My first face-to-face with Steve Jobs

One of my company VPs got the measles in Spring of 1985, and I was sent in his place to a “secret” unveiling of postscript for developers. It took place in Cupertino at Apple HQ. Presenters were Steve Jobs and John Warnock. Jobs gave an incredible demo of postscript (all by entering code; there were no SW applications yet), and he clearly had a visionary “handle” on how PS and the coming birth of DTP would transform our lives.

Most of the audience were programmers from Microsoft and Silicon Valley developers. There was a mild pattering of applause from a crowd who had no idea what a historic shift they were witnessing. I was one of only two people in the room who had a background in typesetting and graphic arts. I then knew how Silent Movie stars felt when they saw their first talking picture.

It was the end of an Era, but the beginning of “everyone’s a publisher” and the eventual free-flow of information that used to required highly trained (and expensive) gate keepers. I had a brief hand shake with Jobs and told him what I thought his LaserWriter and postscript would do to the world. Evidently he kept my biz card because I was contacted a few days later by a member of his entourage, seeking my advice on what to charge for fonts. “We’re thinking of $25 per font FAMILY.” At the time, a single typeface like Helvetica Light Condensed Italic cost $149 from Mergenthaler! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but I explained that fonts could become a cash cow and that a moderate, but higher price was warranted. ::duh!::  If only fonts WERE that cheap!

There were other encounters with Mr. Jobs over the next 10 years. Although he could seem cool, even rude “off stage” when prepping for a product roll out, once he stepped on stage he was capable of inciting an audience to do anything. I saw him influence people to run out and buy the “NeXT” computer during his hiatus from Apple. (With dual Motorola processors, the cube was slower than molasses, but was sexier than anything on the planet.)

If there was one way to describe Jobs in a historical perspective, it would be as if Nikolai Tesla had Madison Avenue or social networking skills to persuade and engage his potential customers and empower them to embrace a technology that was 10-15 years ahead of his time. And to be fully appreciated for his vision and genius while he was alive.

It’s hard to imagine that he isn’t with us anymore. Although Jobs will still be with us; every time we fit 5,000 songs into our pockets, or read digitally “alive” content via WiFi on something as thin as a clipboard. We may never see the likes of him in this lifetime. But he has influenced 1,000,000s who will follow in his footsteps and never be content with “the way things are.”

Thanks to Jobs, change will always be “the new normal.”

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Grammie’s Blog: 1909-1919

Most of us take blogs for granted as much as phone communications or TV. Although blogs educate, persuade and inform an audience, perhaps their most important function is to let readers connect on a very human level with the author. As wonderful as modern technology is, that connection has been around for a long time.grammie_19091

The blogs I’m writing about tonight weren’t written on a computer, they were written with a metal point pen dipped in an inkwell. The author started writing by kerosene lanterns, and ended the blogs by electric light shortly after WWI. The author was my maternal grandmother, years before she met my grandfather. She was a remarkable young woman that I’ve come to know through her writing via recently discovered journals.

“Grammie” was my best friend until her death 35 years ago. She lived next door to me during most of my childhood and teen-aged years and had far more influence on me than both of my parents put together. She hated cooking and all things domestic. She was vain, outrageous, and prone to wearing too much jewelry. She was more like “Auntie Mame” than anyone’s idea of a grandmother. In other words, she was fabulous.

A few years ago, while settling my father’s estate, I came across a trunk that had belonged to Grammie. There, in that false-bottom trunk, I found nearly a dozen of my grandmother’s journals, dating back to 1909. I held in my hands a ten-year record of the private thoughts of the most remarkable woman I had ever met. These journals were her “blogs”, and I want to share some of what I learned from them.

A little background: I only remember my grandmother in her very energetic 60s, 70s and early 80s. Grammie and I were the black sheep of the family; we were secret conspirators against the rest of our family, who pretty much lived in a “no fun” zone. We were both considered a little too eccentric, a little too on the fringe, a “little too much”, as I heard one aunt whisper as we were leaving the room.

By the time I was 5 years old, Grammie took me with her on “secret” shopping excursions. She/we would buy things that my mother and uncle didn’t approve of.  That charcoal and pink poodle skirt? Who cares if it was made for teen aged girls; it made Grammie happy and I encouraged her to buy it. I even convinced her to have her hair done in a pony tail like Lucille Ball. The antique black lacquer tea cups, the Art Deco travel clock that she couldn’t afford during the 1930s, all of these treasures came home, to be hidden. When I dropped by her house on the way home from school, Grammie would pull out these treasures that her adult children could never appreciate, and we would enjoy them together.

