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Posted on: Thursday, 26 November 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Throughout my career; if there is one thing I have seen a lot in the software development world; it is; programmers who cannot program pretending and advertising that they are the alpha geeks of the millennium.

When I was a young and budding programmer; brimming with dreams and confidence; I walked the world of software development assuming only three kinds of people existed in the world of software development:

  1. Alpha-geeks who were kick-ass programmers making huge dents in the universe with their code.
  2. Passionate programmers who knew how much they sucked and were on the life-long path of learning how to become kick-ass programmers.
  3. Programmers who could not program but were busy pretending they were alpha-geeks.

Then; years later; while consulting for a client; who for the purposes of this post; we shall refer to as Multiplitaxion Inc; I met Jack; and I realized; that I was; dear reader; so very wrong; in my assumptions about people who exist in the software development world.

Jack was not a programmer.

In fact; he had done his major in philosophy.

When I first met Jack; the question that bothered me was simple: how the f@#k did Jack manage to join a software development firm?

In my first few weeks of working with him; I found my answer in the way Jack approached work; people and life. The guy was an interesting storyteller. He was almost a catalyst. To add to that; he was what I then started referring to as a --- 'contributor'.

During the first month of the project; Jack and spent a huge amount of time with me and the five person development team. He would read the requirements end to end and then talk about those requirements; so that we would not have to read them; he had valid questions on the flows we built; he engaged himself in usability testing; he tested the screens that we rolled out and pointed out valid bugs the official testing team was often not able to point out.

Our true surprise however; came when someone from the development team showed Jack how to write Ant scripts and we discovered that he was surprisingly good at it. Within a few days; we also had a build manager; taking up tasks which no developer wanted to take up.

Jack; dear reader;  was not writing a single line of code; but in a matter of three months; he had made himself very difficult to replace.

Steve Yegge brushes against the concept of a contributor in his post on a completely different topic; he explains:

Let's face it: there are a lot of professional programmers out there who realize they're not very good at it, and they still find ways to contribute.

If you're suddenly feeling out of your depth, and everyone appears to be running circles around you, what are your options? Well, you might discover you're good at project management, or people management, or UI design, or technical writing, or system administration, any number of other important things that "programmers" aren't necessarily any good at.

You'll start filling those niches (because there's always more work to do), and as soon as you find something you're good at, you'll probably migrate towards doing it full-time.

If you read between the lines; Steve's post might actually suggest that finding other ways to contribute when you discover that you are not a programmer; is not the best of things. You can actually hear a slight tone of sarcasm between the lines if you were to read them carefully. A few years ago; I would probably have agreed; but my experience with Jack; and a couple of other contributors I worked with after Jack; changed my opinion of this topic all together.

Yes; we don't need millions of non-programming contributors; but till date; I hold the opinion; that if you are a young and budding programmer; struggling with programming; not loving it; but you still feel passionately about being connected to the world of software development; you are much better off trying to morph into a contributor who contributes a host of things towards making the project a success and is a 'fun' guy to have on the project.

We do need a select few genuinely passionate 'contributors' around; much like we need good passionate programmers and at times; if you are genuinely passionate; we might not even care if you can write any code in the first place.

So stop trying to pretend you are the best programmer around; stop trying to climb in pecking order of your organization and desperately get promoted to the position of a manager; stop being a whiner; or a 501 programmer.

Find your niche and start making genuine contributions.

I wish you good luck.