I get quite a few emails that basically say “how do I become a good / great software developer?”
These kinds of emails generally tick me off, because I feel like when you ask this kind of question, you are looking for some magical potion you can take that will suddenly make you into a super developer.
I suspect that very few people who email me asking this question really want to know how to become a great software developer, but are instead looking for a quick fix or an easy answer.
On the other hand, I think there are some genuinely sincere developers that just don’t even know how to formulate the right questions they need to ask to get to their desired future. I think those developers–especially the ones starting out–are looking for a step-by-step guide to becoming a great developer.
I thought I would make an attempt, from my experience and the best of my knowledge, to offer up that step-by-step guide.
Now, of course, I realize that there is no magical formula and that there are multiple paths to success, but I think what follows is a reasonable outline of steps someone starting out could take to reach a pretty high level of proficiency and be generally regarded as a good–perhaps even great–developer.
Step 1: Pick one language, learn the basics
Before we can run, we have to learn to walk. You walk by learning how to program in a single programming language. You don’t learn to walk by trying to learn 50 million things all at once and spreading yourself way too thin.
Too many beginning programmers try and jump into everything all at once and don’t have the patience to learn a single programming language before moving forward. They think that they have to know all the hot new technologies in order to get a programming job. While it is true that you need to know more than just the basics of a single programming language, you have to start here, so you might as well focus.
Pick a single programming language that you think you would be likely to base your career around. The programming language itself doesn’t matter all that much, since you should be thinking for the long term here. What I mean is you shouldn’t try and learn an “easy” programming language to start. Just learn whatever language you are interested in and could see yourself programming in for the next few years. You want to pick something that will have some lasting value.
Once you’ve picked the programming language you are going to try and learn, try and find some books or tutorials that isolate that programming language. What I mean by this is that you don’t want to find learning materials that will teach you too much all at once. You want to find beginner materials that focus on just the language, not a full technology stack.
As you read through the material or go through the tutorial you have picked out, make sure you actually write code. Do exercises if you can. Try out what you learned. Try to put things together and use every concept you learn about. Yes, this is a pain. Yes, it is easier to read a book cover-to-cover, but if you really want to learn you need to do.
When you are writing code, try to make sure you understand what every line of code you write does. The same goes for any code you read. If you are exposed to code, slow down and make sure you understand it. Whatever you don’t understand, look up. Take the time to do this and you will not feel lost and confused all the time.
Finally, expect to go through a book or tutorial three times before it clicks. You will not get “programming” on the first try–no one ever does. You need repeated exposure before you start to finally get it and can understand what is going on. Until then you will feel pretty lost, that is ok, it is part of the process. Just accept it and forge ahead.
Step 2: Build something small
Now that you have a basic understanding of a single programming language, it’s time to put that understanding to work and find out where your gaps are. The best way to do this is to try and build something.
Don’t get too ambitious at this point–but also don’t be too timid. Pick an idea for an application that is simple enough that you can do it with some effort, but nothing that will take months to complete. Try to confine it to just the programming language as much as possible. Don’t try to do something full stack (meaning, using all the technologies from user interfaces all the way to databases)–although you’ll probably need to utilize some kind of existing framework or APIs.
For your first real project you might want to consider copying something simple that already exists. Look for a simple application, like a To-Do list app and straight out try to copy it. Don’t let your design skills stand in the way of learning to code.
I’d recommend creating a mobile application of some kind, since most mobile applications are small and pretty simple. Plus, learning mobile development skills is very useful as more and more companies are starting to need mobile applications. Today, you can build a mobile application in just about any language. There are many solutions that let you build an app for the different mobile OSes using a wide variety of programming languages.
Regardless of what you choose to build, you are probably going to have to learn a little bit about some framework–this is good, just don’t get too bogged down into the details. For example, you can write a pretty simple Android application without having to really know a lot about all of the Android APIs and how Android works, just by following some simple tutorials. Just don’t waste too much time trying to learn everything about a framework. Learn what you need to know to get your project done. You can learn the details later.
Oh, and this is supposed to be difficult. That is how you learn. You struggle to figure out how to do something, then you find the answer. Don’t skip this step. You’ll never reach a point as a software developer where you don’t have to learn things on the spot and figure things out as you go along. This is good training for your future.
Step 3: Learn a framework
Now it’s time to actually focus on a framework. By now you should have a decent grasp of at least one programming language and have some experience working with a framework for mobile or web applications.
Pick a single framework to learn that will allow you to be productive in some environment. What kind of framework you choose to learn will be based on what kind of developer you want to become. If you want to be a web developer, you’ll want to learn a web development framework for whatever programming language you are programming in. If you want to become a mobile developer, you’ll need to learn a mobile os and the framework that goes with it.
Try to go deep with your knowledge of the framework. This will take time, but invest the time to learn whatever framework you are using well. Don’t try to learn multiple frameworks right now–it will only split your focus. Think about learning the skills you need for a very specific job that you will get that will use that framework and the programming language you are learning. You can always expand your skills later.
Step 4: Learn a database technology
Most software developers will need to know some database technology as most series applications have a back-end database. So, make sure you do not neglect investing in this area.
You will probably see the biggest benefit if you learn SQL–even if you plan on working with NoSQL database like MongoDB or Raven, learning SQL will give you a better base to work from. There are many more jobs out there that require knowledge of SQL than NoSQL.
Don’t worry so much about the flavor of SQL. The different SQL technologies are similar enough that you shouldn’t have a problem switching between them if you know the basics of one SQL technology. Just make sure you learn the basics about tables, queries, and other common database operations.
I’d recommend getting a good book on the SQL technology of your choice and creating a few small sample projects, so you can practice what you are learning–always practice what you are learning.
You have sufficient knowledge of SQL when you can:
- Create tables
- Perform basics queries
- Join tables together to get data
- Understand the basics of how indexes work
- Insert, update and delete data
In addition, you will want to learn some kind of object relational mapping technology (ORM). Which one you learn will depend on what technology stack you are working with. Look for ORM technologies that fit the framework you have learned. There might be a few options, so you best bet is to try to pick the most popular one.
Step 5: Get a job supporting an existing system
Ok, now you have enough skills and knowledge to get a basic job as a software developer. If you could show me that you understand the basics of a programming language, can work with a framework, understand databases and have built your own application, I would certainly want to hire you–as would many employers.
The key here is not too aim to high and to be very specific. Don’t try and get your dream job right now–you aren’t qualified. Instead, try and get a job maintaining an existing code base that is built using the programming language and framework you have been learning.
You might not be able to find an exact match, but the more specific you can be the better. Try to apply for jobs that are exactly matched to the technologies you have been learning.
Even without much experience, if you match the skill-set exactly and you are willing to be a maintenance programmer, you should be able to find a job.
Yes, this kind of job might be a bit boring. It’s not nearly as exciting as creating something new, but the purpose of this job is not to have fun or to make money, it is to learn and gain experience.
Working on an existing application, with a team of developers, will help you to expand your skills and see how large software systems are structured. You might be fixing bugs and adding small features, but you’ll be learning and putting your skills into action.
Pour your heart into this job. Learn everything you can. Do the best work possible. Don’t think about money, raises and playing political games–all that comes later–for now, just focus on getting as much meaningful productive work done as possible and expanding your skills.
Step 6: Learn structural best practices
Now it’s time to start becoming better at writing code. Don’t worry too much about design at this point. You need to learn how to write good clean code that is easy to understand and maintain. In order to do this, you’ll need to read a lot and see many examples of good code.
Beef up your library with the following books:
- Code Complete
- Clean Code
- Working Effectively With Legacy Code
- Programming Pearls - (do the exercises)
Language specific structural books like:
At this point you really want to focus your learning on the structural process of writing good code and working with existing systems. You should strive to be able to easily implement an algorithm in your programming language of choice and to do it in a way that is easy to read and understand.
Step 7: Learn a second language
At this point you will likely grow the most by learning a second programming language really well. You will no doubt, at this point, have been exposed to more than one programming language, but now you will want to focus on a new language–ideally one that is significantly different than the one you know.
This might seem like an odd thing to do, but let me explain why this is so important. When you know only one programming language very well, it is difficult to understand what concepts in software development are unique to your programming language and which ones transcend a particular language or technology. If you spend time in a new language and programming environment, you’ll begin to see things in a new way. You’ll start to learn practicality rather than convention.
As a new programmer, you are very likely to do things in a particular way without knowing why you are doing them that way. Once you have a second language and technology stack under your belt, you’ll start to see more of the why. Trust me, you’ll grow if you do this. Especially if you pick a language you hate.
Make sure you build something with this new language. Doesn’t have to be anything large, but something of enough complexity to force you to scratch your head and perhaps bang it against the wall–gently.
Step 8: Build something substantial
Alright, now comes the true test to prove your software development abilities. Can you actually build something substantial on your own?
If you are going to move on and have the confidence to get a job building, and perhaps even designing something for an employer, you need to know you can do it. There is no better way to know it than to do it.
Pick a project that will use the full stack of your skills. Make sure you incorporate database, framework and everything else you need to build a complete application. This project should be something that will take you more than a week and require some serious thinking and design. Try to make it something you can charge money for so that you take it seriously and have some incentive to keep working on it.
Just make sure you don’t drag it out. You still don’t want to get too ambitious here. Pick a project that will challenge you, but not one that will never be completed. This is a major turning point in your career. If you have the follow-through to finish this project, you’ll go far, if you don’t… well, I can’t make any promises.
Step 9: Get a job creating a new system
Ok, now it’s time to go job hunting again. By this point, you should have pretty much maxed out the benefit you can get from your current job–especially if it still involves only doing maintenance.
It’s time to look for a job that will challenge you–but not too much. You still have a lot to learn, so you don’t want to get in too far over your head. Ideally, you want to find a job where you’ll get the opportunity to work on a team building something new.
You might not be the architect of the application, but being involved in the creation of an application will help you expand your skills and challenge you in different ways than just maintaining an existing code base.
You should already have some confidence with creating a new system, since you’ll have just finished creating a substantial system yourself, so you can walk into interviews without being too nervous and with the belief you can do the job. This confidence will make it much more likely that you’ll get whatever job you apply for.
Make sure you make your job search focused again. Highlight a specific set of skills that you have acquired. Don’t try to impress everyone with a long list of irrelevant skills. Focus on the most important skills and look for jobs that exactly match them–or at least match them as closely as possible.
Step 10: Learn design best practices
Now it’s time to go from junior developer to senior developer. Junior developers maintain systems, senior developers build and design them. (This is a generalization, obviously. Some senior developers maintain systems.)
You should be ready to build systems by now, but now you need to learn how to design them.
You should focus your studies on design best practices and some advanced topics like:
- Design patterns
- Inversion of Control (IOC)
- Test Driven Development (TDD)
- Behavior Driven Development (BDD)
- Software development methodologies like: Agile, SCRUM, etc
- Message buses and integration patterns
This list could go on for quite some time–you’ll never be done learning and improving your skills in these areas. Just make sure you start with the most important things first–which will be highly dependent on what interests you and where you would like to take your career.
Your goal here is to be able to not just build a system that someone else has designed, but to form your own opinions about how software should be designed and what kinds of architectures make sense for what kinds of problems.
Step 11: Keep going
At this point you’ve made it–well, you’ll never really “make it,” but you should be a pretty good software developer–maybe even “great.” Just don’t let it go to your head, you’ll always have something to learn.
How long did it take you to get here? I have no idea. It was probably at least a few years, but it might have been 10 or more–it just depends on how dedicated you were and what opportunities presented themselves to you.
A good shortcut is to try and always surround yourself with developers better than you are.
What to do along the way
There are a few things that you should be doing along the way as you are following this 10 step process. It would be difficult to list them in every step, so I’ll list them all briefly here:
Teach - The whole time you are learning things, you should be teaching them as well. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or expert, you have something valuable to teach and besides, teaching is one of the best ways to learn. Document your process and journey, help others along the way.
Market yourself - I think this is so important that I built an entire course around the idea. Learn how to market yourself and continually do it throughout your career. Figure out how to create a personal brand for yourself and build a reputation for yourself in the industry and you’ll never be at want for a job. You’ll get decide your own future if you learn to market yourself. It takes some work, but it is well worth it. You are reading this post from my effort to do it.
Read - Never stop learning. Never stop reading. Always be working your way through a book. Always be improving yourself. Your learning journey is never done. You can’t ever know it all. If you constantly learn during your career, you’ll constantly surpass your peers.
Do - Every stop along the way, don’t just learn, but do. Put everything you are learning into action. Set aside time to practice your skills and to write code and build things. You can read all the books on golfing that you want, but you’ll never be Tiger Woods if you don’t swing a golf club.
It’s a great idea to educate yourself.
I fully subscribe to the idea of lifetime learning–and you should too.
But, in the software development field, sometimes there are so many new technologies, so many things to learn, that we can start to feel overwhelmed and like all we ever do is learn.
You can start to feel like you are always playing catch-up, but never actually getting ahead–not even keeping up. The treadmill is going just a few paces faster than you can run, and you are slowly losing ground, threatening to drop off the end at any time.
Trying to learn too much
The problem is trying to learn too much. There are 100 different technologies you have to work with or want to work with at your job. You might feel that in order to be competent, in order to be the best you can be, you need to learn and master all of them. The problem though, is that you feel like you haven’t even mastered one of them.
It can be a pretty disparaging feeling. To counter that feeling–which sometimes demonstrates itself as impostor syndrome–you grab books, video courses, and all kinds of resources on all the technologies you feel that you need to master.
You spend your nights and weekends reading books, going through online training, and reading blog posts.
But. is it really effective, or does it just stress you out more?
Do you even remember half of what you read?
Will you actually ever use it, or are you storing it away for a someday-I-might-need-this-bucket?
My point isn’t that you shouldn’t be learning, it’s just that perhaps you are placing too much pressure on yourself and trying to learn too much.
I’m only saying this, because I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I know how it feels.
I also know that this forced pace of learning isn’t very effective. I don’t remember much of the majority of books I read about technologies I didn’t end up using or barely ended up working with.
I know that the technologies I learned the best were the technologies that I actually put into practice. In fact, some of my most useful, and retained learning, came from learning I did on the spot, right when I was working on a problem I couldn’t solve and had to go find an answer.
