CTO Compass

Good Timber Does Not Grow With Ease

CTO Compass series

In my blog email, we explored the simple maths behind the 1% Rule and saw how important consistency is in getting 1% better every day.

While the math is neat and accurate and the phrase is catchy, the real world is more complex. As a CTO, I am far more interested in what is practical and can be put into action. At best, it might encourage you to begin taking action. The real trick is maintaining momentum. As the equation demonstrated, generally, the issue is a lack of consistency, not applying effort and hard work for a long enough period to see tangible benefits. Most people don’t stick to anything long enough.

Beyond that, there is another reason: people aren’t systematic in their learning, so there’s no material improvement.

Putting in the hard work…

By definition, learning is uncomfortable. However, understanding and improvement only occur when you are just outside your comfort zone.

Good timber does not grow with ease: The stronger wind, the stronger trees; The further sky, the greater length; The more the storm, the more the strength. By sun and cold, by rain and snow, In trees and men good timbers grow.” — Douglas Malloch

To grow, you need to experience discomfort and adversity. Whether you like it or not, you must put in the work every day. As Phil Stutz says, “We will never be exonerated from three things: pain, uncertainty, and the need for hard work.”

Success is not guaranteed. The only guarantee is that you almost certainly won’t succeed without putting in the reps.

Hard work is not enough

Yet putting in effort is not enough to achieve growth. Taking a vague or aimless approach to learning will likely slow down or impede progress, as there will be no clear improvement to show for your efforts. Instead, applying focused and deliberate effort will yield much better results than a haphazard or unfocused approach.

We have recently been hiring more developers to join our team, and there’s a common thread in many of the CVs we receive. The candidates purport to be senior-level developers because they have worked in the industry for ten years. However, their CV doesn’t demonstrate that they have improved their skills significantly over those ten years. More often than not, they have repeated the same year or two of experience ten times.

Purposeful Practice

Okay, so how do we make sure we’re specifically getting better at improving our skills or those of our team? There are a variety of approaches, but today, we’re going to concentrate on Purposeful Practice.

You may have heard of Deliberate Practice. It’s a term popularised by K. Anders Ericsson through his research and resulting books. For something to qualify as deliberate practice, it must contain the following elements:

  1. Practice must be focused such that you are applying intense effort and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. For example, writing a program using techniques you already know doesn’t count.
  2. Practice requires feedback and then adjustments to technique following that feedback. Feedback doesn’t need to be instant but must follow soon afterwards.
  3. The practice has well-defined, specific goals, e.g. it’s not to play the entire musical piece; it’s to master a complicated section that requires unorthodox finger positions.
  4. Practice is conducted in a field with a well-established pedagogy of training techniques.
  5. A teacher or coach guides practice.
  6. The practice should build on or modify previously acquired skills.

Encompassing all these points is particularly difficult in wicked domains like knowledge work. However, the first three points can be more easily achieved with forethought and planning, constituting Purposeful Practice.

So, to progress in any field of study, the key to seeing real improvement with consistent hard work is to identify the skills you want to improve. Then, break those skills into specific sub-skills and create exercises and drills to practice the required techniques. Set yourself up for success by removing distractions and preparing your environment for practice. Schedule your sessions and track your completion. You’ll be more likely to maintain momentum by building a streak.

Do the focused practice and then get feedback on your effort. Ideally, have someone with more expertise in that area review your work and provide information or advice on adjustments you should make. If that’s not possible, at least reflect on the exercise yourself. Consider what went well, what needs work, and how you will improve it the next time. You’ll make more meaningful gains when you consistently apply hard work and effort with a focused study practice.


⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

This week, identify a skill set you want to improve for yourself or your team members and break it into relevant sub-skills. Do some research around it if you need to. In the software development world that I’m most familiar with, there are a variety of resources for working through code katas and similar exercises. A not-for-profit organisation, Exercism , has thousands of exercises and a community of mentors, which practically ticks all the boxes of Purposeful Practice.

Set some practice goals, find or define a series of exercises that allow you to drill those techniques, and schedule the practice sessions.

Now, get to it.

CTO Compass series