HACK / MAKE

Twenty Thirteen

For me, 2012 was largely about working on understanding myself and where I fit in in the world around me. I had just recently moved to New York at that point and was still very fresh in the technology world. I began exploring tools that could help me get my work done, ways of thinking that would allow me to stay relatively stress free, and ideas that would become catalysts for a way of life. At the same time, I was feeling lonely and lost in a big city with no friends and needed help. I started hanging out in coffee shops and writing. To paraphrase one of my favorite struggling, not-really-a-writer writers, I began writing because I needed to start taking the advice I was giving others. Writing was much less of a part of my life this year compared to last. In 2013, I found myself more on a pursuit of creating and exploring from the platform I had set up. I wanted this year to be about using my scaffolding to create interesting things. I had set up the system and then it was time to use it.

I’ve missed writing though and as I’m thinking back about this past year as we’re wont to do around this time, I figured I’d recap some interesting parts of my year and see if I can find some lessons in there.

Picking Up Where I Left Off

Publishing to this site was a really important part of my exploration in 2012. The searching I did through writing helped me learn but by publishing those words I was able to learn that the things I was dealing with were shared with other people, many of you which I now call friends. It gave me hope that I was on the right track. I started off 2013 by collecting the best things I had written up to that point and published Coffee Shop Contemplations on the 1st of January.

Even though I ended up doing more physically dangerous things, putting this book out was the scariest thing I did all year. I’m generally comfortable “putting myself out there” in front of people, whether in a meeting or speaking in public, but packaging up my work and telling people it’s worth something was intimidating. It was an important lesson to learn though. It’s up to you to shape your work in a way that people can digest. They won’t put in the work themselves to dig up the best and connect the dots so if you want your work presented well, that’s on you. You might be a great writer but if the site you’re publishing doesn’t make it easy to read, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and making your ideas less accessible. By putting together some essays into a package, I found it more formally tells the story of my exploration through writing and now exists in a way that I can share with other people. More importantly to me, it’s easy to pick up and review the ideas as a sort of valuable reference resource and guidelines of my own methodologies . As I revisit, I can question whether that idea or approach is still valid.

Formatting my past writing and ideas helped me establish a foundation to work from and way to share ideas with others.

I did write a few articles I was happy with this year though.

Methodical — I think the most picturesque thing I’ve written. Full of imagery but also connects to an important aspect of mindfulness and approaching our work in a persistent way.

Scaffolding — This helped me put in perspective the place that tools and frameworks have in the creative process. The idea of scaffolding doesn’t discount the value of modular tools in doing work but reminds us of the importance of the creation and not the method of creating.

A Glacial Pace — Approaching things at a glacial pace reminds me not to get caught up in the short cycles of fixation, discourse, creativity, criticism, and accolades because they aren’t lasting. By giving them the appropriate attention I can focus myself on creating something that might endure.

Toothbrushes — There’s a lot that I’ve let slip away which are real, human, and precious. I need to pay more attention to embracing them.

Digging Deep and Shipping

Through January and February, I did some of the work I’m most proud of even though it was by no means my best work or even a creative place I’d like to ever be in again. I’m sure we’ve all been in those crushing situations where a project is over promised in an impossible deadline—one that’s set up from the beginning to fail— and that breeds an environment of anger, doubt, and mistrust.

That was Project Oslo and my job was to make sure Oslo shipped.

To save you the drama (and there was plenty), it did ship on time and without any hitches. The hard work with Oslo wasn’t the work at all. The grueling part was holding myself up and my team when we all wanted to stop. It was the mindfulness to put my headphones on, clench my jaw a little, and keep my mouth shut. Everything was on the edge of disaster and me bitching wasn’t going to get it shipped. Productivity tools and scaffolding failed and became irrelevant. Frameworks didn’t help. Project Oslo shipped because my team found some grit in themselves and I feel I helped lead them to that place. That’s why I’m proud of that work.

