Coding is a Social Activity

You’ve probably heard about that manifesto that some techbro at Google wrote. This is the response I wish I would have written.

A couple things to highlight and emphasize:

  • Writing software is about understanding problems, and to understand problems, you have to not only know how to solve them with code, but know the root cause of the problem. That requires building empathy. Without it, you’ll never be great.

  • There’s no such thing as “male” or “female” skills. They’re just skills. That people put them in buckets says more about the broken rigid gender roles in our society than the quality or value of those skills. Empathy is much harder to develop than learning how to code.

  • The dude should have talked to some non-bro humans before publishing that crap. They would have, hopefully, gently slapped him around intellectually and convinced him not to be stupid in such a public way.

  • Guys, every single woman you know who’s ever had a job or worked in any situation where men are present has dealt with things you can’t even imagine. Not most. ALL of them. If they haven’t told you about any of them, you probably have a lot of work to do on empathy, because they don’t think you can handle it, or you’re kind of a jerk.

This isn’t totally related, but it’s related enough and I wanted to write about it, so here it goes.

Sara Soueidan tweeted yesterday about other peoples’ productivity tweets, and it got me thinking about how I keep myself motivated and keep myself from feeling too down about feeling stuck. I replied with a couple of things, and I thought I’d share them, because especially early on in my career, they were extremely helpful in keeping me going when I didn’t really have a way to measure my progress.

  • Document your progress, because it’s easy to forget. I’ve kept a work journal in various forms for the last 15 years or so, just a little record of problems I’ve solved, things I’ve worked on, etc.. Why? Because progress is easy to forget and time erases our victories. It’s easy to feel like we’re not getting anywhere when we’re only looking at the last week or so.

  • Whenever I feel down or stuck, I go back 6 months to a year and just randomly pick a day from the journal to remind myself what I was working on. It’s almost always a pretty immediate reminder of how far I’ve come. If I still feel down or stuck, I just go farther back.

In agile development, my favorite part is always the retrospective. It’s a meeting you have every 2-4 weeks where the entire team answers the following questions:

  • What went well?

  • What didn’t go well?

  • What are we going to do differently next time?

Answering those questions is a way to celebrate successes, build accountability by honestly and constructively figure out what didn’t go well and why, and then come up with a couple things to work on for the next time.

That same set of questions works really well for personal stuff too, so I have personal retrospectives all the time after stressful experiences or times I reacted to something in a way I shouldn’t have or, for me especially, when I overreacted to something.

I don’t have personal retrospectives to beat myself up. They’re not pity parties or self-destructive. They’re hopefully the same as a good team retrospective – they exist only to make sure everyone knows the part they play in the team’s success, and so everyone improves.

And that’s where the productivity tweets, and the harmfulness of judging yourself by others’ public projection of themselves, come in. Those public projections are meaningless to me. I might be able to learn some new tactics from them or a new thing to try, but trying to copy someone’s success only by observing the outward result is a recipe for disappointment.

Things to remember whenever reading any personal account of success:

  • The author is an unreliable narrator and will almost always downplay other peoples’ contributions to their success or that luck played a much larger role than they mention.

  • They’re not you. You’re not starting from the same place. You don’t have the same resources. You have different talents and skills. Do not judge yourself relative to someone else’s position because you don’t know where they started.

I was the first web developer in my group when I moved to Virginia to work in the “main office” at AOL. I had no one to measure myself against because no one else did what I did (my manager used to say, “I don’t know what you do, but everyone loves it, so… keep it up!”). I was young, and dumb, and ambitious, and… had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted to be the best I could be at it.

I’m a big fan of the Golden Rule for teams. I try (and fail) to work so the other people on the team have an easier time of things. I fail at this more often than I succeed, but that’s the goal.

After my first couple of projects, I realized that I also have to practice the Golden Rule on myself. So, now, I really only compete against what I call Past Me, and I try to do my work so Future Me doesn’t think Present Me is a jerk.

This framework has worked out pretty well for work over the last almost-twenty-years. I just recently realized that it’s equally applicable to life outside of work too, and am trying to apply it to my health choices too.

