Saturday, September 17, 2011

Professional Development Redux

It is worth reading Why I Go Home: A Developer Dad’s Manifesto. There is a lot of truth to the observations that developer hours can be unnecessarily long, or be haphazard and unpredictable. And any push towards moving the North American mindset away from "live to work" towards "work to live" has a lot of resonance with me.

I will say this though. I get the feeling that Adam Schepis is atypical. He says he loves his career, and he says he loves crafting great code. I believe him. He maintains a blog with lots of technical content. And what is a key consideration for me, he wrote Drinking from a Firehose. In my opinion, anyone who cares enough about his software development career to be concerned about managing his professional reading, let alone what to read, does not have to defend his decision to try to keep his working hours sane, or to spend time with family. Because he is already doing what most career programmers do not do, which is to pursue professional development on their own time and own dime.

So let us talk about the typical programmer. You know, the man or woman you have to work with. You yourself probably do not fit the bill, because you are reading this.

Let us proceed on the assumption that that there is rarely any excuse for routine long working days, unless you are in your early twenties and working for a startup and you have willingly chosen to spend your life that way. There is no excuse for long days even in the waning weeks and days of a project - that is just piss-poor team planning and execution if and when it happens. That it happens a lot in our profession simply indicates that a lot of us, myself included, are occasionally (or often) piss-poor planners and executors.

So let us assume that we have solved all of those problems and are not in fact working frequent long days. With all due respect afforded to Adam, I suggest that if he is in such an environment, and he does not have the power to effect necessary changes, he needs to find another place. Because otherwise his decision to keep sane hours will hurt him. It is a commendable goal, but it can only happen in an organized workplace. So find that organized workplace first.

In this M-F 8-4 or (7-3 or 9-5) environment the question then becomes: what are your personal responsibilities for professional development?

I have worked in environments - government labour union environments - where some developers were able to safely refuse not only any personal professional development on their own time, but even personal professional development offered to them on taxpayer time. That is an aberration and perversion, and I will not discuss that further. What we are talking about is the typical situation, where your employer is paying you to be productive.

Most good employers, if possible, will pay for training and education. Most good employers will permit some of these activities to happen on paid time, particularly when the training and education involves employer-driven sharp changes in selected technologies to be mastered. If a company directive comes down to re-orient on PostgreSQL rather than Oracle, or that a big push is to be made into CMIS web services, it is not only unrealistic for the employer to expect all employees to ramp up on their own time, but it is also not in the employer's best interests.

But what about foundation technologies? These are "bread and butter" technologies. They consist of all those technologies that a developer in a certain niche (domain sector, seniority, work position etc) would reasonably be expected to know no matter what. If someone mostly deals with enterprise Java applications, that set of foundation technologies includes Java SE and Java EE. If someone deals with enterprise .NET applications, that set of foundation technologies includes .NET Framework, C#, ASP.NET MVC, WPF (maybe), WCF, and maybe WF (Workflow Foundation).

Is it reasonable to expect an employer to pay for developer training and education for moving to Java EE 6, when said same developer does nothing but Java EE 5 already? I have seen some programmers argue exactly this case, and while I believe that they are dead wrong, the argument does need to be refuted.

Before doing so, let us discuss informal on-the-job-training (OJT). By informal I mean just that: as a developer you encounter something new during paid hours, and with no further ado you teach yourself about it. Not one of us knows all we need to know, so we continually encounter unfamiliar things, like unfamiliar APIs. Some degree of informal OJT is expected, accepted and even encouraged.

But at some point informal OJT can be abused. If there is too much of it then it needs to be changed to either formal OJT, or the developer should be learning on their own. The main reason why too much informal OJT is problematic is because it skews and distorts project management: how can you ever hope to estimate effort, or trust your designs, when your developers evidently did not know all that much about the target technologies before they started?

As mentioned above, a good case for formal OJT is when the developers could not reasonably anticipate the need for the new technologies, but the employer requires the knowledge. After all, we cannot know everything all the time.

And what can a developer reasonably anticipate? This goes to the refutation I mentioned above. Well, this is not all that difficult to define. Basically, if a technology is foundational for your business sector then you can anticipate needing to know it. If a new hire is expected to know it, then you had best know it too, and not on the employer's dime either. Would it be acceptable for a job candidate seeking work at an enterprise Java shop in the year 2011 to say that they do not know anything about Java EE 6, which has been out for almost 2 years (since Dec 2009)? Well, no, it would not. So why is it OK for an established employee in the same shop to slide?

In fact it is not OK for the established employee to do that.

Ultimately it all boils down to common sense. Software development is a fast-moving profession where the majority of employers do try and meet us part-way on training and education issues. Note the part-way. This means that all of us - job candidates or established employees - have a responsibility to spend some of our own time keeping up. And it is not rocket science to figure out what you should be keeping up with on your own.

Please do not tell me that you have zero personal responsibilities in this regard. If it is a professional conversation, and you are my colleague or my employee, at that point you are baggage in my eyes. I am sorry, but you are a self-declared liability.

There are some software developer jobs where it takes a lot of personal professional development to keep up. In fact it can occupy so much time that you cannot pursue some other activities at the same time. This may include good parenting in extreme cases (although I have never seen any cases where this had to be so; other factors always caused the real problem). Fact of life. If this is so assess your priorities, like Adam has done. Make your choices, accept that there are consequences, and move on. If you have to change programming jobs do it. If you have to change careers, do that. But please do not tell me, or anyone else, that you have no personal responsibility to self-educate and self-train at all. Please. If you genuinely believe that, you should go on welfare.

What are reasonable rules of thumb for own time professional development? I am not talking about your under-25 caffeine-pounding needs-4-hours-of-sleep no-real-life coding phenom here, I am thinking about us regular people who have a passion for software but also have a passion for family, friends, riding a mountain bike, fishing, barbecuing, scuba, and playing golf. What is reasonable for us?

Here is my rule of thumb: fifty (50) hours per month. I actually exceed this by a lot, but I know why, and I have a reason for doing it. But I still do not skimp on my recreations and hobbies and relaxation; mainly it is that I am past parenting age. The fifty hours per month rule is for all you 25-45 types, parents or no. Here is how I arrive at the figure: one hour per day for reading. Read your blog articles or read your books, whatever. The other twenty hours is for personal coding projects - this is where you experiment. I happen to think this experimentation is essential.

This may seem like a lot of time, but it is very doable. We - all of us - can waste a lot of time each and every day. How much sleep do you need? Eight hours at the most, but usually seven will do. So we have got about 520 hours per month. Fifty hours is less than 10 percent of that. You think you do not have 10 percent wastage in your time use? Please - think again.

We have the time, and we have the obligation. Enough said.

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