Local flavor is good for the soul

A highlight of all Madison+ conferences is their outstanding local flavor element, which showcases unique businesses and goings-on in the Madison community. For 2014, Madison+ Ruby welcomed Yumbutter, Madison Music Makers, and Prana Flow Yoga.

Lark Gibson, owner of Prana Flow Yoga, lead Madison+ Ruby 2014 attendees through basic yoga poses during breaks on both days of the main conference. The goal of the poses was to enhance overall circulation and help everyone regain focus.

“Tech workers can benefit from yoga because it helps to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome with certain postures, prevent common back issues from cropping up after long hours of sitting, and increase one’s energy and focus level,” Gibson says.

“It’s easy to download break reminders or apps that have lights that flash or timers that go off to remind us to get up every hour and do just one minute of yoga or walk down the hall,” she adds. “Just that little bit of movement each hour can make a huge impact on one’s health physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

Adrian Reif, founder of Yumbutter, got the local flavor spot on Friday started by explaining the genesis of his “World Changing Nut Butter” business. He started four years ago with a farmer’s market stand and interesting nut butter flavor combinations. With 100 markets under his belt the first summer, Reif met Matt D’Amour and partnered with him to grow the business. They launched a KickStarter campaign to put their nut butters in convenient pouches and raised $20,447. Today, Yumbutter has expanded to a little over 200 retail partners around the country.

Their mission is to try to nourish the world with every aspect of what they’re doing. To this end, they’ve partnered with Primeros Pasos in Guatemala to feed children in need. Yumbutter is also a certified B Corp, one of only three in Wisconsin. B Corps solve social and environmental problems and seek to operate with complete transparency. Finally, Yumbutter gets more nutrition into people’s daily lives by blending superfoods into their products, which are rich in antioxidants and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.

Quoting Buckminster Fuller, who said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” Reif challenged Madison+ Ruby 2014: “Think about how your business impacts the world. Think about your footprint.”

Next, Madison+ Ruby attendees met Bonnie Greene and Alida LaCosse from Madison Music Makers, which was organized to provide music lessons as well as instruments and transportation to children whose families could not otherwise afford it. Formed seven and a half years ago, the program has gone from 17 children to 100. Addressing primarily the South Side of Madison, Music Makers has a partnership with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and recently had one of its students qualify to participate in it.

“I’m so passionate about teaching music because music saved me,” says Alida LaCosse, an instructor for Madison Music Makers. LaCosse lost her parents at a young age and music helped her to cope. “When I couldn’t speak it, my piano teacher taught me how to play it. I believe that music education is a right. It’s not a privilege. Whatever it takes so our students understand they are valuable.”

Madison Music Makers has a community partnership with Zion City International Church on Madison’s South Side and welcomed Pastor McNair to speak. “We had an amazing thing happen to us in February,” he explained. “We had a building gifted to us. I had no idea all this music was going to come back to us. The South Side is kind of starved, and we’re trying to bring things back to life there. Check us out.”

LaCosse then introduced Madison Music Maker Lexus Anderson-Carter, a student at Memorial High School who started the program in the very beginning. Taking the stage alone with her violin, Carter played a gorgeous version of “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars, bringing the entire conference audience to its feet in a thunderous standing ovation.

The deep commitment to local engagement and cross pollination with all different types of makers impressed Madison+ Ruby 2014 attendees. “So happy I came to #MadPlusRuby!” Sara Nutter said in a tweet. “I can’t believe I was ever on the fence. Such a great experience for my first conf.”

What can 16th century alchemy and a 1980s knitting machine teach today’s developers?

Amy Wibowo, a software engineer at AirBnB, made an interesting connection between the work of developers and an artifact of recent history when she challenged her team to get a 1980s knitting machine to work and accept image files from the web.

In the 1980’s, she explained, Nintendo had plans for making a knitting add-on to the NES, with an interface that resembled Mariopaint. While this product never came to fruition, Wibowo was able to find an actual knitting machine on eBay. “Step one,” she explained, was to learn how to operate the damn thing. “It can thread two pieces of yarn, two different colors. There were so many parts, it was so confusing. I was super afraid that if I pushed the wrong button, I would break a needle and not know how to replace it.”

She and her team learned to replace knitting machine needles and conduct basic repairs. They figured out how to emulate a floppy drive and hack together a custom cable to send original patterns to the machine. One of these original patterns? Grumpy Cat.

Wibowo explained how they wrote their own yarn printer API in ruby/sinatra and printed their first doge meme in yarn. “It ended up being the best team because we had zero ego attached,” she said. “No one knew anything about knitting machines. We had to be fearless because the machine was really old and daunting. We had to be inventive due to missing parts.”

In the end, Wibowo said she learned to have huge respect for anyone who can knit, “because that shit is hard.” She also noted that it’s really enjoyable to apply programming to any of your hobbies and that it feels really great and valuable to pick up something new to remind you what it is like to be a beginner.

Madison+ Ruby 2014 took a turn toward the profound when Coraline Ada Ehmke memorably opened her talk by celebrating one year out as a transgender woman and thanking the community for its support.

“Developers struggle with identity,” Ehmke says. Are we architects? Scientists? Engineers? Artisans? Cowboys? What does it matter? It matters, she says, because we want people in the world to understand what we do. “We are trying to figure out who we are too. We don’t have a big long history behind us.”

Ehmke discussed how the language we use to describe ourselves is very important because it affects how we think. Language affects cognition, perception, and how we describe the world around us. It can limit degrees of thinking. Keeping this in mind, she presented Madison+ Ruby 2014 attendees with an interesting analogy for their work, drawing an instructive comparison between computer programming and the proto-science of 16th century alchemy.

“Alchemy is about transforming base matter into something more closely approaching divine perception,” she says. “Lead into gold was part of [the alchemist’s] pitch to the VCs of their era.”

The process of alchemical generation is taking something that is ideal and transmuting into something particular. Alchemists believed ideas descend from above, while harmony rises from below. All things are but imitations of truth: as above, so below.

“This is about the symmetry of what we create,” Ehmke says. “The balance between the ideal and the particular. Alchemy and software development are similar: an inquiry into the essential nature of reality. We produce an effect on the world, on ourselves. Let’s cast our nets wide and unlock our thinking.”

Attendees were deeply impressed by her insights: “amazing, deep, & dense talk from @bantik here at #MadPlusRuby,” said Rick Scott on Twitter. “More in the preamble than in some entire presentations.”

Becoming Better Humans at Madison+ Ruby 2019

Becoming better developers is important. But Madison+ Ruby 2014 is a bit more ambitious than that. Several of its talks focused on helping community members become better human beings as well. By unpacking concepts such as soft and hard skills, the intricacies of consent, and even the four classic virtues, Madison+ Ruby 2014 really got attendees thinking.

Liz Abinante got things started Friday morning with a terrific talk on renaming soft and hard skills. So-called soft skills, she says, include friendliness, communication, task management, and project management. It’s the ability to effectively communicate why you did what you did, to discuss your code, and to work with your coworkers as human beings. “We need to have soft skills in order to succeed,” Abinante says, “but why are they called that? I’m not a stuffed animal, even though I’m wearing a dress with dinosaurs on it. I’m a person and I really like working with other people. I don’t want people talking about my soft skills. I’m a professional.”

Abinante also asked her listeners to turn a critical eye on what it really means to call technical skills hard. “Synonyms for hard include ‘solid, firm, resistant to pressure, not easily pierced, violent, strict, unyielding,’” she says. “This doesn’t feel right. These are not words I want used to describe my ability to write code. These are not things I want to describe me as a professional. My skills are not strict or severe.”

Furthermore, this old fashioned dichotomy leads to confusion over skills that do not fit into the box, like the concept of code review because it takes both soft and hard skills. As a result, communication problems happen a lot.

“Why do we have 483 Javascript frameworks, but only two words to describe our skills? It’s BS!”

Abinante notes that humans really, really like things that are black and white because dichotomies make it easier to parse the world. They make it easier to automate interpersonal interaction. We love automation, but it should be used wisely, not indiscriminately. She gave several alternate options for the soft/hard divide, including interpersonal and quantifiable, psychological and technical, and even human and robot. The commonality among these options is the new dichotomies value both sides of the equation.

“It’s easy to be a unicorn,” Abinante says. “But it is hard to be a person. We owe it to our community to be better people.”

On Saturday, Abraham Sangha picked up several of Abinante’s themes with his talk TDD for Your Soul: Virtue and Web Development. “What do virtue and web development have to do with each other?” he asked. “Science is not self-interpreting. It can be directed for good or for ill. The best example of this is Walter White from Breaking Bad—genius, chemist, brilliant engineer…who uses his powers for ill and builds a meth empire. It’s not only what we do but how and why.”

Sangha shared that he really got into web development just to get paid, but over time that changed. “I started to see that learning to code and learning to be a professional engineer was a path for me to become the best person that I could be.”

Acknowledging a common sentiment, Sangha invited attendees to say aloud, several times throughout his talk: But, Abraham, I just want to code. Dismissing this refrain, Sangha plowed forward, using the four classical virtues as a framework to talk about character. He discussed what it meant to bring self-control, courage, justice and wisdom to the work of being a developer.

“As developers, often we’re in big cities,” he says. “And there’s all these opportunities for us to blow off steam, go out, have fun. We are paid well, relatively speaking. Our lack of self-control can come through here. As people in demand, we can get pampered, a little spoiled. We love toys, the new thing. Then we throw it away. This is an example of lack of self-control.”

Next, he discussed courage in engineering, explaining that this virtue manifests itself as a mindset where you look at problems and run toward them. He talked about how the willingness to pair program is an act of courage because developers who do so are allowing someone else to see their thinking—and their mistakes—in real time.

Third, Sangha considered the concept of justice in the development world. “Justice is to give to each person what they are owed. I think you can expand that to give to each community. Don’t write unmaintainable code and then leave the company. That is a breach of justice.”

Our code is not just for ourselves, Sangha says. It is not a static product, it’s part of a story, it’s part of a dynamic environment. New people come in, things change. Preserving that ability for your code to change along with dynamic parameters takes more work. It is just code.

Finally, Sangha encouraged his fellow developers to pursue a path of wisdom by taking time to reflect on the work that they’ve done and to find worthy experts to imitate. “TDD for your soul is finding where we fall short of these four ideals,” he says. “I don’t like to ask questions, but I’ve been challenging myself to more quickly ask for input. This is a more efficient way to learn, but I still resist it for some reason. This is a test I’ve written for my life.”

Haleigh Sheehan, also known as ScarlettSparks, picked up the theme of personal growth in her talk on binary for humans. As an account support professional at Github with a background in performance, Sheehan realized there is a lot of overlap between improvisational performances and open source computing. “There is a lot the two fields can learn from each other,” she says, “such as, ‘saying yes and.’ The yes is what moves your story forward. It lets the creative energy forward. The and is what makes things collaborative. It’s really handy in your life decisions; it can really broaden your scope.”

The goal creatively, and in life, Sheehan says, is to say yes. However, it is essential to create a safe space by actually saying no. We want to create boundaries, which is not easy for people. To do so, Sheehan guided her listeners through the nuances of consent, of the yes/no binary so many people struggle with in both their professional and personal lives.

“Sometimes you don’t want to move the story forward,” she says. “You want to convey this precisely so you’re not wasting people’s time.

While the concept of consent is something many may never have considered outside sexual situations or hospital situations, that’s not where it ends. People need to consider it in every way in which you interact in the world, Sheehan says. It’s actively considering how you participate and make requests of others.

“Consent needs to be meaningful to be real,” she says. “Yes alone is not consent if there is no opportunity to say no. People get very angry about spam because they didn’t give consent. You want to make sure your checkboxes are not pre checked, for example. When you ask someone to agree to something, you should actually ask.”

Consent is also informed, she says. For example, when you collect someone’s personal information, you must clearly reveal which third parties will also have access and how that information will be used. Make your terms of service really obvious. Make expectations explicit.

