A few words can make a difference

A couple of weeks ago, the Rensselaer Polytechnic (the RPI student newspaper) published a couple of op-eds in regard to the situation at RPI.  (My friend, Greg Moore, wrote a piece a while back related to this issue.)  In response to the op-eds, I decided to respond with my own letter to the editor.

This morning, a friend posted to my Facebook that my letter, to my surprise, was garnering some attention.  I won’t say that it’s gone viral, but apparently, it’s caught a number of eyes.

I should note that my donations haven’t been much.  I was only a graduate student at Rensselaer, not an undergrad, so the social impact on my life wasn’t quite the same, and other financial obligations have kept me from donating more of my money.  That said, I’ve donated in other ways; I’ve been a hockey season ticket holder for many years (going back to my days as a student), I’ve attended various events (sports, cultural, etc.) on campus, and I’ve donated some of my time to the Institute.

Although my donations have been relatively meager, more importantly, I wanted to spread the word that I was no longer supporting RPI, and exactly why I was discontinuing my support.  How much I was contributing isn’t the issue; the issue is that I am stopping contributing.  For the first time in years, I have no intention of setting foot in the Field House for a hockey game during a season.  I wanted to make clear exactly why.  A large number of alumni have announced that they were withholding donations.  I wanted to add to that chorus.  It wasn’t so much how much I was donating; rather, I wanted to add my voice, and hopefully encourage other students and alumni to take action against an administration that I deem to be oppressive.

One of RPI’s marketing catchphrases is, “why not change the world?”  It looks like I’m doing exactly that with my letter.  Don’t underestimate the power of words.  Indeed, with just a few words, you can change the world.

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Don’t keep an idea to yourself

My friend Greg Moore recently commented on a Facebook post regarding our upcoming SQL Saturday (tomorrow!) in which he credited me for my idea about a forum about women in technology.  The idea had occurred to me when I saw that Rochester SQL Saturday was doing such a forum, and I suggested that we should do one as well.  To be honest, I’d forgotten that I’d made the suggestion until I saw Greg’s comment earlier this week.

It just goes to show that you never know where an idea might lead.  I made a simple suggestion about an idea I’d seen about a forum discussion.  Tomorrow, it’s going to become reality.

For whatever reason, it made me think about the following meme.

Image result for sharknado meme

So the moral of the story: if you have an idea, don’t keep it to yourself.  You never know where it might lead.

Always ask someone to test your product

This morning, one of my colleagues posted this message to our Slack channel:

please ask someone else to test your code before pushing it

It brought to mind an important thought (and more ‘blog article fodder): any time you produce something, regardless of what it is — a software application, documentation, a presentation, a music composition, a dish you cooked, etc. — always ask someone else to test it out before you send it out for public consumption.

That testing could take several different forms — it could be an end user trying your application, somebody reading your document, listening to your presentation or your music, trying your dish, and so on.  Testing results in feedback, which results in improvements to your product.

Whenever we produce something, we have our own vision — and our own biases — as to how the product should come out.  We expect our products to be perfect as resulting from our own visions, and we expect (and demand) that the consumers adhere to our visions and how we expect the products to be viewed or interpreted.

Unfortunately, we are blinded by our biases.  The world does not share our same visions.  People who use our products will never, ever, perfectly interpret how our products should be consumed.  More often than not, we’ll find that what we produce will be used or interpreted in ways that never occurred to us.

Even in my own workplace, I write and edit a lot of online documentation.  Much of what I write comes from other sources, often about topics about which I know little (or, sometimes, nothing).  I try to write material based on the information I have at hand.  Very often, I come across gaps that need to be filled.  I’ll do my best to ask original authors what was intended, or to dig for information to fill those gaps.  But in absence of those resources, I end up making assumptions and using my own intuition to fill in the blanks.  Those assumptions might not necessarily be correct, and what I write could end up being different from what was originally intended.  It is for this reason why I am constantly asking my colleagues, “take a look at what I wrote.  I want to make sure what I wrote is accurate.”

In a manner of speaking, creating products is a form of communication — in that what we produce results from an idea in our heads, and the end users — the consumers — are the ones “listening” to the communication — in this case, the end product.  If you are familiar with the basic communication model, a sender creates a message, a receiver interprets the message, and the receiver reacts to the message in the form of feedback.  Producing a products works in exactly the same way — a producer creates a product, a consumer uses the product, and the consumer reacts to the product, generating feedback.  In between the sender and the receiver is “noise” that degrades the message or the product (it is not literally noise — the “noise” can simply be the fact that the sender’s and receiver’s interpretation of the message are not one and the same).

