A Developer’s Journey: BJ Burns

If you are a developer, aspire to be one, or simply want to understand this field,  the Complete Developer Podcast is a must-listen. Topics of the show have ranged from coding best practices, optimizing algorithm, surviving boring meetings, improving your listening skills and how to talk with non-techies.

Hosts and friends BJ Burns and Will Gantt, began this show as an experiment after people around them, entertained by their banter when discussing development topics, prompted to do so. Will is the more experienced developer of the two, while BJ focuses on sharing “his journey as a journeyman developer,” as he states on the show.

A few years ago, BJ was on his way to finish medical school until a personal heartbreak changed this. With the help of Will and other developer friends, BJ’s career and life took a turn. In this interview, BJ explains his journey to become an Advanced Software Engineer for the State of Tennessee, and gives insights on the development of this successful podcast.

Note: See here Will Gant’s interview. 

Did you started college as Pre-med or Psychology?

I majored in Psychology; while I was getting my masters in Psychology, I was working at a psychiatric hospital and decided that instead of getting a PhD in Counseling, I wanted to get a medical degree to do Psychiatry. I was working at an addictions unit, helping people who struggle with addiction who also have mental health problems. What I wanted to do, at least at that time, was to get into that world and be a medical doctor that could help people with their addiction and their psychological issues.

How did it evolve eventually into going into computer science and development?

It actually started before all of that. When I was in high school, I took three years of programming classes. When I first started, QBasic and Turbo Pascal were the languages that were offered in school. In my senior year of high school, they decided to upgrade to more modern languages. I got Visual Basic and C++. I got the opportunity to do that, and I loved it. I thought that’s what I wanted to do for a living.

When I graduated, I was planning on going to college to be a software developer. My mom, who is a nurse, at the time was head of a foot and ankle clinic in town. One summer in high school, her secretary took time off to go have surgery. So I worked at the clinic with my mom at that time. All the doctors kept coming and showing me things and saying, “Hey, this is really interesting.” I got to sit in on surgeries and procedures. For a really nerdy kid, it was a dream come true because I got all these very intelligent doctors wanting to teach me and show me what they were doing. I just sort of fell in love with that. So when I went to college, I started off pre med. Then I took a psychology class and decided, “Hey, I like talking to people, so I want to go into this area of healthcare.” I pursued that all the way up to medical school.

What brought me back around to development was that in my third year of medical school while studying for board exams, my wife at the time decided she did not wanted to be my wife anymore. She had the divorce papers delivered to me while I was studying for board exams, and I did not pass for obvious emotional reasons. It was a bit of a surprise to me, and then I had to go in front of the promotion and matriculation committee. I explained to them everything that was going on, and why I didn’t pass my board exams. They basically told me to take some time, get through the emotional side of it, get through the divorce, and look at coming back to school later. I left med school then moved back to Tennessee.

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Medicine requires a lot of focus. You spend six to eight hours a day in a classroom, and then another six to eight hours after you get out of class studying. To go from that sort of lifestyle to have nothing to focus on; all of my focus went on to all the bad things going on in my life. I was getting very depressed and so my friends, who were developers, were like, “All right, we’re going help you, we’ll give you something to focus on”. So they started introducing me to different programming concepts. I think they started off with this online game where you wrote JavaScript to move the character around.

Within about two or three months, I had gone from that to looking at some different tutorials, taking some Udemy classes, and I was asking questions about expression trees and some pretty heavy topics. They were like, “Oh, we got you hooked now!” And so about six to eight months after I had first started learning or relearning development, I decided I didn’t want to go back to med school. I wanted to pursue this.

My best friend Will, who does the podcast with me, brought me on as an intern. He had his own company doing consulting, and he did it just so that he could show me things as he was doing them. I was working in sales at the time. So, I would work from about 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Then, I’d go over to his house from eight to six or seven and sit in his office. Over the course of the year, I started doing more and more things for him until I think about two or three months before I got my first full time job in development.

“Look at what you want to do and list it out if you want to work in a certain field. Find out what that field needs, and what you need to work in there.”

What was your first job? Was it primarily developing websites?

My first job outside of the apprenticeship was as a contract developer for the State of Tennessee.

What’s your current job?

My contract was six months and it was a six month contract to hire. They decided to hire me on after six months, and actually just got promoted up two months ago to Advanced Software Developer.

Why did you start a podcast?

I’m a talker as you can tell. When you get him going, Will is a talker as well. He loves to talk about development. I also learn best through teaching. So, part of the reason we did it was to help me learn to be a better software developer. Part of it was to give me a little bit of credentials coming into the industry without a degree in software development.

What really put the nail in the head was when I was interning with Will. We had both taken the day off to go to an event at the Microsoft office here in Nashville. We’re sitting at a table with about five or six other developers, and I’ve been asking him some questions about some of the stuff they had presented to us. We were sort of bantering back and forth about it and we noticed that no one else at the table was talking. They were all just sitting listening to the two of us go back and forth. We kind of stopped and looked at them like, “You guys can jump in here too.” And they’re like, “Oh, no this is great. You guys should totally do a podcast or something. We just enjoy listening to the two of you go back and forth”. I think that was around April (2015). So, we started doing our research and looking into what does it take to create a podcast.  And then that July, we started building the website and recording episodes.

We wanted to have about three or four episodes ready to go when we launched because we didn’t want to be trying to learn how to do this while also trying to produce an episode every week. When we launched our first episodes in September, we had four episodes already recorded, and mostly edited. It used to take me a lot longer to do the editing back when I had no clue what I was doing. I think our first episode was about 30 minutes and it took me about 12 hours to edit because I was learning the technology.

How do you pick the topics?

What we were talking about at that lunch just kind of led into it. It was how to talk about technical subjects to non-technical people, such as managers, or Business Analysts. Then after that, we did a series on health, where we talked about physical health, mental health, financial health, and those sorts of things.

The first year we struggled. Each week, we’d try to come up with a topic, and we’d take turns writing them so one person doesn’t get burned out. We had a list just in a text file of topic ideas. If you couldn’t think of something to write about that week, you could go to that list and take something off of it. That kept growing especially after I started working. I would see things at work and think, “I want to learn more about this. Let me make an episode, and then I can kill two birds with one stone. I can learn about it, and we’ve got a podcast episode”. Now, I get the episode topics from everywhere.

We have a board with all of our episode ideas on it. We have 201 episode ideas that we haven’t even worked on yet. We break them down into three categories. There are technical episodes. There are business episodes, such as the signs your co-worker is quitting episode that just came out. Then, we have the life category. These are life skills, like we have one episode in the backlog called the real cost of interruptions. We try to keep that balance in what we’re doing.

Is there a specific key piece of advice that you will give to people who want to get into development?

It takes work. You have to put the effort in and stay focused. You get in, you’re learning, it’s exciting, and then you get to, I wouldn’t say the boring parts of the learning, but the more difficult things. You want to go learn this other really new thing over here and this other really new thing over there. Then you end up becoming what we call “Hello World” experts, where you know how to write very basic stuff in five or six different languages. But not one of them are employable skills yet.

My advice is to look at what you want to do and list it out if you want to work in a certain field. Find out what that field needs, and what you need to work in there. Nashville is very .Net heavy. So if you wanted to work in the Nashville, Tennessee area, I would suggest learning .Net. If you want to work in other areas of the world, there’re different things that are more popular there. So, look at what you want to do, and then focus on that. That’s what’s going to help you in the long run.

Do you have 2 or 3 recommendations for resources (book, podcasts, etc.) that have helped you in your career?

Coding Blocks Podcast is great. The guys that run it are friendly and knowledgeable. Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual by John Sonmez. I suggest the audiobook version.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me! 

Sharing Knowledge about Knowledge: Stan Garfield

If you need to know anything about Knowledge Management, Stan Garfield has probably already written about it. This prolific author and speaker has over 400 posts and various books on the topic showing not just his ideas, but also those of multiple people who are dedicated to this discipline.

Stan’s education is in Computer Science, but technology is not his only focus. As a true Knowledge Manager, he built relationships and communities to ensure information and ideas of an organization are captured and shared. In this interview you will learn about all the facets of KM and about his career. His experience includes leading KM programs and communities in professional services at HP and Deloitte.

