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Engineering an Interesting Life

Abstract: In a world where computing power doubles roughly every two years, the goal is no longer efficiency, but effectiveness. The education system prepares students for efficiency, but to be successful when we go out into the world (or before!) we need rather to learn to be effective. In this workshop, we’ll discuss more useful things to excel at than email, helpful ways to fail, and the pursuit of an interesting life. It won’t improve your grades, but it’s often surprising what will help your career.

Excel at something Meaningful.

Frosti's Backflip in Lamma
Credit: flickr / Tyson Cecka

When trying to change habits, people have more success with the things they decide to do, than things they vow not to. If you’ve ever tried to give anything up, you’ll know this. However, often the most important decisions you make are what not to do.

In the Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris (Amazon) he advocates checking email only once a week. I did this for a while, and I definitely got a lot more done.

It’s easy to excel at email. You can just throw hours at it. Make it a priority and you’ll be great at it. It’s very safe to be “good” at things like that. Reply promptly and maintain inbox zero and you’re golden.

It’s scarier to be good at less tangible, measurable things. How do you measure the success of writing a blog, say? In visitors? Comments? Meaningful connections?

How do you measure the success of writing code? Lines? Features? Number of users?

Anything creative is hard to measure. But it’s much more helpful to do okay at something meaningful, than excel at something fundamentally mediocre.

No-one ever said, “Wow, X was so impressive. They maintained inbox zero.”, after all. Maybe they did <list of impressive things> and still maintained inbox zero. But inbox zero alone is not enough.

Email is my personal bugbear. I pity anyone who tried to communicate with me by it. Thinking about the state of my inbox… well I try not to, and whenever I try to tackle it people reply faster that I seem to get through things and so it gets no better. Email is something that I’ve deprioritized in order to do better at things I think are more worthwhile.

The point – don’t excel at something that’s easy to excel at. Spend your time doing something meaningful instead, even if you suck at it.

Discussion point: What’s something mediocre that you could replace with something with potential for awesome?

Have adventures.
Count the Balloons
Credit: flickr / B.K. Dewey

When I took off to China to live up a mountain and kickbox, a number of people thought I was insane. But when I look at my life now – living abroad, travelling a lot – my time as an international hobo was actually really helpful.

I don’t get phased in airports. I don’t stress out for long when faced with travel setbacks. I’m fine exploring alone.

In some ways teaching in French seemed like a pointless source of extreme stress. But now, somehow I’ve ended up giving a bunch of talks… and there is no doubt that it puts it all in perspective.

It’s hard to tell what will be useful down the line, and what will not. At some point it seemed like a very helpful skill to have beautiful handwriting. Before we had smart phones there were all kinds of things we learned that now we just look up.

If you do the things you find exciting, if you take advantage of the adventures on offer, there’s no guarantee that it will be helpful but I can tell you that everything I’ve done that has broadened my experience has been useful, whilst many things that seemed “useful” have been of little or no use to me.

Discussion point: What was something “crazy” that you did that was actually a useful learning or connecting opportunity?

Find your people. Share what you’re doing.
hug o' war sm
Credit: flickr / newwavegurly

In the book Being Geek (Amazon), there’s a section on “Your People” (blog post).

Let me tell you about my people. They do things. They support me when I do things. They don’t say “no, but…”, they say “yes, and…!”.

Everything cool that I’ve done and will do has at least one other person who I don’t think it could have happened without.

Periods that I’ve not been as happy or productive have been filled by people who were the antethesis of my people.

It’s so important, who you surround yourself with. In the wrong crowd, I’ve wasted all my energy on pointless drama. With my people, that doesn’t happen. When you’re trying to do something awesome you don’t want the people who you always have to chase around, you want the people who you can rely on. They are your people.

The internet is such an amazing way to find Your People.

Discussion point: Who are “Your People”? Why are they awesome? How did you find them?

Say yes! Fill gaps.
Mind The Gap!
Credit: flickr / BuhSnarf

When I run into something where I think “this should be happening”, it’s a sign I’ve found an opportunity. It’s one that interests me, otherwise I wouldn’t have spotted it. This is why I started Girl Geek Dinners in KW, I went looking for it when I moved because I figured it would be a good way to meet people, and was disappointed to find there wasn’t one.

Once I’d connected with a couple of other women who also wanted such a thing to exist (my people!) we were set.

Gaps are opportunities. Say yes to filling them.

I advocate saying yes in general. Even though I really need to learn to say no before I have some kind of breakdown… saying yes is such a source of adventure and opportunities.

Clearly, I have no idea how to find a balance here. But, I do think that being someone who says “no, but” is an limiting way to live. Many people could use some more “yes, and!” in their lives.

Discussion point: What is a gap you are thinking of filling?
Discussion point: Share something that you said yes to that turned into an adventure.

