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#99 Anjana Vakil mastered her debilitating curiosity

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Anjana Vakil 0:00
You know, we take the mental models that we've created when we're learning whether it's a spoken language, programming language or something totally different. We take those mental models that we've developed in the context in which we're learning the subject. And then we try to apply them in other contexts. And that one thing that fascinates me just about humans in general is how good we are at applying those models and that kind of pattern matching on things that we've seen before. But it's really interesting to me the cases of which that breaks down in which we figure out that those mental models aren't really working for us anymore, because the context has changed. And we're now seeing that they were not quite the truth about how maybe this programming language works or about how a native speaker would pronounce this, this word, things like that. And so finding those places where that breaks down and trying to help people identify that and move through it and is something I find really interesting and and exciting.

Tim Bourguignon 1:06
Hello, and welcome to developers journey, the podcast bringing you the making stories of successful software developers to help you on your upcoming journey. My name is Tim Bourguignon, and today I received an Anjana Vakil. Anjana is a developer advocate who went from philosophy to teaching English to computational linguistics, and finally to software, all the while following her debilitating curiosity, her words not mine, Anjana, welcome to dev journey.

Anjana Vakil 1:39
Hi, thanks so much for having me. IYes, that's something I have been using to describe my very wandering journey through all of these different subjects philosophy, linguistics, computational linguistics, software development, really just been following my nose. from one thing to the next as my interest change, so it's it's covers a wide area, though. So that's why it's a little debilitating. There's so much to learn out there. There's a only so little time.

Tim Bourguignon 2:12
But it makes it even more interesting to talk to you tonight.

Anjana Vakil 2:15
Well, very happy to be here.

Tim Bourguignon 2:16
The show exists to help the listeners understand what your story looked like, and then imagine how to shape their own future. So let's go back to your beginnings. Where would you place the start of your developers journey?

Anjana Vakil 2:31
Ah, where does it all begin? That is a tough one. In some ways, you could say that when I was studying things like philosophy as an undergraduate, I was working on a lot of formal logic and formal systems and things like that. And so got some of the foundations of computer science without really knowing that that's what I was doing. So I guess my interest in logic, which is really at the heart of computing has been around for a long time, but I would say that my career As a software developer, or my journey into software development probably began around the time that I was teaching English for a living, teaching English as a foreign language, and started to get really interested in the field of linguistics and found out that there was this field called computational linguistics, which was kind of the intersection of anything having to do with human natural language, and computers, machines and getting computers to play more nicely with human language. And this like field that I didn't know existed for, you know, most of my life until then, was just so interesting to me. And meanwhile, I had been learning a little bit about programming, I had been reading some, you know, intro to Python programming type books on my own, but that really gave me the motivation to really dig in and like become a become a programmer, because I wanted to go back and study this field of computational linguistics. So I would say while I was working on applying to grad school, and then when I finally got to grad school and started having to actually write code Every day or most days anyway to do the research that I was trying to do in, in computational linguistics, that's when I started really understanding what software development is and really falling in love with the the creation, the process of creating a new piece of software that didn't exist before.

Tim Bourguignon 4:17
Can you develop a little bit on computational linguistics? Is this is trying to understand human language through computers?

Anjana Vakil 4:25
Yes, you're in good company, because it is a huge amorphus term that everyone who uses uses to mean something slightly different. And it refers to like a huge breadth of completely different subfields. So your confusion is is completely normal. The way that I think about it is that it's kind of an umbrella term that covers a lot of different ways that that we can understand the interactions between human language and computational processes. And so so that could include things like Using computational methods to do linguistic research, so the field of linguistics more generally is the science of language. So it's applying scientific methods to studying how language works, and how humans do language. And so, for in the tradition of linguistics, a lot of that work was sort of done by folks sitting in armchairs in ivory towers and thinking about what reasonable sentences are. But with the advent of statistics and statistical processes and huge digital corpora of language, then we're able to apply statistical and computational methods to to understanding language based on the data that we have. So based on recorded sounds or based on huge text corpora or even analyzing all of the words on the internet or something like that. So yeah, so this is the this is the kind of using computers to do linguistics side of computational linguistics. But then there's also another side of it, which is more the applied side of it, where we're applying what we know about how to break down language in a way that computers can understand to create better interfaces, for example, so speech recognition and text to speech synthesis, or predictive language modeling. So your keyboard knowing what word you're going to type next and things like that. So there's like there's this huge applied side of it as well of using what are often called like human language technologies, to develop, develop better human computer interfaces and more powerful products and give people more more insight into data and things like that. And so, personally, I found that those applications really interesting and I was personally interested in applications for computer assisted language learning, so trying to help people learn and teach languages that are using computers and using language technology,

Tim Bourguignon 7:03
and you say this was the subject of your research, were you in a in a master's program or a PhD?

Anjana Vakil 7:09
Yeah, I did a Master's, master's science that was focused on speech technology. And in particular, I was researching ways that we could use speech analysis in the computer to help learners of foreign languages improve their pronunciation. So that was my particular focus or my master's thesis, but more generally, was really interested in, in applications for for computer assisted language learning, and also in applications for understanding how we can get better computational models for languages for which we don't have a lot of digitized data or in some cases, no digitized data. So that was another area that was really interesting to me. It's what's called low resource languages or under resource languages. That sort of go Beyond the the dozen or so or two dozen languages that we have really great, huge corpora for and have a really powerful, it's things like speech recognition systems and language models. Those are just, you know, a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean of the 7000 or so languages that are out there. And so need to come up with novel algorithms and novel computational approaches when you don't have all of that data at your fingertips to just throw it on neural net. And so that area was also a lot of interest to me as well.

Tim Bourguignon 8:31
I'm certainly this is not an accident, but studying philosophy, which has a very high demand on the words and then going to English and then and then computational linguistic, applied to foreigners. This is a this is a trend This is a chain here was it wasn't an accident, or was it a choice from you? How did that happen?

Anjana Vakil 8:56
Yeah, well, I guess I was always interested in Foreign Languages or just you know, language in general and all the different types I grew up a monolingual English speaker so English is my only native language but my father didn't speak English as his native language. I had a lot of family members around who didn't speak English as their native language and was exposed I had the great privilege to be exposed as a young child to lots of different cultures and languages and things like that. So that always fascinated me and I think was sort of a thread that led me through all of those different things. But I certainly you know, as I as I became to be a practicing English teacher, English being the language that you know, as my mother tongue I am best positioned to teach. I was really fascinated by you know, the, the ways that learning more about linguistics about the science of language and about how language works and what different languages what features of language, different languages. sort of make use of was really, really opened a lot of doors for me in terms of understanding how to better predict whatever some of my students would be making or help them correct some of their errors, help them understand, you know, what was different in the, in the new language that they weren't used to based on which features their, their native language had. And so that's where I got started getting really interested in like ways that we could use computers to do that better and to help teachers make those kind of suggestions and and give that guidance to students with the assistance of the computer and the kind of in my case, speech processing was what I was interested in the speech processing that the computer could do to take that work off of the teachers plate as it were. So personally, I was I was researching. Actually, you'll you'll find this interesting I was researching how we can better teach people who have French as their native language. To pronounce German as their target language based on the differences in stress patterns between the two languages. So yeah, so this is getting a little bit in the weeds of my grad school thesis project. But I just found that really interesting, like, how can we knowing that someone is, you know, coming from a French background? How can we analyze their pronunciation of German and give them hints in what to change to, to have a pronunciation that's likely to be more intelligible to native speakers of German?

Tim Bourguignon 11:33
This is fascinating. I interviewed Ruben Lerner a few a few weeks back, and he said, he often sees people that write Python code with a very strong c++ accent. Mm hm. And I found the analogy absolutely fantastic. This is exactly what you're describing. When you once you've learned to program in a in a specific language. You try to go to a different language you bring with you this kind of accent, this kind of cultural fit that you had in this in one language and you try to apply to a different one. And of course, it doesn't completely fit. So you can express yourself, you can program, but you still have an accent. And this is exactly what you're describing.

