AMA with Kyle Coberly on Denver Devs
Hello Denver Devs, my name is Kyle Coberly! I’m an educator, a business dork, and an agile product engineer. I’m currently a lead instructor at the Flatiron School, executive director of Develop Denver, and an admin at this very slack. I’m a former faculty director for Galvanize, co-host of the Sprint UX podcast, and music teacher. I’m Elyse Coberly’s husband, and Duncan and Miles’ dad. You can read more about me at kylecoberly.com and https://www.linkedin.com/in/kylecoberly/, and for the rest of the day I encourage you to ask me anything!
What’s your favorite flavor of fizzy water?
Plain and/or black cherry.
How did you make the transition from developer to instructor?
Other way around! This was my first lesson circa 2001:
Music teachers are double-poor though, so I started making software instead. After a few years of working in edtech, Graham McBain asked me to come speak at his meetup. Afterward he said, “That was pretty good, would you like to do it for money at Galvanize?” which was the first time I realized I didn’t actually have to leave teaching.
I at one time thought I would like to be a math teacher, but decided that I would make more money in tech (ignoring that I failed a few math classes)
I’ve failed many, many math classes. The bigger problem is that math classes have failed America. Consider how many people you know, many of them otherwise brilliant, who as adults can’t confidently use any math beyond times tables or linear equations. They passed the classes! They studied math every day for like 12 years, and they have nothing to show for it! At what point do you look at this record and either give up (because it clearly can’t be important) or try to do something radically different?
Do Bootcamps make engineers?
Well, no credential makes anyone much of anything. An engineer is someone who engineers.
I don’t get all the hate on bootcamps. Why does it matter how somebody learns to code?
I’ve spent most of my adult life picking apart higher ed and trying to put it back together. In that process, I’ve learned that people are fiercely personally invested in the University model. People get incredulous that you could replace My Important and Expensive Signal with a few months of disciplined and effective work, but of course you can. I don’t even think people feel personally threatened by it as much as they are societally threatened, and not without cause. The implications of universities being mostly about signaling are huge.
What didn’t you like about being a developer?
I wish that we could keep the lack of gatekeeping and the wild culture of experimentation that’s in software (especially in web) and embrace a culture of quality engineering. I also wish the industry as a whole would actually move away from command-and-control hierarchy and toward true agility, but the recent popularity of SAFe seems to imply that’s not changing anytime soon.
So I guess I don’t like that I care deeply about quality and agility, and I don’t feel like I have much of a tribe there. The XP people were right about everything, but it’s starting to feel like they’re a dying breed.
Follow-up: what’s SAFe?
Agile was a victim of its own success. The word appears on more covers of Harvard Business Review than it doesn’t at this point, and I don’t think there’s a business leader in America who won’t profess that they want their orgs to be more agile.
The problem is that true agility requires a complete paradigm shift. Few of those same leaders are interested in reimagining business themselves, they just want a tool that lets them do exactly what they’ve always done but with “more accountability” or “discipline” or some other nebulous nonsense. SAFe (the “Scaled Agile FramEwork”) was hand-crafted to make those people happy.
It’s not agile. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. But it has the word in it, and that’s become good enough for most managers.
Now that we have WSL2, what do you think is the best OS for developers?
I use all of them (Linux/Windows/WSL2/MacOS) with some regularity, but I always come home to plain ole Ubuntu Linux every time. WSL2 is pretty good in a pinch, but I don’t think the desktop environment for Windows is very good, and I find some lower-level stuff with WSL2 (like users and permissions) get kind of fucky. I would like say MacOS bridges the gap by providing a more UNIXy experience out of the box, but I also hate their window management and their awful keybindings make it a frustrating experience to me. Outside of a shrinking handful of things that are Big OS Exclusive, I don’t see much reason to leave Linux. It’s free/Free and it’s increasingly the more polished experience. Anything is pretty damn workable nowadays, but Linux is the only one that I think is just great.
How do you feel about the pair+ development in XP?
It’s criminally underrated. I think a lot of managers (and developers for that matter) see it as a gross inefficiency, like it’s two people doing one job or something. That would only be true if the bulk of a programmer’s job was typing, which we know not to be true.
Your brain has two modes (rich and linear), and only one can be on at a time. When you’re typing code, you’re in linear mode. When you’re navigating code, you’re (likely) in rich mode. The power of group coding is that you get a super-charged meta brain solving your problems, which was always the hardest part of development. It results in more creative solutions, better distribution of tribal knowledge, and fewer defects.
