Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Excellence

I fancy myself pretty good at C. Not great, but pretty good. I can find my way around source code, I can write from scratch, I can debug with the most average of them. I'm handy in a variety of ways and I eat source code for breakfast.

This didn't happen in college. This didn't happen in high school. This didn't happen in freaking grade school. I have been programming since I was 6. I started off with AppleSoft BASIC on an Apple IIc knockoff (Laser 128c was the correct answer for those of you playing the home game). After AppleSoft BASIC it was GW-BASIC on the 8088 and QuickBASIC on the 286 and up. But roundabouts high school I decided I had to learn C - because that was the language that grownups used. So I bought a C book (the right one as it turns out - if you want to learn C get this book first), downloaded DJGPP and got to work!

I'm having a computer weekend (putting a computer whose hard drive failed back into working order) so I'm going through old files looking for utilities and just plain reminiscing. I decided to see what my old C code looked like.

Oh God, it's awful.

It's terrible. Here's an example (with some helpful comments from future Steve):

fseek (readfile,0,SEEK_END); //Set starting point to end
size = ftell(readfile); //Find file size
fseek (readfile,0,SEEK_SET); //Set starting point to start

//FS - Seriously? Is there no better way of getting the size of a file?

//FS - Oh god, who gave me malloc?

readfiledata = malloc(size); //Allocate memory for char

printf("Filename is %s\n", argv[1]);
printf("Size is %d\n", size);
printf("Copied %s to steve.tmp\n", argv[1]);

//FS - WHAT?! WHAT?! Index of -1?


//FS - SERIOUSLY!? Is there no easier way to get all the data in an array? Did you not look?

readfiledata[i] = fgetc(readfile); //FS - OH GOD YOU ACCESSED INDEX -1 OF AN ARRAY!

In case you were wondering, I used malloc() and, no, there is no corresponding free() call. I relied on the fact that the OS would free the memory once the program exited. There were variables defined in .h files (no, not extern defines, plain old defines). There were what should have been arrays of constant strings were 'initialized' using sprintf (copy constant to string) rather than just initializing them when the array was defined (as any normal person would do).

And the best part is that the whole program I made basically amounted to a regular expressions parser. All I needed to do was remove images and other formatting from HTML files so they'd be easier to print off and use less ink. That could have been done a lot easier.

This was 1999. So, becoming average takes at least 12 years of constant use of a skill - and I still screw up. Looking at this I can see a lot of myself in new grads coming out of college - the same mistakes, the same assumptions, the same basic design assumptions that end up making bad code (even if it runs). It falls in line with Malcom Gladwell as he writes in Outliers: if you do something for 10,000 hours you'll be great at it. It's not necessarily innate skill, it's practice, practice, practice. It's why I'm a professional programmer and not a professional trombone player - I just code a whole lot more than I play trombone.

So knowing this I can see where new grads come from - hey, they haven't had 10,000 hours of programming, they probably haven't had 10,000 hours of anything engineering related from their college experience. 10,000 hours is 3.5 years at 8 hours a day and that's just for one skill. Engineering is a whole plethora and if you don't know where your career is taking you, why bother practicing one skill over another?

That's my strawman argument - I don't agree with it. My question is - if you know you won't have you 10,000 hours in whatever you want to be good at by the time you graduate college (and by extension, be able to show some really awesome work to a prospective employer) why didn't you start earlier? Did you plan to be average? To be right in the middle of the pack, to not stand out? To be, essentially, replaceable by any other member of your graduating class? Did you plan to go out into the job market and have a big corporation tell you what you should be good at instead of deciding it yourself? Didn't you get into engineering for a reason?

I see people on both sides of this question and you can tell them apart right away in an interview. The people who don't know why they're engineers - the ones who didn't start early excelling at something they loved and wanted to do - come to a job interview and basically want you to tell them what kind of career they should have. They hit the middle of the road for all of their classes - probably picked whatever electives were the most popular because they didn't really care about the difference, didn't have an opinion on what they wanted, didn't find anything particularly exciting and just followed their friends into a class. Their senior projects were whatever they were assigned and they just sort of did them. They don't speak about them with passion, they just wanted to graduate and they needed a project, so they did it. And they're not dumb - a lot of them have 4.0 GPAs for what its worth. But since they didn't know what they wanted to do they never got in-depth on anything. They never really put together the pieces that every single topic in electrical engineering is inexorably linked to every other. Analog circuits mean differential equations, considerations of bandwidth, frequency response, frequency content of waveforms, Fourier Series, linear algebra, matrix equations and any other number of fields of study. The coursework isn't a checklist, it's a symphony of learning. But if you don't have passion it is just a checklist. Mom and dad want you to be an engineer. You're smart, so you do well in classes and you graduate with a high GPA. You go for a job at a big corporation and they grind you into whatever kind of employee/engineer they want. Yay for you - you're average.

But the ones who have passion and drive and love what they've done - they stand out immediately as well. They had a definite plan when they went to college. They'll tell you how they took apart TVs when they were a kid (good Lord it's dangerous - let your kids do it but make sure those capacitors are discharged) or how they wrote dumb little computer games in Visual Basic to entertain themselves. They just won't shut up about their senior project or whatever personal projects they have if they haven't started their senior project. Their eyes light up when you suggest ways they could improve their project ('Ooooh my God... I wish we could go back and work on that more - I'd make it so much better!') or they kept working on it themselves after they graduated. They've learned weird programming languages for fun. In essence, they love what they do and they just won't stop doing it. They don't ask you for direction, they tell you - I'm this kind of engineer and I love doing it, do you need me? And the answer is usually yes, we need you.

So essentially the choice is yours: You can be average or excellent. There is certainly a long road between the two, but you have the choice to take the journey and practice practice practice. And if you find out that whatever you had your eye on doesn't really interest you then fine - move your target, pick something else. Excel at something. Hell, maybe you'll have 10,000 hours of random junk you've practiced. That's okay - it makes you an excellent generalist. Don't just sit around and play video games - ply your craft. I guarantee there's a payoff even though it's a long way down the road. Yes, a very long way. But it's worth it.


JGord said...

Your expectation for excellence by graduation leaves little room for diverse interests or simply late bloomers. I know I am the kind of person you are trying to target because I do tons of side projects from 3D POV displays to information entropy packing algorithms. However, I was not even aware of the internet until around 9th grade, and didn't get started with hardware hacking until my sophomore year of college. As a result I will be graduating with a Masters in EE next year with significantly less than 10k hours in any related field except for logical thinking. Not everyone gets started so young regardless of how passionate they are.

Steve said...

You do tons of side projects involving 3D POV displays and entropy packing algorithms? I don't even know all the words in that sentence. I don't think you need to worry about whether the path you're taking leads to excellence in a given field. You don't necessarily need to have arrived by the time you ask for a job, but it's often clear which people are on their way towards excellence and who is just marking time looking for someone else to give them direction.