I was recently asked, “What was the first thing you built that you were truly proud of?” My answer was an RSS feed aggregator I build in high school to get my feet wet with php, database management, cookies, etc. But as I was explaining the technical details of the project, I was surprised recalling what skills I had used to complete it. Granted, it had been four or five years since I had worked on the site, but this was slightly jarring to me. How many times had I neglected to consider that I had the ability to develop in some way, and altered my development stack because of it? I felt like this was unlikely; who actually forgets they have a skill? But I had clearly done it to some degree.
This got me thinking about all the projects I had worked on. What went into them? What did I have to learn in order to complete each project? What are all the skills I’ve collected over the years? And most importantly, what are all the features I could incorporate into a hardware and/or software widget?
So I counted.
I opened a new note in Evernote and started listing. Software, hardware. App development, data storage and management, programming languages, libraries, APIs, methods of automation, bluetooth and wifi connectivity, development boards, all of it. After an hour or so, I felt like I had summarized my smattering of technical capabilities into a neat, hierarchal format.
My first reaction was satisfaction. This document had become my “maker resumé.” All of my “just-for-fun” projects suddenly had a very practical result by adding a skill-set to my development toolbox.
The second was potential. Patterns emerged while scanning this collection of seemingly non-related capabilities. And they were definitely not USEFUL patterns, but it got the gears turning. I started picking three random topics and trying to see how I could combine them. A script that tweets the first hit on Google Images of the word you’ve said most that day. A heads-up display that constantly shows you how many steps away you are from Reno, Nevada. A thermostat system that changes the temperature in accordance with the NASDAQ. Again, not tremendously useful, but a fascinating exercise in creativity. Seeing the possibilities of what you can create is an empowering feeling of possibility.
If someone asks you if you’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, you know immediately if you have or haven’t. But if they ask you to tell them all the science fiction books you’ve ever read, that is a MUCH more difficult task. So, the point of this exercise wasn’t to help me remember what I’ve done. If someone asks me to build a web scraping app, I can tell them immediately if I can or can’t; my memory wasn’t the issue. The point of this exercise was instead to be able to see all the “science fiction books” I’ve ever read in one place for easy reference. To get the juices flowing. To see how any combination of these techniques could be used together. To keep possibility on the front of my mind.
This becomes the most useful when brainstorming solutions. If a solution is simple, it becomes a “Have I read this book?” scenario. But if you’re attempting to solve a complex problem, looking at everything on the table gives you more context and perspective on ways to build a solution.