Finding My Motivation as a Manager

Most of my career, I have been a software developer. Occasionally I have tried my hand at managing people. Up until my current job, my attempts at management have met with mixed success. There are a variety of reasons behind this and I want to share one of them. Motivation is important to my success. As a technologist, I had a good grasp on what motivated me and was able to consistently lean into it. In my past attempts at management, I didn’t make the connection that those well understood motivations for a technologist didn’t apply. Even with this understanding, I struggled.

Writing some code, I feel the most satisfaction when it neatly and clearly solves the problem at hand. Building complete software or even complete features isn’t always so cut and dried yet it often can be broken down into smaller and smaller problems, ones that often have one or a few recognizably good solutions. Solving a series of well decomposed problems is immensely gratifying. Stepping back, that accumulates nicely across a larger feature, system or domain. All the incremental wins quickly add up to an even deeper sense of accomplishment. None of this really applies to working with people.

I continued to grapple with this challenge until a couple of years ago when feeling particularly elevated after a routine one on one got me thinking. I reflected on why that was so, especially when I often felt frustrated or exhausted after one on one meetings. What I realized is that when I feel like I have actually helped someone in some way, that often leads to a sense of accomplishment. Helping doesn’t always mean solving a problem. What makes me feel good as a manager is helping someone shift some burden enough that they can see their way to a solution or improvement. You can see it in their expression, a visible relaxation that signals some sense of relief.

At the time I had this realization, I was still working mostly as a contributor. I was also coaching a handful of people and back in the role of leading a team. The one on one was in the context of that kind of leadership or as a coach. After my insight, I at first didn’t seek out this experience consistently though recognizing when it happened again helped me feel more satisfied as a coach and a leader. Later I would have the opportunity to step more fully into a management role. I didn’t immediately realize how connecting more with helping people would help with this next attempt at management. Instead I hesitated, asking what I thought was a more pressing question of myself and my mentors.

What meaningful opportunities to work hands on with the technology would I be leaving behind? I felt more confident in my motivation and engagement as they related to being a contributor.

I was learning that I could find more engagement with being a manager than I had in the past. I was realizing that I would have to lean into that connection with helping others. Thankfully, I could definitely see how doing so would connect well with an opportunity I was already excited about. As a manager I would be able to foster and support the culture of my organization more directly. I was less clear on other aspects of the job, ones I struggled with in the past, especially around bigger picture thinking and strategy.

Despite my questions, especially my reservations about possibly leaving hands on work with the technology behind, I had enough cause to believe I could do the job. I suspected that I would feel rewarded in doing it based on my critical realization and limited experience seeing it in practice. Ultimately accepted the chance to step back into full time manage, feeling vaguely more optimistic about it than I had in the past.

One area where I feel I shine, in writing code and as a leader or manager, is my organizational skills. I can quickly break down a project into a reasonable set of tasks and just as easily leap in to knock each of them down in turn. I know some people struggle to come up with goals and even more to start working on them. Not me, if I am confident about nothing else, it is about being organized and following through.

That wasn’t always the case, especially at the start of my career. I loved, and still do, the experience of flow. There was nothing like zooming in completely on the problem in front of me to the exclusion of everything else. What I didn’t do so well at was managing interruptions. This weakness held me back from realizing my strengths as an organizer. Interruptions would knock me for a loop. I would drop out of flow and become easily frustrated trying to find it again.

At first, I tried to craft my schedule and my environment to maximize the time I spent in a flow state. I gave in to my curmudgeon nature in order to generate a little hesitation before someone asked me something. I often skipped meals or stayed very late in order to continue coding. Back then, I thought it was easier to stay in flow as long as it took to complete some piece of work. I didn’t immediately realize the costs associated with my first attempts to defend my time and attention.

The problems I was tackling grew bigger as did the need to provide input to others. Staying in flow from start to finish became less realistic as my work scaled from hours and days to weeks at a time. Staying in flow wasn’t compatible either with highly collaborative tasks or delegation. I was very afraid that being interrupted or even having to take myself out of flow would cause me to forget something crucial. I often used the metaphor of juggling eggs. I felt it was apt, that all the contingent memory and information relied on being in flow and didn’t always survive having to step away and resume later.

I was the victim of my own success, excelling at shorter and simpler projects naturally led to more involved and ambitious assignments. Something had to give and minimizing my responsibilities was not an option. I had a deep think and came up with a pretty simple realization.

As you may have guessed, flow itself wasn’t the issue. My struggle with larger projects was keeping track of all the bits of a problem and its solution. Getting into and staying in flow hid this complexity or at least allowed me to dominate it through overwhelming attention and will. Flow was still important to my productivity and engagement but it wasn’t the whole picture. Originally, I believed flow simply happened, mostly through absorbing all the relevant details and applying jumping into a problem with both feet. Pondering the challenging of resuming flow on some particular project or task, I realized that I was leaning on a limited resource: my own attention and memory. I started my first experiments with journaling and task management. I quickly found that they helped me overcome this limitation.

Since then, I have consistently used some form of note taking. Keeping track of all the fiddly details some place other than my own memory made it so much easier to pause and restart my tasks as needed. Even better, I stopped skipping lunches and while I might still work late on a particular evening, it felt less compulsive. I distinctly remember a feeling of relief once I started using my notes in this way. I welcomed interruptions and the breaks that kept me feeling refreshed and energized, especially during the long stretches bigger projects required. I experimented with different task managers to complement those notes, making the most immediate requests and needs easier to find and resume.

I am currently using Taskwarrior. Taskwarrior is a very powerful and very minimal tool. I had tried to use it a number of times before. I never developed a consistent habit, owing largely to the tool’s complexity. With my recent go of it, I seem to be more successful. Reflecting on that success, I realized a couple of things, one related to what helps me find motivation and satisfaction as a leader.