So, any time you create some kind of product, always ask someone else to try it out.  You’ll find that the person’s feedback will result in tweaks to your product.  And you will end up with a better product.

Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

Don’t be afraid to screw up

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never gonna keep me down…”
— Chumbawamba

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

“It’s not how we fall.  It’s how we get back up again.”
— Patrick Ness

It’s been said that (baseball) pitchers need to have short memories.  Whenever a pitcher makes a mistake — say, gives up a home run — he needs to shake it off — forget about it and move on to the next batter.

That being said, he needs to remember it as well.  He needs to figure out what he did wrong (e.g. “okay, he likes the fastball down and away”) and remember not to make that same mistake the next time that batter comes up to hit.  In other words, he learns from his mistake.

This pretty much happens to all of us.  We’re human.  We’re not perfect.  We’re going to make mistakes.  The issue is when we become afraid of those mistakes.  We become so afraid of mistakes that it discourages us from doing things.

Let me make one thing clear.  I’m not talking about people who willfully make mistakes, don’t care, or strive for mediocrity (which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine, and one that I do not tolerate.  That’s another ‘blog post for another time).  I’m talking about people who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to do a good job or get better, and are putting in an effort to reach that goal.

As a part-time musician who holds a leadership position, this particularly troubles me when it comes to making music.  Someone doesn’t want to play something because he or she is afraid of screwing up.  Why?  Music is an area where it makes the most sense to make mistakes.  The time spent practicing or rehearsing music is when making mistakes makes the most sense.  It’s called practice for a reason.  It’s time spent to address areas that need to be improved — hence, why it’s important to make mistakes.  Mistakes tell us what needs work or what needs to be addressed.  Mistakes are why we rehearse.  We don’t — and shouldn’t — practice what we’re doing right; we need to practice what we’re doing wrong.

When it comes to music, I attribute part of it to stage fright.  People don’t want to make mistakes in front of other people.  I say, who cares?  So what if you make a mistake?  What’s going to happen?  Are people going to think less of you?  In all likelihood, probably not.  For what it’s worth, I’ve heard — and even seen — professional musicians make mistakes during concerts or live performances.  More often than not, they’ll keep going as if nothing happened.  No big deal.  It’s funny, but I lost my fear of performing (or speaking) in front of groups a long time ago.  I attribute it to realizing that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world.

The same holds true on the job.  Many of us are afraid to make mistakes at work.  Why?  Are we going to get fired?  Unless the mistake is either (1) very large, or (2) numerous, it’s unlikely.  How many of you have had bad days at work?  It happens sometimes.  How many of you have lost your job because of them?  I suspect, not many.

The thing is, we always want to be better at something.  Getting better means getting out of our comfort zone.  When that happens, we’re going to make mistakes.  I’ve often said that “perfection as a goal is okay.  Perfection as a standard is not.”  We’re not built for perfection.  That’s what being human is all about.  Someone once said that “one of the worst quotes ever coined is ‘get it right the first time.’  It’s stupid, because almost nobody ever gets it right the first time.”

Well, someone might say, “what about a profession where you can’t afford to make mistakes, where making a mistake can cost lives, such as doctors and airline pilots?”

For this, I point out a couple of things.  First, there’s a reason why jobs like that require extensive training and practice.  Pilots practice in simulators.  Doctors practice on cadavers and dummies.  In both cases (and probably others as well), students are closely supervised.  These days, virtual reality contributes to these practice scenarios as well.  And even then, mistakes will be made during practice.  Second, professions such as these are becoming increasingly reliant on checklists.  Checklists decrease the probability of mistakes, and are becoming increasingly prevalent in numerous professions.  (I have an idea for a presentation and a ‘blog article about checklists; hopefully, this will be coming soon.)

The ability to make mistakes is important.  We learn from them.  We get better because of them.  They make us stronger.  And once you can address them, overcome them, learn how to recover from them, or eliminate them, chances are that people will say that you’re the master at your craft, whatever that craft may be.

The checklist manifesto

Some time ago, I came up with a new presentation idea that I tentatively titled “The magic of checklists.”  The idea is to demonstrate how checklists can improve tasks in any organization.  I have a number of ideas regarding this presentation, and I’ll expand upon them in a future ‘blog article.

As preparation for this idea, I assigned myself some homework.  My friend, Greg Moore, recommended a book to read: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.  I borrowed a copy from the local library and started reading.

