18 Help others

I will forever argue that one of the most valuable ways to measure your own life and success is to count the lives you have helped to succeed. When I think of professional brand, I come up with few attributes more positive or impactful than “helps others.” I believe that being able to help others, and doing so, is one of the most powerful acts we can do for each other as humans, both personally and professionally.

18.1 Why help?

In my view, teaching is the ultimate career level-up. If you look around you, the technologists who are doing the best in their careers are probably the ones who share what they know with their colleagues, with their technical community, and with their peers. And honestly, being willing and able to help other people—to teach—is simply the right thing to do. You have likely been helped, and will be helped, by those around you; you owe it to them to “pay it forward” and help others.

Whether you’re teaching formal classes, holding a “lunch and learn” at work, or just leaning over a colleague’s shoulder and helping them with a problem, your effectiveness as a helper—as a teacher—is something you can continually improve. With that in mind, this chapter is intended to help you boost your skills as a teacher, and as someone who can act as a force multiplier for the technologists around you.

And before you start thinking, “But I don’t have anything to teach,” let me stop you. You do. You may just be stuck in the toxic loop of thinking that “teaching” only happens in a classroom, or in a training video, or some other formal setting. That’s not true: teaching and learning happen all the time. Leaning over someone’s shoulder to help them solve a problem at work is teaching.

And you have plenty to offer. Maybe you’re just stuck looking “up” at the people you admire and respect, and thinking, “What could I possibly teach them?” Stop looking “up” for a moment, and look “down” and “around” instead. There are plenty of people in the world who know less than you; find them and offer them your help.

18.2 Yes, you can

Before we dig into the main part of this chapter, I want to go a bit deeper into that feeling of not being qualified to teach, because people frequently tell me things like, “I’d love to teach other people, but I don’t really have anything to teach,” or “I’m not good enough yet to really teach others.” Let’s get this false and restricting belief out of the way.

18.2.1 The toxic relationships that keep us from teaching

We have two toxic relationships, which have for the most part been given to us by our culture and society, that hold us back from truly helping others. The first is education. When we’re growing up, most of us attend school. Many of us continue attending school—in the form of college or university—after our primary education is done. For that time period, education is something that happens in a special set-aside time, in a special set-aside place: during school, and in a classroom. For the most part, our teachers were set above us as figures of authority. They didn’t want us to stand up and try and teach anything, and our ability to participate in the class was limited to those times where they asked us to.

At no point did most of us ever get a certificate of some kind that said, “You’re ready now! You can start teaching other people! Congratulations!” That means we enter adulthood, and our working lives, with some serious misconceptions:

  • Learning happens in special set-aside places called classrooms.

  • Learning happens only during special set-aside time.

  • You have to be a specially trained person in order to teach.

Worse, there’s an overlapping toxic relationship that plays into this: our relationship with our role models. These are the people in our field that we look up to, and it’s frequently far too easy to compare ourselves to them. “If I don’t know as much as they do,” we reason with ourselves, “then I’m not good enough to teach other people. After all, I learned from my role models!” All these misconceptions hold us back from doing what may be the best thing we can do in our lives: help others.

18.2.2 You are definitely worthy of teaching

We all need to stop looking “up” to our role models, measuring ourselves against them, and judging our ability to help others based on our role models’ abilities. Instead, we need to look “back” at the people who are less experienced than ourselves. Those people might exist within our workplace: junior developers, systems administrators just starting out, or entry-level network engineers. But they might also exist outside our workplace. We’re surrounded by people who know less than we do, and who could help lift themselves up, and do more for themselves, with our help. They live in our own community, and in the communities next door to ours.

Teaching and learning is not an activity that only occurs in classrooms, and it isn’t something that can only be done by specially designated teachers and students. We all learn, all the time: the problem you solved by querying Google was learning. That family member you showed how to configure the mobile app for their new robot vacuum? You were teaching. We need to recognize that learning and teaching are always happening, and to be more deliberate about taking the time to do it.

You are worthy of teaching. If you ever think you’re not . . . you’re wrong.

18.3 How humans learn

Learning is largely a function of memory. That is, when we experience something, and perhaps make a mistake, we form memories about that event and what we did. The human brain is wired to dislike failure (http://mng.bz/gxzl), so when we solve a problem, we tend to attach the memory of the solution to the memory of the problem. Therefore, when we encounter the problem again in the future, the solution is right there with it in our minds.

You’ve experienced this yourself: the first time you encountered a particular error in your code, or ran into a specific networking problem, or were faced with a server daemon that wouldn’t start for some reason, you may have struggled with it. You probably hopped on a search engine and looked for other people who’d run across the same thing. But once you solved the problem, the problem and solution became encoded in your brain. The next time you ran across the same problem, you thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and your brain served up the solution. You learned. But how does that physically occur inside your gray matter?

Our brains are constructed from specialized cells called neurons. These neurons are distributed across different sections of the brain, with each section managing something specific. There’s the visual cortex, for example, which does most of the processing needed to let us see. (The material in this section on how learning happens is described in detail in How We Learn, by science journalist Benedict Carey [Macmillan, 2014]. Here I’ll just present the big picture.)

Neurons connect to each other through synapses to form synaptic networks. Those form the basis of our memories. When we experience something, the relevant neurons “light up,” representing the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste aspects of the experience. Non-sensory knowledge also lights up neurons in the regions of the brain, such as the areas that store facts we’ve learned. The total collection of the synaptic network is, in essence, a memory. Memories can be weaker or stronger: a multi-sense experience that made a big emotional impact will often be stronger, whereas a single-sense experience that didn’t make a big impact will be weaker. Contrast a memory from a special time in your life (such as a hike with a loved one on a warm autumn day in the fragrant woods, crunching leaves underfoot) with the memory of the person you just walked past on the street, and you’ll understand the difference that senses and emotions can make.

Recalling a memory also makes it stronger: “This is apparently useful,” your brain thinks, “and so I’ll keep it handy.” A song you sing or hear a lot will be more “memorable” than one you’ve only heard once.

All of these built-in brain features started as survival mechanisms. Memories have a kind of “survival of the fittest” action: the memories you use the most, which result in your continued survival, are the memories that pop up the most readily when you need them. So, for instance, the memories in the forefront of the minds of early humans were things like which plants were poisonous, and where the water sources were located.

In fact, survival is a good word to remember. Our brains, and the way they work, evolved to keep us alive in the wild, back in the caveman days. The way our brains work supports survival. Today, we might not need our brains to keep us alive in the wild as often, but our cognitive mechanisms still work the same way.

That’s why memories we recall and use often are stronger and easier to recall each time: your brain is built so that day-to-day information can be recalled almost instantly. Information that doesn’t get used is filed away and can eventually be forgotten, because it obviously isn’t needed during the day-to-day struggle to survive. Memories that resulted from an impactful, multi-sensory experience—like being chased by a predator, or experiencing a major server crash on your watch—will immediately be stronger, because the experience represented a survival event. Less-impactful memories, like whether or not it was sunny a week ago, don’t contribute to survival, and so they aren’t as strong.

Understanding how the brain works lets us leverage those built-in mechanisms to create more effective learning experiences. No amount of logic or reasoning will change the way our brains learn: you have to work with the brain to create the best learning experiences.

18.4 The value of repetition

Experiences aren’t the only way we can learn, as any child who learned their “times tables” in school can remind you. If you just repeat something often enough, your brain’s survival mechanism will kick in and make that memory accessible. Even today, I know that 9 times 4 is 36 mainly because my brain’s survival mechanism was tricked, through endless repetition, into believing that particular memory was important.

But repetition can be used to strengthen experiential memories as well. Musicians rely on what they call “muscle memory” to play instruments. Their muscles don’t actually have memories, of course; it’s just the constant repetition during practice that makes those memories come up instantly. Their brains learn that “When I see this symbol on the page, I do this with the fingers.”

Pounding facts into someone’s head via repetition, especially for adults, can be a horrible way to learn, because many people hate repetition. It’s why I personally can’t do more than plunk out a basic tune on a piano: I don’t have the patience to sit through the endless repetition that learning to play a piano would require. But that doesn’t mean repetition doesn’t have its place. Many people do have the patience to practice scales—otherwise we wouldn’t have professional musicians. But even if you—or the person you’re teaching—are not fond of repetition, eventually you’ll come to the point where you want them to try doing it on their own (and even someone with the patience to practice scales on the piano eventually wants to play a real song!). Some time later, make them do it again. And some time later, again. It doesn’t need to be an every-single-day event, but forcing the brain to recall, filling in the bits it may have missed, and doing that every so often, will reinforce the memory and keep it sharp. After a time, there’ll be no way to make the memory fade anymore . . . as anyone who’s heard the “It’s a Small World” song can attest!

18.5 Getting in and doing it

Because our memories can encompass abstract knowledge and facts along with sensory impressions, the memories with the most “factors” tend to be stronger. Hearing someone tell you how to change the oil in a car is one thing. Watching a video of the process would be even better, because the visual cortex of the brain can get engaged, and because there’d likely be an audio element. But actually doing it on a real car involves touch, sight, sound, facts, smells, and if you’re unlucky, taste. That’s a combination of senses that the brain won’t soon forget.

That’s one of the reasons apprenticeships have always been, in my mind, a more powerful way of learning than the “book smarts” most higher education programs focus on. In an apprenticeship, the apprentice is right there in the thick of it with the master, and likely with skilled journeymen. They’re creating powerful memories using not only abstract facts, but all five of their senses. Reading about being a blacksmith is a very different experience than actually pounding a piece of white-hot metal with a hammer.

When I was an aircraft mechanic apprentice, we did have classroom time. About once a quarter, we’d spend a week, or two at the most, learning the theory of the aircraft’s design and operation. But then we went back to the shop floor and worked on those very same components. Nearly thirty years later, I can still cite some of the abstract, theory-of-operation facts I learned, because they’re inextricably connected to some very vivid, sensory-based, hands-on memories. You only have to tear down an F-14 hydraulic mixer valve once before you have some very vivid memories, I assure you.

So when you’re teaching someone, get them involved as early, and as often, as possible. It’s better to briefly explain what they’re about to do, and then set them on it (supervising as necessary), than to try and explain all the background theory, all the tasks, and everything else up-front. Just get in it. For example: when you’re helping a colleague with a problem, rather than shouting “MOVE OVER,” sliding into their seat, and fixing the problem yourself, make them do it. It’ll take longer to solve the problem, but they’ll learn the solution. Watching you do it involves one sense; doing it themselves involves multiple senses and will form a more durable memory.

18.6 Why analogies work . . . and how they can fail

Analogies are some of the most powerful ways we have to teach. In teaching, we often use an analogy to take something the learner is already familiar with, and use it to explain something they don’t yet know.

For example, you’re probably familiar with cars. But perhaps you don’t know about object-oriented programming, or OOP. Basically, OOP treats everything in the computer as an object, and an object is a lot like a car. Cars have properties, right? The make, model, color, engine size, and so on, are all properties of the car. Software objects have properties too, like the version number, the manufacturer name, and so on. As a programmer, you can examine those properties to learn about the object, and even change some of those properties to modify what the object does. Imagine being able to change the color of your car by just changing the “color” property—that’s what you can do in software!

I’ve just used an analogy to a common object to briefly explain a computer-related concept. Similarly, one of the biggest values that you, as an individual person, can bring to the people you teach is a set of analogies that work for them. Remember, we all come from a unique background, maybe even different cultures, and we all have different past experiences; creating analogies that “speak” to a particular student usually requires that we share, or at least are aware of, that student’s same background, culture, and set of experiences. This is why I can’t be a great teacher to everyone; I lack the diversity needed to construct analogies for everyone. What if you come from a culture where cars weren’t common? Most of my analogies would fail. Teaching, in many respects, is nothing more than taking knowledge that someone else has created, which you have subsequently learned, and then “repackaging” that information into analogies that your particular audience will understand.

Be aware that all analogies, even (and perhaps most especially) the best ones, eventually fall apart. My software-objects-are-like-cars analogy will get you to a point in your understanding, but at some point the analogy quits working. Analogies often require us to oversimplify some aspects of what we’re teaching, or to temporarily ignore certain details. That’s fine. People can’t learn All The Things all at once. So we can use analogies to get them past a certain point, and then either switch analogies, or drop the analogies completely, to continue. We can go back and revisit things: properties of software objects aren’t exactly like the properties of a car. In software, you can have some properties that are collections, which means they can contain other objects. It’s a bit like if your car had a “tires” property, which contained a collection of Tire objects that each represented a tire on the car. That’s a fine approach, and it’s important to keep in mind that analogies are meant to serve a purpose, and then be set aside.

18.7 Do it like Socrates

In the mid-1960s, instructional designer Jerome Bruner described an instructional design technique called constructivism, which today is sometimes called constructionism. It puts the teacher in the role of a facilitator: they’re not there to impart facts or information, but instead to ask the student questions and direct them to identified resources. It’s an extremely effective way to teach and learn. For example, public schools in the United States struggle to teach software development because it’s so difficult to get qualified teachers to do it (you can make a lot more money actually developing software, or teaching it in the technology training industry). So in 2000, I developed a high school textbook on software development that was designed to be facilitated, rather than taught. The classroom teacher would introduce the student to documentation and other resources, show them an example provided in the book, and then ask them to perform a task. When the students invariably got stuck—the book was designed to lead them into getting stuck—the teacher would basically just point to the documentation and other resources, and start asking the student a series of provided questions.

This is a slower way to learn, to be sure. The Socratic method of asking someone questions, rather than answering questions, invariably takes more time. But it requires students to assemble their own mental models for what they’re learning, rather than just ingesting facts that are handed to them. Students’ brains create their own equivalencies and understandings, and the resulting synaptic networks are much stronger. More importantly, students become more effective self learners, which in the technology industry is possibly the most important job skill they can have.

Adult students can get frustrated by the Socratic method. They’re often facing a problem that they need to solve, and there’s often an element of time pressure on them to get it done. Standing around asking them questions, instead of just giving them the answer, can feel punitive or mocking. But you can and should use this teaching technique whenever you can. Be up front about what you’re doing: “I know you’re in a rush, but this is important, and it’s going to be more effective if you construct the solution yourself. I’m going to ask you some questions to get you thinking in the right direction, and I’m right here with you. This will be worth the extra time.”

And then you start asking questions. To do so, think of what you know the answer to be, and then ask questions to get your “student” there. For example:

THEM: “The server isn’t responding.”

YOU: “How are you trying to reach it?”

THEM: “With the web browser, but it just says server not reachable.”

YOU: “Are there other ways you could try to reach it?”

THEM: “I tried a ping, but it said it couldn’t resolve the name.”

YOU: “How does name resolution work?”

THEM: “It uses DNS.”

YOU: “Are you sure DNS is working?”

That kind of discussion definitely takes longer than you simply telling them, “Yeah, the DNS server is down and that’s why nothing is working,” but going through the question-and-answer process lets them construct their own mental model of how all those moving network pieces fit together. You’re not just providing solutions, you’re teaching them to construct their own solutions, and that’s a far more valuable outcome in the long term.

18.8 The importance of sequencing

As you teach, it’s really important to sequence what you teach. By sequence, I mean organizing and ordering the way you present the information.

Okay, we’re going to cook a meal. This is going to be a basic steak-and-potatoes meal, so we’ll only have three or four main ingredients. You do need to be careful, because once we start, the stove is going to be hot, as will the pans we use. And at the end, you need to make sure you give the steak a few minutes to rest before you serve it, because it will actually still be cooking a bit when we take it off the heat. But first, we need to assemble our ingredients, and that’s going to require you to learn to julienne a vegetable! But let me start by explaining the history of cattle husbandry in the United States.

This so-called cooking lesson is so mis-sequenced that anyone listening to it would be completely justified in throwing up their hands and going to a restaurant to eat. When organizing your material, consider these three guidelines:

  • Don’t cover abstract concepts unless they directly relate to something practical that you are just about to teach or have just taught. The history of cattle in the United States is not directly relevant to cooking a steak, so don't get into it now.

  • Cover material in the order a student would encounter it. In this example, start by setting up the ingredients. Teach them how to julienne as part of the prep process. Continue from there, eventually arriving at cooking and resting the steak.

  • Do not bring up cautions or warnings until just before they’re relevant. Otherwise, you're asking someone to remember an abstract fact, disconnected from any practical use, until later, when it suddenly becomes mission-critical. Human brains aren't good at that. So warn them about the hot stove when they turn on the heat, not when they are gathering the ingredients.

Also, don’t forget that you cannot prevent failure. Not ever. You can’t take an approach of, “I’m going to start by telling you all the things I wish I’d known before I made my first steak,” because you’re just stacking abstract facts rather than getting into the task. And failure often creates a memory, so it can be a useful learning experience.

Hey, see there where your pan is smoking? That’s because you used the wrong kind of oil. Each oil has a different smoke point and flash point, and you need to use one that’s suitable for the heat you’re cooking with. Let’s set that pan aside to cool, and start over.

That’s a perfect example of controlled failure. Rather than make a big deal out of oil flash points and smoke points up front, you just let nature safely take its course. Once the problem occurs, you offer a solution. Human brains love problem-solution; they do not love solution-no-problem as much. We learn from mistakes, so you need to sequence in the right mistakes so that the learner has an easier time ingesting all the info.

18.9 Rest time is crucial

Finally, remember that the human brain can physically only digest so much new information in a given period of time. If we’re doing something with the information, as in getting hands-on with it right away, we can learn better, and learn more, in the course of a day. When we read or listen to abstract facts not connected to an activity or sensory experience, our ability to intake information is really limited. So rest time is crucial.

Sleep, the ultimate rest, is also crucial to learning. When we sleep, our brains organize our memories. Our brains decide which synapses get stronger, and which ones get marginalized, based on how we’ve been using those memories. New memories get connected to relevant older memories. We need time for this to occur.

That’s yet another reason why I prefer apprentice-style learning to a week of all-day in-classroom learning. Apprentice-style learning builds better memories, and it spreads the learning out over a longer period of time, giving my brain more time to cope with the input. Classrooms can be a firehose of information with little connection to my real world, so I tend to forget a lot of what I learn.

Being deliberate with rest time

When I designed the Month of Lunches book series for Manning, I employed as much cognitive science as I could. Each chapter of a Month of Lunches book is designed so that the average adult can read it in about 45 minutes—a time period I came to by researching the average adult reading speed in words per minute. Even though the chapters are short, you’re meant to read one chapter a day, because each chapter focuses on a single topic and then relies on your brain’s “rest time” to synthesize that topic with the previous ones and set you up for the next one. Readers who blow through the whole book in three days have told me they didn’t retain as much, and I’m never surprised. (The chapters also include frequent exercises and labs, intended to get readers to do something hands-on with the new concepts they are learning—another way to get the lessons to stay with them.)

18.10 Further reading

  • Instructional Design for Mortals, Don Jones (independently published, 2018)

  • How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Benedict Carey (Macmillan, 2014)

18.11 Action items

For this chapter,

  • Make a list of all the things you feel you could teach others. Don’t limit that list just to your technology field, either! Maybe you can teach cooking, or how to change the tire on a car, or any number of things. They’re all valuable to someone who doesn’t know them. The idea here is to start convincing yourself that you have plenty to offer, provided you find the people who need what you know.

  • Create a plan for teaching. Pick a topic, define an audience who needs that topic, and decide how you’ll engage that audience. Perhaps you’ll write a series of blog posts explaining how Python works to an audience of PowerShell users. Maybe you’ll teach some of your co-workers what you’ve learned about how your employer’s business operates. Maybe you’ll teach the kids at a local youth club how to cook a basic meal. Whatever the topic and whomever the audience, just start teaching.

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