429: Transforming Experience Into Growth

Episode 429 · June 18th, 2024 · 43 mins 38 secs

About this Episode

Stephanie has a newfound interest in urban foraging for serviceberries in Chicago. Joël discusses how he uses AI tools like ChatGPT to generate creative Dungeons & Dragons character concepts and backstories, which sparks a broader conversation with Stephanie about AI's role in enhancing the creative process.

Together, the hosts delve into professional growth and experience, specifically how to leverage everyday work to foster growth as a software developer. They discuss the importance of self-reflection, note-taking, and synthesizing information to enhance learning and professional development. Stephanie shares her strategies for capturing weekly learnings, while Joël talks about his experiences using tools like Obsidian's mind maps to process and synthesize new information. This leads to a broader conversation on the value of active learning and how structured reflection can turn routine work experiences into meaningful professional growth.


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

STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.

JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world?

STEPHANIE: So, as of today, while we record this, it's early June, and I have started foraging a little bit for what's called serviceberries, which is a type of tree/shrub that is native to North America. And I feel like it's just one of those, like, things that more people should know about because it makes these little, tiny, you know, delicious fruit that you can just pick off of the tree and have a little snack. And what's really cool about this tree is that, like I said, it's native, at least to where I'm from, and it's a pretty common, like, landscaping tree.

So, it has, like, really pretty white flowers in the spring and really beautiful, like, orange kind of foliage in the fall. So, they're everywhere, like, you can, at least where I'm at in Chicago, I see them a lot just out on the sidewalks. And whenever I'm taking a walk, I can just, yeah, like, grab a little fruit and have a little snack on them. It's such a delight. They are a really cool tree. They're great for birds. Birds love to eat the berries, too.

And yeah, a lot of people ask my partner, who's an arborist, like, if they're kind of thinking about doing something new with the landscaping at their house, they're like, "Oh, like, what are some things that I should plant?" And serviceberry is his recommendation. And now I'm sharing it with all of our Bike Shed listeners. If you've ever wondered about [laughs] a cool and environmentally beneficial tree [laughs] to add to your front yard, highly recommend, yeah, looking out for them, looking up what they look like, and maybe you also can enjoy some June foraging.

JOËL: That's interesting because it sounds like you're foraging in an urban environment, which is typically not what I associate with the idea of foraging.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a great point because I live in a city. I don't know, I take what I can get [laughs]. And I forget that you can actually forage for real out in, you know, nature and where there's not raccoons and garbage [laughs]. But yeah, I think I should have prefaced by kind of sharing that this is a way if you do live in a city, to practice some urban foraging, but I'm sure that these trees are also out in the world, but yeah, have proved useful in an urban environment as well.

JOËL: It's really fun that you don't have to, like, go out into the countryside to do this activity. It's a thing you can do in the environment that you live in.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that was one of the really cool things that I got into the past couple of years is seeing, even though I live in a city, there's little pieces of nature around me that I can engage with and picking fruit off of people's [inaudible 03:18] [laughs], like, not people's, but, like, parkway trees. Yeah, the serviceberry is also a pretty popular one here that's planted in the Chicago parks. So, yeah, it's just been like, I don't know, a little added delight to my days [laughs], especially, you know, just when you're least expecting it and you stumble upon it. It's very fun.

JOËL: That is really fun. It's great to have a, I guess, a snack available wherever you go.

STEPHANIE: Anyway, Joël, what is new in your world?

JOËL: I've been intersecting two, I guess, hobbies of mine: D&D and AI. I've been playing a lot of one-shot games with friends, and that means that I need to constantly come up with new characters. And I've been exploring what AI can do to help me develop more interesting or compelling character concepts and backstories. And I've been pretty satisfied with the result.

STEPHANIE: Cool. Yeah. I mean, if you're playing a lot and having to generate a lot of new ideas, it can be hard if you're, you know, just feeling a little empty [laughs] in terms of, you know, coming up with a whole character. And that reminds me of a conversation that you and I had in person, like, last month as we were talking about just how you've been, you know, experimenting with AI because you had used it to generate images for your RailsConf talk.

