Coding: Best job in the world?
Once a month a worker ascends an ageing 1, 500 foot TV tower near Salem and is paid $20, 000 a-time. The salary implies that it can be difficult for companies such as Sioux Falls to find climbers however, Schmidt is not only concerned by the money. He says: “You can’t beat the view, and there’s no greater sense of peacefulness than to be 1, 500 feet in the air all by yourself.” His enjoyment of the job seems to be the real fulfilment rather than his considerable monthly pay-check.
It is clear that kind of self-fulfilment stands as an image for success and how to find it. The possibility of increased income and creative fulfilment is one reason that I have started to retrain as a coder at The Makers Academy. Of course the more cynical part of me (and less self reflective!) would claim that I would leap at the chance to work one-off once a month for $20, 000 (approximately: £15, 478). But the reality of course is that at some uncomfortable moment I would hit what mathematicians term the inflection point: in my case, the difficult transition between learning and doing where the learner realises that he has to do a task on his own and develop from his own mistakes (quite literally without any safety net!). I would probably start to reach that point at roughly 30 feet (with only 2, 970 feet to go (including both the up climb and down climb).
But how is the image relevant to learning? Of course most of us have limitations that will never allow us to reach the kind of stratospheric heights Schmidt and his colleagues regularly achieve. But anyone who has tried to learn a daunting new skill also engages in a reflective learning process that allows them to slowly develop until they have reached heights (or speeds) that they never thought possible. Sam Morgan, from Makers Academy, calls this practice loops (drawing on Kolb’s learning cycle): 1. Do a thing, 2. Get feedback on the thing, 3. Find some points to improve from the feedback, 4. Adjust your approach to the thing, and repeat stage 1.” The idea is that we accelerate our learning through focused development of points 2 and 3 (getting feedback and then finding points to improve on from the feedback).
Feedback has always been absolutely essential for any endeavour from Newton’s theoretical musings on the nature of the Universe to the vast efforts made by great women and men to engage in space exploration. If we are able to see further it is “by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This makes us realise that even Schmidt in his peacefulness at the top of the tower relies in a very real sense on the builders of the tower and, more ridiculously, if it weren’t for inventors like Edison or even John Logie Baird (it is a television tower after all) his hands would be empty. I suppose that this allows us to look further than this image of individual achievement (although it is nevertheless impressive) and to see the work that created its possibility.
So, one conclusion to draw from all this might be that no matter how blissfully lonely we may think that we are, we are always part of a community within which we are able express ourselves. David Halewood, a fellow Makers student, drew attention, in our September Slack channel, to the usefulness of stack overflow for looking for guidance to answer coding questions and find innovative solutions. Indeed, in their pre-course advice on problem solving the Makers team do lay out three steps: 1. Identify Keywords, 2. Google it! 3. Open an GitHub issue/Slack. One of the great opportunities that Makers offers to its students is the capability of solving problems through pair coding. Architects need bricks but coders can create applications that travel at the speed of thought. John Sonmez, a prodigious blogger, and the writer of Soft Skills: the software developer’s life manual calls this “getting paid to google things” and it does appear to be difficult to go through a day as a programmer, especially as a new one like myself and not learn something new.
Somnez in his book 10 Steps to Learn Anything Quickly lists the necessary stages for learning. Step 1: Get the Big Picture, it is important to do basic research on what your topic. He quotes Xun Zi, the great Chinese Confucian philosopher: “In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” As a fellow Makers student put it at our meet up in CitizenM “You need to know what you don’t know” in order to work out how much you have to learn.
Somnez gives us Step 2: Determine the Scope. It is important to narrow the goal of what we want to achieve in order to have success in our topic. The topic might be Learn Ruby but the more sensibly scoped aim might be learn the basics of Ruby classes and methods for creating web applications and solving real time problems.
Somnez then draws attention to Step 3: Define Success. We must decide what actions we want to be able to achieve in order to define success. The criteria for this stage should be clear and decisive. We might decide that we are able to build a particular type of game or application within our chosen language. One trick that Somnez uses is to repeat the same application in different languages to ensure that learning is as seamless as possible.
The rest of Somnez’ stages are so well thought out as to seem self-explanatory: Step 4: Find Resources, Step 5: Create a Learning Plan, Step 6 Filter Resources, Step 7 Learn Enough to Get Started, Step 8 Play Around, Step 9: Learn Enough to Do Something Useful. This all plays into the the need for actionable knowledge as opposed to sitting and passively reading huge tomes from cover to cover.
Finally Somnez draws attention to Step 10: Teach. I particularly enjoyed this point because I have often been defeated by the difficulties of explaining topics to students that I have taught and then realised how little I knew. An inspirational aspect of the coding community is its emphasis upon explanation both in print and videos. Creating a youtube channel to explain problems that you have overcome can be a very useful way of both working out how to explain what you have learnt and also putting yourself through feedback, whether imaginary or real, before you take the step of publicly claiming expertise or knowledge.
In a way, the challenge for all of us is to learn to strike out, to achieve that same sense of possibility that Schmidt surely experiences alongside a deep and careful understanding that due to the wisdom of others “we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.” Even if I am unable to climb 1, 500 feet to change a lightbulb.