Response to ‘Two Flaws With “Time Off From Programming”‘

Giles Bowkett published a post titled Two Flaws With “Time Off From Programming” that disputes some of the thoughts in my recent article The Technology Cliff: How Time Off From Programming Affects Your Chops.

The first point he disagrees with is that leaving programming hurts your coding skills. Giles took a similar leave from programming that was similar to my foray into management, except he became a “starving artist”:

…what I lost in technical knowledge I gained in perspective…After that period, the code I wrote upon returning was more compact and more powerful. The things I built were more inventive, more original, and more worth building in the first place.

I can’t dispute first-hand experience, but I have a hard time agreeing that leaving coding for 2-4 years to become an artist is going to leave you in a better place to come back and hit the ground running writing code. Leaving for a short sabbatical is fantastic; want to throw clay pots for 6 months? Awesome…I bet you’ll come back more motivated and energized.

But the premise of my article was that becoming an artist, a manager, or a shoe salesman for several years is going to take its toll on your coding skills; I don’t see any way around it.

Next, Giles comments about my statement that “4 years could include 2 or 3 new releases of your language”:

Consider how different this sentence would be if Rob wasn’t assuming that you use one language, you choose that language, you settle on that language, and four years later, even though you haven’t written any code in it over the past four years, that language is still your language.

4 years could include 2 or 3 new languages you might use.

Suddenly it sounds like fun!

This is true; if I came back to programming after 4 years I would consider switching to a new language. But I don’t see how this changes the conclusion.

Whether you try to learn the past 2-3 revisions of a language you know, or try to learn one from scratch, the learning curve is going to be similar. I would argue that if you are an expert in a language (I don’t mean in the syntax, but the class libraries, architectures, standards, style, etc… a truly deep expertise) and you come back in 4 years, you’re going to have an easier time returning to your expertise in the language that you left, as opposed to something completely new.

Learning a new language is fun? Definitely. Easier to transition into? No chance.

Finally, Giles concludes with:

If you want time off from programming to be good for your programming skill, choose a way to spend that time off which will be good for you in general…Time away from programming is very, very healthy, and you should definitely take it now and again.

I agree with him here. I’m a hearty proponent of sabbaticals, long vacations, and lots of travel. Short times away from programming have always done me good and allowed me to return to work refreshed and with new perspective. But stepping away for multiple years is going to take its toll on your expertise, whether through new technology releases, or simply memory loss.

[tags]programming, sabbaticals, coding[/tags]

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5 comments ↓

#1 xxx on 05.24.08 at 5:15 pm

> Learning a new language is fun? Definitely. Easier to
> transition into? No chance.

Changing languages and environments comes natural to people who are really good at programming. It’s called using the right tool for the job and it’s what distinguishes top-notch programmers from exchangeable code monkeys.

#2 Rob on 05.24.08 at 8:13 pm

@xxx – I don’t think anyone would disagree that the best developers can learn new languages easily. But that isn’t the point of my post, nor of Giles’.

The point I brought up is whether learning a new language is easier or faster than returning to a language you are already an expert in. Truthfully, I don’t see how someone could argue for the former. As I said…it’s fun, but not easier. Even for someone to whom new languages “come naturally.”

BTW, were you named after a Vin Diesel movie?

#3 Jonathan on 05.26.08 at 9:16 pm

There is absolutely NO question that a hiatus in dev time is exponentially proportional to the difficulty of climbing back on the horse. I can only speak for the MSFT stack but i’ve been there done that and I know from experience Rob is dead-on on this one. Luckily for me, I was able to do this between my transition from C++/ATL/COM to the .NET world. So it didnt take me over 3 months to be productive again in .NET /C# but that was just a lucky timing break 🙂

#4 Skats McDoogle on 08.07.08 at 5:19 pm

Any one that takes a hiatus from development to pursue the arts will absolutely benefit from the experience. Programming can be rewarding, but it is not art. Folks that tell you good code is like poetry do not read poetry. The computer is cold, it does not give back. Art is serendipitous. While performing any activity talented people learn from their mistakes. But an artist takes those mistakes and makes ART. If you try doing that as a developer you’ll probably just lose your job. Entrepreneurs don’t appreciate art. They may dig Norman Rockwell, but they don’t appreciate art. You need to step back once and a while. Get off the bus and see things from a different perspective. Life is all about discovery. Development can be rewarding but is not art.

#5 Jeff on 02.27.10 at 11:22 am

I left programming for about 6 months to travel Asia with my wife on our honeymoon. It was HARD to get back into things when we came back. I didn’t think about coding during that time at all. When I got back and picked up my first contract, it took me 3-4 weeks to finally get my mind back into focus and even interested in the details. I came up with the rule of thumb that it takes 1-2 days to get back into things with evey week off you take. Take a fun weekend off – that sometimes takes 1/2 day to get back into the swing. A month off – you’re looking at about a week. After doing it for 6 months, I could imagine how difficult it would be after leaving it for years!

I advise