“Learning in Public & Working Out Loud”: Erin Doyle (Lob) (Video + Transcript)

May 17, 2024

Erin Doyle (Lob Staff Platform Engineer) found that one of the most effective ways to increase her visibility as a technical leader, to management as well as peers, is to adopt a habit of working out loud and learning in public. She shares her techniques, which offer numerous benefits where you can greatly help others while also helping yourself. This approach to working does require some courage to be vulnerable and share your imperfections, and it also makes the great work you’re doing very visible in an authentic and humble way.


In this ELEVATE session, Erin Doyle (Lob Staff Platform Engineer) found that one of the most effective ways to increase her visibility as a technical leader, to management as well as peers, is to adopt a habit of working out loud and learning in public.

She shares her techniques, which offer numerous benefits where you can greatly help others while also helping yourself. This approach to working does require some courage to be vulnerable and share your imperfections, and it also makes the great work you’re doing very visible in an authentic and humble way.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Erin Doyle ELEVATE being open about what you dont know lowers barriers for others

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Erin Doyle:

Hi, everybody. I’m really excited to talk to you today about learning in public and working out loud. I’m Erin Doyle. I’m currently a staff engineer on our platform team at Lob. And prior to that, I’ve been a full stack web developer. I’m also an instructor for Egghead, where I have a couple of courses talking about web accessibility. Jumping in.

As our world grows more and more online, our work more remote and asynchronous, the way we interact with others needs to be more intentional. We can easily fall into the habit of doing our work and growing our skills in silence and isolation, but if we make a concerted effort to instead adopt a habit of working out loud and learning in public, we can reap numerous benefits. While this approach to working does require some courage to be vulnerable and share your imperfections, it also makes the great work you’re doing very visible in an authentic and humble way, and it lifts others up along the way.

Let’s talk about learning in public. Learning in public is a method where, as you learn a given thing, you share your learnings as you go in a public way. Sean “Swyx” Wang, who is an evangelist for learning in public, describes it as, “To have a habit of creating learning exhaust.” How do you do that? You don’t need to put together a perfectly written dissertation on the thing you’re learning about. You don’t need to be an expert before you can start sharing. Just keep the barrier to entry low, or else you’re a lot less likely to do it. It can be brief, messy, honest. Just be where you’re authentically at in your journey.

Tthere are a lot of options for mediums for how to share these learnings, but the more visible, accessible, and persistent, the better. You want to make this information easy for others to follow along with if they choose. Find a medium that allows you to simply broadcast information and it’s easy for others to subscribe to if they’re interested. The medium should be easy to find in the future for those that need it later, and that can include your future self. When you’ve forgotten what you learned, which you will at some point, and now you’ll be able to reference back to a leader. So let’s go through some examples of what that could look like. This could be a simple post in Slack, or whatever chat app your company is using, with a today I learned. Here’s an example of a channel that someone created at my company, specifically for this purpose of sharing these kinds of posts.

You could record a quick video demonstrating how to do something you just learned. Here’s an example of a video I recorded. I had been testing out a Chrome extension to mock responses from our API so that I could test our retry behavior whenever a request failed. I knew this would be a useful tool for the rest of my team to learn about.

Instead of trying to put together a fancy, edited, polished video that would’ve taken way more time than I had, I just hit record and I started talking and walking through it. It’s okay if this is messy or if something goes wrong in the middle or if you stutter. You’re really just trying to recreate that scenario of if you were working in an office and you invited one of your teammates to come look over your shoulder while you showed them how to do something. But what’s even better is that this is persisted. So it could be found later, it could be watched again, it could be paused, fast forwarded, slowed down. And it’s available to people that weren’t even there when you originally did the walkthrough.

Podcasts. This may seem like a really big leap. But I’ve got a colleague, Benny Kitchell, that actually started a podcast to speak about his journey learning about system design. Here in this post, where he announced the podcast, he says, “To battle both of these with a single swing of the ax,” referring to speaking confidently about tech and system design, “I have decided to start a podcast specifically about my journey with deep diving into system design. A space where I will not be shy about speaking about the things I’ve learned, and I will accept any mistakes as what they are, just another step to the top.” Wow. What a courageous way to share what he doesn’t know and what he’s learning.

This demonstrates that you don’t have to keep it in your company. You could go to social media and share there. Here are some examples of posts I’ve made to Twitter, which maybe no one else cares about or sees, but I can use my posts like a collection of resources I know I found useful in the past that I can reference back to whenever I need to in the future.

Perhaps there’s someone out there following me that will find some of this useful as well. Or you could blog about it. Here’s an example from my blog. There’s honestly not a lot there yet, but it’s something I’m working on.

I had seen Tanya Rasha do this on her blog. She was tired of starting from scratch every time she got a new Mac. She wrote down all the tools and configurations that she liked so it’d be much easier for her the next time. I did the same thing for myself. It’s nothing fancy. It’s written specifically for future me, but just like I found Tanya’s blogs posts super helpful one of the times that I needed to set up a new Mac, maybe there are others out there that will find mine useful to them as well. The options here are really endless as long as it meets the goals of low barrier, visible, accessible, and persistant.

Now let’s talk about the benefits. Even if no one else finds the information you’re sharing useful, you are finding it useful. You are helping solidify your learnings by repeating them outside of your head. A Stanford University study published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology looked at what’s called the protégé effect, where students teach others what they’re learning. The study found that when students were asked to tutor others, they worked harder to understand the material, recalled it more accurately, and were able to apply it more effectively. And these students scored higher on tests than the ones that were learning for their own sake.

In the scholarly article Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success by Judy Willis, it states that learning in more ways than one improves retention of information. For instance, instead of just listening to a podcast, which involves auditory learning, find a way to rehearse the information both verbally and visually. The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is.

