Trouble Staying Motivated

Life tends to present itself as a series of seasons. Some characterized by career success, some by personal growth, and others by something else entirely. Whatever season I'm in now, it hasn't been the easiest for any of my side projects.

The Get Open student mentors hip initiative was a total flop. The rubber hit the road in the pilot and the model just broke down. Communication stopped after a few emails. It was a limited, perhaps foolish idea. But I don't regret trying it. And to say that Depend On has hit a wall is a bit of an understatement. I'm still having continual issues with version number comparison aside from the multitude of other things needed for MVP, and trying to open source a significant portion of the application without just open sourcing the entire thing turned out to be more of a nightmare than I first imagined because it made my build pipeline five degrees more complex. Just looking at the code seems to paralyze me these days.

I've done some good things under the Georgia Open Data Project imprint. They're just things that nobody else is particularly interested in, which is unfortunate. The functionality of my GAODP projects is about what you can expect of most things that only have a single person with a full time job on the side doing: minimal. And unfortunately, though there have been some good small wins on Lift recently I haven't gotten the itch to dig into it recently. There are some things I'd like to see done, and have speculated about how to do them, but finding the energy to do so these days has been harder than I recall in recent history.

I wrote last summer about the Economies of Scaling Back and the importance of maintaining a balance between all the things you want to do and still having a life. Maybe I failed to scale back enough things or scale back soon enough and am now going to have to tolerate a period of burn out. Or maybe it's something else entirely – I do have a notorious history of being incredibly lethargic when the weather gets cold. And man has it been cold recently. I do my best to take it as it comes, but verily my Type-A frustration at myself for not being able to do more is easier to deal with one some days than others.

But I'm sure you're wondering: why am I typing this into a box with the intent of sharing it with the Internet?

I know there are a lot of folks that are interested in Depend On, and on some level I feel as though I owe you all an explanation as to why nothing has happened lately. But more important than that, I think that we – as the people on the front lines of the technology industry – commit a travesty in how we represent our work sometimes and that's reinforced when people don't say "Hey I love what I do, but I haven't been able to like it as much as normal recently."

Believe me when I say it: I love coding. I love technology. There's no feeling quite like the rubber hitting the road and pulling off some magic for a real person. It's what I would be doing even if I couldn't do it full time as my job. But I go through periods – months sometimes – where I come home at the end of the day and the last thing I want to look at is a line of code. I get these big great ideas, spend a lot of money to start making them happen, and then halfway through it's as if my brain decides it was never interested in it in the first place and getting an ounce of productive work done on it becomes about as easy as pushing an F-350 truck up a hill by yourself. (And yes, I'm aware that my southerner is showing with that choice of mental picture.)

It could be the case that this experience is entirely unique to me, though I doubt it. So if anyone tells you that if you learn to code your life will be awesome because really you just get to do what you love all the time, they're telling you the truth. But let me disabuse you of any mental picture of being Super Coding Machine™ that lives, breathes, and eats code and never gets tired of coding code all the code day long. Because just like everyone else there are weeks and months on end where even though I'm doing what I love I find myself lacking that spark that drives me to push it to the next level.

In spite of this rut, for lack of a better term, I'm still going to get up tomorrow and put everything I can into my day job and be so thankful that I have the privilidge of doing so. And that's a bit of why I still say that I love coding: I'm still thankful to be doing it even in the seasons it's not as likeable / interesting / insert positive adjective here as it was a few months ago. And I do that knowing that it will be that again for me before too long. These things are always cyclical. C'est la vie. But it might be a bit before you see a lot of side work from me.

So, what's next?

Well I know better than to try and force things when I'm not in the state of mind to do them well. I imagine I'm going to be buying some books that have been sitting on my waiting list for awhile. I'll probably still be tinkering around with GAODP, so if you have an interest in helping to make Georgia's Data more accessible hit me up on Twitter (@farmdawgnation). Some extra interest would definately help kick up my momentum on that. I'm also going to spend some more time writing than I have in recent months, so hopefully this blog will be getting some more love, too.

I would love to hear your experiences with what I've talked about in this post. Have you experienced these cycles like me or are you the Super Coding Machine™ that I made a bit of fun of earlier in the post?

