Speed Essay / Abstract Writing

A great teacher taught me a technique to use when I felt ‘blocked’ trying to write an essay.  I have used and refined this technique for years when I am doing professional writing, particularly as I write/submit abstracts to conference as a potential speaker. People often tell me ‘you write so fast!’.  Since I am now teaching my daughter this technique as she is writing a number of essays for college applications, I thought I’d share it here.

A side benefit of doing this is that when you learn to ‘submit faster’ then you become more inclined to apply more frequently.  This applies, of course, not only to college applications for high school seniors, but for many types of written submissions throughout your life.

Because I’ve learned to make the cost of writing lower (by using this time-saving process), I tend to write more in general and also to submit to more technical conferences as a potential speaker. More submissions result in more acceptances (more rejections too) but that’s a topic for another blog post.

I hope you find this process useful!


Speed Essay / Abstract Writing

Take a one hour block of time and…

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes
  • Write out the first question
  • Write the first bullet point
  • Write a sentence using the bullet point
  • Read the sentence out loud
  • List the next bullet point
  • Write a sentence using the next bullet point
  • Continue until time runs out or done

NOTE: Take a break after every 10 minutes for 5 minutes – get up and move around

When done writing out all bullets into sentences

  • Put the sentences in a logical order
  • Write words (or new sentences) to connect the existing sentences
  • Read each new paragraph out loud, update as needed
  • Write a concluding sentence for your essay
  • Read the entire essay out loud
  • Check the word count (for limits)

Sleep on it

  • Read the entire essay out loud
  • Update as needed
  • Input the essay into the application
  • Submit it, verify that your submission was accepted

This is Your Brain on Khan – A Math MOOC for Everyone

I spent the last 6 months personally completing all of the math courseware available via the Khan Academy.  Because so many people have asked me about why and how I did it, I decided to write about ‘my journey to calculus’.  I’ll start with an excerpt from the article, then, if you’d like to read more (20 pages total), you can download the rest from this link.

Here's my dashboard from the Khan Academy


This is your brain on Khan

A Math MOOC for everyone

A story of Math Learning

Over 30 years ago, (as a teenager intrigued by the delight of geometry), I asked my math teacher a simple question, “What kind of career could I have if I studied math?”  His answer stuns me to this day, “Oh honey, girls don’t do math.”  Thinking he was an outlier, I got more data by asking my friends and family the same question.  Unfortunately, all of their answers were basically the same, albeit, softened version of the original one, i.e. “that’s not for you” or “why would you want to do that?” and so on.

Fast forward to the present, although I had (unsurprisingly) not continued with any type of math studies beyond the first level algebra during high school, my mathematical curiosity led me down haphazard paths throughout my adult years.  I picked up more math along the way, which served me well until…

Reality Bytes

In early 2013 I found myself up against a math challenge that I didn’t feel comfortable bluffing my way out of.  I had acquired a new Big Data consulting client and part of my job was to be a ‘technical evangelist’ for their predictive analytics product.  Their product was packed with features and I was eager to explore all of them, so that I could apply what had come to be a professional expertise for me – that is, explaining in simple terms how data technologies worked.  I discovered a number of statistical features, and one in particular intrigued me – automatic calculation of z-score normalization.  While I had heard of this term, I was wholly unfamiliar with what it really was. I wondered, ‘how will I learn this?’

I spent a few minutes searching for the term online and found some explanations, none of which made enough sense for me to put to any practical use.  Next I decided to try another option- Khan Academy.  When I looked there,   I found that the topic ‘z-score normalization’ was part of the Khan Academy math courseware.  I had, of course, heard of Khan Academy prior to this particular topic search.  I had even signed up at the site and had casually watched a couple of the site’s math videos previously.

However, now I had a particular motivation to learn at least this one topic.  I had a new client to win over.  So, I watched Salman Khan calmly and clearly explain z-scores in the included videos, and then I tried to complete the topic exercises.  I got required 5 questions in a row correct and was rewarded with a ‘mastery’ designation!  I was ecstatic about learning such a challenging topic so quickly and I shared my happiness with my family.


