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June 2017

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One of the work projects that pretty much consumed my work life from last August through this March is now in beta:

We made a little video to talk about the project and why we did it:
Coming out of the cafeteria at work with a sandwich and a cup of soup, I slipped on the wet wooden decking in the patio area. Both feet shot out from under me and I landed with my ass in an inch deep puddle. Thanks to a couple of years of judo training, I fell properly and am entirely unharmed. The cup of soup (which had a lid) survived the experience. The sandwich, alas, ended up scattered all over the deck. My pants were soaked, so I had to change into the gym shorts I brought today.

I am currently decked out in a white t-shirt with the words "Guerilla Optimist" (sic), knee length black mesh basketball shorts, and black canvas ankle boots. Peeking out above the tops of my boots, you can see my socks, which have the logo of the heavy metal band Paradise Lost on them. I am stylin'.

I secured a replacement sandwich and a cup of coffee and am grateful that I only have one low-key meeting scheduled this afternoon.
The atmosphere around work today was positively funereal. Every meeting I attended began with uncharacteristically glum faces and awkward silences. Everywhere I went, there were little clusters of people standing in hallways discussing the election. People who didn't know me sometimes dropped their voices to hushed whispers as I passed.

I almost didn't go to the Toastmasters meeting today. Of the current batch of regular attendees in my club, I'm the only white person and the only native-born American. I wasn't sure if I could face doing our usual round of cheerful speeches about hobbies and self-improvement and things like that while we ignored the elephant in the room, the fact that a bunch of people who look like me had just voted for a man who campaigned on hatred of people who looked like them.

But I did go, and somewhat to my surprise, we tackled that elephant head-on. When it came time for our impromptu speeches, the table topics master invited people to either speak about "Who I voted for for president, and why," or "What I think of the American electoral system."

And it was an interesting dose of perspective. I'm sure there was a certain degree of self-editing going on, because we were all speaking to a room of people whose political opinions we really don't know. But my colleagues put a much braver face on things than I felt like doing. "We don't have elections like this in China," one of them said, "so watching this one was very interesting." Hey, at least we get to vote for our authoritarian warmongering leaders. A charismatic politician has risen to power by fomenting religious and ethnic tensions? My Indian colleagues have Narendra Modi back home.

I started my speech my saying, "I want to talk about something that isn't exactly the American electoral system, but is one of my least favorite things about American politics right now." And I talked about anti-immigrant sentiment. I talked about various members of my family and my husband's family who immigrated to the United States, how it was a country that offered each of them (admittedly sometimes grudgingly) a chance to make a new life. And I promised that I would work to keep this country a place that offers people that chance.

It was preaching to the choir, in a way, but it also felt important to say that.

Now I just have to figure out ways to keep that promise. Figure out how to walk the talk.
I've been working on a PowerPoint slide deck for a project at work. The idea is to have a short presentation that we can take around to different groups to introduce the project.

I did a first draft and sent it to a colleague for feedback. "Can you improve the visuals?" she asked, and sent me some examples. I improved the visuals. We sent it out for wider review.

All the feedback got was of the form, "Change X, Y, and Z. Oh, and can you make it more visual?"

I did a complete rework of the presentation. I scrawled pictures and diagrams longhand for days before I created a single new slide. I spent hours experimenting with different types of charts and diagrams. I searched for stock photos. I took screenshots.

I sent the revised draft to my colleague yesterday. Her response, "The content is great but I'm not sure about the visuals."


This is what they call a growth opportunity, isn't it?
I'm heading to the VMworld conference tomorrow evening, and the current list of electronic devices I'm contemplating taking consists of: 2 laptops, a digital camera, an iPad, an iPod, a phone, and a Kindle. Oh, and a Fitbit. That means I'm going to need to remember 6 distinct power/charging cables.

I probably ought to throw a power strip in there as well.

