September 11, 2019
This weekend was an anniversary of sorts for me. Exactly one year ago Saturday was my last day in a job and career I’d been building since graduating school (admittedly, there were a number of turns already, but the direction was more or less the same). Unemployed for the first time since I was an undergraduate, I enrolled in a bootcamp with the aim of becoming a software engineer (spoiler: it worked—but that’s a story for another time). It was with that in mind that I found myself celebrating my friend Devan’s wedding and listening to her sister, Mckenzie, toast Devan and her groom, Thomas.
Ostensibly Mckenzie was speaking to Devan and Thomas (she was), but it felt like Mckenzie was speaking directly to me too and I’ve been turning her words in my mind ever since. (That’s either an endorsement of Mckenzie’s ability to make everyone feel like the center of attention or my narcissism—I’m voting for the former, though the jury’s out.)
Mckenzie, a nurse, told the newlyweds that nurses aren’t considered an expert in their practice for at least five years. They may be competent after three years, two if they’re exceptional. Before that, they’re novices. Engineering is a hierarchical profession. While there’s little concept of tenure as a mark of expertise, the difference in status between a junior and a senior engineer is immense. (A friend refers to juniors as early-career, which I like, but while it softens the message, the gap remains.) With that in mind, I found Mckenzie’s message immensely reassuring. Sure, the idea that expertise cannot be achieved quickly is less accepted within engineering than in nursing—that doesn’t mean it’s not right.
Learning takes time. Some people can go faster than others. I know I’m trying. Still, some things just take reps and exposure to a variety of situations. Medicine’s a fantastic example in this. Why do doctors need three to seven years of training after medical school? Because doctors need a variety of cases to begin to see the pattern. Because knowing the answer and being able to do it are not the same. Just because we say coding’s different doesn’t mean it is.
A year ago, I could not have described what I know today. Literally, I did not know the words. I’m at the point where I sometimes know the answer. Every time I am able to look at code and know what it means or write a program that works as expected the first time, I’m giddy. This time last year, the simplest programs could have been written in Greek for all of the meaning I could get out of them. I would spend hours writing simple loops and trying to understand how reducing an array worked.
The fact that I’m still learning new things every single day is all the evidence I need that I still have so much further to go. Maybe it won’t take five years. Maybe it will. All I really know is that so much can happen in a year that it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict it.
A year ago, I was in a different industry, a different career, and a different job. A year ago, I didn’t know how to swim or row. A year ago, I wrote 1-2 times a month, not 5-6 times a week. A year ago, I barely knew how to write a “Hello World” application.
This past year has been such a blessing. It’s also just the beginning. I like to say I’m the luckiest man in the world. I mean it. Here’s to being a novice—just not forever.
Thanks for reading! My name's Stephen Weiss. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn.
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