Sabbatical cometh

In a few weeks I'll be starting a three-month long sabbatical from my work at Automattic.

As a benefit provided by the company, it's pretty amazing. After every five years of employment, Automatticians are eligible to take a two or three month paid sabbatical to have a break from work, refresh and recharge. Several people (mostly used to academic versions of sabbatical) have understandably asked what expectations are placed on us during that time: research, writing, professional development? Nope, it's all about having a break.

For me personally it's a really neat opportunity, and one I haven't had before in this particular way. I started my first company when I was 19 and have pretty much been working full time ever since. Automattic has a generous and flexible time off policy but to have such a significant amount of time to pursue hobbies, personal projects and time with family and friends is really quite an amazing gift.

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Remembering Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn died over a year ago, but it doesn't feel too late to offer up some remembrances and tributes to the many ways he made a difference in my life, and the lives of so many others.

Quinn's novel Ishmael, and the lifetime of study, contemplation, research and thinking that led up to it, is at the center of his impact, at least for me. In critically examining the most fundamental stories our culture tells itself about our origins, our purpose and our place in the world, Ishmael and subsequent books from Quinn provided a new framework of understanding and exploration about how human society works, and could work.

It would be over-simplifying to say that it is a novel about environmentalism and sustainability, or uncovering cultural biases, or problematic religious traditions, or human potential and selfishness, although it is deeply about all of those things.  For me personally, reading it was a ground-shaking event in my college years, both because it named feelings, experiences, certainties and doubts I already had inside me, and then introduced a slew of new ones that I had to work through. That I am probably still working through. Whereas some novels have to invent a plot device that provides a dramatic twist at the end -- the ancient secret society DOES exist and the magical stone was hidden behind the painting all along! -- in Ishmael all of the secrets that are uncovered are real, buried in our cultural history and traditions, and the implications for revealing them are far reaching in how we live our lives.

As a person, Quinn was not a pushy evangelist for his ideas, nor did have a neatly packaged solution to offer up for the many challenges his books highlighted. Yes, he spent a lifetime trying (along with his wife Rennie) to make his ideas more clear, more accessible, more actionable through giving lectures, engaging with his readers and their questions, traveling to events and facilitating connections between those who were inspired by his work. But he wasn't selling, he wasn't anybody's savior, and his emphasis was always on improving our thinking and what might come from that.

I do not claim to have known Dan very well, but every time I talked with him or saw him in person, I experienced him as a grounded, authentic, kind, and intensely intelligent person. He had a contemplative nature, and I always appreciated that when asked a question about his work or his ideas, he would listen carefully and then pause for as long as he needed to provide a thoughtful, intentional answer. If he didn't know or couldn't form a useful response, he just said so. He was keenly aware of the power of words to persuade, convince, change minds and alter the course of history, and so he also seemed wary of uttering something that could be misinterpreted, re-appropriated or used to stuff his very not-mainstream ways of thinking into a comfortable mainstream box. He didn't have much patience for people who weren't trying to think for themselves or learn from past mistakes.

Because of the power of his books, many people wanted Dan to be their leader: the leader of their movement or their project or their personal journey through the world, or all of the above. I was always careful about not worshipping Dan himself or of not elevating his writing as sacred texts. But I guess I did help to start a group of people and a series of events centered around his work that jokingly referred to ourselves as a "cult of Ishmael" -- sorry, Dan. 🙂

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Building momentum for your distributed work day

Imagine that you are about to go on stage to perform some amazing thing that you know how to do. You're waiting in the wings for your moment to shine, and you want to bring your very best to the experience.

But then also imagine that you spent the last several hours or even days in isolation. You haven't really talked to anyone or had much human interaction at all. No one has given you encouraging words or expressed excitement about what you're going to perform.

And then you find out that the time of your performance has not really been set or advertised. There will be an audience but they will be coming and going from the auditorium where you're performing, and they may or may not be paying attention to you. When you do the thing you're best at, someone may or may not notice. Oh and the stage is actually going to be a small, dark closet.

Now go out there and be awesome? Umm....

It's a silly scenario, but for some people who work in a distributed environment, especially one where a lot of collaboration happens asynchronously across individual schedules and time zones, this is what the beginning of our work day can feel like: quiet, slow, isolated.

