Saturday, May 28, 2022

The lost art of learning ... (a new programming language)

I remember the time, 20 years ago, when as a junior software developer I was driven by constant, non-stoppable desire to learn new things: new features, techniques, frameworks, architectures, styles, practices, ... and surely, new programming languages. This curiosity, hunger to learn, drove me to consume as many books as possible and to hunt around the clock for the scanty online publications available at that time.

Year after year, the accumulated knowledge backed by invaluable experience led me to settle on proven and battle-tested (in production) choices, which have worked, work these days and I am sure will work in the future. For me, the foundation was set in Java (later Scala as well) and JVM platform in general. This is where my expertise lays in, but don't get me wrong, I still try to read a lot, balancing on the edge between books and enormous amount of the blog posts, articles, talks and podcast. How many programming languages I was able to master for the last, let say, 10 years? If we count the JVM ecosystem only, Scala and Groovy would make the list, but otherwise - none, zero, 0. The pace of learning on this front has slowed for me, significantly ...

Why is that? Did I get burned out? Nope (thanks God). Fed up by development? Nope, hopefully never. Opionated? Yes, certainly. Older? Definitely. Less curious? Not really. To be fair, there are so many things going on in the JVM ecosystem, so many projects are being developed by the community, it has become increasingly difficult to find the time for something else! And frankly, why bother if you could do Java for the next 20 years without any fear of it disappearing or becoming irrelevant.

JVM is amazing platform but its fundamental principles heavily impact certain design aspects of any programming language built on top of it. It is good and bad (everything is a trade-off), but with the time, you as a developer get used to it, questioning if anything else makes sense. As many others, I ended up in the bubble which has to be blown up. How? I decided to learn Rust, and go way beyond the basics.

But no worries, I do not intend to sell you Rust but rather share an alarming discovery: the lost art of learning a new programming language. It all started as usual, crunching through the blogs, people's and companies' experiences and finally getting the book, Programming Rust: Fast, Safe Systems Development (really good one but the official The Rust Programming Language is equally awesome). A few months (!) later, I was done reading, feeling ready for delivering cool, production-ready Rust applications, or so I thought ... The truth - I was far, very far from it ... and those are the things I did wrong.

  • Rust is concise (at least, to my taste), modern and powerful, but it is not a simple language. If some language aspects are not clear, do not skip over but try to understand them. If book is not doing sufficiently good job at it, look around till you get them, otherwise you risk to miss even more. I did not do that (overly confident that nothing could be harder than learning functional Scala) and at some point I was somewhat lost.

  • In the same vein, Rust has unique perspective on many things, including concurrency and memory management, and investing the time to understand what those are is a must (the Java/JVM background is not very helpful here). Essentially, you have to "unlearn" in order to grasp certain new concepts, this is not easy and confuses the brain.

  • Stay very focused and methodical, try to read at least few pages **every day**. Yes, we are all super busy, always distracted, have families and started to travel again, ... yada yada yada. Also, Programming Rust: Fast, Safe Systems Development is not a slim book: ~800 pages! Irregular, long breaks in reading were killing my progress.

  • Practice, practice and practice. If you have some pet projects in mind, this is great, if not - just come up with anything ad-hoc but try to use the things you have just read about. Learning the "theory" is great, but mastering the programming language is all about using it every day to solve problems. I screwed there epically by following "bed time story" style ...

  • Learn the coding practices and patterns by looking into the language's ecosystem, in this regard a curated list of Rust code and resources is super useful.

  • Subscribe to newsletters to stay up to date and be aware what is going on in the core development and in the community. In case of Rust, the This Week in Rust turned out to be invaluable.

  • Watch talks and presentations, luckily most of the conferences do publish all their videos online these days. I stumbled upon the official Rust YouTube channel and since then follow it closely.

Learning new programming language is rewarding experience, in particular when it happens to be Rust, a most beloved programming language for the last six years. But not only because of that, Rust is perfect fit for a system programming, something Java/JVM is inherently not suited very well (yes, it is better now with JEP 330: Launch Single-File Source-Code Programs, jbang and GraalVM native images but still far from being perfect for a task). From the other side, it is quite challenging when the programming language you are learning is not part of your day-to-day job.

As of this moment, I am not sure if Rust ever becomes my primary programming language but one thing I do know: I think every passionate software developer should strive to learn at least one new programming language every 1-2 years (we have so many good ones). It is amazing mental exercice and I used to follow this advice back in the days but lost the sight of it along the journey. I really should have not.

Happy learning and peace to everyone!


Dileep said...

Hi Andriy Redko,

Could you please send me your email address? I am looking to contact you for some help with Apache CXF configuration.

Thank you.

Dileep said...

Here is the link to the question. Kindly let me know if you can help.