What’ve I Been Up To Lately?

I always feel like the stretch between the time the kids start school in September to the end of the year goes by like rolling down a flight of stairs: fast and bumpy. So what’ve I been up to lately?

1: Most important, though not necessarily the biggest time-sink has been keeping the kids on track at school. Cron Family Study Hall? Actually a big success! My eldest’s progress report came home with fantastic grades, an order of magnitude better than last year. We are so proud and I’m glad I took charge and laid out a system that works.

2: Probably the biggest time-sink is this beautiful creature:Clover

I love her dearly and she’s been a great addition to the family. However, at six months old she’s still very curious (which encompasses both “destructive” and “wants to eat things that will require stomach surgery”). She takes a lot of time and energy to train and treat properly. Lots of discipline required (on my part), like never, ever getting to sleep in again because she needs to “use the facilities” and be fed at the same time every morning.

3: November gives me a special dispensation from doing just about anything beyond the bare minimum to survive. November is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Why? Because it’s a fun challenge! It requires self-discipline, writing at least 1,667 words of creative narrative every single day for 30 days straight. 1.6k may not sound like a lot, but when you’ve got writer’s block and a ticking clock, it gets tense pretty quickly.NaNoWriMo

This year, I’ve taken on the extra responsibility of hosting a write-in, where fellow WriMos in your neighborhood gather in a local bar or coffeeshop and your behest and write in “word sprints,” writing as hard as you can for about 25 minutes at a time. Then you break, chat, drink, and get ready for the next sprint.

Sprinting in Seattle is hilarious because we are all so “Seattle-polite.” If I ask people if they are ready to start another sprint, they all look shyly at their keyboards and murmur noncommittally. Luckily I have an abettor (a non-native) whom I can shout down the table at and ask if she is ready. She will actually answer me. But most of it is monitoring who went to the bathroom, who’s at the counter waiting for their latte, and the ebb and flow of conversation before ordering the next sprint. For all their chatting and elbow-rubbing, sprinting for three hours can get you well above the required daily word count, so it’s very rewarding to run the write-in and not only soar above the goal myself, but to get other people soaring too.

4: Reading. I binge-read so many books about teenage development and learning disabilities that I had to force myself to alternate one fiction book for each non-fiction book. On one book, I took 15 pages of notes, which I then forced my son and husband to review with me over the course of two weekends.

5: OMG, d3! I finally got the opportunity to start something new at work: data mining, data visualization, and (to make visualizations), d3. It may not be the best tool out there and the learning curve is deliciously hard (which is terrible because we need this data out fast-fast-fast to protect our revenue stream). I’ve got books in my Amazon wishlist about the underlying theory of data visualization and I’m looking forward to my self-taught course and getting enough solid theory under my belt that I can make a coherent presentation to my co-workers as well as actually build cogent and useful visualizations.

6: Beer! So I finally got to go on a date with my husband. The first in probably 6 months to a year. We went to a place called Brouwers where they have the best pommes frites and a beer list that’ll make your jaw drop. I’d been trying to take him there for the last five years, but the stars never aligned. Our waiter was an excellent beer sommelier and I drank probably the best beer of my life (I still love you, Hilliard’s Chrome Satan, but this was really, really good). I was never much of a beer (or alcohol in general) person, but this has ignited a great exploration of new-to-us beers. We usually split a can/bottle between us over dinner and it’s been a great bonding experience to sit and critique the beer, kind of like we would a movie. No, I have not seen any movies lately.

7: Sadly, I’ve been sleeping. Sleeping poorly, sleeping too long, missing out on hours of my life. It’s not every day, but it’s a lot of them. Once my husband had enough lonely evenings, he ordered me to the local Sleep Clinic, where we are in the long process of figuring out why I’m so damn tired. Fingers crossed that we find a problem and solution. I am hopeful.

