As a programmer, your work will mostly be split up between either maintenance and feature development. It is up to you to decide which of the two you prefer to spend more time on. If you write bad code, you will end up spending the majority of your time doing bug fixing. If you write good code, you will spend the majority of your time developing new features … and no, you will not run out of features to develop because there will always be room for improvement and it is human nature for people to always strive for bigger and better and more efficient. People who write bad code, are forever stuck doing maintenance and support and never move on to bigger and better features and opportunities. So people who write bad code are doing themeselves a disservice in the long term.
As for becoming indispensable; in my experience it’s impossible to be 100% indispensable, but there are things you can do to become more needed and being needed is not binary (needed or not), but rather something on a scale e.g. needed from 1 – 10. Replacing a programmer/employee always has a cost associated with it in terms of recruitment costs as well as knowledge transfer costs (time and material spent learning the existing code base and technology) . With that said, it all comes down to money for the employer/customer, who will ask themeselves “what is easier, replacing the programmer or carrying on paying him/her”? The answer to that question will determine how needed you are.
Becoming needed is only one aspect, while becoming useful is another. In many ways, striving to become needed will make you less useful and vice versa. For example, the easiest way to become more needed is to become more specialized. The problem with specialising though is that you have less to fall back on if the technology you’ve specialised in becomes irrelevant.
Become needed: specialize by setting yourself apart from the rest.
- Stay away from mainstream technologies and companies: the more popular a technology is the more programmers/experts there are in the market for that specific technology. This obviously means that you will have more competiton. More competiton means greater supply in the market, which means lower prices/salaries for those programmers. When there are 1000 programmers like you lining up at the employer’s door, it becomes easy to replace you.
- Focus on either leading edge or trailing edge technologies for the same reasons as above i.e. there are few that dig into and risk learning a leading edge technology. The same applies to legacy technologies where there is a shortage of skilled people. Nobody wants to learn legacy technologies because it’s not cool. Don’t try to be cool, instead try to be needed.
- Find a niche market/product: there may be mainstream development stacks/technologies being implemented in niche markets/products, but there will always be small details that are learnt only through experience in that specific market. New comers will therefore have a tougher time getting up to speed.
- Learn proprietary technologies: in other words learn technologies that other people cannot learn by simply browsing the internet or picking up a book at the local book store. These are technologies that can only be learnt from your company sending you on those courses etc. Once again this will set you apart from the rest.
- N.B. with all of the above said, keep in mind that there is a tradeoff to specializing. The more you specialize the more needed you are, but the less usefull you become i.e. you may know a technology better than anyone else in the country, but if you can’t do anything else you are not that usefull.
Become useful: generalize by being able to do as many different jobs as possible. See the big picture by understanding the big picture as well as the details: most people focus on either the details (lines of code) or the design/strategy. You don’t have to be an expert at everything, but the wider you spread your view the better.
- Business Logic: Even more importantly, understand the business rules of the software you’re developing. Any programmer with equivalent technical skills as you can take over your code immediately. However, learning the business rules of the software takes a huge amount of time and if there is limited documentation it makes it almost impossible for someone else to take over an intricate software product.
- Design: Learn the design of the software, in terms of how all the components fit together to make up the entire system i.e. the web application, database, clients, services etc. As with the above point, anybody can come in and undertand a specific function in your code, but understanding the overall design of the software is incredibly difficult if there is limited documentation or limited knowledge transfer.
- Sales: Learn and get involved in the sales/business aspect of your company, in terms of what it takes to sell the product and what the customers are looking for. Once again any other programmer can come in and take over some code, but being part of the sales cycle makes your more needed as well as more useful.
