White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

“Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” —Rachel Zoe

I look like this:

White woman with pink hair and teal-framed glasses looking at the camera.

Unless I’m about to give a talk or just gave one, in which case I look more like this:

White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

As you can see from the tweet above, a lot of people agree with me that dress codes are frequently to remind people they don’t have power, or they have less power. The pushback against sexist school dress codes is an aspect of that — maybe we shouldn’t police girls because of what they wear, maybe we should teach boys that they should keep their assumptions about what they’re entitled to to themselves. Similarly, a great thing about working in tech, especially in startups, is that they seldom have very rigid codes. That is part of why there’s a statistical lump of genderqueer-presenting people in tech, because there’s not really a reason to haul someone in front of HR for dress code violations… if there is a dress code. Or HR.

Some dress codes are practical. Cover your hair and beard with a net if you work with food. Don’t wear loose clothing around rotating machinery.

Some are arbitrary. I don’t think leggings are pants, but I am An Old, and will own that. The color of your hair does not impede your ability to execute emergency deplaning procedures*. Your facial piercings don’t actually make you a worse childcare provider.

But the hard ones, the intractable dress codes, are the ones about professionalism. You know women who dye their hair so they don’t look “unprofessionally old”. You know people who are discriminated against in some way because they’re fat. You know people who struggle to pay for the clothes that are part of their work uniform, but because they’re sales professionals, their “work uniform” is Brooks Brothers.

I’m having a discussion at work right now about clothes, because they matter. I don’t think it’s ok to impose arbitrary rules on people who don’t see customers, but I do think that professionalism in any office means that you don’t smell bad, I can’t see any of your swimsuit parts, and none of your clothing constitutes a threat to other humans. I do think it’s ok, and even important, to dress in a way that makes other people take you seriously if you’re talking to customers.

For example, my company is based in Oakland. This is like being based in San Francisco, but with fewer microclimates. Rolling up to work in a company hoodie, jeans, a t-shirt from your last company, and a pair of Tevas is A-OK. But the further east you go, the more formal everyone’s business wear gets. Jeans turn into chinos somewhere around the Mississippi, and then into actualfacts slacks. T-shirts become button-down plaid, and then long-sleeve with ties. Hoodies to sweaters to blazers. And I’m using dude-presenting clothes as an example, because they are so much less complex than women’s clothes. And then, and then, you jump the pond. I showed up for an onsite in France, and pretty much every single male developer – the developers, was wearing an ironed shirt and a fine-gauge wool or cashmere long-sleeve sweater.

Because I travel so much, I see this over and over again, and I’m uniquely sensitized to it. Also, it’s a class thing. Never let anyone tell you America doesn’t have class issues. We do, we just managed to get really bad at talking about them or naming them. So, for instance, someone raised upper-middle class on the east coast will never think about the fact that they pack button-down shirts for a trip to New York, because that’s their native language. They learned to tie a necktie in junior high.

Someone who wasn’t raised that way is likely to pack the same thing they wear to a conference on the west coast, and that will end up being the wrong formality register. And the thing is, people won’t say anything about the fact that to them, you look like a scruffy nerfherder who couldn’t Enterprise your way out of a paper bag. They may not even realize they’re thinking that. But they will feel, subtly, that your company may not be Ready For The Big Leagues.

So what can we do about this? Well, I’m pushing for all employees who do customer-facing work to have a couple different branded options, like a sweater. That will make me feel happier when I go back to Europe and can leave my hoodie in my travel bag.

Dressing for Conferences

For you? If you’re going to a conference, find a crowd shot of the people at that conference last year, and dress to fit that. There’s a wrinkle to that, because every conference/programming language has its own particular flavor, but you’ll get pretty close. For example, here are crowd shots from O’Reilly Software Architecture and O’Reilly Velocity. Both were in New York City. If you look closely, you’ll see that the people at Velocity are dressed down a bit more, because it’s more for the DevOps people, and Software Architecture is more for their bosses. It’s a subtle difference, but it exists.

Buttondowns, more formal T-shirts, some button-downs

For comparison, here are pictures from the London version and the San Jose version

And for even more complexity, femme women will usually, but not always, dress one degree more formally than the male and butch-identifying people at a conference. So you end up with speaker pictures like this:

Two women in black dresses, one man wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans

They all look appropriate for the stage, but the women have their phones offstage somewhere (Unless Ines’ dress is more magical than I think), and he has his in his front pocket. I have a whole thing about gendered dressing, which I won’t go into, because this post is long enough, but you should be aware of it when you’re deciding what to wear.

I’m not picking on O’Reilly, they just keep all their pictures in an easy-to-find place.

In conclusion

If someone tells you that your hair, your body, or your style is a problem for them, that’s on them. If they say it’s a problem for the company you work for, try to figure out if it’s a health and safety issue, a customer-facing issue, or a power play.

Personally, I decided a while ago that if someone didn’t want to hire me because of my pink hair, they also would not like my swearing, my public queerness, or my twitter feed, and we would all be happier if I didn’t work there. But that’s a position of enormous privilege, and I know it.

If you feel like you need to say something to a co-worker about their clothes, style, or god forbid, hair, before you open your mouth, ask yourself if this is about your discomfort or an actual business problem. **

*  At this point in culture, airline cabin crew are caught in a terrible intersection of class-policing and trying to have authority in the moment they need it over panicking people, and it’s complicated, but a huge number of cabin crew have admired my hair and sighed wistfully over being able to choose a “non-natural color”.

**  If you are mentoring someone entering the industry, you get a little more leeway to point out the norms of the particular office you’re in, IF you’re their mentor. Someone has to tell the interns that Teva sandals may be ok, but not if they’re stinky.

On the Origin of the Speciated Conference

I go to so many conferences! It’s an awesome and amazing part of my job. I speak at them, but I also attend them. I sit in the front row and live-tweet. I attend talks. I participate in unconference sessions. I talk to people in lines, and at lunch, and at the afterparty. I give out stickers and I say hi to the vendors. Conferences are something I’m an expert at. And when I’m not doing technology stuff, I am support crew for science-fiction conference runners.

Given that, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a taxonomy of technical conferences, something that would help you understand which flavor of conference you’re about to go to. As near as I can tell, about 10 years ago, there was a great flowering of conference types.

Originally, we had The Technology Conference. People paid a lot of money, they sat in large conference rooms (over 100 people, say), and they listened to industry experts. Some/many of the industry experts were also vendors giving pitches.

Then, a decade ago, many people decided that this method was not meeting their needs, and they wanted more interaction, more peer contact, more connections. We ended up with some new species of conference:

  • The regional variant of a language conference. No longer just PyCon, but PyConAU, and EU, and the same for JSConf and Ruby. It was cheaper to get people to someplace close to them, the conferences were smaller, the odds of meetings speakers and experts was higher.
  • Single-track conferences with registration caps. Write the Docs, The Lead Developer, and (I think) Monitorama use this method. Everyone attends the same talks, but the registration cap means that it’s still possible to identify and talk to a speaker. A well-run single-track conference allows a lot of time between talks so people can mingle and talk.
  • DevOpsDays. The DoD format is flexible, but tends toward the single-track morning, unconference afternoon. They also work really hard to fit into budgets that allow people to attend on their own, with lowish registration fees and locations all over.
  • No Fluff, Just Stuff. The first unsponsored conference I’ve spoken at. No vendors, and a high rate of repetition for speakers and a lot of tracks, so odds are good that you will be in a small group.
  • Birds of a Feather. Not unique to any one conference organizing system, but a way for people interested in a similar problem to find each other and do collaborative learning. Mostly these happen during non-programming time.

All of these conference styles prize collaborative learning over authoritarian instruction. If you’re a speaker coming from a more authoritarian background, I have to imagine the change is a bit of a shock. I know I have felt weird when presented with a large audience that I can’t see. I don’t want you to think that one way or the other is better – depends on what you need. 50k people wouldn’t go to AWS Reinvent if there wasn’t a value to be found in it. And Reinvent has small, unrecorded sessions as well as the massive keynote sessions.

Hotel ballroom filled with a few hundred people, all facing toward a podium and the camera.

DevOpsDays Toronto

So who are the stakeholders for running a conference?

  • Attendees
  • Sponsors
  • Speakers
  • Organizers

When you maximize the happiness or utility for one group, the utility for other groups goes down, or may go down. There are some overlaps. Attendees want content that answers their questions. Speakers want to provide content that is new and promotes their personal brand. Organizers want to select speakers who bring good value and are reliable. Sponsors want their speakers selected because talking about a product drives sales. Attendees, on the whole, don’t want sales-pitch talks. You see the problem!

As a speaker, I prefer single-track conferences. That way, I never miss other people’s talks! The talks are also usually very highly curated, since a day-long conference might only have 7 speakers, so it’s pretty darn flattering to get picked. As an attendee, I like conferences that are sized so each speaker ends up talking to about 50 people. It’s small enough that I feel engaged, and big enough that the speaker doesn’t feel like they have to stop to take questions. As a sponsor, I want multiple tracks with large spaces where people have to walk past my booth to get caffeine. As an organizer, well, I’m still working on that.

I’m thinking about this because LaunchDarkly is assembling our first conference this year (2019), in the spirit of Gremlin’s Chaos Conference and Honeycomb’s o11ycon. What do we want to give people, how many people do we think we’ll have, and how do we make the experience useful?

In the spirit of testing in production, we’re going to try a combination of things – keynotes will be one-track, so everyone has a common thing to talk about, and then we’ll split into other configurations in the afternoon.

We’re looking for people who want to join us on April 9 at Trajectory to talk about feature flagging, trunk-based development, devops tools, testing in production, blue-green deployments, and other ways to speed up your development and delivery…safely.

https://www.papercall.io/trajectory

If you want help with your pitch, or want to noodle around an idea, let me know. I’ll be back at work on the 7th and ready to think it through with you! (Yes, we’ll do bigger announcements later!)

Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.

Help, I need somebody!

I may have mentioned that I have an executive function disorder. That is the category AD(H)D falls into. What that means for me is that it is often a lot of work for me to make decisions and organize tasks. All of the traits that make me an excellent systems thinker, like holistic views, consideration of concepts outside the standard solution, and interrelationships are present all the time.

Most people, when they go to book a hotel room, get on a site like Travelocity that triages by price and distance, and they just pick something. What I do is do that, and then think about how much it would take to get Lyft to and from where I need to be and if that’s a savings worth staying further away, and is there anything else I need to visit while I’m there, and is it in my 3 loyalty networks, and does it have late-night room service, and is it close to someplace that I can get groceries, and does it have a fridge, or a microwave? Is it in the loose budget my company asks for? Is there a reason that it’s more expensive, such as holidays or major events? How does that compare to the per diem for federal employees, which is what I use as my heuristic for judging which cities are just annoyingly expensive?

I think all those things pretty much every time. And I think in that scope for almost everything. I used to think that loyalty programs like airline mile memberships and hotel points were for a) optimizers b) rich people c) frequent travelers. I’m really only a member of c), but it turns out that they’re also great for d) people who need to reduce computational complexity.

I went to 44 events this year, I think (accurate year-end roundup later). Are you exhausted thinking about that level of planning? I was. And then I was facing down 3 weeks in Europe and I complained to my boss and he told me that a personal assistant was an allowable business expense.

I’m working with a lovely woman named Carly, from an organization called Aim2Assist, and it is making my life so much better. Suddenly, I understand why executives get executive assistants and why it matters to their productivity. Because I can delegate.

How does it work?

Yes, I have signed over a great deal of personal information to this person. There’s no way around it. The way I did it was to share LastPass entries for all my frequent flyer/hotel/credit card information. I can revoke those at any time, and keep them updated. This is much easier with a company credit card, because the company has the ability to get recourse if something goes wrong (which I don’t suspect will happen, but they have more money than I do).

