On surviving your first year as a developer

Dear new developer,

This post covers some great tips on getting through your first year. It starts off ominously:

The first year as a programmer is one of the most frustrating things a homo sapien can experience. You’re thrust from the world of ambiguous human communication into the icy waters of cold, hard correctness. There is no compromise with the machine. It does exactly what you tell it to, no more, no less.

But then moves to some good advice, about advice:

There are very few absolutes when it comes to practical programming. A Technical opinions of developers are based on their experiences, the books they’ve read and the technologies they happened to work with. No one does a thorough survey of the technology landscape before declaring their support for a given tool, application or methodology.

This is so true. Everyone’s opinion is path dependent. I was a MySQL user for years and thought it was the best open source database, until a chance comment from someone I was chatting with at a meetup (see, you should attend a meetup) mentioned that PostgreSQL has transactional DDL. That is, you can alter a table as part of a transaction, and they roll it back. (Happy to report that MySQL has made progress on this, though I don’t believe they are at feature parity yet.) If I hadn’t run into that meetup participant, it is unlikely I would have learned that nuance.

Multiply that experience by the hundreds of decisions a developer makes every year based on their knowledge, their problem space and their work environment and you can see how different advice can be. And to be fair, how it can all be valid, based on context.

The post also covers ego-less coding, what to learn, and the joy of bug hunting. The whole post, “Survive your first year as a programmer”, is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

How to learn things, fast

Dear new developer,

I enjoyed this post about how to learn. While the author toots his own horn a bit much for me, he makes some very valid points about how to learn. Most importantly, you want to learn using the best resource. What is best?

The best resource is a bit of a lie – it’s really just the one that’s best for you, given your prior experiences and the medium you enjoy. You’ll usually only know you found it in hindsight.

And, once you’ve gained an intermediate level understanding of what you are trying to learn, you should:

Stop. This is counter-intuitive, but unless you want to become a master at something (besides learning), you really just want to know everything at an intermediate level.

The whole post, “How to learn things at 1000x the speed”, is worth checking out.

Sincerely,

Dan

Benefits of blogging

Dear new developer,

I’ve written before about my belief in blogging as a way to sharpen your thoughts and give examples of your expertise. Here’s a post along the same lines. From the post:

People always try to find someone they can trust. You can go through a series of interviews and hope that they will figure out you are a great colleague, or you can write about your approaches and let a wider audience know that.
If you have a deep expertise in some technology, you can demonstrate it by writing deep and thoughtful blog posts.
If this technology is in demand, you will definitely get some opportunities coming your way!

And

Your views expressed publicly can be a good conversation starter.

This may come handy in any professional social context: interviews, meetups, conferences. It’s a different level on conversation when you get approached because someone likes your views.

The author then goes on to talk about specific, measurable ways that his blogging has helped his career.

The whole post, “Is blogging useful?”, is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

Schleps

Dear new developer,

I remember reading this article a few years ago and being struck by the wisdom contained therein. Code and development is crucial to building many businesses, but as developers we often get wrapped up in the code to the exclusion of other things.

I have definitely discounted the value of other aspects of a business (marketing, sales, accounting) in the past. That is a mistake, as there are many many things that need to happen to deliver value to a customer.

Doing a schlep is a great way to inexpensively deliver value to customers. It doesn’t scale, but it is far quicker to change a manual process than to change code.

From the essay:

No, you can’t start a startup by just writing code. I remember going through this realization myself. There was a point in 1995 when I was still trying to convince myself I could start a company by just writing code. But I soon learned from experience that schleps are not merely inevitable, but pretty much what business consists of. A company is defined by the schleps it will undertake. And schleps should be dealt with the same way you’d deal with a cold swimming pool: just jump in. Which is not to say you should seek out unpleasant work per se, but that you should never shrink from it if it’s on the path to something great.

The whole post, titled Schlep Blindness, is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

Things learned from a senior developer

Dear new developer,

This post by a Bloomberg developer catalogs everything they learned sitting next to a senior developer for a year. Lots of good stuff in there. Favorite excerpts:

How to handle an outage:

For when things go wrong, and they will, the golden rule is minimizing client impact.

My natural tendency when things went wrong were to fix the problems. Turns out, it’s not the most optimal solution.

