Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Cost of Net Negative Producing Programmers

It's common to compare ourselves to doctors, lawyers, and other highly-paid professionals. Unfortunately, almost every comparison breaks down dramatically, very quickly.

When doctors screw up (massively) they get sued. When (permanently employed) programmers screw up they get let-go, and they go find a new job, usually with more responsibility and a pay raise. There are no ramifications for software malpractice.*

Successful lawyers put in years to learn their craft, then they put in years trying to become partner. Eventually they get to make the firm defining decisions, but only after maturing their abilities and proving themselves. In our industry you need no formal education. If you show the slightest sign of competency you'll quickly be given the keys to the kingdom. Architect promotions are not hard to come by.

I had an 'architect' title with no college degree and only 3 years of experience. At that point I'd never heard of unit testing, refactoring, or design patterns. In those days I was picking up information from O'Reilly In a Nutshell books and MSDN. At the same time I was leading a team building software for the US government (via contracts the company had won, not employed directly by them). I was massively under-skilled, and yet, there I was writing software that troops would need to stay alive.**

I wish my experience were isolated, but while I was consulting for 3.5 years I saw countless examples of exactly the same story.

I know the argument: demand is so high, we don't have another choice. I reject this argument on the basis that most good programmers spend the majority of their time fixing problems created by terrible programmers.

Good programmers fix problems created by terrible programmers in various ways. Good programmers can directly address problems by rewriting poorly written custom code. However, the less obvious way good programmers address poorly written code is when they write custom code because all the tools, that a company could potentially buy instead of building, are terrible. Would so many companies write their own time tracking, project managing, bug tracking, expense tracking and other internal tools if they had reasonable commercial options?

The argument that demand is too high completely ignores the opportunity cost of working with NNPPs.

The next common argument: We don't have that many NNPPs. Really? Write a few blog entries, attend a few conferences, do some consulting. I think you might change your mind. And, remember, the people commenting on blog entries or attending conferences are the ones who actually care about what they are doing. I'm horrified to think what the less interested NNPPs produce.

Here's a gem from a comment on my last blog post.
I honestly think I can do about 3000 lines of good code in a day... -anonymous
The commenter actually thinks writing 3000 lines of code a day is a good thing.

If you read through the comments you'll find another commenter that doesn't understand the difference between open classes and inheritance, but overall the majority of comments are well thought out reasonable responses. Several people were able to create logical responses without being emotionally attached to Java. That gave me some hope that things were a bit better than I generally picture them as. But, then I checked out the dzone score of the entry.

Now, maybe it's just not a well written or educational in any way post, that would be fine. But, when I read the comments, I'm back to disgusted by our industry. In this day and age, is it really reasonable to think that Java doesn't have limitations? I would say no. Java is a great tool for certain tasks, but there are plenty of things to dislike about it. I wouldn't want to work with people too blind to notice that.

Another common statement is: In every industry you have people who don't care about their jobs. I don't think that's a good comparison either. Bad doctors are sued until they can't afford malpractice insurance. Lawyers, very publicly, lose cases and are fired. In those industries, if you aren't contributing towards moving things forward, you're quickly exited.

Professional sports is an industry that probably has very few professionals that don't care about their job. If you aren't good enough, you don't make it, period. In basketball, there's no position for someone who is only good enough to dribble. If you're good enough, you're paid well. If you aren't, you don't make it. It's that simple.

So what is the cost of NNPPs? I'd say there are several ways to answer that question.

The first obvious cost is opportunity cost that companies lose when they can't provide quality software to their customers. This can translate to significantly lower revenue due to lack of or cancelled subscriptions or licenses. It can be the difference between the success and the failure of a start-up. For businesses, I would say the cost is epic. Is it any surprise that technology companies are some of the most volatile stocks.

There's other costs as well. When software fails, people don't get the aid they needed. This can be money, hospital care, legal direction, and many other life altering situations. Poorly designed software can cause death, and yet rarely is that kind of thing considered by a programmer.

I heard once that in Great Britain's MOD if you design software for a plane you go up in the test plane when the software is beta-tested. If all programmers were held with that level of accountability, how many do you think would still be in our field? How many would you want to collaborate with before you went up in the plane together?

Of course, we don't all write life-threatening software, but does that give us an excuse for lowering our colleague-quality requirements? Picture the things we could do if we didn't spend most of our time making up for terrible programmers and you'll know why I'm passionate about the topic.

Terrible programmers also slow us down as an industry. When I talk about Open Classes people are terrified. They always say: That's fine on your team, but we could never work with a language that has Open Classes. Is that a problem with Open Classes or a problem with the team? I worked on several teams, large and small, that used Open Classes diligently and I can't remember a single problem we ever had with them. Much the opposite, the teams were often, clearly more effective because they were talented and the language let them solve problems in the most effective way.

Java and C# are not silver bullets. The languages are good solutions to a certain class of problems, using them for problems that could be better solved with a different language stagnates the growth of other languages. The longer great programmers use a less-effective tool for the job the less time they have to work with and mature languages that are more suitable. As a result our entire industry loses out.

There's also a cost to your future colleagues. There's a big difference between a NNPP and someone new to the industry. Someone new to the industry benefits greatly from a mentor, but what if the mentor is an NNPP? Some NNPPs do small scale damage in isolated components of applications. But, the most insidious NNPPs are the architects who's ideas belong on The Daily WTF. These NNPP architects build entire armies of NNPPs around them and single-handedly waste millions, if not billions of dollars, annually. And, potentially worse, they ruin or at least drastically hurt the careers of eager to learn teammates.

The Cost of NNPPs is high enough that it's become my soapbox issue. But, truthfully, I'm not saying anything really new, so is there any hope for our industry?

I do think there are things we can do to help move the industry in the right direction. The good programmers can refuse to work with bad programmers. That might mean moving to an organization where that's a goal, or making that a goal of your current organization. Providing negative feedback directly to a NNPP teammate is always hard, but I do believe the ROI justifies the action. It's also helpful to provide that feedback to your manager, so the manager knows your opinions on the skill levels of your teammates. You can also suggest to managers that employees who refuse to take advantage of training budgets should be looked closely at. Lastly, you could suggest moving developer compensation to be based on the success of the project. A royalties model would be really interesting.

And, if you have a blog, you could write your own entry expressing your opinions on the topic.

* The exception being freelance developers, who are the minority, at least here in the US.
** Thank God, the government never ended up using the software we delivered.
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