The art of deleting

I have a talk where I encourage everyone to be clear on the data they collect and keep. I encourage people to automate deletion so they don’t have to do anything extra. In the original incarnation of the talk, I said that everyone should apply konmari principles to the data they keep, only instead of “sparking joy”, data we keep has to have a clear and immediate purpose. It has to spark respect and utility.

I like konmari for the idea of grouping all of a similar type of thing together and then sorting them together. I, er, don’t usually attribute emotions to my socks. I think it’s a little difficult to sort data based on the emotions it gives you. Data at the scale most organizations are working at is less in the range of “books you own” and more in the range of “bacteria in your body”.

When I was looking for another analogy, I thought back to my time on the Microsoft BitLocker team. I was with them as a writer for that first year, when we were still explaining the value proposition over and over again. The laptop, we would explain, was an easy loss to write off, as long as the data on it was secured. A couple thousand dollars worth of laptop left in the back of a taxi was so trivial compared to the cost of a data exposure or breach. It was difficult to change our paradigm at the time to “trust the cloud”, but that’s where we were headed. The data was on a corporate network, or a backup, or in the rudimentary beginnings of the cloud. It was ok if we never got that laptop back. We all had to change how we thought about losing things versus losing access versus losing data.

Here are some instructions for deleting your personal data, as inspired by one of my favorite poems.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Delete reminder emails, meeting notices, any ephemeral message about an event that has passed.
Delete pictures if they’re not labeled, anything of people you don’t know or care about.
Delete the easy levels, the games you don’t play, the spreadsheets for projects that are long past.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The hour badly spent is hard to delete, you’ve already done it. Nevertheless,
delete games you don’t enjoy playing.
Clear your media feeds and timelines of people who don’t feed your soul.
Dig down and delete those emailed fights with your ex, or your current. That was then; this is now.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

The opposition to this line is “Hold fast to dreams/for if dreams die/life is a broken-winged bird/that cannot fly
Delete who it was you meant to be, all the things that make you feel guilty.
Purge the Pinterest for a wedding you did another way
Dump fitness apps that you just wince at, delete false starts and walk away.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

What are you leaving for your heirs?
When we come to clean out your house, will there be boxes of clippings?
Clean and organize your bookmarks, toss all the pointers to dead sites
Ruthlessly rid yourself of mediocre selfies and unlabeled group photos and clutter.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

You will lose some things you meant to keep. That is the nature of things.
You will regret some deletions, and you will worry a bit.
I’m sorry, but life is full of loss, and paper fails and disks fail and the memory of humankind is frail.
It won’t be a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Practice losing, practice letting go, practice only saving things for a year, or two, or ten.

The art of losing, of forgetting, is built into us, the entropy that causes things to fall apart. Fighting our nature is sometimes noble, but less than we hope. it’s sometimes useless, but less than we think.

Nothing I write will be relevant in 5 years, 10 at best. That’s always been true. Technical writing is like that, and I have to accept that I’m etching server instructions in the sand at low tide, or lose my heart when the waves come in. Almost nothing you write, or save, or store, or archive will relevant for longer than that, either. Learn to let it go, and prepare your writing stick to scratch meaning in the beach at the next low tide.

Loss is not a disaster.

Lady Speaker Small Talk

Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”

The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.

It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.

Look odd

I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.

Make a friend in the registration line

Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.

Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.

Go to other people’s talks

It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.

I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.

Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness

I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone? 

That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”

Talk to the sponsors

These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.

The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.


I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic.  It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.


The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.


I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.

On the topic of business cards

Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.

If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.

Done talking now

One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:

  • I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
  • I need to make a call.
  • I’m meeting someone in a few.
  • I’ve gotta go do a thing.

I know – a thing? But it works. 

    In summary

    If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!

    Wordstar 2000, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and the moulding of a young mind

    I came across this interesting article about how some people still use Wordstar as a word processor. The two main points are that Wordstar is designed to be used entirely without moving your hands off the keyboard, and that Wordstar behaves more like the act of writing a document longhand than typing or retyping something in a page-based model. It delves into some really esoteric features, but the majority of the features the author mentioned were things that I remembered fondly.

    Wordstar 2000 was my first word processor, and it was the foundation that made it easier for me to grasp semantic markup like HTML when I met it later. If you wanted to bold something, you did it without switching mental contexts, you just typed a command that would make things bold until you turned it off again. There wasn’t a mouse (the “2000” was aspirational, not descriptive). There wasn’t much of a visible menu, there was just you and the black screen and the blinking green cursor. That idea of inline formatting stayed with me.

    There’s a linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that says the way we think is influenced by our language. Our linguistic pathways make it harder or easier for us to think in a certain way. I think that’s certainly true of software that we encounter at formative stages. For me, Wordstar taught me to separate the content of my writing from the formatting of the output. Now we call that writing with semantic markup or sometimes just semantic writing (which is a deplorably broad, fuzzy phrase). My formative computing and writing happened at the same time, at the end of the typewriter era (I learned to type on a typewriter) and the dawn of the visual web. I think it gives me a distinctive quirk to the way I think of text, and writing, and all the intersections thereof.

    Sarah Mei recently posted that even if Ruby did not survive as an intact language, it would influence a generation of people who think about code, the way Smalltalk influenced the generation who started originating the ideas for Agile. I loved that idea, and it made me think of the ways that academia has to trace lines of influence and inheritance of ideas. I started out as an English lit major, and we are super into “the marxist reading of Frankenstein” and who Mary Shelley had read and would be influenced by, and so on. It’s a habit we don’t have as much in technology, I think. We tend to treat ideas we adopt and raise as if they were entirely our own, and we either deliberately or accidentally strip them of context and heritage. 
    I think about that tendency when I rewrite something, and when I leave a project. Because I do work-for-hire writing, there is almost no expectation of attribution. I come in, take whatever text there is, rework it to serve the needs that I can see or have been told of, and then move on. But in some hypothetical state where software could track all my works, I wonder if you could see the places where I learned task-based writing, where I played with and mostly-discarded DITA, where I was working from story cards or working from interfaces. Academics keep track of all the things they write for publication. I have LinkedIn because I literally have no idea who I’ve worked for without a reminder.

    The thing about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that I find extra fascinating is that if you really and truly learn an additional language, you can remap or add onto your thought paths, identify colors that don’t exist in the original language*, construct ideas that just don’t work in your original language, all sorts of magical thinking. Learning an entire human language is daunting, but any language we learn, any concept we internalize can rewire us to an extent. I have probably…. 8 distinct registers for writing, and each of them is deliberately learned and curated. Every time I add a new one, I can see places that it would have been handy to think this way on past assignments.

    What does all that have to do with my first word-processor? It makes me honor how different pieces of software “think”, what their paradigm is, and how I can write in a way that keeps that intact. For example, this week I learned something vital about YAML files ( I think). I was having a terrible time getting an indented TOC to work, and the error message was just this side of useless. I took a break to do some sewing, and reminded myself that the curves have to match on the sewing line, not the edge of the fabric, the edge of the fabric is not important. When I came back to the accursed YAML file, I figured out that the indentation is not based on how many spaces you are in from the line start, but that your indentation marker is directly below the first letter of its container. That changes the whole paradigm. The program is not counting spaces, it’s counting the first meaningful character on a line. If I get this into my head well enough, the next time I meet something like that, I will know to check my assumptions on which part needs to match.

    What about you? What languages have shaped how you think and work? What paradigms do you use every day?

    * I used to think that the men I knew didn’t care enough about colors to identify them correctly, and were therefore being lazy to say “blue” for both “teal” and “cobalt”. Then I realized that a) some of them are colorblind and may not even know it b) they are discouraged from or never taught the extensive color names that are practical and useful for someone who dresses as a woman. If you tell me a sweater is plum and it shows up eggplant, I’m annoyed, because those are different colors to me, and I was planning on one of them. 

    It makes me wonder how many things I’m lazy about identifying because I don’t care or I’m socialized not to make the effort. Like, um, baseball positions or birds or knots. I can learn them if I care, but I don’t right now, so it’s all “small brown bird” and “knot around things”.

    Linguistic relativity in colors

    Hidden Figures, Shine Theory, and Being Friends with Women

    I saw Hidden Figures this week, and I happy-cried at least three times during it. It is a blatantly heroic story about very feminine expressions of power. There is a trickster, a paladin, and a wizard, and although they each have their own missions and their own tribulations, they do it all in immaculate lipstick, lovely pencil skirts, and a deep sense of community.

    I realized as I walked out that this movie reminded me of Shine Theory:
    Briefly stated, Shine Theory is about rejecting the idea that there are a limited number of high-acheiving positions available to women, and lifting each other up instead of competing. There is also some evidence [PDF of academic paper] that smart kids are more likely to hang out with each other.

    Essentially, this gif:

    An animated gif of women offering each other a boost in turn.

    Libby Vanderploeg’s “Lift Each Other Up”

    I posted this on Twitter, and my friend Tiberius says that she worries about “burdening” the women she admires, and drew a connection between that feeling and Imposter Syndrome. “Oh, she’s so cool, and she must be super busy and I shouldn’t take her time with my trivial stuff”.

    I said that I had learned a lot about overcoming this because I have some amazing friends who have taught me disability/feminist theory. (yay intersectionality)

    “Instead of picturing one another as rough equals making a bargain, we may be better off thinking of one another as people with varying degrees of capacity and disability, in a variety of different relationships of interdependency with one another”

    — Martha Nussbaum


    Notes on being a woman trying to make friends with amazing women

    This is an expansion of the thoughts I tried to condense into tweets. If you want the shorter version, the Storify is at the bottom.

    1) You have the capacity to be amazing

    I think few of us understand our full potential, because even if we are working to our maximum while we are in isolation, we get some amazing synergies when we are together. This is part of why it’s so important to me to attend and mentor at conferences. I learn so much from just interacting with other people.

    2) Amazing women have just as much potential to screw up as anyone else

    The tendency to idolize people we admire is terrible, because it means when they inevitably have a moment of awkward humanity or even cruelty or stupidity, we have to question our whole belief system in them as admirable, instead of acknowledging that they made a mistake and are still amazing.

    This does not apply to people who are deliberately hurtful or cruel, or even accidentally but repeatedly hurtful in the same way. Don’t be around someone who hurts you regularly.

    3) No one knows what they bring to a friendship, nor does it stay constant. We are all too rich to have only one channel of value

    Have you ever had a friend who makes amazing talk slides AND can get her eyeliner to do perfect wings? Do you want to learn only one of those things from her, or can you broaden the ways you share with each other? I don’t always know what people get from friendships with me, but I trust them to allocate their own time according to their own priorities. Maybe I’m just that good at baking cookies, who knows? I don’t have to know. It is enough that we are all astonishing in our own ways, and those ways sometimes help other people.

    4) Toxic culture makes us think friendship is transactional. It’s not, it’s about interdependence, the state of graceful giving and receiving

    Giving and receiving sounds transactional, but if you get deep into the sociology weeds, it’s not the same. Transactions are always conducted with one’s own benefit in mind. Giving is an act of centering the other, and receiving graciously is something between other-centered and lovingkindness to yourself.

    Have you ever had a friend bring you anti-emetic when you are really, vilely sick? Even if they push it through your mailbox, you still feel loved and cherished, because they have taken the time to do something for you that does not require reciprocation. It’s just something they do, because they’re your friend, and they are not thinking about the cost of the medicine or the time spent getting to your place, they are thinking about how much they love you and hope you feel better soon. Someday, you may do something similar for them, but not because you owe them for that one act. You do it because she’s your friend and she needs help.

    5) Most people, and especially women, are more limited by time and resources than we are by capacity to love and care. We can still be friends with someone we only talk to once a year

    I’m not going to go into the whole feminist theory about why it is women have less spare time and spend more of it in emotional labor. It’s a thing and you’ll have to trust me. Because I have these obligations, I cannot always spend the time I would like nurturing my friendship. Luckily for me, I have several friendships where we see each other once a year, and are happy to see each other, and have a high degree of relational intimacy (in the communication studies sense), but I just don’t make time for them in the course of my ordinary life, because I don’t have that kind of time. That’s ok, as long as everyone is consenting to what I call “episodic friendship”.

    6) To make a friend, start by being genuinely friendly. Mutual disclosure and trust will come in their own time, or not. That’s ok.

    You can’t make someone be your friend, any more than you can make a romantic interest want to date you. But you can signal that you want to spend time with them, and you can think of very low-level nice things to do for them that don’t seem excessive or grandiose.

    Good: Handing a speaker a sealed water bottle. Asking for a business card. Offering to share a seat at a table.

    Excessive: Flowers. Skywriting. Attending every presentation they attend.

    Mutual disclosure is an escalating set of self-data that people match until they reach their intimacy level. Usually in professional settings, this includes: name, job, career, neutral affiliations, and possibly family status.

