Last Friday, I knew I was coming down with a cold. I could barely make my way through the day, and by my company’s weekly 4pm meeting, I was a bit of a zombie, my eyes watering and nose running constantly.
Saturday morning came and I was not feeling any better. I was equal parts restless and incapacitated, so I did what any logical person would do: stayed in bed all day watching online courses on Lynda.com (which is now essentially LinkedIn Learning). After completing a few courses, an idea popped into my sickness-addled brain: “What if I watched seven courses in seven days?” So, I set out to do just that.
I started out with some sales-oriented courses, because as a software engineer, I wanted to do something I could just take notes on while expanding my knowledge outside of my comfort zone. Once I started to feel a bit better, I looked at the Learning Paths Lynda.com provides and chose one I thought I could get done in a week: “Become a RESTful API Developer”.
I ended up taking eight courses in total (because I’m an overachiever):
- Persuading Others by Dorie Clark
- Persuasive Selling by Brian Ahearn
- Sales Prospecting by Jeff Bloomfield
- Learning REST APIs by Morten Rand-Hendriksen
- HTTP Essential Training by Morten Rand-Hendriksen
- Designing RESTful APIs by Keith Casey
- API Testing and Validation by Keith Casey
- API Testing Foundations by Dave Westerveld
Aside from learning the actual content I consumed, the challenge of taking seven courses in seven days led me to reflect on who I am, what I like, and how I spend my time. I’ve distilled this down into several key points that I think apply to any learner.
The Best Learning is Hands-On
It’s fairly easy to become passive when using an online learning platform - resist this! There’s a reason Nike’s slogan is “Just Do It” and not “Just Learn It”. The most impactful takeaways from this week were things that I applied. I changed my email signature to include a link to my new course on Microservices, because the Persuading Others course taught me email signatures are a subtle way to market your expertise. Similarly, the API Testing Foundations course had a section devoted entirely to hands-on examples highlighting the testing concepts/mindsets shared in the course. It also included two “challenge” tasks, where I was instructed to download and run an API in order to play around it and solve specific problems created by the author. This was great! And I remember this course more than any other simply because I actually invested energy into using the course’s concepts in real life.
In contrast, Designing RESTful APIs was a course with content I really enjoyed and I thought the five step process it outlined for designing APIs was thorough, clear, and approachable. But, the course ended and I was absolutely itching to try it out at work. And I know I’ll need to reference my notes when I do, because my mind didn’t retain the information as well as I wanted it to.
Concepts are so important - they’re the patterns that can be used and re-used across projects to get shit done. But they don’t matter if you don’t actually do the work to put them into practice. By applying concepts in the real world, you are forced to think critically about how they really work and when it makes sense actually use each one.
I Like to Get Multiple Perspectives (Especially When Learning Something New)
This past week, I took three Sales courses: Persuading Others, Persuasive Selling, and Sales Prospecting. Please note, I am not in sales. I am a site reliability engineer. So why would I take sales courses?
I think sales applies a little bit to everything; even as a software engineer, it’s partly my job to sell other people on ideas and strategies for all kinds of things, including roadmap priorities, implementation details and work assignments. Why not learn from the best: people who have been selected to teach a course based on their experience doing this day in and day out?
Furthermore, with me, there’s no “half-way” to do things. I’m either going to immerse myself in it, research it to death, make that ideal plan, and then get it done, or I’m going to decide it’s not something I want to invest in at all. So, once I took that first course and got a just a little bit interested, I had to know more.
Even though I didn’t take any “Advanced” class in this area, by taking courses with distinct but overlapping content, I got a comprehensive look at what the psychology of selling looks like. By taking three courses from three separate authors, I didn’t have to trust in the word of one person - I heard three distinct perspectives. By seeing what messaging was consistent between authors, as well as comparing their differences, I was able to think critically about what I believed was logical.
The courses I took on API testing are another example of the benefits of multiple perspectives. The first course I took (API Testing and Validation) was a deep dive into a particular library for Behavior-Driven Development/Testing. I wasn’t satisfied with what I had learned, so I sought out another resource (API Testing Foundations), which covered exploratory API testing concepts, something completely different! And by comparing and contrasting the two courses, I felt more confident suggesting approaches for API testing to my team, knowing they have been validated by two outside sources.
