Category Archives for Soft Skills

Psychology for Software Developers: Dunning-Kruger Effect

The more I learn about software development, the more I notice the things I don’t know. Each tactic I pick up or lesson I learn just leads to more questions. It’s like lighting a candle in the dark and realizing that you’re in a room full of doors. Then, as you open each door and turn on the light, you find more rooms to explore. When I started out, I was so sure of myself. Each problem had the “one right way” solution. Now, when I see a problem, I see several imperfect solutions, each with their own trade offs.

This seems like a common problem.

John Sonmez feels the same way:
Simple Programmer: The More I Know, the Less I Know

So does Scott Hanselman:
I’m a Phony. Are You?

They aren’t the only ones either.

Psychologists call this the Dunning–Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when unskilled people overestimate their abilities and skilled people underestimate their abilities. As you become better at something, you realize how little you know. It’s like getting to the top of the mountain only to find that you are at the bottom of a way bigger mountain. It sucks.

This concept has huge implications in software development. Software development is a complex field filled with people who have strong opinions. This creates situations where confident, unskilled people have an advantage when determining technical direction. This can lead to poor choices and technical debt. It’s easy to trust someone who’s confident over someone who isn’t sure of the right answer. Even when not being sure of there is a right answer is the right answer. (This explains most of politics, but I digress…)

What can we do to counter this effect during technical discussions?

If you’re unsure of yourself, don’t be afraid to present the facts and make your case anyway. It’s better to be wrong than to allow bad ideas into your project. You probably know more than you think.

If you’re confident of a particular solution, look for alternative view points. Let the other side make their case. Realize that the person who has a few years of experience on you may know something you don’t. Even if they have trouble articulating that knowledge, it’s your responsibility to listen. You may learn something.

If you’re a manager trying to decide between two viewpoints, don’t let the louder person automatically win. It’s easy to side with people who are confident or articulate, but it’s important to hear out both sides.

What about when you’re just feeling unskilled?

For me, the best way to feel competent is to write code. The code doesn’t care how smart you feel that day. If it works, you win. For me, adding value makes me feel competent. If I can pull off some complex functionality or learn something new, I feel like I know what I’m doing.

Book Review: Soft Skills by John Sonmez

Have you ever wished that you had a manual for how to live the good life? A guidebook that will tell you how to make the best decisions. I certainly do. John Sonmez has taken a crack at this task with his latest book, Soft Skills: The Software Developers Life Manual.

Summary

The core premise of Soft Skills is that being a good software developer starts with being a good person. By “good”, I mean someone who has their life under control, makes good life decisions, and can achieve their goals.

Soft Skills is a book about a lot of things. It covers general career skills, like interviewing, setting career direction, and marketing yourself. It also covers skills that increase your job performance, like learning and productivity. Additionally, it covers general life skills, like managing your finances and fitness (mental and physical). Soft Skills reads like a summary of many of the top business and self help books.

While the book covers many topics, it does so in bite sized pieces. Chapters run around 5-10 pages each, so it’s easy to read and reference. Since most of the topics stand alone, it’s also easy to skip around and focus on the topics that interest you the most.

Highlights

These are a few concepts from the book that I found useful.

Business Mindset

Instead of having an employee mentality, software developers should treat themselves as a business. Their primary asset is their ability to produce working software. Adopting this mindset makes it easier to think clearly about career choices and gives you a sense of autonomy. Like any other business, you must invest in improving your assets (aka. human capital), and market your skills.

Career Direction

Software developers have three routes for advancement, each with advantages and disadvantages. This book dissuaded me from considering freelancing as a future career goal. The routes are:

  • Employment – High stability, but lower income and lower freedom.
  • Freelance – More freedom and money, but also more hassle and risk.
  • Entrepreneur – High risk, but near infinite upside on rewards and lots of freedom.

Personal Marketing

Marketing is multiplier that can catapult your career into the stratosphere. You marketing yourself by helping out your fellow developers. You can do this in a vareity of ways, including writing, speaking at conferences, and making videos.

Finance

The finance information in this book is great. John “retired” at age 33, so you know he’s doing something right. I enjoyed reading about the ups and downs on his journey to financial independence. He covers a variety of topics, from general finance to the different types of investments.

