Lean Forward, then Backflip

I signed up for an online programming “boot-camp” (at Launch School) and absolutely bombed the first test. I have a “thing” I do where if my brain decides to bring up a past event that is embarrassing or shameful enough, I’ll make a noise — its really only a small handful of memories that do this to me and my first live programming test is one of them. At face value it doesn’t seem like the vivid memory of failing a coding test should induce a strange yelping noise from me while I reorganize my hall closet, so I’m going to temporarily take off my programming hat and put on my old ski coach hat to attempt to explain why.

Coaching freestyle skiing was simultaneously one the most frustrating and rewarding things I have done. In the post-instagram skiing landscape, aspiring two-plankers are inundated with pictures and videos of athletes doing almost incomprehensible acrobatic maneuvers over jumps the size of buildings. They go to the ski store and buy the same skis as the athlete who just took home the X-Games gold medal, and shell out hundreds of dollars to join a freestyle club where they can get the coaching they need to recreate the videos they consume.

“That is what I want to do”, they would say on the first chairlift ride up

As a coach, I was in the business of helping these athletes reach their lofty goals. Emboldened by high flying video clips and prohibitively expensive new ski equipment, it goes without saying that oftentimes these determined daredevils were devastated when I had only two words of feedback to give — “Lean forward”.

What can leaning forward possibly have to do with a backflip? In what way is slowly skiing down this gentle slope with my ski boot buckles undone bringing me closer to my X-Games goals? Training drills were often met with resigned sighs or rolled eyes, and I would second guess my approach as a coach.

This image of a relevant and useful skiing drill is guaranteed not to reach “Top Posts” for #skiing on Instagram

Because in all honesty, I could have these new skiers doing their first backflips within a few months of their first day on snow (assuming they are brave enough, and did daily training). Mind you, athletes taught this way would only be able to perform backflips on certain jumps, in certain conditions, and they would need myself or another qualified individual around to explain to them what went wrong were they to fall. They would be able to get their inaugural inverted Instagram image online but every step beyond that would be a struggle, and the thought of them quitting the program to go do flips on their own would terrify me (outright dangerous!).

And so my greatest challenge as a ski coach was not to help students hone their skills, but to convince them that the skills I was teaching them were relevant. Before I could get them to put effort into learning fundamentals like leaning forward, I had to attempt to explain to them how the complex combination of basic skills I was teaching them would eventually fit together into a backflip that they would be able to do on almost any feature. That it would build the foundation not just for backflips but for any aerial maneuver they wished to complete. That they would be strong well rounded skiers who would be pushing their abilities forward rather than fighting their lack of fundamentals every step of the way.

Lean Forward.

This task was almost impossible. How could I expect someone who only recently clipped on skis to understand the complex combination of skills needed to perform these awe inspiring tricks. To an extent, they would have to have faith that the path I was taking them down was the right one. They would have to take my word for it when I told them that they should let me teach them to do a backflip in one year, rather than 3 months. That it would all make sense one day when they were experts with years of experience under their belts, teaching others the same things I taught them.

And here I was staring down an empty prompt, waiting for a code challenge I had almost no hope of completing.

Oh no

I had spent the months leading up to this test reading flashy blog or Reddit posts about How I Built This Fantastic Rails App in 2 Months (And You Can Too). I had a roadmap of all the sweet web applications I was going to build, and I was going to get there quickly. I skimmed parts of the course material if I didn’t understand their relevance, and arrived woefully unprepared. How could I think I knew what was relevant and what wasn’t? Why did I assume I would be proficient at such an incredibly complex task so quickly? Why didn’t I have faith that these foundations were so important? It was so obvious now, how learning to do a backflip on skis and learning to program were one and the same — how could I have missed that?

So I went back to the start, and leaned forward.