Managing Your Knowledge Portfolio in 2024 (and Beyond!)

Treat your knowledge as a portfolio. Invest wisely.

With TechNews.Bible, I wanted to create a new conduit for knowledge sharing that would stoke the fires of innovation and creativity for Bible Translation technologists. As I reflect on this project's first year, I'm thankful for the interest shown by the community. In 2024, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of this mission.

In the technology industry, 2023 was a year of wonder. Technologies that surpass our expectations and spark our imaginations made their way into the marketplace at a blistering pace. The Bible Translation domain is seeing real applications of these technologies. We have also been collaborating in new, innovative ways.

Image generated by Dall-E 3.

As we journey into 2024, I wanted to share a perspective that has been very influential to me. With limitless opportunities and distractions vying for our attention, a conscious investment of time and energy is vital. The things we could do are legion, but our resources are limited. There is so much to learn, but we are finite.

While some may see us moving away from a knowledge economy soon, I still find "knowledge" to be a helpful organizing concept for my endeavor to learn and grow. But what is knowledge?

In the information science literature, there is a model which has endured. No one seems sure where it came from, but everyone has their take on it. The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) Hierarchy imagines its elements as layers that build upon one another, each being of a higher order than the next. Data are phenomena in the world -- stimuli, signs, signals, symbols, and instances of fact. Information is data "endowed with meaning and purpose." Information brings narrative, structure, and intention to data. Knowledge is the embodiment of information, with layers of contextual lived experience. And wisdom? Wisdom is knowledge employed by mastery, infused with the pursuit of why.

The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom Hierarchy.
Image from Wikipedia.

Our knowledge gives shape to the contributions we make to our field and community. So why not approach the management and development of it with intention? I once encountered an expression of such intention that had a formative influence on me. In The Pragmatic Programmer, the authors outline an approach to managing one's knowledge. They think of knowledge in terms of investment. They build on the concept of a knowledge portfolio:

Managing a knowledge portfolio is very similar to managing a financial portfolio:

  1. Serious investors invest regularly—as a habit.
  2. Diversification is the key to long-term success.
  3. Smart investors balance their portfolios between conservative and high-risk, high-reward investments.
  4. Investors try to buy low and sell high for maximum return.
  5. Portfolios should be reviewed and rebalanced periodically.

Your knowledge as a portfolio. What should you invest in? What has given you good returns on your investment? What is your appetite for risk? How can you achieve balance? Wisdom calls out to us. How will we answer her?

It's far too easy for me to overthink this helpful metaphor, thinking about my knowledge investments more than I spend time investing and working for the good of those around me. In any case, I expect the idea will be useful to most (and if you have the same pitfalls as I do, my condolences, be sure to drop me a line). As technologists or innovators working in the Bible Translation domain, we have a responsibility to invest in the wise development of our knowledge and skills.

Below, I share specific areas for investment and strategies for doing it wisely. We'll look at bleeding-edge technology, learning languages, and more. Unless otherwise stated, these areas and strategies come from my personal experience. The world doesn't need more blog posts where people advise others merely because it sounds good.

I'm sure there are many wise ideas I won't cover here. If you have an idea (borne from experience) that you would like to share, I would seriously love for you to contact me and tell me about it. Let's get into it.

1. Artificial Intelligence and Large Language Models

Large Language Models are the front and center in technologists' minds right now, and for good reason. LLMs and their applications are helping us to be productive and creative in ways that stretch beyond the imagination. AI and particularly LLMs are complex topics -- there is a lot to learn. While a specialist can (and probably should) spend much of their knowledge investment budget on tracking every development, the rest of us will need a targeted learning plan that makes sense for our particular station. I think of two primary investment categories for AI and LLMs: keeping up and grasping the fundamentals.

Keeping up with significant developments

  • Try using an LLM in your daily work. If you aren't already using an LLM alongside your daily work, carve out some time to try using one of these technologies as you work. You don't have to adopt it wholesale, but I've often found the best way to understand the implications of a technology is to use it. You could start with ChatGPT, Anthropic Claude, or Google Bard. Programmers might try Github Copilot or if they haven't already. Develop a prompt that is useful to you, then try to improve it using a prompting guide Think about the the challenges and opportunities you face and try crafting a prompt or two that might be able to assist you. Regularly using these tools will yield a better grasp of their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Strategically follow what's happening. Twitter X can be a massive drain on your time and attention, but it's also where folks share the results of their work and experimentation with these emerging technologies as they unfold. Instead of scrolling for longer than you would like to admit each day, curate a strategically beneficial group of voices to follow related to these technologies. Then, schedule 30 minutes per week to check in and see what's happening. Alternatively, many helpful newsletters can summarize recent developments on various timescales.

Grasping fundamentals

  • Understand the big picture. One problem I ran into when deciding to invest in AI and LLM knowledge this year was a lack of context. Since I hadn't followed AI closely for the last decade, the emergence of these new tools was surprising. I had trouble tracing their historical and technological development. In cases like this, the right book can bridge the knowledge gap. Most articles online can't touch a good book, which is the product of a multi-year effort. For me, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans continues to be insightful. The book opens with a first-hand account of a meeting between Douglas Hofstadter and AI experts at Google. It masterfully weaves together history and technical explanation.
  • Develop your technical understanding. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". The curious technologist in me often needs a basic understanding of "the how" before "the why" fully clicks. So, like anything else, understanding how it works is worth the investment. Stephen Wolfram's article is one of the best places to start. Audio-visual learners might enjoy Andrej Carpathy's talk. This 3D Visualization and Walkthrough can clarify your understanding once you've absorbed the basics.

2. Learn some Hebrew or Greek

Admittedly, my longstanding latent interest in the Bible and its original languages may give me an "advantage of interest". I suspect many besides me could benefit from an investment here. When I joined the domain as a software developer, I was inspired and intimidated to be surrounded by people who know Hebrew or Greek and have PhDs in related fields. This pushed me to be at least mildly conversant in concepts such as syntax and morphology. But surprisingly, I found that investing here helped me better relate to translation teams. Getting human feedback in our domain can sometimes be a challenge, so any way we can develop empathy for our users is valuable.

When I set out to begin learning Greek, I admittedly had personal interests in mind. I found that learning the grammar of another language and attempting to translate it gave me a new, rich set of experiences through which I could relate to users of our products. I now heartily recommend learning one of the original languages for those who desire to make contributions to our field. If you aren't ready to take a class, below are some lower levels of knowledge investment that can pay off. Even the early steps can bring a return on investment.

  • Learn the alphabet. Merely learning how the letters look and sound moves you from someone who sees an unintelligible string of characters to someone who can recognize letters and words in user interfaces that might involve the original languages. As a programmer, this enabled me to check my work without relying on a Greek or Hebrew expert. I used Duolingo to learn the Greek alphabet.
  • Learn some words. After you know the alphabet, you can begin memorizing some source/target word pairings. It won't be long until you begin understanding simple phrases and sentences. Soon after, you will come across simple examples that elucidate the complexity of translation. I used this Greek vocab pack to get started. Spaced repetition is your friend.
  • Try to read. Once you know some words, you may want to begin reading in the language. Try to learn the vocab that will get you through an easier-to-read chapter like 1 John 1, then attempt to read and translate it. When I did this, I was first astonished that I could make anything out, but I quickly realized how little I understood the mechanics of the language.
  • Learn a bit about how the language works. At this point, you will need to begin understanding the grammar and syntax of the language to make progress. I began exploring grammars by Merkle + Plummer and Black.
  • Take a class! If you've gotten this far and want to keep going, it's probably best to learn in community from an expert. I'm taking this step soon: I'm very excited to be (virtually) attending SeamusU to continue my Greek journey.

3 :: Learn about Translation

I firmly believe that understanding the perspective of the users we serve is crucial for each technology team member. When I started working in Bible Translation, I found it more difficult than expected to understand all that goes into the art of translation -- the diversity of languages, the complexity of linguistics, cross-cultural team dynamics, the relationships between organizations, the translation process, and methodology (both established and emerging) -- all of these were unintuitive and not clearly stated in a document for me to grok. Those who are already multilingual or have a background in linguistics will have a head start, but I think it's safe to say that we all stand to benefit by better understanding the task at hand and the people we aim to help. Some things that have helped me:

  • Learn about Translation. When I first began in the Bible Translation domain, my understanding of translation was akin to word substitution. Understanding why a view like this is insufficient is crucial. This podcast series from the Biblical Languages Podcast not only includes an episode about translation theory but also has interviews with a wide variety of perspectives on Bible Translation. Listening to the theoretical concepts and the diversity of approaches is instructive. Finally, browsing the SIL's Translation Training Manual for Mother Tongue Translators and unfoldingWord's translationAcademy can be very informative.
  • Conferences, Conferences, Conferences. The right conference is a high-bandwidth experience that can shortcircuit our normal learning pathways by simultaneously being technical and social. As I've mentioned in the newsletter, one of the best conferences for understanding the Bible Translation community is the aptly named the Bible Translation Conference. Unfortunately, we can't all attend every conference. In our organizations, those who travel more often can multiply the value of conferences by doing things like:
    • Share summaries of their experiences with their teams
    • Share links to talks and papers that become public after the conference.
  • Engage your Curiosity. Start with the assumption that you don't fully understand a given aspect of Bible Translation. Then, when an opportunity presents itself, ask questions to clarify your understanding. Two types of question-asking tactics that I find beneficial:
    • When you are with someone with deep domain knowledge, practice your ability to ask about every aspect of the topic at hand, just shy of the point of annoyance! (Within the physical laws of the universe, there is indeed a point of "one question too many")
    • When you think you've arrived at understanding a concept, restate it (verbally or written) and look for opportunities to check your understanding. Asynchronous team-wide communication channels are perfect for this. Try prompts like "Today I heard the discussion about topic. I understood your summary. Am I understanding this correctly? Are there better ways to look at this?" Messages like this can (a) inform anyone willing to engage and (b) open the door to further clarification and learning.