To give you a glimpse of this remarkable woman, she “surprised” my mother and the congregation by walking down the aisle as a bride, wearing a fuchsia velvet evening gown and gold slippers to her own second wedding in 1950! Things like just weren’t done in Merced, California. Twenty years later, my grandmother’s second husband dropped dead from a heart attack. Like many women of her generation, she had been trained to think that she couldn’t live alone, “without a man in the house.” To end her neurosis, my parents consented to let me “temporarily” move in with Grammie. It was just a few miles away. I stayed for over 2 years.

Away from prying parental eyes, we talked about “everything”. Grammie told me things I know that she never revealed to either of her adult children. We had independently reached some of the same unorthodox theories about life: reincarnation, parallel universes, and that time travel really is possible. She told me many secrets, which I will carry to my grave. Although I was only a junior in high school, over time our relationship evolved into an adult friendship. The two generations of time between us dissolved. My eyes were already fixed on horizons far beyond Merced, and she probably remembered her own youth, when she had dreamed about California looking at lithographs in magazine.

Ironically, she rarely talked about the life she lived as a young woman, before she married my grandfather in 1919. She had been a minister’s daughter, the youngest child, the one who stayed behind to care for her aging parents. Grammie had married late in life (26!) for her day. The nagging fears of spinsterhood haunted her, and thus she preferred to forget those years.

But she speaks of those years to me now as I read her journals. On yellowed pages I see words scratched by a steel pen nib (not yet coated in Iridium) which reveal a remarkably gifted young woman. She might have become an actress, a professional musician or a writer or romance novels had she lived in a different time and place. She was a relentless writer. If she were alive today (at age 117) she would be making podcasts and using Twitter!

Due to the severe restrictions of her religious upbringing (which thankfully, faded over time) she could only dream of the many things that she had the talent to do. As a young woman, Grammie could only go to movies about Jesus (which came along about every 7 years). The theater was strictly forbidden; only “loose” women were seen in places like that!  Like most “decent” women circa 1912,  she couldn’t wear a trace of make-up.

Neither could she wear flashy clothing or bright colors. A pale, greenish brown frock was OK, but coral or lavender were verboten. That plain picture frame hat was acceptable for church, but she couldn’t even try on the one with the birds and the cherries that she really wanted, as her agonized pen now reveals.

The highest profession she could aspire to was being a school teacher, probably in a small, one-room school house.grammie_school

And that is exactly what she became, a teacher. Just beneath the surface, unexpressed talents continued to boil, so Grammie stretched the envelope. She was the first teacher in Merced County to show motion pictures in the classroom. Believe it or not, this was controversial in 1920s, when many “righteous” parents still thought of movies as “the devil’s playthings.” The aspiring young actress found revenge through hundreds of plays and pageants that she produced with her midget actors. Generations of farmers’ children had their 5 minutes of fame on orange crate stages, and got a taste of an audience’s love and the sound of applause. The costumes may have been made of crepe paper, the sets made of cardboard, but Grammie had finally made it to that “theatre” she couldn’t enter as a young woman.

That may sound like a small thing, but it is not. I remember the countless times I was with Grammie on one of our secret shopping sprees when some middle aged woman would ask, “weren’t you Mrs. Huffman, who taught in Washington Elementary School?” The former students weren’t always certain that this elegant older woman in the “Vertigo” suit and furs could be the same teacher they remembered from 30 years ago. Once Grammie admitted who she was, the former student would unleash a torrent of gratitude and memories of what she had learned from Mrs. Huffman.

That middle-aged woman in 1962 may have never made it further in life than working the counter at Woolworth’s. But once-upon-a-time, she had been an “actress” in one of Florence Huffman’s plays. She got to be somebody.

When I first found Grammie’s journals, I leafed forward to April of 1912, hoping to read about the TITANIC. I was disappointed to find no mention of it. Wealthy people and ships the size of office buildings weren’t a part of her world. But I learned that April of 1912 had record rains in rural Illinois, and her devoutly religious father couldn’t make it to his own church for 4 Sundays. The wagon wheels were mired in mud up to the hubs.

But there were other things in these “blogs” that taught me a great deal about Life in general, as well as about the lovely young woman who dreamed of horizons she wasn’t permitted to reach. There are veiled illusions to beaus or suitors that “got away.” The pages reveal the ever present tension and mounting panic over whether she would ever find a husband. She was clearly being reminded by everyone she knew that at 21, 22 and 23 years old, she “wasn’t getting any younger.”

Did she really only aspire to become a homemaker? Or was that the only acceptable future laid out for her? If she dreamed of a life of her own, as a single, successful professional woman, she didn’t dare commit such thoughts in writing.