Taskwarrior has robust support for projects, scheduling and tagging. Honestly, the features are a lot to fully take in, let alone figure out how to use. Using Taskwarrior well really takes some investment, there isn’t one simple approach to using it you can quickly adopt. Rather you need to map out a little bit of how you think of tasks and then figure out how to model those into the tool’s features. You’ll know you’ve accomplished this when your standard view into the tool matches closely to how you think about the work you need to do. The documentation has some suggestions yet there is a lot of room for variation and customization. One example is the support for contexts. The idea of a context is that it is a sort of preset filter, which is helpful as a concept but takes some work to get the full benefit.

For example, the usual examples of a context for work and for home seems like good uses of the feature. After using these simple contexts for a few weeks, I started to see that not all my tasks always stay within these compartments. There are often some time sensitive or priority tasks I worry about forgetting if I focus to closely on the context of work. The naive approach is to have a project for work and either one for home or recognize that no project is a default for home. Contexts, though, can literally be anything. You can create one that has all your work tasks plus time or priority critical tasks from outside of however you model work.

My breakthrough on how best to use contexts put me on a path to solving another problem I hadn’t figured out previously: how best to use my phone along with my other devices. The Android app for Taskwarrior is a very, very thin graphical view wrapped around the powerful command line tool. It is less obvious how you craft contexts, reports and tweak the apps configuration on a phone. Thankfully, in overhauling my configs for my laptop and desktop, I realized after a little digging that I could copy and paste my contexts to my phone. More importantly, this encouraged me to create a mobile context.

Just as the examples for work and home were way too simple and required some thinking, so did a mobile context. The common examples, based on a tag like “errand” weren’t enough for me. I thought about why I might only have my phone on me and what I would want to see out of my entire set of tasks. The “errand” tag was part of it but I had to combine that with a few others like tags for “convo” or “meeting”. The “convo” tag for me means I may complete that task by having a hallway conversation, usually an easily answered question or small piece of information to share.

I gradually added a few other tags based on how I was modeling my thought process on tasks, productivity, especially how they intersect with settings and different kinds of interactions. Seeing how a good set of tags helped with a mobile context, I was inspired to choose a few more for other contexts. I have tags for different media, for example if the details for some task are in an email, I use the “email” tag along with a to do folder in my email client. And so it goes for the tags, “slack”, “calendar”, etc.

Taskwarrior has another feature that I found deceptively hard to use well, the field for a project to which a task might belong. The examples are again the usual, less than helpful ones, like a literally project, either hobby or work related. Creating a project of “work” for instance, doesn’t help me. I have a lot of different areas I focus on within the broader context of work. How I might tackle each of these tasks can vary a good deal. Lumping them all into one project didn’t seem to fit how I actually organized myself to do the work. I do have a tag for “work”, a way of loosely grouping these tasks together as belonging to my day to day professional pursuits. I do have some specific projects at work that I also model as projects in my list, which combine well with the “work” tag to help me organize them more specifically.

Inspired by some of the tags I mentioned, and in particular how they really helped me think about how I access and prioritize tasks, I had one other insight that relates directly back to how helping specific people yields the most satisfaction for me as a manager. I thought it could be interesting to use the project field for people rather than an actual project.

I don’t think people are projects, literally. In my mind, I read a task with a project assigned to a person more as an immediate reminder of who I am helping when I tackle that task. This approach may seem like a small thing. Yet many small things can accumulate to something impactful. Having a constant reminder of who I am helping taps into my core motivation. Honestly, using Taskwarrior itself does as well: I am still a technologist at heart, a deeply technical tool is fun for me to learn and use. That fun is another small thing that encourages me to keep using and evolving my use of my chosen productivity tool.

If you find yourself tackling a responsibilities of leadership or management, for the first time or the nth time, I suggest reflecting a bit on motivation. Broaden how you usually consider the question to include all of your lived experience–surroundings, people, whatever. I would be willing to guess that in doing so, you will likely find surprising, new sources of motivation and engagement that will help you be more successful at all the things these kinds of roles require.

Correction: Minor technology podcaster

The morning after each podcast release, I give the episode listen for quality and correctness. During my drive this morning, I cringed as I heard myself say, “minority technology podcaster” when talking about how I think of myself with regards to a broader point in the episode.

I immediately realized that I very badly misspoke: what I should have said was “minor technology podcaster” or better yet “D-list technology podcaster.”

I have a very transparent online presence and it is easy to see that I am in no way a minority, quite the opposite. Not everyone has a reason or opportunity to check me in this way, hence the correction.

I do not want to mis-represent myself as that is at best wrong and at worst harmful. I will include a comment in the next episode, as well. The context of the remark was hopefully not problematic. I think it is worth being abundantly clear and honest when making mistakes like this. Misspeaking is a risk of doing an extemporaneous episodes, I hope my misstatement does no harm and that I can chalk it up to a learning experience.


A bit over ten months ago I said I needed to take a break. That was a year after I left my job at a think tank. I left that job due to burnout. After a year, I was still feeling burned out, specifically on technology and policy. The very subjects at the heart of this project. Writing and speaking about these subjects is demanding. It is rewarding, too, or I would not have spent a decade on them. But demanding, oh so demanding. Which is why I started The Command Line in the first place, to give myself the opportunity to dig into these topics far more deeply than I had been doing up to that point.

Working at a think tank at first seemed like a dream job. Ever have that feeling? How long did it last? Outside of an astonishing few, the answer is probably some variant of not long enough. I want to say that I learned a lot during my time there. The truth is closer to something like I learned a lot more after I left.

Here is the thing about technology, society and public policy; they are everywhere. Take a dream job and you may lose sight of that. Technologists make choices affected by and affecting policy every hour of the day in every circumstance where software is written, from free/libre/open source to internal corporate systems. As a member of modern society, everything we do is ever more mediated by some form of technology. The topics I hold dear still matter, as of course they would, despite the time I needed to take for myself. I still have so much to learn and to share.

I am in a better place than I was when I wrote about taking a break. I am in a far better place than when I left my think tank job. A lot of what I learned in the past two years has to do with being a better person, in a family, at a job, and hopefully in the world. Most of that time has been focused on the first and then the second. Technology continues to play trickster with this world. I think I am finally ready to return to my desk and my mic, to add my modest contribution to understanding how technology continues to unfold throughout our lives.

What does that mean for this site and the podcast?

To be honest, I am still figuring that out. I have been feeling for a while that I am ready to start things back up. By a while, I mean something like a bit over a month. The trick to starting, or re-starting, a thing is of course to simply do it. I had no grand plan when I started this venture over ten years ago. What was good enough then surely is good enough now. I do have a few specific topics for shows or essays. I am trying to finding a new research and writing rhythm that feels right. I am fortunate to have some long, long time supporters who never left and are happy to see things moving again.

Stay tuned. Or better yet, find me online, let me know what you’d like me to focus on, what questions matter to you. I am still all over the social networks and findable on many other tools, old (like irc, specifically #cmdln on Freenode) and new (like

And, don’t forget–Hack your world.

Taking a Break

The time has passed to admit that I am burned out on reading and writing about technology and technology policy.

A few weeks ago, I pruned out some of the noisiest feeds in my news reader, especially Hacker News. This week, I found myself muting or unfollowing accounts on Twitter sharing thoughts and stories on these topics. Increasingly my reading, writing and enthusiasm has shifted away.

My podcast has been very hit or miss since about two years ago. Around that time I went went through some heavy stuff. At first I struggled tried to keep up with the writing and recording, though less regularly. I wrote or spoke more to help me in processing what I was experiencing than for any other reason. More recently I have been learning how better to cope and have been finding more spare time, to once again focus on other things. I tried to use that time and attention to keep the podcast going but that met with mixed results. My most recent podcast episode is now several months old.

I started the podcast out of a desire to better understand the various themes I addressed–technology news, technology policy, the practice and profession of programming. The more I read, wrote and talked about these subjects, the more interested I became. I still care about these subjects, just perhaps not to the same depth as I once did. I am not sure a podcast or a blog are the most valuable tools for exploring them right now.

Writing a story, as an essay or a podcast episode, takes a high activation energy and enough enthusiasm to see it through to a relatively finished product. At least for me, that is how it works. My recent track record shows I haven’t found the energy or the will to invest in these outlets. The pruning of my various feeds tells me that I don’t even want to spend as much attention on these subjects right now.

For the foreseeable future, I won’t be updating here regularly. After more than a decade podcasting here and even longer blogging, I think it is time for a long pause. Maybe it will be indefinite, I honestly don’t know yet. I may come back to these projects, I may even post the occasional essay or thought from time to time. It is nice to have a place to do so. I kind of want to keep the door open, for now, but want to be clear that my attention and energies will be invested elsewhere.

Will I still be around the social media sphere? Of course. At this point online sharing in the ways I have been doing is as natural, and in some ways as essential, as breathing. Many of you already know I have had another project going on, Of a Peculiar Character. You can still expect to see my short, weekly off the cuff podcast episodes as part of that site. I am considering what it would mean and take for me to increase my writing volume there too.

I am still reachable through all the means listed on this site. For now you will more likely find me talking about my other passions and focusing on other projects.

A Different Ethos

I attended my first JavaScript conference last year, in May. Over all the experience was great. The talks were interesting, the venue was amazing, the programming was incredible well done, and there was plenty of time to meet and chat with other developers. One moment very early on stands out in my memory, though.

After the opening keynote, I settled in to listen to my first talk. I tweeted about how I felt the speaker was inexpert and hoped their talk would improve with practice. One of the organizers immediately responded, to point out how difficult it can be even for an experienced speaker. They asked that everyone be supportive of the courage it took to give a talk. I back pedaled, emphasizing that I wasn’t trying to be mean spirited. I was defensive, explaining I sincerely believed the speaker would get better with more practice. I was uncomfortable with acting without thought even if I could rationalize my intent. That dissonance was the first I felt when interacting with the current, larger community of JavaScript programmers.

To resolve that dissonance, I could have withdrawn, stuck to my meager rationalization. Mostly informed by some even earlier professional lessons about the value of empathy, I decided to take more care the rest of the weekend. I tried to pay attention to my intentions first then observe my actions closely to be sure they represented those intentions as well as I could manage. That conference experience was the first of many encounters with this community that have taught me some valuable lessons over this past year. Together they seemed to reveal a different sort of ethos from the development communities I came up in. Not everyone in my generation is a fan. You’ll hear or read criticism of tone policing. Often the idea of meritocracy gets brought up, as if some vague notion of inherent merit absolves a person of being aware of how their words and actions affect others.

When I was younger, I was angry. A lot. Angry and if I am honest with myself, entitled. Because I had taught myself everything I knew. I built some considerable software projects with that knowledge. I guess I felt I was owed something, something more than the pay for doing that work. Meritocracy? In my experience I increasingly believe that is just another label for that sense of entitlement.

That realization took some time. I used to think merit was the same thing as hard work. It really isn’t, hard work is hard work. Merit is entirely subjective and judgmental. That may be fine when considering situations where some qualitative basis for additional recognition might be required in a field of people working hard already. The vagueness of merit is a problem where it used to control entry into that field, suggesting that such gatekeeping is done on some objective, rational basis when it really is not.

A younger version of myself would not have agreed. At one time, I would have thought this was just arguing semantics. Clearer merit is an empirical measure. Any attempt to say otherwise is just sour grapes over not passing muster. Worse it is an attempt to dilute the term and how it is put into practice. With the benefit of experience, I realized a few things. First that I am not trying to persuade any one of anything. This distinction is about my own understanding and hence how it informs my own choices and actions. Second is that being clear eyed about what requires analytical reasoning versus emotional intelligence is very important to those choices and their effects on those around me.

I listened to a talk about non-violent communication that really crystallized this for me. This is a way of listening that tries to respect feelings without evaluation or judgment. It is a way of talking based on sharing observations and making active requests based on our own needs. I have been meaning to learn more but the idea that a tool like this can be effective while just being inwardly focused is powerful. It resonates with other things I have learned recently, about how we really cannot truly control anything that happens in our life, at most we can control our reactions. It may sound passive, like abdicating the driver’s seat. Really it is an acknowledgement that the wheels, levers and buttons we can reach from that seat really don’t amount to much. For our mental health and that of those we care about, far better to find ways to be calm, to be happy, and try to really understand the world around us as it is rather than how we would wish it to be.

I continue to learn from this community, mostly through talks by prominent members and interviews on podcasts. The core ethos isn’t always the actual subject but what impresses me is that it almost always seems to be present in some way. I feel pretty fortunate to have stumbled into these opportunities to learn about something so ephemeral yet so critical, especially this late in my career. I am inspired to think very careful about the spaces I have a hand in creating, big and small, and all the things I have read over the years about how to instill and nourish the best sorts of ethos in them.

Hack My World

IMG_20150207_124932(I first shared this essay in a recent podcast.)

An online acquaintance, Reg, made my day a while back by posting this tweet:

Introducing a new friend to technology and encouraged him to .
h/t (srsly, just hearing him say that makes me smile)

I was glad to see that I am still having a positive impact. When I started to think about it some more, though, I wondered just how much lately I had been living up to my saying. Especially when it comes to this site and podcast, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job. Up until recently, for the better part of a year, posts and episodes had been few and far between.

Sure, there are reasons for that. I have written a few posts discussing them. Despite those reasons I had intentionally been keeping at my pastimes even if it didn’t show. I kept going to my guitar lessons every Sunday and practicing almost every day. I tried to keep writing although with less success. I started baking and re-dedicated myself to brewing. I undertook an experiment in podcasting that worked out so well, it has helped me re-invigorate the show I have been making for over a decade.

I didn’t think about it that way at the time, but the deliberate choice to make myself pursue my hobbies was a hack. I worried that in the face of stress, I would shut down. I didn’t want my world to be solely defined by my difficulties and my struggle to cope. Several other intentional choices or practices snapped into the same focus. I was delighted to realize I could be living up to one of my ideals even though I had not been giving myself the conscious credit for doing so.

My choice felt hacky in another way. Not all hacks are elegant even if they are effective. Early on I am not sure I really enjoyed or held much enthusiasm for my pastimes. Forcing myself to work at my various hobbies helped on one level. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had things to talk about with co-workers, acquaintances and friends that were about something other than my family’s travails. But joy? Until lately, not really.

The silver lining of a bad hack is it contains the seed of the next hack, the dissatisfaction that prompts a re-think and overhaul that hopefully leads to something better to take its place. Only in the last few weeks have I realized how bad this hack was, namely how the lack of joy was affecting me. It sapped my desire to work on anything truly creative or hard, like writing. As much as I felt like I was coping I didn’t feel like I was really getting all that much better at truly getting above the stresses in my life.

There was one exception to my pursuits feeling rote or forced, brewing. It almost didn’t end up being a cause for joy. My friendship with my long time brewing partner ended last year. That could have been cause to give up, to close that chapter of my life and move on. I wasn’t brewing as often as I had even two years earlier. The bottling dates on the beers in my cellar showed the time between each brew getting farther apart. That bothered me, not having home brew on hand as often as I wanted to share or enjoy it. I already had the motivation to start brewing more frequently. I just needed to figure out how to do that on my own, with or without the assistance of anyone else.

At the end of last year with this thought in mind I researched upgrades to my equipment and my process. Before, I needed at least one willing volunteer to help me complete a batch. I still planned to invite friends to the new brew days. Whether anyone showed up or not, I wanted to be able to make a beer. I saw the invitations as an opportunity both to re-connect with old friends and to nourish sustaining friendships. I changed those parts of the process that used to rely on help from other people to use new equipment instead. I added two additional vessels to my rig so I would not be as rushed preparing pots for each step. Instead of lifting gallons of boiling and near boiling liquid, I now use a pump to get the beer where I need it at each stage. Now I can keep the process going on my own. I can teach and share my craft if that’s what my friends wanted, or just be social. More than anything else, including friends always has been more of a social benefit for me.

Finding the motivation to podcast again was much harder. I enjoy making a podcast but I enjoy it very differently than the way I enjoy brewing and the end result of making a beer. Both require similar amounts of effort, at least mentally. The reward I get from a podcast is more abstract. Sipping on a fresh beer is both its own immediate reward and encouragement for me to start working on the next beer. A new podcast episode doesn’t provide me with the same feedback loop. Finding the motivation for the next episode isn’t any easier for having completed the last episode.

About six months back, several old friends resuscitated their podcasts. I was inspired by hearing their voices again, especially their stories about why they returned. I had already freed myself of the obligation of a regular schedule. I recorded spontaneous episodes for this podcast when I had a topic in mind, either as a fully written out essay or just an idea I wanted to talk about off the cuff. Those decisions did not result in me producing more episodes. The longer format still felt like a burden even though I still feel it is best suited for the topics I pursue here. I didn’t want to try yet another change, a shorter format, only to have that fail. I was not, am not, done with this site or this podcast but needed a way to experiment more freely to figure out what I wanted or needed to do next.

