I’d Rather Get Better Than Be Good

 

I’m a technical writer by profession. It’s something I’ve been doing for more than a quarter of a century, and I’m good at it. Give me some complex technical information, and time to understand it, and I can explain it clearly. I’m lucky enough to have a good job, one that allows me to use the skills that I’m best at.

But just doing things you’re good at can get boring.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to help define the requirements for a new build-automation process for our API documentation. I knew the existing manual process well, so I was able to explain what the new automated process would need to do. During the course of the initial meeting, I mentioned some Python scripts I’d written to automate bits of the process for my own use. (Python is a currently popular programming language.) I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in programming, even though I’ve never done it for a living, and if I can find an excuse to write a Python script I will, even if it would have been less work to just do the task manually.

Before I knew it, I’d been recruited to actually help develop the new automation process, functioning as a programmer on a small team. This was an opportunity I’d never had before; while I’ve written a lot of quick-and-dirty scripts on my own, I’d never before had the chance to contribute code to a proper project, one organized and managed by someone who knows proper processes for code reviews, builds, tests, and so forth. It was my chance to learn how it’s really done.

And that wasn’t all I had to learn. I found myself taking on problems that needed to be solved, things that our code needed to be able to do, even though I had no idea how to do them. I was confident that they could be done, and confident that I could figure it out.

And so I dove in, experimenting with code snippets and frequently resorting to Google to find documentation and techniques I could borrow. I refused to go to the project leader to ask him how to do things; I insisted on figuring out as much as I could on my own. Every now and then I’d submit a new chunk of implemented code; and when the project leader, after reviewing my work, merged it in without comment, I always took that as validation.

The result was that I spent several weeks writing code that a competent programmer probably could have written in a day. You know what? I don’t care, because for me it wasn’t about being good at something. It was about getting better at something, adding to my skills, learning things I didn’t know before. I’m learning new skills that add to my consciousness; these are skills that will stay with me, tools that will stay in my toolbox until I need them again. More to the point, new experiences allow me to grow; in a very real sense, there is more to me now than there was a couple of months ago.

I am in my mid-fifties, closer to the end of my career than the beginning; this is a time when I might be expected to focus on doing what I’m good at while I’m at the top of my game. But instead, I find myself more and more gravitating toward taking on things I haven’t done before. I am fortunate that my employer places a lot of emphasis on professional development, which means that — as long as my work gets done — I can indulge this impulse and spend time on things that I’m not good at.

Yet.

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  1. Misthiocracy secretly Member
    Misthiocracy secretly
    @Misthiocracy

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: I’d rather get better than be good

    There are contexts where this can be a risky attitude.

    For example, in elementary school I knew that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, so I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    Of course, since they’ve probably done away with these sorts of awards entirely these days, the point is probably moot.

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Sounds like this fits into the Blooming Ideas theme. I left a blank about the 23rd, if you want it. What I was writing about was not far different.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    That was my attitude in elementary school. Knowing that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    I don’t think that’s quite parallel. You were are a slacker. @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr is improving himself in reality.

    • #3
  4. Misthiocracy secretly Member
    Misthiocracy secretly
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    That was my attitude in elementary school. Knowing that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    I don’t think that’s quite parallel. You were are a slacker. @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr is improving himself in reality.

    A true slacker wouldn’t have cared about winning awards in the first place.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    That was my attitude in elementary school. Knowing that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    I don’t think that’s quite parallel. You were are a slacker. @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr is improving himself in reality.

    A true slacker wouldn’t have cared about winning awards in the first place.

    So, you’re saying that you even slack off at slacking? 😜

    • #5
  6. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    Sounds like you work for a very good employer – or at least manager.  Congratulations on getting into coding even at the entry level.  I’m sure it will make  you even better at writing the technical documentation.

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I have sort of done the opposite, although in my case it was from programming to writing science fiction.

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy secretly Member
    Misthiocracy secretly
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    That was my attitude in elementary school. Knowing that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    I don’t think that’s quite parallel. You were are a slacker. @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr is improving himself in reality.

    A true slacker wouldn’t have cared about winning awards in the first place.

    So, you’re saying that you even slack off at slacking? 😜

    “I was going to procrastinate, but I put it off.”

