10,000 Hours to Graceland

Lets take a look at some old code:


I know what you may be thinking. Why the heck are we looking at 20 yr old procedural code. Well…what you just witnessed was the first paid code written by a greenhorn application developer. For the curious that code was written in  dBaseIII+ hosted on a PC Limited (now Dell) server running Novell 2.0a.

When you take a look at that code and the application in its entirety you will find an application riddled with poor coding constructs, amateurish coding principles (use of publics for example) and an application that misses fundamental features available to it from its core language (xBase). Basically what you will find code written by a wet behind the ears application developer, fresh out of college, and unleashed on a property management company to write an application to be known as : “The Hot Tub Management System”.

When looking at that code you will see the type of code written by a junior application developer. That junior developer started his career with  with 1.5 years of college education and a burning desire to write code for a living. 

The learning didn’t stop there. The programmer that wrote that code went on to gain more education and more importantly more application development experience. That programmer moved from the property management company to a large hotel/resort where he was applied his craft for 18 months as an application developer/network admin. Eventually that programmer left small town Bend, Oregon for the bright lights and big city life in Seattle, Washington.

It’s in Seattle where that developer went from being the lone wolf developer  in a small company to to being a member of a team of developers in a somewhat larger company. When he was hired the developer told he would be joining a group of the best FoxPro developers assembled in the Seattle area and would need to rise to the challenge. That is exactly what he did.

It was at that company that the developer really came into his own. The developers on that team were a competitive and very talented group of developers. The primary concern of that group of developers was to create the correct solutions for the company and do it right the 1st time.  By the time the developer left that company he was writing some of the best code of his life, creating high performance and feature rich applications and finally re-caught the writing bug and was drafting articles for the magazine Data Based Advisor.  At that point the developer had been writing code (including college) for nearly 5 years. Which leads me back to the title of my post: 10,000 hours to Graceland.

The normal employee works approximately 2,000 hours a year (40 hours * 50 weeks). When you factor in 5 years of work that comes out to 10,000 hours. This is the minimum amount of time it takes to master a craft. 

This epiphany didn’t come straight from my gray matter it came from a book I picked up earlier this month called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. In general I am not a big fan of overhyped books like Outliers. I couldn’t have been more wrong about this book. I found that this book was much like Freakanomics which challenged basic assumptions we have as a society.

Malcolm starts this book with an analysis of a championship team  of young Canadian hockey players. People were attempting to figure out why some hockey players seem to excel while others to not. When analyzed a startling conclusion was made: Kids with birth dates falling in a specific range seemed to play better than the others.  As Mars Blackmon would say “Gotta be the stars!” People born under a specific sign are better hockey players right ? Nope… Basically it boiled down to this. The kids falling in a certain birthday range were allowed to start playing hockey earlier than the other kids. Basically they got a head start by 6months to a year. Now these kids did have talent…but talent nurtured earlier has a better chance of success right?

This was making sense. It got clearer as the book progressed. Gladwell wrote about two of the most regarded software developers of our day. The two Bills. Bill Gates and Bill Joy. One thing that Bill Gates and Bill Joy share was the fact that they had access to computers at a very early age and spent countless waking hours working on these machines. By the time real opportunities presented themselves in there 20’s both of these me had the requisite 10,000 hours under there belts and were able to apply their craft to great advantage. Once again it was not just the amount of time they spent, they did have talent by the truck load, but that talent was nurtured from an early age to yield some some real talent.

With all the talk of Software Craftsmanship these days we must never forget that it takes a lot of time to master new skills. I moved from Visual FoxPro to Visual Studio .NET in 2001 it took me a few years to really master a  new way of development. It didn’t take me quite 10,000 hours, as I had a lot of experience in object oriented code and frameworks, but it did take a certain amount of time in the trenhes to master this new set of concepts.

What is true in Software Craftsmanship is true life’s  other endeavors as well.  There is an old saying in poker:

“It takes 15 minutes to learn the game and a lifetime to master”

I completely relate to this statement. Around 10 years ago I sat down for my first real poker game in a casino. I was scared out of my wits but I held my own. I lost of course but I had caught the poker bug. I spent literally hundreds of hours grinding learning how to play this game effectively.  Do I consider myself a master? Heck now I am no Daniel Negraneu. But I can definitely hold my own with the best of em in the casinos in Vegas. I feel this way now when it comes to Agile and XP development processes.

In 2000 I found a book called Extreme Programming Explained. This book seemed to be what I had been looking for when it came to developing software. At its core it talked about working directly with customers to develop exactly what they wanted correctly the 1st time. Kinda like that team I was on early in my career. Over the ensuing years I spent time attempting to implement these with customers and in my own practices. It seemed to me like I had started over once again as a web behind the ears programmer.  I didn’t have a lot of luck  getting clients to adopt these principles but I did keep growing my own personal knowledge. Flash forward to October 2007 in Austin Texas. I attended my first ALT NET Conference it was here that I spent time learning more about implementing agile practices in my company and with my clients. I was going to master this if it killed me. Over the last year and a half I have been putting in my time towards my 10,000 hours to Graceland. I have been fortunate that I have the opportunity to be mentored by, dialog with and become friends with a number of agile developers I respect. It’s this dialog that has been most important to my mastery of this stuff. Like poker I am not a master but I am beginning to “hold my own” with these folks. I am glad they have spent the time sharing their 10,000 hours to Graceland with me.

One other thing that did for me was to give me another level of perspective when dealing with people new to agile development practices. I am an agile teacher and need to take into account that it takes a number of hours practicing thus stuff before you can see the real benefit. A lot of developers will take a surface glance at a subject like Test Driven Design and rule it out as a a waste  of time. We all have heard the question “Why do I need to waste my time with this?”. We need to address these questions with patience and understanding. We need to relate back to ourselves as greenhorn wet behind the ears developers. We need to remember that it took us 10,000 hours to get here and it will take people new to agile 10,000 hours to find their Graceland.

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3 Responses to 10,000 Hours to Graceland

  1. Bkjswnlq says:

    Ymg7Sy comment3 ,

  2. jdn says:

    I think this is well thought-out, and not just because I was just looking at code I wrote a year ago and thought was so much better than the code I wrote two years ago, and now wonder what the %^&* I was thinking a year ago.

  3. Thanks, Rod. I am now intrigued by agile practices and will delve deeper into this.

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