Systems Thinking as important as ever for new coders
I was at the Microsoft BUILD conference last week and spent some time with a young university student who came prepared. I was walking between talks and he had a sheet of paper organized with questions. We sat down and went through the sheet.
One of his main questions that followed a larger theme was, since his class in South Africa was learning .NET Framework on Windows, should he be worried? Shouldn't they be learning the latest .NET Core and the latest C#? Would they be able to get jobs later if they aren't on the cutting edge? He was a little concerned.
I thought for a minute. This isn't a question one should just start talking about and see when their mouth takes them. I needed to absorb and breathe before answering. I'm still learning myself and I often need a refresher to confirm my understanding of systems.
It doesn't matter if you're a 21 year old university student learning C# from a book dated 2012, or a 45 year old senior engineer doing WinForms at a small company in the midwest. You want to make sure you are valuable, that your skills are appreciated, and that you'll be able to provide value at any company.
I told this young person to try not to focus on the syntax of C# and the details of the .NET Framework, and rather to think about the problems that it solves and the system around it.
Do you understand how your system talks to the file system? To the network? Do you understand latency and how it can affect your system? Do you have a general understanding of "the stack" from when your backend gets data from the database makes anglebrackets or curly braces, sends them over the network to a client/browser, and what that next system does with the info?
Squeezing an analogy, I'm not asking you to be able to build a car from scratch, or even rebuild an engine. But I am asking you for a passing familiarity with internal combustion engines, how to change a tire, or generally how to change your oil. Or at least know that these things exist so you can google them.
If you type Google.com into a browser, generally what happens? If your toaster breaks, do you buy a new toaster or do you check the power at the outlet, then the fuse, then call the neighbor to see if the power is out for your neighborhood? Think about systems and how they interoperate. Systems Thinking is more important than coding.
If your programming language or system is a magical black box to you, then I ask that you demystify it. Dig inside to understand it. Crack it open. Look in folders and directories you haven't before. Break things. Fix them.
Know what artifacts your system makes and what's needed for it to run. Know what kinds of things its good at and what it's bad at - in a non-zealous and non-egotistical way.
You don't need to know it all. In fact, you may dig in, look around inside the hood of a car and decide to take a ride-sharing or public transport the rest of your life, but you will at least know what's under the hood!
Drive a Honda or a Jeep, you'll still need to replace your tires and think about the road you're driving on, on the way to the grocery store.
What advice would you give to a young person who is not sure if what they are learning in school will serve them well in the next 10 years? Let us know in the comments.
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