The Rolodex Paradigm

Silhouette of a rolodex.

Created by Marie-Pierre Bauduin from Noun Project.

In my previous bubble, I used to use as my “official” avatar a clipart picture of a Rolodex. Which confused a lot of people, because cultures differ and most importantly generation differ, and turned out that a lot of my colleagues and teammates never had seen or heard of a Rolodex. To quote one of the managers of my peer team when my avatar was gigantic on the conference room’s monitor «You cannot say that you don’t know what a Rolodex is, anymore!»

So, what is a Rolodex? Fundamentally, it’s a fancy address book. Think of it as a physical HyperCard. As Wikipedia points out, though, the name is sometimes used «as a metonym for the sum total of an individual’s accumulated business contacts», which is how I’m usually using it — the avatar is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Do note that this is most definitely not the same as a Pokédex.

And what I call the Rolodex Paradigm is mainly the idea that the best way to write software is not to know everything about everything, but to know who knows something about what you need. This is easier said than done of course, but let me try to illustrate why I mean all of this.

One of the things I always known about myself is that I’m mainly a generalist. I like knowing a little bit about a lot of things, rather than a lot about a few things. Which is why on this blog you’ll find superficial posts about fintech, electronics, the environment, and cloud computing. You’ll rarely find in-depth articles about anything more recently because to get into that level of details I would need to get myself “in the zone” and that is hardly achievable while maintaining work and family life.

So what do I do when I need information I don’t have? I ask. And to do that, I try to keep in mind who knows something about the stuff that interest me. It’s the main reason why I used to use IRC heavily (I’m still around but not active at all), the main reason why I got to identi.ca, the main reason why I follow blogs and write this very blog, and the main reason why I’m on social networks including Twitter and Facebook – although I’ve switched from using my personal profile to maintaining a blog’s page – and have been fairly open with providing my email address to people, because to be able to ask, you need to make yourself available to answer.

This translates similarly in the workplace: when working at bigger companies that come with their own bubble, it’s very hard to know everything of everything, so by comparison it can be easier to build up a network of contacts who work on different areas within the company, and in particular, not just in engineering. And in a big company it even has a different set of problems to overcome, compared to the outside, open source world.

When asking for help to someone in the open source world, you need to remember that nobody is working for you (unless you’re explicitly paying them, in which case it’s less about asking for help and more about hiring help), and that while it’s possible that you’re charismatic enough (or well known enough) to pull off convincing someone to dedicate significant amount of time to solve your problems, people are busy and they might have other priorities.

In a company setting, there’s still a bit of friction of asking someone to dedicate a significant amount of time to solve your problem rather than theirs. But, if the problem is still a problem for the company, it’s much more likely that you can find someone to at least consider putting your problem in their prioritised list, as long as they can show something for the work done. The recognition is important not just as a way to justify the time (which itself is enough of a reason), but also because in most big companies, your promotion depends on demonstrating impact in one way or another.

Even were more formal approaches to recognitions (such as Google’s Peer Bonus system) are not present, consider sending a message to the manager of whoever helped you. Highlight how they helped not just you personally, but the company — for instance, they may have dedicated one day to implement a feature in their system that saved you a week or two of work, either by implementing the same feature (without the expertise in the system) or working around it; or they might have agreed to get to join a sketched one hour meeting to provide insights into the historical business needs for a service, that will stop you from making a bad decision in a project. It will go a long way.

Of course another problem is to find the people who know about the stuff you need — particularly if they are outside of your organization, and outside of your role. I’m afraid to say that it got a lot harder nowadays, given that we’re now all working remote from different houses and with very little to no social overlapping. So this really relies significantly on two points: company culture, and manager support.

From the company point of view, letting employees built up their network is convenient. Which is why so many big companies provide spaces for, and foster, interaction between employees that have nothing to do with work itself. While game rooms and social interactions are often sold as “perks” to sell roles, they are pretty much relaxed “water cooler” moments, that build those all-too-precious networks that don’t fit into an org structure. And that’s why inclusive social events are important.