In order to not get bogged down in technical aspects of the software industry I’ll use an analogy: to keep it simple, let’s compare the software creation process to that of creating a dining room table and the people required to design and build it:
- Programmer: this is a basically the apprentice in many ways, the person who knows how to varnish wood, drill holes, use a measuring tape and even a Vernier caliper. However someone needs to provide guidance to him on how to build a table. A supervisor needs to tell him the length of the wood to cut, what screws to use and where to drill into the wood. At the end of the day he will have been able to create a table with his own two hands, but he is not able to do this without guidance and supervision. In the software world this is the guy that knows one or more programming languages and can apply them to write a function or a class but he cannot envision and create an entire application from beginning to end without supervision. Given enough time and hard work he will progress to becoming a Software Developer/Engineer/Architect.Software Developer/Consultant: suppose you want to have a custom dining room table built for your home. As a non-technical person you have an idea of what you’d like the finished table to look like but you don’t know how to build it yourself. So you go out and find someone who can build a custom table from scratch according to your specific requirements i.e. you tell the guy more or less how big your room is and the length of the table, the number of chairs you’d like to make space for etc. The Software Developer is the person that can build a custom application according to a customer’s requirements. Due to him being in charge of the development of the software, he does have some creative freedom but ultimately he needs to make the customer happy by following a specific customer’s requirements.
Software Engineer: now suppose that you’re the owner of a company that designs and manufactures furniture. This is a completely different ball game now because you’re no longer trying to satisfy a single customer’s needs but rather and entire market in your entire country perhaps. So instead of getting a single table designed and built you’re looking at getting thousands of tables built. To get the job done you will need a person with a whole new set of skills that go beyond the Software Developer’s abilities. Software Engineering principles need to be applied to the problem. These include design patterns and principles. The Software Engineer has a broader view thinking further ahead asking questions regarding scaling and re-usability. When creating thousands of tables one needs to think about creating an attractive product that will not just please one customer, but that many will love. This person also thinks about which materials are cost effective and the durability. It’s all good and well to create one table, but this person also thinks about how to duplicate the design over and over at ease so that each copy looks exactly the same as the next one and is of the same quality. The Software Engineer is the person that designs and develops software that will be sold to not only one person but many.
On the surface the Software Developer may seem very similar to a Software Engineer, but in my opinion of the main differences between the two is their personalities or the circumstances which are imposed on them i.e. it’s not so much about technical abilities. The Software Developer is typically a shortcut kind or person that looks for quick fixes and accrues a lot of technical dept. This is in part due to the rigid time and budget constraints that Software Developers work under because they bill by the hour. Moreover, when you’re developing a product and billing by the hour, that product will only be as good as it needs to be i.e. “do we really need this feature, how much is it going to cost, can we find a quick workaround for that problem by not spending more time and money etc.”.
Lastly, a Software Developer typically works on multiple projects at the same time, meaning that their focus is scattered and their priorities change from day to day. A lack of focus and prioritization results in lower quality products being developed. A Software Engineer on the other hand typically works on a single project at a time and gets allocated a larger budget without having to clock hours. A larger budget also allows for more time to focus in strategy and design of the product instead of just working without thinking i.e. running around like headless chickens.
Software Architect: continuing with our analogy, the furniture company will not only have a single dining room as a product, but many different types of products. This requires a technical person to oversee the design and creation of every single product which brings about a whole extra set of challenges. This person needs to think about reusability e.g. can we use the design of table A when we’re working on table B by perhaps tweaking it a bit? This person may also be responsible for thinking about overall costs e.g. or which wood suppliers should we use to create the best/cheapest products etc. The Software Architect is the person that thinks about all the products that are being engineered and asks themselves how these products fit into the big picture of the company. In very large companies that have very large products a Software Architect may be assigned to oversee only a single product and engineers could be assigned to components of the large products.
To summarize; the difference between all these people is the scope of their view and responsibilities in the process of designing and developing of software. Of course there are many other titles (especially managerial ones) in this industry but I chose to focus only on the very technical ones.
