Session Transcripts

A live transcription team captured the SRCCON sessions that were most conducive to a written record—about half the sessions, in all.

Give and Receive: Can we strengthen our community through remote mentorship and office hours?

Session facilitator(s): Julia Smith

Day & Time: Friday, 2:30-3:30pm

Room: Boardroom

JULIA: And on that note we want to talk about office hours and mentorship. So I’m Julia Smith and I work on the technology team at the institute for non-profit news. And the goal for this session is to, sort of, talk about user needs for office hours like people would want to use them, people who offer open office hours, what they’re trying to get from it, what inhibits them from being productive in those meetings, and then, how we can use office hours to grow the community, and provide mentorship for people who need it who may not work in a big newsroom, or who may, you know, be far away from the coasts. That, sort of, thing. So so we’re going to sort of talk about those user needs first, and then the rest of this session will sort of be a design exercise to go through workflow. So we’ll probably split into two groups or something, and work through a new workflow for a new and improved office hours system.

Cool? Sweet. Okay. So people here, how many of you have taken advantage of someone else’s office hours?

PARTICIPANT: In college.

JULIA: Yeah, that counts. That counts. Okay. Okay. Good. And how many of you have hosted your own office hours? Perfect. Cool.

PARTICIPANT: Feel free to reach out any time, does that count as office hours?

JULIA: Yeah.

PARTICIPANT: And failure count? I have failure office hours.

JULIA: Oh, me too. And that’s what we’re here to fix. So it’s perfect and important information. Okay. So… we’ll start with some notes, I think. So, who needs office hours, like, from the user perspective. Like, why would you want to go to someone and look for advice, or feedback?

PARTICIPANT: You don’t have a local or immediate resource for whatever topic you’re talking about.

JULIA: No local resource other reasons?

PARTICIPANT: You have no idea what you’re doing.

JULIA: No idea.

PARTICIPANT: Support external to your organization?

JULIA: No support external to your organization?

PARTICIPANT: So trying to get support from someone external to your organization.

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, like your organization doesn’t have the expertise, sort of?

PARTICIPANT: Or you have a job that’s sensitive that you think would be too vulnerable in your working environment?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, if you want a purpose on that have same thoughts.

PARTICIPANT: Perhaps talking to people who do what you do, where your working environment doesn’t have many of those kinds of people. Just, if the community is very distributed.

JULIA: So sort of like a lonely coder sort of…

PARTICIPANT: If you want to get a new perspective on something that—when you’re trying to find new perspective but there’s no one near you.

PARTICIPANT: I find that as a freelancer, I find that there’s only one person like me in every project I work on.

PARTICIPANT: Maybe adjacent to that, knowing that you have a safe space to go ask questions because a lot of times, people are putting put out into the universe, but knowing there’s someone dedicated to answering that question. And that’s why that space exists.

PARTICIPANT: People don’t have, like, a so aren’t plugged into a community. Like, if you’re changing careers or communities, right, you don’t know where to go and so having something where it’s like, oh, you can go here is important.

PARTICIPANT: Like first starting point kind of…?

PARTICIPANT: What about, like, if you’re a remote person, and you don’t get that sort of hang out time that people who work at an office get, where it’s not even, there’s not even a goal; there’s just like…

JULIA: Just sort of like face to face.

PARTICIPANT: Just like literally any contact with your teammates. That’s one thing that I’m interested in ‘cause I work on a remote team and I just wondered if there needs to be a “let’s hang out time.” Because things will eventually come up, even if you don’t know what the point of the thing is. When you go to lunch with somebody it’s not like let’s go out to lunch and discuss this topic. They come up because you’re around each other.

JULIA: Exactly. Anything else? Or, like, in general? Okay. So that’s for the—we’ll just call it the user. And then for the host, what’s the host trying to get from office hours, usually?

