The truth of coding motivation

Heather Downing
Jan 25, 2018 · 5 min read

Years ago, a programmer’s life was very different. Someone in the STEM field is considered quite smart. In many circles, that made the popular people who indulged in other activities uncomfortable; so they teased and bullied them, and new terminology was born to describe the intelligent people that became outcasts - with a negative connotation. “You’re a nerd” or “such a geek freak” are phrases that now, we respond to with pride. You’ve seen the classic movies that go back decades describing how, one day, nerds were going to take over the world. Now that sentiment has come to fruition, and we are the cool kids. The chosen ones. We began creating things everyday people could use, and wanted to use. Some became young millionaires, some celebrated speakers, but all of us were elevated to a status highly sought after since the dawn of human tribalism:

Popular.

So what does that mean for the people that wish to join our ranks? I have run into many situations and stories where us nerds have not forgotten being rejected from inclusivity in influential circles. Often, I hear the phrase “not a real coder” uttered at conventions, in teams, and user groups. The assumption is you must love software development passionately in order to be a “real” programmer/coder/developer. How quickly we assume we know the one true way to be good at something. Shunning the 9 to 5 developer who goes home to her family at the same time every day, or the Cobol engineer who never upgraded their knowledge to a new stack. Perhaps the biggest assumption of them all is the new junior developer who is only getting into coding “for the money”.

They don’t belong.

Not with us, the chosen ones. The true believers of clean code and automation. We, who must pour all of our spare time (which we do so happily) into learning the next exciting advancement of a framework or language. We have side projects, gigs, hustles, and speak all over the world about what inspires us when creating and refactoring the programs we write. We have the future in our hands. Why would we welcome anyone into this world who didn’t pledge their passion to focus on that future? Good code can be difficult and downright stressful to get correct; and that’s before your colleagues argue there is a better way to do it. You’d better eat, sleep and breathe code or this world will reject you. Right?

Not so fast.

We forget quickly how motivation is a very personal thing. Should we focus on the passion or the results? I am certainly grateful for someone in food service doing an accurate job fulfilling my order at a fast food establishment… but if you asked them if they were “passionate” about putting together burgers I bet many of them would look at you strangely. It just has to get done, whether or not they are obsessed with the perfectly assembled sandwich. Regardless of their mindset, they can feel a certain amount of pride when they hit all of their goals and timed tasks. Possibly enjoy chatting with their coworkers and being in a team. Might even get their consistent performance met with a raise or a promotion. They show up to work with a good attitude and do their job well, and might stay in that field for a while. The aspect of what keeps them coming back every day will differ from person to person. However, one piece of motivation that we all have in common is the same:

Financial gain.

As a passionate programmer, I am sure you would code for yourself without getting paid. That works great until you realize that life is expensive and requires the exchange of currency to survive. Most of us need money to get by, and we are fortunate enough to be in a field with decent compensation for coding for someone else. It stands to reason that many people are being encouraged to get into this career, because they will have a stable monetary future in it. The fear is that the purity of programming minds will be diluted by those who just follow the next career trend (not truly caring about time zones issues and bubble sorts) or want to be part of the current in-crowd of smart kids. The horror of people not being a real programmer has corrupted our hiring procedures, team dynamics and individual relationships online. What are we to do if they go home at 5pm?!

Be grateful.

There are a million tasks that are our responsibility, and many that we have outgrown in our learning cycle. The truth is someone has to do the job that you did before - in order for you to move onto other things. Does it require someone who is obsessed with programming in order to accomplish that? It really depends on how well you teach and pass the information on. You cannot make someone love the same things you do. Just because their motivation may be different does not mean they cannot be a valuable software engineer.

So how do you gauge growth velocity in someone that doesn’t exchange Netflix for Pluralsight courses? How do you judge their candidacy for leadership if they don’t stay late and work weekends? What is the expectation of a software developer that is “good enough” to hang out with us and get paid for coding?

Results may vary.

At the end of the day, you might find that your own processes and communication skills are what needs improvement to help other team members be successful. Other times the stress of the job can get to a person and they give up on performing well as a programmer. Sometimes it’s both. Remember that no one was born coding, we all had to learn to do it. The way we were introduced to it has a deep impact on how we view the work we do. As long as the individual is producing moderate results, and appears to be happy in the team, let them continue. There is a job for every kind of developer - and having a consistent, performing one is valuable. I personally fall in and out of love with code at times… but always come around again whenever I speak to someone who is excited about discovering some aspect they didn’t know before. Maybe what we are truly complaining about is the lack of connecting with someone on the level we are at — and that’s understandable. Code is the easy part, and people are the true challenge. Don’t let that cloud who and what a programmer should be. The software developer who continues to try to grow, however slow the velocity is, will win the race over time.

Passion is no match for persistence.

Heather Downing

Written by

Passionate technologist. Voice, mobile, .Net development. Co-host of The Hello World Show, Senior Engineer at VML, Software Architect. quorralyne.com