Presented at:

I gave an Ignite talk at DevOpsDays Chicago 2015.

The format is a 5 minute presentation with 20 slides, auto-advanced every 15 seconds. The constraints made it a very interesting talk to plan and execute.


This is Parental Advisory Explicit Content. My name is Alina Mackenzie. I am a sysadmin and developer based in Chicago. And I grew up in the 80s and 90s :)

Once upon a time there was a team of people working on software and systems. They each lived in their own tower. Once a week they came together to talk about what they were up to. Things were great!

Until one day, when new team members arrived on the scene. They soon became alienated and frustrated and lost. Change had to happen. This is the story and lessons learned from making things explicit to myself, and other people.

Number one: talk in public. When two people talk in public, a third one listens. Fourth one learns. And a fifth one will correct something that one of the other people had said.

Expose your ignorance

Instincts tell us to hide our ignorance and feign expert knowledge. “Fake it till you make it”, right? But this can slow us down. Remember, expertise should be a by-product, not a destination.

One of the most obvious ways to expose our ignorance is to ask questions. Asking questions can be intimidating and it can take practice. But it is crucial. Let me show you why.

Violins and cellos made in the workshop of Antonio Stradivari are considered to be the finest ever made. Still, to this day no one has been able to replicate Stradivari’s craft. Stradivari had apprentices, but something got lost.

If you have a Stradivari in your organization, pepper them with questions about how they know what they know. And look out for the unspoken things — unconscious competence — that they might not even be aware of.

For people of all skills to become comfortable with exposing their ignorance, they need an environment in which it is safe to do so. An environment in which asking questions is welcomed, and asking for help is not seen as weakness.

Record everything you learn, in public, and in private. Your public record is a way of sharing the lessons you learn and getting feedback from your community. Your private record is where you can be painfully honest about where you are in your journey.

It is better to share what you know than to create scarcity by hoarding it. When you learn about something, you should always be teaching. When one person teaches another, two people learn.

Look for mentors and companions. Become exposed to the daily working habits of other skilled people. Observe the ways in which they work, and see how they refine their habits into skills.

Do you work on things that no one else in your organization knows about? (in Gollum voice) My precioussss.. Stop. Make your work explicit. Become the protagonist of your very own user story.

Reflect on how you work, and be explicit about this, too. Write down your current set of practices, without any shame or judgment. Look for places where you can inject small improvements.

Empty the cup

There is a story of a young philosopher came to visit a zen master. Every time the master tried to speak, the excited philosopher kept on interrupting, so very eager to tell the master all they have learned so far.

Finally, the master started pouring tea into a cup, pouring so much that it overflowed. The lesson being, if you come with your cup already full, you cannot be given more to drink.

I was once on a team tasked with building an animal out of legos at a workshop. As we started work I noticed that instead working with the team I became easily frustrated by the ever-changing demands of the client.

Winged animal creature with wheels, made out legos.

So, I emptied my cup (of bad habits). In the next sprint, with my team’s support I took the risk to build the creature’s wings. Our team ended up scoring best, and winning the satisfaction of the client.

The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so bad that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. — C.S. Lewis

Too often we keep waiting for favorable conditions that will never come. Sometimes waiting until you are ready is a recipe for never doing a thing. So dive in the deep end (and stumble through your first Ignite talk).

A lot of the things I just talked about, I learned from the Drupal community. Also check out Apprenticeship Patterns by David Hoover and Adewale Oshineye, to learn more about being explicit in your craft.