My three oldest kids have just returned from their grandparents' house.
They run into my office, each child waving a twenty dollar bill.
“Look at what we got for helping Oma in the garden!”
Their sweaty faces are beaming with pride.
“And how will you spend your newfound wealth?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“I’m getting V-Bucks,” 11-year-old Elowen announces. Her twin sister, Linnea, nods emphatically.
“It’s Robux for me,” declares 9-year-old Hallden.
My children are eager to turn their real money into virtual currency.
While I let them spend their earnings as they please, I struggle to see the economic value of this transaction.
Hallden has a big smile on his face.
“I’m going to buy a new pair of pants for my avatar!”
I look down at his real pants that sport holes large enough to reveal his dirty knees.
Not only have I failed to properly clothe my 9-year-old, but I am an enabler to his video-game addiction.
It’s an unfair battle.
There is no competition between real pants and zombie-shielding, laser-shooting pixel pants. (Hallden later informs me that the virtual pants he wants hold neither of these powers.)
This is the part of the story (of my life) where I make an attempt at being a good parent. “Want to hear about the virtual goods I had as a child?” I ask.
My son shakes his head.
The twins, almost teenagers, roll their eyes.
As all parents know, this is the cue to proceed.
In which I tell the kids the story of my first virtual good
The noise level in my fourth-grade classroom resembled the crescendo of cricket-wings on a warm Tallahassee evening.
I folded my hands and placed them in my lap, waiting for Ms. Saunders to take control of the situation.
This afternoon, however, Ms. Saunders did not immediately break into song (her usual crowd-control technique).
She stood in front of her desk, bare arms at her side, and moved her smiling eyes from student to student.
When her eyes met mine, I lowered my gaze.
Like magic, the chaos that was my unruly classmates self-organized and a hush settled over the classroom.
“I ..have ..a ..se-cret,” Ms. Saunders sang out.
“What ..is ..your ..se-cret?” the students responded in unison.
Too shy to sing, I only mouthed the words.
Ms. Saunders motioned for us to lean in.
She lowered her voice.
“The secret,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, “is that if you use a vocabulary word three times… then it belongs to you.”
She raised a finger to her lips.
The only sound in the room was the whirling of the fan above our heads.
“And the more words you own,” Ms. Saunders continued, “the wealthier you will become.”
There was a moment of stillness that, for me, held both gravity and light.
Then the class broke out in raucous laughter.
The bell rang and I was at once engulfed in a colorful stream of backpacks.
I remained at my desk and closed my eyes, processing.
Ms. Saunders put a hand on my shoulder.
The familiar smell of chocolate-covered mints hit my nostrils.
(Ms. Saunders kept these coveted treats in a big glass on her desk.)
My beloved teacher leaned over me, and I felt her warmth.
“You must be very wealthy,” she whispered.
The concept of personal ownership was foreign to me.
My family moved to the United States when I was in the first grade so my father could complete a PhD in physical oceanography from FSU.
His meager student stipend was the only source of income for our family of four (as neither he nor my mother, a biochemist, had work visas).
When we lived in Israel, my prized possession was an enormous block of salt from the Dead Sea which my father had brought home from a data-gathering cruise.
I secretly licked it when nobody was looking, and my heart would fill with joy.
Deaf to my pleas, my parents insisted that the salt block would remain behind when we moved.
Here, in the United States, I owned nothing.
We lived in a furnished apartment where my sister and I shared a dirty mattress on the floor.
All our clothes and toys were hand-me-downs.
My favorite red nightgown had another girl’s name embroidered over the heart - “Lori”.
I wondered what kind of girl was wealthy enough to have her name - her own name - embroidered on all her clothes.
I guessed that Lori was the type of girl who labeled all her belongings with a glittery marker.
I pictured how she would count her possessions every night as she fell asleep.
I imagined what it would be like to be her.
“You don’t have to own things to be happy,” my parents would always remind me.
My logical brain understood the truth in those words, but there were still nights where I lay on my mattress and thought fondly of my salt block.
That afternoon in my fourth-grade classroom, everything changed.
Ms. Saunders had revealed a secret that reframed my entire perspective on life.
If knowledge was truly a form of wealth, then my family was royalty.
Each meal in our household was served with a side of knowledge: interesting facts at breakfast, brain puzzles at lunch, and science documentaries after dinner.
With this new mindset, I didn’t need to be “Lori” - I was already Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess.
“If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” - Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess
I remember running home that afternoon and racing up the stairs to our apartment with a sense of urgency that puzzled my mother.
Library books were strewn across my mattress.
I grabbed Little Women and flipped fervently through the pages until I found a word I didn’t know.
“Impertinent, impertinent, impertinent,” I chanted aloud as if reciting a magical incantation.
When the new word was mine (truly my own!), I sat back against the wall and smiled.
My net worth was increasing.
In which my children learn nothing
“… and that’s the story of my first virtual good,” I tell my children.
They look bored.
“Paper books are so last-century,” Linnea informs me.
“You need to modernize your narrative, Mom.”
“Modernize your narrative” sounds like a term she picked up from me, which helps soften the blow of my heart breaking.
I convince myself that Linnea is just demonstrating the definition of impertinent to her siblings.
“Can we go now?” Elowen asks. “Things don’t stay in the item shop forever.”
A spark of inspiration hits me.
“Want to see the ultimate item shop?” I ask, raising my eyebrows and doing my best to channel Ms. Saunders.
I swing my laptop around dramatically and point to the screen.
“Pluralsight?” Linnea asks.
“Yes! Technology skills are a special type of virtual good,” I explain,
“and the cool thing about tech skills is that they can get you a real job paying real money.”
“… which I’ll use to buy new characters and weapons and power ups!” Hallden interjects with excitement.
It’s now my turn to roll my eyes.
In which I attempt to write a blog post
Hallden’s enthusiasm gives me new hope.
I could write a blog post showing how technology skills can be as desirable as virtual goods in video games.
Perhaps my message could reach an entire generation.
I enlist my kids' help to teach me about 21st century video game culture.
I want to understand the motivation behind purchasing virtual goods.
I want to understand their appeal.
The kids and I come up with some rough correleations between virtual goods and tech skills…
Vanity goods - As my children explain, these are the virtual goods you buy for the sole purpose of impressing others.
In terms of tech skills, perhaps these are the obscure languages that have esoteric appeal but little real-world value.
An internet search for weird programming languages uncovers an unexpected bounty of vanity “skills”: LOLCODE, Befunge, Glass, Piet, Chicken, Shakespeare, and more.
I beg my readers to finish this article before conducting such a search, lest they fall into the rabbit hole of bizarre code.
Pets - My children like buying virtual pets because “they are cute” and because we don’t have pets at home.
There is a certain appeal to learning a tech skill that you don’t get to use in your real life job.
Engineers love to tinker and it’s rare to run into one who doesn’t have a GitHub repository or two of pet projects.
How tech skills are “cute” I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
Skins - Skins are superficial.
Like most clothing, they help you fit in with your social circle but don’t improve your game.
To get tech skills that are “skins”, you might watch an executive briefing on a topic.
You will get a general understanding of the subject without enough depth to use it in practice.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
The greater the breadth of knowledge you have, the better your understanding of the big picture.
The wider your repertoire of mental models, the more perspectives you’ll see when approach a problem.
I personally like to keep a variety of tech “skins” in my closet.
Armor and Weapons - Like armor and weapons in video games, a powerful and diverse arsenal of tech skills will help you and your teammates face adversity.
Whether you’re taking down pesky bugs or engaged in a “boss battle” with a challenging security threat, you’ll need the right skills to fight the enemies of correctly-functioning code.
Leveling up (“pay to win”) - Sometimes my kids pay money to level up faster in their games.
My initial reaction to this is that it’s cheating.
Shouldn’t they put in the hard work to attain the level on their own?
“Everyone’s doing it,” they insist.
In the world of learning, paying to level up takes on a different context.
Figuring out a new programming language by using it in practice while sifting through random online resources is a learning experience in itself.
This technique is also time-consuming and often leaves gaps in your knowledge.
Following a learning path or a professionally curated channel of Pluralsight videos is not cheating, but a smarter, faster way of leveling up your tech skills.
Stats - Even if you purchase the best weapon, you still need to learn how to use it effectively and how to work well with your teammates.
Feedback from the game’s scoreboard helps you develop these skills.
This analogy can translate to the tech world.
Mastering a programming language will not on its own help your team achieve great outcomes.
Software engineers rely on feedback loops to improve their code, reduce technical debt, and collaborate with their team members.
If Pluralsight Skills is the “item shop”, then Flow provides the gaming stats.
Flow gives you metrics to drive powerful behaviors as you write code, create pull request, and close tickets.
Tired of hearing their mother spout business/techie jargon, the kids focus their efforts on crafting a perfect blog title: “From Noob to Pro: Level Up with Tech Skills”.
They enjoyed answering my questions about video games, and I am grateful that they allowed me a glimpse of their world.
There is so much pressure in this industry to skill-up, but I often wonder if we can get better results in our learning journeys with better route planning.
When skills are tied to clear objectives, we become intentional about learning.
We differentiate “vanity” skills from “armor and weapons”.
We expand our breadth of knowledge with “skins” and “level up” with greater depth.
Data-driven feedback loops, like gaming stats, help us continuously improve.
In which I learn something
The kids go happily upstairs to play video games, but I sit at my desk wondering whether to classify the proposed blog post as a success or failure.
A very fine line lies between deliberate and contrived and I can’t help feeling that there is something superficial about the concept of collecting tech skills (or vocabulary words or virtual goods) for the purpose of impressing others and increasing your net worth.
I think of a book I read to my 5-year-old called The Bear That Wasn’t (Frank Tashlin, 1946).
In the book, a bear wakes up from hibernation to discover that a factory has been built around him.
Without hesitation, the foreman grabs the bear and puts him to work.
Whenever the bear protests that he’s a bear, he is told that he is “a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat”.
After hearing this same statement from the entire hierarchy of executives in the factory, the bear decides that it must be true.
My proposed blog post feels a lot like that bear.
I listen to the kids giggling at Hallden’s new virtual pants.
They’re playing together and having fun, and at this moment there is nothing in the world more beautiful.
The music of their laughter takes me back to my youth.
It reminds me of the joy I felt so long ago at every vocabulary word I could make “my own”.
A couple years later, the same enchanted feeling returned when I got “hello world” to display in my first computer program (written in GW-BASIC!).
As an adult, things are more complicated.
The magic is now buried beneath objectives and outcomes, strategy and execution, much like the bear couldn’t be his authentic self at the factory.
In my attempts at being a good parent and changing my children’s perspective of the world, they’ve helped me change my own outlook on what’s important in life.
In a moment of inspiration that smells of chocolate-covered mints, I realize that I have the opportunity to continue where Ms. Saunders left off.
The true purpose of learning for a software engineer is not in collecting technology skills like trophies to move up on a virtual scoreboard.
It lives in the delight you get from ambling through the learning journey, finding unexpected surprises, and using your skills to make meaningful connections with others.
I turn my attention back to my laptop where I’m greeted by the familiar Pluralsight dashboard.
In an act of rebellion, I click on the search bar and type “scala” (a language my team doesn’t use).