I used to have another, more free form podcast. That ended over a year ago but I didn’t feel like I was done with the topics I had started to explore there, mostly centered around travel, food, and drink. I realized I had an opportunity to create something new. I took the things that inspired me from my friends’ shows and combined them with the things I thought I could manage in a new project. I didn’t want to saddle myself with a lot of writing and preparation. A much shorter format, five minutes, felt like a better choice for speaking about some topic on the fly. Keeping a list of topics and just working through each in turn was about all the planning I wanted to do. I used the new show to try to simplify the recording, editing and production process too so that I had less reason not to get a show out.

So far, the Audio Diary of a Peculiar Character has been an outstanding success. I have not missed a week in six months. If anything, keeping myself to only five minutes has been the only challenge. It would be very easy for me to allow the core segment to creep up by a minute, then another, until shows reached ten and twenty minutes. I have had some more involved stories to tell. To keep them to the strictly self enforced limit, I did some planning, breaking them into a series of back to back episodes. On any given weekend, I sit down to record one or two new segments. When I am ready to post an episode, everything is pretty much cut and paste. I routinely, though not always, have a queue of two or three shows ready to go. Having a safety net, more than anything, has reduced the amount of stress I feel about producing a new weekly show.

About two months ago, I finally decided to put what I had learned on the new show into practice to help bring back a more regular schedule for The Command Line. I re-recorded and edited a lot of the canned bits to make them easier to just drop in with a single, freshly recorded segment at the core of each episode. I had been meaning to do this for a long time but the practice with the new show finally removed my last excuse. The only remaining challenge was the content. I wasn’t getting any better at writing on a regular basis for the shows that featured an essay. Then it occurred to me that the way I read my tech news every day might be similar enough to the rolling list of topics in the new show that it would be worth bringing back the news shows.

The Command Line has been and continues to be about how I keep learning about the world of tech. The news shows were always a large part of that but I used to think they were too labor intensive. I used to prepare them by writing out as much if not more notes than a typical essay. In retrospect, it is no wonder they were feeling like more of a drag than they were worth. Even though I stopped writing up such detailed thoughts on what I was reading, I was still reading. I was still sharing those stories, straight out of my feed reader.

Quite some time ago I switched readers, to tiny tiny rss. Since the switch, I have continued to refine and simplify how I use this tool to keep my daily reading manageable. Instead of compiling daily and weekly link dumps on my blog like I used to do I can now just link to a feed of stories I re-publish out of my reader. Unlike Google’s now defunct Reader, tt-rss has lots of capabilities designed for sharing stories. I can annotate stories with my thoughts as part of that. I like shifting the sharing down to the individual story rather than compilations. Social sharing feels more natural at this scale. The comment I add into the feed works well as a comment when I share to Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

What my current reading habits boil down to is that I have a list of the stories I’ve read, felt were worth sharing, and a quick comment to point out what I found interesting. This list is perfect for a re-vitalized news cast. I can just talk through each story in turn until I am either done with them or hit the twenty minute mark. I don’t have to do a lot of preparation in advance, I already did as much as I need on a daily basis throughout the week. So far, I think this is working well. The feedback on this new approach has been very positive.

Even though I have brought the podcast back to life with a refresh on the news format, I am still working on my writing. I don’t have any hard won lessons to share on that, at least not yet. This essay, alone, has taken me weeks and weeks to draft. I struggle with what I think is probably the simplest, best advice I’ve heard–just write. If it were that easy in practice, everyone would be writing constantly. I am still thinking about what I can learn from the other hacks I’ve discussed here. For me, tooling and work flow matter. Having a process set up about which I get a little excited helps tip the scales towards doing rather than not doing.

Despite how long it took me to get from starting this essay to sharing it with you, I do feel like I continue to make progress. Much of how I currently go about my professional life and my passions is just the latest in an ongoing series of hacks. Not everything I come up with is so interesting or involved that I feel it is worth sharing. Some days I come up with tweaks, changes and tricks too small and numerous to relate. On a good day, I can’t help but smile about the latest way, big or small, I’ve found to keep hacking my world. Feeding that joy is the most important hack of all for me.

Returning to Dragon*Con

1317311846_13979d614b_bI remember my first Dragon*Con. It was 2006 and I hadn’t been to a science fiction convention since college, about a decade prior. I had been podcasting just a little over a year but still felt like more of a listener than a contributor. Many of the people I listened to mentioned Dragon*Con in their shows, especially the just formed podcasting track. I decided to go both to try out science fiction conventions again and learn more about how to podcast. In one of the panels I attended, when one of the panelists asked who was podcasting or wanted to, I remember standing, face flushed.  When the mic came to me, I made some self deprecating joke about being a technology podcasting cockroach. You know, being among the first and odds among the last to podcast too.

A lot of the panels were self reflective. More than once speakers and panelists recounted the creation of the new track. The year prior, the EFF program track had a bunch of podcast panels with some of the earliest podcasters. Since then, several authors interested in the new medium, chief among them Tracy Hickman, lobbied hard for a dedicated track. The track continues to this day. Many other conventions have added comparable tracks. As part of a science fiction convention, this area of programming supports independent creators and fans using the medium to foster their passions and connections with their audiences.

The following year, I volunteered to help with the podcasting track. I did so again for three more years, up until the last Dragon*Con I attended. That same span of time saw me become way more involved with podcast programming at cons closer to home. I was invited to speak or participate at RavenCon, Farpoint, and Balticon. I even was invited out to what still stands as one of my favorite conventions, Penguicon. Penguicon is a little more comfortable for me since it is a blend of a science fiction convention and a Linux fest.