It requires a really high degree of psych safety though. It can’t work an environment with a lot of hierarchy, or people who are scared of being negatively judged, or scared that people overestimate their skills. You can’t be afraid of making a mistake or not knowing something in front of your peers. That’s a tall bar.
Some of the absolute best programming experiences I’ve had are with 4–5 people on a couch in front of a big screen, taking turns. It gives you a chance to work out some ideas, and then take a break and let someone else go for a bit.
What’s the most common misconception your new students have about software development?
That you have to be some kind of super genius to do it, which is an impression that I think has been carefully cultivated by the industry. It’s a skill. It’s hard and it takes practice, but just about anyone who wants to do it can. Driving is incredibly complicated, and it blows my mind how common it is for just regular people to safely operate cars (especially given how deadly it is). Yet genius and dolt alike do it all the time, and here we all are.
I know you’ve done a lot of work in the last year to change your habits and mindsets. Will you explain your method and the 1–2 most important things you’ve learned?
I do a process where I pick a tiny habit and spend 6 weeks doing it every day, which I track on highly-visible whiteboard calendar (this is sometimes referred to as “Red X” system popularized by Jerry Seinfeld). You don’t have to think about anything but not breaking the chain of Xs. It becomes addicting.
I haven’t broken a chain yet. My previous ones have been:
- Meditate every day
- Don’t drink alcohol
- Work out at least 10 minutes a day
- No phone
- Don’t buy food at restaurants
My current one is “Journal twice a day”, which I’ve been doing with the help of Ryan Holiday’s “The Daily Stoic.”
Sometimes the habits stick, sometimes they don’t. They always have an impact though, and they always make it easier to keep going in the future, which is fine. I don’t meditate very much now, but starting now would be easier than it was last time.
My biggest takeaway was easily that my phone was ruining my life. Ditching that was hard for like a day, and then everything was just better. I’m still mostly off my phone, and I’m not going back.
Another was that quitting alcohol was really hard. I had severe mood swings the entire time (which I later found out was acute post-withdrawal syndrome). I’ve definitely cut back a ton since then, and it’s made me think a lot about the full range of trade-offs with having alcohol in my life.
What is your favorite cohort you ever taught, and follow up question, why is it mine? More serious, I’ve definitely ended up more in the “backend” engineer camp, and I’ve been wanting to upgrade my sql skills for a while. Do you have any advice for how to gain practical SQL knowledge (meaning probably not theoretical stuff you’d find in a sql textbook)? I’m definitely more than a beginner, but once we started having “problem queries” where the answer wasn’t terribly obvious, I resort to google spray-and-pray.
I’ll on the record as saying g70 will probably always be my favorite cohort because we did the most progressive education stuff, followed by g38 because I ended up hiring so many of them and the culture was so strong, followed by yours [g25] because it was probably the most fun. That’s not a bad ranking for 32 cohorts across 2 schools!
Almost all SQL books and methods are terrible. Something that will alleviate the pray-and-spray a bit is digging in just a little into what happens under the hood with various join statements, at least until the point where you can diagram it consistently. You probably have a mismatched mental model for joins that a little theory would unblock.
Ditto for aggregations. They both work with comically low-level logic, and I would wager that demagicking those two things in particular will help you craft better queries.
I was g15 😞
Oh shit, you totally were g15 😂. It’s been a lot of Gs. g15 has very special place in my heart. You guys were the first to ever do a stand-down. Your graduation and capstones are still the format I use. g10 was my first cohort, but y’all were the first one that I was really mine, and that I probably learned and grew the most professionally from.
What’s your favorite recent music discovery other than Supreme Beings of Leisure?
Supreme Beings of Leisure is wreckin’ my WORLD right now! Beyond that, I have been floored by a jazz guitarist from the 80’s named Emily Remler. She was practically the second-coming of Wes Montgomery, but she got completely buried by history. It’s easy to say that’s because she was a woman, but I actually don’t think that’s the case; I think the jazz world loves tokens they can pat themselves on the back about. I think it’s because her career was relatively short, her heroin addiction took center stage at some point and she fell out of the spotlight, and she died from her addiction at a time when the jazz world didn’t want to address its relationship with drugs.
Can you share your favorite success story of a bootcamp student that you’ve taught?
Every student’s story is magical. I especially like stories where someone completely changes their economic trajectory, or finds peace with some part of who they are, or learns to love work for the first time, or finally feels comfortable being themselves, or even learns to love and trust people in a way they’d maybe forgotten.
They’re not my stories to tell, but Berto Ortega, Alice Richardson, Kristie McGoldrick, Jared Stromberg, Ahmed Gaber, Shayla Richard, Alex Bennett, Lucas Barbula, and Bradford Hamilton Lamson-Scribner immediately spring to mind as some stories I’ve loved being in a chapter of.
How did you first discover your love of EMACS?
(we’re both vimmers for any reader that doesn’t also spend all day in the vim channel)
I was at this talk in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b1vcg_XSR8
My jaw was on the floor. I didn’t know that’s what programming was supposed to look like. Once I got over my intense imposter syndrome, Toran gave me a lot of really practical advice for getting started, and it really started me on a deep love affair with CLI tools in general.
Are you able to do side projects now that you mostly teach? If so do you have anything cool you are working on?
I think Steve Kinney once said something about doing way more programming as a teacher than he did as a software developer. That’s been true of me as well. I made and maintain the LMS my school uses, I think kylecoberly.com turned out pretty well, and I did lots of work on the Develop Denver site. I’m currently trying to make space in my life for another project, and it will either be:
- An open source spaced-repetition scheduler
- An open source mastery-based LMS (my fucking white whale)
- A project I’ve been pawing at off an on for a decade that I have a hard time explaining called a “circular textbook” that’s kind of like a wiki but you can drill up or drill down any part of it.
Why do you hate react?
I feel like the values of that community are mismatched with the deeper problems in application development. As a tool for making standalone widgets, I actually think it’s unmatched. They should probably just abandon native web components and port the whole react codebase to the browser engines. I can also see how React makes life easier for teams that work in fractured layers (eg., being handed a design from another team for a feature that was designed by yet-another-team).
My core gripe is that I think building parts of one-off components is a miserable way to make software. I want to work in complete features, meaning one small team does:
- Designs, both visual and otherwise
for one small slice of the product. Having a reactive DOM solves such a small part of that problem. The real problems in web app feature development are things like:
- What does routing look like?
- How do we make the tests easy and fast?
- What’s the design system?
- How is application-wide state handled?
- How do we access and modify state over networks?
- How do we onboard new developers easily?
React deliberately takes no opinion about any of these things, and as a result, leaves the hardest problems to the developers to figure out. It’s bikeshedding-generation machine. That’s the opposite of what I want out of an app development tool.
Who do you see as being the three leading tech giants 10 years from now (like today’s Google, Facebook, etc.), and why?
- Alibaba, because if they ever get a foothold in America, Amazon’s position as the everything store is in trouble.
- Slack — I think we’re only at the beginning of what this company is going to do. I think it will eventually be inconceivable to not have Slack as the heartbeat of everything from customer service to deployments to monitoring… I can imagine a world where employees don’t have email addresses, but do have Slack accounts.
- Some company that hasn’t been founded yet. One of the things I love about capitalism in general and technology in particular is the entire board can change in a single move.
As a corollary, I think Apple is kind of over. We’re starting to see that Steve and Jony were all they ever really had, and they’ve calcified into a shape that will death spiral until they get acquired by someone. They have more money than god though, so it will take a while.
I think we’re in the middle of a 25 year period that will be referred to in the future as “the social media era.” I think it will be looked back on as a curious aberration. I don’t have much hope for Facebook, Twitter, etc. The concept has proven to be too toxic and fundamentally useless.
What advice would you give to someone who was looking to start a podcast? What if that person was less serious and just wanted to dip their toe in the water?
Worry about the content first. No one listens to podcasts just because they sound good. They check something out because the concept sounds interesting. Just talking into your headset mic or laptop mic or something is fine to test the waters.
- Pick a format early on. Sprint was primarily a topical design news show where a bunch of merciless assholes drank and got rowdy. That proved to be kind of unique, so it got traction. Other formats include interview shows, in-depth reports, and stream-of-consciousness rants. Any of them can work on any topic, but you want something that no one else is doing, or at least not doing well.