    If someone doesn’t feel like telling you about themselves, that’s ok. They don’t have to, but they probably don’t want to be your friend then, either, and you should leave them alone.

    7) Almost everyone you are talking to is thinking much more about how they are screwing up this conversation than how you are. Our inner voice is our harshest critic. Remember that when you are talking to someone poised and brilliant, odds are she is still being human and a little worried.

    We’re trained to be self-aware when we’re talking, so that we’re not rude. Sadly, many many times this spills over into people spending fully half their brain cycles trying to determine if they are sounding like an ass right this second. A quarter is going to what they are saying to you, and a quarter is going to what you are saying to them.  If they DO notice you seem awkward, they may wish they could help you, rather than judging you, because they realize that they could be the awkward ones at any moment.

    Sadly for all of us, the people who are actually jerks are almost never spending their processor power in self-critique and anxiety.

    8) Friends are like radio stations you find as you drive across the country. Sometimes they fade out. This is normal and not bad.

    You can tell I grew up in the American West, where driving through an FM station is an event, but not a remarkable one. We don’t need to keep all of our friends with us for all of our lives. If we keep growing and changing, our friend needs will, too. We’ll make new friends, and the old ones will mostly drift out of our lives, with a few exceptions. I see so many people agonized by the loss of these relationships, but it seems like they are actually worried about being a bad friend, not about growing up and moving on.

    9)  If someone consistently makes you feel worse about yourself – grubby, coarse, ugly, dumb, a charity case? They are not your friend.

    All of us need a friend or two who will tell us we’re being jerks. But if you know someone who doesn’t seem to believe you’re amazing, and in fact treats you like you are not as good as they are? They are not a friend.

    Friends love you and lift you up and want you to be your best. It’s not punitive, and you don’t get punished for being a loser. You just get loving help and faith. If you are trying to be friends with someone who punishes you, or makes you feel shitty, leave them when you can, because they will not make you shine.

    10)  I have amazing friends. They are brilliant, kind, witty, quiet, steadfast, handy, anxious, snarky, nurturing, curious. Thank you all.

    I am so fortunate in the women I’ve added to my life. (and also the guys) They encourage me, give me courage, copy-edit my work, help me brainstorm, bring me medicine when I need it and babysit the kids so I can go on a date with my spouse. I just hope they also feel as loved and seen as I do, so that we can all shine on.

    Publish and pull managers

    @kwugirl has done some great work around ask culture and guess culture (, and how frustrating it can be when you are framing communication the wrong way so that you are constantly rubbing on someone. 

    Ask culture says that it’s ok for someone to make a direct request for a favor, and it’s equally ok to tell them no. Guess culture is more face-saving. A request in guess culture would look like a hint or ignorable indirection when translated to ask culture. Corporate America tends to default to ask culture because of… a lot of reasons.

    But ask and guess culture are about making requests of someone who has power to grant them. How do we want to talk about this when we are dealing with our managers? They want things from us, we may or may not have the ability to grant them, but the power differential is all different. 

     I think of this in terms of internet architecture – publish vs. pull. 

    Some people work best for managers who provide regular feedback and consistent updates on what’s going on in the manager/employee relationship, the project, the company as a whole. The publish manager will tell you regularly how you’re doing without needing any prompting.

    Some people work better for pull managers. When they have a question, they can ask and get an instant answer on how things are, but on the whole, the relationship is much less focused on status updates either direction, and much more on blocking disruption. The manager exists to protect the time and autonomy of the employee, and the employee doesn’t get much direction unless they ask for it.

    Of course, neither of the methods is bad or good, they just are. The problem is when you have a mismatch between the method a manager uses and what the employee uses or is comfortable with. 

    For example, if you’re a pull person, all that feedback and mentoring and goal-setting and communication feels like noise or even micromanaging. Getting status updates all the time feels like an expectation that you should be doing more. And on the flip side, your non-communication feels to a publish manager like you’re not doing anything, or worst-case, that you are deliberately concealing problems. Why won’t you disclose, why do they have to pry your status reports out every week?

    If you’re a publish person, and your manager only talks to you when you ask a direct question, and they put off status meetings if there’s nothing really important to talk about, you get kind of paranoid. What terrible things are they hiding? Are they angry with you? You sent in a report and you didn’t get any feedback on it, was it bad? What’s going on up there? A pull manager with a publish report will appreciate that they know what’s going on, but they consistently forget that their taciturn default causes actual anxiety in this person. Everything’s fine until you say otherwise, so what is this about?

