Growing Your Skills And Career Through Teaching - with Ali Spittel
Ali Spittel talks about how teaching can help your skills and your career.
In this episode, Ali Spittel, a software engineer and developer advocate at Dev.to, joins us to talk about how excellent teaching can be for not only the people who are learning from you but also for developing your skills and your career.
Teaching is one of the best ways we can teach ourselves something. It requires you to build an understanding of the subject matter strong enough to explain the material to other people and answer questions. "At some point, you tell a computer what to do, and it does it. It's really predictable. If you tell it to do the right thing, it's going to do the right thing without failure." As you may know, giving instructions to humans doesn't end up being so straightforward, even if you explain something perfectly, mistakes can still be made. It's a challenge to understand the material from multiple angles to accommodate different people, but it's excellent for solidifying your understanding.
Ali challenges you to write a blog post! It doesn't have to be long. Kent C. Dodds will write articles that are only a few paragraphs. Even if no one reads it, you still took the time to learn something and grow.
Kent C. Dodds: Hello, everybody. This is your friend, Kent C. Dodds and I'm joined by my friend Ali Spittel, say hi Ali.
Ali Spittel: Hey.
Kent C. Dodds: Ali is just a wonderful person she works at dev.to, is that the name of the company dev.to?
Ali Spittel: Yeah I said devto but I think any naming is correct and fine.
Kent C. Dodds: Awesome, and you're a developer advocate and all around awesome person. Great person to follow on Twitter. I'm really excited to chat today, we're going to be talking a little bit about teaching and the importance of that. We both have some experience in that world, and some interesting conversation points for sure. Before we get into that though, I think that it's always fun for listeners to get to know the guest. So Ali could you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about yourself. Whether its technical stuff or even personal things that you're personally interested in. Whatever it is, I'd love to hear about it.
Ali Spittel: Totally, thank you so much. Right now is that I'm a software engineer and developer advocate for devto. I started as a part of their community writing blog posts for them, and have been really excited to see the community grow and get more and more people involved. Being a part of that on both kinda sides of it as first a community member and now an employee has been really really cool. And I really enjoy the position because its kind of a high rate of things that I like. I love writing code, I was originally a software engineer at the beginning of my career, and then I moved onto a teaching role. So I was one of the lead instructors for general assembly. Which is a coding bootcamp, so I was doing their web development program at that point, and then as a software engineer and developer advocate its kind of a perfect hybrid of those roles, where I get to write code on a daily basis but I also get to talk to people and teach in kind of a different setting that I'm used to. But I still actually do teach part-time for the bootcamp still so I do get some of the formal teaching in there as well. Outside of work stuff I am really involved in the DC Tech community in general, which is really awesome and definitely an underrated tech city. [crosstalk 00:02:18] joining the DC Tech. I also have a puppy who is the best, and so she takes a lot of my time too.
Kent C. Dodds: Excellent, puppies are always fun nobody who is listening to this can actually see this, but behind my head is a picture of my dog on the wall. She's cute, she's very big now, she's much bigger than that. Ali, let's talk about some of these things you mentioned. You are way into teaching, even as a developer advocate you spend a lot of time teaching people I imagine. What is it about teaching that so interesting to you? Why do gravitate toward teaching?
