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Programming Language “Skills”

I just read a post over at The Hundred Minute Hack called Do Programming Language Skills Exist?. The basic premise is that you don’t have Java Skills or Python Skills or Ruby Skills, you have object oriented skills, functional skills, etc. These languages are just tools.

If we keep the “Software Developer As Craftsman” metaphor, a carpenter might have 10 years of general carpentry skills, or 20 years at furniture making. What a carpenter would never really need to put on a resume is:

  • Hammer – 20 years experience
  • Manual Saw – 20 years experience
  • Table Saw – 18 years experience
  • Router – 14 years experience
  • Clamp – 20 years experience
  • Sandpaper – 20 years experience
  • Belt Sander – 19 years experience

For an experienced carpenter, it very rarely matters what his toolset is, it matters what skills he possesses. The tool often just offers an easier or faster way to do something he already knows how to do.

With so many things changing so quickly in software development, it really is the skills that matter. It is possible to have almost 30 years of object oriented programming skills. You can have 15 years of skills with the web. You can’t have 5 years of experience with .Net 4 or 10 years of experience with Rails.

As “new and better” things are constantly released, it really is the skill that is transcendant, while the tools come and go. The proven ability to learn the tool is even a skill, but the act of knowing the tool alone is not. I am great with a hammer, but I couldn’t build you anything from scratch. In that same way, someone who only knows the C# language isn’t necessarily going to be any good in some enterprise shop or someone who only knows Ruby isn’t necessarily going to be the person you want to have as the only employee at your start up.

I think that I’ve almost always agreed with Phil, but I never really had the idea codified in my head so succinctly. I’m not saying the tools are worthless (obviously, a carpenter becomes very familiar with his tools – as should we), but I do think that we as programmers are almost worthless if we don’t hone the things that are transcendent skills.