Show up

This is a guest post from Elise Shaffer. Enjoy.

Dear New Developers,

As I sit down to write this letter, I’m struck by the thought that I don’t know you. You could be like me, a person who’s loved computers since she was nine years old and has taken every opportunity to learn more about them. You could also be one of the many people who’ve recently graduated a coding bootcamp after spending years in another career. You might have an experience somewhere in between or vastly outside the two.

So, the challenge put to me is to give advice about starting out in development that would be applicable to you given the wide range experiences that might have brought you here. Thinking about that led me to a revelation that the best advice I could give is to show up.

Software is about human relationships. I know this is a point that’s appeared on this blog before. I won’t rehash all the reasons that’s true, but I will use it as a starting point to say that it’s important to have people with diverse experience designing software. It’s important that no matter where you are coming from that you show up. Bring your experiences, struggles, values, and tastes to your work as a developer.

You’re starting out and will probably feel that you need to catch up to your peers. Certainly, there is always more to learn in software development. But you also have so much to teach those around you. Maybe you have an aunt who needs assistive technologies to use the web. Maybe a computing error caused trouble in your previous career. It’s easy to get lost in everything you don’t know. But, it’s just as important to draw on your previous experiences. For example, maybe you used to work in manufacturing safety systems. Safety is incredibly important in manufacturing and it’s also important in software. Or, you might have taken foreign language and culture electives in college that help you understand how design decisions will be received internationally. How can those experiences help you work on projects with your team?

Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. It might seem like a stupid question to you, but it’s more likely that what you’re asking is something the rest of your team takes for granted.

Software should support people. In order to do that it has to understand people and the only way to ensure that, is for those designing it to draw upon the biggest well of experiences possible.

There is always more to learn about programming. But, you already know so much that you don’t even realize. Bring that knowledge and experience to your work as a developer.

Best,

Elise

Elise has been fascinated with computers since she was a child. She’s worked in the field for ten years across a few industries and now works as a Senior Software Engineer at Red Canary. She also blogs at eliseshaffer.com.

Writing great software isn’t all about the software you write

This is a guest post from Adam Leventhal. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

I love software engineering. Even as excited as I was to start my first job, I didn’t imagine the deep and enduring joy it would bring. In my career, I’ve oscillated closer and farther from writing code, and while management and entrepreneurship are wonderful, there’s nothing like the pure joy of building software.

Building great products takes a team. Code is a critical piece, but that doesn’t mean you need to stick to your narrow lane. Yes, developers write code, product managers write specs, doc writers write docs, marketing writes slides, sales sells, support supports, etc. Focus is important, but it’s a myth that doing your job well requires focus at the expense of understanding the holistic view of how products are built. Understanding the full product lifecycle–from conception, to purchase, install, and support–will make you better at your job and lead to better products.

One of the first things I worked on professionally was a product called DTrace. It’s a tracing tool to help understand how systems operate. It’s used to find bugs, chase down performance problems, or explore how a code base operates. I was drawn to the project early on because of the extremely precise and creative engineering required to safely instrument running programs and kernels. It was all very cool, very satisfying. An extremely formative moment in my career came when I was demonstrating an early DTrace prototype to a customer. We used this new lens into their software to understand behaviors that had always been mysterious to them. Their ideas came one on top of the next as we exposed all kinds of crazy behaviors and pathologies on the fly. I had seen the power and utility of what I had built in my own use, and my team’s use. Seeing a customer–and engineers quite different from me–get so fired up was eye opening. I still wanted to build cool stuff and write hard code, but understanding the problems it solved and the people who used it informed my work from then on.

There were three engineers working on DTrace. We were our own product management. We built features we needed to solve urgent problems for ourselves and customers. We were our own marketing, giving talks and writing blog posts. We were our own doc writers, churning out a hefty users guide. Those activities weren’t downstream of development, they were an integral part of it. When building a feature, we talked about how to explain it to sales people, to users, to support engineers. Sometimes that meant changing what we had planned to build: if you can’t write the documentation for a feature you’re probably building the wrong feature.

