Learning new skills

A wise man once told me and a classroom full of university students that we needed to take responsibility for our own learning.

At the time I thought that it was just his way of encouraging self motivation in our studies. We were all HND students and that bit of advice was preceded by reminding us that as HND students we should all know a little something about failure. He wasn’t trying to be mean, well not malicious, he was trying to remind us that the HND was a second chance and we shouldn’t blow it. He was also trying to be funny in his own very dry zany¬†way.

Over the years I’ve slowly come to realise what he was really trying to tell me.

While working on a particularly challenging project written in a language I’m only still learning, on a platform I know nothing about and using an entirely new set of tools on which I’ve only been very very briefly trained, I came across a comment in a developers forum made by one of the many programming wizards that seem to frequent those forums. After giving his answer he wrote that ‘being a good developer is all about figuring stuff out. You search and experiment and ask questions or you’ll never learn anything.’ I’m summarising because I can’t find the original quote.

After I read this I thought about my time as a developer and exactly how correct this statement was. Not just in development but in working life.

My first year as a student I joined in with the other students in complaining about having been asked to do things about which I hadn’t been taught. It was an infuriating situation to be in, I didn’t feel like I was getting the support that I needed and I didn’t think it was fair. As it happens eventually taught myself what I needed to know anyway and just got on with it but all the frustration was needless and counter-productive. My second year I took a different approach and tried to be more proactive. After all this was obviously a fault with the school/teachers and I couldn’t change it so instead I was going to be more proactive and less whiney about it. Consequently my second went much smoother and I did a lot better, while it wasn’t any less stressful it was easier. My third year presented a whole new set of challenges but my attitude remained the same and I got through it alright in the end.

Now I’m here on placement and I again found myself in the position where I’m being asked to do things that I’ve not been taught and don’t feel ready for. As the work piles on and the pressure builds I was feeling increasingly under qualified and frustrated.

During a conversation with a former teacher of mine I mentioned that I didn’t know what I would have done without his help to which he replied in his uniquely ‘matter of fact’ manner. “You would have gone somewhere else.”

One of the most irritating things I hear people in the professional world says ‘I’ve not been trained on this’. It’s always annoyed me and I’ve only just come to realise why. It’s no different to a bunch of university students complaining to their teachers that they’ve not been taught something.

Taking responsibility for your own learning doesn’t mean that you should be a self starter and a go getter. It means that no one is going to hold your hand in the working world, or any world outside of high school for that matter, nor should they. Sure you might get the occasional single day training packing of questionable quality on certain things but ultimately you’re on your own in most aspects of your job and if you’re not, enjoy it because soon you will be. If you haven’t been trained, or taught, do it yourself. The resources are out there, if you can’t find them ask for help, if no one can help just figure it out yourself. You’d be surprise what you can learn by just taking a stab at it.

I look back at my first year at university and I cringe at the thought of having sat there moaning to the award leader about not having been taught MS access. All that wasted time and negativity could have been put to much better use.

Recently, I’ve been tasked to help with training some of the staff on Python. I don’t know Python or anything about it. So instead of complaining that I’ve not been trained I’m spending a that time learning it. If I need resources, I find them, if I can’t find them I find someone who can. Only a week later and I’m getting on great, I’m learning all sorts things about programming languages, so much so that I’m having a hard time picking which material to cover in my training.

So thank you Dave for your inspirational word, sorry it took so long. And thank you Trev for your help and guidance. I finally get it.

Coding left handed

I’m a long time sufferer of RSI. From the age of nine I’ve spent my life playing video games, riding a bike, playing a guitar or working at a computer. The numbness and tingling started to appear around the age of 17 and has gradually become easier and easier to trigger. I consider myself lucky that I’ve got full use of both hands at the age of thirty, but I’ve always known that full blown carpel tunnel syndrome is probably in my future.

That’s not to say that I don’t try to keep it at bay. I do little stretches, exercises, take lots of breaks and ease up when symptoms appear. I have a powerball that I use as my primary method of rehabilitation, I find it’s by far the most effective treatment for RSI. I practice good typing and playing techniques and try to favour ergonomics where I can but my hands are degrading slowly.