Anjana Vakil 12:21
Yeah, yeah. And that's where I think, I think Python is interesting, because people often talk about pythonic, Python or idiomatic Python. And that there, there's, you know, Python is a really beginner friendly language. It's easy to get up and running and write code in a variety of different styles. But there's also kind of a native Python ish way of doing things. And so I think that's a really, you know, a really fun analogy. I definitely have experienced that also in other languages. For example, I used to work on a project that was in JavaScript, but with a heavy c++ accent. Or when I started writing JavaScript, it had a heavy Python accent, things like that. So I think that's certainly something that we, you know, we take the mental models that we've created when we're learning, whatever the skill is, whether it's a spoken language, programming language or something totally different. We take those mental models that we've developed in the context in which we're learning this subject. And then we try to apply them in other context. And I think that one thing that fascinates me just about humans in general is how good we are at applying those models and that kind of pattern matching on things that we've seen before. But it's really interesting to me, the cases of which that breaks down and which we figured out that those mental models aren't really working for us anymore, because the context has changed. And we're now seeing that they were not quite the truth about how maybe this programming language works or about how a native speaker would pronounce this, this word, things like that. And so finding those places where that breaks down and trying to help people Identify that and move through it and is something I find really interesting and and exciting

Tim Bourguignon 14:06
The biggest problem being that if we if we were to push the analogy in the metaphor but a bit further

Anjana Vakil 14:13
do it love pushing analogy

Tim Bourguignon 14:16
it would be like like talking to yourself in one language and not having a conversation partner because most of the time you're programming or when you're learning you're programming on your own and you're programming against against a computer and with documentation, but without somebody to refer to and to hear Oh with it, he's or she is pronouncing this differently now I need to correct this. You don't have anyone so if you do have a partner like a mentor or somebody to pair with, etc, there you get this, this back and forth. But if you don't, then it's like really like talking to your phone or talking to to the wall.

Anjana Vakil 14:53
Yeah, it's really hard to develop those kind of generally applicable mental models. If you're In an echo chamber, whether that's solitary or maybe with a few other people who do things a very similar way to us so that's why I think it's so important to have community whenever you're trying to learn something, whatever that is I programming in particular because it's a, you know, it's it's known for being a tricky subject, something that yes, spend a lot of time banging your head against and trying to do that on your own or without, without folks that you can rely on for, for questions, or sometimes even just to gut check, like, hey, this makes no sense to me. Does it make sense to you? Like this is hard, right? I think trying to trying to learn something as complex, as programming is certainly something that you need a community to do effectively, in my experience. I know that's not everyone's experience. But for me, one of the biggest leaps forward or kind of like, paradigm shifts, I guess you could say in my learning journey was finding a community of folks that I could, that I could be a learner with and kind of learn together with. And that was really what opened up so many doors and so many avenues that I could then explore and while engaging with this community really dig into and they progress in that just was, you know, just made the possibilities so much more limitless than if it was just me with a learn to code Python book sitting at home as I had been in the early days of my of my programming journey,

Tim Bourguignon 16:31
Which community with that, and when was it in your journey?

Anjana Vakil 16:36
so, after I finished my master's I through doing that, as much as I love linguistics and researching, you know, pronunciation and spoken, computer assisted language learning and things like that, I found that I really, really enjoyed writing the code that I needed for my research. Probably more than I enjoyed actually like publishing the research and whatnot. So I Around that time found out about this community called the recurse. Center. In New York City. It used to be called hacker school at the time, but they are now called the recurse. Center. And in 2015, I went to the recurse center for three months, what they call batch, which is essentially, the way they describe it is as a programming retreat. So kind of like a writer's retreat where you go off and work on your craft, but this is for coders. So it's completely self directed. There's no classes. So it's not a bootcamp. There's no curriculum or teachers even. It's just a group of people who are really passionate about coding and about getting better at coding and about learning more about computation and programming and are following their noses or following their curiosities and learning more about the things that interest them and being able to do that in a dedicated space with a with a community of other people who are there to To learn and there to support each other, was just so eye opening and so fabulous. So yeah, the recurse Center, which you can read all about at recurse. Calm is a phenomenal community, I would highly recommend anybody who has the opportunity to spend a little bit of time in New York City, check it out and read about what they're trying to do there and the type of learning environment that they've created, because it's really a phenomenal one.

Tim Bourguignon 18:28
How did you decide that this was what you needed at that time?

Anjana Vakil 18:32
I had the sense so I in grad school, I was writing a lot of code, kind of in that vacuum. I mean, I was surrounded by people who were also doing that, but in the academic projects that I was working on, the focus was not usually on writing. Really, well architected clearly documented, easy to maintain code it was it was on writing the script that you needed to spit out the number that you needed. To put into your research paper to publish it. And so it was I was writing a lot of code. But I had this feeling that the code that I was writing was somehow not good. without really knowing why or what that meant. I just had the sense that like, it doesn't seem reasonable to have this thousand blind method here. And yet it works. And it's doing what I need. But surely this can't be how we're, you know, how we're launching craft into space and whatnot. Surely, there's got to be a better way I was thinking and surely people who actually do this for a living, know what that better way is and have some insight into how I can avoid the headaches that I've been running into it trying to change this or trying to reuse someone else's code to extend their research or something like that. And so it's like, let me go hang out with some people that are a mix of folks who've been in the industry and are maybe taking a sabbatical or trying to add some new skills to the repertoire. And folks like me who have other backgrounds and are kind of coming into programming and software development for the first time. And let me go put myself in that environment where I'm surrounded by people who are interested in better code. And like code is the objective and better ways of getting computers to do what we want is the kind of topic of interest. So that's that's what was appealing to me. And really, when I started reading about the recurse center, and I started reading about what they were doing to create a super inclusive, welcoming, diverse, and really learning centered community that was seeking to eliminate a lot of the more toxic elements that are unfortunately a part of many kind of computer science and programming, communities and cultures, some of the elements around posturing your level of expertise and making other people feel like they're not as smart as you and you Trying to show off what you know, rather than help somebody understand it who doesn't understand it yet, the recurse Center has really developed some amazing practices for keeping that type of thing out of the community and keeping it a really, like learning positive and inclusive environment that makes it a safer, and therefore better learning environment for a lot of people, especially folks like myself who come from underrepresented groups in tech.

Tim Bourguignon 21:30
Do you have some examples of what the that was particularly helpful for you?

Anjana Vakil 21:35
Yeah, so they have what are called the social rules. So they have a set of lightweight rules that everybody agrees to, to follow in the space and in the community. And so these are really simple. There's four of them, I believe, and they are things like, No, well actually. Do not jump into just Correct someone on a detail of something that they just said that's not really important to the main point of what they were saying and really only serves to show that you know, something slightly more detailed about it than them and that they were slightly wrong, and doesn't really contribute to anyone's learning or advancement. And that's tuition. I think we've all read into those kind of Well, actually, moments and I'm sure we've all like I've been guilty of it. I think we all have that sort of thing trying to move away from that. Trying to one of them is called no fame to surprise. So this is moving away from the thing that you do where you say, what, you don't know what react is. Oh my God, that's the most shocking piece of information I've ever received in my life. I can't believe you've never heard of it. Right that I'm I'm overdoing dramatic effect. But you know what I mean? We've all we've all had those conversations. So yeah, so not feigning surprise in that way, even if you are genuinely surprised, because all that does is make the other person feel stupid and feel like they are out of the loop. And all of these things, whether it's Python, or react, or, or cobalt, or whatever it is, all of these technologies were new to you and to everyone else at some point. So there's no point belittling people for encountering a topic for the first time. So yeah, so they have things like that, that basically, are just, you know, ways that we talk to each other that, that we often see in in the fields of software development and computer science that all they do is serve to hinder people's learning. All they do is serve to make people feel like they're not smart enough, like they're not good enough, like they don't have a place in the world of computing. And that's false. Everyone has a place in this world. And in fact, everyone needs to have a place in this world because this is the direction the world is going. We all need to understand computers better and so I think the recurse center is just like a shining beacon of ways that a community can enforce a very lightweight agreements among all of its members, and everyone is happy to happy to live by by those social roles as they're called, and have a really respectful, inclusive learning atmosphere because of it

Tim Bourguignon 24:20
Makes makes a lot of sense. And is it an experience that you would like to live again?