    Ok, so it’s yet another binary to divide the world into, like the introvert/extrovert oversimplification. What does it mean for your actual life?

    Now that I’ve realized this, it’s changed the way I interview. Of course, we don’t always get to pick our managers, but at the moment when you do, ask the questions. 

    • “Do you prefer to update people on a schedule or when they ask?”
    • “How does your most successful report communicate with you?”
    • “What’s your favorite kind of update meeting?”

    You don’t want it to be too leading, because when someone is interviewing you to be their report, they really want it to work out, at least if they are the kind of person you want to work for. When they are in the room with you, they are thinking how to work you into their team, their workflow. They’re trying you on, including your communication style. And it’s their job to work with you, so they might unconsciously bend to meet your preference if you make it too obvious.

    If you’re a manager, the same thing applies. A candidate might be perfect in every other way, but if it seems like you’re going to have to ask them every week for their updated status report, or if they are going to want a ton of feedback from you and you’re a more hands-off person, you may want to add that to your decision matrix and decide if that’s an amount of effort you’re willing to expend on negotiating your natural communication style.

    We can all work with people who have different communication styles. We do it all the time without thinking about it. The best plan is to do it mindfully and patiently, realizing that most people are not actually trying to make you irritated or confused with their style, and that your style may be hard for some people.

    Guest Post on

    I was supposed to be at SeaGL this weekend for an awesome conference with the opensource world. Sadly, I fell in the garage and dislocated my shoulder, so I can’t attend. On the bright side, the post I wrote to promote my talk at the conference is available!

    Four Steps to Better Documentation

    In it, I talk about a few simple steps to making sure you are writing the documentation that people need, and making it as relevant and accurate as possible.


    Lady Speaker Party Education

    I was at a conference party this fall, and I had an interesting conversation that I wanted to tell you about.

    First though, let me beg conference organizers — if we’re having an evening mixer, PLEASE explain to the DJ that people are going to be trying to talk to each other. The music was loud enough that I found an organizer to ask the DJ to turn it down and I still felt like I might lose my voice by shouting over people shouting over the music.

    User story: As a conference speaker, I do not want any conference event to interfere with my ability to give my talk!

    Content note: Rape culture

    Ok, on to the actual conversation. I was talking to a couple guys, one my age, one shiny-new out of college. College Guy, hereafter known as Craig, said something about how free beer was good beer.

    I shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter to me,” I said. “I’m only going to have one, and I’m not going to set it down, and I’m only having this one because the place is well-lit and I don’t have to worry about getting back to my room.”

    Craig laughed awkwardly and asked if I was afraid of being hung over. I made eye contact with his co-worker mentor, and he gave me the nod that said, “Go ahead and disillusion the youth.”

    So I said, “No. I’m afraid of being raped or assaulted. And every woman here is making a similar calculation while she drinks with her co-workers and compatriots. You see, we all know we’re outnumbered, and we know that almost everyone in this room is as nice as he seems to be, but we don’t know that for sure about absolutely everyone.”

    He goggled. I was feeling both feisty and merciless, and said, “Look around this room. There are about thirty women here. Odds are, ten of us have been sexually assaulted and recognized it and told someone. Not one in ten. Ten. ”

    “You’re kidding me!”

    I’m really not, Craig. I’m trying to explain that most women are running a background process that you don’t even think about, and it affects our decisions. (I didn’t say that part)

    So then I asked him if he was in a relationship. He said he was. I asked him what he would do if his partner told him she’d gotten raped when she went to a conference. At this point, older dude has his hand over his mouth so he doesn’t try to save poor Craig.

    “I’d pound the crap out of that bastard!”

    “She probably doesn’t know who he is, or if she does, she may not want him pounded. It’s hard on her career. What else can you do?”

    “I’ll make her report to the police!”

    “You know, police are not always the most sympathetic audience when you’re already freaked out. She may not want to report.”

    “But she has to! I’d do everything in my power to persuade her that she had to!”

    Older dude is looking for patterns in his drink and not making eye contact, but not abandoning this poor kid. I respected that.

    “Craig, you’re telling me that after your girlfriend has a psychologically and physically horrible experience, you would pester and hound her to talk to strangers about it? Because if that’s what you’re saying, you can see why the women here are being as careful as they can, and if something terrible does happen, they don’t always talk about it, and even if they do talk about it, they seldom report it. Which is why you don’t know how common it is to be a victim.”

    And then I lifted my drink in salute to the mentor, gave Craig a sad smile, and faded off into the crowd to go back to my hotel room and throw the lock and the hotel bar, like I always do when I’m alone.

    Craig is not a bad dude, and I am mentally apologizing to his girlfriend when he gets home and tries to ask her about this. He’s smart, and he’s socially adept, and he’s probably quite nice. But no one has gotten through to him that some of us are living in parallel universes to his – darker, scarier places. Places where the cops aren’t always helpers, and co-workers are not always buddies, and the failure state of dates is death, not embarrassment. I hope he gets it. I hope I helped him along that path, but I am sometimes so exhausted thinking about how many people there are to teach — and I’m one of them.

    Here’s to you, Craig. I hope your next free beer is uncomfortable, and you remember why.

    Iced cocktail with a black straw and raspberry with rosemary in it

    Fruity cocktail

    New year

    Some people set their new year by the Gregorian calendar. I tend to do mine by my birthday, which is in a couple days. There’s something about fall that makes me ambitious and inspired.

    This year is a big milestone birthday for me, so I’m trying to be mindful about my goals, what I want to accomplish in this shiny new decade, and I thought I’d tell you about them, as accountability.

    Professional goals

    • Get an invitation to give a paid keynote.
    • Write three new talks.
    • Write a workshop on Minimum Viable Tech Writing for Developers.
    • Actually sell that workshop and deliver it at least once.
    • Participate in more formal mentoring of others.
    • Develop at least a small passive income stream.

    Personal goals

    • Ride either a century or do back-to-back 60 mile days. (Cycling)
    • Learn enough CSS to fix this WordPress template and its stupid inability to properly indent bullets.
    • Sew myself a pair of pants I am happy with.
    • Enter at least two items in the Minnesota State Fair.
    • Teach the kids to be totally dish-autonomous.
    • Hire an accountant.

    I think the key part of goals that get done is that they are testable. Some of these tests are obvious, some less so, but they are not ambiguous, like “get in better shape”.

    The other thing I try to do is for goals that I have control over, I have a bunch of steps and mini-goals to work toward to get there. Before I can sew pants that I like, I need to finish watching my pants classes, sew a pair of pants I can use for fitting, and make alterations to the pattern. To write a workshop, I need to outline it, write a draft, test it with an audience, and revise it.

    What about you? Do you have any goals for this year, or for the time between now and the winter holidays?

    Lady Speaker Clothes Crisis

    There are about a jillionty articles on how it is difficult to dress as a woman while maintaining standards of professionalism, temperature control*, comfort, pockets, and compliance with the male gaze.  This is a post on one specific form of dressing: Dressing to be speaking on stage.

    Personal style

    If it’s not something that you would willingly wear in any other context, don’t wear it on stage. You’ll feel distracted and look a little miserable. If you are a jeans and a polo shirt kinda person, rock out with that polo shirt. If you have an affection for crinolines, rock that out, too, as long as it feels like clothing to you, and not a costume. You want to be able to forget it once you get on stage.

    I am currently feeling really inspired by this post on Toddler Grandma Style, by Cynara Geissler. It’s all about dressing for joy and not “attractiveness”.

    I have spent the last year speaking in clothes that I made myself. My sewing skills are now sufficient that as long as you don’t look at the inside of my seams, you don’t think “homemade”. Making my own clothes means that they’re distinctive, they fit properly, and they remind me that I am competent in more than one area.

    I think it’s really useful, if you are even slightly outgoing, to have something remarkable about your appearance. That helps people find you after your talk, even a couple days later, and pay you the NICEST compliments.


    This hairstyle is both awesome and easy to find in a crowd.

    I’m almost 6 feet tall, and I have a bright-colored mohawk. I get all the compliments people are willing to offer, because they can find me.

    The exception to only wearing what you’re comfortable in is makeup. Even if you don’t usually wear makeup, you may want to consider some if you are going to be on a lit stage and/or you are a white lady, because stage lights will wash you out something fierce.

    speaker photo

    Heidi Waterhouse speaking at The Lead Developer
    Photo credit: © Katura Jensen 2016

    In this picture, I’m wearing lipstick and mascara, and I feel like that helps my face indicate my emotions better. (also, that’s a Washington Dress, by Cashmerette. Turned out fabulous.)