Almost a decade later I joined a new team that could not have been more different. The development team was comfortable in their ignorance of the broader product. They didn’t just stick to the code, they were narrowly focused on just their own subsection of the code. In the Solaris Kernel team where we built DTrace, we would follow bugs up and down the stack, through multiple, enormous code bases, to determine the root cause of problems. Here, developers were content to chase a problem to the edge of the module they owned, and then reassign the bug to the developer who owned the next module. The team barely had a shared understanding of what they were building, much less of that true north of customer need. That gap was evident in the end product: modules were poorly integrated and features fell short of solving customer problems.

Whatever you’re working on, understand not just what’s needed, but why. Listen in on a sales call, talk to a customer, or do a ride-along with a support engineer working on an escalation. Some companies have great programs to involve engineers in the broader product lifecycle. If yours doesn’t it’s probably (hopefully!) because no one has asked. Empathy is an engineer’s greatest asset: empathy for the customer to understand their problems and priorities; empathy for the doc writer trying to explain a complex feature; empathy for the next engineer to pick up your code and make sense of it. Empathy starts from a curiosity to understand what and why.

Find true north for the products you work on. It will make your work better and bring you more satisfaction.

Adam H. Leventhal is an engineer at Oxide Computer Company building a new, modern computer. Previously he was a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, CTO at Delphix, and co-founder, CEO at Transposit. He’s sheltering in place in San Francisco with his wife, teen, toddler, and two dogs. Find more of his writing here, here and here.

A letter to myself as a fresh software engineer

This is a guest post from Luca Florio, lightly edited. Enjoy.

Dear Self,

You just graduated and you are ready to start your career in the IT field. I cannot spoil anything, but I assure you it will be an interesting ride. I’m writing you this letter because I want to give you some advice that will help you be a better professional. Nothing you won’t learn by yourself in the next few years, but it is something that I wish someone had told me when I started my career. They are not ordered by any means and are all equally important.

Run a marathon, not a sprint.

The road to becoming a good software engineer is a long one. Don’t rush on stuff, and don’t give up just because you are not getting an easy and fast win. Take your time to learn and become good in the topics you are interested in. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Be humble, not stupid.

It is good — sorry, it is fundamental — to be humble. There is always something to learn from others, even when you are an experienced professional. But this doesn’t mean that everyone is better than you. You have to respect yourself and your skills. When you don’t respect yourself you become stupid, not humble.

Compare with yourself, not others.

There is no point in comparing yourself with others. There will always be someone better than you in your job. And there will always be someone better than the one that is better than you. And there will… ok, you got the point. Just do your best. If you think someone is a better engineer than you are, learn from him/her. Keep doing your best, and eventually, you will be a reference for someone else.

Respect people, not titles.

During your career, you will work with exceptional professional. Most important, you will meet exceptional human beings. Respect people for who they are, not for the title they have. If “foo” is “Principal Senior Lead Engineering Chief Architect” doesn’t mean that he deserves more respect than “bar” that is a junior software developer.

Choose the challenge, not comfort.

The road will be full of crossroads. There may be multiple choices, but everything boils down to a choice between your comfort zone, or go outside your comfort zone. There may be a moment in your life — hopefully after decades of work — when you will feel the need to cool down a bit because you will be satisfied with what you achieved. Until that moment, try to go out of your comfort zone. It will make you a better professional and you will feel more satisfied with your career. Remember that the best things often happen outside the comfort zone.

Jump on the whiteboard, not on the keyboard.

When you have to design a new feature or a new system, don’t jump on the keyboard to start coding. The “muscle” you have to train and use as an engineer is your brain, not your fingers. Always think before acting. For this reason, jump on the whiteboard instead of the keyboard, and start thinking of what you should implement. Better if you have a sparring partner to challenge your thoughts. Oh, when I say “the whiteboard” I mean “every object that can help you think”, be it pen and paper, a notebook application, draw.io, etc.

Deliver value, not code.

Please don’t be affected by the NIH syndrome. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Avoid wasting time in something that is already out there. If you can achieve your goal simply glueing together some tools, just do it. What you should deliver as a software engineer is value to your business, not lines of code.

Choose life, not work.

In the IT field, it is easy to focus too much on work. After all, for most of us, it is not just a job, it is passion. Remember that work is important, but life is more. Live a meaningful and rich life. Play sports, read books, find hobbies, travel and see the beautiful world we are living in. Hangout with friends, find a partner for your life and give to your partner all the love, attention, and support that you can. You’ll be surprised how much having a rich life will improve you as a professional.

That’s all I can tell you right now. I still have a lot to learn.

One last thing: enjoy the ride! 🚀

With love,

(a more experienced) You.

Previously published at florio.dev.

Luca Florio is a Software Engineer working remotely for Pleo, a Danish startup. He loves to study new things and share what he learns in his blog.

How to be a 10x engineer: Business value for technologists

This is a guest post from Donnie Berkholz, lightly edited. Enjoy!

Dear new developer,

Since joining an enterprise (the world’s largest business-travel company) a while ago to drive their DevOps transformation, my ongoing mental evolution regarding the value of technology has gone through an almost religious rebirth. I now think in a completely different way than I did 10 years ago about what technology is important and when you need it. If you want to become a 10x engineer, you need a different perspective than just working on things because they seem cool. It’s about working toward the right outcomes, whereas most of us focus on the inputs (what tech you use, how many hours you work).

It all comes down to business value. You need to contribute to one of the core factors of business value, or however incredible the technology is, it just doesn’t make a difference. If you don’t know what that really means, you’re not alone — most of the technologists I know have trouble articulating the business model of their employers.

I think about it as 4 primary factors:

  • Money. This comes in two flavors. First, you’re creating new efficiency, which increases the profit margin. This could either be through lowering the underlying fixed costs of running the business, or decreasing the cost of goods/services sold by saving a little money on every one. Second, you’re increasing sales, which grows overall revenue. In a cost center within a larger enterprise, or in saturated markets, the former is the most common mode of operation because it’s hard to capture new opportunities. In the latter, it’s about growth mode – investing to capture new value, and often assuming you can make it profitable later. This could be framed as “land and expand” or with the assumption that your company will increase the price and margin once it’s gained a sufficient market share to do so with lower risk. Do you understand your company’s business model? Where does the money come from, who are the customers, what are their needs, what is the sales process and cycle, and what are they buying?
  • Speed. Again, there’s a couple of versions of this that overlap. The overall goals are either initial time to market or speed of iteration. Time to market can come at the expense of significant technical debt, while long-term accelerated iteration cycles are about product-market fit. If you know of the Lean Startup approach promoted by Eric Ries, this should sound familiar. From a long-term perspective, iteration cycles require a balanced approach of customer perspective and technical debt. Otherwise, your company can’t deliver value to customers quickly due to accruing interest on its tech debt. In practice, this can drive an approach that involves gradual refactors with the assumption that long-term rewrites (or e.g. strangler pattern) will be required. It’s the classic “design for 10x but rewrite before 100x,” to paraphrase Google’s Jeff Dean.
  • Risk. As before, this essentially boils down to executing on new opportunity or loss to existing opportunity. Dan McKinley has a fantastic post on why you should choose boring technology, because the important risks are in the business model vs the tech. You should only make a small number of bets on new technology when it will really make a difference in your ability to deliver on business value. For existing opportunity, it’s more about risk avoidance. Typical approaches tend to end up in some mainframe application that one nearly retirement-age developer knows but is afraid to touch. However, a more sustainable model is to implement heavy automation if it truly is a business-critical application that justifies the investment. Relatedly, risk avoidance is where security shines. One of my favorite perspectives is Google’s BeyondCorp model, which assumes your perimeter is compromised and acts accordingly.
  • Strategy. Often not immediately visible in the above approaches, investing in strategic growth opportunities is consistently a great path to success in your business. Do you know your company’s strategy? They probably have posters up and meetings about it all the time. Could you say it out loud? Do you know how it maps to concrete actions? Although any individual opportunity may fail, your contribution to executing on the technology behind that opportunity will not go unnoticed. Similarly, if you’re involved in divesting from areas your employer wants to leave as part of its strategy, you have a real but often smaller opportunity to leave your mark upon the work.

