The pursuit of excellence in programming

As I write a series of thoughts on the pursuit of excellence in programming, I must preface my essay by asking you to ignore that I wrote these words. I invite you to evaluate the opinions and ideas presented here not ad hominem, but rather on the basis of their own merits. It would be easy to otherwise mistakenly dismiss them with the infamous question posed by Steve Jobs to a blogger: “What have you done that’s so great?”.

This is to say that I talk about the ambitious and noble goal of achieving excellence in programming, fully conscious of not having achieved said excellence. For the time being, I don’t feel like I can point my finger at something that would impress Steve Jobs (or less critical observers). I’m just a traveler on the journey of learning, with a desire to share his experiences and plans.

Two visions of intelligence

Mastering a complex discipline such as programming requires a great amount of learning over the course of several years, perhaps even decades. Maximizing one’s ability to learn is therefore an early investment that can quickly repay itself.

The biggest impact on my ability to learn was caused by a shift in the way I considered the matter of intelligence. There are mainly two ways to think about it. You can either consider intelligence to be a static, intrinsic ability or a more dynamic, cultivable characteristic of human beings.

Cognitive scientists and psychologists conclusively determined that people who perceived intelligence as a dynamic characteristic, outperformed and were more successful than people who internalized intelligence as an intrinsic, static ability.

It’s worth noting that it’s not really important whether intelligence can actually be developed through application. It’s the perception of it that forges students’ approach to learning.

This difference in perception is often conditioned by early parenting. Kids who are encouraged to work hard to achieve results and are praised on the basis of their effort, tend to develop a perception of intelligence and results as something they can work on. Other kids are conditioned to think that they are doing well because they are “smart” and that their intelligence alone will most likely lead them to success.

Society has a fascination with genius, and parents like to fancy their little ones to be several standard deviations better than the norm, but conditioning children this way has dangerous and counterproductive consequences.

Kids who are labeled and praised because of their “innate capabilities”, will often suffer from an overconfidence that will affect their ability to challenge themselves through the depths of the unknown, because they feel it would threaten their status. What if they fail? It would mean, in their eyes, that perhaps they are not the smart person they have been assumed to be all along. We all have seen such kids failing here and there, and quickly making excuses such as, “Oh, I wasn’t trying at all”.

A parent who is cultivating a kid’s interest in hard work, may be more likely to encourage their child with words such as, “It’s OK. Keep studying, and you’ll definitely do better next time”. A parent proposing a model of static intelligence, may justify their child’s failure in a given subject by concluding that “maybe you are not cut out for subject X”. [1]

When facing failure, the “static intelligence” child may crumble under the weight of his own demise, as if failure was a reflection of their intrinsic value rather than a temporary speed bump and occasion for growth. A “dynamic intelligence” child will simply try harder next time. Genius or not, excellence and mastery of any subject requires hard work and many “smart” kids fall short when the bar is raised high enough so that “smartness” alone won’t cut it anymore. This usually corresponds with the switch from high school to college.

I’m very familiar with all of this, because I was one of those kids. I was labeled by my parents and science teachers as a “genius”. Even psychologists at school, who came to help us figure out what careers we were better suited for, ended up telling me that I could pursue virtually any career (at the time I was interested in nuclear physics) and that according to their (virtually meaningless) IQ tests I would be classified as a “genius”.

Please note that the problem wasn’t so much the label. Most smart kids figure out that they are smart on their own rather quickly. The real problem was that I wasn’t taught the value of long-term intellectual effort. Effort itself was considered as being somewhat detrimental to my status. Not only was I supposed to succeed, but I supposedly had to do so without putting forth any effort (a “utopic” ambition).

One of the first example of this that I can remember is when my father “caught me studying” for a few hours the same book before a test in middle school. He told me something along the lines of “Why do you need to study? A genius like you should figure out the test without studying.”. It’s absurd, I know, and probably one of the dumbest things my — otherwise bright — father has ever told me. As a young kid though, such a statement can have a strong impact on you.

Another example has to do with Latin. My teacher was a palm reading, crazy cat lady and I had no respect for her from the start. So I didn’t pay attention in class, on top of not studying Latin at home, I set myself up for failure. When the first translation assignment came around, I got a mildly negative score. My less than professional teacher told me, “Oh I thought you were good, but I guess you are not”. Afterwards my father added to this by saying something along the lines of, “Well, don’t worry, I guess languages are not your strength.”.

