2014 CascadiaIT Lightning Talk: Girl Scout Cookies as Motivators

I was randomly conversing about my experiences in motivating project teams with several people in the lobby of the beautiful Hotel Deca at CascadiaIT, and one of them said, “You should give that as a Lightning Talk!”

So even though I’d already submitted one Lightning Talk, I signed up to give a second one.

Here are my notes, and some additional thoughts, from that second talk. These are just my thoughts and experiences, your mileage may vary, etc etc etc.

Girl Scout Cookies as Motivators

  1. food as motivator (shoutout to MikeC and timtams!)
  2. additional motivators: tech toys, gold stars, gift certificates, positive reviews to management
  3. girl scout cookies
  4. find parents with kids
  5. difficult meetings
  6. icebreakers (minus the thin mints)

I asked the room who’d taken a class from the phenomenal MikeC, because he hauls entire suitcases of different varieties of Tim Tams all the way from Australia to give out during his tutorials for folks who ask good questions.

About half the room raised their hands. Go MikeC!!!

Those who’ve never taken a class from MikeC and who do not know the wonderfulness of Tim Tams, I strongly recommended that they come to the USENIX LISA conference! It’s in Seattle this year!

It’s important to note that I (we) use the word “cookies” a lot, and sometimes we mean actual cookies. Actual cookies can be a wonderful and appropriate motivator… get to know your project team to understand if actual cookies are a good idea for them.

Sometimes “cookies” can mean tech toys, (big! cardboard!) gold stars, gift certificates for a local movie theater, gift certificates for ThinkGeek.com…

And sometimes “cookies” can mean positive reviews to management. When someone really made a very positive difference, sincerely thank them, in writing, and cc their supervisor. Such letters of thanks can make a difference during annual performance reviews.

General notes of thanks to everyone who participated in a project are good; getting into the habit of writing those, and then writing additional specific, honest and brief thanks to a small group of people who were absolutely instrumental to project success is an even better habit to foster.

I’ve used Girl Scout cookies a lot as motivators for my project teams… as one tool in my motivator toolkit (among many) to encourage people outside my management chain who are working with me toward the success of some technical effort at work.

Be aware of people’s dietary restrictions and preferences ahead of time!

And think about other things which may be like cookies, regarding motivation…

I buy my Girl Scout cookies from co-workers who are parents, rather than getting them at the sidewalk tables near my grocery store or other markets. You can make a lot of friends by easily filling those co-worker parents’ children’s sales quota for cookies, chocolate brittle, or whatever they’re selling.

Difficult meetings go more easily when folks have good food to eat, and cookies (or other non-edible motivators) can put everyone in a better frame of mind when you’re having stressful conversations as a group.

Thin Mints seem to have been the most popular Girl Scout cookies for difficult meetings, in my experience, followed by the chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies (which seem to actively slow down the pace of meeting conversation!).

However… if you’re bringing together a large project kick-off meeting where many participants do not already know each other, set the most popular treats aside (in my former places of employment, this meant “hide the Thin Mints!”), then place a variety of treats on the various tables in your meeting room.

Scatter a couple boxes of each flavor around so they’re not all together.

In my experience… people will abandon their orgchart groups and forsake their co-worker friends to sit at a table with an unopened box of their favorite Girl Scout cookies.

Those people will then strike up conversations and form positive connections with other people across orgchart boundaries, departmental silos, and levels of seniority or experience. Just as importantly, their introduction to each other will involve talking about a positive thing they immediately have in common: their favorite Girl Scout cookie.

And then they will open the boxes of cookies, and you can start your meeting, and your project team members can associate their favorite tasty, happy-making cookie flavor with your very important project.

Think outside the box, think inside the (cookie) box, think of positive motivators…


2014 CascadiaIT Lightning Talk: “So you should speak at conferences!”

First, a few thoughts…

I’ve been wanting to pull together a longer blogpost about this topic, but since I wanted to get some practice at presenting it as a Lightning Talk first, this is my Lightning Talk notes followed by some additional thoughts.

For those that don’t know, in this context a Lightning Talk means a fairly informal talk that is five minutes or less, nearly impromptu, where you can use notes but no projected slides.  The speaker has volunteered for their topic ahead of time, and these talks are usually not recorded or streamed online.

My first Lightning Talk was last year at this same conference: Getting Your Arms Around Unscopable Projects – and that Lightning Talk last year developed into an Invited Talk I gave this year, Nerdherding On The Frontier.

And my invited talk from last year’s CascadiaIT about Designing IT Emergency Drills grew into invited talks, a workshop and a tutorial which have found audiences in multiple venues this year.

In general, I have found the audiences at Lightning Talks to be very positive and supportive… most of the speakers show some form(s) of nervousness or disorganization, and that’s perfectly OK.

Specifically at CascadiaIT, the audience is incredibly positive, and in good spirits.  They seem to want the speaker to have a good time.  It’s a great place for people new to IT public speaking to get some practice, and a great place for seasoned speakers to try out new topics or presentation methods.

Plenty of people stumble over our words when we feel rushed or nervous, and mis-speaking and then an awkward correction mid-sentence over a particularly bizarre slip of the tongue tends to bring gentle laughter and sympathy from the CascadiaIT Lighting Talk audiences (rather than the derision which a new or nervous speaker might have been anticipating).

Here are my notes from my CascadiaIT 2014 Lightning Talk:

“So you should speak at conferences!”

  1. Topic Choice
  2. Format Choice
  3. Local Speaking Opportunities
  4. Local and Regional LOPSA Conferences and Chapters
  5. National Conferences
  6. Travel Assistance and Grants
  7. In Conclusion: SPEAK!!

Yes, I spoke for five minutes in front of a room full of people, based on seven lines of notes.  You can do this, too!

Go! Speak!!  🙂

More thoughts on those same themes…

Topic Choice

Your experiences are valuable, your knowledge should be shared!  Don’t assume that someone else who knows what you know has submitted to speak to the conference that you’re considering submitting to… they may not have.

Do not assume that the people you’ve seen at that conference presenting about topics that you know about will be there this year.  Attendees and speakers change over time, people have availability collisions, and time marches on.

Submit more than one topic! If the conference organizers get a whole lot of submissions on one topic, they’ll sort through and pick what they want… don’t worry about being one of eighty people actually giving talks about your same topic at one conference; the organizers are clever people and are unlikely to do that to their conference schedule.

And if multiple topics you’ve submitted yourself to speak about are accepted to a single conference, note that you can choose to decline one or more of them… nothing requires you to go ahead with multiple talks at the same conference unless you want to.

Give the conference organizers as much time as you can so they do their jobs, though… be sure to communicate clearly with conference organizers, in a timely fashion, and honor your commitments!

Format Choice

Different formats work for different topics. Your topic may be well-suited to a talk, or a collaborative workshop, or a tutorial.  Imagine yourself giving each of them… which feels most appropriate?  Try developing draft materials for a format or two… which flows most easily for you as a presenter?

Try giving your topic as a couple different formats with small audiences to practice them, and ask for feedback.

Note that different formats of presentations often include different honorariums or expense reimbursement possibilities. I did not have any clue about this a year or two ago!  And different conferences can be very different about this!

Local Speaking Opportunities

Be aware of local opportunities to see others speak and to get speaking practice yourself. Grab a meeting room and offer a lunchtime or coffee-break talk at your own workplace! Join local meetup.com groups relevant to your technical interests! If they don’t exist, consider forming one! Consider joining Toastmasters, the audiences there may not understand the tech you’re talking about, but you will learn to be more comfortable with public speaking.

Local and Regional Conferences and LOPSA Chapters


CascadiaIT and LOPSA-East are great regional conferences. They are great places for people new to IT public speaking to get some practice, and a great place for seasoned speakers to try out new topics or presentation formats.

Local LOPSA Chapters are another great opportunity to get to know likeminded local folks, see a variety of speakers, and to gain speaking practice yourself. Join your local LOPSA chapter if you haven’t already.

Shoutout to Crabby Admins in Baltimore/DC and Back Bay LISA in Boston who’ve given me the opportunity to speak this spring!

If you’re traveling for other reasons (yay vacation!), see if there’s a LOPSA chapter or meetup.com group near your destination that may need speakers for their meetups!

National Conferences

Submit to speak to national conferences, like USENIX LISA 2014! It’s really not as scary as it might sound! And if you’re not submitting or were not accepted as a formal speaker, sign up to give a Lightning Talk at every available opportunity!

Travel Assistance, Discounts and Grants

This is a biggie that I did not have a clue about!

If you are a member of any underrepresented group or if you are a first-time speaker, there may be financial assistance available to assist you in traveling to conferences.

Read the fine print of conference websites and Calls For Proposals (CFPs), politely ask the conference organizers, do a web-search for additional resources which may be available to you that are not specific to a particular conference.  There’s no harm in asking!

In Conclusion

So… you should speak at conferences! Go! Speak!

Recent things I’ve been reading

which I didn’t get to mention during the Lightning Talk…






CascadiaIT 2013 Lightning Talk: Getting Your Arms Around Unscopable Projects

I gave my first Lightning Talk at CascadiaIT 2013: Getting Your Arms Around Unscopable Projects

(And yes, I realize that “unscopable” is not in the dictionary. That might be because no project is really unscopable!)

Here are the notes I prepared in my phone just before giving the lightning talk:

  • My background: startup OEM, higher ed, startup cloud solutions company
  • Unscopable project examples
    • “Improve and upgrade IT Service X!! For varying definitions of improve!”
    • “Move our office!  And/or our datacenter! But we’re not really sure what’s in them…”
  • What are we trying to do?
    • How will we know when we’re done?
    • What resources and budgets may be involved?
    • What deadlines have already been promised?
    • Who needs to be included in the team?
    • Who needs to be informed about progress?
    • Who is the GO/NO-GO person for this project?
    • Are we looking for consensus on scope, time or money?
    • Is this project a democracy or a dictatorship?
  • If any consensus is needed, build it… meet individually, meet in small groups, meet in a large group… cookies!  fruit!  healthy snacks!  but beware nuts and foods allergies!
  • Write down:
    • what we’re trying to do
    • budget
    • time
    • people
  • Get signoff on what you have put in writing from the go/no-go person!