I think I can fit it all in the super-cool electronics bag my mother got me after I managed to mislay both a laptop power cord and a Kindle during a single 3 day trip. We'll see.
Director: We could hire a professional services consultant to explain how X works to us.
Me: Nah, let me and [colleague] do a little research first. I bet we could figure it out ourselves.
Director: I love your DIY spirit.

My DIY spirit was forged largely in grad school, where literally almost everything was more expensive than my own labor. Why spend what could end up being thousands of dollars on a consultant when maybe we could just do it ourselves? The only thing I need to remember is that I'm not paid like a grad student anymore and neither is [colleague]*, so it is possible to reach a point where the consultant becomes the cost effective option.

Until then, I'm gonna DIY it. Punk rock doc, y'all.

*Come to think of it, [colleague] is also a former grad student, which might explain part of why we work so well together.
I've been asked to interview a potential candidate for a tools developer on my team at work. The job posting is here.

I've worked with plenty of developers, so I've got a pretty good notion of what I want in a candidate. I'm not planning on asking a lot of technical questions - there are other people on the team who will do that. Also, I really care much more about a hypothetical candidate's problem-solving abilities and their ability to understand the user mindset well enough that they'll build things that not only meet the technical requirements but actually help us do our jobs better. (In theory, translating writer requirements into language that developers can understand is part of my job. In practice, I've found that that's nearly infinitely easier to do with a developer who is willing to meet you halfway.)

Anyhow, I know that many of you are developers or regularly interview developers. I would love to hear about your favorite interview questions, or things you look for as red flags, or whatever. Please, give me advice.

Also, if you know anyone who would be a good candidate for the position, send them my way. The current candidate looks quite promising, but it never hurts to have a larger pool to choose from.

Odd Crew

Jul. 25th, 2016 12:41 pm
wshaffer: (Default)
I arrived in my office this morning to find a CD entitled "Mark These Words" by Odd Crew sitting on my desk. It had a note with it from the director of my department, who just returned from a trip to Bulgaria, saying that one of my colleagues in Sofia had asked her to bring it to me.

Odd Crew appear to be one of Sofia, Bulgaria's more successful heavy metal bands. They hadn't crossed my radar before, but I've listened to a few songs on the album and found it quite enjoyable.
In a recent performance review discussion with my manager, she suggested that I do some work on my presentation and public speaking skills. Mine are adequate, but I think I'm more distinguished by my lack of fear of public speaking than by great skill. As a child, I was actually terrified by public speaking, and would do almost anything to avoid it. This fear was slowly ground out of me by stints on the high school debate team (I was terrible at debate), Constitution team, and various other academic competitions that required impromptu speaking; class presentations in college; and teaching during grad school. In the middle of my first year of grad school, I stepped onto a stage in a 150-person lecture hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus to deliver a pre-exam review. I looked into the lemur-like eyes of a full house of undergraduates desperately hoping that I would impart to them in the next three hours the knowledge that they had failed to acquire all semester. The atrophied remnants of my fear sighed heavily and slunk off somewhere down Telegraph Ave., never to trouble me again.

Anyhow, there was one obvious place to go to get some training for my fearless semi-competence: Toastmasters. People have been recommending to me that I do Toastmasters for years now, but I've always found some excuse not to do it. But my employer has their very own Toastmasters chapter, that meets right here on campus, so I decided that I would bite the bullet and go visit a meeting today.

The meeting started with someone giving a pre-prepared speech, which we all got to evaluate. Then there's this thing called "Table Topics", where someone comes up with a topic, and everyone who wants to can give a 1-2 minute speech on this topic. Our topic today was "reincarnation," and what immediately sprang to my mind was my character in the Legend of the Five Rings game I'm currently playing in, who has been repeatedly reincarnated. So, I began my speech with, "I don't believe in reincarnation, but I do play role playing games." I then managed to give a reasonably concise explanation of what a table top roleplaying game is, what Legend of the Five Rings is about, and how my character discovered that she was reincarnated. And then wrapped it up by observing that playing RPGs is sort of like being reincarnated, because you get to experience being many people. All in 1 minute 58 seconds.