Mindful Computing and Data Integrity

I continued thinking and investing time into ownership and control of my digital identity this year. Years ago I moved from a gmail.com account to a personal domain hosted on Google Apps. In 2012, I migrated to Fastmail, hosted all my own websites, and set up infrastructure for computers to do the computing for me. This past year, I reaped the benefits of that by having to think less about maintenance and not worry about potential catastrophe and data loss. For a couple years, I didn’t have a desktop or laptop at home. I just ran a headless Mac mini on my network to do tasks for me. This worked well because I was writing and doing other “lighter” work on my iPad but recently I’ve been working on coding projects and you can’t beat BBEdit and a mechanical keyboard for that.

This was a big change in my computing habits. I’ve liked the simplicity of an iPad being my main machine. It felt comfortable to grab my iPad and use simple apps to do the work I wanted and then put it down and go do something else. By using a desktop again, I’ve found it welcomes stagnation. Instead of doing your work and walking away, it feels like I’m much more likely to get stuck there and start tabbing through Twitter and Alpha and email, and all these things I don’t need to be doing. What I need is either get up and do something active or be intentional and creative on my computer.

For me, iPad encourages mindful use. I believe the physicality of holding iPad—using your hands to type and navigate and draw—alongside with the focused nature of the software provides a great interface for activating the creative mind. By often having to hold it like a book or by touching the software rather than through the proxy of a keyboard, iPad feels like it requires a more conscious decision of active participation. It’s a disease to frequently slouch in front of a computer and just click around for hours burning time without intent.

I want to better manage this again where it becomes habit to use a more mindful tool by default and just use my desktop when it’s appropriate. It might help to constrain the software configuration to make my desktop the pickup truck it is so it’s set up for work and not much else.

Part of what that computer is configured for is helping me manage data integrity and control. I’ve spent a lot of time implementing online systems that help keep my information safe but my local setup for backups and data integrity was lacking. I needed more storage, better automated backups, and most importantly, a system that was comprehensive so that I could trust it and remove the weight of doubt and failure in my system.

I’ve posted some notes about my backup system but, in brief, I wanted a robust and reliable NAS that could do Time Machine and long-term storage, a cloud backup service, and an offsite bootable image. I’m using the Synology RS812 NAS, Backblaze for cloud backups, and a 500GB external hard drive in a custom built, heavy duty enclosure. With this setup, I have redundant and automated backups and no longer have to worry about losing important documents, photos, or work.

If you don’t have a system you trust, please pick up a couple external hard drives and subscribe to a service like Backblaze so you can have a reliable setup. I’ve heard so many horror stories about lost information and back ups are a necessary part of a solid system. The minimum I think you should have is a drive doing Time Machine, a mirror of your computer using SuperDuper! or CarbonCopyCloner on a drive you take offsite, and having a cloud back up.

Putting My Talents to Good Use

After working on the tech side of a startup for a couple years, I had picked up a lot of skills. From front-end coding, to administrating databases and server systems, managing development teams and running technical operations, I learned a unique set of talents but stayed generalized enough to be able to speak many languages—translating business speak to developers and communicate technical challenges back into business impacts.

But I felt like there was more I could be doing with my technical talents. I realized that the hobby projects that I had been doing to ease small pains and improve my digital life could completely change other peoples’ lives. You can read more about the story of this realization in my post It Takes a Village to Raise a Framework. My friend Justin Lancy has been curious about technology since he was a kid and wanted to help in similar ways.

I challenge you to think about how your talents could be put to use for something greater. I’ve gained a lot from writing for myself, from improving the way I work or improving the design and speed of my website in my free time but I wasn’t satisfied with that being all I brought to the world. Does the world need the voice another 20-some-year old kid living in New York shouting into the abyss of the internet? Is that who I want to be or can my time and talents bring something more to people who don’t get a lot of attention?

