Maybe your tech conference needs less tech

My friend Ed runs a project called “Open Sourcing Mental Illness“, which seeks to change how the tech industry talks about mental health (to the extent we talk about it at all). Part of the work involves the publication of handbooks developed by mental health professionals, but a big part of it is Ed giving talks at conferences. Last month he shared some feedback on Twitter:

So I got feedback from a conf a while back where I did a keynote. A few people said they felt like it wasn’t right for a tech conf. It was the only keynote. Some felt it wasn’t appropriate for a programming conf. Time could’ve been spent on stuff that’d help career. Tonight a guy from a company that sponsored the conf said one of team members is going to seek help for anxiety about work bc of my talk. That’s why I do it. Maybe it didn’t mean much to you, but there are lots of hurting, scared people who need help. Ones you don’t see.

Cate Huston had similar feedback from a talk she gave in 2016:

the speaker kept talking about useless things like feelings

The tech industry as a whole, and some areas more than others, likes to imagine that it is as cool and rational as the computers it works with. Conferences should be full of pure technology. And yet we bemoan the fact that so many of our community are real jerks to work with.

I have a solution: maybe your tech conference needs less technology. After all, the only reason anyone pays us to do this stuff is because it (theoretically) solves problems for human beings. I’m biased, but I think the USENIX LISA conference does a great job of this. LISA has three core areas: architecture, engineering, and culture. You could look at it this way: designing, implementing, and making it so people will help you the next time around.

Culture is more than just sitting around asking “how does this make you feeeeeeeel?” It includes things like how to avoid burnout and how to train the next generation of practitioners. It also, of course, includes how to not be a insensitive jerk who inflicts harm on others with no regard for the impact they cause.

I enjoy good technical content, but I find that over the course of a multi-day conference I don’t retain very much of it. For a few brief hours in 2011, I understood SELinux and I was all set to get it going at home and work. Then I attended a dozen other sessions and by the time I got home, I forgot all of the details. My notes helped, but it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, the cultural talks tend to be the ones that stick with me. I might not remember the details, but the general principles are lasting and actionable.

Every conference is different, but I like having one-third of content be not-tech as a general starting point. We’re all humans participating in these communities, and it serves no one to pretend we aren’t.

My 2016 in review

Well 2016 is over. Looking back on the previous year seems to be the in thing to do around now, and it sure beats coming up with original content, so let’s take a look at the past year.

Between this blog, Opensource.com, and The Next Platform, I published 102 articles in 2016. That doesn’t count blog posts, conference papers, marketing materials, and other things I wrote for work. Writing has certainly claimed a central part of my life, and I like that.

In 2016, I got to see my articles in print (thanks to the Open Source Yearkbook). I started getting paid to contribute (I was even recruited for the role, which is a great stroke to my ego). I presented talks at two conferences, chair sessions at two others (including one where I was the co-chair of the Invited Talks). My writing has given me the opportunity to meet and befriend some really awesome people. And of course, it has helped raised my own profile.

Blog Fiasco

Blog Fiasco had what is probably its best year in 2016. I was able to keep to my Monday/Friday posting schedule for much of the year. Only in May — when I was traveling extensively — did I have an extended stale period. I only published 78 articles here compared to 99 in 2015, but I also have done more writing outside of this blog. With just over 8,000 views in 2016, traffic is up by about 5%. As a matter of contrast, my Opensource.com article on a bill working its way through the New York Senate had more views than all of Blog Fiasco.

Top 10 articles in 2016

These are the top Blog Fiasco articles in 2016

  1. Solving the CUPS “hpcups failed” error
  2. Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life
  3. When your HP PSC 1200 All-in-One won’t print
  4. Fedora 24 upgrade
  5. Accessing Taleo from Mac or Linux
  6. A wrinkle with writing your resume in Markdown
  7. elementary misses the point
  8. Hints for using HTCondor’s credd and condor_store_cred
  9. Book review: The Visible Ops Handbook
  10. What do you want in a manager?

Top articles published in 2016

Here are the top 10 Blog Fiasco articles that I published in 2016.

  1. Fedora 24 upgrade
  2. Hints for using HTCondor’s credd and condor_store_cred
  3. What do you want in a manager?
  4. Product review: Divoom AuraBox
  5. A culture of overwork
  6. Disappearing WiFi with rt2800pci
  7. mPING and charging for free labor
  8. What3Words as a password generator
  9. My new year’s resolution
  10. left-pad exposed the real problem

So 2017 then?

