I am now ~3 weeks into my internship with AppFolio and it has been an absolute blast. Learning how to learn better has been a big part of that. It also helps that the company loves its interns (as well as its employees in general, earning recognition as one of the Best Places to Work in 2016).

During my first week, one of the tech leads taught me the approach of learning through steady escalation. The idea is simple, but not always discovered or taught before internships:

Learn through struggle on your own, then ask for help after enough time.

For example, let’s say we’ve been asked to join an existing private repository on GitHub. If someone has never used GitHub before (but has used git locally), this means:

  1. Setting up a new GitHub account

  2. Learning the git commands that interact with the network: pull, push, etc.

  3. Generating and using a new SSH key

  4. Cloning down the repo

  5. Checking out a new feature branch

  6. Setting that damn upstream

  7. Finally making and committing changes before pushing them up

Not knowing how to any one of these things along the way is absolutely normal and even expected. But struggling through every “I don’t know” means:

In short, chasing down a problem leads to a treasure trove of:

  • Tutorials
  • Documentation
  • New concepts
  • New tools

And crucially, becoming better at reading and learning the above.

That said, being stuck for an inordinate amount of time is a blackhole to productivity. The quickest solution is to ask a mentor for help. At the same time, if we pester our mentors too often, we bog down their own productivity as they context-switch to assist. So how do we balance learning through solo struggles and from spending time with an experienced guide?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb, suggested by that same tech lead:

Try it for 30 minutes, then go get help.

When we seek help after that initial period, we’re learning with aid and working smartly.

So, the benefits of learning through steady escalation:

  1. We learn (much) more
  2. Our mentors’ productivity remains higher
  3. We get more done in less time

Try it today.