Until next time, folks.

So, I discovered Patreon

So, this week I discovered Patreon. It's a nice service that allows me to chip in some cash to creatives whose content I really enjoy. To be frank, I'm actually quite giddy about this. It's probably going to destroy my coffee budget if I'm not careful. And we all know there are few things that can convince me to sacrifice coffee.

What's funny is that I'm an unapologetic skeptic. I actually had a friend last night say that I'm a good "no man," and intended it as a compliment. I consider my ability to poke holes and iterate on ideas an asset. When I come to the conclusion that something is a "good idea" it means that I've hit it with a mental baseball bat a few times and am convinced its solid. As a result, it's rare that I come across something and get immediately lit up with unbridled enthusiasm. Since that's happened with Patreon, I thought it'd be cool to share why in blog format.

All of you know that I'm a software engineer. I get to build things for a living and, though it may surprise you to hear, there's a significant amount of creativity that goes into this. I'm fortunate enough to be compensated very well by the industry for doing what I love to do. But, to be honest, writing code is what I would be doing even if I wasn't getting paid. It's my craft. I have lots of little side projects I build out for giggles. It's actually become a bit overwhelming lately because I'm also "Project ADD," but that's a different topic.

Unfortunately there are a lot of talented creatives out there who aren't in my situation. For them, working on their passion means doing sucky full-time or part-time jobs that may not even pay the rent. In many creative arenas, if the Big Industry™ hasn't decided they want you, you'll have a hard time making a living. And I happen to hold the opinion that Big Industry™ tends to do a sucky job at evaluating whether things are good or bad. Lots of things fall through the cracks of their rubrics and lot of talented folks never catch their eye. (I'm looking at you in particular, Fox.)

Patreon allows me to participate in a rich history of patronage. I get to support artists I love in a way that is both easy and accountable, as they're held to doing something in return for contributions that are sent their way. In some ways, it's like a much longer term Kickstarter arrangement. I'd argue that as someone who has disposable income and immensely enjoys the things these folks produce, that I have something of an obligation to make my voice heard – both with my voice and with my wallet. They're producing stuff that is enjoyable and valuable to me and that I want them to continue doing that. These folks are participating in the creation of our era's culture. That's worth supporting.

So, I bet I can guess the next question in your head: who am I supporting? Well, let me tell you a bit about the first two creators I've backed.

Walk off the Earth

©2012 Walk off the Earth. Click for the original.

©2012 Walk off the Earth. Click for the original.

I'm sure that anyone who I've talked music with recently is sick of me talking about Walk off the Earth, but I'm still mesmerized by the amount of talent they have. Each member of the band plays some insane number of instruments and each of their music videos is a pure joy to watch. Of particular note they hold the distinction of being the first band to ever do a rendition of a Taylor Swift song that I actually enjoy. (That's an accomplishment.)

 I decided to back them because the things they're producing are ambitious and consistently enjoyable. Whenever I can log into YouTube and see "Hey! WOTE has posted a new video!" it's always a good day. I'm also pretty sure Sarah Blackwood's voice is hypnotic. My current favorite demonstration of their talent is their cover of Lorde's Royals, where their instruments play musical chairs throughout the song (musical players?).

I can't say enough good things about them, so I'll just say this: check them out.

Mary Kate Wiles

©2014 Mary Kate Wiles. Click for the original.

©2014 Mary Kate Wiles. Click for the original.

I actually originally discovered Mary Kate Wiles for the first time earlier last week. Kate, a friend of mine from church, posted a link to her video blog about post-job depression. After that I started clicking around to see some of the stuff she had been involved in. As a result, I stumbled into watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series she had acted in that is based on Pride and Prejudice.

(I may or may not have watched the entire series in three days.)

Mary Kate portrayed Lizzie's younger sister, Lydia. To be honest, my expectations for the character and the series as a whole were low going in. (See aforementioned skepticism.) But I would have had to eat my words if I'd ever publicized that opinion before finishing the series. Lydia is the character in the series that wins the award for giving me the most feels, and that is not an easy award to come by. One scene, in particular, where Lydia realizes she has been seriously betrayed took the cake for me.

