24 March 2016

Talk the Talk

This year I'm making a greater effort to try and speak at conferences. It appears to me that it is one of the popular paths towards tech stardom (for better or worse).

Here are topics that I am (currently) interested in talking about in a conference format:

- Graceful Exits (see blogpost on this topic here)
- Customer Success and Product Feedback (recent posts here and here)
- Coop Building and Tech Challenges (I'm planning on pulling together a blogpost or a talk proposal about the housing and food coops I've been involved with over the past near 20 years and the messy story of building, maintaining, and phasing out homebrewed software. Contact me if you've got a horror story!)

I'm also open to other suggestions. That said, I am NOT interested in talking publicly about being black or female in tech. I am not interested in talking about diversity in tech at all.

I will continue to submit to CFPs and we'll see where this goes.  Thanks!

26 January 2016

Everybody Has One: Dealing With User Feedback

"A mystic isn't a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of mystic." - Brother David Stendl-Rast

Look at you. You magnificent thing. You are not just the sum of ears and nose and skin and bones and teeth.... You are  an inspired being...at least on your best days. You have things that motivate you at work, at home, in the world. You have a vision for who you want to be to your friends, to your co-workers,  to your family, and as a citizen in your physical and digital communities.

Much the same could be said of the work you do and the products you build. The hope for those of us who work in the technology space is that what we make will be more than the sum of a reasonably sturdy database, many lines of code, a handful of API calls, and the latest Javascript framework hanging out front smiling it's biggest freakiest smile at the world. You hope you're building something that will matter, that will be used and loved and help people accomplish what they couldn't accomplish before... or as quickly...or as elegantly. As creators, we, of, course need to get past the ugly MVP phase and we want to be responsive to feedback from our users so we can continue to course correct all throughout the product cycle. For that reason, how we take in that feedback is no trivial matter.  In fact, if done without care and process it can have monstrous consequences.
So I wanted to share a few tips on how to receive and respond to Product feedback.

First Of All, If It's Broken Fix It
So they found a bug. Yes, these things happen to the best of us. This should go without saying but if something doesn't work. Just fix it. The speed at which you fix it is up to you and your team but if something isn't working the way you intended it to, then you should probably just fix it. 

Beware of "People Said" or "Our Users Said"
How many people does it take to turn a feature request into a product requirement?  2? 50? 100? 1 if it the person is a really powerful and monied customer? It's important to figure out that number and how you will weight and respond to feedback as well as the value of the feature. Implementing a feature or letting one really squeaky wheel get all the grease can make the whole effort run off the rails.Which people said what and when? How big of a deal is it really?

Have (And Continue To Iterate on) A Roadmap 
What is the vision for your org? Your product? How and where is it articulated for your employees. Do your devs know what and where it is? Nevermind whether they care.

This vision for where you are trying to go and/or who (you hope) you are being and what (you hope) you are doing is hopefully clearly typed out somewhere and is given legs through your roadmap, which should be a living breathing document that all the team can access and have some input on.

While not set in stone (see: bug fixes, market forces, new! hotness!) that document should be your guide. Our intrepid devs should be allowed and even encouraged to tinker, but it is helpful to reiterate priorities. How does this align with what we've said we really want to do/ be doing? Revisiting that question is crucial, because you really don't want to get hung up implementing something that you don't wanna do but then feel you *have to* do because someone spent all weekend hacking on it  and now it's built and it looks like it works. Is this something you *really* want or need or is it just something that can exist in a feature branch and visited at a later date?
Your Backlog Is Not Your Roadmap
Oh, the backlog! Depending on how well your backlog is managed, it can either be Easy Street or a Boulevard of Broken Dreams. A jumble of half-formed ideas and rambling fever dreams. I can't stress enough that your roadmap needs to be more than a shoving together of Stuff We Didn't Do Yet but rather a cleared out path of Where We Want To Go. Your roadmap can certainly be stored in your project management tool but it is not just an export of The Undone.
Don't Just Say Thank You
So you know better now. You aren't going to just let your product be a plastic bag blowing in the wind of customer whims. You have a vision and you're going to stand up for it! So how *do* you respond to product feedback/feature requests then? Do you dash them off with a one sentence email and a thank you? Well, I certainly hope not. In her excellent book, Lean Customer Development, Cindy Alvarez suggests asking users:

" If you had (requested feature) today, how would that make your life better?"

I also like "Can you tell me more about how (highlighted issue) is a blocker for you?" as well as "How are you working around the lack of (requested feature)?" Product feedback and feature requests give us awareness of a potential issue. Asking a question like one of the above gives us understanding. Only after we have awareness and understanding should we feel equipped to chart a course of action. Springing into a flurry of whiteboarding and keytapping can be perilous without stepping back and truly finding out what the user is trying to accomplish and why.

Get Customer Success

Feel like you don't have the time or bandwidth to tackle the growing pile of feedback and feature requests? Well then I highly suggest you engage your customer success manager/ team!  Don't have a customer success person/team? Well then I highly recommend checking out this post from the excellent Support Driven blog to get your awareness and understanding of this crucial role at the intersection of product development, customer support, account management, and user experience. 

Together we can keep these visions alive!!

12 October 2015

OK. So. Yeah. I’m Done With “Diversity In Tech”

I just finished listening to EricaJoy’s fantastic interview on the Re/code Decode podcast and yeah, I’m done.
When asked by host Kara Swisher what would be [her] message to Silicon Valley, Erica Joy’s said “Care, just care.”
This absolutely and totally breaks my heart. No offense to EricaJoy (I ADORE that woman); I just think we shouldn’t be put in the position to have to provide the answers, to de-marginalize ourselves. Ta-Nehisi Coates has it right
 If they didn’t care when they owned us, when we lived and worked in their homes and raised their children, when will they care? If they didn’t care as we were waterhosed and chased by dogs in the street, why would they care now? They feel like they’ve already done the caring. We’re better off now and where’s their thanks, right? They think they’ve ceded the ground that they had to cede. What ever we get or don’t get now is up to us. What else do you want? is clearly the thinking and as such it seems they’ll get to us when they’re feeling particularly charitable. It is not a responsibility, it is not how they define themselves. Shaming them in the press only means they need to bail a little water and that’s when we’ll get a little something to drink…and is that what we want? Because, I can tell you. That’s not what I am out for.
Getting more excluded people into exclusive organizations can’t be the actual discussion. The goal isn’t really just inclusion, is it? Because it feels like it is and, yeah, that is not something I *really* care about. I am interested in TRANSFORMATION. So just let it be known that from now on ,I don’t want to talk about increasing inclusion in tech without talking about social and economic justice. Diversity efforts without a truly transformative vision are just ego play.
“So we are fighting our pc battles for the rights of ethnic minorities, of gays and lesbians, of different life-styles, and so on, while capitalism pursues its triumphant march…” — Slavoj Žižek, Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism?

22 September 2015

Burning Out, Bowing Out, and How Bridges Sometimes Burn

Groucho Marx popularized the saying, "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." I, however, am quite the opposite. For years, I have been honored to join so very many clubs that invited me to be a member, and, furthermore, when I felt a new club needed to be created, I was ever at the ready to start/co-found it. From feminist book clubs to food cooperatives, I have been an eager member or initiator for all manner of activity groups. Over the years, this "hyperinvolvement" has enabled me to become:
  • a good participant
  • a skilled facilitator
  • a strong but self-aware leader
  • a system creator/corrector
  • a pretty accurate judge of character, and 
  • a person with a pretty good ability to think high-level. 
As you can imagine, a person who is good at being in groups is often approached to join and start more groups, and so it is that I am fairly regularly being approached to lend a hand in This, That, or The Other initiative. As I am sure you can ALSO imagine, as a wife, mother, and human being with a full-time job at a certain point I run out of steam and have to bow out -- usually gracefully but sometimes not so much. I've been thinking about this a lot because I am definitely in a reluctant bow out/quitting cycle (in order to make time for work, family, marriage, and socializing/sanity restoring self-care) and so I wanted to share some thoughts about it that might be useful to you.

