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!

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

As a speaker, there are three things I count on to give a talk:

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

My dependence on these elements decreases as I give a talk multiple times, but I use the slides to help me remember where I am in the narrative even if I don’t refer to the speaker notes often.

This fall, I designed a new talk and built it in Twine, a game engine for choose-your-own-adventure games. Each slide was actually an HTML page rendered by the game engine, and the narrative was supplied by the audience choosing from several options. This was a radical departure from my usual method, but I’d practiced it, and tuned it, and wrestled with the CSS and I felt pretty confident I could make it work, even though I wouldn’t have speaker notes or a unified narrative through-line.

Because I hadn’t solved the hosting problem yet, I needed to “play” it from my laptop, but that was no problem – I had a USB-C to HDMI adapter. The talk before mine ran long, but I only have technical problems a tiny handful of times in my talks, so I didn’t think I’d need much time to get set up.

I had reckoned without the USB-C/USB-3/HDMI problem, because it had never happened before. I always present from my ipad, and it’s usually a rock-solid toolchain. So I get up there, I’m rushed for time because of the talk before, I’m nervous because it’s the first time I’m giving this talk, and because it’s so “weird”, and…. it failed. The combination of cable/laptop/projector failed so hard that my computer rebooted and came back looking weird, and I had to accept that I might have just bricked my brand-new work laptop, in front of an audience, in a talk that had already technically started.

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

I had practiced, but I had not practiced the complete failure scenario, because it had never occurred to me that it could fail this hard.

I still managed to pull a coherent technical talk out and I only ran 10 minutes short, and honestly, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in the last year. Literally everything went wrong and I still delivered value.

Afterwards, when I was trying to quietly dump adrenaline, I could only think about how I had failed to achieve any part of my goals. My hands were shaking, my throat was tight, and I felt a little like crying.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

Later, I got to talk to people who had been in the audience, and they asked questions that they could have had if they’d gotten the real talk. That was cheering. I joked that this was the worst this talk could possibly go, because there wasn’t anything left to fail!

Then I got the speaker evaluation cards, and people were universally complimentary about my poise under tough circumstances. It hadn’t felt like poise, it felt like literal flop-sweat, like a drip from my shoulderblades to my waist. But they couldn’t feel my sweat, they could only experience my description of a brand-new talk focused on something that they had to imagine.

The webinar

One of LaunchDarkly’s goals for the year is to nurture and encourage customers to feel comfortable telling their stories, whether on stage or in a blog post. To that end, we are offering some people speaker training. Remembering my fall experiences, I solicited nice people on Twitter to come to a beta of my talk. That would give me a chance to try out the tool, the content, the process, before we offered it as a finished product.

I learned so much! Almost all of it was a little painful.

  • I need to log in early because I’m a panelist, not a host, so we need to coordinate that so I can show my slides to the webinar.
  • I did test my A/V setup!
  • I didn’t realize how unnerving it would be for me to talk to dead air. For all of my teaching/preaching/tech talks, I’ve had an audience. I can make eye contact with them, hear them start to fidget if they are checking out, notice their grins and twinkles and coughs to stay connected to them. But obviously, none of that happens when I’m talking into a headset with the audience on mute.
  • I need to do some work on the content. Not too bad, but I always have to give a talk at least once to live humans to get the suck out.
  • The lack of response makes me so nervous I talk even faster than usual. SLOW DOWN, ME.
  • I have to figure out a better way to wrap up/end the webinar. I didn’t think about how to tie it up neatly, because talks work differently.

So this is all great. When I do the webinar “for reals”, those are all mistakes that I’m not going to need to make because I know where they are.

The meta-lessons

  • It is hard to predict how you’re going to fail, but it is possible to build in a reasonable degree of redundancy.
  • Tests in isolation are not going to catch systemic problems.
  • It is better to degrade what you provide rather than failing entirely.
  • Test with a subset of users so you can predict how your solution will scale.
  • Don’t get so distracted by your failures that you fail to notice surprising data or silver linings.*

* One of the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen was on a winter night in the middle of a widespread blackout. I was stomping across the yard to get firewood, and I happened to look up and see the stars without light pollution. A lot of things had gone wrong, but if they hadn’t, I would not have had that moment of starlight bright enough to reflect off the snow, and the milky way like a second snowy stripe in the sky.

