Three Useful Skills

15 Aug 2016

Sometimes your mind wanders at work, and you think about questions like:

What are some of the most unexpectedly valuable skills you have learned through a class you took or a job you had?

Or maybe just me? I think this question occurred to me because I had at least three immediate answers bubbling under the surface of my mind. All three are skills from classes I took or research I did, skills which have proved formative, useful and durable. As a theme, all three happened to be shared with me by talented and hard-working women, who I saw (and see) as role models.

So in the spirit of paying it forward, my three skills are:

1. Understanding Functions

I had a very gifted high school math teacher, from Algebra II through differential calculus, and one of the gifts she gave us was a thorough grounding in what a mathematical function is. I remember spending a significant amount of time on the topic, hammering home that a function is a rule that assigns one value to another value (but never to two values at once). This was conveyed using math, prose, diagrams…pretty much any form to reinforce the idea.

But it was worth it. I didn’t 100% get it, even with all that, but it was enough of a useful understanding to get me through quite a few math courses, even through undergrad. It’s the piece that I saw missing in so many of my first-year calc students and high-schoolers I tutored. I feel very fortunate to have received that specific mental model because it was incredibly helpful, and eventually, extendable even to things like functional analysis.

2. Giving Presentations

The summer after my sophomore year, I stayed at school and did some research. The research itself was nothing to write home about - the real skill I learned that summer was how to give a presentation or talk about your research. My colleague and I had to give official start and end of summer talks, and our advisor also made us give informal talks to some other math students doing summer research. So we ended up giving a few talks, and she made us thoroughly prepare for each one. We made slides, we practiced, we got feedback on how to most effectively convey our ideas, especially to an audience outside the field.

The most valuable part of those presentations was not necessarily the concrete skills we learned (although those were a solid base for future learning) - rather, I took away that good, effective research talks were something that required work. You can’t just whip up a few slides and speak off the cuff; it takes time, care, and practice to get right. I don’t always make the time to prepare for presentations as I’d like, but it’s still something that’s important to me. Taking the time to consider your message and be well prepared - to me, these are marks of professionalism and, most importantly, consideration and respect for your audience.

3. Using Documentation

I still remember one of the assignments very early on in Jenny Bryan’s Stats 545 course. In class, we had read in our data using read.table() and Jenny asked us to find out what options we would need to set in read.csv() to produce the same result. The goal was not necessarily to replicate the function, but to force us to dig through a manual page (in this case, for read.csv() and actually read it.

That turned out to be a really valuable lesson, because it taught me that I had reached a point where I could read documentation and that reading documentation might just be the most effective choice for me. It’s so easy to get caught up in “google-this, google-that”, but reading documentation has its own benefits: a) you’re more likely to learn something, because you’re methodically moving through information in context, and b) like browsing in a bookstore, you’re more likely to find other random things you need by walking through a manual, instead of just “ordering up” the single solution via google. I’m now at least 10x more likely to look up a function’s spec instead of randomly googling to find out what I need to know.


stories » math, programming, computing, empowerment,

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