My Answer To: How To Stay Current in Software?

I had a developer write to me a few weeks ago asking how to stay current. With their permission I’ve published their question and my answer with personal details omitted.

Question from a new developer:

How do I stay current? I am a new developer at a small software company. In my current position, I am a support developer, mainly database scripting. I worry that my skills from college involving object oriented coding are falling behind. What is a good way to keep practiced? I have a drive to be very good at all types of projects, yet I know very little of the full stack experience.

My Reply:

Side projects are a great way to “practice” coding. Pick an interest of yours and go for it. Don’t let your employer be the only source of skills you gain. After awhile your work tasks should get easier. You’ll end up with free mental cycles to read articles and view videos during your work day (or on your lunch break) that fit into your side projects.

If you work for a place that discourages side projects or personal learning it is time to get another job.  Do yourself a favor by being respectful and tactful when making your move.

Their reply:

Thank you. I figured as much. I have picked up side projects that relate to my work, like automation tools for uploading report to a reporting server. As well as an XML generator specifically for our programs report import process. Sounds like I am doing what I can. I appreciate the feedback.

My follow up:

Hmmm…. I was thinking of something less work related and more for the joy of it – like a new language or framework.

They say you are what you eat.  In software it is the same thing – you are what you do.

You won’t get hired for 3D graphics if you’ve never done it before. If you are really good with Crystal Reports and that is what you mess with in your free time, chances are that is all you can get hired for. If you yearn to build 3D games, mess with 3D games in your free time and see where it takes you.

I was always drawn Python but wasn’t allowed to use it at work for years. I tried to slip it in here and there but when you are working on a mature code base it isn’t possible.  Slowly but surely I tinkered with it in my free time. Then I taught myself Django which meshed really well with my other web experience and the professional work started coming.

Fast forward to current times and I use Python on about half of my professional projects!  I strongly considered Ruby/Rails too. I spent a lot of time experimenting with RoR but it never went anywhere in terms of gigs. It wasn’t time wasted because my overall mental context of coding and web frameworks was expanded.

In terms of the future in 2018… “Go” is an upcoming language that looks interesting. There’s always mobile apps and Node/JavaScript/React/Angular to look at.

Make your side projects feel fun, you know, like you want to code all weekend 🙂

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