Are You Hard to Convince?

When discussing a new technology, I’m rarely the first one to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, I’m usually the killjoy that ends up arguing against using a new library or a new language feature when the enthusiasm is high and everybody is eager to get started.

It’s not that I want to stay comfortable and never move forward. Rather, I need to be convinced that something is worth it instead of moving for the sake of it. New features and libraries can add complexity to something that’s already complex. That makes it harder for new people to join in (including you if you didn’t touch it for the last 6 months).

I’m all for new ideas that makes software easier to understand and that allows me to do my job better. Still, the argument about new technology is too focused on the shiny new technology itself, and not the problem it solves. A great idea is not enough; it has to work well in the real world.

To illustrate this, I choose a few templating engines at random on npm (not judging their quality; maybe they’re all great). Here is the kind of descriptions that will greet you:

Why should I choose one over the other, or use it to replace an existing tool?  A description like fast and powerful is not very helpful. It’s good to have, but who would pick a underpowered, slow engine?

Of course, if I’m looking specifically for an HTML template engines I can narrow it down a bit, but if I don’t have a strong preference one way or the other, what should I choose? There were surely a few problems or use cases that led to writing those engines instead of using an existing one, but I don’t have any way of knowing from looking at this.

At this point, I’m asking myself if the library will still exist in 5 years (without forcing me to rewrite everything every year) and if it’s well documented so I can get up to speed quickly, not if it implements a cool pattern in particular.

If I had to choose something for a project from that list, I would probably pick the ones that have the most promising documentation and a large following, and try them out for myself. Granted, it could still blow up later in production or when trying to implement a feature in particular since I’m only coding a prototype, but it’s better than nothing.

But after doing all this work, why would I switch to something new a few years down the line if the one I choose first still works well? I have to be really convinced that it can solve my problem better, and that is worth the cost of switching in improved productivity and ease of use. With the speed that the technology is moving I must be sure it’s worth it. I can’t afford to waste my time migrating to something that will make things worse.

Embrace your weirdness and stop worrying

Once you’ve reached the point where you’re a proficient programmer with a good understanding of a useful tech stack, you’re now faced with the sisyphean task of Keeping Up with New Tech.

Polishing your professional skills becomes trendsspotting, starting with daily Hacker News browsing sessions to find out what’s going to be the new hotness, and then making sure you know everything about it. Or it is really? Frameworks and tools keeps multiplying like rabbits, and anybody claiming they’re up to date is profoundly delusional: something new probably came up as they’re saying it.

I’ve been thinking about how futile it is to feel like you’re missing out on something great in today’s tech landscape. There was an era when you could know everything about a programming language, but this time is long gone. What you really need is to stay sharp and keep exercising that learning muscle so you’re ready when something hard gets thrown at you. Every software has its quirks, and your job is to learn them and be productive, not to be perfect the first time you’re touching it. You’ll never be 100% ready for a new task, so they’re no point in sacrificing all your nights and weekends to this.

Let’s face it: as an interviewer, would you be more interested in a candidate that messes with the insides of old NES games for fun, someone involved in their community with a blog or open source software, or yet another person which only has a bunch of buzzwords to offer? If you try to be close to the trend in the hope you’ll stay relevant for the hiring market, it’ll only make you identical to everything else, and it will lead you to burnout. Good teams include a mix of people with different ideas and interests, and not just an army of clones.

I’m leaning more and more toward the idea that you should embrace your weirdness, run with it and have some fun. I’m prone to being too serious at times myself, but learning a bit more about making game or electronics is not a life-long commitment. It’s merely a good excuse to go out of your comfort zone and learn a new and interesting skill. Besides, you never know what could come out of it…

Writing a book: how to work on many projects

After quite a bit of pondering, writing and editing, I shipped the Learning as a Software Developer book last week. The whole process took about 6 months to complete, so I had time to experiment with a few ways to work. During that time, it was important for me to keep the blog going and still have time for technical learning and my various homestead-y hobbies. So, in that case, I was in for a marathon, not a sprint.

Spoiler: making a commitment to write regularly was the best way to make progress.

I’ve also tried a batching approach to the problem. The idea was to write a few blog posts in advance the first week, then spend the next week working on the book, and finally do a bit of technical learning. It was working decently at first and I WAS able to batch a few posts in advance, but then life happened and I was only able to write a little bit for the book before having to go back to blog posts. Fail!

Making sure I’d work a bit on everything each week was the best way to make sure I’d keep moving forward. It kept everything fresh in my mind, so I had less catching up to do to go back into the flow and start writing. To limit context switches, I’d pick ONE thing to work on every night instead of jumping from task to task.

important-writingI’m aware this makes me less effective than batching, and that it takes more time to complete some projects, but this way I don’t lose steam and burn out. Right now, I’m living in manager space and not in maker space: I don’t have time to focus intensely on a project for hours every day, so I have to sprinkle important projects here and there to make sure they get done. If I space out working on each project too much, I’ll wake up 6 months later without having published a new blog post or written a newsletter.

Relating to this, I also had to hone my ability to get to work immediately (or at least faster) since I’m working during the gaps in my day. I only have a block of a few uninterrupted hours in the weekend if I’m lucky, so I can’t lose 2 hours getting started every time.

The key here is to have a task primed and ready to go, or at least a well-defined process. For example, to write a blog post, I generally write a draft in one go, and then edit the next time, so I’m either starting a new blog post or completing one.

Finally, what helped me is that all those tasks are similar enough to fall into the same habit. I changed my blogging habit to a habit of writing and coding using the same cues and rewards, so I’ve not lost a habit that took some work to build. It took quite a while to ship everything this way, but in the end it was worthwhile and allowed me to ship the first version of the book to you.