Gratitude: August 2019

Before the month is out, I just want to share a few things that gave me life as of late.

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

This movie was stunningly beautiful. When I saw the trailer I thought it was going to be sort of the same thing as Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy but it was more like Atlanta if Atlanta was replaced by San Francisco. It was eerie but exciting to see streets I walk so very often these days through the eyes of “natives”. Spoiler alert: It’s not just about San Francisco 😉

Tiny Desk Concerts: Lizzo and Jeremy Dutcher

Two of my faves recently had TDCs. So queer, so visually engaging, such music to my ears. What is it about that damn tiny desk that conjurs such sweet magic?

Me! on No Manifestos Podcast

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I had a really fantastic conversation with my old coworker Stuart Sierra about tech and activism and other things for his new podcast No Manifestos. I am super pleased with how it turned out! Please do listen.

A Few Things to Consider Before Becoming A Remote-Friendly Company

A few years ago when I was at Clubhouse I blogged about our process of becoming a geographically distributed team. In that case, the first stumblings towards global domination were not made to acquire talent but rather in an attempt to retain talent vital to our team (talent = people we really loved working with and didn’t wanna lose!). In that article, I outlined some of the ways we tried to bridge the gap and some of the things that were still just tough.

I’ve also written about some of the reservations I have about working from home, especially as it pertains to underrepresented people in the workplace.

Since moving to Nylas and serving on the top-notch leadership team here, I’ve been even more privy to some of the business-side challenges of having a team where people are working from all over the place. SO I thought I’d pull together a quick blogpost of my learnings.

Things to Consider Before Opening Up Satellite Offices or Having Remote Teammates

People In Other Places Are Often In Other Timezones Too

I know it sounds obvious, but it needs to be stated. If you employ someone somewhere else, their day may overlap with yours a lot, a little, or not at all. You need to think about how that’s going to affect everyone’s ability to get things done. If your SF-based team is making most of your decisions synchronously in meetings or Slack, how will that affect your support folks in Berlin, your UX designer in Medellin, or your developer in New Zealand? Will they have to work odd hours just to keep up with HQ or can you start relying more on async tools?

When working across large distances across the globe, it is important to establish a baseline in every area for when they should be online and working and when they should stop and go live their lives. While you might sometimes need a teammate to work before or after their formal working hours, it is useful to know, clearly define in the calendar, and respect those agreed-upon working hours.

If you’re going to be working across significant time differences, I recommend trying to move meetings to times that work better for people and leaning more heavily on tools like Clubhouse and email that allow people to communicate on a more humane timeline.

Flights and Hotels Are Expensive

Cohesion across teams does require some amount of time spent together in fleshspace. Getting people together often means flights, hotels, and expensed meals. Just make sure you have the money for this — and that you earmark it especially for those purposes.

A/V Is An Investment…Good A/V Even More So

I am of the opinion that videochat software is painfully immature and being relied on too heavily for important communication. I use videochat every single working day and it is very much in the “can you hear me now?” phase. This is unfortunate because around the world in so many contexts people rely on it to make crucial decisions (read how Skype Trial has tragically become the norm for US immigration court).

Despite videoconferencing’s weakness as a replacement for “the real thing”, it is what we got. So doubling down to make it work is important. Headphones, good mics, fast wifi, and good webcams can cut down the distance between co-workers and enable you to have vital conversations with less muffle, crackle, and static.

When these all fail you — as they inevitably will — try to keep your teammate’s phone number nearby and just call them on the phone. I’ve had so many hours wasted fighting with videochat. Don’t let that be you and your team.

Employing People In Other States and Countries Can Be Costly and Time-Consuming

Different states and countries have different employment regimes. If you intend to employ people there, you will need to be in compliance with those requirements. HR companies like Gusto can likely help you with red tape, but it will still require some time and money to make sure you are following the rules of (and engaging the insurance market of!) the state or country where your fantastic new potential teammate lives.

Benefits Can Be Lopsided

If your company offers special perks to people in the office, you’ll need to carefully consider which of those you can/want to extend to people working from home or a satellite office. Things like free lunches and free office massages or whatever are often there to entice people to come in to the office and stay there. They tend not to be as feasible to make available to people who are working from home.

It is important to think about offering a benefits regime that doesn’t cause lopsidedness or ill-will when your HQ folks and your remote folks compare their cards.

None of this is intended to discourage you from doing what you need to do to attract and retain great people for your company. The last 10 years of my career have been spent working in organizations and teams that span state and national borders, and I’ve rarely had to rule someone out because of their location.

Remote workers do work; geographically-distributed teams can and do work—even on a small scale. They just work best when you go in with your eyes open to the challenges.

Making Them Pay: Tales from the Immutable Stack

This is pretty much the entire text from the talk I delivered at Paymentsfn 2018 on May 24, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Edgar Allen Poe - The Gold Bug

In his story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Edgar Allan Poe wrote

“Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”

And it is in that spirit that I lend another perspective, voice, and beating heart in the hope of unearthing some more truth around payment technology.

While it may seem like we in the tech world don’t share much with a 19th century poet, I’d like to tell you a story.

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In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Gold Bug was published, which ended being the most popular and lucrative work he released during his lifetime.

Most of you have likely never heard of it. You’re probably familiar with The Raven or The Tell Tale Heart, but probably not The Gold Bug.

However, it was this story that won him a whopping $100 at the time ($100 being the equivalent of a little over $3000 today), which was the total winnings from a short story contest held by The Dollar Paper, a Philadelphia-based publication of the day.

Edgar Allan Poe was actually was one of the first American authors to actually attempt to make a living purely through writing and as the headline of this blogpost indicates, he wasn’t very good at it.

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link to read

Unfortunately, Poe was the son of two actors. His father abandoned the family not long after Poe was born and his mother tragically died when he was just about a year old. An orphan, he was taken in by a wealthy merchant one John Allan who had young Edgar Poe baptized Edgar Allan Poe.

While a student at the University of Virginia, Poe repeatedly gambled away money meant for tuition and school supplies and eventually dropped out. This lead to him becoming estranged from his foster father Mr. Allan. Additional quarrels with Allan — who was rich and extremely adulterous— lead Poe to be disowned by Allan and excluded from the will.

So no trust fund. No parents or foster parents to fall back on. Poe had just a pen, a vivid imagination, and dogged persistence.

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So The Tell Tale Heart was published before The Gold Bug in January of 1943 and Poe was reportedly paid $10 for it.

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His poem The Raven published in 1845 came on the heels of The Gold Bug’s success. However Poe was paid only $9 for it.
It was The Gold-Bug that drew standing room-only crowds to Poe’s lectures and  gained him fans across the globe in places as France, Russia, and Japan.

In fact , he was actually paid twice for the story. First $52 by Graham’s Magazine a periodical for which he served as an editor but then he heard about the Dollar Paper’s contest and withdrew the piece from Graham’s — notably never returning that initial $52 to Mr. Graham, mind you.

I don’t begrudge you if you’ve never heard of The Gold Bug. To be honest, I’d never heard of it either before I sat down to write this talk. Having read it,  I can’t necessarily recommend as it is to— put it bluntly–kinda racist. Without excusing racism, I do think the kernel of this story and Poe’s story more generally is useful in illustrating a central point I’d like to make.

THE STORY

In The Gold-Bug, an unnamed narrator travels to meet with an old friend, one William Legrand, who lives on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. Legrand is sort of an eccentric prodigal son type who is full of endless fanciful sort of get rich quick schemes.

So when our narrator arrives, LeGrand and his companion, a freed yet still in servitude black man called Jupiter explain, that while wandering through the woods they came across a live beetle that they believe was somehow made of solid gold.

Our narrator listens politely to the story and then slowly heads back home to Charleston never actually laying eyes on this gold bug since Legrand had curiously lent it out to a friend.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate Captain Kidd. With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate called Captain Kidd.

With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

LeGrand says to our narrator

“This bug is to make my fortune to reinstate me in my family possessions. Is it any wonder, then, that I prize it? Since Fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the index. ”

After some cajoling LeGrand convinces Jupiter and our narrator to head back out into the woods to a particular tree. From there the instructions are very specific, they have to tie the gold bug to a string, climb up the tree, dangle the gold bug on a string through first the right eye lobe then the left lobe of a skull nailed to a branch at the top of the tree. Then Jupiter — who is doing all the work here — is to drop the bug and X marks the spot where they have to dig.

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The narrator at this point relates a certain amount of doubt to us saying something we in the startup field likely all can relate to:

“Upon the whole, I was sadly vexed and puzzled, but, at length, I concluded to make a virtue of necessity –to dig with a good will, and thus the sooner to convince the visionary, by ocular demonstration, of the fallacy of the opinions he entertained.”

