Tech

Important talks: Sacha Judd’s “How the tech sector could move in One Direction”

I just watched a very important talk from last year’s Beyond Tellerand conference in Berlin. Sacha Judd (@szechuan) delivered her How the tech sector could move in One Direction at this conference and Webstock in New Zealand a few days ago. It is a great example of how a talk can be insightful, exciting and challenge your biases at the same time.

You can watch the video, read the transcript and get the slides.

I’ve had this talk on my “to watch” list for a long time and the reason is simple: I couldn’t give a toss about One Direction. I was – like many others – of the impression that boy bands like them are the spawn of commercial satan (well, Simon Cowell, to a large degree) and everything that is wrong with music as an industry and media spectacle.

And that’s the great thing about this talk: it challenged my biases and it showed me that by dismissing something not for me I also discard a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t a talk about One Direction. It is a talk about how excitement for a certain topic gets people to be creative, communicate and do things together. That their tastes and hysteria aren’t ours and can be off-putting isn’t important. What is important is that people are driven to create. And it is important to analyse the results and find ways to nurture this excitement. It is important to possibly channel it into ways how these fans can turn the skills they learned into a professional career.

This is an extension to something various people (including me) kept talking about for quite a while. It is not about technical excellence. It is about the drive to create and learn. Our market changes constantly. This is not our parent’s 50ies generation where you get a job for life and you die soon after retirement, having honed and used one skill for your whole lifetime. We need to roll with the punches and changes in our markets. We need to prepare to be more human as the more technical we are, the easier we are to be replaced my machines.

When Mark Surman of Mozilla compared the early days of the web to his past in the punk subculture creating fanzines by hand it resonated with me. As this is what I did, too.

When someone talks about fanpages on tumblr about One Direction, it didn’t speak to me at all. And that’s a mistake. The web has moved from a technical subculture flourishing under an overly inflated money gamble (ecommerce, VC culture) to being a given. Young people don’t find the web. They are always connected and happy to try and discard new technology like they would fashion items.

But young people care about things, too. And they find ways to tinker with them. When a fan of One Direction gets taught by friends how to change CSS to make their Tumblr look different or use browser extensions to add functionality to the products they use to create content we have a magical opportunity.

Our job as people in the know is to ensure that the companies running creation tools don’t leave these users in the lurch when the VC overlords tell them to pivot. Our job is to make sure that they can become more than products to sell on to advertisers. Our job is to keep an open mind and see how people use the media we helped create. Our job is to go there and show opportunities, not to only advertise on hackernews. Our job is to harvest these creative movements to turn them into to the next generation of carers of the web.

I want to thank Sacha for this talk. There is a lot of great information in there and I don’t want to give it all away. Just watch it.

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Things not to say on stage at a tech event

cringing woman

This is also available on Medium

This is not about a post about trigger words or discriminatory expressions. There is a lot of information about this available, and even some excellent linting tools for your texts. It is also not about unconscious bias. Or well, maybe it is. Learned bias for sure.

This is a post about some sentences used in technical presentations that sound encouraging. In reality they may exclude people in the audience and make them feel bad about their level of knowledge. These are the following sentences and I’ll explain in detail how to replace them with something less destructive:

None of these are a show-stopper and make you a terrible presenter. There may even be ways to use them that are not confusing and destructive. This is language, and in some cultures they may be OK to use. I’m not here to tell people off. I am here to make you aware that something that sounds good might make people feel bad. And that’s not what we’re here for as presenters.

As a presenter your job is not only to give out technical information. You also need to inspire and to entertain. Often you overshoot the mark by simplifying things and trying to hard to please.

It is important to remind ourselves that we can not assume much of our audience. The room might be full of experts, but the video recording is also going out to everybody. Explaining things in a simple fashion is not dumbing them down. It may actually be the hardest task there is for a presenter.

