In Search of an Unrelated Epiphany

Sun, Dec 31, 2017


It was the last day of the year, and I intended to end it with an empty inbox. The only emails left were strangers reaching out for help with API comparisons. I enjoy these conversations, but I admit I saw them at that moment as a blocker between me and Inbox Zero. As I prepared a succinct-but-helpful reply, something wonderful happened.

I had quickly searched for some documentation to answer the query. I skimmed the content, copied the URL, tabbed over to my email window… then tabbed back to the documentation, because my brain had noticed something familiar. On this same page was the answer to another question I’d been noodling on for a few weeks. A completely disconnected search led me to a solution.

Wouldn’t it be great if that kind of unrelated epiphany could be controlled?

Maybe it can be. You’ve probably experienced the benefits of going on a walk when you’re looking for a breakthrough. I often return to my desk with a new perspective. A 2014 Stanford study explained why, finding that walking increases creativity:

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, according to the study.

Walking must be like a reboot for your brain, clearing out the cobwebs. Maybe I got a similar jolt of mental energy from answering those last emails. I already enjoy helping people, but now I have another reason to assist. These often one-off basic inquiries are like taking a walk–they help my brain reboot and, maybe, find an unrelated epiphany.

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Good Enough Does Not Mean Finished

Wed, Dec 20, 2017


It’s the most famous portrait of the first president of the United States. You’d have never seen it if the artist waited for it to be finished.

Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 painting of George Washington went on to be used for the $1 bill. So, if you’ve ever held a buck, you’ve seen his work.

Stuart also painted portraits for five other presidents, two first ladies, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, and Napolean’s brother. Yet, this George Washington portrait is his most famous work. But we rarely see the full canvas.

That’s because Gilbert Stuart decided it was “good enough” as-is. Good enough for him to copy more than 100 times on other canvases. Good enough, eventually, to be on multiple postage stamps. Good enough for US currency!

Even though this was 221 years ago, Gilbert Stuart was doing what The Paradox of Choice calls satisficing. Once the portrait met Stuart’s criteria, he was done. In this case, it had to be good enough to use as a template for other paintings.

The key there is determining the criteria and being willing to settle for far less than perfection. The original iPhone wasn’t that great, but they released it anyway. They had a chance to make incremental–and over time, major–improvements.

You can do the same with whatever you’re working on. Whether it’s a side project (remember the side project lifecycle), an initiative at work, or you’re cleaning the house.

Be willing to keep some canvas empty. It doesn’t have to be permanent.

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All I Really Need to Know I Can Learn on Wikipedia

Thu, Dec 14, 2017


Recently I picked up a book I first read in fifth grade. It was a book I really didn’t have any business reading when I was ten years old, but I remember liking Robert Fulghum’s humor in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and its sequels. It also probably helps that each story is short (less than five pages in my small paperback version). I may appreciate that even more as an adult.

The book was first published in 1986, and its stories reference much earlier times, all well before technology and the Internet became ubiquitous. I’m not sure which are the simpler times. In the book’s first story, I found myself reminiscing about how information used to be gathered:

Spiders. Amazing creatures. Been around maybe 350 million years, so they
can cope with about anything.

At some point in the writing process, someone had to source that arachni-fact. Maybe it was within the “S” volume of their encyclopedia set, or a thick book of trivia. Otherwise, it would require a trip to the library and a search for the right reference book.

As I quickly type this post into my cloud-hosted blog software, I opened a new tab and got a similar answer in seconds. I didn’t even write out my complete question, because Google suggested this search based on many other curious humans.

We already know that many things have changed because of the Internet. Reading Fulghum’s “uncommon thoughts on common things” from over 30 years ago sent me thinking about the other efforts required for him to publish his book:

  • He may have written longhand on yellow legal pads, or typed on a manual typewriter. Once he saw success, perhaps he bought an early and expensive “personal computer.”
  • Drafts were likely typed and mailed to the publisher. By the early 90s, maybe he faxed edits.
  • He was discovered when a printed copy of his story was sent home with school children, one of whom had a literary agent parent.

Today, he’d likely write directly into a relatively inexpensive laptop, perhaps using writing software within a web browser. Feedback and edits could all happen within the same document, which could then be exported for publication.

Or maybe he’d just have a blog, which, of course, he does.

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Run Through First Base

Mon, Dec 4, 2017


In baseball, first base is different from second and third. You can touch first, run past it, and still be safe. This rule means that once you hit the ball, your only objective is to run as fast as you can all the way through first base.

Everybody stretch: run through first base
Paul L Dineen

If your hit went right to an infielder, it’s tempting to give up and jog. Even if you’re certain you’re safe, it’s natural to slow down as you approach your destination. But that means running to, not running through.

It seems like the year is almost over, but as my friend Heitor tweeted, there is 8% of the year left. If 2017 is the 90 feet between home and first, there are more than seven feet remaining.

I’m going to run through December 31.

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Rhymes With Happier

Mon, Oct 24, 2016


Recently I was telling a friend about a new career opportunity. As I explained the company and the role, he started laughing. That wasn’t really the reaction I was after, so I stopped talking.

“What?” I asked?

“It’s just that this sounds like exactly the perfect place for you,” he said.

I’ve been a Zapier fanboy for some time. Now I’m stoked to be the first at the company devoted to “developer marketing” (in quotes because developer marketing doesn’t exist). While Zapier customers are primarily non-developers, partner companies connect their APIs to Zapier. I’m helping those technical people make better integrations so everyone can be happier.

Ooo! Zapier rhymes with happier. It’s like they planned it that way.

Bryan Helmig, Mike Knoop, Wade Foster (Zapier founders)

Three and a half years ago, I met Wade (far right) at the Small Business Web Summit. I had organized the API track, and Wade came to talk about Webhooks, sometimes called a “reverse API.” While it’s a bit techy, the things that they make possible are very cool. Services that incorporate Webhooks can alert other services as soon as something changes.

Zapier allows you to connect 700+ applications (Google Sheets, Trello, Slack, etc.) together and automate your workflow. Do you want a text message when you receive certain survey responses? That’s the sort of stuff Zapier does. “We’re just some humans who think computers should do more work,” reads the Zapier about page, which now includes my smiling mug.

In early 2014, I gave a workshop at SXSW about “Un-Programming.” Zapier figured heavily in the curriculum and I’ve continued to use it for my own ever-expanding list of automations.

I also kept in touch with Wade, who eventually introduced me to others on the team. The people (100% remote all over the world) are great, I was already a fan of the product, and the company had a position that made a ton of sense given my background.

I’m really, super excited about the work ahead.

Want to follow along? The best way is to subscribe to the Zapier engineering blog.

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The Side Project Lifecycle

Sat, May 7, 2016


I love side projects. It’s fun to dive into an idea, make it happen, then share it with the world. I also love the term side project because it sets reachable expectations. It also means there is room for more than one. Yet, there is not unlimited room. At some point a side project needs to move on, away from its creators care.

Side Project Lifecycle

The majority of a side project’s life is spent in either maintenance or decline. All the fun of a project is in the early half of the lifecycle. That’s where the creative energy is bursting, propelling through to MVP (remember when to buy the domain name). Sometimes that activity carries on through the improvements part of the cycle. Rarely, you can extend that section, if you really have a lot of interest.

Most commonly, side projects enter maintenance or decline. No matter which it is, they don’t have the same vigor as the earlier stages. Maintenance and decline take time or energy (usually both) from the new projects you want to build.

Compare APIs with my Newest Side Project

Ever since I left ProgrammableWeb, I’ve wanted to dive deep into just the subset of public APIs that every developer needs to know. These are the APIs that fulfill a purpose beyond supporting an application or service. The API is the service.

EveryDeveloper comparisons

EveryDeveloper launched in early March, gaining a lot of interest. I’ve been keeping the fire stoked (improvements stage) since, exploring related topics on its blog and on Medium.

Making Room for More Side Projects

I have written about several side projects on this blog over the years. One that got a lot of attention was a site to help find WiFi in coffee shops and other public spaces. WifiPDX launched in 2004, when there were only 54 spots in Portland to find WiFi. Now, of course, it’s practically ubiquitous.

Though I relaunched in 2012 that was basically the last time I made any improvements to the site.

WifiPDX designs: 2004-2012
WifiPDX: Portland's wireless internet connection, 2004-2016

I did little maintenance over the last four years, but not for lack of need. Spam listings and reviews littered every page. The design wasn’t responsive, which made it very difficult to use on mobile devices (which is now likely the primary use case). Most importantly, I’m no longer interested in taking it on as a project.

To make room for EveryDeveloper, and whatever else I may do next, now has a simple epitaph on the home page. And all pages redirect to it.

This side project has completed the entire lifecycle. The prospect of making this decision was sad, but making it was exhilarating. I felt the energy release, no longer held by WifiPDX’s needs.

After 12 years, it’s time to make room for something else.

What do you need to let go?

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I’m Spending More Time With My Family

Tue, Jan 6, 2015


No, this isn’t a post about a New Year’s resolution, though what I say here will significantly impact this upcoming year.

No, despite the typical career transition sentiment of my headline, I am not leaving Orchestrate, the awesome company where I have worked since May to make developers more productive and creative.

This will be a personal post on what is still, according to the domain name, a personal website.

This is Hard for Me to Write

Seven and one-half years ago, I made a commitment to you.

I made a commitment to my country.

At a time when most were announcing two years in advance of inauguration day, I put my name on the line. On July 4, 2007, I started my campaign for president of the United States. For 2016.

Adam in 2016

A lot has changed since then. Most of the social networks on my campaign website are out of business or shadows of their formal selves.

A lot has also changed with me, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at this site, which again purports to be a personal website.

A Blog Divided Shall Not Stand

In 2008, I decided to stop programming and start writing about programming. In essence, I became a professional blogger.

And I’ve been one ever since.

Webmonkey, Wired, and ProgrammableWeb were all clearly blogging gigs. My last two roles, at SendGrid and now Orchestrate, there’s a lot more to it… but the blog has factored in pretty heavily.

Blog Posts Per Year

It used to be I would write blog posts on this site with care. Sometimes I would include hand-crafted charts, like above. I would write about personal news and not just insights that fit the Simplicity Rules® theme.

Professional blogging and personal blogging are about as similar as cheddar cheese and head cheese.

Rambling into Revelations

In ignoring the personal side of this personal site, I have let major life developments go without coverage.

I got married. In 2009.

I am a father. We had twins, but they’re over two years old now.

I am impressed by my good friend Jacob, who blogged a two word entry about his son well before Gibson’s first birthday. The post headline begins, “a couple months ago,” which is itself commentary on today’s social web.

The personal website, whose death I lamented way back in 2007, still owns a warm place in my heart. Yet, now it has a companion in the hereafter that goes by the name “personal blog.”

I can’t completely bring them back, but I can do my best to honor them by announcing some personal news to this site:

As the headline suggests, I am going to spend more time with my family. For politicians, this typically means leaving office. For me, I won’t ever get there: I am suspending my campaign for president of the United States.

I am so thankful to have incredible support from my family: my wife Jenny, son Evan, daughter Alana and the new baby I am extremely excited to meet in June.

What? You didn’t think I was just going to post that on Facebook, did you?

By the way, to get back to the non-personal topics for which this blog is known, this post is an excellent example of burying the lead.

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Practice Subtraction

Mon, Aug 4, 2014


Constraints can make you more creative. When constrained, you consider different possibilities and end up with more and better output. I’ve shared time boxing techniques before, but time is only one kind of constraint. Those in creative industries know this well. Visual artists might choose a restrictive medium. Actors often gather for improvisation, with no storyline determined until it’s selected at random. They narrow their focus, subtracting enough of the possibilities

Creativity is subtraction

Austin Kleon writes that all creativity is subtraction in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now. The right constraints can lead to your very best work. My favorite example? Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.”

Kleon has used subtraction—literally—in his own art. He wrote a book and maintains a website with poetry based on newspapers redacted, much like the image above. Using a black Sharpie, he subtracts the words he doesn’t want, uncovering a poem that was always there, unseen.

Similarly, the Laws of Simplicity boil down to subtraction. What can you take away from your work and still have it feel complete? What can you take away from your process that inspires entirely new types of work?

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100 Day Goals for Team Productivity

Sun, Jun 1, 2014


100 Day goalsI’m a fan of time-boxing techniques for creating constraints that encourage me to get things done. The POWER HOUR, for example, has been in my arsenal since 2005, though I don’t use it every day. That’s great for personal productivity, but what about when it comes to motivating toward the same end?

Jason Freedman shared the 100 day goals that have kept his company moving without burning out the team:

“Setting deadlines first and then choosing ambitious goals is the key.  The deadline becomes a forcing function that wipes away distractions.  There’s simply no time for extraneous features.  Failed experiments end much earlier.  Hacked together solutions get tested much faster because there’s no time to build the scalable version.”

Now I’m going to try something similar, but with my growing developer relations team at Orchestrate. This week we’ll be on an all-company retreat, where among the outcomes I want is a plan for the next 100 days. Using Freedman’s approach the deadline comes first. Whatever the developer relations team will accomplish during this timeframe will happen by September 9.

Determining what fits into those 100 days is the hard part. And we’ll be using some of those precious days to figure it out, likely walking back and forth on the two simplicity paths until we find the right balance.

As Freedman suggests: be ambitious, but do away with wouldn’t-it-be-cool-ifs. Then we’ll start again.

What are your 100 day goals?

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Orchestrating the Next Chapter in My Story

Tue, May 27, 2014

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Our own personal stories tend to make sense in retrospect. There may be plot twists that at the time cause a little confusion, but then it all sorts out into a tale that seems predictable in hindsight. That’s how I feel today as I join Orchestrate to start a developer relations team.

It was tough to leave SendGrid, a fast-growing developer-focused company that I’ve respected since my days as an API journalist. I had a good year working across multiple teams and learned a lot. Most of all I’ll miss the great people, but I know I made a lot of lifelong friends there. Plus, this world of developer relations is not very big and there still aren’t very many “B2D” (business to developer) companies, so I expect our paths to cross often.

About half of Orchestrate’s small team is based in Portland, so I’ll have an office in town for the first time in more than a decade. I was lucky to have a handful of news organizations cover my career move:

And this post marks the third time I’ve written about this new job. On the Orchestrate blog I explained why I’m joining and at PIE (an incubator where I first met the founders) I talk about my earlier mentorship role in the company.

From the plot twist of 2008, when I moved from programming to writing about programming, each additional career move seems to have led to this role. Even this site, started in 2004, feels like part of the story–Orchestrate simplifies databases so developers can focus on what separates their story from everyone else.

There’s a lot of work to be completed on this next chapter, but it’s a draft I’m excited to write.

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