Happy New Year: Some Housekeeping

Weirdo Dublin PubsWelcome to the first post of 2024, and it’s a very brief one – I’ve spun off Weirdo Guide to Dublin Pubs to its own home, and will be posting those stories over there, but there will be new content here as well, just not quite so specific; apologies in advance if I do things like suggest you sign up for my next #DAM webinar.

So, with that said, head off to enjoy the first post of 2024 – The Ivy House! It’s perfect for a cold day like today…head over there to find out why.

Weirdo Guide to Dublin Pubs: Spring Break

The Divine Comedy and a divine ESBNo, no new entry this week, but fear not – the Guinness Enthusiast story is still coming! I’m taking a brief break for the offsprings’ Easter holidays, and I’ll be doing a bit of travel over to London as part of my NEW JOB (full details to follow in due course for those who are into that sort of thing), so it’s a bit busy for the next few weeks.

But in case you were worried about missing my Important Thoughts, do check out this week’s Beer Ladies Podcast on pairing beer and music (including what ChatGPT thinks goes well with some Divine Comedy tunes), and here’s a round-up of Weirdo Dublin Pubs so far; I’ll be back later in April with more.

In the meantime, kid-friendly London pubs with good cask options or current Bermondsey Beer Mile standout suggestions are most welcome!

The Bald Eagle, Phibsborough
The Cat & Cage, Drumcondra
Doyle’s Corner, Phibsborough
The Underdog, City Centre-ish
The Black Sheep, Capel Street
Juno, North Inner City
The Back Page, Phibsborough
L. Mulligan. Grocer, Stoneybatter
The Big Romance, Parnell Street
The Hut, Phibsborough
BRÚ House Fairview, in, uh, Fairview
Fidelity, Smithfield
JR Mahon’s, City Centre
The Oak, City Centre
Rascals HQ, Inchicore
The Palace Bar, City Centre
The Flowing Tide, North City Centre
The Beer Temple, City Centre
Cassidys, City Centre
The Underdog (yes, again – new location), Capel Street
Bonobo, Smithfield
Kimchi Hophouse, Parnell Street
Piper’s Corner, North City Centre
The Porterhouse, Temple Bar
The Old Spot, Beggars Bush
The Brickyard Gastropub, Dundrum
The Botanic, Glasnevin
The Gravediggers, Glasnevin

Annual 2022 Year in Beer (and Life), Part 1

Black IPA joy!At long last, it’s time for the annual beer-y wrap-up, this time with some actual context thrown in for the casual reader. Out of consideration for your valuable time (and, let’s be real, because I haven’t had time to edit everything properly in one go), it will be broken up into multiple entries.

We moved to Ireland in early 2020, just before lockdowns everywhere, and so the holiday season of 2021 was our first opportunity to travel back to the US – specifically, the best beer state in the country, Pennsylvania, I said what I said – since the move. As a result, I got to ring in 2022 with some old favourites: Bell’s Two-Hearted and Victory Prima Pils. Once we were back in Dublin, I spent much of the early part of the year waiting for my updated immigration permissions, which would let me work for anyone, and not just the dumpster fire of a company than had originally brought me over, but at least I had a few standout local beers while waiting: Only Swerving, a Dark Mild from Whiplash, and Craic’d Black Pepper Saison from Hope, specially brewed for a Craic Beer Community event (still at that time very much online). But, lest we forget, the end of January also saw the return of the ability to GO TO THE PUB AND SIT AT THE BAR without also ordering a ‘substantial meal’ and/or relying on table service, and I celebrated with a quick pint in the Black Sheep. And any time the weather cooperated on Saturdays (and often when it did not), I made my way to my local Parkrun, where I seem to have established a habit of finishing at the third woman.

Later in February, I got to meet up with several friends IN PERSON at Rascals, for their Rude Boy/Rude Girl release party; as a fan of both ska and a Black IPA (in the form of the feminine beer), it was a standout evening out. There was also a trip to Dead Centre in Athlone shortly thereafter for an IN PERSON (yes, still in all-caps) Craic Beer Community event, which included a lovely bitter, Six Decades, and the joy of Ballykilcavan Bambrick’s Brown on cask.

Bigfoot Goes Beer Shopping

Also around this time, all my documentation and approvals came through, and I could leave a wildly toxic work situation for my current role, not only restoring my mental health, but also opening up new opportunities for travel and exciting career challenges. While I work primarily at home in Dublin, my company is based in Denmark, so, in March, I got to fly out to meet my new colleagues in person.

And so to Odense, where I am now old friends with beers from Anarkist/Theodor Schiotz Brewing as well as their mothership, Albani. Ironically, I have yet to get back to Copenhagen properly, though I can absolutely tell you where to eat and drink in the airport (looking at you, Airport Mikkeller). All told, I now have a good handle on Odense’s various offerings. Some other standout Danish beers I enjoyed at this time of year were Christian Bale Ale by Dry and Bitter Brewing Company and Familien olgaard from Fairbar/HumlepraXis. I also drank a Danish Bigfoot-themed beer because I am a sucker for this kind of thing; please feel free to judge.

Coming up next: a busy Spring

Henry Stewart DAM Europe 2022: Thoughts

Finally back in London!At long last, London!

Finally, the DAM community was back together in person for the first time since 2019, and it was a much-needed meetup. While some things never change – for example, do we still need to talk about metadata all the time? Answer: absolutely – other themes at this year’s Henry Stewart DAM Europe were of a more recent vintage.

