The interconnectedness of seemingly disparate things with Laura Langdon

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It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. But for today's guest, it's about both. Laura Langdon is a developer advocate who has the pleasure of combining her explorations and experience in theatre, computer science, mathematics, education, and data science into a role that rolls all of that into one perfect package. Join us as we speak of about Laura's experience in education, and the beauty of the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate things.

About Laura Langdon

Laura Langdon is a Developer Advocate at Suborbital Software Systems, where she manages documentation and participates in outreach activities, especially around the intersections data science, Python, and extensibility. Previously a math lecturer at CSU East Bay, Laura is devoted to issues in pedagogy, neurodivergence, and social responsibility in tech. In her free time, she enjoys recreational research, optimising all the things, and not trying to think of a third thing with which to end this sentence.

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  • [00:00:53] Laura opting out of high school and going through community college instead.
  • [00:04:33] Why college was a better fit for Laura.
  • [00:07:04] The path of human experience.
  • [00:11:48] Coming to settle her explorations with mathematics.
  • [00:14:00] Laura's epiphany with mathematics.
  • [00:17:35] Practical considerations when it comes to choosing your path.
  • [00:22:59] The beauty of pure mathematics that we miss out on at school.
  • [00:23:31] Sometimes material is hard. But sometimes it's hard because people have different modes of learning.
  • [00:25:25] Resources can be crutches. What do you want to get out of this?
  • [00:26:31] Speak to course advisors and coordinators. There may be options you weren't aware of.
  • [00:29:25] Why homeschooling.
  • [00:32:20] The Montessori m ethod
  • [00:36:12] AI, Reinforcement Learning, and DeepMind.
  • [00:38:20] Finding her way to technical writing.
  • [00:43:48] Ethics, algorithms, and society.
  • [00:47:39] A day in the life of developer relations.
  • [00:49:01] Bringing all those accumulated skills together.
  • [00:51:15] What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do? And what advice should they ignore?
Michele Ong

It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. But for today's guest, it's about both. Laura Langdon is a developer advocate who has the pleasure of combining her explorations and experience in theatre, computer science, mathematics, education, and data science into a role that rolls all of that into one perfect package.

Join us as we speak of about Laura's experience in education, and the beauty of the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate things.

I'm Michele Ong, and this is STEAM Powered.

Good evening Laura. Thank you so much for joining me today on STEAM Powered. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you today about your journey.

Laura Langdon

Thank you so much for having me, Michele. I've been looking forward to talking to you.

Laura opting out of high school and going through community college instead.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. So, you've had an interesting journey from what you've told me and one of the first things that you- well, one of the first things that I'd like to bring up is the fact that, you know, you said you started college at 15, so does that mean you skipped a few years at school?

Laura Langdon

Um, no, it means I opted out of finishing high school. I left high school and went to college instead.

We have a system in California called the Community College System, which is pretty common in the states and maybe Canada. California's system is a little bit different in the sense that our community colleges are not primarily vocational programs or what some places call technical programs and, and that kind of thing. They are feeders for the California State University and the University of California, which combined is most of a hundred campuses actually, because California is huge. And so, so going to a community college in California doesn't mean the same thing as it, as it means in lots of other places in terms of like the kinds of classes that you take there and so on.

Michele Ong

Cool. So you opted out because you felt like it wasn't really for you anymore for high school and you just wanted to get straight into the college and focus your programs?

Laura Langdon

It sort of did turn out that way. The- the original impetus was that I had a fainting disorder. And I kept passing out. And eventually my high school, it was fairly disruptive because the policy was they had to call in an ambulance every time, and that meant that the ambulance crew would like empty out whatever room I was in and so on. And so it was, it was disruptive for the school. And so after that had happened a few times, they asked me to maybe please not come back until I could stay conscious.

Michele Ong

That, that's, that's not exactly how it works.

Laura Langdon

Um, it ended up kind of being that way though, because it turned out that I didn't faint anymore once I wasn't there.

Michele Ong

Oh, that's interesting.

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm. And I mean, almost. I didn't faint unpredictably. I still faint potentially for blood draws. If I have a blood draw and blood drawn when I haven't eaten, then I know I'll faint, but I know it's going to happen. I can faint sitting down without, like, falling out of the chair now, I'm fairly good at it. But the unpredictable, like random fainting didn't happen anymore after I left. Um, and I was perfectly happy to not be there. And I was dual enrolled for a little while in an independent study program, which was still through the local school district.

Because they couldn't- legally, the school district couldn't say, we are not going to provide you with an education because you have a fainting disorder. And so this is what they did. And I was dual enrolled there and at the community college, and I liked college way better than I liked any kind of high school, including independent study.

And so I took what's called the California Proficiency Test, which is sort of like the GED, I don't know if you've heard of it in the States. It's like a leaving exam that you take if you're not actually enrolled in high school anymore, say. And this is, this one is only recognised actually in the state of California. And I said, okay, bye. You know.

Michele Ong

Quite reasonably so I think, too.

Laura Langdon

I just, I, I was much happier there. I joined, you know, student government, I was elected as the student representative to the board of trustees when I was 16. And it was just a much better, it was a better fit.

Why college was a better fit for Laura.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. So what about college was actually the better fit?

Laura Langdon

In college there's less busy work. Less, I mean, especially, you know, students usually know when what they're being given to do is busy work. And so there's this this tension of like, I know that this is nonsense, you know that this is nonsense, and we're both like going through this. I'm gonna do this assignment, you are going to grade it. We're all going to hate it. So, why are we doing this? I mean, not that everything that happens in, in high schools, and I had some teachers who were really, really excellent and, and it wasn't busy work. But there was just a lot less of that in college. A lot more treating you like a whole human in a sense.

Michele Ong

Yeah, I can understand that. And also because I guess if you're doing more focused studies as opposed to generalised studies, it feels like there's a bit more purpose as well.

Laura Langdon

Sure. Yeah. And you, you get to choose. You don't, it's not handed down to you. You get to choose your classes each semester and so on. Which was super fun for me. So I have ADHD. It was not yet diagnosed. I was not diagnosed until I was in my thirties. But it was great because I got to try, I majored in about nine different things over the course of several years.

So even though I started college early, I didn't actually finish my bachelor's degree until I was 30.

Michele Ong

Ah.

Laura Langdon

But that was because I ended up having a, a long pause. Early on I had two babies, and so then I came back to it.

But the switching the majors a lot of times definitely slowed me down, but I don't, I don't think of that as a problem.

It was a feature, not a bug.

Michele Ong

It's a good way of looking at it as well. And I guess, it's come up quite a few times where people are saying, well, when you actually go to university or college, you're being asked to make a fairly big choice about what you want to do at a time when you're still trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.

So, you know, for some people they have that very clearly in their mind and that's awesome. But for other people it's like, no, I wanna explore things. I want to try stuff out and figure out whether this is for me or not, because this is what I'll be committing a lot of my time to doing in the future.

So it's quite reasonable to explore stuff. And, yeah.

The path of human experience.

Michele Ong

So when you were going through that process of exploration, what kind of, I guess, thought process did you have in terms of what you were looking for? I guess more in terms of fulfillment.

Laura Langdon

I was always convinced that whatever I had just decided was my thing was going to be my thing forever. I didn't get the hang of that not being true for some years. There's also the prefrontal cortex doesn't finish, you know, baking until you are 25. And in fact, I was 25 when I picked, no, I was 26 when I picked, finally picked my eventual major that I, that I stuck with. And I never, I never looked back at that point.

And then I ended up being a professor, and so I observed a lot of students. And my so-called returning students, the students who were not 18, they were in their late twenties or thirties or forties, some, I had a student in her late sixties. they thrived academically in a way that most of my 18, 19, 20 year old students did not.

Even my students who were getting excellent grades, most of them were not thriving academically, like they weren't loving the academic part. They were doing what they needed to do, but they were thriving as 18, 19, 20 year olds, which is biologically and neurologically appropriate, I think.

And so I, I think that especially, uh, now that, you know, we live longer as humans and we have different sort of expectations and we don't, I think we don't need to carry on with this model that we made up. I mean, all of these things are structures that we made up and we made up this idea that college or university happens when you're 18 until you're 22 or 23 or whatever, and then you get a job and all of that.

We don't actually have to do that. It's not a rule. And I think that for most people it's not developmentally appropriate. We don't have to be in that big of a hurry.

Michele Ong

I think that's quite reasonable. And there's so many people we know now who, you know, have gone and come back or they explore other things and they'll try other stuff and, so commonly people have career changes because the same sorts of reasons why, you know, we will return to edu- higher education or other sorts of training or learning experiences because we're developing as human beings, as we grow and gain more experiences, understand more about what we want to do with ourselves.

And we do have this structure, which is very, you know, you have to go to school, you have to go to university, and then you get a job. And in some other countries, the UK and Australia bit less, they encourage a gap year where they, or- I dunno if they still encourage it, but you know, they like people to explore that idea where you take a year off between high school and university, do some stuff, hopefully something productive for you rather than nothing, just to find out more about where you wanna be and who you wanna be. And I think you're still young at that point, but at least you've had the opportunity to explore that and I think that is quite important.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. I guess so. I'm, I'm all for the gap year. I'm for the gap seven years.

Michele Ong

Exactly.

Laura Langdon

I'm not Mormon. I'm very far from it. But I think that they had a brilliant idea with the missions. So you take these, you know, 18, 19, 20 year olds and you send them off to go make themselves useful, and their paradigm of what's useful to have these young people doing is not one that I share. But I wish that you could just have said then to the kids to join the Peace Corps. I actually looked into it for my own kids. It turns out that to join the Peace Corps, they want you to have a bachelor's degree.

And I'm like, guys-

Michele Ong

Interesting.

Laura Langdon

You're harshing my vibe.

Michele Ong

But yeah, it is a good idea though, getting the opportunity to do all of these sorts of things beforehand, getting more world experience. And I've tutored at uni before and, you know, I was a uni student before, and some of the students, they approach the classes in a different way to the ones who haven't traveled. The ones who haven't had a broader broad experience base approach their studies in a different way to the ones who have. And it's an interesting way of looking at how they feel about purpose and how they feel about function because they've had a bit of a glimpse at what it's like outside of their usual bubble.

Coming to settle her explorations with mathematics.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So how did you come to settle on mathematics after your various explorations?

Laura Langdon

The major that I thought that I had settled on, and the one that I had stuck with for a couple of years was computer science because, my best friend had been studying for the LSAT, which is the exam you take to go to law school. And I was just hanging out with her once while she was studying and she was working on some logic problems.

And I just started doing them along with her, just something to do and I loved them and was successful with them. And so her boyfriend at the time was a software developer and she said, Hey, you know, Boyfriend is also, you know, really into these. And, you should maybe look at computer science because that's what computer science really is. Fundamentally, it's logic problems.

And I was not particularly interested at that moment, but then about a year and a half later, I had these babies and I suddenly had, you know, to figure out something to do with my career that had a chance of supporting my family. And the last major that I had chosen before that was fashion design, actually the last one before it was Italian studies, so sort of even, even less likely to be lucrative.

And so, so that's, I just thought, oh, okay. Well I guess that's what I'll do then. So that's what I did.

And so then I was taking math classes for my computer science major, and I took algebra through a course at the community college that was self-paced and self-taught. And so it was just you and a book, and you determined how much, which problems you were going to practice and how many you were going to practice. And then when you felt like you were ready to take the exam for that chapter, you would go tell the instructor, Hey, I need to take this exam. And if you had questions along the way, you could ask the instructor, but otherwise you were just left to your own devices. And those courses actually had a very high failure rate. I found out later when I was an instructor and had friends who taught at the same community college, it's like a 75 to 80% failure rate.

Laura's epiphany with mathematics.

Laura Langdon

But for me it was perfect because something that I had always disliked about math in the way that it was taught- I didn't recognise it as a pedagogical objection that I had, but I just knew it as, you know, here's- here's a tool and here's a bunch of abstract instances of you using this tool to put some numbers in, do some things, and more numbers come out. Yay. And then maybe there's some word problems at the end, which were my favourite. I loved the word problems. And then you move on.

But I would never remember rules, like exponent rules or whatever, but in the self-paced, self-taught program, I had the space and time to understand why, like, why is it the case that X cubed times X squared is X to the fifth and not X to the sixth. Like, when do you multiply them and when do you add them? Why does this make sense? And it turned out that it was, it's all logic all the way down, just like the computer science. And it turned out that what I really liked was the theory and like proving the rules and, and so on.

And so I ended up being a pure math major. And when I finally got to a calculus class, I was still a computer science major at the time, and I don't know if you've taken calculus, but there was this, this, moment, um, when it was suddenly like all of the content of the 12 preceding years of of math education, it was like it was all coming to bear in a single instance. And it was like arriving somewhere, like being on a really long journey and arriving somewhere and saying, oh, this was where we are going. If you had told me that this was where we were going all along, it would've been easier to understand why we turned left there instead of right. And why these things happened and like, my mental model of how everything fit together would have been so much better if I had known where we were going with this. And in that moment I just thought, oh God, I need to change my major. I'm gonna have to be a math major now because I'm gonna have to fix math education. And, and, uh, so I switched, I switched majors that day and then the common core standards were adopted in California.

They had already been adopted in some of the other states. And I loved the standards. And basically it was making all of the changes that I felt needed to be made. And I thought, oh, okay, well, I guess I don't have to do that now, so, okay, cool. I wonder what I'll do instead. But I was already, I loved, I loved the proofs so much. And I had taken classes like graph theory and, and the proofs in graph theory are different from the proofs in like numerical analysis and real analysis and so on. Where instead of just being like a long series of equations that prove that something is, is true, which is cool too, but these were like narratives. It was paragraphs, and I loved it. So I ended up, I, I liked to say to my students that I liked my math with as few numbers as possible.

Michele Ong

Yeah.

Laura Langdon

I also, I loved mathematical logic that was just fantastic. And that was no numbers basically.

Practical considerations when it comes to choosing your path.

Laura Langdon

And then I, I thought I might get a doctorate in mathematical logic, and I talked to my mathematical logic professor about it, and she said, do not do that, even though that was what she had done.

But she said, because you can get the doctorate in it, and then no one will hire you because that's not where the research money is right now.

Michele Ong

Yeah.

Laura Langdon

And you have to consider those things like that, that a university would be wanting you to bring in grants, and so that means that your area of research has to be what people are interested in funding. And she said, so don't do that, do AI. Because that is the application of mathematical logic, that's the sort of the closest thing, and that gets funding.

Michele Ong

Yes.

Laura Langdon

I thought, oh, well that's very nice Dr. Han, but I really just want to do, do the math. But then a couple of years later when I had realised that, I didn't have time to do a PhD. I did a Masters, but I just didn't have time to do a PhD because I really needed to get a proper job.

So I thought, okay, well I'll put that on the shelf and I'll just be an adjunct math professor. And then I found out what adjunct professors earn, which I had honestly never thought to ask, which was ridiculously naive. But I just assumed because I had lots of professors who were adjuncts and I just assumed that they were making a living wage because otherwise why would they do this job?

And it turned out that that was a faulty assumption. And then I found out what the associate tenure track professors were earning which was still half of what is actually considered the poverty line in Alameda County, which is the county in which I live. And I'm just like, okay, I think I'm just gonna have to get out of academia altogether.

