Author Archives: amyn

Giving the Same Talk Twice

Last month, I gave my first conference talk ever, titled “UX Design and Education for Effective Monitoring Tools,” at TechSummit Berlin. I felt terrible about it. All I could say about it was that it was over and I didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but something felt hollow about the whole thing. I realized that it was because I couldn’t say honestly to myself that I had expressed what I really wanted to say when I wrote the abstract. The good news is that I gave a talk at Monitorama with the same title and abstract, and I feel like I made a bit more progress towards saying what I needed to say. I wanted to write down some of my thoughts on what changed between the two talks.

You can find the slides for TechSummit Berlin here and for Monitorama here. The talk videos are here and here, respectively, but you don’t need to watch the talks to understand this blog post.

Content

I have a lot to say on the topic of helping people understand data. Not all of it has to be crammed into a 30 minute talk. I think I spent too much time discussing dry content in my first talk and could have cut those slides for more exciting ideas. I subscribe to the idea that talks are primarily for entertainment, not for education. That’s not to say that education isn’t be a goal, but there’s a limit to how much brain power the audience has, especially after days of listening to many talks. If I have more than 30 minutes of things to say about this topic, I’m now thinking I should prioritize content that is interesting and easy to process over content that is important but boring.

In this case, my original talk gave equal weight to documentation, team culture, and tools. I dedicated several slides to talking about the first two:

evaluating the state of your documentation interacting with your team

To be completely honest, this felt boring as hell to talk about. I don’t think I needed to spend so much time belaboring a point that most people already know and agree with. Yes, updated and clear documentation is important. Yes, the way your team works with other teams is important. Maybe in a talk dedicated to either of those topics, I could have made it more interesting. But in a talk titled “UX Design and Education for Effective Monitoring Tools”, it wasn’t clear why I was talking about these things instead of traditional design, and I wasn’t sharing novel ideas.

I ended up condensing these points into a single slide and briefly covered them in about 2 minutes rather than 15:

ux prioritization

I also think this change made my point more effectively for a talk setting. It’s clear (to me, at least) what I meant to say: that team culture and documentation are the foundation of a strong support team and that they are a part of the user experience of interacting with your team.

Another thing that I think helped is that during my talk, I verbally talked about the points that you can see on my old slides, like outdated documentation and making people feel bad for asking questions, but I didn’t bother writing it all out on the slides. The visual representation is easier to look at, rather than having to read long sentences. (That said, the Monitorama slides are still pretty verbose.)

The great thing about condensing team and documentation into a single slide is that I had a lot more time to cover UX design for tools. I think this is valuable because tool design is a more novel topic for a devops-oriented conference, so the audience is hearing about topics that they don’t often hear on stage. The content is also more visual, with screenshots of graphs and UIs, so the slides were more interesting to look at:

looking at an alert preview

Slides

I spent over half an hour making the fucking triangle, and I really want you all to know how much effort I put into it. No, seriously, have you tried making advanced shapes in Google Slides? Was I supposed to create stacked trapezoids? Should I have created one big triangle and drawn lines through it? What about the colors? In the end, I created four overlapping triangles, zoomed in to 200%, and painstakingly tweaked the angles so that they would be perfectly aligned. You’re welcome.

In all seriousness, I’m really glad that the new slides are more reflective of my own style. For my first talk, I used a slide template provided by my employer and I erred too far on the side of wanting to seem professional. It felt sterile. I love black slides in dark auditoriums. I love emojis. I love scribbles and gifs and dumb jokes.

My original slides had visually boring moments like this:

slide_49

Meanwhile, my new slides were more expressive of my own feelings:

slide_36

I felt more open to adding my own flair to my slides and wrote things matching my own style of communication, rather than trying to meet some vague notion of professionalism. The talk ended up being a lot more fun and engaging because I lightened up.

One thing I’m happy about is that it led to my favorite audience photo from my talk (thanks Soph!):

tweet from audience

As an aside: Look how easy it is to not say “you guys” in a talk! Wow!

Structure

I asked on Twitter a few weeks ago whether anyone knew of talks they enjoyed that didn’t have an agenda slide. I didn’t get a ton of responses, so I started leaning towards writing an explicit agenda slide. I know a lot of speakers don’t signpost their talks and I think it can be done well. Still, I think it’s easier to lose the audience without an agenda, and it’s even more important to have one if you’re an inexperienced speaker like me. The agenda gives structure to your talk (duh) and keeps you organized so that you make your “thesis” more clear.

The funny thing is that a portion of my talk was about the idea that users are often anxious and afraid when they use your tools, and that makes it harder for them to explore. There’s a parallel here: If your audience doesn’t know where your talk is going, they’re going to spend brain power on figuring that out rather than listening to your words. If you make your thesis and structure very explicit, there’s less uncertainty and potential for confusion.

I did have an implied agenda slide for my first talk, but I think I could have done a better job writing it and signposting my talk to the audience. Here’s the comparison:

agenda updated agenda

It’s not clear from just the slides, but the thing to note is that the Berlin “agenda” slide came about 7 minutes into my talk, rather than showing up right at the beginning. The feedback I received was that people didn’t realize it was intended to serve as signposts for the overall talk, so there was still some confusion about the structure.


I feel terrible when my work isn’t representative of what I think it could be. With writing, I think I’ve built up my rhetorical toolkit enough that I’m comfortable standing by my words. Now that I’m learning more about public speaking, I hope I can continue to introspect on what could be better so that I can one day stand by a talk and say, “This is truly how I envisioned this talk.” For now, I’m satisfied with gradual improvement.

Even between my first two talks, my thank you slides show the difference with just one emoji:

slide_54slide_97

Whistling Vivaldi: A Stereotype Threat I Didn’t Know Of

When Whistling Vivaldi was first recommended to me, my initial response was, “I already know what stereotype threat is. Why do I need to read about it?” In other words, I was your standard punk-ass college student. I had never really given concentrated thought to stereotype threat in the broader context of society, or how it affected people who weren’t me. But this book gave me a deeper understanding of how stereotype threat happens and how it can be combated. My only regret from finally reading it is that I didn’t read it before starting college. Now that I’ve finally dragged myself to the finish line for my bachelor’s degree (after 6 years!), it seems especially bittersweet that this book helped me recognize some of what was happening to me right at the end of my journey.

I haven’t felt so compelled to share a book with other people in years. Reading, for me, is usually for entertainment or personal development, and I go from book to book without wanting to sit down and reflect in a way that is useful for others. This book is different. I feel obligated to share Whistling Vivaldi because it made me burst into tears from recognition of my own past pain. I didn’t think I needed affirmation that my experiences in college were shared by others, but I did. This book gave me time to reflect on moments of self-doubt from the past and helped me re-interpret them in the context of stereotype threat instead.

This book is useful both as a tool for self-reflection (even if you don’t consider yourself as a minority!) and as a tool for supporting others. I want more people affected by stereotype threat to read this book so they can have the time to think back on their own experiences and how they were impacted. I want more people in general to read this book to gain empathy for what students, coworkers, and friends might be suffering from without realizing.

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Stop Policing How Women Speak

Originally posted on Medium.

People are so mad at women. The way they dress, the way they speak, the way they dare to exist in modern society. People are never not going to be mad, but I’m going to try to break down the latest problem with women anyway.

Women sometimes do this thing where they talk and we’re supposed to listen, but they sound so annoying that it’s hard to focus on the content of their message. I mean, who cares what a woman has to say when she keeps doing that croaky vocal fry tone bullshit and every other word is um, like, sorry, just, actually — it’s so unprofessional! What if we made an app that stopped them from using those weak filler words? Maybe then we could take them seriously!

I know what you’re about to say. It’s not about women! When people of any gender talk unprofessionally, they lower their credibility. They sound incompetent and insecure. By eliminating phrases like “I think” and “sorry, I just…” from their language, women can get proper recognition for their ideas and become better communicators. We’re helping women get ahead in the professional world by showing them how they undermine themselves with their linguistic choices.

On the surface, this sounds fair, but it’s loaded with assumptions about the way the world works that aren’t true.

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Your Culture Has Consequences

Allies, put your career where your mouth is.

There is no fire under any tech company’s ass to change their ways. Over the past few years, we’ve seen every major tech company release a statement about their abysmal numbers, their token efforts to improve, and how much they value diversity and inclusion at their companies. It’s been a feel-good hug fest where everyone gets an A for effort.

Yet from the same companies, we see all this talk of not lowering the bartolerating of abusive behavior from their employees, and unwillingness to hire from the existing pipeline. How could this behavior be so pervasive when tech companies claim to be so concerned about diversity and inclusion?

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The Harm in Being a Diversity Pick

When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.

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The Pie is Rotten: Re-Evaluating Tech Feminism in 2016

Back in December, I wrote an article for Model View Culture. You can find it here. I’m proud of it because it’s my first paid article ever and it deals with a topic that had bothered me about the tech industry and women’s advocacy efforts in general. Enjoy!

Update: Because MVC is no longer publishing, I have re-printed my article here for posterity. Continue reading

The Impact of Diversity on Everything

I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.

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Advice for Responding to Backlash Against Minority Outreach Programs

So you organized an outreach event or program for a marginalized group that you care about and you’re really excited about doing your part to improve diversity in your field. You’re all pumped about your work, but then you start receiving negative comments that accuse you of being sexist/racist/etc. for putting so much focus on your chosen minority group rather than providing resources for the whole group. In my case, this usually takes the form of complaints about sexism and inequality in the outreach programs that I organize for women in tech — why aren’t there similar scholarships and conferences for men? Why aren’t there men’s-only tech events?

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On Sincerity, Effort, and Authenticity

I don’t know when it became uncool to be sincere. I used to think it was a problem with kids these days, but it seems to occur among people of all ages. I have a hard time defining the exact attitude that I’m so bothered by, but it’s… it’s the embarrassment and shame that is somehow associated with hard work, sincerity, and failing at something you tried so hard for.

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Last Minute Interview Tips for First-Time Interviewers

In an ideal world, you would be perfectly prepared for technical interviews before having to go through them and you would know exactly what to say. For most people (myself included), however, that first interview is a complete mystery — you have no idea what to say or do or expect. I wanted to compile my personal list of preparation reminders so that I have a semi-permanent reference for people who ask me for advice!

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