More learning, less time: how to quickly gather new tools and techniques

Update: Added newsletters to the list.

Have you ever worked hard to solve a problem, only to discover a few weeks later an existing design pattern that was even better than your solution? Or built an internal tool, only to discover an existing tool that already solved the problem?

To be a good software engineer you need a good toolbox. That means software tools you can use when appropriate, design patterns so you don't have to reinvent the wheel, testing techniques... the list goes on. Learning all existing tools and techniques is impossible, and just keeping up with every newly announced library would be a full time job.

How do you learn what you need to know to succeed at your work? And how can you do so without spending a huge amount of your free time reading and programming just to keep up?

A broad toolbox, the easy way

To understand how you can build your toolbox, consider the different levels of knowledge you can have. You can be an expert on a subject, or you can have some basic understanding, or you might just have a vague awareness that the subject exists.

For our purposes building awareness is the most important of the three. You will never be an expert in everything, and even basic understanding takes some time. But broad awareness takes much less effort: you just need to remember small amounts of information about each tool or technique.

You don't need to be an expert on a tool or technique, or even use it at all. As long as you know a tool exists you'll be able to learn more about it when you need to.

For example, there is a tool named Logstash that moves server logs around. That's pretty much all you have to remember about it, and it takes just 3 seconds to read that previous sentence. Maybe you'll never use that information... or maybe one day you'll need to get logs from a cluster of machines to a centralized location. At that point you'll remember the name "Logstash", look it up, and have the motivation to actually go read the documentation and play around with it.

Design patterns and other techniques take a bit more effort to gain useful awareness, but still, awareness is usually all you need. For example, property-based testing is hugely useful. But all it takes is a little reading to gain awareness, even if it will take more work to actually use it.

The more tools and techniques you are aware of the more potential solutions you will have to the problems you encounter while programming. Being aware of a broad range of tools and techniques is hugely valuable and easy to achieve.

Building your toolbox

How do you build your toolbox? How do you find the tools and techniques you need to be aware of? Here are three ways to do so quickly and efficiently.

Newsletters

A great way to learn new tools and techniques are newsletters like Ruby Weekly. There are newsletters on many languages and topics, from DevOps to PostgreSQL.

Newsletters typically include not just links but also short descriptions, so you can skim them and gain awareness even without reading all the articles. In contrast, sites like Reddit or Hacker News only include links, so you gain less information unless you spend more time reading.

The downside of newsletters is that they focus on the new. You won't hear about a classic design pattern or a standard tool unless someone happens to write a new blog post about it. You should therefore rely on additional sources as well.

Conference proceedings

Another broader source of tools and techniques are conferences. Conference talks are chosen by a committee with some understanding of the conference subject. Often they can be quite competitive: I believe the main US Python conference accepts only a third of proposals. And good conferences will aim for a broad range of talks, within the limits of their target audience. As a result conferences are a great way to discover relevant, useful tools and techniques, both new and old.

Of course, going to a conference can be expensive and time consuming. Luckily you don't have to go to the conference to benefit.

Just follow this quick procedure:

  1. Find a conference relevant to your interests. E.g. if you're a Ruby developer find a conference like RubyConf.
  2. Skim the talk descriptions; they're pretty much always online.
  3. If something sounds really interesting, there's a decent chance you can find a recording of the talk, or at least the slides.
  4. Mostly however you just need to see what people are talking about and make a mental note of things that sound useful or interesting.

For example, skimming the RubyConf 2016 program I see there's something called OpenStruct for dynamic data objects, FactoryGirl which is apparently a testing-related library, a library for writing video games, an explanation of hooks and so on. I'm not really a Ruby programmer, but if I ever want to write a video game in Ruby I'll go find that talk.

Meetups and user groups

Much like conferences, meetups are a great way to learn about a topic. And much like conferences, you don't actually have to go to the meetup to gain awareness.

For example, the Boston Python Meetup has had talks in recent months about CPython internals, microservices, BeeKeeper which is something for REST APIs, the Plone content management system, etc..

I've never heard of BeeKeeper before, but now I know its name and subject. That's very little information, gained very quickly... but next time I'm building a REST API with Python I can go look it up and see if it's useful.

If you don't know what a "REST API" is, well, that's another opportunity for growing your awareness: do a Google search and read a paragraph or two. If it's relevant to your job, keep reading. Otherwise, make a mental note and move on.

Book catalogs

Since your goal is awareness, not in-depth knowledge, you don't need to read a book to gain something: the title and description may be enough. Technical book publishers are in the business of publishing relevant books, so browsing their catalog can be very educational.

For example, the Packt book catalog will give you awareness of a long list of tools you might find useful one day. You can see that "Unity" is something you use for game development, "Spark" is something you use for data science, etc.. Spend 20 seconds reading the Spark book description and you'll learn Spark does "statistical data analysis, data visualization, predictive modeling" for "Big Data". If you ever need to do that you now have a starting point for further reading.

Using your new toolbox

There are only so many hours in the day, so many days in a year. That means you need to work efficiently, spending your limited time in ways that have the most impact.

The techniques you've just read do exactly that: you can learn more in less time by spending the minimum necessary to gain awareness. You only need to spend the additional time to gain basic understanding or expertise for those tools and techniques you actually end up using. And having a broad range of tools and techniques means you can get more done at work, without reinventing the wheel every time.

You don't need to work evenings or weekends to be a successful programmer! This post covers just some of the techniques you can use to be more productive within the limits of a normal working week. To help you get there I'm working on a book, The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

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You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place with the Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.