A Noobish Expert

As part of a marketing campaign for the product I manage, the company I work for published an article about me. Consequently, there is somewhat a weird feeling when I arrive in the office everyday, due to the fact that my photo – the same photo used in the article – is displayed on a massive TV in the reception area. To further my embarrassment, it was also printed as part of the company’s latest newsletter, thus becoming part of the marketing campaign for two finance exhibitions in Chicago and Singapore.

My photo used as marketing material for an exhibition in Singapore
My photo used as marketing material for an exhibition in Singapore. Urgh!

The feeling of discomfort is also caused by the fact that I become somewhat an office celebrity (or at least that’s how I feel). In the morning when I get stuck with colleagues in the same lift, I would usually rather hide behind my earphones and would avoid eye contact at all costs. But lately people have been purposefully introducing themselves to me, which makes me turn into paranoid overdrive of forgetting their names. I hate forgetting people’s names, because I don’t like people forgetting mine.

Though being a mini celebrity is not very pleasant, what irks me the most is the word “expert” used within the article. It may be a blessing for my career, but somehow it triggers the feeling of inadequacy within me, the feeling of doubt of whether I am capable of being an expert at something. What’s expected from an expert? What qualities do an expert possess? Since I don’t think I have the level of an expert – whatever that is – how would I get there, you know… just to keep my side of the bargain for getting advertised as an expert and thus reaping the benefits directly or indirectly.

I thought nothing further about it until today….

I discovered a mistake I made that has allowed me to re-think what it means to be an expert. On one of the project that I managed, my colleagues and I was due to give report to senior management next week. Everything seemed to be on track until the 11th hour, until we realised that the key supplier we relied upon could not deliver everything we needed. And the worse part, I could have learned about this at least two weeks earlier. The belated finding absolutely changed a lot of things because it greatly limits the options available for the project, and because I didn’t plan my time carefully, I won’t have time to recover from this mistake before the management meeting next week.

Before this happened, I was quite happy with my progress as an “expert” within the five months I spent in Stockholm. I felt empowered by the knowledge I had, and I used it to make good decisions. Work finally settled down, and people accepted me with open arms. I’ve gotten more trust from my bosses, and things were moving along just fine. However, I don’t have many people that I could rely upon as mentors like I used to in Sydney, thus it was hard to know how I had developed without much feedback. Most people here had only known me for a short period of time. There were always more things I could have done, but nothing that I had regret doing.

Today was a bad day, but as always, bad days are there to make the good days better. Unexpectedly after having a nice dinner with Potato Y, the recognition of my mistake has given me a new hope for much improvement – I have found an area where I can improve significantly. This turns out to be the only strategy I can think of, in order to become somewhat of an expert. I reckon this is a wonderful finding.

Let me clarify the previous paragraph by saying that I don’t only see one area to improve upon for my own personal development. In fact in the past, it’s more like seeing too many choices on what to improve upon, yet the time I have is very limited – there is only so many waking hours in a day, and the old uni student trick of staying up all night to train on something is not working very well anymore. For example, I can train to increase my personal productivity level, I can train on my networking skill, I can train on my presentation skill, but which one will give me the most bang for the buck? I am taken aback at how useful this mistake is, since previously I don’t have much direction to follow on my personal development path.

So I think the question “how do I keep my side of the bargain as an expert?” is the wrong question. A better question will be how do I keep up with the development of the rest of the world such that I can always be one step ahead of the others. And being one step ahead is the best definition of an expert that I can come up with right now. Accordingly, the best stance I can take is to open myself to take riskier actions, to allow myself to make the mistakes, so that I know what to improve upon next. Finding a mistake worthy to improve upon is a task on its own, and it serves as the door for the next level of character development.

My apology on my ramblings, if you have some thoughts on this from your own experience, feel free to share it 🙂

Stockholm Int’l Toastmasters Educational – Keeping the Promise

An educational I delivered two weeks ago, for posterity:

Good evening fellow toastmasters and honoured guests. When each of us first joined Toastmasters we were asked to fill in a form. Apart from guaranteeing that your first born child would also join Toastmasters, the standard Toastmasters application form contains the Toastmasters’ promise’ which you can also find in your Competent Communicators manual.

Today I’d like to go through that promise, and why keeping it is important to get the most out of Toastmasters.

