Design Thinking Tackles A Three Headed Monster

The only way to tackle bold challenges is to accept them and dig into the real story. This is a reflection on how I engineered Design Sprints to help AFFORDABLE COLLEGE understand how to go after one of the biggest challenges facing America….. AN AFFORDABLE EDUCATION.

AFFORDABLE COLLEGE entered the Learn Launch Accelerator located in Boston Massachusetts with an ambitious goal “To disrupt the traditional path that many students take. One that leads them to lost credits and staggering debt”. How might we provide students with resources that allow them to obtain the cheapest and most efficient means to graduation?  Affordable College had focused in on helping Community College (2 Year Institutions) Students seek cheap paths to transfer in which they would not lose a large number of credits (See the problem here). At first glance that might seem like the clear path to start down but as “Presentation Day” quickly approached in January, AFC was starting to feel that they didn’t understand the whole problem.

Partnering with them we quickly realized that this problem didn’t deal with one user. It dealt with three: Students, Community Colleges & Four Year Institutions. Understanding one user or customer can be a challenge but when you have to tackle three it takes a dedicated commitment to suspend judgement and empathize.

We started our first sprint on a windy December Tuesday in Boston. Having flown in team members from across the country we dealt with a condensed schedule and the normal wrenches that go into any well planned Design Sprint (we were thrown out of one college and had to interview students as they boarded the train). We crafted a series of well thought out questions that tackled certain assumptions we had about how CC students looked at transfer, graduation, advisement, finances & work life balance. We met them where they were at inner city and suburban schools. Like most sprints, you quickly find out that your assumptions are usually off. We curated their stories that night and developed an array of personas to deal categorize their needs, wants, pains & gains. We targeted stories we wanted to dig deeper into and repeated the deep dive (iteration is a must). Day 3 led us to a long brainstorming session dealing with six key insights in 15-20 minute sprints. We crafted this brainstorming into a dozen opportunities for change and placed our different personas into storified pitches (we filmed it, it’s awesome and proprietary, sorry). We wrapped up the sprint with prototypes of different ideas ready for feedback from students over the next week and of course we finished our last meeting from a car as I was exiting to get on my return flight home. It wasn’t the finish line but it left the team invested in the lives of these students, a few team members decided to enroll in Bunker Hill Community College.


With an understanding of one side of the puzzle the team worked remotely across the country in January and February on an extended sprint. I tested change of behavior with students in Atlanta while product began refining concepts on multiple MVP’s. We then turned our eyes toward the needs of Community Colleges and Four Year Institutions. With Four Year Institutions I crafted relationships with industry mavericks such as Bridget Burns the Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance she directed me right down my own street to Georgia State University whose new student retention initiatives were netting the school $3 million for every 1% increase retention. The same story played out over and over again as we surveyed large schools in person and at conferences, enrollment and retention matter.

Our final piece of the puzzle was to bring the team back together this time in Atlanta for a week long sprint tackling the needs of Community Colleges. We had surveyed the country and through the experience of experts had painted a picture of what the ‘less progressive models’ looked like. We wanted to focus on an institution that was a leader in tackling the challenges that Two Year Institutions face and we took a deep dive into Chattahoochee Technical College. We spent two days interviewing leadership in all aspects of the school trying to understand where we could merge our students needs. We learned about a staff who every year has to do more with less resources and where they saw needs. Thanks to the support of the Cherokee County Economic Development team and their new innovation center partnership with the school we were able to immerse ourselves in the community as we curated and brainstormed (there is nothing better than being able to get rapid feedback by walking down the hall). We left the week with what Affordable Colleges leadership felt was an effective path to step into product and partnership development.

Affordable College‘s goal is epic, but they took the time to understand the problem from more than just one point of view. This saves resources in the long run and as they go forward I am excited to see what they do with the opportunity.





Design Thinking Tackles A Three Headed Monster

Take Aways From Atlanta NodeJS Meetup

Awesome time at my first NodeJS Atlanta Meetup. I was a much smaller group than they usually have so it allowed a lot of young developers to ask questions. Having only ran up simple NodeJS servers so far it was a great experience to hear from some who sit on the backend all the time. Here are a couple takeaways:

“As always this is for my sanity, not yours”


I dig Promises, they make things simple to understand. If something resolves .then() do this next thing. New work on Promises and ES6 HERE (not sure I understand it all).

