Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Teach a gal (or guy) to fish

One of the more rewarding parts about being a not-even-slightly renowned web developer is getting to share that skill.  For the past few months, I’ve been an instructor with the organization Girl Develop It Cincinnati.  I’ve been teaching classes of mostly women intro courses in HTML/CSS and JavaScript/jQuery.  It’s been awesome as hell.

I got into it through this wild child named Erin Kidwell, who runs the chapter here in Cincy.  She could see that I was loudmouthed, boastful, and cocky. Or, perfectly suited for molding young minds in the fine art of web dev.  I TA'd for another instructor first, then she took the muzzle off me and I went at it.

What they get, those lucky ducks.

Web development is a tough nut to crack. And if you’re a women, it’s a tougher nut.  I’m not going to tiptoe around the fact that we do sort of run a boys club.  No one thinks it’s because we don’t want women around, it’s just seen as 'a guy thing' for the most part.  I don’t know why that is.  I could speculate, but I don’t feel like it.  That is also not to say that there aren’t plenty of female engineers, programmers, coders, and widget-wielders.  There are.  But that number pales in comparison to how many dudes are in the club. It’s a little musky in here, is all I can say.

Anyway, the benefit comes in a couple of ways.  One, it’s inclusive of women. It gets them into a place where they can ask questions, learn in their own style, and be surrounded for the most part by other women doing the same thing. From my own limited perspective, this works great for women. They are great collaborators and sharers.

Two, it’s cheap as shit.  $80 for four 2-hour sessions and one supplemental session on a Sunday morning.  Plus, as long as you’re a student you can email me any time with questions that I try to answer as promptly as possible.

Three, it’s just a great way to get out of the house, get out of the ordinary, and do something fun and useful. Tons of the gals tell me they are in the class to beef up their resume, or to work on their blog, or to help with the company website, or they are designers looking to move to the web.  It’s great. They are taking the reins.

Note: I have no idea what women are thinking about anything.

What I get out of all this

From my experience, teaching is ironically the best learning tool.  You might think you need to be an expert in the field to be a great teacher, and I think the converse is true.  As someone who spends 95% of my time on back-end web dev, teaching specifically for the front-end has taught me a ton.  I have to actually think about how and why something works well enough to be able to explain it to complete novices.

It’s not any easier for me to explain python to a beginner than it is to explain some CSS that I just learned that same day.  Actually, with new concepts still fresh in my mind, it’s a bit easier to verbalize.  Make sense? No? Good!

It's also a great social tool.  I really believe that we build our lives on experiences, meeting new people, and learning new crap.  That's exactly what this is.  I learn every week from these gals. I meet people with different perspectives, lives, views, hairstyles, etc. It's rad.

All in all, teaching has been a great thing for me.  I recommend anyone and everyone with the inclination to be the center of attention for a couple of hours at a time to stand up there and teach some people about web dev.  There’s been a huge push for people to learn programming, and for most people it’s a lot easier to learn in an interactive environment than it is to learn on their computer in their basement.  I don’t know if that’s actually statistically true, but it sounds accurate.

So, get your ass out there and teach.  Or, if you need to learn, get your ass out there and learn.  Here are some links to help you get started:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cincinnati Startup Scene: An Epiphany

I had an epiphany about working on a startup in Cincinnati.

There is a much different tempo, culture, talent base, and overall timbre in Cincinnati than there is on the ‘coasts’.  Things are a bit slower, less electric, and a hell of a lot smaller.  This rant could probably be applied to many cities across the midwest where the startup scene is trying to explode, but for my own selfish reasons I am going to apply it only to Cincinnati, which is the only place I’m interested in seeing actually explode.

This epiphany I had was started by reading one of those blog article/profiles of some guys who started a checkin app that debuted at SXSW a couple of years ago. You can probably guess it.  There were pictures of the founders head shots.  One of the guys had this smug, shit-eating grin that drove me crazy while I was reading the article.  I wanted to grab him by the front of his shirt and shake him.  Not really professional, but something about that cocky grin was driving me crazy.

And that’s when I realized that’s exactly what we need: swagger.  Please note: I do not under any circumstances approve the use of the word ‘swag’.  If you say ‘swag’ in normal conversation we can never be friends.  Anyhow.  We need some good old fashioned ball-busting boasting, gloating, obnoxious self-aggrandizing.  Someone in Cincinnati needs to be shouting our names from the rooftops.  We should be smiling smugly at chumps reading blog articles about us.

Oh, and we also need to build shit that people want to shout about.  Yes, we have plenty of great startups here, some really brilliant people are working on them.  And that’s awesome.  It’s a beautiful thing.  We need better than that.  We need game-changing, SXSW rattling nonsense.  Who cares if it’s a flare-up and burn out?  A couple of jackasses need to whip up something intense and insane to show off.  The guys at CrowdHall seem like a good combo.

How about Lisnr?  Use that sonic beacon technology to organize a flash mob or Harlem shake at city hall or in the casino.  Piss off someone.

Once we get some excellent, shallow, loud, explosive PR surrounding stuff and pointing it all back to Cincinnati, we’ll start getting the attention we deserve.  I’m getting sick and tired of telling this underdog story.  We have one of the top accelerators in the country, ... and all that other crap people always tout.  But do you think people really see us as a viable option to the coasts?  Come on.
We have the potential here to be ridiculous and eccentric and gravitational in the startup world, let’s just goddam do it.

Our next Startup Weekend should have the theme: “Balls to the Walls: Shake Shit Up.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Open Letter to Rockfish

Dear Rockfish,

You have given me more in the last 18 months than I have given you.  You have been a kind and loving companion.  I will never forget that.  You picked me up when I was down, you carried me on your shoulders when I was drunk, and you overall lifted me up to the level I am today. I hope in some small way I left you in a better place than you have left me. I love you.

The day I started at Rockfish, I knew I was in over my head.  I was a little fish in a big pond surrounded by scary other fish who seemed to know what the hell they were doing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I think I was the living, breathing incarnation of ‘fake it ’til you make it’.  But I faked it, and I buckled down, and I copied smarter people’s work, and I become a 10x better developer because of it.

I would not be the greatest developer in the world were it not for you.

Actually, there’s a 14 year old kid in South Korea who is a little bit better than me, but I’m a damn close second.  And it’s because of you.

We have shared a hell of a lot of laughs, tears, and everything in between.  We’ve been thrilled together, sad together, and utterly furious together.  We’ve seen friends, clients, and people we don’t really know very well come and go.  Alison has scolded each and every one of us at some point, and it hurt us all the same.

I really, truly, and plainly will miss you, Rockfishers.  All of you.  Every last person in the office is special to me in some way, big and small, and it really does break my heart to think I won’t be around to shout unnecessarily at some of you from the length of the office, or to accost you for eating meat (which is gross, by the way).  And who is going to sneeze without covering their mouth, abruptly and as loudly as possible? I feel like I’m actually on good terms with everyone in the entire office.  Yes, even you.  Now that I think about it, I think I’m generally on good terms with everyone in the company. Now that’s a hell of a track record!

If there are any take aways that I want to keep for myself, they’d be along the lines of ‘always strive for perfection’ or ‘good enough is never good enough’ or some such thing.  In a company this highly regarded there is always someone better than you.  And by you I mean me.  You can’t be a joker at Rockfish.  If you strive to become the best possible at what you do at a company like Rockfish, you will be in an elite group if you ever make it there, trust me. There are people who don’t even have my same job who are better than me at it.

If there is anything I wish I could leave for my coworkers, it would be (appropriately) “Never be afraid to be silly”.  Work is serious business, I know that, but you always have to take the time to laugh at yourself and laugh at everyone else. You get one shot on this big blue rock, and you should laugh about it every day. Work will be there in the morning when you wake up, I promise you that.  If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Last thing: Someone call me, goddammit.  Invite me up for happy hour. Now that I can’t be fired for drinking too much, let’s see what the keg is up to.  I’ll finally let my hair down and be my real self.

Yours forever.

John David Back