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RubyConf 2019 - We Don't Code Alone: Building Learning Communities by William Horton

William Horton
Senior Software Engineer at Compass /
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RailsConf 2019
May 1, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
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About speaker

William Horton
Senior Software Engineer at Compass /

William Horton is a Backend Engineer at Compass, where he works on systems for ingesting, processing, and serving millions of real estate listings. He got his first job as an engineer after studying at the App Academy coding bootcamp. He also earned his BA in Social Studies from Harvard in 2015. When he’s not doing tech things, he enjoys powerlifting and singing a cappella.

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RubyConf 2019 - We Don't Code Alone: Building Learning Communities by William Horton


How can we build communities that learn together? I owe my career to learning, starting from when I signed up for a bootcamp and plunged headfirst into Rails. I did not learn alone--I was surrounded by a group of people who came together around a set of educational goals.

After three years of working on software teams, I find myself intrigued by questions that take me back to my undergrad studies in the social sciences. In this talk I will weave together my personal experience in tech with social science research to start a conversation about creating inclusive, knowledge-sharing communities.

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Alright everyone. I'm only working. This is we don't cuddle own building learning communities. So the main question that I want to answer this talk is Sorry. How can I build communities that learn together. In the question? I'm really passionate about and why am I so passionate about it? Because I owe my career to being able to learn and I'll only be able to learn but be able to learn with other people and to get to be a part of communities that helps me grow as an engineer.

And so to start off. Let me tell you a little bit about myself. So this is me. I'm currently a senior software engineer at Compass. I was a real estate technology company based in New York City their work most gun data pipelines and ingestion. So we're bringing in state of our real estate listings trying on my team to most efficiently process. We got millions of real estate listing update on search how to make those available to other applications, but this talk isn't totally about me now. It's also informed Drive me

for years ago. So I made a couple edits to the bio to tell you a little about myself then then I was a senior in college. I was working on my VA and social studies and really the only thing I cared most about officially processing was all the all the readings I had to do each week. You can see from the photo that I did do a good job of balancing my studies done to so did you see that? And so like I said, I got my BA in social studies. I wonder what that means. That's a fair question because you can see from the the stack Overflow survey that

it's not really a common area of study among people. Who do what we do. It's right down there coming in about 1.8% of people studying a social science instead of its answer a question. I did pull down the answer from the website for my degree. This is pretty long faces of the gist of it is To take with classical and contemporary social theories and then apply them to problems or questions that exist today. That's that's kind of what the degree what time does it do? And so I'm hoping to share a little

about what I learned in that to you today. And so the degree call Mason a thesis and this is the title page of my seat. I wish is about religion and democracy in Latin America. On that note. I'm happy to send her a copy if anybody's interested in the topic, you'd be the first one to read it besides migrators me and my mom, so just let me know. If you're not interested in that topic though, you might wonder you know how I spent my focus on studying religion and politics and you might wonder I

mean in attack world. Like what is the relevance of these subjects but then when I was thinking about it, you know, we do have evangelist. We also have dictators for life that we hope Our Benevolent and one other thing that we have in common is an affinity for interpretation of ancient texts about Legacy code. But we do gather together to hear people explain how we can understand things that were written. Sometimes a really long time ago. Dallas I'd really

what I want to convey is that social studies in the social sciences are not just for studying kind of the big groups are alive not just religion politics things like that. But you know when I was sending you to college it's about taking these theories the people have been debating and talking about I mean for four centuries and in being able to apply them to stop the interest view topics that are relevant today. I mean some kind of really out-there things the history of Actuarial science the use of pig dissection in the medical industry, that one actually was it was really fascinating

but that is to say that these theories can inform whatever it is you are most interested in the topic at hand is learning communities, you know. Why am I talking about this today in Tech? We use a lot of like the blank Community right? We're here today. It's kind of the Rails Community or the Ruby Community. We use the term a lot to describe groups of people that are formed around these Technologies. I'm so in this talk. I kind of wanted to start to investigate that and apply some ideas about

