podcast August 18, 2020

Podcast 261: Leveling up with Personal Development Nerds

A daring discussion about habit formation, maximizing your potential, and who the most powerful X-Men truly is.
Avatar for Ben Popper
Director of Content

Episode Summary

This week we chat with Juvoni Beckford, a software engineer at Google and founder of the Personal Development Nerds group. Juvoni talks about video games, and the escape they provided for him during the challenging circumstances of his childhood. From there, he moves into online guilds, hardware, coding, and eventually a life dedicated to engineering, both the programming and personal variety.

Episode Notes

Juvoni describes himself as someone who helps people explore ideas and strategies for improvement. He focuses on combining multiple skills, better thinking and tools for thought, inner engineering healthy habits, and discovering how systems in the world affect us.

You can follow him on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/juvoni

You can join the Personal Development Nerds Facebook group here:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/pdnerds/

The PDNerds discord server can be joined at www.pdn.community

Find Juvoni’s book recommendations on his site: www.juvoni.com/books

He can be contacted at juvoni@hey.com

If you are or know a Black software engineer, you can recommend that they join /dev/color, a community dedicated to helping black software engineers empower each other to become industry leaders.
http://devcolor.org/

Transcript

Juvoni Beckford I think like the engineering field gives you so many superpowers to be able to decompose problems. I think there is a dynamic of being interested in things as opposed to people. But because I was, I started people centric with the engineering mindset in an environment where I was very socially isolated so that made me focus on mindfulness and introspection. So I combined these things of needing to develop myself personally, needing to develop mindfulness and needing to solve problems.

[INTRO MUSIC]

Ben Popper Couchbase is a SQL friendly, multi-cloud to edge, noSQL database, architected on top of an opensource foundation. Join them at Connect.Online, their two day virtual technical conference for developers that has over 60 deep dive sessions, where you can learn about Coucbase, hone your application development skills, and network with peers and tech experts. Ready to develop your path? Register for Connect today and learn more at Couchbase.com/DevelopYourPath.

BP Hello, good morning, and welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast. And I’m Ben popper, director of content here at Stack Overflow along with my wonderful co-hosts, Paul and Sara. Good morning, y’all.

Sara Chipps Hey Ben!

Paul Ford Good…morning.

BP Hi, Paul. Hi, Sara. So Sara, you brought on a terrific guest today I’d love for you to introduce and we can start chatting.

SC Yes. I am excited today to welcome my friend Juvoni Beckford, who’s an engineer at Google and also runs an amazing group that I’m a part of called the Personal Development nerds. Welcome, Juvoni.

JB Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me. 

PF Personal Development Nerds, start there. So we have our bearings, what’s happening there?

01:51 

JB Sure. So the naming, of course, is very literal. The group started back in 2015. It originally was the result of a trip to Iceland. So I randomly took a trip to Iceland on two days notice after I left my first technical consulting job, and on that trip, I met 10 other amazing individuals, and we ran our own mini-unconference, and at that unconference people were suggesting their own agenda, etc. And through that, we realized that, wow, this is something that should happen more regularly. How can we bring together people that are trying to share information and knowledge on a more regular basis and so that that’s when we started the Facebook group. And eventually we started having Town Hall events and then the community blossomed from there.

BP Cooool.

PF Okay, the way you described that it sounds like you went to Iceland, and you just kind of ran into 10 people and we’re like, hey, or was the plan to go to Iceland? 

SC Let’s have an unconference!

BP They were all there to decompress. And then they decided to work on personal development instead.

JB No so how that Iceland trip started, I have a friend in San Francisco who was originally going to go to Iceland, it was supposed to be a two person trip. My friend from San Francisco is going to go to Iceland with his girlfriend. They broke up and so now he had an extra ticket. And then he invited one person that inspires him. And then he asks that person to invite one person that inspired them. So it started this daisy chain reaction of invitations until they got to like seven people. And then after that, they were like, okay, we’re gonna throw up an application to just cast a wider net and see who comes and so I was like, number of 11 and the application was closed by that point, and I tweeted at the organizer, to be like, Hey, I know it’s closed. But would you mind just taking a look at my application? And then he, the trip was on a Tuesday, he said yes, Monday night. And so I quickly research found Wow Air, saw that Wow Air had like a one ticket left. Once I realized that it was out of Boston, and I’m based in New York, so I had to catch like, a 5am Greyhound bus from New York to Boston to go to Iceland with these people who I don’t know, on like a day and a half notice after I just quit my job. 

04:11 

SC Wow, that is wild. 

PF Help us understand. Is this like a normal, intense activity for you? Or was this really out of keeping like, were you surprising yourself? Or were you just like nah, to hell with it, let’s go.

JB Yes. And no. No in that this was one of my first times leaving the country in like six years. I’m very domestically anchored. And so traveling with random people haven’t met to an international countries is definitely outside of the normal zone for me. And then so that’s the answering the No. The yes is that I constantly look for areas in my life, where there I’m just hovering in my comfort zone for too long, and I try to break through those walls. And so this was just a textbook example of an opportunity that I could just take a chance and see what happens, but I’m definitely not an impulsive individual. I’m very risk calculated and methodical. So I think there was some balanced opportunities with this event. I took the risk.

BP So personal development, can you define that for us? Like when you got there to Iceland? Was that what everyone else wanted to work on? Or how did that become sort of the core of what this group formed around and what is personal development mean? Like when I hear that I think of that can mean a million things in sort of like a self help kind of way, a physical kind of way, exercise for an engineer learning a new language, like what is personal development means And how did that become the focus for this group in Iceland?

05:34 

JB Yeah, so the group in Iceland was very diverse in interests and backgrounds. Some people were interested in Magic, certain people were engineers, some people were content marketers. Certain people were nomadic world travelers. So there were a wide range of backgrounds. And it was more so of I have this trick, do you want to see it? And so everyone was their own unique magician, in a way, showing them a different aspect of their world. And in the context of personal development, that was one area that I chose to introduce to the group. And there were other people on a similar wavelength. But for me, personal development is rooted in how can I find out what problems I’m facing going through the world and how can I develop myself to be capable to overcome those obstacles? So fundamentally, personal development is need-based for me, as opposed to curiosity base or insecurity rooted, it has been a constant life’s journey, I grew up in the Bronx raised by a single mom. And if I didn’t improve, the world would have ate me alive. Pretty much. And so personal development, to me has become a way to reduce the suffering that I had experienced in my own like childhood and become a better person and a stronger person to help other people.

SC I’ve heard you describe it as having an engineering mindset and turning that inward. Do you feel like that’s kind of a skill that you developed when you were young? And then realize that this now applied to a field that you’re interested in? How do you think that evolution happened?

JB Yeah, so engineering wasn’t a normal phrasing that I had in my head. To me it was I thought in terms of problems, and I thought in terms of breaking down problems, and I thought in terms of piecing together things, so I was also a little kid that loves to play with Lego blocks, and I know that this seems to be a common trait among tinkerers. And growing up in the Bronx, they were just so few resources around, it was almost like I was in a time loop as well, because the culture and the environment was very small, enclosed the world unto itself, especially in the ghetto and the projects. And I had to learn how to be very creative with those few resources. And so I think that created a natural environment for me to awaken an engineering mindset. And so how that resulted in was okay, how do we go about making food last long, because we don’t have enough money to buy food. So my mom was very creative in how she should tragically bought things at the grocery store, how she cut them, how she reuse them. And that was also in terms of like, how we got around and how we traveled. So it’s really about being resourceful and figuring out how to overcome problems. And then eventually, as I got more involved with technology and the catalysts was through games. So I was a big fan of Sims, Age of Empires, RuneScape, Guild Wars, a lot of these like massive multiplayer games, where I got exposed to bots, and like creating bots to farm resources. And that was kind of my mini education on not only technology, but economics and communication and the global dynamic of the world. And so my little globe of the ghetto and living in the hood became a much bigger world when I was playing with players from France, Germany, Italy, and all over the world. So my mind began to expand as I like just had fun playing games. 

BP Were you part of any clans? Or were you actually able to, as you were saying, sort of like turn that gaming into maybe making money on the side you know, digital gold farming and then selling it on the secondary market.