And I think I connected it to the idea of, like, randomness [laughs] and how just injecting some of that can help spark some more, I think, creativity, or just help you think of things in a new way, especially if you're just, like, having a hard time coming up with stuff on your own. And even if you don't, like, take exactly what's kind of provided to you in a generative AI, it at least, I don't know, kind of presents you with something that you didn't see before, or yeah, it's just something to react to.

JOËL: Yeah, it's a great tool for getting unstuck from that kind of writer's block or that, like, blank page feeling. And oftentimes, it'll give you a thing, and you're like, that's not really exactly what I wanted. But it sparks another idea, which is what I actually want. Or sometimes you can be like, "Hey, here's an idea I have. I'm not sure what direction to take it in. Give me a few options." And then, you see that, and you're like, "Oh, that's actually pretty interesting."

One thing that I think is interesting is once I've come up with a little bit of the character concept, or maybe even, like, a backstory element...so, I'm using ChatGPT, and it has that concept of memory. And so, throughout the conversation, it keeps bringing it back. So, if I tell it, "Look, this is an element that's going to be core to the character," and then later on, I'm like, "Okay, help me brainstorm some potential character flaws for this character," it'll actually find things that connect back to my, like, core concept, or maybe an element of the backstory. And it'll give me like, you know, 5 or 10 different ideas, and some of them can be actually really good.

So, I've really enjoyed doing that. It's not so much to just generate me a character so much as it is like a conversation back and forth of like, "Okay, help me come up with a vibe for it. Okay, now that I have a vibe or a backstory element or, like, a concept, help me workshop this thing. And what about that?" And if I want to say, "It's going to be this character class, what are maybe some ways I could develop it that are unusual?" and just sort of step by step kind of choose your own adventure. And it kind of walking me through the process has been really fun.

STEPHANIE: Nice. Yeah, the way you're talking about it makes a lot of sense to me how asking it to help you, not necessarily do all of it, like, you know, kind of just spit out something that you're like, okay, like, that's what I'm going to use, approaching it as a tool, and yeah, that's really fun. Have you had good experiences then playing with those characters [chuckles]?

JOËL: I have. I think it's also really great for sort of padding out some of the content. So, I had a character I played who was a washed-up politician. And at one point, I knew that I was going to have to make a campaign speech. And I asked ChatGPT, "Can you help me, like...here are the themes I want to hit. Give me a, like, classic, very politician-sounding speech that sounds inspiring but also says nothing at the same time." And it did a really good job of that. And you can tell it, "Oh, that's too long. That's too short. I want three sentences. I want five sentences." And that was great. So, I saved that, brought it to the table, and read out my campaign speech, and it was a hit.

STEPHANIE: Amazing. That's really fun. I like that because, yeah, I don't think...I am so poor at just improvising things like that, even though, like, I want to really embody the character. So, that's cool that you found a way to help you be able to do that because that just feels like kind of what playing D&D can be about.

JOËL: I've never DM'd, but I could imagine a situation where, because the DMs have to improv so much, and you know what the players do, I could imagine having a tool like that available behind the DM screen being really helpful. So, all of a sudden, someone's just like, "Oh, I went to a place," and, like, all of a sudden, you have to, like, sort of generate a village and, like, ten characters on the spot for people that you didn't expect, or an organization or something like that. I could imagine having a tool like that, especially if it's already primed with elements from your world that you've created, being something really helpful. That being said, I've never DM'd myself, so I have no idea what it actually is like to be on the other side of that screen.

STEPHANIE: Cool. I mean, if you ever do try that or have a DM experience and you're like, hmm, I wonder kind of how I might be able to help me here, I bet that would be a very cool experience to share on the show.

JOËL: I definitely have to report back here.

Something that I've been thinking about a lot recently is the difference between sort of professional growth and experience, so the time that you put into doing work. Particularly maybe because, you know, we spend part of our week doing client work, and then we have part of the week that's dedicated to maybe more directly professional growth: our investment day. How do we grow from that, like, four days a week where we're doing client work? Because not all experience is created equal.