Excuses, excuses, excuses. Luckily the NaNoWriMo forums introduced to me a software product that overlaps with the vision of my side-project and I was able to get feedback about what they like/don’t like about it and it’s helped to shape my vision of what I want to build. Using the software myself, I can see how it is like and yet unlike what I want to do. So at least I’ve been doing some corporate espionage and hopefully (since I did 60% of my Christmas shopping today) I’ll start laying down some simple user stories and some code to match. I’ve already got a use case for using a network data visualization, making everything come full-circle. Yay!

Family Week 2015 — Disneyland

I remember being flustered when I discovered that our son’s new preschool/daycare closed during the week before Labor Day. And so that week became “Family Week”–the week to which our annual vacation was inevitably pinned. For the last ten years, Family Week has been the same week every year, closing out the summer, even after both kids were out of preschool.

But this year was our last, as next year our son begins high school and we’ll have to be at home that week because of jazz ensemble auditions. I know it’s just a week and any other week will suffice, but I have to confess I’m a little teary over the demise of Family Week because it means my son is growing up and his high school experience outweighs tradition.

Last year we went to southern California. We took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA for an entirely new experience. We stayed in and explored downtown LA before renting a car and driving down to San Diego and staying there for a while. We drove right past Disneyland and didn’t blink an eye. However, we booked reservations for Disneyland the week after we got home.

Why Disneyland? For me especially, it’s a family tradition. As a child, my mother lived in a household of modest means in northern California. She was able to watch the media excitement on television, but actually going was far, far out of her reach. Until my Dad swept her off her feet and took her.

As a family of four, we went when I was three–a visit I dreamed about for the next several years. Then, as a young family, it was out of our reach until I was nine and my Mom was pregnant with my younger sister. Then again it was out of reach until my sister was three or four and my mother started working part-time, which gave us enough spare cash to go for epic vacations, so we went for a few years in a row as a family of five: my brother, the eldest by four years, me, and my sister, the youngest by ten years. We had great fun and it was a great equalizer between us siblings.

And so now I inflict the blazing heat, aggressive strollers, and long lines on my family at regular intervals. This time we made an effort to do things a little differently than usual: to take a more mellow pace and to deliberately do things we typically don’t see.

Things We Splurged On:

  • A “Club Level” room at the Disneyland Hotel.
    • You don’t stand in the regular line to check in. You go to the Guest Services desk and a host/hostess will whisk you up to the “E-Ticket Lounge” where the cast member behind the desk will check you in quickly while you have the luxury of sitting in a chair.
    • You get access to the “E-Ticket Lounge”
      •  There is a continental breakfast every morning starting at 6:30 am. Don’t get too excited: there’s no eggs or breakfast meat or waffler. It’s a minimalistic repast. But it’s enough to get you started in the morning so you don’t enter the park with a growling stomach. The coffee is decent, there’s a fridge full of soda, and free water bottles on request.
      • There is a lovely view of the fireworks. They dim the lights and pipe the music in (this can be a plus or minus, depending).
      • In the evening, they’ll serve you a glass of wine, if you’re into that.
    • You get the possibility of a room with 2 queen beds and a sofa that folds into a daybed.
      • With a 13-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, I’m not going to make them sleep in the same bed. That’s kind of weird. This means that one of the kids usually ends up sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. Pure luxury this trip: my 7-year-old enjoyed curling up on the daybed in her sleeping bag.
  • Preferred viewing for both Fantasmic and World of Color
    • Okay, you still have to arrive an hour early, but you get a lot more for that hour.
    • We splurged not only on the preferred viewing, but the *best* preferred viewing. Spending on the most expensive package really did result in the best front-line viewing.
  • Buffet meals
    • The Disney buffets are also (without exception, I believe) “Character Dining,” where costumed characters will interrupt you for small talk and photo ops roughly every ten to fifteen minutes. This may be a plus or minus. I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t a real plus for me.
    • The food is actually good not just for a buffet, but constantly refreshed and better than any of the middling options in the parks, not just the fast-food.
    • Great for picky eaters.
    • Can be quite fast if you’re a quick eater and you make reservations.
  • A half-day cabana rental at the pool
    • The kids swam over the course of four hours while my husband and I had front row seating, so we could keep an eye on them. (Which was only marginally necessarily, given the hotel’s generous life guard staffing).
    • We had reserved poolside seating in a place where it was extremely hard to come by any seating at all. On other days, we were relegated to piling our gear on the ground at the edge of the landscaping.
    • We had a nice, deep dark tent so our pale, Pacific Northwest skin could be protected from the sun at intervals.
    • We took a half-day off, had drinks delivered poolside, and had a late lunch/early dinner as we relaxed. We did this refresher at the exact mid-point of our trip, giving us a boost for the last half.
  • We boarded the cats as well as the dog. Last year, we left the cats at home with extra food and water, but I still couldn’t stop worrying about them.
  • Booking a car to drive us to and from the airport. It’s so nice not to have to drive that it outweighs the inconvenience of toting our daughter’s booster seat around. (The booster can be checked for free.)

