What to Learn

2017-08-02

I once heard a tech speaker say that in programming her job description was “learn new things,” and I’m happy to steal that way of putting it. In seventeen years of professional work I’ve never done a project that didn’t require me to learn something new on-the-job. It’s what I love about programming. But how do you decide what to learn?

Some things you learn because your project demands it, and those lessons are small and focused (hopefully most of the time): a new library here, some protocol detail there, today something about Linux, tomorrow something about Docker. This is stuff you do on the job, practically every day.

That’s not what I’m talking about here, but I’ll offer some advice in passing: when you learn a new tidbit, try to write it down. You don’t have to spend time polishing it, and if it helps then write it somewhere private. But write it down. I use personal man pages for this—and I’m not very good at it myself. If you’re bad at it too, then at the very least spend an extra 20 minutes making sure you actually understand, and come up with a few experiments to test that your take is correct. Try to put your understanding into words, at least in your own head.

But instead of that on-the-spot learning, I want to talk about things we learn that take more time and have a more long-term payoff. We typically do this off the job, without pay. I think most programmers love learning (or they would soon find a different job), so we can’t help ourselves. But also it pays to keep your skills current and sharp. Every professional has to do this. My favorite book about professional services work (which despite the title is about way more than managing) talks about developing your “asset”—you—by continuously learning. Lawyers, architects, accountants, doctors—all have to keep learning. Car mechanics too. With programmers the pace is different, but I expect the world doesn’t exactly stand still for anyone else either.

There is so much to learn! And the hype is everywhere, stealing your attention and diffusing your time. Prototype, jQuery, Backbone, Knockout, Angular, Ember, React, Vue, … Less, Sass, Uglify, Asset Pipeline, Npm, Bower, Babel, Gulp, Grunt, Ember-cli, Webpack, … Oracle, MySQL, Postgres, Memcached, Cassandra, Mongo, CouchDB, Redis, Riak, DynamoDB, … Aaah! You can’t learn it all, so you have to be deliberate.

I often hear advice to learn one new language a year, two new languages a year, whatever. The best versions of this advice say to learn a new “kind” of language, like Lisp or Haskell or Prolog. For a new programmer, that’s pretty good advice, and I still follow it myself. (For me the last few years it’s been Haskell, Rust, and Elixir.) But for several years I’ve tried to adopt a more strategic approach. One of the problems with learning another language is that either it’s something you won’t actually use, or you mostly leave behind the old one, so it’s like starting over from zero. (Not really, but a little bit.) After a couple dozen you start to wonder how to make the investment more worthwhile. Is there a way to make our learning build on itself, so we aren’t throwing away so much time? Here is my own approach to having some “continuity” in what I learn:

First, realize that there are so many more categories besides language! There are operating systems, cloud environments, back-end frameworks, front-end frameworks, databases, build tools, deployment tools, networking protocols, specialties like GIS or machine learning, industries like e-commerce or finance or health care, “soft” skills like writing, requirements gathering, design, management, financial planning, sales. Don’t get stuck in a rut of thinking in only one dimension.

Second, don’t be too focused. Go ahead and mix in some “useless” learning. I’ve had fun lately reading about the history of transistors, the integrated circuit, and the Internet. Or to take it to an extreme, you could learn some Greek or Latin or Chinese. :-) Whatever you like. One of those books (The Chip) actually talks about how Jack Kilby, the co-inventor of the IC, would read several newpapers and a bunch of magazines every day, plus every new patent granted by the government. Maybe that’s an extreme, but it’s good to have some breadth because you never know what will come in handy or inspire you. But more than that, recreation is important. Read some trashy science fiction or something.

But when you are being deliberate, I think there are three good alternatives to “learn another language”. The first is to learn something that complements your current skills. Suppose you are (or want to be) a “full-stack web developer.” Okay, learn some Rails, pick one Javascript framework and learn it, but then also learn some advanced Postgres, learn some details about HTTP or SSL or CORS, learn Wireshark and IP, learn HTTP Canvas, learn a configuration management tool like Chef or Ansible. I think Chef is a great complement to Rails (or Ansible to Django). My own current “expansion of territory” is down the stack, learning some Rust and reading The Linux Programming Interface. Learn the things that border on what you do, so you are gradually expanding. This is “breadth”, but in a calculated, not desultory way. You’ll probably put those skills to use right away, so they’ll sink in and make you better at your job.

Second is to dive deep somewhere. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Postgres. I’ve been hired to scale it, to replicate it, to write C extensions for it. Maybe for you it is React or Datomic or AWS or reverse engineering or Ruby performance tuning. But get on the mailing list, follow what problems the community is trying to solve right now, write some blog posts, get to know someone in the community. Whatever it is, use it enough to find some friction points and maybe even fix one or two. You don’t have to make it your whole identity (though you could), but instead of learning a new thing, go in the opposite direction: go deep.

So far this is a lot like the classic “T-shaped person” advice, but I’m saying that for the breadth, pick things connected to your specialty, and for your specialty, have a “specialty within the specialty”. Keep trying to push a little further out, a little further down.

Third and finally is to learn something truly new, at the cutting edge of research. For the last couple years I’ve been reading about temporal databases, which have 20-30 years of academic study but few well-developed practical tools (especially open source ones). This isn’t something I’ve been able to use on a real project (yet), but it’s been great fun, and it feels like a way to find opportunities to build something before anyone else does. How you find your topic is by listening to your pain and seeing if there are other people trying to solve the same problems. Some other things I wish I could become an expert in: Bayesian statistics, operational transforms, HTTP/2, column-store databases, RDF, type theory, vector CPU instructions. There is so much happening! Pick something that people are writing papers about and learn a little.

So that’s what I’ve learned the last few years about learning. Instead of “learn another language”, try to be strategic. Try to build on what you have. Careers are long, so try to find some long-term problems you can grapple with. Maybe like Kilby you will even solve one!

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