So after quite a bit of digging and shouting and napping and more digging they actually finally obtain the coveted treasure. When they’ve dragged it back to the shack, LeGrand explains to Jupiter and our dear narrator that he hadn’t been crazy after all that month. Instead it turns out he’d been wound up in an elaborate cypher which required quite a bit of code cracking and Sherlock Holmes style detective work.

In the end, Jupiter and our narrator are fascinated, and from what I could tell highly relieved that their friend had finally gotten he was looking for and would hopefully stop dragging them into the woods at night.

Now LeGrand with his righteous indignation about being due his fortune in life is surely just a thinly veiled version of Poe. And in some ways, Poe is himself not so different from us in the startup field.

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Much like Poe, founders have a vision and some positive indicators from the market and people seem enthusiastic about what they are doing. But how do they get the fortune they believe is their due?

In Poe’s day he wrote on spec and the hope that he might win a contest or a small contract that he could go collect on.These days, tech founders throw together a pitch deck and a website and then try to set up a simple system for people to add their credit card and pay them.

So I shared this story with you because I think Poe’s life and work offers a few key lessons for the modern startup.

ITERATION

The first lesson is around iteration….

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Edgar Allan Poe is known as the father of modern horror and also the father of science fiction and also the father of cosmology and cryptography.

Nearly 600 words or phrases were coined by Poe. Some words we still use today, like bugaboo and finicky and multicolor.

This wasn’t simply because he was a creative and divinely inspired human being. He was scrambling for relevance and money. He was iterating and aiming to please.

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In 1839, four years before the publication of The Gold-Bug, Poe published an article in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger where he challenged the readers to send him coded messages to decipher. He received hundreds of messages so he knew the interest and audience was there for this kind of thing and that’s what lead him to write The Gold Bug.

Poe wanted what we all want which is to deliver to customers and be paid for it. He was an artist to be sure but he was intensely concerned about being an entertainer and reaching what today we might call Product Market Fit.

So as Vice President of Customer Success at Clubhouse Software, I help customers find their way around and begin to master our product and I also oversee our customer support team. Support is responsible for being responsive to those customers, and support is also the frontline for fielding any payments problems.

I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember this but in the 80s there was a commercial for a brand of hair products called Vidal Sassoon. Their tagline is “if you don’t look good, we don’t look good”.

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The idea there is that your appearance and success in using their products was a direct reflection on them, and this is true in all manner of customer facing work. regardless of how chaotic or seemingly in flux the company is, the role of success and support is to make the company and product look pulled together and sleek.

We want our customers not only to choose us but to feel encouraged by their choice, both in the product they receive and also in the ways they interact with our company. As such, no matter how the product may we change we need the user experience to feel consistent from initial marketing touch straight through to payment.

In a recent whiteboarding exercise, my colleague in customer success worked with one of our engineers to devise what would be the “ideal invoice”, working backwards from a list of customer complaints about our confusing existing invoice. This is frustrating.
The invoice should just work, so we can work on providing a great experience to the customer.

When we can’t decipher mysterious bank codes but the customer insists their form of payment is valid, we don’t look so good.When we struggle to make refunds or rerun invoices or when we have to read through convoluted logs to understand the how and why of a user’s billing history, we can start to lose customer confidence.

Our payment system needs to look good or else our product and our company start to look downright bad in the eyes of the customer.

INNOVATION

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The second area after iteration where I think Poe can shed some light is in the area of innovation.

Poe’s Gold Bug arrived on the scene at a challenging but exciting time in this country.

The American economy had just rebounded from the Panic of 1837 a five-year depression that many believe was caused by Andrew Jackson’s policies against the banks. At times during that depression, things got so bad that people were giving out this thing called a “Hard Times token” in lieu of pennies.

hardtimestoken Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman” speech commemorated

This is an abolitionist one. They came in many different themes.

But by 1843, the year The Gold Bug was published, a number of innovations made publishing cheaper and easier than it had ever been before.

These innovations include the first lithographic rotary printing press, a press in which the type is placed on a revolving cylinder instead of a flatbed. This sped up the printing process considerably and a form of it is still used today.

The inventor Charles William Siemens, of the same electronics company Siemens that exists day, had also helped to roll out anastatic printing, a process of printing using zinc plates that made copying of prints, designs, and literature faster and cheaper.

This is incidentally around the same time that Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were pulling together their work on the Analytical Engine, largely considered to be an example of some of the earliest computer programming.

So lots of experimentation was going on. Electricity was in the air.

We are living in a similar period.

Innovations like the introduction of protocols, the decreasing price of microprocessors, and services like AWS enabled the rise of our current tech industry.

However as our poor unfortunate Mr. Poe discovered, there is quite a difference between riding a wave and being submerged by it.

While I’m not an engineer, in the beginning at Clubhouse we were a tiny team and I worked very closely with the engineers to set up and maintain the payments system.

And the process hit us rather hard.

Enabling payments was one of the biggest hurdles to clear before we could formally launch.

Like at many companies our engineers were hired for their competency in the skills necessary for building our product. While we have to build or integrate and also maintain a payment system, that is not our product. We build and maintain a payment system so we can get paid for building our product.

Now the payment system is integrated in the backend and our backend developers work with a functional programming language called Clojure and a database Datomic. For those unfamiliar, Datomic is a system that is immutable, which of course means that an entity holds on to values over time and as such you get a lot of fancy “time travel features”.

For billing and more importantly for understanding a customer, that is so valuable.

Knowing who did what and when at any given moment in the span of the customer journey is so valuable. For example, if someone was an active user and then left for a long stretch that is useful to be able to trace back actions to find out what may have lead to them abandoning the product. Being able to see the fullest picture of the past and the present is important to people who do any sort of account management. And if you are interested in this, there is also a really great talk called “Exploring Four Datomic Super Powers” that I encourage you to check out. There is a lot of great functionality there.

However, for us, leveraging Datomic to get that full picture meant that we had to take on a large share of the complexity of the payment system and set up our own trialling and payment logic. Something we weren’t terribly thrilled to do. Taking on this complexity also means that we have a hard time using the out of the box integrations with many analytics, metrics, and subscription management services.

Most of the integrations tend to only work properly with the vanilla implementation of payment processing not the sort of mixed up version we’ve implemented.

So at Clubhouse we are still very much in the process of trying to find a middle way where we can leverage the cool innovations of the day like Datomic without losing the great functionality of the payments software and— perhaps more importantly — the expertise of engineers who actually specialize in payments.

INTERNATIONALIZATION

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The third area where Poe’s life and work proves illuminating is internationalization.

As I mentioned before, Poe’s work particularly The Gold Bug and later The Raven gained him popularity not just in the US but in Europe and even Asia. In fact, the great French poet Charles Baudelaire spent some seventeen years translating the works of Poe, often putting his own writing aside to do so.

Unfortunately all of this international fanfare proved of little monetary value to Poe. In Poe’s day there were no international copyright treaties. The absence of such treaties meant two notable things:

1) Instead of paying American writers to produce new content, American publishers often simply copied the work of British writers and issued it from their presses. There was no author to pay so all the profits could be pocketed.

2) Poe had no real way of brokering to get compensated if and when his work was issued across the pond. Though his work undoubtedly circulated around the world, as an American whose work had not gone through whatever arduous registration processes England or France or wherever required, he had no standing in court to make a claim on his works or their translations.

While I consider myself a copyright minimalist, I do sympathize with Poe as he was faced with a significant obstacle to getting paid. As we know, the primary convention for payment on SaaS software like Clubhouse is a major credit card, but that simply doesn’t work for everyone who would like to use our software and we also know that much of the rest of the free world has wisely rid themselves of checks.

According to a 2012 World Bank report, “at least 110 money mobile systems have been deployed, with more than 40 million users”. Some six years later, I can imagine it may likely be double that number.

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When credit cards don’t work but mobile payment systems are on the rise, payment system purveyors should more easily enable tech companies to hook into the ways people around the world can and do pay for things.

When our products have avid fans all across the world, we need payment system providers us help us find more ways to let them pay.

THE EFFECT

To close, I want to share one last nugget of wisdom from dear old Edgar Allan Poe.

In a piece called “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe explained why he wrote The Raven backwards saying:

“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story….I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.”

My ask is that payments system providers work with a consideration of the effect on customer success and support people like me, on engineers who are not payment specialists, and most importantly on our end user.

Help us iterate on our ideas while keeping the payment experience easy and constant for the user, help us leverage innovation without losing functionality, and enable us to cultivate an international user base that pays us in the ways that work for them.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get a little closer to our fortunes.

Gratitude: September 2017

A few things I was grateful for this month:

1) Sydette Harry’s AffectConf Talk


Finally! A talk at a tech conference by a black woman about *us* and how *we* survive and what *we* need.