I hope this is helpful to someone. Life is hard. Make it as easy as you can on yourself and others.

Ficly and Creative Commons: The Power of Open

[hang2column width=”250″]The Power of Open book cover[/hang2column]

I’ve been a huge fan of Creative Commons pretty much since they launched. If you don’t already know, Creative Commons provides several ways for you to license your work that expressly allow people to use it in certain ways. It’s sort of copyright** – allowing folks to do things with your work that they might not otherwise be able to do legally without a lot of complicated legal wrangling. For example, there are tons of CC-licensed photos on Flickr. Depending on the license, you can use those photos for non-commercial work as long as you provide attribution, all the way to mashing them up in any way you want with absolutely no restriction. This blog has been CC-licensed since the beginning of Creative Commons. All of my photos on Flickr and presentations are too.

But, this post isn’t about my blog. It’s about Ficly (and ficlets, may it rest in peace). Back in 2006, when we first started working on ficlets, I wanted everything to be CC-licensed. Part of the motivation for that was so we could use share-alike licensed photos from Flickr. The other reason was that the share-alike license perfectly fit the premise of the site: anyone can add sequels or prequels to your stories. It took a lot of convincing to get the AOL lawyers to sign off, but after they did some digging, they realized that they didn’t have to do any work writing an additional Terms & Conditions document for the site, since the Share-Alike Attribution license (for the sticklers, out there, I think ficlets used by-sa 2.0) covered it all.

A few months ago, someone from the Creative Commons reached out and said they were writing a book of case studies of sites that use CC licenses and asked me if they could interview me. And of course, I said yes! Well, I’d totally forgotten about it until I got an e-mail that the book, The Power of Open is out now, and my little interview made the cut! You can download the PDF from the site, buy a copy for yourself, or just check out this screenshot of the page about Ficly.

I’m proud to be a part of it, and proud of the ficlets and Ficly communities for creating and sharing almost 70,000 stories with the world.

Weird Dreams

I had a weird dream last night (two, actually, but I’m only concerned about writing down the first one). In the dream, I was back at AOL sitting through a horrible product requirements meeting when I lost it and started yelling about how bad the requirements were, how they didn’t do anything original, were a waste of paper and no one would use this thing even if we built it (I don’t even remember what it was now). I got in a fight with the product manager, and all I remember of the screaming match was that she said something like, “You’re not the only ship on this sea, pal,” to which I replied… and I remember me screaming it: “Not the only ship?! I’m the sea!“\
Then, I got fired. It was a strange experience, watching dream me pack up his crap in boxes and get escorted out. I lost it a few times in my thirteen years at AOL (wait, sorry, now it’s “Aol.”), and one or two of them almost got me fired, but those were early on when I was still in tech support. I lost it in meetings a handful of times (which I think is a pretty good record considering how many awful product meetings I sat through) and called BS where I needed to, but I don’t think any of them ever got me close to the “terminating offense” line.\
Yeah, I don’t know what it means either, but I thought it was a pretty good comeback, especially for a dream.\
The other one was a nightmare where I was Doctor Who. It was so scary, I actually woke up and had a hard time getting back to sleep. This robotic zombie fell on me, had me pinned to the floor and kept saying “I know what you are” over and over again. shudder.

Someone Doesn’t Like the Name “Ficly”

\
(the ficlets bit starts about halfway through)\
Well yeah, when you say it that way. Seriously, I think stories will still be called “ficlets” because calling them anything else would sound silly.\
In other news, Jeremy Kieth and Simon Willison both posted about ficlets’ use of Creative Commons. Why did we do it? Well, I wanted to use flickr’s CC-licensed photos and I thought it would be only fair (and possibly required by the license on the photo) if we also licensed the stories under CC. It also fit with the whole concept of the site. Every sequel and prequel is a work inspired by the original, so we might as well allow the inspiration to expand beyond the “walls” of ficlets. It didn’t really develop that way, but it could have. My favorite by-product of the discussion with the lawyers about using CC was that it ended up meaning we didn’t really need any other user agreements. By agreeing to post under CC, you free up anyone to use the stories pretty much however you want. I didn’t think I would be one of those using them, but here I am…

