Life Pro-tip: Your Memory and You

I once found myself in conversation with someone fresh out of college, who was entering the working world for the first time. It takes a little bit of adjustment to go from college life, with the classes and tests and the requirements they place on you, to the working world and all the requirements that it requires. They certainly require a much different thought process to function from day to day, which is something they don’t really tell you when you’re going through school.

The question posed was one that I’ve heard before, and I wanted to share the advice that I received that has helped me along the way. The question was this:

“We have so much to do for this project, and the structure of our database keeps changing. I keep running into this issue where I can’t keep track of all the changes in the database, so I can update my code. I feel like there should be a simpler way to keep track of everything, then what I’m doing. How are you keeping track of all the changes as they get made?”

This was asked in relation to building a database to house hospital and medical provider information that was also being used as production system for geocoding (i.e. tagging with Latitude and Longitude) the locations of all these places, which was then being used to match records against one another to de-duplicate the dataset. Needing to know when things changed and how was very, very important. I think on the surface, this question is actually pretty simple. “How do you keep track of this stuff?” isn’t terribly hard to answer:

I’m writing everything down!

Whatever it is, if I might need to know it, I write it down. The part that was interesting to me is, he really didn’t consider that beforehand.

Albert Einstein once said: “Never memorize something that you can look up.”

In college, we write down everything the teacher says, and then half the time we never look at those notes again. We learn that “writing it down” is really just code for “pretend like you’re memorizing this for later, but it won’t be on the test”. So we write it down dutifully, lose track of it, and then just pick up the book and read that instead. The book has everything – or almost everything – we need to pass the test, so we continue on with this habit until it becomes a meaningless ritual.

Hear it > Write It Down > Forget About It > Repeat

In the professional world, though, 90% of the time there is no “book” you can look in later when you need to know something. Unless you work for a government contractor with really great documentation, the only things you’ll know about a project are: A) what you hear, B) what you get in an email, or C) what you make up on the spot.

Some of us get lucky, and a lot of information goes through email. You can keep it, reference it, catalog it for later. You have that information at hand instantly. But what about those companies that are realizing as time goes on that email and text aren’t always the best medium for the message? What about the increasing number of companies that have actually productive meetings?

For them you need to start taking notes. Copious notes that you can reference later when you need them. Notice I said “when”, not “if”.

What I told the young Padawan was this:

“Take notes. Every time the boss, or anyone, tells you a piece of info about this project, or even a project tangentially related to this project, write it down. If someone else said it and you already wrote it down, find that note and mark it again so you know it got brought up again. If it’s mentioned multiple times, it’s something you want to remember later.”

Sure, you might go into a meeting and take two pages of notes, then find out that you didn’t need 80% of the junk you wrote down. Maybe it wasn’t important like you thought, or maybe you just remember it without looking again. Maybe you have a great memory, and that’s fantastic.

But what if…?

What if you only write down 20% of what’s said, and that isn’t the 20% you needed?

What if you don’t need anything from that meeting today, but next week 50% of what was said would be helpful to know?

What if even with 99% recollection of all the notes, you happen to foget that 1% that turned out to be critical to what you needed to do?

This stuff is all about the what-if’s. I would rather have two pages of notes where only 10% of the information is useful, as opposed to half a page of notes that I never needed in the first place, because I missed the part I needed to remember.

So, take notes. Ask questions. Spend the necessary time to understand a project, task, or problem, before you start working on it. Being thorough is a skill that a lot of new graduates do not possess; be better than that.

Interestingly enough, I have a quote of advice that was given to me about this job before I took it, that is directly related. Here’s what the recruiter with 20 years of experience told me:

“I interview all day long. New grads, old programmers, everyone who wants to do this stuff [IT work]. It doesn’t take much to stand out anymore. Just excel a little bit at what you do, and you put yourself above everyone else who wants to do the same thing. If you can show some skills that so many other people lack…basic stuff like organization, follow-through with projects, being on time, being helpful in meetings… any or all of that gets you a job that won’t go away unless the company does, or unless you decide to leave. It just isn’t that hard to be outstanding, so take advantage of it.”

Good advice? No. Fantastic advice. I suggest you take advantage of it.