Blake Smith

create. code. learn.


ignore the pros, find your own process

We all like shortcuts. It’d be nice if there were shortcuts to every hard task. We want to learn to fly the helicopter as fast as Trinity did in The Matrix. There was something captivating when she downloaded the lessons straight into her brain in 5 seconds.

Are we looking for that?

It’s usually a good idea to find methods to make more difficult tasks more easy, but not always. Have you ever found yourself drawn to an instructional video because there’s a promise of some secret to quick success? Books like “Teach yourself C++ in 24 Hours” come to mind. Do you look for some magic rule of thumb that’s going to take your art or your craft to the next level? I hate to tell you this, but you’re not going to find it like this.

A few weeks ago, I watched the Peepcode episode that followed Zed Shaw as he built up a small tool that helped him track his code defects. He coded up some Python, and some R, and did a great job talking through his thought process and approach to the way he builds software.

It was pretty vanilla.

Zed is a terrific programmer, to be sure. He has his own process that works well for him. But I bought the screencast believing that there was some sort of fairy potion that would take me up a quantum leap in programming ability. I had my eyes squinted for a quick shortcut to success.

In fact, trying to find the shortcut to the top can be damaging. You skip out on the fundamentals, and you’ll miss out on understanding the reasons why the professionals do what they do in the first place. This is like trying to be a sidearm baseball pitcher when you’re still in Little League. You saw your hero on TV doing it, and you believe that the secret to his greatness is that goofy throwing position he has. Or maybe it’s the tools he’s using. This is why Nike sells lots of Air Jordan shoes. Have you ever wondered why developers tend to switch editors so often?

This has made me see the importance of finding your own process. It illuminates the need to understand the way your own mind works, and to know the best way to learn. Someone else’s process will certainly expand your understanding of the way others do their work, but it will not make you better without doing the work yourself. You have to know how to fit your own process into the craft you’re pursuing. Even when you find a process that works well for you, it’s easy to feel insecure about how good it is compared to others’. The doubt that enters your mind from comparison to others can be toxic.

There are no shortcuts to mastering a craft. It’s not just a growth of technical skills, but also a growth of personal character. Do you really want to short-change yourself? Do you really want to skip out on the chance to grow because you tried to find the quick route to the top?

about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer at Sprout Social.