Tutorial :What is the single most effective thing you did to improve your programming skills?


Looking back at my career and life as a programmer, there were plenty of different ways I improved my programming skills - reading code, writing code, reading books, listening to podcasts, watching screencasts and more.

My question is: What is the most effective thing you have done that improved your programming skills? What would you recommend to others that want to improve?

I do expect varied answers here and no single "one size fits all" answer - I would like to know what worked for different people.


In no specific order...

  • Working with people far smarter than myself

  • Always listening to what others have to say, regardless if they're junior, intermediate, senior or guru. job title doesn't mean anything.

  • Learning other frameworks/languages, and seeing how they do things, and compare that to stuff that I already know

  • Reading about patterns, best practices, and then examining my old stuff and applying those patterns where necessary

  • Pair programming

  • Disagreeing with everything Joel says. ;)


Deciding TO be a 'Jack-of-all-Trades'

Fairly early in my career, I was an expert with a particular database and programming language. Unfortunately, that particular database lost the 'database wars', and I discovered that my career options were ... limited. After that I consciously decided that I would never let myself become boxed in like that again. So I studied everything I could get my hands on: Windows, Unix, C, C++, Java, C#, Perl, Python, Access, SQL Server, Oracle, Informix, MySQL, etc. Whatever tools and technologies are new or unusual, I became the 'go-to-guy' -- "Ask Craig, if he doesn't know it, he'll learn it." As a result I've worked on all sorts of projects, from embedded systems for environmental telemetry to command and control systems for missile defense.

The only problem I've ever had is with companies that insist on pidgeon-holing me into a specialty, when my specialty is being a generalist. [EDIT: Also known as a Polymath or Renaissance Man or multi-specialist.]

Something to keep in mind ... what's the half-life of knowledge in high tech? It tracks with Moore's Law: half of everything you know will be obsolete in 18-24 months. An expert who chooses the wrong discipline can easily be undermined by the press of technology; a generalist only has to add some more skills and remember the lessons of the past in applying those skills.


I always thought of my self as a pretty hot-shot programmer. Then a new guy, call him Aaron, was hired into our team. Aaron was obviously much better than me in most areas. He was younger than me, too. He made me realize I hadn't really improved much in the past years. I was an ad-hoc hacker, and a mediocre one at that.

This alerted me to consciously try to improve myself and especially the quality of code I write.

Aaron lead me to learn a lot of things. He taught me how most of the code I write will have to be maintained and extended for at least several years, so I should write the code with that in mind. I should write automatic tests for my code. Aaron was always talking about how I should never stop at the first working version, but refactor and refine until the code is elegant. I've discovered that the languages and tools I was using had a lot of room for improvement.

The most important thing I learned from Aaron was to never stop learning.

After a couple of years, Aaron left the company. I felt empty. The past years with him had lifted me to whole new levels of skill, and I realized I was now much better than the rest of the team. They were still writing bad code, and doing the same mistakes as before. I tried to teach them, but they had no interest to learn. In fact, they were annoyed that someone would be so arrogant to tell them what mistakes they were doing.

So, a few months later, I left the company as well. I moved to a smaller company with a very talented team. Everyone there wanted to learn more, and I loved it.

I'm glad I met Aaron. Without him, I'd probably still be working at the old company with the old gang, going nowhere, and thinking too much of myself.


Two things:

  1. Read code written by different people.
  2. Write documentation for code written by other people.

Writing code is extremely easy; every other person I know can do that. But reading someone else's code and figuring out what it does was a whole new world to me.


Hit the gym regularly.

Seriously, my brain works a whole lot better when I'm in shape. Problems become easier and less overwhelming, goofing off is much less of a temptation, and working through things step-by-step doesn't seem like such an arduous task.


Programming. Working on interesting projects. There is NOTHING like getting in and working on stuff. Especially under pressure. I always tell anyone who asks me how to program - just find a cool project (even if you have to make it up) and work on it.


Took a part-time job tutoring CS students at my university. It really forces you to understand something at a completely different level when you have to explain it to someone else.


  1. I'm a big fan of the "learn one programming language every year" system. One year gives you enough time to get past the "okay, I know the syntax, so now I know the language" bias, and forces you to go a little farther and understand what's beneficial in that language, and program in a style native to that language (By which I mean, you don't end up writing java applications using Ruby syntax). Each language will change the way you think about programming- I knew how to use recursion, but thinking in recursion didn't happen until I took a class on prolog (I imagine a functional language like ML would have the same effect).

  2. Start a Pet project. My personal equation for a good pet project is, something you have experience with + something you don't = app you would find useful. For instance, Migratr (my own caffeinated-weekend-turned-ongoing project) started out as "I know c#, but I've never coded against a web API. And I want to move all my photos to Zooomr". It could just as easily have been "I've coded against web API's before, but I don't know C#"

Publishing your pet project is an amazing educational experience in itself. Suddenly all the things practically nobody teaches but everybody's supposed to know (for me it was setting up your own testing system, getting the most out of version control systems, how to pace yourself when nobody else is setting your deadlines, how to interact with your users and how to know when to say "no" to feature requests), all that stuff bubbles to the surface and forces you to self-educate on a level you weren't before- at least not by idly reading flamewars on dzone about the pros/cons of the "foo" vs "bar" way of doing things.

Doing these two things covers both ends of the spectrum. Learning a new language will make you a better coder. The pet project will make you a better developer:P


Taught myself assembly. Did it on an old 6502 chip when I was 13? 14? Too long ago. But I can't think of anything that will improve your development more than getting down to the bit level.

Learning assembly gives you insight into the way computers 'think' on a fundamentally lower level, and the elegance at this level is surprising... there are no wasted motions, no 'disposing' of data. Developing at this level will teach you efficiency and hone your critical thinking and logic skills. It will also cure you of any sloppy habits you have fairly quickly!

The 65xx chip had three registers (the accumulator, X, and Y) and no machine level instructions for multiply or divide. I remember coding a routine to calculate battle damage, looking through the book, and suddenly realizing that I would have to write my own math library. Spent a couple of weeks scribbling 1's and 0's all over my notebook, trying to figure out what 'divide' and 'decimal places' really meant.

I've studied C++, pascal, .NET, many others since then... but none of them have taught me as much, intrigued me as much, or left me with the sense of 'wow' that assembly on my old commodore did.


Looking back at old things I wrote and realizing just how bad they were.



  • books, not just websites
  • for self-improvement, not just for the latest project
  • about improving your trade, not just about the latest technology
  • read code, not just you are working on.

Just develop the appetite for reading.



Seriously, there are books, there are coding katas, there are sites like this, but I believe that the best way to improve as a developer is to work on real project, with real fickle customers with real, ever-changing requirements with real engineering problems. There's no substitute for experience.


I think the most important thing you can do is make a conscious effort to improve. There's no single silver bullet, you have to keep looking for new sources of information, new experiences, and more practice.

And the second most important thing, think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how you can do it better. Same thing with previous projects. Look back at what you've done, and how you might do it differently now. Think about what could have been done better, or where you could still improve on it.

I see two great examples of this at work every day. I have one coworker who loves to learn, and wants to be the best developer he can. He's uses any downtime to read blogs, read books, discuss programming techniques, and ask tons of questions. He's also very noticeably improved in just the past year. Another coworker does his job, and does it fairly well. But that's all he does. He sticks with what he knows, doesn't make much effort to improve, doesn't work on any projects outside of his existing ones, and after 4 years, he has the exact same skill set and programming ability that he had when I met him.


Many people have suggested writing code. I'd have to say that reading other people's code is much more beneficial.


Pair-programmed with very diverse and opinionated people


The basic things that helped me as a programmer:

  • Learned Touch Typing.
  • Learned to overcome shyness and ask questions.

Typing for a programmer is essential. Everyone has had a "programmer" coworker who typed using exactly two fingers and had to look at the keyboard for everything. Not fun. Learning to touch type give a huge boost to your productivity as a programmer.

And if you don't ask, no one is gonna tell you.


Contributing to/participating in open-source projects was by far the biggest thing for me.


You can read all the books, code, and open source projects you like, but you need to understand the end-user aspect of software development. You need to step out of the echo chamber. So I'll address a couple non-technical points that will help your technical career.

