Category Archives: bio

2018, a Retrospective in Pictures

January After a lot of travel in the autumn of 2017, we spent a quiet winter break at home, with a week of being full-time parents while Mitchell’s mother had a well-deserved vacation of her own. Mitchell and I went on a day trip to San Francisco, where he experienced “snow” for the first time Read More…

January

After a lot of travel in the autumn of 2017, we spent a quiet winter break at home, with a week of being full-time parents while Mitchell’s mother had a well-deserved vacation of her own.

Mitchell and I went on a day trip to San Francisco, where he experienced “snow” for the first time at the Academy of Science, and Lindsay and her sister taught him how to climb a tree.

Mitchell at the Academy of Science.
Mitchell in a tree.

Mid-month, I went to Seattle, then in late January Brendan and I took a non-working trip together (aka, actual vacation), to the Big Island of Hawaii, where we had beautiful sunsets, the sound of waves to lull us to sleep, and adventures with dolphins, fish, and a volcano.

February

We didn’t go anywhere in February. This proved to be unusual in this year.

March

In March, things got crazy.

I spent the first few days of the month in San Francisco, attending Lesbians Who Tech – lots of great topics on the program, but it was so crowded that it was hard to get into any of them. I did manage to attend one very interesting panel of women who had worked on the technology of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Lesbians Who Tech - women who worked on the technology for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The following weekend, we drove down to Pasadena where Brendan and I were both speaking at SCaLE16x. This is one of my favorite conferences – it’s run by a very kind, welcoming local community, and has a friendly, non-corporate vibe. It also does a great job of including everybody, starting with a kids’ track and mentoring kids into speaking at the “grown up” conference. You can see my talk on Marketing Your Open Source Project, and read the slides.

A week after that, I flew to Italy to take care of unfinished personal business. My BFF Sue came along to help shred 25 years’ worth of papers; sort through books, artwork, and other personal possessions; and decide what to ship back to the US from the house I formerly shared with my ex, in Lecco.

We did manage to do a little tourism on beautiful Lake Como.

Then we went to Milan, where I saw some old friends, led a panel discussion on diversity in tech at the AWS Summit, and then flew home. Two days after my arrival, another dear old friend, Robyn, came through on a visit from Switzerland.

April

The first weekend in April, Brendan, Mitchell, and I flew to Florida to join in the birthday celebration of my high school classmate Denise. That was three days and nights of themed parties with fabulous food, great music, and very interesting people.

St Pete's beach.
That’s the birthday girl in the middle!

The following week, fortuitously, was Mitchell’s spring break, so we went to Disney World.

Three days of that was fun, but I figured I didn’t need to do Disney again for at least two years. I even said so at the time. Mark those words.

Brendan’s favorite place in Florida: Cape Canaveral

And I made another trip to Seattle in April, though I don’t now remember exactly what for.

May

In May we stayed home and enjoyed the local springtime…

…and some imported delicacies.

June

Brendan headed to Boston to speak at a conference in late May/early June. I did not accompany him, in part because I finally had the opportunity, in Santa Cruz, to meet two of my long-time heroes, Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini.

Another reason I stuck around was that my shipment was arriving from Italy, I just wasn’t sure exactly when. It was finally all in the house by June 1st. I had spent part of May building Ikea furniture to hold my collections of comics, books, memorabilia, artwork, and DVDs.

Then I went to Seattle again, where the weather was beautiful – and, as ever, there was lots of construction going on.

July

Brendan was in Boston again for a meeting when I departed for… Disney World. Again. This time for an AWS internal summit. Visiting Epcot Center (which we had skipped during our April visit) with n,000 colleagues was a very different experience. We had a front-row view of the fireworks!

I flew from Orlando to Portland, OR, for the Community Leadership Summit, where I chaired an unconference session on marketing open source, and then OSCON, which AWS was sponsoring. Unfortunately, all the travel caught up with me and I got sick, so I left OSCON early (sadly, missing the opportunity to see many friends and colleagues) and went home.

The following week I was recovered enough to attend an internal technical evangelists’ summit in Seattle. This is one of the groups our team works most closely with at AWS, and also some of the smartest and hardest-working people I know. And fun!

Abby Fuller, one of the badass women of tech.

I also spent a lot of time in the Spheres, my favorite place in Seattle (so far).

August

We had a little more excitement than expected in August when Brendan had an emergency appendectomy. Fortunately, he recovered quickly enough that we didn’t need to change our plans for a family vacation on Maui. My daughter Rossella and her partner Dan joined us (it was also her birthday) and we had adventures including a luau, snorkeling, scuba diving, education in Hawaiian culture with Wilmont Kamaunu Kahaialii, and a sunrise on Haleakala.

Wilmont Kamaunu Kahaialii.
Haleakala sunrise.

We had only been home for a week when I left again, to do live social media for AWS at the VMworld conference in Las Vegas.

September

I was asked to do the live social media thing for AWS again, this time at DreamForce in San Francisco. This is one of the largest technical conferences in the world, with about 170,000 people jammed into downtown San Francisco. It was horribly crowded. Brendan joined me for a couple of nights. We managed to catch the final minutes of the Metallica concert (I wasn’t interested enough to brave the crowds and lines to get in earlier).

Meanwhile, our apartment was under construction for a new washer/dryer to be installed. I had to pack up all the stuff I had just received from Italy and painstakingly fit into our already-crowded home, and find places to stash it out of the way of the workers. Our living room was filled with boxes again.

When not traveling, I mostly work from home. I had already endured months of construction noise as all the apartments around us were renovated by the new management company. Three weeks of construction in my home was miserable. When it was all done, we had a washer/dryer in the apartment, which was admittedly more convenient than the communal laundry just across the courtyard, but we’d lost a precious storage closet. I managed once again to find room for everything in our <1000 square foot apartment, but the situation was increasingly unbearable, and indeed it seemed as if the new management would be happy to be rid of us so they could renovate our apartment and raise the rent (again).

October

My dear friend Jeffrey married Matt at San Francisco City Hall, under the aegis of Harvey Milk. I am so happy for them both!

San Francisco City Hall, top floor.

I flew out that evening to Seattle to speak at an internal AWS conference for technical writers, where I gave a talk in the career track on My Career Evolution from Tech Writer to… Many Things, which attendees told me was inspiring. I am not accustomed to thinking of myself as a role model. Brendan joined me for a couple of days, and we found time to do a bit of tourism.

These people are all in the wrong place.
Brendan liked the Spheres, too.

Later in October, Brendan and I flew to Raleigh, NC, to speak at All Things Open, an open source conference that neither of us had attended before (we both liked it a lot! – this is another great, friendly, community-run conference). AWS was a sponsor, so I also helped out a little in the booth, and live-tweeted my colleagues’ talks.

When ATO was over, we drove to Asheville, NC, where we spent a delightful weekend with Woodstock friend James Hackney, who was a wonderful host, showing us all around Asheville, the Biltmore estate, and the Blue Ridge mountains.

Foreground: James. Background: Brendan.

