November 2009


November 1, 2009 - Categories: canada, life


Our neighbors are really, really into Halloween. This is their front yard. They just loved scaring the heck out of the trick-or-treaters, and they did it quite effectively by jumping at them when the kids least expected it. Young kids they generally left alone (or apologized to after the kids started crying from fright), but any teenagers trick-or-treating were fair game. <laugh>

We gave them permission to decorate our front yard as well. Here’s one of the props they added:

In Canada, even the zombie babies need to keep their ears warm.

Connecting in a large organization

November 1, 2009 - Categories: connecting

In our conversation last Wednesday, Lesley shared how social network analysis has helped her team and the other teams she works with. The analysis showed which people were connected to everyone else (and who could either be bottlenecks or brokers), and which people were outliers.

This network knowledge is typically not a surprise. Lesley told me how she had shown her team the unlabeled graph, and they guessed right away who corresponded to which nodes. But the graph is a good way to get the idea out there so that you can start discussing it and changing it. Do people on the periphery need to connect better? How can you lighten the load on the hubs? How do you help people eliminate middlemen and communicate more effectively?

Lesley shared some of the ways she has adapted to her informal role. When she helps people answer questions, she connects people so that they can talk to each other without needing to go through her all the time. She keeps as complete a mail archive as she can, because people ask her about projects she long since left. She helps her team members learn more about effective e-mail communication and other workplace skills.

Lesley’s like many of the connectors that I meet within IBM. There are a lot of boundary-spanners who connect different parts of the organization (and different parts of their team, who need connecting as well!). They recognize the value of doing so, and other people do too. In fact, they often serve as the go-to people for others. They want to make their knowledge part of the organizational memory, but it’s hard to capture.

I’m growing into one of those people, and I’d like to scale up even more. I’m one of an increasing number of Web 2.0 connectors who work as publicly as possible, sharing on our internal social networking platform. I want to build organizational memory in the process of doing actual work. I want to develop organizational connective tissue in the process of reaching out.

I document as much as I can of the work that I do, and I try to do it as close to action as possible. For example, one of my ideas helped us double our community sign-up rate, so I spent some time writing it up and sharing it with others. I could probably speed through my task list if I didn’t balance doing with writing about it. But sharing deepens my understanding and gives me time to think about other “What if?”s. It helps other people work more effectively. It gives them something to build on, and I get to learn from the improvements that other people share. It helps me scale up connecting, too.

I suspect this sharing is the key reason why I can help connect the dots even as a relatively new employee. Experienced connectors tell me of the trust and the relationships they’ve built from decades of project work in different countries. I don’t have that yet, but blogs and public speaking do interesting things in terms of connections. It’ll be interesting to see where we can take this, and what other people can do with these ideas.

I’m passionately curious about how connectors can be even more effective, and I think that social tools can make a huge difference.

Comedy and self-promotion

November 1, 2009 - Categories: entrepreneurship, marketing, social, web2.0

We headed out for taco salads and soup at the Easy Restaurant on King Street after our last class of improv comedy. My three classmates and the teacher were all deeply into the Toronto improv and sketch comedy scene. I was the lone non-comedian, and I got a fascinating glimpse into that world.

They talked about the awkwardness of telling non-comedians about your interests. When the conversation turns to what people do, they feel that people who are outside the comedy scene just don’t get it, saying: “Oh, you’re a comedian? Tell me a joke.” One of my classmates said that this was probably why practically all her friends are also in the comedy scene. I wonder if they also have problems with the echo chamber effect that we see online, when people end up talking only to people like them.

They talked about the challenges facing the Toronto comedy scene. There are lots of stand-up rooms in Toronto where people can practise their material, but attendance is hit-or-miss. If you liked a specific comedian, it was hard to find out when and where they’d perform next. Shows were better publicized, but individuals were hard to track. I asked them if it was a matter of marketing. To me, it seemed obvious: if you were starting out as a stand-up comedian or an improv comedy performer, why not make it easier for people to find out when you’d be performing next, and share your adventures along the way?

They reacted strongly against the idea of self-promotion. To them, the idea of an amateur having business cards, a website, or a Facebook fanpage smacked of pretentiousness. It was okay if you’d done a number of well-received shows, or had some kind of national profile. If you were just starting out, you needed to know your place.

I found that really interesting because we run into the same social norms against self-promotion in different business cultures, and it can get in the way of connecting.

I think people do want to keep an eye out for teams and people they like. Facebook’s use of “Fan” might turn people off, so they’d need a more neutral space that can keep track of teams, individuals, shows, and locations. It would be a natural fit for Facebook integration, calendar exports, RSS feeds, and mailing lists. You could probably build the whole thing using out-of-the-box Drupal and the Content Creation Kit. Data entry would have to be done manually for a while (listings from Now Toronto and from the major venues?), but it might eventually grow into something that people can update on their own.

I don’t see people paying to use a service like this, but it might be supported by advertising (and perhaps a share of ticket sales, if you have an e-commerce system tied into venues’ ticketing).

In terms of marketing, you’d probably approach venues that don’t have event lists, as well as teams and individuals. Teams and individuals would be your primary channel for marketing. You could also offer a badge for venues, teams, and individuals in order to advertise upcoming shows, and pre-designed flyers (like what Meetup now does), and provide webpages for people who don’t have their personal sites set up yet. Posters near established comedy venues would be good, too, and hand-outs given to people in line. Business cards might be interesting too.

A business idea for someone who’s really interested in the comedy scene, perhaps! =)

Weekly review: Week ending November 1, 2009

November 1, 2009 - Categories: weekly

Plans from last week:

Plans for next week:

Book: Closing the Innovation Gap

November 2, 2009 - Categories: book, reading


The best talent embodies the five core values and has the right combination of aptitude, skill, judgment, passion, and drive. Such people’s curiosity and openness to new experience are as important as their pedigree. They require deep understanding to garner respect, a sense of infectious excitement to rally the organization around them, and an almost compulsive drive to tinker. “What we always looked for were people who were born with soldering irons in their hands,” says Jon Rubinstein. “People with a passion for products, for the creation process, and for technology itself.” (p30-31)

Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy
Judy Estrin, 2009

Among other reasons, I read business books in order to collect role models, finding descriptions that resonate with the kind of person I want to grow into.

Other quotes from the book are relevant to my work:

People who naturally play the role of knowledge connectors are critical when building relationships across communities, disciplines, or divisions, facilitating communication between disparate groups. The best connectors can quickly synthesize information across a broad range of topics, communicate well, and bring the right people together, while having no overriding agenda of their own. (p134)

We’re building a training program for connectors, and I’m learning a lot in the process.

For companies with advanced technology groups, it’s best to create networks of complete teams, as opposed to just offshoring a piece of the development. Companies that farm out all of their entry-level jobs or the production tasks that were traditionally allotted to junior employees may eventually discover that they have offshored their next generation of leaders. (p138)

I think it would be fantastic to have more global leaders, making sure we also don’t sacrifice the capabilities and leadership pipelines of the developed countries.

The book itself draws on an intimate knowledge of Silicon Valley, and provides a useful historical perspective on the changes.

Thinking about Planner/EmacsWiki versus WordPress

November 3, 2009 - Categories: blogging, emacs, wordpress

Was it really only less than two years ago that I shifted from my venerable Planner-based wiki/blog to my WordPress-powered one after experimenting with syndicating my entries into WordPress?

I miss writing in wiki markup on Emacs and knowing that publishing would Just Work. I miss being able to dynamically expand entries from my address book in a way that automatically links to people’s blogs. (Or Twitter accounts, if I were going to do this now.) ScribeFire is a pain on my Eee (needs more horizontal screen space), and I have a hard time marking up the occasional bit of HTML in weblogger.el. Windows Live Writer is pretty slick (particularly with the SnagIt Screen Capture plugin and the Amazon Book Linker), but I can live without it. Or maybe I can resurrect that WordPress Emacs client Ashish mentioned.

Let me think about the differences in experiences.

That said, I miss automatically sharing some details of what I’m working on (with details deleted before publishing so that they’re available offline), publicly crossing off tasks, and other cool things.

Planner’s model for task planning isn’t quite compatible with Org’s model, and I’ve been using Org + Toodledo more these days.

What am I really looking for here?


Working on not misplacing things

November 3, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, productivity

I misplace things when I get distracted. I absentmindedly tuck things into bag pockets or place them on the nearest horizontal surface. I lose time looking for things, and my stress level goes up too. It’s usually my iPod Touch that gets forgotten when I need free hands, and I can’t ring it to find it. (I could barrage it with mail or calendar events, I suppose). At least I know that it’s at home. I’ve gotten better at looking behind me before I leave a place, and haven’t lost things outside the house in a while. Misplacing things remains my bane.

The best way to solve this is to have a place for everything, and everything in its place. I’m working on that. I’m getting better at hanging my work badge and my keys near the door, keeping my bicycle lock in my bag, and putting key items (emergency kit, wallet, notebook, pen, iPod, and phone) into a home-made purse organizer. Most of the time, that works. Sometimes, I forget and I put the iPod down somewhere. I’m getting better at retracing my steps, but that only takes me so far.

