Colorado Mozillians Meetup!

Meet the Colorado Mozillians …

We spent the day co-working at the Boulder Hub.

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Tom Tromey (Developer Tools), Justin Crawford (MDN), Teri Charles (Web QA)
Stormy Peters (MDN), Chuck Harmston (Marketplace)

 

 

February Books: lots of fiction

Nonfiction, a really painful read

The End of Power. I made it through this book but it was a struggle. The author’s premise is that power is becoming more distributed (I agree) and that because of that nobody will be able to get anything done (I disagree). He thinks that if we don’t have a few powerful countries, the world will continue to see more and more terrorism. I think we need a new way to work that takes into account the distributed nature of power – both at the governmental and the corporate level. The author gives lots of data and examples and defines power in interesting ways. However, if he allowed distributed works, I think I could rewrite the book with 80% fewer words. I don’t think I’m the only one that had trouble with this book. After Mark Zuckerberg picked it as his first book of the year, it sold out. Now, 2 months later, it only has 102 reviews on Amazon, so most of those people must not have finished the book …

Book Group: General Fiction Books

My first book and last book in February were for my book group.

The Girl on the Train was an entertaining thriller. I’m not sure what to tell you about it without giving it away, but it does make you question whether you know the whole true story about anyone you meet. The book might also make you stop drinking. It wasn’t the kind of book to drink while reading a glass of wine as the main character loses large parts of her memory due to alcoholism.

I really enjoyed The Rosie Project. I don’t know how realistic it was (I’m curious to see what my friends who have more experience with Asperger’s think) but it was an entertaining read about a man who starts a Wife Project, a survey to find the perfect wife. Then he decides to help a woman with the Father Project, a project to find her biological father. During the process they form a friendship and share many misunderstandings and hilarious moments.

Science Fiction and Fantasy, a bit of every type

Inescapable. I almost quit reading on page 2 when I read “using my mirror to refresh my lip-gloss”. There was a lot of description of clothing and looks. And the way one of the main character’s accents was done was kind of annoying. And the way the mystery is revealed is pretty artificial. On the plus side, I think, the author took all those awkward high school relationships and bundled them all up and shoved them into this book. While not my kind of book, I did read the whole thing.

Third Shift – Pact (Part 8 of the Silo Series) by Hugh Howey. If it’s been a while since you read the previous books, I recommend a refresher. The author just continues the story right where it left off with no reminder of who the characters are or what’s going on. If you haven’t read the Wool Silo series, I highly recommend the books. I think they’d be good for people who haven’t read much science fiction too.

Soul Identity. I thought this would be science fiction but it wasn’t really. It’s about an organization that believes everyone has a unique soul that can be identified by their eyes. And after a person’s death souls comes back in a new person – without any memories. People can leave wealth and belongs to their future soul hosts. The story was good – a bit of a mystery – and I think it’d make a good movie. I found the dialogue to be rather awkward and it was 95% dialogue. I prefer a bit more narrative mixed in.

The Shattergrave Knights proved to be the fantasy book I was looking for. I’d have preferred more character development but I was in the mood for an easy read placed in some fantasy world that resembles the middle ages only very slightly with swords and magic and this book fit the bill. (It’s also only 99 cents on Amazon.)

Tried but didn’t make it …

The Briar King. It seemed like one of those epics where the author has the story they want to to tell and then makes up the people to tell it. The characters were well done but the book was about the epic tale. (And according to Amazon I bought this in 2009. Maybe it’s time to give up?)

Mimi Geier, a great math teacher

MimiGeierThe world lost a great math teacher this week. Mimi Geier not only loved math, she loved teaching math and delighted in watching kids discover solutions. If I had a picture to share here, it would be of Ms. Geier with a grin on her face, holding out a piece of chalk so that a student could teach.

My first day at BFIS, Ms. Geier asked me if I was in first or seventh period math. I wanted to ask which one was the advanced math class, but I didn’t. Instead I said I didn’t know. She told me to come to both and we’d figure it out.

I got worried during the first math class. I could solve any quadratic equation in the world with the quadratic formula but Ms. Geier didn’t think too much of that method. She wanted us to factor, to pull the problem apart and understand the pieces that solved it.

Walking up the stairs after lunch, a girl who later became my friend told me, “You don’t want to be in the seventh period math class.” So it was with trepidation that I entered seventh period. Is this where they sent the kids that had never learned to factor? To my surprise I found a much different class. It was a small classroom of relaxed students and a very different Ms. Geier. This was not the homeroom teacher Ms. Geier. This was not the Ms. Geier who could take forever to make a simple point. This was not the Ms. Geier who was always misplacing that paper that she’d just had. This Ms. Geier grinned a lot. She loved it when we came up with a hard problem. She delighted in solving problems with us. She was thrilled when we figured it out. Ecstatic when we could teach each other. This was Ms. Geier the math teacher. I got to stay in seventh period, advanced math.

One day, we were all having trouble with some calculus. We could solve all the problems but we were struggling with the why. We got the formulas but not how they worked. The next day, a kid in my class whose dad was an engineer at IBM came in and said, “I got it! My dad explained it to me.” Ms. Geier, who had probably spent hours figuring out how to teach it to us, just grinned, held out the chalk and said “Show us!”

Several years after that first day of school, Ms. Geier was out of town for a few weeks. Her substitute pulled me aside during break. Sitting at Ms. Geier’s desk, he asked me for help with a math problem and said Ms. Geier had told him that if he had any problems with the math, he should ask me. Me, the kid who was afraid to ask which class was advanced, now trusted to help the math teacher!

Unknown to me, Ms. Geier also intervened on our behalf in other areas. We were having trouble with our science teacher. Several of us were banned from asking questions. One of my classmates was banned from asking questions because her questions were too stupid (she’s now a food scientist) and I was banned because my questions were too ridiculous (too much science fiction?). In all fairness, she did explore my ridiculous questions outside of class, even consulting her college professor. Things eventually got better. Several years later she told me that Ms. Geier had helped her figure out how to cope with us.

Ms. Geier taught me many things. Among them were that it’s ok to love math just because it’s math, that it’s ok to be the expert and let somebody else teach you – not just ok but exciting, that it’s ok to be the expert and not know all the answers, that sometimes people learn best from peers, that solving problems together is fun, and much more. I owe a lot of who I’ve become in my career to Mimi.

I, and many generations of math students, will miss Mimi Geier.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of why I don’t always work in the open

I was writing a post about why you must work in the open to get more volunteers and I ended up writing this post about why I don’t work in the open.

The Good

So I think there are some very valid reasons for not working in the open:

  • Personal. Not all projects are open source projects, especially personal ones. Where I’m going for Valentine’s Day or how to get my son to do better in school are not “open” projects. They could be, but they’re not.
  • Not mine to share. There’s a lot of things I think should be shared with the world but they aren’t my stories or plans to share. I’d be violating someone else’s sense of privacy in order to share. I think your 2015 project goals are good enough to share with the world – and more people would join if you did – but you may not feel the same way.
  • It’s not an open source project. Lots of projects in this world are not run in an open source way. If you are not looking to build a community, and you are not an open source software project nor a nonprofit nor a public entity, I think this is a totally valid way of working.

The Bad

And then I think there are some reasonable reasons (maybe right, maybe not) for not working in the open:

  • Partners. At Mozilla, we often cite partners as a reason why we can’t share plans. I think partners just make it much harder. You either have to figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t expose their identity or you have to convince them. It’s a valid reason but one that could often be different if you worked on it.
  • Buy in. It takes time to figure out how to accurately describe an idea, what you mean and why you want to do it. It helps to get feedback from a few people to help make your initial communication clearer. Simon Phipps opines that if there’s a strong majority in a project, discussing an idea first with a few is a way to get something enough backing to push it forward.
  • Getting clear. Sometimes you have to float your idea by a few people to get clear about what you really need to do.
  • Not enough  time. Some times we don’t do things in the open when we are out of time. For me, this is especially true when it’s not my project but I really think it could benefit from being open. Like a fundraising project at school. If they created a web page and a mini social media campaign, I’m sure they could be tons more successful. But I don’t always have time to help them figure out how to do this. I think this crosses into “The Ugly” when it is your own project. If it should be in the open, and you want a community to help you out, you have to take the time to grow that project. You’ll recoup your time later.

The Ugly

And then I think there are some not so great reasons for not working in the open:

  • Not enough  time. I hear this one a lot. We have to get this out next week or next month. There’s not enough time to articulate it clearly enough to open it, to answer everyone’s questions, to mentor, to accept contributions. This might be ok once in a while but I hear it more and more.
  • Not distracting people. I feel this one a lot at Mozilla. Mozilla is a huge community now and we all want to keep up with everything. So every time you float a new idea and a million people weigh in, you feel like you are distracting them from everything else. But I think it’s ultimately their decision whether or not to be distracted.
  • Not announcing other people’s plans. I put this in the ugly category because I often feel like my hands are tied in sharing until someone else shares their plans. Especially in technical documentation and evangelism, you are supposed to talk about other people’s work but not until they are ready. And you want to plan projects, outreach or events around their news.
  • Not committing to something. Especially for your organization. It takes great skill to “float an idea” in the open. To not commit to it while still considering it. To be able to say, we are considering this and then to be clear if you decide not to go forward. The fear is that it makes you look indecisive. It makes people waste their time. It causes inappropriate press cycles. But if you can’t float ideas in the open, if you only talk about things that are already committed to and planned, you miss a huge opportunity to include people in the creative cycles and to make them feel like it really is their project.
  • Not having company commitment. Especially when you are getting paid to work on an open source software project, it’s hard to float random ideas before you have your company’s or your boss’ commitment.
  • Not making inappropriate news waves. There’s a lot of stuff I’d really love to talk about in the open and I don’t because I don’t want to read about them in the press. Right after I started at Mozilla we had a couple of these incidents. People’s personal blog posts turning into major news cycles. It wasn’t fun for them. I don’t want it to happen to me. (Unless it’s something I want in the news!)

When you choose not to work in the open, what are your reasons? Are they Good, Bad or Ugly? What are your suggestions for how those of us who want to work more in the open can all do better?

Who controls what you see online?

During my FOSDEM talk, I spoke about how your phone company, hardware and operating system control what apps you have access to. Some phones bring internet access to those with no access but without the choice and freedom we expect on the web.

For example, in Zambia people are getting free internet from Facebook but they only have access to certain websites. As Eric Hal Schwartz from DCInno says, it’s a bit scary:

anyone in Zambia can get free access via the Internet.org website or its Android app to a limited number of websites and apps. While this is of course great for those who otherwise would have no Internet access at all, the arbitrary limits put on what they are allowed to do online arguably cedes way too much gatekeeper power to the companies behind the offering.

Kudos to Facebook and their partners for bringing internet access to people that didn’t have it. Hopefully they will also give them freedom and choice as well.

Join the Open Source Track at Grace Hopper this year!

There’s a Free and Open Source Software Track at Grace Hopper this year! Submit your proposal now and come join us.

Grace Hopper is the largest gathering of women technologists and it’s a super energizing conference. They are expecting 11,000 people this year – which I find kind of scary. But my experience at Grace Hopper has always been very welcoming – a place to see old friends and a great place to meet new people. I always see quite a few women from the industry that I know and I always meet a couple of more – usually a couple each time that I still remain in contact over the years. It’s how I met the HFOSS folks and where I met Corey Latislaw who is now a Kids on Computers volunteer. I also always see at least one speaker who makes a huge impact on me. One year a keynote speaker made me cry and laugh several times all in one talk. Another year, the President of Harvey Mudd College was on the imposter panel. She talked about how she felt like an imposter asking for a $25 million donation when the people all around her were much more successful and wealthy. GNOME owes part of its financial success that year to her. Because of her stories, I had no problem going and asking all of the advisory board member companies if they could double their contributions.

Heidi Ellis and I are co-chairing the Open Source track and we’re both excited to bring the new things happening in the open source world to a larger audience. We want to get more of the women at Grace Hopper involved in free and open source software. Or at least aware of the opportunity. Please consider submitting a proposal to the track. Formats include presentations, lightning talks, panels, workshops, and birds of a feather.

Men and women are welcome at Grace Hopper although I warn you (both men and women!), if you’ve never been, it feels very strange at first to be at a technical conference that is almost all women! There are also a lot of students at Grace Hopper and that too adds to the energy and the unique feel of Grace Hopper.

Speak their language: communicate in the right tool

One of the best pieces of advice I got was “Find out if they are an email person or a phone person and communicate with them that way.” These days you have to add text messages, hangouts, whatsapp, irc, etc to the list, but the same principle holds true.

I’ll give you an example of how this can go wrong if you don’t “speak the right language.” Someone recently called the GNOME Foundation Board and identified themselves as press and asked to speak to me. Note that the board doesn’t have a phone. It’s just a virtual mailbox because organizations are supposed to have phone numbers.

If he had emailed the list, I’m confident he would have been forwarded on and gotten an answer (or been told no) within 24-48 hours. Instead he called.

I read about it in the board meeting minutes.

Here’s an overview of the proposed agenda/topics for this meeting:

* Adboard meeting at FOSDEM 2015
* Next steps for the Outreach Program
* Responding to a phone press inquiry asking to reach S. Peters

I replied back that if he was looking for me, he should be able to find my contact information easily on the web but that they were welcome to forward him to me or to the press list. Now note that they can’t forward it. It’s a voice mail in a virtual voice mail box.

