—but maybe you too have a weakness that you can learn to exploit as a strength. I took a characteristic which people said was immature, and I turned it into one of my greatest professional assets. I learned how to engage in workplace empathy and compassion without putting myself at risk. Today, I work with groups of people who are happier, more engaged, and more productive—traits which I try hard to foster in my own behaviour. I’m glad I don’t have panic attacks anymore, but I also wouldn’t give up the lessons they taught me for the world. They’ve shaped me into a better version of someone I already quite liked.
This week I had the opportunity to speak at Git Merge. The presentation I delivered was, unintentionally, twenty two years in the making.
In 1993, I was a student at the Deep River Science Academy. I studied the growth rates of rock bass using Cs137 at Atomic Energy of Canada. It was a great summer. I can't remember who delivered the commencement speech, but I remember the message: as scientists your job isn't finished when the research is done and the paper submitted for publication. It is your job, as a scientist, to make sure the message is communicated to the public in a way that can be understood, and acted upon. I went on to university to study Environmental Science. While I was there I deviated into adult education.
The details are a bit hazy now, but I remember something about building a computer game which simulated fishing scenarios and fish population dynamics. In my other classes, my area of specialisation was looking at how legislation affected fish populations. The professor responsible for the class was a PhD candidate in education with an interest in environmental studies. Included in the readings for the course were rebel educators Piaget, Papert, and Freire. Through their works I learned about constructivist learning and the importance of building on previous knowledge. As a "graduate" of the Montessori program, the idea of self-directed learning just made sense to me -- after all, at the age of three and one half, it had been my first exposure to formal learning environments. I tucked the constructivist theories of education away when I took my first college teaching job. The curriculum was handed to me, and I did my best to teach in spite of it. I was sent the "difficult" students, and I loved working with them. Students who had paperwork on how they needed to learn were fantastically easy for me. It was like having an instructional manual for that particular brain. Those students taught me how to collaborate with the learner, to sit beside them and see the world through their eyes. It was so much more interesting than standing at the front of the room by myself and talking at people. I was hook-line-and-sinker in love with the collaborative aspects of learning.
But the world ticked along, and I moved on to new opportunities.
My first opportunity to teach version control came at my next college. It was an internet management programme for liberal arts students with no programming experience. I did a terrible job at incorporating version control into the curriculum. Again, the students were there to teach me as much as I was there to teach them. I simplified my approach down to a few necessary commands. By the end of the program the students were still fighting a bit with version control, but they could see the advantages of it for their group projects. Or perhaps more to the point, they could see that I thought it was important and that their frustrations were part of the learning experience.
Version control itself evolved, and I began teaching public lectures at conferences on how to use Bazaar, a new type of distributed version control. The sessions felt a bit like a magic trick, step 1, step 2, tada! You're doing version control. Like all sessions, the information was based on my own experience, and I was still at the very, very beginning of what could be done with version control.
And then Git happened.
The arbitrary flexibility of the program made me incredibly frustrated. I've never felt so stupid using software. So frustrated, and so angry at not understanding what had happened to my software files. Commands that I thought I understood didn't work the way that I thought they should. The instructions were written in language that was completely foreign to me. I tolerated Git, but I did not love it. I gained competence in Git, but I did not master it. It was when I began working with my first team who used Git that I truly started to dig into the frustrations I had. I worked with a wonderful tech lead who had the patience to answer my infinite "yes, but why" questions about how he used Git. The software still made me frustrated, and I decided I needed to unpack why. I submitted a session to DrupalCon entitled "Git Makes Me Angry Inside". I continued to think about what it was that I hated, and slowly I realised it was a combination of feeling the documentation was arrogant, and the program was too flexible. There were no arbitrary constraints to help teams decided what the "right" way was to use the software. It was the team who needed to come up with the constraints. And that required honest communication about intention and work flow.
My session went well. People liked the approach of thinking about the team first, and the software second. It was a new approach, and it started with the learner. Late one night I ended up in a bar just off the side of a graveyard. Carl and I were talking about our respective sessions, and suddenly the laptops were open and Carl was showing me (with great passion) about the things he had been uncovering in Git. For the first time, I was sitting beside someone who had managed to spark my interest diving further into the frustrations of Git. He'd already managed to unpack some of what I'd run into. I turned my frustrations into an epic rant, which fizzled into the realisation that it was my responsibility to fix the experience for those who were still trying to learn Git.
I continued to hone my intro session to Git. A half day workshop evolved. Bits of it were too meta and caused confusion. I refined, and revised and tried to have empathy for the learner. Instead of stripping out the bits that didn't make sense, I would shake the information around and try to present it in different ways. Stubbornly refusing to go back to showing a few simple commands and pretending that's all there was to version control. I began incorporating my leadership training into the workshop, teaching people how to communicate more effectively with their co-workers. Increasingly, I came to believe the problem was bigger than Git. Yes, Git is hard to learn. But more importantly, teams simply did not know how to communicate with one another and Git had become the focal point for their frustrations.
Things continued to click into place, and my book proposal was accepted by O'Reilly. It would be like no other Git book currently on the market. It would focus on project governance first. There wouldn't be a single command until Chapter 5. As I write this piece, I'm 10 chapters into writing the book. There are still many improvements to be made (and a bit more writing to happen), but people seem ready for the book.
Which brings us to the presentation that was twenty two years in the making.
Git Merge is a conference which is evolving from a developer conference into a user conference. This year it was hosted in Paris by GitHub and was timed to celebrate Git's 10th birthday. As my own work has been around onboarding developers, my presentation would be quite different from the others'. I sat on the the ideas for weeks. Putting things together in my head, and pulling them apart again. What did I really want to say to this audience? How could I say it in a way that was respectful but also honest about the experiences I'd had. What change did I really want to affect? The pieces came together slowly, until I realised I could do to the audience what Git had done to me: I could overwhelm them with things I was passionate about. I could show them my passion about adult education and how it had come to shape the way I teach Git. I put together slides of Bloom's Taxonomy (in three variations). I talked about Knowles' tenants of adult education, and how andragogy was really just constructivist learning, relevant to any age. I included slides from my workshops, and explained the rationale for why I teach Git the way I do. It felt entirely self-indulgent to be speaking about these things at a technical conference on version control.
The only presentations I get nervous about these days are the ones that really matter to me. And, boy, was I nervous. If you go back and watch the presentation, you will see me click about 2 or so minutes into the talk. My voice will slow and my shoulders will relax and I will begin to tell you the story that I've been building for the last twenty two years. I poured my heart onto the stage; and the community poured their heart right back onto me.
At this point the story verges on hubris. Yes, I feel very lucky and very privileged to be at this point in my career. But I know how much hard work I have invested in being able to put this story together. And, perhaps more importantly, I am very grateful to those who've invested in me so that I could be here today. We make choices in life. We make a lot of choices. Among the most important choices I've made are to dive into difficult topics which make people hurt. I dive into technology, not because I like to tinker with tech, but because I like to tinker with the effects it has on people. I enjoy gardening difficult topics; trimming the hedges, mowing the lawns, and making overgrown gardens accessible. I want those who come after me to be able to relax into the information which surrounds them; so that the gardening can be purely maintenance as they increase their own skills.
Having cleared my own section of the garden, I want to help keep the garden from overgrowing behind me. I want to contribute back to the community which has gotten me to this point. My homework is to find one thing I wish I could change about Git, and submit my first patch to the project. It needn't be big, but it will be a stepping stone. Maybe you have ideas about what you would change too. Maybe you'll join me on the next part of this adventure. And if I'm very lucky, maybe you'll be able to benefit from my gardening. I hope so because I'm very proud of the work I've done. If you have been doing your own gardening, I hope you'll share your work with me. I think it's important to take a step back and allow ourselves the luxury of a bit of show-and-tell every now and then.
Let go. Downsized. Made redundant. Removed from office. Fired.
In the past year several of my friends have been dismissed from their job. There have been a host of reasons cited, but the ones that stick with me are when my woman friends are dismissed from jobs which require soft skills in a technical environment. Coordinators. Managers. Non-developery things. When I hear that a friend has been released from their employer I get caught up in a sinking feeling. (I believe this is referred to as empathy.) I wonder if I would have been different enough to have survived any longer than they were able to. A wave of self-doubt crashes over me.
In the wake of that wave, my mind begins to wander in one of three directions: considering my own future in non-technical roles within a technical world; considering what a gift it is to be able to construct a new narrative; and considering how much it stings me when my friends are fired. The thoughts get all jumbled up as I try to work through them, but I feel it's important to unpack them. Perhaps for your sake, perhaps for a friend's sake, or perhaps you're an employer who has come to the horrible realisation that someone you brought into your work family is not the fit you thought they would be.
Let's untangle these thoughts, organise them into boxes, and deal with them one at a time. If nothing else, I hope that naming the thoughts will help me to clear my own head.
I am both a recovering developer, and a recovering artist. While earning a living as a developer, and as a hand book binder, I made friends in two separate worlds. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anyone who has quit one of these two worlds to enter the other (although there are definitely some who co-exist in both worlds). The media tells me many women have quit their technology jobs to pursue other careers. I know these women exist, but I can't think of women in my circle who've made this transition. Perhaps my circle of friends is smaller than I'd realised.
Quitting implies it would have been the individual's decision. Several of my friends, however, have been fired. This cohort has one thing in common: none of us are (or, perhaps I should say "were"?) employed in a technical role. I don't know what to think about that. What was it about these articulate, passionate, inspiring women that wasn't enough? Have we lacked mentors? Did we forget to lean in? Were our skills not valued; or were we simply not good enough? I don't have answers. But it causes me to look at my newly declared title of Project Manager and wonder -- what have I gotten myself into?
Getting fired, is just one step in life's journey. Inevitably you have to look at where to go next. Recovering from the upset of a life turned upside down can't come without a scan of the industry. Together I've helped my friends look at companies, job descriptions, potential employers and coworkers. We look at everything and try to find who to make a commitment to next. We unpack what has happened, what warning signs might have been missed. No one likes getting fired -- so you look to see what you might have done differently. You check back to hear how the team has recovered from your absence, and try to learn how the fit might have been broken. All of these lessons are bundled up, as you brace yourself against the wave of self-doubt and move forward.
But that's just it: you get to make that choice. And so we come to the middle of my list: the part where, after your break-up, you get to construct your own narrative. You've probably heard the expression, "you can't fire me; I quit"? My expression trends more towards "I won't quit; you must fire me". When people throw "can't" statements at me, I just dig deeper. Blindly refusing to take a step back and see the bad of an overall situation, I will continue to pivot and repair the edges of a situation that, from a different angle, is obviously crumbling around me. I iterate. I adapt. I adopt new ways of interacting with my surroundings. My persistence has helped me completely transform the way teams work together; their attitude, slowly shifting from the morose to humour, to a tentative passion for their work.
My love of transformations stretches into craft as well--yarn in cloth; cloth into clothing; clothing back into cloth for a scrap quilt. Within the fabric arts I take the smallest of pivots, never predicting too far into the future. It's safer that way. Constantly moving forward, even when turned in a completely different direction. The arbitrary constraints of the medium acting as a guide for what I might be able to make.
Too often I rely on those outside constraints -- forcing others to make that final decision. But once that decision is made. Oh, what a wonderful place! To be able to stretch your legs; recovering with a vengeance is the best medicine I know. From this place I've organised conferences, written books, and become more of myself. For all of the times a final decision has been made for me, I've grown as a person.
Being able to build yourself is not contagious though. At least, it's not contagious in a way that I've been able to figure out. For all of the self help books on my Kindle, it's always been my own way of doing things that's gotten me the furthest, not someone else's prescribed formula. How do you share your formula with a friend who's been fired? How do you help them to build a new narrative if they're not ready. If you're not ready to build your new self, no amount of cheering or coaching will help. I know because I've been there too.
Finally, on the list of things I turn over in my head when a friend's been fired: I reflect on the direction I am headed. If this industry is one which will toss out an employee; if this industry is one that does not have capacity for renewal, for education, for refining talents and growing employees, how do I feel about that? I genuinely like my friends (it's why we're friends). So what am I to think when they're booted out? (Selfish, I know. I should probably be thinking more about what they're thinking.)
I don't believe that companies take delight in firing people. I think it's probably quite hard to do. But what do companies do in the moments leading up to that decision? Companies are in the business of being in business. The small ones, at least, aren't staffed with therapists. They probably don't even have a health care plan which would adequately cover the costs of dealing with any real issues. So as the human beings on the inside, how do we get the support we need. How do we work with our team to learn and grow into a position, instead of allowing ourselves to be removed. And how do we recognise when a team would function better without our cultural misfit and release ourselves from our current state of unrest.
I have such wonderful friends who listen to me puzzle through things. Through self-reflection, they help me to grow. Always in tiny increments. Everything is possible. We help one another to look further than tomorrow and then to work backwards our next step. We can reverse engineer the future, but it's easier when there is someone to help you see beyond the crumbling edges. I don't know that I have any sage advice for my friends, but I have compassion and I have empathy. This tough world of being a grown-up is a little easier when we are able to stumble through it together.
Released. You're free to grow now.
The audacity to explore
The first time I attended a craft event in my new city, it was hard. Everyone already had their friends and the crafts were, well, they seemed more like party games for extroverts. I didn't know how to break into the groups at each of the craft stations. Smiling pathetically with the odd "hello" as people chatted to one another was getting me nowhere. I turned to the window and stood for a while, blinking furiously and trying not to cry. Finally, I left. These were not my people.
I'm a creature of habit. Once I learn a path to a destination, I tend to stick with it. I rarely seek out efficiencies for myself. Once I find a spot that I like to eat, I'll visit it frequently. I listen to albums on repeat. "Plus ça change." I like to know the rules of engagement. I get overwhelmed by crowds if I'm required to interact with each of the people individually, but if I'm speaking at an event, it's fun to engage because I know the rules.
When there's no restriction on the destination, and my only restriction is time, I know that exploring can be fun. I like to turn corners unexpectedly. I like to follow my nose. It's safer to do this on my own. With no one else to check with, I'll wander and explore and open myself up to the delights that a place may have waiting for me. Last week when I was in a new city for a client meeting I had a morning to explore before my flight. I used my follow-your-nose approach and found a tiny shop which sells handmade shoes, and a door leading to Purgatory beneath a church. A few more turns and I stumbled into my old faithful, Starbucks. I was treated with a wonderful interaction with two women who graciously allowed me to practice my broken French. (We joked that the only English they really spoke was "tall skinny latté".) My journey continued as I walked to the airport. It only took about an hour and I was rewarded with some fantastic street art along the way. It reminded me that to meet a space you need to be willing to flirt with new streets, to choose differently at intersections, and to open yourself up to new possibilities.
Back home, though, I fell quickly into my routine of following the paths I knew. Today I needed the post office, and then lunch. I knew where I was going; the route was easy. The streets were known, and I had a flat white to look forward to. From this coffee shop, I planned to work on my latest book, Git for Teams, because Jane Jacobs once said "New ideas need old buildings." Divine Coffee is housed in the Galleries of Justice--the old courthouse. There are tours which highlight the history of the place. The tour guide drops into the coffee shop before each tour to ask if anyone is here for a hanging. I am surrounded by photos of convicts. It's surreal, but reminds me of the old courthouse back home. The cafe has become familiar to me, and rarely does it get so busy that I feel like I've overstayed my welcome. The route I take to get here is familiar. I know how long it takes to get back to my apartment for my scheduled calls. In short: it's stimulating, but safe.
Today, though, I remembered at the last minute I was out of cash and I veered off my known route. Cutting through the Lace Market at a different angle, I found a store I hadn't seen before: Debbie Bryan. It wasn't the store name which caught my eye. It was the sign advertising "crafternoons". Inside was a range of handmade goods for sale. Hand made soap. Micro-brewed beer. Lace ornaments. I wandered around the store feeling like I'd found makers who reflected my own eclectic hobbies. I picked up a few cards and wandered into the back. Vintage lace patterns. Hand made books. A jar of urban honey. Local honey. From a park in Nottingham. I picked it up and put it down and picked it up again. Urban honey. From Nottingham. A jar of local honey meant there were beekeepers in the city. With my small collection of things to buy, I wandered to the cash desk.
As they were ringing in my purchases, I asked if they knew which park the honey came from. They described in great detail where it was ("near the castle, down the steep hill, just ignore the sign which says it's a private estate"; I knew where they meant). Then I asked if they knew the beekeeper, because I am a beekeeper too. They did! And they promised to make introductions. I added myself to their mailing list, and they gave me a flier for an upcoming event. It felt like I'd cracked some secret code to the city which had eluded me for my first six months. These were my people.
And so I ask you: Have you found your old buildings? Have you fallen into your own routines? Do you stick to your known paths? Have you revealed your interests to the community around you? Have you found your community? Are you willing to keep looking? Wherever you go, there you are. But sometimes, just sometimes, the place you've landed isn't the place where you can truly be you. Keep looking. There are interesting things down the alleys you have yet to explore.
Today You Will Stop Drowning in Your Email
Last year a friend of mine was lamenting over the size of his inbox. I shared with him my battle-tested method for dealing with the overwhelm. It’s simple. It requires no special software. No beta codes. No special invites. There is no waiting list. You don’t need to Tweet on a special hashtag, and you don’t need to “Like” anything on Facebook. It's so simple that, even though I'd promised to write it down, I just never got around to it. Until now.
The secret to dealing with your Inbox is very simple: stop thinking of your Inbox as your Todo list.
Open up your email program right now. Create a new folder named @Defer. Select all of the messages in your Inbox, and place them into the @Defer folder. Or, if you’re using one of those new-fangled folder-less email applications, create a new label or tag named @Defer, then apply to it all the messages in your inbox. Once the label is applied, archive the messages (or whatever the equivalent is for your email application to get them OUT of your inbox).
Take a deep breath. You’ve achieved the holy grail of inbox zero. Turn off the internet for a few minutes and rejoice.
When you return, a few emails may have snuck back into your inbox. Immediately triage these emails with these simple steps:
- Was the email sent to you automatically? If yes, create a filter which applies a relevant label and gets the message out of your inbox.
- Is the email actionable? If yes, can you deal complete the necessary actions within the next two minutes? Great! Do whatever it takes to get that email out of your inbox right now. If it’s not something you can deal with right away, apply the label @TODO, and get it out of your Inbox.
- If the email is not actionable, archive it. You weren’t going to do anything with it anyway, so why would you leave it sitting in your Inbox?
Ta!Da! You’ve now learned the secret to keeping your inbox clear. If you ever get overwhelmed, it’s a simple matter of selecting everything and applying the @Defer tag en masse.
Of course you now have a folder, or a label, filled with deferred emails. Your own personal folder of doom. This folder, just like your Inbox, needs to be triaged. Using batches of approximately 30-50 emails, go through and apply your new inbox rules:
- Is it automated? Create a filter or unsubscribe. (This includes: business newsletters, Jira notifications, discussion lists, Facebook notifications, LinkedIn updates, and the like.)
- Is it immediately actionable? Yes? Deal with it. Now. If not, apply the label @TODO.
- If it’s not actionable, archive it. For most email applications this means simply removing the @Defer label.
Over the next little while, as you continue to batch process your @Defer folder, you’ll gain a @TODO folder — which is actually a folder full of things *to* *do*! Depending on your type of work, you may want to batch this folder into smaller buckets (job leads, family correspondence, Upcoming Thing). Batching your work like this will allow you to minimise your context switching when you plough through it. So, perhaps, Tuesday afternoon is “empty the Upcoming Thing” bucket; and Thursday evening is “reply to family email” night. Adopting a stand-alone TODO application (I like Todoist) can help you tie time to tasks. Some people prefer to block off time in their calendar application. No matter how you schedule yourself, the point is that you are no longer being ruled by your inbox. You are now in control!
If you’re like me, you probably have a few emails you want to be able to refer back to quickly. These will get special labels. Mine currently include the permanent folders: Travel, Happy, and Receipts. I also have transient folders for specific events. (In 2014 had transient folders for BrewingAgile, ConFoo, DrupalCon.) Although I use TripIt, anything I need easy access to for traveling (e.g. the barcode for a travel voucher) goes into my Travel folder. A folder named Receipts just makes accounting easier. The Happy folder is exactly as advertised: a folder of emails that make me happy. Some are accolades, some are notes from special friends, whatever I want can go in this folder so long as it makes me happy. I review it as-needed.
I’ve had more complicated systems of folders over the years, but I rarely referred back to the emails they contained, and it ended up just being an exercise in cataloguing, not in retrieval. Whatever floats your boat though. If you enjoy cataloguing, by all means create an infrastructure of folders! Sometimes I flirt with other systems too. (Triage and Mailbox are both installed on my iPhone.) But I find I keep coming back to the simplicity of the @Defer folder.
If you’d like even more scaffolding to help you get organised, I recommend picking up a copy of Getting Things Done. I’m not the first Baker to recommend it and I’m sure I won’t be the last.