My career turned 18 last month. In this journey, learning is the only thing that keeps me fresh and wanting for more experience.

I joined Thoughtworks first in 2008. I came to know about Thoughtworks through the master class series and geek nights that used to happen in 2006-07 times and got inspired to join. When I applied, I was surprised by the depth of the interviews and until I got relevant experience I was not able to crack it. I got into Thoughtworks only on my 3rd try, coming back working on the feedback after every failed attempt. This feedback was not about gaining knowledge (which would have been easy) instead it was about gaining wisdom which is seldom achieved without having hands on experience. I am an avid learner, but it was the first time I moved from mere fact hoarder to a person with expertise on something.

I finally cracked the interview and my learning grew multi-fold when I started interacting with the growing office in Chennai but also felt that there was a plateau that gets hit soon in the learning and it was easy to get going with the flow. My aspiration was to represent Thoughtworks in forums like Agile India and XP conferences but I was not able to find a way to grow myself into that. 

Our place was never short of mentors and luminaries, it is when I reached out to one of the mentors for advice on career. What I got was a book to read and get back with the summary back to my mentor. The book was ‘Talent is overrated’. It drove a simple point into my head that, intelligence or being gifted is not as important as deliberate practice. Someone with sustained development day on day will overtake gifted individuals and prodigies.

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I was looking for ways of deliberate practice, it is when I did two things that stuck with me forever. One was to write a blog regularly. Not even a month goes by without blogging which I keep continuing. The other was to establish learning communities wherever I am present. I started the learning Thursdays series with a bunch of like minded people and kept it running on every Thursday without fail. We would not find speakers but one of us will always have a topic ready to run and make sure the fire does not die down. Once we picked up the momentum we formed a community event and invited outsiders, as a geeknight series making sure to run every month without fail. Both of these helped me and other presenters shape up their presenting skills. 

These exposures helped me to always be prepared for a few topics on XP, agile practices, clean code and I was able to present them in different forums. One of my topics Whistle Blowers was presented in XP 2013 which was one of the first ideas to take examples from biology and applying that for evolving quality code. All of a sudden I could see how things are inter-related and this made it easy to present any information to any person in an easy to consume form. This happens only when unrestricted learning and chunking happens. From a person who had stage fright, I became someone who can do impromptu sessions on any stage.

I always like to keep this fire of learning communities up and running, so when a new office in Mahadevapura, Bangalore was established; I created ‘Learning Thursdays’ and later ‘Friday Socials’ by getting like minded people again. This group evolved into an active one which is running geeknights and other Thoughtworks meetups in the office. Once we stop learning collectively, that is the day we start regressing as a community. So I keep making sure that learning happens not just at a personal level but at a collective level in some form or the other wherever I go.

Kent Beck gives a good introduction to adoption of XP through an analogy of learning to drive. A brief extract can be found here. The learning to drive analogy is applicable to any discipline, where the instincts have to take over conscience in other words the motor/muscle memory will play a bigger part than a conscious effort, but when demanded we need to rewire our learnings. Music is also analogous to this.

The steps in becoming a good in something.

Start immediately

Procrastination affects a lot of us and one of the key catalyst for someone to procrastinate is the idea of perfection. This is because of the fear of failure and being judged, so people end up reading and studying about something instead of learning by doing. Unless we get into something mission critical or any action that will cause any irreversible consequence then we should not hesitate to start. By starting immediately, we will be forced to learn the absolute minimum that is required to start instead of getting equipped with a world of knowledge.

Be predictably slow at first

There is a sense of satisfaction in moving up the levels, so people immediately step up their levels without getting a good understanding of what they learnt. When I was learning to drive, I was never allowed to shift to the 3rd gear until I was able to drive the vehicle without getting stalled in the lower gears. Same goes to my piano tutor who never allowed me to step up the tempo until I never missed a note. This made sure that whatever I had got it into my head is done the right way, I was very angry with my tutors as they never allowed me to step up quickly but in hindsight it makes sense; unlearning something learnt wrong takes a long time than learning it to do the right way.


When stepping up, change only one parameter at a time

We learn more and more faster and deeper when we are able to understand the effects of our actions. The more we are able to identify the cause and effects, the better is our ability to sense the patterns and apply learnings at a more abstract level. Stepping up the learning through one parameter a time allows us pinpoint the cause and effect, helping us to save energy. Someone shifting to 3rd gear and also driving in rain for the first time on a slippery road will not lead to effective learning.

Once comfortable, keep getting exposed to new conditions.

When we are comfortable in a new skill, chances are high that we get stagnant. Routinely exposing us to newer challenges helps to sharpen as well as prepare us for unknowns. The comfort zone is where the instincts take over the conscience, but when the situation demands we need to switch back to the conscience and make quick judgements from our experience. Good drivers are not usually worried about bad weather or poor visibility, instead they know when to stop driving and when to carry on.

Listen to others, over time we may pickup bad habits.

Habits change as soon as the feedback stops, I used to drive without co-passengers for an extended period of time and developed a tendency to jump over potholes and speed breakers. This annoyed my co-passengers and until I heard from them, I never realized that I had developed a bad habit. It is very difficult to sustain best practices or get a new one, getting a mentor or coach or even just plainly listening to other’s observation will help us a lot.

Never underestimate the power of a coach or a mentor

The coach in the operating room published by the New Yorker magazine tells about how an accomplished surgeon realised that even the best tennis players had coaches and decided to take a coach with him to the operating room. The doctor was doing a thyroid operation which he has done many times and the coach had never done that type of surgery so there was no expectation on useful feedback. At the end of the surgery the coach surprised with a lot of detailed observations which were overlooked and missed by the team. If we are to be professionally better at something then get coaches, does not matter who we are or how successful we are.

When learning stops, we regress

I have always shunned the idea of hiring people only from the top institutions at my workplace. The reason for that was my observation; that there were people from many relatively not so top institutions ending up top performers at the organization compared to their peers from top ones. This was not an one off observation, I had been observing this year on year that recruits from top institutions and not so top institutions were many at times on par with each other and there were few exceptions on either sides.

My school was a very competitive place to study, scoring in the 90s out 100 just meant that you are in the 50th percentile. It was getting increasingly tough as grades went higher and people were merely looking to outscore each other without gaining deep understanding of the subjects studied. Parent’s pressure on the ranking meant students had no choice but to play in the rat race getting stressed out and not learning much except scoring marks. There was a shuffle of groups happened after grade 8 and that was a breather in my school life, the competition eased out and it was so easy to be at the 75th percentile. This sudden ease of pressure made me learn subjects like science and maths with greater depth in understanding without worrying about optimizing learning only from the exam point of view. I could see that depth of understanding eventually helping me at my college and work place and I feel the positive effects of that even now. Had I been in the ultra competitive environment, I would have given up on learning.

I stumbled on the talk by Malcolm Gladwell which had rekindled my memories while I kept nodding at many his points in the talk.

Top institutions always gets the brightest of the minds, there is no doubt in that. But increasingly these institutions are getting competitive that people in the lower percentile in these places may face too daunting a task to accomplish something even though they were the best among their their peers in the country. It will favour the ‘smart gets more smarter’ culture. So as mentioned in the talk it will be better if we recruit the toppers from multiple other institutions rather than focussing on getting talent from top institutions. This may apply to organizations which forms A-teams as well.