Sierra: A brain that thinks about thinking

linux.conf.au keynote speaker Kathy Sierra on reaching ‘brains’ instead of ‘minds’

Game developer turned author Kathy Sierra is the brain behind best-sellers "Head First Java" and "Head First EJB". During her 17 years in the IT industry, Sierra has worked as a master trainer for Sun Microsystems, founded javaranch.com, and now specialises in metacognition, which is the science of thinking about thinking.

Currently based in Colorado, U.S., Sierra will be visiting Australia this month to speak at linux.conf.au about "Creating Passionate Users". She will be the first ever female speaker to keynote at the conference, which has this year also attracted more female registrants than ever before.

Liz Tay speaks with Sierra for a sneak preview of her presentation, her experiences in the industry, and the future of learning.

How would you describe your role in the IT industry?

Currently I have two roles: to help people learn tough technical topics with the least amount of pain; [and] to help developers create passionate users regardless of the type of product (or service).

What are some of the most significant conclusions you've arrived at from thinking about thinking?

We (humans) have legacy brains - our brains think we're still living in caves watching for tigers, while our minds know we're living in the 21st century. That gap between what the brain "believes" and what the mind knows consciously is the source of so many problems we all have with attention, learning, memory, engagement, focus, etc. I think the biggest place to make a difference is learning to create more brain-friendly materials including products and user manuals. In other words, things that support the legacy brain instead of fight it.

For example, the brain cares about tigers, but could not care less about, say, Ruby code. So, I try to answer the question, 'how can we make the brain treat code as though it were as important as a tiger?' And the answer is associate that code with things the brain pays attention to using provocative visuals, unusual or novel presentation of the code, stories that make you curious (humans have always learned primarily through stories), things like that - things the brain is tuned to care about.

The problem is, the way we usually try to teach students (including our users/learners) is by presenting things in the least compelling way from the brain's perspective. When the brain sees pages of text or a dry lecture, it says, 'This is so not life-threatening, so I'll just keep scanning for something that's more interesting.' We've all been there when we're trying to study and can't stay focused on the page of our textbook no matter how motivated we are.

In what areas can metacognition be practically applied?

Everything. Product usability, marketing, user documentation and training, user communities, building user loyalty and evangelism, everything. Every place where a human is using their brain in some way, we can apply what we know about the brain to enhance the experience.

What first sparked your interest in metacognition?

I have a seizure disorder, so ever since I was young I was fascinated with the brain. But it wasn't until I started teaching programming (10 years ago) that I got more serious about it, and began digging into the research in cognitive science and learning.

From where do you derive your passion for programming?

I've been programming for about 17 years. I got into it accidentally, when I needed an 'expert system' for a medical fitness facility - a software application that would help prescribe wellness programs to executives, based on the knowledge of experts - and it turned out we didn't have the budget.

I thought, 'well, how hard can it be?' Pretty damn hard I found out, but fortunately I found that out only after I'd gotten in deep, or I'd never have tried. So I became fascinated with artificial intelligence (this was when expert systems were a big deal and AI was the hot thing), and the idea of representing knowledge in software. And then I was hooked.

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