This was the heyday of my podcast. I won an award in 2007, also at Dragon*Con. I was nominated and made it to finalist for another award three years later. I did a lot of public speaking, mostly on copyright and the technical side of podcasting. I had the means to travel quite a bit so my con season, which spanned from late Spring to early Fall, usually included about a half dozen conventions or conferences. I felt hugely connected to the larger world of podcasting, hanging out with the same group of podcasting authors for the most part. I was putting out two shows a week and still learning a lot.

My last Dragon*Con was 2010. I really didn’t want to stop going. I had just changed careers, moving to a non-profit to pursue my passion for technology policy full time. The job change involved considerable financial sacrifices. Going to Dragon*Con, even with my membership covered as a veteran staffer, was just more than I could afford. I continued to go to Balticon but attended fewer and fewer conventions overall. My public speaking shifted to align more strongly with my job, speaking both on behalf of my passions and my employer.

I traveled a lot in 2011, as several social media nostalgia services have started to remind me. About this time four years ago, I traveled to Europe for the first time, for a gathering of international makers in Budapest. I returned to Europe once every month to month and a half, for the span of about a year. It was pretty incredible. One of the last trips I took to Europe, I was able to bring Andrea along with me for a few extra days of just vacation. Someday I hope to go back again. Paris, London, Brussels, Budapest–I loved them all.

In 2012 I took a promotion. I wrote last year about how that led me to traveling and speaking far less. By 2014, even though I had the means to go back to Dragon*Con, I was burned out. The advice about not making your passion your job has some merit. Since this time last year, I have struggled to find the motivation to keep podcasting. I had already ramped the show down from twice a week to once a week. Last year I admitted the show would come out when it came out, no longer on a regular schedule.

About a year ago, tragedy struck my family. I only recently wrote about this openly, or as openly as I am comfortable. Until recently, this has pushed thoughts of traveling for fun, let alone attending a convention, far out of mind. I did not attend Balticon for the first time in almost a decade.

Lately, things have felt better. The mental health issues that have touched my family have not gone away. They never will. We have been getting a lot of help. I have changed, I like to think, for the better. I have learned a lot, about myself, my family, and how to do a better job of being there for the people who need me most. I still worry since the mental illness involved is often terminal but I don’t feel crippled by fear and anxiety. The certainty to plan travel months ahead may be long gone but we are learning to just take each day at a time. Letting go of expectations, we are more and more open to opportunity and serendipity. Maybe some plans will get disrupted but that doesn’t make those plans impossible.

A few weeks back, we acted on the steady improvement as a family by booking a rental on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We found a really great house that fit in our budget, mostly by booking an off weekend. Better yet, the property allows pets. It is on fifteen acres or so and is right on the water. We were fairly certain we’d have a new puppy in our family by the time of the trip. We had no idea the pup would have such a strong affinity for water. He splashes all the water out of his bowl all the time. We have caught him more than once blowing bubbles. He is going to love the shore.

Just a couple of days ago, a friend mentioned they were going solo to Dragon*con this year. That meant having a room with two beds with just the one occupant and, as an invited speaker, an unused “guest of” badge. The offer of the space and the badge was made to a very small set of my close knit friends. I hemmed and hawed. Surely one of my other friends would take up the offer. We had just exhausted our travel funds on our upcoming family vacation. Could I go on my own, in good conscience? Could we afford for Andrea and I both to go, with the house, pet and child care logistics, not to mention the doubling of air fare?

One by one, each of these objections was resolved. None of my other friends could make use of the offer. Andrea gave me the nod to go on my own if I wanted (have I mentioned lately that I have the best life long partner ever?) I found a flight that I could just about cover from money I had been putting aside. My next tattoo can wait. My flight leaves late enough in the day that I can metro down after work. I won’t even have to use any additional time off from work.

Life may still interrupt this bit of good fortune. I am learning that has always been true, even before the events of this past year. That isn’t a reason to dampen my enthusiasm. If I need to take care of my family, I will. If things go to plan, I’ll get to spend time with dear friends, re-connect with old ones, and re-visit a community I have drifted away from in recent years. This time next week, I will be in Atlanta, surrounded by thousands of fans, in a bubble of closer acquaintances geeking out about science, podcasting, cyber-liberties, and hopefully just having an all around fantastic time.

Does this mean I will be returning to travel, cons or a more sustained connection with that community? I don’t know. Just for today, it doesn’t matter. Taking joy in this unlooked for opportunity is enough.

Strength through Vulnerability

Used under a CC-BY license thanks to Flickr user alachuacounty.

Used under a CC-BY license thanks to Flickr user alachuacounty.

I have mentioned a few times how hard the last year and a half have been, personally and professionally. From the portion of that hardship that I feel was self inflicted, I have been trying to learn, grow and improve. One lesson I have been dwelling on is how showing vulnerability may actually be a strength. I am only now starting to feel my mental well being coming back. By not finding healthy ways to reveal my vulnerability, I think I did as much to delay my recovery as anything I went through that caused me pain in the first place.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me the nickname Rule the World. They didn’t think I was some world dominating evil genius, that would come later. I don’t remember feeling or thinking this but when I must have been around six years old, they said I clearly got upset when the people around me didn’t get along. I would step in, trying to encourage compromise or discussion, to ease any conflict. I still try to be a peacemaker; that is how I often approach conflict as an adult. When I am feeling courageous, I throw myself bodily in to help resolve conflict and arrive at an agreeable compromise or at least an understanding. Often I feel anxious and avoid confrontation for fear of being unable to make peace. I am often paralyzed from the anticipation of trying, arising both from the stress of the attempt and from the fear of failing.

