Shahzad Bhatti

October 3, 2008

Traits of good programmers

Filed under: Java — admin @ 11:00 pm

I love programming and have been doing it for more than 20 years. In that lifetime, I have also worked with a lot of good programmers and have discussed many times “what makes a good programmer” informally or during job interviews. Here are some of important traits that I have found in good programmers:

  • Simplicity and Clarity of thinking – I have found good programmers can think clearly and try to understand essense of underlying problem. Good programmers then develop simple solutions with minimal accidental complexity. I have found systems developed by good programs are easier to understand due to clarity of program design.
  • Passionate about programming – Programmming is a profession and I have seen a lot of programmers who considered programming a 9-5 job, who didn’t care about it outside the job. Many of those programmers did the same job for many years without learning anything new. I have found that best programmers care a great deal about programming and have a great passion about it. One way to distinguish programmers with passion is to ask them about side projects or open source projects that they started or worked on.
  • Continuous Learning – I have found good programmers spend a lot of time learning new skills or finding better ways to do things.
  • Generalist – Due to passion and ability to learn new things, good programmers have breadth of knowledge with varying skills and technolgies. They have modeling, UI, application, systems, database and other skills needed for softrware development.
  • Detail oriented – Programming requires a detail oriented person who can think about a problem and all issues that can effect the solution. I have found good programmers can think of all branch logic and all edge cases when solving a problem.
  • Visualize working of programs – Good programs have ability to visualize inner working of programs and can quickly pinpoint problem areas when things break.
  • Excellence vs Perfectionist – Real world projects are constrained by time and resources and good programmers opt for excellence by doing their best within those constraints rather than being perfectionist.
  • Inquisitive and inquiring mind – One of the hardest part of software development is determining key requirements and differentiating between wants and needs. Often stakeholders don’t know what they want. Good programmers work with users to detrmine what’s really needed for the system. Good programmers can probe users about real underlying problem that they are trying solve. In such systems, agile methodology also help where users can see something working and develop iteratively.
  • Communication – Good programmers communicate in multiple ways, they use design or code to communicate with other programmers. Senior programmers often need to sell or persuade other programmers about architecture or new practices.
  • Integrity and Courage – Though, this is a principle of XP but it’s also one of key trait of good programmers. I have found in most companies, management pulls deadlines and requirements out of the hat and good programmers have courage to speak up to the management when they see death march timelines.
  • Humility – This is also another attribute of XP but I have found in good programmers because programming is hard profession and everyone makes mistake. Though, I have also seen a lot of prima donnas who were smart (some of them) but were difficult to work with. On the other hand, I have found good programmers are humble and easy to work with.
  • Responsibility – Good programmers are profesional and they take full responsibility in developing fully tested and working solutions for the users.
  • Golden hammer – Due to being generalist, good programmers is less likely to use same solution or golden hammer to varying problems. Also, due to breadth of skills he/she is less likely to be swayed by technology or language de jure, instead good programmers try to evaluate real benefit of new technologies with some side projects.
  • Toolbox of solutions – Good programmers learn from varying solutions and often recognize patterns and similar problems that they have previously worked on. They use this toolbox of solutions and patterns when approaching new problem.
  • Productive – Often you hear about good programmers being 10 or 20 times more productive. Though, I admit it’s hard to measure productivity but I have found that good programmers are productive mostly due to above traits. For example, they develop simple code which is faster to develop and has less defect. They focus on essential probems that solve real problems. They are faster mostly because they practice alot with side projects and recognize patterns and previously solved solutions. When debugging and trouble shooting they can visualize software systems and can see problem areas. They don’t like to hackup things that will break in two weeks, instead they have courage to tell stakeholders risks of meeting unrealistic deadlines or releasing untested applications.

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