KalamazooX 2016

It's time! #kalx16

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This weekend, I attended the Kalamazoo X conference in Kalamazoo, MI. KalamazooX, or KalX (as it is more often referred by organizers and attendees alike) is "a one day, single track non-tech conference for techies", or perhaps "it is a soft skills conference", or perhaps not. You see, like a book filled with complex characters, rollercoaster plot twists, and profound revelations, it is hard to describe KalX; each description I hear is somehow right and yet completely wrong, painting KalX as something you have already experienced where speakers talk of project planning, team communication, and time management. But KalX is different. KalX is where you hear about the importance of empathy, the roots of genius, or the virtue of personal reflection. KalX might help with your soft skills, but only through indirect action, through powerful talks on why practice trumps passion or creates genius, how apathy and empathy are both needed to foster better relationships (at work or otherwise), or what it is to simply give a shit (and sometimes, to give a shit too much).

Some interesting insight into genius from Alan Stevens and a much needed personal break from tears #kalx16

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Whether speaker, organizer, or attendee, KalX is catharsis in the shared and personal experience; strong emotions —anger, joy, sorrow— marked by F-bombs and tears; and unexpected moments (some uncomfortable, some reassuring) where attendees might think "me too", "that's bullshit", or "I am not alone"1.  It is in those moments that KalX shines, the moments when we are raw and exposed.

Four years ago I attended my first Kalamazoo X conference. It was then held in a classroom at a local college and there were about 50 people in attendance, including speakers and organizers2. I had no idea what to expect, so when I found myself crying, stuck in the middle of a row of people I barely knew, I felt surprised, uncomfortable, and confused3. I do not recall if I knew at that moment, but I now look back on that day as the start of what would lead to the diagnosis of my anxiety disorder, its treatment, and the continuing changes to my life that followed. That experience pushed me closer to asking for help.

Though it was for me, I would never say KalX is life-changing; each person experiences it differently and each year is different. In the safe space of peers, where the speakers, unfettered by recorded sessions, can open up about their personal experiences and the things that, in other forums, might be hidden from view for fear of judgement or isolation, KalX facilitates personal discovery. This year, I felt anxiety rise from nowhere when one speaker (Ed Finkler) started to tell my story. Ed doesn't even know me and yet there he was talking about General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), fearing entering bars to look for people as though a lion might be waiting to attack, thinking things through to find every possible outcome and worrying about all of them intensely. Though I wanted to hear more about how he coped with it all4, I was amazed to even know that there was someone out there just like me. It was scary and reassuring, and I might have been the only person in the room that thought so.

We all know I need to heed this #kalx16 (thanks, @leongersing)

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When I first started writing this post, I tried to summarize the whole day, but I couldn't do justice to Christina Aldan, Ed Finkler, Kate Catlin, Jay Harris, Cory House, Leon Gersing, Lauren Scott, and Alan Stevens, or their talks on empathy, apathy, genius, passion, and more besides. It is hard to describe what they said in a way that could convey what it was like to experience it at the time, just as it is hard to describe KalX as a whole. It is even harder to describe these things to convey how someone else might have experienced the day. In realizing this and the inadequacy of phrases like "it's a soft skills conference" or "it's a non-tech conference for techies" I have wondered, how could I describe KalX in a single sentence? I don't think I could, not because KalX is some indescribable experience, but because each person finds value from it in different ways. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no apt summary, no convincing abstract; sometimes you just have to read the book for yourself.

 


  1. Or briefly, involuntarily emit an inappropriate laugh at that same realisation 

  2. this year had closer to 200 

  3. KalX can really sneak up on you 

  4. how I could cope with it all 

#kalx15: Back to Basics

This weekend a couple of friends stopped by the house at around 5:45 on Saturday morning. Normally, this would not be welcomed, but it was time for our annual road trip out to attend the Kalamazoo X conference. This year marked my third year of attending this fantastic one-day, single-track, soft-skills conference. Though often referred to as a non-tech conference for techies, Kalamazoo X is a really accessible event and as such, this was the second year that my wife, Chrissy, also joined us.

