Why and How to Write Good How-To Articles

Part of contributing to any open source project, or even really being a contributing member of any community, is sharing what you know. That can come in many forms. While many projects over emphasis code, and most of us understand the value of conference talks, good how-to articles are some of the most critical contributions for any software platform. There isn’t much point to a tool if people cannot figure out how to use it.

Why do I write how-to articles

I’ve contributed code to Drupal, some of it even good and useful to others. But usually when I hear someone noticed something I created it’s blog posts about how to solve a problem.

When I struggled to find the answer to a question I expect it is a candidate for a how-to post. I am not so creative that I am often solving a problem no one has, or will want to, solve for another project. And I am good enough at what I do to know that if I struggled to find an answer it was probably harder to find than it could been.

That helps me find topics for articles that are helpful to the community and benefit me.

How-to articles help others in the community use tools better

The goal of a good tutorial is to help accelerate another person’s learning process. The solution does not have to be perfect, and I know most people will have to adapt the answer to their project. I write them when I struggled to find a complete answer in one place, and so I’m hoping to provide one place that gives the reader enough to succeed.

Usually I combine practical experience earned after digging through several references at various levels of technical detail – including things like other people’s blog posts, API documentation, and even slogging through other people’s code. I then write one, hopefully coherent, reference to save others that digging extra reading.

The less time people spend researching how to do something, the more time they have to do interesting work. Better yet, it can mean more time using the tools for their actual purpose.

How-to articles serve as documentation for me, colleagues, and even clients

The best articles serve as high level documentation I can refer back to later to help me repeat a solution instead of recreating it from scratch. When I first wrote how-to articles I was solidifying my own learning, and leaving a trail for later.

They also came to serve as documentation for colleagues. When I don’t have time to sit with them to talk through a solution, or know the person prefers reading, I can provide the link to get them off and running. Colleagues have given me feedback about clarity, typos, and errors to help me improve the writing.

I have even sent posts to clients to help explain how some part of their solution was, or will be, implemented. That additional documentation of their project can help them extend and maintain their own projects.

How-To articles give me practice explaining things

One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to keep my writing skills sharpened. How-to articles in-particular tend to be good at helping me refine my process in specific areas. The mere act of writing them gives me practice at explaining technology and that practice pays off in trainings and future articles. If you compare my work on Drupal, Salesforce, and Electron you can see the clarity improve with experience.

How-To articles give me work samples to share

When I’ve been in job applicant mode those articles give me material to share with prospective employers. In addition to Github and Drupal.org, the how-to articles can help a hiring manager understand how I work. They show how explain things to others, how I engage in the community, and serve as samples of my writing.

How-To articles help me control my public reputation

I maintain a blog, in part, to help make sure that I have control over my public reputation. To do that I need inbound links the help maintain page rank and other similar basic SEO games.

From traffic statistics I know the most popular pages on this site are technical how-to articles. From personal anecdotes I know a few of my articles have become canonical descriptions of how to solve the problems.

When I first started my current job we had a client ask if I could implement a specific feature that he’d read about in a post on Planet Drupal. It turned out to be mine. Not only was I happy to agree to his request, it helped him trust our advice. My new colleagues better understood what this Drupal guy brought to the Salesforce team. Besides let’s be honest it’s fun when people cite your own work back at you.

Writing your own

You don’t have to maintain a whole blog to write useful how-to articles. Drupal, like most large open source projects, maintains public wiki-style documentation. Github pages allow anyone to freely publish simple articles and there are many examples of single-page articles out there. And of course there is no shortage of dedicated how-to sites that will also accept content.

The actual writing process isn’t that hard, but often people leave out steps, so I’ll share my process. This is similar to my general advice for writing instructions.

Pick your audience

It’ll be used more widely than whoever you think of, but have an audience in mind. Use that to help target a skill set. I often like to think of myself before I started whatever project inspired the article. The higher your skill set the more you should adjust down, but it’s hard to adjust too far, so be careful is aiming for people with far less experience than you have – make sure you have a reviewer with less experience check your work. Me − 1 is fine, Me − 5 is really hard to do well.

Start from the beginning and go carefully step by step

Start with no code, no setup, nothing. Then walk forward through the project one step at a time writing out each step. If you gloss over a detail because you assume your audience knows about it add reference links. You can have a copy of a reference project open but do not use it directly; it’s there to prevent you from having to re-research everything.

List your assumptions as you go

Anything that you need to have in place but don’t want to describe (like installing Drupal into a local environment, creating a basic module, installing Node, etc) state as an explicit assumption so your reader starts in the same place as you do. Provide links for any assumptions which are likely hard for your expected audience to complete. This is your first check point – if there are no good references to share, start from where that article you cannot find should start (or consider writing that article too). 

Provide detailed examples

Insert code samples, screenshots, or short videos as you progress. Depending on what you are doing in your article the exact details of what works best will vary. Copy and paste as little reference code as possible. This helps you avoid accidentally copying details that may be revealing of a specific project’s details.