From time to time you may question whether getting into a software career was the right thing to do and whether or not you still enjoy it. It is normal to feel like that at least once in your career, perhaps you will feel like that several times throughout your career. If you’re at the beginning of your career it’s even more normal to feel like. One of the following reasons could be the causes for the way you feel:
- Preoccupied: if you’re not completely focused on your work you will never be passionate about it and therefore will not like what you do. It could be:
- Other problems in your personal life completely unrelated to your career. Identify what these problems are, get them resolved and push them out of your way. Once you’ve cleared your mind, see if you then feel differently about software engineering and your career.
- Other interests/hobbies that are distracting you and pulling you in a different direction. Ask yourself if those other interests are worth it. Can you make a living out of those other interests? Be honest with yourself whether you can balance both your hobbies and your career. If you can’t, then drop your hobbies, get them out your way, focus on your career and then see if you feel differently.
- Not being good at what you do: a person only starts enjoying what they do when they’re good at it. If you’re not particularly good at what you do then you won’t be passionate about it. There could be a few reasons of that:
- Beginning of your career: obviously if you’re at the beginning of your career you’re probably not going to be good at what you do (relative to your co-workers) and therefore not enjoy your work. In a case like this you need to stop comparing yourself to others that know more than you and start comparing yourself to yourself i.e. am I a better person and more skilled today than I was yesterday? Put in an effort to improve yourself everyday. If you do this, your skills and self esteem will slowly start to improve day-by-day. Before you know it you will be like the rest of your colleagues and other people will start looking up to you, but it takes time and perseverance.
- Lack of talent: this is a difficult realisation to come to and to accept if that’s the case. It’s possible that perhaps you don’t have a knack for it. If that’s the case, then no amount of effort and work will make you good enough to get you to the point where you start enjoying what you do. You might feel horrible for a short while about having failed at your attempts, but the good news is that you can stop feeling miserable about your futile attempts and start working towards something that you are talented at. Try your hand at other things to find out what your other talents, then get a direction in your life and stick to it.
- The wrong work environment: this could be one of two things:
- Assholes: as the saying goes (it might have been Freud or the Twitter user Notorious d.e.b that came up with it) , “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” Being surrounded by those kinds of people can act as a drain on your self esteem and therefore if you lose confidence you will lose the ability to produce good work and be passionate about your work. It could be constant criticism or passive aggressive behaviour from co-workers or a horrible manager etc. If that’s the situation you’re in, then get out and find another job with people you can relate to, then see if you feel differently about your career.
- Mismanagement: it could be that you have a terrible boss who doesn’t know how to manage people and you find yourself in the middle of chaos everyday. It’s normal to go through stressful times and chaos, but if it’s ongoing it means that people and projects are mismanaged. In this scenario, see if you can correct any mismanagement by you managing yourself and your projects. If that’s not possible, then the same advice applies: get out and find another job before you give up on your career.
In terms of intelligence, it’s an absolute pleasure working with intelligent people. Everything runs smoothly and everything just works. You should always surround yourself by people that are smarter than you are, because it’s really wonderful to have people that you can learn from and count on. Working with less intelligent people is more difficult because they may not easily grasp certain concepts and you will require more patience and management skills to make up for their lack of intelligence i.e. relative to your own intelligence. However everybody can teach you something, and everybody has different sets of skills, and sometimes perhaps for financial or practical reasons you may need to also work with people that are less intelligent than yourself. You should be kind to these people and learn from them too.
Having said that, one must keep one thing in mind that if you’re working with someone that is less skilled/intelligent, you can always teach this person what they need to know, but you cannot change an a**hole.
So the more important question is not whether or not someone is intelligent, but rather what kind of personality do they have … and more importantly, how wise they are. You will find narcissistic people on both sides of the intelligence spectrum and you need to stay away from them at all costs, regardless of whether they are geniuses or idiots.
- First prize: intelligent people that have empathy and wisdom.
- Second prize: less intelligent people that have empathy and wisdom.
- Third option: intelligent people that do NOT have empathy and/or wisdom. Work with these people only if you’re forced into it, in which case try to limit your interactions with them as well the power you give them. If you cannot limit their power or limit your interactions with them, then rather don’t bother.