What is your definition of Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people. The purpose of knowledge management is to foster the reuse of intellectual capital, enable better decision making, and create the conditions for innovation.

KM provides people, processes, and technology to help knowledge flow to the right people, at the right time, so they can act more efficiently, effectively, and creatively. Knowledge management enables Sharing, Innovating, Reusing, Collaborating, and Learning.

What are some misconceptions of KM you see regularly?

  1. KM programs should try to implement every KM process and tool
  2. KM programs should start with technology and then roll out tools and drive adoption
  3. KM programs should focus on collecting documents or updating skills profiles
  4. It’s not necessary to meet in person and you can ignore the need to build trust
  5. KM teams can be moved around from one organization to another
  6. KM programs should rely on maturity models and benchmarking
  7. There are “best practices
  8. KM programs should collect and report on all possible metrics
  9. It’s good to get certified in KM
  10. You can delegate KM to others
  11. You can push content
  12. KM is dead and KM needs a new name
  13. You can make people do things and incentives don’t work
  14. Social is frivolous
  15. Creation of communities and ESN groups should not be controlled
  16. Risks can be eliminated
  17. It’s possible to be like Google and Amazon
  18. KM people should try to work themselves out of a job
  19. Bigger is better for organizations, and smaller is better for community membership
  20. Everything is a community
  21. Our IP will be stolen if we don’t lock it down tightly
  22. The DIKW pyramid is useful
  23. The 90-9-1 rule for community participation is obsolete
  24. It’s possible to compute the ROI of KM
  25. Content should be archived after 90 days

(For more see this and this)

What drew you to this field and to become a KM author?

I have always been interested in communication and in sharing information. In elementary school, I published a one-page newsletter. In high school, I operated a radio station. In college, I started out in the journalism school at Northwestern, but I got hooked on computer programming and transferred to the engineering school at Washington University.

I joined Digital Equipment Corporation in 1983, and they already had VAXnotes Conferences, which were early examples of online communities. As a professional services manager, I compiled information useful to my team members that included key contacts and pointers to reference material. The Key Contacts List became one of the most popular documents at Digital.

I edited and published a monthly newsletter called Systems Integration Notes. It was distributed via email, but I wanted to find a way to make it available on demand. Initially I used VAX VMS network transfers for this, and then Digital ALL-IN-1 shared file cabinets. When Digital launched its first intranet in 1995, I knew that this was a much better way to share information, and immediately embraced it. I became the editor of Digital’s Professional Services intranet site.

In 1996 I was asked to start Digital’s first knowledge management program. My background in journalism, computer programming, and information sharing made me a good candidate for this role, and I embraced it enthusiastically. I have been a knowledge manager ever since.

KMWorld 2017 Keynote

In 2004 I took over HP’s KM program. I attended a one-day APQC Proven Practice Replication workshop hosted by Ford. I was impressed by the work of Stan Kwiecien and his Ford KM colleagues, and invited them to present on an HP KM Community call. They did so, and then Stan asked me to present HP’s KM efforts to Ford. I didn’t think that what we were doing at HP was that impressive, but I reciprocated. I was surprised by Ford’s reaction to my talk – they were much more positive about our accomplishments than people at HP were. This inspired me to present and write about our knowledge management efforts, including my first conference presentations at APQC in 2005 and KMWorld in 2006. I submitted an article to Line56.com, and they asked me to write a weekly blog, which I did. When Line56 folded, I moved it to hp.com. When I left HP in 2008, I switched to tweeting. In 2014 I began writing weekly articles on LinkedIn.

I have also been writing articles for periodicals since 2006. One of these, Inside Knowledge, was published by The Ark Group, and they asked me to write a book in 2006, which was published in 2007 as Implementing a Successful KM Program. In 2016, Lucidea (a software company) asked me to write another book, Proven Practices for Promoting a KM Program, which came out in 2017. I have also been asked to contribute chapters to four other books, and I always agree to do so.

In Profiles in Knowledge you share stories of people who have contributed to the field and are no longer with us. What inspired you to do that?

