Blogging by the Campfire

There’s something surreal about blogging by the campfire watching the sun rise. I’m out with my boys on a guys day out. Ok, I didn’t post this from the campfire but I could have since I had cell signal and can tether my phone… But I resisted the urge. What you’ve got here is what I happened to jot down while my boys were sleeping.

It’s been a while since I really went camping. I did it once last year but before that it had been at least 10 years. I grew up camping every summer. It’s been a goal of mine to get back to camping more often. This week, I promised my boys that we’d get out and do a guys night out. We packed up the tent and hit the grocery store to pick up hot dogs, marshmallows and all the essential camping supplies.

We learned two lessons that I thought I’d share. I’m sure that at some point, these stories and lessons will make it into a talk but for now, they will have to stand on their own.

One of the fantastic lessons that we learned on this trip is that even a bad smore is really good. I mean it really doesn’t matter if it’s neat or messy, if it has too much chocolate (as if there is such a state), the marshmallow is burnt or just lukewarm or anything other variation. There are really only two ways to screw up a smore. You can burn yourself and you can obsess about creating the perfect smore but if you relax and just let things flow, you really can’t screw it up.

This was especially evident as my 10 year old was war dancing around the fire singing – “I like mine crunchy crunchy… I like mine crunchy crunchy…” carrying his mighty marshmallow torch burning his black as the night while my 12 year old was searching for that perfect golden brown. The really good news was that when my 12 year old accidentally set his on fire – he wasn’t upset because it meant that he got to eat his smore quicker…

The lesson here is to stop trying for perfection. There are many different things in life where the only real way to screw it up is to obsess over it.

Second Fire
The second thing that we learned is that the second fire is a lot easier to start than the first. I remember as a kid around the age of 12 that I would get up before my parents and get the morning fire started. I thought I was so brilliant because it wouldn’t take long for me to get a nice little fire going. I would contrast that to the night before where my father had spent the better part of an hour getting the fire going, building up from newspaper to leaves to small twigs to medium sized sticks to real logs at some point, carefully coaxing the embers all along and creating a great bed for the fire.

I’ve created a number of fires since then and have come to understand the rituals that my father taught me when I was young. I was reminded, once again, last night that it’s not as easy as I thought as a kid to get that first fire going. The tough part is building up the strong base of solid and consistent heat from the bed of embers. Once that’s going, the fire will provide a wonderful glowing heat late into the night. As my father did, I buried the bed of embers in ashes.

When I got up this morning, well before the sunrise with a wonderful dew covering the ground, I went about the task of starting a fire to cook breakfast on. As when I was a kid, I scraped back the ashes and laid down a piece of the newspaper on the coals and before I could get the matches, it caught fire. I found myself scrambling to get twigs before it went out. Those caught fire instantly which set fire to the larger sticks and the logs. In a matter of 5 minutes or so, I was ready to cook breakfast. That was fantastic!

The lesson here is that if something is really easy, it’s often because the path has already been paved. Don’t compare your success with those that did it the first time.

Just Some Observations
Man I’ve gotten soft. Muscles that I had forgotten about are sore and I slept on an air mattress. How was my father not this sore? He took all of us camping and slept on the rocks in a sleeping bag. Honestly, as I get older and am trying to raise my children, I’m getting more and more impressed with my father.

Camping has gotten modern. There’s electricity, modern plumbing and costs $24 a night. For those playing the home game, that’s $168 a week or $672 a month. I could rent an apartment around here for that. I need to find some place more “rustic” and cheaper if we’re going to do this a lot more often.

Inspired By: Nathan Blevins and Wonderpuzzle

logo I thought long and hard about how to write this post. There are a ton of people that have inspired me throughout my life.

I was inspired by Jeff Blankenburg‘s Contribupendence Day. I was inspired by the original GiveCamp thrown by Toi Wright and Chris Koenig and the latest one hosted by John Hopkins and Jennifer Marsman. I was inspired by Joe O’Brien‘s passion for Ruby. I was inspired by more people than I can possibly name. I am the person that I am today because of the people that have inspired me through out my life.

At first, I couldn’t decide that I should profile anyone person because there are so many and I’d be doing a disservice to all those that I wasn’t profiling and I didn’t want to leave anyone out. Then I realized how stupid that was because I was leaving everyone out by not starting somewhere.

So, I decided to start with Nathan because he’s the most recent on my mind and has touched my life directly…

Who has inspired you and how?

When Nathan Blevins heard about the Ann Arbor GiveCamp he could have, like a lot of people, decide that it was too far away and not to come and left it alone. Instead, he decide to organize an offsite group and pulled in 4 more people to help. He hosted them at his house and they worked 9-5 each day. In the early going, he called and called, making sure that we hadn’t forgotten about him until we threw them a lot of work.

By doing so, he affected 2 different projects.

One was the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum (done in PHP so that it could fit in with the rest of their already existing web site). One of the guys, Dylan, that he hosted was a PHP savant and did a lot of the heavy lifting on that project. 

The second was a charity called Wonderpuzzle. It’s a charity run by my wife for children who have medical problems with no diagnosis. The parents of these children feel like their on an island because if their child’s condition had a name, they could join that community. As it is, they are bumping through the night with no one to turn to for help or even empathy as they fight against the insurance companies who won’t pay because they don’t have a name for some paper somewhere or the schools because the legislation only forces them to work with a small slice of named conditions like autism. Wonderpuzzle is an online community with discussion forums, articles and much more that address these issues.

I was very touched and privileged to get to demo the finished version of their site. Check it out:

What have they inspired you to do?

The next time that I look at something that’s the right thing to do but there are constraints in the way of my participation – I’m going to ideate on different ways to engage. I’m going to stop letting my “lame excuses” (all props to Michael Eaton for calling a number of people out on that) get in the way of my participation in a number of things that I’ve wanted to do.

Who else have they inspired?

The other people that came in to help Nathan out with the Knoxville GiveCamp satellite need mention too:

  • Ben Farmer – Ben worked w/ Joe to make sure the site was completely ported over to sitefinity, replicated its functionality, and made sure the data was moved over as well.
  • Jenny Farmer – Jenny was the mastermind behind the new design.  She spoke directly with Phoebe to make sure she got exactly what she wanted and made it so in photoshop. After that, she worked w/ me as Nathan made her ‘idea’ into HTML / .Net code. She, unfortunately, was not able to come in the second day due to not feeling well.
  • Joe Simpson – Joe worked with Ben to make sure the site was completely ported over to sitefinity, replicated its functionality, and made sure the data was moved over as well.  Joe was actually a real trooper as he was usually the first one at Nathan’s house and the last to leave.
  • Dylan Wolf – Dylan worked mainly on a separate PHP project.  However, any time he had down time he would jump on Wonderpuzzle and start taking small tasks on. He was a great asset to both projects and did an excellent job multitasking.

Call to Action

My challenge to you is to write an “Inspired By” post and profile another community hero.

In fact, I’m going to call out 5 people and because I want to know who inspires them. The fun part is that I could have started with any of these 5 people because they all inspire me.

Carry Payette (who did a very similar satellite group in Columbus)

Michael Eaton (who worked tirelessly at GiveCamp to make sure that everyone there had whatever they needed)

Martin Shoemaker (who brings design, best practices and humor everywhere he goes)

John Hopkins (who doesn’t want people to say thank you but rather – what can I do?)

Sam Henry (doesn’t blog much but when Sam sees a problem he goes after if head first. He, his wife and some of their friends, have started the Red Letters Campaign – Living Faith to End Poverty)

Ann Arbor GiveCamp 2008

GiveCampThis past weekend was the Ann Arbor GiveCamp 2008. The idea is Geeks Giving Back. The GiveCamp organized a number of charities(15) and a number of developers (over a hundred signed up and 90ish showed – I don’t have exact numbers). We showed up on Friday night at 5:00 and started work. At 3:00 on Sunday afternoon, we showed what we had accomplished. In many cases, the charities just needed a web site or a better web site. In some cases, they needed real programming work done.

