A space explorer in a dark blue spacesuit giving a thumbs-up.

Choose Your Own Deployment

I love the aha moment people get when they grasp a concept. It’s a lot of what gives me energy about this job. Being there to help people see how an abstract concept can make their concrete life better is amazingly rewarding.

Because of this, I try to change up all the parts of my talks, to make sure people feel like they’re going on a journey with me, ala Nancy Duarte in Resonate. I want you to feel like you’re on a trip with me, like we’re learning together, and exploring what interests you.

This game was born as a conference talk. It’s a longshot bet for a conference to accept a talk that has no set length, or pattern, that is entirely driven by audience participation, but several did, and I’m so grateful. The Toggle Game is an interactive exploration of how feature flagging can be used to make deployment safer and less of a big change.

Now I’ve taken the conference sketch and expanded it out into a playable game about an adorable space explorer, Toggle:

A space explorer in a dark blue spacesuit giving a thumbs-up.

The Toggle Game

I built it in Twine. I’m saving the deep details of that for an OpenSource.com article, but the experience was pretty straightforward and quite enjoyable. You can find the source at https://github.com/wiredferret/Toggle. I’ve left in all my flaily and cranky commit messages for your enjoyment, because I like it when I can see an arc in other people’s commit messages.

In case you don’t want to play the game yourself, I have a video of how the people at DevOpsDays Toronto played it.

Choose Your Own Deployment Adventure, DevOpsDays Toronto

Documentation for DevOps: A DevOpsDays Open Space Writeup

I’m borrowing this image from my friends at Chef, because it’s really funny to pretend that it’s possible to just sprinkle on “devops”, something that is about cultural change at every level.

At every DevOpsDays I go to (and that’s quite a few), I propose/wrangle/run two open spaces. One is about feature flags/canary launches/hypothesis-driven development, and the other is this one, which I usually refer to as “Docs for DevOps”.

DevOps documentation is difficult because it’s not intended for external audiences, so it’s hard to make a case for hiring a writer, but it’s also mission-critical, which means that it can’t be ignored or neglected.

I also have a talk that I give on this topic. You can find recordings from DevOpsDays Minneapolis and NDC Minnesota here. but this is specifically about the open space. I am indebted to a number of people in the last year who have come to open spaces, shared their experiences, asked questions, and challenged my thinking and assumptions.

I’ve grouped the questions I hear most often into these categories:

  • How can I find anything?
  • How do I get people to read the docs?
  • How do I get people to write the docs?
  • My team is small, do you have particular advice?
  • My team is very large, what should we do?
  • Distributed team best practices?
  • Why is sharepoint?
  • What tools are most useful?

How can I find anything?

Frequently, the first problem that people have is not that nothing is written down, but that lots of things are, and the problem is discoverability and accuracy. It’s one thing to have instructions, and quite another to have instructions that you can find when you need them. Many people have their operations documents spread across one or many wikis, ticketing systems, and document storage platforms.

The short answer to this problem is “search”. That is also most of the long answer. The thing I think we overlook is that we don’t have to use the search engine that came with our wiki. We could put something else in front of it. With the demise of the physical Google Search Appliance, you still have a number of service options. Most of them will give you the option to index and search multiple sites.

As a consultant who helped companies structure documentation so it was usable, I have a lot of specific advice on how to change the architecture and the culture, but honestly, if you could get your company to hire someone to help with that, you could probably get them to hire a writer and solve the problem another way.

The last part of this answer is that you could get some consulting dollars and hire an archivist/librarian to help you come up with tags that help identify the types of data and make it easier to search for. When we’re trying to recall data, we frequently do so by keyword or tag, and an archivist can help you make a canonical list of what people should use for that.

How do I get people to read what we have?

First, see above, make it easy to find.

Second, make it as easy as possible to read. Sit down in a group and hash out what type of information has to be included to make a topic/article/page useful to others. Once you know what you need to have included, you can make a template so that people remember to include it all.

The next problem is to figure out how to point people to the documentation without being dismissive or making them feel like you are too good to answer their questions. This might be a good place for a chatbot, or a single web page full of resources.

Many people would rather be able to find an answer themselves than bug a coworker to get it, so if they’re not reading the documentation, there’s probably a systemic problem blocking them.

How do you get people to write the docs?

Do you know any sysadmin or SRE who has ever been fired for lack of documentation?

Do you know of anyone who has gotten promoted solely on their ability to write internal documentation?

Most of us don’t. No matter how much organizations say they care about documentation, they are not putting anything of meaning behind those words. It’s not malicious, but it does tell you that documentation is not actually something they care about.

One of the ways to fix this is by using a reward system. Buy a package of Starbucks cards, or awesome stickers, or ice cream certificates, and give them out every time someone completes a documentation task, immediately. Adding a tally mark for their eventual review is much less motivational than immediate rewards for work. You don’t have to be a manager to do this – anyone can motivate their co-workers. The reward doesn’t have to have cash value, but I do think it’s the easiest way to indicate your appreciation.

Another thing to pay attention to is how easy or hard it is to write the documentation. If it’s a complicated system, the barrier to entry is high. If it’s in a tool the team already uses, in a language they already know, it’s much easier to persuade them to drop in a few lines. if there is a form for them to fill in so they don’t have to figure out what they are supposed to include, that’s even better. Lowering the cognitive barrier to entry is as important as the tool barrier to entry. After all, we’d have a lot more trouble writing bug reports if we had to write them out by longhand without any fields to fill in. Documentation is the same way.

My team is small

Consider using just one single page of truth. No, seriously. If you’re working with a team under 8, and especially if they’re distributed, consider just putting everything on one single web page and searching it when you need to find something. The overhead of managing a documentation system or wiki is not something you need when your team is that small. As you write new things, they go at the top and older stuff gets pushed down to the bottom and becomes obviously less important or relevant. If you need to find something, you can easily search the page. No one has a secret pile of documents that the rest of the team doesn’t know about. It’s not an elegant solution, but it’s hella utilitarian.

My team is large

Hire a writer. And/or a librarian. I was talking to someone whose IT organization was over seven thousand people. They obviously do need some structure, some tooling, some information architecture. Rather than spend internal IT cycles on it, I suggest hiring experts. There are thousands of people in this world who are trained to manage, collate, write, and wrangle large sets of documents, and it’s wasteful to try to do it by yourself.

What are the best practices for distributed teams?

Pretty much the only effective way to have a distributed team is to change the team culture to one where you write down questions and answers, instead of popping by to share them. It’s important to make sure that key data is always written down and not passed on by word of mouth, because as soon as you have an oral culture, you are leaving remote members out.

It’s useful to have at least one team member working remotely who has distributed team experience. You can ask them for what has worked for them in the past and enlist their help in iterating your practices. For example, is it hard for the team to remember to set up the call-in for meetings? Change the meeting template to include a shared meeting room automatically. No one gets a distributed team right immediately, anymore than we do a colocated team. It’s just that it’s easier for distributed teams to end up in a broken state before someone notices.

Why is SharePoint?

Because the paradigm and core analogy is filing cabinets. “What if I could see inside the Operations filing cabinet?” Because it thinks of itself as a way to organize pieces of paper, it’s not very good at documents that need to be shared and altered simultaneously across organizational boundaries. It was a marvel for its time, a way for non-technical users to get their documents out of shared drives and file cabinets and give other people regulated access, but it is fundamentally hostile to searching.

What tools are most useful?

It depends, right? Tools exist on a sliding scale between absolutely zero barrier to entry on one end and and taxanomic usefulness on the other. Every team must find their own best place, which may not be the same across the company. But if a team dislikes a tool or finds it burdensome, they just won’t use it.

The best tool is the one you can get people to adopt. If your team is 100% people who know how to use LateX and created their resumes and gaming character sheets in it, then it would be a fine tool. If you had a team composed entirely of people under 20, maybe a a youtube channel would be the way to go. Since none of us have completely uniform teams, the best thing we can do is to find a tool that everyone can grudgingly agree only sucks a little bit.

