The Power of Experience and Maturity in Programming (and Life)
It was a Friday night like any other. At least that is what I thought, until a small accident occurred that made me think hard about the power of experience in life and and my career as a computer programmer. So, what happened?
Over the course of the week, I had already clocked somewhere between 60 to 70 hours of work between my day job, keeping the wheels turning in my service application software, over-seeing my small support center, and working on my Pluralsight authoring.
My wife was probably twice as tired as I was, having cared for our two young kids, which is unimaginably more demanding than sitting or standing in front of a keyboard, several monitors, lots of emails, and abundant CPU power.
In any case, I was more than ready to spend some quality time with my wife, talking about the same things as we always do on Fridays. Being an entrepreneur—albeit a small one like me—means working a lot, so we barely see each other during the week.
I usually leave home at 5:40am to my day job, work all day, then do the one hour drive back at 5pm to show up for bedtime, see my family, and go straight back to my personal office located a few miles away, where I stay until some time between 10pm and midnight.
It all depends on when my body reminds me that I am not that young anymore, and that I should get some sleep.
That Friday night we could hear the girls laughing loudly in their room. When kids are two and four, they are beyond adorable and their laughter is what makes you tick and keep working crazy hours towards distant goals in spite of false starts and setbacks.
And then it happened. A loud “crack” followed up by something that I cannot describe as crying. It was screaming, as I've never heard it before.
I ran to the room and found the two-year-old face down in her bed. The four-year-old was standing looking down, knowing that something bad had happened, but not really understanding what it could be.
We asked the older one what had happened, and she said that she stood on the two-year-old's back and “pulled on the sled's handles.”
The result? A dislocated elbow. And a rush to the hospital.
As you would expect, nothing—especially not my evening work routine—is going to come between seeing that my family has my full attention when they need it most.
The Children's Hospital of Costa Rica
We arrived at the hospital sometime around 8:30pm with a little girl that couldn't stop crying. She could not stretch her arm without screaming. We were told it was a “simple fix.” Any doctor could just perform a specific maneuver, and the elbow would be back in its place.
Call me a skeptic, but I believe that the proof is in the pudding.
After a short wait, the doctor greeted us and asked us to come in.
Judging a Book by its Cover
I am not that old and traditionally minded. I am in my mid to late thirties. However, I do think that you need to dress appropriately for the position you hold. I’m not saying you need to be overdressed, but believe you should never be underdressed.
Don't get me wrong. I am a computer programmer and even though my current assignment requires that I dress business casual, usually I work in jeans and t-shirt or, in some cases, a button-up shirt with Skechers.
But here is a doctor, in his mid thirties, wearing an un-tucked Iron Maiden t-shirt, with something that looks like Air Jordan shoes and wrinkled jeans. I was single at some point in my life between living with my parents and getting married, so I fully understand the wrinkled clothes, but this is not what I was expecting from a professional, let alone one that is going to affect the wellbeing of my child.
On the other hand, he seemed to be extremely confident that he knew what he was doing, which kind of convinced me that we were in good hands.
And here is the problem. My little girl is in pain. I absolutely want the best doctor that money (or my insurance) can buy. I want my little girl to have zero pain. Nil, null, cero, zero, none— absolutely no pain. I want her laughter back. And I want it now.
I will not take any chances at all.
But I was told it was a “routine fix”. So he performs the maneuver. Pulls her arm, twists it slightly and tells me that I should go outside with her for five minutes and come back to confirm all went well.
And so I did. We came back a few minutes later, but nothing had changed. My girl was still in a lot of pain. So he sent us to X-ray to check for any cracks in her bones.
We took the X-rays and came back to the doctor. He couldn't find anything, so he tried the maneuver again.
Another five minutes. Nothing improved. There were more X-rays and still nothing changed.
Desperation & Giving Up
At this point my girl was still crying and screaming, holding her little arm. I felt like I wanted to join her.
It is true what they say: you experience your kids' pain. As nothing had worked, the doctor sent us to get a cast for my little girl.
