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Pairing to Learn (Part 1 of 2)

Do you know how to use Balsamiq?

The question was innocuous enough, but on my very first day (and a trial period, at that), it seemed like social and professional suicide to admit at 9:01am that I didn’t know how to use the primary tool we’d use to wire frame all day.

“Well, I don’t,” I admitted reluctantly. But quickly followed it up with, “but I DO know Photoshop and I’m a very quick learner,” and please don’t get rid of me, I really need this job, I added in my mind.

My partner responded, “Awesome, you’ll have to show me some Photoshop tricks later, I only know bits and pieces. Well this is Balsamiq….”

And that was it. I was handed the mouse and taught how to wire frame designs. That was my first day at Menlo Innovations.

In the five years since I have taught many of my colleagues my tips and tricks in Photoshop. I’ve even attempted to convert some of them over to Illustrator, to no avail.

And in the same time, I’ve learned interviewing techniques and what information architecture is and how to manipulate it to relay information quickly. I’ve learned how to do basic html coding and accounting. I’ve learned how to run a business, how to project my voice while teaching, and even how to draw.

All of those I learned through pairing.

That thirst of knowledge is what makes us human, fosters a well of empathy, pushes us to create and think outside the box.

Some people can’t imagine what it would be like pairing every day, all day. And it can be difficult, I won’t argue that. But I believe there is an innate thirst for knowledge that doesn’t go away when we leave school. The official structure disappears and people bury that thirst under layers of productivity and importance. But that thirst of knowledge is what makes us human, fosters a well of empathy, pushes us to create and think outside the box. Pairing begins to draw out that thirst once again, forming an innovative and creative environment that encourages knowledge sharing.

Once that knowledge starts flowing, the energy is exhilarating. New ideas flow through your team with the force of a tidal wave. Knowledge is shared immediately, without obstacles and the entire team improves, growing their individual skills and raising the universal bar.

People learn in 1 of 3 ways (or a mix): through learning, seeing, and doing. Pairing allows for all three types of learning, with hands-on guidance from the “mentor” role. The mentor may talk through the process while showing the student and then allow them a chance to attempt it on their own. And then, just as suddenly, the mentor becomes the student as they shift to a new area of focus. The mouse is passed off to the person who knows less and the practice is begun again.

There are certainly dangers one could fall into when trying this practice. An unwillingness to hand off the mouse, or explore a new idea, can torpedo any fostered learning environment. There must be a desire to share knowledge and, in return, learn, for the system to work. Condescension or a lack of trust will act as dams, threatening the flow of knowledge. Those people will be avoided, breaking down collaboration across teams and preventing the team from rising as quickly as they could.

Pairing hasn’t always been easy for me. But the thirst for knowledge and ease of learning a new skill has always overcome any exhaustion I’ve felt and that has made it absolutely worth it.