2) Orphan Black

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I realized I was a season behind so I raced through season 4 and am just rounding the corner on the final season. This show is amazing and its star Tatiana Maslany is the shit. No spoilers please!

3) The CoLET website

This summer I co-founded CoLET: The Collective for Liberation, Ecology, and Technology. It’s a much-needed space for politically radical technologists. We finally got our website to a good place. I am excited to make a radical intervention in tech spaces and a tech intervention in radical spaces. Our time is SO now. Check it out when you get a moment!

4) Bookchin on Streetfighting with Nazis back in the day

I’m still on a Bookchin kick and someone in the social ecology community sent along this timely clip. Know your history, people!

5) Jazmine Sullivan’s piece on The Outline about chat as a lifeline for black women.

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The piece is beautifully written and I love all the fancy animations and interactive Javascript they did.

6) In Flames radio show on NTS Live

These two women have gotten me through many a tough day and given me my whole life with their groovy, funky, punky selections on this monthly independent radio show brought to us live from the streets of London. I love you, Ruby and Josephine!!

Get Out (of the Tech Industry)

In the beginning, there was the pure, innocent love of the craft. Hands on a motherboard, fingers on a keyboard, you marveled at your budding power of creation. Your ability to conjure something that seemingly wasn’t there before.

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Then the harder part, earning your stripes, whether it was enrolling in formal education or joining an open source project. You felt uneasy, but maybe that was just nerves or imposter syndrome. It’d shake off in time, you thought, surely you’d grow more confident.

So you moved onwards into the hallowed halls of the tech industry — the Googles, the Apples, the Ubers, and the nameless-but-hopeful upstarts. And that uneasiness couldn’t shake. In fact, it oftentimes got worse. Bad Things happened. You tried to talk to your coworkers about it, but most shook their heads and laughed it off.

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You tried to talk to HR about it and they transferred you to another side of the compound. You thought to yourself maybe something *was* truly wrong with you.But then you looked down at your hands, those same magical hands that found pure joy in the craft and then you looked up at your screen. There you saw a dreary spreadsheet or code for some pointless widget or the interface for yet. another. food. delivery. app.

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The Sunken Place – image borrowed from here

It’s not you that changed;  your magic did not fade. Our magic has not faded. We all still have immense power and capacity to harness our time and creativity to bring about solutions for the world’s ills and also enchant our own lives.

So the question is: why don’t we feel it? What is it we are doing that so disenchants us and who/what are we doing it for? What and whose vision are we servicing?

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At this point we can’t talk about the Bad Things that go on in this industry as mere isolated events. How many women and people of color and others have whistle blown? How many of us see what happens to them and become too paralyzed to speak up or acknowledge anything—even to ourselves?

And even if we decide to speak up, to whom (and on what platforms), would/do we even make such appeals?

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The Bad Things are not anomaly or abnormality.  This is capital working towards its own ends. For all its talk about “thinking different” and manufacturing some sort of utopian future, the work we are doing , the people we work for,  the VCs, and the banks funding them are doing what they have ALWAYS done. They remain in hot pursuit of ever more capital for capital’s sake, rolling over anyone or anything that gets in their way.

Furthermore, while neoliberal capitalism has evidenced great plasticity in terms of what it can tolerate on the surface while still keeping the gears in motion, any racism, sexism, classism, trans/homophobia etc. that we might encounter or suspect is endemic and essential.

Thus, in their never-ending pursuit of this manifest destiny, the people behind these cutting-edge platforms that many of us have so come to trust — the places where most of us upload our most private information and connect with our nearest and dearest — must deputize vigilantes to police the borders of their new frontiers. These vigilantes often go by the names of “online bullies” or “internet trolls”, but they are merely the low-paid mercenaries at the front, pushing forward the message and the mission of the monied and powerful.

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This is not new. We can’t talk about the rise of new formations of internet-based hate groups without at the same time talking about the platforms where they gather and organize and the training grounds like unmoderated community forums, tech conferences that refuse to uphold Codes of Conduct, and HR departments that sweep accusations under the rug. Nearly every time one of those platforms and the execs who run them came to a crossroads where they could draw a line in the sand and create a policy with real teeth, they consciously chose not to.

So while the formidable work of groups like Project Include, Code 2040, Black Girls Code, and Girl Develop It is laudable, I don’t think that integration work alone will transform this industry. In fact, I’d argue that the people and organizations that fund these efforts do so precisely so that they can preemptively neutralize elements that have the potential to be truly disruptive and dangerous. With their money and seats on the board, they control the terms such that nothing ever really changes. The ship will still keep boldly going on the course that was charted long ago.

