The Case of the Unclear Antecedent

Every once in a while, I’ll find myself hung up on a particular quirk of writing and develop a visceral twitch every time I see it in action. This post is about one of those twitches…

If there’s one thing I see writers do with alarming frequency, it’s sprinkle their material with sentences like “This needs to include sufficient information to develop a pipeline of qualified applicants” and “This, in turn, informs further actions.” But wait? What is “this” referring to? It’s probably not as clear as the author thinks it is, and that subtle lack of clarity, my friends, is what’s called an unclear antecedent.

Unclear antecedents (let’s call them UAs for short) happen all the time, because of COURSE the author knows very well what “this” refers to! Why, there was (probably) a sentence or two before this one that made everything perfectly clear… Right?

I can’t decide if it’s entertaining or frustrating to work with an enthusiastic author to get them to recognize UAs and to tell me what the heck “this” refers to. More often than not, I end up listening to an extended soliloquy about all the things that lead to “this” without ever getting to the point of which of those things (or category of things) we’re talking about in this particular sentence.

I’ve found only two things in this world that help me find those dratted UAs in my own writing:

  • Having a third party (either a human or a particular grammar tool) look for them; or,
  • Walking away from my writing and coming back no sooner than 24 hours later to re-read whatever it is I wrote.

When an author is in the brainstorming process, it’s really more important to just get the words out there. UAs are natural and a perfectly reasonable outcome of a flow of consciousness in writing. But your first draft should never, ever, be your last, and leaving this opportunity for confusion in your writing is a Bad Thing.

Think of it another way. If someone wants to quote that one sentence, can that one sentence stand on its own and make sense? So please, for the love of the written word, please go back and check for UAs in your writing!

WFH – everything I hoped it would be (almost)

[Updated: 27 August 2020, now that #wfh has lasted for months, and will likely continue for many through to the middle of next year.]

Someone asked on a call back in April when we all were digging into our #wfh experience, “Is everyone busier than ever with all this working from home? My response was, “well, yes and no.” This was apparently a surprise because every other tech worker he’d asked had answered with an “absolutely! So many Zoom calls…”

Do I have more calls than before? Yes, no doubt. But does that increase in calls equal the amount of time I used to spend around business travel? Not even close. As business travel seems like a far-future activity at this point, it’s interesting to see how this “new normal” is really becoming normal. Work is truly adapting to an entirely virtual experience.

I’m a freelance contractor that works primarily with technical organizations run by volunteers. For the last nine years, I’ve made myself more valuable by being where the discussions happen – the hallways of conferences and meetings, anywhere and everywhere in the world. And that’s been fantastic – I have bridged across many organizations and working areas, helping people find other people doing exciting things in mutual areas of interest.

Business travel, at least to the extent I was doing it, was exhausting. Permanent jet lag, juggling clients, constant surges in workload around conference targets… Whew! It was something of a relief to step away from all of that and be able to smooth out my workflow. I’ve become more efficient across all my clients and ready to absorb the increase in calls without a blink.

But I miss those hallway conversations. The spontaneous brainstorming and coming up with new ideas to improve the Internet. The weird little digressions that turned people from names on a screen to real people that I would be more than happy to meet at the bar later. I miss all that. Social hour calls are all well and good, but it’s not the same as being at the bar, paying for an overpriced Scotch, and talking about The Meaning of Life (or at least, the meaning of scotch). Now that virtual meetings are the only way to fly (as it were), I need to make hallway conversations happen in other ways.

I’m reaching out via LinkedIn to try and catch up with old connections. I’m actively participating in any social Zoom gatherings I can. I’m thinking of ways to create new meeting formats that involve streaming informal conversations and inviting anyone in the world to send in comments during the session. And I can do this because I am naturally outgoing and have an established network. I worry about those people who find what’s almost a cold call to people they haven’t spoken with in a while. Those people who don’t have a network yet are equally likely to struggle. Our new normal has a powerful bias in favor of the extroverted, experienced individual. Someone who has good Internet connectivity, is comfortable with technology, and doesn’t have primary responsibility for children.

Working from home is everything I hoped it would be for me, but it’s not perfect. Growing my network is harder than usual, and my concerns about the bias in this new system is definitely weighing on me. I’d love to hear your suggestions on more inclusive ways to build a network! There’s not going to be One True Way, so any and all feedback will be appreciated.

