What is programming perfection? While the qualities that comprise “the most productive” developer will vary to some extent based on industry and role, I believe there are a number of similarities that productive developers tend to share. Understanding these similarities is a key to improving oneself (if oneself == developer) or differentiating from a pool of similar-seeming developer prospects. In my assorted experience (full time jobs in Pascal, C, C++, C#, and now Ruby (damn I sound old)), I have repeatedly observed developers who vary in productivity by a factor of 10x, and I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to try to understand the specifics behind this vast difference.
I do not profess to be kid-tested or mother-approved (let alone academically rigorous or scientifically proven) when it comes to prescribing what exactly these qualities are. But I do have a blog, an opinion, and an eagerness to discuss this topic with others. I realize this is a highly subjective, but that’s part of what makes it fun to try to quantify.
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As a starting point for discussion, I hereby submit the following chart which approximates the general progression I’ve observed in developers that move from being marginally productive to absurdly productive. It works from the bottom (stuff good junior programmers do) to the top (stuff superstars do).
And here is my rationale, starting from the bottom:
Level 1: Qualities possessed by an effective newbie
Comments on something, somewhere. A starting point for effective code commenting is that you’re not too lazy or obstinate to do it in principle.
Self-confident. Programmers that lack self-confidence can never be extremely effective, because they spend so much time analyzing their own code and questioning their lead about their code. That said, if you’re learning, it’s far better to know what you don’t know than to think you do know when you really don’t. So this one can be a difficult balance, particularly as coders grow in experience and become less willing to ask questions.
Abides by existing conventions. This is something that new coders actually tend to have working in their favor over veterans. On balance, they seem to be more willing to adapt to the conventions of existing code, rather than turning a five person programming project into a spaghetti codebase with five different styles. A codebase with multiple disparate conventions is a subtle and insidious technical debt. Usually programmers starting out are pretty good at avoiding this, even if their reason is simply that they don’t have their own sense for style.
Doesn’t stay stuck on a problem without calling for backup. This ties into the aforementioned danger with being self-confident. This is another area where young programmers tend to do pretty well, while more experienced coders can sometimes let themselves get trapped more frequently. But if you can avoid this when you’re starting, you’re getting off on the right foot.
Level 2: Qualities possessed by an effective intermediate programmer
Understand the significance of a method’s contract. Also known as “writes methods that don’t have unexpected side effects.” This basically means that the developer is good at naming their functions/methods, such that the function/method does not affect the objects that are passed to it in a way that isn’t implied by its name. For example, when I first started coding, I would write functions with names like “inflictDamage(player)” that might reduce a player’s hitpoints, change their AI state, and change the AI state of the enemies around the player. As I became more experienced, I learned that “superfunctions” like this were not only impossible to adapt, but they were very confusing when read by another programmer from their calling point: “I thought it was just supposed to inflict damage, why did it change the AI state of the enemies?”
Figures out missing steps when given tasks. This is a key difference between a developer that is a net asset or liability. Often times, a level 0 developer will appear to be getting a lot done, but their productivity depends on having more advanced programmers that they consult with whenever they confront a non-trivial problem. As a lead developer, I would attempt to move my more junior developers up the hierarchy by asking “Well, what do you think?” or “What information would you need to be able to answer that question?” This was usually followed by a question like, “so what breakpoint could you set in your debugger to be able to get the information you need?” By helping them figure it out themselves, it builds confidence, while implicitly teaching that it is not more efficient to break their teammates’ “mental context” for problems that they have the power to solve themselves.
Consistently focused, on task. OK, this isn’t really one that people “figure out” at level two, so much as it is a quality that usually accounts for a 2x difference in productivity between those that have it and those that don’t. I don’t know how you teach this, though, and I’d estimate that about half of the programmers I worked with at my past jobs ended up spending 25-50% of their day randomly browsing tech sites (justified in their head as “research?”). Woe is our GDP.
Handy with a debugger. Slow: figure out how a complicated system works on paper or in your head. Fast: run a complicated system and see what it does. Slow: carefully consider how to adapt a system to make it do something tricky. Fast: change it, put in a breakpoint, does it work? What variables cause it not to? Caveat: You’ve still got to think about edge cases that didn’t naturally occur in your debugging state.
Level 3: Hey, you’re pretty good!
Thinks through edge cases / good bug spotter. When I worked at my first job, I often felt that programmers should be judged equally on the number of their bugs they fixed and the number of other programmers bugs’ they found. Of course, there are those that will make the case that bug testing is the job of QA. And yes, QA is good. But QA could never be as effective as a developer that naturally has a sense for the edge cases that could affect their code so don’t write those bugs in the first place. And getting QA to try to reproduce intermittent bugs is usually no less work than just examining the code and thinking about what might be broke.
Unwilling to accept anomalous behavior. Good programmers learn that there is a serious cost to “code folklore” — the mysterious behaviors that have been vaguely attributed to a system without understanding the full root cause. Code folklore eventually leads to code paranoia, which can cause inability to refactor, or reluctance to touch that one thing that is so ugly, yet so mysterious and fragile.
Understands foreign code quickly. If this post is supper, here’s the steak. Weak developers need code to be their own to be able to work with it. And proficient coders are proficient because, for the 75% of the time that you are not working in code that you recently wrote, you can figure out what’s going on without hours or days of rumination. More advanced versions of this trait are featured in level four (“Can adapt foreign code quickly”) and level five (“Accepts foreign code as own”). Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion on what the experts can do with code that isn’t theirs.
Doesn’t write the same code twice. OK, I’ve now burned through at least a thousand words without being a language zealot, so please allow me this brief lapse into why I heart introspective languages: duplicated code is the root of great evil. The obvious drawback of writing the same thing twice is that it took longer to write it, and it will take longer to adapt it. The more sinister implications are that, if the same method is implemented in three different ways, paralysis often sets in and developers become unwilling to consolidate the methods or figure out which is the best one to call. In a worst case scenario, they write their own method, and the spiral into madness is fully underway.
Level 4: You’re one of the best programmers in your company
Comments consistently on code goals/purpose/gotchyas. Bonus points for examples. You notice that I haven’t mentioned code commenting since level one? It is out of my begrudging respect for the Crazed Rubyists who espouse the viewpoint that “good code is self-documenting.” In an expressive language, I will buy that to an extent. But to my mind, there is no question that large systems necessarily have complicated parts, and no matter how brilliantly you implement those parts, the coders that follow you will take longer to assimilate them if the docs are thin. Think about how you feel when you find a plugin or gem that has great documentation. Do you get that satisfying, “I know what’s going on and am going to implement this immediately”-sort of feeling? Or do you get the “Oh God this plugin looks like exactly what I need but it’s going to take four hours to figure out how to use the damned thing.” An extra hour spent by the original programmer to throw you a bone would have saved you (and countless others) that time. Now do you sympathize with their viewpoint that their code is “self-documenting?”
Can adapt foreign code quickly. This is the next level of “understands foreign code quickly.” Not only do you understand it, but you know how to change it without breaking stuff or changing its style unnecessarily. Go get ‘em.
Doesn’t write the same concept twice. And this is the next level of “doesn’t write the same code twice.” In a nutshell, this is the superpower that good system architects possess: a knack for seeming patterns and similarities across a system, and knowing how to conceptualize that pattern into a digestible unit that is modular, and thus maintainable.
Level 5: Have I mentioned to you that we’re hiring?
Constant experimenting for incremental gains. The best of the best feel an uncomfortable churn in their stomach if they have to use “find all” to get to a method’s definition. They feel a thrill of victory if they can type in “hpl/s” to open a file in the “hand_picked_lists” directory called “show” (thank you Rubymine!). They don’t settle for a slow development environment, build process, or test suite. They cause trouble if they don’t have the best possible tools to do their job effectively. Each little thing the programming expert does might only increase their overall productivity by 1% or less, but since developer productivity is a bell curve, those last few percent ratchet the expert developer from the 95th to 99th percentile.
Accepts foreign code as their own. OK, I admit that this is a weird thing to put at the top of my pyramid, but it’s so extremely rare and valuable that I figure it will stand as a worthwhile challenge to developers, if nothing else. Whereas good developers understand others’ code and great developers can adapt it, truly extraordinary developers like foreign code just as much as they like their own. In a trivial case, their boss loves them because rather than complaining that code isn’t right, they will make just the right number of revisions to improve what needs to be improved (and, pursuant to level 3, they will have thought through edge cases before changing). In a more interesting example, they might take the time to grok and extensively revise a plugin that most developers would just throw away, because the expert developer has ascertained that it will be 10% faster to make heavy revisions than to rewrite from scratch. In a nutshell, whereas most developers tolerate the imperfections in code that is not their own, experts empathize with how those imperfections came about, and they have a knack for figuring out the shortest path to making the code in question more usable. And as a bonus, they often “just do it” sans the lamentations of their less productive counterparts.
This isn’t to say they won’t revise other people’s crappy code. But they’re just as likely to revise the crappy code of others as they are their own crappy code (hey, it happens). The trick that these experts pull is that they weigh the merits of their own code against the code of others with only one objective: what will get the job done best?
Teach me better
What qualities do you think are shared by the most effective developers? What do you think are the rarest and most desirable qualities to find? Would love to hear from a couple meta-thinkers to compare notes on the similarities you’ve observed amongst your most astoundingly productive.