Ali Spittel: I love teaching because its such a challenge. I think that when I was just full-time software engineering something that I noticed is that at some point you tell a computer what to do and it does it. It is really predictable, if you tell it to do the right thing then it's going to do that right thing without failure. Humans are a lot more complex than that. You can do all the right things, you can explain something perfectly and still maybe it won't be super understandable to somebody. You gotta come at it at different angles, you gotta think about balancing all these things. When you're teaching code you gotta live coding in front of a classroom, which is intimidating. And balancing all the technology, asking the right questions, appealing to different learning styles. For me just all the different facets of it, working with people all day but still working with code. Its kind of the perfect hybrid of my skill set. I think interestingly enough I have more of a formal education background than I do code. I was studying education in college, my school only had a minor and not a major. I was doing that before leaving school, I was doing my internships, master, and all that for teaching and this code thing kinda happened and tugged me away from that but its really cool to be back in that world in just a different way.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, the code thing happens to a lot of us. Code just happens, for some reason it just draws people because its so cool and so fun. The teaching side of things is really interesting to me as well. It's a total challenge. I love how you compared it to, with like teaching or with coding, where we know what the computer is going to do what we tell it to do. If, it's not working it's because we're telling it to do the wrong thing. Whereas with people it is a lot more nuanced and complex. One thing that I find interesting is that we have a lot of teachers, there are a lot people writing blogs and recording videos and doing all this stuff. And lots of their instruction is overlapping, some people have slightly different opinions about how to do certain things. I think that if you were able to accumulate all of the instruction in the world you would probably cover pretty much everything multiple times. Why don't we one person or a small group of people just doing all the teaching for us, so that we could all save time on this teaching thing? Why is it useful to have everybody all this teaching?
Ali Spittel: I think for a couple reasons; the first one is that everybody a slightly different perspective on what they're teaching. It's going to appeal to different learners or be interesting to different people. My big example of this, is that I wrote a react tutorial last summer. By the time that last summer came around there a million react tutorials out there [inaudible 00:06:16]. Its still my most read blog post just because it came out at a really different direction than a lot of other people have. I just thought about reacting kind of the slightly different way than its been taught in the past. That really struck a cord with people. I think over 100,000 people have read that article. Seeing that is really really cool and its something that's been done before its not this revolutionary concept that I'm teaching react and that nobody has taught react before. But, coming at it at a certain angle is going to appeal to a different set of learners. The other part of it is that teaching actually really helps the teacher too, not just the student. I think a lot of people come to starting to blog and they're like "Nobody is reading my stuff, why should I even do this?" When I started writing my blog post nobody was reading it, I don't even think my parents were reading my blog posts. Totally just on medium getting read by absolutely nobody, the maximum one got like seven reads on it. The thing is though, having that goal for myself of writing these blog posts was making me code more out of work and it was making me learn more learn new things and come at things from different angles and really explain them. If you know something well enough to teach it, you really know that thing because people are going to come at you with different questions from different angles are going to understand things differently from you. I think that, even if you're not helping anybody else that's out there, even if you're the only person that only ever reads your blog posts. You're still bolstering your own knowledge and helping yourself to more fully understand that topic. It's still important, even if you're reaching a big audience.
Kent C. Dodds: Absolutely, that resonates with me so well, cause people will ask me "Nobody is reading my stuff". And I'm like "Yeah, that's how it starts, nobody reads your stuff." There's no real secret sauce to how to get 100,000 people reading a blog post, lots of it has to do with consistency. Sometimes you do nail those blog posts really well that do end up getting a lot of attention, but there's no get rich quick scheme around getting a lot of attention on the stuff you're creating. There has to be some other motive, and I think you nailed it on the head. That motive makes you a better programmer to try and explain and teach these things. Another thing that you said that made me think of something was, we have food courts in malls, right? There lots of different options there, they're all serving the same thing ultimately. The idea is "I am hungry, I need to eat" everybody feels that during lunch time or during the day. We have multiple options, even though there were already many react tutorials out there you were able to server over 100,000 people this react food. It resonated with people. It doesn't matter how many existing tutorials there are out there, adding your voice to that world of tutorials can only be a good thing in reaching people. Those 100,000 people maybe they read other tutorials and maybe your tutorial resonated better or not as good as other tutorials, and that's just the way it works. There are so many people in this world that resonate with different styles of teaching and different ways of explaining things. That will never reach the end, where we say "Oh, we got enough teachers in this world, we don't need you to come in." Because there will always be room for people to be teaching.
Ali Spittel: Definitely, I think that there's also even more accessible ways to teach than running a blog post. Writing a blog post is a really accessible way to teach, but you can also answer questions on Stack Overflow, or Tweet something helpful out, or answer someone's question on a Slack group you're in. All these are forms of teaching even though they aren't necessarily recognized that way by a lot of people. You're still helping somebody to learn something, you don't have to change your life and become a once a week blogger just because you're helping somebody teach just a little bit. I think that making it more accessible and starting small is something that everybody can kinda grow from.