Attitude

One of my favorite things about John Sonmez, whether it’s his books or his videos, is his attitude. John is upbeat and pragmatic. He doesn’t believe in zealotry, which is something that plagues our industry.

Who’s this book good for?

This is a good reference book for any software developer. People who are early in their careers will derive the most benefit, but it’s a good book even you’re a few years into your career. I wish I had this book about eight years ago when I was graduating college. If you are well read in the topics the book covers, you may find the content a little shallow, but I’m happy with my purchase.

Links:
Soft Skills (Amazon) (Manning)
The author’s web site: Simple Programmer

4 Steps to Better Non-Fiction Reading

I love to read. I’ve read over 40 non-fiction books in the past year (and all five Game of Thrones books). One of the problems I ran into is that when you read a lot, it becomes hard to recall what’s in specific books. Reading is a waste of time if you can’t recall what you’ve read.

To solve the retention problem, I use a four step process to remember more of what I’ve read. I base this process on what I’ve learned from a speed reading class I took in college and reading about the psychology of learning. I find that following this process allows me to read more books and remember what’s in them.

This method works best on non-fiction books. Recent examples that I’ve read include Drive, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and The Art of Learning. Most non-fiction books range from 200-500 pages and usually focus around a single primary thesis. Generally, there’s about 50-100 pages of valuable content mixed in with a few hundred pages of filler supporting material.

Core Principles

This process is based on two core principles from psychology.

1. Repetition

Repetition increases retention. Everyone who’s been through school knows this. Often, you get more out of reading something fast several times than one slow reading. Additionally, processing an idea in different ways will help you retain more knowledge. To increase retention, process knowledge in at least two different ways. It’s also important to actively process information. It forces you to recall the information and exposes gaps in your knowledge. For example, read something and talk about it with your friends or listen to a podcast and write a one page summary.

2. Schema

When we learn things, we organize the knowledge in our heads into an organizational pattern called a schema. I like to think of schema as a tree of knowledge. The basic facts are the trunk, the major functional areas are the branches, and details are the leaves. When learning a new topic, it’s important to get a high level view to create a structure on which you can attach details to. Here’s an example from: Psychology – Wikipedia. Notice how the whole field of psychology is structured into branches of increasingly grandular detail.

Process

This process focuses on building up a schema while exposing yourself to the ideas of the book several times. While it seems counter intuitive, this process doesn’t take any more time than reading books from cover to cover.

1. Gather Background Information

Begin by looking at the title, author, summaries, and reviews. I start with Amazon for reviews and Wikipedia for summaries. Google/Bing is your friend. The reason we do this is to get an idea of what the thesis of the book is and to find any useful criticisms of that thesis. This gives you a foundation to hang other facts off of and additionally gives you an idea of the other side of the argument.

For example, I recently began reading the book Grain Brain. Before I began reading, I wanted to get some background information on the book.

I started off with the Amazon page.

Decent summary and reviews:
Grain Brain (Amazon)

Most of the reviews of the book are positive, so lets find some different viewpoints. I did some Googling and found some decent resources:

A news article on the book:
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/this-is-your-brain-on-gluten/282550/

A low quality criticism of the book (lots of straw men and cherry picking):
http://www.forksoverknives.com/the-smoke-and-mirrors-behind-wheat-belly-and-grain-brain/

A much better critisism of the book:
http://chriskresser.com/do-carbs-kill-your-brain

Based on those resources, the book has useful information. There are some issues surrounding the extremeness of the authors recommendations. Now that I understand the basic premise of the book, I can focus on the details.

Another way to get a book summary is to listen to a podcast about the book. Many authors like to go on podcasts to market their books and talk about their ideas. I’ve learned about several books by listening to podcasts about them.

2. Get a feel for the book’s structure

Next, open up the book and look at the table of contents. This will give you an idea of how the book is structured and may point you to useful resources. For example, I recently finished reading Drive. When I opened the table of contents, I noticed that the author includes a short summary in the back of the book. I read that part first to get a feel for the book. After examining the table of contents, read the introduction and conclusion of the book. At this point, you should have a good idea of what the book is about and what information the author is going to use to support their thesis.

3. Read the actual book

By the time you get to this point, you should already have a good idea of what the author is going to say and how the book is structured. The advantage of pre-reading is that you can now focus on the details.

This gives you two options. First, you can read the book quickly, grabbing details that jump out at you. Most non-fiction books contain a lot of filler. It’s nice to know you can skip over it without missing anything important. I use this tactic for general business books, like Good to Great. Most of the time, there’s about 50 pages of useful information sandwiched between 300 pages of fluff. Second, you can carefully read the book. Because you’ve already learned the basics, it’s a lot easier to pick up the details. Which path you take is dependent on your interests and the quality of the book.

4. Commonplace and discuss the book

To further increase retention, you need to process the book in different ways. Preferably active ways that require you to recall the information you’ve learned. I like to talk about interesting books that I’ve read with the people around me.

Another way to increase retention is to keep a commonplace book. A commonplace is a set of notes and quotations from books that you’ve read. Many famous historical figures kept these, sometimes copying large swaths of texts into notebooks for future reference. For each book I read, I create a one page summary and file it in OneNote. Forcing yourself to recall and process your book helps to lock in the knowledge.

Conclusion

Follow these four steps to increase your retention and get more value out of the non-fiction books you read. This tactic is a great way to learn new skills and improve your life.

Stoic Wisdom for Software Developers: Introduction

How can a bunch of philosophers who lived over 2000 years ago help you become a better software developer? The ancient philosophy of Stoicism has tools that can help you become happier and more productive.

This post is the first part in a series where we’ll explore different techniques from Stoic philosophy and how to use them to become a better software developer.

History

Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism around 300 B.C. in Greece. The school continued through the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. The Stoic philosophers came from a variety of backgrounds. Some Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, were important and powerful, while others, like Epictetus were slaves.

The modern usage of the word “stoic” would make you believe that Stoicism is about being a melancholy robot. This is not the case. The primary goal of Stoic philosophy is to focus only on the things you control. The Stoics used reason to temper negative emotions. The Stoics worked to achieve a peaceful state of mind, regardless of adversity. They found happiness and peace in a chaotic world.

To achieve this peace of mind, the stoics developed a set of mental tools. These tools can be used to deal with chaotic situations, like those encountered by software developers.

Why Pursue Stoicism?

Stoicism is useful because software development is an emotional and chaotic field.

Examples include:

Most of these situations occur because we get too emotional over things that are not in our control. Studying stocism won’t make these issues go away, but it will make it much easier to deal with them.

More Information:
http://fourhourworkweek.com/2009/04/13/stoicism-101-a-practical-guide-for-entrepreneurs/

http://fourhourworkweek.com/2011/05/18/philosophy-as-a-personal-operating-system-from-seneca-to-musashi/

http://www.ryanholiday.net/stoicism-a-practical-philosophy-you-can-actually-use/

Building My First Tech Talk

Ever want to give a tech talk to your peers? I recently built and delivered my first tech talk and I’d like to share my experience.

Motivation

There are several factors that have contributed to my desire to to make a tech talk. The first is that one of my career goals is to become more involved with my local developer community. I am fortunate to live in a city that has a vibrant technical community and I wanted to contribute something to that community.

If you would like to know some of the benefits of becoming involved more in your local tech community, watch this video (It’s currently free):
Get Involved

The second reason is that when I was in college, I participated in forensics (speech and debate) and miss publicly speaking. I’ve thought about joining Toastmasters or a similar organization, but doing a technical presentation is more accessible and congruent with my career goals.

The final reason is that the best way to learn something is teach it. Teaching a subject requires in depth knowledge and the fear of looking like an idiot encourages you to thoroughly learn your subject material.

Process

The first step in build a talk is picking a subject to talk about. For this talk, I decided to demonstrate D3.js, a JavaScript data visualization library. After using it at work and seeing how powerful the library is, I really wanted to dig into it more.

I recommend picking something you are personally interested in, and not worry about whether or not you are currently an expert in your topic. Obviously don’t pick something you know nothing about, but don’t be afraid to branch out. Researching the presentation will help you become an expert.

