Advice for Women Thinking of Going to DEF CON (Yes, Really)

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I decided to go to DEF CON last year on a lark. I went to a WISP lockpicking event last June with a friend and coworker, who informed me that she was considering going, and oh, hey, did I want to come with? I’d heard of it before, but not in detail and not quite in the right context to make it sound like something I’d want to attempt. This time landed differently, though. (I blame having recently learned to use a handcuff shim.) I spent the evening after the event looking up flights to Vegas, hotels, and other research that suggested this was not a financially responsible move and not really very good timing either. Still, it stuck in my head, and I had to pull myself away from Kayak and its ilk and make myself go to bed later than was ideal.*

The next day, I mentioned it to a different coworker, who has a good balance of fun and financial responsibility. Since we were less than a month out from the event and I had neither transportation nor a place to stay, I expected her to talk me down and suggest that I try next year.

Instead, she told me she was going, and did I want to share a room? And that was phase one done – resolve achieved, bed secured, posse acquired, and only the small matter of airfare and time off to deal with. Fine fine.

Phase two was one I’ll call, “Oh, you’re doing to DEF CON? That’s… interesting.” This phase happened after reservations were in place, when I told friends and colleagues in tech what I was planning. The reactions tended to be similar: a mix of understanding why I’d consider doing such a thing and affectionate concern based on knowledge or experience of some shitty person or people in their past. These reactions came in a few flavors:

  • I went a few times but then had to stop [insert ominous look here]
  • I wouldn’t go there if you paid me, not any amount
  • I hope you enjoy yourself, but be careful (and you’re not going alone, right?)
  • You are not allowed to take any work assets with you on this trip

(This last one came from one of our bosses. We complied.)

Research nerd that I am, I looked up “How to DEF CON” but largely found articles aimed at, well, stinky boys. (#NotAllStinkyBoys, I know, but you should talk to other, more prominent bloggers about that if you want to shift those optics.) I did come away with some good, more general advice, most of which echoed what had been said to me already. Things like:

  • Turn off the wifi on your phone
  • Probably just keep your phone on airplane mode when you’re in the thick of things
  • Maybe keep it in a faraday bag, while you’re at it, come to that, and still wipe and restore it when you get home, because you never know
  • Just leave it at home, assuming home is in another state
  • Trust no ATM in proximity to the conference (though casino floor ones might be ok, heavily monitored as they are – but if you can get by without, do that)
  • Don’t bring your laptop; bring a burner if really must
  • Probably bring a burner phone too, really
  • Bring enough cash to exist on, if you can, and maybe don’t muck around with credit or debit cards (though opt for credit if you must, because they have fraud protection)
  • It’s more about people than the sessions
  • Go to parties and side events and games and whatever else crosses your radar. Here’s a good place to start getting a sense of what’s possible for the 2017 one.

All good and well, sure. What I didn’t find was advice to match the portents from friends based specifically on my situation as a woman heading to DEF CON. So, in the way of the semi-reformed content marketer that I am, I decided to put together my own resource. So, here you go: how I, a woman, an engineer, and a hard introvert with a low tolerance for dickheads, recommend approaching DEF CON.

Packing for DEF CON

The Las Vegas setting of DEF CON means that you’ll be walking between ovens and refrigerators most of the time. This is a great recipe for feeling a little uncomfortable and a little gross during most of your waking hours, but you can plan around this.

For general packing, here’s what I recommend.

  • Bring twice as many pairs of underwear as the number of days that you’re staying. Even when it isn’t warm in those big event spaces, it’s still close; you will appreciate the option to swap out layers without taking anxious inventory as you near the end of your trip.
  • Wear clothes that breathe. Beyond that, of course, wear what you want. Some women find it useful to go stealth in a hoodie and jeans; I found it oddly fun to be as dressy there as I sometimes am in normal life – but I also appreciated having options depending on the feeling of the day. Decide what will be more likely to make you feel comfortable in the context of a very busy, very distinctive conference, and you’ll be fine.
  • Excedrin. I’m headache-prone, so that’s a given for me.
  • Sleeping pills, if you roll that way. I like an OTC sleeping pill when I’m not sleeping at home. This last year, I, a person who lives alone for sanity-keeping purposes, shared a hotel room with three other people. It was worth cutting off any booze around ten so I could safely tranq myself to sleep and be both smart and sociable the next day.
  • And for your day-to-day pack, I suggest a not-small water bottle (at least 750ml), more snacks than you think you’ll really need, a hand fan, and a notebook and pens. You will learn about all sorts of weird shit, plus Twitter handles to follow, sites to look up, rad repos, and talks of yore. Have an analog way to record them for later.

Planning And Attending

Secure your tech.

See the earlier suggestion about burner laptops and/or phones and/or faraday containment devices. I learned while I was there that Bally’s told their entire staff to keep their phones off while working that weekend. I originally went on airplane mode for the first couple of days until coordinating with my friends got very annoying; then I used cell data only. Things went fine, but I plan to get a burner in place for this year. Figure that you’re going to be going fairly analog in the middle of a tech-centered conference, plan accordingly, and you’ll be fine.

An exception is if you want to participate in a CTF event or a tutorial – you’ll want a proper laptop for that kind of thing. Consider a Chromebook with Kali with no stored login information, with a plan to wipe it when you get home. And if you’re not sure of what a CTF is or are feeling a little daunted, this writeup of a rad engineer’s first one is pretty exciting.

If you do decide to bring a laptop, you can take your chances with official conference internet. Bear in mind that you need to set it up beforehand; go here for more details.

Walk fast, or make plans based on geography rather than strictly interest.

I don’t know how the rest of you manage to get to the talks you want, if they’re far away from each other. I sped across the Bally’s gaming floor over and over, from front to back, from side to side, from Vegas to Paris and back, going from a far-off upstairs meeting room to an upper-floor set of executive suites to a trio of enormous function rooms off of hallways made to look like a more restrained Versailles. I was a little more session-motivated than most people seemed to be (including the friends I traveled with), but the time between sessions made that difficult. If I didn’t walk fast and didn’t enjoy walking fast, I would’ve seen far fewer things.

Figure out where the water fountains are.

And keep that big-ass water bottle full. Plan on refilling it every couple of sessions. I’m not sure what it is about being around so many other people in close proximity that brings biological needs so much to the forefront, but it does. Routine dips in hydration or blood sugar become so much more pressing, even while surrounded by water fountains and stores only too eager to sell you supplies. Plan ahead, and your brain will work better for you.

If a party sounds cool, just sign up.

Lots of companies and villages and groups have parties, minicons, and other events. If you happen upon one that sounds good, and they request an RSVP, just do it (unless it’s a tutorial with a small capacity – then be cool, please). Everyone is dashing between five things most of the time while they’re there; might as well ensure your name is on the list.

Research sessions ahead of time; do multiple-choice selections in the moment.

(If you care a lot about sessions, of course.) To ensure you see more of what you want to see (because you will not see it all), I’d suggest culling possibilities ahead of time. I liked the app for this, as it shows you everything across the villages and the main con itself, and it lets you add competing sessions to your schedule for easy picking. There’s also the physical book you get when you check in – and the conference website, of course. Note everything that sounds interesting. Particularly if you’re new, you’ll probably learn something regardless of what you select.