Don’t be afraid to seek out multiple sources of truth, or better yet, find authors and courses that have distilled the best parts of several sources of truth.
When Things Get Duplicative, I Speed Them Up
Over the course of the week, I took several courses that were largely review for me. This was partly because I chose my courses from a pre-created “Learning Path” on RESTful APIs, and I already know quite a bit about APIs (they are, after all, an important part of implementing microservices). For these courses, I found myself watching most videos on 1.25x or even 1.5x speed. I like this better than skipping videos entirely because you never know when there could be that one gem of information buried in review content, and it isn’t a terrible thing to reinforce ideas through review (see: I like to get multiple perspectives). But, when an author is constantly repeating themself, or worse, says a lot of nothing (e.g. filler words, pauses), it’s super detrimental to my listening and learning process. Some authors were worse than others at this and I could tell when an author was on script and when they weren’t. I know from experience that creating and utilizing a script leads to thoughtful, clear, and concise videos packed with useful content.
I Have More Time Than I Think
Speaking of time, it typically is something that people lament not having enough of. But this week taught me that I actually have more time than I think. Usually, I leave my work in Downtown Boston around 6pm, taking the T all the way to the end of the line, getting home around 7pm, already tired from a long day solving tough problems, fighting fires, and helping my fellow developers at work. Once home, I help my partner cook, clean, and then we sit together on our comfortable couch and watch whatever new drama my partner has picked from Netflix. This routine is comfortable and enjoyable, but it had lead me to believe my time was limited.
By challenging myself this past week, I stepped outside of my usual routine, which let me evaluate where all of my time was really going. By pushing myself to complete approximately one course a day, I found the time I needed to complete my goals. This was time I always had, but I was filling it with mindless activities like listening to music, watching professional Starcraft 2, or scrolling through Twitter. I didn’t have to quit my job and I didn’t have to spend less time with my family. Instead, I was more mindful of how I spend my time, and as a result, able to use that time to invest in my learning and development. Instead of zoning out on the subway, I watched course videos on my phone. Instead of mindlessly consuming other people’s tweets, I tried to get through one more section of a course. The time was always there, I just had to prioritize my efforts.
There is a Huge Difference Between 45 Minutes and 1.5 Hours
The cognitive difference between 45 minutes and an hour and a half is huge. I was able to take a 30-45 minute class after work no problem. However, pushing myself to take a 1.5 hour class after a long workday was a mental stretch, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The API Testing and Validation course took me two days because I got home late Wednesday night and was already worn out from my workday; part of the way through watching on Wednesday night, I realized I didn’t have the mental energy I needed to really absorb what I was watching.
This was a great experience as an author, because it helped me empathize with people who take my courses. It reaffirmed how important it is to be thoughtful and concise when teaching others. It also taught me that I really enjoy going through course examples and exercises when they are provided. I want to prioritize making the most interesting and useful course exercises and incorporating them into the work I produce going forward.
It also taught me that as a learner, it’s important to break bigger goals into smaller ones: maybe I couldn’t get through an entire course in one day, but could I get through one section of a course? Could I get through one more video? Breaking big goals or tasks into smaller ones is an important way to see forward progress, which encourages you to keep moving forward.
My Energy is Precious
My time wasn’t the limiting factor in completing seven courses in seven days, my energy was. My work week is no slouch, I work hard for 8+ hours each day, and I only have so much additional cognitive capacity at day’s end. On top of that, I’m constantly on the lookout for speakers and sponsors for the Boston Devops meetup and DevOpsDays Boston conference. I learned that it is critical to choose high-quality courses to learn from. By seeking out content that is clear, concise, and concept-driven, I can learn efficiently. By seeking out courses that supplement concepts with real-world examples, I can make sure I think critically about the course material by applying it to my life. And the best courses have that special something that energizes you and makes you want to Get Shit Done.
It’s possible to seek out courses with these qualities and find time to hack on them.
If you want to check out my course, DevOps Foundations: Microservices, I have a limited number of LinkedIn Premium Career codes, which give you 3 months of LinkedIn Learning for free. Email me or message me on Slack or Twitter, and I’d be happy to give you a code until they run out!