I've had an idea for a while to do a series of posts describing the mechanics of what we do at Focus Lab. Not a series about our craft or techniques, but instead about what keeps our engine running, how we change the oil and what type of oil we use. This will be the first post in a scattered series entitled “How We Roll.”
To kick things off, I want to talk briefly about nurturing an appreciation and appetite for learning. We believe at our very core that, as individuals and as a team, we’re never done learning in life. As such, we strive to create an environment where that’s encouraged and demonstrated regularly.
“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.”Mark Twain
The irony in this educational emphasis is that I’m a college dropout. I spent about three semesters in college and decided it wasn’t for me at the time. I didn’t like the way I was being taught, and I wanted to learn things I was interested in and at my own pace. I also wanted to have more hours in the week to work so I could get married and afford to pay the bills.
Both of my parents were teachers, as is my older sister and her husband. You get the idea. Coming from a family of teachers made the dropout conversation a bit awkward. "Hey Mom and Dad. I kinda wanna drop out of college."
Oh, and did I mention that I was majoring in Music Education? Yea, I wanted to be a teacher myself. Oh, the irony. But don’t worry, Mom. I’m in good company.
I soon learned that I could be a teacher regardless of the context. Some of the world’s best teachers are experienced grandparents, good friends and sometimes even young children. Lessons are all around us; we just need to watch for them and be ready to receive them.
So how do we encourage continual learning at Focus Lab? A few ways.
I mentioned I like to learn on my own terms. This has led us to build a library at Focus Lab. We started last year, and encourage everyone on our team to be aware of what we have so they can read from it whenever they want. We’re a mixture of on-site and remote workers so we maintain a spreadsheet of the books accessible to the team. Our current office doesn’t really have room for the books so they stay in my home office occupying a few shelves on one of our bookcases. The books range from technical and design fundamentals to biographies to business and personal behavior studies.
Personally, I’m aiming to read about two books per month this year. I’m doing both traditional and audio books. There is so much to learn from others’ experiences and thoughts. I really like learning from these books, but more so from discussions with others who’ve read similar texts.
Books certainly aren’t the only source of learning though. We also see a lot of great content published to blogs on the web. I have a seemingly endless backlog of links saved to Instapaper that I read from time to time. Some of our team members also use similar services to bookmark things to read later in an effort to learn something new, challenge a current methodology or spark a new idea.
I have a lot of fun when we, as a team, have the opportunity to collectively read an article or watch a video somewhere and discuss what we’ve learned. Sometimes we learn about a new process we can try on the project management side. Sometimes we learn about a new way to debug code we write. Sometimes we learn new ways to use certain Photoshop or Illustrator tools. Sometimes we simply learn how other companies solve similar problems and just talk through them. It doesn’t matter if we do exactly what an article suggests, the discussion is the most important part of this process as a group. The discussion can be the catalyst to change when necessary.
There is a lot of great content out there on the web. People share wonderful and insightful ideas all the time. Learn from them!
The final area of learning I want to talk about is somewhat of an inward focus. There is a lot of value in writing down ideas in long form. I try to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the "why" behind things that we do. Without a solid purpose behind our actions, we’re simply checking items off a to-do list for the sake of checking off boxes. We want to think about the "why" as often as possible. A great way to do this is to explain something to yourself in writing.
I discovered the value of this while living and breathing code early in my development days. In the early 2000s I was spending quite a bit of time working in Flash. I spent a lot of time on the flashkit.com message board and eventually was even a moderator in a couple of the forums. It was there that I learned the value of explaining a problem when I was stuck in rut.
There was a pattern behind it all. I would hit a wall in Actionscript or something else in Flash and I would crack open my books to see if I could find an answer under my one or two word topic. I would search the web for others solving the same problem, again using the same one or two words. I would similarly search the Flash Kit forums. After no results I’d start a new thread looking for help.
It was through the process of describing the problem and how I got there that I would realize my approach to finding the solution was flawed. A paragraph or two into writing, I often found myself thinking, "Wow. I really shouldn’t be doing it this way." or "Did I seriously overwrite that object’s value?" I probably didn’t submit a third of the forum threads I started because I solved my own problem through the exercise of writing it out.
Similarly, writing about business processes or ideas helps bring out the "why" of what we’re doing. I’m willing to bet that as I write more posts in this series of "How we roll," I’ll realize that some of the things we do can be tweaked and improved. There have been times where I wrote a technical article and then realized I could have coded cleaner or better.
Writing encourages self-reflection and learning. We encourage this practice within our team. Throughout this year you’ll see various members of our team writing about things we do. Most of the time it’s a fairly selfish effort. We want to learn from these reflective opportunities. We also want to learn from the discussions that publishing these reflections ignites.
This college dropout loves to learn. Whether from books and podcasts, interviews and self-reflection or even children and grandparents, I appreciate the many sources for learning that exist. I encourage you to seek them out and consume as much information as you can.
To turn the table in my previously mentioned selfish fashion, I want to learn from you now. How do you push yourself to continue learning?