Interns teach companies too

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To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Web Excellence Award

Every summer at Mozilla, I was always amazed at what interns are capable of.

I was never a fan of taking the best and brightest and having them do mundane tasks like organizing desk furniture or data entry. It’s such a waste of time for a group of geniuses at the peak of their learning abilities.

So I’ve always pushed to create intern projects worthy of their time — projects that made a difference over Q2/Q3 and were on the critical path in some way. And by doing this, I’ve seen interns teach the company more than the company taught them. Not only was I okay with it — it was awesome to see.

Listen to your interns

There are a lot of simple things you can learn from interns if you’re listening. Their ridiculous, code-monster output can be inspiring and critical, but their feedback is just as important. Consider what you might learn from an intern:

  • Are your projects cool? If your company is doing interesting things, your intern projects should be interesting as well. They should be easy sells when speaking with interns who have a number of options. This helps you understand your cool factor — or the Nike or Apple factor — when it comes to recruiting talent. Are your products worth working on? Are they challenging enough to matter? Is your mission worthy? Interns can tell you this before you even hire them.
  • Do you have awesome engineers? Your ability to lead and mentor interns tells you something about the quality of your engineers. Are they able to teach a younger engineer the skills necessary to succeed? Do they have the maturity and patience to deal with someone who does not have the same amount of experience as they do? Do your interns respect them for it? Does your team even have the time to mentor an intern (and is that a good/bad thing)? Do interns out-perform your full-time folks? Interns can tell you a lot about what kind of people you have on your team and whether or not they have too much on their plate.
  • Do you have good engineering culture and processes? For an intern, the summer is all about getting stuff done. Interns absorb and accomplish things at a high rate — and they are a good litmus test for whether or not your culture and processes empowers people to get things done. If the way you do things is counter-intuitive or paralyzing, they will be the first to feel it. Their fresh perspective and intrinsic motivation make them great sounding boards for feedback on your process and culture.
  • Do your interns have fun? Last but not least, is whether they can have fun. If they can learn, be productive and have fun — it tells you you’re doing something right and this same energy translates to full-time employees. If they don’t enjoy their internship, or feel drained at the end of the day, there’s something wrong with your environment and they won’t be the last people to speak up about it.

Overall, interns can teach you a lot about what type of organization, team or company you have. Make sure to spend time with them and get all the feedback you can get. They are a valuable source of information and don’t have the usual organizational biases. Remember: if you don’t listen, you’ll miss all of it.

Making your internships awesome

So how do you work with, mentor and recruit interns? Here are some tips on how to work with interns at different points of the summer. Everyone has opinions and every company is different — but these worked for me:

  • Start recruiting early. It wasn’t unusual for my team to have our interns locked up before Thanksgiving. I credit awesome recruiters like Julie, Kimber and Jill (kudos!) for this, but ultimately we got to them early through career fairs and meetups, showed we were humans who knew our stuff about technology, and got people interested in the company’s mission. Quick aside: don’t give people exploding offers. You’ll lose people this way but at least you’re not being predatory and putting undue pressure on these kids. When you get a talented intern who wants to be there, you’re going to get the most out of the opportunity both ways.
  • Get testimonials from past interns. There are a lot of books on attitudinal loyalty, but this is a case where it really makes or breaks you. Word of mouth matters, especially in some of the strongest CS programs. When you have a good intern who loved their summer, ask them to write about it — blog it, talk to folks at their school, maybe even help you recruit at their college’s next career fair. And when you’re recruiting, be prepared to talk about these projects and link to these blogs/writings — they are a great way to explain to prospective interns the kinds of projects they might be able to work on (even if you can’t be super specific about exactly what project it’ll be yet).
  • Make a connection. I always found a way to relate to interns and talk about their favorite projects. Robotics, AI, video games, ping pong — whatever it was, I wanted to talk about it. Not only was I genuinely interested in them (I was!), I wanted to connect with them on their terms, in their comfort zone. Maybe they aren’t going to be able to talk for hours about web security — that’s what they are talking to you for — to gain that experience. But give them a chance to talk about their world. Not only is it fun, you will learn something while giving them a chance to talk about who they are and what they love.
  • Show them you care. This comes easy with a little effort, and is usually about you giving them your time. Take them to lunch. Ask them how they are doing. Give them rides home if they need them. Help them find a bike to rent. Give them tips on what to do in the city. Congratulate them when they plow through a tough bug or feature. Buy them coffee! There are so many little things you can do to make their internship special and show your appreciation. Use your imagination.
  • Trophies and stuff. Everybody loves trophies — why not get one for “surviving” their internship? The internet has sites with amazing trophies — so I got some and I went out of my way to take photos. It helps us remember how awesome those summers were. The best part of all of this is the interns get to take the trophies home with them, hopefully on the plane, so they have to explain what it is to strangers. If you don’t like trophies, get them a book, picture or card — something to take home with them and remember their summer. Be creative!