Function currying is creating a function that takes # variables and creating a copy of that function that takes a different # of variables:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.51.11 AM


Yes, if we look at both currying and promises as guaranteeing something to be passed to the next function from a function that has finished executing (Closure).



Michael Gokey, Industry Veteran-

Fix a problem for me. Show me you can fix a problem I have in the interview. When you get in the door keep doing that for EVERYONE! The Business Dev guy had a $2 Million presentation on the line and his computer went down. Rather than shrug it off, I set him up on my computer. It took me off line for 3 hours, but I fixed a problem, helped him and I in the long run.

Also, there is a huge separation in opinions on the value of GitHUB with younger developers and hiring managers focusing on it and older developers not feeling that it has much value.



I enjoyed connecting afterwards with long time developers. Couple things on the list to check out:



Google Style Guide for JavaScript

Idiomatic JavaScript


Take Aways From Atlanta NodeJS Meetup

I’m In An Abusive Relationship: With Code Wars

Code Wars: “Hey Ryan, come here take this challenge…… you know you want to”.

Me: “You ruined my life! I hate you! But, okay, one more time.”

I am in an abusive relationship, with Code Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. But, as a younger developer it can be exhilarating or depressing experience. If you don’t know Code Wars is a website that allows people to tackle different coding challenges. I right now am a Level 5 hopefully soon to be a Level 4 (Level 1 is the best).

Some of the challenges are how might I say this? “Quite absurd” Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 12.02.52 AM

The amount of things I need to google in the picture above are astounding!

Though, completing these challenges is exhilarating, as a young programmer these can also be a bit confidence rabbit hole (imposter syndrome, no doubt), particularly when you have spent HOURS on a solution and compare it to others.

(node the code above, just an example)

Me: “4 hours, 37 lines of code”

Arsky8867: “2 lines of code, using .map() .filter() a ternary operator and a regular expression!”

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 12.12.28 AM

Seriously? What is this? This is voodoo?….. and I admire it.

“Unreadable code = bad code” yes, I’ve heard the pitch but as a newer coder and after taking hours of time I find this both frustrating and exciting.

I want more! More pain, please!

Ergo….. I am in an abusive relationship…. with Code Wars.


I’m In An Abusive Relationship: With Code Wars

Teach It So That You Understand It

It’s hard to understand new concepts let alone create with them. As a new developer there is always the feeling of drowning in information. I’ve been working on gaining a better understanding of concepts by teaching them to others.

Blooms Taxonomy tries to explain the different levels of comprehension that we have when dealing with a concept. It works really well when you think about developers, the best are working in open source creating, evaluating and analyzing.


Taking your understanding of a concept and teaching others is a great way of moving up this pyramid:

  1. Can you identify, recognize and explain this to others?
  2. Can you apply and demonstrate?
  3. Can you compare and contrast (callbacks vs promises?).

This is why Paired Coding and effective Mentorships work so well. It’s people working on this practice. Sometimes we find out we can CREATE but cannot EXPLAIN. When this happens we need to realize our gaps and work on them (I have plenty more gaps on the top of this pyramid).


Recently I have been jumping on Free Code Camps Gitter and offering to host Google Hangout lessons on concepts I am working on. The other night I showed people how to set up their first Nodejs server so they could work in a local environment. This week I am going to jump on and talk about “call backs” or maybe explain the “execution stack”. This isn’t about me being an expert, it’s about me demonstrating an understanding of concepts that will allow me to challenge myself through application and analysis.

This can help all of us (newer, new and old) developers by making us work through these phases of Blooms Taxonomy for true mastery.

Teach It So That You Understand It

Great Resources For Learning JavaScript

As a former teacher and coach and someone who is probably about 1500 hours back into development (lets not count college) I have a certain way of learning things. I need to really understand what is going on not just at the syntax level but the processes behind it if I am going to feel comfortable with it. Here are 3 resources that will change the way you look at JavaScript:

JavaScript Understanding the Weird Parts by Anthony Alicea

1000 hours in I had no clue what the “Execution Stack” was or how a “Closure” really worked. This changed the way I thought about code by making me think about how the engine worked. It’s $30 on Udemy and worth it.

You Don’t Know JS by Kyle Simpson

After digging through Anthony’s work I jumped into Kyle’s 6 (yes I said 6) books on JavaScript. One day I will meet Kyle, he will not know me but, I may just hug him (or buy him a beer). You could buy these or you could realize he is a walking saint and visit the GitHub page to access all of them.

