Missing the Obvious

I like to travel by train. I have some friends on a convenient train route that I visit from time to time. In the US, Amtrak an app you can use to buy and display your train ticket. I enjoy it, but oh my word is the connection slow sometimes. I am not always sure of being able to pull up the ticket on time and on demand.

For many years, I have gone ahead and printed the ticket instead “Just in case.”

I was traveling by train this weekend when I had an “I am an idiot” moment.

You see, most smartphones (mine included) can take a screenshot. You know, an image stored on your phone and not subject to the inconsistencies of connection? Simple logic tells you that the ticket is actually that QR code and that this is merely an image, right?

I do not want to admit how many years I have been printing tickets as a backup. When the obvious hit me, I felt very silly, indeed. (Not about being a belt and suspenders sort, mind. I am okay with that character trait)

I tell this story to put a point out there. Now, my job is to explore new technology, teach how to use available tools, and help people manage the new options and ways to do things in their lives. That is literally my job, and even I miss stuff sometimes.

Partially it is simply because there’s so available to you. Anyone can get used to a routine and not think about the alternative options. No-one can know everything. For me, this was a nudge that I was getting complacent and need to monkey with things more. Your lesson might be different, as it is probably not your job to poke buttons, dive for cover, and tell people about it after the dust settles.

Since that likely isn’t your job, don’t feel too bad when someone grabs a device, punches a few buttons and hands you a solution that seems obvious when you look at it. All of us get into mental ruts sometimes, and we do need to jar ourselves out of it.

On the other hand, exploration is good. A bit of monkeying and thinking about alternatives as you use technology is a grand human tradition dating back to the first time one of our ancestors deliberately put a bit of meat on a stick to burn it. You may not always have time, but it is a good idea to run with the urge when you can.

There’s No Substitute for Practice

When I teach classes in computer applications, there is occasionally an expectation that after a six-hour class, the student will have mastered all the material we’ve covered in the class.

I wish it worked that way, I really do.

But the problem comes in when the student takes the class and then never touches the application except to do the routine things that he’d originally done before spending all that time being exposed to new material. He forgets it. He has to forget it. There is no way he can retain it.

Practice is important. No, it’s more than important, it’s crucial to retaining the information.

Every computer application class I teach has independent practice exercises for each concept covered. The student is meant to go back to the home or office, then try out the new material and see how it works in the non-classroom environment.

The students that do well will do these provided exercises in a day or two, often emailing me for help with the sticky parts.

The students that genuinely develop mastery take it a step further. After playing with the provided exercises, they’ll start creating their own solutions relevant to their lives, their jobs and their interests.

As a teacher, of course I have to maintain mastery of the applications I teach. To do this, I come up with exercises or play with solutions, myself, that are relevant to my interests.

As a computer professional, I do tend to have geeky interests. My husband, alike in geekery, was noodling around on a discussion board when a complaint about a long-term science fiction program (Doctor Who) came up. The main character flies about in a time machine and picks up companions to travel with him from all over time and space. Someone complained that the companions were all from present-day (at the time of the episode airing) Earth, and that didn’t make sense.

I disagreed that the companions were all from present-day Earth, and immediately pulled up MS Excel to come up with some solid proof.

We made a list of the companions in one column; then populated the second column with a Y or an N to indicate whether or not they were from the present day. After that, I created a couple of named ranges for the columns.*

This groundwork made a COUNTIF function to find out how many companions were from present-day Earth a simple matter.

From Present Not From Present
24 18

The formula in cell D3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “Y”)

The formula in cell E3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “N”)

As a small addition to this little practice exercise, I created a little pie chart from my findings.

Is it in any way important where characters from a science fiction program hail? Of course not! But consistent, deliberate practice? That’s crucial and vital to mastery.

But there’s no reason that the practice can’t be a little fun and goofy!


* A named range is a meaningful name you can give to a cell or range of cells that you can then use in a formula or function. I’ll be posting how to create one in a future Nifty Tip.

Why I Hate Tips and Tricks in Software Instruction

I’m about to play the hypocrite a little here.

A vast majority of my blog posts here on Figart Consulting are little nuggets of information about software. Why? Because it’s easy. I can write a 500-1000-word piece on some little bit of productivity software knowledge that might be useful to you. It might save you a half an hour when you’re trying to accomplish something.

And it’s still not really as useful as it could be.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s why I hate these little classes in software applications. You know the ones, “How to manage your Inbox” or “How to Make Pivot Tables in Excel.” I’ve taught classes like that. Shoot, I’ve written classes like that. I don’t like them.*

Why are they taught? For the same reason I write the articles. They’re easy – both for the teacher and the student.

What Tips ‘n Tricks Are Good For

It’s not that these little classes are unilaterally useless. They’re not. It’s that they’re truly only worthwhile to a peculiar subset of the population. The Gee, I Didn’t Know That! Nifty Tip is really only good for someone who knows the software in the first place. When I say “knows,” I do not mean someone who can look at the interface and puzzle it out. I don’t even mean someone who can make the software do a single task or figure out something.

When I say “knows,” I am speaking of someone who understands the underlying logic behind the software, and how its features might integrate to perform multiple complex tasks. The reality? Most people don’t know the software they use very well. (And if you argue that you shouldn’t have to understand its underlying logic to use it, I have to ask is your task truly complex enough to require software?)

If you do understand the software you’re using, yeah, those little tips and tricks will be quite useful. It’ll save you some time and you’ll be able to apply them in a useful way.

Where Tips ‘n Tricks Fall Down

I’ve taught a lot of classes in Excel. The class I want desperately to teach, and have never had the opportunity to do so, is the How to Design a Spreadsheet class. There are reasons for this. Not only is course development expensive, this is not conducive to the one-day training most employers prefer. For it to work well, I’d have to teach it more like a college class – several days over a course of many weeks – including homework and a project.

This comes from an hour on the phone doing tech support that was really turning into a development class when a user inherits a workbook that no longer works properly because changes need to be made in how data is tracked.

This comes from helping someone update a presentation using the tools available in PowerPoint, only to find that they do not know how to structure an effective talk.

This comes from re-formatting articles that cross my desk for editing purposes because the user doesn’t understand format and text flow in a document.

None of these problems can be fixed by Tips ‘n Tricks, but by understanding what the software is supposed to accomplish and understanding what task you’re trying to accomplish. Too much of what we do with computers really does have a flavor of, “Don’t bend that wrench, get a bigger hammer!”

Don’t get me wrong. I know why we don’t do it. Learning the principles behind anything is hard.

We Need to Teach Principles Based Productivity

Even though principles-based learning is hard at first, we need to teach it. The sad reality is that most people are taught to be able to do well on standardized tests. In the real world, though, you do not have standard problems to solve. I don’t care what your job happens to be, if it’s complex enough to sit down in front of a computer to it (and that includes being a cashier), you need to be able to analyze what you see in front of you, and plan not only a solution, but a way to avoid the problem in the future.

This means teaching people to sketch out what they want on a whiteboard before they sit down to create a spreadsheet. This means making an outline before starting a document. This means brainstorming a talk, maybe even writing an outline, before creating presentation slides.

To the computer professional, the expression, “Never skip the design phase” might be common. The thing is, that skill is necessary for more than just the programmers. You need to know where you are going. You need to know what you want to accomplish. You need to know what your tools can do. Without that, tips-n-tricks are pretty useless.

* This is not a secret to anyone who has asked me to write such a class, by the way. They’ve gotten this earful more than once.

The Value of Failure

Part of the way I make my living is by teaching computer applications. Typically, it’s MS Office, but I’ve taught others. My classes are popular and I can pretty much guarantee if I teach one seminar, 90% of my students will come back for more – either to learn something new or to take more advanced lessons in the same application. It sounds like bragging, but it’s the simple truth. My classes are entertaining and informative.

On one teaching job, however, I crashed and burned. I was teaching a computer application I know very well, indeed. Because I knew it so well, I figured that a cursory review of the lesson plan and manual would be plenty.

It wasn’t, as any experienced teacher would tell you. God, that class was a fiasco.

Many years later, I got an opportunity to teach other class. It was in another application I know well and use daily. Oh my word was I scared! I knew why I’d crashed and burned the first time, so resolved to correct the problem. Were over-preparing possible, I over-prepared. I was terrified to get up in front of all these guys because I was terrified that I’d blow it and embarrass not only the person who recommended me, but the company who contracted me to teach.

I did okay. Brilliant? No, not that time. Though I did have several students come to more classes that I’ve taught. So, clearly it was at least a class where I was competent.

So often we fear failure when failure can be a great friend. I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today were it not for that colossal and embarrassing failure. I learned so much from it. I learned the importance of preparation. I learned not to be cocky about my own knowledge. I learned that knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ideally placed to teach it. It taught me that teaching is actually a skill one can learn!