Sort of Invented Here

My work with Lullabot involves a lot of teaching and training. We’ve invested a lot f time and resources in becoming experts, but there’s more demand than we can fill: as such, “teaching people to fish” has been part of the company’s mission since it was formed.

We’ve been really fortunate, in that all of the Lullabots have been passionate, eager folks who love sharing their knowledge. We’ve all had a lot of opportunities to collaborate on how to best train others to use Drupal, and we’ve gotten a lot of experience under our belts over the years. This year, we’ve been working on taking things up a notch by hiring more dedicated trainers, building more curriculum to cover additional topics, and making it easier to customize the kinds of courses we’re able to give. Being a huge fan of systems – I couldn’t resist the opportunity to jump in and work on it!

It’s been a really fascinating opportunity both to improve the work that we do, and to learn about the existing science of curriculum design and education. @emmajanedotnet’s recommendation of Developing Technical Training: Third Edition was worth its weight in gold, for example. That book perfectly captures a lot of key ideas that we’ve iterated our way into, but gives them context and supporting structure. Is it Chomsky who says we can’t really understand a concept until we have some way of expressing it in language? This book gets me over the language hurdle, offering an existing conceptual framework for describing and building curriculum so I don’t have to hash my way through that process. Instead, I can focus on the curriculum itself: the real meat of what we’re great at. Yum!

The whole process has me thinking about times in my life where I’ve missed out on opportunities to learn from others’ experience. I like to think that I’m a creative person, and like most software developers I enjoy building new stuff from scratch. That can easily lead to a sort of de facto “Not Invented Here” syndrome, where existing solutions aren’t rejected so much as they’re never even noticed.

I’m reminded of Robert Prisig’s classic (and often-snarked-at) book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some of my favorite parts of the book are about the difficulties of teaching complex and nuanced subjects – explaining the idea of Quality to writing students started Pirsig on an epic philosophical quest. He agonized, sacrificed, even alienated his loved ones in an attempt to figure out some really complex and difficult questions. In the book, he looks back on certain parts of that process ruefully: he spent a lot of time thinking that he was charting new ground, and years later discovered that he was only rehashing what other philosophers had done far earlier.

He viewed it (if I remember correctly) as a sort of “freshman error,” a mild narcissism that can blind us to the fact that there are many other very smart people trying to figure things out – that we’re probably not the first ones to grapple with a particular problem. That resonated deeply with me: I’ve gone through the same epiphany/forehead-slapping cycle myself. “Aha! I’m a genius! Oh, wait… someone else figured that out a hundred years ago, and wrote a book about it.” The flip side, of course, is that the process of grappling with a complex problem is its own kind of learning. Jogging, by analogy, isn’t just about moving from one place to the next: a car would be more efficient, but wouldn’t build muscle.

I’m trying to explore a middle ground in my life these days. When faced with interesting and complicated problems, I enjoy diving in and trying to figure things out myself. But I need to pull in outside knowledge as well, and do it early rather than late in the process. That doesn’t mean I can’t do the work myself, but at the very least it keeps the ego in check. There are smart people out there, it reminds me, and they always have insights to offer.

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