It was an amazing experience. I was involved in the first one in Dallas. I worked remote and contributed to the St. Vincent DePaul Society volunteer scheduling application with J Sawyer and Chris Koenig. I don’t remember how many charities and developers contributed to that one but it was a huge way to begin. Since then there was one in Kansas City and now Ann Arbor.

While at the event, I, like a ton of other people, wore many hats. I was assigned to a charity (Center Stage Drama – separate post on them coming at some point soon). I also was helping with some of the organization, running the break room for a couple of shifts, technical helper for many of the groups, photographer, videographer, errand boy and anything else that could be done.

One of my favorite things was that I tossed the ideas around of doing a short standup 2-4 times a day and I got to run those. It was fantastic to get all 80+ devs in a circle and be able to run through all of the groups and do a 1 minute status to find out how the project was going and what blocking issues where up. More than once we got a resolution or found the person that had the immediate answer to follow up right after the standup. On Sunday we did 3 quick standups about 2 hours apart. Those really helped everyone quickly find resolutions and gave everyone a sense that we were going to finish on time. All good stuff.

The last hat that I wore was a little surprising, even to me. On Friday night, we started chatting and realized that we have 5 remote developers down in Knoxville, TN headed up by Nathan Blevins. As I’m tying this – I’m realizing that I really need to just do a separate post for that group. Briefly, it was Ben Farmer, Dylan Wolf, Jenny Farmer, Joe Simpson, and Nathan Blevins. They did great work for several of our charities and even took on one completely. That’s my next post about Wonder Puzzle.

The only issue with GiveCamp is that we can’t realistically do it in a geography more than once a year because of the massive time commitment, organizational efforts and sleep depravation. I’ve got some more sustainable ideas floating around that I’ll surface when they’re a little more baked. Let me know if you want to be in on those early and we’ll start some conversations.

The reality here is that I can’t even come close to doing the whole experience justice. The best I can hope for is to inspire you to come next time…

*update* Carey Payette called me out – there were two satellite groups, Columbus, OH and Knoxville, TN. Sorry that I didn’t mention the Columbus crew in the original post. 

Welcome to the Team – DJ Fury is rockin DPE

Entry Media

This has been a little while coming but one of our recently additions to the DPE Academic team is Devaris Brown.

Devaris is not only a passionate (and talented) developer, but he carries that passion over to all aspects of his life.

By day he’s an Evangelist, by night he’s DJ Fury aka the Furious One with a Sirius Satellite radio show on Friday and Saturday nights.  In fact, some might say his job is DJ first and Microsoftie second…

He was asked to DJ the events at the Imagine Cup in Paris. You can see a touch of that and some of how he’s using tech to make his shows rock on Channel 8 (The academic version of Channel 9). He even went on to explain he uses tools like PopFly to showcase what he’s played from certain nights right on his website or his myspace.

It’s easy to be proud of the team when we’ve got passionate and amazing guys like DJ Fury on board!

Imagine Cup 2008: DJ Fury… a Microsoftie?!? | Posts | Channel 8

Public Speaking – Great Beginnings

The Starting LineI’m giving a talk next week at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC). I happen to be in the fun position where I’m directly following the keynote. I’ve sat in on content reviews and keynote writing sessions so I know the messaging from that talk and the overlap that there will be with my session.

One of the services that they offer to their speakers is a speech coach. It’s the first time that I’ve worked with one one on one. I sat through a class offered by a different conference a number of years back. It was fairly useless so I didn’t have high hopes for another speaker coach. Boy was I wrong.

I met with Cathy Banks of Communication Power, Inc. I cockily told her that I have spoken at hundreds of conferences and typically get 8s or better on my evals. Turns out I’m not the only speaker out there that’s had Cathy change the way that they speak – here’s a post by Lee Lefever talking about his 10 lessons learned from his speaking coach.

I talked to her about the fact that it often takes me 3-4 times to really nail the ending on a talk. It’s been a constant problem that I’ve had on how to end a talk. I often run over time because I’m rambling trying to figure out how to finish a session.

