“Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

While I don’t agree with everything Sebastian Junger writes in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, I love the way he manages to articulate some things that I’ve noticed but never been able to describe.

Just last weekend I was camping, and we had this torrential rain storm. People rushing to get their boats off the water were hurrying so much that they lost their boats off the trailers. Rain came down so hard and quick, it broke tent poles and tents literally floated away. People had to dig trenches to get water out of their campsites. And it was fun. Granted, my sleeping spot was completely dry, so I speak from a position of privilege. But everybody getting together to help make sure people were ok, finding ways to keep important things dry, finding dry places for people to sleep and ways to feed everyone, that was fun. There was a real feel of community. Of adventure. Of responsibility.

When I tell people it was fun, they give me this look and then I end up back peddling, trying to describe what I mean. Sebastian Junger describes it well. He talks about how social bonds are reinforced during disasters and “that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves”. Social differences and economic inequalities are temporarily irrelevant, at least until outside aid comes in.

Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals. — Sebastian Junger

The same thing happens to our veterans. They join a community that’s closely knit, that trains, sleeps and eats together. They are placed in high stress combat situations where they work together regardless of background or previous social differences. Where they all have a job, they are all needed and they all work together. Ask a veteran you know about their “team”, about the people that served with them. Most of them have told me they’ll never be that close to any other group of people in their lives.

Then we bring them home. To this super loose knit society. One where not many of us are needed beyond our immediate family. One where our purpose in life, our job, is not often clear. Or doesn’t feel like our job fits into a higher purpose. As Junger says, “part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up.”

We all need to feel like we are part of a tribe. We need to feel connected to other people and we need to feel like our work is meaningful, that it helps others.

Just yesterday I read an article in the New York Times that theorizes that we can get teenagers to eat healthier by getting them to contribute to a cause as a community: “as students work together towards a shared purpose, the impulse to resist authority fades.”

So is modern society broken? Does it make people feel unnecessary? What tribes do you belong to? During what moments do you feel most useful and connected? What moments make you feel like your life has the most purpose?

I am also doing a series of 22 pushups for 22 days to raise awareness for veteran suicides.

Our World Depends on Unseen Labor: Open Source Software

Our digital infrastructure is all open source. It’s built and maintained by a relatively small community of open source software developers. Right now the open source software work is funded by a variety of methods: volunteer time, nonprofit corporations and donations of time and money by a few corporations. Is that sustainable? Or should we be looking for ways to fund our digital infrastructure much like we do our roads and bridges through government or community efforts? This is the question that Nadia Eghbal poses in her very comprehensive paper covering her research funded by the Ford Foundation.

About a year ago, at the recommendation of a friend, I met with Nadia Eghbal. Diane Tate introduced her as someone “who recently left her role in venture capital to explore ways to support developers working on early infrastructure projects.” We had a fascinating conversation. Nadia was trying to expand the venture capital world and when she went looking for projects that venture capital doesn’t fund but that really need funding, she found the world of open source. In particular, she found that the infrastructure behind most of our current technology is based on open source software maintained by a small community of developers. Some of them work for nonprofits that pay their salary (like the Linux Foundation now sponsors OpenSSL), others have corporate patrons who pay the salary of maintainers who work on projects they use (like HPE and Google) and others are completely volunteer based.

Nadia believes that our policy makers, grantmakers and activists are unaware of the role that open source software plays and, when they have heard of it, they erroneously believe that it’s well funded. As an example, the IRS is no longer granting 501(c)(3) status to organizations that primarily produce open source software with the argument that software is not a public good and they can’t guarantee that people won’t profit from it.

Nadia’s report, funded by the Ford Foundation, is a great read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about open source software, how it works and how it’s funded. Warning: it is very long! Think about it more as a short book than a blog post!

Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure

The Culture of Poverty

I am not an expert in poverty nor in economic culture. If there are any mistakes in this post, I likely understood it incorrectly. I hope that this post inspires you to go learn more about the social groups in our society and how we can all work more effectively together.

bridgesoutofpoverty

Bridges out of Poverty taught by Jodi Pfarr was a fascinating class about how the cultures of individuals living in the middle class is different than individuals living in poverty.

For individuals in poverty, values are centered around relationships. Titles are not important. Relationships you have with people are where you place your trust.  Life is focused on the present and problems are all interlocking. Individuals in poverty spend time worrying about things like child care, housing, agencies and transportation.

An example Jodi gave of relationship based values was to take the situation where a little girl is starting school. Her older brother takes her around and introduces her to people. When he gets to the janitor, he says the janitor is good people. His sister listens and understands that the janitor is someone to be trusted. If that little girl is having trouble in school, who do you think will have more influence on getting her to do her homework, the principal or the janitor? The janitor, according to Jodi, because she’s trusted.

