Memorizing APIs

In some Buddhist circles, there’s this idea of “spiritual materialism.” That is, I’ve been to this retreat, and studied with this master, and can quote these texts… the upshot is, I’m just that much closer to enlightenment than you.

Which is funny, because Buddhism is really a game where scoring points puts you farther away from the goal. …er, not that being farther away from the goal is a bad thing.

But of course the same thing happens in the tech industry. People measure themselves, and their colleagues by how many APIs they’ve memorized, or how deep their knowledge is installing and running some particular server, etc. And, of course, the people that promote that kind of measure look for it in others, because it’s just in their best interest for memorization to be the common currency in the industry.

(Just an aside, when I identify “memorization” this way, I’m actually thinking more of my American colleagues than my co-workers who have moved to this country. Foreign schools have a reputation for teaching through rote memorization, but I’ve actually found that the people who have come here from far away have *much* better mental flexibility compared to my own countrymen, who tend to be the lazy thinkers.)

That kind of skill is a good thing, by the way. Someone needs to be an expert on system X. And if someone has that kind of deep, detailed knowledge, they can reach into their bag of tricks and save the day, or improve the performance of the system my a couple of order of magnitudes, and so forth.

It’s also a trap, though, because you end up with a lot of guys who know the lyrics but can’t sing the tune. In conversation, they can barrage everyone with minutia about the workings of the system, but can’t cut through and get out of the weeds.

I tend to be more of an intuitive thinker, and once I learn the details of a system, I kind of get bored with it and start looking for similarities with other systems. Until I tackle the next big thing. I find it helpful to poll the experts to figure out what’s there, and then assemble those pieces into something that make a coherent whole. But I’ve found it hard to really hold on to a system long enough to be able to recite it’s API without referring to a cheat sheet.

I feel a little scared and nervous that because I don’t have the “expert” gene, it’s going to hurt me when it’s time for me to start looking around for my next gig. Which, given my attitude in this shop, is probably pretty near. I can point to a fantastic track record of very complicated, successful applications I’ve put together, but there have been so many technologies involved, I can hardly even remember the details of what any of them looked like.

Maybe I’ll just rely on my winning smile instead.


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