In the past few weeks as I’ve travelled back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, I’ve found myself in several conversations and activities centered around agency. While these different practices all have unique lexicons, whether it be through the wellness community, psychology, art, science, or entrepreneurship (to name a few), I’m noticing some common threads that are beginning to shape my thoughts.
Several months back I got into Carol Dweck and the growth versus fixed mindset. As an experiment I started to mashup this idea along with some design thinking practices in my classes. What I found is that by doing this, I’m able to see changes in the communal body of the classroom where students feel more self-empowered and less reliant on me to give them the “right answers.” There are many aspects to these ideas that I’d like to write about and that’s why I’m going to graduate school this Fall to investigate and interrogate some of the ideology behind the practice.
One such area I’m currently fascinated with is the idea of agency within a network. In terms of human experience, it might be described as the moment at which one sees themselves for who they are truly and their place within a system. “System” here is intentionally vaguely defined but for our purposes it could be a classroom, it could be a social circle, it could be a personal journey or career. The idea being to confront one’s own role without judgement to see the past and the future through the lens of the possible.
The idea being to confront one’s own role without judgement to see the past and the future through the lens of the possible.
I, myself, have come to this path through the technology sphere. Being self-taught as a web developer, committing myself to the open-source platform WordPress, participating in and organizing hackathons, I witness moments of agency and awakeness as others pitch in to create new things. The “pitching in” moment being a point at which one realizes their full capacity for self-empowerment. A good friend and mentor to me, Edward O’Neill has taught me that all learning is self-help and I can see that being true as learning has happened for me and through facilitating it with others.
The trick is that all of these moments of agency happen within a fixed system. There needs to be a trust built first. Trust that the space is safe. The minute the trust and safety is broken, the capacity for change or self-realized agency is lost. We give into the fear of the unknown and the fixed mindset. This makes the practices difficult to scale. Since trust can only be built within closed systems, there’s a tendency to silo. We end up with Yoga, high-scale startups, art retreats, hackathons, improv groups and the like all stuck in silos. Empowerment works within but not between these disciplines. In the right hands, these communities have the power to enable self-empowerment and yet the minute you step out of the circle, the practice is prone to manipulation.
The fear and mistrust that happens in the gaps between these practices mirror to some extent the pillars of economics and society. Mistrust or a lack of faith is the basis for the old economy of scarcity. Scarce economic models prey on fear and lack. There’s not enough to go around, therefore we must protect our belongings. I like to think of this as territorial thinking. The idea of drawing boundaries around property, while helping to ensure the appearance of security, is the very idea that is preventing more radical changes across society.
It’s not the way that I’ve found success and it’s not the way that I see the future going. Scarcity models are giving way to abundance models built upon sharing resources. This shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of the glib “sharing economy,” instead I think it’s more about APIs and open-source practices. While not well understood outside of technology circles, APIs and open-source practices are thriving practices for developing an abundance mindset. While I’m apt to avoid preaching for some techo-libertian-utopia, I think these practices need to start being spread (and to some extent are already) outside of the tech world.
Scarcity models are giving way to abundance models built upon sharing resources. This shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of the glib “sharing economy,” instead I think it’s more about APIs and open-source practices.
While it may be difficult to form any perfect meritocracy as a sustainable model, building an open-source, action-oriented mindset approach to tackling projects does move in that direction. Action and reputation, instead of territory becomes the main indicator of success. When your ideas are trafficked through practice and application, then you can claim success. It’s why I get up every day and write down thoughts like this. The world is changing and we’re struggling to keep up. Change is going to happen to all of these groups simultaneously and we need them to start cross-talking and sharing rather than giving into fear and scarcity.
The siloing and territorial mindset are doing us more harm than good.
I came down to Mexico because I care about education. My friend Eme, trusted me to come to New York when I was hosting an event last November. He bought his ticket and jumped in and while here, he gave a wonderful and moving talk about Dev.f a school that he set up with his partners Elias and Enrique to teach young Mexicans how to code. Having witnessed first hand the explosion of tech education in New York and San Francisco, I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t an equivalent in Mexico.
