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How to Stand Out: Craftsmanship in the Knowledge Economy Workshop Brief and Lessons Learned

posted Nov 30, 2018, 6:51 AM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Nov 30, 2018, 7:14 AM ]
Recently, I got to moderate a Product Series workshop at Flatiron School in Manhattan where I 
spoke to programming students about craftsmanship in the Knowledge Economy. You can view the entire presentation here.

The Flatrion School's Product Series focuses on getting professionals in the field in and speaking with their students about industry trends. As a technical writer frequently working with programmers and writing API descriptions, I saw this as an opportunity to present challenges students might face when communicating their craft. These challenges can lead to mismanagement in many development outfits. Inspired by the recent Google walkouts as well, it was also an opportunity to talk about hindrances that the culture of individuality in the programming industry fosters. Among other issues with worker's rights, working with only your laptop and your compiler is not enough feedback to make work that is noteworthy. It takes interacting with your peers, communicating, and fostering a iterative feedback loop to make your work great. 

Ada Lovelace at the Flaitron School

Ada Lovelace portraitImage attributed to Alfred Edward Chalon [Public domain]. Ada Lovelace is a mathmatician who, in the 1840s, developed the first algorithm for an 'analytical machine', or a computer. Her notes were published about a century later in the 1950s as an early model for a computer. 

What is the Knowledge Economy

Knowledge economies differs from others such as ones based in industry or agriculture.  In more 'traditional' economies, growth is directly linked to how much can be produced. Where as, a  knowledge economy is where growth is dependent on the quantity, quality and accessibility of collective information available rather than on the means of productionThe development of more knowledge economies globally was spurred by the  induction of the Information Age (1950s – Present) as well as the spread of technology. This is not just for countries as a whole. 

The U.S has whole regions that are transitioning to the knowledge economy. For example, Austin, Texas now has a full fledged 'silicon hills' in a state that was traditionally was for agriculture. Another, Hilo, Hawaii, has had expansion of universities and space observation since the 1960s. We had the invention of WiFi from the observatories there in the 1970s. Hawaii was, and is still, traditionally an agricultural state.

Operating in the knowledge economy requires constant learning to reach your full potential – including learning new technologies, skills, and communicating with others about innovation.  Ergo, it is unwise to work alone. This is unfortunately the cultural trend in most programming outfits. While there are configurations for collaboration and inducing a lot of feedback, such as agile programming, the focus on the individual is in direct opposition to what is best for the environment. This may be on of the reasons why so many tech start-ups fail.

Goals for Presentation

In the presentation, I gave students the tools to develop a personal professional track. Each track for the individual will be wildly different as it is dependent on the goals of the individual. However, the process for coming to these goals are roughly the same. Step one involves asking the right questions. Using project management tools to understand professional critical paths allows for all the goals to be listed in one place Most importantly, it allows us to identify ways to scaffold, or build up towards our goals with smaller more obtainable milestones.

We also discussed how to build career capital by 'hacking' how you learn best. Dr. Cal Newport, another computer scientist, defines career capital as skills that are rare and valuable. For programmers, just knowing some language isn't enough. What is notable, valuable, and unique to any individual is how they approach problems. These skills range from "hard" or technical, thinking about standard routines in new ways, to "soft" skills. 
A rare and valuable soft skill is being able to present your logic to others in a digestible way, as an example. Unearthing and developing these skills are best done through finding out how you learn best. Meta-learning is the process of learning how you learn. There are many ways to do this. In the presentation, I suggested testing for multiple intelligence. Multiple intelligences classifies cognitive strengths into 8 or 9 categories. These range from interspective, also known as social intelligence, to bodily kinetic, or physical prowess. You can learn more about multiple intelligences and test for your own here.
Finally, I did an overview of developing an Exploration Plan.  This is a living document for strategically planning higher education and continued education pursuits. This is a place for not only storing resources and contacts but for, most importantly, connecting these things to how they can help you reach your goals. In the presentation, we discussed finding opportunities that satisfy the 3 criteria for career building: 
1. Do not work in places that provide little opportunity for you to be noticed
2. Do not work in places that are not aligned with your principals
3. Do not work with people whom you don’t like

Lessons learned from the Presentation

One of the items from the presentation was finding more ways to engage with the audience. Every presentation has an untapped potential: the collective brain power of the audience. Job of the presenter is to moderate a conversation and untap that potential. 

In lineu of that, another lesson that was unearthed was that we need to explore more ways of having conversations than just Q&A at the presentation itself. Some other methods considered were requesting questions from interested parties at the RSVP before the presentation to encourage deeper thought. This would require posting a version of the presentation for the audience to review before hand. This version could very well change with the questions your audience pose at the RSVP and that is okay. That is why we have files on the cloud that automatically update with new revisions. Further, another possibility is using tools like Typeform to ask candid and conversation provoking questions about the topic before the presentation and after.

An additional lesson learned was that this presentation serves as  proof of concept for better managing continued and higher education. The presentation itself advocates for treating continued and higher education experiences as an exercise in project management. An excellent follow up would be to actually create a proof of concept for a project management tool specifically for planning continued education. This would assist with creating an return of investment (ROI) for education experiences and possibly be a way to rein in careless investments in higher education. At bare minimum, it would be a great resource of topics for persuasive writing- personal statements, fellowship/scholarship essays, requests for sponsorship from employers.