So the next week I read in the minutes:

Deferred:
* Responding to a phone press inquiry asking to reach Stormy Peters
* Comment from Stormy: “There is a press mailing list to deal with press inquiries. And if they are looking for me, they should be able to find me but you are welcome to point them my way.”
* ACTION: maybe Rosanna can check with the caller to see what he wants and see if we need to get back to him by press contact, or if he really wanted to reach Stormy in particular?

Now, before you say how absurd, why didn’t they call him back, I want you to think back on all your communications over the past week. If you are like most people, I bet there’s at least one email, text message or voice mail you haven’t answered yet. And one of those unanswered messages is probably in a medium you don’t like to use much. People that know you well, know whether to send you a text message or an irc ping if they need a quick answer from you.

I think this is especially important when it comes to team communications.

If your team usually communicates over mailing lists and irc, and you set up a video meeting, does that fit their culture? If you set up an irc meeting, does that fit their culture? And if not, are you purposely trying to drive cultural change? Did you tell them that?

I tried holding all my extended team meetings as irc meetings instead of video meetings last year in order to involve more volunteers. It didn’t work. I’m guessing it’s either the meetings themselves that are either not in the culture or the meetings were not useful or our internal structure of teams didn’t match what volunteers thought of as projects.

Project communication goes beyond meetings and includes things like announcements, discussions and decisions. Should announcements be emails from a single person or newsletters or blog posts in your project’s culture? Should discussions happen on irc or mailing lists? Should they be logged? Should decisions be made on mailing lists, in meetings or in bug tracking tools?

How does your team communicate? How do you change those channels when you need to? Or can you?

For good design add constraints to your web page

I had breakfast with Cate Huston and I told her that I was working on a blog post called “Should you build an app or a website?” She opined that perhaps mobile apps, both native and web, are better because they have constraints. When you have a small screen, you have to have a good UI. You can’t offer users every possibility, you have to make some decisions and choices for them on what they might want to do.

Cate talked about an art teacher who constrains kids to black and white charcoal, then to a drawing started to someone else and then to a drawing torn in half. They are more creative and come up with more inspired work because they have artificial constraints.

When I think about really single purpose, simple websites, I think about Google’s home page.

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.11.27

There’s a few apps like that too.

What do you think? What would your website look like if you knew that everyone had to look at it through a 640×320 screen and could only interact with it using touch sensitive gloves because it was raining ice chunks outside?

Can or Can’t?

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Can read or can’t eat books?

What I love about open source is that it’s a “can” world by default. You can do anything you think needs doing and nobody will tell you that you can’t. (They may not take your patch but they won’t tell you that you can’t create it!)

It’s often easier to define things by what they are not or what we can’t do. And the danger of that is you create a culture of “can’t”. Any one who has raised kids or animals knows this. “No, don’t jump.” You can’t jump on people. “No, off the sofa.” You can’t be on the furniture. “No, don’t lick!” You can’t slobber on me. And hopefully when you realize it, you can fix it. “You can have this stuffed animal (instead of my favorite shoe). Good dog!”

Often when we aren’t sure how to do something, we fill the world with can’ts. “I don’t know how we should do this, but I know you can’t do that on a proprietary mailing list.” “I don’t know how I should lose weight, but I know you can’t have dessert.” I don’t know. Can’t. Don’t know. Can’t. Unsure. Can’t.

Watch the world around you. Is your world full of can’ts or full of “can do”s? Can you change it for the better?

Your app is not a lottery ticket

Many app developers are secretly hoping to win the lottery. You know all those horrible free apps full of ads? I bet most of them were hoping to be the next Flappy Bird app. (The Flappy Bird author was making $50K/day from ads for a while.)

The problem is that when you are that focused on making millions, you are not focused on making a good app that people actually want. When you add ads before you add value, you’ll end up with no users no matter how strategically placed your ads are.

So, the secret to making millions with your app?

  • Find a need or problem that people have that you can solve.
  • Solve the problem.
  • Make your users awesome. Luke first sent me a pointer to Kathy Sierra’s idea of making your users awesome.  Instagram let people create awesome pictures. Then their friends asked them how they did it …
  • Then monetize. (You can think about this earlier but don’t focus on it until you are doing well.)

If you are a good app developer or web developer, you’ll probably find it easier to do well financially helping small businesses around you create the apps and web pages they need than you will trying to randomly guess what game people might like. (If you have a good idea for a game, that you are sure you and your friends and then perhaps others would like to play, go for it!)