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.

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.

Publishing – it’s a character-building experience!

As a contractor, I help my clients — often standards development or digital identity groups — with whatever process they need to get to their end goal. Sometimes that means I’m a team facilitator. Other times, I’m a copy editor. Almost always, I’m a project manager. This week, I’m the publisher of a new resource called the IDPro Body of Knowledge.

How hard could it be, you ask, to publish a new resource on the Internet? After all, new material is published every single day. Why would an organization need someone to manage all the moving parts? Write, save, and voila! There it is! Right?

Well, no. Not even close, actually. To get from idea to output involves a lot of cat herding, consensus building, and attention to detail:

  • Helping train a small volunteer committee to find authors, to review material, and to come to consensus on a publication process.
  • Develop the templates and the processes that will provide the structure for getting an article created and published.
  • Work with authors and early reviewers on content.
  • Find peer reviewers (who often have never peer reviewed before) and work with them to get the reviews complete.
  • Work with the authors to incorporate feedback from the peer reviewers.
  • Copyedit each and every article before it goes to the stakeholder groups for approval.
  • Walk not one but two stakeholder groups through the final review and approval process.
  • Work with the authors again, when necessary, for one more revision.
  • Take each article through the mechanics of pre-publication (make sure it’s in the correct template, create accessible PDF copies, create markdown format copies, make sure keywords are assigned, make sure the metadata for each article is correct).

And throughout, write newsletter articles, update stakeholder groups in regular meetings, answer any and all questions that come in via email and Slack, and prepare to market not just the initial resource, but all future iterations of the same.

I’m incredibly proud of the authors, reviewers, and other volunteers who made this happen. While I can (and do!) provide structure, the actual thoughts and vision come from the community. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Get Inside Their Heads

Last week I put together a presentation on various tools people new to working from home might find useful, and where to find more detail on how to use those tools well. The audience I had in mind for that post were the wonderful women I went to college with, particularly the ones who were new to working from home. I did not particularly expect the post to be useful to the groups I work with every day – it was pretty basic material.

I realized while working on those slides that HOW I presented the material needed to consider the audience as much as (if not more) than the content itself. Before I started writing anything down, I had a dialogue in my head with my imagined audience. (It’s a little disturbing to have other people’s voices in your head, but you get used to it!)

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash

When I am working with a group to design a process or to manage a specific project, having enough of an understanding of the people I’m working with is critical. I want to be able to work through potential conversations and scenarios before I put anything in writing or proposed something during a meeting. Note I didn’t say enough of an understanding of the product or service (though that helps). I need to know about the people I’m working with, what drives them, and how they’ll best respond to information.

If you’re starting on a new project, take some time to talk to the people. Experiment a bit with different styles of presenting information – and let them know you are experimenting. Are they used to Gantt charts? Pure text lists? Kanban boards? Issue trackers? If you adapt to your teams, not only will you be more effective, you’ll be able to improve the processes that work for them by cherry-picking from other styles. And you’ll open the door to trust by letting them know that how they think matters.

“Visualization gives you answers to questions you didn’t know you had.”

Ben Schneiderman

Remote Project Management 101

The world has entered a new and unusual time. People are experiencing ways of working that are, sometimes, entirely outside their experience. I’ve been fortunate in that my work for the last ten years has been predicated on being remote and coordinating with a variety of people who may or may not themselves be remote workers. What’s new for so many people is a typical day in my dining nook/office.

While on the one hand, being remote isn’t that hard, there are definitely some tips and tricks to make it easier on everyone involved. There are a number of blogs and webinars out there on how to motivate and develop leadership skills in this new model of working; I want to focus for a moment purely on the tools and tips for using the tools that will let you work with others. It’s one thing to say “build your team by giving people a few moments to check in at the start of the call” but if you and your participants don’t know the basics of conference call etiquette or how to use your tools to best effect, then you’re not going to get very far.

So here’s what I’ve found to be the basics of remote project management. This is geared towards people who are very new to this space; if people who have been doing this for a while also find pieces of it useful, then yay! If there is enough interest, I’m happy to put together a 201 and maybe even a 301 level deck to get further into the details of what I’ve seen work for managing projects remotely.

There’s a PowerPoint and PDF version attached. I’ve slapped on a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, which means:

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

If you find these useful, or if you have other suggestions, please add a comment and let me know!

Surviving Business Travel

“With age, comes wisdom. With travel, comes understanding.”