Shown above is the screen showing that I had ‘mastered’ this advanced topic. This is what I proudly showed to my partner and feeling happy about having learned an important math concept. After my partner saw this he asked me a very effective question, “Why don’t you just do the whole thing?”

So, I did.

To read about how I did it and how you can too, download my article here.

A new way to teach math

What if math were taught differently to middle-school aged kids? How did you learn algebra?  Do you remember?  Wasn’t it something like this: “Find the common factors of 4x + x^2  and then solve it for y?”  How about your kids?  Are they learning the same way? Are they enjoying it?

Now imagine something like this: “Take a look at this drawing of your city and tell me how much it would cost for gasoline in the car for your mom to drive you to school and then herself to work for one month.  Also, tell me how she might pay less money to get you to school and herself to work, i.e. by taking the train, carpooling.

Yes, experience-based algebra.  Math in, from and for the real world.  Is this some kind of dream?

Well, I used to think so, then, much to my delight, I happened on this type of math education in Bangalore, India at a new start-up called BrainStars.

BrainStars India

BrainStars India

During my recent speaking trip there, I wanted to connect with local, open-source developers.  I have discovered through my travels, that visiting a co-working space or two is a great place to connect.  To that end, I located Jaaga.in in Bangalore and noted a launch event for a new, educational startup called BrainStars there.

Jaaga.in - a co-working space in Bangalore

Jaaga.in – a co-working space in Bangalore

I contacted the organizers and asked if I could visit their offices in order to understand what they were launching at the event. At the offices, I got introduced to their first product.  It’s called Number Nagar.

In the heart of ‘old Bangalore’ I spent a day with the founder of BrainStars and his team.  Ravi Shankar Ramalingaiah explained the theoretical concepts behind BrainStars, then he spent some time taking me through the model classroom on site for Number Nagar.


Welcome to the world of 'Number Nagar' with founder Ravi

Welcome to the world of ‘Number Nagar’ with founder Ravi

He led me through many of the core activities that he and his team have developed to teach math to children in grades 3 to 8.

Here’s what I learned….

Ravi is creating courseware that is hyper-local – ‘Nagar’ means city in the local dialect (Kannada) and one of his many activities starts with a cool map of ‘mathematical’ Bangalore, from a child’s perspective.

Nagar means 'city'

Nagar means ‘city’

The classroom space is a filled with an activity areas with items, such as a history wall, with the zero suitcase and more.  These items are designed to spark experiential mathematic conversations and activities.  Here are some pictures of the classroom.  First up is the city map.

Mathematical city map of Bangalore - as a basis for hyper-local mathematical thinking

Mathematical city map of Bangalore – as a basis for hyper-local mathematical thinking

Here’s the Pi pillar – used for teaching / understanding how the concept of Pi has evolved over time.

Pi pillar - to explain the evolution of understanding of the value of Pi

Pi pillar – to explain the evolution of understanding of the value of Pi

The teaching tree extends into 3D space – even using the ceiling to teach!

The teaching tree uses 3D space - including the ceiling!

The teaching tree uses 3D space – including the ceiling!

In addition to spending time with Ravi and his team, Llewellyn and I also did attend the Number Nagar launch event at the co-working space Jaaga.in later in the week.  It was enlightening to be led through activities with other interested adults and kids by BrainStars-trained teachers.  I found all of the teachers to be engaging and well-qualified.  The audience responded with delight too!

Learning from the BrainStar teachers at the Number Nagar launch event in Bangalore

Learning from the BrainStar teachers at the Number Nagar launch event in Bangalore

Ravi’s model is for-profit and Number Nagar is the first set of curriculum, teacher-training and classroom environments that his start-up (BrainStars) will offer to schools, after-school programs and homeschooling parents.  Ravi advised me that his team is already at work on applying this experience-based approach to teaching and learning to other domains – next up is science.  I can’t wait to see what they will build next.

Probably the strongest endorsement of BrainStars that I can give is that I am working to bring it my daughter’s own school.  If successful, we will be the first school in the US to use this innovate approach.  I’ll keep you posted.

If you’d like to learn more here is the main BrainStars site and here is the contact information.

I’ll close with a bit of fun – in additional to innovation and excellence, NumberNagar also has a theme song – it’s cool and catchy and local (mostly in the Kannada language – the local Indian dialect of Bangalore).

The NumberNagar Song

Nodu baa NumberNagar| Aadu baa NumberNagar
Auto hatkond, meter haakond, Archimedes circleninda
Pythagoras Palyag hogi, Full meals hodeyoNa.
Guass galeeli toorikonDu, Ramanujan series kanDu
Gandhi Bazaar dose tindu lekka haakona
Nodu baa NumberNagar| Aadu baa NumberNagar
Chakradalli circles yella |gaalipatadal angles yella
Paani puri gaadiyalli Quadrilateral haaduthaithe
Beralal saavra gatle number| Zero story on a paper
Clocksnalli centuries and millennia haaduthaithe
Nodu baa NumberNagar| Aadu baa NumberNagar
Mathadi math aadi Everybody

Here’s a link to the song – enjoy!


Technical Women–it’s conference submission season!

Among the many professional activities I am considering and doing post holiday, is one that more of my colleagues – particularly women colleagues, should consider doing.  By that, I mean submit to speak at conferences in 2012 around your area(s) of technical expertise.

Because I am stepping beyond my comfortable confines of Microsoft technologies, in particular, I am now working with noSQL databases.  I have decided that it will push me even further to also SPEAK on these new (to me) technologies.  To that end I have submitted to the following conferences already in 2012:

–Agile2012 (on the open source unit testing library ApprovalTests)
–CS&IT2012 (on creating the Intentional Method of Teaching Kids to Program)
–Strata 2012 (on BigData for BI Professionals)
–OsCon 2012 (on harnessing world-wide contributions via smart pair programming to improve open source projects)
–SQLSaturday120 (on noSQL for SQL DBAs)

So, here’s my call to action for you:

1) Make a list of technologies you love (and I assume you are presently working in)

2) Talk to your colleagues about what they have learned from working with you.

3) Start small – 15 to 30 minutes, single topic.  Write your presentation, you can use powerpoint, Prezi, notepad, anything…just get your thoughts down.  Write some sample code or build a small sample application too.

4) Give your presentation to one or more of your technical friends, improve it, based on their suggestions.

5) Give your session again – a user group is a great place to do this.  If possible, also have someone record it.  You may also want to have a co-speaker join you.  They can ‘interview you’ to help keep you on track.  Also they can ‘watch the audience’ for understanding and help to facilitate (translate) questions.  You can also hand out paper evaluation forms or use online evaluations (like SurveyMonkey) – ask for feedback!

6) Post online content, post your slides to slideshare, post some or all of your talk to YouTube.  Blog about it.  Post your code to Git, SourceForge, CodePlex, etc…

6) Submit your session to one or more regional conferences.   CodeCamps are great for this!  Also *Saturdays, such as SQLSaturdays, SharePointSaturdays, etc…Again, make sure to read (and act on) all of the suggestions in your post-event surveys.

7) Get to know your local contacts for any vendor software you may be talking about, i.e. AWS, Google, Microsoft, etc… all have local developer advocates in most major markets.  ASK them to help you get accepted to speak at regional and national conferences.

8) Submit to a national conference. You are ready now, believe me.  I should know. Smile  It is always best if you can ATTEND a conference at least once before submitting, however if this is not possible, then spend quite a bit of time looking at past presentations on the conference website from previous years.  Prepare to get rejected.  I get rejected at over 50% of the conferences I submitted to.  That’s the way it goes, accept it.  If you do get rejected, ask the organizers for more feedback, i.e. what they were looking for that was missing from your proposal.