So yeah, striking conversations with virtual stranger employees, talking about common interests (photography? Lego? arts?) can lead into knowing what they are working on, and once they are no longer strangers, you would feel more inclined to ask for help later. The same goes for meeting colleagues at courses — I remember going to a negotiation training based around Stuart Diamond’s Getting More, and meeting one of the office’s administrative business partners, who’s also Italian and liking chocolate. When a few months later I was helping to organize VDD ’14, I asked her help to navigate the amount of paperwork required to get outsiders into the office over a weekend.

Meeting people is clearly not enough, though. Keeping in touch is also important, particularly in companies where teams and role are fairly flexible, and people may be working on very different projects after months or year. What I used to do for this was making sure to spend time with colleagues I knew from something other than my main project when traveling. I used to travel from Dublin to London a few times a year for events — and I ended up sitting close to teams I didn’t work with directly, which lead me to meeting a number of colleagues I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with at all. And later on, when I moved to London, I actually worked with some of them in my same team!

And that’s where the manager support is critical. You won’t be very successful at growing a network if your manager, for example, does not let you clear your calendar of routine meetings for the one week you’re spending in a different office. And similarly, without a manager that supports you dedicating some more time for non-business-critical training (such as the negotiation training I’ve mentioned), you’ll end up with fewer opportunities to meet random colleagues.

I think this was probably the starkest difference between my previous employer’s offices in Dublin and London: my feeling was that the latter had far fewer opportunities to meet people outside of your primary role and cultivate those connections. But it might also be caused by the fact that many more people live far enough from the office that commuting takes longer.

How is this all going to be working in a future where so many of us are remote? I don’t honestly know. For me, the lack of time sitting at the coffee area talking about things with colleagues that I didn’t share a team with, is one of the main reason why I hope that one day, lockdown will be over. And for the rest, I’m trying to get used to talk over the Internet more.

Where did the discussion move to?

The oldest post you’ll find on this blog is from nearly sixteen years ago, although it’s technically a “recovered” post that came from a very old Blogspot account I used when I was in high school. The actual blog that people started following is probably fourteen years old, when Planet Gentoo started and I started writing about my development there. While this is nowhere as impressive as Scalzi’s, it’s still quite an achievement in 2020, when a lot of people appear to have moved to Medium posts or Twitter threads.

Sixteen years are an eternity in Internet terms, and that means the blog has gone through a number of different trends, from the silly quizzes to the first copy-and-paste list memes, from trackbacks to the anti-spam fights. But the one trend that has been steady over the past six years (or so) is the mistreatment of comments. I guess this went together with the whole trend of toxic comments increasing, and the (not wrong) adage of “don’t read the comments”, but it’s something that saddened me before, and that saddens me today.

First of all, the lack of comments feels, to me, like a lack of engagement. While I don’t quite write with the intention of pleasing others, I used to have meaningful conversations with readers of the blog in the past — whether it was about correcting my misunderstanding of things I have no experience with, or asking follow up questions that could become more blog posts for other to find.

Right now, while I know there’s a few readers of the blog out there, it feels very impersonal. A few people might reply to the Tweet that linked to the new post, and maybe one or two might leave a comment on LinkedIn, but that’s usually where the engagement ends for me, most of the time. Exception happen, including my more recent post on zero-waste, but even those are few and far between nowadays. And not completely unexpectedly, I don’t think anyone is paying attention to the blog’s Facebook page.

It’s not just the big social media aggregators, such as Reddit and Hacker News, that cause me these annoyances. Websites like Boing Boing, which Wikipedia still calls a “group blog”, or Bored Panda, and all their ilks, appear to mostly be gathering posts from other people and “resharing” them, nowadays. On the bright side of the spectrum, some of these sites at least appear to add their own commentary on the original content, but in many other cases I have seen them reposting the “eye catchy” part of the original content (photo, diagram, infographic, video) without the detailed explanations, and sometimes making it hard to even find the original credit.

You can imagine that it is not a complete coincidence that I’m complaining about this after having had to write a full-on commentary due to Boing Boing using extremely alarmist tones around a piece of news that, in my view, barely should have been notable. Somehow it seems news around diabetes and glucometers have this effect on people — you may remember I was already annoyed when Hackaday was tipped about my project, and decided to bundle it with an (unsafe!) do-it-yourself glucometer project that got the most of the comments on their own post.

