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On Deep Work: a letter from my final afternoon at the studio

This afternoon is the last in my studio in Nashville and I’m here, in part, because of a chapter in a book.

A little over a year ago I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. Deep work is the valuable, rare, and meaningful ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task: a critical skill for developers. Yes, critical–but scarcely practiced in part due to chronic distraction.

I’d also just finished reading The Shallows and was worried about how social media and devices were changing my brain for the worse. I was relieved to learn from Newport some rules I could use to train my mind and reverse old habits to make deep work possible: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows (manage your time).

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

Rule #1, Work Deeply, starts with a conversation between the author and a pretty eccentric-sounding architecture professor. They’re sketching out the Eudaimonia Machine, a building designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible work. I recognized the name as coming from the Greek eudaimonia (the state of human flourishing) because I majored in philosophy and was, as a recent look through some old pictures revealed, a heartbreakingly nerdy student who painted the word on five feet of rough craft paper and hung it in her bedroom for inspiration. Eudaimonia in building form, the professor exclaimed, could be “deep work chambers” protected by eighteen inches of soundproof insulated walls. Sounds pretty nice, but only a fantasy, an attention-grabbing opener. …right?

Maybe not. Later in the chapter Newport talks about the “grand gestures” that authors and artists make in order to support their work–J.K. Rowling spending $1000 a day at the Balmoral Hotel to finish The Deathly Hallows; physicist William Shockley locking himself in a hotel room in Chicago til he’d ironed out the details for a better transistor design, for which he shared the Nobel Prize.

And there’s a bit of this that rings familiar, right? Have you ever thrown your hands up at the terrible airplane wi-fi and used a long-haul flight to go deep on an idea, just because you finally had the dedicated time and space to do so? Maybe you landed with a chapter written, a talk outlined, or a prototype sketched.

This Nashville studio was my grand gesture, my concession to deep work. And a risk.

Now, I’m no stranger to taking risks for work. A little over two and a half years ago I started commuting 400km one way, twice a week, for a job I hoped would launch my career. I had non-negotiable family obligations in Atlanta, and a non-negotiable co-located job in Nashville. So I rented a bedroom in a Nashville house with multiple roommates and drove to Atlanta on the weekends like a freshman going back to her parents, sans overfull laundry basket. Oh, right: I almost forgot the fun detail that my crumbling car was over 10 years old, had over 200,000 miles, and was well into its fifth alternator.

The risk paid off. After six months of working long days in a tech support call center, and weekly making that drive to and from Atlanta, I was promoted to the engineering team. A year later, I joined another company as Director of Engineering. Splitting my life between two cities 400km apart sounds beyond stressful and the truth is, it was. It was also worth it.

The studio was a different kind of risk.

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.

It was a risk to enable deep work. Yes, I could have kept looking around Nashville for multi-roommate situations. I would have saved a lot of money. And perhaps it would have padded my conscience a bit, too–I pride myself on being someone who doesn’t need a lot, who’s lived happily in a number of alternative living arrangements. (Ask me about the renovated nuns’ quarters sometime, or my roommates during grad school).

Deep Work wasn’t the only voice in favor of this big – to me! – change. Now I cringe to remember the hand-wringing conversations I had with my best friend, who is typically gentle as a lamb but nearly had to bullhorn the message that it’s okay to have a space that’s all yours, to enable you to do your best work. I’m more comfortable putting the needs and comfort of others first; prioritizing my own, in the service of an unknown future, felt radical and painfully unfamiliar.

But this, too, was so worth it. My first year as Director of Engineering was one of the most productive of my career. I’ve introduced structure, processes, and compassionate leadership that’s helping my engineers do some of the most satisfying work of their lives. And even as I continued to travel to speak at conferences –PyCon, PyOhio, the Lead Developer– this deep work space grounded me, gave me quiet rest, and reinforced my focus.

These are my thoughts on my final afternoon in this light-filled room. The mourning doves I’ve fed and gazed at all summer are out on the porch. The mockingbird who briefly claimed this space as her own watches from the lamppost across the street. If I stand in just the right spot at just the right time of day — this time of day — I can see mountains in the distance. Mountains, Gandalf! 

Farewell, deep work sanctuary

I’m a little nervous about what’s next, moving to a bigger house a little outside of town that I’ll once again be sharing (though this time, I have my own office!). Is it time to dream a new dream? Make a different grand gesture? Or deepen the practice of deep work in another way?

Do you practice deep work, or want more of it in your life? What risks or grand gestures have you taken to enable it? I’d love to hear.

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PyOhio 2018 Reflections

REBLOG: Last weekend I travelled to Columbus Ohio to keynote PyOhio, a regional Python conference.

I met Andy Knight, a fellow presenter and all-around kind person, who wrote up a fun and thoughtful recap.

Hope you’ll enjoy it!

Automation Panda

PyOhio 2018 was a free Python conference hosted at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH from July 28-29. I had the pleasure of not only attending but also speaking at PyOhio, and my company, PrecisionLender, graciously covered my travel expenses. I had a great time. Here’s my retrospective on the conference.

My Talk

The main reason I went to PyOhio was because I was honored to be a speaker. When I was at an Instagram dinner at PyCon 2018, I met a few conference organizers who encouraged me to propose talks at other Python conferences. On a whim the next morning, I spitballed an idea for a talk about building a test automation solution from the ground up in Python. After talking with a number of people, I realized how test automation is such a struggle everywhere. I took inspiration from Ying Li’s keynote and crafted a story…

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30 days of cozy: lessons from a grilled cheese

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to code as well as I cook.

And that wondering often turns to worrying that I won’t, or worse, can’t.

Recently my friend Owen shared on Twitter how he just couldn’t get the hang of making a grilled cheese in his cast iron pan.

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 11.56.17 AM

I saw his tweet and instantly responded:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 11.56.48 AM

I did so with total confidence that my advice was sound and useful. I have decades of experience probing the routine and edge cases of cast iron and know well its charms and idiosyncrasies.

If someone were to pop up and say “yeah low and slow, but also this” it wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest.

Or even if they had said “low and slow? pah. what you really need is…” I’d read it and consider it, and move on. But I wouldn’t doubt my advice.

I have a level of experience and familiarity with my craft that that makes me, well, confident!

Confidence does not, however, mean I that I am especially proud of my fearlessness in the kitchen. It’s not something I examine or reflect on or question. It just…is. I have become a cook who is adventurous and unafraid and willing to try all kinds of stuff. It is who I am.

So why is it so painfully obvious to me when I don’t have it—for example, with coding?

When I’ve mastered something, I take it for granted. It “just is“.

When I struggle, I grind on myself. I make it about a lack of character: I’m not committed enough or clever enough or ___ enough. Subtext: I’m not enough.

But this is a fraught path.

I didn’t become a cook because I was especially anything. I just was. Already fully enough, I started cooking daily. I chopped onions, made roux, tried different spices, read cookbooks.

I took action, over and over and over again, and with time, it became second nature.

Low and slow, friend.

When I start to wonder, and then worry, that I’ll never code as well as I cook, I remind myself of the path of daily practice.

I am not so little or lacking that I cannot improve with practice. My current state is not due to a fundamental flaw, and my path to greatness is ordinary.

Like a well-toasted grilled cheeze: what a comfort!

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No thank you note required

My friend Jesse shared a recording of a talk he gave recently called “When generosity turns to rage, and what to do about it.” You can listen here.

It’s about how we can intend to be generous and then become angry at the way someone responds to our gift. It’s a call to treat others compassionately and offer welcome without expectation of reward, and how to deal productively with your feelings when the ugly stuff surfaces anyway (as it often will).

It is an important message.

Many of us struggle with finding balance between caring for ourselves so we can be effective and making ourselves available to others because we value giving and sharing. So, when we do prioritize helping someone, and we don’t feel appreciated, it can be painful.

Jesse’s talk was a good reminder that so much of the negativity that roils in our minds is our own making. Yes, we should trust our inner teacher to surface for us when we’re truly being taken advantage of. It’s a nasty feeling that tends to make itself known readily after repeated interactions with someone with ill will.

But we must remember and respect that different people express gratitude differently.

For example, while it may be my practice to write a florid thank you note after being invited to give a conference talk, it’s not a standard, and it certainly doesn’t mean that other ways of expressing thanks are not legitimate and valuable.

It may be that the best way a person thinks they can thank you for an opportunity to speak is by pouring themselves into preparing for the talk by dedicating hours to writing the clearest version of what they want to say, by rehearsing it so it is delivered powerfully, and by ultimately giving the talk.

After all, that’s what you asked for, right? Not the note.

Now, I am concerned about the incivility I hear daily. Our connectedness makes it as easy for poisonous words to spread as compassionate ones, and the poison often gets a lot of play. Name-calling and body-shaming and othering have become heartbreakingly de rigueur.

And I do happen to have a regular practice of writing thank you notes and reaching out privately to individuals who have given me opportunities.

It is a core hope that we might all value expressing gratitude to the people who have helped us.

But that is with the strong caveat that humans express gratitude differently, and with an understanding that it’s useless for me to judge another person’s expression. There is so much I cannot see. Gratitude can be expressed privately because of the personality of the giver or the preferences of the recipient.

And ultimately, I take Jesse’s words to heart: remember my intention. I didn’t do the kind thing because I wanted praise or expected gratitude in a certain form. The expression of gratitude is lagniappe–a precious extra gift that makes the world a little softer and gentler.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… but when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

As far as we can tell, this was originally intended as clear direction about the particular act of almsgiving to some of Christ’s early followers. I’m not very religious, but since childhood, I’ve cherished these words.

There is so much that I do to help others that the public is not aware of, and, to my preference, it never will be. Like Jesse, I give a lot of my time and money away to help strangers in specific and actionable ways–as a mentor, sponsor, counsel, and advocate.

Sure, I’ll always appreciate a thank you note or a public announcement that something I’ve done has made a real difference in your life. Your specificity helps me quiet my very real, daily inner harasser that insists I’m not good enough and don’t deserve to be here.

We are all poor in some way, seeking the company and counsel and charity of others to move towards wholeness.

But ultimately, I seek to give away some of my power in supporting you because I believe in your message and the way you personally can make a lasting difference in our shared world. As long as you and I live under the same sun, anything you do to promote peace and understanding and compassion and justice will benefit me. So go on and keep doing that, please, and know that I’ll feel it somehow.

No thank you note required.

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30 days of cozy: vacation planning

I’m supposed to be on vacation right now.

Eight weeks ago I asked off for November 2 – 6 and planned a lovely solo trip to Boulder. But then some tragic personal circumstances occurred (the dozenth time this year) and I cancelled. I forced myself to take two days off at the time to emotionally recover, but failed to replan a new vacation.

So, tonight my cozy goal was to take at least a basic step towards that new trip. I haven’t had a pure, solo vacation since about this time last year; setting the tragedy aside, I am due. Vacations are important to me because I put in a lot of hours at work and several volunteer commitments. When I’m off work, I vanish.

But, it’s hard. I come up with so many reasons to delay. I hem over the timing and how it might possibly effect my team: should I go at the start of the sprint or more towards the middle? I haw over the money: can I truly afford to go, or will I put a good portion of the trip on credit? I dwell on a detail: should I leave from Atlanta or Nashville?

I delayed. I did all sorts of boring things, including cleaning my desktop and balancing my checkbook. Rock bottom for reluctance.

Eventually I came around  and searched for flights. This required picking a date and a destination. Two things down: December. Atlanta, to Austin, Texas.

What of the price? Oh, for those dates? Not bad at all, and even better using miles.

I looked at some photos I took the last time I was there and thought about how peaceful and happy I was. I rented a car and spent several days driving hours in all four directions to different state parks. At Pedernales I stretched out on the moonrocks and listened to the water. At Guadalupe River I stayed so late I got spooked by shadows.