The promise really itself consists of 10 promises, though for today’s speech I’ve cut them down to a more manageable 7. These 7 promises can be broadly categorised to Promises to Yourself, Promises to your fellow members and Promises to the club.

Let’s start with the promises to yourself. As winter dawns and attendance start heading south, it’s a good time to think about what you’re here for, and what being here actually means. Why did you join Toastmasters? Was it to improve public speaking? Was it to think better on your feet? Or was it a way to meet new people?

Whatever the reason, they all share one thing in common, you can’t do any of them staying at home. That’s the first promise to yourself, to attend regularly. There is no such thing as a Toastmasters’ correspondence course, for good reason.

It’s not like we will hunt you down each time you miss a meeting, but at the end of the day you’re only going to get out how much you put in. If you only come once a year, it’s going to be a very expensive meeting with not much learning. If you come every fortnight, you’re going to get alot more. Attending regularly is the prerequisite to any kind of change you wanted to get out of coming.

Turning up is just one part of the story. Speaking, evaluating, thinking on your feet are all as much physical activities as they are mental ones. How many of you here know how to swim. How many of you learned how to swim sitting at the side of a pool or lake and watching other people swim? Just like swimming, getting better at those skills requires time and practice.

Each meeting is an opportunity for airtime, an opportunity to improve yourself. So sign up for speech projects, meeting roles and volunteering for table topics to make it worth your while. Remember, you only get out what you put in. Even if you don’t have a role or speech, being at the pool and studying the technique of swimmers there is still much better than staying at home if you’re serious about swiming. Participate actively, that is your second promise.

I won’t lie to you, working through projects in your manuals is no walk in the park. They are written to build out the basics and move on to more complicated projects to target a wide variety of skills. This means you’re going to work on some areas you may not like or be comfortable with, like humour. And that is a good thing! When we don’t like something, more often than not we’re pretty bad at it, so being forced to work on it helps us improve.

Sure, there are some people who seem to do these effortlessly. They just walk in and make up an entire speech project on the spot and deliver it flawlessly. If you are one of these people, Roseline would like to talk to you about our next table topics competition. For the vast majority of us, a good speech requires good preparation. If you’re asked to do a speech or role, bring your A-Game, put your best foot forward because it means the feedback you receive will be about your true ability, not about your lack of preparation. Prepare for your role to the best of your ability, that is your third promise.

Promises to yourself – Attend regularly, participate actively and do a kick ass job. simple!

The next set of promises is to your fellow toastmasters around the room. No man is an island, and the club exists only because there are other like-minded people who have come together. Just like you, they’ve dragged themselves out of bed and braved this horrid weather to turn up.

I put it to you that the best thing you can do for your fellow toastmaster when they’ve taken the effort to prepare and deliver a kick-ass speech, is to find ways to make them more awesome, to turn their A-game into an A+ game. Just like speeches, the best evaluations have planning; coming up with ways to up the level of awesomeness is hard enough, you also need to figure out how to deliver it so it sticks. What can you say to make sure the next time they come back on stage, they’re a better speaker?

It is not a task unique to toastmasters. We are often asked to assess our peers and give them feedback at appraisals or interviews. Those same skills, giving constructive feedback to effect change and improvement, are in play when taking on various evaluation roles. Like other parts of toastmasters, it requires time and practice, and we should strive to deliver the best feedback we can. That is your fouth promise – Prepare and deliver effective feedback to help your fellow toastmasters improve.
And sometimes honest feedback hurts. You put your heart and soul into a speech, only to hear “you need to improve on this, this, this” and it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, that we’re all here to learn and grow. Next time you’ll be thinking “I put in all that effort only to get cut down, they’re pretty harsh.” It’s not that we’re all fragile snowflakes, we’re not machines, and encouragement helps. If someone’s done a good job, say it. If someone’s taken the plunge and done their first icebreaker, congratulate them on it. That’s your fifth promise – keeping the club a positive and friendly environment for your fellow toastmasters to learn and grow.

Speaking of friendly environments, if you remember nothing from this speech at all, remember this. after the meeting here a few of us often have dinner and drinks at Vurma’s, a minute’s walk away from the club. It’s a great way to relax and unwind and get to know your fellow club members a little better since we run our meetings tight and there isn’t that much mingle time. Personally I think it’s a great outcome if you not only come in and learn something from the club, but leave with friends you can keep for life! On the topic of feedback, it’s also much easier to deliver and receive honest feedback to someone you know well.