Instead of fixing what went wrong, even if it’s a “one line change”, the first thing to do is rollback. Go back to the previous working state. This is the quickest way to get clients back on a working version.

Only then should I look at what went wrong and fix those bugs.

This is really good advice. When you are under pressure in a production outage, the tendency to try to figure out what is going on can be very powerful. However, figuring out the root cause of the issue is probably not as important as restoring functionality to your end users. Roll back. If you won’t be able to replicate the issue in your staging environment (due to load or some other reason) save off your logfiles and note the start and end times of the outage for further analysis (slack is good for that).

On code reviews:

Code reviews are amazing for learning. It’s an external feedback loop on how you’d write code vs how they write it. What’s the diff? Is one way better than the other? I asked myself this question with every code review I did: “Why did they do it this way?”. Whenever I couldn’t find a suitable answer, I’d go talk to them.

After the first month, I started catching mistakes in my teammates codes (just like they were doing for mine). This was insane. Peer reviews became a lot more fun for me – it was a game I looked forward to – a game to improve my code-sense.

My heuristic: Don’t approve code till I understand how it works.

Code review is definitely a skill worth practicing. You don’t want to nitpick and I’m a fan of automated linters/code style enforcers. That way you can have all the ‘where does the brace go’ arguments once, and then have the rules automatically enforced. Of course you can look for bad variable and function names, and that is valuable (and non automatable). But in my mind there are two aspects code review that are harder, but more important:

  • How does this fit into the overall system. Are there other components that should use this code or be used by this code? Is this structured correctly?
  • Do I understand this code and what it is trying to do. This means you need to understand the problem that the code is solving.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

How to get the attention of a busy person

Dear new developer,

This post talks about how to ask for mentoring, but the principles apply to getting in touch with any busy person. Busy people are by definition busy, and get a large number of emails and requests every day. (Here’s a VC talking about the difference between ignoring and not replying, and how they look the same to a sender.)

The key is that you as the requester need to put in some effort. From the post:

In other words, when you asks for a busy person’s time for “mentorship” or “advice” or whatever, show (a) you are serious and have gone as far as you can by yourself (b) have taken concrete steps to address whatever your needs are and (optionally. but especially with code related efforts)(c) how helping you could benefit them/their project.

This effort on your part shows that you are serious. It qualifies you. Especially if you persist. (Now, you can’t persist to the point of annoying the person. There’s a line between persistence and bugging someone. I always preface any email I send to someone asking a favor with ‘hey, feel free to tell me to buzz off’, and I mean it.)

And

I hate to sound all zen master-ey but in my experience, it is doing the work that teaches you what you need to do next.

That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from reading (otherwise why have documentation or even this blog!) but that you need to actually try things outlined in docs. Even just typing the commands of a tutorial (instead of copying and pasting) will help you understand what you are doing.

The whole post is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

The Surprising Number Of Programmers Who Can’t Program

Dear new developer,

This came up in a Hacker News comment thread recently:

I’ve been working since the 90s and I never attempted to do FizzBuzz. Is it really relevant? Maybe to screen junior developers out of college?

And the response

So, as someone who spends maybe 20% of their time hiring, it’s still a very effective screen. You wouldn’t believe how many people can’t do it. People at big companies, respected places. It’s surprising.

I find it truly surprising. Here’s a post from 2007 about the same issue, so it’s been around a while. From that post:

…I’m starting to get a little worried. I’m more than willing to cut freshly minted software developers slack at the beginning of their career. Everybody has to start somewhere. But I am disturbed and appalled that any so-called programmer would apply for a job without being able to write the simplest of programs.

As a new developer, realize that

  1. You are going to stand out among other applicants if you can program.
  2. If you can’t program, you need to fix that asap.
  3. There are some folks that are just not effective programmers who somehow are in the profession (or seeking employment). You may end up working with and for some of these people.

So, make sure you practice programming. My letters have been about some of the other aspects of software development, but if you can’t do the basic work, you’re going to have a tough time. That’s like a baseball player who can’t run. Doesn’t matter how good someone is at catching a ball or hitting, if you can’t run, you’re going to be fundamentally disadvantaged at baseball.

Sincerely,

Dan