Maybe your time could be better put to use help Village Science, your church or local homeless outreach, or with your family who’s desperately wanting your attention. Or maybe being a voice online is how you have an impact. It’s just worth being mindful that your time and talents can make a big impact on people outside of your online community and that impressing the internet may be an empty pursuit.

Starting Something New

I started a new job in August with Hook & Loop, the internal creative think tank for an enterprise software company called Infor. I was a bit burnt out from the emotional investment and stress of my previous position, being the tech and product team lead at a startup. That position meant that pretty much anything having to do with the non-business side of the small company fell on me and though this was a great opportunity for me to learn it also meant there were a lot of problems which were (or became) my job to solve.

Starting a new position at a larger company offered me a chance to better frame the expectations of who I wanted to be on that team and the type of work I wanted to do. That’s been a challenge in the first few months of working here. I’ve taken some risks by pushing back on projects that I didn’t want to be involved with because I felt I would get tangled up in their mess and get stuck in a place where I couldn’t do good work. Saying No to high profile projects your boss hands to you is hard. I felt a little like it came off that I couldn’t handle the project rather than didn’t want to which isn’t a nice impression to be making early on. In the short term, it may have hurt building rapport but I’m hoping that it cleared the way for the projects and products I am working on to be successful.

I tend to be good at fixing projects that are going wrong. Often I’ve been handed sinking ships and told I’m the new captain. When I would right that ship and fix things, the praise would be overshadowed by the memory of how bad the project began. That was a losing trajectory for me. I wanted to be architecting the pieces that would help solve a need not be coming in part way and glueing together the pieces that hadn’t shattered yet. By being a problem fixer, I attracted a lot of problems.

Set a precedent for who you want to be to others.

In setting the foundation for my role, I want to be very mindful about the type and way that I solve things in my work. Both my grandfathers were janitors but I don’t want to always be showing up to projects with a mop and bucket. Maybe I can help by guiding coworkers through fixing their own projects or maybe I don’t get involved at all. I don’t know the solution to this yet but I know it’s a challenge to keep aware of.

Last Year’s “Three Words”

I didn’t think much about my Three Words throughout the year. They were Curiosity, Voice, and Flow. I left off the post by stringing together these words into a focused sentence: “I want to define my voice by letting curiosity lead me through the flow of learning and living.” Retrospectively it seems that I was able to stay on track with this guiding principle but it’s also vague so pretty much just existing for the past year would have made me successful in this poetic yet hollow goal statement.

I think the romanticism and poetics of high-level thinking is something I’ve gotten over this past year (and may be why I’ve written less recently). My writing in the past was often vague and when I now re-read it I think, “OK, that sounds pretty but what does it actually mean?” I’d consciously choose words and poetic ideas to try to prove to you and mostly myself that I’m eloquent but that often left me feeling like a charlatan rather than a polymath. I appreciate the straightforward communication that people like John Roderick use. I find that not just a clear, concrete idea is important but that talking and writing in an appropriate level of language is critical for sharing the idea and opening the person up to listening and trusting you as a storyteller.

I want to be more true to myself and the ideas I share by using simple language and clear ideas free of fancy words and complex constructs.

Some Favorite New Things from 2013

In previous years, I’ve posted favorite new things I purchased, started using, or learned about in that year. In 2011 they were: Field Notes, Raw denim jeans, 5by5, Traditional wet shaving, Merlin Mann, and GORUCK GR1. In 2012: Aeropress, Waking up early, Roderick on the Line, OmniFocus, Launch Center Pro, and Noise.

For 2013, a few favorite new things are:

Wolverine 1000 Mile Boot in Rust — An entire post about these boots coming soon.

