Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware, by Andy Hunt was published in 2008, and for whatever reason has been sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I probably bought it based on a comment I read or an online review; I don’t remember, but apparently never made the time to read it – until now.

The premise of the book is to teach one how to — think. And learn. It’s targeted primarily towards software developers, but anyone wanting tips / tricks / advice / insight on how to think critically, and problem solve more effectively would benefit from Andy’s work. There are several metaphors likening the brain to hardware and software that programmers would be familiar with, but the book is really about cognitive science.

Some of my take aways:

  • Software is created in your head, not your IDE. This makes it appropriate in my view to schedule time to do nothing but think. “Thinking walks” are encouraged, or even kicking your feet up on your desk. This may look like goofing off to non-programmers, and even programmers that are of the mindset that “work means your hands are on the keyboard,” but thinking is an important part of the craft.
  • A corollary to that is, it’s important to invest in your skills. It should be OK to incorporate that into your work schedule – in moderation of course. Do you expect a doctor to keep up with important advances in medicine? Would you expect him to do that after hours ? What about a lawyer? The same holds true for any knowledge worker. There is an unnecessary stigma around reading / learning at work. We need to keep the sword sharp to be effective in the long term. The book points out the need to be deliberate about your learning. It doesn’t happen by accident, and if you relegate it to “when I have time” you never will. Create a plan and a schedule.
  • R-mode thinking (traditionally called “right brain”) is the more creative side of our brains, and where intuition comes from. It is often underutilized. You can’t force it, but you can foster it. To me, this is a good reason to play chess! Chess exercises both sides of the brain – L-mode (left brain) for analysis / calculation, and R-mode (right brain) for pattern matching and intuition. I’m going to try 10-15 minutes of puzzle solving each morning as I drink my coffee to get the juices flowing.
  • Mind maps! I admit I rarely ever use them, but the book makes a strong case for using them as a tool to organize your thoughts. Apparently kids in Europe are taught this at a young age.
  • Often times, the real value in documentation isn’t the documentation itself, it’s the act of documenting. This is similar to an observation I’ve already made when preparing to give a lesson, sermon, or a talk. I almost always prepare notes, but often times don’t reference them very much.
  • There is no substitute for experience. Don’t be afraid to jump in and try things. Make it safe to fail. Sometimes it’s better to play first and RTM later, once you’ve gained some context.
  • Pressure kills creativity. I’ve always hated deadlines – particularly artificial ones (ones created internally). I think they are usually counter productive. The book validates my thoughts on this. Pressure (such as deadline pressure) encourages shortcuts and errors. It forces you to get something done, at all cost. The pressure also has negative long term effects on your health. Avoid deadlines as much as possible. Sometimes it’s a trust issue.
  • So many people sit in a chair for eight hours a day (or more), but that doesn’t mean they are productive the entire time (and likely are not). This is assembly line thinking. When it comes to our work time, we need to emphasize quality over quantity. For knowledge workers, it’s important to have blocks of uninterrupted time to get into a flow. Personally, I’m best in the morning after having that first cup of coffee. Don’t sit like a rat looking for a pellet in front of your email – it is about the most unproductive thing you can possibly do. Shut down the email client, turn off notifications, and just get into a flow. Email, conversations with co-workers, and especially meetings are expensive. That’s not to say they aren’t important (well, sometimes), but they can almost always wait. In other words — schedule your interruptions so you can be more productive.

One of the things that really struck a chord with me was the notion of a Pragmatic Investment Plan. Andy introduces the notion of a “knowledge portfolio,” and likens it to a financial portfolio. It’s important to have a goal, with short term and long term objectives to reach that goal. The plan may change, and that’s OK, but always have a plan. Diversify your investment – it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket. And, invest actively. That is, stop and reevaluate your portfolio from time to time to see if your objectives need to change. I have recently set a goal of becoming more proficient in the area of Machine Learning. This is an area I did some work in during my grad school days but not a lot since, so there is a considerable learning curve in front of me. Andy’s work has convinced me of how important it is to be purposeful about creating objectives towards that goal.

All in all, a great read, and I’ve gotten a lot of practical…. err, pragmatic tips from it. I’m glad I finally got around to it.