Programming languages: Quantity? Quality? I think we're asking the wrong question.

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More from Francis Ocoma:

Should I try to master every popular programming language
that I come across, or should I just pick the ones I really like, and
stick to them (Right now my favorites are Ruby and C++)? Our school
currently forces us to learn such uglies as VB.NET <http://VB.NET> and
VBScript, imagine that! And now I'm having a hard time concentrating
on my self-study of Python, which I know is far more popular than
Ruby. Is it really worth learning these programming languages now,
just because I might end up being hired by a company that requires
them in the future?

I could tell you to focus on quality, not quantity. I could advise you
to pay attention to what you need for your school and your career. Or
I could point out that we could be missing the big picture here.

I think that how many programming languages you know is far less
important than what you actually _do_ with those languages. A lot of
people focus on listing programming languages on their resume, but
they don't show how they've actually _used_ these languages beyond the
toy exercises in the classroom.

I think this is where most graduates fail. That's why they have such a
hard time finding jobs. They can list popular languages, but they
can't show what they can do with them, and they can't speak with any
real passion about their work.

What does it mean to have studied VB.NET for a semester? What does it
mean to be able to make graphical applications in Java? What does it
mean to have two years of experience in C++? It takes ten years to become an expert.
There's a huge difference between ten years experience, and one year repeated ten times.

That's why open source projects are so important. They give you
real-world opportunities to work with other people. If you're lucky
enough to work for a company that'll pay you while you figure out a
new language, good for you. If you're not, open source gives you a way
to experiment and keep learning.

The amazing thing is that you don't have to know a lot in order to
contribute. I joined the iPaq bootldr project only vaguely remembering
C and without any assembly experience. I started maintaining Planner
barely comfortable with Emacs Lisp. All you really need is the ability
to read other people's code and create a solution that fits in—a
skill highly prized by employers.

Your work will be reviewed by other developers, who'll tell you what
you can improve and teach you better ways of doing things. It will
also be inspected by your users, who'll judge your code not by how
elegant it is or how long it took you to write it, but whether it
works for them. And when you read other people's code, you're going to
learn the idioms and tricks that people accumulate with years and
years of experience.

Even more important: you'll pick up domain knowledge. Software engineers are useless. Generic software engineers, that is. Programming is not an end. It is a _means_.
Learn enough about at least one area to make a difference in it.
And you know what? If you find the domain you're interested in and you
become comfortable with the programming languages you need to solve
problems in that domain, then you'll probably be able to choose any job you want.

If you're not interested in the domain, however, then no amount of
programming expertise can make your work truly satisfying and
productive. You'd be a hammer in search of a nail, a solution looking
for a problem. You need to be interested in your work. You need to see
how you're making a difference. If not, it's just a 9 – 5 job with too
much overtime and stress, and you're going to burn out.

So get out there, find out what you're interested, and learn with a
purpose. Don't just collect computer languages for the sake of listing
them on your resume. Solve real problems and make a difference, and
you'll have plenty of experience and transferable skills to enrich
your career.

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