383: Code as Storytelling with Nicole Zhu
Episode 383 · May 9th, 2023 · 43 mins 2 secs
About this Episode
Engineering manager at Vox Media and author Nicole Zhu joins Stephanie on today's episode to discuss her writing practice.
nicoledonut is a biweekly newsletter about the writing process and sustaining a creative life that features creative resources, occasional interviews with creative folks, short essays on writing and creativity, farm-to-table memes and TikToks, and features on what Nicole is currently writing, reading, and watching.
This episode is brought to you by Airbrake. Visit Frictionless error monitoring and performance insight for your app stack.
- Kieran Culkin on learning about billionaires filming Succession
- The Home Depot skeleton
- Nicole Zhu's newsletter
- The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo
- Saving Time by Jenny Odell
STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. And today, I'm joined by my friend and special guest, Nicole Zhu.
NICOLE: Hi, I'm so excited to be here. My name is Nicole, and I am an Engineering manager at Vox Media and a writer.
STEPHANIE: Amazing, I'm so thrilled to have you here. So, Nicole, we usually kick off the show by sharing a little bit about what's new in our world. And I can take us away and let you know about my very exciting weekend activities of taking down our Halloween skeleton. And yes, I know that it's April, but I feel like I've been seeing the 12-foot Home Depot skeletons everywhere. And it's becoming a thing for people to leave up just their Halloween decorations and, just as the other holidays keep rolling on, changing it up so that their skeleton is wearing like bunny ears for Easter or a leprechaun hat for St. Patrick's Day.
And we've been definitely on the weird skeleton in front of the house long past the Halloween train for a few years now. Our skeleton's name is Gary. And it's funny because he's like a science classroom skeleton, so not just plastic. He's actually quite heavy.
NICOLE: He's got some meat to the bones. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah, and physiologically correct. But we like to keep him out till spring because we got to put him away at some point so that people are excited again when he comes back out in October. And the kids on our block really love him. And yeah, that's what I did this weekend. [laughs]
NICOLE: I love it. I would love to meet Gary one day. Sounds very exciting. [laughs] I do get why you'd want to dress up the skeleton, especially if it's 12 feet tall because it's a lot of work to put up and take down for just one month, but that's fascinating. For me, something new in my world is the return of "Succession," the TV show.
STEPHANIE: Oh yes.
NICOLE: I did not watch yesterday's episode, so I'm already spoiled, but that's okay. But I've been getting a lot of Succession TikToks, and I've been learning a lot about the making of the show and the lives of the uber-rich. And in this one interview with Kieran Culkin, the interviewer asked him, "What's something that you learned in shooting the show about the uber-rich about billionaires that's maybe weird or unexpected?" And Kieran Culkin says that the uber-rich don't have coats because they're just shuttled everywhere in private jets and cars. They're not running to the grocery store, taking the subway, so they don't really wear coats, which I thought was fascinating. It makes a lot of sense.
And then there was this really interesting clip too that was talking about the cinematography of the show. And what is really interesting about it is that it resists the wealth porn kind of lens because it's filmed in this mockumentary style that doesn't linger or have sweeping gestures of how majestic these beautiful cities and buildings and apartments they're in.
Everything just seems very matter of fact because that is just the backdrop to their lives, which I think is so interesting how, yeah, I don't know, where I was like, I didn't ever really notice it. And now I can't stop seeing it when I watch the show where it's about miserable, rich people. And so I like that the visual language of the show reflects it too.
STEPHANIE: Wow, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The coat thing really gets me because I'm just imagining if I could be perfectly climate controlled all the time. [laughs]
NICOLE: Right? Oh my gosh, especially you're based in Chicago [laughs], that is when you can retire the winter coat. That is always an important phase.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, seriously. I also am thinking now about just like the montages of showing a place, just movies or shows filmed in New York City or whatever, and it's such...so you know it's like the big city, right?
NICOLE: Mmm-hmm, mm-hmm.
STEPHANIE: And all of that setup. And it's really interesting to hear that stylistically, that is also different for a show like this where they're trying to convey a certain message.
NICOLE: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
STEPHANIE: So I'm really excited to have you on The Bike Shed because I have known you for a few years. And you write this really amazing newsletter called "nicoledonut" about your writing practice. And it's a newsletter that I open every other week when you send out a dispatch. And last year at RubyConf, they had a conference track called Bringing Your Backgrounds With You.
And there were talks that people gave about how the hobbies that they did outside of work or an identity that they held made them a better developer, like, affected how they showed up at work in a positive way. And as someone who has always been really impressed by the thoughtfulness that you apply to your writing practice, I was really curious about how that shows up for you as an engineering manager.
NICOLE: Definitely a great question. And to provide a bit of context for listeners, I feel like I have to explain the newsletter title because it's odd. But there's a writer who I really love named Jenny Zhang, and her handle across the Internet is jennybagel. And so I was like, oh, that would be so funny. I should be nicoledonut. I do love donuts. My Neopets username was donutfiend, so it was --
STEPHANIE: Hell yeah.
NICOLE: But anyway, so that was kind of...I was like, I need to come up with some fun title for this newsletter, and that is what I settled on. But yes, I've written personal essays and creative nonfiction. And my primary focus more recently these past few years has been fiction. And this newsletter was really kind of born out of a desire to learn in the open, provide resources, act as kind of a journal, and just process ideas about writing and what it means to kind of sustain a creative life.
So it has definitely made me more reflective and proactively, like you said, kind of think about what that means in terms of how that transfers into my day job in engineering. I recently moved into management a little over a year ago, and before that, I was a senior full-stack engineer working on a lot of our audience experiences and websites and, previously, more of our editorial tools.
So I think when it comes to obviously writing code and being more of an individual contributor, I think you had previously kind of touched on what does it mean to treat code as a craft? And I do think that there are a lot of similarities between those two things because I think there's creativity in engineering, of course. You have to think about going from something abstract to something concrete. In engineering, you're given generally, or you're defining kind of requirements and features and functionality. You may be make an engineering plan or something like that, an EDD, given those constraints.
And then I think writing is very similar. You outline, and then you have to actually write the thing and then revise. I do think writing is not necessarily as collaborative as coding is, perhaps, but still similar overall in terms of an author having a vision, dealing with different constraints, if that's word count, if it's form or structure, if it's point of view, things like that. And that all determines what the outcome will be.
You always learn something in the execution, the idea that planning can only take you so far. And at a certain point, you gather as much background knowledge and information and talk to as many people. Depending on the kinds of writing I do, I have or haven't done as much research. But at a certain point, the research becomes procrastination, and I know I need to actually just start writing.
And similarly, with engineering, I think that's the piece is that once you actually start implementation, you start to uncover roadblocks. You uncover questions or complications or things like that. And so I think that's always the exciting part is you can't really always know the road ahead of you until you start the journey. And I also think that in order to benefit from mentorship and feedback...we can talk more about this. I know that that's something that is kind of a larger topic.
And then another thing I think where the two are really similar is there's this endless learning that goes with each of them. I guess that's true of, I think, most crafts. Good practitioners of the craft, I think, take on that mindset. But I do think that obviously, in engineering, you have industry changes, new technologies emerging really frequently. But I do think that good writers think about that, too, in terms of what new novels are coming out. But also, how do you build a solid foundation?
And I do think it's that contrast that applies in any craft is, you know, you want to have a good solid foundation and learn the basics but then keep up to date with new things as well. So I think there was this...there's this meme I actually did include in the newsletter that was...it's the meme of these two guys looking at different windows of a bus, and one looks really sad, and one looks really happy. But the two of them have the same caption, which is there's always more to learn.
And so I think that is the two sides of the coin [laughs]. I think that is relevant in engineering and writing that I've kind of brought to both of those practices is trying to be optimistic [laughs] about the idea that there's always more to learn that that's kind of the thought of it.
And then certainly, when it comes to management, I do think that writing has proven really valuable in that very obvious sense of kind of practical communication where I just write a lot more. I write a lot more things that are not code, I should say, as a manager. And communication is really at the forefront of my job, and so is demonstrating curiosity and building empathy, fostering relationships with people.
And I do think that particularly writing fiction you have to be curious about people I think to be a writer. And I think that is true of managers as well. So I do think that has been a really interesting way that I didn't anticipate writing showing up in my day job but has been a really helpful thing and has made my work stronger and think about the people, the process, and kind of what we do and why a little differently.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. Wow, you got into a lot of different things I'm excited to keep discussing further. But one thing that I was thinking about as you were talking was, have you heard of the adage, I guess, that code is read many more times than it's written?
NICOLE: Hmm, I think I have, yeah.
STEPHANIE: I was thinking about that as you were talking because, in some ways, in most ways, actually, if you ascribe to that adage, I suppose, we write code for others to read. And I think there's an aspect of code telling a story that is really interesting. I've heard a lot of people advocate for writing, thoughtbot included, writing your tests like they're telling a story.
And so when a future developer is trying to understand what's going on, they can read the tests, understand the setup, read what is being tested, and then read what the expected outcome is and have a complete picture of what's going on. The same goes for commit messages. You are writing little bits of documentation for people in the future.
And I've also been thinking about how legacy code is just this artifact as well of all of the changes that an organization might have gone through. And so when you see something that you see a bit of code that is really weird or gets your spidey senses tingling, it's almost like, oh, I wonder what happened here that led to this piece left behind?
NICOLE: Yeah, definitely. Now that you're talking about it, I also think of pull requests as a great way to employ storytelling. I remember there definitely have been times where myself or other engineers are working on a really thorny problem, and we always joke that the PR description is longer than the change. And it's like, but you got to read the PR description in order to understand what change you're making and why. And here's the backstory, the context to kind of center people in that.
As a manager, I think about storytelling a lot in terms of defining purpose and providing clarity for teams. I was reading Julie Zhuo's "The Making of a Manager," and it was a really kind of foundational text for me when I first was exploring management. And she kind of boils it down to people, purpose, and process.
And so I do think the purpose part of that is really tied to clear communication. And can you tell a story of what we're doing from really high-level vision and then more tactically strategy? And then making sure that people have bought into that, they understand, can kind of repeat that without you being there to remind them necessarily. Because you really want that message to carry through in the work and that they have that understanding.
Vision is something I only recently have really started to realize how difficult it is to articulate. It's like you don't really understand the purpose of vision until you maybe don't have one, or you've been kind of just trying to keep your head afloat, and you don't have a Northstar to work towards. But I do think that is what plays into motivation, and team health, and, obviously, quality of the product. So yeah, that's kind of another dimension I've been thinking of.
And also our foes actually. Sorry, another one. Our foes, I think, like outages and incidents. I think that's always a fun opportunity to talk about stories. There was a period of time where every time we had an incident, you had to present that incident and a recap of it in an engineering all-hands every month. And they ended up being really fun. We turned something that is ostensibly very stressful into something that was very entertaining that people could really get on board with and would learn something from.
And we had the funniest one; I think was...we called it the Thanks Obama Outage because there was an outage that was caused by a photo of Barack Obama that had been uploaded in our content management system, as required no less, that had some malformed metadata or something that just broke everything. And so, again, it was a really difficult issue [laughs] and a long outage. And that was the result that I remember that presentation being really fun.
And again, kind of like mythmaking in a way where that is something that we remember. We pay attention to that part of the codebase a lot now. It's taught us a lot. So yeah, I do think storytelling isn't always necessarily the super serious thing, but it can also just be team building, and morale, and culture as well.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think what you said about vision really resonates with me because if you don't have the vision, then you're also not making the best decisions you can be making even something as low-level as how you write the code. Because if you don't know are we going to be changing this feature a month from now, that might dictate how you go forth with implementation as opposed to if you know that it's not in the company's vision to really be doing anything else with this particular feature. And you then might feel a little more comfortable with a more rudimentary approach, right?
NICOLE: Yeah, totally. Whether or not it's, we've over-optimized or not or kind of optimized for speed. Like, it's all about trade-offs. And I do think, again, like you said, having a vision that always you can check your decision-making against and inform the path ahead I think is very, very helpful.
STEPHANIE: When you write, do you also keep that in mind? Like, do you write with that North Star? And is that really important to your process?
NICOLE: I think it depends. I think that writing can be a little more at a slant, I suppose, is how I think of it because I don't always...just similar to work, I don't always come in with a fully-fledged fleshed-out vision of what I want a piece to be. The most recent piece I've been working on actually I did have kind of a pretty, I think, solid foundation.
I've been working on this story about loneliness. And I knew that I wanted to base the structure on the UCLA...a UCLA clinic has this questionnaire that's 20 items long that is about measuring loneliness on a scale. And so I was like, okay, I knew that I wanted to examine dimensions of loneliness, and that would be the structure. It would be 20 questions, and it would be in that format. So that gave me a lot more to start with of, you know, here's where I want the piece to go. Here's what I want it to do.
And then there have definitely been other cases where it's more that the conceit seems interesting; a character comes to mind. I overhear a conversation on the subway, and I think it's funny, and that becomes the first thing that is put on the page. So I definitely have different entry points, I think, into a draft. But I will definitely say that revision is the phase where that always gets clarified. And it has to, I think, because as much as I'm sometimes just writing for vibes, it's not always like that.
And I do think that the purpose of revision is to clarify your goals so you can then really look at the piece and be like, is it doing what I want it to? Where is it lacking? Where's it really strong? Where's the pacing falling flat? And things like that. So I do think that sooner or later, that clarity comes, and that vision comes into focus. But it isn't always the first thing that happens, I think, because I do think the creative process is a little bit more mysterious, shall we say, than working on an engineering team. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Yeah. Well, you started off responding to my question with it depends, which is a very engineering answer, but I suppose --
NICOLE: That is true. That is true. You got me. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: It applies to both.
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STEPHANIE: You mentioned revision. And so, I do want to talk about feedback because I think that is an important part of the revision process. And I have really loved what you've had to say about writing feedback and your experience with writing feedback, especially in writing workshops. And I have always been really curious about what we might be able to learn about receiving feedback in code review.
NICOLE: When it comes to receiving feedback, I think I wrote a two-part series of my newsletter, one that was about providing feedback, one that was about receiving it. I think on the side of receiving feedback, first and foremost, I think it's important to know when you're ready to share your work and know that you can share multiple times. In writing, that can be I show a very early draft to my partner who is the person who kind of reads everything and anything at any stage. It's something less polished, and I'm really just testing ideas.
But then obviously, if there's something that is more polished, that is something I would want to bring to a writing group, bring into a workshop, things like that. Similarly, as engineers, I think...thank God for GitHub drafts actually adopting literally the way in which I think of that, right?
NICOLE: You can share a branch or a GitHub PR in progress and just check the approach. I've done that so many times, and really that helped so much with my own learning and learning from mentors in my own organization was checking in early and trying to gut-check my work earlier as opposed to later. Because then you feel, I think, again, a bit more naturally receptive because you're already in that questioning phase. You're not like, oh, this is polished, and I've written all the tests, and the PR description is done. And now you want me to go back and change the whole approach from the ground up. That can feel tough. I get that.
And so I think, hand in hand, what goes with that is whose feedback are you interested in? Is that a peer? Is it a mentor? I think obviously leaning on your own team, on senior engineers, I do think that is one of the primary, I think, expectations of a senior engineer is kind of multiplying the effectiveness of their peers and helping them learn and grow. So I do think that that's a really valuable skill to develop on that end, but also, again, just approaching people.