It is stressful to be at an expert event. As an audience member you don’t want to appear less able than others. As a presenter, it is worse. Presenting is a balancing act. You neither want to sound condescending, overload the audience, make people feel stupid, appear too basic … and, and, and…

I’ve heard the following expressions at a lot of events and I always cringed a bit. Often they are OK, and no harm done. But,to improve as presenters it may be a good idea to be more conscious about what we do and what effects it can have.

“This is easy…”

We often try to calm down the audience by making what we show appear simple. The problem with that is that what is simple for us might still be confusing to the people in the room. Add peer-pressure to that and people will neither speak up that they don’t understand, nor feel empowered. The opposite applies – by saying something is easy and people failing to grasp or apply it, we make them feel stupid. If you make me feel stupid, you may inspire me to get better. But I don’t do it for the right reason – I do it out of guilt and self-doubt.

The worst way to use “this is easy” is when you rely on a lot of abstractions or tools to achieve the easy bit. Each of those could be a stumbling block for people applying your wisdom.

Replacements:

  • “Here are a few steps how to achieve this…”
  • “By using these tools, which are all well documented, you can…”
  • “The way to get this done is…”

Using these you send people on a journey. They don’t tell them that the end result is already a given. Who knows, they may find a way to improve your “easy” one.

“I’ll repeat quickly, for the few of you who don’t know…”

This expression just fell at a conference I attended and it made me cringe. The presenter meant to be encouraging in a “hey, we all are already on board” way, but it can come across as arrogant. Even worse, it already singles out those who do not know, and makes them feel like they are under a spotlight.

If the intention is to do a quick intro on what you want to build upon, it is better to phrase it as a reminder, not a “you already know, what am I doing here”.

Replacements

  • “Just as a reminder, here is what $x is about…”
  • “As you may remember, $x is about…”
  • “We’re building this using $x, which is…”

This adds your repetition into the flow instead of being an excuse.

“Everybody can do that…”

If everybody can do it, why do I listen to you? Also, if everybody can do it, how come I never managed to? If you use this you either present something basic, or you over-simplify a complex matter. The latter can appear to be empowering; you take away the fear of approaching something. But, it backfires when people can’t use it. Then you exclude them from “everybody”. And that hurts.

Replacements:

  • “If you know your way around $x, $y and $z, you should find it easy to…”
  • “Once you managed to do that, you’ll find it makes the rest of your work easier…”
  • “It is a very effective way to work, if it works for you, tell others about it”

This again makes it a reminder and a starting point of a journey. Not a given that is redundant to repeat.

“$x solves this problem, so you don’t have to worry about it”

Hooray for your product – it solves everything. Now buy it and impress people with wisdom you don’t have. And feel worse when you get praised for it. This is a classic sales pitch which works with end user products. As a developer you should always worry about what you use in your products as each part can become an issue. And it will be up to you to fix it.

Replacements

  • “$x solves the problems around $y, so you can build $z”
  • “$x was created to make $y easier and is used in production, the results are encouraging…”
  • “Here are the steps you can do by hand that $x does for you…”

Pop open the hood, show how your product works. Don’t sell all-healing remedies.

“As everybody knows…”

Common knowledge is a myth and relies on your environment, access to information, time to consume news and the way you learn. Presenting something as common knowledge may make people think “so how come I ever heard of it?” and stop them in their tracks.

Replacements:

  • “This has been around for a while and was explained wonderfully in $x ($x being a resource you link to)”
  • “Tests have shown that $x is a given for a lot of solutions (point to research, give proof)”
  • “I base this on the fact that $x, as proven many times by… (and add a list a resources)”

“Citation needed” is a wonderful way to say something and prove your point. You show people that you did your homework before you make an assumption. And you give those who did not the tools to do so.

“This is just like we learned in school…”

This assumes everybody went to a school with the same curriculum as you. A lot of people have not. This is especially destructive when it applies to knowledge that was part of a Computer Science degree.