- Figure out a publishing frequency. Weekly is hard, and even monthly is better than “weekly, except when I get busy.” In case it’s not obvious, you can produce a lot of episodes at once, and only release them eg weekly. Sprint usually recorded 2 at once, and sometimes even more. It’s also legit to have “seasons”, where you release like 9 at once or close together, and then see if you want to do another 9 next year. Kim Schlesinger and I have talked about doing an education podcast like that.
- Really listen to yourself recorded. How many filler words do you use? Where does the energy drop when you’re telling a story? How could say the same thing more concisely or impactfully?
If you want to get started, pick one thing that you think you have a unique take on, something that only you could say. See if you can come up with 20 minutes of stuff to say about it. Then see if you can get 5 people to listen to it all the way through. If you can do all of that, you might have a podcast. If not, you’re not out all that much.
What cutting-edge educational theory would you like to implement in your program, but is too hard of a sell because it seems so radical?
Good god, how many.
The biggest is, and probably will be my entire career, a thing called fixed mastery/variable time. So, instead of a 6 month program where you hopefully get varying degrees of mastery over some set of skills, you have a “20 skill program” that takes however long it takes. If you can do it in 3 days, rad. If it takes you 3 years, totally fine.
Business People fundamentally cannot understand this. School doesn’t work that way. Fuck, it’s hard enough to get business people to imagine school without grades.
They can’t figure out how to market it, they can’t figure out how to operationalize it, they can’t figure out how to get through a regulatory environment. I’ve never seen business people get less creative than when faced with these problems.
During what will hopefully not be the high point of my career, a coalition of the willing led by Kim Schlesinger and I pulled all of that off. It was effective, it was repeatable, it was legal, and most importantly, it fucking worked. It opened a hundred new doors for other things that we could do, and no one could come close to competing with it.
Everyone who wants to already knows what happened with that.
But we were only even able to get that through because at the time, Galvanize had no CEO, and I was running the least broken part of the company, so no one was paying attention to what we were doing. When the so-called grown-ups eventually came to put a stop to it, we’d pulled it off, but they ultimately won. Their reward was a company that sold for $1 million less than they raised.
Flatiron is starting even farther behind in that process than we were, and WeWork is way fussier about anything that might get them in the news (as you might imagine). I’ve done some stuff, but I’m not sure I have enough “fight the giant corporate monster” in me for a round 2. It would probably need to be a totally different angle than a code school.
Have you seen any positive trends of diversity in the classes you’ve taught? I always remember my classes in college being incredibly non-diverse.
Mostly yes, with some caveats.
The thing just about every school does to promote diversity is offer various diversity scholarships (Universities do this too). The language on that is curious, because it’s honestly just a way to do differential tuition pricing. It’s a step in the right direction, but most schools either stop there (or they stop at putting the United Nations of study groups laughing and back-slapping on their ads).
The entire code school format actually promotes diversity naturally. Going back to college (or going for the first time at all) is massive gate to economic transformation for a lot of people. If you’re not from a background where everyone you know went to college, you may not know that people are lining up around the block to lend you all the money you could need to do it. Those that do know that still might be (very rightfully) anxious about getting $50k in debt for something that might not even work. More people can stomach taking out a $25k loan for tuition and living expenses and quit their lives for 4 months than pretty much anything universities can offer. As such, it’s attractive to a pretty wide range of folks.
If that’s all you have, you will have homogenous pack of fuckin’ white dudes in no time.
You need to consider your messaging. When I was at Galvanize, I slowly saw the cohorts get less and less diverse, and then at some point I only had one woman in a cohort and I asked to see the admissions process. It was horrifying. It was all “HEY BRAH, YOU THINK YOU’RE FUCKEN TOUGH ENOUGH TO HANDLE BEWT CAMP? TRYING SUMMING TOGETHER THE INTEGERS IN THIS CREDIT CARD AND WE’LL SEE IF YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES FOR MORE.”
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people self-selected out of that. A team (led by Kim Schlesinger) redid that entire admissions process to be less Tech Dude. Almost immediately, the women and POC starting coming back.
It also matters what your staff looks like. Can the students see themselves represented on your team? Are there non-cis white dudes in positions of authority? Do you do stuff that makes people feel safe and actively included? I think people who have faced a lot of discrimination have extremely strong spidey-senses for this kind of thing. If diversity actually matters to you, you’ll figure it out. If it’s something you like imagining about yourself, well, those are the results you’ll get.
What’s one thing that really stuck with you that you learned from one of your students?
