Real Life Ensues

Hey everyone! You probably noticed that I didn’t post a blog last week. Which means for the first time in over ten years I didn’t post one. The streak is done. Why? Well, real life decided to take over for a bit. I was up to my eyeballs in helping put on our BSA council Wood Badge course. I had a great time and completely lost track of time while I was there. And that means I didn’t get a chance to post something. Which is a perfect excuse to discuss why I set goals the way that I do.

Consistency Is Key

I write a lot. Between my blog here and the writing I do for Gestalt IT I do at least 2-3 posts a week. That’s on top of any briefing notes I type out or tweets I send when I have the energy to try and be funny. For someone that felt they weren’t a prolific writer in the past I can honestly say I spend a lot of time writing out things now. Which means that I have to try and keep a consistent schedule of doing things or else I will get swamped by some other projects.

I set the goal of one post a week because it’s an easy checkpoint for me. If it’s Friday and I haven’t posted anything here I know I need to do something. That’s why a large number of my posts come out on Friday. I keep a running checkpoint in my head to figure out what I want to cover and whether or not I’ve done it. When I can mark it down that I’ve done it then I can rest easy until next week.

With my Gestalt IT writing, I tend to go in batches. I try to find a couple of ideas that work for me and I plow through the posts. If I can get 3-4 done at a time it’s easy to schedule them out. For whatever reason it’s much easier to batch them on that side of the house than it is for me to work ahead on my personal blog.

If I don’t stay consistent I worry that the time I dedicate to blogging is going to be replaced by other things. It’s the same reason I feel like I need to stay on top of exercising or scheduling other meetings. Once the time that I spend taking care of something gets replaced by something else I feel like I never get that time back.

I know that doing things like that doesn’t work the way we would like it to work. Juggling writing without a firm schedule only leads to problems down the road. However, I feel like treating my blog posts like a single juggling ball being tossed up in the air over and over keeps my focus sharp. Unless something major comes along that absolutely steals my focus away I can make it work. I even thought to myself last Thursday that I needed to write something up. Alas, lack of sleep and other distractions get in the way before I could make it happen.

Writing Down the Routine

It’s important that you pencil in your routine to make it stick. Sure, after ten years I know that I need to write something each week. It’s finally ingrained in my head. But with other things, like exercise or harmonica practice or even just remembering to take out the garbage on Thursdays I need to have some way of reminding me or blocking time.

Using a reminders app or a journaling system is a great way to make that happen in your own head. Something you can refer to regularly to make sure that things are getting done. Whatever it is works just fine as long as you’re checking it and updating it regularly. Once you let that slip you’ll find yourself cursing it all because you’re halfway through a month with no updates.

Likewise, you need to make sure to block time on you calendar to take care of important things. My morning routine involves blocking time to go for a walk or a run. I also block time to write down posts and projects that are due. Putting those times on my calendar mean that I not only get notified when it’s time to start working on things but that other people can also see what I’m up to and schedule accordingly. Just be careful that you leave time to do other stuff. Also, while it’s important to use that term wisely don’t just sit there and do nothing if you’ve scheduled writing time. Write something down with the time you have. Even if it’s just a random idea or three. You never know when those half baked ideas can be leveraged to make full-blown magic!


Tom’s Take

I had every intention of writing my makeup post on Monday. Which slipped to Tuesday or Wednesday. And then I realized that real life is never going to stop. You have to make time for the important things. If that means writing something at midnight to post the next day or jogging up and down a muddy dirt road at ten minutes before midnight to ensure you close your last activity rings you have to do what needs to be done. Time isn’t going to magically appear. The gaps in your schedule will fill up. You need to be the one to decide how you’re going to use it. Let your priorities ensue in real life instead of the other way around.

Tech Field Day Changed My Life

It’s amazing to me that it’s been ten years since I attended by first Tech Field Day event. I remember being excited to be invited to Tech Field Day 5 and then having to rush out of town a day early to beat a blizzard to be able to attend. Given that we just went through another blizzard here I thought the timing was appropriate.

How did attending an industry event change my life? How could something with only a dozen people over a couple of days change the way I looked at my career? I know I’ve mentioned parts of this to people in the past but I feel like it’s important to talk about how each piece of the puzzle built on the rest to get me to where I am today.

Voices Carry

The first thing Tech Field Day did to change my life was to show me that I mattered. I grew up in a very small town and spent most of my formative school years being bored. The Internet didn’t exist in a usable form for me. I devoured information wherever I could find it. And I languished as I realized that I needed more to keep learning at the pace I wanted. When I finally got through college and started working in my career the same thing kept happening. I would learn about a subject and keep devouring that knowledge until I exhausted it. Yet I still wanted more.

Tech Field Day reinforced that my decision to start a blog to share what I was learning was the right one. It wasn’t as much about the learning as it was the explanation. Early on I thought a blog was just about finding some esoteric configuration stanza and writing about it. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out that my analysis and understanding and explanation was more important overall. Even my latest posts about more “soft skill” kinds of ideas are less about the ideas and how I apply them.

