First day at 8th Light

It's been a while since I last updated this blog. Last time I wrote, I was starting to apply for jobs outside academia. I was primarily focusing on data scientist positions, due to my experience with statistical analysis, but I was also interested in the possiblity of a more generalist software engineering role. The latter would require an expanded skill set and knowledge of software development, since as a researcher, I usually only wrote code for a single user: myself.

Enter 8th Light, a software consulting company that has pioneered the apprenticeship model for training software engineers. I'd heard about 8th Light while attending tech Meetups in Chicago and their reputation for excellent coding practices and mentorship. So one day, I submitted an application, figuring it couldn't hurt.

To my surprise, I was invited to do a code submission, involving refactoring and extending the code for a tic-tac-toe game. I can't emphasize enough how much I was able to learn from this experience alone; I think it was the first time I really got to experience a code review with detailed feedback on my code. Then I visited 8th Light's Chicago office for an interview, and to make a long story short, I signed a contract to start as a resident apprentice in July, with Eric Smith as my mentor.

Today was my first day, and I spent the first part of it dealing with administrivia, like handing in paperwork, setting up my laptop, getting my company email and Slack accounts, etc. I got to briefly meet some of the other apprentices during a weekly talk; the topic this time was on leadership, particularly on different leadership styles, when to use them, and how to improve one's leadership skills. (I think that alone illustrates a lot about 8th Light's company culture: the emphasis on self-cultivation, the attention paid to organizational and interpersonal dynamics, and the conscientious approach to the work being done.) Then I met up with Eric, who wrote the email introducing me to the company and filled me in on how the apprenticeship would proceed on a day-to-day basis.

I spent the afternoon working through Test Driven Development by Example. The book demonstrates the process of test driven development by walking you through step by step two example cases. The first builds a multicurrency calculator, and the second creates a framework for automated testing. I'd read through the book before and tried to follow the first example by translating the Java code into Python. But now that I had spent some time absorbing the basics of Java (as preparation for the apprenticeship), Eric suggested that I go through the book with code written in Java. That became my first topic of study.

First I spent some time setting up JUnit, the Java package for unit testing, and figuring out how to use it. Then I opened the book to chapter 1 and began putting together the multicurrency calculator. It definitely helps to be reading this book again with more knowledge of Java; the logic behind the steps taken is much clearer now that I have a better understanding of how Java classes are structured and how they work. I worked to the end of chapter 12, which begins implementing an addition method.

What troubles me is that while I think I mostly comprehend the sequence of thoughts behind each step, I don't yet have a grasp of the more general principles that should guide decisions during the development process. E.g. there are some instances when one has to "go backwards" (revert to previous code) in order to have a test pass. While I understood why that was necessary at that particular stage of developing the multicurrency calculator, I don't know how I would recognize another situation that would call for the same tactic. Kent Beck, the author, says the intuition will develop with practice, so hopefully it will become more apparent with time.

Two points I have taken away from this afternoon's work:

  • Don't be afraid to write ugly code. Write something that will make the test pass first, then refactor it to be good code.
  • There's not a set "size" to the steps taken; you can modulate according to the situation. But if you're running into problems, the immediate response should be to make the steps smaller. A possible rule of thumb may be that the steps should be small enough to make you feel slightly impatient.

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