Why You’ve Got to Become a Polylingual Geek

Code SnippetI go to startup events frequently, and one of the things I hear many engineers say is this: “I’m a ___ geek!” “I’m a Rails geek!” “I’m a Java geek!” “I’m just a C# kind of guy.” “Me and objective-C, baby, we’re like this!”

Congratulations. Too bad it won’t last.

Ten years ago, when I started working on websites, we did it all in Java. We wrote JSP pages and Java server side code. Many of my friends were ASP-types, and others were really into ColdFusion. Today, most of my friends create websites in Ruby on Rails. We use Java sometimes, too. I don’t know anyone who uses ColdFusion any more (but they’re still out there!).

Languages and frameworks are transitory. They come and go in a matter of just a few years. Today’s hot language is tomorrow’s “nobody uses that any more.” There are more and more languages and frameworks showing up every day. The popular source code hosting site GitHub has repositories in 74 different languages!

So don’t get tied to a framework or a language. If you have a 20 year career in software engineering, you’ll go through at least two or four, and probably many more, languages and frameworks. Software engineers working on cutting edge software delivery mechanisms (hint: mobile, Web, robotics) can expect to work in many more than that.

Do yourself and your career a favor: Become a polylingual geek.

Learning your first language and first framework is hard. They’re the ones that teach you the most basic things about programming. Learning the second language is really hard. That’s the language that teaches you the difference between common techniques and fundamentals and language-specific quirks. The third, fourth and fifth languages and frameworks get a lot easier. Keep practicing, and you’ll be able to pick up new tools, new languages, and new frameworks more and more quickly, since you have an understanding of how they fundamentally work. You can say, “oh, this new language handles arrays just like (language you already know),” and you just get it.

There are several different kinds of languages. Pick up one or two of each:

  • a functional language
  • an object oriented language
  • a scripting language
  • a compiled language
  • an interpreted language

Once you’ve embraced the constant learning and constant skills updates that come with learning new languages and frameworks, a whole new world opens up. That really cool job that happens to use a language you don’t know? No big deal — you can learn it!

Are you polylingual? How do you keep up with new languages and new frameworks? Tell me by posting a comment below.

No Responses to “Why You’ve Got to Become a Polylingual Geek”

  1. “That really cool job that happens to use a language you don’t know? No big deal — you can learn it!”

    What is the probability a candidate will even be considered for that “really cool job” if the submitted resume does not show an even rudimentary knowledge of that language? I dare say it’s statistically insignificant unless the candidate has networked his/her way into that position based on knowledge of other programming languages and proof of ability to learn.

    There are many “old geeks” who are polylingual. More than a few have learned (self taught or otherwise) a “cool language”. Regardless, those geeks have demonstrated the ability to learn. Sadly, it seems much of industry does not care. Amazingly there was a recent blog lamenting the state of recent college grads; no in-demand/appropriate skills being taught. I have learned

  2. Catherine Powell

    Mike, you make a good point. Sometimes it’s hard to overcome the keyword filters. You’re more likely to get considered (read: a hiring manager will look at your resume) if you’re applying to a place that doesn’t use keyword filtering HR software. It does raise the importance of networking.

    As a general rule, you’re far more likely to get considered for a job if you get in some way other than just throwing your resume against the proverbial wall.

    • What percentage of companies do not use keyword filtering software? What percentage of companies pass all the resumes to the hiring manager rather than screen them through a HR “generalist” who might, or might not, know anything about what to look for in a technically oriented resume?

      • Catherine Powell

        I really don’t know – that would be interesting to find out. I do know it varies greatly based on the kind of company to which you’re applying. I work almost exclusively with companies under 150 people, and in the set of my clients and employers, none of them have used any keyword filtering software. Three of them sent resumes through HR first, which works out to maybe 10%.

        I suspect others have different experiences. What about in your background? Do you know the answers to your questions in the market you’re interested in?

      • Catherine,

        I do not know the percentage. I am not sure how that data would even be acquired except to ask and assume truth was being told. It would be equally interesting to review “screened” (by HR or software) resumes to see if there is a pattern and if seemingly qualified, based on reading it, were being bypassed.

        The most significant problem that I see, beyond “filters” from either HR or software is the too-frequent lack of even an automated response to a web-based application. There is no reason for any e-mail “system” to respond with one of the following:

        1. no such address at this domain
        2. thank you very much for contacting us

        If you are interested, ping me and I’ll share a story about e-mail and a finance manager.