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On Quitting While You’re Ahead

2013 July 26
by Richard Harrington

In the early part of Hacker School, I was involved in a study group making its way through the book, Types and Programming Languages, by Benjamin Pierce. It’s a very interesting book, and I started reading it not only because I felt I needed a better grounding in lambda calculus and type theory, but because I thought I would actually enjoy it. I’d really loved a class I took on Coursera last spring, Dan Grossman’s Programming Languages course, and the material in TAPL seemed to be a deeper treatment of some of the theory brought up in that course, in the same way that my college course in abstract algebra (which I loved) was a re-examination of grade-school arithmetic. I’m not comparing Grossman’s course to grade school, but you know what I mean — first you learn how to use the stuff, and then you really delve into how and why it works in exhaustive detail.

In the third week of Hacker School, we had our second meeting of the group in the “fishbowl,” which is what we called the central room in the Hacker School space that has windows on all four sides looking out on… the rest of Hacker School.

I’d already started to spend a lot more of my time coding and a lot less time reading the book, and I was mostly unprepared for the meeting. Once the group got past the part of the chapter on lambda calculus that I had read and understood, I was completely lost. I wasn’t exactly sure when I would catch up, either, as I was feeling less and less inclined to spend my summer poring over a graduate level textbook in type theory, not having ever taken a CS course in my life.

At a certain point during the study group meeting I was reminded of my friend Krista, who grew up in Manitoba and was a star cross-country runner in high school, winning province-wide awards. Then one day she decided to stop doing cross country, and followed through on her decision immediately — in the middle of a race. I’ve never watched cross country myself, but apparently, unlike in track races, it’s quite common to find yourself alone for stretches of time, and it was during one of these stretches that she thought to herself, “I don’t want to do this any more.” She slowed down, walked to the finish line, and never ran another race.

Inspired by her example, I decided to leave the fishbowl and go work on my tic tac toe project in Clojure. I felt pretty good about it. I still think it’s incredibly interesting material, and I have greatly benefited since then in my Clojure studies from the refresher course on set theory and the definition of a function in the first chapter of the book, but I never looked back. I’ve spent my summer since then making things and helping other people make things. Some day, when I’ve made enough things, I’ll go back and look at how exactly they’re made, from the ground up.

This experience has now repeated itself a number of times over the summer. Being as unstructured as it is, Hacker School is an exercise in knowing when you need to keep persevering on a project, and when you’ve learned as much as you’re going to learn and need to move on, even if you’re not “finished” in any traditional sense.

For instance, this past week, fellow Hacker Schooler Sunil Abraham and I spent a couple mornings trying to re-implement the Unix utility traceroute in the OCaml language, not knowing much about OCaml or about networking. Eventually we wisely gave up on that. I now know slightly more about networking and the traceroute utility, but that’s the subject of another post…

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