Category Archives: Your Career

Taking Some Professional Advice

These days there probably isn’t a field that wouldn’t list “communications” as a critical skill needed for successful candidates, but I’ve found that this is even more important in the field of computer science.  Why?  Programmers don’t like people – even themselves.

Talking about yourself is hard. Too much and people think you’re a motormouth, too little and people wonder “why is he so quiet?”. Mentioning your accomplishments can get you marked as a braggart and never talking about them can make you seem like a loser.  Where is the happy medium? Learning to talk about yourself in a self-effacing manner is not only important for interpersonal communication, but it is critical to your success in your career.

One of the best pieces of advice came to me during one of my first jobs out of college.  My boss would regularly walk around the office, talk about how things were going, maybe ask you about your weekend.  He almost always started with the same question: “What have you been working on at home?”.

I remember being surprised and confused by this question.  Why would my boss want to know what I worked on at home?  Was he implying that I should’ve been researching work issues at home on the weekends? I hadn’t really been working on anything on the side.  I was pretty overwhelmed at work with all of the new things I was learning.  I almost felt like I would be wasting my time on things that had nothing to do with my work. After a few months I finally got up the nerve to ask what he meant by this question. What was the expectation?

The advice he gave me is this – ALWAYS have something to tell me.

I started picking up side projects so I would have something to talk to him about.  Little freelance projects that did or did not pay, fun applications and websites that I wanted to write.  I learned so much, so fast. I picked up Python and learned to write little applications and connect to websites, I wrote a web-app for a new business in England that landed me a gig I still work on (5 years later), I picked up C++ and started working on games, I cracked my head on my first Android application. Whatever interested me or sounded fun, I spent some time on.  Many of my personal projects never got finished or were abandoned, but what I had learned stuck with me.

During my time there, I almost always had a side-project going and I always had something to tell my boss about when he came around.  Sometimes he would nod thoughtfully and smile, other times he would give me some pointers or direct me to something I should read.  In a way, my work I was doing outside of the job helped me connect with my boss better than my actual work performance.  He would stop by and ask me how the project we discussed last week was going and he became a mentor I could talk to when I was really stuck. When I decided to move on, he wrote me one of the best recommendations I could ever ask for and I will never forget that encouragement.

I still do side-projects and freelance work today.  Most of my projects are from repeats, referrals, and word-of-mouth and I don’t really have to go looking for them anymore. Learning to talk about myself has also allowed me grow my communication skills and learn to speak with people that I would once be intimidated by as well as communicate about technical details and programming in a way that you can never really master in school. Whatever you’re doing right now, find the time to start working on side projects. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do.  Employers want initiative and passion – show them you have what they need and you’ll surprise your boss, clients, and yourself.

Caught Up in the Details

Lately, I’ve been trying to really home-in on some of the problems that I see many of my students going through that holds them back from their learning and programming goals.  Today I want to talk about “the details”.

Computer Science, like many fields, is one that enjoys details.  We thrive on it actually, digging into problems, exploring the minutia, and giving everything an acronym. But I start to think how unhelpful this attitude is to students.  Learning to program well requires the introduction of the following all at once:

  • Terminology
  • Basic concepts of programming
  • Acronyms
  • Development software / IDEs
  • Foundational knowledge in computing
  • Coding standards
  • Documentation
  • Requirements gathering
  • Syntax for the language they are studying

You can probably tell this is an overwhelming list.  I actually could add a few more items but typically, this is what is covered in the first few WEEKS of an introductory computer programming course.  I start to ask myself why.  Why are we so caught up in all of these details?  Why is it so important to impart the skills of documenting or making sure they can understand a bit from a byte when they are first starting out?

It seems to me we would be doing a students a great service if we tried to remove some of these roadblocks to their learning and actually just taught them how to program. We don’t teach people how to drive cars by making them learn how to fix one.   No one ever learned how to write by studying the history of penmanship. Some topics are better left for later when the student has a grasp of the language, then we can go back and make sure that they understand what is going on under the hood.

So today, for all of my students, I would recommend the following – put down the details and focus on the programming.  Really dig into the whys and hows of your current language and don’t worry about all of the peripheral knowledge that you can gain over time.  Slim down your list to:

  • One programming language (of course, I think C# is the best)
  • One IDE – Visual Studio really cannot be beat
  • A simple set of challenges or projects you want to accomplish

You will make far more progress in learning how to program if you narrow your focus towards a goal that can be stated easily such as “A program that can convert temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius” or “A program that lets me enter and search my DVD titles”.  Not only will you find that you have more motivation when you are focused on completing a particular project, but you will learn a lot more about your programming language by solving the challenges that will be held within.