All IT Ebooks

This one may be the best and worst resource you ever use. It’s hundreds upon hundreds of dev ebooks. Where do you even start?

Great Resources For Learning JavaScript


Authoritarianism: Is not a government. A government can be authoritarian, any type of government using any type of economic system. It is a social psychology concept that many historians have used to identify certain groups throughout history and behavioral economists and marketers have studied.  People need to understand where they fit in society. They set a few concepts about themselves and identify those in others eg “I’m better than that person because……., They are the reason you have problems ……. (insert difference)”. We all do it to some degree. In our minds there are good guys and bad guys. We like rules and to be the hero.

Authoritarianism is when a leader starts using differences of others to unite a large group of people. They promise strength in numbers and solutions based on the defeat of the bad guy. People want to feel important and they want to feel strong. “The bad guys are trying to get US”. People love this.  A major problem of this is that many of our values (or what we are willing to do) are based off of what an Authority told us was ok (eg Mom, Teacher, Minister, Government, the group). So for a group of great law abiding citizens to all of a sudden do something ridiculous such as rioting after winning the World Series can come down to just two things: 1. What’s the group thinking. 2. What is the Authority letting us do. We think differently as a group. Think about Paul martyring Stephen or mobs burning people at the stake (at the time no one they placed in authority told them it was wrong and the group acted).

Authoritarian leaders are scary. They find a group of people and build their confidence with promises of strength and greatness but only if they stick together. They then give those people targets to compare themselves to usually, a few internally and a few externally. They leverage the group think. It’s great marketing / propaganda. This group will many times become confrontational with anyone who questions them because, you are not attacking an issue, you are attacking who they are and many times they embrace a simple slogan as a reminder. There is no doubt, that if enough people were to read this post, someone will post an attack that seams just a bit too personal, they are going to feel that this is a personal attack on them. What could happen when they are protected by a group and see who might be the solution to their problem?

These leaders don’t need to say go attack this or that person. All they have to say is, “That wouldn’t be the worst idea” or “wow back in my day I would have..” or “he’s not being nice to me, I wonder what we should do”. All groups need in order to do some things that are not normal is to have the Authority say it’s okay.

The group becomes bigger because people conform for the same reasons people united in the first place a fear and a love of strength. So when you say that you can’t be part of Authoritarianism because you believe in Democracy you are wrong. You’ve been told that you are strong and with your group you will be stronger “or Great”, we just have to stick together! You’ve been told who the bad guys are and they could in no way be just like you, they are beneath you. You’ve been told that it is okay to not like them “pc for hate”. At some point other people will conform “and many already have, maybe I will one day because of fear”.

Here is the issue, when you sell this the mob is going to start to get hungry. They are going to want to see resolution to the problems (enemies) the Authoritarian pointed to. He can’t take that back, what you bought was that “you are only strong because you are united against the bad guy”. He’s going to have to let the mob hunt, defeat the bad guys “maybe down the street”. You are being sold that your problems are not your fault, how could they be? We bemoan that this and that are the scary moment in history (24 hour news sensationalization doesn’t help) but, this might be. We are not being sold policies or theories or ideologies. We are being sold bad guys and good guys, “haven’t you always wanted to be the HERO?”. We are being sold this person is stupid and this person is awful and you or he should never apologize for anything because, “what is there to apologize for, you are Strong and Great!”

Think about this, today, Mr. Trump released his health care plan. It’s standard like basically all other health care plans (this is really not a health care debate piece). He couldn’t finish without pointing people towards the bad guy, illegal immigrants. How can 3-5% increases in health costs per year be the result of less than 0.03% of the population? Maybe that is the solution, I don’t know. “If only they weren’t around” everything would be okay. What happens when health care prices continue to rise and illegal immigrants are gone? Who will he blame next? This is the game, it is a mix of social norms (illegal immigrants should not be here because that is the rule) and blame ( you need to blame someone for your problem).

Probably the scariest part, is conformity. It’s really hard to get the majority of people to buy into anything. But, it doesn’t take the majority, just an impassioned minority and an un-vocal majority. The scary part of the book / show Man In The High Castle is not that the United States was conquered, it’s how easily society conformed. At some point in history, many of this countries core belief were considered non-conformity.

It has nothing to do with governmental or economical theory. It has cursed all faiths at some point. It has affected Saints and school children. Good people throughout history have made bad choices because of this concept. In the wrong situation I can do bad things and make bad choices and in my heart I believe that I am a good person.

Good people, any, can go astray. Maybe even us.