Being a lifelong learner, I believe that what I call “Extracurricular Learning” is very important. I define that as any learning that you do outside of your job or school either for fun or to better yourself due to your own drive or passion. Maybe you like to use books, or screencasts, or conferences, but you actively make learning your own responsibility.
Some developers that I know or have run across are really into JIT (just-in-time) learning. They fly by the seat of their pants and, as Jeff Atwood puts it, “page fault” in knowledge. I am by no means against learning things as you go along. If you don’t do that, you are probably a pretty terrible developer. However, I think that if you don’t do some preparation in advance, you won’t be as good at “page faulting” your knowledge as you could be.
Let’s imagine that I’m working in Ruby for the first time. I may google ruby loop or something to figure the syntax of how to do a loop. Or, let’s say I need to do some task X. What I’m likely to do as a .Net programmer is to think of how I’d do it in C# and then google for the way to do X-C#-Thing in Ruby.
What would be better is if I had immersed myself in this technology ahead of time. I don’t mean become an expert before you begin, I am talking about doing due diligence before getting involved. If I have read Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby and watched a few TekPub videos about Ruby and attended a few Columbus Ruby Brigade meetings, then I would have a very broad overview of how to “do” Ruby. And while I wouldn’t be an expert, it would make my google-fu so much better because my searches could be targeted toward getting me the *right* information.
As I’m getting more and more into Asp.Net MVC 2 for a project at work, I find the “leg work” that I did watching the TekPub videos and reading blogs to be invaluable. If I hadn’t done the Extracurricular Learning, I probably would have attempted a lot of WebForms inspired nonsense instead of finding out about how much “magic” is available to me via the built-in framework. Much like Rails, I can get Asp.Net MVC to do a lot of work for me (especially when combined with jQuery) if I just know how to rely on the scaffolding/convention over configuration inherent in the product.
I’m not wrong on this. If you want to be a great developer, you need to be involved in Extracurricular Learning. If you aren’t, you will stagnate and be guilty of “writing FORTRAN in any language”.