Then I gave her a rough set of parameters to work with. I prefer to fly Delta. Window seats. No AirB&B if we can help it. Hotel rooms in the $150-$250 range if possible. I’ll take care of my own transportation on-site. We also did a chat where I talked about things I just liked in general, and what it means when I travel for work. (14 hours days a norm)

So, for the Europe trip, I booked my inbound and outbound flights, and then sent Carly that information and the dates of the conferences and meetings in London, Bordeaux, and Marseille. Those were my fixed points. I told her that I wanted to spend some time in Bath (which was magical), and that I preferred the train to flying in Europe. She sent back an itinerary for my approval. For all my London stays, I was in one hotel, which was nice and consistent and I just had to learn one route to and from the Tube. Because I wanted to do walking in Bath, she booked me a hotel in the historic parts that was lovely and gracious and still less expensive than staying in London. In Bordeaux, she found this ridiculously lovely off-season glamping/chateau experience.

King-size bed in a rustic wood and canvas room.

It was in Bordeaux that I was desperately grateful to have her. I had gotten pickpocketed in the half hour I spent in the Paris Metro, so I only had my backup card, which was an American Express. It’s not the card of preference in Europe, if you were wondering. Instead of me trying to argue with taxi drivers about what kind of payment they’d take, she booked me a car and driver. And when the train I was booked on told her that they weren’t going to stop in Marseille due to flooding, she rebooked me onto a flight so I would get there in time.

When I got home and there were all the usual annoyances of travel, like my hotel nights were not properly credited and I needed a refund for the cancelled train ticket, I could hand those off to her instead of trying to deal with it myself.

None of this was impossible for me to do. She’s not a travel agent with access to their mystical systems. She’s a human who gets paid to make things happen for me, another human. And it’s such a blessing to me. Her decision matrix is much smaller than mine. I’ve told her my preferences, she optimizes for them, but she doesn’t end up deep in the weeds of what’s professional and what’s self-indulgence. I don’t want to walk more than half a mile to get to a conference venue, she accounts for that and doesn’t wonder if it’s worth an extra $20/night to save 10 minutes, etc etc.

NOTE: if you are a frequent traveler and no one has given you a company credit card, raise hell. If you WANT to put it all on your personal miles card, that’s fine, but you are traveling for company business, and they are going to pay eventually, so make sure they pay now. This is especially true for people who are young, have low credit limits, or have shitty credit. I can drop 10k on a month of travel bookings, easily. I do not have a personal credit card with a 10k limit, nor do I want one. Companies should not make private wealth a prerequisite to career advancement.

What can you ask for?

LaunchDarkly is paying for this service, because it’s cheaper to pay her rate than to pay my “rate” for me to do this, only less well. Those hours I don’t spend on travel booking I spend on watching conference talks or reading articles or writing blog posts. It’s better value for money.

Because my employer is doing this, I try to keep my requests to work-related things, mostly travel. I would also feel ok asking Carly to file my expenses (if our system wasn’t so stupid-easy), or send confirmations or other things that related to traveling and speaking.

If I were paying her myself, I could also ask her to book medical appointments, send birthday presents, order flowers, get someone in to clean up my lawn. We have apps for a lot of this now, but it still takes time and effort to do, and time and effort is exactly what I don’t have to spare right now.

If you ever watched The West Wing and admired Mrs. Landingham as a highly-competent person who enables Jed Bartlett to be Bartlett, that’s like the highest expression of getting help to delegate executive function to. Few of us can have a secretary, but many of us could possibly spend a day’s wages to save that time and thought for something else.

But what if?

I think the scariest thing for most of us is having our identity stolen. Going through a proper organization is going to buffer against that. I wouldn’t hire someone random off Craigslist to do that, even though they’d probably be fine. I like having someone who is accountable. Also, let’s be real, our identity is scattered across a dozen databases on the dark web already.

What if your assistant screws up? Well, so far my assistant’s track record of screwing up is far below my own record. I am the queen of being really bad at booking flights that cross midnight and realizing belatedly I’ll arrive on the wrong day. Inevitably it will happen, but when it does, I’ll have someone to help me figure that shit out.

In conclusion

Yes, it’s totally worth the money to get an assistant if you have a life like mine. I was feeling guilty about being “lazy” when I felt overwhelmed about booking my own travel, until a friend pointed out that for me, it’s an accommodation, and for everyone, it’s an efficiency.

