Be a Just in Time Learner, part II

Dear new developer,

I previously wrote about being a JIT learner and talked about it in the context of a Just In Time compiler.

Just in time has another meaning, that relates to manufacturing. Delivering the right parts to the right plant at the right time revolutionized manufacturing. Just in time learning means that you focus on what can give you the greatest bang for your buck, and that you learn it when you need to.

The world of software is immense and as you navigate it more, you’ll begin to see patterns. When I see a new dependency management tool, I know it’ll operate roughly like the three other dependency management tools I’m experienced with. It will have:

  • a dependency tree, likely stored in text
  • a central repository or multiple repositories, where common code resides
  • a way to have a private repository for proprietary code
  • commands to update individual packages or an entire system

So, I don’t really need to master each dependency manager, because I can do the mental mapping between the ones that  I know (like maven and bundler) and the ones I’m less familiar with (composer, npm). I learn just enough to do what I need to do. I do this to avoid being overwhelmed by each new tool.

In a similar manner, you can apply the same thing to software development in general. When you start to get overwhelmed, you can focus on one task at a time, and learn just enough to do that task. Now, I think you should try to understand why you are doing that task and not just copy pasta code, but there’s a balance to be struck. You also may need to have a deep stack to do this (watch out for yak shaving), as you’ll be pulled from one task you don’t fully understand to another.

The way to defeat this is to continue to build the mental model. Try to understand the smaller pieces of a site or application before moving up to the medium size pieces and then to the larger pieces.

An example. When I’m starting a new project the first task I always try to understand is how do I get this running locally. Running a project locally is glorious! Even if the project isn’t under version control, I have absolute control of the local environment and can tweak and break things with abandon. The next task I try to understand is how does this software get deployed to production. Here obviously I can’t break things with abandon, but I learn what the architecture is like. Finally, I’ll try to make a small change and see if I can get through the deployment pipeline. This assures me I know how to connect the two key environments (local and production).

You can do the same thing with the first months of a new job. Map it to other jobs or schooling you’ve had. Think back to what worked in the past for learning new tasks.

In short, be a just in time learner. Focus on what’s in front of you, and learn that. Build models between what you know and what you don’t. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to understand everything.





Over-index in your first few months

Dear new developer,

It is unfortunate, but first impressions matter. And, like any other job, a developer position is in large part based on relations with other people. Therefore, it behooves you to bring your best self to work for the first few months of any job. That doesn’t mean you get to check out later, but in the first few months you should stand out. Some ways to stand out:

  • Arrive on time, or a bit early.
  • Do the extra research.
  • Take on the extra work (not too much–don’t set yourself up as a punching bag–but some).
  • Own your mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up when they happen.
  • Be unfailingly polite.
  • Don’t make the same mistake twice.
  • Ask for your manager’s time and make sure you and they are on the same page regarding goals. How often? Ask.
  • Write that extra bit of documentation to make the next hire’s onboarding easier.
  • Anything else you can think of.

Once you have the reputation of a hard, smart worker, it is hard to lose. After a few months, you can ease off, partly because you have gained the reputation, partly because you’ll actually understand the job better so will be able to do it with less effort.

When you first join an organization, everyone is excited. If you can over-index and achieve 105% or 110% of what they expected of you, the team members will continue to be excited. Consider the alternative where you only deliver 90% or 95% of what they expected. They’ll remember you as pretty good, but maybe a bit of a disappointment.

Either way, that first impression can last for years and can follow you around the organization (and beyond). Choose wisely.