Michele Ong

Yeah. That- it is a very, very tough choice. But you know, a lot of people underestimate the value of using salary as criteria for choosing where you're gonna go and what you're gonna do. And there are a few academics I've spoken to who have said that they've gotten out of academia purely, well, not purely, but because they'd have to work multiple jobs in order to have, you know, a way to live comfortably.

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

And that's not viable and that's not practical. And then once you, you know, if you decide to factor kids into the equation later on, even less practical. So Yeah.

Never underestimate looking at a salary to make your choices.

Laura Langdon

Right, Right, yeah. More fool me.

Michele Ong

Exactly. But you know, you, you know now.

Laura Langdon

I do. I do. And now I told my students when I knew that it was my last day teaching, I was actually teaching students who were future teachers. And in the last 15 minutes I said, okay, y'all did you know, that salaries for public employees are also public information? Did you know that this is the link where you can find out what you would actually earn as a teacher?

And I had three of them tell me on the spot, oh, I'm gonna have to do something else then. Because they also assumed that teachers made a living wage.

Michele Ong

And it's one of those problems where they're talking right now about teacher shortages. It's like, yeah, this isn't helping the situation either. If you're not paying them to do all this amazing work of cultivating the future generation, you know, they need to be able to survive as well.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. Well, and what is it teaching the future generation that teaching is, I mean, there's, it's not an accident that it's referred to as a vocation. Which is like priests, and nuns, and monks, and whatever, you know, who actually take vows of poverty. And the folks, the professors that I know, they are married to people who earn more money than they do.

And that's, that's how it has to go. And I just decided that I couldn't be part of a system that shuts out people who don't have a partner who earns you know, enough to make up for the fact that they don't or can't work multiple jobs and things like that because this is, this is an inclusion issue.

Michele Ong

Yeah, and it affects quite a few other occupations as well. Another guest was speaking about how she was involved in areas of social work and spaces where the whole point of the job is making sure that other people are cared for.

They depend a lot on volunteers and they depend on a lot of women who are the ones doing the work, who have husbands who can support them because they know they can't pay the women to do this kind of work. And like that's subtly exploitive because you don't realise until you enter that space that this is kind of how it's working.

But yeah, we'll leave it at the fact that it, some of these areas are quite exploitive.

The beauty of pure mathematics that we miss out on at school.

Michele Ong

But you know, getting back to the pedagogical stuff, because I find that really interesting because some of my friends who have gone into pure maths said, you know, you don't understand when you're at school because the maths they teach you there is really boring and it's hard to understand and you're not often given the space to understand it.

But once they discovered pure math, they went. Why didn't they tell us this before? This is, this is the good stuff. You know, we're, we're getting shortchanged here. This is the amazing bit.

Sometimes material is hard. But sometimes it's hard because people have different modes of learning.

Michele Ong

And it is about the way they teach it. Because I also remember, I, I was terrible at calculus and it was not helped by the fact that I had a teacher who told me that I needed a miracle to pass rather than helping me get the resources to learn.

Laura Langdon

Lovely.

Michele Ong

I had to do a bridging course to do computer science in calculus to support the fact that I did so poorly in high school.

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

And I ended up being the person some of my peers came to to help study because I understood material better than they did at that point.

Because I was then in a space where I actually felt comfortable with the material, and it's the stuff that I failed miserably when I was in high school. And, you know, I couldn't do it now. It's been too long. But just reflecting on that time when I was in that space where my classmates were saying, can you help me with this? And I could, it's like, there's clearly something amiss here.

Laura Langdon

Yep.

Michele Ong

Something has changed in the way that the material has been presented to me, and it makes more sense than it did before.

Laura Langdon

Right, right.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So it, it definitely is a case of some people yes, aren't very good at the thing, but at the same time, maybe you're not being given the material in a way that works best for you. And if you don't want to quit, find a different resource to help you out. And I think that's one of the big things people need to learn at school and university, especially with hard content.

Laura Langdon

Right. And I mean even, even being aware that other resources exist, that there are different ways of presenting the same, sort of, the same material. You can think of it in so many different ways. Yeah, that's that's a big one.

Michele Ong

It is, and I mean hopefully now it's a lot easier to do that and get access to that kind of thing than it was when I was at school.

Resources can be crutches. What do you want to get out of this?

Laura Langdon

I think it is. But I think that it's also easier to get access to crutches that feel like they're helping and maybe they are depending on your goals. But you know, it's very easy to go online and get something to solve your exam for you, but they're not helping you understand what, the why, and so on. And so that even as a former professor, you know, if, if this course is just a GE course and you just need to pass this class and you are not going to use this material in your next class, then I feel like it's sort of up to you to decide what you wanna get out of the course.

You know, if, if you just have to take this course and you would not choose to take this course, then, you know, maybe it didn't hurt my feelings when students were saying, you know, this is, I, I would not be in this course if I had a choice. I understand. I will try, I'll try to make this as pleasant an experience as I can.

Speak to course advisors and coordinators. There may be options you weren't aware of.

Michele Ong

And sometimes that's just the case because of the way courses are designed. And I know in some cases where, you know, there are core units that have to be taken, you can ask if you can draw the credit from somewhere else, that can be considered equivalent without doing that specific course, because realistically, you're not always going to need all of those core units for what you want to do. Especially these days, the way the fields and the course are a little bit more flexible than they used to be. So yeah, it's always worth asking the course advisor what your options are, and whether there is something else that you can do, or if there's another way that you can take the course that's more suited to the way that you want to learn.

