Investing in the Learning Curve

We have a concept of what the learning curve represents, and unfortunately, the same thing can represent 2 opposite concepts. What makes more sense to me is looking at a learning curve from a classical labour cost perspective and more keenly towards labour productivity. In this sense, the learning curve is interpreted, broadly, as: the more you work with something, the more productive (cheaper, better, faster, more knowledgeable) you become. And one can recognise that sentiment when it’s expressed variously with respect to success, specialization, expertise, productivity, quality or minimizing costs. So where’s the investment?

Programming technology changes rapidly, and sometimes to the detriment of programming and business, sometimes not, but also to the advantage of progress and for the sake of technology itself. But changes are also forced to be incremental in order to be successfully adopted, since any radical departure will result in a prohibitively expensive learning curve where the economic costs outweigh the advantages of the change. Similarly, you also cannot force change too frequently, even if it’s small enough, since you never get to break even or realise a profit from the previous change. I think this last point might also be reflected in the current developer attitudes towards the “next big Microsoft thing” and the ubiquitous jading of old hats. Everyone seems to hanging five for a bit before moving forward. Or maybe Douglas Adam’s theory is kicking in?

At the same time though, you need to keep moving forward. So where do you invest your next generation of development so as to minimize the costs of the learning curve if you want to remain marketable and competitive across:
* web development
* mobile application development
* backend systems
* any platform (platform agnostic)

C++, C, C#, VB, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby… ?

All these languages have their pro’s and con’s and more importantly, costs. As an example, I recently looked at Symbian C++ development, and the learning curve is relatively expensive. The idioms alone take time to get to grips with, so although you got a very powerful API, C++ on Windows desktop, or legacy ATL knowledge is not easily transferrable to a Symbian C++ development effort. Possible, but no as easy as say, being able to use a standard framework and language, with the same idioms, on both (all) platforms. That would be the ultimate prize (for me).

And it doesn’t have to be the same language. Case in point, i’m currently using Monorail (.NET web development) and RoR (other web development) concurrently on different projects and i’m enjoying the benefit of being able to work in a predictable (hence productive) manner switching between the two, relatively seamlessly. Whereas, switching between asp.net webform development and RoR, as an example would not be feasible. The traditional 30% context switch overhead would double.

So if you’re faced with “what to learn next”, take a closer look at the learning curve and where you can (need to) apply that knowledge in the future, in order to remain competitive- whether globally, or within your own department. Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but it’s surprising just how un-obvious the obvious can become when there are a lot of flashing lights going off all the time. So it’s not always about the language or the technology, but also a lot about the “way” in which things are done; which, by nature, is usually a little more sublime to spot since it’s hiding in plain sight 😉

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