In conclusion

  • Use a better search engine
  • Hire experts whenever possible
  • Make it easier to write things by using templates
  • Iterate and keep improving your devops docs process. There’s no solution, just a fix for now.

2017 Speaking Recap

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

Summary

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

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

Longer version

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Talk write-up: Choose Your Own Deployment

Yesterday, I was in Phoenix for their first DevOps Days.


The interesting thing about doing this talk in Twine instead of my beloved Google Slides was how much I had to learn to make it look anything like I wanted. There’s a lot of CSS and Twine-specific syntax. At first, it felt like I was wasting my time and being slow because I know other people know this better than me, but as the project went on, it was honestly delightful to learn something new and get my pages to look like I wanted. There was a lot of fist-pumping success in getting a font to work.

It’s still not perfect, and I need to do some pretty drastic revisions for version 2, but now I know which of the resources are most useful to me and I have a conceptual model that I didn’t have when I started, so I think it will be easier to learn the parts I still don’t have.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn something that had immediate tangible results, instead of concepts and pitches and taking what I already know and distilling it down. It was good to do that, and I should remember to schedule it into my life sometimes.

Lady Conference Speaker Talk Wrap-Up

I was talking to Bridget Kromhout about her wrap-up process, and she inspired me to a) do a better job publishing my talk information right after I give it, b) talk about my end-of-talk process.

So, you have pitched a talk, gotten it accepted, written it, gotten on stage and given it, and answered any questions. You are about to come down off the adrenaline high and start second-guessing what it is you said. It is totally normal not to be able to remember exactly what came out of your mouth. Depending on how nervous a speaker you are, you may not have formed any particular memories, because we are terrible at forming coherent memories when we’re scared.

The slot after your talk, or the evening after, or the flight home, you want to publish your talk wrap-up. I think the ideal wrap-up consists of the following elements:

  • Your slides
  • Twitter reactions
  • Follow-up answers
  • Research sources/bibliography/image sources
  • Video

I do almost all my slides in Google Slides, with Slides Carnival. I do a new set for each talk, since I’ll end up adjusting length and emphasis for each conference. Immediately after I give the talk, I tweet out the public link to them. My slides also have extensive speaker notes.

The next few steps are much easier if you use Storify, an app that plugs into your browser. When I am researching a talk and have a reasonable belief that I’ll be using a page as reference, I click the Storify button to add it to my potential elements. I can also use it to capture tweets that will be relevant. After my talk, I’ll open Storify and look for tweets about the talk, whether with my Twitter handle, the conference hashtag, or the talk hashtag. I drag all the relevant tweets into the story about this talk at this conference, organize them, and then add the link to the slides at the top and the reference elements at the bottom. Then I click publish. I can always go back and edit that Storify to add the video when and if it’s ready.

In WordPress, Medium, LinkedIn, and several other platforms, you can embed Storify stories as part of the post, to raise the visibility and make sure it’s part of your platform as well as Storify’s.

Keep an eye out on your email. Conference organizers are quite likely to ask for your slides so they can sync them to video or publish them on the conference site.


There are a couple places that I want to improve my process — I have seen webpages that have two columns – one for the text of the talk and one for the slide. I feel like that would improve my web presentation and make it more accessible, but I have yet to find the WordPress/CSS magic to make it happen. Everyone I know who does it has hacked their own, and I want a turnkey solution.

I also want to start dedicating some money to getting talks professionally transcribed. What I write out and what I actually deliver are similar, but not identical, and again, I want to improve access for people who can’t or don’t want to watch video.


Here’s an example of one of my talk writeups: http://www.heidiwaterhouse.com/2017/05/26/the-death-of-data-signal-2017-edition/

Screen capture of the front page of a site using folksonomy

Human Indexing

One of the consequences of cheap storage is that we have no incentive to reduce the amount of data we keep. We believe that we’re going to be able to search for whatever we want. But we are starting to exceed our human capacity to filter the returned results of our searches. Algorithms will help us some, but they are never going to be enough as long as we keep adding data at this rate. We’re going to have to use metadata to help us find anything.

Taxonomy

For centuries, we have organized data taxonomically. All living creatures have a place in the Linnean structure. I am a chordate, a mammal, a primate, a human. There are lots of library organization systems that organize books and information. For example, the Library of Congress system has categories for everything, and room left for categories of knowledge we haven’t found yet.

Taxonomy has several problems, though. For one thing, you can only sort something into one bin at a time. Constraining things into only one category means you may not think to look in the correct places and assume that the information doesn’t exist.

Taxonomy also replicates the power structures of the culture that makes the organizational, which can be problematic. For example, there was a time when the Library of Congress system categorized Native Americans as fauna of North America. It’s always going to be dangerous to underrepresented groups to encode knowledge as the domain of a dominant group. And even if it’s not dangerous, it’s othering and discouraging.

Folksonomy

The solution that has been arising lately is called folksonomy. Folksonomy is assigning tags to a piece of knowledge, based on the contributions of many individuals. You’re already using folksonomy in more places than you know. For example, Amazon recommendations uses both taxonomy and folksonomy to drive recommendations, and so does Netflix. We use it as individuals many times we are trying to describe something that we don’t know the exact name of.

The value of folksonomy is that it doesn’t depend on a top-down organizational system. Instead, it builds an understanding and description of something from many different perspectives. Like the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, the elephant may seem very different to you based on your perspective. For example, records of the Salem Witch Trials might be about early American history, or about Puritans, or about the suppression of women’s expression, or about the racism involved. The records don’t change, but their category and description does, according to who you are, what your perspective is, and what you are seeking to teach or understand.

The downside of folksonomy is that humans are sometimes terrible, and if you leave any system of public contribution completely open, people will attempt to spoil it or use their voice to dominate it. Imagine if every instance of a book that contained Christianity or a reference to communion got deluged with hundreds of tags about cannibalism. It would become difficult to find anything that was actually about cannibalism, and most people looking for documents about Christianity would find their results pushed farther down.

The other problem with folksonomy is one of standardization. If people can freely enter tags, they will enter very slight variants. Not intentionally, but it’s just extremely hard for anyone to be perfectly consistent, let alone many people. If tags vary, then they are not useful for grouping things together, because “King Arthur” and “Arthur, King of the Britons” will not be returned together, even though he is the same historical person. Conversely, “Shaun” might return you an adorable claymation sheep or a zombie-fighting slacker. You’d need to disambiguate them to get clear results.

Tag-Wrangling and Transformative Works

The organization that I have seen balance these conflicting values best is called Archive of Our Own. AO3 is a non-profit organization devoted to hosting transformational works. Transformational works are anything that takes a source text and tells a new story, or alters the text to convey a new point of view. Because US copyright law is not yet very clear about transformational works, this is also united with an academic journal and a lobbying movement to promote the idea of transformational works as a legitimate artistic expression.

Warning: Although nothing in this post is explicit, the AO3 site hosts many sexually explicit works. I do not recommend visiting the site on a monitored system or if you choose to avoid sexually explicit material.

AO3 uses a combination of taxonomy and folksonomy to make hundreds of thousands of fanfic stories available to people who are looking for them. Users can search by story title or author, or they can step through to increasingly fine categories, such as Movies->Marvel->Captain America->Winter Soldier. Stories are then further sorted on pairings, if there is a romantic element.

Screen capture of the front page of a site using folksonomy

AO3 fandom sorting page

Authors can give stories tags. These tags frequently convey authorial commentary, or appeal to a specific in-group of readers. They also function in a descriptive role. For example, a story might be tagged:

  • Odin’s A+ Parenting
  • Thor/Hulk
  • Thor/Banner
  • Loki (Marvel)
  • Thor (Marvel)
  • Hulk (Marvel)
  • LGBTQ Character
  • Humor
  • Drama
  • Curtain fic
  • Longfic

These tags are a mix of authorial description and comment (Odin’s A+ Parenting, Curtain fic), and “canonical tags”, which are standardized tags which describe specific characters or media sources (Loki (Marvel)). If you just searched on “Loki”, you would get both the Marvel version and the mythology version. “Python” returns both Monty Python and snakes.

