Switching Career Paths

LinkedIn launched a new career advice feature about a month ago. It prompted me to join recently and I figured why not. I’ve given a lot of advice in person, so let’s add another avenue.

I just received my first request from someone who’s just starting out in technology as a data analyst. She wanted some feedback on her profile and how to go about applying for a job. I’ve been meaning to write about both for awhile, so here ya are. Below is the message I sent her.


Happy to offer some advice. I’ll couch all of it with the caveat that this is my take. I’ve hired a lot of folks, but I’m not the oracle on what every hiring manager or recruiter is looking for. I’ve also never hired a data analyst.

First, some feedback on your LinkedIn profile – it’s good in that you’ve got a solid, professional avatar (you’d be amazed at the number of folks who don’t) and the skills listed in your description are great. Can you talk about any one of them for a few minutes? Imagine you’re in an interview and someone says “I saw you’ve used Tablaeu. Can you tell me about the dashboards you’ve built and the challenges you faced while doing that?” Is that gonna throw you? If it does, nix it from that list. Good interviewers are going to try to validate some of what you’ve included on LinkedIn and your resume to make sure you really know what you say you do.

I recommend adding some narrative text to your description describing what you’ve done and what you want to do. It’s a great chance to create a narrative to tie all of the various jobs together. Do you have a clear (or even fuzzy) line on how you went from teaching to Amnesty International to your current position as a data analyst? The description is a chance to share that. The hardest part about changing industries is connecting the dots to why your previous experience is relevant to the experience you have right now.

About applying and such. It’s really hard to apply to a new job in a new area without being there. So much of finding jobs is about being able to make connections with folks in the industry you’re in and build those relationships. Can you spend a week in either location? If so, look for meet ups or other networking events in the industry(ies) you’re looking to go to work in and try to plan a trip around that. If there are a few places you’d like to work at, don’t be shy about messaging folks at that company and asking if they’d be willing to grab coffee and talk about what they are looking for. Don’t message everyone at the company. Find someone managing teams you’re looking at or recruiters. They’re going to have the best insight in to exactly what they watch for when reviewing an application.

When it comes time to actually apply keep a few things in mind. Done is better than perfect. Writing the perfect cover letter or resume isn’t going to happen, so put something together, have a friend (even better if that friend is a writer / editor) do a quick review edit, then submit it. When I’m reviewing job applications I can tell immediately when someone is sending out a generic cover letter / resume for every open job and I ignore those. I generally only have one or two positions open so I want someone in that role who wants to be there and is willing to put in a little effort.

All that said, knowing someone in the company is even better. Recruiters get so many bogus applications that it’s hard to stand out. The warm introduction to recruiting turns the application process into filling out paperwork so they can track you through your interview process. LinkedIn can be a great resource for discovering loose connections to the place you want to apply.

Hope this is helpful! Good luck and happy holidays!!

So You Wanna Remove @growbot?

So you’ve added the Growbot Slack bot to your team because it seems like a good idea. It can be. And it can be really annoying. Once you’ve added it to a channel, it’s not immediately obvious how to remove it. Searching Google turned up nothing, so once I finally figured out how to do it I figured I should share it.

First, you have to determine what @growbot’s real username is. It’s using part of the Slack API that allows it to appear in the channel but not be a real member. To figure out what its user name is, you have to offer props to someone. Here’s what I posted:

tswicegood> props to @growbot for being indispensable – literally, I can't dispense with you

From there, Growbot will go “aww shucks” on you and should post a reaction to your post along with something to the channel attributed to “Growbot”. Ignore the post, but hover over the reaction. You’ll notice a username like @U4X4G45KJ – that’s what you need.

Now that you have the username, use the /remove command to remove Growbot.

tswicegood> /remove @U4X4G45KJ

Replace the @U4… part of that message with the username that you found for your Growbot.

You won’t see anything happen, but when you try to give someone props via one of the keywords like “props to @jeff” or “thanks @chris” you’ll note that Growbot doesn’t respond.

Be careful, using the /props command will invite @growbot right back. I couldn’t /remove it again until I tricked him into reacting to my post and got its generated username.

Testing iPad Pro Workflow

I’m happy to report that this blog post was written on my iPad Pro using iA Writer and published using Pythonista. Through a bit of experimentation this morning I got Travis CI building my website whenever I push a new commit and using Pythonista’s app extensions allows me to hook up some Python code to share the finished work. You can see the build log here if you’re into that sorta thing.

So this means I’ll be sticking with [Jekyll] for a bit longer. I kicked this all off [a few nights ago tweeting][tweet] about finding a new platform for my site. Jekyll kept coming up. Now that I can write and publish from my iPad Pro I’ll stick with it.