In a traditional office setting where workers tend to arrive, collaborate and leave on roughly the same schedule, the energy and pace of work can come from the environment itself. But for distributed workers, even when there is actually a lot going on in the organization we're working with, it can be a challenge to build momentum at the start of our days. Sometimes the work itself is enough to generate that energy, but sometimes we need help getting into the right mental space for high productivity.

So how can you build that momentum if it's not coming from your physical work environment? Here are a couple of things that I've seen work well:

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Believing women, pursuing justice

Part of me is horrified at the stories of rape, assault, sexual misconduct and other inappropriate behavior that continue to come out every day now. I ache with grief and anger for those who have had their lives and careers changed forever by these violations, and who must now also face the judgment and distortions of having their experiences made public.

Part of me has known for a long time that our culture is one that facilitates and encourages these transgressions. That so many men move through the world causing pain and misery, sometimes by choice, sometimes because they lack the courage or will to choose something better, sometimes because the rest of us choose not to stop them.

We all know about it at some level, don't we? That long before we elected a misogynistic, sexual predator bully as President, long before any celebrity accusations were headlines or Twitter non-apologies were made and dissected, we as a culture have accepted that women (and some men) are going to be raped, assaulted, preyed upon or otherwise exploited, and that it's just who we are as a people? Many, if not most, of the women I know have their own stories of violation at some level (many, I'm sure, with stories I don't know about), and can further relay the stories of their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends beyond that.

So I believe women. I am grateful that we are in a moment where more often than not, at least some women are being listened to, heard and believed in the face of denials and cowardice from men who, in the past, got a pass.

What does justice look like moving forward?

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Digital receipts for paperless living

In trying to live a relatively paperless lifestyle, I notice what options stores and restaurants offer for providing electronic receipts instead of paper ones.

My favorite kind is where you use a credit card or mobile payment method that some lower level of infrastructure already knows about and you automatically get an email receipt without further prompting. Square has a great implementation of this.

Slightly less awesome but still great is the version where you use a digital payment method and then have to enter your email address manually, even if you've used the same payment and receipt delivery method at the same location before (I'm looking at you, most American chain restaurants that have the little mini-computer waiting at the booth when people sit down). A bit annoying, but still paperless.

Then there's everywhere else where printing a receipt is probably the only option. Especially at the grocery store, where the receipt and personalized coupons are several miles long, requiring their own bag to carry out. And look, there I am a few days later, awkwardly holding a crumpled piece of paper up next to the networked super-computer on my desk, manually typing in some details that some other networked computer somewhere else already knows about.

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Star Trek values

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a panel at Silicon Valley Comic Con consisting of various members of the cast of the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis and Robert O'Reilly were joined by original series cast member William Shatner to talk about the show, their lives as actors, and what the Star Trek universe has taught and can teach us about the real world.

For someone who watched every episode of the show when it originally aired and who has remained a fan since, it was an hour and a half of nearly pure joy. For one, I was just excited to be a part of a whole auditorium full of people reflecting on how much influence the stories, dialogue and creativity of the show had on our lives, the panelists included. Several audience members stood up to say just how strong that influence has been, informing the careers they chose, the people they've become, the kind of lives that they now lead, and I was right there with them.

In watching Star Trek as a young person I remember being invigorated by the complex problem-solving scenarios that the Enterprise crew faced week after week. I learned from the principles of collaboration, mutual respect and cross-species equity that were practiced. I saw strong women in leadership roles, and I saw non-Caucasian characters developed with an unusual (for mainstream TV, anyway) depth and texture. And I was inspired by a vision of the future that offered so many possibilities for exploration, discovery and growth. I'm sure that my real-world evolution as technologist and computer geek was propelled forward significantly by my immersion in that make-believe world of technological wonders.

The panel also highlighted a new angle of my appreciation for the Star Trek universe. I hadn't previously thought about Trek as having a political point of view, because I assumed that the vision of a world where humanity had figured out how to eliminate poverty and hunger, celebrated and built on our various differences, and employed innovation to protect and restore the environment was a vision that anyone would embrace and want to strive for, and not a particularly politically-charged one.

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