Expanding your horizons

time to read 3 min | 599 words

One of the questions that I routinely get asked is “how do you learn”. And the answer that I keep giving is that I had accidently started learning things from the basic building blocks. I still count a C/C++ course that I took over a decade ago as one of the chief reasons why I have a good grounding in how computers actually operate. During that course, we had to do anything from building parts of the C standard library on our own to construct much of the foundation of C++ features in plain C.

That gave me enough understanding of how things are actually implemented to be able to grasp how things are behaving elsewhere. Digging deep into the implementation is almost never a wasted effort. And if you can’t peel away the layer of abstractions, you can’t really say that you know what you are doing.

For example, I count myself ignorant in all manners about WCF, but I have full confidence that I can build a system using it. Not because I understand WCF itself, but because I understand the arena in which it plays. I don’t need to really understand how a certain technology works, if I already know what are the rules it has to play with.

Picking on WCF again, if you don’t know firewalls and routers, you can’t really build a WCF system, regardless of how good your memory is about the myriad ways of configuring WCF to do you will. If you can’t use WireShark to figure out why the system is slow to respond to requests, it doesn’t matter if you can compose an WCF envelope message literally on the back of a real world envelope.  If you don’t grok the Fallacies of Distributes Computing, you shouldn’t be trying to build a real system where WCF is used, regardless of whatever certificate you have from Microsoft.

The interesting bit is that for most of what we do, the rules are fairly consistent. We all have to play in Turing’s sand box, after all.

What this means is that learning the details of IP and TCP will be worth it over and over again. Understanding things like memory fetch latencies would be relevant in 5 years and in ten. Knowing what actually goes on in the system, even if it at a somewhat abstracted level is important. That is what make you the master of the system, instead of its slave.

Some of the things that I especially value, and that is of the top of my head and isn’t a closed list are:

  • TCP / UDP – how do they actually work.
  • HTTP – and implications (for example, state management).
  • The Fallacies of Distributed Computing.
  • Disk based storage – efficiently working with it, how file system works.
  • Memory management in OS and your environment.

Obviously, this is a very short list, and again, it isn’t comprehensive.  It is just meant to give you some indications for things that I have found to be useful over and over and over again.

That kind of knowledge isn’t something that is replaced often, and it will help you understand how anyone else has to interact with the same constraints. In fact, it often allows you to accurately guess how they solve a certain problem, because you are aware of the same alternatives that the other side had to solve.

In short, if you seek to be a better developer, dig deep and learn the real basic building blocks for our profession.

In my next post, I’ll discuss strategies for doing that.