The second step is to research. For my talk, I read Interactive Data Visualization for the Web by Scott Murray and many online tutorials. I also built lots of small demos.

After some research, start building an outline. This outline will probably change with new information, but it’s good to get an idea of what you want to talk about. Having an outline helps focus your research efforts.

While researching, I also built the demonstrations that I used in my presentation. My goal was to show the power of data visualization on the web, so the focus of my presentation was walking through lots of examples.

Tech demos have a tendency to fail, so it’s important to keep things simple and minimize dependencies. I made it a point to make sure my demos didn’t rely on any outside components. No databases, no web services, just local code. I also put my code on Github, so I could easily setup my project on another computer if I needed to.

After building the demo, and the outline, it’s time to put together your talk. If you have slides that you want to use, build those now. I had a few slides, but most of my presentation was examples and code demos.

After that, practice! Try to run through your presentation at least a couple of times. Rehearse in your head and out-loud. Give your talk to the dog or cat. Make sure your timing is good and your transitions are smooth.

Also, don’t write out your talk and memorize it. This will stifle your delivery and ability to go with the flow of your audience. Rehearse your key points and don’t worry about getting everything word for word. Your audience changes with every performance and it’s important to be able to cater to that audience. Memorizing a written speech will prevent that from happening.

Lessons Learned

So far, I’ve given my presentation twice. Once at the local .NET meetup group and once at my current employer. Both situations were different and provided different learning opportunities.

What didn’t go so well?

The one thing that surprised me was the awkwardness of transitioning in and out of PowerPoint presenter mode. My presentation initially consisted of an alternation between slides and demos of visualizations on the web. Unfortunately, PowerPoint made those transitions really awkward. To fix this, I ended up pulling those slides and just showing the demos. Less PowerPoint is not a bad thing.

I ran into another issue when I gave my presentation to my current employer. I didn’t realize that I was also giving my presentation to the non-technical staff as well as the developers. To adapt, I spent more time talking about general data visualization concepts and less time walking through code. I also told my audience that the second part of the talk was more technical. I can’t stress enough about how important it is to cater to your audience.

What went well?

I was surprised at how well the question and answer portion of the talk went. Studying up for the presentation really paid off.

I also felt like I adapted to changing circumstances well. This is probably because my forensics career in college was spent in limited preparation events, where you need to be able to think on your feet.

I put all of my talk materials on Github, so people could follow along and download the code themselves. I had a number of positive comments about that.

Tips

  1. Adapt to your audience and your situation. Don’t regurgitate a canned speech.
  2. Publicly share your demo code and slides.
  3. Beware of potential technical difficulty. Pre-load any web pages and make sure all of your code functions correctly. Make sure all of of the A/V stuff works (like font sizes and slide transitions).

Conclusion

I am glad I made this talk and plan to make more in the future. The whole experience was highly educational and it felt good to make something useful for the community. I can’t recommend it enough.

I’ll be speaking at That Conference in August, so please check out my talk.

Talk Code and Slides

3 Tips To Help You Ace Your Next Technical Interview

I used to be a little nervous about doing technical interviews. Even though I spend much of my free time learning about technology, I’m still afraid that I’ll be perceived as an idiot. To combat this feeling, I have developed several practices to improve my interviewing skills.

1. Review Your Resume

Every interview I’ve been to asks you for examples from your work history. To prepare for these types of questions, review your resume before each interview. For each job on your resume, think about the challenges you faced, what technologies you used, and what you were proud of. Think about stories you can tell from previous jobs to potential employers. Practice telling those stories in your head or in front of a mirror. This exercise primes your brain. When prompted, you will be ready with a story from your work history.

