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.
If you’d like to be one of the first to be notified when it is available, sign up here. I’ll be including lots of practical valuable information that you probably won’t find anywhere else.
So, what do you think? Do you do Code Katas right now? If so, do you think they are actually useful? Let me know in the comments below.
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.
Computer science itself is a surprisingly difficult thing to define.
If you do a search on the web you’ll turn up quite a few definitions for computer science.
Some people take a very academic approach and say that computer science is about studying computation and systems of computation. (What the heck does this mean?)
Other people will define it in terms of what they believe it is about, saying things like computer science is using computers to solve problems.
None of these definitions or attempts at defining computer science sit well with me.
Why it is important to know what computer science is?
So, you might be thinking “who cares?” “What does it matter what computer science is?”
Well, the reason why it matters is because many of us programmers and software developers either have a degree in computer science, are studying to get a degree in computer science, or simply associate our knowledge with the field of computer science.
It seems kind of silly to have a degree in something that you can’t clearly define nor can anyone else.
Have you ever thought about how strange it is that when someone gets a degree in biology they become a biologist, but when someone gets a degree in computer science they become a senior software engineer?
Why is computer science so hard to define?
Before we can even really attempt to define what computer science is, we have to understand a bit about why it is so hard to define.
It all stems from the problem that unlike many other sciences, computer science isn’t based on any naturally occurring phenomenon. Even social sciences and formal sciences deal with things that exist in the world without our creating them.
But, computers are a creation of humans. At least the kind of computers that we commonly recognize as computers and use in the field of computer science.
Everything within the idea of computer and computation is completely fluid and lacks perfect definition including the idea of a computer itself.
We can’t even define computers
I spent several weeks researching what a computer is and I found there is no commonly accepted definition of a computer. It wasn’t even till around 1940 that the definition of computer transferred from the term for someone operating a computing machine to the actual machine itself.
No, that is not a typo and I’m not off my rocker. It is a true statement. Consider whatever computer you are using to read these very words; are you actually running your software directly on the hardware?
Most likely you have some sort of operating system which is running on your hardware that is virtualizing the actual physical hardware to a large degree. Most applications are written to run on an operating system, not to run on actual hardware. This, in effect makes the operating system the computer.
We can take it one more level and say that the very web browser you are using to view this post, is itself a computer, since a browser can be programmed to run just about any application (That is to say that a browser is Turing Complete).
Data and code
Even the text content of this blog post, which most people would say is data, is actually code, because it is programming the web crawlers from search engines like Google and telling them what to do based on the actual content of the words. You may have even found this post due to my attempts to program Google’s web crawler through SEO techniques.
Everything about a computer is fluid and abstract
All of this leads up to the realization that just about everything in the computer world is defined in terms of abstractions which are always “leaky.” Other branches of science like mathematics and chemistry are much less abstract and based on real concrete things that exist in reality.
What then is computer science?
Ok, so now is the part where you probably expect that I will tell you what exactly computer science is, right? Wrong.
Computer science is nothing. It isn’t a thing that can be defined, because it is not a thing that exists beyond our imaginations.
Computer science itself is an abstraction that we have created for dealing with all the things involved with computers which is itself and abstraction for all kinds of programmable machines.
It is a false science. Everything you might study in a computer science program actually belongs in some other field of science, but is conveniently grouped into the computer science abstraction in order to catalogue the important things that form the basis of how we build computers and how we program them.
This isn’t to say that the things you would learn in a computer science program don’t have value. It is important to know about algorithms, data structures, computer architecture and the mathematics that many of these things are based on, but it is important to realize that the study of computer science is very different than the study of other fields, because most of the concepts you learn about in a computer science program are abstractions. They are not rules that are set in stone, like the forces of nature that form the basis of other fields of study.
I say this because it is important to understand that everything we learn about computers is based on abstractions we have created to simplify the complex and these abstractions are based on very few actual rules that can’t be broken.
We will eventually hit a point where many of these existing abstractions about computers that we have put into place and built our knowledge upon, will have to be broken and replaced with new abstractions.
I’ve just published a new Pluralsight course, Introduction to Hibernate.
This course was definitely a difficult one to produce. There is so much to cover in Hibernate, and there was no way I could cover it all.
Here is the course description:
In the world of Java one of the most popular and widely used frameworks is Hibernate.
Hibernate is an ORM or Object Relational Mapper that allows developers to map Java objects to relational database tables. It is a valuable tool that all Java developers should know how to use.The problem is, learning Hibernate can be difficult. Hibernate is a very large framework and there are many important concepts to understand to use it effectively.
