Compounding Advantages

The biggest myth about successful people is the “overnight success.” There’s basically no such thing. This is a great platitude, which happens to be true, but how can we deconstruct it down to its quintessential lesson?

The first point of order is to understand where advantages that lead to success come from. They might come from raw talent – which I won’t focus on, because it isn’t something you can control for (and experience is often confused with raw talent, because they look the same to outsiders). Or they might come from external sources – such as growing up with good financial security, in a two-parent household, in a well-off neighborhood with good schools. Those types of advantages are mostly out of your control as well, so that’s out too. Finally, there is experience.

Experience is the advantage most under your control. When most people ask me for advice about careers in computer science, they often know they are at a disadvantage (often because they are switching career tracks), but aren’t sure of the most efficient way to erase that deficit. But what appears to be an insurmountable disadvantage is usually the result of years of hard work, or a lack thereof.

So how does one gain experience without any experience? Isn’t that like the some sort of catch-22?

Not really. If it were, then by definition the industry couldn’t possibly exist, now could it?

(Normally, when people claim that it’s a catch-22, they’re just being unrealistic about what types of jobs are actually entry-level, or, more likely, they aren’t willing to do what it takes to become qualified for entry level jobs. In fact, software engineering is one of the easiest jobs to gain experience in, because all you need is a keyboard and monitor that eventually connects to the internet, and some free time. So whining about it is just immature.)

This isn’t really an essay on how to get into software engineering, since I’ve already written a bit on that topic. But there is a recurring theme, which is that it takes consistent application of conscious effort to build and maintain the credentials to become an engineer. And most importantly, all experience advantages start small, and compound over time. So the best way to become the best engineer is to start coding, a lot. Today.

Why coding?

Because while software engineering is about much, much more than just coding, coding is the most important part. It’s the only part you can’t skip. It’s also one of the easiest skills to show off and test for.

OK. So what should you code?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here’s a few starting points:

1) Go to Codecademy and start one of the courses. It almost doesn't matter which one, since they're all pretty solid.
Pros: Structured learning with helpful hints and explanations, sense of progression.
Cons: Toy problems that don't require reading existing code as much as the other options, an extremely useful skill.
2) Take a Coursera course (core concepts with programming involved -- data structures, algorithms, operating systems).
Pros: Online-classroom environment, instructor-led with a focus on fundamentals.
Cons: Academic in nature, which is actually sort of a plus, but it won't maximize lines/code per day.
3) Download a release of Ruby on Rails and start a web app.
Pros: Good documentation and explicit best-practices, more "realistic" than some guided courses.
Cons: Undirected learning. Requires product management to design things to code, which is a distraction. Too much Ruby/Rails "magic" abstracts away important concepts.
4) Browse Github (etc) and find an open source project to contribute to.
Pros: Working on released software, chance to interact with other coders. Most "realistic" experience.
Cons: Reading code is significantly harder than writing code.
5) Download the iOS / Android SDK and create a mobile app.
Pros: Everyone loves mobile.
Cons: Learning programming, a programming language, how to read documentation, and a complex API at the same time can be extremely overwhelming.

So…About that degree thing

I’m of the opinion that most software engineers should get a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. I’ve hammered on this point before. There are exceptions though. Like, do you know your computer science fundamentals (data structures, algorithms, operating systems, programming paradigms, software lifecycles)? Do you have practical software engineering experience (e.g., measured in years), doing work that shipped?

If not, I still recommend a CS degree, because it’s an excellent signaling mechanism, and you can complete one full-time in less than the traditional 4 years. However, coding boot camps have been all the rage lately, and I wanted to touch on them briefly.

Basically, coding boot camps are an excellent option for many people (and I know of many who have successfully gone this route), but I don’t recommend them in general because the best engineers aren’t minted in 12 weeks. It’s a different story if you already have some experience under your belt, but don’t want to get a full-on BSCS. But in that case, a coding boot camp generally isn’t really tailored for you anyway, since most programs don’t require existing experience by design. And that means you lose the benefits of a compounding advantage by not building on existing experience.

This is the main advantage of following a degree-granting program. It starts with the fundamentals, and then builds on that foundation with programming experience and core theory, leveraging your existing knowledge.


You gain a small advantage, compounding itself.

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