Hard Facts – What I learned attending Heartifacts Conference
Learn more about Jenna on her website, jenna.io
I arrived in Pittsburgh for Heartifacts Conference not knowing what to expect. Would it be snowing? How far will I need to walk in the snow to get to the convention center? Would I need gloves to survive the weather or would snow boots be enough? I was very concerned about the weather. Luckily it had stopped snowing only hours before I arrived. The same goes for the conference: I didn’t know what to expect. Was this a conference about mental health? For folks with mental health issues? I’d learn the answer soon enough.
The talks ranged from technical to personal, from APIs and pull requests to postpartum depression and ADHD. I can’t venture to say I had a favorite talk because every talk was that good. I’ll have to tell you about all the talks. :)
“Hacking Your Emotional API” used APIs to help us understand the complexity of emotions. There is not a single emotion for when one loses his/her job, so the implementation of the API would involve multiple emotions being invoked, likely many times in a while loop. The best (and funniest) advice from John Sawers was to throw a fit, as in get onto a bed, lay down, and just start thrashing about. Throwing a fit would enable a person to feel anger in its entirety, and this is better than analyzing one’s anger, indulging it, and especially repressing it. John reminded us that managing emotions are not soft skills; these are super hard skills.
“The Intelligence of Instinct” was a frightening talk with content warnings for sexual assault and IEDs. This talk was primarily about methodologies for separating fear from anxiety and why it’s important to know the difference. Remembering that fear and anxiety manifest physically in the same way, we must try to acknowledge our curiosity and allow it to transition into suspicion, when appropriate. Emily Freeman was a fantastic speaker.
Aisha Blake’s talk on “Give Feedback Fearlessly” included a fun workshop. The problem with Aisha’s workshop was that, given a room full of people who have opted into a conference about mental health, it was too easy! We were to role play and give feedback to each other. My prompt involved giving feedback to a person who has been at a company since the very beginning and as such has become a bottleneck for everything, in order to maintain quality and “how we do things here”. Since I have in a way become this person previously, I enjoyed providing feedback to my past self. The best takeaway from this talk was a reminder about what feedback is: Feedback is the desire to change or encourage a behavior, not a person. If we can remember that feedback is not questioning our identity, receiving feedback won’t necessarily involve a bunch of scary feelings.
“Harry the Hedgehog Learns You a Communication” had a lot of cute hedgehogs. I wish you could have seen it. Laura Mosher advised us to watch our phrasing and think, then speak. It’s important to watch one’s phrasing because one wants to avoid being self-deprecating and using stereotyped language. Don’t use the word “crazy,” for example. How about ridiculous or nonsensical instead? Thinking, then speaking involves asking oneself a series of questions before speaking: “What do I want to say?” “Who am I talking to?” “How should I explain it?”
“From the Ashes: Rebuilding a Career After a Breakdown in Mental Health” was one of the more personal talks, so I’ll just pass along Hayley Denbraver’s advice: Know yourself. Know your options. Know your boundaries. Know your strengths. Know your priorities. Know that you’re worth it.
I adored Aaron Goldsmith’s talk about “How Not to Review a Pull Request.” We went over some common pull request reviewer personas, like the timid rabbit or the terse spartan. My favorite persona was the tornado, someone who comments on everything overzealously. Aaron explained the importance of a psychologically safe environment. We should be able to ask ourselves, “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?” We are all humans who make mistakes and are emotional beings. The most unique advice Aaron gave was trust others to do the right thing and be willing to verify that is the case. In short, trust but verify.
Jenny Bramble, a charismatic and wonderful human being, ended the first day of Heartifacts with her talk “Risk-Based Testing: Creating a Language Around Risk.” She started the talk asking us, “What is risk?” It could be anything from “something that goes wrong” to “a scary situation.” It’s important for us to write down and agree on a definition so we’re all communicating effectively. The agreed upon definition was “the impact of failure and the probability that failure will occur.”
It’s been about half a week since Heartifacts ended, and so I’ve had time to digest and reflect on the talks and my experience. I was emotionally exhausted after that first day. The talks in aggregate somewhat resembled a rollercoaster. I wouldn’t have Heartifacts any other way. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but wow! Were these some powerful talks!
The second day started off with a bang. Olivia Liddell spoke about “Overcoming Your Fear of Failure.” The most spectacular part of her talk was that she taught us Arabic! She asked, “Who is excited about the prospect of learning some Arabic right now?” There were a mixture of thumbs up and thumbs down. She taught us two letters and two words, and the audience was shouting out Arabic words as we guessed what characters on the screen meant. Then she asked, “Who enjoyed learning Arabic?” Nearly everyone was a thumbs up. Success. So what does fear of failure look like? The combination of the following: Feeling inadequate, imposter syndrome, procrastination, self-sabotage, and reluctance to try new things. We can combat our fear of failure by identifying our strengths, building and relying on a support network, and redefining failure and learning from it. I loved this Steve Jobs quote: “Let’s go invent tomorrow, rather than worrying about what happened yesterday.”
“Burnout and the Cult of Busy” taught us about self-care. There used to be a physical barrier called an office, but now there’s Slack, SMS, etc. There is no such thing as “Oh, I missed your call.” We’re obsessed with busy, and we live in a world that facilitates it. Self-care doesn’t make you lazy, weak, indulgent, selfish, or a bad employee. Your health is serious; protecting it is serious. I laughed when Caroline Moore said, “Your body is a toddler is basically what I’m getting at.” Her advice was take care of yourself, talk about needing self-care, set boundaries, and stop feeling guilt.
Zachary Zlotnik’s talk on “The Mental Impact of Tech Interviews” was one of the more controversial talks. Some folks in the audience disagreed with the premise that coding interviews are broken, while some wholeheartedly agreed. Coding interviews are not accurate, objective, predictive, unbiased, or consistent. In a world where technical ability takes precedence over everything else, companies may end up with “brilliant jerks,” who are technically brilliant but a pain to work with. Coding interviews favor those who can devote significant time to study, practice, and prepare. Zach’s point was that if coding interviews are overly stressful, folks who suffer from imposter syndrome or mental illness, for example, will be disadvantaged. Zach cited Open-Sourcing Mental Illness’ (OSMI) 2016 survey, where 50% of respondents were shown to have mental illness. Some people have to ask themselves, “Which is worse, going through a toxic interview process or staying where I am?” We don’t want good candidates to self-exclude from a bad interview process. How to fix this? The goal should be that the interview process does no harm.
“MomOps and Feelings” was a personal talk about parenting. Aly Fulton gave us great advice on how to be more inclusive to parents, and she opened my eyes to postpartum disorders. For more information, go to http://www.postpartum.net. Her advice was segmented by role, so I’ll limit to a couple highlights. First, employers and managers, support lactation (“pumping”) needs and utilize a re-onboarding process. Work environments will change while parents are on leave, so returning parents need to be reoriented. I think this advice is applicable to anyone going on a significant leave. For moms and birthing parents, self-care is essential. It’s hard, but find your support network. For partners, know the signs of postpartum disorders and encourage your partner to get help as soon as you see the signs. Aly’s advice is not exhaustive but is a good starting place.
At this time Heartifacts put on a cognitive distortions workshop. The highlight was we watched an old Dove commercial where women were asked to describe themselves and women were asked to describe persons they met while in the waiting room. The contrast between a self-described portrait and a portrait created from another person’s description was astounding. The takeaway is to be mindful of cognitive distortions in everyday life. Watch the commercial here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpaOjMXyJGk
I learned a lot about ADHD in Aaron Aldrich’s talk “Continuous Self Improvement: Dealing with ADHD”. ADHD includes poor impulse control, wandering attention, problems with long-term reward, hyperfocus, and unregulated emotions. Not all at the same time, of course. One of the benefits to ADHD, especially as a software engineer, is that when something goes wrong, ADHD brain says, “What are all the related things that could go wrong?” ADHD is often comorbid with depression and anxiety. Comorbid means existing simultaneously with and independently of, in the context of mental illnesses. The thing I loved about Aaron’s talk was his description of being diagnosed. Getting diagnosed gives context to one’s behavior and includes the realization that my behavior isn’t normal but there might be a solution. Lastly Aaron gave us permission to have “MVP: No-zero days”, which are days when one gets out of bed, showers, and brushes teeth, and that’s it.
Tori Brenneison’s talk was “Shine Theory 101: The Devastating Importance of Lifting Up Others to Lift Up Ourselves.” Shine theory is the radical notion that other people’s success does not mean one’s failure, and it was originally coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. I’d sum Tori’s talk as a guide to healthy friendships. My favorite things she said were “Fake it till you make it” does not apply to new friends and don’t be a killjoy.
It’s difficult to sum two whole days worth of content into a blog post, but Heartifacts made it slightly easier by using a venue with ample outlets so I could take copious notes and didn’t have to worry my laptop would die. The folks surrounding me didn’t give me dirty looks for typing furiously throughout the entire conference. I’m grateful for this conference and for this community.
The format of Heartifacts was the talk would start on the hour and go for 30-35 minutes. Then we’d break until the next hour. There’d be three talks in the morning, and three talks in the afternoon, with an afternoon break for therapy dogs. I had a lot of time to get up and stretch my legs between talks and wrap up my notes. Code and Supply also didn’t host Q&As after each talk, to spurn discussion among attendees more organically. Overall I was very pleased with the format and would recommend this to other conferences. I’ve learned for myself that smaller conferences with a single track are the most rewarding people-wise. I was able to meet nearly everyone at Heartifacts, including speakers, or at least be on a smile-nod basis when walking to the bathroom.
Heartifacts was wonderful. I look forward to future iterations of Heartifacts. Next year, Code and Supply is putting on its second Abstractions Conference. Learn more at http://abstractions.io. If you want to learn more about Heartifacts, I’d recommend checking out #heartifacts on Twitter.