Boom. That was enough for me to stop having any interest in Latin and completely ignore a subject at which I wasn’t excelling. Nobody could tell me, “You are stupid because you don’t understand Latin,” if I didn’t try at all. So I was the high school kid who did advanced Calculus stuff on his own for fun, when my classmates where struggling with Algebra, yet I pretty much sucked at Latin. (In retrospective, the thought patterns required to excel at Latin where not very different from those required to excel at math or mastering English as a second language. I suspect that had I put in some effort I could have been very good at, and actually enjoyed, the subject.)

Over the years I had to readjust this perception entirely. By falling on my face more than once, I learned that excellence is only achieved through a combination of talent and effort. The real genius may lie in the ability to put in thousands of hours of focused study and practice, in the pursuit of whatever one person is trying to learn and understand.

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all. — Michelangelo

By this new definition, I was a complete idiot who had to entirely learn from scratch how to appreciate the value of effort to hone and develop his “talent” (which is nothing but a seed on its own).

Learning to learn

Being very interested in programming, computer science, mathematics, and science in general, I decided at some point that I had to entirely change my attitude towards learning if I were to master any of those disciplines. Effort was now more important than intelligence on its own, and I would feel satisfied only when doing a really good job in the pursuit of something challenging, that couldn’t be achieved by sheer “talent”.

The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever. — Calogero ‘C’ Anello from A Bronx Tale

In the process, I started to internalize a few principles and I dealt with issues related to both the art of learning and the art of programming.

An awful feeling

There is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect [2], in which subjects who are inexperienced or less competent within a given discipline, tend to overestimate their abilities (they are in other words affected by illusory superiority [3]).

The other side of this coin is that the more you study, the more you realize how little you know and how much there is to know (a concept put forward by Socrates back in the days of Ancient Greece). This is both a pleasure and a discomfort. There is a huge amount of satisfaction in finding things out. Yet, being in doubt and fully aware of how little you know tends to be an unpleasant side effect all learners have to live with. Doubt truly is the water that’s fundamental for the growth of the flower of intellectual curiosity. [4]

My approach in this case is to embrace and dominate my ignorance and fears. Whenever there is a concept that I feel particularly ignorant about or that is way over my head, I try to tackle it as if my life depended on it. There are still countless things I’m ignorant about, but this approach as really paid off for me over the years.

If you are trying to learn a whole branch of computer science or mathematics, it will take a long time, so you may want to start first with smaller “fears” that can be mastered, at least at an introductory level, in a short amount of time. Rather than thinking, “Oh yeah, I should really learn Git”, for months, act on the thought. The essential knowledge to work with Git or Hg doesn’t take months to learn (assuming you have a need for either of these particular tools).

But you are in this for the long run, so don’t be afraid of improving your craft by studying advanced topics that require a bigger commitment in terms of time as well. There is no royal shortcut, mastery of our craft will require thousands of hours of dedicated study and practice.

Theory and practice

Masters of any intellectual discipline tend to have good working knowledge of both theoretical and practical aspects. Pursuing excellence in programming requires the study of many insightful books that will widen your view of the field and as a result necessarily improve your craft.

Working with books alone is not enough though. Programming requires writing and reading programs every day for years. That’s why I have a rule: I refuse to go to sleep if I haven’t read and written some code on a given day (this doesn’t include the code I write for work, of course). So far, this rule has had a positive impact on my ability to code.

It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied. — Mozart

Breadth Vs. Depth

As we progress in our journey towards the pursuit of excellence in programming, a question that will no doubt pester people’s minds is whether one should go for breadth of knowledge, or depth. There are countless programming languages, paradigms, methodologies, technologies, et cetera.

The truth of the matter is that if we are to become GrandMaster programmers, we cannot ignore either of them. In practice, depth has a much stronger impact in the way we construct software. It is through deep understanding that we can see the whole through the parts. There is therefore value in specializing in just a few languages and technologies, and really mastering them in-depth.

Getting things done in software development requires a certain pragmatism and proficiency with the tools at hand. There is no escaping it. Depth is therefore necessary, but not sufficient.

I find that the web is particularly good at covering the breadth aspect of things. There are always new and interesting areas I can learn about and experiment with. I don’t need a whole 600 page book to get a feeling for — or to better understand — certain technologies that are not crucial to my area of specialization.

While there are quite a few exceptions I could mention, I’d say that I tend to use the Internet as an aid for horizontal scaling of my knowledge, and books for vertical scaling. And again, more often than not, the depth level is mostly determined by the amount of time, practice and effort I put into it, rather than the media I’m using.

