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Kalamazoo X 2016

About the conference/trip


This is my second year attending 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 format consists of eight speakers, a single track, and each talk is about 30 minutes long. Presenters are personally invited by the event’s board.

Once again, my colleague and I turned it into a road trip to Michigan.

Highlights from speakers

“How to be Everything: A Look at the Way We Give Advice”

(by Lauren Scott)


  • TL;DR: Our current culture’s advice may not be helpful. Lean more toward honesty, openness, patience, and trust to foster inclusion.
  • Being a programmer is hard, but people can be awesome.
  • People give advice because they care, but that advice may not be helpful.
    • “Own your ignorance.” (i.e., it’s okay to be a newbie)
    • “Own your expertise.”
  • Such advice is conflicting — act like a novice, yet also like an expert; be empty, yet full. (Aside: In the moment, I was reminded of Brian Scott McFadden’s comedy bit What Women Want. Please note that I’m making light of the contradictions and not trying to make a statement toward/about women.)
  • We tend to deal with both impostor syndrome (success is a fluke) and entitlement syndrome (failure is a fluke).
  • We give specific advice generally.
  • Privilege (groups you belong to, e.g., upper-middle class white males) factors into the way we view ourselves.
  • Advice for the privileged is given by default. That is, our advice is aimed toward the privileged.
  • Disadvantaged groups get conflicted advice.
  • We tell the oppressed to change because of problems fueled by the oppressor.
  • Are failures personal shortcomings or just biased/bigoted assumptions?
  • Lauren put out a survey for developers, asking whether they were ever asked to own their ignorance, own their expertise, where they heard such advice, and whether they thought such advice was helpful. In general, women were told more frequently to own their expertise, and men were not told to own their expertise.
  • Vicarious goal satiation — if we see others achieve a goal, we feel a bit like we achieved it.
  • We expect others will follow our advice. When we give advice, we follow it less (think of someone offering nutrition advice but giving themselves permission to eat a candy bar).
  • Calls to action
    • Show by example. Seniority = influence; normalize honesty and openness.
    • Help change the culture. Don’t scoff at someone because they don’t know something, avoid language/framework/tool wars, and be patient and trusting.

“Empathy Is Your Secret Weapon”

(by Christina Aldan)


  • TL;DR: Perspective is key, so that you can understand others and connect with them in a meaningful way.
  • Empathy: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings (via Merriam-Webster)
  • “Empathy is walking a mile in somebody else’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt.” — Rebecca O’Donnell
  • “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.” — Brené Brown
  • The more connected you feel, the more likely you are to engage (e.g., vote, volunteer, attend events).
  • Christina shared her story of when she was in her twenties, where she burned many bridges and severed several relationships. She eventually made a choice to stop ruining relationships.
  • Advice
    • If you are upset, pause, and go deeper into the feeling.
    • Create a metaphor for your feeling.
    • Shift your perspective.
    • Be accountable.
    • Build healthy boundaries (where you end, and where others begin).
    • Avoid judgment. If there is anger, there is judgment.
    • Practice random kindness.
  • Call to action: “Stay sensitive in a desensitized world.”

“The Power of Apathy”

(by Cory House)


  • TL;DR: Practice radical selflessness through strategic apathy.
  • Cory began with a story of growing up poor in Kansas, and how when his parents moved houses, he ended up going to a school of mostly rich kids. Up until that point, he didn’t realize he was different, and the other kids questioned why he wasn’t wearing the same brand of shoes as everyone else. “Your shoes really matter; don’t be apathetic about your shoes.”
  • We care too much about too many things. We pick up baggage, and we get spread so thin that we can’t be effective.
  • Apathy in the context of this talk means making a conscious choice to let go of certain things and thus not care as much about them.
  • People can do things that benefit only themselves, and don’t consider how those actions impact others. For example, Cory recently saw a truck with a modified suspension that lifted the body several feet above the ground. If that truck were to get into an accident with a small compact car, the truck driver would likely be fine, but the car driver may not do so well.
  • Being self-absorbed means having less time for others.
  • If you are asked to do something, what will you choose to do less of in order to accommodate that request?
  • Butterfly effect — your choices have indirect, downstream impacts.
  • Some of us justify our selfishness: I put in my 8 hours today, so I owe it to myself to be “a selfish bastard.”
  • Cory says he tries to take an idea and “turn it up to 11.” Doing so with apathy leads to depression, because you care about nothing.
  • “Wisdom is not having an opinion about complicated topics.” Complicated topics in this case can include politics and gun control.
  • Choose not to care about things you cannot control.
  • Think about what you should care less about. For example, national news, sports, hobbies that only benefit yourself.
  • Time just for ourselves is a loss. For example, don’t go do something alone.
  • Call to action: Consider removing things from your life that only benefit yourself.