Down the path to Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City TX

Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas

Guadalupe River State Park, near San Antonio, Texas

my dear, beloved birds, the Grackles

Saigon Le Vendeur #vegan creamy curry ramen with fat fried tofu, grilled eggplant, crispy onions, and more

I’m a little closer to booking the trip.

 

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30 days of cozy: second report

This morning I made the choice to work from home, a choice I struggled with.

For several years I worked under leadership that was unambiguously suspicious of remote work. At one job, it was only permitted during severe weather (the kind that shuts down schools). At another, our director was so unsettled by the org’s move towards flexible work arrangements that they brought in a professional mediator for the roll-out.

Now I work for a cheery little company that accepts remote work without stigma, and for a supportive manager/CTO who doesn’t think twice about it.

I still feel a little guilt when I work from home, though. I feel like I have to “earn” the right to stay here, paid with some misfortune: illness, utility work, a car that suddenly won’t start.

And to string a couple of WFH days together? What: take Tuesday and Wednesday? Push me even further into the Discomfort Zone!

It’s not that I’m “taking” these days at all—I’m very effective and highly available, and occasionally work more hours than I would otherwise. But something just doesn’t feel right.

It doesn’t help that when I work from home in Nashville, I go downstairs to our community’s common area overlooking a glistening pool. “How is tapping on a $3000 computer in these surroundings work?!” my brain hisses, the same born/e of a Bobcat-operating, ditch-digging landscaper mother and a welder father whose heavy, ocher-caked denim uniforms wore out washing machines well before their time.

This preposterous view

This morning I took a deep breath and posted in the channel: “WFH today”.

Simple, without apology: just my plan. When my boss messaged me, I reflexively jumped to explain myself, but all he wanted to do was say good morning and share his priorities. You know, totally normal stuff for a CTO to bring up with his Director of Engineering, nothing to do with location. I took another deep breath, we talked, and my morning spun on, from leading standup at 9am to a brief finances talk, a feedback meeting with my CEO, and several hours spent writing a proposal for a new engineering support process.

It was absolutely fine, of course, and it turned out to be great for this month’s cozy theme. Remote work today made it easier for me to relax at lunchtime–and to take a real lunch. I read and made a big cup of tea with the good stuff my friend just brought back from Málaga. I marvel at the fact that I forgot to make my usual strong cafe au lait, but somehow, I didn’t get a headache. Hmmmm!

This evening, I had my comfort food classic: grits with jalapenos. Eating this is like getting a hug from food. I washed my sheets and am getting ready for bed early so I can make it to a 7am breakfast with some fellow engineering managers. Enough sleep? What a treat! Cozy November–you’re off to a great start.

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30 days of cozy

My friend MeShell inspired me to share a little more about myself and how I’m taking care this month with a “30 Days of Cozy” theme.

Most people know me from my work and involvement in lots of different open source communities. But like another dev friend insisted to me recently, I’m a people too! I have lots of interests outside code & documentation, although those are certainly favorites.

Recently I got some feedback that while I’m making a hugely positive difference at my day job as Director of Engineering (running sprints, 1:1s, promoting positive management culture, subduing JIRA), I need to remember to take care of myself and celebrate my successes. This month, at least, can be about that first one. (The second one? The challenge of a lifetime!)

So here goes. Tonight cozy looks like this:

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There are a lot of cozy elements here. To start, I love sending mail, and this desk is clearly ready for some quality letter-writing. The Nashville card will go to a Postcrosser in China. After, I’ll write and decorate and carefully stamp cards to my penpal Danielle, grandmother, and friends Lars and Paul.

I’ve also got a cup of tea in a mug made for me by Michelle at Utilitarian Pottery, a gift from my penpal, on a coaster knit by that penpal! The tea is a chamomile blend, purchased in Copenhagen at a small Danish natural foods store ’round the corner from a friend of a friend’s flat where I stayed for a week. Of course this brings up happy memories. The candle is lavender: clearly, I am trying to relax.

Here’s the after:

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A messy desk and a happy one, and a happy me. 💕💌💕💌