This is the look of heartbreak. This moment broke my heart. "Consequences - Ep: 85." ©2013 Pemberly Digital.

This is the look of heartbreak. This moment broke my heart. "Consequences - Ep: 85." ©2013 Pemberly Digital.

I could tell you what's happening in this scene, or link you directly to the video, but I honestly feel that I'd be doing you a disservice. Watch the series from the beginning, and thank me later. Lizzie's videos are the "primary" narrative (for lack of a better term), but Lydia's are absolutely essential for understanding the character and made a huge difference for me. The link in this paragraph is a playlist containing all the relevant videos from the series.

After watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and a few of Mary Kate's other videos, supporting her was an obvious decision. I think she's got a ton of talent, and her video blogs have a really raw, down-to-earth quality that resonates with me. I want people with that talent and those personality qualities to be successful. Hands down.

If you're interested in finding out more about her, check out these links:

Tradition of Patronage

By supporting these artists, I'm joining in a long history of patronage, and I encourage you to do the same. There are good people out there doing new, interesting things with their creative talent. Find them, and figure out how to support them. It's worth your time and money to do so.

If you're also a Patreon user, I'd love recommendations for folks who are on there that you think are talented. I think that supporting these artists is actually going to get a line item in my budget in 2015, so I may be looking for a few more to add to my list of support for the year. And, as always, if you want to leave me a comment for any other reason please feel free to do so.

Until next time, kids.

Open Source Software at Elemica

So I did a write up for Elemica about our use of Open Source Software within the organization. It covered some allegorical business examples as an argument for OSS, talks a good bit about Lift and Chef, and goes on to discuss a few of the things that we've published recently. If that sounds like a something you'd be interested in reading about, it went live today.

Read the post here.

As always, I would love to know what you think. :-)

I'm a magician

A few days ago I got asked two questions that I don't think I gave a great answers to. At their core, the questions were asking me why I do software (of all things) and about how I see myself. As in, if I could give a descriptive summary other than "builds software" – how is it that I see myself. I don't remember the exact answers I gave, but it resulted in a bit of unexpected self-reflection.

A few weeks ago, I was able to live stream the wedding of my friend Marla out to YouTube. I dealt with the logistics and technical details involved. This included things like renting a camera and tripod, figuring out how to get that video into my computer live, how to get high quality sound, etc. And because I was able to do that, this was able to happen:

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Fifty people watched Marla and Josh exchange vows over the live stream that afternoon. Those fifty people will never think twice about bitrate, the native resolution of a Canon XA10, decibels, or XLR cables. They'll never think about the datacenters and connection points the video ran through en route to their computer screen. But I know with certainty that a grandfather many miles away who wasn't able to make the trip out found joy in being able to witness his granddaughter exchange vows along with the rest of us.

None of this would have been possible without the numerous software engineers who have worked around the world over the past several decades to bring us to where we are today. I didn't have any hand in YouTube or streaming technology, but as a software engineer I have the privilege of counting myself among the many who are building toward tomorrow's innovations. Maybe I'll make something famous, maybe I won't. Either way, I get to participate in the conversations and code that happen today. I get to walk in this world where we software folks build these big, impossible things that far exceed the imagination of the generation that came before us. And sometimes, on those very special days, I get to see those things lead to a truly magical experience for someone else.

And as for how I describe myself? I'm a magician.

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So, I gave a talk

On Tuesday, I gave my first talk ever in front of a technical crowd to the Developers of Athens. My topic was Scala and Lift. This wasn't my first time being in front of an audience, but it was my first time giving a primarily slide-driven presentation about some highly technical stuff. It was my first time speaking about Lift publicly.

Ultimately, I decided the presentation wasn't up to my (perhaps idealistic) standard. Having now had a few days to distill my thoughts a bit, I thought I'd share what I took away from the night.

Information Overload

Something I didn't realize before going into the evening is exactly how much ground I had attempted to cover. I had way too much on my schedule. As a result, I ended up confusing a good handful of people for most of the presentation.

