#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 

Ten Years

This month marks ten years since I first set foot in the US. As I waited in line at immigration, tired from the flight and daunted by everything that might happen next, it was easy to forget everything that came before. Just three weeks earlier, my workplace had been tense with news that another wave of redundancies was sweeping through and I was unsure in what direction I was heading1. I was ready for a change, but did not want the uncertainty of finding a new job or the certainty of choosing to leave the one I had. I was living a step ahead of my means with little attention paid to the future. I was smoking. I was making dubious decisions or avoiding decisions entirely. I was feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb.

One afternoon our manager called us all into a meeting room. There, he informed us of two positions available in the US and asked if any of us were interested. It felt like the silence lasted a long time although it was probably only a few seconds. No one was volunteering. I do not know the trigger  — my desire for a change, the allure of working in the US, or my need to get control of my life, but slowly, I raised my hand. I remember rationalizing it as no big deal, after all, I was only expressing interest, it was not like I would be whisked away to a plane immediately. With the raise of my hand, so began a series of small, easy decisions that led to the biggest self-directed change of my life so far.

Within the three weeks from when I raised my hand to when I stepped off the plane in Detroit, I packed, paused, and displaced my life. Boxes were filled, paperwork was filed, and farewells were planned. There was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, just lots of small decisions to make — accept or negotiate the contract, pack or throw away my things, take or leave my guitar, stay or go, sink or swim. All along the way, I kept telling myself it was not forever, it was no big deal. I was only going for a couple of months to meet the customer face-to-face; work (and a longer stay) was always going to be dependent on the acquisition of appropriate work visas. It was no big deal.

And so it was. Three weeks flew by. My sister, my parents, my new boss in the US, my old colleagues in the UK, my friends (including my housemate, who was seriously ill at the time), and many more all helped in some way. I am incredibly grateful to their support, it was amazing. During the whole experience, trepidation wrestled with excitement. Seconds after the taxi pulled away, leaving my parents and friends as they waved goodbye, excitement turned to panic.

What the hell am I doing?

I repeated that phrase in my head many times between London and Detroit. When the taxi left my old home. When the taxi left me at the airport. When I was pulled from the security line for "special screening". When I sat on the plane. When the plane took off. At least once per hour during the flight. When I landed. When I got into the immigration line. Over and over.

What the hell am I doing?

I am pretty sure I was terrified, but just like the small decisions that got me there, I focused on the immediate situation and did my best to ignore everything else. I think excitement and terror are pretty much the same thing but with different interpretations. As I accepted the situation as an adventure, the terror would subside and excitement returned.

Blimey, I'm actually going to America!

That was how my first few weeks in the US continued. A mixture of terror and excitement, depending on the situation and how I let myself accept it. It was the beginning of something new and ten years on, I cannot imagine doing any differently if it were to happen all over again. It was by far the best decision I ever made because I learned the value of making a decision instead of letting fate decide. I faced my own anxieties head on and made a decision to challenge my fear. The amazing sense of achievement that came from deciding for myself was life-affirming. While it took me another nine years to take that moment of control over my anxiety and begin learning how to harness it on a day-to-day basis, I still look back on that decision and the many ways it has changed my life. In a moment, I went from feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb, to engaged, excited, and driven.

Of course, that first day in the US was merely the beginning, a lot has happened since and a lot more will happen yet. Though my move was certainly no panacea to my problems — there were many difficult challenges to over come, it was a catalyst for solutions, an opportunity to grow, and a clear example that fear alone could not stand in my way if I could find the courage to face it. It is a lesson that I have applied many times since; from winning the CodeMash Pecha Kucha contest, to marrying my amazing wife, so many achievements began in an otherwise unremarkable moment where I pushed my fear aside and made a decision to try.

So, whatever the next ten years hold for me, it is not fear, but small moments like raising my hand in that meeting room that will shape them. Can you say the same? Where will your decisions take you?


  1. Unlike in places such as Michigan, where employment is considered "at will" and can be terminated at any time, if a company in the UK wants to downsize, they must go through a process of making positions redundant. That means the position will no longer exist and as such, the organisation cannot hire someone else to perform that job. For a better explanation and more information, check out https://www.gov.uk/redundant-your-rights/overview 

Felicity

Every now and then I have extremely vivid dreams that feel so real, I've been known to make a phone call afterwards to check on someone. I'm not usually superstitious, but I get freaked out once in a while. Anyway, I thought it might be amusing to write some of them down so we can see just how messed up my head is at night.

I'll begin with Felicity.

One night I woke up at about 4 or 5 AM, a cold sweat had soaked my pillow and I was arrested with abject terror of whatever might be lurking in the darkness on the other side of the bed sheets. The rational part of me knew already — some lazily strewn clothing, bedroom furniture, and our cats — but the part of me that had been terrified by hallucinations in my sleep was certain something more sinister awaited. The terror was reaffiremd by a hundred or more memories of being terrified in similar situations as a child.

I turned on the light. I knew it would wake Chrissy, but I needed to properly wake up and recover.

"What's wrong?" she yawned.

"A bad dream; a nightmare. That's all," I said.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, "what was it about?"

Chrissy has learned to ask for details ever since the first occasion I had a nightmare while she was nearby. That had been in a lovely hotel in Reno around the first  time I met her dad. It was a particularly vivid nightmare to the point I called my parents to quiz them about the quality of the electrical system in their house. However, we'll leave that piece of insanity for another time, back to Felicity.

"It was messed up," I said, "it was a CCTV screen showing my grandma's old bedroom, but decorated as it is now; as it was when we stayed there this summer. The CCTV camera seemed to be somewhere above the window, zoomed in on the top half of the bed, towards the headboard. There was a little girl lying there on the left of the bed. Maybe 6 or 8 years old? She wore pretty floral dress, mostly white with small pink roses or something and a some sort of ribbon as a belt, white socks that stopped an inch or so below the knee, and patent leather shoes with a shiny buckle. Her hair was long and light brown, mousy, maybe dirty blonde, something like that. I had the feeling she had blue eyes but they were closed the whole time. Her arms were by her side, I think, they could have been clutched at her waist. Maybe both. She was dead. It felt as though she was dead."

"That's fucked up," said Chrissy, making sure I was completely aware of what I already knew.

"Right? I don't know when, but at some point in the dream, it stopped being CCTV and we were there in the room. You were there, next to her, or someone that I felt was you; I don't recall seeing you. The weirdest thing is, I knew her name was Felicity. I didn't recognise her, I don't recall anyone in the dream saying it, but I knew."

I paused. Thinking about the completely strange but vivid dream and then said, "Who the fuck is Felicity?"

We both chatted a while, which turned into laughter as we quizzed one another, "Who the fuck is Felicity?" Eventually, I calmed down enough to drift back to sleep and dream of something less disturbing.

We still don't know who Felicity is1 or why I would have dreamed of someone called Felicity at all. I have only ever known one Felicity in my life – a girl with whom I went to primary school. Memories of her would fit the right age range, but it didn't seem like her and I had not even had a conversation about her in over 20 years. For now and maybe hopefully always, this remains a creepy mystery, but just in case, I leave you with that burning question; who the fuck is Felicity?


  1. perhaps was 

Nothing Left To Take, Track 11, Holding On

Some of you may already know from my page on Facebook that I have started recording again. Not only that, but I have finished one song, Holding On, and it is now on SoundCloud for you to hear it. Thanks to my friends and family for the encouragement and support over the years. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to get back into this. It takes a lot of time and effort and I have so much to learn. I hope you enjoy the results.

Holding On is the first song off my current project, an album entitled Nothing Left To Take. Please take a listen and leave your comments on what you do or do not like, perhaps even share it with your friends.

Nothing Left To Take is somewhat of a concept album in that there's a theme to the songs and the order of the songs. As I complete a song, I will add it to the set on SoundCloud so you can see it take shape. The theme will become pretty apparent I think although I am considering the idea of writing a short story to accompany the finished album.

Here is the Nothing Left To Take playlist.