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Leveling Up

As a programmer, I'm always trying to improve my abilities, to level up my programming skills. Reading a lot helps, but that only provides part of what's needed to become a better programmer. Reading about programming gives you the knowledge of what is out there and available to use, but it doesn't give you the ability to actually use any of that knowledge when you need it. To have the knowledge ready at your fingertips requires cold, hard practice.

I've written recently about the importance of knowing the basics, and the main reason for it was that if you know the basics, you can derive the higher level abstractions that are so useful in programming without having to memorize them all, giving you access to substantially more tools than you otherwise would have. But there is another reason that knowing the basics is so important. If you know the basics of programming so well that you don't so much recall them when needed as they are emitted from your fingertips into your text editor before you even thought to use them, then you will be able to think at a higher level while programming than would otherwise be possible.

Programming, Fast and Slow


Lately, I've been listening to the StackOverflow podcasts in the car. I started from the beginning and have been going through them back-to-back. It's a Joel and Jeff overload, but they have some fascinating discussions pretty regularly. One discussion in Stack Overflow podcast #57 was on this very topic of good programmers being able to belt out basic programs quickly. It starts off with a question from a StackOverflow user who is lamenting the fact that StackOverflow seems to reward programmers that can answer questions really fast, basically promoting the fastest gun in the West without much regard for quality.

Regardless of whether or not that's true about incentives and quality, Joel took the opportunity to start analyzing what makes a good programmer and how to figure out if any given programmer is potentially good. He describes how he used to use an interview question with a very basic problem that could be coded up in a few if statements. He needed a way to filter out people from the dot-com crash that were looking for jobs but didn't actually know how to program, and he was hoping this simple problem would be a good first-stage filter. Here's what he did and what he found, edited a little for clarity:
It's sort of something like ... is John older than Mary?  <Laughter>  It's a little harder than that!  …[W]hat happens when I ask this question is that everybody gets it, but some people take a long time to think it out, and they're carefully thinking it through, and they really are struggling, and some people just write really fast and they're done.  And then we can move on to more advanced things.  And, it suddenly occurred to me, that there was a very high correlation between the people that I hired, and the people that could solve this problem as fast as they could write.
I don't think this means that you can study and practice the fundamentals exclusively, and magically you'll be able to solve the hardest programming problems. It doesn't work like that. I can certainly believe that great programmers are more likely to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, so practicing the basics is a prerequisite that opens the door to higher levels of proficiency.

Joel continued with a fascinating story about a math professor teaching calculus:
Serge Lang is a math professor at Yale who is very interested in math education. Serge Lang, at the beginning of freshman calculus at Yale, gave people, for no credit, … told all the students to take out a piece of paper, and he put a fairly simple equation up on the board and said, "reduce this to its simplest terms." So this is basically 9th grade algebra. Then after like 30 seconds he said, "stop!" and took all their pieces of paper.

Some students were able to reduce this algebra equation to its simplest form as fast as they could write, and some of them really had to think about it and really had to work on it. … And he said that the people that could do it quickly was an almost perfect predictor of who would get an A in the course. In other words, that was as good a predictor of math ability as an entire semester in calculus with problem sets every week and probably two mid-terms and a final. 
This kind of predictor is fascinating, but after thinking about it for a while, it makes total sense. The students who did well in the course were nearly always the same students that did well in the simple algebra problem. That correlation doesn't necessarily mean that some students performed better because of some inherent proficiency in math. It could also mean that they did a much better job of internalizing the fundamentals of algebra so that by the time they needed to use algebra for calculus, they knew it backwards and forwards and could spend their mental energy on the new ideas of calculus.

Meanwhile, those students that struggled with the simple algebra problem probably continued to struggle with the algebra that they needed to use throughout the course. Because they never made the basic operations instinctive, they couldn't grasp the higher levels of thought necessary to learn calculus. Derivatives and integrals were beyond their reach because they still needed to adequately learn how to simplify and balance equations.

Pretty much all of mathematics depends on knowing lower level operations and theory well to reach higher level theory. This process is obvious at the lowest levels of counting, arithmetic, and number systems, but it is also true at the highest levels of mathematical theory. Mathematicians often have a sense that a theorem is true long before they can prove it, and much of the work of proving it is building a foundation of simpler proofs and machinery to use to support the final theorem and discover a valid proof for it. Without the hard work of learning the basics, the higher-level proof would be unattainable.

From Dancing to Chess


This same concept of mastering the basics applies in any learning scenario that I can think of. Take dancing as an example. Most styles of dance have a basic step or basic set of moves that define that style. Swing has a basic step. The Tango has a basic step. Ballet has a basic set of movements. All of the other moves in a dance style branch off from that basic step.

I took some ballroom dance classes in college with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and for each dance style we learned, we were constantly encouraged to practice the basic step until it was second nature. We should practice it until we could carry on a deep conversation without ever missing a step. It had to be automatic. If we had to think about what our feet were doing for the basic step, we had no chance of learning the fun dips and spins of the more advanced steps. Once we knew the basic step, it acted like a safety net that we could always fall back on if we got lost in a complicated move or made a misstep, and it gave us a lot of confidence to learn more challenging stuff.

Okay, enough about dancing; how about playing an instrument? The same idea applies. If you learn the basic chords on the guitar or the bow strokes and fingerings on the violin so well that you no longer have to think, "Okay now this finger goes here and this one goes here and I have to move my arm like so…," then you can focus on the music you're playing and actually think ahead to the measures you'll be playing next. When you've built up the muscle memory and your fingers are doing all of the thinking for you, that's when you can level up and really play.

Playing chess is another example where reaching higher levels requires knowing the fundamentals by heart. The best chess players in the world don't look at a position and see a bunch of pieces that need to be analyzed individually. They see patterns of moves, pawn structure, and collections of interacting pieces that allows them to see many moves ahead. All of that knowledge and ability to see patterns comes from thousands of hours of practicing the fundamentals of chess. They know the tactics of pins, forks, and skewers for all of the pieces. They thoroughly understand the implications of doubled, isolated, and passed pawns. They immediately see strategic advantages of space, outposts, and initiative.

Chess masters can clobber amateurs so quickly and decisively because they are so well-versed in the fundamentals. They don't have to think about their immediate next move because they can see the combinations in a position and know the consequences of different moves by instinct. All of their hard work has paid off in an ability to operate at a much higher level of chess thought.

Take Time Out to Level Up


All of these examples have at least one thing in common—lots of practice. It's like level grinding in a role-playing game. If you reach a point in the game where you can't seem to make any forward progress, you probably need to go off and fight a bunch of enemies, gain some experience, and grind out a few levels. When you come back to the point where you were stuck before, it will be much easier after you've leveled up.

Practicing the basics until they are second nature, until you no longer have to think about them at all to use them, is key to leveling up as a programmer. This is not as easy as it sounds. It can be incredibly boring if you don't use a wide variety of practice tools and incredibly frustrating when it feels like you're not making progress or are even regressing. That's why plenty of programmers plateau a few years out of school. Practicing is hard, but necessary, and the programmers that practice regularly and effectively will reach a much higher level of programming competence. They will be the ones that can solve the hard problems in programming now and in the future. Are you leveling up?