Nicole van der Hoeven is a Developer Advocate at Grafana Labs. She is also a communicator, sharing what she learns through her writing, conference presentations, and YouTube videos. The latter are what brought Nicole’s work to my attention: she runs a YouTube channel focused on one of my favorite tools for thought, Obsidian. In this conversation, we focus on how Nicole uses Obsidian to “learn in public.”
- Nicole van der Hoeven
- Nicole on Mastodon
- Nicole on YouTube
- Obsidian for Everyone (Nicole’s course)
- Grafana labs
- Personal knowledge management - Wikipedia
- Work with the garage door up
- Continuous integration - Wikipedia
- Continuous delivery - Wikipedia
- Roam Research
- Tabletop role-playing game - Wikipedia
- Andy Polaine
- Andy Polaine on Service Design – The Informed Life
- Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
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Jorge: Nicole. Welcome to the show!
Nicole: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Jorge: I am very excited to talk with you. As we were talking about before we started recording, I’ve seen a lot of you on YouTube; your YouTube videos about Obsidian have been very helpful in my own journey in learning the tool. But a lot of folks listening in might not be familiar with you and your work. How do you go about introducing yourself?
Nicole: Sure. I like to introduce myself based on the things that I’m passionate about. I don’t like to jump directly into work because you know what’s work, what’s personal, or play? So, I love tech. I am a developer advocate at a company called Grafana Labs, which basically means that I learn how to do cool things with code, and then I tell people how I manage to do that.
So, on the programming side, my background is in performance engineering. I’ve spent the last 12 years helping companies improve the performance of distributed applications or websites. That sounds really dry, but basically what it means is that I’m a tester; I’m the person that kind of prods a website every which way before it goes live. That gets to find out the hundreds of ways that software breaks and also how it breaks.
And then there’s the other side of it where I tell people about what I’ve done, which is making videos or writing blog posts or documentation, speaking at conferences and going to meetups.
And then there’s the travel side. I’m Filipino, Australian, and Dutch. I’ve lived in five countries on four continents, and I’m currently planning the next move to the next continent to live in long term. So, travel is a big part of what I like to do with my life because I love people. And that also naturally lends itself to loving the languages that they speak.
So, I am always learning a few languages to varying degrees and you already alluded to the fact that I have a YouTube channel. I do have one for work as well on performance engineering, but I do also have another one personally about Obsidian and taking notes because I’ve always been a note taker. I was always the one who always had the notes that people wanted to photocopy. And a few years ago, I got into PKM, Personal Knowledge Management.
That led me down the path of using several tools, but the one that I’ve stuck to the longest and the one that I’m using now is Obsidian. And I’m so passionate about it that I started to record my rants and raves about it, and now it’s a YouTube channel all about taking notes. Can you imagine that there’s something out there that they’re actually people that are nerdy enough to watch that, like you. Isn’t that great?
Jorge: It’s fabulous! I keep saying that YouTube has become one of my most beloved online resources. I have learned so much. And like you’re saying, it’s this long tail thing where there are people for every hobby, interest, technique, tool, process, and there are always people who are better than you are at it. So, if those people also share their know-how and their passion online, you can learn a lot.
I want to dig into Obsidian, and in particular I want to hear about why it’s stuck with you. But before we do that, I want to read part of your bio on your website. You say when describing what you do, you say, “I write stuff, film and produce videos, speak at conferences and otherwise just generally learn in public.” I love that phrase, “learn in public.” I wanted to know what that means to you. What does the process look like? How do you go about learning in public?
Learning in public
Nicole: Yeah, this totally dovetails in nicely with the whole YouTube thing. See, the reason that I love YouTube and why I’ve chosen it as really my primary medium for releasing content is that I think video is one of the most, if not the most, honest and genuine forms of expression. Editing videos is hard. I mean, editing, writing, or photos? That’s hard too. But editing video is another kettle of fish, and I think that it’s almost impossible to have a lot of video, especially if it’s live video without imparting a little bit of who you are.