Then we drove on to Nashville, TN, where Brendan was co-chairing, with Rikki Endsley, the USENIX LISA conference. I didn’t have anything specific to do at the conference, and came back a couple of days before Brendan did to take over care of Mitchell.

We also managed to surprise Brendan on his birthday. That’s Rikki with him.

November

I voted.
We had days of extremely bad air, with smoke blown down from the Paradise fire 200 miles away.

Meanwhile, I was increasingly busy at work, as was almost everyone at AWS in the run-up to re:Invent, our biggest event of the year. I had blog posts to write, edit, and manage, including some about top-secret announcements. Everything possible had to be prepared in advance, as I knew I’d be extremely busy during re:Invent itself, doing live social media again.

Meanwhile, I had for some time been semi-seriously looking for a new home to rent. Around mid November, we found one that met all our criteria, but there was no way we could move in immediately. We agreed with the landlord that we’d move in mid-December.

Thanksgiving blew by; Mitchell’s mother Claire joined us for a meal, as usual, and Brendan and I were both doing work, as usual. It’s a good thing we don’t care much about standard holidays. That Saturday, Brendan departed for Australia to keynote the Yow! conferences and CTO events, starting in Sydney. Early Sunday morning, I flew to Las Vegas for re:Invent.

I was one of a small crew live tweeting on @AWSreInvent – a job involving great power, great responsibility, and very long hours. re:Invent started for me with Midnight Madness that Sunday night – yes, it went on past midnight, and it was crazy. And fun. (I think you can see me in action – or at least the side of my head – at 19 seconds into this video.)

I also covered all the keynotes (Peter, Andy, Werner), and many other key sessions.

It was fun getting the behind-the-scenes view on this incredibly-orchestrated event, like these folks getting ready to usher in contestants who would be trying to set a world record for the largest number of people air drumming at once.
The sheer scale…

Meanwhile, my colleagues Tamara and Shirley were taking care of my day-job responsibilities: ensuring that blog posts went out at exactly the right time (with launches, timing is crucial) and were then tweeted about on @AWSOpen. It was great to be part of a talented, hard-working team, pulling in harness together.

Oh, and I had a birthday in there. I turned 56 on November 28th. I was too tired to do much about it, but I did have a very nice meal back at the Wynn.

re:Invent ended on Friday, November 30th. I covered one more session in the morning, then went to the spa, then we had the social media team lunch.

That evening, I got on a plane to LAX, and then to Brisbane, Australia. Not too surprisingly, the people in the airplane row with me were traveling home from re:Invent, as were a few others in the customs line when we arrived (they were easy to spot in their re:Invent hoodies).

December

I lost a day in transit and arrived in Brisbane on Sunday, December 2nd. That was a day off between conferences for the Yow! speakers, so we were all taken by bus and ferry to Stradbroke Island to enjoy some sun, sand, and scenery.

The following week was still very busy for Brendan, keynoting in Brisbane and then Melbourne for the final leg of Yow! I was too tired to attend as many of the talks as I’d like, but enjoyed the ones I did attend. Yow! speakers are all well known and very, very good, and it was fun to get to know them as we all traveled together – an opportunity we don’t get so much at other conferences.

Yow! ended with a private dinner for the speakers on Friday, December 7th. Brendan and I made our way back to Sydney the next day to chill out for a few days. We didn’t have the energy to do as much as we’d have liked there, but we did enjoy a fabulous view from the Novotel in Darling Harbour, had dinner with an old school friend of mine, did a little Christmas shopping, and generally enjoyed being warm and having not much we had to get done for a few days.

On December 12th we flew back to the Bay Area, and continued packing up our apartment to move on the 15th. We managed to get about 90% of our possessions packed into boxes before the movers arrived, but it was good to be able to rely on them to do the final bits, as well as disassemble the beds and move it all.

The new place is not far from where we lived before; one of our criteria was staying in the neighborhood so as to be close to Mitchell’s school and his mother. But it’s about twice the living space we had before, a beautifully-finished (if quirky) house with a yard, a fabulous kitchen, and a few other amenities that make it quite the party place. By December 31st, we had in fact unpacked and organized enough to host a low-key, early evening New Year’s Eve party for a few friends and their kids.

I rounded off my working year with a Top Ten blog post, and had already begun planning my travel and conference schedule for 2019. So far I know that I’ll be at the AWS Summits in Berlin (late Feb) and Milan (mid March), with some time in between in the UK and Paris. If you’ll be in any of those places/times, let me know! If you want to follow my adventures, Twitter is a good way to do that.

Best wishes to all for a happy 2019!

My Career Evolution from Tech Writer to… Many Things

I recently gave a talk at at internal Amazon conference for tech writers. I was a technical writer from early in my career, and still consider tech writing one of my foundational skills. In the talk, I hoped to provide some insight to other technical writers about their own skills, and how those could be Read More…

I recently gave a talk at at internal Amazon conference for tech writers. I was a technical writer from early in my career, and still consider tech writing one of my foundational skills. In the talk, I hoped to provide some insight to other technical writers about their own skills, and how those could be used in other roles. I’m sharing all that information here, in case you also find it useful. (It was an hour-long talk, which makes for a very long blog post!)

Introduction

This is the first time in my 30 year plus career that I’m doing a very autobiographical talk.

It will cover my career arc to date, starting with how I developed the skills that made me a good tech writer – even though I never planned to be one. Nor have I planned much of anything else about my career. My life has been unusual, and most of my career has been about adapting to the situations I found myself in. The process of reflecting on my career in order to write this talk has been interesting – in some ways painful, given some of what’s going on in the world – and I hope you’ll find the stories interesting as well as useful.

There’s a subtext throughout this talk that I’d like to call your attention to now, and that is: doing all the things I’ve done, while also being part of a marriage, raising a child, and running a household, has not been easy. I often did not have support at home, let alone in the workplace. And yet… I persisted.

And, in spite of everything, I have survived in this industry which – in spite of everything – I still love. For over 30 years now.

Some Takeaways

Here are some of the interesting tidbits you might take away from this talk:

  • History of technical documentation
  • Online communication since 1982
  • Changing styles of communication
  • The early days of the Web
  • Historical snapshots of tech in other countries (Italy, Cameroon, India)
  • Customers know more than you do
  • Early experiences in working remote
  • You can work with your life partner and not kill each other
  • How to survive 30 years in tech without a STEM degree
  • Agile career development

I didn’t know what the demographics of this audience would be, so I didn’t know how many would be surprised to learn that I pre-date the Internet. I now know that I pioneered a lot of things, such as writing in a user-friendly way rather than using marketing weasel talk – I was doing this before the Cluetrain Manifesto came along. I was also providing customer support online in the very early days of the Internet. As part of that work, I was treating customers as a community who could be brought together to share knowledge for the benefit of an entire ecosystem.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was a pioneer. I mostly saw myself as doing what should be done for customers, often because they had directly told me what they wanted and needed.

You might say I was an ante-litteram Amazonian. (And I’ve been a happy Amazon customer for over 20 years.)