I have written over 400 blog posts, so I have covered most of my original ideas. I wanted to shift my focus to share the great work that others have done. I noticed that for those who have passed away, or left the field of knowledge management, their writing is not always available online. By retrieving it from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to bring back their lost content for the benefit of everyone in the field. And by celebrating the work of those who are no longer with us, I am able to remind others of those great ideas and accomplishments. When I do so, their surviving friends, family, and colleagues have expressed their appreciation to me, which is very gratifying.

How has the KM field evolved in the past 10 or 15 years?

The fundamental principles have not changed much over the past 25 years. Some of the approaches and components have evolved. In the initial phase of KM (approximately 1995-2005), the main efforts were related to collection:

  1. capture
  2. lessons learned
  3. proven practices
  4. content management
  5. classification
  6. intranet
  7. portals
  8. repositories
  9. expertise locators
  10. search engines

In the next ten years (2005-2015), Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 developed, and the emphasis shifted to connection:

  1. communities
  2. threaded discussions
  3. tagging
  4. blogs
  5. wikis
  6. podcasts
  7. videos
  8. syndication
  9. aggregation
  10. social software

Since about 2015, new trends have emerged:

  1. There is currently a lot of buzz around the ideas of digital workplace and digital transformation.
  2. Working Out Loud is a growing movement that encourages employees to narrate their work and broadcast what they’re doing so others can interact.
  3. Community management is emerging as a formal discipline where community managers are formally trained, developed, and assigned to full-time roles.
  4. Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence are being used to automate certain KM tasks and augment knowledge-related decision making.
  5. There is increased attention on analytics and business intelligence, which help KM use data to derive insights and inform actions and decisions.
  6. More organizations are adopting enterprise social networks, especially Microsoft and Workplace by Facebook, as a better user interface for online threaded discussions.
  7. Chat tools such as Slack, which are used predominately for team interaction, are gaining in popularity as well.
  8. Gamification and digital badging are new ways of framing incentives to recognize people for performing the knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviors.
  9. Agile methodology originated in software development but is now being applied more broadly across the enterprise.
  10. Mobile apps and the bring your own device (BYOD) trend are reactions to more and more people using smart phones and tablets for work. KM must ensure that knowledge systems are optimized for mobile.

“Knowledge management is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people.”

Can you share a major challenge you tackled in your career (with a customer, or personally) and how did you address it?

When I led the HP KM program, there were frequent changes in the top leadership of the HP Consulting & Integration business that I supported. Each time a new senior vice president was named, I had to start over to educate them about KM, the KM program, and what I wanted them to do in support of it.

One new senior VP convened an advisory council of field consultants, and they were very critical of the KM program. I found myself on a conference call with the senior VP and the council members, and it was very difficult. They complained about several things, including the user interface, which they thought was too complicated.

Despite that fact that we offered multiple ways to interact with the KM system, including a standard intranet menu, an engagement knowledge map, and an A-Z index, they wanted a simpler option. Instead of being defensive, we set about to create a simple user interface, and worked with the harshest critic among the council members to design it. When that user was satisfied, and when we had made similar improvements to respond to the other complaints, we reconvened the senior VP and the council, and reviewed all of the changes. The council members embraced what we presented, and we turned around a dire situation.

The moral of this and other incidents we experienced: listen to your constituents, try to just say yes, and continuously improve in response to constructive feedback.

What key piece of advice would you give to an individual who wants to perform KM work or launch a KM program in their organization?

Start out by building expertise in knowledge management.To perform KM work:

  1. Set three simple goals and stick with them for the long term. Communicate them regularly. Incorporate the goals and metrics into as many parts of the organization as possible.
  2. Keep the people, process, and technology components of the KM program in balance. Don’t allow one element (e.g., technology) to dominate the other two.
  3. Lead by example. Model the collaboration and knowledge sharing behaviors you want the organization to adopt in how you run the KM program.