However, let the final selection come in the moment, when you’re on one side of the conference space and you have to choose between staying put and sprinting across a casino floor; when it’s 20 floors up, and the lone functioning elevator is not behaving; when the line for a session is full 30 minutes before the doors open. Give yourself a few options for each timeslot and then let the conditions of the moment dictate what you actually try to do.

My favorite sessions fell into a few categories:

  • Social engineering
  • How to break shit (the Bluetooth lock session was a highlight)
  • Fun with Python
  • Feds answer questions
  • Where current events and infosec meet (like the one where a nice Danish man talked about the Ashley Madison hack and online information hygiene)
  • Mostly we’re fucked (that is, the intersection of “how to break shit” and IoT things)

I’ll likely stick to those same themes this year, but I’ll try to go outside of them too.

Be open to new things.

Skills, smells, weird social skills and experiences. There aren’t a lot of spaces like this on earth, so roll with it when it makes sense. You can be in predictable company later.

This was a big part of what friends in the know warned me about. It seems like everyone who’s gone enough times has a story of someone acting like a most memorable piece of shit. I had a couple brushes with annoying sexist nonsense, but clearly not enough to dissuade me to come again this year. (My current prediction is that I’ll get to come three times before something really obnoxious happens, enough to make me say the hell with it and stick to B-Sides, but I look forward to being proven wrong.) However, fucked-up things, of course, aren’t necessarily tied to gender. A male colleague of mine stopped going around DEF CON 12 when he saw someone dancing drunkenly with a live firearm at a party. We all have our limits.

Don’t go to pool parties.

(This is clearly highly subjective, and the friends I went with may likely disagree, but.) Not all dudes (#NotAllDudes) werewolf out at these very guy-centered events with bars, but enough do that I don’t find it worth it when I could be doing anything else. If you also have a certain ungenerous tolerance for risk, go literally anywhere else, because if that place sucks, you can leave much more easily than if you’re in a wet swimsuit. My tolerance for uncertain behavior in social situations out of my control has a pretty hard limit. This is outside of it. You can, of course, decide based on your own “hell no” scale.

If you can go stealth, eavesdrop on non-conference folks.

There are people – unfortunate people, innocent people, sweet summer children – who planned their Vegas escape not knowing what they’d be encountering. They thought they were there to see Cirque and eat crab legs, and they ended up navigating hordes of goons for 14 hours a day. They are hilarious and wonderful. I recommend lingering by customer service or at the buffet to overhear what you can. I felt considerably more badass after overhearing a few minutes of speculation of just what the hell was going on with all the people with skull badges between a clerk and a customer at the Paris casino loyalty club desk.

Seriously, stretch.

Even (especially) if you find yourself in the same room for several sessions in a row. Get up and stretch, especially your quads. You’ll have several days of this. Take care of yourself.

Shopping

It’s worth it to stop by the vendors. The stuff for sale last year typically fell into one of three categories: learning, mayhem, and novelty t-shirts. The first two are pretty alluring to me, and I saw things for sale that one doesn’t typically see anywhere else. It’s worth budgeting for, ideally in cash.

My souvenirs from last year included a pen testing book from No Starch, a couple handcuff shims (you never know), two clear padlocks, and a set of lockpicks for the friend who watched my cats while I was gone. I was pretty satisfied with this, and this year I’ll probably budget for an Ubertooth or something else similarly fun and shiny.

It’s normal, with conferences, to be tempted to wait until the last day to go buy things to try to catch discounts, but at DEF CON, stuff will sell out. If there’s something you really want (and really don’t want to buy online with a credit card), just get it the first day. Nothing is overpriced if you’re satisfied with what you bought and happy with the experience.

One exception is if you wear a smaller t-shirt size. Sizes L and bigger sell out pretty fast, so if you wear one of those: buy sooner. If you’re more of a small or medium: late Saturday or anytime Sunday is a fine time to get your smaller DEF CON shirt with a little break in price.

What I’ll Do Differently This Year

I was pretty satisfied with how last year went, particularly considering the warnings I got. That said, there are a few things I’ll keep in mind when planning my 2017 trip.

Get there on Wednesday night.

Last year, my friends and I used the typical metric of nonprofessional, more culture-centered conferences and planned to arrive on day two. This meant we had access to zero workshops, missed a bunch of DEF CON 101 stuff, and spent more than a day with the flimsy temp badges they give out once the rad ones are gone. It was not an unreasonable approach, but it was wrong and a bit of a bummer. This time, we’re getting in on Wednesday night.

Figure out parties and villages to visit ahead of time.

Last year, though I was told about this, I didn’t quite get how much of DEF CON is in the side events. Deep down, I am basically Hermione, so the idea of paying for a conference and not going to as much of its official programming as I reasonably could just did not compute. This time, I’m going to ask my friends to help me be more fun than comes naturally to me sometimes.

Tell people who say stupid things to fuck off.

I’m really only thinking of a single situation here, but I was still in “I’m new, I’m a guest in this place and trying to learn it” mode, so I didn’t say anything, and clearly it still bothers me. So: I’ll say something next time. If someone else feels safe to be a little obnoxious, I’ll remind myself that I have the privilege to risk the same. There were 22,000 people there last year. I can tell someone acting like an ass to get the hell away from me, and I’ll go try my luck with the other 21,999.

What I’ll Repeat

Roll with a group of women.

Our lady quad occasionally picked up other lone women like an awesome Katamari, and it was a great way to meet interesting people. It was easier to take chances and drift away for a few hours because I knew I could rejoin my group of understanding friendlies whenever I needed to. (If you’re a woman going solo to DEF CON, feel free to say hello. We would love to meet you.)

Revel in the very short women’s bathroom lines, because when do I ever get to experience that otherwise. (Infosec and infosec-adjacent conferences, that’s when. I don’t like what it’s a symptom of, but I’ll take a very small bit of ease in the meantime.)

Stay nearby, but not in the conference hotel itself.

I liked being able to use wifi when I tucked in for the night (though there are reasonable arguments that even this is not a great move), and there was something calming about leaving the middle of the action and being able to turn off my situational wariness.

In Conclusion

I’m an engineer with a love of people breaking shit, making shit do what it was not originally intended to do, and smartasses in general. I liked DEF CON. I’m looking forward to it again – enough to deal with Las Vegas in bloody July. However, it’s very much its own weird animal. It’s a self-selected group that’s different than any I’ve ever circulated amongst before. But, like most groups of humans, most people are benign, some are interesting, some are “interesting,” some are lovely, and some are viruses with shoes. I’d say, in going to DEF CON, your chances of having something unpleasantly memorable happen are higher than among the average population, but not so high that it’s worth skipping if you also like the things I listed above.

There are situations, though, that don’t fit neatly into the suggestions and categories I set out above, so I’ll leave you with some miscellaneous observations from my notebook to place you in the setting in a more immediate way.

  • 98.6 degrees in here, and a pervasive recurring smell of farts and accumulated humanity.
  • Opinionated, reality-divorced emitters of skin clouds and biome signature
  • Apparently a room full of dudes will not understand why you shouldn’t text your dick to someone
  • The current version of the US military interrogation manual is online and freely available
  • 3 pm: am mostly sure I am not the source of the back row funk cloud here. 3:30: rest of row left. Less sure, although funk cloud also left, so…
  • Being a woman with a wordsmith background and a tendency to observe behavior may make me an ideal mole-type. Stereotypes help us defend ourselves (or have), but we can still exploit that shit.
  • Social engineering as a woman, at a talk by women, for surprised men

However, I hope, if you’re tempted, you’ll just go for it. Come say hi if you do. And, while you’re there, try to sleep enough, don’t get too fucked up and hungover, and keep your water bottle full. And, with luck, I won’t be back here in August or in another year or two, writing about how all the warnings were right. With luck, you’ll have a good time too, if you decide to go for it.

A Little More Information, if You Want It

If you’re still figuring out how to do this, here are some more resources for you.

<PennsylforniaGeek/>: The Road to DEFCON

This is the detailed post I was looking for last year. You get to have it, at least.

Reddit: a good breakdown of likely costs for the whole event

There are ways around some of these things, of course. I used Southwest points for my flight this year and am splitting a nearby Airbnb with friends, so we have more room for less money. Last year, I tried to have one good, robust meal out per day so that I wouldn’t feel too messed up from Clif bars and breakfast buffets. Figure out what you need to feel like a functioning human; budget for that. Find a roommate online if you’re broke and brave. There’s a good chance you can make this work, if you’re willing to hustle a little. 

An outsider’s view of what all the fuss is about

It gets fucked up sometimes. One of my remarkable bits of good luck is that malignant dudes mostly let me live my life. Other women are not so lucky. This post gives you an idea of what another side of the experience, quite different than mine, can be like. Take care of yourself, please. We need you.

Linked above, but worth repeating: an overview of how wifi works and what a Pineapple is, with a list of event-specific precautions on slide 17.

 

*I like to travel, you see, and I can get very wrapped up in planning it out.

Pipefail Bail: When to Add (or Remove) set -u

The scene: I was going back to a set of 18-month-old Packer files to add set -eux -o pipefail to each file in the build. (If you’re not familiar with this command and its uses, here’s where I learned about it. Highly recommended.) I’d recently had a two-day time sink, wherein I couldn’t get LDAP access to work on our CI/CD, and eventually I found that the shell script that adds our LDAP certs had coughed and died midway through without Packer erroring out and letting me know that something was wrong. LDAP failure is a pretty common sign that something is wrong with our CI/CD, but in the past it’s been due to more exotic problems than Packer petering out. Pipefail isn’t necessarily the right tool for every job, but I wanted to spare my future self these issues, where VERY SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS might otherwise be buried in a billion screens of Packer output.

(Yes, I’ll still look at the credentials folder fist next time.)

That was how I learned that Packer scripts can fail, but the build can still complete. This surprised me, considering how many failed builds I experienced when I was first working with Packer. So now I’m working through each script, finding quiet problems (such as unnecessary symbolic links being created during the installation of our version of Java) and other issues that perhaps aren’t problems today but may arise like the kraken later to take its accumulated revenge. Like I said, these scripts have been in use for about a year and a half, building AMIs at least once a month. Usually, only the base AMI changes, and the only other alterations have been additions – this version of Ruby that one dev team needs, this package for another group. Beyond that, it’s been pretty steady, which means a fair amount of time has passed since any kind of in-depth review of these files.

Pipefail is a great and rather educational way to work through your scripts, but on a recent day of this little side project, I encountered a surprising problem. In one of the scripts, PATH is augmented, followed by source /etc/bashrc. This is when the file errored out, with a gasp of  amazon-ebs: /etc/bashrc: line 12: PS1: unbound variable.

What in the what?

I did some googling for this unbound variable business, but the results didn’t apply to what I was doing. I wasn’t failing to create $youMessedUp. /etc/bashrc did indeed exist in the Packer Build instance, which I confirmed by, variously, touch /etc/bashrc, ls -a /etc | grep bashrc, and cat /etc/bashrc, at various times in my troubleshooting. The source command was being used correctly. And there were exactly no variables in that script.

Huh.

But /etc/bashrc was a robust file, quite lengthy compared to the most familiar file of its type in my life, the ~/.bashrc on my own machine. There was a lot going on in there… including variables. And because of the kinds of AMIs I use on this project – that is, AMIs built by a different team I have little contact with, issued every month without exhausting notes on what might have changed from the last version – any alteration I might have made that day might be useless or, worse, damaging when applied blindly next month.

Shit.

Beyond that, there was the issue of scope. This pipefail project was supposed to be about controlling my end of things. Faulty machine images and limited control are just part of my job. I’ve dealt with said images, but the dealing is not typically dont in shell scripts. Usually, if it’s something especially sticky, the job becomes one of communication, wherein I document what’s up and reach out to the agency in charge of regular base AMI creation so we can sort things out.

So that resolution and realization was where set +u came in.

I have an ongoing concern that shortcuts that I think are efficient might be unhelpful cheating, especially in this particular phase of my career. I ran my error and my situation by a few more senior engineers at my job. The idea of set +u came up. And said seniors confirmed that this was just wise and not laziness.

So:

set +u

source /etc/bashrc

set -u

That is, repeating the command at the top of the page. +u reverses that initial -u flag, which ends the script when an unbound variable happens. For that one line, only set -ex -o pipefail is in play, minus that situationally unfortunate -u.

This is useful if you have a weird situation like mine, where you need to run bash strict mode most of the time but have a line or a section of a script that deals with a resource that’s out of your control (but which you can still trust). Other times this is useful is if you’re activating a virtualenv in Python. In that case, set -u may be best set aside for that particular endeavor. In short, if your script is opening a big bucket of things out of your control (/etc/bashrc, the contents of an /env/bin/activate folder), and you want to go full set -eux -o pipefail otherwise, pop a little set +u in there.

But, this specific little situation aside, I’ve become a convert for set -eux -o pipefail on my Packer builds for sure and will probably keep the habit when I’m in a situation where I’m using AMIs not made by an outside team. The more you know, right? 

Yum and ldapsearch: a Lesson for 28 April

Source

The question of how to install things still trips me up sometimes. There are a bunch of possible ways it could be done in any given situation, and fairly often, the preferred method isn’t detailed overly meticulously in the README or other docs. Sometimes you have to clone repos and run a certain command in that directory; sometimes it means adding something to /usr/bin and opening a new terminal window; sometimes you summon a UI with a texty terminal command, which feels oddly like sorcery to me.

It’s a good deal easier now, but when I was just starting it could be a real trial. I spent a lot of an afternoon at Hackbright struggling with Postgres because I did a brew install instead of Postgres.app, which… did not get me what I needed and introduced a host of other problems. (It did get me a really interesting philosophical kind of conversation about the pros and cons of installing things from too high a level, courtesy of a teacher who became my friend – who still semifondly recalls that time she had to unpick what fuckery I’d wrought in such good faith.)

Today, trying to figure out how to get the command ldapsearcavailable to me, I learned one thing and was reminded of another.

  1. I learned yum whatprovides */$WhatYouSeek. (Thanks, Server Fault.) In my case, ldapsearch was one of several commands inside a differently named package: openldap. Oho. (It’s actually in a couple different families of packages, but I do not need to get Perl up in my business today.)
  2. I was reminded that – less commonly for the kind of work that I do – sometimes the needed command is not the name of the package. Some packages aren’t all about one command doing one thing well, despite the best urgings of the Unix philosophy. So – ldapsearch is snuggled into openldap. Got it.

Now you’ve got it too.

Stage Delight: Thoughts on My First Tech Talk

White lady with pink hair speaking in front of a slide that reads "This is the story of..."

