The Eternal Novice Trap – Blind Not Dumb


Introduction

It was the dawn of a new century in the tech world. We’d just survived the great Y2K scare which, for many of us, turned out to be nothing. I spent a memorably pleasant Y2K eve playing board games and sipping champagne at my company’s East Cambridge office, enjoying the company of my co-workers. I felt like I was on top of the world.

Right around that time I encountered a book that would change the way I thought about computing. It contained a huge amount of overall incredibly positive and helpful advice. That book was The Pragmatic Programmer.

The Trap is Set

This book contains innumerable bits of incredibly useful advice. The pearls contained within its pages will help you build a successful career as a technology professional.

But I write this in the hope that you won’t misinterpret one particular bit of advice like I unintentionally did. In some ways it hurt my career. Thankfully I became aware of it a few years back and am now headed in the right direction.

Here’s the advice I used to hamstring myself:

Learn at least one new language every year. Different languages solve the same problems in different ways. By learning several different approaches, you can help broaden your thinking and avoid getting stuck in a rut.

The Pragmatic Programmer, 2nd edition

This is superb advice for its time, when the majority of programmers spent their days coding away in a single language or two.

It’s superb advice to this day for that kind of person. If you’ve spent years coding in Python, why not try your hand at something with a radically different paradigm? By doing so you’ll learn new ways of solving problems.

But zooming back to post Y2K me, that picture didn’t fit me at all. I’d started out as a sysadmin, learning a huge amount about the care and feeding of UNIX based systems. I’d done some simple scripting to automate administrative tasks, but nothing at all complex or strenuous. A little bit of shell, some Perl, and I had things humming along just great.

Only I took the advice literally, despite my total lack of mastery of any programming language. With wild abandon, I threw myself into every new programming language I encountered..

The Bright, Shiny, Infinite Rabbit Hole

I played with countless languages, FORTH, a myriad of LISPs. You name it, I played with it. If there was a new hot language on the scene you can bet I’d be downloading it and figuring out how to write Hello, World and a few other toy examples.

But that’s as far as it went, because, if I’m honest with myself, playing with new toys doesn’t feel like work. It’s a shot of dopamine. It feels really good in the moment. You feel accomplished because now you can talk about $LANGUAGE along with the rest of the cool kids who are exploring it.

There are also external reinforcements for this behavior. By being able to talk the talk, you can appear smarter than you are. You can probably even answer surface level questions in job interviews which can, in the short term, help your career.

But not unlike living on sugar and caffeine, that short term buzz will wear off, leaving you feeling empty and, ultimately, like the emperor walking around with no clothes. You can talk the talk like a champ, and be up with the latest buzz, but in some corner of your mind you may recognize that your basic skills are fundamentally lacking.

Brush Your Teeth, Eat Your Veggies, Get Sleep & Exercise

Thankfully, the fix is at least conceptually easy. Just stop doing that 🙂 Pick a language that will become your daily driver, and focus on building your core skills using that language.

Build deep, featureful applications. Learn and exercise your skills using the full breadth of your language’s ecosystem, and solve real problems using your language of choice.

For me, that language is Python. That’s an easy choice because my day job is building infrastructure for a major cloud vendor and 90%+ of our tooling is written in Python. For the last few years I’ve promised myself to not learn any new programming languages until I become at least a Journeyman with Python.

You may find, as I did, that this is easier in concept than in practice. You may need some structure to help you achieve this goal. Everyone is different, so this isn’t a one size fits all suggestion. I’ll share some resources that may help.

Resources to Help Sharpen Your Tools

These days there is an embarrassment of riches out there, free for the taking to anyone with a computer and an internet connection to leverage. I’m just going to cover a few that I’ve found particularly helpful.

100 Days of Code with Python

If you’re like me, having a free form set of exercises can be good, but adding some structure with definite time constraints and deadlines, even if you set them yourself, can be immensely helpful. This course was pretty much ideal for my needs. The idea is that you commit code every day for 100 days. This course uses that framework to take you on a guided smorgasbord tour of the incredibly rich Python ecosystem. The course introduces a particular topic or module and then has you build an interesting near real world application with it. I learned so much from this course that it alone has been a real boost to my career.

Completing a course like this can be a daunting task, especially while working full time. However I found the results are well worth the effort. Hopefully you can find something similar for your language of choice.

Exercism

Exercism is an incredible resource regardless of the programming language you work in. It’s not just a set of practice exercises, but a community of people who’ll help review your code and provide mentorship.

Project Euler

These are language agnostic problem sets that will stretch your skills and force you to really exercise your problem solving skills. I myself have only scratched the surface with these, and plan to delve deeper in the future.

Parting Thoughts

I hope you’ll find value in what I wrote here. I wish I’d had this article earlier on in my career. Maybe I can help someone avoid falling into the trap I did. To sum up:

  • Do learn new programming languages and paradigms, but learn them from a place of confidence and mastery with your primary tool of choice.
  • Don’t fall for the trap of perpetually chasing after the bright shiny thing that’s hot right now. Recognize that what’s new isn’t necessarily better. Take what will meaningfully help you advance your career and let the rest flow by. There’ll always be more tomorrow.
  • Do keep having fun! You’ll learn more quickly and retain more if you’re finding enjoyment in what you do. Sometimes it means looking at things a little differently, but often that open mindedness can pay off.



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