And obviously, different teams have different processes for that, if it's daily stand-ups, if it's GitHub reminders, automated messages that get pulled up in your channel, things like that. But there are ways to build that into your day-to-day, which I think is really beneficial too.
And then there's also the phase of priming yourself to receive the feedback. And I think there's actually a lot of emotional work that I don't think we talk about when it comes to that. Because receiving feedback can always be vulnerable, and it can bring up unexpected emotions. And I think learning how to regulate the emotional response to that is really valuable for us as people but obviously within the workplace too.
So I've found it really helpful to reflect if I'm getting feedback that...well, first of all, it depends on the format. So I think some people prefer verbal feedback, some people will prefer written. I think getting it in the form of written feedback can be helpful because it provides you some distance. You don't have to respond in the moment. And so I've definitely had cases where I then kind of want to reflect on why certain suggestions might elicit certain reactions if I have a fight or flight response, if I'm feeling ashamed or frustrated, or indignant, all the range of emotions.
Emotions are, to put the engineering hat on, are information. And so I think listening to that, not letting it rule you per se but letting it inform and help you figure out what is this telling me and how do I then respond, or what should I do next? Is really valuable. Because sometimes it's not, again, actually the feedback; maybe it's more about that, oh, it's a really radical idea. Maybe it's a really...it's an approach I didn't even consider, and it would take a lot of work.
But again, maybe if I sit and think about it, it is the scalable approach. It's the cleaner approach, things like that. Or are they just touching on something that I maybe haven't thought as deeply about? And so I think there is that piece too. Is it the delivery? Is it something about your context or history with the person giving the feedback too? I think all of those, the relationship building, the trust on a team, all plays into feedback.
And obviously, we can create better conditions for exchanging and receiving feedback. But I do think there's still that companion piece that is also just about, again, fostering team trust and culture overall because that is the thing that makes these conversations all the easier and less, I think, potentially fraught or high pressure.
STEPHANIE: 100%. Listeners can't see, but I was nodding very aggressively [laughs] this entire time.
NICOLE: Loved it.
STEPHANIE: And I love that you bring up interpersonal relationships, team culture, and feelings. Listeners of the show will know that I love talking about feelings. But I wanted to ask you this exact question because I think code review can be so fraught. And I've seen it be a source of conflict and tension. And I personally have always wanted more tools for giving better feedback. Because when I do give feedback, it's for the person to feel supported to help push their work to be better and for us to do good work as a team.
And I am really sensitive to the way that I give feedback because I know what it's like to receive feedback that doesn't land well. And when you were talking about investigating what kinds of feelings come up when you do receive a certain kind of comment on a code review or something, that was really interesting to me. Because I definitely know what it's like to have worked really, really hard on a pull request and for it to feel very precious to me and then to receive a lot of change requests or whatever. It can be really disappointing or really frustrating or whatever. And yeah, I wish that we, as an industry, could talk about this stuff more frequently.
NICOLE: Yeah, for sure. And I do think that you know, I think the longer you work with someone, ideally, again, the stronger relationship you form. You find your own ways of communicating that work for you. I think actually what I've learned in management is, yes, I have a communication style, but I also am flexible with how I work with each of my reports, who, again, have very different working styles, communication styles, learning styles.
I don't believe that the manager sets the standards. I think there is a balance there of meeting people where they are and giving them what they need while obviously maintaining your own values and practices. But yeah, certainly, again, I think that's why for perhaps more junior engineers, they might need more examples. They might not respond well to as terse a comment.
But certainly, with engineers, senior engineers that I've worked with, when I was starting out, the more we developed a relationship, they could just get a little bit more terse. For example, they could be like, "Fix this, fix that," and I would not take it personally because we had already gone through the phase where they were providing maybe some more detailed feedback, links to other examples or gists, or things like that, and our communication styles evolved.
And so I do think that's another thing to think about as well is that it doesn't have to be static. I think that's the value of a team, and having good team process, too, is ideally having arenas in which you can talk about how these kinds of things are going. Are we happy with the cadence? Are we happy with how people are treating each other and things like that? Are we getting timely feedback and things like that? That's a good opportunity for a retrospective and to talk about that in a kind of blameless context and approach that more holistically.
So I do think that, yeah, feedback can be very fraught. And I think what can be difficult in the world of engineering is that it can be very easy to then just be like, well, this is just the best way for the work. And feelings are, like you said, not really kind of considered. And, again, software development and engineering is a team sport. And so I do think fostering the environment in which everyone can be doing great work is really the imperative.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, I really like how you talked about the dynamic nature of relationships on a team and that the communication style can change there when you have built that trust and you understand where another person is coming from. I was also thinking about the question of whose feedback are you interested in?
And I certainly can remember times where I requested a review from someone in particular because maybe they had more context about this particular thing I was working on, and I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss anything, or someone else who maybe I had something to learn from them. And that is one way of making feedback work for me and being set up to receive it well.
Because as much as...like you said, it's really easy to fall back into the argument of like, oh, what's the best way for the work, or what is the cleanest code or whatever? I am still a person who wrote it. I produced a piece of work and have feelings about it. And so I have really enjoyed just learning more about how I react to feedback and trying to mitigate the stress that I feel in what is kind of inherently like a conflict-generating process.
NICOLE: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Another thing that kind of popped into my head to one of the earlier questions we were talking about is in terms of similarities between writing and engineering, style and structure are both really, really important. And even though in engineering, like you said, sometimes it can be, I mean, there is a point with engineering where you're like, this line of code works, or it doesn't.
There is a degree of correctness [laughs] that you do have to meet, obviously. But again, after that, it can be personal preference. It's why we have linters that have certain styles or things like that to try to eliminate some of these more divisive, shall we say, potentially discussions around, [laughs] God forbid, tabs or spaces, naming conventions, all this stuff.
But certainly, yeah, when it comes to structuring code, the style, or whatever else, like you said, there's a human lens to that. And so I think making sure that we are accounting for that in the process is really important, and not just whether or not the work gets done but also how the work gets done is really important. Because it predicts what do future projects...what does future collaboration look like? And again, you're not just ever optimizing for one thing in one point of time. You're always...you're building teams. You're building products. So there's a long kind of lifecycle to think about.
STEPHANIE: For sure. So after you get feedback and after you go through the revision process, I'm curious what you think about the idea of what is good enough in the context of your writing. And then also, if that has influenced when you think a feature is done or the code is as good as you want it to be.
NICOLE: Yeah, definitely. I think when it comes to my writing, how I think about what is good enough I think there is the kind of sentiment common in the writer community that you can edit yourself to death. You can revise forever if you wanted to. It's also kind of why I don't like to go back and read things I've already published because I'm always going to find something, you know, an errant comma or like, oh, man, I wish I had rephrased this here.
But I do think that, for me, I think about a couple of questions that help me get a sense of is this in a good place to, you know, for me generally, it's just to start submitting to places for publication. So one of those is, has someone else read it? That is always a really big question, whether it's a trusted reader, if I brought it to a workshop, or just my writing group, making sure I have a set of outside eyes, fresh eyes on the piece to give their reaction. And again, truly as a reader, sometimes just as a reader, not even as a fellow writer, because I do think different audiences will take different things and provide different types of feedback.
Another one is what kinds of changes am I making at this point in time? Am I still making really big structural edits? Or am I just kind of pushing words and commas around, and it feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? They're not massive changes to the piece.
And then the final question is always, if this were published in its current state right now, would I be happy with it? Would I be proud of it? And that's a very gut feeling that I think only an individual can kind of feel for themselves. And sometimes it's like, no, I don't like the way, like, I know it's 95% there, but I don't like the way this ends or something else. Again, those are all useful signals for me about whether a piece is complete or ready for submission or anything like that.
I think when it comes to engineering, I think there's a little bit less of the gut feeling, to be honest, because we have standards. We have processes in place generally on teams where it's like, is the feature working? Have you written tests? Have you written a QA plan if it needs one? If it's something that needs more extensive documentation or code comments or something like that, is that something you've done? Has a bit more of a clear runway for me in terms of figuring out when something is ready to be shown to others.
But certainly, as a manager, I've written a lot more types of documents I suppose, or types of communication where it's like organizational changes. I've written team announcements. I've written celebration posts. I've had to deliver bad news. Like, those are all things that you don't think about necessarily. But I've definitely had literally, you know, I have Google Docs of drafts of like, I need to draft the Slack message.
And even though it's just a Slack message, I will spend time trying to make sure I've credited all the right people, or provided all the context, got all the right answers. I run it by my director, my peers, and things like that if it's relevant. And again, I think there is still that piece that comes in of drafting, getting feedback, revising, and then feeling like, okay, have I done my due diligence here, and is it ready? That cycle is applicable in many, many situations. But yeah, I certainly think for direct IC work, it's probably a little bit more well-defined than some of the other processes.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that makes sense. I really liked what you said about noticing the difference between making big structural changes and little word adjustments. I think you called it pushing commas around or something like that.
NICOLE: [laughs] Yeah.
STEPHANIE: I love that. Because I do think that with programming, there is definitely a big part of it that's just going on the journey and exploring different avenues. And so if you do suddenly think of, oh, I just thought of a completely different way to write this code, that is worth exploring even if you just end up going back to the original implementation. But at least you saw that thought through, and you're like, okay, this doesn't work because of X, Y, and Z, and I'm choosing to go this other route instead. And I think that, yeah, that is just a good practice to explore.
NICOLE: Another example of storytelling, too, where it's like, you can tell the story in the PR description or whatever, in stand-up, to be like, I also did go down this path, XYZ reason. Here's why it didn't work out, and here's what we're optimizing for. And there you go. So I do think we talk...I guess product managers think more about buy-in, but I think that's true of engineers too. It's like, how do you build consensus and provide context?
And so yeah, I think what you were saying, too, even if the path is circuitous or you're exploring other avenues, talking to other people, and just exploring what's out there, it all adds up to kind of the final decision and might provide, again, some useful information for other people to understand how you arrived there and get on board with it.
STEPHANIE: 100%. I remember when I worked with someone who we were writing a PR description together because we had paired on some code. And we had tried three different things. And he wrote paragraphs for each thing that we tried. And I was like, wow, I don't know if I would have done that on my own. But I just learned the value of doing that to, like you said, prime yourself for feedback as well, being like, I did try this, and this is what I thought. And other people can disagree with you, but then at least they have the information, right?
STEPHANIE: So before we wrap up, the last thing that I wanted to talk about, because I think it's super cool, is just how you have a totally separate hobby and skill and practice that you invest time and energy into that's not programming. And it's so refreshing for me to see you do that because I think, obviously, there's this false idea that programmers just code all the time in their free time, in their spare time, whatever. And I'm really curious about how writing fits into your life as something separate from your day job.
NICOLE: Yes, I've been thinking about this a ton. I think a lot of people, the last couple of years has forced a really big reckoning about work and life and how much we're giving to work, the boundaries that can be blurred, how capitalism butts its head into hobbies, and how we monetize them, or everything is a side hustle. And, oh, you should have a page running...oh, you should charge for a newsletter. And I think there's obviously the side of we should value our labor, but also, I don't want everything in my life to be labor. [laughs]
So I do think that is interesting. Writing to me, I actually do not see it as a hobby. I see it as another career of mine. I feel like I have two careers, but I have one job, [laughs] if that makes sense. I certainly have hobbies. But for me, what distinguishes that from my writing is that with hobbies, there's no expectation that you want to get better. You approach it with just...it's just pure enjoyment. And certainly, writing has part of that for me, but I have aspirations to publish. I love it when my work can reach readers and things like that.