At the end of the meeting, everyone voted on their favorite table topic speech. I was the winner. I got a ribbon and everything! Not too bad for my first try!

Goal Setting

Jun. 2nd, 2016 01:05 pm
wshaffer: (pencil)
So, for the past few months, I've been experimenting with taking a little time on Sunday to set myself some goals for the week. Nothing terribly fancy: I just take a few minutes to jot down 3-4 things that I want to focus on during the week in a note on my phone, and then I glance at the note every morning to remind myself about my goals. I have two reasons for doing this. One is to try to increase the proportion of my work time spent on tasks that are truly important, rather than just urgent-seeming. The other is to reduce my anxiety about the fact that I can't get everything done all at once.

So far, it seems to be working. I won't say that it's life-changing, but I do feel like I'm spending my time a bit better.

The most challenging part, though, is picking the goals. Sometimes it's pretty obvious (like I've got a big deadline coming up), other times it's more nebulous. Sometimes I've found myself just jotting down something for the sake of having a goal.

At the beginning of this week, I hit on something that I think improved the quality of my goals substantially. Instead of asking, "What are my goals this week?" I asked myself, "If I imagine at the end of this week that I'm sitting down to a nice dinner with my friends and loved-ones, and one of them asks me, 'How was your week?', what would I like to be able to say?"

Thinking of things in terms of "Where do I want Future-Me to be?" really seems to help. I've got to set half-year goals at work soon, a task that I always find a bit tricky, and I might just approach it by writing the performance evaluation that I want to be able to write for myself at the end of the year. (That would have the additional bonus that if I followed through, I'd have a first draft of my performance self-evaluation, which I also hate writing.)
There's a phrase that I've been hearing a lot lately in corporate contexts that's becoming a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It's "[Insert positive quality here] is in our DNA," as an attempt to convey, "[Positive quality] is part of the essence of who we are." I've been thinking about why it bugs me so much. It reinforces a kind of casual biological determinism that I'm not really fond of in general, but I think the real thing is that the metaphor gets weird if you actually have more than a casual understanding of how DNA works.

The thing about DNA is that it doesn't, by itself, do anything. DNA has to be expressed and translated into RNA or protein in order to have an effect. And a huge amount of our DNA (up to 90% by some estimates) is never translated. Excellence may be in my DNA, but so are the mangled bits of feline retroviruses that generations of my ancestors picked up from their pet cats.

Even bits of DNA that could be translated can have their expression regulated up or down or switched off entirely by environmental factors. And genes rarely work like the simple dominant/recessive Mendelian pairs from your high school biology homework where you had to figure out how many of a given couple's offspring would have blue eyes. You've got traits controlled by dozens of genes, working together in complicated ways. So a trait may be in your DNA, but whether it's in you is the result of a messy process influenced by other things in your DNA, your environment, and your own behavior.

Hmmm...maybe it's actually a better metaphor than I thought.
I have spent, I kid you not, the better part of the past 5 work days trying to figure out the source of an arcane publishing problem that results in English language titles occasionally appearing in the tables of contents of non-English-language documents. It's entirely too arcane to go into here. If you will forgive me for being vague, it results from Thing A (which is a little counterintuitive but needs to happen to keep the software usable) combined with Thing B (which is a little counterintuitive but has sound reasons behind it), followed by Thing C (which is basically dumb behavior and in my opinion, a bug).

So, I filed a bug report, where I tried to explain in as comprehensible a way as possible that "We have a problem because Thing A --> Thing B --> Thing C, and I think the solution is to have the software not do Thing C, which arguably it really shouldn't do according to the spec, which I have linked here." The title of the bug, by the way, is basically, "Thing C should not happen."

I got back a "Sorry, why can't you just not do that in the first place? And also, do you want a fix for Thing A, Thing B, or Thing C?"

