Golden tips for programmers? Just skip them.

SUMMARY: There’s plenty of free advice on how to become a better developer. You can safely skip much of it. You’ve probably heard it all before in different guises. Moreover, the huge scope of present-day IT is such that most advice has limited relevance. It’s rarely universally useful, and even if it is, knowing your golden tips doesn’t mean people live by them.

Blogs catering to developers are bursting with well-meaning bullet point lessons on how you too can join the pick of the bunch. Tell-tale warning signs to help you spot slackers, sociopaths and generic time wasters in your team are another favourite. Many of these articles strike me as hunches based on shreds of personal and/or anecdotal evidence. Who are you to take this authoritative tone with me? I can think up my own Ten Commandments of Seven Deadly Sins, easy. It would be a hodgepodge of stuff I experienced first-hand or read, ordered and filtered by my own subconscious preferences, hoping you, the reader, will find it useful. I won’t do it.

The true pioneering days of programming are long gone. To have witnessed the birth of OOP and FP as a working programmer you’d have to have been born before 1960. The profession is slowly maturing — emphasis on slowly. It’s hard to be truly original about the craft, so people keep repeating themselves. [Insert DRY humor here]. Read Dijkstra and Brooks first hand for the original pearls of wisdom and forget about the umpteenth uncredited rehash in broken English. I consider this universally useful advice, by they way. Software writing of the eighties and earlier is fascinating because so much has changed (Internet, Cloud, mobile) while at the same time so little (fatal bugs and crashes, cost overruns).

One things that has certainly changed a lot is the pervasiveness of IT. Software has crept into every nook and cranny of our lives by means of an unimaginable variety of hardware devices. Even within one discipline (coding) and ecosystem (Java) it’s hard to keep up with what’s new. Each industry and project has its own demands moreover. Compression algorithm gurus and those of self teaching car navigation want you to brush up your maths. Somebody who designed a chat robot for a government portal aimed at users with low literacy may have benefited from a book on educational psychology.

Be wary of the experts who claim to know how to improve yourself in all cases, especially when they take a thou shalt (not) tone with you. Their experience is based on what worked for them and applied outside their niche we should not set the same store by it. Of course it’s useful to improve you maths and logic skills, but that’s cheap advice if you have a natural knack for it. It’s not worth the investment for someone like myself. I accept my mathematical mediocrity. I believe it’s more fun and more effective to try and excel in what you’re already good at. So I pick the projects where I can make that difference and avoid the ones where I can’t. Thanks to my language background I like writing documentation and I’ve become quite good at it. You shouldn’t strive to do the same if it’s not your bag. You can’t squeeze becoming a better writer in a 15-minute how-to.

In the end all this self-improvement advice breaks down the moment you have to act on it. Talk is cheap. How many of those 15 million readers of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People were catapulted into a corporate boardroom with the aid of this self-help bible? Exactly. Be proactive, Begin with the end in mind, Think win-win. It’s all way too generic and it takes a serious life-makeover. All these posts with their twelve-step plans on Medium strike me as a quintessentially American manifestation of the rags to riches self-improvement myth. We can’t get enough of them even if the path turns out to be an expensive and painstaking do-it-yourself project.

Suppose you have a brilliant piece of coding advice that doesn’t take days of hard study; something you could conceivably apply and benefit from today. Will the hype sensitive community run with it? Maybe, maybe not. We’re people and we don’t always act in our own best interest. Actually. strike the always. Most of us know how to live a healthy life, but knowing isn’t doing.

Since I can’t resist the temptation here’s three free yet priceless golden tips for a glorious career in any industry.

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Jasper Sprengers

Dutch; former English teacher, software developer since 1999, writing about the many things that delight or annoy me.