Hillbilly Elegy: Requiem for a Memoir

One of the most talked about books of the last few months is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In it, Vance discusses growing up poor in rural Ohio but overcomes all sorts of family and socioeconomic adversity and ultimately graduates from Yale Law School.

Memoirs are usually chronological and full of anecdotes. When was the last time reading a memoir left you satisfied? Vance’s book doesn’t break the mold of the memoir structure. It’s his prose – specifically his candor and clarity – that separates this from the rest.

I can see why there’s so much discussion about this book. A lot of people believe that Donald Trump was elected because he appealed to, for a lack of better word, hillbillies. People looking for an answer about the election will be disappointed. While I do feel the book is essential, I don’t believe it’s essential to understand the 2016 election. A 2016 release date and the topic of rural America are mere coincidences with the election and its outcome.

When reading the book I couldn’t help but think about There Are No Children Here. Written almost 30 years ago, you could easily swap Appalachia with housing projects in Chicago and the narrative is similar: drugs, violence, parental strife, premature parenthood, income segregation, and a stretched thin social services infrastructure. In many ways our country has come a long way, but stories like Vance’s vividly illustrate that we have a long way to go.

While the perils that populate Vance’s family’s life are all difficult topics which occupy many of the pages of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance doesn’t belabor the point; the book is all thriller, no filler. For being in his early thirties, what he has dealt with in his life could have easily have filled a book double in volume. Vance doesn’t let stories don’t overstay their welcome. He deftly avoids nostalgia and other memoir tropes and keeps the reader invigorated.

In the last few chapters, Vance moves out of Middletown, Ohio to attend Ohio State and then Yale. It’s here where we start to see a mature, adult Vance emerge and his writing adjusts accordingly. He pivots from seeing the world from a child’s perspective and starts effortlessly intertwining self-reflection.

For example, the first time I read the following sentence, it kicked me in the gut:  “The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, has hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession.”

This sentence sets the tone that permeates the last third of the book. Now that he’s moved and returned home, he can see the forest for the trees. He starts realizing the paradoxes of the community he grew up in; the residents of Middletown love their country, but they believe the system (read: Government or any authority) is against them. The aforementioned cynicism makes people think that it’s not their own fault they’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault. Stewing around with that belief “foments detachment.”

Vance’s candid self-awareness really set this book apart from other memoirs.  After reading about his upbringing, which is exotic by most standards, he doesn’t just keep the book going with anecdotes; he graciously lets us into his mind. He doesn’t have answers for everything going on in his world, nor does he try to solve them. While the book was published the election was in full swing, readers wanting answers about the election outcome will be disappointed with this book. Very few politicians are named, and why should they be? This is Vance and his family’s story. His family, and his hillbilly family, have been left behind by politicians for decades. Readers should focus on the narrative and not focus on solutions. By understanding Vance and his family’s story, we can better understand ourselves. And once we have that, I believe we can gain a greater empathy with one another and hopefully that can lead to better discourse that can help eliminate socioeconomic issues in this country.

Distracted Driving

I was planning on writing a book review of Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal. While I own a physical copy of the book, I decided that because I had a six hour drive for work, I could be “efficient” and listen to the audiobook as I trekked across the interstate.

I’ve only listened to audiobooks twice in my life; both times I was driving and it was snowing. Turns out it’s more important to pay attention to the road – when I can see it – than listen to the book.

I’m not posting a review right now because when I was discussing with a coworker one of the arguments Frank makes in his book, I wasn’t able to defend it. In the back of my mind, I could only think that it was because during that chapter I was in white out conditions on I-80/94. Because the exchange left my pride a little wounded, I decided that I would read the physical copy of the book so I could retain the information better.

I listen to a lot of NPR – which is predominantly talk – and can retain information from stories rather well. It might be because when I drive and listen to NPR it’s usually doing errands. Also, I never do errands when it’s snowing.  The key difference between the two is that NPR stories are only several minutes long. Compared to audiobooks, NPR stories are bite size.