If you look at mine you’ll see a lot of places where I include comments in sample code that say things like “Do useful stuff”. That is usually a hint that whoever inspired the article had interesting, and perhaps proprietary, ideas in that section of code (or at least I worried they would think it was interesting). I also try to add quick little asides in the code samples to help people pay attention.

Test as you go

Make sure your directions work without that reference project you’re not sharing. This is both so your directions work properly and further insulation against accidentally sharing information you ought not share.

End with a full example

If you end up with a bunch of code that you’ve introduced piecemeal, provide a complete project repo or gist at the end. You’ll see some of my articles end in all the code being displayed from a gist, and others link to a full repository. Far too many people simply copy and paste code from samples and then either use it blindly or get stuck. Moving it to the end helps get people to at least scan the actual directions along the way.

Give credit where credit is due

If you found partial answers in several places during your initial work, thank those people with links to their articles. Everyone who publishes online likes a little link-love and if the article was helpful to you it may be helpful to others. Give them a slight boost.

Salesforce Lightning Web Components with URL Parameters

A couple weeks ago I needed to create a Salesforce Lightning Web Component (LWC) that pulls values from URL parameters. While the process is very simple it turns out the vast majority of examples on the web are out of date due to a security update Salesforce made sometime last year – and so I spent a frustrating afternoon throwing ideas at the wall until a colleague stumbled into a comment on a blog post that was an incorrect example by a highly trusted expert noting the needed fix.  So, in the hopes of shortening the search for anyone else trying to get this to work, I’m offering an example that works – at least as of this writing.

To be fair the official docs are correct but it is easy to look passed an important detail: if you do not put a namespace on your value the parameter will be deleted.

That change was the security update, before that you could have any value as your parameter name now you have to have __ (two underscores) in the name.  Officially the docs say that in the left side of those underscores you should have the namespace of your package or a “c” for unpackaged code. As far as I can tell at least in sandboxes and trailhead orgs you can have anything you want as long as there are characters before and after the __ (which kinda makes sense since package developers need to be able to write and test their JavaScript before they build their package).

So your final URLs will look something like:
https://orgname.my.salesforce.com/lightning/r/Contact/0034x000009Xy5gAAC/view?c__myUrlParameter=12345

Basic LWC

Now with that main tip out of the way on to a full example.

My assumption going into this is that you know how to create a very basic Hello World quality LWC. If not, start with the Trailhead Hello World example project.

1) Create a new component to work with, mine will be very simple to help keep the details clean, but you can fold this into more interesting code bases.

2) Update the component’s meta.xml file to set isExposed to true, and at least a target of lighning__RecordPage (although any target will do if you know how to use it), and configure the target to connect to Contact (although again any settings you know how to use are fine here).

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<LightningComponentBundle xmlns="http://soap.sforce.com/2006/04/metadata">
   <apiVersion>50.0</apiVersion>
   <isExposed>true</isExposed>
   <description>Example Lightning Web Componant to read URL parameters.</description>
   <targets>
       <target>lightning__RecordPage</target>
   </targets>
   <targetConfigs>
       <targetConfig targets="lightning__RecordPage">
           <objects>
               <!-- This is setup to run on contact but you could use any sObject-->
               <object>Contact</object>
           </objects>
       </targetConfig>
   </targetConfigs>
</LightningComponentBundle>

3) In your JS file beyond the main LighningElement you need to add imports for wire, track, and CurrentPageReference from the navigation library:

import { LightningElement, wire, track } from "lwc";
import { CurrentPageReference } from "lightning/navigation";

4) Add a tracked value you want to display inside the main class: 

export default class Parameter_reader extends LightningElement { 
  @track displayValue;

5) Next use the wire decorator to connect CurrentPageReference’s getStateParameters to your own code to get an use the URL parameters:

@wire(CurrentPageReference)
getStateParameters(currentPageReference) {
 if (currentPageReference) {
   const urlValue = currentPageReference.state.c__myUrlParameter;
   if (urlValue) {
     this.displayValue = `URL Value was: ${urlValue}`;
   } else {
     this.displayValue = `URL Value was not set`;
   }
 }

From the code sample above you can see that we’re getting the values from currentPageReferences’s state child object, and then attaching them to our tracked value we created in step four.

6) Update the HTML file to display your value ideally leveraging the SLDS along the way:

<template>
 <div>
   <lightning-card title="Url Sample" icon-name="custom:custom14">
     <div class="slds-m-around_medium">
       <p>{displayValue}</p>
     </div>
   </lightning-card>
 </div>
</template>

7) Deploy all this code to your org.

8) Go to a contact record, and edit the page. Add your new competent to the side bar. Save and activate the page.

9) Return to the record page, the component should appear and say “URL Value was not set”.

10) In the address bar add to the end of the url: ?c__myUrlParameter=Hello, and reload the page, the component should now read “URL Value was Hello”.

A screenshot of the sample component displaying the provided text of "hello".

What about sending the value to APEX?

Now, let’s go one step further and send this parameter over the APEX and post a response.

1) Create an APEX class, and create a public static method using the AuraEnabled decorator.

