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Thoughts On Learning New Things
Jef Claes published an interesting post about his preferred way of learning new things. There's one part in the post that I don't entirely agree with:
I like to believe learning should be a hands-on activity as well. Basically, stop consuming, start producing. Don't get me wrong, I do think there is value in reading blog posts (I might be slightly biased on this one), reading books and watching videos, but I find that this value is marginal compared to what you gain by actually doing it.
Hands-on activity (producing) is certainly a very important part of any learning process, but I wouldn't go as far saying that the value of reading books/blogs (consuming) is marginal compared to that of producing. In fact, I believe their value to be pretty equal. I've seen too many people who start producing simple things, and then think they've got a pretty good grasp of the technology they're using and then move on to producing more complex or bigger things without actually knowing enough of the technology they're using to support the more complex or bigger scenarios. The results certainly aren't always pretty and I'm sure each and every one of you has seen this scenario unfold with at least one developer you know. Probably more than that even.
I think in a lot of cases, people start the producing phase perhaps a bit too early and then in their enthusiasm of seeing things working sort of skip the more boring consuming that could've benefitted them a lot. Once you've started producing, you need to keep consuming regularly. A tremendously valuable part of any learning experience is getting feedback and insight from minds that have more experience with a given subject than yours. If you're lucky, you can get this from your coworkers. If you're not that lucky, you'll need to find other sources and books, blogs, videos, user group meetings, etc can be a great way to fill that void. And even if you do get to learn a lot from your coworkers, it never hurts to learn more from the experiences of others outside of your immediate circle, if only because their situations and constraints will differ from yours as well.
The other very important part about consuming is really getting to know the technology you're trying to learn. I've always found it very important to at least get an idea of how things work internally within a technology that I'm using. You certainly don't need to know all of the implementation details but just having an idea of it can really help you avoid a lot of problems once you need to use a technology in a more advanced way than in your initial experiments. Most importantly, it should give you better insights as to whether you're using the technology properly, which unfortunately isn't always the same as getting something working. And as a bonus, you'll probably learn about features you won't immediately need but knowing that they're there can save quite a bit of time and effort later on. Just imagine the improvement of the signal-to-noise ratios that you'd see on mailinglists, forums, and StackOverflow if everyone took the time to get a better grasp of the technologies they're using.
When I start with learning new libraries or frameworks, I usually start off by reading most (and often, all) of the official documentation of the technology before I even get into building something myself. If I want to learn a new programming language I'll look for the most recommended books for that language and buy one (or more, if I wasn't satisfied with the first one). I won't even start using the language until I've gone through the book. Once I feel like I've got a pretty good theoretical grasp of the technology, I start building something with it. I also start looking for good blogs on the technology and subscribe to them. I'll also start following influential people of the technology on Twitter. And I just continuously try to soak up as much knowledge as I can from people who're doing more impressive things with the technology than I am. At first, you might not understand everything they're talking about but after a while, things just start clicking and you're getting a really good grasp of things. None of this is a substitute for learning from producing, but it certainly is an incredible addition to it. And one that makes a world of difference, IMO.
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