On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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Leadership is not management: Carrots and sticks in an open source community

This article was originally written for http://superuser.openstack.org/articles/leadership-open-source-community/


Leading a community group, it turns out, is completely different to being a manager. I learned this the hard way; I made mistakes, started (and continued) arguments, and sometimes, when faced with a large hole, simply continued to dig.

In late 2014 I had been working on OpenStack documentation for about a year. We were preparing the Kilo release, when the current project team lead (PTL) asked if I would be willing to put my name forward as a candidate for Liberty PTL. In early 2015, I was elected unopposed to lead the documentation team for the Liberty release, and all of a sudden I realised: I had no idea how to run a community group.

At this point, I had managed docs teams of various sizes, across many timezones, for five years. I had a business management degree and part of an MBA to my name, had run my own business, seen a tech startup fail and a new corporate docs team flourish. I felt as though I understood what being a manager was all about. And I guess I did. But I didn’t know what being a PTL was all about. All of a sudden, I had a team where I couldn’t name each individual, couldn’t rely on any one person to come to work on any given day, couldn’t delegate tasks with any authority and couldn’t compensate team members for good work. The only tool I had in my arsenal to get work done was my own ability to convince people that they should.

If you’ve spent time as a manager in a corporate environment, you’ll be used to keeping secrets, actively managing your employees’ careers, and pretending you know the answers to things (especially if you don’t). This is entirely the wrong way to go about managing a community, and if your team decides you’re treating them like that, they will probably only give you a couple of chances before they eat you alive1. If you get it right (even if it’s on the second go-round), the opportunities for growth and satisfaction are unbeatable. Not to mention the sense of achievement!

My first release as a PTL was basically me stumbling around in the dark and poking at the things I encountered. I relied heavily on the expertise of the existing members of the group to work out what needed to be done, and I gradually started to learn that the key to getting things done was not just to talk and delegate, but to listen and collaborate. I had to not only tell people what to do, but also convince them that it was a good idea, help them to see it through, and pick up the pieces if they didn’t. You will end up stumbling around in front of your team a lot in open source. Here’s how to make it work for you:

Rewarding the good, punishing the bad

The phrase ‘carrots and sticks’ is often used to describe the process of rewarding good behaviour (carrots)2 while punishing bad behavior (sticks)3. Rewards are everywhere in today’s corporations. From monetary incentives (bonuses, share schemes, gift cards and shopping vouchers), to various team activities (lunches, dinners, paintball, barista courses, and all manner of competitive activities), these awards are designed to make all your colleagues envy and despise you. Not to mention all those little branded tchotchkes (a stress ball in every imaginable shape!) we all seem to accumulate. There are so many carrots given out, that not getting any can often be a form of stick.

Of course, this is the first and most obvious thing you will notice missing when you start managing a community rather than a team in an organisation. You don’t get to pay them. You don’t get to give bonuses. And the tchotchkes are harder to find and more jealously guarded.

The first thing you have to do is work out what you have got. Got access to stickers, t-shirts, or other branded merchandise? Give them out! What about privileges (and no, giving someone more responsibility is not a privilege, so don’t count things like granting core access)? Things like discounted tickets or travel to conferences, access to company-sponsored events like code sprints or meetups, or things like the ability to vote on leadership positions can all be considered perks of being part of a community.

There are also other, less obvious, things that you can do to motivate people: always be willing to call out great work (or even mediocre work, especially if it came from someone surprising) in a public way, but keep any criticism private. Thank people, a lot, for everything. Make sure when people email you asking questions you add other people into the conversation, with a note like “this person is an expert on this topic, and I’d love to hear their opinion”. Flattery and thankfulness are some of the best tools you have to motivate people on your team, and they’re entirely free. Just try and keep your ego in check and let other people take credit wherever possible.   

Performance measurement as a behaviour management tool

One of the more popular performance measurement methods is referred to as a nine box, or a talent matrix4. The idea of ranking employees can be quite distasteful, so it’s important to remember that it’s not about ranking staff against each other, but against themselves and their own past performance. You should be able to see each employee move from the lower left to the top right of the matrix as they improve in their role. Once they hit the top right box, you must be ready to promote them, at which point they drop to the centre of the matrix, and start the journey up and to the right again. Of course, the opposite is also true: if an employee starts to track down and to the left, you need to be having some serious discussions about the role that the person is in, whether or not they’re having personal issues, or whether they’re the right fit for your team, or your company. The point is, there’s something of a science to this when you’re in a corporate environment.

