Quick Draw McGraw

Recently, I had a conversation with Ben about how I’m doing at Mainsocial. It’s a yearly thing we’ve been doing, which is a great way to reset and kick off the year. Mostly it’s about things to improve, things to continue, and then some small talk about our cats.

One of the main things we talked about is something I’d like to share with everyone because I find that there are lots of people like me when it comes to this area.

I really have to be better at not jumping guns.

I’m already terrible at physically jumping, so this is something that I believe needs some attention when it comes to aspects of my life and work.

It happens often, and it doesn’t just usually get me into trouble, but always gets me into trouble. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s this awful need to address everything right away and ship it off as soon as possible.

What happens to me is that I will get an email about some issue, and something within my brain kicks in and takes over. I need to address this NOWNOWNOW. Fuck everything, this has to be finished A.S.A.P. And in a semi-blind rage of panic, I work on this and send it back out in record time.

As soon as that’s sorted, I breathe a bit looser and lean back against my chair, semi-relieved that I was able to get all of that sorted. Time to make a sandwich.

And that’s when the shit starts hitting the fan. Like, right around the time I am smearing mustard on my bread, the shit hits the fan.

The font size is wrong. It doesn’t work in Internet Explorer. The spacing got fucked when I changed that one property in the CSS. I added an extra file when I deployed to git. I forgot to pull the master branch before pushing my changes. Everyone hates me because I broke the internet. The cat is sleeping and won’t give me advice. My toast is burnt. The mustard is expired. My mother never loved me. No wait she actually did but just never said the words…

When it comes to work tasks, I am Quick Draw McGraw and that is a McGraw-ful thing to be.

It’s definitely a very difficult thing for me to deal with, but I know others experience the same thing. You just want to get it done. The tough thing is that while I just want to get it done, it has to be done right. I’m always missing that last part.

And so I’ve started to just be more aware of my tasks and have put a few mind-flags in place.

Let emails stay unread for a few minutes

I don’t need to read all the emails as soon as it gets into my inbox. I can finish what I’m doing first, and then move to the next thing. That nagging inbox count number does not have to be at 0 all the time.

Related: let emails stay unanswered for a few more

This one is a major one. I can’t count how many times I have sent a terrible email response simply by not letting the info sink in. Most emails don’t need to be addressed 0.5 seconds after it is received.

I’ve now taken it upon myself to read an email twice, let it stew for a while, and then have myself compose a proper draft without distractions. Then I’ll wait a few more minutes, read it again, and then finally send it out.

I didn’t realize it, but just taking a few extra minutes to collect my thoughts has really changed the way I communicate with people. It’s far from excellent right now, but I do see myself improving with this.

I’m sending less emails in a day. This is definitely a good thing, because before that, 40% of those said emails started with, “Sorry, please disregard that previous email…”

Make tasks separate by taking small breaks in between

Each time I finish a task, I bookmark it by standing up and walking around my apartment. I’ll make a cup of coffee or hang out with the cat for a couple of minutes. It’s a good indication for me that I’ve completed a task, as well as a way to not make me feel like I’m strapped to my chair all day.

Unless they think you’re dead, nobody will freak out

The thing is, whoever I’m doing the task for is probably not just sitting around waiting for me to send something back. We all have shit to do, and we all have different priorities to deal with.

I think this is another major one to keep in mind. In most cases, people actually know that I’m not a machine. There is only so much a person can do in a day, and also, there are only so many hours in a day. Assuming that someone is willing to disregard that is very dangerous, both for you and that other person.

You then start treading the line of how much that person respects your time and your work process, and setting this precedent leads to really awful outcomes.

So there

Those are the few things I’m actively trying to change about myself this year. Still a long ways to go, but definitely seeing some signs of progress. Maybe by next year’s review I’d have a much better grasp at this “communicating with people” thing.

Ladies Learning Code (Um, Yes, We Had Sandwiches)

I did a really cool thing last weekend.

Jane and I went to a Ladies Learning Code Workshop; an introduction to JavaScript, led by Angelina Fabbro.

I don’t usually sign up for workshops or gatherings or meet-ups or things like this. I get kind of anxious going by myself and I turn into the weird wallflowery person with a juice in their hands. The fact that Jane was with me was great. I was thinking we could at least hold the juices in our hands together and talk about knitting instead, if it didn’t work out.

Held in the lunch room at the Hootsuite offices in Vancouver, the workshop started out in a very casual way. Meredith, who I had assumed was the organizer, flashed us a bright smile, swung the door open and in we went, out of the rainy weather and into a toasty room that totally looked like Yogi Bear’s house but with beer taps.

There were no forced name-tags, no registration bars to scan, or any type of weird, “What are you doing here?” sort of situations. Thank God. People just walked in and set up shop. Just the way I liked my gatherings. I fucking hate small talk. I hate when people ask me what’s up or how my weekend went. Anyway, let’s not get into that.

This workshop was for people who had zero knowledge of JavaScript. And the thing is, I’ve tried to learn this time and time again.

I know Ben had been ready to punch me in the mouth for the way I’d been going about this, but there had just been this inexplicable force of resistance on my part to get things going.

The cool thing was that for me, it all kind of came together on this day. It was like Ben actually came up out of nowhere and physically punched me in the mouth. (He didn’t.)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I couldn’t get into JavaScript as much as HTML/CSS. It was weird, but each time I would open up these Sportsbutter .js files, something inside of me would sort of deflate and I would just start doing my laundry instead. I could sort of understand the basics of what was going on, and I was okay when it came to jQuery elements. I could make things slide and fade and shit, but that was kind of it.

But for me to actually get started and build a structure or an app out of JavaScript… I don’t know.

It was around the time Angelina was sharing her experiences about being a lady-programmer that it hit me.

She spoke about how she had turned down her first opportunity to lead a lecture about it because she instinctively felt like she wasn’t good enough.

I kind of sat there, holding a wonderful curried chicken wrap in my hands (instead of a juice), and let that story sink in. It definitely resonated with me. It wasn’t about being humble or not knowing what to do, really, but essentially, I came to realize that I couldn’t get started mainly because I felt exactly the same way.

The fact that I categorized myself as someone who knew absolutely nothing about JavaScript even though I’ve been with Mainsocial for over two years said something.

I didn’t think I was good enough to get this JavaScript shit.

When I work with Ben, it just always looked like magic to me. I would mention something that was broken, and I’d try to fix it, but would ultimately end up spinning my wheels. But when Ben would deal with it, it almost always usually gets fixed in a day. One time he fixed a bug in the time it took me to get a glass of water.

Of course B-ballz would be gracious about it, and he has taken great (great) pains to teach and mentor me. And I am definitely not saying that he is the reason I was so dumb about it, but I guess it’s just difficult to not be intimidated in this kind of situation.

What changed for me during this workshop was the context of my own experience. I honestly thought that I was going into a workshop with zero knowledge, just like everyone else.

But as soon as Angelina started talking through the slides and discussing basic things like variables and while loops, I found myself looking around and seeing that… erm, I kind of know this shit, too.

So a second wave of realization came upon me, and that was that… there was no secret sauce behind JavaScript.

The code presented to us was of course a hundred times simpler than what I would see in our Butterpool apps, but as Angelina walked us through it, I found the basic patterns and principles behind it.

It was like looking at a really big complicated robot machine powered by a Flux-Capacitor that writes out your grocery lists automatically for you and realizing that you can achieve the same results by using a pencil and paper.

The workshop had me building from the bottom up.

I think in my experience, I was introduced to JavaScript from the top down. The app was already working, and my job was to go in there with a wrench and hit stuff inside the big complicated robot machine powered by a Flux-Capacitor. And I didn’t know where Ben kept the pencils. And I couldn’t ask because I didn’t know that all I needed was to know where the pencils were. I didn’t know what I knew and if I didn’t know, then I didn’t know what I didn’t know either.

Are you following me?

And so as the day went on, I found myself talking through things with Jane. The quick exercises proved very useful to both of us because on one end Jane was getting a great intro from Angelina, and on the other, I was gaining an opportunity to test myself in talking it out with her.

It felt like I was putting polyfill into these odd cracks and crevices in my brain, and smoothing it out with a spackle knife. It was empowering.

I guess I just didn’t realize how much I knew until a bigger and more complete picture was laid out before me.

It’s like that story about a bunch of blind guys touching an elephant and talking about trees and horns and shit. I was one of the blind guys, and I think I just had my hand in the elephant’s balls the whole time thinking it was a jaguar’s mouth, afraid that it would bite me if I moved.

Just like my past weirdness about people trusting my skills, I think I had another set of issues about my own confidence in them.

Mainly because I’ve come across web development from a self-taught angle, rather than “having gone to school for it”, I think I just got used to thinking that I was a little bit less talented than those with actual formal training, or people who have been coding websites since they were nine years old. It’s also quite a big thing to be working in a vacuum for so long, and not really knowing your place within an industry.

With design shit, I feel fine. I recognize my peers and colleagues, and I know what they’re up to because I grew out of the same seeds of community. I may not necessarily know who the director of Burnkit is, and I may make a total ass out of myself in front of him and his ladyfriend during a birthday BBQ in a park. But I like to think that I can hold my own with fellow designers.

