Stickers, A Love Story

When I was in elementary school, I won a science fair, and travelled to the far-off land of Moscow, Idaho for the state competition. While there, I spent some of my food money on the most magical sticker ever. It was a gleaming metallic unicorn with rainbow colored mane and tail. It brought me joy every time I saw it, and reminded me how hard I had worked and how exciting it was to travel to show off my experiment.

When laptop stickers started appearing, I felt the same way about them, a bit. They are reminders to us of things that we have done or accomplished, and they are signals to others about what we care about.

When I started at LaunchDarkly, I had one day in the office, and the thing I spent the most time on was talking with our (genius) designer Melissa about stickers and what we should do with them. We have just done a refresh of our Toggle character, and now they look like this:

So cute! So space-tastic!

In the last year, I even built a sticker lightning talk to address why I care so much about this, and I’m always charmed to look out at the audience and see the smiles and nods as people feel seen and understood.

Why do we care?

Why do/should tech companies and other companies care? What makes it worthwhile for me to carry around a few pounds of stickers and experience the delights of confusing the TSA?

In-group markers and identity

It is so important to people to be represented and known for themselves. Whenever I have stickers that relate to pronouns or sexual orientation, people make a delighted face and pick them up and hold them close.

And it’s not just the things about personality – a Go programmer is happy to find a gopher. Someone who does DevSecOps loves to find a sticker that describes their job.

I can spot the networking people, for example. They are the ones who think the Fastly 418 (I’m a teapot) the Target 127.0.0.1 Sweet 127.0.0.1 sticker are hilarious. Because they are jokes that relate to HTTP return codes and IP addresses.

Then we have another layer of delight when we can put them on a laptop and be seen and found by others in our in-group. If I have a sticker from a conference you’ve been to, we can talk about our experiences. If you see a sticker that indicates we share something, it’s much less intimidating to start a conversation.

For example, if you see this sticker, there’s a pretty good chance that the person has actually met me.

Similarly, if you have a sticker showing in a video or on your laptop, it could be a lead to something that people want to know about. I get a lot of questions about my OSMI stickers, which is about Open Source Mental Illness.

Branding, I guess

The exposure you get from a sticker is a small increment, but small increments add up. They can add up pretty quickly if your sticker is a prompt for someone to act as an advocate when they are asked about the sticker.

Matt (Brender) Broberg did a talk that included an analysis of the return on investment of stickers.

(the last bit is obscured, but it says “Sticker ROI is 5x to 76x”, I think.

People also have sentiment around stickers, in the technical marketing sense. Cute stickers make people feel like your product is fun or delightful to use. High-quality stickers make people feel like you have a high-quality product. Racist or sexist stickers? You’re alienating a lot of people silently.

Even people who don’t know what npm is will take npm stickers because they are SO DARN CUTE.

Surveying

One of the interesting parts of carrying my sticker bag around is that I can get a sense of what technologies are important to a community. It’s not always a 1-1 relationship with the technologies you would expect. Sometimes it is. Either way, I can see the level of interest around a company or technology.

For example, I can tell you that the Kubernetes project is interesting and popular and has a good visual brand and is not doing enough to meet the market demand for their stickers. PHP and Drupal crossover, and that’s not surprising, but so do Verizon and Elastic. One conference may have people who don’t recognize a Chef sticker, and another might wipe out everything I have that relates to automation. I can tell from the stickers that Target developers take that they build a lot of internal tools instead of buying them. It’s interesting!

Developer honeypot

It’s not true that developers are universally shy and anti-social. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. What is true is that it’s hard for a lot of us to strike up conversations with strangers. When I spread out my stickers and invite people to browse and take them, it gives both of us a way to talk about technology in a way that is low-key, not intimidating, and doesn’t even require eye contact. We have time to talk or not talk as we wish.

Design patterns and anti-patterns

I’ve been carrying around The Sticker Bag for about three years now, and in that time I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a sticker attractive to someone. Some of it is identity and branding, but those feelings can be enhanced or reduced by the design and form-factor of the sticker.

Size

Huge stickers are a mistake. I am almost never excited enough about about your product to dedicate 1/6th of my laptop space to it. I think 2 inches is about ideal – big enough to see and have impact, and small enough to fit in around other things.

Here’s what a set of huge stickers looks like:

But wait! You don’t have to think about it, because, my friends, there is a standard! Visit sticker.how to read it. Interoperability is not just for software and hardware anymore.

Shape

I favor the standard hexagon, because the tiling looks really awesome, but I am not against die-cut stickers that have unique shapes. Hexagon stickers started as an “open source thing”, but have utility for everyone who wants to work together for maximizing laptop space.

I have previously questioned round stickers, because they are not an efficient way to use space, but I think they’re ok as long as they’re smallish. Big circles somehow seem even bigger than big rectangles.

My laptop has a combination of sticker styles, but I don’t put anything on there if I don’t know the people or use the product.

You can see how the Fastly 418 sticker is round, but fits ok with others, and the Spoonflower round sticker is too big to fit harmoniously.

Utility

If you like it, you should put your name on it. Visual branding is hard to do, but it doesn’t do you any good to print awesome-looking, high-quality stickers if no one can tell who the sticker represents.

For example, this sticker was adorable, but for the first year it was out, you couldn’t tell it was from InfluxDB.

The next run of stickers had their name on it, thankfully!

Not for everyone

Not everyone uses tabs, or spaces, or emacs, or vim. Not everyone wants to put stickers on their laptop. They find it cluttery or distracting or unprofessional. That’s fine. There are all sorts of people in the world. Don’t be judgy.

However! Some people would like to be able to represent themselves with stickers, but can’t, because they have a work laptop that they aren’t supposed to stick stuff on. In those cases, consider these sticker hacks:

Sticker hacks

  • Put a lightweight case on your laptop and either put the stickers on the outside, or leave them on their backing and put them UNDER the case. I do this with a bright pink case from Speck.
  • Get one of those vinyl laptop skins that goes on your computer, and then put the stickers on that. I heard of one guy who got a skin made of the stickers that he had on the previous computer, and then put even more stickers on top of that. Truly next level.
  • Don’t put them on your computer! Other destinations I have heard about include: notebooks, water bottles, white boards, and beer fridges.

Resources

  • http://hexb.in/sticker.html
  • https://www.redbubble.com/shop/stickers
  • https://stickerapp.com/materials/holographic
  • https://www.moo.com/us/products/stickers-range.html
  • https://www.etsy.com/shop/DecalSpecialtiesBJ?ref=l2-shopheader-name&section_id=18018884

Conclusion

Stickers may seem like child’s play to some folks, but it’s an interesting insight in to the cultures, self-representation, and identity of people we’re around. And it’s not just technology – miners and construction workers sticker their hardhats. Musicians sticker their instrument cases. If we have a flat surface, a lot of us feel like adorning it is a satisfying activity.

Delight for less than a dollar? Seems like a great deal.

Saying No, or If This Then Not That

I had to say no to a conference I would have loved to speak at today. I’ve had to say no to several conference speaking offers this year, because it turns out that time, space, and timezones can only be manipulated to a certain degree.

I thought about not blogging about this, because it’s a problem of privilege – “my diamond slippers don’t fit”. But it’s still a problem, and I’m not the only one who encounters it. I’ve talked to some conference organizers and other speakers, and I’ve tried to put together a set of guidelines for the least awkward way to handle this.

Here’s a quick flowchart of the process:

Breaking this down into guidelines, it goes like this:

  1. If you can’t stand the idea of telling an organizer you can’t give a talk, don’t apply to conferences that overlap or have very tight affordances.
  2. If you do apply for overlapping conferences, you may end up not having a problem because no one gets accepted to every conference. NO ONE. So the odds are pretty good that you’ll be fine.
  3. If you have a conflict, it is on you to sort it out and tell people what your response is as soon as humanly possible. Everyone has a different set of evaluation criteria, but they might include price to attend, value of exposure, who asked first, which you would rather attend, things like that. You can ask organizers questions that help clarify that, but it’s bad form to string them along or try to start some kind of weird bidding war. This is the speaker’s dilemma.
  4. You must be as prompt as possible in accepting or declining a conference speaking invitation. Organizers are juggling flaming chainsaws trying to put together a balanced schedule, and they just need to know.

