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Why marketing should make the user manuals!

Howwetreatcustomers

Why do so many companies treat potential users so much better than existing users? Think about it. The brochure is a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom. The brochure gets the big budget while the manual gets the big index. What if we stopped making the docs we give away for free SO much nicer than the ones the user paid for? What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?

Let's take the whole damn ad/marketing budget and move it over to product manuals and support. Let's put our money where our users are. If we're in it for the short term, then sure--it makes sense to do everything to get a new user, while doing as little as possible once we've got them. But if we're really in it for the long haul--for customer retention and loyal users--then shouldn't we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most? Our users?

Most of you know our philosophy here on Creating Passionate Users:

Truly passionate users will evangelize to others.
The better users get at something, the better (higher res) the user experience.
The better the user experience, the more likely they are to keep trying to get better.
Nobody is passionate about something they completely suck at.
Helping your users learn and (ultimately) kick ass is the best way to up the odds they'll become passionate.

Creating fabulous learning materials might be a far better use of the budget than creating fabulous ads and brochures. If traditional advertising and marketing is becoming less and less effective, why not move all that talent (designers, artists, copywriters, other "creatives") from before the sale to after the sale? We keep wondering why users won't RTFM, but just look at our FMs! Nice brochures are printed on that coated silky paper that begs to be touched, while the manual is printed on scratchy office-grade paper. Even just that one change--making the user manual as touchable as the marketing material would be a good start.

And if your company insists on having fancy, slick, colorful brochures... why not take the new fancy, slick, colorful product manuals and use THEM as your promotional material? As a potential customer, I'll find your attention to user learning a lot more convincing than your attention to new sales. Rather than using your brochure to show how much YOU kick ass, I'd much rather see no-marketing-spin hard evidence of how you're going to help ME kick ass.

If the best way to help create passionate users is by helping users learn and get better, then we should put our power to entice, motivate, and inspire someone to buy more, and use it to entice, motivate, and inspire someone to learn more. In the end, those passionate users will evangelize our product or service far more credibly and honestly than we can.

So, are you as sexy after the sale as you are before? Do you know anyone who is? (I know a few, including Electric Rain)


And stay tuned for Part Two of this post--probably tomorrow--where we'll look at how to get them to RTFM even without the big budget. And hey, I missed you guys. I was out sick for a while and then travelling for a few days. Thanks for keeping me in your feeds. ; )

Posted by Kathy on August 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (76) | TrackBack

Assumptions have a Sell By date

Milkassumptions

We can't expect to innovate new products, services, techniques, etc. without challenging our assumptions. Have some of your assumptions "gone off"? How frequently are you checking? In other words, do you have a plan in place for regularly sniffing the milk? I swear that half my battles at Sun were about questioning assumptions... many of which had been around long enough to be science fair projects.

When you're stuck with the inertia of outdated assumptions, you're stuck with incremental (not revolutionary) improvements. The Head First books, for example, would never have happened if we hadn't been able to convince Tim O'Reilly that typical programming books were based on an assumption that was just plain wrong.

We all talk about challenging assumptions, but what does that really mean? Because if we don't go deep enough--deep enough to get to the foundation on which all subsequent assumptions are based--we might as well not waste our time. Here's a typical scenario:

Fred: Let's challenge our assumptions here people... are we certain that customers won't like this?

Jim: Yes.

Fred: How do we know? Where's the data?

Jim: It came out clearly in focus group testing.

Fred: But how recent were those focus groups?

Jim: Very recent--less than a year ago.

Fred: But what did they actually test?

Jim: They tested this exact feature.

Fred: OK, then let's move on. Tell engineering to cut that from the spec.


There's a textbook example of challenging an assumption, without challenging the assumptions below. The underlying, unchallenged assumption here is that focus groups work (when we know focus groups are notoriously unreliable for many things).

It's assumptions all the way down.

A few tips:

1) List them.
Yes, that's a "duh" statement, but seriously... how many times do you actually SEE assumptions explicitly called out?

2) Give them a Sell By date.
Slap a date on these puppies and have a system in place for knowing when to sniff them! Whether its a database or spreadsheet or just a big chart on the wall that y'all agree to review once a month or quarter or whatever, the point is to guarantee that you really WILL sniff them all on a regular basis.

3) Challenge them all the way down.
Question something and then question what it's based on, and then what that is based on, and so on... until you get to the bottom. And when you hit bottom, keep questioning until you're absolutely positively sure it's the bottom.

4) When you challenge an assumption, make it fight for its life.
Put it on trial. Force it to defend itself. Be relentless. Be skeptical. Be brutal.

These are all rather obvious tips, yet so often overlooked. But simply listing and challenging our assumptions on a regular basis isn't the biggest problem.

The really big problem is the assumptions which are so ingrained that we don't even know they're assumptions. They become an accepted Law of Physics, as good as gravity.

It does little good to list (and date) our assumptions, if the most crucial ones--the ones that could lead to the biggest innovations and breakthroughs--never make it to the list. It's not enough to say, "So, what are our assumptions here?" We have to ask--and keep asking--"So, what are we accepting as fact and not questioning as an assumption?" In other words, "What are our hidden assumptions? What do we believe implicitly?"

It's not enough to "sniff the milk." We have to recognize that some of the things which we believe are part of the fabric of our universe might just be milk in disguise.

And while I'm using Fundamental Laws of Physics as a metaphor for the things we believe implicitly about customers, products, etc. it seems that even the real laws of physics need a sniff from time to time.

UPDATE: but the universe appears to persist. Or does it? Assumptions all the way down... ; )

Posted by Kathy on August 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

You won't regret it

Southisland_1

We've all had the experience: someone talks you into doing something you don't want to do, but afterward you're so glad you did. It could be a last-minute drop-everything dinner with friends when you thought you had too much work to do. Maybe it's a run down a black-diamond slope you didn't think you could handle. It could be a business risk where you had intended to play it safe. Or maybe it's taking the scenic route, when the "better" choice was to take the quicker path.

Now and again, I try to remember some of the things I initially resisted that turned out to be wonderful. Because whenever someone asks if I want to take the scenic route, my first instinct is to say, "I don't have the time for that." Always in a hurry. Can't waste time. Things to do. But when I give in and agree (usually under pressure), I rarely regret it.

There are so many opportunities--big and small, trivial and important--that we dismiss out of habit or fear or simply because we didn't slow down long enough to consider how it might feel if we said yes. At the end of my life, I'll have a lot of regrets, but taking the scenic route isn't one of them. But what about taking risks on a job, relationship, move, business, adventure? If I fail, will I regret trying? Or will I regret not trying?

Opportunities are not unlimited. There are only so many scenic routes we can take. Only so many sunsets. Only so many chances at love or business. Only so many possibilities to send our lives in new directions. Only so many places to explore. Only so many ways to see someone else light up when you help them learn or do something they didn't think they could do. Only so many live concerts. Only so many moments to talk to your significant other or kids without keeping one eye on the television. Only so many dog walks. Only so many new things to learn, and fewer to master.

Only so many chances to make a difference.

The photo at the top is one I took on my recent visit to New Zealand. I had wanted to stay in Queenstown, but someone convinced me that I'd really appreciate the extra trip in to Glenorchy. I was tired and didn't want to push further (especially since it was getting late). But had I not given in, I would have missed what turned out to be a spectacular sunset over the lake.

I have learned that I will never regret taking the scenic route. What about you? Are there things you didn't want to do, but later were so glad that you did? Are there things you wish you'd do a better job of saying yes to, despite whatever perfectly sound reasons you have for saying no?

Posted by Kathy on August 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Geek marketing should be like a good lover

Goodbadmarketing

To the typical geek, marketing your wares ranks only slightly higher than selling your soul. It's unethical, compromising, inauthentic. Not Real. One advantage this view offers is an easy way out--we can always claim moral superiority if nobody buys/reads/uses our stuff. After all, we didn't "sell out" to be popular.

I used to live that view. But today I believe it's based on logic you could drive a FedEx truck through. And if we don't get past our marketing aversion, we may have no business whining about our lack of success. This isn't about trying to push something we know is wrong for users--this is about feeling comfortable (and even skilled) at helping people discover and explore the things we believe in.

The real issue is about how you define "authentic", "honest", "real", and "selling out." That's where the marketing-as-good-lover model comes in. A good lover is NOT afraid of finding out what his (or her) partner wants. A good lover does NOT view it as "selling out" if he does things simply because it's what the other person wants. A good lover does NOT believe it's a compromise to try to be more popular, if being popular means making things more stimulating, exciting, sexy, enticing, compelling, appealing, and attractive. A good lover respects that our perception matters. A good lover respects and trusts us. A good lover takes a shower and puts on a clean shirt.

In other words, maybe we should stop assuming that marketing means lying, and start treating our customers/users as people we value and care about enough to make their life a bit more enjoyable. Even if that means little more than sexing up the packaging! Life is short, and a good lover appreciates that a little extra attention to non-essential yet sensual pleasures is being caring, not inauthentic.

So, that's the real test of authenticity: do you genuinely care about the quality of your users' time and experience? Then there's nothing wrong with increasing your chances of "getting laid" (and by "getting laid", I mean, "having users find your efforts delightful").


GEEK MARKETING MYTHS

Geeks hate being marketed to
Truth: Geeks hate being insulted. If geeks hated being marketed to, the tech conferences wouldn't be teeming with iPods and Macs.

Geeks hate being treated as though they're too stupid to recognize when you're lying, so don't bullshit. But if you go out of your way to make something sexy, there's no reason you should be afraid to flaunt it. It's not hype if it's true.


Geeks are logical and rational, and don't care about superficial "sexiness". They care only about the specs
Truth: There's no such thing as a "logical and rational" human, geek or otherwise. Need proof? Throw a centerfold of Miss July in front of a geek (male OR female) and an MRI will show their brain lit up like a fireworks show. We are all human, and caring about the way something looks and feels does not mean we're superficial--it means we're human. We don't need to exploit sex to recognize that a certain amount of sexiness is both pleasurable and natural.


If the product is high quality, the packaging shouldn't matter.
Truth: For many of us, the packaging is part of the experience. Just because you're going to be naked soon doesn't mean the shirt you're wearing right NOW doesn't matter. After all, undressing you is part of the fun. Trying to be attractive to your partner does NOT mean selling out.

Sometimes, in fact, it can make all the difference. My dentist goes out of her way to make the office feel like a spa. We aren't called "patients", we're called "guests". There is no medical window in the waiting area; there is wine and espresso. The rooms where they do the work are indistinguishable from a salon. All those extras make NO difference to the technical quality of their procedures, but they sure make me enjoy it more (or at least hate and fear it less).


Seduction is evil
Truth: Seduction without a genuine concern for the seducee probably is evil, but seduction-as-part-of-a-fun-experience is one of life's great pleasures. Humans are tuned for seduction and curiosity. Of COURSE seduction can be used for evil, but so can pillows and cornflakes.

Characteristics of a good lover/marketer

DO:

Be desirable
Be appealing
Be creative
Be brave
Be thoughtful
Be attractive (but don't worry about fitting some classic definition of perfection)
Be kind and caring
Be stimulating
Be exciting
Be entertaining
Be encouraging
Be enticing
Be experimental
Be flexible and adaptable
Be playful
Be unique

DON'T:

Be dull
Be rude
Be sloppy
Be selfish/self-centered
Be arrogant
Be abrupt/impatient
Be boring (or bored!)
Be overly formal and dignified
Be exactly like everyone else
Be judgemental
Be depressing
Be rigid inflexible

Why does a lover go out of his way to do things for us? (besides the obvious--that he's hoping for a repeat)

Because it's rewarding. Full stop.


[Bonus link: John Dodds has a great little piece on Geek Marketing 101 you should check out]

Posted by Kathy on August 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Give users a Hollywood ending

Piechartuserexperience_3

We can all take a lesson from filmmakers: endings matter. The way we end a conversation, blog post, user experience, presentation, tech support session, chapter, church service, song, whatever... is what they'll remember most. The end can matter more to users than everything we did before. And the feeling they leave with is the one they might have forever.

Think of all the movies where the best song is saved for the ending. A big chunk of "Best Original Song" Academy Award winners have been songs that played only during the closing credits. They want you to leave the theater with the feeling that song evoked. When a movie goes through "beta" (a test screening), the studios aren't looking for feedback on the whole damn movie...they're measuring audience reaction to the end. If the audience hates the ending (too sad, too absurd, too unresolved, etc.), that's what they reshoot.

I was reminded of the power of endings when I went to another Red Rocks concert a few weeks' back--this time it was David Gray (with Aimme Mann and Beth Orton). Whatever you may think of David Gray's music, the guy gives good encore. They're like a whole separate show, and he leaves you feeling with a powerful, emotional, energetic, finale.

