Who Is Dale Emery

Todays Who Is, is about Dale Emery. Dale was invited by Laurent Bossavit and George Dinwiddie and by the unpublished answers of Elisabeth Hendrickson (As Dale also proposed Elisabeth, I had to choose an order.) I knew Dale from his blog, mailinglists, twitter, so I looked forward to his Resistance as a Resource session at Agile 2008, which did. Next to his agile work, Dale looks like  chameleon to me:  he has a blog about writing, created a board game.  Even the story why he created the game is interesting to learn about Dale’s dedication.

What is something people usually don’t know about you but has influenced you in who you are?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Maine, and when you grow up on a dairy farm, you work on a dairy farm. The year I was in 7th grade, I took on the responsibility to milk the cows. I would milk the cows each day before I went to school, and again after I came home. Do you ever have dreams where you suddenly realize you haven’t finished your homework, or you haven’t studied for a test? Well, my anxiety dreams are about unmilked cows in distress.

As our dairy business dwindled, I worked for my father’s nascent farm machinery business, assembling hay balers and small tractors and other equipment. Then, the summer I finished high school, I briefly worked in the last local shoe factory as a shoe laster. I would stretch and tie sneaker tops around a foot-shaped form, which would then be lowered into a mold and injected with the molten rubber for the sole.

From of these early jobs, I learned that I really, really don’t enjoy manual labor. I would much rather work with my mind, and with other people who prefer to work with their minds.

If you would not have been in IT, what would have become of you?

I would like to have become a rock musician, but at the time I lacked the nerve to commit to it. If I had discovered earlier how much I (sometimes) enjoy writing, I might have become a writer. And I briefly toyed with the idea of studying biochemistry and nutrition.

I found my way to computing by accident. While I was in the Air Force in sweltering Sacramento, someone offered an assignment in frigid Fairbanks. On a lark, I jumped at it. While I was there I began plinking with NUTRAN, a dialect of FORTRAN with enhancements to analyze nuclear spectra. Then one morning my boss dropped his Commodore PET and a PET BASIC manual onto my desk and said, “See what you can do with this.” I played with that for an hour or two, and when I glanced at the clock, it was midnight. Midnight?! I’d been programming not for an hour or two, but for sixteen hours! I’d discovered the programmer’s trance, and I was forever hooked.

Given the serendipity of it all, I’d say that if I hadn’t been in IT, some other happy accident would have attracted me to something–anything–that kept my brain busy.

What is your biggest challenge and why is it a good thing for you?

My biggest challenge is enacting what I call The Woody Allen Rule. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” At a glance, this can sound either snarky or obvious, or both. But for me it’s both profound and dreadful. There’s an old book of verses, called Archy and Mehitabel, written by a cockroach named Archy. Or rather, written by a reporter who died and was reborn as a cockroach. Each night, Arcny types a new story by jumping on the keys of a typewriter. One story is about a moth bashing himself against an electric light bulb. Archy talks to the moth and tries to understand why it would do such a foolish thing. Though Archy never does quite understand, in the end he acknowledges, “but at the same time i wish / there was something i wanted / as badly as he wanted to fry himself”. Those three lines send chills up my spine. Is there something to which I could commit myself so fully?

Another of my favorite pieces of fiction is The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book is set in 1930s England, and centers on Stevens, a butler who can’t quite bring himself to risk love, or to express himself in the horrific political conversations of the day. The book, Ishiguro says, is an exploration of the ways in which a man might waste his life. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s chilling to recognize a similar tentativeness in myself.

So my challenge is taking the risk to show up.

One result of this challenge is that I tend to commit only to things I am /very/ confident I can deliver.

What drives you?

On my better days, what drives me is my desire to help. In particular, to help people be mindful of all of their abilities, some of which they weren’t aware of, and some of which they’d forgotten, and some of which they didn’t realize could help them here and now.

On my not-so-good days, which are becoming rarer in my middle age, I’m driven by my desire to be seen as helpful, which is very different from wanting to help.

What is your biggest achievement?

This is an interesting question for me, because my style is to work in lots of small ways, more or less in the background. I wouldn’t mind having big achievements, but I take great pleasure in creating or facilitating lots of small ones.

I am proud to have received the Agile Alliance‘s Ward Cunningham Gentle Voice of Reason award in 2007. I’m told that I was under consideration for the Gordon Pask Award, but didn’t quite fit the criteria. The Gordon Pask Award is for “up and coming” folks in the Agile world, but by 2007 I had been right there in the midst of the Agile community for seven years. So the award committee created a new award. What touches me so deeply is that the award directly recognizes exactly the values I most want to create in the community: Compassion, empathy, respect. Sometimes in a moment (or day or week) of passion about some idea, people’s expression of respect falters. I like to show, and to help people learn, that passion and respect are not only deeply compatible, but also mutually supportive.

What is the last book you have read?

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Borders of Infinity. I highly recommend Bujold to anyone who wants to study the art of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Bujold is a master of word choice and sentence structure. She often chooses a word that is both uncommon and familiar, to create exactly the right nuance of meaning with an economy of words. Oh, and her stories are fun and funny and thoughtful and emotional.

The latest nonfiction book I read was Community, by Peter Block. At the heart of the book are “six conversations”–conversations about invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts–that can help build community. Block starts each conversation by asking a few “powerful questions“–questions that are ambiguous and personal, and which provoke a certain amount of anxiety. One of his questions has been on my mind: “What is the gift that you currently hold in exile?” You can see how this relates directly to my biggest challenge.

What question do you think I should also ask and what is the answer?

One question you should definitely /not/ ask me is Block’s question about gifts, “What is the gift that you currently hold in exile?” If you were to ask me this anxiety-provoking question, I might answer something like this:

The gift that I currently hold in exile is my belief that idealism can be profoundly practical. For example, I believe that every behavior has a positive intention. On the face of it, that sounds awfully naive and hopelessly idealistic. I admit it’s idealistic–perhaps the most idealistic thing I believe. I even admit that it might not always be true. But I have also found it to be wonderfully practical, especially in those moments where I’m most likely to doubt it. This (hopelessly idealistic) belief invites me to seek a positive intention, or to imagine one. I don’t always succeed. But I succeed often enough with my idealistic notions, and with such beautiful results, that I want to invite people to remember their own faded idealism, apply it anew, and look for the practical wisdom it carries.

Who do you think I should ask next?

Brian Marick, who is never content to let a conclusion rest unquestioned. It’s delightful when he jiggles people’s “settled” ideas. Except when he jiggles mine–that’s just annoying. But it’s important.

J.B. Rainsberger, Steve Freeman, and Nat Pryce, who continue to explore TDD and offer fresh ideas (just when I thought I was getting the hang of it).

Elisabeth Hendrickson, whose passion and skill at helping people translate their old skills into an Agile way of working are second to none.