    NOTE: Always, always take your badge lanyard off before you speak. It’s amazingly visually distracting, it brushes against the mic wire, and it draws attention away from your face.

    The Microphone Problem

    This is the bane of my existence. You may notice in the picture above that there is no way a lapel mic clipped to the neckline is going to pick up my voice appropriately. I have had this problem before, and I deliberately wore a short, rubber-corded necklace that we could clip the mic to. Also, in another advantage of sewing your own clothes, I added pockets large enough to put the mic pack in.

    Here’s what you need for each type of mic. If you don’t have a belt or pockets, your sound tech is going to look both sad and awkward as they try to figure out where exactly you can store the mic pack.

    Headset, or Brittany mic

    • No dangly earrings, at least on the headset side.
    • Someplace to put the mic pack.
    • A hairstyle that allows you to mess with the hair around your ears a bit

    Lapel mic

    • Someplace to put the mic pack.
    • A neckline or necklace within about 6 inches of your mouth.

    Hand mic

    • No clothes problems, but you may literally have your hands full and be unable to gesture.

    Podium mic

    • No-one’s favorite. Make sure it is adjusted for your height.
    • If your A/V setup allows, close your laptop lid. It blocks a lot of the body language of shorter speakers.

    The angle is weird

    If you are on an elevated stage, which will happen at some point, remember that people are going to be looking at you from a totally weird, slightly upward angle. Skirts that are a fine-to-flirty length at ground level will feel horribly up-skirty when there is someone staring up at you. They’re not trying to make you feel weird, you’re not trying to make them feel weird, but it happens. I have seen other women have success with pants, skirts at least knee-length, or opaque leggings.

    And if you’re going to be seated at a panel table and you like wearing skirts: contact your organizers to find out if they are going to have table skirts or modesty panels. No one wants to spend an entire amazingly thoughtful discussion remembering to keep their ankles crossed. If the organizer can’t tell you, play it safe and pack some options.


    Pockets are amazing. You know that. Pockets are good in and of themselves, for sticking your hands in. But you can also use pockets to store business cards, microphone packs, your cell phone, your clicker, your lipstick….well, we’re getting carried away there.

    Even the best dresses-with-pockets do not have the same structure that supports our jeans pockets. If you put too much crap in your skirt pockets, you will look like you are saving food against the coming winter AND there won’t be room to shove your hands in.  When you’re speaking, take out all your pocket stuff except the mic pack and your clicker. Set it next to your laptop, or better yet, in your laptop bag. No one will sneak up on stage to rifle through it.

    Misogynist haters

    There is a sadly good chance that someone will comment negatively on how you choose to present yourself. It’s like Global Thermonuclear Annhilation – the only way to win is not to play.

    So when someone tells you meanly that you’re too fat to wear something, or kindly that you’re a little too old for that, or whatever crappy thing they come up with, remember that you’re the one that wrote the talk, and pitched it, and got on stage and gave it, and they’re the ones who can’t think of anything to say about the topic and are reduced to talking about your style. Whatever. Haters gonna hate.

    I’ll usually say something devestatingly neutral like, “Thank you for sharing your opinion”. If I’m feeling really feisty, it’s more like, “I just talked about software design antipatterns for 45 minutes and you’re worried about my love handles?”.

    As always, if you feel like this is weird or creepy in any way, contact the conference’s CoC team. You are not responsible for saving people from their lack of tact.

    Also, shoes

    You will walk miles at any reasonably large conference. If you want to wear kitten heels, or heel-heels on stage, go ahead (I would fall off and dieeeee). But bring along a pair of actually comfortable flats, not the completely unpadded ballet flats that fold up like socks. Conference center floors are concrete. My current favorites are Skechers Mary Janes. They’re super cushy, dressy enough to wear with a dress, casual enough to wear with pants, flat enough that it doesn’t throw my skirt hems off.

    (I should not have looked at Zappos, I should not have looked at Zappos…)


    I like wrap dresses in general, but they are a little exhausting to wear on days you’re going to be sitting in conference chairs all day. Even wearing slip-shorts (a must) and a cami, I felt like I was one inattentive moment away from really distracting a speaker.

    * I blame the Patriarchal Thermostat Hegemony. I’m going to be in Las Vegas. In August. I expect I’ll be the one in a hoodie and handwarmers because of air conditioning.

    What about you? Do you have any particular tips or tricks to share about how you dress to be on stage?