KalamazooX 2011 Recap

I attended the 2011 Kalamazoo X conference in Kalamazoo, MI on April 30, 2011.  There were no family emergencies this year which was great because this year’s event was even better than last year’s!  I’d like to extend another huge “THANK YOU” to the organizers and speakers for making it happen again.

For those unfamiliar with the Kalamazoo X conference it’s not your typical software development conference.  While most software development conferences focus on technical skills, Kalamazoo X focuses on the often forgotten soft skills.  Also unlike other software development conferences Kalamazoo X only has one track of consisting of highly focused 30 minute sessions.  This format is perfect for my limited attention span.  I feel less tired after this conference than I typically do with others of similar length despite being bombed with a steady flow of information.

This year’s line-up was top-notch.  We got to hear from some great speakers including Jim Holmes, David Giard, and Jeff Blankenburg, and Leon Gersing.  Topics were all over the map and covered interviewing, continuing education, body language, and knowing thyself.  At the end of the day though the recurring theme for the conference was really summed up by Jim Holmes when he said it’s all about communication, respect, and passion.

Taking Back Education

Presented By: Joe O’Brien

Joe’s session was a great way to start the day and really set the tone for the rest of the conference.  In this session he talked about how many of our traditional views on hiring are wrong.  Most companies hire people based on specific skill sets.  They look for C# programmers, or VB programmers, or Ruby programmers but that’s not what they should be looking for.  Will those skills still be valuable in 5-10 years?

Instead companies should be primarily be interested in finding people who know how to learn and only then should they look for the technical skills.  Companies should also foster an environment of continuous education and encourage their employees to stay current with their skills.  Technology may change but the need to learn and respond to change does not.  When we find the people who know how to learn we’ve found the people who are passionate about it and those are the people we want.

What if we train our people and they leave?
What if we don’t train our people, and they stay?

It’s Only Aweso Without Me

Presented By: Jeff Blankenburg

Jeff’s talk was about the idea of Job Insurance and was based on the question:

What did you do yesterday to ensure you have a job tomorrow?

We buy all sorts of insurance, homeowners, health, auto, life, to provide a safety net in case of disaster but too many of us take our employment for granted and fail to prepare for the possibility that we may not have a job tomorrow.  If you think your boss is in control of your career you’re wrong.  You are in control of your career.  Although job insurance isn’t something we can buy we can invest in it with hard work.

Perception is reality, particularly when it comes to looking for a job.  If a prospective employer looks for you online but doesn’t find anything no matter what you’ve actually done the perception is that you’ve done nothing.  Possibly worse, if a prospective employer looks for you online and only finds things that portray you in a negative light that is how you will be perceived.  So how do we control this?

You can’t erase the Internet but you can certainly can bury things on it.  With tools like Google Alerts you can effectively monitor the Internet for things pertaining to you and your online image.  When potentially negative items appear online you can work with your sources, blogs, etc… to counteract them or divert attention.

One really good way to build a positive presence online is to have an opinion and share what you’ve learned.  Chances are that sometime someone somewhere will have the same problem and look online for an answer.  You build visibility and credibility by providing solutions.  Also don’t censor yourself because you think no one will find it useful.

What you think is important and what others thing are important are different – post it.

So, where should we post everything?  In short, everywhere you have a presence.   Write about it on your blog, note it on your social networking sites, just get your name out there.  One effective way to help people find you is to set up a profile on a site like magnt.com where you can tie together much of your online presence into a single page (view mine – thanks for this tip, Jeff).

Data Visualization

Presented By: David Giard

Graphs are a useful communication tool but only when done properly.  This session covered a variety of tips for effectively presenting data in a graphical format.  David showed several examples of “good” graphs including a French train schedule and a visualization of the French march on Moscow.  He also showed several examples of “bad” graphs showing things net income without a baseline or deaths and seatbelt usage over time.

So what made the “bad” graphs bad?  All of them were either lying, providing data out of context, or both.

An important concept of this talk was the idea of data-ink, that is, the part of the graph that actually represents data, and the data-ink ratio.  Effective graphs will maximize the data-ink ratio thereby reducing the amount of “chartjunk” such as grid lines, legends, shading, and other useless decorations.

Design for Developers

Presented By: Jeff McWherter

This is one of three sessions I didn’t really get much value from and of those three though this one felt the most out of place.  Much of the session was referring the audience to a variety of design related books.  The rest of the content was very introductory.  I’m sure someone got something out of it but it wasn’t really for me.

For me, the highlights were:

  • kuler – color theme generator
  • IETester – utility for testing multiple versions of Internet Explorer
  • A reminder about @font-face in CSS

Don’t Be Afraid

Presented By: Tim Ford

This is the second of three sessions that I didn’t really get much out of.  By this point some of the themes were starting to reveal themselves and Tim made a last-minute decision to change his talk from one about effectively communicating and working with DBAs as a developer to what really seemed like a 1/2 hour autobiography.  I really wish he would have stayed with his original topic.

Working with Great Teams

Presented By: Jim Holmes

In this talk Jim discussed some of the characteristics of great teams.  After hearing his talk I wish even more that I’d attended his session at Cincinnati Day of Agile.

Ultimately great teams have passionate people who respect each other and communicate effectively.  One of the implications of having passionate people on the team is that there are likely to be very strong opinions on a variety of subjects including tools and methodologies.  These strong opinions are good and should be encouraged but it is important to ensure that egos don’t hinder respect or communication.  Team members should also be willing to let go of their strong opinions when presented with good reasons.

