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.

My first year, a personal review

I woke up to a cheery email today telling me that a quarter of my stock options had vested. That means I’ve been with LaunchDarkly a whole year! (there are worse anniversary notes to get).

And what a year it’s been. I thought about doing a photo essay of all the conferences I went to in the last year, but there have literally been 36 this year, and I had speaking slots at all but 5, and of those 5, I ran open spaces at 3. Too many pictures!

I went to 3 other countries – Australia, Santo Domingo, and Canada. I made platinum status on my airline, missed my kid’s 13th birthday and every single concert, and wore out a TravelPro suitcase. I made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and got to know others better, and worked my ass off to learn a new career.

When I started, I had exactly one day in the office to get my new laptop, meet my new co-workers, and have an enthusiastic and influential conversation about stickers. Then it was off to Kansas City Developer Conference, my first official conference as an official Developer Advocate.

Let’s just say I was glad for my thorough interview prep!

You can see that my sticker conversation ended well. This is Velocity New York, I think.

I made it back to Oakland for LISA and the office Halloween party

I celebrated company milestones, even if I wasn’t always in the office for the official parties. I ate this bread pudding in New Orleans at RubyConf. It was delicious.

I sewed a bag for the sticker collection I tote with me to conferences. The inside fabric was an in-office thank-you gift, and the fastener is one I got in the Garment District of New York

Toggle the Space Explorer in a bag of stickers

I met this sleepy lion when I was in Sydney to visit Atlassian. It was my first customer on-site and it was kind of mind-boggling. They had so many great ideas for new features and ways to work with our product.

Lion outside the Atlassian Sydney office

There was a caricaturist at Index San Francisco. I’m pleased that I happened to be wearing this jacket that I made.

Caricature drawing of a white woman with brown, pink-tipped hair and blue eyes

This was a sketchy diagram I took a picture of and sent to our awesome product/graphic person, Melissa. She’s the one who does all our striking stickers and visual look and feel. This ended up as a slide in my Waffle House talk.

Messy handwriting diagram of success/failure continuum.

Here is my glamorous life. I took a nap in the office before a redeye flight home. This is the old office, which we have now outgrown, but the view was amazing. I am wearing technology socks, but I can’t remember right now whose.

A person's socked feet, a view of the clocktower in Oakland

The key to never feeling bad about putting stickers on your work laptop is to first cover said laptop with a clear case. It gives you a little bit of ablative impact resistance, and when you change computers, you can keep the case for your wall!

I’m proud of the work I did, and in the next post, I’ll talk a little bit about what I think is happening.

Dignity, Always Dignity

A fat tabby lies sprawled on its backOne of the interesting parts of being a semi-public figure by doing DevRel is that it makes you think a lot about how you look to other people, in a way I suspect is not a concern for the ordinary developer. It parallels the doubled perception that a lot of women already experience.

In 1972, art critic and philosopher John Berger wrote,

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

It’s reductive and essentialist and troubling, but I’m not sure it’s untrue – there is a level of mindfulness to being visibly female, and a similar level of mindfulness to being visible/active online, and to representing a company.Like all forms of identity, there are a lot of intersections and nuances and complications and historical considerations. I personally know at least two female-presenting people who left technology because the cost to continue was too high, and I can think of many more who have taken deliberately lower-profile, less-dangerous positions. But I also know people who choose to be aggressively public about their gender, their level of ability, their struggles. It’s not a contest, but it is a grind.

There’s a joke-not-joke about how so many women in technology and especially information security have chosen to have obviously artificial hair color. We tell people it’s so we can identify each other in a crowd, or it’s because poisonous animals have bright markings, or because we’ve gotten to the place where we can’t get fired anymore. Because it makes us look queer (a lot of us are, but not all). Because it makes us feel fierce.

Those are all true, and many more reasons besides, but at least for me, having bright pink hair is also a level of defiance. I am not here to look pretty for you. I am not junior enough to worry about my career (a lie, of course). I am aggressively, boldly, assertively female, and I am not ashamed of that. It’s really political, at least for me. If you won’t hire me because of my hair, I don’t want to work for you. And I can make that stick.I know sometimes that people see it as juvenile, or childish, or girly, and discount me because of it.

