T-SQL Tuesday #97 - Setting learning goals for 2018

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is hosted by Mala Mahadevan, and she poses a very interesting question with learning goals for 2018. The T-SQL Tuesday founder Adam Machanic posted on Twitter that a learning plan is the way to go, to which I responded that such a list (I misread “plan” to “list”) will probably be obsolete as soon as it gets put down on paper. Adam responded by saying “If the list will be obsolete then it’s the wrong list! Write a post on how you’d tackle it :-)” and thus we find ourselves here. Now, I’ll start with disappointing Adam by *not* writing a list, but sharing the insights I got just by consciously thinking about learning and writing this blog post. Two words: utterly fascinating. While the tips I give are not directly applicable to set a learning goal for 2018, they are (hopefully) useful inputs for deciding on how to approach the endeavor.

1 - keep your eyes on the horizon

I’ve spent most of my career doing “hardcore” deep SQL Server and Oracle stuff. The last few years, though, I’ve slowly edged into the more applied fields with for instance Power BI and very recently data science. Most of the SQL Server stuff these days is upkeep for me - absolutely not simple in any way, but nowhere near as much completely new stuff than in the early days.

As I work as a consultant, often I come across new questions that require me to quickly get up to speed with something specific in order to solve a customer challenge - something that has made me very reactive. It actually took me quite a while to realize that this is hurting me in more ways than one. I consider myself fairly clever and experienced, but I’ve always felt I’m hopelessly behind the curve. Now, this is by definition the case if you allow yourself to be entirely led by someone else’s requirements!

My first tip (and of the main points of Mala’s post): keeping your eyes on the horizon will somewhat mitigate the motion sickness sometimes felt onboard a boat, and it’s much the same with a learning plan and the reactive whirlwind of daily work. Even if you’ve got a reactive kind of job, it’s up to you to create your own horizon.

2 - it’s all about association

I’ve found that my preexisting “learning landscape” very much influence how I take in new stuff. If I try to take in something that is a fit into what I already know, things are way easier than beginning from scratch. If I’m starting from scratch, it takes way more time to find where the pieces go.

Case in point: I’ve enrolled in the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science, and one of the first things I slammed my head into was the introduction to statistics. Now, I have very little mathematical knowledge (as in, no one knows how I managed to squeeze by in school). I had nothing to tie this new knowledge to, and boy did my brain behave a lot like Teflon. It took me several attempts to structure and assimilate this new knowledge, and despite this bit of a learning challenge I’m eagerly looking forward to the actual statistics module later in the course.

My second tip: always try to find somewhere the new knowledge you’re trying to assimilate fits with what you already know. Everything fits somewhere, and the mind is all about association.

3 - think outside the box

I teach most of the official Microsoft SQL Server/Power BI/Azure courses out there, and I benefit way more from a workshop, a session or a pre-con than I do from a straight-up course. I find Pluralsight and edX to be amazing platforms for the small tidbits of information I need to keep going on my own. Some 70-80% of everything I learn I get from my own tinkering and the rest from learning resources. I need to be able to get answers when I need them, and again, a course is probably not for me. Add Twitter to the mix and I’ve got pretty much all I need when I need it.

Things brings us to another point Mala made: networking. Ever since I actually started interacting with people(!) at conferences, my learning has skyrocketed. I would not be where I am (or going where I’m going) had it not been for amazing people in the community. This is also a very good way to spend the little training time available - by picking the good stuff out of the cake

For my boss it’s a simple cost/benefit calculation - it’s way better to send me to a few technical conferences every year than to lock me in a room at a course.

My third tip is to explore the different learning opportunities not necessarily the first in mind when thinking of learning new stuff.

4 - Listen to Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics 1965, approached teaching in a way I’ve bought into wholesale. It’s been dubbed “the Feynman technique” (even it’s unclear if he ever gave it that name) and consists of four steps (taken from https://curiosity.com/topics/learn-anything-in-four-steps-with-the-feynman-technique-curiosity/):

  1. Pick a topic you want to understand and start studying it. Write down everything you know about the topic on a notebook page, and add to that page every time you learn something new about it.
  2. Pretend to teach your topic to a classroom. Make sure you’re able to explain the topic in simple terms.
  3. Go back to the books when you get stuck. The gaps in your knowledge should be obvious. Revisit problem areas until you can explain the topic fully.
  4. Simplify and use analogies. Repeat the process while simplifying your language and connecting facts with analogies to help strengthen your understanding.

The Feynman technique is applicable to all kinds of learning, but really shines when it comes to speaking. Creating a session forces me to go through all the steps above, and it very quickly isolates the areas where my understanding is at a level where I can’t adequately explain the topic I’m trying to convey. Speaking very much helps me both with learning new stuff and also with retaining the knowledge I’ve amassed. Again, everything is about association.

The best speakers and trainers I know use storytelling as a powerful tool to convey ideas and associate the concepts they are covering to the listeners’ preexisting “learning landscape”. Remember what I said about the mind earlier? Right. Everything is about association, and this helps bind the new knowledge to the old, thus helping the new pieces to slot into place and not just rattle around in the brain.

My fourth tip is to speak at events and conferences. It can give you everything I’ve talked about above and more.

I’ll close with a very small fifth tip: have you ever considered what the shortest story to use in storytelling is? An analogy.