JavaScript and other plans

This post was written 2 years ago.
Fri, 28 Oct 2016
It is very late now, but I suddenly feel this urge to write down those plans I have (carrying on from previous longwinded post which was all about just getting ready to make plans). I just want to make it very brief!

So basically, for let's say the next year, I have these two objectives:
1, Organise at least 5 events/workshops in the coming year, where the unifying principles are:
- The format: Probably 2.5 hours in the evening as a default, but could also be a whole Saturday 9 - 5 or something like that
- The topic: It should in some way help newcomers, and it could be something that you don't necessarily find in every tutorial; for example how to use the unix commandline, dev tools etc. It could also be 'soft' topics like how to organise yourself when you freelance, or how to keep physically and emotionally well; I actually have a list of topics in my head (have had that for a long time). Need to start asking people!

2, Improve full-stack web dev and in particular JavaScript as well as I can. I will measure this by hours, i.e. I will set myself a target of how many hours I'll learn. But I will measure the outcome by other objectives. There will be certain endpoints: a, Can I contribute to open source projects? b, Do I feel comfortable teaching others (formally or informally) and c, Can I build stuff without this being a massive and time-consuming pain? (Relatedly, do I manage to stick to a project and finish it off before I start a new one) I am aware that these goals don't look measurable, still to me they are hard endpoints, because I know how I feel when I've grasped something, and I know how it feels when you need just the right effort for something.
So either I will manage to achieve one or more of these endpoints, or I won't. It's an experiment. If I succeed that would be fab, because then I could really teach and could properly help people - and possibly build cool stuff! . But I am a bit skeptic whether that will be the case. The important thing is that I'll allow myself any possible outcome. As long as I stick to my plan of doing a certain number of hours a week, there will always be an outcome worth talking/writing about. And hopefully there will be some improvement. And I have to say that from when we starte our JS group a bit less than two years ago, my JavaScript has really got so much better!

If I only could always see it like that! Right, I just will from now on. - The 'full stack' aim is also interesting. I sometimes think I need to make a certain switch in my mind if I really want to succeed there. I guess the main thing is to actually believe that I can learn certain things. I took one significant step years ago, which was switching to Linux as my OS and running my own server to host things. I cannot say how glad I am that I did that. But when things become a bit more proper devopsy, that still feels like a bit of a barrier. It is difficult to say what makes sense there, should I not specialise on the front-end and PHP programming? But then, it does all interest me, and people used to do it all, and the way things are set up at work makes it possible to learn at least the basics of the different technologies you need to have a server up and running, keep it secure and sites performing well. I think I (and others) perceive it a bit as a 'guys' thing. I wonder if it's something of a cultural thing where as a woman you have been conditioned to be more careful with everything, not break things ladida. (My fear of breaking things has in the past years gone down quite a bit already though ;) )

Don't know. But as we are on this topic, here's another thing I am going to stop doing. Looking out for, or thinking too much about whether something someone said or ways in which they behaved is sexist (or agist, anti-foreigner? haha, how unusual can I get - and still, I am the urban 'cosmopolitan' middle-class and the people around me are, too, this is so far probably still the one decisive factor to make me compatible, but maybe shouldn't be?). It is such a fine line, and in the end, it is mostly history and people's habits that can lead to situations where you might feel treated differently as a woman. It is not directly anybody's fault. I do think it can become toxic, it depends very much on where you are. But it seems to me that currently, in my personal life, any subtle thing that might happen in this regard, is far outweighed by the opportunities I've been given, the super-flexible work contract, knowing so many great people in Bristol's tech community, being able to learn from others and so on. Besides that, in some regards, when it comes to the gender topic, there are things that have been problematic from my side. This has only gradually become clear to me, and it pains me somewhat, because I fear it has been a bit destructive. But that again, it is a historical thing why I behaved in certain ways, and there is no point in beating myself up about it. Main thing is, I am aware of it now.


Midlife, books and watching Adam Curtis films

This post was written 2 years ago.
Thu, 20 Oct 2016
Right. I am going to do a kind of review now. Review in the "Getting things done" sense. I have to admit, my efforts to implement GTD in my life have to date not been that successful. My brain always seems to want to take over the collecting and scheduling etc. again. My suspicion is, this is because my tasks and appointments are just about managable without resorting to a system that needs quite some energy to set up and keep going. I am still looking for the sweet spot where I can benefit from some of its aspects while keeping it lowfi enough as to not cost too much enery to follow through with it. I will keep on trying!

But let me start not so much with all my projects, "next actions" or any such thing.

I want to look at what is causing me (and perhaps others, especially women?) this thing that almost feels like a pain. This tension, which by now contains the realisation that you probably won't become anymore what you possibly could have, less than you'd been capable of. When I last went out for a meal with close friends in Germany, all women, I said at some point "I still want to achieve something". As if having a lovely family and a pretty specialised job in an area you basically self-trained yourself in, didn't count. And yet, if I'm honest with myself, I still feel the same. It must have sounded overly ambitious, competitive, as if I was after outer success, but I don't think that's what I meant.