While comparing audiobooks to NPR may be like comparing apples and oranges, I do find it interesting that while both formats are primarily spoken word, my retention is apparently better when it’s shorter in duration. I do not think that listening to a book in say n-many five minute chunks would help with my retention. In fact, I’d find it rather annoying.

I think audiobooks are a great idea. However, they might best be suited for autobiographies or fiction. Based on my soft defense of the author’s argument, I realized that when I “read”, especially in an extended format, it’s not beneficial for me to be multitasking. I bet even if there wasn’t precipitation I would be in the same predicament. From now on I’m going to keep my focus on the road and worry about whether or not I know the lyrics to whatever mixtape I’m listening to instead of comprehending something as complex as NAFTA.

InspireX 2017 Recap

Nintex’s InspireX conference is in its second year. I had the pleasure of not only attending but also speaking at this year’s conference. After attending many sessions and having conversations with partners and customers, I’m happy to report that the product suite is healthier than ever and it’s a great time to be building solutions with Nintex products. Let me recap some key things I learned from this conference and where I think the product is going.


A common theme at the conference is that things need to talk to each other. We shouldn’t have to jump around between different systems to complete our processes. Nintex is addressing this with Xtensions. Available in the Nintex Workflow Cloud (NWC), Xtensions allow your workflow to interact with other systems. Basically, this allows users to create their own connectors between the workflow and whatever “thing” the workflow needs to talk to. In several demos, this was showcased; a workflow turned on a IOT lightbulb, and a Raspberry Pi with a microphone initiated a workflow to let us know it was getting too loud.

All of this is done using Swagger. It is rather powerful in several ways. First, you’re not dependent on waiting on Nintex to release a connector; you can develop one yourself. But with Swagger, you can call other operations within the same Swagger definition. Basically you can chain things together, but in a single action. Because of this, Xtensions to me seem like a best of both worlds between a User Defined Action and a connector. I’m really excited to see what’s possible with this. As the platform moves away from being “SharePoint-first” towards more of a workflow-as-a-service, this functionality is going to be key to NWC’s success.

Nintex Keynote


The star of last year’s InspireX had several sessions this year – including one by me, your humble narrator. This year Nintex talked about where they want to go with Hawkeye. While rolling out more lenses and support for the entire Nintex platform (Workflow, O365, NWC) is great, I am most intrigued by the concept of an “Instance Pathway.”

Think of all the branches and paths within a workflow. There’s a lot of permutations as to how the workflow can go. An instance pathway would figure out all these. The thought is by defining an instance pathway, more information can be gleaned from the workflow. For example, Hawkeye can look at a particular pathway and report that there are X-many actions in the pathway. I can see this being used to further drill down into workflows and gain more knowledge about how certain actions are behaving.

This functionality might be forthcoming, but I liked the vision that Nintex is displaying. To me it shows they’re committed not only to Hawkeye, but allowing and enabling users to make great workflows that can be adjusted and corrected over time. Having functionality that allows users to be reflective and introspective about their workflows in my opinion will help drive not only adoption – both of workflow and Hawkeye – but drive users to create future-ready solutions for their organization.


Nintex Forms has been around for a little while, but it is getting an overhaul. The most exciting functionality announced is responsive forms. Coming to on-prem and NWC, users creating forms can choose between a pixel perfect form (aka current state) or a responsive form. A responsive form lets form authors drag and drop controls. Need to change the order? No need to move all the controls manually; it happens automagically! Responsive forms would allow us the ability to move away from using different layouts per device. Overall, the responsive forms look very slick and I cannot wait to use it myself.

There’s other functionality that’s forthcoming which appeals more towards developers (hello save and continue!), but responsive forms is the shot in the arm that Nintex Forms needed.

Me and my presentation title

The Ubiquitous Cloud

The word cloud is pervasive nowadays. Based on the topics at InspireX, cloud software and applications will be more ubiquitous as they permeate our workflows. There were a lot of great discussions about Internet of Things, Azure Functions, Microservices and the like. As more operations use these kinds of resources, it’s only a matter of time before these topics integrate into our workflows. Whether they’re legacy workflows or new workflows, cloud, and the many capabilities it provides, are going to change how we build and think about workflows. My earlier comments about Xtensions just document the “how” not the “what” that cloud solutions can provide to workflows.

In the keynote presentation, Nintex spoke about how their mission is to improve how people work. Connecting a device is one thing, but as Peter Coffee noted we need to move beyond connecting to a smart device and instead focus on having them collaborate. While the phrase “digital transformation” was used a few times at the conference, it makes sense that however your digital transformation manifests itself in your organization, that workflow will be a part of that journey.

Closing Thoughts

I believe 2017 this will be an interesting year for Nintex. While there were not any product announcements like last year, the diversity of topics and depth, leads me to believe that we are living in an exciting time for building solutions with Nintex. In my post at the conclusion of InspireX last year, I said:

With [Hawkeye], the new mobile features, and a forthcoming workflow-as-a-service offering, Nintex seems to be set up for great things in 2016 and beyond. But it’s not just great things with the Microsoft stack. Integrations with other platforms are very promising too. The future of creating solutions with Nintex is so bright, you have to wear shades.

In 2017 I still stand by the statement. Nintex is going to be not only exciting to watch in 2017, but exciting to use. Visiting InspireX is like taking workflow communion and it’s great to see that the community is so fervent about solving problems.

I’m Speaking at InspireX

I’m happy to announce I’ll be speaking at Nintex’s InspireX conference which takes place in New Orleans, February 13-15. My session is called “Dashboard Eye for the Workflow Gal and Guy.” I’ll be speaking about Nintex Hawkeye and Power BI. I will show how you can build great looking dashboards that are not only easy on the eyes, but are easy to create, and full of meaningful data to you and your organization.

Didn’t attend InspireX last year? Read my three part recap here, here, and here.

Register for this year’s conference using this link. See you there!

“Va, Pensiero” and Dissent

I’ve been thinking about dissent a lot lately. With the current administration, I’ve wondered what kind of grand gestures can be done that will convey a message. I don’t think I have to look further than the opera.

Nabucco isn’t my favorite opera, but it contains one of the best pieces of operatic music “Va, Pensiero.” When I read about the rumor that the Drumpf administration plans to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts, the first thing I thought about was “Va, Pensiero” performed in Rome, 2011.

Note: Be sure to turn on closed captioning in YouTube to read the subtitles of Muti’s speech.

In the clip, Ricardo Muti, the conductor, gives an impassioned speech to the crowd. He plays an encore not “only for patriotic reasons” – as the song has been adopted by a slew of political causes over the years – but because if Italy “kill[s] the culture on which is founded the history of Italy, then truly our country will be “beautiful and lost.” He was speaking in regards to proposed budget cuts by the Berlusconi government.

He then leads the orchestra, the chorus, and the audience in a stirring performance of “Va, Pensiero.” While the music is beautiful, what seals the deal for me as this being a dissentful moment is 5:18 in the video when pamphlets start to fall from the boxes. It’s like something out of a Scorsese film.

It’s kind of ironic that now America has elected a Berlusconi of our own and we’re having the same conversations that Italy did several years ago.

When the cast of “Hamilton” let Mike Pence know how they felt about him and Trump, it was incredible and eloquently stated. I would love to see more of this. I understand that people may come to cultural events to seek a reprise from how political our culture is. We, the audience, may not agree on everything, but I have immense respect for eloquent and poignant dissent. I hope dissent in the concert halls and theaters across this land makes encourages more civil discourse because this country needs to understand one another more than ever. Until then, I look forward to seeing an American corollary to “Va, Pensiero” in the near future.