Programmer IS A Career Path, Thank You
If you’re a programmer, think back for a moment to the first time you hear the career question. You know the one I mean, even if you don’t recognize it as the question: “do you see yourself on the architect track or the management track?” Caught off guard, you panic momentarily as you feel that you have about 5 seconds to decide whether your long term future involves lots of UML diagrams and flow charts or whether it involves lots of Power Point presentations and demanding TPS reports from underlings. If you’re like most, and you were to answer honestly, you’d probably say, “neither, really, because I kind of like writing code.” But you don’t give that answer (I never did) because you’d effectively be responding to a career development question with, “I have no interest in career development.” But let’s put a pin in that for a moment.
Imagine a kid going to law school and graduating to go work at a law firm somewhere as an associate, doing whatever it is that associates do. Now imagine a conversation where a partner at the firm pulls this associate aside and says, “so, have you thought about your future? Do you see yourself as more of a partner in the firm, continuing to practice law, or do you see yourself as more of a lawyer-manager?” I imagine the response would be, “what on Earth are you talking about? I’m a lawyer. I want to practice law and be a partner. What else is there?”
Why is it okay (or would it be okay, since this conversation would never actually take place) for an ambitious lawyer to say, “I just want to be a lawyer” and not for an ambitious programmer to say, “I just want to be a programmer?” For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave that question as rhetorical one. I’m actually going to answer it at length in the book that I’m starting to write, but until the publication date, I’ll leave the why as an exercise for the reader and just posit that it should also be okay for a programmer to say this.
I’d like to see a culture change, and I think it starts with our current generation of programmers. We need to make it okay to say, “I just want to be a programmer.” Right now, the only option is to ‘graduate’ from programming because failure to do so is widely construed as failure to advance in your career. If you become a line manager (or the diet version, project manager), you stop writing code and become the boss. If you become an architect, you kinda-sort-usually-mostly stop writing code and kinda-sort-sometimes-maybe become sorta like a boss. But however you slice it, organizational power and writing code have historically been mutually exclusive. You can play around with teh codez early in your career, but sooner or later, you have to grow up, take your hands off the keyboard, and become a boss. You have to graduate or risk being the metaphorical ‘drop-out’ with the title “Super Principal Fellow Engineer,” who looks great on paper but is generally ignored or smiled at indulgently.
That’s going to change sooner or later. As someone who has looked for work and looked to hire pretty steadily for a number of years, I’ve witnessed an increase in developer salary that is both sharp and sustained. As the average software developer’s wage starts to creep into 6 figure territory, it’s simply not possible to keep the pecking order intact by paying overhead personnel more and more ungodly sums of money. Just as it makes no sense for a law firm billing out at $500/hour to hire a “lawyer manager” as a 1 mil/year cost center, it eventually won’t make sense to pay a quarter million a year to a pointy-hair, when Scrum and basic market forces both offer the allure of a self-managed team. In both cases, overhead work still happens, but it reports to the talent rather than ordering it around and demanding status reports.
How quickly it changes is up to us, though. We can change this culture, and we can change it pretty quickly, I think. The first thing you can do is fix it in your mind that being an “architect” or “project manager” or “manager” isn’t a graduation and it isn’t a rite of passage. It’s an agreement to do something different than what you’re doing now. Nothing more, nothing less. The second thing you can do is vote with your feet.
I’m not advising that you do anything drastic, but rather that you take stock of your circumstances. Are you at an organization where programming is clearly viewed as how you bide time until you get promoted to a boss’s chair? If so, consider adding a new criterion to your next job search. Look for organizations that feature prominent industry figures, such as conference speakers, authors, or people with some “tech celebrity.” These are the organizations that are the “early adopters” of the lawyer/partner dynamic of “best at the trade calls the shots.” If you hook up with these organizations, nobody is going to ask you what “track” you see taking you out of programming. They’ll assume that you’re there because you’re deadly serious about programming as a profession, interested in learning from the best, and interested in subsequently becoming the best.
Sooner or later, we’ll hit some kind of critical mass with this approach. My hope for all of our sake is that it’s sooner. Because the sooner we hit critical mass, the sooner you’ll stop having to explain that doing what you love wasn’t a backup plan for failing to rise in the ranks.