How Going Meta Can Level Up Your Career

Note: This is a post that I’ve been sit­ting on for a few years. It was one of the last posts I was work­ing on for my ca­reer coach­ing busi­ness be­fore I ended that busi­ness to start some­thing higher im­pact.
Due to that, the tone isn’t ex­actly crafted for LW, how­ever I still think that it’s great in­stru­men­tal ad­vice for lev­el­ing up your ca­reer, and a re­cent thread with Romeo Stevens con­vinced me that LWers might get some­thing from it.

I think I’ve de­vel­oped a good heuris­tic for how awe­some a his­tor­i­cal figure was—the more nick­names they had, the more awe­some they were. And by that heuris­tic, John Boyd was pretty damn awe­some. Known as 40-Se­cond-Boyd, he could defeat any pi­lot who came to the mil­i­tary train­ing academy he worked at within 40 sec­onds. Later, he came to be known as the Mad Ma­jor, Genghis John, The Ghetto Colonel, and more. And ev­ery one of those nick­names has a story be­hind it. He’s a fas­ci­nat­ing guy, and there are an in­cred­ible amount of ca­reer les­sons you can learn from him.(I highly recom­mend you pick up this bi­og­ra­phy of him.) The one that jumped out most starkly is the pat­tern that Boyd ex­hibited through­out his ca­reer that al­lowed him to con­sis­tently progress.

The Four Phases of Boyd’s Career

Boyd The Fighter Pilot

In phase one of Boyd’s ca­reer, he was a fighter pi­lot for the US mil­i­tary. Boyd fo­cused on learn­ing ev­ery tac­tic to perfec­tion; he learned the limits of the air­craft and used those limits to perform tech­niques never be­fore con­sid­ered. He be­came a mas­ter at the craft of dogfight­ing. Boyd be­came so good at push­ing the air­craft to it’s limits that he de­vel­oped a strat­egy that al­lowed him to beat any challenger that came to his train­ing academy in 40 sec­onds or less. This was how he came to be known as 40-Se­cond-Boyd.

Boyd The Tactician

In the sec­ond phase of Boyd’s ca­reer, he took ev­ery­thing he learned about the tech­niques he mas­tered, and asked him­self an ab­stract ques­tion: why do I use cer­tain skills at cer­tain times? And what he found was that he could cre­ate a set of rules for the tac­tics he was us­ing, a re­peat­able pro­cess that any­one could use to choose the cor­rect tac­tic for the situ­a­tion at hand. He be­came so profi­cient at dogfight­ing strat­egy that pi­lots from other mil­i­tary branches would at­tend the academy just to learn from Boyd—some­thing nearly un­heard of in the tightly siloed US mil­i­tary. He dis­til­led all of this knowl­edge into a small, less than 200 page man­ual called “Arial At­tack Study”, which is still con­sid­ered the bible of dogfight­ing to this day.

Boyd the Mathematician

In the third phase of Boyd’s ca­reer, he took ev­ery­thing he learned about these tac­tics and asked him­self an ab­stract ques­tion: why do cer­tain strate­gies work as effec­tive coun­ters to other tac­tics? He couldn’t an­swer with his cur­rent knowl­edge, so he kept it in the back of his mind, and went back to school for ad­vanced math. One day while work­ing with a tu­tor, Boyd had a break­through. He re­al­ized that all the tac­tics he was us­ing could be quan­tified as try­ing to get to a point where your air­plane had more po­ten­tial en­ergy than your op­po­nent. He de­vel­oped a new the­ory called En­ergy-Ma­neu­ver­abil­ity The­ory and tweaked it to perfec­tion. He so mas­tered the the­ory that he was able to look at air­craft de­signs from man­u­fac­tur­ers and in­tu­itively see how these de­signs would perform. He even­tu­ally cre­ated a se­ries of color coded charts, that al­low the perfor­mance of any air­plane to be com­pared to the perfor­mance of any other air­plane, in an in­tu­itive way. Boyd’s charts are still in use by man­u­fac­tur­ers and mil­i­taries to this day.