Theresa Regli’s always-fantastic keynote this year focused on the ‘battle for the heart of DAM’ – a reflection – and a call to arms – on how industry consolidation over the past several years has led to the rather monolithic ‘suite’ vendors (you know who you/they are) buying up standalone DAMs and then (often) not knowing quite what to do with them. Meanwhile, sophisticated DAM capabilities are becoming ever-more-foundational to the asset and content life cycle, even if not everyone realises that, and I very much agree it’s important to bring people up to speed on what DAM actually does nowadays, and why it’s absolutely fundamental to manage the right data or asset in the right place.

Presentations from LEGO and FIFA (and cheers to Paul Murphy for calling out my ‘DAM as a gym‘ metaphor in his World Cup-prep session) underlined just that theme – that as the broader content creation and publishing ecosystem becomes more complex, DAM needs to do what it is best at – managing and enriching assets, and making them easier to use where and when they are needed.

But this complexity may also be what is driving some of the DAM identity crisis that was also on display in a number of sessions. The question of changing the name came up more than once – does ‘digital asset management’ still have meaning in today’s landscape, where every organisation is a content creator? To this question, I will respond wearing my ‘other hat’ as a beer writer and podcaster – it’s just like ‘craft beer.’ There may not be a real definition that people agree on, but it’s a label that still has a meaning (of sorts), even if only as a shorthand. Similarly, we know ‘DAM’ is not the same as ‘web content management’ or ‘digital experience,’ just as no one would mistake a Heineken for a good local craft beer. They may be in the same broad category, but their focus is different. In short, ‘DAM’ has a meaning to this community, even if it can be, at times, a somewhat vague descriptor.

That said, I absolutely agree with the need to educate our customers more about DAM’s criticality – as Scott Bowen noted, too many see DAM as the ‘end of the cycle,’ and getting people out of the old thinking around DAM as an archive (not in the actual archival sense, but in the nails-on-a-chalkboard use of the term) or as an image library is a challenge we all need to tackle. In the same session, Russ Barr highlighted DAM’s centrality, based on integrations and core business function, but I know from experience that even when DAM is ‘business critical,’ it’s not always treated as such – is it a Tier One platform or service from a support/uptime perspective in every company? Probably not, and that needs to change.

My other key takeaways were along similar lines; the numerous sessions discussing the integration and interplay of DAM and PIM – and the treatment of them as ‘peer systems’ were music to my ears – as mentioned above, using the correct system of record for different types of data, metadata and content simply makes life easier for everyone, and using an integrated best-of-breed approach can add huge value; now, we just need to make sure people beyond our merry band of practitioners know that.

And, briefly, back to taxonomy – there is still clearly a great desire for more AI-powered tagging, especially as the volume of assets that need to be tagged and managed continues to grow exponentially. Once again, those ‘in the know’ understand that ‘AI tagging’ really means a lot of ‘AI training’ – but I was also encouraged to see more options for federated taxonomy management tools that can ‘play nicely’ with the DAM; there is much more to explore there.

John H always knows the best places

Outside of the sessions, it was fantastic to meet up with colleagues old and new over tea as well as adult beverages (John Horodyski and I finally had that long-overdue drink, I need to go running with Clemency Wright, and I also need to follow Jacqueline Yu’s opera career – DAM folk are a talented and fascinating bunch), and I got to enjoy some cask ale, and to binge some London theatre after all this time – run, don’t walk, to the new production of Cabaret.

Finally, hats off to the Henry Stewart team for keeping things running online during all the lockdowns, and for managing an in-person event in the middle of a rail strike – see you in New York in September!

This post also appears on LinkedIn, but without the fun pictures. You have been warned.

My Brilliant Amazon Career, By The Numbers

farewell, old work laptopWhat was working at AWS and, later, Amazon’s mothership in Seattle like, you ask? As with any time at a huge corporation, especially one for which you relocated yourself and your family*, it’s complicated, but if you’re looking for pure metrics, which would be very Amazonian of you, have at it. Presented without (much) further comment, here’s a selection of my personal statistics – no seekrit project information or team details, obviously – over my not-quite 4 years:

  • 3 teams
  • 3 roles/5 job titles**
  • 7 managers
  • 18 direct reports
  • 3 laptops
  • 4 buildings
  • 9 desk locations
  • 121 PhoneTool icons (for the uninitiated, it’s A Thing)
  • 83.55% Old Fart (the internal tracking of employees hired after me – so I was in the most-tenured 16.45%)
  • 3 other offices visited, 1 in the US, 2 in other countries
  • 12+ master global taxonomies managed, with millions of terms in each and and in each local marketplace variation: Prime Video, Kindle, US Books, US DVD, US CDs, Digital Music, Audible, Handmade, Interests, some other oddities
  • SO MANY papers written: 1-pagers, 6-pagers, etc.

I’m excited about my next challenge to be named shortly, but am very much enjoying my needed break before jumping in – and finally having the chance to get back to beer blogging!

* This is something I can speak openly about – the relocation package and the team were great, even with our cats
** I was actually recruited initially as ‘Content Product Manager’ though that got superseded by more Amazon-specific internal titles over time – but I really liked that one, I admit

Beer, Tech & Institutional Memory

who lives who dies who tells your storyTech and brewing have the same problem. No, it's not sexism or a general lack of diversity (though there's plenty of both, in both) - it's the near-total absence of historic and digital preservation. As an ex-archivist, this has long irked me, and it's striking how similar many of the barriers are in two (theoretically) quite divergent fields.  Brian Alberts wrote a lovely piece calling on modern craft breweries to make a start at preservation, and he noted his (all-too-common) experience as a researcher; you know there are gaps, and sometimes you even know why, but you have to work with what you have. Let's delve a little further into why those gaps exist, and we'll review a bit about archival practice along the way.