For those interested in the nitty gritty, I’ll post up the code that I wrote at some point. My jumping off point was this post talking about developing The Newsprint. The base of my site is still an outdated Octopress so my deploy requires a bit more finesse. The “ah ha” moment for me was realizing that Travis CI didn’t have a copy of my _deploy directory. Once I added that, everything started working smoothly.

It’s amazing how often the technical problem turns out to involve grey matter.

Sometimes the Smart Decision Sucks


Pulling the plug… for now

This is a hard post to write. I have to admit defeat. It comes at the hands of circumstance. No one thing did it, but they all piled up into the perfect storm. For the second time in a row.

I’ve decided to pull from Ironman Texas. This is the second full Ironman I’ve entered and circumstance has led me to have to pull late in the game. My mind is my worst enemy. “You’re just not capable of pulling off a full Ironman.” “Two in a row because life got in the way? Sure sounds like a great story.” “You’ve got this, so why stop unless you’re just a quitter?” My mind can be a jackass some times.

I’ve decided to cash in and call it quits. The last six months has been a rollercoaster. I’ve been sick with respiratory illnesses twice that have lasted more than a few days. My stomach has rendered me useless multiple times for days at a time. I had a cronic sinus headache related to work for nearly two weeks. The cherry on top was a job search that got accelerated a bit faster than I intended. Ironman training is an uphill battle against what you’re body wants to do in the best of circumstances. This felt more like playing defense against a siege.

Two weeks ago I set a PR at Ironman Galveston. It wasn’t the PR I wanted, but it was progress nonetheless. I felt good. I paced and fueled as if I was doing a full. Everything clicked into place. I had planned to take an easy week with some light swimming, then kick back into gear the next weekend. Or that was the plan.

Saturday morning came and I had a stuffy head with a slight tickle in the back of my throat. Must be allergies plus talking too much on Thursday and Friday I thought. Checked in with the coach and decided to pull the plug on my Saturday ride. Better to take the weekend off from a long ride and get it in early in the week. I had the flexibility so why not take advantage of it? I took it easy but my body didn’t let up. By Sunday talking at more than a whisper took effort. I was popping the next cough drop before the current one finished, just to dull my throat. I spent the next three days in a menthol flavored haze of allergy medicine, decongestants, and expectorants. I was going to kick this and hit the next weekend full force with the Red Poppy century.

Saturday morning came and went. No century. I was still toast. I had weaned myself from most of the medicines and was able to breathe, but it still felt like I had rubber bands triple tied around the upper part of my lungs. I spent 30 minutes in a light spin Saturday morning. My heart rate spiked and my breath got shallow any time I picked up the pace beyond casual-ride-in-the-park pace. The handwriting on the wall was now clearly illuminated. Ironman Texas isn’t going to happen for me.

I feel like I could probably finish. That “probably” is the problem. I can definitely see the scenario where something happens, throws me for a loop, and I’m toast. Like my coach said, you can’t fake a full. Regardless of whether I finished, it’s going to destroy my body. Spending more than a half day propelling myself forward is going to take its toll. Given where my fitness and health is at right now, that toll is going to be bigger than it has to be.

I want my first full Ironman to be a race I’m proud of. It sounds arrogant and assholeish and all manner of wrong, but I don’t want it to be a race that I slog through just to get the medal and check off “full Ironman” from the bucket list. I want a race that when I get through I feel like I had the best race I could have prepared for. With everything that’s not gone according to plan, Ironman Texas isn’t that race for me this year.

I hate throwing in the towel. I’ve stayed in jobs way longer than I should have. I didn’t want to give up on the job I was hired for or the job I wanted to make for myself. I’ve stayed in relationships past their expiration date. “Relationships are hard” and they “require hard work” and all other manner of platitudes. I’ve shown up on the line at races ill-prepared and undertrained and still raced. Not starting meant I had to fess up to not having prepared – regardless of the reasons – to be ready for the starting gun.

My first Ironman isn’t going to be that. I’m going to do it. Hell, my eye keeps wandering to an Ultra Man. But I’ll be ready for those when they come. I’m not there right now.

Time for a reset and then… keep moving forward.

Mountain Bikes and Singletrack Focus

I’ve been mountain biking for a decade and a half. Seems crazy, but knobby fat tires have been a part of my life since the early 2000s. When I started, 29ers weren’t a thing, single speeds were the province of those crazy few animals who needed an extra challenge, and there was still a debate between full-suspension and hardtail bikes. Sure, having a spring – remember, this is the dark ages the air suspension setups weren’t common yet – helped smooth out the trail, but the loss in efficiency slowed you down. Everyone knew that.