Laura Langdon

In my dream world, there there wouldn't be a discreet, well discreet math is a course. But I mean in like a separate math course necessarily for the kinds of math that gets used in physics, and chemistry, and engineering, and all of those places where you're using arithmetic directly to solve your physics problems or, or whatever, that the math would just be taught in the moment.

You know, so here's a problem. We can try all of the tools that we already have to solve this problem. We're gonna run out of tools, and then we can say, okay, I think we need a new tool. And that is the moment to introduce the derivative. You know, for instance, because like, oh, well just taking these averages over and over and over again, that's getting pretty tedious. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just do this once? And oh, guess what? We can.

Michele Ong

Exactly. And you, you're turning it into an applied mathematic lesson as opposed to literally a more theoretical kind of thing. It's like you're learning this for the sake of learning this, but we can't give you a real explanation for why you'd be using this in terms of what you're doing right now.

Laura Langdon

Right. Right. I mean, and I'm all for the theoretical math. That was, that was the part that I liked, so I'm, I'm certainly not opposed to teaching it-

Michele Ong

But it has a place.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. Yeah. And I think that people could get a lot more out of it if it, if, I mean, I think that a lot of subjects should be more integrated.

Michele Ong

Yes, and you know, with the fact that we're getting so much multidisc now, it, it really is leading that way anyway, where we're all starting to be able to see that when we're doing one particular thing, it covers whole different areas of study, and this is where we can pull from each one of these different areas, the bits that we need to be able to achieve that particular objective.

Rather than saying, right, you're studying this, and then you're studying this, and you're studying this, and there's no context for it.

Laura Langdon

Right?

Michele Ong

Yeah. So many things to do with pedagogy.

Why homeschooling.

Michele Ong

So rewind a bit more. Because you mentioned kids, and you also said that you homeschooled your kids while you were doing your undergraduate and graduate studies, and I cannot imagine many people choosing to do that while they're doing tertiary education because it's a lot- both are things are a whole lot of work.

So what motivated you to do that?

Laura Langdon

Uh, well, so when I was 15 and I left high school, I made a commitment that I was going to homeschool my, my future children because public education had not worked for me, and I had no expectation that it would work better for my kids. And I also felt like, this sounds arrogant and I, I don't mean it this way, but a lot of what we did in school was too easy for me, and so I didn't learn how to do hard things until I was doing them as an adult, and it counted for more.

And so I wanted my kids to have the experience of encountering hard material. You know, from, from the beginning and learning how to, how to deal with it. You know, you don't have to run away. Just because something is hard does not mean that it's not the thing that you should be working on, and that's a very natural instinct and it's hard to overcome.

Michele Ong

Yes. And it's, it's one of those things where, for you specifically, a more tailored educational program would've been far more suited to you because of, that's because that's just the way that your brain worked and that's the way that you preferred to experience learning.

And you know, we're still at that point where traditional learning systems are still traditional learning systems that are cookie cutter, and things are being done now to accommodate that because we are learning that ,people thrive in different environments a bit more.

And it's trying to be able to figure out how to balance the resources, because as we said, teachers are not earning a lot. And also being able to provide that tailored support at the same time and trying to find some sort of happy medium where you can give the students opportunities to thrive within that structured environment and giving the ones who need a little bit more and a little bit less the support they need to be able to do that.

Yeah. It's, it's a process and from some of the teachers I've spoken to it, it's, it's making progress and they're actually getting to a point where they're starting to be able to do that and provide enrichment for students in those environments.

So, you know, this learning environment that you hope for is definitely coming. It's just gonna take a bit more time.

The Montessori m ethod

Laura Langdon

It's sort of funny because it's actually the Montessori model. The way that I approached homeschooling with my kids was based on, I, I read Maria Montessori's books and I read lots and lots of books about the Montessori method, and employed that philosophy.

So it's sort of funny to say like, it's coming because it's been here for over a century.

Michele Ong

Yes.

Laura Langdon

We've actually known-

Michele Ong

But it hasn't been integrated.

Laura Langdon

Right? Yeah. We've actually known how, I mean, there are lots and lots of other methods like Reggio Emilia. Funny, they're both Italian. But it was already known and it's also odd now that we think of, especially in the States, of Montessori education, as private education. Like it's something that you can do if you have money.

And when Maria Montessori developed her methods, she was working in the children's house, and that was for poor children. So all of these methods were actually developed for, I think that they work really well for most children, but the audience for which they were designed, it was actually poor kids.

And so it's not the case that there's something inherent about a Montessori education that is, like, I've heard people say, you know, oh, the Montessori method works well because of selection bias, essentially. Like the kids who are attending Montessori schools already have access to A lot of the best resources anyway.

They are probably not hungry. They have all of their, you know, physical needs met, and so on. And so that's why kids who graduate from Montessori schools are often quite successful academically.

Michele Ong

Yeah. Well, I think there are a lot of factors there that will contribute to success and failure in that case, because the things that they listed. Yeah, absolutely. There are definitely students in the public system where if they had those base needs met, they would do a lot better too because, you know, base needs need to be met. But you know, you have to think about all the other things as well, and they're applicable in both systems.