Sometimes students teach me things directly, and more often they teach more things indirectly. In the process of trying to teach someone, I’ll often find myself incidentally saying something that I deeply believe for the first time.
One that comes to mind is a phenomenally talented and high-achieving student who, toward the end of the program, was having a ton of anxiety about her impending career change. She said “when do you stop feeling stupid all the time in this business?!” I told her that she was missing the point. You always feel stupid in the business. The thing that changes is your relationship with that feeling- it stops being a thing you’re afraid or ashamed of, and starts being your new home. It sounded all wise and Dumbledorey when I said it, but that was really the first time I’d put that together for myself, and it’s still a comforting idea to me.
What’s the most transferable skill between tech and punk rock?
Not accepting authority or received wisdom. That’s about as sturdy a pillar as there is in punk rock, and it’s served me very well in software too. The people who move the needle in this industry aren’t the conformers, they’re the people who suspect everyone else is probably full of shit and that their ideas as good as anyone else’s. That’s an equally welcome philosophy at a meetup or a circle pit.
Another one that transfers well is the DIY ethic. If you need something doesn’t exist or someone won’t give you, you just make it. In the punk rock scene, that’s about making records, booking tours, making your own shirts and stuff. In tech, that’s starting companies, writing libraries, and adding features without permission. It’s even more exciting because you can make anything with tech.
To add to this, what’s the least transferable skill?
The skill that I’ve probably had to unlearn the most is that you need to drive consensus and it matters whether or not people agree with you in tech. You don’t in punk. You can be a standalone, unique rebel. No one agrees with or wants to be like GG Allin, but he has heroic status for being a true original. You don’t need to accept anyone else’s point of view in tech, but if you can’t convince anyone else to adopt yours, you’re just some isolated crank. There are no tech legends that no one agrees with.
How have you been honestly dealing with the complete and total chaos of 2020 thus far? How are you managing your stress levels?
2020 has been mostly fine for me. Some of that is by design (I came of age professionally around 2008, so I’ve worked really hard for the last 12 years to never be in that position again) and some of it is by completely dumb luck (we happened to get quarantined with our au pair, so we literally live with our childcare) and Elyse and are both teachers so the shift to remote school for the kids was less shocking.
My team at Flatiron is agile as hell, so we adapted to full-time remote teaching really easily. It’s still effectively just a 4-month long snow day for us. We didn’t have enough sacred process to really get too thrown off. It is different, there are some things that are harder and/or I don’t like about it, but there’s lots of upsides too.
Past that, I have a lot of emotional detachment from things outside my locus of control. I don’t control pandemics, quarantines, illness, etc., so I don’t think or worry about them very much. I try to adapt to my circumstances and thrive regardless. I’ve been studying stoicism a lot lately, which has really helped.
(I first learned about it from Jon Casey’s lightning talk during G15 DID I GET IT RIGHT THIS TIME DERIK???)
Any advice for those of us still job hunting for either Dev or UX roles during a pandemic?
This is a lot like 2008 was, but the playing field is way more level this time. People still need software folks, and you can do in job for an SF or NYC company just as easily, and cheaper. Smart business folk know that a recession just means everything is on sale, and the smartest business folks are stocking up on all the people everyone else is letting go of. When we pull out of the recession, a business wants to be firing on all cylinders with an all-star team while everyone else is just starting to ramp up again. If we don’t pull out of the recession, they’re fucked anyway, so what’s to lose?
All that’s to say that there is hope. People are still getting jobs, and there’s no reason you can’t be one of them. People will tell you not to sell yourself short, or undercut the market, or work for free, etc. I understand that and even agree most of the time. Right now though? My advice is to get out there, be hungry, and work whether or not the money is there yet.
Top 3 ska bands?
The canonical answer for #1 for me is Reel Big Fish. They were the band that made me fall in love, and I’ve probably seen them over 30 times at this point. It feels weird though, because I’ve been really let down by their last few albums, and I don’t reach for much their stuff anymore. They still top the hall of fame for me, though.
#2 is Slow Gherkin, which is also a curious choice because I think only one of their albums (Shed Some Skin) is really any good, but it’s so good that it’s what I would consider to be a flawless ska album. They also destroyed live.
#3 I wanted someone that I didn’t have to asterisk a bunch of times (which disqualified Streetlight Manifesto, BOTAR, and Rx Bandits), so I’m going to go with Pilfers as just an all-around fucking great ska band.
