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An Argument for Public Learning

public library

A few of my colleagues and I have distinguished a concept we like to call public learning. It basically lies a notch above pair programming in that you're potentially exposing your ignorance to a larger audience but the payback is much larger in terms of sharing knowledge across teams and speed-to-solution because you're exposed to a larger group of problem solvers. You also get more shit done.

Public learning works like this. When completely stuck on something, instead of asking one person for help, you post your problem to Teams or Slack, along with the background, perhaps a work in progress pull request, what you've tried to date, then current, and expected results. After getting help from one or more team members you then share and document if necessary whatever you learned. If nothing else you become a subject matter expert and resource for the next time it happens.

If you've ever heard of the Feyman Productivity Strategies they really sum up the philosophy behind public learning:

Don't worry what other people are thinking. Leave impostor syndrome behind. The truth is people really don't think about you that much, but now when they do, it will be reinforced by your curiosity and hard work.

Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Focus on what you want to learn, not whether a senior engineer would be asking this question.

Stop trying to be a know-it-all. People smell a phoney quickly so be real. Admit you don't know something but are eager and willing to work hard to learn it!

Get off the computer. This is more of a productivity rather than public learning concept but it's true getting some perspective away from the screen can help build engagement and clears the mind for greater creativity and learning elasticity. Check out the Pomodoro Technique for how to time your breaks.

Have a sense of humor and talk honestly. As with pair programming, be human and self-deprecating when appropriate. Honesty includes your willingness to learn so who you're being speaks louder here than what you say.

So check your egos, and imposter syndromes, at the door. On the other side of public learning can lie a prolific record of productivity in terms of number of commits and review activity, which is what moves tickets across the board after all. The alternative is silo'ed, slow, private, learning which isn't nearly as enjoyable.