Being A Good Critical Friend

January 25, 2015 at 3:58 pm in Teaching, Tech

I’ve been around software development a long time, and a reoccurring theme is to see this kind of feedback from peers:

I’ll never understand the logic behind [some thing I think is dumb / disagree with strongly].

or

If you’re not using [some technology I like] you’re doing it wrong.

Or a variant of

You’re using [some programming technique I think is dumb]? Well I write big applications. [that thing you’re doing] doesn’t [scale / work well / work at all].

This is so common it’s part of our vocabulary now. And I think we say these things without even thinking about how negatively they can affect people.

When I started teaching, I found myself having to constantly give feedback, and I had to learn to do it in a way that would improve the skills of the recipient. And I think that’s what people are trying to do with these kinds of comments. We all have experiences that we want to share. But in the world of 140 character tweets, it’s hard to do that. It’s easy to be unintentially snarky in a tweet, pithy in a pull request comment, or terse in an email.

So strive to get the behavior you’re after instead. By being a good critical friend.

Ask questions that provoke. Provide actionable suggestions. For example:

I notice you used [x instead of y]. I like y because [some amazing thing it lets me do.] You should spend a few hours with it; you’ll be amazed!

That one works because you have experience you can draw from. But it’s only valid if you’ve actually used both. Don’t just shoot down something you’ve never used.You’ll look like a fool. Experienced programmers are pretty smart about figuring out if you know what you’re talking about.

There’s also this angle, which is similar, but more focused on negative side affects:

I notice you’re using [x instead of y]. I did that a few times and it bit me hard. I wouldn’t recommend it because [x,y,z].

See, starting with one of those things contributes to the overall goal; you want to convince them to use your idea, your approach, your methodology.

You could even go farther. It’s never a good idea to assume they have the same situation you do, so why not ask?

I noticed you’re [doing x.] I’ve had problems with that in the past, but I’d love to know why it’s working for you.

or

I’ve never had much luck with [doing x]. What benefits are you getting out of it?

This helps the person fill you in on their situation, if they care to engage in the conversation. It lets them teach you something. And it may help them arrive at a different conclusion by themselves, in a strange form of rubber duck debugging. After all, explaining something is a great way to demonstrate correct understanding of a topic.

The other option is to say nothing. Are they doing something that will destroy the world? Will it make you come in on the weekend to fix it? Or do you just find it irksome? Search yourself for the answers to these questions, and if it really is of no consequence to you or others, let it go. Put your energy into something awesome instead.

We’re all programmers, working in a field that’s so new that nobody really has all the answers. When your convictions or beliefs about something are so strong that you must comment, be a good critical friend to the recipient. They may not choose to listen. But I guarantee you have a much better chance that they will than you do with something that puts them on the defensive or makes them feel stupid. I’ve gotten this wrong in the past. Join with me to be better.

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MonthOfMusic Retrospective

September 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm in Music, Personal

In August, I embarked on a huge task: I set out to record and release one song a day for an entire month. And I actually did it. The entire playlist is up online.

I thought I'd share some behind-the-scenes facts and some things I learned.

Breaking The Chain Is Devastating

When I write a book, I make sure to set aside time every day. And I keep a little log of the activity. Some people refer to this as a "chain" of activity. If you chart out your progress on a calendar, you see that you've done something 3 days in a row, and you want to get to three days. Then you want to get to 8 days, and so on. It becomes a huge motivation to go forward. The same thing holds true for things you don't want to do, like exercise, or study.

If you break the chain, it's incredibly demotivating and actually quite hard to start up again. I used to run every day, and then some outside events made me break my chain, and I've never been able to get back to an every-day routine.

I had motivation to not break the chain this time though; I was publicly accountable. I shot my mouth off in public about releasing songs every day, and after a little while, people started asking me where the song was if I didn't have it out. There were a couple times when I published the song at 11:30PM, but I didn't miss a day.

I want to get back to running every day, so I'm going to apply what I learned this month to that. I'm going to come up with something that nags the hell out of me every day so it becomes a priority.

Being Forced To Do Something You Love Sucks

I love to write and play music. But there were some days when I really didn't feel like doing anything, and I think those days really show when I listen to the playlist over. There are some days where I'm just really half-assing my way through the writing process or the performing process. A couple songs only took me 15 minutes to do because I just wanted to be done and move on. The fun wasn't there.

I don't think I could do this for a living.

If You Practice, Your Muse Will Come

While I wasn't always happy to do this recording every day, I'm glad I did, because a few of the things I did are some of the best songs I've ever made. And I wouldn't have made those songs if I wasn't writing songs every day.

I think this holds true in other places. If you love to write, or take pictures, or paint, or do anything else creative, make a little time for yourself to do that every day. That inspiration may come out of nowhere.

Noodling Helps!

I have a tiny 25-key Korg Nanokey sitting on my desk and my software is almost always running in the background. When I'm working on a lesson plan or writing some code, I occasionally get stumped on a thought and start playing something on the keyboard just to focus my mind somewhere else.

This process produced several melodies that ended up in songs.

Nobody's Listening

Well, not nobody, but based on the statistics, despite doing this for 31 days, I have a really low listen count, and almost all of the listens are repeat listens from the same core group of people: friends and family.

It's incredibly hard to promote yourself. One of the lessons I learned this month was how useless social media really is if you're just an individual. The average person has too many things going on in their stream, and unless you happen to post when they're looking, they're not going to see your stuff in the stream of information.

And if you post too often, people tune out because they don't want to see repeats. Twitter even stops you from posting the same tweet twice.

But this goes hand in hand with the idea of self-publishing. Many aspiring authors believe they can just make it on their own, without a publisher. But in my observations, that's just as likely as me starting something that overtakes Facebook the way Facebook overtook Twitter. It's a remote possibility, but not likely. Sure, you can find successful self-published authors. But for every successful one, there are thousands of unknown ones out there. Just look at Leanpub.

The Internet gives us the freedom to publish things. Anyone can get their ideas out there for the world to see. But getting people to pay attention is an uphill battle.

Based on this, I have a much better picture of what it takes to do real promotion on the Internet.

Ship It, Even If It's Not Great

In order to make sure I could make this project a priority, I had to "timebox" my music sessions. I gave myself an hour a day, and I vowed to ship whatever came out of that session. Most of the time I just didn't have any more than an hour to spare.

A couple of the songs I did are really rough as a result. But they're out there and I got feedback on them from people. And now I can refine them and either remix or re-record them.

If nobody sees it, nobody can tell you it's great.

What's Next?

I'm looking forward to doing the 2015 RPM Challenge this year. I'll have a month to produce an album, and I already have an idea of what it's going to contain.

I'm also planning to take a few of my favorite songs from this project, polish them up, and put them up for sale in a few places, just to see what happens. So stay tuned for that.

But most of all, I'm taking what I learned from this and putting it to good use.

So now it's your turn. Produce something every day for a month. Let's see the results of your creative endeavors! I'll bet it'll be amazing.

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MonthOfMusic Day 31

August 31, 2014 at 3:28 pm in Music

This is it.. the last #MonthOfMusic song.

(To listen to the whole month, check out http://bphogan.com/tag/monthofmusic)

For the finale, I chose to finally record a song I wrote a long time ago for my wife, Carissa. Here it is. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for listening.

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MonthOfMusic Day 30

August 30, 2014 at 11:34 pm in Music

Just a little piano piece I wrote a long time ago. I figured it was time to record it.

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MonthOfMusic Day 29

August 29, 2014 at 2:32 am in Music

I really haven’t done any hard rock, and seeing as how I grew up listening to straight-ahead rock of the 80s, I figured I’d better sneak one into the MonthOfMusic. Gotta pay tribute to some of my influences. So here’s number 29.

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