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Learning to program, Pt. II: Lessons that changed my life

Posted: January 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Programming | Tags: | 3 Comments »

This is a part of a three-article series on my journey so far as a programmer:

  1. How I learned to program
  2. Programming lessons that changed my life
  3. Why everyone should learn to program (and where to start)

In the last post, I talked about how I learned to program. This process has had a profound impact on the way I think, the way I approach problems, and my outlook on life in general. Here are just of the few of the lessons this process has taught me:

Unknowns are not bad. I used to work from a place of fear. If I didn’t know how we’d solve a problem, the risk was unacceptable and we’d abandon the effort. Programmers almost never know exactly how they’ll solve a problem, only that historically, they’ve been able to solve them. This is a much better place from which to start thinking if you want to change the world.

Breaking problems down is my job. Along with the last point, if a problem looked too complex, it was easy to get overwhelmed. But programmers know they’re the last line of defense: the enzymes whose job it is to break complexity down to manageable chunks. This is the key mindset difference that makes programmers so damn special.

Sharing is good. Previous jobs, Marketing in particular, taught me each and every idea is a trade secret and must be protected. Programming leads the way in thinking that “none of us is as smart as all of us,” which is part of why software is moving humanity forward at an astounding pace.

Black boxes are stupid and harmful. I used to think that if I didn’t understand how something worked, I probably never would. Programmers don’t allow “black boxes”: they have to tear everything apart to know how it works. It’s okay to not care how something works precisely, as long as you have a general idea of what’s going on. My friend Dave Brady calls it “Leaver’s Law”: “Anything that a system does for you, it also does to you.”

Sleep is amazing. Programming has taught me that your brain will chew on things for you and often bring you the answer after a good night’s sleep (or even a long walk). Letting your subconscious process things for you is a gift and a curse: I’ve had horrible code nightmares where I couldn’t solve a problem. But more often, I’ve awoken to find last night’s unsolveable problem quite easy to untangle.

You’re a free agent. I used to feel chained to my employer, completely subject to the ups and downs of the company. I felt if I lost my job, I might just die. Programmers tend to think in projects, and an employment contract is just that: a contract that needs to be mutually beneficial, or they’ll find somewhere better to spend their time.

Develop, then trust, your intuition. Programming is a surprisingly intuitive process. Things that just “feel wrong” or “feel right” typically are. You can then find the principles that define and back up these intuitive feelings.

People get paid to do this? If you don’t marvel at that from time to time, chances are your work isn’t aligned with your passion. Even on rough days, programmers generally have a sense of how fortunate they are.

Don’t give in to the overwhelming temptation to quit. The highs are high, but prepare for soul-crushing, ego-obliterating lows. It’s important to build a network of people who know exactly how you feel.

They’re not going to eat you. You will embarrass yourself. You will write hideous code. You will ask stupid questions. But all the embarrassment you’re conditioned to feel is unwarranted, because 99% of the time, sharing things you make with other makers is a safe thing to do.

It’s not as hard as it looks. There are a number of reasons that programming looks hard from an outsider’s perspective, but it’s only hard work (there’s a big difference). Things that appear to be a cliff to newbies actually have a gentler slope on the other side. It’s still a hike, but it’s doable.

Feeling dumb is normal. We’re trained like seals to bark the right answers back at teachers, bosses, etc., and to feel awful with anything less. Programmers get really comfy with not having any answers upfront, and finding fulfillment in the discovery process.

Your capabilities are limitless… eventually. Programmers are special because they tend to look at ignorance on a topic as a passing phase. Because they have to re-learn their own profession as it’s reinvented every few years, they know that given sufficient time and attention, you could become an expert on anything you want.

Show me the code. Years ago, I figured I had to try to play political games to get ahead. I even tried to learn to golf to get in my boss’s good graces (shudder). Not so with programming. Coders either deliver a result, or they don’t. Next to sales, it’s difficult to imagine a more results-driven culture. It’s basically impossible to BS your way through, because you either make things or you don’t.

Feedback is feedback. It’s better to move forward on the wrong information or without permission than to sit still and wait for the perfect opportunity. Being proven wrong is always an acceptable outcome, because it means you’re moving, and the “perfect opportunity” seems to prefer a moving target.

It’s about the journey. This is probably the lesson that’s had the biggest impact on my life. It’s too easy to become so focused on chasing some big reward while missing all the wonderful experiences in between. If you can’t enjoy the journey you’re taking, you probably won’t love the destination either.

Above all this, I’m generally a much happier, more patient person. I’m infinitely grateful to all the people who taught me these lessons and encouraged me to keep pressing forward.

Learning to program has changed my life in vastly more ways than listed here, and it’s why I’m so passionate about making the onramp less steep for new people. In the next post, I’ll talk about why you should learn to program and how you can get started.


  • Brian

    Brandon – thanks so much for sharing your experience. I am a former finance guy turned developer (3 months in with ROR). I identify with everything you have listed above and just wanted to say thanks for laying it out there. keep it up!

  • Observer-Aj

    hi Brandon.. Currently i am in a re-invent phase myself… Not much help being given… have you ever heard of escher software(CashierPro)…. trying my hands at this as my job requires that…

    • http://brandonhays.com/blog Brandon Hays

      Never heard of that before, but I wouldn’t shy away from learning it. Our capacity to pick up on new things is typically much greater than we give ourselves credit for. Best of luck!