Although many other factors have an impact upon business value, those are 4 of the most important ones that can make you consistently successful as a technologist. The key is to understand which ones play into your work, so you can act accordingly in your day-to-day efforts and as part of your career strategy. Are you building software for a cost center, a growth incubator, a risk center, or at a company that cares to invest in speed? Taking full advantage of this approach could make you the 10x engineer you’ve always wanted to be. Best of luck in your journey, and may you spend time where it matters!

Sincerely,

Donnie

Donnie Berkholz has been driving the DevOps transformation at CWT (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel) since early 2017. Prior to that, he led a global team at 451 Research providing research and consulting around leading-edge trends in software development and DevOps. His background includes roles at RedMonk — where he focused on DevOps and open source — and well over a decade at Gentoo Linux, where he worked his way up from a developer to lead a group of more than 250. One of his passions is the social side of technology, and he’s led initiatives to turn around unhealthy teams as well as measure and act on open-source community metrics.

He got into tech almost by accident, because his role as a biophysicist got increasingly computational and he decided he wanted to focus on the technology. Prior to tech and science, he did a stint as a journalist. Donnie now combines that diverse skillset in communications, data-driven thinking and technology to drive companies toward differentiation with leading-edge technology.

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

Dear New Developer,

Congratulations! Let’s take a moment to celebrate the decision you’ve made to launch or redirect your career. What lies ahead is a lot of hard work, satisfaction, the occasional desire to throw your laptop out a window, and a ton of learning. That’s true of most professions, so you’re also in good company.

As a developer, you will solve a thousand puzzles, and then a thousand more. Your brain will stretch and grow. You will dream about databases or pixels or curly braces. I once had a dream where I was walking down a hallway, but the hallway was my code. It was a good dream. I found a bug.

Greg LeMond, a pro cyclist and three-time Tour de France winner, once said something about cycling that I want to share with you: lemond

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

In so many ways, that describes a career in software. The puzzles you struggle with today will be easy in a month or a year. You’ll learn new patterns and best practices. Then you’ll take on new, harder challenges. You’ll struggle with those and learn and grow. Then you’ll start the cycle (pun intended) all over again.

Something I’ll add, though, is that you’ll be able to approach later challenges with more experience and confidence. What we bring to our jobs is an accumulation of skills and experience. This isn’t linear. It sometimes goes smoothly, sometimes it’s faster than we imagine possible. Then there are stretches where it feels like we’re clambering around in the dark.

For instance, I was once asked to write a WAP application (think super early mobile apps before smart phones existed). I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I was mostly left alone on the project. I started by drawing some screens, took a deep breath, and started building. It was really tough going, but so many lessons have stuck with me from that experience. My skills at breaking down challenges and approaching them bit by bit really improved. I became comfortable throwing away code because the first code I wrote was atrocious. Plus, the project was eventually canceled, which was entirely the right business decision. Through that, I learned about evaluating tradeoffs in terms of business value—my time was better spent on higher priority projects.

In my current adventure, nearly 20 years later, I’m once again writing a mobile app and applying all of those lessons. Picking up languages and frameworks that I haven’t used before is far less daunting. Ensuring that I’m working on the most important thing is a constant recalibration, but one that is comfortable now. Working through stumbling blocks one at a time and having patterns for getting through them is second nature.

Just like learning isn’t linear, neither are careers. Your path will be your own. What you are doing today may or may not be what you’re doing in ten years. You might go into any number of other areas in software, or stay the course as a developer. It’s your life and all those choices are equally valid. One of my former colleagues quit to make hand-built microphones; another makes goat cheese in the Catalan Pyrenees. My personal philosophy is that at each opportunity to make a career decision, you should pick the direction that interests you most. Just like you learn faster when you are interested in your subject, you will ship better software (or make better cheese) when you are interested in your job.

There’s much more I’d love to tell you, but this letter is growing long. I’ll add some concise tidbits before I end.

  • You belong here. Try not to doubt that.
  • Get really good at debugging. It’s a skill and you will need it.
  • If you don’t respect your boss, or if they don’t respect you back, go find a new one.
  • Learning is part of your job. Make time for it.
  • Don’t be afraid to put your code in production.
  • Be a good team member. You will accomplish more and learn faster.
  • Ask lots of questions. Someone else probably wants to hear the answer.
  • And finally, have fun! You’ve got this!