If you haven’t checked out my learning course for C# yet, now is a good time to get started – learn more here.

Programmer Productivity

I saw this image on a blog the other day.

programmer productivity in a graph

I hear a lot from other programmers that they have problems with productivity.  I know I used to.  I had to work with the TV or Netflix on the background so I would have something to tune out.  You were only going to get about three consecutive hours out of me before I would run off and hide somewhere for a recharge.  I used to drive my manager crazy!

Joel Spolsky talked about this same problem on his blog once.

Sometimes I just can’t get anything done.

Sure, I come into the office, putter around, check my email every ten seconds, read the web, even do a few brainless tasks like paying the American Express bill. But getting back into the flow of writing code just doesn’t happen.

These bouts of unproductiveness usually last for a day or two. But there have been times in my career as a developer when I went for weeks at a time without being able to get anything done. As they say, I’m not in flow. I’m not in the zone. I’m not anywhere.

I think most of us were excited to find out we weren’t alone. If someone like Joel, that I highly respect and look up to has the same problem, then I don’t fee like there is something wrong with me.

So what do you do about it?

First, I made a list of all of the things I thought made me unproductive:

  • Open floor plan offices / not getting any privacy – if I was constantly overhearing other conversations, arguments, etc…I couldn’t keep focused
  • Pestering co-workers – Why would you come by my desk and ask me “did you get that email I sent 10 minutes ago?”.
  • Poor communication about requirements – self explanatory
  • Poor multitasking / prioritizing skills – if I had THINGS ON FIRE and other tasks to handle, I wasn’t sure about how to get it all done and in what order.
  • Twitter and Facebook notifications on my phone – self explanatory
  • Email notifications on my computer – also self explanatory
  • The Internet in general

So when I would find myself in a period of strong productivity, I would begin to ask myself.  What is going on right now that makes me more productive?  I created a similar list of “pro” environment things:

  • Music is good but I don’t want lyrics, instrumentals / dance music only
  • TV/Netflix is good but only if its some nonsense show that I don’t really care if I watch.  Daytime TV is good for this.
  • A private office.  For the most part I just started working from home.
  • No interruptions.  I had to isolate myself from the Internet.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would recommend that you start making lists like the above.  It has completely changed the way I work and my work output. Not all of us are cutout to work in the same office environment and learning these things about yourself will only make you happier as an employee.

Put yourself in control

A lot of us think that we are just lazy or that unproductive behavior is just part of who we are.  You are capable of so much more! Each of us has the power to control what makes us unproductive.  To make myself more productive I had to take control of the areas that I could:

  • Turn off notifications on your phone. Added bonus – more battery for later!
  • Work from home when I really, really need to get something done.  I also found places I can “hide” at work and not be bothered but I am easily accessible for pop-up meetings.
  • Black-out times on your calendar – These are times that you are scheduling yourself to work without interruption and they show as busy to anyone else that may want to schedule you for something.
  • Re-position your work environment – Move your desk so you can’t see people passing by or so you don’t see distractions.
  • Learn to reward yourself – I give myself three hour breaks for Internet, snacks, walks around, etc…

Now I seem to have the opposite problem where I am so productive with all of my tasks that people wonder how I get everything done.  Its really been a complete change.

I would be interested to know what you think makes you unproductive.  How do you combat it?

Math and Programming – Locked in an Eternal Struggle

It constantly surprises me the number of students that want to go into Computer Science that don’t like math.  Haven’t we been told for decades that the two fields are intertwined?

There seems to be two schools of thought on this struggle between math and programming.

Programmers do not need to be good at math

I often hear from programmers in the field that they don’t feel like they need to be good at math to do their job.  They have perfectly good careers and rarely have to use any math.  So why bother?

Today’s programmers are typically more focused on business logic problems and n-tier communication issues than using fancy equations to solve problems. Maybe the most math that you ever have to do is determine if you are going to overload your mobile network connection or that your Java library is going to be too big to load. When was the last time you had to implement a logical math function that wasn’t already given to you in a library?

Fundamentally, I think the flaw in this logic is that “being good at math” is not the same as “being good at math problems”. I’m sure that many a programmer goes about his day without ever giving the college Algebra class that he took almost a decade ago another thought. So why do we need it?

