Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing

“Quality is absolutely objective and definable” is the main idea I got from this book. Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard tells the story of his journey of starting a company, defining its quality and ethical standards, and running it sustainably through the years.

My favorite passage that relates directly to my work at Automattic is about the questions designers at Patagonia ask to see if each product fits their standards—things like functionality, durability, simplicity, authenticity, and timeliness. I loved reading about their central tenet of concurrency versus assembly line production. Every product decision involves the designer and producer at all stages, and they work together until it’s done.

Recommended if you love reading about products and companies, as well as an intimate look at a very popular outdoor clothing and equipment company.

Many of the principles built into Patagonia’s standards can and should apply equally to software and product design. Here are some of my favorite bits from the book.

Without a serious functional demand we can end up with a product that, although it may look great, is difficult to rationalize as being in our line—i.e., “Who needs it?”

This is relevant to building web apps or products—who’s going to use your app? Is it needed in the marketplace? Does it add value? As product builders and managers we should cut out products no one uses. They clutter up our codebase and confuse users away from our core products that help them the most.

The best restaurants in the world have set menus, and the best ski shops have already decided which skis are best for your skill level.

Make the best choice for people. You know how your product works intimately, and you use it yourself. Design for that core use case and you’ll find your software helps other people, too, naturally. This goes well with the WordPress project’s philosophy of decisions, not options.

The best-performing firms make a narrow range of products very well.

I love this since it requires you focus on doing one thing really well—a principle espoused by software greats like Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

Moreover, we carefully define, rather than just assert, what makes each product the best of its kind.

This is important for the why below the what. Explaining your philosophy and why it’s important—and carefully building your products to match that creed—rather than just saying you do things the right way.

Market trends are less important than strong intuition.

As a craftsperson, go with your instincts born from experience and intuition and pay less attention to what everyone else is doing. Don’t just copy your competition. If you follow your own way, you’ll innovate and they’ll soon be copying you.

Photo credit: Tom Walker, Flickr.


surfing

This is my book review of Let My People Go Surfing, The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard—founder and owner of Patagonia clothing and equipment company, based in Ventura, California, USA.

See more of my book reviews and check out my Goodreads profile.

A Journey of Theme Craftsmanship

My name is Lance, and I love themes.

What was my standard opening line for many years when starting a WordCamp talk is still true today. “My name is Lance, and I still love themes.”

I’d like to tell you the story of my journey of theme craftsmanship—the ups, the downs, the unexpected results—and how I’ve now become an apprentice again in a new field.

It’s been a journey of adventure and learning where my skills have expanded beyond anything I’d expected—not just the technical path from web designer and developer to “front-end expert” and WordPress themer—but also writing, speaking, and leading. And more.

It’s September 2015 and I’m now back in an apprenticeship role. Working hard on finding my craft: tools, skills, patterns, workflow, and process. Discovering myself, my passion, my community, and opportunities to learn.

Continue reading A Journey of Theme Craftsmanship

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a thought-provoking essay about the future of manual labor, work, and craftsmanship by Matthew B. Crawford in New Atlantis.

The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the distinction between the Right Way and the Wrong Way. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life…

While I heartily agree with this sentiment, in this piece Crawford seems to lump everything computer related into “information systems” as a departure from manual craftsmanship, and ignores a bit the manual craft of making software. It can be very much a manual job in the sense that you type the code into an editor and make it run. And isn’t just plug-and-play necessarily. Though some systems (cough, .NET) do encourage GUI-based software development. A true hand-coder I think is just as much a craftsperson as someone building a wooden table.

But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

My version of this is: “Does the website work?” It needs to work, especially on my phone, and load fast everywhere. My kind of heuristic.

The essay points out the permanence of certain goods: it is easier to achieve a long-lasting product with hand-made goods, probably, such as furniture or motorcycles or cars. A website is obsolete almost the moment you launch it. It probably won’t outlive you. A well-made table could live hundreds of years.

The concluding words are a great takeaway:

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

Via Yegor M.

Flags Are Not For Languages

Why flags do not represent languages. A blog about designing global user experiences: beyond language, location & culture.

Via Dominik Schilling.

You Should Start a Blog

You blog whether you know it or not—even without a blog or website. You might not think of it as blogging. Yet, it is. Tweeting a photo or sharing an update on Facebook. A funny quote or story you see in your daily life. A beautiful sunset. Clueing in friends and family back home to a fun experience when you travel.

Blogging on your own website is much better than directly using services like Twitter and Facebook because you own your own content; it’s your online hub that you control. When people read your content, it will link back to you. Not some third-party site.

To spread the word to your social network—in case they don’t happen to know about or follow your blog—simply use features like WordPress.com’s Publicize and Sharing to share out the content to popular services (see Jetpack Publicize if you host your own blog).

To understand what I mean by publishing your content on your own blog—then push it from there to any social media service easily—I recommend watching this video: WordPress as Your Publishing Hub by Andrew Spittle (about 25 minutes long).


A few examples of my own blogs—several of which are brand new in the last few months.

Lance On the Go

Lance on the Go — A “moblog”, which is “mobile blogging” for quick things on the go, like from your phone, not long-form essays or big picture galleries. Not too polished or curated, just point-and-shoot and post.

Bad Français

Bad Français — My “Bad French” blog. As a language major (French & Spanish) I often find it hard to resist poking fun at misspelled foreign words—it’s a habit. Please don’t take offense if you or your business make it to this blog.

Theme Spotting

Theme Spotting — Geeky WordPress themes blog, fun with theme names. When you spot a theme in the wild, you post a picture of it. (Want to join the fun? See theme names at WordPress.com Theme Showcase and WordPress.org Theme Directory and then look for them as you are out and about.)


