Why being a good programmer barely requires programming at all.

Chris Bertrand on February 19, 2019

Yes, you read that right. To be a good programmer you don’t need to be good at programming. I hear what you’re thinking, that makes no sense! W... [Read Full]
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I think this view is a bit simplistic. I do agree with the part that being good at programming is not enough to be a good programmer anymore. But I don't agree at all with the extreme you suggest that

To be a good programmer you don’t need to be good at programming.

Granted, to thrive as a developer you need in most cases empathy, communication skills, planning skills, to be able to deal with changing requirements and unexpected things, etc.

However, precisely as you say, you aren't working alone in a single codebase anymore. Other people are building features on that codebase at the same time as you. Other teams depend on the software you build to be bug-free and available at all times.

Besides being able to collaborate with those other developers, I think it is more important than ever to be able to write code that is clear, composable, and has few corners where bugs can hide; unit tests that express the intended functionality of a module; integration/end-to-end tests that ensure everything still works as expected when new features are deployed; and so on.

Precisely because I have to work on other developers' code, I want to work with people that are good at writing code.

 

The simplification was intended, I'd also prefer to work with people that are good at writing code, but I'd also like to be able to hold a conversation with them. Thanks for voicing your views!

 

For me there's three traits that make a good programmer:
1: The ability to read other people's (or own) code and understand what happens in them, even if they're written badly or ugly
2: The ability to write pretty code that does what it's supposed to
3: The ability to explain code in a way that helps other people understand why something happens and helps them improve

Though I see it more as a spectrum you always can improve on, rather than a binary "good-or-not"

 

I would add also the flip side of point 3:

4: The ability to understand requirements and context from people

 
 

2: The ability to write pretty code that does what it's supposed to

I love that :)

 
 
 
 

If you had said "Why being a good Engineer barely requires programming at all", I would be more inclined to agree. It might be that "programmer" is just being overloaded in your statement and to you it's synonymous with "engineer".

To me programming is one of many skills an engineer might utilize. I know folks in InfoSec, SRE, QA, etc that I would consider great engineers (because they have a lot of the other skills you mentioned), but not necessarily great programmers.

 
 

in a dark basement on your own thrashing out some code

omg, that is so true lol

one thing that might be worth mentioning (slightly tangential, but it came to mind when reading this article): math.

for example, my highest level of math is basic mathematics at my community college, and then one "math in society" course, that's it! all i needed to get my AA. my friend on discord was in algebra in 9th grade, while i was in special math classes all the way until graduation...

in programming, a lot of languages have all these built in math methods for you (well, the ones i've used: crystal, php, julia, javascript). one might think a programmer needs to be a highly skilled mathematician. a programmer merely needs to put pieces of the puzzle (the programming language) together in a cohesive project/app that allows humans to utilize it. whether it's in a beneficial way, an automated way, or whatever. that's it.

however, what i just said is highly subjective.. because a "programmer" is such a broad word. programmer of what? are you working with nvidia to write low level driver code? making a game using an engine? following thechernoproject's c++ tutorial and making your own engine? writing your own programming language? programming in html/css to make your site fancy? only a few of these actually require deep understanding of math.

i feel that today in society, when calling someone a programmer, people automatically think they are some math magician.

i think that's not fair to the people who are actually skilled in mathematics. i'm certainly not and i don't feel right when i take credit of being good at math, when i know basically nothing and just use helper methods..

 

How does one go about programming in html/css? While HTML and CSS are coding languages, they are not programming languages. HTML is markup and CSS is styling; neither involves scripting or programming of any sort.

 
 

Yeah you're right, I'm terrible at math. Luckily that hasn't hindered my career up to now.

 

"the stuff that 90% of us will be doing won’t require any revolutionary coding expertise" -- sure. But we're not talking about revolutionary programmers. Just good. Mediocre even.

Sure, you don't have to be a revolutionary programmer to implement an O(n*logn) sorting algorithm. But I know too many bad ones that would easily make it O(n2 ). Or worse. And they're exceptional at soft skills. In fact, that's how they got the job.

Isn't what you're saying the reason a lot of applications eat up enormous amounts of memory, work slowly and terrifyingly bad? Because they were coded with smart, approachable, determined, polite, interpersonally superior people who just can't write code?

If I'm listening to music, I don't care how well the band leader gets along with his band. Not in the abstract I don't, literally zero efs. I want the music to be good. If I need a surgery, I want the surgeon to be as highly skilled as it's possible, and I don't care that he yells at his interns, and is openly sexist, or whatever. I don't, I need to stay alive, and hards skills of the surgeon are my best bet. You can choose that smart, approachable and determined guy with shaking hands, no objections there.

If I'm using software...

