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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Thursday
May262011

On Writing

Ryan Macklin asks:

Tell me of three or five books that have had an impact on your writing. Tell me what impact that was, in concrete terms if you can. (Could be any books — novels, books on writing, RPGs, tech books, etc.)

It’s a trite answer, but first on the list has to be Elements of Style. William Strunk, Jr.’s exhortation to “omit needless words” has been the most important influence on my writing. When I’m writing well, I’m asking myself, “Does this word add anything? Does it carry its weight? Would the sentence be as good without it?” This habit has been reinforced by the writing-focused chapters of Steven King’s On Writing and almost all of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, but Elements of Style is what started me down that path.

It’s not a book, but Building Great Sentences has had a more recent influence on my style, particularly in my fiction. Professor Landon introduced me to cumulative syntax, showing me its strengths, revealing ways to avoid the mock-Hemingway/Mamet style that my unadorned prose would fall into. I recommend the first half of the course, where the meat of the material is, as I found the latter lectures less densely populated with useful techniques.

The references above are mostly about writing, though the bulk of King’s book is about being a writer. Along that line, I’ve found Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird a reassuring account of the context that surrounds writing. Writing is about sentences and paragraphs, grammar and structure. Being a writer is about doing the writing. That process is rarely pretty. As readers, we get to see the end result. As a writer, you have to love the process. Even when you hate it.

All that said, nothing has influenced my writing more than Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s the reason that I’m writing as much as a I am. I never thought of myself as an uncreative person or as a failed artist. But what The Artist’s Way helped me realize is how close to the surface my creativity is, how little I needed to do to open myself up to it, and yet how often I didn’t do that. So I stopped not writing, and I wrote.




Update

Fitness: Ran 3 miles + 30 minute workout
Writing: 395 words, 269 average
Tuesday
May242011

As Simply As Possible

Rob Donoghue asks:

How many platforms do you need to keep organized across (phone, computer, home, office, whatever)? How do you manage it?

My to-do list is a steno notebook. I write it by hand every day. The inputs to it are an iPhone app that handles periodic reminders for me, my email inbox and my Google Calendar — both of which I can access from my phone — and a spreadsheet I keep in Dropbox that I use to track where I’m spending my time and where I intend to spend it. That means that if I have my phone and any computer that I use regularly — my work machine, my home computer, or my laptop — I can keep up to date. Every day, I spend fifteen minutes going over the previous day’s list, updating my spreadsheet, and making the next day’s list. I call it the Scrub. And then I’m good for the day. When things come up, I write them down. If I don’t get things done by the end of the day, I deal with them in the next Scrub, Getting Things Done-style.

That’s the broad strokes. Did you have questions about specifics, Rob (or anyone else)?




Update

Fitness: Ran 4 miles
Writing: 353 words, 270 average
Thursday
May192011

Because I am Clearly an Expert on Style 

Rob Donoghue asks:

How critical is a unified style/formatting guide for developers in an agile environment? On one hand, the common formatting would seem to help the hand-off, but on the other it seems it might be seen as an unnecessary limitation.

My first instinct is to say, “Not at all. You’re pair-programming enough that the style comes reflexively, rather than being prescribed by a document.” Given that I’ve just been working on the coding standards document for our teams, however, I realize that’s not always as true as I want it to be.

What it works out to is that you have to document what you can’t talk about. We’ve got three teams split across four different locations, so we have to rely on documentation as a replacement for conversations more than we would like. We do try to write just enough to put the right ideas in people’s heads, and nothing more. Documentation can’t substitute for judgment. It can tell people what to worry about. Here’s how our coding standards start:

At a high level, we want to embody these concepts:
* Correctness, simplicity, and clarity come first
* Do not prematurely optimize
* Do not prematurely pessimize
* Hide information
* Give each entity one cohesive responsibility
* Ensure resources have owners
* The compiler is your friend

We maintain this on wiki page; each of those bulleted points links to a page with more detailed information about specific ways we try to enact the principle.

