236: Connecting Arts and Technology – The Power of Print with Marlena Compton
May 26th, 2021 · 1 hr 8 mins
About this Episode
01:07 - Marlena’s Superpower: Bringing the Arts to Tech
- Coming Into Tech as a Creative
04:42 - Parallels Between Art and Computer Science/Software Engineering
- System Architecture
- Spatial Thinking & Representation
- Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought by Barbara Tversky
- Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson
09:33 - Sketchnoting and Zines
14:19 - DIY Publishing and Physicality – The Power of Print
20:33 - Zines at Work & Zines in Professional Settings
- Slowing Down Our Thought Processes
- Using Diagrams to Ask Questions & For Exploration
- Graphic Facilitators
31:11 - Target Audiences, Codeswitching, & People Are Not Robots
37:58 - How We View, Study, and Treat Liberal Arts – (Not Well!)
- Formulating Thoughts In A Way That’s Available For Consumption
43:01 - Using Diagrams and Images
- UML (Unified Modeling Language)
- Collaborative Whiteboarding Software and Shared Visual Language (Drawing Together)
50:41 - Handwriting Advice: Decolonize Your Mind!
- SLOW DOWN
- Write Larger
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
59:45 - The “Let’s Sketch Tech!” Conference
Damien: Decolonize your mind.
Jamey: Zine fairs at work and valuing yourself by taking up space.
Rein: Creativity is good for individuals to explore, but when we share it with people it’s a way we can become closer.
Marlena: Connecting arts and technology.
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JAMEY: Hello, everyone and welcome to Episode 236 of Greater Than Code. I’m one of your hosts, Jamey Hampton, and I’m here with my friend, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Thanks, Jamey. And I’m another one of your hosts and I’m here with my friend, Damien Burke
DAMIEN: Thanks, Rein. And I'm here in addition to with the host, our guest today, Marlena Compton.
Marlena Compton is a tech community organizer, designer, and collaboration artist who has worked in the tech industry for 18 years. She grows tech communities and organizes conferences such as “Pear Conf” and “Let’s Sketch Tech!” Marlena has worked for companies like IBM and Atlassian. This has left her with a life-long appreciation for quality code, empathy, and working together as a team. When she isn’t working, Marlena enjoys lettering, calligraphy, and walking her dog.
Welcome to the show, Marlena.
MARLENA: Hi, thank you so much.
DAMIEN: So I know you're prepared for this. Same thing we do for all of our guests, we're going to start with the first question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
MARLENA: Yeah, so my superpower is bringing the arts to tech and that is teaching people the value of creative arts—such as writing, sketching, music, and more—and how this relates to the tech industry, helping creative types feel more at home in tech, and helping folks who are mostly in the science track in school learn why they need the creative arts for critical thinking and thinking through problems.
So it's like, you have to give people a space to do this learning from a peer perspective versus top-down perspective. This includes building community for folks to explore these things.
JAMEY: So you came to tech from art previously, is that right?
MARLENA: I have a wild academic background of interdisciplinary studies, which will not get you a job for anything but like, renting a car.
Or whatever and also, later I did computer science, but while I was getting my liberal arts degree, I did a lot of art history, a lot of painting, and a lot of theater.
JAMEY: I wonder if you could speak to coming into the tech industry as someone who is already an artist and considers themselves an artist, like, how that translated for you. Like, what skills from being an artist, do you think were helpful to you as you were starting in tech?
MARLENA: Sure. So I think that if you know that you're an artistic type, like I knew how important arts were for me. But I think for children often they get a lot of pressure to find something that will get them a job and it's not like this isn't for good reason, it's like we’ve got to be able to pay our bills. On the other hand, when you're a creative type, it's such a core part of your personality. You can't really separate it from anything and if you try to just tamp it down, it's going to come out somehow.
So I was this college graduate and I was having a really hard time getting a job and figuring out what I wanted to do that would make enough money to support me. Computer science was literally the last thing I tried and I seem to do okay at it so I kept doing it. [laughs] And that's how I got into it.
I wish that we had bootcamps when I started learning computer science, but there weren't any and so, all I could do was go back to community college. So I went to community college. I had to take every single math class over again. Calculus, I had to take three times, but I stuck with it. I didn't know if I could do it, but I kept taking the classes and eventually, it worked. So [laughs] that's how I got into the tech industry and it's like, it's totally okay to do this just to make money. That's why I did it.
DAMIEN: So then coming in with this art background, which seems really broad and you didn't talk about anything specific, what insights and connections were you able to make between art and computer science, and art and software engineering?
MARLENA: Sure. So for me, building software is a creative process. In fact, this is something I've believed for a very long time, because as soon as I got out with my newly-minted CS degree and I knew that I needed to create, draw, write, and do all of those things. Eventually, I started looking around for okay, what in computer science is kind of more visual place and it used to be people would think of diagramming software, HoloVizio, Rational Rose, which is that is quite a throwback. Who here –?
MARLENA: [laughs] That UML, yes! I would look at these things, like system architect, where it's like the idea was that you could literally draw out pieces and then it would make your code, which was [laughs] I think an epic fail if you look at it from, did it actually ever write successful code? I have never –
REIN: There's another option, which was the expense of architects draw the boxes and then the chief engineer put the code in the boxes.
