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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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The Deep End

If you’ve never fallen on your face, odds are you haven’t attempted anything worth a damn.

Christopher Hawkins, “So You Want To Be a Software Consultant?”[14]

Context

Taking small, safe steps has left you unsatisfied. You’re beginning to fear that this isn’t a plateau but a rut. On a plateau, you consolidate your skills through diligent practice in order to attain the next level; in a rut, bland competence eventually decays into mediocrity.

Problem

You need to grow your skills, your confidence, and your portfolio of successful work. You feel the need to challenge yourself with bigger things. This may involve bigger projects, larger teams, more complex tasks, new and business domains, or new places.

Solution

Jump in at the deep end. Waiting until you’re ready can become a recipe for never doing a thing. So when you’re offered a high-profile role or a difficult problem, grasp it with both hands. Growth only happens by taking on the scary jobs and doing things that stretch you.

This has risks. If you get it wrong and end up over your head you could drown. Thankfully there are many places in IT where you can take risks without destroying your career if you fail. Risks are opportunities seen through the half-shut eyes of fear. This doesn’t mean lying on your resume to get a job you can’t do, nor does it mean tackling challenges without adequate preparation. Instead, it means taking that promotion or foreign assignment when it’s offered, even if the very real possibility of failure is staring you in the face. Being prepared to fail and recovering from that failure opens doors that the timid will never see.

Even though we advocate seeking out the most challenging tasks you are capable of, you still need to remember that if the water level is above your head it means you’re drowning. Even in Enrique’s example, where he was changing his life in a big way, he was still moving to a country where he knew at least one person and could speak the national language. It’s your responsibility to offset the risks of this approach by Finding Mentors and Kindred Spirits who can provide help when you need it.

It’s also your responsibility to Create Feedback Loops, so that if the challenging project starts to spin out of control you can catch it and get help immediately. Applying this pattern should feel brave rather than reckless.

Action

What is the biggest successful project you have ever worked on in terms of lines of code and number of developers? What is the biggest codebase you have ever built on your own? Write down the answers to these questions, and then see if you can find other dimensions of project complexity and other ways of measuring your projects. Use these metrics to measure every project you have ever been involved in. Now, when the next project comes along, you can draw a chart of all your projects and plot where the new project falls among the others. After a while, you will be able to use this chart to see where your career is heading, and even start to make choices based on it.

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