Traits of a good programmer

In his latest blog, Peter Bohm has written a review of Chad Fowler’s “The Passionate Programmer” and has basically summarized a few qualities that a programmer should have. I think that analytical and programming skills apart, it is the amount of “passion” a programmer has that makes him/her a good programmer.

One of Peter’s arguments is about how good programmers never stop to learn. I couldn’t agree more. If there is a one key difference I have seen between good and average programmers, it’s their passion for learning. Good programmers see learning as an investment and spend a lot of time upgrading their skills and improving their knowledge. They read, browse, blog, network, join forums, attend conferences and above all get into the trenches try out new things whenever they can.

Good developers hate bad code. I was reading “Secrets of the Rockstar programmers: riding the IT crest” by Ed Burns. This book is a collection of interviews of some of the “celebrities” from the IT world. One of the traits that sprung up as a common characteristic among most programmers interviewed in the book was their passion for continuously improving the systems they were working on. In the interview with Kohsuke Kawaguchi, the creator of continuous integration tool Hudson, he says that he wrote Hudson because he wasn’t happy with CruiseControl (and other CI tools). Good programmers will feel very uncomfortable on seeing poor code or existing bugs and would want to fix them. They will cringe every time they are forced to put in a tactical solution/bug fix for the benefit of time and will always go back and put a better fix whenever they can.

In my opinion, good programmers are lazy. They hate doing manual tasks and therefore invent creative ways to automate mundane jobs. One of my friends recently spent several hours converting a manual build task into a fully automated one-click build and managed to reduce her effort from several hours per build to almost zero. She was almost delirious with joy on seeing all the time she saved. As Yukihiro Matsumoto, the creator of Ruby once said, “Be lazy. Machines should serve human being. Often programmers serve machines unconsciously. Let machines serve you. Do everything you can to make you lazy”.

I have also often observed that many, if not all, smart programmers are tool junkies. Nothing excites them more than tinkering with new tools, installing new plugins or customizing their development environments. I am not sure if there is a pattern here but the child like pleasure we programmers derive from these activities make our work all the more interesting.

Another interesting characteristic of good developers is that they are not scared to step out of their comfort zones. For example, they share their code with others and welcome feedback. It takes a lot of courage to show your code to the rest of the world. Good programmers work hard to swallow their pride and overcome their fear and shyness of letting other people review their work. For the same reason, they enjoy company of programmers who are smarter than them. This gives them an opportunity to observe and learn from others. Joel Spolsky once said in his podcast, “if you’re not doing a few things where you’re failing a little, you’re probably not trying hard enough. I say if everyone likes you, you probably aren’t doing anything interesting.”

Finally, the one quality that I hold in very high esteem is humility. Good programmers are humble. They don’t mind admitting that they don’t know something. While it is easier said than done, I have seen that the biggest disservice we do to ourselves is by being egoistic and snobbish about our knowledge and programming skills. You end up losing by shutting off other people if you are continuously trying to prove the superiority of your programming skills to others. Smart programmers don’t do that. They know that there is nothing wrong in saying “I don’t know”, nor do they harshly judge another team mate who says that. There is a lot that can be learnt from each other if only we let our guards down and stop being defensive about our skills or lack thereof.

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One thought on “Traits of a good programmer

  1. J says:

    Thanks for writing this pal.
    It needed to be written. Especially the last two points about having the courage to open oneself to feedback (even the cruel ones!) and avoiding the pitfall of intellectual snobbery.

    A good write and a sincere effort.

    Keep up the pace.

    – J

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