Scaffolds and Gators

When does a start-up stop being a start-up? It’s a question that provides great link-bait on the interwebs, and I’m not going to answer it. There are a few hallmarks of start-up culture that we continue to cultivate here at NewsGator that make this a place to love.

I was doomed from the start to be a teacher. Parents, grandparents, siblings, all part of that most important and underappreciated profession. And I love to teach, but I do it on a strictly amateur basis. This is because I learned fairly early on that software engineers make a lot more money than teachers. This is sad, but I can’t fix it so I went with the engineer route and limit my teaching urges to efforts in my church, my community, and to fostering learning in my team of engineers. Still, I can’t help but be steeped in a little of the theory of learning.

Lev Vygotsky was an educational researcher in the early 20th century. He worked mainly in the areas of language development and teaching reading, but his ideas are applicable to teaching and learning in general. As an adult learner, I long ago stopped making a distinction between learning and teaching. It’s just a distinction of class size, and sometimes it’s a classroom of one. Vygotsky defined a theory to facilitate learning by considering a Zone of Proximal Development. To picture the ZPD, mentally create a space where you are at the center (this is not hard for most developers). Now arrange all knowledge around you, with the things you know the most intimately closest to you. Ranged away from you are topics you don’t know as well, and then things you know exist but are not familiar with, and finally, beyond the visual horizon are the things you don’t even know the existence of.

To learn new ideas that are fairly close to you in this conceptual space is proportionally easy, but also produces less progress. Playing too long in this inner area of the ZPD also risks boredom and its cousin apathy. Tackling things further away is more difficult and challenging, and then finally too much effort. Working at the far edge of the ZPD makes for quick progress but has the danger of frustration. Vygotsky suggested that we can push the threshold of success further out into the edges of the ZPD by scaffolding learners (read here “ourselves,”) using various strategies. These scaffolds are some of the things I love the very best about the culture we’ve developed here at NewsGator.

One scaffold we use is easy access to experts. We sell social software and we are a social company. The development team sits together in our beautifully furnished Developer Pit, and when we need to ask each other questions we just ask. In the classic Dynamics of Software Development, Jim McCarthy warns about the dangers of “The Guy in the Room,” an expert who seals himself away from the rest of the company, hording knowledge to ensure job security, requiring supplicants to reverently apply for information through tightly controlled channels. We fixed that by not having rooms and doors. We’re all just here, together. Usually physically, but sometimes employing all the technology that makes distance so much less of a problem now than it has ever been before. I have a half dozen experts, on hundreds of different things, in shouting distance right now. A few clicks of the mouse and dozens more are there.

When I don’t know enough to even pick an expert, I can post a question to the internal communication stream. Is there a knowledge base to consult? Certainly! When I get an answer that I know cost someone valuable time, I can click to their profile and give them a kudos badge. We’re also a Gold Certified Partner with Microsoft, so when we need answers about software that are not widely available yet, we get quick answers from the smart folks there - often the ones who are writing the platforms we work against. It’s like working three months in the future, and it’s the best programming gig anywhere.

So if you want to make your journey of lifelong learning more productive, more enjoyable, and more profitable, I would invite you to use some of the scaffolding we’ve employed and that we continue to evolve every day. Hire great talent across every area of your company. Make it easy for people to communicate by creating a physical environment that promotes collaboration. Use technology to link the right questions with the right answers (NewsGator Social Sites being the best choice, obviously!) Cultivate relationships with other technology companies so your employees have greater reach. Build those scaffolds, and expand the ZPD for yourself and all the people around you. It makes for a job you can love.

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