Episode 77 – Hone Your Writing and Speaking Skills with Jeff Atwood

 In Podcasts

Jeff Atwood is an experienced software developer with a particular interest in the human side of software development. In 2004 Jeff started the blog “Coding Horror” which led to him founding Stack Overflow and subsequently the Stack Exchange network, now one of the 150 largest sites on the internet.


Episode Description:

In this episode, Phil chats with Stack Overflow Founder and writer of the blog “Coding Horror”, Jeff Atwood. Jeff shares his career journey from starting his blog to founding Stack Overflow and starting his latest project, Discourse. Jeff recalls his experience way back on how hard it was to get hold of resources about programming, unlike today. Aside from these, Jeff also stresses how important it is to hone your communication skills – whether it be through writing or networking face-to-face with people. Discover how important this is and how it can help you to grow your career.


Key Takeaways:


(1.02) Phil opens the show by asking Jeff to share a little more about his career journey. Jeff emphasizes that a huge part of his career is coloured by his blog “Coding Horror.” Jeff shares how he started his blog in 2004 as an open research notebook. He adds that his writings are still accruing benefits for him so he advises that you also make your work public.


(4.10) Phil highlights the technological changes that have happened since Jeff started his blog. It’s all about portability and smartphones right now. Jeff agrees and adds that the speed of conversation is moving forward rapidly. There’s lesser long-form writing which he considers not to be a bad thing. He also recognizes that information is digested more through images than words.


(6.28) Phil then asks Jeff for a unique career tip. Jeff’s primary advice is to take into account the people you’re working with. He says that you should make sure that your team is better than you. You should not be the smartest or best person at your job. He adds that any programming job today is navigating the waters of and interacting with other people in the IT industry.


(8.54) Phil and Jeff talk about Jeff’s worst IT career moment. Jeff talks about pre-internet times when it was hard to find people that you can actually learn from. All his IT failures were due to limitations in being able to learn and grow. He says that programmers nowadays are lucky to be living in a hyperconnected world where resources and mentors can be found easily.


(12.21) Jeff says that meeting his hero Clay Shirky was his career highlight. Jeff claims that him building Stack Overflow has been greatly influenced by the writings of Clay Shirky about the human interactions in programming. Stack Overflow is really about one working programmer helping another working programmer.


(16:29) Phil proceeds to ask Jeff’s take on the future of IT. Jeff agrees that a programmer is needed in building and fixing things. But he says that he’s got mixed feelings about how we perceive it as essential for everyone. Some people are just interested in how they optimize the use of computers and tech, in general. And, that’s what all programmers should consider.


(19.20) Moving onto the Reveal Round, Phil first asks what attracted Jeff to start an IT career. Jeff answers that it’s about being a kid living in the world without control. And the only thing he considers he can control is a computer. It’s not just entertainment he gets but he also learns from it.


(20.45) Phil then asks about the best career advice Jeff ever received. Jeff advises that whenever you’re at a crossroads and you have to make a decision, you should choose the option that scares you. He adds that if there is no fear, then you’re not really challenging yourself.


(22.02) When Jeff was asked what he’d change if he was to start his IT career again right now, he answered that he’d choose to start 15 years earlier than when he started. There’s so much information that he thinks he could use and it’s accessible to everyone.


(23.44) Phil wants to know about Jeff’s career objectives. Jeff shares that he’s currently working on Discourse. This is very different from the Q&A platform of Stack Overflow. Discourse concentrates on a more social kind of interaction between users. As Jeff puts it, “It’s a tool for not letting online discourse devolve into the howling of wolves.” And unlike Stack Overflow, Discourse is open-source.


[26:34] Phil then continues the conversation asking about Jeff’s non-technical skill and which one has helped his career the most. Jeff quickly answers that it’s his writing skills. Practicing your writing skills will help you in the grand scheme of things. He says that even Stack Overflow hones good writing skills. The best answers are always those which are clear and concise.


[28:07] Finally, Jeff shares his parting career advice for the IT Career Energizer audience. He reiterates his original advice to challenge yourself and to pick things that scare you a bit. Once you’re exploring difficult scenarios, you’re honing your skills.


Best Takeaways:

(03:39) Jeff: “The really endearing lesson for me is do a lot of your work in public because you gain tremendous benefit from that.”


(06.56) “If you’re at a job where you feel like, “I’m the smartest person at this job,” then that’s a bad job… You should not be the smartest person at your job. If you are, you need to reconsider where you’re going rapidly.”


(10.56) “All my earliest IT career fails were really about being in isolation and just not knowing what I’m supposed to be doing.”


(18.04) “The job of programmers is to make sure we don’t need that many programmers.”


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