PARTICIPANT: Preventing people from, like, feeling isolated? Like, it’s kind of like if you never give yourself—if you never, like, create a space where you know people can ask questions if they’re not comfortable asking in whatever other settings that you have, like, you’re, sort of, you might miss cases where people feel alone, or feel like they aren’t supposed to be there, and then they eventually—that gets—they get too far gone. I don’t know, if “rage quit” is the right word. Before…

JULIA: We know what you mean.

PARTICIPANT: I don’t know if it’s selfish but making sure that the community grows they hire, particularly so that the people they hire aren’t the same candidates all the time. And I think it would be really helpful, healthy for the industry if, like, if we had a better way of—I feel like we have a couple programs going that are educational programs, and it starts to feel very like, oh, all of our shining stars came in through the same path. And I’d like to stop that.

JULIA: So, like, new recruitment paths?


JULIA: I have horrible handwriting. Other reasons? Even things like trying to have one specific set time for people to talk?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, that it’s a good one, actually. I hate scheduling when I’m alone. So I like office hours because it’s only a one way scheduling. It’s like you don’t have to do a back and forth in email.

PARTICIPANT: Illusion of openness?

JULIA: Yeah.

[ Laughter ]

No, seriously, we want all these reasons, right? Like, we’re going to fix them the same.

PARTICIPANT: I think it also inherently helps with openness, the diversity because people know that there’s a space they can go where they don’t have to feel threatened about organizing with someone higher up the food chain or cause and purposes, or it’s less intimidating.

PARTICIPANT: I agree but I disagree in that I still feel like it’s a better strategy to go out to people.

PARTICIPANT: I agree, yes.

PARTICIPANT: But otherwise…

PARTICIPANT: But nothing like where the onus is on the individual to, like, knock on the door of someone higher up the food chain in order to do something that might feel a little awkward and overbearing. I think that plays out differently in that event scenario. But, of course, as an organization, if you care, you would be going out and making sure.

JULIA: So actual openness?


PARTICIPANT: Illusion of openness and actual openness.

JULIA: It’s nice that the illusion comes first.

PARTICIPANT: I think, just in general, it’s actually, we can talk about it in terms of paying it forward. But if you’ve benefited from other people’s mentorship, it’s a natural course to kind of, like, pay that forward and help other people. It’s specific to the fields but it’s about finding people to work with, and also if you like what you do, you can see more problems out there, and understand the industry and see what’s going on and open up the possibility of making a new connection that might be professional and valuable and things like that.

JULIA: That was a handful of reasons.

PARTICIPANT: One for seven. Just like visibility into your industry, or into the industry.

PARTICIPANT: Do you mean building relationships?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, building relationships. And also, I think just kind of like a—you’re inviting, like, a serendipitous relationship that you otherwise couldn’t—especially with just like generic open office hours, like, you would never go and find that person, but that person might come to you. So you’re opening up that level of serendipitous relationship that, you know, is kind of…

JULIA: I think that’s a good reason.

PARTICIPANT: Opening up the possibility for a relationship.

PARTICIPANT: I think we mentioned that office hours can be both internal and external, so you can be speaking to a much broader community than the one that you’re paid to look after.

PARTICIPANT: It’s actually just a really nice challenge, too. I feel like people who contact me and want help with stuff, like, it makes me think about—it was the one thing that I really liked about teaching, was that I had to figure out how to explain stuff to other people, and then they would come to. Like, I had to really know it because I was always scared to death that I wouldn’t be able to answer the question. So I would then learn everything about whatever they asked, and it was great for me.

JULIA: So, like, becoming the expert you claim to be?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. Other notes? Cool. So now, I think we’ll sort of go through these lists and talk about the things that prevent people from achieving these goals. And then we’ll get to the designers, which is better than plea talking. That would be great, too. So what might prevent someone from finding another—how would you phrase that? What’s the opposite of a local resource?

PARTICIPANT: Having a local resource?

JULIA: So what inhibits that. Like, time zones or something?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, like, time zones, or you’re working in small organizations. Or you’re working in organizations where you’re one-of-a-kind or your community, like, if you live in certain portions of America, I imagine, that the tech/journalism community doesn’t exist outside of you.

PARTICIPANT: Even if—I mean on the west coast, I’ve noticed that a lot, just because the distances are greater. There’s some level that we’ve moved past, and the level of community that’s on the east coast where you’ve got, like, D.C. and New York, and these other does hes that are relatively close to each other, we don’t really have that as much. So, like, even if there are a lot of journalists, like, we’re not talking to each other as much.

PARTICIPANT: The time zones is significant, actually. I mean, even for Slack groups and that kind of thing. Because on the west coast, too, you log in, and a lot of stuff is already done and gone and by the time you want to talk about things, people aren’t there. So it’s a legitimate issue.

PARTICIPANT: I mean, I think about the—communities. You’re going from five people in a pub somewhere to a few hundred community. And that creates a really different access to information if there’s only three people who are doing what you do regardless of which organization you’re in. That can be really hard to transfer information. Especially if you’re competitors, right? So if if the only three people who do what you do in the city are your competitors, they aren’t necessarily going to talk about certain things. Just like processes or…

JULIA: And then so if you’re trying to organize office hours, what sort of things would you want it to do to solve those problems?

PARTICIPANT: You would have to evangelize these communities where these people live.

PARTICIPANT: So I guess, are you asking asking why sometimes people don’t answer them? So I’ll answer that because I know a lot about open office hours, including yours. I’ve never done it. And part of it is, especially for some of those things out there, when you’re an outsider, some people are really good at asking for help, and other people are really terrified of wasting other people’s time, especially somebody you don’t know. And there’s always that issue of, like, as open and inviting as you ever can be, it’s still—it can never be enough for some people who are just like, don’t—or, like, when they say everyone do they really mean me? I mean, that’s how a lot of people will always react is, like,” but do they really mean me?”

PARTICIPANT: You can’t create this if you get a positive feedback loop in the community. If you positively feedback one human being, and then they commit to evangelizing their positivity, then they probably can afford to engage in that community.

PARTICIPANT: I guess that brings up another idea: One way getting around it is doing the more traditional type of marketing case studies. If you think this isn’t for you, this is some other people that have felt that way, and then got a lot out of it. Not that you don’t want to spend any more time marketing, but that’s potential way that that person is actually like me, or whatever, yeah, testimonials.

PARTICIPANT: Maybe seeing whether kind of your call for office hours out there, it was kind of an idea saying, you don’t have to have specific questions, or you don’t have to have super exciting things that you want to talk about, if you’d like to show up and talk about whatever you’re working on this week, I’m open to talking about what you’re working on this week, trying to lower the bar, or the perceived bar of needing something amazing to bring to the table.

PARTICIPANT: You could publish what you have seen or what kind of topics get covered.

PARTICIPANT: We can talk about explain and see kind of thing.

PARTICIPANT: Oh, feel free to come to us with these data things come to us with your data things, or you can come to us if you’re —

JULIA: So kind of advertise your expertise specifically? Or by way of what you’ve done before?

PARTICIPANT: Well, I guess that is an interesting point, like, for me. Like, as someone who’s an outsider, it’s not clear necessarily what the outcomes of these office hours are supposed to be. Like, what does this office hour do? Like, how do people use it? What happens? Like, what is it?

PARTICIPANT: It’s kind of scary.

JULIA: Sure. So defining outcomes?

PARTICIPANT: Yup. Yup, and but if by one hour we will have created the illusion of openness.

JULIA: Okay. So how about now outcomes from the other side? When you’re hosting office hours, what are you hoping the outcome will be?