Then someone decided to test this out. If memory serves, it was Giant Bikes around 2001-2002. Giant had two cross country (XC) racing bikes: their hardtail and dual-suspension. Most of their competitors had a similar lineup. Two models, both were super light, both had been engineered for speed.

Giant put men and women from their pro team on a loop course with both bikes. Team members would ride one lap with one bike, then switch, then repeat. They collected two important pieces of data: the actual time on the lap and the perceived effort from the racers.

Across the board, the pros thought they had been faster on the hardtail bikes. Across the board, they were wrong. They had perceived the bumpy ride – the feedback – of the hardtail bikes as proof that they were moving faster. Each root and rock they bounced off of gave them feedback. They were moving, and so fast they could barely maintain control. By contrast, the dual-suspension bike soaked up the rocks and roots keeping the wheel planted on the ground. This lack of feedback was perceived as slowness.

I love this story. It underlines something I’ve seen time and time again. Lack of feedback makes you think you’re moving inefficiently. That feedback comes in a lot of forms: rocks and roots on a mountain bike, how many unread emails you’ve got waiting in your inbox, or how many reactions to posts you’ve had since your last check.

The key here is that they thought they were moving faster, but in reality they weren’t. I know people who thrive on a phone (and now watch) that’s constantly buzzing. They feel connected. They feel alive. Like the pro mountain bikers before them, they often misread the constant feedback as proof they’re being efficient.

A stream of constant interruption might work for the Jack Dorsey’s of the world, many of us need a bit more space to gather our thoughts. That constant feedback that “life is happening and you’re a part of it” is fragmenting our attention. It’s drawing our focus away from the deeper, more meaningful work that we’re capable of.

My reading and listening this year has forced me to re-evaluate what I let grab my attention. I now have all notifications turned off on my phone, save the few things that I intend to allow as interruptions: SMS, phone, and so on. Social networking tools have all of their badge numbers and push notifications turned off. My home screen has only the apps I intend to use every day and the second screen has a handful of large buckets that all of my apps are stored in – the largest of which is the catch-all Extras.

I activated the do-not-disturb feature of my phone while writing this. Those few notifications that have come through (I just checked — there were a couple) will still be there when I’m done. This let me focus my attention on getting these thoughts down and edited into a cohesive post.

Interested? Set aside some time during your day for focused work. Turn off your phone and cut wifi. Even better, change your location to some place where you don’t have access to wifi at all to avoid all temptation. Figure out what you want to tackle, then dive in. It might seem odd at first, but having stretches of time to focus, intently without distraction is a huge productivity booster.

I’m not suggesting anything new on the technology side, but maybe this tale will help you reframe the issue and realize it’s pretty universal.

Open Source Science?

Let’s run a thought experiment. Imagine submitting a scientific paper for publication, then getting an email that reads something like this back:

Thank you for your submission to the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism*. Your paper has been processed, but before we can proceed further with publication, please submit verfication that you have properly accessed the following cited papers:

… list of every cited work

Or what maybe it’s even more insidious. Maybe the letter reads like this:

Thank you for your submission to the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism. Your paper has been processed and please note that this message is an attempt to collect a debt. According to our records, you have illegally obtained access to the following papers:

… list of every cited work they think you stole**

Please submit either:

  • Proof that you have legally obtained access to each of the papers cited above
  • Payment of $750 per article cited that you accessed illegally

Once this matter is cleared up, we will reevaluate your submission for publication consideration. If you do not respond within 30 days, this matter will be turned over to our legal department for prosecution under the United State Copyright law.

Two different articles on Sci-Hub have been making the rounds on social media this past week. Both of the above seem a bit fair fetched to me, but journal publishers like Elsevier are facing a literal existential crisis. If sites like Sci-Hub continue operating, what value do publishers provide to the market that lets them continue to operate? Maybe they don’t need to.

Thinking about these articles this morning over breakfast, the similarities between publishing a peer-reviewed paper and open-source software jumped out. Places like GitHub are filled with non-peer-reviewed crap code (just look at the 249 repos I have on GitHub, most of which shouldn’t be used at all), but the main projects are peer-reviewed, if not not in the traditional way.

Open-source software that is useful and used ends up with a peer review by folks who use and contribute to it. My thoughts this morning turned to ways that a distributed, open model like open-source software could be used to validate scientific papers. I have no idea if it could, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder.

*Note, the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism is meant to be a joke. If I find it really exists once I go back online, well, the joke’s on me.

