To Give Is Better Than To Receive

Better to give a talk at a hacker event, that is. Or in your hackerspace, or even just to a bunch of fellow nerds whenever you can. When you give the talk, don’t be afraid to make it too “easy” to understand. Making a tough topic comprehensible is often the sign that you really understand it, after all, and it’s also a fantastic service to the audience. And also don’t be afraid that your talk isn’t “hard core” enough, because with a diverse enough crowd, there will absolutely be folks for whom it’s still entirely new, and they’ll be thankful.

These were the conclusions I got from talking to a whole range of people at Chaos Communication Camp the weekend before last, and it’s one of the great opportunities when you go to an event like this. At Camp, there were a number of simultaneous stages, and with so many talks that new ones are still being released. That meant that everyone had their chance to say their bit, and many many did.

And that’s great. Because it’s obvious that getting the work done, or diving deep into a particular topic, is part of the hacker experience, but it’s also equally important to share what you’ve gained with the rest of the community. The principle of spreading the knowledge is a cornerstone of our culture, and getting people up to talk about what they’ve learned is the manifestation of this cultural value. If you know something, say something!

Of course, when you’re not at a conference, you could be writing up your hacks and sending them in to the tips line (hint, hint!). That’ll work too.

24 thoughts on “To Give Is Better Than To Receive

  1. “If you know something, say something”

    My past and optimistic 27 year old self would firmly believe in that motto. My present, cynical 34 year old self knows it’s not exactly true. I’ve been burned countless times trying to help others improve their skills so now I know better to just stfu and do my job (or, if there’s nothing to do, just pretend being very busy). One memorable example comes to mind:

    I was assigned to a group of (apparently) experienced embedded developers in their late 20s who were working on some Cortex-M project prototype and had no idea how to use make and gcc. Previously they’ve only used Keil (oh god, the horror!) I’ve improved and automated build process of our software to avoid stupid mistakes which happen when someone just commits .hex into a repository 😨

    Then I’ve taught my teammates what make is, how it works and how to use it to get the job done. Everyone was happily doing their work until some time later one guy babbled at “daily” meeting how I helped them. For some reason project manager reprimanded me for not doing my work and undermining his authority (what?!) Soon typical corporate abuse started: he started assigning me way more tasks than I could handle, even if staying overtime. I could not complete all of my work on time so my “key performance indicators” went down. Word got to higher ups how I’m not performing as before and two moths later I was fired.

    Chief lessons I learned over time:

    “People at work at not your friends, even if they act friendly.” (Treat them with respect but maintain firm distance.)

    “The quieter you are, the further you’ll go.” (Doesn’t mean being antisocial mute, just don’t attract attention.)

    “Do only what you’re paid to do.” (Project may be a mismanaged mess but it’s none of your business. Once you start introducing fixes and innovations you’ll be blamed for all the failures – and I mean all of them. On the other hand, if you stay quiet, keep clanking on the keyboard and management finally causes the project to fail, then they’re the ones to blame. You’ll just move on to working on something else.)

    “If others are not at your level, let them be. In the long run there’ll be less competition for better-paid work.”

    1. Wow, what a strange behavior of that manager. I first thought people might find it patronizing how you went about it, but the story ended completely differently, and so weirdly.

      Undermining his authority? Why when people are happy, strange idea of authority.

  2. Can confirm that in my experience, from preaching to instructing in swordplay, teaching others is amazingly rewarding just in what you learn about the subject yourself let alone the benefit you give others.

    I’ve got more to learn than to teach here though!

  3. ” When you give the talk, don’t be afraid to make it too “easy” to understand.”

    One of my CompSci (Computer Architecture?) classes had each of us students give a presentation at the end of the semester.
    I breadboarded a Full Adder using NAND gates, LEDs, and switches, and demonstrated how it worked.
    During the Q&A, one of the students asked “What are all the wires for?”
    That gobsmacked me for a moment.

    1. With respect to the student who queried you (I truly believe that no question, asked in good faith, can ever be a dumb question) one wonders what a question like that, in a setting like, might be telling us about our society’s predisposition to over-specialize.

      I’ve encountered a master’s degree EE who couldn’t change his own tire, a Phd who didn’t know what a diode was, and a guy with a bachelor’s degree who did not know what a ratchet wrench is and had never held one. These were NOT dumb people.

      1. All those you listed could have been dump people. You can become EE and Phd while being dumb for sure.

        Also why is it so important to want to change own tire? Or why should it be common knowledge to know what ratchet wrench is? Those do not define wisdom or intelligence. Maybe even the vice versa.

        1. It’s important to be able to change a tire if you own and drive a car, especially in the United States.

          If you get a flat in an urban location, you’re going to be inconvenienced but that’s about it. You’ll probably be able to get roadside assistance (you DO have roadside assistance coverage with your insurance, right?) within an hour and be on your way.

          But the US has a lot of NON-urban areas. It’s not hard to find places where that roadside assistance might not be available–or where even cell service is unavailable, and where it’s five hours walk or more to the nearest civilization. Being able to change your own tire could mean the difference arriving late and dirty and being in a low-key survival situation.

          Or it could just mean the difference between being half an hour late versus two hours late.

      2. Yes, I am a generation (or more) than my fellow students were, so I was familiar with breadboarding circuits. It didn’t occur to me some never had the experience.

        1. I went back to college as an adult after some time in the navy and some time as a civilian electronics tech. I was surprised at the overall lack of practical skills in the students. Granted, it’s not really fair to expect a 19 year old kid who’s fresh out of high school to have a lot of experience, but I feel like the removal of shop class from the curriculum has done a disservice to our youth.

          1. “I feel like ~snip~ the curriculum has done a disservice to our youth.”

            Sadly, I have fixed it for you. :/

            Honestly I don’t think the lack of shop class is the issue, school’s have been failing to helpfully service students’ needs and interests for a very long time. I didn’t bemoan not having a shop class (I got into making later in life) but when I graduated in ’04 our school barely had computer classes, no shop class, hell, it didn’t even have air conditioning. It did have a big damn gym and an elaborate football field for the team to practice on.

            Schools in the US are in a truly dire state. what inadequate funding they do get is wasted on useless drivel like sports rather than anything actually useful for students long term interest.

  4. Another great tool is analogies. Spend time finding them. Very complex ideas can often be communicated using simple analogies. One may not have in depth knowledge of a specific field, but at the same time, one has experience in common life. When a complex concepts in life can be used to illustrate a concept, a goal, or a set of priorities, a lot of data can be transferred to a group with a divers set of skills quickly. You don’t need all the technical details to understand the why.

  5. “The best way to learn is to teach”

    I find that having to teach someone something, and the more interactive the better, makes you understand the concept so much more thoroughly. Being forced to put the concepts in your head into words can often highlight your own weaknesses in understanding. Any questions from the people you are teaching it to are guaranteed to call out any inconsistencies. And finally, being forced to approach it from multiple angles in terms of various analogies or specific explanations, from someone who may not be getting it, broadens your ability to apply the knowledge to new situations.

    I always tried to team up with the struggling kids in college, because having to teach them a concept that I barely understood made learning it a snap. I wouldn’t study for tests, I would teach for them.

    Maybe doesn’t apply to giving a talk, since you should know the topic a bit better, but that does not mean you can’t know it even better, and improve even more.

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