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Learning to Learn for Engineering Leaders (Managers)

July 11, 2022 | 5 min read

What to learn

Learn in breadth

Assume our skills are function parameters and we optimize function result - impact on work and life. It’s easy to get to local optimum if you improve only on a fixed set of skills or don’t learn at all.

I’ve found that newsletters are effective way to broaden knowledge in specific area. For engineering management I read:

Even inside fixed area of engineering management I regularly learn about new subareas or new approaches from these newsletters. In the beginning of EM path I was thinking that I’ve learned almost everything: delegation, motivation, leadership, 1:1, firing, etc. Then I’ve stumbled upon article about decision making in management. It has flipped my mind: I didn’t even know that decision making is an area of management knowledge and non-trivial skill.

Some examples of engineering management subareas are there.

Similarly it can be rewarding to learn different but related areas. Learning marketing, finance, selling, startups, writing and other areas greatly influenced my way of thinking.

Learn in depth

If you need to improve a lot in some specific area - you learn it in depth. E.g. I realized my big skill gaps in coaching and went to read a few books about it. There are two hard things with learning in depth:

  1. be aware about self knowledge gaps. Learning in breadth can help.
  2. finding improvement areas with the most leverage. You don’t need to become professor in each area of your work.

Learning methods

It’s very individual but maybe it can help someone. In descending order of frequency of my usage:

  • asking feedback a lot. Very time-effective and practical method of learning. Downside - it can get you into local optimum.
  • reading books and articles from newletters. Time-consuming but very rewarding.
  • finding a mentor or coach for specific issue or skill gap is effective when reading theory isn’t enough.
  • teach or write or give a talk about something. It structures thoughts but takes a lot of time.

How to memoize learned

Retrieve from memory a lot

It’s called testing effect or retrieval practice. In some way it’s the most effective skill for study and work. How I apply it:

  • After reading article or chapter of a book I don’t just moving on. Instead I ask myself questions: “what did I learn in this article/chapter?”, “how can I apply it tomorrow?“. Then repeatedly ask myself ”and what else” until can’t answer. Such questions must be open and thought-provoking, similarly to self-coaching. If sometimes you find yourself in state of flying in thoughts and forgetting what did you just read about - it can be especially helpful.
  • Do exercises after book chapters if they are present. Hello, school and university. It’s even better than previous point: book authors have alredy constructed good thought-provoking questions. In my practice reading book in a such way takes 1.5-2 times longer.
  • Apply learnings at work immediately. It forces you to recall what you’ve learned.
  • practice before learning. Like Flashcards. I’ve found it especially useful for learning new programming languages: just read short intro and immediately start writing code.

Connect with existing knowledge

I’ve noticed that knowledge in vacuum is completely erased from memory in a few months. Making connections with existing knowledge helps to fix that:

  • deeply understand what you learn. Ask “why is it set up this way?“. E.g. you’ve read about EBITDA. Ask yourself: “why we exclude amortization and tax?”, “why not just use net profit?”, “what are advantages and disadvantages of this measure?“. Repeat until deeper understanding.
  • ask yourself “how it connected to what I know?”, “what do we use in our company for that?”, “why don’t we use solution from the book?“. E.g. you’ve read a chapter about LSM trees in DB. Ask yourself:
    • what data structure is used in our primary database at work? why it’s B-tree? Why don’t switch to DB with LSM tree?
    • what are data structure in other DBs we use? How does ElasticSearch and ClickHouse store and index data? Why don’t they use classical B-tree or LSM tree? What is inverted index?

Notice that it takes a lot of time and not always makes sense. E.g. reading Designing Data-Intensive Applications takes 3-5 times more in a such way.

Other

  • Take breaks between learning sessions. Don’t just read whole book in one stop.
  • Sleep is an integral part of recall. Don’t forget to sleep enough.
  • Make notes during reading and reread them periodically. I regularly use it because of tendency to return to habitual behavior and forget new learnings.

Leverage

Investing into learning to learn can be great leverage for all future learning. Like enlightenment skill in Heroes 5 it might be worth it.


© 2022
Denis Isaev

Hi, my name is Denis Isaev and I'm a CTO at Yandex Go

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