How I Became a Tech Writer

Deirdré Straughan - school picture ~1970

This was my third grade school picture. As you can see, I’m left-handed. Hand writing was hard for me, as is true of many lefties. I loved words, but the mechanical process of getting them onto paper was painful and difficult.

Around age ten, I learned to two-finger type on my Dad’s Selectric typewriter.

In high school, one of my statements of individuality was to write in magenta fountain pen ink. I’m sure all my teachers were relieved when I took a typing class and my dad gave me a portable typewriter of my own. I began typing all my papers, and sometimes others’ as well. I never looked back; I’m a keyboard person for life. My keyboard skills eventually launched me on my career in tech.

In high school, I also worked on the school newspaper and the yearbook. These gave me valuable skills in the production and management of what we now call content, as well as more writing and editing. And, like many teens, I wrote bad fiction and worse poetry, which fortunately is now lost to history.

I’m also a reader, always have been – and I’d argue that it’s impossible to be a great writer without being a great reader.

First Manual

The Woodstock School Survival Kit, 1981

I wrote my first ”manual” during my senior year in boarding school – a handbook of school rules and other practicalities. Lists of rules had already existed in some written format, but it was all very dry and forbidding – not what you’d expect teenagers to read and absorb. I tried to make the same basic material fun and engaging enough that my peers would actually read and use the information. I have maintained this friendly, informal tone in most of my writing since, which has worked particularly well in the age of the Internet. When I last visited the school a couple of years ago, I was told that my Survival Kit was still in use, though of course it’s been through 35 years of revisions.

Early Equipment

Commodore Vic 20I should point out that I do not have a STEM background, nor does anyone in my family. In college I took the bare minimum of science and math courses needed to complete my BA. I took one course in programming – Pascal – my freshman year. This was on VAX UNIX terminals; I just missed the punch card era. I did not feel any particular proficiency at or enthusiasm for programming. In hindsight, this may have been because the course was poorly taught. At any rate, that was the extent of my formal education in computers.

In 1982, while I was a student at the University of Texas, my father bought me my first computer, a Commodore Vic 20. This was a computer built into a keyboard (you had to use a TV for a monitor). My dad claimed that this was to help me learn programming, but for the first few months he was mostly using it to play Space Invaders while recovering from knee surgery. I did eventually get to use the Vic 20, though I still did not learn programming.

Online for the First Time

When I was able to prise the Vic 20 out of my dad’s hands, I quickly discovered what computers were really for: communication. I joined CompuServe in 1982, at that time the province of a few thousand geeks. The first thing I found on CompuServe was the chat rooms – which predated IRC – called CompuServe CB chat. I immediately became fascinated with being able to communicate online with people I hadn’t yet met. In those days, it was so novel that we went to some lengths to have regional meetups.

CompuServe meetup at Texas State Capitol.

the CompuServe gang gathers at the Texas State capitol

My CompuServe addiction was cut short by my dad’s unwillingness to pay the bills (I think it cost about $6 an hour). It was a while before I was regularly online again, but that early experience in communicating online became important later in my career.

Have Typewriter, Will Travel

As I mentioned, I have no STEM background. My undergraduate degree ended up being in Asian Studies and Languages, partly because I had grown up in Asia and had a special interest in India, where I went to high school, but also because I was given federal scholarships that covered my tuition as long as I was studying ”exotic” languages like Hindi and Urdu.

The scholarships covered my tuition and my dad helped out with rent, but to earn pocket money, I worked. Early on, I worked as a typist, which often meant that I ended up providing free editing services as well – I couldn’t bring myself to commit bad grammar to paper, even when it was someone else’s bad grammar.

Around 1983, I got a part-time job doing typesetting and word processing on very early electronic machines. I learned markup language, without knowing to call it that, as well as layout and word processing: all skills which I still use today.

Another job I had during college was as a secretary in the Commercial Section of the US Embassy in Jakarta. This involved learning to use a Wang word processing system, with tractor feed printers that jammed all the time.

Those Who Can, Teach

After college, in 1986, I began working as a secretary, which by then meant learning to use Word Perfect on early PCs. Because I was curious and willing to dig in and learn, I became the office expert on the software, often helping and teaching others.

Then I started working in a startup headed by a friend of my dad’s. Initially I did desktop publishing as a service, using Ventura Publisher on the GEM interface (later, on Windows 1.I-don’t-remember). This was pretty easy for me to learn, given my background in typesetting, word processing, and PCs. The boss was taking on whatever work he could get for the company, which one summer included hiring a friend of mine to write a software manual. I sat alongside my friend and did the layout, so I learned something about writing documentation, while adding to my skills in production.

I also started developing and delivering training to others, such as US government employees, on how to do desktop publishing. My training style was to teach the concepts, then have people work on their own projects so that the lessons would stick. It was apparently effective. I also made two trips for the World Bank in 1988, installing desktop publishing systems and teaching people how to use them, in Cameroon and Tanzania. These photos were from the Cameroon trip:

teaching desktop publishing in Cameroon, 1988In all these training courses, I was working directly with users and could see first-hand how they understood things and what concepts they had trouble with. I learned to adapt my teaching style to the audience in front of me,  another important skill for a tech writer. And I had to continually extend my own abilities. For example, for the Cameroon trip I was bringing electronic equipment into a harsh environment: extremely humid, with unreliable electricity. Beyond the software and concepts of desktop publishing, I had to know how to troubleshoot, strip down, and rebuild the PCs, and be able to teach my students how to do it.

Both of those trips were great fun and I learned a ton, but … then I married an Italian math professor, had a child, and moved to Italy.

Getting Started – in ItalyRossella testing "The Manhole"

By the time we arrived in Milan in January 1991, I had been mostly a stay-at-home mom for about 18 months. I was anxious to get back to work, but Italy’s job market was difficult even then, and it functions very differently from the US one. (I’ve never been very good with job hunting in the US, either.) I was in for months of frustration.

I started freelancing for Italian computer magazines, writing articles in Italian. One of my first pieces was a review of The Manhole, a kids’ game from the people who later went on to do Myst. This photo was used in the magazine; that’s my daughter, then two years old, playing the game.

Freelancing didn’t pay much, but there were perks, such as occasional travel to tech events.

Then I began working for Fabrizio Caffarelli at Incat Systems, his small software startup in Milan. At that time, tech startups in Italy were vanishingly rare. The Italian business climate was not friendly towards small, new businesses, so Fabrizio was very unusual in being a Silicon Valley-style tech entrepreneur operating in Italy in the 1990s.

My first project for him was a manual for an OCR software he was producing. Because his market was mostly in Italy, what I wrote was translated, more or less simultaneously, by Fabrizio’s niece. When that project was completed, Fabrizio said: “I like the way you work, but I don’t have any more work for you right now.” So I went on vacation, wrote some more articles, and began thinking maybe I should write a technical book. A few months later, while I was still casting about for a topic, Fabrizio called me and asked: “Hey, do you want to write a book with me?”