In October, I celebrated my first anniversary of becoming a software engineer. In December, I gave my first talk at a tech conference. It was thrilling and terrifying and the best kind of difficult, and part of my pep talk leading up to it was promising myself that, if I didn’t ultimately feel that all the panicking preceding it was worth it, I never had to do it again.

Instead, I came off the stage, waited for my heart rate to return to normal, and thought, That was fabulous. I came home that night and started a doc to collect future talk ideas I might come up with.

In the way of any process nerd who loves a post-mortem, I’ve been thinking about what worked and what didn’t. Here’s what I learned from my first foray into speaking in this particular professional world and what I wish I’d known back in November.

Start with something you already half know.

It’s a pretty common trick to pitch a talk based on something you want to learn, as the impending obligation will make damn sure you do the thing you committed to doing. However, if you’re just starting out, take it easy on yourself – pick a subject you’re already at least fairly familiar with.

My topic originally came from one of my bosses, who knew I’d been reading a man page most workdays in an effort to get more adept at the command line and Linux in general. (Which, in turn, was a great idea suggested by a wise coworker. Highly recommended, and I’ll be writing more about it later.) Said boss tipped me off to the surprising history of the formatting tool behind man pages, mentioned that this exceedingly appropriate conference was coming up, and gave me the nudge I needed to submit a proposal.

If I’d needed to start by figuring out just what the hell a man page was, the challenge would have been too daunting to feel attainable. Instead, I had already read several dozen man pages and had a sense of their structure and tone, plus some opinions about what parts were most effective for helping me with my work. With that basic learning out of the way, I got to focus on the fun part of learning the background and making it as interesting to other people as it was to me.

Write a blog version of your talk. Seriously.

When it comes to things like writing and online promotion, I have skills that give me some useful advantages. In my past professional life, I was a writer, editor, and content strategist, and I spent more time than I liked using social media in a professional context. Because of this, writing an accompanying blog post while I was finishing my talk took relatively little additional effort, since the research and structure were already there. With that part finished, writing a fairly lengthy prose version of my presentation was a no-brainer for me, since a lot of the work that would usually go into an original blog post was already done.

This isn’t true for a lot of people, I realize, because most people didn’t spend more than a decade dashing out thousands upon thousands of words about hotels and waterparks and white noise machines and content marketing practices and travel destinations and many, many other subjects. I’m uncommon that way, and I recognize that.

However, even if writing is difficult for you, writing something to accompany your talk can give you a remarkable return on the energy invested. Even just enough paragraphs to hold all the links in your bibliography is a worthwhile resource for someone looking to learn more about your subject.

In my slides, I provided the short URL for my company’s blog and pinned a tweet with the post link on Twitter. On top of that, my talk title and my name were on every slide, and I started and ended the presentation with my Twitter handle.

The day of the talk, I’d intended to put my phone in my backpack when I went onto the stage. Instead, in the sweep of adrenaline after I got miced up and ready to go, I left my phone tucked in the bodice of my pocketless dress. About a minute into my talk, my phone began buzzing, and it rarely stopped for the entire 19-odd minutes of my talk. It was only after I was finished that I got to peek and see what was up. I had been quietly hoping, as I talked, that there hadn’t been a death in the family, or a disaster in San Francisco, or any of the other darker events that usually make a phone blow up at 9:45 am on a weekday.

But no: it was TWITTER. Follows and tweets and retweets and likes, my talking points spread far and wide, my tidbits turned hashtags, and that pinned tweet with my link in it racing steadily from conference-goer to conference-goer and beyond.

It was so much more than I’d even dared to imagine. I’d written the post because I dislike when a really interesting talk proves ephemeral – a hashtag and a hastily photographed bibliography slide, and then all that might be left is a title listed on a conference website. It’s a bummer when someone put the effort in and made a really memorable, effective talk, and all I have to show anyone else is a blurry slide photo and maybe some quick notes.

So I wrote it for people like me, who like to be able to revisit what was discussed and to click links rather than transcribing, to command-F instead of clicking around a video. I also wanted some artifact of my work on my company’s blog, as my bosses had very kindly allowed me to do a lot of talk prep on company time.

And it was worth it. My company’s site got more hits that day than we had in the twelve months prior. (We’re wonderful, but niche for sure.) A few weeks later, I had my own work recommended to me on Twitter by someone who didn’t remember my name as a speaker but did remember my talk.* Recently, I looked up “man page history” to learn about the -c flag for the history command, and I found that, even in an incognito window, my talk was the sixth result for that search. WHAT.

So, if it’s at all within your powers to do so, write up your talk. Publish the day of or the day before, and have tweets ready for yourself and your employer, if you work somewhere that does Twitter. Make it available on your slides and on your social media. Make it accessible. And if you can’t write it? Consider doing a skill trade with someone or even hiring someone to write it for you. Don’t know any writers for hire? Contact me, and I can put you in touch with someone who will make your work shine. The cost of the work of a good writer, correctly used, is very often a bargain.

Get advice from an accomplished speaker.

Maybe this is my other cheat: one of my bosses is an especially experienced, very skilled speaker and has a lot of clear, tested advice around how to approach it.** I got to sit down with him for an hour early in my talk creation process and get his suggestions on how to prepare, how to work with the conference staff, and how to make the day of go as smoothly as possible. A few things I wouldn’t have known otherwise:

  • Do a brown M&M test: ask your contact if there’s a prep room, how their AV will work, if they have a provided deck template to work from, what kind of microphone they’ll be providing, and when you need to arrive – among other logistical questions. You need to know these things, but it’s also good to know if they don’t know them yet. This lets you better prepare both yourself and your expectations. If the people running the conference are inexperienced, your questions could provide some structure for their plans. Win/win.
  • Do a little cardio (a quick jog down the conference hall, jumping jacks) just before so that your body has a good reason for your heart to be racing a little. And lay off the coffee until you’re done.
  • Make sure you have some kind of timing advice available – and bring one even if the venue promises to have one.
  • Put time markers in your slide notes so you can tell that you’re keeping the right pace in the time allotted.
  • Try to get a friend/plant in the audience so that you have a friendly visual focus, feedback, and prompts if needed.

I’d done one talk before but in a pretty different context, so I had no way of knowing these things ahead of time. A little expert advice spared me a lot of uncertainty.

Do multiple test runs. For humans.

I practiced my talk for two solid weeks leading up to the conference. In order, here were my test audiences and what I learned from each.

  • My cats: I could string the sentences together well enough, and my jokes felt ok to say. (This was me running through my slides in my apartment over and over until I felt a rhythm begin to come together.)
  • One coworker: the Keynote theme I’d chosen included slides with grey text on a black background. This was very hard to read (and just in time to fix). Doing a test run earlier on also lets you test out storylines and interest in your material before you’re fully committed.
  • My entire company: I needed more confidence in my jokes and to give them time to land – my usual deadpan understatement was not working for this talk. Also, I needed to stop putting my hands in my pockets.

It’s hard to hear criticism, but it’s a delight to get feedback at a time when you can still do something about it. Find your critical audience and have at least a couple tries when you still have enough time to course correct.

Not everything is riding on this one time.