It's not just filmmakers that appreciate The End--learning theory has known this for a long time. Students in a classroom are more likely to remember what they learned/heard/did first and last than whatever happened in the middle. It's the Recency Effect (along with its counterpart for beginings, the Primacy Effect). Good teachers try to have more beginnings and endings by breaking up lessons into small chunks, rather than doing a single 45-minute lecture.

In fact, here's what matters in my blog posts:

Endings_2

From a retention and recall view, middles suck. So let's talk about endings since they're one of my personal weak spots. Even when psychology/cognitive science tells us that the end can matter more than the middle, it feels counterintuitive. We focus so heavily on the meaty-middle while the ending is just a tacked on afterthought. So what if we left the customer feeling frustrated and unsatisfied with our tech support as long as they know we spent a ton of time trying? Who cares if the presentation just... sort... of...fades...out... if the rest of it was killer? And the ending of a chapter is just another paragraph, right?

Yes, I want to think more like a filmmaker on this. As Sacha Molitorisz put it in Now that's an ending:

"When a film resolves itself well, audiences leave satisfied and content, even if the preceding 90 minutes have been uninspiring. If, however, the climax is forced or implausible, the preceding scenes will be stripped of any poignancy. In other words: a terrific ending can make an excellent film a masterpiece; a dud ending can ruin an otherwise intriguing offering."

But even if you buy into the power of the ending, the next question is, "What kind of ending?" Should it be a Hollywood ending? As opposed to, say, an indie finish? That depends on your definition and the circumstances, of course. There's hollywood endings and then there's HOLLYWOOD ENDINGS.

Not all Hollywood endings must be happy, and not all indie films must end in complete and utter incomprehensability (in that "I'm more unresolved than thou" way.) It all gets back to what we hope our users will think and feel at the end. I need to be asking the right questions about my goals, to figure out how to end:

* Do I want to help my users memorize something?
Then I should stick that at the end, or at least repeat it at the end.

* Do I want to help and motivate my users to do something?
Then I should end with what the sales/ad/preachers refer to as an inspiring Call To Action.

* Do I want my users to think more deeply (or more creatively) about something?
Then I should end with some things still unresolved (easy for me since I've rarely figured anything all-the-way out).

* Do I want my users to be curious?
Then I should end with a teaser... something that hints at what's to come, whether it's new products, new capabilities the user will have, new and exciting ways for them to participate, etc. Leave them with a question...

* Do I want my users to care about something?
Then I should end by giving them a damn good reason... something that touches the emotional side of their brain. (Note: by "care" I'm talking about things like, "care about writing software tests" or "care about creating good user docs" or "care about the importance of endings.")

* Do I want my users to know that we care about them?
Then make sure the user experience has a satisfying ending, and that means every session. (Think of how many times you've bought something online and while the shopping part is compelling, once they've taken your credit card info you're lucky to even get a text confirmation on the screen.)

* Do I want my users to feel like they kick ass?
Then I should focus less on what they think of me or my product, and more on how they'll feel about themselves as a result of the interaction. If they experience frustration, confusion, fear, anxiety, intimidation, and so on, that can be an "I suck" experience.


So, endings are crucial. They're what sticks. But why, then, are there so many examples of bad (or at least wimpy) endings?
What do YOU think?
Do you have any examples of good or bad endings?

[Bonus link: Top 50 Movie Endings]

Oh, and stay tuned because soon we're going to talk about very cool things to do with beginnings, including how to seduce your users into wanting more...

The End.

(or is it?)

Posted by Kathy on August 16, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Are your users stuck in "P" mode?

Slrprogrammode_2

How many things do you own where you can't use more than 10% of what they can actually can do? The home stereo you play CDs on but gave up on Surround Sound. The cell phone that can fry eggs, but you still can't get it to vibrate. The software app where half the menus might as well be Latin. So what are we doing to make sure this doesn't happen to our users?

Several weeks' back I took a one-night Digital SLR class, and at the beginning the teacher asked us each to say why we were there. All 18 of us said the same thing, one after the other: "I know I have an SLR that can do so many things, but I'm still stuck in "P"--Program Mode--and I don't know how to use anything else." In other words, we were all using our pricey bazillion-megapixel cameras like point-and-shoot disposables.

Here we are with all this power and flexibility, and we can't get past AUTOMATIC. Why? It's tempting to just write it off as a usability flaw. But that's not the case with my camera--the Nikon D200 is dead easy to adjust. For most of us, the problem was NOT that we couldn't learn how to use anything but automatic "P" mode. The problem was that we didn't know why or when to use anything else.