Burning Down The House
As Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted to have said shortly before he died, “I fear I have integrated my people into a burning house.”

 

My goal is not necessarily for anyone to flip a table and walk out. I can’t do that myself, and I know we all have rent to pay and mouths  to feed. What I do ask is that you:

  1. Embrace your discomfort. Bad Things are happening. Unfortunately, the Bad Things are the system functioning as intended. While certain people claim to be regretful that this happened and others are playing the blame game, this is mere a diversion while the elites quietly re-establish order. A few whistleblowers will become prominent, fall guys will fall, deck chairs will be shuffled on the Titanic and nothing will truly change.
  2. Understand that technology/innovation is not the proprietary domain of the so-called Tech Industry. Much technology and innovation is publicly-funded and open source and accessible to all of us. Even when privately funded, innovation represents the fruits of our labor and we should be able to leverage it all.
  3. Connect with likeminded folks for mutual support and to start actively thinking about alternatives. Let’s challenge ourselves to build and nurture new, independent projects and spaces to unleash our creativity (I am working on something like this, reach out if you are interested).
  4. Be not dismayed! Working together, we have limitless power to harness and direct our passions, courage, and skills to reanimate, reinvigorate, and liberate.

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“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” – Audre Lorde

Three Tips for Providing Tech Help to Non-Profits and Other Such Organizations

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Credit: Wocintech

Ever since I was a little one, I’ve been identified as a person who was “good with computers”. Because of my savviness, I was on hand to help all manner of family members, friends, family friends, and friends of friends with their software and hardware woes. As word got out, I was also asked to help out with the technical systems of various activist efforts and non-profit organizations. While this work can be fulfilling there are a few  things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.

While this work can be fulfilling there are a few  things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.

Three Tips for Providing Tech Help to Non-Profits and Other Such Organizations

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Image credit

1) Define the Scope and Timeframe 

Although you may end up working with the organization for decades, you want to start small. Figure out what exactly they need help with and identify where you will help. Also be clear about how long you want the initial engagement to last and when/how you will be available to them.

2) Determine Technical Ability and Actual Needs

Take the time to talk with the people who work with the existing systems and figure out what they are comfortable with and what they need. In most cases, the organization needs you because their technical know-how doesn’t expand far beyond Gmail and Excel spreadsheets. While you may be itching to move their technical stack forward, it is generally wise to crawl before you walk.  For example, if they are using a certain CRM or CMS that they feel they are very happy with, you might want to see how you can improve on it rather than swapping it out. If you all eventually decide it’s time to move forward, the exercise of working with the existing systems will make you better equipped to help them make the switch. The world (and GitHub!) is littered with “brilliant hack day” projects that were meant to improve NGOs and empower communities. Whenever possible, meet people where they are and work to fix what’s broken first.

3) Document, Document, Document

Look, I am not doubting your commitment to the cause, I know you care, but life happens, burnout happens. So for the sake of all involved, please document how to use any systems that you’ve set up. Even if you stay on board for years, you can’t be available all the time. Give the people the tools and they have a good chance of figuring it out themselves.

Even in the case where a tool has existing documentation, whenever possible please still write out all the steps in language that the folks in the organization can easily understand and keep it in a place where they can all easily access it.


There are undoubtedly a lot more aspects to consider when signing up to offer your technical chops to a philanthropic organization but I think these three should help the engagement get started on the right foot. If you need more tips on how to evaluate potential new opportunities, check out my SupConf talk at the bottom of the post here.

Some More Hands on Support

I am speaking about engineering – support collaboration this week at The Lead Developer conference. If the topic interests you and you wanna dig in further, here are a few handy links. US_Navy_030521-N-9109V-003_Sailors_and_embarked_Marines_flood_the_flight_deck_with_salt-water_solution,_scrub_brooms,_and_plenty_of_elbow_grease_in_a_mandatory_wash_down.jpg

(at Clubhouse) Eyes Wide Widened: My ‘Evolving View’ of Developers on Support

(at FullStory) How to avoid empathy fatigue on your support team

(at Big Cartel) Why All Hands Support Didn’t Work for Our Company

(at Statuspage.io) All-Hands Support: Why, No Exceptions, Everyone At Our Company Talks To Customers 

(at Wistia) All Hands Support

(at Automattic)