Read Me, Please

One of the great things about Twitter is that, if you follow other curious people, someone is always sharing something interesting that I might not have otherwise found or have had any reason to know about, like 18F’s Open Source Style Guide.

I’m not a software developer nor do I work with open source code.  But I appreciate documentation done well, let alone when it’s done at all.  It’s fun to build new things–like figuring out a new process or procedure–and taking breaks to write down what you did and how you did it and why you did it that way can feel like a tedious chore that slows down all the fun progress.  Plus, sometimes it seems pointless because nobody ever reads it but you, and you already know all those answers.  Especially when they keep asking you the same question repeatedly after all the trouble you took to write down the answer in a shared location!  Sustainability of operations if you were to get hit by a buswin the lottery can only be so motivating for so long.

Then again, there are plenty of times, particularly with complex processes and tasks that I only need to do a couple times a year where I’ve kicked myself for not taking better notes at the time.  (Are these numbers significantly down from last year, or am I forgetting to include something that was included last year?  How did we define this again?)  Deconstruction can be fun, too, but it’s one thing when you’re looking for parts to build something else.  It’s another thing to have to reverse-engineer how you did something last year because you need to do the exact same thing again and you can’t remember how and your deadline is chasing you like Captain Hook’s crocodile.

Okay, but why start documentation during?  Why not after?  It can also feel pointless when you’re trying to document a process in the midst of creating it, and subsequently adjusting both a million times.  You took all this time to write up all the steps and definitions and one afternoon later, half of it is out of date.

The past two weeks, I’ve been plugging away at a new process and a Read Me document of sorts.  And next week, I’ll need to update that Read Me document to reflect all the adjustments I had to make while actually doing what I had imagined doing when writing that document in the first place.  Maybe nobody will ever read it but me, but it’s a starting point to which I can always refer back.  And all my annotations to the first draft will be saved in my files for when I question why something is that way.  Because I will.  And because if I don’t, then I will definitely need to know.

When I was a kid, I did all my math homework in pen.  It drove my teachers up the wall because everything I turned in was always three or four pages longer than my classmates’ assignments due to all the times I’d cross out my work and start over on a problem.  Plus, in addition to reading my handwriting, they had to read past all the scratch-outs and find the right answer.

There’s always one more edit, one new change, some circumstance we hadn’t anticipated or planned for originally.  We wait and we’ll never do it.  Besides, if you take thorough notes, including all the things you tried that didn’t work, then you won’t forget and make the same mistake twice.  Pencils are forgiving, but they won’t give you a trail out of the woods.



Precision of Language: What do you say?

That’s so gay.
You’re retarded.
One day she’s hot, one day she’s cold.  She’s so schizophrenic!

There’s a scene in the movie The Giver where Jonas’s mother reprimands him about “precision of language” when he talks about feelings.  (Side note: I say movie as I haven’t read the book since fourth grade and can’t recall if that was the actual wording or just the script wording.  As to be expected, skip the movie, read the book.  Seriously, read The Giver.) 

There’s laziness in language–and I myself am guilty of it constantly.  Hey, can you toss me that thingamajig that’s on top of the uh, thing over there?  Or stuff.  I say stuff all the time.  I use certain phrases like muscle memory.  I’m sure the people who sit next to me at work and hear me on the phone are really sick of them.

Speaking of muscle memory and the things we don’t have to think about, and the things we don’t think about: there is laziness in language, and there is use of language that betrays the experiences and the people we’ve never considered.

Earlier today, I overheard someone say on the phone to a friend, “Oh, you guys are so gay.”  My head snapped around and I looked up to see if I was the only person who had heard this–which apparently I was.  And I could feel the red well up in me.  That stuttering that comes from the pit of your stomach and always seems to end in your guts awash on the floor and the other person mildly confused but none the wiser and mostly dry.

There’s saying “stuff” when you mean that pile of laundry or all of your belongings or all the household chores you need to do this weekend.  And then there’s saying “retarded” when you mean stupid or illogical or absurd.  Using the name of very serious illness to describe someone they don’t understand–something we do with mental illness when we’d never say, “That’s so asthmatic!”  Calling someone or something “gay” when you mean…okay, I’ve never actually figured out what exactly people mean when they call you that.

What do you say?

Sometimes I say something and sometimes I don’t, usually depending on how well I know the person or how brave I’m feeling at the moment.  I didn’t say anything today because I was angry and knew whatever I said wouldn’t come out right.  And I didn’t know if the comment was indicative of her being homophobic or being friends with people who felt that way or if it was just a habit she’d never paused to think about.  Laziness of language.

Precision of language.  Is that the tack to take?  To ask the person what they truly mean and try to offer some words that actually mean what they’re trying to express?  Buy them a thesaurus?

There was one time that Mike Huckabee was debating Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and they clearly had very strong and different opinions but were having a open and respectful debate about it.  I don’t recall the topic, but I do remember Huckabee commenting at the end about how we needed more light and less heat.

More light, less heat.  I know in my head that one should strive to educate instead of launching a personal attack.  Because, “THAT’S SO OFFENSIVE, YOU JERKFACE!” rarely succeeds in doing anything other than convincing people that you are the super-sensitive PC-language police who wants to ban all the words.  It’s not about being politically correct or even just correct.

The PC-terms change.  I’m not even sure what they are half the time.  The r-word used to be the medical term.  But that was before people began using it as a slur.  Language evolves.  Words don’t have meaning without context.  It’s not about the labels or the names or the words.  It’s about the way in which we can flippantly denigrate whole groups of people and their very human experiences and make them other, make them less than, make them something other than human beings who bleed like we do.

In the heat of the moment, it is hard to remember that other people don’t need us to protect them and beat up people who might have been mean to them.  We’d be much more helpful if we educated people who could be allies.  Maybe they really are hateful, but usually people just aren’t thinking about their choice of words.  And we are losing an opportunity if we treat them as the enemy.  Then everybody just shuts down.

That being said–or more precisely, written–it’s one thing to know or write these things and to actually communicate them verbally when your diaphragm is a fist and it’s obstructing your throat.

What do you say?

Some days not saying anything heated in return is a small victory.  But any suggestions for things to actually say in person would be welcome additions to the toolbox.


The Quiet Kids

Earlier today, I read this post on tips for mastering meetings as an introvert, and it made me think about how often we listen to whoever or whatever screams the loudest. I am fortunate to work and have worked with some uncommon people who know me well, who know that sometimes I don’t speak up because I’m digesting things or because everybody else has jumped in and I try not to interrupt or am trying to catch up and listen.  They make a point to ask for my thoughts, clear a space for me amid the cacophony.

Tweets, posts, air time.  Everyone is clamoring to make their voices heard.

Or are they?

Someone forwarded me a story from a teacher who said that, every week, s/he asked students to nominate a classmate who’d been an exceptional classroom citizen that week, as well as the students they would like to sit next to the following week.  But what this teacher is really looking for is the kids whose names don’t get mentioned.  As a colleague once said of his philosophy at summer camp: “I look for the quiet kids.”

I recently joined a discussion panel, and one of the things the facilitator reminds the group of is:

Consider who is not in the room.  What might they say if they were here?

Or even if they are in the room, maybe they are not at the table.  Or maybe they are not speaking up for this or that reason.

How can we clear a space for their voices to be heard?  How often do we bother to look around the room, looking for the quiet ones?

How can we do this better?

My dad is a tinkerer. Not in the handyman sense, but in his approach to whatever he happens to be doing, whether it’s a lobby design or a meal. Like when he says he’s making Sunday dinner and that was three hours ago. Like when I started drafting that e-mail and have been writing and rewriting it for the past twenty minutes.

How can we do this better?

This is a question that drives me. It drives me to edit while I write. It drives me to spend hours tinkering with how an Excel spreadsheet is set up. It drives me to wonder at the simplicity of pen and paper and how years ago, as a volunteer in an emergency department, I failed to see that solution and kept asking this poor woman to verbally spell out her name over and over again so I could get it right on the EKG. Something about her jaw made it difficult for her to speak clearly. Why had I not thought to hand her pen and paper? Or to see if they’d already gotten her name on the chart? How many times had she gone through that same exact scene, different people asking her for the same information, noticing that she had difficulty speaking, and still demanding that she answer verbally? How many times just since her son first brought her into the hospital that day?

Which is why the same question inspires delight when I read or hear about someone connecting the dots across disciplines to solve a problem, especially when they look at it from the perspective of the end-user—like the students who created an infant warmer that didn’t require electricity for preemies born in developing countries. (There are plenty of newer examples out there, of course, but it’s still a good one and trying to look up a more recent one would have involved going down some type of time warped hole in my e-mail.)

Speaking of time warps, this question can sometimes drive me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole where all time has stopped, and then I look up and it’s dark. Sometimes I am convinced there is a better way to do something and there probably is, but I run out of time or need to pull my head out and attend to something else that is actually my job or responsibility.

A couple years ago, someone asked me what my personal goal was for the upcoming year. I answered “to do more writing.” To which he responded that I wrote all the time (this was during a team meeting at work), which was true given my projects at the time. So I amended my statement to say that I wanted to do more writing for myself. Tinkering. I didn’t really follow through on that, but I continue to be constantly dissatisfied with how I or others do things and also fascinated when people connect the dots in ways that allow others to do something better.

And here we are.