May 13, 2020
Client Relations Exec at Hoopy, the developer relations consultancy.
In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, David G Simmons shares the reality, including potential upsides, of making mistakes.
David: Hi, I’m actually going to tell a story today. And this talk has a bunch of different titles and none of them work, so you can decide what the title is when it’s done.
To start with, we use words like this all the time “endeavor”, “empathy” and “sympathy” and all these terms that we use and but what does it really mean to to have those things and to use those things in DevRel? I want to get on the same page of what all these these words mean. So, just as you were forced to do statistics this morning against your will, I’m going to force you to read parts of the dictionary this morning against your will. Because some of these definitions are really important to us.
Empathy is one that almost everybody in DevRel talks about almost all the time. We need to be able to understand where our developers are coming from where our members of our community are coming from, what they’re going through. And so we need to have empathy for them. It’s one of these soft skills they call it, I don’t believe it’s a soft skill. I think it’s something that’s that’s a hard requirement for us. And there are people that say that it can be taught and people that say that it can’t be taught. I’m pretty sure that unless you’re a sociopath, you can learn empathy, and if you are a sociopath, please, it’s okay. Don’t take it out on me.
Sympathy is completely different. I’m not feeling along with you. “I just feel sorry for you”, “I’m really sorry”, “it sucks to be you”, “I’m really sorry for you”. And that’s a completely different thing for our developer communities than having empathy for them. And sometimes, it’s all you can have. I don’t know what you’re going through, I don’t understand what you’re going through. And I’m really sorry, you’re going through it, but that’s about as far as I can go. Understanding is, I think, part of empathy, not necessarily part of sympathy. I can have sympathy for you, and I have no idea what you’re going through. I can’t have empathy for you unless I have some understanding of what you’re going through.
This definition says that I’m sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings and tolerant and forgiving, and I argue that I actually need to be empathetically aware of other people’s feelings in order to to really understand. And this is part of what we do is DevRel. We empathize with our users, we understand what they’re going through. This is why we at least I do. I work through all the stuff, I typically come to our developer site, from the top level, and I start and I walk through it just like somebody showing up at our website would and I do it every single time because it frustrates me. And then I can go to our website developer and say, Why does it take me 40 clicks to get here? It should take three. So I can understand where they’re coming from, I can understand what our developers are doing. And that to me is really important for being DevRel.
Now, how many people understand imposter syndrome? And how many of you experience it? And it’s true, I know it’s okay. There was a comedian that did a joke one time about how many people talk to themselves and people raised their hand and he said, the rest of you didn’t raise your hand are saying yourself, I don’t talk to myself. It’s true. It’s funny because it’s true. But imposter syndrome is that feeling where we don’t know enough? We’re not we’re not supposed to be here because we don’t know enough. We don’t have the answers. So what are we doing here? And this talk is about mistakes and making massive mistakes.
Even small mistakes can reinforce invalid Imposter Syndrome. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I just made this massive mistake. I have no idea what I’m doing. And if I hide that mistake, then I get stuck with, I’m embarrassed and I have shame about it. And now I feel like somebody’s going to find out about it. And when they find out about it, then they’re going to know I’m an imposter and it feeds on itself. And so what I’m planning to do in this talk is publicly embarrass myself and walk through. Actually, it’s a repeated theme for me. But I already embarrassed myself publicly with this giant mistake previously. And so I’m what I’m really going to talk about, while publicly embarrassing myself is how I did that, why I did that and what I got from it. And this idea of being able to make mistakes and make mistakes in public.
So this is about how we develop those qualities of those things. I just went through those words I went through how are we going to develop these qualities, and I’m not going to help you develop Imposter Syndrome. But how do we develop the empathy and understanding for our users and for our communities and for the people around us? And we do it by making mistakes and we do it by making mistakes in public. Because when we make mistakes in public, we make it okay for others can make mistakes around us. You don’t have to make a massive mistake like the one you’re about to hear about in public. You can make small ones. But when you make your mistakes and you admit your mistakes then other people around, you can say, oh, okay, well, he’s supposed to know what he’s doing and he did that stupid thing. So must be okay for me to do that stupid things or to ask this stupid question. So as I said, it’s that hiding those mistakes that feeds that I’m going to be found out and that I’m going to be found out is to me the basis of imposter syndrome.
It’s story time. This started as Imposter Syndrome. For some background. I’ve been organizing and going to conferences for about 30 years. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I organized a Computer Science Conference back in 1991 in 92, where I forced them all to submit their applications to the conference by email. And it was the first time a computer conference had ever been entirely electronic. Before that, it was paper and I said, I’m never doing that again. So I’ve done this for a while. We’re all used to it now. But that’s not how it used to happen. I’m old.
