AMA: I want to give back to the community but I feel I have nothing original to offer. How do I start?

This was a question via Twitter, and it’s a great one. Buckle up.

Let me tell you a little story about me. Back in 2006, when Windows PowerShell launched, I was working for SAPIEN Technologies. We decided to launch the SAPIEN Press brand name, and I produced the first PowerShell book to market, Windows PowerShell: TFM. That was rapidly followed by a 2nd edition, and then a 3rd edition, co-authored with Jeff Hicks. So we’re probably in 2008 or so, now.
It was 2011 before I published the first Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches, which has moved into its own 3rd edition and does pretty well in the marketplace.
Why the long gap?
Because after TFM, I didn’t feel I had anything original to contribute to the audience. There were, by that point, dozens of PowerShell books out there, and it didn’t seem worth it to just add another voice to the din.
Now, another story. This one’s shorter. I used to work with a charity, when I lived on the East coast, whose main program was to provide warm coats for homeless people, and poorer people, in the community. After moving West I lost track of them, but they popped up in the news again because they’d had a major organizational failure. Seems they’d been slowly expanding to other cities with great success, but their latest expansion was an abject fail. The new locale had plenty of poor and homeless, but absolutely nobody was coming to this charity for help, probably because Jamaica is a tropical island and doesn’t need coats. 
You see, the charity had decided to expand internationally, but was still focused on what they wanted to do, rather than focusing on what the audience needed. 
When you decide to contribute something to the world, unless you’re a starving artist, you can’t focus on what you think you can contribute in a way that you would enjoy. You, you, you. Helping out isn’t about you, it’s about the people you’re helping. So you need to look at the audience (and that might mean expanding your definition of “audience”) and see what they need. 
Back to the books: I went through a few years of people asking me to recommend a PowerShell book, and I couldn’t. I didn’t like any of them. By chapter 3 or 4, all of them were into programming. They weren’t covering the pipeline, they weren’t treating PowerShell like a shell. They were treating it like a programming language. Unsurprisingly, these books weren’t all that popular, because the majority of the PowerShell audience didn’t want to learn programming. 
I’d found a need of the audience. And so I developed the Month of Lunches brand and format, and created a PowerShell book that didn’t have a lick of programming. Hicks and I later created the Toolmaking (now Scripting) book to get into PowerShell’s programmer-y side, but honestly, it’s never done half as well as the first one. Month of Lunches wasn’t original, per se, but it served a need that was otherwise going unmet.
And I want to point out that Hicks and I didn’t create some enormous new body of knowledge. Everything we wrote about has been written about before. We’re not “original” in that sense. What we did is repackage existing information for a specific audience. That’s most of what teaching is, in fact.
Teaching isn’t the only way someone can contribute; it’s just my favorite way. There are numerous open-source repos that need help with code, or documentation, or testing, or whatever; Tug is one of those that fills a real need within the world. needs a webmaster familiar with WordPress, because the current BuddyPress-based theme has probably got to go (those social features are more a PITA than a help; they’re not filling a need). could use a solid set of writers just continually producing short tutorial-style stuff and deep-dive articles; hell, the community in general could use those, whether they’re on or not. It’s not that those have never been done before, but the nature of the world and the Internet is that you kind of have to keep reinventing that wheel for new generations. Point is, there’s lots to do.
Start by looking around. Listening. Don’t look for “ways to give back” that you would find interesting or sexy, so to speak. Just listen. Look for a need. It doesn’t have to be something that you personally need; it just has to be something that a bunch of other people demonstrably need. And then pitch in. Get others to help, by making a case and asking. That’s all has ever been: looking for a need, and asking others to help meet it.

You might also like

Add comment

E-mail is already registered on the site. Please use the Login form or enter another.

You entered an incorrect username or password

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.


by Newest
by Best by Newest by Oldest

Is there a link to the job: " needs a webmaster familiar with WordPress"?


No... but hit up admin@ or webmaster@ if you're interested. I think the main thing right now is that BuddyPress hasn't been a big success, so we need to re-theme the site (again) since the existing theme depends on BuddyPress. I'd like something that really makes bbPress more attractive/responsive, honestly. That and articles are the two main things the site gets used for.