Searching “loki python” gives you a relatively small overlap.

Tagging also includes warnings about types of content that people find distressing. Being able to select tags away means that people will never be accidentally exposed to something they work to avoid. The community has agreed on a general set of things that will either be explicitly warned for or the whole story will be assigned “Author Chose Not To Use Warning Tags”, which means there could be anything in there, take your own risks.

The canonical tags are managed by a small army of volunteers known as “tag wranglers”. These amazing humans standardize common tags and character and source tags, and also group together similar tags. For example, if you click on the tag/link “Odin’s A+ Parenting”, you’ll see a Tag Page:

The tag wranglers have collated similar and related tags and grouped them together so that reader’s searches have more chance of success. For example, I’m American, so when I am sarcastically assigning an excellent grade, I say “A+”. But British fic-readers might instead say, “Odin’s A-level parenting”. They mean the same thing, but you would have to have an EXTREMELY well-trained machine learning system to link that, or you would need humans. Tag wranglers also work to maintain and standardize warning tags.

The Art of Indexing

One of the early influences on me as a technical writer, before I knew technical writing was a thing, was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Mostly, it’s a story of apocalyptic greed, but there’s a throwaway passage:

It appeared that Clair Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before. She told me that she had put her husband through college years before with her earnings as an indexer, that the earnings had been good, and that few people could index well.

The idea of that passage stuck with me, the thought that indexing is an art worth paying for. When I became a technical writer, I was pretty junior, and ended up with the boring assignment of generating indexes. FrameMaker made this easy enough by parsing out headings to create index entries, and I even had a tool that would permute the headings for me, so I would get entries for Shaving the Cat and Cat, Shaving. But I was unsatisfied with that result, because it was just about the headings, and sometimes I was missing key concepts, so I had to go through and do manual indexing anyway.

So often, when we say indexing now, what we mean is a concordance, not an index. A concordance is a straightforward listing of all the places a word or phrase appears in a document. An index is more carefully constructed, and only points to useful instances of a phrase or word, like introductions or significant mentions. A really good index will also include words that never appear in a document.

User language is not our language

For example, if I show you this picture

Windows Blue Screen of Death

you probably identify it as the Blue Screen of Death. But until about 5 years ago, you would not find that phrase if you searched the Microsoft website. If you had the problem, you would need to search on “fatal exception”. It’s deeply unsatisfying to look for help and not find it. Even now, you won’t find a Microsoft help page about it on the first page of Google results.

If we want to serve our users, we need to meet them where they are, using the language that they use. So if they call something a spinning beach ball or a blue screen of death or whatever, use it in addition to the name that you call it.

The point of indexing something is to make your product and documentation easier for people to use. If you are not using the language that they use, you’re only writing the documentation and index for people who already work for you.

You won’t be able to imagine the names that people call your product (hopefully good). You’ll find their words in the places that they are helping each other. Stack Overflow, user groups, mailing lists, the files and reports that your own support team keeps.

Once you’ve collected all the language that people are using, you need to roll it into your index. You don’t want to identify every instance of a phrase, only the ones that actually pertain to the answers people are looking for. You want people to get the answer, not a deluge of partially relevant information.

Attach the index tags to the place with the best solutions, and also the meta tags that you want to include in the index. For example, if you have a heading called Activating your Thromdimbulator, you will want the following index tags associated with it:

  • Activate thromdimulator
  • Turn on thromdimbulator
  • Activate thingy
  • Turn on thingy

That’s the human indexing effect. There is an index entry that has zero words in common with the heading but will still be exactly what someone needs if they think of their thromdimbulator as a “thingy” that they want to “turn on”.

Human indexing is hard, because it takes time and knowledge and deep product and industry knowledge. But the reward is that even in our search-oriented, automatically-generated world, an excellent index is going to set your product apart.


This post is an expansion on a lightning talk I gave at PyConAU 2016 and Confoo Montreal 2017.