Hold on to strong opinions with a weak grasp.

We can encourage the behaviors that make effective teams by doing things to fostering communication.  We can hold daily stand-up meetings to get the conversation started.  We can use humor (within limits) to ease the tension.  We can also empower people rather than micro-manage them.

Most people don’t want to be micro-managed.  Those that do probably aren’t the ones you want on your team.

Empowering the team means giving them the freedom to do what needs to be done (again, within reason).  People generally want to do well and good people want to figure out how to achieve something on their own so they should be told what needs to be done rather than how it needs to be done.

Fish Bowl

The fish bowl was a nice way to keep the discussion going through the lunch break.  While the conversation jumped around a bit it really all revolved around how we need to get away from having such a fear of failure.

We (Americans in general) have instilled a fear of failure into our culture.  How?  We’ve told our children that they need to get good grades to succeed.  We’ve stopped keeping score in sports and started giving everyone awards so there are no losers.  We can even see this in the business world where people are often punished for failure many times even losing their job.  As a result no one is willing to take a chance on anything.  When there is failure it is often accompanied by finger-pointing and deflection.

Making mistakes and failing are both important parts of learning.  If we don’t learn from our mistakes and failures how can we ever progress?

Although they weren’t mentioned in the discussion Thomas Edison has several quotes about failure but I think this one the most appropriate is:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
— Thomas Edison


Presented By: Leon Gersing

Quite some time ago I was fortunate enough to attend Leon’s jQuery talk at IndyNDA.  This #KalX11 tweet perfectly summarizes my thoughts after hearing that talk:

…I don’t know who this dude is, but I love him.

I registered for KalamazooX as soon as I saw Leon was a speaker.  I expected his session to be a highlight of the day and he didn’t disappoint.  In this session Leon discussed “you” and more specifically knowing yourself, your relationships, and your boundaries.

Drawing on something from Jeff Blankenburg’s earlier session, Leon said:

Perception is reality augmented by our relationships

When someone such as a prospective employer is looking to learn about us it’s likely that they will look to others to either confirm or contradict that perception.  In other words, if perception is reality our relationships should serve to strengthen the image we are trying to convey.

All relationships need to have boundaries.  The challenge is to know what your boundaries are and to recognize that not all boundaries are healthy.  Like many things in life we must find a balance between being too rigid (isolationist) and too loose (co-dependence).  It’s up to us to make the choices that help us achieve that balance.

…you’ve already made the choice.  Now you have to understand it.
The Oracle, The Matrix Reloaded

The thing about this though is that no one can tell you what the right thing for you is.  Countless people will tell you that what you’re doing is wrong but it is up to you to decide what is right for you.  During the journey you will fail and that’s awesome.

Do or do not.  There is no try.
Yoda,  The Empire Strikes Back

Executable Requirements

Presented By: Dan Neumann

Executable Requirements was the third session I didn’t get much out of.  Dan’s presentation was fine and there was nothing wrong with the content, I’d just heard most of it before from reading and other conferences.  He covered topics such as reasons to invest in and automate testing, removing ambiguity, Cucumber, and layering tests.

One resource Dan mentioned that I hadn’t seen before was the Pragmatic Agilist blog.

How to Rock Your Body Language

Presented By: Laura Bergells

I had no idea what to expect going in to this session.  I didn’t know anything about Laura beyond “meeting” her on twitter a few days before the conference.  Laura’s session was one of the most engaging presentations of the day.

It’s 3 o’clock.  What’s your body doing?

Laura presented seven tips for understanding or improving presentation skills in regards to body language.

  1. Words are important – contrary to the Mehrabian Myth words are important but probably won’t make or break a presentation.
  2. Every body language rule has exceptions and most body language isn’t universal.
  3. Work toward authentic body language by laying off of the phony tricks like steepling.
  4. If you’re scared, it’s more than OK to fake confidence.
  5. Understand that even though you may not be speaking you’re still presenting.
  6. In a team presentation know which position you’re playing.  Be careful to not send signals of internal dissent and rehearse.
    1. Are you the Leader or the Closer?  An Ally or an Observer?
    2. In team situations the Leader and the Closer should be different people to avoid conflicting signals.
  7. Practice self-awareness and aim for confidence, not for perfection

Performance Evals Again?  This Sucks!

Presented By: Jim Holmes

This last individual session was about removing the angst from annual performance reviews and using them as the tool they’re intended to be.  This was a pretty timely session for me since we’ve just started our new review cycle.  Once again, it’s all about communication.

The whole point of evaluations is to give people a clear idea of how they fit into the team and are progressing in their career

When performance reviews are done correctly there should be no surprises on either side of the table.  Basically if either the reviewer or reviewee are shocked about something in the review there has been a communication failure.  Annual discussions aren’t enough – reviewers and reviewees should be communicating regularly throughout the year.

A benefit of frequent communication is that it allows us to fail fast.  Just like with software development we want to fail fast so that we can address any issues before they become real problems.

One key point that to understand is that you own your career.  It’s up to you to understand the process, know your goals, and initiate the conversations(s) with your manager.


Panel Discussion

The final session of the day was a panel discussion where many of the days presenters joined forces to discuss interviewing from both sides of the table.  I readily admit that by this point my attention span had waned so I really didn’t take many notes here.  There were a few thing that managed to stick with me though:

  • Trust your gut – if it doesn’t feel right, walk away
  • Employers should keep a funnel of potential hires
  • Ask questions like “what are you working on right now?” to gauge passion
  • Use your relationships for leads

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