PARTICIPANT: Anyone shows up. Like, I have tried to do it—I run a remote team. And because of, like, I said, it’s hard to schedule individual time to meet with everyone in different time zones. We try to do something where at a designated time, somebody would be in a Hangout, and somebody would be coming in, asking questions who’s literally on your same team. And people hadn’t been taking advantage of it. And we didn’t do it again. And we tried it again in a couple of weeks and I think it was because of unclear goals. Like, sort of, we didn’t know how to further encourage people to feel comfortable doing it, even though we knew them and paid them. And so we kind of tried with a failed experiment. But we want to keep trying again how to make people feel comfortable showing up to something where they don’t know what they’re going to be asking necessarily. So I don’t want to feel like I’m forcing people to do it. I only want to do it if they want to do it. But for some reason there’s, like, a mismatch of goals. It’s hard.

JULIA: And how about when people do show up, what makes it successful, maybe?

PARTICIPANT: They’re not crying at the end?

PARTICIPANT: I mean, I’ve done this once. And the times that it felt successful were like, oh, I mentored this person and they feel comfortable enough that they can come back to me later, which, I put out this call and I was like hey, I’m interested in mentoring people, and I got a flurry of things and almost none of them I heard from again and I felt like that’s where the failure of its, right? Because I was trying to set up, like, a support network, or act as a way to introduce those people into a support network. And it didn’t work for most of them but there were a few of them where it was like, objection, this person came back to me. It was like, oh, how can you help me connect, and that was one of the things that felt successful where it was like, oh, this is a mentorship relationship now.

PARTICIPANT: I did one for public—not for the team a couple times where it was like a Google Hangout. And anyone could come on and ask questions. And the positive feedback I got from that from people was, it helped them, at least a little bit, overcome their imposter syndrome in that specific subcommunity, even though it was a, like, a fairly niche project. And there wasn’t, like, any big organization behind it. People were still intimidated because there was still an us-versus-them thing about it, when all you see is these people’s activities online and you never see their faces, or them talking about it, but just seeing the people involved in the project casually talking to each other, that they’re also called to ask questions on, I got positive fine from people like whoa it’s really cool to see all the people in the same place and being included in that. So getting people to overcome their fear about not being part of the cool kids’ club. In reality we want every to get in our club. It’s really not about being cool at all but that’s the perception that people naturally form, I think.

PARTICIPANT: Prior to my role in the Coral Project, I worked in education and diversity and inclusion. And a lot of academics in law school. So there was a lot of these people trying to go to office hours and take advantage of stuff. But a lot of it was also mentoring. And I saw a lot more accessing when we were I having folks who needed help and then inviting them to speak with me. And we had developed these relationships. So it was always, like, the mantra that we spend 90% of our time on 10% of students. But you can’t be super upset that you’re not—you have to find tremendous value and find. So I think it’s also, like, a paradigm shift is it one person that you’re really helping out, or a handful, and where are you helping them outdoor?

PARTICIPANT: And if I approach people based on that kind of judgment, you’re saying, you don’t want to say it out loud, that you need someone helping you, how do you kind of couch that mentorship to avoid kind of having the initial kind of judgment on the person from coming across.

PARTICIPANT: I think a lot of it, too is in some ways, I casually got to get a landscape. So what I did a lot was the way I worked specifically with, like, minority student organizations. So I got—I had a lot of face time with them initially. And just paying attention to the questions that they had. And it was just very casual, just starting conversations with them about their experience. And that kind of—drawing from there a little bit. And so, now, similarly, why this was very interesting to me was that when I transitioned into design, it was also because I did an online boot camp. And all of that was through a mentorship, as well. So now we do pay it forward and we also have a Facebook group. And as I see folks struggle here and there, then I’ll message them privately on Slack and then hey, the question, whatever but it’s rare, hey, if anyone needs help, message me. No one does that. But once you can identify someone who maybe is kind of putting into the universe that they are slightly struggling. And that also takes a lot of courage. I think a lot of that is folks in law schools, or these folks in these communities are like, hey, here’s my weakness, I’m pronouncing it out for all to see. I think that’s hard.

PARTICIPANT: Is it different if you approach it by topic like saying you came to office hours, we were going to specifically address this person’s… do you think people are more likely to come through?

