Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Magic happens

I use the phrase "magic happens" quite frequently when giving an overview of something technical. For example, if I'm trying to explain the concept of the client / server model I might talk about how a web request is routed from a client to a server where magic happens and some HTML is returned as a response. This isn't supposed to be condescending - it's a shorthand for "this is a black box where something else is going on, but talking about it will draw our focus away from the thing we're talking about here". Unremarkable, but the phrase got stuck in my head the other day and while turning it over it made me think about how learning has changed for developers.

When I was starting as a developer I hated magic. I dug into these black boxes and learned a great deal around the problem until I had a good working knowledge of hosting, networking, etc etc. At the time, you pretty much had to learn this stuff to get a decent local dev environment running. This was before frameworks like Rails made it relatively easy to run up a complete environment with a couple of console commands, and a long time before cloud hosts like Heroku allowed the application to be run in the wild with little more effort. Consequently, there was a huge technical barrier to entry for those learning to program. A barrier that now much lower.

This is in no way a post about how the kids today have it easy, or any other such nonsense. It's a musing on what new developers are learning and what that means for the older generation when it comes to mentoring the next generations (amusingly, my spellcheck wants that to read "tormenting the next generations"). It is now conceivable to have reasonably experienced developers (ie not juniors) who are highly competent, having worked in Rails environments pushed to cloud hosting, who have never had to worry about how anything under that works. No knowledge of linux, networking or other things from the sysadmin world. This has a significant impact on debugging problems and system design, which has a knock-on effect on production costs, maintenance and out of hours support rotas.

On the other hand, and before us more experienced folk feel smug, this focused learning means these developers are likely far better at the core language than we were at the same level of experience. If true, they will be better at their jobs than we were (for a narrow definition of "better", granted). However, it will also stunt career progress as a developer wanting to take the lead in designing or building a system generally needs a wider understanding of the subject area. Skills I learned early on were far less useful while I was a mid-level developer but that knowledge was pretty much essential when I moved into more senior work. This is a key area where our responsibility as more senior people comes in - it's not just juniors who need space to learn things.

In my experience, there is another benefit of this focused learning. Good developers who have learned their particular subject in-depth are aware of the edges of their knowledge. They are aware where, for them, "magic happens", and are capable of explaining that well. I'm not advocating siloed thinking or working, but learning how to define and articulate your problem space is an important skill as a developer - one that people who know everything (sigh) sometimes fail at. It's particularly helpful when discussing work and solutions with other, non-technical disciplines such as product and delivery managers.

Also worth remembering is that we learned around the subject out of necessity and back then it was much easier to get a really solid overview of everything. "Everything" has context of course - how many of us studied machine code, chip architecture and instruction sets, memory rings and so on? Some did, of course, but by no means all. Our window of learning took in what we needed. These days there are many more layers of abstraction in the hosting world as well as many more layers of complexity with SCSS processors, Javascript frameworks and transpilation, and on and on and on. The world today is far more complicated and while we may (MAY) have kept pace with new innovations, that is not the same thing as learning it all at once - especially since change continues to happen.

I have a feeling we're going to be seeing a lot more magic happening as the industry matures. We'll have more black boxes and more abstraction of important concepts - indeed making use magic components is a core part of cost saving strategies. Why on earth would you run up your own virtualisation environment when services like Linode exists, for instance? We are going to need to be increasingly aware of how we talk about technology - not just to those outside our discipline, but to those inside too. We're going to need to put an increasing amount of effort into making sure the next generation can get on - either by learning what they need around the subject, or by shaping our organisations to celebrate the new learning.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Return of Notes from a Gaming Table

It's back!

A million years ago, before I started posting my writing on Twitter, I used to write a gaming blog. For the last two years "restart gaming blog" has been on my list of New Year's Resolutions. Well, today I am restarting it. Behold: a new post on Notes from a Gaming Table.

And that is all.