Where to find time

One of the objections I hear often, particularly when it comes to reading books is, “I don’t have time!”. In a few extreme cases, that may actually be true, but I think that most people severely underestimate how much time is “wasted” on a daily basis (even just surfing online).

Breaks are extremely important, and I’m not advocating any regime of incessant study. I simply know how crucial it is to be constant. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

My second rule is: I refuse to got sleep if I haven’t read at least a chapter of a book that day. Very often I get caught up in the book I’m reading or working through, and end up getting through much more than just one chapter (it really depends on the book, of course). But for me the rule is clear: no sleep allowed until one chapter has been read every day.

Try this approach and you’ll see that reading doesn’t have to take up much time, yet doing so you can still read several books (including technical ones) every month.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. — Aristotle

For certain books, it is convenient to have the book in PDF format on your computer, as you switch from the book to the editor/console and back. However, generally speaking the computer tends to be quite distracting and thoughts like “I’ll just check my email quickly” can easily lead to hours spent doing something else.

For this reason I prefer to read from a paper book which is also easier on the eyes for extensive reading after a day in front of a computer screen. Even if I’m using the computer at the same time to input code, the physical presence of a book next to my laptop is enough to remind me that I shouldn’t get distracted online. (For me the depth and focus required by books is also an antidote to the re-wiring that the web tends to do to our brains. [5])

By the way, a few days ago Amazon announced a gorgeous, brand new graphite color Kindle DX [6]. I think I may pull the trigger and get it for my upcoming 30th birthday. Buying numerous paper books is expensive, and given the price of Kindle books, this move would end up being cheaper in the long run. The large e-ink display almost looks like paper and the device is not as distracting as an iPad (you read on a Kindle, and that’s it). Plus, it’s lighter than most technical books and surely takes up less space in your home.

Achieving focus

With so much going on within the programming world, distractions are easy to come by. My approach is to focus only on the given macro-task at hand. If I’m trying to learn about process calculi for example, then for the next few months my “learning time” will be ruthlessly dedicated to that subject, as if the rest of the programming ecosystem stopped in time.

Then there is focusing at a micro-task level. Learning about a given subject can always be divided into a long series of smaller steps. When I’m focusing on one such, tiny step, then everything else ceases to exist (or at least in theory).

One trick I use to achieve solemn focus on micro-tasks, whether reading code, writing code, or reading a technical book, is the use of the Pomodoro Technique [7]. In short, I use timer software [8] which alerts me when 25 minutes (a pomodoro) have passed, and gives me a 5 minute break for each pomodoro. Every 4 pomodoros, I can take a longer break.

When I first started using this technique I thought it was mostly a gimmick and I had a hard time taking breaks. I just wanted to keep going and the “tracking” seemed silly. However, I must say that it strikes an elegant balance between the desire to focus for extensive periods of time and the importance of taking regular mini-breaks.

This approach has become routine for my mind now, so even if it is just a gimmick, it’s still a good way for me to get focused and “in the zone”.

Aiming for sprezzatura

The pursuit of excellence requires a huge drive from within, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with just being good at a given discipline. I believe this is true regardless of the profession at hand.

As I progress in my journey, I’m discovering how the key is to make the pursuit of excellence a habit. This goes against my nature of being an intellect sprinter, but I’m in for the long run and I’m really learning to enjoy the, marathon like, process.

My long-term goal is to program with sprezzatura [9], where the process is so internalized and part of my subconscious that it almost looks effortless (as if the act of programming was committed to muscle memory). It will be an overnight success, 15 years in the making.

Regardless of the improvement level achieved, I will always have the joy, privilege and need to continue to learn for the betterment of myself and my craft. When there is no set destination, the journey is what really matters.

Ancora imparo. (I’m still learning.) — Michelangelo


[1] These concepts are explained, in a much more eloquent manner, in the early chapters of the excellent book, The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.

[2] Dunning-Kruger Effect on Wikipedia.

[3] Illusory Superiority on Wikipedia.

[4] For more on the importance of doubt in science, check out the beautiful epilogue in What do you care what other people think? by Richard P. Feynman.

[5] For more on this phenomenon, read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

[6] The new Kindle DX on Amazon.

[7] The Pomodoro Technique.

[8] Pomodoro for Mac OS X.

[9] Sprezzatura on Wikipedia.


Carlos Marcelo Cabrera translated this article into Spanish: La búsqueda de la excelencia en la programación.

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