JB I can neither confirm nor deny [Ben & Sara laugh] that I participated in any sort of Goldstein But uh I was i was a part of multiple clans in RuneScape and in Guild Wars as part of groups. I was even I made my way to tournaments. And I was in this it for Guild Wars I was in this major tournament. And halfway through the tournament, I was playing the monk of all things. So if you’re familiar with the monk class or the healer class is a very, very central role. And so I was playing a monk on a very rickety computer, and my computer crashed halfway through my team got wiped out, they kicked me out the guild.

SC Ohhh heartbreaking!

PF Ohhh they kicked you out of the guild?!

10:08 

SC What a lack of empathy.

JB That I was like, you know what I’m done with games. And I quit games for like a year, then just stop everything. And then I kind of went back to RuneScape after that year, because like, no, at that point, I had to wait until time passed where people forgot me and Guild Wars because I kind of had like a big brand name so my reputation was ruined. as being the monk that like lag, lagged out during tournament.

BP They should have sent you a new computer. Forget about kicking you out.

JB Yeah, right?

SC Yeah! 

PF RuneScape is rough in there.

JB Oh yeah, especially in RuneScape. There’s like this element called the wild or the wilderness where it’s the becomes this PvP zone and lagging in the wild where if you die, you basically shed all your equipment and armor that can take months or years that’s happened to me. And I was during those phases, I had to get better at just like making my computer work. And I my family didn’t have enough money to buy a computer. So we got donated computers by just nonprofits in the area. But there were so like, less than a gig of RAM. So slow CPU filled with viruses. So I had to basically try to reverse engineer the computer just to get it to work to play games. And that’s when I learned about the kernel. That’s when I learned about operating systems, networking, how to reduce latency and stuff. I became essentially a hacker because I needed to get my computer to work so I can play games. 

PF I feel that this story of needing to take it apart, I empathize with it. I have a lot of friends who grew up in Canarsie, and we’re getting old Commodore 64s and setting them up and manipulating the games and suddenly you know, hex editing in order to do stuff like… I feel that this is a really important path in that often doesn’t get talked about. But the question I really want to ask is personal development, personal fitness. A lot of a lot of your focus is on well being and are you still a gamer?

12:08 

JB Unfortunately, I’m not a gamer. I decided to quit games right when Gears of War came out. It was the biggest sacrifice of my life. I think. I did that because life got so real. You got so the the bar was so high in terms of dire consequences of the circumstances that we were living in where we were on the edge of being evicted and homeless. And my mom was an advocate for education. And I realized that the the games were becoming a little bit distracting. Eventually I found my love of reading. So when I gave up games, I decided to read more books. And that was crucial. And my love of reading actually, as with everything, I think, for me is originates through entertainment. I actually learned to love reading because of Xmen, ironically. So me and my friends would get into arguments all the time about who’s like the best mutant with an Xmen so it’s the superpower…

SC Because you were like, Rogue is obviously the best and they were like, maybe crazy, is that what was happening?

JB Exactly, exactly. Yeah, you’re spot on into who I said was the best I said Rogue is the best. And, and they were like no, Professor Xavier or Jean or Wolverine. I was like Rogue has the ability to take other abilities.

SC Yeah, it’s like the meta.  

13:40 

JB Yeah, it’s like a meta, it’s like a superpower of superpowers, it’s like, it’s always the broken ability that always finds a way to get nerved. After any series across all time, if you have that ability, the authors and writers will nerv you at some point in time. And so while that ability exists, it’s almost like you’re at the max it out while you have it. And in life, I realized that living in the environment that I was in, I didn’t have as much mentors. nobody in my family graduated college. I didn’t have many people I can learn from to gather new abilities, and books I actually hated for 80% of my life, because whenever I got in trouble, it was okay, stop going put, stop playing games and go read a book. Whenever we got in trouble during class it was about okay, now you guys are gonna have to read like 50 extra pages. And so I had this association to punishment and reading and had to work really, really hard to unlearn. And find a way how to love what I read until I began to love reading and entertainment Xmen, Heroes, those served by NBC and some of these other shows where they had these protagonists who had this ability in Heroes, it was classified as empathetic mimicry. The ability to deeply mimic the ability of someone else, through emotions. And with books, someone could take eight years to write a book, and it takes you eight hours to read. And if they’ve done a good job…

SC What a cool way to look at it, yeah.

