Archive for August, 2017

Reuse that problem

August 31, 2017

If learning is difficult given the little time we have, then teaching is even harder to do. Right? Thankfully there are simple ways to get going. Reuse the problem you had to solve during office hours.

Learning comes in many shapes and forms. One of them is teaching. After all, giving even a mere introduction forces you to go deeper into the subject. If you don’t, you will neither understand the area properly or be able to answer any follow-up questions. Now, that could be embarrassing. Luckily, there is a way to get around both the problem of lack of time and the need for deep insight.

Sooner or later you will run into problems that no oh-google-save-my-job search will solve. Those type of obstacles are possibilities in disguise if handled well.

Many hours later you found a way to solve it and feel good about yourself for at least five minutes. Most people then go on to the next problem, not picking up the possibility in front of your fingers. Remember, you found a hole on the internet? However small or niched problem it was still something that no one had solved and documented. You can be that person.

This insight is the big leap of mind. Writing half a blog is dead easy once you have put in the hours of sweat. If you can’t do it while still at work, do it that evening while you still remember it. It will not take that much time and eventually someone else will find that text and thank you for it.

That wasn’t too hard right? Imagine doing a few more times a year, and suddenly you will have a list of texts that both shares your knowledge and establishes your command of the subject. In my book, it carries a lot more weight than a line in the LinkedIn profile.

A colleague of mine used this approach at the big customer where he worked. We were both consultants so sharing knowledge mattered more than “just” the joy of it. After a while, he heard that other departments were discussing his insights during their monthly meetings. It goes without saying that he was quite happy when hearing this. All the while he was being paid for doing it and delivering better value as a consultant.

KFika – the smallest start to learning with coffee & bun

August 28, 2017

Having time to learn is vital. Estimates show that some areas need the fifth working day just to keep up. Real tough. Let’s turn to the time honored practice of fika to get started. 15 minutes of coffee and something small.

As we discovered in my previous blog, some people in the know estimate that we half of our knowledge loses its value in less than five years. For people within software engineering, it is even less than that. That is of course if we remember the half that still holds some value.
How on earth can we find time to learn? We are trapped between the half-life of knowledge and a deadline. There is always something to ship. Answer: start small.

For my part, I love to sit down with a cortado and a cinnamon bun. I’m not alone in this respect. In Swedish, there is even a word for it, fika. You can find groups of people having good strong coffee in Swedish offices. They will gather a couple of hours both before and after lunch.

So you have a group of colleagues meeting every day. All you need to do is pick a day of the week and let people know that you’re going to share knowledge (K). At the same time, you let them know that you are bringing cinnamon buns. They can’t refuse that. The receipt you put on expenses1. It is dirt cheap knowledge sharing.

We shouldn’t let the fika be free form. That can be tough to maintain over time. Given the short event and the particular format, I recommend going for low ambition. Don’t use slides or anything similar that takes preparations. Use the sit-down around a table to your advantage. Good choices are subjects like project management, principles of good programming, or similar. Anything that benefits from bringing real world experience to the table will work fine.

Or you could read a book, one chapter per week, and discuss that. Another way can be a round-robin where each participant would share something they learned in the previous week. This approach will take some more effort from you but is well worth it. You will cover lots of more ground. Nuggets of premium knowledge and serendipitous insights are bound to happen. If you want to start even smaller share something that your team has accomplished lately. It doesn’t have to be grand. Just get going with fika.

Final thought, don’t choose Friday afternoons. Everyone’s mind is on the coming weekend.


An Ex To-be

August 25, 2017

I graduated from Computer Science in my mid-twenties. As a 35-year-old programmer I was already a senior. Hitting forty I was a has-been in waiting, an ex to-be1. At fifty plus nobody believes I can program anymore. My conclusion; straight out from school we got to learn again …and again. But it’s not doom and gloom — on the contrary.

If it was possible to create a diagram of the competence over a life span, it would look something like this:

Figure: The life’s competence curve. Yellow curve: We go through education, work hard and then wait to die. Red curve: You’re promoted. Ouch.

Time is on the horisontal axis and vertical is the level of proficiency we master in our day to day job. The yellow line is the competence curve of the old good days. You spent a quarter of a century in education2 and then used that knowledge for the rest of your professional life. After that – from a professional competence point of view – you wait to die.3

Suddenly, one day you’re promoted. It could be that you’re called on the lead the team or department. There is one major problem though. You haven’t taken a single course in “Management 101” or “Leading by example”. Let alone regulations, benefits of diversity or …well, you see the problem. As you can imagine, your competence curves takes a major hit. After all, you spent all those years learning how to build bridges and whatnot.

