Non-Trad Software Engineer

It happened gradually, and it wasn't entirely an intentional thing, but at some point I became a software engineer. While a lot of people become software engineers, many of them have formal backgrounds in engineering, or have taken classes or done programs to support this retooling (e.g. bootcamps or programming institutes.)

I skipped that part.

I wrote scripts from time to time for myself, because there were things I wanted to automate. Then I was working as a technical writer and had to read code that other people had written for my job. Somewhere in there I was responsible for managing the publication workflow, and write a couple of build systems.

And then it happened.

I don't think it's the kind of thing that is right for everyone, but I was your typical, nerdy/bookish kid who wasn't great in math class, and I suspect that making software is the kind of thing that a lot of people could do. I don't think that my experience is particularly replicable, but I have learned a number of useful (and important) things, and I realize as I've started writing more about what I'm working on now, I realize that I've missed some of the fundamentals [1]

Formal education in programming, from what I've been able to gather strikes me as really weird: there are sort of two main ways of teaching people about software and computer science: Option one is that you start with a very theoretical background that focuses on data structures, the performance of algorithms, or the internals of how core technologies function (operating systems, compilers, databases, etc.) Option two, is that you spend a lot of time learning about (a) programming language and about how to solve problems using programming.

The first is difficult, because the theory [2] is not particularly applicable except invery rare cases and only at the highest level which is easy to back-fill as needed. The second is also challenging, as idioms change between languages and most generic programming tasks are easily delegated to libraries. The crucial skill for programming is the ability to learn new languages and solve problems in the context of existing systems, and developing a curriculum to build those skills is hard.

The topics that I'd like to write about include:

  • Queue behavior, particularly in the context of distributed systems.
  • Observability/Monitoring and Logging, particularly for reasonable operations at scale.
  • build systems and build automation.
  • unit-testing, test automation, and continuous integration.
  • interface design for users and other programmers.
  • maintaining and improving legacy systems.

These are, of course, primarily focused on the project of making software rather than computer science or computing in the abstract. I'm particularly interested (practically) in figuring out what kinds of experiences and patterns are important for new programmers to learn, regardless of background. [3] I hope you all find it interesting as well!

[1]This is, at least in part, because I mostly didn't blog very much during this process. Time being finite and all.
[2]In practice, theoretical insights come up pretty infrequently and are mostly useful for providing shorthand for characterizing a problem in more abstract terms. Most of the time, you're better off intuiting things anyway because programming is predominantly a pragmatic exercise. For the exceptions, there are a lot of nerds around (both at most companies and on the internet) who can figure out what the proper name is for a phenomena and then you can look on wikipedia.
[3]A significant portion of my day-to-day work recently has involved mentoring new programmers. Some have traditional backgrounds or formal technical education and many don't. While everyone has something to learn, I often find that because my own background is so atypical it can be hard for me to outline the things that I think are important, and to identify the high level concepts that are important from more specific sets of experiences.
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