Things I Regret

Not much, actually. But there are a few things that could have been better.

  • This was out of our control, but my son’s braces developed some kind of loose bracket or poking wire (he was not articulate about the problem) and he spent most of the time looking morose because smiling hurt. I could never tell if he was having a good time or not.
  • The kids were acting extremely camera shy at a time when I was trying to gather photos of them for their grandparents.
  • Not switching from sandals to running shoes earlier in the trip.
  • Booking Goofy’s Kitchen once for dinner at the beginning of the trip and again for breakfast on the last day. They serve almost the same food at each meal and the characters and character entertainment are exactly the same. I should have booked Storyteller’s for our last breakfast. Their buffet is perfectly good and we would have had different characters and different character entertainment. Plus, Storyteller’s is a little easier on the eyes, which I needed after a week.
  • Not having earplugs for shows and parades. Seriously, I think my hearing will never be the same. Along with good seats comes LOUD NOISE.
  • I missed going on Small World, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and only did Splash Mountain once and didn’t get wet at all. :( My seven-year-old was mostly interested in the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain for the most part and my thirteen-year-old, while generally easy going and willing to humor me, would not humor me that far.

Hyper-Optimizations I Enjoy

I confess, I like planning. Considering we booked a year in advance, I had a lot of time to “hyper-optimize.” Here are a few of my favorite things:

  • My spreadsheet. I have a spreadsheet that I duplicate from the last trip to the next. I then run through it and tweak it for the next trip. It has tabs for a wide variety of things, from the toiletries checklist to the list of tasks to do the weekend before we leave.
  • Making reservations as soon as possible. At the time we made this trip, one could make dining reservations sixty days in advance and cabana rentals ten days in advance. I didn’t call on the very first day possible and paid the price: I had a very limited selection of times, especially for the Fantasmic and World of Color packages.
  • Duplicating and packing toiletries roughly a month ahead of time. Duplicating toiletries allows you to pack them early and not at the last minute. No forgotten deodorant at 4 o’clock in the morning. When we come back, the toiletries just become the next in line to be used when the originals run out.
  • Disposable toothbrushes. I buy the cheapest pack of toothbrushes I can find and then, the morning we leave, have everyone brush their teeth and then dump them in the garbage. I don’t take them home. I started this habit after finding out that after you put wet toothbrushes together in a ziploc bag, you don’t really want to use them again.

Unlike last year, we’re now adrift, uncertain of what we will do for next year or even when we’ll do it. The kids are at such different stages that it’s hard to come up with something everyone will get something out of. We’d thought about doing the Smithsonian museums, but our daughter would never stand still long enough for us to enjoy anything. Our sister-in-law assures us New York is fabulous, but it intimidates me. I want to do a “small cruise,” but again that seems like an “empty nester” sort of thing, as does anything out-of-country. And so we meet soon to discuss what everyone wants and to balance everyone’s needs–because I’ve totally got to make reservations soon.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch: the Jenkins edition

It took me two evenings to bend Jenkins to my will. If you count them all, it took three evenings, but I’m not going to count that middle day where I went to bed right after dinner and had nightmares until I got up at 6AM.