 

Ya, maybe you'd want that surgeon - until you realize that despite his brilliance with a scalpel, none of the supporting people around him are top of their field, because he's pushed them all away. His requests for his peers opinions take longer to get answered, the best assistants can't stand him and have slowly migrated away and because of his open sexism, he's been unable to collaborate with the best of his field on new techniques - his high skill is limited by his other interpersonal skills and likely he suffers from Dunning Krueger because of this, thus he seems convincingly confident in his methods, yet doesn't even know that his technique is actually outdated and a less invasive surgery could be done. Instead of a tiny incision point, you walk away with several massive scars because he executed the old technique, perfectly.

Sure, plenty of a-holes have created great value in the world, but as our culture advances, it tends to be those with amazing hard skills and soft skills that have the largest reach and create the most impactful contributions.

I look at the top devs and program managers that I see speaking and interacting in community standups, etc and what I notice is that combination of technical prowess and interpersonal ease - one without the other has limitations, but people who start out good at social patterns, seem to have an easier time maintaining an enriched environment of peers, which has a multiplier effect on their capacity to learn and grow.

To your example about 50 transformations, my counter example is that a good coder may code it 'well enough', but believe they coded it perfectly and waste a lot of time and energy when their peers try to help them make it better, bitterly and pedantically holding on to any technical point they can make, instead of embracing their own continual improvement - their ego defeats them. On the other hand, if their code is wonderful and correct, but they can't communicate that to others, then the value of the contribution goes down - the knowledge dies with them, so to speak, instead of rippling out, memetically. Good ideas require great advocates to be truly effective.

Finally, there are only so many of the type of person you speak of, they have only so many keystrokes in their lifetimes and there's increasingly more code to write - if your only input to those who aren't 'as good as you' at writing code is that they shouldn't, so 'be gone with ya', then you create a divisive process not a multiplicative one - instead of inspiration you create desperation. Code that can solve a problem but could be better at solving it is better than no code to solve the problem at all. It would seem that the 'too many' devs you know gain nothing from knowing you because you haven't effectively, inspirationally transferred that knowledge. Blind superiority is a social anti-pattern, one that our culture is slowly refactoring out.

 

Um, thanks for the comment. I'm guessing that means you agree with me then? Right?

Well, ya I agree with you :) I'm advocating pretty heavily for soft skills being an important hard skill multiplier and noting that soft skills make gaps in hard skills easier to fill - collaboratively. I think Pavel is leaving a lot of potential on the table by devaluing those social skills and I tried to provide examples to demonstrate why.

 

Interesting, I've never had to implement a sorting algorithm, apart from for interviews. Sure they're important programming principles but not something that's written day to day.

 

I bet you also never used "Animal->Cat" and "Animal->Dog" classic class hierarchies apart from demonstrating inheritance. That's not the point.
This is just a stupid example. It might be not a sorting algorithm. It might be "run 50 transformations on each item in this list". And a good programmer that can't write code will copy the list in memory 50 times, transformation after transformation, forgetting about corner cases and error handling. And a terrible programmer who can write code will make memory footprint smaller, group 50 transformations so there are only 5, and his code will never crash the process.

All programmers can make mistakes or not know certain nuances, such things are pretty simple to catch in code reviews, which will in turn enhance their development in the future. Grads and the lessed experienced need to have good mentors to show them best practices.

You're telling that juniors will become more experienced over time. It is self-evident (if they're able and if they continue to learn, of course).

If for each LOC you have 2 mistakes, it's easier to scratch the whole thing. If your code has 2 mistakes per LOC, you're a bad programmer. Sorry. You can't code. You can't fulfil your main responsibility. I don't know how to explain and I surrender.

Everyone has their own opinions, and I appreciate you sharing yours. The article was written to elicit responses from the community, and we can see that there are people that agree and disagree with your stance.

 

"The old days of getting your tasks and specifications up front, and being left to your own devices is long gone."

Yeah, and don't I miss those days. But hey, I'm in a two-man programming company so at least the other guy tells me he wants that thing over there over here.

Programming, at least for me, has always been about problem-solving. The last bit of formal training I did was in 1988.

 

I think that nowadays people use the terms "programmer" and "software developer" interchangeably, so I won't be focusing on the choice of word. (Disclaimer: I prefer the use of term developer, because like you said, the work you describe is more than just mere programming).

I see the work of a software developer mainly as problem-solving. And for that, you don't have to know every detail of some specific technique/language. It helps if you have basic knowledge about the possibilities and restrictions of the technology you're using. But technical skills are easy to learn when necessary.

What I think are really important qualities for a good software developer? The ability to grasp the bigger picture, enthusiasm to learn and grow and also the will to change things when it's needed. On top of the communication skills that you already mentioned.

For sure, the ability to write efficient, maintainable and reusable code (clean coding practises) is a "good-to-have". But it's a fact that not all developers have the ability to write clean code. But if you're not willing to learn and improve, then there's a big chance that you end up being one of those "I do this because of some obscure reason x that I learned years ago and I don't care if it's right or wrong. I just work here."-developers. And those can be hard ones to work with.