Sandra Lake 

With travel comes the understanding of so many things:

  • The world is small (but time zones are many).
  • The human body was never intended to sit in a metal canister with dozens of close strangers for hours on end.
  • It’s ok to latch on to something (a particular pillow, a love of toiletries) that makes extensive travel bearable for you.
  • Toilets are not always in a configuration you might expect.

Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve traveled over 800,000 miles. I personally know some people (but not many) who have traveled even more than that. And if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned that travel is physically hard on the body. Survivable, of course, but you have to enter a different mindset than what’s required for day to day living and working at home.

In my case, surviving travel is complicated by a couple of things: one, I’m a woman traveling alone, and two, I have a couple of food intolerances. Both result in some particulars in how I plan, but frankly I think those particulars can and should apply regardless. Some of my thoughts below on travel are things that you’ll see time and time again in other travel advice posts. There’s a reason for that, but I’m more than happy to add my weight to those tips.

The first travel tip is, if you do nothing else, bring snacks! Never assume that (edible) food will be available. In my case, finding wheat- and dairy-free food can be about as easy as finding hen’s teeth. And assuming I do find that hen with teeth (I think they are called velociraptors) the food in question is not usually particularly tasty nor healthy. Sane snacks do require more thought than you might expect, though. If you’re traveling internationally, for example, bringing fresh fruit or beef jerky is a hard “no”. And bringing something sugar-based (typical grocery store trail bars, I’m looking at you) isn’t going to help either. Also, be prepared to declare anything that looks like food if you’re traveling to Australia and New Zealand. Do your homework for the legal requirements at your destination (which may translate into: figure out where the nearest grocery store is to your hotel or other lodging).

My favorite travel snacks are:

  • Nairn Oat Crackers
  • Packets of Justin’s nut butter (these are under 3 ounces, just sayin’)
  • Packets of tuna
  • Vega One protein powder
  • Dried fruits and nuts

Those snacks are not just for the flight (though food on the flight is important, and those special meals you can order in advance? Not my favorite thing.) I bring enough for a meal or three to help cut back on eating out, and to support simple, healthy eating when I’m too tired to make good choices. These do not take up a lot of space.

Next up: hydration. It’s a fact that air inside an airplane is super dry. It’s also a fact that air in highly air-conditioned conference centers is pretty darn dry, too. But water is tricky. For one thing, it’s heavy. You can’t pack in water like you can pack in food. For another, it’s of varying quality. Tap water straight from the tap is not always your friend. But if you don’t drink enough water, then you can expect a higher resting heart rate when you’re trying to sleep, a harder time recovering from all the wine you had with dinner, and all sorts of other annoying difficulties.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, though, a stainless steel bottle plus any one of a number of UV water purifiers can make water much more easily available, regardless of where you are in the world.

Third, a note about being a woman traveling alone (though honestly, I think men should be doing this, too). This one boils down to: do your research. How do you intend to get from the airport to your lodging? Are the taxis considered safe in that city? Does the hotel have a shuttle or limo service? Do you speak the language? Are you prepared to haggle? In some cases, this research isn’t all that critical. Personally, I’m not too worried about travel to London; I’ve been there a dozen times. But travel to an entirely new destination? I’ll take a look at Wikitravel just to get a feel for what I’m getting into, and then consider whether I’ll feel safest if I contact the hotel in advance to get a driver, or whether the taxi services look reputable, or whether the city/region has a specific ride sharing service that is commonly used. Similarly, if I’m presenting in a new country or region, I’ll also take a look at eDiplomat to see if there are any particular tips, tricks, or cultural expectations that I should be aware of in order to make my presentation and engagement with the clients better.

And, for my final travel tip: don’t try to be a hero. Whether it’s personal or business travel, the goal is to survive and be at your best when you get to your destination. A ridiculous arrival or departure time, a super short layover, a crazy number of hops: they aren’t worth the $100-250 difference in air fare. Truly. They aren’t. And if your corporate office insists that they are, that’s worth a fight to change policy. In my case, I’m an independent and I will pay the difference if I need to in order to make sure I’m at my most effective when I arrive. I’ll make up the cost by being able to put in billable hours sooner rather than later.

Making a Difference (and Building a Network)

“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”

Kofi Annan

When I try to explain to friends and relatives who ask, given my travel schedule and the strange interactions I have with technology and people, what I do for a living, their reaction is, “So, you’re an international spy?” (No, but it’s a good guess.) Their second is, “How on earth does someone get into that field of work?” That’s a little more complicated to answer, but I can tell you how I started: By volunteering my time and building credibility.