Don’t be a control freak.
Human Pyramid
Credit: flickr / chooyutshing


When you start something, you have this vision of what you want it to become. That’s great – and important – you need to have an idea of what you’re working towards. But at some point, you face a choice. You can build a tiny, solid steel, structure, completely controlled by you. Or you can give up some control and plant the seeds for an organization that will grow bigger than you could do alone, do different things you could never have imagined. There’s a risk that it will die. But – that’s another tradeoff you can make, because giving up control allows you to move on to other projects that excite you.

I stepped down from things when I left Ottawa, and other people took over. I know that things are going to change as a result but I’m OK with that – I trust them to do a good job, I can mentor and encourage, but ultimately, this new person will have their own vision – and that’s a good thing. I don’t want to stay in grad school forever, running the same things!

With the Awesome Foundation, we have a very flat structure. As a co-conspirator go around getting excited about things, and do a little more organization stuff but every trustee puts in $100 and every trustee gets a vote. I can say “I think we should do this”, but if I’m outvoted, I’m outvoted. My role here is not really a leader, more of a facilitator. There’s an important distinction.

If you want other people to help you, you’ll probably have to ask them! Asking for things is hard. Asking someone to join the board of the Awesome Foundation was terrifying for me at first – “hey! How about you give $100 every month to some crazy idea that may or may not work?” – I’ve got better at it with practise (and I don’t say that!). But you need to learn to ask for things, for starters you’ll need to ask for help.

Last year I read this great book, Women Don’t Ask (Amazon). I highly recommend it. And I started asking for things, for instance one of the first things I asked for was a t-shirt.

I know, random. But last year at Grace Hopper the Yahoo! people had these awesome t-shirts that said “I code like a girl and I’m PROUD of it”, and I wanted one really badly! It happens that I know a guy who works for Yahoo!, in fact before he moved I would take care of his cat. So I asked him if he could get me one of these t-shirts and he did.

When uOttawa asked me to create a programming curriculum for a workshop we run for high-school students, I thought it sounded like a cool idea. But – I’d already created a proprietary curriculum and wasn’t really interested to do another proprietary one. So I asked if we could open source it. They agreed to my terms, and now anyone can use the materials I’ve created.

I’m still afraid to ask. But I’m getting better at it. So try it.

And, pro-tip, start being more attuned to people’s implicit asks. When someone you think is awesome talks about this new project they are starting, introduce the topic of how you can help them before they have to. And then follow through.

Because – the real secret I’ve found in asking, is that it’s easier to ask when people want to help you because they’ve seen you paying it forward already. Or – even better – they are also attuned to implicit asks, and you don’t need to.

Discussion point: What have you asked for recently? Did you get it?

Value execution over dreaming.
Balloon Girl by Banksy
Credit: flickr / dullhunk

Who has an idea for a product, or web service, or piece of software?

As a programmer, I can tell you that there are lots of non-programmers out there who have some “genius idea” that they think a programmer should build, for “equity” – a stake in the eventual, hugely profitable company.

The reality is that the company is rarely profitable, if it even gets off the ground. And programmers have their own ideas, which if they want they could implement. This is why people – especially programmers – get angry about patents, because you can literally patent an idea and the person patenting it doesn’t actually need to know how to implement it. To a programmer, implementation is everything. Ideas are 10 a penny. What does this have to do with starting an organization (or anything)? It means that it doesn’t matter how amazing your idea is, it’s nothing until you actually implement it.

And if someone else gets there before you, the idea was good enough that someone actually did it – so be pleased! And either get on board with them, or come up with something else and move faster. It also means, that it can be hard to sell your idea until you start doing.

We were the first Awesome Foundation outside the US, but we weren’t the first period. The fact that we have a network of people to ask questions to and this model has been proven made it much easier to get going.

Discussion point: What’s your plan for implementing your current awesome idea?


Think about how big your comfort zone is. What are you OK with doing? Introducing yourself to a stranger? Going to a foreign country by yourself? Standing up and talking in front of a bunch of people?

Chances are, there is a whole world outside your comfort zone. I really recommend going to explore that, but it can be scary. Stuff outside your comfort zone is stuff you don’t know – and as you go off discovering it there’s a good chance that things won’t go to plan. You’ll fail.

You know in Harry Potter, how the bogart turns into Prof. McGonnagall for Hermione and tells her she failed everything – that’s her biggest fear. It’s no wonder Harry always saves the day, he’s OK with failing, and that makes him more able to take risks. Hermione might seem more successful, there’s no doubt that she is academically, but that’s within her comfort zone. For her to be successful in other ways, she had to learn how to fail. (It’s not quite that simple, here’s an interesting article: In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series).

When we first started the Women in Science and engineering group back at uOttawa, we tried an event and people were really enthused about it… but then no-one turned up. I was mortified, and really questioned what I was doing. We didn’t run that kind of event again, but we ran different things that were successful. We learned what our members want, and that’s what we put on for them. It was a setback, but it didn’t stop us from achieving a lot of other things.

