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Beginners and experts

Saturday 23 September 2017

I gave a talk at Boston Python the other night. It started as an exposition of the point matching algorithm I've previously written about on this blog. But as I thought about my side project more, I was interested to talk about the challenges I faced while building it. Not because the specifics were so interesting, but because they were typical problems that all software projects face.

And in particular, I wanted to underscore this point: software is hard, even for experts. Experts have the same struggles that beginners do.

I used this tweet as an illustration:

The two states of being a developer

I love the raw emotion on the two boys' faces. They perfectly illustrate both the frustration and exhilaration of writing software.

But here's what beginners might not understand: beginners think beginners feel the frustration, and experts feel the exhilaration. As any expert will tell you, experts feel plenty of frustration. They feel like that left-hand kid a lot.

The difference between beginners and experts is that experts are familiar with that frustration. They encounter it all the time, as they deal with new unfamiliar technologies, or a thorny bug, or just when they are too tired to tackle the problem before them. They know the frustration is because they are facing a challenging problem. They know it isn't a reflection of their self-worth or abilities. Experts know the feeling will pass, and they have techniques for dealing with the frustration.

When beginners get frustrated, they can start to worry that they are not cut out for software, or they are dumb, or that everyone else gets it and they don't.

The good news for beginners is: this isn't about you. Software is difficult. We build layer upon layer of leaky abstractions, of higher and higher realms of virtualization and complexity. There's no natural limit to how high our towers of complexity can go, so we are forced to try to understand them, or tame them, and it's very hard. Our languages and tools are obscure and different and new ones are invented all the time. Frustration is inevitable.

The bad news for beginners is: this feeling won't stop. If you do your software career right, then you will always be a newb at something. Sure, you can master a specialty, and stick with it, but that can get boring. And that specialty might dwindle away leaving you stranded.

You will be learning new things forever. That feeling of frustration is you learning a new thing. Get used to it.

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