I am an independent contractor who works with collaborations around the world to make the Internet a more functional, diverse, and less biased platform for the world. What that means in practice varies: for one contract, I’ll be a program manager, whereas for another, I’ll be a group facilitator. I might act as the executive publisher and editor, or I might hold the pen to turn the group’s ideas into a coherent document. At the end of the day, I do whatever the IT engineers and architects need to make the Internet as a whole, and the digital identity aspects of in particular, better. I’ve told a few stories about what my contracts have looked like over on my dossier page.

As far as I know, no single college degree that leads to this kind of work. I personally have a liberal arts BA and majored in Medieval English history from Agnes Scott College, and a master’s degree in Library Science from UNC-Chapel Hill. And yet, here I am with no Computer Science degree in sight, helping collaborations that span the world do good things.

By volunteering with groups and organizations that were working in the space I was interested in, I built a network of people who knew what I could do and were motivated to find small bits of money to have me keep doing it. In my case, that meant the Internet2 Middleware working groups, when the MACE program was still in place. If I were to do this again today, I would join the community interest groups of the W3C, or perhaps become a non-voting (but active) volunteer in the Kantara Initiative. If I wanted to focus on digital identity (which desperately needs all kinds of people to engage!), I would look to IDPro and Women in Identity and see how to get involved with those organizations. These groups (and many more) are always looking for smart, energetic people to think, write, review, or otherwise get engaged in their work.

By being engaged in these kinds of effort, individuals do more than learn about the material. They’ll suddenly have access to mentors who know the space well, and people who are willing to offer constructive feedback. The volunteers get to demonstrate their capabilities with regards to clear communication (written and spoken) and learn about cutting edge technology. Even better, they get to help DEFINE cutting edge technology. And in return, they gain experience that can go on a resume, an artifact to share with potential clients, and a network of people who will work to help you find contracts in order to keep you around to do more work.

The transformation from studying the Tudor monarchy and the Dewey Decimal system to working in the wonderful world of technical collaborations had a few more steps, of course, but the transition to independent contractor could not have been done as well or as easily without the time I spent volunteering with interesting groups. If you’re thinking about how to make a big jump from one style of work to another, volunteering your time to build your street cred is a great way to go.

I’m always happy to talk more about this. If you have other ideas for how people with non-traditional skills might engage in Internet technology, please post your ideas on LinkedIn, Twitter, or wherever you have your online conversations!

(This post was originally published in August 2019; I’ve polished it up a bit for reposting in May 2020)

The Meaning Behind Meeting Minutes

This post is an expansion on something I raised a few months ago in my post “Herding Cats“:

If it isn’t written down somewhere that stakeholders can get to it, it didn’t happen. Even if it is written down, if it’s not well indexed, it still didn’t happen.

I’m going to start by assuming that everyone reading this recognizes the importance of keeping notes or minutes (which are not the same thing) for the meetings they participate in. It comes back to an old adage “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.”

If you are on a project that spans years, however, the records of your meetings can become less and less helpful. You know the group made a decision at some point, but when? Who was there? What were the reasons? Can you actually point to the discussion later so you don’t have to repeat that process again?

It has taken me longer than I care to admit, but I’ve finally worked out a structure for my records that help both the immediate need for a reference and the longer term need for an index. This can be adapted based on what collaboration tools you have available.

Meeting Name, Date

  • Attendees
  • Absences
  • Open Action Items
    • Label (e.g., AI-20190807-00), Owner, Description
  • Agenda
  • Notes
  • Decisions
    • Label (e.g., D-20190807-00), Description
  • Closed Action Items
    • Label (e.g., AI-20190807-00), Owner, Description, Date Closed

I usually put the Action Items and Decisions in table format. Depending on the collaboration tools, these records can be in one big file that rolls over annually (so you have your 2019 notes, archive them, then your 2020 notes, etc.), or in one file per meeting. If you do the latter, copy the decisions and closed action items into a single file that can serve as an index for the year.

Making Decisions

“You are always saying yes to something.” Jen Casey

It’s impossible to ignore the pain the world is in right now. When I originally wrote this blog post back in 2019, I was thinking about my usual, day-to-day considerations. And while it still applies to those considerations, I realized that it also applies to bigger social issues. Whatever actions you take — or don’t take — in response to racism, gaslighting, or societal apathy, you are saying yes to something. Make sure that yes is intentional. Make sure it reflects what you want to see in the world.