While New York is saturated with coworking spaces and incubators, things down here in Mexico are at that exciting stage where, there’s a feeling of almost infinite potential.
As a teacher at General Assembly for several years, I’ve seen small developer bootcamps grow into multi-million dollar companies. There’s been an explosion of demand for developers in the states and a growing niche industry built around training junior developers. Being in Mexico City and seeing the tech startup scene here, reminds me of being in New York tech 4 years ago. While New York is saturated with coworking spaces and incubators, things down here in Mexico are at that exciting stage where there’s a feeling of almost infinite potential. Surprisingly for me most of these companies and individuals are working under the radar of U.S. companies.
Dev.f has a key partnership with Google’s Latin American arm and is being approached by some major U.S. tech companies for partnerships. I spoke with my friends at tech startup Bridgefy who were incubated in San Francisco and frequently travel to the U.S. to speak with their investors. Admittedly I had a small sample size for my data, working mostly through the connections I have directly from StartupBus Americas. But seeing the reactions of my compatriots in the U.S. to the perceptions of Mexico just doesn’t square with the reality. In our global economy, Mexico seems poised to become a real player and there’s an excitement you feel here like discovering a gold-mine of energy, talent and hope.
I will admit, I didn’t see much outside a small section of Mexico City, and what I’ve been told by others who live there, the hipstery tech scene is quite a bubble of wealth in an otherwise impoverished country. But the American perception of Mexico as essentially a scary, desert could not be further from the reality. Walking the streets of Roma/Condesa or seeing the opulence of Polanco, it’s easy to imagine you’re in European capital or New York City at times – and for someone like me who loves Mexican food, in many ways it’s far superior to both. Seeing the state of tech here and the growing potential and places like Dev.f and companies like Bridgefy make me very excited. I can’t wait to return.
seeing the reactions of my compatriots in the U.S. to the perceptions of Mexico just doesn’t square with the reality.
I’m so excited to finally see the finished version of my comic project that I’ve been working on with Kim Gee for the past two years. It’s been quite a job but the finished work is fantastic. I hope that people find this new approach to web tech concepts as fun and entertaining as it is educational.
Here are some pages from the finished product.
In the past month I’ve experimented more with different kinds of teaching formats and curriculum. I also attended the 140 conference on Education where K-12 learning styles were discussed in the context of social media. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a disconnect between theories of learning and the realities of modern media consumption beyond a K-12 level.
We in the US are living in a time of unprecedented access to information and at the same time that information is changing rapidly. Skills to prepare one for this new techno-savvy future were not entirely evident in the later part of the 20th century. In the 1990s much was theorized about our new media future and projected upon. So much of what I’ve been taught about how adults learn center around hands on training activities.
I quite enjoy doing classes in this format when I have the opportunity and I’m presented with an engaged audience. Far too often, however, I find that it’s more of a challenge to get adults to follow along with what you’re doing and get them to do the work in a hands on fashion. I can’t say that I blame them. I tuned out from hands on learning activities when I left grade school. What always captivated me in classes in college was a gripping lecture punctuated with solid examples.
I know lectures aren’t for everyone and I’ve slept through my fair share, but how can we look at the success of TED or talks from the Royal Society and honestly say that lectures are outmoded or don’t work? With the explosion of online content providers like Big Think serving up content in short video chunks, in addition to bite-sized articles and essays delivered to our phones and Kindles, it seems to me that far more of us are not learning by hands on but instead by collecting bits and pieces of information and deep-diving on the topics later.
This has always been my approach to the classes I offer. I cringed for months when my web concepts classes Website Bootcamp and Website in a Box were (and often still are) labelled ‘HTML’ classes. Anyone who’s serious about learning HTML knows that you don’t need to pay money for a 3 hour class to learn it. That information is freely available online. What I offer in my classes is a base level of HTML and CSS that are core to what I’ve had to use repeatedly in my past work experience. It’s just as important to me what I’m not teaching as to what I am teaching. I also bring in concepts like SEO that students are inevitably curious about, but that often don’t get touched in HTML basics classes. We’ve segmented the topics to such an extent that to realize their connection takes years of working experience.
Right now there’s an explosion of online training and extracurricular learning especially in the tech world. Yet we’re still using terms like “hands on” and “hard skills” rather than thinking of the student, our audience and customers. A good physical trainer knows that being healthy is a lifestyle. Even though we have specialists in the nutritionist, the family doctor, the personal trainer at the gym, etc each plays an important role for the individual looking to loose weight or adapt to a healthy life. Likewise our mental health relies on understanding that how students learn is different. Not everyone will respond to an online video. Neither will everyone seek out a book on a subject to learn the topic. But many still will in both cases as well. There’s not a right way and a wrong way to learning except in what’s measured by how the student perceives his or her knowledge on the subject. Let them room and they’ll learn in their own way.
Social media is abuzz with how Microsoft is (again) derivative and playing the copy cat and how much “cooler” Apple is. In all of this posturing and finger pointing a few familiar photos kept cropping up and it’s sparked a revelation from my Apple days.
In Steve’s Hands
I remember watching the presentation of the first iPad launch and thinking something was odd about the placement of Steve’s hands. Something seemed so unnatural and odd. It wasn’t until I saw photos from Sunday’s presentation that I realized what Steve was up to. Look at the placement of Steve Balmer’s hands underneath the Microsoft Surface tablet. You see it again in Steven Sinofsky’s hands in the Internet explorer demo.
Everything we need to know about these products are communicated in these pictures. Steve Jobs’ iPad seems to float in the air, suspended lightly from either side. While the Surface is light enough to hold with one hand, the weight of the product is communicated in the posture of those who hold it. Those of us with an original iPad know it’s not light as a feather but Steve Job’s posture and position seem to communicate something futuristic and etherial about the iPad. In fact the iPad 1 is heavier than the Microsoft Surface but one wouldn’t know it from Steve Jobs’ posture. If this were any other technology company I wouldn’t think to analyze such a minute detail but knowing what we know about Steve Jobs I’m sure most of us wouldn’t put it past him. Did he really think about how the photos of the iPad would appear in every article published? If so it’s a marvelous coup where Steve’s able to best his competitors even from the grave.
Last night I had the pleasure of presenting on my recent Kickstarter success at the New Work City member Show and Tell. I got asked an excellent question from the audience afterwards. In my presentation I had shown that I did my homework about what works: price points, network effect etc but, some one asked “Did you look at any failed projects to see what went wrong?” I answered with my typical response when I don’t know the immediate answer “That’s a great question.” In those brief seconds I had to think of a response, I actually experienced dread.
I imagined myself preparing to launch my Kickstarter filling my head with all these stories of failure and negativity. I thought about what Chris Gillbeau (author of the $100Startup) said in the same space just two weeks before. Some one in the audience questioned his focus on successful entrepreneurs. To paraphrase Mr. Guillebeau, “failure is overrated. Don’t get my wrong. Failure is a good thing to experience because it gives you a learning opportunity.” The important thing is to iterate. Some have the tendency to emphasize the problem over the solution. This can lead to inaction.
Happstr is an example of vindication for the optimist.
It’s been less than 3 months since I stood up at 5 am on a bus leaving New York City and said something like, “Have you ever been fucking depressed? Like, go through moments of darkness? I want to build an app that encourages happiness. You tap a button and your happiness gets mapped out for others to see and get inspired by. If you aren’t feeling happy you can search a map and go to where people are happy.” After three all nighters and a whirlwind tour through the south, five amazing, wonderful people built that very app. We called it Happstr. The app continues to gain steam, has almost double my Twitter followers despite still being a prototype and not ever being officially launched. It was recently nominated for an award for humanizing technology (a personal victory since I teach technology to humans).
Happstr is an example of vindication for the optimist. I’m not always overly optimistic. Like everyone I experience periods of doubt and regret but I try not to project that to others — especially those I first meet. My job is to teach beginners about tech and too often people outside the world view it as closed off and inaccessible. They’re afraid of making mistakes. I don’t blame them. I have a lot of friends who build apps and websites for a living and it’s not uncommon to hear “That’s a dumb idea” or something close to it. The tech world venerates lean, fresh, new and most important ridiculously high-performing products. There is no second place. If you don’t have the hottest, newest exclusive technology you shouldn’t even bother.
From years of teaching people technology, however, I know that the trouble for most beginners is overcoming their fear of mistakes. Giving a beginner enough room to try it out themselves and mess something up leads to high quality learning and the most likely road for their personal success. Guess what? Getting frustrated every time it takes someone 30 seconds to do something it takes you 10 seconds to do, doesn’t exactly help them.
I see students all the time who’ve started and ended their personal web projects prematurely because they saw other people’s sites or they were convinced by someone else that some other technology would be easier or better. Too much posturing again leads to inaction. I often tell my students who ask me what’s the best way to start getting into web development learn any language. I find the people who get that action is more important than talk — like Girl DevelopIt and Mike Caprio who organized the NYC StartupBus make up the quiet majority while the haters; the get out of town if your idea isn’t the next Facebook are the loud minority.
That’s why I’m personally honored (while not presuming full-credit for its success) that Happstr is nominated for a humanizing technology award. It’s not perfect (It’s not even finished). But it’s an app that proves that being optimistic in the tech world doesn’t represent a naiveté but rather a choice and an inspiration for others.
I went to two events this past weekend that helped form some thoughts about my relationship to my work, teaching students. The first, on Friday was “Rise of the Independents,” a crash course into the coworking world with Chris Guillebeau author of the $100 Startup. The second was The Brooklyn Food Coalition Conference in Greenpoint.
In the $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau interviews entrepreneurs who either left their job by choice or were let go and found themselves with the opportunity to pursue an independent career. I see Chris’ book as almost the polar opposite of the Lean Startup, which is focused heavily on high-growth startups. $100 startup instead looks at people who are figuring out how to make a living on their own with little or no capital investment and with a minimal trial and effort strategy. At the event on Friday, Chris talked a lot about the idea of value. If you are adding value, providing a good or service people want then you can make a profit. If things aren’t going the way you’d like, you can adjust to figure out what the value is and how to better provide it. The book $100 startup chronicle everyday people making decisions like this some are indeed making lots of money on their businesses ($1M+ per year), but they’re doing so with little to no capital investment or traditional business loans. Tony Bacigalupo underlined the work of the book in his introduction by describing how this major shift towards microbusiness is happening despite being under-reported in the media.
At the Brooklyn Food Coalition conference there were workshops on everything from why you shouldn’t eat meat to food politics and policies to navigating the minutiae of government red tape to build a rooftop garden. It was clear that no matter which side of the argument you were on over whether food is a basic human right and shouldn’t be subject to market fluctuations, that most of the action was in the local organizing. Every where you turned you saw t-shirts and fliers for local gardens community coops, CSAs and meetup groups for neighborhoods. Just like with the microbusiness revolution described in the $100 Startup the talk is important but grossly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of action happening on a local level. While at the conference I took a workshop on food security and profit where the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of GMO labeling and concerns about the safety of food, and how to protect against contaminants. I’m always struck in these conversations how closely it mirrors discussion of software patents, DRM and file-sharing. Companies want to protect IP to the detriment of the spread of ideas. Rebel farmers share seeds illegally circumventing copy-protection measures put in place by these large corporations.
There used to be an understanding that college was a four year phenomenon followed by lifelong employment with little to no variation until retirement. It’s almost laughable to type such absurdities now. The realities of the modern economy is that jobs change frequently and skill-sets even more.
When I left my full time job to start a consulting business I was following in the footsteps of millions of other accidental entrepreneurs. I knew teaching would be a big part of what I do but wasn’t 100% sure it could be a business. By experimenting with adding value raising and lowering prices trying out platforms and venues, I was able to figure out a way to make it work. There’s so many resources available for learning today Meetup, General Assembly, Eventbrite, Skillshare, Girl DevelopIt, CodeAcademy just to name a few. It’s quite possible, as I’ve written on before, to make a living by being a teacher and a lot of people do. But like so many things happening in this new microbusiness, sharing-economy a lot of the work is happening under the radar.
A lot of my colleagues don’t realize I’ve worked in academia for a number of years. In fact almost exclusively except for the last six years working in training and education at Apple Inc. Like many people I share the belief that the education system and academia is broken. Unlike many others I don’t believe this means there’s no good in it. I do, however think there are some key factors that make the industry of education seem outmoded. Here’s just a few factors:
I got two important things going on right now that I want to share. One is that my Kickstarter Website Bootcamp Adventure Comic is almost at an end. If you want to learn how to build a website in a fun and entertaining way check out this project.
The other is Reboot Workshop. Which is our day long unconference for individuals looking to start their own businesses or get help with their existing ones.
Last January I put together my first conference. Reboot Workshop was a sold-out day long workshop with presentations, Q&A and Networking.
Michael from Get Storied was an amazing addition to the group. Going in, he was the person I knew the least, but since I’ve gotten to know how amazing a speaker and dynamic a personality he really is. Here he talks about the importance of remaining confident and true to oneself when representing yourself online.
All of the Reboot Workshop videos are available on YouTube. Check them out.
1. Maintain a Network
Last year I did something daring. For the first time in my life, I quit my job and decided to start my own company. If you talk to anyone who has done it before, you’ll know that there’s a familiar story of freedom and sheer terror. It helps to have a network and I knew that I’d have clients who needed help learning how to use their technology. Referrals are a main engine of growth within my company. The majority of my business comes from a direct referral from someone I know, usually through clients that I have worked with in the past. Good service goes viral. One good session with a client can spread to their contacts and eventually to third-level contacts. It’s important to maintain an email list and email updates of what you’re teaching. Let previous clients know about your upcoming classes. Students who’ve taken you classes can turn into clients down the road if you keep them up to date with your current events.
2. Organize Events
When I left my job, I knew that I wanted to make group training a big part of my business. Without really knowing how to go about teaching, I started to organize Meetups to look for potential clients and test out the content of my class. I hung out at a coworking space that had events and was able to meet organizers of meetups that way. That lead to speaking gigs at other meetups and the ability to organize larger group meetings through existing meetups. This sort of IRL long-tail is crucial to getting your name out there. Everyone you meet isn’t always a client but they can become part of your network and generate referrals. Remaining active in groups whether social or explicitly networking-focused gets your name out there and broadens your prospects not only for individual clients but also for prospective students.
A couple weeks ago I found out that I’ll be travelling from New York City down to SXSWi on a bus full of strangers. On the way down we’ll conceive, draft and build a project. When we get to Austin we’ll be in competition with other buses from around the country to see who has the greatest idea, project, company.
That’s right! I’ll be on the StartupBus! Since I got accepted, it’s been a whirlwind of hackathons and emails about beef jerky. So in less than a week I’ll be on the bus and just trying to wrap my head around the series of events that led me to here. I can already tell the crew on the bus is super pro and that it will be great to have all of them in my mental rolodex when coming back to New York.
On top of the awesomeness that I’m sure the bus will be in and of itself, I’m also going to be at one of the biggest technology events on the planet, SXSWi. I wont have a badge or anything but I did RSVP to a lot of the parties. The list of people I know from all over the country, LA, DC, SF who will be converging in Austin for five days is mind-boggling. I hope to run into people from all over the place. My coworker Jim, a SXSW veteran calls it “spring break for nerds”.
Since I wont have a pass I’m looking to spend some time during the day teaching Skillshare classes. I have never been to Austin but a big part of what got me on the bus was all of the work I’ve been doing teaching classes as a part of my business. I don’t have a space per se but I’ve specked out the town on Google maps and I think we’ll meet near the convention center and then find a place nearby. If you’re interested in attending a class and are in Austin for SXSW here’s a list of the classes I’ll be teaching so far. I hope to add more as we get closer to the dates.
Meet Me in Austin