Don't just write code
This post originally appeared on the Fronteers advent calender (in Dutch).
The new year is slowly approaching. Time to look back on the past year and set resolutions for next one. For me this usually means confirming I didn’t really achieve what I wanted to achieve, ending with a well-spirited “but next year will be my year.” But this year will be different!
Because one of this year’s resolutions was to start writing more. Not because I fancy myself a writer, but because of all the things involved in writing: organizing your thoughts and telling a story. These are skills I could really use some exercise in, and in this post I’ll try to explain why.
… or maybe not? You probably recognize this scenario: a project is failing and you try to convince your team or management to go in a new direction. You fail at convincing them, the project ultimately fails, and in hindsight your idea might have been better. There’s a bit of cheap satisfaction in saying “I told you so!”, but that wouldn’t be helping anybody.
Now, I don’t think I’m always right — being together with my wife for 11 years has put an end to that illusion —, but every time an “I told you so” occurred I felt I could have presented my story more clearly. Usually I’m pretty capable of reasoning about problems and solutions, but translating my thoughts into a string of coherent sentences has never been my strong suit. Of course it will be hard for people to listen.
Most of these times it would have at least helped if I had collected my thoughts on paper: it would have allowed me to have a look from the outside and catch any questions and problems before presenting. Not only would I have had a clearer story to tell; I’d also be better prepared for an argument.
Writing things down doesn’t come naturally to me: I rarely take notes and I try to retain as much information as possible inside my head alone. Up until college this ‘system’ performed wonderfully, so there wasn’t really a reason to change. But with age come more responsibilities, and with more responsibilities comes more stuff to remember. And there’s a hard cap on how much information a brain can juggle at a time.
That’s when I started writing down all ‘simple’ things I had to remember — todo items, appointments, etc. — and it really helps with reducing my stress levels. Now I’m expanding into writing about things I’ve learned and about ideas I have, hoping it will clear my mind even more. Interesting conference visit? Write about it! Have a vague idea about how writing can improve your life? Write about it!
Don’t just take my word for it. Check out The Psychological Benefits of Writing for a post on — you guessed it — the benefits of writing, with links to research results.
You might wonder how any of this has anything to do with code, but consider this: a huge part of our work has nothing to to with code. Software development is communication and creativity, and there are many ways to get better at it outside of coding.
So I’ll keep writing, and this is my starting point. Just in time to check off one of my 2018 resolutions. Happy holidays!