It may seem strange that someone like me who makes a decent portion of their living creating learning materials for software developers would tell you to not try and learn too much.
It probably would make much more sense for me to preach that you should absorb all the information that you can; that you should be continuously watching my Pluralsight courses while you eat, sleep and commute to work.
But, the truth is, I don’t think that is the most effective way to learn. I don’t think you’ll get much out of one of my courses, or anyone else’s, if you just repeatedly watch them.
Instead, I think the best way to improve your skills and to learn what you need to do is to do the learning as close to the time you need the information as possible–just-in-time learning.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should just start working with a technology before you know anything about it. You’ll waste a lot of time flopping around trying to get started if you just dive right in without any prior knowledge. But, I’ve found you only need to learn three things before you can dive in and start working with a technology:
- How to get started
- What you can do with the technology–how big it is.
- The basics–the most common things you’ll do 90% of the time.
It is no coincidence that I structure most of my online courses in that way. I try to tell you how to get started, show you what is possible and then give you the very basics. I try to avoid going into details about every little aspect of a technology, because you are better off learning that information when you need it. As long as you know what you can do, you can always find out how later.
Often the hardest part of learning a new technology is learning what is possible.
I’ve found that the faster you start actually using a technology and trying to solve real problems with it the better. Once you’ve covered the three bases I’ve mentioned above, your time is much better spent actually working with the technology rather than learning about it further.
It’s difficult to break away and jump in though. Our instincts tell us that we need to keep reading, keep watching videos and continue to learn, before we get started.
You might feel compelled to master a technology before you start using it, but you have to learn to resist the urge. You have to be willing to fail and learn your way by making mistakes and hitting roadblocks. Real learning takes place when you use information for a purpose, not by trying to acquire it ahead of time.
If you know what can be done in a technology and you know enough of the basics, it won’t be difficult to figure out what search term you’ll need to come up with in order to answer any questions you have along the way. This just-in-time learning will be more effective in the long run and save you many wasted hours consuming information that you won’t fully digest.
You can’t know everything
Even if you had all the time in the world to learn, and even if you apply just-in-time learning techniques, you still won’t ever learn a fraction of what there is to learn in the software development field. New technologies are popping up every day and the depth of existing ones increases at an alarming rate.
It is important to face the reality that you just can’t know it all. Not only can you not know it all, but what you can know is just a tiny fraction of what there is to know.
This is one of the main reasons why I talk about specializing so much. You are much better off picking a single technology that you can focus on learning in-depth than spreading yourself too thin trying to be a master at everything.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expand your skills in many different directions; you should definitely try to have a broad base. Just don’t expect to be an expert in more than one or two main areas of focus. Try to focus your learning on two main areas:
- A single specialty that you will master
- General software development skills that will apply to more than one technology. (For example, a book like Code Complete falls in this category.)
Don’t try and spread yourself too thin. Rely on your ability to learn things as you need them. If you have a solid base, with time and experience, you’ll find that you can learn whatever you need to know when you need to know it. Trust yourself.
Sometimes it can seem like there are super-programmers out there who seem to know everything and can do everything, but it is only an illusion. Those super-programmers are usually programmers that have one or two areas of expertise and a large amount of general knowledge that they apply to a variety of different domains.
As software developers we spend a large amount of time learning. There is always a new framework or technology to learn. It can seem impossible to keep up with everything when there is something new every day. So, it should be no surprise to you that learning quickly and gaining a deeper understanding of what you learn is very important.
And that is exactly why–if you are not doing so already–you need to incorporate teaching into your learning.
Why teaching is such an effective learning tool
When we learn something, most of us learn it in bits and pieces. Typically, if you read a book, you’ll find the material in that book organized in a sensible way. The same goes for others mediums like video or online courses. But, unfortunately, the material doesn’t go into your head in the same way.
What happens instead is that you absorb information in jumbled bits and pieces. You learn something, but don’t completely “get it” until you learn something else later on. The earlier topic becomes more clear, but the way that data is structured in your mind is not very well organized–regardless of how organized the source of that information was.
Even now, as I write this blog post, I am struggling with taking the jumbled mess of information I have in my head about how teaching helps you learn and figuring out how to present it in an organized way. I know what I want to say, but I don’t yet know how to say it. Only the process of putting my thoughts on paper will force me to reorganize them; to sort them out and make sense of them.
When you try to teach something to someone else, you have to go through this process in your own mind. You have to take that mess of data, sort it out, repackage it and organize it in a way that someone else can understand. This process forces you to reorganize the way that data is stored in your own head.
Also, as part of this process, you’ll inevitably find gaps in your own understanding of whatever subject you are trying to teach. When we learn something we have a tendency to gloss over many things we think we understand. You might be able to solve a math problem in a mechanical way, and the steps you use to solve the math problem might be sufficient for what you are trying to do, but just knowing how to solve a problem doesn’t mean you understand how to solve a problem. Knowledge is temporary. It is easily lost. Understanding is much more permanent. It is rare that we forget something we understand thoroughly.
When we are trying to explain something to someone else, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question in leaning… in gaining true understanding… “why.” When we have to answer the question “why,” superficial understanding won’t do. We have to know something deeply in order to not just say how, but why.
That means we have to explore a subject deeply ourselves. Sometimes this involves just sitting and thinking about it clearly before you try to explain it to someone else. Sometimes just the act of writing, speaking or drawing something causes you to make connections you didn’t make before, instantly deepening your knowledge. (Ever had one of those moments when you explained something to someone else and you suddenly realized that before you tried to explain it you didn’t really understand it yourself, but now you magically do?) And, sometimes, you have to go back to the drawing board and do more research to fill in those gaps in your own knowledge you just uncovered when you tried to explain it to someone else.
Becoming a teacher
So, you perhaps you agree with me so far, but you’ve got one problem–you’re not a teacher. Well, I have good news for you. We are all teachers. Teaching doesn’t have to be some formal thing where you have books and a classroom. Teaching is simply repackaging information in a way that someone else can understand. The most effective teaching takes place when you can explain something to someone in terms of something else they already understand.
(Want a great book on the subject that might make your brain hurt? Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. An excellent book by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Both books are extremely difficult reads, but very rewarding.)
As human beings, we do this all the time. Whenever we communicate with someone else and tell them about something we learned or explain how to do something, we are teaching. Of course, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and adding a little more formalization to your practice doesn’t hurt, but at heart, you–yes, you–are a teacher.
One of the best ways to start teaching–that may even benefit your career–is to start a blog. Many developers I talk to assume that they have to already be experts at something in order to blog about it. The truth is, you only have to be one step ahead of someone for them to learn from you. So, don’t be afraid to blog about what you are learning as you are learning it. There will always be someone out there who could benefit from your knowledge–even if you consider yourself a beginner.
And don’t worry about blogging for someone else–at least not at first. Just blog for yourself. The act of taking your thoughts and putting them into words will gain you the benefits of increasing your own understanding and reorganizing thoughts in your mind.
I won’t pretend the process isn’t painful. When you first start writing, it doesn’t usually come easily. But, don’t worry too much about quality. Worry about communicating your ideas. With time, you’ll eventually get better and you’ll find the process of converting the ideas in your head to words becomes easier and easier.