Increase Your Speed, Increase Your Focus

I recently started listening to Deep Work by Cal Newport. So far, I feel like I can sum up the book with this statement:

Focused work provides more value. Focused work requires effort.

It’s full of tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your concentration. Many of them are things you’ve probably heard of before or at least intuitively know. Things like keeping track of how you spend your time. Ways to try to remove busy-work and replace it with focused work. One great quote (emphasis mine):

In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative — constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers

So great! I still have a few hours left on the audio book, but so far it’s going to make my list of highly recommended books from 2016.

The thing I want to focus on today, however, is the book’s recommendation of productive meditation. Newport’s explanation of productive meditation is:

… [taking] a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

He’s basically suggesting that you create an environment to force the creation of those “ah ha” moments where you’re in the shower or walking your dog and solve the problem you’ve been trying to work through. I love the idea of mentally loading up your brain, then kicking into something routine and letting it wander.

Over the years I’ve inadvertently used this method to prepare talk abstracts for conferences, solve bugs, and figure out user interaction designs that were causing me grief. In fact, the very first conference talk proposal I came up with involved a solo afternoon mountain bike ride where I started letting my mind wander to ideas and from ideas to outlines.

Assigning this process a name and outlining the structure gives me a way to recreate it on demand instead of hoping it occurs, as it has in the past. This is great, but I’ve had another revelation while going through this section of the book.

I’m practicing productive meditation while listening to the book. Rather than focus on a problem, I’m focusing on learning. Deep Work has been the majority of what I’ve been listening to, but it also work for podcasts and such. It’s not that I’m passively listening, however, it’s that I’m listening on 2x speed. The increased speed is key.

Rewind to a few years ago. I started co-hosting the ATX Web Show and started listening to more podcasts to get ideas on how they were structured. A few friends talked about how they listened only on 2x. I tried it and couldn’t follow along. Things moved too quickly, the words were jumbled together, background music felt like it was from the Chipmonks. I abandoned the idea all together.

This past fall I started thinking I could creep up the pace a bit. I now use Instacast which support 1.5x, 2x, and 3x. I decided to bump up the rate a bit. 1.5x felt a lot better. Could still follow along, but I did notice it took a little more effort to keep track of what was going on. The focus felt good, but it wasn’t tiring.

This past January I started listening to Deep Work. The pace at 1.5x still felt a little slow, so I decided to jump it up to 2x. This time I was able to follow along, but I had to focus to keep up. One stray thought meant rewind 30, 60, or even 90 seconds to go back and get back on track. To keep the pace, I had to focus on what was being said.

Looking back over my progression the past few months, I realize that I’ve been training myself to focus. Now I look forward to taking the dogs for a walk so I can have 10 - 15 minutes to breeze through 20 - 30 minutes of an audio book. Walking the dogs doesn’t require much mental energy so it’s the perfect style of productive meditation physical effort to engage my entire mind and body and really learn.

I wish someone had suggested I slowly ramp up my listening speed. I also wish someone would have told me doing so would enhance my focus. I always took the 2x podcast listeners as simply hectic super busy people trying to get thru as much as they could. That might still be true for some folks, but I think more of them are focusing more intently by speeding up the pace to something that’s a touch beyond natural.

How to Compliment an Austinite

How The Iron Yard fits in with all the code schools in Austin

The Iron Yard has historically been in places that are not known as tech hubs. It was founded in Greenville, South Carolina and its early expansion was in North and South Carolina and Georgia – not areas known for as bustling technology sectors.

Austin is different than most of the other communities that The Iron Yard is a part of: it’s a tech hub with everything from startups to Visa, Oracle, and Dell and everything in between. Because of the vibrancy of the community there are a lot of code schools in the area – from the NYC-based General Assembly to Austin’s homegrown, part-time coding school, Austin Coding Academy.

This past week I was on a call talking about The Iron Yard and its place in the Austin tech community. The topic of other code schools came up, specifically how Austin is different in the family of The Iron Yard campuses since students have a lot of choices in Austin that they might not have in other markets that we’re in.

I think it’s a great thing that folks looking to ramp up their coding skills have a lot of options available to them here in Austin. The programs we offer at The Iron Yard are great, but we also don’t cover every conceivable option. Our structure is great and though I’m a bit biased and think it’s the best, I’m not arrogant enough to think that it’s the best for everybody.