9) After you have a good track record speaking at national conferences, ASK to be part of conference keynotes.  Again, from personal experience, I will tell you that you will rarely get invited at first.  However, AFTER you deliver one or more successful conference keynotes, then you will have a new problem (and a good one!) you will have more invitations than you can accept.

There is only one way to change the remarkably small showing of technical women speaking at conferences.  I am doing my part, are you?

Good luck and I hope to see you on stage at the next conference.  If I can help in any way, please ping me via this blog.

A Technical Conference Filled with Women

Ok now that I have your attention (!), I am going to write a bit about my first experience at the international, annual Agile conference.  Agile 2011 was held in Salt Lake City, Utah last week.  I attended and spoke (on ‘Teaching Kids to Program Using Agile Practices’) and had a GREAT time.  This conference had 1600 people, from all over the world.  This year was the largest attendance at the annual conference on record.


Attending and speaking at conferences is a large part of my job.  On average 1 speak at one or more technical conferences PER WEEK, so around 50-100 PER YEAR.  I have been doing this for around 5 years now.  So, you can do the math on how many conference I’ve been a part of since I started working as an evangelist.  Prior to attending the Agile conference, the best gender-balanced ratio I’d ever experienced at a technical conference was at the annual US SQLPass summit.  However I am estimating that was around 25% women. 

Agile 2011 was striking for not only the number of women attendees (nearly 50%), but also the number of women speakers.  There were also both open and closing keynotes delivered by women too.  As a technical women, what is the effect on me and the other women attending?  I was struck by one feeling – comfort and the desire to participate.  I noticed over and over that I was not the only one — women participated more frequently during sessions, led scheduled sessions and even ran some their own sessions on an ad-hoc basis.  So, how was this achieved?  What did this conference ‘look like’?  As you may have guessed, it didn’t look like any other technical conference I’d ever attended.

I’ll list aspects of this conference that were different than other conferences:

1) Multi-modal – instead of tracks, there were 20 stages, there were scheduled sessions of 5 minutes to 3 hours.  These stages were based on people, i.e. roles and NOT on particular technologies or products. There was also an unConference preCon held openSpace style.  Below is a graphic showing the different stages.


2) Flexible – there was ample time in the schedule and space at the conference for ad hoc sessions, the open Jam room was large comfortable and conveniently open for the entire conference.  Below is a sample of how a spontaneous talk was ‘advertised’ on Twitter.  Note the format was ‘PechaKucha’(20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, auto-advance, 5 minute limit).  There were also white boards outside the #openJam area post, solicit interest and to advertise ad hoc talks and sessions.  Formal sessions often ‘continued’ in the Open Jam space after the original allotted time had passed..


3) Creative – there were whiteboards, post-it notes, actual toys (Jenga, LEGO bricks board games, etc…) everywhere.  Attendees drew various thoughts and projects on large, shared art spaces.  As a LEGO Serious Play trained facilitator myself, I was happy to pair-lead a session showing how LSP works with another facilitator (and Agile coach) from Toronto.  People were drawing, writing and scribbling all over the place – a neat history of the Agile Alliance evolved the Open Jam room during the conference (shown below).


Of course there were post-it notes EVERYWHERE too!


4) Fun – Magicians, Trampoline artists, Parkour performers and a rock band all entertained us at various times. Also many of the sessions included both theory and one or more hands-on activities.  These activities at the least got everyone up and moving around the room.  Sometimes the hands-on activities involved coding too.  The workshop we presented (on TKP), included both of these elements – deck here – and was very well received by our attending group.

The slide below cracked me up and is from a session I attended on communication (most of the session was conducted via games or activities in small groups).  By the way, I’ll decline to answer the question posed in the slide for now too!


5) Human-centered, social and international– there were large screens with twitter feeds with the #Agile2011 hashtag all over the conference venue.  Attendees used twitter to communicate about what they were seeing, learning and who they wanted to meet with.  Below is a small sample from the tweet stream.