Boyd the Strategist

In the fi­nal phase of Boyd’s ca­reer, he took ev­ery­thing he knew about en­ergy and dogfight­ing and asked him­self a new ab­stract ques­tion—why do lower en­ergy dogfight­ing ma­neu­vers beat higher en­ergy ones, and how does that ap­ply to an over­all strat­egy of war? This was a ques­tion that he couldn’t an­swer at his cur­rent level of ex­per­tise, so he kept it in the back of his mind, and cre­ated a broad ed­u­ca­tion for him­self con­sist­ing of philos­o­phy, sci­ence, an mil­i­tary the­ory. One day, while read­ing a pas­sage from a fa­mous mil­i­tary strate­gist, he had a break through. He re­al­ized that all of mil­i­tary strat­egy could be un­der­stood as a race against the other side to get the most com­plete un­der­stand­ing of the bat­tle, and act upon it—this was analagous to one pi­lot gain­ing a po­ten­tial en­ergy ad­van­tage over an­other in a dogfight. He gained such a deep un­der­stand­ing of mil­i­tary strat­egy that he was called upon to give briefings around the coun­try, to offi­cials far above his rank. He even­tu­ally dis­til­led his knowl­edge into a sim­ple di­a­gram called the OODA Loop, which showed how speed, un­der­stand­ing, and ac­tion worked to­gether to cre­ate the con­di­tions of vic­tory.Note that Boyd didn’t stop there, he went on to de­velop an en­tire on­tol­ogy of ware­fare, as well as an un­der­stand­ing of HOW he was able to make these cre­ative loops—Boyd just kept go­ing meta.

The ALID Loop- The Four Step Pat­tern to Ad­vanc­ing Your Career

The speci­fics of Boyd’s ca­reer are in­ter­est­ing, but some­thing I find even more fas­ci­nat­ing is the con­sis­tent pat­tern he ex­hibited that al­lowed him to ad­vance from one phase to the next. It’s a pat­tern that can be seen in the ca­reers of most great men and women through­out his­tory, but rarely as starkly as it’s rep­re­sented in the ca­reer of John Boyd. It’s a pro­cess that you too can use to achieve un­fath­omable heights in your ca­reer.The pat­tern is a sim­ple four step pro­cess, which in­volves ask­ing why, learn­ing new dis­ci­plines, in­ter­nal­iz­ing your un­der­stand­ing, then dis­till­ing your re­sults. I’m go­ing to name this pro­cess the ALID loop, as an homage to John Boyd’s legacy.

Ab­strac­tion—The Pro­cess of Ask­ing Why

In stage one, you’ll have already mas­tered ev­ery­thing at you’re cur­rent level of un­der­stand­ing, and you’ll start to won­der what comes next. As you start to ex­am­ine what you already know, you’ll be­gin to see that maybe there’s a pat­tern un­der­ly­ing what you do—a pat­tern that you know is there, but is just out of reach. This knowl­edge will even­tu­ally crys­tal­lize into a ques­tion that drives sub­se­quent re­search—a why ques­tion. This ques­tion will help you ex­plore your field in a more ab­stract way.

Learn­ing—The Pro­cess of Exploration

Once you’ve de­vel­oped your burn­ing ques­tion, you need to start search­ing where there might be an­swers. But as Ein­stein noted, “We can­not solve our prob­lems at the same level we cre­ated them.” In the con­text of your ca­reer, that means that in or­der to ad­vance, you’ll have to ex­plore out­side the con­fines of skills tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with your ca­reer, and think out­side the box to find an­swers. Start look­ing out­side the im­me­di­ate skills you’ve learned, and ex­plor­ing re­lated fields that might hold the an­swers you seek. This is of­ten a good time to con­sult with men­tors who might point you in the right di­rec­tion. Or if you’re ex­plor­ing a ques­tion that has never been asked be­fore in your field, you’ll have to start re­search­ing widely, and trust your in­tu­itions to hone in on the ar­eas that hold the an­swers.

In­ter­nal­iza­tion—The Pro­cess of Mastery

As you con­tinue to ex­plore new fields, you’ll soon be­gin to see hints of an an­swer to your ques­tion. But, you’re not done yet. You’re not done un­til you so un­der­stand your new skills and have prac­ticed them such that they be­come sec­ond na­ture. This pro­cess of in­ter­nal­iz­ing the skill is some­times called “Un­con­scious Com­pe­tence”, based on the four stage model of com­pe­tence. John Boyd also had a word for this in his work on mil­i­tary strat­egy. He called it “Finger­spitzengefühl” (liter­ally trans­lated: finger feel).

