Beginner’s Luck: When Kittens Walk Through Walls

I really enjoy working with junior developers. They are super valuable in my team. They bring rapid innovation to stagnant areas of the code base or the process. They add a breath of fresh air to stuffy corners in senior developer-dom. They walk through walls.

Photo by AndriyKo Podilnyk on Unsplash

I’ve spent the last 6 years running a company where education is one our our values. We’ve had interns and junior developers continuously. In addition to coaching them at work, I have spent the same period volunteering as a teaching assistant one afternoon a week at Ada Developers Academy. I’m constantly amazed at how fast beginners learn and the projects they are able to take on.

This comes from what some call beginner’s luck. Rands puts this succinctly:

Early on in your mastery of a complex thing, you are going to catastrophically overestimate your ability.

“Lost in Translation”, Michael Lopp 2011, https://randsinrepose.com/archives/lost-in-translation/

I posit that this is a a good thing. (And, by the way, it’s not just for junior staff ā€” we are all, hopefully, beginning/learning new things all the time.) I like Robert Heinlein’s* parable in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls in which the eponymous kitten walks through walls because he is too young to know it is impossible.

This is exactly what I’ve experienced working with junior developers. They don’t have all the baggage of knowing all the problems that could happen so they happily come up with solutions you never thought would work. Quickly.

Yes, there are integration concerns that they may not have addressed. Sure, the solution might not hold up to scale. All of those can be addressed when needed, but the point is they have found a quick solution to a complex problem.

Those potential pitfalls are learning opportunities for the junior developer. And also for the senior developers to remember that not everything needs to be addressed right away. There’s always a balance of technical debt versus velocity and shaking this up with different perspectives can help keep the balance, well, balanced.

What have you learned from the junior members in your team?


* If you haven’t read the Heinlein “classics” I can’t really recommend them ā€” the misogyny doesn’t hold up.

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