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Learning and community life cycles

My first round of experience learning a web development environment was in the 90’s, when I needed new ways to deliver financial reports to department managers and built web reporting using ASP pages on Windows NT servers. It was live. It was on demand. You didn’t need to run a special client program to get your reports. It was one of my first experiences of providing people with a tool that they hadn’t realized they needed, but within a few weeks everybody was convinced it was essential to getting their work done.

I jumped into the online communities (basically email back then) and asked and answered questions in various groups. I quickly realized that PHP fit what I was trying to do better, and I moved to the PHP community. I learned a lot from those groups. My personality is to listen more than I talk, both online and off, but in those days I was excited about what I learned and wanted to help others learn it too.

It didn’t take me long to notice that people ask pretty much the same questions over and over. Many groups online are used largely by people who are learning a new technology. That’s a critical function, and its a good way to distribute the learning. Like many people, I got tired of answering the same questions, and started thinking maybe people should at least make an attempt to look at the group’s archives.

Since I first started, we’ve moved through forums, blog posts with arguments in the comments, and then to sites like stackoverflow.com and microblogging. They are all useful, and all of these formats for distributing information and learning still continue to some extent even as they are replaced by newer models.

Its fun to go through the life cycle with each new technology. You learn something new, hit snags, and go looking for where the community is. Its even more fun when the community is new and the best practices are still being fleshed out. The beginnings of the CouchDb and Node.js communities were more recent examples of that for me. I didn’t catch either of those waves right at the beginning, but I was fairly early. True to my personality, I tend to listen more than talk, but I enjoy the discussions of sorting out the best way to do things.

The great thing about the early days is that the questions aren’t old for most anybody. Not that long ago the package manager for Node wasn’t settled, and there were discussions about the best way to handle that need. Now npm is the standard, and the question is fairly well settled. People still raise the question of whether it should work differently, but most of the questions have been answered. At least for the moment, npm’s place in the Node.js world is fairly settled. In this case, it happened fairly quickly.

Each generation of developers, of course, reinvents it all. Before long you start to see the same discussions popping up in every community. I’m amazed by people who continue to patiently answer the same question again and again. I don’t have the patience for it. I am much more tolerant of helping people in one on one, mentoring new developers in my team, especially when the new guy is really learning.

In Node, people get caught by async programming, and look for ways to make it work differently. Maybe at some point people will come up with a new paradigm, but Node is async and uses callbacks. If you don’t like that maybe you’re on the wrong platform. In Couchdb people get caught on how to construct views, and whether you can make views dependent on external conditions like the contents of other documents. Someone explains again why it doesn’t work like that. Some discussions never die, like when people find new ways to do things insecurely or rediscover familiar patterns. I’ve recently seen some discussions about dependency injection in PHP that seem rather worn to me.

The communities as a whole go through the same cycles too. People from the Erlang community might notice that many of the discussions and debates in the Node.js community are struggling with issues Erlang had to solve during its earlier stages. Languages evolve and have to struggle with “new” issues that are familiar to other platforms, like when PHP adds new pieces of the OOP puzzle and new debates about typing and inheritence in Java erupt in new contexts.

The world in general owes a great deal to all of the people who work through these cycles, and especially the role filled by people who seem to tirelessly answer the newbie questions. We’re all starting somewhere, and usually we find ourselves learning new things fairly often as the paradigms change. I’ve been through a few generations of PHP and MySQL, but I’m newer to CouchDb and Redis. The cycles repeat, but not exactly. Every once in a while something truly new emerges and things progress. That’s a side effect of the same challenges being faced again and again. Every once in a while, someone asking the same question the billionth time does come up with a novel answer. Then we wonder how we ever got by with the answers we all accepted before. Other times people give a name to something people have been doing for a while. Things move on. Technologies and people come and go. The tools we have now are worlds beyond what we had before. What’s next? Who knows, but there will be people learning it, and asking questions, and someone will be tirelessly answering the new questions for the billionth time. To the people who ask the same questions until the answers finally do change, and to all those people who answer the same things again and again: Thanks!

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