First, let's imagine that a brewery (or fancy tech startup) has managed to consistently save some portion of their records - again, lots of credit to Brian for some suggestions on how to get started without investing a lot of time and money - what happens when they get to the archivist?

For this fun thought experiment, we're presuming that 1) records, both physical and digital, exist, and 2) there's a professional archivist being paid to process and describe the collection. Processing begins with 'appraisal' - simply figuring out what's there, and what should be kept; it (typically) has little to do with the monetary value - or lack thereof - of the records. No archivist wants to keep everything - it doesn't add anything to the historical record to keep 400 copies of invitations to an annual party, but it does add a huge burden to the administrative and storage costs associated with the collection. Once the collection has been appraised, the real processing begins - this is where things are arranged, described and re-housed - decisions will be made about keeping the original order or moving to something that may be more logical, paperclips and staples may (or may not) be removed, out will come the carefully-labeled, acid-free folders and boxes and Mylar sleeves for photos, and the collection will be described at whatever level (e.g. collection-level, folder-level, item-level) was desirable and/or possible.  Many assume that 'everything' gets digitized at this point - and archivists will laugh and laugh at this because it's enormously expensive and time-consuming. This doesn't mean there's a lack of interest or will to do that work - digitization projects are awesome - it's just rare that it gets funded, even in organizations with relatively deep pockets.

You'll notice we're primarily talking about paper and photographic records here - digital records, larger objects and other formats require even more work - and again, we're assuming that 1) someone has kept it and 2) someone is being paid to organize and provide access and (additional degree of difficulty alert!) 3) there are short and long-term preservation plans in place. Long-term digital preservation is incredibly complex, expensive and difficult, so we won't get too much into it here, but even short-term efforts require considerable thought and effort; every archivist has a story about getting a box of old Palm Pilots or 8-inch floppy disks that contain largely unrecoverable data.

And there are other allied efforts that could be taking place - an oral history program would typically try to cover a range of experiences; interviewing staff in different roles, at different levels and with different experiences to capture their stories. All too often, we only hear the perspectives of the company's founder, or the head brewer; we rarely value the stories of the junior coder, the middle managers or those on the packaging line.

Swinging back to tech for a moment, let's consider how deep those pockets are - and how none of that cash is going to preserve any aspect of most companies' histories. Of the larger companies, both tech and non-tech, that I've worked for (and I’m obviously excluding museums, libraries and archives here, since that is All They Do), I can count two that ever had any sort of formal archival program, and in both cases (HP and GSK) - that support has waxed and waned over the years; some of HP's historic records were destroyed in the Santa Rosa fires last fall, and when I left GSK, the formal management of the archives was a part-time effort. Many, if not most, of today's most successful and influential tech companies have no formal or informal program to capture their histories; in fact, they often have policies that actively undermine that goal - here's how.

When it comes to what archivists call born-digital materials - emails, Word documents, PowerPoints and so on - companies often actively delete and destroy those materials. There are a number of reasons for this, but the two biggest are legal and financial: the legal department is happy if there's a lot of regular deletion, since that means there's less to turn over in any discovery process in the case of a lawsuit, and those writing the checks don't want to pay for ever-increasing, expensive digital storage (cloud or otherwise). As a consequence, many companies have official records management policies that ensure email is deleted every x number of days if not explicitly stored elsewhere (though this is different if you work in fields that operate under a lot of preservation orders, like pharma - some things you'll need to keep forever). And not infrequently, all records management policies are drawn up by the legal department, with no input from any other stakeholders; historic preservation, either short- or long-term, is rarely on anyone's mind.

And knowing how quickly things change in tech, it's incredibly difficult even for those of us who work for global tech companies to trace through the path of a decision from a month ago, much less several years (or even decades) - it all becomes tribal knowledge and corporate lore. I could describe for you the cascade of poor decisions that the dot-com I worked for in the late 1990s undertook before finally failing in the dot-com crash, but it would be almost entirely folkloric; there is no trace of the emails, and I suspect I may have one of the few copies of one of the annual reports, though interestingly, a lot of my old code is still floating around on the Internet Archive, preserved purely by chance (but hey, you can still see some of our old job postings).

While it's a huge loss for future (or even modern) researchers, it's also a potential financial loss for companies; while the use case that most people understand readily is that of finding material to use in advertising or PR campaigns, keeping those records that record important business decisions can be key records in trademark disputes and other less-pleasant aspects of the business world. For tech companies, this means a lot of intellectual property, whether code or copy, would be preserved; for breweries, there's the obvious ability to find old recipes and packaging artwork, as well as beer names and labels for the now-inevitable trademark spat.

So, with all that said, is anyone doing it right?

Carlsberg BreweryIt's true that even larger breweries with long histories infrequently employ professional archivists - while Anheuser-Busch and Guinness have (or perhaps had, in the case of A-B?) formal programs, Guinness only got into the historic preservation game in 1998. Fullers does have a wealth of material, a fraction of which they display in a well-curated collection within the brewery, but the ongoing processing, arrangement and preservation strategies are overseen by one of the senior executives as something of a side project. If there is a model to follow, Carlsberg is one of the best; they have a team of professional archivists who manage the usual work you find in that sort of setting - arrangement, description, reference and digitization (where feasible). Carlsberg and Guinness both have the depth of history and wealth of materials that allow them to essentially run beer theme parks that use primary sources as the underpinning: a visit to the Guinness Storehouse is entirely unlike any brewery tour, but it does a fabulous job of highlighting historic advertising and key company documents, while the ongoing work of processing and preserving the collection goes on behind closed (but accessible by appointment) doors. The Carlsberg tour experience is certainly more like a brewery tour - indeed, their Jacobsen line is brewed in a small section of the historic brewery complex, while the modern brewery for their flagship lager is off-limits - but they do a very good job of mixing the history with the modern experience. An entire portion of the historic physical plant is set up as a museum, and it does a wonderful job of mixing 19th and early 20th century advertising with some of the company's documents that tell the story of Carlsberg, the Jacobsen family, the growth of brewing science and the globalization of the industry.

