Are you moving forward or backward?

Every week I try to ask myself: What did I do this week to make myself more valuable? Am I moving forward toward a goal, or further from it?

Handmade sign reading Are you going bkwds? or are you going fwds?
I spotted this the other week in Philly. I didn’t try to sort out the politics of the creator.

In technology, communications, or any other job that involves one of those two things you are either moving forward or moving backward: standing still is not an option. You are either learning new skills, trends, tools, and concepts, or you’re falling behind as other people build new tools that drive new ideas and trends.

I read lots of advice that says to plan your career two or three moves in advance. That is good advice, but I don’t think it’s wise to trust your gut that far out. The technology landscape changes too fast and too dynamically to believe you know where everything will be in three or five years. On the one hand I think it’s important to deepen my skills for the path I want to be on, but at the same time I try to broaden my skills into areas other areas that have things to teach me. In the back of my head there is always plan B and C, just in case plan A doesn’t come together they way I hope. In part, because I’ve never been able to stay on plan A very long: life always intervenes.

When I was 23 (and sure I wanted to be teacher) I was advised to read an hour a day in my field, and that it should not just be reading about the kind work I was already doing. At the time I was the new kid in IT of a mid-sized international nonprofit organization doing whatever no one else wanted to do: which is a great way to learn a variety of things. I didn’t really know anything yet about how to have a career – I had a job, and I liked my job, but couldn’t envision a career path.

But I took that advice to heart and tried to find ways to constantly learn about things I don’t know. I read books, listened to podcasts, and taught myself new skills. I learned about communications planning, economics, corporate strategy, algorithms, and a variety of other topics. The ideas I pick up from those sources help me think about technology more creatively, and helped me understand the importance of making sure I build tools that are useful not just cool to me.

For several years I also taught myself a new programming language every year. I taught myself ASP, C#, PHP, Python, Ruby (on rails and off), R, Haskell, and JavaScript because I heard other people talk about them as important or interesting. I have used five of those professionally to create actual software people used. And the others all forced me to see programming differently and helped me be a better developer. I don’t force myself into learning whole new languages annually, it was too broad and prevented me from deepening my knowledge of individual languages and the ecosystems I work in frequently (although I’m probably overdue to teach myself something like Go, Swift, or Rust.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from all these different inputs is that I need to live in constant fear of getting behind, outmoded, and sidelined. That fear keeps me motivated to learn more and push myself harder. By the time I retire I cannot imagine I will still be paid to be a full-time Drupal developer, I doubt that’s what I’ll be doing five years from now. Certainly by in 30 years Drupal, and the web as we know it, won’t look anything like they do today and I will be doing my job very differently. This is the blerch that keeps me motivated.

So every week ask yourself: what did I learn this week? Did I move forward or fall behind?

How to create a good trouble ticket

This week I was working with a new colleague on our account team. As with all people knew to working with technical teams and bug tracking, she’s having to learn how to create good trouble tickets for when clients report issues. This is a challenge I’ve seen played out in every place I’ve ever worked: developers want detailed tickets so we can dive in without asking 16 follow up questions, and people creating tickets don’t actually know what we want and assume we know how to find and fix the problem.  And so I’d like to try to offer this explanation of what we’re looking for and why.

At the most basic level I need to know at least three things to find and fix a problem on a project (either a web site or some other tool I’m supporting):

  • Where in the program is the problem? This is usually a link to a sample page that has the problem.
  • What happened? I need a clear explanation of what went wrong. Is there a picture missing? Is the text format wrong? Is there a big red error message at the top?
  • What you expected to happen? What is the picture of and where exactly was the picture supposed to appear? What formatting was supposed to appear on the text? Did you do something right before the error message appeared that helps me see that message again?

These things are part of allowing me to reproduce the problem.  If I can’t reproduce the problem, I can’t promise you I fixed it. If you can’t reproduce the problem, you can’t check that I’m right.

Developers will often say that if you can’t give me the step to reproduce a problem I can’t fix it. But in my experience sometimes a problem is actually really hard to reproduce, and you need a developer or a professional tester to actually figure out those steps. So it’s okay if you can’t give me perfect directions, but give me what you have.

If you find yourself writing a ticket that doesn’t say more than “Search is broken” or “Blog post didn’t look right” the problem better be massive (think big red error message level). As an account/support team member that may be all you got from the client but someone has to fill the gaps – and developers are terrible people to have fill those gaps.

As a developer there are several reasons that’s true.

First, rarely do developers get the luxury of working on one project for an extended period, and when they do those tools are large and complex. So we probably don’t have every detail in our heads at any moment. If we could store all that information we wouldn’t need task tracking systems, you could just call us and tell us about a problem as we’d call you back a few hours/days/weeks later and say “fixed”.

Second, we’re terrible at finding mistakes in our own work. Like everyone else, we need editors. If I could see the problem you are reporting, I would probably have fixed it, or at least reported it to you so we could open a task to get it fixed later.

Third, we probably don’t spend as much time in the project documentation as you do. So if someone needs to track down the original design to check for a discrepancy between the design and what’s happening a developer is probably going to be much slower at this task than you are (or you will become soon).

Also remember your developer probably will not look at the problem today unless it’s mission critical to the client. So they need to be able to figure out three weeks from now what you were talking about.  If it just says: “search is broken” and I run a search in two weeks and everything looks fine, you are going to need to tell me what’s broken about it (maybe a result is missing, maybe it’s formatted wrong, maybe it’s working perfectly but the client doesn’t like the results).

Even with all that context, I know it is intimidating for many new support or account team members to crack the code developers use when talking. We over explain this, using technical terms, and get annoyed too quickly when people don’t understand us. And we often forget that teaching by analogy is helpful.

My new colleague is a baker, and so as I was trying to help her understand what I needed to be helpful on tasks I switched to bread:

If I came to you and said “my bread didn’t work out, please tell me how to fix it” how would you start?

That helped her make the connection. Just saying my bread didn’t work out, doesn’t tell her enough to help me do it right next time. She’s going to have to ask several follow up questions before she can be helpful.

  • Did it taste wrong or look wrong?
  • What kind of bread was it?
  • Did you follow the instructions or do something different?
  • Are your ingredients fresh?
  • Did it rise enough?
  • Did you knead it enough?
  • Did you set the oven to the right temperature?

On the other hand if I come to her and say:

I tried to make sourdough oatmeal bread over the weekend. I followed the recipe closely, but my bread turned out really dense instead of having the bready texture I expected.

Now she knows there was a problem getting the bread to rise. So we can focus questions on the yeast and other details of getting air into bread. Yes, there are still several things that could have gone wrong, but now we know where to start.

Frequently new support staff are intimidated by all the technical things they don’t know. And too often developers brush aside new staff who don’t give them the information they need and just say things like “Oh I’ll figure it myself” instead of helping their colleagues learn. Part of the solution is to help people understand that the first set of questions aren’t actually technical. Baking isn’t the right analogy for everyone, but it helped in this case. And hopefully next time I’ll do better at getting to a better explanation quickly.

Also, my bread came out fine and I’m taking her a loaf this weekend. You are welcome to try my Sour dough oatmeal bread recipe.

Yes I wear pants and other advice for working from home.

I’ve worked from home part-time or full-time for the past four years. The first question I’m always asked when people learn I work from home is “Do you wear pants?” The answer is yes, I wear pants to work even when no one can see me. And frankly I don’t quite understand the desire of large numbers of people to work without pants, but it lead me to realize that it might be helpful to share a few tips for people starting to work remotely.

Wear Pants

Okay, it doesn’t have to be pants, but get up and get dressed in clothes you don’t mind being seen in. The clothes we pick communicate, not only to other people but also to ourselves. Pick clothes to help you take your work seriously.

Set a routine

Have a routine about when you start, and what you do to prepare yourself before you start for the day. Your commute might be a walk down the hall instead of a drive across town or a ride on public transit, but most people I know still benefit from a pre-work routine. Walk the dog, go for a run, eat breakfast, or some other basic activity. It doesn’t matter a whole lot what it is, but have a routine that gives you a few minutes to get settled into a frame of mind to be focused on what you are going to do at work.

Make sure the technology works

You never want to have to say “I can’t do that from here.” or “I’ll do that next time I’m in the office.” This is particularly true when you have a part-time remote arrangement (i.e. if you work from home 1 or 2 days a week), and the systems may not be setup to fully support remote workers. Push hard to get the technology fixed so you can do everything from home at least as well as you can in the office.

Have back-channels

Make sure you are set up with ways to informally communicate with colleagues. Whether that’s slack, hipchat, google hangouts, or some other tool, make sure there is a way to discuss totally unimportant stuff to maintain your personal relationships with your colleagues. When times gets stressful it’s critical to have good will built up and important to have a way to work out issues in private.

Have an office

It doesn’t have to be a nice office, but have a space you go to for work. Make sure it’s setup well for your work, and make sure you don’t spend lots of non-work time in that space. Don’t use the room with your TV or other simple distractions. Ideally you want a space with a door you can close so you can block out any other people in your home and focus.

Have boundaries

Like a morning to routine you need to have boundaries about when you are not working. Finish your day at a predictable time most days. Make sure your colleagues know when you are available outside normal hours and limit how much you let them cheat. Most importantly sometimes be truly unavailable.

Get out

Get out of your house/apartment at least once a day. When I first worked from home I realized that I’d gone a week without leaving my apartment complex, and I was starting to go stir crazy. Even if it’s just a trip to the store or a walk in the woods get out and remember there is more to the world than your work.

Be Productive

Lots of work places treat work from home as a privilege they want to take away again. Even if that doesn’t seem possible in your company, make sure you are proving you are able to be productive with the freedom working from home gives you. Ideally you have a work space free from the normal distractions of a conventional office, so use that environment to get more done than you can in the office.

Get together with colleagues

If you work remotely full-time you need to make sure you still spend face-to-face time with your colleagues. Humans are geared to appreciate time spent together, and for all the technology allows us new freedoms about where and when we work, there is still a different quality when everyone is in one place together. Some companies do this at conferences, some hold retreats, some just call the remote staff to the main office a few times a year. Figure out what makes sense for you and your company and push to make sure it happens.

Show personality

puzzleDo things that help give your colleagues insight into who you are outside work. I keep a puzzle table in my office to help me clear my head and avoid boredom during conference calls. At my previous job we did a daily stand up video conference, and some days I would put the camera at the puzzle and worked on it as we talked. It served as a friendly way to help people see me as a real person not just a source of code. Now I will share pictures of my dogs and other things that round out people’s understanding of my life.
Not all of these things are totally within your control, and you will need support from your company to make sure the environment is right for you to be successful. Work with your manager, other remote employees, and other colleagues to make sure the environment is going to allow you to be successful over time.