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Why So Serious?

I take myself too seriously. At least I think I take myself too seriously. I can often confuse this with perfectionism, of which I also am guilty. I tend only to do the things I know I can be successful at. For that reason, I tend to focus on a specific task, project, or goal and ignore outside influences. This trait tends to make people think I’m pretty serious. Really, I just don’t like to fail.

There’s this movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which has me thinking about how I conduct myself as a professional. Jiro is a sushi chef. Only sushi. His restaurant does not serve drinks or appetizers, only sushi. He is serious about Sushi. He wasn’t a good father, he wasn’t a good husband, he wasn’t good at a lot of things, but he was serious about making sushi. Not to say he was bad at all those things, though the documentary certainly illustrates some of his failures, they just were not his primary goal.

Developers like conferences. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps we like to reassure ourselves that we aren’t crazy. Maybe we just like to have an excuse to travel. Whatever the reason, we descend on a city with reckless abandon. I was in Chicago recently for WindyCityRails 2012, a two-day conference for Rails developers. At the end of the two days I wondered if it was worth attending.

Since 20051 I have spent nearly all of my time developing using the Ruby language and the Rails framework. In that time it has become a darling language of agile developers and startups. A problem started to emerge though. Through several successes and even more eccentric personalities, Ruby developers started being called Rock Stars and Ninjas2.

At one point in my life I wanted to be a rock star3. I had long hair4. I liked ninjas. I watched dubbed kung fu movies and wore black T-shirts. I’m down with rock stars and ninjas. The thing is, I’ve grown up. I’ve, theoretically, matured. I don’t want to be a rock star anymore. Ninja are still mesmerizing, but primarily because I have a young son.

At WindyCityRails the background on one presenters computer was himself giving his webcam the finger5. Another attempted to give a live demonstration without much success but with much cursing under his breath. A third was successful in his live demo, but what he showed was how to pour a beer6.

I mention these three presenters not to ridicule or say they were wrong. It’s not easy to present, I know, I’ve been a presenter at conferences on several occasions. The reason I mention them is to illustrate that I left the conference feeling as though our industry doesn’t take itself seriously. That isn’t quite right though. I do think my industry takes itself seriously. So what was it about these presentations?

I’m an average photographer. I’m an average writer. I want to a great developer. I want to be perfect, though I know that is impossible. I take my aspirations seriously. I read through repositories on Github. I follow developers on twitter. I watch screencasts, I read blogs, and review7 books. I do these things in the interest of becoming a better developer.

Those presenters weren’t bad. They didn’t do anything wrong. The problem was within me. I went to WindyCityRails wanting to walk away with knowledge that would make me a better developer. That is not what I received. Instead, I made some new professional connections, shared some war stories with new developers, and laughed at humorous improv comedy. My expectations were wrong to begin with but I was serious about my goal. The marquee names did not deliver toward my goal and I left feeling let down. That was the fault of my expectations. The interactions with others made the conference a success and worth attending and that should have been enough.

So, what should I do? For starters, I created this blog. I established the entry page for while at that conference. I starting thinking about topics. I mulled over the tone, I questioned my abilities to write, and then I simply got started.

Next, I’ve resolved to be serious about what I do, but for the right reasons and at the right time. I am fortunate to have opportunities to teach students8 about Ruby on Rails, often times with zero prior knowledge of the language or framework, and I hope to plant in them the desire to become craftsman, not just programmers. University is a chance to make mistakes and learn. I want them to take the opportunity seriously. It is also a chance to have fun and experiment, so I plan to give them a place to make the mistakes that we have all had to learn from as developers. Being serious for the right reasons, at the right time.

When I present, I plan to take the opportunity seriously and focus on the message, not on me. If the presentation doesn’t inform, educate, and inspire then it isn’t worth doing. I would like to present at more conferences, specifically industry conferences. So far I have presented at several small, local conferences and events related to higher education. I have a difficult time deciding on what topic I’d like to present and I think this blog might help me identify that. I am not that interesting of a person but I like interesting things. Those interesting things should be in the foreground.

At WindyCityRails, I would have done well to ask myself “Why So Serious?”9 The answer might have surprised me and I now, after having written this blog, I will set my expectations with a better set of criteria. Crafting not only the code I write, but myself as a person.

  1. I had paternity leave thanks to my first child being born. In addition to staring at him, I began learning Ruby on Rails.
  2. How to become a famous Rails Developer, Ruby Rockstar or Code Ninja by Chris Wanstrath is a great satirical piece about this
  3. More accurately, I wanted to ska punk star. It was the 90s and I played trumpet, cut me a break on that one.
  4. Proof
  5. A not so kind gesture, also called the bird or flipping us off
  6. If you’re curious
  7. I had the honor of being a technical reviewer of The Rails View by John Athayde and Bruce Williams, published 2012 by The Pragmatic Bookshelf
  8. I work at a university and hire student staff as developers
  9. Most of you will get this reference, so I won’t link specifically to the Dark Knight marketing campaign or the related meme.