How to Learn and Polyglot vs. Specialist - CodeProject

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This week's blog is going to be a little different than my other blogs. Unfortunately, I’m a little short on time this week, too short to write up a small web page using some cool technology and write about it too. However, I still want to deliver you the blog you may have been waiting for.

If you read my blog every week, or at least regularly, please drop a line in the comments and let me know, I greatly appreciate it!

I also Twitter other articles that you might like @sanderrossel, so be sure to follow me if you haven’t done so already.

So what do I have in store for you this week? Well, I recently got a question from someone who asked me what’s the best way to learn a new technology. I’ll answer that question at the end of this article, but first I’ll tell you why I think you need to learn new technologies from time to time.

Specialized vs. Polyglot

One of the reasons I want to write about why you need to learn and how to learn effectively is because lately I’ve been in a few discussions with people about being a specialized programmer versus being a polyglot, or all-round programmer.

A few months ago, I switched jobs. One of the reasons for me was that my previous employer wanted everyone to specialize. My specialization would be C# WinForms and Entity Framework, while other colleagues specialized in SQL Server. Sounds nice, right? Except that, next to a C# certificate, I also have a SQL Server certificate that wasn’t going to see any use in that setup… Besides, I had seen quite a bit in C# WinForms and I wanted to move on.
So I applied for another job at another company. Their motto is “we specialize in being all-round.” Put differently, everyone does everything. At one time, you may be working with C# and SQL Server, while at another time you may be working with Java and Oracle. Now that’s something I could get into!

Let’s first define these terms, specialized and all-round, or polyglot, and see why you would want to be the one or the other.

I don’t think many people will disagree with me when I say a specialist is someone who has gathered a large amount of knowledge and experience in a specific field. The more specific this field, the more specialized you are. Your expertise may be C#, which is a little broad, hardly an expertise actually. C# WinForms with Entity Framework, my specialization, is more specific. You could be as specific as specializing in a single Control, for example the C# WinForms DataGridView. Now that’s a specialization.

I recently read the book Soft Skills by John Sonmez from Simple Programmer. It’s a great book that I can really recommend. John talks in length about why you really need to specialize. In short, if someone has a very specific problem and you specialize in that specific field, you’re worth a lot to that someone. The more you specialize the smaller the chances you’ll find someone with the exact problem you can solve, but that also means that the people who have such a specific problem will have trouble finding someone to fix it for them. Therefore, once these people find you (or you find them), and you are one of the few who can really solve their problem, they are going to want you, no matter the costs (to some degree).

So how about all-round, or polyglot. You may have heard about the polyglot programmer and how amazing they are. But what’s a polyglot anyway? The dictionary describes a polyglot as someone who speaks several languages. So a polyglot programmer is someone who knows his way around multiple programming languages. Let’s extend that a bit and say a polyglot programmer also knows multiple paradigms (Object Oriented Programming, Functional Programming, Aspect Oriented Programming…) and probably lots of libraries too, because different languages require different libraries.

The good thing about being a polyglot is that each new language or technology is easier to learn. Is this a managed language? You’ve seen it before. Is it unmanaged? You’ve seen it before. C or BASIC syntax? You’ve seen it all before! So, in theory, you could work for just about anyone. Except that you’re probably not very good at all of these languages, so why would someone hire you over someone who has the exact knowledge they need? But when you think about it, how often do clients know exactly what they want or need.
On the other hand, once systems become real complex and need different languages, databases and paradigms in different parts of the system, well, you’re good to go.

It seems the world is pretty divided on which is best. As said, John Sonmez really urges you to take on a specialization, and it could really work out for you. But if you Google for “polyglot programmer” you’ll find websites, blogs and videos dedicated to that subject as well (both for and against)…

Why Not Both?

So here’s my view on both specialized and polyglot programming. They’re both great and everyone’s right. I’m usually not that politically correct, so let me explain.

Expertise is great, right? When you’re doing any kind of serious development, you’re going to run into issues that can only be properly solved if you really know your stuff. For example, in WinForms you may need to create your own user control. That’s really specialized work, you really need to know the design time implications associated with creating controls. As coincidence would have it, just last week I inherited a Form with a DataGridView on it. Upon setting some property, I populated the DataGridView with columns. What happened at design time? Everytime I did a build or I opened the WinForms designer, it would re-populated the DataGridView, but didn’t actually throw away the old columns! Before I knew it, I had over 100 columns on my Form! So apparently I’m no specialist in WinForms Control development. Luckily, I was knowledgeable enough to recognize the problem and fix it right away. How did I get that knowledge? You may not like the answer, but I’ve been building non-trivial WinForms apps for over four years and I’ve been reading up on books and blogs dedicated to WinForms development. Could I have solved my problem without knowing what I know? Sure, just duplicate a lot of code in every Form I have so I don’t need Form inheritance. Or maybe make a fix for the bug, which then requires another fix, etc. etc… And I’ve seen these ‘solutions’ lots of time!

So if you need four years to learn any language and/or framework to be able to build non-trivial applications with it, there’s not much sense in being a polyglot, right? That’s just going to take ages and by the time you’ve mastered your second language your knowledge on the first will be outdated. Well, here’s the trick, you don’t have to be that sufficient in any language. I get my daily work done in either Visual Basic.NET or C# with WinForms, and more recently ASP.NET MVC, Entity Framework and SQL Server, and I’m pretty good at all of them. You could say that’s my specialization and it comes kind of natural as I’m working with them every day from 9 to 5. Once in a while, I may need to read up on some stuff at home, and you need to keep challenging yourself, but overall, when you’re working with a technology that much you tend to get a little good at it.
To become truly specialized, an authority in your line of work, you’d need to put a lot of free time in it as well. But what if you spend that free time on learning other technologies? Well now we’re going a little polyglot while also being a little specialized! And here’s the good part, being a polyglot will make you a better specialist!

Wait, what? That sounded pretty contradicting. Let me put it this way. When all you’ve ever known is C# are you truly aware of its strengths and weaknesses?
I’m currently learning Haskell, a functional language, for my university study. When I saw the Haskell implementation of the quick sort algorithm that made me question all I ever knew about C# and object oriented programming. You may be familiar with the C# implementation, or you could maybe guess what it looks like. I can’t post it here, because it’s simply to big, but a quick Google search will give you lots of different implementations, like Iterative Quick Sort (haven’t checked if it’s actually the best out there). Beware that a lot of what you’ll find is recursive, which will give you a StackOverflowException in C# for large lists.
Now here is the Haskell implementation.

qsort []      = []
qsort (x: xs) = qsort smaller ++ [x] ++ qsort bigger
                   where
                      smaller = [a | a <- xs, a <= x]
                      bigger = [a | a <- xs, a > x]

You don’t actually have to understand it, but the takeaway is that this Haskell implementation is so much more concise, and ultimately readable, than any C# implementation you can come up with.
But there’s more. Are you using .NET LINQ? Well, where did you think that came from? Yes, the functional programming paradigm! Functional languages are also pretty good at multi-threading because values are immutable.
Does that make you want to throw C# out of the window and do everything in Haskell (or, since you’re a .NET dev, F#, or Scala if you’re a Java dev) from now on? No, and neither should you. But you should see what’s out there and if there’s some language or technology that solves your problem better than the technology you’re (ab)using now. Even if there isn’t you’ll have gained new insights that might help you on your current job. Just by taking a more functional approach in your object oriented language can help you in writing better and more readable code.

How about another example? So as said I do quite a lot of work in SQL Server. I have plenty of experience in developing databases (I even got certified) and some experience in maintaining them (I’m what they call an accidental DBA). SQL Server was just that one tool that could solve all my problems. And then I spend just a few evening with MongoDB (I wrote a blog about that, A first look at NoSQL and MongoDB in particular). NoSQL just blew my mind. All the troubles I had with SQL Server (and SQL in general), that I took for granted, had been solved by other databases. Those few evenings with NoSQL gave me another perspective on SQL and, I dare say, made me a better SQL programmer because I was now much more aware of SQL’s strong and weak spots.

One last example. I started out as a Visual Basic programmer. Many of you now shudder in disgust. I never understood what all the VB hate was about. Sure, a lot of bad VB has been written, especially pre-.NET VB. But I’ve seen equally bad code in C# as well. And nowadays VB does almost everything C# does and vice versa. It’s just a different syntax. Now this may come as a surprise to some, but not all languages use curly braces! VB is one such language, and because I know VB learning another such language may be easier. But there’s more. In VB there’s a thing called “Option Strict”, which is set to “Off” by default. This makes VB a lot more “forgiving” than C#. For example, the following code would run fine (except for the call to MethodThatDoesNotExist() which gives a runtime exception).