I think it has to do with competence and an urge to be creative, while feeling you don't have the means for it; also, not feeling competent at anything in general - on the contrary, feeling pretty inadequate.

When I was a teen, I had an anthology of pieces by women writers. There was an extract from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It started something like "I started adding up all the things I couldn't do" and in the end, she comes to this conclusion: "The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end". I later bought the Bell Jar, it must have been one of the first books I read in the original English version. The similarities between how Plath was experiencing things and myself was so striking it blew me away. It was comforting, too, that I was not the only one feeling that way. In particular what she describes in that quote, that feeling that you cannot really do anything properly, has remained with me up till now; it is not always present, and occasionally I manage to convince myself that I know some stuff, but yes, it is still very strong.

By now, this is also coupled with a feeling of powerlessness on the political level. That I cannot stop nasty things from happening, not even when acting in a group. Is that true? I am not sure. It looks like we are still on a downward path, economy-wise. And then there is the poisoned public discourse which I hope has reached peak shrillness and meaninglessness now.

Returning to the above, what is interesting here, is to make a distinction between the perceived lack of competence and the real one. And while it happens with the best intentions, telling me I've got impostor syndrome does not help me that much. Yes, I might have that, because almost everybody has it, especially in tech. But that does not mean I'm not dissatisfied with where I'm at and would like to know more. Of course, I have reached a certain level of competence, I can do my work (sometimes I get a bit stuck, but by and large I can do it). If I think about it - hm, I had actually not been so clear about that, so writing does help! - in this particular area, the level I'd like to reach is where I can a, contribute to Open Source b, teach c, create own projects/use my skills in projects that are meaningful to me.

There is something else, this is again political, I am jumping back an forth. So, there is the actual competence, but then there is the entitlement, for lack of a better word. That does not really match it actually, what I mean is perhaps, being effective out of habit. Being used to being in power, used to being able to do things. I wonder if that is one of the things pupils learn at a private school. You can do things! It could also be that, for whatever reason, this message was just quite weak in my own youth (although a class-mate once actually said to me "You can do anything you want" - meaning my good grades). Knowing something, but then also using it. And by using it you get better at it..

Two more things regarding perceived vs actual competence. Another significant book in my life has been Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it in my early 20ies and then again in my early 40ies! I believe Robert Pirsig is the grandfather of all geeks and his style of writing must have influenced many tech blogs. If you read the book now, his way of writing would probably not seem that unusual but that is because it has become mainstream. One central philosophical idea of the book is that we are capable of recognising quality even if we can't define the criteria for it. We recognise good writing style, good design ect. At the ReasonsTo conference in Brighton, Stefan Sagmeister gave a good example when he showed the audience a work of art by Mondrian and a fake one, side by side. Asked to say which was the real one, by show of hands, a vast majority went for the correct one.

Then there is this about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which David Moody pointed me to at the hack night. I once started reading "The Pragmatic Programmer" and really liked it, and the book this chapter is taken from is by the same people. I like the idea of these distinct stages, and I like the idea that people on a team can be at different stages, not everybody has to be an expert.

I want to make a somewhat structured effort to move along this scale, and document it as well. Again, I have to make sure that the documenting does not take up too much energy, I will just record some things that I find significant steps, things where I improved beyond what I'd have thought.

But really, if some of the above sounds a bit negative, in reality I am not unhappy at all (with my learning, world politics is a different thing!). If I look back to 5 years ago, I have already got much further than I thought I would. It took me longer than young people nowadays who decide to become a web developer (and have grown up with computers). Many times I didn't learn in a very effective way. But I'm glad I persisted, because I really do love working in this area.

I won't write so much about the Curtis films anymore, but wanted to mention them, because they do always have quite some effect on me. So, I watched Hypernormalisation on IPlayer - I then also started to watch Bitter Lake which was made about two years ago and which I had missed. But I stopped for now, as it is becoming a bit too much (I normally don't watch any telly). It is scary to think, with the many things mentioned in those films that I had not known about, how many more scary stuff is out there. But mostly, Hypernormalisation reinforced an uncomfortable feeling I (and others, I am sure) had already. We are not really ruled by politicians anymore but by corporates, the potential of technology for evil goes much further as we want to admit to ourselves, and what is presented to us as political discourse is just a spectacle that is put on to distract us. I don't really watch it anymore, just what I hear about it is enough to make me turn away in disgust. Will we ever get to some place of normality again without there being a huge catastrophe first? But really a lot that is happening is already catastrophical, that is the sad thing.