Things it might help you to know:

  • Organizers always have a waitlist of speakers that just barely missed the cutoff.
  • It’s great if you can decline early, but sometimes shit happens and you, say, dislocate your shoulder or get stranded in a blizzard or something. Call the organizer ASAP and give them as much time as possible.
  • It’s far better if you can get this all settled before speakers are announced, but sometimes you can’t. Just as soon as possible.
  • Actually apologize to the organizer if you must decline. They are professionally disappointed, you can be professionally regretful.
  • If you, like me, are a person who always has a talk (or 8) “in their pocket” that you could give at a moment’s notice, it’s kind to tell organizers so. Don’t be a pest about it, but I’ve ended up filling in a couple times for last-minute problems.

This whole set of actions is predicated on you trusting the conference organizer and wanting to speak at the conference. There is a different, and more complicated set of problems if the conference itself is the problem, as outlined in Coraline’s post about OSCON. I’m still working on getting my head around that, and the stupid programming moves Worldcon 2018 attempted and then walked back.

Lady Conference Speaker: 14 Travel Tips

I was talking to a fellow ladyish conference speaker, and I reeled off a list of my travel tips as they pertain to people who are working for small/nimble enough companies that you don’t have to book through The Corporate Site.

An array of bags and the things they contained, including laptop, cords, stickers, portable keyboard, medicine, neck pillow.

Last year’s conference travel assortment. I’ve upgraded my bag since then.

  1. Remember that your time is usually more valuable than the amount you can save by optimizing flights. Before you spend 4 hours trying to save $100 and adding a 3 hour layover to your flight, consider your hourly rate.
  2. Pick an airline you can deal with, stop looking at others. I use Delta because I live in a Delta hub.
  3. Pick 2 hotels chains with a variety of price point options. I use Hilton and Marriott, but Quality or Best Western or anything similar will work.
  4. Be reasonable about your expenses, but not chintzy. This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.
  5. Pack what you need for each day in a roll so you don’t have to spend any brain resources when you get there.
  6. Where you are going, they sell most things. You can solve a lot if you have underpants and a bra and a company t-shirt.
  7. You’re probably not going outside as much as you would as a human traveller. You don’t need an umbrella, or sunscreen. Travel the world, visit exotic conference centers.
  8. Bring a hoodie, because of the patriarchal thermostat hegemony.
  9. Upgrading to Comfort+ is pretty cheap for the amount of unfrazzling it earns you.
  10. You will always look sharper than the dudes, by virtue of your awesome haircut, ride on that.
  11. But if you don’t feel confident, mascara+lipstick is pretty much all people actually use to read “professional lady makeup”.
  12. Assemble a small travel kit of meds – most of us on the road a lot have a “sinuses are the devil” section and a “let’s not talk about my digestion” section.
  13. There are a lot of things you can solve by money that you couldn’t easily fix when you were traveling on your own, such as: Too Much Walking, Lost Luggage, Forgot Charger, Missed Flight, etc. Don’t be rude about using company resources to fix personal problems, but ask my boss how many cities he’s bought a Macbook charger in. It’s better to have it than to not be useful.
  14. Your average mid-range hotel and above (Not Super 8, yes Garden Court) has a wide variety of forgotten chargers you can borrow. Also they will bring you for a small fee or free a bunch of useful forgotten or unluggable items, like toothbrushes, razors, and full size humidifiers.

This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.

There are a lot of other tips I have, but those seem like the most salient. Just keep in mind that you are worth shipping across the country carefully because you are a precious and hard-to-replace part of the company, and they want you to arrive undamaged, functional, and able to do good work.

Bonus tip: Pick a type of tourist attraction you like to see and look for it in cities you go to, if you have time. I’m fond of botanical gardens.

Spiky green glass sculptures that echo the shapes of desert plants.

Glass and biology at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens

 

My first year, a professional review

A bit over a year ago, I applied to a startup. I’d never been a developer advocate before, and I wasn’t sure what the job actually entailed, but the person who recommended me (thanks, Rach!) and the hiring manager said that probably my experience doing talks about technical writing was enough to make me a plausible candidate.

I wasn’t sure then exactly what developer relations actually was, and now I’ve been doing this for a year and in an active community of other people doing it, and I think it is like the parable about the elephant – it looks different to everyone because we’ve all got different parts of the same beast.

For me, it looks like going to conferences – a lot of conferences! And being on twitter and writing blog posts and talking to people and being available to answer or route questions. It looks like offering a feature flags open space at every possible place I can. It looks like reading a dozen articles a day, looking for insight and parallax and industry position and good ideas, and funneling it back to the team. It looks like meeting teams who are actually developing with our tool and taking notes on all the things that are annoying them. It means really, truly, non-sarcastically caring about stickers and swag and conference sponsorship and organization and postcards and follow-up.

It’s not an entirely new skillset, but a lot of it is new, and I’ve never been this close the the sales and marketing parts of a company before, and I’m more convinced than ever that it is a really technical skillset that is tragically under-rated for difficulty.

If you’re observant, you’ll see what’s missing from my list: coding. It’s on my list for next year, because I have some neat ideas that I’ll need to use our tool to implement, but it’s not actually very relevant to what I’m trying to do right now.

My goals for this year

I didn’t really write down my goals when I started, because, like I said, I didn’t know what I was doing. But here are the things that I was working toward:

  • Give talks about feature flags/feature management at technical levels from “what is a feature flag” to “how does that work with containers”
  • Standardize the industry term on “feature flags”, so everyone was talking about the same thing. (Kelsey Hightower said feature flag, and you bet I screencapped that. I was delighted.)
  • Visit real live people using our product and funnel their needs back to the right people on our side.
  • Explain what a feature flag was often enough, in enough places, that people started to recognize the concept.
  • In September and October, I would go to conferences and say to someone, “Do you know what a feature flag or toggle is?”, and I would get a lot of blank looks. This July I went to a conference and someone who wasn’t me proposed an open space of feature flags. That’s anectdata, but I think the needle is moving, and I’m giddy. It’s not just me – there are dozens of people talking about this. Martin Fowler hosted a post from Pete Hodgeson on his blog in October of 2017. Willy-Peter Schaub writes about them from the Microsoft MVP perspective, and Raven Covington from MailChimp gave a talk on feature flags at Bath Ruby.
  • It’s partly me, though. I’ll take some credit. If we assume an average audience of 50 people, by 30 conferences, that’s 1500 people who have gotten to hear me enthuse about Testing in Production and Democratizing Release and Progressive Deployment and Continuous Deployment Means Shipping Broken Code and Kill-Switch/Circuit Breaker Patterns. (It’s not quite perfect math, because not all my talks are about feature flags, but not all my audiences are as small as 50.)

Retrospective

I’m not going to spread my whole retrospective out here, because there’s a lot of it that’s purely personal or company internal, but here’s a sampling.

What went well

  • Conference acceptances are encouraging
  • New talks making good impact
  • Feel like I can explain the product with a reasonable degree of technical accuracy and depth
  • Honestly like my company and my co-workers
  • I love learning things. Going to conferences is like all the good parts of college, with much less homework
  • Feel like I did ok mentoring other speakers

Could improve

  • Nearly burned myself out on travel
  • Planning to get speech coaching to hone my skills
  • Want to learn to do code-ier demos
  • Continue improvement in travel booking and organizational skills around writing blog posts and talks
  • Got tired of my conference dresses. Need to sew more batches when I’m home

Looking ahead

  • I’d like to set up some client meetings while I’m visiting places for conferences.
  • Need to not totally drop fitness goals while I’m on the road.
  • Be slightly more selective about conference submission and acceptance. Fine-tune for conferences that have the audiences we need.

    It’s been a good year, and I’m looking forward to next year and don’t feel like there’s any reason for me to worry about finding interesting things to do in the coming year.

    In the meantime, if you want to ask me a question about feature flags, or conference speaking, or the care and maintenance of bright pink hair, you can reach me at heidi@launchdarkly.com.