I decided to dedicate most of my time talking about Lift's view-first architecture, something I considered the most novel concept compared to other frameworks. This resulted in a good number of people being confused for a good chunk of the presentation about whether Lift was a framework or a templating engine. So, I didn't do a great job of doing the Framework justice.

In retrospect, I should have thrown the idea of covering anything about Scala and giving code samples out the window. I just didn't have time, and I could have leveraged the additional minutes to actually discuss some other features.

Usage Data

I was pressed on usage data for both Scala and Lift at various points and I did not have it. That's an epic fail on my part.

With regard to Scala as a whole, the official Scala website does a better job of painting a picture of the kind of adoption Scala has seen than I could. You can read their blog post detailing enterprise companies using Scala and an article on the growth of popularity and usage.

With regard to Lift, this is something that the Lift community has discussed before (though I'm failing to find the thread), but we don't have any real good numbers (that I know of) on how much Lift is used. We have a handful of sites that rotate on our homepage, including Foursquare. But, unfortunately, I couldn't tell you how many sites out there are using Lift. As we make the push toward Lift 3, that's something we need to seriously think about how to measure accurately and communicate outward.

Offhand Remarks

So, I suck at summarizing my thoughts on things in an impromptu manner, it seems. Feeling the time crunch I was in I expressed two different opinions that both got me a bit of flak. It's no surprise both of these were during the part of the presentation I didn't care as much about (the Scala part).

The first was regarding typing. I made a remark that an audience member interpreted as unfair toward dynamically typed languages. I don't remember what my exact remark was (it may have legitimately started with "Static typing is better"). Exact words aside, I think my experience with Scala has taught me that when a type system is done right, it can greatly increase my confidence in the code that I'm writing without slowing me down or bloating up my test suite with cases such as return type checks. The audience member correctly pointed out in response that there are steps you can take to mitigate the risks of a dynamically typed languages, and that there are cases where static typing isn't as good of a fit as I portrayed.

The second was regarding Java. While discussing Scala's nature as a second-generation JVM language I made the offhand remark that Java was "on the way out," which is an opinion that I hold with qualification. I just expressed it with all those qualifications removed because they were completely irrelevant to the main topic (Lift). I immediately got about 10 WTF faces from the crowd, there were a few remarks back and forth that evening, and then I didn't think much of it. However, It ended up being the topic of conversation on the Meetup site the next day. I was really, really discouraged that there were audience members so unimpressed with the main topic of the presentation that a quip about Java was the main thing on their minds.

There's obviously a balance that I need to work on during a time crunch between reading from a script and shooting statements off the cuff faster than I can think them through or fully explain them.

Vulnerability

Something that I severely underestimated in this little adventure was exactly how vulnerable you can feel when someone takes out their pitch fork to start criticizing you.

I don't know if it was a reasonable expectation, but I expected to feel about the same when receiving any criticism about my talk as I would criticism about a blog post. I've been writing long enough that I have a pretty tough exterior when it comes to self-evaluating how well I've communicated something. Yet the tone of the criticisms around my Java remark on the Meetup group the following day impacted me enough to make me seriously consider never presenting again.

The advice I got from pretty much everyone on this oscillated between "grow a thicker skin" and "why does that one guy matter that much anyway?" Both of which are completely valid. But if the goal of this post is to be honest about experience from my first time speaking (which it is) then omitting this would be a mistake. It was different for me when I got up in front of that crowd and then, after that, a member decided he disliked something about it.

The criticism of the audience apparently has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts if you're not steeling yourself for it. I wasn't, and it slapped in the face as a result.

In Conclusion

At least one member of the audience has started playing with Scala since I walked off the floor, so I have hopes to see an addition to the Lift community from Athens at some point. Also, I'm going to publish my slides whenever I get the chance to clean them up. There were a bunch of slides at the end I didn't use and I think a few that were in the wrong order. I'm sure everyone remembers the "I wasn't expecting that slide to come next" dance that I did halfway through the talk.

This won't be the last time I give a talk. It'll probably be a spell before I do it again, but this was a goal I had for myself this year. And I accomplished it. So now, it's back to building, shipping, and writing things for awhile.

See you on the interwebs.