Coding Horror - Mon, 04/29/2013 - 20:45
I get a surprising number of emails from career programmers who have spent some time in the profession and eventually decided it just isn't for them. Most recently this:I finished a computer science degree last year, worked about a year in the Java EE stack. I liked requirements engineering and more 'management stuff' in university, but let's face it: you tend to be driven to be a programmer.
I enjoy programming itself. I'm not doing it that badly, I even do it better than some people. But it's too frustrating. Stupidly complex stuff (that people consider "standard" even if it's extremely complicated!), fighting against the computer, dumb errors, configuration, and stuff that people even worse than me implemented and I have to take care of. New stuff which is supposed to be incredibly easy, and it's just one more framework.
I think I realized I don't want to program because I landed at a company where people are quite good. And I honestly think I won't achieve that level, ever. And I don't enjoy programming as a hobby.
I'm sure that I'm good enough to be able to make a living continuing as I am … but I don't want to.
Since the first year of studying programming at university I have known in my heart that computer programming is not meant for me, but I was afraid to do anything about it and here I am now 12 years later programming with no passion. I am a career programmer and an average one at best.
I come to work every day with no passion I just do it to pay the bills. I have done some good projects but I am not at all into it.
It was always our hope that concrete, substantive programming career questions could be asked on Stack Overflow, and some early ad-hoc polling indicated that career questions might be accepted by the community, but if you look at later poll results, it's clear that the career questions came out juuuust under the cutoff point as determined by the Stack Overflow community.
Well, what about the rest of the Stack Exchange network? How about our sister site at programmers.stackexchange which is less about programming problems with source code and more about whiteboard style conceptual programming questions? Apparently, career questions are not welcome there either. But wait! Surely programmer career questions are a fit on a site that's explicitly about career related topics? The very same question was asked on workplace.stackexchange:
I'm graduating soon with a Bachelor's in Software Engineering, however during the course of getting my degree I decided I do not want to be a programmer.
I minored in Business Management and really enjoyed that, particularly the management side of psychology and the basics of the processes involved with restructuring a business, but don't really want to throw away my programming degree either.
Is there a field for someone with a Software Engineering degree who wants to get into business management instead of programming? I'd like to combine my knowledge of making software with some kind of business process oriented work. How should I go about changing to this field? Is this possible without going back to school?Nope. Sorry. That was closed, too, either because it was seen as a 'recommend me a job' or because it's too specific to programming. Pick your interpretation.
I am sympathetic to this quandary because career questions, by their very nature, tend to be so narrow and opinionated that they are frequently only useful to the person who asked – which is completely counter to the goal of Stack Exchange. You know, endless permutations of things like "My boss Jeff is a total jerk, he constantly changes my code without asking and overrides me all the time with his BS arbitrary decisions, should I quit?"* I can understand deciding to outlaw the entire class of career questions because they're frequently soft, opinion-y, and highly specific to the person asking. It's easier to throw out the whole category rather than do the painful work of sifting through them all to reveal those few rare workable gems.
Stack Exchange wants questions that are as useful to as many people as possible, and actively closes (sorry, "puts on hold") the ones that are not. I will now reprint my favorite diagram, ever, which attempts to explain this:
We try our best to teach you to ask questions that hit this sweet spot: answers that get you the information you so desperately need, yes, but also help your peers along the way without devolving into meaningless opinion honeypots. Overshoot and you get either "Too Broad" or "Too Localized". Hitting that target with our questions – or at least making a best faith effort to attempt to, anyway – is how we maximize the results of our collective efforts. Write once, read many.
But back to the topic: what career options are available to programmers who no longer want to program? I feel there is a way to answer this question that would be helpful to many other programmers, that is supported by facts and data and science.
Programming is indeed a field that does require some passion. If you've been programming for a few years and haven't developed a taste for it by now, it seems doubtful to me that anyone would suddenly develop one overnight. However, if you were able to stick with doing something you're not very enthusiastic about for a period of years, maybe there's still a kernel of something there to work with. Or perhaps you're just wearing golden handcuffs.