PARTICIPANT: Not necessarily. I mean, this was a very—in education, it’s a very limited context, also, because there’s so many different things going on, and the students are just—a lot of times, just tuning out these kinds of things. So I think this is just a very limited instance but…

PARTICIPANT: I participate right now in a coding mentorship where I’m a mentor through a non-profit that I’m involved in. And I think what makes it work in that case, and I’ve talked about it before was that, the mentee, and the mentor make a commitment to each other at the beginning. We do it in three-month sprints. So I have to show up once a week, no matter when we figure out the time. But I’m showing up for that person and they’re showing up for me and it’s a mutual commitment that we make, we’re set on a time and I’ve also, I mean, I was a TA for a while in grad school and I had office hours and people would show up but that felt like a very different kind of relationship where it wasn’t that kind of thing, with the role commitment.

JULIA: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

PARTICIPANT: But it’s also scale, right? Is it one to one or one to a few?

PARTICIPANT: This scales to only a couple people.

JULIA: Okay. So we’ve mentioned the things that are important, or, like, goals, outcomes, commitment, and feeling comfortable. Like, generating a feel of a relationship between the two parties. So how about what are the technical problems when you’re trying to deal with this, especially remotely?

PARTICIPANT: I have one, which is that I hate discussing things in text like, in general. I don’t like to discuss, specifically in texts. And I always try to get us to stop discussing things in text when we could have, like, a video call. Like, GitHub issues is a good example, or, like, Slack is another good example. And Twitter is the canonical, horrible example. It’s the worst possible place to discuss something.

JULIA: Right.

PARTICIPANT: So my dream would be to be able to lock a GitHub issue comment until someone had a video call with the other person. And after they’ve had the video call with each other, then we could open it up for comments again, for example.

PARTICIPANT: Can you say more about what makes that…?

PARTICIPANT: Well, it’s not a toxic bad. It’s like a time waste for a lot of people, and then it also, a lot of people complain that, then, they get overwhelmed with the amount of backlog that they have to read. And I just don’t think that for something that you have to—anything that you have to hash out or explain or, like, I don’t know, it’s hard. It’s, like, face to face is just so nice for so many reasons. But I feel like we’re—there’s always this barrier in a remote setting where it’s like, well, I can type when I’m not wearing pants and I’m in bed still. And I could type right now. And I have to, like, schedule a call, and make sure I’m presentable, and get on whatever, you know, then it’s like a barrier. And so, if there was a way to solve the scheduling issue and ingrain it into our existing communication tools in a way where it’s like low barrier and not intimidating to ask someone to get on a call with you, and not aggressive about it. But if it was baked in as a virtue, hey, we’ve identified a complicated topic, let’s talk about it. As opposed to chat about it, which is kind of frustrating.

JULIA: Sure.

PARTICIPANT: With a remote team, that lack of face-to-face is just magnified, right? Because you want to have those normal humanizing interactions so that it becomes—that text communication is even more glaring in terms of, like, the context that it’s missing.

PARTICIPANT: And also, the key is to recognize when that is starting to happen. Because sometimes text is fine but there’s that point, this probably should have been done already. Where it’s like, okay, it’s time for video and then hit the video link and finish it up.

PARTICIPANT: I think the only cost, at least where I work, where we’re totally remote, the costs to be cognizant about this is a lack of permanent record. You can’t read through the conversation if it’s not permanently in text. So that’s what stood out for me but I get totally where you’re going.

PARTICIPANT: One of the things that we tried to do with the tech team that we work with is if we talk about and if anything comes out of it, we try to figure out where that issue needs to live. Maybe it lives on GitHub, maybe it’s some documentation. Maybe it’s them bringing it back to the Slack for the internal channel, or the tech talk channel, or whatever. And if something is said verbally, that should have a longer life, or be for more people. Then we figure out where it should live and someone will just transcribe it there.