JB Distilling that information, you could partially acquire the author’s ability and their experiences. And so when I realized that I was like, holy shit, I need to like read freaking a million books. So I was like, oh, how many books are in the world? And I’m like, oh okay, there are about 230 million books in the world, approximately, I was like, shit okay, I guess I can read a million in my lifetime. How hard would that be? [Sara laughs] And I did the math and I was like, wait a minute. So you’re saying if I read 50 books a year, from the time I’m around 16 by the time I’m 80 I’ll probably only have read about 2200 books or so.

BP Yeah. Choose wisely, my friend choose wisely.

JB Yeah. So at that I was like, all right, I guess I can’t read a million books, but I better get started on something now.

15:55 

SC That’s amazing. One thing I really appreciated about no you Juvoni, the way that I’ve heard you talk about your childhood, those things are very difficult and I, one thing I think it’s really empowered you to do is tackle really difficult problems that no one else would tackle in a way that is like, okay, this is a problem I need to solve. I’ll use an example. I know you run also a very large community of people that go to Burning Man and one time you and I were talking and you’re like, so I need to build a plumbing system for our camp, and you said it in such a flippant way, and I was like, Okay, that sounds like something that is really difficult. And you’re like, yeah, I’m learning all about plumbing, like, and I have these schematics and you showed me the schematics. And I was like, Oh, this is actually, really you’re learning how to build a plant and building a plumbing system. That sounds terrifying if it goes wrong, right, but I don’t think it did, I think, but and so I’ve seen you do this quite often. And I’ve seen that kind of also come to fruition in the personal development nerds group of people really attacking huge problems, and having the support of others it’s been really neat to see that’s not a question. That’s more of a comment.

[MUSIC]

Where are you on things like Blinkist? Like can, you know, do we have to read the whole book?

JB So I can definitely use a lot of parallels to software engineering, I think of summaries as unique compression algorithms. And as a reader of a summary, you have to have decompression algorithm or even like cryptography, so you have an encryption key. And it takes a certain amount of effort to reverse that encryption to expand it. And so with summaries, the writer of that summary has a unique encoding that they’re using to compress information a certain way to emphasize certain things. And how you go about reading that you may not have the right private keys to completely explode and expand that summary into something that can unlock that wisdom within you. So things like Blinkist are contextually effective, but in most cases not that effective.

18:11 

PF It’s like like a JPEG at 10%. Right? Like there’s a lot of big rectangles, yeah.

JB Yeah, there’s a lot of there’s a lot of glossiness in in summaries, you have to have enough experience and anchor points to really connect to the information. It can give you a gist of it. But I think emotions are key and time is key. So when you’re reading a book, it’s almost like this meditative experience. Sometimes some books are repetitive, but it’s actually on purpose to create this like cognitive loop in your head. And in general, I think that there are some core elements to read faster. So what I found, I think speed reading is a myth. But I do think that it can be used situationally. So think of reading a book as in doing a triathlon or a marathon race, where there are different types of courses, you have the swim, you have the bike ride, you have the hike, when you’re reading a book, there are different points of density in the pages. So certain parts are skimmable, some anecdotes and experiences, some other parts, you have to really slow down. But when it comes to summaries, I think summaries are most valuable to the author or people who have read the book.

PF Where are you on bailing halfway through, when do you just say the hell of it or are you are you a completist?

JB I am a completist, but I will explain why. So I have a system called the book purgatory system, and it’s where book recommendations go to await Judgment Day on whether they can be whether I should read them or not. So as someone who gives me a book recommendation, I’ll add it to my list. And when I actually have the time to say like, Okay, this may be relevant to something I’m going through because I do a very problem driven reading. I’ll go to that books Goodreads. I like I prefer Goodreads reviews over Amazon reviews, because Goodreads reviewers are brutal. And they will just bash your book with these. And so I go and Goodreads and I’ll, I’ll ignore the five star reviews like five star reviews don’t give me much signal. I’ll read the one and two star reviews first, to see like, how passionately Do you despise this book? And are you giving good reasoning? And if I don’t see enough like, good reasoning, one in two star reviews, then I’ll be like, okay, these are haters. Let me go up to like three star reviews and if I find are very thoughtful three, three star review and it’s like okay, This was a good book, but it didn’t help me for my situation that I’m like, Okay, I’m onto something here, I have this situation, this book may help me in this situation, I think it will be good for me. And so I’ll try to get to books that are well written, relevant to my situations, books that are, don’t fall into that this should have been a blog post category. And I’ll try to read that through.

