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Re-igniting passion

I assume that most--if not all--of us reading this blog chose the professions we're in (or studying for), whether it's programming, design, teaching, marketing, music, running a business, heading a church, writing, whatever. But the tough problem is holding on to that initial feeling of energy, enthusiasm, optimism, passion we have at the beginning.

I recently saw the most dramatic difference between that initial passion and the just-a-job attitude, when I went to the CUSEC conference (Canadian University Software Engineering Conference) in Montreal. What happened at that conference was something I never could have expected.
[UPDATE: article about the conference in the Concordia Journal]

The first strange thing was that this well-organized, well-run conference was put on entirely by... students. From the moment I got there, I kept looking for, well, the adults. Here's the conference chair/founder (long-term student John Kopanas, in the front center) and the rest of the commitee:

The second strange thing was that these young student organizers, and ALL several hundred of the attendees, expressed a passion for software engineering that I had never seen or heard! Not in my 20 years in technology. It was impossible to talk about anything meaningful in the tech world without hearing about a fresh approach, new perspective, or a sincere and thoughtful concern. Their energy was shocking. The conversations hopped from professional ethics to the cultural impact of their work as software engineers. Ethics? Cultural impact of their work? Half these guys weren't even old enough to drink beer in the US.

I don't know what they put in the water up there, but we could use some down here. Because too many of us (me included) tend to let that early enthusiasm slide... we forget why this thing we do used to matter to us, and we might start wondering why we ever got into it the first place. We start phoning it in.

Forget how that ultimately affects the end user, what about us? What would my days be like, for example, if I could always remember (and re-experience) the "I Rule!" feeling I got when my first program compiled. What would it be like if I remembered how excited I was to get my very first email from a reader telling us that the book made a difference in his life? What would it be like if I remembered how lucky I am to be doing something that--at some point, anyway--I really REALLY wanted to do?

I'm reading a book right now that is probably the BEST book on teaching/learning I've ever seen--What the best college teachers do, by Ken Bain. It involves a long-term study of the best teachers (and "best" is measured in extremely important and meaningful ways, not simply by test scores, grades, or student evaluations). Apparently ALL of the best teachers kept their teaching fresh and inspiring no matter how many times they had to teach the same damn topic, day after day, year after year. From the book:

"Jeanette Norden told us that before she begins the first class in any semester, she thinks about the awe and excitement she felt the first time anyone explained the brain to her, and she considers how she can help her students achieve that same feeling."

"Teaching is not acting, yet good teachers do expect to affect their audience when they talk: to capture their attention, to inspire, to provoke thoughts and questions...this practice has all the power of careful analysis, but it also entails thet energy of feelings and attitudes that no induction and deduction can achieve."

We can't expect passionate users, if we ourselves can't hold (or rediscover) the passion we felt for the work we chose. That doesn't mean we have to love our actual job -- I've had plenty of JOBS that could suck the life out of the most inspiring work on the planet. But I'm not talking about the job, which you can change, this is about the actual thing--teaching, writing, programming, delivering a sermon, playing with your kids, training your dog, giving a presentation, managing a team, evangelizing a cause, whatever it is.

One year ago, I wrote about the same topic--wondering how some musicians can play the same song a thousand times as though it were the first time. So consider this my annual reminder (to myself as much as anyone else) to NOT PHONE IT IN.

How do we do that? If you've got some good tips, I'd love to hear 'em. But perhaps the simplest (and yet hardest to do) answer is to sit your ass down and force yourself to remember.

