10 Ways to Learn New Things in Development

Expanding upon one of the topics in my post about 5 Attributes of Highly Effective Developers, I’ve been thinking of various ways to kick-start learning opportunities in my career and hobbies.

1. Read books. There are tons of books about programming–probably most of them are useless, but there are many, many gems that can greatly influence your abilities.

I still find that it’s easier and faster to find information about many topics in familiar books than to find similarly valuable information online. Read all your books to get to this point.

Books are also valuable from theory, architecture, design point of view. There just aren’t that many places on the web to get high-quality, authoritative instruction in this.

Like this? Please check out my latest book, Writing High-Performance .NET Code.

2. Read Code. This is something I was late to. I didn’t start reading a lot of significant code until after I had a few years of professional programming experience. I would be a better programmer if I had started earlier. I try to read some source code every week (not related to work, not my own, etc.) from an open source project. Start with programs that you use and are interested in. I started with Paint.Net and it solidified a lot of .Net program design technique for me.

Reading other people’s code shows you different ways of doing things than you might have thought of on your own.

3. Write Code - Lots of it. Fundamentally, the best way to learn something is to do it. You can’t fully internalize something until you’ve written it. This starts with something as simple as copying the code examples from tutorials and books. That’s copying by hand, not cut&paste. There’s a difference. The idea is internalize and think, not blindly copy. Look up new API calls as you go. Tweak things.

Most importantly, develop your own projects–whether they’re simple games, participation in an open source project, or a simple plug-in to a program you use.

Try to use new technologies, new techniques, new designs–do things differently. Do things better in this project than in previous ones.

This is really the core point–if you want to be a better developer than develop.

4. Talk to other developers – about specific problems you have, as well as the latest tech news from [Apple|Microsoft|Google|Other]. This not only helps you feel part of a team or a community, but exposes you to a wide variety of different ideas.

Different types of projects require different designs, coding techniques, processes and thinking.

If you work in a small team (like I do) and you don’t have access to many other people, go find some at a local user group meeting. If nothing else, participate in online forums (you’ll have to look harder for an intelligent discussion).

5. Teach others. Similar to just reading code versus writing it, teaching other people can do wonders for forcing you to learn a topic in depth.

The very idea that you’re going to have to teach a topic to someone else should force you to learn something with a far better understanding than you might otherwise. You can face questions.

If you can’t explain a concept to a 6 year-old, you don’t fully understand it. – Albert Einstein

Teaching situations are myriad: one-on-one with your office-mate, water-cooler meetings, informal weekly gatherings, learning lunches, classrooms, seminars, and more.

How about setting up a once-a-week 30 minute informal discussion among like-minded developers? Each week, someone picks a topic they want to know more about and teaches it to the others, instigating a conversation. If you knew were going to teach the group about synchronization objects, don’t you think you’d want to understand the ins and outs of critical section implementation?

6. Listen to podcasts

If you’ve got time where your brain isn’t otherwise occupied, subscribe to podcasts. My current favorite programming-related one is .Net Rocks. They also do a video screen cast called dnrTV.

These will help you keep up on the latest and greatest technologies. You can’t learn everything and podcasts are a good way to get shallow, broad knowledge about a variety of topics, from which you can do your own deep investigations.

If there are other, high-quality developer podcasts, I’d love to hear about them.

7. Read blogs

There are more blogs than people to read them, but some are extremely well-done. I’m not even going to post links to any–there are plenty of other resources out there for that. This is one of the best ways to connect to people who actually develop the software you love and use.

8. Learn a new language

If all you’ve ever done is C(++,#)/Java there are a LOT of other ways to think about computer problems. Learning a new language will change the way you think. It’s not just a different syntax–it’s fundamentally rewiring the brain. Sure, all languages get compiled down to assembler in the end, but that doesn’t mean a high level abstraction isn’t valuable.

Functional, query, and aspect-oriented languages are starting to merge with C-based languages–are you ready?

9. Learn the anti-patterns

Aside from knowing what to do, learn what not to do. Read Dailywtf.com often and take the lessons to heart if you don’t already know.

It’s all well and good to understand proper OO design, coding style, and what you should be writing, but it’s easy to get into bad habits if you’re not careful. Learning to recognize bad ideas is vital when taking charge of a project.

Wikipedia has a thorough breakdown of many common anti-patterns,

10. Be Humble

Learning means:

  • Replacing faulty knowledge with better knowledge
  • Adding knowledge that you do not already have

There’s no way to learn until you admit you have some deficiencies. It all comes back to humility, doesn’t it? If you ever start thinking you know everything you need to, you’re in trouble. True learning is about hungrily seeking after knowledge and internalizing it. It takes lots effort. We all know this in theory, but we have to be constantly reminded.


Check out my latest book, the essential, in-depth guide to performance for all .NET developers:

Writing High-Performance.NET Code by Ben Watson. Available now in print and as an eBook at:

10 thoughts on “10 Ways to Learn New Things in Development

  1. Tim

    #10 is probably the most important rule. it’s never easy to admit we’ve been wrong for many years, but it’s the starting point to getting better…

    good post.

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  4. pranav

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog. A good programmer should devote one’s life to life-long learning.

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  6. Saravanan

    All 10 Rules are more important to all the developers life. I will try to implement those things. I just want to read the code of paint.net, but I could not find the source from your link that you given above.

  7. anonymous

    hi,
    I just got through a google interview for a test engineer. It was only telephonic and only for 20 mins! The manager called me and told me I was hired!
    I worked as a developer in the past so I wonder how an interview at google would be that easy!
    Anyways, joining next week and currently preparing for an informal interview.
    Your tips are simply great! Thank you!

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