On Recording Growth - Studying vs Building

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My career choice is a software engineer, a knowledge-based career. While it is easy to show a product for the time I spend writing software, it isn't so easy for time studying it. With studied knowledge, I may be able to hold more intelligent discussions about software engineering, but if I disappear tomorrow, will my time investment in reading about it have any lasting impact on the world around me? No - all that knowledge is locked inside my head. This is where blogging can be so important, and why I value it.

From Studying to Building

I haven't been blogging much lately, which doesn't please me. Why haven't I been blogging? When I was regularly blogging, the process was composed of spending time studying software topics, then transferring my realizations into blog posts. A month or two ago, I started writing a software tool to help develop and deploy Force.com code, and I stopped studying software topics. I haven't completed a useful piece of software before, not including the one-off solutions I write for my job, and I wanted to test my abilities to see if I am able to actually write something useful on my own. As I continued with the project, I found my abilities to be lacking, which surprised and angered me.

And so my obsession was triggered. If I can't write a simple little software tool like this, can I really call myself a skilled software engineer? I think I can't. A simple tool like this shouldn't be so difficult, and yet I can't finish it or reach a useful state! When I'm not banging my head against my laptop screen in frustration when hacking on this code, I'm thinking about how the failed project trumpets my ineptitude. Since starting, it has consumed most of my free evenings, and my obsession with this code leaves me unable to study the higher aspects of software engineering, leaving me with no material for my blog. If only I can finish this program, I will have evidence that I can write useful software, and I will be able to forget the huge time investment I made.

Expectations of Studying vs Building

Stepping back to see this, I find myself at a crossroads, deciding which road to choose in the future. Should I be a higher-level software engineer, concerned with small steps of enlightenment that are easily serialized into blog posts, or should I be a software hacker, who gains skills writing real software but has difficulty serializing gained knowledge in blog posts?

Or am I drawing another false dichotomy? Probably so. So how is studying different from building, such that I feel like time can be wasted in one but not the other? The time spent building a program that can't be finished and can't be used - is is time wasted? It sure feels like wasted time when you don't reach your expectations and feel like a failure. Contrast this with pure study; When you study something, you are searching for answers to questions, rarely committed enough to feel failure. So perhaps this is the only difference between the two - expectations.

This will be the conclusion from today's introspection. Either study or building is a valid way to grow, learn, and improve, but building may have the ability to cause deeper emotions.