The 2015 Monktoberfest

Last week I attended one of my favorite conferences: The Monktoberfest: the developer conference where social meets technology. This was the fifth year and I’ve attended all five. Hats off to my friends, the organizers, for keeping it consistently great.

Thank you, @sogrady, RedMonk, the sponsors and everyone else who helped make it happen. As with every year, the venue was intimate and welcoming. The attendees were fully immersed and engaging. The food and drink was amazing.

And, of course, the speakers were excellent. I wanted to take a moment to share a couple of the talks from this year…

Justin Sheehy on diversity

Justin, formerly of Basho and now at WMware, opened the conference with a strong story discussing self-awareness, meritocracy, and privilege and what that means to diversity.

He argued that sure, meritocracy is something we all want to believe in. But we know it’s an illusion. It’s unattainable. The idea of meritocracy originated in satire because, in actuality, there are many of us playing the game of life on the lowest difficulty setting.

Given that, he realized he (we?) cannot separate his success from his privilege. Which led him to realize he was a fraud, or an imposter.

On top of that, the fact this had to be pointed out to him by others, the fact he was unaware, meant his success probably lacks merit. So now we come to the realization: we probably cannot tell if we are doing things well since there is no good way to measure success (without accounting for our privilege).

Unfortunately, the industry many of us work in encourages and drives behavior of confidence. Many of us express confidence in what we’ve done and what we’re doing. And in many cases, he argues, that behavior drives others away. And when we drive others away, we’re all worse off.

So what? Follow those dots. He argues many of us should do what many have already asked: shut up. Let others be heard. Let others be the center of the attention. Because the more that happens, the more diverse role models (in appearance, background, opinion) can exist.

While nothing he shared was necessarily new, the way he presented it stuck with me and continues to make me think about how I interact with my friends, family, colleagues and strangers. He closed with his own personal challenge right now: to find a way to support others without stepping in front of them.

Rafe Colburn on Just Management

Rafe manages an engineering team at Etsy and combined two complex concepts into one fascinating talk sub-titled: management is not about sorting apples.

He re-introduced a concept probably familiar to many software developers: continuous deployment. It’s allowed companies like Etsy, GitHub and many more to build, test, and deploy many changes to their software quickly and effectively.

He also re-introduced a cultural mechanism employed in some organizations to explore why mistakes happen (hint: it’s not because of bad apples). Blameless post-mortems are rooted in a Just Culture which says we should look at the system and processes that allow people to make errors, and not to blame the individuals. See also: The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error.

With those two concepts covered — you have to have the latter to effectively allow the former — he introduced his idea of “Just Management”. Applying similar principals, we can think about how engineering management could work better.

Local rationality suggests that people want to do a good job. They don’t want to make mistakes or do something wrong (usually). So why do folks get frustrated when a task is completed unsatisfactorily, later than expected, or differently than expected?

People make decisions based on the goals, understanding of the situation, and focus of attention at that time.

In many cases, it’s a manager’s responsibility to help manage the above and align their team’s local rationality.

Am I worried about money and they’re optimizing for time? Do they want to build the final product and I’m only expecting a draft? Am I asking for a lot and they’re delivering not enough?

Just as importantly as understanding these conflicts, is the openness to learning when exposing them. You won’t do much better by attempting to impose your goals and alignment onto others.

For more about Rafe’s talk, he’s posted additional reading and resources on his personal blog (running strong since 1998!).

Five years in, I’ve found that catching up with the attendees of the Monktoberfest, many of whom I’d met in prior years, has allowed me to watch some amazing careers and companies unfold in slow motion. With the average tenure at many technology companies (and the companies themselves) being only in the single digits I was reminded that profound changes can happen within just a few short years.

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Five years ago I was working with Alex King at Crowd Favorite and watching @rtomayko speak about how GitHub had “no managers”. This year I attended as a manager at GitHub. And sadly, last week Alex passed away. He’ll be missed but will most certainly live on — amongst many hearts and minds and venues — at the Monktoberfest.