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Hosanna In Excelsius

Today would have been my father’s 65th birthday.

On his last birthday, he was too sick to want to go into Baltimore to his favorite restaurant, the Helmand, so we went elsewhere. On my previous visit, a couple of months earlier, he’d wondered about going to the Helmand, but I had to get back to Florida. To work.

To work work work.

I remember: I was standing in the kitchen, and he was sitting in the living room. And he mentioned it, off-handedly, the way you do when you know it’s not going to happen but a part of you thinks just maybe it might. A casual mention, an equally casual negation. “How about going to the Helmand before you leave?” No of course not. It would be nice, though, wouldn’t it? A voice in my heart whispered: stay. Stay. Take him to the Helmand, while you still have the chance.

Of course I didn’t.


Until February 23, 2014, I felt an obligatory compassion when someone talked about losing a parent. I knew it must be sad. I thought I could imagine it. Although when someone would wax eloquent about how terrible it was, how they still couldn’t believe it, I might tune out a little. Eventually you get over it, I thought.

I just didn’t know; because how could you?

If you know, you know; if you don’t, you don’t. Here’s what it is: it’s a cracked twig in your left ventricle. It’s a grain of sand in your eye, never to be flushed out. It’s a shadow in your vision; sudden turns in traffic will forever be tricky.

It’s a blade taped to your arm. Move carefully lest you slice skin from bone.

And here’s what it is: when you get that job, the one you can’t believe, the one where you’re excited to get up in the morning because you get to go to work, you’ll ache and ache and ache because you can’t tell him about it. He who taught you math, who gave you a book on BASIC programming when you were in elementary school, who taught you DOS, who gently guided your entire career path. He who would have been so delighted for you.

And here’s what it is: you sometimes think it’s just as well if you don’t find love, because they’ll never meet him.

And here’s what it is: you’ll always favor REI because he was a proud member since they were a little shop in Seattle.

And here’s what it is: nothing left unresolved will ever be resolved.

Oh so many words. Dad was more efficient; he’d have put on the right song, and none of this blathering would have been necessary.

Here you go, Dad. These are for you.



The Evil Fantasy of the Ten-Minute Task

I’ve been reading ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and it reminded me of one of my favorite rants. I’m usually even-keel, but this topic will get me as fired up as a libertarian on Wall Street.

The short version is this: There is no such thing as a ten-minute task.

What reminded me of this was the short and on-point chapter titled “Your Estimates Suck”:

We think we can guess how long something will take, when we really have no idea.

Their focus in this chapter is on the futility of long-term estimate, but there’s a related trap, and that’s when a developer says, “That’s no big deal. Should take about ten minutes.”

Nein! Das ist nicht gut!

Ten minutes is a tempting timeframe. It feels like “enough time to get a small task done.” But unfortunately, it’s also just long enough that our brains can fuzz a task and fit it into this imaginary ten-minute time block. Now and again we really do accomplish a minor task in ten minutes, and that feeds the evil fantasy that we should ever, ever tell anyone in the universe that we can accomplish something useful in ten minutes.

In the Getting Things Done system, you have to do tasks immediately if they’ll take less than two minutes; that’s basically one action. Putting a paper in a file folder. Looking up a phone number online. Texting a friend. Getting your mail. (And if you live in a rural area, even getting your mail might be a major undertaking.) Not a project, with multiple tasks: a single, immediate task. Two minutes. That approach works. But ten minutes? Too fuzzy.

When it comes to code changes, I’m no longer tempted to say anything will take ten minutes, but I understand the impulse. Even the most thoughtful, well-intentioned 10-minute estimate has two key factors are at play:

  1. We count on a best-case scenario, and
  2. We forget or minimize the preparation and follow-up involved in fully completing a task.

It’s like estimating how long a trip will take, but without allowing for time to find your keys, load up the car, stop to get gas (because you didn’t realize how low the tank was), wait for a drawbridge, find parking, and walk to the door. The driving portion might take ten minutes, but the rest of it could easily double or triple the total time.