Anjana Vakil 24:26
Absolutely, yes, I would love to go back to the recurse center and spend some more time there. And I have, like, you know, a wish list of projects to work on a mile long, but it is it's hard to find those times in your life where you can really, you know, take a chunk of time, whether it's, you know, three months as I did, or six weeks, which is another option there or even they sometimes have even one week, little mini batches they call them, but even even a week, sometimes it's hard to find in your life and especially the mental space to really kind of clear your plate and dig in to those curiosities that you that you've And find that carve that time and that energy out in your life to, to take that step back and really focus on your learning and on on being totally present for the sake of learning and improving your skills. It's tough and it's, you know, life has other plans a lot of the time. And yeah, so I would love to go back. It's just a question of timing and, and being able to make that happen because yeah, physically being in New York is part of being being part of this community. Yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 25:33
How long ago was it?

Anjana Vakil 25:35
So I did that in 2015. So a while ago now. Already, yeah, but but the nice thing about the recurse center and so they're their motto is never graduate. And the idea is that once you've done your batch in New York now you're part of this community and we have you know, we have slack and we have sorry, not slack, a slack like thing called Zoo lip. A chat client. We have mailing lists we have there's other various other ways that folks stay in touch. And, you know, still remaining part of the community and continuing your learning journey forever for the rest of your life. Never graduating is a big part of that community. But, but yeah, finding the time to be in New York for the initial, quote, unquote, onboarding as it were, is, is the the slightly challenging that

Tim Bourguignon 26:25
if you were to do it again, now five years down the line, what would you expect would be different for you and in terms of learning system of experience, in terms of point of view,

Anjana Vakil 26:39
Oh, geez, everything I want to say and nothing, I guess. When I, when I initially went to the recurse center, I, I knew a few things. I knew that I liked computers that I wanted to understand them better. I knew that I enjoyed programming but I had only done it really in one language without without Python without a lot of other things to compare it to like is this, you know, the idea that I have of what programming is, is that what programming has to be? Are there other other other ideas out there other ways of thinking about it? Spoiler alert, yes, there were lots of other ideas about it. But so I knew those things. And I also knew that I didn't have a background in computer science. I had, by that point, learned some things around especially around the later stages of a typical college CS curriculum. So things like natural language processing and machine learning and whatnot. I had learned a little bit of in my in my graduate studies, but I didn't have the foundational courses that kind of one on one stuff that I had this mental image in my mind of like, the ideal coder has all of that knowledge. So I wanted to fill some gaps in my in my computer science fundamentals. And I think now if I went back All of those things would still be interesting, like I'm always interested in learning like, is my idea of what programming is? The only possibility? Are there other possibilities out there that I haven't encountered? Like that's still and perpetually an interesting question to me. And there's always holes in my computer science knowledge and in all of ours, I think that I could fill in better. But I think now I have a better sense of kind of who I am and who I want to be as a coder and as a person in the in the tech space. I think I I know, I know that I enjoy coding across multiple languages. And I'm not scared about learning a little bit of too many languages and not having a deep enough language deep enough background in a single language, which was something that was a little bit of a concern to me before. Because so I I was worried about that because I was trying to get my first jobs in the industry. And now that I've seen Well, a that I've developed some some deep experience in A couple of languages and worked in in a couple of different languages. And now that I've seen how quickly the the industry moves and how quickly things change, I really think that the best thing I can do is is learn to be comfortable across a variety of different styles and languages and paradigms. And that's something that I would always want to expand my region. So I think if I went back now, I would work on maybe learning some new languages, like type illogically new languages that I haven't worked in before. And some other kind of types of programming that I haven't done before things like systems programming, like I'd love to learn rust or something like that. And yeah, I would it would be a little bit, have a little bit of the pressure taken off of that stress of like, what do I need to do to become marketable in this industry, which I had the first time around

Tim Bourguignon 29:53
when you went there for the first time, did you or had you decided that you were doing a career shift Already, oh, was it a retreat, and then we'll see,

Anjana Vakil 30:03
it was somewhere in between, I had the idea that I really like writing code. And I could see myself doing this all day, more so that I could see myself staying in academia, for example, but I was still not entirely sure you know, what type of thing I wanted to work on, or whether I wanted to stay in the language technology and computer system language learning space, which, which I didn't end up staying in. And so you know, if I had had a different experience, like let's say, in an alternate universe, it had been terrible and I hated it. And I didn't want to do it ever again. And I wanted to throw my computer out the window, which let's be fair, we all have days like that. But in general, that was not my experience. But if I had had a really bad experience with that, or with my, if I if I hadn't managed to get a job in tech, which, you know, I was very lucky to be able to break into The industry within about a year after I did the recurse center, I had my first full time software development job. And if I if all of that had gone differently as it totally could have, I might be in a totally different place right now and might be still working in an academic setting or still working on on language learning and teaching applications or who knows, I wouldn't be talking to you probably. So it's a little bit pointless to speculate, but i think that i think that yeah, if if I were to go back again, I wouldn't have that kind of question mark, will this work out? And so that would be you know, that would again take a lot of the pressure off

Tim Bourguignon 31:44
does it teaches you to go back to this domain that you worked on before?

