Only code at work? That doesn’t make you a worse programmer

At the end of the day you’re done with work, you go home—and you don’t spend any of your free time coding. And that’s fine, you have other things going on in your life. But your coworker does spend another 20 hours a week coding, and all that practice means they’ll end up better programmers than you, and so they’ll get promoted faster, and they’ll get paid more. And that’s not fine.

It’s also not true.

That inadequacy you’re feeling is based on false assumptions, a misunderstanding of the skills it takes to be a good programmer. Enthusiasts who love coding as a hobby are valuable, yes, but so are you: even if extra hours of coding result in better skills—often a very doubtful assumption—their approach is not inherently better.

All but the smallest of programming projects are team efforts, requiring a variety of skills, knowledge, and mindsets. The mindset of someone who view programming as a tool to do their jobs—let’s call them pragmatists—is just as useful as the mindset of enthusiasts.

To understand why, let’s go through the lifecycle of the enthusiast programmer, see how their skills evolve, and compare them to the pragmatists’ approach. As you’ll see, enthusiasts and pragmatists start out with different strengths, and software teams can benefit from both.

The enthusiast’s path

The enthusiast’s starting point is a love of programming: they love to code. They take joy in writing software, and understanding the intricacies of the technologies they use.

Over time, as they become more skilled and experienced, they expand their point of view. Instead of just wanting to write code, they want to write good code, high-quality code: they want to be proud of their work. So now they focus not just on the joy of coding, but also on less enjoyable but important disciplines like testing.

If they continue to grow in skill and experience, they will eventually hit a point where they see code as a tool: a means to an end. Software is still fun, yes, but it also needs to be written to achieve certain goals. At this point quality becomes less of an obvious objective criteria: every situation is different, and what works in one situation doesn’t work in another.

Strengths and weaknesses: Enthusiasts often have a strong grasp of the tools and technologies they use. On the other hand, they are sometimes prone to holy wars and zealotry (they feel it’s important to choose the very best tool), and until they finally realize software is a means, not an end, they have a harder time working towards goals that aren’t about writing software.

The pragmatist’s path

The enthusiast’s weaknesses are the pragmatist’s strength. Pragmatists start out seeing software as a means to end: they will tell you “I like writing software, but mostly I care about what the software lets me do.” So what can take the enthusiast years to learn—a focus on goals—comes naturally to the pragmatist.

Of course, if they’re not deliberately focusing on learning, pragmatist can sometimes suffer from less understanding of tools and techniques. This can be mitigated by learning on the job, and making sure to build awareness of available technologies.

Software is not a competition

With time and practice, the strengths of enthusiasts and pragmatists can converge. Even so, different people will typically end up with different skillsets, different approaches, and different ways of building software.

This is how it should be. Software projects are too big to be built by one person, too complex to be encompassed by one view point.

When you compare yourself to your peers, you shouldn’t ignore your weakness, but you should also value your own strengths. You can and should learn from your colleagues, but chances are there’s something you can teach them.

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