Welcome!

Teaching and learning

At LaunchDarkly, we’ve been hiring really aggressively, because we’re doing amazing things. (Come work with me!)

That means that we are also doing a bunch of training, and I’ve been working on doing the training for our non-technical employees, folks like marketing, design, outbound sales. They’re important to our success and they have a TON of domain knowledge that I don’t have, but we’re all going to work together more successfully if they know what they’re selling. Also, selfishly, the more people who can help work a table at a conference, the easier it is for everyone working at the conference.

Me, I’ve been doing tech for 20 years, at all levels, including hardware through to cloud. I bring a ton of domain knowledge with me every time I start a new job. But for this training, we need to explain enough about the software lifecycle to be able to talk about the problems that LaunchDarkly solves. That gave me a chance to really dig in and figure out how to explain the basics in a way that’s useful to people who haven’t been accidentally drinking from the devops firehose.

  • What are developers trying to do? What does their work life look like?
  • What is deployment and how is it hard?
  • How does software get to the user?
  • What are waterfall and agile and how does that relate to us?
  • What are APIs, SDKs, CDNs, CI/CD, devops, feature flags, polling and streaming updates?
  • What’s a monolith vs a microservice?
  • Why wouldn’t everyone just build their own software?
  • What is Software as a Service?

It was satisfying to realize that I can define and describe all of that in pithy and accessible terms for people. It’s the same thrill I get from writing a really solid document. I know that I am helping actual humans by describing something they need at the moment they need it.

I hadn’t thought about internal training as being part of my job duties, but when we realized we needed it, it seemed logical and easy to do it. After all, my whole purpose is explaining the product to people, and understanding and explaining people’s pain points to my company. This is a natural fit. Plus it was super fun!

In my infinite free time, I’m thinking about recording these explanations with a couple slides, so we have bite-sized concepts when people want to look them up.

 

Screaming in the Cloud with Corey Quinn

Corey Quinn, slasher of AWS bills and frequent conference speaker, had me as the first guest on his brand-new podcast, Screaming in the Cloud. We had a great time talking about feature flags, the all-iPad conference setup, testing in production, and how I feel about technical documentation.

And if you’re like me and don’t always have time to listen to podcasts, there’s also a transcript!

(This is the third time I’ve been asked to help kick off a podcast. Feel free to ask me for your own podcast!)

Guest post: UX Booth

I wrote a 2018 User Experience Prediction at UX Booth. Amy Grace Wells asked me what I thought was going to be a leading theme in UX in the next year, and I said, “better accessibility”. I think that’s both a serious prediction and a hope, because there is never enough accessibility, but I also think we are getting better.

So many things that are designed for accessibility, but that we don’t always understand that way when they happen, and frequently we mock them as lazy or luxurious. Backup cameras on cars seem silly – why not just turn around? Until you physically can’t turn around, and then you realize how much they matter. Pre-chopped vegetables, electric can-openers, and velcro shoes seem laughable – unless you’ve ever been unable to hold something in both hands at once. In the same way, building web and mobile apps to respond to a variety of command styles may not occur to us if our fingers are nimble or our voices clear, but will matter immensely to people who are not in that category.

Since before I was employed at LaunchDarkly, I’ve been fascinated by the ability that feature flags offer designers to customize user experience. We haven’t had a good test case yet that I know of, but it will come, and I’m looking forward to it.

Peeled oranges in plastic containers

Pre-peeled oranges for accessibility

The sticker bag

I talked about this a little bit in Lady Speaker Small Talk , but let me expand.

I have a bag of stickers that I take to every conference I go to. This week, I leveled up my game from “gallon ziploc bag of significant antiquity” to “bespoke bag”. It only took me a little while to sew, but I’m super pleased with it, and it uses a fastener I got on my last trip to New York City’s garment district.

A black fabric envelope about the same size as a gallon ziploc bag of obvious age. Black envelope style bag with silver bias edging and a fancy silver buckle fastener.

I made the effort because the sticker bag is important to me — part personal brand, part conversation starter.

Array of various technology stickers More technology stickers spread on a table

I go to over 20 conferences a year, and at each one, I collect vendor and conference stickers, and I talk to the people who give them to me, and then I spread them out on a table at lunch or at the evening party and invite people to come poke through them and take away whatever they want.