Minneapolis skyline at dusk from 35W bridge

#2018Liberation

I loved Cate’s post about deciding on liberations instead of resolutions. If I think there’s a change I should make in my life, I try to just… make it, instead of waiting for an arbitrary time marker. mostly because if I think about it too much, I’ll often talk myself out of it. But liberations? I need some of those, too.

Liberation

  1. Unsubscribing the third time I delete a newsletter unread.
  2. Resetting all my slacks and media inputs to Read status whenever I feel like it.
  3. Getting rid of every item of clothing I’m keeping in case I lose weight again.
  4. Accept that I am terrible at Approved Gift Giving occasions, and just let myself be spontaneous about gifts.
  5. Hiring household work rather than trying to teach/enforce it. Not for everything, but maybe that’s just not going to be my legacy as a parent, and that’s ok.
  6. Helping assholes.*

* I started my new year off with an extensive twitter thread from some jerk in Australia who responded to one of my friends being excited I’ll be giving a workshop by going on and on and on about how open source was life-ruining and stupid, and we were all stupid. And he was wrong, and rude, and abrasive, and I dropped everyone else off the reply list and gently replied that this probably wouldn’t help his job hunt, and had he considered not being a jerk? And then I read Cate’s post, and his follow-up explaining that he hadn’t meant to go after anyone, he just wanted us all to understand that open source was terrible. And then I blocked him, gentle reader. Because I have literally been playing gentle explainer to assholes since I got online at 17, and 24 years is enough. I have done my time. Someone else can help the deliberately abrasive people, or they can stew, but it doesn’t have to be my job.

Growing Edges

These are not exactly resolutions, more like things that I’m looking forward to working toward.

  • Write a book. Also, pitch a book (different books)
  • Level up my public speaking (this is a post I’m mulling)
  • Make some new types of garments: jeans, bras
  • Work toward online teaching/coaching/mentoring skills. Give classes? Run webinars? That sort of thing.
  • Parent my kids in the ways that work best for them. That’s an every year goal, but the goalposts move like water on a hot griddle.

Shoes and software

I bought a new pair of shoes when I went to New York City the last time. I am trying to find shoes and boots that look good with both skirts and pants, fit properly, and are good for a full day of standing/7 miles of walking. This is a pretty tall order, as you know if you buy many women’s shoes. I found a pair I thought was promising and broke them in by walking 30 miles in a week in them. There was just one rub. Right over my left toe.

I complained about this to my friend when I got back, and she told me that since I’d bought them from an actual store that specializes in shoes, I could take them in and get the store to stretch a little spot over the rub. And they did! And the spot stopped rubbing. But by then I’d irritated it enough so that my regular shoes were rubbing it. Well, it’s in no way serious enough to see a podiatrist over, kind of a normal thing that happens to feet, and the advice is to wear shoes that fit you properly.

I fell down a research rabbit hole, and did you know? You can buy shoe lasts and little carved nubs that fit into the holes in the lasts, and you put them in your shoe and add some shoe stretcher, and you can tailor your shoes? Those of you in certain age and class categories, who grew up wearing leather shoes, did know this. I just learned this, in the start of my fifth decade, and it’s almost as revolutionary as when I realized I could just sew my own dresses so they fit properly. I don’t have to accept that my feet or body are just going to be slightly ill-served by the average, I can fix it. If I have the right kind of shoes and the money for the tools, which is another post.

I think this is an essential difference between software users and software creators. Software users almost always have a rub, a spot where they have to conform to the way the software expects them to behave, an irritation point. They don’t know that they could change it or they don’t have the tools to change it. It’s very “fixed mindset”. This is how the software behaves, and that’s just how it is. Software creators understand that there is almost always some way to tweak their tech to fit them better. A software package is not immutable, but rather something that you can tinker with and change – a “growth mindset”.