“If you’ve grown up being trained to be nice, or if you’re Canadian,” Sheehan says, “you may find it difficult to say no. If you’re a woman, you might get labeled as bitchy. Consider all this when you ask something of someone. How do you respond when someone says no to you? Think about it. Yes is not a foregone conclusion. Asking first doesn’t count if you’re not prepared to hear the answer.”

When we say no, we stop lying. People can trust us, and we can trust ourselves. And that’s very human.

Turning Vulnerabilities into Authentic Connections at Madison+ Ruby 2019

One of the themes of Madison+ Ruby 2014 was, essentially, “Get over yourself.” At a conference that celebrates diversity and shared humanity over perfection, speakers Sharon Steed and Ben Bleything impressed attendees by sharing their personal experiences with stuttering and ADHD.

“There is so much disruption and innovation in the tech industry,” Steed began. “Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of disruption on the communication side of things.”

Steed explained that her stuttering made a lot of her choices for her. She chose to be a writer because she was more comfortable with the written word than with the spoken word. She chose to be a freelancer because job interviews gave her so much anxiety. She also chose to be silent even when she knew she could add value to a conversation.

After ten years as a writer, Steed said, with about seven of those being in a marketing capacity, she learned a thing or two about what companies think they need to get eyes on their product. They talk about mobile strategy and SEO, social impact and hashtags. Whatever the next big thing is in the social space.

“They also talk about another thing, which is probably the most important: branding,” Steed says. “But the problem with using that word is companies are afraid to truly be themselves, flaws and all.”

She challenged listeners to abandon their strengths and explore their weaknesses. “You should aim to stand out by being unequivocally and imperfectly you. My disruption was speaking. I decided to just jump in the deep end and put myself in front of room of people and face the fear. Once I put myself out there, my biggest fears, my strongest doubts, I realized that I was connecting with people in a real way.”

It’s a lot easier to connect to your audience as a business when they know that you are flawed just like them, Steed says. So what’s your disruption? What makes you the most vulnerable? What challenges you to the point of being afraid? That’s where your sweet spot is. That is what will capture your target audience and make you stand out.

“People will tell you that you need to be the strongest communicator, marketer, salesperson in order to succeed,” Steed concluded. “But the truth is you need to be the most transparent one.”

Ben Bleything took the stage toward the end of Friday’s session and gave listeners insight into how the mind of a person with ADHD functions. “I have an atrocious memory. I can’t tell you my parents’ birthdays. The worst thing about this for me is that sometimes I’ll be talking with someone and parts of that conversation will just disappear. Often, I’ll be talking, in the middle of a sentence and realize I don’t know where I’m going.”

Bleything said that in high school he didn’t do my homework at all, ever. His parents and teachers thought he was lazy. When he began working, things got better, but as his career progressed problems cropped up.

“I found I was losing track of my tasks and letting people down,” he said. “I started to reach out to people in the Ruby community about these issues and started to have conversations about what kept them working and what kept them successful. One person in particular saw what I was actually talking about and recommended the book Delivered from Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell. It really did change my life. I highlighted 40% of the book. This is a big part of the inspiration for coming to do this talk. If this stuff sounds familiar, it’s not just you.”

Bleything shared some of the symptoms of ADHD, which include having a hard time following sequential tasks and managing time, the tendency to lose things and miss appointments, and talking excessively or over other people. He also shared tips for managing ADHD, including exercising, knowing the things that distract you, pursuing therapy, and taking medication.

“There are strong similarities between ADHD and depression and ADHD and addiction,” Bleything said. “Stimulants can help—what it really does is it speeds your brain up to keep up with your attention. Treatment is very different for different people and it’s very complex.”

Bleything shared the good stuff that comes with having ADHD, including hyper-focus, better nonlinear thinking skills, a lack of inhibition in expressing creativity, and the tendency those with ADHD have to be especially passionate in their interests. “There are a lot of things I’m really good at that are at least in part because of my ADHD,” he says.

“The point is I want you all to know these things are normal, these feelings exist. You can’t fix it yourself. You need someone who is trained to get to the center of what needs to happen in order to treat your specific situation.”