How do I get to do task XY for the first time at the job

Today I want to talk about how you convince others to let you do XY for the first time as an official job responsibility, even though you might not have experience or any formal training doing so. And also, why you have probably come across a situation where one of your colleagues has been chosen to do task XY and not you. Even though you are both equally qualification-less. Now you feel left out. New tasks are opportunities for growth you probably really need if you want to stay in academia. It is all the more detrimental that bosses often don’t take the personal/CV growth of their young colleagues into account and hardly ever give out those tasks strategically. You can end up the lucky one – or you end up left out.

 

Disclaimer: Again, as always, these are my personal opinions and they might not apply to your situation. Use your brain.

 

New skills are always needed in your institution

Especially in the Digital Humanities it can happen a lot that there suddenly is a demand for a certain skill at your institution that nobody has yet acquired. Then somebody gets chosen to do it, often basically by chance and after they have done so, they are the expert on the topic. Which is good if you were the lucky one chosen (teaching yourself probably was quite the struggle so you’d deserve it). But if you aren’t – congratulations, the possibility of you ever going to be able to do this same thing (like programming in a certain language, teaching, shouldering a certain responsbility) might have just shrunk to zero. Often, DH centres are not big enough to need more than one person for a  less-mainstream specialty skill. It will from now on be incredibly hard for you to prove yourself in that area although you might be just as qualified. You have officially become invisible and somebody else has officially become the guy who does XY. I have experience on both sides. I have both had a responsibility thrust upon me, not really freewillingly or because I would have wanted to. But because there was just a demand and nobody there who was actually qualified to do the task.

 

If you were chosen

You’ll have to teach yourself and might end up with patchy skills

Meaning you will probably end up with a pretty stiched together knowledge and might have to relearn the skill in a more systematic way after the project is done if you really want to go on doing what you were asked to do in a professional way. Projects are often time-sensitive and deadline-driven, so you won’t have the time to really learn the skill in a systematic way. Unlearning bad practices acquired like this can be really hard  afterwards.

You are now officially the default person for the task

You might not exactly be more qualified than your colleagues but you are still going to be the default option to do the task. If you want it or not. So be careful accepting these jobs if it’s a task you genuinely dislike or consider out of line with your own personal development goals. For me, personally, I want to become something of a ‘real programmer’ in the Digital Humanities. I am a girl, but I don’t want to end up being the web designer. Not that web design is bad, inferior to ‘real programming’ or anything. I just prefer ‘real programming’ but since I am a girl, people tend to hand me the ‘soft bits’ and give the ‘hardcore programming’ to a man. Which the man might not even want. Sadly, unconscious gender stereotypes are still very effective in workplaces. Woman often get discriminated againt by ‘non-events’, i.e. not being asked to take up a challenge while male colleagues are etc. which ends up harming their success in the long term. If you want the challenge, you might just have to take it up in your private life or compete hard with your male colleagues. If you accept a specialty you don’t really want, you might seriously harm your ability to start something else afterwards. You will end up with that label. So be careful which label you choose. Also, your time resources for personal development will go into this task completely. If you were planning on learning something else, that’ll have to wait for a long time. Choose wisely and turn it down if you have to and can.

You probably can’t say no

In many situations when you’re asked to do this daunting task nobody else has ever done before, it is probably because you are not be most important member of your organization. You are probably young or new and are deemed to be a hard worker and able to learn. These are good things. But it might still not be something you do freewillingly. But do accept the task. If you don’t you might come across as though you’re unwilling to take up new challenges or learn new skills. Not an impression you want to leave for further job openings and ending contracts – which are never very far away in academia. Also, this new skill your institution is trying to acquire through you might be a reason they hold onto you later or or the base for a new grant proposal, etc. So this might just be a golden ticket, even though you had always imagined those would look more glamorous. Also, it might just be that you are the only idiot they dared to hand this stupid task to. You never know.

 

If you were not chosen but would have been interested

This is really stupid and happens a lot because these informal decisions are not discussed with everyone on the team (which they probably should be and bosses should be aware of this once they have read this post.) But the sad truth is that this decision will probably be made by the bosses in a back room in a discussion you are not allowed to join.

So even if you knew it was about to happen, there isn’t much you can do except maybe inform people beforehand that you would be interested. This by no means guarantees your success but since these decisions can be very spontaneous, maybe it even will get you the job. Definitely try it if you get the chance or overhear a discusssion. Butting in on other people’s discussion is rude but it is also rude of bosses making seemingly inconsequential decisions in private which actually are very consequential to their young employees and can make or break a career in the long term. In this case I would say, better sore than sorry.