Replacements:

  • “This has been part of Computer Science teaching for years, and for good reason because $x”
  • “This should look familiar to anyone who went to a similar school as me, and for those who didn’t, there’s truckloads of information available online about it”
  • “You might remember this from school – now you see how it can be applied in a real job. Who knew?”

A lot of people create the web. Not all took the official path.

“That’s why $y(your product) is much better than (competitor) $x”

This is common in advertising, especially in America. You show off your product by making others look worse. This is pointless and only invites criticism and retaliation by others. As a tech presenter, you should know that the other product is also built by people. Final decision of what gets shipped are not always based on technical merit. It is a cheap shot.

Replacements:

  • “Here’s how to do that with product $x, we took a different path and here’s why…”
  • “There are many solutions to this. We found that some were lacking a feature that made us more effective, which is $x”
  • “You can use whatever makes you happy to achieve $x. We added the following, as we found it was missing…”

Showing you know about your competition prevents questions about it. Showing how they differ allows people to make up their mind which is better instead of you telling them and hoping they agree.

“This can be done in a few lines of code…”

The amount of code has become a contrived way of showing how effective our solutions are. Almost always the “quick and small solution” blossoms into a much larger one once it is used in production. It makes much more pragmatic sense to tell people that this is inevitable, and praise the small starting point for what it is – a start.

Replacements:

  • “As you can see, starting this is a few lines of code. I simplified this to show here, the source code is available at $x”
  • “For now, this is all that is needed to achieve this. No doubt, you will need to add more to it, but it is a starting point”
  • “By abstracting some of the issues out, we can cut down our code to a few lines”
  • “As we rely on functionality of $x, this means our implementation can be very small…”

A lot of times, this solves our own issue of showing only a few lines of code on a slide. Instead, let’s write understandable code that we explain in sections rather than one magical tidbit.

“If you want to be professional, do $x”

People have different opinions what a “professional” is. Whilst we worry about quality and maintenance, other people put more merit on fast delivery. The state of the art changes all the time, and a sentence like this can look silly in a few weeks.

Replacements:

  • “$x, $y and $z are using this heavily to deliver their products. Here are some case studies that show the positive results…”
  • “Using $x gives you a starting point you can rely on and makes it easier to explain to your replacement how to take over the product…”
  • “The benefits of $x are $y, which makes it a professional tool to use…”

You achieve professionalism with experience and by learning about new thing and retaining them. Things people say on stage and define as “best practice” need validation by professionals. It is not up to you as a presenter to define that.

A quick check

There are more unintentional destructive expressions. Read through your talks and watch your videos and then ask yourself: “how would I feel listening to this if I didn’t know what I know?”. Then remove or rephrase accordingly.

Our market grew as fast as it did by being non-discriminatory of background or level of education. Granted, most of us grew up in safe environments and were lucky enough to have free schooling. But there are a lot of people in our midst who came from nowhere or at least nowhere near computer science. And they do great work. I’d go so far as to say that the diversity of backgrounds made the web what it is now: a beautiful mess that keeps evolving into who knows what. It is anything but boring. There is never “one way” to reach a goal. We discovered a lot of our solutions by celebrating different points of view.

Photo by alyona_fedotova

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[Presenter tips] Gremlins in the machine – stage tech will fail

In my role as a coach for other presenters I just ran into a common issue. A talented person giving their first talk and hating it. The reason: everything went wrong with stage technology. This lead to a loss of confidence and putting the blame on oneself. The irony was that the talk wasn’t in a place with tech issues, but in San Francisco. The wireless was not at all up to scratch. The presenter had planned for that: using a ServiceWorker powered HTML slide deck – state of the art what we consider bullet proof and highly portable. But there was no way to make the computer display on the big projector as there was no HDMI connection. That’s why they had to use someone else’s computer. None of the demos worked. Lacking experience, the presenter had a hard time describing what people should see. Furthermore, you don’t want to be the person to promise things without proving them.

