Monday, November 8, 2010

Obstacles & Bootstrapping


The biggest obstacles in my way on this road are time and distractions. They're similar, but definitely not one in the same, and it's easy to let them interfere with my goals.


This one's pretty simple. There's just not enough time in the day to learn everything I want to know about. More to the point, there's just enough time in the day to learn just enough to do my job, and I think that "just enough" is dangerous. I haven't been 100% coding for all of my working years, but that's no excuse for placing only a thin veneer over ignorance.

I need to make time to go deeper. I need to make time to explore and understand more thoroughly. For example, I don't want to be just a consumer of the .NET framework. I want to understand how the framework actually works, why it makes certain choices, and how in some cases (like the MVC layer) I can change it. I want to learn Ruby (or another dynamic language) because I've heard that it's very different from C# and I think juxtaposing them would be interesting. And on, and on. This is time well spent, but it must be fought for.


As I work to make time to go deeper, the other significant obstacle I face is an unending stream of distractions. I don't mean the normal distractions of life, but technical distractions born out of the type of curiosity that got me into this line of work in the first place.

"I need to move and compress these log files. I wonder if I can do that in PowerShell?"

"Uncle Bob is talking about Monads. Should I know about Monads?"

"I bet I could do this easier in XSL 2.0 instead of 1.0. And there are those new features...."

All valid topics to consider. The problem is that they can become death by a thousand cuts. Since time is so very scarce, every distraction that leads me outside of my current scope can become nothing more than an interruption. Yes, I'll certainly learn something from it. Wonderful. But I've lost focus on the thing I was really trying to learn...and now I'm out of time today...again.


Here's how I'm getting started despite the obstacles.

First, probably about a year and a half ago, I started thinking about where my knowledge gaps are, came up with a book list, and began working through it. This was fine for basic material but became difficult the more advanced it became primarily because there's no one to ask for feedback or help. Every once in awhile you find a blog post that's helpful, which is always like finding a needle in a haystack. Sites like Stack Overflow are great for specific questions, but asking more general ones smacks of "homework help" and tends to draw trollish responses. The book list and reading solo was a necessary first step, but a limited one.

Next, I started attending every community developer event that I could manage the time for, which was and continues to be Microsoft-sponsored "firestarter" events, code camps, and local user group meetings. This is where concepts started to mesh a bit more for me. The 2009 ASP.NET MVC firestarter in particular brought together 3 foundational concepts that I had read about individually but hadn't applied: separation of concerns, unit testing, and, not necessarily domain-driven design, but the general idea of thinking more carefully about design. I'm only about a year separated from that event and it's almost amusing (definitely sad) how I wasn't thinking about those issues beforehand. Yet, there is still so much to learn.

Then, while at one of these community events I had the opportunity to meet via Twitter a highly-regarded developer who was closely involved with the community. I contacted him to ask if he knew of anyone in the area who would be willing to work with me as a mentor and he graciously agreed to that himself. To be completely honest, I felt like I had won the lottery. It is still early in that process, but we've setup a basic framework that is working well.
  1. We set up a structured reading list that is broken down by general areas and progresses from easy to difficult.
  2. We selected a project for us both to work on that's complex enough to stretch me and could actually see the light of day as something for the community.
  3. We have a 1 hour call every 3-4 weeks where we talk about questions, trouble spots for me, and the project we selected.
Finally, I read O'Reilly's Apprenticeship Patterns. I didn't just read it. I plowed through. It was not only intensely comforting to realize that others are going through the same process as I am, but it was extremely helpful to read about issues I hadn't thought of on my own yet. Rather than list those, I would simply say if you're reading this because you feel like you're in the same position as I am, find it, read it, and use it to check on your progress.

I feel like I have a reasonable handle on the obstacles in front of me and that there is a clear bootstrapping process in place.

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