Programmers need math to learn logic

Think back to your last math class.  What did you learn?  It doesn’t really matter what you answer here since the answer, fundamentally is going to be the same. Math teaches us some basic things that make us better programmers.

  • Logical thinking – math teaches us about the application of logic to a problem.  Conjecture, proof and building theories.
  • Linguistical thinking – There has been tons of research that shows learning math is more like learning a language.  We use similar areas of the brain to learn and retain this information.
  • Future automation – Programmers typically have a drive to automate processes and tedious tasks.  Figuring out these automation techniques for tasks almost always involve computational mathematics in your code.

So not only do we need to take all of those math classes to learn the basics of mathematics, but we are also training ourselves on problem solving and how to approach the tasks that we will find in our programming careers.  We are also training our brain to learn the programming languages that we will encounter.  Let’s talk about that for a second…

Math is a language?

Absolutely! Math is more of a language than programming languages simply due to the way that our brains process problems.  When you are handling a math problem, you are dealing with unknowns and ambiguities.  This forces us to have to handle things based on context, just like you would when communicating with someone else.   One of the great things about programming is that you have a compiler that will help you determine how that ambiguity resolves.  You probably also have a better idea of the expected output or the end result in programming than you do when working math problems.

As someone currently working on their doctoral thesis on the subject – this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I would argue that in the hierarchy of rigor, mathematics falls between language and programming.  Its a bridge for understanding and applying concepts, even if you never actually feel that you use math in your everyday programming tasks.  This is why the two fields are locked together – no other training will help you learn the kind of abstract thinking that you will apply in programming like mathematics.

What does this mean for upcoming students in the field?

If you’re not good at math I don’t think you’re a hopeless case, but I do think that it has the potential to directly translate to your ability to apply critical thinking and solve problems in your programming courses.  However, there is no indicator that I’ve found in my research that states a person must be good at math to be good at language (hello future research project!). Since the two are similar, there is a good probability that a person that is good with languages could also apply the same concepts to programming and be successful.

Feel free to comment.  My research analysis will be posted on this blog when I am finished with my dissertation, so maybe we’ll have a more definitive answer then!

Don’t Get Type Cast in Your Programming Career

I was recently talking to a student about their career goals and they said “which language should I choose to learn: C# or Java?”.  My response was that they should learn both, since limiting your knowledge in this field can be a dangerous game. You want to be able to branch out and learn new things, even after you are out of school, so you can figure out where you fit.  I hear a lot about “specialization”.  People seem to think that since these specialized devs that only know about a few key systems like Sharepoint make tones of money, that is what they need to do as well.  I would caution you to not think this way as specialization only seems to work for a handful of people.  The more you learn about different systems, environments, and technologies the more it is going to open your eyes to different ways of thinking and working with different types of people.

Specialization also happens in the development world where you get stuck only working on projects that are supported on one platform.  You may think, “hey, I know a lot of different stuff about C#, Winforms,, ASMX, MVC, etc” but all of these are .NET platform technologies.  Not limiting yourself, should mean using different platforms altogether. i.e Linux, Windows, OSX, iOS, Android, different DBs, different languages. Also, different types of apps and requirements such as  web, desktop, mobile, embedded, enterprise level, high traffic, etc…

I recently saw a conference video from the Goto Conference where one of the presenters, Trisha Gee was giving career advice to programmers.  Here is the video:

Trisha talks about not limiting yourself in your learning and thus limiting your career by only focusing on one kind of technology, platform or area.  She used herself as an example since she switched from web development to server administration to server development. I’ve done the same thing.  I started as a programming student that went into programming, then IT administration (basically a catch-all title in itself), then server administration, then software administration, then programming instruction with freelance development and web development projects on the side.  By learning all of this, I learned I can switch gears and diversify my skills to create an impressive resume.  I also learned a lot of soft-skills.  Those are the people skills that you pick up along the way and having all of this experience helps when you need to put yourself in another person’s situation or understand the impacts of your decisions. It gives you a broader view of the process.

The key to all of this is don’t box yourself in. Don’t be afraid to learn new things and pick up new skills, even 10 years from now when you feel secure in your job. By switching gears now and then you are going to keep yourself from feeling like you are stuck in a rut.  It can be quite scary jumping into a new area or discipline in your field but ultimately it is rewarding as it gives you a very well-rounded resume that will open up a lot of doors.  It also shows employers that you are willing to invest in yourself and aren’t afraid of change.