Spiel aside, those are your promises to your fellow toastmasters – Deliver effective feedback and keep the club a place we can all learn, grow and have fun.
we’ve come to the last set of promises, the higher purpose if you will. The promise to your club and the toastmasters organisation. We can be here having a meeting thanks to the tireless efforts of our club officers and those that have come before us to shape Toastmasters as an organisation.

If you’ve gotten something out of Toastmasters, there is a really simple way to give back; when you are called upon to serve as a club officer, rise to the occasion. Clubs don’t run on air, they need warm bodies, people to make sure things run smoothly, that we have a roof over our heads, people to make the decisions when needed.

It’s worth remembering that something like this doesn’t happen by accident. How do you create an environment where ongoing change can be fostered and learnt? By serving as an officer, you get a front row seat into the challenges and solutions in such an enterprise. You work more closely with people who have been there and done that, and gain access to their wealth of experience. Just like speech-making and evaluation, learning to lead takes time and practice; the better you get at it, the stronger the club becomes. Your sixth promise to the club – Answer the call of duty when asked to serve in your club.

There is another way to give back to the club that not only helps you grow, but helps someone else to grow too! As time goes on, and we all move on in life, members will leave the club. Which is a slight problem since a club needs members to function.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a constant stream of new people coming in, so we can continue helping members achieve their goals in the years to come, ensuring that the benefits of the Toastmasters program can be shared by as many people as possible. Your last promise – to bring along guests to the club and spread the word!

So there’s my interpretation of the toastmaster’s promise, with a liberal exercise of an artistic license.

The toastmasters promise is
It’s a promise to yourself – attend regularly, participate actively and do a kick ass job
It’s a promise to your fellow toastmasters – deliver effective feedback, keep the club an awesome place to learn and have fun
It’s a promise to your club – answer the call of duty and spread the word of toastmasters

I hope it has given you something to think about what it means to be a Toastmaster. It’s an amazing place to be and I have never once regretted making that promise. Thank you for your time, and remember that there’s dinner and drinks after this.

Thank you.

SvenskaOrd One-way Sync to Mobile

Marty and I have decided to get a little more serious about building out SvenskaOrd so I’ll be spending the next few weeks experimenting with how to get a web-and-mobile solution with two way sync working. Since Android users (usually) already have a gmail account registered, I figured I’d use Google AppEngine (GAE) since it’s got integration with accounts and libraries for communication between Android devices and AppEngine. They also have documentation on using Google Cloud Messaging (GCM), Google’s sanctioned push-notification service (though alternatives like UrbanAirship and Parse exist) which is nice.

SvenskaOrd GAE ----> GCM service  
     ^                 /
     | (sync on       / (push on GAE activity)
     |  mobile       /
     |  activity)   /
     ∨             ∨
    SvenskaOrd Mobile

Far and away, the biggest pain point after working with the stack for a fortnight or so is the data store. GAE’s BigTable backed persistence is just a pain for relational schemas; aggregate functions like COUNT, SUM etc are not supported, and neither are joins, so extracting common code has been somewhat tricky. Not to mention the compilation involved.

Figuring out build shennanigans brought back some memories. When using Android Studio to write your app, the generated build system is Gradle. There is tooling to automatically generate a companion AppEngine project, except the appEngine project build system is…Maven. And you consequently can’t build them all together and hence cannot share common code. I had to hack the gradle-appengine-plugin to get a pure gradle project that allowed me to have a set of project modules that I could build in the same context.

I haven’t even got to the stage where multiple devices need to be kept in sync and dealing with conflict resolution.

In either case, here’s what Marty’s using at the moment. It’s a one-way sync from GAE to the Android device. The only version supporting the sync is in alpha, so you’ll have to be a member of https://plus.google.com/communities/116151610307090688185 if you want to try it out.

First register with your device:

Then on https://svenska-ord-test.appspot.com/search.html :

And you will get:

In practice, GCM can take a variable amount of time from seconds to ~15 mins to actually deliver the message, so it’s nice to be able to manually sync.

Eventually, we want to deliver something where you can not only manage and do training on the phone or on the web, but you can also quickly add different types of content for training from anywhere. Which would be pretty useful especially if you’re learning domain specific Swedish and want to train on words found in your email.

More coming soon 😛