Except this curve is not true any more. We don’t get to spend 40 years honing our skill set (or just one single role transition as described above).

Thomas Jones, an American professor at MIT, tried to estimate the “half-life” of an engineer. Or more correctly, he described the time it takes for half of your knowledge to be out of date and in dire need of an update4. He arrived at the figure of ten years. But yet, his estimate stems from 1966… Today some believe this knowledge decomposition to be less than five years. A software engineer comes in even lower — below three years5. This is all the more jarring since it usually takes half a decade for studies at university.

Principles of career

The Peter Principle6 states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. They stay at this level that they cannot handle. He argues that we promote people on the basis of their performance in their current role, not the new one. This applies to us all. Whatever worked before, we will try again until we no longer can perform adequately for a given higher position. This is when our careers stop. This does sound bad, but it still was the “golden” days of working. At least we hade some time to prepare for that new level of responsibility.

Enter the Dilbert Principle7. The cartoonist and author Scott Adams believes that corporations tend to promote the least competent people to management. The intent would be a way of minimising the damage that they might inflict on the organisation. It is a good dark joke, but with a grain of truth to it. A friend of mine described how she and a group of friends decided to start a company directly after graduation. They went around the table and dispensed the responsibilities. At the end they still had one role to fill and no takers.
– Oh, I can be the CEO then! If no one else wants it, she exclaimed.

We have entered an age where not even prior experience is needed. This of course has its upsides, opportunities come quicker than ever before. But still, it can be hurtful to learn on the job with real people as guinea pigs. My friend? She worked for five years as the CEO making the company grow. She learnt a lot.

The linear progression that was the norm during the Peter era, is now more akin to jumping stones. Back and forth, it can be hard to make out a pattern on certain people’s CV’s, but it usually is there. It could be a wish to change the world somehow somewhere. Or that you follow your friends as you evolve through different companies. The more extreme will end up with roles as plentiful as badges on a scout’s uniform.

Where does this leaves us?

Our knowledge that we built up in school will deteriorate — no matter what. We shift roles a lot more during our career.

We need, and are being forced, to make this the new default. Life long learning is a must. Schools must teach the art of learning — not just the various subjects. Organisations must search for new career paths that allows us to try out different roles. It can be done in a more safe way than the current drive-by-appoint-and-forget our new managers. Why not “CEO for a week” apprentice? Or “Undercover Janitor”?

Most importantly we need to incorporate learning as an ever ongoing — and fun — part of our jobs. It has to be a joy to evolve, otherwise we can’t keep doing it. It will just be too hard.

Thomas Jones also estimated how much time we need to invest to keep up. Over an engineer’s professional life span (s)he would need the equal of two extra engineer degrees beyond graduation8. That’s a lot and hard to comprehend. Translated into a work week, you would need to spend around half a day. Let us adjust to present half-life and to software engineering. We are looking at a day’s worth of learning — each working week of the year. Tough, but also some serious fun in my eyes.

That much learning on the job is tough to come by. Chances are that you toil away in a company that is not ready or willing to spend that much “not working”. I’ll dive deeper into what you can do about this in future blogs.

All doom and gloom for the “old”?

At the start of this blog I was a bit harsh about the life expectance of old developers. Are we obsolete by the time of 45? Absolutely not!

A survey looked into the effectiveness of different generations9. Turns out that the older generation (40-50 year olds) came in slightly better than the youngest generation (20-30) by a couple of per cent. The biggest differentiator was the ability to avoid making serious mistakes. So keep learning, keep harnessing those experiences. It will make you better as we all grow older.

  1. Swedish: blivande f.d.
  2. Assuming university level studies and, yup, I am counting parents as well.
  3. My apologies for being rude in making my point, of course old people learn 😉
  4. “Technical Obsolescence”, IEEE Spectrum
  5. “Lifelong Learning for Engineers: Riding the Whirlwind”, National Academy of Engineering
  6. The Peter Principle of promotion, Wikipedia
  7. The Dilbert Principle, Wikipedia
  8. “An Engineering Career: Only a Young Person’s Game?”, IEEE Spectrum
  9. Darn, I know I have that article somewhere!While I’m looking, please enjoy “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond”, NY Times