When I first saw Starling Software’s Programmer Competency Matrix, I was struck by the parallels between its four levels and the first four of the five that Dr. Patricia Benner identified in her landmark book From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice. Her five levels—which are grounded in a ton of empirical data—are as follows:
- Stage 1: Novice
- Novices have had no experience of the situations in which they are expected to perform. Novices are taught rules to help them perform. The rules are context-free and independent of specific cases; hence the rules tend to be applied universally. The rule-governed behavior typical of the novice is extremely limited and inflexible. As such, novices have no “life experience” in the application of rules.
- Stage 2: Advanced Beginner
- Advanced beginners are those who can demonstrate marginally acceptable performance, those who have coped with enough real situations to note, or to have pointed out to them by a mentor, the recurring meaningful situational components. These components require prior experience in actual situations for recognition. Principles to guide actions begin to be formulated. The principles are based on experience.
- Stage 3: Competent
- Competence develops when the practitioner begins to see his or her actions in terms of long-range goals or plans of which he or she is consciously aware. A plan establishes a perspective, and the plan is based on considerable conscious, abstract, analytic contemplation of the problem. The conscious, deliberate planning that is characteristic of this skill level helps achieve efficiency and organization. The competent practitioner lacks the speed and flexibility of a proficient one but does have a feeling of mastery and the ability to cope with and manage the many contingencies of the real world. The competent person does not yet have enough experience to recognize a situation in terms of an overall picture or in terms of which aspects are most salient, most important.
- Stage 4: Proficient
- The proficient practitioner perceives situations as wholes rather than in terms of chopped up parts or aspects, and performance is guided by maxims. Proficient practitioners understand a situation as a whole because they perceive its meaning in terms of long-term goals. The proficient practitioner learns from experience what typical events to expect in a given situation and how plans need to be modified in response to these events. The proficient practitioner can now recognize when the expected normal picture does not materialize. This holistic understanding improves the proficient practitioner’s decision making; it becomes less labored because the practitioner now has a perspective on which of the many existing attributes and aspects in the present situation are the important ones. The proficient practitioner uses maxims as guides which reflect what would appear to the competent or novice performer as unintelligible nuances of the situation; they can mean one thing at one time and quite another thing later.
- Stage 5: Expert
- The expert practitioner no longer relies on rules to connect his or her understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. The expert practitioner, with an enormous background of experience, now has an intuitive grasp of each situation and zeroes in on the accurate region of the problem without wasteful consideration of a large range of unfruitful, alternative diagnoses and solutions. The expert operates from a deep understanding of the total situation. He or she is no longer aware of features and rules; his/her performance becomes fluid, flexible, and highly proficient. Experts do use analytic tools in situations where they have had no previous experience, or when they make a wrong initial assessment of the situation.
I’d like to find out what knowledge programmers think they acquire at each of these five stages. My first guess is in the table shown below; what else do you think should be there? And what shouldn’t, or is in the wrong place? (Note that this table starts at Novice level, which is not the same as an absolute beginner who has seen nothing at all. For us, a novice is someone who has done a standard first-year university “Computing 101″ course, and can hack together code to (more or less) pass an assignment, but in Benner’s terms, has no “life experience” of their own on which to base decisions when faced with real-world problems.)
|Description||Our assumed starting point||If they learn just one thing||If they learn everything in our course||Beyond the scope of this course (but in the next one)||Large-scale development for computational science|
|Data Structures||list||list of lists||dictionary, queue||tree (recursion)||cyclic graphs (and too many others to mention)|
|Modularization||function||libraries (import)||first-class functions
|Patterns||what’s a pattern?||forall
|factory vs. prototype
tokenization using split
|wildcard regular expressions||character encoding (Unicode)||—||recursive descent parsing|
|Data Management||shared drive||version control
structured vs. unstructured data
metadata (format specifiers, provenance)
|Design||functions for code re-use||entities and relationships
interface vs. implementation
|Liskov Substitution Principle
OO design patterns
|Build||“javac *.java”||“make program”||patterns and rules||macros
|Documentation||README.txt||Javadoc and equivalents||—||—||—|
|Testing||hand-run tests (interactive or scripted)||unit tests using a framework
|boundary case analysis||static analysis
|Packaging and Deployment||tar and email||version control labels
|installation scripts||RPMs, Eggs, autoconf||—|
|Web Programming||download files by clicking on them||wget
|the HTTP protocol
public/private key pairs
|CGI to serve static content||partial failure
algorithms vs. tweaks
Today, my friends Jorge and Val welcomed their first child, Aurora Aranda-Cortés, into the world. And today, for the first time in nine years, my sister and her family didn’t have Easter dinner with my parents, because she is too ill to make the 40 minute journey.
The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse.
It is danced under blue skies to celebrate the quickening of the soil and under bare stars because it’s springtime and with any luck the carbon dioxide will unfreeze again. The imperative is felt by deep-sea beings who have never seen the sun and urban humans whose only connection with the cycles of nature is that their Volvo once ran over a sheep.
It is danced innocently by raggedy-bearded young mathematicians to an inexpert accordion rendering of “Mrs Widgery’s Lodger” and ruthlessly by such as the Ninja Morris Men of New Ankh, who can do strange and terrible things with a simple handkerchief and a bell.
And it is never danced properly.
Except on the Discworld, which is flat and supported on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the world turtle.
And even there, only in one place have they got it right. It’s a small village high in the Ramtop Mountains, where the big and simple secret is handed down across the generations.
There, the men dance on the first day of spring, backwards and forwards, bells tied under their knees, white shirts flapping. People come and watch. There’s an ox roast afterwards, and it’s generally considered a nice day out for the all the family.
But that isn’t the secret.
The secret is the other dance.
In the village in the Ramtops where they understand what the Morris dance is all about, they dance it just once, at dawn, on the first day of spring. They don’t dance it after that, all through the summer. After all, what would be the point? What use would it be?
But on a certain day when the nights are drawing in, the dancers leave work early and take, from attics and cupboards, the other costume, the black one, and the other bells. And they go by separate ways to a valley among the leafless trees. They don’t speak. There is no music. It’s very hard to imagine what kind there could be.
The bells don’t ring. They’re made of octiron, a magic metal. But they’re not, precisely, silent bells. Silence is merely the absence of noise. They make the opposite of noise, a sort of heavily textured silence.
And in the cold afternoon, as the light drains from the sky, among the frosty leaves and in the damp air, they dance the other Morris. Because of the balance of things.
You’ve got to dance both, they say. Otherwise you can’t dance either.
—Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man, 1991
Two people asked me “how are things?” this morning just a few seconds apart. My answer is, “I need a job, my sister has two months (maybe three), and we’re about to re-elect a cold-hearted control freak because progressive forces in this country have run out of steam. But all three of my current book projects are moving forward, I woke up beside my wife and daughter this morning, and we get to have elections as often as we want.” As Facebook says, “It’s complicated.”
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Run for the Cure, Ride for the Cure, Dance for the Cure—they have saved a lot of lives, and I have nothing but respect for all the people who have organized them, taken part in them, and given them money, but what about prevention? Shouldn’t we put just as much energy and effort into wiping out the things that cause cancer?