Pearls of Wisdom

Steve Harman had a post back at the beginning of the month about stuff you'd tell a young developer. It's a reaction to a similar piece by Jeremy Allison. It's an interesting topic, so I thought I'd waste a few pixels on it myself.

If it's not what you love, don't do it

I wouldn't generalize this to other fields, but for software development, I think this is a good thing to keep in mind. A lot has been made in the past by career counselors and other gurus about "finding your bliss" or similar nonsense. I think that's mostly a crock. You can be a good doctor, mechanic, or professor without liking what you do. Sure, those who love what they do will tend to excel at it and rise to the top of their field, but you have to ask yourself how much better off people at the top of a field are vs. those who are merely good enough.

That said, I think software development is somewhat unique as a career. Software development advances incredibly fast and keeping up with new technologies and ways of doing things takes a non-trivial amount of effort. You have to paddle hard just to stay even and that means experimenting and learning on your own. You could probably do fine if you have Arnold Schwarzenegger level drive, but short of that, loving what you do is about the only way to get you where you need to be.

Reputation is important

People who have been around the block know that the difference between developers can be extreme. Top developers are 5 to 20 times more productive than their peers. Given some of the complete incompetents I've known, I suspect that there's really no upper limit on that number.

Unfortunately, both Jeremy and Steve use this point to jump into the virtues of Open Source software. Open source contributions can enhance your reputation, but that has nothing to do with people being able to look at your code—it's more about working with other developers who can then form their own opinions of you as a developer. That's helpful, but limited.

A good reputation is someone talking about how well you did a job for them. It's your name coming up when someone asks "do you know any good developers?" A good reputation is more important than mere code sample availability and the wider your reputation can penetrate the better off you are.

How important is reputation? Let me put it this way: I haven't gotten a job from anyone who didn't know somebody I'd worked with since 1997. Your reputation and your skills are your only true security in this field.

Never stop asking why

The vast majority of people in any field are content to learn what they have to do to get the job done. Top-tier people are the ones who are asking pesky, even impertinent, questions all the time. Jeremy puts this under the heading of "Learn the architecture of the machine" but that's too limiting. Learn as much as you possibly can about why and how things come together to get the job done.

There's two parts to this, really. The first is that you don't stop just because you got something working. Find out why iterating backwards through an array fixed your bug. Look for the best event to use for control loading rather than just the first one you found that happens to work. Learning how to parse technical documents, navigate help files, and put a concise Google query together are key skills you'll need to master.

The second part of this is harder: if you don't know something people are talking about, ask. This becomes harder to do over time because you start believing your own hype. It's easy to believe that inner voice that's saying you can bluff your way through this conversation and look up anything important later. The thing is, the really bright people, the ones you most want to impress, aren't going to be fooled. I've also found that top technologists enjoy getting intelligent questions almost as much as they love answering them. Note the qualifier there and spend the mental effort to make your questions intelligent, though.

Your employer is more important than the community

This goes directly counter to both Jeremy and Steve and I'm going to tank any chance I have with digg or reddit, but it needs to be said.

Jeremy looks like he's coming from that staunch anti-corporation Slashdot tradition that talks in moral terms about the beauty of open source software and the depravity of Microsoft. Reality check: it is not a common goal of open source developers to create "the greatest, most beautiful work of art that all of you can create together." That's certainly not why I contribute to open source projects.

Open source developers are no more virtuous than corporate developers. While you may program for fun and the satisfaction of a job well done, the choice of project you work on is inherently a selfish one. Always. Whether you program for a paycheck, community recognition, or because you need working blog software that you can tweak when you want to your choice is based on internal needs, not virtues.

If they're both selfish, shouldn't I be saying that they're equally important? I don't think so and it's not just because a company will help support your family. The reason your company is more important is that your company has to compete in the market place. It has no choice. Because a company has to charge money for its products or services, the company is forced to provide things that other people want badly enough to part with their hard-earned cash. In practical terms, it means that a company has a reality check that can't be ignored because sooner or later they're going to have to go out there and prove themselves in the marketplace. While the tech bubble bursting was tremendously painful when it happened, imagine the crap pile we would have if it didn't burst. Ever.

In addition, companies force you, the developer, to do work that you don't want to do. Developers hate that, which is perfectly understandable. Being forced to work with unreasonable managers, clueless users, and hopelessly disconnected marketing weenies is a drag. If you're good, though, it's also a rich source of opportunities to tackle things that you might never have thought needed tackling. And it forces you to justify your dogma of choice to a group of supremely skeptical, self-confident people who have the welfare of their families on the line. Yeah, that's not fun, but it means that you'll have to learn to understand and articulate things you just know are true. With the added bonus that you'll find that they sometimes aren't so true after all.

Finally, be wary of advice from old timers

Not me, of course. My advice is nigh infallible. Just ask me, I'll tell you. If you go awry following my advice, it's probably because of errors in implementation.

Okay, maybe not. I've blogged about recent errors I've made, so I have to assume there will be others. Be careful about who you listen to. Be aware that everybody has their own hobby horses and pet peeves and it's a human trait to cram those prejudices into everything (particularly advice). Also be aware that internet communities trend towards consensus as much as any other human community does. Consensus is dangerous and will tend to mask assumptions and pitfalls. Develop a well-honed BS filter and use it liberally.

While you're at it, the sooner you learn to pass your own ideas and theories through a well-developed skepticism the better off you'll be.

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25. April 2007 01:26 by admin | Comments (4) | Permalink


I am just testing my browser with your blog to see if it is all happy.  So, far I have made it further than any other time....we will see what happens when I hit comment.

BTW...this entry is on the same lines that John has on his byprinciple blog.
4/26/2007 5:27:13 PM #
"Open source developers are no more virtuous than corporate developers. While you may program for fun and the satisfaction of a job well done, the choice of project you work on is inherently a selfish one. Always. Whether you program for a paycheck, community recognition, or because you need working blog software that you can tweak when you want to your choice is based on internal needs, not virtues."

Might you ever have read G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology? It has a passage very similar to this:

"There are many highly respected motives which may lead men
to prosecute research, but three which are much more important
than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to
nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then,
professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance,
the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his
work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for
reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which
it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work,
that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings
of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathemati-
cian, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the
driving force in his work had been the desired to benefit
humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think the
better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those
which I have stated, and in which, surely, there is nothing of
which any decent man need be ashamed."
4/29/2007 8:44:31 AM #
FormerCOBOLProgrammer FormerCOBOLProgrammer
I found this article by way of the Joel on Software reddit. I'd really like to vote you up, but your site design makes the page unreadable for me (under Windows XP, IE 6.0):
* The left column bleeds into the center column.
* The center column background is half an image of some sort of paper, and half dark green, making it hard to read the text.

4/30/2007 10:29:36 AM #

Interesting. I'd never read G. H Hardy, but it sounds about right. I think he might be trying too hard to be definitive (i.e. absolute) in his list, though. The problem is that when you talk about motivation, you are inherently subjective. That subjectivity leads easily to labelling one's own motivations virtues and the motivations of others vices. That's kind of what I see happening in discussions of Open Source Software.
4/30/2007 5:56:42 PM #


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