When it comes to code repairs, I have a minimum “time to fix” of one hour (more often two), because even the smallest change has multiple steps and there are potentials for delay at each step:

  • Open the project (I may be working on something else).
  • Create a hotfix branch (this will require stashing if I was working on another feature; the productivity penalties involved in task switching is a whole other topic).
  • Find the file (it might not be the one I’m thinking of).
  • Open the file (my IDE might churn, depending on what mood it’s in).
  • Make the change (it might not be as simple a change as I thought).
  • Test the change (I might discover this little modification has a wider effect than I thought, or that the repair isn’t all that simple).
  • Commit the change and do a pull request (the build manager will now be interrupted to approve the pull request).

That doesn’t even include deployment to the sandbox, quality assurance, documenting the change, and slating the change for deployment to production, among other tasks. Even if I’m not doing those tasks, someone is. Even the tasks that are handled by an automated process may still require time for completion, which I also have to consider.

To combat the two key factors identified above, I’ve found these tactics to be useful:

  1. Allow slack so you don’t depend on best-case scenarios. If you think something will take ten minutes, quote an hour; if you think something will take an hour, you should probably allow for at least two. If you get lucky and it really does take ten minutes, everyone will be happy.
  2. Analyze projects thoroughly before estimating time required. Remember, a project is anything that involves more than one task, so list out each task. The more granular your plan, the more accurate your estimates are likely to be.

Remember kids, Just say no to ten-minute estimates.

Hackathon Virgin

I’m doing my first hackathon on Sunday at the ACT-W Portland event, hosted by Girl Develop It Portland. And true to form, I’m jumping right in and leading a group.

I’ve never done a hackathon, but I’ve hacked together solutions for live websites between 10pm and 4am enough times; I figure that qualifies me for the gig.

Reasons I’m so excited:

  • I rarely get to code with other women, and this is an entire day of women cranking out cool stuff.
  • Usually when I code under pressure, the stakes are really high. Here, the worst case scenario is that you don’t get the coolest prize.
  • The folks running this hackathon are dynamic, smart, and open-hearted.
  • I’ll get to step forward and help other women get interested in tech, and (I hope) help them overcome the intimidation factor.

Watch our event unfold in real-time by following #gdiportlandhack15 on Twitter.

Get a Move On

I’m moving. Next week. To the opposite corner of the country.

So basically right now my mojo is like this:

Beaker Freaking Out

And so far, 2015 has not been the vessel of hope and sanity that I was counting on. Not that I’m complaining; I think there’s good stuff going on, but it’s “good stuff” of this variety:

Guardian Angel

“Good stuff” that involves feeling kicked in the head, gut, or groin, or some combination of the three. Where even the genuinely good stuff feels sorta awful because, “Hey! Look at all these wonderful friends and experiences! I’m going 3,000 miles away now kthxbai.”

Then there’s the fact that I turn 37 this week. Thirty-seven, folks. I’m never one to gripe about getting older; as my buddy Pitbull says, “Any day above ground is a great day.” I remember that. But also:

Age I Am Now


Still, one is always reminded of how fortunate one is, really, and so one squares one’s shoulders and repeats the immortal words of Mindy Kaling:

LipglossSo hey. I’m moving across the country next week and I am super. Psyched.

Pass the berry lipgloss.

Life, Death and Haircuts

Sometimes hair symbolizes life and death. Sometimes it stands in for our hopes and our fears.

Sometimes it’s just hair.

I got my hair cut last Saturday, and the experience has highlighted my three principles of an elegant life, about which I am shortly to pontificate. But first, a comment on the power of writing (in general) and blogging (in particular).