Cathy, to my surprise, insisted that we start on the opening. I’m not usually concerned about the opening. I have a fairly casual style that sets the audience at ease and gets their attention.

It was brutal. She had me do the opening, asked me how I thought it went. I was relatively pleased. Then asked me what the point of the talk was because she obviously didn’t get it from my opening. I ran through the highlights of the talk and pointed out the top level message that I was targeting.

All of the sudden, I saw the issue with the opening that she was pointing out. I was rambling through the opening without clearly framing the overall message for the talk. My opening was entertaining, but really didn’t succinctly tell the audience what they needed to get out of this session. That’s the hook that gets the audience to listen for the rest of the session.

Then she asked me what I knew about the crowd. I felt good about this because I knew the target demographics pretty well and was able to talk to that. It’s mostly going to be business level folk in the room. These are management, business-development folk, business owners and so on at this conference. But then she turns it on me asking how my overall message related to this crowd. My message was far to technical and this audience really doesn’t care. I need to give them the couple of technical sound bytes but really hit on how they are going to make money from all of this.

With all of that in mind, I tried my opening again. It felt better but was still a little off.

She took a crack at an opening off the top of her head. And nailed it. As I parsed out what she had just said, I thought through my version of the opening. It was funny but was not nearly crisp enough. It wasn’t well defined as an opening. It was talked to the crowd now but still didn’t hit the 2-3 high level points that I was going to dive deep in for the rest of the session.

I tried it again. And again. And again. Somewhere in here, she started goading me on saying, “Come on Josh! How’d you get through those hundreds of conferences? Tell me that story. I know you’re a story teller so tell me the story!”. Yes it stung, but wow it worked.

Things started to crisp up. I started off my opening with a continuation of a story from the previous talk. I carry over some of the language from the keynote as well. This will help with continuity and really draw the connection between the keynote and my session. I hit the two points that I wanted to hit, gave a solid hook, did all that in a humorous manner and in less than a minute. WOW! I was thrilled. 

Now that I had my opening down, Cathy asked me to jump to the closing. The first one was a little rough. Then she asked me to run through the opening again and jump immediately to the closing. That was killer. I got a fairly solid closing on the second try. Two more refinement rounds and I was set. I carried the language through from the opening, tied off the ends on the two points that I wanted to get across in the session and had a solid call to action.

As Cathly pointed out to me VERY clearly, the reason that I couldn’t close a session crisply was that I didn’t have a good opening. With a good opening comes a good closing.

All that’s left is the stuffing in the middle.

Keys to a good opening

Understand the audience. This helps you target the content at the right level.

Understand the message. I put this second because there are a lot of messages that don’t apply to all audiences. But this is a critical part of the talk. Many talks that I see don’t really have a “message”. They just want to demo a technique or something. The best talks had a solid call to action and are trying to motivate people to do something.

Set up the language for the rest of the talk.

Write it out. Apollo Ideas has a post called Prepare yourself that discusses the different levels of preparation you can have for a great presentation. I talked about it a little in my post Prepare Yourself To Give a Great Talk. This is especially true for the opening and closing of your session. These are the times that you are in the most control of your session.

Don’t worry about establishing credibility. Because you’re onstage, you already have the credibility that you need. The conference has given you that. It’s your credibility to lose, not gain. Nobody cares how smart you think you are. They care what you’re going to be talking about and the points that you’re goign to be making. Chris Bernard usually does his whole opening and then gives people his contact information. I’m going to steal this idea.

Have fun. If you’re not having fun, the audience won’t either.

More reading

  • Kathy Sierra: Better Beginnings: How to Start a Presentation, Book, Article
  • John Kinde: Winning Your Speech At the Starting Line

  • *Update*
    I forgot to put this in the original post. Cathy did all of this over live meeting from a conference room in Seattle on a speaker phone. The mics for the speaker phone were actually in the ceiling so at some points of the hour long session, Cathy was standing on top of the table so that I could hear her better. It was awesome.

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