Monday, January 7, 2013

So, you think you're a good software developer? Who have you taught lately?

The Learning Dilemma

The day one graduates from college with a degree in computer science is usually a joyous day. It is on this day, however, that most realize that their educations have really just begun (I know I felt rather unqualified at this point). All software developers have decades worth of learning in front of them. In no other field is this more true than in computer science. Our field is so new and so important that one cannot expect to make a real contribution without a serious commitment to learning over an entire career.

This knowledge will be hard to acquire, however, because there will be no more lectures, formal assignments, tutors, or professors to guide them along the right path. For a professional developer, most learning takes place while building a real system. To make matters worse, knowledge workers have an additional burden- it is extremely hard to see how others do their work.

Working on a computer is a mostly solitary activity. We sit in front of our machines and do our work. Rarely, do we invite others to see what we do or how we do it. There may be a great developer sitting three feet away from you but it is unlikely that you will ever learn anything from watching them work. Or, you may be that great developer, and you may be surrounded by lesser developers who want desperately to learn what you know. Because of the nature of work done on a computer it is not entirely clear that your knowledge will spread to the people geographically close to you. Compare this with sculptors sharing an art studio and you will see that knowledge workers are at a disadvantage.

Good Developers Teach

We have excellent teaching resources available to us, these are our best developers. There is a dangerous misconception that our 'rock star' developers are too valuable to slow down to help teach the rest of the team. I would argue that if you want to call yourself a good developer you must:
  • actively teach the people around you to become better
  • actively seek out learning experiences from others with different experiences
In other words, it does not matter who you are, everyone on the team should be held accountable for a certain amount of teaching and learning. Developers should be evaluated on how well they do both. This is something that can easily be measured. Further, team members can help each other achieve these complimentary goals by being active teachers and learners.

Our best developers should be given a venue to teach what they know. Management should survey the team to find the most obvious and high value deficiencies of the majority that can be remedied by the minority. The lesser developers on the team may not be able to teach the rock stars many things about software development but they can teach about other experiences that might be of value. For example, I learned a lot about the culture of China from a chinese co-worker of mine who was an electrical engineer. This knowledge has colored my view of offshore manufacturing and engineering ever since.

My advice for computer science students who are still in school is to try and land a job as a department tutor. You will learn how to teach others by listening to how your clients perceive their problems and coming up with suggestions that match their needs. You will take this skill with you into the 'real world' where it will be put to good use. Interestingly, since people perceive things differently and have different backgrounds you will most likely learn things from the people you are trying to teach! This is something that always amazed me while I was a tutor and still amazes me today as a college professor.

1 comment:

  1. This here, this is a comment, and not just any comment, a really good, somewhat spamy comment requested by this blog's author. So there.