The Power of the Outline

Congratulations! You’ve been asked to contribute some written material to a newsletter, blog, e-book, or how-to guide. Now that the initial excitement is wearing off (which usually takes me about 1-2 minutes), the existential dread of facing a blank page is setting in.

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

As an editor, I can usually tell when someone has written their material as a stream of consciousness. Absolutely EVERYTHING seems to end up on the page, in whatever order they think of the content. If they happen to be particularly organized thinkers, they’ll end up with a reasonably organized (if overly wordy) document. If they are more creative thinkers, then they’ll end up with fascinating material that doesn’t quite flow in a manner that anyone else can follow.

The up-side of writing this way is that you’ll fill that blank page pretty darn quick. The down-side is you’ll make your editor (and possibly your reader) cry. If you’d really like to make friends (with your editor) and influence people with your writing, I STRONGLY SUGGEST you start by writing an outline.

Long, long ago, in a classroom far, far away, my teachers had us using index cards to lay out our ideas for our term papers. We’d write out the topics we intended to cover, one per card, then sort them, then re-sort them, then fill in gaps. This actually worked well for most everyone, from the visual thinkers to the verbal thinkers. The visual people could move cards around at will, and the verbal thinkers had the structure of writing things down.

Today, most people likely don’t have a box of blank index cards waiting for their thoughts. You can do the same thing with your keyboard and any document editor. The point is to actually think about what you’re going to say and take the time to make sure the thoughts are in order before you actually start writing prose.

Outlines are an enormous help in making whatever you write consumable by someone else. If you don’t believe me, try this: take something you’ve written in the past without an outline. Use a text-to-speech reader to have the material read to you and listen. Did it flow well? Make sense? Have a good cadence? I suspect you’ll find it has room for improvement. Try this again later when you’ve written something that started with a well-structured outline. I think you’ll be happy with the difference.

Public Speaking Tips for Virtual Conferences

It’s common advice that you should watch and listen to yourself via a recording in order to improve your public speaking skills. There are few things more uncomfortable than doing that, but I had an opportunity this week to discover something even more uncomfortable: watching and listening to myself on a recording with 50 other conference attendees.

IDPro Plenary @ Identiverse 2020

On the one hand, there was definitely some amusement to be had as I and the other panelists took the opportunity to heckle ourselves and each other during the session. But on the other, I realized there was more to learn about where I can improve as a virtual speaker that goes beyond the “watch for verbal ticks and closed off postures.”

If you’d like general pointers on public speaking, I highly recommend reviewing Toastmasters’ website. Toastmasters is probably *the* go-to resource for public speaking support and guidance.

But if you’d like some more information about public speaking at a virtual event, here are a few pointers based on my own experiences as a keynote speaker at EEMA’s annual conference, IDPro’s plenary at Identiverse, and publicly streamed discussions on IAM via Twitter.

Look at the camera like you would look at a physical audience 

Humans (for the most part) like eye contact. They want to know that you’re talking to them, not to something way off to the side, or above their heads, or down at their belts. In virtual reality, you have to fake it by looking at the camera. Easy, right? Hah! My eyes want to do one of two things – look at my notes, or look at what’s moving on the screen. Neither of those things is my camera, and therefore the perspective of the viewer is that I’m not looking at them. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to … something else.

That said, I’ve found that if I put my notes at the very top of my screen, directly under my camera, I can glance at them while still holding most of my attention to the camera. That’s not dissimilar from scanning the audience, one side to the other. Eye contact is still happening, and the human hind-brain that doesn’t actually understand virtual reality is satisfied.

Imaginary friends are awesome

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely more excited and engaging when I get visual feedback from the audience that lets me gauge how well my message is landing. Unfortunately, I mostly don’t get to see my audience. Even when I do, it’s quite possible that what I see are a gallery of images of people who are looking at their screen and not their cameras. It’s the inverse of the problem I pointed out above – without that eye contact connecting me to the other person, I feel disengaged from the conversation. Fortunately, there’s a part of my brain that’s still only 12 years old, and I rock at having imaginary friends on hand to help me out!

Trust me, this can really work. Take a photo of a friend or colleague at a moment when they are really engaging with you. Set up a one-on-one call just to chat, and let them know you’ll be taking screen shots periodically so you can get just the right image. When you have the image, put it directly under your camera. Talk to this person, engage like you’re explaining this to them. Use the tones and inflections, the ups and downs, the excitement, even the occasional eye roll. You are now a human talking to humans, and not this poor soul stuck talking to a computer.

The occasional “um” never hurt anyone

In every public speaking guide I’ve ever read, I am warned against the dreaded “um.” That verbal tic we all have that lets us fill a moment where we’re trying to think with some sound that indicates we’re still talking, but we need a moment. So yes, sure, if every sentence is filled with “um” or “like” or some other random sound that offers no semantic value, you need to work on that. But you know what? Having a few in your recording is not the end of the world. It makes you sound human.

The root of this piece of advice is: don’t get hung up on little things. It’s going to be hard enough to hear yourself speak without cringing with every “um.” Just take a breath and move on.

Enjoy yourself

The statement, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made,” has been attributed to several individuals throughout history. When you’re presenting remotely, or recording a session, enjoy yourself. Be happy to have this opportunity. Be excited to virtually meet new people. If it’s 3am, and the last thing you feel is excitement over being awake to present in a timezone suitable for people on the other side of the planet… Do your best to fake it, because this is how people will remember you. These things are recorded. People will see it on the web for years to come. Make the most of the opportunity.

Do you have any tips for virtual public speaking? If you haven’t had the opportunity, but have been in the audience, what made you feel a part of your favorite sessions? I’d love to know!

Succession Planning in Consulting

I recently read an article about how United Airlines developed strong succession planning for the changing of their CEOs. I remember the days when I could focus on succession planning! It was one of my KPIs as a traditional employee and it was quite rewarding.It gave me the opportunity to mentor someone (or someone’s) to be ready to step into my role (or some other leadership role) when needed. There were entire training programs in place to support efforts to succession planning within the organization. Having shifted to being a freelance consultant, I’m finding that succession planning is no longer possible, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. The tools and expectations aren’t there, though I think they should be.

Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash

Of course, some people may question why someone like me – a one-person LLC who isn’t selling a specific product or cloud-hosted widget – even needs to consider this. Isn’t it up to my clients to figure out how they’ll handle my replacement when the time comes? Why should I be responsible for their business planning?
It’s pretty simple, actually. I want my clients to be successful. If they are successful, then my reputation improves as well. That said, though, different clients have different needs and situations. What I do for one client will not work with another. 

Three forms of succession planning:

Train the employees on the techniques I use to accomplish the organization’s goals.

Maybe it’s just helping someone learn more about Google templates for meeting notes. Or getting them on a 15-minute Zoom session to help them learn how to use some of the more esoteric features of the platform. Or working with a new working group chair on the process to kick off new work. Any of these can be opportunities for some awesome teaching moments where the employee can pick up a new skill that will advance them in career.

Document everything.

To be completely honest, documenting my own processes isn’t just about helping my client. It’s also about helping me be consistent! But this documentations supports a succession for someone you might never work with directly. Solid karma.

Write the job description.

Unless something has gone horribly, horribly wrong, the person that knows your role best is you. So when it’s time to move on to other contracts, assuming the client still needs to backfill that role, you can offer more input on exactly what’s required – from skills to personality traits – than anyone else.

Ideally, I would add a fourth bullet there: mentoring another freelancer. While I do look for opportunities to mentor others , I haven’t been able to connect with people ready, willing, and able to jump on this crazy career wagon of freelancing in a world of volunteer-driven collaborations. But I’ll keep looking!
I’m always open to hearing suggestions for other ways to help my clients with succession planning—even when they don’t know they need it. If you have thoughts or ideas, please feel free to drop in a comment here or on your favorite social media channel!

Index: What’s it like to be a …?

The Internet requires so many different types of people and roles in order to function. As much as people tend to assume degrees in computer science or experience as a software developer, that’s just some of what you might find in the Internet ecosystem. To explore the roles that are out there now, I’ve been reaching out to my network to find people to interview about what they do, and how they got to this point to do it. These are original posts on LinkedIn, and I’m creating an index here on my site for people who are interested in following along.

What’s it like to be … a consultant in IT? An interview with Laura Paglione

What’s it like to be … a policymaker in IT? An interview with Christine Runnegar

What’s it like to be … an IAM Consultant? An interview with David Lee

What’s it like to be … a CISO? An interview with Daniel Ayala

A World of Only Carrots

There are a wealth of books, blogs, webinars, and even inspirational tweets about motivating a team. Most of the ones I’ve read, however, assume a rather traditional model of a manager motivating their employees. This motivation takes on an entirely different character, though, when you are working with volunteers.