Posted by Kathy on February 9, 2006 | Permalink


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» Re-igniting Passion from elearnspace
Kathy Sierra expresses a challenge many long timers face: how to re-igniting passion. When I first started teaching, the thrill and newness covered much of my inexperience. Today, I sometimes feel that my experience is in danger of covering my... [Read More]

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» CUSEC on Kathys Blog from nadiachaouch.net
Kathy Sierra, one of CUSEC 2006 keynotes, and in many peoples opinion, the BEST keynote EVER recently made a post about CUSEC and how we ran a great conference and that shed like to see more of the passion she saw at the conference. I... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 9, 2006 8:53:12 PM

» Getting that Passion Back from Development Budoka
Corporate life has a tendency to suck all the life out of you. Its inevitable. Whether they do it through impersonal process where one mediocre programmer can be replaced by another, or by burying you in paperwork and meaningless meetings. That& [Read More]

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» re-igniting our passion for practicing law from Legal Sanity
Career passion is a topic I’ve addressed here multiple times in various forms. And it’s one that comes up again and again in conversations I have with people attending my training and development programs. Many lawyers express a sense of... [Read More]

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» Re-igniting passion from Caddickisms
Creating Passionate Users: Re-igniting passion We cant expect passionate users, if we ourselves cant hold (or rediscover) the passion we felt for the work we chose. That is an excellent point. When the world is beating down on you with... [Read More]

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» Passion from think mojo
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Tracked on Feb 13, 2006 3:59:25 AM


Wow, now this is officially the highlight of my life.

I want to tell you that I think you are the best but after going through over 200 feedback forms I could, with data to back me up, say that everyone at CUSEC thought you were the best. You were the favorite presenter at CUSEC by far (just don't tell the other speakers :-) ).

You have made a big impact on the attendees. I walk the hallways and labs at my university and I over hear people quoting you and making decisions based on what you presented in your presentation. I hope one day to have the same impact on people.

Posted by: John Kopanas | Feb 9, 2006 8:13:29 PM

Thank you so much for your inspiring talk at CUSEC! A talk like no other... it was great to hear about engineering, not just coding! Now, I re-think about every feature twice before implementing it and I picture in my mind users interacting with my software. You covered a lot of ground in that talk, it was great!

I really hope that you will come to Waterloo and give another presentation!

Posted by: Benoit Larochelle | Feb 9, 2006 8:32:07 PM

One of the things I find about programming that helps me stay excited and passionate as a programmer is the aspect that there is ALWAYS something more to learn. So my recommendation is to always be a student of whatever it is you do.

Posted by: Darrell Brogdon | Feb 9, 2006 8:40:22 PM

"You have made a big impact on the attendees."

Well, how true it is! Your presentation made me think a lot about my past and future realisations. From now on, I will never approach a problem in the same way. I never really knew why I chose to study Software Engineering, why I've been creating software for years, for fun... Now I know the answer : passion.

I realized that passion is one of the most important keys to software development. If you're creating a new software, think about making pationate users, about what will make pationate users, and you'll be on your way to create the most interesting piece of software.

We will never say it enough, thanks a lot Kathy for your great presentation!!!

Posted by: Jean-Francois Perusse | Feb 9, 2006 8:42:30 PM

I didn't have the occasion to thank you for a great presentation. I didn't lough and enjoy a presentation that much since a long time. You gave me a lot of food for thought. I am happy there was no other presentation at the same time so that noone would miss it. That was a presentation for being-there, not for a PodCast! :)


Posted by: Matan Nassau | Feb 9, 2006 9:00:27 PM

Alright CUSEC people -- you can stop trying to sell me on coming back; I already said yes ; )

My point was about how inspiring YOU guys were, so it's me (and Chad and the other speakers) who should be thanking you for that experience.

"I hope one day to have the same impact on people."

Geez... you came up with this idea, and got *students* to attend a tech conference, where they got to learn things (as one of your professors put it) about "the real world that they just don't get in class". And they didn't just show up -- they *participated*.
I'd say you've already had quite an amazing impact. The attendees left there *more* motivated than when they arrived. It was one of the most memorable events in my tech career.

But John, you are so busted on the whole "you're the best" thing, because I know you said the same thing to Chad ; )

DARRELL: I'm not sure I could ever come up with better advice than that! I think you've nailed it. Now if only we could get more employers to see that supporting ongoing learning/training for employees--even (or especially) when it's not on mission-critical work, and the employee has some control over it-has a huge upside in motivation. Unfortunately, most companies still see employee training on a strictly ROI basis, and many companies don't measure "motivation" as a "return".