Community to these faces that we've created in my case. I've gotten to be a lot part of a lot of communities habitat of humanity. I came into this through boot camp. That was a pretty informative experience. I was my first experience of being has it down like writing code every day through being real Community Ruby was the first language. I really knew where else was the first framework. I learned that they didn't work. Work the reaction Unity kind of my my side interests now that Learn Community but these are all the things that

are formed only around groups of people but around ideas and technologies that those people have an interest in and that's kind of where this intersection is between learning and community in like the technological space. And the real question is how do we do it? Right? Like this is a question. I most passionate about and this could be in the form of many different groups are there is an open source project or a company or local Meetup or some kind of remote study group. There's so many different ways that we come together communicate congregate around

wanting to know more and so it's really important I think to be able to draw some lessons from people who have thought about ideas like this before us. The real kind of Summer this hugging if I had a chance to apply the lens of my undergraduate studies to my last four years working Tech. What would I say or how can I finally put that degree to work? So to give an outline of what I want to talk about the three main parts, obviously, the first is going to be about Community looking at some classic series of it

some more contemporary theories and talk about learning. So how can we develop effective educational strategies? How does that tie into the community aspect and then they start putting it together communities that learn together and some questions that come up when you start putting them together. Start a community. Like I said, we're going to dive into some older theories about Community work and I'm just a newer Series. This is definitely apply. It may be 2 online communities Tech communities. And so we'll start with some classical theories in sociology. So

these are two thinkers who at the beginning of Sociology as a practice were thinking about questions of community fernan Turney's wrote The Mineshaft jesel shaft. My German is not great. I did not say German in college durkheim who wrote a book called division of labor in society and at the beginning of like sociology as a field, they really were interested in understanding types of communities into Drilling in the forms of communities and how they change over time so did talk a little bit about foreign Antonis these German word translate to community and society

and in his worldview. These were kind of 2 Distinct types of ways that people gather and do mine shaft was based on kinship or proximity. So you might have a family or a village and gesellschaft was based on more kind of rational and irrational will but these are things like business Exchange Trade and like formal law or the or the state and these were like ideal types in his system. So the important thing is that like groups have both elements. There's some amount of proximity but also may be irrational desire for for some outcome. So this is kind of his system

durkheim division of labor in society. And the main question that was talking about in his concept meccano mechanical solidarity vs. Organic solidarity and so mechanical solidarity in his view came from the similarity. The people share I'm so humble genius societies. Where is organic solidarity is somebody comes about through the division of labor. So basically as people become more differentiated in the role, there's a different way the people come together. There's more of the need for things like laws and things that

kind of government owes systems kind of to earlier thinkers. And in terms of what is community and to bring it back to the point of this talk like what lessons can we draw from these early thoughts when is categorization? I think the incident thing about tech communities and communities that are are learning together. Is it across many of the neat lines are they usually use to classify community? So they're both in person and online. They can be spread across National boundaries. They could be part of your professional interest or they could be

part of your personal interest or maybe both Could be run by people who are paid people who are volunteers. I'm so I think a lot of ways that people try to draw distinctions between different types of communities. It makes it harder to categorize these Tech communities because of how they developed in and how their run I think another thing that kind of runs through durkheim attorneys is personal vs. Rational interest, which I think again, it is something both are present in in these communities. We we want to feel a kinship we want to feel like other people are going through the

same things, especially when it comes to Converses in here talk. There's something nice about that about hearing the people have the same problems have the similar experiences for the same time. We also is that a rational outcomes you desire may be to be better at our jobs maybe to finally overcome that 12-month migration things like that. So there is a blend of that when we come together in these ways and Another thing. I think that links those earlier thinkers with the situation we find ourselves in now is for them. I mean they were thinking about community in the kind of