Environment plays a big part in any job, no matter how intrinsically amazing that job might be. Who do you work with? What are you working on? What kind of environment do you program in:
- A startup?
- A small business?
- A big business?
- A consultancy?
The "programming" in each of these situations, and the other peer programmers you'll be working with, will be radically different. Consider if the environment and peers may be the problem. Have you tried changing those up, first, before conclusively deciding you need to leave the field forever?
Beyond that, there are lots of related fields where programming skills are advantageous, without having "sit down and write code all day" as part of the job description. So let's think. What jobs exist where …
- Programming skills and a deep technical background are typically in the hiring requirements.
- There is a documented record of ex-programmers moving into these positions and being successful.
- There are a reasonable number of such jobs available worldwide.
Here's where I really wished I could have asked this on Stack Exchange, because I'd much rather crowdsource data to support the above three points, but the best I could come up with on my own is:
- Product/Program Manager
- Project Manager
- QA / Testing (good testers are worth their weight in gold)
- Build Engineering (this stuff is hard)
- System Administrator
- Technical Sales
- Technical Writer
- Business Analyst / Programming Analyst
In many of these roles, people that truly know the nuts and bolts of programming are quite rare. That's unfortunate, because a deep technical background lets you actually understand and explain what is going on, to customers, to business stakeholders, to peers on related teams. At the very least nobody can dazzle you with technical BS, because you're equipped to call their bluff.
I've seen less "adept" programmers self-select into related roles at previous jobs and do very well, both financially and professionally. There is a lot of stuff that goes on around programming that is not heads down code writing, where your programming skills are a competitive advantage.
Career questions are tough, because ultimately only you can decide what's right for you. But if you're a programmer who no longer likes to program, your technical background can at least open the door to a number of related professions.
* Yes, you should quit. Jeff is a total jerkface.[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!
Tips, Tricks and Practice - Thu, 03/28/2013 - 11:09
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Coding Horror - Fri, 03/22/2013 - 05:34
I've been a Microsoft developer for decades now. I weaned myself on various flavors of home computer Microsoft Basic, and I got my first paid programming gigs in Microsoft FoxPro, Microsoft Access, and Microsoft Visual Basic. I have seen the future of programming, my friends, and it is terrible CRUD apps running on Wintel boxes!
Of course, we went on to build Stack Overflow in Microsoft .NET. That's a big reason it's still as fast as it is. So one of the most frequently asked questions after we announced Discourse was:
Why didn't you build Discourse in .NET, too?
Let me be clear about something: I love .NET. One of the greatest thrills of my professional career was getting the opportunity to place a Coding Horror sticker in the hand of Anders Hejlsberg. Pardon my inner fanboy for a moment, but oh man I still get chills. There are maybe fifty world class computer language designers on the planet. Anders is the only one of them who built Turbo Pascal and Delphi. It is thanks to Anders' expert guidance that .NET started out such a remarkably well designed language – literally what Java should have been on every conceivable level – and has continued to evolve in remarkably practical ways over the last 10 years, leveraging the strengths of other influential dynamically typed languages.
All that said, it's true that I intentionally chose not to use .NET for my next project. So you might expect to find an angry, righteous screed here about how much happier I am leaving the oppressive shackles of my Microsoft masters behind. Free at last, free at least, thank God almighty I'm free at last!
Like any pragmatic programmer, I pick the appropriate tool for the job at hand. And as much as I may love .NET, it would be an extraordinarily poor choice for an 100% open source project like Discourse. Why? Three reasons, mainly:
The licensing. My God, the licensing. It's not so much the money, as the infernal, mind-bending tax code level complexity involved in making sure all your software is properly licensed: determining what 'level' and 'edition' you are licensed at, who is licensed to use what, which servers are licensed... wait, what? Sorry, I passed out there for a minute when I was attacked by rabid licensing weasels.
I'm not inclined to make grand pronouncements about the future of software, but if anything kills off commercial software, let me tell you, it won't be open source software. They needn't bother. Commercial software will gleefully strangle itself to death on its own licensing terms.