Some Reasons to Bow Out
  1. Lack of time
  2. Lack of commitment to the cause
  3. Lack of health/well-being
  4. Lack of money
  5. The group has gone in a direction you don't like. 
  6. Loss of momentum/motivation
  7. The group might be better off without you and/or has been overly dependent on you
  8. Conflict with an individual or faction of the group that was unable to be resolved. 
Some Ways to Bow Out
  1. Discussion with the group leader
  2. Friendly note or email to the group
  3. Strongly worded note or email to the group. 
  4. A knockdown drag out physical or verbal battle with the individuals with whom you have conflict or the entire group (NOT ADVISED.)
Some Reactions You Should Prepare Yourself For As You Bow Out (and Suggested Responses)
  1. Some people who like you might try to bargain with you to stay on. You've already made your decision and you are not likely to change it. Feel free to thank them for their sentiment. You don't owe them any explanation but can provide one if you wish. 
  2. Some individuals may be angry that you are leaving. Again, you don't owe them anything more than the time you gave to the organization. If they express their anger towards you, you can calmly tell them you are sorry that they feel that way. In some cases, these people may cut you off. It sucks, but it happens and there's rarely anything you can do about this. I find that trying to pre-empt this or any blowback/blow to your reputation to this usually just makes things worse and, as such, is not advisable.
  3. Some people will be happy that you are leaving. Good for them. 
  4. Some people don't care that you are leaving. Good for them, too.

Some Practical Things to Remember to Do As You Are Bowing Out
  1. Pass along any keys/passwords/accounts for the group, as well as access to any group accounts that you may have in your name.
  2. Have the organization's administrator remove you from any relevant insurance policies (board members are usually covered by D&O insurance) as well as an corporate documents. 
  3. Make sure you have received reimbursements for any outstanding expenses.
  4. Unsubscribe from the group mailing list (or asked to be unsubscribed). 
  5. Clean out any physical or email inbox you might have that will be cut off to you once you are no longer part of the group.
  6. Document or pass along documentation of any systems or materials you put together during your time with the group. 
  7. Supply group members with your personal contact information if you were using a group contact email (or phone or whatever) to be contacted before. They may realize you still have something they need or they might need you to walk them through one or two more little things after you are gone. (I advise you to not let this go on too long).
  8. Do your best to help the group find a successor if they want you to. (This is another one to not let drag on for very long. It is their group now and while you don't want to leave them high and dry, you can't be handcuffed to the group indefinitely.)

 Some Things to Do As You Walk Out The Door
  1. Reaffirm your decision. It was well thought-out and you are doing what you feel you need to do right now. 
  2.  Remind yourself that you are super capable and experienced and there are always going to be groups that want you to join and people that want to start groups with you. You will join/start something else when you feel the time is right. It's in your nature.
  3. Hold your head high. You did the best you could during your time with this group.
Some Things Not to Do As You Walk Out The Door
  1. Don't let the haters get you down or make you feel like you need to do anything rash that you will be ashamed of later on. If a bridge burns maybe it was constructed of the wrong stuff to begin with. When you need to, you can likely cross to the other side by more reliable means.
  2. Don't beat yourself about your failures or what "could have been".
  3.  Don't backpeddle and allow them to rope you in to do "one more thing". You may be available for a quick call here and there just to help them finish the transition but you are OUT. They will sink or swim without you.
  4. Don't go rushing out to find something else to join or start. Those opportunities will be there. The decision to join something should be as considered (if not more!) than the decision to bow out. Remember that the organization you found today will be the org you have to bow out of tomorrow (or well, ya know many tomorrows from then) so CHOOSE WISELY. 
OK, so what about you? How do you decide to bow out? How do you carry it out?

03 September 2015

The Beauty of the Unanswered Question OR the Death of the Black People Head Nod

"How you doing?"


"What's happening?"

"What's good?"

As far back as I can remember, whenever I went out with my father --  be it to the supermarket or the post office, the hardware store or the flea market -- whenever he encountered another black person he invariably greeted them with such a question. As we walked along the street he'd do so, adding a wave if it was someone he actually knew. The question was a question only in structure, it was and is rhetorical. It is there to go unanswered or answered with the same (or a similar) question. When in a rush or upon encountering someone who appeared unable or uninterested in speaking, my father would give the nod. It was and is a silent salute, a quick and quiet way to say "I'm black and you're black and we're both here." I grew up with the nod and the greeting, and I knew that was part of the black social contract. From my teenage years onwards, it was something I did as often as I could do, and I especially strived to do in times where I should do it: those times when I encountered another black person in a largely non-black space.