the dawn of the Kona Coast modern era right there. It was a time of great change and end in the same way. Our communities today are being formed in the face of great changes social and technological that can make a big difference in how we understand them make it a little bit more contemporary on a little bit more specific just a paper that sounded a fine what a sense of community could be to lay down maybe some elements of what does it mean to be part of the community to feel like we are are part of it meant so there's four main elements membership

influence integration and fulfillment of needs and shared emotional connection. So I'm going to go through these and also talked a little bit of how this relates to the rails community pool membership is selfless. Down down a certain element. I think there's certain ones that are crucial and certain ones that are a little bit harder to understand. So emotional safety is one of them that's absolutely like vital to the health of a community people want to come in and feel like they're safe feel like they can occupy that space But boundaries in personal investment or other

things that these authors point out is important to community and I can be really tricky. You know, how how do you set up boundaries or definition of a group without excluding others? And then how do you ask for some amount of personal investment simple long without again creating a culture of exclusion? So I think those are our tricky questions to answer when you're talking about the membership component influence is another one that has this kind of paradoxical nature. It is a back-and-forth. We want to feel like we can influence the group for the same time the group in order to exist

exerting influence on Ustick. Form certain norms. And so this is the struggle with Team the cohesiveness of the group and our ability to express our individuality and end in the paper. They say anything members are more attracted to the community in which they feel that they are influential. We don't want to be parts of groups that we don't feel like we have it stay in and it's kind of illustrate this point. I want to talk about this essay the th wrote relatives Omakase basically the point that a lot of things have been preselected and arrange

for you and basically he's he's saying unapologetically it's not designed to appeal to everyone. So on the one side this is expressing the group's kind of influence over you it's saying you take on Rails and it means accepting some of these things but it is the same time later in the last day he lives at open to influence from the individual is it You can't express your opinions about the right thing and even maybe make changes within the framework. And so I think this is one illustration in a concrete way of this back-and-forth. It's like the group or the

technology in some ways shapes you but in order for it to be an effective Community, it has to be open to letting you shape it as well. The next element is integration and fulfillment of needs. And so this integration component basically means coming together on shared values and that's how you discover that you have the similar needs or goals in in coming together as a community and rails again as an interesting illustration of this there is a Doctrine. I mean, it's like they called it a Doctrine neither kind of values that shape the real community and I think

not a lot of other language communities or technology communities messerli put it so explicitly and so is his interesting people coming into the community can read this and start to understand what are the values that are shared by its members and finally shared emotional connection. So in the paper they say this is based on a shared history and they actually do site for an intern E's and 2 mine shaft, which is used to be again based on location, but is basing this personal connection that we feel with other. And it does include the interaction of members in in start events, which

might be something like this but in technology, I think in terms of a shared history, we have some opportunities for 1 I mean this is the video I watched two rails. They're really hooked me and it's it's th going through building like a Twitter thing basically in 15 minutes. I watch this and I was amazed and this is part of the shared history that they will be recorded and put up there and people who are coming in as new members can say well this was made back then to illustrate it but they can still take part in the shared history in the same way and

Technology. We also have a literal shared history through git commit. So anyone who is joining can also go through and see the changes that are made not just in terms of commits in terms of releases. And so this is another interesting way where our history is recorded in Open Waze and people can go through and start to understand. Well, not just what it is community now, but but where is it coming from and that makes them feel bigger sense of belonging to the last horse. I want to talk about in terms of communities is again a little bit more contemporary and a little bit

more specific. This is to Sibley building successful online communities kind of experiment of an empirical approach and it does start out like it. It says social science teach us about building online communities and they think at least it social science is a prime resource for from riding lessons to achieve these goals of having thriving communities online and they break down the problem in a certain way. So basically how to start a community in Courage and commitment contribution regulating behavior and then dealing with newcomers

And the other interesting thing about this book is they lay out their claims. They say the series of design claims. And again, they're coming out of from Amore actionable like experimental perspective. And so these are just a couple that I picked out that I thought were interesting relating to newcomers. The one is about newcomers having friendly interactions with existing members. They're more likely to stay if if when they join you can just make sure that they have that other thing is about letting new members mess things up. So they stay on online communities having a Sandbox

for people can just mess around learn things and not actually like destroy the online community itself can be really effective strategy and that is going to I think connect well with the section where we're going to talk about learning. So I'm still learning basically. Having understood. It's like a couple ways that people are thinking about community and crap and Community. How can we connect that in now with these communities for people come to learn like like I was talking to at the beginning a lot of people come to rails because they want to learn how to use

it to solve their needs the same thing with Ruby the same thing with a lot of Technologies. So how can we tie in the end piece of learning the one kind of classical think I want to talk about is Dewey. He was American public intellectual been a lot of different disciplines and he wrote a book called democracy and education one of his big things with he's promoting Progressive education and it puts a real Under the Sun learning by doing and so here's a couple quotes from democracy and education that I think Ty and well with the topic at hand

basically, he's thinking about education how it relates to social groups in his mind. Goes all the way up to sustaining democracy is self-sustaining a nation, but I think it's equally applicable to it's a smaller groups. He says the group can't survive without more mature members contributing to the educational growth of of newbies, basically, and I think the other thing that's important to take away from kind of his thought is is the importance of activity importance of getting Hands-On and he heals traits of a disc which is basically when

you wear a hat is the other people put on their head, right you use the Hat you share that basically anything how are you supposed to learn about the discovery of America just by reading about it in books. If you don't have some concrete way of understanding the importance of that maybe or maybe making a more Hands-On and involved then it's just a bunch of words on a page. So there's another thing as you know, talking about learning as it's embedded in the social groups that were part of and this is another book that I mean, I

love this book. I really it's really changed my perspective on things. This is making learning whole and basically the other is seven main principles play the whole game made the game worth playing work on the hard Parts play out of town uncovered the hidden game learn from the team and other team and learn the game of learning about a couple of these principles and explain what it means in the context of his thoughts. So first of all, play the whole game and what is the whole game and the way that he thinks about it.

It's basically he takes a metaphor of baseball and he says when he was learning to play baseball, what do you like about it was actually being able to go out with his friends and hit the ball and run the bases and you know, You don't learn to play baseball. You don't Nestle start in like batting practice. People during batting practice itself is fun. It's it's kind of a something you do to get the next thing. He thinks people wouldn't love baseball. If you had to spend like 5 years in batting practice only to get to play a game at the end. But for a lot of subjects, that's the way

we teach it he take math education. For example, he's saying, you know, you make people learn their times tables and do addition and learn all these things that are just merely elements of the system. You want them to learn and people do that for years maybe for their entire primary secondary education before they actually find out what is the whole point of doing that right? And so this is kind of his idea of the whole game is saying we need to introduce people to the whole system as opposed to like making them Master each element before they even understand what it what it's for and

the other important Point here is he says it's okay to create a junior version of the game. So In the baseball metaphor, he's saying you don't have to go out to a real diamond nine players versus nine players to to expose someone to the whole game. It could just be you know, a couple people to bases in a backyard. But the point is you get introduced to everything together. You're hitting the ball you're running the bases you're catching it as opposed to your teaching it in isolation for so long before you even know like the joy of what it is you're meant to do. So, this is the central

concept is he's hung up playing the whole game and I think rails actually does a good job. This is a personal anecdote. But when I first started learning rails IBC, sat down with this book and I was like, I want to get through this whole book and I think I read in the intro that the person had gone through it in like a solid 48 hours and it took me a lot longer than 48 hours without was still like an inspiration as they see like you can go through this book and Anna let you do everything. It's letting you build a whole application that does something and you you

learn about the database. You learn about API learn about routes a bunch of things. It's not kind of isolating and it's saying you have to learn this and this and this first and this is the first time I really got it, right. This is the first time I understood that we could use technology in these tools to achieve objectives. And I think a lot of people have these things in the book they call them threshold experiences, but it's when you finally are supposed to something and you understand it and I think a lot of people have seen the screen right you open up localhost you're running rails for

the first time. I think this was one of the more recent versions of it, but this is I think a lot of people a great experience it's you see something working and you like I actually built a server that's giving me a page on a website. I think that that is an amazing experience and I think we should be thinking about how We can start giving people those experiences early on in like everything that we teach. And another one of his principles besides learn the whole game is learning from the team and in other teams and he's saying we don't learn in isolation. We don't

learn is one person. I think even I was like one person sitting out of this book on a laptop, but I'm still connected to so many other people through this book through the idea through Googling and stack Overflow is never working in complete isolation. And so he points out two things that I think I actually connected really well to the concept of programming even though he's talking mostly about like traditional educational setting. So he's a pair of problem solving is great and you'll pair programming was one of the first Ways that I got into programming when I went through App Academy,

that's basically their whole motto your programming almost all the time. And so I think that's a effective way of people sharing knowledge together and learning together. The other interesting one that I don't think we see as much he talks about cross age tutoring. So having older students in younger students working together to tutor each other and I think there's real lessons we can draw from that in the programming world as well. I think sometimes we think about knowledge as a one-way Street we think about you know, people who are

experienced people who know things are kind of giving it sharing it with other people but there's so many lessons we can learn from people who are just coming into it some of the most important lessons like is it easy for them to use is it easy for them to get started? I'm typing this concept that we can kind of pull this in and say, you know, there's a lot of things that they can come back from people who are just starting out in the last point he makes in his book is learn the game of learning and I think this is so important in the setting because in our careers we're going to do this

over and over and over again. If you are always using rails and Ruby, you know those people coming out with new gems and might be useful. I mean new ways to deploy new infrastructure basically technology is constantly changing and so it's almost not as important that we learn to master a certain technology as it is to actually learn how to learn and I mean in his friends learn the game of learning how we can make it enjoyable and fun and something that we want to continue to do. And so when he's hung about this he brings up a paradox he's talking about the

metaphor driver seat versus the passenger seat, which is basically in a setting where someone is educating us. A lot of time there in the driver's seat where in the passenger seat we have is passive mentality where they're taking us where they think we should go teasing us the lessons that they think we need to know but that never lets us learn the game of learning that doesn't let us learn how to drive. I'm so I think this is another important lesson and one that I think we do pretty well, which is you know with programming technology. You can kind of let

somebody run while you can let them write some code try to debug it. And I think you know educating people in in programming and Technology should be more about kind of helping them get through the roadblocks as opposed to driving the car for them. So it kind of put this all together and we talked about theories of community and theories of Education how people learn so just to talk about a couple points that I think are important communities that are found in a round learning and welcoming people and helping them get up to speed book. I

wanted to shout out because this book when I read it for this talk with I think so many ideas that messed up with what I was thinking about. So pure kenshin's He was largely involved in 0mq, which is a messaging to this book erasing take me home end up. Look at his own open source community and how they collaborate and he basically comes up with an idea of social architecture. So we have like software architect see things as equally as important that we have people who are really thinking about and designing these Community spaces and he has 20 Tools in his toolbox.

And so just a couple I thought we're relevant an interesting. So free entry making it possible for anybody to come in and that's goes all the way back to when we were talking about boundaries. Right is we need a definition of the group but nothing so restrictive the people can't easily become a part of it fair Authority. So again that influence question of you know, who has a stay smooth learning so making it possible for people to ramp up in a sustainable pace and regular structure. I think that's super important is people want to know the values of your community people want to know

what they're getting into what they're becoming a part of and so I really would also highly recommend this book is it in yo, it's very focused on these questions we have as as technology communities. So this is one question. I would have taco as I'm kind of wrapping up is the question is should we even be designing communities? Because in some of these sources they address this question of some people say we shouldn't write or we should just let things go as they are some people think it feels kind of wrong to be talking about shaping the social