Kent C. Dodds: I totally agree, and you can take those things as opportunities to build more and more content out of. So if, somebody asked you a question on Slack you say "I could a paragraph answer here, or I could just put that answer in a blog post and link you to that." And then lots more people are benefiting from that. That's another thing, people think that blog posts have to be weeks of research, 30 paragraphs long, whatever. Lots of my blog posts are just a couple paragraphs and those are really valuable. So if it's going to be valuable to the person you're responding to on Slack or in Stack Overflow it'll probably be really useful to other people as well. You can turn those into opportunities to teach. Like you said it's not just blogging, I've done a lot of videos on YouTube where I'll use that as a form to answer somebody's question. It's really easy, spend a quick time, record your screen, whatever and get it on YouTube. Lots of different ways to teach. One thing that I want to make sure that we talk about a little bit is, is this particular episode of this show just for the teachers in the world? Or how does this apply to people who may not be teachers? Maybe they want to be or maybe they don't want to be. How does this apply to the general populace?
Ali Spittel: I think that dor anybody, taking some sort of step to teach something helps so much for your career. There's a lot of perspectives on that we talked about understanding something fully in order to teach it, and strengthening your own knowledge by teaching something. It's also a great way to get involved with the developer community in general. Up until maybe a year, year and a half ago I wasn't really that involved in the developer community I was just a normal software engineer writing code wasn't really on Twitter, wasn't really writing blog posts or anything like that. But then I started speaking at stuff, volunteering, and even at just these community events where you're teaching three people Jenja or something along those lines. You're still making a pretty big impact on those people, you're helping yourself to really know that you're knowing what you're talking about, and you're able to communicate that. You're also helping them become developers or strengthen their development workflow or something along those lines. Helping you to fully understand what's going on and then also helping those people. I think that also the more I teach the lower my imposter syndrome is too, I am kind of showing myself that I really do know something from a lot of different angles. It's still sometimes surprising when post a blog post out there and nobody comes at you with "You got this technical detail wrong" or "Something's off." If that doesn't happen it's almost more surprising than it happening. It's really good feeling when it doesn't happen, and you're like "Wow, okay. Maybe I really do know this."
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, I definitely still get those corrections on my blog post. Which is nice that my blog is git-repo and get poll requests all the time. I do make mistakes myself. I totally agree with that, I think that's its important to recognize that teaching isn't just reserved for the teachers, and that you can make an impact. In addition, I feel like another good reason to teach, at least that's worked out pretty well for me, is that it gives you some job security, honestly. It may seem "Oh you don't need a following, that's gross!" Or whatever, but at this point I've worked on my following, and you as well, if we were to go "You know I want to change my job" we could just literally Tweet "Hey I want a new job" and because we've established this idea that we know what we're talking about through all the teaching and content we've produced. People would say "Yeah, you sound like the type of person we want." We'd have people who could actually see the Tweet. After a while I started to think about developing a following and teaching as a mechanism for securing financial stability for my family. If you, listener are in a situation where like "Ahhh I'm not sure if I want to teach" I think Ali and I have given you several good reasons. It helps yourself, it helps other people, it improves your job security. It's a pretty good thing to do, and its fun.
Ali Spittel: I totally agree with that, it's almost an insurance policy in some ways. Having a following that you Tweet something out it's really cool, especially if you're a part of an underrepresented group in [inaudible 00:16:35] because of all wildness that can go on with that [crosstalk 00:16:38] great insurance policy for that.
Kent C. Dodds: That's one thing, I don't know if you want to get into this at all, but I as a heterosexual white male am super privileged. Sometimes I feel like I have to prove myself a little bit to some people, but I feel like the women that I know have that kind of hanging over their heads all the time, with lots of the things that you all produce. Do you want to talk about that at all? Or would like me to edit this part out?