But what if it’s already too late? It might even have happened to you that somebody else was chosen as a “new expert” for a job (in a backroom decision) which they are not qualified for – but for which you, in fact, are qualified for. Of course you can tell people that you think you would have been more qualified or at least wished you had been asked. But once the job is already given out, it’s unlikely they’ll take it back. Unless the other “chosen one” has expressed that they will only do it if nobody else is found but rather wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have to. Probably try and say something anyway.

Official responsibilities make you more trustworthy than actual skills

This is an especially stupid situation for you because it undermines your skill and legitimates the other person who actually didn’t have any legitimate skill up to now. If you already have some experience in these matters, you will probably know that often, experts are not made by skill. They are made by decisions of their superiors. In the end, your skill doesn’t count. What counts is solely the fact that your bosses trust you to do a job. This can lead to major unfairness, of course. And you are virtually powerless once it does. The only thing you really can do is show your experience and skill elsewhere. Join an expert society. You will need very bold action and extremely solid credentials if you ever want to make up for this misguided decision again. Also remember that bosses hardly think about this. They are probably completely unaware of the detrimental effect this will have on your career.

Boost your CV, exaggerate your skills a little bit and be over-confident of yourself (because, sadly, everybody else is and you will be left out otherwise)

So show off your skills as much as you can. Drop your knowledge whenever appropriate. Especially if you are a girl or shy, this is not like you. But you will notice how (even misguided) self-confidence goes a long way. Men tend to be much more bold in their statements in the workplace and also in what they write in their CV. If have seen a CV where someone said they were a C1 or C2 in English when they really were so bad that they made tons of typos in basic programing commands. And programming language English is hardly the real deal. If they already can’t spell ‘length’ properly, how can they have a C2 level? It was not a one time typo and by no means the only type of error I observed in the very short time span I paid attention to this either. In their defense, they probably didn’t even know what C2 meant. It is still a bold claim. What I have learned from this is that the impression you convey is all that counts. Be a bit more self-confident than you really are. Pretend you have some more skill than you do. By this, I don’t mean overly exaggerate. But ask yourself whether you could learn a certain skill (in basics) in a week or weekend. Then you probably are good to state it in your CV. (Then go on and actually learn the requested skill since people will probably test this by asking some general questions on the topic. And, of course, this only goes for minor skills but many DH skill requirements are actually quite basic).

 

You have to have done it once

If you actively seek to try it out new things or want to be challenged in your job but were not chosen, you are out of luck. Since somebody else is the default option now, you are going to have an incredibly hard time getting yourself seen or heard from now on. Even if you do everything you can to learn the skill along with your colleague, they are always going to be the one who has the practical experience. Even if you should also manage to get some practical experience, they are going to be the one who won your institution’s trust and showed results on a concrete job-related project. Unless there is a great need for the skill, you might never be able to do this at your job. Sorry, but it’s the truth. 😦 The only thing you can do now is to get real job experience with the task outside of your instituation or going freelance (if your job allows that at the side). Or create a truly mind-blowing hobby project and share it online.

This is partly one of the reasons why I have this blog. I don’t really like the idea of sharing my life with strangers but at the same time, I still want my private technology- and teaching-related activities to be visible. People will only trust you once you’ve “done it once” because it is seen as proof that you can do it. That’s why people often say that you should teach exactly one class in your PhD time – takes up the least possible amount of time and energy possible but from now on, once you apply for a position which includes teaching, you are credible when you say that you can do it. If you haven’t – well, good luck to you. It is highly unlikely someone who doesn’t know you will take the risk. Especially since they probably have 50 other applications from people who did get that chance. So you kind of depend on getting the experience from your own institution. If they have chosen to ask somebody else, all you can do is be annoying or follow that default person along. Tag along and offer to help as much as you can. Drop knowledge you have whenever appropriate. This is by no means guaranteed to help – you might just get ignored. But then you can say you have at least tried to get people’s attention. And maybe it will turn out for the better at some point. Maybe they will remember you the day they need a lab rat for a new task nobody is qualified to do.

 

Conclusion: On the importance of learning from new responsibilities for your CV

“So grow your own CV and decorate your own skills, instead of waiting for someone to bring you opportunities for personal growth.” – based on a quote by J. L. Borges

So, as we have seen, this informal way of giving out new tasks to people can be a great opportunity if you are chosen. But it can also be a way of preventing eager people from taking up new tasks. Once somebody did it, they are the default person and probably nobody else is needed. So nobody else will be given this opportunity of personal development. This can be a real problem in academia where you are expected to constantly grow your CV and tend to your skills. Some people even say that you should add one line to your CV every month if you want to be successful in Academia. What line have you added last month? What will you add next month? Plan this strategically!

I hope that maybe some bosses read this post and become aware of the problem. Maybe people get inspired to hand out these opportunities more strategically and more consciously. It also often happens that it’s always the same people who get the opportunities (because they have already proven their potential to rise to the challenge) and others continuously get left out. This is bad for the ones left out and can lead to overwork in the others. If you are responsible for early career scholars, please make conscious choices with anything which could affect their careers. If you are affected, my consolations. Try to prove your skills in a side project or join a society.

 

Hope this helps someone,

best,

the Ninja

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Learn programming from a book vs. tutorial? Thoughts on deliberate practice

In this short little post, I want to share some thoughts on deliberate practice and how it affects coding, learning how to program, etc. I will argue that, in the long run, you can only become a better programmer with some systematic (self-)education, be it from books or academic classes. Tutorials alone, on the other hand, get you actionable quickly but do this at the expense of providing “the bigger picture” which will ultimately harm and slow down your progress.

The concept of deliberate practice

I have been intrigued by the concept of ‘deliberate practice’ for a few years now. It mostly comes up in the context of the so-called 10.000h rule (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s The tipping point – which is full of blatantly false information by the way and has been debunked by Steven Pinker, see Resources).

Deliberate practice is needed for expertise and reaching a level of mastery. If you just want the ‘quick fix’, don’t bother using this approach. But maybe consider using it still.  For your own betterment, even if that sounds like an increasingly cheasy idea in our times. Read on to find out why I think you should.

Urging you to go grab a book instead of reading a tutorial probably is weird advice coming from someone owning a tutorial blog. What I  really want to say is that you should choose the medium through which you learn wisely and deliberately. You don’t need to use the same medium all the time but keep track of the ratio of how much you use the quick fix and how seldom you actually take the time to learn and really understand things. For getting things done quickly, a tutorial is great. But in the long run, if you want to become good at some point (and you should have that goal), you need to learn systematically.

 

Adopt good learning habits, relearn the basics and do it well.

Get a teacher, get constant feedback and a systematic learning progression. If you have acquired your skills merely through ‘coding along’ so far, you might want to do some serious catching up by reading a book. Even if it’s an introduction you deem below yourself, seeing as you might already have years of experience under your belt. Go learn your basics. They’re the hardest part but easiest to overlook. Deliberate practice concepts all agree that you need to deconstruct a skill into the absolute basics and master those smallest building blocks. It’s not the ‘big concepts’ which will ultimately make you good. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Go learn your basics. And go for mastery this time.

 

Why don’t you just… read a book for once?

I don’t want to say either that one could learn programming from reading books alone. But what I do say is that a book is, obviously, an overall larger thing than one short standalone tutorial. So it is bound to have some more structure. It has room for some more general explanations than a blog post. In a blog post, lengthy explanations of background information would be distracting as the goal is to get you going as quickly as possible. For your overall learning, however, this is harmful. Getting the easy ‘quick fix’ is not challenging. But without challenge there is no learning process.

Reading books to learn something is not the right approach when you’re in a deadline-driven project and just need results real quick. But even in that situation, I encourage you to take some time for deliberate practise: Read a book on the topic in your free time, in a moment of calm where you’re not pressed for results. This is what the Humboldtian idea of Bildung is: Self-realization, learning something which has no immediate use but will make you grow as a person and in your expertise.

 

The culprits: Lack of didactic guidance, missing big picture

When you learn programming by tutorials and StackOverflow only, there usually isn’t a lot of didactic guidance involved. It seems like the effective way to do things because you get going immediately and only learn what you need to know right now, so you can always keep things relatively simple. But you also don’t get the big picture. You might get actionable advice, but in the long run, this kind of learning alone, while making sure you get started quickly, will also make sure you remain mediocre forever.

 

Training progession and learning

If you learn without a progression, there is not training effect. I spent all my youth on strict training plans for long distance running, so tackling learning this way is all natural to me. But I realized that for a lot of people, it isn’t. They would never even dream of structuring their progress in learning in accordance with well-known training principles. But that is why a (the desired?) training effect is never going to come. If you don’t train, you don’t get better.

And by “training” I don’t mean the fun part of coding along happily, hacking things together so they merely work. Training is the hard work part. It means dedicated, systematic learning with the goal to improve systematically, following a pre-planned progression. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon without planning out your training like this, why do people expect that it should be any different with other kinds of learning? But they do. And then they sit wondering why they don’t get better.

You won’t get fit if you don’t make a plan and follow thorugh with it. These things don’t happen by chance. With learning, we sometimes are lead to believe that it doesn’t require this continuous dedication like atheletic fitness does. You learn it once and get to keep that skill level forever. That’s why most people get worse once their schooling is done – they just stop learning. Of course, years at the job give you experience. Doing what you’re already good at is fun. But if you want to make any measurable, visible progress, you have to leave that comfort zone and do the work.

Dedicate yourself to getting better or you will stay where you are. Forever. Just ‘showing up’ and doing the work the same way you always did, making the same mistakes you always did, will not make you an expert. There is no way around deliberate practice with a reliable feedback loop. You have to measure your skills before you can improve them. So you see that you really aren’t anywhere near close to where you want to be. This is painful but necessary. You need to acknowledge where you lack skill. Then come up with a plan to expand your knowledge systematically and fill all the gaps. “Just coding along” is not going to do it in the long run.

 

What you do every day… counts more than what you do once in a while

I want to share the one baseline that resonates with me the most: Do it every day. Even if it’s just 5 minutes of habitualized deliberate practice. Get better every single day. Challenge yourself to get better daily. Even if it’s just a ‘mini habit’. What you do once in a while can never beat what you do every day. What you do ‘once in a while’ has a tendency not to happen. If you aim to study for an hour once a week and that doesn’t happen a few times, you will go without practice for weeks. So go for 5 minutes daily. There isn’t anybody who doesn’t have 5 minutes per day. No matter how busy you are. There is no excuse for not taking these five minutes out of your day for conscious improvement. I think it would even be totally justified to do this during your paid work time. 5 minutes more or less can’t hurt your productivity. And the investment will surely pay off.

Late New Year’s resolutions

In the “coding world” classic “book learning” is frowned upon. People favour just getting what you need right now from a quick tutorial or reading up the solution on StackOverflow. I argued, however, that never taking time to do the real, hard work and actually learn it is not a good habit in the long term. So I suggest that you replace it with better ones from now on. It’s not too late for New Year’s resolutions yet 😉 So much for today.

Yours,

the LaTeX Ninja

Resources

Some books touching on ‘deliberate practice’

Cal Newport, So good they can’t ignore you, NY 2012. I found that the book isn’t what the title suggests (it sounds like your common bullshit American self-help manifesto, but it’s really very sound advice). Contrary to the common “passion hypothesis” (live your dream and make your pre-existing passion into your career), he recommends to adopt the “craftsman mindset” which focuses on producing really good output. His Deep Work is great as well. http://calnewport.com/

Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!, London 2014. Was not as good as I had hoped. I really liked the summary on deliberate practice and the idea behind it, but found the book itself a little lacking in depth. After the introduction where he explains deliberate practice (which is the part I loved back when it came out. He really is responsible for my first getting into the idea of deliberate practice), it’s pretty much over. All he does is apply his theory to multiple projects. If you’re not particularly interested in the skills he deconstructs, you really don’t need to buy the book.

Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, NY 2012. Also with Tim Ferriss’s mimimum effective dose (MED), mainly described in The 4h Chef, the common denominator is that the books mentioned all question the concept of “mastery”. The 10.000h rule stating that you need 10.000h of deliberate practice (that being 4h per work day, 20h per week, 50 weeks per year for ten years) is geard towards “world-class mastery”. Even if you really want to achieve world-class mastery, studies have found that you can get away with way less hours if you practice the right way (deliberate practice as opposed to ‘just showing up’). But Ferriss and Kauffman both bring up a different aspect altogether: They point out that most people don’t actually want that kind of “real mastery”. Kaufman’s great idea behind his book is that mostly, we just want to get started in a skill really, know enough that we can say “I know how to [INSERT SKILL]”. And 20h of real deliberate practice mostly is more than enough for that. Afterwards, we are ready to continue on to real skill acquisition if  still interested. Ferriss is unique in how he stresses the idea of doing the least possible to achieve your goals (the minimum effective dose) which supposedly will save you most of the otherwise wasted time.

And of course: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Boston 2000.

Other

https://jasonhaaheim.com/the-deliberate-practice-book-club/

Steven Pinker: Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective, in: The NY Times, NOV. 7, 2009.

 

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