That science becomes much more of a dark art when you’re leading a community. For starters, though, you need to remember that it’s not really your responsibility. Most of the people in the your community already have a job, and a career path, and a manager who (hopefully) cares about those things. And that person isn’t you. Also, those things are (and should be) fairly opaque to you, it’s really none of your business. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your team’s performance within the constraints of your group. Most communities have levels of responsibility within them. From leading sub-teams, to being involved in testing, sitting on advisory boards, or becoming core contributors with greater levels of trust and expectation, right up to leading the group itself, you need to be aware of the aspirations of your community members, and ensure you’re letting people know the options available to them should they wish to progress. An extra added complication is where these two things intersect. You never know if a team member is getting pressure from their corporate manager to achieve a certain role within your community, or what value (if any) companies might place on metrics, roles, or positions of trust within your community. You can’t always rely on team members to tell you what they’re trying to achieve, either, sometimes they make you guess.

The best way to ensure you’re helping individuals succeed in their performance goals is to make sure you understand what those goals are. This isn’t always easy and you can’t necessarily assume that all team members want to progress, either. This is even more true in communities than in companies, since a promotion often means more responsibility without any increase in benefits (you’re not paying them, after all). The best way to do this is to ask people, and the best way to get a good answer is to do in private. Don’t be afraid, as a community leader, to reach out to people directly, saying something along the lines of ‘hey, I noticed you’re doing great work, and wanted to have a chat to you about the kinds of things you’re interested in working on, and how I can help you achieve your goals within our community.’ You won’t always get all the answers you might want, in the detail you might need to really help them, but at least you’ll have a better idea than just assuming everyone wants to become a team leader some day.

The performance art of trust

Perhaps more important than rewarding staff, or accurately recording their performance improvements, is proving that you trust them. A little trust goes a long way and can positively impact loyalty, morale and retention. As a manager, there are many occasions where you are privy to information you can’t share with staff: financial or company performance information, restructures, or even layoffs. The thing is, your team members are probably pretty smart and they probably know that this is a thing. You need to reassure them that as soon as you can tell them, you will. But there’s more to it than that; there’s something I like to call the performance art of trust, which is more about telling them when you don’t know something than when you do. If someone asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, don’t make things up! Just come right out and say it: “I don’t know.” You might find it helpful to practice, because it’s not easy to do when you’re trying to be all manager-y and stuff. In fact, most of your training to become a manager has probably been about pretending you know the answers when you don’t, which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Of course, as a community leader, you almost never have access to information before anyone else, so you may be wondering why this is relevant. It’s because the principles of honesty and trust are just as important, if not more so, in community situations than they are in a workplace. Community members will work with you if they want to work with you, and they won’t work with you if you’re a twit. The best way to look like you’re someone worth working with is if you appear open, honest, communicative, trustworthy, and reasonable.

One of the hallmarks of many open-source communities is the somewhat impassioned email communications5 that occur. Flamewars on mailing lists are a feature6 of open source communities and they happen out in public. Treat them as performance art, where your audience is focused on one thing: is this person someone I trust to lead this group?

It’s easy to come out of a flamewar looking like a buffoon, so here’s a couple of tips:

    • Always read the email you’re replying to thoroughly, several times, and try to understand the sender’s point of view. Work out what the question is (if there isn’t a question, then don’t send a reply).
    • Start your reply by thanking the sender: for bringing up a point you hadn’t considered, for asking questions, or even just for taking the time to put their thoughts into words. This forces you to assume good intent.
    • Answer the question, AND ONLY THE QUESTION. Give reasons for your answer, using dot points if necessary, but don’t bring other issues into it, and certainly don’t launch into personal attacks. Be prepared to question your own beliefs about things (you don’t have to change your mind, but you need to be open to other perspectives).
    • Ask a question of your own: Do they think this is reasonable? Can they think of something you might have missed? Do they have further comments?
    • Don’t hit send yet. Leave it as long as possible; at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight. This not only gives you time to calm down a little, but it also slows down the exchange on the mailing list, which will hopefully remove some heat.
    • Before you hit send, proofread, and take out all the emotional language. Work out if you can consolidate some points, reorganise the content to be clearer, or take out irrelevant information. Be as concise and to-the-point as possible.
  • If the thread has been dragging on and there’s no progress, take it offline. Admit that perhaps you don’t fully understand their viewpoint and offer a video or phone call, even if it’s an early morning or late night for you. Be the bigger person, take the hit. People are always much nicer on the phone, and if nothing else, it stops the flamewar.