    • #8
  9. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    @arahant, if you want to retroactively include this in the May group writing, I have no objection; it should have occurred to me. Unless I need to revise it to insert the word “bloom” somewhere…

    • #9
  10. The Great Adventure! Inactive
    The Great Adventure!
    @TheGreatAdventure

    I’ve been a “functional” consultant for 25 years – focused primarily on what the client’s business needs are and how to make the software accommodate those.  I’ve never been interested in learning the coding part of the business, but my new(er) diversion has been in training up the new consultants – how to communicate with project team members more effectively, cross-cultural communications, customer relationships, etc.  I find it to be quite fulfilling.

    • #10
  11. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    I’d sarcastically tell you to learn to code, but damn it, you already did. Thanks for nothin’, pal! 

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    @arahant, if you want to retroactively include this in the May group writing, I have no objection; it should have occurred to me. Unless I need to revise it to insert the word “bloom” somewhere…

    @cliffordbrown?

     

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    @arahant, if you want to retroactively include this in the May group writing, I have no objection; it should have occurred to me. Unless I need to revise it to insert the word “bloom” somewhere…

    Wouldn’t hurt, also add the tags: Group Writing, Blooming Ideas and changed the Published In to “Group Ideas” which is right under General. Here is this month’s Group Writing thread:

    http://ricochet.com/616186/may-2019-group-writing-theme-blooming-ideas/

    • #13
  14. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: The result was that I spent several weeks writing code that a competent programmer probably could have written in a day. You know what? I don’t care, because for me it wasn’t about being good at something.

    Code writing and debugging can vary tremendously, and I doubt your several weeks of time could have been done in one day. It took me two weeks of interrupted time (<20% each day) to debug  a hardware register reset using the “C” programming language and DSP Assembler.

    In my case, I did the reverse. At a startup company, I volunteered to write the User and Programming Manuals, and enjoyed the experience of being a technical writer. It also was easier using those manuals for engineering development. But I wouldn’t be a tech writer as a permanent job, because “I … write … slow….”

    • #14
  15. Shauna Hunt Inactive
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    My son is 14 and he taught himself how to code a few years ago.  He thrives on games like Storm Works. He’s had job offers.

    I tried coding in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It didn’t work. I’m more of a creative writing person.

    I admire others who can, though!

    • #15
  16. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    @arahant, if you want to retroactively include this in the May group writing, I have no objection; it should have occurred to me. Unless I need to revise it to insert the word “bloom” somewhere…

    I’ll just graft it onto the list. Now, you can make the post more searchable on the topic with tags “Group Writing,” “Blooming Ideas.”


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the May 2019 Group Writing Theme: Blooming Ideas.

    June’s theme is posted now, sign up to write about “Hot Stuff!”

    • #16
  17. Slow on the uptake Thatcher
    Slow on the uptake
    @Chuckles

    They brought a technical writer onto the project team some years ago.  Most of us engineers thought, and more that a few sneeringly said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ technical writers!”

    I think it took maybe a couple of weeks before we learned the error of our ways.  After that project, there was grousing when no technical writer was included on a project.

    • #17
  18. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    I will admit that I have always felt that I am a programmer trapped in a technical writer’s body. I started writing BASIC programs in 1977, at the age of 12, and with no formal instruction; at the time it seemed obvious that I was headed for a career in the computer industry.

    But I’ve always been highly distractible, and when it came time to start college I was in an artistic frame of mind. I graduated with a liberal-arts degree, having never taken a single semester  of computer science. And yet still I somehow ended up working in the software industry.

    My observation is that, in general, there are two kinds of technical writers. There are the ones who are primarily writers, whose focus is on writing even if they have degrees in technical communication; and there are the ones who used to be programmers, but actually know how to put words together. I seem to be a rarity in that I have a foot in each camp: I am a good writer, but I am also able to think like a programmer.

    This split personality has served me well: I am able to meet the programmers halfway, able to speak their language and translate it into prose that ordinary humans can understand. But I must admit that I have spent most of my career feeling like a programmer-wannabe, a second-class citizen, able to watch what they do but never actually to participate.

    • #18
  19. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    That was my attitude in elementary school. Knowing that I’d never win one of the “best in class” awards in any subject, I’d slack off at the beginning of the year in order to increase the odds of winning one of the “most improved” awards.

    I don’t think that’s quite parallel. You were are a slacker. @bartholomewxerxesogilviejr is improving himself in reality.

    A true slacker wouldn’t have cared about winning awards in the first place.

    So, you’re saying that you even slack off at slacking? 😜

    It sounds like being quite accomplished at slacking to me.

    • #19

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