The poems, prose and observations in these time-worn journals reveal that Florence Freeze (her maiden name) was a writer of great promise. She occasionally had a religious or anti-war poem published in some small-town newspaper, but was otherwise unpublished. Left to her own devices (and if she could have worn that hat with the birds and  cherries!) she might have moved to a big city and become a romance novelist or playwright.grammie_deer

But then, she never would have met my grandfather and I never would have been born. Reading between the lines of these journals, seeing what my grandmother might have become, I’m not sure which fate I would prefer for her. If I could travel back in time, would I give her a train ticket to New York so she could have been Fannie Hurst or another Elinor Glyn? The world might have been a richer place if more people had met Florence through her words in print.

So, I will use my blog to periodically publish some of the words and thoughts of Florence Freeze. And if you come back and read what she wrote, and get to know her as I did, I suspect you’ll be a better person. I know that I am.

I love you Grammie. I miss you and think of you every day. Finally, your words will be read by others.  And maybe somebody else in some small place will realize that they too, can be somebody. They too can change hundreds of lives doing what seems like a small thing.

The lesson of the dancing Christmas trees

Many moons ago, a San Francisco institution, Beach Blanket Babylon, celebrated its 20th anniversary in the San Francisco Opera House.  The evening was everything I had hoped for, but it contained one big surprise, in what was perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt moment of the show.

Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall.

I had seen Beach Blanket Babylon about a dozen times. The show is a cross between a satirical cabaret and Carmen Miranda on acid … a witty show with over the top costumes (some headdresses are about 20 feet high), satirical lyrics and lots of local insider jokes. Each performance ends with a show-stopping version of “San Francisco”, sung by a woman with a “hat” the size of a Rose Parade float.

sf-operaThe 20th anniversary fund raiser at the Opera House encouraged attendees to come in either formal or “beach” attire. Naturally, I came in flip flops, swim trunks and a robe. When would be the next time you could dress like that in an Opera House? The lobby had huge piles of sand, artificial palm trees, and oiled down body builders (male and female) to add to the festive mood.

The show was long, with all of the show stopping numbers that had become popular over 20 years. Each costume and production number seemed more elaborate than the last. But there was one prodution in the show that literally silenced the audience; it was a profound experience I will never forget.

Beach Blanket Babylon began in the early ’70s as a street performance, with very simple and silly costumes. One of the first characters in the show was a dancing Christmas tree. The 20th anniversary had reunited many former cast members. Suddenly, all of the color and mardi gras atmosphere was gone. The stage was light by a lone rehearsal light, and three little dancing Christmas trees came out to do the simple routine that the show had started with.

The back of the huge Opera stage had three perfectly defined shadows of Christmas trees dancing this simple dance. Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall. The brief time watching these dancing trees and their shadows somehow united us all in a very naked, basic aspect of our humanity. The elaborate trappings of the Opera House (and most of the show) seemed to melt away as we focused on this simple, primal image.

What did I come away with? Sometimes the most effective and memorable means of presentation is the simplest. Sometimes, black and white works better than color. Sometimes silent images work better than performances with dialogue. Sometimes something as simple and “inane” as a dancing Christmas tree can mean worlds more than a huge production number.

It was wonderful having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in an Opera box wearing casual beachwear. But what I will always remember about that night is being united with over 3,000 strangers, transfixed by three simple moving shadows on the wall.

For the holidays, I offer my favorite holiday poem, “Little Tree” by e.e. cummings:

http://tinyurl.com/tree-cummings

5 Books that changed my Life

A member of one of my Linked In groups posed the question, “Name the 5 books that have changed your life.” What is your list of the slightly less than half dozen books that have made you who you are today? I was surprised at how easy it was to compose my list. Here it is.

(1) Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner … you don’t have to be Jewish (or even religious) to benefit from this book. Astonishingly simple, Zen-like, yet complex Kaballah-like interpretation of Life’s mysteries. It affirms that there as many answers to a question as there are listeners or witnesses

(2) Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres — historic fiction (novel with some real historic characters making brief appearances.) A heart breaking and unforgettable look at one of the tragic arenas of WWI (what is now Turkey) through the lens of a single village.

Find out how outside foreign powers decided it was better to separate Christians from Muslims and the tragic consequences (including the Armenian holocaust) that resulted.

Moments of astounding beauty that you will never forget, along with the unvarnished brutality of war.

(3) The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot — though written in 1992, a still up-to-date look at the harmony between physics, mysticism, spirituality and the real possibility of time travel. Technical, yet accessible. A real page turner, hard to put down. I have read this book 6 or 7 times.