So I wrote back an even simpler explanation of the problem, with diagrams. And reiterated, "The problem here is Thing C."

I have just been offered a solution that prevents Thing A from happening. Yeah, the one that "needs to happen to keep the software usable." I have just written back explaining why that is not a fix from my point of view, and reiterating, once again, that the problem is Thing C.

I'm starting to worry here that the real solution is going to end up being Ugly Error-Prone Workaround D, which I came up with while I was writing my second bug update, but explicitly nixed because it was a pain in the butt and people would forget to do it correctly and not catch the error until the document came back from translation.

I'm working on a doc plan for a new project, and instead of diving in and creating a document outline, I'm writing:
A description of who the intended audience for the documentation is, and what they need.
A description of the purpose of each intended documentation deliverable, what it needs to include to help users succeed, and what it shouldn't include.
And a list of open questions that I need answered by the product manager and/or the development team before I can have confidence in the first two items.

I appear to have absorbed something from all the content strategy conferences I got sent to last year.

Let's see if this provokes more fruitful discussion than a typical doc plan review.
Last night and this morning, I helped two coworkers work through problems with an internal tool that I happen to have written the internal documentation and training for. It looked to me, from what I was able to see in the logs, like the problem was user error - both of them were, completely separately and independently, doing Operation X instead of Operation Y.

Which really made me think, "Gee, how crappy must my training and documentation have been, if it left them so confused? What the hell did I do wrong?"

Until I asked the second colleague, "Hey, why did you do X instead of Y?"

And she replied, "Oh, Y isn't visible in my user-interface."

It's looking like the tool administrator borked up a bunch of people's permissions. Fortunately, my documentation covers what to do in that case.

(no subject)

Oct. 1st, 2015 04:35 pm
wshaffer: (Default)
Having the kind of day where I have to have a long, hard think about whether it is ever appropriate to use the term "half-assed" in a business email.

I decided not. I settled for just listing the things that had not been done that still needed to be done.
I got an email from my engineering support services guy yesterday saying that my shiny new laptop was ready, but I didn't pick it up because I was too busy working on a presentation for a group of interns that I had to give this morning. So I went to my presentation to this room full of enthusiastic fresh-faced twenty-somethings with a shitty old borrowed loaner laptop, which then proceeded to Fail to Work all over the place, until one of these twenty-somethings rescued me by downloading my presentation from the engineering wiki and allowing me to project it from his shiny new MacBook.

These interns are either immaculately polite or I still did a decent enough job on the presentation, because they did not treat me as if I were the complete chucklehead that I felt like.

The kids are alright. The grownups would like their tech to stop inexplicably breaking at inconvenient times, thanks very much.
That moment when you realize that you've gotten so good at speaking engineer that the sys admin and the web application developer only talk to each other through you.

(The database admin is still only speaking to the sys admin, though.)
A trend I've noticed with some amusement at my place of employment is the use of "feedback" as a countable rather than uncountable noun. For example, "Let's collect all the customer feedbacks into a single document."

Have other people heard this, or is this idiosyncratic to my place of employment?
3 times in the past 2 days, I've been asked for my advice by a colleague on a writing problem. And it goes something like this: the colleague describes the problem to me, while I listen. And at appropriate points I do one of three things:
* Say, "What do you think is the most important thing to communicate to the user here?"
* Say, "So, what I think you're proposing is this..." and sketch something on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper.
* Say, "It seems to me you have two logical options here: A or B. Which do you think would work better?"

At the end of the conversation, they always tell me that I've been very helpful. And I suppose I have been, but given that 90% of the ideas have come from the other person, I'm not sure if what I've offered is "advice", exactly.
I'm moving offices at work, which means I'm sorting through and packing up a bunch of stuff. I came across the following page of notes from May 2006, which are curiously context-free, although I'm pretty sure they were written about the Virtual Center licensing server:

After the grace period expires, there is no more grace.

Actually, there wasn't that much to begin with.