IBM Pass It Along – social learning!

I’m happy to share that one of my favorite Enterprise 2.0 tools within IBM is now available on the Internet. IBM Pass It Along is now available on Alphaworks, a public IBM site for people interested in trying out emerging technologies–all you need is a free ibm.com account. IBM Pass It Along is about sharing what you know and learning from other people. If you have a how-to you’d like to share, create a topic for it. If you’re curious about something, request it. If you’re just curious about the crazy tools we use within the enterprise, check it out! =)

Here’s what I love about Pass It Along, and I think you’ll love it too:

  • You can find out who’s learning a topic and see what else they’re interested in. Sharing what I know becomes a lot more fun when I can see who’s learning, because it gives me feedback that what I’m sharing is useful. Lists of people are much better than anonymous hit counts because I can view their profiles to see what else they’re interested in.
  • You can learn from other people’s contributions. People can add links, related presentations, discussion topics, and other updates. For example, the "How to Make the Most of Your Commute" topic I started within IBM drew lots of interesting suggestions.
  • You can create a place for discussions. I give a lot of presentations, and Pass It Along topics are a terrific place to hold follow-up discussions and reach out to more people. I post my presentation material using the Presentation Wizard and include the URL of the Pass It Along topic on my slides. It’s a great way for learners to connect with each other, too.

I also really like how a newbie like me can create value for other people by sharing what I’m learning. =) Whee! I’m copying some of my public content over, and you can find my topics on Pass It Along.

IBM Pass It Along on Alphaworks is a public site open to everyone. Access controls will follow soon, so you can limit topic access to just your organization if needed. IBM Pass It Along is even better inside your organization, where you can link it up with your employee directory or do all sorts of other cool stuff.

Check it out – it might be a great fit for your organization!

IBM Pass It Along

Toolmaking

My first full day back at consulting after a month-long vacation, and it felt great. I started digging into the REST API for the system we were using, and I figured out how to build a simple command-line client to get data. I’d built a similar community analysis tool while at IBM, and that one saved lots of people hours and hours of work. Since we were starting to need similar reports, it made sense to build a tool instead of manually crunching the numbers. This time,

I decided to build the tool using Ruby instead of Java, packaging it into an .exe with Ocra. I found Ruby to be much easier to write in. The interactive mode made it easy to prototype my ideas. Gems meant that I didn’t have to hunt all over for packages and figure out how to make them work together. It was fun to come up with more ideas and add them to the tool.

I love making tools. I like digging into the wires behind web-based services and making up new ways to use stuff. The value isn’t as visible or as easy to appreciate as, say, web design work, but it’s much easier to build something quick and then tweak it to fit specific people. I like that part a lot – tailoring tools to specific ways of working.

I was thinking about the different things I might like to be really, really good at in twenty years’ time. My current shortlist: writing, drawing (mostly sketchnotes), and toolmaking. I think writing and drawing are like toolmaking for me too. They’re about making tools for the mind, helping people learn faster or more effectively or about more things. =) Maybe if I practise and learn more about writing and drawing — the way I’ve spent most of my life programming — I’ll be able to make wonderful little things too.

Validating ideas and working with other people

Here are the next chunks in my personal business curriculum: validating business ideas, and working with other people in order to make things happen. I might be able to learn both at the same time. In fact, that’s probably the only way I can learn either. If I validate business ideas but take on all the work myself, then I’m limited by my time and what I can do. If I work with people without checking that the end goal is something that’s valued by others, then that would be a very short experiment indeed.

I talk a lot about the intersection of what people value, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy doing. Reviewing my archives, it boggles that the core of the diagram I drew in 2009 is still true. Going deeper into my passions leads me to things that people value more. I’m building the foundation of my 5-year experiment on things I’ve loved doing for a while, and that’s working out decently. I could spend five years validating ideas and building businesses within that intersection. It wouldn’t need as much work. People have blazed those paths before. Proven business needs in proven business models.

But the hardest part of drawing is to see familiar things in an unfamiliar way. One way to break yourself out of drawing what you think you see is to draw the negative space – to focus on the gaps. If I look at business and life and focus on—what is it? the gaps? the missed opportunities?—and not just the hammer-looking-for-nail gaps I instinctively see because of my own skills and experiences (oh, yes, there, that just needs a web app, an Emacs Lisp script), but gaps whether or not I know how to solve them myself—who knows where that can take us?

If I want radical growth instead of just incremental growth, I’ll need to be able to work with lots of other people’s Venn diagrams, orchestrating the intersections in order to make things happen, and helping people get closer to their own sweet spots.

This path is rougher and more uncertain, but I’ll learn a lot in the process. I want to get better at scenting value and scale, getting a sense of where the opportunities are. I want to figure out what things really cost in terms of time and energy. If I do that, then I can go after the things that turn out to cost (me? someone? a loosely-knit team?) much less than the value they create.

Reinforcement is good. For some things, I can reward and attune that sense by earning some of that value back (another fun experiment). For other things, I can get the value back in intangible ways. So I’ve been working on making more things happen: nifty ideas and trial balloons. The more ideas I can move through this experiment of creating value, the more I can learn from the successes and failures. It’s easier to start with something that’s already a good idea. Besides, it’ll work out wonderfully; it always does.

I’m still learning how to draw with different colours. Now I’m learning how to do that with life, too. Whom should I learn from? Who does this amazingly well?

Visual book review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast (Josh Kaufman)

The idea of learning a new skill can be overwhelming. If you break the skill down into specific things you can learn, it becomes much more manageable. Tim Ferris used this to hack cooking (video) by dissociating it from shopping for groceries or cleaning up. Josh Kaufman’s new book The First 20 Hours fleshes out how to rapidly learn, illustrating it with stories, examples, and practical tips for a wide range of skills. A key insight? You don’t have to be amazing, just good enough to enjoy the skill, and 20 hours is enough to get you there if you learn effectively. (Even if it turns out to be more complex than that, stick with it anyway, and then see where you are at 20 hours.) Click on the one-page summary below to view or download a larger version. 20130705 Visual Book Review - The First 20 Hours - How to Learn Anything... Fast - Josh Kaufman Feel free to share this visual book review! (Creative Commons Attribution – I’d love it if you link back to this site and tell me about it. =) ) It should print out fine on letter-sized paper, too. The book is both practical and entertaining, especially if you’ve been curious about some of the areas he covers in his chapters. =) While the advice is common sense, the application of the advice makes it interesting – and the stories might nudge you into taking similar steps towards the skill you’d like to develop the most. Besides, the book has stick figures in the chapter on yoga and shell commands and a Ruby tutorial in the chapter on programming. Not that many books can pull that off, although if you’re the type who reads things like travel books for just one chapter, you might grumble about paying for all the other chapters you’re not interested in. 20 hours isn’t going to make you an expert in something, but it might get you farther than you think. Intrigued by the ideas? You can check your local library to see if they have a copy, or buy your own: The First 20 Hours (affiliate link). What I’m going to do with this book One of the benefits of this experiment with semi-retirement is that I have the time and space to explore what I’d like to learn. Not all of it at once, but I can certainly make decent headway on a few skills I want to improve. I rarely start from scratch, so it’s not that I’m really spending my first 20 hours on something – new interests are usually offshoots of something that I already do well or enjoy, because unfair advantages lead to other unfair advantages. I like programming, writing, going through flashcards… I even get along with accounting.

    The biggest new thing that I don’t yet intrinsically enjoy is strength training, which (as the name indicates) is probably more about

training

    – my body has to adapt to it, and that takes time.

So, let’s pick another skill. Something that I haven’t dived deeply into, but that I’m curious about. Some candidates:

  • Creating animated videos (and not cheesy fake-written ones, either)
  • Programming speech recognition macros (NatLink)
  • Visualizing data with D3.js or other visualization libraries

Of the three, I think visualizing data with D3.js will be the most fun for me. I can break that down this way:

  • Manipulate the data into a form that’s easy to work with in D3.js
  • Create typical graphs
  • Create custom graphs
  • Add interactivity
  • Use D3.js for non-graph applications
  • Integrate the visualizations into web apps or blog posts

In terms of barriers, it’s really just about sitting down with some data and the documentation. I’ve worked with D3 before. I just have to practise enough to grok it. The most important skill to master first, I think, is creating typical graphs. If I get that into my brain, I can imagine custom graphs and other applications from there. So learning this skill might involve doing “programming kata”: take an existing data set and visualize it in different ways using common chart types. It’s also useful to look at how other people are breaking down skills and learning them. Duncan Mortimer (who I think is the same as the Duncan Mortimer behind this WriteOrDie mode for Emacs?) wants to write blog posts better. He came up with this list of skills that he wants to work on in terms of blogging:

  • Choosing a topic
    • Brainstorming
    • Asking yourself questions
    • Topics that choose themselves — blogging what you’re learning or as you’re learning
  • Drafting the post
    • Structure
    • Avoiding editing while writing
    • Writing quickly
  • Editing the post
    • Textual tics
    • Restructuring
  • Publishing the post
    • Scheduling posts for future publication
    • Uploading to the hosting service
    • Adding categories and tags; making it ‘discoverable’

I’m also interested in writing more effectively. For me, the key things I’m working on are:

  • Outlining: Planning the structure before I start writing. Doesn’t work for all the posts, but I might be able to use it to speed things up. Practice: Flesh out my sharing outline (hah, you can even send patches or make suggestions through the issues queue) as a separate activity from writing. (See how I’m doing so far in terms of time.)
  • Illustration: Coming up with a hand-drawn image to illustrate my blog posts nudges me to think about the key point or idea in the post, and it’s good practice for sketchnoting too. Practice: It’s like adding an item to my blogging checklist to quickly sketch an image if I can.

Anyway, here’s the book again if you’re curious. Disclosure: I’ll get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon using the links in this post, but you could also see if your local library has the book. (I got this one from the Toronto Public Library!) Check out first20hours.com for more info. Like this? Check out my other visual book reviews!

For another visual take on this (pretty colours!), check out Cynthia Morris’ summary. Enjoy!

Mapping what I’m learning

I want to learn about more than I can fit into my working memory, so I need to take notes and I need to relate those notes to each other. My sketches, blog posts, and Evernote entries are great for remembering things, but I also want to see overviews so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is where mapping comes in. Mapping is about organizing topics so that I can see the relationships, find the gaps, and keep moving forward.

Mapping what you know

For example, I mapped out what I wanted to learn about learning, and I frequently refer to it while planning my next steps. 2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

I also have a few other maps at lower levels of detail. For example, this is a rough map of topics related to taking notes:

Note-taking techniques

Mapping helps me look ahead, and it also gives me a framework for connecting what I learn to what I’ve learned before.

One way to practise mapping is by mapping what you know. This helps you review your notes, identify any gaps, see how far you’ve come, and connect ideas (and discover interesting relationships you might not have come across before). Your maps can also help other people learn.

To map what you know, you can start from the bottom level (detailed notes answering specific questions) and work your way up to overviews. Alternatively, you can start from the top (an outline) and then work your way down to the specifics. Combining these strategies can help you get around mental blocks.2013_10_14_23_12_00_003

I’ve been working on mapping what I know. I’m still trying to find a good set of tools to help me do this. Instead of getting intimidated by the task, I’ve decided I’m going to start in the middle, mapping out things I recently learned and things that I’m learning next. Once I get the hang of doing that, I can start adding older entries like my blog posts.

I haven’t quite found the perfect tool yet. Evernote is great for personal notes, but even though it has public notebooks (see my sketchbook and my sketchnotes), people aren’t used to following or discussing new notes there. Flickr is good for exposure and a little discussion, but it’s not as easy to search or back up. Neither tool is good for overall non-linear organization.2013_10_15_21_39_36_004

Most note-taking systems focus on indexes for paper notes, either with straightforward tables of contents or mindmaps that refer to pages by IDs. Evernote and OneNote have been around for a long time, so I’ll probably be able to find people who have thought about how to organize lots of information using those systems. In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with using mindmaps to organize hyperlinks and next actions. I’m testing Mindjet MindManager, Xmind, and Freeplane. So far, I like Freeplane the most because:

  • the GTD add-in lets me quickly get a list of next actions
  • customizable keyboard shortcuts let me tweak the interface
  • filtering lets me focus on a selected branch
  • and hey, it’s free and open source

image

To make this, I added each item in my current public and private sketchbooks to my map, creating nodes when necessary. I don’t have a lot of topics in my sketchbook yet, but if I find myself with more than twenty or so items in a single category, it’s probably time to split that. I’ve split the categories in my blog index a few times, and I’m long overdue for splitting some of the others. It’s much easier to reorganize things in a map instead of editing each item, although I should come up with some kind of bulk interface so that I can update the categorizations.

The arrows are hyperlinks to either my blog posts or my Evernote entries (using evernote:// URLs from Copy Note Shortcut). I included private notes as well, so the map works only for me. Sorry! In the future, I’d love to make a version of this that omits private URLs and information. Freeplane supports lots of export formats, so maybe I’ll be able to process XML or HTML and make something that’ll help people browse too.

I’d like to get to the point of having a smooth workflow for drawing, scanning, publishing, organizing, browsing through, and following up on these thoughts. Do you know of anyone who’s doing something similar to this? This kind of visual thinking isn’t quite like the visual recording that most sketchnoters do. There are plenty of mindmaps at Biggerplate, but they look more like templates rather than thoughts-in-progress.

Reaching further back, parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are online, and Prof. Carlo Pedretti’s introduction to the Codex Arundel has some notes on the structure: unnumbered loose sheets, usually one page per thought. That’s encouraging, although it doesn’t tell me much about overall structure. Part of Galileo Galilei’s notebooks are online, too. He numbered his pages and usually left plenty of whitespace. There are plenty of examples of note-takers throughout history, but it’s hard to find ones explicitly talking about how they map the connections between ideas. How to Read a Book briefly mentions building a syntopicon, so I checked out the resulting volume (A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas). It’s a huge project, but it didn’t give me a lot of clues about the process of building such a thing. More recently, there’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which described the process of making and updating a global subject map of contents. Books on study skills also talk about how to condense a lesson into successively smaller cheat sheets until you can fit everything onto one page (or an index card, or whatever the teacher permits), and that’s somewhat related to the kind of summarization and overview I want to do.

On the non-graphical front, I’ve also had fun making a huge outline of blog posts I want to write (and therefore things I want to learn about). Org Mode outlines work better than Freeplane maps for large amounts of text or fine-grained detail, so I’ll probably switch over to outlines when I’m drafting the post and then update the map with the hyperlink to the post when I’m done. It’s all tied together.

Anyway, here we are. I think the sketches and maps I’m making are promising, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper. If you happen to have put a lot of thought into a similar system, I’d love to hear from you!

Thinking about how to get better at asking questions

I tend to learn most things by trying them out or by reading. That’s because I speed-read like nobody’s business, having taught myself the technique as a way of getting out of grade-school reading periods and into the computer lab. =) The downside of being really fast at reading is that I tend to neglect other ways to learn, so I made this sketch to remind me that there are other ways to learn things.

Different methods for (assisted) learning

I’m getting better at listening to podcasts and watching videos, although I still listen to them at 2x speed whenever I can change that setting. Before I can make better use of classes or coaches, though, I probably need to work on asking questions.

Come to think of it, I didn’t ask a lot of questions when I was in school. I usually raised my hand to answer questions, but I rarely took advantage of teachers’ office hours. I read, I wrote programs, I struggled with tests, but I didn’t ask. Even now, when I’m debugging problems or figuring stuff out, I tend to push through on my own instead of asking.

I should learn how to ask better. It’s useful. It can save me time, and it can encourage other people to share what they know. I wonder what’s keeping me from asking, and how I can work around it.

Thinking About Getting Better at Asking Questions

Part of the reason why I seldom ask questions, I guess, is that I tend to follow Eric S. Raymond’s advice on How to Ask Questions the Smart Way. I don’t want to waste people’s time by asking questions that have been asked before or that can be answered with a little digging, so I investigate things first. It might take me a few hours or even a couple of days, but I can often solve things on my own. Then I blog about it so that the answer becomes a little more searchable for other people.

How to Ask Questions the Right Way (Eric S. Raymond)

Maybe I should adopt a rule like this one from Akamai: You Must Try, and Then You Must Ask. When you’re about to give up, push on for fifteen minutes. Document your work so far. Take notes. Then you must ask. Call for help. Share your notes. You can keep digging afterwards, but you should ask, because otherwise you’re wasting time.

I feel self-conscious about asking, but I should work around that because asking people for help builds relationships and encourages them to share what they know. So I’m going to practise asking: first on Twitter because it’s quick and optional and in the stream, then maybe on Quora or Stack Overflow or Facebook, and then more thoughts and questions on my blog.

Good question-asking is probably the ability to concisely express a question that invites people to answer it. When I get the hang of asking, then I can make better use of other ways to learn. Interviews, webinars, courses and coaching are more effective for people who ask good questions.

If I spend a lot of time crafting questions, that makes it difficult to go to a presentation or a webinar and come up with new questions on the fly. Clearly, I should be coming to those with prepared questions that I can tweak based on the presentation contents. If I can keep a list or map of the questions I’m exploring, then I can pull out the ones that are related to a topic and ask them if the speaker covers material that’s related or tangential to my questions. Hmm…

What about teaching people how to ask me better questions? One of the nifty things that I’m learning from doing all these Google Helpouts sessions is that there’s a world of difference between vague questions and focused, prepared questions. When people ask me good questions, we’re off and running, and we pack so many things into a 15-minute conversation. When people ask me vague questions, I have to work a little bit harder to dig up something good.

Teaching people with vague questions_thumb

I don’t want to just focus on people who already know how to ask good questions. It’s good to help people learn how to ask better questions, and I’ll learn a lot about asking better questions myself.

2013-11-10 How can people ask me good questions_thumb

When people can identify their goals and share their experiences with things that have or haven’t worked for them, that makes it so much easier to help – especially if they also identify something they want to learn from me. This speeds up the conversation tremendously, because we can jump right into the middle. Even starting with expectations and differences can help. I’m getting better at guiding people through vague questions, but it’s a real joy to help people with great questions.

Have you worked on asking better questions? What did you learn? Are there great resources I should check out?