I wish you all the luck in the world!

Sincerely,
Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca Campbell said “hello, world” to software development more than 20 years ago. She started as a developer before moving into team management and then senior leadership, and is currently working on co-founding a startup. She blogs sporadically at nerdygirl.com.

Preparing for a recruiting event

This is a guest post from Jeff Beard, lightly edited. Enjoy.

Dear New Developer,

Preparing for a university job fair or similar recruiting event is very important if you want to make an impression that results in a phone screen.

A hiring manager and their recruiters receive an enormous number of contacts and resumes from a variety of channels so you have to be able to stand out from the crowd in a very short amount of time, often measured in seconds.

However, when you are at a recruiting event you have a unique opportunity to make an impression since you will get to talk directly to a recruiter or even a hiring manager. So you need to be fully prepared to exploit that short window of opportunity.

Here are a few important things to prepare in order to make the most of that moment:

  • Resume
  • The Introduction
  • The Conversation
  • Appearance

Resume

A resume is something of a pitch deck that you use to get attention and tell your story. It’s also a notepad and reminder for a recruiter or hiring manager to go back to in order to find you in the huge pile of resumes they collect. Or, sadly, to figure out what goes into the recycle bin now versus later (it’s no joke: a desk covered with hundreds of resumes requires triage.)

To begin with, make sure that you have complete basic information such as address, phone, email, GPA, and graduation date (for students) at the top of your resume.

There are a few important attributes that a hiring manager is looking for and that you want to show with your resume:

  • Motivated
  • Passionate
  • Skilled
  • Adaptable
  • Collaborative
  • Articulate

Since you are early in your career you won’t have as much work experience so you should make projects the centerpiece of your resume. In fact, even later in your career, a highly informative discussion can be had around projects that reveal the attributes noted above. For any project on your resume you should be able to speak to:

  • The purpose of the project
  • Why it was important
  • Did you work on a team
  • How did the team self-organize
  • How you overcame challenges
  • What was the outcome
  • Why you liked the project

Importantly, what a good hiring manager is looking for is intrinsic motivation. We want folks that are naturally excited about the domain they are looking to enter for their career.

So put your favorite project at the top of the list and drive the conversation to that project if you can. The person you are talking to needs to see what lights you up and there is native passion for your favorite project that you need to let shine through.The project description should be brief and to the point, with a focus on the “what”, “why”, and the outcome. A project description doesn’t need to be burdened with the tech used unless it adds to the overall narrative.

Projects don’t have to be school class projects or work experience. They can be side hustles, Open Source, personal interest, or Hackathon projects.

If you haven’t done a lot of projects, take the initiative to find a couple of projects to work on. If you are in school or in your first job and it’s not producing projects that engage you, seek them out or invent them yourself. This will be reflected in your resume and will send a signal that you are curious, passionate about the domain, and look beyond what you are doing day to day for interesting problems to solve.

One final bit of advice on resumes, is that you can have more than one resume for different audiences. For example if you are equally interested in DevOps and software development, craft two different resumes that highlight projects and work experience in each category. You can also optimize resumes for different industries to highlight aspects of your experience or interests that cast you in a good light for that market.

The Introduction

The introduction is a critical face to face interaction that is your opportunity to form a connection with a potential hiring manager or recruiter. There is an incredibly short window of opportunity to impress the person which means you need to say a few impactful words, delivered with confidence.

When you approach the company representative, reach out to shake hands while you say hello and start your introduction. People receive signals from a handshake so don’t go soft and don’t be aggressive. Just a firm, confident handshake will do the trick. Practice with friends.

I personally will listen for about a minute before I interrupt and direct the conversation to, say, the resume in a candidate’s hand but it’s important to have a story that is concise, to the point, and well rehearsed.

The introduction should contain your name, your college program and graduation date (if appropriate), what you are passionate about, what role you are looking for, what your interest is in the company, and why you would be successful. It’s a brief statement of intent and a value proposition signal. You should practice saying it out loud often enough that you can deliver it with a practiced confidence, energy and restrained enthusiasm while looking the person straight in the eye.