Why did you take over dvlp dnvr when Drew moved to NYC?
I think I’d mentioned something about it to him the year before. It’s an organization that had meant a lot to me, and seemed like something I could help with. Before Drew left, we went to lunch and he said “Remember that thing we talked about once upon a time? Well,”
At that specific time Galvanize was falling apart and I knew it wasn’t going to last for long, so I knew I would need some way to stay connected to the community, and I thought it might even be a chance to take the culture building stuff we were doing there and make it bigger than just a school.
In a large way, we’ve done that. While COVID has made lots of stuff with the organization uncertain, I’m really happy with what we’ve been able to do with it.
There’s at least some part of agreeing to take over that was due to stress addiction. A big part of the last year and a half has been about aggressively shrinking my life and my commitments. I’ve had many a teary conversation with my therapist where I talked about how I love life so much, and I want to do all of these things and take all these opportunities and soak them all in because I know I’ll never live long enough to do all the stuff I want to do and it just feels ungrateful and resigned to turn cool things down because I think I’m too busy. I think I’m starting to appreciate how much more effective I am at everything when I live more spaciously.
What’s the best and worst part about raising kids?
The best has been seeing them develop personalities, and passions, and senses of humor. Watching my children be brave or compassionate kills me. It hurts because you never want your kid to have to be in a position where they need to do that, and then when they inevitably are and they rise to the moment, it floods you with awe. Duncan still can’t say “animal” correctly, but can comfort someone who’s upset, he can talk about his emotions, and he has never been confused about how he wants to spend a minute of any day.
What’s hard (and I don’t think enough parents talk about this) is that it’s mostly fucking boring. It’s having the exact same conversations over and over again. It’s playing the same 10 second game over and over again for 3 hours straight. It’s reading the same boring book or watching the same stupid TV show over and over again. That tight repetition is actually a really important part of early childhood development, but I’ve never gotten used to it. It gets a little better every year, but I’m 8 years into this thing by now. That’s a long time.
What’s one song you wish you wrote?
Two Door Cinema Club — What You Know
Elyse hit me once to me that my old band was on the radio, and I checked it out, and it was that song. It was like when you meet someone who looks just like you and you can’t stop looking at each other. I’ve written dozens of riffs just like that. I wrote exclusively those kinds of riffs for years. I was in a band that did exactly that kind of shit, and it went nowhere. It also started making me irrationally angry about dumb water-under-the-bridge stuff (“SEE!! I told you it sounds better when you aren’t screaming all the fucking time!”)
Lyrically, I think about songs for my kids I wish I would have wrote. Two that come to mind are “Toe to Toe” by Streetlight Manifesto:
Some day you will grow up and learn to lie.
Just like your daddy did when he told you no one ever really dies.
I hope that I'm not there when you realize,
Those with their nose in the air will never look you in the eye.And you will go toe to toe,
Like David and Goliath.
Who will be Goliath?
And will you throw the stone?
"I don't know, yeah, I don't know,"
Said the man with all of the answers.
If he don't have the answers, how will I ever know?I knew an old man with nothing to do but wait.
He invited himself, and he still showed up late.
When it came to the end of the night he would always overstay.
But I never had a reason to complain 'til the
Day he stopped coming by and I missed his company.And you will go toe to toe,
Like David and Goliath.
They will be Goliath,
And you will throw the stone.
"I don't know, yeah, I don't know,"
Said the man with all of the answers.
If he don't have the answers, how will I ever know?And I don't care what you do with the little time everyone gets,
As long as you do the math,
Choose a path that will never hurt anyone else.
Although they'll hurt you, make them sure they've earned you.
They will not forget.Some day I will find you and stop on by.
And you'll say, "How have you been?"
And I'll say, "I've been fine."
And we will both know that it's a lie.
Turns out what I figured out was I was wrong and you were right.And you will go toe to toe,
Like David and Goliath.
They will be Goliath.
And you will throw the stone.
"I don't know, yeah, I don't know,"
Said the man with all of the answers.
If he don't have the answers, how will I ever know?