To launch a knowledge management program:

  1. Create a Top 3 Objectives List of challenges and opportunities which your KM program will address. These objectives align business direction with program goals.
  2. Provide 9 Answers to questions about people, process, and technology. This information defines who will participate, which processes will be required, and how tools will support the people and processes.
  3. Define the KM Strategy. These are specific actions which will be taken to implement the program.
  4. Gain the sponsorship of your senior executive through The 10 Commitments. These commitments from the leader of your organization will enable the KM strategy to be implemented.
  5. Create and execute the Implementation Plan. This plan spells out the details of implementing the initiative.

You regularly share recommended resources. What 2 or 3 key resources (books, podcasts, etc.), would you recommend to anyone who wants to know more about KM?

Here are six:

  1. Blog: Knoco Stories by Nick Milton
  2. Book: Working Knowledge by Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak
  3. Community: SIKM Leaders Community
  4. Conference: KMWorld
  5. Periodical: K Street Directions by Chris Riemer
  6. Site: Gurteen Knowledge Website by David Gurteen

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me! 

Breaking stereotypes and talking techie: Interview with Nicole Gilbride

Nicole Gilbride hates BBQs. I am not referring to the food (which is very popular in her home state of Tennessee), but to the awkward social gatherings around a friend’s grill or fire pit where new acquaintances, in an effort to break the ice, ask “What do you do?” She has great pride in her job as Strategic Planning and Communication Specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology; however, the problem lies in the reactions she gets when she replies: from sneering looks of people who think she is another lazy federal employee to questions about status of personal VA claims.

Fortunately, I did not meet Nicole at a BBQ but at a training summit for generation X and Y federal employees where she gave a talk and mentoring sessions to young people on how to thrive in the workplace. I was curious to know more about her role as a Washington insider and how she is able to bridge the communication and technology worlds.

Note: The interview has been edited for content and space.

Can you describe what you do?

I am the lead for the business planning operations in our Project Management division under our Product Development organization, which is VA’s software development organization. We handle VA IT software requests, like creating software solutions to help veterans schedule appointments online or schedule them on an iPad, or we develop systems to track prescription drug iterations to make sure people are not abusing substances. Those type of business solutions allow VA’s healthcare and benefit staff to provide world class engagement with Veterans, and they need IT solutions to effectively manage care for Veterans.

Admittedly, I am not a techie. I am in a very technical organization and in a lot of a ways I serve as a translator. I work to help translate to people who are on the ground building code and overseeing the IT projects, I help to translate the functions that they are developing and the services we are providing into words that normal people can understand. I make sure that I can explain what we do in a way that my grandma can understand… I do a multitude of other things: working strategic plans, prioritizing the assignment of our IT resources, but the communications part is probably 50 percent of my job, and it involves all kinds of comms… We do internal messaging within our organization and within VA and we do external messaging with the media, collaborating with Veteran Service Organizations, congressional engagements, video interviews, blog posts… There are very few briefings or memos that come out of Project Management that I have not seen or impacted. That’s sort of what I do.

You have a lot of responsibilities.

Yes (laughs). It’s a full day, it’s very impactful and it’s important. It’s challenging because I think communications is part of everyone’s job but we do have a lot of very technical subject matter experts that are not naturally communicators. One of the challenges in my job is “do I give them a fish or do I teach them how to fish?” “Do I do things for them or do I show them how they can do it better?” It’s a challenge.

Getting into the specifics of the technology part, as you mention you are a technology translator. From translating the user needs to the techies, how difficult is it not having a technical background? How do you learn to address that?

For me personally how did I learn to become savvy enough to be active in conversations about technology, honestly was just with time… I’m constantly researching what I need to research and when in doubt, I am constantly reminding my team “have you Googled this first?” because they’ll come to me with questions like “what is DevOps,” “what is the Internet of Things,” “what’s Scrum,” “what’s Agile?” When they do that I ask “did you consult Google?” There are so many resources available online that can at least help you… I either consult the Internet or I ask my peers, and part of that is overcoming your fear of asking people.

(…) The other part that you are talking about is what I would say is the requirements side, when the customer comes in and says “we want a shelter” but most of the time they don’t say “we want a shelter,” they say “we want a house and we want it to have tin roof, we want to have 38 windows, this is exactly what we want” and not realizing that maybe there is a better solution… I personally think its one of the most challenging areas for IT systems. Requirements are usually the thing that kills you. It manifests itself by either schedule delays or cost overruns… There has to be a line, you have to have things that go above and below the line. If you keep to your schedule or keep to your budget, it will help you decide where that line is.