I am very pleased with how this all turned out. It was a lot of work, but it was enormously rewarding, and I got to feel a sense of professional community I hadn’t experienced at that point. I still get to have surprise conversations with online strangers about man pages. That said, there are still things I’ll be aiming for in my next talk, such as:

  • Better memorization and the ability to speak more freely without glancing at my notes. Memorization is really hard for me, but I admire the fluidity I see in other speakers who have clearly done the work. I want to be able to give that to people who might hear me in the future.
  • A little more lightness. While my delivery did what I needed it to do, I found out later that I came across a little more grave than I intended. This is understandable, considering, but I’m a pretty animated and cheery talker in regular life. I’d like to bring some more of that to the way I speak to groups.
  • More practice and ease. I want to find a local Toastmaster group for some more regular experience with lower stakes, so I can continue teaching my body that I am not going to die of public speaking. Leading up to the talk, when friends asked how it was going and how I felt about it, I told them, “So long as I don’t die, it’ll be a success.” Now I know; I just need to get my body to trust that this really is true.

And the great thing is that I work at a company that encourages speaking in a field that’s hungry for people willing to talk out loud and teach. I’ll get more opportunities – and be better equipped to iterate, improve, and get closer to the skill level I’m aiming for.

If you’re tempted, do the thing.

As I mentioned, I have a background in content marketing, so blogging has always been a part of professionally establishing myself, and it was a particular goal as I got my bearings as an engineer. I figured that I wanted to try to speak too, since it’s a pretty natural extension of presenting ideas in writing. But I thought I’d get a steady clip going on this blog, start getting comfortable exploring and explaining ideas here, and then begin to play with the idea of talking – you know, in time. We do internal talks at my company specifically for that kind of experience, so I figured I’d start there and maybe branch out to local meetups. Go from there. Right?

Then a bigger opportunity came up faster than I expected. But if that hadn’t come together, I would have targeted local meetups. I would have talked internally. I would have organized or participated in a talk night with my school’s alumni group. I would have done it somewhere, and I would’ve been nervous then. And it would have been ok.

If you’re inclined to talk, just do it. There are enough groups, particularly in tech-oriented cities, that someone wants to hear your explanation of whatever it is you find interesting. You’ll also probably meet some rad people while you’re doing it.

A few helpful things for you.

This post from Heidi Waterhouse about how to dress as a speaker is useful in all the ways I usually find “how to dress” articles aren’t. (Most “how to dress” articles are not written by people with hair of a hue similar to my own, for a start.) Pragmatic and with an aim toward natural comfort, this article had enough information that I referred to it several times throughout my talk prep, particularly for advice on dressing around different types of microphones. Read it and avoid unnecessary surprises.

Technically Speaking provides a weekly dose of speaking encouragement and opportunities. The women who run it are smart and opinionated, and if you’re interested in this, it’s a wonderful addition to your inbox. And if you’re considering speaking? (And I hope you do.) Meetup can probably connect you to a group that would be interested in your subject.

And with that, I hope I leave you better off than I was at the start of this odyssey. If you’re interested in something, you probably have something to say about it. I, at least, would love to hear it. :)

*Incidentally, this was not mansplaining - it was communing about a mutually interesting subject and a pretty rad compliment. 

**Actually, that's true for a few people I work with and for, but Everett just does MORE of it. Truss has a rad speaking culture, and I dig it.

11 Lessons from My First Year in Software Engineering

Paper garlands against a twilit sky

I hit my one-year anniversary as a software engineer in October. It has been, professionally, one of the harder, stranger years of my life, but the challenges generally were exactly what I hoped they would be: complicated, but with clear questions, and answers that were a pleasure to seek. That said, there are a few things I wish I could whisper to my past self, either right when I was starting this job, just as I was starting Hackbright, or a couple of years ago when I wrote my first lines of Python. Here’s a bit of advice to my past self, to anyone who’s considering this journey, and to anyone who’s still fairly new and would like a little reassurance.

1. Everything I heard about learning this is true (or: no, really, just pick a project).

If you want to learn programming, you do need to just pick a project and proceed. I really disliked this advice when I first heard it, because I am all about context, and I couldn’t imagine picking an appropriate challenge without knowing the limits and possibilities out there. And that’s a legitimate concern – it’s crucial to pick the right-sized problem, so far as complexity and the number of tools it will require, if you’re going to learn without getting so frustrated that you quit prematurely. Even so, it’s those raw edges, that unpredictable stuff, that gives you the real learning, that can be the most educational (and most satisfying) to wrap your brain around.

My real, substantial learning on this job began when I was put on a project, which didn’t happen immediately after I was hired. I had learned things before then, self-studying along in the office, but it lived strictly within the realm of the hypothetical (something I consider likelier a limitation of my own beginner state than anything else). Learning within the context of a project can be kind of like memorizing a poem by hearing every fifth word, and out of order and occasionally in a different language to boot. However, what you do learn will be practical and actionable, and – perhaps most valuable of all – will provide the context around what happened and what you need to do. And eventually, you’ll know a lot of it – and be able to intuit or sleuth out the rest.

My suggestion to you: it’s annoying how much it’s true, but I’d suggest just giving in (and finding a good advisor for picking and shaping your project, if you can). Find a practical problem in your own life and decide a way to start addressing it. If you get stuck, it’s a big, generous internet out there, and some of the people in it will even have right answers. 

Bonus suggestion: consider making a command line utility. It has a delightfully low barrier to entry and gives you a great chance to make something useful to you without worrying about deploying or front-end work. If you’re a Python kid like me, start by looking at argparse and then let your imagination run away with you. 

Bonus bonus suggestion: many programming communities now have Slack networks that are open to the public, if you request access. If you know you’re interested in a particular language and want someone to ask questions to, see if there’s an active Slack channel for your area of interest. The availability of DMs and the more regulated, curated nature of most Slack communities can make them friendlier to beginners.

2. Learning is a skill. Learning this is a different skill.

Computer science’s history is relatively short, but it’s some dense archeology, if you’re trying to wrap your head around even the most essential central stuff. Some people get to be immersed in it for four years before they’re thrust into the workplace; the rest of us get to pick up on useful commonality when we start playing with our third programming language. (Though people like Gayle Laakmann MacDowell have said that this is far from an insurmountable hindrance.) The good thing is that each new skill you learn will require slightly less origination and effort and will build slightly more on things you’ve already learned.

However, this growing knowledge will never reach one hundred percent, regardless of your background. If you plan on staying in this field, you have to learn to love at least a little constant disorientation. If you aren’t confused on the regular in your first couple of years in this field, you’re not trying hard enough.

My suggestion to you: learn to love feeling like your feet aren’t quite firmly planted beneath you, because it means you’re in the learning space. Disorientation means you’re surrounded entirely by new things to learn. Eat it up.

3. Any dregs of self-consciousness and admitting ignorance will either go out the window fast – or you will remain bad at this.

My company is largely remote four days a week, and I was, for a time, the only engineer in our central office. This meant that, if I had a problem and my manager wasn’t available, I had to go into a public Slack channel to seek help. This eased in time, mostly as I got to know my coworkers better. But until I got to that point, every question I asked felt like broadcasting my ignorance to the company, who only knew me as the inquisitive little Slack avatar. HEY LOOK AT ME HERE’S THE THING I DON’T KNOW OF THE HOUR.

That is, until I stopped caring because I understood that no one else cares. And beyond that, it’s as true here as in any other field that the best time to ask basic-ass questions is toward the beginning, when they naturally occur, before you start eroding the foundation you’re trying to build. 