This is the most genius spontaneous idea I’ve ever had, because what it gets me is:

  • Low-key, low-pressure opportunities to talk to even shy people
  • A way to talk about different technologies and what people are interested in and looking for
  • A way to gauge what a community of conference attendees is excited about
  • Memorability
  • An extremely keen understanding of the market demands and constraints around stickers

What stickers mean

I am the age to have been a Lisa Frank person growing up. I distinctly remember spending science fair reward money on freakin’ holographic unicorns. It turns out a lot of us have never entirely lost the joy of neat stickers. We put them on our computers, water bottles, notebooks, suitcases, beer fridges, whatever we can get to hold still.

We use them as affiliation identifiers. It may be an obscure sticker to everyone else, but if you care about Debian, you know when you see the Debian sticker on someone else’s gear. You know that they will probably talk to you about Debian. Now imagine leaving that kind of conversational hook twenty times over.

We use them as political statements. An EFF sticker means something, as does a sticker that says “Support your sisters, not just your cis-ters”. Rainbow/pride stickers fly out of my collection, because it’s so important to say “not everyone here is straight”.

Some people have rules about what kind of stickers they’ll use. “I only put stickers on for projects I pay money to.” or “I only use stickers from projects I use.” or “Only funny stickers” or “My laptop has a color theme.”

That all makes sense to me. In many ways, our laptops are a proxy for our faces, especially at conferences. We are hiding behind them physically or metaphorically. When we give a presentation, they peek up over the podium. When we are working in hallways, they identify our status.

Secret Sticker Rules

I think there are some generalizable rules about technology stickers. I feel so strongly about this that when I showed up for my one day in the LaunchDarkly office before I went out into the world, I spent 2 hours talking about stickers, and what I wanted to hand out.

My ideal stickers

  • Small – 2 inches is ideal. Unless you work for a company, you do not want to give them 1/6th of your available laptop space.
  • Tileable – circle stickers are selfish, because you can’t stack them or budge them against any other stickers. I prefer the hex shape, which is relatively standard, especially in open source projects, thanks to RedHat. PS – Heroku, right shape, slightly too big, and it breaks the tiling. I’m judging.
  • Funny – the Chef “sprinkle on some DevOps” stickers are hilarious, cute, and not insulting to anyone. They’re probably optimal. I also really like the Logstash stickers that were a log. With a mustache. And I begged a whole package of the “I ❤️ Pager 💩”. Because people find that hilarious. You don’t have to be funny. Other options are cute, completely straight, or your-logo-but-with-colors.
  • Have your name on them. I cannot tell you how sad it was for Influx Data when they had adorable animals with gems in them, but their name wasn’t anywhere on the stickers, and so I was like, uh, it’s a kiwi bird? From someone? Isn’t it cute? Put your name on the sticker unless you’re, like, Target or Apple.
  • Are not sexist, racist, or otherwise jerkish. I pulled out a bunch of stickers that said “UX-Men”, because while the pun was cute, the exclusion was not. I won’t put out Sumo Logic stickers, because I feel like it’s an ugly caricature. Basho was also right on that line.

I really loved the stickers the LaunchDarkly designer, Melissa came up with. Most of them are hexes, a couple are very small oblongs that fit almost anywhere, and the surprise best-moving sticker is unusually big, a representation of our astronaut, Toggle.

Parents love Toggle, love that Toggle is not gendered, and they take home a sticker for each of their kids.

Other handouts

As I’ve been going to conferences representing a company that isn’t just me, I have figured out some other things that work for me. Feature Management is a new enough market space that people don’t always know what I mean, or want something to take back to their team to explain it. Melissa and I worked together to create a small postcard that has some brand identity on the front and a couple paragraphs on the back explaining our business case. It’s small enough to shove in a pocket or conference bag, and when you get back to your desk, you may read it again to remember why you picked it up.

I also carry business cards, so that people have a way to contact me particularly. I serve as an information conduit between people thinking about how we could solve their problems, and the folks on my team who can definitively answer their questions. So if you say to me “Heidi, I’d love to do feature management, but does it respect semver?” I give you my card and you write me and then I find out yes, we have that coming in this quarter. Yay!

And, of course, I keep a few sets of LaunchDarkly stickers that are not mixed in with the general chaos of The Sticker Bag, so that I can hand them out to people as we are talking about LaunchDarkly in particular. For reasons that mystify me, while Moo has excellent card holders for their tiny cards and business cards, they don’t make ones for the postcards in either size, and looking on Amazon and Etsy was just a journey into despair and disambiguation.

So I expensed some materials and made my own, and as soon as I sort out my authentication with Instructables, I’ll post the process, but look, I made a card holder for all my cards!

Navy leather card holder in clutch size Card wallet interior, with postcards, stickers, and business cards.

The postcard side is gusseted so I can stack a few postcards in it, and the business card holder side can also hold stickers. And the whole thing is sized to fit in my hoodie pocket, because that’s what I’m wearing 95% of the time I’m on a conference floor.

What I Don’t Hand Out

T-shirts. Such a nightmare, because they’re bulky and sizing is variable, and I’m traveling light. If you want a t-shirt, write us and we will ship it to you. 😉

Socks. Because we don’t have any yet, but I continue to hope that we will get socks before the technology sock craze (Started by StitchFix, those cunning geniuses) dies out. I love tech socks. At last count, I have 22 pairs of tech socks, and my current favorite pair is from Sentry.io because they come in a version that has SCREAMING CORAL as the cuff color.

To Sum Up

When interacting with people, it’s nice to give them something tangible, but not burdensome, so they remember you fondly. Also, I’m glad I bought a sewing machine, even though it’s one of the three weeks a year a fat bike would be useful.

When the cat’s away….

…the mice will self-organize?

My manager is on vacation. Like really a lot on vacation. Logged out of Slack, not on email or phone, not showing up for meetings, none of that. This appears to be what he’s doing:

Hawaiian beach

And he’s been gone, like weeks. OK, I think it’s 2 weeks. But it is significant and meaningful, even during the weird holiday bit at the end of the year.

I have several observations about that:

  • I would like to keep working places where management gets significant breaks and takes them as breaks. It means that I also feel ok taking time off, even though it’s sometimes a little harder for my co-workers when I’m gone. Culture does come from the top, and when your culture involves actually having a life outside of work, it shows.
  • When the person you usually get your answers from is not around, you’re forced to develop alternative sources of information. This is great in a lot of ways. You don’t get rigid about your information, and the organization practices redundancy.

When you think about it, real vacations are chaos engineering for teams.

  • We did find a few little glitches in the system, things that we can either fix ahead of time or work around for next time. For example, he’s the one who schedules our retrospective, it’s not on a set day. None of us know what the parameters are. But we just didn’t have it, and next time we can set it up so it’s not a deal. Iterate.
  • On a psychologically safe team, it’s ok to make decisions without your manager around. I pushed a deadline. A coworker told me her priorities for my work. I worked with a team mate to decide where to allocate money in the coming year. It felt safe to do that, because we can trust that when our manager comes back, he’ll be glad we did our jobs instead of waiting for him.
  • The last email he sent before he left reminded us that he trusted us to do our jobs, that we could ask each other for help, and that it was ok to go to the management team if we had a need. What more could a person ask for? Autonomy and trust go so far toward making us the best and happiest we can be.
  • He’ll be a better manager for having taken time to stare at the sun and the sand without looking at a computer screen or performing work emotional labor. It is exhausting to do hiring at our current pace, because hiring is hugely emotionally intensive, if you’re doing it right. Him taking care of himself means that those of us on his team can trust that he will be available to us when we need him. That’s good planning.

So many of these observations can be summed up as trust. Leaving your team takes trust. It’s important to be trusted to do your job without close supervision. It’s really really important to feel valued without feeling like you’re trapped or obligated.

Being essential is not the same as being valued.

Have a great vacation, boss! We’ll catch you on the flip side.

Milestone anniversary

We’ve been married 20 years today!

Megan kissing Heidi on the cheek

My wife and I got married on a snowy January day, 20 years ago. We were young, and broke, and hopeful. It turns out, our hope was justified. Here are a few of our accomplishments:

  • We still enjoy being married to each other
  • One bachelor’s degree for each of us
  • Two amazing kids
  • 2 cross-country moves and 6 local moves
  • Resolved arguments about blankets, computers, keyboards, money, parenting, and when to open Christmas presents
  • Supported each other through good and bad jobs, injuries, illnesses, and movies that really should have been better

I’m looking forward to at least as many good years in the future.

I love you, Megan!

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

As a speaker, there are three things I count on to give a talk:

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

My dependence on these elements decreases as I give a talk multiple times, but I use the slides to help me remember where I am in the narrative even if I don’t refer to the speaker notes often.

This fall, I designed a new talk and built it in Twine, a game engine for choose-your-own-adventure games. Each slide was actually an HTML page rendered by the game engine, and the narrative was supplied by the audience choosing from several options. This was a radical departure from my usual method, but I’d practiced it, and tuned it, and wrestled with the CSS and I felt pretty confident I could make it work, even though I wouldn’t have speaker notes or a unified narrative through-line.

Because I hadn’t solved the hosting problem yet, I needed to “play” it from my laptop, but that was no problem – I had a USB-C to HDMI adapter. The talk before mine ran long, but I only have technical problems a tiny handful of times in my talks, so I didn’t think I’d need much time to get set up.

I had reckoned without the USB-C/USB-3/HDMI problem, because it had never happened before. I always present from my ipad, and it’s usually a rock-solid toolchain. So I get up there, I’m rushed for time because of the talk before, I’m nervous because it’s the first time I’m giving this talk, and because it’s so “weird”, and…. it failed. The combination of cable/laptop/projector failed so hard that my computer rebooted and came back looking weird, and I had to accept that I might have just bricked my brand-new work laptop, in front of an audience, in a talk that had already technically started.

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

I had practiced, but I had not practiced the complete failure scenario, because it had never occurred to me that it could fail this hard.

I still managed to pull a coherent technical talk out and I only ran 10 minutes short, and honestly, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in the last year. Literally everything went wrong and I still delivered value.

Afterwards, when I was trying to quietly dump adrenaline, I could only think about how I had failed to achieve any part of my goals. My hands were shaking, my throat was tight, and I felt a little like crying.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

Later, I got to talk to people who had been in the audience, and they asked questions that they could have had if they’d gotten the real talk. That was cheering. I joked that this was the worst this talk could possibly go, because there wasn’t anything left to fail!

Then I got the speaker evaluation cards, and people were universally complimentary about my poise under tough circumstances. It hadn’t felt like poise, it felt like literal flop-sweat, like a drip from my shoulderblades to my waist. But they couldn’t feel my sweat, they could only experience my description of a brand-new talk focused on something that they had to imagine.

The webinar

One of LaunchDarkly’s goals for the year is to nurture and encourage customers to feel comfortable telling their stories, whether on stage or in a blog post. To that end, we are offering some people speaker training. Remembering my fall experiences, I solicited nice people on Twitter to come to a beta of my talk. That would give me a chance to try out the tool, the content, the process, before we offered it as a finished product.

I learned so much! Almost all of it was a little painful.

  • I need to log in early because I’m a panelist, not a host, so we need to coordinate that so I can show my slides to the webinar.
  • I did test my A/V setup!
  • I didn’t realize how unnerving it would be for me to talk to dead air. For all of my teaching/preaching/tech talks, I’ve had an audience. I can make eye contact with them, hear them start to fidget if they are checking out, notice their grins and twinkles and coughs to stay connected to them. But obviously, none of that happens when I’m talking into a headset with the audience on mute.
  • I need to do some work on the content. Not too bad, but I always have to give a talk at least once to live humans to get the suck out.
  • The lack of response makes me so nervous I talk even faster than usual. SLOW DOWN, ME.
  • I have to figure out a better way to wrap up/end the webinar. I didn’t think about how to tie it up neatly, because talks work differently.

So this is all great. When I do the webinar “for reals”, those are all mistakes that I’m not going to need to make because I know where they are.

The meta-lessons

  • It is hard to predict how you’re going to fail, but it is possible to build in a reasonable degree of redundancy.
  • Tests in isolation are not going to catch systemic problems.
  • It is better to degrade what you provide rather than failing entirely.
  • Test with a subset of users so you can predict how your solution will scale.
  • Don’t get so distracted by your failures that you fail to notice surprising data or silver linings.*

* One of the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen was on a winter night in the middle of a widespread blackout. I was stomping across the yard to get firewood, and I happened to look up and see the stars without light pollution. A lot of things had gone wrong, but if they hadn’t, I would not have had that moment of starlight bright enough to reflect off the snow, and the milky way like a second snowy stripe in the sky.

Minneapolis skyline at dusk from 35W bridge

#2018Liberation

I loved Cate’s post about deciding on liberations instead of resolutions. If I think there’s a change I should make in my life, I try to just… make it, instead of waiting for an arbitrary time marker. mostly because if I think about it too much, I’ll often talk myself out of it. But liberations? I need some of those, too.

