Apprenticeship Pattern Review 4: Retreat into Competence

When a software developer gets overwhelmed by the complexity of their current project or the fact that there is so much they don’t know, it is okay to “retreat into competence”. In the face of a challenge that seems insurmountable, taking a step back to see how for you’ve come and what you have accomplished is okay. While retreating into competence can be the right prescription for times like these, it is important to use the traction gained while retreating to propel yourself beyond where you first had stopped.

The title of this pattern almost seems contradictory to the whole concept of becoming a software craftsman. A software craftsman should always seek to move forward in their knowledge and career, why would the authors be telling us to retreat? While being able to continuously march forward indefinitely, steadily increasing project complexity and your responsibilities would be ideal, it almost never works like this in the real world. I find this pattern to be quite important, because without it, it seems that one would be going directly against the principles of a software craftsman to step back from a problem and retreat into competence.

One thing to note is I feel like it is especially easy to fall back on this pattern too much. If you consistently find yourself pressing the “eject” button whenever you reach a problem you might not know how to solve yet how will you ever go forward. It is important to set constraints on how long you can retreat in order to protect yourself from truly going against the principles of software craftsmanship and living a career filled with mediocrity. This is a powerful pattern, use it responsibly.

I feel like this pattern can be used in many situations in order to get over hurdles in one’s career that seem too great. Allowing yourself to create things you feel comfortable developing can help you regain faith in yourself and software development as a career. This is a pattern I have used myself and have seen great success with. When I find myself lost or over my head with a given problem, I like to solve small programming challenges, sometimes referred to as kata, in order to instill confidence in myself and remind myself how much I have improved over my career.


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