My suggestion to you: breathe deep and get over it – or pretend to until it’s true. Admitting you don’t know something is a vital part of being good at this job, because there’s no room to bullshit. Any fudging you do will be revealed later, and most likely at a really annoying (and embarrassing) time.  

4. Useful experience is less about exhaustive knowledge and more about navigating new situations and tech.

Expertise can sometimes be demonstrated by knowing who wrote what language, what the most vital book is about a subject, or the history of the specific design decisions and needs that went into a framework. But this is surface trivia, and what’s most important (to me, so far) is context and the experience that provides it. It’s still the thing I crave most often, when I find myself in those disorienting moments where I don’t know the answer and am not even entirely certain of the right question.

It can be extra frustrating because I don’t just want to know how something works. I also want to know the situations where considering that thing as a solution on a project is appropriate, what would inform that recommendation, and what you heard about its past releases and future plans that might make everything terrible in six months.

I felt this basically constantly at the beginning and now, fourteen months in, I still feel this way pretty often. I choose to view it as still finding this field incredibly interesting. I can’t imagine what being bored or plateauing would look like in this job because there is always, always more stuff. And, after a while, you’ll have experienced enough of it that you’ll know better how to navigate the next big thing. 

My suggestion to you: hang in there, mostly. And just be willing to try things, volunteer for new projects, and get all of the experience you can – within reason.

5. My sense of curiosity is a valuable job qualification.

I have, in the past, annoyed lesser bosses by asking why. When I asked, I wasn’t questioning their judgment – or not usually, anyway. What I needed was to understand what went into a given decision, so that I could make my own decisions to support it appropriately. (Yes, it does make sense that I have user research in my background too.)

This quality is really useful in this job – in fact, in a well-functioning environment, I’d call it essential. It’s particularly so when you do consulting for clients, as my company does. Sometimes we serve them better not by doing exactly as they request but by asking why enough (and politely enough) to find out what it is they really want. From there, good work actually gets done.

My suggestion to you: your beginner enthusiasm and curiosity are valuable tools. When you don’t take anything for granted, you can notice things more seasoned engineers don’t. If something isn’t clear, ask about it (even if only privately to your boss) until it becomes clear.

6. Sometimes the tool is broken. Not you.

Early last year, I was doing some experimenting with AWS on my own at work, going between the command line and the web UI to launch instances, tailor and tweak them, and get used to the interaction between different aspects of the tool. But for a few weeks at the very beginning, things just didn’t work right. I’d follow a tutorial, enter a command, and – what even the hell? Trying to spin up an instance would fail. Security groups wouldn’t work right. And, worse still, I was so new and the failures were inconsistent enough that I couldn’t deduce any logic from what was happening. I was failing and didn’t feel like I was learning from it, one of the worst feelings. I rarely have reason to wonder if maybe I’ve been secretly stupid all along, but in that handful of weeks, I’d stop sometimes and wonder if engineering was finding some sad new quality of mine that had been hiding throughout my career.

Then another senior engineer got hired and had a little time before being put on a client. He found that our AWS account was old enough that it worked differently than more recently created ones do. He made a new account. Suddenly, tutorials made sense, and my results were predictable – including my errors. I was so relieved I had to stop and stare into space for a few minutes to absorb it all. AWS and I are friends now, despite our rocky start, but I would never have figured this out on my own.

My suggestion to you: sometimes the problem is between keyboard and chair, sure. But sometimes it is not. Ask questions, pair with someone, and make sure that someone who knows more than you witnesses your sticky moments sometimes. It’s ego-deflating, but it’s better than spending days or weeks flailing in some swamp that isn’t of your own making.

7. Timing is everything.

If you have even a semi-active sense of curiosity, you can spend endless amounts of time reading docs, essays, StackOverflow speculation, comments, comics, reviews by the competition, helpful blog posts, amusingly bitchy blog posts, and so many other things that may be very useful, completely useless, or – worst of all – approximately 29 percent useful. It’s that last one that can eat your afternoon. If you aren’t aware of this particular hazard, you can lose an hour or four much more easily than you might have ever suspected.

My suggestion to you: timebox that shit. And if you have access to someone more experienced than you, work out a relationship where you can come to them pretty regularly for reality checks and course corrections before you sail yourself deep into the ocean of chatty, chatty internet people. It’s ok to ask a more senior person to rule out some obvious stuff before you dig into researching your problem.

8. Unless the docs are shit, trust the docs.

(And if the docs are shit, should you really be using the thing it’s documenting at all?)

I realized recently (thanks to talking with one of my bosses; see the previous section), that I’d developed a habit I’ve nicknamed narrative research. I’d come to believe that the most efficient way to work through problems was to try to match my problem to someone else’s phrasing, find their solution on this or that third-party site, try to get that solution working to fix my problem, and then work backward to find out why what I had done worked, to learn a larger lesson from there.

Perhaps you’re already seeing the problem here.

If the tool you’re using requires the backassward methodology of someone in a completely different context than you to get it to work, it may be time to examine if you’re using the right tool – or, perhaps more likely, if you’re doing it right at all. You can stir your coffee with a screwdriver if you really want to, but there are better ways to use it. If you have a problem to solve, research just enough to find what library or whatever it is you need to use – and then use its own documentation. Don’t work off-label unless you really need to. Probably check with someone more experienced, if you really think this is a good idea.

My suggestion to you: there be dragons in Stack Overflow sometimes. Stay with primary resources as much as you can.

9. If you’re a person who does the caffeine thing, get your coffee game down.

I most often need one between three and four pm, just to perk my brain up to get through the rest of my day. A single Americano is a great way for me to address this. Recently, I messed up and overcaffeinated myself via the rookie mistake of using a bigger glass than usual for my cold brew. I spent the afternoon sweaty, with racing thoughts. Not a good look.

This is general life advice too, but I’ve found it more critical in this job than any other. It may seem surface, and maybe it is surface, but having your biological needs in check will let you do better at this.

My suggestion to you: know thyself.

10. Don’t be a hero when you’re sick.

This is especially important for me and my consulting colleagues who have a vested interest in quality billable hours, but: if you’re sick, be sick. Don’t soldier through. (And not just because of the obvious part about not being a disease vector. Seriously, stay off my BART if you’re ailing and have sick time to use.) If you feel like shit, you’re not going to be able to brain, and this work requires a functional brain more than any other job I’ve had. The others could be difficult too (especially the UX consulting gig I had just before I went to engineering school), but it’s just… different. Pack a snack, sleep enough, and pay attention when you’re sick.

My suggestion to you: be an adult and be honest with yourself. Sleep enough, eat enough, and stay home with pho from Seamless if you’re under the weather. Treat yourself like you’re parenting a toddler – you know, honest assessments. Sometimes you just need a snack; sometimes you need to stay the hell in bed.

11. And, finally: decency counts.

This is an industry riddled with social fuckery, and even people who found it worthwhile to stick it out usually have at least a couple really vile stories of colleagues and managers acting like total assholes. I work in a magical unicorner of the industry that’s largely free of that, but – get this – I still get points just for being housebroken and friendly enough that it’s pleasant to share space with me. It still seems to be considered remarkable in this industry (though it’s a requirement to work at my company). Can you treat a troublesome team with human decency? Can you be polite and keep it together even when you’re having a bad feeling and not getting your way? Do you have a regular life, and can you make nice chit-chat about it without it being a big thing? Congratulations: you have an important skill.