Distil­la­tion—The Pro­cess of Mak­ing Your Work Accesible

Once you’ve de­vel­oped your Finger­spitzengefühl (I just re­ally wanted to say that word again), you’ll reach the most im­por­tant step for ad­vanc­ing to the next phase of your ca­reer. You’ll need to dis­till your work into an ac­cessible, easy to use for­mat that oth­ers can use—Even if they don’t have your mas­tery of the topic. This of­ten in­volves cre­at­ing clear pro­cesses and pat­terns that oth­ers can fol­low, and giv­ing things easy to re­mem­ber names such as the OODA loop. It also means de­vel­op­ing metaphors, sto­ries and vi­su­als that can be un­der­stood by any­one. Often, this stage in­volves a legacy pro­ject—a train­ing, video, book, or pre­sen­ta­tion that takes all your dis­til­led knowl­edge and puts it into one place. This stage is cru­cial for two rea­sons. Firstly, it es­tab­lishes you as an ex­pert in the field and gives you the ac­cess you need to con­tinue to ad­vance in your ca­reer. Se­condly, it al­lows oth­ers to take over the niche that you once held, giv­ing you the time needed to start the ALID loop over again, at an even deeper level of ab­strac­tion.

How does this look in a more typ­i­cal ca­reer??

You may be won­der­ing how this ap­plies to you right now—maybe you’re not look­ing to change an en­tire in­dus­try, you just want to ad­vance in your ca­reer to the best of your abil­ity. To an­swer that ques­tion, we’ll look at the typ­i­cal ca­reer of a soft­ware de­vel­oper, mov­ing from a ju­nior de­vel­oper to a mid-level de­vel­oper. We’ll quote liber­ally from this post by Jared Faris, which gives a great overview of the differ­ences be­tween a ju­nior, mid-level, and se­nior de­vel­oper.

A—Ab­stract­ing From a Ju­nior Developer

Be­fore you you’re ready to move from ju­nior to mid-level de­vel­oper, you have to gain un­con­scious com­pe­tence at get­ting the com­puter to do what you want it do.In Jared’s Words:

Most re­ally good ju­nior devs are just dis­cov­er­ing how awe­some it is to make some­thing they can in­ter­act with. They get ex­cited about tac­ti­cal prob­lem solv­ing...

Once you’ve got­ten re­ally good about the tac­ti­cal prob­lem solv­ing, you’ll be­gin to de­velop a burn­ing ques­tion: Why should I make the com­puter do differ­ent things?

A mid-level dev shouldn’t have lost his or her pas­sion for build­ing things by any means, but that de­vel­oper should start see­ing the big pic­ture.

L—Learn­ing the Skills a Mid-Level Devel­oper Needs

Once you’ve be­gin to de­velop you’re burn­ing ques­tion, you’ll need to go out­side the ba­sics of what­ever pro­gram­ming frame­work you’re work­ing with, and fo­cus on the larger skil­lset that can help you this ques­tion. This might in­volve sev­eral things such as...Test Driven Devel­op­ment:

A ju­nior de­vel­oper doesn’t know what TDD is. A mid-level de­vel­oper wants to TDD ev­ery­thing,

and Ba­sic Busi­ness Sense:

Mid-level de­vel­op­ers start think­ing about busi­ness prob­lems and no longer see ev­ery­thing as a code prob­lem. They re­al­ize solv­ing prob­lems is what we do, not writ­ing code.

as they get bet­ter at these things, they’ll start to move into the next stage.

I—In­ter­nal­iz­ing The Skills of a Midlevel Developer

In­ter­al­iz­ing the skills of a Mid-level de­vel­oper is about tak­ing those skills and figur­ing out ex­actly when and how they’re needed to solve the challenge at hand. In­stead of us­ing all your toolset all the time, as you be­gin to in­ter­nal­ize, you’ll know when to use the right tool for the job. Jared again:

Th­ese [mid-level] de­vel­op­ers are in­cred­ibly valuable to a team with a se­nior per­son who can keep them fo­cused and en­gaged. Without this fo­cus, they tend to overdo ev­ery­thing.

After they’ve got­ten good at know­ing when and how to ap­ply their ex­per­tise, mid-level de­vel­op­ers can move onto the fi­nal step.

D—Distill­ing The Les­sons You Learned

Once you’ve mas­tered the skills you need to be Mid-level de­vel­oper, you’ll be­gin to hand off some of the ba­sic grunt work to ju­nior de­vel­op­ers. But, as Jared points in the di­a­gram be­low, that isn’t enough. You’ll need to help guide those ju­nior de­vel­op­ers, just as you were guided on your path to be­com­ing a mid-level de­vel­oper.

What now?

To­day, I want you to di­ag­nose where ex­actly you are in the ALID loop. Have you asked your­self an ab­stract ques­tion to fur­ther your think­ing? Have you started to learn what you need to in­ter­nal­ize that ques­tion? Have you dis­til­led the les­sons you learned into some­thing that oth­ers can use?