Elsewhere on the web

Writing to Understand. “… writing it down often forces us to have differently shaped or more complex thoughts than we would in our head. In particular written or spoken thoughts tend to be more coherent than those in your head… [This] forces you to have thoughts you were skipping over when you tried to have them in your head, and spelling out those detail can help you make sense of them.”

Be impatient. “Being impatient is the best way to get faster at things. And across a surprising number of domains, being really fast correlates strongly with being effective.”

Why Aren’t We Talking More About Ventilation?. “How is it that six months into a respiratory pandemic, we still have so little guidance about this all-important variable, the very air we breathe?”

The TikTok War. “This understanding of China’s belief that it is fighting an ideological war explains why the severe curtailing of freedom that happened in Hong Kong this month was inevitable; if the Party’s ideology is ultimately opposed to liberalism anywhere, “one country-two systems” were always empty words in service of China’s rejuvenation, and Marxism’s triumph. To see that reality, though, means taking China seriously, and believing what they say.”

All of Zoom is a stage

Video conference meetings are hard to love. At a first approximation, everyone hated meetings even back when we could sit together around a long table in a small room. (Remember that?) Now meetings don’t even have the advantage of giving participants a single shared physical experience to loathe. It’s hard to be a meeting these days.

And it goes further than that. One of the most challenging things about working remotely is that we lack the physical presence and face-to-face human contact that build social connection and trust. You can’t read a room if there is no room.

And so we have video conferencing. It’s the best mechanism we have to build human connection from afar, even if it like looking through a drinking straw.

Because video is at such a disadvantage to real life, it is critical to do the work to make it as good as possible. If the human on the other side of the call can see you clearly, look you in the eye, and not strain to hear you—if you remove as much mental overhead as possible—you have a much better shot of communicating clearly.

Communicating clearly is worth spending time and (some) money on. This is especially true for external-facing roles, like sales, where you represent your company, but it’s also important for anyone who spends more than an hour a day on video. The time will come when you need to have a difficult high-stakes conversation over video, and you will be glad that you prepared.

How you look and sound on a video conference call is literally how others see you. So be one half-step above what’s required. A small investment in time and money can have an outsized effect on how professional—and competent—you appear. And the bar is not that high. So many people do it so badly—how many noses have you looked up in dark rooms?

You can go out and spend thousands of dollars creating your own studio, use an expensive SLR as a webcam—the works. But looking and sounding better doesn’t have to be difficult or costly, even if you’re in a noisy space with kids running around. Here’s how I do it.

First, equipment.

Equipment

  • Headphones. I like the AirPods Pro ($230). They sound great, they cancel noise, and I can wear them comfortably for hours. Noise cancelling is a must when you have kids running around. These are the most expensive part of the rig, but you can pick any headphones that are comfortable and you like. It’s really up to your preference.
  • Microphone. A good microphone, well positioned, is the most critical component of the setup. Your voice needs to be easy to hear. I use this cheap lavalier mic ($16). Yes, AirPods have microphones, and they are an improvement over your built-in computer mic, but they like any bluetooth microphone they do noticeably compress audio. A wired microphone sounds better. You can go crazy here, but this will make you sound better than 80% of people out there. For presentations, I use the AudioTechnica ATR2100x-USB, which sounds fantastic but is bulky and gets in the way during routine calls. I’ve also read good things about the Sennheiser SC 160, which would double as headphones. Honestly, even the wired headphones that come with your iPhone are going to be better than your laptop microphone.
  • Krisp ($40/year). This software is surprisingly good at filtering out background noises. I routinely do calls where my kids are screaming in the background and the person on the other end can barely hear them, if at all. It’s also really good at removing the sound of typing if you like to take notes. The downside is that it slightly reduces the fidelity, but on balance, it’s an enormous improvement if you don’t have a quiet room. I cannot recommend this enough.
  • Camera. Laptop cameras are universally terrible. I use the Logitech c920 ($80), but that is hard to come by these days. Amazon is full of cheap knockoffs that are probably ok. If you want better quality and spend more money and time to get it, you can get an adapter and use an SLR as a webcam, but that quickly gets costly.
  • Light. Lighting is important. Get at least one light that has adjustments for both color temperature and brightness. I’m fortunate that my natural lighting is good, but even so, my face is too dark compared to the background. This light ($36) is cheap and hokey but does the job. I have it clipped to my monitor stand. There are a bunch under various no-name brands on Amazon.
  • Webcam Settings utility (mac). This is a great little piece of software that adjusts white balance, brightness, zoom, pan, etc. for your webcam. I adjust white balance, turn off backlight compensation, and zoom in a bit so I’m framed better and more tightly.

