Becoming an Expert

Is calling yourself an expert arrogant? It probably depends on the context of the claim. This is a post in which I detail some of the skills that I aspire to improve. Realistically, I don’t think anyone can become a true expert more than a few things, and one might only achieve mastery in one thing after a dedicated and focused journey.

Here’s my self evaluation of skills I am working to acquire. This will be based upon the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition (Novice, Competence, Proficiency, Expertise, Mastery):

Professional Skills:

1. Web Development. I have been involved in web development for over 10 years. I’ve mostly developed with Ruby, PHP, and JavaScript. I have a good grasp on HTML and CSS. During the last 3.5 years, I’ve been working in a non-programming role, so I feel I’m falling behind in some of the latest web technologies, though I read a lot to keep up on this stuff. I have a good grasp of how Angular and Ember work. I have a thorough understanding of HTTP, and proxies (forward and reverse). I’ve used the Rails framework since the 2.0 release. I’ve done extensive work inside of WordPress. I’ve written a few small apps with Node.js, and I’ve created a few things using CoffeeScript.
Self Rating: (High) Proficiency. Perhaps I could put expertise, but because I’ve been out of the hands-on programming loop for a while, I feel I can’t quite put that anymore.
Goal: Expertise, though my current professional responsibilities aren’t going to get me there. Perhaps my goal should be to maintain proficiency.

2. Writing. I’m consider myself a pretty decent technical writer. The post that gets the most traffic on this blog is a post I wrote over 6 years ago on creating a SOAP server in PHP. The writing is highly technical, and has been referenced by many people as one of the best guides on PHP SOAP on the web. The problem is that technical writing isn’t the type of writing that I aspire to do really well. I’d like to become a great blog writer. Great blog writers have interesting things to say, show some personality, break scholastic writing rules, are witty. Their content is fun to read. I don’t feel like I fit any of those things…
Self Rating: Competence (technical writing) Novice (blog writing)
Goal: Expert blog writer. I have a long way to go for this.

3. Public Speaking. This is one that I’ve been working hard to improve. I’ve given many webinars and technical presentations at conferences. I’ve sought out a lot of feedback from peers and mentors in this area. Last year, I decided to break out of my shell and try my hand at speaking on topics for a general audience at genealogy conferences. I discovered that I really like those types of presentations and I felt I performed really well. In fact, at the latest RootsTech conference, two of my presentations made the top 10 based on attendee feedback. My mom attended my last presentation, and filmed some of it on her iPhone. Watching myself present makes me cringe and I notice all sorts of flaws in my speaking (stuttering, umms, intonation, etc,). I think the difference between my presentation and my writing is that I am able to build a connection with my audience. I usually tell personal stories and I’m a pretty good verbal story teller. I’m able to incorporate some humor in my presentations.
Self Rating: Proficiency
Goal: Expertise. This will take many years more practice participating in conferences. I’d like to someday be a keynote speaker at a major conference, which would require mastery.

4. Product Management. My role at work has a lot of overlap with product management. I do a lot of defining direction of integration points between major genealogy software products. I’m getting pretty good at creating user flows, product requirements, writing user stories, etc. I’m quite proficient with office tools, agile methodologies, etc.
Self Rating: Competence
Goal: Proficiency

5. User Experience Design. I list this only because I’m jealous of the skills that great designers have. If I had great design skills, I think I could be an amazing web freelancer, which would be really fun. However, it is unrealistic for me to think I’ll ever be an expert UX designer.
Self Rating: Novice
Goal: Competence.

6. Internet Marketing. I’ve read a ton of material on Internet Marketing. I have a pretty good handle on traffic driving techniques (paid vs natural search traffic). I’m pretty good with web analytic tools and analysis of data. I’m not a good copywriter. I have a lot of interest in this skill because this can make or break a startup company. I’d like to ultimately be a founder of a successful startup. I’ve been a part of several failed startups, and this is an area that I believe we missed terribly.
Self Rating: Novice.
Goal: Competence

Personal or Hobby Skills:

1. Gardening. I’m a total newbie when it comes to gardening. This year, my goal is to eat some vegetables and fruits that I grow on my property. Last year, I planted some seeds in some dirt that I attempted to prepare, but only a couple of carrot greens popped up and my kids pulled them when they were wee bitty roots.
Self Rating: Novice
Goal: Competence

2. Fishing. I’ve never been much of a fisherman. My family would occasionally attempt a fishing trip, and would come away with no fish. My friends who do fish love it, and I’m sure it is because they actually catch fish. Yesterday, my son and I caught our first fish—2 small rainbow trouts. Before that, we had gone fishing three times together with no luck. We’re learning from other fisherman at the ponds and starting to develop some fishing skills.
Self Rating: Novice
Goal: Competence

3. Scouting. I’ve almost completed my first three years as a Scoutmaster. When I started, I was completely overwhelmed, but excited at the opportunity. Now, I’m super busy, but I don’t quite feel overwhelmed. I have tons of room to improve as a Scoutmaster, but I can see big improvements in the way I lead my scouts over what I did 3 years ago.
Self Rating: Competence
Goal: Proficiency

4. Genealogy. I’ve been doing genealogy research for over seven years. I’ve attended a lot of genealogy conferences during that time. I’ve watched a lot of training videos, and I read a lot of genealogy blogs. I have a pretty good understanding of how genealogy is done. I believe this will be a lifelong pursuit. I’ll discover new approaches and methods for my genealogy.
Self Rating: Proficiency
Goal: Mastery (lifelong pursuit)

5. Piano: As a kid, I took about six years of piano lessons. I’m grateful for all of the piano lessons and the ability to read music, but I feel like I’ve lost so much as a busy adult. I’d like to begin playing more. Currently, I can only hammer out a few songs from some Journey sheet music. I love Journey by the way. They are one of my all time favorite bands.
Self Rating: Competence
Goal: Proficiency

6. Drumming: I played the drums through high school and college. At BYU, I played a couple of semesters in their steel drum band. I haven’t really touched a drum set in the last 7 years. I’m hoping to buy one as my oldest boy gets older. I think he should learn to play the piano first though. It might be a while before we have a drum set in the home.
Self Rating: Proficiency (dropping to competence)
Goal: Maintain Proficiency

Okay, so I’ve listed a ton of stuff here. I have all of these skills I’m trying to improve, but I wonder if I’m spread so thin that I won’t make significant improvement on very many of these. Is it bad to have high aspirations for these things? I’m not sure, but writing this post has helped me to see what I’ve been juggling around in my mind. Perhaps I’ll come back to this post every few months to see what I’ve done to improve my skills in these areas.

Photo from Jordan Pines sledding hill

Snow Caving!

I’m laying in a snow cave that was way too hard to get into. I’m up at Jordan Pines campground with my scouts on a winter camp out. Most everyone is sleeping soundly in a tent, but I wanted to be extreme and sleep in a snow cave.

Most years, we build caves under picnic tables , which works well, but can be a bit cramped. This year, I wanted to sleep in a real, non-picnic table snow cave. The campsite that we were assigned had the perfect setup for this.

Someone had carved out a cave under what appears to be a fallen pine tree! The cave was perfectly dug out to fit one adult. All I needed to do is to dig out the entrance a bit because snow had fallen and filled it in a bit. This was perfect!


So, I dug out the entrance, and set up my sleeping bags outside of the cave. Below is the picture of my setup.

My Sleeping Gear

What you see is several layers of warmth: a fleece liner tucked inside of a backpacking mummy bag tucked inside of a large 0 deg sleeping bag tucked under a blanket, all sitting on top some foam pads sitting on top of a tarp (insulation from the ground).

I slid my sleeping gear into the cave. The dumb thing I did was place my backpack in top of my sleeping gear because I way overestimated the size of the cave. I had crawled into the cave first and was pulling the stuff in. The backpack blocked my way out, so I had to push it out, and I thought I was stuck. After some panicked shoves on my pack, I was able to get it back out of the cave and I realized it was best to leave my pack outside of the cave.

After all of this, I figured that I was set. I laid down some cardboard to stand on while I changed into some set clothes. The problem with the cardboard is that it had nice shiny marketing print on one side of the cardboard, which made it very slick. The number one rule for staying warm is to stay dry. In the process of getting dressed, the cardboard slipped and I managed to fall over in the snow, and got my dry clothes all snowy. So much for staying dry. That was dumb.

Once I was in my new clothes, it was time to get into the cave, a task I underestimated. The entrance was so tight, that I couldn’t just slide in. I ended up getting more wet and stuck, but I finally made it into the cave.

Me inside of the snow cave

Here I am inside of the snow cave.

Very tight space

You can see in this picture that there is not much space above me—less than 1 foot.

My view inside the cave

This is what the cave looks like right above me. I placed my phone as close to my face as possible to take this picture.

Now I’m hearing strange noises outside the cave and am kind of wishing I wasn’t alone in a tiny space of a snow cave. I probably won’t sleep much tonight. I also have no idea how I am going to get out. I cannot put my snow boots on inside of the cave. I can barely move in this thing.

Update: I didn’t sleep much that night. Miraculously, I managed to get out just fine and my boots were not frozen!

I think I will sleep under a picnic table next year. That is if I am still a scout master next year.

Amazing Tree Art

The Family Chart as Art

The best business card I ever collected was given to me by an amazingly brilliant man named Antoninus Niemiec. I met him at the first ever RootsTech conference during a lightning round session in which people signed up for a 5 minute slot to share a new idea. The work Antoninus presented blew my mind.

Four out of five people think I look like someone they know

One of the things that makes Antoninus such a cool guy is his mix of talent. Upon meeting him and viewing his work, you will instantly recognize that he is very personable, he has a great sense of humor, he is extremely smart, he is creative, he is a deep thinker, and he possesses a unique artistic ability. When you mix all of these great traits with his love for family history, the result is something special.

A few years ago, Antoninus crafted a thesis for the Master of Fine Arts in Design and Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design titled “Not Your Father’s Chart: A Thesis Visualizing Genalogy as Art.” You can read the full thesis here. I highly recommend taking the time to read it, because it is fascinating.

The result of the thesis is this awesome visualization of a person’s tree. Not only is the chart a beautiful work of art, but it embeds a lot of information once you know how to read it.

Mary McDonough Tree Visualization

The chart is in fact a family tree. Think of taking a cross-cut of a tree. You will see rings representing the age of the tree. You can begin to see signs of what happened during the tree’s life. The same concepts apply to this chart. To gain a further appreciation for this visualization, read the thesis. Start on page 25 of the pdf (page 51 of the thesis). It will explain the metaphor of the tree. To gain a full appreciation of the masterpiece, read the entire thesis.

View zoom-able graphs in vector format.

RootsTech Innovator Summit

RootsTech Innovator Summit Wrap-up

I’m riding into SLC on the train early this morning to eat breakfast with some fellow RootsTech-ers before the conference starts. I’ll take this time to give a quick re-cap of the RootsTech Innovator Summit which was held yesterday.

Keynote – Chris Dancy

This was perhaps the most interesting keynote presentation I have ever witnessed. Chris is such a fascinating person. A few things that I especially loved about the presentation:

  • It pushed me into a space of discomfort, thinking about death specifically. Death is an uncomfortable subject, so I tend to avoid it. I’m glad he took me there.
  • Even though Chris is so wired to technology, he is very human. He uses technology to serve him, not the other way around.
  • I’ve had a few friends who have died, and his comments on digital death were spot on. I’ve experienced seeing people post to the person’s wall well after they die, as if they are still alive and able to read their Facebook.
  • He showcased some really interesting and funny death apps. I especially liked if i die. Go watch the video.

FamilySearch Photos and Stories (Memories) API

The most interesting thing to me was that the audience was about 80% genealogy enthusiast, 10% business opportunist, and 10% developer. I thought the presenters did a great job in staying focused on the developer side of the presentation, since that was the intended purpose of the day, but also were very respectful and helpful to the genealogist. Here are my takeaways from this presentation:

  • Today, the Memories API requires lots of steps to wire everything together. An easier flow may be available later this year.
  • There are 10 layers of image screening that every photo passes through. Probably the most strict image screening done today.
  • PDFs are screened by breaking apart the images and text and screening each component separately.
  • Audio is coming soon.

API Simplicity

This was a great review of how to design a RESTful API that is nice to use. There were some great concepts shared. A lot of the concepts were based on Brian Mulloy’s API Design principles. There was good audience participation, which I think helped solidify the concepts really well.

FamilySearch App in 1 Hour

I gave up my presentation slot at the Innovator Summit for Dallan Quas to do an awesome live coding session of building a FamilySearch app in less than an hour. A lot of the presentation was an Angular showcase, but it was great to see how the familysearch-javascript-sdk could be used to quickly build an in-browser app. I was extremely impressed with Dallan’s preparation and guts to build this thing in front of a room of coders. He’s amazing.

Customer and Mobile First Design

Andrew Fox gave a great presentation on how to build services that focus on customer needs. A few of my takeaways:

  • You don’t know your customer. You are not your customer.
  • Talk to the customer. Do usability tests with 5 customers. You will start to see patterns.
  • Genealogy is like a game. A game requires some friction. People enjoy some of the difficult puzzle solving parts of genealogy. It would be a disservice to take that away.
  • He gave a great comparison of starting your family history and starting a World of Warcraft game. You start out with specific quests, learn new skills and level up. He compared a WoW player riding a dragon to a genealogist with a giant tree. Loved it.
  • We don’t need to turn genealogy into a game. Like I’ve said before, Genealogy is the Game.

Well, I’m at the end of my ride. I’m looking forward to a great day today. Come visit me at the FamilySearch booth at 1pm.