So here’s where I think my system failed this morning:

  1. I hadn’t taken care of packing everything when I was alert and awake the night before. As a result, I forgot to keep track of the iPod when I was shuffling various gadgets around and shining my shoes in my half-zombie state.
  2. I needed free hands, and I didn’t have a roomy pocket to put the iPod into. I refer to the iPod a lot around the house (tracking how I spend my time, looking up websites, checking my task list), but I occasionally need two free hands, so I end up putting things down. Most of the time, I slow down and fix the location in my head, repeating it while I do the other task. When I’m sleepy or distracted, I sometimes forget to pay attention to that.
  3. I tend to tuck things into bag pockets. I distinctly remember tucking my phone into a bag pocket (and finding it again), but I wasn’t sure if I’d tucked the iPod into a hidden compartment of my bag. (I’d misplaced my wireless mouse for a week or two that way.)

How can I work on getting better at keeping track of small things like my iPod?

  1. I can simplify my morning routine even further. Ten minutes of preparation the night before is more valuable than ten minutes of zombie time in the morning.
  2. I can try using a belt bag or half-apron at home, to corral things like that. This is also good for carrying things from room to room, when tidying up. Project time!
  3. I can make sure I have a place for everything that commonly gets moved between bags, which means sticking to the purse organizer.
  4. Maybe visually and verbally fixing the locations (repeating to myself, “I’m putting the iPod down on the kitchen table”?) will let me use other forms of memory, too. That might sound weird, though. ;)
  5. I can also slow down and pay more attention to each moment when I’m at the most risk of being absent-minded, such as early in the morning. It really wouldn’t have taken me a lot of time to walk to the One Place I should put something down on, and it would’ve saved me all that searching. This is probably the best way to do it, and it’s good for practising being present.

I’m sure I’ll find it later, and it’ll be a good excuse to tidy up.

Working on doing things better, one day at a time…

Compfight: Search Flickr for CC-licensed images

November 4, 2009 - Categories: geek


One of the hidden gems in David Gillespie’s Digital Strangelove: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Internet is a hat-tip to Compfight, a Flickr search engine. I like the search interface more than Flickr’s built-in Advanced Search, because you can continuously scroll through the thumbnails instead of paging through the results.

More Creative Commons search options would be nice. =)

What I really want is an advanced search engine that lets me specify subject position and dominant color, like Stockxpert’s. Someday!

Thanks to Suzanne for the link!

Thoughts from “Remote Presentations That Rock”, changing dynamics

November 4, 2009 - Categories: leadership, presentation, reflection, speaking

Yesterday, I gave my Remote Presentations That Rock session at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange virtual conference. 98 people attended and shared their insights with me through a lively text discussion, lots of whiteboard interaction, and the occasional phone question. It was a high-energy presentation – I poured lots into it, and people gave me lots of energy back. We finished exactly on time thanks to tip #3 (Make time for learning) and tip #6 (Start strong and end strong). One of the organizers said it was one of the best presentations she’d seen.

What worked well

(Yes, I think about these things.)

I think the key thing I’d like to do even better next time is to collect real-time feedback throughout the session. That would be cool, particularly if I end up with interesting data after that.

One of the best things about doing presentations with plenty of time for Q&A is that the resulting discussion helps me think about fascinating topics. For example, one of the participants asked about the advice I gave on encouraging interaction and planning plenty of time for questions. He pointed out that this involved different group mechanics.

As I thought about that change in group mechanics, I realized that I really do flip the “expert-audience” dynamic on its head. When I present, I’m not an all-knowing, all-powerful expert, and I’m not just talking to silent listeners in a darkened auditorium. My mental model of a presentation is that of a well-lit circle of participants. I might be there to share what I’ve learned, but other people also bring a lot of questions, experiences and insights. My work as a speaker is to set the stage for a conversation and get people to think and talk. Sometimes, in quieter cultures, that reflection and conversation happens outside my session, and that’s okay. More and more, though, people really step up to that challenge. They share terrific thoughts during the Q&A, and I learn so much more than what I would have if I had come in “knowing everything”.

I can see how this flip might be difficult or unexpected. In many cultures, the idea of active speaker and passive listener is strong. Traditional education is structured that way. Hierarchical organizations work that way. So it might not always work as perfectly as it did yesterday, but it’s worth it. It might need a little more introduction to encourage people to participate. It might require several attempts before people see it’s okay. It might also be that people may not have the conversation right there with you, but they’ll think about it and talk about it afterwards, and that’s great too.

Adapting is challenging, but the benefits of the approach are so compelling that I don’t want to give presentations any other way. Even in a real-life keynote where I can’t have that two-way communication going on in the background, I try to expand the conversation both before and after the presentation.

Now that I think about it, I can see how the same theme of experimenting with the power dynamic runs through other aspects of my life. I’m relatively new to IBM, having joined it right after grad school. I read books and talk to people about great management and leadership (and many other things). I influence the way people feel about the organization, and how they see their connection to the big picture. I haven’t waited for someone to give me a job position or title that reflects that, because the opportunities to make a difference are all around me, and I want to help others see those opportunities for themselves too.

Even when I was growing up, I thought about dynamics. I read parenting books, getting a better understanding of what my parents were thinking about. I realized that they’re not all-knowing and that they’re also figuring some things out for the first time (despite raising two other kids).

I’d like to keep playing with dynamics as I grow older. If I manage people, I’d like to be the kind of manager focused on serving people and making sure they have what they need to excel. If I follow the executive career path, I’d like to be the kind of executive who values listening to people from all over the organization and outside it. If I build a business, I’d like it to be the kind of business that looks for a problem and solves it instead of making a solution in search of a problem.

I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic and the other ideas shared in that session. I suspect it’ll be well worth the time I spent preparing and delivering the session, and reflecting on the results. This, too, is work: gaining a little more understanding, changing the way we work just a little bit more, and sharing my experiences with others.

My Inkscape settings

November 5, 2009 - Categories: sketches

Here are some things I change right away in my Inkscape settings:

  1. Double-click on the pencil tool, and choose “Last used style”.
  2. Draw something, then click on the fill color box. Choose X for fill.
  3. Switch to the Stroke style tab. Select a rounded joint and a rounded cap.
  4. Open File > Inkscape Preferences. Click on Transforms. Uncheck “Scale stroke width”.
  5. Use View > Snap to turn off snapping to the grid or to guidelines. That way, you can use guidelines, but your strokes will still look natural.

Garden plans for 2010

November 6, 2009 - Categories: gardening


Here’s how we’re thinking of using the raised beds we built. I might interplant some radishes between the tomatoes and strawberries, too.

There’s also a small section which is not in a raised bed. I’ll probably use that to grow more basil, and I hope the lavender I’ve left out there will come back next year.

No more zucchini. Not only did we not get any un-nibbled zucchini off it, but the plants took over the side of the garden. <laugh> Also no more of those gimmicky hanging planters for strawberries. No more sage unless I trim it mercilessly – we don’t cook sausages nearly enough, and the plant propagates by itself.

Definitely more rosemary and more basil. Good ROI for our kitchen.

I’ll also grow catnip and peppermint in pots, as those are invasive. And if our chili pepper plant will survive the cats’ nibbling (even with the peppers on it!), maybe we’ll plant some more peppers too.

Getting the hang of it, I think!

Five types of coaching

November 7, 2009 - Categories: book, leadership, reading

Influenced by the work of Hargrove, most coaching today fits within one of five categories:

  • Expert coaching: building skills, competencies, and knowledge;
  • Pattern coaching: revealing old patterns and building new patterns of belief and behavior;
  • Transformative coaching: fostering a fundamental shift in point of view, values, and identity;
  • Transcendent coaching: comprehending purpose;
  • Integrative coaching: blending the depth of personal (inside-out) work with the complexity of external (outside-in) dynamics around team, organizational, marketplace, and societal needs.

Most internal coaching programs in organiztaions deal with Expert Coaching, and many refer to this type of coaching as mentoring. Many external coaches begin and end their level of impact here, as well. Most external coaching resources deal with Expert and Pattern Coaching. An increasing number of coaches do Transformative Coaching, but fewer engage in Transcendent or Integrative Coaching.

Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life
Kevin Cashman, 2008

Most of my mentors help me learn more about my purpose—how I fit within the organization, and how I can work through it to achieve shared goals. They also help me integrate the different aspects of my life. =)

I tend to coach people on skills (social media, presentations, etc.). I occasionally and almost accidentally help people shift their points of view. I enjoy helping people see the big picture, but I don’t do that a lot yet. And someday I’d love to help people integrate all these things…

Looking forward to learning more about this!

Good book with lots of reflection questions and worksheets. Worth reading and thinking about.

Made a sofa wrap!

November 8, 2009 - Categories: sewing

In preparation for Neko’s arrival (and to protect W-’s leather couch from the adventures of soon-to-be-three cats), we decided to make a sofa wrap. The two layers were a bit much, so we thought we’d try making just the underlayer.

The Internet said that microsuede’s pricey, but probably the best fabric you can get for a sofa cover (especially with cats around). After measuring our sofa, comparison-shopping at different fabric stores, and borrowing swatches to check at home (we even did some cat tests!), we bought 11 yards of microsuede at Designer Depot for $15.99 a yard. We stuffed it into W-’s backpack and biked home.

I re-measured the fabric, cut it in half (making sure I marked the nap), and sewed the two pieces together to make a large rectangle. We draped the fabric on the sofa, tucked in the 12″ allowance around the cushions, and voila! the sofa was wrapped.

W- and I settled into it, and Luke joined us without waiting for an invitation. The tabby stretched in evident approval. Leia was initially hesitant, but she warmed up to it. =)

Level up!

UPDATE – Pictures:

From Starred Photos

Weekly review: Week ending November 8, 2009

November 9, 2009 - Categories: weekly

Last week was a high-energy week. Tuesday was networking-intensive: a breakfast meeting, a major presentation, and a speed-mentoring event. On Thursday, I had lunch with an IBMer in order to give him career advice (!). On Friday, I had lunch with an acquaintance who’s planning to go to the Philippines, and I hosted a friend of a mentor.

It was a good thing that I had blocked off the entire weekend to enjoy some quiet time. Aside from a few neighbourly encounters (it was a gorgeous fall weekend), I didn’t talk to anyone but W- all weekend. I even skipped my usual video chat with my mom, instead catching up on sleep and quiet.

Fortunately, recharging didn’t involve zoning out. We had a very productive weekend. We spent Saturday doing laundry, planning and making a sofa wrap, and tidying up a little. On Sunday, we bought groceries and made two large batches of lunches/dinners. Based on the success of our fleece blanket experiment, we picked up fleece sheet sets for everyone in the house, too. I ended the day by cutting out the pieces for hooded fleece house robes for W- and me. Yes, definitely a getting-ready-for-winter weekend.

Next week promises to be a high-energy one as well, between a trip to Boston (during which I am probably going to be too busy to meet up with folks =( ) and the paperwork for my permanent residency.

Plans from last week:

Plans for this week:

Eat like a bird, poop like an elephant? Eat like a bee!

November 10, 2009 - Categories: blogging, book, reading
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) landing on a milk th...

© 2007 Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, GNU Free Documentation License

In Rules for Revolutionaries, Guy Kawasaki advises you to eat like a bird and poop like an elephant. By that, he means that you should be a voracious consumer of information (according to him, hummingbirds eat 50% of their body weight in food a day) and you should spread your knowledge as liberally as possible (much like the way an elephant poops a lot. He explains how this helps you see the connections between ideas and create value, and he gives a number of examples of opportunities he found when he did and opportunities he missed when he didn’t.

Rules For Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services
Guy Kawasaki

The vivid advice made me think of eating like a bee, an analogy I like more. Bees collect nectar from lots of different flowers, pollinating them along the way. (Some even intentionally gather pollen!) Even by itself, this pollination already serves the ecosystem. Bees take the nectar, digest it, and structure it into beautifully ordered hexagons that hold lots of energy. They do this along with lots of other bees in a highly social activity.

And of course one can make all sorts of puns regarding bees and the International Business Machines corporation, of which I am part. Indeed, I, bee, am.

So how do these thoughts translate into real life?

I love reading. Being close to one of the largest public library systems in the world means that there’s a never-ending rotation of books through our bookshelves. I read tons of books about business, management, leadership, marketing, consulting, entrepreneurship, personal finance, productivity, self-development, relationships, creativity, and writing. I also occasionally throw in books about history, sewing, psychology, mathematics, science, popular culture, and fiction recommended by friends. And then there’s the occasional piece of mental junk food (Regency romances and the like). I read lots of blog posts, too – they’re an excellent way to get different insights and fresh perspectives.

I also love writing, putting together diagrams and presentations, and exploring other ways to explain things. That’s either elephant-pooping or pollinating and making honey, depending on which analogy you prefer. ;)

This has been working out really well for me. The more I learn, the more I share. The more I share, the more I learn.

Some people have told me that they don’t blog because they don’t know if they have anything interesting to share. A bee picks up pollen in the course of its everyday work. It does not stop to ask the next flower if this pollen is interesting enough or worth sharing. It simply shares and lets the world work the rest of the magic.

What are you picking up while you’re learning, and what can you share with others?


November 11, 2009 - Categories: library, life, reading
Toronto Reference Library interior, Toronto, C...

Image via Wikipedia

As I write this, my shelves hold 50 books from the Toronto Public Library (the maximum you can have out at a time), and I’ve placed holds on 46 more (four away from the maximum for that, too).

I really, really, really like libraries.

It’s a great improvement over standing in bookstores, trying to figure out which one of ten books I would get, furtively skimming through books to absorb the content and writing style so that I could pick the keepers (or simply slurp the ideas from the book, and move on).

I still buy books. I buy them to give to friends, or to turn to for handy inspiration.

But oh, the library…

My first memory of a library outside the bookshelves that lined our house was the Learning Resource Center (or LRC) at my grade school. In addition to rows and rows of shelves, it had colorful books in a small carpeted play area. I’d often curl up there with random things I’d pull off the shelves: classic fiction alternated with Disney stories, reference books matched with fairytales.

My high school library had the largest dictionary I’d ever seen, reference books galore, and a decent collection of science fiction and other novels. I remember coming across a list of phobias and manias in a psychology reference once, and being absolutely fascinated by the names that people had given all these concepts. My favorite was trichorrhexophobia, the fear of splitting hairs. But Google can only find one page that has that term (aside from this one, once it’s indexed). Was it a figment of my teenage imagination, or have the years warped the spelling in my memories?

My university library had a computerized system. While I loved the ease of searching the catalog from my own computer (and even wrote a Perl script that scraped the search results into my database), I missed the familiarity of running into the same scrawled names on library check-out cards. But it was a huge library that spanned several stories, and it had so, so many books. I read and read and read.

And now this. Toronto. One of the largest library systems in the world. As a graduate student, I had access to the towering Robarts Library as well. I thought I’d miss the stacks a lot after I graduated, but the Toronto Public Library is immense and I can find almost everything I need (aside from scholarly publications, which I sometimes wish I still had easy access to, but ah well).

Someday, I want to build a library. There’s something about coming across books I would never have searched for, and I want to share that with the future.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar – Part 1: The best seats in the house

November 11, 2009 - Categories: speaking

I was talking to one of my mentors about the recent presentation I’d given on Remote Presentations That Rock. I told him that I actually prefer giving webinars over giving face-to-face presentations because I can connect with people better that way. This surprised him, because most speakers still treat webinars as a poor alternative to face-to-face presentations. So that prodded me to figure out why webinars work really well for me. I suspect there’s a good series of blog posts and maybe a presentation in here about virtual presentations and real intimacy, so let’s explore!

How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar
Part 1. The best seats in the house

Here’s where people typically sit in an in-person presentation:


This is a tough room to speak to.

Gross overgeneralizations, of course. Steve Jobs probably never has to deal with this, but if you’re not a celebrity presenter, you might’ve seen something like in real life.

How do you deal with it?

Approach #1. Ask people to stand up and move to the front. You’ll get a few people to move, but most will shrug it off with “No, thanks” or “I’m fine where I am.” You can’t spend too much time on this either, because it gets really awkward, and you run the risk of making your audience hostile.

Approach #2. Remove seats or book a smaller room than you need. If you pack the front rows with people, the character of the room can change significantly. If you removed seats, you can always add seats as more people come in. This requires more effort and coordination, and the organizer really needs to take charge of this because you’re going to be doing a lot of prep work as a speaker already. Alternatively, book a smaller room if possible. Downside: you limit the number of people who can attend your talk. 

Even in packed presentations (such as technical talks for hundreds of people in the audience), these challenges are still there to some degree. A stage separates you from people. Without a stage, however, it’s hard for a large audience to see you. The larger the audience is, the more challenging it becomes to connect. You need to use a microphone (wireless lapel mic, if at all possible), and you need to worry about microphone feedback and sound quality. And people will still experience your presentation differently depending on where they sit and whom they sit with.

Now think about webinars. If you use a decent webcam and a good teleconference system, you can put everyone in the best seats in the house. They can hear you well (none of this “Can you hear me in the back?”). They’re close enough to see your facial expressions. There are no gaps in seating and no divisions between front, middle, and back.

And best of all, social proof now works on your side, because the only visible interaction is the interaction from engaged, interested listeners. Other people might cross their arms, scowl, fall asleep, or close the session, but they no longer have as strong an influence as they would in a real-life presentation. Instead, your keeners can easily influence the rest of the participants. If you build interaction into your talk, such as full text chat (instead of moderator-only text chat), everyone sees the conversations that your keeners start, and that’s often enough to bring everyone else in. Even people who would normally sit in the back can see not only that people are engaged, but also what they find interesting. You can see and respond to questions that would’ve normally caused people to fall behind and disengage from the presentation. The conversation might turn hostile (and you’d better be watching it if it does!), but even that comes from interested and engaged people. If someone says “This is boring!”, at least that person cared enough to type it in instead of just leaving—and you can respond by changing your talk.

For really high-energy presentations that involve lots of collective audience interaction (such as asking people to chat with their seatmates or to sing along with you), being face-to-face still rocks. But for many, many presentations, sitting in the best seats in the house can transform people’s experiences. Try it out for your next presentation!

Next post in “How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar” – Part 2: From Audience to Individuals

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How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar: Part 2: From audience to participants

November 12, 2009 - Categories: presentation, speaking

Speakers and audiences see very different things.

Looking out from the stage, you see a large group of people. As much as you try to make sure that you make eye contact with individuals, you’re always aware that you’re talking with a group. Your language might even reflect that. For example, in a typical raise-hands interaction, you might ask, “How many people here have ever experienced this?”

That kind of question makes little sense when you’re part of the audience. You think of yourself as an individual, not just part of some group. You don’t know how many people have or haven’t experienced that. You can’t answer for other people. But you know that what the speaker really means to ask is if you have ever experienced whatever it is, and you’re supposed to raise your hand if you did. There’s a gap when the speaker’s mental model of “the audience” doesn’t mesh with your mental model of you as you.

As a member of the audience, you’re peripherally aware of other people, particularly if you’re at the back and you can see people’s reactions and body language. It’s an odd combination of individuality and anonymity, of being yourself and being part of a group. In a darkened auditorium, you blend into the crowd, but you’re always evaluating the talk’s points with your personal perspectives. You understand that the speaker needs to connect with everyone, but you feel disconnected if the speaker focuses on other parts of the audience more.

Personally, I find this pretty challenging as a speaker and as a participant. I know some speakers go through an almost mechanical process to make sure that they make eye contact with everyone in the room (while not looking as if they’re just sweeping the room left to right). I’ve even seen suggested grids and sequences in public speaking books. But sometimes I catch myself looking at one side more than another. As part of the audience, I find it difficult to sit still and passively listen. I want to interact with the material. I want that back-and-forth. And I want to get to know my fellow audience-members, too. I’m curious about what brings them to the talk, and what they’re thinking.

One of the reasons why I like giving remote presentations more than giving real-life presentations is that it’s easy for me to “make eye contact”. I just have to remember to look at the webcam every so often, instead of focusing on the scrolling text chat or my webcam image. It’s not real eye contact–people know I can’t see them back–but in a large room, it’s difficult to make meaningful in-person eye contact, and webcam connections seem to be okay. I feel more approachable online, and I get more comments and questions too.

It’s also easier for me to get to know people as individuals, and to talk to them as individuals. This takes a little conscious effort on my part, but as I get used to the idea, I’ll get better at asking questions and presenting even more conversationally. I love how the text chat includes people’s names. I love how people agree or disagree with each other in the conversation. I love actually seeing the list of participants—I tend to recognize names better than I recognize faces. ;) I love the fact that when people ask questions on the phone, everyone can hear them clearly. In real-life presentations, they’d either have to find a microphone, or shout their question to me and I’d repeat it from the stage so everyone could hear.

It would be interesting to explore how a remote presentation could feel less like a presentation (speaker, audience) and more like a conversation (participants).

Does this style work for everything? Probably not. But it works for more situations than people would think, and it’s one of the reasons why I find remote presentations surprisingly fun.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar:
Part 1: The best seats in the house
Next: Part 3: Reading the room

My talks in 2009

November 12, 2009 - Categories: presentation, speaking
  1. Totally Rocking Your Drupal Development Environment, IBM
  2. Totally Rocking Your Development Environment, DrupalCon 2009
  3. Totally Rocking Your Development Environment, Drupal Peru
  4. Totally Rocking IBM: FutureBlue and Web 2.0
  5. New Employees and a Smarter Planet (slides only)
  6. Networking outside the Traditional Office
  7. Networking outside the Firewall
  8. Making the Most of Sametime Unyte
  9. How the Web is Changing the Way We Learn – Mesh panel
  10. Get Smart with IBM Web 2.0 – GBS Tech Talk
  11. Four Generations in the Workplace: Top 10
  12. Signs of Multi-generational Issues
  13. Enterprise 2.0 and Knowledge Management
  14. Staging and Deployment Panel, DrupalCon
  15. The Read/Write Internet
  16. Awesomest Job Search Ever
  17. ABCs of Gen X, Ys, Zs – MyCharityConnects conference
  18. ABCs of Gen X, Ys, Zs (revised) – Terry Fox Foundation
  19. Totally Rocking Presentations at IBM – Extreme Blue
  20. Getting Started with LinkedIn and Twitter
  21. Leveraging social media for Innovation Discovery
  22. Key Trends in Web Channel Delivery (EDC)
  23. Travel scenarios
  24. IBM TLE: IBMillennials (NA, AP)
  25. The Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School
  26. The Shy Connector (slides only)
  27. Smarter Work (slides only)
  28. IBM TLE: Remote Presentations That Rock

I delivered my presentations to about 1,300 people and reached about 35,000 additional viewers online. I didn’t do a lot of big conferences this year (minimizing travel!), but I accepted the occasional invitation. Still… that’s a lot of work, and a lot of reach.

Many of my presentations are externally available at . Please feel free to contact me if you want to find out about other sessions!

Wow. Without really planning to, I achieved my target of having, on average, a talk every other week. Although really, this was more like several weeks of back-to-back talks and some weeks of rest…

Compare with my talks from 2008:

  1. Wikis
  2. Web 2.0 Strategy Recommendations for Practice Blogs
  3. Web 2.0 at Work: In Pursuit of Passion (slides only)
  4. Web 2.0 and the University
  5. Web 2.0 and Retail
  6. Top 10 Web 2.0 Tools You Should Try (IBM, given twice)
  7. Top 10 Web 2.0 Tools Every IBM Consultant Should Try (IBM, given twice)
  8. The Demographic Revolution (IBM keynote segment, given twice)
  9. The Art of Blogging
  10. Taking it Offline/Online: Combining Online and Offline Social Networking
  11. Sowing Seeds: A Tech Evangelist’s Guide to Grassroots Adoption
  12. Social Media Business Models
  13. Setting Up Your Drupal Development Environment
  14. No Time to Blog?
  15. New Media, New Generation
  16. New Bee’s Guide to Web 2.0 at IBM
  17. Networking for New Hires
  18. Millennials and University Relations
  19. IBM: The Next Generation
  20. IBM TLE: I.B.Millennials
  21. How to sketch with the Nintendo DS (slides only)
  22. How to Connect with LinkedIn
  23. Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work (slides only)
  24. From Webkinz and Club Penguin to Facebook and Myspace
  25. Creating w3 sites with Drupal
  26. Blog Your Way Out of a Job… and Into a Career (IBM and external)

That’s interesting. Also 26 separate topics… I hadn’t realized I did that many presentations. It’s all fun, though!

Next year, I want to talk more about communication, connection, and collaboration. I want to get better at recording and posting videos. I want to play with more sketches and maybe even animation, too.

My first public talk was at a Linux conference in 2001. In the past 8 years, I’ve learned tons, and I look forward to learning and sharing even more!

How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar: Part 3: Reading the room

November 13, 2009 - Categories: presentation, speaking

Many speakers tell me that they don’t like webinars because they can’t read people’s body language. We rely so much on watching people’s body language when giving a presentation. Is the talk too slow? Too fast? Do people agree? Disagree? Doubt? Are people too warm or too cold? Where in the talk do people nod? Where do they tune out?

Body language gives important feedback, and you get that feedback even when people don’t consciously think of giving it. People who might not raise a hand and say that your talk is boring, but if they’re falling asleep, you can tell that you’ve got to work harder at engaging people. Likewise, you don’t have to stop and take a poll if you want to know if people are interested. Are they leaning forward? Are they taking notes? You’ve got your answer right there.

When you can’t read the room, you run the risk of going off track, of going too fast or too slow, of losing your audience without even knowing that you did. Feedback becomes a little more structured, a little less natural. If you need to take the temperature of the room, you have to stop and ask. You’ll only get responses from people who were already engaged, so even your feedback is skewed. It’s tough.

But remote presentations have a strong advantage that many speakers overlook. Why settle for reading people’s body language, when you can read their thoughts?

Enabling the text chat and encouraging people to use it allows you to keep an eye on what people are thinking about, what they have more questions about, and what engages them. Frequent polls give you feedback, too. Many sophisticated web conference systems even allow participants to indicate their status throughout the presentation: if they think it’s going too fast or too slow, if they’re happy, if they have a question… Although most attendees will still not be used to these practices, you can help them become familiar with the tools, and they may become part of the standard ways people interact with teleconferences.

The feedback you get in the official conference environment will probably be biased towards the positive, so you’ll need to make an effort if you want to know more. Make it safe for people to ask questions or indicate confusion, and never embarrass your attendees for asking. In fact, you might want to ask someone to keep an eye out for possible questions and ask them during your session. If he or she thinks of something to ask, other people in the audience probably have the same question, and they’d be relieved if someone stepped forward and asked it for them. That can also show people that you really do welcome questions and conversation.

If you have feedback channels that aren’t displayed—such as Twitter, perhaps with a hashtag you’ve suggested—you may be able to monitor that for more honest feedback (or at least it will be frank until people realize that you’re watching ;) ).

Being able to read what people are thinking instead of just guessing their thoughts is a great help when you’re giving a presentation. If it’s difficult for you to watch the chat or the interactions while giving a presentation, ask a buddy to do so, or take occasional breaks to review what’s being said.