To conclude, communities are definitely more forgiving than corporations, so you’ll probably get away with stumbling around a little bit before you find your feet. However, they’re also run almost entirely on trust and goodwill and you can erode that really quickly and sometimes without noticing. Be honest when you don’t know something, own up to your mistakes, never shift blame (even if you really didn’t do it), and always lift your team members up. If you can nail those things, then you’ll find a way through, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll become a better manager in the process as well.  


1. OK, maybe not actually eat you, but they won’t like you for it. Not even a little bit.?
2. Why anyone would continue a good behavior for a carrot reward, unless they were a bunny, is beyond me (I prefer chocolate biscuits, personally), but it’s as good a shorthand as any to describe this process.?
3. Please don’t actually beat anyone with a stick. It’s poor form.?
4. The nine box performance matrix is usually attributed to McKinsey, who invented it in the 1970s for GE. If you’ve done any classes at business school, you’ve probably done a course on it. For the purposes of this article, however, it is simply a method of plotting team members on a graph from lowest performing in the lower left, to highest performing in the upper right. Most nine box models plot performance on the x-axis, and behaviour on the y-axis, but there are many variations.?
5. Some would call them ‘flamewars’.?
6. Some would call them a ‘bug’.?

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Gym memberships and Dental Hygiene

Why must exercise and fitness carry with it a “goal”? We must we be “losing weight”, “gaining muscle”, “in training”,  “getting fit”, or any one of a myriad other things. Why can’t I just do stuff that’s fun, and fits my lifestyle because, well, it’s fun and fits my lifestyle?

tenpoint-advertising-1-fitness-first-1

What if I am happy with the me I have all year round?

I absolutely loathe the procedure that you have to go through in order to sign up to a gym or other organised fitness group, or to start seeing a new personal trainer. First of all, you have to make an appointment. Then, you have some kind of “fitness consultation” where some impossibly skinny twelve year old weighs you, measures you and then adds all those numbers together. This is so they can “measure” your “progress” towards your “results” . Believe me, I’ve tried joining up to gyms with the line “actually, I don’t have a goal. I just want to come and work out a few times a week”. First of all they look at you like you just grew an extra elbow on your forehead. Then they jot down “weight loss”, because that’s what everyone wants in 2014. After that ritual humiliation, you’re then expected to sign up for all the “extra” “services” they “provide” (personal training, saunas, small group training, large group training, the list is endless and none of them are included in your membership fees. And that’s another whole rant). Then, three months later, when you haven’t achieved the imaginary goal you made up to satisfy them when you joined, the REASON you haven’t reached it is OBVIOUSLY because you need more personal training. Or bootcamps. Or something.

I would like to treat exercise in the same way we treat dental hygiene. I brush my teeth twice a day because I don’t want my teeth to rot and fall out. I go to the gym four times a week because I want to be able to eat cake occasionally, and hopefully still be walking around when I’m 80. What I don’t want is to be forced into setting a “goal” that I am likely to forget within my first two visits in order to sign up.

I don't need to set a dental hygiene goal to know that I should brush my teeth.

I don’t need to set a dental hygiene goal to know that I should brush my teeth.

 

So, while I firmly believe the “obesity crisis” is pretty much a beat-up, if you want to get people moving more and attending gyms, stop making them out to be something so freaking special, and encourage us to think of it as just something that humans living in the world do. I don’t need to set a goal for myself to brush my teeth, buy vegies when I go grocery shopping, or hug my daughter. Why should I set a goal to incorporate exercise into my life? I’m doing this for the long haul, not just until I’ve lost a couple of kilos.

When your goal is “still be here at 80”, fast-tracking seems awkward.

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The only writing sample you need is your resume

I came across this article recently, which states “code is the new resume”. It asserts that people seeking coding jobs should be contributing to open source and using those contributions as proof that they have the skills for the job they’re seeking. I wholly agree, but it got me thinking about the equivalent for writers.