Now that we’ve discussed equipment, let’s talk about how to use it.

Look people in the eye

When I was in 5th grade, I was fortunate enough to be assigned as part of a mentorship program a local newspaper columnist. He was a great guy, a journalist of the old school, and my mother took me to visit him in his home study. One thing I vividly remember is that it was lined with hundreds of signed baseballs. It was the coolest room I’d ever been in. But the thing I remember more was that my mother reminded me many times to look him in the eye when talking to him. And she was right! I was a nerdy kid and I was not good at this.

Most adults naturally look people in the eye when talking in person, but I’ve found that as soon as people start talking in a video conference, all of the sudden the looking-in-the-eye rate plummets. People put the video conference window off in the corner of the screen, out of the way, so people look at that and it looks like they are distracted and not paying attention, even if they are.

If the purpose of a video conference call is to replicate as closely as possible an in-person meeting, then you must look people in the eye.

So first, camera positioning. Place the camera at the center of your monitor, just above eye level, and look directly at it. A common mistake here is people use their laptop, sitting on the desk, so the camera ends up below them, pointing up. It’s not a good look. If you are stuck using a laptop camera, get a laptop stand or put your laptop on a stack of books.

Second, place the video window in the top center of the screen, as close to the camera as possible. That way, you can look at the other person like you naturally want to, and it appears to them like you are looking them in the eye and paying attention. It’s critical that you look like you’re paying attention. Close any unnecessary application windows. That will help you actually pay attention.

Physical space. You’re not the only thing on camera! Is your dirty laundry on the bed behind you? Is there a stack of open cardboard boxes to the side? Fix that. Tidy up. If you can’t, use a tasteful Zoom virtual background. I’m not a big fan of virtual backgrounds—I think the weird blobby border effects around the human shape are tacky and distracting. But it’s better than a messy room. Note that your background does not have to be minimal and spotless. Mine isn’t (see below). But it should be respectable and undistracting.

(If you want to take things to the next level, get a green screen. They aren’t that expensive, and it makes the Zoom virtual background experience much better. I don’t do this, and don’t recommend it unless you have a lot of external-facing client meetings or you just like having a giant bright green sheet behind you.)

Next, lighting. You can read a lot about technique, but the main point is that at a minimum you want to be lit from the front, at as close to eye level as you can. Even if you have good ambient light, a light in front of you can fill in the shadows on your face and make you stand out against your background. At first, it will feel weird to have a light shining in your face. But you’ll get used to it. I position mine a bit up and too the side to avoid reflection off of my glasses. Use all the natural light you have available.

Camera adjustments. Proper white balance can make a big difference. Between adjusting the color of the your light and adjusting the white balance of the camera, you can make yourself appear much more natural and less like a carsick android.

Webcam Settings Panel 1

If you have a 1080p or higher resolution camera, you can also zoom in and pan a bit to frame yourself better, if you need to, without negatively effecting the video that most people see. My monitor is far back on my desk, so I zoom in a bit.

Webcam Settings Panel 2

Here’s a before shot of the raw image from my camera before adding lighting or making any settings adjustments:

Zoom self view, before

The positioning is not bad, but the rest needs work. Afterward turning on the light and adjusting the camera, it looks like this:

Zoom self view, after

Conclusion

Putting this much effort into crafting your virtual conferencing appearance is an exercise in artifice. You are constructing an unnatural environment to appear natural. It’s a bit of a lie. But it’s in the service of putting your best foot forward and creating the best possible human-to-human communication.

Appendix: In which people take this much further

If you’re fascinated by the mechanics of this (like me), these are worth reading:

A power of facing

‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.”

Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters

Who you tell yourself you are is a story you tell about yourself. The facts that don’t fit that story can be the most important to reckon with, and the hardest.

What I’ve been reading

  • Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters. A look at Orwell in the context of his time, and how and why he holds up so well. What struck me is what Hitchens calls Orwell’s “power of facing,” in other words, the ability to look directly at unpleasant facts.
  • Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night. I didn’t much care for her previous work, All the Birds in the Sky. This one is a great read. It also has a great title.
  • Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic.
  • Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947. Covers a lot of ground that previous books I’ve read about WWII haven’t. War is very costly.

Elsewhere on the web

Pinboard is Eleven. “Much of the core code on the site dated back to 2009-2010 and was written by Past Me, a vindictive, inscrutable nemesis who devoted his life to sabotaging Present Me. Doing this on a live system is like performing kidney transplants on a playing mariachi band. The best case is that no one notices a change in the music; you chloroform the players one at a time and try to keep a steady hand while the band plays on. The worst case scenario is that the music stops and there is no way to unfix what you broke, just an angry mob. It is very scary.”

How to Write Technical Posts (so people will read them). “Here’s the biggest thing to keep in mind: your reader doesn’t really care what you have to say.”

Recognizing vs Generating. “Here, as in many other Recognizing vs Generating dichotomies, it can be easy to trick ourselves into thinking we’re putting in more effort than we really are. “After all,” the tempting thought goes, “both reading the textbook and writing proofs feel like they fit the definition ‘studying’, so why can’t the easier one work?”

Narrative Collapse. “In other words, when you read a narrative, for example, you are encountering the product of a series of choices that have already been made for you by the author out of a myriad of possibilities… The countless other choices that were possible are present only to the imagination. You see the words the author chose, not the ones she could’ve chosen. You see the path marked out for you as a reader, not the multiple paths that were rejected.”

Notes on The Art of Leadership: Small Things, Done Well by Michael Lopp

The Art of Leadership Cover

I owe a lot to Michael Lopp. Years ago, his book, Being Geek, and his blog, Rands in Repose, were my first introductions to thinking about software engineering and engineering management as a capital letter “C” Career. And they were my first introduction to the concept of regular 1:1s and other fundamental management concepts. What I learned from him allowed me to avoid creating a total disaster of everything when I was made a manager with no training. Where I am in my career right now, I can trace back to what I first started learning from Lopp, and I am still learning from him today.

(Thank you!)

That is all to say that I recommend The Art of Leadership: Small Things, Done Well (and his other writing) to anyone in software engineering management, or considering software engineering management. Most of the book is adapted directly from Rands in Repose, so you could get some value from browsing the archive. That said, he’s selected the best material, refined it, and added entirely new chapters, so I recommend reading the book.

Lopp’s signature technique is to tell a story to illustrate his point. This technique is compelling, engaging, and works well.

Most useful chapters

I found the following chapters most useful:

  • 2. Meeting Blur
  • 7. A Performance Question
  • 8. How to recruit
  • 9. Rainbows and Unicorns
  • 10. Say the Hard Thing
  • 11. The Signal Network
  • 12. Be Unfailingly Kind

Resonating concepts

The following concepts resonated the most with me:

  1. Information dissemination is a core responsibility of a manager.
  2. A manager should set the highest standard for follow-through.
  3. Recruiting is a core responsibility of a manager.
  4. Compliments work.
  5. Say the hard thing. Your goal should be to make feedback routine.
  6. As a leader, it’s ok to selectively lean on your experience instead of working to gain consensus.

These concepts are critical. So much so that I hope to write about many of these separately, bringing in other sources. For now, I’ll briefly discuss what Lopp says about each, and use each as a vehicle for me to expand a bit.

1. Information dissemination is a core responsibility of a manager

My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution. It is my primary job, and the efficiency with which I do this directly contributes to the velocity of the team.

You can spend a lot of time and money investing in processes, tools, and artifacts that you believe are necessary to critical and timely information flow, but where I consistently invest is in the team. I demonstrate to the humans the value of effectively detecting, assessing, routing, and retransmitting information across the organization.

A manager has access to a lot of information that the team doesn’t have about what’s going on elsewhere in the company, for example in a high-profile meeting. As a leader, you have a responsibility to communicate this to the team to help them work more effectively.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately. Communication is the challenge of a growing team. The number of possible 1-1 communication channels increases proportionally to the square of people. As your organization grows, you start to need new layers in the form of middle managers to tie things together, which introduce even more communication channels—and opportunities for communication to not happen.

Ideally, you can organize teams so that the right people naturally talk to each other, establish mature project management, organize structurally recurring meetings (daily standups, etc.), and foster a culture of communicating well in writing through tickets. But… as experience shows, there are always gaps. It’s a manager’s job to actively seek out and fill those gaps.

2. A manager should set the highest standard for follow-through

“You sign up for things and get them done. Every single time.”

I liked this so much that I already quoted it. A big part of being a manager is nudging people to the behavior you want through setting an example of that behavior. Follow-through, in particular, is so fundamental because it is the foundation of trust. You do what you say. What you say means something. People can rely on you.

3. Recruiting is a core responsibility of a manager

On the list of work you can do to build and maintain a healthy and productive engineering team, the work involved in discovering, recruiting, selling, and hiring the humans for your team is quite likely the most important you can do.

Lopp advocates spending at least one hour per day on recruiting-related activities, up to 50% of your time. That’s a lot! But, this is something I believe in and have advocated for myself. Will Larson has written about spending time each week on cold sourcing.

The critical point here is that growing the team, in the right way, is the manager’s responsibility (and I would argue accountability). The composition of the team is one of the most significant factors that will determine the team’s future performance. Too many managers rely on HR to do everything in recruiting, but that’s an abdication of responsibility.

You can rely on you HR/recruiting team as a powerful partner to do the actual work of traditional screening, recruiting, etc. but you need to be involved. Since you are closer to the work, you are better positioned to have the meaningful conversations with candidates that can truly identify who the best match is, and more importantly, communicate to the candidate in their language why they should want to work at your company, and with you, personally.

Lopp identifies three stages of a recruiting pipeline for engineering managers, which differs from the traditional recruiting pipeline:

  1. Discover. Networking and cold sourcing.
  2. Understand. During the candidate interview process, your goal here is to make sure that the candidate understands your mission, culture, and values.
  3. Delight. From offer to onboarding. Just because a candidate accepted an offer doesn’t mean that they will show up on the first day. After a candidate accepts an offer is a dangerous time, where the reality of impending change hits them, and doubt and uncertainty are at their most intense. Stay engaged with the new hire through meaningful, personal communication. Describe to them what they will be working on. Don’t rely on HR to be the sole communicators with the candidate.

4. Compliments work

People like compliments; they make them feel good. It is a form of timely feedback that helps people learn. Lopp gives a useful, practical definition of a compliment as a “a selfless, well-articulated, and timely recognition of achievement.”

All of those components are important, but the most important to me is “well-articulated.” Don’t just say “good job.” That’s easy to toss off, and the recipient knows it. It’s cheap. Specifically state the act, the value, and the impact. It shows your paying attention, and it communicates what you value, and what the team values.

This resonates with me because frankly, like most managers, I don’t do this enough.

5. Say the hard thing. Your goal should be to make feedback routine.

Feedback is an incredibly valuable social transaction. It shows that people have taken their time to observe an aspect of you. They have other things to do, but today they are investing in you. You think you’ve got it all figured out, but you don’t. In turn, you take the time to clearly hear the feedback, ask clarifying questions, and hopefully adjust the way you work. All the constituent parts of the act of giving and receiving feedback provide an opportunity to build trust in a relationship.

There are two parts to this. First, say the hard thing. Since reading this book, I’ve kept this phrase in my head.

The ability to say the hard thing is a critical leadership skill. It is essential to helping your team grow. Positive feedback (compliments!) can go a long way, but sometimes you have to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. It’s easy not to say the hard thing because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. We know that we wouldn’t want to hear it, so we don’t want to say it. However, as I have learned from personal experience, the only thing worse than saying the hard thing is not saying it.

Another way I like to think about this is that you should tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. More bluntly: avoiding a hard conversation is selfish, because you are putting your own emotional comfort above your responsibility to help the person grow, your responsibility to other team members who deserve the best teammates, and your responsibility to your employer to guide the team to achieve great performance.

The second part is making feedback—saying the hard thing—routine, so it is a bit less hard to say. It’s an essential behavior to model and foster. It takes practice, and it isn’t easy. A team that can talk to each other candidly about what is going well, and what is not, is a team that trusts each other, and a team that will do greater and greater things.

6. As a leader, it’s ok to selectively lean on your experience instead of working to gain consensus

This is a bit of a corollary to avoiding the  “not invented here” syndrome.

As you advance in your career, one advantage you gain from experience, and from being an executive, is that you can selectively draw on that experience to shortcut what would potentially be a long discovery and decision-making process. The example he uses is that he adapted a career latter from a previous gig instead of working collaboratively with the team to create a new one. It wasn’t necessarily as good of a fit as a custom one would have been, but it was much faster to produce. The team was able to focus on higher-value work.

Conclusion

The Art of Leadership is valuable for both new and experienced engineering managers for different reasons. For the new manager, these concepts and the stories that frame them can help form some of the mental matrix you use to orient yourself as you face new situations. For the experienced manager, Lopp has a way with words and a way with framing that can help clarify your thinking, even if you already know the specific concept under discussion.

MailMate and Alfred

I use MailMate for my email, since it is very fast, customizable, and integrates with many other programs, and supports Markdown natively. It isn’t pretty, its documentation has gaps, and it isn’t for everyone—but it’s power cannot be matched. I’m a big believer in minimizing the amount of time it takes to do common tasks. I can work faster and more easily keep my mental context. Here are a few Alfred integrations I’ve created to make my work faster and keep my hands on the keyboard.