So I speak at conferences. I do booth duty, I travel to conferences, the whole DevRel life. It’s so glamorous that, I get to see the inside of every hotel in every city and nothing else. I tweeted the story out as it was happening. So I got my dates ready for the talk. I had a talk accepted and a workshop accepted at this conference. It was in Marbella, Spain, which is fabulous. I bought my tickets. I booked my hotel, got everything ready. I got on my plane and I flew to Marbella. And I got there. I sat down at the table at breakfast in my hotel on the morning of the conference, and I got out my iPad and I said, “What talks am I going to see today before I have to speak?” This is weird. The dates are different. April 16, I’m sitting in Marbella, Spain. So it turns out the conference started on May 15th.
So the two hardest problems in computer science are naming things, cache invalidation, and off by one errors. This was an off by one error that was rather big. And as I’m sitting there wondering, this is not going to end well for me, how am I going to do this? At one point, I made the decision to make this whole thing public and tweet it as it was happening basically. Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. At the time, I didn’t really understand other than I had to make one of the most uncomfortable communications in my professional life, which was to call my at the time new boss who is now in the audience watching this. He’s still my boss, so I did not get fired, spoiler alert, and say, “Hey, guess what? All that money we spent to get me to Marbella, it will cost twice as much to get me home early, and I have to come back next month.” I could blame it on all sorts of things I really could have. It turns out that the travel website that we were using did actually have an off by one error that beat me a couple other times, this was the digit in the wrong place. I could have blamed it on any number of things. But the thing to do was say, “Hi, I screwed up. I made this massive mistake. We need to fix it somehow, because now I have to come back next month, because I’m doing a half day workshop and I’m giving a 30 minute talk”. And I cannot do that. I can’t call up the organizer and say “Hi, I’m in Marbella this month. But I can’t come back next month”.
Our community and our users don’t make mistakes like this every day but they take this kind of risk every day. Every time they ask a question in our community. They’re taking a risk. They’re saying, I don’t know this, and maybe I should. And how we react to that, and how the rest of the community reacts to that is really important in how that community functions. Whether it’s a welcoming community, or one that points and laughs. The ones that point and laugh are not really healthy communities, not communities that people want to be a part of. I took this risk. I didn’t know why I was doing it, but I did.
There’s another term that we need to know, embarrassment. A feeling of self consciousness, shame, or awkwardness. The important part of this is that if I had not said anything publicly, had I hidden it, I would have had the shame with admitting this publicly. Yeah, there’s a little bit of shame, but its more awkwardness. It’s not something that I have to go around thinking, “God, I hope nobody finds out I did this”. It was pretty obvious for anybody who had been paying attention cause I was tweeting from the airport and everything that I’m on my way to this conference and, and people did send me DMs A few days later saying, “I was wondering what you were doing and you were wrong, but they didn’t say anything”.
But then some really interesting things happened to me when I was doing this. I started getting responses to this tweet thread from my DevRel Community, not just from random people. This was actually my DevRel Community that started stepping up like this. This last one was the was one of the ones that hit me really hard because this is somebody new to DevRel, who is suddenly it’s like, it’s okay. I can do this right. Huh, big sigh of relief, made it okay for me to have done this. I just helped somebody. That’s my job; to help other developers and help other people in the community.
So yeah, it was a really expensive mistake. Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay for the expensive part of it. But it actually helped people. I did also get some of this and I am a natural target for all the Shitts Creek Gifts out there. It just happens. I get them all the time from at least one person in particular. My community have my back. “You got this”, “We’re here for you” and I can’t tell you how many direct messages on Slack and other places have people saying the same thing. “Thank you for sharing this, this this was amazing”. “I couldn’t help but cringe or I couldn’t help but laugh, but this helped me in some way”. And that is what I did. As I said before, I didn’t know why I was sharing the story when I did it, other than I got to get this out because holy crap, this was a huge mistake, but it ended up being this really wonderful thing not just for me, but for other people. And that was a huge thing for me to realize.
So this brings me to the larger DevRel lesson of this. Our users are embarrassed to ask stupid questions. Everybody is embarrassed to ask a stupid question. People will will preface the question by saying, “this is a really stupid question” but no question’s stupid. Everybody starts somewhere. And they feel like imposters for not already knowing the answer. And so making it okay to ask those questions is really important for the health of our community. As I said, you can either have a community where people point and laugh, and use the shame part of embarrassment. Or you can have a community where people stand up and support the other members that asked these stupid questions. They’ll take their lead from you as the person leading this community. That’s where it comes from; from us, as DevRels leading our communities. And whether we make it okay to make mistakes or not. And I say to do the hard work of making our mistakes in public.