“42 Lessons I Learned by Teaching Others”

(by Leon Gersing)


  • TL;DR: We are humans first, and we’re all on a journey.
  • Recognize when you’re in a rut. Share your ignorance with others.
  • Life is but a lived dream, and it’s our illusion.
  • Fuck the slo-mo. What are you waiting for? Stop waiting for the sign to go.
  • Planning is just practicing how you’ll react. Your 5-year plan is a dream. Practice (the only form of planning) until you become the pattern for yourself.
  • “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Each has been sent as a guide. (Every person you interact with is someone you can learn something from.)
  • I can’t teach anyone anything, but I can show you my path. The students are the ones that must do the real work.
  • I can’t teach you to “be” anything. I can teach you craft, tools, etc., but you define the path.
  • We have patterns that we like, but they can change in an instant.
  • We need context before we can grow.
  • You don’t know. It’s harder to pretend you do know and get called out later.
  • Make hiring simple. Think about the human you’d like to grow into that job. Get to know the person and what they want.
  • Everyone is in the right room. Adjust to the people around you. Find ways to energize people on your team and give them what they need.
  • …unless they need to leave the room. Find a home for them to continue their path as a human being.
  • Kill your heroes. They do too much.
  • Empower everyone.
  • Time is too valuable to be compared to anything else.
  • Work-life balance is important.
  • Health is health. Work around it, work with it.
  • The past is an illusion. You were a different person then. Don’t beat yourself up for not being/doing something.
  • Critics are worthless until they show you their version of it. They are a charlatan unless they have walked the path. We build a system for pedestals. Fuck it. Burn it to the ground.
  • Peers for practice; mentors for wisdom. Be both. Expertise is what you’ve done in a certain context. You are not done.
  • Seek experience. Use what works for you. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  • Spread that which you want to grow. Put into the system what you want out of it. Don’t just wait for luck.
  • Kill your ego. It’s hard to change. Your self will be there if you take a break and try something different.
  • Reintegrate into the physical world.
  • Play. Consultancies miss this entirely. Remember what it’s like to fuck it up and rebuild it.
  • Work less; care more. You don’t have to optimize everything. Do more of what you want, more with people, more engagement.
  • Great work doesn’t take place in meetings.
  • Paperwork is an oxymoron.
  • Solve actual problems.
  • All games are rigged by the rules, including life. You are a sentient human being with choices. But what if I get fired? Some companies need to lose great people.
  • Mastery is an art.
  • It’s not just about form. It’s not just about feeling. Balance both.
  • Grow talent continuously. Grow them in the way they wish to be grown. You are not their bonsai trimmer.
  • Participation is required.
  • Punitive measures yield diminishing returns. Don’t put people down or threaten to punish them. Find what they need.
  • Know when to stop talking.
  • Call to action: (None in particular, other than to consider the points made by the speaker.)

“Stronger Than Fear: Mental Health in the Developer Community”

(by Ed Finkler)


  • TL;DR: Mental wellness = better employees, and it’s something each of us can help with.
  • Ed started out asking how many people wear glasses to correct for deficient eyesight. The exercise continued with parallels for other health issues (i.e., diabetes, cancer) that society has gradually become more acceptable discussing.
  • Ed shared a very personal story of his battles (and management of) with adult ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder. He said sometimes it gives him superpowers (e.g., anticipating where things could go wrong, empathy toward users), yet sometimes is “ruins” him (e.g., the boss wants to see me because he’s going to fire me and then I’ll be homeless and alone).
  • About 1 in 5 people deal with a mental health issue.
  • The largest disease burden in America relates to mental health. The second highest leading cause of workplace absenteeism (~1 day/week) pertains to mental health.
  • People are scared to speak about this to their coworkers, managers, and the vast majority would not bring it up during a job interview. Additionally, many people don’t know how to get help or, on the flip side, how to be of help.
  • Executives and team leads play a key role in defining culture, and they can enable people to seek help.
  • If you need help, tell people.
  • Make a commitment to change how you think and interact with those that need accommodation.
  • Mental wellness makes for better employees. People need to feel like they are cared about.
  • Call to action:


(by Jay Harris)


  • TL;DR: Indifference leads to hate; help others.
  • There are many times when it’s easier just to say, “That’s not my problem.” For example, imagine if you were to call the police saying there was someone shooting at your house. Would you want to hear the response: “Well, the gunman isn’t shooting at me, so you’re on your own.”
  • We have this notion of whoever breaks the build has to buy the team donuts. What ends up happening is that the person that breaks the build ends up hating donuts.
  • “The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation.” — Jonathan Larson
  • A twist on the Golden Rule… One should not treat others the way you don’t want to be treated.
  • Golden Empathy: What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself.
  • Life is not a game of Survivor (i.e., outwit, outplay, outlast), where we hate on the heroes so we can drag them down to our level, and cut the bottom 10% of people because they’re underperforming.
  • Instead of trying to grab a bigger piece of the pie, make the pie bigger.
  • Even if you help someone and don’t get credit, the result was that things are net-positive, so is it worth pushing to get that credit?
  • Call to action: Help others.


(by Alan Stevens)


  • TL;DR: Our quantification of genius is flawed; any of us can be geniuses
  • Geniuses are people who reinvent things, discard them, and then reinvent again.
  • Geniuses intrigue us, represent mankind’s achievements, leave us spellbound, and seem god-like.
  • The quality of genius work transcends fashion, fame, and reputation; it changes the world.
  • The reputations of geniuses wax/wane with time (e.g., Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison).
  • Genius isn’t limited to art and creation — statesmen, businessmen, sportsmen, chess players.
  • Genius is amoral — you can have mad geniuses and evil geniuses. For example, perhaps Thomas Edison wasn’t the inventor popular history believes him to be, but he was successful at collecting those inventors. Hitler did some destructive work, yet he was successful in convincing people to follow him.
  • Innate talent does not exist — it is a product of environment and experiences. There is no evidence of biological endowments, innate gifts, special gifts, inborn powers, etc. The only things that appear to be inherited are temperament, the ability to resist distractions, and the ability to avoid impulsive actions.
  • Long-term studies have been done (started by Lewis Terman) on IQ related to success, and the results basically show IQ to be a meaningless measurement of it. Family background and school grades are a better predictor of IQ.
  • Flynn effect — since 1930, IQ has been drifting higher even after renormalization.
  • Perhaps we could define genius as grit (see Angela Duckworth’s TED video on the subject).
  • There are no such things as eureka moments; most of them are preceded by lots of work and time spent on the problem.
  • What really makes a difference is the amount of training.
  • Geniuses show us what humankind is capable of.
  • Call to action: Realize that you have more of an impact on your ability through practice.

“(Reality) – (Expectations) = Relationship Status”

(by Kate Caitlin)


  • TL;DR: Understanding and communicating expectations leads to more dopamine and oxytocin
  • When we set up expectations and they come true, our brain releases dopamine to reward our prediction.
  • Sometimes we’re wrong: things go unexpectedly better (more dopamine), or unexpectedly worse (stress).
  • Communicate what your expectations are. We can’t be mad for people not meeting expectations we didn’t tell them we had.
  • Don’t be afraid to use “probably” rather than promising something to others that we may not deliver (i.e., end up not meeting their expectations).
  • Be mindful; we’re addicted to being right.
  • Expect less. “Before saying a word, he [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.” Our time is finite, our jobs are finite, so treat them preciously.
  • Create novelty to keep things interesting.
  • Call to action: Matching expectations with reality affects our mood.