In that part of the requirements, do you think the problem is the customer does not know what they want and they are having trouble communicating it? Or do you think is the problem is on whoever capturing those requirements?

I think it’s all of those things and it’s more things. If you ask two people what they want to get from point A to point B, what you would get as a response, even if they are the same business customer, is different… What the business customer wants is constantly evolving… It’s a challenge and I don’t think it’s a just communications challenge either.

In the other part of your job, the combination if internal and external communications, what are some of the challenges you have?

Our biggest problem internally with communications is really that people want a customized solution for them which is inherently impossible. The challenge is finding something that makes the most people happy and figuring out that each organization is so different… If you’ve got nurses and doctors running around with other clinicians, sending them an email twice a week with your message is not a good way to tell them that there is a new system coming out, that there is an employee survey coming out. Most doctors spend more (time) on their charts than they do on their email inbox…For every doctor out there they also have a lot of admin staff who do spend time on their computer. An all hands message in an email may work for those folks but it’s not going to reach the doctors and nurses. Finding ways to customize solutions for different audiences is a challenge.

On the IT realm (the challenge) is the level of technical detail in the messaging. We have a lot of very tech savvy people but for every one of them we have another person who is an admin staff, who does not have a technical background, a budget person, an HR person, whatever the case may be. Finding ways to balance, simplify our messaging for a general audience and keep it engaging enough that technical folks are not bored or dismissive of the messaging is a challenge.

Why did you decide to go into government work?

As a young person I went through the “I want to be a ballerina” phase. Then around 10 or so I entered the “I want to be President phase.” As a young child, I always had strong verbal skills. I could sit at the table with adults and negotiate with them. I could take on a debate. Eventually as I got to be an adult I started to get more into politics and that sort of led me to where I am today I’d say. In college I pursued an internship on the Hill which ended up being a communications internship with the former Speaker of the House. When I did that communications internship it opened a door for me.

(…) I wanted to help improve our country and so I recognized that communications is sort of the glue that holds everything together. I see a lot of great ideas don’t take root, don’t spread, don’t get shared, and communication could help spread and share great ideas. I think I kind of had an epiphany of “I really want to do communications for a job”… And I have a family that has a legacy of public (service), one of my grandmothers worked for the VA 50 years ago. My aunt works for the VA, I’ve got a lot of family members who have worked for various state, local government organizations; military service is throughout my family. I was always raised to believe that I could have a positive impact and that lead me to public service as a career.

For those people who insist on working in government because, as yourself, they feel they can make a difference, what skills in the communications field they should have or learn from?

Accolades for being committed to joining, I would tell you it took me probably close to seven years to finally get in. Navigating USAJobs is not for the faint of heart (laughs).

On the skill standpoint, I think the biggest communication skill is actually networking. Having someone who can actually write effectively is wonderful. Having someone who knows abut graphics and visuals and branding is great. Having somebody who has experience on camera or presenting to large audiences, all these things are great, they are important skill sets and by all means, put them on a resume, but the one thing that you can’t really put on a resume and will make or break a communications employee from my standpoint, is the ability to make connections with people and network. I’m not talking about networking in the sense we normally think of with LinkedIn networking or speed networking, but creating and cultivating really meaningful connections.

(…) For most people (in communications positions) it’s a multi-hat situation where you are doing various forms of communications and having those connections within your department, within your agency, with various staff offices, and with your peer group will make or break you.

I would also say an important thing for the future of communicators will be the ability to communicate by leveraging technology…Twenty years ago if you could write you could write. Today you need to be able to write to different sources. How do you turn a two page blog article into a Tweet? It’s a skill. You have to learn to transform something that is so content heavy into something so short and impactful. Being able to not only use current technology, but to be on the cutting edge and to show willingness to continue to learn and stay ahead of the curve. That is very critical I think.

Follow Nicole Gilbride on Twitter @NicoleGilbride

Follow the author @yadicarocaro