Software Development as a Martial Art

Sanjin Celeski

Head of Engineering at Banque Saudi Fransi


Talking from my point of view as a specialist in web technologies; there is a lot to learn in this industry, yet you can never learn everything. Looking back to how the web looked when I discovered my passion, things have changed drastically. What started as a military experiment, over decades has evolved into a monster that keeps mutating.

The Web is the most hostile software engineering environment imaginable.

— Douglas Crockford, member of the TC39 committee

I can’t imagine that anyone can enjoy working in such an environment unless they love what they do. Driven by enthusiasm many have developed a self-taught mindset and feel confident with what they think they know. Sooner or later everyone struggles. Learning in isolation leads to many roadblocks, frustrations, stress, and burnout. Ultimately, it stagnates your growth.

In Jiu-Jitsu, success comes from sparring. As a matter of fact, from the very first day, you are grappling with other students. The advancement in Jiu-Jitsu is slow, but it’s a journey that brings long-term growth.

Unknown unknowns

This might get your brain in a twist but bear with me. I really like the phrase “We don’t know what we don’t know” inspired by the infamous statement:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

— Donald Rumsfeld, former United States Secretary of Defense

This is where human ignorance ends and science begins. We often misjudge the depth of our own understanding. Each one of us has our own quadrant of knowledge. Therefore, individually we know less, but collectively we know more. It is fundamental to be open to knowledge. By sharing knowledge we find more unknown unknowns and convert them to known unknowns.

Talking about mindset; being self-taught helps, but your goal should be to develop a growth mindset and learn how to learn. Many have already walked the same path, and we can learn from them.

In Jiu-Jitsu, the learning process doesn’t stop with the highest degree belt. One can never say; my Jiu-Jitsu is now complete, I have mastered it, and there is nothing more to learn.

Learn from mentors

Whether you are a beginner or feel like an expert, the fact is that there is always someone more experienced than you. Experience is not the same as knowledge. Experience comes from how many battles you have fought. Knowledge is theoretical, experience is practical. Years of practice make you experienced.

I often say that; when it comes to web development, the hardest part is not any particular language, framework, or library, but the complexity of the whole ecosystem and figuring out what goes where. Once you go down the rabbit hole, to build the experience you have to invest your most valuable asset — time.

It takes 10.000 hours to truly master anything. Time spent leads to experience; experience leads to proficiency; and the more proficient you are the more valuable you’ll be.

— Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Outliers

With that said it’s really important for you to find someone experienced and start asking questions. Eventually, you will meet individuals who will teach you more than you ask for. They might not have all the answers but you will feel that they really care about your growth, both on a professional and personal level. Then you will understand that you have found a true mentor.

In Jiu-Jitsu, the culture of helping each other is what makes this martial art so attractive. But the discipline of listening plays a key role here. There is no place for ego in Jiu-Jitsu because you are going to be awful at it for a long time, which as a beginner you are supposed to be. There is really no other way. Otherwise, your ability to grow is very limited.

Learn from mentees

Maybe you notice, maybe you don’t, but you also learn to deal with people who are not yet on your level. Surprise, surprise.

Science proves that teaching someone else is the best way to learn. We call it The Protégé Effect and it is related to human psychology. It turns out that only when you actually try to describe the particulars of how something works you’re likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. People feel that they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision and depth than they really do. In cognitive psychology that is identified as The Illusion of Explanatory Depth.

That is why having a mentee to challenge your knowledge is equally important as having a mentor. Hear the wisdom that’s been around for thousands of years:

Docendo discimus. (Latin “by teaching, we learn”)

— Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

Another reason for having a mentee is satisfaction for someone else’s accomplishment, and this is what motivates me the most to help others.

In Jiu-Jitsu, it is common that one can be manhandled by someone smaller or more out of shape. When you think about it, a black belt is just a white belt with more experience. Most experienced practitioners will spend vast amounts of time helping their peers for mutual benefit.


It should be obvious by now that mentoring is both about receiving and giving. There is a saying; teamwork makes the dreamwork. The first step in developing a growth mindset is to realize that you simply can’t know everything and allow yourself to be taught. Hopefully, this motivates you to be open-minded about what you really know. You will be surprised to discover yet another way of thinking outside of the box.

Take home this lesson from the creator of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu:

There is no losing in Jiu-Jitsu, you either win or learn.

— Grand Master Carlos Gracie

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Sanjin Celeski

Head of Engineering at Banque Saudi Fransi

Technical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsProgrammingSoftware DevelopmentCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentTraining & Mentorship

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