For individuals in the middle class, values are centered around achievement. Trust is placed with those with titles – they trust the principal, they trust the judge, they trust the police officer based on their position, not because they know them. Individuals in the middle class trust or at least respect and listen to people with the appropriate titles. Those are the people they go to for help. Life is achievement based, future focused and problems are contained. Their sister’s kid getting sick will not keep them from going to work. Middle class individuals spend time thinking about cost of childcare and education, retirement, credit card debt and careers.

Jodi also touched briefly on individuals living in wealth. Their values are centered around connections: political, financial and social. They are generational focused and problems are controlled. They spend time thinking about things like associations, travel, events and politics.

Understanding that people in different wealth brackets have different cultures, not just different problems, you can develop better systems that realize that these are systematic issues not individual choice. Jodi gave examples of how this understanding had greatly improved services for individuals in poverty. For example, a set of judges decided to try doing a first come, first serve system on Fridays. They reduced warrants by 70%! The theory was that individuals in poverty have difficulty with transportation and often have to adjust their schedule to help out others (or their own ride disappears). It’s easier for them to pick a day and show up when they can and wait as long as needed than it is for them to make it at 8:15 on a particular Wednesday. People in the middle class find that extremely inconvenient and often fail to understand why it works better for people in poverty. If we include representatives from all groups as we make policies and seek to understand and not judge, we can make systems that are much more effective.

The class was taught by Jodi Pfarr who did an excellent job of explaining both the culture and values of middle class versus poverty. The class was aimed at people who provide services for those in poverty, mostly non-profits and government agencies, and almost all middle class people. In Fort Collins, Colorado, this class is occasionally offered for free to the public by the Bohemian Foundation.

Additional Reading:

10 thoughts inspired by Always Hungry?

First published on Medium.

Always Hungry? by David Ludwig is yet another diet book but one written by a respected doctor specializing in obesity in children. I really enjoyed several articles about Dr Ludwig and his ideas, so I was expecting something more from the book but all I got additional was lots of recipes.

  1. Dr Ludwig, like many others, blames sugar and refined grains for many of our health problems. I like how he explained it and provided supporting science and studies, but if this is why you are reading the book, I recommend Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Dr Ludwig does do a good job of explaining inflammation, blood sugar and fat storage in a way that people without medical backgrounds might understand.
  2. I love his point that the process of getting fat makes you eat more, not the other way around.
  3. I hate reading cook books on the Kindle. Actually, I just hate reading cook books. I think you should search for recipes or ideas for recipes, not read them.
  4. The advice for how to eat healthy seems pretty consistent these days — avoid processed foods, refined grains and sugar — and just as hard to follow.
  5. He focused more on waist size than weight and only recommended weighing yourself once a week as opposed to most people’s recommendation to weigh yourself daily.
  6. His supporting quotes and stories were all about people who had lost 5–20 pounds instead of the tons of weight most diet books claim.
  7. New studies seem to be consistently saying that exercise is good but exercise makes you eat more, not less. I really wonder what we’ll be saying a decade from now.
  8. He doesn’t really talk about overweight kids at all in spite of his background.
  9. If I could not eat carbs, I’m sure I would lose weight. I would also be really sick of eggs and chicken and meat. And while I like vegetables and fruit, I just can’t imagine them replacing pasta.
  10. Unlike Atkins, Dr. Ludwig recommends lots of fruits and vegetables and eventually some grains and carbs.

What did you end up thinking about as you read the book or these points?

How companies like Uber and Airbnb are gamifying work

First published on Medium.

Companies with the newer “sharing economy” business models are gamifying work. They are making people work hard in ways that resemble how they play video games.

To better understand this, I compare their models to the components of a game as given by Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal:

  1. Goal: A game has a very specific outcome, a sense of purpose. Where as at work you might wonder what the purpose is, in a game it’s usually very clear what you are trying to do.
  2. Rules: In a game there are clear limitations on how you are supposed to accomplish the goal. These limitations make it really clear where people can experiment encouraging creativity and strategy. At work, the limitations are often not clear. Maybe you can ask for more budget, maybe another department will help you, maybe …
  3. Feedback system: all games have a scoring system or a way of knowing how close you are to the goal. I think this is often the most missing thing at work, especially if you don’t have a clear goal (besides making money).
  4. Voluntary participation: everyone who is playing the game knows and accepts the goal, rules and feedback. This allows people to play together and makes it safe and fun as you always have the freedom to leave.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber have all these components, and people have fun trying to see if they can gain new levels and statuses. I recently talked to an Airbnb host who is obsessed with making “Super Host” status.

Here’s how these new sharing economy models compare to games.