As non-black spaces go, the tech world and open source worlds are right (white) up there. I rarely see people who look like me and when I do they are usually zipping pass in one direction or another with barely a moment to notice my presence. At times like this I try to make eye contact and offer some sort of greeting or at least a nod. The greeting and/or the salute seem to have been fairly well received until quite recently. As of late, I've noticed that there is a subset of young black men and women who seem to be quite taken aback when I walk by and quickly dash off a "How you doing?" Just yesterday I looked at a young black man in my co-working space and quickly said, "Hey, how you doing?" He looked at me with deer in head light eyes and responded "Fine and yourself?" Well, I never!  I immediately  felt it to be the equivalent of being shoved down into the dirt. The line was broken and I was cast out to sea!

After I recovered from the initial offense,  I returned to my desk and paused for a moment. Perhaps this young man was totally unaware?

In his BRILLIANT BOOK, How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston speaks of a "black employee known as The Denier":

This person simply does not acknowledge her race at all, perhaps hoping that by ignoring it, she'll never have to deal with any negativity associated with her race. While not explicitly combative with you, she's also unlikely to be a useful ally, especially if she ranks above you. It's not that she feels threatened by you. It's that she feels nothing. So she won't act to improve the situation at the company,either. Your best bet here is to accrue as much power in the company as you can use your position for good and undo some of the damage cause by The Denier's apathy.

photo credit

I'd encountered this before. We all know those lost souls who just can't or won't publicly connect to people of their own race for fear of being lumped in with them in bad times or due to some sordid past history. However, until now, it seemed those sorts were the outliers. Now I think their ranks (or ranks of eerily similar ilk) are sadly on the rise. I have actually heard from young black Millennials (who grew up on the storied internet where "nobody knows you're a dog") that in many cases, especially the middle and upper class cases, grew up either not really realizing they were black or not thinking about blackness or race or racism. I guess this is what some people talk about when they talk about post-racial. It's not a change in material reality; it's a loss of consciousness that is likely only further abstracted by heightened economic class as well as parents who are ethnic Black and want to distance themselves from "lowly" American blacks by waving high their Jamaican or Nigerian or Guinea Bissauian (whathaveyou) flag. These are the black kids that I think are having the most shocking time with this new consciousness around police killings. They grew up around mostly white/non-black kids and did everything right and now their eyes are being opened and it seems they can't quite compute what they are seeing. Whenever I think of black Millenials, I often think of black Millenial media personality Franchesca Ramsey and her video "Shit White Girls Say" (see below). It's of course funny on the surface but tragic once you really absorb it and realize that she had to take all that in for years in order to gather such absurd material.

In the face of such offense, such incessant pinpricks of hurt (what some people are calling "microagressions") what sweet relief it is for me to turn a corner and see a black face and connect for a brief moment. In that head nod and in that unaswered question, I can breathe for a moment. On receiving that salute, I am answering a deeper call. If a sincere answer to "How you doing?" is a mark of racial progress then I am calling the whole effort into question.

Shouldn't we be pulling more people into the ritual creating a global network of people saluting and asking but never answering?

03 July 2015

How to Be A Good Ally

Michael Skolnik is an amazing person who does incredible antiracist ally work. Today he published his White Ally Playbook. In addition to being a great primer that I can send to others, it also hipped me to the universally applicable Ally Commandments by the (equally fantastic) journalist and scholar Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. They are as follows:

  1. Don’t demand that those you are supporting produce proof of the inequality they are working to resist.
  2. Do recognize that the shield of your privilege may blind you to the experience of others of injustice.
  3. Don’t offer up your relationship with a member of the marginalized group as evidence of your understanding.
  4. Do be open to learning and expanding your consciousness by listening more and talking less.
  5. Don’t see yourself as the Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.  Or Tom Cruise in The Last Samari.  You are not the savior riding to the rescue on a white horse.  Do notice that you are joining a group of people who are already working to save themselves.
  6. Do realize the only requirement you need to enter ally-ship is a commitment to justice and human equality. 
     Can someone etch these onto a large stone tablet for me? 

26 June 2015

Codes of Conduct Are for Men! (even young, cisgender, straight, white, "able-bodied", upper class ones!)

This is Part II of my series "Codes of Conduct are For Everyone!" (read Part I here)

What “MySpace Tom” Thinks of HBO’s Silicon Valley

Changing the Ratio - Changing the Culture
A quick scan of most GitHub repos, project steering committees, company parties, and conferences reveals that men make up the great majority of most tech companies and communities. A strong code of conduct signals that while the organization/forum/community/event may look very "monochrome" or exclusive on the outset, it is (at least) attempting to make strides towards greater participation and inclusion. The CoC also gives clear guidelines for appropriate behavior with other community members. If organizations are truly serious about "changing the ratio" and bringing under-represented groups in, then the culture will necessarily change and guidelines and protections MUST be in place.

Take It Like A (Hu)man
Though when talking about men in western contexts we often think of the stereotypical young, white, straight, upper-middle class, "able bodied" cismales, men come in many shapes, sizes, sexualities, gender expressions, abilities, and socioeconomic classes. Men can be violated, offended, excluded and hurt. Men can have complaints. Men can (and should!) file complaints if they feel they have been the victim of in the presence of a code of conduct breach.

Compile the Code, Elevate the Community
As the dominant group in many of our spaces, men can be crucial allies and agents for substantial organizational changes. The process of drafting, discussing, and ultimately adopting a code of conduct can be an exceedingly educational time for all involved, and agreeing to adhere to those terms either by staying on board or ticking a box during a registration process can be a moment that is transformative not only for the organization but also for the individual. A strong code of conduct can be a true eye opener, making men (even the young, cisgender, straight, white, "able-bodied", upper class ones!) more aware of the bias in their immediate communities and possibly spurn them on to be allies and advocates both within and outside of the tech space.

Until the next post, I highly recommend you check out the following posts: 

17 June 2015

Codes of Conduct Are for EVERYONE - Part I

Changing the Ratio - Changing the Culture
As a black woman working in technology, I am encouraged by all the challenging discussions about tech company and community culture, as well as the exciting efforts to increase inclusion and tackle problems with retention. I've supported such efforts (with my time and money) and enjoy watching groups evolve through the adoption of these values and practices. In the face of increasing reports of offensive speech and harassment (both online and in person), many groups have rushed to draft and adopt Codes of Conduct to broadcast to their community and the wider public that they are taking a tough stance on such behavior. Some of the most popular models and guidelines for codes of conduct have come from (predominantly white feminist) organizations such as Linuxchix,  The Ada Intiative, and Geek Feminism (with GF having probably the most comprehensive online resources on how to create not only a code of conduct but also enforcement policies).

While I appreciate all the work (paid and unpaid) that these groups have and continue to do around this issue, I find that in some circles the mere fact that the work has been so vehemently championed by predominantly white feminists leads people to the belief that CoCs are predominantly/ just FOR white feminists and, as such, those people have cast the CoC as a replacement or redundant anti-sexual harassment policy. I fully recognize and uphold the importance of preventing and addressing sexual harassment in our spaces but I don't believe this is what the CoC is truly intended to be and is a misunderstanding and possible underestimation of what a CoC can be. Thus, I am writing this piece in hopes that we can symbolically "widen" the space for CoCs to not only be about the prevention and response to the sex/gender-focused Bad Thing but also about the promotion of a myriad of Good Things (e.g. increased access, participation, inclusion, retention). I truly believe that a good CoC should be in dialogue with the organization's stated mission in an effort to enact practice and protocol that elevate the effort and it members/participants. As Sumana alludes to in her fantastic piece on Crooked Timber, codes of conduct are very much sort of where open source licenses were 10 to 15 years ago; everyone is writing their own and standards are emerging through practice. With the understanding that I, too, believe we are very much in early days -- crucial days for debate in our various "town squares" -- I hope that this series can help to inform the discussions.

Over the next few days, I'll be publishing the next few chunks of my thoughts on this. They will (likely) be titled as follows (unless I make some on the fly edits...which I might) :

In the meantime, I HIGHLY recommend Sally Shepard's " Looking Beyond A Code of Conduct" here - http://www.mostgood.net/blog/2015/5/31/looking-beyond-a-code-of-conduct. (Bonus points for being a brilliant remix of the Joel test.)