MARLENA: Well, but see, you need a brain in there and this is all about the brain.
MARLENA: Yeah. I think one transformation that my thinking had to go through so, I had to go from this computer science perspective of find a way to chop up all your thoughts into little, discreet, logical pieces so that you can make classes, objects, and things like that and instead look at the brain as an organ in your body. We take more of a holistic perspective where it is your brain is connected to your thoughts is connected to like your internal axes, GPS system, and mapping system and how all of that comes together to problem solve.
REIN: Yeah. I love it. Without bodies, we couldn't think about things
MARLENA: Indeed. This past year, I've spent a lot of time specifically investigating this connection. One of the things I did was read Barbara Tversky's book, Mind in Motion, and the premise of her book is that spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought. That is how you orient yourself in the world and how you perceive a space around you and yourself in that space is what allows you to organize ideas, take perspectives that are based in imagination, and things like that.
REIN: Yeah, and this ties into Wyckoff's work on basic metaphors because basic metaphors are how we structure our thought, but they're all about the world. So thinking about the metaphor of containment, you have a thing, it has an inside and an outside, there may be a portal that gets you from the inside to the outside. So this is how houses work, right? This is how we think about houses. This is also how we think about relationships. It's how we think about code.
And then there's you combine that basic metaphor with the metaphor of traveling; starting at a place, traveling along a path, ending up at another place. You put those two metaphors together, you can have complex thoughts about achieving goals. But these are all metaphors based on, like you're saying, our perception of living in a world that has 3D space.
Yes, and maps are such a big part of that. So when I was reading through this particular book, she goes into things like maps, how we map ideas, and things like that and there is quite a bit of science behind it. And even for metaphor, she writes that metaphor is what happens when our thoughts overflow our brains and we need to put them out into the world.
DAMIEN: So putting these thoughts, these ideas back out into the world and into some sort of spatial representation, is that how you view the tech notetaking, or diagramming sort of thing?
DAMIEN: I don't want to show my cards too much here, but I will say the fact that you had difficulty with it is telling.
MARLENA: Well, but I also had difficulty learning C, Java, Erlang.
DAMIEN: So how did [inaudible]?
That was what introduced me to this whole world and eventually, we're talking about when thoughts overflow and you turn to metaphor, this is exactly what was happening for me was Barbara Tyversky refers to these pictures we draw as glyphs. They can be more complicated than language and that is why when we're really trying to figure something out, we're not going to be writing an essay, maybe sometimes, but for the most part, we'll start diagramming.
JAMEY: I also wanted to talk about zines while you were on. I was thinking about zines when you were talking about this because I feel like there's a few different mediums of art that I do and some of them are more intentional than others. To me, zines are about like, “I'm thinking this and it needs to exist in physical space and then it will be done and I can stop thinking about it,” because it exists.
MARLENA: I love that so much and it's exactly what zines are there for. So zines are DIY publishing and zines are the publishing that happens for topics that, I think it happens a lot for people who are underrepresented in some way. Because you're not going to have access to a publisher and it's going to be harder for you to get any official book out. But then sometimes it's also just, maybe you don't want that. Maybe you want your zine to be a more informal publication.
I love zines how kind of – they are all so super niche like, you can put anything. Define the word zine, ha! [laughs]
JAMEY: It's so hard. People will argue about this in the zine community for like days and days. Hard to define the word.
MARLENA: And that's actually part of the power of zines because it means it can be whatever you want, which means whatever you want to create is okay. I think that's really what we're trying to get down into here is having different ways of expressing and problem solving be okay and accepted.
REIN: Just something to point out that containment is a metaphor we use for categories. So we're talking about what is inside the zine category?
DAMIEN: I want to go back to the well, Marlena, you said zines were do-it-yourself publishing, DIY publishing, but blogs are also do-it-yourself publishing. So zines have a physicality to them and feels like that's an important aspect. Can you talk about that, or why that is?
MARLENA: Well, there are also digital zines, so yeah. [laughs] But.
DAMIEN: Maybe five containerization and categories.
MARLENA: [laughs] Well, if we wanted to talk a little bit about physical zines, that even is interesting and Jamey, maybe you have a few thoughts about this that you can share, too because there are just so many different ways to format a zine.
JAMEY: Well, I know that digital zines are a thing and I've read some digital zines that I've very much enjoyed. To me, the physicality of zines is a big part of them and a lot of what's appealing about them for me. I think that part of the reason for that is that, as you were getting at, people can write whatever they want, people who might not have a chance to write in other formats and most importantly about that, you can't censor a zine. It's impossible because someone makes it themselves and then they give it to whoever they want to have. It's a very personal experience and there's no middleman who can like tell you what you can, or can't say.
So I think that having that physical piece of paper that you then hand directly to someone is what makes that possible and not putting it on the internet is also what makes that possible. Like, you have this thing, nobody can edit what's in it. It's all up to you. Nobody can search for it on a search engine. If you don't want someone to see it, then you don't give them one and it's just a holdover from what a lot of media was more like before the internet and I appreciate that about them. [chuckles]
DAMIEN: Yeah. To me, it sounds so much like the Federalist Papers, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
JAMEY: Oh, those were zines for sure.
DAMIEN: I wrote this thing, [inaudible] about, I'm hazing him out of here, read this. [chuckles] Those are zines, okay.
JAMEY: And political zines are a huge subsection of pamphlets and all sorts of political ideology.
REIN: And that's where printing started was with the publishing of zines, that's my argument.
MARLENA: This is the power of print. It's the power of print and that power, it's something that you don't necessarily get with the internet. Zines are an archive as well and I don't think we can just say –
So when I did the first Let’s Sketch Tech! conference, I had an editor from Chronicle Books come and she talked about publishing. When I was talking to her about doing this talk, what I thought was most interesting about our conversation was she said, “Books aren't going away. Books are never going away because we are so connected to our hands and our eyes.” Books are always going to be there. Printed, words printed, pamphlets, zines, I think they're going to outlast computers. [chuckles] Think about how long a CD, or magnetic tape is going to last for versus the oldest book in the world.
REIN: And by the way, if you don't think that printing was about zines, go Google the pamphlet wars. We think it's about publishing the Bible, but the vast majority of stuff that was printed was pamphlets. Zines!
DAMIEN: And we can look at things that have survived through a history and it's really truly about paper from Shakespeare's works to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is how things have survived.
MARLENA: And on another aspect of this is the fact that we are human, we have human eyes and those eyes have limits as to how much they can look at a screen. Looking at paper and also, the physical manipulation of that paper, I think is a very important aspect of zines. So my favorite scene ever, which is sadly lost to me, was this very small print zine and it was the kind that is printed literally on one piece of paper and this folded up. But it had the most magnificent centerfolds where you open it up and this is awesome picture of Prince and the person even taped a purple feather in the centerfold part of it and it's like, that's an experience you're only going to get from this kind of printed physical medium.
DAMIEN: So yeah, I'm seeing a pattern here, communicating ideas through physical mediums.
JAMEY: And I think that because zines are so DIY and low tech that people do really interesting things with paper to express what they're going for. Like, I've been doing zines for a long time with friends.
But my first one that I ever did by myself, I had this black and white photo of a house that had Christmas lights on it and I was trying to be like, “How am I going to express this feeling that I have about this picture that I want to express in this media?” I'm like, “I'm going to go to Kinko's and make copies of this for 5 cents and how is it going to look the way I want?” So I ended up manually using a green highlighter to highlight over all of the Christmas lights in every single copy of the zine so that everyone would see the green Christmas lights that I wanted them to feel what I was feeling about.
I think that's a pretty simple example because it's not extremely a lot of work to put highlighter in your zine either. But I think that people have to think about that and how they want to convey something and then people have done a lot of really interesting things like taping feathers into their books.
MARLENA: Yeah. This is a way of slowing down our thought process, which I don't think we talk about enough because right now, in our culture, it's all about being faster, being lull 10x and making a zine is a great way to reflect on things that you've learned.
So I would really like to take a minute to just talk about zines at work and zines in a professional setting because I've noticed that one thing people think as soon as I start talking about zines is why do I need this in my job? Why do we need this in tech? I think that zines are a great way to help people on teams surface the unspoken knowledge that lives in the team, or it's also a way to play with something that you're trying to learn and share with other people. I’d like to hear Jamey, do you have thoughts about this?
JAMEY: I have a thought, but I'm not sure how directly related it is to what you just said and I feel self-conscious about it. [chuckles] But I like to teach people to make zines who aren't familiar with zines, or haven't made them before and the thing that I try to teach people that I think zines can teach you is that you can just do this. It's not hard. Anyone can do it. It doesn't take a specific skill that you can't just learn.
So they're accessible in that way, but I think it's also a bigger lesson about what you can do if you want to do something and that's how I feel about tech. If you want to learn to code, it's not magic, you can learn how to do it. If you want to do a zine, you can learn how to do it. To me, those thoughts go together. I feel like that wasn't exactly what you just asked, I’m sorry.
DAMIEN: I liked it, though.
MARLENA: It does tie into the fact that it's important to help people feel at home at work. Well, you're not at home at work, but to feel as though they are in the right place at work and this type of making zines and allowing people to surface what they know about your system, about what you're building, about ideas that your team is tinkering with. This kind of format gives people the space to surface what they're thinking even if they're not the most vocal person.
DAMIEN: So one of this really ties into what I was thinking. When you said zines at work and there's a couple of great tech zines which I love and I think should be in a lot of offices. But the idea of actually creating one at work, something happened in my chest when I thought about that idea and it's because it's a very informal medium and tends to be informal and whimsical and you just kind of do it.
I realize how much that is counter to so much of how tech teams and tech industry runs where it's very formal. You can't just ship code, you’ve got to get a pull request and reviewed by the senior engineer and it's got to fit our coding standards and run in ordering time, or less. [laughter] That can be very, I'll say challenging.
JAMEY: I think that's also exactly why it’s easy and fun to learn about tech from zines because it feels so much more approachable than a formal tutorial and you're saying like, “Oh, will this be too hard, or what will I learn?” There's all of this baggage that comes along with it where it's like, “Oh, the zine is like cute and whimsical and I'm going to read it and it's going to be interesting,” and then like, “Whoa, I just learned about sorting from it.”
DAMIEN: Yeah. Just because you’re writing software, or doing computer science doesn't mean we have to be serious. [laughter] Probably needs to be shouldn't be.