4. Revisit how you Manage Knowledge

On an average day, we have more information thrown at us than we can absorb. While it's admittedly hard to estimate how much information the average person consumes daily, some guesses conclude that we might daily be exposed to as much information as a highly educated person of 500 years ago was in their lifetime. An environment like this can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how we handle it. The burgeoning field of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is full of folks trying to address this issue. One can get lost trying to track and experiment with all the techniques espoused, but at a high level, I think it comes down to being intentional about what we consume and keep. Beyond that, there is a massive benefit in writing or communicating what you have learned in your own words.

The system that one uses to track and review information will be highly personal. I use Obsidian to store, create, and sync my notes. I collect important quotations or sources. I also attempt to document my understanding of various concepts in my own words. If you haven't gone down the PKM rabbit hole yet, here are some ideas to get you started. Like my recommendations for learning Hebrew and Greek, these are in ascending order of investment.

  • Pick a notes app. Don't spend too much time here. Aim for something that you like and works well on your devices. Bonus points of the data created is highly portable.
  • Develop a daily notes practice. Every day, create a new note with today's date. Throughout the day, capture your thoughts, interesting tidbits of information, links to resources you see or hear mentioned, and notes from meetings and interactions. How you structure the information is less important than if you are capturing it, especially when you are getting started.
  • Review your notes. Try a brief review of your notes on a daily or weekly basis. Use the time to reflect on your intentions and progress. Maybe create a summary of the period reviewed. These summaries can be helpful for personal reflection and are gold when you need to report your status or progress in professional settings.
  • Try longer-form journaling. Spend some time expressing your thoughts, struggles, ambitions, wins, and losses in writing. Encoding your current state of mind in writing can yield many benefits. This practice often gives me a better perspective on the challenges in front of me. Reviewing journal entries helps me see where I'm growing and where I'm struggling over longer time horizons.
  • Build a knowledge base in your own words. Imagine a Wikipedia that is written by you, for you. It tangibly reflects the growth and clarity of your thinking. Choose a concept or idea and describe it in your own words. Criticize the idea. Support it with quotes from others. Link ideas together. While this is a perhaps less-explored frontier of PKM, I believe it will become more valuable as personal AI solutions improve.

I've found that each of these steps improves my creativity, awareness, and general sense of well-being. Don't get lost in billions of techniques offered on YouTube! Try small experiments and see what works for you.

5 :: Build something!

I am prone to conflate the act of gathering information with that of applying and developing my understanding. Learning by doing incorporates our lived experience in ways that passively absorbing information does not. The most effective antidote for the collector's fallacy I know of is to build something. Orienting our daily work toward building solutions for others is crucial for validating our ideas. Even so, I often find that some of the ideas I'm interested in are beyond my currently scoped projects.

One powerful way to give yourself an arena where the stakes for failure are low and the joy of exploration is high is to build something for yourself. When we build for ourselves, we:

carve out a slice of reality in which we direct our interests inhabit all the roles: product owner, developer, support, and user This way, all the feedback loops are on your local loopback interface. The next best thing to do is up to you. You conjure personal autonomy in the virtual creation space. What does it all yield? A landscape where ideas beget other ideas ad nauseam.

Recently, a clip of Rick Rubin went viral saying:

I'm not making it for them, I'm making it for me. And... it turns out that when you make something truly for yourself, you're doing the best thing you possibly can for the audience.

Elon Musk shared the video, adding "This is how we create Tesla products." Others chimed in. Admittedly, building for ourselves isn't always possible, especially in our domain, where we might find considerable geographic, linguistic, and cultural distance between us and our users. Even so, those instances when I've embraced the spirit of building for myself have been fruitful and exciting.

Now, this probably all sounds very abstract. I'll share a personal example. Last year, I began building a scripture-reading progressive web app. My original goal was to familiarize myself with a few technologies and see how feasible it would be to do all data loading and computation on the client. The project did not get very far when I realized it would be interesting to add the ability to make notes on any combination of words in the text. Once I added the feature to take notes in scripture, I started using the app in my regular scripture reading practices. As my notes accumulated, I quickly implemented a tagging system. Simple tags made it easier to search through my notes and find that one question I almost forgot, or that encouragement I remember recording in Psalm 90. My little app now had a unique mashup of scripture reading and PKM tools. It was a blast to build! From there, I knew what I wanted next: to generate prompts from my notes for use with LLMs. Now, my notes were speaking back to me in a way that reflected my values and journey of understanding. Each feature I add to this app generates new ideas and makes the tool a little more useful for me. Naturally, the ideas I've accumulated as I've built for myself have bled over my strategy and tactics for other projects.

Setting aside little slices of time for a personal project can yield dividends in unexpected ways. In our current context, tools like ChatGPT and Claude allow us to use our time on personal projects more efficiently than before. Increasingly, our limits are set in terms of allocation rather than ability.

However you choose to learn and grow in 2024, TechNews.Bible will be with you on the journey!