The Book

Publish Yourself on CD-ROM book coverSo we did.

“Publish Yourself on CD-ROM” was partly a marketing ploy on Fabrizio’s part. When we began writing it in late ’91, CD recording was still difficult and expensive, using command-line driven software on machines that cost $100,000 and were the size of a mini-fridge, burning discs that cost $100 each. It was easy to screw up a command and waste those expensive discs. Fabrizio foresaw the advent and eventual popularity of low-cost, desktop CD recorders, and that there would be a need for easy-to-use software targeted at home users. He put together an engineering team to start developing this software.

The book had to explain difficult concepts that at the time were covered only in expensive standards documents from Sony and Philips. I learned by reading those, and by talking with Fabrizio. In the book, I tried for a friendly tone that would invite people in rather than scare them off.

We didn’t get much of an advance on the book, and Fabrizio took most of that, so I made some extra money by doing all the layout and indexing for the book myself, using Framemaker.

The book was one of the first in the world to be published with a CD, which contained a trial version of Easy CD 1.0. I also produced a screen-readable, hypertext-rich version of the text, also done in Framemaker (because Adobe PDF wasn’t quite ready for use then, though I was aware that it was coming).

This showed me early on the power and flexibility of electronic texts. At the time, I saw hypertext as a way to make books even more useful as aids to learning. For example, our book had an extensive glossary, and I linked occurrences of glossary words in the text to the glossary, so the reader could pop up a definition at any time while reading. Remember, all this was happening in 1992, before most people had heard of the worldwide web. The book was published by Random House in early 1993.

All About CD-R

CD-recording software manuals

By the time the book was published, I was working full time for Fabrizio doing documentation – here you can see some of my output.

I also did OEM versions of manuals for all our software, which forced me to be clever with tools. I was using FrameMaker with variables to automatically generate vendor-specific versions of each manual. I also learned how to deal with business partners, as I was working directly with those OEMs on their documentation needs.

Incat being a startup, we all wore many hats. Other things I did for the company included all aspects of manual production. And I got heavily involved in the software itself: I worked with the engineers from the beta stage or earlier, testing and reporting bugs, and making suggestions for interface and feature improvements. I realized that, if a feature was hard to explain to users, it probably wasn’t implemented correctly in the first place, and we should be re-thinking it. I also wrote and implemented the context-sensitive help in the UI.

Other things I did included writing and editing marketing materials and other collateral, helping sales staff with technical information, and giving talks at industry trade shows and other seminars and lectures.

Most importantly, I was communicating online with customers. I was a Section leader and participant in CompuServe forums, participated in Internet mailing lists on related issues, and monitored CD-R related Usenet groups. I was the first point of contact for online support. That sometimes spilled over to helping out on the phones as well.

For any job in tech, I strongly recommend spending some time doing support: you learn fast that way about customer pain points.

In late 1993, Fabrizio moved the Italian engineers to Silicon Valley. I began traveling there four times a year to work with them. In August of 1995, the company was acquired by Adaptec for $48M, which was a good exit for the time. I began working for Adaptec as a contractor, because they would not hire me in Italy.

The Problem with Paper

Writing documentation has never been easy, and it was even harder back in the 90s. A software release had to be finished enough that you could work with it, and then after writing was completed you also needed time for printing and packaging. Software releases were infrequent for these and other reasons, and documentation usually lagged customer needs.

Paper manuals were also expensive to produce, print, and distribute. Even the help screens and context-sensitive help within the software could not be revved any more frequently than the software itself. All of this was starting to feel very cumbersome.

Sometime around 1993, I remember sitting in the back of a bus on my way to or from work in Milan, reading a copy of the Seybold Report that I’d borrowed from the office. There was a small article – just a box, really – about this new thing called the World Wide Web. I remember thinking: “That’s going to be important.”

As we entered the Web 1.0 age, customers’ expectations of company responsiveness increased, and our old, slow, expensive processes were no longer sufficient. We needed a way to provide customers with updated and expanded information about our software, on demand (in response to FAQs and newly-discovered bugs as they arose), and at low cost.

I started creating pages for a website, even though I had no idea how to get it online. I called up UUNet, then one of the largest Internet Service Providers, to try to learn more. The person I got on the phone told me rather rudely that our company was too small to have its own website. One of the souvenirs I’ve kept from that era is a UUNet hat given to me by a friend. AFAIK, the company is no more.

Moving it Online

CD-R glossary Adaptec site

By the time the acquisition of Incat was completed, Adaptec had its own brand-new website, and I had pages ready to post on it. These were created with the rudimentary HTML tools then available in Microsoft Word. Not long afterwards, I found myself responsible for the busiest section of the Adaptec site, eventually bringing in 70% of overall traffic.

I was happy to hand off my responsibilities for printed manuals to someone else, and it was around this time that I stopped referring to myself as a technical writer. Nevertheless, I saw myself as doing essentially the same job: helping customers understand how to use our software. I just kept expanding the ways and means I used to do that.

Web Apps

Adaptec CD Recorder Database

Another thing I figured out early on was that some kinds of information are better structured as an app or searchable database than as a manual or web page. Again, I was moving away from the traditional narrative style of documentation, towards something more interactive and updatable.

The Media Bargains Board

And I started crowd-sourcing useful information, such as where to get a good deal on recordable CDs, before anyone called that crowd-sourcing (or even “user-generated content”).

Communicating with Customers

I had begun to interact daily with customers online around 1993, and I soon learned to value their knowledge. No QA or tech writing team can match the thousands of hours with a product that a large pool of users will collectively spend. Nor can an internal team hope to duplicate all the diverse situations in which customers will use something. When we tap into what customers know about our products, we all benefit.

I was an active participant on Usenet forums: answering questions, keeping an eye on hot issues, and conveying customer feedback to engineering and management. These feedback loops helped improve the customer experience at every touchpoint, from the software to the documentation to support and service.

In 1996, at the request of customers, I launched a moderated, email-based discussion list where we could discuss CD-R in depth, without the distractions of Usenet trolls. (Yes, there were trolls back then, too.)

A lot of useful information flowed through these forums. Part of my job was to pick out what was important, edit and organize it, and disseminate it again via other channels. Again, it was a feedback loop, helping to address customer needs as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

NewslettersRoxio newsletters

The original Majordomo discussion list became too active for some people, who requested a weekly newsletter instead. At first I simply condensed and edited the most interesting and useful stuff from the discussion list. Then I started writing topical articles, and eventually hired freelancers – other experts I knew in CD-R – to contribute. Later still, we had separate Windows and Mac editions. Over time we accumulated 160,000 subscribers between the two lists, and most of that growth was organic.

Roxio newsletters

The reply-to on all these emails was my own email address. This meant that people could ask more questions immediately, and they did. I replied to every email myself.

The articles were archived on the website, and over time I had to grapple with how to organize an ever-growing mass of information so that people could find what they needed, even when they didn’t know they needed it. I added information architecture to my skill set.