When it comes to web development, though, it’s completely different for me. I don’t have the same connections or the same experiences with people who I should consider my peers. Because I have no fucking clue who they are.

But now, armed with this knowledge and a new perspective, I’m pretty keen on changing that.

I came back super excited about what I can do with JavaScript, and immediately started plans for an awesome knitting app. This has since grown into a monsterish idea and now needs to be pruned and trimmed.

It goes back to my wallflowery personality, for sure. But if anything, I’m just glad that I was able to attend something like Ladies Learning Code. I feel like I got way more out of it that I expected. Jane even suggested that I try and be one of the mentors for the next event. We’ll see if I can gather up the courage for that…

Between Designing and Coding

I had a lovely evening with Jane Koo yesterday. We had gone out for some dinner at Phnom Penh (a place that I will be eternally Googling to make sure I’ve spelled correctly). We got to talking about our careers and where we’ve gotten to in the past few years.

I like talking to Jane because we have very much in common in terms of how we arrived here in Canada. We both lived our high school years here in BC, and fell into Emily Carr straight after graduation. Neither of us have immediate family in Vancouver, save for an aunt or a cousin or two. There is an independent spirit that we both share, and I only notice this whenever we talk about things like visas, permanent residence and immigration as if it were just a normal part of a Monday evening.

Anyway, we got to talking about work, and the differences between having specific skills and having a hybridity of more than one. It was interesting to think of it, as I started to try and gauge where I see myself within this spectrum.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have known a few special people who just live and breathe design, with beautiful work just naturally blossoming from wherever they store sunshine and rainbows. It’s a bit flowery to think of it that way, but sometimes it really does feel like that. But while they produce amazing work visually and conceptually, it becomes quite another question when it comes to how their design will work and behave in an application setting.

Then there are also others who are, for the most part, developers who are amazing at code and giving life to flat mock-ups. Inversely, whether or not they are inclined to design any work or are any good at it is where the trade-off happens.

Designers who don’t code, and Coders who don’t design.

It could make for a prickly sort of topic, especially if we start to incorporate personal opinions of what makes good design. But I’m not hoping to get into that. I guess the thing I’d like to think about more is the individual’s personal level of comfort with and confidence in their ability towards one or the other.

To me, it makes more sense to be a bit of both, of course, but realistically speaking, 100% involvement almost always has a better outcome than 50%. If all you do is one thing, you’re bound to excel at it.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty when I say I’d rather do code, but at the very same moment I always feel a bit of gratitude that I was able to study design. I don’t know what the numbers are at this point, but if there was a special club I’d like to be a part of, it’s the Designers Who Code Club. I mean, people with actual design backgrounds in typography and art direction and whatever else, who can sit at in front of a text editor and bang out an app or a website without breaking a sweat.

As someone who is just about two years shy of learning code properly, I’m far from a programming wizard. I’ve seen those guys work. It’s intense. I’m still doing spaghetti-code mistakes, and am pretty much at the equivalent of being in a Jolly Jumper.

At this point I’m more comfortable with design, as I’ve practiced and trained for it. Obviously there are others who are light-years ahead of me as well. But to me, there is also something draining about doing this 24/7. Or in agency numbers, 30/8. I imagine it’s like giving birth every day. And guys, my creative uterus can only take so many crying newborns busting out of it like a scene from Alien. Some are just built for that type of work. I, sadly—but not regrettably, am not.

I think one of the process I’ve come to enjoy the most is actually working with either designer or programmer to build something. I’m a fan of collaboration, and I always end up learning so much when I work with people I like/admire. Also, the output always seems stronger while the load (for the most part) is not overwhelming.

One of my favourite people to work with would probably be Tak, from FAC. I like that I come into the project with part of the design concept already built, the wide strokes already established. It then becomes a working process to refine and polish up the pieces, all the while building that trust that the project will not go to hell as long as both of us concentrate and stop eating cookies.

On the flip-side, I equally enjoy working with Ben at Mainsocial, because he has the same broad strokes already established, but from a programming point of view. (I think) he trusts my input when it comes to design, and he is constantly challenging me to be as pragmatic as I can be. Similarly, while this trust exists, I’m also glad for his opinions regarding design.

I’m not stuck doing two jobs, but neither do I get bored just doing one. I think I’m most comfortable at this spot, between the stresses of designing a project all on my own, and just pushing pixels according to what someone has given me. It feels like my input is valid, and at the same time my skills are tested and valued.

It’d be interesting to hear what other folks think, with regards to this type of relationship. Do you guys prefer doing one job and relying on another for other components? Where does that sweet spot lie for each of us?