For the conference itself…

  • The venue for this year was the Fetzer Center at Western Michigan University, where there was a large auditorium with comfortable seats, enough space for taking notes (either pen/paper or laptop), and an audio system for the speakers.
  • There were always snacks (granola bars, fruit, pastries, chips, cookies) and drinks available throughout the day.
  • Although I didn’t use it, there was free Wi-Fi.
  • The lapel mic didn’t work out so great for several of the speakers, and I was distracted by the audio feedback.
  • Food I checked out and would recommend:

From the talks…

  • Lauren’s talk: I have to claim ignorance on different cultures (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), as the bulk of my career experience has been with other white males near my age. I wasn’t left with a clear idea of what I should do to make tech a more inviting place for others different than me (or even a sense of whether what I’m doing is exclusive). The following thought is not a knock against Lauren, however I’m getting a little tired of presentations/podcasts/blogs saying “I’m no expert / this isn’t a scientific poll, but we’re going to continue talking as though that were the case.”
  • Christina’s talk: Empathy is very important, yet I was distracted by the speaker. Although Christina has excellent presentation skills (e.g., good audience connection, walking the stage, gestures, vocal cadence), I felt her credentials were more in my face (i.e., less humble) than I like. For example, her title slide contained the word “entrepreninja” (and also mentioned she was a TED-X speaker), and she passed out branded fortune cookies from her company. Her humble-bragging about getting about 5 hours of sleep over the past 2-3 days was met with irony by the fortune cookie my friend got: “REST has a peaceful effect on your physical and emotional health.” Although her stories about unhealthy relationships and her current divorce were very personal and she was brave to share them, I felt it made for better audience entertainment than for something I could take with me and use regarding empathy.
  • Cory’s talk: I appreciated that his talk was completely oral, with no slides. The message was similar to many of Cory’s other non-technical talks — squeezing the most out of every moment, in this case, choosing to be less involved with certain things. He’s not a fan of making your bed in the morning and said it’s wasted effort; yet I do this activity because it lowers my stress, which makes me more productive (i.e., Butterfly effect). The following statement is totally armchair psychology, but I think Cory is trying to find something/himself; I get the impression that he’s deeply aware that his seconds in this life are finite, and he’s trying to extract every ounce of meaning/utility out of each one. Sometimes it’s okay just to be in the moment.
  • Leon’s talk: If there was one talk that resonated with me more than any other (read: if I could have attended only one talk), it was this one. There’s so much momentum for treating people like resources instead of human beings who are simultaneously flawed and beautiful. I let Leon’s words speak for themselves; I only wish I could bottle the inspired, affirmative feeling I get when I listen to him speak.
  • Ed’s talk: As someone who is very familiar with the mental health system (both parents having advanced degrees in the field), I can certainly get behind the notion of removing the stigma of mental health. Just telling people to snap out of it isn’t the answer. It can often take years of therapy and possibly meds to manage mental disorders. Having the support of your peers and workplace goes a long way. I was glad that Ed shared his story; that sharing does not come easily and brings with it vulnerability.
  • Jay’s talk: The call for less apathy was a nice topical foil for Cory’s talk, although they don’t negate one another. I agree that we all benefit from helping one another and putting a little skin in the game, so to speak. We’re on this rock together and we can achieve so much more by helping one another out instead of avoiding problems that aren’t “ours.”
  • Alan’s talk: I’ve read Talent is Overrated and recently listened to this Freakonomics Radio episode about how to get great at anything, so the call to action wasn’t new to me. Anders Ericsson’s new book Peak covers this in more detail, basically reiterating the idea of deliberate practice. The main components: put in the time, get informed feedback, have a goal for each practice session. I appreciated Alan’s approach to pulling back the curtain and reminding us that if we put in the work, we can all grow; we don’t have to bemoan the fact we didn’t win the genetic lottery for talent.
  • Kate’s talk: I agree that managing expectations is important. I also believe it’s useful to understand why our lizard brain reacts the way it does in certain situations. Honestly, I didn’t really get much out of this talk. Kate was a very animated young woman and she delivered the talk confidently; I just think the talk needs more substance and polish. It would be interesting to have Kate come back and speak after she has a few more years of experience behind her.

From the experience…

  • As with other tech conferences, I found it difficult to make new connections. There were plenty of people busy doing their own thing, or otherwise engaged in conversations with people they already knew. I find this somewhat ironic given the soft-skills focus of the conference. In other words, it felt very cliquish.
  • The day was an emotional roller coaster: laughter filling the room in one moment, to sometimes audible crying from the audience and presenters when bringing up mental illness.
  • I was hoping to engage a bit more with people offline at the hotel in the evening after the conference. It had a promising start with us sitting down to a game of Cards Against Humanity. However, it quickly devolved after other people came in: Groups reformed, and I was not asked to be part of them (nor did it seem obvious that I could be). The organizer and his friends left the party entirely so they could do their own thing in their hotel room. Again, I find this ironic for a conference about connection.

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