Things 2012 Taught Me

As I tidy up for the New Years Eve party and check my email for last-minute emergencies, I’m surrounded by the usual flurry of year-in-review posts. Hottest games, top albums, best movies. (Chronicle and Coriolanus, Reign of Terror, and Faster Than Light, in case you were wondering.) Those lists are always interesting, if only because they remind me how fast my world is moving these days.

To that end, I’ve been putting together a short list of the things I think I’ve “figured out” this year, as much as I can claim to have figured out important stuff about life. I may say something different a year from now, but for the time being… stuff that I’ve learned this year and how it’s affected me.

Presenting with the same material twice isn’t cheating.

I started speaking, teaching, and presenting pretty heavily back in 2007. At the time, almost all of my presentations were built ad-hoc: in the days leading up to my speaking slot, I’d fire up Keynote and build a slide deck, then get up on stage and deliver it to a crowd. By necessity, I almost always built a fresh slide deck every time I spoke: the ad-hoc approach meant the sessions were more conversational and tailored to individual events, and I was proud of myself for not “recycling” material.

On the other hand, as I started to speak at larger events and invested more time in researching, building, and practicing my material, it became clear that sinking 80-100 hours into a one-off presentation wasn’t sustainable. In 2012, I watched Karen McGrane deliver her Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content presentation several times, all at major conferences and events. I’d been there for a few of the conversations that gave birth to the initial version of the session, so I was able to watch its ongoing evolution. She wasn’t simply recycling content – she was polishing, tightening, and improving it with each delivery. The supporting research, illustrative anecdotes, pacing, and take-aways are leaps and bounds ahead of that first draft, and that would never have improved if she’d abandoned it to work on something “fresh” after the first presentation.

Realizing that I could improve, expand, and tailor a presentation for new audiences – and that it wasn’t cheating to do so – was a huge revelation. The last several presentations I’ve pitched and delivered are built on the skeletons of previous ones, and they’ve been well-received despite the shared material. The people who see the second and third delivery aren’t being cheated; they’re seeing something that I’ve practiced, improved, and internalized.

Treatment of women in webtech is a serious problem

This year, our industry has seen quite a few small and large controversies around gender issues. From complaints that conference speaking slots are stacked with white dudes, to vile bullying of women who talk about misogyny in the gaming industry, to flat-out sexual harassment of women who have the nerve to show up at professional conferences, events have forced a lot of us guys to acknowledge that something’s fucked up.

I’ve spoken to three brilliant professionals in my industry who wrote off conferences entirely: even when there’s no four-alarm controversy at a conference, the general boys-club atmosphere is exhausting to deal with. Worst of all, guys in tech are often deeply invested in the idea that the world of software development and web tech is meritocratic, colorblind, and utterly equitable. Accepting that everything isn’t kosher isn’t just an admission that something needs to be done. In many ways, it’s also the death of the ego-boosting myth that geeks automatically fight against bullying and discrimination.

I (and many other people) have debated the nature, scope, and impact of the problem in numerous other posts. 2012 stands out as an eye-opening year for me, though – realizing how much shit my female colleagues have to put up with, and how much we all lose when they decide it’s not worth the frustration. Another guy I was talking to this week said that this is just a distraction from “real problems” like the economy and totalitarianism and the environment. I call bullshit: if “save the planet” is the only acceptable thing to talk about, cancel all the tech conferences, because SASS and NoSQL are far more “trivial” than treating women like the peers they are.

Deliver more than you’re paid for (but don’t do it indiscriminately)

This is something I think applies to my own work, as well as the work that we do at Lullabot. Working to deliver more than is expected, to master skills that one would only expect in the next “tier” of seniority, to anticipate and understand business needs that are normally beyond the concern of a contracted development team… Those are all ways of doing Good™, and putting more into the world than we take out. Even more than that, they’re ways of training ourselves for bigger and better things. It’s easy for me to say that I want to work on larger, more strategic projects. Making it happen, though, requires treating even the smaller and more focused gigs with the same respect, attention, and consideration.

That doesn’t mean throwing time and energy into the Karma Bin, simply hoping that good stuff will eventually be returned. It means that the best stepping stone to bigger things is exercising the skills you’ll need, even if you’re not yet seen as One Of The Big Guys.

Knowing what you love makes a huge difference

I spent a good chunk of 2010 and 2011 feel frustrated and aimless. I enjoyed my work, but I was spending less time on Drupal core and contrib projects. That was my own decision – after sinking several years into core development, I felt burnt out and overextended. I worked on withdrawing from the tight-knit circle of Core hackers, and it definitely helped preserve my sanity. At the same time, it left me searching for new focus.

A conference-night heart-to-heart with Karen McGrane and Kristina Halvorson in late 2011 helped clarify the parts of my work that I really love, and wanted to invest more time in. In 2012, I made a conscious choice to put more energy into it: studying, pursuing projects that would give me more opportunities to experiment and develop the necessary skills, and so on.

That career-shift has been terrifying but extremely rewarding – my wife Catherine and the bosses at Lullabot have all been really supportive, and it’s been encouraging to work with them to make sure it’s sustainable both personally and for the company. But without the clarity of understanding what I really, truly love doing? I’d still be thrashing. Even if it takes time to get there, knowing where you’re heading makes a huge difference.

I love you all

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a close friend, colleague, or coworker. (And you, Stranger Who’s Viewing The Page From Iceland With A BlackBerry, I don’t know you but you seem cool, too.)

Thank you for the encouragement, support, and advice; for the amazing insights you’ve offered me, the awesome hacks you’ve shown me, and the perspectives you’ve brought to my life that I’d never have known otherwise. Thanks for putting up with my ADHD brainstorming and my arm-waving rants and my self-doubt and my egostorms.

I love you and you’re awesome.

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