20:53 

BP One thing you said that really struck me was that, you know, you need a certain decompression algorithm or you need that you know, your personal key when you’re talking about right like the Cliff Notes version of the book. And one thing I found is that over time, I’ve lost the ability to read books, I was really a big reader in middle school in high school. And then as I’ve grown into a journalist and spend more and more time on Twitter, like I just don’t have the attention span anymore. But I do have the time to do audiobooks, like I love audiobooks when I’m doing chores. And one of the things that I find is that there is this sort of like, interaction between you and the book. If somebody spent eight years like you said, and they’re trying to distill eight years of their life, you have had personal experiences that can help unlock certain knowledge that they’re giving you, or the reflection of their knowledge and your knowledge interacts in some way to create an insight. And so reading a summary, you’re just getting sort of like the highlights that maybe the author, these are the author’s main points, when you read the whole book, you and that person sort of engage in this dialogue, and things come out of that, that are personal to you and to the author, you know, would change for everybody. And so in that sense, you know, the summary can be useful if you need to talk at a cocktail party, like what was this book about? And what was the author’s main point, but if you want to come away with sort of that personal growth, that knowledge that you talked about, which comes from how did this person distill their experience? And how do I see that reflected, in my experience, you know, reading the whole book gives you that opportunity. 

22:11 

PF There aren’t many reviews on Juvoni’s website that get the 10 out of 10. In fact, I’ve only found one so far. The one book that’s gotten the 10 that I could find is the personal MBA Master The Art of Business. And so it sounds like everybody should read that. How come?

JB So, yeah, I think it’s relevant to the times. I think the, even though it’s been published a number of years ago, in general, the author wondered, should I go to get my MBA? Or should I just figure out what is taught in these MBA programs in the best of the best and sort of aggregate all the core subjects and we write a tome, that is this kind of self education manual for someone that wants to learn what you’ll learn getting an MBA, excluding the network, imagine if you already have a network, and you don’t really value, the extra bonus that you would get through going through MBA program, but you just want to learn the knowledge. So this book really covers that really well. And it is just a capstone book on fundamental business knowledge. But I will say that my site is currently going undergoing development on migrating off of WordPress on to GatsbyJS.

SC Ohhh cool! What a fun project!

SC Yeah. So so that’s been going on and going. Interesting. there been some interesting edge cases I’ve hit across, but I think they’re getting resolved quickly, but in general, my site has like a five year backlog when it comes to books and ratings, so even though there are fewer 10 star reviews now, so in terms that’s from my 2010 reading to my 2015ish reading, and my reading started to peak in 2015. So, post-2015 is when I started reading 60 books a year. And at that point, I got much more refined in my book purgatory system and started discovering higher caliber books. So when my site finishes, because right now, it’s in early preview. So the new Gatsby version is up, but the contents not updated. If you go to Juvoni.com/books, you’ll be able to see my book reviews, but I’ll have a lot more reviews to come soon.

24:17 

BP Juvoni can ask you one question, how did you get into the world of working in engineering and I guess now working at Google that’s sort of runs parallel to what you do in terms of personal development in a group but can you tell us a little bit about the beginning of your career, like how you made that jump and how you started actually working in the software industry?

JB To give some context similar to like this conversation, my life is more of a graph network instead of a linear path. I started out as a designer. So design and art was my core passion. And when life got really, really hard, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living off of art. So I decided to go to business school. And the year that I decided to go to business school was right after the 2008 collapse. And I was actually extra excited for because some reason I’m drawn to chaos. So right when the whole financial world was going to say, Oh, I want to do business. And so I went to business school and I started studying finance and marketing. And in business school, I saw technology just taking off tremendously and I knew it was something that I could probably find more opportunities in. But my school didn’t have a strong computer science department. And I decided to stay in the business school and just teach myself how to code. So I ended up sacrificing all my spring and summer breaks and basically lived in the library. And I just scoured the web for for resources. And unfortunately, my first programming language was ActionScript.

SC Fascinating!

JB It was like, the first my first exposure to programming language. And I think it was because of games and Flash. So…

26:03 

PF Not a bad place to start, though. I mean, you got all the it’s, I mean, honestly, in some ways, it predicted the world we live in now. I think, in retrospect, we can all look back and be like, yeah, honestly, all we’ve done is rebuild that for the last 10 years. 

SC That is kinda true, yeah, it is true.

JB Yeah. So after, after I realized that ActionScript maybe wasn’t the right way to invest most of my time in I decided to learn some JavaScript. And there were some early sites like Tuts plus. And I learned a lot from a number of those earlier tutorial writers there. I think john Resig, I think his name is and other people were basically like my mentors. But of course, I didn’t speak to them. But I learned a lot from their materials. And it really helped me to get a good grasp of front end technologies. And I decided to stay on the front end instead of the back end, because a lot of my design experience started to translate really well to building front end interfaces. Eventually, I got a job in Wall Street after I graduated, mixed with my business background and technical background, started working for SMP. And the time that I started working there was right during the eurozone crisis and like the collapse of most of the Southern European countries, so I seem to have this timing around starting things when everything is is on fire. So I’m very interesting to like in hindsight, see what I’ve started during 2020.

PF It might just be that everything is continually on fire, that might be part of it too.

SC So for folks at home listening, that are hearing you on earth inspired to, you know, turn their engineering mindset internally, start thinking about how to improve themselves. Besides joining Personal Development Nerds on Facebook and Discord, what are some tips for them to get started?

27:51 

JB I think for engineers, instead of trying to optimize external systems all the time, start taking stock of the life areas that you’re in, and how can you go about setting up processes or apply system thinking to find optimization patterns within your own life? Because I think that the the human body, the mind is this interconnected system as well, that has a lot of opportunity to to find the bottlenecks and to develop it further.

[MUSIC]

BP Alright, y’all, it’s that time of the episode we’re going to read a lifeboat here. Shout out somebody who helps save some knowledge and spread it around Stack Overflow, and then we’ll say our goodbyes. So the question is an error occurred while handling another error. Until life always goes. Then it’s got a long string with some slashes here ye web headers already sent exception. This is awarded yesterday to Rob006. Thank you Rob for helping to answer.

PF Great job with those lifeboats, everybody!

BP Juvoni, thank you so much for coming on for sharing your story with us and your perspective on personal development. If folks want to find you on the web, or if they want to try out some of your techniques, whenever related as it relates to personal development, where can they find you and what websites or newsletters would you recommend? How should they dig into your stuff?

JB Yeah, sure. You can definitely start by following me on Twitter twitter.com/juvoni. Most of my social handles are just my first name. I lucked out on that. I think I’m going to be the next Oprah or something but yeah, so you can find me at Juvoni.com as well or you can search on on Facebook for the Personal Development Nerds Facebook group and just mention how you heard about it so you can be approved faster and we’ll also have a Discord link, you can go to pdn.community to be redirected to our discord group. 

BP Very cool. 

SC That’s great.

BP Alright, everybody. I’m Ben popper, Director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @BenPopper and I can’t help you with personal development. Sorry, can’t help you. It’s not what I do.

29:54 

SC I’m Sara Chipps, Director of Community here at Stack Overflow. You can find me @SaraJo on GitHub. Also check out jewelbots. We just launched a new science kit to keep your kids busy while inside during the pandemic. 

BP Oh yeah, STEM education at home, beautiful, steam.

PF And I’m Paul Ford. I’m the co-founder of a digital product company called Postlight and a friend of Stack Overflow and you can check us out at jewelbots. I’m going to take my personal brand moment and send it back over to jewelbots. Congratulations to bots.

SC Awesome, thank you.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

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