Can you learn anything from a vlog?

Vlogging, “video blogging” – fascinates me. Not the idea of me doing it – how it feels to watch a vlog, and what it might change long-term.

I started watching vlogs after I saw my kids watching them. We let our kids use the YouTube Kids app for a bit each day, and they watch popular blogs such as Shaytards and The Engineering Family.

I also watched every day of Casey Neistat’s vlog for almost a year and showed many of them to my kids. I was a long-time fan of Casey’s Youtube channel (it was my only subscription for years) after seeing a video about his functional office and hearing him complain about the way the intern had built one of his shelves. I loved the attention to detail, and recognized the desire to have everything you need within an arm’s reach.

The interesting thing about watching Casey’s vlog is that I legitimately missed it when I stopped watching. When I returned to watching it later I was surprised to see that his daughter had, as children do, gotten older. The sensation was one of seeing an old friend after a few years. But I don’t know the Neistats. When I heard that he had sold Beme to CNN I was happy for him in a deeper way than if I had read a blog post about a popular blogger selling his company. The bond was greater, the intimacy higher.

It used to be that we read each other’s blogs to see what was going on in other people’s heads and to learn from their mistakes. Blogs were the teachers and the quality of writing created influencers. Now we listen to snarky musings and jokes on twitter, and fewer people read. Video is the next wave of extreme followership, and it is very different than previous formats in a few key ways.

Intimacy and Authenticity

My new favorite vlog takes the camera home but also teaches: Nathan Kontny. The intimacy that this builds is strange, raw, and powerful.

When Nathan explores an idea related to his business, I’m listening. As a paying Draft user, I have read on Ninjas and Robots (his well-named blog), but his deep credentials aren’t why I’m listening.

His transparency on the vlog lends him the authenticity that you can’t get on a blog no matter how self-deprecating your “about” page is. He starts filming before he gets all cleaned up for the day and mentions how he has “parenting insomnia”, that his family is sick often, and mentions when his young daughter has a tantrum. While the fact that he is a father doesn’t seem related to his work, it somehow matters deeply. I’m listening to his stories because of the greater context I see of his daily life and family; honesty in one area indicates honesty in another. And he tells some interesting stories that feel more real within this context.

Long Term

I believe that vlogging is the way that the next generation of “influencers” will emerge. For software engineers, this might mean that the ones with the personality to pull off a daily vlog might have more influence than they do today. Should all developers go get haircuts and take that terrifying improv class? Probably not, but vlogging might turn into what doing a tech talk is now: a right of passage for those that want to move to the next level of influence.

There are some interesting implications here regarding personal usage. You can’t watch 10 vlogs a day, even at the 6 to 9-minute standard that seems to have been established there just isn’t enough time. So a winner-take-all system will develop in which you most likely watch one, and occasionally binge on the rest like TV shows. While Casey Neistat’s vlog was interesting, I found myself wanting to know more about Beme and thus eventually got tired of hearing about drones, skateboards, and pep talks and stopped watching. Something like Nathan Kontny’s vlog matches my interests more directly – daily stories of business or personal challenges that I find relevant to my life and work. I look forward to it every day.

Recent Items In Other Places

A few quick notes on recent activity outside of this blog that I’ve been involved in:

Vetting People for Remote Work

I wrote this article about some approaches for effectively determining if someone will mesh well with your existing remote team over at the Buy Sell Ads publication. They have an entire Remote Life series that is worth reading through.

Ground Rules for Working with Tech Recruiters

I was interviewed for a piece discussing how you should treat recruiters [in summary: follow the golden rule]; this post ended up being a bit controversial as many tech workers think that recruiters are wasting their time, proving my point. If this is interesting to you also see The Three Laws of Robotics (for tech recruiters) and How to deal with robots and get your poodle a job .

Remote vs. in-office software teams: Which is better?

This is a great summary article about the pros and cons of allowing distributed work; my upcoming book is mentioned as a partial solution to some of the problems. If you are new to thinking through this issue many of the surveys and books mentioned are great starting points on the options and challenges you will face.

A Technique for Getting Unstuck When Working Alone

When you work alone you get stuck. Whether it be a hard problem, a heavy lunch, or just a bad interaction with resistance there are times when you find yourself in a rut and need to force your way out of it.

