Saturday, January 21, 2006

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

I wish that I had this information 20 or so years ago, when I set out to become a computer programmer back in my college days at Purdue. Peter Norwig, who is the director of research at Google, has written an essay that theorizes that people are in too much of a hurry knowdays when it comes to obtaining the knowledge needed to perform well in their chosen careers. Maybe it is because there is so much pressure nowadays utilizing internet technology to outwit and outsmart the competition on a global scale. From the perspective of an average worker, they may feel that they have to constantly update their skills to qualify for a promotion ort be left behind in the job market. But the essential points that he makes are very timely, even today:

Researchers (Hayes, Bloom) have shown that it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. In another genre, the Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.

When I read this quote, it really hit home with me. Although I have been working in information technology since 1987, the past eighteen years have exposed me to a wide variety of skills from building a computer, to programming, to technical support, to my current position as a capacity planner. Within those different areas, I did not have a formal training program. I had to learn and adapt to different situations often alone and without a mentor. I had to also develop advanced research skills that would allow me to find background information on technical problems and resolve them quickly. I also began to become frustrated when I would write computer programs which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. I didn't have the feedback that I needed to grow and develop as a programmer.

This is not a lament over how how things have turned out for me. I felt that knowing that being successful in a narrow field requires years of honing your craft would give me an added perspective in dealing with the journeys that my children will face in finding an occupation. It is never easy to do so, especially when you don't know what you want to do. But once your find out what your niche really is the rewards can be rewarding, I feel.

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