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Kalamazoo X 2015

About the conference/trip

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This year I was thrilled to finally attend the soft-skills conference, Kalamazoo X. One of the things that drew me to this conference is that it deals with things that transcend any technology and any job at a certain company: the ability to consider yourself, your career, and your goals. The blurb from the conference home page sums it up:

It’s amazing how much time people will spend learning the latest “shiny” tool or technology, but when it comes to improving their soft skills, they spend almost no time trying to improve. It’s something we’re trying to fix with the X Conference.

The format is a bit different — only eight speakers, a single track, and each talk is about 30 minutes long. Presenters are personally invited by the event’s board.

For various reasons, air travel didn’t work out, so my colleague and I turned it into a road trip to Michigan.


Highlights from speakers

“Be a Beginner”

(by Jeff Blankenberg)

  • The definition for “beginner” is often correlated with “learner,” but “expert” is correlated with completionist nouns (e.g., “master”), which doesn’t really work in our field
  • We spend a lot of time thinking we’re beginners
  • Experts have higher expectations put on them
  • Excitement comes from new-ness; it’s easy to get into a well-worn (albeit comfortable) groove after so long
  • If you’re the expert, you’re working with beginners
  • The adage “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is misplaced. Teach to impart knowledge; by doing so, you’ll level yourself up in the process by learning more deeply

“Ignition: Geek Parenting”

(by Cori Drew)

  • Sometimes you luck into the right things/places
  • Your community helps introduce you to things and helps you make connections you’d otherwise miss out on
  • You don’t have to do tech full-time to learn and get some benefit from it
  • If you’re going to spend so much of your life doing something, why wouldn’t it be something you love?
  • When introducing younger folks to tech… Don’t force it on them, let them learn from their mistakes, “it takes a village

“Growing into Leadership”

(by Jim Holmes)

  • Why do you want to lead? Maybe you’re… filling a leadership gap, because you want to, because it’s needed.
  • Be confident in yourself and when you feel like an impostor, STOP IT!
  • Find out the mission of your organization and align what you do to help your company/customers be more awesome
  • Communication is job #1
  • Learn different styles of management (e.g., DISC assessment, Meyers-Briggs, empathizer vs. instigator)
  • Communication is about them, not you
  • Sometimes you just need to SAFTK (step away from the keyboard); walk away from an escalated situation before reacting
  • Give your team a place to fail safely
  • Push/encourage your team to make them awesome

“Values-driven Development”

(by Alan Stevens)

  • The way you work expresses (flows from) your values
  • Depressive realism — those who are depressed see the world as it really is
  • The main complexities we deal with are the problem domain (can’t do much about) and the technology/stack (which we can influence)
  • If you aren’t developing under constraints, you’re not building software — you’re making art
  • Martin Fowler’s tradable quality hypothesis — the fallacy that quality can be traded for expediency
  • Quality is building it right; design is building the right thing
  • It doesn’t matter how well you build the wrong thing
  • Apply appropriate rigor for the situation
  • Values (which can be double-edged swords)
    • laziness (automation, DRY)
    • impatience (remove friction)
    • hubris (you can solve problems)
    • Agile is a collection of values as well
    • Empathy for our customers
  • Our job is to help people

“Confessions of a Technical Speaker”

(by Cory House)

  • For those with a social phobia, conference speaking can work as a kind of therapy
  • One reason that technical speaking is more daunting is that you have a whole room of geeks judging your code, not just some C-level executive
  • Recommends To Sell is Human by Dan Pink
  • Manufacture urgency to deal with deadlines
  • Just because you’re not the best doesn’t mean you have no value to offer. There’s always someone better than you, but there’s always someone who knows less.
  • You get better at speaking by practicing
  • To get feedback when speaking, check out lanyard.com and speakerrate.com

“Conviction”

(by Jay Harris)

  • “Passion is lizard-brain stuff.”
  • Happiness, motivation, and money can lead to passion; so can fear, loss, and doubt
  • We’ve taken motivational quotations and substituted “passion” in the place of “hard work”
  • Why do we seem to hate people that are gifted?
  • Talent + modesty = imposter syndrome
  • Figure out your portfolio of talents and use them every day

(This was a very engaging, animated talk where I was so wrapped up and didn’t write down more concepts; maybe Jay will post his slides at some point.)

“Give Up”

(by Dawn Kuczwara)

  • Perseverance is a good trait when you’re talking about goals
  • If you can’t take on anything else, you can’t do anything new
  • Familiarity, helpfulness, and control are common reasons we convince ourselves to hold on to things
  • If you delegate, you give someone else an opportunity to shine and free yourself up in the process

“The Beauty of a Beginner’s Mind”

(by Elizabeth Naramore)

  • We love grades (from school) and attach personal worth to them (although this may not help us)
  • We love goals, but too much planning gets us into a long, pointless grind
  • Beginners are curious, empathetic, creative, squishy yet strong, growing, helpful, courageous, and without judgment
  • For your side-passions, it’s okay not to be awesome (i.e., it’s okay to suck)
  • You don’t have to be on the straight path to death (i.e., following a prescription): Wander a bit

Takeaways

For the conference itself…

  • Everyone was very friendly; it was no problem to drop in on conversations with random people
  • Each of the speakers was approachable during the day; other than Jim (who left early), I spent at least 5 minutes talking to each presenter during the day
  • Food I checked out and would recommend

From the experience…

  • Cori’s talk about how her community helped her (and she returned the favor) made me a little sad that Knoxville’s dev community isn’t thriving as well. (That was one of the main reasons for shuttering the Knoxville Software Craftsmanship Group.) About the only group in town I jibe with is DevBeers, but there’s usually a schedule conflict for me.
  • Empathy is a key factor in successful communication
  • It seems like at some point every developer gets seduced by getting involved in “best practices.” As you grow and gain experience, you realize that these are not always the answer. So, I’m not going to beat myself up for following this same trend.
  • Delegation will only be successful if you trust those to whom you delegate.
  • When it comes to building your team, you may not actually be micromanaging — you may be keeping the bar for quality from slipping and providing useful boundaries of what’s acceptable for your team/company.
  • Just because you want your team to grow, the chemistry may just not be right. In other words, you can lead a horse to water…
  • During the next year, I’m going to be more proactive in looking for local inspiration/pollination. Connecting with other developers energizes me in ways I often forget until directly after the experience.

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