REIN: It also makes me think about a shift that I would really like to see in the way diagrams and things like this are used, which is that when you're asked to produce an architecture diagram, you're generally asked to produce something authoritative. It has to be the best current understanding of what the organization has decided to do and that doesn't leave any space for exploration, or for using diagrams to ask questions. I think that's bad because naturally, on a team, or in an organization, everyone has their own models. Everyone has their own local perspective on what's happening. If there's no opportunity to surface, “Hey, here's how I think this works. Can I compare that with how you think this works?” You can't maintain common ground.
I don't think producing a lot of words is a great way to do that. I think that's very inefficient. I also think that having an hour meeting with twenty people where you all talk about it is also inefficient. So I'm wondering if diagrams can be useful here. Relatively, it’s a little bit quicker to draw some boxes and connect them with arrows than it is to write a 1-page report. I'm wondering if we could promote more people putting out these low fidelity diagrams that are, “Here's what's in my head,” and sharing them, if that would help us maintain common ground.
MARLENA: Absolutely, and I love the way that you brought up this situation where everyone is – because I think we've all been in these meetings where it's like, there are some technical hurdle, decisions have to be made, technology needs to be chosen, libraries needed – that type of thing. What I experienced was it was hard for me to get a word in edgewise.
REIN: Yeah, like if you have twenty people in a meeting, at most three of them are paying attention and about half of them are going to be underrepresented in the meeting for a variety of reasons, if not more.
MARLENA: Yeah, and well, I'm just going to say yes. For underrepresented people, this happens a lot. So one of the things that I like to promote is taking apart the traditional jam everyone into a room, let the conversation naturally happen. I'm just going to say it. I don't think that works too well and honestly, I think that a zine format, or even if it's just like take a piece of paper, let people diagram what they think is interesting, then trade, then your team is having a zine fair. [laughs]
REIN: Or if you do that to prepare for the meeting and then the meeting is going over them.
MARLENA: Sure. Yeah, and maybe the discussion is like a facilitated discussion. I did a lot of Agile team stuff, including I had to go down the route of learning how to facilitate just because I couldn't get a word in edgewise on my team. So I started looking at different ways to how do you have a discussion when it's like, there are two, or three people who always talk, nobody else says anything, but everyone has thoughts. It's really interesting what happens when you start trying to change how a group is having discussions.
REIN: It also seems like it's super valuable for the person doing the facilitation because they have to synthesize what's happening in real-time and then they come away with the meeting, with the synthesis in their brains. Part of which they've been able to put into the diagrams, the drawings, and whatever, but only a part of it. So it seems like if you have some external consultant come in and draw diagrams for your team, that external consultant then leaves with a bunch of the knowledge you were trying to impart to everyone else.
MARLENA: I don't know if that's necessarily true. In the world of graphic recording, those folks go to all kinds of meetings and I think it's true that they are going to come away with a different set of thoughts in their head, but they're also not going to have the context of your team.
MARLENA: And that's a pretty big part of it.
But I know Ashton Rodenhiser, she's a graphic facilitator who does this and she'll go into meetings like the one we're describing, and while people are talking, she's drawing things out. It's really interesting what happens when people see their discussion being drawn by a third party. I've seen this happen at some conferences; it's really great way to change the way you have discussion.
REIN: Yeah. So for example, we do incident analysis, we do interviews with the people who are there, and we review slot transcripts. What we find is that the people who are doing the interviews, conducting the analysis, facilitating the reviews, they become experts in the systems.
MARLENA: Ah yes, because so much – it reminds me of how teaching somebody to do something, you teach it to yourself. So they are having to internalize all of this discussion and reflect it back to the team, which means of course, they're learning along with the rest of the team.
REIN: Yeah. So I think my point was not don't hire consultants to do this, it was keeping them around after you do.
MARLENA: [laughs] Wouldn't it be amazing if having a graphic recorder, or a graphic facilitator was just a thing that we all had in our meetings?
REIN: Yeah, or even something that was democratized so that more people got the benefits of – I think doing that work has a lot of benefits to the person who's doing it.
JAMEY: This is making me think a lot about the way that you engaged with something, or the way that you express it, depending on who your target audience is. Like, if I'm taking notes for myself in my own notebook, my target audience is just myself and I write things that won't make sense to anybody else. If I'm writing like a document for work, the target audience is my team, I'm writing in a way that reflects that it's going to be read and understood by my team instead of me.
I think that a lot of what we're talking about here with zines, diagrams, and things like this is kind of an interesting hybrid. When I write a zine, I'm doing it for me, it's benefiting me, but not in the same way as notes in my notebook where I don't want anyone else to ever look at it. So it's like, how do I write something that's benefiting me, but also has an audience of other people that I'm hoping will get something out of it? I think that's a bit of a unique format in some ways.
DAMIEN: That's interesting because everything I hear from novelists and screenwriters, it's always “Write the book, write the movie that you want.” You're the audience and if you love it, not everybody's going to love it, [chuckles] but there are other people who will, chances are other people will love it. If you write something for everybody to love, nobody is going to like it.
MARLENA: Yeah, I think so, too and you never know who else is going to be thinking the same way you are and sometimes, it's that people don't have a way to speak up and share how they're feeling in a similar way. So I actually love that zines allow – I think it is important to be making something that is from your perspective and then share that. That's a way to see who else has that perspective.
DAMIEN: But I also understand this need to, well, I'll say code switch. This need to code switch for different audiences. [chuckles] Rein brought up UML.
I learned UML in college back in the long-ago times and I hated it. It was an interesting thing to learn, but an awful thing to do because all of my UML diagrams had to be complete, authoritative, and correct because I was doing them for my professor and I was a TA. I thought, “Well, if I had large amount of diagrams describing large systems, looking at them could be very informative and useful.” But no one in the world is going to write those things because this is way too much work unless I'm allowed to be informal, general, not authoritative, or complete and so, I'm realizing these tensions that I've been going on in my mind for decades.
MARLENA: Well, and there's programs. Using those programs was so clunky, like adding a square, adding a label, adding a class, and pretty soon, if you were trying to diagram a large system, there was not a great way to change your perspective and go from macro down to micro and zoom out again. Whereas, this is, I think what is so great about the human brain. We can do that and we can do that when we're drawing with our hands.
DAMIEN: Yeah. There were promises of automated UML diagrams that you get from type systems and static analysis and I think I saw some early versions of this and they created correct UML diagrams that were almost readable. But going from correct and almost readable to something that's informative and enlightening, that's an art and we don't have computers that can do that.
MARLENA: Right. Like, humans are not computers. Computers are not human. [laughs] When is it not Turing complete?
I think that initially people really wanted to be robots when they were sitting down at the computer and I think we're going through a period right now where we're rethinking that.
REIN: Well, in part it was management that wanted people to be robots.
DAMIEN: Which reaches back to the industrial revolution.
MARLENA: And still does. What I love is that having this conversation about how we work and how to build software, it brings up all of these things, including this type of management wanting people to be robots, but we're not.
What's interesting to me and what I think is that if we could shift our perspective from let's make everyone a machine, we're all robots sitting, typing out the stuff for people. If we could shift to thinking about building software is a creative process, people are going to need sleep. If you want them to solve your problems, they're going to need different ways to express themselves and share ideas with each other.
REIN: It's really important to uncover facts about work and human performance like, even if you have rules, policies, and procedures, humans still have to interpret them and resolve trade-offs to get them done. You can have two rules that are mutually exclusive and now a human has to resolve that conflict.
Also, that we think that the old paradigm that Damien was talking about, this Taylor’s paradigm, is that manager decide how the work is to be done and then workers do what they're told. But workers, to do this, have to think about high level organizational goals that are much more abstract than what the people designing the work thought they would have to think about. I think if you can uncover – this is all creative problem solving and it's a part of the day-to-day work.
DAMIEN: Yeah, that command-and-control structure was always a fantasy, less so in some places than other places, but always, always a fantasy.
REIN: Even the military is reevaluating what C2 means in the face of overwhelming evidence that humans don't work that way.
DAMIEN: It's nice to pretend, though. Makes things so much simpler.
MARLENA: What's interesting about this changing paradigm in how we view this management and control piece is how this is manifesting in the world of academia, especially in the world of liberal arts, because liberal arts colleges are not doing well. [laughs] In fact, Mills College here in the Bay Area is not going to be taking freshmen next year and they're going to close.
But I think there's a theme of education in here, too in how people learn these skills, because we've been talking about zines. You do not have to have a degree to know how to make a zine and that's awesome! [laughter]
Along with these other skills and I know that there are a lot of people in tech, who they went through computer science program, or even a bootcamp and maybe they did some science before, maybe not, but they're still going to these creative skills and it may be, I think a lot of folks in the US and in tech, it's like you weren't in a position to be able to study art, or to get that much exposure, because it was about survival. Survival for your whole family and there's just not the time to try and explore this stuff.
I would love to see more space in tech for people to explore all of the creative arts and see how does it help you express yourself at work. The most concrete example I have of this is writing up a software bug. So I used to be a tester and I could always tell who had writing skills and who didn't based on how they would write up a bug. [laughs]
DAMIEN: No, and I can definitely feel that. I work on a team of one for several projects. So sometimes, I have to write a user story, or a bug and I have a very strict format for writing bugs. It's basically, it’s write on a Cucumber and yet I will take minutes and minutes and minutes to properly wordsmith that bug report for me [laughs] so that Tuesday –
MARLENA: As you should! Doing a good job!
DAMIEN: So that Tuesday, when I read that I know right away what it means and what it says. Whereas, I can write something quickly that might be accurate, but would be difficult for me to understand, or I can write something quickly that could be in complete assuming that I found the bug. I'm the one who put the bug in there; I know everything there is to know and still come back to this, no clue. I don't even know what the bug is. I actually have to throw away a feature this week because I had no clue what I meant when I wrote it.
MARLENA: I used to actually give a talk about this, how to write up bugs, because it was such an issue and if you don't train developers and other folks who are looking at an app to write them, then it ends up, the testers are the only ones who can write it up and that's not okay. [laughs]
DAMIEN: And when you talk about a talk, how to write a bugs, there's some obvious mechanical things. How do you reproduce this? What did you expect to happen? Who's doing it? That sort of things and these are very clear and obvious, but then there's the actual communicating via words issue. [chuckles] How can you write those things down in a way that's easy for the next person to understand? I spend a lot of time doing that sort of thing. It's hard. It's an art, I guess.