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 9, 2006 9:01:33 PM

Kathy, your killing me girl! I only got the feedback forms a week ago. That is where I got concrete data and not just overheard in the halls data. :-p

Just in case though Chad is listening, there were a lot of great things said about him as well.

Posted by: John Kopanas | Feb 9, 2006 9:15:47 PM

At the risk of 'me too'ing I'll take this in a different direction, but for the record I was there.

The your focus of your talk at CUSEC, and many of your blog entries here concern passion. Be it passionate users, programmers, artists or any combination of a myriad of professions and hobbies. By this point I'm sure that you realize inspiring people to take pride in their work or finding enjoyment in everything they do. Is not accomplished in a single act. It takes communication between those who are passionate, and those who will become passionate. Maybe it's a master/apprentice relationship, maybe it's a community of like minded people. Regardless, very few can become passionate and inspired on their own. Most people need some form of encouragement, validation, or even criticism to reach that point.

By posting your thoughts about your time at CUSEC and tangents resultant from those thoughts you have done two things.

First you have validated the experience many of us have had at CUSEC. Upon returning to classes or jobs in some cases. The memory of the entire conference becomes jumbled. When speaking with peers afterwards about the conference it is difficult to put into words what it is all about, and I can't speak for anyone but my self here, but after repeatedly failing to describe the experience adequately, the experience loses meaning, and doubt sets in on the value of attending the conference. By acknowledging the attendees, you have validated the experience and regenerated any memories that may have been lost in translation.

Second you have opened up an avenue of communication. I wouldn't be surprised if this post becomes flooded by comments from attendees in the next 24 hours. But also some of your regular readers may have something to add. This may be the start of a community or it may fizzle. In either case those who are inspired about becoming passionate users or creators, have taken another step toward what you may consider enlightenment of passion.

Thanks not only coming to the conference, but also for following up on it and for taking the time to read these comments.

PS: I'm still passionate about world domination.

Posted by: Emery Finkelstein | Feb 9, 2006 10:10:16 PM

Wow, I've been reading this blog for a while now, and I find it almost shocking, and also flattering, to see my face up there. :)

Thank you Kathy, you were, as the chorus has already said, amazing. It often surprises me to hear that the very person who filled all our attendees with passion is herself moved by those very attendees. That's synergy, and whenever there is potential for it, I love nothing more than to see it happen.

We are passionate. Why shouldn't we be? I've been developing software since I was nine, and yet I still have so much to learn on so many various aspects. And somehow the entire Canadian community of academic software engineers, from professors to students, come together and share passion for the same thing, the very theme of CUSEC this year: engineering useful software.

I love software. I love how software is made. I love the people who make software. In the end, as long as we surround ourselves with like-minded people, and as long as there are people like you who remind us of that passion, we will surely do magnificent things.

Posted by: Michel Parisien | Feb 9, 2006 10:10:24 PM

One of the things I really like about you Kathy, is your eternal surprise at how much you affect people who read you or listen to you. These Canadian students abviously had an 'I rule' experience (and I suspect the water as well!)

Posted by: Ric | Feb 9, 2006 11:30:14 PM

Thank you very much for your insightful presentation at CUSEC this year, Kathy. My passion in life since the age of six has been computer programming and software engineering, and not a day has passed in which I have lost that passion and love for what I do.

However, your talk and this post made me realize that my passion can be transformed into passion for the user, and that is, ultimately, the goal of good software: to make the user so passionate about what they do, that they make the software an integral part of the way they do things.

I just want to take the time to thank you for giving us your very apt and insightful advice.

Best Regards,

Julian Spillane

Posted by: Julian Spillane | Feb 9, 2006 11:41:12 PM

Kathy, you have no idea how valuable it is for students to actually meet passionate, established people in the software world. I am very passionate about software - I love creating software. I love using software. I love discussing software and the state of the software industry. The problem I sometimes run into is that the latter usually falls on deaf ears. Sometimes I ask myself, "Am I the only one who cares?" The structure of university, at least in my undergraduate career so far, simply does not facilitate conversation. When there is an attempt to dive into an interesting conversion, there also exist undertones of students who tune out since this "extra" material won't be covered on examinations. The quest to discover like-minded people who also share the same levels of passion I do about software is probably the fundamental reason that has driven me to attend technology conferences. And so far, the relationships I've formed with like-minded passionate students are priceless. I've learned so much and taught so much at the same time.

And just when I thought things couldn't possibly be better, I received the opportunity to hear your phenomenal "Creating Passionate Users" talk. The talk single-handedly ignited a motivational flame in me that will be nearly impossible to put out for quite some time to come. Friends often can't comprehend why I'd miss a few days of lectures just to attend other lectures (keynotes) that won't count for my grade. The answer is simple - the amount of knowledge I acquired from your "Creating Passionate Users" talk will far eclipse the amount of information I'm going to learn from my user interfaces course this term, without a doubt.

And even more valuable, I also received the opportunity to talk to you (and other speakers) about the software industry during the conference-organized dinner. Wow. Simply astounding. I must say, there's something magical about being able to talk to established figures in the software industry and hearing their opinions first-hand.

As an aside, the quest to answer to the aforementioned question also led me to blogosphere. The blogosphere is fantastic for reading discussions, but not carrying out conversations. There's a large difference between having a face-to-face conversation and leaving a comment on a blog. For one, you can simply ignore me on a blog – something which is much harder to do face-to-face. As a result I've found myself contributing less to blogs, especially A-Listers, because I'm essentially a nobody. And unfortunately, tools like Memeorandum don't yet exist for carrying out conversations with B/C/D/.../Z Listers. Or better put, a Memeorandum does not yet exist for discovering and tracking conversations in students’ blogs, for example. I often just sit back, follow the conversations and form my own opinions, which in itself is still valuable. But when I actually meet someone face-to-face and they bring up software discussions I'm interested in, it's a completely different story - I'll talk till my heart's content. Here's something interesting to ponder over: after Joel made his post about "The Perils of Javaschools," wouldn't it have been neat to track student discussion on the topic as effectively as the discussions between the A-listers were tracked?

Anyway, back on topic - you're talk is by far the most amazing/rewarding technology talk I've been to. I've got more motivation than ever to create imaginative software, it's unbelievable. Time to sift through my Moleskine of backlogged ideas and get cracking! Thanks for motivation - you've also gained a passionate blog reader in the process.


(P.S. Sorry for any typos...It's nearing 4 am and I'm just about ready to hit the sack)

Posted by: Kalu Kalu | Feb 10, 2006 1:35:26 AM


Quote: I love creating software. I love using software. I love discussing software and the state of the software industry. The problem I sometimes run into is that the latter usually falls on deaf ears. Sometimes I ask myself, "Am I the only one who cares?"

No! You're not! But how do we reach the evil decision makers?

I'm of the strong mind that software models (or attempts to model) real-world applications. Therefore, if the thing you're modeling is a mess, your software will be a mess.

I love creating interfaces and programming. I hate trying to dodge the bullets of office politics and manager ego while trying to save the software from becoming too much like the thing it is being modeled after... *tear*

And because of that last bit I find I try to change the very model/minds of the decision makers. (I hate that phrase -- "decision makers" -- what? I can't make decisions?)

Posted by: Rabbit | Feb 10, 2006 2:18:39 AM

Kathy, what do you mean by "phone it in?"

Posted by: Rabbit | Feb 10, 2006 2:22:02 AM

Great Topic Kathy!

When I was in high-school, an English teacher (Mr. Daukus) gave us 60 seconds to memorize a poem by Wordsworth:

My Heart Leaps Up
When I behold a rainbow
In the sky

So was it when my life began
So is it now I am a man
So be it when I shall grow old
or let me die

The child is the father of the man
and I wish all my days could be
Bound each to each in natural piety

Basically, the idea is to maintain the wonder in which you viewed the world when you were a child. I believe this helps drive passion - or passion helps drives the wonder.

We try to pass that sense of wonder to our children. Read how a frog hunt is more about a passion for discovery...