Just because I put in the hours doesn't mean that I'm going to grow. And maybe I'm going to feel like I'm in a rut. So, how do I take those four days a week that I'm doing code and transform that into some sort of growth or expansion of my knowledge as a developer? Do you have any sort of tactics that you like to use or ways you try to be a little bit more mindful of that?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, this is a fun question for me, and kind of reminds me of something we've talked a little bit about before. I can't remember if it was, like, on air or just separately, but, you know, we talk a lot about, like, different learning strategies on the show, I think, because that's just something you and I are very into. And we often, like, lean on, you know, our investment day, so our Fridays that we get to not do client work and kind of dedicate to professional development.

But you and I also try to remember that, like, most people don't have that. And most people kind of are needing to maybe find ways to just grow from the day-to-day work that they do, and that is totally possible, I think. And some of the strategies that I have are, I guess, like, it is really...it can be really challenging to, like, you know, be like, okay, I spent 40 hours doing this, and like, what did I learn [chuckles]? Feeling like you have to have something to show for it or something to point to.

And one thing that I've been really liking is these automated check-ins we have at the end of the week. And, you know, I suspect that this is not that uncommon for just, like, a workplace to be like, "Hey, like, how did your week go? Like, what are some ways that it was successful? Like, what are your challenges? Like, where do you need support or help?" And I think I've now started using that as both, like, space for giving an update on just, like, business-y things. Like, "Here's the status of this project," or, like, "Here's, you know, a roadblock that we faced that took some extra time," or whatever.

Then also being like, oh, this is a great time to make this space for myself, especially because...I don't know about you, but whenever I have, like, performance review time and I have to write, like, a self-review, I'm just like, did I do anything in the last six months [laughs], or how have I grown in the last six months? It feels like such a big question, kind of like you were talking about that blank page syndrome a little bit.

But if I have kind of just put in the 10 minutes during my Friday to be like, is there something that was kind of just for me that I can say in my check-in? I can go back and, yeah, just kind of start to see just, like, you know, pick out or just pay attention to how, like, my 40 hours is kind of serving me in growing in the ways that I want to and not just to deliver code [laughs].

JOËL: What you're describing there, that sort of weekly check-in and taking notes, reminds me of the practice of journaling. Is that something that you've ever tried to do in your, like, regular life?

STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, very much so. But I'm not nearly as, like, routine about it in my personal life. But I suspect that the routine is helpful in more of a, like, workplace setting, at least for me, because I do have, like, more clear pathways of growth that I'm interested in or just, like, something that, I don't know, not that it's, like, expected of everyone, but if that is part of your goals or, like, part of your company's culture, I feel like I benefit from that structure. And yeah, I mean, I guess maybe that's kind of my way of integrating something that I already do in my personal life to an environment where, like I said, maybe there is, like, that is just part of the work and part of your career progression.

JOËL: I'm curious about the frequency. You mentioned that you sort of do this once a week, sort of a check-in at the end of the week. Do you find that once a week is about the right frequency versus maybe something like daily? I know a lot of these sort of more modern note-taking systems, Roam Research, or Obsidian, or whatever, have this concept of, like, a daily note that's supposed to encourage something that's kind of like journaling. Have you ever tried something more on a daily basis, or do you feel like a week is about...or once a week is about the right cadence for you?

STEPHANIE: Listen, I have, like, complicated feelings about this because I think the daily note is so aspirational for me [laughs] and just not how I work. And I have finally begrudgingly come to accept this no matter how much, like, I don't know, like, bullet journal inspirational content I consume on the internet [laughs]. I have tried and failed many a time to have more frequency in that way. But, I don't know, I think it almost just, like, sets me up for failure [laughs] because I have these expectations.

And that's, like, the other thing. It's like, you can't force learning necessarily. I don't know if this is, like, a strategy, but I think there is some amount of, like, making sure that I'm in the right headspace for it and, you know, like, my environment, too, kind of is conducive to it. Like, I have, like, the time, right? If I'm trying to squeeze in, I don't know, maybe, like, in between meetings, 20 minutes to be like, what did I learn from this experience? Nothing's coming out [laughs].

That was another thing that I was kind of mulling over when he had this topic proposed is this idea of, like, mindset and environment being really important because you know when you are saying, like, not all time is created equal, and I suspect that if, you know, either you or, like, the people around you and the environment you're in is not also facilitating growth, and, like, how much can you really expect for it to be happening?

JOËL: I mean, that's really interesting, right? The impact of sort of a broader company culture. And I think that definitely can act as a catalyst for growth, either to kind of propel you forward or to pull you back.

I want to dig into a little bit something you were saying about being in the right headspace to capture ideas. And I think that there's sort of almost, like, two distinct phases. There's the, like, capturing data, and information, and experiences, and then, there's synthesizing it, turning information into learning.


JOËL: And it sounds like you're making a distinction between those two things, specifically that synthesis step is something that has to happen separately.

STEPHANIE: Ooh, I don't even...I don't know if I would necessarily say that I'm only talking about synthesis, but I do like that you kind of separated those categories because I do think that they are really important. And they kind of remind me a lot about the scientific method a little bit where, you know, you have the gathering data and, like, observations, and you have, you know, maybe some...whatever is precipitating learning that you're doing maybe differently or new.

And that also takes time, I think, or intention at least, to be like, oh, do I have what I need to, like, get information about how this is going? And then, yeah, that synthesis step that I think I was talking about a little bit more. But I don't think either is just automatic. There is, I think, quite a bit of intention involved.

JOËL: I think maybe the way I think about this is colored by reading some material on the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, which splits up the idea of fleeting notes and literature notes, which are sort of just, like, jotting down ideas, or things you've seen, things that you've learned, maybe a thought you had when you read a particular paragraph in a blog post, something like that.

And then, the permanent notes, which are more, like, fully formed thoughts that arise out of the more fleeting ones. And so, the idea is that the fleeting ones maybe you're taking those in a notebook if you're doing it pen and paper. You could be doing it in some sort of, like, daily note, or something like that. And then, those are temporary. They were there to just capture information. Later on, you process that, and then you can throw them out if you need to.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. This has actually been a shift for me, where I used to rely a lot more on memory and perhaps, like, didn't have a great system for taking things like fleeting notes and, like, documenting kind of [inaudible 18:28] what I was saying earlier about how do I make sure that the information is recorded, you know, for me to synthesize later? And I have found a lot more success lately in that fleeting note style of operating. And thanks to Obsidian honestly, now it's so easy to be like, oh, I'm just going to open a quick new file. And I need as little friction as possible to, like, put stuff somewhere [laughs].

And, actually, I'm excited to talk a little bit more about this with you because I think you're a little bit different where you somehow find the time [laughs] and care to create your diagrams. I'm like, if I can, for some reason, even get an Obsidian file open, I'll tab to Slack. And I send myself a lot of notes in my just own personal DM space. In fact, it's actually kind of embarrassing because I use the Command+K shortcut to navigate to my own personal DMs, which you can get to by typing me, like, M-E.

And sometimes I've accidentally just entered that into a channel chat [laughs], and then I have to delete it really quick later when I realize what I've done. So, yeah, like, I meant to navigate to my personal notes, and I just put in our team chat, "Me [laughs]." And, I don't know, I have no idea how that comes up [laughs], what people think is going on. But if anyone's listening to this podcast from thoughtbot and has seen that of me, that's what happened.

JOËL: You may not be the only one who's done that.

STEPHANIE: Thank you. Yeah [laughs], that's good to know.

JOËL: I want to step back a little bit because we've been talking about, like, introspection, and synthesis, and finding moments to capture information. And I think we've sort of...there's an unspoken assumption here that a way to kind of turbocharge learning from day-to-day experience is some form of synthesis or self-reflection. Would you agree with that statement?

STEPHANIE: Okay. This is another thing that I am perhaps, like, still trying to figure out, and we can figure it out together, which is separating, like, self-driven learning and, like, circumstance-driven learning. Because it's so much easier to want to reflect on something and find time to be, like, oh, like, how does this kind of help my goals or, like, what I want to be doing with my work? Versus when you are just asked to do something, and it could still be learning, right? It could still be new, and you need to go do some research or, you know, play around with a new tool. But there's less of that internal motivation or, like, kind of drive to integrate it. Like, do you have this distinction?

JOËL: I've definitely noticed that when there is motivation, I get more out of every hour of work that I put in in terms of learning new things. The more interest, the more motivation, the more value I get per unit of effort I put in.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think, for me, the other difference is, like, generative learning versus just kind of absorbing information that's already out there that someone else's...that is kind of, yeah, just absorbing rather than, like, creating something new from, like, those connections.

JOËL: Ooh.

STEPHANIE: Does that [chuckles] spark something for you?

JOËL: The gears are turning in my head because I'm almost hearing that as, like, a passive versus active learning thing. But just sort of like, I'm going to let things happen to me, and I will come out of that with some experience, and something is going to happen. Versus an active, I am going to, like, try to move in a direction and learn from that and things like that.

And I think this maybe connects back to the original question. Maybe this sort of, like, checking in at the end of the week, taking notes is a way to convert something that's a bit more of a passive experience, spending four days a week doing a project for a client, into something that's a little bit of a more active learning, where you say, "Okay, I did four weeks of this particular type of Rails work. What do I get out of it? What have I learned? What is something new that I've seen? What are some opinions I have formed, patterns I like or dislike?"

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that distinction because, you know, a few weeks ago, we were at RailsConf. We had kind of recapped it in a previous episode. And I think we had talked about like, oh, do we, like, to sit in talks or participate in workshops? And I think that's also another example of, like, passive versus active, right? Because I 100%, like, don't have the same type of learning by just, you know, listening to a talk that I do with maybe then going to look up, like, other things this person has put out in the world, finding them to talk to them about it, like, doing something with the content, right? Otherwise, it's just like, oh yeah, I heard this talk. Maybe one day I'll remember it when the need arises [laughs]. I, like, have a pointer to it in my brain. But until then, it probably just kind of, like, sits there, and nothing's really happened with it.

JOËL: I think maybe another thing that's interesting in that passive versus active distinction is that synthesis is inherently an act of creation. You are now creating new ideas of your own rather than just capturing information that is being thrown at you, either by sitting in a talk or by shipping tickets. The act of synthesizing and particularly, I think, making connections between ideas, either because something that, let's say you're in a talk, a speaker said that sparks an idea for yourself, or because you can connect something that speaker said with another idea that you already have or an idea that you've seen elsewhere.

So, you're like, oh, the thing this person is saying connects to this thing I read in a book or something another speaker said in an earlier session, or something like that. All of a sudden, now you're creating these new bits of knowledge, new perspectives, maybe even new mental models. We talked about mental models last week. And so, knowledge is not just the facts that you absorb or memorize. A lot of it is building the connections between those facts. And those are things that are not always given to you. You have to create them yourself.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I am nodding my head a lot because that's resonating with, like, an experience that I'm having kind of coaching and mentoring a client developer on my team who is earlier in her career. And one thing that I've been really, like, working on with her is asking like, "Oh, like, what do you think of this?" Or like, "Have you seen this before? What are your reactions to this code, or, like this comment?" or whatever.

And I get the sense that, like, not a lot of people have prompted her to, like, come up with answers for those kinds of questions. And I'm really, really hopeful that, like, that kind of will help her achieve some of the goals that she's, like, hoping for in terms of her technical growth, especially where she's felt like she's stagnated a little bit.

And I think that calls back really well to what you said at the beginning of, like, you can spend years, right? Just kind of plugging away. But that's not the same as that really active growth. And, again, like, that's fine if that's where you're at or want to be at for a little while. But I suspect if anyone is kind of, like, wondering, like, where did that time go [laughs]...even for me, too, like, once someone started asking me those questions, I was like, oh, there's still so much to figure out or explore.

And I think you're actually really good at doing that, asking questions of yourself. And then, another thing that I've picked up from you is you ask questions about, like, what are questions other people would have? And that's a skill that I feel like I still have yet to figure out. I'm [chuckles] curious what you think about that.

JOËL: That's interesting because that kind of goes to another level. I often think of the questions other people would have from a more, like, pedagogical sense. So, I write a lot of blog posts. I write a lot of talks that I give. So, oftentimes when I'm creating that kind of material, there's a bit of an inner critic who's trying to, you know, sitting in the audience listening to myself speak, and who's going to maybe roll their eyes at certain points, or just get lost, or maybe raise their hand with a question. And that's who I try to address those things so that then when I go through it the next time, that inner critic is actually feeling engaged and paying attention.

STEPHANIE: Do you find that you're able to do that because you've seen that happen enough times where you're like, oh, I can kind of predict maybe what someone might feel confused about? I'm curious, like, how you got from being, like, well, I know what I would be confused about to what would someone else be unsure or, like, want more information about.

JOËL: Part of the answer there is that I'm a very harsh critic myself.

STEPHANIE: [laughs] Yes.

JOËL: So, I'm sitting in somebody else's talk, and there are probably parts where I'm rolling my eyes or being like, wait a minute, how did you get from this idea to this other thing? That doesn't follow. And so, I try to turn that back towards myself and use that as fuel to make my own work better.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's cool. I like that. Even if it's just framed as, like, a missed opportunity for people to have better or more comprehensive understanding. I know that's something that you're, like, very motivated to help kind of spread more of [laughs]. Understanding and learning is just important to you and to me. So, I think that's really cool that you're able to find ways to do that.

JOËL: Well, you definitely want to, I think, to keep a sort of beginner's mindset for a lot of these things, and one of the best ways to do that is to work with beginners. So, I spent a lot of time, back in the day, for example, in the Elm language chat room, just helping people answer basic questions, looking up documentation, explaining sort of basic concepts.

And that, I think, helped me get a sense of like, where were newcomers to the language getting stuck? And what were the explanations of those concepts that really connected? Which I could then translate into my work. And I think that that made me a better developer and helped me build this, like, really deep understanding of the underlying concepts in a way that I wouldn't have had just writing code on my own.

STEPHANIE: Wow, forum question answering hero. I have never thought to do that or felt compelled to do that. But I remember my friend was telling me, she was like, "Yeah, sometimes I just want to feel good about myself. And I remember that I know things that other people, like, are wanting to find out," and she just will answer some easy questions on Stack Overflow, you know, about, like, basic Rails stuff or something. And she is like, "Yeah, and that's doing my good deed [laughs]." And yeah, I think that it also, you know, has the same benefits that you were just saying earlier about...because you want to be helpful, you figure out how to actually be helpful, right?

JOËL: There's maybe a sense as well that helping others, once more, forces you into more of an active mindset for growth in the same way that interrogating yourself does, except now it's a beginner who's interrogating you. And so, it forces you to think a little bit more about those whys or those places where people get stuck. And you've just sort of assumed it's a certain way, but now you have to, like, explain it and really get into some of the concepts.

STEPHANIE: So, on the show, we've talked a lot about the fun things you share in the dev channel in our Slack workspace. But I recently discovered that someone (Was it you?) created an Obsidian MD channel for our favorite note-taking software. And in it, you shared a really cool tool that is available in Obsidian called mind maps.

JOËL: Yeah, so mind maps are a type of diagram. They're effectively a tree structure, but they don't really look like that when you draw them out. You start with a sort of topic in the center, and then you just keep drawing branches off of that, going every direction. And then, maybe branches off branches and keep going as you add more content. Turns out that Mermaid.js supports mind maps as a graph type, and Obsidian embeds Mermaid diagrams. So, you can use Mermaid's little language to express a mind map. And now, all of a sudden, you have mind mapping as a tool available for you within Obsidian.

STEPHANIE: And how have you been using that to kind of process and experience or maybe, like, end up with some artifacts from, like, something that you're just doing in regular day-to-day work?

JOËL: So, kind of like you, I think I have the aspiration of doing some kind of, like, daily note journaling thing and turning that into bigger ideas. In practice, I do not do that. Maybe that's the thing that I will eventually incorporate into my practice, but that's not something that I'm currently doing. Instead, a thing that I've done is a little bit more like you, but it's a little bit more thematically chunked. So, for example, recently, I did several weeks of work that involved doing a lot of documentation for module-level documentation.

You know, I'd invested a lot of time learning about YARD, which is Ruby's documentation system, and trying to figure out, like, what exactly are docs that are going to be helpful for people? And I wanted that to not just be a thing I did once and then I kind of, like, move on and forget it. I wanted to figure out how can I sort of grow from that experience maximally? And so, the approach I took is to say, let's take some time after I've completed that experience and actually sort of almost interrogate it, ask myself a bunch of questions about that experience, which will then turn into more broad ideas.

And so, what I ended up doing is taking a mind-mapping approach. So, I start that center circle is just a circle that says, "My experience writing docs," and then I kind of ring it with a series of questions. So, what are questions that might be interesting to ask someone who just recently had experience writing documentation? And so, I come up with 4,5,6 questions that could be interesting to ask of someone who had experience. And here I'm trying to step away from myself a little bit.

And then, maybe I can start answering those questions, or maybe there are sub-questions that branch off of that. And maybe there are answers, or maybe there are answers that are interesting but that then trigger follow-up questions. And so I'm almost having a conversation with myself and using the mind map as a tool to facilitate that. But the first step is putting that experience in the center and then ringing it with questions, and then kind of seeing where those lead.

STEPHANIE: Cool. Yeah, I am, like, surprised that you're still following that thread because the module docs experience was quite a little bit a while ago now. We even, you know, had an episode on it that I'll link in the show notes.

How do you manage, like, learning new things all the time and knowing what to, like, invest energy and attention into and what to kind of maybe, like, consider just like, oh, like, I don't know, that was just an experience that I had, and I might not get around to doing anything with it?

JOËL: I don't know that I have a great system. I think sometimes when I do, especially a more prolonged chunk of time doing a thing, I find it really worthwhile to say, hey, I don't want that to sort of just be a thing that was in my memory, and then it moves out. I'd like to pull out some more maybe practical or long-term ideas from it. Part of that is capture, but some of that is also synthesis.

I just spent two weeks or I just spent a month using a particular technology or doing a new kind of task. What do I have to show for it? Are there any, like, bigger ideas that I have here? Does this connect with any other technologies I've done or any other ideas or theories? Did I come up with any opinions? Did I like this technology? Did I not? Are there elements that were inspirational?

And then capturing some of that eventually with the idea of...so I do a sort of Zettelkasten-style permanent note collection, the idea to create at least a few of those based off of the experience that I can then connect to other things. And maybe it eventually turns into other content. Maybe it's something I hold onto for a while. In the case of the module docs, it turned into a Bike Shed episode. It also turned into a blog post that was published this past week. And so, it does have a way of coming back.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. Yeah. One thing that sparked for me was that, you know, you and I spend a lot of time thinking about, like, the practice of writing software, you know, in the work we do as consultants, too. But I find that, like, you can also apply this to the actual just your work that you are getting paid for [laughs]. This was, I think, a nascent thought in the talk that I had given. But there's something to the idea of, like, you know, if you are working in some code, especially legacy code, for a long time, and you learn so much about it, and then what do you have to show for it [chuckles], you know?

I have really struggled with feeling like all of that work and learning was useful if it just, like, remains in my memory and not necessarily shared with the team or, I don't know, just, like, knowing that if I leave, especially since I am a contractor, like, just recognizing that there's value in being like, oh, I spent an hour or, like, half a day sifting through this complex legacy code just to make, like, a small change. But that small change is not the full value of all of the work that I did. And I suspect that, like, just the mind mapping stuff would be really interesting to apply to more. It's not, like, just practical work, but, like, more mundane, I don't know, like, labor [laughs], if you will.

JOËL: I can think of, like, sort of two types of knowledge that you can take out of something like that. Some of it is just understanding how this legacy system works, saying, oh, well, they have this user model that's connected to this old persona table, which is kind of unused, but we sometimes rely for in this legacy case. And you've got to have this permission flag turned on and, like, all those things that you had to just discover by reading the code and exploring. And that's going to be useful to you as long as you work in that legacy codebase, as long as you work through that path. But when you move on to another project, that knowledge probably doesn't serve you a whole lot.

There are things that you did throughout that journey, though, that you can probably pull out that are going to be useful to you on other projects. And that might be maybe you came up with a new way of navigating the code or a new way of, like, finding how different pieces were connected. Maybe it was a diagramming tool; maybe it was some sort of gem. Maybe it was just a, oh, a heuristic, like, when I see a model, I like to follow the associations first. And I always go for the has_manys over the belongs_tos because those generally lead me in the right direction. Like, that's really interesting insight, and that's something that might serve you on a following project.

You can also pull out bigger things like, are there refactoring techniques that you experimented with or that you learned on this project that you would use again elsewhere? Are there ways of maybe quarantining scary code on a legacy project that are a thing that you would want to make more consistent part of your practice? Those are all great things to pull out of, just a like, oh yeah, I did some work on a, like, old legacy part of an app. And what do I have to show for it? I think you can actually have a lot to show for it.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's really cool. That sounds like a sure way of multiplying the learning. And I think I didn't really consider that when I was first talking about it, too. But yeah, there are, like, both of those things kind of available to you to, like, learn from. Yeah, it's like, that time is never just kind of, like, purely wasted. Oh, I don't know, sometimes it really feels like that [laughs] when you are debugging something really silly.

But yeah, like, I would be interested in kind of thinking about it from both of those lenses because I think there's value in what you learn about that particular system in that moment of time, even if it might not translate to just future works or future projects. And, like, that's something that I think we would do better at kind of capturing, and also, there's so much stuff, too, kind of to that higher level growth that you were speaking to.

JOËL: I think some of the distinctions we're talking about here is something that was explored in an older episode on note-taking with Amanda Beiner, where we sort of explored the difference between exploratory notes, debugging notes, idea notes, and how note-taking is not a single thing. It can serve many purposes, and they can have different lifespans. And those are all just ways to aid your thinking. But being maybe aware of the kind of thinking that you're trying to do, the kind of notes you're trying to take can help you make better use of that time.

STEPHANIE: I have one last question for you before we wrap up, which is, do you find, like, the stuff we're talking about to be particularly true about software development, or it just happens to be the thing that you and I both do, and we also love to learn, and so, therefore, we are able to talk about this for, like, 50 minutes [laughs]? Are you able to make any kind of distinction there, or is it just kind of part of pedagogy in general?

JOËL: I would say that that sort of active versus passive thing is a thing that's probably true, just about anything that you do. For example, I do a lot of bouldering. Just going spending a lot of time on the wall, climbing a lot; that's going to help me get better. But a classic way that people try to improve is filming themselves or having a friend film themselves, and then you can look at it, and then you evaluate, oh, that's what I did. This is where I was struggling to get the next hold. What if I try to do something different?

So, building in an amount of, like, self-reflection into the loop all of a sudden catalyzes that learning and helps you grow at a rate that's much more than if you're just kind of mindlessly putting time into it. So, I would go so far as to say that self-reflection, synthesis—those are all things that are probably going to catalyze growth in most areas of your life if you're being a little bit more self-aware. But I've found that it's been particularly useful for me when it comes to trying to get better at the job that I do every week.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think, for me, it's like, yeah, getting better at being a developer rather than being, you know, a software developer at X company. Like, not necessarily just getting better at working at that company but getting better at the skill itself.

JOËL: And those two things have a way of sort of, like, folding back into themselves, right? If you're a better software developer in general, you will probably be a better developer at that company. Yes, you want domain knowledge and, like, a deep understanding of how the system works is going to make you a better developer at that company. But also, if you're able to find more generic approaches to onboard onto new things, or to debug more effectively, or to better read or understand unknown code of high complexity, those are all going to make you much better at being a developer at that company as well. And they're transferable skills, so they're all really good things to have.

STEPHANIE: On that note. Shall we wrap up?

JOËL: Let's wrap up.

STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show.

JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.

STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at hosts@bikeshed.fm via email.

JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.

ALL: Byeeeeeee!!!!!!


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