Caring for your craft is fine, but should you work for free?

I've met many passionate developers in my career. Programmers who are deeply interested in technology, programming languages, methodology, and self-improvement. I've also seen many online profiles where people present themselves as 'passionate developers'.

These are the people who organise and speak at user groups. They write blog posts and host podcasts. They contribute to open source development in their free time.

I suppose that I can check many of those boxes myself. In the last few years, though, I've become increasingly sceptic that this is a good idea.

Working for free #

In the last five years or so, I've noticed what looks like a new trend. Programmers contact me to ask about paid mentorship. They offer to pay me out of their own pocket to mentor them.

I find that flattering, but it also makes me increasingly disenchanted with the software development industry. To be clear, this isn't an attack on the good people who care so much about their craft that they are willing to spend their hard-earned cash on improving their skill. This is more a reflection on employers.

For reasons that are complicated and that I don't fully understand, the software development community in the eighties and nineties developed a culture of anti-capitalism and liberal values that put technology on a pedestal for its own sake. Open source good; commercial software bad. Free software good; commercial software bad.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to such ideas, but it seems clear, now, that these ideas have had unintended consequences. The idea of free software, for example, has led to a software economy where you, the user, are no longer the customer, but the product.

The idea of open source, too, seems largely defunct as a means of 'sticking it to the man'. The big tech companies now embrace open source. Despite initial enmity towards open source, Microsoft now owns GitHub and is one of the most active contributors. Google and Facebook control popular front-end platforms such as Angular and React, as well as many other technologies such as Android or GraphQL. Continue the list at your own leisure.

Developing open source is seen as a way to establish credibility, not only for companies, but for individuals as well. Would you like a cool job in tech? Show me your open-source portfolio.

Granted, the focus on open-source contributions as a replacement for a CV seems to have peaked, and good riddance.

I deliberately chose to use the word portfolio, above. Like a struggling artist, you're expected to show up with such a stunning sample of your work that you amaze your potential new employer and blow away your competition. Unlike struggling artists, though, you've already given away everything in your portfolio, and so have other job applicants. Employers benefit from this. You work for free.

The passion ethos #

You're expected to 'contribute' to open source software. Why? Because employers want employees who are passionate about their craft.

As you start to ponder the implied ethos, the stranger it gets. Would you like engineers to be passionate as they design new bridges? Would you like a surgeon to be passionate as she operates on you? Would you like judges to be passionate as they pass sentence on your friend?

I'd like such people to care about their vocation, but I'd prefer that they keep a cool head and make as rational decisions as possible.

Why should programmers be passionate?

I don't think that it's in our interest to be passionate, but it is in employers' interest. Not only are passionate people expected to work for free, they're also easier to manipulate. Tell a passionate person something he wants to hear, and he may turn off further critical thinking because the praise feels good.

Some open-source maintainers have created crucial software that runs everywhere. Companies make millions off that free software, while maintainers are often left with an increasing support burden and no money.

They do, however, often get a pat on the back. They get invited to speak at conferences, and can add creator of Xyz to their social media bios.

Until they burn out, that is. Passion, after all, comes from the Latin for suffering.

Self-improvement #

I remember consulting with a development organisation, helping them adopt some new technology. As my engagement was winding down, I had a meeting with the manager to discuss how they should be able to carry on without me. This was back in my Microsoft days, so I suggested that they institute a training programme for the employees. To give it structure, they could, for example, study for some Microsoft certifications.

The development manager immediately shot down that idea: "If we do that, they'll leave us once they have the certification."

I was flabbergasted.

You've probably seen quotes like this:

"What happens if we train our people and they leave?"

"What happens if we don't and they stay?"

This is one of those bon mots that seem impossible to attribute to a particular source, but the idea is clear enough. The sentiment doesn't seem to represent mainstream behaviour, though.

Granted, I've met more than one visionary leader willing to invest in employees' careers, but most managers don't.

While I teach and coach internationally, I naturally have more experience with my home region of Copenhagen, and more broadly Scandinavia. Here, it's a common position that anything that relates to work should only happen during work hours. If the employer doesn't allow training on the job, then most employees don't train.

What happens if you don't keep up to date with new methodologies, new frameworks, new programming languages? Your skill set becomes obsolete. Not overnight, but over the years. Finding a new job becomes harder and harder.

As your marketability atrophies, your employer can treat you worse and worse. After all, where are you going to go?

If you're tired of working with legacy code without tests, most of your suggestions for improvements will be met by a shrug. We don't have time for that now. It's more important to deliver value to the customer.

You'll have to work long hours and weekends fire-fighting 'unexpected' issues in production while still meeting deadlines.

A sufficiently cynical employer may have no qualms keeping employees busy this way.

To be clear, I'm not saying that it's good business sense to treat skilled employees like this, and I'm not saying that this is how all employers conduct business, but I've seen enough development organisations that fit the description.

As disappointing as it may be, keeping up to date with technology is your responsibility, and if you can't sneak in some time for self-improvement at work, you'll have to do it on your own time.

This has little to do with passion, but much to do with self-preservation.

Can I help you? #

The programmers who contact me (and others) for mentorship are the enlightened ones who've already figured this out.

That doesn't mean that I'm comfortable taking people's hard-earned money. If I teach you something that improves your productivity, your employer benefits, too. I think that your employer should pay for that.

I'm aware that most companies don't want to do that. It's also my experience that while most employers couldn't care less whether you pay me for mentorship, they don't want you to show me their code. This basically means that I can't really mentor you, unless you can reproduce the problems you're having as anonymised code examples.

But if you can do that, you can ask the whole internet. You can try asking on Stack Overflow and then ping me. You're also welcome to ask me. If your minimal working example is interesting, I may turn it into a blog post, and you pay nothing.

People also ask me how they can convince their managers or colleagues to do things differently. I often wonder why they don't make technical decisions already, but this may be my cultural bias talking. In Denmark you can often get away with the ask-for-forgiveness-rather-than-permission attitude, but it may not be a good idea in your culture.

Can I magically convince your manager to do things differently? Not magically, but I do know an effective trick: get him or her to hire me (or another expensive consultant). Most people don't heed advice given for free, but if they pay dearly for it, they tend to pay attention.

Other than that, I can only help you as I've passionately tried to help the world-wide community for decades: by blogging, answering questions on Stack Overflow, writing books, speaking at user groups and conferences, publishing videos, and so on.

Ticking most of the boxes #

Yes, I know that I fit the mould of the passionate developer. I've blogged regularly since 2006, I've answered thousands of questions on Stack Overflow, I've given more than a hundred presentations, been a podcast guest, and co-written a book, none of which has made me rich. If I don't do it for the passion, then why do I do it?

Sometimes it's hard and tedious work, but even so, I do much of it because I can't really help it. I like to write and teach. I suppose that makes me passionate.

My point with this article isn't that there's anything wrong with being passionate about software development. The point is that you might want to regard it as a weakness rather than an asset. If you are passionate, beware that someone doesn't take advantage of you.

I realise that I didn't view the world like this when I started blogging in January 2006. I was driven by my passion. In retrospect, though, I think that I have been both privileged and fortunate. I'm not sure my career path is reproducible today.

When I started blogging, it was a new-fangled thing. Just the fact that you blogged was enough to get a little attention. I was in the right place at the right time.

The same is true for Stack Overflow. The site was still fairly new when I started, and a lot of frequently asked questions were only asked on my watch. I still get upvotes on answers from 2009, because these are questions that people still ask. I was just lucky enough to be around the first time it was asked on the site.

I'm also privileged by being an able-bodied man born into the middle class in one of the world's richest countries. I received a free education. Denmark has free health care and generous social security. Taking some chances with your career in such an environment isn't even reckless. I've worked for more than one startup. That's not risky here. Twice, I've worked for a company that went out of business; in none of those cases did I lose money.

Yes, I've been fortunate, but my point is that you should probably not use my career as a model for yours, just as you shouldn't use those of Robert C. Martin, Kent Beck, or Martin Fowler. It's hardly a reproducible career path.

Conclusion #

What can you do, then, if you want to stand out from the crowd? How do you advance your software development career?

I don't know. I never claimed that this was easy.

Being good at something helps, but you must also make sure that the right people know what you're good at. You're probably still going to have to invest some of your 'free' time to make that happen.

Just beware that you aren't being taken advantage of. Be dispassionate.


Thanks Mark for your post.

I really relate to your comment about portfolio. I am still a young developer, not even 30 years old. A few years ago, I had an unhealthy obsession, that I should have a portfolio, otherwise I would be having a hard time finding job.

I am not entirely sure where this thought was coming from, but it is not important in what I want to convey. I was worrying that I do not have a portfolio and that anxiety itself, prevented me from doing any real work to have anything to showcase. Kinda vicious cycle.

Anyways, even without a portfolio, I didn't have any troubles switching jobs. I focused on presenting what I have learned in every project I worked on. What was good about it, what were the struggles. I presented myself not as a just a "mercenary" if you will. I always gave my best at jobs and at the interviews and somehow managed to prove to myself that a portfolio is not a must.

Granted, everybody's experience is different and we all work in different market conditions. But my takeaway is - don't fixate on a thing, if it's not an issue. That's kinda what I was doing a few years back.

2021-03-28 16:25 UTC

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Monday, 22 March 2021 06:50:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 22 March 2021 06:50:00 UTC