Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Did we get it all wrong?

I've got some thoughts bumping in my mind for quite a while, then somebody today on the Italian XP mailing list pointed me to this post by Jay Fields, urging me to blog about it. The main topic is the distinction between two different species of software professionals, hackers and developers. You might have faced this distinction with different names in the past ("The pragmatic programmer" is another name for the same god-like figure), but the main point is that hackers are brilliant in solving technical problems, while developers are better in interacting with stakeholders to better understand what the problem is. The bottom line is that hackers are at higher risk to develop brilliant solution to non-existing problems while developers are better in ensuring that they are trying to solve the real problem.

Breeding developers

Ok, we need both species. Are we good in breeding them? I'd probably say "Nope", at least for developers. From what I can recall, our school system is largely interested on the technical side of the software development professional training. So we're taught computational theory, operative systems, programming languages, algorithms and the like. Most of these disciplines are oriented towards an individual problem solving approach. We learnt that some sorting algorithms perform better than others, so do some data structures and architectures. Most of the exams were defined in terms of finding the solution to a given problem. This couldn't be further from the real world, because what is really difficult is to define and scope the problem. But to define and scope the problem you need to interact with more and more people, many of them without a strong technical background, which will tell you valueless information, lies, bullshit, crap, and …a tiny slice of the truth which you'll have to pick up and transform into the foundation of your application.

Unfortunately, this is an activity that involves a completely different part of the brain from the one used for coding. This involves social skills and the ability to successfully interact with different people. Involves the ability to start swimming (each time) in a completely different water, to learn about a problem domain we know just a little about. And …we were not prepared for it. Moreover, we were somehow chosen not to be good at it. I am consciously talking stereotype here, but the "computer guy" (or whatever we've been called when we were teenagers) is the kind of person that likes the It's-just-me-and-the-machine approach, or that doesn't find strange to spend a whole night awake playing World of Warcraft or trying to fix a bug. Somebody else might be having a beer in the meanwhile… I am not saying that computer geeks do not have social skills, what I am saying is that social skills are a largely underestimated component of what makes a good developer (you can still call it "social engineering" to attract hackers to the discipline, by the way), and that you can't expect to find these qualities so easily.