One of my co-authors of Teach Yourself AngularJS for .NET Developers in 24 Hours asked me the other day, "Is software development actually hard?" This thought-provoking question spurred a lot of discussion. From a mental agility standpoint, development is certainly somewhere above manual labor and below rocket surgery. But can anyone and everyone learn to code? It's hard to say for sure, but numerous studies and articles have been written about the ages at which kids can learn various basic programming concepts. Others show that some people can't do it at all; certain programming concepts appear to be watershed indicators of a new developer's success in the field.
Basic concepts like variable assignment, looping, and recursion are a first major hurdle that trips up a lot of would-be developers. The second giant hurdle is the overwhelming amount of information we feed new developers. If you're a fresh-faced developer, recently graduated from college or a dev bootcamp, your work is cut out for you. On top of learning the domain of your new workplace, all the new people, and the customs and norms ("Uh, where's the bathroom?"), you're also immediately bombarded with a perpetually expanding list of software topics, languages, paradigms, options, APIs, and so on. Are we setting up new developers to be miserable?
Too Many Languages, Not Enough Time
Technical startups tend to strive toward being lean organizations. As we build each new system, NextTier chooses the appropriate technology for that system based on the information we have at that time. So while the diversity of our programming languages presents interesting challenges that potentially could be alleviated by a more streamlined tech stack, the diversity in and of itself is not a deterrent to success. The breadth of technical experience on this subset of our dev team ranges from many, many years all the way to a couple of developers who are recent graduates of dev bootcamps.
With this background, my opinions on this issue aren't catered toward teams or entire companies with the experience to handle such a diverse set of languages. Instead, my advice is meant for individual developers who might feel completely overwhelmed at the sheer pace at which our industry moves.
A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep
Is it possible to be an expert in so many languages? Maybe. All at the same time? I really doubt it. You could gradually rotate the languages in, allowing yourself to become "a mile wide and an inch deep" in all the various tech stacks. In fact, a prevailing thought among many developers is that you're not actually a good developer if you aren't a polyglot. With this mindset, in order to be a real developer you need a hat that says "Full Stack" and a T-shirt that says "Developer."
Personally, I don't think a good developer has to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Knowing five or even ten languages at once doesn't make you a "rock star" dev by itself. Good software developers write good, maintainable, scalable, and extensible code—regardless of the language or where the code lives. If you're able to accomplish that goal in Ruby, that's great. Python? Awesome. PHP? I might question your life decisions, but that's amazing, too!
But do you have to be an expert in all of those languages at once? I don't think so. In fact, I don't think it's even feasible. As Kathy Sierra says, "You're not keeping up. I'm not keeping up. And neither is anyone else. At least not in everything."
Is software dev hard? Keeping up with it certainly is. By the time I'd really gotten comfortable with AngularJS, Angular 2 was on the horizon—which is okay, because AngularJS will be around a long time, and it will remain relevant. I'd love to try out more ReactJS, learn the ins and outs of ES6 and TypeScript, start a project with Ionic, and check out MeteorJS. I wonder: By the time I get to the end of my list, will all those technologies still be relevant? And that's just in one language!
When you're faced with a daunting list of things to learn—like five programming languages—you can go about it in multiple ways.
- Grind through and learn all five languages. You might not know a lot about all five, but you can probably get your job done with a lot of Googling and reference books.
- Learn a language only as you need it. Just-in-time learning is a great way to approach a plethora of languages and frameworks. Why learn every piece of everything if you're not going to use it? Instead, find the best technology that solves your current problem, learn it, solve your problem, profit. If the next application you build needs a different language, learn that one.
- Focus on either the front end or back end. It's okay to be "just" a front-end developer or back-end developer. No matter what anyone else says, it doesn't make you less of a developer. I'll write you a note—it'll be fine.
- Focus on what keeps you interested and engaged. My favorite approach to this issue is just to learn what makes you passionate and do what makes you happy. That's when you're most productive. Some developers are perfectly happy traversing the full tech stack. Some of them are even good at it! Other developers are happier working with just a subset of technologies. If it makes you happy to do pointer arithmetic, I might start with a little prayer to the software dev gods, but I'll also say, "Good for you!"
We all need our ten thousand hours of practice, but if you're trying to learn multiple languages just so you can be a real boy, you might run out of time. Even if you spend ten thousand hours on general software development, though, I don't think it matters. For me, the "right" or "best" way to get good at anything is to love what you're doing. If you love Scheme, grab your parentheses and be the best Scheme developer you can be. No matter what language you choose, if you code a lot, you will get better.
KISS Your Language(s)
So let's start the teardown of the five languages.
One Language to Rule Them All?
Some of you aren't convinced. Let's back up again to our five programming languages. You would likely be able to get some knowledge overlap from your team members on a few of these projects, but across all five languages? That's really unlikely.
Let's be clear: You should learn to use other tools in your tool belt. But if you don't love doing it, solve the problem that requires the tool, and get back to what you enjoy doing.
There's no great software developer award for knowing the most languages or technologies or frameworks—or at least I didn't get invited to the ceremony. If the idea of five languages genuinely excites you, and you want to learn all five because it sounds like fun? Outstanding! If you're consistently able to learn and maintain your skills with a bevy of languages, while being amazing on the front end and back end, I'll admire you forever. I don't think I can pull that off, though. Instead of being pretty decent at a lot of languages, I'd rather aspire to be excellent at just one.