Whatever you do, treat interns with respect and make them feel valued by giving them your time and attention. If you can do this, they will surprise you and your summers will be memorable and productive.

Here are some photos from the last couple of years:

2012 Webdev Interns

Bye Owen!

2011 Webdev Interns

Tony and his mentors

Reorgs: choose wisely

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We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
- Charlton Ogburn, “Merrill’s Marauders”, Harpers Magazine, January 1957

Having been through a few reorgs, I can tell you that two requirements should usually be met:

  1. The change must be good for the org and mission
  2. The change should be good for the individuals involved

You should strive for both 1 and 2, exhausting all options, but sometimes you must choose just 1.

If you find yourself stuck choosing 1 over 2, it almost always results in people leaving. It causes boredom or animosity — both spell doom for an employee or team’s morale. Just be prepared to lose people.

I believe something is horribly wrong if you are in a position where 1 supersedes 2 and you have no better alternative than to lose valuable people — but it may not be worth over-generalizing. Just think about it.

BRAINS and the art of decision making

I went through a birthing class with my wife prior to having our first kid. They introduced a framework for making decisions that is universally applicable and works well with reorgs. It’s called BRAINS:

  • Benefits: What are the benefits of the reorg — for both the mission and the people involved? What is your vision?
  • Risks: What do you stand to lose by going through with it? Will you lose people? Will it slow your teams down initially? What are the costs if it doesn’t work out?
  • Alternatives: Is it not an org issue? What if you hired a key person to fix the issue, changed your process or reset priorities? What are other ways to address your concerns?
  • Intuition: Does it feel right? Would it feel right to the team? Are you finding it hard to defend it because it seems so counter-intuitive? Typically if things do not feel right, something is wrong. Intuition is usually overlooked with these types of things but it’s a powerful motivator for the org and has direct ties to morale. Pay attention to this and listen to what people are telling you.
  • Nothing: What happens if you do nothing? Sometimes letting things play out resolves problems. Time works miracles if you can afford it — but sometimes you can’t. That said, understanding the relative cost of doing nothing is an important yardstick when rationalizing change.
  • Smile: Smile because you made a decision. When all is said and done, if you can support your decision and commit to it, be happy you made one. Move forward and be positive — it’ll help things work out and get folks to come along with you.

The reorg sanity test

There are some questions you should be able to answer before bestowing a reorg onto your organization. So in the spirit of the Rands test, follow these questions and see how many points you end up with:

Is the reorg easy to defend? (+1)
Like relationships, if things are rocky early on, something is off. Most often promotions, reorgs and other changes feel right. Intuition goes a long way here and if the first general reaction people have is “huh? what?” that’s not a good sign. You’re looking for the nod here — when you explain it to someone it should be self-evident and make sense. If it isn’t, and don’t kid yourself, then no points for you.
Did you discuss the reorg with your team? (+1)
The idea that someone can draft a master plan, drop it on a group of brilliant people and tell them to just do it is draconian. In software, solutions built from the ground-up have galvanized buy-in as a built-in feature; this applies to organizations as well. If you’re making decisions without input from the org you are forgoing a valuable resource and missing opportunities to a) evolve your solution into something better b) let the org be heard and help them own the solution. If you shared your plans early and got feedback on them before making a decision, give yourself a point.
Did they like the idea? (+1)
First impressions are hard to change. When you shared your plan or decisions (whatever stage you were at) did your team like the idea? Were they uncomfortable? Was there an awkward silence after you explained the plan? Or were they happy about the change and reinforce it? If they liked it, give yourself a point.
Did your team come up with the idea? (+1) Did upper management? (-1)
If you are a progressive leader, your team may have even come up with the idea in the first place. Asking the right questions can lead to solutions. If your team actually came up with the new reorg plan, give yourself a big fat point. Good on you. If this is an idea from upper management and has never involved anybody from your team below a certain rank, subtract a point — you are creating issues with buy-in down the road.
Did you discuss the reorg with other parts of the company? (+1)
This is a transparency check. Did you make the overall decision without dependent teams knowing about it? If you shared the plan and did a dry run to see other groups’ reactions, give yourself a point. If you hatched your plan in private and the first time folks saw it was via a) being told it was happening via an email b) rumors — then no points for you.

If you scored 3 or less, you’re playing with matches. Some combination of top-down leadership and lack of transparency leads to issues with buy-in. It means your reorg, even if applied, will not stand the test of time and erodes trust in your leadership. It could make everything harder for you.

The golden circle

I mentioned that doing what’s right for the people involved is important. I think it’s arguable that rule 1 and rule 2 must always be met — but I know in practice that people can’t always just do whatever they want and there is usually a bottom line to uphold.

Some of this all comes back to what kind of leader you want to be. In relation with Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the golden circle, I’ve always striven to be the type of leader who leads with why, guides people to how and empowers people to discover the what.

A conventional approach is to start with what you want, tell people how you want them organized and explain why when the plan is shared.

I think a better approach is to help your team understand why changes are needed, help them find a solution for how they want to be structured and ultimately they will arrive at the correct what — the right org to match the challenges they face.

Leading with the why is inclusive and gets you better buy-in long-term. This means less of a cliff when the initial proposal is thrown out there. It makes transition easier but can get hung up on finding 100% consensus. Remember that even if you lead this way, you still need to make a call and push forward.

If all else fails, do your best to listen to your team and what they are telling you before and after you discuss the problems they face. The answer to how your organization should be formed lies within your team as much as it lies within you.

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
– Confucius

Feedback will make or break you

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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Ignoring feedback is a lot like telling lies, except you’re lying to yourself. Once you fib, you inevitably have to make more stuff up to cover for what you already made up — and soon you have an entire house of cards on your hands. When a breeze comes along, it all falls apart. The reality we build for ourselves masks our flaws so we don’t have to confront them. The only problem? Eventually, everybody will know it except you.

Don’t put yourself there. It usually culminates in embarrassment, loneliness, depression and rejection. It takes months, years to dig yourself out of it. Consider that criticism is like pain. Would you ignore an infection? Would you just let it go and convince yourself that you’re totally healthy? Would you risk your physical health in order to support your denial? I hope not.

Why would you do that to your mind?

How do we magically ignore feedback in practice? I’m sure you have better examples, but I’ll give it a shot. Here are some common tactics we use to dismiss feedback:

  • Criticizing tone. If you’re criticizing word choice or how they said it you are deflecting useful feedback. It’s popular in politics for a reason: it’s easy and effective.
  • Dismissal by association. This is similar to “ad hominem” in Graham’s how to disagree. As a knee-jerk reaction you may associate someone’s opinion with their rank, group, background, etc. The next logical step is something along the lines of, “of course they think that, they are just a designer.” This is a mistake. Feedback from orthogonal groups is even more valuable because they see you from a different perspective. Don’t dismiss feedback because someone is not on your team or because you out-rank them. That type of feedback, if ignored, will turn into grapevine chatter and slowly come back to you.
  • Making it about feelings. When someone gives you feedback it’s a very personal thing. However, if your response makes it personal when it doesn’t have to be, you’ve got a problem. Spending all your energy on how you feel about the feedback can prevent you from focusing on what caused the feedback. I think it’s great to let someone know how you feel, but do it carefully. It could shut down future feedback from that person and make you unapproachable. It’s the difference between, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way — I feel bad about that and I’ll see what I can do,” and, “I really don’t appreciate what you said and it makes me feel terrible.” If your response is aimed at guilt-tripping the other person, you’re building a nice little wall around yourself and they’ll think twice about being honest with you in the future.
  • Constructing amazing excuses. Just stop with excuses. John Wooden said, “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” I don’t reasonably expect someone to never whine or complain, but excuses shift blame and make things not your problem. Chances are that if someone comes to you with feedback, you had something to do with it. I’m sure there are many reasons why the stars aligned and caused xyz, abc to happen — nobody gives a shit. Take responsibility and figure it out. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with it, ask yourself what you can do to help. Send them to the right person, or relay that feedback if necessary. Making excuses is clearly making sure it’s not your fault and taking responsibility for a solution isn’t even admitting fault. The key to remember: only one of those is remembered, and only one of those ends in solutions. If you want to be forgotten, keep on making those excuses.
  • Pulling rank. The “because daddy said so” approach to handling feedback is fairly common. Using rank to settle arguments or avoid confrontation is a slippery slope. If you’re a leader, it’s a good way to sabotage yourself. Your team will not work hard to fulfill your vision just because it’s your vision — you need to make it theirs by inspiring them. Ignoring feedback because of rank or authority says, “I’m too important to listen to that and what you said doesn’t matter.” You better have some credentials or trust to pull it off. If not, good luck with that, bossman.

Once you stop putting up your walls, you have to take some steps forward. Just like dieting, it’s not about eliminating the junk food — you have to exercise and eat good food too. Every once in a while you’ll slip, but for the most part you want balance and stability in how you approach feedback:

  • Fight like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong. John Lilly reminded me multiple times to do this, so let’s call it a Lillyism. It means moxie and listening don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Have guts, resolve and fight hard — but always, always listen and remember you may be wrong.
  • Get a second opinion. Phone a friend, ask your significant other, ping a coworker you trust. “Am I being defensive, or is this totally nuts?” is a decent question to ask about feedback you get that you don’t agree with. I know my wife is happy to tell me if I acted like a goofball and should apologize — and hopefully you’ve got people in your life who would do the same for you. Get help from them; you don’t have to process feedback alone.
  • Get counsel from your enemies. If you want to truly grow, you should know what your worst critic says about you. The best way to do this is ask them. I’ve seen folks avoid getting feedback from people that may not agree or even like them. This is just about the stupidest thing you could do. Avoiding feedback from people because it may not be good is self-defeating. Don’t avoid it, seek it out. Show them that you care to ask and listen — you’ll be surprised at what an impact they can have on your career.
  • Actively ignore things. You’ll get some noise in feedback. Just make sure what you ignore is actively ignored. You don’t have to heed everything people say — but you should listen. Make conscious decisions on what you’re not acting on as a result of feedback. And if you’re worried about the reaction, talk to the person who gave it to you and say, “this is my plan, and I don’t have time to do ____ but I will get to that later.”
  • Say thank you. Saying thanks for the feedback is just the right thing to do. Make an effort to thank people who helped you with their honesty — do what you can to make sure they do it again. People who give you feedback care about you enough to disagree with you and tell you the truth about yourself. Embrace them and value them. Let them know how important it is to you.
  • Ask questions. Your critics are great sounding boards. When you come up with actionable items from your huge list of feedback, ask them if your plan makes sense and whether it’ll address their concerns. This can open up opportunities for collaboration, discussion and at the very least lets them know you’re working on it and you’re listening. In case you didn’t understand feedback, you should do this as well — sometimes it takes effort to get down to the root cause.

Overall, how you handle feedback — and if you pay attention to it all — can define who you become. It all starts with you.

Do you have the courage to take criticism, process it and improve? Most people want to work with someone who answers yes.

Thanks to @lonnen for his feedback on this post!

Disabling right-click-to-paste in Putty

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I use Putty because I’m primarily a Linux or Mac person using Windows to SSH in to another machine who doesn’t want to set up anything heavy just to get a terminal. I’ve used Linux at work as my primary desktop for 10 years and I have a Mac laptop. I use Windows sometimes if I’m working from home.

So Putty works fine. However, by default Putty will copy and paste anything in your clipboard / copy buffer into the window upon a right mouse click. This means you could accidentally paste totally inappropriate stuff into IRC if you use irssi/weechat + screen.

