The Greatest Developer Fallacy Or The Wisest Words You’ll Ever Hear?

I will learn it when I need it“! I’ve heard that phrase a lot over the years; it seems like a highly pragmatic attitude to foster when you’re in an industry as fast-paced as software development. On some level it actually IS quite pragmatic, but on another level I am annoyed by the phrase. It has become a mantra for our whole industry which hasn’t changed said industry for the better. The problem is this, in the guise of sounding like a wise and practical developer, people use it as an excuse to coast. There is too much stuff to know, it is necessary to be able to pick certain things up as you go along – part of the job. But, there is a difference between having to “pick up” some knowledge as you go along and doing absolutely everything just-in-time.

The whole industry has become a bunch of generalists, maybe it has always been this way, I just wasn’t around to see it, either way I don’t like it. Noone wants to invest the time to learn anything really deeply, not computer science fundamentals, not the latest tech you’re working with, not even the language you’ve been coding in every day, for the last few years. Why bother, it will be replaced, superseded, marginalised and out of fashion before you’re half way done. I’ve discussed this with various people many times, but noone seems to really see it as a problem. “Just being pragmatic dude“. In the meantime we’ve all become clones of each other. You want a Java developer, I am a Java developer, you’re a Java developer, my neighbour is a Java developer. What differentiates us from each other – not much! Well, I’ve got some jQuery experience. That’s great, so you know how to build accordion menu then? Sure, I Google it and steal the best code I find :). In the meantime, if you need to hire a REAL expert (in anything, maybe you’re writing a fancy parser or need to visualise some big data), I hope you’ve stocked up on beer and sandwiches cause you’re gonna be here a while.

Ok, there are ways to differentiate yourself, I have better communication skills, which is why I do better. That’s important too, but, developers differentiating themselves based on soft skills rather than developer skills – seems a bit twisted. We all communicate really well but the code is a mess :). Hell, I shouldn’t really talk, I am a bit of a generalist too. Of course I’d like to think of myself as a T-shaped individual, but if we’re completely honest, it’s more of a dash-shaped or underscore-shaped with maybe a few bumps :). To the uninitiated those bumps might look like big giant stalactites – T-shaped indeed. You seem like an expert without ever being an expert, just one advantage of being in a sea of generalists.

Investing In Your Future

I don’t want to preach about how we should all be investing in our professional future, everybody knows we should be. Most people probably think they are infact investing, they rock up to work, write a lot of code maybe even do some reading on the side, surely that must make them an expert in about 10 years, and a senior expert in 20 (I keep meaning to write more about this, one day I’ll get around to it :))? But, if that was the way, every old person would be an expert in a whole bunch of stuff and that is emphatically not the case. Maybe it is just that people don’t know how to build expertise (there is an element of truth to this), but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more about lack of desire rather than lack of knowledge. What was that saying about the will and the way – totally applicable in this case?

I’ve gone completely off-track. “Investing in professional future” is just one of those buzzword things, the mantra is “I will learn it when I need it“. It was good enough for my daddy and it has served me well so far. Let’s apply this thinking to finance, “I will invest my money when I think I need the money“. Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same kind of pragmatic ring to it.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

We’ve all had those moments where you’re going through major pain trying to solve a problem until someone comes along and tells you about algorithm X or technology Y and it makes everything fast and simple. It was lucky that person just happened to be there to show you the “easy” way, otherwise you would have spent days/weeks trying to figure it out and it would have been a mess. You can’t be blamed for this though, you don’t know what you don’t know. For me, this is where the “I will learn it when I need it” mentality falls over. You can’t learn something if you don’t know it exists. Google goes a long way towards mitigating this problem, but not all the way. There are plenty of problems you will encounter in the wild where you can beat your head against the wall ad infinitum unless you know what class of problem you’re looking at (e.g. if you know a bit about searching and constraint propagation, solving sudoku is easy, otherwise it’s really quite hard). You can’t learn about an algorithm if you’re not aware of it or its applicability. You can’t utilise a technology to solve a problem if you don’t even realise it has that capability. You’re not going to always have someone there to point you in the right direction. I am willing to bet there is a billion lines of code out there right now which can be replaced with a million lines of faster, cleaner, better code simply because whoever wrote it didn’t know what they didn’t know.

I seem to be making a case for the opposite side here, if knowing what you don’t know is the ticket then surely we should be focusing on breadth of knowledge. Superficial awareness of as much stuff as possible should see us through, we’ll be able to recognise the problems when we see them and then learn what we need more deeply. Except it doesn’t work like that, skimming subjects doesn’t allow you to retain anything, our brain doesn’t work that way. If we don’t reinforce and dig deeper into the concepts we quickly page that information out as unimportant, it is a waste of time (think back to cramming for exams, how much do you remember the next day?). However if you focus on building deeper understanding of a subject – in an interesting twist – you will gain broad knowledge as well (which you will actually be able to retain). My grandad is a nuclear physicist, several decades of working to gain deeper knowledge of the subject has made him an expert, but it has also made him an excellent mathematician, a decent chemist, a pretty good geologist, a fair biologist etc. Just some empirical evidence that seeking depth leads to breadth as a side-effect.

Can You Learn It Fast Enough

Some stuff just takes a long time to learn. I am confident I can pick up an ORM framework I haven’t seen before without even breaking stride, I’ve used them before, the concepts are the same. But what if you need to do some speech to text conversion, not quite as simple, not enough background. Hopefully Google will have something for us to copy/paste. That was a bad example, only research boffins at universities need to do that crap. How about building a website then, we all know how to do that, but what if you need to do it for 10 million users a day. We just need to learn everything about scaling, I am sure the users will wait a month or two for us to get up to speed :). Yeah, I am just being stupid, all we need to do is hire an expert and … errr … oh wait, we’re all out of beer and sandwiches.

Why Should I Care

Working with experts is freaking awesome. You may have experienced it before, everything they say is something new and interesting, you learn new tricks with every line of code, you can almost feel your brain expanding :). You want to learn from the experts, so it’s really sad when you can’t find any. Since everyone is only learning when they “need it“, noone can teach anything to anyone. The chunk of wisdom here is this, you want to work with experts, but the experts also want to work with experts, so what are you doing to make sure the experts want to work with you? Being able to learn something when you need it is a good skill to have, but you can not let it be your philosophy as a developer. Yes it is a big industry you can’t learn everything, so pick something and make sure you know it backwards, if you’re curious enough to follow up on the interesting bits, you’ll find you have a decent grasp of a lot of other stuff at the end. And if you do a good enough job, other super-awesome-smart people are going to want to come and hang around you cause they’ll be able to learn something from you and you’ll be able to learn much from them. Everybody will be a winner.

Reference: The Greatest Developer Fallacy Or The Wisest Words You’ll Ever Hear? from our JCG partner Alan Skorkin at the Skorks blog.

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