I was also still doing customer support on the Usenet (CompuServe had pretty much died by this time). I hired two people to help out with that, one for the Windows side and one for Mac. We all worked closely together to keep the information feedback loop going.

And btw – all three of us worked remote. I was still mostly in Italy, Adrian was in the UK, and Brian was in Texas. I had hired Adrian without ever meeting or even speaking to him, purely on the basis of how well he grasped the concepts and communicated them online. And he was great at the job.

Key Skills as a Tech Writer

  • Typing (fast)
  • Writing (fast)
  • Editing
  • Layout
  • Markup
  • Deadlines
  • Basic graphics and design
  • Information architecture
  • Listening to people
  • Helping different types of people communicate with each other
  • Communicating effectively and politely with anyone (almost)
  • Exploring new media and means of communication as they come along

This is a non-exhaustive list of key skills I had developed by this point in my career. I’m pretty sure that, as tech writers, all of you have these skills as well. As you’ll see, all of them have continued to be useful in my subsequent jobs.

Key Traits

  • Willingness to learn by doing/using/figuring it out
  • Empathy for people (users/customers)
  • Creativity
  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Project management
  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Inability to leave things alone – it can always be better, right?

I’d also say that we tech writers have some key traits which can serve us well in other roles. Almost any role, really.

Roxio

community on the Roxio website

By 2000, Adaptec had decided it didn’t want to be in the software business after all, and would spin us off as a new company, Roxio.

As webmaster, I led the design and development of the first Roxio site. It may have been the first to include a user community area and other features that would later be classified as “Web 2.0.”

The project to create the new site, including putting the platform in place to run it on, required me to be in the office to work closely with my colleagues. From mid 2000 through early 2001, I was flying back and forth between Italy and California every six weeks, working 14 hour days, and trying do an MBA on the side as well. Needless to say, this period was exhausting, though it was also fun in some ways.

I was moving away from being a specialist in CD recording. As it turned out, that was the last technology area in my career in which I felt myself to be a true, deep subject matter expert. For years after that, I cringed and apologized at my lack of depth in other technical topics. It took me a long time to understand the value of what I bring to the table beyond specific subject matter expertise.

The Dot Com Crash

In early 2001, after a failed attempt to get my family to move with me from Italy to Silicon Valley, I returned to Milan. In July of that year I quit my job with Roxio, in part because my mother-in-law got cancer. But I also saw the dot com crash coming, and I was particularly vulnerable because I was working remote again. I would have been laid off within months anyway.

I wrote a farewell email to my newsletter and discussion lists, and was a bit surprised at the response. I knew from emails over the years that people had found what I was doing useful. I had not understood the extent to which they felt a personal connection with me, and loved my writing. Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever got was that my clear writing style reminded someone of JK Rowling.

A few people explicitly said: “I want to read whatever you write, not just about technology.” That was a surprise, and I took them up on it.

Personal Website

Deirdré Straughan personal site in 2003

I started writing about my life in Italy and other topics that happened to interest me. At first I sent this stuff out as another newsletter, but it obviously made sense to have a website of my own.

I learned DreamWeaver from Lynda.com, and off I went.

Over the next couple of years I still had some freelance work in documentation and UI, mostly thanks to former colleagues still working on CD-R. But that dwindled away, and I had a lot of time on my hands to learn more about websites. One critical new skill I started developing during this time was metrics: I learned to collect and analyze the logs from my own website. Around this time, a few people were making serious money with early forms of website monetization, via Google AdSense and others. I never made much money, but I learned a lot in trying to understand how it could be done. In particular, I learned about driving traffic to websites, at a time when social media was not yet an option.

TVBLOB

Around 2003, my old boss Fabrizio founded a new startup called TVBLOB. His new idea was to create a set-top device that would allow the family television to be used for two-way communication. I joined this effort, with a terrible commute to Milan because we now lived on Lake Como, and at very low pay. Nonetheless, I was interested in the task of creating a unified customer experience, from UI design to customer support and service.

The point of the product was to make it easy to communicate over the Internet using video. As part of my research, I wondered how difficult it would be to do that in a browser, at the current state of web technology. I began experimenting, and quickly learned that it was very difficult indeed. You had to shoot analog video, digitize it, compress the hell out of it (because bandwidth was so tight in those days), and somehow embed it and get it to play back in a web page.

I stumbled onto the Yahoo videobloggers group, whose early members included the people who went on to found all the video hosting sites. Yes, even the YouTube guys were briefly part of that group. Others stuck around longer, and many of the early videobloggers are still my friends. I was enjoying playing around with video as a medium. I experimented with video tutorials, such as this one about how to connect up our TVBLOB box.

Fabrizio was paying me very little, and my dot com savings were dwindling away. For family reasons, I needed to be making real money again.

Sun Microsystems – Blogs & Other Content

Sun blogs Apr 2008

I pinged an old friend from Adaptec who was now working for Sun. He brought me on as a contractor for the Solaris Storage Software group, initially focused on getting engineers to blog. Sun had made a big push to get everyone blogging a few years before and had thousands of blogs, but many had never got beyond one or two posts.

At Sun, I was definitely not a subject matter expert. This was all deep systems stuff, and there was very little that I could write myself. My job was more about encouraging, assisting, and in some sense managing engineers to write blog posts. I was able to help bring a few blogs back to life, but it soon became clear that many people simply didn’t have the time, skills, or interest to keep a blog going.

My manager said: “You’ve got some video skills, let’s use that.” He bought me a videocamera, and I started traveling to conferences to film technical talks being given by Sun engineers – from the engineers’ point of view, having me film and produce their talks added nothing to their workload. This was a few years before most conferences started routinely filming talks themselves.

I filmed at many conferences, but I soon went beyond that. If an engineer had a talk but no immediate conference to deliver it at, I’d film them in the office. I even filmed a series of short videos about ZFS in my own living room. One day, three of Sun’s top performance engineers all happened to be in San Francisco (one of them visiting from France), so I grabbed a conference room and spent half a day capturing conversations among them about performance topics.

I encountered some resistance to publishing my videos externally, from the Sun branding people and professional video crew. Sun had a video studio, but it was expensive and was used mostly to film executives talking about launches and earnings. The few times engineers were asked to film there, they were often rushed through in an attempt to save money on studio time. Most of them were not experienced at being on camera, so some would get nervous and the result would be unusable video. I had time to be patient and encouraging, so I could get good camera performances out of the rankest amateurs.

The material I was filming was also more interesting to Sun’s users, who were highly technical people uninterested in marketing messages. I ended up filming a lot of deep technology talks, which you can still find on my YouTube channel.videos about video

As ever, I tried to share my meta-knowledge. I ran internal workshops on how to do video, and, though I wasn’t keen on being in front of the camera, I made and shared videos of myself talking about how to do video.

Community & Content

I joined Sun full time in early 2008, moving from Italy to Colorado. I was part of a small team within Solaris engineering whose job was to encourage the adoption, use, and community growth of OpenSolaris worldwide, and to improve communication between Sun engineers and external developer and user communities. Our activities included user group workshops, technical events, and content.

