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A Novelist in Business School: How to Teach

A Novelist in Business School: How to Teach

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training. This article was originally published on my write. as blog and is republished here with permission from the original author. Which is me. I gave myself permission. I’m very strict about things like this.

I’m in the final week of my last accounting class ever. I’m pleased with this. In two weeks I will have mostly forgotten everything I’ve ever known about managerial accounting. I’m less happy about that, but that’s the nature of the game. At least I have my notes.

But here’s what I’m not going to forget:

My professor in this class is an excellent teacher. I’ve been thinking about his teaching style all session, trying to identify the things that make his style so impressive, and here are some things I’ve identified.

Passion

He loves this topic, and that enthusiasm comes through in his teaching.
One of the most common phrases in his lectures is “now this is interesting…” and you know what? He’s right! When he points out something that interests him I get interested. I start thinking about how full absorption moves costs compared to variable costing. He is telling stories using numbers.

On the other side of the coin, he’s fully aware that there are people in his class who don’t love variance analysis on static budgets vs. actuals. So he works to “motivate” us (his word) to want to learn the topics with stories, concrete examples, and, when the situation demands, MegaBlocks to demonstrate how costs move through a system. It works. I don’t love cost accounting, but I understand it far better than anyone would have any right to expect.

Compassion

Our professor knows what it’s like to be a student in his class. He knows this because he listens to feedback. He monitors his emails and answers incredibly quickly. He has moved deadlines, changed assignments, and given extra tutoring sessions because people asked for help. He listened and worked to do what is best for the person asking, and the class in general. He treats us with respect, and it’s effortless to respond in kind.

Reflection

I’ve never had a professor in any of my classes who is so open about how much he’s learning. Our professor asks for feedback and asks to follow up questions about the input. He tells us what he’s trying to do and why he thinks it is the right choice, then asks for our opinions.

Which isn’t to say he’s a pushover. I spent three hours studying for Part I of a four-part take-home final last night. I expect to spend another three hours for part II tonight. The class is hard. But no matter how hard it is I know it’s fair. I know that my professor has thought through what he’s asking of us.

I’m never going to be a college professor. (Probably.) But there will always be opportunities to teach others, and when they come up, I hope I can be as dedicated and competent in my teaching as this professor is in his.

Face to Face with Tremain

Face to Face with Tremain

Leaving work late at night, its dark out and there’s nobody around. The train home is almost empty.

I get on board and fall into a seat. I had to pick this seat, Because across the aisle from me is Tremain.

Well, not really. I’m not sitting across the aisle from a person I made up. I’m sitting across the aisle from someone I saw on the train a year or so ago and meticulously detailed in my notebook, realizing that he was who I was looking for as a template for this character I’ve invented.

Alan Tremain is a weary detective in a story I made up that needed a POV character to anchor the action, give it context. I’d gone back and forth on who he is, and in early drafts, his personality bounces between far-too-affable to far-too-weary. I needed a face; someone for him to “be” while I figured out who he was.

And then I saw him.

I don’t know this person’s actual name. I don’t know anything about him, except for how he looks.

Tall, thin, with a pinker-than-normal cast to his skin. Short cropped gray hair, white-blue eyes and a small white goatee around his mouth, trimmed precisely and grown out to about a quarter inch. Wearing a black coat, waist length and built for action. No ring on his left hand but there’s a slight depression around his ring finger, a mute testament that there used to be one there. A faint, sardonic smile on his face. Unlike everyone else on the train he’s not looking at his phone, he’s looking out the window; one long leg bent with his foot resting on the radiator that runs along the inner wall of the train, under the seats.

But that was a year ago. My actual notes were hand-written, scribbled into a Field Notes memo book that now lives under my bed. I have a high-security system for my hand-written notes: my handwriting is terrible. Once I got out of eyeshot, I wrote up the note you see above.

And over the intervening year, this unknown fellow passenger has turned to Tremain. My detective. I’ve been thinking about this face and how he interacts with a bunch of other people I’ve invented. He doesn’t know that, of course, and, intellectually, I know he doesn’t know. But I want to grill him, ask him questions about parts of the plot that are getting away from me because he’s seen them, he’s lived them. Except of course he hasn’t. I want to ask him questions about who he is as a real person, what he likes, what he eats for dinner, how the divorce went, who got the kids if there were kids. Except I’m pretty sure that the answer to “what do you dislike” would be “strangers who ask surprisingly intimate questions on public transportation.”

So I say nothing, sitting across from someone who is incredibly important to me, someone I’ve never met.

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

There are two parts to this one — first, my thoughts on the use of films as teaching aids. Second, my feelings about a specific movie that was recently used as a teaching aid in one of my classes.

Don’t Use Commercial Motion Pictures as Teaching Aids

There are exceptions to this rule. Film Studies classes, any of the performing arts, any course that has to do with film production or theater or even music are exempt from this rule. But for anyone else you are relying on Hollywood to make your point. Classroom movies were marginally acceptable up through about junior high school, when sometimes the teacher needed an hour or so to grade papers or take a break. But in graduate-level classes this is insane. If you have something to tell us, please tell us. Or ask us to read the novel. Yes, it will take longer, but we’ll get so much more out of it.

Especially in this case.

Read More Read More

A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I’ve always thought of myself as an excellent learner. I enjoy staying curious. But my innate curiosity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on formal education, because on my own I can be an educational dilettante. If my ability to learn something new doesn’t matter I can say I’ve learned it without actually gaining any knowledge.

Fortunately one of the professors in my first semester of my MBA program was aware he was teaching people who have been away from education for a while. He recommended, along with his coursework, a book called Make It Stick. This book is all about learning effectively and maximizing the time you can put into learning.

The book resonates strongly with me, and has shaped the way I study over the past year and a half. Looking back, it sheds light on experiences I’ve had but didn’t have any formal language to describe.

The thrust of Make It Stick is that we learn best when our learning is put to the test, that frequent practice of new knowledge engrains that knowledge us, and halts the progress of forgetting far better than just repeated exposure. In other words, re-reading a text doesn’t help you learn it all that much, but testing yourself on a text will force you to learn it. While I dislike this as much as anyone (what do you mean I’ve been wasting my time????) I can see how it’s true in an example from my own life.

The Twelve Steps of Laser Printers

When I was young in my career I was given the opportunity to get my A+ certification, a certificate that says you are more or less competent to do desktop support and repair. This certification asks you to identify and diagnose a wide variety of computer parts and issues. One of the more relevant and intricate things it asks about is laser printers. Anyone who has worked with a laser printer knows that they are sometimes finicky beasts, and there are a lot of moving parts in there that can fail on you mysteriously. At the time I was tasked with supporting some ten or twelve such beasties, so the information about what was going on inside them was immediately relevant to my job, and I was tested on it informally every time I was asked to get a laser printer working again. Beyond that I prepared myself a series of quizzes based on the steps of laser printing, forcing myself to recall all the steps at random intervals along with all the other things that I was being asked to learn.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing exactly what Make It Stick recommends. According to the authors, repeated practice (or testing), varying your topic of study, and varying the intervals of study are the key strategies for actually learning something new. Which might be why, nine years after I left my desktop support job, I can still identify all the steps and parts of a laser printer’s paper path.

I’m trying to do the same thing as I go through school. It’s an interesting challenge, because each topic, each class, demands a different type of study. Note taking strategies that worked in my Accounting classes are less useful in marketing classes. But the process, the act of conscientious, meticulous note taking and reviewing still matters, still works.

A Novelist in Business School: Managerial Ethics and Twenty-One Pilots

A Novelist in Business School: Managerial Ethics and Twenty-One Pilots

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I’m currently taking a class on the Ethics of Management. The glib response to this statement is, “that must be a short class! Har har har!”

But the fact is that for every amoral, thieving, headline-making corrupt executive there are hundreds of thousands of managers and executives at every level who are genuinely trying to make the world around themselves a little better, and are concerned with making the best of the choices facing them.

The author of our textbook is one such. This is a slim volume, and it took me a while to warm up to it; to understand what it is genuinely trying to represent inside its somewhat repetitive passages:

This book represents the crystallized thoughts of someone who has spent decades earnestly trying to understand how you bring your human soul to bear in the act of management.

It’s a deeply intellectualized approach to answering the question “how can I be a good person?”