Don’t make assumptions about the person you are talking to; ask them what their role is at the company. If they are technical, this is an opportunity to signal your depth. If they are not, you can tailor the conversation accordingly.

Also don’t launch into a description of every item on your resume; exercise restraint and stay focused on a concise introduction that will lead into a conversation.

Finally, like resumes, you can have more than one introduction crafted for different audiences.

The Conversation

Your introduction will lead into a very short, general conversation which you also need to be prepared for. If the introduction is the hook, then this conversation is closing the deal on a phone screen. (Note you are not closing the deal on a job or an interview, that’s later. You just want a second look which is what the phone screen is.)

You get it by handing the recruiter or hiring manager your resume to scan and ask their questions. Have a ready answer for everything on your resume including any questions about whether or not things went bad on a project or an obviously short tenure at one of your jobs.

You should also seek to align your interests with what the company does which requires research.

At most career fairs there is a list of companies available ahead of time so you can research them and target the companies that do work that best aligns with your interests. If you aren’t sure about what your passions are or it’s hard to figure out what the company does, be prepared to put that out there right away. Some of the most awkward moments are when someone tries to improvise what they think my company does. Don’t improvise, do the research. It’s easy, and pays dividends.

Just identify a few things that the company does to show interest and then ask about other things the company does and what market they operate in. What’s important is that you show that you are interested and motivated enough to do the research. This also helps with the common question you may get: “why do you want to work for Willard’s Widgets?” If you’ve done the research you’ll have a good idea of whether you can honestly say that whatever they do is super interesting and you’ve love to help the company be successful.

Other questions you can ask are “what is the culture like?”, “tell me about an exciting initiative at the company”, and as you wrap up the conversation you could ask “when can I expect to hear back?”

To get extra credit educate yourself on the industry that the company operates in. If you can speak intelligently about the major trends in a market and tie it to what a company does, you are instantly distinguished from your peers. Very few early career candidates pay much attention to the business side of things but it’s important to understand the industry you work in, especially as you mature in your career.

Appearance

No need to wear a suit; it’s not the norm for our industry except for executives (and even then there are a lot of hoodies and t-shirts in the wild). But don’t wear pajamas with bunny slippers either. Casual clothes that are clean and not shredded, a folder full of printed resumes, and a cell phone are what you need when you step up to the table to confidently deliver that well-practiced introduction.

If you are comfortable with it, you can add something colorful, or otherwise visibly interesting or memorable, to your outfit that makes you stand out from the blue jeans/black leggings and t-shirt crowd. Don’t be silly or obnoxious, just wear or add something visual and unique to your outfit or just make it more colorful in general. It provides something else for the hiring manager or recruiter to associate with a good conversation when they’re digging through a pile of resumes, trying to decide who to call.

Finally, job fairs can be taxing so make sure you take breaks and have access to snacks and drinks to power you through the event and keep up your energy levels.

Sincerely,

Jeff

Jeff Beard is a director of software development at Oracle Data Cloud. He would also like to acknowledge Caitlin Hickey and Mridula Natrajan for their help editing this post.

You know more than you think

This is a guest post from Cara Borenstein. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

A couple of years ago, I started my first job in Silicon Valley. I was a junior software engineer at a fast-moving company and I was so excited to have the opportunity to learn. I worked hard. I looked up terms I wasn’t familiar with. I was constantly asking “how?” – “how do I do this?”, “how does this work?” I was shipping code and learning fast.

Only after a number of months, did I realize I was doing something wrong and letting my team down.

It came to my team’s attention that we had chosen the wrong type of core technology for one of our main projects. The team leaders wanted to understand why we had chosen this technology.

I had no idea why we had chosen this technology because I had never asked. Had I asked, we would’ve realized pretty quickly that this technology wasn’t a good choice for our system. But I was confident that my senior teammate always knew the right choices to make.

I didn’t think I knew enough to ask. I had what’s commonly referred to as “imposter syndrome”.

My failure to ask why wasn’t just a missed learning opportunity for me. It resulted in my team making an expensive mistake of choosing a wrong technology.

Now I can see that I did know enough to ask why and it was my responsibility to do so. The same goes for you, new developer.