This was my first involvement with open source, and thanks to all the content I was producing, I quickly became very visible in the open source world. I was not only filming events now, but also live streaming them and running social media feeds – usually carrying out all these activities simultaneously!

In 2010, I survived Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, but not in my community manager role. I was put into marketing and essentially told: “Your little videos are all very nice, but leave that to the professionals – you go write white papers.” White papers were a means of communication whose effectiveness I had been questioning for some time.

I was still working closely with engineers, attending weekly meetings with various dev teams. I still did video at a few events such as the last Sun Tech Days.

In late 2010, I left Oracle for a cloud startup called Joyent. There I wore two hats: head of training, and community manager for SmartOS, the Solaris-derived operating system that Joyent ran on. Again, I was managing the production of all kinds of technical content, as well as developing some of it directly myself: training courses, blog, wiki, web pages, videos.

Editing Books

Between 2010 and 2013, Brendan Gregg, who is now my partner, wrote two books. I ended up being heavily involved in both: copy editing, managing expert reviewers, marketing, and just generally listening and encouraging. If you are or have ever lived with an author, you’ll know that they are single-minded while a book is in the works. For however long it takes to complete a book, that’s all you’re going to hear about. I was so thoroughly steeped in each book that at the time I didn’t fully grasp the new skills I was developing in editing deeply technical content. The two books together ran over 2000 pages, so I definitely got a lot of practice. Of course, this has been a huge help in later work, especially now at AWS.

Ericsson

In mid-2014 I followed Jason Hoffman, one of Joyent’s founders, to Ericsson, the Swedish telecom, which was starting a new cloud hardware and software business. Within six months of joining, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I wanted and was able to keep working through most of my treatment.

I was doing a blog and social media for Ericsson, but I also managed to produce a handful of new web pages on the Ericsson site. This was very difficult to achieve, as the site was still running on Interwoven Teamsite, a software platform that had been installed in 2001 – I had in fact used Teamsite for the Roxio site back in the day! The Ericsson site could only be updated by a handful of expensive contractors who still knew how to use Teamsite.

We needed a much more ambitious and easily-updated site to support Ericsson’s cloud business, which would have been impossible on the existing platform. I pitched for and won the opportunity to create a new site on the new platform that Ericsson was then slowly putting in place. Ours would run ahead of the overall project as a pilot. I got approval for this in late September or early October of 2015, and I had a hard launch date: Mobile World Congress in late February, 2016. With a hell of a lot of hard work, alongside some great colleagues and vendors, and several trips to Stockholm in the cold, dark winter, I pulled it off: the site launched on time, the morning that Mobile World Congress opened. It was running on the Episerver CMS and integrated the Hubspot inbound marketing tool, which hosted the new cloud blog.

I picked up a lot of new skills during this time, including going deep on SEO, as well as extending my project management skills. But this job was still primarily about producing technical content, and making it inviting and usable. My work always comes back to that.

By mid 2016, I was managing a team of interns and contractors (some of whom later became full-time employees) to create, produce, and analyze the results of web content, blogs, and social media. I greatly enjoyed managing and mentoring people, and passing on my years of skills.

That all went well for a while, then Ericsson had a series of disastrous earnings announcements. I held onto my job, but found myself doing the work I’d previously had interns and contractors doing. Once again it was clear that, if I stuck around, I was in danger of being laid off. I started job hunting again.

Amazon Web Services

In June, 2017, I joined AWS as part of the Open Source team in the marketing organization. I’m the Open Source Content Lead: it’s my job to help spread the word about all the things Amazon is doing in open source.

The week before re:Invent 2017, I launched the new AWS Open Source blog. It has very broad scope: I can cover basically anything open source that’s worked on, created by, or runs on AWS, as well as open source projects from other parts of Amazon. I also manage the @AWSOpen Twitter handle.

Summing It Up

Though I stopped calling myself a technical writer years ago, I never stopped being one. Being a very good writer is still my core skill, and everything else flows from that. The additional skills and traits of a tech writer have also continued to serve me well in all the variety of jobs I’ve had.

I think all tech writers have those traits as well and, as you’ve seen, they can all be applied in a huge variety of roles – even though most people wouldn’t choose to do it quite the way I have.

I wish you all success and happiness in whatever comes next for you, and if you think career advice from me would be helpful, please feel free to ask!

Toxic Things I Once Believed

Once upon a time, I believed that: I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”) It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got Read More…

Once upon a time, I believed that:

I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)

It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got older – men would always prefer younger women. Yet even very young women were supposed to be attracted to older men for their maturity, experience, power, and money – the men’s physical attractiveness barely entered into the equation.

It was important for a woman not to “let herself go,” and especially not to get fat. She should make every effort to stay attractive to her mate (while he was not required to make any such efforts).

I was “too smart” and “too self confident,” and this would scare off most men – I was therefore lucky to have a man who “put up with me.” (I repeated this “wisdom” more than once to my daughter, a memory which now makes me feel ill.)

A woman might have a career (and her financial contributions to the family are welcome), but it is always of secondary importance to her husband’s career. She should also do the bulk of child-raising and housework so that he can focus on his Very Important Career. Even when she’s also working hard at her own job, and making two or three times his salary.

On the professional front, I internalized things like:

Women should first of all be decorative; any skills and knowledge they happen to have are a bonus.

Women are never as “technical” as men, whether from lack of innate skill, lack of interest, or lack of determination. (“Math class is tough!” exclaimed Barbie.)

Women developers exist, but the male ones are 10x, more gung-ho, just… better. Women engineers should be shuffled off to management ASAP, because they are better at those soft people skills, and should leave the real work of engineering to the men.

Engineering is the the only job that matters in any tech company; everyone else is at best useful to the engineers, at worst a moron who gets in the way of engineers doing the Really Important Work.

The role of women in all areas of a company is to support the far more important work of men. (Even in parts of an organization that are mostly staffed by women, such as marketing, who’s in the top roles? Men. I’ve never understood how any company justifies that on any statistical basis.)

As I got older, the world tried to make me believe that:

We should leave off older experience and specific dates from our resumés, so that potential employers won’t know our real age.

We should make self-deprecating jokes like, “Oh, this will date me…” or coyly say: “A lady doesn’t reveal her age.”

We should obsess about our rapidly-fading looks and sagging bodies, subjecting ourselves to expensive and painful diets, “treatments,” and surgeries, because standard beauty and looking young are still all that matters in a woman, and looking old is to be avoided at all costs. Even in the workplace.

We should be grateful to keep or get any man who will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

We should be grateful to keep or get any job that will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

There are undoubtedly other toxic ideas that I still live by without even realizing it. But, with 55 years of life and a hell of a lot of experience behind me, I have at last perceived the bullshit of many of the “rules” that once governed my thinking.

How did I unlearn what I have so far?

Partly, it’s being with a good man who values me and finds me attractive – physically, intellectually, and professionally – as I am (even when I was undergoing chemo and looked like Dr. Evil).

There’s also something that comes with age. Not necessarily wisdom, but… a lack of patience with bullshit. At this point, I’ve dealt with more than enough for one lifetime, and I’m no longer willing to put up with it for the sake of getting along with or appeasing anyone.

And, after years of trying to “fit in,” I came to terms with the fact that I’m not good at being anyone but my weirdo self. I’m ok with that, because I like who I am, and I’m finally able to say that anyone who doesn’t appreciate me just as I am is not worth having in my life. I have plenty of friends and loved ones who do appreciate me exactly as I am –  I need not put up with anyone telling me that I should be otherwise.

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”

Dorothy Parker

Life, Love, Comics – and Elfquest

As a young child in Thailand, I didn’t have access to many comics – only the handfuls that other expat kids brought with them from the US. I was vaguely familiar with Mickey Mouse et al, more because of their status as global cultural icons than because I’d seen much of them. Peanuts was a Read More…

As a young child in Thailand, I didn’t have access to many comics – only the handfuls that other expat kids brought with them from the US. I was vaguely familiar with Mickey Mouse et al, more because of their status as global cultural icons than because I’d seen much of them. Peanuts was a family touchstone (maybe the strips ran in the military newspaper we occasionally received?), and we had several Peanuts books which I read over and over.

On our trip through Europe in 1969 we acquired a few Asterix books. I loved these for their funny stories and clever wordplay. My dad, the inveterate punster, loved to quote: “We’ll be driven into the Nile!” – “We’ll be annihilated!”

Even on such slight exposure, I fell in love with comics. I also adored film animation, though, again, I didn’t get much chance to see it – I didn’t have the ready access to TV and movie cartoons that my peers in the US enjoyed.

But I didn’t love everything about comics. Most of the characters, to my eye, were simply ugly. The Peanuts and Harvey Comics characters, though human, had enormous heads and chunky, ungraceful bodies. Anthropomorphic characters, like Mickey or Baby Huey, appealed to me even less – they had none of the beauties of real animals or real people.

The Disney princesses were visually appealing, but I was annoyed by the Disney stories of my childhood. Though I loved fairy tales and fables, myths and magic, I had no sympathy for characters lying around waiting to be rescued: I wanted to be the one riding a horse and wielding a sword!

When we moved to the US, I was able to watch Saturday morning cartoons just like everyone else, and I read comics at others’ houses, though I don’t recall owning any myself. Superhero comics didn’t excite me: Batman, Superman, Spiderman – clearly, women weren’t having much of the fun.

While in high school in India, I loved Tin Tin comics and Amar Chitra Katha – neither well known in the US.

I didn’t know about manga until college, when I ran across Frederic Schodt’s Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. I loved the prettier style of these comics, especially in the ones aimed at girls/women. Not much was translated at the time. I considered learning Japanese so that I could read them, especially The Rose of Versailles – which, frustratingly, is still not available in English.

Then came Elfquest.

The first time I saw Elfquest was during a D&D game. (Of course I played D&D.) Someone had brought along the first one or two collected editions. I stopped right in the middle of the game and read until I was finished. Finally: a visually stunning comic with characters (including female ones!) and a story that I could care about.

In the following years, I went to a lot of trouble to keep up with issues as they came out, even as I moved from country to country. I can’t remember how I obtained them in, eg, Jakarta, Indonesia in 1984. Maybe my friends back in Austin were mailing them to me.

Yes, there were other comics I came to like, partly because Elfquest had me haunting my local comic stores, looking for more titles that would appeal to me on all the levels that Elfquest did. I found a few over the years, but Elfquest will always be my favorite.

Many people have written about how Elfquest changed their lives, or (when encountered at a young age) helped them grow up to be more loving, tolerant, and kind, with different ideas about courage, friendship, family, gender equality, and sexual freedom than they might have imbibed at home. The elves of Elfquest model kindness and respect for all living beings, while having adventures and leading intense, full lives.

For myself, this aspect of Elfquest was less formative. I had grown up a hippie kid with free-loving parents who encouraged me to be whatever I wished and dreamed, “just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.” My concept of family was fluid, even before I spent four years at an international boarding school (living with a tribe of your peers, everyone feels like “family”). Those elements in Elfquest, which have been so freeing and revelatory to many of its readers, for me were simply a reinforcement of what I already believed. I could perhaps say of Elfquest what my daughter once said of Buffy: those “unusual” ways of being were already part of my consciousness and beliefs – but Elfquest made them cool.

My main lesson from Elfquest has been something else. What struck me from the beginning as real magic is the partnership between Wendy and Richard Pini, its creators. I always believed it to be real (among other clues, their values and beliefs about human relationships are demonstrated in the behaviors of their elves). And yet, deep down, I didn’t believe that it was possible for a human couple to be partners in their working lives as well as their home lives.

I’m aware of other examples such as the Curies, but… I thought it just wasn’t possible for ordinary mortals to enjoy, respect, and value each other so much on every level that they could love each other deeply AND spend (it seemed) every waking moment working intensely together to create wonderful things.

So I really, REALLY didn’t expect it to happen to me.

But it did. I now have a lifemate with whom I share all the things you’d expect lifemates to share, but we’re also professional partners. Even when not working directly together, we spend most of our leisure hours discussing ways to make our industry better (in both technological and human terms). We don’t get tired of our work, or of each other.

This still amazes me.

It’s possible-to-likely that the Pinis and their creation deserve some of the credit for this, both directly and indirectly. My life has been made richer by them, as well as their creation. Thank you, Wendy and Richard, for bringing the beauty of your work and your partnership into my life.


Logically, this post should include some of the beautiful artwork from Elfquest. But there’s so much that I find myself incapable of choosing. Just go read it for yourself – most of Elfquest is available to read for free online.

I could have written this story years ago, or years hence. I’m posting it now because Elfquest is drawing to something of a conclusion – the final issue of The Final Quest will be published soon. But I can still love reading it for another forty years, if I last that long.

Farewell to 2017

Last Christmas (2016) we did not spend in Australia, partly because we had just had a vacation in India in October/November, but also because we were going to Hobart, Tasmania, in January for linux.conf.au – Brendan was speaking, I attended the Community Day, which was a great opportunity to learn from old friends and new. Read More…

Last Christmas (2016) we did not spend in Australia, partly because we had just had a vacation in India in October/November, but also because we were going to Hobart, Tasmania, in January for linux.conf.au – Brendan was speaking, I attended the Community Day, which was a great opportunity to learn from old friends and new.

We caught up with the Women’s March in Melbourne:


And looked at some of Sydney’s 94 public beaches:

We also saw a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Pakistan vs Australia.

February, back in California, we finally got rain, after years of drought.

I attended conferences: some for (or thanks to) Ericsson, some with Brendan.

At Ericsson, I was doing content and social media tasks that I’d been managing interns and contractors to do the previous year. The company was (still is) in crisis, it was time for a job change, and I was out looking – always a stressful process in itself.

I read a LOT. (I often share quotes on Twitter.)