The Ficlets Memorial

Finished and installed just in time, the ficlets memorial is up and running. It’s on my Dreamhost account, so it’s not going to be super speedy, but I’ve cached as much as I can, so it shouldn’t be too slow.\
I’m not entirely happy with it, but I didn’t have time to do much other than make sure I had all the data and that it’s navigable. Thanks to Alexander Grässer, I was able to get all the mature stories as well and now have a full archive of the site from last weekend. The stories should be up-to-date as of this morning, and I’ll do another update tonight before ficlets gets shut down for good.\
I have more plans for the data, and the design, but they’ll have to wait.\
Update: Someone asked if they’ll be able to “take ownership” of the stories in the memorial. Since I don’t have any user data (like how you logged in, your AIM screen name or OpenID), I can’t confirm that the person trying to claim the stories is the original author. AOL won’t budge on giving me the database, and I’m tired of asking. As for how the original ficlets will be included in ficly, I don’t know yet. I’m hoping to at least let people use them as inspiration, but I’m not sure how that will work.\
If someone wants to get the stories and do something else with them, I’d be happy to share the data. I’m planning on creating several sharable versions of the data at some point, but I just don’t have the time right now. The best I can do is a MySQL dump (which won’t help any “normal” people). I’ve never tried creating PDF’s in Rails, so I’ll probably play with generating those from the stories (mostly because I’m curious how many pages The Big Book of Ficlets would be), but that will have to wait.

Ficly: Live After Ficlets

Like a phoenix from the ashes, something new is in the process of being born. I give you ficly. It’s not much now, but we’re working on it in our spare time. Jason (he was the driving force that brought everything together) has been pushing things forward while my job’s been crazy and while I recover from my epic sinus infection. He got the awesome folks at Viget Labs to help us out with the visual design, which you can get a taste of on the landing page. Right now, all you can do is sign up to be notified when we launch… and that’s about it. But, we’re slowly making progress and I hope to have something for real up in the next couple months (maybe by ficlets’ 2nd birthday at the beginning of March).\
Why do this when I have a full-time job (a more than full-time job, really)? I need a hobby, and I feel a responsibility to the ficlets community. If AOL’s going to abandon them, I’m not. Nothing made me angrier in my last couple years at AOL than when the company shut down products without giving the communities that loved them a place to go. I never quite understood how the company could repeatedly stab their users in the back and then expect them to remain loyal to the brand. And now that it’s happening to my users, well, there’s something I can do… so I am. First, I’m working on a “memorial” to ficlets that will preserve all the stories and keep them pretty much as they are now. That’s pretty much done, I just need to clean a few things up and get it installed in production and it’ll be ready to go. I plan on launching it on the 16th, the day after ficlets shuts down.\
Ficly may take a while to get done. It’s strictly a part-time thing for all of us. But, I’m not done exploring short fiction and community. I never got to “finish” with ficlets (that’s a story I’ll also probably never tell), and there are some experiments I want to try that I’ll never get to do working with music technology (my day job).\
I hope you’ll come along for the ride. We’ve got some fun stuff planned.

Secret Fantasy Revealed!

