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Computing Thoughts
A Career in Computing
by Bruce Eckel
June 2, 2009
Summary
I regularly receive requests for career advice, and I've tried to capture the answers in this blog, and in a follow-on. For those of you who asked but never got an answer, I apologize. Your questions stimulated me to work on this, and it's taken awhile.

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The question that people ask is usually the wrong one: "should I learn C++ or Java?" In this essay, I shall try to lay out my view of the true issues involved in choosing a career in computing.

Note that I am not talking here to the people who already know it is their calling. You're going to do it regardless of what anyone says, because it's in your blood and you can't get away from it. You know the answer already: C++ AND Java AND shell scripting AND Python AND a host of other languages and technologies that you'll learn as a matter of course. You already know several of these languages, even if you're only 14.

The person who asks me this question may be coming from another career. Or perhaps they are coming from a field like web development and they've figured out that HTML is only kind of like programming, and they'd like to try building something more substantial. But I especially hope that, if you are asking this question, you've realized that to be successful in computing, you need to teach yourself how to learn, and never stop learning.

The more I do this, the more it seems to me that software is more akin to writing than anything else. And we haven't figured out what makes a good writer, we only know when we like what someone writes. This is not some kind of engineering where all we have to do is put something in one end and turn the crank. It is tempting to think of software as deterministic -- that's what we want it to be, and that's the reason that we keep coming up with tools to help us produce the behavior we desire. But my experience keeps indicating the opposite, that it is more about people than processes, and the fact that it runs on a deterministic machine becomes less and less of an influence, just like the Heisenberg principle doesn't affect things on a human scale.

My father built custom homes, and in my youth I would occasionally work for him, mostly doing grunt labor and sometimes hanging sheet rock. He and his lead carpenter would tell me that they gave me these jobs for my own good -- so that I wouldn't go into the business. It worked.

So I can also use the analogy that building software is like building a house. We don't refer to everyone who works on a house as if they were exactly the same. There are concrete masons, roofers, plumbers, electricians, sheet rockers, plasterers, tile setters, laborers, rough carpenters, finish carpenters, and of course, general contractors. Each of these requires a different set of skills, which requires a different amount of time and effort to acquire. House-building is also subject to boom and bust cycles, like programming. If you want to get in quick, you might take a job as a laborer or a sheet rocker, where you can start getting paid without much of a learning curve. As long as demmand is strong, you have steady work, and your pay might even go up if there aren't enough people to do the work. But as soon as there's a downturn, carpenters and even the general contractor can hang the sheet rock themselves.

When the Internet was first booming, all you had to do was spend some time learning HTML and you could get a job and earn some pretty good money. When things turned down, however, it rapidly becomes clear that there is a hierarchy of desirable skills, and the HTML programmers (like the laborers and sheet rockers) go first, while the highly-skilled code smiths and carpenters are retained.

What I'm trying to say here is that you don't want to go into this business unless you are ready to commit to lifelong learning. Sometimes it seems like programming is a well-paying, reliable job -- but the only way you can make sure of this is if you are always making yourself more valuable.

Of course you can find exceptions. There are always those people who learn one language and are just competent enough and perhaps savvy enough to stay employed without doing much to expand their abilities. But they are surviving by luck, and they are ultimately vulnerable. To make yourself less vulnerable, you need to continuously improve your abilities, by reading, going to user groups, conferences, and seminars. The more depth you have in this field, the more valuable you will be, which means you have more stable job prospects and can command higher salaries.

Another approach is to look at the field in general, and find a place where you already have talents. For example, my brother is interested in software, and dabbles with it, but his business is in installing computers, fixing them and upgrading them. He's always been meticulous, so when he installs or fixes your computer you know that it will be in excellent shape when he's done; not just the software, but all the way down to the cables, which will be bundled neat and out of the way. He's always had more work than he could do, and he never noticed the dot-com bust. And needless to say, his work cannot be offshored.

I stayed in college a long time, and managed to get by in various ways. I even began a Ph.D. program at UCLA, which was mercifully cut short -- I say mercifully because I no longer loved being in college, and the reason I stayed in college for so long was because I enjoyed it so much. But what I enjoyed was typically the off-track stuff. Art and dance classes, working on the college newspaper, and even the handful of computer programming classes that I took (which were off-track because I was a physics undergrad and a computer engineering graduate student). Although I was far from exceptional academically (a delightful irony is that many colleges that would not have accepted me as a student now use my books in their courses!), I really enjoyed the life of the college student, and had I finished a Ph.D. I probably would have taken the easy path and ended up a professor.

But as it turns out, some of the greatest value that I got from college was from those same off-track courses, the ones that expanded my mind beyond "stuff we already know." I think this is especially true in computing because you are always programming to support some other goal, and the more you know about that goal the better you'll perform (I've encountered some European graduate programs that require the study of computing in combination with some other specialty, and you build your thesis by solving a domain-specific problem in that other specialty).

I also think that knowing more than just programming vastly improves your problem-solving skills (just as knowing more than one programming language vastly improves your programming skills). On multiple occasions I have encountered people, trained only in computer science, who seem to have more limits in their thinking than those who come from some other background, like math or physics, which requires more rigorous thinking and is less prone to "it works for me" solutions.

In one session a conference that I organized, one of the topics was to come up with a list of features for the ideal job candidate:

Take whatever risks you can -- the best risks are the scary ones, but in trying you will feel more alive than you can imagine. It's best if you don't plan for a particular outcome, because you will often miss the true possibilities if you're too attached to a result. My best adventures have been ones that have started with "lets do a little experiment and see where it takes us.

Some people will be disappointed by this answer, and reply "yes, that's all very interesting and useful. But really, what should I learn? C++ or Java?" I'll fend these off by repeating here: I know it seems like all the ones and zeroes should make everything deterministic, so that such questions should have a simple answer, but they don't. It's not about making one choice and being done with it. It's about continuous learning and sometimes, bold choices. Trust me, your life will be more exciting this way.

Further Reading

Here's an earlier piece I wrote on how I got started in programming.

I found all these to be interesting and stimulating takes on the same subject:

In a future article (I'll post the link here when it's done), I will talk about the importance of understanding management and business issues, whether or not you ever plan to be a manager, and in that article I'll include a list of books that (even though they're about management) you should read to prepare yourself for your career.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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