 @AuraEnabled(cacheable=true)
 public static String reflectValue(String value) {
     // Really you should do something useful here.
     return value;
 }

In this case we’re starting with a method that just passes back the same string it was handed, but obviously you can do whatever you want here.

BE CAREFUL ABOUT SECURITY!

If you take an ID as your parameter make sure you are thinking about what happens when someone sends an ID for an object they should not see, is for an object other than the type you expected, and other similar things. The platform can help you but security is your job here, take it seriously!

2) Create good tests for your class, and deploy the code.

3) Import the new function into your JS file:

import reflectValue from "@salesforce/apex/valueReflection.reflectValue";

Update the getStateParameter handler we wrote before to call this function as a JavaScript promise:

  getStateParameters(currentPageReference) {
    if (currentPageReference) {
      const urlValue = currentPageReference.state.c__myUrlParameter;
      if (urlValue) {
        reflectValue({ value: urlValue })
          .then((result) => {
            this.displayValue = `URL Value was: ${result}`;
          })
          .catch((error) => {
            this.displayValue = `Error during processing: ${error}`;
          });
      } else {
        this.displayValue = `URL Value was not set`;
      }
    }
  }

4) That’s it! Deploy your code and reload the page, and your values should pass through to APEX, come back and get displayed.

The complete SFDX project for this example is up on Github.

SC Dug May 2020: Virtual Backgrounds

This month’s SC DUG meeting featured Will Jackson from Kanopi Studios talking about his virtual background and office.

Before everyone was learning to use Zoom virtual backgrounds, Will had built out a full 3D room for his background, including family pictures and other fun details. He talked about what he built and may inspire you to try some more personalized than swaying palm tree and night skies.

If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

We frequently use these presentations to practice new presentations, try out heavily revised versions, and test out new ideas with a friendly audience. So if some of the content of these videos seems a bit rough please understand we are all learning all the time and we are open to constructive feedback. If you want to see a polished version checkout our group members’ talks at camps and cons.

If you are interested in giving a practice talk, leave me a comment here, contact me through Drupal.org, or find me on Drupal Slack. We’re excited to hear new voices and ideas. We want to support the community, and that means you.

SC DUG April 2020: Remote Work Round Table

This month’s SC DUG was a round table discussion on working remotely during the Covid-19 lock down. We had actually planned this topic before the crisis emerged in full, but found ourselves having to pivot our talking points a fair bit.

The discussion centered on things that people are dealing with, even those of us who work remotely on a regular basis. A few resources were shared by people on the call, including Pantheon’s Donut Slack Bot.

If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

Thoughts for the Newly Remote Worker

Don’t expect to get a good routine down in the current conditions.

About three years ago I wrote up some of my thinking on what you need to succeed in remote work and I still stand by most of that advice. But right now many of those suggestions may need to be goals you are working towards.

A few days ago my friend Johanna, who like me routinely works from home, learned she’ll be working from home while she and her partner try their hand at homeschooling and offered this tweet:

She’s both absolutely right (and smart, so if you’re on Twitter you should follow her), but also a little wrong. This is not what work from home normally is like, but this is what work from home is like in this moment.

Right now a huge number of people are suddenly working remote for the first time. Some of you probably wanted to this for a long time and are suddenly getting the chance, and some didn’t really want a remote job but now are forced to try it.

While some companies already have the tools and habits in place to make remote work successful, most probably don’t. What’s more, many people are now also doing childcare/homeschooling at the same time. So let’s be clear this is a terrible way to start working remotely. But here we are, so let’s talk about ways to use enough duct tape to make it work.

Your Boss

Lots of people probably have bosses that are deeply uncomfortable with this whole thing. They may have fought allowing remote work for long time because they worry about monitoring remote work and have no experience with remote management–those fears are likely still there and will put them off their game. Managers who are uncertain about basic working conditions can make bad choices that make a bad situation worse – like trying to monitor everyone on video conference all day. I’ve worked remote for bosses that didn’t trust me if they couldn’t see me, it’s hard and makes it hard to be successful. Long-term if they don’t learn to adjust you should probably find someone better to work for, but in the short run that’s probably not an option (and hopefully they will adjust) so let’s talk about strategies you can use to get through.

Check in early in the day so they know you’re up and running.

This should be something informal like a quick email to verify a meeting or other detail, a chat message just greeting them warmly, or something similar. Basically give them a sense that you are around and active before they ping you to find out if you remembered to wake up. You don’t want to sound needy or like you’re asking their permission to do work, as that can encourage micromanagement instincts.

Check in again at the end of the day, letting them know you’re leaving.

Again this should be something informal and simple that gives them, and you, a sense of closure to your work day. This helps avoid them feeling like you just disappeared while they adjust to the routine.

Leave a documented work trail with timestamps.

Think emails, notes from meetings, hours tracking and billing systems, Word documents with update timestamps, version control systems, and other things that you can point to that will remind them you really were working even though they didn’t see you (and if things get ugly something you can show others to prove you were working).

Start early or work late a few times early on.