Again, this might not work for all presentations and all audiences. If you anticipate a hostile audience, you probably want to be there so that you can make a personal connection and read the room. Some cultures seem to be more comfortable with the idea of chat and feedback than other cultures are. But if you’re probably going to have friendly, engaged participants who are willing to interact with you, make the most of the feedback that they’re happy to give.

I find that it’s much easier to adapt my talk to the responses from participants when I’m giving a virtual presentation compared to when I’m giving a face-to-face one. Even with all the current limitations of online feedback channels, reading people’s thoughts can beat reading people’s body language. Give it a try!

This is the third part of How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar.
Part 1: The best seats in the house
Part 2: From audience to participants
Next: Taking the next step

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Wild success and social networks

November 13, 2009 - Categories: connecting, ibm, social, web2.0

Every so often, I have these moments when I realize: This must be the future. It’s here!

On Wednesday, I received an urgent request for a Web 2.0 strategy and intranet design expert for a 5-week engagement in Europe. A $10M deal hinged on our ability to find such a person before the end of the week. The project team had already asked the usual groups, and everyone was fully booked.

I knew that we needed to cast a much wider net than just the people I knew. I summarized the request and posted it to our Web 2.0 for Business community inside IBM. I asked people to respond on the discussion thread, e-mail me, or contact the person who had sent us the request. The program manager for the deal found the discussion thread and posted some more details, and we asked people to send him their résumés.

The response was amazing. People stepped forward. They passed the opportunities along to their social networks, diversity groups, and communities. After a flurry of e-mails, Sametime instant messages, and discussion thread posts, we found a lot of strong candidates. The program manager contacted the top candidates and put together a package for the client. Along the way, I got to know lots of people with just the right skillset we were looking for. Suzanne Minassian-Livingston was right: IBM is like an amazing candy-store full of talent.

Problem solved, thanks to Lotus Connections Communities and strong social networks within IBM. I would never have found or thought of all of those people on my own, and it would have taken us too much time to work through the normal e-mail chains in networks. Not only did we solve the problem, we also created a powerful success story that showed the client the value of Web 2.0 on the intranet.

Hooray for IBM, Lotus Connections, and social networks!

Thinking about how I can make the most of editing; The world is an amazing candy-store of talent

November 13, 2009 - Categories: delegation, presentation, speaking, writing

I’ve been thinking of ways to get even better at communicating. Blogging and volunteering to do lots of presentations has helped me figure out what I want to talk about and how I want to talk about it, and I’m looking forward to exploring this further over the years. What could really help me take this to the next level, though, is working with a professional who can bring experience and a critical eye. An editor can help me distill my blog posts and presentations to the essential message, hold me accountable when I dither or when I skip over things that should be explained, and challenge me to express myself more clearly and vividly.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that kind of detailed writing or presentation feedback. Teachers are typically too busy to help each student figure out their core messages and refine them through successive drafts. At work, I’ve bounced ideas back and forth, wordsmithing with others, but nothing like what I hope to learn by working with editors.

I want to know:

I don’t just want feedback on typos or suggestions for individual word changes (unless those make spectacular differences), just as I don’t want my speaking evaluations to focus just on “ums”, “ahs” and vocal variety. ;) I want to get to that deeper level of value.

Considering the benefits of great communication skills, I think this is well worth using my opportunity fund—particularly if I can figure out how to create even more value with the results. (E-books? Articles? Awesome presentations?)

So, three weeks ago, I posted a quick job ad on oDesk:

I’m looking for an editor with an excellent command of English, a familiarity with blogging style (short, conversational, personal), a knack for presentation flow, and the ruthlessness to cut and rearrange words until a piece flows well and is no longer than it needs to be. I want someone to help me trim the occasional blog article and presentation until it’s clear.

You will not need to write content (or fake reviews, or astroturf comments, or do other icky things). Just edit to make sure that every word counts.

Turnaround doesn’t need to be immediate – you can fit this work around your other work.

When applying for this job, please submit before and after samples of your editing. The best applicants will have examples of both edited blog posts and edited presentations, and an innate hatred of business jargon such as “utilize”,  “incentivize,” and “leverage” (when used as a verb).

If you would like to see my writing style to see if we’re compatible, check out for my blog posts and for my presentations. I write a lot of raw material which I occasionally refine into more useful articles, and I would like to take that writing to the next level. I also tend to obsess a bit about the logical flow and organization of presentations, and I would love to be able to bounce ideas off an editor who knows his or her work and who can provide fresh perspectives.

Looking at the list of candidates, I can’t help but want to hire them all. =)

It always amazes me that there are so many people in the world who can do things so much better than I can, and that with a little investment of time and money, I can tap their skills. Someday, I want to learn how to create even more opportunities to create value. I want to be able to bring people together to build even more complex things. Wouldn’t it be amazing to find and solve problems or make new things possible, working together with people who are doing what they love? The world is a candy-store of opportunities and talent, and I can’t wait to explore it further.

But first things first, of course. How can I work with editors so that I can learn what I want to learn, and how can I use this opportunity to practice creating value?

I’ve written a lot on my blog, and it would be interesting to review that archive, figure out what might have some kernel of value for others, and learn more about my thoughts and my voice. As I do that, I can pick the most promising posts, send them to this team of editors, and ask their feedback using the questions above. If their suggestions are enough to prod and inspire me, I might go and try to implement them. If I think there’s some more potential that I haven’t been able to reach, I can ask them to apply their editing magic to it, and I can learn from their example.

So that’s my plan. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from it! Have you thought of or done any similar experiments before? I’d love to read your thoughts!


November 14, 2009 - Categories: family

I remember when Lucas entered our lives. My sister had been staying late at the zoo, taking care of a sick foal. My father insisted that she have someone or something for company and protection. A big black dog, perhaps.

What did my sister go and do? She got a black Labrador puppy. Labradors can’t help but project instant friendliness. We joked that he would guilt-trip prospective muggers into leaving my sister alone.

With his easy charm, he became the mascot and client service ambassador for Adphoto, my sister’s favourite model, and a friend to everyone.


Old age has taken its toll on Lucas. He’s hanging on bravely, but it’s almost time to let him go. My sister hopes Lucas can stay until we can all say goodbye to him, but our flights are more than a month away. We’ll see how things work.

I’m happy that of all the families who could have shared Lucas’ life, we were the ones who got to know such a fine dog.

Reflecting on 8 years of blog posts

November 14, 2009 - Categories: blogging, sketches


Reflecting on how I can create value

November 14, 2009 - Categories: blogging, connecting, delegation, presentation, speaking, writing

I reviewed my past eight years of blog posts and dusted off some articles that I think still have some uncaptured value in them.

Public speaking and presentation skills

  6. or

The particular quirks I bring to this are:

I can create value by:

Connecting / networking


The particular quirks I bring to this are:

I can create value by:



The particular quirks I bring to this are:

I can create value by:

Looking at these lists, I think I’ll be able to create the most value by making presentations (and writing accompanying articles) about presenting and connecting. Presentations spread much faster than blog posts and they also help me practice visual communication, so my output will probably focus on that. Blogging is a great way for me to think through the topic out loud, organize my thoughts, and figure out what should go into the presentation. Editing can help me pick out the key messages for the different topics, express them more vividly, figure out what’s missing or redundant, and improve the presentation flow.

Although virtual presentation skills meet a timely need at work, the Shy Connector series and other networking tips would benefit a wider audience. I want to make a set of presentations and blog posts that can help introverts and extroverted newbies make the most of conferences, blogging, and other ways to connect.

Okay! Next step: get in touch with potential editors, explain my goals, and do a trial run of reviewing/revising one major post each.

The shy connector’s schedule: making time to breathe

November 15, 2009 - Categories: connecting, productivity

hamsterwheelIt starts innocently enough. You’re asked to attend a meeting next Tuesday. You accept. Your coworkers invite you to lunch on Wednesday. You agree. A friend invites you to her birthday party next week. You put it on your calendar. Then another meeting invitation comes, and another, and another. Networking events, coffee breaks, and presentations crowd into your schedule.

If this has ever made you feel suffocated, exhausted, and in dire need of some alone time, you might be an introvert.

I know it’s difficult to say no to opportunities. I’ve accepted too many invitations and tried to attend too many events. Last year’s conference season was particularly stressful. The first week, I was in New York for the Best Practices Conference, giving a presentation on blogging. The second week, I was at the even bigger Technical Leadership Exchange in Florida, giving a presentation on Generation Y. By the time I got to the Web 2.0 Summit (which I was helping organize), I was ready to hide. (And I did, behind the podium.)

As much as I enjoy learning from people in conversations and conferences, needing to be “on” all the time is incredibly draining. I’m learning how to manage my schedule and how to say no.

It’s important to figure out what works for you. For example, I don’t want to be out late two nights in a row. In fact, I’d rather not be out late at all. This means that before I accept an invitation, I look at my schedule for that time and my schedule for the week, making sure that I’m not trying to pack too much in.