I guess this ends up sounding a lot like an old man shouting at clouds — but I also still think that discussing ideas, posts, opinions with the creators are worth doing, particularly if the creators have the open mind of listening to critique of their mistakes — and, most importantly, the “capacitance” to send abuse away quickly. Because yeah, comments became toxic a long time ago, and I can’t blame those who prefer not to even bother with comments in the first place, despite disliking it myself.

To conclude, if you have anything to discuss or suggest me, please do get in touch. It’s actually a good feeling to know that people care.

Updated “Social” contacts

Given the announcement of Google+ shutdown (for consumer accounts, which mine actually was not), I decided to take some time to clean up my own house and thought it would be good to provide an update of where and why you would find me somewhere.

First of all, you won’t find me on Google+ even during the next few months of transition: I fully deleted the account after using the Takeout interface that Google provides. I have not been using it except for a random rant here and there, or to reach some of my colleagues from the Dublin office.

If you want to follow my daily rants and figure out what I actually complain the most loudly about, you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter. Be warned that a good chunk of it might just be first-world London problems.

The Twitter feed also gets the auto-share of whatever I share on NewsBlur, which is, by the way, what I point everyone to when they keep complaining about Google Reader. Everybody: stop complaining and just feel how much better polished Samuel’s work is.

I have a Facebook account, but I have (particularly in the past couple of years), restricted it to the people I actually interact with heavily, so unless we know each other (online or in person) well enough, it’s unlikely I would accept a friend request. It’s not a matter of privacy, given that I have written about my “privacy policy”, it’s more about wanting to have a safe space I can talk with my family and friends without discussions veering towards nerd-rage.

Also, a few years ago I decided that most of my colleagues, awesome as they are, should rather stay at arms’ length. So with the exception of a handful of people who I do go out with outside the office, I do not add colleagues to Facebook. Former colleagues are more likely.

If you like receiving your news through Facebook (a negative idea for most of tech people I know, but something that the non-tech folks still widely prefer it seems), you can “like” my page, which is just a way for WordPress to be able to share the posts to Facebook (it can share to pages, but not to personal accounts, following what I already complained before about photos). The page also gets the same NewsBlur shared links as Twitter.

Talking about photos, when Facebook removed the APIs, I started focusing on posting only on Flickr. This turned out to be a bit annoying for a few of my friends, so I also set up a page for it. You’re welcome to follow it if you want to have random pictures from my trips, or squirrels, or bees.

One place where you won’t see me is Mastodon or other “distributed social networks” — the main reason for it is that I got already burnt by Identi.ca back in the days, and I’m not looking forward to have a repeat of the absolute filter bubble there, or the fact that, a few years later, all those “dents” got lost. As much as people complain how Twitter is ephemeral, I can still find my first tweet, while identi.ca just disappeared, as I see it, in the middle of nowhere.

And please stop even considering following me on Keybase please.

How blogging changed in the past ten years

One of the problems that keeps poking back at me every time I look for an alternative software for this blog, is that it somehow became not your average blog, particularly not in 2017.

The first issue is that there is a lot of history. While the current “incarnation” of the blog, with the Hugo install, is fairly recent, I have been porting over a long history of my pseudo-writing, merging back into this one big collection the blog posts coming from my original Gentoo Developer blog, as well as the few posts I wrote on the KDE Developers blog and a very minimal amount of content from my (mostly Italian) blog when I was in high school.

Why did I do it that way? Well the main thing is that I don’t want to lose the memories. As some of you might know already, I faced my mortality before, and I came to realize that this blog is probably the only thing of substance that I had a hand on, that will outlive me. And so I don’t want to just let migration, service turndowns, and other similar changes take away what I did. This is also why I did publish to this blog the articles I wrote for other websites, namely NewsForge and Linux.com (back when they were part of Geeknet).

Some of the recovery work actually required effort. As I said above there’s a minimal amount of content that comes from my high school days blog. And it’s in Italian that does not make it particularly interesting or useful. I had deleted that blog altogether years and years ago, so I had to use the Wayback Machine to recover at least some of the posts. I will be going through all my old backups in the hope of finding that one last backup that I remember making before tearing the thing down.

