Looking for a measurable impact from developer social learning

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Almost everything you know was discovered/invented by other people. Social learning (i.e., learning from others) is the process of acquiring skills by observing others (teaching is explicit formalised sharing of skills). Social learning provides a mechanism for skills to spread through a population. An alternative to social learning is learning by personal trial and error.

When working within an ecosystem that changes slowly, it is more cost-effective to learn from others than learn through trial and error (assuming that experienced people are available to learn from, and the learner is capable of identifying them); “Social Learning” by Hoppitt and Layland analyzes the costs and benefits of using social learning.

Since its inception, much of software engineering has been constantly changing. In a rapidly changing ecosystem, the experience of established members may suggest possible solutions that do not deliver the expected results in a changed world, i.e., social learning may not be a cost-effective way of building a skill set applicable within the new ecosystem.

Opportunities for social learning occur wherever developers tend to congregate.

When I started writing software people, developers would print out a copy of their code to take away and correct/improve/add-to (this was when 100+ people were time-sharing on a computer with 256K words of memory, running at 1 MHz). People would cluster around the printer, which ran sufficiently slowly that it was possible, in real-time, to read the code and figure out what was going on; it was possible to learn from others code (pointing out mistakes in programs that people planned to hand in was not appreciated). Then personal computers became available, along with low-cost printers (e.g., dot matrix), which were often shared, and did not print so fast that an experienced developer could not figure things out in real-time. Then laser printers came along, delivering a page at a time every 15 seconds, or so; experiencing the first print out from a Laser printer, I immediately knew that real-time code reading was a thing of the past (also, around this time, full-screen editors achieved the responsiveness needed to enthral developers, paper code listings could not compete). A regular opportunity for social learning disappeared.

Mentoring and retrospectives are intended as explicit (perhaps semi-taught) learning contexts, in which social learning opportunities may be available.

The effectiveness of social learning is dependent on being able to select a good enough source of expertise to learn from. Choosing the person with the highest prestige is a common social selection technique; selecting web pages appearing on the first page of a Google search is actually a form of conformist learning (i.e., selecting what others have chosen).

It is possible to point at particular instances of social learning in software engineering, but to what extent does social learning, other than explicit teaching, contribute to developer skills?

Answering this question requires enumerating all the non-explicitly taught skills a developer uses to get the job done, excluding the non-developer specific skills. A daunting task.

Is it even possible to consistently distinguish between social learning (implicit or taught) and individual learning?

For instance, take source code indentation. Any initial social learning is likely to have been subsequently strongly influenced by peer pressure, and default IDE settings.

Pronunciation of operator names is a personal choice that may only ever exist within a developer’s head. In my head, I pronounce the ^ operator as up-arrow, because I first encountered its use in the book Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs which used the symbol , which appears as the ^ character on modern keyboards. I often hear others using the word caret, which I have to mentally switch over to using. People who teach themselves to program have to invent names for unfamiliar symbols, until they hear somebody speaking code (the widespread availability of teach-yourself videos will make it rare to need for this kind of individual learning; individual learning is giving way to social learning).

The problem with attempting to model social learning is that much of the activity occurs in private, and is not recorded.

One public source of prestigious experience is Stack Overflow. Code snippets included as part of an answer on Stack Overflow appear in around 1.8% of Github repositories. However, is the use of this code social learning or conformist transmission (i.e., copy and paste)?

Explaining social learning to people is all well and good, but having to hand wave when asked for a data-driven example is not good. Suggestions welcome.