It wasn't simply a camera problem--it was a photography problem. The camera manuals describe precisely how to turn the dials and push the buttons, but never tell us why we'd want to. They focus on the tool rather than the thing the tool enables (taking pictures). What good does it do to master a tool if we haven't understood (let alone mastered) the thing we're using the tool for?

As we've talked about a zillion times on this blog--where there is passion, there is always a user kicking ass. If users are stuck in permanent beginner mode, and can't really do anything interesting or cool with a thing (product, service, etc.), they're not likely to become passionate. They grow bored or frustrated and then that "tool" turns to shelfware.

Capabilitiesvennonebad_1

[Note: I'm not talking about a scenario where the green circle is just too damn big because they've added too damn many features. This is about where the user is stuck not being able to do any of the good stuff. Remember, this is the "passionate users" blog...]

What's your product or service equivalent of "P" mode?
Are your users stuck with a small purple circle of capability within a huge green circle of possibilities? We have to keep asking ourselves:

1) Are we focusing too much on the tool (e.g. camera) rather than the thing our users are trying to do with the tool (e.g. photography)? And by "focusing", I mean that your documentation, support, training, marketing, and possibly product design are all about the tool rather than whatever the tool enables.

If we want passionate users, we have to help them do something cool... fast. And "do something cool" does NOT mean, "learn to use the interface." (Keep in mind that "cool" is in the eye of the beholder... one man's "really cool pivot tables" is another man's "lame Excel tricks")


2) Is the product just too damn hard to use even if a user does know what they want to do with it?


3) Do we encourage/support a user community that emphasizes mastery of the thing the tool is for? In other words, does your product/service have the equivalent of a FlickR community... to help give users the motivation for pushing past the "P"?


4) Do we train our users to become better at the thing they use the tool for, in a way that helps make the need for all those other features seem obvious?

If our users are stuck in "P", they'll never get into the flow state. They'll never have that hi-resolution experience. They'll never become passionate.

Soooooo... let's assume we do all that--we help our users get past "P" and into the good stuff. The challenging stuff. They learn, they practice, they master the tool. Then what? What is the implication of a user who does master the tool?

Capabilitiesvennthreewrong

On the surface, simply increasing the size of the user's purple circle relative to the product's big-ass green circle seems like the right thing to do. But is it? Is there a limit? Should there always be a little buffer zone of green just beyond the user's capabilities? And capabilities for what? How would you label the purple and green circles? Would you include the capabilities of the tool AND the potential things the tool could let you do?

I'd love to hear your thoughts about:

* why users (of some things) are so often stuck in "P"
* how this applies to things other than tools
* what we can do to help push users out of that little comfort/automatic zone and into the more interesting things
* what does it mean when the purple circle starts to fill the green circle, and how we might relabel/rethink these circles as the product and/or user capability matures
* anything else (heard any good jokes lately?)

Posted by Kathy on August 8, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (96) | TrackBack

Silver lining on Sun layoffs?

Silverlining_1

Today is yet another Big Layoff Reduction-in-Force Day at Sun Microsystems. Between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs are expected to be cut this year, and today 311 jobs were cut from my local Sun Colorado campus. I have only a few friends left there... most of us got the boot one way or another over the last 4 years. But what I think is worse than the layoffs is the anticipation of layoffs. Ever since the first cuts began (the first one was supposed to be the only one, but there have been a gazillion since then), most of the employees who made each successive cut became more and more anxious, and less and less focused on whatever it is we were supposed to be doing to help the company turn things around (after the whole "we're the dot in dot com" thing stopped being Good Positioning).

I suppose I was one of the lucky ones... tossed out fairly early. And had that not happened, I would never have been "forced" to do the only thing I could think of -- write a technical book. So for me, there was a HUGE silver lining. I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to throw myself out of a Regular Paycheck Job.

The bizarre thing that prompted this post, though, was a story on today's cover of our local "Daily Camera" newspaper. It seems that local restaurants and bars have found a silver lining--the anticipation of a huge boost of business normally found only on weekends. In today's story titled, Layoffs Pushing Happy Hours, the anticipated "mass Sun exodus" drove local businesses to staff up and modify happy hour times to be ready for them.

