Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Meaty Learning Projects

My job description implicitly includes understanding current technologies, philosophies, and methodologies. Usually, this is just a surface-level knowledge about what's going on in the industry, but occasionally I decide to dig deeper.

For instance, right now I'm learning Scala because I think it will solve some thorny performance issues at work. But it's a Catch-22: I don't want to introduce a whole new language without knowing if it will really benefit us, but I can't know if it will benefit us until I try it with a meaty project. And it's even worse than normal in this case: The feature I really want to explore — actors — requires a decent chunk of knowledge before I can take advantage of it.

Over the years, I've developed a solution to this problem. I have a substantial, but not overly complicated, program that I write whenever I come to a new platform. I write a program that assists me in finding solutions to the kind of thorny word puzzles you get from the National Puzzlers League. It requires me to open a file, read in words, and see if they match the pattern the user is searching for. No network connection. No database work. No scalability issues.

It's a problem space I understand, so I can dive in without much thought. I get a deeper knowledge of the language than I'd get from working through a tutorial's abstract problems. It forces me to probe and dig through the libraries to accomplish what I need. I don't get a thorough understanding of the language, but I get pretty far.

Overall, it's a plan that's worked well for me.

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