Curiosity, Code and Handstands


by Marlene Mhangami, October 17, 2020

For the past few weeks I’ve been dreaming quite often, which is strange for me. I think the reason for this is that I haven’t been writing as much and my mind is processing my emotions through dreams instead :D Groundbreaking!!! This explanation is completely unfounded, but that’s how I’ve rationalised it to myself. In light of this personal revelation, I’ve decided to start writing again. Mostly in my journal, but also here on this blog!

Let's talk about handstands! This is a bit of a sensitive topic for me. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to do a handstand. I remember being 8 and looking at my tiny arms, and thinking there’s no way I could balance my full body weight on them! I would always start off ok, and then right at the last minute, fold, the fear of my arm snapping in two overwhelming me. Even now, as we speak, I’ve been doing push ups to work on my arm strength but they're still pretty scrawny. I still cannot do a handstand!!
I’m sharing this vulnerable story with you, to illustrate fear winning over curiosity. There’s a beautiful quote by philosopher, Theodore Zeldin,

"It is only curiosity that knows no boundaries which can be effective against fear." - Theodore Zeldin -

I’ve been thinking about fears I’ve overcome. A pretty relevant example would be with writing code. Particularly with open source projects, since they’re so collaborative and public. I find myself fearful of looking silly, breaking things, or asking irrelevant questions! Re-writing these narratives in my mind and choosing to view myself as a curious person, looking for answers has been a great antidote. Curiosity has played a role in giving me the courage to push past doubts even beyond this! So today, I’d like to dwell on it for a bit.

Almost two months ago I started interning with the incredible RAPIDS team at Nvidia. For anyone surprised by this who maybe doesn’t follow me on my twitter, you should do that, do that now!!! It's been fantastic and beyond my very best expectations! I’m hoping to get around to writing a post about my experience so far. Anyhow, a month ago Nvidia hosted an internal engineering conference called NTECH. One of the talks helped spark this train of thought about curiosity. Pat Hanrahan, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University was the speaker. He spoke on curiosity as the essence of innovation. The talk was good!
Pat is a reasonable person to pay attention to on this topic. He's won an Academy and Turing award and founded Tableau software. Last year SalesForce bought Tableau for $16billion, his words carry weight, I guess ;).

Three key things that stood out to me from his speech:

Curiosity isn’t always about fun and magic.

I don’t know about you, but the word curiosity, makes me think of Cinderella looking for magical mice in a room with gold specks flying around! Not sure how relatable that is ;). Pat started off his talk by sharing one of his favorite interview questions. He’d ask engineers how a toilet works to see if they’d been curious enough to find out. This is probably, the least romantic example of curiosty possible! (FYI, he’d looked into this at age 7! That's a bit of how the universe works that I’m happy not knowing the details of.)

The point is, curiosity can be super practical. It sometimes looks like asking questions. Instead of thinking ‘I’m so terrible at this, I don’t know the answer.’ Think of yourself as an explorer. Explorers are always learning new things and asking questions. Even if you break things thats ok becasue that's what explorers do!

Curiosity is sometimes about fun and magic

Lets not throw out all our Disney magic, for toilets and engineering interviews! The good professor, himself, is behind a lot of that magic! Pat was part of the team that designed the animation tech behind movies like ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Lord of The Rings.’ He spent time talking about art and the importance of imagination. He spoke about how engineers who want to be innovative should hang around artists. Artists push the boundaries, artists are create the future. Good thing for me, contrary to my friends opinion, I consider myself an amateur artist! . This is also a good reason to try and be cool, and creep into all the artsy circles! This reddit post, on where to find artsy friends might be a good place to start :D

Think inside the box

Finally, though creating new things is wonderful, we should also be curious about the past. What can we learn from people who went before us? Pat says a lot! Many of the techniques he used in creating the animation technology at Pixar, are from the 1700s!





Oftentimes the past can be the time capsule we’re looking for to jump into the future!

Ok, I’ll leave it at that. I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful in some way. In fact I’m CURIOUS to know your thoughts :D Feel free to reach out to me here if you'd like!

Before I end the post I’d like to acknowledge the protests happening in Nigeria right now. The #ENDSARS movement disproportionately affects the Nigerian tech community. I’m very inspired by the young people leading it! I'd encourage anyone reading to learn more about the movement here.

Thanks for reading and stay curious ;)

Marlene