60 feet under, in the presence of a true giant

Dedicated to Janet Ferguson, who loved to travel

I met Hilary through a mutual friend. Hilary was interested in talking about establishing her sustainable travel business. In the end, I don’t even remember that conversation. I’m grateful for her, though. I told her I wanted to swim with a whale shark, but do it responsibly. I did exactly that.

Two out of three people I show this photo are surprised I would swim with something so dangerous. I joke that the animal here is vegan, eating mostly plankton. Though I guess it’s more of a pescatarian, eating small fish and crustaceans too.

This still blows my mind… give me a moment…

We were about 30 minutes into our third dive at Darwin Island, in the Galapagos. There was a din from my left. When I looked over, I saw Christian, the divemaster shaking his underwater noise maker and pointing off at a distant shadow. A bus sized fish emerged from the gloom. Some of us just watched from a rocky shelf below the shark while two of our group took off, rising and swimming toward it. I was managing my air, avoiding strenuous movement, breathing deeply. I just filmed. Neither of the divers got close. The fish appeared to lazily swim by.

Jonathan Greene, shark scientist, conservationist, and partner in the Galapagos Whale Shark Project, said it was 11 to 11.5 meters, 35-37 feet long. He said getting in the way of the tail could kill you. I’m the one taking the picture. My bunkmate, Max, is the one in pursuit near the tail.

I got lucky. Of five dives at Darwin Island, we saw the shark on one dive. A few see none. That being said, some see many, and according to Greene, the sharks are sometimes curious enough to swim much more slowly, allowing divers to approach. Some of the divers on the trip discussed seeing numerous whale sharks in places like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. However, The Galapagos is special for being able to see animals this size—the largest fish in the sea. Some reach sizes in excess of 50 feet long.

It’s really weird how shows like Blue Planet expose us to the existence of such wonders, but there’s an element of the profound, of overwhelming connection being there in the presence of such an animal, in quiet weightlessness, 60 feet underwater.

Other highlights:

  • Surfacing at Darwin Island with a pod of dolphins, who decided to put on a show
  • Insanely fun, intense drift diving at Wolf Island with a school of hundreds of hammerhead and Galapagos sharks—this was so fun we did it a second time!
  • Swimming with marine iguanas, sea lions, giant sea turtles, and a penguin on a single dive at Isabela Island
  • Manta rays and too many spotted eagle rays to count
  • Walking with giant Galapagos tortoises
  • A pair of mating octopi—and me without my camera!
  • Jonathan Greene’s and Jenny Whack’s commentaries on conservation and the Whale Shark’s place in the ecosystem.
  • The people: divers care about the environment they dive in. They are curious, good listeners. They are also ready to connect, by sharing their own experiences in life and in diving. Such a fantastic group! —Except for the Brits, they’re just “rubbish.” [1] 😉
Giant Manta
Hammerheads off Wolf Island
One sunset is fantastic
Giant Galapagos Tortoise, one of Darwin’s inspirations

My primary complaints, there just weren’t enough trip highlights and they weren’t massive enough. For an overwhelmingly positive experience, far and away the most incredible dive trip of my life, I just expected more. Also, I got really tired of the amazing sunsets.[2]

Also, the beer selection onboard left a lot to be desired, being simple lagers. I primarily care for hazy IPAs, APAs, and —you don’t care. It’s probably for the best, anyway. Dehydration is not a diver’s friend.

In all seriousness, this is the kind of experience that gets me thinking philosophically. I have always loved sharks and have heard about the impact humans are having on the oceans, but that’s all been intellectual. However, seeing a school of 100 animals, hammerhead sharks, dissipate into shadow, implying hundreds if not a thousand more animals is a spiritual experience—which now directly links to the images I’ve seen of sharks being slaughtered on fishing vessels. I have let the problem in. I could push it down, bottle it up, but I don’t want to. I want my kids to have a chance to experience this.

Again, every time I look at that picture, I can’t get over it. I am speechless for a moment. …give me a moment…

I took this trip under the premise that it was responsible. The two main parts of this were

  • offsetting my flight with carbon credits at a bargain price of around $30
  • booking my dive boat with The Galapagos Whale Shark Project team

Yet, I still need to understand if this is just wishful thinking. I have confidence in the mission of The Galapagos Whale Shark team and would like to write about them further. They are doing one small, essential thing for conservation. I need to understand, though, is the carbon offset verifiable and really making an impact, or is each tree planted just leading to a different, unprotected tree being cut down?

Also, there’s a discussion to be had about the positive (and negative) economics of international travel. One positive, as I see it, I worked with at least 5 different service providers on the trip, each was small and local. Each was splitting some amount of the money I was spending on the trip. While there’s inefficiency here, that in a former life, I would have thought about how to eliminate and capture, I felt positive about each of the individuals involved. While sometimes I felt pressure to be upsold, I always felt that responses to my questions were genuine. I trust them. In particular, Hilary from Yugen Earthside did a great job working with me to find the right experience. Angelica from Tera Sur Travel acted as a personal concierge making sure my experience in Ecuador was what I wanted and I felt safe and comfortable. I would work with both again and so appreciate their introduction to Jenny and Jonathan. I write this because I see this as an alternative model to the huge travel organizations like Marriott, Hilton, etc. which focus on economic return over being good stewards or offering tailored experiences.

-Jeremy

Magic over Darwin Island

[1] Actually, they are a lot of fun.