In the credits, the Massive Attack musician Robert del Naja was one of the first people - or the first? - Adam Curtis thanked. I found that intriguing and googled the two names together. I found this article in Vice about a show they did together in 2013. I think the trend they mention there, to obsess about the past, has only become more pronounced, with the Brexit vote being the culmination. And yes, entertainment these days is probably quite conservative even if it doesn't always look like it, and is capable of exerting control. And this sentence sums it all up for me, and has stuck with me: "If you like yesterday we are going to give you more of yesterday so you never get a tomorrow"


In Brexitland and 'Technikland'

This post was written 2 years ago.
Mon, 17 Oct 2016
116 days after the Brexit vote, 23 days before the American presidential election. What a weird space to be in. It feels like having fallen through a rabbit hole and wandering about confusedly, changing sizes all the time, wanting to cry pools of tears, and forever looking for an exit. Isn't it time to wake up already? - Is there going to be a point anytime soon, where we can just say "Remember how crazy that all was?" and everybody you shared this particular part of the space-time continuum with, will know what you mean? I fear it will not be until after a tremendous storm has swept over us, and I don't want to think too hard about the different shapes this storm could take on.

Occasionally, people make comparisons between this country and Germany in the 1930ies, and I always wonder how valid they are. Today, I imagined myself tweeting "You are still far far off. Your government wants to make you look more nasty than you are." But then I never tweet all the many tweet-thoughts I have. And, isn't that exactly what prompted the comparison, the government inciting people to distance themselves from their neighbours just because they are of a different origin? That is ultimately what the current government is doing, isn't it? So, yeah, they are using similar methods to an extent, and yet I'd hesitate to compare them too much. On the other hand, in Germany there's that expression "Wehret den Anfängen" which basically means "Nip things in the bud", just in more dramatic words: "Guard yourself against the beginnings" or so. It always sounded quite solemn to me, and so important to adhere to. Just how?! Everybody I know is quick to condemn the government speak, but as we know from the rederendum, it echoes around in our little filter bubble, or ends in confrontation with the opposite side and that's it. Meanwhile the nastiness trickles bit by bit into people's minds, they become more used to it and less inclined to say anything (because it won't change anything), and it finds fertile soil in those who already think in terms of the 'them versus us'. It would be the governments task to stop this kind of thinking from informing what people do, but if instead they encourage it, where is it going to end?

I had not planned to write any of this, and there is no big new insight in it, I guess I just want to pin down what the athmosphere is like at the moment, and that it all feels a bit gloomy. And the fact that it's not just Britain, that the move to the right is happening all across Europe, is all the more worrying. Britain could have been a beacon of light (alongside the new compassionate-looking Germany - that unfortunately still has a dark side, too, don't be fooled), that is what I find so sad.

The worst thing is that horrible things are happening, especially the bombing of Aleppo, which the main attention should be on, by all of Europe, all of the world. Instead, countries are busy turning themselves into fortresses, and every outrageous utterance by a certain despicable being (I refuse to write that name) is discussed at great length.

I am wondering whether to write about my original reason to write. Perhaps briefly.

While I am, for the time being, going to stay in Brexitland, I am wondering about tech land. How much sense does it make to remain there? Yes, with all the above, I still manage to have my ten zillionth career crisis. Hooray! A few days ago I read the transcript of a talk called "Mid-Career Survival for People Who Don't Want to be an Attrition Statistic When They Grow Up" It is definitely a good talk. But unfortunately, rather than being reassuring, it reminded me of how easily that could happen. My circumstances are quite different from the speaker's, I never worked for a big corporation or a start-up. And I'm not in America. But I still find some parallels.

[Edit 18 Oct 2016 - Taken out some stuff about my work - most of it was positive anyway, but think now I'd rather speak in general terms]

But possibly the thing that makes me most doubtful is not even the job, but my Meetup group. I still don't feel entitled to do the things I want to do. Last week I finally gave a workshop, on Git. I felt terrible afterwards, because I had written some of the exercises the night before and the instructions were so unclear that it became a bit chaotic. Still it seems to have been useful to people, especially the women.

The thing is, I cannot know. If I don't actually know that much about Git, could I confuse people and make things worse? Am I, instead of flying the flag for women in tech, actually damning there reputation further, by being dopey and ignorant, and pretending to know more than I do? Ha! But that is exactly what many men do so often, isn't it?! It is just nobody expects it of a woman. But then of course there are people who are very knowledgeable. And many of them are men. - I have these high standards, that I want to be like them. But if (at the moment ;)) I'm not, should that really prevent me from trying to help other people, organise events whose main benefit is the social side of things anyway? The only thing is I could look stupid. I'm developing some resilience against that. But also: I am spending a lot of time and energy that I could use on other things. That latter then, is the absolute key point. Is it all worth it?

I have for now decided that I will look at that question again in a year's time (given things stay roughly the same, and there are no major catastrophes). Till then, I will throw myself into it all one more time, learn as much as I can learn, teach what I can teach, help to increase diversity as much as I can, and meet lots of cool people!