Kids have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. I would estimate that all of us with children have had them go through a phase of asking “Why?” constantly. In truth, it often comes at the most inconvenient moment for a parent; like when the world is literally going to explode unless your child puts down the green marker pen, and instead of doing it, they just look up at you and ask “Why?” I was no different. I went through the “Why?” phase. My daughter has been through it and my nephew is going through it right now.
The other day, while I was finishing explaining the merits of good bug reports to my daughter (she’s 7, by the way) I started remembering some of the things that my dad explained to me when I was a kid. Truth be told, these moments are some of the best memories I have as a child. Those, and when mum would give us a catalog from a store and my sister and I would cut it up into “confetti” and throw it round the lounge, (sorry mum). I remember on Boxing Day one year going out for a walk in the cold winter air and my dad telling me about how much a Wren needed to eat a day to survive the winter. I remember asking him about nuclear fission and fusion and him answering as best he could about all the crazy scenarios that I came up with.
As I grew up, I had the opportunity to mentor some 15 and 16 year old students as they did their work experience week. I remember a discussion I had with one student about “the best job in the world;” one with NO downsides. I told him it didn’t exist, that every job had downsides. He was adamant he’d find one. After going through 10-20 standard jobs and finding something undesirable in all of them, he decided to go a little further a field. He decided that a Zombie killer would be the best job in the world. “No downsides, right?” he said, “You just get to kill zombies all day.” I asked him if he had seen any of the Resident Evil films and if he thought Alice looked particularly happy during them. He told me that she didn’t and then proceeded to tell me how he would vanquish all the zombies in a few weeks, by retrofitting parts to a plane and flying it all over the world.
I laughed, then came that all too familiar question: Why? Instead of telling him that I didn’t think the idea had any merit, I took the opportunity to go through some back of the envelope calculations with him about the size of the earth, its surface area, how much of the earth was water, how fast the particular plane he had chosen flew, and how wide the wingspan was. What was interesting was that instead of being deflated because his idea didn’t hold up, as each part of the calculation slotted into place, he learned things he never even knew about the world, and about ancient military aircraft.
I’m privileged to be able to walk my daughter to school, and on one particular journey home from school she asked me, “Daddy, what did you do at work today?” I was tired. There was a part of me that just wanted to say, “I worked on the computer sweetie, just like every day.” Instead, I remembered my parents, and how they had always taken the time to explain difficult concepts to me in ways I could understand.
I told her I was trying to figure out the answer to a problem. Of course, the response was, “What was the problem daddy?” She was 6 at the time. Should I really delve into the problems of virtualization with a 6 year old? Well, as it happens, yes I did. “Imagine,” I said, “you have a lunchbox…” What was funny was that whilst I was explaining the analogy, my daughter solved the problem for me INSIDE the analogy. Who was it that said kids couldn’t understand things like enterprise virtualization?
I urge all of you who are parents, teachers, youth leaders, or any other role where you get to interact with children and youngsters not to shy away from explaining the difficult concepts. Use every “why” as an opportunity to share knowledge. Though our reasons for holding back are rarely to keep the knowledge to ourselves and much more likely because we are tired, I can’t express to you how happy it makes a child to learn something new. Something that they didn’t think they would be able to understand. Something you didn’t think they’d be able to understand. Those moments may very well turn out to be some of their most memorable childhood moments. Fostering a knowledge sharing environment at home is an exceedingly healthy thing to do.
When children grow up in an information-sharing rich environment, open source methodologies make sense to them. I can honestly say that the freedom with which my parents explained things to me had a massive impact on my drive to get involved with open source projects and tools. It was natural to me to share information to “give back” to the people that helped me out. Whilst I was at a previous job, I wrote a book about Git in my spare time, Git In The Trenches. When I told some of my work colleagues what I had done, they all wanted to know how much I was selling it for. “Selling it?” I said quizzically, “It’s online right now for free!” After an initial explosion of comments like: “You’re mad!” and “You could make lots of money from that!” they finally understood that ingrained in me was an innate desire to share the information I had with others to help them do their jobs better.
I want to say a big thank you to my parents for always taking the time to answer my every “Why?” Unknowingly, they fostered a desire in me which has had a considerable impact in my career. I would estimate that every job I have held (bar one), my passion for open source and sharing information gave me a unique advantage. So “why” not try it out today? Next time someone asks you why? Share!