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Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware

Andy Hunt
Published by Pragmatic Bookshelf
ISBN: 978-1-934356-05-0
279 pages
£ 21.99
Published: 28th October 2008
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the December 2008 issue (pdf), (html)

This is a self-help book, written specifically (or at least mainly) for programmers and geeks, by one of the authors of the original “Pragmatic Programmer” book and of the Ruby "pickaxe" book.

On looking at the book for the first time, I was slightly put off by the subtitle: , and was expecting too many brain/computer comparisons and metaphors. There are quite a few of these, but only when they are constructive and useful.

Some years ago, I was given a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. This book's author shows you that despite what you might think, you can draw. She does this by giving you exercises that force your brain out of its rational linear “L-mode” into what she calls R-mode: most particularly by copying pictures that are upside down. I was amazed to find that it worked even for me.

Andy Hunt takes up these concepts of L-mode and R-mode and makes them one of the core ideas of his book. L-mode is linear, rational, linguistic, left-brain thinking. R-mode is “rich mode”, non-verbal, intuitive, perceptual thinking. While one might expect that programmers would have little need of the latter type of thinking, the author believes that the ability to switch between L-mode and R-mode provides you with powerful problem solving capabilities that you will not have if you spend all your time in L-mode.

There are many other suggestions and insights in this book. The author is deeply scathing about what he calls “sheep-dip” training methods, insisting that real learning only takes place when the student has a definite (but limited) aim and the necessary motivation. He uses the “Dreyfus model” of skill acquisition to show that programming is not very different from other fields (nurses and pilots are mentioned as comparisons). There is the same progression through , , , and to , and in each profession the relative numbers of practitioners in each category follows a similar profile, with the majority in the second. He believes that organisations that fail to understand that individuals at different stages need to be handled and managed in different ways can be expected to lose their best employees, and are unlikely to be able to make best use of any of their staff.

Also covered are note taking, mind maps, personality types, discovering how your primary learning type and productive and unproductive ways of “wasting time”.

If this all sounds slightly wishy-washy — the kind of book you wouldn't bother to open: think again. It is written with programming as the context and with people with our types of personalities in mind. Most people will find something here that is useful to them.

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