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In “Rise of the Expert Beginner” , an essay that I re-read every couple of years, Erik talks about how developers stop learning. His basic thesis, based on previous studies of skill acquisition, is that people start acquiring skills very quickly. But, at some point in the learning process, they get to a point where they stagnate because the skills that they learned as a beginner will carry them to being an expert.
You can write print statements in any language pretty quickly (given that you get over the hump of installing it on your local machine). But it takes a very long time to understand how to get from print(“Hello World”) to “Here’s an app that is making machine learning predictions for you in real-time.”
we now call it psychological safety.
The simple story is that, in a good, productive software environment, you have the room to mess up. The apocryphal story about how this works is the one where the junior developer breaks production, costing the company thousands of dollars. After he sees this, he starts putting everything on his desk in a box. The CEO comes up to him and says, “Where are you going?” “I just cost the company so much money, I figured I was fired.” “We just paid thousands of dollars to train you. Why would we let you go?”
Bill, who was working on (ostensibly) a missile defense system, with instructions written in machine code. He got to a point where he thought he figured it out and asked Marilyn to review his code.
Code review was still in the nascent stages in those days, and Weinberg writes, “His value system, when it came to programming, dictated that secretive, possessive programming was bad and that open, shared programming was good. Errors that might be found in code he had written were simply facts to be exposed to investigation with an eye to future improvement, not attacks on his person. “
Marilyn found 17 bugs in the 13 lines of code. Instead of fuming, Bill’s reaction was to go around and tell everyone how impossible this code was, and how hilarious it was that she had found 17 bugs. While he was doing that, a few people joined in, for at this point, it was a game, and found a few more bugs. A scenario that could have ended with Bill accusing Marilyn of blocking him or of Bill hiding his code because he thought others would think he was a bad developer ended up much better because things were out in the open.
They also promote people who value all of these skills: patience, mentorship, and people who demand technical excellence while acknowledging what it takes to get there. Who you promote will tell your org chart how you want the organization to look, so it’s important to spotlight people who share these values and set the tone for the organization.
There is a way, though, to tell who those people are in your organization, and to try to work with them if at all possible. Good senior developers ask lots of questions to get to the root of problems, and usually they ask them publicly so others can find out the answer. Good senior developers figure out how complicated systems work . Good senior developers carefully review PRs and give feedback, and they also answer questions . chances are you know who the good people in your organization are, because, if you have a question, they’re the first person you think about when asking for help.
Learning how to ask the right questions at the right time is one of the fundamental skills of being a developer. Formulating the right question takes a lot of time, a lot of trial and effort, and a lot of tinkering with different solutions until the question even makes sense.
This is why an environment where it’s ok to ask stupid questions is important. One of the best ways I’ve seen of dealing with this is having a #dumbquestions channel on Slack. Another is having the Good Senior People ask seemingly simple questions in meetings to empower others.
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