I want more of the world to have a growth mindset about their tech – everything from rooting their phones to eliminate software they don’t want, to turning off push notifications, to hiding screens they don’t care about. That’s one of the things I’m excited about in my work with LaunchDarkly. Currently we’re working at much larger scales than individual preferences – think about the revolution in shoes when we started designing for left and right feet – but eventually the idea that you can customize your experience of technology will get more and more accessible and democratic. That’s thrilling, because everyone should have shoes that fit their particular feet and software that fits their particular needs.

Nothing gold can stay

This month marks the end of two organizations that were really important to me, and I want to tell you about them.

Alterconf

Alterconf logo

Alterconf was a conference series that happened all over the world. The organizing spirit was Ashe Dryden. She took all her experience with the tech industry, gaming, and conferences, and used it to build something new and unique. For a tiny conference series (relatively), Alterconf pulled the Overton window a long way toward justice and equal access. Some of the features that were almost entirely unheard of when it started and are now increasingly common:

  • Sliding scale entry fees
  • Real-time transcription
  • Child care
  • Inclusive catering by local small businesses
  • Paying sketchnoters, live-tweeters, and other local correspondents
  • Paying all speakers, equally and publicly

They also made sure that all the talks were recorded. Everything Alterconf chose to do ties back to opening up access, removing barriers to participation. So many of the people I can think of now on the speaking circuits got their start at Alterconf.

My Alterconf talk was about the intersection of female socialized caretaking roles and digital security: https://alterconf.com/speakers/heidi-waterhouse

My kid’s first conference talk was also Alterconf: https://alterconf.com/speakers/sebastian-w
He talked about what it’s like to be a kid on the internet before you’re 13.

The topics were personal, varied, heartfelt, meaningful. The speakers were not the usual suspects. Look at all these beautiful people representing a huge diversity of experience.

https://alterconf.com/speakers/

Alterconf meant a lot to me personally and to the culture of technical talks. I am emboldened by what I learned there.

If Alterconf, with a sliding-scale admission, can afford to pay speakers, I will never accept that bigger, more expensive, better-sponsored conferences can’t. I am especially angry at conferences that don’t even give their speakers a free pass.

So thank you, Ashe, and all the people who made Alterconf happen. I’m sorry it couldn’t last longer, but I understand there’s only so much anyone can pour out.


Technically Speaking

Technically Speaking logo

The Technically Speaking newsletter also ended this month, and for much the same reason – there is only so much self we can pour into a project before it becomes a drain and not a gift. Chiu-Ki Chan and Cate Huston put together a useful, informative, and encouraging newsletter that was applicable to both new/aspiring speakers and experienced folks.

It was opinionated, which was a benefit. There are a lot of conferences out there, and if someone helped me curate for conferences that paid costs or were in my interest range, with write-ups about what to expect, that was so useful! They also curated links to relevant topics, everything from slide design to clothing choices to imposter syndrome. You could always count on some useful bit of data to make you a better speaker, or a better conference organizer. They didn’t shy away from talking about conference-based controversies – like what do you do with an invited speaker who turns out to be A Problem? How do you evaluate whether to pull out of a conference? What are red flags for speakers?

It was also a community, albeit in a weird new-media way. There were other people, other women who were experiencing some of the weird things I was, and I would not have seen them because I’m not in that corner of tech, but the experiences were easy to translate. We cheered each other on, watched for each other at conferences, remembered to act in solidarity when we could, because our sticker-based motto was I have something to say.

I have something to say. And Technically Speaking taught me how to say it.

Technically Speaking Archive: https://tinyletter.com/techspeak/archive


Resolutions

I hate that these things aren’t going to be happening in 2018, or maybe ever again, but no one owes them to me. I’m just going to remember that they were important to me when they happened, and the best way I can honor the work that went into them is teaching other people what I learned, as much as I can, the way I can without damaging myself.

To that end, I’m assembling a little webinar on how to write and submit CfPs. I started doing it as a work thing, to help LaunchDarkly help customers who want to give talks, but when I posted on Twitter that I was going to have a beta to test out my ideas before I used them on my customers, 30+ people told me they wanted my completely untried lesson. So… I’ll beta, and give it to my customers, and then get it recorded. And that will be a little thing I can give to the world that isn’t either Technically Speaking or Alterconf, but still built out of their lessons. I’ll make sure it’s captioned in the final version. I’ll remember that it’s weird and opaque the first few times you submit a conference talk. And I’ll hope I can break the trail a little more, for the people walking behind me, as the people walking in front broke it for me.

Spring photo of a tree budding from a river


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Robert Frost1874 – 1963

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Packing, optimizing, and satisficing

I’m off on a two-week trip that happens to be broken by an 18 hour stop at home. (Nodevember, North Bay Python, SpringOne Platform, LaunchDarkly writing sprint). Every couple months, I try to clean out my bags entirely, get rid of the trash that accumulates, make sure that I have room for all the new fidget spinners, that sort of thing. This time I thought I’d share what it is I take along.

In summary, if you are at a conference with me and need Imitrex, Immodium, condoms, period supplies, emergency protein, or stickers, I’m your gal.

Continue reading

New employment: LaunchDarkly

Last week I told you about my exciting new job title, Developer Advocate.

This week, let me tell you about my exciting new employer! On Monday I started a job with LaunchDarkly, a startup that does feature flags as a service.

Feature flags are a way to distribute software with reduced risk. For example, if you had a holiday-themed CSS page that you wanted to activate after Thanksgiving, but you didn’t want the risk of deploying something that might break your holiday shopping experience, you could wrap the CSS in a feature flag. Using the feature flag, you can decide when to turn on the stylesheet. You can set the percentage of people who see the stylesheet. You can even hit the emergency kill switch for the stylesheet if it does cause problems.

Feature flags can also be used to test new features for part of your audience, or to replace conditional text, or to control which customers can access premium or paid features.

There are a bunch of implications that spin off from the ability to turn features on and off quickly and reliably – it changes some core thinking about what deployment is, how we think about a product, and what we do when something goes wrong. I’m really especially looking forward to working with customers to make sure that we are using and respecting their use cases. For example, while I was at DevOpsDays, I ran into someone who asked me how LaunchDarkly worked with HIPPA standards. I get to either find or write a white paper that gives them coverage for their needs.

It’s exciting to be an an inflection point in how we think about things. It’s happened to me a couple times — full disk encryption, multi-cloud management. I think this one may be another one. Ask me about it!

New job title: Developer Advocate

I've had a lot of job titles in my career:

  • Technical Writing Intern
  • Queen of Documentation (It was 2000, OK?)
  • Technical Writer I, II, III
  • Technical Communicator
  • Senior Technical Writer
  • Technical Writing Consultant
  • Documentation Architect
  • Documentation Mercenary

You might notice a theme there. I've been a technical writer for a lot of different companies, because that's been my career, my expertise, and my passion. I want to take everything that's great about technology and make it easier to use, more transparent, more thoughtful, more humane.

Lately, I've been having trouble describing what I am doing in terms of writing alone. Two job interviews in a row, my interviewer stopped asking me questions about my qualifications so they could take notes on my ideas for their product. My conference talks are sort of nominally about writing, but actually about patterns I'm noticing in the world and in technology. I love writing, and I'm never going to give it up, but it's also…not quite a good fit anymore.

Through the power of All-Women-In-Tech-Are-Connected, I got an interview for a Developer Advocate position. I would never have applied for this position on my own – it's so far beyond what I think of as my skill set. But in the discussions and interviews, I really came to believe it was not just a company I could work for happily, and a product that I think is useful and not toxic, but a position that lets me get out there and do the kind of thinking and helping and problem-solving that I love.

Photo credit: Women of Color in Tech Chat

Developer Advocate is a super broad range of positions, actually, but our interpretation of it is basically me continuing to do all the things I'm doing now: conference speaking, blogging, listening, and noticing. It's just that now I'll be doing all that and getting paid for it, instead of using it as a loss leader for my consulting. I get to go out in the world, find out where developers and users need help, and figure out how to make it happen for them. We're seriously at "pinch me, I must be dreaming" levels of exciting here. I even get to keep writing a little, although I may have reached my personal career goal: not writing the release notes.