In April, I reflected on Living with Terrorism – which is nothing new in my life.

In May, I resigned from Ericsson and had a few weeks off between jobs (I gave a hint what my next gig would be – did you spot it?). I spent the time off visiting a dear friend in Kansas, and my daughter in New York.

We attended the Netflix 100 Million party, where the photo booths were both high-tech and Netflix-themed. The party was to celebrate Netflix’s global reach; we dressed accordingly.

On June 12th, I joined Amazon Web Services.

(That’s Nithya Ruff on the left.)

Had a very busy first week: new hire orientation, which I left early to fly to Seattle, a TODO Group meeting, AWS Community Day in SF, and all the usual new hire stuff like getting my new laptop set up. There was a lot of training to be got through.

July 4th we went to Berkeley to visit Celeste and Ilona. We did not know that would be the last time we would see Celeste.

We had the usual Bay Area summer weather.

Anticipating a lot more commuting, I bought a new car:

(It’s a hybrid Camry. When the worst thing that Consumer Reports can find to say is: “Everyone has one,” that’s the car for me. Every other part of my life is so unpredictable, I want transportation that I don’t have to think about.)

The last week in July, I was in Seattle for an internal event with AWS developer evangelists – had fun getting to know some of them.

Unfortunately, that was the week that Seattle was blanketed in smoke from forest fires in British Columbia – the air quality was as bad as Delhi’s. For me, this triggered a sinus infection which was to prove hard to shake (yes, climate change is hazardous to health).

I was walking out of San Jose airport to catch a car back home when I got a call from Ilona: Celeste had died. I’m still not used to the idea that this force of nature is no longer in my world.

In August I completed my annual round of post-cancer tests and checkups: all is well on that (my) front.

Brendan drove north to see the eclipse. I wasn’t able to accompany him, but I reminisced about an eclipse experience of many years ago.

In September I had occasion to go to Maui for a few days (work, not play, but still enjoyable).

Then Brendan and I went to LA for the Linux Foundation conferences, at which we both spoke – I think that was a first. My talk on “Marketing Your Open Source Project” was not recorded, but they did a nice post about it later.

After that, we went to Paris, where Brendan was speaking at two conferences back to back. We stayed at the stunningly fabulous home of a Woodstock classmate of mine.

Brendan decided that his favorite thing in all of Europe was the private pool in the basement.

We did as many of the usual tourist things as we could manage, in the time left over from conferences and (for me) work.

Then we took a week of real vacation in Italy (my first visit in six years), seeing sights and catching up with a few old friends in Rome and Milan.

The day after we got home, it was the Bay Area’s turn to be covered in smoke from wildfires – again, not good for my respiratory system. The sinus infection came roaring back.

In October, I started running the @AWSOpen Twitter account (one part of my job as Content Lead for open source).

Brendan had a significant birthday. With important help from his colleague Guy (shown at left), I pulled off a surprise birthday party which actually was a surprise:

I hung out at USENIX LISA (which Brendan will be co-chairing next year, along with Rikki Endsley) in San Francisco, and also had a procedure – basically, a power rinse – on my sinuses to try to clear the infection, which had not responded to five or six rounds of antibiotics (it’s likely that the critters in my sinuses had formed biofilms, making them hard to attack with medication).

October was also the month that #metoo started. I had already shared many stories about lifelong experiences of sexual harassment, which for me (fortunately) have mostly not occurred in the workplace.

But I and many others have experienced other forms of workplace harassment. In November, Brendan published a post on Brilliant Jerks in Engineering, and I did a companion piece On Bullying.

Late in November, I launched the AWS Open Source blog. This is and will be the main thing keeping me busy at work, and it’s a fun, challenging job – like being a journalist, where my beat is almost anything to do with open source at or on AWS (or any other part of Amazon). That means a potentially huge variety of projects, most of them deeply technical, being created by brilliant people to solve interesting problems. If you know me or my work, you’ll know that helping people communicate about complex technologies is my career sweet spot. Now I just have to do more of it, and faster, to keep up with a regular blogging schedule.

The blog started the week before re:Invent, AWS’ biggest event of the year, at which Brendan spoke. Ironically, I did not attend: employees go only if they have specific jobs to do at the conference (I probably will have, next year). I didn’t want to spend my birthday week alone at home, so I went to New York to see Ross and Dan. I did work that week (had plenty to do for re:Invent even without being there, and a new blog to keep running), but I also played: we saw Hamilton (my second time, Ross and Dan’s first), had a birthday dinner with a few friends, and other time for company and conversation.

Sarah got me this wonderfully apropos present:

I returned to the Bay Area that Friday night. On the Sunday, Brendan, Mitchell, and I attended Celeste’s memorial service (which had been postponed from October due to wildfire smoke).

Monday morning, Rossella called me: her father Enrico had had a stroke. She flew to Italy that night. He’s now in a clinic in Milan, undergoing intensive physical therapy. Enrico and I are far from close these days – we haven’t even spoken in years – but of course this makes me sad for him, and for Ross.


My Woodstock family continue to be an active part of my life – we had visits this year from Sara, Denise, and Neerja, Sarah was at my birthday dinner in New York, and I regularly see Jonake, who also lives here in the Bay Area.

Sadly, we lost a much-loved member of the Woodstock family this year:


As for politics – because, yes, politics is an important factor in everyday life – I do what I can. I donate. I call. I write. I listen and discuss on Twitter and Facebook. I try to warn Facebook friends about untrustworthy “news” sources. (I’d been doing that for years already.)

I give monthly to Planned Parenthood, primarily because birth control is a critical matter of women’s health, secondarily so that others have a chance to catch cancer early, as I did. I also give monthly to the ACLU and the SPLC. I pay for good journalism (far more than I have time to read): the Washington Post, the NYT (yes, with reservations), Mother Jones, the Atlantic, the Economist, Pando, and perhaps others that I don’t remember right now.

In all these ways, I pay attention.

Although many things are going well for me personally right now, I am grieving, raging, and despairing at the state of my country. No matter how well I am doing myself, I cannot really enjoy it when I know that so much is so wrong for so many. And has been for so long – as I have been aware for years.

I’m also aware that there are direct, if not immediate, threats to my own well-being and my very life. I’m a cancer survivor. Without the Obamacare guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions (at affordable prices), I live in terror of not having a job with health insurance. And it now looks likely that Medicare will be cut significantly just about the time I’d become eligible for it, if not sooner. Unless we manage to forestall the wrecking of the US economy and social support system long enough for a government of integrity and humanity to be elected. Even then, it will take time to undo the damage now being done.

On top of these social and economic disasters, we have the renewed possibility of nuclear war (oh, well, it was nice to have a few decades’ respite from that particular worry). And the onrushing environmental disaster being wreaked upon our planet. In the scale of things, the wellbeing of myself, my family, and even my country seem relatively unimportant.

Uh, happy new year?

I’m not sure what is the rational response to a world gone mad. The best advice I can think of is: take care of those you call your own (and as many others as you can manage) and keep good company.