Why did I tear it down in the first place? It’s clearly a teenager’s blog and I am seriously embarrassed by the way I thought and wrote. It was 1314 years ago, and I have admitted last year that I can tell so many times I’ve been wrong. But this is not the change I want to talk about.

The change I want to talk about is the second issue with finding a good software to run my blog: blogging is not what it used to be ten years ago. Or fifteen years ago. It’s not just that a lot of money got involved in the mean time, so now there are a significant amount of “corporate blogs”, that end up being either product announcements in a different form, or the another outlet for not-quite-magazine content. I know of at least a couple of Italian newspapers that provide “blogs” for their writers, which look almost exactly like the paper’s website, but do not have to be reviewed by the editorial board.

In addition to this, a lot of people’s blogs stopped providing as much details of their personal life as they used to. Likely, this is related to the fact that we now know just how nasty people on the Internet can be (read: just as nasty as people off the Internet), and a lot of the people who used to write lightheartedly don’t feel as safe, correctly. But there is probably another reason: “Social Media”.

The advent of Twitter and Facebook made it so that there is less need to post short personal entries, too. And Facebook in particular appears to have swallowed most of the “cutesy memes” such as quizzes and lists of things people have or have not done. I know there are still a few people who insist on not using these big names social networks, and still post for their friends and family on blogs, but I have a feeling they are quite the minority. And I can tell you for sure that since I signed up for Facebook, a lot of my smaller “so here’s that” posts went away.

Distribution chart of blog post sizes over time

This is a bit of a rough plot of blog sizes. In particular I have used the raw file size of the markdown sources used by Hugo, in bytes, which make it not perfect for Unicode symbols, and it includes the “front matter”, which means that particularly all the non-Hugo-native posts have their title effectively doubled by the slug. But it shows trends particularly well.

You can see from that graph that some time around 2009 I almost entirely stopped writing short blog posts. That is around the time Facebook took off in Italy, and a lot of my interaction with friends started happening there. If you’re curious of that visible lack of posts just around half of 2007, that was the pancreatitis that had me disappear for nearly two months.

With this reduction in scope of what people actually write on blogs, I also have a feeling that lots of people were left without anything to say. A number of blogs I still follow (via NewsBlur since Google Reader was shut down), post once or twice a year. Planets are still a thing, and I still subscribe to a number of them, but I realize I don’t even recognize half the names nowadays. Lots of the “old guard” stopped blogging almost entirely, possibly because of a lack of engagement, or simply because, like me, many found a full time job (or a full time family), that takes most of their time.

You can definitely see from the plot that even my own blogging has significantly slowed down over the past few years. Part of it was the tooling giving up on me a few times, but it also involves the lack of energy to write all the time as I used to. Plus there is another problem: I now feel I need to be more accurate in what I’m saying and in the words I’m using. This is in part because I grew up, and know how much words can hurt people even when meant the right way, but also because it turns out when you put yourself in certain positions it’s too easy to attack you (been there, done that).

A number of people that think argue that it was the demise of Google Reader1 that caused blogs to die, but as I said above, I think it’s just the evolution of the concept veering towards other systems, that turned out to be more easily reachable by users.

So are blogs dead? I don’t think so. But they are getting harder to discover, because people use other platforms and it gets difficult to follow all of them. Hacker News and Reddit are becoming many geeks’ default way to discover content, and that has the unfortunate side effect of not having as much of the conversation to happen in shared media. I am indeed bothered about those people who prefer discussing the merit of my posts on those external websites than actually engaging on the comments, if nothing else because I do not track those platforms, and so the feeling I got is of talking behind one’s back — I would prefer if people actually told me if they shared my post on those platforms; for Reddit I can at least IFTTT to self-stalk the blog, but that’s a different problem.

Will we still have blogs in 10 years? Probably yes, but they will not look like the ones we’re used to most likely. The same way as nowadays there still are personal homepages, but they clearly don’t look like Geocities, and there are social media pages that do not look like MySpace.


  1. Usual disclaimer: I do work for Google at the time of writing this, but these are all personal opinions that have no involvement from the company. For reference, I signed the contract before the Google Reader shutdown announcement, but started after it. I was also sad, but I found NewsBlur a better replacement anyway.
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