  1. A goal. With the sharing economy businesses, your goal is very clear. With Uber you want lots of rides, or maybe money from rides. With Airbnb you want lots of guests. The goal, what the business and the app are all about, are obvious.
  2. Rules. With the sharing economy businesses, the apps make it very clear what the rules are. They make it clear what you are supposed to do. For example, pick up a client at this address and take them to this address.
  3. Feedback. Both of these systems, and many like them, excel at feedback. Uber has every driver and every rider rate each other before they are allowed to do anything else. Airbnb works hard to get people to rate each other and gives Super Host status to those that maintain high ratings. At Grace Hopper, I went to a talk by an Airbnb data scientist where she talked about the ways they try to make feedback more honest. They’ve made lots of changes (like not letting hosts and guests see each others’ reviews until after they both have left one) to encourage more and more honest reviews.
  4. Voluntary participation. As long as people participating in Airbnb and Uber are doing it as supplemental income or as long as there are alternatives like HomeAway.com and Lyft, people can leave whenever they want. I tried driving Uber one afternoon and decided it wasn’t for me. The “game” is fun because the people playing it got to choose to leave if they didn’t like it.

What do you think? Do you think the new “sharing economy” businesses are gamifying work? Is that making the world a better place? Should traditional businesses try to gamify work as well?

When you are afraid of risk, you create weak teams

First published on Medium.

When role models are risk adverse, they change the game for everyone.

Last night at kickball, a young woman on the other team decided to start bunting and she changed the preferred strategy for women on both teams. She was a strong player and she obviously thought her best option, maybe her only option, was to bunt. So quickly the feel became, to be a “team” player, all weak players should bunt. Never mind that by bunting you give up all chances of kicking a home run or even a double. Or of feeling proud of your kick.

She kicked a few good balls early in the game but got out on the way to first. So the next inning she decided to take advantage of the rule that helps weak kickers, and she bunted. There’s a line between first and third base, through the pitching mound, and no fielders are allowed in front of that line until the ball has been kicked. Pretty soon, the weaker players on her team (all women) were also bunting. Then the women on my team debated whether they should bunt. Then the stronger players on my team started encouraging the weaker players to bunt! That’s when I got upset. Upset at a world where teams encourage newer and weaker players to avoid risk, and therefore to avoid the chance to grow.

This is rec, co-ed kickball. Most of us haven’t played kickball in decades. Many of us haven’t played a sport in years. And several people don’t know the game well enough to know where the play is. The umpires are awesome. They encourage and help everyone. In addition to their umpire role, they often play surrogate coach and cheerleader. They don’t just say “1 out”, they say “1 out, play is at first”. And they check in with players. I think last night’s umpire could tell I was getting really annoyed. He checked in with me to make sure I was alright.

I remember learning to play kickball. It was a new school and a new sport. After my first “at bat” it became very clear I’d never kicked a ball. So my next at bat, everyone moved in for the kill. I had a wall of fielders all 10 feet from me. There was no where to kick the ball. So I love the rule that no one can be in front of the line until the ball is kicked. Rules that help new or weak players get started are good. When experienced players use those rules to their advantage, you end up with politics.

You end up with people examining all the rules to see where the loop holes or advantages are. Last night we ended up debating how many men could be on a team, what order they could kick in, if you could rush the ball once it was bunted, … and it became about the rules and winning, not about the game.

My emotional reaction was out of proportion for a kickball game. But it’s because I realized that I see this in the world all the time. When someone who is clearly capable says “oh, I could never do that”, they make all those people that are still learning doubt their abilities. When you turn down that client presentation or that keynote, when you start your piece in the meeting with “I’m not sure but …”, you show that you don’t think that you, a competent, experienced person, should take that risk. And when you combine that risk aversion with a do what it takes for the team to win, you cripple people. You end up encouraging your newer players to not take any risks for fear of hurting the team. Some times an individual has to take one for the team. Some times the team has to take one for the individual in order to grow a strong team.

While each individual has to decide on their own whether a risk is right for them or not, the team needs to watch and make sure that risk aversion isn’t becoming the norm, enforced by peer pressure, for their newer or weaker members.

Kick hard. Work hard. Take risks. Learn. Make mistakes. Help others make mistakes. Cheer them on. Grow your team. Be a role model.

The code review culture kills new ideas

First published on Medium.

Many open source organizations start around code. Someone has an idea and they write some code to express it. If people like the idea, they add more code. That code gets reviewed and incorporated.

This works great while the project rallies around the original idea. However,when they go to add new products or plan new features, the culture of code reviews gets in the way of a culture of new ideas.

Why’s that? Because code reviews look for flaws. You need to make sure you don’t introduce bugs. Ideas, on the other hand, need a whole team of input before they are strong enough for the risk analysis. New ideas get stronger when people add to them, figure out ways they can help. Once ideas become a plan they need something like a code review but not before they become a plan.