Gremlins in the movie theatre

There is no point in throwing blame. Of course, as a prepared speaker you should be able to do fine without your demos. But often we put a lot of effort into these demos and they excited us to write the talk in the first place. Of course the conference organiser should have all connectors and know about display issues. And of course the wireless should work in the middle of tech bubble central. Often conference organisers don’t control connectivity. They have to rely on venue installations and their promises. Shit happens. Time to learn from that. What can we as presenters expect and how can we prepare ourselves for Gremlins in the machinery?

I collected the following tips and ideas presenting at about 80 conferences in the last 4 years. In about 60 venues spread across the globe. So, if your experience was much better – lucky you. Fact is, that things go wrong all the time and often there is nothing you can do.

Bowl of M&Ms

Let’s go back a bit. Van Halen required in their band contract to have a bowl of M&Ms in their room with all the brown ones removed. This has become a running joke when the topic is about entitlement and added to the “ridiculously needy rockstar” myth. The interesting part about this is that this rule served a purpose. Van Halen required a intrinsic stage setup to achieve their unique sound. Their rider describes the necessary stage tech in detail. The M&M rule at the end of the rider is a simple way of knowing if the concert organisers read and understood it. When there was no bowl in the room or it had brown M&Ms in it something was wrong. This needed fixing to avoid a disastrous concert.

The main difference between this story and presenting at conferences is that we’re not rockstars. We can’t demand the things they do, and – more importantly – we aren’t as organised as an industry. In far too many cases there is a massive miscommunication between conference organisers and presenters as to what is needed to give your talk. This is when bad things happen.

The perfect scenario: demand your lack of brown M&Ms

If your talk depends on a lot of things going right, be adamant about this in your talk proposal. Add reminders to your communication with the conference organisers. Outline in very easy to understand words what you need, as in: 

  • I will present from my own computer, a $machine, which means I will need a connector of type $dongle and a resolution of at least $pixelsbypixels. 
  • My slides are in the format of $aspectratio (4:3 or 16:9, you don’t want black bars)
  • I will need audio available as my talk contains videos with audio and audio examples. Please provide the necessary cables.

Be there on time to set up and demand a dry run the day before. This could give you insight into issues and you can get them fixed before you go on stage.

Remember that in some cases, the conference organisers are not in charge. Make sure to get to know the venue AV and connectivity people and talk to them. Also make sure to find out which room you’ll be in and who will be there before you so you have time to set up. Connectivity and AV equipment can vary from room to room even in the same conference.

All this sounds like a lot of work – and it is. You made yourself dependent on your technology – it is up to you to ensure things go smooth. We don’t have roadies and riders for that.

Extra measures: know your issues and bring your own materials

As everything can go wrong, it is good to know the quirks and issues of your own hardware. It is prudent to ensure you bring everything you need:

  • Power cables and local outlet connectors – especially for the MacBook Air. Older versions have the issue that on battery it uses a less powerful video chip than when connected to a main. This could make the difference of your screen showing up on a long VGA cable or not. You also don’t want your computer go to sleep on stage.
  • Network dongle – wireless is likely to fail when used by a lot of people. That’s why conferences offer a wired connection on stage. This one is pretty useless unless you also bring your wired dongle. If you only have one USB port, also bring a splitter/hub.
  • Remote control – this is not a need, but they are useful and not every conference has one. You also get a free laser pointer which comes in handy if you encounter kittens.
  • Display dongle – this is the big one. Make sure that you have a connector from your computer to all kind of display cables. Smashing conference gave out some great ones as speaker gifts:

Multi connector

Bulletproofing measures: have a fallback

The main thing I learned on my travels is to ensure your talk materials are available.That’s why you need a format that means whatever goes wrong, there is still a way out:

  • Be prepared to provide your slides in different aspect ratios?—?quite often I had to change my slights and both Keynote and Powerpoint make a pig’s ear out of this.
  • Don’t use the full screen in your slides?—?almost every time I presented the projector cut off some part of the screen. Add a large margin around your content and all will be visible.
  • Have high contrast and large fonts in your slides?—?lighting is often a mess at conferences and people need to be able to read even in the back.
  • Demos and examples have to work offline and have no online dependencies – if you’re showing off an API, keep cached local results.
  • Create screencasts of your demos – it allows you to talk over them without running into connection issues. You won’t have slow loading pauses. You don’t have to type things in / authenticate from a wonky wireless. Make sure to have the videos embedded in your materials but as video files. A few times powerpoint/keynote failed to show the videos, so I used VLC to save the day.
  • Put all your materials online – this allows you to reach them in case your hardware goes down. And it means people can get to them later.
  • Keep your materials on a USB stick – if you need to use another computer it is a simple way to shift them. Make sure that dependencies you rely on are also on this stick.

Special circumstances: help the conference organisers

Often I found that as a presenter, you have to follow some rules you don’t like when it comes to stage technology. It is up to you to stand your ground and demand what you want to have. Or you could swallow your pride and reach audiences you might not reach otherwise. Here are a few things I encountered that are against my ideas of what I want to do as presenter but made sense:

  • Universities needed the slides to be in Powerpoint. They also needed them running from a fixed computer in the lecture hall. The reason was that the machine was Windows XP. The AV was part of the room and the machine recorded and archived all talks.
  • International conferences offer live translation. It is much easier for translators to have your slides upfront in a printed format. It allows them to annotate the talk and ensure that they keep technical terms English.
  • The last point becomes even more important when there is live sign translation at the event. Signing works by translating the meaning of whole sentences. Not letter by letter or word by word. Having the material upfront makes this much easier.
  • Some places don’t allow unverified hardware to access the network or connect to a projector. I’ve had government sites that were on total lockdown.

Leveling up: know your story, have your resources

Do yourself a favour and strive to liberate yourself from your demos and slides as a presenter. You will be able to do much more exciting work when your presentation is your wallpaper. You are the show and the source of information. It is exciting to see technical things going right. Many are hard to repeat for the audience and they are more of a show than an educational moment.

Instead, point to materials, show what they do and how people can use them. Tell the story of the materials and how they can make the life of your audience better. If that is what you convey, even a power cut won’t make a difference. You present and educate, you don’t run a demo.

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Great Tech History: The digital examiner – electronic newspaper from 1981

Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your home computer to read today’s newspaper.

This amazing news item from 1981 talks about an experiment of the San Francisco Examiner and other newspapers trying to offer their content in a digital format using a mainframe computer and a telephone connection:

Wired covered this gem in detail and had some interesting details around it.

What excites me most is the purity of the idea back then as mentioned in the interview:

This is an experiment, we’re trying to figure out what it is going to mean for us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money, we’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t gonna make much either.

The newspaper men tried to reach the two to three-thousand home computers owners back then printing full-page ads and got over 500 subscribers who “sent in coupons”.

The next big thing to me in here is the reaction of the subscriber – a man who waited two hours for the transfer of the newspaper text content at $5/hour call rate. He very much understood the implication that this means you can keep a copy of the paper for yourself and that you can only keep what you need without having to get it all and discard parts of it.

Isn’t it a shame that this amazing gift of publication and distribution and archiving by users of our services is now going back to closed ideas like paywalls and apps?

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MDN sprint for better web tech resources — join in!

MDN is one of our most important resources, and the core of knowledge and sharing for developers around the world. Additionally, it’s one of the vital cornerstones for all information we share at Mozilla Hacks, so in whatever way you can take part, it is highly appreciated. – Editor’s note

Over on the Mozilla Developer Network site, this Friday and Saturday (May 31 and June 1), we’re having the latest in our series of “MDN sprints”. This is a chance for you to learn about a web development topic, and help improve the resources about it on MDN by sharing what you learn or what you already know. Please join us!

About what?