When I have had prospective tech writers come to me for advice on where to start, I have always pointed them towards an open source project that I think would meet their skills and interests. I usually have three main reasons for this. I want them to get experience working with processes within a docs team (particularly a mature docs team that functions well, such as Libre Office or OpenStack). I want to give them an opportunity to get familiar with the tools and programs used by highly technical writing projects (things like Docbook XML and Publican, rather than proprietary tools like Madcap or Adobe). And, perhaps most importantly, I want to give them a chance to write things that they can share with prospective employers.

But contributing to open source docs, while beneficial in career terms, rarely ends up being something you can confidently wave in front of an employer. Rarely, if ever, will you get the chance to create a new document from scratch, something you can call truly yours. And even if you get that chance, rarely will it remain the piece of art you crafted for very long. Open source software moves quickly, and by the time you publish your meticulously researched and effectively written document, there will be a team of hungry writers circling, ready to rip into your virgin words and tear them apart. Within months, your perfect book could be an almost unrecognisable crime against information architecture, full of passive voice and typoed commands, with a title that no longer reflects its content. Certainly not something you want your name anywhere near.

Herein lies the tech writer’s dilemma: when asked for writing samples, what do you do? You don’t want to admit to authorship of something that (through no fault of your own) makes you want to quit the industry, but you also don’t want to say that you’ve been contributing to a project for months and have nothing to show for it. My answer: make your resume your writing sample. You won’t always get away with it, because some employers will ask for writing samples as a matter of course (at which point, having kept a tech writing blog for a while can be very handy. Just sayin’), but having plenty of prose in your resume and making sure it shows off your skills will do wonders for proving you can do the job.

There are no rules saying you need to deliver a two page resume, developed using a standard Word template, to apply for a job. Designers have been handing in creative resumes for decades, and we can take a leaf out their book. Offering something different, something that screams “I’m a writer, and I’m damn good at what I do” is going to make any recruiter or hiring manager stop and look. Remember how many resumes these guys see. Offering a bog-standard resume means that yours will get thrown away at the first typo.

shakespeare

First of all, do your research. If you can, find out what writing tools your prospective employer uses, and use it. If you don’t have that in your repertoire, then use the closest thing you can do. When I applied for my first job that used Docbook XML, I delivered my resume in LaTeX (complete with “Typeset in LaTeX and TeX” in a footnote at the bottom of each page. Nothing like rubbing it right in). I later found out that the hiring manager ran around the office showing it off to all his existing writers, pointing excitedly to the footnote. Once I’d learned Docbook XML, following jobs got that instead. If the company you want to work for uses Word, then deliver a beautifully formatted Word resume (and don’t forget to use styles!). By the same token, be aware of internal culture, and the fact that people get very passionate about their tools. Never deliver a resume built in Word with a .docx extension to an open source company if you don’t want to be teased about it forever after (assuming you get the job despite it, of course).

And, perhaps most importantly, don’t just deliver a series of dot points. This is your chance to prove you can write. Include a fairly long prose introduction, but don’t waffle. Be clear about your goals, the job you’re after, and any relevant work you’ve done previously. If you can, do some research into the company you’re looking to join, and tailor this part to the role you want. Mention how your experience meets their demands, not as a canned response to selection criteria, but as someone who has gone looking for core values and culture clues, and is addressing the human beings that work within that group. Write directly, succinctly, but passionately. Don’t use words too big for the subject (with apologies for paraphrasing C.S. Lewis), make your language casual, but not informal. Get your writer friends to proofread it until you are confident it is perfect. Feel free to email me with your text and I’ll also help.

Don’t make recruiters ask for writing samples. Get creative, use your skills to your advantage, and don’t be afraid to have some fun with it. If you have your own stories of resumes (good or bad), or hiring, please share!

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An exit, and an entrance

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
— ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare

It is not often that you have to make a choice between an amazing job, and another amazing job. But, after six years with Red Hat, I have decided to take up a new position with Rackspace, effective 28 October.

I have grown up with Red Hat, in particular the Australian writing team, and in many ways the person I am today has been shaped by the people and the culture here in the Brisbane office. I am sad to be leaving, but I take a little piece of that crimson fedora with me. To all my friends and colleagues at Red Hat: keep up the great work, keep innovating, and know that there are Red Hat alumni out there, cheering you on from the sidelines.