A little over a year ago, at my last job, I faced one of the most challenging confrontations I have ever faced. The organization was in crisis, clearly needing a change in leadership, away from its founder. The program had grown at a breakneck pace, more than doubling every year since I got there. The growth had placed a colossal strain on us all, not in the least due to the challenges in raising ever more money with each passing quarter. There was an emerging consensus among the rest of the leadership that different skills, expertise and experience were now required to lead us through these challenges. The founder wasn’t convinced that the change was needed. Once he realized the rest of us would not be dissuaded, we all pretty much immediately found ourselves on a very adversarial footing.

In the past, I avoided situations like these. I recognized my limitations, that I would feel a good deal of pain and was never certain I could ensure a good outcome. For some reason, perhaps the story I had been telling myself about how the purpose of the work was more important than any past job, I chose to stay. The first test was over a budget decision. The founder had one view of how what moneys we had secured should be spent, we had another. I prepared for the showdown with the founder along with my colleagues. We were agreed on our case, how we would press it, and we were resolute.

When the moment came, I prevaricated. After a few tense moments of rehashing the same arguments, I caved. The reasoned argument had failed to persuade the founder. I was deeply uncomfortable. I knew I made a mistake the instant I capitulated. As the senior most manager among my peers I was expected to be the most resolute. Realizing how I had let my colleagues, my friends, down, I dug deep. I found some well of courage that saw me better able to stay the course in every subsequent conflict. The whole transition didn’t get any easier. I had to set aside my desire to see everyone happy through some considered compromise. I had to push for what I knew was right, despite the tension and strain. Even harder, all of this had to be kept discrete. The staff still had work to do, they couldn’t help the situation one way or another. Battling this out openly might have jeopardized our ability to meet key funded commitments.

The organization survived the change. I like to think it was due to some measure of courage and leadership I exercised. While mostly everyone else ended up in a good or better place, I lost something. I didn’t realize it at first, though perhaps I should have. Despite new leadership and closer bonds forged with my direct peers as a consequence, I flailed in that post transition period. Maybe I had been pushing so hard I was caught off balance and wheeling my arms. I was definitely burned out but I didn’t know how to cope with that. Worse, despite our efforts overall to keep each other sane and support each other through this time of hardship, I let relationships suffer. How I chose to try to cope with the stress ended up causing more lasting damage, wounds the extent of which would not become clear to me for some time, even after I left that job.

Within days of deciding to leave my job, my immediate family was touched drastically by mental illness.Two days after telling my boss about my decision, I was on a video conference from home, trying to keep my emotions in check, as I told all of my co-workers I was moving on. I tried to put the best, brightest face on for them but inside I felt like I was breaking. While I worked on my transition, I continued to keep from most of them what had happened, keeping up that facade of calm and positivity. I worried that admitting to the majority of them what I and my family were going through would result in a reaction of pity that I didn’t feel I could handle. Thinking more about the few people I did tell before I left, I think that in worrying so much about pity I closed myself off from compassion and strength as well that I certainly could have used.

I want to make clear that my family is OK, or at least as OK as we can be. We’ve gotten help and are adjusting to how we all lives our lives now, a day at a time, coping with the singular event back in September and everything that has unfolded since. I finally feel able to share this essay regardless of how readers may react. I hope that it invites serious, constructive discussion and healthy sharing.

I don’t think what I went through was unique, including my decision to share very little. In the last several years I have read more and more articles about how technology leaders and innovators have suffered with mental health issues. There are the most extreme examples with which most people are no doubt familiar, the tragedies like Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the young co-founder of Diaspora, and the loss of the incredible activist, Aaron Swartz. Those are staggering losses and as a silver lining have encouraged some discussion along with the grief. I have stories shared by technologists like myself, just working in the trenches, that are not sensational or centered on known characters, just some people choosing to open up. These stories generally share a theme of struggle on two fronts, with mental health itself and with the stigma it bears. You would think that a space like technology that is generally more accepting of peculiar characters would be more receptive to mature discussion of these matters. Maybe it is but only by a matter of a few degrees compared to the mainstream. More optimistically, because more and more people have started sharing, even if only a handful at a time, mature and thoughtful discussion seems to be expanding and accelerating.

I agree with people like Mitch Altman who have been trying to raise consciousness and to circulate a call to action, to have even more open dialogue about depression, mental health, and the risk of suicide. I wanted to talk about this subject sooner, to add something constructive and positive. The time never seemed right, I didn’t feel like until now I had something to add, to help. I didn’t think I would experience these things first hand. I suppose no one ever does until they do.

I wish I could say that my recent experiences have granted me some kernel of wisdom to share. I don’t think life works like that. My family is still learning to cope, I am still learning a lot about myself, my loved ones, and where we have found ourselves. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of positives I can share. As a society, we still stigmatize mental illness. I wish this was just exhibited through social norms. I’ve found that it has led consistently to differences in the kinds of resources available to families affected by mental illness as compared with more socially accepted yet profoundly similar conditions like cancer, diabetes, or just about any other lifelong, chronic physical ailment. We are incredibly lucky that I earn enough for comprehensive health benefits and an income that puts us squarely in the upper end of middle class for our area. Despite that privilege, we are still scraping by in terms of covering out-of-network fees and finding enough professional help, whether our insurance covers it all or not. I can only imagine what those less fortunate must be going through when struggling with any form of chronic mental illness.

The one ray of hope I can try to offer is this, conversations that run something like this:

Them: “You seem really stressed. Is everything all right?”

Me: “…No but I don’t know how to tell you so I’ll just say it.” Followed by a disclosure of more particulars than I am comfortable sharing here.

Them: “I am so sorry. You know, my uncle/sister/cousin/loved one went through something very similar. I understand and if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.”

When I have chosen to share the specifics of our situation, I have been surprised at how understanding and supportive people are. The upside of what may well be epidemic numbers of sufferers of mental illness is that most people I talk to already have a frame of reference. They have some direct experience, either their own or of a loved one, that informs compassion and empathy.

The trick seems to be exercising sufficient intuition to understand when and how to be vulnerable. The attempt can often be seen as self pitying. There are days where my own exhaustion no doubt makes that worse. Talking one-on-one has helped me make clear that I am sharing from a place of trust, matter of factly, not to elicit any specific reaction but to explain what I have been going through, why I may seem preoccupied or stressed at times. The strength I have received through unlooked for compassion and support has surprised me a great deal. I expected shock, a lack of understanding, silence but humans are resilient. I have to believe that we are also inherently compassionate, leading us to find common experience or sentiment that bolsters empathy, reinforcing common bonds.

I am convinced that we who work in and with technology need to find appropriate and constructive ways to be more vulnerable as a community. There are many things that may be inhibiting honest sharing and candid discussion. I struggle out of worry that talking about my own experiences will be seen as only seeking pity. It is worse on the bad days but I think I have to try, in order to learn how to use intuition and discretion to share without oversharing, to make clear that while I want support and compassion, I am also doing my best to keep from wallowing in pity. I think part of the key is to go beyond intent, to think as much about how we share personal struggles as why. Keeping humility in mind, trying to figure out what is appropriate and responsible, and doing my best to establish a concrete context helps invite the best kinds of responses that both increase general understanding as well as helping me move forward and genuinely feel at least some small measure better for the sharing.

It is clear to me that a lot of people are suffering. Fear of open discussion isn’t helping, worse I think it is unjustified and irrational. We need to take care that we open up in healthy and appropriate ways, but when we do, I am optimistic we’ll have a lot to share and discuss. I am convinced a mature dialogue can do more good than harm. I think the drastic stakes warrant risking some discomfort as we feel our way forward. Sharing our burdens will make them feel lighter. We can stem the tide of tragedy, at least encouraging those who choose to suffer in silence to let those around them know how they are hurting. I believe when they do, the response will broadly be one of compassion.

Hiccup with My Mixer under Linux

My MixerA problem being mysteriously fixed through no clear action of my own bugs me. A problem this weekend with my mixer is just such a case. After upgrading to the latest version of my operating system, a flavor of Linux that I prefer called Kubuntu, I could not get the software driver I had been using with my mixer working. I could get close but not to the point where my audio workstation would see my mixer. Of course I discovered this right when I sat down to record. Last night, last thing, when there wasn’t time or will left for extensive research and troubleshooting left in the weekend. When else would I discover a problem resulting from upgrading my OS? Not when it would be more convenient to investigate and fix.

The break bugged me so much, especially losing an opportunity to record when I had the will to do so, that I spent some time this morning before work to see if I could get things working again. I installed the latest version of my audio workstation, Ardour 4, because I had been meaning to, anyway. Through some experimentation, I stumbled upon the fact that letting Ardour directly drive my mixer, rather than using an external software controller worked. Doing so only worked using an option I didn’t think had a chance in hell, just using the basic audio stack that comes with Linux.

I was simultaneously relieved to have my mixer back but vexed as to why something that previously did not work, suddenly did. I dislike mysterious fixes almost as much as random breakages. If I don’t understand why something suddenly starts working, I feel helpless to deal with any subsequent breakage. This situation is usually a recipe for cascading frustration.

I did a bit more searching, just now, and I think I found the explanation.

Very current versions of the Linux kernel will support most of the same devices that FFADO can support, directly via the normal ALSA audio device driver layer.

That is from Ardour’s own documentation, specifically on its requirements. FFADO is the separate driver I used to use for my mixer since it is a Firewire mixer, an increasingly less common way to connect peripherals to a computer but one still very well suited to the demands of audio. ALSA is basically the core sound handling component of Linux. As a consequence of my operating system upgrade, I indeed do have a very new kernel.

Mystery solved. Of course, I have only done several seconds worth of testing. In past versions of ALSA, it hasn’t done well with the demands of high quality audio, such as working with a prosumer mixer. It is entirely likely there are frustrations still yet ahead but at least they won’t be entirely mysterious. And I will hopefully get some new recording in soon, regardless.

JSConf US 2015 and Future Conferences

In a couple of weeks, I will be heading to JSConf US 2015. I was going to talk about this, I will still talk about this more, in my next podcast. Given the quickly dwindling time remaining before the conference comes up, I wanted to share a quick heads up. Any reader or listener who will also be there, please feel free to shoot me a quick note if you’d like to meet.

I have one other possible work related conference, AWS re:Invent, that I have tentatively agreed to attend later this year, in October. Again, if you are going to be there and want to hang out, let me know.

I am enjoying being at a gig that is well resourced. While I got to travel at times for my last job, it was feast or famine. Either I was traveling a lot, too much really, or not at all. Now I have some discretion. If you know of any conferences you think I might be interested in, let me know about those too. I can always ask and I think within reason can expect to go to some of the more interesting and relevant tech conferences for the foreseeable future.

So you know, and I’ll unpack these more in a future podcast and/or essay, the technologies I am currently using, learning or interested in include React/Reflux, Node, Scala, microservices, reactive/concurrent programming, Docker, continuous delivery, and automated testing. I can probably make a case for less tech specific but still work relevant conferences like ones that bear strongly on agile as I am currently a scrum master for my day job. Anything else, while it may be of interest to me, I’ll have to foot on my own dime.