Unconference.zip: Speed Mentoring

At NewBCamp I gave a presentation called Speed Mentoring. This was a 45 minute session divided up into smaller 6 minute segments during which geeks answered the specific questions of newbies on a one-on-one or a one-on-three basis. Basically your robust version of the high school “study hall” but without the bespectacled school marm telling you to tone it down.

My expectation was that all the newbies would float from geek to geek learning a little here and a little there, having a few questions about this and that, moving when the gong was sounded. Far from it. The newbies had questions about particular processes on the internet – how do I upload photos, how do I create a blog, how do I install a Paypal button. Yet more surprising, it was the intermediate users who were most in demand. I had asked that several ‘super-geeks’ – really advanced users – be available for questions. I sat around with them trading NewBCamp observations while the rest of the newbies and intermediate users went at it. The gong was hardly heard as the people who had partnered up stuck together as they exchanged information and at the end, contact e-mails.

Based on my observations, I would say that this session is conceptually analogous to the unconference packed into a single zip file: spontaneous self-organization, collaborative conversational model, participant driven. One word of caution – I organized this session with 20-30 people in mind. More than that and one might have to have an honorary bespectacled school marm to ensure that all the newbies can find those geeks best equipped to help answer their questions. Some form of personal tagging might be appropriate (a sticky label that says, “Ask me about social media!”).

It’s the Content, Silly!

So what if you are such a newbie that you confuse an apple store where you can buy Golden Delicious and an Apple store where you can get a Mac?  Whether or not you know the specs or even the name for that particular brand of computers, it is my theory that you understand more about what a Mac is for than you realize.  As a newbie, you are highly aware of your real-world needs – like the need to buy an actual apple to eat.  The computer is a tool that may get you the apple more efficiently than you could on your own.  It could suggest places nearby that have them, tell you what’s in season, or even provide you with a place online to trade the money necessary to have someone send you an apple.  However, you as a newbie know that the point was always the apple for eating, not the Apple computer.

As someone actively pursuing geekdom, I have found it refreshing to speak with people who consider themselves newbies because of this very reason.  The newbie isn’t wowed with how many widgets the software has, whether a device can crunch so many gigs of data, or, dare I say it, how nicely does it fit inside a manila envelope.  While usability is important, relevance is key.  Newbies want it to SOLVE THE PROBLEM.  The technology has to answer the question how do I get my Golden Delicious apple.

Geek Speak: Newbie Hurdle #1

Consider this Dilbert cartoon:


Now this actual chat transcript from  http://operator11.com/shows/4992/episodes/28677 

(05:18) Geek #1 Thinking about trying a Mac out – is a Mac Mini good enough for web video, or do I need to spring for an iMac?

Geek #2 I wish the mini came with a 7200 rpm drive

(09:41) Newbie #1 theres a mac mini??
no Geek response
(09:44) Geek #3  When i got my new pc i spent 2 days getting vista off it and finding all the missing drivers i needed for xp
… and Newbie #1 has left the studio

So let’s talk about that barrier to entry for newbies, geek speak.  In the tech profession there’s jargon that the techies use that the newbies don’t get.  The sheer number of names for things is intimidating enough, and then on top of that there are all the ways of categorizing the names that just don’t make sense to newbies. 

Is this inevitable?  Is there any way to make it easier?  Where should a newbie start?  This issue was a problem for me when I first started.  I worked through it by sitting with my mentor at geeky gatherings and just writing on a notepad all the nouns I didn’t know.  I remember listing things like “WYSIWYG”, “Ajax”, “CMS”, “Framework”, to name a few.  And what exactly was the difference between Javascript and Java?  What did PHP stand for?  How were you supposed to pronounce SQL?  As geeks reading this might be able to guess, I was sitting in a meetup having to do with developing the back end of web sites.  Once the meetup was over, I took my extensive list of whats-its to my mentor and we went over the terms and concepts one by one.  Over the next few months, I grew much more familiar with the language of web design.  I still hadn’t worked very much with the various tools, but I could understand what geeks meant when they referred to them.

The problem is that when geeks get together, they start talking geek and leave the newbies behind.  To this day, I don’t understand everything they say, but I’m not as intimidated to ask because I do understand a majority of it.  What’s annoying to geeks is having to stop every other sentence (or in mid-sentence) and explain the basic concepts behind what they’re discussing.  What I like about my method of writing the terms down was that I didn’t interrupt the flow of the conversation or demand an immediate explanation.  I wouldn’t be able to ‘get’ the conversation like the geeks did, but at least they would provide a way for me to learn so maybe I would ‘get’ the next one.

The Mentor/Mentee Help Desk Mentality

Say I’m a freshly minted newbie, eager to tackle a challenge, such as debugging a program.  When the rubber meets the road and I find that every supposed fix I try seems to set off ten other bugs and I’m sure it’s something simple but I can’t quite get what that simple thing is, I call my geeky mentor.  The question is, at what level does the mentor-mentee relationship become a burden on the mentor and self-defeating for the mentee, in that the mentee isn’t learning anything, but rather using the mentor as a Help Desk?

When it comes to technical work with computers, there is a lot that goes on that I as a newbie would do better not to try right off the bat, like how to make my own CAT 5 computer cable or how to code an operating system.  However, I might need to debug a program that does require knowledge of these systems, and a mentor would understand that this was outside of the scope of my experience and pitch in.  On the other hand, if I as a newbie ask the mentor to debug my program and it is within my knowledge to do it myself then that is asking the mentor to take on the burden of thinking for me.  So the rule of thumb would be that a newbie should expect to have to analyze problems at least to the point of knowing whether he or she has the knowledge base required to fix it.  If the newbie can’t figure that out, the mentor will become a crutch and correspondingly less interested in helping the helpless.

Is there a Newbie vs Geek Distinction?

     So, I was a newbie, but now I’m not that new, I know stuff about web development, I follow blogs and podcasts and Twitter, and I don’t run screaming from code.   So how do I measure up to the larger community of geeks?  The thing is, computer science is such a broad field that it’s improbable that one person could know everything anyways.  How is it then that there even is such a categorization of people as newbies and geeks?
     Much of the distinction has to do with the fact that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution when it comes to web technology.  Not everyone gets the web yet – but they will, it’s only a matter of time.  Development of the web is making it increasingly easier to build communities and communicate.  Newbies are just the next wave of people who are integrating this type of technology into their lives.  
     Besides newbies being a cultural phenomenon, they also represent a phase of learning.  Once a person has understood the significance of technology, he/she has to grasp how to put it into practice.  My own experience learning about technology started with a pen and paper and an opportunity to listen to techie jargon.  I wrote down every proper noun at a PHP Meetup and asked my mentor to explain them to me.  It was important to me to get the concepts down first before starting to write code.  The next thing I did was pick a scripting language – PHP was my choice – and write programs in it.  Of course, not everyone wants to code, this was just for me, but the idea is you have to start somewhere.  A lot of my initial difficulty was simply in figuring out how to install things like a web server, a compiler, libraries, how a browser works, etc.  What was PHP-ini and why did I have to care??  The truth is, this process was made fun by the fact that I had a great mentor – and at this point let me give him credit, he’s the guy in the picture in my geek in the dictionary post, Andrew Shearer (and to be fair, I picked a really geeky picture of him, his glasses aren’t that prominent).  So, geeks can and do give back, and in fact I have found that most of them aren’t scornful of newbies, they are very welcoming and helpful – as long as the newbie doesn’t sit back and say, “I am an empty container – fill me with knowledge.”  Like anything, effort and motivation shine through, and will do a lot more for the successful newbie-to-geek conversion than any number of “Fill-in-the-Blank for Dummies” books ever could.

Newbies of the world, speak up!

I’m not trying to convert anyone who doesn’t want to engage in social media, but I am trying to connect to people who have been thinking about what’s possible in technology nowadays. I think the key concept here is “joining the conversation” – we need to make people who are unfamiliar to technology and what it can do for them feel welcome to make their voice heard about whatever they want to talk about. I’ve been taking a sort of informal poll of people I know who may be into media but don’t have a blog or aren’t on twitter and I find that they all have niches – one is into Myspace while another has a personal web page, then one is on Second Life, another on Skype. Then there are the people who are kind of mystified by technology but realize its potential – like the guy who runs a business but doesn’t have an e-mail address or a website but all of a sudden needs to get a digital photo to a guy in another state, or my mother who is working on a website and starting to join the social networks but is frustrated because she hasn’t found people who share her interests. The barriers to helping these folks come into the fold is (as @philcampbell and @loudmouthman helped me to understand on operator11’s the Gravity show) firstly the resistance and confusion that any sort of change can bring, and secondly the sheer number of different ways that one can participate. To reiterate Phil’s point, you can’t just pick one and say that’s the one I want for now, like buying a car. These people who have just started maintaining a presence on the web have so many avenues available to them that they figure what they’ve done already is enough. What I have come to understand and would like to preach from my little soapbox is that different social media gets different content from you and reaches different audiences, so it maximizes your output.

I hear more and more enthusiasm from techies who want to be mentors and who want to bring people into their community. The key is to get the word out to newbies that their individual voices are important and there are people out there who want to engage them in the conversation.

I refer to the operator 11 Gravity show – the url is http://operator11.com/shows/4992/episodes/28676