Anjana Vakil 31:51
of language technology. Sometimes I certainly always love thinking about it and reading about you know, and things advances that folks have been Baking in that area but I, I think I my interests have kind of migrated to be really interested in how we can teach people programming more so than teaching them other human languages. I think that there's a lot of similarities. It's not it's not a perfect matchup between learning a human natural language and a machine language like a programming language. But I think there is a lot of similarity there and a lot of the things that I liked about helping people learn to speak foreign human language, I feel also I feel that like dopa me and cake have Yes, like I helped somebody have an aha moment to be able to talk to a computer or to be able to talk to another person with a computer. I still get that excitement from from helping people learn programming or learn to deepen their knowledge in programming. So I I feel good in this space right now. I'm still really excited to be helping people learn computers. And I think I'm gonna keep being excited about that for a long time

Tim Bourguignon 33:05
was going toward a developer advocacy, an explicit move from you, in order to get this?

Anjana Vakil 33:12
Yeah, my, my background is not full of a lot of explicit moves, things that come up opportunities that present themselves, I think it makes a lot of sense for me to be in a space of developer advocacy, which is another of those terms that is like a huge umbrella term that everyone who uses it uses to me and something slightly different. But the way that I think about it, it's kind of the perfect fusion of being a software developer, being a programmer, and doing that work of coding, and also, the things I love about teaching about communicating about what we're doing and about how we're thinking about what we're doing, and about building communities and helping people connect with each other and find those communities that can support them in their learning journeys. So I think of developer advocacy as kind of a field in which you get to combine what I think are like the most fun aspects of both of getting really excited about these cool new technologies or these cool deep dives on how something works under the hood. And really like getting the opportunity to nerd out about that. But also, with the view to that is all in service of communicating better with people, helping people learn helping people teach each other helping people talk about what they're doing, helping people find those those other people who are excited about nerding out about the same things that they're excited about. And so yeah, I think that human element is is really important to me, and something that really drew me to developer advocacy, but I think it was also it was just kind of happened because of my background and my interest in teaching and my passion for that. And as I started learning more More skills on the programming side. Like I think this was just kind of it was it had to happen. This is fusion in my personal career. So yeah,

Tim Bourguignon 35:08
Worked out for the best I think!

Anjana Vakil 35:10
well, I guess we'll see how it goes from here. But so far, it's been really great. From my perspective, I feel incredibly lucky to have found this and to have been able to to find ways to work in this industry.

Tim Bourguignon 35:23
Did the opportunity come to you with someone suggesting or did you? Did you apply for it? How did that come to be?

Anjana Vakil 35:30
Well, to become a developer advocate, as a official job title, was kind of a new thing for me. So that was an opportunity that came up through some connections that I had from previous workplaces, but the opportunity to talk about code and help reach out to people and teach people. That was something that came up when I started after my stint at the recurse center after my bachelor's I started trying to go to more conferences and meetups and events in the tech community. And I kind of fell into conference speaking when I went to this conference Jsw unconscious in Germany, in 2016, where as an unconference, there's no speakers that are announced or kind of, you know, already set, there's no speaker lineup determined before the conference. Rather, the way it works is people pitch talks that they are interested in giving at the beginning of the day, and then everyone gets to vote on which talks they'd like to see. And so it's really kind of a it's a really interesting model. It's really open and inclusive and kind of lowers that intimidation bar to getting started because you see everybody else who's also an attendee at the conference up on stage pitching their talk ideas, and you think kind of like, Well, why not me? And so I ended up giving my first conference. Talk there. And it again, it just it, it struck so many chords for me with all of the things that I loved about being being a teacher being in a classroom, and all of the things that I loved about nerding out about computers. And so that's where I fell into to speaking and giving workshops and things like that. And I just kind of kept doing it from there, because I liked it so much. And so I guess you could say that I was doing some of the work that developer advocates do. Even before I was officially a Developer Advocate while I was still officially a software developer or whatever other roles I was working,

Tim Bourguignon 37:33
Make sense. Make sense. So you had the vibe, the teaching vibe already. But how did you decide that? Now is the time you had learned enough on the computer science side to be able to stand in front of people and tell them tells me something?

