Settling In at the New Gig

August 12, 2016 at 11:28 pm in Personal, Tech, Work

I’m nearly two months into my new job. For those of you that haven’t heard, I am a Technical Editor at DigitalOcean, a fantastic startup based in New York City. I work with a great team of people, and I help open-source enthusiasts share their knowledge through written tutorials. I’m responsible for taking their submitted tutorials and testing them out, looking for inaccuracies, security problems, or other issues a reader might encounter. As I work through them, I look for continuity problems, voice, tone, and style issues, and I often help them improve their writing skills.

This is an amazing opportunity for me because I get to teach people through writing, since our community site gets a ton of traffic, and I get to be part of an organization that has core values that directly align with mine. I also get to bring my experience in writing, editing, publication, and teaching to this organization.

Best of all, I get to work with some super smart and genuine people. There’s always someone around with a positive thing to say or knowledge to share.  In previous places, I’ve always been fortunate enough to have that on my team, but it’s been rare to see that throughout the organization.

By the way, our team is hiring. Do you have strong system administration experience and love to help people improve their writing? Come work with me.  And if that’s not for you, DigitalOcean has a few other opportunities as well.

This current opportunity isn’t a software development position. But don’t worry…. I’ve found ways to continue doing software development.

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Moving On…

May 23, 2016 at 12:26 pm in Personal, Teaching, Work

I’ve had an amazing time teaching aspiring software developers. Over the course of the last four years I’ve had the privilege of teaching over 400 students how to use Linux, how to build their first web sites, and how to write their first software applications. I’ve met some truly incredible people and forged some great relationships which I hope continue on for many years. But today I turned in my letter of resignation and am looking forward to what lies ahead. I’ve accepted a job offer that was too amazing to pass up, but more on that later.

I’ve learned so much from this experience. I’ve learned how to teach a diverse group of people. I’ve become more comfortable than ever dealing with politics, time crunches, leadership changes, disgruntled customers, and of course, the fundamentals of computer programming. In order to teach those things well, I had to go back and relearn things myself. I now have big ideas about teaching software development to adults, and I hope to share those thoughts as time permits through various outlets.

I’m leaving behind an incredibly talented and wonderful team. They’re among the best people I’ve ever known and they’re going to continue to do great work. I will miss them. I will miss the students as well. It’s incredibly rewarding to see someone transition from knowing nothing about programming to a professional software developer who can do great things for others and provide for their families. I have so many stories like that and am fortunate to have been a part of that journey for these four years. I am forever thankful for that.

But it’s time for a change. I’ll announce exactly what that change is when the time is right.

In the mean time, I’m still hacking on Codecaster and working on a couple of other projects. And I’ll continue to find ways to help people get better at software development.


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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A Month Of Music

July 31, 2014 at 10:55 pm in Music, Personal

I’ve been challenged by a friend to record and release something every day for a month. I’ve chosen August to do this and I’m going to see how far I can get. I plan to use anything at my disposal, including my phone if I have to.

I’m going to use this as a chance to experiment with different styles, too, so if you’ve heard any of my electronic music, prepare to be a little surprised.

Follow me on Twitter or watch here for updates. And let me know if you want to join me. It could be fun.


Start listening!

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In Teaching, Context Is Key!

July 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm in Personal

When you were three years old, you asked “why” an awful lot. If you have kids you’re probably sick and tired of hearing that question. But it is a fundamental question; it’s how we learn. We have a need to understand. Some things are learned over time, like “We need to eat so we don’t die.”

But some things are not easily understood.

Like Pointers in C.

Recently I came across an exercise that was designed to help the student understand the use of pointers in C. Here it is:

Declare three doubles. Then write a function that takes in a double, followed by pointers to the other two doubles. The function should add one to each double. Call the function and print out the values of each. What do you observe?

This is instructor focused. It screams “I need you to understand pointers. We’ll do a trivial example that shows that the first parameter won’t be modified but the other two will.” It’s terse and leaves a lot of work up to the student. It’s good to make students work, but you must give them motivation before you just throw them into the deep end of the pool.

If we just added a little context and some explanation, we could make this better and actually explain what’s going on:

You need to write code to move a game piece from one location to another on a two dimensional board. To do so, define a ‘move’ function for this. The ‘move’ function should take in four arguments: the current position of the piece on the x axis, the current position of the piece on the y axis, the number of spaces to move on the x axis, and the number of spaces to move on the y axis. Since you can only return one value from our function, define this ‘move’ function as void, and use pointers to modify the original x and y position of the piece. Think about how you will modify those existing x and y positions.

Both use the same premise: in C, we can’t return more than one result from a function, so we get around that by using pointers to pass values by reference so we can  change the values of the arguments we pass in. This is often called mutation. In some languages, mutation is bad. In others, it’s the way stuff gets done. Context is key.

But this second example is more learner-focused. It gives meaningful context to the problem at hand. It explains what we’re doing, and the context helps the student understand why. It  specifically reinforces the idea that if we want a function to modify multiple values, we have to use pointers and modify those values.

This example could be vastly improved depending on what specific things you needed to teach.

What’s not helpful, though, is using simplistic, out of context exercises. A demo where you have the student print out memory addresses for variables does nothing to motivate them. Why do they care about the memory address? What’s its significance? You know the reason why they should care.

Articulate that to them. And if they’re not ready to understand it, then it’s not time to introduce the topic yet.  Teaching the basics is hard. Be patient, be articulate, and help students connect the dots.

They’ll get there, and so will you.

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