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May 01 2012

Want to get ahead in DevOps? Expand your expertise and emotional intelligence

Kate Matsudaira (@katemats), VP of engineering at Decide, will be hosting a session, "Leveling up — Taking your operations and engineering role to the next level," at Velocity 2012 in June. In the following interview, Matsudaira addresses a few of the issues she will explore in her session, including the changing roles and required skill sets for today's developers and engineers.

How are operations and engineering jobs changing?

Kate Matsudaira: Technology has been advancing rapidly — it wasn't more than a decade ago when most software involved shrink-wrapped boxes. Things have evolved, though, and with open source, web, and mobile, the landscape has changed. All of the advances in languages, tools, and computing have created a plethora of options to build and create solutions and products.

In the past, engineering roles were specific, and people tended to specialize in one platform or technology. However, as systems have become more complex, and more organizations adopt virtualization, cloud computing, and software as a service, the line between software engineer, operator, and system administrator has become more blurry. It is no longer sufficient to be an expert in one area. People are expected to continuously grow by keeping up with new technology and offering ideas and leadership outside their own purview. As engineering organizations build systems using more and more third-party frameworks, libraries, and services, it's increasingly necessary for engineers to evaluate technologies not solely on their own merits, but also as they fit into the existing enterprise ecosystem.

What are the most important soft skills developers and engineers need to cultivate?

Kate Matsudaira: When it comes to our careers as engineers, learning new technologies and solving problems has never been much of a challenge. And I would argue that most of us actually really enjoy it — and that is part of why we are good engineers. So, certainly understanding the tools and possessing the knowledge to do your work is important.

Putting knowledge and learning aside, there are many soft skill areas that can impact an individual's success and prevent them from realizing their potential. For example, things like communication, influence, attitude, time management, etc., are just the start of a long list of areas to improve.

The specifics may be different for each individual. However, almost everyone — myself included — could stand to improve their communication skills. Whether it is managing up to your boss, getting buy-in from stakeholders, or helping resolve a technical debate with your team members, learning to communicate clearly and effectively can be a challenge for some people.

Communication is the cornerstone of leadership. Learning how to bridge business and technology can help technologists take their careers to the next level. Organizations value people who can clearly explain the trade-offs or return on investment of a feature, or the person who can help their coworkers understand the internal workings of systems. Becoming a better communicator is good career advice for pretty much anyone.

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Your Velocity 2012 session description mentions "emotional intelligence." Why is that important?

Kate Matsudaira: Improving my "emotional intelligence" is something I have had to work on a lot personally to grow in my career. Emotional intelligence is the idea that there is a set of qualities that helps one excel to a higher level than another person with similar cognitive skills (for more on the topic, there is a great article here on what makes a leader).

The definition of emotional intelligence includes a cocktail of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skill — and who wouldn't want to be better in those areas? But for me, as an introvert who tends to like the company of my computer better than most people, things like social skills and self-awareness weren't exactly my strengths.

Since emotional intelligence can be learned, one can find ways to improve and be better in these areas. The first step to making progress is to really understand where you need to improve, which can be a challenge if you are lacking in self-awareness. However, making improvements in these areas can help you become more successful without becoming something that you are not (i.e. introverts can realize their potential without becoming extroverts).

What are specific strategies geeks can use to improve communications with non-geeks?

Kate Matsudaira: There are a lot of strategies I have come up with that work well. I tend to think about social situations like pattern recognition, and come up with frameworks and templates to help me muddle through — and sometimes flourish — in situations that are out of my comfort zone.

When it comes to communicating with non-geeky types, here is a good outline to get you started:

  1. Look at the situation from their point of view. What knowledge do they have? What are the goals or outcomes that matter to them? What are they trying to achieve, and how does your involvement help/hinder their path? Empathy will help you learn to appreciate their work and help them relate to you as a teammate and colleague.
  2. Get on the same page. Listen to their point of view and make sure you understand it. A great way to do this is to repeat back what they tell you (and not in a patronizing way, but in a constructive way to ensure you heard and understood correctly). What are their objectives? What are their concerns? How do they want you to help?
  3. Make them feel smart. Non-technical or non-geeky people often complain that they can't understand developers or engineers, and some technologists like it that way. And while this may make the technologist feel smart, it also creates a barrier. The greatest technologists know how to communicate so that everyone understands. Take the time to explain technical issues at a level they can understand in the context that matters to them (such as business metrics, customer impact, or revenue potential).
  4. Reassure them. Since they may not know the technology, what they want to know is that you (and your team) have things under control. They want to know the end result and timeline, and most of the time they don't want to know about the "how." Keep this in mind and help them achieve peace of mind knowing that you are on top of handling the task at hand.

Of course, each situation is different, but really looking at the situation from the other person's point of view and helping them is a great way to build relationships and improve communication.

This interview was edited and condensed.


July 01 2011

Music and lyrics and code

If the popularity of Geek Choir at various tech-related conferences is any indication, there's a substantial correlation between producing music — whether vocally or with an instrument — and coding.

Michael Brewer (@operatic), application programmer specialist at the University of Georgia and a speaker at OSCON 2011, got the official Geek Choir sessions started at the Open Source Bridge and O'Reilly OSCON conferences. In a recent interview, he discussed how the choir came about and how music and coding complement each other.

How do music and technical aptitude intersect?

MichaelBrewer.jpgMichael Brewer: Since Geek Choir got accepted, I've been hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence of a high crossover between music and geek aptitude. Of course, people have been talking about the math-music connection since "Gödel, Escher, Bach." Recent studies have again shown connections between early exposure to music and math ability, although it's not exactly what we think of as the "Mozart Effect."

I tend to view it as a combination of pattern recognition and the ability to organize and reproduce thoughts about larger, more abstract concepts and their executions. Also, the production of sound using tools at hand — including vocal chords — is similar, in a sense, to producing code with software or hacking other projects.

We are a species that bonds with our tools in unusual ways. Correlation doesn't prove causation, though — there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in figuring out if geeks are good at music or if musicians are good at being geeks.

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What is a "Geek Choir," and how did it get started?

Michael Brewer: I attended several OSCONs in the early-to-mid 2000s. I noticed several music jam sessions, as well as the popularity of the Gibson guitar booth in the exhibit hall one year. Folks were jamming on those guitars for hours.

At the first Open Source Bridge Conference, I suggested a Geek Choir session for the "unconference" on the last day. We started with fairly few people, but once we started singing — and people in the halls heard us and "voted with their feet" — we more than tripled our attendance in 15 minutes. The next year, Geek Choir made it into the OSBridge main conference. We had a very successful and enjoyable session, mixing experienced singers with absolute newbies.

In your OSCON session description, it says there's no advanced prep for the session choirs — why did you decide to go that route, and what benefits does a no-prep environment create?

Michael Brewer: It makes it easier on the newbies if everyone is getting introduced to the music at the same time. Also, it means that I have to be sure in my preparation to select music that is both accessible for inexperienced singers and worthwhile for experienced musicians. It's a good engineering challenge.

What are some tips for putting together a Geek Choir?

Michael Brewer: Here's a few:

  • Be welcoming and respectful. Everyone can contribute, even if they have never sung in public before or don't read music.
  • Choose — or compose — music that can be done by a mix of voices, both in terms of range and skill level. Parts can be done, but they have to be fairly straightforward to pick up. Shape note songs are good for this, as they were specifically engineered to (a) be easily learned by the (somewhat) untrained American choirs of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and (b) be performed with mixed genders on the various lines — sopranos and tenors would both sing the melody, for example, and altos and basses the bass parts, at comfortable octaves for each.
  • Stay in the public domain when you can. There are some tremendous repositories of music, including the Choral Public Domain Library and the International Music Score Library Project.
  • Have a great time!

There are a variety of open source tools for arranging music. Which do you recommend?

Michael Brewer: In general, there are two types of music composition software: music sequencers, which work with manipulating and combining blocks of sounds (sequences) into larger musical works, and notation software, which deals primarily in written or printed music.

Wonderful music is created with either. I generally work with notation software, so I'm much more familiar with notation editors. In this arena, everyone is chasing the main two commercial products — Finale (which I use) and Sibelius. For a long time, the open source tools weren't really comparable, in terms of ease of use, but MuseScore has really closed the gap. There's also LilyPond. I haven't worked with it yet, but I've heard good things about it.

What similarities, if any, do you see in the communal qualities of music and the communities that grow around open source projects?

Michael Brewer: There are several:

  • Both are groups of people coming together to create something, be it software or music.
  • There is artistry in the finished product for both. Code is most definitely art.
  • People vote with their feet for both, in terms of joining and leaving.
  • Coming together to work on common tasks builds connections and solidarity among the members. They tend to view themselves as a collective, giving themselves an identity as part of a larger whole.


August 16 2010

Geeks at work

Career guides try to distill jobs into basic components. "Work hard and get ahead." "Be your own advocate." That sort of thing.

But anyone who's been in an office for a while knows that human interaction undermines those components. The real trick -- and it takes a long time to learn this -- is realizing the work system isn't a system at all. It's an arbitrary and ever-changing rule set that often pushes reason to the sidelines.

That's a rough conclusion for "system thinkers," a category of worker Michael Lopp, author of "Being Geek" and the blog Rands in Repose, puts himself in. Lopp is a geek. He's a guy who likes order and predictable outcomes. And he understands that system thinkers can face unique pressures in the office.

In the following Q&A, Lopp passes along the nuggets of workplace wisdom he's acquired, including: how geeks can communicate with non-geeks, why geeks and managers don't get along, and how to know when it's time to move on.

What is a system thinker?

Michael Lopp: Michael LoppNerds are system thinkers. We have this clever illusion that the world is a knowable place. With think with enough work and enough time and enough effort, we can find a set of rules about everything. That is totally not true.

Our favorite tool is the computer. And the computer is a system that does a predictable thing. Since that tool is omnipresent in our lives, it gives us the impression that everything's like that.

Do system thinkers put too much faith in management?

ML: I think it's the exact opposite. What are the top three things that managers do? They organize things. They communicate. They're supposed to be leaders. Leadership is really interesting to folks, inspiring people and being strategic. But those first two, organization and communication, sometimes turn into power trips for a lot of managers. They use information as a weapon. That is a huge violation to the geek ethic, where you're supposed to be transparent and knowable and systematized. This is where I think managers get bad reputations, hiding information or doling it out as he or she sees fit.

One of the reasons there's a chasm between geeks and mangers is that managers sometimes forget who they are and what they did. They get lost in the politics and people and the process. There are good managers out there, obviously, but I think that's where geeks are a little suspect of managers. They'll wonder, "Why don't you speak my language anymore?"

What are the early signs that it's time to move on from a job?

ML: I don't know if you're like this, too, but you sort of decide before you decide. You don't necessarily make a deliberate choice. You just find yourself wandering.

For example, I never answer my phone. I don't even have a phone in my current gig. But whenever the phone used to ring I'd think, "It's a recruiter or it's a lawyer." And sometimes I'd wonder "What else is out there?"

Also, nerds get a high out of building stuff. When you stop getting that high because you understand the people and you've delivered the product three times, that's a sign. For me, when I stop learning, when I realize I haven't been scared in a while, that's when I start wandering.

Programming jobs sometimes incorporate brain teasers or problem solving during the interview process. Is there a way to prepare for those tests?

ML: As someone who's hiring, you want to see how a prospective employee thinks on his or her feet. There's probably ways to find the top 20 most interesting brain teasers. But the point is to see how the interview subject thinks.

As a system thinker who wants to understand the rules, It would be great to walk in and know the questions. But that's cheating. You're trying to learn about each other in this interview process. Great interview questions reveal not just what you know but also how you're reacting to this information.

How many interview callbacks is too many? When does it become a red flag?

ML: If you're coming back for the third time, what does that say about the organization? Can they assess and can they execute? Do you want to work at a place where they can't make a call? That's the first thing that comes to mind.

But sometimes you can discern a theme from each interview. There's the getting to know you interview. Then the next one is the deep technical interview. And then there's the cultural fit interview. The question to ask is: Is there progress being made? A healthy interview process has a sense of progress.

Interviews go both ways. You're learning as much about them as they're learning about you.

How can system thinkers communicate with non-system thinkers?

ML: There's a lot of instincts that we nerds have that are going to confuse the heck out of the non-nerd crowd. One of those things is specificity. You ask me, "How long is it going to take to do this feature?" What you're looking for is a t-shirt size: small, medium, large. But I'm going to give you the three-minute answer about the state of the architecture, why the code is brittle, and what I'm going to need. And this annoys the hell out of you. All you want are the broad strokes.

My advice is to know your audience. Engineers learn this over time. They can read a room and understand the type of answer those people are looking for.

You use the term "nerd" on your blog, but your book is titled "Being Geek." Is there a difference"?

ML: The intro to the book actually addresses that. I picked "nerd" as the word years ago to describe this demographic. But we called the book "Being Geek" because that sounds great. "Being Nerd" doesn't roll off the tongue.

I did a lot of research into figuring out the difference between nerd and geek. There really isn't one. The Venn diagram completely intersects. For every great definition of nerd, you can find the same definition of geek.

The etymologies of the words are interesting. "Geek" is the circus guy who bites the head off of live animals. "Nerd" comes from a Dr. Seuss book. That's the only big difference I could find.

This interview was condensed and edited.


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