Again this is about helping them see that you really are working hard even though they can’t see you. You still need to maintain work/life balance so don’t do this every day, or even most days, just enough that they are able to notice the effort in a crisis.

Suggest new or better tools to help support the sudden remote culture.

They probably know things aren’t working super well, and a chance to blame tools may be welcome. So research and suggest tools that make things better. Try to spot the things that have them uneasy about the situation and offer tools that might help with those challenges.

Your Tools

On the topic of tools, if your team just went fully remote you probably are lacking some tools to do all the things a great remote team has in place. You aren’t going to fix that overnight, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here – a tool that your team uses is better than the perfect tool that no one adopts.

So if you need to pick a chat client try the low hanging fruit first. You’re a Microsoft shop with 365 setup? Use Teams. You a Google apps shop? Use Hangouts. Salesforce? Chatter. Use Zoom a lot? Well their chat is terrible so use Slack (everyone else should probably default to Slack too). Some of those tools are far better than others but each has a niche they serve very well, and maybe your team will switch one day but get started now and worry about using it really well later.

Your Family

Don’t sweat the kids and pets interrupting. My current team was nearly 100% remote before all this started. We’re professional, have a strong team work ethic, and work hard to make sure our clients see that. And you know what, people’s kids and pets get in the way sometimes. Rarely does it matter for more than a minute or two. Right now, we’re running into a lot more of that than is normal. So are our clients. It’s going to be just fine.

Normally we try to limit interruptions, but honestly pets and kids are welcome cute distraction more often than not. My dogs wander my office and often end up on camera. My boss’s cat frequently strolls across his desk during check ins. Other people’s children come in and wave to all the people on their parent’s computer screen. Sure there are times we need to focus and someone’s dog really really needs to bark at that cat outside the window. Or a child needs their parent’s attention the very minute we’re trying to solve a hard problem. It’s just part of how things flow, and within my team we understand it as a part of work from home since it gives us all more time with the people that matter most to us all (hint: not our colleagues). Family, in whatever form they come, are part of what makes us who we are and allows us to see each other as a more complete person.

Yes, in this moment when kids are suddenly off from school with few places having formed any reasonable plan for education continuity, even for experienced teams we are expecting it will be disruptive. The entire American workforce is going to have to learn to deal with either their kids, or their colleagues kids, suddenly being around. Do your best to maintain focus and professionalism, but expect cracks, and let those imperfections help you get to know your colleagues better.

The next few weeks or months will be a lot of remote work duct taping even for experienced teams. You, your team, and your families, will learn to get better at this over time. Embrace that you’re learning, expect mistakes, and just plain do the best you can at the moment.

Crash Teaching Online

This is a guest post by my wife Elizabeth Georgian. She’s a professor at a local university and is one of many scrambling to move all her courses online.

This has been an interesting week for academics as we move to online instruction, perhaps for the first time.

At my university, we heard on Monday that we’re going online next week. Needless to say, this has been a pretty chaotic few days. Here’s what I’ve learned and the order in which I found it helpful to tackle the problem. For context, I’m a history professor at a regional public university, teaching four classes, with a lot of general education students. I mostly teach face-to-face, but I’m online in the summers.

Email your students right away

Contact them even if it’s just to let them know that you’re working on a plan. Give them a time frame of when you expect to be able to share more information. If you’re planning on taking your course in the Learning Management System (aka an LMS such as Blackboard or Moodle) offline while you work (more on that in a minute), tell them that, otherwise they’ll panic. Most importantly, let them know that you care about them and that you know it’s a stressful time for everyone. If your counseling center is offering remote help, tell them how to access it.

Let go of trying to be perfect and forget about best practices.

We aren’t teaching online—that takes a lot of time to do well—we’re teaching remotely in an emergency. The most helpful article I’ve read so far was “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.

Figure out what’s most important for the rest of the semester.

Here are some things that might be your top priority:

  • Delivering content
  • Helping them complete a particular project
  • Supporting students with limited technology
  • Making sure you set up your classes in a way that allows you to care for your own health needs or for your loved ones.

You can’t do it all and now’s not the time to try, so decide what matters most right now.

Ask what technology your students can access where they are.

Depending on your student body and location, maybe all of them will have laptops and high speed internet, but some of us teach at institutions where students may need to finish classes on their smartphone or are returning to rural areas with limited internet access.

Decide if you want to teach synchronously, asynchronously, or both?

Asynchronous instruction is easier for students who have to share computers with partners, who are switching to remote work or learning, it accommodates parents who are suddenly home schooling, and it helps students with limited internet access. But there’s a benefit to real time options too. For some of our students, we are the adult in their life they feel connected to and it’s important to preserve that connection. Optional video office hours or reading discussions can help them stay connected to the class and the university without hurting their grades if they can’t participate.

Plan ahead and minimize changes.

The more of the class structure and assignments you can preserve, the less confusing it will be for your students and the easier it will be on you. Free response assignments will take longer to grade but are faster and easier to set up in most LMSs. If you’re concerned about your students’ access to high-speed internet, keep new work based in printed resources your students already have whenever possible. Avoid timed tests or quizzes or ones that require remote proctoring. Planning assignments you can send by email or snail mail if needed will save you time and effort later.