The friction. If you want to build truly viable open source software, you need people to contribute to your project, so that it is a living, breathing, growing thing. And unless you can download all the software you need to hack on your project freely from all over the Internet, no strings attached, there's just … too much friction.If Stack Overflow taught me anything, it is that we now live in a world where the next brilliant software engineer can come from anywhere on the planet. I'm talking places this ugly American programmer has never heard of, where they speak crazy nonsense moon languages I can't understand. But get this. Stand back while I blow your mind, people: these brilliant programmers still code in the same keywords we do! I know, crazy, right?
Getting up and running with a Microsoft stack is just plain too hard for a developer in, say, Argentina, or Nepal, or Bulgaria. Open source operating systems, languages, and tool chains are the great equalizer, the basis for the next great generation of programmers all over the world who are going to help us change the world.
The ecosystem. When I was at Stack Exchange we strove mightily to make as much of our infrastructure open source as we could. It was something that we made explicit in the compensation guidelines, this idea that we would all be (partially) judged by how much we could do in public, and try to leave behind as many useful, public artifacts of our work as we could. Because wasn't all of Stack Exchange itself, from the very first day, built on your Creative Commons contributions that we all share ownership of?
You can certainly build open source software in .NET. And many do. But it never feels natural. It never feels right. Nobody accepts your patch to a core .NET class library no matter how hard you try. It always feels like you're swimming upstream, in a world of small and large businesses using .NET that really aren't interested in sharing their code with the world – probably because they know it would suck if they did, anyway. It is just not a native part of the Microsoft .NET culture to make things open source, especially not the things that suck. If you are afraid the things you share will suck, that fear will render you incapable of truly and deeply giving back. The most, uh, delightful… bit of open source communities is how they aren't afraid to let it "all hang out", so to speak.
So as a result, for any given task in .NET you might have – if you're lucky – a choice of maybe two decent-ish libraries. Whereas in any popular open source language, you'll easily have a dozen choices for the same task. Yeah, maybe six of them will be broken, obsolete, useless, or downright crazy. But hey, even factoring in some natural open source spoilage, you're still ahead by a factor of three! A winner is you!
As I wrote five years ago:I'm a pragmatist. For now, I choose to live in the Microsoft universe. But that doesn't mean I'm ignorant of how the other half lives. There's always more than one way to do it, and just because I chose one particular way doesn't make it the right way – or even a particularly good way. Choosing to be provincial and insular is a sure-fire path to ignorance. Learn how the other half lives. Get to know some developers who don't live in the exact same world you do. Find out what tools they're using, and why. If, after getting your feet wet on both sides of the fence, you decide the other half is living better and you want to join them, then I bid you a fond farewell. I no longer live in the Microsoft universe any more. Right, wrong, good, evil, that's just how it turned out for the project we wanted to build.
However, I'd also be lying if I didn't mention that I truly believe the sort of project we are building in Discourse does represent most future software. If you squint your eyes a little, I think you can see a future not too far in the distance where .NET is a specialized niche outside the mainstream.
But why Ruby? Well, the short and not very glamorous answer is that I had narrowed it down to either Python or Ruby, and my original co-founder Robin Ward has been building major Rails apps since 2006. So that clinched it.
I've always been a little intrigued by Ruby, mostly because of the absolutely gushing praise Steve Yegge had for the language way back in 2006. I've never forgotten this.
For the most part, Ruby took Perl's string processing and Unix integration as-is, meaning the syntax is identical, and so right there, before anything else happens, you already have the Best of Perl. And that's a great start, especially if you don't take the Rest of Perl.
But then Matz took the best of list processing from Lisp, and the best of OO from Smalltalk and other languages, and the best of iterators from CLU, and pretty much the best of everything from everyone.
