Friday, April 17, 2015

The 0.1x Programmer is not a Myth


People that claim 10x programmers are a myth haven't spend enough time with terrible programmers.


Thanks to @kmoir, today I watched @jacobian's very interesting PyCon 2015 Keynote:
Jacob asserts that because most people fall onto a normal distribution that most programmers must as well. He makes a great analogy between marathon running ability and programming ability.

He illustrates his point with this chart:


I wholeheartedly agree that the mythical perception negatively affects a beginners confidence and that it is hurting our industry pipeline. I completely disagree that programmers lie on a normal distribution. Like Jacob, I have no data to support my claims, however, I'll be honest and say so, rather than presenting my claims as fact.

First, I want to introduce the three pillars I think someone needs to be a successful programmer (these probably make you successful at most things): hard work, a desire to improve, and intelligence. I posit that these qualities are mutable, but generally it is better to find someone that already has high values of at least two of these qualities. For example, if you're trying to hire a programmer for an esoteric language without much of a community, you might look for someone with intelligence and a desire to improve. If you need someone to pore over thousands of lines of COBOL looking for two-digit dates, you might optimize your hiring for hard-workers; they might not need to know the deep inner workings of the systems they're modifying. They might just need to expand all the records that contain a date.

There exist a lot of hard-working, intelligent programmers. There are unfortunately not as many with a desire to improve. A friend once told me you can have X years of experience, or 1 year of experience X times. (I'm sure that quote is attributable to someone famous.) I think this is extremely common in programming.

I believe that programmers have programming ability on a distribution more like this (enjoy my professional illustration):
However, I also believe that programmers have job-acquisition ability on a normal distribution:
I don't think there is any correlation between these graphs. I've seen plenty of programmers that have great job-acquisition ability, but poor programming ability. I've also seen plenty of the inverse. 

Burying the Lede

If you assume that my anecdotal graphs above are true, then there are probably a lot of bad programmers employed today. In Jacob's talk, he mentions that the US government projects a 1.5 million gap between available jobs and available programmers by 2020. Thus, companies have a high incentive to hope that a bad programmer will become better. In my experience, companies that employ most bad programmers don't know they have bad programmers, and thus are unlikely to fire them, so bad programmers have little incentive to improve. In my 15 years of professional experience, the only times I've ever seen a bad programmer be fired was for insubordination or other issues unrelated to ability.

TLDR Again

10x programmers are probably extremely rare. It is 0.1x programmers that are common. I've interviewed lots of them. I've worked directly with lots of them in my 6 years as a consultant and 4 years suffering in large midwestern corporations. I've also worked with some really good programmers as well. I've never worked with someone that I'd classify as a 10x programmer, but I've met a few 2x programmers.


In Jacob's talk, he mentions that he didn't invent django, but rather just happened to be an early user. He further claims to be a mediocre programmer without presenting any evidence. I think Jacob is simply undervaluing himself.  I'm not part of the python community at all. I don't follow @jacobian on twitter. I could be completely wrong about the people that he's worked with, but based on a quick googling, he's only worked at The Lawrence Journal World (with the inventors of django) and Heroku. I assume that means he never spent 2008 hacking on a massive EJB-based single-use custom web framework from 2002 for an insurance company. I'm not holding up that as a badge of honor or martyrdom, but of a vastly different experience.

For the Beginners

I agree with Jacob that 10x expectations are unrealistic and are intimidating beginners away from the field. However, a 10x difference in ability is real. We need to communicate to beginners not that they must be 10x badasses, but that most programmers are 0.1x clock-punchers who don't have much desire to improve. Beginners have an amazing opportunity to quickly surpass people with lots more experience. This doesn't require working 60 hours/week every week, though one might be required occasionally. It requires a desire to investigate root causes of problems instead inserting Thread.sleep(1) in your code when you have a race condition. It requires a automating a database upgrade process instead of manually babysitting it every weekend so you can get easy overtime pay. It requires optimizing your build instead of accepting that it takes 2 minutes to redeploy your webapp after a simple JSP change. (These are all real-life 0.1x programmer examples.)


In case you think I spent past professional life in an awful gulag, I didn't at all. There were definitely some low points, but I had lots of opportunities to learn a vast array of different technologies, and I got the opportunity to work full time on iOS starting in 2009, which I'm still doing today.