In addition to getting better at saying no, I’m also getting better at scheduling time for myself. I’ve blocked off time on my calendar for planning, working on important tasks, and responding to mail. Sometimes people still schedule meetings during those times, but in general, I can be sure that my day won’t be full of conference calls. I sometimes block off time during evenings and weekends for particular projects, too. If I’m going to travel for a workshop or a presentation, I want to have a quiet week before and after the trip, and I plan accordingly.

Does this limit opportunities compared to extroverts who are out there schmoozing? Maybe. But I’ve tried running in extrovert mode for extended periods of time, and I can’t do my best if I feel like I’m coming apart. Besides, the things I do in my quiet time—read, write, reflect—also help me connect with people, although in a more introvert-friendly way. It’s better to work with the grain instead of against it.

It’s important to make time to breathe. If you find yourself running ragged because you feel that you have to say yes to everything, stop and slow down. Schedule introvert dates with yourself. Make time for breaks. Say no. You’ll find that the quiet time you give yourself will make it even easier to connect with people when you do, because you’ll be happier and better rested.

What can you do to free up some time for yourself?

Weekly review: Week ending November 15, 2009

November 15, 2009 - Categories: weekly




Plans for next week:




Fleece blankets and seasons

November 16, 2009 - Categories: canada


W- and I bought another set of microfleece sheets. They’re much cheaper than an electric blanket or heated mattress pad, and they’re significantly toastier than cotton sheets. We’re planning to keep the house at around 16C – or even cooler, if we can manage it, so the extra warmth will help. It’ll be hard to get out of bed in the morning, but the bathrobe I leave on my night-table may help. Wool socks, scarves, and thermal underwear will take the edge off the cold. I’m even looking forward to trying out the handwarmer that W- got for me.

Living in Toronto gives me three big challenges: being halfway around the world from family and old friends, making sure my paperwork is in order, and dealing with winter. Video calls, new friendships, and trips home take care of the first challenge. I’m about to finish my permanent residency process, so that’ll take care of the second challenge. As for the third challenge, it’s been said that there’s no such thing as terrible weather, only wrong clothes.

Why not just move back to the Philippines? W- shares custody of J- with his ex-wife, so he needs to be in Toronto. Having gone through the hassle of uprooting myself, I’d rather not make others go through the ordeal, either.

Now that I’ve accepted winter as inevitable, I can face it on my own terms and look for ways to stay happy (or be even happier!).

It’s hard to believe that I’m getting ready for my fifth winter in Canada. My fifth! And yet each year makes winter better and better. In 2005, I filled my wardrobe with winter coats from Goodwill. In 2006, a family friend gave me some great coats, and I spent winter time with Toronto friends. 2007 was my first winter with W- and J-, filled with tobogganing and hot chocolate. Last year, I discovered the joys of winter hiking, warm cats, and home-made clothes. This year, I’m looking forward to toasty blankets, lots of baking, and splashes of color in the clothes I’ll make.

The seasons change with or without me, so it’s up to me to adapt.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar: Part 4: Taking the next steps

November 17, 2009 - Categories: presentation, sketches, speaking

afteryourtalkThe only reason to give a presentation is to help people act or think differently. I’ve tried almost everything that could prod people to take the next step. I’ve distributed hand-outs summarizing the key points and next actions. I’ve given out worksheets. I’ve collected e-mail addresses and sent everyone a follow-up note with links to slides and what to do next. I’ve linked to short URLs on my slides to make it easy for people to take notes. I’ve even experimented with pairing people up so that they could follow up with each other. But it’s still a huge challenge to get people to think about a presentation after they’ve walked out the doors. After your talk, they all go their separate ways.

Virtual presentations are different. While I’m taking questions or after I wrap up, people can click on links in the text chat or type in the URL from my slides. They can download, review, and forward my slides right away. They can review the next steps. They can bookmark the page and return to it when they have questions. There are even systems that automatically track people’s interactions with the content, so I can e-mail them about updates.

The easier I make it for people to take the next small step, such as reviewing slides or planning their next actions, the more I support them in making the next big step, such as trying out social media tools. People’s access to mail and Internet can distract them during the presentation if you’re not engaging enough, but the same access can be powerful when you purposefully use it to guide people’s next actions.

This is the fourth part of How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar.
Part 1: The best seats in the house
Part 2: From audience to participants
Part 3: Reading the room
Part 4: Taking the next steps
Next: Convenience and control

Automating tedious wiki editing tasks with Emacs and w3m

November 17, 2009 - Categories: emacs, geek

I needed to update many of the links in our wiki because a team member left, so I had to reupload all of her files to a shared service and change all the URLs to point to the new files. Unfortunately, the file service didn’t send me the former URLs of the files, so that was going to be a manual process. Our wiki had 149 pages in it. Not fun.

After a few pages of editing (and correcting the occasional typo that crept in as I changed URLs), I decided to partially automate the process. Using a smidgen of Emacs Lisp, I created a function that pasted text into a temporary buffer, performed whatever automatic fixes it could make, prompted me for any URLs it didn’t recognize, remembered the old URL – new URL mapping I defined, and copied the text back.

The function looked somewhat like this:

(defvar sacha/wiki-links nil "Associative list of (old-url . new-url).")
(defun sacha/wiki-fix ()
    ;; Insert text from clipboard
    (goto-char (point-min))
    ;; Look for all the links 
    (while (re-search-forward
            "\\[\\([^|]+\\)|\\([^\]]+\\)\\]" nil t)
      ;; Check if it's one of the links I want to replace
      (if (or (string-match-p "viewpage" (match-string 2))
              (string-match-p "lsoohoo" (match-string 2)))
             ;; Prompt and the entry to the map if it does not yet exist
             (unless (assoc (match-string 2) sacha/wiki-links)
               (add-to-list 'sacha/wiki-links
                            (cons (match-string 2)
                                  (read-string (concat (match-string 1)
                                                       "? ")))))
             ;; pick up the corresponding URL
             (cdr (assoc (match-string 2) sacha/wiki-links)))
           t t nil 2)))
    ;; Copy the text into the clipboard
    (kill-new (buffer-string))))

I used M-x global-set-key to bind a convenient function key to it (F12, I think), and then it was just a matter of clicking on each page, clicking on Edit, typing Ctrl-C to copy the text, switching to Emacs, pressing F12, switching back to my browser, typing Ctrl-V, and saving the wiki page. I also added some lines (not shown here) to convert the previous wiki gardener’s full links to intrawiki links, change server URLs, and do other fun things.

I thought about fully automating it (somehow hooking into w3, perhaps?), but that seemed to be more trouble than needed. Besides, it was good to review all the pages.

As a result of this Emacs wizardry, processing all 149 wiki pages took me a few hours instead of a few days. Yay!

Of course, I finished the last wiki page, I found out that I needed to change the servers in the URL. I decided to go ahead and fully automate the darn thing.

I extracted a list of URLs for the wiki by viewing the tree version of the wiki index. It used Javascript, so I couldn’t just pull the URLs out of the source code. Fortunately, the Firebug plugin for Firefox lets me copy the rendered HTML, so I used that instead. Some judicious text-editing later (replace-regexp rocks), I had a list of URLs to the different pages. I knew I needed to put in some kind of delay when loading web pages. sleep-for let me spread out my requests so I didn’t hammer the server too badly. Reading the w3m.el source code turned up w3m-async-exec. Once I set that to nil, requesting web pages and running code on the results turned out to be straightforward. Selecting the right widgets was a bit of a hack (re-search-forward here, w3m-previous-anchor there), but hey, it worked. After confirming it by manually running it on a few pages, I left it merrily running in the background.

Here it is (some tweaking required):

(defun sacha/edit-wiki-page ()
  (let ((buffer (current-buffer))
        (w3m-async-exec nil)
        (delay 5)) ;; number of seconds
    ;; While not at the end of the buffer
    (while (not (eobp))
      ;; Load the URL on the current line
      ;; Look for the edit button
      (goto-char (point-min))
      (when (search-forward "Edit" nil t)
        ;; Click it
        ;; Look for the Minor change checkbox
        (goto-char (point-min))
        (when (search-forward "Minor change" nil t)
          ;; The text area is the second widget back
          (w3m-previous-anchor 2)
          ;; Open the text area in a temporary buffer for editing
          ;; Do the changes
          (while (re-search-forward "https?://" nil t)
            (replace-match "" t t nil 0))
          ;; Save the value
          (when (search-backward "Save" nil t)
      (switch-to-buffer buffer)
      (sleep-for delay))))

I’m sure this kind of automation might be possible with lots of hacking in Mozilla Firefox, and I’ve seen great scripts for the Mac, too. But I know Emacs, I’m comfortable digging into source code, and I can make things work.

Awesome. =D

Cambridge stories from the past and future

November 18, 2009 - Categories: connecting

I’m sitting at gate B6 at the Pearson Airport in Toronto, waiting for my
flight to Boston. In a few hours, I’ll be at the IBM Cambridge research
lab to help facilitate a client workshop. No visit to the lab is
complete without connecting with the Collaborative User Experience
group, and I’ve carefully stashed cookies in my carry-on bag to share
with them.

I get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever I think of CUE. They’ve created
some of my favourite systems in IBM–social tools that have transformed
the way I experience work. Their questions and analyses help us explore
the effects of social computing and collaboration in the enterprise. And
they’re wonderful people, too.

I first got to meet them after convincing my research supervisor that
the graduate research I was doing at the University of Toronto would
benefit from a face-to-face meeting with the authors of the major papers
in my area of study. They could point me to interesting questions and
resources. Although travel funds were limited (aren’t they always?), I
finagled approval after showing that I could stay with a family friend
and taking public transportation. Taking a page out of my sister’s
playbook (and borrowing her “secret recipe”, too), I baked oatmeal
cookies for gifts.

Meeting the researchers in person was my first experience of how
powerful the social intranet could be. I felt I already knew them
because of their blog posts and papers. After a quick look at my
bookmarks and blog posts, they knew me too. Conversation was
surprisingly easy.

I kept in touch with the Cambridge lab as I continued to explore my
thesis topic. As an avid user of the social networking tools within IBM,
I was frequently involved in their studies. They published papers that I
cited, and commented on my blog posts with additional resources I should
check out. I flew down to speak at one of their get-togethers and learn
from the other sessions there. I was just dipping my toes in with my
research. It was fascinating to learn from people who were immersed in
the field. Through IBM’s Web 2.0 tools, I got to know them further, and
I also connected with lots of people all over the world.

That’s what made a real difference for me. I got to see a side of IBM
that few other graduate students or interns experienced. I met all these
amazing people throughout the organization. I learned so much from them,
and I was surprised to find that they were learning from me as well.

I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather work or anyone else I’d
rather work with. I joined IBM’s application development and consulting
group in October 2007.

A year later, I visited the Cambridge lab again–this time as an
IT specialist facilitating a workshop on Generation Y. I made sure my
trip included an extra day for just meeting up with people, and I asked
one of my mentors to help me figure out how to make the most of that
day. He did more than that. He orchestrated this amazing insight-packed
day of meetings with different researchers who were passionate about
social networking and collaboration. An entire day! I felt like a
visiting dignitary instead of a newbie who was just starting out in the
organization. =) I took as many notes as I could, and I wished I could
make even better use of the ideas they shared.

I even got to sit in one of the research group meetings as they bounced
ideas around for the next year. I brought oatmeal cookies. When he saw
the cookies, the research group leader smiled and said it was just like
before. I had brought cookies when I visited them as a student shortly
after starting my thesis. Even though it was a small gesture, he
remembered it. That made me smile.

Later that day, I was walking through the corridors with the mentor
who’d arranged all of those meetings. He pointed out someone we’d just
passed, and whispered that that was Benoit Mandelbrot. It took me a lot
of resolve not to fangirl then and there. I nearly turned around and
asked for an autograph. ;) I had been fascinated by fractals in high
school, and there was the person who’d kicked it all off. Isn’t it
amazing, the kind of talent the world has?

Not all of us will invent new fields or open vast new vistas of
knowledge, but we’re all working on making the world a little better.
I’m deeply appreciative of the researchers at Cambridge and my other
colleagues around the world. They ask interesting questions. They build
our knowledge of how the world not only works, but how it _can_ work.
And they’re willing to reach out and take the time to help this novice
learn as much as she can from as many people as she can… Isn’t that

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve only been at IBM for two years,
officially. I’ve been on the network for four years. I feel at home in
our communities and on our networks. It’s also hard to believe that this
is really only my third year of “real” work experience: one year as a
teacher, and now two years at IBM. There are many, many things I’m
figuring out for the first time. But the social networks I can reach are
disproportionately bigger than my tenure, and the insights and
opportunities that people have shared with me mean that I sometimes now
find myself with the answers to questions people ask.

What amazes me most about all of this is:

If I can connect like this, work like this, and love like this even as a
recent hire who’s figuring lots of things out, imagine what else is
possible. Imagine what I could do ten years from now. Imagine what more
experienced people could do right now. Imagine what new hires could do
if they got off to an even faster start. Imagine what the enterprise
could do if this was part of the culture.

I sometimes wonder why people are so generous with their insights and
energy, why they share so much with me. Perhaps part of it is paying
their own mentors back. Perhaps part of it is that my questions help
them further understand their answers. And perhaps part of it is that I
help them see the difference they’ve made and imagine the future they’re
helping create.

This is a future worth building, and I can’t wait to see what we can do

WordPress: Older posts, newer posts

November 18, 2009 - Categories: geek, wordpress

I always get confused by “Previous page” and “Next page” on WordPress blogs. After only a little struggling, I finally got my navigation sorted out so that you can page through it using “Older posts” and “Newer posts”.

I added the following to my style.css:

.navigation { font-weight: bold; font-size: larger }
.navigation .right { float: right }
.navigation .left { float: left }

Then I added this to my theme’s index.php:

<div class="navigation">
  <div class="left">
    <?php next_posts_link('&laquo; Older posts'); ?>
  </div><div class="right">
    <?php previous_posts_link('Newer posts &raquo;'); ?>

Result: yay!


The luxury of making

November 19, 2009 - Categories: sewing, sketches


My standard for decadence used to be the microfiber robe I once had the pleasure of trying in a hotel spa. It was unbelievably soft and comfortable. I added a luxury bathrobe to the list of things that might be worth buying someday. In the meantime, I contented myself with the terry bathrobe I picked up at a bargain from Winners.

I finished making a hooded fleece bathrobe. The pockets are a little too low, the edges are not quite finished, and lint and stray threads are everywhere. After some adjustments, the sleeves are now the right length. The hood does not pull up at the back. One of the pockets features a cat. It’s mine, it’s cozy, and it’s the best robe I’ve ever had. I think it’s even cooler than this Jedi bathrobe. ;)

I love the territorial pleasures of making things for myself.

Book: Leading Out Loud

November 20, 2009 - Categories: book, communication, leadership, presentation, reading, speaking
Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change Through Authentic Communications
Terry Pearce, 2003

Excellent advice on being authentic. Good point starting p133 about when not to take questions, and how to address difficult questions.

When not to take questions:

If the speech is your first advocacy for a change, it is likely to be more abstract and less specific, written to inspire with context and values. Questions could prove frustrating for you and your listeners, and could drain away the excitement that your initial speech has generated. If your audience is large, taking questions is logistically difficult. The process needs to be tailored both to allow representative questions to be asked and to avoid ill feelings in someone not recognized due to time constrains.

… More typically the size of audience and nature of material are not prohibitive, and in such cases you should always offer the audience the chance to clarify, contribute, or challenge your comments. When others can really participate, they are more likely to feel ownership and commitment. In offering to take questions, you are offering a direct relationship to individuals, in addition to the group as a whole. You build expectations of candor in the audience, and can greatly enhance or damage the credibility and trust you have constructed during the speech.

p133, Terry Pearce, Leading Out Loud, 2003

These are the five primary elements of the invested listening model:

  • Answering the stated and unstated question
  • Acknowledging feelings
  • Finding common intent
  • Distinguishing between your context, or point of view, and the questioner’s point of view
  • Checking in: making sure that you have been responsive

p139, Terry Pearce, Leading Out Loud, 2003

Leading Out Loud is well worth revisiting and keeping around for inspiration.

Drawing is about seeing the magic in everyday things

November 21, 2009 - Categories: sketches


Thinking about my personal learning environment

November 22, 2009 - Categories: learning, reflection, sketches

I was thinking about what I learn and how I learn it.

  Experience Blogs Books Communities Mentors Classes
Life High Medium Medium Medium Medium  
Web 2.0 Medium High High High Medium  
Presentation High Medium High Medium Medium  
Drupal High Low   Medium    
Emacs High Low   Medium    
Organizational knowledge Medium Medium   High High  
Drawing High Low Medium      
Personal finance Medium Medium Medium      
Productivity High High High      
Sewing High Low Medium     Low
Leadership Low Medium High   Medium  
Delegation Medium          

Looking at this, I can see that I’m really not keen on sitting in classes (especially for things I’ve mostly taught myself off the Internet). I learn the most from getting in there and playing around with things. I read a lot about Web 2.0, presentation skills, personal finance, productivity, drawing, and leadership, but I haven’t found many good blogs or resources for delegation. When it comes to technical topics like Drupal or Emacs, I learn the most by getting into the source code and by helping the community solve problems. I mostly turn to mentors for help in navigating IBM and understanding the organization, although we also talk about life, Web 2.0, and communication and leadership skills.

That made me think about what I primarily read about, what I talk to lots of people about, and what I talk to specific mentors about.



That makes me think of things I might want to move to different parts of the Venn diagram, like productivity… Hmm.

Weekly review: Week ending November 22, 2009

November 22, 2009 - Categories: weekly

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week:




Trying out visual notetaking at a workshop

November 23, 2009 - Categories: sketches

The more I draw, the easier and more fun it gets.

I helped facilitate a client workshop last week. During one of the exercises, the lead facilitator took notes on an easel. I needed to make a copy of the notes so that we could build on the results in a breakout session. I thought I’d experiment with visual note-taking on another easel, as I’d been having fun taking personal visual notes throughout the workshop.

The lead facilitator filled seven pages with phrases and keywords. I used icons and keywords to take notes, filling two and a half sheets. This was great because we were running out of wall space! <laugh> It was also easier for me to move the sheets to the next room—bonus!