The Awesome Foundation is a great model and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it, but getting enough submissions is a continual effort. Seriously, we’re giving away free money but people don’t fill out the application form! It was tough in Ottawa, because you get to this catch-22 – you don’t fund anything, and no-one hears about you. We persevered. In KW we work at it continually.

There’s this great lecture by Randy Pausch. It’s an hour – go watch it. In it, he talks about how when you hit a wall, have a set back. He says that walls are there to keep out the people who don’t really want it. So when you fail, and I hope you do because I think that a life without failure is a life where you didn’t push yourself – you look at your failure, you evaluate what you can learn from it. And then you keep going.

Discussion point: Tell us about a failure that you learned from.

Be likable, but don’t expect everyone to like you.
Smashed Bronze Video Lens
Credit: flickr / Jef Harris

Colin Powell said, “trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity”. Be likable – it’s important – but the reality is, if you want to stand out and do something extraordinary, there are people who will try and tear you down for it. People might not understand that ideas are cheap, and think that you “stole” theirs, because you got their first. If you do things, people might need to attack your success in order to excuse their own inaction – like “oh Cate, she just got lucky”.

I’m not going to lie – it sucks. Who’s had something bad said about them that they knew wasn’t true? Who was hurt by it?

A while ago now, I had someone I used to be friends with telling people (people I know!), basically that I was doing I terrible job with Awesome Ottawa. Of course it gets back to me, and of course I was upset by it. The way it all played out was interesting, because I tried to ignore it and just keep running around doing my thing, and in the face of my non-response, this woman managed to make a different story in which I played the villan.

It was difficult, but eventually it worked out for the best. But at the time? Horrible. And honestly, I could not comprehend why someone would behave like this, when they could have pinged me for a cup of coffee and got everything they wanted. I was talking to one of my mentors, and we talked about whether I could have done more. Of course I could – you can almost always do more to resolve situations, you can always try to reason with someone, no matter how determined they are to dislike you. But in the worst 2 week period of this, I went to New York to pitch to top IBM executives with my team. I interviewed at Google, and filed two patents (within IBM). I got on a plane, and went back to Europe. So the question is not, “could I have done more?” – it’s with these other priorities going on, should I have. I think I made the right call that time.

Haters will hate. I always take the time to consider if they have a reason for it, is there anything I can and should do to resolve it. But – if someone is determined to dislike you, they will find a reason to.  Anything you do can, will, be used against you. So at some point, you have to say – No. I’m doing what I’m doing, and I refuse to let you distract me.

Check out Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace (both Amazon) for insight on managing interpersonal conflict.

Discussion point: What strategies do you use to deal with conflict?

Know what you’re good at, delegate what you’re bad at.
Credit: xkcd

No-one is good at everything. It is totally natural that we have weaknesses. Often they are paired with a strength. For instance, I’m very logical so I struggle when people behave irrationally. When someone was being vile, I exclaimed to a friend that I didn’t understand why they would be so inefficient. The logical attitude that makes me good at programming means that I struggle with that kind of situation.

It’s really important to know what your strengths are. It’s even more important to know what you are bad at, so you can find ways to manage that.

For instance, I’m horrible at selling myself – so I hired someone to write my resume for me.

For Girl Geek Dinners and Awesome Foundation KW other people do the logistics. I would suck at that.

Discussion point: What’s something you are good at it’s associated weakness?

Strive for the love of it, not the adulation. (Be humble).
Superhuman strength
Credit: flickr / Hot Meteor

There are so many people who come home from work at 5 and spend the evening watching TV, that if you do anything, people will start telling you how awesome you are.

Appreciate that, but take it as a thank-you. Every moment you spend believing it is a moment that someone else is overtaking you.

Once I saw someone tweet something… I can’t bring myself to repeat it, but suffice to say the words “I’m so awesome” were used. I have no clue what this person does, but now I have zero interest in finding out. A couple of other people I know saw it and we laughed about it – her credibility was damaged by this gratuitously self-aggrandizing tweet.

The most impressive people don’t seem to need to talk about how gosh-darn impressive they are. They’re too busy getting on with things. At work, you need to document your achievements and put them forward to your manager for promotion. In the outside world, especially on the internet, if you’re awesome, people notice. Maybe not as fast as you’d like, but they do.

At my leaving party when I moved away from Ottawa, this guy showed up and said that he’d wanted to meet me before I left. That was really cool, it totally made my day. That kind of moment is worth more than a million people agreeing when I say how awesome I am. I’m taking it as a thank-you, and encouragement to keep going. But I don’t believe that I did anything special, which is perhaps key to doing things at all. If you only believe that someone extraordinary can start something, you’ve set the bar way higher than it needs to be. Anyone can do it. Honestly. I did. You can too.

Discussion point: What’s the most ridiculously self-promoting thing you’ve seen?

Discussion point: What act or comment from someone has made you feel most appreciated?

2 replies on “Engineering an Interesting Life”

Thank you for the workshop at Laurier, definitely helped set my mind on decide to have a more interesting life. Though I must apologize for leaving half way through, wish i could have stayed for the rest.

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