This year's conference was held at Loft 310. I found the new venue — with attendees sat around tables similar to how people would be seated at a wedding or party — to be an improvement over last year. Though fantastic, last year's academic venue, larger attendance, and expanded speaker schedule lost much of the intimacy and community that made my first year at KalX a memorable and somewhat life adjusting event. This year was a return to that more intimate experience of two years ago, feeling much more like a gathering of friends and family than a conference of professionals.

The speaker schedule was also condensed this year and all the better for it. The roster included a welcome return of some KalX veterans like Jeff Blankenburg (@jeffblankenburg), H. Alan Stevens (@alanstevens), Jim Holmes (@aJimHolmes), and Elizabeth Naramore (@ElizabethN), as well as some newcomers like Jay Harris (@jayharris), Cori Drew (@coridrew), and Dawn Kuczwara (@digitaldawn). Though each topic was different, they were bound by the common year-on-year KalX themes of learning, mentoring, and growing.

Upon reflection, the talks that I remember most vividly were those where the speaker opened up, let down barriers, and gave honestly to the audience. Alan Stevens was, as always, a joyous speaker to experience — his command of space and time when delivering a talk is really exemplary, yet it was his candidness in discussing his struggle with depression with which I connected. While Cory House (@housecor) spoke on breaking the monotony in life and stepping outside of our comfort zones, it was when he opened up about his social anxieties and personal journey to overcome them that I took notice. And though Jay Harris delivered as polished a presentation as he ever has, it was his willingness to share his broken dreams of baseball and airplanes, open up about personal challenges, and be as raw with the attendees as he is with his friends that took his talk from good to great.

Though I enjoyed all the talks, it was Jay's talk, #conviction, that stood out most for me. Jay's message felt like the third part to a trilogy that started with Jeff Blankenburg's talk, "Be A Beginner", and was fleshed out by Alan Stevens' talk on "Values Driven Development". Jay judiciously spent every second of his time with a well thought out rebuttal to the too often repeated adages "follow your passion" and "hard work pays off". It is easy to ignore the privileges we have that we more commonly refer to as "talents", to let humility lessen their importance, but it is talent coupled with conviction that leads to success1.

Of course, it was not just about the guys. There was not only a more diverse audience than one might expect, but three of the eight speakers were women2. A favourite talk of the day for me was "Give Up!" from KalX newcomer, Dawn Kuczwara. Through personal anecdotes and a wonderful, personable delivery, Dawn explained the importance of letting go of control, of allowing people the opportunity to fail and learn, and of making sure not to stifle the growth of yourself or your team by micromanaging and "helping". To me, this talk was the second part to another trilogy that was started by Cori Drew and her impassioned (though perhaps a tad too long) talk that related her experiences mentoring her daughter from curious kid to seasoned speaker (at age 11), and closed with Elizabeth Naramore explaining why it is always OK to follow your passions in your leisure time, regardless of talent.

Though it was a long, tiring day (I drove, drank far too much caffeine, and stayed up way too late), Kalamazoo X was a day well spent. I am grateful to Michael Eaton (@mjeaton), Matt Davis (@mattsonlyattack), and all their minions, speakers, and tolerant friends and family for the time and patience spent in organising and delivering a terrific conference. Once more, after CodeMash had refreshed my curiosity, Kalamazoo X reset my spirit.

 


  1. having a passion for singing does not mean you can sing and no amount of hard work will change that 

  2. This shouldn't be a point of note, but in an industry traditionally dominated by men, it is 

Kalamazoo X 2014

Last year, I experienced the Kalamazoo X Conference for the very first time. It was an extremely emotional experience and one of two events that catalysed some ongoing personal change (the other was changing jobs after 12 years).

This year, I returned to Kalamazoo X, curious as to what the experience would hold. It was daunting; it felt different.

It wasn't worse different or better different. It wasn't different because the talks were new or the venue had changed to accommodate more attendees. I initially thought it was different because last year's talks were focused on the self and "accepting who you are", whereas this year's centered around others and how we can benefit those around us.  But then I realised that view is coloured by who I am (or was). It was different because I was different.

My life changed after attending Kalamazoo X last year. After the conference (perhaps even during), I started to reflect on who I was, faced old and painfully familiar demons, and began focusing on my well-being in a way I had not allowed myself to before. I began to recognise that I was broken and as the weight of one of the worst winters in history crushed my spirit, I finally sought professional help.

It was a long time coming. Friends had urged me to try counseling for years and perhaps once or twice, I had conceded they had a point, but that was just to shut them up; I knew I wasn't weak like that, I was strong enough to weather my problems alone, to be a "man", to cope. But coping isn't enough. It isn't enough for me or those around me and coming to that realisation is crushing, at least at first.

I am still working through that personal change, the cliched "journey of self-discovery", and I am all the better for it. Kalamazoo X 2013 started something, something that affected how I experienced Kalamazoo X 2014 and life in general. I am certain Kalamazoo X 2014 has started something too.

For me, Kalamazoo X isn't about learning something new or retweeting a pithy statement (though I certainly enjoyed that part). It is about perception and coming to terms with the things I have to let go. It's about growing and perceiving that growth.

I hope to return to Kalamazoo and the X conference year upon year, not only to measure my own growth, but also to see the growth of others. The software development community is incredibly nurturing and nowhere exemplifies that more than Kalamazoo X.

KalamazooX 2013

I struggle to put into words the Kalamazoo X Conference, more commonly known as KalamazooX, a single day, single track non-tech conference for techies. The difficulty is not in describing the talks, the speakers, the venue or the overall experience, describing the conference in such terms is easy; the talks were insightful and inspirational, the speakers were passionate and informative, the venue was accessible and appropriate, and the overall experience was emotionally demanding and entirely worthwhile. To describe what KalamazooX was to me, specifically, to reach deep inside and expose the raw emotions, to be open and honest about me, that is difficult.

It was the simple mantras:

It's not about you.
– Jim Holmes (@aJimHolmes)

Move the elephant. Direct the rider. Shape the path.
– Todd Kaufman (@toddkaufman)

It was the inspirational stories behind Todd Kaufman's talk on enacting change or Mike Wood's (@mikewo) talk on choices of doing the right thing, saving and changing lives, and becoming a better person.

It was the tears that welled in my eyes during Layla Driscoll's (@layladriscoll) talk on being happy, after she encouraged us to sit with our eyes closed and think about who we are. I wrote, "I am sensitive, funny, creative."

It was the encouragement from Leon Gersing (@rubybuddha) and Alan Stevens (@alanstevens) to take time out from time and reality, to meditate, and to find our inner voice.

It was the relief I felt in hearing Alan Stevens say, "you do not require approval from any external source," or Elizabeth Naramore (@ElizabethN) say, "It's okay for it not to be okay."

It was the moment I wrote in my notebook, "I feel less special than others. Is that true? Am I? Or do I need to redress my self image?" I think we both know the answer to that (though some have known a lot longer than others).

It was connecting with others in unexpected, overwhelming and assuring ways.

I do not believe for an instant that I was the only one in attendance that was deeply moved and I suspect that those who were returning attendees already knew about the impact this event can have. What a secret they have kept, hiding the true value of this event behind such dismissive phrases as "My favourite conference of the year!" and "It's a non-tech conference for techies. It's all about soft skills." Such pedestrian phrases pay no due to the experience at all. A more accurate and yet still inadequate phrase was tweeted to me by Michael Letterle (@mletterle) during this years event:

Now, you may think I'm being overly dramatic or reverent and you might be right. I have a tendency toward such things, but rather than assume that be the case, I encourage you to attend next year's KalamazooX and experience it for yourself (or at least look through the #kalx13 tweets). If, having done so, you still feel I have been exaggerating, I will concede and leave you and your cold, black heart to //Build, PyCon or whatever it is that floats your ghost ship (just playing, I'll still love you really).

To close, I thank Michael Eaton (@mjeaton), his team and all the speakers1 for putting on an event so cathartic that even writing about it overwhelms me a little. To uncover a part of oneself is enlightenment, to see that reflected in others is KalamazooX.


  1. Besides those mentioned above Suzan Bond (@suzanbond), Jen Myers (@antiheroine), Brian H Prince (@brianhprince), Jeff Blankenburg (@jeffblankenburg) and Justin Searls (@searls) all gave amazing talks. 

The Connected Vehicle

At the end of last month I attended the Automotive Megatrends 2012 held at The Henry in Dearborn, MI. Though this was a three-day event, I attended the second day only: Connectivity. It was an opportunity for major and minor players in the automotive world to present and discuss their particular visions of the future for passenger cars in a world that is increasingly connected. Particular attention was paid to the Cloud and the continuing trend for infotainment1 to be provided via handheld devices rather than proprietary in-vehicle systems. Safety was a hot topic; in particular driver distraction, where legislation tends to hold vehicle manufacturers liable in the event of an accident even though they may have little or no control over the devices that do the distracting (such as smartphones).

The day was split into four main sessions divided by networking opportunities. Each main session took the form of a panel where four or five panelists would present their views on a particular topic with a moderator overseeing the discussion. Each panel would face a round of questions once all had presented. The topic of the first two sessions was "Connected vehicle outlook — the next 10 years" with the following sessions being "Mobile device integration" and "Software and apps" respectively. Repeatedly during the day, speakers would return to the concept of the Connected Vehicle and what that means for consumers and manufacturers alike, but what do they mean by "The Connected Vehicle"?

A Day in the Life

You wake up on a cold, wintry morning to your smartphone alarm obnoxiously wailing. Via the magic of the Internet, the home management app has checked the local weather and adjusted your home heating to give you an extra bit of toasty warmth. It has also instructed your coffee machine to brew up some Joe.

You flip to the appropriate smartphone screen and start your car. A quick swipe and the in-car temperature is set just right. An alert tells you a service is due and shows you local service locations along with their cost. You select your favourite location and choose an appointment time, then you swap over to your home management app and start the shower. By the time you're out of bed, showered, dressed and have your coffee in hand, the car is thawed out and toasty warm.

As you drive to work by way of your children's daycare, information is delivered to you via your smartphone to your in-car video and audio systems, telling you the weather, headlines, social media updates and to-do list for the day. Your favourite music plays in the background as you choose. Perhaps you even queued up some things from the night before. Voice commands and a simple, radio-like interface give you simple, non-distracting control of your information streams. Everything coordinates and cooperates to ensure that you can concentrate on driving.

As you're finishing off a quick check of your e-mail subject lines an alert flashes up warning you of road construction and traffic delays. The satellite navigation app on your smartphone kicks in, offering alternative routes and travel times to get you on your way. As you begin your detour, the directional microphones and image processing systems in the back seat detect that your kid just woke up and has started punching his sibling. In an attempt to keep the peace, the latest, greatest animated movie immediately starts streaming from Netflix, Hulu or Zune in the headrest display. Meanwhile, your satellite navigation is suggesting spots to safely pull over (as well as one or two doughnut shops you might need for the purchase of "behave yourself" bribes).

Having dropped the kids off at daycare, you pull up at work and apply the parking brake. The in-car systems take the opportunity to remind you of your service appointment. You get out of the car and walk to your office – the car automatically turns off and locks itself as you go. When you get to your desk, you computer has already synced with the Cloud, showing your service appointment on your calendar along with a snapshot of your car diagnostics, should you need to discuss the appointment over the phone.

Reality Check

Though embellished with a few ideas of my own, this scenario is similar to many involving the connected vehicle envisaged by those presenting at the conference. It is all so seductively plausible that it's easy to ignore the reality.  Behind all the enthusiastic rhetoric there are so many unresolved problems and challenges that we're just not ready yet to deliver the dream of the connected vehicle. To get an idea of where we are right now, consider the current vehicle to be akin to video-game consoles just over 10 years ago. Before the current generation of consoles (Playstation 3, XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii), pretty much all you could do with a gaming console was play games, now we can not only play games, but also buy games, rent, buy and stream video, listen to Internet radio stations, watch live television (in HD) and interact with social networks.

The problems for the connected vehicle mostly lie in the gap between the old and the new; passenger cars, with a development cycle of 3-4 years and consumer electronics, with a development cycle of 12-18 months. In a world where a smartphone can be out-of-date within a year but a car is expected to last ten or more, bridging the gap becomes a challenge. Not to mention that the world of the connected car relies on the existence of wireless carriers and services that not only support the demands of consumers but also those of the equipment manufacturers, services like OnStar and its soon to be released API, requiring access to vehicle data and systems in a safe and secure manner.

Controlled Openness

To bridge the development cycle gap, there was a call for the end of proprietary infotainment systems and more controlled, open standards across the passenger car industry. The general view was that proprietary systems have to go in favour of smartphone or other smart device apps, a trend that has already begun. This move would help to reign in the growing concerns surrounding driver distraction by providing an in-vehicle delivery platform that allows apps to interact with the car and its passengers in a safe, secure and reliable manner.

In order to make such a platform appealing to app developers, a set of open standards needs to be adopted by the industry, a set of standards that has not yet been defined but that will provide rules and guidance on how an app interacts with a vehicle and its occupants (as with any new technology discussion of 2012, whispers of HTML5 were everywhere). This idea of controlling app delivery within the vehicle while allowing open standards and app development was dubbed "controlled openness" and clear comparisons were drawn with Apple and the way they govern the app marketplace.

Safe and Secure

Just like the API provided by Apple and any other contemporary development platform, security is extremely important. Security is the basis of trust for consumers and without it the full potential of a technology can never be realised as no one will ever immerse themselves fully. Several presenters gave their thoughts on how security might work but there was a lack of convincing argument that this was a simple problem to solve. In fact most speakers on the matter seemed to be plugging a product while skirting around some of the issues that had been raised by others. Issues that have names like "virus", "hacker" and "theft"; the connected vehicle opens up a cornucopia of problems that must be resolved.

  • How do you stop someone taking control of your vehicle while allowing you to remote start it from your phone?
  • How do you allow an app access to vehicle systems without allowing a bug to cause a vehicle accident?
  • How do you ensure that a person's identification is unpaired from a vehicle when they are no longer in possession of that vehicle due to sale, accident or theft?

Given the need to exchange data to and from the vehicle communications network in order to support telematics and other advanced (perhaps premium) apps, which may include the ability to do things like start, stop or even track the vehicle, I'm sure you can think of many other scenarios that highlight how important it is that the connected vehicle be secure.

The Internet and our increasingly connected world has security all over the place with a plethora of approaches to providing identification, authorization and secure access. However, the effects of a hack or security flaw have so far not had such potentially immediate fatal results as they might in the world of the connected vehicle. A security breach that allows someone to take control of some aspect of your car is entirely unacceptable. This is not a case of making sure it should never happen, but rather a case of could never happen. If nothing else, the experience of driving a car must be safe, both actually and perceptually.

The Road Ahead

So where does that leave us? The automotive industry has rightly identified a need to integrate more closely with the consumer electronics world and move away from the proprietary in-car infotainment systems of old, but the consumer electronics industry is racing along at quite a pace. Although the concept of a smartphone existed prior to its announcement, the launch of the iPhone five years ago accelerated smartphone evolution and it shows no signs of slowing down.  However, until the iPhone of the connected vehicle concept appears and focuses consumer expectations, we will have to accept the Windows Mobile-style missteps along the way2.

While the connected vehicle is still an uncertain concept, it is becoming a reality and it will change the way we interact with our cars. In fact, they may not be our cars at all3. The speakers at the Automotive Megatrends 2012 event had plenty of statistics, ideas and products to illuminate the target that is the connected vehicle. Now all we need to do is find the road that takes us there.


  1. Infotainment is a word used in the automotive industry to refer to the combined provision of information and entertainment services within a vehicle such as radio and satellite navigation 

  2. Not to be confused with Windows Phone 7 (or 7.5), which is awesome. 

  3. Uncertainty exists on how various facets of the connected vehicle will be monetized; from the services and apps to the car itself. Will it be subscription-based, ad-supported or freemium? Will we buy our cars or enter into a service-agreement instead? All of these things and more are yet to be determined.