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Geekstory - My First Magazine Article And The Power Of Networking

Recently, while cleaning out my attic at home, I came across a box with items I kept from way back in the ‘90s. In it was a copy of my very first article that appeared in a major programming magazine. Since I have been a professional developer for over 26 years, I have a lot of stories. So I decided to start a series of articles to highlight some of the things I have done in my career to get where I am at today. Due to the pandemic, I have lots of time for writing. This series is called “Geekstory”. My hope is that these stories will inspire you in your software engineering career.

Visual Basic Programmer’s Journal

I became a full-time software engineer in 1994. It was that year or in 1995 that I attended my first Visual Basic Insiders Summit (VBITS) that was held in San Francisco each year. The conference was put on by Fawcette Technical Publications (FTP) started by Jim Fawcette. I don’t remember how it happened, but I meet at one of these first two conferences, Robert Scoble who then, worked for FTP. For some reason, Robert took a shine to me and was the reason I started writing for the magazine.

I did end up writing for the magazine a few times along with speaking at VBITS too (my first session I got paid for)! Robert also invited me on the annual speaker's bus tour that went to popular locations in California like Yosemite, Nappa Valley, and Silicon Valley! Not only did I look forward to VBITS each year, but especially the bus tour! I guess Robert spoiled us since now when I go to speak at conferences, I wished they would do something like this for speakers. Recently, the only conferences that do something like this are in other countries.

I don’t know if Robert knows this, but he helped to launch my career back then and get into writing. So for that Robert, I will always be grateful. I think Robert might have also gotten CompuServe to add me as a forum moderator for the magazine.

The Article

The first article I wrote for this magazine was about Windows help files called “Keep Help In Context”. It talks about the importance of help files for your application and how to link the F1 key to directly go to the proper help page in the file. Even way back in 1995 I knew the importance of good documentation, especially for your users!

Now, I rarely use F1 anymore for help since most apps, like OneNote, Word, and more just take you to the top-level help page, not to the page to get help on what you are looking for. For me as a user, this frustrates me since then I have to figure out how to find what I’m looking for. Unfortunately, this will force users to just give up, as I do. I also don’t remember the last time I saw an actual Windows help file, instead companies just use web sites now.

To me, the project isn’t done until the documentation is done and in this case, help pages. So if you are writing an app, API, or anything that might need documentation, it’s your team's responsibility to make sure this is complete, before release.

For example, most of the help pages for Microsoft .NET on are not helpful at all. Not enough description of what the type or method does and very few examples and most of them aren’t much help since they aren’t ‘real world’. Almost everytime I go to one of those pages I give it a thumbs down and write a suggestion that it needs more description and sample code. When I go to the MVP Summit at Microsoft each year, the Project Managers for the docs team tell us to do that, so I do and you should too! They have told us that they do look at all the suggestions.

Networking, Networking, Networking!

This article isn’t about boasting about my first article, only 1 ½ years after I started programming, it’s all about the power of networking at every event that you attend. I have been trying to get software engineers to do this for years! I even included it in my session about how this has helped my career. I used to try encouraging developers to do this at the beginning of every one of my sessions for a year or so. That didn’t work out very well.

When I was teaching a workshop at a recent conference in Philadelphia, before lunch I challenged each attendee to talk to someone they don’t know during lunch. After I shut down things for lunch and went upstairs, I looked for my attendees and they were all around a table talking to each other! Exactly what I told them not to do, which I did mention after lunch. What did I do at lunch? I walked straight up to a table full of people I never have spoken to and started a conversation. I’ve learned that leading by example works much better than telling people what to do. I usually get more out of conferences doing this than going to sessions. Even when I ran a user group for 20 years, I frequently got more out of going out for drinks afterward. This is also the same for conferences! After hours is when the real conversations happen that I can learn from or get new ideas.

Remember the bus tour I mentioned earlier when I went to the VBITS conferences? This is where I got to know many of the people that are well known in our world, like Carl Franklin from .NET Rocks, Rockford Lhotka the CEO at Magenic who created CSLA .NET, along with many others. I still remember when I got to sit next to Rocky for a leg of one of the bus tours and got to know him and I hope he got to know me. I can still picture this bus ride when we pulled into a restaurant for dinner. Even though I remember being intimidated by these speakers back then, I do remember it got easier at these dinners. Maybe after we all had a glass of wine or two.

At one of these conferences, I even meet and became friends with Daniel Appleman who I looked up to back then. He was the expert on how to use Windows API calls from Visual Basic. He had the #1 book on this subject and kept it on my desk at all times. It’s still one of those books I will never throw away. Microsoft .NET has spoiled developers by making most of these calls unnecessary now. In 1999, Dan decided to start a new book publishing company with one of his friends. At VBITS, I still remember when he walked up to me, told me he started this company, and wanted me to write a book for them. So, I was one of the very first authors for Apress.

Now, I do realize that just striking up a conversation with someone is very tough for many, many developers. I know this because I am one of them! You might not believe it, but I am a self-diagnosed introvert. I freely admit it! I struggle with this all the time, even now. When I forced myself to learn how to speak in front of others, at that time, I would rather have died. What drove me to overcome this was that I knew, even back in 1994, that someday I would need to talk in front of people and communicate better. I guess I was right. This one single thing is what helped my career the most!

If you are new to speaking or just striking up a conversation with someone, keep pushing yourself until it gets easier. Now, I never get nervous speaking at events anymore. To become a professional software engineer you will need the skills of communicating and networking.




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