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10 Questions for Sage Uncle Steve

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This is a guest blog posting by my wife, Cathalynn Labonté-Smith, though I’m the one answering the questions.


It may seem odd to readers to interview the man I’ve looked across the dinner table at for 29 plus years in his own blog, but we’ve had a recent addition to our household, Ian. Steve’s nephew is an enthusiastic young man who is in a programmer’s boot camp (see Steve’s Blog entry The Times They Are a Changin) and as an educator this has brought to my mind new questions for my darling husband beyond, “How was your day?” and “Will you be able to fit in a vacation around your business travel this year?” Also, he didn’t like my alternate idea of a Valentine to Computing.

We got out of the habit of talking about the details of Steve’s work since the time I worked as a technical writer in the field of wireless technology nearly a decade ago. For couples out there who both work in the same or related fields, you will know what I mean when I say it’s just best to unwind and avoid topics to do with work in the off hours.

When I left tech writing and became a teacher, occasionally I’d walk into a business class that was learning Accpac for Windows or Simply Accounting. Trained as an English teacher I’d do what all on-call teachers do when outside their subject area: stick to the lesson plan, get help from the brightest students in the class and muddle through as best I could. So it was fun to share those experiences with Steve and I actually learned a bit about the Sage products.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in the classroom, but having taught career preparation I want to know the following from Steve for programmers coming on stream. I know that Steve’s blog audience is unlikely to be junior programmers but I thought this might get his more senior executive readers thinking about what legacy they can pass along to new programmers.

Whoa, I can hear you say, what makes you think they can hear us with their ears jammed with ear buds and if they could we don’t speak their lingo? I’m not saying they’re going to sit through a PowerPoint of your ruminations and really the best example is modelling, after all, and as a teacher I found that it was an equal exchange. You can learn as much from your novice employees as they can learn from you–just about different things.

When I met Steve he was a Teacher’s Assistant in the Math Department at the University of British Columbia working on his Master’s Degree. His Math 100 class was just him, the blackboard, a huge lecture hall packed full of nervous first-years and a piece of chalk. I was never his student, no; I was on the other side of campus in Creative Writing workshops in poetry, fiction and children’s writing.

After his degree, he worked at various software companies in many different fields as a contractor, consultant or employee before finding his long-time home at Sage. Aside from having over twenty years at Sage now in his current role as Chief Architect, I’m curious as what Uncle Steve would say to Ian if he were around longer than it takes for him to gulp down his dinner and head upstairs for more studying?

1. Steve, what kind of guidance can you offer for formal programs a would-be programmer should choose for the best future employment and advancement? Can you compare it to your formal programming education?

A. I learned to program originally in Grade 11. Nowadays people have lots of opportunity to learn how to program at a young age. There are quite a few exceptional online programs where you can learn program, for example, Khan Academy. Khan Academy teaches you to program in JavaScript while creating fun drawings and animations. Programming like most skills requires practice to master. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to really master something, so starting early really helps.

My undergraduate and master’s degrees are in Mathematics and not Computer Science. However’ I took a few CS courses along the way (in things like Numerical Analysis and Operations Research), so strictly speaking I don’t have a formal CS background.

I was in the Co-op program at the University of Victoria so when I did graduate I had four work terms of job experience. Plus, I was always working on some sort of programming project on my trusty Apple II Plus computer (usually involving Fractals).

It doesn’t really matter so much which programming languages you learn, just learn a variety. After all, things are changing so fast these days that you need to expect to keep learning these as you progress through your career.

To summarize, you need something that will give you lots of practice programming, a few formal courses to give you credibility and you need to be a voracious reader.

2. In your undergraduate degree, you went through a co-op program. Is this something that you recommend and why? For example, does it make a programmer more desirable as a future employee?

A. Yes, absolutely. I think intern type programs are terrific ways to get job experience and references ready for that first real job. I did four co-op work terms and learned an awful lot about how various companies operate and what is involved. It is a great chance to get some experience with a variety of companies, perhaps a large one, a small one and a government one. I certainly give credit for co-op work terms when I’m hiring.

3. What kind of summer, part-time or volunteer work might add to and develop their skills?

A. I would look for something where you are giving back to the community, such as donating your time to a charity and if you have the chance to travel when you do this then even better. Again do something that interests you and you are passionate about.

4. What kind of advice can you give new programmers about how to pick their first employer?

A. Chances are you are going to have several jobs throughout your career. More than likely the pay will be similar, so go for something interesting. Do some research on the companies you are applying to and look beyond the initial job you will have there. Also, consider travelling to a new location for your first job to get a bit more experience of the world as well.

5. Just like some doctors are better at staying current on the latest treatments and research, how do programmers stay current when there seems to be so many new technologies and programming languages to learn. How do you manage to filter through all of it to get what will last and have future value? Or is it even critical that programmers do stay current or is there enough maintenance work to go around forever?

A.  I think the number one rule is to not rely on your employer for this. This is really your own professional responsibility. Employers will train you for what you need immediately but usually not for much else and not for things that they aren’t interested in.

One of the great things about the profession today is that most of the programming tools that are important are either open source or have free versions available (like Visual Studio Express). So you can dabble with all sorts of things in your spare time. All you really need is a computer and an Internet connection. I really believe in learning by doing. So pick something new and interesting and do a small project in it to see if you want to go deeper.

6. What are some common pitfalls new programmers could avoid in their early careers?

A. I think the most common pitfalls are either being too loyal to a company or giving up on a company too easily.

Often people in their career have very high and probably unrealistic expectations on how well a company is run. Often this gives rise to a lot of changing jobs after quick stints. This can be a mistake if you don’t get ahead and develop a resume with lots of short stays.

The reverse is the other common mistake—being in a job that doesn’t work, but trying to stick it out too long rather than cutting the cord. Leaving is often a hard decision to make, but is often easier earlier in your career. Finding the right compromise between these two extremes can be very difficult.

7. What is the most valuable lesson or lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career that you could share with a new programmer?

A. That things are often darkest before the dawn. On any project at some point things are going to look bad, problems look unsolvable, bugs are piling up and deadlines are being missed. The lesson here is not to take the whole world’s problems on your shoulders, but to just work through the problems one by one. Often these are difficult problems that take much more time than you would have thought, but sticking to this eventually yields the light at the end of the tunnel.

Another take on this is to remain optimistic in the face of adversity. Or follow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s main advice: Don’t Panic! (Their other advice of always carry a towel, I’m not so sure about).


8. Who were your early role models?

A. Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak for what they did to start their companies. Steve Jobs for what he did when he returned to Apple.

9. Is there anything you would have done differently in your early career knowing what you know now?

A. There are always so many shoulda coulda wouldas. Now I know which companies back then paid the big bucks in stock options, but it’s hard to predict when looking forwards. I sometimes wonder if I should have moved from Vancouver, but then you get a beautiful day like today and just say “Nah”.

10. Is there a question that I didn’t ask that you wished I did?

A. No, this blog is already getting quite long J.

Point taken, Steve, this is a good place to wrap it up. Oh and, Happy Valentine’s Day, to you and to all your readers.

Written by smist08

February 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] This is a guest blog posting by my wife, Cathalynn Labonté-Smith, though I’m the one answering the questions. *** It may seem odd to readers to interview the man I've looked across the dinner table…  […]

  2. + 1 on learning by doing.

    Joining code jam sessions or developer groups can be fun way to get started.

    boulton clive

    February 17, 2014 at 12:51 am

  3. […] blog posts I’ve been talking about attracting new employees whether through office design, advice for someone starting their career or corporate mobility. In this article I’ll be looking at some ideas on how to keep existing […]

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