LearnThe Art of Winging It


writes on June 22, 2015

Learning to code can be so daunting. There are so many languages to choose from, new technologies are constantly arising, and the amount of information to take in can be overwhelming.

This feeling can really bring down the budding developer, often leading to unhealthy levels of self-doubt and anxiety. Then they burn out. Quit. Give up on their dream.

Sound familiar? Let’s refactor that thought process a bit. (Refactoring is the process of making small incremental changes to your code to change the way it achieves its purpose. It makes code more legible and usually helps it to perform better.)

“I don’t know anything.”

I hear this from new developers. A lot. You know what? You’re not alone.

I’ve been developing software for a couple of decades now (yikes!) in dozens of languages. You’d assume by now I’d know it all. But that’s very far from the truth. In fact, to this day, every single project I start I usually have to not only learn the business logic, but also some part of the required technology. It was terrifying in the beginning, now it’s just old hat. Everyone has that feeling.

Try this real quick experiment: for an entire day watch the people you encounter in your daily life performing their jobs. Imagine their first attempt.

Take a bus driver, for example. Imagine how terrifying his first day must’ve been with all that responsibility in his hands. He had to remember lots of different stops. All the different fares and transfers. Deal with potentially unruly riders. Then there are the “what ifs”: What if the bus got too crowded? What if he was too late/too early? What if the bus broke down? What if he got in an accident? And so much more.

There’s no way he could’ve anticipated all the different scenarios. So he most likely did what anyone would’ve done on their first day: started winging it. He took the wheel and drove into the unknown.

“I don’t know how to do that … yet”

Now let’s switch our focus to a programmer’s job. Chances are, the new developer is probably going to be getting their feet wet by working on defects and small tweaks of the code base while they learn the environment within which they will be working. You won’t have a whole lot of responsibility yet.

That’s because no one expects you to walk in and immediately be productive in an unfamiliar environment. It’s a misconception that commonly causes panic, but I think there’s a deeper root cause: job postings.

Today’s technical job postings are littered with buzzwords and unrealistic requirements. I recently saw a job posting asking for three years experience with the Swift programming language. Swift, at the time of the posting, had only been out for a little over a year.

If that feels unattainable, it’s because it is (well, without time travel). Wondering why it was posted like that in the first place?

My guess is the job poster who was asked to go find talent didn’t fully understand the request. They asked a dev team what they needed for the product they were building, and the team overshot their requirements.

This was because the team didn’t have experience with all the new technology they were using. They’re learning together as they build the product, and you guessed it, winging it.

It goes back further: there was probably a manager who had been given the responsibility to put together a team to build the most efficient, cutting-edge project. But with the way that technology is evolving, hiring can be extremely difficult and unforeseeable. So the manager did what they’ve been doing throughout their career: winged it.

At the start of all this was the entrepreneur putting pressure on the manager to help get their shiny new product built. And the entrepreneur by definition is always winging it.

So here’s a tiny refactor for you: Everybody’s winging it. Almost all of the time.

“I don’t know that, but I will learn it”

As a player in the tech industry, your job is to be confident and comfortable winging it.

The quicker you realize this, the quicker you’ll drop those feelings of inadequacy, and the better you’ll get at embracing this inherent change.

Not knowing a technology comes with the territory. Having been a hiring manager for junior devs, I can say with certainty that the most successful hires I made are those that came with the attitude “I don’t know that, but I can learn it.”

Obviously one way you can do that is by using Treehouse. We have different learning tracks that’ll give you guided, hands-on exposure. At the end of each course, you’ll almost always end up building a project you can further expand upon.

The more you experience the different languages and tools, the more you’ll be able to see the similarities between them. It’s the understanding of these shared root concepts that allow you to really grow confident.

We’re also here for you after you land that gig. We got your back when you want to strengthen your winging it skills. . . I mean, keep up to date with the latest trends. We’ve been producing a ton of new workshops with this audience in mind, and our library is ever expanding. Please make your voice heard to let us know what you need.

Now that we’ve wrapped up that refactoring exercise, you should be able to see that not knowing something is an opportunity for growth. Go and tackle what you need to learn through hands-on practice, and don’t beat yourself up about lack of experience.

This is the first time I’ve ever tried to express this thought in a blog post. I hope you found it beneficial.

I was totally just winging it.


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22 Responses to “The Art of Winging It”

  1. Great read, it was really what I needed to see 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Very encouraging 🙂 as a budding developer who often feels like I don’t know enough, I like to read this kind of thing so I can better realize we’re all on the same boat!

  3. Good post! Just the thing I needed to read today. As an aspiring dev that still has a long way to go before getting my first job in the industry, I find myself anxious at just how much I don’t know.

  4. Great article.

  5. Great article. This helped me feel a lot better. Almost like a confidence slap in the face. I just gotta remember to keep on learning, and that being in the forever state of learning is expected.

  6. I found it beneficial. I was very happy after reading it. Great Craig.

  7. Great post. I think the feeling of winging it can be even more daunting for programmers, b/c the more experienced programmers know lots of acronyms, history of the technologies, etc…and love to talk about them as if they are common knowledge. When you are plunked in that environment – either in person or virtually, like on stackoverflow – it can seem like everyone there already knows everything. They don’t. They often just happen to be writing or speaking about the content they feel comfortable with. It is a rare (but honest) colleague who will spin their office chair around and start a sentence with “Gee, I have no clue how to do this, despite my decades of experience.”

  8. Thank you for this great article. This “lack of experience beating” is exactly what I do to myself. This is an eye-opener!

  9. Good article. Good timing.

  10. Nitin George Cherian on June 24, 2015 at 9:43 pm said:

    Hello Craig,

    This is a very succinct and inspiring article from you. Thank you for instilling that confidence in me to keep going.

  11. This article is great! It’s just what I needed. I’ve always had this feeling that I’m inadequate and I don’t know a lot of stuff that I should, and everyone else are professionals who know it all. You have really changed my outlook on my programming career, and I hope to see more amazing articles in the future.

  12. dnative on June 24, 2015 at 3:41 pm said:

    an awesome article!

  13. This is a great piece am now trying to find what I will start with but thanks for the post will help me decide well

  14. Love this article. Actually made me feel better today. Thanks Craig!

  15. Craig you nailed it man!!
    i seriously appreciate this blog post!!

  16. GREAT POST!!!

  17. This is a great article. It perfectly described what every new programmer goes through. It actually applies to a lot of tech positions. I recently started learning swift and it can be a little overwhelming at times. But stuff like this reminds me that not knowing is not so bad. It only gets better with time and of course experience. Until I get that experience I will definitely be winging it.

  18. Great article! I usually think that there are a lot of information and I want to learn everything. But for now I decided to focus in Backend development with Python and then, when I feel that I am confident with all technologies, I will start to create apps for iOS and extend my skills.

  19. Good read post J ford’s What is code?
    Winging It is how we learn..

  20. Awesome advice Craig! This article is a new favorite.

  21. Great article!

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