Erudite Programming (Message from the CTO, newsletter 46)

22 April 2011

I wrote this message a good three months ago, but at this remove I can’t remember the exact situation that prompted it.

41 incunabulumphoto © 2010 Eric Bryan | more info (via: Wylio)Erudite programming

We developers have a lot on our plate. There's the design of the software, the decisions to make with regard to the best way to create the software (the infrastructure, third-party libraries, language), the writing and running of the tests (and hopefully using the tests to drive the design, etc), the implementation, the continual need to keep up to date with what's going in our field, and so on so forth. Isn't that enough? Aren't we, like, super-heroes already?

To my mind, no. There's another area we should pay some attention to: verbal and written communication.

Consider this: we are, like it or not, the intermediaries between a highly technical jargon-filled field and the rest of the world. To get our jobs done, we have to be able to communicate our ideas, discuss requirements with end-users and business stakeholders, request infrastructure improvements and upgrades, all from people who, essentially, are paying our salary. The other aspect is that we have to convey through comments the whys, whats, and hows of the things we did to the developers who will be maintaining our code. And, more often than not, that maintenance programmer will be ourselves.

It behooves us, then, to learn to write well, to express ourselves as best we can. The better we do it, the better our environment becomes.

But, how? Unfortunately, unless we already have a natural talent for such communication, we have to learn. In reality, it's not that difficult and like everything, it just requires practice. Lots of it. I wrote my first article for a magazine in February 1992, 19 years ago, and I've been writing articles and posts ever since. Start a blog (posterous and tumblr are easy to set up) and write something regularly. Once a week, on topics that interest you. Review a movie you saw or a book you read. Write about the issues you encountered in your work and how you solved them. If nothing else, that'll serve as a memo to your future self. Jeff Attwood also recommends joining StackOverflow and answering questions there, but then again he would say that, wouldn't he?

Let's become more erudite. And then we really will be super-heroes.

(You can watch the video here.)

I remember hating writing essays at school, probably because the topics were forced on us. It has only been since I started working that the whole concept of writing long form material became more palatable, and of course nowadays it’s easy to publish your content. And – honestly – the only way to improve your writing skills is practice, practice, practice. Takes time, yes, but verbal and written communication are essential to modern software development. An ability to write code is great, but you can only advertise that code by writing and talking about it. So… get to it!

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