Technical skills alone won’t make you productive

When you’re just starting out in your career as a programmer, the variety and number of skills you think you need to learn can be overwhelming. And working with colleagues who can produce far more than you can be intimidating, demoralizing, and confusing: how do they do it? How can some programmers create so much more?

The obvious answer is that these productive programmers have technical skills. They know more programming languages, more design patterns, more architectural styles, more testing techniques. And all these do help: they’ll help you find a bug faster, or implement a solution that is more elegant and efficient.

But the obvious answer is insufficient: technical skills are necessary, but they’re not enough, and they often don’t matter as much as you’d think. Productivity comes from avoiding unnecessary work, and unnecessary work is a temptation you’ll encounter long before you reach the point of writing code.

In this post I’m going to cover some of the ways you can be unproductive, from most to least unproductive. As you’ll see, technical programming skills do help, but only much further along in the process of software development.

How to be unproductive

1. Destructive work

The most wasteful and unproductive thing you can do is work on something that hurts others, or that you personally think is wrong. Instead of creating, you’re actively destroying. Instead of making the world a better place, you’re making the world a worse place. The better you are at your job, the less productive you are.

Being productive, then, starts with avoiding destructive work.

2. Work that doesn’t further your goals

You go to work every day, and you’re bored. You’re not learning anything, you’re not paid well, you don’t care one way or another about the results of your work… why bother at all?

Productivity can only be defined against a goal: you’re trying to produce some end result. If you’re working on something that doesn’t further your own goals—making money, learning, making the world a better place—then this work isn’t productive for you.

To be productive, figure out your own goals, and then find work that will align your goals with those of your employer.

3. Building something no one wants

You’re working for a startup, and it’s exciting, hard work, churning out code like there’s no tomorrow. Finally, the big day comes: you launch your product to great fanfare. And then no one shows up. Six months later the company shuts down, and you’re looking for a new job.

This failure happens at big companies too, and it happens to individuals building their side project: building a product that the world doesn’t need. It doesn’t matter how good a programmer you are: if you’re working on solving a problem that no one has, you’re doing unnecessary work.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from Stacking the Bricks about how to avoid this form of unproductive work.

4. Running out of time

Even if you’re working on a real problem, on a problem you understand well, your work is for naught if you fail to solve the problem before you run out of time or money. Technical skills will help you come up with a faster, simpler solution, but they’re not enough. You also need to avoid digressions, unnecessary work that will slow you down.

The additional skills you need here are project planning skills. For example:

  • Prioritization, figuring out what is most important.
  • Timeboxing, setting timeouts for your work after which you stop and reassess your situation, e.g. by asking for help.
  • Planning, working out the critical path from where you want to be to where you are now.

5. Solving the symptoms of a problem, instead of the root cause

Finally, you’ve gotten to the point of solving a problem! Unfortunately, you haven’t solved the root cause because you haven’t figured out why you’re doing your work. You’ve added a workaround, instead of discovering the bug, or you’ve made a codepath more efficient, when you could have just ripped out an unused feature altogether.

Whenever you’re given a task, ask why you’re doing it, what success means, and keep digging until you’ve found the real problem.

6. Solving a problem inefficiently

You’ve solved the right problem, on time and on budget! Unfortunately, your design wasn’t as clean and efficient as it could have been. Here, finally, technical skills are the most important skills.

Beyond technical skills

If you learn the skills you need to be productive—starting with goals, prioritizing, avoiding digressions, and so on—your technical skills will also benefit. Learning technical skills is just another problem to solve: you need to learn the most important skills, with a limited amount of time. When you’re thinking about which skills to learn next, take some time to consider which skills you’re missing that aren’t a programming language or a web framework.

Here’s one suggestion: during my 20+ years as a programmer I’ve made all but the first of the mistakes I’ve listed above. You can hear these stories, and learn how to avoid my mistakes, by signing up for my weekly Software Clown email.

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