Dim s As String = 42
Dim i As Integer = "42"
Dim o As New Object()
o.MethodThatDoesNotExist()

You may not like it, but this taught me a lot about implicit and explicit casting and late and early binding (which helped me get into JavaScript later). And on the subject of late binding, there’s times when it’s pretty handy. In fact, C# introduced the dynamic keyword for it in .NET 4.0. Well guess what, as a VB programmer I was way ahead of you! Optional and named parameters, introduced in C# in 2010, came straight from VB. And what about those new cool Exception filters in C# 6.0? VB has had them for years.
Of course, the same can be said for C# features that were introduced in VB, like Iterators (yield), but the takeaway is, that even these two very closely related siblings take stuff from each others, and knowing one can make you better at, or more prepared for, the other.

So why not spend a few hours with some new language once in a while? Just get something up and running in a language you’ve heard about, but don’t know yet, use a framework you haven’t used before, or get a taste of some NoSQL database. Make sure you pick one that’s popular as you’ll be able to find lots of documentation.

How To Learn

So I may have convinced you that learning new languages, paradigms or frameworks can be fun and that it can actually help you get an edge as a programmer. But how do you learn a new language or framework? I mentioned Soft Skills before, but I am going to do so again. In this book, John Sonmez has a ten step plan for learning just about anything as quickly as possible. I know it works, because John’s approach to learning closely resembles my own method. So here’s what to do.

Read up on the topic you’re interested in. Get a feel of what’s important and what you need at the very least to get started. Also get a feel of how big this thing is you’re learning. Is it a few days of work, or will years of study go into this? Don’t spend too long on this though.
Once you have a picture of what it takes to become proficient at whatever it is you’re trying to learn determine what parts you want to do. Set some bigger goal you want to reach and some smaller goals that will take you there.
After that find resources, books, blogs, videos, whatever it takes to get your started. And then filter them so you can get started with reaching your first goal.
For most languages and frameworks, my first goal is to set up the environment. Once I’ve done that, I need some “Hello, world!” kind of application, so I know I can actually write and run code with it. Usually that’s not too difficult with all the pre-reading I’ve done.
After that, just play around a bit, get familiar with the syntax, the libraries, the tools, etc. After that, you can do whatever you want. I’d repeat those last few steps, keep setting new, small goals, and just get there.
Don’t spend too much on any tool you won’t be using though. Just get a feel for it and see how you can use certain elements from it in your day to day programming.

That’s my approach to learning. John does a much better job at explaining it than I do, so I suggest you buy his book, or order his course 10 Steps to Learn Anything Quickly.
Now John’s 10th step, one I didn’t have, is rather interesting. Teach! Of course, I’ve been doing that by writing my articles, but I’ve never thought about it as a part of the learning process. So how can you teach? Well, start a blog! And, as you might’ve guessed, John has a (free) course on that as well. If you’re interested in learning and teaching, I suggest you sign up for his three week email course on blogging.

I’ve successfully used this approach (including teaching) while learning web development. Try learning that, “web development”. No way you can pull that off! Web development is such a broad topic you’ll be overwhelmed, discouraged, and, ultimately, you’ll probably fail. Unless you start by learning HTML, then learning CSS, etc. Just take it one step at a time.
And you can see how I did this by reading up on my series on web development. In eight easy lessons, you’ll have learned the ‘impossible’ task of “learning web development” and it wasn’t even hard.

I did the same with NoSQL. First, I needed to know what NoSQL is. So apparently there’s different ‘flavours’. Then I needed to pick one, so I picked the one that’s closest to SQL (easy starting point!). Then I picked a database, MongoDB was listed as most popular, so that means I can find a lot of stuff about it. Then I needed to know how I can install it, after that run it, then try to insert some data, read it, edit it, read it again, delete, etc. And finally try doing that from C#, first connect, then read, then edit. Step by step. I’ve blogged about the result, A first look at NoSQL and MongoDB in particular.

There you have it. Get started now. Pick up that language you’ve been interested in, but that you never got around to doing. It might benefit you in more ways than you know. Now is as good a time as any. And on that subject, John’s book Soft Skills also talks about how to stop procrastinating and just do what you should be doing (actually the book talks about a lot).

Next week, I’ll be back with hopefully a ‘normal’ technical article again. So stay tuned!

Happy coding!

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