In short, there are a few models for brewers to look up to when thinking about how to begin saving and organizing to tell their stories in the long-term; what about tech? In truth, the examples are just as few and far between, if not more so. HP (another of my former employers, although as a contractor I was, ironically, safe from the decimation happening all around me during Carly Fiorina’s reign of terror) and IBM have both made some efforts (and, if memory serves, both had full-time corporate archivists at one time, though I believe that is not the case now for either one), but they seem to be rather piecemeal; indeed, the majority of HP's historic preservation now seems to be done by volunteers; it's not unlike the breweriana community. While fans and enthusiasts may do a great job of collecting and documenting certain things, they can't save the depth and quality of material that should be in a real archival facility.

We're all stories, in the end; just make it a good one, eh?And there are certainly ways to ensure records and artifacts are preserved without launching a brand-new department: companies can partner with their local museum or university archives to get going (this also means they should fund some permanent headcount and ensure there is a physical space for their collections) - the expertise they need is already available locally. Cisco has taken this approach to good effect, and the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive is a natural partnership opportunity for Pacific Northwest breweries, though again, some financial help could help move them from a 'community archiving project' into a fully-funded program with more scope to collect, preserve and share brewing history.

And partnering with other organizations doesn’t mean giving up control over who sees what and when; there are plenty of archival collections out there with restrictions on what can be accessed or published, often with a specific timescale built in (e.g. ‘not for public access until 2050’ or similar requirements; you can put all sorts of complications in your deed of gift documentation if you so desire), so worries that a competitor may steal a recipe or other intellectual property can be relatively easily managed.

Although it's likely not feasible for every brewery to get to the world-class standard of the Walt Disney Archives, there is no real excuse for most deep-pocketed tech companies to not make at least a gesture in that direction (and here's a handy case study that can start the wheels turning). While corporations cannot control how future historians view them, by passively (or actively) limiting the available records, they limit the stories that can be told; by ceding the narrative to chance, they abdicate all opportunity to select which stories might be told.

Finally, a quick postscript: the white glove thing. In most archival facilities, white cotton gloves are only used for handling photographs; you are more likely to damage paper - especially brittle, highly-acidic, 19th and 20th century paper, which is typically in much worse condition than earlier, rag-based paper - with gloved hands than you are with clean hands. Your television lied to you.

This piece also appears on Medium

A Tech/Humanities Peanut Butter Cup

yum?“Hey, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”
“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”

What does a vintage candy commercial have to do with tech employment? Plenty.

A recent Forbes article described the hot new trend of tech companies hiring newly-minted holders of liberal arts degrees.  In my 20+ years of experience, this is neither new nor hot - I've worked on amazing dev teams full of people with multiple advanced degrees in the humanities who felt like earning an actual salary - but it's worth talking about. While it's absolutely true that there is a vast shortage of people with STEM skills in the US, and plenty of well-paying jobs sitting vacant for them at tech companies large and small, the notion that you 'need' a STEM degree to land one of these jobs is damaging, both to jobseekers and to companies. At the same time, there is an extremely tired idea that studying the arts or humanities is a waste of time, because it doesn't 'prepare you for the workforce' - and that's simply untrue as well. Both sets of skills are necessary in the modern workplace - and getting beyond that initial entry-level engineering job may be easier for those with liberal arts background, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

But the basic premise of the article maintains a strict tech/non-tech divide: a new Slack employee with an arts background was briefly profiled, but it emphasized that she was so useful because she was non-technical:

She’s been at the company for barely a month but she’s already helped a construction company assimilate Slack’s software to keep track of things as varied as plaster shipments and building regulations via employee smartphones. Lee says she’s in awe of her technical colleagues who write Slack’s code. They, in turn, respect her because of her untechnical ability to “connect with end users and figure out what they want.”

And this is the point that is often misunderstood: you can absolutely succeed in a technical role with a humanities or liberal arts background, as long as you've also got the technical chops, and even if you are in a purely non-technical role, remaining 'in awe' of your technical colleagues isn't particularly helpful - you should have at least some understanding of what goes into what they do, and know that it's hard work, not magic. Many new non-engineering graduates gained solid technical skills as they studied Proust or philosophy (which does, to be fair, get a mention in the article), but it’s not always a given.

On the flip side, moving into a management or leadership role with a purely technical background is a different sort of challenge. For those looking to brush up on their technical skills, there is a burgeoning industry of boot camps and self-directed learning. If you're an engineer who needs to learn to write, present and influence decision-makers in a new role, the path forward is rather murkier, even if someone is on a strict principal-engineer path. Good code isn't enough to get you there, and some of the more theoretical aspects of an engineering degree program (which in itself is not exactly 'vocational' education, though that's something that could be much more highly-valued in tech) are fabulous in helping you develop ways to approach a technical problem; being able to lead a team and explain to your leadership why you've chosen a particular path forward isn't as straightforward.

The Forbes article also included this leftover from Stereotype Salad:

People with balanced strengths in social and math skills earn about 10% more than their counterparts who are strong in only one area. In fact, socially inept math whizzes fare no better than go-getters who struggle with numbers.

While I'd be more than happy to introduce you to some equally-introverted historians (they'd totally hate that, of course), there is a useful point buried here: a basic understanding of both technology and the liberal arts gives you adaptability; fluency in both can give you career superpowers. Understanding how to wrangle data is important. Being able to contextualize and tell a story with that data, to multiple audiences, is equally critical. And having the ability to pivot to an entirely new role, vertical or industry is more realistic if you simply have more tools in your toolbox; being able to switch back and forth between technical and non-technical positions as business or life conditions change gives you options you might not have otherwise.

This is not to say that specialization is a bad thing, or that all engineers are lacking writing and management skills - far from it. But developing expertise in one or more areas is what happens on the job, as you gain more experience, and technical degrees become 'stale' far more quickly than those in the humanities: a programming language you spent several months, or even perhaps a few years, learning as an undergraduate is most likely almost useless ten years down the line - if you're still in the field, you've learned new languages and skills through work. But the ability to research, synthesize and present arguments, whether those are about the Corn Laws or stylistic pottery variations at Mohenjo-Daro, are still valuable skills when differently employed. The subject may be far removed, but the skills around critical thinking, thoughtful skepticism and time management are vital.

And arts/humanities graduates have another leg up when it comes to tech job descriptions: 'comfort with ambiguity.' You'll see a similar phrase in nearly every job description from a tech company, in both tech and non-tech roles, and yes, it's an extremely useful quality to have in this (and many other) fields. Fortunately, if you've spent several years gathering data, writing research papers and debating complex issues that don't have a clearly-identified 'solution,' congratulations - you've got the right mental training for this career. I've seen some young engineers struggle with just this aspect of the field - you can't always engineer your way out of the problem (well, often you can build something, but it leaves significant technical debt that you - or someone else - will need to deal with eventually), and there may be multiple paths forward. Having experience of referring to historical precedent goes a long way.

In my own tech career, I've never had to reproduce any of my shaky college algebra (turns out it wasn't even useful early on as a front-end and back-end web engineer), but I write research papers, give presentations and analyze strategies and processes; these are things I was quite well-prepared to do as both and undergraduate and graduate student of archaeology - and that's especially true for the data analysis skills I learned there, though the technologies and techniques are now quite different.

So, where do we go from here? I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time as a self-taught techie; early on in the dot-com era, the skills were the important thing; it didn't matter where you'd acquired them. To a certain extent that's becoming true again - boot camps and coding challenges are offering other paths in to the profession. But there's a fundamental disconnect in the way we approach teaching both technology and the humanities, at least at the high school and college levels (there seems to be a little more room to experiment in the elementary years, though that seems largely driven by the STEM-only crowd). A newly-minted engineer, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, needs coursework and experience writing. New English or Art History grads may have had some exposure to technology through text mining or other digital humanities projects, but ensuring a solid exposure to 'real' coding is just as important for them.  Internships would also ideally include both coding and writing experience - and many more are starting to do just that.

We also need to do a better job as a profession helping people from purely technical backgrounds move into senior roles - a few hours of 'management' or 'business writing' training isn't especially impactful in most cases, and there aren't equivalent writing 'boot camps' to help hone those skills. Having a foundation as a matter of course, even if it wasn't the key focus of a degree program, would go a long way toward setting people up for success - testing out of English 101 isn't the same thing.

While many larger tech companies have figured out that an ever-broader population has tech skills as well as what we might term 'business' advantages, startups and smaller companies aren't always aware that they should cast a wider net in tech recruitment. Librarians have often been forced to become software development managers, just by the nature of modern work in the field. PhD historians often outpace new data science grads - many of those skills are part and parcel of modern academia, they just pay very poorly in that setting.

There is an artificial barrier between these two broad skillsets that needs to disappear; having a foundation in both is critical for success in tech, and in many other businesses.  Putting the two together brings out the best of both, just like the commercials said.

Eat up!

This post also appears  on Medium.com.

Stonehenge, Shoes & Shared Workplace Experiences

where the demons dwell!I recently had the good fortune to geek out on corporate culture with the wonderful people of Zappos (full disclosure, we are 'cousins' within the Amazon ecosystem, though I include my usual 'Not Speaking for AWS' disclaimer here), and while they had a full spectrum of fascinating, positive things about their culture to latch onto, what I was most struck by was the role that shared experiences played in shaping their unique approach to work, and how the thoughtful, intentional creation of shared workplace experiences is often overlooked as a tool to drive a positive corporate culture.

I am certainly not unique in having worked for a variety of companies, large and small, that miss the mark when it comes to helping you learn how to navigate and thrive in their specific cultures. Back in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and bust, I experienced both little startups - I was employee 18 (or so) at a dot-com, pre crash/burn – and I subsequently worked for a few huge, global tech companies. While those organizations were very different from each other in almost every way, they did share a total lack of structure around onboarding. That's expected (though not really excusable) at a startup, but even at Big Tech Company No. 2, no one helped me figure out how to get paid until about 3 months in. There was no training, either formally or informally, on in-house tools, norms or expectations. I don't think I saw a company mission statement or had a specific new hire or role-based orientation program until about a decade into my career.

And then I have experienced the other side of that coin - training and process overkill. Another nameless company I worked for was insistent about transmitting everything to do with its goals, values, compliance, and culture via time-consuming, mandatory e-learning. While there is certainly a time and place for asynchronous training, especially when you have a global workforce, I argue that if you are looking to foster long-term business relationships and a strong, healthy company culture, e-learning and classroom training aren’t magic bullets. Live, shared experiences are the key, and that brings me back to Zappos.

