Seatbelt Learning with Uncle Buck


I travel a great deal for my work. For instance, in the next two weeks alone, I’ll travel from Florida to Hong Kong for a week, then from Hong Kong to London for a week, and then from London back to Tampa – I’ll circumnavigate the globe for just two Data Science trips. I’m home a week, then off to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Australia, Ireland and Florida and then California (that will take me about 3 months).

With that much travel away from home base, you have to find ways to keep your knowledge current. Add to that the fact that at Microsoft we have new things coming out all the time that we’re required to know, along with training myself in the current stack of technology and math in Data Science.

So I developed “Seatbelt Learning” – a method of learning a lot in a short period of time, without Internet connectivity. I build a pre-packaged set of materials that I can use to read deeply and understand quickly.

Locate and download the Materials

First, I make a directory on my Surface of learning materials that I download when I have Internet connections, to be able to learn from when I am at 30,000 feet or in a train or bus.

Next, I determine what I need to know, and I make a syllabus of the “big rocks” of the topic in OneNote. I do that by a quick survey of materials, asking experts, and haunting various Stackoverflow and other boards on the topic. I quickly note the things I see mentioned most often, think about what I know already and what I need to know. That information creates my search topics.

I have several locations to pull from to learn something new or a current topic. If it’s internal to my work, I talk with the teams doing the designs and download whatever I can onto a rights-protected and encrypted directory. If it’s something that is more widely available, I search the web and use various methods to download the pages for offline viewing (https://www.bing.com/search?q=read+web+pages+offline) httrack is the software I use the most. Oh, and a REALLY good tip is that you can create your own “books” from Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) pages – that process is here: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/export/help – I use this in almost all my learning.

I use a Kindle reader, so I use the “Send to Kindle” function all the time (https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle/), but I will also simply save pages to a SeatbeltTime folder on my Surface tablet.

I also REALLY love Calibre, prolly some of the best software ever (https://calibre-ebook.com/). I love his library functionality and the way you can tag books. (Somebody help me fund this guy to make a Windows 10 tablet-enabled version, yeah?)

I then scour https://channel9.msdn.com/ for the training I need, and it has a download for the videos or even just MP3’s if I’m driving.

My public Library card gets as much mileage as I do. I use their e-book service all the time using software called OverDrive, and use the time in the air to read what I need to know. I also pull down language books and city guides so I can be a good visitor – I try to learn at least “Please” and “Thank You” in every language I’m going to encounter.

Read with a pencil

Now it’s time to study. Since I have so much material, I use electronic means to consume it all. I have to plan for whether I’ll have power or not in the seat – some of the legs of my trips can be well over 16 hours, so I plan accordingly. I’ll sometimes start with my Surface, drain the battery watching videos, then grab my phone, and drain the battery listening to MP3’s and so on, and then grab the Kindle. I also normally take at least one paper-book, usually the language and city guides.

As I watch, read, and listen, I grab my Surface stylus and OneNote or just a humble pencil and notebook and take notes. Lots and lots of notes. I call this “reading with a pencil”, and I do that with everything that isn’t fiction – even poetry. When something strikes me as interesting, I write it down. Even if I never look at it again, the writing alone helps.

As I’m making notes, I start to form them even further into my syllabus or at least an outline. I mark down what I think I understand well, and I indicate to myself what I need to learn more about. Those then spawn off more investigation, and I repeat the process for those topics.

Put it to use

As I digest the information, I immediately start a PowerPoint deck on it. Even if I never plan to teach or present a topic, I act like I’m going to, and it puts the pressure on me to res-state the information in my own words and images. This forces me to learn even faster. If it’s programming or algorithms, I try and find a way to put the knowledge to use. The faster and deeper, the better.

The point is, we all have time where we’re not resting, working, or doing anything else. Use that time to learn – I think of myself as a traveling student in life. I’m here to see new things, learn new things, and interact with others in a productive, positive way. Anything I can do to help others learn and grow makes me happy.

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