experience, but I just think it's too important to leave to chance write me we spend so much of our time in these groups with other people that we can't just say, oh will let it run. Its course. I mean that affects too many people and basically the other thing is your community is going to have norms and it's going to have values rather not there explicit or implicit in the behavior of your members and I just think for the sake of new people joining for the sake of people who want to be a part of it. It really is better if you make those values explicit, so people can know what they're

getting into and people can understand when there might be a need to regulate. Behavior you can point to something concrete and say this is how we do it in this community. And so I wanted to talk a little bit about diversity in the context of learning and Community because our learning communities have to be inclusive communities. We we can't build things and then just tell some people that they don't belong and that's really a difficult task because as a society were conditioned to have these biases and prejudices and you know, some people

also express swim explicitly. So this is a really important question that we need to consciously address and the other thing is traditional educational path. We are still very unequal, you know, People who are underrepresented minorities have less access to CS classes 8 or less likely to receive encouragement to go in to see us through, you know, maybe it's traditional degree. And this is what article I was reading recently. It was busy thing. Sometimes it's even hard to get into class because the demand is so high and and who defends up impacting in college are the people who up

till that point haven't had that encouragement haven't maybe had that access into this is a stupor crucial question. It says you were talking about learning communities people are going to be coming from all walks of life all different places, and we really need to like I said consciously layout plans to welcome everyone. I'm so this could you look a couple different ways Ruby on Rails has a code of conduct. And so this is laying out behavior that people can Adhere to I guess to make everyone feel like they belong in this is I think important this is

again getting to explicit values of the community. Another one. I like is recurse Center in New York has the social roles in these are maybe about painting will do that aren't quite as explicit. But you know, one of them is no well actually so you're talking about something as someone's like, well actually I think a lot of people have experienced that that just is a negative feeling when something does that to you you should read about these. But these are really good ways of saying well, there's some really think she will do that are

very wrong. And then there's some other behaviors that also maybe make people feel unwelcome in other subtle ways. And so we also maybe something about those as well. how to get to the main point of this talk and then to some up We want to feel like we belong in communities and we can't be effective Learners or teachers or or members of community. If there's any Behavior or or ideas that make us feel unwelcome. This is a super crucial point. We want to own our own learning. So this is another thing that consistently comes up through the

literature both on community. And on learning is we want to have an active role. So we need to ask people who are shaping these communities think about giving people the opportunity to act in the that way. We want to understand the bigger picture so as Learners, we don't want to be restricted to some path. That doesn't connect with what we also may want to be doing. We don't want to go down some Road and have to pursue it so far without understanding the broader context and finally, like I said, this this is too important to be left to chance. This is

why I wanted to give this talk cuz I think we need to start thinking about these ideas and these theories and how they shape our experiences. so to conclude one this isn't a thesis. It's just the start of a conversation. So like I said, I wrote a thesis that was like almost two years of work. This is a couple of months of research in a couple interesting papers and books that I found. So really the point of this is to just jump start and get us talking about it and hopefully no peak some interest in applying these ideas in the setting and I

wanted to close with a quote from the sense of community paper because I think it's really powerful. Is that somehow we must find a way to build communities that are based on faith hope and tolerance rather than on fear hatred and rigidity. We must learn to use sense of community as a tool for fostering understanding and cooperation. we hope that research on a topic will provide a base on which we can facilitate free open and accepting communities represent the concept of community here not as a Panacea rather as one of them to bring about the kind of world about which we and others

have dreamed so Let's go build the world that we've been dreaming about together. Thank you. And we do have a couple minutes for Q&A. Yeah, that's a good question. So yes, but when we think about online communities what what size come to mind I need from me like a lot of programmers. I interact with is is through Twitter us is a pretty active community on there are people who are sharing ideas and that kind of thing Stephanie through most like deadly the rails and when I was learning react, I mean, I'm on there probably way

too much that's a good place for the places people share stuff. Hacker News, but that would require a whole nother toxo. I thank you.

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