Of course, creating a blog isn’t the only way to start teaching. You can simply have a conversation with a friend, a coworker, or even your spouse about what you are learning. Just make sure you express what you are learning externally in one form or another if you really want to gain a deep understanding of the subject.
You can also record videos or screencasts, speak on a subject or even give a presentation at work. Whatever you do, make sure that teaching is part of your learning process.
Software developers usually make pretty decent salaries, but did you know that companies that hire software developers usually make much more money off of a single software developer than they pay that software developer?
I guess, if you think about it, it is common sense. Why hire programmers if those programmers don’t make more money for your company than the salary you are paying them?
But sometimes this disparity between what a software developer actually makes and the value that software developer brings to the table is large—sometimes it’s really large.
In fact, if you are being paid an hourly rate as a contractor, you are probably making about half of what the client is being billed for, if even that.
Being a commodity
One of the big problems many software developers face is that they can be easily treated as a commodity.
This problem is becoming more and more prevalent as basic programming skills become easier to come by and more and more people are becoming programmers all over the world.
If you go onto oDesk or ELance today, you can find software developers willing to write code for less than $10 an hour; you can find really good software developers writing code for $25 an hour.
If you are letting yourself be treated like a commodity and the price of that commodity is dropping, you are in big trouble.
Forget about job security at a single job. You’ve got to worry about your entire career and all the investment you put into your skills.
If you want a long and prosperous future doing what you love to do, you’ve got to be able to justify why someone should hire you and keep paying you at your current rate instead of hiring someone at $10 an hour to do the same work.
What makes something a commodity?
In order to solve this problem, you’ve got to examine what exactly it is that makes something a commodity.
But, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to make sure we are on the same page about what a commodity is.
I like this definition from the Wikipedia entry on Commodity:
“The exact definition of the term commodity is specifically applied to goods . It is used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”
The key thing here is “without qualitative differentiation across a market.”
This means that if the service or product you provide isn’t much different than what everyone else is selling, it can be considered a commodity. And, as such, the price will be determined by the market, not by the actual value you provide.
So, even though you may be providing your employer with $500,000 worth of value per year by writing code, your employer can turn around and pay you whatever the market says a software developer with your years of experience and skill level is worth.
That is unless…
You find a way to be something more than a commodity
That is the key to being paid what you are actually worth instead of what the commodity market for software developers says you are worth.
But, it isn’t easy to stand out. It isn’t easy to be perceived as something more than a commodity if you don’t know how to do it.
I want to show you an example of how some people break out of commodity markets and differentiate themselves to make more money.
Have you ever heard of a voice-over?
A voice over is when you have someone who has good oratory skills or a particular accent, or sounds create a recording for something like an advertisement or a cartoon character’s voice in a cartoon.
There is quite a big market for people who do voice overs. Just about every radio ad, podcast advertisement, and animated film or show needs voice over talent to create voice overs.
But, did you know it is a commodity market?
That’s right; I can actually go onto Fiverr.com and pick from a multitude of skilled voice over actors to do a voice over for me for $5. Not only can I do it—I have done it. I’ve hired two different voice over actors to do voice overs for my podcast for just $5.
But, believe it or not, some voice over actors get paid millions of dollars each year to do basically the same work.
So, what separates the voice over actors who get paid millions from the ones who get paid five bucks?
I’ll give you a hint—and it’s not talent—it’s marketing.
Those voice over actors that are making the big bucks have figured out how to market themselves to land the right gigs, which increases the value of their name and gets them more and higher paying gigs.
If you don’t believe me, go on Fiverr.com yourself and check out the talent level of some of the top people on there that are doing voice overs for just five dollars—you will be impressed.
No one tells software developers how to market themselves
In the entertainment industry self-promotion and marketing is the name of the game.
There are whole companies that do nothing but market talent. I mean, actors have agents, so do musicians, and yes, even people who do voice overs have agents… at least the successful ones do.
But, when it comes to software development, you are not very likely to find the same kind of resources of knowledge about self-promotion and advertising that envelope the entertainment world.
Have you ever heard of a software developer having an agent?
Well, even though it sounds silly, you’ve got to be your own agent if you want to rise above the crowd and stand out. If you want a chance at making the big bucks and setting your own price, you’ve got to figure out how to market yourself.
There are plenty of software developers that are already doing it. You’ve heard them on popular podcasts and read articles written by them in trade magazines or heard them speak at conferences.
But, no one ever talks about how they achieve their success… at least not until now.
Over the past few years, I’ve been talking to developers who have broken away from the herd. I’ve studied their careers and asked them about how they’ve achieved their success. I’ve been able to duplicate their results to a large degree myself, and since no one else is doing it, I want to share that information with you now.
Check out this package I am putting together called “How To Market Yourself As A Software Developer.” I’m going to be launching this this package, on March 27th.
Well, I hope this article has been helpful to you and helped you realized that you’ve got to make a fundamental shift in your thinking if you want to be able to really advance your career and not be treated like a commodity.
Getting started in the field of software development is difficult.
No doubt, if you are just starting out as a programmer, you have already experienced how difficult it can be to get a job without having much or any experience.
If you’ve been a software developer for any amount of time, you’ve probably experienced how difficult it can be to rise up the ranks in this highly competitive industry.
I’ve talked to many developers just starting out who are frustrated because they don’t know where they should be devoting their energies to best advance their careers and secure their futures.
There are so many options. So many technologies you could learn. So many paths you could take. Which is the right one?
Thinking the right way from the start
I’ll give some concrete advice in a little bit, but before any of that advice is useful, it is important to make sure you are thinking about your career in the right way.
It is really important to think about your career as a business. A business you own which employs you. Thinking this way will help you make the right objective decisions about what you should be doing with your time and how and when you should invest money in your career.
Too many software developers think about their career in terms of their current job or the job they seek to obtain—that kind of thinking is short sighted.
Have you ever noticed how it is easier to advise someone else on a decision than to make that same decision for yourself? The reason is because when you advise someone else, you are able to be objective and not let fear and other emotions influence your advice.
By thinking of yourself as a business, you’ll be able to create that same kind of separation and objectiveness which will lead you to better decisions.
Actually start a business
In fact, why not go the extra step and start a business right from the start?
It is difficult to get experience without having experience. Most software development jobs require you to already have experience.
So, how do new software developers or developers with limited experience actually get experience?
Often, you get a lucky break and perhaps you come into an organization in a QA position or other role and eventually work your way up to developer.
That is the long way.
Here is the short way.
Just start your own business from the get go and employ yourself. It isn’t hard to start a business. You don’t even have to file any paperwork to start out. You can just do business as yourself in most places.
But what about work? I need to actually make some money.
Ah, but the point of this starting out business is not to actually make money, but to gain you experience. You can keep your current job and you can run this business on the side. You just need some projects to work on so that you can put some real experience on your resume.
It is pretty unlikely that a prospective employer is going to ask how much money your business made last year, (even if they do, you don’t have to tell them.) So, don’t worry about making money. If you are able to get some paid jobs, great, but there is no reason you can’t do jobs for clients for free in order to gain experience.