But I do think that regardless having other interests, like you said, outside engineering, outside technology, it's a great break. And I do think also in technology, in particular, I notice...I think we're getting away from it, but certainly, there's an expectation, like you said, that you will have side projects that you code in your free time, that you're on Hacker News.
I think there is a little bit of that vibe in the tech industry that I don't see in other industries. You don't expect a teacher to want to teach in their free time, [laughs] you know what I mean? But we have almost that kind of implicit expectation of engineers to always be staying up to date on those things.
I think with writing and engineering; the two complement each other in some interesting ways. And they make me appreciate things about the other craft or practice that I may not previously have. And I think that with engineering, it is a team effort. It's really collaborative, and I really love working in that space. But on the flip side, too, with writing, I do love, you know, there's the ego part of it. You don't have individual authorship over code necessarily unless it's git blame level. But there's a reason why it's called git blame, [laughter] even the word is like git blame.
I've literally had cases where I'm like, oh, this thing is broken. Who wrote this? And then I was like, oh, surprise, it was you six years ago. But I do think with writing; it's an opportunity for me to really just explore and ask questions, and things don't have to be solved. It can just be play. And it is a place where I feel like everything that I accomplish is...obviously, I have people in my life who really support me, but it is a much more individual activity. So it is kind of the right-left brain piece.
But I've been reading this book called "Saving Time." It is what my microphone is currently propped on. But it's by Jenny Odell, who wrote: "How to Do Nothing." It's breaking my brain in a really, really, really good way. It talks a lot about the origin of productivity, how we think about time, and how it is so tied to colonialism, and racism, and capitalism, and neoliberalism, all these things. I think it has been really interesting.
And so thinking about boundaries between work and writing has been really, really helpful because I really love my job; I'm not only my job. And so I think having that clarity and then being like, well, what does that mean in terms of how I divide my time, how I set examples for others at work in terms of taking time off or leaving the office on time? And trying to make sure that I have a good emotional headspace so that I can transition to writing after work; all those things. I think it is really interesting.
And that also, ultimately, it's we're not just our productivity either. And I think writing can be very, again, inherently kind of unproductive. People joke that cleaning is writing, doing the dishes is writing, taking a walk is writing, showering is writing, but it is true. I think that the art doesn't talk about efficiency. You can't, I think, make art always more efficient in the same way you can do with engineering. We don't have those same kinds of conversations. And I really like having that kind of distinction.
Not that I don't like problem-solving with constraints and trade-offs and things like that, but I also really like that meandering quality of art and writing. So yeah, I've been thinking a lot more about collective time management, I guess, and what that means in terms of work, writing, and then yeah, hobbies and personal life. There are never enough hours in the day. But as this book is teaching me, again, maybe it's more about paradigm shifting and also collective policies we can be putting in place to help make that feeling go away.
STEPHANIE: For sure. Thank you for that distinction between hobby and career. I really liked that because it's a very generative mindset. It's like a both...and... rather than an either...or... And yeah, I completely agree with you wanting to make your life expansive, like, have all of the things. I'm also a big fan of Jenny Odell. I plugged "How to Do Nothing" on another episode. I am excited to read her second book as well.
NICOLE: I think you'll like it a lot. It's really excellent. She does such interesting things talking about ecology and geology and geographic time skills, which is really interesting that I don't know; it's nice to be reminded that we are small. [laughter] It's a book that kind of reminds you of your mortality in a good way, if that makes sense. But much like Gary on your porch reminds you of mortality too [laughs] and that you have to put Gary away for a little bit so that his time can come in October. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Exactly, exactly. Cool. On that note, let's wrap up. Thank you so much for being on the show, Nicole.
NICOLE: Thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.
STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show.
JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.
STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at email@example.com via email.
JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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