Thursday I woke with a pain in my right hand. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, it’s the final week of the semester, I’ve got a lot of work to finish and exams coming up. I need to be able to type at full speed for the next few weeks. I have regular spells of RSI but its never been anywhere near this bad.

By Friday night the pain was crippling. I was struggling to hold my fork at dinner time. I can’t lift, grip, type or really do anything with that hand, it’s very frustrating. Saturday morning the pain had eased enough for me to be able to have quick session with my powerball. It helped immensely but normally the powerball takes a few days to restore my hands from mild RSI, I suspect that this time it may take quite a bit longer. One of the biggest problems with the condition is that if I just take pain killers and power through with the rest of my work then the damage accelerates.

So for the foreseeable future I’ve not much choice but to rest the right hand and favour the left thankfully I’ve got an abundance of dictation options. I trust that writing and coding left handed wont affect the quality too much.
Lets just hope my left hand doesn’t shut down as well.

For more information on RSI you can start here. http://www.rsi.org.uk/

Placement

This year I have the option to do up to one year in work placement. My award is a little strange in that the placement for me is optional. If I can’t find one I just transfer to the award that doesn’t require a placement and that’s that.

I initially jumped onto the placement bandwagon with enthusiasm. I’m getting such good feedback from the University that I figured I’d surely be able to find a good placement pretty early on. As time goes on however, I’m not finding this is at all the case.

The biggest problem it seems is me, or more specifically, my living situation. I can’t just up sticks and move like most students can, I’ve got a house and childcare issues. All the best placements for software development seem to be in Reading, Leamington Spa or London, that’s simply to far for me to commute. So I’m limited to the west midlands where the pickings, software wise, are pretty slim.

I polished up my CV and applied to everyone who was looking for something even remotely software orientated. Out of something like 20 applications I’ve only had a couple of interviews. Neither of them came to anything. One gave me no feedback at all and the other one told me to come back in a couple of months and then filled the position that I was supposed to come back for.

It’s like being back on the job hunt, only weirder. Where as before, if I wasn’t completely ignored by employers I was at least treated like a professional. It was assumed that I had the skills appropriate for the job and was occasionally asked to elaborate.
Going for a placement is all together more soul destroying. You still stand just as much chance at being ignored but now the interviewers treat you like, well… a student. I’ve been given full blown exams and hour long sessions of critically assessed programming. It’s stressful to say the least.

In their defence I’ve now had the pleasure of working with a variety of students for a couple of years and have, in that time, managed two group projects. If I was in there shoes I’d be testing candidates as well.

This week I had an interview for a role that I would be perfect for. All of my interests and experience are right on the money and the company is next door to the university. When interview day came I was quite nervous about what potential challenges awaited me, so much that I’d spend the days before pouring over all my past work trying to think of everything that I might be asked about or tested on. I even brushed up in my objective c, c# and c++ just to be safe.

As interviews go however this was about the most normal interview I’ve had since starting my degree. I was a relaxed and respectful and professional conversation. It was all very much, “This is what we do, this is what we want.” “This is what I’ve done, this what why I’m the man for the job.” a very familiar format and welcome relief from what I’ve come to expect from placement hunting.

I used to have a real knack for interviews. My trouble has always been getting my CV through to interview stage, without a degree it’s nearly impossible. There was a time when I could proudly state that if I got through to interview, then the job was mine. I seem to have lost that skill somewhere along the way. Maybe it’s just that I’m up against a higher calibre of competition now, I dunno.

I’m waiting to hear back from that interview them and I’m hopeful. Aside my compulsively pointing out every little bug or imperfection in my apps as I talked about them, I didn’t say anything that would have outright blown the interview. I was relaxed, professional and well prepared the whole way through. It’s nice to come away from the interview feeling good about it for a change. I’ve got another interview on the horizon as well so I’m not readying my award transfer papers just yet.