You’re going to put some plates in toasters

Dear new developer,

I saw this insightful tweet:

The whole thread is worth reading, but you get the basic idea. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

When I think back over the years, I am amazed at how many things I can do without thinking now that would have been baffling to me at the beginning of my career, including technical and non technical knowledge). This list includes:

  • navigate files and directories work
  • examine an HTTP call
  • determine the performance characteristics of an application
  • refactor an application
  • architect a large application
  • run a meeting
  • plan a project
  • exit vi

The road is long. And I still put plates in toasters periodically.

Recently at work, I energetically revised a planning document, adding what I thought was a ton of insight and value. Later I found out that the value I added was actually negative and that I’d done more harm than good to the organization’s goals when adding my thoughts. Man, was that a humbling and learning experience. Actually, that was more like putting a fork in a electrical socket than putting a plate in a toaster.

Much of what I know is at a high level with the idea that I can dive in (using resources like Google or Stackoverflow or a mentor) if I determine a need. Just knowing that something exists means that I can leverage all the great learning resources available if I see a place where it might appy. I also do a lot of pattern matching, where I compare how one system or process worked and see if and how that knowledge applies to a new problem.

So when you find yourself floundering, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and dig in to learn. Foundational competence is something that you will acquire with time and study. But until you do, you’ll be putting plates in toasters.

Sincerely,

Dan

Things learned the hard way

Dear new developer,

Sometimes you only learn through experience. This post catalogs 30 years of experience. As I read this, I nodded my head often.

Good points include:

Be ready to throw your code away

A lot of people, when they start with TDD, get annoyed when you say that you may have to rewrite a lot of stuff, including whatever your already wrote.

TDD was designed to throw code away: The more you learn about your problem, the more you understand that, whatever you wrote, won’t solve the problem in the long run.

You shouldn’t worry about this. Your code is not a wall: if you have to throw it always, it is not wasted material. Surely it means your time writing code was lost, but you got a better understanding about the problem now.

and

A language is much more than a language

A programming language is that thing that you write and make things “go”. But it has much more beyond special words: It has a build system, it has a dependency control system, it has a way of making tools/libraries/frameworks interact, it has a community, it has a way of dealing with people.

Don’t pick languages just ’cause they easier to use. Always remember that you may approve the syntax of a language for being that easy, but you’re also enabling the way maintainers deal with the community by choosing that language.

and

Don’t mess with things outside your project

Sometimes people are tempted to, instead of using the proper extension tools, change external libraries/frameworks — for example, making changes directly into WordPress or Django.

This is an easy way to make the project unmaintainable really really fast. As soon as a new version is released, you’ll have to keep up your changes in sync with the main project and, pretty soon, you’ll find that the changes don’t apply anymore and you’ll leave the external project in an old version, full of security bugs.

and

Companies look for specialists but keep generalists longer

If you know a lot about one single language, it may make it easier to get a job, but in the long run, language usage dies and you’ll need to find something else. Knowing a bit about a lot of other languages helps in the long run, not to mention that may help you think of better solutions.

The whole thing, though long, is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan