Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.

NoSQL

When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.

Android

Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

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Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at hackingwork.com.

Hero worship

Which type of person do you prefer to work with, someone who thrashes early and gets things quietly done, or someone who swoops in at the end for some last minute heroics?

Which type of person receives the most attention in your organization? Are you more likely to hear, “John was squared away and relaxed when it was time to ship” or “Did you see that incredible last push John made, working all night so he could meet ship date?”

Which type are you?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you see some people cramming like crazy, and others sitting back apparently doing nothing, take a moment to think about which ones you’d prefer to have work with you to ship your product.

Goodbye to the weekend?

I saw a quote on a discussion board recently in a conversation about telecommuting and taking care of personal business during work time: If they want me to answer my email at night and on the weekends, they shouldn’t have a problem with me making personal calls or email during the day.

One of the recurring themes in Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin, is the idea that the way to succeed in the future is to move away from factory work – of all kinds, either physical or intellectual. In the blog post Goodbye to the Office, he makes explicit his point that the modern office is just a different type of factory. And that if you are doing your work outside the office even a little, why do even need the office in the first place?

Which got me thinking: Is there a future for the weekend? If not, is that a bad thing? A good thing? Just “a thing”?

The modern weekend, of course, is as it is based on a century of factory work, office work, and public education. The same can be said for winter break, spring break, and summer vacation. People want (need? demand?) time to get away from the grind, and expect their work life and their life work be kept separate.

But if you no longer need the factory, if you no longer need the office, do you really need the weekend (or spring break or summer vacation) to get away from it all?

Busy people

“If you really need something to get done, find someone who is already busy.”

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, and even given it as advice a few times. I have accepted it as true, but haven’t given much thought to why it is true.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, the answer occurred to me: busy people are the artists, the linchpins of an organization. The ones who actually get things done and make things happen.

On the other hand you have what I would call the “occupied” people, those who perform a specific task that was given them and then wait for someone to tell them their next task. These are the factory workers, the interchangeable pieces of the infrastructure of the company. The people who simply do things.
When I look at it this way, it’s obvious why the busy person is who you turn to when you need someone.

Rude is in the eye of the beholder

Quite a while back, Scott (aka @nametagscott) tweeted the following words of wisdom: It’s not the traffic that stresses you out, it is your reaction to traffic that stresses you out. I’d like to modify that just a bit and say:

It’s not rudeness of others that stresses you out, it is your reaction to what you think is rudeness that stresses you out.

Are you a presenter who gets stressed out – or pissed off – when you see people paying more attention to their electronic gadgets than to what you are saying?  Olivia Mitchell provides some insight to this in her article How to Handle a Texting Audience with an answer to the question, “Is it rude?”

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

Her advice: “If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.” It’s you, not them, that makes the difference.

As the parent of an autistic son, I’ve found myself in more than one situation where someone has become stressed about my son’s “rude” behavior. Of course, he’s not being rude, he’s just being himself. But people expect certain things from other people, and when they don’t get it they get upset.

In his new book Linchpin, Seth Godin addresses the question in a couple of short sections. In the one titled Teaching Fire a Lesson, Seth writes:

Fire is hot. That’s what it does. If you get burned by fire, you can be annoyed at yourself, but being angry at the fire doesn’t do you much good. And trying to teach the fire a lesson so it won’t be hot next time is certainly not time well spent.

Our inclination is to give fire a pass, because it’s not human. But human beings are similar, in that they’re not going to change any time soon either.

And yet, many (most?) people in organizations handle their interactions as though they are in charge of teaching people a lesson. We make policies and are vindictive and focus on the past because we worry that if we don’t, someone will get away with it.

It doesn’t do any good to get mad at fire, and it’s not any more useful to get mad at autistics, or anyone, who annoys you. As Seth writes in the section Annoyed at Intent:

If you accept that human beings are difficult to change, and embrace (rather than curse) the uniqueness that everyone brings to the table, you’ll navigate the world with more bliss and effectiveness. And make better decisions, too.

I have been as guilty of all of these things as anyone else through the years, and I’m working to improve (though I still get way too annoyed in traffic). Whenever I start to find myself getting annoyed, I take a deep breath and step back from the situation for just a moment to figure out what it is that is really bothering me.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps.

A tale of two trainers (in which one is a factory worker and the other an artist)

The following descriptions are of two personal trainers who provide training to their clients using equipment and methods based on the work of Joseph Pilates.

Trainer 1:

Received training from one school. Her approach to training:

This is the way I learned it, this is the way I’m teaching it to you. Don’t question me, don’t ask for anything. Just sit down, shut up, and do what I tell you. If you don’t get anything out of this training session, it’s not my fault; I’m following the training guide.

Trainer 2:

Actively sought training from several schools. The guidance from these different schools are often contradictory, sometimes explicitly contradictory: “That school does x, and we never ever do x.” She ignores these warnings, seeing how x from one school and y from another school can work together to provide something even better. Her approach to training:

What are you trying to achieve with this training? Is there anything you really want to do? Is their anything that you can’t do or don’t want to do? Let me know if something doesn’t feel right or is too easy/hard. How was that workout? Next week we’ll try this and see if it works better for you.

Which trainer would you rather have? Which would you go back to?