Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

23 Nov 2013, 12:59 p.m.

I Cannot Be The First Person To Quip About Quantified Self-Loathing

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2013 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

After the first week I spent at Hacker School, I worried that I wasn't spending enough time on improving my programming skills. So I started using Project Hamster to track chunks of time that I specifically spent either learning (via coding, pairing, or listening to useful lectures, mostly), versus chunks I spent teaching or helping others.

This past week, I looked at my involvement with Bicho, an open source project that helps people analyze data from bug trackers, and decided there were too many blockers for me to keep on going as I was going. Thriving is a function of a person times their environment, as I learned in my tech management courses, and -- as I wrote in a summary on the metrics-grimoire mailing list -- at my current level of programming proficiency, and given how much refactoring and testing Bicho could use, it's just a bad fit right now. The maintainers responded well, and promise a refactored Bicho is coming, so I hope to restart contributing at some point in the future.

I wondered, after I stopped: how much time had I spent on this project, and what had I learned from it? So I crunched the numbers. Between October 7th and today, I've spent 158 hours on learning activities and 12.9 on teaching/helping activities, which gives me 173.2 hours in total. (I was sometimes rough when inputting my time into Hamster, so take my significant digits with a grain of salt.) Of those, I've spent 55.9 on Bicho, 53.9 on learning and about two on teaching/helping (such as filing bugs and writing that super long email). So that's a little under a third of my Hacker School learning time.

What did I learn? I threw together a rough list:

  • read a big giant codebase and understood how parts work together
  • got lots more experience with git
  • learned how argparse works enough to port something to it from optparse
  • used XML-RPC APIs, xmlrpclib
  • used launchpadlib module
  • learned how packaging works (, pip)
  • grokked __init__ and modules vs packages
  • learned some of PEP 8 and used the pep8 and pep8ify modules
  • used assert & wrote tests
  • used Beautiful Soup
  • used some of vars & getattr
  • used pdb a little bit
  • learned a little bit re Storm and ORMs
  • used MySQL & python-MySQLdb
  • learned to watch out for old- versus new-style classes
  • got comfortable with virtual environments
  • wrote a regex
  • learned not to put an unquoted argument on the commandline (ampersands!)

That first one is huge. I think it may just take a super long time the first time you try to wrap your head around a codebase fifteen thousand lines long. Then again, now that I've had this experience, I've ordered Michael Feathers's Working Effectively with Legacy Code and may start following Jessica McKellar's advice to Maria Pacana: [Don't] try to understand the whole thing. Understand only as much as you need to know to make the contribution you want to make.

I've now moved on to a different project where I'm making clearer progress, though sometimes it's a slog. In retrospect, I don't really know whether my Bicho work was a good investment of my Hacker School time, or whether I should have stopped a few weeks earlier and learned more and different things. I am trying to remember not to fall prey to the fallacious Fear Of Missing Something. Maybe part of what I learned is a better intuition for "it's time to try a different approach." Argh. So hard, maybe impossible, to assess whether I made good decisions!