The major topical focus for this sprint is Web device APIs, which give JavaScript code access to device hardware. How about trying them out, and then writing some helpful code examples?

Another timely topic is mixed content blocking, which just arrived in the Firefox Aurora channel. Help us explain to Web developers how to fix sites so users won’t be tripped up by mixed-security content.

But those are just suggestions; any topic for Web developers or Mozilla developers is fair game. You can also find more info and ideas on the MDN sprint wiki page.

Where?

You can join in from anywhere in the world. Of course you could just dive into MDN, but part of the point of a sprint is to do it with other people. Join the #devmo channel on irc.mozilla.org to talk with other sprinters, about what you’re doing, they’re doing, or whatever. (Here’s info about IRC if you’re not familiar with it.) We might also do a Google Hangout, so ask about that when you drop in.

If you happen to be in San Francisco or Paris, we’re holding in-person meetups for this sprint on June 1st, at the Mozilla spaces in those cities. Come on by and sprint in person!

When?

The sprint officially runs from 8:00 a.m. PDT on May 31st (Starting time in your timezone) to 5:00 p.m. PDT on June 1st (Ending time in your timezone). Of course, you can start earlier or continue later, and stay for as long or as short a time as fits your schedule.

Sound interesting? Give it a try!

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On Sencha’s Fastbook “HTML5 Tech demo”

You might have seen the big splash Sencha landed today with their Fastbook HTML5 demo showing that using HTML5, CSS and JavaScript you can make a damn responsive version of Facebook. You can see the demo on Vimeo:

All the details are in their post “The Making of Fastbook – an HTML5 love story“. I saw this and went “holy crap, that is awesome”. As an Android user I’ve seen the native app crash several times when trying to scroll through a lot of data (also on Twitter, so this might be a Samsung implementation problem) and the HTML5 demo is incredibly smooth and compelling.

And then of course, the developer in me thought that something must be amiss about this – it is too smooth, it is too “sales demo”. And of course I got backup – the comments on the blog bring up that this is not running in a web view where a lot of the performance issues would come up and Mozilla internal mails already complained about the fact that the demo does not support any other browsers than webkit – no Firefox, no Opera and no Windows at all. To the internets! Someone is wrong about calling something HTML5 without supporting everything.

And then I stopped. And reflected. And thought for a second what we are doing here. There seems to be this massive Pavlovian response in engineers to want to find the flaws in something rather than looking at the benefits.

pavlovs dogs
Cartoon of awesome by The Rut

Yes, this only works on Webkit, which is bad as HTML5 is more than Webkit. It was also wrong of Sencha to claim that this is showing love to HTML5 without embracing the nature of HTML5 as browser-agnostic platform. But this is marketing war. This is making a demo and showing that things can work when you put effort into it. This is a direct response to the in 99% of the cases misquoted Zuckerberg statement that HTML5 wasn’t the right choice for Facebook at the time. But still I vented my disappointment:

Disappointed that @Sencha’s HTML5 love story means webkit love story. No, Firefox Mobile, no Firefox OS, no Opera and no Windows. :(((

Of course the Twitter stream from that consisted of people telling Sencha off and many people who want to see HTML5 fail (although it wouldn’t make any difference to their lives) harping on about the awful state of HTML5 and the bane of browser inconsistencies – another Pavlovian response every time you say HTML5.

Here comes the kicker, though. Quite a few of Sencha’s folks agreed and explained that this was a quick tech demo and thus only worked in Webkit. Jared Nicholls, their Senior Software architect kept it succinct:

@codepo8 agreed and fixable. Only 24 hours in a day.

So instead of waving my finger and complaining about the thing that could have been but wasn’t thought of I am trying to get conversations going to fix and enhance. Let’s see where this goes.

Sometimes the right thing to do is not to listen to the angry man inside your head and see how something can be done better. Sencha’s demo is a damn good marketing move and well done indeed. So instead of shooting it down it makes sense to work together.

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