Blogging and podcasting are just tools to share the ideas that we have. We all have our own perspectives and people enjoy listening to those. They may not always agree. They may have their own opinions that they want to share. However, the part that is super critical is that everyone is able to share in a place where they can be discussed and analyzed and understood. As long as we all learn and grow from what we share then the process works. It’s when we stop learning and sharing and try to protest that our way is right and the only way that we stop growing.

Tech Field Day gave me the platform to see that my voice mattered and that people listened. Not just read. Not just shared. That they listened and that they wanted to hear more. People started asking me to comment on things outside of my comfort zone. Maybe it was wireless networking. It could have been storage or virtualization or even AI. It encouraged me to learn more and more because who I was and what I said was interesting. The young kid that could never find someone to listen when I wanted to talk about Star Wars or BattleTech or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was suddenly the adult that everyone wanted to ask questions to. It changed the way I looked at how I shared with people for the better.

Not Just a Member, But the President

The second way Tech Field Day changed my life was when I’d finally had enough of what I was doing. Because of all the things that I had seen in my events from 2011 to 2013, I realized that working as an engineer and operations person for a reseller had a ceiling I was quickly going to hit. The challenges were less fun and more frustrating. I could see technology on the horizon and I didn’t have a path to get to a place to implement it. It felt like watching something cool happening outside in the yard while I was stuck inside washing the dishes.

Thankfully, Stephen Foskett knew what I needed to hear. When I expressed frustration he encouraged me to look around for what I wanted. When I tried to find a different line of work that didn’t understand why I blogged, it crystallized in me that I needed something very different from what I was doing. Changing who I was working for wasn’t enough. I needed something different.

Stephen recognized that and told me he wanted me to come on board without him. No joking that my job offer was “Do you want to be the Dread Pirate Roberts? I think you’d make an excellent Dread Pirate.”. He told me that it was hard work and unlike anything I’d ever done. No more CLI. No more router installations. In place of that would be event planning and video editing and taking briefings from companies all over the place about what they were building. I laughed and told him I was in.

And for the past eight years I’ve been a part of the thing that showed me that my voice mattered. As I learned the ropes to support the events and eventually started running them myself, I also grew as a person in a different way. I stopped by shy and reserved and came out of my shell. When you’re the face of the event you don’t have time to be hiding in the corner. I learned how to talk to people. I also learned how to listen and not just wait for my turn to talk. I figured out how to get people to talk about themselves when they didn’t want to.

Now the person I am is different from the nerdy kid that started a blog over ten years ago. It’s not just that I know more. Or that I’m willing to share it with people. It has now changed into getting info and sharing it. It’s about finding great people and building them up like I was built up. Every time I see someone come to the event for the first time I’m reminded of me all those years ago trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Watching people learn the same things I’ve learned all over again warms my heart and shows me that we can change people for the better by showing them what they’re capable of and that they matter.


Tom’s Take

Tech Field Day isn’t an event of thousands. It’s personal and important to those that attend and participate. It’s not going to stop global warming or save the whales. Instead, it’s about the people that come. It’s about showing them they matter and that they have a voice and that people listen. It’s about helping people grow and become something they may not even realize they’re capable of. I know I sound biased because the pay the bills but even if I didn’t work there right now I would still be thankful for my time as a delegate and for the way that I was able to grow from those early days into a better member of the community. My life was changed when I got on that airplane ten years ago and I couldn’t be happier.

A Decade of Blogging

Today is a milestone for me. Ten years ago I picked up a virtual notepad for the first time and committed my first blog post to the ether. It’s been a wild ride ever since. It also marks the milestone of being the job that I’ve held the longest so far in my career.

Blogging has been a huge boon for me. I’ve become a better writer in the last decade. I’ve learned how to ask the right questions and get good material for a story instead of just putting out what someone wants me to say. I’ve learned that being a pseudo-journalist is a thing you can do and have fun with.

I’ve written a ton over the years. 751 posts, as a matter of fact (counting this one). I’ve always tried to hold myself to a standard of getting something out once a week. Aside from the few times when I’ve tried to push that to twice a week I’ve held up pretty well. Yeah, I’ve slipped and the day job has gotten in the way more than once. However, keeping myself to a strict schedule has ensured that my attention stays focused on this blog and that it doesn’t lapse into irrelevance any more than normal.

It’s also opened up a lot of doors for me. Blogging was how I got introduced to the Packet Pushers and raised my profile from “crazy nerd that writes” to “crazy nerd that is a podcast guest.” That got me involved with Tech Field Day and from there things went all the way to Mars. In fact, it was Tech Field Day that helped me understand the importance of writing and to rededicating myself to what I do. And to the job interviewer that considered my blogging to be a hobby, not unlike restoring cars or fishing, I think I can safely say it’s become way more than either of us could have imagined.

I’m still creating content all over the place. In addition to all the stuff I do for my day job at Tech Field Day, I write coverage from our events and the briefings I take at Gestalt IT. I have started making videos. I am part of a weekly podcast that covers IT news and lets me be a little snarky now and then. I’ve seen the shift of content moving from written words to spoken words to video and beyond. There’s no shortage of information being shared today, even if some of it is shared in formats that favor shorter attention spans.

What more is there to write about at this point? I go back and look at my early posts and laugh at how I originally wanted to get my thoughts down about structured troubleshooting. And then it morphed into CCIE studies. Then SDN. Or maybe engineering woes. All of it has been growth for me. I’ve learned how to argue and not assassinate character. I’ve seen how people can take different sides of the same argument. I’ve even seen how the things we have settled years before come back around for a new generation of networking pros to argue over again and again.

I love this place. It’s one of the reasons why I’m the only writer here. And trust me, the content mills are always emailing me to put up sponsored posts. But I keep turning them down because this is my place for my thoughts. I want those of you that still read along with me to enjoy what I think about something or know that what I’m saying isn’t a post that was compensated. Knowing where I’m coming from hopefully helps you all understand how the forces in the market and the community drive what we see, what we learn, and what we do with it all.


Tom’s Take

I’m glad I made it through my warm up period for blogging. The funny thing about writing is that you just keep getting better and better as you go along. Who I am hasn’t really changed. A few of the certifications are retired or expired. Twitter is still a thing that I do. But this is where I belong. It’s my home and my work and the place where I get to be me. I hope the next decade is as much fun and as meaningful for all of you as it has been for me!

Solve the Simple Problems

One thing I’ve found out over the past decade of writing is that some problems are easy enough to solve that we sometimes forget about them. Maybe it’s something you encounter once in a great while. Perhaps it’s something that needed a little extra thought or a novel reconfiguration of an existing solution. Something so minor that you didn’t even think to write it down. Until you run into the problem again.

The truth behind most of these simple problems is that the solutions aren’t always apparent. Sure, you might be a genius when it comes to fixing the network or the storage array. Maybe you figured out how to install some new software to do a thing in a way that wasn’t intended. But did you write any of it down for later use? Did you make sure to record what you’ve done so someone else can use it for reference?

Part of the reason why I started blogging was to have those written solutions to problems I couldn’t find a quick answer to. What it became was way more than I had originally intended. But the posts that I write that still get the most attention aren’t my long think pieces on the state of the networking industry or multiplied engineers. It’s the simple solutions to questions or problems that keep driving traffic here day after day.

Look Around

A lot of my great posts come from me asking simple questions. How does BPDUGuard work on a switch? Why does the Apple Watch not unlock my MacBook? What is up with this SFP not working? When you ask the questions you have to figure out the answers. And that’s the hard and rewarding part of the puzzle.

I challenge you to go search out a simple problem. Say it’s an issue with data not being shared between two devices. The search results will almost always turn up a few pages that have a litany of solutions that are basic troubleshooting steps. Things like:

  • Ensure the devices are connected
  • Reset the network settings
  • Unpair and repair the devices
  • Restart everything
  • Call Tech Support

You’ve probably stumbled across these before. And the sad truth is that running down that laundry list of solutions will often fix issues, which is why they keep getting boosted back into the search results. But you know what’s missing? They why of the problem. It’s not enough to just toss things at a problem in the hope that it starts working again.You have to also figure out what went wrong and why it happened.

Networking people always want to know why something went wrong because we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Security people are even more stringent about figuring out the why behind a problem. They want to stop a potential breach or plug a hole that needs to be dealt with. So to them a solution is just a temporary fix until you can confirm that something won’t happen again.

This is why the work that writers do is so important. We explain the why behind problems. We figure out what caused something to go off the rails and then how to fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Those are the kinds of posts that get the most attention. Because they’re specific about the fix, enlightening about the education behind the problem, and most importantly aren’t just a laundry list of fixes to throw at something until it works.


Tom’s Take

If you’re someone out there that’s looking to start writing down your solutions to problems, you need to start with the questions behind what’s going on. It’s not enough to just regurgitate the fixes and hope that one of them has some kind of magic that works. You need to investigate, understand, and explain what’s going on. Once you can do that, you will have created something that gets lots of attention and will encourage you to keep up the questions for years to come.

 

The Hook Brings You Back

If I asked you to summarize the great works of literature in a few paragraphs, how would you do it? Would you read over the whole thing and try to give a play-by-play of the book? Would it be more like Cliff’s Notes, summarizing the major themes but skipping over the details? Maybe you’d offer up the conclusion only and leave it as an exercise to the reader to find out? There are a lot of ways to do it and almost all of them seem insurmountable.

What if there was an easy way to jump right into starting to discuss a topic or summarize something? What if you could find a way to easily get people interested in your ideas? Believe or not, it’s not as hard as you might think. People usually freak out because they feel like there are too many places to start when they want to write something. They decide to try and figure out the perfect way to get going and, more often than not, they paralyze themselves with inaction.

So how do you get things moving? You have to find the hook.

By Hook or Crook

What’s the hook? Most people think it’s like a fish hook. Something you set to reel someone in. And that’s not far from the truth. The hook, when talking about writing or even music, is a section that is designed to catch your attention and keep it. The hook is what’s responsible for those catchy choruses you can’t get out of your head once you hear them.

But the hook is also the way you can get into a heady topic. The hook is the way you get things start. You find the attention-catching part of the story or the topic that you want to talk about and you grab it. Set the hook. That’s the first step. Figuring out what you want to talk about and setting that hook.

The key is to avoid getting overwhelmed. Don’t try to say too much. The hook doesn’t work if it’s too big. It doesn’t work if it’s too complicated. You have to find something small and relatable if you want people to bite. You need a single idea. A single topic of some kind. Make it easy and your audience will surely bite on it.

Reeling Them In

Okay, so you’ve successfully set the hook. Now what? Do you just tug and tug on it until you get what you’re after? Every fisherman knows that’s a bad idea. You have to gently pull and convince your quarry to come. You have to build something that leads people to where you want them to be.

Writing is no different. You have your hook but you have to support it with facts and evidence. You have to come back to your main idea and reinforce it over and over. That’s how the hook gets into the reader’s mind. You have to make sure they aren’t going to forget it. The hook is the takeaway from the piece you’re writing.

When your reader finishes you want them to have that idea ringing in their ears and in their head. You want them to think of your idea like a chorus from a song. Resonating and repeating. Not in the insidious ear worm kind of way. But in the way of your favorite movie scenes or favorite songs. Something that they enjoy and want to keep coming back to.

Fishing In Practice

Okay, so this is all well and good when you’re trying to sit down and write something. But what about when you’re listening to a presentation? How can this help you with your pre-writing?

The biggest thing to do is to start looking for hooks early. Most good presenters will tee up an idea or a theme and run with it. They’ll do most of the hard work for you. All you have to do it pick up on it. Find the theme running through everything and start taking notes about it. Using things like mind maps are great for this style of note taking because you’re going to try and pull all your details back to that main hook.

But what if there isn’t a hook? What if the main idea is scattered or the presentation isn’t built in such a way as to present something that has a clear, definitive theme? Well, that’s where the creative part comes into play. You’re going to have to do a little fishing of your own. You need to look at the media you’re given and try to find your hook. You may have to try a few things out first to get something worth talking about. But once you find the hook in the information you’re given you’re going to want to run with it. That’s how you know you’ve found something good.


Tom’s Take

A lot of my briefings and other coverage writing on Gestalt IT uses this kind of style now. I try to find the hook to pull people in to read about what I’m discussing. It’s not always mean or nefarious. Instead I want to engage people and show them how I look at things. Hopefully it gives them a new perspective and helps them understand deep technical topics. And maybe it’s enough to bring them back for more along the way.

Creating Conspicuously Compelling Content

It’s funny how little things change in the middle of big, world changing experiences. I’ve noticed that my daily blog viewership has gone down, as have many other folks I’ve talked to. The number of people reading has been reduced for some reason. However the number of video views of content on other platforms like Youtube has gone up dramatically. It’s almost like the people that were reading because they wanted to get a quick digest now have the free time to watch a whole video on a topic.

I got on the bandwagon too, recently publishing my first episode of Tomversations this week. I’ve also talked to several friends that are either starting or restarting a podcast. The gold mine for content creation has opened for business. However, I still hear the same refrains about content that I’ve heard for years when I talk about writing:

  • “I don’t have anything to say!”
  • “It’s hard to write things down!”
  • “Isn’t it easier to just talk about stuff?”

These are all valid questions, no matter what medium you’re developing for. But let me give you a roadmap to take those objections, turn them on their heads, and be able to create any kind of content you want to produce. And yes, because you’re reading this instead of watching it, be prepared to write just a little. I promise it will pay off.

Writer’s Clearinghouse

You can’t create without ideas, right? You need some way to jot down all the things you think about. Photographers have a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. I would say that the best note taking device you own is the one you have with you that you use. I know a lot of people that carry pens and little notebooks, like my favorite ones from Field Notes. They think that having a few pieces of paper in their pocket is enough to get their ideas to spring forth from their forehead like an ethereal Athena. Sadly, that’s not the case. If you don’t use your note taking device often you won’t build a habit of using it when you get an idea.

For example, I take notes in a variety of places. One of them is a program called Drafts. I’ve recently started using it to corral all my random ideas. Thoughts about posts. Story outlines. Scripts for videos. You name it. If it think it, it goes in a draft somewhere. It’s like my digital version of The Jones Grail Diary. It’s not organized, but it doesn’t have to be. Just enough reference for me to remember what I was talking about and the main idea. Sometimes I’ll pull out my phone during conversations to take notes. Those drafts are then synced back to my laptop for perusal and consolidation. Whatever tool your using, make sure you use it as soon as you get the idea. If that poor thought escapes into the nether realm of your brain it’s no good to anyone.

And don’t be afraid to jot down the craziest things. No idea is wasted if it’s on paper somewhere. You never know when you’ll create BGP on napkins. Just make sure you have all those papers or drafts in a place where you check them. If not writing something down is bad, writing it down and forgetting to check in on it is just a little bit better, but still bad.

Outline Everything

People think that when they start a conversation or join a podcast recording that magic is just going to happen. The ideas are going to flow and we’re going to have compelling content. The real world couldn’t get any further from the truth. Ideas spring from nowhere, but they grow very slowly. In order to really build around them, you need to nurture then along with some help. And that help usually takes the form of an outline.

Outlines help you plan out your ideas and support them. Remember how we were all taught to write paragraphs in elementary school? Main ideas followed by two or three supporting sentences. It’s basically and reads like formula written by a fourth grader. Guess what? That’s a perfect outline. When I started writing this post in my head, I started with the main ideas and then wrote down supporting ideas. Now that you’re out of high school grammar class you can build around your paragraphs with more than just a detail or two. You can add anecdotes or data or even pictures. And that makes your content nice and supported.

Outlines also help the thinking process. When I record podcasts I have an outline. The Gestalt IT Rundown happens because Rich researches the stories that we riff on. I can make jokes because I know the stories ahead of time. We work on where to put stories because some are better fodder for jokes than others. That’s the outline process. Podcasts are no different no matter how many guests you have. Maybe it’s a one-on-one episode. There’s an outline of the flow of the episode. It may be very detailed to hit all the points. If it’s a community show or discussion, there may be a loose outline designed to give some guardrails to the content. Even a one-sentence main idea for the topic can be and outline if you keep referring your discussion and arguments back to it.

Savage Writing

I know far too many people that treat their first draft like some kind of sacred relic. This is the best thing I’ve ever produced and it can never change from this form. I will pour my effort into it and that’s all I need.

That’s crap.

First drafts are one step removed from outlines and notes. They’re tying things together. Treat them like sketches and not paintings. Don’t be afraid to rearrange, delete, or outright destroy them. There have been many drafts that have been deleted or radically changed by the time I got to the end of the last paragraph. Likewise, there are times when I realize halfway through a conversation that we need to take things in a different direction. The value of being able to change your mind is that you do it when you need to.

Drafts should be massaged and built up to get to a final product. But don’t be afraid to put them on the shelf and let them sit until the time is right. I have dozens of drafts in my archives waiting for more attention, more research, or better timing to be effective. The ideas are sound. The outlines are good. They just need more than I can give right now. Or maybe the topic isn’t quite ready to be discussed at length. What’s important is that the work I’ve done is already waiting for me when I want to come back to it.

Coming back to your work after the fact is an important thing to try if you feel stuck. I’ve been known to walk away from a draft post or script because I need to get my head out of the wagon rut thinking I was in. Forcing myself to do something else or talk to someone to change my way of thinking has done wonders. Coming back to something with fresh eyes and brain cells often makes a huge difference. You can catch little mistakes or realize there’s a better way to state your argument. The time it takes to change your mind for a few minutes probably would have been wasted on doing nothing anyway.

Just Record.

Okay, you’ve jotted down ideas, built your outline, and written a script or a first draft. What do you do now? Well, like my other famous advice, you need to record your thoughts. Just. Record.

Don’t get caught up in things like perfect lighting or audio balance. Don’t freak out if you stammer or someone drives a garbage truck past your recording studio. Just get the thoughts down. Get a feel for how the flow works. Often, you’ll find that you think of changes on the fly. New ways to word things. New supporting ideas that work better for your discussion. I’ve been known to come up with some really great analogies halfway through an explanation that I would never have been able to think of otherwise. You have to get the content down somewhere.

You can always record again. You can always edit mistakes. You can record the intro last and the ending first. You can fix just about anything in post-production after you get the hang of it. The key is that you’re capturing content. Just like writing or outlining or note taking. It’s happening and the content is being created.


Tom’s Take

Content may not be perfect the first time, but neither was the electric light bulb. It’s only through the process of forming things that we can refine them to something that works. Every creative endeavor is rough around the edges. As time goes on, the wear is less apparent as you focus on the good instead of the bad. The errors are less conspicuous than the content you want to share.

Time For Improvement

Welcome to 2020! First and foremost, no posts from me involving vision or eyesight or any other optometrist puns for this year. I promise 366 days free of anything having to do with eyeballs. That does mean a whole world of other puns that I’m going to be focusing on!

Now, let’s look back at 2019. The word that I could use to describe it was “hectic”. It felt like everything was in overdrive all year long. There were several times that I got to the end of the week and realized that I didn’t have any kind of post ready to go. I’m the kind of person that likes to write when the inspiration hits me. And instead I found myself scrambling to write up some thoughts. And that was something I told myself that I was going to get away from. So we’re going to call that one a miss and get back to trying to post on a day other than Friday.

That also means that, given all the other content that I’ve been working on with Gestalt IT that I’m going to have to schedule some time actually working on that content instead of hoping that some idea is going to fly out of the blue at 11:30pm the night before I’m supposed to put a post up. The good news is that also means that I’m going to be upping the amount of content that I’m consuming for inspiration. Since I spent a good chunk of they year going on a morning walk it meant that I had a lot more time to consume podcast episodes and wash those ideas around. I’m sure that means that I’m going to find the time and the motivation to keep turning out content.

Part of the reason for that is because of something that Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) told me during a call this past year. He said that I’ve been consistently turning out content for the last 9 years on a weekly basis. I’m proud of that fact. Sure, there’s been a couple of times in the last year or two when I’ve missed and had to publish something on a Saturday or the Monday after. But overall I’m happy with the amount of content that I’ve been writing here. And because you all keep on reading it I’m going to keep writing it. There’s a lot of value in what I do here and I hope you all continue to value it too.

IA Writing

Last January I switched over to using IA Writer for my posts on my iPad. I wrote primarily on that platform all year long. I can say that It’s very handy to be able to grab your mobile device and hammer out a post. Given that I can do split screen and reference my hand-written notes from briefings it’s a huge advantage to keeping my thoughts organized and ready to put down on paper.

Between IA Writer for writing, Notability for taking notes during briefings, and Things to keep me on track for the posts that I need to cover I’ve gotten my workflow down to something that works for me. I’m going to keep tweaking it for sure but I’m happy that I can get information to a place where I can refer to it later and have reminders about what I need to cover. It makes everything seamless and consistent. There are still some things that I need to use Microsoft Word to write, but those are long-form projects. Overall, I’m going to keep refining my process to make it better and more appropriate for me.

Ultimately, that’s a big goal for me in 2020 and something that I’ve finally realized that I do regularly without conscious thought. If you’ve read any books on process or project management you’ve probably heard of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement of processes. It’s something that drives companies like Toyota to get better at everything they do and never accept anything as “complete”.

I’ve read about kaizen before but I never really understood that it could mean any improvement before. I had it in my head that the process was about change all the time. It wasn’t until I sat down this year and analyzed what I was doing to find that I’m always trying to optimize what I do. It’s not about finding shortcuts for the sake of saving time. It’s about optimizing what I do to save effort and the investment of time. For me it’s not about spending 8 hours to write a script that will automate a one-time 30-minute task. It’s about breaking down the task and figuring out how many times I’ll do it and how I need to optimize the process to spend less time on it. If the answer is a script or an automation routine then I’m all for it. But the key is recognizing the kaizen process and putting a name to my behavior.


Tom’s Take

2020 is going to be busy. Tech Field Day is going to be busy. I’m going to be at a lot of events checking out what’s going on and how to make new things happen. I’m also going to be writing a lot. And when you factor in my roles outside of work with Wood Badge and a trip to Philmont, NM with my son for a high adventure trip with his scout troop you can see I’m going to be quite occupied even when I’m not writing. But I’m not going to remove anything from my process. As I said above, I’m going to kaizen everything and fit it all in. That might mean having a couple of posts queued up when I’m in the back country or taking some extra time after dinner to write. But 2020 is going to be a big year of optimizing my workflows and improving in every way.

Stop SIS – Self-Inflicted Spam

Last month I ran across a great blog post by Jed Casey (@WaxTrax) about letting go of the digital hoard that he had slowly been collecting over the years. It’s not easy to declare bankruptcy because you’ve hit your limit of things that you can learn and process. Jed’s focus in the article is that whatever he was going to try and come up with was probably out of date or past its prime. But it got me to thinking about a little project that I’ve been working on over the past few months.

Incoming!

One of the easy ways to stay on top of things in the industry is to sign up for updates. A digest email here and a notification there about new posts or conversations is a great way to stay in-the-know about information or the latest, greatest thing. But before you know it you’re going to find yourself swamped with incoming emails and notifications.

I’ve noticed it quite a bit in my inbox this year. What was once a message that I would read to catch up became a message I would scan for content. That then became a message that I skipped past after I read the subject line and eventually settled into something I deleted after seeing the sender. It’s not that the information contained within wasn’t important in some way. Instead, my processing capability for the email or the message was settled into a mode where it took a lot to break me out of the pattern. Before I knew it, I was deleting dozens of messages a day simply because they were updates and digests that I didn’t have the time or mental capacity to process.

That’s when I realized that I had a problem. I needed to reduce the amount of email I was getting. But this wasn’t an issue like normal spam. Unsolicited Bulk Email is a huge issue for the Internet but the systems we have in place now do a good job of stopping it before it lands in my inbox. Instead, my bigger issue was with the tide of email that I had specifically chosen to sign up for. The newsletters and release updates and breaking news that was flooding my email client and competing for my attention on an hourly basis. It was too much.

Geronimo!

So what did I do?

  1. The first thing I did was stop. I stopped signing up for every newsletter and notification that interested me. Instead, I added them all to a list and let them sit for a week. If they still appealed to me after that week than I would sign up for them. Otherwise, then went into the garbage pile before I ever had a chance to start getting inundated by them.
  2. The next thing was to unsubscribe from every email that I got that was deleted without reading. Sure, I could just keep deleting them. But that process still took my attention away from what I needed to be working on. Instead, i wanted to stop that at the source. Keeping it from being sent in the first place might only save two seconds from it being deleted out of my inbox, but those two seconds per email can really add up.
  3. Summaries are your friend. For every email I did actually read, I looked to see if there was a summary or digest option instead of constant updates. Did I really need to know instantly when someone had posted or replied? Nope. But figuring it out on a more set schedule, such as every other day or once a week, was a big improvement in the way that I could process information. I could dedicate time to reading a longer digest instead of scanning an notification that quickly blurred into the background.
  4. I turned off instant updates on my mail client for a time. I didn’t need to jump every time something came in. Instead, I set my client to update every 15 minutes. I knew there would be some kind of lag in my replies in a lot of cases, but it honestly wasn’t that different from before. What changed here is that I could deal with the bulk amount of email all at once instead of trying to process them one at a time as they arrived. And, ironically enough, the amount of time it took to deal with email went down significantly as I reduced the amount of email coming in. Instead, I was able to set my mail client back to instant updates and keep a better pace of getting to the important emails as they came in.

Once I went through this process I was able to reduce the amount of email that I was getting blasted with. And being able to keep my head above water helped me process the stuff that did end up coming in later that I needed to stop. The mailing lists that you get subscribed to out of nowhere. The vendor press release schedules that I needed to categorize and process. Having the ability to catch my breath helped immensely. Once I realized that I was the cause for my spam issues I was able to make headway.


Tom’s Take

Don’t do what I did. Don’t let yourself get to the point where I was. Your inbox isn’t a garbage pile for every random email or update. Don’t sign up for stuff you aren’t planning on reading. Audit your newsletters frequently to see how much you’re reading them. If you find yourself deleting stuff without ever opening it then you know you’ve reached a point where you need to stop and reassess what you’re trying to accomplish. If you aren’t even bothering to open things then you aren’t really staying on top of the game. Instead, focus your attention on making sure you have the attention span left to look at things. And stop inflicting spam on yourself.

The Blogging Mirror

Writing isn’t always the easiest thing in the world to do. Coming up with topics is hard, but so too is making those topics into a blog post. I find myself getting briefings on a variety of subjects all the time, especially when it comes to networking. But translating those briefings into blog posts isn’t always straight forward. When I find myself stuck and ready to throw in the towel I find it easy to think about things backwards.

A World Of Pure Imagination

When people plan blog posts, they often think about things in a top-down manner. They come up with a catchy title, then an amusing anecdote to open the post. Then they hit the main idea, find a couple of supporting arguments, and then finally they write a conclusion that ties it all together. Sound like a winning formula?

Except when it isn’t. How about when the title doesn’t reflect the content of the post? Or the anecdote or lead in doesn’t quite fit with the overall tone? How about when the blog starts meandering away from the main idea halfway through with a totally separate argument? Or when the conclusion is actually the place where the lede is buried like the Ark of the Covenant?

All of these things are artifacts of the creative process. We often brainstorm great ideas halfway through the process and it derails our train of thought. That leads us down tangents we never intended to go down and create posts that aren’t thematic or even readable in some cases.

It happens all the time. In fact, even in writing this post I thought of a catchy title for a subject heading and had to move it when I was done because the heading didn’t fit the content of the section that followed. It’s okay to have the freedom to change that as soon as you see it. Provided you have a plan for the rest of the post. And that’s where the key here comes into play.

Strike That, Reverse It

I find the easiest way to plan a blog post is to actually write it in reverse. Instead of thinking about things from a top-down method, I start off by thinking about thinks bottom up. Literally.

  • Start From The End – It’s easiest to write the conclusion of your post first. After all, you’re just restating what you’ve been arguing or demonstrating in the post, right? So start with that. Use it as the main idea of your writing. Always refer back to it. If what you’ve typed doesn’t fit the tone of the conclusion, you either need to support it or cut it.
  • Support Your Conclusion – Now that you know what you’re going to be talking about, figure out how to support it. that means figuring out how to break your argument in to paragraphs and logical sections. Note that even though you’re trying to optimize for reading on screens today, you still need to follow basic structure. Paragraphs have multiple sentences that support the main idea. One you have two or three of those arguments, you’ve got support for your conclusion.
  • State The Topic – After you build your support for your conclusion then you can write the topic. After all, you just spent a lot of time spelling it all out. This paragraph at the top is where you state the purpose or theme of the post. Don’t worry about getting into too much detail here. That’s what the support is for. Your readers will get the idea by the time they get to the conclusion, which serves to wrap it all together.
  • Build Your Anecdote – If you are the type of writer that likes to open with an anecdote, much like a cold open in a drama, this is where you write it. Now that you’ve basically outlined the whole post you can tie your anecdote into the rest of the narrative. You don’t have to worry about building your discussion to support the really cool story. Because you’re adding the story at the end of the creative process you can guarantee that it’s going to fit.
  • Title Card – Now that you’ve written the post you can title it. This keeps you from making a title that doesn’t fit the narrative. It also allows the title to make a bit more sense in context. Either because you called the post something cute and catchy or because you made the most SEO optimized title in history to reap those sweet, sweet Google searches.

Tom’s Take

As you can see, posts are easier to write in reverse. When you think about things the opposite way from the restrictive methods of writing you’re much more free to express your creativity while also keeping yourself on track to make sure everything makes sense. Some people thrive in the realm of structure and can easily crank out a post from the top down. But when you find yourself stuck because you can’t tie everything together the right way try looking in a blogging mirror. The results will end up the same, but backwards might just be the way forward.

2019 Is The King of Content

2018 was a year full of excitement and fun. And for me, it was a year full of writing quite a bit. Not only did keep up my writing here for my audience but I also wrote quite a few posts for GestaltIT.com. You can find a list of all the stuff I wrote right here. I took a lot of briefings from up-and-coming companies as well as talking to some other great companies and writing a couple of series about SD-WAN.

It was also a big year for the Gestalt IT Rundown. My co-host with most Rich Stroffolino (@MrAnthropology) and I had a lot of fun looking at news from enterprise IT and some other fun chipset and cryptocurrency news. And I’ve probably burned my last few bridges with Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg to boot. I look forward to recording these episodes every Wednesday and I hope that some of you will join us on the Gestalt IT Facebook page at 12:30 EST as well.

Content Coming Your Way

So, what does that leave in store for 2019? Well, since I hate predictions on an industry scale, that means taking a look at what I plan on doing for the next year. For the coming 365 days, that means creating a lot of content for sure. You already know that I’m going to be busy with a variety of fun things like Networking Field Day, Mobility Field Day, and Security Field Day. That’s in addition to all the things that I’m going to be doing with Tech Field Day Extra at Cisco Live Europe and Cisco Live US in San Diego.

I’m also going to keep writing both here and at Gestalt IT. You probably saw my post last week about how hard it is to hit your deadlines. Well, it’s going to be a lot of writing coming out in both places thanks to coverage of briefings that I’m taking about industry companies as well as a few think pieces about bigger trends going on in the industry.

I’m also going to experiment more with video. One of the inspirations that I’m looking at is none other than my good friend Ethan Banks (@ECBanks). He’s had some amazing videos series that he’s been cranking out on his daily walks. He’s been collecting some of them in the Brain Spasms playlist. It’s a really good listen and he’s tackling some fun topics so far. I think I’m going to try my hand at some solo video content in the future at Gestalt IT. This blog is going to stay written for the time being.

Creating Content Quickly

One of the other things that I’m playing around with is the idea of being able to create content much more quickly and on the spot versus sitting down for long form discussions. You may recall from a post in 2015 that I’ve embraced using Markdown. I’ve been writing pretty consistently in Markdown for the past three years and it’s become second nature to me. That’s a good thing for sure. But for 2019, I’m going to branch out a bit.

The biggest change is that I’m going to try to do the majority of my writing on an iPad instead of my laptop. This means that I can just grab a tablet and type out some words quickly. It also means that I can take notes on my iPad and then immediately translate them into thoughts and words. I’m going to do this using iA Writer as my content creation tool. It’s going to help me with my Markdown as well as helping me keep all the content I’m going to write organized. I’m going to force myself to use this new combination unless there’s no way I can pull it off, such as with my Cisco Live Twitter list. That whole process still relies quite a bit on code and not on Markdown.

As I mentioned in my deadline post, I’m also going to try to move my posting dates back from Friday to Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. That gives me some time to play around with ideas and still have a cushion before I’m late with a post. On the big days I may still have an extra post here or there to talk about some big news that’s breaking. I’m hoping this allows me to get some great content out there and keep the creative juices flowing.


Tom’s Take

2019 is going to be a full year. But it allows me to concentrate on the things that I love and am really good at doing: Writing and leading Tech Field Day. Maybe branching out into video is going to give me a new avenue as well, but for now that’s going to stay pretty secondary to the writing aspect of things. I really hope that having a more mobile writing studio also helps me get my thoughts down quickly and create some more compelling posts in the coming year. Here’s hoping it all works out and I’ve got some great things to look back on in 365 days!