And for those who did get cut today--I'll raise a glass for you. As awful as it might feel today, I'm surrounded now by a dozen of my local Sun Refugee friends who are all--ALL--much happier now. Simon Roberts is now a flight instructor and photographer. Solveig Haugland is now a consultant/trainer/expert in All Things Open Office. Kathy Collina went back to school to become a therapist. Annette went to massage school. And I'm here, and rather than travelling every other week to Baltimore, Kansas City, and Phoenix (no offense--all fine cities) I now get to travel to Spain, New Zealand, and London. I hope and believe that one day soon you'll be able to celebrate.

I learned a lot of wonderful things at my time at Sun--things I'll use forever. But in the end, leaving turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Sappy, I know. But true.

[Update: I forgot to mention a site you should visit if you DID survive this round and are still in the corporate world (or contempating leaving anyway), by someone who knows a thing or two about corporate dysfunction at, say, Sun...David St. Lawrence has a site and a book titled Danger Quicksand! Have a Nice Day!. Highly recommended.]

Posted by Kathy on August 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

I am not a "woman blogger"

Lacebra

I am "one who blogs" (among many other things). I happen to be a woman. But I am NOT a blogHer, and my male co-author is not a blogHim.

I write code. But I am NOT a programmHer.

I write tech books. But I am NOT a writeHer.

I ride horses. But I am NOT a rideHer. (sounds vaguely sexual... never mind)

I am NOT a skiHer or a skateboardHer or a runHer.

I work on ecological causes, but I am NOT an enviHERmental activist.

And I am NOT typing this on my computeHer (even if it is, I must say, a sexy-yet-adorable black MacBook)

These are my passions, but they reflect the part of me that is about horses, running, skiing, skating, the environment, writing, or creating. If I relabel them to reflect my gender, I believe both (my gender and the labeled thing) are diminished by the "Her" qualifier.

This is just my opinion, and I'm not an expert on women's issues or gender studies or sociology.
But I know quite a lot about being a woman in technology.

And while I cannot speak for all (or even most) women in tech, I am tired of others speaking for ME. And in the recent coverage of the BlogHer conference, I've seen some disturbing sweeping statements that lump all bloggers-who-happen-to-be-women together as the "Women Bloggers", with detailed descriptions of what's it like to be one of "us".
(Ironically, many of those descriptions--even among those who were there--are wildly different and contradictory, sometimes bitterly so.)

[Key disclaimer: it's only a small subset of women from the conference--and reporters writing about it--who've been making the claims. Most of the women who attended--including the smart, savvy, founders--understand, appreciate, and welcome the diversity of the women who make up the BlogHer community. I know and admire many of them.]

I'm tired of being told things about myself that sound as foreign to me as they might to a space alien. I am tired of others describing what it's like to BE me. I'm tired of being told what others think of me. And I'm especially tired of being told how naive I am, and of having my accomplishments diminished by women who insist that to have visibility as a "Woman Blogger" I must have done something, um, special. And by "special", I mean... sucking up, kissing up, or otherwise catering to the "male establishment that's oh so determined to keep me "invisible."

All of you reading this are a proof that--for me--this is absurd. If you're here, I'm most definitely not invisible.

And as for blaming men for our problems, oh if ONLY I had the luxury of believing that when I've failed at work, it was because of my breasts. But when your default assumption is that you probably have nobody to blame but yourself, you're forced to look very hard at yourself. Does this mean I refuse to ever consider the possibility that I was a victim of gender discrimination or at least unconscious gender bias? No. It's always possible, although less often and less signifcantly than in many other domains. (Ask my female firefighter friend... yikes)

I heard several people--male and female--wonder if the small percentage of men at BlogHer would now understand what it's like to be a woman at a technology conference, but I believe this is not a fair comparison. O'Reilly's eTech is not HeTech. Those men aren't there as codeHims. They aren't celebrating their manhood. They are there as programmers. Humans who write code.

I want to be treated, as Maura says in this post "like a person. Not a woman or a man or a space alien."

The tagline I've used on and off over the past 15 years to indicate how lucky I feel about being in a profession (and in a country) where gender is not nearly as important today as it once was (and yes, I'm extremely grateful for all those who fought to make this happen):

"The compiler doesn't care if the person who forgot the curly brace is wearing a black lace bra."

Yes, I realize that the compiler is not the whole story... and that while the compiler is gender-blind, the context in which you're asked to write that code is loaded with interpersonal issues. Still...
I love being a woman. I love wearing a lace bra. And I love writing code. Personally, I'm delighted at how well these can work together. And my big wish is that more women--especially younger women--will discover the same thing.