In my community, say, somebody asks a question. I say, “I have no idea, but I can go find out for you”. I can connect you to somebody that does. That’s not as somebody says, this is a stupid question. But, that’s not a stupid question. Here’s an answer. Or here’s a person that could answer. It’s starting to bring that empathy and compassion into the community by making mistakes ourselves to make it okay for them. Your community will support you. I learned that my community supported me. Users will respect you, and then they’ll feel empowered to do the same. “Oh, okay. Well, she made the mistake and nobody crucified her. Maybe it’s okay for me”.
This is a little bit meta to the talk. But I had my I had these slides reviewed by several people. And I’m going to talk a little bit more about the importance of that part of it, for this talk especially, but for almost any talk. Courage to share your vulnerabilities and mistakes often prompts more people to do the same magnifies your impact. This was what somebody who reviewed my slides their comment and I was like, “Can I use that? That was really good”. And I tweeted after this review process that I have a new rule for my my decks: that I will always get them reviewed by multiple people, especially from underrepresented minorities, people of color, women, the such of things, because they will bring a different perspective to my presentation. And they will tell me things that I didn’t think about, or the impact that my slide may have, or the impact that my words may have that I didn’t think about, because, let’s face it, I’m a white dude in tech. They don’t get much whiter. A special right advantage or immunity granted are available only to a particular person or group. I didn’t earn this privilege. It just landed on me. It’s not mine. Some of us have more than others. And it’s important to remember that some of us have more than others and I didn’t earn it. It’s just as important to be always mindful of that privilege and to be mindful of the fact that I didn’t earn it. And my privilege is being able to make my mistakes in public. Because I’m a white guy in tech. So I can make this mistake in public and not get fired for it. Most likely, there’s still a chance. Not everybody can do this. Underrepresented minorities, women, people of color, make this a mistake in public, they may end up getting fired for it. And by me spending my privilege I’m hoping to be able to make it easier and and less career ending for other people.
And that’s the other point that I get here is spending my privilege. I get this privilege that I did not earn. And so I need to spend it. No, it’s not. It is not great. I didn’t earn it. I don’t really want it, but I have it. So what do I do with it? I need to spend it. I need to reduce the burden on others. I use this pie analogy because it’s not a pie that there’s only a certain amount of. And I have to keep my pie because God forbid you get some of it, and then I don’t have any anymore. It turns out, it’s not pie. But it actually is. And I’ll explain that. I actually do get a pie every day. And my job with that pie is to go home at the end of the day to end my day with no more pie. I need to get rid of it. Because guess what, tomorrow I get another one. And if I don’t spend the whole thing, it piles up and it’s useless. And so I need to go out and as I say, spend my privilege as best I can. And and to get rid of it. Because I’ll get more tomorrow that I didn’t earn. It’s just a free pie that keeps showing up on my door every day that I don’t want. It’s a pumpkin pie and I’m not really a fan. But it’s there.
And so that’s the meta talk about what this was and why I did this. Because I could, why did you do this because I could. And I did it to make these sorts of things, okay for other people, to show that it’s okay to make mistakes that it’s okay to make big mistakes, which should mean that it’s okay to make smaller mistakes. To be more human in front of everybody else, I don’t know everything. Yes, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I still don’t know everything. I still make massive mistakes. That’s what happens. It’s also that sometimes living in public like this, we get no privacy. Hi, we’re here we live our lives in public. At least a lot of us in dev DevRel. We go to conferences, we speak at conferences, we stand in booths, we tweet everything, we live tweet our flight across the Atlantic or whatever it is, because it’s so important.
So, live tweet your mistakes. Live, if you’re going to do it, do it all. Don’t just tweet the good parts. Don’t just leave, live the good parts out loud. Live the whole thing out loud. Because when you live the whole thing out loud you make it okay for other people to live the whole thing out loud, and to make those mistakes and to be okay with it and to join your community knowing that they don’t know everything. Because everybody starts somewhere.
Make it okay to join and not know everything. Make it okay to make mistakes, make it okay to say I really screwed this up. Cool. How can we fix that? How can I help you fix that? How can I stand up for you when you make a mistake like this? How can I be there for you make our community stronger, make you stronger, make you a better DevRel, make me a better DevRel? I learned a whole lot about empathy doing this. Because other people had it for me. And I was like “Oh, okay, well, that’s what that feels like”. And the more I can feel it, the more I can have it for others. And I that’s it, thanks.