Create a website for a friend or family member’s business. Talk to local businesses and ask them if they’d like you to develop an application for them for free or very low cost. It doesn’t matter where you get the business from, the point is to get something on your resume that is real work you did—then it isn’t lying. You don’t want to lie on your resume.
Develop some mobile applications
Here is another great thing that your business can do that will not only get you some experience to put on your resume, but will also possibly generate you some extra income and give you something to show at a job interview.
I often recommend that developers just starting out build mobile applications, because mobile applications can be built by a single person and are a great way not only to learn how to build an application from end to end, but to create solid proof of your ability to write code.
One of the biggest fears that companies have when hiring developers is whether or not that developer can actually produce anything. You can completely alleviate that fear if you can show the source code for an application you created yourself, and if you have it in a mobile app store and people are actually using it, even better.
If you are looking to find out where to get started with mobile application development, I have two Pluralsight courses on the subject: Introduction to Android and Beginning iOS 7 Development. You can check those out or find a good book on the subject.
Here are a couple I’d recommend:
Besides gaining experience to put on a resume, building your own mobile application will help give you confidence in your ability to create real working code and it will help you to develop well rounded skills in software development.
Sure, it may be a bit difficult to get started and there is a decent amount to learn about mobile development, but it is a good investment regardless, because mobile devices aren’t going away anytime soon and the demand for developers that can develop for mobile platforms is only likely to increase over time.
Plan your career
I talk about the idea of marketing yourself as a software developer quite often, because it is something I truly believe can help software developers to get better jobs and earn higher incomes.
Much of this advice comes down to actually planning out your career rather than just looking for the next job.
You want to set yourself up early on in a position where you are building a brand and reputation for yourself that will benefit you later in your career.
A great way to do this is to create your own blog. Don’t wait to do this until later on. I wish I would have started this blog 5 years or more earlier in my career. Every developer with a successful blog that I have talked to has said the same thing.
Don’t just create the blog, use it. Strive to write an article each week. Even if you don’t have anything interesting to say, do it. After a few years, you’ll be a better writer, have a nice history of your thoughts and be all the better off for it.
I’m not going to go into all the details of marketing yourself in this post, but if you are interested, I do have a course that covers everything you need to know about marketing yourself as a software developer.
The key point here is to plan your career and think for the long term. Create a blog, establish a brand, do other things that will benefit you years down the road, but start doing them now.
Find the right friends (mentors)
I’d advise you to make friends with experienced software developers and utilize the wisdom they can impart on you.
It can be difficult to make friends if you come off as needy. It is unlikely that if you ask someone to be your mentor, they will accept. Being someone’s mentor doesn’t really offer much to the person doing the mentoring.
The key is to have something to offer in return so that you are providing value as well.
Here are a few ideas to make some friends in the industry:
- Offer to buy lunch. This is a good opportunity to have a conversation with someone who you otherwise might not be able to. Who doesn’t like a free lunch?
- Start commenting on software developer’s blogs that you admire. You’ll eventually gain their attention if you provide useful, insightful comments.
- Find something to trade. Do you have some knowledge in some other area that someone might be interested in? Can you trade your knowledge of fitness or diet in exchange for information about software development? The best relationships offer value to both parties.
- Go to user groups. There are many user groups all over the world that you can become a part of. If you are a regular, you will meet other regulars and build good friendships.
Read the right books
One of the best ways to really get ahead of the curve is to read the right books. Reading the right software development books can help you to understand concepts that take years to discover on your own and give you the benefits of the collective experience of many successful software developers.
Here is my personal list of books that I’d recommend all software developers start out with.
Code Complete – A classic book about the structure of code. This will make you a much better programmer and help you write clear code.
Clean Code – A great book by Bob Martin that really distills down some key concepts about writing good code. A must read book.
Design Patterns – Read through this book several times and learn these patterns. It may take some time to grasp them all, but they will show up again and again in your career.
Programming Pearls – Work through the problems in this book. They are hard, but the effort is worth it.
Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns, and Practices – Another Bob Martin book, but also a must read.
Good luck. I hope you found this advice useful. Starting out is hard, but if you are smart about it and deliberate, you can boost yourself several years ahead of others in your same position.
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It is easy to get stuck in mediocrity if you are not consciously trying to improve year after year.
We have to constantly be striving to improve our skills and talents, otherwise those abilities can go to waste and degenerate.
Likewise, just striving to “improve” is not good enough either. We have to have a definite plan for improvement.
In this post, I’ve compiled a list of things you can do this year to improve your skills and make this your best year yet.
#1, Find your biggest weakness
I always try to look for low hanging fruit that I can grab easily when trying to improve anything. Usually, there is some weakness that could easily be corrected which would provide a huge benefit to you, but you’ve just never got around to fixing it.
For example, when I first moved into my new house, my refrigerator was not holding the temperature correctly. The fridge would drop down to a very cold temperature and freeze food pretty often.
This was pretty frustrating, but I tried to ignore the problem, because I was too busy. I kept having to throw out frozen lettuce or other vegetables until one day I decided I had enough and set it on my mind that I would either fix the fridge myself or have it repaired.
It only took me a few hours total worth of work to figure out that a little flap that sent cold air from the freezer to the fridge was broken, and to fix that issue by ordering the right part. The results were immediate and very gratifying. By taking that little bit of time out of my week, I saved myself quite a bit of frustration in the future—not to mention saved myself money in both electricity costs and wasted food.
So, why did it take me so long to fix that fridge?
I was always too busy, and the problem never seemed urgent enough to warrant my attention. (Plus, I didn’t know jack about fridges.)
When I take an inventory of my professional life, I find that I have many “broken fridges” all around my office. Weaknesses or problems that I could very easily fix, but I’ve just been to busy to get around to it.
Perhaps you have the same problem? Have you been struggling through using your IDE, because you didn’t take the afternoon to properly learn the keyboard shortcuts that would save you quite a bit of time?
Perhaps you just haven’t taken the time to organize your computer or workflow, because it hasn’t been enough of a pain to be worth your time—even though you know that you are wasting a huge amount of time by being so unorganized?
Now is a good time to look for that low hanging fruit; the easy to fix weakness you can correct this year, which will pay back big dividends.
If you take the time to look around, I’m sure you’ll find a few.
#2 Learn something new
Because our field changes so rapidly, it is very important to be learning the next thing before you need to rely on the skills to use it.
It isn’t always possible to predict what the next thing will be, but getting into the practice of learning new things will expand your capacity to learn things quickly and give you a much wider perspective of the field in general.
One of the biggest expansions of my abilities as a software developer came when I took a consulting gig leading a team of Java developers after having spent years programming in C# and .NET. I was very reluctant to take the position, because I felt that I would be progressing backwards instead of forwards, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I already knew some Java, but I hadn’t really studied the language and I didn’t know much about the environment and tools Java developers use.
This experience forced me to grow and really expanded my abilities, not just in Java, but in C# as well, because it forced me to look at things from a different perspective.
It is really easy to get stuck in a rut and stick with what we already know, but sometimes you can get a huge benefit by getting a bit out of your comfort zone and learning something completely new.
Try learning a new programming language this year or an entire new programming environment. Try your hand at mobile development, if you’ve never done it before, or learn something else that will challenge you and expand your horizons.
#3 Make new friends
Every year I talk to hundreds of software developers through email or at conferences and code camps, but my software developer life wasn’t always so social.
I didn’t really see the point in reaching out and being part of the community; after all, I was a software developer, my job is to write code, isn’t it?
But, all of us have very limited worlds, myself included. We need the experiences and influences of others to expand our viewpoints and see things that we don’t have the capabilities to see on our own.
Think about it this way. How far would you have gotten in learning any pursuit if you were completely self-taught and couldn’t rely on any books, conversations, or search engines to expand your knowledge? Probably not very far at all.
It is important to reach out and talk to other software developers—and not just your coworkers—so that you get a mixing of ideas and viewpoints which will force you to grow.
Doing this may be as simple as starting your own blog to share your experiences and interact with others who comment on or read your posts.
You can also join a user group or attend a code camp or conference, which will give you ample opportunities to meet new people and exchange ideas.
There is also a huge emotional reward in giving back. If you have some experience that you can share with others, doing so is likely to make you feel really good about yourself and provide a benefit to someone who could use your help.
If you are feeling down in the dumps or depressed, one instant cure is to do something nice for someone else. Is there a developer you know that could use your help?
#4 Set a course
If you don’t know where you are headed in your career, there is no better time to figure it out than now.
So many developers drift aimlessly through their careers without thinking about where they want to be and what they want to become.
It is not enough to say that you want to become a good software developer or programmer—you need to set a definite direction that you are progressing towards.
With a clear goal in mind, your mind will employ the power of your subconscious mind to help you achieve that goal. Without one, you’ll just float adrift never reaching any real destination.
(By the way, this is one of the most powerful realizations you can discover in life. Once you learn to harness the power of your subconscious mind, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. The book that explains it better than I can here, is Psycho-Cybernetics, I highly recommend it. One of those “must read” books.)
This doesn’t mean you have to chart out your life and decide where you will be in 20 years, but it does mean that you should at least have a plan of what you intend to accomplish by the end of this year and at least have some kind of destination out a bit further than that.
It is really worth taking that time to sit down and think about what you want to accomplish. Don’t even worry about how you will accomplish it. It is much more important to focus on the what. The how will come automatically once you tackle the hard problem of what.
Make this your best year yet!
Hopefully this post gave you some ideas you can use to help you to move the ball forward this year and really move towards some clear and definite goals.
One of my goals this year is to finish building my course on How to Market Yourself as a Software Developer. I plan to include topics like the one in this post to help you chart a definite plan to market your skills and really boost your career.
It is only available for limited pre-order now while I am getting together a group of early adopters that will help me shape the rest of this course, but if you want to know when it will be released or you are just interested in more posts and software developer career advice, like this one, sign up here and I’ll keep you updated.
What are you doing this year to become a better software developer?
My last Pluralsight course for this year is out!
I started out this year with the goal of creating 30 Pluralsight courses, this Beginning Lua course represents the completion of that goal.
It definitely feels great to accomplish what I had planned, even though the process may have been a bit painful at times. This is definitely the biggest single undertaking I’ve ever accomplished in my career.
Here is the official course description:
Lua is an extremely versatile and popular programming language that you’ll find embedded in many other applications like Adobe’s Lightroom or even World of Warcraft. Many developers are surprised to find that even very popular games like Angry Birds are written in Lua.
In this course, you’ll learn how to quickly get started writing programs and scripts with Lua. I’ll take you through the basics of Lua, show you some tricks that demonstrate the Lua’s flexibility and even show you how to use Lua in an object oriented way.
We’ll start off in this course by learning a bit about Lua itself and Lua’s history, as well as learn how to download Lua and use the popular SciTE IDE for creating and running Lua code.
After we are setup and ready to develop some Lua code, we’ll learn the basics of Lua as we jump right in and build our first application. We’ll go over Lua’s type system and learn how to assign variables, utilize operators, use conditional logic and create loops.
Once we’ve got the basics covered, we’ll explore two powerful concepts in Lua: functions and tables. We’ll learn how functions work in Lua and what makes them so powerful, and we’ll see how tables can be used for more than just storing simple data.
Even though Lua itself doesn’t have a class construct, we’ll learn how to do object oriented programming in Lua using tables and metatables.
Finally, we’ll wrap up the course by learning a little bit about the standard libraries that come with Lua. I’ll show you some examples of using some of the most useful functions in the standard libraries and show you where you can get more information about them.
I often get asked by beginner programmers what programming language they should learn.
This, of course, is a tough question to answer. There are so many different programming languages today that a new developer, or even a seasoned developer, wishing to retool his or her career, could learn.
I’ve actually tried to answer this question before in a YouTube video, but I want to revise and refine my answer a bit here, because some of my views have changed and I’d like to give a bit more detail as well.
The wrong question to begin with
It turns out that what programming language you choose to learn is not actually all that important
Things have changed quite a bit from back when I first started my career in software development. Back when I first started out, there were much fewer choices of programming languages and there were much fewer resources available for reference. As a result, the choice was much more important.
For example, I started out learning C and then C++. At that time, it took quite a bit of work to master the language itself and to understand all of the standard libraries that were available. A good C or C++ programmer back then had a very in-depth understanding of every nook and cranny of the language and they needed this knowledge, because of two main reasons.
- References were not as widely available, so figuring out a syntax or library available involved flipping through a huge book, rather than just typing some keywords into Google.
- Programming, in general, was done at a much lower level. There were far fewer libraries available to be able to work at higher levels, so we spent more time working with the language itself and less time working with APIs.
Contrast that with the programming environment of today, where not only is information widely available and can be accessed with ease, but also there are a large number of programming languages that we effectively use to program at a much higher level due to the vast amount of libraries and reusable components available to us today.
In today’s programming environment, you tend to not need to dive as deeply into a language to be effective with it. Sure, you can still become an expert in a particular programming language, and it is good to have some amount of depth in at least one language, but you can literally learn a new language in less than a week and be effective with it almost immediately.
Now, before your alarm bells go off and you write me off as crazy, let me explain that last sentence in a bit more detail.
What do you mean you can learn a programming language in a week?
What I mean by this is that once you understand the basic programming constructs available in just about all programming languages, things like conditionals, loops and how to use variables and methods, you can take that same knowledge to a different programming language and just learn how to do those same things in that language’s syntax. In fact, most IDEs today will even help you with the syntax part, making your job even easier.
If you are already fluent in multiple programming languages, you probably agree with what I am saying, but if you have only ever learned one programming language or none at all and are looking to learn your first programming language, you might be a little skeptical. But, take it from someone who has learned and taught programming languages which I have learned in a week, the basics are pretty much the same.
Check out this book which basically deals with this exact subject, Seven Languages in Seven Weeks: A Pragmatic Guide to Learning Programming Languages.
Now, if you are just starting out, it is pretty unlikely you’ll be able to learn a whole programming language in a week. This brings us to the question, you may be asking yourself…
So, what programming language should I learn then?
Hold up. I’m still not quite going to answer that question. Because, it still isn’t quite the right question.
Instead of getting hung up on what programming language you want to learn, you should instead ponder what you want to do.
Learning by doing is the most effective way to learn, especially if you are doing something you have an interest in or is fun to you.
So, I always start new want-to-be developer out by asking them what they want to build.
Do you want to build an Android application? How about an iOS application? A web page? A game?
First, figure out the answer to this question and then let that answer guide you to choose the technology and programming language you will use to achieve that goal.
Don’t worry so much about which programming language or technology is most valuable. You can’t make a wrong decision and regret it later, because it won’t take you much time to retool later if you need to. Once you have the basics down and have actually used a programming language to build something, you’ll find that doing it again will be much easier.
I like to encourage new developers to write a mobile application—especially an Android application.
Here are some reasons why:
- A complete Android application can be built by a single person. Creating a complete application will really help you to feel confident about software development and is one of the best ways to really learn to code. I spent a good deal of my early career only being able to create bits and pieces of things, and it was frustrating, because I never knew if I could really “code.”
- By learning Android, you learn Java and how to use libraries and APIs. This will give you a good programming language to start with and you’ll get some valuable experience with APIs.
- Google gives you some free help and makes things pretty easy to learn. Since Google really wants you to create Android applications, they have put quite a bit of work into creating easy to use tools and tutorials to help you be successful quickly. (I’ve also created some tutorials, which you can watch at Pluralsight here as well.)
- You can actually make money while learning and teach yourself a very valuable and upcoming skillset. Not only can you sell your Android application or monetize it in some other way, but you will be learning a complete set of software development skills for a platform that is in very high demand.
Aha! So Java it is then?
No, not exactly.
Summing it up
I’m actually working on some products to help developers manage their careers and lives better which will cover topics like this one a bit more in-depth. If you are interested in receiving some updates when I publish an interesting article or video, or when I launch some of those products, feel free to sign up here. Don’t worry, I won’t spam you. J
Update: be sure to check out this comment chain to see a bit more clarification on what code katas really are. Thanks for Cory Foy for pointing out that I was unfairly calling all code katas as solving the same programming problem over and over again. Only some people treat code katas that way and this post is about why that kind of code kata is not effective. I also updated a few words in this post to reflect this point.
I don’t want to seem like I am bragging, but there is something I just have to get off my chest.
But, before I tell you what amazing skill I have mastered through countless hours of boring practice, let me tell you a bit about my training schedule.
Everyday I get up in the morning. I put on my shoes. I begin my practice.
Usually I start with a small warm-up, just to get the blood flowing on the way to my office at the end of the hall.
Later in the day, I’ll wander out of my office for lunch and practice more on the way to the kitchen.
Right now as I am typing out this blog post, I am on the treadmill honing my craft one painstaking repetitive step at a time.
That is right, you may have guessed it by now—I am a master walker.
All my life I have been practicing this humble skill. Each and every day I practice my secret craft. I see other fools riding around on mopeds and motorized scooters sheepishly talking of their perceived skill at bipedal transportation. But, although outwardly I acknowledge their words, inwardly I know that I am special, because I hone my skill to a craft.
Sounds ludicrous? That is what it sounds like to me when some people talk about doing code katas.
What is a Code Kata you may ask? Some people think a Code Kata is when you solve the same programming problem over and over again, thinking you are actually practicing something other than using shortcuts in your IDE. (To be fair, not all people view Code Katas that way.)
These kinds of Code Katas come from a failed attempt to forcibly simulate the same kind of practicing that a musician or athlete would perform in order to become better at their vocation.
Why Code Katas aren’t effective
Don’t get me wrong, the intention behind Code Katas seems to be well placed, and I am all for software craftsmanship (although not the elitism that sometimes accompanies it.) But, just as walking every single day doesn’t make you a master walker, and driving a car every day doesn’t make you a superior driver, solving the same sets of programming problems over and over again won’t make you a master programmer.
If you still have your doubts, consider old people. Old people are not master walkers or master drivers, yet they have been doing both of those activities day in and day out for many years. Not only do they not master these skills, the skills actually atrophy—they become worse at them, and not just because their muscles and reflexes become worse from age, it is because repeating the same thing over and over again without an increasing level of challenge actually results in the mind becoming complacent with the activity which leads to the eventual degradation of it. (At least, this appears to be the case to me.)
Don’t lose hope though, a little later on I will tell you a real way to practice your craft in software development—one that will give you results—but, first let’s dissect the cases of walking and driving a little bit further to see why repeated practice of those activities seems to have diminishing returns.
Doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t make us better at it
We first learn from walking and driving, because everything is new and challenging. Although walking seems like a repetitive process, it is actually the lack of repetition that provides the challenge our brain and body need to actually benefit from it.
As a toddler learning to walk or a teenager learning to drive, we are constantly bombarded with new scenarios and challenges that we haven’t faced before. What happens when the dog runs by and brushes our leg? How does this affect our balance and what do we have to do to adjust? What about this new surface? The carpet seems to absorb our feet and create more friction when we attempt to walk on it. How do we compensate to balance on this surface? Walking with socks on the floor gives us less grip, etc.
But, as an adult, or experienced walker or driver, we are not challenged in nearly the same way; we’ve already seen most of the scenarios. Our daily commute to work rarely presents us with an unfamiliar stimulus or problem to solve. We operate on autopilot, automatically walking and driving to our destinations without much effort or thought.
Repeatedly writing the code to solve the same programming problem over and over again is exactly the same thing, except unless you are introducing new challenges by adding constraints and twists, you are only benefiting from the exercise the first, and perhaps, the second time, you undertake the activity.
Now, not all programmers who do Code Katas repeat the exact same code over and over again. Some of them attempt to solve the same problem, but this time not using any loops or limited the line count to a certain number or some other similar constraint. This kind of practice is actual worthwhile practice which challenges the mind and introduces new scenarios that create new neural pathways in the brain and strengthen others. (Here is a great example of book that encourages you to do just that. I highly recommend working through the problems in this book.)
Simply typing the same code into the same IDE over and over again for 10 minutes a day may make you feel relaxed and calm or even like a concert violinist arduously practicing their scales, but at the very best it will make you faster at using your IDE and typing code; skills which can be easily practiced through the course of a normal day’s work. If you want to be really good at writing the code to sort lists of words and calculate prices for grocery store items in a cart, go ahead, be my guest.
How real mastery is achieved
If you are resisting what I am saying at this point, it is likely because you still mistakenly believe that walking and driving are in a different category than playing music, sports and programming. But, the truth of the matter is that walking, running, music, sports, and programming are in the same category, or rather, there are no categories.
It turns out there are actually master walker and master drivers. One sport that is not all that widely known goes by the name of Parkour or Freerunning. Don’t believe me, check out this video for an example. In this sport, the athlete becomes exceptionally good at traversing around everyday locations on their own two feet. It is amazing what some of these practitioners can do—just watch the video if you don’t believe me.
And as for driving, I probably don’t need to convince you that Nascar is “kind of a big deal.”
My point is that you are not going to become a Parkour expert or Nascar driver by just walking around your neighborhood or driving your car to and from work, even if you do tend to drive like a bat out of hell. To get to that level of skill in those seemingly mundane activities, you have to constantly practice at a higher level of difficulty and continually introduce new challenges.
In fact, when we actually look at what real musicians and sports athletes do, it is much of the same. I seriously doubt many musicians you hear on the radio or see in concert repeatedly played “bah bah black sheep” or “twinkle twinkle little star” on their instruments until one day they achieved mastery. And in the professional sports world, achievement only comes through repeatedly pushing beyond one’s limits day after day.
