Lorna Mitchell

Lorna is a web development consultant and author based in Leeds, UK. Her books include "PHP Master", "PHP Web Services" and "N Ways To Be A Better Developer", and she loves to write for other outlets such as netmagazine and her own blog.

When she's not writing either code or words for a living, Lorna leads the Joind.In open source project; a tool to enable communities to give real-time, public feedback to speakers and organisers of events. Lorna has spoken at events around the world giving both keynotes and technical talks and is also active as a mentor with PHPWomen.org.

When she gets the time, Lorna tweets @lornajane

Published Thoughts

I make my living from open source. Over time, I’ve grown enough in confidence and skill to contribute to some of those projects when a proverbial itch needs scratching. I also maintain an open source project, so in many ways I could consider myself to already be active. Active enough given how much I rely on this stuff? I’m not sure.

At ZendCon in October I attended a very thought-provoking talk from the excellent Elizabeth Smith. On the surface of it, it was another get-involved-in-open source plea from a great contributor (Liz runs phpmentoring but is also an excellent core contributor to PHP), but her approach was something I haven’t thought enough about until now. Most projects will tell you “bug tracker over there, patches welcome” ... but what about things that aren’t code? Who keeps the servers patched, triages the bugs, builds the toolchain for the translation teams to use? Who lurks in IRC channels or on mailing lists, fielding the easy questions so that a project maintainer or major contributor can keep maintaining or contributing rather than spreading themselves too thinly?

Christmas is coming and we are all full of good intentions for the year ahead. As the excitement of the festive season fades, let’s look for creative ways to support and be part of the communities that we rely on, and keep those good intentions going far longer than the new diet or exercise regime lasts.

I Offer Unlimited Tech Support

I get a lot of email. I expect you get a lot of email, too. A fair proportion of my incoming email is people asking for help with very specific problems. Sometimes, I help, then blog a general version of the question and answer later to help anyone else with the same problem. Sometimes, I reply quoting my hourly rate. Sometimes, I don’t reply at all.

This feels a bit hit-and-miss, so now I’ve made a new rule. If you need tech support, I’ll help you. All you have to do is post the question to StackOverflow, then email me the link (note: don’t tweet it at me. I keep up with twitter even less well than I keep up with my inbox). One of two things will happen next:

  1. Someone other than me will help you with your question, and others will also be able to benefit from the answer.
  2. I’ll deliver the tech support you were hoping for, and others will also be able to benefit from the answer.

The key here is that it’s all about sharing, and about web-scale sharing. When I have to reach out to a project lead for an answer on something, I like to update documentation or at least publish a post on my own blog about whatever they told me. I do this because otherwise I’m just one of the hundreds of people who ask the same question, and I’m contributing to the problem rather than solving it. By acting as a conduit for information, or by conducting our conversation in a publicy-searchable forum, we share that knowledge with anyone who needs to find it. Even better, see if you can answer another question while you’re there asking your own!

This idea is all about open source; we built our success on the shoulders of those who went before us. Now it’s our turn to stand steady and allow the next generation to climb up when they are ready.

High-Flier’s Oath

When I am complimented on my achievements, I will not say I was lucky.
When I am introduced as a published author, I will not be embarrassed.
When my talk is scheduled on the big stage, I will not be intimidated.
When I am thanked for my work, I will not brush off those kind words.

I will remember and recognise my own efforts that brought me to this place.
I will own my successes as much as I own my failures.

It’s that time of year again. Here in the UK, the mornings are cooler and the days are shorter; summer is over and the new year begins.

September has always been the new year for me. For the first 22 years of my life, I spent 18 of them starting a new academic term about now. Even after leaving university, September is the time when I take stock, set new goals, and try to form the new habits that will see me through another year of life. As an SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) sufferer, January is a month to survive, not to make any changes or add any challenges, so for me it is September where I look at the year past and the one to come.

For the year ahead I make this promise to myself: I will remember that I am not my work. I’m between gigs right now, and I give myself permission to be – certainly I worked far too many hours in the last 6 months and this lifestyle business could do with being a bit more lifestyle and a bit less business sometimes! If things are a bit slow for my company once in a while, that’s okay. That’s business, and I will not take it personally. I promise that I will try to always see myself before my work, to find time for my family and friends – but most of all, for myself. To walk, to read, to make, to be me.

I put this promise before you, and challenge you to make your own in return.

Just A Day At The Office

I run my own business, and I’m the only person who works for that business. The downside of one-person businesses is that they really don’t scale well. One problem is that I can feel positively inflexible when a client wants to rearrange something; the reality is that my time books up weeks in advance and not all of it is a moveable feast.

The other problem is that it’s quite hard to find the time to handle the actual running-the-business part of running a business. It’s very easy to get booked up with daytime billable work, and then find that you’re doing preparation and admin while burning the midnight oil!

To deal with this, I schedule “office days”. These are days where I will be in the office, doing ... things. You’ll often find them in my calendar on the last day of the month so I can do the accounts and invoicing. They also show up immediately before or after a trip, to give me some space to get handouts printed, packing done, tie up loose ends, or blitz the inbox backlog and recover from jet lag. They are also useful as “wriggle room”, when someone asks me to write a short piece, help out reviewing a CfP, or whatever else that I want to squeeze in somehow.

Scheduling the time to do these things really helps me to stay sane and stops my dream job becoming a bit of a nightmare. Would you consider taking some time out of your own schedule to catch up with yourself and make sure your job is all you hoped it would be?

Recently, I attended a software development conference that would struggle to claim it had even 2% female attendance. At the speakers dinner, I sat next to the other female speaker. The only point I'm trying to make here is that I know what it is like to not fit in.

Wherever I go, I don't fit in. I don't fit in with the people I work with. I don't fit in with the other people at the events I attend and speak at. If I do find a group of women to be friends with, I don't fit in with them either. There isn't much I can do to improve my conformity with my peer group; I talk like the guys, I dress like the guys, I drink like the guys ... and still I don't fit in.

After many years of this experience, I've reached the conclusion that fitting in is overrated. Groups of people do the silliest things when they act as a herd, and really we are all different in our own way. Even if you blend in better than I do, you're still an individual rather than just a factor in the averages of the crowd. Instead of being one more member of a group, laughing when they laugh, nodding when they nod, ask yourself this question:

Do you want to fit in, or do you want to stand out?

I recently gave a keynote entitled “Your Open Source Persona” which revolved around the idea that open source communities give karma on merit, but that with that karma comes a responsibility to consider how you relate to the people inside and outside the project you are now part of. In the course of preparing the talk, I tried to illustrate a point about how well diverse teams perform.

The problem with science is that you can set out to prove one thing, and end up believing something entirely new. In this case, I found this study about having groups of people try solving a problem. Once the group was set up and had started working on a problem, a new person was added to the group. Some of these newcomers were similar to the existing group demographics, but others were “outsiders”. Whether that person was a social match for the group or not had two very interesting outcomes.

The first outcome was that an outsider being added was more likely to result in a good solution to the problem.

The second outcome was the surprise. Teams with an outsider (someone who wasn’t a social match for the rest of the group) performed better, but rated themselves as performing much less well. Think about that. Diversity means being with people who aren’t like us, who may not agree with us or may not share our assumptions about the world.

The best performing teams think that they’re not performing well at all.

I'm not here to ask you to have fun

Conference season is upon us, as my TripIt account could probably tell you. I spend a lot of time at conferences (actually far too much, if you look at the accounts for my one-woman business!) and can often be found evangelising the benefits of events. There is so much to learn! So many people to meet! So many hallway discussions to have! So many new ideas to have and to share! So many projects to hack up in the bar!

But what if that doesn’t sound like you? What if you don’t want to stay up late, try to make small talk with (potentially drunk) people you don’t know, go to a new place, or listen to topics that might not even be useful to you in the future? I’m a server-side developer, a profession that stereotypically doesn’t value social interaction all that much. There’s plenty you can do without leaving your chair so it’s tempting to leave weird in-person gatherings to other people. You know, the ones with social skills.

I’m here to say: go anyway. You don’t have to enjoy it. You don’t have to talk to anyone. Try a few of the sessions, go shopping instead if it isn’t working out for you. But however you approach conference season, don’t write the whole events thing off as something for “other people” until you’ve tried it. There are plenty of affordable events all over the world; I bet you can find something that’s achievable for your budget/lifestyle/location/professional aspirations.

I’m not asking you to have fun, I’m asking you to go along and see what you can find there that works for you.

Email is such an everyday thing, and often we see it as a bad thing. We attempt to eliminate it in our quest for Inbox Zero. Certainly I get a rush when waking on a Sunday morning to see only one or two new mails arrived while I slept. Much of my email comes from machines rather than people; both seem to think themselves important.

Consider the protocol though, not the content. Email is, in and of itself, a pretty excellent invention. It seems to get copied (badly! Looking at you, Facebook) by other major applications, but its persistence speaks for how useful it really is. I use emails a lot for business communication, as I’m sure most of us do, but I also use it for writing letters. As a way of sending unlimited content, optionally with attachments, asynchronously, I’m at a loss to beat it. I send emails to my husband when I’m away and in the wrong timezone to phone him, I got the news of my sister’s pregnancy by email (while I was in the wrong timezone to phone, there’s a theme here), and I now regularly email long letters to my best friend who very inconsiderately moved to the wrong side of the planet. Sometimes I email people who are in the right timezone for a phone call, but whose thoughts I would like in a non-urgent manner, or who will need time for research or reflection before replying.

All too often, email represents the place where GitHub notifications arrive, or where we ensure a paper trail between client and supplier. Instead, I challenge you to embrace it as a letter-writing* medium, surprise someone with a note in their inbox and make them smile!

* Letters themselves are delightful, but how many of your friends do you have a postal address for?

Talking To Myself

Once upon a time, I used to look for advice for every professional decision I took. Should I submit to this CfP? Write for that outlet? Or pursue a particular opportunity? Many people offered me their best advice, and for the most part, I took it.

Over time, I find that I ask for advice less and less. It’s not that I don’t need the input of other people any more; rather that I know whose advice I would ask, and I know those people well. I can think about the conversation I would have with a particular mentor, and fill in his or her side of the story without needing them to cheerlead me along those same, well-trodden paths. Those people gave me specific advice when I asked, but they have also given me something much more valuable: the ability to be my own guide.

The circle goes on, and now people come to me for advice. However I advise them, I always try to pay forward the same gift and help them to work out for themselves what their best path will be.

When running workshops for conference speakers, my favourite thing to ask them is: What are you most afraid of? Answers will vary, and while some worries may seem silly they are for the most part well-founded. Worries about getting bad feedback, forgetting what to say, struggling with a second language, even worries about falling over (actually I worry about this one a lot myself!). I focus on preparing well enough to be able to handle the problems, spending lots of time working with speakers on connecting to projectors, testing slides, how to use a microphone, and so on. 

As an experienced conference speaker myself, I have probably spent weeks or months of my life trying to be prepared enough to avoid the things I’m worried about. I worry about wearing the wrong thing, having the talk start late or end early, getting a question that I can’t handle, pitching the session incorrectly, getting negative feedback ... on and on. I buy new outfits, practice talks almost until I can give them in my sleep, show up hours early on the day, ask friends to ask questions on the topic for me to practice answering. I’m not even sure I could answer my own question about what I am really afraid of.

Last year, two of those fears came true in spectacular fashion at different events. Everything I had worked so hard for, failed. And do you know what happened next? Nothing at all. The sky did not fall in, the universe did not implode. I won’t give those talks again, or probably be invited back to those conferences, but life did actually go on. I’ll still prepare thoroughly because that’s the kind of person I am, but I’m trying to let go of being afraid.

Experts of Other Disciplines

In my professional life, I strive to continuously improve my skills. Which isn’t to say that I’m great at everything, but that I’m conscious of the need to inch forward in new directions. Originally I was a software developer and while today I also write, teach, speak and consult, I still consider myself an expert in a pretty narrow discipline. In a one-person company, you turn your hand to whatever needs doing; I “get by” in the fields that I’m not so comfortable in, and projects get delivered.

Until now.

Right now, I’m working on a bigger project, with other people. I’m remembering that there is nothing in the world so good as good people to make good work. On my left, the frontend developer who doesn’t write server-side code but will send me “make this HTML happen” messages, and then make the result come alive in a delightful, intuitive way for the user. And on my right, the sysadmins who really understand the care and feeding of a great setup, and who know not only how to do everything I ask, but also how to rescue me from things I didn’t even know were a problem.

This project has had the benefit of all kinds of experts, and it’s a better project as a result. Best of all, I’ve had the pleasure of working with those experts. They inspire me — to strive to be at their level, but in my own field, and to always try to improve at what I do.