It's just that some kids do fare better in one than the other. And yeah, it again, it's giving people the opportunity to explore which one is the one that suits them and suits their needs and their environment and their situation.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. In Amsterdam parents can choose which schools to send their children to. And there are public Montessori schools. In fact, one of them is a, is the school that Anne Frank went to before she went back to to Germany. And that's so interesting to me that you can have that freedom to choose a public Montessori education or you can choose a different style because this is what works better for your kid.

And that's just so perfect to me.

Michele Ong

Yeah, in some cases it's grass greener. In the other case, it is really about the fact that all the systems in different countries are run the way they are because of all these other factors involved in the way that the countries are governed. And it's like we just, it'd be so nice if we could just cherry pick things and hope that they fit.

Laura Langdon

Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. Like we can, we can just look at all of these systems and say, let's just take all the best bits. It would be an interesting experiment. I don't think anybody's ever done it.

Michele Ong

It's an interesting experiment. I think it'd be awesome if we could give that a go. I, I mean obviously it's, so many things need to happen in order to make that viable.

But being able to see what happens when you cherry pick these things and plunk them into a specific country that doesn't normally do these things and just see what happens.

See now that's what we should use AI to do. Let's simulate this. Let's see what happens.

AI, Reinforcement Learning, and DeepMind.

Laura Langdon

That's something I was fairly interested in doing actually when I, maybe this is too soon to be talking about, when I thought I was going to be a data scientist. I was particularly interested in a particular sub-discipline of AI called reinforcement learning, which is what is used to teach robots, for instance.

And DeepMind did experiments where uh, they had like a red team and a blue team, I think it was. And they played hide and seek. It was delightful. And they had the team that was the hiding team, say the red team, they had little cubes and they could move these cubes and they could hide behind the cubes and the blue ones couldn't find them.

And so then the blue ones would get, you know, if you lose, you get a penalty or whatever. And then the blue ones would learn to find, to go around the cubes and then the red ones would start stacking the cubes and they're making a wall. And then eventually the blue ones learn to go over it and, and so on.

And I was thinking that that would be an amazing way to figure out where public transit should be.

If you give it the map of a city and say, these are, this is where all the houses are. This is where all of the grocery stores and like, everything except say the roads. I mean, I guess you'd be able to infer where the roads are. But give it absolutely no information about where you want the transit to be and just see what it does.

Michele Ong

There is somebody I think you need to get in touch with. I've just spoken to her recently, from Polywork, her name is Helen McKenzie, and just to give you an idea, her social media handle is @helen.makes.maps and she is in data sciences and she likes to analyse these little things to find out where things are and why. And yeah, so definitely you can go both directions with that. Figure out what you wanna do, figure out where's the best place to do it. Go backwards. But yeah, I reckon you need to look into what she's doing.

Laura Langdon

Oh yeah, that sounds, sounds super fun.

Finding her way to technical writing.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. So from mathematics, slight deviation into data sciences, and then how did you get into technical writing? Because you can see sort of the progression there, but what was it about technical writing that made it your new thing?

Laura Langdon

Yeah. So until I guess December of 2021, I was going to be a data scientist. I had sort of been dragging my feet because it turned out that I really loved teaching and I had gotten married and I was in a privileged enough position where I could keep doing what I was doing, even though I was making almost no money.

And then because of COVID, we'd gone remote and I loved teaching remotely. And also I contracted pneumonia at one point, and my lungs were damaged a bit and so I was particularly concerned about COVID, and it was announced in the fall of 2021 that the spring of 2022, that semester that we would be going back to in-person teaching only.

And we had previously never taught our math courses online. And now we were going back to never teaching our math courses online, which made no sense to me then it makes no sense to me now. But that was the decision from somebody and I didn't feel safe returning. And I explained to my department head that I could not, couldn't return under, under those circumstances.

And the response was basically, gosh, you know, that's really too bad. We don't want to see you leave. But also, there's the door. We can't, we are not going to do anything about that. And so I reluctantly gave up the courses that I had already been assigned for that spring and decided, okay, well I guess this is, this is my sign. I've just gotta get on with this data science thing so that I can continue to work remotely.

And I finished off that last class, barely holding it together. And then the following week, on Twitter, people started talking a lot about technical writing and I sort of wondered what that was and I looked it up. And the Google technical writing course described it as the intersection of- that a technical writer has skills in pedagogy basically, and in coding. And I thought, oh, hey, that's me. And I kept that thought to myself 'cause I thought nobody wants to hear, oh, Laura's switching careers yet again. Here she goes. And so I just sort of sat on it for about a week and then I sort of mentioned it to my husband and he said, oh yeah, that sounds perfect. You should totally do that. I was like, you don't think it's, you know, me being flaky? And he said, no, I think that this is, this is exactly, you know, this is clearly perfect for you. So, you know, why don't you do that? And there's a venture capitalist named Arlan Hamilton. She runs a firm called Backstage Capital. And one of her sort of catchphrases is Be yourself. So the people who are looking for you can find you.

And that is exactly what happened. So it was on about Christmas Eve that I made the decision to pivot again into technical writing. I rewrote my resume and in the first couple of weeks of January, I ended up getting a lot of interest, a lot of interviews, and I got an offer on the 11th of February. Well, I had several offers, but I accepted an offer on February 11th, and it was just that fast.

Michele Ong

Yes. And it's one of those things where if you didn't have the experience that you had, you wouldn't have found this, and this, this wouldn't have been perfect for you. You needed that combination of exploring computer science, of having that background in teaching and all of these experiences that you've had have just led to this.

And yeah, it just works. that's just what was great for you.

Laura Langdon

I had been blogging my journey into data science. I had actually had a couple of publishers reach out about book deals, about writing, you know, how to pivot from math into data science, which I thought was kind of funny because I hadn't done it yet. It was like, is it the case that the person who writes this book should have not completed this journey?

That's kind of interesting.

Michele Ong

It still works though because it's where you wanted to be and you did the work to get to that point. It's just that at the point where you would've started doing it as a career, you found something that was much better suited. But it is a good way of saying this is how you explore what you want. This is how you make that transition. And from data science, so many people doing data science as well are doing dev rel and doing all these kinds of technical writing because that's how we communicate the data science. Because the whole point is data science isn't just numbers. It's about how you explain those numbers to people in a way that is accessible and understandable to a broad audience.

And that's what you do. So, still valid.

Ethics, algorithms, and society.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. And I did, I did actually do a data science internship, briefly. I, I sort of discovered that I was more motivated to contribute to research in AI ethics, or responsible AI, than I was in producing the AI itself except for that reinforcement learning to fix the public transit. That's still that's still niggling around. But then, just things like, I don't know if you've read Algorithms of Oppression by Dr Safiya Noble, or if you've seen Coded Bias. So it's just, it's so interesting to read and to learn about how algorithms affect our everyday lives.

So the course that I was teaching in my last couple of semesters of teaching was a course called Mathematical Contributions to Modern Society, which should be super fun, and when I inherited it was kind of boring and I was trying to remind myself not to do unpaid labour, but I could not resist.

And so I created a new unit on algorithms because if we wanna talk about mathematical contributions to modern society, you know, especially because people frequently don't think of what this is under the hood is linear algebra all the way. That is all that is happening here over and over and over again. And people who are not trained in the humanities are making these decisions that affect humanity, and that's kind of suboptimal.

Michele Ong

Yeah, I've always felt we really need to be incorporating ethics units into more of our programs. I think that's, we really need to be doing that. We can't just let people loose with technology and go have at it. Choose whatever you want to do. It doesn't matter. It's awesome. But yeah, it is awesome. But you gotta think about both sides. It shouldn't stop progress, but you need to think about it.

Laura Langdon

Right. Yeah. There's the Silicon Valley ethos of move fast and break things.

But sometimes the things are literally humans.

Michele Ong

Yes. Quite right.

Laura Langdon

You don't get to just break the humans.

Michele Ong

Yes.

Laura Langdon

Yeah.

Michele Ong

We need to be able to say, let's take a pause and think about impact and decide whether this is actually the way we want to go forward, or whether if there's another way we can go forward.

Laura Langdon

But it is a little bit as in dev rel, you do get to consider how, how your product will impact your users and potentially people beyond your users, your users' users in our case. And there have been lots of opportunities for me to draw on that, because the product that we're working on can be applied to databases.

And one of the reasons that our particular product is great is because it protects personally identifiable information, for instance. And that's, that's a big thing.

Michele Ong

Fair. Given how many breaches we've had lately, I think we really do need to be conscientious about this.

Laura Langdon

Exactly. Yeah. What data are you gathering? Do you, must you gather the data that you're gathering, and once you've gathered it, how are you protecting it? And do you have to actually keep it? Or, you know, can it be processed locally instead of in the cloud? And all of these kinds of considerations.

And so all of these, as you were saying, all of these aspects of things that I was interested in and working on that sort of seemed almost disparate have come together in the developer relations role.

A day in the life of developer relations.

Michele Ong

It's amazing. So what does a day in the life of a dev rel look like?

Laura Langdon

Yeah, so I just recently became not a technical writer and instead a developer advocate. However, my day-to-day job is more or less still the same because we're a startup and so everybody wears lots of hats. And so my hat has a different label on it, but it's still my hat. Earlier today I worked on our documentation and so that's, you know, drawing a lot more on the pedagogical sort of foundations that I built up. And then last Friday I was doing a, a live stream with somebody from the Python community because they also work on extensions and we are in the extensibility space and that kind of thing.

And so the two sort of primary types of work that I do are live streams and documentation at the moment. What's going to happen when we roll out support for Python because our product depends on WebAssembly and WebAssembly is rolling out support for Python. It's very quick, but feels sort of slow for folks who have been waiting for an entire year and and so on. So, that's very exciting. And so then I'll be taking on an even more public role as sort of the public face of Python for our organisation.

Michele Ong

That's very cool.

Bringing all those accumulated skills together.

Michele Ong

And it is great because you get to do your virtual teaching and, your docs, and being able to talk about topics like this and really able to, you know, start talking to people as part of dev rel, the ethics of using all this wonderful technology to do what they're gonna do.

Laura Langdon

Exactly.

Michele Ong

So yeah, It's all coming together.

