Career Programming

Passion and the Developer

danbo tightrope
Credit: Flickr / Andreas Kiebs

I go to a startup event, and it’s interesting to hear non-technical people talking about developers like over-priced commodities.

L comes to me for advice, she’s contemplating her next move and worrying about whether or not she feels passion for the project.

C reads my blog, tells me that she can tell I’m passionate about writing from my writing. I say, “that doesn’t mean I want writing to be my job.”

R knows what she wants to prioritise with her career, but is hearing conflicting advice about what she should prioritise instead (and it sounds a lot like “passion”).

I loathe the word “passion”. I loathe it in relationships, where it seems to mean seeking out the movie style ending rather than the day to day. And I especially loathe it in career advice. I like the Study Hacks ethos – it’s not passion, it’s hard focus.

Entrepreneurs talk about passion. Cool. You probably have to be chasing something really hard to give up economic stability. That doesn’t mean it’s for everybody.

Passion is Blinding

To be passionate about something, means being unable to look at it rationally. This is unfortunate, because rationality is a very important part of building things well. Maybe it helps you stay awake for a week on a caffeine-fuelled coding binge. But it’s hard to love anything that much, for long.

Passion doesn’t help you prioritise, it asks you to do everything. Data and pragmatism help you to prioritise.

Passion doesn’t help you weigh up the eng-overhead and the data on usage of that feature and advocate for cutting it.

You are Not the Decider

There’s a reason why Product (PM) and Engineering are two separate roles. The PM looks at the big picture and the whole product and market (the what), the engineer owns how to build it (the how). It’s cool to have an opinion, but the PM is the decider on the what (this is fair! Engineers don’t like it when PMs try to be deciders on the how).

When you feel passionately about the what, but you disagree with your PM and they overrule you? That sucks. But that is their job.

You might think you know better, and maybe you have a really bad PM and that is true. But if you have a competent PM, they are going to make better decisions than you (on average) because that is how they spend their time.

Competition is Fierce

A friend was working on a super cool project, that she should totally have loved… but she didn’t. She should have been really happy… but she wasn’t. She was really stressed by the environment.

We talked about it, and I observed something along the lines that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to work on something like that, but that I really didn’t want to work with the people who really wanted to work on something like that.

Because a lot of people go looking for passion, and The New Shiny, the people who end up building The New Shiny are often the people who were willing to shove other people out of the way to get there. If you are happy to go about your work looking over your shoulder to see who might push you out of the way to get what they want, cool. I’m not.

You Live in the Details

It’s great to like the bigger thing that you are working on, but at the end of the day engineers mostly spend their time pushing pixels or protos. 1000 lines of test code does not make me feel warm and fuzzy about the product; it makes me feel confident about it’s stability. The menu bar might be part of some grand vision, but after a couple of days of just you and the menu bar, the vision seems pretty far away.

If Not Passion, Then What?

As a developer, passion is a distraction. For me, it’s not about passion for a product, it’s about having a healthy relationship with my job, a commitment to my career, and then maybe a general excitement about technology.

What does a healthy relationship look like?

  • I like what I’m working on, and I think people will be better off because it exists.
  • The people I work with treat me with respect.
  • My work does not have to encompass my entire life. I can maintain other interests.

Most importantly though, it’s good if you think that leadership can manage and ship a project of this scope (preferably, this should be based on evidence) and that you can manage and execute on the part of the project within your scope (again, it’s best if this is based on evidence).

I say with evidence because passion hides, rather than cures mismanagement. Passion is the advocate of scope creep, the delusion that sets in at the expense of prioritisation, the fuel of Dunning-Kruger, and the carrot that would have you work more hours, for less money, on something that is destined to fail.

41 replies on “Passion and the Developer”

To be passionate about something means to be unable to look at it rationally? Not sure I agree with you on that.

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