I just finished reading a very interesting paper by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely called Making of an Expert. Ericsson, a Swede, is “widely recognized as one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise” according to Wikipedia.

The paper sums up what seems to be the general idea in contemporary psychology of what it takes to become an expert in any field: deliberate practice for an extended period of time (10.000 hours or 10 years at a minimum), constantly throwing yourself at new challenges, having experts/teachers/supervisors around you etc. It also states that “across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four to five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time”. Finally I don’t have to feel guilty about not being able to perform complicated programming tasks after 2 o’clock anymore! What a relief.

The authors also give a nice tip of how to improve your skills on your journey to becoming an expert, by trying to replicate masters in the field and then compare your result to theirs, analyzing the differences and drawing conclusions upon that:

“Say you have someone in your company who is a masterly communicator, and you learn that he is going to give a talk to a unit that will be laying off workers. Sit down and write your own speech, and then compare his actual speech with what you wrote. Observe the reactions to his talk and imagine what the reactions would be to yours. Each time you can generate by yourself decisions, interactions, or speeches that match those of people who excel, you move one step closer to reaching the level of an expert performer.”

This apparently translates to any job. It’s truly inspiring, and I believe a good way for programmers to start is by looking at the expert programmers around the world. Read their books, understand how they think, and mimic it until you know it by heart, then analyze it. Memorizing a code kata seems like a good way to add to your 10.000 hours of deliberate practice

Here are two katas to help you get started right now:
Robert Martin’s Bowling Game Kata
Robert Martin’s Prime Factors Kata

See you in 10 years!

I just found the video of my lightning talk on object databases for .NET.  It was recorded during the February 2009 ALT.NET Unconference in Stockholm.

Thanks to Petter Wigle for recording, editing and putting it up on Viddler.

Edit: I’ve been told I’m looking back at the slides projection way too much during this presentation. I agree. It’s because someone changed the settings on the laptop just before my presentation, so that I couldn’t see what slide I was on on it’s screen.

I’m a programmer and perhaps even a nerd, and as such I tend to focus on learning new tools, languages, patterns and other more technical details all the time. But at the core of my job is having good general problem-solving skills and these rarely get as much focus as cool demo webcasts of products to come etc. It’s just like school where you tried to learn facts, but never really learned how to learn.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but reading the excellent book Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt made me understand it at a much deeper level. Thinking and understanding aren’t the same as you’ll see.

imageThe conclusion I reached was something that I’ve been iterating in my mind over and over during the last year: you need to learn how to communicate with yourself. Communicating with others is more visible and a highly sought after skill because it shows that you’re not a introvert geek, but being able to communicate with yourself is something that I think we all should strive for as well.

What really snapped my head into place was a bug I had been trying to solve for a few days. Yes a few days, that’s how long I was stuck on this little sucker. Just before going home on the second day, I started thinking about self communication and opened up a text editor and described the problem to myself as detailed as I could. Then I read through it and huzzah, the bug was solved within minutes. It was super simple, but I had spent the two days being stuck in a mental rut that I couldn’t escape as long as I only tried to code myself out of the problem.

The secret is the action of putting what you think about into concrete, actual words. This process switches your brain into another mode, makes you think about it a little differently and activates reflection on this subject in your mind which can go on unnoticed for weeks in your subconscious. You may believe that just thinking about the problem is enough, since you feel that you already know all you need to know. But that is a mistake. Expressing the problems differently is key to developing a holistic understanding, to start seeing patterns, to connect to the knowledge you have about the subject through different mental paths. The way I see it there are many clues in society that point to the benefit of this, such as the catholic confessions, prayer, psychotherapy, rubber ducking, letter writing, keeping a diary and so on.

image So the next step for you, dear nerd, is to fire up a text editor or open a notebook and describe any problem you haven’t been able to solve for a while to yourself. It may be related to coding, work or even your personal life. Then you can throw it away, you’ve probably already benefitted from it. Do this over and over, perhaps through a simple exercise called morning pages, and you’ll start understanding the mechanics that are you and your mind and what you need to do to continually improve yourself.

It has done wonders for me anyway.

The Swedish ALT.NET will be hosting yet another “unconference” (a conference driven by its participants) Saturday the 7th of February in Stockholm, i.e. a few days from now. Last time was an absolute blast, so if you’re into the .NET platform then I strongly suggest you chum along. ALT.NET is all about constantly improving your software development skills and keeping an open mind about what the best solution to different development problems might be, and not blindly accepting a “one size fits all” solution from any specific vendor. Just head over to the Swedish ALT.NET site to register (for free of course).

In addition to the open spaces discussions that we hosted last time, we’ll also be listening to some interesting lighting talks (very short presentations) at the beginning of the event. I’ll be giving one about object databases, and others will be talking about iPhone development, code rot, mocking, OpenTK, BDD with MSpec and Continuous Integration.

My blog according to Wordle

December 5, 2008


Cool stuff, I like Wordle.

The fear in the .NET community of alternative tools, especially open source ones, is doing a lot of harm to us. There’s a paraphrase I learned from the ALT.NET movement that goes “No one ever got fired for choosing Microsoft” (I think the original quote was about IBM). And it certainly feels like it’s tragically true, the fact that we only trust Microsoft to provide us with everything and that nothing trustworthy can come out of the plethora of excellent ideas and tools that exist outside of Redmond.

Whenever I hear about this, I think of a person I talked to once. This person was going on and on about this open source version control system and how much it sucked, how they had never been able to get any support and how it showed just how rotten open source products are in general.

Curious to know, I asked the person what system it was. The answer I got was “SourceSafe”.

Of course I had to tell this person (not a developer mind you, but working in a .NET developer team) that it’s not open source software, but rather some crap that Microsoft has produced.

It’s an amusing story, and is serves as a good example of how many people working with .NET seem to feel about Microsoft vs open source.

Last night I came back from Øredev, a developer conference which took place in Malmö, Sweden. And what a conference it was, so super crammed with nice and motivated people and interesting talks.

The first thing that struck me, months ahead, was the impressive line-up. No wonder I decided to go there instead of the more exotically located PDC2008. Big names such as Robert C. Martin, Eric Evans, Ayende Rahien, DHH, Kevlin Henney and Scott Bellware in combination with track topics that are really close to my heart, e.g. .NET, Agile Ways, Test, DDD, Cool Languages and ALT.NET made for a really interesting mixture.

In retrospect, the conference was an absolute blast. And I’m not the only one thinking so, in fact it seems to hold up really well in international comparison according to people who have been to more conferences than I have. Just read what Microsoft’s Glenn Block and Ayende Rahien wrote during their stay there.

I was more interested in the ALT.NET track (a full day) than the ordinary .NET track, because of the topics. Instead of some sort of corporate demoware sessions, which tend to bore me, I chose the alternative. After an excellent introduction by my collegue Joakim Sundén, interesting presentations were held by Scott Bellware, Ayende Rahien and Glenn Block followed by a panel debate featuring all of the above.

The best presentation was probably “Using Active Record to write less code” by Ayende Rahien, which was cocky and super motivating. Even though I have some experience using ActiveRecord, and pretty much knew about the features he brought up, I had the same “wow” reaction as everyone else did. If you can deliver an ad-hoc presentation which preaches to a converted and makes him want to re-convert, then you’re on to something.

I could go on and on about the conference, but suffice it to say that I’ll most definitely be going back year after year if they keep it up. Bravo!