Also there was not only one, but two special sessions to welcome and to orientate new attendees to Agile.  These sessions were well attended (more than 400 people in the first one) and really helped first-time attendees to feel comfortable.  Many questions were asked during these presentations.  All questions were answered patiently and respectfully.


Another type of session that was interesting was ‘Coaches Corner’.  Note again the multi-modal formats that attendees could use (shown below).  It was interesting to see that every time I stopped by the Open Jam area someone was in the Coaches Corner.


Another ‘session’ showing inclusivity for those newly attending (or attending on their own) was ‘dinner with a stranger’.  Implementation was simple – just set up 4 white boards (sign ups) with restaurant names and let people sign up.  It was neat to see how many people took advantage of this opportunity to meet someone new. 


One of my favorite sessions was on understanding the implementation of Agile practices on non-Western cultures.  The abstract is shown below.


In this session, Ali Zewail from Egypt led a fascinating discussion comparing cultural traits with Agile tenants.  He also included his own practical experience adjusting his implementation for his team in Egypt.


6) Respectful of experience – celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the Agile manifesto, 15/17 of the original authors of the Manifesto attended, spoke and were accessible for side conversations (easily identified by the shirts they wore).  Further support of people with experience was that one keynote speaker (Linda Rising) was 70 years old.  Linda Rising’s closing keynote captured the audience and was one of the highlights of the entire conference for me.


Linda’s talk about the scientifically-based differences between the Fixed and Agile mindsets (shown in the slide below) are literally going to get me to make some major changes in my life.  After her talk is posted on-line, I’ll add a link to it here.


7) Forward-looking – there was a ‘stage’ called ‘New Horizons and New Voices’ to focus on the future of Agile.  To get a sense of this, listen to this snippet from the talk ‘How Lean Startup Pushes Agile to the Next Level’ from presenter, Abby Fichtner (HackerChick and Microsoft Evangelist) – also here is her complete deck on slideshare

How Lean Startup Pushes Agile to the Next Level from Abby Fichtner, Hacker Chick on Vimeo.

8) Technical – of course we also built things, using Agile techniques during the conference.  Below is a tweet from Llewellyn thanking his pair programming buddies for helping him to code up a new version of the Virtual Proctor for our TKP courseware.  This version stores screenshots from the kids on the web (i.e. a configurable http:// endpoint), rather than in a local shared folder.  Llewellyn built this to overcome the (shared folder) port blocking we’ve often encountered at conferences and at schools.


Also there were sessions like ‘How Functional Programming affects Agile Programmers’ and more.  Most often code examples were shown in Ruby, Java or C# – sometimes other languages were shown as well.

I chose to attend a number of sessions around the implementation of Test-Driven Development.  There was quite a lot of (heated!) discussion in Bob Martin’s (@UncleBob) session on this same topic.  He started with the code shown below (Java), then asked attendees to pair up and code some more.  It was interesting to see how easily and spontaneously the group did this – I heard ‘Want to code in Ruby? What about C#?’ etc…people were really just there to learn to code better.


I was happy to see another hands-on type of session at the Live Aid labs.  Detail is shown below.  As many of my readers know, I am very big fan of getting hands on experience in new technical practices via contributions to non-profits.


9) Respectful of speakers – I felt especially privileged to have been a speaker at this conference.  The submission process was arduous.  This was the longest and most detailed submission that I HAVE EVER DONE for a single talk.  Twice we added more detail and answered questions about the intent and content of our submissions in addition to having fully and completely written out our abstract.  However after we were accepted, we were very well taken care of. Accepted speakers (up to 2 per session) get conference registration fee waived and the majority of the hotel stay covered.  If you believe you have value to add to future Agile conference, I encourage you to apply to speak.

So, what kind of people attend Agile?  Below is a breakout (from 2010).  I’d like to see even more developers attend next year – what about you?


Here’s a highlights video from Agile 2011 as well

I had a fantastic time at Agile 2011 and would highly recommend attending and/or speaking there.