And that really goes well with learning in public because I think that if I thought that I could never release something unless it was absolutely perfect — until I’m an expert — then you know, maybe I’ll never put anything out there. I find it freeing to just say, “Hey! I’m learning this as I go, and if you want to watch with me, then do so!” knowing full well that I might not always say the perfect things, but at least it’s out there. And learning in public is a very big part of how I learn in general because I actually have found that it’s faster.
Because when we’re learning — and this is like when you’re learning a language — there is always a time where you feel like you sound absolutely stupid. But when I hear someone speaking a language that I know well, I don’t think they’re stupid; I think they’re new at the language. And by changing that and reframing it as just learning in public it makes it a little bit less daunting and it brings up all of these opportunities to connect with people like yourself that are interesting and are learning the same things, and maybe we can learn together.
Jorge: I suspect that this idea of being afraid to look bad — I think you said being worried of sounding stupid or something like that when learning a language — it hinders a lot of folks. I remember coming across a phrase, “working with the garage door up.” I think I think I saw that in Andy Matuschak’s website.
Nicole: Andy Matuschak, yeah.
Jorge: Where the idea being “show your work” and, if it’s work in progress, we have different expectations than if you’re promising some kind of polished final thing.
Nicole: Yeah, and I think my software or tech background really comes through in this as well, because we work in an agile manner: we iterate fast, we ship continuously, and there’s never an assurance that the first iteration of whatever product that we ship is going to be perfect. I mean, we have to be realistic: it’s always a work in progress.
So, this is like when you hearken back to taking notes. I think the traditional way of taking notes is blog posts that are chronological. It’s a feed of activity that starts and ends. But now we’re seeing the rise of digital gardens and continuous notetaking, where the idea is that these notes are always evolving, always changing. I publish every day literally without fail. And sometimes that’s like a very long and considered, several-paragraph-long note about the similarities of application performance and human productivity. Sometimes it’s just a note on a game that I played. I don’t try to judge; I just publish whatever I’m working on, and then I trade it all as kind of learning exhaust.
Creating a digital garden
Jorge: And when you say you publish every day, it’s sounding to me like this is not the kind of formal… let me take a step back here. You used the phrase “digital garden,” and it might be worth unpacking that because folks are listening in and they might… you know, it might be the first time they’re hearing it. The way that I understand it — and keep me honest here — is that a digital garden is In some ways it’s just you like publishing your working notes somehow. And because we have these hypertext tools, it is a hypertext that you’re sharing. Is that what you’re talking about when you say you’re writing every day?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I’m either creating new notes or making new links or updating the knowledge that I had yesterday that now I realize is not up to date. But do you know in tech the concept of continuous integration or continuous delivery?
Jorge: Yes, but listeners might not be familiar with it. Do you want to unpack that?
Nicole: Sure. So in tech, CI/CD or Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery is kind of a way of reframing the software development life cycle. It used to be that when you build software, you start with the planning. So, the requirements. And then it gets developed, and then it gets tested, and then it gets deployed. It’s really very linear.
But because of changing requirements and the faster pace that we’re expected to keep up with, that evolved into a more agile way of thinking where it’s just a continuous cycle. So, those things do still occur, but the phases are less rigid and kind of flow into each other. So you don’t stop building software after you deploy it. You’re still testing, you’re still putting out patches and tweaking requirements. Maybe you got them wrong! And it all feeds back into the next cycle.
So, I think that digital gardens is kind of like continuous notetaking. Where we used to think that it’s like, “oh! This is the ideation process. Then you structure it or outline it. Then you flesh it out. Then you hit publish and it’s done.” I don’t like to think of it that way because I’m wrong, frequently, and I would hate to put myself at that standard where I feel like I can’t even publish anything because I’m going to be wrong as soon as I publish it. So I just prefer to say, “these are my notes. It’s all a work in progress, and I’m going to update them as I learn more or as I find the time.”
Jorge: There is something about having the humility to adopt the attitude that you’re expressing there. It’s like, I don’t know everything. Like you said: I’m wrong frequently, right? Having that plus the — I’m going to use the word courage — to not worry about looking bad, right? Like you said earlier: I’m concerned about sounding stupid when I learn a new language, right? So it sounds like that combination of character traits might be beneficial in working in this way.