I’m pleased to see that a few of my troubleshooting articles have had such a long and healthy life. I’m not sure what it means that the article I published on December 30th was the ninth-most viewed article of the year, but it certainly says something. This blog has never really been for anyone’s benefit but my own, as evidenced by the near-zero effort I’ve put into publicizing articles. In part due to having other, audience-established outlets for writing, Blog Fiasco has become a bit of a dumping ground for opinions and articles that don’t really fit on “real” sites. I’m okay with that.

Will I put more effort into promoting content in 2017? We’ll see. I think I’d rather spend that time writing in places that already have visibility. The monthly “where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?” posts will make it easy to find my work that doesn’t end up here.

On a personal note

Outside of my writing, 2016 has been a year. Lots of famous people died. Closer to home, it was a year with a lot of ups and downs. My own perception is that it was more down than up, but I think 2017 is heading in the right direction again. I’ll let you know in early 2018.

Professionally, I’ve changed positions. I left an operations management (but really, operations doing-ment) role to do technical marketing and evangelism. It was an unexpected change, but a hard-to-pass-up opportunity. I don’t regret the decision, except that it has changed what I thought my career trajectory was, and I haven’t yet figured out if I want to curve back that way at some point or if I want to continue down this (or another) path. I know better than to make specific plans, but I take comfort in having a vague target in mind.

And then of course, there’s stuff going on in the world at large. I try to avoid politics on this blog, but I’ll take a moment to say that the next few years are shaping up to be “interesting”. I have a lot of concerns about social and environmental protections that may cease to exist. Nationalist movements in the U.S. and Europe are gaining steam. I know that even if things get as bad as some fear, society will eventually recover (depending on what happens with climate change, “eventually” could be pretty long), but I also know that for some people it will really suck.

Whatever 2017 brings, I wish you health, happiness, and success, dear readers.

My new year’s resolution

I’m not usually one for making resolutions for the coming year. I know myself well enough to know that my resolve will wane pretty quickly. (I may be lazy, but at least I admit it!) But for 2017, I have decided to make one resolution.

I resolve to read. 

Not to read more books, blogs, magazines, etc., though I would like to do that. My resolution involves what I share. 2016 had many lessons for us, one of which is that it’s far too easy to share something that reinforces our existing views, even if that something happens to be totally false. Or even if the article is factually correct, the headline could be way off.

So in 2017, I will not share articles that I have not read. No more sharing based on the headline or the opening paragraph. I can’t independently fact check every article I read, but I’ll do my best to validate claims that seem to wild – or too good – to be true.

Does this mean I won’t share as much? Almost certainly. But it also means that what I share will be higher quality. I’d like to think people read my writing and follow me on Twitter for quality information, not just my stunning good looks and fiery hot takes.

As you consider your 2017 resolutions, I urge you to please join me in adopting this one for your own.

Airlines race to the bottom

A race to the bottom is rarely an attractive concept, particularly in a submarine or an airplane. And yet the airline industry seems to be dead set on racing to the bottom. Case in point: United announced the addition of a new “Basic Economy” fare tier. This tier does not permit use of the overhead bins and does not assign seats until the day of departure.

The cynical (and perhaps correct) view is that this is an opportunity to raise prices on tickets people would actually want to buy while keeping the “as low as!” price the same. But it’s also an attempt to compete with budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, according to an industry source. Being able to match the low fares is “absolutely non-negotiable.”

I don’t have the benefits of seeing the financial models for this, but from an outside perspective, this seems like a bad move. Not all customers are created equal and it damages your brand to go after the wrong market. Some customers will buy based solely on price, and if that’s who you want to go after, do it. But someone buying solely on price probably won’t be that loyal, so the minute your competitor drops prices, you’ve lost them.

Itemizing everything enables the customer to pay for exactly what they want. It also gives the impression they’re being nickeled and dimed. It’s much easier to just have the price than to add up all the line items. I find it amusing that no-frills carrier Southwest is the holdout for free checked luggage. (As an aside, I’ll probably never fly Frontier again because the notion of paying $40 to check a single bag insulting.)

I’m also curious to see how this affects behavior. By adopting checked bag fees, airlines incentivize passengers to push the limits of carry-ons. This slows down the boarding and deplaning process. Will this Basic Economy tier get people to shove everything into their personal item that’s just barely wedged under the seat in front of them? Will it lead to upset customers who didn’t pay attention trying to use an overhead bin they’re not entitled to?

Most likely, we’ll grumble about it and then end up buying the cheapest ticket anyway. That seems to be the pattern, so I suppose it makes sense for airlines to follow the customer. But maybe there’s room for one or two airlines to buck that trend.

What counts more for community: labels or actions?

I was recently in an argument on Twitter (I know, I know). The summary is that there was disagreement on whether stated party affiliation or cast votes were more indicative of the state of the body politic. We didn’t arrive at a consensus, but it got me thinking about open source communities.

Communities are notoriously difficult to pin down. Where are the boundaries? Is a person a member of a community when they (or someone else) decides to apply that label to them? Are they a member when they make some overt participation effort? Is it a mix of both?

In general, I tend to think that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a duck. That is to say a person is a member of a community if they participate in the community, even if they don’t self-assign the label. For example, if someone considers themselves a political independent but they vote for Democratic candidates 80% of the time, they’re probably a Democrat. Similarly, someone who frequently answers questions in an open source project’s IRC channel or mailing list is a member of the contributor community, even if they don’t think they are (perhaps because they’ve never contributed code).

This isn’t to say that communities shouldn’t welcome people willing to self-assign membership. Unless someone has behaved in a way to warrant exclusion, they should be welcomed and encouraged to become active participants. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving them full access, though. I still consider myself a contributor to Fedora Documentation, even though I haven’t really made a contribution in a while. I still have commit access to the repo, but if someone decided to suspend that, I’d understand.

There’s not a good answer here. How a you define community is largely context-dependent. It’s worth considering how we define the boundary.

The AWS/VMWare partnership

Disclosures: My employer is an AWS partner. This post is solely my personal opinion and does not represent the opinion of my employer or AWS. I have no knowledge of this partnership beyond what has been publicly announced. I also own a small number of shares of Amazon stock.

Last week, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and VMWare announced a partnership that would make AWS the preferred cloud solution for VMWare. AWS will provide a separate set of hardware running VMWare’s software managed by VMWare staff. Customers can then provision a VMWare environment from that pool that looks the same as an internal data center.

As others have pointed out, this is essentially a colocation service that just happens to be run by Amazon. I share that view of it, but I don’t take the view that AWS blinked. It’s true that AWS has eschewed hybrid cloud in favor of pure cloud offerings, and they’ve done quite well with that strategy.

I don’t think the market particularly cares about purity, nor do I think the message will get muddled. Here’s how I see this deal: VMWare sees people moving stuff to the cloud and they know that the more that trend continues, the smaller their market becomes. Meanwhile AWS is printing money but is aware of the opportunity to print more. Microsoft Azure, despite having an easy answer for hybrid, doesn’t seem to be a real threat to AWS at the moment.

But I don’t think AWS leadership is stupid or complacent, and this deal represents a low-risk, high-reward opportunity for them. With this partnership, AWS now has an entry into organizations that have previously been cloud-averse. Organizations can dip their toes into “cloud” without having to re-tool (although this is not the best long-term strategy, as @cloud_opinion points out). As the organization becomes comfortable with the version of the cloud they’re using, it becomes easier for AWS sales reps to talk them into moving various parts to AWS proper.

Now I don’t mean to imply that AWS is a sheep in wolf’s clothing here. This deal seems mutually beneficial. VMWare is going to face a shrinking market over time. With this deal, they at least get to buy themselves some time. For AWS, it’s more of a long game, and they can put as much or as little into this partnership as they want. For both companies, it’s a good argument to prevent customers from switching to Microsoft’s offerings.

What will be most interesting is to see if Google Cloud, the other major infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) provider will respond. Google’s strategy, up until about a year ago, has seemed to be “we’re Google, of course people will use us”. That has worked fairly well for startups, but it has very little traction in the enterprise. Google can continue to be more technically-focused, but that will hinder their ability to get into major corporations (especially those outside of the tech industry).

I don’t see that there’s a natural fit at this point (though I also wouldn’t have expected AWS and VMWare to pair up, so what do I know?). One interesting option would be for Google to buy Red Hat (disclosure: I also own a few shares of Red Hat) and make Open Shift its hybrid solution. I don’t see that happening, though, as it doesn’t seem like the right move for either company.

The VMWare-on-AWS offering will not be generally available until sometime next year, so we have a little bit of time before we can see how it plays out.

Samsunk?

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is no more. After a number of unplanned combustions, including a few post-recall devices, Samsung has given up on it entirely. This is a wise move. Better to fix the problem for the next version and pretend this never happened. Other than the 1/3 cut to revenue that they predict. That’ll probably be a reminder for a while.

I’m really interested to see how Samsung’s brand recovers from this. On the one hand, they’re clearly the leader in high-end Android devices (full disclosure: my current phone is a Galaxy Note 4 and I really like it). They seem to be the only mainstream manufacturer that can compete with Apple. On the other hand, exploding phones are pretty unprecedented. To my knowledge, the Galaxy Note 7 is the only phone to ever be specifically mentioned in airline safety briefs.

Samsung as a whole will be okay, unless it turns out the board and executives were pushing for the Galaxy Note 7 to be mini-bombs. Even the smartphone division will probably recover, though they may have to pull some extra tricks out of the bag to regain consumer trust. I would not be surprised if the Galaxy Note 7 is the last device to carry the “Galaxy Note” name. “Galaxy” may be retired as well, even though the Galaxy S and Galaxy Edge devices have no history of combustion.

I’ve had my phone for less than a year, so barring an accident, I won’t be replacing it for another 18-24 months or more. The Galaxy Note line has a lot of features I like, and I figured whenever it was time to replace my phone, I’d go with the current of that line. Depending on what Samsung does over the next year, I may have to reconsider.

As I sat down at my desk Monday morning, I found myself being very thankful I don’t work for Samsung right now. I can market my company’s software because I know it does awesome things. Even though it has some bugs, as all software does, they’re not going to burn anyone’s house down. I can’t imagine trying to promote products when your company is associated with exploding phones in the public’s mind.

Q: What’s the point of FAQs?

A: Last week Justin Searls had a series of tweets using the #HonestFAQ hashtag. This one, in particular, got me thinking:

As a newly-minted marking pro, my first thought was “yeah, that’s true.” Most prospective users or customers will not read through the entirety of your documentation just to see if they want to play around with your product or not. FAQs can be an excellent rhetorical device for preempting reasons to not sign up. Twenty five years of world wide web use has taught us to look first for FAQs, so there’s a quick success when the answers are there.

But I also started thinking about FAQs I’ve written over the years. Mostly, they were in my first professional job. I was doing a lot of desktop support, so I put together some FAQ entries to head off some of the questions that I regularly was asked (or expected to be asked). The goal was to let people handle their own easy problems so that I could focus on the harder problems for them.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that FAQs (particularly the non-marketing ones) are indicators of a bad user experience. This may be due to technical issues, documentation, or something else. But if the platonic ideal of software or a service includes the fact that everything is self-evident, then there’s no other conclusion.

This makes FAQs good, not bad, as they serve as a guide post for what needs to be fixed from the user perspective. The ability to preemptively write good FAQs means you’re thinking like your users. The earlier in the process you start doing that, the fewer FAQs you may need to write.

Crowdfunding academic research?

A few months ago, the Lafayette Journal & Courier ran a story about Purdue University turning to crowdfunding Zika research. Funding sources in higher ed are special. Grants from federal and other agencies require the submission of sometimes lengthy proposals. The approval process is slow and bureaucratic. Private sector funding can indirectly bias fields of study (why would a company fund a study that is expected to be bad for the company?) or at least lead to accusations of bias.

There are benefits to a crowdfunding model for academic research. Getting the public involved in the process means they’re interested, which is good for scientific literacy. Crowdfunding can be a powerful tool for raising a large amount of money.

On the other hand, we already have a crowdfunding model for research: the tax-supported National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, etc. Basic research generally lacks the pizzaz to attract large amounts of crowdfunding, but it is a key foundation for higher-level research.

As the article pointed out, a crowdfunding pitch on the heels of a major fundraising campaign is a bit of a sour note. But overall, using crowdfunding to augment research is an appealing idea. I just worry about the day that researchers become dependent on it.

How gamification can change our habits

A while back, a friend posted the following tweet:

Sleeping in the buff means you don’t get Fitbit credit for the steps taken to clean up dog piss in the wee hours of the morning.

I laughed at first, but then I thought about it. Gamification changes how we behave: I certainly walk a lot more since I started counting my steps on my phone, for example. Adding small rewards and leveling up is used both in games but also to promote desired behavior in “serious” situations.

So what will long-term gamification side effects look like? Will people who normally sleep naked start sleeping with socks on so they can wear their FitBit? Will they instead buy a Jawbone Up that they can wear on their ankle?