Success Means Learning

Much of my success in life I attribute not to the fortunes or misfortunes of my birth (genetics, socioeconomics) but to my ability to learn and act on what I’ve learned.

I could be totally wrong. As an experiment of one all my success could be due to luck and happenstance. I have learned that all-or-nothing explanations tend to be wrong. It’s unlikely that any answer to any complex question is due to a single factor. There is almost always a collaborator lurking in the background!

In the case of learning I have found that the ability to continuously learn is much more important to living in the 20th and 21st centuries than other highly desirable abilities. A good general learner is better able to handle change, surprise, and ambiguity than the expert or the specialist. This is my personal experience of personal growth and of managing hundreds of software engineers and managers over the last 30 years.

Here is a trivial example:

  • JP is an okay coder. Not brilliant but able to reliably get the job done with help from co-workers and stack overflow. 
  • PJ is an excellent coder. Brilliant but only really into one programming paradigm. 
  • JP has no strong opinions and thus their work is all over the place in terms of coding style and techniques.
  • PJ has many very strong opinions on “best practices” and thus their code is clear, concise, and predictable.
  • It is interesting to note that a JP story point tends to be a larger but fixed value as compared to PJ. JP takes about the same amount of time and effort to get anything done whereas PJ tends to be more variable in their output. 
  • A scrum master can sleep on the job with JP but really needs to pay attention to PJ as one never quite knows when or what PJ is going to deliver.

I bet you’ve already caught on to my attempt at fooling you! Over my 30 years of coding I’ve been both JP and PJ. I started out as a PJ and gradually I’ve learned to become a JP. The time and effort it takes to become an expert and to formulate strong opinions has led to diminishing returns. Our world just continues to spin faster with more variability than purists have time to master.

Who would you rather have on your team, JP or PJ? Who would you rather manage? Who would you rather be?

We need both JPs and PJs. I’ve worked at startups and large enterprises where we have tried to hire only one type and that has led to disaster. JPs make few “clever hacks” while PJs hit few milestones. A team of mostly JPs with some PJs seems to be ideal.

The main difference between JP and PJ is how they learn and how they use what they learn.

In the following series of six blog posts I’ll look at how I’ve optimized my ability to learn based on the themes of learning from first principles, learning by doing, thinking with external representation, learning through community, learning through imitation, and the realization that ultimately all learning is self-guided. 

In full disclosure, I have invented none of these concepts and not everyone agrees that these ideas completely model the learning experience. I’m just standing on the shoulders of giants and organizing useful knowledge, in a general way, as best as I can.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with learning so that I can better refine my own ideas (which, BTW, is an example of community learning).