I'd also like to suggest two other posts by people who are as confused as I am by this:

Brian Ford's What's the Goal of BlogHer post (lots of good comments).

Mike Sansone's Where the women bloggers are.

Posted by Kathy on August 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (84) | TrackBack

When the "best tool for the job"... isn't.

Eqappropriate

[sweeping generalization alert]

Programmers / software developers fall roughly into two camps when it comes to choosing languages, frameworks, etc.:

1) Those who want to use the tool they love

vs.

2) Those who say, "use the best tool for the job"

The "best tool" group makes a compelling argument. It's the most logical, for sure.
The "best tool" group (correctly) recognizes that passion for a tool can cloud your judgement... the "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" syndrome.

The "best tool" group is sensible, smart, and unemotional.

The "tool love" group, on the other hand, has a less compelling case. Too much attachment to a particular tool has that tinge of emotional irrationality. Geek street cred goes down as passion for a tool goes up. But given the inherent "rightness" and moral superiority of the "best tool" group, I still think it's worth looking more deeply.

First, just what the hell DOES "best tool for the job" actually mean? Best at what? I think we usually take it to mean, "most appropriate for the task"). But is appropriateness-for-task really the best criteria for "best"? That depends, of course, and NOBODY advocates using a tool that completely sucks at the task you're faced with.

But what about learning curve? Available resources? Shouldn't the appropriateness of the tool be balanced against how much expertise you have in that tool? There must a threshold at which using the best-tool-you-don't-know ends up being a less productive and perhaps less performing choice than choosing a tool you know well that while UP to the task, isn't perfect.

There are tradeoffs everywhere, of course. For example, let's say I can tweak and hack a tool to do what I need, more productively than with the tool I don't know... but those hacks might hurt maintenance down the road. But still...

So current expertise has to be factored in and while I believe most sensible project managers do, I've had way too many emails (and students) who were pushed into learning a new tool in a week by someone who has no clue how LONG it takes to get really good at some of this. Learning curve needs to get a bit more respect.

But you knew where this post was going... the "passion" factor. How much weight should the love you feel for the tool get? A lot more than it usually gets. Yes, there's irrationality that must be tempered and challenged by those who don't share that passion. And yes, there's a tendency to frame the problem in terms of the solution you already know. But even with all that, the benefits of passion are so often underrated.

Think about it. From everything we've learned here reverse-engineering passion, the one most consistent attribute we find across things people are passionate about is learning. When people are truly passionate about something, they want to learn more and more and more. They invest time and effort getting better, not just because they're forced to by their job, but because they genuinely enjoy being better at it. (hi-res experience and all that)

I think too many people underestimate the value of that drive to become more expert, and what it could mean to a project.

Now, I'm NOT suggesting that you NEED passion in order to be an expert and do the best job with a tool. I'm saying that passion (or at least a Big Like) should be factored in to the mix when choosing the "best tool for the job".

When we talk about "best tool for the job", we should look not only at "best for the task", but also "best for those who must use it." Ahhhh... you can probably tell that I just returned from OSCON, where Ruby/Rails love (and still a whole lotta Perl love) are in the air.

Once again, I'm reminded that this is a great time to be a programmer, because people ARE starting to care about Creating Happy Programmers (see also David HH's original eWeek article on Programmer Happiness)

So perhaps we're not ready for Emo Programming™, but there's still more to choosing a tool than what's right for the task. We cannot weigh the appropriateness of the tool without factoring in both task appropriateness and user relationship with the tool. ; )

Posted by Kathy on August 1, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Declaration of (job) independence

Declaration

If you're thinking about ditching the corporate job and heading out on your own, you can't do any better than to get help and inspiration from Pamela Slim's Escape from Cubicle Nation blog.

And to anyone who feels like a "corporate prisoner", or who has recently taken the leap and could use a gentle reminder of what this is about, I urge you to watch her little Flash movie, Declaration of Independence. It might be the most inspirational 3 minutes I've experienced in quite a while.

Pam told me her goal was, "...a simple desire to spend 3 minutes whispering something positive and encouraging in their ear."

I hear so many people underestimate/devalue/dismiss the importance of motivation. Yet so often, a lack of motivation is the only thing standing between you and something you really want to try.

Once again, I'm reminded that life is just too damn short not to go for it. Or too damn long. Take your pick ; )

Posted by Kathy on August 1, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack