Monday, August 31, 2009

In Search of Wisdom

[Pic: statue of the personification of Wisdom]
The other day I was reading StackOverflow, a forum for developers to ask and answer technical questions, and ran across a post from a discouraged student. The responses had one thing in common: programmers know that they must keep learning. Tomorrow's hot new technology is just as soon to be yesterday's lost and forgotten relic. The best programmers are not the experts in a given niche but the ones who are comfortable with learning as a way of life. They know that they do not know and accept it. This makes them resistant to dictated dogma; a good example being Joel Spolsky's "Emperor's New Clothes" treatment of C-style strings. They are then freed from the ups and downs of the technological tide and are not battered by the constant waves of the newest, latest fad, nor do they feel deserted when some favored tech is washed away into the sea or wrecked upon the shoals.

Socrates is said to have walked the streets of Athens looking for a wise man. Wisdom is usually associated with knowledge but since it is impossible to know everything, true Wisdom is the awareness that you don't know. You can know a little about some things or a lot about a few. Those who believe they do know are blinded by their own ego and are thus willing to dismiss all doubts and set a course powered by a self-fulfilling sense of certainty. This describes how many a tribe of men met their tragic fate. Technology is not immune from the siren's song of certainty hence the never-ending search for the always-elusive "Silver Bullet".

When it comes to Wisdom, what sets apart the Codewright from the Code Monkey? A healthy dose of self-doubt. Doubt enough to realize that risks should not be dismissed solely because they are improbable. Doubt enough to allow the most skillful to help do the work, the most far-sighted to help guard the course, the most cynical to help figure the schedule. Doubt enough to keep unjustified self-confidence from enabling acts of hubris. This is just as true for teams as well. The best teams are the ones who understand both their strengths and their weaknesses. A group of individual superstars who can't learn to play together isn't always guaranteed success while a bunch of unknown amateurs who work has a cohesive unit can perform miracles.

Software development as a field naturally attracts those who are willing to accept the reality that there will always be more to learn. It is a good sign, one that indicates our chosen field will never stagnate. There will always be something to discover, a constantly flowing river of new challenges to overcome and puzzles to solve. The search for Wisdom is not for a desired destination, but of a fulfilling journey.
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