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InfoQ Homepage News QCon New York – Optimizing Yourself Track

QCon New York – Optimizing Yourself Track

Day 3 of QCon New York had a track focused on how individuals can build non-technical competencies.  Titled Optimizing Yourself, the track had five talks covering a wide range of personal skills from empathy to communication, remaining relevant as an older person in tech, deep listening and working remotely.  

Wendy Closson of Corgibytes was the Track Host and described the track:

This track explores the critical personal force-multipliers that can help us all to Optimize Ourselves: mindfulness and meditation, communicating simply and effectively, empathy and emotional intelligence, overcoming overwhelm, etc.

The track started with David Copeland talking about “The Effective Remote Developer” in which he explored what it means to be “effective” as a remote developer and provided advice on ways to overcome some of the challenges faced by teams who do not often interact face to face in the same place.

He emphasized the importance of creating an environment of trust and said there are four key mindsets that team members need to cultivate to build and maintain trust:

  • Communicate frequently & clearly
  • Be responsive, but set boundaries
  • Assume good intentions
  • Help others help you

He said there is a base level of technology that needs to be in place for effective remote communication, and listed these points:

  • A chat system that’s easy to use
  • Video conferencing solution that supports multiple people
  • A good microphone (not the one built into your laptop)

The second talk in the track was Don Denoncourt on “Getting Old(er) in Tech: Staying Relevant”.

He started by presenting some statistics on average ages in the workforce:

  • Average age of IT workers:
    • Facebook: 28
    • LinkedIn: 29
    • Google: 30
  • Average age of all U.S. workers: 42 in the workforce:

He explored some of the stereotypes and preconceptions which exist around the software industry related to age and suggested that these need to be challenged and overturned.

He pointed out the importance of an attitude of lifelong learning – ongoing curiosity and openness to learning new things, be they new programming languages, new tools and techniques, new processes or new skills.

He provided some practical advice from his own experience:

  • Don’t be a Dojo Champion – the best in your small environment – rather be open to learning new things by putting yourself into challenging and risky situations
  • Learn from your colleagues and freely share knowledge
    • Read code
    • Join an open-source project
    • Write blog posts
    • Speak at user groups and conferences
    • Discover technologies that others team members are adept
    • Mentor
  • Make sure you extend your experience – don’t repeat the same year ten times
  • Stockpile resources
    • Ask teammates what books, blogs, online courses, or videos they’ve benefited from
    • Accumulate posts from web magazines and newsletters
    • Use getpocket
    • Conferences and seminars videos

He provided some advice on getting hired when you’re older:

  • Be upfront about your age:

Your team is looking for someone with ‘7+ years software development experience’ and a ‘Polyglot programmer with skills in 5+ programming languages and 2+ frameworks.’ How about 7+ years of C/C++, 7+ years of Java, 2+ years of PHP, and then 3+ years of Ruby (not to mention 7+ years of RPG and Cobol, otherwise, you could do the math and guess my age).

  • Be and look fit, but don’t worry about looking younger
  • Be interesting – have hobbies
  • Be prepared to take a salary cut for new opportunities
  • No work is an opportunity to learn
    • Do your own startup
    • Join an open-source project

The next talk was “The Marriage of Communication and Code” by Andrea Goulet and M. Scott Ford.  They are a married couple who run Corgibytes.  They explored communications frameworks they came across and devised based on attending marriage counselling to help improve their communications as a couple coming from very different viewpoints (she has a marketing background and he is a technologist).

The first framework is “I Statements” - rather than simply reacting with blame to something that someone says, you frame the response in the format “I FEEL …   WHEN YOU…  BECAUSE…” This removes the element of blame and interpersonal attack and makes the conversation about why something causes a reaction.  Ford pointed out that this techniques works very well in code reviews among other communication events.

The second framework is “Listen, Verify, Validate”:

  • Listen: use active listening techniques, don’t interrupt and put your own feelings on the shelf
  • Verify: after each phrase, ask if there is anything else and upon completion
  • Validate: feelings matter, be empathic

The third framework “Shame vs Guilt” based on the work of Brené Brown on vulnerability.  She distinguishes between shame and guilt as follows:

  • Shame: "I’m not good enough. I’ll never learn how to be a marketer/code”
  • Guilt: "This is a skill. It’s new and I am frustrated, but I can learn it”

Quoting Brené Brown, they pointed out that:

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

Shame leads to blame – discharging the discomfort we feel from shame. It has an inverse relationship with accountability.

The fourth framework is “Yes, and…” from the ideas of improv.  This requires that the participants in a conversation find a positive response to a statement,  allowing happy accidents and being open to new ideas rather than shutting ideas down with “but” or “actually” type responses.

The fifth framework they presented is Radical Candor, which relates to how behave towards each other.  Where there is genuine care and the ability to challenge directly, then radical candor is the result, as shown in this diagram.

Radical Candor 

The last framework is something they devised themselves: Inception Interrupts, inspired by the movie Inception.   The concept is that people respond to an interrupt request based on the level of abstraction in the thought process they are busy with.  If the person being interrupted is currently engaged in deep abstract thinking, then an interruption could derail the whole train of thought and be very costly, whereas if they are doing something that is repitious and not concentration intensive, and interruption is not a problem.  By establishing a protocol for responses (“I’m at inception level 6” means please go away and don’t bother me unless the building is on fire) then interruptions can be managed without becoming frustrations.  They provided the following graphic to illustrate the inception levels:

Inception Levels

They ended the talk by pointing out that communication is a skill that can be learned.

The fourth talk on the track was “Practical Empathy: Unlock the Super Power” by Pavneet Singh Saund

He started by telling the story of making a serious mistake at work and contrasting two very different reactions, one of blame, and the other of empathy and care, and how different the motivational outcome was.

He then defined empathy as:

  • See the world as others see it
  • Understand another’s current feelings
  • Non-judgementally
  • Communicating understanding

He gave the audience advice on how to cultivate empathy through introspection, listening and gaining perspective.  He discussed the nonviolent communication technique of self-empathy: “Self-empathy in NVC means checking in with your own feelings and needs.” He discussed the value of mindfulness “the non-judgemental awareness of experiences in the present moment” which helps with focus, engagement and keeping calm.

He suggested journaling as a technique to help gain mindfulness and build self-awareness.

He then discussed the importance of listening – really listening to understand, without judgement and actively aiming to connect with a feeling within you when you listen to someone else.

He encouraged the audience to actively challenge their comfort zones, to seek out different perspectives and “walk a mile in other’s shoes”.  He suggested doing things like:

  • Sit with your users
  • Pair with a tester
  • Work in Customer Support

He also referenced the work of Brené Brown and quoted:

Empathy is a skill. You need to actively practice giving and receiving empathy

He quoted Seth Godin:

Seth Godin on Empathy

He ended by pointing out that empathy is a choice, and encouraged the audience to make empathy their guiding principle.

The last talk in the track was Brian Branagan on “Deep Listening: Creating Conversational Agility

He started by stating that one third of projects fail because of poor communications and ineffective listening.  Then he told a story of his own experience when he initially didn’t listen to the underlying meaning in a conversation with a co-worker, and what happened when he paused, reflected and listened carefully.

He quoted Robert Dunham:

All the outcomes we experience, both individually and socially, come from our conversations: the conversations we have, the ones we don’t have, the conversations we do well, and the ones we do poorly.

  He identified three layers of deep listening:

  • Our speaking
  • Our emotions
  • Our body

He pointed out that each layer contributes to the next; a shift in one changes others.

Starting with the lowest layer, he says that our body provides the most basic level of response to a communication event.  The body warns us of threats to safety, helps distinguish friend from foe, lets us understand how to fit in, helps make sense of reality, and helps make judgement calls.  

The next layer is emotions.  Emotions begin as biological reactions to circumstances, then they morph into judgements about our future and provide motivation for what we do next.  He explained that there are four basic emotions: fear, anger, sadness and gladness.  All other emotions are compounded from these four.

The top layer, speaking, has two aspects – actions and types.  Speaking actions include:

  • Expressing our opinions
  • Saying what is or is not factual in our world
  • Asking people do things for us
  • Committing ourselves to do things for others

Speaking types are:

  • Transactional – Ask / Tell
  • Positional – Advocate from a role
  • Transformational – Share a vision

He discussed the need to move from “me” to “we” in conversations in order to achieve shared understanding.

He ended by pointing the audience to the book “Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results” by Judith E. Glaser 


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