Are you a developer who…
- has been wanting to learn how to use Hibernate
- struggles to use the application
- has never really understood Hibernate
This course is designed to give you the knowledge you need to feel confident about how Hibernate works and how to use it.
What this course offers:
This course is designed to make getting started with Hibernate as easy as possible and focus on the most important things you need to know. John starts off this course by teaching you a bit about Hibernate and how it works.
Then you will see how to get it setup with a real MySQL database installation. After that you will learn the very basics of mapping, which is one of the most important things to understand about Hibernate.
John will show you how to create a basic mapping for a Java object to a relational table and explain to you how the mapping works. He also covers some of the complex mapping situations like mapping collections and different relational mappings like one-to-many and many-to-one.
Once you’ve learned how to map you objects, you’ll want to know how to query them, so he’ll show you how to do this using Hibernate’s built-in HQL and using a more object-oriented approach with the Criteria API.
Finally, he wraps things up by taking a brief tour of some of the more advanced features like caching and interceptors.
Don’t stick your Weiner out there
It’s good to get noticed, but make sure you get noticed for the right things. You don’t want to be caught with a permanent picture out there on the internet of the things of yours that should remain hidden.
What I mean by this, is that as a software developer you want to look like a software developer, not a political activist. I’ve said this a lot of times in various forms, but with the recent huge media coverage of a certain trial in Florida, I’ve seen way too many software developers potentially ruining their careers because they were so eager to show everyone their—opinions.
Remember, the internet is a permanent record that can never be erased. No matter what you do, some server out there somewhere will have a record of what you posted, or someone will have taken a screen capture of it.
The same goes for the workplace in general.
People get really offended when they think I am giving them the message to not be themselves. When I say things like this, I hear many developers retort, “What? If an employer or customer doesn’t like who I am, then I don’t want to work with them either.”
I’m not saying don’t be yourself. I am saying show the best version of yourself possible. Everyone in the world appreciates discretion and tactfulness. Few people want to work with someone professionally who publically ascribes to themselves the opposite characteristics.
Your Weiner isn’t too big to fall
Just because you have done great things in the past doesn’t mean you will get credit for them in the future. As a software developer you are constantly evaluated based on the skills you possess now that are valuable in the current market, not the ones you had 5 years ago that were valuable in that market.
I see many software developers that were once great legends who accomplished splendid things in the past resting on their laurels.
You chose this industry, no one else made the choice for you. So you should have known going in that software development was a industry constantly full of change and flux.
If you want to learn some set of skills that will last your whole career and never require you to change or learn something new, perhaps you should be a plumber or an electrician. (Although, I’d venture to guess even those positions would have some degree of continual learning involved.)
The point is, knowing C++ or COBOL or assembly language is only going to take you so far for so long. If you want to keep rising up and not fall backwards in your career, you are going to have to be that old dog that learns some new tricks.
No one wants to see your Weiner
You always have to remember that people primarily think about and are concerned with themselves.
When I hire someone to do a job, I don’t hire them because of how awesome they are, I hire them because I think about how awesome of a job they will be able to do for it.
I know many software developers who have tried to make their mark by showing how superior and awesome their own skills are, instead of demonstrating practically how they can be beneficial to a team or a project.
When hiring someone to pack and move your house would you rather hire a big muscly guy who stands around flexing in the mirror or would you rather hire a mediocre strength average Joe that is extremely hard working and diligent?
Yet, so many software developers I talk to try and show themselves as the big muscly mover, but make no indication of what kind of job they will do.
All the skills and ability in the world are of no good to anyone unless they are put to use.
Flashing your Weiner once can be forgiven, doing it twice gets you in trouble
It is OK to make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. It is part of life and it is good. Failing is part of learning. However, when you make a mistake and you are called out on that mistake, you should carefully avoid to make the same mistake again.
I’ve seen quite a few people get fired—excuse me “laid off”—and the reason has almost always been for making the same mistake more than once.
When you are called out on a mistake you have made and you make that exact mistake again, especially within a short time frame, it is taken as an utter disrespect and contempt for authority and often as a sign of extreme arrogance and recklessness.
Of course this all hinges on the size of the mistake. It isn’t as big of a deal to forget to add the bug number to the comment of the check-in you made, a couple of times, but taking down production for a day will probably only be forgiven once.
Don’t be paranoid about making mistakes and failing—fear will paralyze and destroy your progress, much more than mistakes will—but, instead be cautious, careful and deliberate in your actions. If you make a mistake, learn from it. Take steps to make sure it won’t happen again and then move on.
More career advice and tips
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