This post originally appeared on ONTRAPORT’s engineering blog. I’ve cross-posted it here for posterity.
Back in college, my friends and I would always talk about the latest tech news. We would debate the latest and greatest ideas like which Pentium 4 processor was better. It became a competition of who ‘knew’ the most ‘stuff.’ During one of these pre-class chats, one of the guys said, “I want to know more about tech than anyone.” Upon hearing this I thought to myself, why would you want to spend that much time consuming all that information? It seemed like a lot of wasted time. But that harmless statement shaped how and why I think developers must always be reading and learning:
- So that we can find targeted answers to involved problems.
- So that we can find general knowledge via weekly newsletters or from aggregators such as /r/programming to always be evolving.
This is the most common way to learn. Say I want to learn to play the guitar. I would research guitar tabs and watch youtube videos of people playing my favorite songs. Eventually I’d be able to play a few chords and maybe Steve Miller Band’s “Joker.” But outside of that you’re unable to do much more.
This can be dangerous; this is the path to stagnation. It can get pretty comfy knowing just “Joker” and living with those three chords. This is the same as looking through stackoverflow.com posts and copying/pasting in a rush just to get your task at hand finished. Or using “xyz” plugin to fix a problem without understanding how it works.
Although it can lead to stagnation, targeted learning can have the biggest influence on changing your perspective on a problem. Finding the “right” solution might hinge on your ability to google the right term. Once you find that right term — find el dorado — it can lead to your eureka moment, granting you the key to solve a greater problem!
Think of general learning as an investment, much like your 401k. If you plan to retire someday, you have to keep making daily/weekly/monthly contributions. It’s akin to running — you can’t run a mile once and then successfully run a marathon the next day. You have to train for it.
It’s easy to say “Why am I reading this?” or “When am I ever going to use this?” I feel like a lot of learning to develop is feeling out the boundaries of what’s possible. To make sure that I’m spending my time wisely and consistently pushing the boundaries, I keep this mental checklist while reading **general **knowledge articles:
- Have I read something like this before?
- This is interesting, but when will I use this information:
- Three months?
- A year?
- What “category” does this fall under?
- Spec documentation
- Code / plugin demo
- History / post mortem
- How does it line up with my job responsibilities?
- Does it fit with the company culture?
In the world of Front End Engineering there are quite a few articles that start out with “X is better than Y.” Many of these posts are quite persuasive, which might spark your insecurity — this is what those authors want, but it might be a false trigger. The checklist helps keep the following things in check: what I currently know, how the project or product I’m working on works, and if I agree with the article in question.
Tips for Keeping General Learning in Context
- Keep a whiteboard in the office where everyone can document their newest discoveries.
- Create a POC (proof of concept) for every idea.
- Present your newly discovered ideas in a collaborative show-and-tell once a week.
- Read about other topics outside of your expertise or immediate interest. I find that applying and practicing development principles in a different environment helps me refine my skills.
Further Reading on the Subject:
It’s a combination of both **targeted **and **general **learning that makes for success. It’s important that you and your team carve out time to learn and discuss new things. It will lead to better conversations during product/project meetings, since not everyone will agree that X is a better way of doing Y. You and your team will build a more collaborative rapport allowing for healthier discussions, which lead to a better product/project outcome.
I don’t think anyone faulted Socrates for knowing too much. And if you’re unconvinced about the importance of reading to evolve, just remember that there’s a reason why people often consider the most read person in a room to be the most intelligent.