Software engineering is a lot about tradeoffs – choosing one software design over another. Design trade-offs are often not completely clear cut and they warrant a discussion. You don’t need to have decades of experience to be able to understand the choices you and your team make. You just need to do your part to make sure your team has these discussions.

When you ask your teammates why you push them to explain their thought processes. This helps your team to more thoroughly evaluate different options and to eventually arrive at better decisions.

Moreover, these whys create some of the best documentation for future engineers that join the team. If the thought process behind a choice wasn’t obvious to you, it will likely be confusing to many future team members too.

How to ask “why”

Here are some tips that have worked well for me.

First, make sure that you are asking “why” with a mindset of learning and understanding, not blaming. This will shape how you phrase your question. For example, you can start your question with “I’d like to understand why we…” or “I’m unclear as to why we…”.

Then identify one person who is likely best to discuss “why” with. More often than not, you’ll want to start by asking one senior engineer on your team or your technical lead. After speaking with them, if there’s further discussion or changes needed, you can bring this to the rest of your team together.

To initiate your question, bring it up informally without an expectation of immediately discussing it. This can be in an informal conversation, at your team’s daily standup, or in a Slack message. For example, you might ask – “Hey teammate, I’m confused as to why we’re… Do you have time later today or tomorrow to go over it?” With this approach, you can communicate your question while being respectful of your teammate’s time.

How to document “why”

Now that you’ve asked “why,” you may have driven some changes in your team’s plans, but you definitely have learned something interesting. Write it down! This is some of the most useful documentation your team can have.

When writing down why be sure to include

  • your question
  • a summary of what you discovered
  • any constraints that impacted your team’s choice
  • any other options your team considered and the pros/cons
  • any action items for your team given what you learned

Ask your teammate to review your written “why” to make sure you didn’t miss anything and are on the same page. Once it’s approved, share it with the entire team.

If your team currently uses a wiki or shared drive solution for documentation, you can

  • create a “start with why” folder
  • write a new document for each “why” within this folder
  • add a hypertext link to this document from each software doc that’s impacted

Start asking “why”

So, new developer, asking “why” will help you learn faster and help your team make better choices. And writing down “why” will provide your team with useful documentation for future work. So get started now. Start asking “why.”

Sincerely,

Cara

Cara Borenstein is a founder at Bytebase – a collaboration tool for lightweight knowledge sharing. If you’re interested in a faster way to capture and organize your “why” learnings, you can try out what we’re building at Bytebase.

Be Adaptable and Authentic

This is a guest post from Morgan Whaley, lightly edited. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

Honestly my #1 piece of career or technical advice to new developers is:

Be adaptable and authentic.

I don’t think there is any one magic bullet to helping someone “break into” a job, or business, or new city. Humans are all different and the beauty of diversity in industry and environments is when everyone truly brings themselves and overrides the homogenization that we accuse modern cities and tech of becoming.

If something isn’t working, there’s “no harm, no foul” in changing approaches, or taking a break, or simply admitting something isn’t working.

I see a lot of people who treat that first job like it’s a task they gotta beat into submission and they tie so much self-worth to it. Which is completely understandable… but the more you resist a situation and don’t remain open to possibilities, the more you are going to run into brick walls.

Morgan

PS Also, LEAVE YOUR HOUSE AND GO TALK TO PEOPLE FACE TO FACE OH MY GOD PLEASE IT’LL BE OK.

Morgan Whaley is a Senior Prototype Architect at Charter Communications.

It is never too late to start learning how to code

This is a guest post from Jenna Quindica. Enjoy.

Dear New Developer,

I didn’t learn how to program until I was 18; in fact, I didn’t know about computer science the concept until I was 18. It is never too late to start learning how to code.

In the beginning I struggled the most with navigating acronyms, words, and phrases I’d never heard of. I vaguely knew what a server was, but I didn’t know what a command line was, let alone what you do with one. File extensions that weren’t Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint confused me. The closest I got to computer science as a kid was clearing my Chrome browser history. My Neopets password was five alpha characters, and I was devastated when my account got hacked.

I didn’t start to enjoy programming until I knew how my piece fit into the rest of the picture. Find a friend who can teach you the vocabulary so that you can better understand the ecosystem.

