Expanding your horizons: Actions

time to read 2 min | 400 words

In theory, there is no difference between theory and real life.

In my previous blog post, I discussed my belief that the best value you get from learning is learning the very basic of how our machines operate. From learning about memory management in operating systems to the details of how network protocols like TCP/IP work.

Some of that has got to be theoretical study, actually reading about how those things work, but theory isn’t enough. I don’t care if you know the TCP specs by heart, if you haven’t actually built a real system with it, and experienced the pain points, it isn’t really meaningful. The best way to learn, at least from my own experiences, is to actually do something.

Because that teaches you several very interesting things:

  • What are the differences between the spec and what is actually implemented?
  • How to resolve common (and not so common problems)?

The later is probably the most important thing. I think that I learned most of what I know about HTTP in the process of building an RSS feed reader. I learned a lot about TCP from implementing a proxy system, and I did a lot of learning from a series of failed projects regarding distributed programming in general.

I learned a lot about file systems and how to work with file based storage from Practical File System Design and from building Rhino Queues and Rhino DHT. In retrospect, I did a lot of very different projects in various areas and technologies.

The best way that I know to get better is to do, to fail, and to learn from what didn’t work. I don’t know of any shortcuts, although I am familiar with plenty of ways of making the road much longer (and usually not very pleasant).

In short, if you want to get better, pick something that you don’t know how to do, and then do it. You might fail, you likely will, but you’ll learn a lot from failing.

I keep drawing a blank when people ask me to suggest options for things to try building, so I thought that I would ask the readers of this blog. What sort of things do you think would be useful to build? Things that would push most people out of their comfort zone and make them learn the fundamentals of how things work.