(4) The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan — a collection of poems written by high caste Japanese women 1000 to 1100 years ago. Shockingly frank, modern and highly applicable to modern life. You will feel as if someone read your own mind or heart before she wrote these simple lines.Like seeing a sketch artist who can capture all the nuances of a Van Gogh oil painting in a few, perfect brush strokes.

The seaweed gatherer’s weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn’t he know
there’s no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?

(5) Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva — even if you are not a movie (or Dietrich) fan you will not be disappointed. This is an irresistibly epic and highly researched biography of one of filmdom’s greatest “creations” by Dietrich’s daughter. Maria was with Dietrich, just out of frame, during all of the major films of her glory years. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich was very comfortable with the stark chasm between her on-screen and off-screen persona. She was a highly complex, contradictory, maddening and thoroughly lovable person.

This biography gives an unblinking look at a woman who was decades ahead of her time, who travelled thousands of more miles and entertained more many more troops (uncredited, at her own expense) during WWII than Bob Hope. She was behind enemy lines at one point and was in Holland on the ground to greet the first allies who landed by parachute!

In addition, Dietrich met anyone who mattered in virtually all circles: artistic, literary, political and of course, Hollywood. A huge, fat, heavy book that is maddeningly difficult to put down. Warning, once you read this bio, you may find yourself impelled to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of boxed DVD sets on La Dietrich. If you want to buy only one film about her, get “Marlene” (1984), a brilliant documentary by actor/director Maximillian Schell. You won’t be disappointed with either the book or the films. Crazy as it sounds, I have looked at nearly everything differently after seeing the world through the eyes of Marlene.

You can trust your book to the cat that has “that look” …

Speaking of books, if you live in the greater Los Angeles area, go to one of the world’s last true independent bookstores. Large space, great selection, and a one-eyed cat. Who could ask for more? Go to the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood on the north east corner of Cahuenga and Chandler. And tell them “Max sent me.” I bought most of the books on this list there, and miss that place like crazy. At least I have Powell’s in Portland, OR and Beaverton, OR.

It could happen to you, redux

When winter comes and times get tough, many birds fly south. In our current economic climate, the birds are not alone. You need to get your wings in gear to do a little flying next year to some conferences, even if it’s on your own nickel! We are nowhere near hitting bottom in this economy. This is the worst recession of my life; since I’m in my mid 50s, that’s quite a mouthful.

You may be among the fortunate ones who are not laid off in the coming months. But if your company is one of the many hundreds that is under a “travel freeze,” don’t let that deter you from expanding your essential skills education in these perilous times.

Background: You may have read my story in a November issue of TCW. I was laid off very unexpectedly October 1st, and I made it my “full time job” to secure another position through social networking. Thanks to many many contacts in TCW Community and, of course, Linked In, my next boss found me; I started my new job on December 15th. If you’re dying of curiosity to find out who hired me, check out my Linked In profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/maxwellhoffmann

I had well over 100 Linked In and TCW Community contacts and friends actively assist me in my job search, with referrals, job listings, recruiters, etc. Many friends encouraged me to think outside the box, encouraged me to pursue gigs that could use my writing talents, etc. I broke every rule in the book, by not hiding my age, having a resume that was “too long”, “too unfocused” … (based on feedback from several breathless resume make-over artists who pursued me relentlessly during this search). Fortunately, I ignored professional advice; my new boss commented that he liked the amount of detail in my postings and on-line profile. But enough about me. What can you do to ensure that your value to your current or future employers and customers continues to grow?

Spread your wings and fly

In two of the half dozen recessions I’ve survived, I used comp time, vacation time and my personal airline points to fly to several critical conferences. In all cases, my company was under a hiring and travel “freeze.” While my co-workers stayed in their cubicles, I garnered essential information and training at a time when publishing tools and workflow were undergoing significant changes. The knowledge and skills I brought home from these conferences not only increased my value to our customers, it made me “stand out” as an asset during an ensuring lay off. By the way, if you have at least one “job interview” at a conference, and you secure a new job before the end of the calendar year, all travel and conference costs are tax deductible.

Which one is worth going to on my own nickel?

During my recent job search, I spent a lot of time on Linked In Groups and TCW Community forums; I noticed a lot of discussion threads were devoted to which 2009 conferences are “worth” attending. Here are some candidates to consider:

  • You may have just missed XML-in-Practice 2008 by IDEAlliance. Check their website for upcoming events. Highly practical case studies and useful “how to” tips with XML and DITA.
  • Start the year right, with a January trip to Palm Springs for Intelligent Content 2009, driven by “is there anything she can’t do”, Ann Rockley. This is a small, intimate conference, where you can get the big picture from stellar keynote speakers like Joe Gollner. (Note: any conference with Joe Gollner is worth attending, he is that good.) Intelligent content (like structured content) is rapidly becoming an essential corporate asset, and only a small workforce is aware of the issues at this point. Let Ann be your guide.
  • Hit Palm Springs a little later, in March for DOCTRAIN WEST. This year, the focus is “moving from unstructured to structured content” … something we will all have to do, sooner or later. Find the latest updates on new products, relevant case studies from a variety of industries, and always a session or two on globalization. A great venue to learn or increase knowledge with this essential skill.
  • Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) annual convocation has been gaining strength in content and relevance in recent years. Consider attending STC’s Technical Communication Summit in Atlanta, GA, in early May.
  • Come June, you will have three solid days to get a full grasp of DITA and its latest applications at DOCTRAIN </DITA>, in Indianapolis. Speakers and sessions aren’t posted yet, but based on past speakers and participants at the DOCTRAIN series, this promises to be another “must attend” session.
  • Since dynamic web content (and globalization of your customer facing websites) are becoming more critical than ever, look into the Web Content Conferences by DUO CONSULTING. The February event focuses on the affect of social media technologies while the June/Chicago venue notes “Poorly-targeted sales pitches and mass market messaging are being replaced by laser-targeted — and measurable — content delivery methods that promise to deliver the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format and language.”

That’s why they call it the “World”-wide Web

Globalizing content will be key to any enterprise that hopes to still be in business (let alone be viable) 5 years from now. Do a google search throughout the year for “globalization” “localization” “webinar” “2008” and register for the many webinars on these topics put on by vendors in that market sector. My new company will be putting on several; follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/maxwellhoffmann to stay posted. I will broadcast 150 character announcements about other webinars and opportunities as well.

What if you just graduated from college and are getting started in this economy?

So far, I’ve only talked about actions for content creators and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are already in the workplace. What if you are just starting out a career, and you need to gain skills, establish credibility, and you don’t have paid vacation or airline points? Here are some tips for you:

  • Brush up you XML skills with many of the effective and free tutorials available on-line on the Web. For starters, try out the XML Tutorial from http://www.w3schools.com.
  • Join The Content Wrangler Community and connect with forums that focus on XML and DITA that is relevant to your industry. Don’t be shy; go ahead and ask “stupid” questions. The Community is very supportive, and you will be directed to some great resources. There are many other groups that can help you come up to speed as well: mobile devices, L10N (localization/translation), topic based authoring, best training practices, etc.
  • Study at home with some effective XML related training video/DVDs. Do a google search, or start out with some new offerings by Ken Holman at www.cranesoftwrights.com … The first course launched is Holman’s Practical Transformation Using XSLT and XPath Video.
  • Need a portfolio? Do it pro bono: one of the biggest challenges to landing your first job is having some physical evidence (a portfolio) of what you can do. Whether you are a web designer, writer, or other type of content creator, consider doing a web site or documentation “make over” for a small start up company “for free” but in exchange for “screen credit”. Naturally, you need to put constaints on the amount of work you can do for free. Consider creating 6 pages of marketing literature, or the top, entry level pages of a website. You will only need to do this once or twice, then you can link the fruits of your labors to your own website and have an on-line portfolio with blog and comments.
  • Sweet Charity: Find a visible, but deserving non-profit that could benefit from what you have to offer. Create something (images, formatting or content) that will markedly increase customer or donor traffic, and get a logo in the lower corner to capture new leads or customers. Also remember, your work in the charity sector (medical, family issues, green initiatives) will also help flesh out your credentials as an SME in that area as well.
  • Become an “expert” in issues and industries that are here to stay. Diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the U.S.A. It is predicted that one of every two Latino children born since 2000 will develop Diabetes in their lifetime. In the general population the same statistic for children born since 2000 may be as high as one in four. Become knowledgeable enough to write intelligently about Diabetes. For starters, learn this difference between Type 1 and Type 2: do you know which one requires insulin therapy? There many on-line resources to bring you up to speed on this deadly disease (start with ADA, American Diabetic Association.) Consider writing an article or short white paper for your local hospital or medical associaton “pro bono”, but get you name in the tag line.
  • Go green: with new political leadership and increased government spending as one of the few alternatives available to “jump start” the American economy, expect increased funding and activity in renewable energy, fuel efficient vehicles, wind power and more. I live near Portland, and Oregon is rapidly becoming known as a “green center” with several off-shore hybrid and electric car manufacturers considering moving manufacturing to the Beaver state. Again, you don’t have to be an engineer to write intelligently about this subject. The starting point is research; search for relevant blogs to add as an RSS feed in your reader. Spend 15-20 minutes per day reading about your chosen new area, and you too can become an SME.