So What Does This Have To Do With 21 Pilots?

I often wonder how 21 Pilots feels about being the 21st century band that  Gen-Xers in their early 40s point to as the modern music they like so they can say, “See? I’m still cool!” But that is not the point.

The point is that Tyler Joseph’s lyrics are an emotional approach to the same problem. I was listening to “Car Radio” (see? I’m still cool!) this morning while waiting for the train.

from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win
And fear will lose
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

This lyric conveys so much; the internal conflict that Joseph has; that he’s got the kind of mind that explores all possible solutions to the human problem and has tentatively selected two that “work”. And the one hurts (faith, being awake, thinking) is the one that he proposes we do. Mr. Hosmer says almost the same thing:

An action such as lying that is considered wrong in one ethical system will generally be considered wrong in all others, but these ethical systems cannot be reconciled into a single, logically consistent whole.
–Hosmer, La Rue. The Ethics of Management (Page 98). McGraw-Hill Higher Education -A. Kindle Edition.

He’s explored a number of ethical systems and intellectually has decided that there are multiple paths that “work”. And while it hurts, we have to face our ethical choices with eyes open, we have to think our way through them, and accept the choices we make.

Painless Git, Part One, Almost Done!

Painless Git, Part One, Almost Done!

Part One is really coming along!

Sure, Part One is nine chapters long and Part Two is currently slated to be around seventeen chapters, but hey, progress is progress. 

I’m having a lot of fun writing Painless Git, and I think that even if Part Two is longer, it’ll be even more fun, both to write and to read. 

Will Write for Money

Will Write for Money

You may have noticed a new button over there on the right. Looks like a mug with a heart on it. Looks kinda like this:

Yeah, that’s the one. what’s that lil’ guy doing there?

Here’s the thing: back in the day I ran ads on my blogs. They never brought in all that much money, usually just enough to keep the lights on. But I never liked it. I’m not some fancy auteur who thinks I’m “too good” for advertising; I just don’t like feel of ads, they’re a distraction from the content.

So here’s my new solution: a tip jar. If you like this site, and you have a few bucks to spare, I’d love it if you drop me a tip.

ko-fi is great because every cent you drop in there goes directly to me. no middle men. I like that! 😆 Right now I’m playing with “ko-fi Gold” which costs me $6/month, but if three people every month chip in I’m still in good shape.

And Here’s What You Get

But this isn’t just a one-way street. When you drop me a tip in ko-fi you can make a little comment along with that tip. Why not make it an idea for a story or an essay? If it’s family friendly I’ll write it up and post it to ko-fi as a (timed) subscriber-only post.

Beyond being family friendly I really don’t have any limits. If you want me to write about you waking up as a bear in a new version of the Metamorphosis I’m game. If you like one of my stories or series and want more of that you can just yell “MOAR ANGEL LIZ” in the comments and I’ll get the hint. And you’ll have access to an Angel Liz story that won’t be on the site for at least 30 days.

Like I said, this is an experiment. Running these blogs isn’t exactly breaking the bank, but it’s not free either. I can’t wait to see what kind of weird stuff you wonderful people want me to write.

Automation for Authors

Automation for Authors

Or: Writing with Python

I really love Scrivener. I may have mentioned this before. And I really love Leanpub. And for the most part, they work really well together. But there’s always room for improvement. And tonight I have added yet another layer of sophistication to my workflow. I’m pretty excited to share this with you.

The Workflow

Here’s a high level overview of how this all works:

  1. Write in Scrivener
  2. Export text files from Scrivener
  3. Check text files into a git repository shared with Leanpub
  4. Tell Leanpub to publish the book

Scrivener: Writing and Exporting

In Scrivener, you write all your text in little individual sections that you can move around at will. This is incredibly handy. If you decide the chapter on configurations should be in Part I: Beginning instead of Part II: Refinement you just drag it to the appropriate folder and you’re good to go. You can then export all these snippets as text files, and Scrivener will keep your file structure intact, like so:

A list of topics in Scrivener

Which turns into this on export:

The exported files from Scrivener

But where did those numbers in the file names come from? They came from here:

Scrivener Export Options

So now we’ve got a directory full of directories full of text! Let’s send it to Leanpub, right? Well, we need to do a little work first.

Prep for Print: The Leanpub Stuff

If you just give the Leanpub book generator a pile of text files it doesn’t know what order they should be in. So you provide it an extra file, book.txt, that includes all of your text files and the order in which they should be put into the book. The current book.txt file for Painless Git looks like this:

1 Front Matter/1 frontmatter.txt
1 Front Matter/2 Book Status.txt
1 Front Matter/3 Preface.txt
1 Front Matter/4 Introduction.txt
1 Front Matter/5 Structure.txt
2 Main Matter/1 mainmatter.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/01 Part 1.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/02 A Brief History of Git.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/03 Installing.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/04 First Steps.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/05 Commit.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/06 Interlude Tools.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/07 Branching.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/08 Configure.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/09 Sharing.txt
2 Main Matter/2 Beginning/10 Oops.txt
2 Main Matter/3 Refinement/01 Part 2.txt
2 Main Matter/3 Refinement/02 Good Git Habits.txt
2 Main Matter/3 Refinement/03 Small Commits.txt
2 Main Matter/3 Refinement/04 Hygiene.txt
...

When I wrote Painless Vim and Painless Tmux I kept this book.txt file up to date by hand. It was just another text file in Scrivener. So when I added a new section to the book I would go into book.txt and add each new section. The benefit to doing it that was was that I could work on a new section for a while before it got added to the book. The downside, of course, is human error. Sometimes I would add a new file in the wrong place, so chapter two came before chapter one. Or I would update the order in Scrivener and not update it in book.txt, which meant that when I published a new version it didn’t include my new chapter, and I had to fix book.txt, then publish again immediately. Whatever the case, sometimes book.txt got out of sync with reality.

It’s so easy to get files lined up in Scrivener and once you’ve done it in Scriv you shouldn’t have to do it again in book.txt. If you’re a developer the words “write a script” are already foremost in your mind, aren’t they? What if we could hook into git’s workflow to generate book.txt just before we commit?

Oh right, we can.

Python and Git Hooks

So now you need to create book.txt programmatically from your actual file structure. You’ve got numbered everything, so you can just recurse through the directory, find each leaf node and then prepend its path, and you’ve got a file path, right?

You just did too much work. Python is made to make things easy. os.walk will find every file in your directory and all subdirectories. I wrote a short python script that finds all the files, puts them in order, and then calls git add book.txt. Make that executable and save it as /painless_git/.git/hooks/pre-commit and you’re in business, my friend.

So now I no longer have to manage book.txt by hand. Using the features in Scrivener and in git, I’ve made it that much more painless to write Painless Git.

I’ve also come up with a good excuse for why I haven’t added any actual text to Painless Git today.

Introducing Painless Git

Introducing Painless Git

I have a three week break between summer and fall terms in my MBA program, so naturally I decided to write a new Painless book. I’m excited to announce Painless Git, the third [1] book in the Painless series.

The most common request I have received is for a book on something people actually use. And I’m well positioned to write this one. Unlike Painless Vim, which I wrote to help me learn vim, or Painless Tmux, which I wrote to help me learn Tmux, I’m actually already pretty good with git.

At my last job I helped move the entire 600+ developers in our organization from subversion to git, and spent months training individual teams on the new system. Then I switched jobs and moved our team here from subversion to git, and trained them on it. In my time as the “git guy” I’ve seen just about every git mess people can cause and found my way back out of most of them.

So Why Are you Writing This Book Now?

For years I’ve resisted writing Painless Git. I kept coming up with excuses like “I want to write novels!” Or “My wife just had another baby!” Or “I’m getting an MBA and it’s really hard!”

But then a wonderful thing happened: I have been put in charge of a brand new team of developers and guess what? It’s time to teach them git. Faced with this prospect I thought “I could dig up all my old presentations and cheat sheets and teach this team git over the course of a few weeks, or I could spend the next year or so finally writing Painless Git. As I’ve already demonstrated, it doesn’t take much to push me over the edge.

I’m very exited to share this one. Painless Git is a distillation of the tips, tricks, methods, and patterns that I’ve been teaching to teams from one part of Salt Lake City all the way to a suburb twenty miles outside of Salt Lake City. These are patterns and recommendations that have been battle hardened and stood up to old SVN pros and brand new interns alike.


  1. and final. I mean it this time!  ↩
National Novel Writing Month

National Novel Writing Month

Note: This was originally published on the now sadly extinct blog “Favorite Thing EVER!” In 2010. I might re-post a few of my other FtE! writings in the future.

National Novel Writing Month has a simple premise. You write 50,000 words of fiction in November. Got that? Okay, good. Go to it.

You might have some questions. Something like this:
Q: I’m not an author!
A: You are now. Write.
Q: I’ve never figured out sentence structure!
A: Not important. You can edit later. Write.
Q: Why? What do I get out of it? Is there a prize?
A: You’ll figure that out when you get to the end. Write.
Q: What I write will probably be terrible!
A: I’m sure it will. Write.
Q: So…I should just write?
A: Right.

This is real, pedal-to-the-metal time. You’ve been saying for years now that you’ve got a great novel inside of you. You’ve plotted scenes, maybe you’ve even written a few character sketches. But you’ve never actually sat down and pounded through a real draft, from beginning to end.

Now’s your chance, and you’re in good company. Every year tens of thousands of authors sign up, in essence promising that they will do what it takes to get to 50,000 words by December 1st. The forums on the NaNoWriMo official site are a great place to talk with people who are just as–or, if you could use some Schadenfreude, much more–stuck than you. The tone on these forums is usually friendly and helpful, if a bit terse; because everyone’s got a novel they need to get back to.

You’ve also got some good tools. Scrivener (have I mentioned Scrivener before?) is free for the month of November, perfect for NaNoWriMo, and will give you 50% off the price of a permanent license if you meet your 50,000 word quota.

There’s no pressure, no external warnings, no coach urging you to make it to the next goalpost. Just your own personal drive. The site simply provides a place for you to record your progress and shows you where you should be if you’re keeping up a nice, even pace. In reality, there’s nothing stopping you from just walking away. But you’ll keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

There will be bad days. There will be days where you don’t even want to look in the general direction of your computer, knowing that if you sit down that…that thing will want you to type words again. There will be the bewildered looks of your loved ones, trying to figure out what happened to that person they used to know and who this sleep deprived interloper is. There will be nights where you absolutely can’t look at the line above your cursor, because you know that if you read that sentence you just wrote you’ll have no choice but to delete your entire novel and move to the deep woods in a vain attempt to hide from the shame of having written such dreck. But you’ll keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

There will be gray days. So many gray days. Days where it’s all you can do to keep putting one word after the other. Days where you know what your characters need to do, but for some reason they insist on metaphorically picking up the dry cleaning, washing the car, and paying some bills first. But you’ll move on. You’ll write your 1,667 words (a number that will become synonymous with both “freedom” and “prison” over the course of the month) and leap from your chair, desperate to do anything else. But the next day you’ll come back and keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

But there will be good days as well. There will be days where your brain is on fire, racing a million miles a second as you see your characters start to come to life and tell you what they’re supposed to do next. There will be the moments of pure, blinding brilliance, when you can see the end from the beginning and everything in between and it’s all beautiful and right and good and you can’t understand why you don’t already have a four-way bidding war going on for your book.

And then there will be the best day. The day where you paste your entire novel into the validation box and your word count bar turns from workaday blue to a sublime shade of…light purple. But who cares? It’s the most beautiful light purple you’ve ever seen, because it means that you are a winner. You did it. 50,000 words. You are a Winner. This isn’t like finishing a video game or putting together a jigsaw puzzle; in those you’re walking a trail someone else blazed. This is something new, something unique, and you created it.

From here the world is open to you. Despite what your output looks like, you have proven to yourself that you can do hard things. In addition, you’ve spent a month forging a habit of really zeroing in on something for an hour or two every day. Now you can re-work your novel, shape it into something you want to publish. Or you can start a different story, this time focusing on the brand new character that snuck into your story as an extra and kept trying to steal the show. You can create that new app for the iPhone. You can go back and get that graduate degree. You can do hard things, and you’re a better person for it.

And now that you’ve done it (or at least made it to the end of this bombastic article), please consider making a donation to keep NaNoWriMo running. Let’s make sure that other people get a chance to feel what you’re feeling.