10 Things to Improve Your Development Career
Cruising the Web late last night, I ran across "10 things you can do to advance your career as a developer", summarized below:
- Build a PC
- Participate in an online forum and help others
- Man the help desk
- Perform field service
- Perform DBA functions
- Perform all phases of the project lifecycle
- Recognize and learn the latest technologies
- Be an independent contractor
- Lead a project, supervise, or manage
- Seek additional education
I agreed with some of them, I disagreed with others, and in general felt like they were a little too high-level to be of real use. For example, "Seek additional education" seems entirely too vague: In what? How much? How often? And "Recognize and learn the latest technologies" is something like offering advice to the Olympic fencing silver medalist and saying, "You should have tried harder".
So, in the great spirit of "Not Invented Here", I present my own list; as usual, I welcome comment and argument. And, also as usual, caveats apply, since not everybody will be in precisely the same place and be looking for the same things. In general, though, whether you're looking to kick-start your career or just "kick it up a notch", I believe this list will help, because these ideas have been of help to me at some point or another in my own career.
10: Build a PC.
Yes, even developers have to know about hardware. More importantly, a developer at a small organization or team will find himself in a position where he has to take on some system administrator roles, and sometimes that means grabbing a screwdriver, getting a little dusty and dirty, and swapping hardware around. Having said this, though, once you've done it once or twice, leave it alone—the hardware game is an ever-shifting and ever-changing game (much like software is, surprise surprise), and it's been my experience that most of us only really have the time to pursue one or the other.
By the way, "PC" there is something of a generic term—build a Linux box, build a Windows box, or "build" a Mac OS box (meaning, buy a Mac Pro and trick it out a little—add more memory, add another hard drive, and so on), they all get you comfortable with snapping parts together, and discovering just how ridiculously simple the whole thing really is.
And for the record, once you've done it, go ahead and go back to buying pre-built systems or laptops—I've never found building a PC to be any cheaper than buying one pre-built. Particularly for PC systems, I prefer to use smaller local vendors where I can customize and trick out the box. If you're a Mac, that's not really an option unless you're into the "Hackintosh" thing, which is quite possibly the logical equivalent to "Build a PC". Having never done it myself, though, I can't say how useful that is as an educational action.
9: Pick a destination
Do you want to run a team of your own? Become an independent contractor? Teach programming classes? Speak at conferences? Move up into higher management and get out of the programming game altogether? Everybody's got a different idea of what they consider to be the "ideal" career, but it's amazing how many people don't really think about what they want their career path to be.
A wise man once said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I disagree: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the damn map. You have to know where you want to go, and a rough idea of how to get there, before you can really start with that single step. Otherwise, you're just wandering, which in itself isn't a bad thing, but isn't going to get you to a destination except by random chance. (Sometimes that's not a bad result, but at least then you're openly admitting that you're leaving your career in the hands of chance. If you're OK with that, skip to the next item. If you're not, read on.)
Lay out explicitly (as in, write it down someplace) what kind of job you're wanting to grow into, and then lay out a couple of scenarios that move you closer towards that goal. Can you grow within the company you're in? (Have others been able to?) Do you need to quit and strike out on your own? Do you want to lead a team of your own? (Are there new projects coming in to the company that you could put yourself forward as a potential tech lead?) And so on.
Once you've identified the destination, now you can start thinking about steps to get there.
If you want to become a speaker, put your name forward to give some presentations at the local technology user group, or volunteer to hold a "brown bag" session at the company. Sign up with Toastmasters to hone your speaking technique. Watch other speakers give technical talks, and see what they do that you don't, and vice versa.
If you want to be a tech lead, start by quietly assisting other members of the team get their work done. Help them debug thorny problems. Answer questions they have. Offer yourself up as a resource for dealing with hard problems.
If you want to slowly move up the management chain, look to get into the project management side of things. Offer to be a point of contact for the users. Learn the business better. Sit down next to one of your users and watch their interaction with the existing software, and try to see the system from their point of view.
And so on.
