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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Chapter 5. Perpetual Learning

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If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses

Andy Hunt, a highly respected software craftsman, has asserted numerous times that software development is composed of two primary activities: learning and communication (Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, p. 3). We would build on that idea and assert that the core theme of an apprenticeship is learning and the dominant trait of a successful apprentice is a demonstration of her learning abilities. Apprentices are thirsty for opportunities to replace their ignorance with skill. This is no small feat when faced with the complexities of our work and the seemingly overwhelming amount of information that an apprentice must deal with. Beyond the fundamental act of learning Concrete Skills, an apprentice must also learn how to learn, for the transition to journeyman will certainly not remove the need for learning. One trait of a master craftsman is a willingness to set aside hard-won expertise in a specific domain in order to learn something new. Learning is a perpetual activity for those on The Long Road to mastery.

The Perpetual Learning patterns are applicable for your entire career, but with the apprentice’s emphasis on learning, it is critical that these patterns be applied early on in your journey. Expanding Your Bandwidth is the fundamental activity for apprentices looking to accelerate growth and facilitates several of the other Perpetual Learning patterns, such as Breakable Toys; Use the Source; and Practice, Practice, Practice. All three of these patterns grow out of an exposure to new information or a desire to acquire new knowledge: whether you’re practicing a new technique, building something in an effort to learn a new platform, or studying the source code of an innovative new open source tool. These more concrete patterns are followed by the softer self-discovery patterns that proceed from Reflect as You Work, which leads to Recording and Sharing what you’re learning. The critical patterns to take with you into the years beyond apprenticeship are Create Feedback Loops and Learn How You Fail. To transition to journeyman and ultimately master craftsman, you are going to need to be skilled at creating feedback loops, and also to be intimately familiar with your weaknesses.

Expand Your Bandwidth

[L]earning about what we don’t know is often more important than doing things we already know how to do.

Context

You have picked up a basic set of skills.

Problem

Your understanding of software development is narrow and focused only on the low-level details of what you’ve worked on in your day job.

Solution

You have been drinking steadily through a straw. But there are seasons in an apprenticeship when one must drink from the fire hose of information available to most software developers.

Expanding your ability to take in new information is a critical, though sometimes overwhelming, step for apprentices. You must develop the discipline and techniques necessary to efficiently absorb new information, as well as to understand it, retain it, and apply it. This pattern means more than reading a book about an unfamiliar aspect of software development. It involves seeking out new knowledge and experiences in multiple dimensions. For example:

  • Sign up for Google Reader (or another blog aggregator) and begin subscribing to software development blogs. With modern machine translation technologies, you don’t even have to restrict yourself to those who write in English. You can follow Tim O’Reilly’s advice and track the blogs of what he calls “alpha geeks” across a variety of technology domains.[26] These people aren’t necessarily the best programmers, but collectively they tend to sense new trends years before the rest of us. Consider using your own blog to reflect on the themes you pick up from these bloggers.

  • Start following some software luminaries on Twitter and pay attention to what they’re working on.

  • Subscribe to a moderately high-traffic online mailing list and try to answer people’s questions by reproducing their issues.

  • Join a newly formed local user group that is excited about a new technology. Don’t just attend silently—introduce yourself to the organizer and offer to help.

  • Persuade your employer to send you to a technical conference. Even if they won’t pay for you to attend, you can still read the slides on the website and download audio/video of the speeches.

  • After you read a book, contact the author with a note of appreciation and a question. Authors, speakers, and luminaries may seem intimidating or busy, but they often enjoy corresponding with readers.

  • Don’t forget that there are hundreds of online academic courses, podcasts, and videos (such as Google’s extensive series of Tech Talks) available for free through iTunes and YouTube.

As the priorities of your apprenticeship shift, you will eventually need to turn off the fire hose so that you can focus on project work. But there should be at least one season during your apprenticeship during which you use this pattern. It’s important not just because of the knowledge you will pick up during this time, but because it is actually a skill to be developed in and of itself. Journeymen and masters seek out opportunities where this pattern can be used to advance their careers and craftsmanship, particularly when they want to get into a new technology.

Once you understand how to Expand Your Bandwidth, the next step is to understand when to Expand Your Bandwidth. It’s possible to become obsessed with gathering and consuming new information, particularly as it becomes easier and easier to get at up-to-the-second thoughts on the most prolific thinkers in our industry. Some people could become lost in the sea of interesting information, and never come back to actually crafting software. While Expanding Your Bandwidth can be fun and is an interesting skill in and of itself, for the apprentice it is a means to an end. Use this pattern judiciously, for while it will accelerate your learning, it will slow down your development velocity, and therefore will have diminishing returns if applied for more than a few months.

Action

Attend a local user group within the next month. Research a related national conference you’d like to attend. Start reading a book by one of the conference speakers. Contact the author with some questions after you’re finished with the book.



[26] Tim O’Reilly, “Watching the ‘Alpha Geeks’: OS X and the Next Big Thing.” Available at: http://www.linuxdevcenter.com/pub/a/mac/2002/05/14/oreilly_wwdc_keynote.html.

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