I created an Alfred keyword (“m”) to search MailMate messages using its search syntax, using it’s mlmt: URI scheme.

MailMate Alfred workflow screenshot

The bash script is simple:

query=$1
open "mlmt:quicksearch?string=$query"

So I can do the following:

Example of mailmate search in Alfred

In other words, look for messages from Sam that have “project rhino” in the subject.

I like searching this way because the syntax is powerful, but I can immediately search for what I need, from anywhere, as soon as I need to, in a single action.

Open inbox and go to first unread message

Alfred’s AppleScript Dictionary is rudimentary but contains one powerful command: perform. This allows you to perform any MailMate action that you can do with custom key bindings, which is a lot.

I created an inbox keyword that opens up the inbox, and immediately scrolls to the first unread message and opens it. When I see a notification for an incoming message that I care about, I can simply type “inbox” into Alfred and jump immediately to it.

Example of MailMate inbox workflows

on alfred_script(q)
	tell application "MailMate"
		perform {"goToMailbox:", "INBOX"}
		perform {"nextUnreadMessage:"}
	end tell
end alfred_script

I also have a pinbox keyword that jumps to a “personal” smart mailbox that has only inbox messages addressed directly to me from people who I have emailed in the past (the UUID uniquely identifies the smart mailbox):

on alfred_script(q)
	tell application "MailMate"
		perform {"goToMailbox:", "5E738709-814A-4DFA-93E5-85BB6FECD3F8"}
		perform {"nextUnreadMessage:"}
	end tell
end alfred_script

They will be our witnesses when we are gone

Seven years back, when Florence was besieged by the Emperor and begging for French aid, the burgesses went to the merchant Borgherini’s house: ‘We want to buy your bedroom.’ There were fine painted panels, rich hangings and other furnishings they thought might make a bribe for King François. But Margherita, the merchant’s wife, stood her ground and threw their offer back in their faces. Not everything in life is for sale, she said. This room is my family’s heart. Away with you! If you want to take away my bedroom, you will have to carry your loot over my corpse.

He would not die for his furniture. But he understands Margherita—always supposing the story to be true. Our possessions outlast us, surviving shocks that we cannot; we have to live up to them, as they will be our witnesses when we are gone. In this room are the goods of people who can no longer use them. There are books his master Wolsey gave him. On the bed, the quilt of yellow turkey satin under which he slept with Elizabeth, his wife. In a chest, her carved image of the Virgin is cradled in a quilted cap. Her jet rosary beads are curled inside her old velvet purse. There is a cushion cover on which she was working a design, a deer running through foliage. Whether death interrupted her or just dislike of the work, she had left her needle in the cloth. Later some other hand—her mother’s, or one of her daughters’—drew out the needle; but around the twin holes it left, the cloth had stiffened into brittle peaks, so if you pass your finger over the path of her stitches—the path they would have taken—you can feel the bumps, like snags in the weave. He has had the small Flanders chest moved in here from next door, and her furred russet gown is laid up in spices, along with her sleeves, her gold coif, her kirtles and bonnets, her amethyst ring, and a ring set with a diamond rose. She could stroll in and get dressed. But you cannot make a wife out of bonnets and sleeves; hold all her rings together, and you are not holding her hand.

Christophe says, ‘You are not sad, sir?’

‘No. I am not sad. I am not allowed to be. I am too useful to be sad.’

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light

What I’ve been reading

Using Choosy to open Zoom links faster on the Mac

Like many people lately, I spend half my day in Zoom meetings.

One (slightly) annoying thing about clicking on a Zoom link from Slack or an email: To enter a meeting, you first get (1) bounced to a web browser, that (2) asks if it can open an external application, that (3) you then have to click to confirm. And then, (4) you have to close the browser tab.

There are browser hacks you can do on Chrome to make the browser not ask about opening zoom, but a better solution on the Mac is to use Choosy.

Choosy is a great little app that you set as the Mac’s default browser, and it then sends links to different web browsers based on the URL. So you can set a rule to make Zoom the default browser for URLs matching Zoom meetings.

  1. Go to Preferences > Advanced, and create a new rule.
  2. Add a condition: web address matches the regular expression of ^https://.*zoom.us/j.+$

image alt Choosy preference screenshot

Note that if someone uses the /zoom command in Slack, that will bounce the browser because it has to authenticate.