On note taking AKA my long term memory sucks

New Job Challenges

Starting a new job late last year has made me reflect on memory a bit. I was with my previous employer for 6+ years. Over those years, I had learned the technology, processes, who to go to for help on X, etc. I had worked on a many parts of the codebase, so I knew the foundations and could make deductive leaps. For example, when looking at a class new to me and trying to figure out the database structure, I knew where to find the database migrations and the common columns we used across tables.

Being put in a new environment shook those foundations. I can lean on some of my experiences from my previous job to help, but I’m working with new people on a new domain in new languages. In retrospect, that challenge is obvious, but I didn’t realize the scope of it when I switched. The change made me recognize how much I’ve been semi-coasting on 6+ years of built up knowledge at my previous employer. I definitely appreciate the challenge in learning new things, but it’s terrifying at the same time. I’ve been taking a bunch of notes trying to rebuild that foundation.

Young me

Back in high school, I was a horrible note taker. For more logic based subjects, I would mostly pay attention in class to the fundamentals and try to retain those instead of worrying about details. If I remembered and understood the first principles, I could re-derive whatever was needed. I barely took any notes. 1 For more fact based subjects like history, I would take pages of notes, cram for the test, and promptly forget most of the details.

In college, the main difference was having a laptop in class to type notes on instead. That made things much more legible. 2 I was hoping to save the notes so I could reference them years later if needed. Unfortunately, briefly looking at Dropbox finds nothing. They might be in some backups or an old hard drive, but they’re not obviously discoverable. A bunch of word documents stored locally isn’t a great note retention strategy.

Current me

Work notes

For notes related to work, I’ve setup a personal page on the internal wiki server to store notes. I’m journaling my daily activity. I primarily do this to make standup easier and it makes time recording at month end simpler.

Additionally, I have another page as a cheat sheet for commands. My memorization of arbitrary Linux commands is horrible. If I run a command every day, my fingers remember it. If I run it less often, I always Google the same question and go to the same links. For more complicated commands that aren’t on a single Stack Overflow page, I stick it in the wiki so I don’t have to go through the re-derivation process again. 3 Why waste future me’s time?

Personal notes

Looking through this blog history, I’ve realized that I’m primarily using it to keep notes for myself. Whether it’s my thought processes on why to journal, or how to use Wireshark and how my VPN is setup), I’ve been using the blog as a reference. Hopefully the combination of my personal machine, Dropbox, CrashPlan, GitHub, and GitLab will preserve these notes better than some random word docs on an old laptop.

I’ve done a bad job at maintaining the blog. Since the last post 7 months ago, I’ve redone how the blog works, rebuild my VPN server, and a bunch of other things for my side project. I’m mostly depending on shell history to remember what I did. Even if I backup my shell history, the context of why I ran a particular command will be lost. In the end, what I did doesn’t really matter as much as why I did it. Writing down my thought process helps clarify it in the present and explains it to the future.

  1. For linear algebra senior year, my notes for a few weeks of work would fit on the back of the syllabus for that section. This partially was due to the fact that the we were allowed a single page of notes during the test

  2. I’ve never had good handwriting, and it’s only gotten worse over the years since I’m mostly writing on a computer these days. If I have to write by hand for more than a few minutes, I’ve found that my hand starts to cramp.

  3. Writing this post made me realize that in school, I would be happy to re-derive equations from fundamentals. In comparison, re-deriving arbitrary Linux commands is frustrating. I keep going back to the man pages and Google to figure out all the arguments. I haven’t spent enough time fully grokking each utility and the flags to make writing them easy. Part of me wants to spent more time on this, but another part says it’s a waste to remember arbitrary facts when Google exists.