The MarkedUp Analytics team had some fun over the past couple of weeks sharing horror stories about software atrocities and the real-life inspirations for the things you read on The Daily WTF. In particular, we talked about bad apples who joined our development teams over the years and proceeded to ruin the things we love with poor judgment, bad habits, bad attitudes, and a whole lot of other bizarre behavior that would take industrial pyschologists thousands of years to document, let alone analyze.
So I present you with the taxonomy of terrible software developers, the ecosystem of software critters and creatures who add a whole new meaning to the concept of “defensive programming.”
At one point or another, every programmer exists as at least one of these archetypes – the good ones see these bad habits in themselves and work to fix them over time. The bad ones… simply are.
The Pet Technologist
My personal favorite.
A pet technologist is born when they make the fatal mistake of falling in love with a piece of technology. It’s not a gentle, appreciative, “man this is a well-designed framework” sort of love – it’s inseparable, unrequited, Misery-obsessive love. And just like with spying, falling in love is a liability in our business.
No matter what the question is, you can trust that the pet technologist will have an answer: his or her pet technology.
“Hey, we need to implement a content management system in Rails, which database should we use?” Mongo.
“Multi-tenant blog engine?” Mongo.
“Business-critical compliance system?” Mongo.
“Inventory management system?” Mongo.
“Electronic medical records system?” Mongo.
“Distributed data warehouse?” Mongo.
And so forth.
They will invent reasons to include their pet technology in any project you work on, regardless of whether there’s a practical reason for it or not. They will vehemently, emotionally fight any decision against including their pets. Sometimes they might even resort to not telling anyone they’re using it, and will try to sneak it in at the last minute.
Anyone who has worked on a legacy system of any import has dealt with an Arcanist. The Arcanist’s goal is noble: to preserve the uptime and integrity of the system, but at a terrible cost.
The Arcanist has a simple philosophy that guides his or her software development or administrative practices: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – to an extreme.
The day a piece of software under his or her auspices ships, it will forever stay on that development platform, with that database, with that operating system, with that deployment procedure. The Arcanist will see to it, to the best of his ability. He may not win every battle, but he will fight ferociously always.
All change is the enemy – it’s a vampire, seducing less vigilant engineers to gain entry to the system, only to destroy it from within.
The past is the future in the Arcanists’ worldview, and he’ll fight anyone tries to upgrade his circa 1981 PASCAL codebase to the bitter, tearful end.
The Futurist is the antithesis of the Arcanist – today is the future, and any code written with yesterday’s tools fills the Futurist with unparalleled disgust and shame. The Futurist’s goal is not noble – it’s to be seen as new and cutting edge. The Futurist’s measure of success is Hacker News karma and well-attended User Group meetups from his war stories, not effective programming.
The Futurist is responsible for more reverted commits than any other developer, and is often flabbergasted when his attempts to upgrade your database driver package to v1.0.13-alpha-unstable-prelease-DONOTUSE are rejected. His pleadings of “but it has Java Futures, so we get pure async!!11!1” do not stir the vigilant release manager.
The Futurist cares not for quaint, passing concerns about stability, maintainability, or teachability – it doesn’t matter to him if it’s impossible to hire Erlang developers. New is everything.
The DevOps Engineer, the QA Engineer, and the Release Manager are the natural enemies of the Futurist.
The Hoarder is a cautious creature, perpetually unsure of itself. The Hoarder lives in a world of perpetual cognitive dissonance: extremely proud of his work, but so unsure of himself that he won’t let anyone see it if it can be helped.
So he hides his code. Carefully avoiding check-ins until the last possible minute, when he crams it all into one monolithic commit and hopes no one can trace the changes back to him. His greatest fear is the dreaded merge conflict, where the risk of exposure is greatest.
The Hoarder will openly tell you that his work is awesome but in confidence knows his code might suck. It probably does – but his fear of facing that possibility is what makes him who he is. The Hoarder is responsible for many last minute bugs sprinkled throughout the catacombs of the code base. His fellow engineers, tired of slowly going insane from invasion of subtle bugs, rose to fight him.
They invented tools like git blame and other weapons of accountability, and vengeance.
Ultimately, the Hoarder is damned and doomed – but there is hope for him in the short run. The day accountability comes for him at one job, his Dice resume is updated for another. The Hoarder will live to fight another day.
A cousin of The Hoarder and The Futurist, the Artist pours his soul into every thoughtfully constructed line of code. The Artist is an emotionalist – his software is an expression of himself, a living embodiment of the genius he represents.
The Artist and his code are one, which creates inevitable problems in the real world. Every JIRA issue containing documented, indisputable proof of a bug in his code is an act of artistic censorship on the behalf of users who “just don’t understand” or jealous colleagues who envy his genius. His lower lip quavers for minutes each time a UserVoice ticket announces its presence in HipChat, titled with the name of a feature he owns – even if the ticket in question is replete with the gentle patience and understanding of an early adopter.
The Artist is not long for this world, unable to have an objective discussion about his body of work with even the most sympathetic of colleagues, he withdraws from the company of his fellow developers and metamorphoses into The Island.
The Island is the ultimate loner in the taxonomy of terrible software developers, as he desires above all things to be left in peace with his favorite text editor and devoid himself of all human contact. The ideal condition for the Island is one where communication with the outside world is kept at a minimum and strictly at his convenience. Just code, no humans.
Unfortunately, reality and ideal often being far afield, the Island has to seek the company of others in order to live. So he is forced to communicate with co-workers or clients, and it is a tremendous burden for him indeed.
So he hides – he’ll miss meetings, fail to return phone calls, stay signed off of IM, keep the email client closed, and so forth. He’ll gladly spend hundreds of man-hours Gandalfing the documentation and project specs rather than simply ask someone on his team questions.
The Island is usually also a Hoarder – keeping his releases close to the vest until it’s absolutely necessary to share them. Anything to avoid people and their judgments.
And like the Hoarder, the Island is doomed. Software is a team sport and does not suffer those who do not play by its rules.
The “Agile” Guy
The “Agile” Guy is a utilitarian, who ultimately seeks to improve the efficiency and productivity of himself and his team. Unfortunately, both his understanding of “agile” philosophies and his implementation strategy are hilariously inflexible and rigid, an irony which is completely lost on him.
The “Agile” Guy’s intentions are noble: to improve the way software is made. He’ll introduce kanban boards with precisely four tiers for exactly every project and a meticulously calculated method for determining the exact number of business points and sprint points for every issue the team can encounter.
Any issue which takes longer than four hours must be broken up; any sprint longer than two weeks must be truncated. NO EXCEPTIONS.
All personnel must pair program with their designated pair programming partners at all times, no exceptions. All git commits must be done in this exact format and hours of work against a JIRA issue must be logged at regular intervals. No status updates are allowed at standups, which are strictly cut off at 10 minutes.
The “Agile” Guy forgets the purpose of the agile process to begin with – to be flexible and dynamic, and instead imposes round-hole order on square-peg problems. The JIRA board turns into a ghetto, a wasteland of broken promises and infeasible commitments. And from dusk to dawn the developers toil, pair programming all the way, while their “Agile” Guy overload looks proudly over his new empire, forged on discipline and process.
But the “Agile” Guy creates powerful enemies in his wake: the actual programmers responsible for getting things done, men and women who live in a world without luxuries of time or realizable schedules. Men and women who try to create order from chaos themselves, but are often at the mercy of failing networked file systems and poorly implemented drivers. Such intrepid souls do not suffer having the will of idiots imposed on them. Dissent and strife spread throughout the team; what follows is rebellion.
All “Agile” Guys meet their end by being torn down like the statue of a deposed dictator, complete with an Ewok luau in the Endor moonlight and the burning wreckage of their kanban Death Star smoldering in the distance.
The Human Robot
The Human Robot tries his best and his intentions are good. But he has a handicap: he interprets everything literally. The Human Robot is the world’s first true organic computer, which also means that every user-space detail of their work must be explained literally, byte-for-byte.
The Human Robot has his uses – he can find (and patch himself!) the subtle race condition created by minor JVM differences on your particular version of the Linux kernel, but ask him to implement a new feature and a monster is born. The Human Robot, unable to grasp concepts such as figurative language, imagination, abstraction, and creative interpretation, is stuck in a world where he can only process commands.
Your product lead asks the Human Robot to create a button that allows the end-user to share their documents via email with another end user; a week later the Human Robot delivers a fully functional high-throughput transactional email server embedded inside your application.
When a Human Robot is confronted about an issue with his or her work on the product, they will respond with the following sentence every time: “your requirement was not found in the specification for this project. We require additional pylons.”
This handicap rears its head most clearly in the team dynamics of a software organization. The Human Robot is the sort of person who needs a four-page-long decision tree and a finite state machine diagram to help him understand what does and does not qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace.
Human Robots often tend to be conference organizers (see PyCon 2013) and moderators on StackExchange.
The Stream of Consciousness
The Stream of Consciousness programmer is related to the Illiterate in that he too cannot read code. However, what’s fundamentally different about the Stream of Consciousness is that he can’t read his own code in addition to that of every other developer on the team.
In fact, the Stream of Consciousness programmer is best described as a “forward-only” cursor – the only way for them to solve their problems is to write new code, every time. Code reuse and refactoring are alien programming practices that the Stream of Consciousness will tell you they “understand,” but that’s only because they know the names of those concepts.
The Stream of Consciousness will happily add a third and fourth new interface to your application for writing to the filesystem, because their cursor has already moved past the first and second interfaces they wrote last week. Their code will be totally free of circular references, but that’s only because nothing ever gets used more than once.
The easiest way to determine if you’re working with a Stream of Consciousness programmer is to read their source code and look for comments along the lines of “hmm, I wonder if this works?” and “I really wish the kitchen had more non-dairy creamer.”
As the name suggests, the Illiterate has a massive problem when it comes to reading other people’s source code.
The Illiterate, a close cousin of the Island, understands basic programming constructs and has a full grasp on the syntax of his / her preferred programming languages, but is totally blind when it comes to code written by other developers. We call this “code-blind” in extreme cases.
The illiterate can understand the basic “hello world” example, but beyond that he or she never developed the capacity to understand another programmer’s intent or the “Find Usages” button in Visual Studio. So the Illiterate is forced to work around this alien “other programmer” code in all of his or her day-to-day assignments – often duplicating the work of other developers and contributing to code bloat.
When confronted by other developers and asked “why didn’t you use our standard interface for rendering a dialog?,” the Illiterate will simply stare at his or her shoes and mumble inaudibly.
The Agitator, like the Human Robot, is a social retard. But unlike the Human Robot, has no good intentions. An Agitator is not born, they are forged through years of suffering through undesirable work environments and programming assignments.
Having been through shit work for years and years, the Agitator believes he or she now knows best and is determined to run things they see fit, whether they actually have the authority to or not.
The goal of the Agitator is to establish dominance and control over their work environment through the use of force and intimidation.
The Agitator sees themselves as the confluence of Grace Hopper and Che Guevara, a brilliant technical visionary casting off the chains of oppression by an ignorant and ineffective ruling class. The Agitator is seen by his or her teammates as an idiotic wannabe-alpha bully who gets into high volume arguments over when it’s appropriate to use Pascal case versus CamelCase.
The Agitator will routinely try to talk down peers and superiors both in an attempt to assert dominance. In many cases he will win, seeding dissatisfaction and discord in the workplace in the process.
In most cases the Agitator is beyond help, and management has no choice but to enforce the “No Asshole” rule and terminate him.
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MarkedUp Analytics’s customers are developers and so are most of the people who work at the company, so I spend a lot of time thinking about and refining my answers to the following two questions:
- What are the lowest common denominator skills and programming knowledge that my customers have?
- What are the lowest common denominator skills and traits that the developers on my team need to have in order to best serve our customers?
As I’ve been exposed to more customers and as I’ve turned over members of our team I’ve started refining my answers to these questions.
Turns out that most of our customers are fairly sophisticated and thus I expect the developers on our team to be one step ahead of them.
I’m sure every company says this, but in our case it’s true: we need elite developers in order to solve our customer’s problems.
MarkedUp builds distributed systems that integrate into native third-party applications, written by our customers, on multiple platforms and use machine learning to create insights in as short a timeframe as possible, a task that’s many orders of magnitude more challenging than your average iPhone or web application.
There are companies like DataStax or Liquid Robotics that have to deal with radically harder problems than ours, and I’m amazed by their ability to attract really great engineering talent. So this problem is solvable, but how do I identify elite developers who are going to be able to contribute to the business and tackle these challenges?
I’m still figuring it out, and I’ve made some big mistakes along the way thus far. But I’ve had some successes in attracting great engineering talent to our company too. Here’s my opinion on what makes a software developer elite (your mileage may vary!)
An elite developer is determined more by their character, attitude, intellect, and diligence more than anything else. Knowing any specific framework, programming language, design pattern, development platform, and so forth isn’t nearly as relevant.
So what character traits does an elite developer have?
Humility – the best developers I’ve worked with know that they are talented but don’t know just how good they are relative to their peers. Even if they did know, it wouldn’t change their attitude. They do the best job that they can and do it knowing that their work isn’t perfect; contains bugs; might not completely meet the spec; and might be changed in the future.
Able to accept criticism – part and parcel with humility is the ability to accept criticism, whether it comes from a peer, a customer, a manager, or anyone else. Whenever you do anything of consequence you should expect criticism from some corner of the universe. Elite developers not only accept it, but they listen to it and try to distill actionable insights if possible.
Doesn’t let good be the enemy of perfect – a lot of talented developers struggle with perfectionism, myself included; over time the great ones learn to live with impurities and get software deployed to production while the perfectionists piss time away on remote edge cases and other activities with no economic value.
Inquisitive – some of our interview questions at MarkedUp are live-coding exercises, and here’s a little secret: we really don’t care very much about the quality of the code produced by a candidate during an interview.
But we care a lot about the questions a candidate asks about the programming challenge.
If a candidate starts coding right away without asking us any questions about the scope of the challenge or the technical details, it’s usually an instant fail. Inquisitive developers do a much better job of learning how their code fits inside a larger system and learning about the real-world use cases for it.
Independent learners – the developers who’ve delivered the most value for me are ones who constantly want to learn and improve their skill set; they ask if they can pair-program with me while I work on our API or on the SDK; independently review some of our code and create JIRA issues for me when they find bugs with my own code (!); they buy O’Reilly books on some of the technologies we use, like Hive and Hadoop, and read them over lunch; and they ask if they can leave work early to attend a tech talk or even give one themselves (!).
Everyone needs help along the way, but the truly great developers are the ones who learn for the sake of learning and the satisfaction of self-improvement. It’s humbling to work with this type of developer, because typically they get other members of the team excited about learning too and turn this into a group activity.
Able to break down large projects into small tasks – people don’t launch rockets or build massive systems by setting out to do everything all at once; they break down massive projects into smaller milestones and small, fine-grained tasks. Really strong developers have the ability to visualize the end in mind and the steps for getting there. It’s an essential skill for an architect of any sort.
Able to visualize relationships between abstractions – part and parcel with the previous point, really great developers have the ability to visualize relationships between abstractions in the systems they work with and build. This can be as simple as being able to see how services interact with each-other in the course of fulfilling an end-user’s request or how classes should be composed inside any given system. This allows a developer to work on a small part of a really large system and understand how their work will integrate with components that aren’t finished or haven’t been started yet.
Embraces challenges – great developers can operate outside their comfort zone, even if it means failing initially. Challenges are viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve, not as a threat to appearance and performance.
Focuses on immediate results – sticking with the previous analogy about launching rockets, great developers break up their work into small deliverables and ship small pieces immediately and frequently into a development branch. They don’t hoard commits or wait until “it’s done.” They ship small deliverables often.
The traits above are the most important ingredients of a great developer, but there are learned and acquired behaviors that every developer must develop before they can become elite.
Unconsciously, religiously commits everything source control – the greatest sin you can commit as a developer is failing to put something into source control for you deploy it. Most companies try to automate deployment in such a way that it’s impossible for deployment to occur without source control involvement, but this isn’t always feasible. Little things like shell scripts, SQL queries, configuration files, and others often fall between the cracks since they aren’t considered part of “the app.”
However, a great developer is religious in their use of source control – anything that gets used in the course of regular business, even a one-off business intelligence script, finds its way into source control when an elite developer is behind the wheel. They rack up pull requests and HipChat spam with religious fervor, because they live in perpetual fear of being the stupid asshole who forced someone else to reverse-engineer a critical backup / restore script during an emergency.
They master their source control system, make liberal use of feature branches and version tags, and clean up after themselves once a feature goes into production. Source control is as natural to them as breathing.
Writes README files, comments, and docs even for internal tools – I tell every developer this when they start at MarkedUp “your code will be a part of this organization longer than you will.” The point of that is that people change careers, companies, and jobs frequently – so when we write a piece of code that does something important, we need to make it possible for someone else to use and modify it without us present to answer questions.
Great developers recognize this and make it easy for other developers to leverage their work, during and after their time on the job.
Embraces bug tracking and agile processes – organizing your work is just as important as performing it, and bug tracking / agile tools like Pivotal Tracker and JIRA enable teams to prioritize and distribute workloads across large projects.
But more importantly, they allow PMs and peers to see what work has been completed / performed without having to hold numerous meetings or calls. Bug tracking, pull requests, and agile boards are communication tools – and great developers embrace them for efficacy in measuring, quantifying, and communicating progress.
Masters debugging, tracing, and monitoring methods – just because the code is in production doesn’t mean it’s finished. Great developers master the tools they use for debugging, logging, tracing, and monitoring apps that are in production or are about to be.
In the .NET universe, this means mastering the Visual Studio debugger, Fiddler, IntelliTrace, the Windows Event Viewer, performance counters, and others. In the OSS world this might mean performance monitoring tools like Graphite and Nagios, or others.
Great developers understand the necessity of these tools and master them, which enables them to respond more quickly to infrastructure failures and bugs.
Communicates concisely and asks relevant questions – most developers are not social butterflies; like any STEM field, it’s often populated with introverted people who like to spend most of their working hours concentrating on issues at-hand.
However, the elite developers are ones who recognize what needs and doesn’t need to be communicated – if there’s something contradictory in a customer spec, it needs to be raised with the stakeholder. If someone broke convention and used camel case instead of PASCAL, just go fix it and send the offender a note, not the entire team alias.
Engages other developers on the team – programming is a team sport, and elite developers love working with other people whom they can help and who can help them. They ask for and solicit help when necessary.
Now for the programming part – what skills does a programmer need to have before he or she can be considered elite? This is subjective and sometimes domain-specific, but there’s my take.
Experience with multiple languages and platforms – diverse taste in tools is the greatest skill that a developer can have, because it keeps the developer on a position where they know how to learn new things if necessary (and it often is!)
Being a one-trick pony and limiting yourself to a single platform will naturally limit your ability to grow and learn, so great developers try their hands at new things even if it’s just for fun.
Understands language / framework implementations – the most powerful .NET developers I met prior to joining Microsoft all highly recommended that I read this book: CLR via C#. I did, and the content from this book was directly responsible for passing my technical interview at Microsoft. Above that, it’s changed the way I look at all of my .NET code.
Understanding your how code is executed at the OS or hardware level can provide some huge benefits, especially if you’re doing a lot of work with concurrency or native programming. For instance, understanding how SQL Server’s row / table locking algorithms and its journaling system work allow you to design around potential performance bottlenecks in high-performance systems. Great developers learn these implementation details and leverage that knowledge to write more robust code.
Writes code for patterns, not specific instances – it’s an intuitive skill that can’t really be learned, in my opinion. You either have it or you don’t. Really talented developers infer the patterns in a system, even before a module or a piece of code is written and they code for those patterns, rather than specific instances. This skill limits technical debt and results in a tighter, more usable codebase.
Knows how to learn – this might seem obvious, but I’ll reiterate: there are a lot of developers who simply do not know how to learn something new. They can ape examples they’ve seen before and often need to be hand-held along the way, and they can’t truly internalize a new concept and form the muscle memory to code independently with new technologies.
Great developers know their mind and know how to teach it something new – what works for one developer may not work for another, but nonetheless they all know how ot learn.
Has experience with multiple types of software (native, distributed, web, etc…) – a great developer is a well-rounded developer; if your only experience doing software development is with simple CRUD applications, then you’re missing out on a lot of the corpus of modern software development. A great developer isn’t necessarily an adept professional in each domain area of programming – they might focus primarily on web development and dabble in native, but they take away new lessons from each experience and understand more about computing overall.
Until I wrote the MarkedUp SDK, I never had any practical experience with advanced data structures in production like concurrent binary heaps and circular buffers; I likely would never have encountered those had I stuck to doing just ASP.NET MVC or Node.JS development all the time. Now that I have that experience, who knows – I might find some applications for those in a distributed program or a Web API application in the future.
Experience with multiple types of development tools (IDEs, Text Editors, command line compilers, and more) – I have some bad news: if you’re an EMACS ONLY or VS2012 ONLY developer, you’re limiting yourself. Experience with multiple types of development tools is a good thing, because great developers recognize that improving your workflow habits over time is just as important as improving your programming knowledge and experience.
Some sysadmin / operational knowledge – writing the code is only the first step; deploying it or releasing it comes next. Great developers are not often expert system administrators also, but they know enough about their operating environment to avoid pitfalls and execute a basic deployment if necessary.
Knowing how to run a build / release process, deploy a piece of server software to production, or how to configure a piece of COTS software like Apache or IIS to host a web application is critical to ensuring that the software actually meets its functional requirements. If you aren’t able to produce a development build of a native app using compiler flags, then you can’t very well participate in that part of the QA process, can you?
The point is – great developers don’t wait for someone else to solve their problems; they can do enough sysadmin work to build and test on their local environment, and are self-aware enough to not proceed any further if they don’t know enough to run a live deployment.
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I came across a blog post by Michael Halligan on Hacker News last week entitled “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your YCombinator start-up.” As a fledging entrepreneur trying to attract senior engineering talent to my startup, his post bothered me immensely. I spent about a week mulling it over before I decided to write this.
Michael’s attitude in the post is abrasive, needlessly cynical, and mercenary, but well-argued on its pure economic merits. He describes himself on his own blog thusly:
I'm just this guy who used to enjoy tech, now I would rather build bicycles. I still work in the tech industry, for the money, but I no longer call myself a "technologist".
And he ends his blog post with this call to action for other senior technologists like himself:
To all of my colleagues with whom I have been in the trenches, please repeat after me, "Fuck you, pay me."
This paints a picture of someone who’s been burned before by startup flameouts; who’s put in 100 hour weeks without seeing any life-changing financial benefit; who has real financial obligations like children to put through school; and lastly, a little burned out with his career.
It wouldn’t have bothered me so much were it not for the boorish cheerleading from scores of Hacker News commenters, which indicated to me that this attitude may be more widely held than I would have believed (more on that in a second.)
I really appreciate Michael being so honest about it, because I suspect that this is an attitude that neither he nor any of the supportive Hacker News commenters have ever had the balls to actually express in a verbal salary negotiation with a flesh-and-blood human being like me sitting across the table.
What bothers me about Michael’s post and the Hacker News comments is the cynical view of founders and employers; it dehumanizes them to self-interested profiteers who don’t give a shit about the people who work for them. And the attitude I grok from Michael’s post is “developers: don’t give a shit about [your employer / the founders] either – tell them ‘fuck you, pay me.’”
Let me show you why this bothers me. Here is my honest to God list of things I care about with respect to MarkedUp in order of importance:
1. My personal integrity – because startups are not things of life or death themselves, but integrity is one of the few character traits that outlives the man or woman.
2. The financial health of the company – because a failing company isn’t in a position to serve anyone well, whether they be founders, customers, employees, or investors.
3. The well-being of MarkedUp’s employees – because they are present and future of the business, and I’m going to spend more time with them than my own family.
4. The experience of our customers – because our customers trust us with important information they need to run their own businesses, and we are our own customer.
5. My personal well-being – because I have I dreams of my own but I know that getting items 1-4 right on this list leads to the realization of #5.
I’m sure that if Michael or any of the Hacker News commenters read this list they’d scream “bullshit!”
I treat the growth and well-being of my employees as a non-negotiable requirement for my own happiness and satisfaction, but that conflicts with the Hacker News worldview of the VC-land profiteering dipshit douchebag 27 year old founder (I am, in fact, 27.)
I hire people whom I want to invest in – sure, like any startup we have short-term needs that have to be filled. But the long term health of any business that’s being built to last depends on a high trust culture – where employers and employees interdepend on each other.
I’d crawl over glass for the full time people on my team who take work off of my plate and enable the business to grow – I need them. They support me, so I’d better damn well support them when they need it. I’m making sure they get important benefits like healthcare and the best compensation that I can afford – everything within the bounds of what’s economically feasible for an early stage company of our size and funding level.
I’m invested in MarkedUp’s employees – and when we’re not able to support an employee’s needs I feel like I’ve personally failed as a manager and employer.
So this brings me back to “Fuck you, pay me.” I would never hire anyone who doesn’t want to invest in our product, the other people on the team, and in the company as a whole – because I can’t depend on them to be there for me and everyone else when things aren’t going perfectly. They’d be the first to bounce and the first ones to put the screws on me and their teammates in a bind. I’d never be able to make a person with this attitude happy, so I’d never try.
“Fuck you, pay me” is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will doom you to work for exactly the sort of employers this attitude is supposed to save you from – the kind who won’t invest in you and don’t care about you. When you open the conversation with an employer with “fuck you, pay me” you’re telling them that you don’t give a shit about the product or people, so why should they care about your well being again?
You’ll be passed over for every promotion, every project of any import, any conference or occasional perk, and your opinion will not be solicited or valued on anything that doesn’t pertain strictly to your role. Your teammates will resent you for being unavailable and disinterested. Your managers and executives will treat you with all of the mercenary courtesy and cynicism with which you’ve treated them.
A job is a lot more than a salary and benefits – it’s about enabling people to be happy, employers and employees both. Anyone who comes to work with the attitude of “fuck you, pay me” is miserable by default, an assertion you can validate with a single read over the front page of Michael’s blog. There is little I can do as an employer for someone who is innately miserable. And that makes me sad and frustrated.
Throughout the course of your career you will inevitably deal with shithead employers who don’t appreciate you – quit and move on. Don’t make the situation worse by deciding not to appreciate all employers regardless of who they are – you’ll just alienate the ones who actually want to help you even if they can’t match another employment offer you have on the table.
If money and benefits are literally the only thing that matters to an employee, then they’re worse than the self-interested greedy founder stereotype described earlier. At least the greedy self-interested founders had the balls to take some risks.
So look at your employment opportunities this way – there’s a lot more to working somewhere than just the tangibles. That’s why developers, sales people, and marketers regularly take below market salaries to work at startups – because they get the rare chance to shape the work environment into one that will make them happy.
Happiness is what matters, and benefits + salary shouldn’t be the only factor at the expense of culture, colleagues, creativity, and self-ownership.
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Since going full-time on my own startup 6 months ago, I’ve spent a lot of my time recruiting, evaluating, and working with a lot of different developers. My startup, MarkedUp, is an analytics provider for Windows 8 apps (and eventually, other platforms.)
Our technology is sophisticated and difficult even for large companies to master, so the bar is pretty high for developers who join our team. We’re selective about who we work with, but even with careful recruiting practices it’s still difficult to find developers talented enough to pull their own weight on a complex product like ours.
So I want to help average developers who want to improve by calling out 10 performance-killing behaviors that stagnate the careers of most developers.
Most developers stagnate both intellectually and productively after 4-5 years in industry; they adopt some tools, pick up some patterns, learn a language or two, and maybe they’re even able to work at a successful company and contribute to some important products. Great!
But what happens when you hand a developer a blank sheet of paper and the opportunity for them to own a product?
Most of the time: chaos and failure.
Many developers fantasize about being able to own a product and make big technical decisions, but the truth of the matter is most of developers can’t handle anything more complicated than building formulaic CRUD Rails websites using the same 30 gems each and every time.
So what are the behaviors that limit the growth of average developers?
You’re too afraid of failure to learn new tools / languages / frameworks.
During my first quarter at Microsoft I gave a talk to the LA .NET User’s Group on ASP.NET MVC3, which was in beta at the time. For the most part the attendees asked me thoughtful questions and showed a legitimate interest in what the ASP.NET team was cooking up in Redmond.
However, there was a trio of attendees who kept asking me a very suspicious set of questions:
“What are the weaknesses of ASP.NET MVC3?”
“Isn’t ASP.NET MVC too unstable for use in the enterprise?”
“But doesn’t ASP.NET WebForms already do a better job?”
I realized shortly after the Q&A was finished, when I had a chance to speak to them privately, that they were attending my talk to actively look for reasons why ASP.NET MVC shouldn’t replace WebForms at their place of work!
These developers were so afraid of trying something new and possibly failing that they actually went out of their way to research just the talking points they needed to not have to learn it!
This is an extreme example, but the point is the same: average developers cling to their favorite tools and stop learning new ones because they worry that leaving their pet languages and tools behind invalidates their years of experience.
Strong developers embrace the challenge and opportunity to learn new ways of doing things.
You won’t push your commits until the feature is “done.” (It’s never done!)
We call this “commit hoarding” at MarkedUp. This happens with developers who don’t have the confidence to tolerate criticism or scrutiny from the rest of the development team try to hide their work until it’s in a “finished” state.
Ultimately these developers hurt the productivity of the rest of the team, because we lose visibility into their daily output and they tend not to ask for help in the course of regular development. They’re responsible both for delays in shipping and for lots of last-minute bugs.
Strong developers recognize that they are not their code, and thus will put code out in front of the rest of the team more frequently and take criticism and suggestions with dignity and confidence.
You know just enough to be dangerous.
In an age where it’s become a lot easier for developers to work with threads, concurrent programming, distributed databases, and so forth you run into a lot of devs who can talk a good game. They can tell you all about thread pools, a hot new design pattern, or why a headless database is better than a masterful one in some scenarios.
They are able to know what something is and its potential benefits, but they don’t understand it.
I’ll give you a recent example: in C# 5.0 Microsoft recently introduced the async and await keywords, which make it radically easier to create and manage asynchronous callbacks. These keywords have even lead to the rise of some exciting new concurrent programming patterns like the TAP pattern.
However, do you know what this keyword has also lead to? A ton of average developers who suddenly think they can harness the awesome power of multithreading simply by wrapping every I/O call into a Task object in C#. They do this blindly, without any thought as to the costs of context-switching, multi-thread access to shared resources, and more.
And this creates dangerous, unpredictable, and very-difficult-to-test code in the hands of average developers who blindly uses this new toy everywhere.
Good developers not only know what something does, but they seek to understand why it was done this way and under what conditions it should be used.
Sometimes you’ll hear a member of our development team say “dude, stop Gandalfing the documentation and start coding something,” referring to the scene from The Lord of the Rings depicted above.
Analysis paralysis is a classic problem that affects lots of average developers; it’s often a problem of over-analysis, but in my experience the root cause is usually fear of making a bad decision.
Research is easy – implementations are hard! As a developer, you don’t want to make a mistake when it comes time to do the actual work. So just research the issue until the heat death of the universe and you’ll make a perfect decision for which you won’t ever be criticized!
Average developers worry about looking bad or making a mistake – they want to get it right on the first try.
Strong developers who are in unfamiliar territory don’t care – they’ll write shit code, unit test it, and throw it away in 45 minutes if they don’t think it can get the job done. Strong developers actively limit the amount of time they spend researching, because they recognize that it’s a trap – it feels like work but often isn’t.
You don’t invest in your tools or development process.
Average developers will spend a lot of time learning how some fancy new language feature or API works. They’ll invest a ton of time mastering the minutia of the Windows runtime or some new D3-based charting framework, but at the end of the day that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still average developers who churn out mediocre work at a glacial pace.
If you want to be a talented developer, you have to invest time into improving your skills and knowledge, and the number one factor that separates the men from the boys in most software markets is the ability to turn out production-grade code quickly. You can have both good code and speed – but you have to invest in your process you use for building it first!
Average developers don’t invest in their tools, their process, or their environment.
Think about it – when was the last time you took a step back and thought about the way you test your code or how you look for bugs? Have you tried experimenting with different types of abstractions for the same problems and seen which one produces more maintainable code? Have you tried picking up a new IDE or text editor to see if it can help speed up common tasks? What about investing in build or deployment automation?
Often times, the biggest improvement you can get as a developer isn’t focusing on improving the code you write – it’s optimizing your process for writing it.
Free protip for anyone who follows my blog regularly: the biggest improvement I’ve made in my own development process easily is decreasing my usage of interface-driven design and dependency injection. I do a lot more work using static classes and compositions these days and it results in radically less code to test and maintain.
You’re too embarrassed to ask for help.
When we started digging into the guts of Hive for some of our work at MarkedUp, we got a little stuck on how to tackle some problems we had specific to our use case. So what did we do? We reached out to one of the guys who wrote the O’Reilly book on Hive and asked him over LinkedIn. And he replied back!
We try to be self-sufficient developers to the furthest extent possible, but we also know when it’s more economical to simply ask someone for a favor versus beating our heads against our desks for hours on end.
Average developers get embarrassed and don’t want to reveal their ignorance, so they pretend they know what’s up until they commit some sort of horrible fuck-up in the codebase itself.
There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know how to do this.” Strong developers know this, so they go and ask for help when they’re stuck.
You don’t know how to make it easy for other programmers to work with your code.
Like an only child growing up, you never learned how to share your toys with anyone else. The same goes for your code – you developed some bad habits and an over-abstracted style that is impossible for other developers to follow.
An important part of working on any technical team is human parallelism – the ability for multiple people to be able to work simultaneously on the same codebase. But it’s also important for teams to be able to work asynchronously too – I should be able to make changes to your code when you’re away, and vice versa.
Average developers don’t think about their code this way – they simply set out to do a task and write it through to completion with the assumption being that they will always own that piece of code. Strong developers understand technical debt and try to limit it by designing code that is as maintainable and self-explainable as possible.
Writing readable code really requires developers to change their outlook – your code should last longer in the organization that you.
You don’t know how to read someone else’s code (or don’t want to.)
It’s an interesting paradox – average developers can’t handle a blank sheet of paper very well, but they can’t write the last 30 pages of a novel in progress either. Average developers are really hesitant to try to learn an existing codebase and often have to be handled all the way through it until they’re able to produce something.
A drastic example is when an average developer is brought in on a codebase written in a language / framework that they aren’t familiar with and will immediately want to rewrite it without a second thought to business value or time to market. It’s a type of pain avoidance – having to live with the precipitation of some other programmer.
Strong developers accept that the business costs in a rewrite are usually unacceptable and should be avoided, and they’ll diligently try to understand, learn, and modify the existing codebase sitting in front of them.
Reading code is harder than writing code, but strong developers invest time into learning how to excel at it.
You can’t code from the end-user’s point of view (you think too small.)
Average developers who manage to make it a lot closer to the “great programmer” end of the bell curve usually trip up here. You may have mastered some of the technical details and you may know how to work with other developers, but you’re still missing the most important piece: being able to see your code from the point of view of the real-world.
As a programmer, you job isn’t really to solve technical problems – you solve technical problems in order to solve business problems.
An average-to-bad developer will chase technical problems down deep rabbit holes without remembering why they were solving the problem in the first place. You’re not upgrading the version of MongoDB you’re using because there’s inherent value in upgrading – you’re upgrading because your team agreed that it was worth taking the risk to upgrade because of potential business upside due to new features / performance / reliability / whatever.
More offensively, average developers struggle and fail to produce anything of business value from scratch. When asked to design a new feature based off of a simple customer story average developers will take a rigid, literal interpretation of the story or spec and ship something that is barely useable by a human.
Average developers don’t anticipate other related use cases; don’t think about the end-user’s experience; and basically have to be managed heavily when working on anything user-facing. This is why so many of them get stuck writing line of business apps instead of products.
Great developers look at their code from the perspective of the end-user. How do I make this easier to solve my user’s problem? What are some other facets outside the literal content of the story that might make this feature even better for an end user?
If you’re a developer and don’t ask yourself these questions, then you’re not a great developer. You’re passable at best.
You aren’t able to judge the business value of any programming task.
Related to the previous issue – many technically strong developers fail to realize their potential due because they aren’t able to take a step back and look at their work from the perspective of the business or organization itself.
Strong developers are able to self-manage and make good business decisions about how they choose to invest their time. They’ll ask questions like:
Is this the most valuable thing I should be working on right now? How much time should I invest into doing this? Given the deliverables I have due in two weeks, is there something I can invest in right now that will make it a lot easier for me to hit that target?
Average developers don’t – they’ll take a spec and blindly implement it until it’s finished, without accounting for how their work relates to the company’s business goals and impacts other members of the team / other business groups.
The highest cost of any engineering team is development time, and average developers waste lots of it on minutia and technical tasks that are ultimately low business value.
If you want to be a better developer, it starts with changing the way you look at your code and how you program.
You have to understand and appreciate the business costs behind each line of code you write. You have to be able to step outside of your text editor or IDE and look at your work from the perspective of a customer or end-user.
You have to accept that your code will outlast you in any organization your work with, so design everything to be inherited by other developers one day.
Most importantly, never be afraid to take on new challenges and ask for help along the way. You won’t improve working alone in the corner on technologies you’re already familiar with. Software development is inherently social – learn how to bring other people into the experience.
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I posted a little while ago about the job market for technical talent at early stage companies, and I promised a follow-up post on what you should look for in a developer when your company is at a critical, early stage. This is that follow-up ;)
Our company, MarkedUp, is still in the process of building out its early engineering team; however, we’ve had some success in finding the right type of people we want to work with – a process that wasn’t quick or easy, but will pay off massively in the long run.
When it comes to hiring developers for your early stage startup, here are the questions you need to think about:
1. What are you optimizing for?
At this stage in the evolution of MarkedUp, we optimize for changeability and reliability – the ability to change things on the fly quickly and do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the service of our customers.
This means that we have to recruit people who are architecturally sound with .NET, are able to learn new technologies quickly, and are good at socializing / articulating problems and design considerations to the team.
When we evaluate a developer for who’s considering joining our team, we look to make sure that they have experience with multiple technology stacks, have a well-written technical blog or are at least conversant in their respective technology areas, are versed in design patterns and can explain their architectural thought process on-demand, and have well-defined goals with regard to how they want to grow and develop.
For your company, you might need to optimize your engineering team differently – if you’re building a big consumer app, you might need to optimize for developers who have a good balance of front-end and back-end skills initially.
Make a deliberate choice about what your engineering priorities are and let that set the top of the spec for your recruiting.
2. Do you need soldiers or chiefs?
One mistake a lot of startups make is the seniority issue: hiring people who are too senior or not senior enough.
People who are too senior might demand a lot more equity / money / power / titles early on in the life of your company, which creates problems if you ever need to bring in even more senior people over them if you don’t manage it correctly. Additionally, senior developers bring a career’s worth of habits and experience into your company – which isn’t always necessarily good.
Conversely, evaluating a fresh-out-of-college CS grad to CTO isn’t a great decision either sometimes – they might not even know just how horribly they’re screwing up your company’s technology until years after the fact.
On top of the issue of experience, you also have to consider the person’s ambitions – do they want to be an executive in the company one day and have people reporting to them? Are they even capable of doing that one day?
Again, make a decision: do you need people with experience and authority who will lead the engineering team or do you need people who just want to do the right thing and make a difference, but don’t yet want to be involved in management? Recruit accordingly.
3. Can your company afford to train developers on your technology stack?
Do you need people who’ve been working on a single technology for 5+ years, or just people who are smart and want to learn?
If you’re a really early stage company, then you don’t have the luxury of time or money to invest much into a new employee who is totally unfamiliar with your chosen technology stack.
If you have the time and money to invest into training good employees, do it.
Investing into training will widen the pool of acceptable applicants dramatically because you can tailor your recruiting process to target a smaller number of things. Be realistic about your resources and the availability of your existing engineers to train the new folks, and then decide accordingly.
4. What’s important for your engineering culture?
You know what makes a huge difference in MarkedUp’s culture? Being passionate about development – we like people who have pet projects in their spare time; take the time to learn new languages and platforms; and love to talk about what they’ve done and what they’re doing.
We build products for developers – passion for development makes us more relatable to our average customer, who is typically someone building a Windows 8 application in their spare time because they love doing it.
Your company may be different – you may want to recruit people who are really into music if you’re building a media-oriented company, or people who are very algorithm / math-oriented if you’re doing a lot of work in a field like NLP or predictive modeling. Maybe you want to run a really structured environment and want people who are going to be in the office every day.
Company culture is ultimately something that will take a life of its own, organically, but during the formational stages you have a massive amount of influence over it as a founder. Pick people who fit your vision for what the culture should be and be conscientious about it.
5. What’s your level of urgency?
Trick question. The answer is “super urgent” in every early stage company. Unless you’re profitable / growing, every day is a race against the clock and the bank account.
You can’t afford to keep people around who don’t get that and won’t work hard to make sure the hard problems are solved on-time.
A lot of developers, particularly ones who’ve been in industry for a while, approach startups with the expectation that they can still work from 9-5, get the same benefits they got at MegaCorp for some relatively low level of output, but get a giant chunk of equity and work on cool, consumer-facing startup products without any bureaucracy or managerial overhead. Avoid these developers.
Hire people who want to race the clock, because they believe in your company’s vision and want to work with other competent people who can move quickly. They’re out there.
If you do a good job coming up with clear, thoughtful answers to these questions then good fits and bad will be obvious.
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Earlier this week I made a pilgrimage up to the Bay Area to visit some mentors – I came seeking advice from entrepreneurs who’ve done work relevant to our interests at MarkedUp, mostly to learn how to address some “known unknowns” that have been keeping us up at night.
One of the people I had a chance to speak to is an experienced CTO and we started talking about development priorities in early stage companies like ours. Mid-way through our meeting we had the following exchange (paraphrased:)
Me: so I’m trying to figure out my priorities in terms of what I personally spend my time working on – I have to juggle recruiting, product, fund-raising, customer development, project management, and working on the actual codebase all myself until we start expanding our team.
CTO: what have you been working on most recently?
Me: this weekend I learned how to script against a build system we want to use to help automate the complexity out of our deployment process; I prioritized that ahead of working on MVP features and am not sure how I feel about it.
CTO: two startups ago, we were building a service in the telephony space. We had a lot of trouble recruiting engineers who knew anything about low-level telephony protocols – they were hard to find, thus we had trouble expanding our team.
Ultimately what I decided to do was to build an abstraction layer on top of all of the telephony protocols themselves, our goal being to simplify the amount of work a developer on our team had to do to make things happen with our service.
What this allowed us to do was recruit younger, smart people who had no prior experience at all with telephony systems – and they were able to be successful in our development team because they could get the work done without the overhead of having to learn these telephony protocols. And this solved our recruiting problem.
The lesson here is fantastic, and I suspect lost on a lot of engineering team leaders: if you have only one place to spend your (development) time, spend that time on tasks that increase the effectiveness of everybody else on the team.
So this past weekend, I spent my time:
- Developing a component that takes an easily-fuck-up-able task from our application runtime and makes it more predictable and reliable and
- Learning a build system that we are going to use to make our build and deployment process standardized, predictable, and less dependent on human factors.
Turns out, working on those things instead of developing a handful of features necessary for our MVP was the right call – even though it’s painful to defer work on the product with impending deadlines looming. It was the right call because it eliminates errors and speeds up the work of every person on the team, including me!
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