I’ve grown to seek the satisfaction of grinding single-handedly through unfamiliar code, unhelpful error logs, mysterious core dumps, and emerging alone & victorious. The majority of my software development work over the last 11 years has been as a solo engineer, where there was really no one else to turn to. In that time I’ve almost never been truly stumped by a problem, but sometimes at the expense of days of research, debugging, and backtracking. I am very used to digging in and solving difficult issues — on my own.
My last few years at the Walker we finally hired an awesome developer who was able to tell me I was optimizing too soon, and me to tell him he was refactoring too soon. Turned out he was further on the liberal end of Steve Yegge’s software engineering political axis than I was, but with that understanding we both pushed each other and did better work.
Working now as part of a legitimate team, it’s a different game. Individual software politics are largely washed out by the slightly conservative lean of the language (Java), and with competent engineers around who are deeply familiar with the codebase the idea of struggling for days on a single issue is just crazy talk.
It’s turning out to be a difficult habit to break! Luckily, twitter provided a well-timed article by Matt Ringel on the Akamai blog: You Must Try, and then You Must Ask. It made me question the use of my time, and address my fear of “pestering”: if I recognize being legitimately stuck, give it 15 more minutes including documenting and rethinking, then that very process precludes the rapid fire cries for help that become pestering. It also requires an earlier “refactor” of my approach, which is often exactly what’s needed.
I’m curious how many engineer career transitions are from a team to solo or vice versa, and if I would now be able to take some of these techniques with me as a lone developer. It seems like a valuable process, even if the “You Must Ask” phase becomes “Post on StackOverflow and come back tomorrow.” Something to think about for those of you still slogging along alone!