And “Adventures in Zoochosis” by Propagandhi:
I hold out for consensus
Give the masses the benefit of the doubt
Insist the democratic process will bear this population outI think my only fear of death is that it may not be the end
That we may be eternal beings and must do all of this again
Oh please Lord, let no such thing be trueThough I suspect that if I slink back to my enclosure
Safe and warm and adequately lit
Sufficiently plumbed and ventilated
Well, let's just say I would not shake a stickAnd if pressed, I'll admit
I'm ecstatic about the enrichment programs
Implemented to extend our captive lifespans
I'm excited to see what our keepers have plannedPerhaps a bigger cage? Longer chains?
Some compelling, novel reasons to remain?
Dad are we gonna die?
Yes son, both you and I
But maybe not todayBoys, I've bowed to the keeper's whip for so damn long
I think the sad truth is this enclosure is where your old man belongs
But you, your hearts are pure
When the operant conditioners come to break you in
I'll sink my squandered teeth
You grab your little brother's hand, run like the wind
And if I'm not there, don't look back
Just goI don't give a fuck about the enrichment programs
Implemented to extend our captive lifespans
Motherfucker gonna get a load of what I got planned
What’s your favorite Agile principle?
The most important one is
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. In theory, armed with no other tool than the retro, you could derive the entire rest of the philosophy.
My favorite one (right now, at least) is
Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. because it houses an interesting truth that's easy to miss:
Most project management is about isolating or preventing change. Change is constant and inevitable though- what if it wasn’t some problem we were trying to fix, but an entire opportunity? What if we could slap on a saddle on change and ride it? What competitor could keep up with us?
There’s an interesting general strategy that has been employed in everything from wars to debates for a very long time. If you and your opponent are playing the same game, you start on even ground. If you’re trying to win, that’s what you want to avoid. A really rich strategy is to change the rules of engagement quicker than your opponent can adapt to the new rules. In war, sometimes that means intentionally introducing chaos and trusting your troops to adapt quicker to the unpredictable results than your opponents. In politics, it’s changing the topic faster than your opponent can prepare responses (that’s been Donald Trump’s strategy his entire political career, and it’s why he consistently “wins” against people that he logically has no right to). In video game consoles, it’s coming up with a wacky motion control thing (the Wii) or a hybrid portable (the Switch) instead of trying to win on specs or exclusives. In business more generally, it’s referred to as “blue ocean strategy.”
The principle isn’t about tolerating change. It’s about being pumped about change because it helps you redefine a new game that only you know how to play.
You said that you’ve been able to re-frame the inevitability of feeling stupid in this business after many years. Any advice for newbie devs/job-searching-devs on how to embrace it?
There’s a phrase I learned once that really helped me: “Self-referenced ego.”
There’s any number of philosophies that espouse the destruction of one’s ego. I think this ultimately harmful. Your ego serves a variety of really important functions, including keeping you safe and giving you a sense of purpose. So instead of trying to crunch it or silence it, you want it to only be referenced against your own values, not what you think you “should” be doing.
In practice this looks like not bench-marking your performance against your perception of someone else’s. In fact, you have to broadly accept that your read on other people’s ability is innately flawed. Assessing other people’s ability is literally my job and I’ve been doing it for 2 decades, and even I’m anxious about doing it outside of certain parameters.
Instead, you ask yourself questions like: “Am I putting forth my best effort? Including self-care? Including using the relationships in my life? Have I hit up my mentors? Have I allowed in distractions? Can I truly say that I did my best work with the things that I can control?”
If the answer is “yes”, then you and your ego should feel good. People who can say yes to that stuff are unstoppable. People who can yes to that stuff can stay in the “I feel dumb zone” their whole lives, which means constant growth.
If the answer is “no”, then you and your ego should have a sit-down about why. That process is probably beyond my capacity to explain fairly, but it’s a common process in therapy. One of the questions I ask myself is: “what are my competing commitments?” Sometimes you have a self-image that you’re interested in maintaining, or a relationship that’s taking a lot of you, or a dopamine hit you get out of complaining about stuff, or an addiction, or even something that straight-up should be more important to you. After you untangle that knot a little, try again.
If you could have a conversation with any 3 people — living or dead — who would they be?
