Maintaining a Kick A** Tech Team and Organization

Below is a talk that Bonnie, Patrick and Hillel gave at the 2017 Code4Lib Conference in Los Angeles. Our slides are available online.

Intro

Hello! I’m Hillel Arnold, and with me are Bonnie Gordon, and Patrick Galligan. We’re the Digital Programs team from the Rockefeller Archive Center, an independent archive and research center located in Sleepy Hollow, NY (yes, it’s a real place). Our team’s role is to provide technical leadership and expertise to our organization across all function areas. That’s a link there to the text of this talk, which also includes links to a number of other things we’ll talk about that you can follow if you want.

In 2015, Sibyl Schaefer gave a presentation titled “Designing and Leading a Kick A** Tech Team” at the Code4Lib conference in Portland where she talked about hiring all of us, developing a shared vision, and implementing user-centered tools and services. Shortly afterwards, Sibyl moved on to UCSD, which set in motion a number of organizational changes at the Rockefeller Archive Center.

During this period of transition, we asked each other a lot of questions. How can we keep this work going? Should we all just find other jobs? What the heck are we even doing?

After the dust settled, we decided we needed to get back to basics by revisiting a set of core values that we’d put in place in 2013. These seven values express how we work together as a team, and define a standard against which we hold ourselves and each other accountable. By building consensus around these values, we were able to chart out a path forward despite all of this change. Focusing on the how and why of our work helped us figure out what we needed to do next. Today, we want to talk about these values and how they shape our work.

Framing value: Engage & Empower Users

The scaffolding for everything we do is this: engaging and empowering users. By users we mean our researchers, donors, coworkers, and the archival profession as a whole.

We’ve sometimes rephrased this value as “helping our users have a healthy relationship with technology.” That means we have to have a realistic view of technology. We can’t be scared of it, but we also can’t expect it to magically solve our problems or replace human labor.

In the words of Canadian metallurgist and physicist Ursula Franklin, we think of technology as holistic rather than prescriptive; we try to minimize disaster rather than maximize gain.1

Ultimately having a healthy relationship with technology means having a healthy relationship with other people.

We engage by leading with empathy: by listening before solving, and by evaluating and learning from our missteps.

We empower by putting people before technology: by using open-source systems that don’t force us to outsource expertise, by valuing the work of maintenance and continuity, and by looking for opportunities to pass on skills to others.

Most of all, we try to maintain a posture of humility, generosity and openness. One that invites engagement, critical thinking, and partnership, or what artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles would call an “open presence.”2

Collaboration

One way we engage with our users both within the RAC and outside, is to embrace collaboration whenever we can.

We strive to build networks, not silos both in our use of systems, and in our relationships with our researchers, coworkers, and community. We build strong networks with our researchers and coworkers by creating safe spaces where we hear their feedback, express our understanding, and respond in a timely manner. We seek out systems that support collaboration, using open source tools whenever possible because they help us work together with others that share similar interests to create better products for the whole community. We’re moving towards greater systems integration through leveraging APIs because it helps us create interconnected processes and eliminate our siloed data and manual processes. This work strengthens our internal communication, our relationships with colleagues outside the RAC, and our products.

Each of us believes that involving others gives us the best opportunity to learn and improve our work. Diversity of collaborators brings a diversity of thought, experience, expertise, and skills to our projects. For example, before we overhaul one of our workflows, we perform a literature review, reach out to contacts at other institutions, and interview key stakeholders. We find that doing so often uncovers issues and solutions that we would never have hit upon alone. However, this collaboration only works when you accept that others can bring value to the project that you cannot. We’re never going to know or think of everything, so we’re not shy about relying on others.

Additionally, our coworkers feel more involved in our projects when they have a voice, whether that relates to feature prioritization, system choices, or changing a workflow. Two heads are almost always better than one, and in giving others a safe environment to propose new ideas, critique our work, or just help us out we come out of the process with more suggestions and better working relationships because we’ve created investment. When someone feels invested, they’re more willing to learn new skills and take ownership of systems and workflows.

We like to think that we’re in the business of improving user experience across all of our user communities, so we get them involved as early and as much as possible.3 We’ve seen this strategy pay off while creating user stories and personas for a project we’re working on. We invited coworkers from different function areas to help us with a card sorting exercise, and it became clear that they brought a fresh perspective on the user stories.4 Their involvement strengthened the final product, and shined a light on the biases and expectations that we were bringing to the project.

We also believe that it’s vital to take a strategic approach to the way we communicate with others. At all times we strive to hear and understand different ideas and viewpoints and respond considerately and in a measured fashion. We practice what we like to call solution-centered communication, which strives to move conversations towards a solution.

Our values of creating networks, not silos, and practicing solution-centered communication help us work to our full potential and greater meet the needs of our users, which in turns helps us create higher-quality products, and better meet our mission.

Culture of Learning

Education is vital to our work. Although our focus is on providing technical expertise and leadership, we think that this goes beyond just learning and teaching how to code. We recognize that critical thinking and communication are vital skills in order to have a healthy relationship with technology. First, we need to provide ourselves with the skills in order to truly thrive. Then, we seek to build confidence and competence around technology across our organization and communities.

We recognize that with specialized knowledge comes power. We seek to create a culture of learning, which means demolishing the inequitable power dynamics between experts and non-experts, and building in its place a culture and expectation of collective skill-sharing. By building mutual knowledge, we build community. We organize events like reading groups that encourage others to develop their own areas of interest and proficiency, as well as develop their critical thinking skills.5 We train the trainer. We acknowledge that everyone has expertise and we accept our own limits of knowledge.

As a team, we advance our skills with a broad view of professional development. We attend conferences and workshops, and actively encourage others to do so. We keep an eye out for these opportunities and let our colleagues know they’re happening. And we make a point of sharing what we’ve learned so that those who could not attend can benefit as well. We do this by writing up summaries and takeaways on our team blog and through informal conversations with colleagues. By investing in ourselves, we can spread that knowledge to others as well as model a culture of learning.

Additionally, we recognize that all parts of the archival enterprise are connected and that we are part of larger professional communities with shared values and challenges. We actively participate in these communities by joining committees and facilitating professional meetings. And we take a broad view of our profession: I spend time volunteering with a local community archive. And we share our knowledge and expertise through any means available, including through open documentation, presentations and publications. We recognize that we are a resource-rich organization and have an obligation to pursue activities that benefit others in the profession. We rely on the skills and knowledge of members of the library and archival communities who are outside of our organization.

We also believe that professional growth requires risk-taking and embracing failure. Failure allows us to learn what works, as well as what doesn’t. But to effectively fail, we have to be smart about how we do it. We learn by making small, iterative changes. We test solutions and workflows out before implementation, and we do so by setting up development environments, performing frequent backups, and using version control.

By setting up these safety nets, we can strive for excellence without allowing the pursuit of perfection to intimidate or immobilize our efforts. And not being afraid of failure allows us to model fearlessness around technology.6 Fear of breaking things can be a serious impediment to a healthy relationship with technology, so setting up safety nets allows others to engage with technology in a more fruitful way. And this, too, can help soften the divide between “experts” and “non-experts,” by allowing for more people to use a wider variety of systems. If we have the safety nets in place, we don’t have to worry in the same way about someone breaking a system. And if we effectively model embracing failure, we can help other people have a better relationship with failure as they engage in learning.7

Ethical Access

Last, we have a set of values relating to ethical access. As should be obvious from the way these are stated, we’re picking sides. We want to be on the side of broad and equitable access to historical records, and we want to protect the privacy of our researchers. The key here is that we try do these things as much as possible. We don’t feel like it’s our job to be centrists, but rather to serve as a counterbalance to forces of copyright and institutional risk avoidance. We won’t get our way all the time, but we have a professional and human obligation to advocate for open access and respect for our researchers’ privacy.

We take these values into account when making systems choices, looking for tools that foster inclusivity through mobile-first interfaces, and support standards for accessibility and internationalization.

As often happens when working with systems, you end up working with processes. In this area we help reduce our archive’s backlog by improving efficiencies in our arrangement and description processes, or eliminating tedious activities like rote data entry or repetitive cut-and-paste operations. We also look to streamline processes for our researchers, providing advanced requesting and registration options so that they can start looking at archival records as soon as possible.

These values also guide our contribution to institutional policy, where we try to minimize the collection of user data, build sensible retention policies around the data that is collected, and advocate for removing unnecessary access restrictions to archival records whenever possible. This work is all about setting good defaults, and making open access and researcher privacy the norm rather than the exception.

Wrapping Up

Ultimately, this talk is really about how we’ve coped with change.

Change is going to happen, and it’s not all going to be good.8 Key people are going to leave your organization, positions will be left vacant, budgets will shrink, national politics are going to continue to circle the drain. We can neither ignore these changes, nor should we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by them.

Our approach has been to rearticulate, reaffirm and recommit to our values. Shared values come first. Strategy and technology follow. When we know who we are, we can start making consistent decisions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing.

There are a couple of key tactics that are common to all our values: persistence and iteration. We keep doing this work, and we keep trying to get better at doing this work. When circumstances change, we adapt. When things get harder, we try to do better and get better. We review and revise our values on an annual basis, more frequently if necessary. We change along with change, using the constellation of our values as a navigational aid to steer our strategy and inform our projects.

If you would like to talk more about any of what we’ve said, please find us in the hall or online. We’d love to talk! Thank you.


[1] Ursula Franklin. The Real World of Technology.

[2] “I’m not here to watch you, to study you, to judge you, I am here to be with you, to thank you.” (I understand later that this is the essence of this artwork: the artist as open presence.) Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Looking Back from 2010”.

[3] We owe a lot to human centered design thinking – particularly Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things and Steve Krug’s work on low-cost high-impact usability testing – and to Sibyl for insisting on this as a fundamental part of our work. We’re also really influenced by work linking information technology to feminist care ethics, particularly people like Amelia Abreu, Stacie Williams and Bethany Nowviskie, as well as people who are writing on the theory and practice of maintenance and repair.

[4] See the results here

[5] We wrote about this reading group in “Shared inquiry in the archives” on History@Work.

[6] Amy Berish, one of our fantastic coworkers, discussed this in her talk at METRO’s 2017 Annual Conference.

[7] For example, see “Learning Python as a Processing Archivist: A Reflection” and “DACSspace: An ArchivesSpace DACS Compliance Evaluation Tool” by Amy Berish.

[8] Check out Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.

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