JULIA: So now I’m thinking, now, let’s try to design some solutions. So I’m thinking workflows. Sort of, the ask, like, what the process is for the ask, the actual meeting, and then a resolution to, sort of, resolve those problems to try them from coming back. Like what you could do with those three pieces of the puzzle, to just improve the whole open office hours, sort of, setup. Sound cool? Do we want to do, like, two groups, three groups? One big group? I figured it might be better with scheduling or something, you know?

PARTICIPANT: Smaller groups seems like it would make sense.

JULIA: Cool.

[ Group Work ]

PARTICIPANT: Hey, quit having good ideas over there.

JULIA: So do you guys want to talk about what you were talking about, and then we’ll…?

PARTICIPANT: Sure. Anybody want to summarize?

PARTICIPANT: So we were trying to figure out, I think, in part, like how you address the problem of getting people into—how to combat the uncomfortableness of the pin-drop problem, right? How do you make it they’re not the only ones who chime it, make it more welcome.

PARTICIPANT: We called it the pin drop problem because it feels like you’re the only person asking the question.

PARTICIPANT: And my grand stupidity will be revealed.

PARTICIPANT: Look upon my works in dismay. So the idea was to have, like, a slackbot or something that would take an anonymized message, and so you send a question, and it would be anonymous, and it wouldn’t release those questions until a certain time during office hours. And then the person would answer then. But a person could answer at any time, and it would just queue up for that to be answered. It wouldn’t force people to put their names, or force to put their names out there directly and publicly on what they think is a stupid question.

PARTICIPANT: It also lets you ask the question at the moment you’re stuck, and not two weeks later at office hours when you’ve forgotten.

PARTICIPANT: Okay so a good question to be asked over long periods of time and leading up to the office hours.

PARTICIPANT: So find, like, the office hours person, there’s a bot on there on Slack all the time. Everyone has access to it. And they can shove questions right away into a queue, and then later I read those questions and then anonymously answer them. I don’t know how I would answer them, through video, or text, or whatever. And there’s no reason for people not to show up live, and not answer them more, but it queues up the questions sort of.

JULIA: That’s a cool idea. Thanks. Annabel, do you want to…? You’ve got the notes?

PARTICIPANT: We were also thinking about using Slack as a vehicle for engagement. And we were talking about in talking about how people might engage in office hours, or how people might be free. And then thinking of reminders as a mechanic to get commitment out of your community. We thought about the kind of vulnerability, as well, that people might feel in asking questions and we thought about how you might build reputation and trust. Maybe producing resource materials at the back of any questions that were asked so that people could look at resources, as well, come to actual people, maybe as a reference to you are not alone in asking these questions that you have. And also, buffering that you probably get asked the same question 20 times. Anything that I missed?

PARTICIPANT: How would the Calendly part work?

PARTICIPANT: We didn’t really explore. But we mentioned that people with time would list their time, and people could claim it.

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, I think the other part was that, we got into that by talking about how to get the fact that you’re available out there. I mean, we kind of looked at the idea that it’s probably best to find an already-existing community that is kind of is of your community, like a news generator, for example, and then talk to the people that run that community and say hey, could we at least have a channel for mentorship availability and then it drops a link in there, and maybe some kind of a reminder system that goes on. So kind of compress this idea that you’re available into a link, that you can put it into a place, or into a community where people are likely to be able to see that.

PARTICIPANT: And welt of ways of prompting topics or reminders of specific kinds of collaboration or… yeah.

PARTICIPANT: The question is: What would you love to do professionally, question mark? Let’s talk about it. Or, I’m, you know, I’m—if you’re experiencing these languages in different industries and these things, that’s also a two-way street because also the people who are looking for help could put in the same exact mirror image needs as that one.

JULIA: Cool. Well, we’re out of time so thanks for a great discussion.


[ Applause ]

PARTICIPANT: I assume we can contact you at any time with questions?

JULIA: I’m available Fridays from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. central.