Why We Stopped Learning to Make and Started Making to Learn
Brendan and I make software together. I design and he programs.
On a daily basis, I feel very lucky to work with someone so creative, curious, and kind.
Since we’re both always trying to figure out how to get better at designing and developing, we experiment constantly. (And, as you’d imagine, most experiments fail.)
When we first met, I was a bit awe struck by his talent (and ability to seemingly solve any type of puzzle). So, I asked him how he learns so quickly, and he gave me some practical advice.
You get better at making things by making things.
I Was Focusing on Learning the Wrong Way
As an undergraduate student, I studied psychology and economics. I read lots of research and discussed theoretical supply/demand curves even more. Theory can be foundational. To an extent, it’s essential. But, you get stuck in the concrete you pour if it’s all you do.
When Brendan and I first met about three years ago, we were working together at a startup in New York. I learned he was - in fact - working on several things at once. He was developing for the company we worked for, helping friends start software projects, and freelancing for companies large and small.
I thought his approach was senseless. Maniacal, maybe.
I specifically remember asking, “When are you going to put your freelance work to the side to focus on our work here?” because I couldn’t help but think that by working on several projects simultaneously, the quality of each was suffering (mightily).
“Do one thing at a time. Focus and do not deviate.”
I read this guidance untold times in various forms. It seemed true.
Two years ago, I started freelancing. As I began working on several projects concurrently, I noticed that a lesson I learned from one project could often be applied to another. And when an experiment resulted in an outlier (either working supremely well or laughably badly), I could take that wisdom elsewhere.
As I progressed, Brendan’s advice didn’t seem nearly as maniacal. Maybe just unfocused. While Brendan toiled away on anything he could possibly get his hands on, my unfilled time was spent consuming what others were saying.
When We Just Started Making Way More Things
Around the same time I began freelancing, Brendan and I started working on a number of software projects during nights and weekends.
Rather than talk about making something (or talk about something we had read), we’d just start. One of us would share an idea, and we’d begin.
Along the way, we made some really fun things:
At a previous employer, we were talking with teammates and customers across nine different communication platforms. Finding where a conversation or file lived felt like chasing a ghost. So, we made a browser extension that would search through all of your tools (e.g. Gmail, Google Suite, Slack, HipChat, ZenDesk) in order to find the “thing” you were looking for quickly.
Communicating line-by-line via Slack (and other chat clients) to garner feedback from multiple teammates at once was driving us a bit nutty. So, we made a Rule Bot that would create structure for any Slack chat in which you need feedback from multiple teammates. As a discussion leader, you select the “rules” (e.g. who you want feedback from, what it needs to be about specifically - and any accompanying documents, when it needs to be completed by) and you receive the information you need in structured formatting (without the noise).
We had far too many things to read and not enough time. Our “want to read” bookmark lists were getting out of control, and we always seemed to have dozens of tabs open at once. So, we made software that’d let us listen to the things we wanted to read. We started making it last September, and we’re still listening to it today. It’s called Eariously. (By clicking on the link, if you’re interested, of course, you can add your email address to our waiting list.)
With so many well-written guides, thoughtful Medium articles, and easy-to-follow podcasts, it’s very easy to consume vast amounts of practical and handy advice instead of making the thing you want to make. (It surely happened to me.)
Seeing that Eariously was beginning to gain some traction, someone asked me recently, “When are you going to put some of your work to the side?”
Brendan’s logic (finally) become lucid.
Instead of learning to make, I was making to learn.
An Academic Introduction to Application-Based Learning
In September, in the process of learning more about our potential listeners, we met Kia Jones, a soon-to-be senior at Northwest Missouri State University studying Interactive Design.
When Kia first asked what she could do in order to start learning UX, I was a bit stumped.
Surely, I couldn’t just send along things to read. But, where to start?
My first homework assignment I shared with Kia:
Think of a product you use daily
Find something about it that annoys or bothers you about it.
Re-design the experience with pen and paper
I still love doing this with products I use. While your rethinking might never make it into the company’s roadmap, your ability to design for you makes you a better designer.
“Being able to understand the difference between how things should work and how users actually interact with a product is essential,” explains Kia Jones, a UX/UI Designer at Eariously, “That understanding only comes from spending time learning about a product or system, finding trouble points, and then constantly redesigning and testing. This skillset is better developed with more hands-on practice versus simply reading case studies and trends.”
Because Kia was someone who readily used the products she was re-designing, she was an expert. I came to realize that I wasn’t teaching. We were collaborating.
That is, we were making (together) to learn.
We should share that Kia just spent the summer in Central Maine with us, designing for Eariously. Her contributions were (and are) invaluable to our progress. If you’re someone who’s in a position to hire a soon-to-be-graduating UX/UI designer, you should hire her before someone else does.
Making an Ecosystem of Improvement (in Central Maine)
In conjunction with Central Maine’s local colleges, business and community leaders, and the endless curiosity of the students we work with, where we work has become home to a number of fascinating ventures. By working in a rural coworking space, we’re collaborating on as many as five different projects simultaneously.
“Earlier this year, I started making Sklaza, a marketplace for college students. What I realized very quickly (and was surprised about), was that there were a lot of people creating and building their products all around me in Waterville,” explains Josh Kim, a sophomore student at Colby College, “So, I searched for other students creating their own products to see how I could help and what I could learn. I’ve learned the most when working with others on what they’re up to.”
Last week, we wrote about why we moved our startup to Maine.
It’s inexpensive for bootstrapping businesses like ours
Operating rurally is less distracting than working in a city
The community up here has been incredibly helpful
We’d like to add another point.
While Eariously remains our primary focus, and freelance projects continue to support us financially, we’ve discovered that working closely with students from our local community in Central Maine has served as another essential way to collaborate (and improve our abilities).
A core group of students who we share our coworking space with are on the cusp of becoming funded or sustainable startups. By learning about what’s working, what’s not working, and how they might solve each others’ problems, they’re improving constantly, too.
10 Water Street is beginning to turn into a laboratory. If the past six months are any indication of how quickly things can change, we’re optimistic of how students (and eventually graduates who decide to continue building their products in Central Maine) can lead the creation of a new ecosystem here.
RJ Anzelc, owner of Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space, believes the same. “Entrepreneurs need and desire support, whether they want to admit it or not. They want people around them that are motivated to help drive them, that are innovative to help inspire them, that are smarter than them at various things to help broaden their horizons and thought-processing. We’re trying to create that sharing and mutually-growing community here.”