Chuck Klosterman (who is my favorite writer of any kind) was asked a similar conversation in the New York Times, and gave the most mic-dropping answer anyone could:
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I have a lot of issues with this question. I realize the purpose of the hypothetical is to reflect some deeper insight into the subject’s aesthetic sensibility, but I can’t help but take it literally. First of all, I have several friends who have coincidentally written books, and some of these friends I haven’t seen in years. I would obviously prefer having dinner with three old friends as opposed to three famous strangers, regardless of how talented they were as writers. Over the past 20 years, I’ve often found myself in professional situations where I’ve had to have dinner with arbitrary collections of random authors, many of whom were nice and a few of whom are brilliant. Yet the experience itself is almost always uncomfortable. It seems like the first half of dinner involves everybody trying too hard to be overly complimentary to everyone else at the table, and then the second half of dinner is just people complaining about how they don’t sell enough books or make enough money. It never feels like a real conversation unless everyone at the table is drunk. Moreover, the fact that this proposed scenario involves the possibility of selecting guests who are “dead or alive” really forces my hand. It seems insane to pick any living person if dead people are eligible. There is no author alive who’s a fraction as compelling as any dead garbageman, and there’s no theoretical discussion about the craft of writing that would be half as interesting as asking “What was it like to die?” to someone who could respond authoritatively to that query. The only problem is that dead people might not understand what was going on, why they were suddenly alive, or why they were being forced to make conversation with some bozo at a weird dinner party. They might just sit there and scream for two hours. And even if they kept it together, I’m sure they’d be highly distracted. If I invite Edgar Allan Poe to dinner, it seems possible he’d spend the whole time expressing amazement over the restaurant’s air conditioning.
That said, if I could snap my fingers and been in an off-the-cuff conversation with any 3 people:
- Milton Friedman
- Tim Harford
- Bryan Caplan
Basically, I only ever want to talk to economists 😂
Oh shit, I might swap out Friedman for Klosterman, now that I think of it. His books make me feel like I’m talking to a more composed and insightful version of myself. I’d want to see if that’s the magic of editing and everyone feels that way or if we really do have a cosmic connection.
How do you keep your positive energy?
On my first day of my first job at Hollywood Video when I was 16, my boss Chad told me work is acting. Whatever’s happening outside your job isn’t happening inside your job. Put a smile on and pretend if you have to, make a game of it even. But when you walk in the door, have good energy. I found that really insightful. I’m not always in a good mood, and I don’t always want to be there. But I’ve found that pretending I want to be there has a similar effect on me, and as a leader, it can actually make other people want to be there and they make me want to be there.
You’ve seen me in enough contexts to know that I’m pretty much the same person 1:1 or talking a crowd, and I truly am. I also “perform” for stand-ups in a way that’s way more like a stage performance than any real conversation. That process is very impersonal to me; I could run a high-energy stand up if I had just been hit by a car. But the act of running a high-energy stand up happens to put me in a good mood too, so it’s a great way to transition from whatever mood I’m in outside of work to whatever mood I’m going to have inside of work.
Were you always able to be patient, or was there someone who inspired you to be more patient and positive? What keeps you from going full ska/punk on someone when they get a rise out of you?
That’s probably a context thing, and there are probably some people reading this wondering what the living fuck you’re talking about. Teaching is all about patience- it’s as core a professional skill as there could possibly be. I’m endlessly patient in my professional life, because that’s what the job calls for. Being impatient without someone doesn’t make someone learn faster, it makes them learn to not trust you, to fake shit to get you to leave them alone, or to shut down completely.
In my personal life (or even my professional life outside of teaching students), I’ve really struggled with this. Every performance review I’ve ever had in my life contains some variant of “you sure don’t suffer fools gladly.” I’ve historically been absolutely vicious to people who I think are incompetent, manipulative, bullying, or evil. People will often cheer that kind of thing on too, which doesn’t help. The reality is that those people need more love than anyone else, and I’m perfectly capable of giving it to them, and instead I try to mete out a bunch of justice by trying to make them cry and regret what they’ve done. Unsurprisingly, that makes them…. not trust me, fake shit, and shut down. It certainly doesn’t make the world any better.
The surface reason for that dichotomy is that I treat people who come to me asking for help differently than people who are just out there screwing things up. The deep reason is that I got bullied a lot when I was little, and when I got bigger I learned how to use words to hurt people way worse than their stupid little fists ever could. The people I didn’t like got scared of me and left me alone, the people I did like thought it was awesome, so I kept doing it. I’m still learning how to get off the playground most days.
THANK YOU HUMANS OF DENVER DEVS! That was a lot of fun, and thank you so much for asking such interesting questions and letting me share so much of myself here both today and over the last 5 years here. AMA CONCLUDED.