Anjana Vakil 37:49
Oh, well, easy because I never know enough. But that doesn't stop me from standing in front of people and talking to them about what I do know. And that's something I feel really strongly about that Like this, this, this idea we have of, you know, you have to be an expert to be a teacher or you have to be an expert to have something that people would want to listen to. I couldn't, I couldn't disagree with that idea more. I think it is so important for people who are not experts, and especially for people who are just learning the thing that they're talking about, or maybe have just kind of wrapped their head around it for the first time. I think that folks in that position are so well suited to talk to an audience of people who are a few steps behind them on the learning journey and haven't wrap their heads around this yet. Because when you're in that fresh kind of beginner's mind of just starting out with something, you know, where your struggles were of which concepts were the hills that you had to get over and which things were counterintuitive and which things you could actually Apply from other stuff that you had learned before and things like that. Whereas when you're an expert, and you're really, really deep in the nuances of this subject matter, and you're so deep into it, that it's really hard to see it from a beginner's mind perspective, it's really hard to see, you know, which of those core assumptions that you've so internalized over your decades of experience with this thing, are not trivial at first, and are not assumptions for everybody. And I think that, yeah, I think that, that that's something that I've always felt and I and I, you know, continue to feel and so that's one thing that allowed me to kind of get up on stage and say, Hey, I am not an expert in whatever this thing is I'm about to tell you about. But I have learned a couple of things about it. So let me tell you those couple of things and hopefully they help you because I've gone through some of this pain and hoping to save you a little bit of it.

Tim Bourguignon 39:56
And I see how the unconference format would would fit in there.

Anjana Vakil 40:00
Yeah, I love the unconference format. I would love to see more.

Tim Bourguignon 40:03
There's quite a bunch in Germany actually. Yeah, it's impressive home, how many? How the multiplied themselves, but I really see that pitching this like you did. I'm not an expert, but I learned this and that and I'm happy to share and then see everyone vote for it and say, yeah, hell yeah, we want to see this. I guess that would be a con for confidence boost and help beginners stand on the stage with air quotes. Yeah, share their, their knowledge. That's true.

Anjana Vakil 40:34
Yeah, definitely. And some of the best advice that I got back in those days and you know, again, finding that community in the recurse center and finding so many people who were so encouraging and saying like, No, you can do this you can apply for this internship or this job or you can apply to speak at this conference. was so powerful and I would really say to people, you know, like some of the best advice that I got that I think is really good advice for anyone who ever has the thought Nobody would want to hear what I have to say about this is like, don't make that decision for them. Let let the conference or the people who are voting on the talks, decide if they want to hear it, you know, put it out there. Don't Don't self filter, and assume that the thing that you find interesting is not going to be interesting to anybody else. Because if you find it interesting, someone else out there does too. So you know, pitch your idea of put in your CFP proposal and, and give it a shot. And if the conference doesn't think it's a good fit, they will let you know. And who knows they might be more enthusiastic about it, then even you are so go for it.

Tim Bourguignon 41:41
Amen. Amen. I've learned this lesson the hard time with one of my mentors. We organized a few conferences together. And that's something he always did was to pick the subjects he knew nothing about and say, well, but I want to see this. I have no idea what you're talking about. And I was always very cold feet and say well But I have no idea what's coming. But yeah, but that's the fun. interesting part. Yeah, actually, I think he was right.

Anjana Vakil 42:08
Yeah, no, I think that's true. I mean, I know that as an attendee I love going to those sessions at conferences or, or if it's, you know, these days, it's more watching videos online or listening to podcasts or reading blog posts. I love reading about stuff that I know nothing about, especially if it's broken down in a way that makes it clear to someone who knows nothing about the thing. So yeah, couldn't agree more.

