The Backlog

The other day one of my co-workers mentioned that she feels like she has a lot of free time in her life. This is one feeling that I struggle to relate to lately. I have been working to try and liberate time where I can. Despite doing this I can tell I am still a bit behind on the basics. My email inbox still needs to be tended. I blog a few times a week instead of every day. I am not able to do everything I want and it is tough.

The two big items in my life are my day job at MAPC and Code for Boston. Next to that is my training for a half marathon. Once I have carved out time for those things I also need to make sure I am still talking to my friends and family. I have a backlog of games on Nintendo Switch that I am working through, most recently Super Mario Odyssey. I am reading a couple books including the latest Dan Brown novel and an introduction to the Swift Programming language. This is to say nothing of the Arduino kit sitting in my drawer and books I have not started yet.

One way I have liberated time is to get an Instacart subscription. By removing the need to travel to the grocery store every week I save about two hours which I can then use towards doing other things I prefer. Even when I’m waiting at home that time can at least be more useful than wandering the aisles of the grocery store.

Time is our most precious resource so I try and think of ways to better spend it doing the things I like to do instead of the things I need to do. It is challenging to fit everything in, but the main thing I have learned is you do not find time, you usually end up making it. Each decision to do something is a decision to not do a bunch of other stuff. By doing the right things you can later liberate more of your time.

Meetings

By far the mode of receiving information that I find most challenging is the meeting (actually the conference call is a bit worse). Lucky for me government runs mostly on meetings and I now attend a lot of them. As evidenced by this blog my home field for communication is writing. When I have in-person conversations I often later forget things or I miss details. Despite all my efforts to avoid meetings and communicate that they are a terrible method of communication for me, it is challenging to teach old dogs new tricks (in this case the “memo” or “note”).

At MAPC I attended a facilitation training lead by a couple of our long time agency employees. This training provided a framework for running a structured meeting that valuably relied upon a written agenda. It also dispersed responsibility so that a person has to keep time and take notes. This dispersal of responsibilities allows most of the attendants to better focus on the meeting itself. They know how it will run and have a structure before hand with notes afterwards.

When I am in a meeting that is not run in this manner I usually bring my iPad and attempt to take notes. The challenging part of doing this is that my focus is divided between the effort of note taking and actually thinking about and contributing to the meeting content. Overall this is not optimal, but I have found it to be the least worst approach.

For the most part my attendance at meetings, given how challenging I find them, is not usually for my benefit but for the benefit of other people whose styles favor verbal communication over written communication. Otherwise I use them mostly as an attention focus mechanism. In a world where people can easily shuffle around their own work and priorities, scheduling a meeting is a good way to force them to focus on something. Also having a regular check-in about a project is a good accountability mechanism that sets a rhythm for progress.

React and Jekyll

I have been spending my past week at work learning React for the purpose of making an interactive website and overall have found it to be one of the easier Javascript frameworks to master. A key component of this is React has well written documentation. Despite the complexity of the concepts, they are fairly well explained. Given the current popularity of React there are also plenty of third party resources and StackOverflow posts on React related topics. It is clear that React has the wind at its back.

For most of our static websites at MAPC we use Jekyll. Some Googling found this helpful blog post about setting up React with Jekyll. However I learned of an even better trick with this setup. Once you setup webpack you can run ./node_modules/.bin/webpack --watch and the bundle.js file will be updated every time you make changes to the files in your webpack directory. Furthermore you can run jekyll serve --live reload and connect Safari to jekyll’s live reload server so your browser auto updates changes as you make them to your react or Jekyll code. This greatly speeds up the development process.

Learning React and spending more time in Javascript land has also lead me to identify and empathize better with the challenges others face when learning new languages and frameworks. The abstractions are not yet memorized. The scope of variables is not always clear or understood. You are constantly looking up method names and syntax. Your debugging toolkit is often not established. It’s like going into a new country, having to drive on the other side of the road, and figure out how to convert everything from metric.

Ultimately I think learning this will be worth it. It will give me flexility to create new features in user interfaces. It will help me better understand some of the excitement and challenges my peers doing front-end web development at Code for Boston face. It will also let me play more with the WebKit Web Inspector to better understand why certain web pages render so poorly when I browse the web.

The Elevator Pitch

One of the biggest challenges of my work is communicating it. Both at MAPC and Code for Boston we do a lot of things that people do not have foundational knowledge about. When I meet people outside the technology industry for the first time and describe what I do, they need to have some kind of foundation in about thirty-seconds or they are going to get lost and confused quickly. They need the elevator pitch.

The interesting thing about the elevator pitch is first getting the reaction of someone to it. Did I land it with my description? What is their first thought or question? A lot of times they do not even know what question to ask. Often it takes me giving an example or two of one of the projects that I have worked on until they understand my work.

Once I explain I work with algorithms people often see their interest peaked. Artificial intelligence and algorithms are two topics from technology that have permeated mainstream culture, but people are still struggling to figure them out. Are they really going to kill us? Will they take all the jobs? There is definitely a sense of caution and fear. The dry and mechanical attitude I see at data science conferences is quite different from the attitudes I see when I talk to lawyers and others studying them. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are going to greatly impact what machines can do, but industry is doing a poor job of communicating what the impact really will be.

Talking to a group of folk that are not inside the tech industry last night gave me a chance to evaluate how I talk about algorithms and AI. I like to talk about how we built our Youth Match algorithm with young people to help them. I am sad I did not think to explain to my fellow law school alumni that lawyers will be the ones buying algorithms and other technologies for local government. They are going to need to understand these things because they are going to impact the citizens they work for. Hopefully I do a better job of remembering that part of the story at my next event.

Security is the Opposite of User Experience

One of the annoying truisms that I have learned is that security is the opposite of user experience. Nowhere is this more evident to me than with Google and Gmail. For some reason I seem to be logged out of my Gmail account nearly once a week, if not more. This has grown frustrating because I recently installed an app called Kiwi which is supposed to make Gmail more usable by enabling some MacOS native features with the mail client. Unfortunately it means 1Password will no longer auto-fill the login. Therefore I find myself going through extra steps to log back in to my Gmail accounts on an almost daily basis.

As I build software I continue to learn that security is the opposite of user experience. In order to verify someone’s identity or make sure their data is more protected I almost always need to make a trade-off that makes an app more difficult to use. It makes it less likely they will use it. When making a game or other small stakes app this is not a big trade off. But when the stakes are either someone can apply for a summer job or not, the calculation is different. Suddenly this security is impacting their livelihood.

Ultimately I am excited by companies like Apple that are managing to make security part of the user experience. TouchID makes logging in to most apps seamless. FaceID makes it even easier. The multi-factor authentication integrates across all devices and makes it easy to confirm you are the one trying to log in to a device. As I build apps I try to think about how I can make them more like that.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.