A lot of my thinking about this has been influenced by Ron Jeffries’ Card-Conversation-Confirmation model for user stories and the Agile in a Flash cards (whose authors also have something to say about coding standards). What is written is a spur to have a conversation, so write only enough to get people talking about the right things.




Update

Fitness: Ran 2.25 miles + 30 minute workout
Writing: 383 words, 267 average
Wednesday
May182011

Sign Me Up for Alchemy

Fred Hicks asks:

What’s your take on the balance between the single cohesive vision of a sole creator vs. the alchemical value of collaboration? Where does each approach break down for you, and how do you think it should be addressed?

This is a tricky one, particularly because of how bound up in perspective and interpretation it is. I’m working on a novel right now. If I tell someone about it and incorporate a suggestion they make, am I still following a single vision? I’m also writing it over an extended period of time. When I finish the final chapter, my understanding of the story is going to be very different than when I started it, months before. In what sense is my vision cohesive?

It should be fairly obvious that I’m going to come down on the side of collaboration, because that’s how I see the world. If there’s more than one person involved in a project, there’s going to be some amount of collaboration. I see even projects that I work on “by myself” as collaborative; it’s only a question of degree. I don’t know what a non-collaborative process looks like. I suppose that if you locked yourself away and created something in isolation, in a very short period of time, without ever telling anyone else about it, then that would qualify.

Now, to really address Fred’s question I should talk about how it’s really a sliding scale, so I will. I believe that effective collaboration leads to more innovative results. The more you collaborate, the more creative the outcome. It’s also likely to take more time and effort. So the real balancing act is between how much time you have and how good you need the result to be.

Notice that I said effective collaboration. Many “collaborations” are really one or two people telling the others what to do, which is coordination at best. These sorts of projects are where you’re likely to run into problems of competing individual visions, which results in something neither cohesive nor alchemical. To effectively collaborate, the people involved have to develop a mutual understanding, fully participate in the process, seek inclusive solutions, and take shared responsibility. Doing these things is what takes both time and commitment. It’s also what creates that alchemical value that I believe so much in.




Update

Fitness: Biked 8.25 miles
Writing: 270 words, 265 average
Monday
May162011

Emeritus in Several Ways

Rob Donoghue asks:

Are you listening to any podcasts these days? If so, what? if not, why not? And based on that answer, would you encourage someone with an interest to start a podcast today?

I am still listening to podcasts. They are, however, completely different in content and format than what I used to listen to. My listened habits have changed drastically in the last few years.

Every day, I listen to three National Public Radio podcasts: the 7 AM EST News Summary, the Story of the Day, and the World Story of the Day. Combined, these range from ten to twenty minutes, which is about how much time I spent in the car each day. I usually listen to one on the way to work and two on the way home or vice versa. I also listen to NPR’s weekly It’s All Politics podcast, often on my drive down to Ventura for improv workshop on Thursdays. I’ve recently picked up the Harvard Business Review Ideacast, though we’ll see how long that lasts.

I also listen to Radiolab religiously; it’s the only podcast longer than twenty minutes I subscribe to, and thankfully it doesn’t come out very often. When I’m going on a long drive, I’ll load up with the audio versions of TED Talks. I gleefully consume the memory palace whenever a new one happens to show up. And that’s pretty much it.

I used to have a lot of time to listen to long shows; I don’t anymore. I’m rarely in the car for more than ten minutes at a time, and when I work out I’d rather give myself the time to think. I’m definitely not in the target market for gaming podcasts anymore.

That said, there’s no reason why someone with an interest in podcasting shouldn’t start. I’m one guy. Even if there are millions of people like me, there are also billions who aren’t. Podcasting can afford to appeal to niche audience. Years ago, before I became a Podcaster Emeritus, I was quoted in Tricks of the Podcasting Masters:

“Do your research. Know what you’re talking about. Act professionally. Find your niche.”

That’s as true now as it was then.



Update

Fitness: 30 minute workout
Writing: 0 words, 264 average