I’ve been coordinating technical projects entirely made up of volunteers for nearly ten years, and there’s really only one rule to making it work:

You have to make them want to work with you.

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Now, if only people were consistent about what makes them want to do anything! When you’re dealing with volunteer-based collaborations, the best tool in your toolbox is words.

How you use words makes an enormous difference in how they respond to what you are asking. The person you’re working with probably has a lot of demands on their time, such as their day job, their families, or other volunteer projects. You have three things you need to do in support of that guiding rule about making them want to work with you:

  1. Be clear about the purpose of your communication.
  2. Respect the existing demands on their time.
  3. Keep the language positive.

I have used this model even when essentially telling someone I was going to pull their material from a project if they didn’t start responding. Did I use those exact words? Heck, no! While that language is very clear in a threatening sort of way, it offers no respect for the other things going on in their lives, nor is it positive. But here’s how I said the same thing, with a much more positive response:

“I know we weren’t able to get this done in this round, but perhaps we can aim for the next round if your schedule permits? Is this something you’re still willing to work on, or should I withdraw it from the worklist?”

That breaks down into:

  • be clear on the problem (“we weren’t able to get this done”)
  • respect their time (“if your schedule permits”, “still willing to work on”)
  • be clear on what you’re asking for (“aim for next round”)
  • be clear on the resolution (“withdraw it from the worklist”)

For an individual to be involved in a volunteer project, there is almost certainly some personal motivation for them: they feel passionate on the topic, they have been asked by their day job to get involved, they need the reputation boost for their resume, their spouse asked them to do it… In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the motivation is, only that they have one, and so something that says, in the most positive and respectful manner possible, that you will impact their motivator is incredibly powerful. DO NOT DO THIS if you aren’t prepared to actually follow through.

There are, of course, more ways to motivate volunteers: work with them to make sure their requirements are being taken into consideration (feeling listened to is a powerful motivator in and of itself), make sure that people are recognized in whatever way they are most comfortable for their contributions, build a track record of success to keep up levels of excitement, etc. At the base of all of these, however, are thoughtful use of words to make your team want to work with you and your project.

Open-source Projects: Potentially the Best Potluck Experience Ever

Have you ever been to a neighborhood potluck that overwhelmed you with some of the best food you’d ever had? Where you tried to track down the recipe for the most amazing fried chicken – a food which had defeated all previous attempts in your household to create? Or when you’re planning it, and you know your neighbor up the road makes chocolate chip cookies to die for, so you send an explicit invitation for them to bring themselves — and their cookies — to the party? When you’re working on a brilliantly collaborative open-source project, that’s exactly what it’s like.

A really good open-source project makes an effort to bring in a wealth of experience. The organizers give some thought to what’s missing and find people to fill the gaps. Sometimes, the holes are pretty obvious: if the group consists only of the people developing the product, and none of the people using the product, that’s a problem. But the gaps are not always quite that clear. 

It’s so easy to hyper-focus on the development effort itself. It seems so clear cut! But, like a potluck party, it can’t be successful if all you have is potato salad … or just a codebase. A scenario where only the developers are at the table means you also have a scenario where potential economic challenges aren’t covered, or where internationalization issues in the user interface aren’t handled, or where local privacy regulations make your product illegal in some regions.

I’m not suggesting that every conference call needs to have every stakeholder represented! For one thing, if you’re covering a specific topic about what code library you need to use, a policymaker is unlikely to be interested or have suggestions. Or if you’re trying to drill down into whether the User Interface (UI) element needs to be red, or maybe another red, or perhaps three pixels over, that’s not going to be something for the whole team to engage in. (Seriously. Please. Don’t make me sit in on detailed UI conversations. They drive me insane.)

What you do need, however, is a clear line of communication between the stakeholders. Make sure the policymakers are aware of the development roadmap. Make sure the UI people are aware of relevant privacy regulations that might impact their design. Make sure the developers have the APIs necessary that the UI team can work with to create a reasonable interface. And make sure you are prepared to ask end-users what really works for them. 

While I’m often that person working to keep lines of communication open (let me know if you need help!), this doesn’t have to be a role for a single person. Assign someone in each stakeholder group to be the point of contact. Have the different points of contact meet regularly to make sure they know what the other groups are doing. And, at the end of the day, make sure you have more than twelve different kinds of potato salad at your potluck.

