Deliberate Practice

It’s easy to assume, as software engineers, that there is little need to “practice” writing code. After all, we write code all day long! Just by writing a little each day, we’re constantly learning and getting better, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

Of course, developers do improve with experience. Each time we encounter a problem we’re more likely to avoid it next time. If we’re in a team that deploys software early and often, we hone and improve the deployment process each time we practice it.

However, not all practice makes perfect. To develop true expertise requires a particular type of practice, deliberate practice, the only goal of which is to make us better programmers. Everyday software development has other constraints and goals, not least the pressure to deliver. We rarely get the chance in the course of a “sprint” to experiment with potential solutions that are outside our current comfort zone. However, if we believe that software is a craft then it’s our duty to strive continuously to raise the standard of software development. This requires specific and sustained efforts to get better at something we currently can’t do well (from Harvard Business Review July/August 2007).

One interesting way to introduce deliberate practice, in a sustainable way, is the code kata. The term kata derives from martial arts and refers to a set of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. One of the better-known examples is the Bowling Game kata by Bob Martin, the goal of which is simply to write some code to do the scoring for 10-pin bowling. It sounds too easy, right? What could we possibly learn from such a simple example?

Trust me, though, that it’s not as simple as five minutes of typing and a solution. Of course, we can reach a solution in a short time, but the important thing about code katas is that we explore each technique fully and in a controlled way. We tackle the same problem multiple times, using different techniques and making different decisions, understanding the ramifications of each one, and exploring edge cases. The short feedback loop optimizes opportunities to learn.

Another good example is Conway’s Game of Life. It’s a simple problem to solve, but try solving it in a functional style. If you’re used to mutability, solving the problem without mutating state will push you outside of your comfort zone. Similarly, if you try to solve it with the focus of “tell-don’t-ask“, how will the responsibilities of each object change?

As software engineers, we don’t get enough opportunities to explore new ideas. In the middle of a development cycle, we can’t suddenly start experimenting on the team’s code base. Code katas offer an opportunity to explore new techniques in a safe environment.

If you’re still skeptical, my challenge to you is simply to try it out. Convince a willing colleague to pair with you and work through a kata or two. It only takes an hour and I’m willing to bet you learn a few new things each time. The next step is to make it a sustainable team practice. Start with an hour every Friday afternoon (after all who wants to commit code to production just before they leave for the weekend?) for month and see how that works out.

Finally, consider signing up for the Global Day of Code Retreat. It’s like a daylong code kata, it’s on December 8th and there’s probably an event in your area!