Everyone who joins Zappos, regardless of role or level, joins a cohort of new hires who have four weeks of training - they learn the customer service role inside and out, they work the phones and speak directly to customers in the call center; no one gets to opt out to attend a 'more important' meeting. Their training is capped off by a real-life graduation ceremony, and many of the people I met, in a variety of roles, fondly recalled their training; it gave them a firm grounding not just in the company culture and expectations, and also set them up for success at building relationships across departments and roles. I'm sure those relationships are a major factor in why there were so many long-term Zapponians - people whose tenure often exceeded a decade. From a tech perspective (including my own, which, again, is not unique, where I've seldom been in any one company more than 2-3 years), that's astounding.

This is not to suggest that every company should go out and bolt on a four-week immersion experience to their hiring process; it's certainly not cheap and for a globally-dispersed team, small or large, it's simply not always feasible or even desirable. But even fully-remote companies realize that technology alone can't create and develop culture; Automattic's approach of an annual meetup for the full company and smaller team get-togethers creates regular opportunities for their employees to share experiences. Other companies have town halls or all hands meetings that serve similar functions; the cyclical, almost ritual repetition of these kinds of meetings (and, not infrequently, the trip to the libation chamber bar after) lets employees build organic relationships and memories - 'remember the all-hands where X spoke or Y performed?' That's important.

Shared experiences drive shared purpose.  As humans, we seek out cyclical, seemingly ritual, experiences - is an annual trip to Disneyland substantially different from a theoretical 'pilgrimage' to Avebury or Stonehenge undertaken by their builders (and, quite probably, their plus-ones)? We have good evidence that the 'users' of Stonehenge (to put it in vaguely techie terms) liked a good annual party; the motivations behind it may have not been terribly different than that of a modern company picnic or offsite: do something different from your regular workday, with your colleagues (and possibly your family as well), then consume food and beverages. There would have been other commonalities with our era - everyone would recall the colleague who got horribly drunk one summer, or the time someone's dog tried to attack the fire-eater (you may recognize the voice of experience here). While the terms we use to talk about prehistoric gatherings tend toward the mystical or mysterious, that's largely a function of the paucity of evidence and/or our tendency to want to make something we don't immediately understand more meaningful, but annual or seasonally-occurring events in the distant past may have been quite similar to ours - a working meeting with a party afterward.

In the workplace, we create rituals whether we mean to do so or not. A standing happy hour, a semi-organized run at lunch, a yearly offsite or even our more formal business mechanisms like annual reviews or daily standups drive our culture. How we create and evolve those experiences for employees says a lot about that culture - going back to Zappos, they ensure that everyone has the opportunity to attend their all hands meeting; it's such a priority that the call center is shut down for the occasion, as it is - briefly - for some other seasonal events. Creating an environment in which all employees have consistent, shared experiences builds personal connections and deeper engagement - provided those are good experiences. Yes, it’s hard to do globally, at scale, but it’s worth trying.

A few simple guidelines:

  • Be intentional. What do you want to create, and why? How will you evolve it?
  • Be consistent. Create a regular cadence and stick to it.
  • Be inclusive. If your site or event doesn't welcome everyone (and there may well be certain team- or role-specific events), what are you telling current and prospective employees?
  • Have fun. You may not see a direct ROI on every event, but if your employees want to be there for the long term, you're doing something right by giving them something to remember that that isn't just their meeting schedule.

Finally, think long term. Everything you do is adding to your company’s history, whether that will eventually be long or short – what kind of story do you want your employees to tell their future grandchildren or robot overlords?

This post also appears on Medium.

Why Your Tech Company Needs an Archaeologist to Fix Your Corporate Culture

for realz indeed!It's been difficult to miss stories of tech and startup culture fails of late, whether it's Uber or Thinx, and there have been many excellent suggestions on how to improve diversity and the employee experience, but I'll throw another one into the mix: hire an archaeologist*.

No, it's not a joke, though I fully admit it may be a head-scratcher at first, but hear me out: I've been working in technology for 20+ years, and while I'm emphatically not speaking about my current role at AWS, where I'm the Culture Lead (yes, we're secretive, but you knew that, and no, I’m not claiming we’ve ‘solved’ everything culture-wise), I can assure that my two archaeology degrees have been incredibly useful in this field - though never more so than in my present position. Allow me to explain –

I fell into technology while working on my MA in archaeology at University College London in the 1990s; I began my tech career as a coder and moved (kinda/sorta) swiftly into people and technology management in Silicon Valley, NYC and elsewhere - I'm now happily situated in Seattle, where I get to do all sorts of Secret Things I Can't Tell You About Right Now. Along the way, I've seen some pretty bizarre things from a company culture perspective (terrible brand rallies! awful 'culture fit' excuses in hiring! team and product names that are totally offensive to colleagues in other regions!), but I've also been lucky enough to see the good as well. After a few general culture protips, we'll discuss how having an archaeological viewpoint can be a huge benefit - for real.

First, though, a few notes on What You Should Do; your company culture, like any other aspect of business, can't be left to good intentions - it needs structure and mechanisms to reinforce it and to help it evolve in a positive direction. Whether you are a tiny startup or a huge multinational, you need mechanisms that will scale with your organization's growth, and that can be consistently applied wherever your people are. You may need to modify them to work in some regions or for remote people or teams, but they should still be scalable and repeatable.