Yes, I'm being deliberately coy about my new employer. That deserves its own post. I'll just say that I think we're going to get along well, they say I get to continue to be a pink-haired weirdo, and I will feel proud of the product.

I honestly feel like changing my job title is like the day you get new shoes and you realize you'd outgrown the old ones without noticing.

Oh! This is so comfy.

Consulting retropsective

I’ve been doing Agile for too many years to feel like I’ve learned something unless I identify it with a proper retrospective. I’m about to start an FTE job, and my consulting will obviously drop way off (but not entirely). So here we go:

What went well

  • I passionately loved the independence. I could fire a client when I thought they were doing something that was stupid/unethical. I didn’t have to account to anyone for my time at conferences. I made it to all the weird middle-of-the-day school stuff. My spouse was in the hospital for 11 days, and I could absorb that without talking about it.
  • It really forced me to get better at negotiation, scoping, planning, and self-management. No one was going to save me by telling me the priorities of projects — that was on me.
  • I learned a lot about building a personal and professional reputation. It matters that I blog. It’s important to follow up on business cards and connections. I never advertised my services except by telling people they were available, and I had stages where I turned away work.
  • I discovered moxie as a selling point. Not unreasonable bragging, but people are happier when they spend a lot of money on someone who seems confident about themselves and what needs to happen. I would have guessed that would be a turn-off, but no, that mostly applies to earlier stages in a career.
  • I got to work on some kick-ass projects and refine what parts of writing and projects I’m good at.
  • I got to go to so many conferences and learn so much stuff about things that I never would have thought I cared about, but it all feeds into the hopper and then a week or a month or six months later, it turns out that data was valuable.

A smattering of the stickers I carry around with me

What needed improvement

  • Cashflow. Sweet fancy moses, cashflow. This year to date, I have pulled in about $30k and gone $10k into debt. I had two contracts die on me after I had turned down other work to take them, and a client that paid Net-45….ish. If I reminded them. As a sole earner for a family of four, including two teenagers, this is not super. If I knew I was going to make that persistently, I would adjust our style of living, but I kept optimistically thinking that the universe would not screw me over again, right? And this was just a little bump. It wasn’t.
  • Relatedly: taxes. I did not get that set up as soon as I should have and I will spend some time untangling it.
  • I needed some things in my contracts that weren’t there: a kill fee/clause. A late fee. I racked up about $700 in late/overdraft fees because I thought people were going to pay me when they said they were. This is not a malicious problem, it’s a problem because I had already exhausted my buffer cash.
  • I need to keep working on how I track time. There is a lot of my job that is basically talking to people, wandering around thinking, and staring at the ceiling. It’s legit work, but I feel weird charging people for ‘I mowed my lawn and also thought about your data structure problem for two hours’.
  • I need to figure out how to pay myself for loss-leader/reputation building stuff, like blogging and mentoring. If I classify it as “not-work”, it eats the leisure time I need to recharge, interact with my family, and sew nifty dresses. If I classify it as work, then it’s unpaid work, which has a lot of emotional stuff going on.
Empty wallet in male hands. Isolated on white. Studio shot.

Empty wallet

Action items

If I do consulting full-time again, here are some things that make it more likely to work out for me.

  • Start with 6 months of cash buffer instead of 3. This is because I don’t have any other income stream
  • Write my own contract (well, hire a lawyer to do it), and make sure my clauses about kill fees, late fees, and payment schedule get into whatever contract I sign.
  • Hire a tax accountant sooner rather than later.
  • Work on adding passive income to smooth out bumps.
  • Factor in equipment costs and less-obvious travel costs in my calculations (if you take 50 flights a year, you wear out luggage, even the nice stuff) (I’m using a 3-year old laptop, and software costs money.)
Purple spinner suitcase

My next suitcase – a slightly smaller TravelPro in PURPLE