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In many ways, being a software developer is similar to being an athlete.  The more hours you put into practice, the better you become.  Sure there are the Linus Torvalds and Lebron James, but even they have spent countless hours to get to the level where they are.  If you don't want to be destined as a Non-Programming Programmer, there are several paths you can follow to improve your skills.

 

Open Source

Pick an open source project, preferably a project in the domain of your interest.  Depending on the scale of the project, the owner(s) of the project may not immediately accept contributions from you, especially if you have not established yourself.  Don't fret!  Join their mailing list and start by submitting patches containing bugs or small feature requests posted on the project's site.  Be sure to follow their coding conventions and etiquette.  After time, you may be invited to their core team.  How cool would it be to have your name on a project like OpenCV?

 

Practice Problems

There are many sites out there that push your coding skills to the limit.  Some sites, such as Project Euler, provide a series of programming problems that allow you to arrive at a solution on your own time.  Other sites, such as TopCoder, have you competing against other developers within a specific time frame.  Scores are calculated by both correctness and speed performance.  Even if you never place high in the rankings, take comfort in the fact that pushing your mind to the edge helps prevent Alzheimer's Disease.

 

Be a Side Entrepreneur

If the other two options don't excite you, think of a feature that you want or other people want, then implement it.  Besides being a better coder, you could make a small fortune.   YouTube and Twitter both began as a single feature that someone thought would be useful.  "Hey I want to share video with friends and family" or "Hey I want to easily send SMS text to a group of people".

 

Follow any of these paths and you will become a Level 280 Dark Zen Elf Warlock Über Coder in no time.

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Comment by Kevin Luttrell on March 15, 2011 at 8:43am

Once upon a time in the Bay Area I lived every scene in that movie. Digging ditches 3 days a week and interning at a posh, all female PR agency two days a week was a bit surreal.Like living two lives

But it digress.

I'm getting distracted by the fact that I'm not the only fan of "Office Space" in Hawaii with personal anecdotes where life imitates art.

More to the point of the post...spot on.

If you love what you do, you'll do it even if you aren't getting paid-- no matter what it is. If you constantly dream up little code projects, set up and practice trouble shooting logic challenges, or try to reverse engineer complex applications to see how they work, you'll be pushing your skill set to new levels without trying and without deadlines or client expectations.

Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 12, 2011 at 8:29am
@Kevin - Your story sounds like Office Space :-) There have definitely been times in my career when a job working with my hands outside sounded very appealing!
Comment by Kevin Luttrell on March 12, 2011 at 8:09am
I worked or Lumburgh when I was in Silicon Valley. Actually, I had three bosses and lacked motivation. I got a job in construction after the company downsized. True story.
Comment by Daniel Nishimura on March 10, 2011 at 10:30am

Didn't you get the memo about the TPS report coversheet?

 

BTW during my time working for a big corporation on the mainland... I found out the TPS reports are real... Instead of a memo, I got a powerpoint presentation on it ;)

Comment by Kevin Luttrell on March 9, 2011 at 4:35pm

Bob:

Peter, it looks like you've been missing work lately.

Peter:

Well Bob, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you know Initech, you'll know the above.

Yeah, I get that feeling too.

Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 7, 2011 at 10:06pm

Great post Dan. re: Getting into open source - That is great advice. The first time I thought about my code being out there for anyone to see I really stepped up my game. I also had a hard time getting my first small contribution accepted. Pat ignored me for over a year before he stuck any of my BeanShell enhancements into his project :-)

I've always had to do my open source work on off hours. If I tried to do it at work Mika would kill me.

Comment by Daniel Nishimura on March 7, 2011 at 9:40pm

I get where you are coming from.  It is difficult for many software developers out there working for an Initech to achieve Über Coder enlightenment during work hours.  Unfortunately for these developers, they will have to spend their own precious personal time for growth.  Other factors such as having children makes it even harder.  It all depends on your appetite for learning.  Maybe start by working on one Project Euler problem each week in a programming language that's different from the one you normally use at work. 

 

Ideally, you'd want to be employed at a company that works on interesting projects or start your own company.  The more time you spend enlightening yourself, the more likely these two options become... even in Hawaii :)

 

 

 

Comment by Sam Craig on March 7, 2011 at 9:53am

Great insight.  As a at-risk-of-becoming-a-non-programming-programmer, largely due to my conscious move to manage programmers, I can attest to the fact that the things you're suggesting are the things that stand out when I see them on resumes.  I'm not here to talk about me though - what I want to know is: how have these challenges (the quests to become an Über Coder) be a reality at your everyday job?  Not all of us can work a 9-5 on projects like XBMC or Firefox, so how do we bring the same excitement into parts of our everyday, humbug, .NET-web-app and Ruby-programming days?  Or does it have to be our 5-12 job instead?

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