I recently listened to a podcast (“The Inner Boss“by Jen Casey, episode 152) that made me think about how I approached decision making. I was originally going to say “how I approach consensus-based decision making” but really, this applies to any decision making at all. From what to have for dinner, to whether to approve a change to a technical specification, or even whether it’s time to end a contract, it’s worth considering the following:

“You are always saying yes to something.”

When I first heard that on the podcast, I thought “Well, I’m pretty sure that decision I made last week about whether to turn on my video camera for a conference call at the demand of some stranger was a pretty hard ‘nope’, not a ‘yes’.” Which, while true, wasn’t the point. That particular decision was a hard nope to what I considered a somewhat manipulative demand to control the meeting, but it was also a yes. In that case, it was a yes to “I am going to position myself in a less than positive light to this individual who feels the need to see the person they are talking to.”

I’m still quite comfortable with my decision in that moment, but it was enlightening to consider it from the perspective of: if I say no to one behavior, what behavior or action am I doing instead?  What are the implications here? By saying no to one thing, I might be agreeing to a status quo (at least for a time), or agreeing to continue an unhealthy behavior, or even agreeing to let a problem continue to exist even though it’s, well, a problem.

This idea of “what did I implicitly agree to” is something that will change how I drive the meetings and decision making in the groups I work with. I see this kind of thinking as a way to make people really consider the ramifications of their actions (or their lack of actions). Even a simple question in the last ten minutes of a call — “Are we all ok with letting this issue persist for another two weeks until our next call, or do we want to schedule some time to work on it sooner?” — has the potential to make a big difference in getting work done.

Maybe the no, or the delay, is the right thing to do in the moment, but it’s always, ALWAYS better to make mindful decisions with an understanding of the consequences, than it is to just say “no” or “let’s discuss later” because it’s the easier path.

And now for my next question in life: if I say ‘no’ to eating my vegetables, what did I implicitly agree to?

Herding Cats

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

My experience of working with globally distributed, multistakeholder, volunteer communities to make things happen.

The short, short version:

  • Time zones suck. There’s no way around that. Plan for duplication of information so that you can respect time zones.
  • Give up on the idea of doing things quickly but always remember that the work is important. It needs to happen. Be patient (but not too patient).
  • If it isn’t written down somewhere that stakeholders can get to it, it didn’t happen. Even if it is written down, if it’s not well indexed, it still didn’t happen.

The somewhat longer version…

At the moment, I work with about five (maybe seven) different collaborations. Those collaborations have a few things in common.  They exist across several countries, time zones, and organizations.  They are trying to do something that they can give (not sell) back to the world and they all take a really long time to get there from here.

My role differs in the details from one contract to the next, but in all cases: I am responsible for some (sometimes more, sometimes less) level of coordination. I get to interact with many of the stakeholders and help define the processes that will allow them to get their work done.  ‘Done’ might mean published or “go-live” with software. It doesn’t actually matter what ‘done’ is, as long as the authors, developers, or stakeholders know they have had the opportunity to be involved.

The coordination aspects are always a challenge for a variety of reasons. First, time zones might seem like an odd thing to put at the top of the list; but time zones are the very devil to work around. It took me a year or two, but now anytime someone suggests a conference call, my first question is “what time zones are the participants in?”  Sometimes that means we actually need to play the telephone game because it’s not reasonable to get the people from Malaysia to Amsterdam on a call at the same time.

Second, the more people are involved, the longer the work will take and the better a chance the work has to be broadly adopted. In fact, it will take longer than anyone expects it to. Contract holders do not want to hear that a project they think will take a year will likely take two, or that a software rollout will never actually complete (clients always want one more feature). Sometimes a best practice or technical specification, once set in front of the organizations that would need to follow it to make it “real”, will take a life of its own as it evolves to meet the reality outside the minds of the people that created it.

Third, you can coordinate the heck out of something, but if the decisions weren’t written down AND indexed so that someone could easily find them later, then it didn’t happen. You might well have to do it all over again. Meeting notes, especially ones made public, are great.  But let’s say the project extends from two to five years or more. How easy will it be to find the decisions made at the beginning of the project? Everyone will likely have their own indexing method (I’m still working on what will serve my groups most efficiently) , but if you do nothing else; (even if you expect the project to last only six months) make sure that the decisions made and the policies developed are easy to locate.

And that’s the core for herding global, multistakeholder collaborations. The work is definitely worth it. The quality of minds and perspectives you can engage with at this scale are amazing. But, seriously, write it down. And index it.