- Fourth option: less intelligent people that have no empathy and/or wisdom. This shouldn’t really be an option. It’s best to stay clear of these people for the sake of your own mental health.
All of the above “options” should be relative to your own intellectual and emotional intelligence.
My personal philosophy is that in the software business there are three things that need to be focused on and their priority should be as follows:
Product and its source code: the features of the product and its quality determine how happy you make your customers. If your customer is happy he will purchase the product, which in turn means you have a profitable business. So one should always listen to the customer’s needs. Conversely, the product being yours means you as the founder know more about the product than anybody else, meaning you’re the boss of your own product. Therefore if a customer submits a feature request, it is just that, a “feature request” – not a direct order by the customer i.e. it is up to you as the founder of the product to decide whether the feature will be implemented or not and when it will be implemented because that feature or your prioritization of the feature could negatively impact another customer. That is why I believe the product should be prioritized ahead of the customer, which in the grand scheme of things will prove to be beneficial for both you and all the end customers even if you upset one or two customers along the way.
Customer: always prioritize the customer’s needs over making a quick buck by ripping them off: Many amateur sales people do a “hit & run” with a customer. However I feel that the best sales people have empathy for customers providing them with good deals… but not too much empathy that one gives things away for free or too cheaply.
Profit: personally I believe that money is just a by-product of one’s work and success. Focus on the work; do the work for the work itself because you enjoy it and you have a vision. This in turn will result in the money being made. If you’re going to run the comrades marathon, there is no way you are going to run all those kilometers if your only goal is to win the race so you can get a prize. With that mentality you will quit as soon as you realize you’re not in the lead. Instead if you run for the sake of running because you enjoy it, then you will finish the race and you will feel satisfied with yourself … that’s intrinsic motivation.
Firstly, I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t do to become a good programmer. No matter what anybody tells you, if you spend too much time doing any of the following things it might improve your skills a little, but you will never be a good programmer:
- You won’t become a good programmer by just reading books.
- You won’t become a good programmer by memorising code and algorithms. Programming is about thinking not about remembering. You can have the best memory, but if you’re not thinking for yourself you’ll NEVER be a good programmer i.e. we have computers and the internet to remember things for us, so there’s no need for you to remember anything – you just need to know where and how to find the information you need.
- You won’t become a good programmer by writing single functions and algorithms from the books you read i.e. writing stupid bubble sort functions and similar useless algorithms.
- You won’t become a good programmer by testing other people’s code e.g. whether testing software by using it or writing unit tests etc.
- You won’t become a good programmer by reading and debugging other people’s code. This might help in the short term, but only if the other person’s code is well written so you can pick up some good habits, but using bad code as examples will teach you bad habits that you will ultimately have to unlearn. In the long term spending too much time reading and debugging other people’s code will be detrimental to your growth.
- You won’t become a good programmer by allowing others to micro manage you … because again programming is about thinking for yourself.
There’s only one way to become a good programmer: you have to take on a project and start it and finish it yourself from beginning to end. Don’t focus too much on reading books, syntax, algorithms and functions i.e. don’t focus on details at the beginning. Simply sit and think about an app/system you’d like to develop for yourself … something you’d really enjoy building and using for yourself. Ask your friends/family/lecturers for an idea if you need to, but you must start the project from scratch and finish it by yourself from beginning to end. Once you’ve gotten the idea, keep the idea in your head and be passionate about finishing it … from there everything will slowly start to come together. You will have features in your mind that you want to implement at which point you will start researching how to implement this or that. It’s only at this point that you should pick up a book or search the internet for answers about how to implement this cool feature you’ve thought of doing. As your app/system grows you will slowly by yourself start thinking about writing cleaner code to maintain it in the future to make your own life easier.
It is only through the process and struggle of bringing your own idea to life that you will learn how to become a good programmer. You should see yourself as an artist, not just as guy who writes code to get it to compile and run. If you’re only working on someone else’s code, or only reading books etc. you will lose your motivation very quickly and you will never find or utilize your talent.