I’ve done this once in 8 years, but it sucked. A lot. Here’s how to avoid it:

  • Right click the title bar, choose “Change settings…”
  • Choose “Selection” under the “Window” sectoin.
  • Under “Action of mouse buttons:” choose something besides “Compromise” (that’s the “use right click to paste your super secret clipboard into public IRC channels” setting). I chose “Windows (Middle extends, Right brings up menu)” which is normal behavior on Mac/Linux too.

If you use Putty for IRC, you should do this.

Engineers and other anomalies

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In cased you missed it, Nicholas C. Zakas wrote a great post about the care and feeding of engineers and why they’re so grumpy.

If you have worked with engineers, this should either resonate with you, leading you to recognize your past misunderstandings and want to bear-hug engineers tomorrow OR you won’t read the whole thing and pass it off as another passive-aggressive rant from the techno-elite. Seriously, though, please at least read it.

If you are an engineer with some decent experience, you’ll likely grab a box of tissues and nod along like you’re seeing Shawshank Redemption for the umpteenth time. Near the part where he talks about engineers as creators, you’ll get the same feeling you got when Red said, introspectively:

“But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”

So. Beautiful.

But wait! Put down the tissues. Before you start emailing your non-technical colleagues or tattooing this article on your chest backwards so you can read it in the mirror, there are some points I want to cover:

Mental fatigue and the culture of NO

Adopting NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! as your default response to things usually doesn’t work. Here are situations where it won’t work:

  • When U.S. customs asks you for your passport
  • When your grandma asks you to pass the mashed potatoes
  • When a cop asks you for your driver’s license and registration
  • When your best friend asks you to babysit their dog

Why smart and talented people would adopt this as their default reaction to questions is beyond me. The motivation behind the response is pure — focus on shipping, no time, reluctance to context-switch, etc. — but the reaction is entirely predictable in almost every case:

  • Jail
  • Dad punches you
  • Jail
  • (# of friends you have) – 1

All I’m saying is you get a chance to apply some creativity here. When that doesn’t work, at least apply restraint and say two magic words: “Yes, but…” Still confused? Here are some examples:

  • Yes, but it’s buried in my bag. Just a second, sir.
  • Yes, but my hands are terribly swollen and I have to use the bathroom. Ask Dad.
  • Yes, but my glove compartment is locked. It will take me some time to gather my legal documents.
  • Yes, but my house is getting fumigated and I’m flying to Peru that day.

Take the mental leap and apply it to work situations. If you can’t, your manager should be able to help. If they can’t, quit now.

Stop fixing stuff and take time to celebrate

An engineer’s obsession with creating is a great, wondrous thing. In my experience, it’s not unlike an addiction. It’s almost instinctive for an engineer to stay up late, whittling way at an impossible problem, fighting for that extra inch of performance, elegance or security. They can become immersed in fixing every bug, every issue in their project — but what about the positive parts? Where is there time for celebrating, recognition, reward and reflection?

Nicholas stated it well:

The software is our baby, and we like to care for it as such.

But as with most addictions, there isn’t much room for anything else. That baby can consume you, robbing you of some basic necessities like food, sleep, companionship, paying your taxes, personal hygiene and fashion sense. Bad baby!

I often remind engineers to spend equal time on the positives. In a culture so focused on finding creative ways to solve problems, we forget to recognize some basic things:

  • how much work went into the whole thing (a ton)
  • how much we learned from the project
  • what actually went well (a lot)
  • how cool the final result was

Don’t be selfless and obsessed. It makes you grumpy. Take time to appreciate what you’ve done together with your team (which includes designers, product managers, etc.) and take time to stop worrying about bugs. It’s not just about being positive — it’s about being human and letting yourself feel good about what you did.

Sometimes you’re just an asshole

There are those times where engineers are assholes. Yes, I know this may come as a shock to many, but engineers are also capable of being unjustifiable assholes. Over time, life will help you identify when you’re doing this, but if you need help read The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton.

If you’re an engineer and you engage in asshole behavior, it’s not justified by a silent frustration caused by other people. In those cases, it’s way easier to say, “Wow. I was an asshole yesterday and I’m sorry.”

Don’t go down the road of asshole justification. It’s a messy road, filled with bullshit. It’s often public, humiliating, and irreversible. Just say sorry and learn how to get your point across without alienating the people you will need to work with tomorrow. It actually feels great to talk it out with the team, the person you had issues with and regain your footing.

Stop digging a hole, put the shovel down and apologize.

Congrats, you made it this far!

Those were just some side comments to accompany a thorough post by Nicholas. Hopefully it helps and you spent the time to read and understand what I was saying. But if not, well…

Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?

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Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.

Simple is Better: How to Write for the Web

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I often tweet about a favorite article of mine explaining how people read on the web. More and more I see this as a common problem all over the world.

It opens simply enough:

How Users Read on the Web
They don’t.

Instead of just tweeting the article (which is ironically so long that people don’t read it) I’d like to instead study some examples from our site and show how it could improve our own site content.

Often, I find that some of our site content is:

  • Difficult to scan
  • Verbose
  • Passive
  • Unclear
  • Likely to be ignored — users won’t read it

So what should we do about it? Well, we should tackle it from different directions:

  • We should educate ourselves and become familiar with best practices
  • Those who do understand the basics should do their best to teach others
  • We could also conduct user research, eye tracking studies or run a/b tests to verify theories

Either way, I’ll save you some time: simple is better.

So let’s go to some examples. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Bulleted lists
  • Highlight key points
  • Reduce unnecessary or redundant words (of, the, a, at, to, that, with the, and)
  • Remove passive speech and replace it with active speech

Bulleted lists

Your goal should be to identify common threads or trains of thought. Tie them together with a lead-in. Augment the leading thought with key phrases. Our example has a common entity: Mozilla. So how can we apply a list to this paragraph?

Before

Mozilla is a non-profit. We don’t have shareholders. We’re not trying to get acquired. Our bottom line is to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web.

After

Mozilla is:

  • a non-profit company
  • loyal to you, not shareholders
  • promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web

Highlight Key Points

Highlighting helps users quickly scan key points. They don’t have to read word-for-word but can pick up the general concept of a block of text without reading the whole thing. This is typically how users read on the web, and studies show how important writing scannable text is.

In our case, let’s take the first sentence and see what we end up with.

Before:

Mozilla is:

  • a non-profit company
  • loyal to you, not shareholders
  • promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web

After:

Mozilla is:

  • a non-profit company
  • loyal to you, not shareholders
  • promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web

The addition of bulleted lists gets us farther, but highlighting keywords dramatically improves the visibility and likelihood that those concepts will be communicated to a web reader.

Reduce Words

The single most common problem is that people write too much. In technical writing and web writing, the goal should be content over style. Simple, clear, concise text wins; then users can focus on the content, not on deciphering what you’re actually trying to say.

Words that don’t add anything to the message are a huge problem. We can break up or eliminate some sentences in our example:

  • Mozilla is an extensive open-source software development project powered by a small (but growing) staff and a worldwide community of dedicated volunteers. (before: 23 words after: 10 words)
  • Because our products are used for many of the web’s most innovative projects., a job at Mozilla allows you towill develop cool, useful technology that impacts millions of lives. (before: 29 words after: 20 words)

You can say the same things using less effort while benefiting users. All kinds of win.

Fix Passive Speech

Speaking passively increases the length of your sentences while reducing clarity. Here are two examples:

Before:

Because our products are used for many of the web’s most innovative projects, a job at Mozilla allows you to develop cool, useful technology that impacts millions of lives.

After:

You could impact millions of lives developing innovative products at Mozilla.

Here by focusing on “you”, you eliminate a ton of words but deliver essentially the same message.

Before:

At Mozilla, we encourage creativity and ambition with the goal of revolutionizing how people access the web.

After:

Mozilla’s goal is to revolutionize how people access the web by encouraging creativity and ambition.

By changing our sentence structure to focus on Mozilla, we eliminate the need for words like “at, we, with, the”.

That’s it. Go forth and write great content. Visit the Writing for the Web main page to learn more.

Rally Fighter visits Mozilla

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The Rally Fighter is an open source car with a huge community behind it. Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, took time out of his busy schedule to come talk about his experience with the Rally Fighter during lunchtime today.