8: Be a bell curve
Frequently, at conferences, attendees ask me how I got to know so much on so many things. In some ways, I'm reminded of the story of a world-famous concert pianist giving a concert at Carnegie Hall—when a gushing fan said, "I'd give my life to be able to play like that", the pianist responded quietly, "I did". But as much as I'd like to leave you with the impression that I've dedicated my entire life to knowing everything I could about this industry, that would be something of a lie. The truth is, I don't know anywhere near as much as I'd like, and I'm always poking my head into new areas. Thank God for my ADD, that's all I can say on that one.
For the rest of you, though, that's not feasible, and not really practical, particularly since I have an advantage that the "working" programmer doesn't—I have set aside weeks or months in which to do nothing more than study a new technology or language.
Back in the early days of my career, though, when I was holding down the 9-to-5, I was a Windows/C++ programmer. I was working with the Borland C++ compiler and its associated framework, the ObjectWindows Library (OWL), extending and maintaining applications written in it. One contracting client wanted me to work with Microsoft MFC instead of OWL. Another one was storing data into a relational database using ODBC. And so on. Slowly, over time, I built up a "bell curve"-looking collection of skills that sort of "hovered" around the central position of C++/Windows.
Then, one day, a buddy of mine mentioned the team on which he was a project manager was looking for new blood. They were doing web applications, something with which I had zero experience—this was completely outside of my bell curve. HTML, HTTP, Cold Fusion, NetDynamics (an early Java app server), this was way out of my range, though at least NetDynamics was a little similar, since it was basically a server-side application framework, and I had some experience with app frameworks from my C++ days. So, resting on my C++ experience, I started flirting with Java, and so on.
Before long, my "bell curve" had been readjusted to have Java more or less at its center, and I found that experience in C++ still worked out here—what I knew about ODBC turned out to be incredibly useful in understanding JDBC, what I knew about DLLs from Windows turned out to be helpful in understanding Java's dynamic loading model, and of course syntactically Java looked a lot like C++ even though it behaved a little bit differently under the hood. (One article author suggested that Java was closer to Smalltalk than C++, and that prompted me to briefly flirt with Smalltalk before I concluded said author was out of his frakking mind.)
All of this happened over roughly a three-year period, by the way.
The point here is that you won't be able to assimilate the entire industry in a single sitting, so pick something that's relatively close to what you already know, and use your experience as a springboard to learn something that's new, yet possibly-if-not-probably useful to your current job. You don't have to be a deep expert in it, and the further away it is from what you do, the less you really need to know about it (hence the bell curve metaphor), but you're still exposing yourself to new ideas and new concepts and new tools/technologies that still could be applicable to what you do on a daily basis. Over time the "center" of your bell curve may drift away from what you've done to include new things, and that's OK.
7: Learn one new thing every year
In the last tip, I told you to branch out slowly from what you know. In this tip, I'm telling you to go throw a dart at something entirely unfamiliar to you and learn it. Yes, I realize this sounds contradictory. It's because those who stick to only what they know end up missing the radical shifts of direction that the industry hits every half-decade or so until it's mainstream and commonplace and "everybody's doing it".
In their amazing book "The Pragmatic Programmer", Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt suggest that you learn one new programming language every year. I'm going to amend that somewhat—not because there aren't enough languages in the world to keep you on that pace for the rest of your life—far from it, if that's what you want, go learn Ruby, F#, Scala, Groovy, Clojure, Icon, Io, Erlang, Haskell and Smalltalk, then come back to me for the list for 2020—but because languages aren't the only thing that we as developers need to explore. There's a lot of movement going on in areas beyond languages, and you don't want to be the last kid on the block to know they're happening.
Consider this list: object databases (db4o) and/or the "NoSQL" movement (MongoDB). Dependency injection and composable architectures (Spring, MEF). A dynamic language (Ruby, Python, ECMAScript). A functional language (F#, Scala, Haskell). A Lisp (Common Lisp, Clojure, Scheme, Nu). A mobile platform (iPhone, Android). "Space"-based architecture (Gigaspaces, Terracotta). Rich UI platforms (Flash/Flex, Silverlight). Browser enhancements (AJAX, jQuery, HTML 5) and how they're different from the rich UI platforms. And this is without adding any of the "obvious" stuff, like Cloud, to the list.
(I'm not convinced Cloud is something worth learning this year, anyway.)
You get through that list, you're operating outside of your comfort zone, and chances are, your boss' comfort zone, which puts you into the enviable position of being somebody who can advise him around those technologies. DO NOT TAKE THIS TO MEAN YOU MUST KNOW THEM DEEPLY. Just having a passing familiarity with them can be enough. DO NOT TAKE THIS TO MEAN YOU SHOULD PROPOSE USING THEM ON THE NEXT PROJECT. In fact, sometimes the most compelling evidence that you really know where and when they should be used is when you suggest stealing ideas from the thing, rather than trying to force-fit the thing onto the project as a whole.
6: Practice, practice, practice
Speaking of the concert pianist, somebody once asked him how to get to Carnegie Hall. HIs answer: "Practice, my boy, practice."
The same is true here. You're not going to get to be a better developer without practice. Volunteer some time—even if it's just an hour a week—on an open-source project, or start one of your own. Heck, it doesn't even have to be an "open source" project—just create some requirements of your own, solve a problem that a family member is having, or rewrite the project you're on as an interesting side-project. Do the Nike thing and "Just do it". Write some Scala code. Write some F# code. Once you're past "hello world", write the Scala code to use db4o as a persistent storage. Wire it up behind Tapestry. Or write straight servlets in Scala. And so on.
5: Turn off the TV
Speaking of marketing slogans, if you're like most Americans, surveys have shown that you watch about four hours of TV a day, or 28 hours of TV a week. In that same amount of time (28 hours over 1 week), you could read the entire set of poems by Maya Angelou, one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, all poems by T.S.Eliot, 2 plays by Thornton Wilder, or all 150 Psalms of the Bible. An average reader, reading just one hour a day, can finish an "average-sized" book (let's assume about the size of a novel) in a week, which translates to 52 books a year.
Let's assume a technical book is going to take slightly longer, since it's a bit deeper in concept and requires you to spend some time experimenting and typing in code; let's assume that reading and going through the exercises of an average technical book will require 4 weeks (a month) instead of just one week. That's 12 new tools/languages/frameworks/ideas you'd be learning per year.
All because you stopped watching David Caruso turn to the camera, whip his sunglasses off and say something stupid. (I guess it's not his fault; CSI:Miami is a crap show. The other two are actually not bad, but Miami just makes me retch.)
After all, when's the last time that David Caruso or the rest of that show did anything that was even remotely realistic from a computer perspective? (I always laugh out loud every time they run a database search against some national database on a completely non-indexable criteria—like a partial license plate number—and it comes back in seconds. What the hell database are THEY using? I want it!) Soon as you hear The Who break into that riff, flip off the TV (or set it to mute) and pick up the book on the nightstand and boost your career. (And hopefully sink Caruso's.)
Or, if you just can't give up your weekly dose of Caruso, then put the book in the bathroom. Think about it—how much time do you spend in there a week?
And this gets even better when you get a Kindle or other e-reader that accepts PDFs, or the book you're interested in is natively supported in the e-readers' format. Now you have it with you for lunch, waiting at dinner for your food to arrive, or while you're sitting guard on your 10-year-old so he doesn't sneak out of his room after his bedtime to play more XBox.
4: Have a life
Speaking of XBox, don't slave your life to work. Pursue other things. Scientists have repeatedly discovered that exercise helps keep the mind in shape, so take a couple of hours a week (buh-bye, American Idol) and go get some exercise. Pick up a new sport you've never played before, or just go work out at the gym. (This year I'm doing Hopkido and fencing.) Read some nontechnical books. (I recommend anything by Malcolm Gladwell as a starting point.) Spend time with your family, if you have one—mine spends at least six or seven hours a week playing "family games" like Settlers of Catan, Dominion, To Court The King, Munchkin, and other non-traditional games, usually over lunch or dinner. I also belong to an informal "Game Night club" in Redmond consisting of several Microsoft employees and their families, as well as outsiders. And so on. Heck, go to a local bar and watch the game, and you'll meet some really interesting people. And some boring people, too, but you don't have to talk to them during the next game if you don't want.
This isn't just about maintaining a healthy work-life balance—it's also about having interests that other people can latch on to, qualities that will make you more "human" and more interesting as a person, and make you more attractive and "connectable" and stand out better in their mind when they hear that somebody they know is looking for a software developer. This will also help you connect better with your users, because like it or not, they do not get your puns involving Klingon. (Besides, the geek stereotype is SO 90's, and it's time we let the world know that.)
Besides, you never know when having some depth in other areas—philosophy, music, art, physics, sports, whatever—will help you create an analogy that will explain some thorny computer science concept to a non-technical person and get past a communication roadblock.
3: Practice on a cadaver
Long before they scrub up for their first surgery on a human, medical students practice on dead bodies. It's grisly, it's not something we really want to think about, but when you're the one going under the general anesthesia, would you rather see the surgeon flipping through the "How-To" manual, "just to refresh himself"?
Diagnosing and debugging a software system can be a hugely puzzling trial, largely because there are so many possible "moving parts" that are creating the problem. Compound that with certain bugs that only appear when multiple users are interacting at the same time, and you've got a recipe for disaster when a production bug suddenly threatens to jeopardize the company's online revenue stream. Do you really want to be sitting in the production center, flipping through "How-To"'s and FAQs online while your boss looks on and your CEO is counting every minute by the thousands of dollars?
Take a tip from the med student: long before the thing goes into production, introduce a bug, deploy the code into a virtual machine, then hand it over to a buddy and let him try to track it down. Have him do the same for you. Or if you can't find a buddy to help you, do it to yourself (but try not to cheat or let your knowledge of where the bug is color your reactions). How do you know the bug is there? Once you know it's there, how do you determine what kind of bug it is? Where do you start looking for it? How would you track it down without attaching a debugger or otherwise disrupting the system's operations? (Remember, we can't always just attach an IDE and step through the code on a production server.) How do you patch the running system? And so on.
Remember, you can either learn these things under controlled circumstances, learn them while you're in the "hot seat", so to speak, or not learn them at all and see how long the company keeps you around.
2: Administer the system
Take off your developer hat for a while—a week, a month, a quarter, whatever—and be one of those thankless folks who have to keep the system running. Wear the pager that goes off at 3AM when a server goes down. Stay all night doing one of those "server upgrades" that have to be done in the middle of the night because the system can't be upgraded while users are using it. Answer the phones or chat requests of those hapless users who can't figure out why they can't find the record they just entered into the system, and after a half-hour of thinking it must be a bug, ask them if they remembered to check the "Save this record" checkbox on the UI (which had to be there because the developers were told it had to be there) before submitting the form. Try adding a user. Try removing a user. Try changing the user's password. Learn what a real joy having seven different properties/XML/configuration files scattered all over the system really is.
Once you've done that, particularly on a system that you built and tossed over the fence into production and thought that was the end of it, you'll understand just why it's so important to keep the system administrators in mind when you're building a system for production. And why it's critical to be able to have a system that tells you when it's down, instead of having to go hunting up the answer when a VP tells you it is (usually because he's just gotten an outage message from a customer or client).
1: Cultivate a peer group
Yes, you can join an online forum, ask questions, answer questions, and learn that way, but that's a poor substitute for physical human contact once in a while. Like it or not, various sociological and psychological studies confirm that a "connection" is really still best made when eyeballs meet flesh. (The "disassociative" nature of email is what makes it so easy to be rude or flamboyant or downright violent in email when we would never say such things in person.) Go to conferences, join a user group, even start one of your own if you can't find one. Yes, the online avenues are still open to you—read blogs, join mailing lists or newsgroups—but don't lose sight of human-to-human contact.
While we're at it, don't create a peer group of people that all look to you for answers—as flattering as that feels, and as much as we do learn by providing answers, frequently we rise (or fall) to the level of our peers—have at least one peer group that's overwhelmingly smarter than you, and as scary as it might be, venture to offer an answer or two to that group when a question comes up. You don't have to be right—in fact, it's often vastly more educational to be wrong. Just maintain an attitude that says "I have no ego wrapped up in being right or wrong", and take the entire experience as a learning opportunity.