REIN: I want to turn this into an even more general point about the importance of the discipline of formulating your thoughts in a way that's available for consumption. So as an example, I used to write notes in a shorthand way where if I thought I knew something, I wouldn't include it because I already knew that I don't need to take a note about it and what I've found is that I couldn't explain stuff. I couldn't integrate the new knowledge with the old knowledge when it came time for me to answer a question.
The approach I've been taking more recently is formulating my thoughts in a way that if I had to write a blogpost about that topic, I can copy and paste things from my notes, ready to go, and just drop them in. That's the thing I do for myself, but what I've found is that I actually understand stuff now.
DAMIEN: Yeah. I've had the same experience writing things that I thought I understood. This is the rubber duck story. You think you understand something so you try to explain to somebody else and go, “Oh, that's what it was.”
But since we have Marlena here right now, [chuckles] I want to talk about using diagrams and images in that process for a person who doesn't work that way usually.
MARLENA: Indeed. Well, one of the things that I think we hint at in the world of tech—this is interesting because we've all been bashing the UML and all that stuff, but it did give us a set of symbols for visual representation of programming type things. Like, you make the rectangle for your class and then you put your properties in the top and the methods in the bottom, or something like that.
Something that I've noticed in the sketchnoting world is that sketchnoting 101 is how to draw at all. How to feel confident enough to put your pen on the paper and draw a line, draw a box, draw a circle, make them into objects, whatever. But once you're past that introductory, when 101 level of sketchnoting and you've done a few, the next level up is to start creating your own language of visual representation, which I think people kind of do, whether they intentionally do it, or not.
I kind of find myself doing it. The way that I contain categories of information in a sketch note, I've kind of come to a particular way that I do it. That type of thing is because we don't talk about creativity and representation; we don't take the time to do these things. They're not really a practice. Everyone kind of just does their own and I've been on teams that, or I've tried to be on teams that had a fairly mature way of having a wiki, you're going to talk to each other, Agile teams. Still, we might have a wiki, but it's not like we were always drawing together.
I'm interested in have you all had experiences on your teams of drawing together, collaborating on one drawing at the same time?
REIN: Yeah. We use a collaborative whiteboarding software to do various things and one of them is drawing boxes that represent systems and architectures. One of the exercises we sometimes do is we say, “You get this part of the board, you get this part of the board, you get this part of the board. I want you each to diagram how you think the system works now and then in 15 minutes, we're going to look at them together.”
MARLENA: Yes. That type of thing, I think it's so important and I wish that more folks did it on their teams. Have y'all found that you have any visual representation that has started repeating itself, like say certain part of a system you usually draw in a certain way?
REIN: Yeah. We've definitely developed a language, or a discourse over time and some shorthand, or mnemonics for certain things. We’ve not standardized, I think is the wrong word, but we've moved closer together in a more organic way.
DAMIEN: Which is how language develops.
MARLENA: Indeed, indeed. But this way of having this shared visual language together is going to give you a shorthand with each other. Like, when you have a map, you have a legend, and I think that it's important Rein, like you mentioned, not necessarily having standards, but having some common ways of drawing certain things together. That type of drawing together is very powerful for developing your collective way of visualizing a system and thinking about it.
REIN: And another thing I want to highlight here is that if you ask four people to diagram and architecture and you get four different diagrams, that doesn't mean that one of them is right and three of them are wrong. What that usually means is that you have four different perspectives.
MARLENA: Yes. We all have our internal way of mapping things and it is not a right, or wrong, a good, or bad. It's just, every person has a different map, a way of mapping objects in the world, that is brain science stuff.
DAMIEN: I get the opportunity to reference my favorite, what I discovered just now, today, I’ll just go with today's zine, Principia Discordia.
JAMEY: Oh my god, that’s my favorite!
DAMIEN: Marvelous work of art. They say in Principia Discordia that the world is chaos. It's chaos out there and we look at it through a window and we draw lines in the window and call that order. [chuckles] So people draw different lines and those are the diagrams you’re going to get.
JAMEY: That’s so beautiful.
REIN: I have to interject that John Haugeland, who's a philosopher, said something very similar, which is that the act of dividing the universe into systems with components and interactions is how we understand the universe. It's not something that's out those boxes. Aren't something that are out there in the universe. They're in here in our heads and they're necessary for us to even perceive and understand the universe.
DAMIEN: Which gives us a whole new meaning to the first chapter of the book of Genesis. But [laughs] we don't have to go that far down the road.
MARLENA: Well, even if we think about color and perceiving color, everyone's going to have a different theme that they see. It's going to like –
REIN: Yeah, and there's philosophically no way to know if red for me means the same thing as red for you.
MARLENA: Mm hm.
DAMIEN: So applying that same standard to our technical systems. Some senior architects somewhere might draw a diagram and goes, “This is the truth of what we have built, or what we should be building and that there is no external representation of truth.” “Oh, look, the map is not the territory! We can go through this all day.”
REIN: And the interesting thing for me is that this is something that there are Eastern philosophies that have figured out long before Western philosophy did. So while Descartes was doing his stuff, you had the Jainism principle of Anakandavada, which is the manifoldness of the universe. There's no one right truth; there are many interlocking and overlapping truths.
JAMEY: How does this relate to a GitHub [inaudible]? [laughs]
DAMIEN: [overtalk] It means your diagramming is direct.