Jay Rogers

He gave Mozilla a shout out and said we’re an inspiration for other companies trying to do things the right way and focus heavily on what people want and need. He also mentioned he’s an avid Firefox user and tries to install it on every machine he can get his hands on!

Rally Fighter

Another thing worth noting was his comments on crowdsourcing — that’s it’s not at all about getting a group to do a bunch of work for you. In many ways the textbook definition of crowdsourcing betrays the real value in it.

He said it should really be called co-creation because their community as well as potential customers for this car are a huge part of what the car will actually be and how it will evolve over time. It is a good way to look at things, and not very different from what Mozilla strives to do from day to day.

Rally Fighter

Overall, it was a great experience and the car is damn cool. Thanks to Jay and his team for visiting us. See more pictures here.

Heart statistics

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So I got this Garmin device that does GPS in hopes that it’d make me run more. So far it’s been successful. The GPS and Google maps mashups on their activity summary web app are super cool (see full example):
garmin

Over time, if you keep up with it you can see improvements in different categories:

  • Distance – you can run more as you get in better shape
  • Heart rate – peaks and average should normalize
  • Time – you’ll improve your time (ideally!) :)

Since I’m not a running super-beast and I’m not very fast, I have been pretty interested in the heart rate! I’m also interested in it because the first few runs were pretty tough because I’d run for a bit (at the speed I remember running at) and my heart would go nuts and I’d have to walk for a bit. For a while I’d have to keep doing that, and my heart rate chart showed why.

On my first run in about 2 years, I was getting owned:
first

After waking up this morning at 430am and going for a crazy morning run (which, if you knew me, is something I never do), I was happy to see this:
new

I still have to walk a bit in the middle of a 3 mile jog, but while I’m running my heart rate remains constant and it never felt like it was going to explode. I’m now able to sustain for longer and I also have less movement between 180 and 200 bpm (Note that the top graph was 1.5 miles and the bottom one was 3 miles).

As I was writing a blog about browsing statistics and how they can improve how we use the web, it made me think of this little Garmin watch and how knowing more about my own body can help me improve my life.

Data is good, knowledge is good. By itself, not so much — but if you use it right it can make all the difference.

Doing more with data

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Firefox users: Did you know that you have private database that contains all your browsing information?

Well, you do. And here’s the thing:

  • Only you have access to it
  • It’s under-utilized
  • You probably didn’t even know it existed

Browsing could be better. There’s no question about that. We have set conventions and preconceived notions about how browsing should be. That is, until the next big thing comes along and rocks our world.

It feels like using data to improve browsing is a no-brainer, and data-driven browsing is already the next big thing. You see this in search suggests, amazon suggested items, the iTunes store, and other sites. And that’s just all site-specific. Imagine if we used data the right way and made things just click?

On a limited scale, it’s all more than possible today. You have complete control over your own browsing history:

  • Sites visited
  • Bookmarks
  • Awesome bar history
  • Media viewed
  • Favorite sites
  • Search keywords
  • Trending of all the above

Simple fact is that you’re not using as much as you could.

The Firefox awesome bar was heralded as a great step in browsing innovation. And it’s true, it really was. And that’s because a lot of browsing is really repeat browsing. How many times do you go back and view what you just looked at the other day?

But that’s the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of things we can learn about the web and about how we use the web to make it better. And don’t think about person -> corporation -> other corporations. For starters, think about what you could do with just your own browsing data, or your family’s browsing data:

  • Easy access to repeat searches – movies, facebook, maps, you name it
  • An automated media catalog of images, videos and news articles you read over time
  • A list of phone numbers you have looked up and who they belong to
  • A list of all map directions you’ve ever done
  • A list of people you read about over the last week

The awesome bar in Firefox already uses this, and it’s great to see some Firefox extensions are already tapping into the possibilities:

  • about:me lets you read about your own browsing statistics
  • Voyage is a very cool way to not only view the sites you’ve used but see how you got there over time and whether or not you Tweeted about it!

Those are just two examples of what we can do and where we can go. I’m pretty excited to see what happens next. Maybe you have the next great idea — go forth!