Google can’t help if you don’t know the words

Dear new developer,

If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s hard to learn it. There are so many resources for learning, but if you can’t find them, you’re going to have a hard time taking advantage of them. Sometimes you need to spend time learning what you need to spend time learning. That is to say, you need to learn the broad outlines of a segment of knowledge before diving in.

This time spent prepping your understanding of swathes of a domain will be useful because it will accelerate your learning in the future, letting you grasp concepts and find resources more quickly.

Let’s say I got hired by a company to write a compiler, which would be a new area of software for me. Here are some things I would do if I were trying to learn this new domain.

Glossaries

I’d look for some glossaries about compiler design. Here’s the first result from Google when I search for “compiler design glossary”. Reading this would help me understand the meaning of words I might know from other contexts, such as “array” and “value”, but would encounter when reading more about compilers. Knowing the jargon of a domain is extremely helpful when you are searching to see whose shoulders you can stand on, as well as communicating with your team members.

Pattern match

Matching patterns is something I’ve done many times. I take something I understand fairly well and see whether it matches up to a new concept, domain, or technology. In this case, I might read about a compiler for parsing regular expressions. I understand how regular expressions work as an end user, so it won’t be as much of a leap as if I were to try to study a compiler for C. Here’s a search result that I might work through.

Books and videos

If I have time, books and videos can be very helpful at getting a wider view of a domain. Sometimes it’s hard to know which book or video to invest your time in. By looking at reviews on sites like Amazon and Youtube, you can leverage the wisdom of many people. I’d probably start with one of the top books here, were I to need to jump into compiler design. When I do this, I don’t feel the need to read the entire book or watch every minute of the video.

Twitter

You can use Twitter to “get smart quick” too. Basically, you can follow folks who are highly regarded by other folks in the same domain. Wesley did a great job of explaining it, so I’ll just point you to this video. You want to watch between 15:53 and 20:00, where he talks about getting smart around “quantum computing”. Once you know who to follow on Twitter because they are respected by the community, you can start figuring out the words and concepts they use.

Follow some rabbits down holes

I’m a big fan of timeboxing investigations, and I always tell team members I am mentoring that they shouldn’t spin their wheels too long; far better to ask a team member. But sometimes, when you are exploring a new domain, you should spin your wheels a bit. Follow some paths and see if they end up where you thought, or if they were dead ends. In this stage of knowledge gathering, there are no wasted efforts. Any time you “waste” investigating or following some threads of discussion will compound and save you time in the future. Do take some notes, either mental or written (I like a blog post, as I did here). Don’t feel like you need to come up with any firm answers. And feel free to timebox it, just make the time limit higher than it would be if you were actually trying to solve a problem.

Take a class

One time I was working on a project at a real estate brokerage where we wanted to do statistical analysis on property data. I didn’t have much background on it, so I ended up taking a free class from Coursera. This is a substantial time investment, but for foundational knowledge that you can leverage across other parts of your life (I’m a lot more suspicious of stats I see now), the additional time can be worth it.

Pick the technique that resonates with you next time you have to get smart quickly about a topic or technology. Spend some time investing in your upfront knowledge and I promise it will pay dividends as you dig deeper.

Sincerely,

Dan

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