Learning new skills

Last semester I took an introduction to logic circuits with Dr. Jeff Ashley. Dr. Ashley was engaging and excited about his subject matter, all things that make being a student an easier experience. However, as a non-traditional student, one of the things he said (repeatedly too) was very important to me.

Incremental learning.

He reiterated during the semester that you need to do a little bit every day or so in order to learn the material, keep skills sharp, and fine tune your understanding. In his end of the semester email he suggested specific things that students could do in order to be successful in the semesters and years ahead.

It’s true.

The first time I went to college, I was attempting a biochemistry, Japanese studies double major. Each summer I worked in the college library system, and while it paid the bills and was work I loved, it was also a sign that I was short changing myself. By being risk averse I did not treat my summer as an opportunity to continue learning. The summer between my sophomore and junior years most of the students went to Japan. It showed, and it was built into the teachers’ expectations of the students. Myself and the other student who didn’t make the trip did not compare favorably to our peers.

LifelongLearningI find the fall semester the easier semester, because I now use that summer break to refine skills on Codecademy, pre-study for fall courses on Coursera, or try something new.

What makes this most interesting to me is that it is a practice used by top professionals in the open source tech industry. In this Dice article, around 4500 people were surveyed about what makes open source interesting and how they maintain and improve their skills. The types of things they are doing closely match the model of incremental learning championed by Dr. Ashley and enforced in the college learning model.

So, learn something new today. It is a pathway to excitement, job growth (for job-related learning), stability, and happiness.

The importance of curiosity in the workplace

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.

I like to think of myself as intellectually curious though like many things it is dependent on a number of different circumstances. Sometimes the factors are obvious. When I am tired, any curiosity is replaced with a deep desire to crawl into bed.

Sometimes the factors are not as obvious.

In my previous life, I worked in a law library. I felt consistently valued and I was regularly asked to do new tasks. If someone indicated that they wanted to add a new element to a web form, I would just read the code and try it before going to the vendor and asking for a customization. It was faster than asking an overworked tech to look into something for us. I became pretty good at looking at the bones of something and modifying it to do additional work.

Hey, every post I read on curiosity had one!
Hey, every post I read on curiosity had one! Saru-chan is a champion box sitter!

Curiosity about any one aspect of my job made all of the others better. In transitioning to tech, that is one aspect of my job that I am glad I can retain. Engaging and learning during the work day provides joy and reward that go past just the money necessary to live outside of the work force.

However, in every job environment there are some common issues that can destroy creativity and curiosity.

Poor morale. When workplace morale goes down, productivity is one of the first things that suffers. In my last position, the entire office was told that we would not necessarily have jobs in 6 months and an entire team was let go that day. You could see people stop caring about making good choices for the team and the company, and with that came a lot of poor decisions all around.

Micromanaging. One of my first managers spent a lot of time checking on what I was working and directing how I should complete tasks. This was fine as I was learning the systems, but became more of a problem as I worked in the department over time. My best managers have been those who assign projects and check in every week to see if we were on target combined with those managers who were accessible for additional conversation between meetings.

“That is how we’ve always done it.” Nothing stifles creativity and problem solving as much as being told that it isn’t wanted. Going through process improvement was a great opportunity to showcase alternatives and work through on paper whether or not a new process would improve productivity.

Productivity is not curiosity, but it is often a byproduct of curiosity. I used this opportunity to create a matrix of services, allowing anyone in the department to see what services we had, how much they cost (and how they were billed), how to request or create a login, and some of the more common troubleshooting solutions. But this never would have succeeded under the status quo even though it provided ample benefits when I went on maternity leave.

Some interesting articles on curiosity and the workplace environment: