The audience is the message

Seventeen years ago, I wrote an app that allowed web developers to add code snippets to their websites without connecting to the internet—useful since few had broadband. The app was clunky, it was unrefined, but it addressed a genuine inconvenience that developers had to put up with. Net Magazine wrote about it and featured it on their CD-ROM (sheesh, grandad). “Script of the month” the title read. I was ecstatic.

That was the very first time I reached a broad audience. And the experience made me realize that despite not having grown up taking radios apart and then putting them back together, or playing with blocks, or doing any of the other activities that some programmers point to as formative childhood experiences, I was able to achieve something of value by knowing the audience and knowing what they wanted.

It brings to mind a passage from Paul Dirac’s biography, about one Oliver Heaviside whose approach to teaching the mathematics of engineering was a pragmatic one. “Engineers prized Heaviside's methods for their usefulness, but mathematicians mocked them for their lack of rigour. Heaviside had no time for pedantry (‘Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not understand digestion?’)”.

And that quality, that salesmanship, that empathy, is especially important in education.

Picture a schoolgirl, I would tell myself, sitting in class during the first week of the semester. Eager to do well, but also full of doubt about her own abilities. The teacher is halfway through explaining a lesson, then turns to the schoolgirl and asks if she’s following. The schoolgirl nods, not because she really understands, but because she doesn’t want to appear less smart in front of her peers. The responsibility of that teacher is immense. The impact she can have on that schoolgirl’s life hangs on her ability to frame and communicate the lesson in a way that is vivid and engaging. Without pandering, and without oversimplifying.

In that specific dynamic, the teacher’s accomplishments are of no importance to the schoolgirl. All that matters is if the teacher can make that schoolgirl genuinely understand the lesson and realize why it’s important. In that context, to succeed is to know the audience.

An approach that does just that with respect to the abstract field of algorithms is what you’ll hopefully find in Bad Choices. It’s what everyone who has helped bring that book to production is passionate about. About sharing why that way of thinking is practical, timeless, and universal.

Next week: We understand things differently →

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