Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Language Specialization

Didn't you just totally sell out? -- Obie Fernandez @ Rails Summit Latin America
Obie and I are good friends. He wasn't trying to insult me. I was talking about how much I liked my new job (at DRW Trading), and the different aspects of the job. One aspect of my job is that I spend a fair amount of my time working with Java. I do some C# and some Ruby also, but these days it's more Java than anything else. I believe Obie was genuinely curious if I felt like I sold out since I'm not doing Ruby full-time anymore.

It's an interesting question, but it comes packed with all kinds of assumptions. For the question to be valid, I would have had to trade something I truly care about for the combination of something I did and did not like. Luckily, that wasn't the case.

Obie isn't the first person to be surprised that I'm no longer working full-time with Ruby. Truthfully, I find it a bit funny that people think I would base a career move on a language. Ruby is my favorite language, but it's not the correct choice for every problem that needs to be solved. And, languages have never been my primary concern when deciding what job to take.

My first job primarily used Cold Fusion. When I joined AOL Time Warner I gave up Cold Fusion for PHP. When I joined IAG I gave up PHP for C#. And so on. As you can see, I've never been too tied to a language. I've always been most interested in learning and growing. I love jobs that help me improve my skills.

Chad Fowler talks about something similar. In the section "Don’t Put All Your Eggs in Someone Else’s Basket" of My Job Went to India, Chad says the following:
While managing an application development group, I once asked one of my employees, “What do you want to do with your career? What do you want to be?” I was terribly disppointed by his answer: “I want to be a J2EE architect.” ...

This guy wanted to build his career around a specific technology created by a specific company of which he was not an employee. What if the company goes out of business? What if it let its now-sexy technology become obsolete? Why would you want to trust a technology company with your career?
I think Chad got it right, but it's not just companies you shouldn't trust. I wouldn't base my career on any technology, whether it was produced by a company or an open source community.

I prefer jobs that allow me to learn new things. Think of it as job security -- I shouldn't ever be out-of-date when it comes to technology experience. Think of it as an investment -- everything I learn creates a broader range of experience that I can leverage for future projects or jobs. Think of it as experimenting -- by trying many different solutions I may find ways to combine them and innovate.

I've turned down several jobs that paid more or offered comfort. I've never regretted it. Your career is long and (as Chad says) you should treat it as a business. When you look at it from that perspective it obviously makes sense to spend the early years learning and deciding which is the best direction to take.

The truth is, if you focus on one technology you'll never be as good as your teammates who have more experience mixing technologies to produce the best solution.

As I told Obie, I definitely don't feel like I sold out. In fact, one of the reasons I joined DRW was because they use Java. I've never worked with Java, messaging, or the financial domain. Having experience with those 3 things will make me better. And, diversifying your experience will make you better as well.