A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Seattle area for work reasons. I took the opportunity to meet up with a lot of smart folks, including some working on the Reactive Extensions team and the C# team. I asked pretty much the same question of almost everyone:
How is Microsoft intending to make developers smarter?
Let me explain what I mean a bit more clearly…
Now, let me be quite clear: I only have visibility of a small section of the community. In particular, I get to see:
- Comments from blog readers
- Questions and answers on Stack Overflow
- MSDN forum posts (typically the Code Contracts and Reactive Extensions forums, and then only occasionally)
- Random emails, often from C# in Depth readers
- User group and conference attendees
Intuition would suggest that these are some of the more interested developers. Not necessarily the smartest, but ones who are at least engaged with the community. It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a regular company – I don’t think Google engineers are representative of software engineers as a whole – so I’m not going to suggest I have a good grasp of how able the "disengaged" engineers are. I doubt that they’re significantly smarter though.
My concern is that some of the new technologies that I’m getting excited by (in particular Parallel Extensions, Code Contracts and Reactive Extensions) may make it easier for awesome people to write awesome code – but leave everyone else behind. Even though I’m excited about Reactive Extensions, I still regularly get confused by it – this is partly a matter of thin documentation (a natural corollary of an API which is still under development; I’m sure it will improve markedly over time) but partly because a push model is simply harder to think about.
What can we do about it?
Taking Reactive Extensions as an example, how is anyone going to learn about Reactive Extensions to such a degree that they can really use it productively, rather than just for experimentation?
As I see it there are currently five main ways of disseminating information:
User groups and conferences
These are good for getting people interested – but they’re not really great at deep dives. To be absolutely cynical about it, I think they’re better at entertaining than educating. To be slightly more positive, they can be good at inspiring people to look further for themselves… but unless you have a relatively long session or start off with developers who already have a fair amount of experience in the topic, I don’t think they’re a great way of imparting detailed information. (Organisers of such events, please note that this is in no way a condemnation of events in general. I’m still interested in speaking at them – I just question their ability to create experts.)
I have little experience of training courses – it could be that they’re highly effective – but they clearly don’t scale in terms of getting information to a wide audience. As training companies make their money by getting people to the courses in person, they’re unlikely to provide videos of the training to let everyone take advantage of an individual tutor’s experience. We can hope for a network effect here and in some of the other options, of course – an expert trains a novice, the novice gains experience and then trains other novices in their company. There’s a risk of truth dilution, but at least this has the possibility of reaching those who would otherwise never voluntarily learn about new technologies.
Blogs can be effective, but are difficult to navigate and often outdated. The "navigation" problem is one of picking the right course through the posts in order to try to get a well-rounded knowledge of the subject in an appropriate order.
To give a concrete example, a large amount of the information available in C# in Depth is covered in significantly more detail in Eric Lippert’s blog – which is great for those who already know enough to read it, but it doesn’t provide a 1, 2, 3 experience for learning C# 2-4. (Aside: Over time I’ve been coming to the conclusion that treating a subject "in the round" with a carefully considered ordering is the primary feature of tech books these days – you can almost always find more detailed, accurate and timely information online if you know what you’re looking for.)
I’ve been tremendously impressed at the Microsoft developer blog output in the last few years. There are many well-written, informative and enlightening blogs out there, which can certainly go a long way to filling an educational void. Right at this minute, it feels like they’re probably the most effective teaching tool in this list… but it somehow feels wrong to try to learn a new technology from scratch from a blog. It’s easy to get caught up in details and miss the big picture.
Is there a market for third parties collating blog posts into effective teaching material? I don’t just mean "link blogs" – but well-maintained and organised sequences of posts designed to teach particular topics… possibly with extra explanatory posts to provide extra cohesion. Is there sufficient coverage of basic topics in blogs, or are most bloggers aiming at developers who are already experienced in the topic in question? Answers on a postcard…
Books have problems of freshness and detail, as mentioned before. There’s also a problem of readership – I’m not convinced that books have a wide enough reach these days. I suspect this is largely because blogs do a good enough job in many areas, and also because technology often moves faster than a book market can keep up. Of course this ends up being a cycle to some extent – with fewer and fewer readers, top authors will have more incentive to blog than to write books, so the overall quality could drop, leading to fewer book readers etc. I’m not going to pretend to know enough about the book market to make concrete predictions – but it does concern me.
(I’m not particularly bothered in terms of my own income – I’ve never been writing C# in Depth for the money, although of course that provides more incentive for "polish". I wouldn’t have put in as much editorial work in a purely amateur capacity. There’s a very strange motivational force going on when it comes to tech writing and publishing. That’s possibly a seed for another post some time.)
Will there be a book teaching how to think about push sequences and use Reactive Extensions effectively? Maybe. Heck, I’d potentially be interested in writing one – if only to understand it better myself. Would it reach all the people who could benefit from it though? I’m more dubious about that.
Documentation and tutorials
This is probably the most traditional and widespread route to knowledge of new technologies. Does it cut it? I simply don’t know. I can’t remember the last time I read docs in a "from scratch" mode – my experience is much more in reference mode. I’ve occasionally tried - but found either my patience or the documentation to be lacking. It’s entirely possible that my expectations and methods of learning have changed, and that that’s what’s gone wrong… but this may be a reasonably common phenomenon.
Again there’s a problem of reach – although it’s possible that as the most traditional form of learning, it’s possible that it has a greater reach into the non-community, if you see what I mean.
This has been somewhat rambly, partly because I’m demob-happy: I’m about to go to Athens on holiday with Holly for a few days. (Don’t expect any comments to be approved until Sunday.) It’s a real concern though, and one which goes way beyond the Microsoft technologies mentioned here.
The challenges faced in computing are growing, and so are the technologies trying to up us meet those challenges… but we need to grow too, in order to take advantage of what’s available.
I’m not pronouncing doom on the industry – but I’d like your thoughts on how we can keep up, and how we can help others to do likewise.