The first day was fairly straightforward. I tried to blow away Jenkins on my machine to “Wash, Rinse, Repeat” and clear away the minimum that I had done in setting up the project. You know, the easy things: create the project, hook it to the source repo…not much, really. Jenkins uninstalled but it left a shadow of itself behind, which made setting it up all over again not at all instructive except to verify that my notes were correct. Yay?

So on that first day, I re-established the project, checked my notes, and then decided that, in the time left to me before bed, I wanted to get the pretty test coverage that I’d gotten with JaCoCo when I’d been playing with Java and Spring several months back.

My notes go something like this: “Add NUnit as Build Step -> “Execute Win Batch Cmd” “Blah\bin\nunit-console.exe” Okay, this was me telling Jenkins to roll in and execute NUnit on my code. Which took a weirdly long amount of time, mostly because I was tired and transcribing paths letter by letter between windows and most of the trouble was finding the right paths to things.

Turn the page and my notes are simply: “Aaargh.”

The next day, I came home, went to bed immediately after dinner and slept like the dead. If the dead had nightmares.

Today, I was determined to get the “pretty” test coverage–that gorgeous line-by-line report pointing to the exact spot you missed. My husband tried to encourage me to give up Jenkins for Team City (and yes, when I feel confident with Jenkins, I will abandon it and move on to Team City), because he said that what I was trying to do was too hard: there aren’t a lot of good free options in the .NET realm for code coverage.

The only real player that I found in the code coverage space that had a decent maintenance record was OpenCover. Don’t get me wrong. OpenCover works (once you get the right arguments–looking at you, “-register:user”) but it took a while staring at examples to realize exactly how to wrap OpenCover’s .exe around NUnit’s .exe and plug input A into output B and basically roll it up like a katamari. And, lo-and-behold, it worked (thank you, console output, for proving that I was making progress).

OpenCover generates an XML file and not anything a human would want to read, let alone look at or study. It’s data, not information. So, on to finding an additional tool that would allow me to get the line-by-line coverage. Welcome ReportGeneratorto the mix. We use the output from OpenCover as the input to ReportGenerator. And after rebuilding and refreshing, there it was: SUCCESS, line-by-line coverage in glorious pale green.

Now, I’m looking at my notes and thinking: these notes from today aren’t very good. I didn’t actually copy down the final batch commands. I just alluded to them, as I have here. But then I think that’s all for the best if my next nightly goal is to figure out how to both uninstall Jenkins and banish its ghost so I can truly work from scratch as I intend.

So, next goal: learn how to thoroughly murder Jenkins so it can be resurrected cleanly.

No, Indiana Jones Was Not Here

We have four “urban” chickens who, every spring and summer, lay more eggs than we can possibly eat without a steady diet of omelettes and French toast.

One of their passions (and chickens have few passions besides eating and henpecking each other), is dust bathing. My husband built the chickens a pretty nice chicken run where they have access to dirt to scratch for bugs and dust bathe in luxury.

As of this writing, the chickens have bathed so deeply into the run that when they lie down and flap their wings, you only see the drift of dust passing overhead.

At first, they dug up an inexplicable layer of lava rock. Then today I noticed that they’ve dug up two toy cars and what looks like a part of a Nerf dart. Also, a lonesome domino turned up in the dead grass just outside the run all on its own.

I know that the people who lived here before us were childless, but the house is sixty years old and has seen a lot of owners and I wonder who it was that lost an ambulance and a green sedan in the dirt out back under the cyprus trees and I wonder whether those items were ever missed, the way I miss the small treasures I lost as a child.

I’m looking forward to the chickens digging yet deeper, The Great Escape style, and seeing what else they find (besides a way out again).

Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch

Because of my other side projects I don’t exactly have the funds for a professional copy of Visual Studio. Therefore, I’m working in Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition. Not only had I never set up a new project in VS2015CE, selecting from its panoply of project options, I hadn’t set up any project in ages because on my current job, the project had already been set up when I got there. And while I’d shoved that project into a few different SCMs (currently residing in Atlassian’s Stash), I’ve only gotten a little practice setting up Jenkins–which is, to put it kindly, mysterious and arcane.

Hence, the “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” frenzy: repeatedly setting up a project, creating an object or two, creating unit tests for those objects, setting up the repository on BitBucket, and configuring the project in Jenkins so that it builds and all of the unit tests pass. And then tear it all down. And do it all over again the next possible night (remember: work/life and life/life balance happening here). Without any notes or StackOverflow Googling.

Except for the .gitignore. No one should be expected to write a .NET .gitignore off the top of their head. There are more valuable things to fill one’s head with. Like Jenkins configuration.

I understand that Jenkins is a fairly broadly used product. It’s not exactly “industry standard” because what does that mean in software anyway, where there are so many interchangeable or nearly interchangeable offerings? But, without quibbling, Jenkins (and tools like Jenkins) are useful and de riguer to the point of being passé, ready to be usurped by the next generation of tools. Because it doesn’t end here and it never will, or else my Dad’s old Honeywell manuals from the 1970’s would be of use to me.

We all live in the here-and-now, so my short-term goal is to get a tiny spike project with unit tests running on Jenkins in as little time as possible. Once I get Jenkins down two or three times and can discard the copious Jenkins notes, I’ll start running the stopwatch on my phone and see how low I can go time-wise.

Now, am I cargo-culting? I wonder. How does repeating the same steps over and over help anything? I’m not sure. Will I be refining my spike solution as I go, slowly growing an architecture that I like? Maybe. Will I be learning how to smoothly navigate and manipulate Jenkins? Hopefully, because the Jenkins navigation is counter-intuitive to me. Bragging rights? What a weird thing to brag about. To be confronted with starting up a new project without drawing a complete blank? Yes. Especially in an interview.

So it’s not just “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” today, but it’s “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” for a lifetime, because things are always changing, and new tools will become standards that will become sad, outdated kitsch in time (like Dad’s Honeywell manuals). This particular “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” iteration represents just one slice in time–one snapshot of what is currently standard–but the underlying ethos is a necessity for the job. Dad may have made it to 75 by staying in COBOL as it became a rare and valuable skill to large companies (banks) that couldn’t excise it, but I can’t expect the same fortune. Nor do I really want it, though I’d still like to be working at 75.

An Open Floor Plan vs. a Small Private Office

I’ll admit it: I lost a fair amount of work time today. I share a small office with two other people, neither of whom were present when I arrived this morning. So, I settled down, fired off my morning “chores” email to my son, and dived into a small feature that had been bugging me for too long with recalcitrant jquery problems. I did a fair amount of work.

One coworker emailed in that she’d been forced to commute to Bellevue and back and would be late. My other coworker was on a bus back from Vancouver, B.C., after doing an organized Seattle-to-Vancouver ride. So I had the place to myself for a good long time and I did get some stuff done.

Then my coworker who’d been diverted to Bellevue (or “Across the Water,” as we think of it) arrived. She got down to work as well, doing all of that Monday morning getting oriented, organized, and prepared to face the week.

It was all quiet tippity-tapping of keyboards for a while and then–I don’t remember who started it–we began chatting. And because we have a small, three-person office, there was no one there to disturb with our happy, tangent-filled discourse. We chatted, I confess, for quite a while.

Since our company contracted from three to two floors in the building, a lot of dynamics have changed. Our leadership had spoken enthusiastically of building more synergy from more people rubbing elbows, but they were speaking in general and not in relation to our particular situation.

Formerly, we sat as a group of five or so (the number undulates with a delightful stream of visitors, graduate students, post-graduate students, and others). We were also seated in a wide open area right next to the Help Desk folks (all pleasant) and, just beyond them, the Systems folks. Once in a while conversation would cross-pollinate across groups. Most of the time we chatted by caste. But the fact that you knew other people were within hearing range not only cut down on the loudness of any conviviality, it cut down on the length of it.

I’m mostly an introvert. Why do I sound like I’m advocating for an open floor plan as an aid to productivity? Well, I’m not. For one, not only has our group been cut into two subgroups on opposite sides of the building, we’ve lost the friendly camaraderie between ourselves and the unrelated IT groups that we used to share our open space with.

Most frightening of all is that one of us in our small office will be leaving permanently for India in December. He’s one of the kindest and smartest people I’ve ever known and he comprises 1/3 of my office. When he leaves, who will come and sit at that desk? How will that change the solid, stable chemistry built by six years of working together, sharing our ups and downs and inside jokes? Could the remaining 2/3 of us swallow a “poison pill?” Could we transform such a person? With so few people inside such a tiny area, we have no way to diffuse the tension.

Endless expanses of drab cubes is definitely the wave of the past, but oppressive walls and tiny pockets of people isn’t the wave of the future, either (our office is shaped like a Tetris block). Rather, the obvious answer is that not only do you need an open, collaborative space, you need one that’s flexible enough to offer some privacy (private phone call, anyone?) in addition to allowing folks who might not otherwise work together to rub shoulders.

I sit and think of December with a mixture of hope and dread: dreading the loss of a great co-worker and hoping against hope that whatever fresh blood comes along and occupies his former desk can help us make another, fresh whole that will keep our tiny office functioning, both during work and during play.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get a real winner and even host another Open House and have champagne and snacks, like we did when we first moved in. We got a liquor license and posted it proudly in our little Tetris block and everything. It was a great party–too bad you missed it.

Good News, Bad News; Either Way it’s 8th Grade

My son begins 8th grade in a few weeks and over the course of the summer we’ve had a few “talks” about how this was the last year his grades wouldn’t be on the transcript he would send out to colleges. He took this news with the amount of alarm that you would expect out of a thirteen-year-old: zero. Or at least he pretended zero. Everything I’ve read (and I panicked after his 7th grade year and read multiple books over the summer) points to the notion that “bright but unmotivated” kids are often perfectionists who fear failure and therefore don’t even try, ending up with that facade of “couldn’t care less.”

Our son sailed through seventh grade, sunnily assuring us that he had no homework because they were allotted time in class for it and he’d done it already. I believed this because I know the school had a “low homework” attitude. It was possible that–given enough time in class–he was truly finishing things up.

How could I be so stupid, you wonder? Well, aside from his convincing smile, I was unconvinced. Essentially, we were running an experiment to find out what would happen if we kept our hands off. We assumed he’d be mature enough to at least crash-land his 7th grade year fairly well the same way he’d crash-landed 6th grade.

Then, at the end of the year, I got an email from one of his teachers saying that my son had failed to turn in a two-chapter take home test. She asked us to encourage him to return it ASAP. I looked her name up in the directory, since I never can remember which teacher is which (I’m just bad with names of people I’ve never met that way). It was his algebra teacher. Now, I knew my son was having a hard time in algebra, partly because he didn’t have a textbook–he was at the orthodontist the day they handed out books and they were short so (in short) he didn’t get one.

This, for the record, happened in Seattle Public Schools: there are not enough textbooks for each child to have one in some schools. His middle school is one of the wealthier schools (as supported by PTA dollars). It has a world class music program built by the parents, but the school district cannot be bothered to allot them enough textbooks per child.

So, I was cutting him some slack in algebra because of the no-textbook-thing, though I thought a native of the digital generation should take to his “online textbook” like a fish to water. There was a textbook available for him to use in the classroom, so I figured he just put a lot of effort into finishing (mostly) during class.

But the take-home test made me livid. The algebra teacher had a no-make-up policy and here she was practically begging me to make my son turn in this two-chapter test. Upon returning home that night, I interrogated my errant son, who replied that he hadn’t quite finished it and so hadn’t handed it in–knowing there were no make-ups and no late work allowed. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking clearly.