Your culture is modeled by your leadership, and that's at every level, from the c-suite to brand-new dev managers. While it seems that every company has 'values' or 'principles' that were drawn up early on, in my experience the uptake on these ranges from absolutely embedded and referenced on a daily basis to openly mocked and derided, with most places falling somewhere in between. When they work, they are a valuable tool and a core driver of your business - they dictate hiring, promotions and offer direction on key decisions. When they don't work, there's usually an obvious reason:

  1. They were developed by outside consultants to 'sound good'
  2. They are meaningless platitudes that simply take up time during the onboarding process
  3. They are actively terrible, and are used as an excuse to avoid diversity

I won't dig too deeply (see what I did there?) into the third point, simply because it needs to be its own discussion (as it is here), but I'll pivot to why they work when they work:

  1. They are thoughtfully, and intentionally, developed in-house, taking into account a wide range of viewpoints
  2. They are flexible and can be specifically applied to daily work, but aren't 'rules' that must be obeyed
  3. They are regularly reviewed and updated as the company grows
  4. They are an expected, and hence unremarkable, part of daily worklife

If your company's mechanisms for people management don't reflect whatever your company's stated values are - or if they overindex on a specific one or two points - you'll very quickly get drift away from the good intentions that went into their creation. Having repeatable, measurable processes around your business life cycle and the people who make it happen is the key to a healthy culture, and this is where the archaeologists come in.

The popular view of archaeologists falls into one of two main camps: we're either Indiana Jones or scruffy bearded people with a fondness for drink who wish they looked a bit more like Indiana Jones. I surely don't need to point out that both of those impressions skew almost entirely male (feel free to insert a Tolkien joke about dwarf wives and their beards), but there's a lot more going on than just drinking digging and/or punching Nazis. While I won't get too deeply into describing different approaches to archaeology (for example, did you know that theoretical archaeologists mainly argue about French social theory, and rarely, if ever, go outside, much less dig? Did you know that post-processual archaeology is real? Mostly true facts!), there are some commonalities that give archaeologists an edge in mapping and shaping company culture.

Everyone 'knows' that archaeologists can take an artifact (or, more typically, an assemblage of artifacts) and use clues from that artifact to tell us more about the people who created it, traded it, used it or who perhaps just thought it looked cool. At work, we create 'artifacts' every day without thinking twice about it - documents, wikis, websites, apps, you name it. And when we're speaking about those internally-created artifacts that are used to hire and manage people - interview notes, performance reviews, presentations and so on - it's easy to forget that the mechanisms that generated those artifacts were designed with specific long- or short-term goals in mind. Indeed, there may have been considerable 'cultural drift' between a mechanism's original purpose and its current usage; for example, it may have once been the case that 'big ideas' went through a presentation-heavy gating process to get executive buy-in, but now it seems that absolutely every decision goes through some version of that. That's not to say that processes and mechanisms like that can't work, but that the rationale behind them needs to be understood, and that they need to be regularly reviewed to ensure they are still fit for purpose. Not infrequently, most employees who need to actually follow these processes have little-to-no information about why it was created, or what the unwritten rules are - it's purely tribal knowledge.


And that's another way archaeologists 'get' how to dig (har) into corporate culture: when they don't know why something was created or can't pin down an obvious purpose, there's a default answer - ritual! (In all seriousness, this is a thing. It’s practically reflexive). But so much of what happens day-to-day at work falls into this bucket as well; as mentioned, the people who designed (or inherited) a process have left, or have long since forgotten its origin, and it has become almost entirely ritualistic - we do it 'just because.' Sure, we'd like to fix that broken process or mechanism, but it's like that For A Reason, we assume - and thus are corporate sacred cows born. This is just as true looking at archaeological sites; while some pretty weird things do, indeed, fall under the 'ritual' heading (at least without further evidence), it's also clear that people in the past not infrequently did things just because they were fun or looked cool - they aren't so different from us.

Throwing an archaeologist at your company processes and mechanisms can turn up all sorts of unexpected things about your company's culture; simply having a complete audit of all the 'things' you're doing, how they came about, whom they affect, how and where they are implemented is quite illuminating. Turning an archaeological lens on this adds further value; as mentioned above, people rarely know precisely why they created something or how it evolved, so having a background in making educated guesses in that regard, based on data, is quite useful.

With this information in hand, you can begin to make better data-driven decisions that drive your company culture - did you discover a gap in your onboarding process in a specific region? Perhaps there is no policy to handle difficult employee situations, or you may simply have not had time to develop a codified, shared value system for your organization. Knowing where you have a potential problem and what resources you need to allocate is job one - you can thank an archaeologist when they help you unearth these clues.

Finally, a closing thought for the archaeologists out there: want to come work in tech? You have great skills in data analysis, project management, research and writing (to name just a few), and many of you have excellent coding skills - while we don't get to spend much time studying the past over here, we have the opportunity to help our organizations be thoughtful about how we build the future. Bonuses: excellent pay and benefits (actual excellent pay and benefits, not what most rescue digs or academia can afford), opportunities to work remotely and/or travel, and a work culture that still enjoys a drink or three - though that's not certainly a requirement. Beards are entirely optional.

*Other types of social scientists are also available, but I don’t know if they are as much fun.

This post also appears on Medium.

#GHC16, Avoiding Gatekeeping and Expanding Opportunities for Women in Tech

At GHC16After years of following along on Twitter, not to mention 20 years simply existing as a woman in tech, I finally made it to my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston (#GHC16 for you Twitter nerds) this year. And on the whole, it was a fabulous event — great keynote speakers, especially Dr. Latanya Sweeney of Harvard and Ginni Rometty of IBM, and so many opportunities to share experiences with other women in the field. It seemed that the vast majority of the attendees were computer science students looking for internships (and more power to them); they were poised, well-prepared and passionate about what we do — I wish I had been that clear about career paths when I was in my early 20s, and I was thrilled to chat with them — it was a splendid chance to offer advice and, of course, try to recruit them. Hiring is a lot harder now than it was in the 1990s, though more on that in a moment.