The answer is connections, connections, connections

Recessions and economic downturns are always scary times, even if you have what seems to be a secure job. This recession is taking us into unchartered waters. We have never gone through a recession during a true, post Cold War, “global” economy. Previously “unshakeable” institutions such as big name banks and the two of the “Big 3” in Detroit, are on the brink of collapse. Corporations that were once considered unassailable are now in desperate need of new ideas and leading edge technologies. Economic incentives now exist to rebuild many infrastructures, develop alternatives in transportation and other sectors. In some ways, our technology tipping point may parallel the early 20th Century when visual and audio mass communications first gained traction.

With mature social networking tools and the proliferation of hand-held devices that let anyone “twitter” anytime/anywhere … the possibilities for new products and new services are endless. You have in your hands something that no generation before us has possessed; direct access to priceless business intelligence through your social networking contacts. As always, expect the CEOs and upper eschalons of most corportations to be the last to clue in.

In the meantime, connect with anyone worth knowing, have something to offer in return (e.g. your own “business intelligence” or mutually beneficial contacts), and dust off those airline points. Travel freeze or no travel freeze, spread your wings and fly!

When all else fails, use candles

One Autumn when heading to the season close of the  Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon,  I arrived a day early in the midst of a strong electric storm. I decided to attend a near by, “local” theatre to see a musical version of  Tale of Two Cities in a very small, initmate theatre.

Near the end of the first Act, the power went out (for hours) and the actors had to think quickly on their feet. They decided to continue the performance by candle light. The cast or director could easily have decided to cancel the performance and give the audience a refund. Instead, the company decided to just “go with it,” and the results were astonishing.

Since the production was set in the 18th Century, the theatre company happened to have an abundance of working candelabra, so “alternate” lighting was available. With real crashing thunder and lightning for sound effects, the audience had a very memorable night of theatre. Not only did the “realistic” lighting give more edge to the acting, but the actors had to improvise blocking to stay “in frame” (or in candle’s glow) and also not set one another on fire. The actors were on edge (they could no longer see the audience, beyond the candle’s glow) and each member of the cast took on a raw vocal quality that went perfectly with a story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ironically, the “black out” portion of this play led to a “musical” with no music. The cast had been using recorded music as background to their singing. Now, with no source of power, other than wax candles and vocal chords, each actor had to sing “unplugged”.  Again, there was a raw, haunting quality that gave the lyrics far more impact than in a normal production. The first song sung sans music, was delivered by “Madame deFarge“, harshly lit by one candle directly in front of her face. The lyrics cut like a knife, when delivered without music:

Now is the time to act not alone,
Now is the time to take what we own,
Now is the time to cut to the bone! 

The audience was transfixed. Partly because no one knew what would happen next. Would the lights go back on?We were literally on the edge of our seats. Each lyric and line seemed pregnant with meaning. I got so caught up in this unique production that I forgot how the story ended, although I had read Dickens’ novel at least twice and had seen the 1930s movie 3 or 4 times.

At the end of the production, half the audience stayed to chat with the actors and try to convince them to do all future productions by candle power only. (I have no idea whether Ashland fire laws allowed this.)

This unique night of theatre taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. When a seeming catastrophe happens (e.g. you arrive at a trade show and there is no software, or someone sent you the wrong computer), just “go with it.” Don’t cancel your performance. Give your customers and audience whatever you have to offer, even if you feel like you are performing “naked,” without your familiar props and support systems. Sometimes you actually build a stronger connection with your audience or customers because you have to “make up” your narrative as you go along and your familiar script is no longer available.

Not long after my theatrical inspiration,  I had 5 minutes notice to step in and deliver a substitute presentation to a major potential customer during flu season. My sick co-worker had the PowerPoint presentation at home with him! So, I had to engage my audience for 2 hours with nothing but a white board and 3 colors of dry/erase markers. I connected with the prospects as well as Madame deFarge had with her candles, and we actually closed the sale!

In the midst of a catastrophic economy, when you think you’ve lost the essential tools you need to “go on with the show,” don’t hide in the shadows. Take whatever “candles” you can get your hands on,  go out on stage and share whatever you’ve got.  When you have to perform “unplugged”, with no lights, no sound system, and none of the other tools you thought were essential, you are forced to fall back on just raw talent and work with what you have.

You might be surprised by the results, and your “audience” (or potential employers) may be pleasantly suprised also. During a recession, thunder and lightning can be terrifying, but they also make really great sound effects when you have nothing else to work with.

Engineering: when everyone speaks English but words still don’t work

Most of us think that translation always involves more than one language, for instance, English into Simplified Chinese.  But there are many forms of  English-to-English “translation” necessary to prepare internal data for release to the outside world. Nowhere is this more evident than when you are required to act as a liaison between sequestered developers/engineers and sales/customers.