  1. Step away from the keyboard and interact with the end-user and see, through their eyes, how they use the software. End users are typically not technical, so they see software as a magical piece of work, while you see software as a logical set of steps. The two worlds are completely different. So what seems easy and logical to you may seem cryptic and intimidating to others.

  2. Test, test, test. A lot of the software I've seen in large corporations use test cases. Hell, they use JUnit, xUnit, and all the other unit testing languages out there. But the problem I've seen is that most programmers never see what their software looks like in Production. Learn how users (or systems, if these are batch jobs) interact with your application, library, or interface to find out what kind of abhorrent information they throw at it. This will help you generate good test cases and stop assuming your program will always be fed the correct set of data.


Learned Scheme.


Writing code and lots of it.


Learning regular expressions .


Competing in TopCoder Algorithm contests.


Go all out: create your own project, your milestones, your resources, dependencies, requirements, and test plan. It will force you not only to improve your programming skills to operate within specific parameters, but will also serve to highlight exactly where you most need to improve. Make regular updates about your progress, whether through a blog or more formal project updates, so that you can see exactly where you've been and where you hope to go.


Quit my last job.


I think constantly questioning what you are doing is the biggest thing. Never think that your code is perfect, always strive to improve it.

It seems like I've had 2 or 3 times when I thought my code was perfect, then realized I had a long way to go.

I guess the biggest thing was when I started seeing my code itself as consumed by other programmers and not a machine. It's easy to write code your machine can process, but it's tough writing DRY, understandable code.

And I don't mean just understanding "What does this line do", I mean making it trivial to figure out "How does this class fit in with all the other classes" while making the classes interface so well-formed that it's virtually impossible to misuse it.


They say that 70% of good code is error checking and handling. When I started programming that way, my code got a lot better. Thinking about what can go wrong and then handling it right away has made a huge difference. It feels like doing all that checking is just getting in the way of getting the code up and running, but it shortens the time from start to finish by a factor of 2 to 4.

Just who are these people "they" and where do "they" live?


My coding skill improved a lot when I started wondering before implementing something how am I going to document this thing.

"Thing" here should have all the possible granularity. From the method to the whole product. For instance at the method level it prevents adding a method in the API that doesn't fit, or is unclear, before actually writing it. And if I really need to implement a method I cannot document (easily), it's a sign there is a design problem somewhere...

Automatically, the attitude "if I can't explain it, I don't write it" filters out bad code and conversely once I know how to document correctly a thing, it becomes simpler and cleaner to implement.


Constantly learn and practice what you learn.

By means of:

  1. Personal Projects: Ever since I started programming I have been doing personal projects. Ranging from little games, image processing, steganography, implementing file type specifications, implementing various protocols from scratch, or implementing various programs over time.

  2. Reading books: I decided to read and follow through various books in my spare time. There are a lot of well written books by experts just sitting around waiting to be read. The depth you can get from a book is unmatched by for example reading various forum posts.


This is usually my chronological order of learning any new technology:

  1. Regularly read good blogs (Atwood, Martin Fowler, etc.), Keep up-to-date with technology news, Follow stuff about interesting new technology. These steps will let me decide if I find anything interesting to further explore.

  2. Read the right book or any other resource to learn for your level (e.g. for beginners if you want to learn design patterns, I would suggest 'Head First Design Patterns'). I have also specific preferences for books.

  3. Roll out a toy project or two using the thing I learned. I don't worry about the usefulness of the project. My intention is just to exploit my learning. (e.g. A calculator project for OOP would be fine)

  4. I would see if I could use the stuff at work. (e.g. Though we don't use subversion at work, I use it as my local repository, I used Ruby for a task which would otherwise be too monotonous, and time consuming)

  5. This is the best part which I think most people miss out. Knowledge sharing sessions.Give a session or two to fellow team members for example. I believe teaching is one of the best ways to really learn the technology. I guarantee your level of understanding of the technology will become multi-fold, whether you audience gets it or not. :-)


Hack on some open source project for a few months; the larger the better. When you're interacting with some highly opinionated, geographically diverse people who don't know you, you can't help but learn from your mistakes far faster - I think it's a certain embarassment factor. Plus, if you identify one or two really smart people, then you can glean valuable insight, if not pure knowledge, from them.

Note:If u also have question or solution just comment us below or mail us on toontricks1994@gmail.com
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