On this page:
  • Building bridges to geekiness
  • Process: How to ask communities for help

Building bridges to geekiness

On the #emacs channel, aidalgol asked me if people ever looked at me as if I were crazy because of my interest in Emacs. =)

I used to worry about being too different, being someone people couldn’t easily relate to. There were practical reasons for thinking about this. At IBM, I wanted to help people and teams make use of new tools and ways of working. Early adopters are terrible at helping mainstream people try out new technologies or approaches. You need someone in between, someone who can relate to early adopters and with whom mainstream adopters can identify.

If people thought I was too different from them, they would stop really listening. You know the excuses people give: “Oh, you’re young, that’s why it’s easy for you. I’m too old to learn this.” “You’re a techie, of course this is easy for you. I’m not very good at this computer thing.” There’s this gap, and that gap becomes a reason for people to not even try. This is also why I don’t like being called a rock star. It creates too much of that separation.

So it was natural to respond to compliments by downplaying what I do. “Oh, they’re just stick figures. You can do this too!” “It’s just that I’ve been doing this for a while. Everyone starts somewhere!” I toned down some of my excitement, tried to giggle less. Worked on minimizing the gap.

It’s becoming more and more fun to revel in the geekiness, though—to follow my curiosity into the winding rabbit-holes and share that sometimes incomprehensible joy. Emacs, Quantified Self, visual thinking and sketchnoting, cooking, reading… I am deeply into things. I play.

People often come up to me after presentations and tell me that I blew their mind. I used to think that was… hmm… Not bad, but not particularly good either. I wanted to show the possibilities, sure, but I also wanted people to walk away with practical things that they could do right now, those first few steps that could take them on even more interesting journeys.

But then there’s this quote, still one of my favourites over the years:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Here is what I’ve come to realize: it’s okay to be weird, to be geeky, to be different, to explore things that many people don’t get a chance to do so. It can inspire people to know what’s out there and what’s possible.

And then periodically come back and balance that with building bridges and on-ramps and ladders. When people are stymied by a seemingly insurmountable gap between where they are and where you are, help them figure out the next small thing that can help them move forward in the direction they want to go. Find it or make it. Then do that again, and again, and again. People come from different perspectives and start at different levels, so your answers may feel scattered in the beginning. Keep doing it. Then the patchwork of resources will grow, and you’ll be able to see how different things can come together and what’s missing. Build, organize, build, organize, step by step, and you’ll learn tons of things along the way.

This seems to work a lot better than trying to convince someone that you’re just like they were and that they can do what you do. No one believes that anyway.

Process: How to ask communities for help

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:

  • Providing as much information as you can in the subject and message body.
    • Show urgency. Does your request have a deadline? Mention the date in the subject.
    • Be specific. Instead of using “Please help” as your subject, give details and write like an ad: “Deadline Nov ___, Web 2.0 intranet strategy expert needed for 5-week engagement in France” .
  • Whenever possible, create a discussion forum topic where people can check for updates and reply publicly. This will save you time and effort you’d otherwise spend answering the same questions again and again. It also allows other people to learn from the ongoing discussion. If you’re broadcasting your request to multiple communities, you can use a single discussion forum topic to collect all the answers, or you can create multiple discussion topics and monitor each of them.
  • If your request is urgent, send e-mail to the community. Most people do not regularly check the discussion forum, so send e-mail if you feel it’s necessary. You may want to ask one of the community leaders to send the e-mail on your behalf. This allows leaders to make sure their members aren’t overwhelmed with mail. Using a community leader’s name can give your message greater weight as well.
  • Plan for your e-mail to be forwarded. Because your e-mail may be forwarded to others, include all the details people will need to evaluate your request and pass it on to others who can help. Omit confidential details and ask people to limit distribution if necessary. Include a link to your discussion forum topic so that people can read updates.
  • Promise to summarize and share the results, and follow through. This encourages people to respond to you because they know they’ll learn something, and it helps you build goodwill in the community.

Good luck!