So you're really good at hammers

If you're about to hire a contractor to remodel your kitchen, you won't ask them if they're really good at hammering nails.

And if you hire a personal trainer, you're not going to be too interested in if they use the latest and greatest weight machines.

So why then, do software consultants often value themselves based on the tools they use? What value is it to your clients to know you have a theoretical knowledge of framework X, when framework Y is threatening its demise?

As your customer, I already know you can hammer nails. I want to know what kind of house you can build me. I want to know that, in the event nails suddenly become passé, you can deliver me a functional house using screws or bolts or glue.

More often than not, your hard skills don't matter. It's your meta-skill— your ability to learn new skills rapidly and under pressure—that is truly valuable.

Just like hard skills, meta-skills can be learned. Through conditioning, you can train your body and mind to be really good at learning. Here are some things that have worked for me.

  1. Spend an hour per day reading about the latest technologies in your discipline. Apply one of them to a side project. Ask your clients or employer if you can give a talk on one. If you think there's a new technology that could add value to your client's project, say so, and lobby to use it.

  2. Adopt a product-oriented mentality. Don't get caught in the weeds of implementation. Be sure to poke your head out to make sure what you're doing matches your product's overarching vision. Talk more and code less.

  3. Start with the solution in mind. If you're going to build a new feature, sketch it out first and ask for feedback. It's likely you're wrong in at least one of your assumptions. Better to make it wrong on a napkin than in code.

  4. Learn to distill everything in lists. Developers are communicators above all. If you are a capable analyst, you will excel no matter the toolset. Lists convey to your team and stakeholders an itemized vision of the future. They're easy to clarify and easy to change. And, they ultimately produce more value than the code that spawns from them.

  5. Don't be afraid of not doing it best way the first time. On a recent project, I was tasked with building a new user interface feature. I decided that, since React is eating the world of web interfaces, it was time we caught up with the times. My first release of the feature worked great for the user, but under the hood I neglected some of the best practices I would later learn. While we're still in the process of adopting those practices, my code is currently chugging along in production, adding value to the product. If we're to brave new frontiers, it's likely we'll end up backtracking along the way.

Technologies change, but your own meta-skill will keep you valuable for your entire life. Even if you're really good at hammers, make sure you know how to build a house.