The point is this: if you want to get better at something, repeating practice alone is not enough. You must practice with increased difficulty and challenge.
How to improve your programming skills
So, how then do you become a master craftsman at the vocation of software development? If you don’t use Code Katas, how do you practice your craft?
Let me start off by giving you the best example I have ever seen.
This is Jennifer Dewalt’s blog; she decided to learn to code by building 180 websites in 180 days. While you are sitting at your keyboard typing the same 20 lines of code into your IDE over and over again, Jennifer is creating a new thing every single day and facing a brand new challenge.
Who do you think will improve their skills more after 180 days, you or Jennifer? I know who I’d hire without even thinking twice.
I get lots of emails asking me about the best way to learn programming or how someone can improve their skills. Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking about how to learn Android development. Do you know what I tell all these inquisitive minds?
Make Android apps.
But, umm, what book can I read?
No book, just come up with an idea and try to create it. Figure out what you need to do along the way. When you get stuck, go look for the answer or seek help.
But, I need to know what I am doing first.
Says who? Do and then learn. Learn and do at the same time, reading a book or repeating the same exercise over and over again won’t make you smarter or more skillful; constantly challenging your mind and current skills will.
Want to learn more?
I’ve got plenty more to say on the topic and many more techniques that are way more effective then Code Katas which you can use to hone your programming skills. I can’t fit it into a single post like this, but I’ll be putting it into the top secret project I am working on to help developers boost their careers and learn to market themselves.
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My software development career began about 15 years ago.
But only in about the last 5 years did I really start to see a large boost in my software development career.
Here are some of the things I wish I would have known when I got started in the software development industry; things that would have made me more successful, much earlier, if I would have known them.
There is no “right way” in software development
I wasted a large amount of time, both in studying and arguing, early on in my career, falsely believing there was an absolute “right way” for many aspects of software development.
It turns out that just about everything I once thought was correct about software development at some point turned out to be wrong.
But more importantly, I found that very few things were black and white. Almost every decision when writing code and developing software is based on the current circumstances.
I’ve talked before about how the religious adoption of a technology can be harmful to software developers, but this topic goes beyond just a technology.
It is also true that no best practice is universal. Even highly charged topics like whether or not to unit test or whether agile or waterfall methodologies are best, do not have straightforward one-is-always-right answers.
In my career, I’ve wasted plenty of time on the “right way” road that led to nowhere instead of taking the “pragmatic” (practical) road, which would have carried me much further.
Reading a book cover-to-cover is not the best way to learn
When I first started wanting to grow my knowledge of programming and different technologies, I spent too much time reading technical books about a specific technology cover to cover.
There is nothing wrong with reading books, but often the choice of what book to read and what parts of it to read are very important.
For example, I remember reading a very large book on programming with Visual C++. (I’m pretty sure it was an earlier version of this book.) Anyway, the book was a good book with lots of information, but reading it cover to cover was not the best approach to learning Visual C++.
I would have learned and retained a lot more by skimming over the chapters of the book to get a broad understanding of what there was to know about Visual C++, then figuring out what things were most important to learn first.
I would have had much more success by sitting down and actually practicing the basics by trying to actually build something than just reading or going through examples in the book. You don’t really learn a technology until you’ve solved real problems with it.
Learning particular technologies in-depth is a waste of time
Not only did I waste time by reading books cover to cover, but I also often chose to read the wrong books.
I had mistakenly believed that learning a particular technology inside-out would be a good way to advance my career.
I spent too much time reading books about very specific technologies like ASP.NET or Hibernate instead of reading more books like “Code Complete,” “Clean Code,” and “Agile Principles, Patterns And Practices in C#.” (All of these books, by the way, I recommend that you read, if you haven’t already.)
While it is important to know about the technology you are using, it isn’t important to be an absolute expert in that particular technology. There isn’t much benefit to knowing the exact API call to make when you can just easily look it up when you need it.
Too many technologies that I spent a good amount of time learning about in depth, ended up either dying out or being technologies that I eventually abandoned myself. Most of the knowledge about those specific technologies ended up representing a big waste of time.
I found that it was important to become an expert at whatever programming language that I was using at the time, because expertise in a particular programming language will usually last you a pretty long time; I definitely would have still spent time learning in depth about C++, C# and Java, but, I perhaps, spent a little too much time learning all the intricacies of C++, which isn’t benefiting me much now.
Community is extremely important in your software development career
I was always good about helping my coworkers and being social at the various jobs I held, but I never really reached much beyond my company.
I spent a large amount of time trying to make an investment in my career at a particular company at the expense of making an investment of my time in the software development communities that I was involved in.
I spent lots of time creating internal presentations on technologies or best practices that could have been spent creating content and material that could have served the community as a whole, as well as brought me recognition at my job.
I also made the mistake of not thinking that I had something valuable to contribute.
I talk to many beginning software developers now and sometimes I think they have much more to contribute to the community than us software developers that have been in the field for a long time, because they understand better the issues that other beginners are struggling with.
If I could do it over again, I would have made sure to be much more involved in conferences and user groups earlier in my career. I would have started my blog much earlier and I would have used much of my learning time to create projects and resources that would be able to help others rather than just reading a book.
Always have a side project
Perhaps the biggest change I would have made that would have impacted my career the most would have been to cut out all the TV watching, Everquest and World of Warcraft playing I did earlier in my life and replace that time with work on a side project.
I’ve wasted a pretty sizable amount of time in my life doing things that were enjoyable, but didn’t produce any long term benefit for my life.
About 3-4 years ago, I pretty much cut out watching TV completely and now I hardly ever watch movies either. TV and most movies are just a huge waste of time that you could be using to do something useful. The same goes for video games for the most part, but at least with video games you are actively doing something not just absorbing useless information.
I’ll always love to play video games and I don’t think I’ll ever stop, but I do wish I would have spent a good deal of the time I spent playing video games and watching TV on a side project instead.
Sadly, the first real side project I actually took on was only about 3 years ago when I started creating my first Android application.
When you are working for someone else, it is really important to spend time working for yourself as well, otherwise you are building someone else’s empire while neglecting your own.
Not only did I learn a huge amount from the side projects I have taken on in the last few years, but I have benefited greatly from them. In fact, one of those side projects, creating Pluralsight courses, is something I am doing pretty much full time now.
Putting everything I learned together
These are just a few of the things that I wish I had known when I first started my software development career, but there are many more and lots of other things that I did do right from the beginning.
I’m actually working on a top secret project to put all this information together to help developers boost their career and learn to market themselves.
If you want to be the first to be notified when this project gets officially launched, sign up here, and I’ll be sure to let you know.
What about you?
What are some of the things you wish you would have known when you started your software development career? Let me know in the comments below.
Quick side note: if you are stopping here reading this post, you are probably the kind of developer that cares about your career. I’m putting together a complete package full of information on how to really boost you software development career and increase your earning potential. It is only available for preorder right now. I’m only going to be selling it at this heavily discounted price for a short time. I’ll also have some exclusive interview with famous software developers like Bob Martin, Jon Skeet, and Jeff Atwood sharing their secrets to their success.