Monday, October 31, 2011

Chasing Technology

Maybe I'm just getting old, but keeping up with technology seems to be getting harder and harder. As I've mentioned before, I am a big fan of learning your libraries, languages, and tools. But how are you supposed to do that, when the libraries keep upgrading and there are constantly new tools to use? Just this past week there was a post on slashdot suggesting that tech skills have a 2 year half life. The comments on that thread seem to mostly disagree with the hypothesis, but there is definitely some truth to it.

The two languages that I use the most at work did not exist when I started college. However, languages are easy to keep up with. They tend to move slowly and are very well documented. Tools, libraries, and frameworks, on the other hand, are a nightmare to chase. They are constantly being upgraded, and often times the best documentation are the question/answers out there on the web at places like stackoverflow. The problem with these sites is that they are only useful after a tool has been out long enough for a critical mass of people to use.

So what's a person supposed to do?

Well, first, as many commenters from the slashdot article stated, the most valuable skills a software engineer has is knowing how to design, develop, and debug software. These skills don't go away just because you are using a new language or library. So play to your strengths. If you design and write clean code, it'll be easier to fix/update as you learn the language/library/tool better.

Second, choose your upgrades carefully and intentionally. Just because there is a newer version of something out there, doesn't mean you need to use it. Are the benefits worth it to upgrade now? Does it make more sense to wait until it has been popularly adopted? Or maybe it makes sense to skip a version or two.

Third, don't become an expert in everything. Most of us have finite amounts of energy and time. So, while I'm a big believer in being an expert in the tools you are using, that isn't always practical. If a particular tool/library/framework is bound to be upgraded/replaced in the near future, it's probably ok if you use the existing library in a less than optimal way. Focus your energies on the timeless (design and coding skills) or the long lasting (languages).

constantly learnFourth, and most importantly, constantly learn. If your employer doesn't provide opportunities for professional growth, take it anyway. Just as you don't ask for permission for every single test that you write, or every whiteboard design that you draw, you don't need permission to explore new technologies and tools. Whether they know it or not, your employer pays you to be a good and competent software developer. This requires you to be constantly learning new and better ways of doing things. If you are not taking ten to twenty percent of your time exploring and learning, you are shortchanging yourself and making yourself obsolete. I realize that it seems there is never time to do this, but like other aspects of good software engineering (appropriate design, testing, documentation), in the long run you will be worse off if you don't make the investment now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh man,
this post brings up a sore point for me. I moved a program to GTK assuming the libraries would be around a long time but after the move the new version of GTK had substantial changes that will require a significant rewrite on my part. I have not upgraded. How often has the madking moved his code to some library or programming environment only to be disappointed by a later change that requires a massive rewrite?
-Alan