Tim Bourguignon 42:31
what's what's the future? You have anything at the horizon?

Anjana Vakil 42:34
Oh, well, right now, I'm trying not to make too many plans, because it's hard to know where things are going for all of us in the coming months and years. So right now I'm just I'm really focused on kind of deepening my knowledge of my ways that I can effectively communicate technical concepts, especially tricky things that folks haven't encountered before, I always have a lot more to learn as a teacher on how I can teach better. And I am also kind of digging into the product that I'm working on now, which is observable, which is a interactive in browser, visual notebook for data science. So it's a kind of platform where you can analyze data, make visualizations, do all kinds of cool stuff. And also mix that in with maybe longer form explanatory text and, and other things like that and add interactivity so that your readers can can play around with the visualizations and really make them their own. And so I'm really interested in learning more about First of all, how this really interesting runtime and environment works. So I'm deepening my knowledge of that and also trying to understand how I can empower people to to really make some awesome content using this platform and make that learning curve is as simple as possible for them. So that's what I'm focused on right now and where I go after that, or where it goes from there anybody's guess. But I guess you could say that in my meandering trajectory, you can already tell that, you know, I am sort of following my nose from one interesting thing to the next. And I don't tend to plan too many steps ahead. So yeah, see, see where things take me.

Tim Bourguignon 44:31
Here comes to curiosity again.

Anjana Vakil 44:33
Exactly, exactly. Always following my curiosity and trying not to remember the adage that it's what killed the cat. So try to keep it going.

Tim Bourguignon 44:45
If you had one advice for the listeners, something they should do, right after we we end up talking with what would that be?

Anjana Vakil 44:53
Yeah, I think I think the main thing that I could recommend to anyone in any situation, whatever they're trying to learn is what I already said earlier is to really like find a community and find multiple communities if you can find other people you can connect with. And you can get excited with about learning the thing you're trying to learn or building the thing you're trying to build. Find ways to reach out to people that you haven't talked to before, that you haven't met in your circles, the kind of people that you wouldn't necessarily run into all the time try to connect with new and different and different than you people who are excited about the same things you're excited about. And everyone's life will get better. In my experience.

Tim Bourguignon 45:38
I can only concur. That's exactly my experience as well. Thank you for that. Yeah, yeah. Awesome. Um, do you have anything to plug in? something happening on your schedule in the next few months that you want to highlight?

Anjana Vakil 45:51
Yeah, so uh, as I mentioned, I am working at this company observable, and we're going to be putting out some new content, things Like videos and always new learning trails. For example, we recently released a learn d3 series of notebooks. So you can definitely check out observable hq.com and follow observable HQ on Twitter to be kept up to date with all of the cool learning resources that we're going to be putting out. And beyond that, you can follow me on twitter on Jenna vakeel for upcoming virtual conferences and other podcasts and things like that that I'm doing. And yeah, always happy to connect with folks on Twitter and would love to, you know, to see other things that folks are making, especially in observable, so if you have cool notebooks you've made always want to hear about it,

Tim Bourguignon 46:47
People, do it! Awesome. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. That was very, very interesting.

Anjana Vakil 46:53
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on. I really love this, this format and that you're getting all of these amazing oral histories as it were compiled in your podcast series. I've listened to a few and they're always fantastic. So I'm going to go have to listen to a bunch more. Now. I recommend you all at home. Go back in the back catalogue if you haven't already.

Tim Bourguignon 47:13
Yes, I was blessed. Thank you for the feedback.

Anjana Vakil 47:17
Yeah, thank you so much.

Tim Bourguignon 47:18
And this has been another episode of therapists journey. And we'll see each other next week. Bye bye. This is Tim from a different time and space with a few comments to make. First, get the most of those developers journeys by subscribing to the podcast with the app of your choice, and get the new episodes out to magically write when the podcast is available on all major platforms. Then, visit our website to find the show notes with old links mentioned by our guests, the advices they gave us their book references and so and while you're there, use the comments to continue the discussion with our guests and with Meet or reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn. And a big, big thanks to the generous Patreon donors that helps me pay the hosting deals. If you can spare a few calls, please consider a small monthly donation. Every pledge, however small helps. Finally, please do someone a favor and tell them about the show today and help them on their journey.


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