And he somehow made it all work together so well that you don't even notice that it has all that stuff. I learned Ruby faster than any other language, out of maybe 30 or 40 total; it took me about 3 days before I was more comfortable using Ruby than I was in Perl, after eight years of Perl hacking. It's so consistent that you start being able to guess how things will work, and you're right most of the time. It's beautiful. And fun. And practical.
Steve is one of those polyglot programmers I respect so much that I basically just take whatever his opinion is, provided it's not about something wacky like gun control or feminism or T'Pau, and accept it as fact.
I apologize, Steve. I'm sorry it took me 7 years to get around to Ruby. But maybe I was better off waiting a while anyway:
Ruby is a decent performer, but you really need to throw fast hardware at it for good performance. Yeah, I know, interpreted languages are what they are, and caching, database, network, blah blah blah. Still, we obtained the absolute fastest CPUs you could buy for the Discourse servers, 4.0 Ghz Ivy Bridge Xeons, and performance is just … good on today's fastest hardware. Not great. Good.
Yes, I'll admit that I am utterly spoiled by the JIT compiled performance of .NET. That's what I am used to. I do sometimes pine away for the bad old days of .NET when we could build pages that serve in well under 50 milliseconds without thinking about it too hard. Interpreted languages aren't going to be able to reach those performance levels. But I can only imagine how rough Ruby performance had to be back in the dark ages of 2006 when CPUs and servers were five times slower than they are today! I'm so very glad that I am hitting Ruby now, with the strong wind of many solid years of Moore's law at our backs.
Ruby is maturing up nicely in the 2.0 language release, which happened not more than a month after Discourse was announced. So, yes, the downside is that Ruby is slow. But the upside is there is a lot of low hanging performance fruit in Ruby-land. Like.. a lot a lot. On Discourse we got an across the board 20% performance improvement just upgrading to Ruby 2.0, and we nearly doubled our performance by increasing the default Ruby garbage collection limit. From a future performance perspective, Ruby is nothing but upside.
Ruby isn't cool any more. Yeah, you heard me. It's not cool to write Ruby code any more. All the cool people moved on to slinging Scala and Node.js years ago. Our project isn't cool, it's just a bunch of boring old Ruby code. Personally, I'm thrilled that Ruby is now mature enough that the community no longer needs to bother with the pretense of being the coolest kid on the block. That means the rest of us who just like to Get Shit Done can roll up our sleeves and focus on the mission of building stuff with our peers rather than frantically running around trying to suss out the next shiny thing.
Even if done in good will and for the best interests of the project, it's still a little scary to totally change your programming stripes overnight after two decades. I've always believed that great programmers learn to love more than one language and programming environment – and I hope the Discourse project is an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow, not just me. So go fork us on GitHub already![advertisement] Hiring developers? Post your open positions with Stack Overflow Careers and reach over 20MM awesome devs already on Stack Overflow. Create your satisfaction-guaranteed job listing today!
Tips, Tricks and Practice - Wed, 02/06/2013 - 05:14
Sony is set to reveal its next PlayStation on Wednesday February 20th at an event dubbed ‘see the future’. Sony Computer Entertainment released a teaser video last night to announce the event. PlayStation 4 will be more powerful than the next Xbox, will ship with a redesigned controller and launch by the end of the [...]
Coding Horror - Tue, 02/05/2013 - 16:59
Occasionally, startups will ask me for advice. That's a shame, because I am a terrible person to ask for advice. The conversation usually goes something like this:
We'd love to get your expert advice on our thing.
I probably don't use your thing. Even if I tried your thing out and I gave you my so-called Expert advice, how would it matter? Anyway, why are you asking me? Why don't you ask your community what they think of your thing?
And if you don't have a community of users and customers around your thing, well, there's your problem right there. Go fix that.
Like I said, I don't get asked for advice too often. But for what it's worth, it is serious advice. And the next question they ask always strikes fear into my heart.
You're so right! We need a place for online community around our thing. What software should we use?
This is the part where I start playing sad trombone in my head. Because all your software options for online community are, quite frankly, terrible. Stack Exchange? We only do strict, focused Q&A there and you'd have to marshal your proposal through Area 51. Get Satisfaction, UserVoice, Desk, etcetera? Sorry, customer support isn't the same as community. Mailing lists? Just awful.
Forum software? Maybe. Let's see, it's 2013, has forum software advanced at all in the last ten years?
I'm thinking no.
Forums are the dark matter of the web, the B-movies of the Internet. But they matter. To this day I regularly get excellent search results on forum pages for stuff I'm interested in. Rarely a day goes by that I don't end up on some forum, somewhere, looking for some obscure bit of information. And more often than not, I find it there.
There's an amazing depth of information on forums.
- A 12 year old girl who finds a forum community of rabid enthusiasts willing to help her rebuild a Fiero from scratch? Check.
- The most obsessive breakdown of Lego collectible minifig kits you'll find anywhere on the Internet? Check.
- Some of the most practical information on stunt kiting in the world? Check.
- The only place I could find with scarily powerful squirt gun instructions and advice? Check.
- The underlying research for a New Yorker article outing a potential serial marathon cheater? Check.
I could go on and on. As much as existing forum software is inexplicably and terrifyingly awful after all these years, it is still the ongoing basis for a huge chunk of deeply interesting information on the Internet. These communities are incredibly passionate about incredibly obscure things. They aren't afraid to let their freak flag fly, and the world is a better place for it.
At Stack Exchange, one of the tricky things we learned about Q&A is that if your goal is to have an excellent signal to noise ratio, you must suppress discussion. Stack Exchange only supports the absolute minimum amount of discussion necessary to produce great questions and great answers. That's why answers get constantly re-ordered by votes, that's why comments have limited formatting and length and only a few display, and so forth. Almost every design decision we made was informed by our desire to push discussion down, to inhibit it in every way we could. Spare us the long-winded diatribe, just answer the damn question already.
After spending four solid years thinking of discussion as the established corrupt empire, and Stack Exchange as the scrappy rebel alliance, I began to wonder – what would it feel like to change sides? What if I became a champion of random, arbitrary discussion, of the very kind that I'd spent four years designing against and constantly lecturing users on the evil of?
I already built an X-Wing; could I build a better Tie Fighter?
If you're wondering what all those sly references to Tie Fighters were about in my previous blog posts and tweets, now you know. All hail the Emperor, and by the way, what's your favorite programming food?
Today we announce the launch of Discourse, a next-generation, 100% open source discussion platform built for the next decade of the Internet.
The goal of the company we formed, Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc., is exactly that – to raise the standard of civilized discourse on the Internet through seeding it with better discussion software:
- 100% open source and free to the world, now and forever.
- Feels great to use. It's fun.
- Designed for hi-resolution tablets and advanced web browsers.
- Built in moderation and governance systems that let discussion communities protect themselves from trolls, spammers, and bad actors – even without official moderators.
Our amazingly talented team has been working on Discourse for almost a year now, and although like any open source software it's never entirely done, we believe it is already a generation ahead of any other forum software we've used.
I greatly admire what WordPress did for the web; to say that we want to be the WordPress of forums is not a stretch at all. We're also serious about this eventually being a viable open-source business, in the mold of WordPress. And we're not the only people who believe in the mission: I'm proud to announce that we have initial venture capital funding from First Round, Greylock, and SV Angel. We're embarking on a five year mission to improve the fabric of the Internet, and we're just getting started. Let a million discussions bloom!
So now, when someone says to me …
You're so right! We need a place for community around our thing. What software should we use?
I can reply without hesitation.
And hopefully, so can you.[advertisement] Hiring developers? Post your open positions with Stack Overflow Careers and reach over 20MM awesome devs already on Stack Overflow. Create your satisfaction-guaranteed job listing today!
Coding Horror - Mon, 01/21/2013 - 18:10
When Joel Spolsky, my business partner on Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange, asked me what I wanted to do after I left Stack Exchange, I distinctly remember mentioning Aaron Swartz. That's what Aaron was to us hackers: an exemplar of the noble, selfless behavior and positive action that all hackers aspire to – but very few actually achieve.
And now, tragically, Aaron is gone at the tender age of 26. He won't be achieving anything any more.
I never knew Aaron, but I knew Aaron.
Most of all, I am disappointed.
I'm deeply disappointed in myself, for not understanding just how bitterly unfair the government charges were against Aaron. Perhaps the full, grotesque details couldn't be revealed for a pending legal case. But we should have been outraged. I am gutted that I did not contribute to his defense in any way, either financially or by writing about it here. I blindly assumed he would prevail, as powerful activists on the side of fairness, openness, and freedom are fortunate enough to often do in our country. I was wrong.
I'm disappointed in our government, for going to such lengths to make an example of someone who was so obviously a positive force. Someone who actively worked to change the world for the better in everything he did, starting from the age of 12. There was no evil in this man. And yet the absurd government case against him was cited by his family as directly contributing to his death.
I'm frustrated by the idea that martyrdom works. The death of Aaron Swartz is now turning into an effective tool for change, a rallying cry, proving the perverse lesson that nobody takes an issue seriously until a great person dies for the cause. The idea that Aaron killing himself was a viable strategy, more than going on to prevail in this matter and so many more in his lifetime, makes me incredibly angry.
But also, I must admit that I am a little disappointed in Aaron. I understand that depression is a serious disease that can fell any person, however strong. But he chose the path of the activist long ago. And the path of the activist is to fight, for as long and as hard as it takes, to effect change. Aaron had powerful friends, a powerful support network, and a keen sense of moral cause that put him in the right. That's how he got that support network of powerful friends and fellow activists in the first place.
It is appropriate to write about Aaron on Martin Luther King day, because he too was a tireless activist for moral causes.I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Let's be clear that the penalty in Aaron's case was grossly unfair, bordering on corrupt. I've been a part of exactly one trial, but I can't even imagine having the full resources of the US Government brought to bear against me, with extreme prejudice, for a year or more. His defense was estimated to cost millions. The idea that such an engaged citizen would be forever branded a felon – serving at least some jail time and stripped of the most fundamental citizenship right, the ability to vote – must have weighed heavily on Aaron. And Aaron was no stranger to depresson, having written about it on his blog many times, even penning a public will of sorts on his blog all the way back in 2002.
I think about ragequitting a lot.Rage Quit, also seen as RageQuit in one word, is Internet slang commonly used to describe the act of suddenly quitting a game or chatroom after either an argument, extreme frustration, or loss of the game.
At least one user ragequits Stack Exchange every six months, because our rules are strict. Some people don't like rules, and can respond poorly when confronted by the rules of the game they choose to play. It came up often enough that we had to create even more rules to deal with it. I was forced to think about ragequitting.
I was very angry with Mark Pilgrim and _why for ragequitting the Internet, because they also took all their content offline – they got so frustrated that they took their ball and went home, so nobody else could play. How incredibly rude. Ragequitting is childish, a sign of immaturity. But it is another thing entirely to play the final move and take your own life. To declare the end of this game and all future games, the end of ragequitting itself.
I say this not as a person who wishes to judge Aaron Swartz. I say it as a fellow gamer who has also considered playing the same move quite recently. To the point that I – like Aaron himself, I am sure – was actively researching it. But the more I researched, the more I thought about it, the more it felt like what it really was: giving up. And the toll on friends and family would be unimaginably, unbearably heavy.
What happened to Aaron was not fair. Not even a little. But this is the path of the activist. The greater the injustice, the greater wrong undone when you ultimately prevail. And I am convinced, absolutely and utterly convinced, that Aaron would have prevailed. He would have gone on to do so many other great things. It is our great failing that we did not provide Aaron the support network he needed to see this. All we can do now is continue the mission he started and lobby for change to our corrupt government practices of forcing plea bargains.
It gets dark sometimes. I know it does. I'm right there with you. But do not, under any circumstances, give anyone the satisfaction of seeing you ragequit. They don't deserve it. Play other, better moves – and consider your long game.[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.