How to learn from experienced engineers

Software engineering is a job of constant learning. The good news is that engineers have a ton of resources to learn: the Internet, books and classes, and, maybe most importantly, other engineers. The bad news is that nobody tells you how to use these resources to learn. In this post, I’m going to present three pieces of advice for a very specific type of learning: learning from experienced engineers.

First thing’s first, what do I mean by experienced? It’s important to note that I’m actively avoiding labels like “senior” or “principal” because I don’t mean an engineer with a specific title. Instead, I mean any engineer who has some sort of experience that you don’t. This could be general industry experience, domain-specific experience, leadership experience, or anything else you can think of. The important thing is that this other engineer has a set of skills that you would like to learn.

For transparency: This list is made up of some things I do well and some things I’d like to do better. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed entirely, let me know!

Ask good questions at the right time

I’m confused. Something’s wrong. It just doesn’t work.

I have had all of these thoughts writing software, and I will certainly have them all again. Unfortunately, none of these thoughts make great questions to ask or to answer. Imagine someone coming up to you with a cryptic stack trace and just saying “it’s broken.” You would have a lot of work to do before you could even begin to help.

Instead, good questions are the result of translating ambiguous confusion into specific questions. Let’s walk through an example. Say you’re trying to figure out why your Docker container isn’t running, and your first thought is:

I’m confused.

Instead of approaching the problem from a place of panic or confusion, start by writing down everything you do know. (This is a great trick I learned from Julia Evan’s blog post “How to teach yourself hard things”.). By writing down everything you are certain about, you will be able to easily identify what you are uncertain about. At this point, your list of knowns might look like:

If I can’t see a docker container via docker ps, it isn’t running.

I definitely did start a Docker container.

Like other processes, Docker containers should have exit codes.

You’ll be surprised how many times just listing your knowns answers your question! For the times when it doesn’t, the next and final step is to assess what exactly is missing from your knowledge. What specifically do you still need to know?

How can I list Docker containers that aren’t currently running?

How can I read the logs of failed or completed Docker containers?

Now that you have good, specific questions, you might be able to answer them on your own. For the times you can’t, when should you ask them? Typically, it’s not the right time to ask a question if you’re interrupting someone else’s work — software engineers are notoriously bad at being interrupted. Instead, use the times that your team has already carved out for conversation. Ask your questions in your stand up! In your 1:1s! If these times don’t work, schedule dedicated time with another engineer. The best time to ask questions is when others are prepared to answer them.

If you’re new to a company, team, or project, schedule a standing 1:1 with an engineer who can answer your technical questions — having this dedicated time is very valuable!

Asking good questions at the right time is a great tool for learning and an even better tool for building relationships. By coming with specific, answerable questions, you’re ensuring that the engineers helping you will feel like their time was well-spent. Even better, those same engineers will be happy to help you again in the future.

Learn how they learn

It turns out that even experienced software engineers don’t know everything all of the time. But when they don’t, they’re good at hunting down answers. This means that experienced engineers are usually good at learning about tech. If you’re trying to grow as an engineer, it’s useful to learn how they learn.

How can you learn how other engineers learn? One way is to pay attention when they answer your questions. While they will be able to answer some of your questions from memory, they will have to do research to answer others. They might Google, reference a particular website or book, pull out their own notes, or even run command-line experiments. As they’re doing this, pay attention! They are (intentionally or not) giving you the means to answer your own questions next time.

The other way to find out how engineers learn is to just ask. It’s that simple. When you notice someone working on a piece of tech or idea that’s new to you, ask them how they learned it. Chances are, they will point you to a book, class, YouTube video, or blog that helped them learn. To get you started, here are a few resources experienced engineers pointed me to when I asked how they learned:

Independence and self-sufficiency are hallmarks of experienced software engineers. As you learn how they learn, you will be able to answer more of your questions more quickly and more reliably. And, soon enough, people will be asking for your learning tips and tricks.

Ask for feedback and act on it

Experienced engineers are a great resource for feedback. This is because experienced software engineers were once inexperienced software engineers. They know best what technologies, projects, and companies helped them to grow. Perhaps more importantly, they also know what held them back from learning and growing. As you build relationships with the experienced engineers around you, step outside of your comfort zone and regular review cycles to ask them directly for feedback. Then, act on it.

Unfortunately, asking people for feedback can be awkward! These are my best tips and tricks (but I’d love to hear how you all accomplish this, too!):

  • Tell them explicit goals you’re working towards, and ask what they think you would need to get there.
  • Warn them that you’re going to ask for feedback, or give them time to think about it after you chat. Asking someone to give you feedback on the spot will likely not be useful.
  • Ask the engineer to give the feedback to your manager instead, so it can be anonymized.
  • If you don’t want to have this conversation again in the future, invite this person to give more regular, spontaneous feedback!

As you do get feedback, the most important thing you can do is act on it. When you show your teammates that you’re investing in yourself, they will want to continue to invest in you, too. So, if someone tells you a new way to write commit messages, tag them in your next PR to show them you’ve taken their advice! If someone suggests you read a book, let them know what chapter you liked best! Think of feedback as a continuous process, rather than a one-off conversation.

(Bonus) Experienced engineers are people, too

After all of this advice, I don’t want you to think that experienced engineers are infallible, perfect resources. The reality is that experienced engineers are people, too. They have made mistakes before and they will make more in the future. There will be times that you are right and they are wrong. Some of those engineers might have different priorities in their lives and in their careers, so their advice and feedback might not make sense for you.

I hope these pieces of advice help you learn from the talented engineers around you. But as with any other advice, take the bits that serve you and leave the rest.

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