[2] I can sometimes deliver irony in a very dry, imperceptible manner, but I had some feedback that made me think I needed to add this footnote… Hint: I’m saying, “for the best trip of my life, it wasn’t best enough.”

At some point, you just get tired of this, right?

Summer Dinners with Tunde Wey

I consider artist, philosopher, chef, Tunde Wey, a friend. He’s not a friend who will be calling me to discuss relationship issues. Tunde is more like a shooting star or supernova—something that captured our ancestors’ imagination for a moment, and sparked their curiosity and imagination. Tunde is a brief experience, that in the right situation, leads to ripples of creativity.

I was first invited to meet Tunde by my friend Kilolo who was hosting him in Pittsburgh. She had sent me a number of articles about his past art from GQ, Time, and Vogue. Tunde has a knack for putting issues of race and economics in people’s faces. In one example, Tunde charged white and black patrons of his restaurant different prices to represent the difference in opportunity in the United States. In another, a man paid $100 for dinner, and received an empty container, all by random chance. I imagined paying $100 for dinner and receiving nothing. Is this art or just mean?

Because of Tunde’s provocativeness, I was a little afraid of the spot I might be put in, an unknown surprise to stoke my emotions. I feared leaving hungry. I feared leaving shamed. That fear in itself was somewhat visceral and provoking—I felt nervous walking into the building.

That first meeting was a round-table dinner and discussion about economics and equity. All attendees read a scholarly article about monetary policy and inflation and effects on the economy and people. We then shared our thoughts. What I found was Tunde focused on framing and then making space for conversation. There were no right or wrong answers. Tunde had his opinions and he wanted to listen to mine.

Tunde succeeded in getting ten dinner attendees to get past academic jargon and have a real conversation. “Inflation,” “interest rates,” “recession,” and “unemployment,” are often wielded by economists and financiers in ways that make most of us recoil, rather than seek and strain to understand. Yet, the discussion pushed past the professional jargon in a way that included and invited us all in, leading to a a rich and essential conversation about democracy, “The American Dream,” and living with each other.

The article explained the Volcker Shock, a plan to control inflation by raising interest rates and thus risking recession in the US economy in the early 1980s. It was named for Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve at the time, who is responsible for setting interest rates for money lent by the United States’ central bank, “The Fed”. In the early 1980s, prices of everyday items were rising at 10% per year. By increasing interest rates, Mr. Volcker thought inflation would be limited. Prices would stop rising. At the same time, unemployment would rise, because there was less money being lent to make investments or start new businesses. There could also be a recession. However, it was necessary to tame inflation and keep prices from increasing. There was no other way. We had to trade jobs and recession for price stability.

No other way. We had to.

Sorry, why do we need to tame inflation? Do you know?

I was clueless. I haven’t taken economics since college. I stopped listening to the Planet Money podcast in 2015. Paul Volcker knew better, right? If he says inflation is the thing that will destroy the world and there’s no other way, then there’s no other way, right?

“Ding!” Oh, my phone. I need to check my Insta…

But wait, what if we had chosen to leave interest rates alone and inflation had continued?

💰 If you have savings of $100, and inflation of 15% happens, your savings can buy 1/2 of what it could before: $85 worth of stuff. That’s just $15 less. Not so important.

If you have $1 Billion in the bank, your money is now worth $850 Million… That’s a loss of $150 Million—a number people really care about.

The ten of us had budgeted two hours for dinner, but ended up staying almost four, talking. We learned a little about economics, politics, and each other. We weren’t experts by the end of the night, but “interest rates,” and “inflation” were more approachable. We were free to ask questions and collectively answer them. Most importantly, the question of taming inflation was properly reframed from being a technical question to a values question:

  • Prioritizing inflation, prioritized existing wealth over employment → Inflation maxed out at 13.3% in 1979 but rising interest rates triggered a recession and unemployment hit almost 11% in 1982.
  • Prioritizing employment/jobs may have raised inflation, and in doing so it would have made existing savings and fortunes worth less. It would have made home and student loans worth less to the bank, at the same time making it easier for people with those loans pay them off as wages would have had to rise.

This is a discussion of values:

protecting existing savings versus protecting jobs.

Wall Street saved $ billions, but what happened to the people who lost their livelihoods?

We don’t talk about these things in the 2020s. If we read an article, it’s often presented in a sanitized, technical way. It’s seldom presented in the context of the people who will be affected.

Maybe most importantly, were there alternatives? The article presented this as a binary choice. Maybe it’s a failing of the article, but everything is presented as binary these days. Red, Blue. Black, White. Capitalism, Socialism.

It’s my experience in complex problem solving that there are always myriad solutions. Some solutions even complement each other. My experience in leadership and teamwork has convinced me that presenting a diverse group of people with a context and problem lead to diverse, creative, and effective options. Was there another way?


On a summer morning, I walked with Tunde through Point Breeze to Bakery Square. He had something to show me. We walked through the winding paths of Mellon Park, to Penn Ave and a place between two new office buildings. We talked a little about relationships, divorces, growing apart. We talked about roots, Nigeria, Iowa.

There was a forest of white metal trees. They were laid out perfectly. Each one was the same, with three layers of branches, starting about ten feet off the ground. The branches had LEDs underneath. They were street lamps, there to illuminate the pebbled concrete corridor between the buildings. An architect’s attempt to soften the concrete and make it look more natural. As the pathway continued, 300 feet beyond, the path was flanked by real trees, green, illuminated by the early morning sunlight. The leafless, white, metal lamps felt very desolate.

These are the choices we are making.

Values.

  • A lifeless approximation created with toil and sweat, but needing no water, no nurturing. Neither growing, aging, changing, living.
  • Or our constant companion since humanity began — The Giving Tree, symbiotically taking our breath and using it for their lives while we take their breath and use it for our lives.

The choice of two futures.


My second dinner with Tunde was the second seating for an experimental dinner gameshow he worked on during Pittsburgh residency.

Thematically, the evening unfolded showing the hidden luck each of us have by the lottery of our birth. This culminated in the ‘working class’ of diners having to work for our main course, while the wealthy were able to sit and watch. Our “work” consisted of blowing up balloons, counting balloons, folding dollar bills, and other tedious, satirical metaphors for modern professional life. We then had to pay for dinner with our earnings.

Some of the “work” was done answering questions that took me back to high school in their presentation: needing a written essay. However, I think they are absolutely essential questions for living with others.

  • What’s the last thing that made you anxious? How did you deal with it?
  • What was the last impossible choice you had to make? What made it impossible? Who were the characters? How did they suffer or benefit?
  • What is power? Is it the absence of constraints or the presence of limits?
  • When are you most free? How has that freedom affected other people negatively?
  • What are the talents you’ve nurtured? What were you born with?
Dinner Theater schedule and menu—we went 2 hours over…

Is this art or is this just mean?

This is essential.

We need to take time to wrestle with selfishness and selflessness. We need to account for the truth that both are human nature. Our emotions drive us to help ourselves. Our emotions drive us to help others. I think it’s only by wrestling with these things that we can move from the struggle to an integrated whole with fluid movement and respect for both.

Tunde spoke about living in the United States and then returning to his home in Lagos, Nigeria. He explained how the contrast between the overwhelming poverty in the slums of Lagos led him to anger. I didn’t ever see this anger projected. I only felt a constant challenge to look at the world from a different angle.

One thing I reflect on now, but barely noticed at the dinner: we all started with a secret amount of money. Those with money in their bank accounts, didn’t have to work for their dinner. The rest of us folded our dollar bills and blew up our balloons. I think the intent was to show the inequity of starting places. This worked, if you were looking for it. However, the activities were interesting and novel enough that I never felt bitter or angry that I had to do them. I was open to them, which is fundamentally different than suffering through a daily grind, working for food. Also, we were never at risk for not making enough to have our meal. While I am thankful for this, I think it’s important to be congnizant that we don’t all eat, and we don’t all eat the same thing.

Kilolo Luckett comments on John Barbera’s money folding, as they work to earn money to pay for dinner from the gated executive suite. Festive balloons rest on the floor, destined for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Bread and the Contours of Capitalism was a benefit dinner to celebrate the completion of Tunde’s summer residency at Alma|Lewis. Tunde was the head chef, but hosted by Kate Romane and her staff in her Black Radish Kitchen space. Seating there is communal, with groups of 2-4 seated with strangers at 10-person tables. This creates an atmosphere around new relationships, sometimes with diverse points of view.

The dinner was a victory lap, the way the final day’s ride in the Tour de France is 100 miles, an intensity in serving dinner for 60 people. Tunde interrupted and asked questions to prompt conversation. He had tables nominate speakers to provide responses to earlier topics. Yet, most of the dinner, he was in the kitchen, sweating over plating and making sure the diners were happy. When I met him on the stairs outside after dinner, he looked exhausted. I wonder if he enjoyed it. —I think he has a dream of the slums of Lagos being one day changed, of the asymmetric suffering of black people being assuaged, and I think he will find it hard to rest until that dream is realized.

While the crowd leaned Liberal, the discussion was generally non-political, and very open. There were no recriminations voiced or ideologies espoused without critical thought. It was a large discussion of what it means to live in a free society, how deeply rooted work and economics are, and how we affect each other, here in the United States, and globally.

I didn’t check my Insta once. [1]


We are lucky to have Tunde in the United States. I think the world is lucky. As a nation with tremendous economic power, it is essential we think about our place in the world and how we affect others. When I think about art, this is something few paintings, drawings, or sculptures can do. Yet, every time I ate agege bread with Tunde, he knocked me over and rolled me around. I was left thinking about it for days.

The anxiety I felt when I first read about Tunde and went to meet him for the first time was completely unwarranted. Tunde’s opinions were his own, and he would confidently express them outside his dinner experiences, but he was never judgmental. He was genuinely interested in sharing.

The absurdity of blowing up balloons, folding dollar bills, and answering essay questions to pay for my dinner is pure comedy, brilliant satire, but I can’t find anything funny to say. Tunde has reminded me of the importance of breaking bread and sharing. It’s nothing, if it isn’t profound.

Author’s Note: I had to end this somewhere. There are persistent, urgent questions [2] here.

[1] Disregard the fact that I look at Instagram once a month…

[2] “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Supporting Someone Else’s Dream

The Student

A few weeks ago, I opened my home to S, a current student at the non-profit coding bootcamp, Resilient Coders, focused on training students of color. I met S through their longtime mentor, Mike Skirpan, Exec Director of Community Forge. Like any 19 year-old, S loves video games, social media, and talking. They struggle, at times as I did, putting school work before their interests. S is bright and really funny.

Unlike my three sons, S has been homeless. S’ parents struggle or are unable to support them in becoming a professional—part of the great economic abundance I have enjoyed in Tech. S loves their mother, but they learned budgeting and other lessons from Mike and other supporters. I started teaching many of these modern, essential skills to my sons before they were even tweens.

There’s a gap here. We know it. It’s the birth lottery. It leads to the education gap, which then gives way to the experience gap, all of these are monumental to overcome.

This is common sense, but a little abstract… so I’ll channel my inner Quant, because… Math [1] helps us understand things.

Maths and hope

Talking about $14/hr, a common low-skill wage available vs $60/hr, a very achievable tech salary is not particularly meaningful to me. So, let’s talk about what this means in a lifetime.

$14/hr → $1.1 Million in a lifetime.
$60/hr → $4.8 Million in a lifetime

💰 That’s a $3.68 Million Dollar Difference for an individual

This can lead down 100 lines of thought, but focusing on S, a young adult whose future is yet to be written, this is transformational. Across their cohort of 10 students, this is the potential for $36M in 2020s dollars.

It was a little jarring at first, having S in my home. It’s usually quiet during the day, and they brought energy and passion, which I could hear, to their remote team collaborations. In a two story house, with ample local coffee shops, I could always find a quiet place. However, I loved hearing their youthful enthusiasm.

Experience and Jargon

I’ve had final decision hiring two dozen engineers in my professional career, not a ton, but enough. I’ve puzzled over the lack of female names. It wasn’t until recently that I really knew about unconscious bias related to race — how many black or brown candidates have I overlooked? S happens to be black. Resilient Coders focuses on teaching people of color.

Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly become cynical about jargon like “at scale,” “monetization,” and “alpha,” which describe what the private sector values, keeping us from ever truly engaging beyond arguing over acronyms DEI, DEB, JEDI, JEDIB. Are we satisfied with the rate we are seeing African Americans, descendants of slaves, making inroads into tech? No, yet we approach the problem the way we have been approaching it, assuming the Ivy-League will start delivering candidates soon.

Maintaining Standards

I had a chat with a friend who works at Google and he said, “We need to solve the problem without lowering standards.” As long as we are talking about “not lowering standards,” we are always going to be looking for kids from CMU, MIT, and Princeton.  The language, “lowering,” without “challenging our standards” implies we got it right already–and we know from experience that our experience is biased.  If you are having trouble hiring people of color, I’m convinced this must be a horizontal OKR, across the leadership team, not just in a single officer, and that it will make Duo an even better company than it currently is—serving and growing into its mission of enabling people in new jobs.  I’d love to have a real chat about how we can get people like, S interviews at Duo, and what it will take to help them succeed.

S and their classmates won’t get a look if they come in through HR or a front-line employee. If they do, they might get past the data structures and algorithms question by studying Leetcode, but they won’t have the 4 years of elite schooling and the summer internships that will get them through the systems design and SDLC process questions. What isn’t seen, is that the standardization of questions is walling off the garden to people who don’t have the same background I did (BS and Masters from Carnegie Mellon). We think that data structures and algorithms (DSA) are what a young person needs, when actually, we built resilience through our early career and mentorships. S has uncommon resilience and passion and needs a mentor, or just time, for the data structures, algorithms, and skills building.

Values

Resilient Coders has built a thriving training ecosystem in Boston, helping mature, driven, deserving candidates into Tech, without loading them with debt or disproportionate risk. I’m volunteering, with significant opportunity cost, to help open doors for Resilient Coders and S at tech companies in Pittsburgh. This matters, because I’m not selling anything (for now) — I’m acting out of a deep need to realize the best traditions of a shared American dream [2]. I’m doing this, because if we work toward this dream for S, it will realize that dream for my kids. It’s going to be uphill. S doesn’t have a degree from Carnegie-Mellon, MIT, or Princeton. They are not Ex-Google or Ex-Facebook. They don’t always feel safe in their community. They don’t have a reliable car. They do want a better future and they’re willing to learn and work for it.

-Jeremy

Footnotes

[1] I love dualities:

  • I have lived in fear of math since high school and at the same time
  • I have understood I have math superpowers, and I use them, to viciously solve problems when other tools fail me.

    I should not have ever feared math—no one should fear math. Einstein got some of his most transformational math from Lorentz (who turned out to be a total douche) and others. I’ll write about math and fear of math in the future. The best math teachers put math in context and take fear “out of the equation.”

[2] I want to double down on the idea that there are things in this world that are worth doing because they are good, they make you feel good, and they are not only about personal profit. I believe doing this makes the world better for my kids.

A Peach

A juicy peach

There is nothing like an early August peach. Georgia rightly claims to be amazing, but Pennsylvania has some of the best.

Sweet and juicy, obvious adjectives.

Yet, wholly inadequate.

The peach overwhelmed my primary senses of sight and sound. For a moment, taste and smell and touch were in focus.

I don’t have the words for the flavor beyond “sweet”. It’s just “peach.” That should evoke a flavor if you’ve ever tasted one. I wonder if the failing of my words is also why Inuit have so many words for snow.

For the sensation of touch experienced by my tongue, gums, teeth, jaw, and roof of my mouth, juicy gives way to squish, squirt and gush. Softness. Fuzz. Gentle. Sensual. The ten year old inside snickers. All of these adjectives evoke sex.

I’ve eaten at least 10 peaches this week, two a day for the last five days. One of my favorite times of year.

Coffee and Joy

I had coffee with a new friend today. He brought his 10 month old. The experience was different than I remember, having small children. I’m no longer rushed the way I used to be. I have energy the way I never had. I just melted, looking into the toddler’s eyes. I felt such joy, handing them a small paper cup, just so they could toss it, for me to pick it up again.

I don’t want to blame my ex-partner or ex-business partner for thinking I missed out on something… I take responsibility. I was so armored. I chose to wear that armor. I imagined they wielded some sort of weapon, aimed at my heart. My ex-business partner would attack directly and indirectly, with barbs that went directly to my soft spots, my insecurities. Indirectly, that was done by getting other people to attack my soft spots. In my apologist nature, taking responsibility for my own feelings, I also need to remember—my business partner was a bully. I needed to protect myself.

Now, I would walk away.

I learned the lesson of walking away with my ex-partner. They were controlling. They were not so adept at pinpoint attacks to soft spots, but I was so insecure about being alone, that I chose to live in a cage, to be crated. I was there to prop up my partner’s emotions, to feed of their happiness. Maybe that’s why pets are so special. I did it, as I thought a loving partner should do, not realizing that their lack of emotional regulation led to my overregulation. The lack of reciprocity ate away at my ability to feel.

And so it went… that I probably lived in mild-depression for years — if mild depression is a flatline of mood.

That’s why I left my partner. I finally saw… I saw there was another way to live and I needed to live that way as a father. As a father, living by example is one of the most powerful things you can do. I did not want to continue the cycle of living for someone else. I knew I could live selflessly. I had to prove and show, for my sons, that I could live for myself.

Stand for Myself by Yola

In online dating, you are often asked whether you have kids and want kids. I have kids, but only want more with the right partner. So, I leave that answer blank. I don’t want to miss out on a person who would be open to kids. Yet, in meeting that young child this morning, I realize, I want more kids. I love the qualities that come from being an only child, but I also know I’m a fantastic father and want a second chance at the really young ages… with a special partner.

Functions?! Why do I need to know this? – HS Intro to Python Class at End of 2021-2022 School Year

TL;DR, Summary, Breakdown

  • Function use is equivalent to using names for things, actions, people, etc.
  • Reuse of functions is secondary to the simplicity provided by naming things
  • This is a superpower

We were winding down the Introduction to Python lecture. There were three of us leading the class, Teacher O, Tutor E, and myself. I asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”

Student X asked, “Why do we need functions?”

I was taken aback. I paused. It clearly is an abstraction concept, related to the idea of naming things. That’s a hard sell. I said, “It simplifies your code, but I’ll try to think of a better answer.”

Teacher O interjected, “It allows you to reuse code. Reusability is very important for the real world.”

I struggled, stammered, and committed to coming back with a better answer. I’m still struggling.

I explored the issue later with Student E. E was having trouble with their creative task. E wanted to create three space men, from their favorite game, “Among Us.” We worked to get E’s task running, but then came to the end of the class period, still needing to fulfill one element of the rubric: use a function with a return value.

When we came back next class period, E, made a telling mistake, putting “()” characters after a variable. They ran the code and an error was instantly visible. They didn’t read the error, just removing the “(),” and suddenly it ran again.

“Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know what those parenthesis mean?”

“I’m not sure.” [1]

I thought for a moment. “Can you put in your own words, the difference between a function and a variable?”

“I’m not sure.”

—I’ve commented on 1:1 interaction, and this is where it is incredibly useful. In a group setting, there are all sorts of pressures that are difficult to relieve. When I was a student, I felt pressure to show my knowledge or, maybe worse, to avoid looking ignorant. So, I wouldn’t speak. 1:1, though, we can use the teacher/student trust to draw the student out. I am able to gauge and even reconsider different directions. I’m able to tell stories about how I found the particular topic challenging when I was a student.

I tried a new tack, “Think of functions like verbs and variables like nouns. Is crewmate a verb or a noun?”

“A noun?” E asked, somewhere between confused and questioning.

I dug in farther. After a few moments of discussion, E asked, “what’s the difference between a verb and noun again?” We googled noun and verb. Thing and Action. Still, E struggled.

“Is createCrewmate a noun or verb?”

“No, a verb?” Correct, but the question hung in the air.

—Can I simplify this?

“Let’s stop talking about verbs and nouns. Let’s just talk about functions as actions and variables as things. Is crewmate an action or a thing?”

“A thing.” A clear statement. E didn’t waver.

“And is createCrewmate an action or a thing?”

“Action.” Another clear statement. E had this!

We were there. Functions were actions and variables were things. However, that’s only the beginning of the journey. Helping E to understand when to create a new function/action is a battle for another day. Honestly, I’ve worked with engineers with 15 years of experience who struggle with when to create a function.[2][3] Again, with the 1:1 time, I was able to actually get to the heart of what was wrong. It became an indicator, a canary, pointing to a problem:

My team and I need to explain functions better.

Here’s how Codecademy talks about functions in their Python 2/3 Course(s): https://www.codecademy.com/courses/learn-python/lessons/python-functions/exercises/what-good-are-functions

What Good are Functions?

You might have considered the situation where you would like to reuse a piece of code, just with a few different values. Instead of rewriting the whole code, it’s much cleaner to define a function, which can then be used repeatedly.