But I did notice a creeping undercurrent about who 'counts' as a woman in tech — not, I hasten to add, coming from any of the sessions I attended, merely snatches of conversation I overheard while walking the conference floor or lining up to get into a heavily-oversubscribed talk or two. 'She's just the recruiter' or 'I think she's in marketing, not a software engineer' or even 'she's not a CS major, she's just looking to find a job with a good salary.' And I admit that earlier in my career, I also had similar divisions in my mind — the women (and we only ever remarked upon the women, never the men — unconscious bias is a bitch) in marketing didn't 'get' what 'we' the developers did, they were a different breed. Never mind that back then, few of 'us' had actually studied computer science; we had fallen into the profession through various routes — perhaps coding on the side as a hobby, or taking an interesting tech elective, or even been 'drafted' into a long-open role by having the ability to fog a mirror. But we worked with code. We were techies. Different. Special. Highly in demand.

But having racked up a lot more work and life experience then, I realize now that it's just as easy to be the person on the other side of the 'othering.' A decade-plus into my career, when a CS degree was becoming the more standard route into tech (and the number of women I worked with dropped off quickly around that point), not having one suddenly became a bit suspect. Was I still a 'real' techie when I became ever-further-removed from hands-on coding? Sometimes my matrixed reports didn't think so — and were on occasion surprised to know that I understood what they were talking about and could call them out on sloppy development work. Were my project managers still techies? Maybe. What about tech writers, editors and designers? Sometimes — especially if they were men.

The current mania for 'STEM education' at the expense of the arts and humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, makes the tech/non-tech division seem natural and 'correct' — when, in fact, you cannot build good tech products and programs without a diverse mix of skills and backgrounds. Yes, we need more women (and people of many other underrepresented backgrounds) in technology, but we cannot let an undergrad CS degree and a great internship become the only path in, nor should we let people become so focused on writing great code that they cannot develop in other ways. I want to meet great engineers who can also write well, give a kick-ass presentation and become go-to mentors for others — and those so-called 'soft skills' are just as vital, and need nurturing from the start. Outside interests are just as important; you can be passionate about what you do without it being the only thing you do.

I digress to make the point that we're all in this together; whether you are a woman working in HR at a tech company or a female software engineer just getting started at a non-profit, you're both women in tech. Even if your current team has an ideal gender balance (and I've been on quite a few), it's unlikely you'll always be that lucky in your future career; being able to advocate for each other, instead of only those who are Just Like Us (and Just Like Us doesn't have to be based on gender or background — when we define ourselves by our roles at work, either in whole or in part, it's relevant) is hugely important. There are no Fake Tech Women any more than there are Fake Geek Girls. Women who want to transition into a tech career from another field, perhaps with decades of non-technical experience under their belts, should not feel unwelcome. Given how incredibly difficult it is to hire people with the right skills, we need to stop gatekeeping, even when it's unintentional, and help build other solid paths in. Coding boot camps, especially those with industry support that include internships for so-called non-traditional candidates, are a good start, but coding is just one important element of a successful tech career. Code should not be the sole defining feature of what a tech career looks like, any more than being a white dude under 30 is what a tech worker 'looks like.' We need to focus on our commonalities and drive positive change; creating artificial barriers is no help to anyone, not even the bottom line.

And that leads me to my next topic — where are the senior women in tech? The metrics presented at #GHC16 showed an uptick in early career tech women, but still what looks like a sheer cliff in mid-career and senior executive positions. The guidance offered was that formal leadership development programs are the key, and it certainly sounds like a useful path forward; I've been fortunate enough to participate in some useful coaching programs in previous roles, but they tended to focus on developing capabilities for individual projects or programs, rather than looking at how to move to the next level — that just 'happened' along the way. And I am very much aware of the fact that most of the other women I worked with in my early career are gone — they've left the field entirely.

But I took great inspiration from walking the #GHC16 conference floor and watching companies work hard to impress potential interns, entry-level and early career folk — imagine if we had the same opportunities as Old People to be, as Lerner and Loewe once wrote, 'worshiped and competed for' at conferences that focused on sharing roles at those levels. Yes, we get random calls from recruiters, but it's not the same as having the opportunity to see a fuller picture of what's out there and what we might work toward, nor does that offer the same chance to do in-person networking and story-telling. Luckily, there were some of 'us' there, and while we may not have been explicitly catered to by the hiring companies — not really an issue since most of us were there to hire for our own teams — it was nice to have some representation. Your tech career doesn't have to end when you switch careers at 35 or take some time out to travel or have a family, and it's important to see people who are visible reminders of that, just as it's important to see real-life examples of women of color in tech, transwomen in tech, disabled women in tech and so forth.

I've written before about how the media tends to portray 'successful' women in tech as those who made the C-suite before 40 (or 30, or 25, or hey, why not 12?), or as young company founders blazing new trails. But a mature field allows for a wide variety of career paths, and incremental success is just as valid as headline-friendly overnight success. Sure, I'd like to have retired wealthy by 40 and had the opportunity to become a world-traveling philanthropist, funding rare book libraries and specialist archives all along the way, but I do really love my current position — I'm still moving onward and upward in my career (which affords me a ludicrous level of freedom and privilege compared to most), and I have the opportunity to mentor others. Whether that means we need to have more conferences aimed specifically at mid- and senior-career women in tech I do not know, but I do know that representation matters, and there was a lot of it at #GHC16. Hopefully there is more to come.

My other takeaway was that people will stand in line for a very long time for a freshly screen-printed t-shirt, but I have yet to wrap my head around that one — though that said, it created an ideal bottleneck for career conversations, so all in all, a win. 🙂

Now, if I can just find (or kick off) one of those formal leadership development programs, I'll be set for my next act

This post also appears on Medium.