I have made a couple of mistakes over the years and wanted to share those pitfalls so upcoming programmers know what to avoid and what works.
You can’t do everything – I don’t think it is possible for one person to simultaneously be a pro at writing high quality code, network engineering, computer hardware and machine learning.
Some years ago, a much younger and naive me wanted to do everything in software engineering, use several operating systems and know enough about network engineering. Did I succeed at that? No, I just diluted my efforts and wasted loads of time (was fun though…).
Laser-like focus is essential as the field of computing is extremely wide. Decide the field you are interested in, narrow down a learning path and get your hands dirty. For example, if you choose software engineering, you’ll have to select one of three tiers: web/mobile/desktop. Once decided, just work on completing a sample project. The more projects you have under your belt, the better you become and the more learning you do.
You probably won’t become good enough in one or two years. That learn * in 24 hours book? Gives you a feel for what the language syntax is but there is more than that to mastery. You need to learn language idioms, problem analysis and clean architectural design.
This take time – a lot of time: Norvig put it at 10 years; just like mastery in any other field. It is a long haul so set your mind at it and you should hopefully start seeing results in about 5 years.
Little drops of water consistently dripping on the same spot can wear down rocks.
The rush of excitement you feel at the beginning is eventually going to wane. Once it becomes a dreary old routine, what will keep you going at it? Consistency and habits can compound in surprising ways.
Assuming you are 1% better each day; after a year; you’ll be about 37 times better. Conversely, if you lose 1% everyday, then after a year you’ll be 0.02 of what you were. This is an extreme example but …
Small incremental progress over a long period of time leads to big increases. For example, a developer that dedicates 25 minutes daily to improving his skills would have spent ~183 hours honing his skills after a year. That’s nearly a month of intense study time. Can you study intensely for one month without burning out?
Can’t afford the 25 mins a day? How many minutes do you spend daily on Facebook? Multiply that by 365 to see where your time is going… Oh.. add in some more hours for games, TV and Twitter too. You see little things add up quickly over long periods of time.
Now once you are consistent, what’s the next step?
4. Seek mastery before moving on
Now that you have focus, the next obvious step is to stick to a path. Frameworks pop up every second in software development but hopping around from one framework to another is ill-advised: you would likely end up as a jack of all frameworks and master of none. I agree and encourage exploratory learning but jumping on every fad bandwagon is going to get you nowhere. Rather, make a strategic choice, stick to it and commit to learning it deeply.
Does this make you less marketable? Afterall, you want to be that guy who knows how to write code in 10,000 languages. Mastering a few increases your worth – you can now charge people more for expertise in your domain. Think of it this way, if you want a dining table masterpiece, what kind of carpenter would you prefer? One that specializes in dining tables or a generalist?
5. Learn the fundamentals
You have to know algorithms, data structures, operating system fundamentals, caching, Mathematics, etc. These concepts are language agnostic and provide a solid basis for solving new problems. That cool functional reactive somersaulting framework you are harping about today? It may be gone in 10 years. Fundamental CS knowledge? Evergreen, safe investment.
6. Be Humble
There are two things you should keep in mind:
- There would always be a programmer better than you
- You probably overestimate your skills
Do you disagree with me? Check out your ranking on the programmer skills matrix. Next, read Micheal Church’s excellent adders analogy. Unless you are already at 2.5+, there is no need to brag about your skills. Instead, quitely keep pushing the limits and some day you hopefully would earn bragging rights.
Humility is a great characteristic to have – there are a ton of things you do not know and need to know. And it takes time to reach the levels others have reached. Even if you think you are a rockstar, people generally appreciate a humble confident programmer who doesn’t rub his ‘magnificence’ into their faces all the time.
Need a yardstick to measure your progress? Periodically check back on both lists to track your progress.
7. Learn how to communicate
Most of software engineering is not about writing code – a large amount of time is spent discussing projects, evaluating designs and interacting with customers. The ability to clearly convey thoughts is one most programmers lack and it is a clear differentiator.
Being able to express yourself means you can get help with problems because you can explain them to others, it also means you can convince people to join your open source project or even adopt your architectural design. All these come from being able to sell yourself and your thoughts.
Communication is not limited to speech only though, writing well is another part. Want to improve? Write more, speak more, volunteer to be a spokesperson – practice makes perfect.
8. Get a mentor & be visible
Stand on the shoulders of giants to see farther. You need to avoid making pitiable mistakes if you can, accelerate your growth and ensure you are on the right path. Great mentors help you grow, introduce you to their networks and provide insightful feedback. They have a lot of experience which you don’t.
Don’t hide under a rock! People should know you for what you do!! Would you buy Microsoft Word if you never heard of it? Seek out peers in the community, interact with them and share ideas. Help one another grow and help influence the community. Being visible makes it easier to find mentors, jobs or even new freelance opportunities. Don’t want to go out? Then create a blog, comment on blogs, release software on Github or participate in fora.
9. Be open
No, your favorite language/IDE/tool is not the best thing since bread and butter. It has its own flaws and strengths.
You can have pretty strong opinions on anything, for example, favorite languages. However what you shouldn’t do is get so tied to some language that you refuse to try out any other language. There would always be situations where your favorite tool doesn’t cut it; in such scenarios, find the best tool and deploy it.
A Toyota Camry can probably carry logs of wood but you are better off moving such with a heavy freight truck.
I used to think I understood recursion until I read SICP; I was forced to write programs without resorting to variables and suddenly, simple toy programs became quite challenging. Exposure to various tools will empower you with various problem solving approaches. This is always a good thing since software engineering is all about solving the right problems.
10. Startups can be overglorified
I think most times, the start-up concept is overglorified – it involves a lot of work, huge risk and great rewards on success. However, the idea that once you make that awesome piece of software, it’ll automatically sell itself is mostly false. That rarely happens.
The saddening part however is that most of us do not know how to deliver good software, talk less of selling software. Yet, they want to run the business. Imagine you handing over a truck on the highway to an unqualified driver who barely knows the ropes. What’s that? A recipe for a crash right? Yup, then why do we do the same with startups?
Software is typically not the critical part of most businesses, rather meeting the user’s need is. You need to learn how to write software first, then learn about business and entrepreneurship – creating a MVP, build-measure-learn cycles, customer interactions, acquisition funnels, maintenance and support, delivery pipelines, execution and meeting competitors. Now, you know this, you can see the bigger picture – the software is not the goal. The business is the goal – the best piece of software that no one uses is a failure.
There is nothing bad with working in an established shop for some time to learn the ropes, creating connections and learning how business is run. You can even start testing the waters and at least you have a safe cushion if things go south.
And that’s it! Did I miss out on anything? Do share your thoughts in the comments or follow me on Twitter.