He finished the test, turned it in, squeaked by, and when his grades came his father looked at them and suggested that I not bother.

So now here’s the bad news: we just sat down with our son to explain to him that mother is going to be monitoring his schoolwork every damn day. Every day will be “planner bingo,” with something written in for each class, whether the topic they covered or the assignment due or what they plan to discuss the next day. Something–anything that mother happens to deem valid. Then, mother and son will organize all of the papers that came in that day, devise a study plan, and mother will sit at the dining table and work quietly on her own work while son and daughter do their assigned work for the day. I will be there from start to finish, no cut corners, no skeletons in the closet, nothing out of place, everything ready for the next day.

Here you may ask: why me and where is my husband in all of this?

I’m the study hall monitor because my husband is the chef and the dishwasher. If you think he’s getting the better end of the deal, you’re wrong; I hate to cook and touching cold, wet, slimy dishes turns my stomach. And I’m forever grateful to him for taking on the yucky stuff.

The good news then, is that even though we’ll fumble and stumble a bit, I have that secret love of planning things, so I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. From there, I just have to make sure he stays on task and does his best. And everything I’ve read assures me that organization and staying on top of things are key to good self esteem and, more importantly, self-efficacy (the sense that you are capable and resilient in the face of what life throws at you). And from there, the grades just magically follow.

We hope. We’ll see. I’ll report back later on how this actually turns out.

If you’re interested, here are the highlights of my summer reading:

  • That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week ~ which taught me that my son was not alone in his disorganization and inspired me to sit down with him to get him organized. We’re implementing some pieces of the author’s tactics in modified ways.
  • The Price of Privilege ~ while we’re not one of the uber-wealthy, absentee-daddy, power families often referenced in the book, I found this one so compelling that I wrote fifteen pages of notes and went over them in two sessions with my husband and son as conversation starters
  • Teach Your Children Well ~ by the same author as The Price of Privilege.
  • Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be ~ a book about the bubble of madness surrounding college admissions, esp. the Ivies. The book contains a sweet collection of anecdotes about kids who had to go to their 2nd choice or even fall-back colleges and who found they actually got a great education. My blood pressure must’ve dropped a good ten points reading this book.

“Mystery Project” or “What is in the Bucket?”

There is now a bucket on the lower shelf of my nightstand. It contains several balls of yarn, knitting needles, a crochet hook, and a round loom.

I sat and worked until my back ached.

Why?

Because the family White Elephant Gift Exchange theme is “hand-made” this year. And I was certainly using my hands, although it was my back that felt it the most.

What am I making? What will it look like? I have a bad history with yarn–will it even be something that can be readily identified by a noun in the English language? I don’t know yet. All I know is that the yarn is pretty colors and soft to work with. The theme is “hand-made,” not “useful.” God forbid anyone comes up with that as a theme some year.

However, my family should be afraid. They should be very afraid of this impending monstrosity. Someone will get stuck with it come Christmas day.

At least it’ll be small and easy to ship home.

Waiting for Updates

Among the other bits and pieces of my life that I’m trying to pick up again (I sat for a while and knitted today), I’m reopening my Windows machine and trying to get a fresh start on my programming side project.

This meant not only 26 Windows Updates but also Visual Studio 2013 Update 5. You can tell I’ve been using just my Mac for a while. Shopping, mostly. I’m still trying to get my novel-writing back up to speed.

What is the point of programming all day and then coming home and coding again at night. Well, I’ll confess that sometimes I don’t really code at all during the day, for reasons ranging to an absurd amount of outside appointments to database cleanup. It is, after all, database cleanup season, didn’t you know?

The real point is to have a chance to program sideways from how I normally do. I have a very established set of patterns that I use at work and I would like to hone my brain against something outside that box, where I’m free to roam or dally and do more than just the swiftest thing possible, reusing the identical technologies. It’s like a short-order cook settling down on his or her off-time to slowly and methodically cook something complicated from Julia Child, savoring the whole thing.