Beyond that, social stuff in tech is just different than it is in other industries. I’ve always been lucky enough to have coworkers I wanted to be friends with too, but there’s a certain all-banding-together kind of feeling in tech that I haven’t seen anywhere else. In some companies, it’s a natural side effect of putting a bunch of 22-to-29-year-olds with a shared predilection for alcohol in the same space for 60-plus hours a week. But even then, it has a function – when stuff gets hard, that empathy and caring and shared knowledge comes together, and everything functions better.

My suggestion to you: be cool, honey bunny. And, even if you have limited social energy (I certainly do), try to conserve some of it to spend time with your coworkers once every week or two. A lot of people are lovely, and the stuff about being a good member of a team is easier if you’ve taken a real interest in the people around you.

There you go, new engineer. There you go, Breanne of a year or two ago. And here are a few more resources that I’ve found really useful in the last year. I didn’t even write all of them myself.

  • How to edit your PATH variable (and what PATH is): I had the hardest time getting an answer to this, which was tough when I was already learning a lot about how a computer works when you’re not just using it to dick around on the internet. So I pestered my coworkers for answers until it felt coherent and wrote it down. I hope it helps you too.
  • 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting at a Developer Bootcamp: my friend and coworker Emily Chen wrote this, and I really wish I could teleport it back to myself in spring 2015. Why this isn’t a prereq for every immersive programming school, I do not understand.
  • The rad illustrations of Julia Evans: always thorough and yet always approaching subjects from a unique angle, her illustrations are such a nice companion for whatever you’re learning.
  • And, just, you know what? Wikipedia is the shit for computer science stuff. Surprise! There’s a lot of legit documentation out there (ahem, man pages, ahem), but Wikipedia is so often a great place to start, and seeing unfamiliar stuff laid out in a familiar format can be really helpful if you’re stumped.

Restoring Github Repo Access in the Terminal after Adding 2FA

Molding, windows, and walls of central room of Oakland's 16th Street Station

This is the second time I’ve had to look this up, and the instructions are spread across a couple of pages. So for the sake of my future self, I’m compiling the steps here. Maybe it’ll help someone else too. That’d be cool.

So you added 2FA to your Github account. (Very smart; nice job.) Problem: your terminal no longer accepts your (still valid) password when you’re trying to push to a repo. Here’s how to fix that.*

1. Create a new personal access token.

Go to Github and ensure you’re logged in. (An aside: you’ve saved your access codes in a password manager or some other secure place in case the device you designated for 2FA authentication codes catches on fire, right? Excellent, carry on.)

Go to the upper-right corner of the page, click your profile image, and click Settings. In the sidebar of the next page, scroll to the bottom and click Personal access tokens. Click Generate new token. Give it a name that will make your future self grateful for today’s clarity. Select what permissions you want this token to give. Then: Generate token. The token that appears will only be visible right now, so make sure you save it or do what you need to do with it. (Or save it to 1Password and then proceed to the next step.)

2. Save it to your OSX keychain credentials

Here’s the choose your own adventure part: do you have Github credentials saved for more than one Github account on this machine?

2a. Nah, just one. Let’s nuke it and replace it.

Cool, let’s get rid of the old credential first. Go into your terminal and type this:

git credential-osxkeychain erase

There’ll be a pause and then nothing. That means success. (I still find this convention strange, but I like a verbose interface, so that’s my own struggle to deal with.)

Now, do that push that you were probably trying to do when you realized you’d cut off access on a machine you perhaps don’t code from so often. It’ll ask you for your username and password. Give it your username as usual, but instead of your password, paste that Personal access token that we created in the last step into the terminal. Hit enter. Wait. Enjoy your success (which will be confirmed by a message this time).

2b. I’m super cool and access SO MANY accounts. Let’s just replace one, please.

Alright, fancy. For this one, we’ll start with the Keychain Access app instead of the terminal. (Don’t worry, we’ll finish in the terminal for this step too, if you prefer.) Open Keychain Access and then type in “Github” to narrow down the options listed. You’re looking for an entry for github.com. To confirm you’re looking at the right one, ^click and select “Get info” from the menu that appears. Confirm that the username you’re looking for is the one listed under account, then select Access Control and confirm that the option listed is git-credential-osxkeychain. If those two things look right, we’ve found the right credential.

Now you can edit it there, replacing the existing password with your new token, or you can delete it and provide the new credential via the terminal when prompted after you try to push again, as described in 2a.

There you go! Such security, what authentication.

Want to double-check my work? Here’s what I used to put together these steps (both times, because sometimes that’s what it takes):

And if you haven’t set up 2FA for Github yet, my god get on that ok wow with the instructions here.

*On a Mac. That’s the context here. Mac Mac Mac.

Header image is from my recent visit to Oakland’s 16th Street Station, which is usually closed up. In this case, my access was granted by paying to be part of a photo tour. Authentication comes in many forms. 

 

New Post on PATH for My Company Blog

A path in Skogskyrkogården cemetery in StockholmAnd surprise surprise, I ended up at a company that’s as almost as excited about me blogging about software engineering as I am. I published a post for them a few days ago about working with your PATH, what the PATH system variable is, and how to access and change it.

This was a bit of an enduring mystery for me at Hackbright – this vital thing that comes up in so many tutorials but which so many smart, willing people had a surprisingly hard time explaining. I started thinking of it as everything and nothing, the alpha and the omega. 

Late last fall, gainfully employed and feeling sillier by the day for not having mastered this important concept, I began a campaign of badgering my coworkers on Slack until I cobbled together a working explanation of what PATH is and what you might need to do with it. One coworker noted, after publishing, that this is a bash-specific explanation (given the system files I mention), and he is of course completely correct.

So do check out my bash-specific PATH tutorial, with the expectation that you people who use zsh and other fancy-pants shells will have to do a little adapting in your head. I’m sure you’re used to that anyway.

The photo is one from my recent trip to Sweden. I like to visit cemeteries when I travel; this is a photo from Skogskyrkogården, which was beautiful and worth a long-ish metro ride.

Python with Flask and PostgreSQL: “Is the server running on host “localhost” (127.0.0.1) and accepting TCP/IP connections on port 5432?”

My beautiful errors when I encountered a certain server error with PostgreSQL and Flask

This one goes out to the new people who are, as I described myself a few minutes ago, “still building context.”

This error is not this. This error is not that.  This is error is that you, perhaps like me, restarted your system recently and didn’t restart Postgres.app.

“I can’t reach the server,” it says. Maybe you, like me, will get stuck on the port thing, thinking that server.py is having some new and terribly exotic error. Server.py is running. What is its problem? It’s RIGHT THERE.

No.

Restart your database server. (Or, y’know, start it.)

Then change your preferences so PostgreSQL starts after login for the duration of your project.

You’re welcome.

This blog post is brought to you by me wishing that I’d found the perfect, straightforward answer to this simple-ass question. Port 5432: not a part of server.py. No, it is Postgres. Just Postgres.

Now you know. Get it.