This past summer, a Brad Feld article triggered my blog reboot. I wrote several blog posts, including one announcing my intention to pursue an elegant life, and one post each to outline the three principles I intended to follow. Within two months, I had put in motion a drastic change from my previous plan — instead of moving from Clearwater across the bridge to Tampa, I’m now moving from Clearwater to Portland, Oregon. 25 miles vs. 3,000. The why’s and wherefore’s of Portland shall be discussed in another post, but I credit this shift in no small part to the power of stating my intentions clearly to myself and announcing them boldly to others.

“I write to think,” Brad Feld wrote.

Light bulb. I’ve been writing to think, and damned if it isn’t working.

So. Back to hair. My experience of getting a haircut profoundly changed after I had cancer. I didn’t mind losing my hair because of chemo; quite the opposite. I had always wanted to shave my head, and now cancer had cut through my hesitation. Bzzzzzz. I never wore a wig, and I wore hats more to keep my head warm than to disguise my baldness. But after treatment, once it grew back, I understood that hair is not an inalienable right. Hair is a privilege. A privilege of health.

When my hair first grew back (and it grew back quickly), it was deliciously curly. I loved it.  “Your hair is growing back!” friends would exclaim. “And it’s curly!”

“Most expensive perm ever,” I would joke.

As is so often the case with those post-chemo curly tresses, mine eventually began to grow back in the way it used to: still thick, but almost completely straight. I saw what was happening, but I didn’t want to lose the curly bits, so I just let my hair grow… and grow… and grow…

A year ago, I had it cut to shoulder length. It was lovely, but then a lot of other things happened, and I didn’t bother with my hair for many months. In part, I just didn’t have the energy for it. In part, I didn’t want to put scissors to the symbol of health and life. Lymphoma took my hair once. Lymphoma took my father forever. I had hair. I didn’t have lymphoma. Let the talisman remain untouched.

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
-Mary Oliver

On Saturday, I got my hair cut, by the same wonderful stylist who, four years ago, had shaped my newly grown post-chemo curly hair into the best haircut I’ve ever had in my life. This past Saturday, Bryna looked at the pictures I’d gathered, and worked her magic on my now-very-straight hair, and I was instantly in love with the new style.

The next day I got up and did my normal routine: wash my hair, rub in some product, forget about it. An hour later, I looked in the mirror to check out my amazing new haircut.

I abhorred it.

Awful, awful hair, that made me look like a dweeb and feel like an idiot. I spent the day in a savage mood.

This unexpected outcome of my vanity check brings me back to my three principles of elegant living:

  1. Release obstacles. I’d done this on Saturday by letting go of the old hair, the tired old look I’d defaulted to for the past several months. The security blanket. But I hadn’t yet begun to…
  2. Cultivate attention. My long hair was a hassle: time-consuming to wash, impossible to style well, annoying when I wanted to do yoga. And constantly shedding, so that every day I would have to pluck out one or three or five long hairs, embedded in my clothing, that were tickling and annoying me. No more! I had to give my hair some attention. Monday morning, I broke out the hair dryer and tried reproducing Bryna’s magic from Saturday. It didn’t turn out as well as her handiwork, but it looked good. Very good. Great, in fact. I was in love again.
  3. Reduce debt. As I’ve explained, my understanding of debt is broader than money alone. In this case, I was “saving” money and paying elsewhere: my energy and confidence were sapped by feeling unkempt, sloppy, and unattractive. Better to support a local hair stylist every couple of months and take pride in myself than to save a few dollars and avoid mirrors. (Reducing debt, for me, is all about doing the hard work up front so that you reap more benefits in the long run.)

So there you have it. My guiding principles, applied to coiffing. And as merry as that seems, there’s another force at work this week, deeper than these intellectual exercises…


Wednesday would have been my Dad’s 64th birthday.

In February, his hair had begun to grow back in, thick and dark, and the day he died I rubbed his head affectionately. His post-chemo hair was straight, whereas before it had always been curly. His hair cheered me, that day at the hospital, and I thought, surely he’ll get better. For a while. Surely. His hair is so thick.

But sometimes hair is just hair.