For example, here in Austin we’re one of two The Iron Yard campuses that offer a UI Design course. It is a course that presents design principles and our graduates come out knowing HTML, CSS, and a bit of JavaScript. We touch on things like UX, but it’s not a primary focus. General Assembly, however, offers a UX-focused course. We’ve had students that apply at both schools to try to determine which route is best for them. Students who are more interested in user research and workflows have a great option in GA, those interested in building those interfaces have a great option here at The Iron Yard.

We’ve also had students get in touch about a part-time course. We currently don’t offer any part-time classes in Austin, but our friends over at Austin Coding Academy do. Just last week I sent an applicant to them so she can get what she’s looking for. This cohort, I have a student that ACA sent our direction after he finished the part-time program and wanted to do a full-time, immersive program.

This type of collaboration is a key to Austin’s success. We’re not a place that hordes information, be that knowledge or contacts. We’re all about the rising tide that floats all boats.

I’m not the first person to say this. Joshua Baer, mentioned this phenomenon back in 2012 when Dave Rupert and I interviewed him for the ATX Web Show. From Joshua’s perspective, one of Austin’s secrets is its collaborative nature. Instead of “oh, you shouldn’t do X because Joe Smith is already doing it” the conversation is “oh, Jane Smith is working on X too, y’all should talk – let me introduce you two!”

That mentality has stuck with me and is integral to how I try to interact with the world.

So what does all of this have to do with compliments and such from the title? On that phone call I mentioned earlier, I explained what I thought of all of the coding schools we have here through the lense I just described. Their response: “Wow, that’s great. That’s a very Austin way of looking at it.”

Want to make an Austinite’s day? Tell them their approach to the world feels like an Austin-way of doing things!

JavaScript Is Eating the World

Ok, not really, but JavaScript is the best place to start programming. I can hear the sound of the “true” programmers whipping their noses into the air as they read that last sentence, but hear me out.

JavaScript started as this quick hack to add a little bit of inteactivity that was needed for the browser, but now it’s deployed around the world on several billion devices. And it’s not a bad language. All languages have their quirks and those that do type conversion like JavaScript – 2 + “2” anybody? – have their share plus some but it’s a solid language to start. Why, you ask? Read on for my take.

Ease of deployment for testing

When you’re starting out, getting your code to run somewhere is the hardest part. That was the appeal of PHP. Write your code, copy it via FTP to your server, reload your page. The whole idea of starting a server is simple to us programmers who have done this for awhile, but not to someone starting out. That increased the cost of entry for tools like Rails and Django. You had to have a mental model for how you loaded your code. For PHP you wrote a file, you put a file on a server, you loaded that file through the server. You were done. With JavaScript it’s even easier.

  1. Save your file to your computer
  2. Refresh your browser
  3. There is no step three, you’re already looking at the result

Rise of JavaScript on the server

Server-side JavaScript wasn’t created by Node, but Node was the first thing to make it usable and fast. Taking the same skills you use to interact with events from a user and making those interact with events from a database or a caching layer means one less thing you have to learn. Yes, deployment of that application is a bit more involved than working with the browser, but you’re learning about deployment, not deployment and a new framework and a new language.

The other thing that’s often discounted by folks in the development community is how important native Windows support is. Yes, you can run Python or Ruby or PHP on Windows, but the thought of deployment is nearly laughable. The thing that makes Node a killer platform is that you can run and deploy it inside the enterprise without having to change all of your computers.

JavaScript is here to stay. Even if only a target for other languages like CoffeeScript or TypeScript. It’s a great language to start with since it’s situated right in the middle of the web development stack – that space between design and backend development. It’s easy to get started but challenging to truly master. And it runs on just about every computing device created in the past decade.

The Next Chapter

About a year and a half ago I started looking for my next thing in a post-Tribune world and my first email was to my friend Peter Wang. A few months after we closed down Quickie Pickie talking about the future of Continuum Analytics and data science I joined as the Web and UX Architect. During my time there I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to almost every product with a UI that the company ships. Tools like Conda and Bokeh are changing the way people deal with packaging and visualization. Under Peter and Travis’ leadership I’m sure the brain trust that is assembled at Continuum will continue to redefine the space, but an opportunity has come up that I can’t pass up.

I was once asked in an interview to give advice to people starting in data journalism. I said, “become an expert, then start over.” I’m taking my own advice. I’m not starting over completely, but I am stepping out of my comfort zone. Starting the end of June I’m leaving the world of programming and design to become the Campus Director of The Iron Yard in Austin.

The team at TIY is full of some great people (including my good friend SamKap) and is doing something really important, providing an alternate route for becoming a professional programmer or designer. To say I’m stoked is an understatement. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say over the coming months, but for now I’ll leave it with, see ya in Austin in a couple weeks!