Apprenticeship patterns (O'Reilly)

2010-09-23 08:17
A few days ago I finished reading the book "Apprenticeship Patterns" - Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman, by
Dave Hoover, Adewale Oshineye. The book is addressed to readers who have the goal of becoming great software devleopers.

One naive question one could ask is why there is a need for such a book at all? Students are trained in computer science at university, then enter some IT departement and simply learn from their peers. So how is software development any different than other professions? Turns out there are a few problems with that approach: At university students usually don't get the slightest idea of what professional software development looks like. After four years of study they still have a long way to go before writing great software. When entering your average IT shop these juniors usually are put on some sort of customer project with tight deadlines. However learning implies making mistakes, it implies having time to try different routes to find the best one. Lucky are those very few who join a team that has a way for integrating and training junior developers. Last but not least at least in Germany tech carrier paths are still rare: As soon as developers excel they are offered a promotion - which usually leads straight into management before they even had a chance to become masters in their profession.

So what can people do who love writing software and want to become masters in their profession? The book provides various patterns, grouped by task:

  • Emptying the cup deals with setting up an attitude that enables learning: To be able to learn new skills the trainee first has to face his ignorance and realise that what he knows already is just a tiny little fraction of what differenciates the master from the junior.
  • In the second chapter "Walking the long road" the book deals with the problem of deciding whether to stick with software development or to go into management. Both paths provide their own hurdles and rewards - in the end the developer himself has to decide which one to go. Deciding for a technical carrier however might involve identifying new kinds of rewards: Instead of being promoted to senior super duper manager, this may involve benefits like getting a 20% project, setting up a company internal user group, getting support for presenting ones projects at conferences. The chapter also deals with motivational side of software development: Let's face it, professional development usually is way different from what we'd do if we had unlimited time. It may involve deadlines that cannot be met, it may invovle customers that are hard to communicate with. One might even have to deal with unmovtivated colleagues who have lower quality standards and no intention to learn more than what is needed to accomplish the task at hand. So there is the problem of staying motivated even if times get rough. Getting in touch with other developers - external and internal - here can be a great help: Attending user groups (or organising one), being part of an open source project, meeting regularly with other developers in one's general geografical area all may help to remember the fun things about developing software.
  • The third group of patterns has been put under the headline "Accurate self-assessment" - as people get better and better it get ever harder to remember that there are techniques out there one does not yet know. Being the best in a team means that there is not more room to learn in that environment. It's time to find another group to get in touch with others again: To be the worst in a team means there is a lot of room for learning, finding mentors helps with getting more information on which areas to explore next. Especially helpful is working on a common project with others - doing pair programming can help even with picking up just minor optimisations in their work environment.
  • The fourth chapter "Perpetual learning" deals with finding opportunities to learn new technologies - either in a toy project that in contrast to professional work is allowed to break and can be used to try and test new techniques and learn new languages. Other sources for learning are the source code itself, tech publications on magazines, books (both new and classic), blogs and mailing lists. Reflecting on what you learned helps remember it later - on option to reflect may involve writing up little summaries of what you read and keeping them in a place where you can easily retrieve them (for me this blog has turned into such a resource - yeah, I guess writing this book summary is part of the exercise, even was a proposal in the book itself). Last but not least one of the best resources for reflection and continued learning is to share knowledge - though you may feel there are others out there way better then you are, you are the one who just went though all the initial loops that no master remembers anymore. You can explain concepts in easy to understand words. Sharing and teaching means quickly finding gaps in your own knowledge and fixing them as you go forward. Last but not least it is important to create feedback loops: It does not help to learn after three years of coding that what you did does not match a customers expectations. As an apprentice you need faster feedback: On a technical level this may involve automated tests, code analysis and continuous integration. On a personal level it involves finding people to review your code. It means discussing your ideas with peers.
  • The last chapter on "Constructing your curriculum" finally dealt with the task of finding a way to remain up to date, e.g. by following re-known developers' blogs. But also studying the classic literature - there are various books in computer science and software development that have been written back in the 60s and 70s but are still highly relevant.

The book does not give you a recipe to turn from junior to master in the shortest possible time. However it successfully identifies situations many a software developer has encountered in his professional life that made him quesion his current path. It provides ideas on what to do to improve one's skills even if the current IT industry may not be best equipped with tools for training people.

My conclusion from the book was that most important is getting in touch with other developers, exchanging ideas and working on common projects. Open source get several mentions in the book, but also for me has turned out to be a great source for getting feedback, help and input from the best developers I've met so far.

In addition meeting people who are working on similar projects face-to-face provides a lot of important feedback as well as new ideas to try out. Talking with someone over a cup of coffee for two hours sometimes can be more productive than discussing for days over e-mail. Hacking on a common project, maybe even in the same location, usually is the most productive way not only to solve problems but also to pick up new skills.