Find or become a mentor.

If you haven’t taught online, try to find a mentor in your discipline who is comfortable with your LMS. If you have, help out your less experienced colleagues. Distance learning experts are over loaded and they may not understand the needs in your particular discipline.

Hide your course from your students temporarily (warn them first).

Students tend to get nervous when they see you making changes in the LMS. Particularly if you’re making substantial changes or creating new assignments, you will set something up wrong, screw up a deadline, or rethink an assignment, and you want to be able to fix that stuff and make changes before you take the course live. Just don’t forget to reopen access.

Communicate regularly with your students.

It’s a lot easier for them to disconnect from online class than it is in a face-to-face class, particularly right now when they’re stressed, suffering from vacation syndrome, or both. Since they may not be used to online learning, they will need more routine reminders about deadlines, particularly if you’ve adjusted them due to an extended spring break.

Don’t forget to be human.

It’s fine, even helpful, to let your students know you’re stressed too or that you don’t have all the answers. If you’re doing video lectures or office hours, go ahead and introduce them to the people or pets in your home that may wander on camera—I always let my students meet my two greyhounds before they show up uninvited. Now is the time to set some boundaries between work and life, maybe that means not checking your email after dinnertime or taking a walk at lunchtime. Taking care of yourself will help you be a better teacher.

Two greyhounds laying on beds on a hardwood floor.
Henry and Petey.

SC DUG February 2020

Suggestions for learning the skills we all need to advance.

This month for SC DUG I gave a talk on the importance of self-directed learning for professional development as a developer — or really any other modern career. It was an extension and revision of my December blog post on the same topic. The presentation runs a hair over 30 minutes, and parts of the discussion are included as well.

We frequently use these presentations to practice new presentations, try out heavily revised versions, and test out new ideas with a friendly audience. If you want to see a polished version checkout our group members’ talks at camps and cons. So if some of the content of these videos seems a bit rough please understand we are all learning all the time and we are open to constructive feedback.

If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

On Being Self-Taught

Eventually we are all mostly self-taught.

From time to time conversations come up among developers, and other fellow travelers, about being self-taught vs getting formal training. Over time I’ve come to realize that the further and further you get into your career, the less the distinction means anything; eventually we are all mostly self-taught.

I’ve written before about the value of my liberal arts education and I stand by my assertion that what I learned in that setting was, and is, valuable to my life and work. But just because something was useful to life does not mean it was the only way to acquire the skills. It’s a good way for many people, but far from the only way.

For anyone in a technical field, and most professional fields really, to succeed over time you need to learn new tools, skills, and techniques. The tools I knew when I graduated college are all largely outmoded or significantly upgraded, and I’ve had to learn a variety of technologies that didn’t exist in 2001.

Within the Drupal community lots of people talk about being self-taught, sometimes with pride sometimes with embarrassment, but in truth very few people were formally trained on the platform. Lots of very successful developers in the Drupal community (and beyond) have degrees in fields like religion and art history, not computer science, and have taught themselves how to do awesome things. In fact, I’ll argue that just about every Drupaler taught themselves most of what they know about Drupal. How they did that can vary widely, but we are a community with few formal training programs and lots of people who stumbled into Drupal trying to solve a non-technical problem. Even advanced workshops at conferences dig deep into one small area and expect you to generalize that knowledge to your projects, which I count as self-teaching. For example, I had a friend ask the other day about how to control the PDO connection settings in Drupal 7 — which I didn’t know how to do, but knew they were similar to Drupal 8 — so I sent him my Drupal 8 instructions and he figured it out how from there. He’s now taught himself how to do what he needed for that project and in the process generalized the approach for whatever he may need next time.

So then it is important for all of us to find, and hopefully share, techniques for self-teaching — even for those who have some kind of formal training. Here are my suggestions for people who are starting out and haven’t yet found the pattern that works for them:

