Thursday, February 6, 2014

Journeyman weeks - retrospecting

(All my previous posts on this topic can be found via the journeyman weeks label)

With a little bit of distance I will now try to sum up my experience of my little journeyman tour.

The quick summary is: I'm really happy I did this and I'm really grateful that it all came together on such short notice.

Getting started

First I want to elaborate a little bit more on my motivation. At the time of the SoCraTes conference I didn't really know what to do next, work-wise. I had briefly contemplated joining a Berlin start-up as the technical co-founder but ultimately decided against it. I also wasn't really happy with the idea of just working for any German company. I also started toying with the idea of going back to South Africa.

As all my stuff was still in storage and I didn't feel like committing to a new place in Germany it meant I was crashing on people's couches anyway. And I didn't just want to hang around doing nothing while I was trying to make up my mind on what to do next. As such, the idea of the journeyman tour seemed like a perfect fit.

After coming back from SoCraTes I wrote up what I wanted to do in a little blog post. People kindly reshared it on Twitter and generally were very encouraging. I spent a few days doing this and coordinating with people and sorted out a little bit of an itinerary. I had 6 weeks to fill, with most of the first week spent on organising and then a week in between in Bucharest for the ALE conference. The other four weeks thankfully filled up quickly. I'm pretty happy that I didn't really think this through because if I had, I might have just gotten scared. What if nobody was interested? What if, after talking about it so much, I would not actually be able to do it?

This wasn't that unlikely, I now realise, as companies struggled to understand what I was doing. And since I didn't really know either, I wasn't sure how to market myself. In all the four companies that I ended up visiting I was introduced by people I already knew who had faith in me. I wasn't that aggressive in communicating with other companies and in hindsight I'm much more convinced of what I had to offer. So maybe, if I had taken more time to prepare, I would have managed to find companies by cold-calling them. But as it was, I was dependent on other people doing my marketing for me and I am incredibly grateful for the support I got.

Lessons learned

I really wasn't sure what usefulness I could provide in just one week. And while I wasn't asking for much in terms of compensation, finding something for me to do, providing someone for me to pair with and getting me set up definitely required effort by my hosts. And so I was a little bit scared to disappoint the faith put into me. Thankfully, I think it turned out ok and I was actually surprised by how much can be done in a week.

Part of that usefulness falls into the general usefulness of pairing. Having a fresh set of eyes to help work on something, I think, was appreciated by all of my hosts. (This relates well with the "Beginner's Mind" pairing pattern, described in this post.)

I also didn't expect how quickly I was able to become productive in the various new dev environments. With a lot of automation already set up and a pair to help explain the details I was able to focus on the actual code. And with concrete tasks to work on this provided a pretty perfect setting to dig into a new language or tool. This is also what I found most beneficial for my own goal of learning new things during those weeks. If I want to get started with a new language I usually struggle setting up some dummy test app to play around with. Having the basics of building, deploying and baseline architecture already created makes it really easy and fun to explore a new language.

There is probably a lesson in here for companies scared of becoming polyglot, trying to fit all their development work to one language (and one framework and platform, too. Eek.) While there certainly are risks to maintaining a diverse set of software projects, I would say that we tend to underestimate how much of the existing know how of software development can be carried over to a new language. And this only gets easier the more you learn about what differentiates various languages.

There's probably also a lesson about automation and reducing the time for new people joining a team to actually start writing code. But I think that's a little out of scope of this post.

Apart from providing a nice way to learn new development skills I also appreciated being able to learn more about how different companies work. All four companies were pretty different in size and organisation and it was nice to be able to take a peek into that. And I think this arrangement would be a pretty good way to do hiring and have potential employee and employer get to know each other.

Last but not least, besides languages and companies I also got to work with more people and make new friends. That alone has made this worth it for me. Spending time with people who share some of the same enthusiasm for software development was really refreshing and energising.

Try it yourself?!

So, would I recommend this to others? In general, I would say yes. I found it a good way to learn and to get diverse experience in a short time-span. And for the hosting companies I would say it provides quite a bit of value to have a fresh pair of eyes looking at existing code and processes. But there are some caveats, of course. I'm not sure if I had been as eager to do this if I wasn't homeless at the time. And the things I learned about were a little bit random and probably not always on the top of my list of things to look at. This didn't bother me much, as I have made the experience that a little bit of randomness in my life had always turned out well for me. But it's worth pointing out.

For the host companies I think the benefits are more pronounced. It's a cheap way to have an outsider come in and ask questions and potentially pick up on blind spots. This is something I think would even work for less experienced developers coming in (and would also work for other roles then devs). And fostering pairing is also something that is valuable, even though a lot of companies may not have picked up on that. Plus, I think showing that a company cares about learning is good advertising from a hiring perspective.

Further reading

There are other people who did similar travels who inspired me and who put more effort and energy into it than I ever did. I'm extremely happy to see that this doesn't seem to let up.

First, there is Corey Haines, who I saw talking about craftsman swaps, code retreats and his journeyman tour at QCon in London in 2010. He had a tremendous impact on how I think about my work. (You can watch the talk here.)

Rob Ashton, while probably working from slightly different motivations, was the one whose blog posts came at just the right time to spark off discussing this idea at SoCraTes. A year after he started, he still hasn't settled down and I envy him for it.

Peter Kofler has also done a craftsman tour around Vienna and I'm grateful to have been able to exchange experiences with him. He's also written extensively about it on his blog.

Since then I've also become aware of and impressed by Andy Waite and the guys from The Bakery.

I hope this encourages you to try something similar. If I can be of any help please do contact me either via twitter, by email or just leave a comment.

And, if you're in or around  Germany, there are groups for remote pairing and for craftsman swaps on the Softwerkskammer website.

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