To anyone who is considering embarking on a technical writing career, or expanding their tech writing horizons, consider joining the team at Red Hat. They’re doing groundbreaking work, they’re doing it out in the open, and they’re having a huge amount of fun as they do it.

I’ll be blogging a lot more in my new role, so please stay tuned as this site gets a bit of a nip and a tuck, and before long you’ll start seeing a lot more from me.

the-weird-writer

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???????

I wrote this several years ago at this time of year, and it still feels very relevant.

Happy Diwali, everyone 🙂

————————————————————-

Today marks the start of the 8-day long diwali (or d?p?vali) festival. It is a festival of light, celebrated in Hinduism and Buddhism, among others.

Traditionally, people light candles, wear new clothes, and celebrate with sweets and snacks. What got me thinking, though, was the many and varied stories of how diwali came about, through legend and history. I won’t go into detail (if you want it, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start), but the stories are all essentially about a homecoming, a return from exile, the release of detainees.

In the past few days, I’ve been bothered by our government’s reaction to the 250 Tamil asylum-seekers, who are now on hunger strike in a boat in Merak, Java. These people are apparently so evil that both sides of politics agree that they shouldn’t be allowed in to our country, to enjoy our freedoms.

We quite happily advertise our wealth to the world. When those who have nothing; those who live daily in fear and poverty; seek to improve theirs and their childrens’ lives by giving everything they have to come here, we turn them away. We turn them away.

What evil do these people encompass? The detractors will cry that we will be over-run. Well, so what if we are? We have boundless plains to share, after all.

Even if you have never heard of diwali before, even if this day would normally have passed for you without a glimmer of recognition of what today means for so many Hindus and Buddhists, please just take a moment to think of those who will not be returning home. Take a moment to consider how many people are currently living in fear of their lives, in complete and abject poverty, and who are willing to give everything they have to try and rise above that. And think about the people who are so close to their dream of the future … yet so far.

Happy diwali. I hope that – for you – it is a time of light and happiness. And I hope that you will spare a thought and light a candle for those who cannot celebrate diwali this year, through no fault of their own.

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30 Things I Have Learned So Far

This blog turned three a couple of days ago. This auspicious occasion is usually marked by the precipitous drop into the crazy novel-writing month of November (see the NaNoWriMo website if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). This November, however, the only crazy writing will be the penning of assignments, and the ordinary crazy writing of work-as-usual. Yes, this year (and probably next year) uni comes first, and NaNoWriMo gets knocked back a peg on my list of things to do. Let’s aim for for a big 2012 comeback, huh?

Anyway, I would still like to celebrate the fact that this blog is three, and that in a few days I will hit the big three-oh. To do so, here are thirty things that I’ve learned so far:

30. Tea is good.
29. Raising a child is hard work and involves being spewed on a lot.
28. When a child gives you a sleepy hug, it is worth every bit of hard work (and vomit).
27. Work can be fun if you have the right kind of job.
26. The best way to learn about stuff is to either write it down, or tell someone else about it.
25. There are stupid people in the world, but for the most part they’re harmless.
24. There are really smart people in the world, but not all of them are harmless.
23. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between extreme genius and extreme stupidity.
22. Being involved with people that have passion helps incite you to be passionate too.
21. Teaching is more educational than learning.
20. Teaching can also be heaps of fun.
19. Learning is fun too. It is also addictive.
18. Going to uni once or twice is expected. Going back for a third go is just crazy.
17. Friends are important, but you only need a couple of really good ones.
16. It’s OK to say no to all sorts of things.
15. It’s OK to say yes sometimes as well.
14. You can be a good person, without having to help every bleeding heart.
13. You need to pick and choose who deserves to have slices of your time. Tell everyone else to go jump.
12. Love is about more than just sex.
11. Sex is about more than just love.
10. It’s OK to leave the party early if that’s what you want to do.
9. The only person who can control your health and fitness is you. No one is going to do this for you.
8. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is duck and run.
7. When you stumble, you are still in charge. Pick yourself up and carry on as best you can.
6. It doesn’t matter what you do, some people will still shit on you. Those people are not friends.
5. Writing is therapy.
4. Tea is therapy too. Did I mention tea already?
3. Don’t be afraid of massage. It’s several kinds of awesome.
2. Bikes are several kinds of awesome too.
1. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up and shout like you know what you’re talking about. Confidence can go a long way.

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