  1. Assume you first solution is wrong. Most of us have, or will, stumble our way through a project where we don’t really know what we’re doing without a lot of support. We usually learn a great deal in the process, and launching those projects can feel pretty good cause you’ve succeeded at something hard. It is easy to get into the habit of assuming the solutions from that project were correct because they worked. In truth those projects are really rough around the edges, and just because we got it to work does not mean the solution was good. Assuming the first solution is good enough forever is how you become an expert beginner which then takes a lot of effort to undo. Once you have a working solution, step back and see if you can think of a better one, or see if you now can guess better search terms to see if someone else wrote up a different solution to the same problem. Admit your work could be better and try to improve it.
  2. Learn a few more programming languages. Most people who are self-taught from the start, and even some who have a BA/BS in Computer Science, only know 2 or 3 programming languages (PHP, JS, and CSS+HTML are often the only languages new people learn at first). One of the courses I took by chance in college forced me to learn 8 in 16 weeks. It was grueling, miserable, and darned useful. I can still learn a new language in just a couple weeks and rarely do I hit a language construct I don’t recognize. You don’t need to go that far. When I first started out a mentor told me you should learn a new language every year, and for several I did. Some of those, not the languages I learned in college, are the ones I use most day-to-day. All told I’ve spent time writing code in more than twenty different languages. That many isn’t terribly useful but the more languages you learn, the more you learn to understand the elements of your primary language.
  3. Learn basic algorithms and to measure complexity. The kind of thinking that goes into formal algorithms will help you be a better developer overall; badly thought through processes is the place I tend to see the largest gaps between developers with and without formal training. Any college-level CS program will put you through an algorithms course that teaches a variety of specific algorithms and force you to understand their structures. If you didn’t go through one of those programs, this is probably the course that will help you the most. On the one hand most of us rarely rewrite these algorithms as on modern platforms some library or another will provide a better version than we are likely to craft for our project. But learning what they are, when they are used, and how to understand their performance is useful for any project that involves lots of data or processing. MIT has a version of their algorithms course from 2011 online, or find one through another provider. Even if you just watch the lectures (really watching, not just vaguely have them on while cooking and cleaning), you can learn a great deal of useful information. I learned a lot watching those lectures as it refreshed and updated my understanding of the topics.
  4. Find and learn from mentors. Notice I used a plural there; you should try to find a few people willing to help you learn your profession, and more generally help you learn to advance in your field. Most of us benefit from learning from the experiences of multiple people, and who we need to learn from changes over time. I had the great experience of having a few wonderful mentors when I was first starting out, and much of the advice they gave me still serves me well. Some of it contradicted, and resolving those contradictions forced me to learn to do things my own way and find my own solutions.
  5. Learn other platforms. This is both a protection against future shifts in the market, and also a way to see how things work from outside your current professional bubble. Drupal developers can learn a lot from writing a WordPress plugin, or better yet an add-on for a platform in another language (think about Plone, Gatsby, or Hugo). Or try to learn to work with a platform like Salesforce or AWS. Other platforms have different communities, different learning styles, and different patterns. Like understanding additional languages, different platforms help you broaden your understanding and provide insights you can bring back to your main work.
  6. Learn to give and take criticism. Part of learning is getting feedback on your work, and part of being on a team is sharing feedback with others. If you took art or music classes in high school or college you probably learned some of the basic lessons you need here, but if you didn’t, consider taking one now at your local community college or art center. The arts are wonderful for getting experience with criticism. For all art is often open to interpretation, it also requires specific skills. If you play off-key, it sounds wrong. If your sculpture collapses under its own weight, the project failed. If your picture’s subject is out of focus, you need to re-shoot it. Sure there are brilliant artists who can violate all the rules, but if you have never experienced an art critique you are not one of those artists. The experience of getting direct, blunt, and honest feedback will help you understand its value and how to give that feedback yourself.
  7. Share what you think you know. We learn a great deal with we teach others. Both because it forces us to refine our thinking and understanding so we can explain it, and because learners ask questions we cannot answer off the top of our heads. This can be user group or conference presentations, internal trainings for your team, mentoring junior developers, writing a blog, or anything else that gets your from learning to teaching. It’s okay if you’re not 100% right, that’s part of how we learn. A few years ago I was doing a joint project with a junior developer who asked me a lot of questions, and pushed hard when she thought I was making mistakes. When she asked why I was selecting a solution or setting a pattern, she was never satisfied with “because that’s the best way to do it.” She wanted me to explain why that was the best way. If I couldn’t walk her through it right away, I went back and hunted for reference material to explain it or if that failed I tested her counter ideas against my plans to see if I was missing something. While I was usually right, not always and we did make changes based on her feedback. More importantly it forced me to show my work in fine detail which was a good exercise for me and gave her insights to help her do better work.
  8. Find your own patterns. At the start I said this list was for people who didn’t have their own patterns yet. In the long-run of your career you need to figure out what you need to know to get to where you want to go next. Eventually you will need to find a pattern that works for you and the life you are living. No one can tell you what that is, nor how to learn it all yourself. Experiment with learning styles, areas of work, roles, and types of projects as much as you are able until you feel your way to the right solutions for you.

Some Things Every Developer Should Read

Every developer needs to be learning new things all the time. We need to have a good grounding in the ideas that have come before us and those that are emerging around us within our field, and we need to understand the larger social impact of our work. To be fair this isn’t just true of developers, but we are a field that has a bad habit of arguing our work is totally new and original – which is rarely true in any meaningful way.

Part of that push for constant learning is to read books about software development, about life, about business, about writing, and really anything that pushes how and what you think. There isn’t really a settled cannon of things every developer must have read but there are definitely some works you need to be familiar with the ideas in (even if you haven’t read them) to keep in conversations over lunch at a conference like the Mythical Man Month and the Agile Manifesto (both of which came up over a lunch at my last conference). There is also a much larger set of works that many developers benefit from reading even if they aren’t really about software.

