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The past ten years, or, how to get better at anything

Thoughts on learning software development, technical blogging, and what the past ten years have taught me.

life   docs   coding  

If you want to get better at anything:

  1. Solve your own problems,
  2. Write about it,
  3. Teach others.

1. Searching, a decade ago

I was a young graduate with newly-minted freedoms, and I was about to fall in love. I had plenty of imagination, a couple handfuls of tenacity, and no sense of direction at all.

For much of my youth, when I encountered a problem, I just sort of bumped up against it. I tried using whatever was in my head from past experiences or my own imagination to find a solution. For some problems, like managing staff duties at work, my experience was sufficient guidance. For other, more complicated problems, it wasn’t.

When you don’t have a wealth of experience to draw upon, relying on it is a poor strategy. Like many people at my age then, I thought I knew enough. Like many people at my age now, I recognize how insufficient “enough” can be. A lack of self-directed momentum meant being dragged in any direction life’s currents took me. When falling in love turned out to mean falling from a far greater height than I had anticipated, I tumbled on, complacent. When higher-ups at work handed me further responsibilities, I accepted them without considering if I wanted them at all. When, inevitably, life became more and more complicated, I encountered even more problems I didn’t know how to solve. I felt stuck.

Though I was morbidly embarrassed about it at the time, I’m not shy to say it now. At one point, it had to be pointed out to me that I could search the Internet for the solution to any of my problems. Anything I wanted to solve - interactions with people at work, a floundering relationship, or the practicalities of filing taxes - I was lucky enough to have the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled at my disposal.

Instead of bumbling along in the floatsam of my own trial and error, I started to take advantage of the collective experiences of all those who have been here before me. They weren’t always right, and I often found information only somewhat similar to my own experience. Still, it always got me moving in the right direction. Eventually, I started to steer.

There’s a learning curve, even when just searching for a problem. Distilling the jumble of confusion in your head to the right search terms is a learned skill. It helped me to understand how search engines like Google work:

We use software known as web crawlers to discover publicly available webpages. Crawlers look at webpages and follow links on those pages, much like you would if you were browsing content on the web. They go from link to link and bring data about those webpages back to Google’s servers…

When crawlers find a webpage, our systems render the content of the page, just as a browser does. We take note of key signals — from keywords to website freshness — and we keep track of it all in the Search index.

Sometimes, I find what I need by using the right keyword. Other times, I discover the keyword by searching for text that might surround it on the content of the page. For software development, I search for the weirdest word or combination of words attached to what I’m trying to learn. I rarely find whole solutions in my search results, but I always find direction for solving the problem myself.

Solving my own problems, even just a few little ones at a time, gave me confidence and built momentum. I began to pursue the experiences I wanted, instead of waiting for experiences to happen to me.

2. Updating the Internet, some years ago

I’d solved myself out of a doomed relationship and stagnant job. I found myself, rather gleefully, country-hopping with just one backpack of possessions. I met, though I didn’t know it at the time, my future husband. I found a new sense of freedom, of having options, that I knew I never wanted to give up. I had to find a means to sustain myself by working remotely.

When I first tried to make a living on the Internet, I felt like a right amateur. Sitting on the bed, hunched over my laptop, I started a crappy Wordpress blog with a modified theme that didn’t entirely work. I posted about how I tried and failed to start a dropshipping business. My site was terrible, and I knew it. My first forays into being a “real” developer were to solve my own problems: how to get my blog working, how to set up a custom domain, how to get and use a security certificate. I found some guidance in blogs and answers that others had written, but much of it was outdated, or not entirely correct. Still, it helped me.

I can’t imagine a world in which people did nothing to pass on their knowledge to future generations. Our stories are all we have beyond instinct and determination.

I stopped posting about dropshipping and started writing about the technical problems I was solving. I wrote about what I tried, and ultimately what worked. I started hearing from people who thanked me for explaining the solution they were looking for. Even in posts where all I’d done was link to the correct set of instructions on some other website, people thanked me for leading them to it. I still thought my website was terrible, but I realized I was doing something useful. The more problems I solved, the better I got at solving them, and the more I wrote about it in turn.

One day, someone offered me money for one of my solutions. To my great delight, they weren’t the last to do so.

As I built up my skills, I started taking on more challenging offers to solve problems. I discovered, as others have before me, that especially in software development, not every solution is out there waiting for you. The most frustrating part of working on an unsolved problem is that, at least to your knowledge, there’s no one about to tell you how to solve it. If you’re lucky, you’ve at least got a heading from someone’s cold trail in an old blog post. If you’re lucky and tenacious, you’ll find a working solution.

Don’t leave it scribbled in the corner of a soon-forgotten notepad, never to ease the path of someone who comes along later. Update that old blog post by commenting on it, or sending a note to the author. Put your solution on the Internet, somewhere. Ideally, blog about it yourself in as much detail as you can recall. Some of the people who find your post might have the same problem, and might even be willing to pay you to solve it. And, if my own experience and some scattered stories hold true, one of the people to who’ll come along later, looking for that same solution, will be you.

3. Paying it forwards, backwards, and investing; two years ago

Already being familiar with how easy it is to stop steering and start drifting, I sought new ways to challenge myself and my skills. I wanted to do more than just sustain my lifestyle. I wanted to offer something to others; something that mattered.

A strange thing started happening when I decided, deliberately, to write an in-depth technical blog about topics I was only beginning to become familiar with. I started to deeply understand some fundamental computer science topics - and trust me, that was strange enough - but odder than that was that others started to see me as a resource. People asked me questions because they thought I had the answers. I didn’t, at least, not always - but I knew enough now to not let that stop me. I went to find the answers, to test and understand them, and then I wrote about them to teach those who had asked. I hardly noticed, along the way, that I was learning too.

When someone’s outdated blog post leads you to an eventual solution, you can pay them back by posting an update, or blogging about it yourself. When you solve an unsolved problem, you pay it forward by recording that solution for the next person who comes along (sometimes you). In either case, by writing about it - honestly, and with your best effort to be thorough and correct - you end up investing in yourself.

Explaining topics you’re interested in to other people helps you find the missing pieces in your own knowledge. It helps you fill those gaps with learning, and integrate the things you learn into a new, greater understanding. Teaching something to others helps you become better at it yourself. Getting better at something - anything - means you have more to offer.

The past decade, and the next decade

It’s the end of a decade. I went from an aimless drift through life to being captain of my ship. I bettered my environment, learned new skills, made myself a resource, and became a wife to my best friend. I’m pretty happy with all of it.

It’s the end of 2019. Despite a whole lot of life happening just this year, I’ve written one article on this blog for each week since I started in July. That’s 23 articles for 23 weeks, plus one Christmas bonus. I hear from people almost every day who tell me that an article I wrote was helpful to them, and it makes me happy and proud to think that I’ve been doing something that matters. The first week of January will make this blog two years old.

The past several months have seen me change tack, slightly. I’ve become very interested in cybersecurity, and have been lending my skills to the Open Web Application Security Project. I’m now an author and maintainer of the Web Security Testing Guide, version 5. I’m pretty happy with that, too.

Next year, I’ll be posting a little less, though writing even more, as I pursue an old dream of publishing a book, as well as develop my new cybersecurity interests. I aim to get better at quite a few things. Thankfully, I know just how to do it - and now, so do you:

  1. Solve your own problems,
  2. Write about it,
  3. Teach others.

Have a very happy new decade, dear reader.