Warmly,
Jenna

Jenna Quindica is a software engineer at First Round, a seed-stage venture capital firm. She dropped out of her computer science major at Cornell University to work at four early-stage startups. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How to Develop Expert Intuition

This is a guest post from Kim Schlesinger. Enjoy.

Dear New Developer,

I know you worked hard to get where you are. You are self-taught, you earned a degree in computer science, or you graduated from a coding bootcamp, and your hard work helped you master the skills required to be a ‘junior’ developer. (I prefer the term early-career developer, but I’ll use the terms junior and senior developer in this blog post.)

Whether you are still searching for your first dev gig, or you’ve been at your first job for a while, you’re probably wondering what it will take for you to be a senior developer. There are lots of factors that contribute to being a ‘senior’, but the most important one is time.

It takes time to become a senior engineer because you are developing what behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘Expert Intuition.’ Expert intuition is knowing how the story ends because you’ve read the book many times before. Expert intuition means that you can see a technical problem and you just know how it can be solved. Expert intuition is the difference between a junior and senior developer.

Kahneman says that the ingredients for this kind of expertise are

A Regular World + Many Opportunities to Learn + Frequent Feedback = Expert Intuition

Let’s take a look at what these things look like for a new developer.

A Regular World

A regular world is where there are a set of rules you can learn. For a new developer, that means a job where you can observe and begin to navigate your company’s culture. It also means having an opportunity to write code with a few programming languages, frameworks and approaches to deploying software. Even if your company’s culture isn’t great, or you’re not writing code in the language you prefer, your early experiences will help you figure out what you do and don’t like in a company, and if you’d like to specialize in a specific part of the software creation process, or remain a generalist.

If you’re still searching for a job, you can create a regular world by setting aside time each week to work through exercises on a learning path like Exercism, contributing pull requests to open source projects or civic hacking projects through Code for America and networking and applying for jobs.

Many Opportunities to Learn

As a new developer, your most obvious opportunity to learn is to write code and work on technical projects. Definitely do that, and know that another way to learn is to observe engineers that are more senior than you.

Pick one colleague you admire, and notice how they learn new concepts or technologies, how they ask questions in meetings, and what they do on a project before they start writing code. Ask to pair with this person, take them out to coffee and ask them what technologies they’re curious about, and how they approach writing code. As soon as you identify some of their signature behaviors, start to emulate them.

If you’re still looking for a job, find a streamer you like and copy their behaviors. I’m a fan of Coding Garden with CJ and Suz Hinton.

It’ll take time for you to make these behaviors your own, but being intentional with how your craft your developer habits and mindsets is a faster path to becoming a senior engineer than other, more conventional, learning opportunities.

Frequent Feedback

The final element that will help you develop your expert intuition is getting frequent feedback. You can get feedback from other developers through code reviews, you can get feedback on your technical and non-technical performance through regular 1:1s with your manager, and you can reflect and improve on your performance by keeping an end of the day journal where write down what you learned and how you felt during the day.

It Takes Time

In June of 2018, I took a job as an apprentice Site Reliability Engineer. Before that, I was a full-time educator, and part time JavaScript developer. I assumed it would take me a few months to figure out how my new company operated, and 6 or so months to get a grasp of cloud computing in AWS and Google Cloud Platform, Docker, Kubernetes, and the wide variety Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment platforms.

I’m a year and a half into the job, and although I am more skilled than when I started, there is still so much for me to learn and do. Moving from web development to site reliability engineering is a big transition, and I underestimated hard it would be. I’ve made peace with the fact that it will take me years before I will be an expert. New developer, you’re starting a new career, and it takes years to grow into your professional self. It takes time, so be patient, and remember the ingredients for developing expert intuition.

Sincerely,

Kim

Kim Schlesinger is a Site Reliability Engineer at Fairwinds Ops. Prior to Fairwinds, she co-founded diversity, and was an Instructor, Developer, and Curriculum Designer for the Web Development Program at Galvanize, a codeschool based in Denver, Colorado.
In her spare time, Kim is a CrossFit athlete and the Head of Education and Content for Develop Denver, a 2-day conference for developers, designers, strategists and tech leaders.