So here is my list of works that I think every developer should read at least once in their life. I’m breaking the list into two pieces: specific books I think every developer should actually read, and a category of types of things that every developer should be on the lookout to read on a regular basis. I’d love to hear suggestions about should be added and what I should have read myself.

Specific Books

These are some specific books that I’ve found helpful for making me a better developer. None of the ones here are directly about programming – that’s not an accident. Many of the books I’ve read about development and the creation of software were helpful and I am glad to have spent time with them but these are works that helped me think more broadly about the craft and the when, why, and how I write code.

  • Design of everyday things: While many of the specific recommendations for how to fix some devices are out-of-date and flawed (I will never forget reading that all office phones needed to be easy to use was a two-line digital display while working at a desk with a proof the display had not solved the problem), the general philosophy holds up. Also, it will make you justifiably angry at every poorly installed door you struggle to open.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: This is a long, slow, dense read. And if I hadn’t need assigned it in college I probably never would have gotten through it. But I find myself coming back to its discussion of quality all the time.
  • Technically Wrong: This is the newest book on this list, and it makes the cut cause the ideas are so important. I had the opportunity to see Sara Wachter-Boettcher speak at DrupalCon before she published the book and it was one of those talks that changed how lots of people in the room think about software and the role of our work in people’s lives.
  • Elements of Style (aka “Strunk and White”): I was assigned to read this in a history course in college and then again when I was promoted to Web Director at AFSC – cause the Director of Communications wanted to be sure I remembered the importance of writing well in that job (I did, but I re-skimmed the book anyway). If everyone wrote English like Strunk and White suggest writing would be much better on the whole – although fairly boring. Read it not because their rules are perfect, read it because you should think about the rules of writing when you break them.
  • Blah Blah Blah: This is something you should read after you’ve read a lot about writing clearly since it rather pitches the reverse concept: sometimes a rough picture is clearer and more useful than a carefully written description.

Things that push and inspire

These are examples of works that are helpful to push boundaries. The specific examples I cite may or may not be valuable to you, but they are examples of things within the category I’m describing.

Books that show you code you’d never write:

These are books that talk about code and concepts that either have no application to your work, or are ways of showing off what a language can do – even when you shouldn’t follow the example. I have two examples here from opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • If Hemingway wrote javascript: This book is brilliant. It’s a series of examples of how various writers might have completed common CS class programming assignments using JavaScript: DO NOT WRITE CODE LIKE THIS. It shows off how wonderfully flexible JavaScript is as a language, and presents some of the worst possible solutions to those problems along the way. It is a great read that will teach almost anyone a few things about JavaScript, and push you to think about different ways to approach a problem. It is a light, fast, and entertaining read.
  • Beautiful code: This is a fairly dry read. It is made up of series of examples of truly well written code: WRITE CODE LIKE THIS. It looks at code in a variety of languages, not all of which are in common use, solving problems that are sometimes familiar and sometimes rare (in part because of the code you’re reading). It is a slow dense, and at times boring read, but it’ll give you insight into what other people will find graceful in your work.

A college textbook

I mean actually read and actual textbook. Sure if you went to college someone assigned bits of pieces of these things to read, maybe they even assigned all the chapters in order. But how many people actually did all the reading in order? That doesn’t mean the professors weren’t right that those things are useful – they do not get assigned for the professors health (and if you think professors get rich off assigning their own books you need to spend time learning about the economics of academic publishing). 

I have a couple around that I kept as reference after college, and one or two I’ve now actually read end to end. I will grant you these are not exciting works. I don’t do this as a regular reading habit, but it’s worth having done. If you don’t have one around, most libraries still have books and often a few reasonable high level textbooks.

Articles by someone whose ideas you don’t like

If you aren’t used to doing this I should be clear that this is about getting outside your comfort zone on topics you think you know a lot about, and reading things that push you to justify – or better yet modify – your understanding of the field. This doesn’t have to mean going and reading material you find deeply troubling or revisit ideas you know are morally reprehensible. Bothering with ideas from ideologies of hate is unlikely beneficial for most of us, think closer to home here. In this category I’m talking about project management practices you think are overblown: love Agile, read people who point out where it routinely fails; hate Agile, read some material about why it always works when done right. For me it is sometimes reading people who still argue technology is morally neutral. But best is often to find a topic you are still trying to resolve your own thinking on and absorb some uncomfortable ideas and wrestle with them. 

In Praise of B Students

There is nothing wrong with just being good at something.

When I was in school I was a solid B student. I thought of myself as a B student and I worked hard to make sure I was always working at least a B average. I worked hard, but not too hard. I could have probably been an A student if I’d worked harder, but I would not have been as happy. I didn’t feel the drive to be the best all the time, just good enough to keep up with what I was learning. Most people brag about being A students, but that wasn’t me and it has worked out pretty well in the long run.

For me a B student is someone who not only gets actually Bs most of the time in school but also knows how to work hard to get the grade they want, and how to relax so they recover and enjoy their lives along the way. If they fall a little short at some point they are perfectly capable of working a little harder to make up the ground. Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, we all have to save a bit for later. If you are used to running full out all the time, you do not always have the ability to step it up a little extra when needed nor how to relax and recover without stopping. In a world where we seem to be moving from helicopter parents to snowplow parents, there are still people that have fallen short from time to time, so they know how to pick themselves up and push forward.