The book (which I’m still reading) is turning out to be an excellent read: so much so that I’m considering purchasing my own copy, instead of just relying on the one I borrowed from the library.  (This way, I can use a highlighter and scribble my own notes in the book.). Yes, it reinforces my ideas about using a checklist to improve upon workplace tasks.  But I’m also discovering that there is so much more.  Reading this book has enlightened me on numerous ideas that had never occurred to me.

The book hits upon numerous concepts, each of which is worth an entire presentation in their own right.  Among them: the importance of communication, organizational structure, teamwork, crew/team resource management, keeping an open mind, empowering a team, following instructions, making adjustments, and doing the right thing.  (Since I’m not yet finished with the book, there are likely a number of other concepts I haven’t mentioned that I haven’t yet come across.). When I first picked up the book, my initial thought was, “how much can there be about a simple checklist?”  I’ve since learned that a checklist — any checklist, no matter how small — is not simple.  And while a checklist is an important tool, it is also a big part of an even bigger process.  All the ideas I listed several sentences ago are all part of that process.

I’d like to relay a story I came upon in the book.  David Lee Roth of Van Halen was famously known for canceling concerts if his instructions for leaving a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed in the dressing room were not followed.  Many people — myself included — decried him for these seemingly cockamamie instructions.  However, there was a method to his madness.  It turned out that this was a test.  If that instruction hadn’t been followed, then it was possible that another critical instruction — like, say, installing bracing to ensure the stage didn’t collapse — had not been followed.  (And before you think instructions like these can’t be missed, they can, and they have — sometimes, with disastrous consequences.) It goes to show that there is always more to the story.

Once I finish reading this book and can organize my thoughts, I’ll put out another article and another presentation (hopefully, coming soon to a SQL Saturday near you).  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.  Maybe it’ll change your perspective the way it has changed mine.

The importance of accepting critical feedback

A few weeks after giving two presentations at SQL Saturday #526 in Rochester, I received my session evaluations.

I was quite happy with my evaluations for my presentation on how to talk to non-technical people.  I received mostly positive reviews and high scores.

My disaster recovery presentation? Not so much.

My presentation got low scores.  Some of the comments I received included, “needs significantly more actionable & useful take-aways,” “attendees need to leave with action items, ” “very little in the way of reputable facts,” “needs to be updated for 2016,” and “paper is not the solution to documentation anymore” (my presentation was about the importance of documentation in disaster recovery, and this was a point of emphasis — more on that in a bit).

However, despite the negative feedback, it was that on which I focused — not so I could sulk, plot my revenge, or wallow in despair, but rather, so I could improve.  The fact is, the feedback I received was not what I wanted to hear.  It was what I needed to hear.

How else was I going to get better?

It seems like such a simple concept.  You want to get better at something.  You ask people to tell you what’s wrong.  Ideally, when people do tell you what’s wrong, you go back to fix it.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.  Too often, people who are told what’s wrong react adversely, sometimes violently.

Why?

The fact is, people listen to what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  More often than not, people go looking for feedback, but instead of paying attention to red-flags that need to be addressed, they keep cycling through until they find feedback they like and justifies their position(s).

This is human nature.  It’s also a recipe for disaster.

If you don’t believe me, do a Google search on “groupthink.”  This mindset of ignoring negative feedback defines one of groupthink’s major symptoms.  And if you don’t believe that this type of thinking is destructive, look up the history behind the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Challenger disaster.  Researchers cite these as prime examples of groupthink, and one of the major contributing factors in each of these disasters is the willful ignorance of certain facts — negative feedback that the people involved desperately needed to hear and address.  It is a phenomenon that impairs quality decision-making and incapacitates our ability to improve.

I am no expert in psychology, and I cannot adequately explain why people are so averse to feedback.  I’d guess that it might have something to do with the fact that people avoid things that are unpleasant.  It’s like experiencing pain.  If you feel pain, you need to find out what’s causing it and address it.  Pain is feedback.  We don’t like it, but we need to address it to improve.

As for my presentation, it includes a section where I list “takeaways from the experience.”  I went into my slides and reworked the section.  Instead of simply listing what I learned, I reworded the points as action items for the audience.  As part of those action items, I wrote them in a way that could be applied to today’s technical environment.  And as for the comment about “paper no longer a solution,” I realized that the person had a point (although I didn’t completely agree with him) and came up with a compromise that should satisfy both opponents and defenders of paper.

Hopefully, my next session evaluation will be better than the last!

(Note: The “next time” is coming up very quickly; I will be giving this presentation this coming Saturday, June 4, at SQL Saturday #517 in Philadelphia.)