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Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

February 24, 2011 1 comment

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning Cover

Andy Hunt is best known as co-author of The Pragmatic Programmer and co-head of the publishing company spawned by that book. The mission of Andy’s 2008 book Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware is to get software professionals to engage their whole brain. I had heard about the division between left-brain and right-brain thinking, or conscious and subconscious thought, but Andy laid this division out in a new and very insightful way. He describes two modes of thinking: linear-mode, or L-mode and rich-mode, or R-mode. These two modes operate in very different ways. To unlock our full thinking power, we must learn to use the techniques Andy describes to quiet the chatter of our overused L-mode and let R-mode take over. As a novice yoga practitioner, the end-of-class meditation called savasana suddenly made sense not just as a relaxation technique, but also a way to engage R-mode thinking. Someone on Twitter recently posted “Meditation is a muscle”, and clearly this is an important one to exercise for knowledge workers.

The book describes a number of techniques for improving your learning, like mind maps and SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, review). Andy also devotes a chapter to investigating your cognitive biases, including a very interesting discussion of the theory of Generational Affinity, or why the Boomers, Gen X and the Millennials think so differently. There’s also a much-needed section on managing your focus. Doing complex software work requires an immense amount of concentration, and distractions such as Outlook email notifications, Twitter feeds, unnecessary meetings or innocuous interruptions by co-workers can totally derail productivity. Especially in busy and distracting cubicle work environments, it’s important to find a way to achieve intense concentration, but it’s also important to find the time and environment to allow your R-mode a chance to work for you.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning was a fantastic book. While I’m not sure Andy’s mind maps are really my thing, there was plenty in this book to absorb and use to further my career. I recently installed Evernote on all my computing devices to expand my exocortex and make sure I can capture ideas and thoughts wherever I am. This sort of deliberate thinking about thinking is what Pragmatic Thinking & Learning has to teach us, and I heartily recommend it even to non-technical people.

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Book Review: The Passionate Programmer by Chad Fowler

January 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Passionate Programmer cover image

The Passionate Programmer is actually a second edition book; the first edition was entitled My Job Went To India (And All I Got Was This Lousy Book): 52 Ways To Save Your Job. Big improvement already!

The Passionate Programmer’s subtitle is Creating A Remarkable Career in Software Development. Through 53 short chapters, Chad Fowler inspires readers to do better and go further in our careers. Chad was a jazz saxophonist before making a change to software and his book illustrates many connections between the two fields. One point that stuck with me is practicing. Musicians obviously have to practice a lot before they get on stage and perform. Chad says developers should practice as well, before getting on the “stage” of delivering for a customer. He recommends doing your own studying, such as learning regular expressions or APIs that you are unfamiliar with, to increase your chops. Open source project work is an excellent way to gain experience implementing features, studying the code of other contributors of the project, and getting feedback by having your contribution reviewed.

The book is divided into five parts: Choosing Your Market; Investing In Your Product; Executing; Marketing… Not Just For Suits; and Maintaining Your Edge. Choosing Your Market focuses on planning your career by taking a high level view of the landscape and positioning yourself for maximum benefit. Investing In Your Product gives advice on how to improve your skills. Executing talks about the daily grind and how to make work more productive and enjoyable. Marketing is pretty self explanatory, giving some great advice on communicating how great you are to others. Maintaining Your Edge tells you how to avoid becoming a one hit wonder.

One topic that resonated with me was Chapter 36: Being Present. Chad talked about his time as CTO of a software development center in Bangalore, India and his troubles being so far removed geographically from the rest of the management team. His performance review mentioned a lack of “presence”, which is pretty obvious problem when you have such a hard time communicating with your managers. He relates this to coders’ sometimes antisocial tendencies to hole up in the cubicle and get into “the zone” of programming. This is an issue for us at Blackstone sometimes, because of the distributed nature of the projects and client sites. Maintaining that presence in the community of Blackstone is difficult but very important for both management perceptions and being able to leverage teamwork to achieve great things.

A few points in this book tied in tightly with the direction I feel Blackstone’s Company Contribution evaluation has been heading. Chapter 38: Change The World advises “Have a mission. Make sure people know it.” Chapter 42: Remarkability talks about doing things significantly different than those around you to be remarkable, such as releasing open source software, writing books and articles, and speaking at conferences. It’s not enough in this field to show up to work on time, write code on schedule and fix bugs quickly. Keeping up with the technology wave is important, but the ultimate goal should be to get out in front of it and show everyone a new way to go.

In the acknowledgments, Chad Fowler admits a huge debt to Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt’s great 1999 book The Pragmatic Programmer, which kicked off their entire book line. Both books contain a lot of great tips wrapped in short chapters that I will come back to frequently. I consider both to be essential and valuable, providing quick inspiration to improve both software and my career.

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