Nicole: Yeah. And I also think that it has to do with just approaching it — everything: work, play, life — with an attitude of playfulness that we bring to games because not everything has to be so serious. You know, you can have serious play and you can have non-serious play and lighthearted play. And I think the word ‘play’ just brings up a lot of connotations about being curious and just trying to explore what even is possible.
Jorge: There’s so much there that I want to unpack and we definitely want to circle back to that. But I want to come back now to Obsidian itself. When you were talking about it at first, you said that you had tried different notetaking tools and that Obsidian stuck with you. And… well, let’s start at the beginning. Some folks listening in might not be familiar with Obsidian, so it might be worth just recapping at a very high level what it is. But I’m very curious about why it stuck with you above other tools.
Nicole: So Obsidian is an app that is kind of like an extensible knowledge base. And one of the things that people say it is, is a note-taking tool. And that would not be incorrect. It is a note-taking tool. But I think that our traditional way of thinking about taking notes really can get in the way of using Obsidian at its fullest or to the most effective way that we can.
For me, I kind of look at it as my own personal Google. It’s like a search engine that only searches my interests and what I’ve done and what I’ve thought. And in the same way, it also has the biases that I have. So you have to be able to interject some ways to break out of that bias as well.
And the reason that I love it so much… I mean, there are a few reasons, but one is that it is very well suited to a developer’s mindset because I work for an open source company. Obsidian is not open source, but it still has a lot of that open source feel. So Obsidian itself is not open source, although because it’s an electron app, it runs on electron. You can really inspect a lot of the code. So there’s transparency. And then its entire ecosystem of plugins is open source.
So I love the idea that if I don’t like how something looks, then either there’s a plugin for that or I can write one for it. And I also love the idea of modularity in tech. We have the word ‘composable,’ which means that instead of having this large monolith that is one application that does everything that you could ever want it to do, maybe it might be better to have composable apps and you choose them that they’re best for that purpose and then string them along in a stack.
And Obsidian is like that. It works well with other applications and in different use cases. They’re not very opinionated. Like, I know there are some tools that lend themselves more to academic thinking, like Scrintal or Roam. Obsidian is so freeform; you can use it for whatever you want it to be.
Jorge: I use Obsidian myself. I was nodding along with everything you were mentioning there. I will add to your list, just for the folks of listening in, that one of the things that attracted me to it, beyond things like the community and the relative degree of openness, even for a commercial application, is the fact that the knowledge base — as you described it — actually consists of plain text files on your computer. So there’s literally a folder in the computer that you can go and examine that contains Markdown format files that you can work on in other applications because it’s just plain text. And that’s one of the things that drew me to it, because that means that you can integrate it into other workflows.
Nicole: Absolutely. That’s part of why it integrates so well with other tools: because it’s using a standard that everybody uses already. Like, a lot of these static site generators already use Markdown. You know, at work we put documentation in GitHub repositories. That’s all in Markdown as well.
So, it’s a tool that fits seamlessly into my life right now, and I don’t feel like I have to change all that much just to be able to use it. And also, because it uses plain text, it’s quite future-proof. Because even if Obsidian were to go away, I have full access to my notes at any given moment. I don’t have to wait for servers to sync. I can back it up or sync it if I want to, but it’s also just held locally.
And I think Obsidian, more than other tools, makes it really easy to publish. I think the fact that it is using Markdown, which so many static site generators use already helps put it above a lot of the tools. I don’t like to take notes and then hoard them. I feel like I need to get them out there, and that’s how you can really test an idea by putting it out there and then seeing what other people think. And maybe you get initial feedback right away that makes you rethink everything. But you wouldn’t have gotten that if you were just hoarding your notes.
Jorge: It’s opening up your work to feedback loops and doing the agile thing with your thinking.
Nicole: Yeah, and I try to apply that with every aspect of my life. I do that at work, so why shouldn’t I do that for play? Why shouldn’t I do that for personal stuff? I mean, I take notes on people; I take notes on random things that I read and watch; I take notes on anything that matters to me.
Jorge: Well, let’s dig into that because one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is that, in doing research for my own book on note-taking, a lot of the use cases that one finds are of people who are studying for a PhD or taking meeting minutes at work, that sort of thing. But you’ve shared in your YouTube channel how you are using Obsidian, among other things, for games. And you’ve alluded to games a couple of times in our conversation, and I was hoping that you’d explain a bit more about how you’re doing that.
Using Obsidian for games
Nicole: Sure. I am a big, big tabletop role-playing game player. I play five games a week of about three to four hours each. And for those of you who maybe have never heard of role-playing games, it’s basically a kind of free form… It could just be a virtual call with someone. You can play it with Zoom. You don’t really need anything to play other than your imagination.
And every game is different. It’s dependent on the people that are playing, but in general, there’s one person who kind of leads the discussion or leads the story and then tells you what is happening and everybody else has a chance to react to it. But the main difference between that and just like imagining things is that there are still rules around it. You are playing a character — a character that is maybe like you in some ways, maybe not like you in other ways and everything that you do — all your reactions in this fantasy world are colored by that.
So, I use Obsidian to keep track of a lot of things: what my character is like or wants to do. I keep track of what other characters want to do. There’s a story in these games that kind of go on every week and, because sometimes like maybe a month’s worth of game time is one day for a character, I really heavily rely on my notes to remember the plot.
Jorge: sense I’m getting in hearing you talk about it is that because this is a game — and I must be completely transparent here, I have not played one of these things. I mean, I know a little bit about them. think that the one perhaps that most people have heard of is Dungeons and Dragons, right? That’s the prototypical one?
Jorge: — but the sense that I get is that it is a type of gameplay that involves imaginative, generative world building. And the sense that I get from hearing you talk about it is that you’re using the note taking tool to keep track of the state of the world in the game. Is that fair?
Nicole: Yeah, that’s totally accurate. And also, the state of the other characters and their development. I’m really passionate about role-playing as a way to forge these strong connections with people, as adults, especially, if you are very much online like I am. Because of the lifestyle that I’ve chosen where I move around quite a bit, it can be really difficult to just jump into a strong friendship with people.
And sometimes it helps. It’s like a social lubricant. Like, oh, if I wanted to get to know you and I said, “Hey! Can you sit down with me and talk for four hours?” That’s a little intense, right? But if I just say, “Hey, you want to play a game?” And suddenly, it’s completely different; it’s just a lot lighter. And I also think that D&D and other role-playing games is a way to explore parts of yourself that maybe don’t get let out to play very often, if at all. And you also get to tell a story collaboratively with friends.
Jorge: There’s a few things about these games that I think make them well-suited for using a tool like Obsidian. I just want to call them out because I also think that they align very nicely with some of the things you were saying at the beginning of our conversation that you are passionate about.
One thing is it’s a social experience. So, these are games that are played by groups of people and in some ways the players and the… I believe the phrase is ‘dungeon master,’ right? They are generating the experience somehow. So, there’s the people angle that you talked about earlier. You said something like, “I love people,” right?
Another dimension here is that I get the sense that these games are very much dependent on language. When you think of a game like Twister, for example, that’s a game that relies on your body; it’s a very embodied game. But, but these role-playing games are very language-driven, which makes them well-suited to capture in a system like Obsidian.
And then the third thing I’m going to call out is that from my understanding of these things, they’re also dependent on very rich information structures. So, the game characters have a series of attributes that define who they are and what they can do and all that stuff. Which again, would lend them to being captured in some kind of hypertext metadata-driven system.
Nicole: Yeah. There’s so much to know about playing a game. Depending on the system that you’re playing, there could be a lot of rules. I think it’s almost human nature that when we are just faced with no rules, we almost don’t know what to do because that idea of improvisation without structure is terrifying. But when you have rules, then you feel a little bit better about just bending them a little bit.
