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Sunday, September 18, 2016

A new programmer's attitude should be like an artist's or musician's

Last year I gave a talk at a CS education conference in Seattle called "Drawing Inspiration from the Teaching of Art".   That talk was aimed at educators and said that historically CS education was based on that of math and/or physics and that was a mistake and we should instead base it on art.   I expected a lot of pushback but many of the attendees had a "duh-- I have been doing that for 20 years" reaction.

This short post is aimed at students of CS but pursues the same theme.   If you were an art or music student your goal would be to be good at ONE THING in TEN YEARS.   If a music student that might be signing, composition, music theory, or playing a particular instrument.   Any one of those things is very hard.   Your goal would be to find that one thing you resonate with and then keep pushing your skills with lots and lots of practice.  Sure you could become competent in the other areas, but your goal is to be a master of one.   Similarly as an artist you would want to become great at one thing be it printmaking, painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture, or art theory.   Maybe you become great at two things but if so you are a Michelangelo style unicorn and more power to you.

Even if you become great at one thing, you become great at it in your own way.    For example in painting Monet wanted Sargent to give up using black.   It is so good that Sargent didn't do that.   This painting with Monet's palette would not be as good.   And Monet wouldn't have wanted to do that painting anyway!

Computer Science is not exactly art or music, but the underlying issues are the same.   First, it is HARD.   Never forget that.   Don't let some CS prof or brogrammer make you think you suck at it because you think it's hard.   Second you must become master of the tools by both reading/listening and playing with them.   Most importantly find the "medium" and "subject" where you have some talent and where it resonates with you emotionally.   If you love writing cute UI javascript tools and hate writing C++ graphics code, that doesn't make you a flawed computer scientist.   It is a gift in narrowing your search for your technical soul mate.   Love Scheme and hate C# or vice-versa.   That is not a flaw but again is another productive step on your journey.   Finally, if you discover an idiosyncratic methodology that works for you and gets lots of pushback, ignore the pushback.   Think van Gogh.    But keep the ear-- at the end of the day, CS is more about what works :)