I was left to my own devices to decipher what was worth carrying back to the outside world. Over time, I found some techniques that actually worked.

I learned this years ago while working for a small start up company in Boston. The company had yet to make its first real sale; think pre-IPO start-up on a “below” the ground floor opportunity. Living on the west coast, I was supposed to spend two weeks in our Boston headquarters to “get acquainted” with the product and developers. I documented and shared my impressions internally; that trickle of critical internal business intelligence led to three and a half months of living on Commonwealth Ave and life amongst the Clan of the Code Creators. Soon I was spending every day with the “smartest guys in the room.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a “translation” skill that I continue to use to this day.

At times I felt like Jane Goodall, only it was more like I was the chimpanzee, and the engineers were an enclave of exotic humans.

The Lion’s share of our engineers had come from the same company. Having worked together for so long, they had developed a “tribal” form of communication probably found nowhere else on the planet. At times I felt like Jane Goodall, only it was more like I was the chimpanzee and the engineers were an enclave of exotic humans. I’d worked with many developers one-on-one before, but never in a pack or tribe. But there are recognizable patterns in how engineers communicate, both verbally and in writing.

Because the clock is always ticking against how many lines of code they write, time is highly valued by developers. And they can be less than patient if you can’t articulate your question in less than 15 seconds. “Max, are you going to tell me the time, or build a damn clock?” Emails and written communications (e.g. draft text for an RFP) can even seem down right rude to the initiated. If I had a dollar for every engineer authored email reply that started with “Anyone with a brain can see that …”

Learning UNIX was easy, but …

Learning UNIX and creating content from code remarkably like XML on our turnkey publishing systems was the easy part. When our engineers gathered together, with no civilians in the room, communications changed radically. Although I was clearly a “civilian”, I soon became a familiar fixture and the pack of developers reverted to their “native tongue”. Since sales support and marketing people live or die by painting word pictures to propel a message, the “disconnect” can be pretty awesome. It’s kind of like watching Marcel Proust trying to communicate with the masters of Haiku.

I was left to my own devices to decipher what was worth carrying back to the outside world. Over time, I found some techniques that actually worked. People who are gifted at handling three streams of conscious thought while writing or debugging code have to be a different breed by nature. And one of the things that nature didn’t give them was that hackneyed resume phrase: “excellent written and oral communications skills.” At least not for mere mortals.

Actually, engineers and developers do communicate quite effectively amongst people who live and die by the same “code.” But their limited access to customer site drama and sales dynamics can inhibit their “outside world” communication skills. If you find yourself in my situation, acting as the translator/liaison between your developers and the rest of the world, here are the rules for capturing critical data when there are no engineering release notes, and “getting out alive”:

  • Understand why they are the way they are: you may be dealing with someone who appears bright, refreshed and ready to face a new day. You may not have noticed that he is wearing the same clothes from yesterday, he just put in 22 hours of solid bug fixes, and hasn’t eaten anything for 11 hours. What kind of mood would you be in under work conditions like that?
  • Get over it: never, ever take anything said to you by an engineer personally. If engineers seem downright rude, (“are you just stupid, Man?”) they probably have no idea that they are perceived that way. They communicate with each other this way, and time is of the essence. In their world there isn’t time for the diplomacy part of their brains to go active when addressing non-engineers.
  • It’s their way or the highway: realize up front that you will need far more patience with the developers or engineers than they will ever have with you. In that sense, it will always be a one-way relationship. The engineer may want a 7 second question from you, yet take 45 minutes to describe something that should take 10 minutes. Don’t bring this behavior to their attention. Hang on every word and keep questions to a minimum.
  • Pretend your watching an Opera: most of us aren’t fluent in Italian and don’t really follow an Opera’s libretto word for word. If we’re familiar with the story, the performer’s intent comes across. Engineers can be highly elliptical in their explanations: many of them seem incapable of committing to a solid conclusion. “We need further testing.” Even if you have to endure a 90 minute “drama” regarding how/why it may take two or six weeks to complete some development, just try to capture the  “big picture”. You can always go back for details later. As we all know, regarding software release cycles, it truly isn’t over until the fat lady sings.
  • Come bearing gifts: be creative in discovering a way to earn the respect of engineers. You aren’t going to do it through writing code or being “one of them.” You have to find something to offer that they value. It may be a clever benchmark or Captivate demo showcasing their creation. Or, you may be able to share highly prized business intelligence on the competition. Before blogs were thought of, I created an email list with select engineers (with their director’s approval) and fired off a weekly “what’s hot” from the field emails. With one SW company I went “cute” and labeled these missives “FAX from the Max.” (Are any of these ancient messages in the Boston Computer museum?) The engineers loved it: (a) they were getting unfiltered feedback from the field, (b) they knew who the potential big fish were, and fashioned appropriate hooks to land new targets and (c) it was also an interactive process, in that replies from engineers were instantly woven (after translation) into my revised sales pitch. It became an iterative process that “snow balled” into proof of concept tests for new industries our company wanted to penetrate. Anything that stuck to the wall was disseminated to the field to replicate a new sales/engineering team strategy.
  • The way to an engineer’s heart is through his stomach: shamelessly bribe them with food. Jane Goodall used bananas to draw chimps into the clearing. Draw  your developers from their cubes with a box of Krispy-Kremes or several boxes of favorite-maker pizzas. This will go a long way towards stamping “value” on your non-tech forehead and buying more time in their presence. In some business situations, a couple of cocktails will loosen tongues. With engineers, a group feeding frenzy can often turn into a productive brain storm and a “Jane Goodall” moment for you to discover something new and brilliant about forthcoming product features.
  • Blow their horn: help give individual developers deserved visibility within the rest of the company. Engineers often rightly feel that they are isolated and ignored. Who else is there at 2 AM? Letting sales and marketing occasionally know that so-and-so had a real break through in a feature that will make next year’s numbers can lead to a reprogrammed employee I.D. pass for you that unlocks a few more doors. (Caution: if you start eating only pizza and don’t remember what the sun looks like, you’ve gone too far, and need to go back to civilization for awhile.)
  • Acting skills can help: learn to listen to developers and keep a straight face no matter how far out or ridiculous their suggestions for a proposed user interface may seem. (Baby boomers, imitate Dr. Joyce Brothers; younger team members, imitate your favorite “serious” sports commentator who knits his eyebrows, pauses, and looks concerned). If the Code Klan throws out something really wacky, don’t laugh until you get to the other end of the parking lot. Remember, these guys are used to handling tools and editors that make ordinary people feel like they just got off of a roller coaster. An engineer’s pain thresh hold will always be higher than yours. These guys probably get fillings replaced with no Novocain!
  • Haste makes waste: sleep on it. Never fire off a multi-recipient email or an internal blog about your latest findings from the Clan of the Code Creators in haste. If possible, wait overnight before reviewing your commentaries “through the eyes of an engineer.” Then send it off for internal distribution. The more brilliant your developers are the more easily insulted or alienated they may be from a perceived slight. On an emotional level, the richest fruit doesn’t always hang from the strongest branch.

Improved habitat doesn’t lead to better communications

Thanks to the proliferation of social networking tools, various herds and tribes of engineers can find and connect with one another, and feel less isolated today. But it hasn’t done much to improve their communications skills. If you don’t believe me, have your favorite engineer write part of a response to an RFP and anticipate how the customer may react to some of the tone. Of bring a couple of engineers along at your next face-to-face customer meeting, when you expect to close a sale! “Hey, did you know that you can pull together a solution for free using Open Source Tool kits that you can download for free?” (I actually had an engineer say that to a customer in a trade show booth once.) Somehow, the connection between sales and salaries/bonuses hasn’t sunk in for much of this tribe.

The better the product, the higher the risk

Ironically, in small, pre-IPO companies that are heavily populated with developers or staff with technical degrees, there is a high degree of risk: being hypnotized by your own creation. If everyone in headquarters is beyond average intelligence to the point that “next generation” tools seem normal, there is a risk of not reaching the IT equivalent of “Joe the Plumber.”

In the movie Lover Come BackDoris Day played a high-power stakes Madison Avenue Ad executive. Holding a garish Ad mock up , she wisely observed, “Leonard, we have to sell this product to ordinary, average every day people.” Her creative Director rolls his eyes and quips, “oh yes, Them!” Thus, there will always be a need for some internal “translation” between an engineer’s brilliant intent and the human-readable message that finally makes it to the outside world.

If our developers weren’t as brilliant as they are, the products they produce wouldn’t be worth selling. If our sales people had to decipher the first draft of product functionality into customer-ready language, they’d have to stop selling. And if traditional marketing people were familiar enough with the product or application to do this translation, a “Jane Goodall” liaison wouldn’t be needed.

Another group to translate for

So there will nearly always be somebody in between, that hybrid “liaison” person, well versed in the application, who carries forth nuggets of wisdom from the Code Cave into the light of day. Once your hybrid/liaison person translates the nuggets into usable feature/benefits, your brilliant creation can be sold in understandable terms. As we all know, customers and purchasing agents are not always the “sharpest knives in the drawer.” And that can lead to yet another level of English to English translation, and a blog longer than this one!