But that means that like I have a lot of notes on the rules. What can I do in this world? What can’t I do? What do I need to get me to where I want to go? So there’s one part of it that’s like that. The other part is facts that come about from the world because it is very much improv. I might say something or my dungeon master — who, incidentally, the dungeon master for one of my games is Andy Polaine, whom you’ve also had on this podcast — he might say something about a town or a person that we encounter in this world that I’m going to have to remember somehow. And that person is going to have to be linked to our quest or to certain things that we want to get done within the game.
There’s actually a lot to keep track of. There can be maps. I mean, you don’t need any of this to play the game. And some of us in the group — some of the people that I play with — don’t take any notes and that’s how they like to roll. But I really love getting involved to that extent. It’s partially escape, but if you don’t have a fully fleshed out world to escape too, then is it really escape? Or are you just trying to ignore the real world? But the richer the world and the richer the emotions of the people in that world, the more engaging it is.
Jorge: I’m smiling in hearing you talk about it like this because even though I don’t play these games myself, I can transpose a lot of what you’re saying to work. Like you said earlier, you should approach everything with the same kind of playful attitude that you take to games.
And when you were talking about rules and relationships and people and keeping track of who said what, I was like, “you know, I kind of do that in my work, just in taking meeting minutes and keeping track of what’s going on with projects.” So, there might be an interesting analog there.
I’m looking at the clock and feeling sorry that we’re running out of time here, but I would like to switch gears and ask you what’s next for you on this evolving journey as you explore the relationship between — I’m going to use the phrase “life as play” — and then capturing it through these open notes that you share with the world.
Playing in public
Nicole: Yeah. I think for me it’s more of playing in public. I think that’s always what I’m doing, regardless of what I’m talking about. Just recently, I released a course. And one of the ways that I pushed myself over the edge was to announce it publicly so that I would be held accountable for it. And then, that also brought up a lot of comments from people or suggestions about what they wanted to see.
And I did that in January. And now, the next thing is that I would like to write a book. I was very, very inspired by Brandon Sanderson, who is a very popular fantasy fiction writer. And in particular one of the books that he wrote, War Breaker, he wrote online. Like, he released very raw chapters of the book while he was writing it. And it was fascinating to see how he would change. Like, suddenly a character that’s a man is now a woman in the next chapter and he doesn’t go back to address it. He just keeps going forward. It’s like you really see his mind at work.
I’ve gone to some courses on writing and even fictional writing, but watching someone work with a garage door up like that was incredibly inspiring. I learned way more from that than I think any other course. And so, I would like to try to see if that approach might work for someone who isn’t an experienced published author. I’m again, just learning in public.
I’d like to do the same thing. I don’t even know what the book is ultimately going to be about. I know it’s going to be roughly about Obsidian. I don’t know if I’m going to take an angle, if I’m going to make it just like a technical sort of playbook on how to use it, or if I want to talk about learning in public and taking notes in public. I’m not entirely sure yet, but that’s part of the process. And I’m really looking forward to being able to do for others what maybe some people who have gone before us have done for us.
Jorge: I am super excited to hear about that. Either of those two versions of the book, I would be really excited to read. So, I want to applaud and encourage you to do it. I think Andy Weir also wrote The Martian like that, right? Like, it was published as a blog with folks chiming in with corrections to the science stuff.
Nicole: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s so awesome! I just read his book, Project Hail Mary. It’s fantastic!
Jorge: I haven’t read that one, but I did read The Martian, and I remember… I might be wrong about that, but I was under the impression that that was originally written in public in the way that you’re describing and people chimed in. Because it’s a book that depends on getting the science right, right? So, it’s like a perfect use case for this. I’m sure that folks are going to be wanting to follow up with you, especially as you embark on this project. Where can they follow your work?
Nicole: Well, I can tell you where they shouldn’t go. Don’t email me! I’m very bad at email. It’s very difficult because there’s just so much spam. So instead maybe check out Mastodon. I actually co-own a Mastodon server, for free, for PKM people. It’s called PKM Social. So I am @firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on YouTube at NicoleVDH and I guess you can go to my site, nicolevanderhoeven.com.
Jorge: And I’ll include links to all of those in the show. Nicole, it’s been such a pleasure having you in the show. I hope that we can talk again.
Nicole: Absolutely. With or without the recording going.
Jorge: For sure.