This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned rather than just memorized. And then when memory fails us, which we should always be prepared for, you are helping future you by persisting your learning somewhere you can access if you need to later.

The other benefits to learning in public are less obvious than tangible, but equally valuable.

When you learn in public, you are also sharing that recently acquired knowledge with others. You’ve done the legwork on a given topic, so you can aggregate, summarize, and TLDR the details to potentially shortcut that learning for those following along.

Another benefit to you beyond solidifying and persisting that knowledge for yourself is showing management what you’ve been learning. You’re making it very transparent that you’re continuing to invest in your skills and understandings of things relevant and important to your work, and that you’re trying to help and lift up others in the process, but much less obvious is that you’re planting seeds for a culture of psychological safety. You are modeling to others that it’s okay not to be an expert in everything, even at a high level of technical seniority.

Not only are you not an expert on everything, there are some things you may know little to nothing about, and that’s totally acceptable. Showing others what you’re learning about normalizes that not knowing and can foster an environment of continual learning and sharing. Being open about what you don’t know lowers the barrier for others to be open about what they don’t know, and it makes it easier for them to ask questions and ask for help in the future without fear of judgment. By modeling your imperfection, it helps create a safe environment for others to be comfortable with where they’re at at their growth as well. And from the book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well by Amy Edmondson, she says, “All of us are fallible. The question is whether and how we use this fact to craft a fulfilling life full of never-ending learning.”

Now let’s shift and talk about working out loud. Working out loud is similar to learning in public and has similar benefits. This approach is where you can share publicly your progress as you work on a given task. This can be as big as a project or as small as troubleshooting a single issue. As you work on a given task, you can essentially talk out loud and log your thoughts, your theories, your actions, and the results as you go. And so how do we work out loud? Again, there are numerous options for where to post your progress, but the goals remain the same. Keep it simple, easy to subscribe to for those that want to, but not somewhere that could be annoying for those that aren’t interested. And make sure it’s persisted somewhere for referring back to later.

Here are some examples. You could create a channel or thread in your company’s chat app where you can dump your progress on a project or an issue you’re troubleshooting, and those that want to follow along could join the channel or thread. Here’s an example of a project I was working on to improve and clean up some things in our Elasticsearch clusters. I didn’t know much about our Elasticsearch implementation or usage at the time. I simply knew we were seeing some issues and we’d need to do some research and put together a project plan to resolve the issues we were seeing. So I started this channel to document all of our findings, plan tasks, and status as we went.

Here’s where I started off the channel with a summary of what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what my initial thoughts were for a plan. What’s great about this approach is that you can easily add links to relevant resources so it’s all captured in one place. This also makes it easy to document decisions as you go. Here, I explain a decision we’d made after research and testing. I include what the benefit of the approach is and any implications. And if anyone had any questions or concerns, this makes for a great place to have that discussion and have it documented.

Here’s an example of where I made a discovery. All in one post, I am providing a status update, sharing an observation with others that may be unaware of it, and educating them on it, including useful links to resources and including screenshots, clearly demonstrating and documenting the details.

Another approach is to start a document that’s accessible to and discoverable by others that you use as a diary or log as you go. Here’s an example of a diary document I created when I was troubleshooting some Postgres database role permission issues. I listed exactly what code I ran with which user, and then exactly what test I ran with the results of the test. Here, I ran a query, I listed the results, which matched my expectations. And here, I ran another query and listed the results, which did not match my expectations. And so then I was able to note that discovery right there.

Let’s talk about the benefits. The most obvious benefit is that you’re making it very easy for management and others to see the work you’re doing in a very unfiltered and genuine way. So this is another way to increase your visibility. Additionally, you’re documenting the history of a given work effort, what your steps were, what your reasonings were based off of, what you tried and what the results were, and how you came to a certain outcome. When someone, or even you, if enough time has gone by and you’ve forgotten, asks, “Did we try this?”, or, “Why did we decide to do it this way?”, or, “What happened when you did this?”, or, “I wonder if we could have done it this way instead.”, you have that audit trail that you can refer back to. And that could keep you from repeating previous mistakes or going down a path you’d already tried, and provide a much greater context around the outcomes and the decisions that resulted.

Similar to learning in public, working in public has the potential of helping others learn from the work you’re doing. You’re, in effect, documenting how to do or solve a given thing, which others may find quite informative. By showing your work, you’re sharing your thought process. You’re demonstrating how you work from A to Z through a given problem. You may be working step-by-step through designing or implementing a solution or troubleshooting an issue, and allowing others to see your process could be very educational to them.

By working openly like this, it also makes it very easy for stakeholders to keep up with your status, as well as allowing others to weigh in, ask questions, even collaborate with your effort. The intentional benefits here are similar to learning in public. Working open like this reveals to others that you don’t always have the answer, and that you have to go through a process to figure things out. It normalizes that journey from clueless to gaining understanding.

Through this approach, we can model to others that being a software engineer is just a constant cycle of not knowing something and going through an intentional process to learn or solve that thing, no matter what your level of seniority or experience. We can show others that we can approach any unknown topic with assurance and confidence, rather than fear of that phase of cluelessness before we reach understanding. No matter who we are, we’re all on that pendulum that swings between the state of cluelessness to mastery and then back again.

Finally, to sum up, by shifting your approach to learning and working to be more public, open, and transparent, you improve your own learning, understanding, documentation, and visibility.

From that learning and working, you’re lifting up others, creating efficiencies, improving communication and collaboration, and sowing the seeds of psychological safety within your organization. Employing these techniques takes some courage to really open yourself up and show your authentic and perfect self at times, but the benefits to you are great, and the benefits to others can be even greater. Thank you very much.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Share this