I seem to be developing a quick visual vocabulary: trophies and gold stars for rewards, fire for enthusiasm or passion, and so on. That made it easier to keep up with the discussion.

Working with drawings made it easier to connect related ideas, too, because I could draw circles and connect them with lines in different colours.

Four people came up to me individually to compliment me on the drawings. Yay! =)

Next step: Instead of just using a grid of images+words (which is like using bullet points on slides! ;) ), I’d love to explore other ways to organize the information. Visual metaphors will be fun to try.

No public pictures of the session, but I’ll see if I can take visual notes for something public!

Reflections on the Innovation Discovery workshop in Boston

November 24, 2009 - Categories: ibm, kaizen, reflection

Last week, I facilitated my fourth Innovation Discovery workshop. I learned a lot! Here are a few quick reflections:

What can I do to prepare the ground for an even better next time?

This was lots of fun, and I look forward to making the next one even more awesome. =)

Learning how to write

November 25, 2009 - Categories: delegation, learning, sketches, writing



I want to write better so that I can learn and share even more. I outsourced editing so that I could get an idea of what “better” looked like. The first editor couldn’t think of how to significantly improve what I sent her. Maybe I’ve hit the “good enough” gap. But improvement isn’t just about polishing something until it shines.

I can write more. If my instincts are good, then I’ll get better the more I write.

I can learn more. The more I experience, the more I can share.

I can draw more, so I can make stories even richer.

Looking forward to sharing the adventure!

Oh, the library…

November 26, 2009 - Categories: learning, library

I have a confession to make: I stalk the Toronto Public Library.

The library publishes a list of new acquisitions online every 15th of the month. And every 15th of the month, I check out the new releases for business and other topics I’m interested, pick the ones I’m interested in, and hand my list off to an assistant who then performs my place-hold-on-book task for each and every book on that list. This takes more time than just reserving the books myself, but it saves me lots of clicking back and forth through the list.

Then the books slowly filter in. Some books already have a backlog of holds, fortunately, so I don’t (usually) have 50 books descending on the Annette branch all at once. We’ve set aside a shelf for library books, although they usually spill over to chairs and tables as well.

I snack on the books, browsing through them to find the nuggets of insight that distinguish books from the numerous others written on the same topic.

When my three-week window is up, the popular books go back, and the less-popular ones might either be returned or renewed. Then it’s almost the 15th again, with a fresh new batch of books waiting to be picked over…


Drawing by Seeing, and some reflections on life

November 27, 2009 - Categories: book, life, reading, reflection, sketches



Drawing by Seeing (John Torreano) made me think about drawing in a completely different way.

Instead of starting with a line that gets distorted because you can’t see properly and that makes you run out of space because you hadn’t planned for the big picture, start with a shape that you gradually grow until it’s just right, then develop your drawing with marks, so that the entirety of it emerges gradually, instead of piece by piece.

And I thought: This is life. Instead of building  it piece by piece, distorting our drawings because we can’t see properly, start with the rough shape of everything, then fill it in so that all parts develop gradually, and you remember to make room for everything.

Drawing by Seeing (Abrams Studio)
John Torreano

(Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link. That said, I recommend checking out your local library. I got this book from the Toronto Public Library, yay!)

Figuring things out on the fly

November 28, 2009 - Categories: ibm, learning

Dark blazers are a newbie facilitator’s friend. No one could see me perspire as I wondered what to do. My session wasn’t working. The exercise structure I picked didn’t fit the energy and interest of the room. I needed to improvise.

Fortunately, my team helped me out. One of my colleagues asked a question that was really a hint about one thing we could try, so I latched onto it. That was better, but not quite all the way there. He suggested something else, I wove that suggestion in, and that worked. People got up and discussed the personas. At the end of the session, one of the clients asked if all of that would be summarized and sent to them: value!

It’s scary getting up there in front of a group, but it’s a darn good way to learn. My team helps me stretch and learn by giving me opportunities to facilitate workshop sessions and coordinate online brainstorming conversations. Over the past two years, I’ve surprised myself by having opinions, ideas, and even answers when people ask me about topics. And it’s awesome doing this with experienced people who can step in and smooth things over.

Maybe this is why large companies can be great learning environments. You’re surrounded by people with years of experience and a vested interest in helping the team succeed, so you end up learning tons along the way. =)

Process: How to ask communities for help

November 29, 2009 - Categories: process

Reaching out to communities can be a powerful way to find talent or resources. Your personal network may take a while to find the right person or file, especially if key people are unavailable. If you ask the right community, though, you might be able to get answers right away.

Here are some tips on asking communities for help:

Good luck!

WordPress tweak: Proper navigation for date.php

November 29, 2009 - Categories: blogging, geek, wordpress

I can’t be the only person who’s ever wanted proper navigation on WordPress date.php archive pages. By this, I mean that if you’re browsing, say, and you’re on the first page, there should be a way for you to get to 2008.

So I spent a couple of hours hacking that in. This even skips non-existent years/months/days. Tweak and enjoy.

Minor notes: It jumps to the first page of the other year/month/day, so the results aren’t strictly chronological. Going to 2008 from 2009 will show you the blog posts from January 1 instead of the last posts of 2008. Since I display a huge list of posts and I only use one page, that’s fine with me.

  $y = mysql2date('Y', $wp_query->posts[0]->post_date);
  $m = mysql2date('m', $wp_query->posts[0]->post_date);
  $d = mysql2date('d', $wp_query->posts[0]->post_date);
  $display = mktime(0, 0, 0, $m, $d, $y);
  if (is_year()) {
    $format = 'Y';
    $prev_display = mktime(23, 59, 59, 12, 31, $y - 1);
    $next_display = mktime(0, 0, 0, 1, 1, $y + 1);
    $url_format = 'Y';
  } elseif (is_month()) {
    $prev_display = mktime(23, 59, 59, $m, 0, $y);
    $next_display = mktime(0, 0, 0, $m + 1, 1, $y);
    $format = 'F Y';
    $url_format = 'Y/n';
  } elseif (is_day()) {
    $prev_display = mktime(23, 59, 59, $m, $d - 1, $y);
    $next_display = mktime(0, 0, 0, $m, $d + 1, $y);
    $format = 'F j, Y';
    $url_format = 'Y/n/j';
  $paged = get_query_var('paged');
  if ($paged < 2) { // No previous pages; navigate by date instead
    $past = $wpdb->get_row("SELECT UNIX_TIMESTAMP(MAX(post_date)) AS post_date
FROM $tableposts WHERE post_date <= FROM_UNIXTIME($prev_display) AND post_status='publish'");
    if ($past->post_date) {
      $prev_text = '&laquo; ' . date($format, $past->post_date);
      $prev_link = get_bloginfo('url') . '/'
        . date($url_format, $past->post_date);
  if ($paged >= $wp_query->max_num_pages) { // No next pages
    $future = $wpdb->get_row("SELECT UNIX_TIMESTAMP(MIN(post_date)) AS post_date
FROM $tableposts WHERE post_date >= FROM_UNIXTIME($next_display) AND post_status='publish'");
    if ($future->post_date) {
      $next_text = date($format, $future->post_date) . ' &raquo;';
      $next_link = get_bloginfo('url') . '/'
        . date($url_format, $future->post_date);
  $title = date($format, $display);
  <div class="navigation">
    <div class="left">
      <?php if ($prev_text) { ?>
        <a href="<?php print $prev_link ?>"><?php print $prev_text ?></a>
      <?php } else { ?>
        <?php previous_posts_link('&laquo; Older posts'); ?>
      <?php } ?>
    <div class="right">
      <?php if ($next_text) { ?>
        <a href="<?php print $next_link ?>"><?php print $next_text ?></a>
      <?php } else { ?>
        <?php next_posts_link('Newer posts &raquo;'); ?>
      <?php } ?>
    <div style="clear: both"></div>
  <h1><?php print $title ?></h1>

Weekly review: Week ending Nov 29, 2009 (and website redesign!)

November 29, 2009 - Categories: weekly

If you’re reading this in your feed reader, check out my new site design at! =) 

It’s amazing what you can do with focused time. I created my own website theme, tweaked a number of things that had been bugging me, and tried some optimizations. I’d love to hear what you think about the new theme, and what could make the site even better for you. =) Looking forward to your comments!

Plans from last week:




Plans for next week:




Lotus Notes tweaks: Toolbar buttons to file mail

November 30, 2009 - Categories: lotus, productivity

I like the GTD way of managing mail, and I’ve created folders for this. The three folders I use the most are AA Next Action, AA Waiting, and Done. Dragging messages down to the right folder is more mouse work than I like, though. I created three buttons on a custom toolbar. For example, the action that moves the current message to my Done folder runs this:

@Command([Folder]; “Done”; “1″)

I’d love to associate these with keyboard shortcuts, or spend some time hacking my mail template. That would be even awesomer! =)

Visual notes from Remote Presentations That Rock

November 30, 2009 - Categories: leadership, notetaking, presentation, sketches, speaking


Visual notes from the women’s leadership session I helped facilitate. =) The ice-breaker was “What superpower would you like to have?”, hence the icons along the top.

It was fun taking visual notes during  the discussion of my Remote Presentations That Rock session!