 

Thanks for your comment. They're my thoughts exactly, but putting them like that doesn't make a very good post! 😋

 

Do you share the same views? Or do you think I'm talking nonsense

No and yes this is nonsense.
I had to make an account just to say this.

I agree programmers require lot of skills, but sweet talking, talking to testers, planning, improve his/her and the team's communication are not some of them, there are people that are paid to do this.

Programmers today are paid for and need to know about Message Queues, ESBs, Cloud Services(hundreds of them), Spark, Message Streaming, Metrics Stores, Dashboards tooling, Networking, Jenkins/Teamcity/Travis/etc, Git/Mercurial, about 2-3 scripting langugages, at least, one backend language (java,c#) at least, one frontend language (Javascript, Typescript), testing tools and testing frameworks, Sql dbs , Nosql dbs, ecosystems,frameworkt and libraries (ie for java 100 spring-xxx.jar, 3 JPA implementations, etc), frontend ecosystems(angular, react, vue, etc), OOP, FP etc.

This kind of stuff makes a developer good and we spend years learning this, I honestly don't think soft skills are things a programmer must have, I agree they are a nice to have thing, but it is an arrogance to say that soft skills can replace any of the technical skills.

 

Haha, thanks for the comment. We do seem to have quite a lot on our plates already don't we!

 

Dijkstra said "Besides a mathematical inclination, an exceptionally good mastery of one's native tongue is the most vital asset of a competent programmer."

Then there's Bruce Webster's take on what makes an outstanding software engineer: "TEPES stands for Talent, Experience, Professionalism, Education, and Skill. These are the five aspects that separate an outstanding software engineer from a merely good one"

So you're certainly on the right track. Skill still counts, but it seems to be becoming more a prerequisite than a valuable measure of comparison.

 

Exactly, thanks for your insight and link, that's really interesting stuff!

 

Strongly agree that interpersonal communication is important but skill in design and development of software is crucial too. My teams have been plagued with issues caused by bad code developed in a hurry with little dedication to the design process. In my experience, the majority of developers are either adequate or deficient at their jobs due to the shortage of skilled software developers. On average, 1 out of every 6 new hires makes it past the trial period in my current team. Most of them are excellent communicators but have yet to develop what I personally refer to as 'reflex' for pragmatic software design.

 

Thanks for your comment, It's true that a lot of developers need additional help with certain programming aspects. Wow that's a pretty woeful rate, how long is the trial period? I'd definitely spend more time checking for your specific requirements during the interview process rather than simply bin them after a few months in the office, for their sake, and yours.

 

Our trial period is 3 months. We've been working on improving interview techniques as our turnover rate ruined our productivity last year.

 

There's 2 levels to programming in my mind.

There's the coding part which requires specific knowledge, training and skills - and then there's the "problem solving" part which requires creativity, experimentation and a bit of a sense of adventure.

Both are about 50/50 in terms of value, but personally I think the problem solving half is something that should be taught / gained first, and then the coding should follow as the programmer settles into a language or skillset.

 

This is an extreme situation - to know psychology, how to interact with people, to know how the system works, like the need to have everything (the specifications) written in some form, and the absolute truth that no software is ever perfect and finished, take advantage of medical and paid days off, so to not work or work poorly, but still end up paid good.

 

A good programmer needs to have a very good reading skills - to spot all those annoying typos in the code :)

 
 

Is interesting the fascination of the IT crowd (yes, I said it) about this "soft skills", of course being a functional social being is better than not; of course you will work better with others if you don't are a jerk and is you can communicate well with others. Is the same in any activity that involve others, for obvious reasons. Of course if you work alone you need less communication skills than if you work on a team. If a person doesn't code much is not much of a coder is it? and in that case of course your coding skills are not that relevant, if sometimes you have to drive are you a professional driver? If you take care of the food orders at launch are you a cattering?. Of course the thing you do a lot is important and is better to do it better. To me all the "soft skills are important" speech is not that useful, the "what" you have to do is usually very obvious, the "how" can be tricky. But I think that if nobody wants to work with you, if you forcefully eat alone and you don't get very good feedback from your partners I'm pretty sure you can figure it that it has something to do with people and not because of how or when you use recursion or your overuse of comments. Just as obvious as that you need to improve your coding if your code keeps getting rejected. Because many times this "soft skills" are the shield of people who doesn't make real contributions and spend the day "social skilling".

 

I love the term "Software Writer" that DHH suggests.
youtube.com/watch?v=9LfmrkyP81M

I also love the provocative title of your article... made me open it! Thank you.

 

Haha, Thanks. An enticing article title is always something I strive for!

 
 

I completely agree with this. I can attribute most (if not all) of my success as a software developer to my soft skills.

 
 

Social skills are as important as writing good code, so I totally agree with you.

 

Agree your not talking nonsense. I think it requires a lot of our soft skills besides our own hard skills.

 

Finally, that Bachelor's in psych is paying off.

 
 
 

The title is misleading, but the concluding remark is thoughtful.

 

I think this matters a lot on your organization and product.

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