It is a build vs. buy proposition.

I could work hard to make this work in my own system, or I could pay money and save opportunity cost to get a better end product.

On a jet plane…

I’ve been in Europe for the better part of three weeks now, and I’ll be going home Saturday. As you can imagine, I thought long and hard about everything I brought with me. I never want to take more luggage than I can comfortably manage on my own, up and down subway stairs.

This is a long post, so if you’re not interested in travel-nerdery, go ahead and skip it.

Continue reading

A page of text with a line chart.

This job is all the best parts of going to college

I used to say that technical writing is an endless series of research papers, and if I had realized that when I started doing it, I might have studied harder at the Java class I flunked. But not really, because the thing I loved about research papers was reading the primary text, and a bunch of secondary texts, and summing them all up and then getting to spin my own theory informed by all of that. Technical writing is all of that, except that instead of texts, you have three harried developers, and interface, and if you’re lucky, some user complaints. Instead of a grade, you are always driving toward serving the user and the business purpose. And also you never have to write a sentence that begins, “This writer…”. So that’s good.

Lately, when people ask me if I like doing DevOps Relations/Advocacy, I bubble at them – “It’s like all the best parts of college. Go to lecture, cram your brain full, talk to brilliant people while you’re exhausted and say things like “But have you ever really looked at your deployment system?” and then take everything you learned and synthesize it and tell other people.”

I wasn’t motivated to go to grad school, and I feel like I got what I needed out of my time in college, but I never knew that there were so many jobs that could be about learning as hard as possible and then sharing it. That’s so cool! An off-the-cuff estimate is that I’ll go to ~300 talks this year. More like 400 if we count the 5-minute talks, which we should. This is why I always feel like I just heard a thing about that, or maybe you could try, or have you heard about…. because I’m getting to consume so much information!

You can, too. Not a lot of people get to go to 40 conferences a year, but so much of modern conferencing is available by video. The great thing about that is that you don’t have to go anywhere, you can watch it at slightly accelerated speed, and if a talk isn’t working for you, you aren’t stuck in the front row and can just leave. So now that it’s getting cooler (at least in my hemisphere) and curling up on the couch seems more appealing than zooming around outside, grab some popcorn and a video of a technical talk, and join me in reliving the cool parts of college. You don’t even have to take notes.

Here are a few to get you started:

Talk link Why I picked it
FixMe by @dhh at RailsConf 2018 Look, any talk that has a long discussion about conceptual compression and callbacks to both Marx and Piketty is a winner.
SRE for Good: Engineering Intersections between Operations and Social Activism by @lizthegrey and @emilygorcenski at SRECon EMEA 2018 A clear call to use our power as producers and managers of data to be ethical and drive our organizations to be ethical.
How to Crash an Airplane by @nmeans at The Lead Developer London 2017 Riveting failure analysis, top-notch storytelling.
Have You Tried Turning It Off and Then Turning It On Again? by @whereistanya at LISA 17 A super-interesting talk about “where you are in the stack?”. Chewy and funny at the same time. “Everyone’s back end is someone else’s front end.”
Testing Microservices: A Sane Approach Pre-Production and In Production by @copyconstruct at Test In Production Meetup Technical and cutting-edge answers for questions that a lot of us have.

Stickers, A Love Story

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

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

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

So cute! So space-tastic!

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

Why do we care?

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

In-group markers and identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branding, I guess

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

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

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

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

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

Surveying

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

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

Developer honeypot

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

Design patterns and anti-patterns

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

Size

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

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

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

Shape

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

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

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

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

Utility

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

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

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

Not for everyone

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

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

Sticker hacks

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

Resources

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

Conclusion

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

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

Saying No, or If This Then Not That

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

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

Here’s a quick flowchart of the process:

Breaking this down into guidelines, it goes like this:

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

Things it might help you to know:

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

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

Lady Conference Speaker: 14 Travel Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass and biology at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens

 

My first year, a professional review

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

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

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

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

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

My goals for this year

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

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

Retrospective

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

What went well

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

Could improve

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

Looking ahead

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

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

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