In I.T. it’s either you are a programmer and/or non-programmer. As a programmer, you are in the battle field, out and about. Like a journalist, you are at first in the field. As you gain experience, you move up the ladder just like a military general or editor-in-chief. The same applies in I.T.
But the I.T. industry is awash with superficial attempts to master a complex skill like programming. Peter Norvig has an excellent blog post. There is no shortcut. You have to put in thousands of practice hours just as Michael Jordan did in basketball. But then, not all are like MJ.
Norvig’s key recommendations:
- Get interested in programming, and do some because it is fun. Make sure that it keeps being enough fun so that you will be willing to put in ten years.
- Talk to other programmers; read other programs. This is more important than any book or training course.
- Program. The best kind of learning is learning by doing. To put it more technically, “the maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically as a function of extended experience, but the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve.” (p. 366) and “the most effective learning requires a well-defined task with an appropriate difficulty level for the particular individual, informative feedback, and opportunities for repetition and corrections of errors.” (p. 20-21) The book Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in Everyday Life is an interesting reference for this viewpoint.
- If you want, put in four years at a college (or more at a graduate school). This will give you access to some jobs that require credentials, and it will give you a deeper understanding of the field, but if you don’t enjoy school, you can (with some dedication) get similar experience on the job. In any case, book learning alone won’t be enough. “Computer science education cannot make anybody an expert programmer any more than studying brushes and pigment can make somebody an expert painter” says Eric Raymond, author of The New Hacker’s Dictionary. One of the best programmers I ever hired had only a High School degree; he’s produced a lot of great software, has his own news group, and made enough in stock options to buy his own nightclub.
- Work on projects with other programmers. Be the best programmer on some projects; be the worst on some others. When you’re the best, you get to test your abilities to lead a project, and to inspire others with your vision. When you’re the worst, you learn what the masters do, and you learn what they don’t like to do (because they make you do it for them).
- Work on projects after other programmers. Be involved in understanding a program written by someone else. See what it takes to understand and fix it when the original programmers are not around. Think about how to design your programs to make it easier for those who will maintain it after you.
It’s important to note that Norvig’s recommendations is being exemplified with the open source software development. Learning by doing is a bottom-up approach while books give you an overview in a top-down fashion.