2. Practice Answering Standard Technical Questions

Depending on the technology stack and what job you are interviewing for, most employers ask a list of standard questions. You will get a feel for this list as you do more technical interviews. I’m an ASP.NET Developer, therefore I get questions on the following topics:

  • Basic OOP (Encapsulation, Inheritance, Polymorphism)
  • Abstract Base Classes vs Interfaces
  • The ASP.NET Page Lifecycle
  • String Concatenation using StringBuilders
  • Basic Design Patterns
  • Linq
  • Generics
  • Job Specific C# and ASP.NET Trivia
  • Major features in new releases of ASP.NET (async, await, etc…)

To prepare, you need to research the concept, practice describing the concept, and for more complex questions, come up with relevant examples. For example, when describing OOP concepts, come up with a novel example. Instead of the usual examples of vehicles or animals, try something a little different, like a beer factory or different types of ducks. The key here is to show that you understand the concepts, as opposed to being able to memorize a textbook example.

3. Practice Your Public Speaking Skills

I learned my public speaking skills by competing in college forensics (speech and debate). It was a great experience that has helped me in many ways. I highly recommend competitive speaking if you have the opportunity. If you are no longer in school, you can join Toastmasters or practice with a group of your peers. Meetups are a good way to find groups of people to practice with. You can also give presentations at user groups and conferences. Practicing your public speaking skills on a regular basis will help you eliminate filler words from your vocabulary and help you learn how to handle fears surrounding public speaking. If you can explain a complex technical concept to a group of thirty people, then you should have no problem with three people in a job interview.

Reprogram Your Wetware: Habit Change for the Modern Software Developer

Habits are like cron jobs for the brain. They govern a large portion of our behavior automatically. According to a study by a researcher at Duke University, more than 40 percent of our day to day actions are the result of habits. (1) Fortunately, habits can be reprogrammed.

The Habit Loop

The habit loop is composed of three parts. Once this loop is established, the habit becomes automatic. These components are:

Cue

A cue is what triggers a habit. For example, my cue to eat lunch is that the time is around noon. Cues can take many forms, including specific times (dinner at six PM), mental states (emotional eating when sad), visuals (eating candy on the counter), or preceding actions (brushing your teeth after a meal).

Routine

A routine is the action that triggers the reward. This is the behavior you are trying to change.

Reward

The reward is what you get for completing the routine. Examples include the sugar rush at the end of a candy binge or the runners high you feel after a hard workout. Rewards are not always obvious. For instance, when I was in college, I would work out with my friends on a regular basis. The reward wasn’t the energy boost from the workout, but the time I spent with my friends.

The key to changing a habit is to identify the habit loop. Once you identify the habit loop, you can change the components of the loop and change the behavior. Here are some strategies that you can use to modify your own habits:

Environment Design

The easiest way to change a habit is to modify your environment. Add cues to trigger good habits or remove the cues that trigger bad habits. For example, I like to put my weights in my living room so I’m reminded to workout. The great thing about environment design is that you can take it as far as you want to go. You could even build a Batcave for Habit Change

Swap the Routine

Charles Duhigg, in the book The Power of Habit, advocates changing routines. This is a good strategy when you don’t have control over your environment. It’s easy to hide the M&Ms in your pantry, but hard to get your office to remove a vending machine. To change a routine, learn to identify the cue that triggers the habit and then try different routines until you find one that delivers the same reward. For example, if you want to kick a morning soda habit, try switching to tea or doing 20 squats instead.

Material Decomposition

This technique comes from Stoic philosophy. It works by devaluing the reward for a habit. Take something you desire, like a new gadget, and decompose it. For example, the hot new phone is really just a metal and glass enclosure with some copper and plastic inside. Decomposition shows you that the items you desire are not special.

Keystone Habits

There are certain habits that have the potential to radically alter your life. These are called keystone habits. Keystone habits can start a chain reaction that changes other habits. If you can develop a keystone habit, you can radically alter your life.

Common keystone habits include:

  • Exercise
  • Eating dinner with your family
  • Keeping a Journal

Organizational Habits

Habits don’t just apply to individuals. Organizations also have habits. Some of these habits are documented in policies and others are a result of organizational culture. Most business books highlight organizational habits. The classic business book Good To Great is about habits that are shared by “great” companies. The Joel Test is a list of desirable habits for software development organizations.

Additional Reading

  1. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
  2. See Like a Stoic: An Ancient Technique for Modern Times
  3. Good To Great – Jim Collins

Footnotes

  1. Habits—A Repeat Performance, David Neal