Ali Spittel: Yeah, no I can talk about that. It's definitely always a rollercoaster, and I think that being online brings on a whole other level to it. In person it's a little more settled, but online I think one of my favorite parts about it, and its kind sad to say, is that you have screenshots. Instead of it being this subtle thing that you can address, but can't really call out. Online you really can because you do have those receipts. That's something that has been interesting for me to navigate. Honestly, I didn't really have any issues until I was a little bit bigger. So this summer I had my first adventure with the internet people when one of my blog posts got posted on Reddit. Somebody posted it on there, it did really well on Reddit, which is a blessing and a curse. Blessing in that a bunch of people are reading your blog post and that's cool to see. A curse in that you get the people who don't want you to succeed at all. That was definitely my first [forye 00:18:23] and it was kind of wild, because it was a bunch of toxicity at once. Instead of it being one passing comment or anything like that, it was like fifty just all at once. It was definitely a new record. I reached out to some other women in tech to see what they did when they dealt with certain things and got a different answers. Over that time have kind of developed my way of handling it. 99% of the time I just ignore stuff, mostly because its not worth the effort to respond-
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, they don't deserve your keystrokes, right?
Ali Spittel: Yeah, and its exhausting to deal with it. The fallout from it too, I mean its so nice all these people reaching out like "I support you", and stuff like that. But even that is a lot to navigate through, its awesome though to have that. But, I sometimes will use it as an education opportunity if I am in a great mood and feel like very up to dealing drama that will fallout. Sometimes I will try to bring my educator perspective and try to tell people why something is wrong. Usually won't work for that person themselves because they get into defensive place and they're not going to learn from it. If other people onlooking, to some extent learn from it then that makes it worth it to me, because so many more people are going to positively impacted by that.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. You do such fantastic job this, and I feel like its unfortunate but the fact is that people are coming into this industry all the time. They have not yet been initiated into what appropriate behavior for a human being, I guess, is. It's kind of a constant battle, I see it sort of changing over time, but it's a long battle. What are some specific pieces of advice that you have for underrepresented people or people who have to fight against this stigma that they kind of have to prove themselves that they actually know what they're talking about? What are some things you would give them as pieces of advice as they start producing content like this?
Ali Spittel: First things first, I actually think that it's a lot better than I thought it was going to be. I think when I had like 100 Twitter followers and wasn't really involved in the developer community I thought that if I started running blog posts it was just going to be a dumpster fire from the onset. Which, it really wasn't at all. The few pockets of negativity, they've been pockets, they've been isolated, and they've been bad at the moment. Outside of that it honestly hasn't been that that bad. That would be first preferencing of all this, I don't want to scare people away from doing this because they see it what happened to me and some contacts. I just want to frame it like it's maybe as bad as you think it may be to get involved in online stuff. That being said I think that [inaudible 00:21:49] involved in this stuff you're really proving your expertise and knowledge on stuff, it can really help in that way too that people see you as an expert on something. I think that some of my examples are kind of funny because my blog started off writing about stuff that I knew nothing about. I was taking technologies that I did not know at all, was learning them in a week, building an app with them, and writing a blog post on them, and people still think I'm an expert on these [crosstalk 00:22:22]. No I just learned this for this blog post, for example I've been asked to talk now worldwide about augmented reality in Java Script, and what I did was rebuild Snapchat's filters in a Java Script app. I did that in a couple hours, now if you think like this expert on augmented reality in Java Script, which is so cool. I kind of had to become one because talking about it. Outside of that its not something I'm working on it day to day basis or anything like that. Its just that I've built up this expertise based off a blog post.
Kent C. Dodds: That's such a great insight. Would you suggest to people that if you want to learn something force yourself to learn it by scheduling yourself to teach it?
Ali Spittel: I think in some ways it was really helpful for me. The challenge I had set out for myself was completely unsustainable and is not something that I could actually do. But having that challenge there and even failing at that challenge is still better than what I would've done if I didn't set that challenge for myself. Building a new app every week with a new technology and writing a blog post about it was not something that I could do on top of working a full time job and giving talks and being involved in the community otherwise. It did make me learn all these different things, and it did set me up to start write blog posts. It's been really helpful even though I didn't achieve that initial goal.
Kent C. Dodds: That's very interesting, one other thing that I wanted to call out as well was... What is Curse Wisdom? What is that? There's that phrase. Like the curse of experience or something like that. I heard it once, once you learn functional programming you stop being able to teach it. Or something like that. Because all the jargon, I think is what the reference was. One thing that I think would be useful to talk about just a little bit as we get toward the end here, is the value of having somebody who's new to actually be the one doing the teaching, because they're still in that mindset of a newbie. Do you have thoughts about that?
Ali Spittel: Totally, first off I'll say that I am not this 20 year programmer or anything like that. I have been coding Period for I think about 6 six years and professionally for like 5. I'm not somebody who's been doing this for a million years, even just me saying that. I think that being be closer that learning does give me an interesting perspective. When I was teaching, a lot of times we would have a student from a previous cohort teaching the class that I was currently teaching and I feel like I got so much from the way they would teach stuff as somebody who just learned it. So many teaching tips and strategies for teaching coming from that. And learning what they thought was difficult when they learning it and how they would've done it differently. Having that immediate feedback loop of a previous student now becoming one of my co-instructors was really cool. They could teach somethings really well as well.
Kent C. Dodds: I like that a lot, that's fantastic. We've talked a lot about teaching and how great it is. We've talked a little bit about the forms of teaching. Can you give us a list of all the different ways that people can jump into this teaching realm?
Ali Spittel: There's probably more than I can even think of, but I think from least accessible to most accessible. Least accessible would probably becoming a college professor, which is a way to teach. Then from there becoming a bootcamp instructor because it's full-time job. Then becoming more accessible you can start blogging, you can start filming YouTube videos, you can start trying to apply for conference talks or meet-ups in your area. You can just try to mentor somebody at work, so if there's a new developer or even somebody who's more experienced but you're more experienced in a different topic teaching each other what you know, I think that's really effective. Or just a friend on wherever as well, that can be really effective. And then the most accessible ways would be participating in developer discussion, Tweeting about things you know, answering people's questions on Twitter. If you follow the CodeNewbie hashtag there are endless questions about code stuff, so you could answer those. You could do Stack Overflow, participate in conservations on Dev. All of those places, even though they're smaller chunks of participating in teaching. They're still teaching and can have a huge impact on somebody.
Kent C. Dodds: That's one of the things that I love about this, is there so many different learners and there are so many different teachers and we have enough mechanisms for distributing knowledge that matches for anybody's teaching and learning style. Which is pretty cool. As we wrap up here, is there any last things that you kind of wanna close with to as encouragement for people or giving them tools or anything?
Ali Spittel: Yeah, I would say to just do it. I think writing a blog post is a happy medium we've talked about through this conservation where it's big enough impact it really can help somebody but it's not changing your career or anything like that. My challenge would be to write a blog post. Pressing publish is by far the hardest part of writing a blog post, at least at first. It's hard to gather the information about it and all that, but then actually just getting to a point where you're happy enough with and pressing publish is often the hardest part. Don't let the voices in your head telling you not to do it, tell you not to do it because even if you're just the one benefited from that blog post you're still gonna help somebody out there. Even if, it's just you. It's worth it to do it, you can start really building something with that blog post. Your first one probably not gonna be perfect, probably not gonna get a million readers, but it's a start. It's a way to get involved in the community. That would be my takeaway.
Kent C. Dodds: Awesome, thank you so much Ali. Just as we close up, what is the best way for people to reach out to you? And connect with you.
Ali Spittel: You can read all of my blog posts on devto, devto aspittel. Then Twitter is my other space I spend time and so I'm ASpittel on there as well.
Kent C. Dodds: Great, we'll have links to that in the show notes. Ali thank you, it was a pleasure. This is the first time we've been able to chat in real time like this. So, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. I hope that everybody goes out and writes blog posts or does whatever teaching thing that they want to do. I appreciate your insights on the podcast. With that, we will say goodbye. Thanks everybody.
Ali Spittel: Thanks, bye.