Monsoon Lessons:

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Feb 10, 2006 3:18:20 AM

One of the best ways (and my most favorite) to maintain my own passion is to surround myself with the newly passionate. This past weekend, I went for the sixth time as a chaperone to a youth convention. The youth pastor is 20, as were two other chaperones. Three more chaperones were 18. Only me and one other guy were over 30 (actually, we're older than dirt, but who's counting?). The trip went great, because every single one of those carefully selected chaperones was passionately in love with serving the kids that we were taking.

People ask me how I can go with the teens year after year. I ask them, how could I *not* go?

I like being around all that passion :-)


Posted by: Cyndi L | Feb 10, 2006 6:02:52 AM

Try and spend time as much time as possible with people who share your passion and learn from each other.

If you're learning things but don't have the opportunity to communicate them to others in your field, you're likely to lose interest in learning any more.

Posted by: Richard Jonas | Feb 10, 2006 6:56:17 AM


I'm listening but don't worry. Kathy's talk was my favorite also. :)

Posted by: Chad Fowler | Feb 10, 2006 9:12:34 AM

That's one thing that drives passion. And you can also read Cha---nge from there.
It's a fire that needs fuel. And Challenge or Change is what achieves the best results.
I started into programming at 7 (well..it's not that long ago :)) driven by challenge and change...I was bored to play again and again those old BASIC games that I had to retype every time I restarted my MSX. So, for a change, my challenge on making new games...
After the years, passion starts to dim (..is this word right? english is not my main language :)) and "new" projects are what brings it back. This may be something from formal job, side jobs or new hobbies like diving.

And that's only after you bring your own passion back that you will be more succesfull on passing it to others.

Posted by: Lucas Persona | Feb 10, 2006 9:33:48 AM

diamond words, diamond words, diamonds words

Posted by: Fahd Mirza | Feb 10, 2006 9:38:19 AM

I keep the passion by:
[] always learning new things over a broad range of subjects. Sometimes that means a new career.
[] teaching and sharing
[] talk to kids of all ages and try to answer their questions
[] read sci-fi/fantasy for all the alternate philosophies that others have conceived.

Posted by: Cathy Arthur | Feb 10, 2006 9:41:51 AM

One thing about about starting up passionately and see other ex-passionate runners run out of gas and lose direction+fans (passion) is to respect and understand that not everyone is a die-hard passionate person like you.

So advice is to continue taking detours and filling in gas all the time.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Feb 10, 2006 11:06:05 AM

So... where can the rest of us listen to what Kathy said...

Ian W.
Over the pond in the UK

Posted by: Ian Waring | Feb 10, 2006 1:40:36 PM

I dunno - losing passion can sometimes be a good thing too . In my experience, people who get bored with something, for example, start loooking for something else, something more, new challenges...and often find it. These are the happiest people I know.

I think it's healthy to take a good look at boredom and/or lost passion, and decide if it's a momentary mood swing or situational or if the thill is, indeed, gone. If it is gone, there's a big world out there waiting to be found, life is short, and there's no need to feel guilt about the lack of passion for the now, or your inability to "fix" your attitude about something you already know. One's Everest is another's foothill. If you're not at the top, just keep climbing.......

Posted by: Brian Benz | Feb 10, 2006 3:59:21 PM

After I read "A Natural History of the Senses" by Diane Ackerman, I found I had a new awareness of my senses and the passions that that invoked. I became passionate about scents, colors and smells. I was awakened to the world around me.

I believe this was a product the descriptions especially the lives of those who either were hyper sensitive or deficient in the sense. Occasionally, I've been successful in applying this to other aspects of life. Step back and visualize life without a particular skill or perhaps even with the skill over developed. It provides a renewed perspective with new passion.

I won't claim that it is easy. The minutia and difficulties easily overwhelm this new perspective. Also, it is decidedly uncool. To openly demonstrate a passion on a subjected is to reveal unsophistication. To be passionate is to at least ignore the difficulties that might arise.

To maintain your passion, you must not think of what you know. You must think of what it would be like if you didn't know.

Posted by: JKB | Feb 10, 2006 4:00:31 PM

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