But here’s the thing – if I am on stage, recognized by a conference as an authority, and I’m girly, it breaks people’s mental model about either what it means to be on stage or to be girly. Every time I make someone reconcile those two things, I hope to make it slightly easier for a junior person who likes winged eyeliner to get credit for a technical idea.

Because here’s the key point –

Dignity has nothing to do with competence.

My friends, if I rock up on the stage and give a mind-blowing talk on the origins of full-disk encryption and AES while wearing a clown suit, I expect you to listen to me and also not dismiss the next person you see trying to explain something while wearing a red nose.

I think, historically, dignity has been coupled with respect and professionalism, but I don’t think that’s an unbreakable triad. I think it’s a habit of mind.

I started thinking about this when I saw something on Twitter about how respect actually has two meanings – the first, for people who are already in power, is actually more like deference from people with less power. Respect the office, the badge, the cloth. The second, the respect desired and demanded by the powerless, is to be treated like a full human. As people in tech, we probably seamlessly use both definitions without realizing we’re moving between them, and which one we mean depends on where we are in the power structure.

Professionalism is, at core, very utilitarian. It means operating with the group standards in a way that keeps the organization from experiencing friction and loss of efficiency. If something is professional, it keeps the gears of collegial relations turning. It is not professional to sexually harass people because it degrades their work efficiency drastically. (It’s also terrible on a number of other levels, but corporations can only be persuaded by the bottom line.) If I’m being treated professionally, it means I have the same opportunities and liabilities as other employees, and that I can count on the explicit and implicit contracts to be followed and enforced. I’ll get paid on time, I’ll be physically safe, my work won’t be arbitrarily discarded, things like that.

I can be professional with pink hair. I can be respectful with pink hair. Those are behaviors that I control. But whether you see me as dignified or not? That’s a tougher call. If I dyed my hair brown, would it be enough? What if I grew out the mohawk? Wore a skirt suit? Wore a pantsuit? Stopped using swearwords in my talks?

No, I think the commentariat has proven that no matter how much competence a woman has, no matter how much time and energy she wastes trying to conform to the standards, there are always some people who won’t see her as dignified. And that’s ok, for me. I can afford that, to a degree. But culturally, every time I see someone dismissive about something that is coded as youthful, joyful, or feminine, I worry that they care more about dignity than they do about competence. I’m not ok with that, and you shouldn’t be, either.

Note: Of course I screw this up. My own internalized misogyny and other shit automatically makes me roll my eyes at signals I consider frivolous or less-than, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate those habits. Someone once told me that the first reaction you have to something is what you were taught growing up, and the second reaction is the more mindful reaction. Fast and slow thought, if you will.

Check your fast thought against your slow thought and try to make decisions based on what you believe, instead of what you ‘know’.

Praise is a vitamin

I was thinking about how happy I am when I get the kind of praise I need. It doesn’t make me feel smug or complacent, it makes me feel strong and empowered and like what I’m doing matters and is seen. Which is kind of the opposite of burnout. I don’t think you can entirely stave off burnout with praise – it’s systemic and situational, but I think you can certainly help.

I mostly get enough vitamins in my daily diet, so I don’t take a multivitamin. I will take specific stuff if it seems called for – folic acid while pregnant, vitamin D in the dark northern winters, salts when I’m doing a lot of sweating. (Pro-tip: If Gatorade actually tastes good to you, keep drinking it until it returns to its normal grossness).

You would think that most work would also give us what we need to feel rewarded, but some people are just better at metabolizing vitamins from food than other people. Some people can eat all the right stuff and still be desperately short of magnesium, or whatever. Our jobs continue to pay us, our boss is not yelling at us, our coworkers speak to us, surely that’s enough? For some of us, yes. For others, not so much.

For some of us, it’s hard to store praise, just like it’s difficult to store some vitamins. You can take a massive dose, but the body will take what it needs and dump the rest, and you’ll be short again in a couple weeks. Some of us can store praise for a long time, but it’s difficult to replenish, or we can use it all up in a burst.

Some of us walk into work with a chronic deficiency and we’re just going to need the same type of reassurance and praise over and over again, and we can’t help it. We do believe you when you tell us nice things, but it wears out, and we can’t generate it ourselves, anymore than we can generate our own Vitamin C.

Lots of managers realize that we all need praise and attempt to address this with the compliment equivalent of multivitamins. They’ll pat us on the back and say “Good job, I like your work.”, and hope that suffices. It does, for lots of people. But those of us, like me, with specific deficiencies, need more than that. We need something targeted and specific, like a B12 shot, something that can’t be brushed off as lip service or a generality. I like praise about actions that I have taken, especially if they are tied to a goal. So, for example, “Hey, your talk on data privacy really affected people – I heard some guys walking out talking about what they could do to be better.” That’s going to keep me happy about writing talks and giving them for weeks! It’s one of my goals to change people’s thinking and behaviors. On the other hand, “We’re getting a lot of leads from conferences you go to,” is… sales leads are not really my goal? I mean, I’m happy about that, but I don’t know if they’re valuable leads, and I can’t see them, so I’m glad that the company is getting worth from that, but it’s not going to feed me when I sit down to write the next new talk.

As a manager, you’re going to deal with people who have scars from nutritional deficiencies. They may nervously expect that praise always has a dark side, or they may be praise-insecure and never sure that they are going to get it again so they guard it from others. It’s not really your job to diagnose what’s going on, just to figure out what it is that your report is lacking and supply it as best you can, honestly, realistically, and sustainably.I’m working on a new theory where I admit I am anxious and that in the absence of positive feedback, I start getting more and more nervous that there is nothing good to say, and my immanent firing will come soon. People who think they are about to get fired are terrible employees – no creativity, no joy, limited teamwork – for good reason. Rather than end up in that spot, I’d rather say directly, “I need this kind of praise to stay healthy.” Better for me, better for my manager and company.

What kind of praise feeds you? Have you asked for it?PS – Due to my odd childhood, I have a strangely inclusive knowledge of nutritional deficiency diseases. Because I am kind, though, I have not included any of those pictures.

PPS – Did you know that because we use Vitamin C to build collagen, people with severe scurvy can have old healed wounds reopen as the scars dissolve? There’s a metaphor to be had there.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

If you recognize this mantra, you may know it comes from marksmanship training. The idea is that it is better to move slowly and not have any hitches or unexpected bumps, rather than to hurry and have a less predictable outcome.

Another way to phrase this is

You don’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it twice?

There are lots of obvious applications for this philosophy in technology, but I’ve been dealing with it in a much more tactile realm – handwriting. I’m one of the cusp generation that got taught cursive and typing in school. I obviously type much more quickly than I handwrite – most people do, or we wouldn’t have invented typewriters. My kids got some very minimal cursive education, but mostly so they could read it, not write it. No one is grading their penmanship and most of their assignments are turned in on Google Docs. When I was learning cursive, my teacher told me, and I believed, that it was because it was faster than printing.

In the last month or so, I fell down a hobby rabbithole and took up fountain pens. The DevOpsDays Vancouver people gave out a lovely writing set as a speaker gift – proper fountain pen, ink, high-quality notebook. I found out that what the nerds on the internet have been saying is true – writing with a fountain pen is a significantly different experience than a ballpoint or even a rollerball. Fountain pens finally made the point of cursive writing make sense to me.

It turns out that some methods of communication are tuned to specific tools.

Who knew, right? So I spent all of my grade school cursive time frustrated because cursive didn’t feel any faster to me, and I would get lost in the middle of a letter or a word, and aaaaargh. Which has made it really funny to take up learning not just “how does a fountain pen even work”, but also “Spencerian Penmanship” (which, the purists would like to inform you, is not calligraphy). It turns out that 10 year old me had a few compounding problems:

  1. Not enough time/practice to gain mastery. I’m a notoriously slow learner of physical skills. It took me 3 years to learn to ride a bike. So learning time that was probably enough for my peers was not enough for me.
  2. Attention problems meant that I would literally lose focus in the middle of a word, or forget how to form letters, or try to move faster than my muscles were prepared to go.
  3. I did not find it intrinsically rewarding.

Now that I’m an adult, and I can afford not only the proper tools (relatively cheap), but tools that I find exciting and fun (less cheap), I feel more rewarded. I am not trying to turn in a homework assignment, I’m just learning a skill, so the time and accuracy penalties don’t apply. Unsurprisingly, I have better handwriting when I slow down. And as hobbies go, this one is really easy to pick up and put down, even more than knitting.

I also have learned years of skills in how to teach myself things, how to self-correct and do mindful improvement. Because I spent so many years as a solo writer, I had to learn to look at my own work, iterate, and improve. That basic skill now serves me for all sorts of things in my life. As a result, I now understand the value of drill and practice. Even if it’s not fun.

Handwriting practice sheet

The first thing to do is draw lines

I used to feel bad about my hobbies – sometimes I’ll get really into something, and get all the equipment to do it, and take Craftsy classes and and and… and then a few months later, I’ll drop it. I would punish myself when the next passion came around. “Remember embroidery? You have all the equipment and you only ever finished 2.5 projects. No, you don’t get to do the fun thing!”. I’ve been easing up on that attitude. I mean, I do try to start with a minimum viable kit for what I want to do, but if I enjoy it, I’ll dive in. Why not? I have an allowance for frivolities, I’m not hurting anyone, and it makes me happy to learn things.

Practicing one letter over and over to refine what I want and learn the motion

All hobbies are fractal, when you start examining them. I’m not sure the same is true of work, or maybe it’s just that deep expertise is less easy to share. So for the top-level hobby fountain pens, the fractal might look like this:

  • Handwriting
    • Penmanship
    • Calligraphy
    • Hand-lettering
  • Ink
    • Purchased
    • Hand-created
    • Mixing
  • Pens/Hardware
    • Prestige collection
    • Hacking/fixing
    • Restoration
    • Design

Each of those could be pursued further and further into tiny corners of specialized interest. That’s amazing. Seriously, thank you, internet. Hobbies are fandoms, and we can all find a place that suits us somewhere. I figured out that I love road cycling, but I hate bike maintenance. I can pay a shop to do that. There are other people who love tinkering, tuning, and upgrading their bikes. I like piecing quilts, but consider hand-quilting tedious. That’s ok, I can be a machine-quilter.

Once I thought of hobbies as fractal, I realized that we could not only drill down into sub-hobbies, we can back out to get a bigger picture of why we want to do hobbies, and it gives us an insight into why we want to do anything.

I like learning things. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction and control in my life. I feel about new ideas like a magpie feels about shiny beads. This basic tendency really accounts for most of my career – I used to joke that technical writing is a lifetime of writing research papers, but it’s not far off. It’s more like journalism, but the reporter is still going to walk away knowing more about the story than ever makes it into the paper.

My hobbies are a way for me to nourish that passion in a way that is good for me, as well as an employer. Sometimes I want a tactile thing to do when I got back to a hotel room in another city, completely worn out from people. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the difference between art and craft, work and hobby, is about how much you get paid, not how valuable it is. Even magpies can only pick up so many shiny beads before they really just want a break and some tinfoil.

What does that have to do with marksmanship? Everything. Because slow is smooth, and sometimes we need to move slowly to appreciate and learn what we need. Because smooth is fast – it pays to think through what we want to say and write before we commit it to ink. Because everything we do to learn a hobby is itself a way to learn the skill of teaching ourself.

This job is undoing me

… in the best way possible.

My protective casing of hard-earned cynicism is being rubbed away by all this genuine kindness, cooperation, good culture, and all that jazz. It’s honestly kind of uncomfortable, like molting.

You need to understand – I have this hard-ass candy shell for a reason. My first job in technology was 1996. My first college boyfriend introduced me to BBSing through what we would now call a troll community. I have been “one of the guys”, and “that girl”, and “the writer, whats-her-name”. I have gotten my ass grabbed at work and gotten dirty texts and chats from co-workers and been propositioned in creepy ways at conferences. The technical writer is hired too late and fired early in the startup process, but I love startups. No company has ever previously make me feel like I have valuable things to contribute and they consider themselves lucky to have me.

I thought at first it was perhaps due to the change in my role, this exciting new job title that means I never have to write release notes, but today I realized that it wasn’t that. I was walking with the new person on my team, and trying to download to her what I’ve learned about the company and the things I asked about and can just tell her.

  1. You will not get fired because The Internet Hate Machine is angry about something. We know about the internet hate machine and don’t consider them valuable feedback.
  2. No one is going to yell at you if you mess up your expense accounting, especially at the beginning. We’re all working from a place of mutual respect and shared interested and assumed good intentions.
  3. You are not required to sacrifice quality of life to save company money. Be reasonable, stick to the budget outlines, but it is worth a hotel night to have you bright and functional instead of trying do do a conference after an early morning flight.
  4. You have time to learn your job. We’ll be happy as soon as you contribute, but you need time to ramp up and that’s expected and normal.
  5. It’s ok to ask questions. No one expects you to know everything, we hired you because we think you have the potential to learn. Very few of us knew about this technology or industry when we started. You don’t have to know it all when you start.
  6. Maintaining human relationships with your coworkers and other people in our ecosphere is important, and will be counted as work, not fluff.
  7. If something happens at home while you’re on a business trip and you need to leave, it’s ok to just leave. No single event is more important than your outside-of-work life.

How am I supposed to maintain a cheerful cynicism about people who genuinely like working together and also sometimes hanging out at tea parlors with a kid in tow? How is my cool detachment going to go when I get raises and positive feedback without even asking for it? What if it doesn’t feel like high-stakes gambling to be able to bring my whole self to work, even the wacky futurist parts and the parts that can’t code and the parts that are noisy feminist politics? What if “being me” is not high stakes, but table stakes, for everyone?

This job is breaking me because all of that shielding and cynicism were adaptive for other companies, but not actually very useful at this one, and in order to succeed here, I need to take all that armor off and be real, and vulnerable, and let people help me. It’s terrifying, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

@wiredferret is so composed, informative, and present as a speaker

I Have Something To Say

That was the tagline for the late lamented Technically Speaking organization, and I really like it because it captures one of the really important parts of speaking – all of us have unique insights and perspectives, and even if you say something, I still have something to say that will be different.

As I learn and grow in the craft of speaking and giving talks, I have been thinking about what it is that I’m trying to achieve, what I would consider growth and leveling up. It’s important to not rest on our previous accomplishments – that leads to stagnation and that miserable stuck feeling.

I want to improve my delivery. I want to improve my slide construction. I want to branch out into different types of conferences. And I want to give a keynote.

When I told my manager this, he challenged me to identify what it is about a keynote that I want to have, that makes it different from the talks I’ve been doing already. After a bit of thought, I realized that the nature of a keynote means that you have a chance to talk to an audience who would not normally select your talk in a multi-track conference. No matter how good my documentation talk is, only people who care about documentation will choose to attend it, even though the people who need a documentation talk may not. I want to reach that reluctant audience, the people who don’t think they need to be in my talk.

What is a keynote?

In a technical conference, a keynote is addressed to the entire conference, and usually happens at the beginning or end of the day. Keynotes are thematically linked to the conference, or are presented by “big names”. They are the one experience you can expect everyone at a conference to share. Even single-track conferences have keynotes – they might be longer than the rest of the talk, or include a special introduction, or the speaker might be a promotional pull.

By content, a keynote either has something relevant to the community, like Matz’s Ruby updates at RubyConf; or it’s something that is broader than any one kind of technology, like Carina Zona’s “Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm”.

Organizationally, keynotes are almost always invited, rather than being part of the CFP/application process. The organizers select speakers and reach out to them with a specific invitation. The topic may be negotiated, but keynote speakers traditionally have a lot of latitude in their topic choice.

How might I get one?

Keynote elements

I think there are three elements involved in being invited to give a keynote:

  • Professional reputation
  • Proven speaking and delivery ability
  • Timely, relevant topics

I feel like I can work on all of those points, in different ways.

My professional reputation will depend on me continuing to do what I do as well as I can – speaking, teaching, mentoring, coaching, being available to help people with their needs whenever I can.

Speaking ability – I only have a smidgen of training in this. My high school didn’t have speech and debate, I didn’t participate in college, I’ve been pretty much getting along with a lot of self-education. I am thinking it might be time to get some real training and coaching. This is probably the aspect that scares me most — it’s really hard to get coached on something, especially if you think you’re pretty good at it. But it’s a way to get better, just like watching the talks I’ve done helps me get better, even though I really hate doing it. If you watch yourself speak enough times, you sort of burn past the shame and get to the place where you can improve by watching.

Timely topics — You always have to lead your target, and I want to put together a couple proposals for general-interest topics that haven’t been extensively covered yet. More on that later.

What I’m going to do

So my plan is multi-part. It all is underpinned by me doing a lot of work to remind myself that it is ok to publicly want a thing and publicly talk about wanting it. That’s hard to do.

Ask

I am trying to talk to all the people I meet in my conference rounds about wanting a chance to keynote. This has three effects:

  • It gets people to think of the possibility of inviting me
  • It normalizes people asking about keynoting, especially if they aren’t in the normal demographic of CEO/powerful person/known famous coder
  • It teaches me more about how to ask for big things, and gives me more experience in doing slightly anxiety-inducing things.

Write

I need a couple topics to tease people with – things that are interesting, timely, and appropriate for a larger audience. Here are the two I’m thinking about, in CFP pitch format

Master Builder and the Growth Mindset

A lot of us got told we were smart growing up, and looking around at our pretty nice lives, it’s easy to believe that. But what if I told you that you are successful despite this compliment, not because of it? It’s bad for our sense of experimentation and willingness to fail to be told that we’re smart. We tend to gravitate to learning and doing things we’re good at with less effort. We avoid things that we won’t be good at instantly because we don’t know how to be mediocre.

Getting into technology is like being able to assemble a Lego set – there are easy instructions, you assemble the modules, and you end up with what you saw on the box. But not all of us are issued a box. Some of us have had to learn to be master builders, able to design and construct new and weird things that are not part of the kit. This experimentation and improvisation can provide us with flexibility and insight in a rapidly-changing industry.

This talk is intended for people who are interested in designing and working on teams full of people who value experimentation as well as execution.

Everything Is A Little Bit Broken
-OR-
The Illusion of Control

Humankind is extremely superstitious and we are operating systems way above our actual level of comprehension. To keep our limbic systems from freaking out, we have a set of beliefs that makes us feel like we have control over things that happen around us – but are we right? Let’s talk about how error budgets, layered access, and function over form are the building blocks of the ability to get on with work without decision paralysis.

This talk is about how we shift risk around with both process changes and magical thinking, and how we can use our tendency to be fearful to actually make things safer, instead of just feeling safer.

This talk is intended to challenge and shake up people who think that failure is a single state or that doing everything right will lead to predictable results.

Study and Learn

I’m going to find myself a speaking coach, or maybe a course. Something to take what I already have and polish and refine it. No one knows how to do a triple lutz on their own, and coaching is the difference between talent and success. Like I said, this is really hard for me. Like a lot of gifted kids, I’ve gotten a long way on sheer talent without having to be bad at something. Luckily for me, I also have spent sometime sucking at things, being coached, and getting better. It took me 6 years to learn to serve a volleyball overhand, but I got there. I want to level up my speaking from “good enough/pretty good” to “reliably excellent”.


It’s a big goal, but I think I have a good plan in place, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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!