So we went with the technician who was going to help us by putting a cast on my little girl's arm. In hindsight, that would've been a catastrophic decision as the elbow was still dislocated and putting a cast on it would not have let it heal as it should, but this is not what happened.
We are greeted into the room where everyone walks out with what's commonly known as a “sign here” trophy—a cast. The person in charge is older. He is the technician in charge. He is not a doctor, but he has probably worked there many years and helped thousands of kids.
I believe he is around 60 years old, has gray hair, and is impeccably dressed. I get a great first impression which is the total opposite of what happened about an hour before with the Iron Maiden t-shirt doctor.
He asks me, “What's wrong?” and I tell him.
He sighs and mumbles: “Oh, these young doctors.” Then he points to his hair and his next words marked me for life. He says: “Do you see these gray hairs? They are called experience. Your girl does not need a cast. She just needs someone with experience. I am not a doctor, but watch this.”
For a moment I start to feel a slight panic attack. I don't want anyone hurting my girl, but she is already in quite a bit of pain. He takes my hand and puts my finger on my girl's forearm. He says: “I will move her arm and you will hear a crack twice, but then five minutes later she will be jumping and laughing.”
It all happens exactly as he predicted. He stretches her arm, and folds it back. Two cracks, my girl shivers and then we go and sit outside. Five minutes later, my girl is jumping, laughing and for the first time in several hours, she is back to normal and more.
Had he not intervened, my girl's elbow would not have healed, and she would've been in pain unnecessarily.
Why is This Relevant?
Because I feel that we live in an age where people are starting to forget the value of experience. Everybody wants it all and they want it now.
“Play now and pay later” seems to be the new credo instead of the “Pay now and play later” of my parents’ generation.
We live in an age where media makes many think that they can do things that they really don’t have the necessary experience for.
I am a firm believer that you need to pay your dues first and then reap the rewards. It is a process and it requires patience and hard work.
So let me tell you about several of the key lessons from that day that directly relate to your life as a computer programmer, which I believe are really important.
#1 Dressing Up: First of all, always dress for the occasion. The occasion does not necessarily mean suit and tie, but always dress as expected within your work environment. Overdressing might not be too much of an issue in some cases and might even be desirable if you have a specific agenda, but underdressing most definitively will. An Iron Maiden t-shirt with Air Jordans is not the kind of attire I expect from a person who cares for one of my most precious possessions. Similarly, I might not want to bet my hard earned money on someone who looks more like a person waiting for 420 than like a seasoned consultant who looks like he knows what he is doing.
#2 Rookie Smarts: You may be very confident in what you are doing. But keeping an open mind, being open to another's opinion, and being ready to doubt yourself can be very powerful—this is what’s called rookie smarts or the wisdom of the eternal learner. You might think you are always right and maybe some people around you even tell you that you are always right, but they’re most likely wrong. We all make mistakes and being ready to accept that you are not always right puts you in a privileged position. One that—when leveraged correctly—can give you an edge over those that put their ego first.
#3 Being Humble: The doctor thought he knew how to “fix” my daughter’s elbow. And he probably did, but this is the human body. It is not like putting together Lego, where things only fit in one way. There are many variables to consider, and he should have stopped, thought twice, and looked for a second opinion. But never for a moment did he doubt himself. And, as we now know, he was wrong.
#4 Experience Matters: The fourth takeaway from this story is that experience matters and it makes a difference. In order to avoid making mistakes you usually need experience, but to get experience you will make many mistakes. By applying what he had learned through the years, my angel used his experience to save my daughter from a lot of pain and maybe even an operation.
Looking at the big picture of that Friday night in retrospect, I learned that there are things in life that really matter and make a difference way beyond what I thought they did. I have never been a great dresser, even though I try to fit in as much as possible. I never thought that I would judge someone by how they dress. Yet I did, and my intuition based on that judgement ended up being correct.
Also, I realized that sometimes the person with the most experience is not the one with the biggest title. In theory, a doctor should know more than a technician, but not in this case. This definitely also applies in programming, where sometimes the architect does not really know how things work and where a developer with a smaller title could hold the key to fixing a critical system.
The final gem is the reminder that family should always come first. No professional success is important enough to put your family in second place.