If there is one global law of productivity it is that of momentum: once you are working well, it is easier to keep going. Likewise, when you are in one of these ruts you have to spend extra energy to get going again.

I’d like to call out one simple technique that I used to keep momentum going and climb out of these holes: small, daily tasks.

One of these things is a secret.

This technique is simple: you have a handful of 5 – 10 minute tasks that you would love to do daily. If you get stuck, do 1-3 of these to get your mind back to making forward progress. These small tasks are not real breaks, but rather refreshers.

If I’m stuck on a hard problem I can take a break (with permission) and do 10 pushups, or go for a short walk, or meditate, or go read something. When I come back I no longer feel stuck since I was doing something, some forward motion. After the tasks are complete it is much easier to then shift the positive momentum back into the work that you need to get done.

This technique is different than the people who recommend you get up and run 10 miles and then write three pages, then work on your side project, then put another brick on the orphanage you are building.

Even on the worst of days you can find time to do a few of these. At the end of a sub-par day you can say “well at least I went for a walk and drank some water, plus those pushups”.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

I Hate This Image of Remote Work


I know it is probably intended to be funny, like the Oatmeal’s, but I’ve seen it used on Twitter pejoratively (like most things on Twitter). It seems to be making fun of people who work from home.

The making fun comes from two angles:

The crazy remote worker

  • Unwashed
  • Uniform (is sweatpants)
  • Same Shirt 3 days in a row
  • Coworkers (are cats)

This view says that remote workers don’t do anything but watch Jerry Springer and grow hair; they act like they are unemployed. This myth is dangerous because it takes a bunch of things that do not matter to actual work and use them as weapons to paint the subject as a loser.

The incompetent remote worker

  • Uniform is sweatpants (again)
  • Starts working well past noon
  • Forgot how to talk to humans

This is the traditional attack – remote workers are not effective.

What type of worker starts work in the afternoon? Most of the day is gone by then! Well, maybe. If you work to your energy then the time doesn’t matter does it?

If I could change this image I would add another little blurb: “Might have done more real work than you today”.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Remote Work is Not A Perk

Allowing your employees to work from where they wish is not a perk, it is a part of your company’s genetic makeup or it is nothing.

Many big companies think that allowing their people to work from home on Fridays is similar to matching 401k – simply a cost absorbed by the company to attract and keep people. Remote work is not a ping-pong table or free lunch on Thursdays.

Remote work, if properly supported, is a powerful testament to the respect that you have for your people and their lives. You are saying that you trust and expect them to perform, and you trust your ability to tell if they are or aren’t. It show a results-focused attitude that speaks to a core value of your company: do you follow tradition blindly or do you support what works best?

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Silver Lining

I love hanging around with my kids because they say so many things that don’t make sense. They sound of wise crazy poets.

Yesterday while walking with my daughter she looked up at the sky and said birds are so happy, but they have sun in their eyes all day. I thought about this and smiled and she smiled at me. We were on our way to dropoff a picture she made into a neighbor’s mailbox.

Not all birds have sun in their eyes all day of course, they fly beneath the clouds down here with us, but it reminded me of the common saying every cloud has a silver lining which I often hear applied to mean: “from every bad thing, there is some small, good thing”. This is not the meaning of the phrase, although it is the common usage.

Silver lining refers to the fact that the sun is always shining above the clouds, and you can see this on the edges where it makes it shine brightly in silver. Every cloud has a silver lining means that the cloud’s days are numbered, that the heat on the other side – with the same intensity and consistency as on a sunny day – will move that cloud away and it will be sunny again to you.

If you a spiritual person, it means that He who brought the clouds promises He will take them away. The origin of the phrase speaks to this:

I see ye visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme Good, to whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistering guardian, if need were
To keep my life and honour unassailed.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.

— John Milton, Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634

Reflection Frameworks

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is typically a change of pace for most people – even if they don’t go on vacation – and a socially acceptable time to reflect and make large changes in your life. I am intentional about goal-setting and have found that having a framework – a simple set of questions – to guide the reflections helps.

Here are a few ways to help you reflect on 2016 and plan for the new year.

Reflection Frameworks

#1 Todd Henry’s “Questions for 2017″

  • What do I want to experience?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How do I want to change?

#2 Agile Development Process Improvement Questions

  • What should we start doing?
  • What’s something new we should add?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • What’s something we’re doing that we don’t need to do anymore?
  • What should we continue doing?
  • What are we already doing that’s going well?

#3 “If I took it seriously” exercise

This is one I made up and use in my yearly retreats; for each role in your life (father, husband, employee, etc.) ask yourself:

What would it look like if I took this completely seriously?

This provides a good list of actions you can take to get a little better at each role, and it helps you focus and prioritize certain roles over others.

#5 Morning Journal Questions, but for the entire year.

Ask yourself the daily questions, but apply them to the entire year:

  • I am grateful for ____ [3 things].
  • What would make 2017 great? [3 things]
  • Three Amazing Things that happened in 2016. [3 things]
  • How could I have made 2016 better?

Finally, some extra inspiration and some humor about resolutions. Good luck!


Play to your Strengths – Well, Sometimes.

You hear, and most act upon, the advice to “learn all you can and improve your weaknesses.” Traditional education focuses on being well-rounded and not having any major knowledge gaps, so we get used to pushing through learning things we don’t pick up quickly.

But there is another idea, most commonly learned by taking an assessment like StrengthFinder, to instead figure out what you are good at and then focus on it intensely. The thrust of this idea is that effort multiplies in your areas of power – a week of work improving your public speaking when you are naturally good at it pays off more than a month of working on a weakness.

Combining these, most of us just shore up the very important weaknesses but play to our strengths. Seems simple, well maybe not.

All strengths have blindspots

For example, I am good at solving problems, and I am (relatively) calm in a (work) crisis. Because of this, I’m not afraid of a small crisis. This is a blindspot.

I’m not going to prevent these things from happening as aggressively as someone who freaks out and jumps out of a window when a bug is found in production. This means that my strength is also a weakness – if I “play” to this strength then I, without knowing it, might make it more likely to happen so that someone like me is needed.

I used to work for an executive that had a similar strength: he was very good at convincing employees and clients to not resign or walk away from the contract. He excelled in last-ditch efforts and high-pressure situations. Being good at talking people back into the building is a good tool to have, but he seemed to use it an awful lot. Without meaning to do so, he did a number of other things that seemed to cause situations in which his particular set of skills would always be needed.

Maybe if it happens three times it is partially on you, brother.

I can manage more projects at a time than the average person. I read 3-5 books at a time and can keep track of where I am on each one. I have seen old friends years later and will continue conversations with them that we had two years ago and they will not remember them. I can mentally bookmark things and then return to them.

This means that I might say “yes” to too many things at a time and create situations in which I over-allocate myself, thus making it a weakness. It also means that I might multi-task, a common way to not be productive, more often than someone than can’t do this easily. It is a weakness and a strength.

You have to be careful to not play towards your strength, but instead, recognize when they are truly needed and then use them.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Personal Pre-Mortems

If you are like me you can get into a mindset of negative thinking where you can poke holes in any potential project idea or action. After all, thinking of doomsday scenarios is a marketable skill when you actually take action to prevent them, but in our personal lives having this negative view is very bad for us. It makes us hesitate or not get started on an important project with an uncertain future. It makes us not surprised by failure or neutrality. If you expect the worst you will probably get it.

This same method of thinking can be a powerful ally, however, when used as a weapon.

Defensive Weapon

Think of an important project, relationship, or trajectory in your life. Now imagine the worst that can happen. I call this technique “pre-mortems” and it is not the most fun you will have today. Think of the following scenarios:

  • You are divorced
  • You are bankrupt
  • You have a terrible, but preventable, health issue
  • You have lost your job, and are suddenly unable to get another one in the same industry, geographic area, or market due to a damaged reputation.
  • All of your shoes have been replaced with pink crocs.

Now ask yourself this question: “How did this happen?” and list the reasons.

Well if I’m divorced it was probably because my wife and I stopped communicating, or stopped making sure that we spent time together and just focused too much on the kids, or maybe I got a wondering eye because of some unresolved problem, or because I stopped trying.

Well if I’ve got diabetes or cancer it might be because I order fried chicken from a car more times than I exercise most weeks. I guess that wouldn’t be a surprise.

If I’m bankrupt it is because I have become disabled and don’t have good coverage in that area. Since I’m the primary breadwinner and we have kids, my wife’s salary wouldn’t cover everything so we would have to lose the house.

If I can’t work in my field this is probably because some really bad scandal was slowly slipped into by a group of people encouraging or ignoring the warning signs.

If I only have pink crocs it is probably because I lost a bet of some form and am being forced to wear them as some sort of shame spectacle.

Now go and avoid those things, establish guardrails against those results, make contingency plans for those things:

  • I need to make sure I’m focusing and working on my marriage more.
  • I need to get better disability insurance.
  • I need to exercise, eat real food, and focus on my health.
  • I need to continue to avoid any financial or relational gray areas.
  • I should not bet on the New York Jets.

Now take a deep breath – none of these has happened; you still have time. During the life of a project you can apply this same mode of thinking – 60% into a software development project I can sit down and say: “OK this project is late – why?” and list three actions I could take to avoid the most common failure scenarios.

Offensive Weapon

For new projects, you can use the same method without depressing yourself. Let’s imagine something that you want to do but you keep putting it off or convincing yourself that you can’t do it. We all hear a voice that tells us “it won’t work out”, “you will fail and people will see”, “you aren’t good enough”, “your pink crocs are so dumb”, etc.

Maybe you want to write a book, try a new career path, take some time off of work to drive across the country, or audition for American Idol. Pick something you really want to do that you have talked yourself out of a few times.

Let’s listen to the inner voice, really listen for a minute. Give the little hater its chance to make a speech.

OK if you start this project and it fails, then you will have wasted $30,000, which means you would need to sell your crappy car and maybe live with your parents for awhile. As a twenty-eight-year-old man. If you are living with your parents it wouldn’t exactly be a secret, so that would be really embarrassing. Everybody that thought that you had it together would realize that you didn’t, so it would actually erode my reputation in a way that would be hard to crawl out of. From there – living in a basement – it would be really hard to recover emotionally. But I guess since you are not that special it would be what you deserve for trying to be.

Now filter out the emotions, insults, and judgments and just think of the real consequences of failure for your project. Split out how they would make you feel for a moment and just think logistically:

  • I would lose a lot of money
  • I would be spending time on something that didn’t work out, when I could have been doing other things
  • I would trade some of my reputation

Now make some plans to guard against these things being as bad – ways that you can hedge or counter these things – and list them.

  • I would lose some money, but I won’t touch a one-month emergency fund. If I got to the point that I touched this I would get a job at Starbucks. I look great in green.
  • Yes, there is an opportunity cost, but once I get started I would ignore this thought and really commit. Besides, anything else that I worked on would run into the same obstacles – I’ll be smart with the projects I pick to focus in on.
  • My reputation might get hurt, but I might also draw attention and respect for trying something bold – and perhaps I care about those people’s opinions more anyway. Besides, learning from failure means you have to actually fail sometimes.
  • Living with my parents would stink, but I wouldn’t have to do my own laundry. Plus my mom will not make fun of my pink crocs.

Now answer the inner critic with a detailed version of “So, what are you going to do about it?”:

I might fail and lose money, time, and face, but I would have really tried, and probably learned something. I would then be able to rebuild my life by taking a regular job and working to save like I have done so far in my life. Since I would have been following what I really wanted to do I wouldn’t regret it and wouldn’t feel “behind” in the years when I was re-establishing my financial stability. I would have failed doing what I want to do, rather than half-failing over the long-term doing something I didn’t care about.

Read some more about this technique at Business Insider and watch some other practical benefits to Pessimism.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

We Can’t Let People Work From Home Because _______.

We can’t let our people work from home, they might not work.

Sounds like you hire clowns.

I mean how would I know if they were slacking off?

You don’t have any way to tell if people are making progress?

If I can’t see them to make sure they are working, then I can’t manage them.

Sounds like you need to level up as a manager.

But we can’t let our people not see each other, they won’t communicate well.

Sounds like you hire people that can’t adjust.

If we let people work from home they might leave the company.

Sounds like if they want to and you don’t let them, they will leave to one of the many companies that let them. I hope none of them are your competitors.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.