And so here I am waiting in “grey bar land, “although the bars aren’t technically grey anymore–fashion is so fickle.

Oh, great. Now I need to restart.

How Moo Cards Make Me Confront My Professional Identity

My daughter is enough of a social person that I keep considering buying her a set of Moo cards with our contact info on it so she can hand it out to the kids she meets at summer camps, school, etc. There is a school directory, but I’ve had more success hand-printing business cards (or when I want to really catch someone’s eye, a postcard) and handing that out. So sometimes I play around with the Moo site, trying to convince myself that I should just invest in a set of 50 or 100 “Let’s Play” business cards for my seven-year-old. They’re actually pretty cute.

What is less cute is that during this process, I inevitably get drawn into toying around with cards for myself. I already have corporate business cards which are nice but unnecessary in my current position and really don’t describe me beyond contact details. Then signing up for an intensive, four-day seminar in Software Product Management in mid-September (which included a group lunch and a networking reception) made my Moo ruminations much more urgent. What use was handing out something that was nothing more than my job title and corporate contact info?

Let’s not point out that I’m not brave enough to hand anything to anyone unsolicited. In my Palace of the Mind, however, I envisioned myself as sociable, gracious, and articulate at these occasions and even in the classroom.

Suddenly, I’m confronted by the front of a Moo card with several blank lines, each one with a pale grey suggestion of what you should fill that empty space with. Okay: name at the top, that’s easy; it’s a nice name: easy to parse out and spell or say. But then comes my job title. And then I have to wonder “who am I?” because my official title of “bioinformatics systems programmer” isn’t particularly accurate or informative. It’s about as compelling as my shoe size.

Well, the naked truth is that I’m a Web Applications Developer. But beyond that, filling in the lines of the Moo card to make a sort of haiku about who I want people to remember me as becomes a real challenge. I show my husband my attempts and his reactions range from “ew” to “*shrug.*” Having worked alone or as a consultant for so much of my career, my soft skill set rivals my hard skill set and hard skill buzz words move so quickly anyway that it’s the soft things that I want to be remembered for: my knack for designing systems out of vague or off-the-cuff requirements; my agility in the face of feedback; my dedication to both my bosses and my end-users.

Then there’s the dark underbelly of soft skills: my delight in dealing with my end-users (even when they’re reporting bugs or user errors); my joy in helping my coworkers; the thrill of data coming together to make a solid narrative of information; the secret passion for planning and organizing.

But these soft skills are the things I long to put on the Moo card in efficient, evocative four or five word phrases. I am not my tech buzzwords: I am so much more, but I doubt my ability to ever articulate that in a job interview.

Because the sad news is that I can’t stay where I am forever. Our current government contract has two years left, after which we may or may not be renewed–if a renewal is even offered. But even then, I don’t think I can stay forever–not thirteen years in the same place where where I have no hope of an actual promotion, where I have no hope of working with someone in the same tech stack and exchange ideas, where software is a hair-on-fire end to the means, not something to be beautifully crafted for its own sake so that it’s durable and resilient.

And so, with two years to go, I have time to invest in who I want to be: to find a path. Do I want to double down and be a coder’s coder, the kind who is isolated from stakeholders and clients and has her velocity measured and compared in sticky notes? Can I branch out and find a programmer/analyst position? A position as an analyst alone? I’m not so in love with coding that I couldn’t be happy churning out user stories and flow charts and other artifacts. Product management eventually? Project management? My current project manager is so competent, she inspires me.

The answer taunts me from just around an unseen corner. The only truth that’s staring me in the face is that I can’t move on to a job where I’m pigeonholed as a coding robot that lives in isolation and executes minute tasks that have already been described in excruciating detail. I have to be a stakeholder in my own project, contributing more than just lines of code but ideas and interact both with the project owners and the end users. Tall order, but like my husband says, “you only need one.”

And maybe that’s the perfect closer for my Moo card: Lisabeth Cron ~ Web Applications Developer ~  [contact info] ~ “You only need one…”