Panic’s Status Board — This app has become part of my daily life and routine. I believe software should do work for us without us having to be it’s master and so I’ve put in some up-front work developing widgets for Status Board that brings me the ongoing benefit of presenting me information that’s timely and relevant. At a glance is things like weather, calendar, and task information as well as server statuses and system health. I don’t want to have to pull out my phone in the morning and dig for an app or log in to my machine and go to some website to check information. Status Board is able to do that for me and means less time in front of a screen. A pilot can’t always be checking every gauge and screen but they have the system to alert them when things are wrong. That’s Status Board for me. I have an iPad connected to a vertical 27” display which is large enough so that I can see information as I walk by. The display is always on so I can depend on what I’m looking for being there and grow a habit around glancing at that screen rather than pulling out my phone. I can get what I need and get back to life and work without having to use a computer. But at the same time, I’m considering breaking this all down and not using it this year. I’m interested in finding a way to manage reviewing important information without an additional screen. Maybe this is one of those “if you love it, give it away” moments.

Synology RS812 NAS — This thing is a beast. It’s a 1U rack mountable 4 bay network attached storage device that’s the companion to my Mac mini (also mounted in a rack using a Rackmac mini). I have 4 x 3TB WD Red drives in it which serves iTunes media, stores archives of files, and runs various download and backup tasks. On it’s own the RS812 or any Synology would be a great option for a home server because it can handle many web and media services but my Mac mini helps with some tasks like video conversion which it does much faster than the NAS.

BusyCal — I never really liked Calendar on Mac but for a while didn’t have much reason to try anything else. I used a calendar in my personal system and a little at work but my previous job didn’t use meeting invites, unlike my new job. Right around the time of starting my new job, BusyCal began supporting Exchange which is what we use at work. I downloaded the 30 day trial version and immediately began enjoying the added features of it as well as the idea of having a more reliable calendar as part of my “trusted system.” BusyCal’s Smart Filters act kind of like Perspectives in OmniFocus, giving you multiple, custom views in to your information.

Aloksak Bags — Ziploc bags are handy but suck. They aren’t built tough and often rip or the zip part fails if you’re doing anything more with it than bringing your bologna sandwich to work. Aloksak bags are built strong and work well if you want to keep things like papers, identification, or electronics dry when traveling. I also use them for organization and storage in first aid and dopp kits.

So To Recap My Recap…

This year, I:

  • Published a book
  • Shipped a major site redesign and 1.0 of an iPhone app within 8 weeks
  • Went ice climbing for the first time
  • Did a GORUCK Light and Nasty Challenge
  • Began playing recreational volleyball after work and won two championships
  • Developed the beta hardware and software platform for a non-profit’s pilot project
  • Started a new job
  • Started a new company
  • Overhauled major parts of my computer and backup system
  • Published around 24,000 words (down from 65,000 in 2012)

I outline these things in part to remind myself that working hard brings great rewards and as an example of what “productivity” is. It’s not software or scaffolding—they help along the way—but when we talk about improving the way we work we need to talk about the work that we’ve done.

I remember in math class having to “show your work.” I guess the idea was that if you got the wrong answer, you could still get some marks for being close or being on the right track. This isn’t 9th grade math class anymore though and how you get your answers doesn’t matter so much, just that you delivered that project on time, pulled off planning the extravagant date with your significant other, or did what you had to do to pay off your debt. The process does matter but mostly just to you. Everyone else only cares about the interesting things you do.

You’ll make a dent by what you do not how you do it.


So what’s to come in 2014? I haven’t thought much about it yet but there are a few things I want to do, pay more attention to, or better understand in the next year:

  • Travel
  • Reddit; once you look beyond /r/aww there is a lot of interesting conversations going on
  • Bitcoin; the future is digital
  • Reducing my cost of living; because Rule #8, lighter is better
  • Have more personal connections with people; I’m human and not everything about the future is digital
  • Spend less time in front of a screen

I wish I could leave you with a detailed check list of things that would help make this next year a successful one for you, but it doesn’t work like that. This year might be a rough one for you or me. It might be a blessed one. Most likely it’ll be both. This is all I can say:

Care about people and work hard.

Thoughts or comments? Let's talk on Twitter or send me an email.