Developer Tea

Making Things Invisible

Episode Summary

Our conscious thinking is optimized to remove as much as possible. The more we can accomplish without hard thinking, the easier it is on our brains. As a side effect, much of the reality of our lives becomes invisible to us.

Episode Notes

๐ŸŒŽ Things slowly fade to invisibility over time.

Our conscious thinking is optimized to remove as much as possible. The more we can accomplish without hard thinking, the easier it is on our brains. As a side effect, much of the reality of our lives becomes invisible to us.

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Episode Transcription

What are the invisible things in your life? The things that go unnoticed, the experiences that you forget, the friends that you forget, the skills that you forget. These are all invisible to us. And it's not because they are gone. It's not because those skills have actually disappeared. We've adapted to them to the point that we don't notice them anymore. That's what we're talking about on today's episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, and my goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And invisibility affects us every day. It affects us in ways that we wouldn't expect. And it can be useful. In fact, our brains use this adaptation, this kind of suppressing or making things invisible on purpose to avoid this idea or this habit of over-analysing. And when we notice that something is invisible, then it becomes visible again and we analyze it again. If our brains were always noticing everything as if it was the first time, then we would be debilitated. There's so much that we don't think about, but that is so important in our lives. We remember how to walk without consciously thinking about it. And it's not just the things that go into our subconscious, but it's also the things that we are very conscious of, but that we're not really having to process over and over again. And we talk about how you can use this particular strange habit that your brain has of turning something invisible to your advantage and then also the threat that I compose on today's episode. So the first thing that we need to get out of the way is what exactly is happening here. Why is it that our brains are seeing something that we previously knew about or that we previously could see very clearly, it was very apparent to us and now it's invisible. And we're going to give you some simple examples. And here's just some examples for my personal life. One thing that has become invisible to me is how many screens there are now versus how many there were in intervals five, 10, 15, 20 years ago. Five years ago, we probably had half the number of screens that we have in our house. And this probably started about 15 years ago where screens became more and more ubiquitous. Other things that are invisible to me, especially as a software engineer, is the skills that I've developed. The ability that I have to code is something that has become kind of invisible to me. And this helps explain for a lot of engineers why we can have a lot of experience and feel like we're falling behind. We have a lot of skills that we're using every single day and we can still feel self-conscious. We can still feel like our skills are not sufficient to do the job that we are actually doing on a daily basis. And so this can be debilitating because a lot of the things that we previously were very aware of and we could kind of rely on because they were kind of in the front of our minds, they were consciously available to us. They're no longer there. And so we can feel a sense that we are no longer, for example, qualified to do the job of being a software engineer, right? Because that sense of progress that we previously felt and we've done an episode of this or about this on the show before about how imposter syndrome for a senior software engineers actually works. You know, this idea that you previously had a lot of progress, you felt that momentum, you felt the positive shift of momentum happening. And because you could feel it, you can imagine sitting in a car, right? And if the car is accelerating, you can feel the acceleration. But if suddenly the car stops accelerating, even if it's still traveling at the same speed, you don't really feel the speed that it's traveling at because once again, you've kind of adapted the speed is invisible. The acceleration was visible, but the speed becomes invisible. And this is really difficult for our brains to remind us on a regular basis. We need cues. We need to be able to look outside and we need some kind of reference point. Right? And so this is very important for us. We need to establish, we've been talking about, you know, New Year's resolutions on the show recently and some things that I hope that you will get into your resolutions this upcoming year. You know, some people believe in that we've talked about it before already that the beginning of a new year is a time where we are obviously all making resolutions. And whether or not you buy into the idea that resolutions are useful, there is something in our brains. There's solid research to suggest there's something in our brains that mark time when there's a transition like going from 2020 to 2021. And so as we move into New Year, as you start thinking about resolutions, one of the things that you can think about as it relates to invisible things, right, the things that have become invisible that might be, it might be necessary for us to remind ourselves about is to think about the different reference points that you have established. What are those reference points or what can they be? That's what we're going to talk about right after we talk about today's sponsor, retool. You know, the fastest way to build internal tools is retool. If we're being honest, most engineers don't love building internal tools, apps like admin panels for crowd operations, customer support and inventory management tools. These are all kind of annoying to build. Or at the very least, they can be in mind numbing. Very few engineers really enjoy this. I've had times in my career where I've enjoyed it, but those times it kind of passed. I don't really want to work on that. I want to work on things that users are actually interested in using, not the management of those things. So, you know, every business needs this stuff, though. Right, every business runs off of internal tools like these. No one really wants to deal with the headache of building and maintaining these tools. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the tools are the same. Right, they're all comprised of the same building blocks. It's all UI elements like you would expect some tables or drop downs or buttons, text inputs, that kind of thing. And they all pretty much need to connect to some kind of data source. Right, whether it's an internal database or an external API, they need some data source connection and then code to filter that data or function on that data in some way, write the new data, et cetera. This is all internal tools are structured this way. And this is exactly what retool helps you build. Right, this is what they help with. It gives you a drag and drop interface so engineers can build internal app, UI's, in hours, not days. And it's been more time building features customers will see. It connects to any database and any API, for example, to pull in data from Postgres, just write a SQL query, drag a table onto the canvas. And you can also write JavaScript. This is the most available language these days, it seems. Certainly for this kind of tooling. So you can write JavaScript pretty much anywhere inside of retool. You can manipulate the data with that JavaScript. Go and check it out. slash devt, that's retool or slash dvta, dig it started with retool today. Thanks again to retool for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So we have this idea that things become invisible. And we asked right before the sponsor break, what kind of reference points? Because again, if we go back to that example of sitting in the car and accelerating and then not being able to see or feel or understand the speed that you're going, the only way you really know is if you have a reference point, if you can look outside, look out the window and notice how fast you're going. And it's not perfect. You might have also a speedometer, right? That's another way that you might know more precisely how fast you're going. And this metaphor actually works pretty well because we might have reference points that are environmental, like we might have friends that kind of give us an idea of our progress or where we stand with our work, with our social lives, whatever. And then we have more tactical or more specific reference points. These are tools that we might use to get an idea of our reference, right? And both of these are important. The second type is much more intentional. If you already know that you need this kind of input, you need the reference, then that's when you're going to kind of pursue that second, the tool type, the speedometer type, the kind that's going to give you more specific information or more accurate information rather than environmental cues. We all have environmental cues and here's the interesting thing. Unlike being in a car, I guess maybe you could have illusions in a car if we're going to stretch the metaphor really thin here. But unlike being in a car where most of your cues are pretty accurate, we can have environmental cues that actually are tricking us into believing that something else is true, that there's these invisible things that we can't see, that there's something totally different happening on top of that invisible thing. So not only are we not seeing the thing that we've adapted to, but we also are getting these environmental cues that reinforce our misperceptions. So for software engineers, once again, going back to the idea of imposter syndrome, we might see around us the environmental cues that we see are all of these new languages popping up, right? Or all of these new frame, all these new things that I'm supposed to know about. I'm reading hacker news and I notice that everybody's learning machine learning and I don't know anything about it. And so now I suddenly feel like I'm behind. And these environmental cues can reinforce a misperception rather than being the proper kind of environmental cues. So that's why it makes sense to intentionally choose your reference points, pick the ones that are more accurately representing what you are trying to re-re- kind of revive, right? Bring that understanding back from the invisible ad- the adaptation that you have done to kind of make that thing invisible or shove it to your subconscious. You're bringing that back up. So we have all these reference points that we've established that we've kind of chosen, call them the environmental reference points that you have or the kind of speedometer style reference points, the ones that are more accurate, more specific and measure the thing more directly to what you care about. And the things that you previously had kind of seen as invisible or maybe they weren't coming up very often, they are now visible once again. And we do this all the time in our lives, right? This is not a new concept, measuring things that matter is there's an entire industry about this, right? So there's nothing new here. But what is important is that this isn't a bad thing. The fact that we make things invisible is part of our survival. It's important. It gives our brains the opportunity to think about things that it prioritizes. But like most of our evolutionary quirks, it is something to be aware of. Number one, and number two, it is something that we can turn into a tool. We can do this more explicitly, right? As an example, if you wanted to make something that is invisible or if you wanted to kind of tap into the positive side of this, ask the question, why does your brain do this? I've already kind of mentioned it. Your brain does it so that it can free up time to do other more important things. That seems like a really useful kind of way to think about tasks. How can we think about ways to make our tasks more invisible or the effort that we expend on a given activity? How can we make it less effortful and still gain all that we need to gain out of that? This is very important because it speaks directly to the idea of habit formation. Our habits become invisible. The things that we do on a regular basis without really thinking about it, these are invisible things. It's not that they're entirely in our subconscious, but that the triggers that are necessary and the willpower that's necessary, all of that is not coming from the reasoning part of our brain. It's not necessarily happening automatically because you're not just kind of like droning through your day, going and picking up your toothbrush and brushing your teeth because you have a habit of doing that. There are times where you feel that that's the case where you feel like, well, it would almost take more for me not to do that thing. The habit that I have, it would almost take more for me to avoid doing that thing than it does for me to actually do it. What this means is we're building these pathways. What's interesting about this is that the pathways are invisible. We're relying on this idea that we're making the good thing, also the easiest thing, right? Make the good choice, the easy choice, make the positive outcome, the default, right? Setting up useful defaults, this is another episode that we did in the past. I think you can Google it is called useful defaults. Having good useful defaults is one of the best ways you can think about making the positive changes that you want to make in your life. Make them the invisible things. Make them the things that you don't have to think about on a regular basis. Whatever it takes to establish that habit is the time and effort needed, right? That's the most important thing you can do because the things that are invisible are the things that are going to happen most fluidly, right, without the most effort or with the least effort. The things that happen with the least effort are the things that are most likely to happen. If you want to give yourself the best opportunity for a successful outcome, whatever that successful outcome is that you care about, for software engineers, it might be that you want to give yourself the best opportunity for having really well-tested code, right? So let's talk through how practically we would actually do that. Well, having really well-tested code starts with having a test. What can you do to make having a test in place as close to effortless as possible? What are you, you know, what barriers can you remove so that it's, that testing is one step closer to invisible to you, right? Rather than saying, okay, well, testing requires manual steps, testing requires that I talk to another person in another department, testing is just this arduous process. And so it's never going to become invisible because it's shoved in your face every time you want to do it. And so the good habits that you want to develop find ways of lowering the barrier so that they become as close to invisible as possible. So we have this automatic thing that happens where we make things invisible, we make even people in that we, there are entire relationships that we forget about in our lives because our brains are, are hyper-tuned to make space, right? We're making space, not, not space like memory-wise, but space like processing-wise. We're not thinking about every single relationship we've ever had. And so we can kind of clear that stuff out because it's not really important to us. And then it becomes invisible. It's not really important for our brains to consciously think about exactly which teeth we are brushing today, right? We've kind of put that on autopilot, hate that term when we're talking about the brain, but we've put that in the automatic processing part of our heads. Whether that's in our subconscious or in our fast thinking or intuitive thinking is up for debate, but it's not something that we're thinking about in the same way that we would think about long division. And so it moves over into that sector. Our brains do this automatically. How can we harness this for our own gain? How can we kind of manually move things into that category of invisible? Lower the amount of effort necessary. The reason why we're good at brushing our teeth is not because it's a mindless process. At one point in our lives, brushing our teeth was probably not the easiest thing in the world to do. Of course, hopefully it was when you were very young, but there are things that we do like brushing our teeth that because we've done them so many times, our intuition has taken over, right? Build your good habits into things that become intuitive. And so in the case of testing, we're going to create the most intuitive, and I guess you could say ergonomic way to test our code. So what are the things that feel the most intuitive to you in testing? And then adopt those habits, adopt those workflows that make testing easier, right? And lower the barrier to entry so that testing becomes an incredibly easy thing to do. And then hopefully as many times as possible, you're just automatically running tests. Write the code once so that, you know, write the testing code once, the automation process of testing once so that every time you change your code, you are testing it on every save. These are the kinds of things that can allow you to take the thing that was previously was in this, you know, very taxing mental process, the long division side of your brain or long division system of thinking and move it more into the intuitive system of thinking where it becomes more invisible. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope this episode was useful and helpful. I hope it's going to help you think about the resolutions that you are making into 2021. And thank you again, of course, to retool. Retool is the fastest way to build internal tools head over to slash devt. That's slash DEV-T-E-A to get started with retool today. This episode and every other episode of Developer T can be found on whatever device you use, whatever podcasting player you use. And we're going to have a special announcement about Developer T and about spec in an upcoming episode of this show. And as a part of that, we're going to be relaunchingDeveloper So make sure you watch out for that every episode, all the back catalog, including the things that iTunes cuts off. You know, they have a limit to the number of episodes that they can go back. And of course, we're approaching as close to 900 episodes of this show. So not all those episodes show up in the podcast player, they will show up on So make sure you check that out as well. Thank you so much for listening to this episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.