For Google fu, here’s the relevant text of the screencap above:

OperationalError: (psycopg2.OperationalError) could not connect to server: Connection refused Is the server running on host “localhost” (::1) and accepting TCP/IP connections on port 5432? could not connect to server: Connection refused Is the server running on host “localhost” (fe80::1) and accepting TCP/IP connections on port 5432? could not connect to server: Connection refused Is the server running on host “localhost” (127.0.0.1) and accepting TCP/IP connections on port 5432?

git status-add-commit, git status-add-commit, git status…

We had a field trip to learn about Firebase at the Google office last week. The presentation was great, but then... this view, this view. Mmph.
We had a field trip to learn about Firebase at the Google office last week. The presentation was great, but then… this view, this view. Mmph.

Consider this picture your moment of zen. We’re about to dive into nightmare territory.

In the first week of class, I was pair programming, and we’d reached the point (one of fairly dozens that day) of editing and troubleshooting. We use Sublime Text 2, something I’m fairly used to at this point; what I wasn’t used to was Ubuntu. I hit an F key without meaning to; suddenly, our window maximized, and neither double-clicking nor dragging the top bar of the window down made it shrink. The maximized Sublime stared at us from two mirrored monitors, waiting.

So I began tapping the F keys again, one by one, thinking it would ultimately undo what I’d done, and I might learn a couple shortcuts too. This is a practice that has served me fairly well for the last 20-odd years, with not a casualty to speak of.

Til that day, anyway.

Somewhere around F-8 or F-9, all of our lines of code rearranged themselves. Instead of our 40-plus lines of tidily indented work, they had formed a perverse pyramid, blank rows at the top, and the rest below in order of descending indentation, alphabetized within those length blocks. Under the edit menu, undo was greyed out.

I think – I think – that I managed not to actually say “What even the fuck?” in front of my pair. (We were all still using people manners then; now there’s a post-it in one of the bathrooms telling you to drink more water, lest you get constipated, a problematic situation the post-it writer knows very well, ok?)

I called over my advisor, explained the situation, and watched as she tried a few of my steps again. No undo. No solution. Nothing.

She frowned and said words that were not meant to be an indictment but were nonetheless: when was the last time you committed?

It was about 5:50 pm. We’d last committed after we’d finished our last exercise. You know, at 1 pm.

“Well,” she said finally, rising from the keyboard. “You learned something.”

“I did,” I told her. “And I’m not – well, I’m not proud. But it’s not often that a person really manages to break something beyond repair with computers. It’s… notable.”

She shrugged and went to help less hapless people. I apologized profusely to my pair, who was altogether lovely about it.

I thought for a moment and closed Sublime. I counted to three and reopened it.

Our properly ordered, fully functional Python file was restored.

I’m not sure I took a whole breath in before I completed a commit on it. And now I, like all of us in our time, am a committing zealot. Early, often, excessively.

I don’t recommend being an anxious person. But for certain qualities? I totally recommend hiring them.

UX-Centered Development: Making a Pre-Planning Survey

Here in week five, I have firmly established myself at Hackbright as the person with a UX background. (I have probably also established myself as the person who would like to tell you again that she has a UX background.) To give myself an exercise in applying my older skills to my newer ones and to approach this project in the way that I know best, I’m planning out a Very UX-y Hackbright Final Project.

Step one is a survey. Because of the limits of my time and budget (as in, I’m not paying anyone for this, and I do believe UX participant work should be compensated – at least if someone is making money from the product using the results), I knew I wouldn’t get anything resembling a scientific sample. Even so, I knew I’d feel better prioritizing my semi-planned product features with even a general sense of how people who are not me would use a web app like the one I’ll be producing through August.

In this post, I’ll explain how I came up with the idea, why I find it interesting, how I decided to use a survey to verify and prioritize my feelings as the unavoidable first user, and the principles I used to craft my short, very to-the-point survey. Read on.

Fish Waffles and Inspiration

My plan from the beginning, from before Hackbright was a possibility in my mind at all, has been to create a food truck tracking app. I came up with this idea in Seattle last year, sitting on a grassy slope with my boyfriend, eating a fish-shaped waffle. I’d never seen a fish-shaped waffle before, let alone knew they were something I could buy from a van within the city I’d occupied for nearly a decade. This bothered me, because I like to think I know most of the awesome things the places I live have to offer. Why wasn’t there an app for this? Why wasn’t this information more accessible, considering the ways I do research?

I originally thought of a mobile app, and I still have some interest in eventually going that direction with my work. We shall see. But when I was accepted to Hackbright and learned more about how their curriculum works, I never doubted what I would do. I would build the food truck web app that I wanted to see in the world.

Before we get into the actual coding part (oh, next week), I’m going to do as much research as I reasonably can. I’ll soon be reviewing the existing apps out there, web and mobile, to see what features are considered typical and expected, what information’s out there, and what seems to be working. But first: my survey. I kept it simple so that I wouldn’t be asking too much of people’s goodwill. This is a fairly central tenet of UX research done without participant compensation: make it fast, make it easy, and thank profusely. (Or maybe just a fairly central tenet of being a polite, respectful person asking people for favors.)

The Survey and My Strategy

I used a Google Forms survey to do this, passing the link via social media and hoping my friends would both take it and share it. (Many of them did. Thanks, friends.) I explained the scope of my project (that it’s for school; what the school is) and said some more grateful things because I was and am grateful.

The Survey Itself

1. How often do you eat at a food truck?

-Once a week

-Once a month

-Once every six months

-Once a year

-I’ve never eaten at a food truck

2. How do you find food trucks to visit?

The truck’s Facebook page

A mobile app

A website

Friends

Find them on the street

At a gathering or festival

Other

3. What do you need to know about food trucks to plan a visit?

Type of food

Prices

Location that day

Schedule for future

Method of payment

Other

4. What features would you like a food truck tracking app to have?

Text listings with search

Search by food type

Search by price

Links to truck social media or websites

Other

These were all required. The following were open-text fields and were not required.

  • What is your favorite truck, and what city is it in?
  • What is your favorite food truck-finding resource?
  • What is your favorite app or resource for finding places to eat? 
  • What’s the best food truck pun name you’ve ever heard?

I got 127 responses. Not bad! I’d decided I’d be pretty thrilled at 100.

How I Made My Choices

Here are a few things I considered when putting this together:

  • I wanted to be as brief as possible to avoid having people open the survey, think, “Oh hell no,” and close it without completing it. I’m pretty generous with my time on student surveys (UCD school will do that to you), but I have definitely said nope to too-long ones.
  • I wanted a clear picture of feature/information priorities, hence the “choose all that interest you” and “choose the most important one” questions.
  • I wanted to be able to correlate feature/information priorities to frequency of food truck habits – a person who has been to a food truck once will probably not have as clear a view of the relevant information as someone who seeks them out regularly.
  • I included other fields to ensure that respondent options were not limited to my own possibly incomplete view of the relevant information and features.
  • I wanted to expand my list of sites, apps, and other resources to look at as I get deeper into planning my project.
  • I like puns and like including an open opportunity for survey respondents to have a little fun.

What’s Next

I’m currently working on a Python program that will tally my responses. It would probably be easier to just use Excel or certain other existing tools, but I want the practice, and I get to have some fun with classes and objects while I do it. So: CSV and my own Python efforts it is. Coming up, I’ll post about my conclusions and observations and how it effects my features list and how I set my priorities.*

*Aside from the simple question of, “Can this fit in five weeks?” and “Is this strictly relevant to what I want to learn and demonstrate that I have learned?”

P.S. The image is from the book that gave me the first exposure I ever had to food trucks. As I recall, totally worth the time.