362: Prioritizing Learning

Episode 362 · November 15th, 2022 · 29 mins 40 secs

About this Episode

This week, Steph and Joël discuss investment time and keeping track of things they want to learn.

How do you, dear listener, keep track of things you want to learn? When investment time rolls around, what do you reach for, or how do you prioritize that list? Are there things you actively decide not to focus on when choosing where to develop deep expertise? Are there things you wish you could spend time on if you could?

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STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn.

JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a little bit of what we've learned along the way.

STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world?

JOËL: I was recently having a conversation with another colleague at thoughtbot, and they brought up Bloom's Taxonomy, which is a taxonomy of different phases of learning. It's often visualized as a pyramid with a broad base that starts with remembering facts and then expands up to understanding and then up to applying, and then analyzing, evaluating, and then finally creating. So it's a way to kind of quantify progression of someone who is trying to master a topic.

And what really struck me when I saw this diagram was I immediately thought about how the tech industry interviews and a lot of our interviews are focused on the base of that pyramid. It's all about did you memorize certain facts, or APIs, or things like that? But a lot of the value that we create as developers...but to be good at our jobs, we have to actually be active much higher up in that pyramid in the analyze, evaluate, and create layers.

But unfortunately, I feel like interviews often don't go that far; they're really just focused on the base. So that was a really interesting realization. We were not talking about interviewing, but this colleague shared the diagram. I looked at it, and the first thing I thought was like, oh, this is the problem with a lot of tech interviews these days.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think a lot about how in interviews, we want to be showing off our best selves in a sense. Like, we want our interviewers to see the version of ourselves that we bring to work, which is usually like you were saying, at that top layer and isn't recalling particular facts about how our framework works or things we might have learned in computer science class in college.

And one thing I actually really like about thoughtbot's interview...even in the job application, I think it says, "We want to see your strengths and see you at your best self." And it asks what can we, as thoughtbot, interview you on in a way that gives you the opportunity to display those skills? And so I really like that.

I think I remember when I submitted that application, I might have said something along the lines of debugging a problem because I think that's where I personally shine. I don't know if it ended up being a conscious thing. But I do remember when I was doing the pairing interview, there was an aspect of debugging, and I was like, yes, this is where I can show off what I would normally do in a real-life work situation. So that really resonates with me.

JOËL: Debugging is such a core developer skill, and yet I feel it's not often something that we dig into in a process like an interview. Sometimes you have almost like a code review style where you've got, oh, there is one bug hidden in here, find it, and it's almost like a gotcha sort of thing. I don't like those. But a real situation where you could show off your problem-solving and debugging skills sounds like a really good way to play to your strengths.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. Where else do you think that higher level of critical analysis and creative output shows up in your day-to-day work?

JOËL: I think it has to pervade the day-to-day work. The majority of my job is not remembering what method from enumerable is used to sort an array; it's trying to find a way to translate a problem that the business has into code or a code solution that will satisfy quite a lot of different constraints. This might be something that is doable in one or two days because that's all we have to allocate to this problem.

So a lot of that work could be scoping down a problem. There might be some performance-related constraints where it needs to be faster than X. There are certainly some correctness constraints as well that you're trying to work within. So all of that, I think, is much more at that analysis, evaluation, and creation layers of the pyramid.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a really good point. I think sometimes I've seen interviews try to replicate that or recreate it in an interview question, even though they may be genuinely based off of real-life experiences that companies might have had. But most often, it's really hard to be evaluated on that situation until you're really just doing that work.

JOËL: It is really hard to translate that into an interview format. I think one aspect that I do appreciate, and maybe that's just the consultant in me but having a conversation about trade-offs in a situation where there isn't a single correct answer. And so, maybe the interviewer and the candidate have different conclusions. But as long as they can show their reasoning down that path of why they came to the conclusion that they did, I think that's the important part of that.

The hard thing is if the interviewer has their preferred solution, and they're just like, "No, you didn't come to my conclusion," then that's not a good interview. But a situation where a candidate gets to demonstrate their critical thinking skills, their analysis skills, their ability to make difficult decisions to balance trade-offs, I think that's a great way to show off some of those high-level skills that honestly we use on a daily basis.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree 100%.

JOËL: So that's what I've been kind of excited about recently, just seeing this diagram and having that moment of clarity about interviewing. What's something new in your world, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE: That's really interesting that you brought that up because it's kind of related to what I was going to say about what I've been working on on my client project, which is the ambiguity of the rewrite. So I mentioned last week that I've been rewriting some Rails views. And we're working on a pretty old legacy application, so there are a lot of things that, as we're rewriting, we need to figure out whether or not we want to include it in the new version.