Reviewing Code is about Eliminating Risk

When new code is submitted, it’s always reviewed before it’s accepted. And often there are very clear guidelines. You are reviewing to make sure that your project’s guidelines are met, that the code is well written and that it introduces no new bugs. Often this means you are looking for things that are wrong. You may also suggest improvements, but the focus is on looking for things that are wrong.

Reviewing Ideas is about Exploring Opportunity

When new ideas are reviewed, they are often not fully formed. Ideas, especially new product ideas, need the entire organization to help figure out the full potential, what each team could bring to the table and how people might react to it. New ideas need to be fully developed before you start poking holes in them. And new ideas cannot be fully developed by one person. They need a whole team of people to say, “yeah, that’s great, and I could help by linking it to this other thing I’m working on” or “yeah, I like that and it makes me wonder if we did this, if that would be even better.”

What happens when you apply code review techniques to ideas?

When you apply code review techniques to ideas, you kill them before they are fully developed. You look for everything that is wrong in an idea. You look for all the risks, all the holes, before you add your strengths to it. Just when the idea needs you to help figure out how it could succeed, you poke a hole in it.

Next time you see someone in your organization propose an idea, make your first reaction an additive action. Challenge yourself to make the idea even better instead of looking for the bugs.

Let others choose their own hats

How many hats do you wear?

When I’m in a city and say I’m there for a software conference, I wear my “all technical people” hat. When I’m the only woman in a room of men, I wear my “the entire female gender” hat. When I’m the only American at a long table full of Europeans, I wear my “American” hat. At those times, I feel like my behavior reflects on an entire gender, nationality or industry.

That often makes me think and act very carefully. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty. It often feels stressful.

So just go easy on Marissa Mayer.

She didn’t choose to wear the female hat. But she did choose to wear the CEO hat. And the mom hat. And the female mom CEO hat. Wow! What a burden that must feel like at times. So give her some slack. Let her do the best she can the way she thinks is right. She obviously chose not to wear the “children should spend the first couple of months with their mom” hat. That’s ok with me. She’s wearing a lot of hats. And she’s pushing the stereotypes. For a lot of hats that I care about. Give her some room to breath. Remove the stress of imposing yet another hat on her. Support her in all the hats she has to wear.

I say this from my a day of camping without work and without kids. So pretty hat free, relatively speaking. Yeah to the female, mom, CEO!

Don’t let them label you a demon kitty

Over the past couple of days I’ve had a number of conversations with women that have left me frustrated. And I realize I’ve heard a lot of stories like this. For the record each of these comments comes from a different woman who works for a different company, none of which I have worked at. So this is not about the companies but about empowering individuals.

Each of these women is super smart and talented, with a good career and has done and created awesome things.

  • “Is there a life outside this company? Tell me there are good places to work.”
  • “I’ve gotten so much negative feedback, I’ve stopped listening to any feedback. I think I’m unemployable now.”
  • “I’m not doing anything meaningful at work but I can’t quit. If they offered me a severance package, I think I’d take it.”
  • “I’ve given up on advancing my career. I just want to find nice people to work with where I can do good work.”

And all that reminds me of the lesson I learned from my demon kitty.

I used to foster kittens for the humane society. And one kitten they gave me was a demon kitty. She would attack me with tooth and claw every time I ate; she peed in every corner of my house; she shredded curtains. She was truly a demon kitty.

I took her back and said “I’m sorry, she’s a demon kitty, I can’t work with her.”

A few days later I called and asked how she was doing. They said “oh, she’s great, we placed her with another volunteer.” I didn’t believe them, so I called the other volunteer. She said, “She’s the sweetest little thing ever.” I asked her to describe the demon kitty just to make sure we were talking about the same cat.

Something in my organization (i.e. my house) was toxic for the kitten. Maybe it was the wrong kind of food, maybe it was the big slobbery dog, maybe it was the color of the carpets. Maybe I was just a terrible manager (i.e. foster mom). And she tried to tell me. And I gave her lots of negative feedback (sprayed her with water) and I labeled her a demon kitty and recommended her for lots of remedial behavior training. I failed her.

So if your organization is labeling you as a “demon kitty”, it’s not your fault, not any more than it was the fault of a six week old kitten. So, hold that knowledge, that it’s not your fault, and decide if you want to work it out with them or if you want to find a better home. Don’t let them tell you who you are or what you are capable of. Don’t argue with them about what label they’ve given you. Don’t let them make you feel like you have no other options. They might think you are a demon kitty, but if you’ve shown you can create great things and you work hard, there’s a place that will show you that you can be a shining star.