Liberation

  1. Unsubscribing the third time I delete a newsletter unread.
  2. Resetting all my slacks and media inputs to Read status whenever I feel like it.
  3. Getting rid of every item of clothing I’m keeping in case I lose weight again.
  4. Accept that I am terrible at Approved Gift Giving occasions, and just let myself be spontaneous about gifts.
  5. Hiring household work rather than trying to teach/enforce it. Not for everything, but maybe that’s just not going to be my legacy as a parent, and that’s ok.
  6. Helping assholes.*

* I started my new year off with an extensive twitter thread from some jerk in Australia who responded to one of my friends being excited I’ll be giving a workshop by going on and on and on about how open source was life-ruining and stupid, and we were all stupid. And he was wrong, and rude, and abrasive, and I dropped everyone else off the reply list and gently replied that this probably wouldn’t help his job hunt, and had he considered not being a jerk? And then I read Cate’s post, and his follow-up explaining that he hadn’t meant to go after anyone, he just wanted us all to understand that open source was terrible. And then I blocked him, gentle reader. Because I have literally been playing gentle explainer to assholes since I got online at 17, and 24 years is enough. I have done my time. Someone else can help the deliberately abrasive people, or they can stew, but it doesn’t have to be my job.

Growing Edges

These are not exactly resolutions, more like things that I’m looking forward to working toward.

  • Write a book. Also, pitch a book (different books)
  • Level up my public speaking (this is a post I’m mulling)
  • Make some new types of garments: jeans, bras
  • Work toward online teaching/coaching/mentoring skills. Give classes? Run webinars? That sort of thing.
  • Parent my kids in the ways that work best for them. That’s an every year goal, but the goalposts move like water on a hot griddle.

Shoes and software

I bought a new pair of shoes when I went to New York City the last time. I am trying to find shoes and boots that look good with both skirts and pants, fit properly, and are good for a full day of standing/7 miles of walking. This is a pretty tall order, as you know if you buy many women’s shoes. I found a pair I thought was promising and broke them in by walking 30 miles in a week in them. There was just one rub. Right over my left toe.

I complained about this to my friend when I got back, and she told me that since I’d bought them from an actual store that specializes in shoes, I could take them in and get the store to stretch a little spot over the rub. And they did! And the spot stopped rubbing. But by then I’d irritated it enough so that my regular shoes were rubbing it. Well, it’s in no way serious enough to see a podiatrist over, kind of a normal thing that happens to feet, and the advice is to wear shoes that fit you properly.

I fell down a research rabbit hole, and did you know? You can buy shoe lasts and little carved nubs that fit into the holes in the lasts, and you put them in your shoe and add some shoe stretcher, and you can tailor your shoes? Those of you in certain age and class categories, who grew up wearing leather shoes, did know this. I just learned this, in the start of my fifth decade, and it’s almost as revolutionary as when I realized I could just sew my own dresses so they fit properly. I don’t have to accept that my feet or body are just going to be slightly ill-served by the average, I can fix it. If I have the right kind of shoes and the money for the tools, which is another post.

I think this is an essential difference between software users and software creators. Software users almost always have a rub, a spot where they have to conform to the way the software expects them to behave, an irritation point. They don’t know that they could change it or they don’t have the tools to change it. It’s very “fixed mindset”. This is how the software behaves, and that’s just how it is. Software creators understand that there is almost always some way to tweak their tech to fit them better. A software package is not immutable, but rather something that you can tinker with and change – a “growth mindset”.

I want more of the world to have a growth mindset about their tech – everything from rooting their phones to eliminate software they don’t want, to turning off push notifications, to hiding screens they don’t care about. That’s one of the things I’m excited about in my work with LaunchDarkly. Currently we’re working at much larger scales than individual preferences – think about the revolution in shoes when we started designing for left and right feet – but eventually the idea that you can customize your experience of technology will get more and more accessible and democratic. That’s thrilling, because everyone should have shoes that fit their particular feet and software that fits their particular needs.

2017 Speaking Recap

This was the year that I got more organized as a speaker. I took up Airtable as a way to track all of my conference proposals, and so I actually have a record of everything I submitted.

Summary

  • Attended 27 conferences, spoke at 24
  • Spoke at 3 user groups, 2 podcasts, 1 video interview, 1 twitch stream
  • 14 unique talks, in a variety of configurations
  • Learned to use Twine as a presentation tool, how to give demos on an ipad over lunch, how to change from saying “I’m a technical writer” to “I’m a developer advocate”

Portrait of a white woman with pink hair, wearing a black and white dress and grinning at the camera

Longer version

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