This is the first main post of the Brilliant Professional Programming Series. It was written by Kenji Ejima who does programming and infrastructure development at Brilliant (as seen at the whiteboard in the picture above).
Learning new technology is important to many professionals, but this is especially true for computer programmers. However, we don't actually talk about the specifics of learning new technologies on the job that often. Some of the topics that probably deserve more thought and discussion are:
- how much effort do engineers need to put into staying relevant,
- how to prioritize new technologies, and
- concerns about the momentum created by becoming a master of a specific technology.
I’ll try to address each of these topics below.
Technology Life Cycle
Think about a list of technologies that you have used in the past, but don’t use much any more. For example, these are some technologies that I no longer use, but used heavily for some period in the past:
- UNIX (Solaris, SunOS, OSF/1, HP-UX)
- Win32 API
- Borland C++ Builder
- MontaVista Linux
- Adobe Flex
- Apache HTTP Server
Most of these technologies are still around, and none of them are dead or anything. However, some of them may be past their prime — the industry is slowly moving away from them. Even if your list is short now, as you become more experienced your list will almost certainly grow.
If you’re straight out of college, most of the technologies that you know and use are still relevant so you probably don’t think about this that much. You might just think “Well, if I don’t need to know the old stuff, and I just learned all the new stuff then I’m all set”, but it’s important to keep in mind: much of the technology you learned will go away at some point — probably soon.
Let’s see some examples.
Google trend for “subversion”
Google trend for “mootools”
Google trend for “Adobe Flex”
Google trend for “Hadoop”
Google trend for “docker”
In general, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most technologies have a 7 year life cycle. I’m not considering the life cycle from the first release day to the day it gets discontinued, but rather the time that it has a reasonable amount of online information, popularity, and support. You may encounter a different number like 10 years or 5 years depending on your specialty, so for the following calculation go with the number that you think is reasonable:
Assuming most technologies have a 7 year life cycle, we must learn about 15% worth of our knowledge every year just to keep up. Doesn't that sound like a lot to you? It sounds like a lot of effort to me. If you’re learning less than that, you may want to consider if you should make a new investment in yourself by learning a new technology.
Learning 15% worth of our knowledge every year is a pretty large investment to make, and we don’t want to make any bad decisions on what to learn. Evaluating the technology before jumping in is therefore an important step.
First, let’s go over the easy stuff. There are technologies that will most likely stay around for a long time. For example:
- UNIX command line
- SQL or RDBMS (relational database management system)
- Some programming languages
- Most programming concepts
The UNIX command line will probably remain very relevant for professional programmers for 20 to 30 years at least. The commands are not fancy, but each one is designed and implemented to do one thing very well. You can think of GUI tools as fancy cooking machines like bread makers and ice cream makers, whereas UNIX commands are the basic cooking tools like knives, frying pans, measuring cups, and so on. Just as professional chefs don’t frequently rely on those fancy machines over the basic cooking tools, programmers shouldn’t rely on fancy GUI tools over basic UNIX commands. I believe it is a good idea for us to master the UNIX command line.
SQL or RDBMS will stay around for a long time, too. The query language or interface may change but the concepts of behind relational databases, such as data normalization, analysis, and management will probably stay around forever.
I think it is a good idea to prioritize these “low risk moderate return” technologies that will stay around for a long time.
After learning those, we will have to consider things that have a higher possibility of going away sooner, and therefore, we need to evaluate carefully before jumping on. Some points that I consider when evaluating technologies, are:
- trend … is it going up or down (see the charts above from Google Trends)
- competitor … if there is competition, then we will want to pick the more relevant option
- best practices … is the technology old enough to have best practices established
- relevance at work … is it something that will be professionally useful within a year
- lock-in … is it something that will be hard to move away from later, or is it a more open technology
Examples of competitors are PostgreSQL vs. MySQL, KDE vs.GNOME, Android vs. iOS. You don’t need to think about “which is better” because there probably isn’t a clear winner and loser. It’s more important to think about which will match your style and taste, or the style and taste of the companies you’d like to work for (for instance, if you like python/django, PostgreSQL would be a good choice because the django community seems to prefer PostgreSQL over MySQL).
Each technology will have its own best practices, and if you jump on before they are established, it is likely that you’ll have to discard some of your knowledge and effort.
It is not possible, and probably not a good idea either, to completely stay away from being locked in to certain technologies, but it is possible to control them. For example, if you are using a cloud service that offers a lot of proprietary features, you should consider how hard it would be to replicate those features on another service or implement them from scratch should you need to switch to a different service later.
Management of “Inefficiency”
Most of the "cost" of learning new technologies comes in the form of a hit to your productivity while you are starting to work with the new technology. I think of this in terms of efficiency. The task for the professional engineer, then, is management of this period of inefficiency when you are learning a new technology.
Let’s say you have 1 or 2 years of experience in C/C++. Is switching to Python or Haskell a big deal? Probably not.
What if you have 5 to 7 years of experience? Probably yes. You have pretty much all of the important standard libraries memorized. You know the idioms. You know all related developer tools. You can immediately tell if a variable should go in the stack, static, or heap memory. You have a weird function in your brain that tells you which variables haven’t been freed yet.
As you gain more and more experience in a certain technology, it becomes a bigger issue to switch to another technology. You’re not as experienced in the new technology, so your efficiency goes down. You don’t yet know all the standard libraries, and you don’t know all the idioms or related tools yet. So, you will feel: “I can get my work done much faster if I continue to use C++ instead of switching to this new language”.
We therefore tend to try to stay on the technology that we are efficient in. I won’t immediately say that’s a bad idea. But if we aren’t careful, one day we’re going to realize: “Hey, wait. Nobody is talking about COBOL any more…” (or Pascal or punch cards...)
Of course efficiency is important. We have to get stuff done. But we also have to understand that due to the evolving nature of the tech industry, we need to accept the inefficiency that comes with learning new technologies and manage it.
It’s probably not a good idea to say “Okay, I’m going to learn something new, so I’m not going to get much done for a whole month.” We should spread it out and manage the transition or learning curve, or assign time when we’re not extremely busy.
Trying to figure out which new technologies to invest in, and figuring out how to stay productive while learning them, will become more important as we grow as engineers. We have to solve both problems or accept that we will become obsolete long before we are ready to retire.