What to blog? Photos of things you see on your daily journey. Put up random notes. Whatever is on your mind. Quotes. Fun songs or videos you see online.

Why blog? Express yourself! Clue in your friends and family to your experiences. Importantly, you own the content you post—not a company like Facebook or Twitter. For me (any anyone in the WordPress community) it is good practice using WordPress itself: helping find bugs and suggesting improvements to the software. Using the mobile apps more, helping them be better.

Don’t just take my word for this, though, that you are a blogger and should blog. Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress, recently explained the “why blogging” succinctly when echoing Ernest Hemingway’s expression “write for two people: one specific person and yourself.” See also The Intrinsic Value of Blogging and Short-form blogging by Gina Trapani.

Let me know when you start and I’ll follow your blog. ):}

My Kind of Todo List

Remember Teux Deux? Me, too. Stumbled upon an old screengrab of my todo list from 2009.

teux-deux

— Rock it
— Kick some butt
— Laugh
— Have fun
— Say thank you

This is my kind of todo list.

Encourage Dissidence

From the “Kindred Spirits” pattern chapter in Apprenticeship Patterns:

Your community’s health can be measured in the way to reacts to new ideas. Does it embrace the idea after vigorous debate and experimentation? Or does it quickly reject the idea and the person who proposed it? Today’s dissident is tomorrow’s leader, and one of the most valuable services you can provide to your community is defending it against those who believe that marching in lockstep is the price of membership.

I love this challenge—it’s got me thinking a lot about how I approach new ideas, both when I bring them to my community or team and when I’m faced with new ideas from other people.

I am sometimes going with the flow in order to be liked and get along with everyone? Do I reject things out of hand because I don’t like the idea or the person? And do I question everything with a healthy dose of dissidence?

Why Isn’t Open Source A Gateway For Coders Of Color?

Food for thought: Why Isn’t Open Source A Gateway For Coders Of Color?. (Via my wife, Erin.)

The Power of Habit

My review of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

… once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

This book breaks down habits into small, understandable pieces—at its simplest a 3-step loop of cue + routine + reward. The narrative style is easy to grasp, in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics.

habit-book-cover

Wonderfully illustrated with examples of both good and bad habits, from alcoholism and gambling to workplace safety and employee willpower. Duhigg describes willpower, self-discipline, the power of belief as “keystone habits” that can create a structure for widespread change.

The stories and examples explain the central idea of the book: habits can be changed if we understand how they work. In the 3-step loop for a negative habit like overeating, for example, the cue and reward remain the same but the routine changes to a healthier one. And, importantly, small changes—no matter how tiny they may seem—fuel bigger ones.

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

My biggest takeaway is a motivation to think critically about my own personal habits, as well as the keystone habits and cultural values of my workplace. Raising my awareness is the first step to understanding my habits, and identify which ones I should change.

(Props Matt for the recommendation.)

The Investigative Mindset

Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules.

I have a confession: I often have no idea what I’m doing.

I remember clearly what it felt like my first day at my job: I was new, overwhelmed, and maybe even scared. But the work was exciting, mind-filling, and fun. Now, several years into the role, I still feel this push-and-pull. I’ve learned to juggle these opposing feelings and be both productive and successful at my job.

The key to this—and I believe one of the most important traits for my success—is an investigative mindset. Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules.

Why? Rules and requirements change, and the context I work in is constantly changing. I’m more productive in my work by making good, informed decisions—not by the book. I can work smarter, gaining a new awareness of how everything works.

How? To develop this mindset, I exercise the following:

  1. Take initiative on my own first: do the legwork to find the answer. Be tenacious and know where to look.
  2. Ask questions, know when to stop looking and ask for help. Not being afraid to be ignorant or wrong.
  3. Share my ideas for the better solution.
  4. Look to my teammates as a critical force—we learn together.

Often, the investigation takes me out of bounds—out of my “area”—that’s OK, and natural. I talk to other people outside my team, and I learn a bit more about how it all works together. I fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve raised my awareness.

It wasn’t always this clear for me … after only 3 or 4 months into being at Automattic I had a revelation that changed my mindset—put it into words. One day, I ran into a quote one of our internal P2 sites, expressed as a formula or pseudocode.

( intuition + investigation ) > memorization

I said “Yes, Yes, YES!” I was in the privacy of my home office, so no one heard me, of course. It really made sense, though. And it alleviated part of the struggle I was having to completely internalize all the things I was supposed to know and do. All the stats and bots and checklists and dos and donts.

This was later echoed by something UX guru Jared Spool said at An Event Apart:

The mindset of investigation is about informed decisions, not going “by the book.” Dogmatic, rule-based methodologies exist only to enforce things; they avoid critical thinking and good decision making.

I realized if I made good, informed decisions I could solve problems in both normal and edge cases. Instead of a one-time answer, I could build a framework to answer any question. A mentality. The outcome of finding the answer, solving the problem, sharing the solution—rewards this mindset. A loop. Doing it over and over.

This feedback loop is hugely powerful. It gives me confidence to continue to strive for an investigative mind.


Notes:

1. A video my colleague Justin Shreve posted echoes this investigative mindset, specifically as it applies to software development: Being a developer is being a problem solver.

2. Thinking about investigation reminded me of my time in the Future Problem Solving (FPS) club in high school. We found creative solutions to mock issues like world hunger or renewable energy. It was fun and challenging, but the best part was the process itself. Investigate, organize, present, debate. Learn. (Random trivia: according to Wikipedia a later team from my school won a state FPS competition. Rock!)

3. One more quote: “Never memorize what you can look up in books.” —Einstein (unsourced)