Ever since Wil Wheaton (yes, that Wil Wheaton) blogged about being a fan of Ficlets, a site that Kevin helped create, I have been harboring a secret fantasy that someday Kevin and I would be at some geeky, computer conference-thingie and we’d run into Wil Wheaton, who would be all, “Kevin, my good man! Glad to finally meet you. Love Ficlets. We must do dinner tonight!” and then, I would GET TO HAVE DINNER WITH WIL WHEATON. How awesome would that be? []{.Batman! .sentence, .run-on .Holy}\
I met Wil Wheaton once. I was a teenager, living in Tucson. I bet you can guess how I met him. Yep, Star Trek Convention! My best friend, Elizabeth, talked me into going because there was nothing to do on a Saturday if the Wildcats weren’t playing basketball. We ran into a fellow classmate and OMG, how embarrassing was that? Wil talked for a bit and some fans gave him some Dr Pepper (I’ve always known we’d be great dinner companions!) and he told some funny stories. Then it was time for autographs and embarrassing things came out of my mouth. True story. I ended up with a signed, glossy 8×10 of The Next Generation cast though, so. After we each received our autographs (embarrassing things didn’t come out of Elizabeth’s mouth, damn it), we went left to some deserted area of the convention hall to kill time before her mom came to pick us up (that is how young we were!). A little while later, Wil ended up there so we got to chat some more. Thinking we’d wasted enough time in that section of the hall, Elizabeth and I wandered to the left and ended up seeing Wil again. As he went in to and then out of the men’s room. At this point, the conversation was a little awkward, heh. I swear we weren’t following him.\
So, yeah. That is my story. I went to one conference with Kevin, but Wil wasn’t there. I can’t say I was too bummed though BECAUSE I WAS TOO BUSY EXPLORING PARIS.\
Tell me your school-era famous crushes and/or secret fantasies, internet!

Save Your Ficlets!

I’ll have the graveyard up and running by the 15th, but if you want to save your ficlets (which I highly recommend since I’m not getting mature stories and can’t get your drafts), you should follow Chris Meadows’ great tutorial.\
And, if you want to be sure your stories are saved in the graveyard, I wouldn’t right anything after 5PM on the 14th, just in case.\
Also, if you want to get really angry at AOL, go read Wil Wheaton’s great eulogy for ficlets (yes, that Wil Wheaton). I know why AOL won’t turn it over, but I still don’t understand it. But, whatever, onwards and upwards, right?

Ficlets Est Mort

It was announced on AOL’s People Connection blog today, that ficlets will shut down for good on 1/15. I’ve known for a couple weeks that this was coming, thanks to some advance warning from friends still there. Here’s the comment I posted on that entry:

I knew this was coming, I just didn’t know the day. I tried, with the help of some great people, to get AOL to donate ficlets to a non-profit, with no luck. I asked them just to give it to me outright since I invented it and built it with the help of some spectacular developers and designers. All of this has gone nowhere.\
I’ve already written an exporter and have all the stories (the ones not marked “mature” anyway). I have pretty much all of the author bios too. Since I was smart enough to insist that AOL license all the content under Creative Commons, I’ll be launching a “ficlets graveyard” on 1/16 so at least the stories that people worked so hard one will live on.\
I have mixed feelings about ficlets’ demise. On the one hand, I’m proud of the work we did on it. I’m thankful that AOL allowed me to build it with a truly amazing group of talented folks. I’m humbled by the community that ficlets attracted and the awards that ficlets won.\
On the other hand, I’m sad that I wasn’t allowed to keep working on ficlets. I’m disappointed that AOL’s turned its back on the community, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.\
So, to all the ficleteers out there – your stories will live on, and there may be a couple more surprises in the works before 1/16 if I have my way. Be on the lookout… I’ll post any news to my blog.

I’ll do my best to keep up with the stories as they’re posted so none get lost. If your story is marked “mature”, I haven’t figured out how to crawl it yet. I also haven’t gotten stories’ tags yet, but I have gotten all the author bios and have preserved the prequels and sequels as best I can. I have a little Rails app already done to display everything, and will be providing a downloadable feed of all the stories I’ve scraped so anyone’s free to re-purpose the stories for their own mashups.\
I still have a lot to say about AOL that I’ve been ignoring since I left back in June. I’m not sure I’ll ever write publicly how I feel about the company – because I’m not sure how I feel. On one hand, AOL gave me a career. I started there in tech support as a 20 year-old kid who had no idea what he wanted to do. I left as a 33 year-old System Architect, leaving to go run a team of developers and build really cool web apps all about music (that we’ll be launching soon). On the other… well, let’s just say there’s a lot of “other”.\
If I have my way, there will be more news in the short fiction department in the next month or so… let’s just see how things work out.\
Also, I should have known the ficlets community would do something so kickass it makes me cry… check these out: