With the coming and passing of the predicated date of the Mayan apocalypse, I got to thinking about what kind of final advice I would leave the development world in the event of my untimely departure.
I suppose this is quite a strange thing to ponder given the circumstances, since if the world did indeed end there wouldn’t really be anyone to pass this advice onto anyway. Also, given that I am writing this blog post now, it would already be too late.
Regardless, it got me thinking about the little things I have learned in my development career that might be helpful to others.
So without further adieu, if I could only leave one blog post to the future generation of developers, here is what it would be.
1. Break things into small tasks
This might seem like a strange thing to put at number one.
I mean really, of all the advice that you can give, breaking things into small tasks is number 1?
Yes, it is that important!
Breaking things into small tasks is not just a skill that will make you a better developer, but it is a critical thing that will determine whether or not you enjoy what you are doing.
I have found so many times that when I have become unhappy with my work or felt distraught by the overwhelming task ahead of me, it is mostly because I have failed to break down a chunk of work into small tasks.
Just this last week I re-realized how much a difference just breaking things up into small enough tasks can make on the overall morale of an entire team and my individual feel of satisfaction with the work I am doing.
Time and time I come back to this very real realization; that breaking things up into small tasks doesn’t necessarily make me a better developer, but it makes me a much happier developer. (Although it is quite easy to make the argument that it makes me better at my job as well.)
2. Help others
This one may also come as a surprise, but I’ve found that helping others is one of the best ways to help yourself.
Not that we should have selfish ambitions when helping others, but I want to point out something that many developers don’t realize when they are first starting out. Most developers never realize how much they actually benefit from helping other developers. I have been in plenty of great environments where every developer was willing to help anyone else who needed their help, but I have also encountered many environments where that was not the case.
Sometimes we can be trapped into thinking that helping others will reduce our own value, because we will be giving out our valuable knowledge to others for free.
This way of thinking could not be further from the truth. In contrast, I have found that helping others results in a much deeper understanding of things yourself. I’ve talked about how teaching something is really the best way to learn a subject, but it goes much deeper than that. When someone asks questions about something you take for granted, you have to answer a question you don’t normally ask yourself when you know how–why.
Helping others forces you to answer the question of why you are doing something a certain way and brings to the surface of your mind a much fuller understanding of a problem.
In addition to gaining deeper understandings of what you already know, helping others often will expose you rapidly to a large number of problems. I cannot express how valuable the increased exposure to problems is in accelerating your own learning.
3. Speak up tactfully
Perhaps you may not feel like what you have to say is important or that you don’t want to cause conflict or maybe you are just trying to be agreeable, but whatever your reason is, “stop it!”
You need to express your voice, because doing so is going to actually make you part of the team rather than being a passenger on the bus.
I often see that many developers either remain quiet or speak their mind with no temperance in what they say.
It is very important to say what you think, but it is just as important to do so in a tactful way. I realize this is much easier said that done, but mastering this skill will help you immensely in your career. I have found that very rarely will someone be offended by your ideas, even if they contrast their own, if you present your ideas in a tactful way and you are willing to change directions when you realize you are wrong.
It is amazing how many things many of us do over and over again each and every day and we never take the time to automate them. The more brainless tasks that we do which could be automated, the less time we have to do things that actually improve our skills and really matter.
I’ve found that I often fall into the trap of thinking that I don’t have enough time to automate tasks that I am doing, so I keep doing them over and over again.
I still have about a dozen things I can think of right now that need to be automated.
As software developers we should really take the time to automate these things, because software development is automation.
5. Understand first
Another major trap that we can fall into is trying to jump into things without fully understanding the problem.
I don’t know how many times I have tried to fix a bug without actually reproducing it first. Many times I prematurely jump into trying to solve a problem before I fully understand it, because I feel like I don’t have the time to spend learning about the problem.
This is always a wrong choice!
I’ve found time and time again that the moment you fully understand a problem you solve it. (There are some exceptions of course.)
6. Have a side project
Not only will it likely provide you a second source of income, but it will improve your skills and give you an important outlet to learn and explore without the outside pressure of time or politics.
It can be pretty difficult to have a full time job and still try and do something on the side. I know that after working for 8 hours the last thing you probably want to do is come home and work some more, but there is a very large value in doing something for yourself that adds up over time.
Most of us spend our day jobs working for someone else and making them money. Most of our day jobs involve doing work that only benefits us for a single paycheck. What I mean by this is that the work you do at your job doesn’t continue to pay you dividends over time. So if you work your regular job for 20 years at the end of 20 years, the only thing you will have is the money you earned from that work.
Now think about what happens if you devote 1 or 2 hours a day to doing some work for yourself every day as well. 1 or 2 hours a day might not seem like much, but over just 2 years that is 500 to 1000 hours of work on a side project. Think about what you could accomplish in 500 to 1000 hours.
7. Read books
I’ve talked about this idea many times, because it is so important. You should always be reading some kind of book that will improve your skills and knowledge. I do videos for Pluralsight, and videos and blog posts are great, but books are still vitally important.
Books require much more thought and are processed much more than any other medium.
Think about what goes into the process of writing a book. Books are outlined, then written, edited and revised and technically proofed. Books also tend to cover subjects much more deeply than a blog post or a video series.
So, I am not saying to avoid other mediums, but I am saying that quality books are an important part of improving your abilities as a software developer.
8. Do the right thing
Bob Martin had an great post on saying “no.” The basic idea is that you are a professional and because you are a professional sometimes you’ll have to basically disobey what your client or employer asks for and instead insist on doing the right thing.
I recognize there is often a great cost associated with this line of thinking– you might lose your job– but if you ever want to consider yourself a professional, you have to be able to make these kinds of tough choices.
In my experience, I have never been fired or even detrimentally affected by taking this stance.
I’ve always tried to take this position in a very respectful way and that has probably been a large reason of why I have had success with it. I have found that most employers and clients will respect you and value you more even if they are a bit ticked off initially. This goes back to the idea of speaking up and doing so in a tactful way. When you do this correctly and you insist on doing the right thing it is called integrity and even if someone disagrees with your position, most people will respect you for it.
9. Be kind
Seriously, is there any benefit to you or anyone else by being mean?
I know it isn’t always easy to be kind, but you should really strive to be, because it does no good to treat people poorly.
Alvin the Chipmunk once said that you’ll meet the same little people on the way down as you did on the way up.
I can’t make an effective argument of how being kind to others will benefit you, and even if I could I wouldn’t try, because that is really not the point. The point is we are all human beings and we are all deeply flawed, but every single one of us has value and that value can be appreciated.
So, just be nice to everyone you meet along your way and you’ll have a much better time of it. Call it Karma if you will.