I got a great engineering and computer science education from some of the best institutions in the world. Then when I arrived at my first job they had to re-teach me everything important. The important stuff, you'll learn on the job. If you're still in school, seek work-study programs and get a summer job. Seek apprenticeships. If you have the good fortune of being in Finland or another culture that supports work and study at the same time, take advantage of it.
Learning the facts and theory behind engineering concepts is a starting point. It’s important to have the “Aha!” moment when you can truly appreciate a newly learned idea in a simple and direct way. But to make the idea useful, and certainly to take it to its height of value, requires practice. Good practice leads to habitual action. The more that habit guides work, the more your mind is free to focus on increasingly higher levels of accomplishment.
Practice, while literally meaning repetitive exercise, usually implies activities in a safe environment. You practice first, then do the real thing. Sometimes it’s a good idea to hone your skills outside the critical path, and that’s why it’s sometimes good to take a bit of your profession into your hobbies. You’ll find that it comes naturally, anyhow.
But application itself is practice. You become a better negotiator by negotiating. You become better at working with people by working with people. You become a better writer by writing.
Good practice also goes hand-in-hand with reflection, introspection, and feedback. Actions can become so habitual that we entirely lose awareness of them, so it can be hard to notice about whether practice has led to improvement. Take some time to get outside of yourself and reflect on your progress. More importantly, solicit others’ feedback on your performance.
Practice is both about achieving and sustaining excellence. Don’t forget to focus on the fundamentals: great baseball and tennis players always return to the bare basics when they are in a slump.
It takes focus and dedication to achieve and sustain excellence. Because most of us are below average in at least half of those hundred things that we do, we could expend a lot of energy on the lackluster 50. That doesn’t leave much time for polishing the other 50. Partly because of the technical precision inherent to its work, and partly because of its artistic overtones, engineering cultures tend to value excellence over competence. Focus on weaknesses that you can improve, but do so within the realm of your strengths and passions.
Mary Poppendieck urges us to Deliberate Practice — one of her favorite speaking topics. Mary suggests:
In the nature vs. nurture debate, researchers have declared nurture the winner. People who excel are the ones who work the hardest; it takes 10+ years of deliberate practice to become an expert. Deliberate practice is not about putting in hours, it’s about working to improve performance. It does not mean doing what you are good at; it means challenging yourself under the guidance of a teacher.
It’s the deliberate notion here that is important. Whether within or outside the critical path, consciously focus on technique and seek the feedback that will make you better and better.
In practical terms, take up programming as a hobby. Encourage your boss to let you explore, refine, and practice your skills at work. Attend or organize design and programming dojos, design contests, or other activities that deliberately drive you to practice in your work skill set.
Don’t ever get out of practice.