Being a Better Developer... in 6 months


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12 July 2007

Bil Simser tagged me with this meme, thanks Bil.

As I tend to do with these things, I’ll answer, but I’m not going to pass it on.

Apparently the idea is to list 5 things that’ll make me a better developer over the next 6 months. The problem is, I’m not sure being a better developer is my primary focus just at the moment. But here’s my list:

Keep my head above water

Microsoft has recently, and continues into the foreseeable future, to come out with new technology releases at a ridiculous pace. By “head above water” all I really mean is that I want, at least, to have a general clue about the purpose and real capabilities of all the stuff they are throwing at us. Not just the marketing hype, but what it really means. This, to me, has always been one of my primary strengths: the ability to grok most of the technologies available, and to figure out how they fit into some overarching architecture/worldview/philosophy.

But the current rate of change, and the amount of redundancy (ADO.NET, DataSets, LINQ, ADO.NET EF all solving the same problem? Come on!) makes this increasingly challenging. So over the next 6 months I’ll be reading, talking to experts (and anyone else with something to offer) and experimenting in the hopes of keeping my head above water.

CSLA .NET

I used to learn new technologies by writing games - specifically MUDs and then low-end MMORPGs (well, I wrote and rewrote parts of one that never really came together). Someday I’d like to get back to doing that.

But in the meantime, I have CSLA .NET, and it has grown enough over the years that it affords me the opportunity to explore most of the key technologies I really want to learn. Having just released version 3.0, I got to dig into the plumbing behind WPF data binding, and explore the details around how WCF supports client/server (which it does well btw). Now my sights are turned toward two targets: .NET 3.5 and Silverlight.

The new language features, and of course lINQ itself, are key areas of focus for CSLA .NET 3.5. Fun stuff, no doubts there!

And if Silverlight 1.1 gets just a few more features (most notably data binding to objects), I believe I can create a CSLA Light that will provide a meaningful subset of CSLA .NET functionality within the Silverlight environment. If that pans out, it will be quite exciting :)

Magenic

Working for Magenic is great! I really enjoy the company and the people I work with. Over the next few months I’ll be conciously spending more time and energy working internally with Magenic. As noted above, Microsoft’s technology release schedule is grueling, and I want to make sure Magenic’s consultants have the opportunity to stay on top of everything. This not only means doing some internal training, but more importantly working to build up a base of expertise and the infrastructure so other people can do some of that training (formally or informally).

It is (in my view) entirely unrealistic for one person to be an expert on everything that’s going on. How can you credibly span .NET, Windows, Web, AJAX, SOA, Silverlight, SharePoint, Biztalk, SQL, Windows Server 2008 and everything else? You can’t. But Magenic can, because we have a large enough pool of people that there’s a decent level of expertise in all these technologies spread across the company. My challenge, then, is to coordinate that expertise such that the experts are in a position to share their knowledge with everyone else who needs it.

Of course Magenic has five offices across the country, and so there’s the interesting sub-challenge of enabling the sharing of expertise across geographic distance. Actually it isn’t the knowledge sharing that’s such a big deal (we have great forums, etc), but it is the sharing if passion that is harder - and yet is at least as important.

Don’t burn out

I’ve been feeling seriously burned out of late. That’s not good. Part of it is due to the way travel grates on me more all the time, but most of it is that I haven’t spent time doing truly exploratory things for a very long time now. CSLA has become quite consuming, and so my spare time goes into the framework, when I could be working on a .NET MUD engine or something really fun like that (I have these cool prototypes for truly dynamic world behavior that I’d love to pull together into something real).

It is also the case that I’m terrible about taking vacations. If I vacation at home, I work. That’s the primary drawback with having a home office - work is always right there. But with Smartphones and laptops with wireless and/or cell modems the “office” can go almost anywhere, so even with a traditional office, escape is almost impossible.

Except… In August I’m spending a full week (nearly 10 days) in or near the Boundary Waters in far northern Minnesota. No meaningful cell coverage, no Starbucks or anywhere like it that would have wireless. Just untold miles and miles of wilderness, canoing, camping and fishing. Yea!

Remember the passion

Have you ever played that “what if” game? The one where you ask youself what job you’d do if you didn’t do your current job?

I always draw a blank. If I had to do something else it would actually be work, rather than what I do now, which is to get paid for my hobby.

This, by the way, is what bothers me most about outsourcing, or even the software factory concept. It is true that economic needs shift over time, and steel workers needed to get new skills to find new jobs (as an example). I suppose it is possible that many of those steel workers had a burning passion for their job. That working with steel was their hobby as well as their job. But I doubt it. Most people I know view work as work: as a way to make money so they can do what they really want to do in their off hours. On the other hand, most developers I know view work as fun - and a way to make money while having fun.

Economists are often dismissive toward us, saying that if our jobs go offshore that we can just learn new skills and find different jobs. What they fail to understand is that we’d be doing far more than switching jobs: we’d be giving up an entire way of life. We’d be moving from a world of creative inspiration to a world of soul-crushing tedium. Yes, I realize I’m probably being very condenscending toward people with “normal” jobs, but this is how I see the world… (Then again, maybe economists do realize the deep love we have for what we do, and they envy us and so feel no remorse in talking about the destruction of our way of life?)

In any case, I love aspects of technology (especially building distributed and/or quasi-autonomous systems). And I love teaching about development. These things have been my passion since long before I officially started my career (when I was just a teenager, I was teaching elementary school kids how to use those new-fangled computers (Apples with no floating point support)). And I love writing - I really am what JMS describes as an “author” (one cursed to write because they can’t not write). I can’t imagine notdoing most of the things I do today.

I think that’s the key: remember the passion. Remember the fun. Yes, work hard, but more importantly code well, and perhaps above all: have fun!