Here’s how Code.org explains functions in Minecraft Hour of Code (https://studio.code.org/s/coursee-2021/lessons/12/levels/10)

“A function is a specific set of instructions to accomplish a certain task.”

CS Academy Talks About Functions in their CS1 Course (https://academy.cs.cmu.edu/notes/1178)

A piece of code that can take certain inputs to perform certain actions

These all make sense to me, but when I put myself into the shoes of a 12 year old, a 15 year old, a 17 year old, who does not know that this is a superpower, these does not connect.

I’m still trying to figure out how to explain how we use abstraction everyday, succinctly and universally. We describe the process of running as just, “running,” even though it can be broken down and then down again into smaller steps or into sprinting and jogging and distance running and racewalking. Abstraction is so built-in to our thinking that we don’t even notice it.

It’s like the David Foster Wallace essay/speech/whatever, where two fish are swimming and the first asks “how’s the water, today?” The other one replies, “what the hell is water?” [4]

Describing why we use functions can also be challenging, but to pile on the metaphors, if you can see, you have no idea why glasses are so important. If you are colorblind, you have no idea what it is to see more colors. If you are not colorblind, you have no idea what it’s like to be colorblind. Thinking about the examples from Code.org, CS Academy, and Codecademy, they are trying to explain colors to someone who can’t see them. I think our curriculums are missing the mark for the students who aren’t already interested in computer science. Again, THE BEST TEACHERS PUT THE SUBJECT INTO CONTEXT.

Steve McConnell wrote in his wonderful book, Code Complete, that the fundamental problem of software is managing complexity. Take a moment. Let that soak in. We are managing complexity. One of the fundamental capabilities of abstraction in language and how our brains interact with it, whether English, Spanish, Mandarin, or Python, is helping us manage this complexity and communicate with others.

I’m not ready to create a single, universal statement that works for all students. I will give a short example that should be very adaptable to students in a 1:1 or even group setting [4]:

“What do you like to do? What are you interested in,” I ask.

She responds, “I like to run.”

“And what is running?”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you describe to me the process of running? What do you do with your feet? How is it different than walking?” I’m careful to put it in a curious tone. I’m trying to invite an open response.

“Well, I guess, I take one foot and put it in front of the other. Then I take the other foot, and put it in front. I do this fast. It’s faster than walking. I think it’s also when one of your feet isn’t touching the ground.”

“Great. Now why do you say you run instead of, let’s go out and put one foot in front of the other and repeat that really fast? Why do you just say, let’s go running.”

The student is dumbfounded. I pause to allow her to think.

“Is it easier to say that? Is it natural? Is it simpler?” I say this slowly, calmly. I lead a little this time with some options to avoid any sense of a trap. The more we can do this, the more sense of trust we will build and the more I can leave questions open ended.

“Yeah.”

“So, I know you like to post on Instagram. Can you describe how to post to me?”

“I take a picture and post it.”

“Do you need to open Instagram every time?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Do you ever add any filters or captions?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you say, ‘I post’ instead of saying, ‘I’m going to open Instagram, tap new post, take a picture, add a filter, add a caption, and then tap new post?’”

“Because it’s easier?”

“That sounds like a question. Are you sure?”

“…, … Yeah.”

“Right. And you can talk to anyone who uses instagram or runs and they will pretty much know what you mean. When I think about it, it’s really the process of naming complex things for simplicity. It really helps out thinking about it more simply, and it also helps you communicate more easily with others.”

Some final thoughts on reuse.

In my humble opinion, reuse is not a a primary explanation and actually obscures the real superpower here — simplification. Example: what about using a function only once? Wrapping a complex set of steps or ideas up into another named idea is fundamental to simplification and is very useful for single use. Second, copying code is how many people reuse code, even professionals. I’m not even sure there’s a difference between copying a function name and copying the code inside it. The difference is in the complexity the name of the function manages for us when we read the code—the shorthand of saying “run” or saying “post to Instagram”.

We will need to repeat this exercise. We will need to repeat it across subjects. This is at the heart of computational thinking. It’s the same in English as in Spanish, Mandarin, and Python. Oh, and math. [4]

  • So, what’s the best response you’ve ever heard to the question, “why do we need to know about functions?”
  • Is reuse is more important than the simplification of naming?
  • Is this process the same in math, writing, and computer science?
  • What am I missing?  What’s the critical piece that unifies all of this or… totally invalidates my thesis? [5]

[1] This was the point where it became clear to me, E did not have mastery of functions.

[2] One of my first professional projects was taking a research programmer’s code which had up to 15 nested blocks in a single C++ function. It was actually a great learning experience, because I realized I needed to decipher each line and turn it into a well named function to understand the program.

[3] I remember once, as as manager, digging into a developer’s code as our timeline slipped. Imagine my horror when I found a 1000 line function with 50+ complex conditionals (if/else/else if) and all sorts of interdependencies and complex states. Of course, there were also no automated tests.

[4] (I think. I don’t know Mandarin, and am less than fluent in Spanish and Python. I am fluent in thinking though.)

Special thanks to my new friend, David Nassar, who in talking about explaining functions told how he used a very complex act of getting a glass of water, being simplified as “please get me a glass of water.” This example connected with my experiences above and further supports the conviction of my belief that great teachers put things into context for students

1:1 – Observations on Computer Science Education and by a first-time volunteer/teacher

TL;DR, Summary, Breakdown

  • I found one on ones to be essential in leadership.
  • I reflect on how important they are in teaching computer science in high school in their ability to connect teacher and student and uncovering unseen

I have really loved my 1:1 time with students this year.[1] I’ve had the luxury of spending anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, engaging students in “Introduction to Python” through Carnegie Mellon’s CS Academy CS1 [2]. Selfishly, I love the 1:1 time because I almost always end up seeing sparks of insight in a young person’s eyes when connections are made and problems are solved. I feel… joy, glory, maybe even euphoria. I don’t know if this is oxytocin or dopamine or something else, but I know it’s good.

One of those magical sparks of insight came in helping student, R. R. was making a minesweeper app for an unstructured, creative task. As I engaged, R’s vision for the game required creating an 8×8 grid with mines and empty spaces and covering it all with grass. I could see a pattern in R’s code, repetition (iteration). R. couldn’t see it at first. As I walked R through a series of questions about what each line of code was doing, in English, we started to get to a story of how minesweeper was supposed to work. Eventually, we teased out the pattern and R. was able to rewrite the code. R boiled 30 lines down to three lines. There were two nested for loops wrapping creation of a rectangle — a distilled pattern. When R realized what they had done, a shocked look appeared on their face. R’s eyes went wide. R’s lips parted slightly. Amazement. For me: joy and amazement.

And then an hour later, a thought creeped in. Why hadn’t R. been able to see the pattern? Hadn’t we just spent two weeks on “nested for loops?” Hadn’t we spent two weeks on “for loops,” before that? R. always did a good number of practice exercises. One thing that has always struck me about working with R, they are creative and motivated. If R was having trouble, were there other students having trouble?

I brought up my concern with the teacher I support and the other tutors. We talked through watching student progress more carefully. We talked through other interventions, like slowing down and spending more 1:1 time. The problem is, there is only one teacher and 3 tutors in the class and the tutors aren’t able to show up every day. If we have 25 students and 2.5 adults in the class a day, over the course of an hour, that means we each get 6 minutes with each student, not counting switching time. Is it enough time to tell the student what to do? Sure. Is it enough time to teach the student to recognize the pattern — to see it for themselves?

Each day since sitting with R., I have sat with another student. Each one is the same lesson. Student’s V, M, E, I, and N were all able to perform the given exercises. They were all able to bring in their interests, like Minesweeper or video games like Among Us into their creative task. However, when I talked them through their creative tasks, a pattern emerged:

  • No mastery of loops.
  • No mastery of functions.
  • No mastery of debugging.
  • Cursory mastery of if statements.

These were our best students; the ones who did the exercises; the ones who showed enthusiasm.

As I reflect, I ask, are my standards high?

Unquestionably.

Are my standards too high?

No. They can’t be. —Based on 6 minutes per class, they might be, but getting 20-60 minutes with a student would be a gamechanger.

I take this as my failure and also as a challenge for the coming school year. I hope to have some of the same students again in AP-CSP. I will help them truly master these concepts, not simply because it’s cool or practical, but because I think it could give them a greater insight into themselves.

As I think about ways to solve this, student/peer interaction and flipped classrooms are moving to front of mind. Any thoughts?

-Jeremy

[1] As a software leader/manager, I have extensive time with 1 on 1s and have found them to be an essential way to build trust.

[2] Thanks to the fantastic people at Carnegie Mellon (my alma mater) who make CS Academy available for free!

Leadership Level-up: A black, female entrepreneur gives valuable coaching and business lessons

TL;DR, Summary, Breakdown, Synopsis

  • Joanie Baucum-Robinson taught a synthesis of valuable lessons to community leaders
  • A diverse group of students were able to connect and apply lessons weekly
  • Students supported each other, strengthening community
  • Joanie is a charismatic force

For the past 8 weeks, I’ve been taking Joanie Baucum-Robinson’s Leadership Level-up at the Community Forge in Wilkinsburg, PA. In the past I’ve read books by Stephen Covey, Dale Carnegie, and Michael Porter. I’m familiar with Jim Collins and Jim Doerr. What do I have to learn? —Honestly, everything—great leadership is practice and you can build habits, but you always need to be thinking and feeling about how to be a better leader.

I put in 12 hours of time with Joanie in her class to “Be Better On Purpose,” and took in Joanie’s unique perspective.

Joanie is a force in the classroom, a source of intense energy. She has a tattoo on her arm which reminds her to slow down, breathe, and take in the opinions of others. Joanie is influenced by John C. Maxwell and W.E. Deming. In her professional career, Joanie is a continuous improvement leader. It shows. She is constantly moving, constantly looking for ways to look at things in a different way, constantly figuring out where she can make a tweak to make a breakthrough.

One reason I found Joanie’s class was an active search to broaden my context and community. I was the only white man in the business class, making the class more diverse. Most of the other students were small business owners with real, thriving businesses around cleaning, remodeling, and bookkeeping. I was the only one with the the modern tech sensibility (or sickness) of GROW! SCALE! The lessons, bringing empathy, setting boundaries, knowing your own strengths, were all applicable, and need to be brought to the tech world of burnout and growth for sake of growth. I made some new friends, T, Dee, Angelica, deepened my connection with TJ and Glenn and broadened my network.

If you are looking for a coach, I think Joanie could just be the next big thing.

An Observation On Emotion from a Gifted Stoic

TLDR/Summary

  • Problem solving is an emotional super-power, which requires putting emotion aside
  • IMHO: professionals are in a crisis because we use this super power too much and go beyond our sustainable limits
  • A feelings diagram might help you get back in touch [1]
No alt text provided for this image

I’m a fantastic stoic. I’m able to push away emotion and exist in thought. This makes me a fantastic, ice cold, problem solver.

I think this is a super-power of professionals. If you’re on LinkedIn, reading this, there’s a good chance this is one of your super powers.

If you know me, you know I’m a consistently optimistic, positive person. In 2015, I was working at M*Modal, which at the time was going through a bankruptcy. We were all intensely driven and connected to the work. Bankers and lawyers were driving many decisions. People were scared for their jobs. The stressful environment had become toxic.

I kept rowing. I couldn’t feel that my arms were numb. I couldn’t feel that I had depleted my reserves and was now eating away at my core.

Leadership is sacrifice, right?

Leadership is setting an example, right?

I ended up, clinically depressed and took 12 weeks off and it took years to get in touch with what happened.

Here’s the message: stoicism, not feeling, will keep you from knowing you are doing damage to yourself. Stoicism is for the short term. It’s for a sprint. It’s not for the marathon.

For the marathon, you need to be thought and feeling, integrated. You need to be able to recognize when you are beyond your sustainable limits.

I’m going to end with the idea that “they,” don’t teach us this s*it in school. Some schools are starting. Courtney Bragg shared with me that some schools teach feelings with the characters from the fantastic Pixar movie, Inside Out.

I called a friend out the other day, when I asked her, “How do you feel,” and she went on to tell me, “I feel like work is really busy and I’m doing a lot of things.” She went on to intellectualize… When I pointed out she hadn’t actually told me how she felt, she was able to revise: “I feel overwhelmed” and “I feel tired.”

I did the same thing, intellectualizing my feeling iI did the same thing, intellectualizing my feeling in another conversation. “I feel like I’m going to have a good week.” “I feel like I should be working harder.” “I feel like I should…” –I feel inspired. I feel pressure [to work harder].

Why does it matter? Because you are not feeling… You’re thinking. Emotions are hard and our ability to feel them can atrophy. Emotion, though, is a source of energy and motivation. To be without it leads to not wanting to get up in the morning.

Don’t take my word for it, go practice… If you want to warm up, start by going intellectual and read Wikipedia’s article on emotional classification.

Then,

  • Find (and even print) your favorite feelings wheel [2]
  • Instead of talking about why you feel a certain way… name your feeling.
  • Notice, it’s really difficult to start.
  • Keep doing it. Over time, with practice, you’ll start getting much better at it. Being able to name feelings with precision and quickness will lessen their distraction while adding essential input to your ability to make decisions and solve problems.
No alt text provided for this image
No alt text provided for this image

Essay (Short) – Adapting to teaching and learning without all the tools we need: Headsets

Summary

  • Edit: Don’t forget the easy stuff
  • Good headsets and headphones are an essential tool in teaching in hybrid classroom/virtual environments.
  • Underfunded classrooms are more likely to lack good equipment.
  • How do we fix this?

The Story (that’s a stretch…)

This morning I was trying to teach a student 1:1, 1000 miles away. It works surprisingly well, but was really affected by a number of seemingly small issues. The student was in a classroom with 20 other students. The biggest problem was all the noise. I could hear the people talking next to the student I was helping as well as the student. It’s a great way to learn how young people actually think, but not a great way to communicate with an individual. At the same time, the student had a tough time hearing me.

When I work virtually, I have headsets running from a Logitech game headset to a Plantronics Savi 8200, ranging from $75-$300. Noise cancellation is a necessity. Audio isolation, whether from over-ear headphones or noise cancellation is also necessary. When I worked in healthcare, doctors regularly used $800-$1200 microphones. These improve ASR significantly and one part of the puzzle of how many radiologists (yes, they’re medical doctors) get to 99%+ word error rate, when Siri, Google, and Amazon may be south of 90% or worse.

A good headset is a secondary, essential piece of equipment that we take for granted in the corporate world, from the ivory tower.

Ten years ago, when Skype was blowing up pre-acquisition, they brought out some reasonable $15 headsets and made them available to improve Skype audio quality.

  • Is there a good baseline headset out there that optimizes for cost, build quality, and noise cancellation? (It should probably be a stereo adapter, maybe with the option for a USB-A or USB-C dongle. [1]
  • If not, could an organization like Khan Academy, Code.org, or Microsoft leverage their capabilities or connections to get one made?

EDIT

Edit: I had a similar, but much worse problem today. I assumed it was still the headset, however, the student couldn’t hear me at all. We fiddled with the audio input/output. Then, it turned out, the student had the wrong headset on! Wow. Relearning the lessons of tech support!

I still question the quality of the headsets… When I go look at https://learningheadphones.com/ you’re presented with an overwhelming number of headphones with almost no way to differentiate. Googling/DuckDuckGoing for educational headphones with various keywords from ‘elementary’ to ‘noise canceling’ microphone leads to a rabbit hole with all sorts of cheap junk. Who knows how schools choose their headsets?

[1] I’ll spare you the tirade about Apple dropping the mini-stereo/mic jack because they wanted to make billions off dongles and wireless in the name of “progress.” [2]

[2] Honestly, I would love to see Apple recognize their place at the top of the ivory tower, and create a headset for education and give them away. It would be a fantastic product!