So it's been a little more challenging than just copying over the functionality that you want because there are a lot of things in this legacy app that were written 10-12 years ago that we don't have any context on, especially as consultants and even the people we're working with on this team, the code might even predate them.

So we do our best to ask them questions about, hey, is this still necessary? Do you think we want it in this rewrite? And they don't always know the answers. And so we have to make our best judgment and make a lot of micro-level decisions about what we think is important to bring into this rewrite without a ton of that historical context. So when you were talking about those analytical, critical thinking skills, that seemed like a very relevant experience that I would say has been utilizing those aspects of learning.

JOËL: Definitely, especially for a codebase that is that old. I feel like ten years is almost like a generation in software developer terms. Ten years ago would be what? 2012. That's Rails 3 still. I forget when Rails 4 came out. But yeah, that's a long time ago when you talk about technology. And at a company, even the odds of someone sticking around for that long are very low.

STEPHANIE: Absolutely. And so sometimes we just choose to leave the code as it is, and we will just copy and paste it. But other times, we might try to rewrite it in a more modern way. One thing that we did recently was migrate a hand-rolled form builder to use Simple Form. And we did our best to retain most of the original functionality. But there were aspects of it, things like browser validation and stuff like that, that had to change because we made the conscious decision to use a more modern form builder.

But then there were always going to be some differences, and so we had to reconcile those with the product team, have a lot of communication around what was important to keep and what wasn't. And yeah, really, just try to get the code in a better spot if we can while also acknowledging that some things have been working for ten years, and that's okay too.

JOËL: So you're talking about a lot of old code that you're working with and seeing how much things have changed over ten years. And I feel like, as software developers, we're constantly having to learn and hone our skills, but it can really be overwhelming because there's so much to learn. How do you prioritize what you want to learn next?

STEPHANIE: At thoughtbot, we're lucky enough to have investment times. So typically, on Fridays, most of us will not be working on client work, but we'll be working on things to improve thoughtbot internally or improve ourselves professionally. So I'm really grateful that I have dedicated learning time, and figuring out how to spend it has been both fun and also fraught in a way because like you were saying, there are so many things I want to learn about, and we internally have so much lively discussion about really cool technical things.

But I've kind of accepted that I'm not going to be able to learn it all. And so when Friday does roll around, I do have to figure out, okay, how do I want to spend my precious investment time today? For me, it honestly feels really dependent on how I'm doing that Friday. So I do have a bit of a backlog of talks and articles that I've collected along the way or bookmarked that I might come back to if that is the mode I'm in. I also have bigger themes, I think, around frameworks and technologies that I want to dig a little more deeply into.

I've been trying to work through a TypeScript tutorial for a while now, especially because it's not something that I've gotten a chance to spend a ton of time on in client work. And so in some ways, it's like, well, if I want to work on a client project using TypeScript, then I feel like I should brush up on TypeScript first. So that's kind of in the back of my head is just a more nebulous goal. But I also think that it really changes depending on how I'm feeling throughout the year. It could be very well that the TypeScript thing never comes to fruition and maybe something else will grab my attention.

JOËL: I'm sure there are lessons, though, that you would learn from TypeScript that you could then use to improve your day-to day-work on a Rails project, for example.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the really cool thing is that everything I learn in some way can connect to other things that I do know, or experience, or come across during my everyday work. So none of it ever feels like a waste of time. I think the best feeling is when you can make that connection as you are experiencing something in the codebase that reminds you of something you read about in a blog post or something like that.

JOËL: Connections are one of the most crucial parts of, I think, knowledge creation. And in a past episode on note-taking, we had a whole deep conversation about how sometimes making connections between some of your notes is almost more valuable than taking a note by itself.

STEPHANIE: Joël, how do you prioritize your learning?

JOËL: I have three broad categories of technical learning that I like to do. The first is anything related to my core language and framework, and as of right now, that is Ruby, Rails. And maybe a little bit more broadly, anything related to the paradigms related to that, so object-oriented design, patterns related to that, all things that will help me to write better Ruby and Rails code.

Then there are evergreen skills that are always great to invest in, things like getting better at Git, learning a little bit of SQL, getting better at doing things on the command line. Those are all things that I look to level up every now and then. And then, finally, just whatever interests me right now. I find that the return on investment for the amount of time you put in versus the amount of knowledge you get out is much higher when I'm personally interested.

So it might be something completely unrelated to maybe more strategic elements of tech that I'm trying to get, but if I'm interested, it's worth putting a little bit of time into that. And so, for me, several years ago, that was functional programming types. Elm, I went really deep into that. And I think that really unlocked a whole other way of thinking about software for me and helped me...like we were saying earlier, I was able to bring that back to the way I think about Rails applications, the way I think about test-driven development. And that really rounded out my thinking, I think.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think focusing your energy into where you're interested in makes it easier, for sure. It makes it more fun. I think like you're saying, your learning gets accelerated. And I think it's also really cool that people have different interests that they do like to go deep on. So maybe you might be thinking that you should focus your energy on this other aspect of development that you think would be really cool or useful in your work but doesn't necessarily interest you that much. Chances are that there's someone else who loves learning and talking about it, and you can use them as a resource when you want to know more.

JOËL: That is a really important aspect because learning is not necessarily a solo activity. So sometimes, maybe I'm not even just prioritizing things that I think are strategically good for me or even things I'm just interested in. It might be things that my colleagues are interested in. So we have a book club that we run at thoughtbot. We've been going through the book Ruby Science, and there have been some great discussions around that. Recently, we've also been doing watch parties for episodes of I know it is RubyTapas by Avdi Grimm, but I think it rebranded recently, and I forget the new name of it, Graceful...I think Graceful.Dev.

STEPHANIE: Graceful Devs, I think, yeah.

JOËL: So we've been watching some of these together as a team and then having a conversation afterwards, so that's also been great.

STEPHANIE: That's really cool. Yeah, I think getting other people involved makes it a lot more fun. And you have an accountability buddy. And you can have those deep, thoughtful conversations about the things you've learned.


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STEPHANIE: I'm curious, have you ever made a conscious effort to not focus on something super deeply?

JOËL: I don't know that I've made a decision to be like, I will not spend time here. But I've definitely made a decision to I will invest here and maybe not care quite as much there. So I've done quite a bit of different front-end technologies, starting with jQuery and Backbone.js and moving through a lot of the frameworks. Somehow I have not yet done much React. It's sort of a big hole in that list of frameworks that I have worked with. It's just not something that I've prioritized. I've done other things. I've learned concepts that I think mirror a lot of what React does, but that's not been something that I've dug into.

STEPHANIE: That's really interesting because I think a lot of people think that they need to learn React because it's the popular front-end framework of the time. And so they think that it's something that they should know, or if they do ever have to work on a project with React, that kind of contributes to that feeling. But I like what you were saying earlier about how you have experience with other front-end frameworks. And that can help inform you if you ever do have to work in it. And also, there are so many great expert React devs out there. Like, we don't have to all be that dev.

JOËL: Yeah. I think there can definitely be a pressure to feel like you have to know it all. And a lot of these tech stacks are changing so quickly that it becomes overwhelming to try to just keep up with everything.

STEPHANIE: For sure. I remember having to write some tests for a React app, and the things that I had learned several years ago using Enzyme or something were no longer as relevant today, and having to pick up on the new best practices for writing Jest tests and React Testing Library. It was a lot, even though I was able to identify aspects of it that lined up with what I knew. It can be overwhelming, for sure. And people spend a lot of time digging deep into this framework and like I said, becoming those experts and accepting that I probably won't be that person [laughs] was also a little bit liberating, I think.

JOËL: It's also important, I think, to accept that these sorts of labels of I'm that person, or I'm not that person are not permanent. It's I'm not that person now because that's not where I want to prioritize my time. Maybe in two or three years, it will make sense for me to become that person. And I can become that person if I put in the time, but today is not the day for me to be that person.

STEPHANIE: That's a really good way of putting that. I like that a lot.

JOËL: One struggle that I have, and I've seen a lot of people too is that it's easy to get very scattered in your learning that you'll have a lot of different things you're trying to learn at the same time or you feel like you want to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And then maybe you don't go very deep in any of them and feel like you're not being very effective with your time. Do you ever feel that, and do you have any strategies you like to use to make the most out of your learning time?

STEPHANIE: I really relate to that. And I think one resource that helped me reframe that conundrum if you will, was this book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. It was really interesting because it kind of turned productivity culture around a bit on its head because his whole thesis is that you won't achieve at all and that by trying to hack your own productivity, what you're really preventing yourself from doing is accepting the fact that time is finite. And that you have to make hard decisions about where to focus your time in a way that will enrich your life the most.

And sacrifice the idea that you will get to do everything on your to-do list, that you will learn every framework that you want to learn. And it's still hard for me to totally accept that. But I think I'm inching towards the idea that if I do drop a ball on something that I have had bookmarked for at this point, you know, a year, I'm probably never going to get around to reading that. And that's okay because I'm still getting by with the things that I am learning and applying them in the aspects of my work that are relevant to me today.

JOËL: That sounds like a really refreshing take on productivity culture, maybe with some hard truths in there as well. Is 4,000 weeks the human lifespan?

STEPHANIE: [laughs] Yeah, it is. It's really funny because I think he even starts off in the book quizzing one of his friends, like, how many weeks do you think we have to live? And his friend very naively answered, "Oh, must be, you know, 500,000 or so," or something like that. But he used that as an illustration of how we inflate how much time we think that we might have in a day, a week, our lifespan. [laughs]

JOËL: I'm a big history nerd in my personal time. You see this theme that comes up a lot in medieval European art and the 1400s after a lot of these big plagues have happened where they feature a lot of death or skeletons or those sorts of motifs that are much more prevalent than maybe an earlier art, and this idea that comes with a Latin phrase Memento Mori (remember death). And I think there's maybe an element of that that comes back into this book at least the way you were describing it, the idea that you only have 4,000 weeks, roughly, in your life, so make the best use of it.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. It's nothing new, for sure. I think it's just one of those things that we've been grappling with as a species for as long as we've existed. [laughs] So I don't know if anyone out there feels slightly relieved that it's okay for them not to get through their list of bookmarked articles about technical things. I hope that feels slightly better for you.

JOËL: We give you permission for you, the audience, to go to your bookmarks and those articles that you've been meaning to read for two years and you haven't got to; it's okay to remove them. You will be okay.

STEPHANIE: Agreed. So we've talked about how we spend our investment time. But I'm curious, do you have any strategies for people who do most of their learning in their everyday work?

JOËL: You know, I think that applies to me as well. We've been heavily emphasizing investment time, but that's only one day a week. And four days a week, I am doing regular application development for clients. And so the majority of my hours in a week are going to be dedicated to that. I find that being very self-aware for the things that you do and trying to notice when I learn something new or when I interact with something new has really helped me get more out of my day-to-day work.

And a way to level that, I think, is to be on the lookout for opportunities to share with others. And that can be as small as just put a today I learned message in a group chat, maybe in thoughtbot's Slack developer channel, and just say, "Hey, today I learned this interesting thing about a particular method." Or "Today I learned this weird thing about time zones." Or "Today I learned this interesting fact about testing." And then that might start a discussion, or it might not. But the fact that I took the time to take it out of my head and write it out, I think, makes that more concrete, and it helps me hold on to it.

STEPHANIE: I've noticed you are really good about doing that, about sharing things that you encounter in your everyday work in a very low-stakes kind of way. I am not so good at doing that. I tend to be so steeped in client work, and I have to really intentionally, after a project is over, think about what I learned along the way. And oftentimes, they're not as small, incremental atomic bits of information but bigger picture things about, oh, I learned how to navigate this aspect of ambiguity.

And maybe the next time, I can point to a past experience or lean on a little bit more on my gut instinct to guide me towards making the right decision. And I think that's an important aspect of learning too, even if it wasn't necessarily a technical tidbit. It is part of becoming a better developer, just as equally as gaining that more concrete technical knowledge.

JOËL: Intuition, I think, is really important as developers, and honing that intuition is something that is really valuable. One way that I found helpful is dialogue, just a conversation with one other person, maybe it's asynchronous over Slack, maybe it's a call in person, and just talking through an idea that I have.

A recent one and I think I mentioned this on the previous episode of The Bike Shed, was talking about RSpec matchers. And does your choice of matcher impact the sorts of design that will come out of the code that you write? Does EQ tend to push you in a direction maybe where you're less strongly encapsulating data? And so that's just a thought, and then you have a conversation about it. And then that can help sharpen your intuition so that the next time you're writing a test you're not just thoughtlessly bringing in a matcher because whatever; it's the thing to do.

And initially, maybe it's not intuition; it's much more explicit. You're thinking, ooh, do I want EQ, or do I want not? But I imagine that after six months of me being hyperaware of that, I will have built up some intuitions to be like, oh, this is the place where we want a custom matcher, or here's the place where I want EQ.

And my hope is that that will eventually come to the point where it's so natural. Someone would almost have to stop me and say, hey, wait, why are you choosing that? And then I have to think a little bit and be like, oh, it's because of these things. But I'll have started with a conversation, which then turned into just hyperawareness thinking about it every time I do that action which then turns into intuition.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think you can also call that experience. I remember having a conversation with someone, and I told them that I could inject their brain with all of the knowledge and information that I had. But that isn't quite the same as having really experienced the process of gaining that knowledge through more conventional learning methods but also that day-to-day client work that you're doing. So I totally agree with you there.

JOËL: You took this whole long thing I had to say and were able to condense it down to one word: experience.

STEPHANIE: [laughs]

JOËL: Which I think, yeah, exactly describes what I'm trying to say. And with that, shall we wrap up?

STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up.

JOËL: The show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

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Thank you so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. Byeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

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