REIN: It certainly says something about distributed systems and in distributed systems, we call this the consensus problem.
DAMIEN: I love the fact that Git was built to be this completely distributed, no single authority source control system and now we have GitHub.
REIN: I want to know how I, as someone who has terrible handwriting, can feel comfortable doing sketching.
MARLENA: Sure! I just did a whole meet up about that. It's not just you, I think that it's 75% of engineers and we emphasize typing. So what I tell people about handwriting, the very, very basics, is slow down. Not what you want to hear, I know, but it makes a huge difference.
So this past winter, my pandemic new skill that I learned is calligraphy, and in calligraphy, they tell you over and over and over to slow down. So that's tip number one is to slow down and then number two is try writing larger. Whatever it is you're writing, play with the size of it. Larger and slower generally gives you a way to look at what you're writing and which pieces like, there are probably some letters that you dislike more than others when you are writing and you can take those letters that you really dislike. Maybe it's just a matter of reviewing like, how are you forming the letter? If it's all of them, it'll take you longer, but. [laughs]
JAMEY: When I was a kid learning cursive for the first time, I really hated to do the capital H in cursive. I think it's like an ugly letter and I think it's hard to write and it was hard to learn. My last name starts with H so I had to do it a lot. I just designed a new capital H and that's what I've been using in cursive since I was like a little kid [laughs] and nobody notices because nobody goes like, “That's not how I learned cursive in class,” if they can read it.
That's how I feel that language, too and we're talking about the way language evolves. People will be like, “That's not a real word,” and I'm like, “Well, if you understood what I meant, then it's a word.”
DAMIEN: Perfectly fine with it.
JAMEY: And that's kind of how I was just thinking about handwriting too like, what is there right, or wrong if you can read what I'm expressing to you? [chuckles]
DAMIEN: Yeah. If you look at the lowercase g in various glyph sets, you have to actually pay attention and go, “This lowercase g is not the same symbol as this lowercase g.” [laughs] You have to totally call your attention to that. They are vastly, vastly, different things.
MARLENA: The letters that look the same, though are capital T, I, and F.
DAMIEN: You don't put crossbars on your eye?
MARLENA: Well, I'm thinking in terms of like, for calligraphy, when I got into the intermediate class, I had to come up with my own alphabet, typography, design my own alphabet. Those letters were so similar, they just gave me fits trying to make them all different.
But I think it's important for people to practice their handwriting. I know that we all just scribble on the pad for charging, or whatever. You just scribble with your fingernail and it doesn't look like anything. But keeping that connection to your handwriting is also an important way of valuing yourself and this space that you take up in the world. I think it's really good if you can get to a place where you can accept your own handwriting and feel comfortable with it.
Since I am into stuff like calligraphy and lettering, it's definitely part of my identity, the way that I write things out by hand. It's physically connected to you, to your brain, and so, things like that, we want to say everything is typing in tech, but there is a value for your confidence, for your brain, and for how you process information to be able to write something by hand and feel confident enough to share that with somebody else.
JAMEY: That was really beautiful, actually. But I was going to ask, how do you think your handwriting relates to your voice? Because when you were saying that about feeling comfortable with your handwriting and how it's like a self-confidence thing, it made me think of the way that people also feel and interact with their voice. Like, you always hear people, “Oh, I hate listening to a recording of myself. I hate listening to my voice.”
MARLENA: Well, there's that whole field of handwriting analysis, just like there's that whole field of body language and that includes what someone's voice sounds like. It is attached to your personality and how you're thinking and how you're working with ideas.
[laughs] So it's not like I'm judging someone when I look at their—sometimes I am, I'm lying. Sometimes I am judging people when I look at their handwriting. I mostly don't. Honestly, I think we've lost so much education about handwriting in schools, what I dislike about that is, we were talking about the power of print earlier. Well, if you feel uncomfortable writing your name, if you feel uncomfortable writing down what you believe and sharing it, that's the type of censorship, isn't it? So I think handwriting is important for that type of thing, but I think it is connected to your personality.
JAMEY: It says something about you and when you put something out into the world that says something about you in that way, it's kind of a vulnerable experience.
MARLENA: It is, and you're showing people how you value yourself. I think that's partly why a lot of times in tech, we've minimized the role of handwriting so much that nobody feels comfortable sharing their handwriting. Well, it's not nobody, that's a big generalization, but a lot of people don't feel comfortable sharing their handwriting and that is a loss. That is a loss for everyone.
DAMIEN: I love what you said, in part because I didn't want to hear it, when Rein asked, “How do you improve your handwriting?” You said, “Write slower and write bigger,” and I knew right away that that was correct because that's the only thing that has worked when I was trying to improve my handwriting. But I gave up on that because I didn't want to; I don't want to write slower and bigger because of what you said—taking up space.
If you look at my handwriting historically, it's been not taken up – very little space, very little time. I don't want anybody to have to wait for me to finish writing. I don't want to use this whole page. I don't want to think my writing is so, so important that it's all big on the page, but allowing myself to take up space and time is how I get to better handwriting. So that was just such a beautiful way of putting it.
MARLENA: Well, I read this book called How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and it's a wonderful book where the book blows me away and it's hard to talk about it because she has packed so much into it. But it's thinking about how we make ourselves go so fast and it's about the attention economy. How we are trying to speed ourselves up so much and I think that handwriting is part of this. If we are going to take back our own lives, that includes being able to slow down enough to write your name in a way that feels good to you and share it.
I like what you wrote in the chat, Damien, but I'd like to hear you say it.
DAMIEN: I wrote it in the chat so I wouldn't say it. [laughs] “Decolonize your mind.” It was a message to myself, decolonize your mind. The idea that you don't get to do nothing, you don't get to take up space and time. Yeah, and so that's just, it's all these things are so tightly connected.
MARLENA: So I think y'all are ready for me to tell you the story of how I came up with a first Let’s Sketch Tech conference and this conference happened maybe 2017, 2018. I always forget the exact year, but it was post Trump getting elected.
Now the Women's March, right after Trump got elected and sworn into office, was a major point in time and wake up call for me. I've always tried to learn about politics, intersectionalism, and things like that, but this March showed me the power of making something with your own hands and showing that and sharing it to someone else. I wanted everyone to feel like, even in this era of Trump, we still have the power to make something meaningful and share that with our own hands.
So that was when I decided to start emphasizing more and learning more about the connection between art and tech. I'd been doing sketch notes and it sort of struck me that there was not much of a community out there that handled this topic, which I thought was just kind of strange.
When I looked at sketchnoting itself, it seemed like more was happening in the world of design. Well, what about engineers? I've had to draw out things so many times to learn them, to teach somebody else, to understand what's happening and so, that's when I put together this Let’s Sketch Tech conference. I wanted people to be able to retain the power to make something with their own hands, because that can never be taken away from you, whether you have internet connection, or not. But even if you do have the internet connection, combining these together is just so powerful.
So that is why I started this conference and this community and it's pretty deep. I don't bring it up all the time because it's kind of a lot, but yeah, and we had a great time.
DAMIEN: Thank you so much, and thank you for sharing that story and everything else you've shared with us.
How do we feel about going into reflections? I think I'm going to be reflecting on in the broad sense, it's what I didn't want to say earlier until Marlena called me out, decolonize your mind. But in a smaller sense, it's how much of my view of the tech industry, my work in there, and the environment there should be formal, structured, strict, authoritarian.
I had all these ideas that are still, unbeknownst to me, having a huge influence about how we can work. The idea of a zine fest at work seems so outrageous to me because it doesn't fit into those ideas and so, I'll be reflecting on well, where else am I seeing this stuff and how has it prevented me from doing something so very effective? [laughs]
I said, zine fest. I used to think I was too young to mispronounce zine, but whatever. [laughs]
JAMEY: I can go next. So my two favorite things, I think that got said, one of them was also about like the zine fair at work. I host zine fairs in my hometown and the idea of like, well, if you both draw something and then you trade, you're having a zine fair. I absolutely love that. And then my other favorite thing was about the talk closer to the end about valuing yourself and the way and taking up space and all of those things.
I feel actually like I want to mush those two things together because talking about valuing yourself, like really resonated with me the way that I do zines in my regular life, not in tech. But I think that inside of tech is a place where there are people that I really want to see value themselves more. It's a system that has a tendency to shut people down and keep talented people and I want to imbue that kind of confidence into a lot of engineers, especially newer engineers.
So I think that I really like this idea of a zine fest at work, and maybe that can, in addition to helping teach us about our systems and stuff, help us encourage each other to take that time to value ourselves.
REIN: I think what struck me about this conversation the most is that creativity is good for people, personally, individuals to explore our creativity. But when we share it with other people, that's a way that we can become closer.
I think that for the work to happen—because to some extent, I tried to apply these ideas at work—people have to build and maintain common ground with each other. I think that encouraging people to be creative and to share that creativity—you typically wouldn't ask a junior engineer to draw an architecture diagram, but I think you should.
MARLENA: I hope that after listening to this, people definitely ask their newer folks on their team to draw a diagram, then we’ll share and trade with them.
I think what I've learned from this conversation is, well, I think that it validated, more than anything, the ideas that I'm trying to spread about connecting arts and technology. It was wonderful to hear each of you talking about the struggles and challenges that you have at work in bringing this together because it is a different way of thinking. But I feel so positive whenever I talk about this and seeing people be able to recognize themselves and seeing some doors and windows open about how they can incorporate the arts a little bit more into their tech lives is the reason why I do this and it's been such a privilege to share this with all of you and your listeners. So thanks for having me.
DAMIEN: It's been a privilege to have you. The idea that we can start out with like, “Let's draw pictures as engineers,” and ended up with, “Oh my God, how do I become fully human?” [laughs] It's really amazing.
JAMEY: Yeah, this was really great. Thank you so much for coming on and talking about this.
MARLENA: It was a lot of fun.
DAMIEN: Marlena, why don't you give your Patreon and your podcast?
MARLENA: Sure. Well, I started the Patreon because it was an easier way for folks to sign up for the meetups that happened in Let's Sketch Tech. We do a monthly meetup and I'm starting to plan the conference for this year. There's a free newsletter, but if this podcast is giving you life, if you're getting oxygen from this conversation, I highly suggest checking out the Let’s Sketch Tech Patreon, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to my podcast, Make it a Pear! I talk a lot about creative process in tech.
DAMIEN: Awesome. Thank you so much and thank you for joining us.Support Greater Than Code