Laura Langdon

Yeah, it's so great. I pinch myself all the time thinking, you know, how I've been so lucky to have ended up in the exactly perfect place for me.

Michele Ong

Exactly. So yeah, you don't have to worry about the fact that you've switched all those things because as you said, it's a feature.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. I mean, even the Italian studies, one of my coworkers is Italian, and sometimes he says things in Italian and then he translates. And I said, I actually, I knew what you said.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. You'd never know when these skills that you pick up are gonna come in handy.

Laura Langdon

My, my very first major was theatre. And a lot of us in dev rel, I mean, almost all of the people in dev rel that I have actually were at one time a theatre kid.

Michele Ong

Of course.

Laura Langdon

Yeah.

Michele Ong

Yeah.

I know a lot of people who are in scicomm and all those sorts of areas where part of their work is about communications, and they've got some sort of theatre or panto background. It's like, yeah, it's just skills you develop and that's what makes it, makes you good at what you're doing.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. I was on a speech team. We ended up going to, you know, the national tournaments and so on. And so all of these things just come together.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. Like it just adds up to all the things that you need to be able to do your job the best that you can.

Laura Langdon

Yeah.

Michele Ong

Cool. So, yeah, this has been such an incredible conversation, Laura. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with me. And, you know, you can see with perspective now that your journey has been cultivated rather than ad hoc, even if it felt that way at the time.

And for a lot of people that is the case because they're not quite sure what they want to do, but this is a thing that fascinates them and so they explore it and in the end, that's exactly what they need to be.

Laura Langdon

Yeah. Yeah. And I wish that for, for everyone.

Michele Ong

Absolutely.

What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do? And what advice should they ignore?

Michele Ong

So lastly, what advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do? Or what advice should they ignore?

Laura Langdon

I, I'm going to circle back to Arlan Hamilton. Be yourself so the people who are looking for you can find you.

And the advice you should ignore is the voice in you that tells you that you should do something different, do something that isn't you. You know, it's the voice that says, you know, you should do this other thing that's boring to you because it's got better job security or something. And like, not to say that that's not something that you should do maybe for a bit while you are finding another outlet for what you are into that does have job security.

Michele Ong

Because it's all experience anyway, and you know, sometimes you really do have to make those choices to do the thing you don't wanna do for a little while in order to be able to do the thing that you do.

It's just part of the path.

Laura Langdon

Yep.

But you don't have to- I guess for a lot of people, I think their job is just their job and it's not something that they love to do, it's just something that they do, and if that feels good to you because that makes it also easier to leave work at work, which is hard for me, it's not to say that that's like an invalid way of doing things, you know, if that works for you, then that's great, but it would not work for me to do a job that is just I just do this job, and then- I, I have to love it, or it's not gonna work out.

Michele Ong

Exactly. And it's one of those things that once you get older, you realise that yes, it's okay to do work that you're not completely passionate about.

If it allows you to do something that you are, and it's not saying that you're not committed, because a lot of people are worried that if that's not the case, it's because they lack commitment. It's that yes, you're committed to the work you do. If you're not committed to the work you do, find a different thing, but you don't have to be all in on it in your heart.

Laura Langdon

Right.

Michele Ong

As long as it fulfills you and it creates balance for you in other ways,

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

that's still valid as a choice.

Laura Langdon

Sure. I think it's especially common in tech for there's a narrative, like if you don't love code, like if you don't code in your free time, then you shouldn't be here. And I think that that's, you know, that can get in the sea.

Michele Ong

Yeah.

Laura Langdon

It should be, especially for something you're going to spend, you know, 40 hours a week or more doing, optimally, it should be something that you really enjoy.

Michele Ong

Yeah, it should because it's a long time to be spending on doing a thing that you don't.

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And the you need to dev in your free time thing. I remember when that was huge. Every job ad said that we only want to hire people who live and breathe code. It's like, I think you actually want people who are a bit more well-rounded rather than just only living and breathing code because if you're interested in other things, it allows you to be better at what you do.

Laura Langdon

Right. Yeah. I saw something recently somebody said, and I wish I could remember who, don't spend all of your time becoming a senior engineer and remaining a junior human.

Michele Ong

Yeah. That's a good one. It is. You need perspective.

Laura Langdon

Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

Awesome. Well, that's amazing advice and yeah, thank you again so much, Laura, for having this incredible conversation with me. I've really enjoyed all of your insights and your reflections in your life and what you do now. So if people would like to know more about what you do, where can they go?

Laura Langdon

I have a personal website, lauralangdon.io. And I am on the hackyderm server on Mastodon just lauralangdon@hackyderm.io.

Oh, and Twitch, which is also my name.

Michele Ong

Amazing. And I'll put all of those links in the show notes as well.

So again, thank you so much for this. This has been absolutely wonderful having you on this evening.

Laura Langdon

Thank you so much, likewise.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And I hope you have an amazing evening.

Laura Langdon

Thank you. And I believe for you it would be morning, so an amazing rest of your day. Yes.

Michele Ong

I will. Thank you very much.

Laura Langdon

Thank you.

Michele Ong

If you enjoyed this conversation, please let me know. Subscribe to this show, leave us a rating and share this with your geeky or geek-curious friends. You can also support STEAM Powered on Patreon under steampoweredshow the link for which also be in the show notes. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next time.

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