There has been plenty written and said about the flaws of perfectionism so you don’t need to trust me, and I’m not going to waste time making the case that there are problems with pushing kids and college students to be a perfect A student all the time. And there are problems when companies only want to hire people who have those backgrounds.

In our current test-driven education culture there is a lot of push for kids to be the best. And the highly competitive nature of admissions for some top colleges can make it seem like a kid has to be perfect to succeed in life. But life isn’t Top Gun there actually are points for second place, and really more or less all the others (well paychecks and some level of happiness anyway). More importantly people who are used to a bit of failure can excel when faced with tough jobs that require a lot of on the job learning and trial and error work. That describes pretty much every modern office job, and lots of others – watch a plumber work on an old house and you’ll see plenty of trial and error being required to solve even basic problems.

Failure is a part of life. We all need to know how to acknowledge we made mistakes, how to recover, and how to ensure we don’t make the same mistake again in the future. People who earned a lot of B’s in school are familiar with all those things. We sometimes got lazy and ended up with a C instead of B – to stay a B student we then worked harder and got ourselves enough A’s to offset our missteps and bring our averages back up. Sometimes we really didn’t understand something and had to struggle through to make sure we stayed on pace.

B students also often know the difference between learning and getting the right answer on an assessment (a skill I would have told you I had but did not need anymore until I starting having to pass professional certification exams on a regular basis). We learned how to pass the test without knowing all the information, but knowing enough to get the grade we wanted. Getting a perfect score on an assessment is only useful if the assessment is perfect – most college professors and anyone who has taken a certification exam can tell you there are no perfect assessments. I had to pass tests in college, and I need to complete and maintain certifications now, but I don’t need to have every piece of information crammed into my brain all the time – that’s what Google is for. Once I pass, I’ve passed – it feels better to get more right answers, but as long as I get enough to pass I’m certified.

When I was in the 6th grade we had a whole day dedicated to studies skills taught by a guy named Mr. Gallagher. He wasn’t a regular teacher at my school, and I have no idea where they found him or what happened to him later, but some of what he taught us that day has stuck with me both in terms of skills and philosophy. He emphasized the need to understand how a test was written, both in terms of following directions so you didn’t give up silly points and so you know where to focus your time (hint: time goes first into the places you are likely to earn the most points), and when to guess and when to work through an answer carefully (again be greedy about points not the number of right answers).

He was the first person to put the idea into my head that the point of going to school is to get good grades instead of learning. I can still remember our teachers pushing back on that argument the next day, and I eventually arrived at the conclusion that they were both right: the purpose of school is to learn, but the purpose of tests is to get good enough grades so you can move forward in school. The thought exercise itself helped me see that learning material and passing a test weren’t actually always related. I had a teacher later who helped me further abstract this concept when he pointed out that he could easily write tests we all passed or all failed, so the purpose of the test writing was to find a measure of what he thought we should be able to do (that teacher and his wife were recently on Marketplace – thanks Bill that simple lesson was super useful in college and beyond). If pass and fail are at the whim of the test author, and they aren’t actually playing against me personally but really tracking a group of people, then I can play it as a game where I need to get myself into the top 80%. If I learn to play at that level reliably I’m going to do pretty well and I don’t have to stress being perfect all the time.

Yes, there are things in life that you cannot do unless you are one of the best. Not to mention the fact that the playing field isn’t level, which means some people have to work a whole lot harder than others to earn the same B and a report card full of Bs doesn’t get read the same for everyone. But we cannot all be the best, and pretending that’s not true doesn’t level the social playing fields.

And of course there are plenty of moments we need to strive to be as close to perfect as we are capable. But we also have to hit deadlines and get things done even if we know the work will be less-than perfect. Anyone who works in software development has to deal with this on a regular basis. As much as we may want to be perfect, shifting project requirements, project timelines, platform weakness, and our own mistakes all get in the way. We do the best we can with the skills, time, teams, and the tools we have. We need to know how to accept that we cannot fix every flaw and still get things done well enough to ensure the project is successful.

So when you are hiring people consider looking for people who already know how to be second best. People who know how to do really good work, but also know how to take risks, try something new, and in the process fail. People who know how to get things done well enough to be successful, even if it’s not perfect. We aren’t perfect, our work isn’t perfect, our world isn’t perfect, so don’t pretend your team has to be perfect.

Authors Note: Last month I failed to post to this blog for the first time. If you look back over the record you will see at least one post each month from the time the blog starts through August 2019 – then I missed September. Oops. I could make all kinds of excuses (I really did get sick right at the end of the month so my planned post was delayed a week), but the truth is I had time and material, I just didn’t get anything done. So now to make up for it I am trying to post every weekend this month.  I missed a goal by a little, so now I compensate to make up for it – then I’ll hopefully go back to my nice reliable routine. What can I say? I’m okay with a B.