The main reason for my lack of blogging since August last year has been starting a new job. I have been very busy and the new role has many challenges that have occupied a lot of my thinking time, however I am not sure that this has been the only factor at work. Having not written – for public consumption at least – for some time, I suppose I felt that it would be good to mark my blogging “comeback” with a signature article on a topic of interest and importance. Perhaps this led to a slight, unconscious build-up of pressure somewhere in my mind. Several people have been very kind about my work on this site and maybe I felt that I should live up to their encouraging comments.
Several months down the line, I have decided that the best way to kill this particular demon is to simply put fingertip to keyboard and write something. Sadly this is not going to be the signature piece that I had hoped for, but my current case of writer’s block is such that if I don’t write something then my concern about not being able to write another engaging and insightful piece will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As ever, maybe there is a learning here for the business world and IT in particular. IT people are, by definition, analytical, logical and have a great attention to detail. This can lead to a desire to create the perfect piece of code via endless polishing of the same 5-line “rock”, or to understand every nuance of a business requirement before beginning to scope out a solution. Without wanting to leap on the agile bandwagon, sometimes a good way to get to a solution is to start to write one. Create something, test whether it works and meets user expectations and adapt it if not. Also consider discarding initial attempts that are wide of the mark, so long as you learn something from them.
Back when I wrote Perseverance, I quoted Beckett’s adage about failing better. This is not a bad way of looking at IT work. Jumping in with no real understanding of an area is a major mistake, to be avoided at all costs, but holding back until you form a perfect understanding (or have a perfect article to write in the context of this piece) is almost as serious a problem. As with most things in life, what is required is some balance, a willingness to tolerate some false steps initially and a desire to make sure that these lead to improvement.
With this thought in mind, and in the hope that my creative flow can hereby be unblocked, I’ll close this short piece and trust that the next one follows on fairly shortly from it.
Inspiration can come from many places. For me it is often via making a connection between two separate areas. I wrote about this phenomenon in my earlier artcile, Synthesis.
A couple of inspiration-related events have led me to pen this piece today and, as a great man once said:
When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.
The first occurrence was an article on Jeff Shuey’s blog entitled Surely, you must be joking. This borrows from the title of Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman‘s book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (as edited by his friend and co-drummer Ralph Leighton). I have found Feynman to be an inspirational character since I first saw him interviewed in depth on the BBC’s science magazine programme, Horizon. Some footage of this interview appears in the BBC’s archives, and may be viewed here. It is well worth a look.
I happen to have recently referenced Feynman, albeit rather obliquely, in a review of my bogging experiences, New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging. I have been delighted to receive some messages from people saying that this article had prompted them to take up blogging themselves. There can surely be no greater compliment paid in social media and I am honoured to receive it.
The idea for Jeff’s article came both from Microsoft featuring Feynman’s work on its Project Tuva site (this doesn’t seem to work for me in Chrome, though it’s fine in IE8 – maybe I’ll keep quiet about this in case the European Commission is listening in) and a subsequent exchange of tweets and links that we shared on twitter.com. Jeff’s handle is @jshuey if you would like to follow him. Also check out Jeff’s article to learn more about how a remarkable human being has influenced both him and Project Tuva.
and Thing Two
The second event relates to the traditional American diner that is round the corner from where I live. I appreciate that I live in London, but nevertheless I do have a traditional American diner round the corner. It is even owned by a Packers fan from Wisconsin. Lauren is one of the people who regularly works there and she has a talent for drawing in chocolate – no you haven’t misread that, she draws in chocolate, specifically on the plate that holds the diner’s very pleasant flourless chocolate cake.
Mermaids have been a favourite theme for Lauren, but more recently she has moved on to more ambitious works. The first was Michael Jackson for obvious reasons. This was followed by Barak Obama. The other day I suggested that, if she was working her way through American icons, then the next obvious person would be Marilyn Monroe. Lauren liked this idea and when I visited this morning to get my customary cup of coffee (skinny cappuccino rather than black and hot sadly) her lastest work greeted me:
I’m really happy that my input has played a small part in two creative acts. This is particularly the case as I am normally acknowledging the inspiration that I have drawn from other people.
This sort of give and take of ideas has of course been happening during the entire course of human history. Clearly, even if I live to be 100, I could never hope to be as inspirational or influential as Richard Feynman. However it is both gratifying and humbling to be able to take part in the cycle of human interaction, no matter how minor my role. Maybe these two small recent examples are further evidence that the pace is increasing.
Back in April 2009, at the height of the Oracle / Sun fervour, I added a new section to reflect the number of articles I was writing about general technology issues such as these and also BI industry news. This was as follows:
In a similar vein, I have recently been writing more about issues in Social Media (very self-referential for a blog of course). I have also had my artciles syndicated on SmartDataCollective.com for many months.
As with the other sections, I will keep this list up-to-date as I add new content. In particular my forthcoming pieces on micro-blogging with Twitter.com and professional networking on LinkedIn.com will have a shiny new home.
I established this blog back in November 2008 – shortly after this I joined twitter.com in December 2008 – I had already been a member of LinkedIn.com since July 2005. However, my involvement with what is now collectively called social media goes back a lot further than this. Back then we tended to use the phrase on-line communities to describe what we were engaged in.
My first foray into this new world was in 1998/99 when I joined a, now defunct, discussion forum (then known as a Bulletin Board). This was focused on computer games. I wasn’t terribly in to such games at the time, I didn’t own a console and my PC was used for more prosaic purposes. Nevertheless, for reasons that I will not bore the reader with, I signed up. Since then I have been a member of a number of on-line forums, mostly with some sporting element, for example rock climbing.
In May 1999, my forum activities led me to creating my first web-site (again now also defunct). I started on Geocities (another chance to use the word “defunct”) and then moved to having my own domain and an agreement with a hosting company. I even ended up jointly running a very successful forum with an on-line friend from Australia. Back then the men were real men, the women were real women and the HTML was real HTML. However this article is not about ancient history, but rather about my more recent experiences in social media.
Nowadays, nobody seems to think of it as being odd that you regularly “speak” to people you have never met and who inhabit countries on the other side of the world. People do not slowly back away from you at parties if you drop the fact that you have your own web-site into a conversation (though maybe one reason that the portmanteau of web-log became socially acceptable is that its abridgement to blog sounds the opposite of technological). It was not always thus and maybe I retain something of the spirit of those pioneering days. For example, I am currently typing these words into the HTML pane of WordPress.com. Old habits die hard and WYSIYWG is for softies!
Social media is now mainstream – in fact you could argue that it is real life that has become a minority activity – and things are a lot easier. Although I doggedly insist on still cutting HTML, you can be up and running with a fairly professional-looking blog on WordPress in minutes and without having to know much about any of the technical underpinnings. Software as a Service certainly works really well as an approach to blogging.
Over a number of articles, I am going to touch upon my recent experience of Social Media in the three areas that I first mentioned at the beginning: blogging, micro-blogging and professional networking. Without fully revealing the denouement of this series, I will state now that one of the most interesting things is how well these three areas work in combination and how mutually reinforcing they have become for me. The sequence starts with my thoughts on blogging.
WordPress and Motivation
I suppose I have to thank my partner for getting me in to this area as she started her blog long before any of mine. However, having suffered a couple of climbing-related injuries I started my own training blog, both to chart my recovery and to act as a motivational tool.
I started out using Blogger as that was what my partner had used, but got rather frustrated with its lack of support for some basic HTML constructs (e.g. tables). A friend suggested WordPress instead and this became the venue for my training blog. Somewhat amazingly this is not defunct. However, after a period when I religiously posted at least once or twice every week, I haven’t updated it in a long while.
When I wanted to start a professional blog, WordPress seemed the way to go and I have been mostly happy with my choice. But what were my motivations for blogging about business-related issues? I guess that there were a few of these, in no particular order:
I like writing and the idea of doing this in a more general context than internal strategy papers and memoranda seemed appealing.
Based on the feedback I had received from my public speaking, I believed that I had quite a lot of relevant experience to draw on which might make interesting reading; at least for a niche audience.
Although it would be fair to say that I started writing mostly for myself, over time the idea of building a blog following seemed like a challenge and I like challenges.
In this same category of emergent motivation, after a short while the notion of establishing a corpus of work, spanning my ideas about a range of issues also became a factor. Maybe some element of Narcissism is present in most blogging.
There was a big slice of simple curiosity about the area, how it worked and how I could be a part of it. You get some interaction in public speaking, but I was intrigued by the idea of getting the benefit of the input of a wider range of people.
So I leapt in with both feet and my first article was based on some reflections on attending a Change Management seminar. It was entitled Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus and dealt with what I see as an artificial divide between IT and business groups. I suppose it makes sense to start as you mean to go on and IT / Business alignment has been a theme running through much of what I have written.
Things that I have learnt so far
In a subsequent piece, Recipes for success?, I expressed my scepticism about articles of the type “My Top Ten Tips for Successful Blogging”, so the following is not meant to be a set of precepts to be followed to the last letter. Instead, with the benefit of over 60,000 page views (small beer compared to many blogs), here are some things that have worked for me. If some of these chime with your own experience, then great. If others are not pertinent to you, then this is only to be expected.
Finally I should also stress that these observations relate mostly to professional blogs, for personal blogs there are essentially no constraints on your creativity (assuming that the results of this are legal of course).
Write about areas that you know something about. You don’t have to be a world authority, but on a professional blog, no one is going to be that interested in your fevered speculations on something that you know nothing about. This is one of many reasons that you will never see me blogging about IT Infrastructure!
When you blog about an area of personal expertise, then you can be pretty free in expressing your opinions, though [note to self] a dose of humility never did anyone any harm.
When the subject is one in which your own knowledge is less well-developed (for me something like text analytics would fall into this category), then seek out the opinions of experts in the field and quote these (even if you disagree with them). Linking to the places that experts have expressed their thoughts also expands you network and increases the utility of your blog, which becomes part of a wider world.
It helps if you are interested in the majority of the topics that you cover. If you are unmotivated about something, them why write about it? If you decide to do so for some reason (maybe because you haven’t written anything else this week, or because a piece of news is “hot” at present) then your personal ennui will seep into your words and be evident to your readers. No doubt it will generate similar feelings in them.
Beyond the previous point, I would go further and say that it is crucial that you are truly passionate about at least one thing that you write about and ideally several. Expressing strong opinions is fine, assuming that you have some reason for holding them and that you remain open to the ideas of other people. For me, these areas of passion are Business Intelligence, its intimate connection with Cultural Transformation and the related area of IT / Business Alignment.
Passion is not only important because it will hopefully infuse your words, but because it will sustain you returning to write about these areas over a long period of time. There are an awful lot of blogs out there where a bright beginning has petered out because the author had nothing left to say, or has lost interest.
For the same reasons relating to sustaining your blog, I would recommend being yourself. If you really want to present an alternative personality to the world, then good luck to you (and your therapist), you will have to possess enormous perseverance and be a very talented actor.
For me this means the presence of strong elliptical and eclectic qualities to my articles. I can do terse and to the point when it is necessary, but circumlocution is more my stock-in-trade. I’m more comfortable being myself and if this means my audience is one composed of people yearning for elliptic, eclectic, circumlocutory writing, then so be it!
To me being yourself extends to the quantity of your writing. In an era sometimes characterised as one of short attention spans and instant gratification, the orthodox advice is to be punchy and direct. Sometimes the point I want to make in one of my articles (assuming that I can remember what this is by the time I get to the end of writing it) takes some time to develop – like a fine wine I like to think (or a mould the less kind might add).
This means that my writing tends to resemble the River Amazon in both its meandering nature and length. I appreciate that this narrows my potential audience, but hope that it also means that at least a few people get some more out of it than they would from the CliffsNotes version.
Blogging should also be about interaction. If you simply want to broadcast your incredibly wise thoughts, then write a book. I hope that some of the pieces that I write spur others to record their own thoughts, either as comments here, or in their own blog articles. If some of my ideas make it into other people’s PowerPoint decks or project proposals, then I am honoured.
Equally, virtually everything that I write has been inspired to some degree by other people: co-workers, authors, the people that I come into contact with on the Internet and in real life on a daily basis and so on. I try to explicitly acknowledge (and link to) what has inspired me when I write, but I am sure that thousands of unconscious influencers go un-credited.
While passion and having opinions contribute to developing your own voice, it is important to never think that you have all the answers. In a blogging context this means treating anyone who has taken the time to comment on your writing with the respect that this act deserves. While starting a conversation is clearly the best outcome of someone commenting on your blog, a simple ‘thank you’ from the author should be the very least that you can offer (when people whinge about the England cricket team having cheated their way to victory, this is an obvious exception to the rule).
In this area I also try to avoid deleting comments that are derogatory about my ideas. The approach I take is rather to either seek further clarification on why the contributor thinks this way, or to politely argue why I still believe that the points that I have made are valid. Of course I have not always 100% lived up to this aspiration!
As in virtually every aspect of life, treating others as you would like to be treated yourself is not a bad approach. If you enjoy people commenting on your articles or linking to your blog, then maybe proactively doing these things yourself is a good idea. I don’t mean adding comments purely for the sake of it; that sounds awfully like spam. But if you read something that you find interesting, then thank the author.
Better still, augment what they have written with your own ideas – either on their blog or in a piece on your own site that links back to their article. Even in this day and age, it is amazing how far being nice to people can get you. For the same reason, try to be as polite on-line as you would be in your more traditional professional life.
[Yes I am aware of the irony of having ten bullet points here!]
Finally, I mentioned the Narcissistic tendencies that can either be a cause or effect of blogging. I think that trying to not take yourself too seriously is a must as an antidote to this. Both the medium and my prose can veer towards the preachy sometimes, so some well-placed self-deprecation to balance this never goes amiss.
I hope that some readers will have been interested in my observations and that they will have helped a further subset of these in their blogging. For those who are pondering whether to join the blogosphre, my simple advice is give it a go. You will either hate it or love it, but at least you won’t die wondering “what if?”
The New Adventures in Wi-Fi series of articles on Social Media continues by discussing the relatively new world of micro-blogging and the phenomenon that is Twitter here.
This seems to be just another of those annoying facts of life. I should be used to it by now, after all “Akismet has protected your site from 2,607 spam comments already.” However it seems to me that the spammers could perhaps do a better job of targeting their work. Maybe this is a breakthrough area for text analytics.
Saying that, what prompted me to refer to this rather sad phenomenon today was a recent spamvert (in English) for “on-line English classes.” I’m not sure if this was placed in reference to the author, or his readers. Either way I somehow feel diminished today.