A dope quality engineer, an insight into how work processes could be

Start: St. Louis NASA Engineer Uses Hip-Hop To Get People Interested In Math And Science, St. Louis on the Air (2020-05-15)

This episode of St. Louis on the Air roped me in because I saw "St. Louis" and "NASA engineer" in the title, and I thought: oh that's an option? I could work at NASA in St. Louis? Not true. It's about Dajae Williams, a quality engineer at JPL who claims to be the dopest person to ever work at NASA. That is such a hard sell to convince me that any QE could be dope, but after listening to the episode, I believe it. But just this one.

What does she do? It's out of control. She has a series of hip-hop songs that teach math. It's amazing. I can't go into the specifics about how using hip-hop works for delivering educational information because I don't really understand it. Outside of Del or Blue Scholars, it's mostly a blind spot as a format for me. In addition to this episode, which you should listen to, here are a few other articles/podcasts that go into her and her style:

But the interesting part to me isn't the consumption side but the creation side. From the initially referenced podcast:

[2:33] My math teacher asked us to write a song about the quadratic formula as one of our assignments. I came back with this rap song that everybody loved, but I noticed that I didn't have to just stick with that assignment, I could apply this to some of my other topics. And they didn't all come out like a full song, like the quadratic formula did. It would just be little things, if I needed to remember a word, I would sing it in a certain way so that when I'm in a test I think of that jingle, and boom, I have the answer. I found a way to help my mind remember things that I couldn't 'cos we were overloaded with information.

From this point on I'm going to crank the wheel into work processes. Feel free to open the door and jump out here.

The approach Dajae describes, writing songs to remember information, is a kids-only enterprise, right? It's ok for kids to sing songs to remember how to solve the quadratic formula, etc. But when you grow up (whatever that means), you're supposed to act like an adult (whatever that means) [1]. No song for you—especially at work. Your job is to know the content, or at least the methods, in dry, impersonal, objective terms.

How does one come to know the content? The choice of learning is often PowerPoint presentations at your desk, or PowerPoint presentations read to you by a trainer. The choice of repository for the content is often a novelesque process document, created for the purposes of compliance with a standard first, and your ability to use the info second.

Not to give away the plot, but: I hate all that.

There's Got To Be a Better Way™.

I don't see why Dajae's approach shouldn't work at work. But here's the catch. Work processes [2] have to be written differently to accommodate that. But here's the catch. Work processes are wrong in their current format, and if they were written correctly they would already be set up to be mapped to their hip-hop format.

I'm serious. I get extremely cranky about being given a 120-page document at work that's supposed to tell me how to do my job, but requires me to interpret badly written information, information split across the document, overly-verbose information, and sometimes just plain wrong information (often because of the prior three points). Processes are just software for humans. Meaning: (1) input → (2) function → (3) output. You (1) take these things, (2) do something, and (3) give these things at the end. It's a function—rather, should be a function. Instead it's gobbledygook. It's inhuman, inhumane.

But if processes were a model—a function—then you could map that model to boring ol' documents, into a song, into whatever you wanted to map it to. You could allow the user to manipulate the thing so that they could understand it, could feel it and remember it—instead of just punishing them with it. The underlying functions would be a Fact, and how individuals understood that fact could be free to imagine, so long as they represented the Fact correctly.

Sorry. That was something of a detour from the original point. I could go on about the casual incivility of work processes, but not here. But I think here's the bridge between the first and second part of the post: you need someone like Dajae to look at the old things in a different way, to do it their way, to see those hidden possibilities right in front of you that were invisible before—very different from what you were expecting, but very much solving the problem you were trying to solve.


[1] "When you grow up, your heart dies."

[2] Speaking only for aerospace here. Your mileage may vary. I'm not saying you should give the FAA your mixtape. You really should use the Boring Ol' Documents view of your model for this.

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