March 24, 2009

How to do a lot

March 24, 2009 - Categories: career, life, productivity, reflection

People often ask me how I get so much done. It gets almost funny, even: some people seem to think I’m somebody special, to which one of my friends rightly says: “I hate to break it to you people, but she is A HUMAN.” (warning: language)

I don’t think I do extraordinary things, and I always emphasize that anyone can do what I do. It might take time, and you might find that your talents lead you to different applications, but there’s nothing magical about what I do. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Do things you love, and love the things you do.

You’ve probably already heard countless platitudes about this. “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” “Follow your bliss.”

One of the advantages about doing something you love is that it becomes easier for you to invest time in learning how to do it well, and the better you do something, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. In contrast, if you don’t like your work, you’ll spend more time and money trying to escape it – watching television, going on leisurely vacations, and so on.

When Jeff Widman asked me what I was passionate about, I named several things right away.

  • I love programming because I enjoy understanding complex systems and building something that fits into the structure.
  • I love experimenting and making things better, because I enjoy learning and developing myself and other people.
  • I love writing because I enjoy thinking through complex ideas and helping other people learn.
  • I love teaching, coaching, and giving presentations, because I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with others.

I’ve found ways to incorporate these passions into what I do at work and what I do outside work. I’ve been doing these things for a long time. I started programming when I was six! I’ve gotten pretty good at them, and passion drives me to keep learning more.

Book cover The flip side is equally important: love what you do. Many people excuse themselves because their job doesn’t involve things they’re passionate about. One of the insights of the book Work Like You’re Showing Off (Joe Calloway) is that if you don’t hold back, if you look hard for that kernel in your work that you can be passionate about, you can grow that to be something special.

Rather than quit work and go on a sabbatical to discover some burning career passion, which, by the way, might be just the ticket for some people, I’ve decided to go all in with my work because, well, it’s my work. Seriously. I decided that whatever work I do can be a source of fulfillment and even joy, depending on the extent to which I go all in with it. (p.72)

Joe Calloway, Work Like You’re Showing Off

Life is a lot more fun if you find your passion first and then develop opportunities to pursue it, but if you haven’t found your passion yet, don’t let that stop you. Life is not a spectator sport. Go all in, and you might find something you’re passionate about. Those passions may lead to other passions, too. As you get better at listening to yourself and at committing your energy, you’ll develop a sense for where your life goes.

The next tip is:
Do things that complement each other.

If you’re good at a single thing, you can distinguish yourself by becoming even better at it. If you’re good at multiple, unrelated things, you can be flexible and resilient. If you’re good at multiple things and you can see how those things are related, you’ll be flexible and resilient, and you’ll get the benefits of combining those skills.

For example, I’m passionate about experimenting, programming, writing, and presenting. Here’s how they all feed each other:

  • Both programming and experimenting give me new experiences to write about.
  • If my experiments with life lead to a useful new process, programming allows me to automate it and do it more effectively.
  • Experimenting helps me find better ways to program.
  • Writing helps me understand programming and experimenting more, and often leads to new ideas.
  • Writing also often leads to new presentations and presentation opportunities.
  • My written archive is useful not only when I’m preparing content for a presentation, but also when people want to learn more after a presentation.
  • What I share in a presentation can be shared in a blog post or article as well.
  • Presentations give me ideas and opportunities to experiment with better ways to give presentations… and that’s worth writing about, too.

Effort gets magnified by complementary skills.

Do things that scale.

Look for ways you can invest a little additional effort and get lots of benefit. For example, if you spend two hours solving a problem, spend an extra fifteen minutes writing about it online so that you can create more value for other people.

The things I do also happen to scale, which is a happy coincidence. Once I write a program, lots of people can use it. Once I write a blog post, lots of people can read it. A presentation can reach hundreds of people, and if I invest a little effort into making the material available afterwards, I can reach many more. I always keep an eye out for opportunities to scale even more. =) Scale lets me help as many people as I can, creating as much value as I can.

It gets easier over time, too. One or two blog posts might not be helpful, but years of archives may be. One presentation takes a lot of time to prepare, but succeeding presentations are both quicker and richer because of your experience. One program is hard to write, but the next one is easier because you’re more familiar with the tools.

Do what you love, and love what you do. Develop skills that complement each other. Look for ways to scale up. You’ll do incredible things — and you’ll have lots of fun, too.

Digraphs with Graphviz

March 24, 2009 - Categories: geek

And for the geeks, here’s the Graphviz dot file that created the graph in How to do a lot. Posting here because I know I’m going to forget, and also because it’s so cool…

digraph {
  label = "Do things that complement each other";
  subgraph {
  programming -> writing  [label="new experience"]
  experimenting -> writing [label="new experience"]
  programming -> experimenting [label="automation"]
  experimenting -> programming [label="improvements"]
  writing -> presenting [label="content,\nopportunity"]
  presenting -> writing [label="content"]
  writing -> programming [label="reflection,\nideas"]
  writing -> experimenting [label="reflection,\nideas"]
  presenting -> experimenting [label="ideas"]
  experimenting -> presenting [label="improvements"]

I created it with the command:

dot -Nfontsize=10 -Efontsize=11 FILENAME -o OUTPUTFILENAME -Tpng

The result:

Directed graph

The Enchantress of Numbers; Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

March 24, 2009 - Categories: women

Today is the first Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to the celebration of women in technology. =)

It’s interesting to think about the history of gender and computers. Ada Lovelace‘s work in writing algorithms and imagining the many applications of computers beyond simply crunching numbers. When computers first came into the workplace, computing was seen as a pink-collar job because it resembled the secretarial work that women did. Then the tide changed, and things progressed to the point where countless research papers were written about the gender imbalance in computer science and related fields. What was it about computing that was driving women away?

Now, perhaps, it’s shifting closer to balance, and that makes me happy.

I remember growing up on the networks, and then the Internet. My ambiguously-gendered name and my technical skill led a number of people to assume I was male, to the great amusement of people who knew otherwise. Upon people’s discovery that I was actually female, I’d often get hit on. At technical conferences, there were never lines for the women’s bathroom, sometimes I was the only female in the session, and female speakers were rare. Being female in a male-dominated field had its perks: on overseas programming competitions, I usually got a room to myself.

And yes, there was that niggling feeling of doubt that people found my early achievements disproportionately notable because of my gender, because I knew many brilliant people who didn’t get the opportunities I stumbled across. The imposter syndrome has many different shades.

To this day, I still get personal e-mail addressed “Dear Sir:” (and I’m not talking about the 419 scams, but people applying for positions or asking me for help). I still have people surprised to hear my (obviously female) voice when we talk on the phone. I still find myself reflexively checking the proportion of attendees and speakers at the conferences I go to.

I learned never to make gender assumptions in my speech and in my writing, and to enjoy turning other people’s assumptions upside down. (That’s one of the reasons I have a picture on my website.) I still come across technical documentation written exclusively with male pronouns, and it’s difficult to stifle the urge to rewrite it using plurals or alternating examples.

It’s a lot better than it used to be, though. I don’t have to worry as much about people hitting on me or misinterpreting what I say, although I don’t know whether that’s because the culture is changing, because I’ve developed ways to head things off before they get to that point, or because I tend to hang out with older people who are already in good relationships.

I’ve been very lucky. My parents made sure that we never thought of computers or other things as a “guy thing”. Growing up with two sisters who were both out there and doing cool things helped, too. I had plenty of role models, and I still do.

Not everyone has that kind of environment. No matter what gender you are, keep an eye out for people who might be excluded from your field of work. Sometimes it’s a little thing like lack of confidence leading to a wider and wider digital divide. Sometimes it’s a big thing, like an environment where picking on people is acceptable (and it shouldn’t be). We can be better people than that. =)

Tips for managing virtual assistants

March 24, 2009 - Categories: -Uncategorized

There are plenty of tips out there for becoming a virtual assistant, but not that many for managing virtual assistants. There are also plenty of books and resources about management and delegation, but none of them quite address the quirks of managing a diverse, changing virtual team. So I might as well start putting together useful resources here.

Found any useful resources on how to manage virtual assistants? Share them here!