When Words Do Not Mean What You Think They Mean

I love getting to wear a variety of ‘hats,’ even if it means relearning the English language over and over and over. As someone who occasionally reads a dictionary for fun (yes, I might be a bit strange), I love drilling into the history of words. Connotations! Denotations! Let’s throw in some annotations just for entertainment! And yet, as much as I love words, even I have to admit it’s exhausting to try and figure out what people mean when they use a word I thought I knew.

Let’s take the word “discovery.” According to good, ol’ Merriam-Webster, “discovery” is “the act or process of discovering“, “something discovered“, or “the usually pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts or documents by one or both parties to a legal action or proceeding”.

OK, great! But if you’re talking to people in scholarly publishing, “discovery” refers to “helping users find content.” If you’re talking to people in the identity federation community, then of course you’re talking about helping users find their identity providers. Though, hey, if you’re a network engineer, you’re almost certainly talking about finding services on the network. And if you start to break down silos and get the publishers talking to the federations who also need to talk to the network engineers… You have this word that does not mean what you think it means.

One of my clients, IDPro, is working on a Body of Knowledge to try and wrangle the identity and access management field into a common set of words. I’m incredibly proud of that project, and wondering if I’ll reach retirement age before we, as an industry who does this stuff for a living, will ever agree to just one definition for “digital identity.”

There’s a never-ending amount of work to try and normalize language. Standards organizations make valiant efforts towards this every day. (Have you seen the article on Atlas Obscura about standards? They describe my people.) And I love to participate in the standard development effort, because I love how words are used. But if you don’t have a diverse set of representatives in the room, you are just creating another definition.

There are ways that you can help me reach my lofty goal of having a common definition of “digital identity” before I retire. You can come be a part of the conversation. There are almost certainly areas where digital identity touches your world. That might not be your focus, but there’s almost certainly some aspect of identity management that touches your world. Educate yourself. Listen to podcasts (like Cocktails, Code, and Conversations with David Lee, or Definitely Identity with Tim Bouma) on the topic. Participate in an IAM user group, or even with IDPro directly. There is room for you, regardless of your main focus. And we need your input. If you still aren’t sure how to get involved, reach out to me! I am more than happy to help get you started.

Bias, Meritocracy, and Human Nature

This month I was challenged by Emma Lindley’s webinar on “Bias, Blind Spots and Bad ID Systems” to consider how bias – a fundamental pattern of how humans think – impacts my world. It inspired me to search out additional information and to really think about how my bias affects my interactions with the world around me.

Then I read another article that stomped on one of my hot buttons regarding the realities of so-called meritocracies. I’ve worked with several organizations that consider themselves functional meritocracies, and are dang proud of that fact. Meritocracy as a positive model is pervasive in the tech industry as a whole. The reality, however, is that the comfort of “anyone can succeed purely by their merit” has enabled some of the worst of human behaviors. 

“[T]his ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.”

Clifton Mark, A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you, Aeon

I have observed this behavior so many times. It often takes the form of a train of thought that appears to go something like this: I am an expert in this field. I don’t know you. You are not an expert in my field. Therefore, I don’t have to listen to you about anything, for I have more merit than you.

People have different experiences, skill levels, and gifts. Their knowledge and skills may not be obviously applicable to a specific area of expertise. But allowing for their inclusion helps fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a ‘for instance.’ I was in a meeting to represent the publication process for an organization. During a break, someone asked me about which of the two models of IPv6 should be advanced in the world. As if I had any knowledge whatsoever about the details of IPv6 (no, sorry, no direct knowledge at all). What I did have was an awareness of the challenges of regional networks in Africa. I said, “Well, what I’d do is send representatives from both sides of that argument to Africa and see which model actually worked in that kind of environment. Whatever the solution turns out to be must take into account more than just first-world network architecture.” The gentleman I was talking to took that as some profound advice. I added value, and he was willing to listen, despite my lack of expertise in his space. That’s what organizations need to foster – supporting the truth that different perspectives have their own, equal merit.

I want meritocracy to be a viable thing. It is so elegant. It offers a promise that hard work and creative thinking will be rewarded. But the human factor, the fact that people are not as rational and unbiased as they would like to think, makes the reliance on meritocracy as a guiding principle for the tech industry makes for organizations that will ultimately drive away the diversity and skills that they need to succeed.